Help! sloped backyard...cannot figure it out!

enigmaquandry(5)March 11, 2012

I'm about to tear my hair out over this backyard! We've lived in our house for over two years, it is a small, cape cod house that we absolutely love. However the lot has always been a big disappointment to us. We live in a city and we're both more country types so we miss that feeling in our yard.

The back yard it quite small, somewhat L shaped and VERY steep with the slope toward the house.

From backyard From backyard From backyard From backyard

These two are taken from the top of the hill! From backyard From backyard

The biggest issues are how shallow the yard is, the slope and privacy. We are trying to fit in a small paver patio, perhaps a small pond and a small playhouse/shed somewhere...possibly! We'd also considered a pergola perhaps somewhere. We had originally planned on just cutting a 4 foot tall retaining wall across the whole yard but that turned out to be ridiculously expensive, plus we do all our work ourselves and I have NO idea how we would excavate AAALLLL those tons of dirt! We don't really have access for getting excavators back there or a place to dump all that dirt. My priority was always just trying to get as much flat grass as possible but now I'm seeing I probably need to re-think my plans...for the zillionth time! I would be ok with a tiny park sort of atmosphere, or secret garden idea etc. I'm all about charm and old world aesthetics. Also, we are not scared of doing all this ourselves, I'm just totally stumped on the design but we need to figure something out so we can get some trees planted back there! To top it all off we are on the strictest of budgets for materials...we're pretty good at scrounging so hopefully we can pull something off!

PS. the concrete "patio" in the pictures is going to be pulled out, it's completely impractical and slopes toward the house. Also the bed of rocks is getting pulled out as well.

Thank you so much for any ideas you may have, I'm becoming desperate!

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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

I'm going to play the same old tired recording again by saying " hire a design professional".
It will save you a lot of money in the long run and you will recieve good return value on your investment.

A good professional will help you realistically budget and phase your installation.
They will also help you sculpt the hillside in smaller increments and eliminate the need for hauling off any excess dirt by using a cut and fill technique , thus saving you money .

They can also help you design a short retainment wall(s) using the recycled broken concrete that you are demolishing and explain to you how to use the existing rocks to benefit the slope or mediate potential erosion and potential drainage issues.

"Budget" is a relative term. What is considered expensive to one person is inexpensive to another. So being upfront with your budget is probably the most important aspect when planning your landscape.
There is no sense throwing out ideas if no one knows your budget.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2012 at 11:01PM
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deviant-deziner you make a good point. We did look into a designer (which is new for us, I do interior design and we've never needed professional help before) but the cost of just having one was exponentially more than our whole budget!

Ideally I would REALLY really like the backyard to come in under $1,000. That may seem absurd but we do a LOT of high quality work on miniscule budgets just by being smart and really looking for the deals. We're currently sitting on a stash of purington pavers we got for free that could be used in the design. Being realistic about the type of yard we would like, we could consider up to $2,000 for everything included. I really can't justify more than that right now. I hope this helps!

    Bookmark   March 11, 2012 at 11:16PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

Knowing that bit of information in regards to your budget helps greatly.
Also knowing that you are in the design trade is helpful too because you will understand that what I am about to say is meant to be helpful . Your budget is unrealistic in reference to your wish list and the terrain that you have to work with.
Even with the pavers that you have , you will still have to purchase base rock , setting sand and concrete for a perimeter footing if you are to lock in the outer course or purchase pressure treated boards to hold the body of the pavers together. That can cost approx. $200 + . That is almost 1/4 of your total budget of $1000.
The materials for a small properly installed pond can eat up easily $ 250 to 400 for the liner, leveling sand, piping, and pump... and that doesn't include any finishing details.
You might find a used shed or playhouse on Craigslist for a few hundred dollars but you won't be able to place it anywhere on your sloped property with doing some grading and retaining first.

I'm sure the fine folks who regularly hang out here will have some creative and economical ideas for you.

Good luck on your project.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2012 at 2:42AM
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I'm sure you do not want to hear this, but you need to.

Sometimes you have to pay for what you want or you won't get it.

There are situations when a pro is absolutely needed.
I think this is one of those.

I'd spend the money now to get a plan and an idea of what to do. Then save up and save up until you can do what needs to be done.

Anything less than that is going to be a disappointment and probably end up costing you even more money in the long run.

Learning to recognize and accept your abilities and their limits is part of life. You can fight it and fuss all you want, but it won't get you any closer to your goals.

Good luck with your project. I look forward to seeing how it progresses. Its certainly an interesting situation to try and solve.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2012 at 8:48AM
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A designer to help to design the retaining walls is crucial. I'm sure they would recommend smaller ones if you're going to be installing them yourself.

