Suggestions for a DIY 'landscaping' renovation

jplee3March 27, 2012

Hey all,

First off, I'll preface this by saying I don't have any pictures...yet! I will try to get some up so it's more helpful in terms of the questions and concerns I have.

Basically, I have a smallish backyard (I'm going to guess 200-300 sq. ft. max) with four birds of paradise plants (including a giant bird of paradise), probably 8-10 rose bushes, a couple of jade trees, an unidentified tree (it's pretty small), and a few plants/cacti in pots. All the plants are against the sides of walls, so there's generally a path. If you can imagine, it can actually turn into a forest if not pruned consistently. My wife and I really don't enjoy going into our backyard at all because it's just gets really dusty out there and not so pleasant. The plants also attract lots of spiders, which she absolutely hates. So this makes tending to the forest a dreadful task.

Besides the plants, the yard area was originally covered with wood chips when I first moved in in '07; now it's mostly a mixture of packed dirt and wood chips (resulting from a combination of 'maintenance' and also rainier months). My father-in-law has come on several occasions to help prune and move some plants around (there was a Christmas tree plant that he moved that ended up dying really quickly probably because I didn't water it enough for the roots to really dig in).

Also, there are no gates or direct access to the backyard (and definitely no option to add one, since we're part of an association). The access is either through the kitchen or the master bedroom. Both of which are not really near the front door or garage. When we've pruned and cleaned the yard in the past, we've had to roll a garbage bin to the other side of the wall (it's about 6-8 ft high) and toss the yard scraps over the wall and into the bin. It's either that or carrying everything in giant garbage bags through the house. Such a pain...

I'm really not motivated to tend to these plants due to the amount of labor and time it takes to maintain them. If you don't maintain them consistently, they'll grow large. And when we're forced to prune them, it's a huge task. It's just a vicious cycle because we really hate going into the yard. Period.

I would much rather prefer to pull everything out back there, lay pavers across the entire yard (besides the two covered deck areas that exist, which are where the sliding glass doors for access are), and build out 2-3 raised beds to do something much more practical and to grow fruits/veggies/herbs. Also keep anything else potted. I'd imagine this would be easier to maintain as well.

I'd love the idea of transforming our yard. But bringing in pavers, lumber, top soil, etc... it all seems so intimidating. We're also still trying to get used to the idea of having to line the floors/carpet very well and use a wheel barrow for this. And contemplating how many days/weeks/months the inside of our home would be a construction prep site for our yard. I just feel like I'm in a hopeless catch-22 situation.

Does anyone have ideas or advice for small yards with no direct access?

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BTW, not sure if this is useful but the wall/fence is a textured concrete wall (versus wood fence, for instance). It's probably about 6-8 inches thick and supported by metal poles (not sure what the spacing is). On the other side of the wall it's actually a sloped-hill down to the sidewalk/street (for drainage I'm guessing). So aside from the association's rules and limitations, this is another reason why we wouldn't be able to add a gate/door. And a good reason why we probably wouldn't be able to hoist stuff over the wall like pavers, soil, etc if we are going to renovate.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2012 at 12:36PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

Many years ago I had a similar backyard, but with a side gate. Outside the 5 ft. stucco fence was a steep slope down to the sidewalk. On the slope were planted some sort very large, sprawling acacias, which provided a mass of greenery above the fence line. Inside the fence, we laid bricks on sand for half the yard outside the sliding glass door, and on the other half we laid sod. There remained one rectangular planter up against the house planted with fortnight lilies (Dietes bicolor). I had some pink jasmine (jasminum polyanthum) along the fence going toward the side gate, some verbena groundcover, and that was IT. No large plants at all.

Does your association have anything planted on that slope outside your fence? If there are trees close by, for example, they can be used as "borrowed landscape" for height. Then keep everything inside your fence ankle height or in a generously-sized raised bed or humongous pots. If your backyard is full sun, forget about small pots -- you'll have to water them constantly.

Much as I appreciate the large tropical leaves of the giant bird of paradise, it is a suckering plant that will eventually hog your space, and is best confined to a very large pot.

Considering the only access is through your house, it seems imperative to keep the plantings very simple and low maintenance. Professional installation of pavers and a minimalist landscape could be disruptive for a short time, but a huge benefit over the long run.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2012 at 1:26PM
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Thanks for the input! Yes, the slope has quite a few plants and trees planted on the other side of the fence. I'm not too concerned about the look or feel of the yard or beyond - it's more functional than anything at this point. In either case, we're a corner unit, and there are large willow-like trees that constantly shed tiny leaves (and pollen) into the yard. If we don't sweep the deck, there will be this greenish/yellowish layer of dust and pollen. It's really irritating considering that I have a pretty sensitive nose as well. But that's where a majority of the dust comes from. I think all the plants back there just agitates and worsens the effect. On the slope there are small bushes and shrubs they've planted. So much so, that it's difficult to get a garbage bin up their without trampling something!

The other thing I was wondering, if I were to install pavers over the entire yard. Is it OK to build a raised garden bed over the pavers? Or if I were to plan for something a raised bed, would I want to provision for this when installing the pavers and allot space to install the raised bed over something else (sand, gravel, plain dirt, or double-digged dirt)?

