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Renovation diary, backyard edition: The reveal

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The biggest lesson from this project? Learn to work with what you’ve got

The homeowners used cedar planks, recycled from their architect Otto Ruano’s former deck, to cover the crumbling asphalt shingles of a neighbor’s garage wall and to build plant boxes and borders. 

Construction projects are always hurry up and wait. It took months to jump the hurdles of the Department of Buildings to get our backyard staircase approved; it took less than two weeks for our contractors, CNS, to finish the job.

As we requested, they kept the original moldings around what had been a dining room window, enlarging the opening to fit a custom glass door. The most challenging moment turned out to be getting the pre-assembled custom steel staircase through the house. Such is row house life.

By now, it was early July, and we could finally turn our attention to the backyard itself, which would largely be a DIY project. In the end, the most important lesson we would learn was to work with what we had—including the quirks of the existing space—and to be flexible.

Nowhere was this truer than the detested garage wall, which formed the back border of our yard. Initially, the neighbor who owned the garage, who happens to be a contractor, offered to send a crew to tear off the old shingles, which predated his ownership, and repaint the remaining cement-block wall. We’d hide any imperfections in the wall with the slatted back panel that came with the Home Depot pergola we’d chosen. As we waited (and waited) for our neighbor to make good on his offer, we started to worry that asbestos lurked somewhere in the shingle mix.

The pea gravel covers the cracked cement. The cafe table and chairs offer morning shade for coffee.
The new staircase from the first floor, installed by CNS Construction, means the homeowners no longer have to access the backyard from the basement.

It was our architect Otto Ruano’s idea to instead cover the wall with cedar that had once been his deck, now gathering dust in his garage. It was a stroke of brilliance, saving us the mess of the shingles and the prospect of a pockmarked wall, and affording us the warmth and natural color gradients of reclaimed cedar.

Getting the planks to the backyard was the next challenge. They were 16 feet long, longer than the SUV we borrowed, and though we managed to get them to the house, they had to be sawed in half at the front gate before they could fit through any door. It took three of us, two trips, and several hours.

Initially, we had assumed we would lay the cedar planks horizontally, braced by two-by-fours. But after some experimenting, and the expert tutelage of the folks at Platz Hardware, my partner found they would affix directly to the wall, using deck screws. Laying them vertically allowed them to be flush against the shingles.

The quirks of the space dictated our design again when we looked to hide the jagged, crumbling stretch of concrete at the base of the garage, possibly the result of a sloppy demolition job. Though we hadn’t initially planned on it, my partner decided to build plant boxes along the back wall.

We’d discovered that re-laying and possibly mortaring the bluestones would be a project far beyond our budget, but my partner played a game of tetris with a few of them, laying along the perimeter the ones he lifted to make room for the boxes. Where the garage wall was set back slightly, he discovered a layer of cement. He worked around that by building tiered boxes, where we would eventually plant a row of grasses and, below that, a tree.

With the remaining cedar, he built two long boxes for the perimeter. We prepped the surface by pulling the zombie-like weeds, and I spent hours hand-collecting and sifting through the pebbles and digging out fragments of garbage bags they’d been laid on. The internet gave me an ingenious solution for taming the crabgrass that grew between the bluestones, and whose roots were tough to suss out: a mix of vinegar and dish soap. Within a day or so, they died off, and as I write this six weeks later, only a few sprouts have reemerged.

At first, we thought we would use the existing pebbles to cover the cracked cement. But they were too big and unstable to be comfortable to walk on or hold furniture, so we ordered $278 worth of these mini marble chips, along with soil. Home Depot had same-day delivery, but only curbside, which made for some heavy lifting. But the mini marble chips proved perfect for the space, with the table balancing on one bluestone. That part of the backyard is shady in the morning, perfect for morning coffee.

The homeowners upgraded the old IKEA table with a coat of waterproof paint to match the staircase and pergola. They kept the vinyl fence to cut down on costs and waste.
The homeowners planted flowering clematis vines to begin climbing up the side of the pergola. The sectional is from Wayfair and the pillows are from World Market.

We were finally ready to plant, but we knew we needed help. We’d looked into the Chelsea Garden Center’s design service, but no one ever followed up with us to schedule the consultation. We got lucky when we learned that Geneva Williams, who happens to co-own one of our favorite neighborhood spots, Julia’s, is also an expert gardener and was willing to consult for a reasonable fee.

She tipped us off that Hick’s Nursery in Westbury, Long Island is worth the trip. (Indeed, their plants were in much better shape than Chelsea Garden Center’s, and for at around half the price.) We headed out just in time for the nursery’s 4th of July sale and ended up with a Tonto Crepe Myrtle (at 30 percent off, $210), a bloodgood Japanese Maple ($169), some majestic ombré smokebushes, and a whole mess of coneflowers, grasses, and herbs.

I’d thought vegetables would be too ambitious, but decided there was no harm in trying, especially because by then they were on clearance. We decided to try some varieties of hot pepper, tomatoes, and herbs. Geneva helped us figure out how to get the variegated color and wild intermingling we craved.

We removed a few more bluestone pieces to allow space for the trees, including the dogwood our neighbor gave us, and my partner filled the base of them with landscape fabric and gravel. (He also left a portion of gravel perimeter unplanted, as a designated bathroom for our dog.)

Geneva Williams, a gardener and owner of Ridgewood establishment Julia’s, helped the homeowners plant a mix of grasses, flowers and smoke bushes along the perimeter. They planted tomatoes and peppers in the other raised bed.

Last came the pergola. The folks at Home Depot agreed to sponsor this project, sending along two of their Sicilia pergolas and some string lights. The pergola itself was just as we’d hoped, but know this: It is not, in fact, 9x9, but rather a few inches over that, meaning we could only fit two if we rotated them sideways, potentially posing problems with moving the shade.

By this point, we had realized that the recessed part of the garage wall would be the perfect place for a decorative tree like the crepe myrtle, which happened to be taller than the pergola. So we decided one pergola was plenty to provide shade, even if it came at the cost of the symmetry I’d coveted for the space. Again: working with what we’ve got.

At the base of the slatted side, we planted some clematis from Crest Hardware in Williamsburg (smaller than Hicks, but more convenient for a quick trip) in boxes made from the final scraps of cedar. We’ve decided to welcome the rapacious morning glory vines coming over from our neighbor’s house, which just might provide more shade than the screening the pergola mesh provides.

A Hampton Bay Sicilia pergola, courtesy of Home Depot, provides partial shade. A Tonto crepe myrtle makes a virtue out of the asymmetry of the garage wall.

Underneath the pergola we put a sectional we’d ordered during the Memorial Day sale from Wayfair ($789) which came with the coffee table. We figured the slats would be visually consistent with the cedar wall and our existing Ikea set, though it’s taken me awhile to get over the fact that there are multiple wood finishes. I wasn’t initially sold on the blue upholstery, either (gray was sold out and my partner refused white on the grounds of impracticality) but now I think it’s a welcome pop of color against the browns and greens. I picked up the throw pillows on sale at the World Market in Union Square.

We hadn’t planned on getting a new grill, but on a late night Home Depot trip my partner talked the manager into giving us a discontinued Weber Spirit floor model for 50 percent off ($175.) Sure, summer’s almost over, but we’re ready to happily hang out here ’til the frost.