How to fix this yard?

1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))May 14, 2011

I'll have to try to get some pictures, but here are the issues with our yard:

* Foreclosure property that was not well cared for. In fact, leaves were not removed for six years, neighbor told me.

* Someone dumped grey stones on each side of the driveway and into the back yard. That probably WAS the driveway at one point, actually.

* Very uneven backyard -- big slope from one end to the other, plus ditch-type areas in the grass.

* Bamboo forest in the back part of the backyard that has been chopped down but the roots are still there.

* Lots of trees = shade.

* Sparse grass, with a few large round patches of bare dirt.

* Now that we removed 100-plus bags of leaves, weeds are shooting up in the bare spots and under a stand of trees on one side of the house.

* Ugly concrete patio -- I want to cover it in slate at some point.

Besides this, I love the house. ;)

I consider the front yard more urgent and less difficult -- put down some grass seed (minimal success so far), but guess I have to go and pick out all the darned stones. Planning to plant some groundcover in the newly uncovered area under trees before weeds take over totally. Will have to weed as it is. Apparently the soil is pretty rich after all those years of leaves composting on it.

Back yard ... help? Just doze it out and start over? (And how do you not kill trees in the process -- there are a lot around the edges of the yard, plus one peach tree in the middle that I don't want to kill.) Is this something a pair of homeowners can do on their own? Is this something that should be done in spring, or can it be done in summer or fall? If we need professional help, what should we expect in terms of cost (high COL area, basic job without extra landscaping)?

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bahia(SF Bay Area)

You've got so many questions and seem to not have much experience with creating a new garden from scratch, so I would suggest you'll save money in the long run if you do get some expert consultation at a minimum to discuss your issues. Seeding a new lawn in particular is really more about soil preparation and being able to keep it moist enough to germinate, as well as selecting a seed mix for your conditions. As well, planting out new shrub borders to suppress weeds is probably better accomplished with a good thick mulch, of which the hauled away leaves were a free resource, not necessarily a liability. Weed suppression will also depend on the weeds you are dealing with, there is no "one size fits all" solution to weeding. Tree protection is mostly about avoiding damage to the roots and not disrupting the grades around trees to remain, if you don't have experience/common sense of what you are doing, get expert advice before having at it.

I'd suggest asking neighbors who look like they've had their gardens professionally done, looking in the yellow pages, or asking for recommendations from a local good quality retail nursery. Getting a few hours of professional consultation before you start can potentially save you time and money, and avoid damaging trees you may want to keep.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2011 at 5:10PM
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I am with bahia - consult an expert.

Depending on where you are,(you dont specify) what you are calling bamboo could be invasive. Slate is not a good choice for a patio. growing grass in a shady yard is challenging if not impossible.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2011 at 5:56PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

When you're consulting the expert, have the trees identified and evaluated. Remember, you're not required to keep them all! Some may be weak, in a bad location, or weedy types. On the other hand, if your summers are hot, consider keeping or planting trees that will shade the house and save your a/c bill.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2011 at 6:13PM
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1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))

Thanks for the comments. Absolutely right that we have no experience on this level. I can prepare and plant a nice garden bed -- a whole property with this many challenges is a very different thing. Problem is we've had to do so much work on this house that hubby doesn't want to spend the money on the yard right now -- wants to do it himself later in the summer or fall when more urgent projects are finished.

I did aerate the lawn before seeding, but probably didn't keep it wet enough. Wanted to keep the leaves, but they were mixed liberally with branches and trash. I do know we want to avoid disturbing the roots and the grading around the trees. The bamboo is definitely invasive -- we have a long fight ahead.

Why isn't slate good for a patio? I hate to just repaint it.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2011 at 7:11PM
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Slate TILE is okay for patios in certain climates. Actual slate shreds and breaks apart. many people call bluestone slate - is bluestone what you are thinking of using on the patio?

    Bookmark   May 14, 2011 at 7:24PM
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1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))

I didn't get close enough to being ready to do the patio to plan bluestone vs. slate. I read something somewhere about putting slate over a concrete patio and thought it sounded like a great solution. I'll research it well prior to starting and would be very glad to receive advice on materials, but most likely nothing will be done to the patio this year. Too many more pressing things to do.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2011 at 8:11PM
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1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))

Here are some photos.

