And then it was March

It’s been a strange winter, and with this week warm-up, it’s time to take stock of the back yard. Every year, it gets a bandaid and a promise that a full redo is in sight. This year, we’re making it happen.

(or so we tell ourselves).

This is what the back yard looked at the start of last year’s outdoor season.


Not perfect, but perfectly serviceable. The wood chips at the bottom of the photo conceal the french drains we installed a couple of years ago. As the season progressed, we learned that the many stray cats in the area enjoyed using our wood chips as a littler box, so we replaced them with gravel.



backyard chair

The plan for this season is to replace the existing pavers with reclaimed brick, which I scored a while ago (and moved 5 times – 806 bricks are a huge pain to carry from point a to point b, particularly extra heavy, 100 year old bricks that were meant to be used as street surface). We did a test patch to see what it might look like.

Brick test

Pile of bricks

In addition to the brick, we’ll have a bit of blue stone, some gravel and new retaining wall to address the heigh difference from the rear of the yard.

The elephant in the room back yard is the deck, or lack thereof. (Can you spot the climb out the window and down the fire escape maneuver in one of the photos above?) We would really like to have one, but we may also need a new roof, and while the deck would be more fun, a new roof would ensure the house stays free of rain and snow on the inside. (which, you know, is a nice perk).

Given my demonstrated skill at not wining the lottery, we’ll probably have to pick which big expense we go with this year. Blah. Roof.

Here is what the back yard looks like right now:


The lush greenery next door, which we fondly called The Jungle, is gone. Some of the Honeysuckle survived, and I will be planting more this spring. That fence will be a green jungle again…

Back yard now

Everything looks dead and sad, but by the end of May, this will look completely different. Here is to hoping…



Roses are thorny (or why my hands hurt)

Our house came with a humongous rose bush. That thing is probably 8 feet tall, not counting the unruly weird branches that shoot out mid-summer to about 12 feet or so. It mostly just hangs out in the corner, looking thorny and mean, except for a couple of weeks in early May, when it explodes into blossoms and looks absolutely amazing.

in bloom

Mean rose bush hanging out in the corner, end of last year’s blooming season.

I’m not a fan of roses; I find them fussy and un-original. I would never choose to plant them, but since this was already here, and it does look pretty (although for a very short period of time), I try to do a little upkeep (however half-ass it may be).

I know next to nothing about roses, and it seems to be a contentious subject on the interwebs as well, because no one can agree 100% as to when to prune the damn things. The only consensus is that a) you must prune roses and b) they are very hard to kill.

Well, say no more.

As with other unpleasant things one must do (you know, being an adult and such), I put on my big girl pants and got to it.

I tried to follow instructions as to what branches to trim, but that’s really hard to do when the thorny mess keeps getting stuck in your hair (this leads to angry/revenge pruning). In the end, I lopped off a decent amount (yet probably not enough to give it any type of stable shape).

I hope I didn’t kill it, but if I did, it was self-defense.



A (very long) post about drainage

Water will do what water wants to do. Water is a formidable adversary. Water seems to like our basement. Yes. We have issues with water.

After a good rain, our backyard used to look like this:


If you are familiar with Brooklyn brownstones, you know that they were typically built over a stone cellar. You may also know that brownstones typically have only one downspout. That means that the whole roof drains to just one area. Not only our roof, but all of our neighbors’ roofs do the same. Some people have connected their downspouts to the sewer line, but most have not. This means that a whole lot of water ends up pudling in the back yards – and water being water, it will follow the path of least resistance to go someplace else (which in our experience leads straight to our cellar).

There are a few things you can do to gently persuade water to go the other way: you can improve the grading so that it slopes away from the house, for example. But given the volume of water our backyard collects, that in itself is not the solution. We needed to do more. The easiest solution is to do something like a French drain: dig a hole, line it with landscaping fabric. Place a PVC pipe, with holes drilled into the sides, into the hole. Fill the hole with gravel. Cover with landscape fabric and the surface material of your choice. Add a drain cover to the pipe. Voilá. You have made a drain.

