Quick disclaimer: I'm not a "yard guy" nor do I get any real insane level of satisfaction out of planting things and seeing them grow, but especially after today, I've been feeling pretty good about the yard's slow transformation. However, that happiness has been mildly tempered by the realization that Freckles, apparently, has decided that she likes to jump over the 2' tall chicken wire fence, that I put up to guard the freshly planted flower seeds, like it isn't even there. I won't get anything to grow with her little paws (they're actually surprisingly large for a dog her size) tearing things up. That said, my frustration with the situation is mildly tempered by my appreciation for 1, her athletic prowess and 2, her disdain for authority. She's a keeper.
Anyhow...planting things. If we go back almost a year ago, the yard looked like this:
Obviously, getting this cleaned up is not a simple weekend project. Over the past year, I've removed most of the Japanese Knotwood, which is the big leafy stuff growing every everywhere. I've trimmed too many tree limbs to count. I've raked and raked and raked, because the yard was layered with years of acorns, pine needles, and leaves. And I've excavated a straight up stupid amount of brick and stone from various spots throughout the yard.
Oh, and I unearthed the pool, which left me with about 3 yds of dirt that I didn't know what to do with.
With all that stuff out of the way, I was left with mostly dirt, and not even real healthy dirt at that. It was more like dust, really.
Being a rehab project, the yard isn't the focal point of the overall project. But with anything that grows, timing is everything and this is the time of year where a little bit of work will go a long way towards minimizing the pain of continued efforts to turn this yard into something rad.
My primary goal over the weekend was to plant grass seed. I tried last year, but it was kind of a half-assed effort. Not this year.
Today, after doing some final grading and clean up, I put up a temporary fence around the area I wanted to seed. Gotta keep the dogs out - especially Freckles, the wildlife-chaser - if I want anything to grow, ya know? That fence consisted of 6' tall metal fence stakes I had to drive into the ground and 4' tall snow fence. I figured this was a formality and should go smoothly, but because old houses and property developed in the 19th century are never that cooperative, it took a while to get the fence up. Why? Because there's old foundation stone buried ALL OVER THE YARD.
They weren't big stones, but it doesn't take a real big chunk of limestone to stop a metal fence post dead in its tracks. This isn't the fault of a previous homeowner, this is stuff that was leftover, and unused, from the original home construction. I guess it made more sense to simply bury the little stuff, the scraps, in the ground at the job site than it did to haul them to the next job site. I wound up excavating stones, maybe a foot deep, from every spot I wanted a fence post. Good times.
Then I unrolled the fence, zip tied it to the posts, and was off to the races.
I mixed up about 30 lbs of a variety of grass seed. I (sort of) followed a mixture recommended by the Missouri Botanical Garden, which called for something like 95% tall fescue and 5% Kentucky bluegrass. I spread that all over the yard, or at least the northern 75%, and then got to work. The seed didn't cover the desired area like I thought it would or like I wanted it to; I probably should have doubled the poundage. Blah blah blah hindsight. 🤷🏼♂️
With the seed down, I mixed up the 3 yds of excavated pool dirt with 6 bags of compost, about a half a bag of potting soil I had leftover, and another yard of a dirt/compost mixture I'd been brewing for the past several months. I was basically trying to get rid of all the dirt I had, whether it made any sense to or not. That dirt was then spread, 1 painful shovel full after another, on top of the seed and raked out to a halfway decent grade. I even threw dirt on top of all the little bare patches between clumps of existing grass.
Moving 5 yds of dirt by hand, that was a JOB. I probably shouldn't have started the day at 6am out in the woods with the dogs on a hilly 3-mile hike.
With the fence up, seed down, and dirt spread, I watered the hell out of all of it. The end result:
She ain't pretty, but she's also a far cry from what existed a year ago. Baby steps. If even half the seed germinates, I'll be thrilled. Subsequent projects will include getting a new fence screen, since there's a big gap where the shed once stood and a giant rip (that I zip tied back together) in the other corner where Freckles likes to stand up and bark at anybody in the alley. If I'm gonna be OK with Roscoe barking inside the house when he hears anybody get close ("guarding the house", we call it), I kinda gotta be OK with Freckles guarding her yard.
If you're keeping track at home, over the past couple weeks I've planted flowers along the side of my neighbor's house and planted grass in the northeast chunk of the yard. The northwest corner is a whole separate can of worms that's on hold for the time being, and that leaves...the pool area, which is just behind where I took the above pic from.
