Over the last 4-5 years, I have somewhat lost the desire to deal with the back yard, short of planning my edible garden and wishing that the rest of the yard wasn’t such a shithole. My best descriptor for the overall aesthetic we had going was “the back yard looks like meth addicts are squatting in our house.” There were a lot of things that I really wanted to accomplish in the back yard, but I just didn’t have the spirit to execute on most of them. A few years ago, Craig’s parents had given us a pretty hefty handful of really fancy retaining wall blocks left over after a project in their own yard. I got started using these when I was working on the duck enclosure and then started building a small retaining wall in the area where I had previously had used small basalt boulders to form a small raised bed around the “main” deck. I got partway through before running out of blocks. Facing purchasing a bunch more retaining wall blocks at $8 apiece, plus all of the caps necessary to finish the project, things stalled. For 2.5 years. It was just a big financial commitment and those suckers are heavy (75lbs apiece). I ran out of steam.
Couple the procrastination of spending the labor and money on finishing the retaining wall block project (and it really did need to get done, the dogs were kicking gravel out into the yard over the little rocks I had put in initially) with the frustration I’ve been feeling over the dogs tearing up or killing via literal pissing contests everything we have tried to grow that hasn’t been protected by raised beds, fencing, or the sheer will of the plant to survive, it was tough to come up with a game plan. Part of what I’ve learned about myself is that I simply am not great about regular maintenance. Upon getting comfortable with that truth about myself (instead of just trying to “get better”), I’ve developed systems that have made my day-t0-day laziness easier to live with. I put up a clothes hanging rack in the laundry room, and 8 different bins, so I can hang “important” clothes and sort specific or small clothes (Craig and I each have a bin for underwear, under shirts/tank tops, socks, etc) and then we live with the day-to-day pile of clean clothes that accumulates in front of the washer. My modified hugelkultur raised beds have been lifesavers in terms of freeing me from regular watering chores while still allowing me to grow edibles. I’m switching some of my smaller raised beds to growing perennials like berries so I don’t have to plan, plant, and maintain them. So part of the yard project was trying to be realistic about what I can handle, how much effort I am willing to put in, and how I would like to use the yard.
I started a new job in January. With it came a drastically shorter commute and a lower stress level. I felt empowered to change things that I didn’t like. I started taking better care of myself, eating better, and finally got started thinking about taking care of the yard. We have a few friends coming to visit from out of town in May, and with a deadline looming ahead (the only way I ever really get anything accomplished) I decided that the yard needed to be “done” by the time they arrived. So of course the project had to be scheduled out so I was able to accomplish my goals. The biggest hurdle in even getting started on the project was getting the retaining wall blocks and caps delivered. It was an expensive delivery, and 2 days before the day the blocks arrived, our 43 year old fence blew down in a wind storm. The neighbors and us had been casually discussing splitting the cost of putting a new fence in, as our sad repairs just weren’t cutting it. This was the year that the fence actually needed to be replaced. So within the span of a few weeks, we had accomplished the scariest hurdle thus far in the plan along with dealing with the thing that we’d been avoiding for the last several years.
Having both things completed felt good, and got some really good momentum going. Part of the block buildout was rebuilding and expanding the fire pit. While pondering what exactly the area around the fire pit would look like (we knew that 2 sides would be gravel, and the other 2 were shaping up to be mulch) I decided that I just wasn’t quite ready to give up on the idea of something pretty and green and grasslike vs a wide sea of brown mulch. So I spent weeks researching all of our options. The biggest issue with grass is that it needs watering… like a lot. Stuff like clover and wooly thyme handle that issue, but just won’t stand up to the type of heavy traffic only people who own multiple large dogs would understand. Which is when I found a link to Pearls Premium (don’t worry, they aren’t compensating me at all for this, in fact, their grass seed is crazy expensive) where they claim that their seed blend grows very deep roots and grows super slow, only needing to be mowed once a month, and the root system is supposed to go like 12″ deep, so it doesn’t need to be watered nearly as often as “normal” grasses. We will see. This weekend our next door neighbor was asking me about seeding lawns and I told him that I found this special grass seed and he had read the same stuff about it. We are both anxious to see if it will live up to the hype from the website. I called the company to ask them about what they thought of my plan of excavating the current mat of glorious weeds and just topping the area up with compost before seeding. I was told that my plan should work well. I also asked about adding clover to the grass mix as clover fixes nitrogen (feeding the grass) and also stays green through drought, and attracts bees with its flowers. The man that I spoke with told me that they were actually considering adding a clover mix to their lineup for those exact reasons, but hadn’t done it yet. With his recommendation for 1-2% clover seeds by weight (to the grass seed) I felt confident in my plan. We had a few yards of compost delivered, and used it to fill in the freshly excavated lawn area and the garden beds that I had built up a bit with the retaining wall blocks. We moved a tree from a pot in the front yard to the garden bed, and planted the grass seed that weekend.
Of course there were other projects between the blocks and the grass – most notably, sifting through all of the gravel that hadn’t made it into the designated gravel area prior to the lawn going in. The last thing that I wanted was a bunch of rocks in our new lawn. When the fence got replaced, the contractor regraded and used the old basalt boulders that I had replaced and built a small retaining wall. Part of the reason the old fence was doing so poorly was that over time, the hill between the houses had eroded and was piled up against the fence. The retaining wall combined with planting some very drought tolerant plants should help prevent that from happening this time. Please pretend that my sad tomato cage and paracord “fence” isn’t there. Hopefully once things fill in, we can remove the barriers, but I want to at least dissuade the dogs from running through that zone until everything is thriving.
The final couple parts of the puzzle were a handful of dwarf fruit trees and all of the mulch. Over the course of 2 weekends, with the help of both Craig and my incredible tireless mother, we moved 13 yards of animal friendly hog fuel which was had for the extremely low price of $16.50/yd, about half what a standard beauty bark type mulch runs around here. It should be able to stand up to the dogs better than smaller mulch, and also keep some of the chicken digging in check. We also picked up the fruit trees that I was hoping for. We now have a columnar mountain rose apple; a dwarf chehalis apple tree; a dwarf apple tree with 4 different varieties grafted onto it- jonagold, honey crisp, akane, & beni shogun fuji; a frost peach(curl resistant); and a harko nectarine. Hopefully we start getting fruit in the next few years. Otherwise, it’s just been filling in beds with inexpensive perennials and annuals to make things look a little less barren while we wait for things to grow, fill in, and settle. As our barrier needs decrease (the grass is taking up every bit of temporary fencing we own right now), I will start adding in some perennials that will hopefully survive the dogs peeing on them, and see about getting something like a big piece of columnar basalt and try to make that the target. I’ve read stories of it working in the past. Who knows.
The chickens are also pretty irritated by the developments. Tons of weeds and grass meant lots of bugs to forage and me not really caring if they damaged anything in the yard. With the veggie beds going and grass just really starting to sprout, I haven’t trusted them in the yard, so they’ve been on “house arrest” in their enclosure and are not thrilled with me.