Sloping yard. You can also see one of the perfectly round bare spots. Not sure how those came to be -- either something was sitting there or the previous people dumped chemicals:

Bare area where bamboo was:

This shows part of the above area BEFORE:


Turned around the other way, facing the house:

Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos of the area where someone dumped stones and the ground is hard as rock. They must have parked cars there. Maybe tomorrow.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2011 at 9:38PM
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1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))

To be more clear, the closeup is of the bamboo war zone.

And another clarification: nobody is considering leveling the whole yard. Any attempt at dealing with the steep slope would have to involve terracing, and that might happen someday. (I actually don't mind the slope myself if the level back area could be improved so some part of the yard can be more functional for family use, but the husband likes the idea of terracing someday.) The main concerns now are getting rid of the bamboo and improving the area where it was. And if that gets dealt with using machinery, it seems that it would also make sense to deal with the stony and uneven area just inside the gate at the same time.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2011 at 9:50PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

I'd suggest grubbing out the Phyllostachys bamboo roots with a backhoe, and follow up on any pieces missed and resprouting with herbicide or further hand digging to remove them. I've faced similar situations with a new garden renovation here in California, and the backhoe got it all on the first attempt.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2011 at 10:55AM
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I'd agree that getting rid of the bamboo roots/shoots should be very high on your priority list. If this is not addressed - and bahia's suggested method is really the only way to go - the 'forest' will be back in no time. And bigger and better :-)

Just an observation and not to be considered any kind of criticism :-) I often encounter situations like this with a new house purchase - an overgrown, horribly neglected garden. For whatever reason, the homeowners are not very inclined to invest any money to correct. I'd suggest re-evaluating that premise. While I know the inclination is to spend your budget on fixing/updating the interior of the house and/or the exterior, budgeting some funds - even for just a professional consulation - towards the surrounding landscape and garden can add significant value and certainly some peace of mind. In most cases, spending the money to do it right the first time will save major dollars down the road. Just prioritize what makes sense to address first.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2011 at 11:38AM
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1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))

Thanks for the advice on getting rid of the bamboo roots!

I completely agree that it makes sense to get professional help for the yard. It will increase the value in the long run, and we get to enjoy it longer if we fix it up now vs. later. Unfortunately, the husband does not agree. I think this could be a lovely yard, but it needs help to get that way.

By the way -- another fun discovery today .. poison ivy. Scratch, scratch.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2011 at 6:19PM
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You don't specify where you live. It's important.

You can deal with the slope by adding decks or terraces.

The bamboo - buy a pickaxe or a pulaski and hack out EVERY new shoot as soon as it's a few inches high and eventually it will give up - you don't have to dig deep, just hack through the growing tip a few inches below soil level. One whack with a sharpened pulaski should do it. dig a trench around the battleground area to isolate the runners.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2011 at 9:00PM
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1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))

We live in Northern Virginia.

Thanks for the additional advice on the bamboo. We're definitely trying to catch the new shoots, but the detail helps! A trench -- interesting idea. I kind of hate to do that to the yard, but if it turns out to be necessary, we can do that.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2011 at 9:26PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I think it is not a reluctance to invest money that is so often the case, and no offense Dahlia, I mean this in general terms and not about you. I think the problem is that many people look at a yard like this, or even more overgrown (and yes, it can be worse!) and they regard it as one would a room decorating project: we do it once and that's it, it's done. In fact, I had a neighbour move in once who expressed his gardening plans in exactly those terms.

This kind of a project is a process more akin to renovation than to redecorating. The kind of project where you walk into a fairly OK looking house with a crowbar and a hammer, and after a day or two of back-breaking, gut-busting work, you've accomplished no improvement; in fact to the contrary, the place looks worse than when you started.

I think you will need to kill trees, and I think you will make things look worse (a la trench around the bamboo, keeping the patch bare until it's dead) before they look better. I mean, it's basically a nice yard, but for optimum use or look the trees are in stupid places and there are too many of them. Plus leaning trees bug me, but some people like them.

But to make decisions like "which trees?" it might help to consult a designer. A slope is a neat feature that gives you lots of options for making an interesting yard. It would be a shame to waste its potential, and you also have to think about water flow.

The link below is a tool you might be able to use for the rocks out front that is quieter than a digger :-)


Here is a link that might be useful: Lee Valley Rock Rake

    Bookmark   May 15, 2011 at 10:05PM
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1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))

Karin, I had to laugh about the trees being in stupid places. They are, and there ARE too many of them. They can make the yard a little gloomy at times. That tree in the middle right next to the deck is really annoying, but I'm pretty sure I couldn't bring myself to kill it. Most if not all of the small young trees in the bamboo zone will definitely go, and there are dead ones elsewhere that have to go too, and others will be limbed up. Eventually.