The game plan is to leave the pool exactly as it is (after I clean out the remnants of the tree limbs that fell in it back in January). It's too beat up to reuse in any capacity, and it's too awesome a find to tear out or fill in. It's got sort of a relic look to it so I'm going to leave it, build a little dirt berm around it to keep a whole lot of water out of it when it rains, and plant stuff on that berm. I'll leave a path around it, because Freckles likes to run circles around it and there's no way I'll get her to stop doing that.
The idea is to create a bit of a wildflower area here. The shade from the pine tree means grass won't stand a chance, and I sort of like the idea of a bit of a flowery separation of the yard from the view from the street. Plus, with the pool being sort of a ruin, I think the best landscaping look will be to play off that and aside from the path around it, plant some stuff and sort of let the area do its thing without a whole lot of human intervention.
That's the plan, anyhow. Of course I used all the dirt I had so building that berm will be tricky, but once the berm is in place I've got a LOT of little ferns to plant; hopefully the'll kinda creep over the pool edge and prevent too much erosion. Once those take hold I'll start adding stuff like this:
Know what that is? That's Indian Pink, or Spigelia Marilandica.
I went through the Missouri Botanical Garden's plant finder thing to identify native plants that would grow in the conditions near the pool and provide the look I'm going for; Indian Pink made the cut. I got 10 of these, bare root form, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little excited that at least 8 of them (I think some wildlife dug up the other 2) have started to look like something.
So...lots of planting lately, lots of labor, and lots of muddy boot prints in all corners of the house. By the end of the day I felt like I was about 6, maybe 7 minutes from death. Or at least some sorta coma. And I'm 4,000% OK with it, if it means the yard continues to look less and less like it did when I bought the place.
Before I get 100% dedicated to the first big house rehab project, I wanted to take a few days to get the back yard looking decent. Not good, just decent. Baby steps.
I took a couple days off work and wanted to:
I was doing pretty good.
I designed the firewood rack:
I built the firewood rack (its roof was donated from the demo'd metal shed):
I got this pile of wood moved and (mostly) stacked in the rack:
The other pile is pretty seasoned, so I figured I'd just leave it where it is and burn through it as quickly as I can:
I got the area along my neighbor's foundation - it's where the big white pine branches landed when they came down in the ice storm 1/1/2021 - cleaned up and flowers planted:
Some of that green stuff was transplanted from other areas of the yard; I have that shit EVERYWHERE. I even dug some of it up and just threw it away. What you can't see are the 9,000,000 seeds I threw in the ground, 1 or 2 at a time. What did I plant, you're probably asking yourself?
Geographically appropriate. Should do OK in the conditions in which they'll live. Oh, and the dirt I added, it's a combination of soil that came out of the pool (gotta use it somewhere) mixed w compost I added to it.
I got the shed demo'd:
You've met Freckles, right? She'd live outside if I let her; I spent the better part of the past 4 days outside, and she was out there with me for every minute of it. She's a good helper...provided I stop working every so often to throw her ball or rope bone or sticks or pretty much anything she can go get and bring back to me to do it all over again.
Anyhow, this is where the project started to derail.
The shed had been erected a few feet off either fence, and somebody had laid bricks in the space between the shed and the fence. The bricks were par for the course with this yard; I was NOT expecting to find the stone that was under the brick. That stuff all has to come out, or grass will never grow because in the summer the stones and masonry heat up, even if they're buried, and cook whatever's above them.
Then there was the shed's plywood floor. It was rotten to the point of being, basically, mulch. I picked up what I could, but a lot of it just fell apart. Same with the 2 layers of plastic that was under the plywood; it was disintegrating and painstakingly slow to remove on account of it coming out in teeny, tiny pieces.
Once I got the big stuff removed, I'd kind of shuffle dirt piles from 1 spot to another, uncovering more chunks of plywood and plastic that I'd grab and pull out of the dirt. I finally reached a point where I felt like I'd removed anything worth removing and started grading things out. The end was in sight.
And then the rake got caught up in some metal. I could have sworn I'd removed all the debris from this location, and aside from the shed, hadn't come across any buried metal. This was weird.
I got down on my hands and knees and realized the metal was a grate of some sort. I looked closer and the grate was covering a pipe, a big 3" clay pipe running straight into the ground.
This merited a scrapping of the plans and beginning an excavation to see what the shed had been placed on top of.
This is what I ultimately found:
I still don't know what it was. The structure you see in the pic, it's some sort of plaster-early-concrete hybrid, sort of like the same stuff the pool is made out of. The drain pipe runs straight into the ground and then turns horizontal and runs through the retaining wall at the rear of the property and dumps into the alley.
