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)
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).
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.
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.
THE AFTER GALLERY
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.