HOUSE: Newburgh

Garden frustration.

Following the wake-up call that was the landscaper’s quote on our original garden plan, I feel like I’ve hit a wall in terms of planning our outdoor space. Landscaping is expensive, hard work. Work that we don’t have the time, expertise, or energy for. Also, because we live in a row house with limited access to the garden beyond walking through the house or basement, it’s very difficult to see how exactly we would be able to get, say, 2.5 tons of pea gravel back there.

It’s a 35’x20′ lot, and I have no idea what to do with it. Somehow, I thought that having the mulberry tree removed would get things in motion. It’s gone (and I’m glad—the thing was a berry-dropping, sunlight-killing, ant-attracting beast) but I’m still at a loss. All I know is that I don’t want grass, it has to be dog-friendly, I want to grow some vegetables, and it can’t cost a fortune.

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  • Reply Brita April 17, 2008 at 11:52 pm

    If I was going to start a new garden I would put in a good fence for privacy, a gravel path through the middle and raised garden beds (3-4 feet wide) around the edges. Some organic gardening books have plans as to how to do raised beds and it is quite simple, involves no serious digging and a local everyday sort of gardener could help you if needed. I would also buy a compost bin.
    After you get over the initial daunting stages gardening is really addictive and fun- especially when beautiful things like tulips appear in spring.
    I love your blog by the way- it is inspiring and you have a beautiful home.

  • Reply Seth April 18, 2008 at 12:07 am

    Where there’s a will, there’s a way… They have massive pea-gravel-shooting machines on cranes that will actually shoot the rocks over your house if need be, but somehow I think a wheelbarrow through the neighbour’s yard would be cheaper and less stressful. Get a second quote on the yard!

  • Reply Elisabet April 18, 2008 at 6:57 am

    I also live in a rowhouse, on a little hill. We carried 4 tons of gravel and 2 tons of concrete round the two last rowhouses (ours is the third) in buckets, with the help of parents, brothers and friends last year.The ground around our house is not exactly even, we couldn’t even use a wheelbarrow, I thought we would never get it done. And all the digging, and to get the concrete even and… But this spring I am so happy we have done it, can’t wait to start putting plants where we used to have grass and to sit on our concrete patio that is three times the size of the ugly one we had before.

  • Reply N April 18, 2008 at 7:24 am

    You have been so careful in restoring the rest of your house, but if you ever do sell it, that 2.5 tonnes of pea gravel would be a sin for which the new owners would curse you forever. No matter how good your underlayment, it is still a maintenance nightmare: stray leaves, garbage, and still a weed will manage to grown in zero soil. What about instead making the pavers in your plan much larger (you can even pour them yourself in place by making a simple form) and filling in the spaces with an orderly looking groundcover. I would have suggested dwarf mondo grass (which stays short and doesn’t ever need to be mowed), but is only hardy to -10 degrees F. Perhaps one of the sedums? There are hundreds to choose from. It looks like you’re in zone 6a… The the regional Gardenweb forum people are very helpful about suggesting things that will work in your area. And of course checking with a local and reputable nursery is always a good way to get advice. Some even have garden “coaches” these days, which is a nice way to get a couple of hours of advice (for $50-100) instead of paying a landscape architect $5-10,000 for a plan.

  • Reply Anna at D16 April 18, 2008 at 8:07 am

    Thanks, everyone. Just a few points to clarify on:

    It’s not so much that I’m daunted by the actual planting and growing process, it’s the layout and design of the garden that I have concerns about. As much as I would never consider putting a matching “living room set” in my home, I really don’t want to wind up with a standard-issue symmetrical garden with a planting beds on the sides, etc. Design is very important to me, and as much as I feel like I have a grasp of printed matter and interiors (to an extent), the living world of the outdoors is an entirely different thing.

    N: Unfortunately, even pavers require an underlayment of compacted gravel (or crushed stone) and sand in order to sit properly and not have problems during the winters of New York. (Also, I don’t care what future owners might think when it comes to kitchen countertops, bathroom showers, painted woodwork, OR gardens! This is my house, my space, my life…)

    Seth and Elisabet: Let’s just say that I have a less than agreeable neighbor, and leave it at that. 😛

  • Reply J April 18, 2008 at 8:46 am

    I say putting up a really beautiful fence would get the ball rolling and be a great inspiration! I have seen so many beautiful/modern fence ideas! What I would do is make a list of my backyard priorities-like exactly what do you want to plant? How much patio/deck space do you want–maybe start by designing the patio first and the garden will follow, you could even use some great outdoor furniture for you inspiration-that would be kind of a way of starting with what you know. Good luck!