My neighbor, who's an archaeologist, suggested it may have been some sort of privy but we both have doubts about that. The location is right, the footprint is right, but the lack of an underground cavity is off. Similarly, that wall is built w the same brick as the garage, and the garage only goes back to about the 1920s. A privy would have been obsolete by the 1920s, so why build that retaining wall AND leave that pipe if a privy was no longer in use? And who puts a grate on TOP of a privy drain?
Of course I dug and I dug and I dug, kinda halfheartedly because I have 4,000 other projects to get to and the bees...holy shit...the bees. I don't know what was in the ground back there, but dozens of bees - I didn't get stung - swarmed that area the minute I got a few inches below grade. And they stayed there. And swarmed.
I found a lot of trash like broken glass, broken clay flower pots, a handful of bricks, stuff like that, but no discernible structure and no real artifact type stuff. If something had existed there below grade, it was demo'd and mostly gone. Of course, if one were to demo an underground structure, why leave that plaster-concrete cap on top and not demo it as well? Lots of puzzle pieces, but nothing fit together.
Long story short, this one will remain a mystery. I demo'd the plaster-concrete cap, filled in the giant hole I dug, and will plant grass seed once the rain stops. I wish I knew what had been there, whether it was privy or some sort of water feature or old drain/washout area...but I doubt I ever will.
Oh, and I didn't get the grass seed planted. That's the moral of the story.
If you've ever lived in an old house, let alone tried to rehab one, then you know that 1, there are very, very few standalone projects and 2, even the smallest, most mundane tasks often turn into fiascos. This past week, that's what I ran into.
I want to grow grass in the back yard this year. Shouldn't be that complicated, right? Grass seed, water, a little sun...BOOM, grass. That's the end goal, and what I've started trying to tackle now that the weather is warming up a bit.
The challenge is that the soil I'm dealing with is garbage. If you were following along last year then you know that when I took ownership of the place, the yard looked like this:
The place was a wreck, right? I cleared most of the brush and leaves and pine needles, and I trimmed trees like I was getting paid by the limb. Underneath all that nonsense, I found this scattered and buried all over the yard:
BURIED. SCATTERED. AND BURIED.
I'm sure there's still more to be discovered, and while that may not look like much it filled up about 1/6 of a 30yd dumpster. Some high-level math will tell ya that's about 5yds of crap. It definitely put me over the dumpster's weight limit.
Anyhow, I was left with mostly dirt for a yard. I made some late-season attempts to grow grass but it was too hot, and Freckles tore too much of it up running around. This was her first day in the yard - before the grass-growing effort - and the only things that have changed since then are that she's bigger, faster, and more energetic.
The grass that took hold is pretty clumpy and regardless, the yard is still more dirt and weeds than legit grass. So that's how this little ditty starts, me wanting to grow grass.
I need to make the ground a little more conducive to grass-growing and I need to fill in quite a few spots where I dug up masonry debris, which means I need some decent dirt. But getting anything reasonable into the yard, like if I were to get a truck load of clean dirt dumped in the street, is borderline impossible due to the stairs and fences (that I'm not disassembling).
I'm kinda forced to work with what I have, which is OK because as it turns out, a handful of massive trees means a massive amount of leaves and all kindsa other organic matter. And the pool I excavated last summer, that yielded about 3yds of dirt. And even with a dirt yard, I still get a couple bags of grass clippings when I mow the lawn.
If I could just find a place in the yard to mix the dirt, leaves, and grass clippings I may be able to generate some decent compost, and that may just enable me to grow some grass. Unfortunately, off the top of my head, I couldn't think of a decent spot for a compost pile.
I didn't want to build something temporary, because have you seen lumber prices lately? I'm not dropping $150+ on lumber to build a dirt box. And I'm not about the get all Pintresty and tack a bunch of pallets together. Nope.
I didn't want to pile the stuff up in some arbitrary spot in the yard because 1, the dogs would undoubtedly tear it apart (especially Freckles), and 2, the yard already sorta looks like hell and I want to make things better, not worse.
I didn't want to use the brick "patio" - the entire northwest corner of the yard is brick - because that brick was laid back in the 20s and between settling and tree roots, there isn't a single brick that's level with the brick adjoining it; running a shovel across that would probably break my wrists.
And then I got to thinking...there's a concrete slab between the garage and the house. It's not big, but it's solid, flat, discreet...pretty perfect, really. Here's the slab, bottom left corner, as it looked on 5/8/2020, the day I closed.
I have no idea why the slab is there. It's not real square to the garage, although the giant red oak just out of the pic may have something to do with that. I assumed it was maybe 6' one direction and 3 or 4 the other direction.
