Our Backyard Makeover, Part 2 – The Process
Yesterday I began posting about our backyard makeover (don’t continue if you haven’t read that post), which proved to be very dramatic and emotional (for me) reliving of a (now) hilarious tragedy. By the way, turns out writing about it helped and all your supportive comments made me feel less crazy. My friends and family can now make ‘you butchered your trees’ jokes without my eyes glassing over, followed by them sheepishly apologizing with a quick ‘too soon?’ Today’s post is more about the process/breakdown after hiring our designer, Pete from (I mean financial breakdown, don’t worry – no more tears were shed during this process).
The first thing that Pete wanted to lock down were the large trees to ground everything and help create zones. Trees are like the walls of a backyard. He kept sending us photos of beautiful trees he picked out for us, but ultimately I needed to see them in person. Not sure if I’ve properly drilled this into your heads, but I AM VERY EMOTIONAL ABOUT TREES. He was like ‘ok, ya nut, I get it, you need to pick out your own trees.’ It would be like a client needing to sit on any potential sofa – he got it and so did I. We went up to some farms in Fillmore together and chose some beauties:
We only wanted evergreen trees because why plant a tree that is going to be bare for 3 months? We bought 2 evergreens, 2 oaks of some kind, 2 strawberry trees, and then 6 large dodoneas, which are more like large shrubs (that change colors four times a year). We then added a magnolia espalier (whatever it’s called when it’s on a big wood grid thing) and some bougainvillea to climb along the back fence. I think our total tree bill was around $2,500. My favorite trees we chose are the evergreen pears which are green all summer/fall/spring and have beautiful white blossoms in the winter – right when everything else is dormant these guys are dripping with flowers (OH the shoots I’ll be able to style them in!). We spent 2 hours or so shopping and really locked down a handful that could help break up the hedge (that had recently been cut down by a neighbor) and create some zones.
Next we went plant shopping, with our eyes closed apparently. Pete is going to kill me but somehow this is the only photo that I took of him there. I thought about photoshopping on some eyeballs but that seemed weird and offensive. Instead I found this one:
That’s better. Who doesn’t want a strapping Australian to design their landscaping?
That day at the nursery we pointed to plants we loved and nixed what we were less into, but we left it up to him to curate, determine the the amounts and sizes, and make sure that we were choosing plants that could live next to each other, and not need too much water (we live in Southern California after all, so this had to be a modified “English garden”). He ensured us that there are some flowering plants all year long (and so far so good, it’s a flowering wonderland out there). I believe we spent $6k on smaller/medium plants, including some citrus trees that we ended up planting in the front yard. Here is the plant list and pricing if you’re interested. We were going to create a big mood board but instead we pinned them all (). If you want exact species and quantities here you go:
At this point the sponsored event that I was supposed to host in the backyard was a few weeks away so we bought more than a normal person would buy to ensure that it looked full immediately. Plants grow fast in spring and some of ours have doubled in size already. We bought more and larger than you probably should (unless you are having a huge press event weeks after being planted). Again, all the plants are pinned on a pin board but here are some of my favorites (not necessarily in the color that we bought):
Lastly we needed some rocks. We needed pebbles for the moat, boulders to help create zones (and for hide and seek), and flagstone for the meandering path. We went to in Santa Monica because, well, they have the best selection of rocks and such nice customer service.
We chose these pretty amazing white granite boulders and while we didn’t exactly tag the exact ones we wanted we took photos and told Pete to choose low and wide boulders and no sharp jagged edges. Next the stones for the path:
For some reason I was obsessed with putting in this pretty stone path back to lead you to the sitting area and the castle. We chose tumbled bluestone because the tone of it was good and soft, it went more ‘old world’ than some of the other options and had no jagged edges.
Once everything was picked out Pete set up a schedule for demo and install.
First up, he wanted to kill the grass to put in fresh sod. I guess this grass was full of weeds, was a particularly thirsty variety, and both he and Brian really hated it. I didn’t really care, and I respected Pete’s work enough to let him do his job.
They sprayed it with a plant killer, that as you can imagine is probably not amazing for little lungs to breathe-in (although the website claims it’s safe for children and pets in small/temporary doses . . . I still wasn’t going to let them roll around in it). So once the spray started, the backyard was off limits for a couple weeks (they had to come three times to spray, then they removed it with picks and shovels). It was definitely not beautiful back there and I was super anxious to get some plants in. Pushy Emily was out and annoying everyone, wanting updates 🙂 And yes, they avoided the tree roots as to not damage my precious trees.
