Home Improvement

Bluestone Backyard Makeover: Welcome to the Jungle!

This project is in partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

Since the basement laundry room renovation a few months ago, progress has been a little slow over at ole’ Bluestone Cottage. I’m itching to get going on the finish work (the fun stuff!), but there are some hurdles to overcome first. Right now getting the insulation sorted out is the main priority—something that sounds simple but has required all this back-and-forth hassle between professional installers and the building department and inconsistent information and CAN ANYTHING JUST BE EASY?!
No it cannot. We’ve discussed this at length for roughly nine years. Get with the program.
So here we are in the middle of summer. My strategy is to get the house to the point this fall that the exterior’s in good shape and the interior is insulated and heated and ready for all the fixin’s. I’d really like to have this house occupied next spring, and I really don’t want to have a major exterior project hanging over me when that time comes! SO, while I’m waiting on these few interior things to materialize, and the weather’s good, and fall is just around the corner, I’m finally tackling…THE BACKYARD.
I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about the backyard? I don’t think I ever really showed it? Much like the front of the house, it was a complete jungle of overgrowth and trash when I bought this house, so it wasn’t really possible to take photos that show the whole space. It’s very small—less than 500 square feet!—which I find kind of exciting. It feels manageable in a way that my own much larger backyard doesn’t, and the volume of materials needed for any given improvement isn’t so huge. At the same time, it’s a real design challenge because you still want to include everything you’d want in a larger space, but don’t want it to feel crowded or busy or stupid. Challenge accepted? Great; you don’t have a choice.
By the way, should I be referring to it as the…rear garden? That sounds so much more sophisticated than “backyard.” I feel like that’s what Monty Don would call it.

This is one of the only photos of the rear garden I have from when I bought the house. Cute, right? There was this big storage shed back there, which I think partially collapsed after a tree fell on it. At the time I remember thinking it took up so much space and that the backyard would be so much nicer without trying to also use it as a storage facility, but I now understand why the shed was necessary. Because the house is small, too! The old shed held a wild assortment of toys and figurines and picture frames and stuff, but I’ve really tried to design ample interior storage space for that kind of thing. That said, with only a little tiny basement, there really isn’t anywhere inside the house for gardening tools or outdoor power equipment or snow shovels, fertilizers, seed, etc. This is fine for now since I just bring all that stuff over from my house when I need it, but eventually this house needs to grow its own wings and fly. So keep that in the back of your brain: STORAGE!
Anyway. The shed and its contents were disposed of years ago. And that’s pretty much where the progress in the back stalled until about a week ago.

DO YOU FEEL INSPIRED OR WHAT?! Yikes. What you’re looking at is the north side of the space. The back of the house is on the left, and a 4-ft walkway between that and the rickety wood fence provides access to the space.
So. Lots of old trash—the overgrowth conceals some of it but trust me it’s there. I swear this was just used as an unofficial dumping ground for a while. There’s an oil tank leftover from the house’s old heat system (which had been stripped out, presumably for scrap, when I bought it) a mysterious pile of sand, and just general mayhem.
(Related: if you’re local and need a perfectly good oil tank, hit me up.)

Moving ’round clockwise, the back corner is mostly obstructed by this big tree, which is growing RIGHT on the fence line. This tree was actually supposed to be removed back when I had some other tree work done, but I think a miscommunication resulted in it just getting some pruning. It’s a mulberry tree, which is both yummy and a total mess because those berries drop everywhere.

This is the entire view of the back of the property (it fits in one photo! the whole thing!), which is comprised of a tall chain link fence owned by the community garden behind it. I love having the community garden as neighbors but I always hate chainlink fencing, and since people come in and out of it all day, it makes the backyard feel very exposed. So keep that in the back of your brain: PRIVACY!

Moving clockwise, we have the other side. Here, we threw up a quick fence when I bought the house with some pre-assembled panels mostly to keep the neighbors from disposing of things by just moving them over the property line. Now they just throw things over it, I guess? In fairness I accept responsibility for this—I don’t think people are nearly so inclined to act this way when it’s apparent that a space is being cared for and this one hasn’t really been. So hopefully that won’t be an ongoing issue.
There’s also a nice maple tree! I like the maple tree. I’m guessing it wasn’t planted intentionally but it’s big and appears healthy and provides some shade, so I think keeping it is the right move.

Continuing clockwise around the yard…these “before” photos are gonna be a lot more fun with some “afters” to throw up next to them. I’m working on it!!

