Thursday, July 23, 2009

The biggest landscaping project of my life! (photos)

This is the horrible slope. This slope takes up about 1/3 of my already small backyard and adds nothing to the aesthetic of it. I have a big bow window in my living room that faces out back, but the view it frames is this slope which is usually covered in weeds of all sorts and often up to several feet high. After removing most of the weeds, we found there were also small trees, lots of weedy roots, some trash, and many broken vodka and gin bottles - seems our slope has had quite a past!

Plan A was to hire someone to build a retaining wall. The estimate for this simple, straight, 2 foot high wall was over $5000. Time to move to plan B. I would build a retaining wall my damn self. You can see where we cut about 2 feet into the slope where I was going to build the wall. Then I realized that if I was going to do this project myself, I did not need to limit myself to a silly low wall, that would ultimately, not add too much to the aesthetic of the yard anyhow. In the picture above, you can see the blue paint I used to mark how I envisioned my project. I wanted to be able to walk up steps on one side, walk across the slope, sit on a circular patio in the middle, and walk down steps on the other side. I also wanted to be able to build a garden on the slope. The picture below shows what the slope looked like after we (paid someone to) dug into the slope. I asked him to dig a trench in front of where the wall would go to fill with gravel to aid with drainage. *** If you're thinking of doing this kind of project, please do your research. I spent weeks obsessing over this wall, changing my design, learning different ways to create drainage, prevent erosion, etc. I watched many videos on the internet and spent hours in the bookstore. If the wall is going to be large or high, it's particularly important to do some research. You may need to check into local regulations - I know some areas require permits for building walls over a certain height. The digging of this slope was a really horrendous job and it took 4 men all day to do it. With all that clay you see, it was really worth hiring someone. Plus, as you'll soon see, there was no shortage of work for us to do.

After the shape was dug in, I did comment, "Well, there's no turning back now", but was pretty excited because I could really envision the end product now. It was also very cool to be able to walk on the slope. After the 5 pallets of stone were delivered, I started to feel a little panicky inside but simply said aloud, "Well, now there's really no turning back". There's a lot of stone that is easier to stack than the stone I purchased. However, this stone was reasonably priced and had a natural color I liked. I'm not going to lie. It's not easy to build with. I was shocked when we unpacked the stone and saw that many pieces were shaped like pyramids. How do you build with that! It was certainly NOT like stacking legos as I had thought it would be.

My dear husband, who probably hoped I would not really pursue this landscaping idea, or perhaps was not listening when I explained, didn't know he'd be spending every weekend for several weeks moving stone to the backyard one wheelbarrow at a time (we went through 2 wheelbarrows during the length of this project -tip: invest in a good one, cheap ones will just break). To his dismay, after we moved the stone and our driveway was finally empty, I called in an order of 8 tons of gravel. As you can see, this needed to be moved from shovel to wheelbarrow, and rolled to the backyard. These were very tiring days. "Code orange" (Motrin?) days.

Actually, while he was moving this stuff every weekend, I was busy in the back working on the wall. Below you see landscaping fabric, added as a barrier to keep the dirt in place and not sifting through to the gravel. The fabric was pinned in place. You can see some mounds I've dumped a bucket at a time to fill the 8 inch trench. Notice there's still a little bit of grass in our yard!

After the trench was filled, the fun began. You quickly learn how to stack the stone. Since it was irregularly shaped, you backfill with gravel to create as level a surface as possible for stacking the next row. You also notice that each stone has a good face and some ugly ones. Obviously you want to show the good face. You want your first layer to be made up of the larger, most stable stones. You also stack it like a bricklayer would. Two stones on one and so forth. You have to mix it up too - don't put all the small ones in one area and the large ones in one area. Also, I tried to put the nicer looking stones up front and center where people would most likely set their eyes. Finally, stop, stand back, and check regularly to see how things are going. You do want this wall to be attractive as well. Since this wall is a dry laid wall - there is no cement involved. I made sure each row was set back just a bit so that weather, gravity, pressure from what's behind the wall, etc. would not push it forward over the years. Do your research and find the exact angle. I didn't measure but did take the time to eyeball it from each side often to make sure it looked good and had the right pitch. You can see what I mean if you look at the wall on the very left side of this picture below. Notice each level sets back just a bit. Also, the wall is built up, and you need to backfill that big area behind it with gravel. See that blue bin? That's my trusty blue bin. I would stack some stone, go fill my blue bin with gravel, walk it over, dump it out, walk back, fill the bin, walk it over, dump it out, etc. I had Popeye arms by the end of the summer!

In the picture below, you can see that I've started working on the steps. I couldn't find any instructions for building this exactly like I wanted, but I had seen some natural looking steps in different gardens and took some pictures. Then it was just a matter of dreaming it up at night, daydreaming about it during the day, and experimenting in real life. I built, dismantled, built, dismantled, and finally built these steps properly. The trick was to make each step level, able to bear weight, and blend it in with the wall surrounding it. This was the hardest part of the job. I am most proud of these steps and the "stairwell" around it. After I built the steps, I decided that I wasn't going to push my luck by building the steps I planned on the other side of the slope. One set of steps was enough! At this stage, our family also decided to make a time capsule to bury behind the wall. :)

Notice the backyard is a total construction pit. There is no grass in our yard at this point. There were days I was very alarmed looking at the materials, tarps, dirt, and the amount of work ahead of me, but I just had to not think about it and get back to work. And just when my husband thought his part was done moving materials from the driveway to the backyard, I called in the order for compost. Instead of gravel, when I got near the top third or so of the wall, I added a layer of landscaping fabric and used compost so I could plant a garden on the slope in the future.