  • Reply srw April 18, 2008 at 9:20 am

    I’m sure you may have considered this, but what about increasing the size of each planting bed so as to require less gravel, sand, etc. and then dishing out bribes – first, to your disagreeable neighbor(s) to allow access and, second, to your family and friends to help you move the supplies. I find that family and friends are always satisfied with pizza and beer, though finding out what motivates your neighbor may be a little more tricky. Are your neighbors behind your house any more friendly? Or perhaps those are the difficult ones…

  • Reply alice April 18, 2008 at 9:42 am

    I admire your spirit about future owners. I intend to sell in about 5 years so am keeping anything too ‘me’ and expensive as removable objects. No patterned wallpaper etc boo! One day…

    You said you didn’t want it, but to stick up for it, lawn *is* a very affordable way to map out a firm design. Also you could change it later without killing yourself. It’s possible to do something very geometric, I’ve seen very cool things done with interlocking circles, and dogs love it. Oh and not to mention all the summer laying around on it that is possible. But having said all that I do appreciate it is not everyone’s cup of tea. I think I have a British person’s love of lawn 🙂

    I hope you find a solution!

  • Reply m April 18, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Hey Anna,

    I think you had a photo of a dream garden up recently which used a raised bed for a vegetable planter? You can spin that your own way and do a container vegetable garden with wine barrels, troughs, etc. I could see a cluster of containers on each side of the fence, with pea gravel underneath, to break up the look. Maybe a garden bench in between …

    I’m the queen of wanna be yard people.

  • Reply ann April 18, 2008 at 10:24 am

    You can do it, just do it in stages. You already have your ideal layout, right? You can do a patio to get things started — maybe in a weekend. Getting things rolling will get you motivated to continue. I live in a rowhouse too, though with not as many access issues, but my backyard is similar to yours. Here’s the patio my husband did in 3 days (and he’d never done a project like that before):

  • Reply jana April 18, 2008 at 10:31 am

    Hi, I don´t have time to read all previous comments, so maybe someone already said something similar.
    We have flat stones in our yard, various sizes, there are small gaps between them. It looks good, and we don´t have to care about it (like with grass). There is some grass in those gaps, but very little. I don´t know, though, how hard it would be to create this. But your garden is quite small, so maybe this would be an option.
    But, there is a tree and a place with grass in the corner of the yard, where our dog is used to defecate (I´m not native speaker, how do you call this…). I think most dogs like to do this on some nature – not stone or pavement. So maybe a small place with grass for them to go to the toilet. 🙂

  • Reply Kyle April 18, 2008 at 11:10 am

    Get a second quote.

  • Reply Anna at D16 April 18, 2008 at 11:25 am

    Okay, here’s where I start to sound like one of those people who shoots down every idea offered to them! I apologize in advance.

    J: I would loooove to start by putting up a beautiful fence, but the expense of doing so is very likely to be more than we can afford (everything we do is on a tight budget). Fencing is pretty expensive, even if you do it yourself…and even if you go with standard-issue stockade panels. We have a guy coming later today to give us a quote on a fence, so we’ll see how that goes. The issue with the patio/deck situation is that there’s already a bunch of cement out there, as well as an ugly 6×7 deck (you can kind of see it in the photo above), and we’re not sure we can handle the labor involved with removing either. Also, we live in a city (no driveway, etc.), and permits and insurance are required for both installing a fence and parking a dumpster to remove construction debris. Nothing is simple, and we have so little time to do anything. It’s hard to decide if we want to work with what we have, or if we want to rip EVERYTHING out and start over.

    srw: The whole situation is difficult. We’re in the middle of the block, surrounded by people without driveways who don’t even have street access to their own yards. There are a lot of renters, and nobody uses their back yards AT ALL, other than to dump excess trash (as you can see in the photo above). Unfortunately, this isn’t the kind of area where people are hanging out in their gardens and helping their neighbors out with home improvement projects. You should have seen the chaos that went on when we had our mulberry tree cut down the other day. Yikes!

    alice: I love a nice grass lawn too, but I don’t want to fight a losing battle. The soil here is very poor, for one thing. I’m not willing to do what would have to be done chemically for a lawn to survive, nor to I believe in the extensive watering that it would require. I want the garden to be as self-sustainable as possible, particularly the parts of it that won’t be producing food. I am looking into other ground coverings, though, that won’t be as high maintenance!

    Ani: Thank you, I’ll take a look at those! 🙂

    Ann: Since we most likely won’t be able to remove the existing cement patio and ugly deck that are in place (see above), we can’t follow the “ideal layout” plan that I had posted. A modernist garden like that one really requires materials that we either can’t afford (e.g. bluestone pavers, cedar plank fencing) or can’t realistically get into the yard by ourselves (e.g. gravel). Because of that, we really have to start over with our thinking and try to come up with a plan that’s a lot more “rustic” and that will accommodate the less-appealing features of the garden as it is right now, like the cement patio and the deck (neither of which are large enough to be usable for sitting on!).

