Monday, January 9, 2012

Backyard Renovation: Part 1

Earlier this year, we undertook the (seemingly Herculean) task of renovating our teeny, tiny back yard (about 10' x 20'). To be honest, we were actually creating one from scratch. Before we moved in, there was a decrepit garage in the back yard, which had to be torn down as it was structurally unsound. We also had an oil tank buried back there, which we had decommissioned before we moved in. The company that removed the tank also had to remove a relatively large portion of the soil, as it was contaminated from the oil, which over the previous decades had leached out of the tank.

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This left us with a (semi) blank slate. There was the heavy clay soil itself, as well as a good dose of pulverized concrete chunks (from the garage pad) and loads of sand, which the clean-up company used to fill in where the oil tank had been. I knew we didn't have the time or $$$ to really do anything in the backyard that first year (or two), so we just kind of ignored it. Eventually, a few enormous Pokeweeds took up residence, which I kind of enjoyed, as they created a mini-forest. A word of caution, if you don't want to spend the rest of your natural life pulling up Pokeweed seedlings, please do NOT let them fruit and go to seed. Another benefit, you won't have to avoid neighbors' angry glances as they clean up purple bird-poop from their cars (Poke Berries are deep figure it out).

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Of course, I am not completely innocent either. As I tore up the our lawn over the past two years, the sod I pulled up inevitably ended up in piles in the back yard. This is how it looked this spring...a muddy, lumpy mess. Oh, by the way, that nice, professional-looking shed belongs to our neighbor...and I gaze at it longingly during these long months as we slowly build our own shed (but that's another post).

And so, last winter, the planning began. Of course, all I REALLY cared about was which plants I was going to put in...but, fortunately, wiser minds prevailed. My partner, Norm, started drafting plan after plan after plan for the hardscaping portion of the back yard. I honestly lost count of how many times we changed it, but early this spring, we pretty much settle on a plan. We must have visited every garden center in the greater Portland area trying to figure out which materials we wanted to use. We eventually settled on the horizontal fencing shown above, as well as these cobblestone-ish concrete pavers. I liked that the fence was simple and contemporary, without being coldly modern. I've always liked the look of stone pavers...but on our budget real stone was out of the these patterned pavers were a nice compromise.

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This spring, we were ready to get to work. Although not the greatest idea, we both agreed that it would be easiest all-around if we could start with something of a blank slate. We spent days picking up all the loose sod, concrete and other remnants of construction debris and tossing it into a dumpster. We rented a Tiller from, by the way, is AWESOME!

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For those of us without huge vehicles at our disposal, it's ideal. They dropped off and the tools we needed...then picked them back up when we were done. This is super nice for those of us who don't have Pickup Trucks or SUVs They also gave us a short tutorial in how to use the tools...especially handy since we (ok, mostly me) are kinda clueless when it comes to heavy machinery.

me tilling
My partner made me put this photo sorry, everyone.

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Voila! Look at all that lovely (mostly) of concrete and glass shards! Here is where I have to post a warning: We shouldn't have tilled up all the ground, because we ended up compacting it HORRIBLY as we worked on the fence and path afterwards. I ended up spending weeks afterward turning the ground over again before planting. Most any gardener can tell you this is really bad for the soil as it collapses all the air pockets that plants need. You live, you learn.

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Our next step was sort of laying everything out to make sure we measured everything correctly. Measure twice, cut once...right?Before we could put the fence up, we had to stain it...which ended up being the grossest/messiest part of the whole process.

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Being spring in Portland, we had to plan all our work to (hopefully) coincide with the few sunny days we got. Actually, we lucked out for the most part, and had quite a bit of nice weather. Oh, here comes Boots...the neighbors' orange cat who has adopted us, up our driveway to oversee our progress.

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Being project foreman is pretty tiring work, best to take a short nap.

