Trying to Fix the Backyard

I scored a bunch of end of the season plants from a seller on Kijiji for unbelievably cheap. The seller said she had a small garden center, but was getting ready to move and just wanted her inventory gone. I split this with a friend. I couldn’t believe my bounty. I paid about $ 3.00 each for many hostas, several rose bushes, a diabolo ninebark and a sand cherry, and other things I can’t remember. This was just before I took possession of the house, in the fall of October, 2016.

It was a warm day, like summer. We planted everything, guessing at the best locations.

The next spring, I had vague memories of where things were planted. I spent a lot of time expectantly looking at the dirt for shoots. Everything had survived.

I doubted that there would be any plants in the backyard besides weeds. The used car lot owner told me that the backyard had always been completely overgrown until the previous owner spent many days clearing it out just before the house was listed for sale. I was really happy to have a yard again. There were lots of birds, and I was surprised to see toads.  On barely warm days in the early spring, I sat in the backyard, thinking.

I never had such a large yard before. One thing was certain – I did not want a manicured lawn, not that this would be possible in this location anyhow.

I was self conscious, as the back yard was visible to the used car lot customers. Their washrooms were located at the back of the 1950’s style building. There was a four foot chainlink fence, and that property had an elevation that was at least 36″ higher near their building. I tried to show that I was going to be a good neighbour, by tidying up the lot, and careful plantings. I had a lot to learn.

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This was an ominous photo from the listing. It gives a good idea of how barren the yard was, after all neglect was hacked away. It’s hard to make out in the photo, but there is a retaining wall straight ahead of the male shadow. Retaining wall in this case means a pile of cinder blocks, with no mortar or rebar, about 50% of which have fallen over. The factory parking lot is beyond the trees. Their elevation is perhaps a foot higher, but  years of plowing and debris have pushed earth against the chainlink fence so my yard is close to three feet lower in this area.

This is what it looked like in March of 2017:

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It was really unsightly. I began removing all the useless cinderblocks, which was a lot of effort for my feeble book reading arms. The chainlink fence was below the ground on my side of the fence, and all the posts were still solid, so I did not fear imminent collapse.

I started digging in the garden, and kept finding the strangest things. There was a cement patio paver walkway that had been completely buried, so I unearthed it. One corner of the yard seemed to have been used as a dump, with many cheap plastic children’s toys buried there. There were several steak knives. The creepiest was finding large shards of broken window glass buried throughout the yard. This was a most frightening discovery, as I did not want to slice open my hands as I was planting.

I met a few neighbours. One told me that for little while there had been a family renting the house, but the mother was really mentally ill. Maybe this explained the buried glass ?

My plantings seemed hopelessly puny. I had already spent my entire garden budget. I  looked online for free plants, then placed my own ad. People were always giving away day lilies. They rapidly multiply and are tough to kill. I didn’t love them – but was willing to make do with any non-weed. A woman who had also just moved into the neighbourhood contacted me. Her yard had previously belonged to some incredible gardeners and was  overflowing with thousands of tulips and day lilies. I took all that I could carry and went back several times. She even gave me a water barrel, as her new home had six of them ! I was so grateful for this.

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The fence by the driveway was really terrible. The posts were rotten so it was wobbly, and the short height gave me no privacy whatsoever. Part of the fence had a taller, heavier fence section nailed to it, which made no sense, but made it uglier.

Every time I was in the backyard I felt like I was putting on a show, trying to prove that I was going to take care of this house. I also worried about how visible and accessible my two back doors were.

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Summer filled in the perimeter. I wondered what to do with the giant piles of brush I had from clearing the front. I called about getting them chipped, but that was kind of a hassle. I started reading about HugelKultur – which is a way of planting using raised berms, built on buried wood. The buried wood acts like a sponge and keeps the plantings moist, and while the wood breaks down it nourishes the plants.

I decided to do this, sort of, to build up the area where the “retaining wall” had been. This area would be too dark to grow anything except plants that loved deep shade. Even if I composted all the branches to make a stable in-fill that would be a decent improvement.

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It seemed easier to make piles of sticks vs branches, so I spent hours trimming each branch into a stick, so they could be piled up with more stability.

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I planted some wildflower mix in the spring, but as the trees filled in it was too dark, so nothing grew.

The hostas in the corner were doing really well.

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That is, until suddenly they weren’t. One day a bunch of the leaves were broken and torn, so I guessed that some raccoons had been standing on them ? Then entire plants vanished, with just a few chunks of root and crown left. Others got gnawed into lacy shreds. I had no clue what the vermin was, but I dug out all the survivors and moved them anywhere far away from this corner. (It was probably voles, as they love the roots, and the yard had many snails and slugs, which eat through leaves.)

There was a cement slab, probably for a previous shed that made a nice patio area under the tree. I liked the deteriorating wall of the station. I hung up some solar lanterns from Dollarama, and enjoyed my new yard as much as possible.

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