Gneiss House

Low-pressure home metamorphism

Yard attack 1: Trees and shrubs

Being a corner lot, my house has two yards: a small front yard facing roughly west, and a larger south-facing side one. Both are up a slope from the sidewalk. The front yard has a lawn, but the side yard only has a little bit of lawn around the edges, on parts of the slope. The back has a wide brick driveway with a one-car garage and a separate entrance into the basement.

When I bought the house, the side yard contained a cedar tree, some shrubs and hedges, a few garden beds, and a whole lot of gravel. It was set up as a wide gravel patio, with a pea-size gravel walkway through the whole yard and leading to a set of steps down to the driveway in the back. The gravel areas and several of the garden beds were underlain with matting and bounded by cheap plastic edging, some of it held down with rusted metal stakes. The rear steps were made of unopened bags of gravel.

Listing photo of the side yard, including a couple thousand pounds of gravel.

Listing photo of the side yard, including a couple thousand pounds of gravel.

gravel gravel gravel

gravel gravel gravel

There were a number of problems with the whole design. While it’s good that the yard slopes slightly away from the house and then steeply down to the sidewalk, xeriscaping matting and gravel fill are designed to funnel water off the surface of your yard and directly into plant beds that need the moisture. It’s not a good idea to just funnel all rainwater off the slope and into the road: none of the water can be absorbed by the soil to keep the soil healthy. All of the water is wasted. Not to mention that this area gets 44 inches of rain a year, so a design intended for semi-arid climates is poorly placed here: some moisture inevitably tends to get trapped, making your whole yard a mosquito breeding ground. It’s also a particularly bad idea to place matting under the soil on a steep incline, particularly with added mulch layers, as the previous homeowner had done around the edges of my side yard: then there is nothing to hold the soil in place, and it will tend to wash away or fall off in large, cohesive sections. Sloping yards in moist climates already typically have problems with creep and erosion, and this yard was no exception—several shrubs and perennials around the side of the yard were displaying classic signs of creep, and the mats were demonstrably making the soil erosion substantially worse.

The old holly bush was a severe victim of slope creep and was not doing well

The old holly bush was a severe victim of slope creep and was not doing well. Also note the white specks in the soil in the middle of the picture: poor, pea gravel victims of people trying to walk down the path.

The soil and mulch under these hedges was placed on top of the fabric matting, and would slide off the mats in sections whenever there was a heavy rain storm.

The soil and mulch under these hedges was placed on top of the fabric matting, and would slide off the mats in sections whenever there was a heavy rain storm.

The gravel itself was a headache. It didn’t stay put, and pea gravel is an especially bad idea for areas where people will be walking—you sink in while you’re trying to walk, it gets stuck in your shoes, and you end up kicking it out of the contained area just by walking. Gravel is great for color contrast and drainage in planted beds, and for temporary fill for drainage and short-term weed control, but it is not very sensible as a permanent fill in a patio area.

So here was the plan:

  1. Cut down the cedar tree, which blocked the southerly sunlight year-round from the central part of the yard and made the yard feel very small and enclosed due to its size and placement;
  2. Cut down two shrubs that were doing poorly because of slope creep;
  3. Remove the gravel, the edging, and all of the matting;
  4. Shore up the slopes with interspersed stones;
  5. Install a nice pathway through the yard;
  6. Plant to permanently establish both a stable slope and a green, healthy yard; ideally something much lower maintenance and more eco-friendly than a classic turf lawn;
  7. Establish and plant vegetable and herb garden;
  8. Establish pleasant outdoor seating areas;
  9. Fence the yard for my dog to play in, within township restrictions for fenced corner lots.

This was the plan for the warmer months of the year, which were upon us soon after I closed on the house, finished the floors, and moved in.

Gravel removal came first. After it was clear that no one was going to pay for pea gravel, even large quantities of it where I did some of the work bagging it, I started listing it on craigslist for free. It took no fewer than 7-8 people and a couple months of steady removal to get rid of most of it. It was frustrating, pretty backbreaking work: shoveling the gravel into containers and bags, raking it into piles, sifting it from the sand and pulverized-gravel dust. Although the craigslisters did a lot of their own removal, I probably shoveled and raked up half of it myself before it was all gone. The matting underneath was mostly rotten and ripped into tiny pieces when I tried to pull it out. The stakes holding down the matting and edging were in some cases extremely deep and difficult to get out. I did most of this work in the sunshine, during a very, very hot early summer. Finally, when just small amounts of gravel mixed with sand were left, I pulled the craigslist ads and shoveled most of what was left into my garden beds so I could finally remove the last of the fabric from underneath. The soil beneath was clay-rich and had been packed down hard by the weight of the overlying gravel.


After about half of the gravel was removed from the pea-size gravel path, but before tree removal. The cedar is in the back on the right.

Then, with the help of my extremely helpful parents and a borrowed gas chain saw, we accomplished steps 1 and 2: removing the tree and unhealthy shrubs. Due to thick, low branches that had never been managed or pruned, the cedar tree was difficult to see well when I hatched my brilliant plan, so I was unaware that it contained four trunks. But with a gas chain saw, a smaller electric chain saw, trimmers, and loppers, the three of us got the whole job done–on a nearly 100ºF, humid, sunny, brutal day. And we cut and tied up all the branches for township pickup. I gave the cedar trunks to some coworkers who love woodworking, and happily sent the rest of the mess to our town’s compost pile. Hooray!

Next time: Installing paths, gardens, and greenery!


Author: Lumberjack Lynne

Geologist by trade, redesigning my little piece of property so it's greener, friendlier, and my very own.

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