I'm not sure of the building code in your area but retaining walls require a permit and engineer if it measures a certain height. My town is 4 ft measuring from the footer.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2012 at 10:21AM
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Here deviant-deziner is a professional.He has rich project experience too.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2012 at 10:41AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

OK, so I am a dyed in the wool DIYer and I don't see that designing this is not possible without a pro. I think the budget too can be worked with. You said scrounge, and with that mindset I think it can be done.

I don't want to give the impression that I am against hiring professionals - I'm not, and I totally see the superiority of what pros can do vs. say, me. But some people simply can't, and others don't want to. For some, learning the process is as much a desired part of the outcome as the final result itself.

Enigmaquandary, where I think you have to be flexible, if you are going to make the DIY option work, is in the design itself and what you hope to achieve, and in the timing. For example, if ypu want to build a pergola, and don't want to go out and buy all new lumber, you have to wait until what you need comes available through some budget method - say, craigslist, and grab it when it does. But otherwise, I live in a semi-industrial area and the supply of free lumber from discarded pallets and industrial packing materials around here is endless (pallets don't all get discarded, so sometimes it's good to ask). It's not cedar, but hey, you're scrounging. It can be replaced when needed with the real thing if the budget is there later.

People who do have the budget for sand and gravel crush sometimes have leftovers. Wait, watch craigslist for it, and stockpile in advance if you have to.

I think you should hunt around this forum for a thread called something like "steep side yard" by DCPilgrim, and look at the after pictures of the side yard. See those stone stairs? That sort of thing can be done with broken up chunks of concrete - again, available anywhere someone is breaking up an old sidewalk or where the city is tearing up a road. With that material, walls can also be built, and your wall across the yard would be entirely do-able, if you can get the materials in to the yard. But I'm not sure it should be. I think if I were doing this, I would be designing around stairs; specifically - a way to get to the various areas of the yard.

Having done the playhouse when the kids were little, if budget is an issue I am not sure I would recommend you put it here. They age out of something like that so fast. To be honest, if I were a kid, the ideal version of your yard might be a row of shrubs at the bottom so it is safe to play on that hill. Kids will entertain themselves with what they have - a flat area to roll trucks around or bounce balls can work, and if they need shade, a strategically planted tree or a patio umbrella... and bob's your uncle.

In other words, in doing your design, identify your needs - a place for the kids to play safely in the shade, perhaps - but don't jump right to the solutions (playhouse, pergola). Keep an open mind about how those objectives will be achieved. Also try to put your finger on what "country" means to you. Is it flat, open meadow, or woodland?

Search this forum for the word "steep," "privacy" and other key words, and see what you find. Get books from the library, go magazine hunting (used, craigslist). Do image searches on Google for "steep yard" and such. And once you have some ideas, don't hesitate to go out and get started, especially if some free shrubs or trees come your way. Even if you get the placement wrong to start with, mistakes can steer you to the right answer faster than all the ideas in the world. Plants can always be moved.

Karin L
PS duh I almost missed this - if you are breaking up the patio you have, there is your broken up conrete right there, I think.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2012 at 10:56AM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

It sounds like you have trapped yourself by making some assumptions. Why do you need flat grass? Why do you need to terrace the slope? That costs $$$. So let's just not do that.

Once the patio is removed, it looks like there is actually quite a reasonable amount of flat space to do reasonable flat space things. Then maybe a deck space on the slope, or a relatively small flat space for a small patio. This is landscaped around making a secret garden space. If you know what you are doing, and have time, plants are cheap. It's hardscaping that costs, so that is where all the money should go.

Now it would probably help to know where you are, so we have some idea of what is considered 'doable' and 'not doable' there. Different parts of the country have considerably different normals. Sometimes they are simply conventions. Other times they have very fundamental reasons for being.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2012 at 11:01AM
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I find myself agreeing with Karin and Mad Gallica especially. The bottom line being adapt to the land rather than trying to get the land to adapt to you. With the expense involved in changing the lay of the land, it's likely that you'd be better off focusing on things you CAN accomplish for a reasonable price.

With this type of condition, one must wonder about drainage. The photos don't indicate a clear path of drainage, which would allow water coming from the slope, to continue around to the sides of the house and onward. Besides the patio slope itself, are there drainage problems? Do the rocks at the toe of slope serve a french drainage function? I second DD's notion of using the broken concrete if possible. Worked with a little care, broken concrete can make a nice looking drystack retaining wall. (I'd shoot for 18" x 18" chunks.)

    Bookmark   March 12, 2012 at 3:27PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Thanks, Yardvaark, for pointing out that I didn't read carefully enough. Note to self: "engage brain before putting mouth in gear."