    Bookmark   March 27, 2012 at 2:00PM
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This is a case where it would almost make more sense to hire a professional for installation. They may have equipment or young workers to hoist materials over the wall so that only people come through the house. I would consider it akin to hiring professional movers or drywallers.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2012 at 2:13PM
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Generally, when one is going to spend a lot of money on a landscape renovation, it's a good idea to develop a plan view drawing that takes you from the existing condition to the final result. The drawing will help you to anticipate problems and conflicts in planned features.

This appears to be a totally confined space. It's likely to have some means for drainage to prevent it becoming a pool. Find what that drainage is and make sure you don't compromise it with any new construction.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2012 at 3:10PM
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You would not want to build a raised bed over pavers. You'd build the raised bed first and then place pavers after. Echoing pls8xx, you need a plan.

Please post a couple of photos that show the overall space (not close-ups) soon. They would be very helpful. (To post them, first upload to a photo-hosting site, use that site's "share" feature to locate the html code for each picture, and paste that code into the message you're composing.) It would be helpful, too, if you could include a sketch of the site with the dimensions marked on it. Even a photograph of it would work if you don't have a scanner. (If so, draw boldly so it shows up well.)

What is it that you actually want to do in this space?... read, visit, grow food, cook, swim...? Also, what part of the country is this? What's the climate?

    Bookmark   March 27, 2012 at 4:24PM
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Thanks for the input, everyone! I will definitely get some pictures up later as well a site sketch (this one may take a little longer).

As far as what I'd like to do with the space:
1) bbqing/smoking - right now this is a potential fire hazard since the deck is wood, and there are still a good number of wood chips, pine needles, and leaves covering the ground. I could see this being pretty dangerous come summer time.

2) growing food - probably smaller gardening within the confines of the space.

3) lounging/dining/etc - this isn't as big of a deal as the first two though

I'm located in Southern California. The temps are pretty moderate probably averaging in the 70s for daytime highs throughout the year. Occasionally, there's the usual dry spell as well as rainy seasons. The dry spells tend to go on for a longer time than the rain does though. I was also considering those self-watering garden bins that are easily portable. Having a couple raised beds would probably not be a bad thing though (with the space I have I could probably do a couple: one 4'x6' or 4'x8' and one 4'x4')

    Bookmark   March 27, 2012 at 5:55PM
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pls8xx, in terms of drainage, are you referring to actual drains and pipes?

If so, I have not seen this type of drainage. I'll have to look again but I believe the yard may be at a slight natural slope which runs out into the sidewalk/street and ultimately the storm drain. I know this because I've accidentally left the drip irrigation system (from the previous owners) on for longer than a day...! :O - I noticed streams of water trickling across the sidewalk and going into the street. Other than that, I'm not sure what other drainage would exist.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2012 at 6:00PM
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View from kitchen sliding door (please excuse the mess! This is the other reason my wife hates going into the yard! LOL)

If you were to walk straight out from the kitchen sliding door, this is the less-utilized side (notice the giant bird of paradise on the left in the corner)

Corner of the deck area.

Side of the deck looking into the main part of the yard (if you were to turn right from the kitchen sliding glass door)

Another view slightly facing back the other way

Now the path I was referring to, where it can turn into a jungle

Further in (notice the air conditioner unit on the right - this takes up a good amount of space)

Further in closer to the end near the master bedroom sliding glass door.

View of the deck and master bedroom sliding glass door and deck.

View from the master bedroom patio.

Another random view going back towards the kitchen patio/deck

    Bookmark   March 27, 2012 at 9:35PM
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Here's a very rough (didn't get the dimensions in yet, sorry!) mock-up of the yard area. I'll have to get back out there to take exact measurements. I'll post up an updated sketch once I do that. For the time being, this should give a decent idea of what the space looks like.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2012 at 10:00PM
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I think there must be some means for water to get out of that backyard. Don't screw it up or you will be sorry.

Of even more importance is how would you get out in the case of a fire that blocked the front door? The backyard is not big enough to get to a point of safety. To me, it's a fire trap. I would demand a gate through that back wall.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2012 at 11:02PM
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What strikes me about the existing plants is that every one is an in-your-face or in-your-knees kind of plant. And it's not really the kind of space where a person could afford to have thorns on plants so sprawling rose bushes are not the best choice. It could actually be a nice outdoor space with a few changes.

If you put in a raised bed it'd be very hard to pass by it as the space is so tight. Why would a bed needed to be raised? And what exact plants is it that you want to grow in a raised bed?

One good thing is that the surrounding wall is only about 4' ht. so it wouldn't be impossible to get materials in and out. A person could access the other side from the outside fairly easily?

I like the idea of expanding the size of both decks with bricks or pavers and linking the two with a walk. Is there any interest in shade if you extended the flooring?

Would you do the work yourself or hire someone to do it?

    Bookmark   March 27, 2012 at 11:54PM
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Thanks for the feedback. I guess I can see why drainage make sense if you're pouring in concrete or laying bricks/pavers. But if it's just dirt or gravel, wouldn't the drainage be sort of natural? Maybe they intentionally left out pipes, etc for that reason?

As far as adding a gate, I seriously doubt the association will do anything about adding one to the yard. If they have to do it to ours, they'll probably have to do it to everybody's. Plus add a pathway. I think the association owns all "walls" in the complex too. I'm guessing they care more about making money than they do having to spend it to keep their residents safe (these condos have been around since 1990). Not sure what other way this would get pushed up the chain. Also, wouldn't the fire marshal have said anything if this was a real fire safety issue? Maybe the codes are more lenient in certain parts of the country/state, etc?

