How I Rebuilt My Entire Backyard and How You Can Too!
If you’re an idiot that is.

If you’ve ever bought a house you know the two main things that will sell you on it are the kitchen and the bathroom. Those are the areas we are told time and time again a homeowner will always get their investment back on.  That and an actual living gnome in the garden who acts out The Sound of Music every weekend.  That’s an investment you’ll never lose on.

So when, 12 years ago, my real estate agent brought me to see an historic 160 year old cottage in Southwest Ontario I couldn’t wait to see the kitchen and the bathroom.  I was hoping for a restaurant style kitchen and a bathroom with a dual head, rainforest shower.

Much to my surprise, when we arrived at the house my real estate agent didn’t take me in the front door. Instead she said we’d go in the back door. To do this we had to pass through a gated arbour at the side of the house covered in climbing roses. It led to the nicest backyard I had ever seen in my life.  Aside from the super-cute courtyard backyard Barbara Ryan had on As The World Turns in 1984.  (obviously)

The entire backyard was paved with beautiful dark grey slate. Not a blade of grass in sight. There was a natural looking pond in the back corner by a very cute potting shed. The entire space was framed by huge handmade cedar planters that bordered the whole backyard. Birds were singing, fish were swimming, fuzzy caterpillers with big smiling face were looking up at me and winking.   It was perfect. Within 30 seconds of looking at the backyard, I had mentally bought the house.

In case you’re wondering, the kitchen and bathroom hadn’t been updated since 1940 and there was a mouse skeleton in the ultility room.  I didn’t care.  I had a fetching backyard in which to throw garden parties.  (I knew I would never, ever throw a garden party but I liked the notion that if I wanted to, I could)

just starting to pull apart pond. stupid.

Fast forward to March of 2007.   The stunning slate had deteriorated to the point of mush, the planters surrounding the backyard were rotted and falling down and my pond had a leak which the fish weren’t too fond of.   Even the birds had taken a hike.  Literally every single thing that initially sold me on this house had turned into a great big load of crap at the same time.  It’s like it was on a timer or something.

So … being a fairly handy and incredibly cheap kind of gal, I figured I could do something about it myself. Heck, I used to host a show that had the word “Handyman” in the title … I was MORE than qualified. I figured I could fix this sucker up in no time.   3  weeks maximum.  Maybe 4 if I took it at a leisurely pace.

It took longer. And there was nothing leisurely about it.

Along with being cheap, part of the reason I decided to do this little project myself was because of an incident from a few years back. I needed a section of my fence replaced so I called around for someone to fix it. Shouldn’t be problem, right? Easy enough job. Pretty basic. Here’s what I ran into. At least 8 companies that didn’t have time to do it, 2 companies who just didn’t show up and one guy who politely did show up, and was courteous enough to bring his own booze.

The fellows I did end up hiring (because they actually showed up and appeared to be sober) ended up building my section of fence 6 inches shorter than the rest of the fence and nailed it together with nails so long they protruded by 2 inches on the other side.  I was the girl with the porcupine fence.  Suffice it to say, that’s around the time I decided by become handy(er).

square-cut flagstone

So in the very early spring of 2007 I started planning. I decided I wanted my new backyard to go from looking cozy and naturalistic to something a little more contemporary. Sleeker. I needed a new stone “floor”, new planter beds and a new pond. I wanted to use a manmade stone product instead of the slate, in the hopes it wouldn’t flake, crack and basically rot away to nothing. Slate has a tendancy to do poorly in my area of Canada because of all the freezing and thawing. It’s made of many shaley layers that just fall apart over time.

Problem is, no one makes a manmade stone that had the look and size I wanted. So, I ended up choosing a dark grey square cut flagstone. It was small enough for me to handle (athough each piece was still over 20 pounds) and came in the rectangular shape I wanted. Going with flagstone ended up tripling the cost of my backyard.  That’s what’s known as “unforeseen costs”.  Turns out my flagstone was coming from India, so that quadrupled my timeline.  That’s what’s known as “sucking”.  They were running on a decidedly more casual pace in India so it took reallllyyyy long to get the stone.

By the way, if you’re doing a largish job by yourself, you have every right to ask your supplier for a contractor’s discount. I got 20% off my flagstone which was a huge savings.

