Like the nursery rhyme, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, How Does Your Garden Grow?, there’s more to landscaping a backyard than meets the eye. The ‘silver bells’ and ‘cockle shells’ referred to in the rhyme were colloquialisms for instruments of torture. In a lot of ways, landscaping is much the same way—full of torture! So I’m officially calling this DIY project ‘the Mother (Nature) of All Projects’.
I’ve never personally crossed paths with another handy woman crazy enough to build and landscape her own backyard. I used to be able to bench press patio stones with the best of them, but not now. I will likely never, ever again undertake such a strenuous project. NEVER. But then again….. maybe landscaping is like giving birth. You might swear you’ll never do it again, but then you soon forget the pain; especially as you see your creation grow and take shape.
Now, I have to preface my DIY story by letting you know that I didn’t do it all myself, but I did do more than my fair share. I needed my ‘partner in grime’ – my husband – to do some of the heavy lifting (and some of the heavy thinking—but I’ll get to that later).
My motivation for doing hardcore DIY projects is a little different than my husband’s. I had a bad experience at a young age with a contractor who ripped off my hard earned money. I swore that I would never hire anyone again, and have DIY’d just about everything ever since. My husband’s motivation, on the other hand, is that he’s cheap. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There’s a lot of satisfaction, and financial gain to be had, in improving your investment by feathering your own nest – and learning new skills along the way.
I guess you could call it a labour of love since we quite literally started right before our marriage and started right back up again the day after our honeymoom. Our backyard project took a year and a half from start to finish (if you don’t count the ‘do-over’ explained at the end). The amount of time might seem excessive when a contractor could whip in and have it done in a few weeks, but a contractor would not have added all the special touches we managed to achieve.
We divided the work into four phases:
- Plan/dig/ compact base;
- Set pavers, fill in with polymeric sand, plant garden and install rock garden;
- Set up the pond; and
- Install dry creek bed/ flagstone/moss and build and install trellises so we could grow silver lace vine to bring privacy to our suburban lot).
By breaking the work into manageable sections, we were able to get it done at our own pace, and, I think, at a reasonable price (the budget came in at around $25K for everything).
If you’re not comfortable with landscape design, your local nursery often has designers on staff that will help you draw up a plan and also advise you on the plantings. The fee for this service would probably be around $60 – $120, depending on the time involved, but check with your local nursery.
Important: Before you break any ground, call your utility companies to mark the phone and gas lines so you don’t accidentally dig into these services!
My best advice when attempting a landscape project is to start small (or at least smaller, in our case!). As neither of us had ever installed a patio before, we decided to do our front walkway first – to practice and get all our mistakes out of the way before starting the backyard! Here’s a glimpse of that project, which I’ll detail in an upcoming post on landscaping the front walkway and installing a water feature:
(Plan, dig, compact base)
Right before we were married, I had planned the design so literally right after we returned from our honeymoon, we broke ground.The goal was to dig the patio and pond, and get the initial base in place by the fall. Our idea was to let nature takes its course over the winter to help compact the base for us. It seems to have worked because nothing has heaved in the near-decade since it’s been completed.
If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m a big proponent of laying out a design on computer. Since our travertine had multiple different sizes of stone and an established pattern, I wanted to be sure I laid every stone in the correct order. Back then I didn’t have any fancy graphic programs, so I scanned a picture of the drawing, imported it into powerpoint and completed the paver layout there. I don’t know why, but somehow it managed to work it out to scale.
We really lucked out on the hardscape material. After seeing real travertine marble on display at the stone yard while shopping for the front patio, I fell in love with it… but not the price. My husband let his fingers do the walking and called the manufacturer to see if by any chance they were open to the public and we might be able to get a better price. Our timing couldn’t have been better! The manufacturer was moving its entire facility and, since stone is expensive to move, they were selling off their inventory at incredible prices. We jumped right on it (even though we weren’t quite ready to start the backyard project quite yet), and placed our order.
Back in the day, we didn’t have a laser level so my husband used an ancient method – a water level – to establish our grade.