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 12:15AM
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When I first moved in, I didn't think much of the fact that those plants might grow out of control. In fact, I was telling myself the backyard was less than impressive and that I would just pull everything out eventually anyway. Of course, since I co-own with parents who don't want to make any of these changes, it's not that easy. Now that I've done multiple projects around the house though, I think they might trust me enough to either do it myself or at least have someone come in and do it. As long as I pay for it LOL.

There was actually a huge Mexican fan palm tree out there that my father-in-law and I brought down a year ago. That thing was the biggest pain to remove and dispose of. Especially the fibrous stump.

The reason I'm interested in a raised bed is so I can have a little more control over what's inside (especially soil-wise) as well as what can get inside (i.e. pests and insects). I would want to grow mainly vegetables and herbs in it. There were issues with rabbits or other pests digging holes under the fence and getting in at one point. We've patched that up but I still think it could be a threat. I don't necessarily want to excavate too deep down in the yard either.

The surrounding wall is actually 6-8' high or so; definitely not 4'. On the other side of the wall there's a slight sloping hill (about 5-10 feet to the sidewalk) with plants and shrubbery. So although it's possible to get things there, it would be a little strenuous if it's heavier stuff as well as tricky with the angle. You'd also have to avoid trampling any plants on that side.

I also thought about laying a path to link both patios together. I've been going back and forth between doing that and wanting to fill in the entire patio with pavers or what not. If I were to do a path only, what would I do about the remaining dirt and exposed areas? As far as shade, I'm not sure how far I could go - were you thinking like installing a greenhouse type awning or something? I think the association would likely prohibit something like that. They seem to have very stringent regulations on appearance. In fact, if I want to do any work, I need to fill out a form, have my neighbors sign it, and submit it to the association for their review. Ughh. Typically, as long as you can't see anything from the street or outside, you'll probably be fine. But I wouldn't know for sure either... the more I think about it, the more I'd lean towards hiring someone to do the work. Of course, I wouldn't mind doing some backyard demo on those annoying plants, however :)

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 12:59AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Seems to me you are taking the big plants out, no matter what. Why not do that, and see how the space feels, whether you want a paver or other solid surface (decking, rubber), and where or how much. It will have an unaccustomed feel to be able to go and stand or sit in places that hitherto have been occupied by plants.

As for what you do next, given the difficulty of getting materials in, you want to do as little as possible, it seems to me! Based on the plants you are growing I'd say you are in a warm zone, so fortunately you don't have to do much in the way of sub-base under your pavers or whatever.

If you've got soil already, I too wonder about the raised beds. I understand the attraction, but... they require a bunch of soil and lumber to be brought in. Second, they take plants to waist (and possibly shoulder) height that might otherwise be out of the way at ankle or at most hip level. Finally, that yard doesn't look sunny to me, and sun is needed for vegetables. And what do you mean by fruits? Most fruiting plants are bushy, woody plants, either trees or shrubs. Not compatible with what you say you want in terms of spatial feel.

For carrying things in, if you decide on a plan that requires a lot of material, you could build (rent) a scaffolding to get up to the wall on both sides. To get pavers over you'd have to make about a million trips (or that's what it would feel like) but then everything would be in at once.

But if all you do are pavers, you can carry those through the house... many hands make light work. And rubber tiles rather than concrete would be an option I'd seriously consider, under the circumstances.

Karin L

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 12:41PM
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Thanks Karin! I really do want to get rid of all the plants. I've been wanting to for the longest time, but have met so much resistance from both my parents and in-laws. My father-in-law is biased because he has a huge yard where he tends quite a few different plants, including rose bushes. So to him, our garden is less-than-trivial to tend. The problem is that neither of us enjoy it! And my parents are of the mindset that "if it's not broken don't fix it," and in their eyes, nothing is "broken"

My wife is pretty hesitant because of all of this, and the fact that she just doesn't like it out there. So in the end, it makes me pretty hesitant even thinking about it. Of course, killing off all the plants and removing them would probably be a pretty slow process, so I think if I go with that it likely won't come as too much of a shock to our parents (or my wife).

As far as after getting the space cleared out, I wouldn't mind [learning] to lay pavers, building garden beds, etc. But if it's more trouble than it might be worth to even prep for all that (which it seems is the case in my situation), then yes, I'd probably shy away from it all. Of course, your idea regarding rubber pavers is an interesting one, to make light of all the work!

I would say that certain parts of the yard actually do get a fair amount of sun. Notably the plants up against the wall where the kitchen windows (and AC) are located. I think going without the raised bed idea is fine, but I still want to try growing veggies/herbs. Fruits probably aren't the best idea, as you suggested, although, I know one of the neighbors in a similar street-facing unit, has a lemon tree or two planted in their yard (same layout). If anything, I wouldn't mind working with one or two (or more) of those "earthboxes."

Aesthetically, I'm not looking for the silver bullet here. In my mind, functionality with decent appeal is more practical than my "absolute dream yard," which I actually don't even know what it would look like!

Going back to your idea of pavers or rubber pavers, I would still need to do some excavation right? And additionally, wouldn't I need to place some sand/gravel/crushed rocks underneath to prevent shifting and promote drainage? Speaking of drainage, I'd probably have to make sure the yard is slightly graded for run-off (though, I think it was designed this way in general)

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 1:43PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

In a co-ownership situation like the one you describe, it might be best to start small. Although the best advice for the place might be to do a big plan and do it all at once, the best advice for the people aspect is to go slow.

