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A Really Big Project

My biggest work-in-progress started with a view and has gone on for about four years now.

My husband, Bill, and I were shopping for a house.  The first time I visited this particular house, it was a foggy, miserable January day and this is all I saw:


The horror!  A giant pool built in the 1960s, defunct for the last 25 years, and refurbished into a dreadful little Japanese garden complete with miniature pines, trellises, and a re-circulating stream with bridge.  And bonus…it was updated recently with a wheelchair ramp.  I was looking for a garden sanctuary for entertaining friends and sipping cocktails, maybe a place for an offspring to frolic.  This was NOT IT.  Rebar infested concrete covered fully half of the backyard.  The other half was crumbling cinderblock and chain-link.  RUN.

The second time we visited the house, it was a crisp clear winter day, and all we saw was this:

Wow!!!  What a view from the front yard!  Pool?  What pool?…  A couple weeks of hard sledge-hammering next May, and we’d have it out, right?  That yard had nothing but potential.

Stage 1:  Break ground.  My first priority was to create a lovely place to enjoy our lovely views.  So I built a little patio, a fine place to sit with a bottle of wine and plan our next moves.

The view Before...


We are close enough to smell the perfume of scrub oak and scree slope drifting off the mountains in the evening.  The full moon rises over the cirque and lights up the snow covered peaks.  For a country girl tied to a city girl lifestyle, this is pure bliss, sanity recovered, a reminder that wild still lurks beyond the two-car garage.

The back yard was built on a slope that was previously stabilized by two cinderblock pool houses, which were crumbling into dust and would be demolished.

Inspired by The Art and Craft of Stonescaping, by David Reed, I wanted to build dry stacked stone terraces to replace the pool houses and stabilize the slope post-pool removal.  Never mind that I hadn’t ever built a dry stacked retaining wall.  I had the book…it was a really good book.

Stage 2:  Practice makes perfect.  I decided to build a mini-retaining wall along the side of the house to develop stonemasonry skills before diving into the backyard.  This cinderblock loveliness in the front yard would be the first dry-stacked project:

It was at this point that Bill, who had previously been contributing the sledgehammer arms and feigning disinterest in the stonework, became impatient with my slow progress and tried his hand at wall building too.  The results were astonishing to us:

We were buoyed up by this little miracle transformation, and ready to tackle the pool and retaining walls in the back.

Stage 3:  Reality check.  After sledge-hammering to failure, Bill managed to bust a fist-sized divet out of the walls of our pool.  The little concrete shards were like pebbles to the pyramids.  We considered renting or maybe buying a jackhammer, and spending the next ten summers in jackhammer hell.  The narrow slopes at the sides of the house would not accommodate any big machinery.  Professional bids involved lifting an excavator over the roof of the house into the back yard with a crane.  We were totally screwed.  At this point, we considered sprucing up that fine Japanese garden.  The wheelchair ramp would allow easy access in and out with our barbeque grill.

Stage 4:  Denial.  Enjoy our fine views and a few fine bottles of wine from our fine front patio.  Who needs a back yard when you can sniff the scree slopes from your front door?

Then we fell into a little luck.  A friend’s boyfriend happened to drive an excavator for a landscaping company, and he figured he could drive a little mini-excavator back there and do the job in four days.  In exchange, he wanted a full rack of climbing gear.  Bill works for a climbing company.   Score.

Stage 5:  Demolition.

Entry...Holy Cajones!

The plan was to dig a giant hole at the bottom of the pool, crush up the pool walls, surrounding concrete patios, and the cinderblock pool houses, and bury them all at the bottom of the hole.


Disaster zone

Look, it's working!

A blank slate

No shit, we couldn’t believe it.  Four days later we had a blank slate.
Stage 6: Euphoria.  We can do this!  Ground is broken on the first of four dry stacked retaining walls.  Notice the baby bump?  This is when I checked out of the manual labor and became supervisor, much to Bill’s delight.  Whose crazy idea was it to build these dry-stacked retaining walls anyway?  I did manage to get a vegetable garden going.

By fall, we had a brand new baby girl to enjoy our nice views with.  And the back yard… Well.  Building dry stacked retaining walls is a lot of work.  Who knew?  And weeds grow like….weeds.  Bill perservered gallantly on the stone walls, building increasingly more stunning and intricate terraces.

Stage 7:  Reality strikes again.  The next summer, Bill refurbished the balcony.  It was supposed to take a couple of weeks, and then back to terrace building.  But it took pretty much the entire summer, even though he had lots of help.

We failed to capture the “before” balcony in all of its crooked, astro-turfed glory.  But the “after” looks pretty good, don’t you think?

Sweetie's got Skilz

Stage 8:  Acceptance.  We will need lots of help and piles of money to finish this project.  The following summer we hired our friend with the mini-excavator and his entire landscaping company to put in sprinkler systems, rough out the garden beds, lay down sod, and give the rest of the front yard a facelift.  Bill continued to toil on the terraces.

Stage 9:  Triumph!  Bill conquers all with this stunning topper to the fourth retaining wall:

We now get contractor pricing at the stone yard.  They know our pickup truck by sight and call Bill occasionally to see how his projects are coming along.  If you ever need any stonework done, don’t call Bill because he is OVER IT.

Here are the numbers:

Stone pavers: 50,360 pounds

Gravel: 29 yards

Sand:  6 yards

Topsoil: 48 yards

Mulch and compost:  8 yards

Boulders:  28,000 pounds

All but perhaps a dozen tons of this was hauled, one wheelbarrow-full at a time, down the steep and narrow slope into the back yard by Bill himself.  What a stud.

Stage 10:  Planting!  Time for the fun stuff!  I got to buy and plant and buy and plant, so many wonderful things.  By the end of summer we had loads of flowers.  This year, most of them are head-high, almost concealing the last vestiges of civilization visible from our front patio.

Stage 11:  The tail end.  Now in its fourth year, the end of this gargantuan do-it-yourself project is in sight.  There are still plenty of things left to do:  a garden shed, the far corner with the bench, the rest of the drip irrigation, the shady patio under the maple tree cobbled entirely with Indian artifacts.  Mere amateur stuff, weekend projects.  I’ll keep you posted.  In the meantime, we’ve got really fine views, loads of flowers, and a few great new places to enjoy a bottle of wine.

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