Karin L

    Bookmark   March 12, 2012 at 3:31PM
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Karin, I'm not sure what you're referring to. I'm not trying to be sarcastic (like comes so naturally!) and slight you in any way. Was serious, I agree with what your say.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2012 at 4:48PM
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I'm wondering what is at the top of that hill.
Drainage is the first thing that came to my mind, couple that with wanting to cut back into the hill to have more flat area and that's when I'd call in the experts.
There's just too much that can go wrong and too much damage that 'could' happen.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2012 at 5:08PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I know, Yard, and thank you. But DD had already alluded to the broken concrete option from the patio, and I repeated it without realizing it had been said before. I deserved a rebuke for not reading carefully enough, even if you didn't mean one, so I thought I should do my mea culpa!

I would, however, probably make the chunks a little smaller for wall use than you've recommended. For steps cut into the slope, 18 or even bigger would be good - they can even overlap a little.

Melvalena, I agree there are likely issues including water, and I think that is what the ambitious DIYer comes to a forum like this to learn about.

If the water is not a problem now, it might be important to figure out why that is, so that any changes do not make it a problem. I think Yard is bang on in wondering what function the gravel bed currently serves in that regard.

"Do nothing" is always a design option and, at least for the slope (if not for the patio), there may be good reason to choose it in this case.

Karin L

    Bookmark   March 12, 2012 at 5:27PM
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Wow I'm overwhelmed with the amount of details I did not include! Thank you all for your input.
I am in central Illinois, there is not a good "norm" as to yards here, patios and decks are all common here. The hill's exposure is full South all day long so I guess that's a consideration as well. As far as diy and budget goes, the hubs and I have renovated nearly every surface of the entire inside of this house, gutting the entire upstairs completely as well as a complete restoration of the outside and front yard as well. I don't consider budget an issue at all, we always have a miniscule budget and we always pull it off. We did a complete kitchen renovation for 1,500 that was beautifully designed and far beyond a "facelift" so this is actually a generous budget for us! I can get brick and underlayment pretty reasonably locally and I have access to 40 acres of land with plenty of rock we can take gratis. We also have a truck for hauling things etc.

At the top of the hill is nothing at all, it's just the top of a hill. The bed of rocks at the bottom was at some point a french drain, it is not currently working but I think something should be considered to improve the drainage. Occasionally water does get into the sunroom at the bottom of the hill.

I completely agree that a professional is necessary to really flatten the landscape, which is why I'm moving away from that plan. Plus to us it's the fun of designing and doing it ourselves! So I'm looking for layouts I guess to make sense of this EXTREMELY complex yard. I had never considered the idea of putting a deck up on the hill...that would supply some flat without having to alter the hill itself. Thanks again, I'm absorbing everything!

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 1:32AM
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I don't think I articulated well, originally I wanted to flatten the hill, but now I am in favor of leaving it as intact as possible and my issue now is how to make it a positive part of the yard. I mean, not everyone has such a steep hill in their can I make that awesome?!? I'm trying to embrace it for being small and steep without trying to make it large and flat, there's enough flat in Illinois already!

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 1:50AM
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Nice you are trying to embrace it.I add a fire pit,a dry rive bed... for can get other help from deviant-deziner too,he is a professional.there are many professional designers here.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 3:41AM
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I'm doing some second-guessing here, but it seems that you must get stormwater from the back yard to the front. Since the former french drain is non-functional, I'm wondering if you can change it to a slot-covered trough drain that collects water at the critical places and then directs it via underground pipe to an outlet somewhere toward the front yard... ?? Since you won't be hiring a hydraulic engineer, I would lean toward keeping it oversized... thinking about those big storms and the fact that drains tend to collect "stuff" and become clogged. 4" pipe is too small. 6" or a pair of them would be better. (If you can figure a way to keep it above ground, even better.) The exact details of how you constructed it would depend much on how the plan shapes up and what else you're constructing. Being as it's your own yard and your doing it on the cheap, you might even consider constructing a removable slotted grate made of treated wood. It wouldn't last like other materials, but you could get a few years out of it.

In regards to planting on the hill, I'd be in favor of getting rid of all grass, thinking it's not fun to maintain, creating instead a solid small flowering tree canopy that would be limbed up with a high ceiling. Below it, a single, solid groundcover. Trees that come to mind would be redbud or saucer magnolia, with a preference for the former. 5 trees in a double staggered row (3 at back, 2 at front would do it.) A super cheap groundcover would be virginia creeper as you can find it everywhere and start your own cuttings. It's pest free and grows about 12" tall. You'd be able to incorporate other plants at edges, once some shade is up and running, and in the sunny areas.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 9:41AM
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Yardvaark,I can't open your pics,why?