You also have to respect the people you live with in your plans, obviously. So why not subdivide the space, small as it is, to create just one area that you can make into YOUR space that you like to be outside in, and leave them one side they can putter in to their hearts' content and where they can enjoy their plants. They have rights too, right?

In addition, if there are some planted areas that people enjoy from inside, you can leave those. But your original point that having plants on BOTH sides of the walk makes it more claustrophobic is a good one. Plants lean away from walls to the light, so planting only on the fence side might improve things.

With respect to drainage, you can start with the knowledge that you do not presently have any problems. If you add permeable surface treatment and don't change the grading, you shouldn't add any problems. Do you actually plan to demolish the existing decks, or work around those? You know which is easier, don't you. As to whether you need underlay, you haven't said where you are, but in my climate I don't need any. I often put slabs on dirt and they are fine for years, and easy to tweak if they sink a bit. It depends on what level you want the surface at.

What you need is help with prioritizing and negotiating, not so much planning. Identify what the real problems are: for example, if your parents (inlaws?) expect you to do the work while they admire the plants? If the plants you have are just wrong for the space? If there is too much junk standing around outside?

If you do it that way, the way ahead should not be too conflicted. Begin by cleaning up - get rid of excess furniture and pots, put the briquets in a nice container, etc. At least store things attractively, and somewhere where it is not right THERE when you step outside. (point: junk attracts spiders). And maybe where it can't be seen from inside. Beside the AC unit strikes me as perfect for storage that you won't see much.

Next, remove the really problematic plants from the area where you most want to create a pleasant place to be. Where would your wife be most likely to go outside? Clear that.

Forget the raised beds for now. You need more space, not less.

Now, create your surface, place your chairs, and see if it gets used.

Rinse and repeat :-)

Karin L

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 2:40PM
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Thanks! That's really helpful. I'll have to digest it more and try putting it into practice. I definitely don't plan on demoing the deck - the association controls that.

Just to note: our parents don't live with us. They occasionally just visit. Her parents go straight to the garden when they visit :)

To the credit of the giant bird of paradise, it actually provides some shade (for us AND for our neighbors above us) as it sits in front of at least one window looking into the living room. I'm wondering if our living room would actually heat up more with that not being there.

The deck is a mess right now, so I definitely need to start by cleaning that up. One of the end-goals through all of this is to eventually get the grill(s) out into the yard where they would be stored (by the AC is a good idea) and used.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 2:57PM
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I agree with Karin that the best place to start is a complete demolition of existing plants. I think everyone will agree that an empty room looks better than a room that is littered. The mishmash of plants that are there now give you the latter. You might need to be creative about the politics of it, but the job will be more of a pain if dragged out. A quick demo will be more efficient and satisfying.

We don't need to identify how to solve a problem in order to identify what needs there are. And no I'm not thinking about any kind of greenhouse structure or anything like that. I'm simply asking do you need sun or do you need shade or do you need both... and what have you now? Wouldn't it be a mistake to plan an outdoor area and when it was finished discover that a major need went unsolved... if it might have easily been incorporated?

A tomato can occupy a space 3' x 3' x 6' ht. very easily. In your garden that kind of plant would be a hog. I can see a possible way for a very narrow raised bed (which would be more like a raised "planter" to work. However, I do not comprehend your answer about why the raised bed. Pests and insects certainly don't have any inhibitions about going into a raised planter any more than they do the ground. If one is going to fill a raised bed with soil, there's nothing to prohibit a person from filling a garden pit with the exact same controlled soil. (Sort of like "sinking" a raised bed into the ground.) Rabbits can jump and if you grow something they like, they can certainly jump into a raised bed to get it. So why must the soil be raised? You have so very little room to create a successful space. You wouldn't want to start it by planning a component that would work against your primary objectives.

What is the height measurement of the AC unit? (from the top of the pad on which the air conditioner rests, to the top of the AC unit)

There must be SOME way for water to drain out of this enclosed area. Normally, it would be something like a hole at the bottom of the wall (such as a perfect way for rabbits to enter) that was located in some obscure place. What happens often is that these holes get covered up by mulch that's added over the years. It's very important to make sure this hole is there and is working. Creating a grate of some kind is fine, but having it blocked solid, is not. One day, there WILL come a VERY HEAVY RAIN.

There is a tendency for professionals who are giving landscape advice to suggest and advise solutions that are conventional and use high quality materials. One thing you'll find out quickly is that real landscaping--especially when it involves hardscape (non-plant elements) is expensive. Sometimes very expensive. I'm absolutely certain that I could spend $25,000 on this tiny space if you gave me such a budget. However, most people wish to conserve. And sometimes they want to do it on the cheap. Amazingly, some pretty great things can be done with very little money. Often, people are able to find salvaged material from somewhere else and base a big chunk of their project on that cheap or even free material. Craigslist is pretty good for aiding such finds. Before you get too many suggestions that are way out of your price range, I'd tell us where you stand on the issue of budget. That way, you can get realistic advice for your situation, not advice for when you win the lottery in 10 years. This doesn't sound like it's actually a budgeted project, but if you could tell us if you're trying to be conservative... or do this on the cheap, it would be helpful to you.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 3:37PM
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Thanks Yardvaark! I'm OK with doing the demo and disposal myself, for the most part (not sure about how to practically handle the huge bird of paradise though). I'm not sure if it would be a "one time get it done" type of event for me and I may have to take it relatively slow given the constraints (just me, and maybe my wife sometimes). Our parents don't visit that frequently, so I wouldn't be concerned about having an overnight transformation before they see it again. Just need to have some form of consistency working at it a little every day and a good amount on the weekends.