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OMG...amazing...the fence is up...wasn't it easy! No, it wasn't. We had a TOUGH time putting this thing up. To begin with...the ground was soupy from all the rains we'd been having. We rented an auger from ( great). We were initially worried that we'd have a hard time getting it to drill down into the ground. We were slipped into the ground like warm butter. The problem is that the wet, heavy clay would then suction around the auger and we couldn't get it back out. GRRRRRRRR. In total, we put in 8 (I think) posts...which took us 2 full days of straining, sweating and swearing (I apologized PROFUSELY to our neighbors for months afterward). In retrospect, if we had been a LITTLE bit smarter, we could probably have done them all in 3 or 4 hours.

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With the hardest part behind us, we started work framing out the paths and seating areas. It was hard work, but after the fence...seemed like a walk in the proverbial park! Here it is just after we filled it with gravel.While I rather liked the idea of leaving the gravel as our walking surface, Norm HATED it, so we put in these pavers instead...and I admit, I like them too. We have yet to finish it with the Polymeric Sand.

At the moment, we only have the square seating area paved, eventually, we'll probably finish the path with pavers as well. I have to admit, although I originally wanted a more relaxed, curving path, I quite like the hard (almost severe) lines and angles we ended up with. Since I always end up planting in a very relaxed, informal way, the hardscape is a great contrast to the plantings.

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Of course, Part 2 will be all about the good stuff...the plants!!!


  1. Hi Scott,

    I look forward to seeing the next installation, as I do love to have a nosey at what others are doing in their gardens :)

    I think the path will be fine, as the pavers will soften it with the patternsand softer edges but also no doubt your planting will over-hang the path and soften it too. But as you say, it is also a nice juxtaposition between the two too.

  2. That's an impressive job. I think you can give yourselves a big pat on the back.We often rented machinery, it's the way to go. The paving looks terrific and planting will soften it. As Liz said looking forward to the next step in the process. I hope it's the plants....

  3. Looks like it's going to be beautiful! It gives me hope for my big project ideas. Thankfully here in Utah there is no lack of sunny days to get things done.

  4. having seen the finished results in person I can verify that the end result was pretty great. Did you actually operate that tiller or just pose for a photo? ;-)

  5. What a job--but something you will can be so proud of. And Boots helped!!

  6. Wow, that is some bita work going on. All the difficult & hard work, which never seems to end, but then the day finally comes, when its lovely and can be enjoyed! It's a great feeling to sit back (at some stage) and know you've made it happen.

  7. This is looking great. I can't wait to see part 2!

  8. Great looking project, well done you too! The hard landscaping looks superb, looking forward to part 2 with the plants.

  9. Dear Scott, I am so.o.o impressed! Look forward to seeing the rest of this exciting project. Pamela

  10. Well what great read, Scott. I love, love, love the transformation. I bet you and Norm are elated. Can't wait for round 2.

  11. Loved reading this! Well done you! :) Can't wait to hear about part 2. Your backyard looks awesome.

  12. An amazing task -- but it will be well worth the blood, sweat, and tears. Looking forward to "the good stuff."

  13. Wow! What a lot of hard work! It looks marvelous, and I think it was totally worth all the labor. It looks great in the photos, and I bet it looks even better with all the plants in. I like those cobbles. I never heard of Yard Rents. What a convenience it is to have them drop the equipment off. I've rented all kinds of stuff over the years, and it was always a hassle getting it home.

  14. Wow that's a great but tiring job, but will be amazing later. We will wait for the next posts. Congratulations, job well done!

  15. It's looking great. I LOVE the fence! I was laughing as I read this because it sounds so like my husband and I when we did our front yard last year. Luckily he was the one making the plans and measurements while I kept thinking about the plants. I'm kind of impulsive and like to rush through things, luckily he's not at all.
    I can't wait to see part 2!

  16. What a transformation. I can't wait for the next episode. I like the idea of a yard tool rental company that delivers. Really cool.

  17. Sounds like you compliment each other--the hardscape sets the stage for the amazing plants I'm sure you will share in your next post. Your garden has great bones!