So the other night after work, I was in the back yard running around with Freckles and I decided to grab a shovel and scrape off the concrete slab. That turned into pulling out ivy and excavating more giant chunks of limestone, and next thing I knew:
I didn't take any "before" pics because I really only intended to spend about 3 minutes with a scoop shovel, moving acorns and leaves off the slab. An hour later, I discovered:
Neat. You had a concrete slab and instead of it being 6x4, it's really 6x6 (6.5' x 6.5', technically), who cares? Right?
Here's the thing: anything on this property that involves a shovel quickly turns into an archeological effort.
While cleaning the gunk off the brick between the slab and the garage, I noticed a spot where a handful of bricks were missing. So I started digging, and I started hitting busted up concrete chunks, and limestone, and the same masonry nonsense I'd previously found all over the yard.
And then I found this, buried, of course:
That's, I believe, the original front porch floor. The tile is right, the colors are right, and given the giant chunk of concrete it's affixed to, it's definitely a floor of some sort. It's conceivable that it was a bathroom floor, but around there, those were usually white with black accent tile, and the front porches were usually white with blue accent tile. I'm calling this the original front porch floor. And it would make zero sense to demo somebody else's porch, drag the debris over to this house, and then bury it.
So that was kind of a cool discovery, although the help wasn't real impressed.
And then I started trying to piece all of it together. I know the house was built in the 1870s. I know the garage was built in the 1920s. I know that prior to the garage, there were at least 2 wooden structures in its place. I believe the house's front porch was added sometime in the 1920s. Brick was once a pretty common way to "pave" large areas so the back yard brick could date to the original construction, but I think it's more likely to have been laid in the 1920s. And then there's the concrete slab, what purpose did/does it serve? It doesn't appear to be new, but it's not THAT old. A cistern cap of some sort, perhaps? When did the bricks and slab happen, and when was concrete debris buried?
And then I got to thinking about the red oak that's just southwest of the concrete slab and sits dead nuts center on the property line I share with my neighbor. It's a massive tree, and I can't overstate this. I started thinking about how old it might be, and when it may have first popped out of the ground.
It's not a great pic, but between the evening shadows and there being no real good vantage point from which to get a pic of the whole thing, it was the best I could do. Here's the base of the tree:
Everything in this pic is a future project, so try not to focus on how gross all of it is. If you look close, you can spot a brick the tree has halfway swallowed. Anyhow, there's a method of approximating tree age based on diameter and a predetermined growth factor, so I got out my tape measure. I couldn't wrap the tape around the tree - I'd need 2, maybe 3 people - so I laid the tape across the tree and eyeballed the diameter. I'm pretty good at that sorta thing, so I'm confident in my number: 46 inches.
The age equation is this:
TREE AGE (IN YEARS) = TREE DIAMETER (INCHES) X GROWTH FACTOR.
The growth factor for a red oak is 6.7.
46 inches X 6.7 = 308 years
THAT TREE IS, POTENTIALLY, SOMEWHERE AROUND 300 YEARS OLD.
That's early 1700s.
There's another red oak in the northeast corner of the yard, almost the same size. Unfortunately, it's pretty close to the alley, which means power lines, which means the utility company has butchered the tree a little bit over the years.
She's deceptively large. I got the tape around 'er, thanks to a little creativity and help from the nearby fence.
120 inch circumference. Divide that by Pi, that's around 38 inches. 38 inches X 6.7 = 256.
That tree is, potentially, around 250 years old. Not quite as insane as 300, but close.
Granted, one can Google growth factors and get a variety of numbers, so these trees may not be as old as the model I used suggest (they may be more like 184 years and 152 years old, respectively). Regardless, in either case the trees predate the house, which I find kinda cool.
So...I want to grow grass in the back yard, and my efforts got sidetracked by digging up an old tile floor and wanting to figure out how old the 2 biggest red oaks in the yard might be.
Sounds about right. With old houses there are no linear, standalone projects.
Last year I gutted the basement. I didn't pull every last nail or scrape every last plaster crumb off the walls, but I knocked out the bulk of the heavy lifting. While doing that, I discovered that the stone around the windows - particularly in the angled, bumped-out section - was in rough shape.
With the drywall, insulation, and framing removed, this is what I was left with:
At the time, at first glance, I felt like these 3 windows (of 9 basement window openings in total) were the worst of the bunch. They obviously needed to be repointed at the very least, but that project didn't rank real high on the priority list.
Later in the year I demo'd the basement bathroom and in doing so, I discovered a brand new candidate for the basement-window-opening-in-the-worst-shape award:
The bathroom window had obviously been a mouse infiltration point, which made the window repointing project creep a little higher on the priority list. I decided I'd better inspect all the windows a little more closely, and because this was December and it had started getting cold outside, I realized that there were a couple window openings allowing a lot of outside air into the basement. Like, it was discernibly windy INSIDE the basement near some of the windows.