In terms of needs, I was actually considering putting up some retractable solar screens to hang at the edges of the deck/patio area. Both for the master bedroom patio and kitchen patio. That's partly why I put up the umbrella in front of the master bedroom patio as it helps reduce the amount of sunlight that gets into the bedroom. From the kitchen patio, the sunlight can actually shine into the living room windows and heat things up too. A solar screen outside would help mitigate this. If anything, I'd likely want to do something about keeping the deck/patio area well-shaded when the sun is at an angle. The rest of the yard is OK though. I may want to keep that umbrella out there in either case since it currently acts as my TV antenna mount :X The kitchen windows are another story - since they're directly facing without any form of shade, the sunlight getting through can really heat the kitchen up. I installed window film on half of the panes where there are no screens, and installed solar screens on the panes with screen inserts. This seems to have helped with the heat problem a good amount. Not sure I necessarily need any more like on the outside windows (i.e. awnings, etc)

In terms of the raised bed, I was just thinking about growing a lot of smaller plants (cherry tomatoes, peppers, various herbs). Nothing large like melons, corn, eggplant, larger tomatoes, etc... I was thinking raised beds may offer more control with how the soil is contained as well as being able to more easily raise insect screens over them and/or put up chicken wire around them. I guess the same can be done with in-ground beds, but it seems like that might require a little more bending and getting the knees dirty. From the advice here though, it seems the main cost (that being consumption space) outweighs the benefits.

I'll have to get the exact measurements of the AC. I think it's somewhere around 3-4' though. Rough width of the yard I'd say is 6-8' and rough length is probably somewhere around 30-40'

You're probably right about drainage holes existing somewhere. I just know that there can be space under the fence itself without necessarily compromising the integrity of the fence (i.e. when a rabbit or something dug a hole in one corner). I've also passed by other homes where I've seen dirt 'eroded' exposing the metal structural bars that presumably hold up the fence. I think you could even peek into the neighbor's yard (remember, there is a graded slope in between the street/sidewalk and the fence). I'm guessing this might be to provision for drainage. What's interesting is that the upstairs units have rain gutters attached that drain directly into the bottom unit's yard. This was actually annoying when our upstairs neighbor's cleaning lady dumped dirty/discard water (from mopping and cleaning their bathrooms/hardwood floors) into the gutter and it drained into our yard on several occasions.

I've seen another neighbor's yard (same layout) where they converted the entire thing by installing large stone pavers across the entire yard (effectively a stone floor) and added a wall fountain. It looked very elegant. That's definitely not the look I'm going for and I can't imagine how high the cost was for something like that! I would want to keep this on a pretty low budget. Maybe $1000-2000 at *most*. The cheaper the better for me. The moment you mentioned Craigslist and free, my eyes got bigger. That's why I was kinda starting out with making this more of a DIY. I wouldn't mind carrying manageable-sized pavers through the house and even some bags of sand (as well as purchasing) if that's all it's going to take versus hiring a landscape architect and/or turning the inside of our place into a prep site. Again, I'm not aiming for perfectly pretty out there. Just usable, where I don't actually set the yard on fire from smoking meat, and pleasant, where my wife and I wouldn't mind relaxing outside once in a while.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 4:15PM
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the sketch illustrates, of the 3 plants, which one is most "in the way" of using the space.

A cherry tomato plant is not little.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 4:54PM
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I'm a bit confused by the drawing - which plants are which?

Hmm, my understanding of cherry tomatoes is that they typically take up less space. Also, can't they more easily be confined to cages to limit their spread? I'm not planning on planting too many of these btw. Just enough to add to salads or make salsas occasionally.

Here is a link that might be useful: Growing cherry tomatoes

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 2:05AM
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My picture illustrates 3 plants: a little tree, a little groundcover... both of which stay out of your way... and a big bushy shrub in the middle that is very much in the way. The middle shrub is pretty much what your present garden consists of.

You could grow a cherry tomato plant, but while the fruits are small, the plant is a regular size tomato plant... that, staked, would be about 6' tall. I'm suggesting that as you plan out what you create, incorporate plants and things that HELP your situation, not exacerbate it. If you grow a cherry tomato plant or two, that's fine, but locate them in the most workable position and don't put them in a raised planter. (You might be thinking of a "patio" tomato which tend to be smaller plants.)

If you need additional protection from the sun, a shrub capable of reaching a 9 or 10' ht. that could be trained to a single trunk and grown as a tree with a nice domed canopy would be an easy--out of your way--solution. No need to "build" something.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 12:48PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

The illustration serves to make its point, but the scale doesn't necessarily match your back yard. If the wall is 6 ft. and the stick figure is 6 ft, the inferred distance from the wall to the house is about 12 ft., and the middle shrub is about 4 1/2 ft wide. The illustration also serves to show why trees are best outside your walls. Imagine the amount of room roots and canopy would consume, and the amount litter a tree would produce.

About drainage and very heavy rain -- if you have a drainage problem, it would have become obvious before now. If you have never had water pooling against the house, things will be fine if you don't change your topography.