  18. Wow, it looks great. I have gravel in my yard and it drives me crazy. I think you made a much wiser choice.

  19. What a fun read Scott! I'm so keen to see the finished result as I already have a similar project in mind for our new home next summer. I'm really impressed with how nice the fence turned out. Looks so professional! Well done :) Cheers, Jenni

  20. You look good with a tiler! Work it...

    Wow, what a complete transformation! You've got to be just loving it!? That fence is super sexy and the hardscape will be such a wonderful no fuss compliment to the plants, which I can't wait to read all about. Excellent work!

  21. WOW!!! That is a lot of hard work! I'm impressed. I just love it when I see a drawing on paper come to life! I'm not usually one for hard straight lines either, but this seems to compliment the space, and the plantings will soften it for sure. Can't wait to see stage 2 :-) Keep up the good work!!

  22. I love your hardscaping. I have to admit I am kind of horrible about that stuff even though I am a designer. I also have a similar silly photo of me with a tiller (being dragged along behind it actually).

  23. Wow...the transformation is amazing! I am sure that you will enjoy it even more since y'all did it yourselves. I am really looking forward to seeing Part 2!

  24. Shut up! This is awesome, you guys did some fantastic work here. Looking forward to seeing the fun part.

  25. It looks great! I tend to be the same as you with heavy equipment, so have learned there is a lot to be said for "soft and fluffy" plants near things that are supposed to be straight! Enjoy the rest of the process....looks like the fun things (plants) are all that's left!

  26. WOW! I am so impressed with what you accomplished. I like the paths. No where is it written that you have to have all those curves. We do as we like for us. LOVED the photos, some were fun and Boots is adorable. Leave it to a cat to find that box.

  27. Looking forward to seeing part 2 then! You really did a good job there, at the beginning I couldn't figure out which part of the house it was: you made it look much much bigger than before, it's incredible! I like the paving you choose (I normally prefer white pebbles but hard pavings are easier to keep) and I love the fence.
    Anyway the face of your partner in the picture with the machinery really tells how seriously you took this task... :-/

  28. Congratulations! It looks great already and I LOVE that fence. You guys did a great job!

  29. Kudos, Scott, I can definitely appreciate all the hard work you and Norm have done. Isn't it great to look back over the finished job after grunting and groaning over the work? I love your funny descriptions and the photos bring it all home. Your choice of the linear path and patio is great: I agree it will be much better with the softer plantings that I can't wait to hear about next!

  30. What a makeover! I have some areas that need this done to, but it seems like SOOOOO much work! So, I have a lot of respect for you doing all this, but it look fabulous, and I know you're super proud!

  31. What a lot of hard work but just look at the transformation. Part 1 is looking so good. Sorry but I am with Norm and I love the pavers Scott.LOL! I know you are chomping at the bit to get to those plants.LOL!

  32. Wow - Scott - you guys have done a great job! I'm like everybody else - can't wait to see what great plants you put in.

  33. You guys really "plowed" ahead with what looks like an extremely challenging job, between taking out the shaky garage, the buried oil tank, soggy soil. The fence is beautiful -- I bet you still go out just to stare at it. Congrats to all of you -- Boots too, of course!

  34. Boy, I can see how that was a lot of work. It really looks good though. You're a brave man to tackle all that!

  35. Wow, great job! The pavers look really good, the contrast between sharp landscaping and flowing planting is very enjoyable too.

  36. I'm still envious of that fence. I just bought one I don't like nearly as much, darn! But I look forward to what you do with the planting in that tight space.

  37. BTW, every time I come to your blog I get this message in a dialogue box:

    A username and password are being requested by The site says: "Protected"

  38. Glad James mentioned the dialogue box...I have been getting it as well.

  39. You have been busy! It looks fantastic. I can't wait to see the end result. I know it will be spectacular. I'm with you when it comes to machinery but I've come to love it. The main thing that scares me is using the chain saw.

  40. This is all very exciting, I almost feel as if it's me getting a new garden, I suppose because I will get the benefit of enjoying all the new and wonderful plants you will grow. I'll be totally hooked watching this area grow from the start.

    Thanks for you comment re. my efforts with evergreens. I thought you might like a peak at what other evergreen and winter foliage plants I have (or at least the ones that I could get almost photos of amid the gales). Here's the link to a journal I've just posted on my Folia pages showing more of the winter plants:

    Until then, here's to your new plantings, may they thrive and enjoy being photographed.