Once it was all dirt, it was ready for the castle and stones.
They came with semi-truck worth of stone. The stone layer that we hired came out earlier to gauge how much we wanted and frankly he far over-estimated. The cost of the stone was $5k and his crew’s labor was $2600. I think we could’ve DEFINITELY saved on the boulders and medium sized rocks.
Brian, Pete, and I kept looking at each other and saying where are all these rocks going to go?? We ultimately had to remove a bunch out of the pebble pit as it felt more like a head-splitting-open pit. To be fair, doing a pebble moat wasn’t something anyone had done before and the stone dude didn’t have kids so I don’t think he was thinking about how kids like to jump off the top of slides (which is against the rules, but ideally we want to make sure that everything is safe in case they break the rules, too).
We placed the path together, as I wanted to make sure that it meandered and wasn’t this super perfect edge to edge path. It took 3 – 4 days I believe, while the castle was going up.
The plants started going in and finally it was time for sod.
Now I hesitated posting this project at all because of the potential grass-backlash. Grass-gate 2017 can commence! I get it. I’m not terribly proud that we chose real grass either (because we live in Southern California) nor do I want to encourage you do to it if you have an alternative. But the options were either a.) artificial turf or b.) no grass. Mr. Henderson really, really, really needs a grassy backyard so the ‘rocks and cactus’ thing wasn’t going to work for him, nor our two very young kids. And ultimately the idea of artificial turf in that particular backyard was just something we couldn’t do. I’m actually shopping for some for another project whose yard lends itself well to artificial grass, so I’m truly not opposed to it full stop and I’d love to encourage you to do it if the style of your backyard is simple. But it just felt so, so, so wrong for this house with this style of landscaping. Our cousins have it and it looks so great. All I can say is we will monitor our water bills and if the drought returns we’ll consider some alternatives. Pete told us he would get the least thirsty, most durable sod, and that most of the plants he chose were California natives that didn’t need a lot of water. We just wanted real grass for our kids, and Brian wasn’t accepting the false version. If anyone in the comments wants to share their experience with artificial grass and can recommend the most real brand possible I’d love link to it and explore it for this other project.
Tomorrow we’ll do the big reveal ….
Meanwhile here is the big labor breakdown so you can see what goes into hiring a landscape designer and executing a full backyard renovation. Labor is different everywhere, and know that many of you might want to do this on your own so I broke down how much time it took with the labor involved:
If you are handy or know landscaping much then this is something you might be able to pull off on your own, but this way you know roughly what it takes to execute a job this size.
*UPDATE: I originally didn’t put the design/labor cost because there is an unspoken rule in the design world that you don’t expose someone’s hourly rate, but enough people asked about the total of it and it was just shy of $10k. And yes, that is what we paid, and there was no discount because he is a small company with a family support. That includes his crew, so all in all I think its a good price. And that makes the grand total $29k (which somehow feels wildly better than $30k).
Here is what materials cost for us. We paid for it over 6 months and in small bite-sized chunks so I hadn’t added it up until now. Once it’s all together it’s a bit nauseating, but things cost what they cost and while it is a lot of money, I’m not shocked at the cost.
Remember, we wanted it to be instantly beautiful without any patience to let things grow for a couple years. Most of you wouldn’t need the amount of rocks/boulders we needed (we didn’t even need that many) which was the most substantial part of the job (about $8k). As for the plants, I’d say if you have more patience then you’d only need about 1/2 or even 1/3 the plants we bought and instead wait a year for them to grow in and spread. We had to shoot it for a sponsor (the castle) and we thought we had this big event in our backyard in the spring so we needed it to look amazing RIGHT NOW (and thought we had the budget to do so, from said big event), but unless you are in that situation you wouldn’t need to invest so much, so quickly into your landscaping. We needed to, and man, we paid the price but it was worth it.
We are so happy to have had Pete curating all the plants and trees, and advising us on all sub-contractors, managing the labor, and keeping things moving. I wouldn’t have been able to it without him, and because of him we are lucky enough to have our backyard finished. Plus he’s guaranteed that not one plant will ever die (HA) and that it will look beautiful forever, despite the fact that the kids jump on plants, cut my favorite flowers, and do what small kids do – not care or notice how lucky they are. We’ll drive it into their small heads as much as possible . . . for the rest of their lives 🙂
Come back tomorrow for the reveal . . .
If you want all the backyard posts leading up to this post and the reveal, here you go.
***Sneak Peek photography by