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 10:16AM
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My illustration here is imbedded... nothing to open. It shows up for me.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 1:33PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I happened to be going through a stack of old gardening magazines last night (decluttering!) and came across this article about landscaping exactly the sort of yard you have. This one is considerably bigger, but the ideas might work. Basically it is a series of cross-slope paths that are not retained as such but simply have banks between them (except one wall at the bottom).

This is the plan view... not sure if it's legible enough for me to post the whole thing. It is from Fine Gardening #63, October '98.

By the way, I think the question about what was on top of the hill referred to what is beyond your fence... since that's got to be a source of considerable water. It seems pretty clear that directing water is going to have to be a key element of your design.

In this design I gather the paths are sloped so that they guide water to the sides of the yard. You don't want to send it to the neighbours either!

Karin L

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 2:58PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

Lovely garden and wonderful inspiration, but no where near the budget of $ 2000 .
I realize I work in an area that has high labor and materials costs but I can reasonable produce a cost estimate based on lower labor and materials rates and that project is far more pricey than 2 K. It is most likely 5 times that amount and definately more depending on the quality of materials used.
But as far as day dreaming and inspiration goes, it is lovely.

As a long time contributor to Fine Gardening Magazine I can provide you with a couple of steep hillside projects that have been published over the years inclusive of the cost if you are interested. In the FG August 2000 issue a hillside vegetable garden that was featured ( and is about the same size of the OP yard ) came in at about $ 25 K .

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 3:37PM
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Wow, I'm sooooo grateful for the visuals some of you have supplied! Thank you so so much, I've had such an unbelievable mindblock when it comes to this yard it's such a relief just to see other people's take on it. I feel bursting with inspiration!

To answer: on the other side of the fence is a very very shallow neighbor's yard and then their house. Also, currently the landscape does somewhat send the water to either side of the house, their are subtle 'troughs" that send it to the street, as well as some piping from the previously mentioned french drain.

As far as the budget goes, it's not so much a challenge to prove I can do it, believe me I would love more than anything to hire a designer, but the money is just not there. Even if we had tons of money, this is not the type of house that will support an expensive yard. If I overspent on it I wouldn't be able to enjoy it any way, I'm reasonable though, you can't always have everything, but you can do your best with what you have :)

deviant-deziner, I would love to see those projects, I'm gleaning whatever inspiration I can.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 11:05PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

It is probably easiest to visit this photo album. Link to follow
Towards the end I have a dozen or so of the publications listed.

Here is a link that might be useful: a few projects + publications

    Bookmark   March 14, 2012 at 12:56AM
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I was going through some before and after shots on a website for an Austin, TX Landscape company and saw this one. It made me think of your yard and issues. Its not as big as yours, and perhaps not quite as steep but it may be something you can jump off from.

I like the way the river rock is used to funnel the water instead of letting the water go straight down towards the house, or anywhere it wants to.

You could have some nice beds here and there up the slope for any gardening you might want to do with out having to put in huge retaining walls.

If you ended up with a long wide strip of the river rock drain strip between your grass and the slope you could put in a sweet walking bridge over it leading to the sloped area.


Heck the major portion of the drainage could be set up further on the slope perhaps? Then use a smaller drain up closer to the house to prevent flooding from the lower area during really heavy rains.

This would divide your yard into about 3 sections.. flatter area close to the house, with the slope itself divided into 2 sections, upper and lower by the river rock/drain.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   March 15, 2012 at 9:35AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

First, I don't see your back yard as being all that complex or too steep; and converting that slope from a lawn to a planted woodsy slope with a pathway leading up to a viewing deck with views back down to the house is easily doable and would break up the monotony of that existing layout.

If you insist that not hiring a designer for a consultation,(which is not necessarily either a budget breaker or overspending for the neighborhood),then it's on you to do your research at the library to get up to speed on how landscape design for a hillside has issues you'll need to address. Having access to free materials such as rock, boulders, reuse of the river rock and demolishioned concrete can certainly help with the redesign, but knowing how to put it altogether in both a functional and aesthetic way is often where a skilled landscape designer is worth their fee. I'd suggest spending more time reading up on landscape design and construction with some emphasis on handling drainage, constructing rock walls and steps on a slope, etc.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2012 at 12:17PM
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After looking at the photos on your blog, I see that your hill isn't nearly as tall or as long as I thought it was. I think the photo in my previous post is about the same as yours.

My son's first home had a yard like this. During heavy or long rains their patio always had water on it, but in the short time they lived there it never flooded their house.
If they hadn't sold they would have eventually had to install some drains at the lower part of the slope to divert the water to the sides. They had nice planting bed across the top, and terraced planting beds down the sides. They planted a few trees closer to the top on either side.

Along the sides of the house was more level, gently sloping towards the street out front. More planting beds were placed there.

The front yard was terraced.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 10:07AM
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