Our yard has a problem. It’s too damn big. It’s uneven and bumpy. There are a lot of old, unkempt trees around the property. It’s…a lot.
Since we moved into our home in 2014, we’ve spent the majority of our time improving the outside. Prior to our purchase, more than half the yard was full of trees. It was bought by a contractor that wanted to develop the land, so the property was divided in two. The intention was to sell half the land and so they leveled all the trees and cleared the space.
Naive as we were, my wife and I looked at each other with rose-colored glasses and fell in love with the idea we had a blank slate to work with. We could do whatever we wanted with the property. All we had to do, was figure out what the hell that meant. I think in our minds, we envisioned something like this.
There is an abundance of television shows, magazines, YouTube channels and blogs dedicated to creating wonderful landscapes around a home. Many of those resources make planning and building look fairly simple. One gets the impression that turning a yard into the picture above is easy. They don’t tell you how long it takes to develop a fully functioning garden/yard/landscape that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. For most families, doing all of it at once is impossible. Even if you have a small yard. Our 1.5 acres doesn’t qualify, I’m afraid.
Every “beginner’s” resource will tell you to start with observation. That is hands down the most important step in the process. Because creating yard spaces isn’t always about what you want. Sometimes it’s about what you need. Even more so, it’s about what you already have. Our barren space was awful to look at at first. Torn from bucket trucks driving through it, it looked like a sandy wasteland. We knew there was potential. And so, we watched.
Our yard is a nice rectangle. Roughly 410 ft. by 150 ft., depending on whether or not you ask my neighbor. The house and garage are located closer to the southern end of the yard. That leaves about 300 feet of blank property that stretches all the way to the north end of our lot. Also, we have about 75 ft or so of blank yard to the west of the house. There are a couple of 100+ ft trees, a cherry and a poplar, in the west central part of the yard but other than that it’s a lot of nothing.
We’re outside people. We like to cook out. We like to play yard games and we wanted space for our son and his friends to run “free-range.” (I still struggle with the fact that’s a thing.) So our first task was simple, make the yard green again. That was fairly easy. For the first year, we barely touched the back yard. We seeded in the fall, let nature do its thing, and we were blessed with some relatively dense ground cover in the spring. Lots of clover, some new grass, some “weeds”; but overall it filled in nicely.
By spring break in 2015 it was overwhelming. Without the trees that had existed only eighteen months prior, the yard sprang to life. Some of the grass was as tall as my son at the time, at least four feet high. Armed with a gas powered trimmer, I led the parade of our family. My son followed behind with his wheelbarrow to pick up sticks and rocks. My wife trailed at the end of the line with our riding lawn mower to cut the remaining grass down. It was dirty, it was sticky and it was miserable. I distinctly remember half-way through that process thinking we’d made a major mistake. There was no way we could keep up with the yard.
It took constant vigilance to tame the wild. Lots of evenings outside after work. Every weekend, from sun up to sun down, we toiled in the yard. Eventually, though, the grass normalized so that by the summer we essentially had our own little nature preserve. Complete with squirrels, a groundhog, foxes, a red-tailed hawk, frogs, turtles and plenty of mosquitoes.
I was even motivated enough to plant a garden at the back of the yard with a mediocre rain catchment system. This is when the real conversation began. My wife complained the garden was so far away from the house. Sure, we could catch rain water, but in the event of a drought, we’d be screwed trying to carry water all the way to the back of the yard.
She was right, of course. The garden was pretty far away. But I stood by my decision because I did exactly what all those resources I mentioned at the beginning tell you to do. I observed my yard. And you know what I noticed while I was carrying that heavy weed-eater around clearing the yard? It slopes. Not just a little. From the back of our garage to the north end of our property there is a three to four foot slope. Not only did I choose to put the garden at the north end of the yard because of sunlight, I realized the water would all drain to that part of the yard. In theory, we shouldn’t have to water as much because of it. I was right too, of course.
Our fall harvest that year was decent. Enough to feed us and enough to give away what we couldn’t use. We had not yet ventured into the world of canning, and we like to share. But my appetite for projects wasn’t sated. We had a whole lot more yard, and I was determined to use it.
In 2016 I turned it up a notch. In between adding a treehouse for the kids, a pallet shed for storage and building a fire pit, I schemed for the improved garden space. I decided the ground was fairly well established where the original raised beds were. So, the frames from the raised beds got moved up closer to the house, just behind the garage. There was a slope there too. I tried to capitalize on the rain water coming off the garage and so fed the gutter into a rain barrel. The gravity-fed hose worked pretty well. We doubled our garden space, added some different kinds of vegetables and again had a successful year without too much worry about watering.
This growing season, however, I went a little crazy. We set to work expanding our four, 4′ x 8′ raised beds to a 25′ x 25′ garden plot at the north end of the property. We increased the size five times from what we started with. It was, to say the least, ambitious. In order to develop the space, we did something I had dreaded for a long time. We borrowed a garden tiller from my in-laws and turned the soil. To my surprise, we did not encounter as many roots or obstructions as I thought we might.
While I had investigated “smart” gardening and landscaping ideas, I was still sort of winging it. I knew we needed to build up the soil a little more. I had some leftover pallets from my shed-building project, so we tied those together to make composting bins. Better to carry everything to the back of the property when its dry, than to have to move it when its finished. I hauled in two truck loads of top soil mixed with compost to top off the space. Then we tilled in the new soil, hoping for a healthy mixture. I was trying to think ahead this time. And, anticipating another strong harvest of tomatoes, we built obelisks to give them more space to grow. See all the weed barrier we put down? We’ll come back to that.
For some reason, I didn’t take any pictures as the garden grew. However, I’m happy to report that we had a great season. We kept the beds near the garage, despite the fact we lost the gutter on the garage, and the rain barrel. It wasn’t much to water them when needed, and we were sure to add some mulch to them to help with moisture retention. As you can see above, I added barrels to the back yard, thinking we would need more water for the larger garden. Determined not to waste any of the food we planned to grow, we took up canning. We now have shelves stocked with green beans, peppers, tomato sauce, whole tomatoes, salsa and the like.
It was a good year for our gardens. The best year, by far, in terms of the time we put in and the production we received back. A sure sign we were on the right track. There were some frustrations though. And little did I know, in order to make things better, I was getting ready to take on something much bigger.
Continue the journey with Part 2