No worries about seeing this as a one-time thing -- we understand that it will be a process, and I love gardening and yard work anyway. This is definitely a yard renovation rather than a redecoration!

Thanks for the link to that raking tool!

    Bookmark   May 15, 2011 at 10:33PM
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Those bars spots ... maybe a child's pool?

Here's a workable plan:
1 - Make a landscape PLAN (see link) ... draw the lot to scale, and play with the ideas on paper.

While you are deciding:
2 - Remove all the dead stuff. Shred it for compost.
3 - Remove all the "weed trees" and those that will outgrow their space soon. I have no clue why people have such a hard time killing trees - they can be 40-foot dangerous weeds.

Keep attacking the bamboo. I did some searching, and the suggestion that you mow it a couple of times a week makes sense. Keep it from getting tall enough to make food in its leaves and it will die. Apparently it's unlikely to absorb enough herbicide to kill it (waxy leaves) so you have to starve it out. has several suggestions. Basically you be really nice to it, with fertilizer and water, lure it out of the ground and kill it.

4 - Remove any outbuildings and material you know you don't want. Freecycle or Craigslist helps with this.

Just decluttering

Here is a link that might be useful: DIY Landscape planning

    Bookmark   May 16, 2011 at 11:05AM
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ebeth(z8 FL)

Maybe your husband thinks that professional advice is too expensive or he's afraid of dealing with someone with grandiose ideas. Designers will give you ideas that suit your lot, lifestyle and, most importantly, budget. Just to give you an example (and I'm no where near you, nor am I soliciting work) I charge $75 an hour to do a walk and talk. Usually takes between 2 and 3 hours to do a complete yard. I'm sure there are people in your area who offer the same service. Some might leave you with a sketch, plant and materials list and DIY guide with references to good, local sub-contractors.
Believe me, you'll avoid a lot more than a couple hundred dollars in mistakes and poorly planned projects.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2011 at 8:29PM
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I installed Indian peacock slate over my patio two years ago. Live north of Atlanta. It's gorgeous. Look for an established dealer with a good reputation. HD sells what I believe is an inferior quality Indian slate.

HTH, Rosie

    Bookmark   May 20, 2011 at 10:28PM
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1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))

Thanks for the additional comments!

Lazygardens, you might be right about the pool. Unfortunately, I can't mow the bamboo area till we get those darned bamboo stumps out. I may actually come around to the decision to get rid of more trees though -- including that huge one right behind the house. Makes me feel very un-green to even consider it, but it is actually really annoying.

Ebeth, your service is exactly what I would like to find. Guess I need to make some more phone calls.

Rosiew, your patio sounds great. I would love to see a photo if you wouldn't mind sharing. Mind also sharing how much it cost?

    Bookmark   May 21, 2011 at 8:37PM
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1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))

Another question -- I didn't post a photo of this, but there are areas under trees on each side of the front yard that were covered in huge piles of leaves. Now that they're uncovered, weeds are sprouting like crazy. It's amazing how fast they are. I planted some big-root geraniums for groundcover there but it will take a long time to cover the area. Do you have any tips for fighting the weeds in this situation? It's a big area. I guess my choices are spray (prefer not to do that), pull them up or lay something on them (plastic or newspaper) to kill them. Or I could put down mulch, but I figured it would be harder to get the leaves off of the mulch in the fall, plus something growing would fit better with the informal look of the area, so I thought the groundcover would be better.

I just don't want the weeds to win vs. the geraniums for taking over the area.

Also, in the backyard, which will need a major overhaul, is there any point to fighting weeds there now?

    Bookmark   May 22, 2011 at 1:56AM
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I am hearing so much diffuseness in what you need--mostly putting out fires here and there--whereas you need a set of goals and a plan for addressing them.

For example, now you have bare spots under trees and are talking grass one minute and then groundcover. Perhaps you have not really defined what needs to be under trees and where and how much based on what you want to do there and what you want it to look like. In other words, don't define what you do based on the size and shape of the bare spots left by fallen leaves you just removed.

I like to pay attention to what falls out of my trees and where, because as you mentioned, someone has to remove some or all of that in the fall. Different leaves (or other tree stuff) is handled or tolerated differently by different plantings underneath. Some groundcovers "absorb" leaf fall well and some do not. Some shrubs tolerate drifts of leaves and others are messy and misshapen as a result. The life cycles of some perennials works better under some types of trees than others. Grass could be your best friend if the type of tree, light conditions etc allow a shade-tolerant grass. Mass plantings of hostas can be effective when you need to remove leaves in fall, because then you can rake when bare in winter but have very effective weed-blocking growth throughout the warm seasons.

