You win some, you lose some! That is my lesson from the backyard this summer.
The Not So Good – The Backyard Failures
I had the best intentions – to create the ultimate space in which our toddler could run free. To some degree, we have achieved that. After all, I discovered that toddlers don’t particularly care about adequate lawn coverage. They do, however, like to be outside, whatever the condition of the lawn. I have also discovered that toddlers can be particularly fond of sprinklers… who knew?
As for me, I really wanted to have a perfect lawn. I’m not sure exactly why, especially as the toddler really doesn’t care. I think it’s probably the kind of thing that adults are supposed to care about, therefore I should probably care too.
The Raging Successes
While the grass may not be perfect yet (I haven’t given up on my Pintrest-worthy lawn), the rest of the backyard is looking pretty great!
We have lost a few herbs here and there, but that is to be expected. Overall I am very happy with the quantities of fresh herbs and lettuce that we have been able to produce this summer.
There’s Still Time
One of the more interesting stories from the backyard this summer has been the tomato plants. I purchased three of them, in the hope that we would be rolling in delicious fresh tomatoes all summer long (they would be great with the basil!).
Initially, things were not looking good. A mysterious fungus looked like it was determined to take over the entire garden bed. We quickly lost two of the new tomato plants as the fungus took over. However, just when I assumed all was lost, the fungus disappeared. As quickly as it had come, it just went away.
The one remaining tomato plant looked a bit sad and sorry for a while, but eventually it began to grow again. Now, all of a sudden, it has really taken off. Much to my surprise, it even has some small tomatoes growing on it! I discovered these little beauties while I was outside playing with the Panasonic TZ110 that I have been sent for review.
Hopefully they last. I am not getting too attached yet. Tomato plants (in fact all plants) have a long history of catastrophic failure at my house, just when they look like they are going well.
This post was supposed to be a celebration of the final piece of the backyard puzzle – the laying of the new lawn! It was also supposed to be published a long time ago. However, not everything works out according to plan…
The Hard Work
Emma and I had been thinking about what to do with the backyard for a long time. We hadn’t cared much about it when we first arrived, but now that we had a little toddler bursting with energy, we needed to create a special outdoor space for her. This was especially important now that summer was underway.
We considered every option under the sun – decking, tiling, astroturfing, and a whole range of other things. Ultimately we decided there really was only one great option – turf.
The idea of a fresh new lawn was great, but there was a load of work that needed to be done before it could become a reality. I had to dig out the little turf that remained from the failed lawn, pull out all the weeds, pull out a few roots that were potentially damaging the old lawn, and do my best to level the ground.
Pulling out old grass is hard work, especially with hand tools. The mattock was fairly effective at breaking everything up, but it was still backbreaking work to constantly bend over and pull out all the debris.
Ready for The New Lawn
I put in the order for the turf at a local supplier. I was excited for that weekend when it was due to arrive, but that excitement was quickly extinguished when they called back to say they couldn’t get any that week.
A few more weeks went by and for one reason or another I just couldn’t get it done. The dirt patch sat waiting, weeds began to grow, and over a particularly exciting week the space briefly turned from brown to purple, due to a Jacaranda shower.
Eventually I found a supplier who could actually deliver stock, and we were good to go.
The Big Day
Finally the day arrived. The turf was scheduled for delivery and I roped my parents and Emma into helping. It was all hands on deck, even Hannah wanted to get involved!
A cubic metre of soil and 20 square metres of fresh, green turf arrived. Dad and I set about moving it all to the backyard.
After a couple of hours we had the dirt and turf moved. It was dirty work, as shown on My Sunday Photo for that week.
We then set about levelling the soil as much as possible, before flattening it and watering it down.
After lunch we rolled out the turf. It was surprisingly easy (even with the need for a little cutting in places). Soon enough it was on. It looked like a million dollars. I was thrilled, the backyard was complete!
Skills I Lack
There are plenty of things in life that I am not good at. Keeping plants alive is one of them. But I was determined, damnit, to keep this little oasis alive for the sake of my daughter. She loves the outside and I knew that she would adore having a little green space to call her own.
I followed the instructions – watered it twice a day and monitored it diligently for signs of drying out. I agonised over it like any decent middle-aged man is supposed to obsess over his lawn.
None of that made a damned difference – the bloody thing began to die.
It first started happening around the edges. I was assured that it was supposed to do that. But then it just kept getting worse.
To be honest, I’m really not sure. I’m stuck in the land of Have-no-idea-what-on-earth-I’m-doing-wrong. I could be under-watering it, I could be over-watering it. Perhaps it just doesn’t like the lullabies I sing it each night? Maybe There is just something wrong with my backyard – no blade of grass is ever destined to survive out there.
Maybe, just maybe enough of the grass has survived and over time it will repair its self. Maybe I just need to continue caring and obsessing over it and one day I will have the lush green carpet of my dreams. Maybe.
At least Hannah doesn’t care. To her the whole backyard is a wonderland to be explored and enjoyed. She doesn’t mind if there is a dirt patch or two. Perhaps I don’t need to obsess too much about perfect grass after all.
