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My Backyard Garden #4: The First 90 Days - De-Grassing & Prepping for Spring!

When we saw the house for the first time, two words immediately came to mind: Blank. Slate. Having owned and rehabbed three homes and gardens prior, househunting was a completely different experience. I can easily go onto a property and know exactly what can be done, what needs to be done, and what of that I *want* to do.

I bought my first home as a single woman of a mere 32 years of age...which meant I could easily do things like unload trucks full of cinderblocks, shovel tons and tons of cubic yards of mulch, and other backbreaking activities. But after my herniated disc in my lower back came along a month after my miscarriage six years ago, my entire approach was forced to shift...permanently. Multiple tweaks over the years later has reinforced that, and so with gardening, I need to ensure the DIY'ing I do results in greater accessibility and no residual pain from doing things my body doesn't want to do anymore. And with that, it meant getting creative in building stuff (which I still love to do), moving & lifting stuff, and understanding what the land is (and isn't) capable of.

“I certainly prefer buying new rose-trees to new dresses, if I cannot comfortably have both; and I see a time coming when the passion for my garden will have taken such a hold on me that I shall not only entirely cease buying more clothes, but begin to sell those that I already have.” ~ Elizabeth von Arnim

Being a Pacific Northwesterner, being aware of where rainwater goes is key to smart home ownership. My first home, a 1925 cottage, had a basement and all the fun that comes with learning where the water goes if there's no sump pump or if the landscaping next the house does not direct heavy rains away from it. Our 1940 farmhouse on the coast was fortunately situated at a high enough elevation that we did not have the issue of standing water in our fields as our neighbors a mile away did, so even when it rained 6" in one day, we felt secure - and added 1,000 gallon tank to the barn to take advantage of that rain...and remembered the benefit of elevation after we sold it. When we downsized to the MCM home in the city a couple years ago, we made sure we were at the top of a hill - and immediately replaced the broken sump pump that had come with the house and did a beautiful job keeping the crawlspace dry...yet we were hyperaware that there were roots of a once-grand maple causing it to be mushy in spots, not to mention the topography of the area that meant underground creeks existed below ours and other streets nearby.

And so we took this all into consideration when deciding to move to the Skagit Valley. We'd looked at a rehab-ready old farmhouse next to an organic farm in Bow that seemed NQR when we viewed it - and was confirmed when the old man next door hobbled over with his carer to warn us that the entire property regularly flooded in heavy rains (not often you get that lucky!). We'd looked at houses that would need to be elevated out of the flood zone and we'd looked at houses where the land was far too lumpy or sloped to be easily DIY'd into a safe space....and said no. And we constantly weighed the pros and cons of the noise pollution of being on a busier street (yet being able to walk/bike anywhere) versus being in a quieter area further from the core of town that may have provided peace in some ways (but kept us isolated from the rest of the community due to land size, lack of commuting options, and more reliance on motorized vehicles).

So when this house miraculously popped back on the market after the first offer being pulled before we'd had a chance to scope it out, we hustled over and made an offer the same day. Sure, it was on a busier street which was not my cuppa tea, but I knew with our priorities for accessibility and ease of DIY-ability, that this was going to work out beautifully. And as our first three months has come to a close, you can see from other posts (check out the "Planet" tab for interiors), we've been busy. But the back yard is where the majority of my blood, sweat and tears has been devoted to, and while I usually like my "Before & After" posts being truly "After", I thought, like the front yard one I posted recently, that it was important to show a brief timeline of what's possible in the first three months - particularly in fall - in getting the start of a backyard transformation under way. It's not glamorous, but baby, infrastructure is SO important - both in the garden and in the country, and we've got to start saying it out loud.

So with no further ado, here are the Before and "During" perspectives (and, at the top of this post, an overview from the listing photo of what I've been up to in each area)...