If you remove the roses and other plants along the wall and house, you should easily find room for a cherry tomato or two. I've grown them year after year, and staked, they reach my shoulder. They will sprawl, but you can always cut them back. Because they are a summer season plant, and are not a woody shrub, they won't be cause for concern.

That giant BOP, on the other hand, will grow to 25+ ft in height and roughly 15+ ft spread at head height, and the base could expand to 6 ft diameter, producing multiple trunks. That's fine as long as you expect and plan for it. If at that point you want to remove it-- well, good luck.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 1:20PM
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Thanks for the clarification.

We do have a tree that's planted there but it has remained the same size (no more than 3-4 feet in height) since I moved in. It doesn't seem like it's growing and was originally in a wooden planter too. If it's growing, it's growing very slowly.
Other than that, there are no other trees in the yard. The huge trees, which are on the outside of the yard are those jacaranda trees that sprout purple flowers in the spring/summer. These are annoying because they shed their pods, leaves, pollen, twigs, and flowers all over the yard at all times of the year. Actually, I noticed some roots while digging in the yard and I have no idea where these are from. Do rose bush roots tend to sprawl out?

As far as what really takes up space - it's the rose bushes and birds of paradise plants. I already snipped down two rose bushes to the stumps yesterday. They were pretty stagnant as-is so I wasn't too sad (my wife was hesitant though). I still need to dig them out of the ground too.

I'm pretty sure drainage is mostly a non-issue. I guess it will become even more obvious if I lay pavers and notice any pooling. Otherwise, there are three gutters from the upper unit that drain into the yard. If I really wanted/needed to, I could probably dig a ditch and lay some corrugated tubing at each mouth that crosses the yard and drains out under the fence and onto slope.

In terms of the "solar shade" I was referring to, I had this in mind:

(of course, not with the railing)

This would be pretty out of the way since it would just hang straight down. It would probably just be expensive if anything. But definitely nothing that props out. This would also make the patio area more enclosed and room-like for when it's either too hot or even when it's raining a lot (as rain will get onto the deck easily given the right amount of wind).

Growing a shrub high up is an interesting idea, but seems intimidating - wouldn't I have to constantly be pruning it and shaping it so that it would work out to provide the shade I intend for it to provide? What type of shrub might be practical for this?

Thanks for the heads-up on the giant BOP - I noticed there's already two trunks on it. I think I may start working at it in that case, because I don't want to have a crisis-on-hand when it gets way out of control. There's also some rose bushes around it that I can't even get at unless I cut part of it down first.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 2:06PM
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"wouldn't I have to constantly be pruning it and shaping it so that it would work out to provide the shade I intend for it to provide? What type of shrub might be practical for this?"

One thing that becomes evident once one begins to observe plants is how much they are shaped by available light. Where light is, plants grow. Where it isn't, they either reach for light, or give up. The words "tree" and "shrub" have only general meaning as there is not a clear cut line that the divides the two. I generally think of the tree form as having its foliage canopy raised above ground and the shrub form as having its foliage canopy contiguous with the ground. But a bonsai tree is still a tree and 30' tall low branched crape myrtle on the open lawn is still a shrub. You might notice that when the upper foliage of a plant is wider than the lower, it begins to shade the lower foliage and the leaves below begin to die and fall off. This means that little new growth forms in the lower portion and eventually maybe none. (It depends on each species.) This "naturally" turn a shrub into a tree. This process is easily helped along by pruning off lower branches and allowing foliage above to have free growth. It's easy to maintain, because the upper foliage is always producing shade that discourages new growth below. If a person were to apply this information to a shrub that attains a limited height, it would be pretty easy to have a tree that never grew too tall and was easy to maintain. There are lots of shrubs that qualify as candidates. One only needs to be watchful of the trunk structure as it develops to make sure that they end up with what they desire...a trunk structure that has the correct amount of "spread." In your situation with little space, a trunk structure that formed a flat fan close to the wall would work, but a wide-spreading 3-D "bouquet" would not. What USDA Zone are you in? Maybe I can come up with a recommendation... that is if you WANT shade produced by a diminutive "tree."

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 6:55PM
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Interesting... I'll have to digest that a lot more :)

As far as zones, I look it up on

USDA Hardiness Zone:
Zone 10a: 30F to 35F

PlantMaps Hardiness Zone:
Zone 9b: 25F to 30F

Not sure what the differences are and how PlantMaps scales their ratings.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 7:44PM
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The other concern I had too was regarding dust and pollen. I'm sure all the plants in the back contribute, but it seems like most of the dust/pollen might actually be coming from those jacaranda trees (there's probably 3-4 of them right outside our fence on the greenbelt. The branches often overhang. They provide some shade but definitely not a significant amount. I wish they would have planted other denser trees around this area. Other than requesting that the association trim down those trees, I don't think there's much I can do. Trying to enclose the patio areas might help though but that's the only thing I can think of.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 7:47PM
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So I started chopping more plants down today. I chopped off the smaller sections of the giant BOP (it's bigger than I previously thought). I also mowed off the top of one of the BOPs (the one to the right of the AC, and trimmed back some of the bigger rose bushes as well. It's giving me a better idea of what the yard could be. My wife is very conflicted as she's starting to wonder what were going to put out there. I keep telling her that we're not really going to have a good idea until we actually see it a little more bare than it already is. There's actually a decent amount of space without the overgrowth. One step at a time I guess...

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 12:34AM
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Well, I just waded through all these posts. Here's what I came away with.