While I waited for the flagstone to show up, there was the matter of ripping every single thing out of the backyard and taking it to the dump. I pulled out every piece of slate, planter bed and all of the huge landscaping rocks surrounding my pond. By myself. Like an idiot. (my 6’4” fella had JUST had shoulder surgery and couldn’t help me with anything) I’m not sure how, but I believe he planned this.  Actually, that’s a bit of a lie.  He did help me, broken shoulder and all move the huge boulders.  I was afraid if I told you he helped me move the boulders you’d assume he helped me with other stuff too.  He didn’t.  I did it all myself.  Like a dumb-dumb.

And just think … this is only one corner of the backyard you can see.

It was approximately the time this photo was taken that I started to think this was a bad idea.  The one positive was that I had made a new friend in the form of a chipmunk who crawled all over me, but I was sore, tired and not at all sure about how to do any of this. And my pal Chippy wasn’t any help.  Mostly he ate like a pig and watched me.

I had ripped my entire backyard apart with not much of a plan. Enter the Internet.  Even though the Internet lies, if you properly research and cross reference you can actually learn how to do stuff from it.  I didn’t have a clue how to do any of this.  But I  knew I wanted a new backyard and I knew I wasn’t gonna pay someone else to do it.  So I researched, jumped in and gave it a shot.  I taught myself to juggle.  I could teach me myself how to build planter beds and lay a patio.

I housed my fish in a kiddie pool while I rebuilt my pond. I figured it would take 4 days. It took about 2 weeks. I had to redig the pond, build a wooden box to act as a rectangular form, line it and level it all. To be perfectly honest with you, the hardest thing about doing this backyard wasn’t the physical labour, it was the mental.   (insert Karen’s dumb joke here) Trying to figure out angles, and slopes and grades to make sure the flagstone was laid in such a way the rainwater would drain away from the house and the pond would be level and … holy crap.  It made that soft spongey thing in my skull hurt.



One of the big bones I dug up.



Oh! And while digging my pond I found some kind of a femur.  Did I mention the femur?  Uch. I put it back where I found it and banished it from my mind until this very moment.

After completing the pond the flagstone still hadn’t arrived so I started building new planter beds. Much sleeker than the original ones, stained in a dark grey the same colour as my flagstone. By the way, if you ever plan on doing anything at all with wood, invest in a good sliding compound miter saw. It’s a girl’s best friend. I borrowed my sister’s at the time.  I now own my own.    I call her Sally.

The planter beds were finished and still no flagstone so I began lugging in the screenings to level the backyard. I would say I lugged and dumped approximately 3 yards of screenings. For those of you who don’t know how much that is … it’s enough to make you very, very cranky. Finally after weeks of waiting, my flagstone showed up and I cut and laid all 800 pieces of it. My backyard was done.

Looking back at what I’ve written here it seems like doing the backyard was pretty simple and straightforward.  It wasn’t.   If anyone had told me how much work this would have been I would never, ever, ever, ever have done it. I would have rolled out a bunch of  Astroturf and called it a day. Would I recommend anyone else do this? It depends on how cheap you are and how much time you have on your hands.  And how prone to nervous breakdowns.

My backyard cost me about $6,000 for materials. It would have been at least $15,000 plus materials for someone else to do it.   I would charge one bazillion dollars to do it for someone else. A day.  One bazillion dollars a day.

I originally calculated it would take 21 days to complete my project. It took 127 days of working a minimum of 12 hours a day. I can tell you it’s a lot easier to host a handyman show than to be a full time handyman.  I can also tell you I will never move from this house. Unless the backyard falls apart again.


The pond before


Cleaning the muck.


I built the pond form out of wood and made it 2 depths to create interest for the fish and places to put plants.


I built the waterfall around the pond with some of the slate from the backyard I could salvage. Reduse, reuse, reanger.


See that big pile of dirt and rocks behind me?  That’s what I dug out to create a bigger pond.  By hand.  With my hands.  I’m sure you can see the word forming on my lips.


Another one of the huge bones I found. I threw them back where I found them and reburied them.


After the pond was done it was onto the planter beds around the perimeter of the backyard. And then it’s straight to the store for more ugly shoes.