  41. Oh, the hardscape is definitely good stuff too, Scott. Wow, that fence looks gorgeous! Is it purchased in pre-made panels? I'm so impressed that you did all that yourselves! I like the zig-zag of the path, and of course it'll be softened by your plants. The cat is adorable too. He did an excellent job overseeing your project.

  42. such an excellent job! Wow! I'm really impressed that you did all yourself!

  43. Gwirrel: Haha…me too! I sometimes thing that garden blogging is a great way to satisfy my inner "nosy neighbor"! Agreed about the juxtaposition!

    Janet: Whew! Thanks! Yeah…I love that rental service…I realized after we used it how nice it was to not have to worry about how we were going to transport those big, heavy pieces of equipment!

    Carly: Thanks…I hope you like the outcome coming up in the next 2 posts ;-)

    Ryan Miller: Aw shucks…I was pretty happy with how things turned out too :-) As for the tiller…yeah…I don't have the upper-body strength to run it myself :-(

    Sue: Hahahaha…he totally played his part, for sure!

    Why I Garden: Oh yeah, so true…in the middle of all the work, it seems like an insurmountable task…but after a few months, it's hard to remember it being that bad :-)

    Zoey: Thanks! I hope you'll enjoy the results!

    Mark and Gaz: Thanks…me too :-)

    Pam's English Garden: Thanks so much…I hope you like the next few posts as well!

    Grace Peterson: We really are…it's so nice to look out our kitchen window and see something pretty…not a pile of mud and debris!

    Gwen: Thanks so much…it's definitely an improvement!

    nittygrittydirtman: Hahahaha…me too!

    Tom: Thanks!

    Alison: OMG…you should totally use them if they are available in your area…I realized afterward that it really made it easier…we could focus on getting our work done, not returning the equipment.

    Andrea: Thanks so much…and yes, it was exhausting!

    Catherine@AGardenerinProgress: I love how so many of us have similar relationships…I was so impatient for this part to get done so I could have my fun and plant things too! I guess it's good to have someone that balances us out, right?

    Janet, The Queen of Seaford: Thanks…oh yeah, YardRents is great!

    PlantPostings: Indeed…and yes…all things will be revealed!

    GirlSprout: Thanks! Yeah…in hindsight, I think it was for the best too…I think I was just being lazy…wanting to be done with the "hard" part so I could get on with the good part!

    Jenni@RainyDayGardener: Thanks…those words are sweet to my ears! Can't wait to see your project too!

  44. Danger Garden: Hahahahaha! Thanks…I do LOVE the fence…my only regret is that it isn't taller…oh well. You're so right about the hardscape though…simple is best.

    Toni - Signature Gardens: Absolutely, sometimes I surprise myself when I step outside what I think I like to try something new…and end up loving it!

    Kaveh Maguire: Hahahahahaha…I want to see that photo!

    Karen / Southern Meadows: Oh yeah…that's the big benefit to doing it yourself…that feeling of accomplishment!

    Darla: Hahaha…thanks!

    Tim: It's good to know I'm not alone in my discomfort with machinery :-)

    Sunray Gardens: Thanks so much…yeah, I think it actually worked out for the best…I just had to step outside my comfort zone a little…which is ALWAYS a good thing :-)

    altroverde: Hahahahaha…we were VERY serious ;-) I do think you're right…the backyard felt very jumbled and close before, now it's much more inviting and open :-)

    Cat: Thanks so much…I really like the fence too :-)

    MulchMaid: I bet you can…with your backyard redo in the not-so-distant past! Isn't it funny how quickly we forget how hard it was!

    HolleyGarden: Awww, thanks…it IS a lot of hard work…but the payoff makes it well worth it :-)

    Lona: Hahahaha…I actually love them now too…I think I mostly just didn't want to work anymore…so would have settle for the gravel to just be done…so I could plant!

