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. says:

    Absolutely beautiful. You’ve done a marvelous job!

    What might you have used rather than natural stone to save on the extra work of individual leveling? I am thinking about doing a *small* area around my existing patio in some sort of brick, stone or paver to make a lower terrace area. I’d love to avoid the individual leveling bits. Ouch!

    • Karen says:

      Hi Keli – I wanted something that DIDN’T have to be individually levelled but couldn’t find a stone that was small enough for me to handle. The manmade stones are all really thick and big so they were a lot heavier. And a lot of them looked like crap. It was 2 years ago that I did the backyard tho, so you may be able to find something now. There was a company in Quebec, Canada that had stones I liked but you couldn’t order them in just one size … only a mixed assortment. You’ll find something. I definitely recommend trying to find a manmade paver/stone. Soooo much more pleasant to work with.

  2. gina says:

    Lovely reno! That’s a crazy amount of work to do by oneself…

    P.S. I DIED laughing at the Chippy photo – it is my new favorite photo. My stomach hurts… :D

    • Karen says:

      Thanks Gina! Yeah, that Chippy photo was my screensaver for a longggg time. My mother’s too! (I put it there … and she had no idea how to get it off)

  3. Terri says:

    Wow! Your backyard looks amazing and I feel for you and all the hard work you have done! We bought our house for the backyard too – the kitchen and bathroom suck, although after 9 years of owning we’re finally fixing the gross bathroom and have stalled on the backyard. Watching your arm muscles get bigger and bigger in all the photos gets me thinking I should get back out there!
    Love the whole backyard. Especially the patio stones.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks Terri! Hah. Someone else mentioned the arm thing. I don’t see it, but I DO remember by the end of the 3 months my arms were HUGE. Didn’t last, but it was fun at the time! btw. I’ve been here 11 or 12 years and the kitchen and bathroom …. are still exactly the same as when I moved in. :) One day …

  4. Kristan says:

    So amazing you tackled that by yourself. I’m dealing with the mountain of imperfections that came with my first home and it helps to see the beautiful results of your work.

    Oh, and I grew up watching As The World Turns and remember Barbara Ryan’s backyard!

    • Karen says:

      OMG!!!!!! I am SO excited that you remember Barbara Ryan’s backyard on As The World Turns!! I’m actually kind of freaking out over it. Such a dork I am. It’s midnight and I’m actually considering calling one of my best friends from highschool who also watched As The World Turns to tell her! But I won’t. Because I can show restraint. Good luck with your first home!

  5. Evalyn says:

    Wow Karen! You’re such a great inspiration for me!! I am a single woman that takes pride in doing a lot of diy projects myself. I hate relying on anyone and greatly admire women that just get things done such as yourself!! Your design sense is spectacular as well. I also came across your photos on design sponge and had to visit your site. Needless to say your site is now bookmarked on my computer. Keep up the good work, you rock!! Go girl power!!!

    • Karen says:

      Evalyn! Wow. Thanks for the compliments! And thanks for bookmarking me! It’s way more fun to do all this stuff if I think someone else will get something out of it! That’s kindda the point actually. :) Thanks again. – Karen

  6. Luka says:

    Wow! If I had a bazillion dollars I’d hire you. Looking forward to the Chippy post.

  7. Monique says:

    I saw your story on Design Sponge and I had to visit your site. Wow! You are amazing. Beautiful job on your backyard. I’d never leave it if I put in all that time and labor.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks Monique. I appreciate you hopping over from Design Sponge! I’m actually answering my comments section in my backyard right now! Thanks again.

  8. Alice says:

    Wow.. You are like super woman! I LOVE the chipmunk photo too! He was definitely chowing down those peanuts. Gorgeous!

    • Karen says:

      Super-duper-dumb woman is more like it! Wow. I’ll never do that again. No way, no how! Glad I did it the once though. Even if it was just to meet Chippy. :)

  9. sandra says:

    love your new backyard!

  10. Cielo says:

    Increible!!!!!!!!! inspiring and incredible well designed.. im about to start my own paradise like yours in mexico! welcome to come!!!!!!! enjoy it for all of us please!!!!!!

    • Karen says:

      Well I may just visit! My mother would come for sure! She loves Mexico. I’ve never been. I’m too busy rebuilding yards and stuff! :) When your paradise is done email me pictures! (the contact request is at the top of the website.)

  11. I am so impressed! My fiance and I dug up a 30×12 ft space in our side yard and installed 6 pallets of concrete pavers for a patio. I feel your pain. Moving 11 tons of dirt and gravel is no good. I would never have been able to do it solo, so you are my new home renovation goddess! So glad I found your site, I will browsing all day I’m sure!

    • Karen says:

      Sara! Thanks for visiting my blog. In exchange … I went to visit yours! You did a great job on your patio. I had the same feeling of “will it withstand the winter” that you did. :) Oh … and why not spray paint your red vase, white? It’d look great. Of course … I pretty much think everything looks better spray painted white.

  12. carole says:

    You did a fantastic job! And what a great place to relax (now that you can).

    Since we do all of our remodeling work ourselves, I love seeing stuff like this. :-)

    We own five acres and there are things that will always need to be done, but way up on my list is to remove the make shift back porch (previous owner) and build a cozy area around the house.

    “and there was a mouse skeleton in the ultility room”

    Boy, could I tell stories about our kitchen remodel…

    • Karen says:

      Pftt! I guess by the sounds of it, a mouse skeleton wasn’t so bad. :) 5 acres! You’d never be done. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever could you be done. Big job! On the upside, I’m sure you never get bored. Or rested. :/

  13. Amber W. says:

    This. Is. Amazing!!! Not only is the end product breath-taking and refreshingly modern (but not sterile), but I admire how much time you spent making sure you did it right! The waterfall and lighting is my favorite. GREAT JOB!!!

  14. Jen says:

    This is amazing. Congratulations.
    Our beautiful yard was ruined last summer when we had heavy equipment drive through for an extension to our house. Every day I look out our super new floor to ceiling wall of windows at a wasteland (that used to be a lovely garden).
    You are inspiration to get off my butt and get out there!

  15. ann says:

    Un. Flippin. Believeable. That’s one gorgeous yard.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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!!

  20. 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

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