Last spring, I dug a test drain. It was about 2 1/2 feet deep and about 18 inches wide. It improved the moisture situation in the basement by about 75%. If one drain is good, 3 more would be much, much better!

Test Drain

Armed with a brand new sledge-hammer, shovels and the enthusiasm of people who just don’t know any better, we set out to dig one blissful Saturday afternoon in July. Not 30 minutes in, this happened:


In our eager enthusiasm, the rhythm of drop chunk of concrete/pick up chunk of concrete fell out of sync and I ended up with the raddest manicure in all of Brooklyn (I also didn’t do a damn thing for the rest of the drainage project, because I had a boo-boo).

With me out of commission, the Mr pushed on. The first thing we learned is that our backyard is made up mostly of rocks. This sort of makes sense, since these seem to be left over rocks from the foundation. I suppose whatever didn’t get used, just got left behind and eventually buried. This is a small sample of the huge pile of rocks we dug up:

Backyard rocks

The plan was to dig 3 separate holes, but they quickly morphed into more of a trench because we had to un-earth SO.MANY.ROCKS! We found this super giant rock, which could have been an awesome addition to our landscaping, but too damn heavy to move.

Giant Rock

This is the mess we made, put into perspective.

Big Mess

Making the drains is quite simple: Dig a hold about 3 feet deep and line it with landscape fabric. Place a couple of inches of pebbles at the bottom. Take a PVC pipe and drill holes all up and down the sides (we used a 3 inch pipe), and place the pipe vertically into the pebbles. Fill the rest of the hole with pebbles/gravel, then cover with landscape fabric.

Drain schematic 1

Place whatever surface material on top (soil, pavers, etc), and put a drain cover on the pipe. Ta-da! You’re done.

Drain schematic2

This is what the test drain looked like, half way done:

Screen shot 2014-10-15 at 4.29.32 PM

Test drain almost finished:

TestDrain in Progress

Instead of gravel, we crushed up the concrete we removed to dig the drains. That solved two problems: what to do with the concrete, and having to buy gravel and then carry it through the house to the back yard. Also, it’s immensely satisfying to bust up things with a heavy sledge-hammer (so long as you are careful not to smash your thumb).

The drainage project has been finished for a few months, and our basement has been dry ever since. Unlike many of the projects we take on, this one was relatively quick and simple – but it was hard work (I’m told…)

IKEA Table x The Elements

Our outdoor Ikea table was looking a little rough after a couple of years out in the elements. The sun/rain/heat/squirrels were definitely getting the best of it. We decided this was an easy enough thing to do over the course of one Sunday afternoon  – and while we frequently grossly mis-calculate how long something will take to finish, this one was spot on.

Table Before
We sanded whatever was left of the original finish to expose the wood, finishing it off with a super fine grit paper.

Table sanded

After wiping off the dust and giving the table a good cleaning, we followed up with about 4 coats of Tung Oil (24 hours between applications). This photo was taken after the first application.

Table after

I like how the oil brought out the natural variation of the wood, previously hidden by whatever tinted finish Ikea uses.  This is our first attempt at using Tung Oil outside but I figured since water just beads off, it would be a good choice. It has worked OK thus far, but I find myself re-applying it in spots here and there.  On the plus side, it’s absolutely non toxic and you don’t have to worry about fumes or residue.

A note on Tung Oil: I used pure Tung Oil, not the stuff from the hardware store (which usually has other chemicals added to it). The Milk Paint Company stuff is a bit hard to find in a store (the place where I bought mine has since closed). You can order it online or Google your way to a local store that may sell it.

Early Stages of a Garden

It’s been a cold, long winter in New York City. Yesterday was the first day of spring. Next week, we will likely be smacked upside the head with a Nor’easter once again. I am so done with the Polar Vortex.  This time last year, I was already playing in the dirt. This year, however, I’ve been keeping my excursions outside to a minimum. A winter person I am not.

We spend a ton of time outdoors during the warm months, and while our back yard has been presentable(ish) over the past 2 summers, a big overhaul was always part of the house master plan. At some point. In the very very distant future.


Backyard in 2012, our first summer. The big bushy plants to the right are tomatoes. It was a fantastic year for tomatoes.


