How can we make our backyard feel more accessible?
January 9, 2021 12:49 PM   Subscribe

We bought a house last year that's been great, all things considered. It's about half an acre of land. However, our house and garage are surrounded by a massive gravel driveway, fit for a hundred cars! But we just have the one. How can we best pare it down and make our beautiful backyard and surrounds feel more accessible?

Here is a satellite photo of our property. It's from before we lived there, so ignore the giant RV behind our ENORMOUS garage. (Our garage is very useful to us; it holds a workshop in the back half and storage in the front half, so it is obviously staying.) I dream of getting rid of a fair amount of the gravel driveway, or converting some/all of it to pavers (sooooo expensive, I know). The gravel driveway is pretty bad, with inconsistent, large rocks and a lot of bald spots. It needs a lot of work but we're hesitant to do anything before we figure out what we're doing in general. Between the garage and the house, we have a large patio that is half covered and half uncovered. We have THREE entrances: one in the front (where there's a bump out), a backdoor under the roof where the house and garage are connected, and one on the right side overview where there's a small deck (bizarrely, this is our bedroom...) Our property line roughly lines up with the tree line on the left and right.

We *are* planning to fence our front yard and add some additional trees/bushes throughout. Our house is on a hill and faces a huge number of apartments, and directly in front of us is a low apartment building, such that we see just a bunch of ugly roof. a 6' fence and some bushes would make it nicer. But I'd love to improve access to the BACKyard. Any thoughts or ideas?
posted by ancient star to Home & Garden (9 answers total)
Response by poster: I should also mention that our garage has two doors on yeah side (left and right in the overview).
posted by ancient star at 1:00 PM on January 9, 2021

I'd hire an excavation company to dig out the entire driveway on the left side of the satellite pic, plus the entire area out back where that RV was parked. Retain only the driveway on the right. Have them dig deep, at least a foot or 18 inches. Then fill all of that with topsoil, and start landscaping. The narrow strip on the left is probably best filled in with shrubs and maybe a wandering path through them. Out back, it looks like it might be sunny enough for a vegetable garden, if you're into that, or a nice perennial area. Having garage doors on both sides is useful for getting your lawn mower out or for ventilation in the workshop, but is not a reason to retain pavement on the left side.
posted by beagle at 1:30 PM on January 9, 2021

If you can't afford to do all that digging and filling you could build raised beds on top of the gravel and plant whatever you want in them.
posted by mareli at 1:39 PM on January 9, 2021 [5 favorites]

Raised beds* defining smaller “rooms” with seating/tables/firepit on top of the gravel (with some repairs) is probably easier than digging it all out and resurfacing. Rooms would make emphasize the purpose of each space and feel more private and cozy versus a big expanse.

You don’t say what zone you’re in, but if it’s a colder one you could even use part of the garage to overwinter some citrus or other fancy small trees that you wheel out for part of the summer landscaping.

*alternately, have a person with a bobcat dig out specific bedding areas for flush beds or low raised beds with benches around them.
posted by janell at 1:52 PM on January 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Pretty much any plant I’ve ever tried to grow “requires good drainage”. Drainage is enhanced by gravel. Why bother removing gravel when you could just dump soil on top of it? Easier, cheaper, and quite possibly good for anything you subsequently try to plant. I suppose you should dig in a couple places to make sure there’s not any plastic under the gravel (makes sign of the cross.)
posted by carterk at 3:10 PM on January 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

While aesthetically, I’m all for lovely landscaping, as a West coast resident I’m now very aware of suggested defensible perimeter fire breaks around homes. Please take that into consideration as you rework this area. Right now, it’s ugly but very safe, try not to fully lose the safety as you make it softer and more welcoming. Good luck!
posted by sumiami at 4:06 PM on January 9, 2021 [4 favorites]

Not sure where you are or how much money you want to spend on landscaping, but I would start from the vision you have of you interacting/using your back yard and backward engineer it. For example, do you see yourself needing space for entertaining large or small groups (is a BBQ, fire pit, or games are something you’d want then)? Do you see it as something you look at from inside mostly, then do you want to focus of flowers and other plantings keeping in mind planting so you have something to look at all 4 seasons? If you hate yard work and gardening then I would consider the time commitment of upkeep in mind (don’t put in grass if you hate cutting grass).

Is it for relaxing, reading, eating, exercising, etc? If so, then account for areas for those activities (the “room” idea commented above). Is it for gardening edibles or cut flowers? Those need all day sun, so make sure you save the right spot. I know if it were me I’d build a greenhouse and a nice garden in raised beds on top of gravel in the sunniest spot and then add an area for dining and a shady nook with comfy chairs for reading. What does your perfect day in the yard look like?
posted by Bunglegirl at 5:53 AM on January 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Drainage, drainage, drainage. Make sure any improvements do not send water to your foundations.
Get the utilities flagged/painted before any construction.
You may have something underground that cannot handle heavy equipment like skidloaders. Check any history of the property for wells, septic tanks, etc.
The gravel probably was an alternative to paving the property for the RV. However, it may also be a fix for poor soil, previous construction (swimming pool?), or other issues. There may be tree trunks and roots under the gravel driveway.