To start, measure out from the house where you will be digging for the patio and place some flags or markers at each corner of your project. If your patio is a rectangle, you’ll only need four flags, but we had a lot of jogs in our plan (plus a pond) to account for. Pound wooden stakes into the ground about 2 feet away from each ground flag. Tie some nylon string onto the first stake and stretch it to the one.
For the rest of the steps, I would suggest you watch this excellent video from This Old House. The video demonstrates three different methods for establishing a grade. We wanted our patio to slope slightly away from the house for water drainage so we laid out perfectly level lines, as they did in the video, and then we re-adjusted our lines 1/4″ lower for each foot out from the house to get the gentle slope we wanted.
One thing to keep in mind when you dig out the area for the patio is that you have to excavate BEYOND the size of the patio. For instance, if your patio is 10′ x 20′ you need to add at least 6″ onto each side (ideally, the area should extend past the pavers a distance that’s equal to the depth of the base material or 10′ + 6″ + 6″ by 20′ + 6″ + 6″ = 11 x 21). Of course, if one end of your patio butts up against the house as ours did, you wouldn’t need to add onto that end.
The picture below illustrates the extra width around the perimeter of our patio. When the base material extends beyond the perimeter of the patio, this stabilizes the edge and will allow you to install your edge restraints.
Once the patio is complete, all you need to do is back fill with some dirt and plant grass seed – or put in strips of sod to fill in the gap if you want it to grow in faster (be sure to water thoroughly until grass is established).
DO NOT skip the step of installing edge restraints around the exterior edges of your patio or it will shift over time and your hard work will be a waste (again, it’s not needed up against the house). We chose metal edging and installed at least four spikes for every 6 foot length.
As a base material we used a stone called HPB (High Performance Bedding). I have to say that HPB was a dream to work with; it can be ordered through some local nurseries or a stone yard.
HPB does double duty by replacing the bedding layer and the base layer of material with only one material (vs. sand and stone) under pavers. HPB is also a real convenience to use because only one huge pile of material gets delivered to the site instead of two!
Before you have it delivered, but sure to put down tarps on your driveway and along the edge of the grass to keep it contained (you can drape it back over the stone afterwards and weigh it down to keep the tarp from killing your grass). If you don’t prepare your area this way you’ll be picking stone out of your grass for years to come.
HPB provides excellent drainage and because of the size of the chip (3/8″) it is 97% compacted without any compaction, however I would still recommend compacting it. Don’t be tempted to dump all the HBP onto the ground and compact the stone only once – it won’t work.
Using a rented compacter, compact the ground first, then also compact after you apply each 4 inch layer of HPB.
There isn’t a rule of thumb when it comes to the depth of the base material. We used way more HPB than would normally be recommended – which might be overkill, but we didn’t want anything to heave during the freeze and thaw of our Canadian winters. You should ask for advice from your local dealer; Unilock also has a great technical guide that you can read for further information on how to determine how much material for your base (amongst other great information): Unilock Technical Guide
When removing large areas of grass, rent a dumpster that’s specifically made for compost material (as opposed to renovation waste) as it will be cheaper. If you can rent one that opens at the side for easy access, your back will appreciate it; its amazing how quickly the pile builds up! Removing grass is dirty dusty work; here you can see I’m wearing goggles, mask and gloves.
Don’t forget to trench out for electrical if you’re installing a pond with a pump. When it comes to electrical, be familiar with your local building codes – or better yet, hire a licensed electrician to complete this aspect of the project.
When you are doing your own landscaping, and are novices like us, you need to keep a flexible attitude because you’ll likely run into several challenges. We ran into two obstacles:
Our first challenge came after realizing that the side of our house, where the patio was extending fully to the fence, had a drop off to our neighbour’s lot line. It’s very common in suburban areas, where houses are tightly packed together, to have a subtle valley between each house to direct rain water away.This discovery meant we had to find a solution to contain the HPB base and prevent it from falling out from underneath the pavers.
We ended up having to build a retaining wall against the fence that we didn’t plan for. Since we were building a step under our sliding patio doors, we had to construct the retaining wall first. Back again we went to the stone yard to get the proper retaining wall system! Retaining blocks have ledges that stack together, so you really can’t stack them wrong!