All these are things you might need to read about, research, discuss with a professional. Of course it is easy to feel overwhelmed when trying to get a large lot "under control" so deep breaths are in order! You will likely have to mow weeds, mulch areas, use some Roundup here and there, as you won't wrestle this property back from nature overnight, or maybe never, meaning, there may be large areas you need to think of as how to do as " woodland natural" or leave sort of bare and weedy, letting the trees outcompete the weeds, to some extent, and enjoy smaller cultivated areas that give you pleasure.

Read some of the threads about lawn vs. garden--what I mean is, it is not realistic to expect to make a very large (meaning like the size of a yard, not a garden bed) shady area under trees look like a manicured landscape without lots of mulch and maintenance.Further, it won't look like the magazine pictures of a "woodland garden" either without a lot of maintence, usually, or very judicious choice of mass plantings. OTOH with a plan, you might be able to determine where to create some civilized areas and what to let go as "natural" and what can be in between.

I just think it may be too much to expect to get your solutions by asking, what to do about this? then what about that? That is not a criticism, but trying to be realistic. For example, if you decide on what you want to achieve in the front yard, and let's say you chose a certain area to put to groundcover, then you want to identify the area, make sure the soil is amended, identify the ideal groudcover for the conditions, plant on adequate centers, then water/mulch/weed/maintain until established. You don't want to plop a few things here and there and scatter your efforts all over the yard.

Here's another to-do to think about--if you are likely to stay there awhile and be an avid gardener, identify an area to start your compost pile. You can make something elaborate, but until you have a plan for what goes where, you can outline a big 3-sided rectangle with a few landscape timbers to fill with leaves. This can always be moved later. This is if you think that will give you the sense of control and satisfaction known to compost-whackos, to have a ready supply of a bushel of partly decomposed leaves for mulching around a newly planted shrub or of compost to dig in when randomly planting something--it's not for everyone.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2011 at 1:49PM
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1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))

Frankie, you're in my zone -- want to come help me come up with a grand plan? :)

I see that I wasn't very clear about the tree/groundcover area vs. lawn. In the front yard, the areas I was talking about with regard to groundcover are on the two side edges of the lawn. There will never be grass in those strips. There is grass in between, and it could use some improvement, but it's in much better shape than the back. (The goal is not "manicured perfection" anywhere but more of a "woodland natural" look.) I do have a plan for the front yard, more or less, though I don't know all of the details about how to get there. I am really completely overwhelmed with regard to the back, though. I know my questions sound scattershot, but I'm trying to 1. formulate some sort of plan in my head and 2. keep things from getting more out of control in the meantime and even, maybe, get moving gradually in the right direction.

I would love to have professional help, but haven't figured out how to make that happen yet, as the landscape designers I've talked to expect to do the installation as well as design, and I can't afford that right now. (We probably wouldn't have anyone do most installation anyway, honestly, as we like to DIY what we can.) I did discover a list of local landscape designers today on the website of a professional organization and left messages for six or seven, asking if they do consultations by the hour. I'm hopeful that one of them will do that.

In the meantime, I've been reading and learning as much as I can, but last fall we were living on .05 acre (or something like that), so a lot of this is new to us and it will take awhile to get up to speed. I'm trying.

Thanks for taking the time to respond and offer advice!

    Bookmark   May 22, 2011 at 6:02PM
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See, I thought I WAS helping you come up with a grand plan. The grand plans require that you either are a grand planner or you hire a grand planner or you over time educate yourself to be a grand planner-- sounds like you are working on 2 &3, which are good. Did you see the thread on books? And there have been other similar ones. You might want to browse through some basic landscaping books of the sort that have sections on how to list your goals and make rough diagrams ( the old bubble diagram approach is still good 'cause it lets you brainstorm without drawing skills or fear of commitment).

    Bookmark   May 22, 2011 at 8:10PM
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1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))

Thanks, Frankie. I'll look for some books.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2011 at 9:57PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

If you don't mind the look of old leaves as mulch, they are actually quite beneficial for building up the organic content of the soil, and can work well with a "woodsy look" and shrubs or herbaceous perennials that can hide the leaves as they leaf out themselves in spring. A deep mulch of old leaves is also quite useful for suppressing weeds from germinating.

