Jane and Justin's Backyard Before & After

My Great Outdoors

Name: Jane and Justin Location: Oakland, California - Oakmore Neighborhood

When we bought our house in 2006, it wasn't because of the back garden. Picture a mess of tangled weeds, a steep hill upwards, broken red concrete patio chunks everywhere, and fence holes so big our 90 lb. dog sailed right through them.

We were no strangers to DIY garden remodels and took the project on enthusiastically, but this — this was nothing we'd seen before. We found soil so thick with clay and poorly drained that it was a wonder anything could grow in it. But surprisingly, the top five most hated invasive non-native weeds in the area (Algerian Ivy, blackberry brambles, oxalis, wild onion) were growing profusely.

We mistakenly dug into rat nests and quickly discovered (the hard way) that we were a major junction point for the Skunk Superhighway. We rented a jackhammer and cracked out the remaining concrete patio, only to recall that we live up two flights of stairs. Getting all the broken concrete down the stairs and out of our lives took creative thinking and lots of Freecycle-ing.

Since we couldn't buy concrete pavers locally in the dimensions we wanted, we hand-mixed and poured each paver individually, which when you consider that we only had four molds and needed something like 50 pavers, took a really long time since each paver needed to set up in the molds for three days. In a fit of foolish self-reliance, we also created and hand-poured the concrete gas firepit ourselves. It cracked the first time we lit it up. Leave that job to the pros...

Oh and doing french drains yourself is also not advised.

But that's not all — mid-project, we discovered I was pregnant (surprise!) and I spent the next nine months wondering if mixing concrete by hand and going "hammer time" with a jackhammer would somehow affect my unborn child (surprisingly, no studies had been done on this). He's fine, by the way.

So, with me out of commission, we were down 50% of our labor force and we were still knee deep in broken concrete. We brought in a carpenter friend from the east coast who helped us build our deck and pergola, and the rest of the plants went in after our son arrived.

The whole project took about a year and a half to do. But of course, as with any garden, the work is never truly done. We've had a hard time getting plants to grow in the clay soil and have been planting species with tough, burrowing roots to try to break up the dirt. Then we pull them out and replace with compost that we make ourselves. It's been marginally successful — a work in progress.

It's been a little over three years since we finished the big work and we are thrilled to say we use this "room" all year long. We live in a 1950's mid-century style home and even with our open(ish) floor plan, the yard is definitely the largest, most welcoming "room" in the house.

Every party we throw ends up in the backyard. We get creative with the pavers and make a little tee ball diamond out of them with our son, we now have a raised bed for vegetables and herbs, and our geriatric dog spends hours warming herself in the sun out there.

Jury's out if we'd do it all over again, but having a peaceful garden is something we now know that we wouldn't want to live without.


Thanks, Jane and Justin! Beautiful job.

Originally published June 6, 2012

(Images: readers Jan and Justin)

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