In the end, the retaining wall was a nice addition; it frames the privacy screens we built beautifully!
Our second challenge came after discovering that the entry into our backyard would also need a retaining wall of sorts too. I didn’t want a different stone there however; I wanted the travertine to be the first thing you see as your step into the backyard. Since necessity is the mother of invention, I designed a semi-circular step. It entailed making a concrete form and pouring cement so there was a permanent structure to float the patio over. We ended up mixing all the cement ourselves in one of those ‘rolling’ buckets, similar to the one pictured below. By the seventh bag, I was exhausted. If we had to do it all over again, I would plan ahead and look into the cost of getting a truck to deliver a pre-mixed batch so we could pour it all at once.
Once the cement was poured and cured, I applied stone to the face of the inner curve with adhesive made especially for marble (other adhesives may stain and show through natural travertine). Then we were able to lay the patio stones over the top cut them to size.
Fast forward: when we finally laid the travertine up to the step, we lined it up against the edge, transferred the curve of the step with pencil to the underneath of each stone – adding on a 1″ overhang – and then cut them all on a wet saw.
Be sure NOT to cement the edges down: I know this from experience. If there is no flexibility at the point where the pavers meet the top of the poured cement retaining wall, these stones could crack and/or heave. The best option is to adding some flexible caulking under the edge of each tile (where it meets up with the rim of the wall) to hold them down and prevent them from gradually shifting forward over the edge. If the pavers do happen to ease forward over the years, you can reapply some caulk and stick them back down.
Our two extra challenges were a lot more work than we bargained for. However, when it comes to landscaping, as novices, you just have to go with the flow!
(Top up the base, grade away from the house for water drainage, set paving stones and fill in with polymeric sand, shop again – for plant material and pond accessories, install rock garden and plant garden).
After nature took its course and compacted our initial layer of HPB stone, we topped it up in the Spring and did our final tamping and grading.
You’ll need some long metal pipes to do your screeding and final levelling; as you can see here we used aluminum. Lay the metal pipes on either side of the area you’re levelling and set them to the finished height of the string you set up. Make sure you have a straight edge that’s long enough to span the two pipes and then set it on top of the pipes and drag it along, steadily levelling off the top of the stone.
After the first pull through the stone, check with your straight edge to make sure you don’t have any gaps underneath. If you find gaps, throw a little more stone in that spot and then re-screed until everything is perfectly level. When you’re happy with it, carefully pull out the screed rails and fill in the indentations with more HPB and pat it down level (I did this as I laid the patio stones because my reach into the field only went so far!).
This video demonstrates how to screed (they are using sand instead of HPB, but the technique is the same).
I started laying my stone right in front of the step and retaining wall. I kept a small bucket of HBP with a plastic scoop by my side so I could fill in where the screed was. I also had a small level so I could ensure that everything was still flat before placing the stones.
Once all the pavers are laid, wash them down and let them thoroughly dry before applying polymeric sand. Polymeric sand should be swept into the spaces and lightly misted to allow it to set. It’s a great product; it will repel ants and prevent weeds from growing between your beautiful pavers. Check out this Unilock video to learn more about polymeric sand – and no, I don’t have an affiliation with the company 🙂
Some words of caution when using polymeric sand with travertine pavers: our pavers happened to be ‘unfilled’ and in their natural state… meaning that any natural imperfections, pits and holes on the surface were not filled in. We personally love the rustic look of them, but when you add polymeric sand, keep in mind that it will settle in these crevices and may become noticeable.
There are two common sense solutions to this dilemma: buy filled travertine pavers instead or make sure the colour of your polymeric sand is as close match to your travertine pavers as possible.
Now, don’t laugh too hard but I went the extra mile and came up with a third solution to this problem – a solution that actually sucks! Yes, that’s right, that’s me vacuuming …. the patio! I pulled out my wet/dry vac and sucked all the noticeable sand out of the crevices of the travertine BEFORE I misted them with water so I wouldn’t get what I affectionately call ‘sand boogers’ on the surface of my pavers. #vacuumingsandboogers
Once the patio and garden was done, we completed a rock garden to fill in the left corner of the yard.
