Backyard Transformation

Not crafting related, but still creative!  We moved into our house 5.5 years ago and have slowly worked to transform our backyard.  Check out the details and some pictures in this blog post.

Background

In November, 2011, my husband, step-son and I moved into a new house.  It needed some work but I was in love with it from the start and saw so much potential!  I was pregnant with my daughter at the time and fell in love with the amount of yard space we had to work with – I could just see my young kiddos playing there happily.  I also remember how much fun I had working in the gardens with my parents (my Dad practically lives in the gardens at my childhood home!)  I started thinking about a vision for the backyard, which ended up taking over 5 years to transpire but I’m SO happy with it… and the work isn’t done yet!

My house is in Ontario, Canada, for those wondering about some of the climate/planting choices!

Inspiration

So I’m not one to go searching for ideas online.  Honestly, I find Pinterest overwhelming and it stresses me out sometimes – makes things I do feel inadequate compared to others!  Instead, for the backyard, I had a couple discussions with some landscapers but in the end my husband and I figured out what we wanted and just slowly started working on it.

Starting Point

I don’t have many pics of the starting point.  Mainly because it was… rough.  The backyard is roughly 100′ x 50′ and rectangular, it was partially fenced and had 5 big trees – 2 maples and 3 very tall blue spruce trees.  There was a small concrete pad patio out the back and some big, overgrown shrubs around the perimeter of the house.  The rest was just grass or dirt/pine needles.

We also have a septic tank that’s buried under ~1/3 of the yard, which it’s best to leave that grass exposed in case you need to dig it up for any reason, so that was a consideration.

Here’s a pic of the original patio space, which comes off our living room and kitchen area, after we removed the spruce trees and large shrubs/rotted wood edging.  You can see how the raised sliding doors are just BEGGING for a deck to be put here!!

The Vision

My vision for this space was to fill half the yard with structured area and have half the yard open for playing.  Many people in our neighbourhood have pools – I wasn’t interested in that, as our swimming season in Ontario is only a few months a year, so I thought it would take too much space and be a lot of work for a small amount of gain.  We are lucky to have great neighbours who open their pool to us whenever we’d like!!  Basically, we wanted to add a shed, a big deck, a firepit (complying with by-laws to ensure it’s not too close to the house) and lots of gardens.

The Process

Creating the Canvas

Around the concrete pad patio, there were a couple small gardens with huge juniper shrubs and edged with old railway-tie wood, which is laced with chemicals.  Not good for the kiddos.  I didn’t want to keep these gardens, as I knew I was going to build a bigger deck that would cover this area, and I couldn’t have my kids playing in dirt that had chemical-soaked wood surrounding it for 35 years!

I also knew I wanted to rip out all the foliage that was in the yard.  It was overgrown and not kept well, and most of the shrubs were dead inside.  The blue spruce trees were very close together, over 20′ tall and most of the branches were dead because they didn’t get sunlight.  The maple trees were established and spaced out well but the blue spruces were overpowering them.  So here’s what we did:

  • Had the 3 blue spruce trees removed
  • Had the stumps removed, also got the stumpers to remove and stump basically every shrub from the backyard
  • Put grass seed and some dirt down in some of the areas that were sparse from grass
  • Had the maple trees pruned to maximize their health

Approximate cost: $1500 CAD

Making the Plan

The vision part is usually the hardest part.  I had a really good idea of what I wanted, though, so it was a matter of talking it through with my husband and forming a plan.  My parents gave good advise – make a 5-year or 10-year plan and slowly work towards it… otherwise it’s way too much work all at once!

I sketched out what I was thinking, we hammered out some rough dimensions and once we agreed on the details, we started making a phase approach: shed first, then fence, then decks, then gardens.  When planning garden locations, I watched where the sun/shade was in the yard at different times in the day in the different seasons to make sure I put them in good spots.

The vegetable garden I wanted to put in needs a lot of sun!  We also had to consider the septic tank placement.  A septic tank has a leech field where the water drains from the septic.  You can’t plant root vegetables in location that could pierce the tubes from the septic tank!

Here is a rough sketch of the plan.

Approximate cost: $0 CAD

Shed and Vegetable Garden

I am very lucky to have a brother-in-law who is very good with construction.  He does house flips on the side and can build basically anything if he has some free time!  As it turns out, he was able to build our shed for us, which was so amazing!