When backfilling with the compost, it's important to really tamp it down behind the wall. Below is the end product of all this work. The walls are done, the slope is planted with mostly shade plants, and most of the area is mulched. I may move the fire pit to this area where I envision fall nights toasting marshmallows on the slope. The most amazing thing is that the slope has completely changed the look of my backyard. When it once looked boxy and small, it now has a much more interesting shape and actually looks bigger even though the wall takes up more space in the yard. The shade plants are beautiful and the ferns, hosta, hydrangeas, azaleas, and all the spring bulbs look a hell of a lot better than the poison ivy and bullweed looked. Finally, because of the ability to actually walk on the slope, the usable space in my yard has increased. In lieu of the steps on the left of the slope, I decided to use the area as a children's area. I added some large steps that a child could jump, and set in all the mosaic stepping stones my kids have made. I had planned to create a fairy garden in this area, but lost steam on that idea. I'm not sure you can see from the pic, but the patio is indeed circular shaped. The bottom rounds out and the top all rounds in. This is the slope 2 years later...

This is the view from the entry into the backyard.

This is how I looked at the end of each day. What you can't see is that I'm so sweaty my clothes are soaked. I remember my face was literally dripping. You also can't see the scratches on my arms, my smashed purple thumb, and the bruises on my legs. The project was very fun and incredibly rewarding, but there were a few touch and go days. Some days were so hot I literally felt myself starting to black out and would need to stand still and close my eyes to keep from fainting. I got one of those neck tie things filled with gel that you soak in water to keep you cool - that REALLY helps. A bandana tied around my wrist as a sweat wiper also really helped. In total, I worked an average of about 6 days a week (I don't work over the summer), and most days from about 12pm-3pm while my baby was sleeping, and then again from about 6pm to 10pm (notice it's dark outside in the picture!). My husband spent about 1 long day a week moving the materials from the driveway to the back. I'm not sure I would have been able to do this project if I had to do this part too. It's a tedious, laborious job, and even though I had no shortage of moving, the building of the wall, and backfilling was more satisfying and being able to see progress fueled my days. I did help with moving the materials and I'll tell ya, you do hours of work and your 8 ton pile of gravel does not seem to go down! The project took about 3 months total from start to finish. One last thing to keep in mind is that I'm not a power lifter, not a landscape architect (except in my dreams), not a stone mason, and not particularly creative either. I am just ambitious and determined. If this sounds like you, dream it up and do it!


  1. I forgot to mention that I had many cheerleaders during this process - particularly some special cyber friends on the OG board. You know who you are! Your support really kept me going!!!

  2. Nice try with the sweaty pic, but you still look like a supermodel! :) The results of the backyard are simply amazing... love the series of pictures because you can really see how you did it all from scratch.

  3. Wow, that slope turned out FABULOUS! I remember your 'before' pics.

  4. Bravo Wendy!
    You are a woman after my own heart and I believe, a future landscape designer/architect!

    I admire your tenacity and the results look excellent. I love working with stone and find that it is very rewarding if you are willing to take your bumps and bruises.

    I started my landscape design career dreaming up "big ideas" too so I can see you are on your way. Keep creating and dreaming up new projects!

    Shirley Bovshow

  5. Thanks Melanie! Katie - you're too funny!!

    Shirley, I fear that I am a one-hit wonder, but your encouragement means a lot!!

  6. Wendy, that project is absolutely, unbelievably wonderful! I am immensely impressed with what you did yourself with some schlepping from your dear husband. My husband and I designed a backyard landscape makeover when we moved to our current house, but we contracted to have the lawn and concrete stripped out and dirt and compost brought in.
    You have the delightful results of all your own hard work. And it's beautiful!

  7. Now, i believe, even without a masterish gardener certificate, you are already one. Besides, you are a very good writer too. Many landscape gardener hopefuls must see this blog, they will be very much inspired with your experience, and the result. Later on when the plants start to show-off it is again high time to show them to us, and brag on your accomplishments. Hurray!!!

  8. As I sit here in snowy, cold, Nebraska in January, seed catalogs piled up next to my laptop, I come to your blog. 'Holy Hell' I thought, a landscape architect (in our dreams)! I live in a 106 year old home in the servants quarters, and I rent the other 3 units. Hey, it pays the mortgage! But the grounds, my palette, I create from my heart and mind. No other credentials than that. I have done the front yard, and part of the back yard. The rest of the back yard is what I refer to as 'The Outback'. Its behind a garage that actually used to be the stables for the horses! But none the less, a catchall for crap. Stacked up lumber, (did I mention we are landlords) stray pots, garden tools, and crap. It used to be additional parking for the house before we purchased it. So gardening in the ground would be futile. Weeds, you betchya. But.....I do have a slope! I love your idea, and your tenacity. I aint afraid of hard work, and doing it myself always seemed so daunting. My husband would schlep anything for me. We will see how it goes once I am able to get out there and do it! Thank you so much for the story. Its a great read, and done by real people.

  9. Wendy, WOW..very impressive! And what amazed me is you did it on your own... i just bought corner lot in Subang which is cost me almost 1Mil and we decided not to do major renovation. Instead, we plan to spend more on landscaping and we want to do ourself due to tight budget..You tell me, we constantly fight, argue, bickering, u name it..we tend to argue due to diff opinion and exhausted of course.. every day after work, dinner, we start our landscape project ard 8pm sometimes up tp midnight..yes, we also hv our own fan.. the neighbour passed by and excited to see the changes each day..i stopped going to gym since then and now i suffered backache! ha ha..


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