By month number 2 of the backyard overhaul this was me standing as straight up as I could.


Best little sliding compound miter saw around.  Wish I owned it. It’s Pink Tool Belt’s.


Hacking off some rebar for building the planter beds.


For real. That is how much time I spent outside that summer. I was literally crawling with wildlife.


Now the beds are built and stained, the pond is completed, all that’s left is another 17 million days of levelling the backyard and laying the flagstone.


Because these are natural flagstones, not manmade cement pavers, each stone is a different thickness which means each one has to be hand laid and levelled.


Again. I’m not sure if you can make out the word that’s forming on my lips.


I’m close enough to the end of the project that I can actually start to smile again. Also I’m slightly delirious.




DSC 0296



Update:  The backyard has changed even more in the past few years with the addition of a midcentury modern chicken coop and a ridiculously fantastic (and relatively easy to make) pizza oven.  


  1. dianna says:

    Wowzer, what an amazing job youv’e done. Excellant, it looks so lovley.
    Well done to you. Enjoy it now x

    • Karen says:

      Hey Dianna! Thanks for the compliments! I’ll enjoy the backyard when everything else is done. Which is code for I’ll never actually enjoy the backyard.

  2. LollyChops says:

    You. Rock.

    • Karen says:

      Thank you! I try very hard to rock. It’s quite exhausting actually. My new goal is to not rock ’cause that’s infinitely more relaxing.

  3. Brittney says:

    Gorgeous!! I love all of the lighting. I think it makes it look so nice. Everything looks so sleek and modern, I bet you guys love it!

    • Karen says:

      Yes, we do love it! I wish I knew how to “relax”. Then I could actually enjoy it. Maybe I could take classes in lounging.

  4. Shauna Wobeser says:

    WOW!! Inspiration to get my butt away from the computer to do my own yard!! Well, after I’m done reading more of your stuff of course! But you commented that your fella didn’t help after the boulders, but there sure are a lot of pictures with you in them….did he help with that? Not nearly the help you were looking for I’m sure! Beautiful yard!!

  5. kasia says:

    I haven’t even finished the post, and I am CRYING and Laughing so hard at that chipmunk photo! The comments previous to it had not prepared me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Ok, get a grip. I’m fine now. On to finish the rest of the post…

    :) thanks for the laugh!

    • Karen says:

      Kasia – Glad you enjoyed the Chippy photo! I’ll be doing a post on Chippy later in the season that will include many more flattering shots of my little nymph.

      • Louisa says:

        Did you ever do this chippy post? I did a search and couldn’t find it. From what I’ve read and what you’ve said about your response times, I’ll have to wait a year or longer to receive a response, right? ;)

      • Karen says:

        Louisa! Oh NO! You won’t have to wait a year for the response … just a year for the post. :) No. Haven’t done Chippy post yet. There was a slightly traumatizing event last summer re: Chippy. I’ll be sure to tell all about it in … the near future … Heh. ~ karen

  6. Lea says:

    Awesome job! I’d ask you to come to Finland and fix our garden for us, but I’m afraid we’re a few bazillion short right now.

    • Karen says:

      No problem! Lemme know when you’ve saved up half a bazillion and we’ll talk. By the way I just watched the Lost video on your Home Page. Thanks for making me start by day by bawling uncontrollably into my coffee. I miss LOSSSSSTTTTT. :( *sniff*

  7. Laura says:

    you are my HERO!!! I love your yard and I love that you did it all by yourself. I, too, have a partner that is often injured at just the right time….for him.

  8. Terri-Lynn says:

    for real, you look just like my mom in the title picture! omg!

  9. karen says:

    i do believe that your biceps get noticeably bigger throughout the photo diary. Awe-inspiring!

    love, flabby karen

  10. Kathy says:

    OMG your yard is beautiful!! Hope you don’t mind, but I may take some of your ideas for our new back courtyard that we will build soon. You have given me the inspiration! The rope lighting around the planters…GENIUS!!! Chippy is adorable. Thanks for sharing! I am having so much fun since I found your blog!

    • Karen says:

      Thanks! Oh heck! Steal away. I have a lot more helpful tips and tricks I’m going to post throughout the summer. Smart things in the backyard I bet you didn’t even notice! ;)

  11. Preet says:

    I think they should send you to the Gulf of Mexico to fix BP’s problems, because clearly there is nothing you can’t do!