If you don't want to grub out the bamboo rhizomes at one pass with a backhoe, slow but steady work with a pick mattock to remove woody stems and roots to below ground level, and then regular mowing with a power mower to remove soft new shoots will eventually win out over the bamboo, but you can't let up on the process, and mow at least every 2 weeks while the bamboo is in growth mode.

Hopefully you will find someone local who is qualified and motivated to help you with garden advice consultation and willing to work with you as DIY client. I've done it both ways, and happy to do it as long as the consultation part was worth my while and I wasn't swamped with clients wanting both design and installation. Good luck settling in with your new garden, and even if it takes you a whole year before you really start projects outdoors, in the meantime you'll have had a whole year to get to know your garden at different seasons, and let your initial ideas season and develop into more informed plans. Also, don't be afraid to remove trees in poor condition or badly placed that don't make sense, you can always plant more later.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2011 at 11:40PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I just scrolled back to your photos and something else struck me. When you have a slope that you terrace or rock garden, or just garden up in general, it is often seen at its best from the bottom, especially if you have hardscape you want to enjoy. So I would start designing with a place to sit at the bottom to enjoy the outcomes of your labour. Doesn't have to be a major patio, just a bench maybe.

But your shed is there. That is bad for another reason that I mentioned above: water flows downhill. The shed may thus be where it is most prone to flooding or rot, or just being a dank, spidery, disagreeable place.

A shed, if you must have one, could be where sun gets in the windows and where sun can dry out the siding enough that it doesn't get mouldy. Your compost bins can be up where it's sunny too, so they work faster and so it's nice to go put kitchen scraps there. Then of course you need a path to the compost, and to the shed...

That's kind of how I would start the grand plan, thinking about where in the garden people and things want to be, how they'll get there, and how they want to feel when they're there. Who called this the plastic chair method of design or something like that? Just drag a chair around the yard, sit in various places, and think about what you want to experience when you are there.


    Bookmark   May 23, 2011 at 12:02AM
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I am up in PA, but I used a DC based landscape architect (long story). He just got married, so he won't be around for a least a week or more, but here is his website.

He is $75/hour. I have enjoyed working with him, although we spent a bit more than an hourly job. He does primarily plans/consulting although he does plant some of his jobs.

You can read my long thread that includes his composite plan for my job (skip to the end). The project is being implemented by a local provider (who has been less enjoyable, but we are getting there).

Here is a link that might be useful: Landscape architect.

    Bookmark   May 23, 2011 at 12:41PM
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1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))

I did get a call back from one person who is willing to come and do a consultation. What kinds of questions should I be asking in advance?

DCpilgrim, thank you for the recommendation of your landscape architect. I'll give them a call too. I enjoyed reading your thread and following the photos of the changes. Love the stone steps! Will be keeping that one in mind.

Bahia, I am now seeing the advantages of a layer of leaves as mulch in some areas. We might give that a try in the fall, now that at least the junk and branches are gone.

Karin, I think you're right that that back corner of the back yard would be a great place for a sitting area, but the ginormous shed is staying put. Did I mention that my husband is extremely practical? No way could I sell him on moving or replacing a perfectly functional shed that's in good shape. He loves that shed. It was actually very well built (on site, 15 years ago) and is clean and dry. I do have an area in mind, in the opposite corner of the yard up by the house, for a little "hidden garden" type of corner with a chair. And the vegetable garden in front of the shed will be moved to a sunnier spot in the future -- the spot where it is by the fence actually could be a nice place for a bench and sitting area when the yard is nicer to look at. I appreciate your having me think of paths through the yard -- I like the idea and it's helping me to consider the space as a whole and not a collection of parts.

Will update after a landscape designer visits.

    Bookmark   May 26, 2011 at 7:19AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

If the shed is good then I have no argument with practicality :-)

We actually began our yard design with the thought that we wanted to be able to wheel stuff (ranging from old cars to lawn mowers) out of the shed onto a solid surface. That surface is usually a sitting area, but has multiple uses (I admit stuff often parks there, currently the wheelbarrow). Then we surrounded it with rock-walled garden beds and put a stone stairway and path to get to it. It's much smaller than your yard, but the approach might work.

Your set-up looks like it could handle patio/work area. seating area in front of the shed, utility area (compost etc) behind, and as you say, paths to each defining the layout and areas for beds or grass further.

I think your thought process is going to enable you to have a really good discussion with a designer, and to come up with a good idea of what you want.


    Bookmark   May 28, 2011 at 8:04PM
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