I have never really seen the point of growing something you can’t eat. It’s not that I have anything against flowers or shrubs, it’s just that gardening is such hard and unenjoyable work that I at least want to have something edible as a reward at the end. If I’m going to put work into any type of garden, it has to be a vegetable garden.
The Vegetable Garden
Our backyard may be small, but we have still managed to set aside a small part for a vegetable garden. We have also managed to maximise our use of that space by installing a clever little vertical garden system.
This gives us more than enough room for our amateur attempts at vegetable and herb farming. Especially as our success rate is… dismal. If we had any more room, we would just end up having to replace more dead plants.
Speaking of which, it’s that time of year when I get excited and replace all of last year’s dead plants. To be honest, there weren’t even really dead plants left to replace, just soil where plants used to be.
I hear you. Surely spending money and effort on plants that quickly die is not a good use of resources. I agree, that’s why this time is different. This time I plan to look after the damned things for longer than two weeks.
The reason I think this time can be different is because I now have the added incentive of maintaining the whole backyard for Hannah’s enjoyment. It will no longer be a case of planting some herbs then forgetting they exist and going out three weeks later to find the whole thing dead. I will be out there every day, obsessing about the state of the lawn and wondering why my petunias won’t flower like an actual adult human-being (okay, I made that last bit up. I don’t know what a “petunia” is, nor do I care).
It is summer in Sydney which means it’s salad season! There’s nothing better at the end of a hot day than munching on a fresh side salad, especially when some of the produce comes straight from your own vegetable garden.
With that in mind, the plan was for vegetables and herbs that belong in a summer salad – three types of tomato, lettuce, chives and a bucket-load of basil. I also planted a few other things that often come in handy – parsley, oregano, thyme and marjoram (I don’t actually know what that is, but it was cheap).
Planting the new herbs and vegetables was dead-easy and in no time at all I had an amazing-looking, luscious vegetable garden. You can see just how great it turned out in the following photos! Make sure you click on the vertical garden photo at the end to see it in all its glory!
Check back in a few weeks to see if I have realised my dream of keeping plants alive long enough to eat some of them. I’m quietly confident that this time I will pull it off!
Okay, maybe “wall” is a bit of a stretch. It’s only one layer high after all. Perhaps a better term is ” edging “.
For my untrained hands, however, seven metres of single-level bricklaying would be more than enough of a challenge.
Goodbye rotten wood
My number one gripe with our backyard since the day we moved in was the ugly wooden garden edging. It looked cheap and nasty, it was installed unevenly and part of it had fallen over. The whole thing looked very sad and uninviting.
I had been itching to pull it out for a while. The idea of removing the eyesore was, in my mind, the number one thing that had to happen during the garden transformation. The problem was, with what should I replace it?
Both Emma and I love sandstone. That became the initial focus of our investigations into preplacement edging. However, we quickly found out that genuine sandstone comes at a cost. At over $500 for a seven metre strip (as amazing as it would have looked), we just couldn’t justify the expense.
Fake it ’till you make it
Maybe one day we will be bringing in the big bucks and $500 on some garden edging won’t seem like such a big deal. But for now, every dollar counts and we quickly turned our attention to ways in which the same effect could be realised for a fraction of the cost.
We visited several local garden and hardware stores until we found one that we were fairly happy with. It was cheap, made out of concrete and a similar colour to the sandstone we loved so much. Of course, concrete isn’t sandstone and we knew we wouldn’t be fooling anyone. But the price was right and it looked far better than the wood it was replacing. The only problem was that the blocks didn’t neatly fit the space we had, so I would have to find a way to split a reasonably thick piece of concrete.
I made the decision to get started on the project and drove to our local garden store one Friday afternoon to purchase the blocks. I talked to a very helpful sales assistant and he told me to drive through to the storage yard where I could load the blocks directly into the back of the car.
When I got there, however, I made a great (if not slightly overwhelming) discovery. The garden centre had a huge range of options that I had not previously seen. I was bamboozled by the choice and all of a sudden our chosen edging was not so attractive. I thought briefly about boldly making a different choice and surprising Emma, but then common sense took over and I settled for returning the next day to make the decision together.
It turns out the decision to not jump in and impulse-buy some bricks was a good one. We returned the next day as a family and thoroughly explored all the edging on offer. After some searching we found a very attractive concrete block with a rough face on one side and smooth faces on the rest.
While obviously not sandstone, the finish gave it a stone-like appearance. Best of all it was a fraction of the price of sandstone. It was even cheaper (and looked better) than our original choice of concrete block.
New skill mastered – bricklayer
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit again.
I think I went reasonably well. The backyard has a very gentle slope, so I had to take that into account as I laid the blocks. I tried for a very gentle and uniform angle. I didn’t quite pull it off. The blocks have a somewhat wave-like look on very close inspection, but to the casual eye I think it was a passable attempt. I managed to get most of the blocks to sit neatly next to each other, so I’m counting it a success.
I’ll probably have to redo the lot one the turf goes in anyway. Otherwise the edging will end up mostly buried after I add approximately 5cm in height through the new topsoil.