    Jana: That’s what we’re thinking about (stones with grass or other ground covering in between) right now. Do you have a photo of your garden? I can always use more inspiration! As for our dogs, they are pad-trained (well, the new little guy is still working on it!) so they go inside most of the time. Bruno grew up in the city, so he is plenty fine going on pavement, too. I’m really hoping the garden doesn’t become their toilet, though! 🙂

  • Reply jana April 18, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    Ok, I put the photo on my blog for you. It´s only a part of it. Nothing fancy, but practical and we like it. There is also the cement path, which doesen´t have to be there.

  • Reply jana April 18, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    Oh, the adress:

  • Reply modernemama April 18, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    I don’t know if you’ve looked outside the US for inspiration but the bbc gardening design website has a quite a few ideas and they give each one a price range and maintenance level!

  • Reply Jaimie April 18, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    Hi Anna,

    I admire your attitude too about decorating your house/garden for yourselves, not for future owners. I don’t know what the future holds for us in our current house (I love it, but with one baby on the way and the hope for a second in the future, we may outgrow it unless we can add on). But, even though this may not be our “forever house,” we’ve decided to go ahead and decorate it the way we like — including patterned wallpaper in three of the rooms. Life is too short to live with taupe walls in every room just because that’s tastefully neutral for some future, unknown buyer (who knows — that future buyer may love our wallpaper!)

    As for your garden, the one thing I wondered about was cedar shavings on the pathways instead of pea gravel? It seems those would be easier to schlep through your house, if necessary, and would be fine to have with dogs. I know the aesthetic isn’t quite the same, but if you had the modern raised beds that you desire the overall look would still be very contemporary.

    Another thing that I think could look cool in your space in a modern fence, perhaps with horizontal instead of vertical slats, perhaps even painted a dark colour like charcoal? I’ve seen some neat things too with trellises made of string or wire in a bold geometric pattern with vines trained along them. Lots of impact.

  • Reply Gabrielle April 18, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    I would definitely start with the fence. Even if you can’t afford a wooden fence, what about willow or bamboo panels (–xaCq5ZICFQEhgwodjB9v4Q or

    I know, it’s not exactly modern, but having a fence will definitely give you more clarity and definition of the space you have. Seeing into your neighbors yards doesn’t help when you are trying to envision your own.

    You might want to check out The City Gardener ( – he may have some ideas for you too.

    Gardens take a while to get going. The hardscaping is the worst part, but from reading your blog, I have a feeling you’ll come up with a brilliant solution.

  • Reply lwm April 18, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    We have the same fencing predicament. We bought a house and the previous owners had slapped up a new fence and did a terrible job – then painted it red!! I can’t justify the expense of a new fence to replace this new janky fence, but I hate looking at it!
    I found a source for bamboo fencing that we may use, maybe you could put it up to cover the chain link facing the inside of your yard? (I don’t know the quality of this stuff).
    Even if you have to slowly carry pea gravel bags through your house into the back yard, when there’s a will there’s a way! Lava rock is lighter, I don’t know if it comes in different colors than red?
    On another note, regarding styling your house for you and you only, I don’t know who wouldn’t want to buy your house when and if you move; I’ve enjoyed your house tour on AT and think you’ve done a wonderful job!!

  • Reply Chee Ann April 18, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    My mother (60) owns a brownstone in Park Slope. She’s an avid gardener. She’s created an amazing garden (over the course of 30 years) and I’ve helped her haul tons of material through the house. Do not be discouraged!

  • Reply Emily April 20, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    You have a very nice blog which I really enjoy reading so I have tagged you with a meme. Check it out:

  • Reply lindsay April 20, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    Hi Anna,

    A couple of suggestions…

    Have you considered concrete for parts of your hardscape? It’s very versatile. It can take any shape you like, it can be stamped, polished, acid stained, you can put all kinds of things in it for interest. Metal, rock, glass, color? I’ve seen really nice minimal modern type applications using concrete. You could extend your current little slab with ease. Incorporated with some wood to add warmth, and then using a variety of low maintenence plants to add some organic appeal. Also, if you’re on a budget have you considered bartering services on craigslist. My husband has had many offers to exchange his handyman skills for things such as web-design services, logo design etc. Two parties come to an agreement on how to exchange services and everyone wins!

  • Reply kiki April 23, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    What about this idea I found:

    see photo

    First time poster who really enjoys keeping up with your blog.

  • Reply Anna at D16 April 23, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    Kiki, I’m confused. You saw that photo on this blog, and even linked back to me in the post…! Or is there another photo you meant to show me??

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