    • Karen says:

      Hah! Thanks Preet. If you agree to help me understand why I’m the only self employed person I know who always has to pay the full 25% in taxes, I’ll agree to go fix the oil leak! Deal? Plus I’ll throw in a potted plant for you and your girlfriend.

      • Preet says:

        I can do that. I can so do that.

        Someone mentioned this, and I’m passing it on ‘cuz it’s funny: The big motor companies finally figured out how to get a car to run on water. Fill the water with oil.

  12. Karen says:

    Wow, looks like something out of Sunset Mag! What a beautiful oasis you created. Now, go lay down and take some Advil. It made my back hurt just to look at those photos of you heaving big heavy stuff.

    • Karen says:

      Hee. Thanks Karen! I actually had to go see a massage therapist for only the 2nd time in my life after doing the backyard. In fact someone who was booked up took me as an “emergency” because I was walking all sideways and hunched up. LOL. Oh … the stupidity.

  13. You. Are. Insane.

    Also, I want a chipmunk. Or a squirrel. Ya know, something fuzzy, small, and squeaky… Adorable.

  14. princess lala says:

    You are seriously inspiring & I totally love having my coffee and enjoying your website! Good job as usual. thanks!

  15. Tickled Red says:

    I am just going to come out and say it…you put my lazy no good bum to shame. I have a backyard that needs an overhaul due to the beast living in there digging his way to china. I always look at it and think “there is no way I can do this on my own”. Well I guess I was just proved wrong. Now I will look at it at think “hells bells no more excuses” :) You did a great job by the way and I would pay you a bazillion dollars a day for work that stunning.

  16. Yen says:

    Absolutely gorgeous. I cannot wait to find our first home and put these tips into practice!! Thank you!!

  17. Corinne says:

    Um, are you wearing CROCS?

    • Karen says:

      SHUT UP!!! SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP! Yes. I am. They were the easiest things to get on and off in a hurry. SHUT UP!

  18. Langela says:

    Stunning, Karen! My back hurts just hearing about the process. BTW, I like the potting shed that color. And I love that photo of Chippy with the peanut! How nice to have company while doing all that work.

  19. Sherry (BTLover2) says:

    I basically read that post and looked at your photos with my mouth agape. I’m nearly speechless (nearly). I don’t know how you manage to do all that work yourself and have it be so breathtaking in the end. It’s right out of a magazine. I could use some help in my yard — what is your schedule?

  20. morgen says:

    That was an amazing story! I can’t believe you did all that work. What in incredible back yard you built! xoMorgen

  21. Amy says:

    WOW WOW WOW. I love to hear about other women doing their hard work too. I use to live in a 1926 bungalow and it was all the time in need of work. We were under the house, ripped down walls, in the attic, refinished wood floors and installed colums and completely redid the fireplace, bathrooms and kitchen. Then we sold it.

  22. susan says:

    This is crazy lovely! Awe-inspiring, too. I’d say more but really kinda wordless in my profound admiration of your vision and accomplishment. Kudos!

    • Karen says:

      Thanks Susan! It was a couple of years ago, but I’m still pretty tired from it. In fact .. I may need a nap right now.

  23. Liz says:

    Oh it looks gorgeous.

    That picture of Chippy is the kind of picture a person only wishes they could take. Do you still see him from time to time?

    • Karen says:

      Oh boy … do I have some stories about Chippy. I’ll be writing about Chippy in the near future! Oh, Chippy. I love that picture of Chippy too! It was completely dumb luck getting it. I have another Chippy picture where he looks completely drunk. I”ll use it in the “Chippy” post I write later. Hilarious.

  24. says:

    Crikey. The yard didn’t look so big in the first lot of pictures but by the end I can see how much work you must have put in. The pic of the chipmunk just about made be fall off my seat! so cute. The results look so pretty btw

  25. Tricia Rose says:

    My goodness Karen, YOU DID ALL THAT YOURSELF!? It looks wonderful, so stylish and FINISHED, right down to accessories.

    You are a girl of many parts. Now go and rest them, and get the knots out of your shoulders.

    (Now I know why you have a chip on your shoulder)

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