In particular, the window north of the bathroom window and south of the bump out windows was the worst air infiltration culprit. That's where I started repointing.
This is that window opening, before I started raking out old mortar. It's a tough window to photograph because a big duct runs directly overhead, but here's a little context:
The stone foundation makes use of some interesting construction. There's an outer wythe, for lack of a better term, of large, super heavy stones with relatively flat faces. There's an inner wythe, made up of somewhat smaller stones that have somewhat flat faces, and then in between, it's like the builders just dumped mortar and all the smaller, stone off cuts to fill the void between the wythes. If and when water gets in the wall, which will happen if windows aren't properly maintained, the stones hold up just fine. But the mortar, that's a different story, and in the interior space that's just as much mortar as it is stone, that's where these windows really have some issues.
Anyhow, I started cleaning up the window, removing old insulation, trim, plaster, anything that wasn't window, stone, or mortar. This included getting a skeleton stuck in the shop-vac.
After that, I started raking out mortar. I sort of assumed I'd be able to remove quite a bit, but what I hadn't anticipated was having it fall apart inside the wall to the extent that I could reach my arm - up to my elbow - into the walls to pull out loose stone.
When it was all said I had removed plenty of mortar and quite a bit of loose stone.
Then I started putting things back together. This window was tricky because I had to work from the inside out, starting with the big voids deep inside the wall on either side of the window. I did my best to find appropriately sized stones for the various nooks and crannies, but because I couldn't really see what I was doing, the work was ultimately an exercise in dumping a LOT of new mortar back into the voids, spreading it around as best I could, stuffing rocks into the wall as far back as I could push them, adding more mortar, spreading it around, and hoping for the best.
The closer I got to the surface of the wall, the easier the work became. I figured I'd repoint right up to the window jamb, and make sure the surface joints were as clean as I could make them.
Because of the quantity of mortar I was having to lay down, I didn't attempt to do too much in any given chunk of time so that what had been applied had a chance to set up and start curing. The mortar will shrink a tiny bit as it cures, and in small amounts - like a 1/2" strip between stones - the shrinkage is borderline nonexistent. Inside the wall, where I couldn't see what I was doing, I didn't want to have a giant ball of mortar that was going to wind up shrinking and cracking. By working methodically and in small sections, I could focus my attention on making sure I was filling voids with mostly stone - not mortar - and then come back the following day to assess what needed to happen in the next small section.
To this point, I've buttoned up the sill and about 1/2 way up either side of the window, but I stopped there because after pulling some insulation down from the bricked-in window opening north of this window, I discovered that it had legit holes in the wall. Big holes in the wall take precedence over small holes in the wall, so I'll come back to get this thing finished up sometime soon. But for now, she looks like this:
Been a while since we talked, eh? Long story short, I was sorta in the middle of a couple different projects and then my computer died. DIED died. Not like I needed to add more memory or clean up some files or reboot it and load some previous backed up version of everything; she DIED.
It was time, as the ol' iMac was just about 10 years old. Of course once one uses a 21" iMac for a decade, there really isn't any substitute except another 21" (or larger) iMac. I like buying the refurbished ones from Apple because it typically save me a few hundred bucks, but of course I waited a hair too long to pull the trigger on a new (refurbished) one and **POOF**, the 21" models were all sold out.
So I had to wait, and then once I was able to purchase one, I had to deal with FedEx delivering it to the wrong house, which was quite the little adventure.
But now I'm back up and running...I think I left off with some basement demo. Let's start catching up there. This is how the basement bathroom looked a few blog updates ago:
Then she looked like this:
And now, she looks more or less like this:
I did go ahead and remove the toilet as well, but I didn't think that event was monumental enough to merit pics. By all rights I should have started in right after that on repointing the window above the toilet, but it's a vinyl replacement window stuffed inside the original wood jamb and I want to go back to a wood window that matches the others; repointing the stone around that window opening at this point feels a lot like I'd be polishing a turd.
Plus, I have a little side project I need to get going on, and that side project necessitates the use of all my woodworking tools, and the old bathroom space seemed like the best spot, currently, in the house to set that stuff up. So that's what I started doing, moving the bigger tools from all over the main floor of the house into the basement.
A lot more got moved than what I captured in the pic, but I didn't waste a whole lot of time before setting things up, firing things up, and making sawdust and a mess in general all over the basement. Maybe we can discuss that little side project next...