    David - Pinewood Cottage: Thanks…you won't have to wait too long…I'm hoping to post the next installment today…with the final one on (hopefully) Monday or Tuesday next week :-)

    Denise: Oh yeah…it ended up being way harder than I imagined it would be…but the payoff made it worth all the effort!

    Jean: Thank you…maybe brave is the wrong word…"delusional" may be more fitting, depending on who you ask ;-)

    halliards: Thanks…I really do enjoy it, now that it's done!

    James Golden: I know that feeling…but you can console yourself by planting lots of vines to cover it up! When we were staining (and it looked a bit blotchy), that's what I kept telling myself I'd do if it didn't look the best :-) BTW…can't wait to see your new garden take shape!

    James, Janet & Danger: Thanks for the heads-up…I had NO IDEA that was happening…I think it's fixed now, please let me know if you still get that message in the future!

    Phillip Oliver: Thanks…OMG…I could never use a chain saw…TERRIFYING!

    Cally: Hahahah…totally! It's like when you get to enjoy your neighbor's new landscaping :-) OMG…i just looked at that link…so much is still green and growing in your garden!

    Pam/Digging: Thanks! Yes…pre-made panels we got from Lowes (I think). Looking back, it may have been easier to just do the fence from scratch…but, having never built a fence before, we learned the hard way! Boots thanks you too ;-)

    Malar: Thanks…and believe me, no one is more surprised about how much work it was than I am!

  45. This is a great project, I had no idea you'd been doing all this. I'm in the middle of building a garden shed too, so I can relate. I like the fence, really nice. Designing fences is a lot harder than people think. Even with premade stuff, there's a lot to pick from and it makes a big difference as the backdrop for the plants. I like it.

    1. Thanks, Ryan! was pretty much our "Big Project" this spring :-) We're currently building a shed...but it's been is yours coming along? I hope you post about it once it's finished. Oh yeah...fences are far trickier than I expected...even with pre-made panels...gave me way more appreciation for people who fence really big spaces ;-)

  46. There are great achievements to celebrate here.
    1] A blogger [you] with an already stellar reputation, has self-catapulted into the stratosphere of garden blogging using a roto - tiller!
    2] You have a "personal; best" to add to your list of great achievements.
    3] Imagine how many hearts you have touched by sharing this work of love?
    4] You have validated the dedication of DIY gardeners
    5] You have saved a lot of money by not hiring others to do this work for you.
    6] Over 45 comments in one week? WOW!

    Scott, I was probably the first person to read your blog the moment it was posted last Monday morning. But I am among the last to laud you. That is because I was not able to access the comment section of your blog {and many blogs of our peers} via Firefox. My host Squarespace suggested tonight that I use another browser. This comment was finally posted via Chrome. Sorry that it took so long. You deserved better than this.

    1. Hi worries...I've had trouble with Blogger in the past doing the same thing...not letting me post comments on other people's blogs. Earlier this spring, I couldn't even access my own blog...sheesh! I'm totally flattered by ALL your comments...and to think...I almost didn't post that pic of me with the tiller, like most people, I kinda hate pictures of myself! I'm a firm believer in DIY-everything. I will admit, however, that in the middle of digging up large patches of lawn, I often wish for a crew of workers to help me out ;-) I'm SO excited that people have received this post so well...can't wait for the finale!

  47. What a ton of work but it will feel so good knowing you designed it yourself. I checked out your other post about the plants you put in. I love agastaches and Ava does really well for me, too, as long as it's in a pot. I completed a garden renovation in the fall, too, it just didn't include hardscaping. The entire area looks great already! I'm looking forward to your pictures showing the completed project.

    1. really was...and you're right, now that it's pretty much done, it's super satisfying to know we stuck with it and did it ourselves! Renovations are the best...and it's so exciting. BTW...thanks for led me to your blog, which I'm reading now!

  48. Ugh! What a muddy mess it must have been installing that fence. I really like the results. I can't wait to see some more pictures.

    1. said it...I've never been so dirty and cross in my life...well, ok, that I can remember with this intensity! I really have an appreciation for people who put up fences now...both Norm and I speak in hushed tones when we see a really extensive fence on someone's property...especially if they say they did it themselves.

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