The backyard in 2013. The fence was replaced and we built a planter/retaining wall to compensate the height difference between our yard and the one behind us. It was a terrible year for tomatoes.

3/4 of the way through this particularly harsh winter, our garden redo got bumped up in priority, courtesy of the water that came gushing into our basement during a rain/freezing rain/snow/rain event. We realized we needed to pay some attention  to the garden drainage and the pavement that is not sloping away from the house quite enough. Oh, and the holes. There are holes where the coal chute joins  the house.  Because, why not?  True to the old adage of “project begets project,” we figure we might as well go the Full Monty on this. In addition to the must-do-to-keep-the-basment-dry (re-sloping the surface closest to the house and installing French drains  throughout the yard), we’ll be doing a fair amount of cosmetic work, too. Woo hoo landscaping!


This is what happens when it rains: the water has nowhere to go, so it just hangs out.


This is actually really close to the house. Not good.

About 4 months ago, we had preliminary plans drawn by a fantastic landscape architect (aka, dad). The design calls for separate living areas in our compact yard: seating under the grape-vine (new arbor, pebbles underfoot), a grilling area and eating area (both paved with reclaimed old pavers), as well as shrubs and perennials evoking a Victorian garden.

Garden Board

The design, along with some of the materials and plants. Yep, I do suck at Photoshop.

To put the design into practical perspective, I ventured outside today and drew it in chalk, making some changes along the way. I think I worked out most of the kinks (and found a dead bird along the way).


Pardon the ugliness, but the garden is still asleep.

Dad says good garden design has a bit of mystery drawn in. I don’t think he means all the blank spots on his sketch, but rather that one should not be able to see everything all at once, that one would wind their way through, and discover new areas. That is easier said than done with a back yard that measures about 40 feet x 18 feet. Dad proposes a complete re-think of how we use the space. The table will move to the back of the yard, where the vegetable garden is (at some point, it will get sanded and slathered with Tung oil – yep, on the list). The area beneath the grape-vine will get fine gravel, and will house a seating area with custom-built wooden benches. We’ll reduce the hard surfaces of the yard (which will also help with drainage), and use reclaimed old brick pavers as our main surface material.

Salvage Pavers

Sweet old brick pavers. How I love thee!

It all sounds fine and dandy. Once reality sinks in, including carrying all this stuff through the house, I’m sure it will be a different story.

Digging (a worm) hole

Planting anything in our back yard is an adventure. Over the  years, a lot of junk was buried back there, evidenced by the fact that it’s nearly impossible to dig a hole and  not find anything unusual. Last year we dug up a bayonet, a bath tub and  bicycle handlebar.

This year, I offer up a pick axe, random bits of metal, a giant bolt and a piece of a faucet.

Pick axe

So far we haven’t found the hidden treasure, but I guess there is still hope…

Back Yard 2013

I love having outside space. I missed it so much in all those years of apartment living. A major redo of the yard is in the future, when we build a deck and become all fancy. In the mean time the space is as utilitarian as the fire escape ladder we use to get to it.

Every year I like to plant a tomato plant. Or two. Or five. Trouble is, most of Brooklyn has soil contamination issues stemming from the borough’s industrial past. After having our soil tested and finding out that there were some substances in it we’d rather not eat, the solution was to create a raised bed, and fill it with fresh non-contaminated soil.

Because everything about our back yard is temporary, it really didn’t make sense to spend a lot of money, so we used stuff we already had – a surplus of paving bricks. With a level, a trowel and a whole bunch of pavers, I made a box of sorts. I then lined the bottom with landscaping fabric and filled with the clean soil – all 15 cubic yards of it, carried  through our parlor floor and down the fire escape.

It started like this:



Landscaping fabric helps keep the new soil separated from the old.


And became this:


We also rebuilt the rear fence and added a retaining wall, to compensate for the height difference from the lot behind us. Because nothing is ever easy when trying to get things to the back yard of a row house, all of our construction supplies had to go through the house and down the fire escape:


The fence and retaining wall were then built into place:


Came out pretty well, if I do say so myself… Now we wait for the Dahlias to bloom.