A year ago, we were putting in an offer on our home in Pitt Meadows, BC.
It is a reasonably sized mid-seventies home on a large lot, which had undergone some minor DIY interior upgrades, but showed signs of poor workmanship and — in some areas — utter neglect.
One of those neglected areas was the huge backyard, which sits directly adjacent to city-owned green space, a rarity in Greater Vancouver. But a third of the space was occupied by a filled-in concrete pool that had been built into the incline of the yard and was lined with creosote-blackened landscape ties that were falling apart. Another quarter of the space consisted of an eroding slope near the attached shed that was totally overgrown with vines of morning glory. The yard was half war zone, half jungle and it had clearly deterred prospective buyers for almost six months by the time we arrived.
Still, IF we could get rid of the weeds and find a solution to the broken concrete mess back there, it was 4,000 square feet of private fenced-in play space backing onto greenery and running trails. It could be great.
There are three reasons we decided we wanted to undertake this project:
- Safety – With chunks of unformed concrete sticking out or buried just beneath the lawn, there were many areas of the yard we preferred not to let the kids play. “Go enjoy the backyard, kids! Just not there, there, there, or there.” was starting to feel unacceptable.
- Useable space – With the areas of hazard and the areas of disrepair, the amount of usable space remaining in the backyard was probably a third of its potential. We wanted to recover the remainder and regain areas for entertaining and enjoyment.
- Property value – We have no immediate plans to move (we just got here). But it was clearly a strong point of negotiation to us to have this yard as it was. If we could transform it into a useable space on a budget, we could greatly improve the value of our home.
And there are three reasons we chose to do it now:
- Weather – April showers and moderate spring weather offer us a great opportunity for new grass seed to get a natural watering and grow before the heat of summer arrives. We just needed to string together enough dry days to get the project completed before we re-seeded.
- Financial – We got our income taxes submitted early to make sure we had our refund back in time to help cover costs.
- Available Help – We had access to resources to help us with this project now who may not be available to help us later.
Here’s how we tackled this project.
Prep Step 1 – Have good neighbors
Of course, like family, you can’t really choose your neighbors. But for us, it has been such a critical component of moving in here and being able to undertake this backyard rejuvenation. Even before we made our offer on the home, it was clear we had one big challenge in making changes to the backyard: access. There was a three-foot gate on one side of the house and an eight-foot fence panel behind the front flower garden on the other. Neither offered a sure-fire point of access for the type of machinery we would need to have an impact in the backyard.
The only possibility was the neighbor’s driveway that ran parallel to the fence on one side. Fortunately, having met the them prior to submitting our offer, we knew we were going to be amazingly supportive.
“It’s a huge mess of a yard back there,” I said to the lady next door during one of our early visits to the property. “I’m not even sure where to start. Have you ever given it any thought?”
“I’d take a bulldozer to it,” she said.
I kept a lid on my elation. She has no problem with a major overhaul and loud machinery next door.
“Maybe. But how would you even get one back there?” I said, lobbing the softball as I high as I could.
“You could take out one of my fence panels and come in through my driveway,” she replied. She’d just hit it out of the park. We had an awesome neighbor here, if we bought this house, just as excited to see this property restored as we would be to take on the challenge.
Prep Step 2 – Enlist friends and family where possible
It’s my great fortune that I have a cousin with a landscaping business. It’s not his primary occupation, but something he’s done on the side for many years. It means he has a trained eye for how much material you need to achieve a certain finished product, an understanding the right equipment to rent, and the skill to help us execute (mainly driving the rented six-foot bobcat excavator back and forth through what would turn out to be a 6′-4″ opening and artfully redistributing backyard material).
I also have a amazing friends who are willing to take a few hours on a weekend to grab a shovel or a rake and help move materials into place, which was such a necessary part of this project despite the majority of the heavy lifting being done by the bobcat. I’m actually astounded at how many times our friends have come through for us when we’ve made requests like this. We’re incredibly lucky.
Step 1 – Take out the Trash
The first practical step of our yard renovation was to eliminate the junk in our backyard that we couldn’t use in the finished product, primarily the old oily landscape ties. It pained us to have to cart them away and pay for their disposal (being treated as they were, they couldn’t be composted like typical green material), but if we had buried them in the backyard, we would most certainly notice them as they decayed over time.
The bobcat was fired up on Friday afternoon and using a combination of the bucket and the hydraulic breaker attachment we intended for the concrete, each of the exposed landscape ties were pulled forward and freed of their supports. The rest were shoveled out. All of the loose ties were left out overnight to be pulled out by hand and loaded into the trailer for disposal the next day.
The second class of material removal was the recyclable steel re-bar that was part of the concrete pool structure. Again, using the hydraulic breaker, any part of the pool we felt would be close to finished grade was smashed up and any pieces of re-bar that could be easily freed from the surrounding concrete were set aside.
Step 2 – Reduce and Reuse
In the process of removing portions of the concrete pool and a set of sinking concrete steps, we knew we would be left with an incredible amount of weighty concrete to try to get rid of. At the same time, we also had a giant hole that needed to be filled in to produce a more gradual finished slope.
If we’d chosen to dispose of the concrete, it would likely have taken three or four bins to eliminate it all. On top of that we’d have needed another 10-15 yards of gravel and soil to fill in the void that was once a pool deck. So rather than waste expense on that transaction, probably $2,000-3,000 worth, we elected to use as much of the broken concrete as possible to fill our major gaps, provided we could keep it at least 12 inches below grade where it would be undetected by little feet.
Saturday morning, two friends arrived to help us pick up piece after piece of broken concrete and hand place them in the holes and gaps we planned to fill over. As we gradually thinned out the concrete pile, we continued to uncover more and more landscape ties that had been part of the pool surround or otherwise partially buried over the years. These had to be shoveled out and tossed into the trailer for removal.
My cousin and I spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning starting to move earth around the backyard, pushing sand and soil from the bottom of the yard back toward the top to fill to slowly regrade the yard as we’d planned.
We were on schedule for the soil delivery on Monday that would let us finish the four-day project, when the hail and rain started to fall Sunday afternoon. Suddenly, the yard became a mud field, the bobcat started to slip, and we had to put an immediate and indefinite halt to our work.
My planned vacation days scheduled for Monday and Tuesday would have to be canceled, the bobcat returned, and we’d have to start watching the forecast. After two days and a project cost of about $2,800, all we’d successfully done was completely trash our backyard.
Read on to Part 2.