Annnnd, we’re back to the rear of the house. Do you have your bearings? So compact!
OK, SO LET’S DIVE IN. The first phase of any landscaping work is to clear, clear, clear. Clear anything and everything out that you don’t need or want. I’m so glad this space is small because this was a big job.
On the first day, I did a bunch of smaller brush removal and filled about 15 paper yard bags with debris. It took a while because I try REALLY hard to keep any bits of trash out of the yard bags, since the county composts and resells it to people (like me!) in the community. Nobody wants plastic in their compost!
For the Mulberry tree, I called my normal tree guy (whose prices seem high to me, but he’s in the neighborhood and a good dude), but couldn’t get a call back! I asked Edwin to help me with some other odd jobs for a few days, and we figured we could tackle it together.  
Except neither of us have a chainsaw.
SO I BOUGHT A CHAINSAW. I figured the professional tree removal would cost 3x as much as the chainsaw anyway, and I still wouldn’t have a chainsaw. Feel free to borrow this logic when you want to justify power tool purchases. It works for me all the time.
Small note: if there are structures nearby or the tree is big or there are any doubts or hesitations, hire the trained and properly insured professional.

I picked up the Greenworks Pro 60-Volt battery-powered chainsaw, and it is GREAT. Edwin, a straight man, likes to destroy things possibly more than he likes building them, so he tore it out of my hands and climbed the tree before I could take the tag off or fight him for it. He had the time of his life, I think?

So the chainsaw. I am genuinely impressed. We took down the whole tree on one battery and it had no problem getting through big limbs or even the base of the trunk.  It uses the same battery as my leaf blower and lawnmower and hedge trimmer, and I feel really good and grown-up about assembling this arsenal of high-quality battery-powered tools. I’m consistently impressed by their performance and expect to use them for a very long time!

And then I took this photo of ol’ Boondock, which is carrying most of a Mulberry tree in its bed. It took two trips to the compost pile at the dump and about $15 and the deed was done.
Many more yard bags and contractor bags later…

HELLO (almost) blank slate! I feel like now we can get a better sense of what we’re working with here. Don’t worry, I’m sure I will find a way to overcomplicate this whole endeavor.

Of course without the tree, it feels a little like a fish bowl because of the chain link fence. I think I have a plan. The community garden folks are thrilled to see the Mulberry tree gone, by the way.
In the foreground, there is an odd pile of large rocks and broken bricks and pieces of concrete. I didn’t have the strength to start dealing with that. Pls ignore.

Sadly the kitchen windows are currently boarded, but I’m working on that too. I’m working on, uh, a lot of things.

Here’s a rough sketch with dimensions so you can see where we’re starting. So! WHAT DO WE DO. THAT IS THE NEXT QUESTION. Remember, this house is not for me to live in, so this is a real question. What do people like to do in backyards? Obviously we are dealing with major size limitations.

Here are some things I’m thinking about as I lay awake every night (it’s getting annoying):

New fence. Private, and uniform all the way around. I think this will make a huge, huge difference. I think horizontal cedar boards will make the space feel a little bit larger. I spoke with the landlord who owns the existing picket fence on the north side and he’s totally on board with letting me replace it with whatever I want.
Storage. Not a TON, but enough for outdoor/gardening-related stuff. This isn’t on the mood board because I think I’m going to try building something custom.
Place(s) to hang out. I’m torn here. Chairs? An outdoor sofa? A dining table? A bistro table? Some combination? It’s tricky. I want it to be cozy and a place that will actually get used. I like a classic Adirondack chair…and a small table and chairs to sip morning coffee or evening cocktails (or morning cocktails and evening coffee; you do you). Pretend you’re renting this house: what would you want? Lowe’s has a whole lot of options!
Low-maintenance. This kind of goes along with storage and places to hang out, but I really don’t want to deal with trying to grow/maintain/mow grass back here. I have a low-key pea gravel fetish, so I’m thinking a combination of concrete paving, classic pea gravel, and mulched beds—things that theoretically have to be dealt with only about once or twice a year.
Outdoor cooking. Nothing crazy but it should have a grill, right? Sadly fire pits are a no-no in Kingston, but grills are OK. I love a classic little Weber charcoal grill, and I’m intrigued by this newer design that makes the charcoal/ash clean-up easier. And it comes in cool finishes like copper and this dark green!
Plants. You could totally go all Secret Garden vibe back here, but I feel like that would not work with the aforementioned practical priorities, so I’m thinking more along the lines of some nice mulched beds along the fence. Maybe some climbers on a trellis, like this one? Maybe some container gardening in some classic terra cotta pots? Maybe another tree? Also, those kitchen windows are gonna need window boxes, right? These window boxes seem promising, and I wouldn’t mind buying something prefab rather than turning that into another project.
String lights, because what kind of monster doesn’t love a string light?

OK! Past experience has taught me that there are some very good brains out there reading this, so I’m curious what your priorities would be! Tell me what you think at once! I insist.

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