We gutted our backyard down to dirt in January and in three months we transformed it. Here’s the before and after of phase one (there’s more work coming!). Consider this a progress update. No styling, just a yard as far as it has come to date.
In January (you know…the month where it’s twenty degrees and snowing in Virginia?), we decided it was time to start work on our backyard. After working on other parts of our 1890’s simple Victorian house for years, we were tired of not having the garden, trees, and patio we wanted. Why wait? There’s no logical way you can talk yourself into prioritizing sod over the structural integrity of a wing of the house. At least, none that I’ve figured out yet.
But an outdoor space was important to me and therefore important to Chris. I need greenery to feel like myself and given a chance, I will almost always pick eating outside vs. inside. A beautiful backyard that’s both functional and aesthetically pleasing in a small space takes planning. After binge-watching a few BBC Monty Don garden show episodes on Netflix, we scrapped our original plans that had been floating in the background of the “Long Term Master House Plan,” and added an entire raised bed kitchen garden, espalier apple trees, brick walls and more. We decided a hedge in a retaining wall (the original plan), while modern, wasn’t what was right for this house. In fact, we decided our garden theme was the total opposite… “controlled lush,” just like that aunt you enjoy seeing at Christmas who is barely holding it together after a half bottle of red wine. We wanted free flowing colors and textures but confined in straight edges with rules.
Needless to say, when you’ve done all this planning and research, that’s just the tip of the iceberg (and boy did we research. Hit me up if you want my spreadsheet of zone seven perennial plants only in colors emerald, purple, whites, and silver). We had a solid vision, but the backyard was -how do I describe this accurately?-a hot garbage fire. Because our home is in a downtown historic region, we had some problematic parameters involving zero lot lines (that means your neighbor’s house is fully built out to the edge of your property) and controlling water dumping onto our property after Virginia downpours. So we needed a way to add privacy, move water off of our property, but also create dining, entertaining and growing areas, and fix the existing shed on the property.
Oh wait, did I mention we were doing this all from scratch ourselves? And remember it’s January? Albeit a warm beginning to 2019.
We built a tall privacy fence as well as a retaining wall around the perimeter of the yard. The retaining wall helps keep soil back from a property that is inexplicably several feet taller than ours, right next door. We also ran drainage piping through the wall (and dug a trench to connect a sump pump—our neighbor’s!!—to our own rainwater system to move water off the property). The retaining wall became our foliage and flower garden and is filled with 90% perennials. The hard work and planning are done, and they’ll only get better from here. If you’re overwhelmed with how we knew what to plant from scratch, we’ve got a complete guide about our process.
The shed was rotting and housing at least one family of peevish squirrels who have broken more terra-cotta pots and eaten more things than I ever thought possible. Chris cut out and replaced all the rotting wood and roof. The decision to repair vs. replace stemmed from the desire to avoid having to have the board of architectural review and approve a new structure. So we primed and painted the shed and added a wire trellis system that grows jasmine.
free flowing colors and textures but confined in straight edges with rules.”
Then came the yard grading…and the eight tons of gravel we moved by hand. We tilled and raked and re-raked and graded the entire yard, so it was level and had a slight slope away from the structures (for water). Because we knew we also wanted a hardscape patio next to the house, we dug nine inches into the dirt, moved THAT dirt to other spaces in the yard and put tons of gravel to form the patio base (with gravel dust on top- this will become a hard bluestone patio in phase two). This is where we have our dining room table and chairs. And to deal with that zero lot line problem, we added tall grasses and more corten steel planters to cover the neighbor’s electrical box/meter. Chris built a small lattice cover to hide our trash bins (suburban living…what can I say?).
After (but not done)
The raised corten garden planters are one of my favorite additions to the yard. I wrote an entire post about why we chose corten steel over wood planters for raised beds and why they were a smarter buy for us. This was an essential feature because of the work we do with recipes and food styling. Growing your own herbs and produce is miles better and more accessible than hunting for mediocre ones at the grocery store.
In that same vein, I’ve always, always wanted espalier fruit trees. This method of pruning shapes trees, so they’re kind of in a single straight plane of growth. It makes it easy to access the fruit, but it makes a beautiful green divider. Behind these trees will be a half brick wall to divide the yard from a parking space and provide a helpful ‘landing surface’ for any bags, drinks etc. as you get out of the car. On top of the mini wall we’ll also add more potted plants. Because…controlled lush.
In some of the photos below you’ll see the trees and the base of the brick wall (what you don’t see is the additional ten inches below that has stone dust, block and another layer of brick for the foundation).
And then came the sod. THE SOD. You don’t know how much grass changes a yard until you have it.
So what’s next? Phase two is the extra pretty things. We need to finish staining our fence with a white, silver color. The retaining wall and one fence is fully stained, but thanks to Virginia spring rains and our work schedule, we need to backtrack to finish up.
We’ll add a fire pit to the back seating area and hook up the electrical to the shed for lighting (the conduit is already buried- I mean, we did dig up the whole yard, so why not?). Our neighbor is lobbying for an outdoor tv on the shed for the seating area but personally I’d take a secret mini wine fridge. Endless possibilities.
We’re scraping and staining the shed door and window and while our goal is to stain the scraped wood a walnut finish, we’ll see how it looks when we finish getting rid of a few decades of paint. Chris will be installing the bluestone patio and building the brick wall (I know- he seriously can do it all…execept electrical. We don’t eff with electrical), which we’ll lime wash to a more muted white. A lot…but also comparatively…not a lot. At least there’s no more gravel.
I’m sure we’ll find more projects. Let’s talk in January.
Dietitian Nutritionist. My husband Chris and I create food and beverage photos, videos, stopmotions and recipes. And they're really cool.