Seconding maintaining the driveway on one side as-is. Some of the rock can be transferred over the years. Getting rid of gravel is a PITA, so a built-in transfer location is good.

Don't be in a hurry. Take seasonal notes on drainage patterns, microclimates, etc.
Walk/bike around the neighborhood and take pictures of what others are doing. You may find neighbors who can bring you up to speed on what was on your property before the gravel driveways were added.
Check with the state agricultural dept. or university agricultural dept. about best practices. Your county may also have these resources.
Don't fix what isn't broken.
posted by TrishaU at 10:43 AM on January 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If it were mine I would make a map and mark the areas that were special features. Areas like where rock shows through the gravel are worth marking as they would be bad places to try to put trees and shrubs and could likely only manage plantings with a raised bed on top of them. Then I would think of the various desirable things and plan where they might go, given the features already there.

The big issues is that under that gravel is probably a lot of solid rock. They may very well have gone with gravel because they couldn't go with grass, it was all patches of good grass, grass that died when it didn't rain for a week and a half in the summer, and rock. You're going to want to dig some test holes and verify if my suspicion is correct. If it is everything you do will have to be build or put in above surface level and things that require roots will need deep pots. You may be looking at four foot tall planters to have small trees.

Much depends on your budget, aesthetic and available resources. A gravel rake might be used to thin the gravel in some spots and thicken it in others. Make a big list of the possibles, from fruit trees, to obstacle courses, to zen gardens and then put it down on your map matching options to places that create a workable and attractive lay out. I'd do multiple maps to allow for flexibility. Your plan this year may be completely reworked by the fifth year that you are living there, as your needs an interests change. Unless you are going to pay a lot of dollars up front for a landscaper or take the spring off to put it all together, this is going to be a project that takes either months or years.

The first summer I would probably go with a container garden. I had a huge number of plastic pails that had come to the house full of cat sand. The symbol moulded into the bottom of the pails informed me they were food safe, and thus suitable to use for planters. They looked terrible but they were extremely economical and gave me a chance to figure out if there was enough sun to grow things or not, and light enough to move them when there was not enough sun. They also gave me a chance to figure out what kind of a time and organization commitment I had for gardening. It costs more to grow tomatoes where I live, than it does to buy them, even though someone who lives in California would blanche at the price I pay at the grocery store. If you remember to water your cheap starter container garden, then you are into enough to upgrade the second year. If everything is dead by August tenth, then maybe your area is too hot and too dry for containers and you have to look at only much larger planters.

I would also spend some portion of my time keeping an eye out for the materials I could use to do my landscaping. Places like the Restore often have landscaping components. It's also worth looking at your garden and home centre fliers and checking out their end of season clearance. If you can pick up the materials in November for half the price of July it may be worth waiting, or planning ahead. Keep in mind that with the pandemic a LOT of people have been investing in the outdoor spaces of their homes. My area ran out of all deck materials last June, and stopping giving contractor discounts shortly afterwards. These things could have a big effect on your project.

You're going to want a ton of topsoil. You're going to need the materials to ensure that your topsoil stays where you put it. Or, if you don't want green space and pretty growing things and/or vegetables, you're going to want some kind of a deck surface. The cheapest source of decking is abandoned shipping pallets. If the planks are set too far apart you can take the planks off two of them and put them back on one, spaced closely enough for your needs. Again, much depends on what you can source. A beginner deck made out of pallets will give you a chance to decide if you actually get out there and use, and if it is worth the investment in lots of solid pressure treated lumber.

If you have kids keep in mind the play value of what you construct for them and how much their needs will change. A climbing frame is fun, but a play house can also be a clubhouse or a fortress and potentially be a place for them to read, game or hang out when they want to be outside but still want to game or play when they are older and in their teens. So don't make too much that is precious and the right scale for toddlers. Allow room to grow. The spacious toddler play house can become the cozy teen hang out spot, and then the small garden shed for storing things in the winter. If the play house is adorably small you won't be able to repurpose it when the kid grows up or loses interest.

If you install a zipline the kids (or for youself) people will likely get bored with it after the first summer. But the same long green strip of grass can have a zipline one year, mini putt the next year, croquet the year after, and archery the year after that. So don't commit yourself too hard. Leave yourself room to change. Who knows if you might get heavily into garden zenga made out of 2 x 3's.

If you get a trampoline, make sure that you aren't installing it on solid rock, or anyone managing to fall off the thing is guaranteed to be seriously hurt.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:52 AM on January 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

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