1. You and your wife don't like bugs, dirt, pollen, leaves, pruning, maintenance, and you dislike the yard so much that you avoid going out there,.

2. The only access to your yard is through the house!

3. The space is narrow and claustrophobic.

Here are my ideas, some of them may be the same as others have suggested, but I read through all the previous posts rather quickly.

1. Get rid of all the plants in the yard and start over.

2. Shift you focus to hardscaping and non-living yard decor. Plants for you and your wife should be icing on the cake, not the cake.

3. Don't get a cherry tomato plant, or a grape tomato plant - they are complete garden thugs, and just the kind of plant that you will hate. If you do decide to get a tomato plant, get one with the word 'patio' in the name. Or check out one called 'Micro Tom'

4. Instead of pavers, or wood chips, how about decorative stone? You can generally get stone in bags which you could carry through the house without making a mess. You could define different areas with different colored stone. This would help to break up the corridor look, and visually create separate 'rooms' out of long narrow spaces. I would not use stepping stones as you have shown in your photos - they just accentuate the narrowness of the space.

4. I would do a container garden if it was my yard. Invest in some gorgeous, colorful pots (not plastic or terra cotta) in varying sizes, including enormous. Consider ways to elevate some of the pots with shelves or benches,or by inverting one pot and putting a second one on top. I'm not talking about a line of pots along the wall, but groupings of pots, which could be especially effective in a corner. Then get some deck furniture that coordinates with your beautiful pots. IF the pots are totally gorgeous, you don't even need to put plants in all of them.

5. Go vertical. You can put a trellis in a really big pot. Black wrought iron would look good against your wall. Go with a well-behaved vine that will not take over your yard. I have never gardened in your zone, so I can't make any suggestions. But mandevilla is very showy and a red one would be great against your wall.

6. How about a few tall, narrow evergreen shrubs that don't need pruning. Don't know if it would do well in your zone, but check out Sky Pencil Holly. They do fine in pots, too. Very low maintenance.

7. How about an arbor? With or without plants growing on it. I could imagine an arbor placed across one of your long narrow spaces, like a doorway into the next section of yard. You can easily attach plant hangers to a wooden arbor, and have a few colorful hanging plants.

8. Don't get any plants with thorns.

9. Will the association let you attach anything to the wall? Some kind of colorful yard art, perhaps. An enormous mirror would be cool.


    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 8:38AM
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Several people have suggested plants in containers and I don't think there's anything wrong with some of that. But if the containers are too small or there are too many of them, this can become a burden. Especially in a warm climate containers can dry out quickly and seem like they're always demanding water. Then one day when you got busy with something else the plants dried out behind your back. I think plants in the ground are much easier to take care of insofar as watering goes. Containers can also seem like just more stuff... something in the way... another thing to keep clean... another thing to move to clean something else. I'm not saying have no containers, but I think it would be good to limit it to one or two very carefully chosen larger ones. (They might be the right "raised garden bed" for this patio.)

On dust and pollen. Jacarandas only bloom once per year and only produce pollen during the bloom. The vast stands of pines and oak (if you have any within miles around) are notorious for dumping tons of pollen EVERYWHERE. Since I've lived in the several places in the South, I've witnessed this annual rite of spring... during which there is no point to washing your car or sweeping your porch. But in a couple of weeks, it's over. Dust is in the air everywhere. Though trees can drop twigs, blooms, leaves and shed tiny bits of bark and other parts, they don't really produce "dust." In fact, leaves can intercept a lot of dust which is then washed off in a rain. If you live where there is much dust, other than an architectural solution or overhead "filter" there's nothing you can do but periodic sweeping and hosing.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 10:05AM
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Decorative stone is actually a very interesting idea. I didn't even think about that and was thinking big or small: gravel versus pavers. And gravel was out of the question. Larger stones would make a lot more sense though. Of course, not sure how well this would play out for moving around a charcoal grill (I'd probably want this to be on a solid and flat surface).

The ideas for going "vertical" (tall shrubs and/or an arbor) are definitely something to think about. Though I do agree with yaardvark's assessment that a lot of potted plants is just too much. My in-laws transplanted some jade tree branches into several more pots the last time they came so we now have like 5-6 medium-sized planters around - it's already overwhelming having this many planters (partly because they're all clumped together currently too). So a few that are spread out pretty well would probably be easier for us too in terms of maintenance.

As far as pollen, there are a number of pines in the area, so I guess that must be where it's all coming from.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 4:41PM
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For the grill, I could probably designate a small rectangular space to lay out pavers and then just put the decorative stone around it, etc.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 5:08PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Don't take any single person's views as being prescriptive... we are all just making suggestions based on our guesses of the setting and the needs. You are the only person who KNOWS and who can assess a right vs. a wrong answer based on how it will feel to you in the space. When one of us says something that aligns with how you feel about the space, you have yourself a good idea, but it's unlikely any of us will get it all right.

For example, river rock... a nightmare for walking; creates a no-go zone. Trellis/arbour: creates constraint at head/shoulder area. And groups of pots (and river rock too for that matter) = habitat for spiders.

What I will say is that it is sounding more like your in-laws have been creating their dream garden out in your yard. If these are the people you co-own with, then they get some leeway to do this although it should be negotiated with you, but otherwise.... you are on the right track with your loppers, clippers, and shovel.

Karin L

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 8:29PM
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Thanks Karin!