To prepare the space we rented a bobcat for a day.  We got some gravel, pea stone and dirt delivered – since we had the bobcat to do some digging, it made sense to level out and remove the grass from the veggie garden space while we had the equipment on hand!  Here is the overall process we followed, a lot of which we made up as we went along:

  • Used bobcat to level the shed and vegetable garden area
    • Used stakes, string and a hanging level to make sure the area we dug out was level
    • Pushed the extra dirt into the area we planned to put the gardens in
  • Prepared the shed area (8’x12′ – max size allowed without a permit in our township)
    • Put down gravel, around 2″ deep I think
    • Rented a tamper to tamp down the area
    • Placed 2’x2′ pavers in the 4 corners to help balance the weight
  • Built the vegetable garden area (~32’x16′)
    • Built a frame out of 2×12 pressure treated boards and placed in the garden area, ~26×10
    • Outside the frame, put down impenetrable weed cloth, filled with 4″ sand, placed bricks around the edges and filled with pea stone
    • Inside the frame, filled with triple mix soil
    • The idea with the brick and stone outline was to allow us to easily mow the grass with the riding mower around the garden without having to weed whack around it every time!
  • Built the shed (8’x12′)
    • Built offsite and then assembled in place
    • (much later on) painted using Behr Porch and Patio paint, used a sprayer and 3.5 gallons of paint (Drift Grey) on the exterior + a pint of accent colour (Cape Cod Grey) on the shed accents

Approximate cost: $3,000 CAD

Decks and Fences

My husband really loved a rectangle grey brick firepit we saw at a local landscape company.  I loved it too, and initially we had thought about having an interlocking brick patio around the pit.  However, that’s a lot of work, and we were already going to have a deck built, so I had a vision of having an octagon-shaped deck with the firepit in the middle.  Now, I haven’t often seen a firepit embedded in a deck, and we did some research to figure out how to do it.  Long story short, we put the actual pit down low enough that we *think* we won’t have issues with sparks.  This is our second summer with the pit installed and it’s been totally fine – no sparks on the deck.

Once I had decided about the octagon deck, I had envisioned having it totally surrounded by gardens.  It would almost be floating like an island in the middle of a sea of garden!  I thought it was a great use of the space and would help get away from having gardens in traditional shapes and locations.

For fencing, it was a no brainer – finish the fence around the perimeter and add gates on either side so the back yard is fully enclosed.  This is the best option for young kids, and also if we want to get a dog some day.  We wanted to gates to be BIG, so we could drive through them if needed.  The idea beside the decks was to fill it with gravel and have it be a driveway for our camper and utility trailer to store in the winter, so we want to be able to actually back our SUV through the gate.  So the gates are 8-10′ wide double doors.

The maple trees actually make a really nice umbrella shape over the lower deck when the leaves are out, which provides some element of shade all day.  The upper deck tends to be full sun so it’s a nice mix of options depending on what you’re looking for!

Process:

  • Hire someone to do the fences and decks (SO MANY POSTS!), which was expensive but totally worth it!
    • It took them a couple weeks total
    • That included the platform pathway between the decks
    • We put railings on the upper deck – we didn’t have to (by-law) but we chose to so we could keep the kiddos on the upper deck while we were BBQing
  • Build up the firepit
    • Used cinder blocks, then installed the firepit bricks and put the insert at the top
    • Inside, we have an old tire rim from a tire place down the street to contain embers and flames within the cinder block walls
  • (much later on) installed some solar lighting on the decks to give some ambiance in the evening
  • (much later on) assembled and painted some Adirondack/Muskoka chairs from Costco ($50 each) with Behr Porch and Patio paint, using a Behr colour (Blueprint)
  • We used some spare 2’x2′ pavers to make a small patio outside our walk-out basement on the other side of the yard and put a bench there

Approximate cost: $14,500 CAD

Gardens

The gardens are the last step we’ve completed (for now).  We put down weedcloth in the fall before the snow fell, and let it settle with the dirt we had piled there while building the decks, shed and vegetable garden.  The next summer we hauled 10 cubic yards of dirt onto it to shape it how we wanted.  The following spring we weeded it and added 10 cubic yards of mulch to complete the gardens!

I’m just at the point now of adding plants!  We put a couple 2’x2′ pavers beside the deck on one side where our smoker lives in the summer, and a few flagstone pieces to make a couple walk ways.

We also put up a swingset for the kiddos and a small compost area in the back for dirt.  Our region has a very good green bin program for compost so we didn’t put in compost bin for food scraps – instead it’s a pile for dirt that we can use to fill gardens as needed.

Approximate cost: $1,000 CAD

Future Work to Do

We still want to level the area between our decks and our fence, using armour stones, and fill it with gravel.  This area would be used for storing our camper/trailer and firewood, etc. and we could drive our vehicle back there if needed.  Then we would add gravel or pea stone around the shed for walking paths.

Other than that, I plan to just keep filling the gardens!  Currently it’s been filled with perennials that were removed from neighbour’s gardens (with permission!) when they were making some changes, or from splitting big perennials.  I’ve only invested $20 in plants back there so far, plus seeds for the vegetable garden annually.

A few winter shots for fun:

Summary

I love my backyard oasis and can’t wait to start using it and refining the decor over time!!  Most of the big work is all the way done, which is a huge accomplishment!  I hope you can make a space that you love in your yard too!  To us, it’s worth the investment to have a great place to spend time – and as long as it’s all maintained it will add value to your house/property too!

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