Above is looking towards the Southeast corner of the yard from the rain tank, which as you can see was pretty dull. While my cell phone snapshot isn't as wide-angled as the mildly distorted listing photo (sigh...), you get the picture. Mega amounts of grass. A bit of border plants. Tree stumps in the back. And that 4x4 post in the middle of the yard (which turned out to be only there for a retractable clothesline to connect to, one which had been removed from the house - but fortunately they left the clothesline in the garage, as I've installed it in a more sensible spot!). The 10 stock tank raised beds are in, and I'm playing around with adding trellises between the short ends as you can see. The (east) border of the property is now our fruit forest in progress that will look much prettier when everything has leaves on it! And you'll see the edge of the floating deck we built in a day, duplicating the one I'd built for our last home's (front) garden, which - except for the the exceptionally warped decking that created spacing nightmares when installing (we didn't have a choice because the big box stores did not have enough decking in stock for delivery, ugh!) - was a cinch to make.

From the northeast corner towards the house, which I photographed from the fruit forest (including a sad but brave little Braeburn apple tree that we've got "in traction" to help it get stronger instead of lying on its side like it was at move-in), you get a better idea of the layout, where we've added the rain tanks, and more. I'm figuring out if I want to do stepping stones around the exterior of the beds, and what else to put in under the fruit trees/shrubs in the spring, but there comes a time when it's 28 degrees in the morning and you have to be patient. The grass is gone, and healthy happy trees & shrubs we've got in there that will encourage birds and pollinators of all types to return to a yard that the seller had years prior clear-cut the trees from rather than work with an arborist to preserve (I've seen the old photos, sigh...). We'll getting there...

Looking directly at the back of the house, it may not be as sexy of a view but you might notice where there are a couple interesting features.

  • First, there is a slight slope to the back yard. Nothing huge, but with what I learned when it comes to erosion control in our back and front yards at our Seattle home? I wanted to address it sooner rather than later. We had a sump pump installed in the crawlspace, and I'm so glad we did it before winter because after a few days of rain, the grass nearest the house is, as I predicted, a bit mushy from the runoff down the "small-but-still-a-slope slope". And with that, having the deck placed where it is not only gave us the initial benefit of viewing our entire backyard where the patio did not, but also coverd up an area that would be primarily a bit soppy in winter. No standing water, just a bit soppy. Burlap coffee bags are great to help with erosion, so I'm glad I got several carloads of them from the roaster a few miles away!

  • Second, there are no windows on the back of the house! It's an odd thing not being able to see into your backyard from inside your house! So I'm playing with the idea of a trellis on the back, as you can see, and other tall shrubs like the 6' camellia we planted (again, "buying time" as I call it) and of course the 250 gallon rain tank that totally rocks. Looking up "east facing garden" to ensure whatever I plant near the house enjoys morning sun but can also deal with afternoon shade (clematis, lilies, fuschia, nicotiana and more), I've got a list going for spring nursery shopping, let me tell you...!

  • Third, you might notice in the current photo that it's very shaded. Two houses down, a neighbor has two VERY tall evergreens, so with the way the sun is low in the horizon during fall and winter, it's good to notice that there are areas that just won't get sunshine after October, which helps a lot for planting, so I'm really glad the fruit forest is where it is, and that the many new shrubs we planted along the south fence, particularly as one gets closer to the house, are best suited for 'part sun' and can go with the flow.

And while right now my too-close-to-home perspective makes me think to myself, "OMG look at all the mulch and no plants" and "I need spring RIGHT NOW!", I have to remember the big picture. We are truly prepped for spring. We got a LOT of plants in this fall. The grass we wanted to cover up is covered - and then some - and will be ready for planting through that burlap in the spring. There is SO much fruit! There is enough room now for all the veggies I want in our downsized garden lifestyle (i.e., enough to eat but notsomuch that I feel handcuffed to the intense amount of food preservation I did back on the farm and prior, where I seemed to need to feed the family of 10 I never had). And there is the beginning of a sanctuary.

“A garden should make you feel you've entered privileged space -- a place not just set apart but reverberant -- and it seems to me that, to achieve this, the gardener must put some kind of twist on the existing landscape, turn its prose into something nearer poetry.” ~ Michael Pollan


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