Just before we purchased the blocks, I did some quick calculations and much to my pleasure, the blocks were almost a perfect fit for my 703 cm space. Each block was 39 cm long. According to my calculator, 18.025641 blocks would be required to build the wall.
What I hadn’t counted on was the incredibly narrow margin for error that I was left with – .02 of a 39 cm block is .78 cm. Inevitably, I was going to have a problem…
You know the saying “measure twice, cut once”? Well, in my house it goes “measure three times, still f*ck it up” pic.twitter.com/DRDI6hQF5f
— dad (@blogofdad) November 11, 2017
My initial jubilation at finding an almost-perfect fit soured a little as I tried in vain to shoehorn the final block into place. It was no good, I was a good half a centimetre out.
There was only one thing left to do – grab the nearest hitty thing* and try to chip away enough of the concrete for the block to fit in its snug new home. All I had that was of any use was a small mattock. It is probably not the ideal tool for the job, but it’s certainly not the worst either.
I whacked away for what felt like an eternity. Progress was painfully slow, but I was a little buoyed by the tiny flakes that I could see flying off with every hit. It was working, the concrete was slowly being dislodged.
I was also kept somewhat amused by the occasional sparks that flew off every time the mattock struck a certain type of aggregate in the concrete. That became a little less amusing when I reminded myself that I was surrounded by dead, extremely dry grass and leaves that would probably not need much encouragement to catch alight.
Finally I had coerced enough concrete off the block. It slid into place like a finger into a well-fitted glove.
I stood back and admired my handy work. I think it’s a pretty great start to the backyard renovation. The toddler oasis was finally underway!
*I classify tools in three different ways – hitty things, turny things and cutty things. There may be other types of tools, but I don’t own them.
I like living in a townhouse. For our little family, it is the perfect place to be. One of the great advantages of a townhouse is that it is low maintenance. It is easy to keep clean, easy to cool and easy to heat. The backyard, in theory, is low maintenance too. It really just consists of a small strip of lawn and a couple of garden beds. How hard could that be to maintain?
It turns out, if you are me, very hard.
Plants need water?
I don’t naturally have a green thumb. If anything, my thumb is the plant equivalent of the Grim Reaper – everywhere in my garden that is supposed to be green turns dirt-brown very quickly.
One of my main problems is consistency. I tend to get very excited about the garden for short periods of time, then completely forget about it for several weeks. The result of course, is that without water, everything dies.
Not that anything in the backyard was that great to begin with. When we moved in several years ago, the backyard was already in a fairly shoddy state. It hardly inspired me to spend a lot of time out there and do great things. Add to that the fact that I had no real need for a pretty backyard. Hannah wasn’t yet with us, there was no incentive to make it something special.
So the already-crappy yard continued its inevitable decay. The wooden edging slowly rotted away, the grass retreated from the most shaded parts, then from under the washing line, then (due to an extended trip to Japan combined with absolutely zero rainfall and a poorly-timed and poorly-implemented weed-and-feed) the lawn died altogether.
Just when we actually need it
In the past, none of this would have bothered me all that much. I may have cursed my crappy backyard on the odd occasion that I actually stepped foot out there, but generally speaking it didn’t enter my mind.
Now, however, we have a toddler. An energetic, outdoor-loving little human.
Hannah really does love the outdoors. She has been known to stand at the back door and look longingly over our little dirt patch. With a long summer ahead of us, there was only one thing to do – rip it all out and start again!
The dirt patch had to go. The rotted wooden garden edging had to go. Gangly, ill-shaped struggling shrubs had to be cleared. The much neglected vegetable beds and optimistically installed vertical garden had to be brought back to life with fresh herbs and vegetables.
The time was right for the backyard wasteland to be transformed into a toddler oasis!
The benefits of compact family life – less work!
Thankfully, like everything in our compact family townhouse, the backyard is… compact. That means that this brilliant transformation will require far less effort than a good old-fashioned quarter acre block would. Most of it I will be able to do myself, although there will definitely be some moments that require help. Luckily I have some very enthusiastic family members who are more than willing to get their hands dirty.
Start with the easy stuff first. I will plant some new herbs and vegies in the garden beds. Then I will move on to the garden edging. That ugly rotten wooden stuff has to go. In its place will be either sandstone or something that looks very much like it.
The back garden bed will be cleared of clutter. Some of the struggling bushes will be removed to give the whole area a cleaner look and to allow a little more light onto the grass.
Speaking of grass – the hard bit! I will have to pull up all of the old remnants of the mostly-dead turf, and all of the weeds that have begun to grow in its place. I will then have to turn over the soil, level it, add a new layer of top soil and finally lay new rolls of turf. I’ll need some help for that part!
Don’t forget to water it…
Once all of that is done, it will really only be the beginning of the transformation. The real challenge will be to keep the newly created oasis looking great for years to come. That will mean that I will have to monitor it carefully in the first few weeks after it is all installed, but also that I will need to take a far greater interest in ongoing maintenance as well. While this has never been my strong point, I do now have the extra motivation of an excited little toddler who will undoubtedly adore her little slice of paradise!