I definitely am not going to take any one person's views but there have been quite a few good ideas that I'll take to heart. I've already started cutting down stuff and did more today. The ground is just covered with BOP leaves and thorny branches; cleanup won't be fun.

I definitely won't be doing river rock, but the smaller decorative rock (larger than gravel) idea I do like. I probably won't be building any arbor/trellis structures either, and don't plan on keeping too many pots out there. I guess the only concern with decorative rocks is the tendency to trap smaller leaves that shed from the jacaranda trees.

In terms of the in-laws, I think they'll get over it. They've only visited TWICE in the two years we've been married. They're busy running their restaurant so coming down is really a huge break from the action for them. I guess the concern is that they'll be REALLY bored when they get here cause there will be little gardening to do!!! hahahaha.

I co-own with my parents, who live up north. They visit a little more frequently - maybe several times a year. But don't really go out into the yard either. If they were to see me doing all this snipping right now, they probably wouldn't be too happy. But if they see everything after the fact there's not much they'll be able to do. And I think they'll be okay with it... they'll have to be okay with it anyway :)

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 11:36PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Looking at your photos, it's obvious those walls aren't 6 to 8 feet tall, but more likely about 4 to 5 feet maximum. Take a measurement, but lifting materials over a 4 foot height wall will be easier than tracking through the house. It does sound like you and your wife aren't gardeners nor have much interest or knowledge of gardening; as such h, I wouldn't recommend going to the effort of creating raised beds for veggies if you won't be inclined to take care of them. As you hate maintenance and don't have outside easy access, I'd get rid of maintenance -intensive plants such as the roses, and keep the Birds of Paradise, but learn how to thin them out occasionally to restrict their width and keep them from looking so stubby the way they have been pruned to date.

I'd also suggest you'd be better off getting a good local landscape designer to consult/draw up a plan that reflects your concerns and budget, and save no.eyes by doing the easiest parts of the demolition and new installation yourself. A simple wall fountain with selective new plantings that won't outgrow their spots in combination with either decorative rock or bark mulch, a new pathway system and some easy to care for larger sized pots would easily fit within a $2000 landscape materials budget if you do the majority of work yourself. Small scale gardens such as yours can be very attractive, functional and enjoyable if the design is well thought out. Access is possible over the exterior perimeter wall avoiding going through the house. Hiring help with the design would definitely be worthwhile to get the best results, IMHO.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2012 at 6:21PM
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Hi Bahia.

Yea the walls are actually closer to 5' minimum. I'd say total height lays between 5-6' - they may have added some dirt (or more woodchips than I thought) to the ground a while back, which is why I say that.

We aren't really gardeners at all, but I think this would be a useful skill to pick-up, so I'm not opposed to learning and gaining more knowledge. Particularly with cultivating veggies and herbs. I think the rose bushes and BOPs just turned me off and sort of traumatized us! I likely won't be doing any raised beds either way, after everyone's suggestions away from it. If I do start with "gardening" I'll probably keep it small and simple, and limited to containers to start out.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2012 at 11:35AM
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BTW: what does it typically cost to have a landscape designer come in and assess a yard like mine? I'm assuming this would just include drawing up details and giving their recommendations? And from there I can either pay more for them to actually do it (or hire others), or just attempt doing it myself?

    Bookmark   April 2, 2012 at 2:15PM
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So I've started ripping out plants. I have 3 rose bushes left - I'm actually thinking about taking some cuttings and seeing if I can transplant them into small potters. That way I can preserve some of what was out there. I chopped the four BOPs down and have been spraying round-up on them every other day at least. They seem to be dying out, but very slowly. I still haven't taken down the giant BOP yet... I've generated so much yard waste that it's hard to keep doing more work without cleaning up first, not to mention hauling the bags of yard clippings through the house to the garbage can (which can only fit maybe 3-4 at a time IF it's completely empty. So this whole process has been a pretty slow one. But it feels euphoric too - it's sad seeing the yard become so barren, especially for my wife (ironically), but I'm just excited for the day that it's completely barren so we can start tabula rasa

    Bookmark   April 17, 2012 at 7:29PM
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JP, don't spray Roundup every other day. It's just a waste as it takes 7-10 days to see the effect. More will not make it work faster. Also, it doesn't work on every plant. If it doesn't work after 2 applications over 20 days, give up and use a different weed killer. Or dig. Once you get everything cleaned out, it will seem much better.

    Bookmark   April 17, 2012 at 9:47PM
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Ahh, thanks yardvaark. I'll hold off then. I've read mixed reviews about round-up working on BOPs, so I guess I'll just wait and see. The roots seem pretty soft, but then again, I only dug in a little bit when I did try, and it was pretty exhausting at that.

    Bookmark   April 18, 2012 at 12:40PM
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Hey again guys. So I chopped down the giant BOP not too long ago. The rest of the BOPs seem to be taking forever to die off. Besides stronger weed-killer, is there anything else I can use (i.e. white vinegar, ivory soap, glycerin, etc) that will help finish these things off and rot them out so I can dig them out easier?

    Bookmark   May 22, 2012 at 3:20PM
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If you don't like maintaining this space, I can't imagine you liking to maintain veggie beds any better. They are SO much more work.

    Bookmark   May 25, 2012 at 10:07PM
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We offer an affordable custom made landscape design service online. Check us out here for more information.

Here is a link that might be useful: Online Garden Design

    Bookmark   February 13, 2013 at 11:14PM
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