By the way, in case you’re thinking we must have had a rugged vehicle of some kind all lined up and ready to transport our MANY MANY rock purchases home with us, below is the actual car we used to schlep every piece of rock and flagstone home. It’s literally being held together by duct tape!
Now for the exciting part: buying the plants and installing all the ‘softscape’. This is the part I LOVE – seeing it all come together.
(Set up the pond)
After everything else was done, my husband took over to figure out all the mechanics of the pump for the pond.
We found a concrete bowl, and the plan was to drill a hole in the bottom and insert a fountain in the centre of the bowl. But because he wasn’t sure about the capacity, he bought two pumps so he could test them both out; one after the other. One hose was mounted in the pond and the other one was set up to recirculate water from outside of the pond—precariously balanced on top of our brand new green bin and weighed down by a patio stone. Upcyling at its worst …and a big mistake, as it turned out!
One fateful day, when we were out until almost dusk, hubby left the pump with the makeshift hose running outside the pond. Some rascal of an animal knocked over the stone securing the hose to the green bin and ALL the water in the pond drained out and seeped underneath, which floated the liner like the Titanic! It was an ‘Ay Carumba’ moment of gargantuan proportion. By the time we came home, our liner was pointing up to the sky and all the plants were figuratively screaming to be rescued (sadly, even the floating plants were landlocked).
We worked like mad to lift everything out and drain the water before it was pitch dark. But right in the middle of our panic, my father and sister dropped by for a visit. Talk about bad timing. But—take it from me—if you ever want to get rid of uninvited guests, threaten to put them to work. And then grab a tool—any tool—like you mean it! Works like a charm 🙂
See the complete how-to for the pond here.
Once the rock garden was done, we were at the end of our first season of hard work in the backyard and had to stop to get ready for fall and winter. A LONG LONG LONG LONG LONG INTERMISSION GETS INSERTED RIGHT HERE :)…….The next spring, we re-dug the pond, fit the liner back in and my husband, bless his heart, set the pump up safe and secure and permanently attached INSIDE the pond!
We finally turned our attention to installing a dry creek bed and replacing the one patch of grass we had left in the yard:
We couldn’t really be too upset about the do-over situation when the yard had come so far. Afterall, our pond started out as a dead twig growing out of the ground and ended up as part of a tranquil spot to relax.
(Install dry creek bed/ flagstone/moss and build and install trellises)
We decided it would be silly to have a tiny patch of grass left in our garden because it would be too awkward to maneuver a lawn mower through the backyard to mow it. We dug out a flowing shape for the dry creek bed, added in landscape cloth (which we staked into the side to prevent it from shifting) and then filled the dry creek bed with a colourful variety of smooth river rock
We then went shopping for even MORE stone – this time flagstone – and handpicked the pieces we thought would fit best. Then we did a dry lay before we dug around each one (digging around each one with an edging tool and removing a few inches of topsoil so we could inset them slightly into the ground to keep them in place and prevent shifting).
We also found the most PERFECT statue to watch over our newly fixed pond. Given the aforementioned pond disaster the previous fall, how fitting is it that we should find a tragedy and comedy mask statue??? It’s like it was meant to be!
After the stepping stones were in place we planted moss around them so it would grow in to fill the gaps between the flagstones. We added a few larger stones on the perimeter of the dry creek bed and planted day lillies and some drought resistant (aka low maintenance) ground cover.
We left a narrow pathway between the dry creed bed and the fence that wrapped around the rock garden and ended at the pond; it got covered in mulch to keep the mud and weeds at bay until the moss filled in.
Our final project was to build trellises to support some vines and a privacy screen for the BBQ area (behind the retaining wall). Click the link for the DIY on how to build trellises and privacy screens.
By the time fall rolls around the Silver Lace Vine blooms; it’s magnificent!
The garden facinates me as it changes with the seasons. It even looks good in the rain.Be sure to check out our other inspiring garden posts where we show you how to build trellises and privacy screens, a coordinated mirror and shelf to expand any small outdoor space and some creative planter ideas (as shown below)
Phew – I’m almost as exhausted writing about the ‘Mother (Nature) of All Projects’ as I was actually doing all the work! So the final word goes to…..