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Adventures in Home Improvement

The Landscaping Saga

April 2002 to January 2003

The project began in April. The exterior of the house looked fine, but the yard, both front & back, really needed some sprucing up. Pat loves puttering around in the garden from time to time. I don't mind dragging out the lawn mower and occasionally trimming back the rose bushes. But neither of us is religious about tending to the greenery around the property. Growing plants and grass require constant attention that we just couldn't manage to give. Solution: inline automatic sprinkling system.

Sounded simple enough, but where to get one, how to install it, how many heads did we need, and how should it all be laid out? Screw it! Let's hire a professional and get it done right!! So, off to the Yellow Pages I go in search of a landscaper. Two weeks later, one of the fourteen I called and left messages with actually called back. A month or so later they actually came over to the house to learn what we wanted. They assured us everything could be done by late July.

The budget started at $5,000 and quickly soared past $10,000, $12,000, and $18,000. They could put in a deck, a new backyard gate, lighting, new pond. It all sounded beautiful. July came and went. The estimate passed $24,000. By late August, and no work started, it was up to $32,000. Pat found another landscaper and we started all over again. We'd already spent $1,000 in developing the plans with the first one and now we had to lay out another $1,000 for consultation and plans from a second.

The second landscaper, Planet Horticulture of Berkeley, came up with a radical approach to redoing our property. Pat loved it and, frankly, Scarlet, I didn't give a damn as long as I got an automatic sprinkling system and a palm tree. New budget: $16,000. No pretty colorful printed up plans like you see on the HGTV landscaping shows, but a trip to their grounds in the Berkeley hills quickly showed me these guys knew what they were doing, even if they weren't great communicators. I have no clue what we're going to end up with, but Pat seems to like what they've described and I get not one, but two palm trees!

So, follow along here as I report daily on the transformation of our Oakland property

Pass mouse over image to see "Before."

The Daily Diaries

  • 11/12/02: Day 1 Tearing it all out.
  • 11/14/02: Day 2 Removing the trash and bringing in topsoil.
  • 11/22/02: Day 3 The start of the sprinkler system.
  • 11/29/02: Day 4 Patio preparation
  • 11/30/02: Day 5 New patio laid in backyard.
  • 12/17/02: Day 6 Plants arrive!!.
  • 12/18/02: Day 7 Looking nice!
  • 12/20/02: Day 8 Mulch arrives.
  • 12/30/02: Day 9 Storm drain installed.
  • 1/15/03: Day 10 Backyard lighting installation begins.
  • 1/16/03: Day 11 Spotlighting and pathways added.

Day 1: Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Work is scheduled to begin this morning sometime between 9 and 10 am, so as soon as the workers show up, I want to get some "before" pictures. No calls, no doorbells. At 10:15 I walk out to the living room and discover half the front lawn is already gone. Quick! Get the camera!!

Each photo shows the finished state of the yard. Mouseover shows original.

Day 2: Thursday, November 14, 2002

Today the rest of the piled trash was removed from the backyard. Some topsoil was brought in and mixed into the front yard as well as the back. A flagstone wall was built up around the backyard pond.

Day 3: Friday, November 22, 2002

Late in the morning I discovered a lone worker out on the front yard hooking up the beginnings of the sprinkler system to the existing outdoor faucet. From there he laid flexible pipe around the foundation, down the left side of the house, through the fence between the kitchen and our neighbor's garage, on the other side of which he left the remainder coiled up just beyond the air conditioner. Along with the piping which he buried up to the fence, was an electrical wire which I assume goes to the timer control unit which will ultimately be installed inside on the back porch.

Two hours later, he was gone for the day.

Day 4: Friday, November 29, 2002

Just when I thought we wouldn't be seeing the landscapers at all this week, I get a phone call around eleven o'clock on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving. Would it be alright if the workers came out today around one o'clock? Yes. Do you mind if they come tomorrow.. Saturday? No problem.

The rainy season is overdue here in northern California and the landscapers are trying to finish up all of their job sites before the liquid sunshine hits. One o'clock and two o'clock come and go. At 2:30 a pickup truck overloaded with flagstone backs into my driveway.

"This is the flagstone for your backyard patio," the worker managed in broken English. I didn't even know we were getting a patio. Didn't know we had ordered flagstone. Thought they were going to use the flagstone we already had that they had dug up and piled out behind the garage. Frankly, I haven't a clue as to how this is supposed to look when it's done; that's Pat's department and, of course, he's at work when most of the work is being done.

But, today, Pat had to be in to work at 5:00 am, so he gets home around 3 pm and assures me that yes, we did order a flagstone patio. The workers lug the flagstone down the driveway and stack it in neat piles along the edges of the backyard. The empty pickup pulls out and another loaded with amber sand backs in. The workers start chopping away at the earth in the backyard, hauling away excess soil and dumping it in the front yard. String lines are set up in the backyard, a black mesh is laid down, and the sand is brought by wheelbarrow from the pickup, down the driveway, and piled on the concrete walk between the back door steps and the gate to the driveway. I tell them their boss has mentioned working tomorrow and they seem surprised. In any event, after prepping the backyard for a patio, they leave for the day.

Day 5: Saturday, November 30, 2002

Saturday morning I'm up at 7:15 and roll gently into my morning with a fresh pot of coffee, checking on my email, and returning a few phone calls. I need to get out in the backyard to photograph yesterday's progress, but why hurry? They're probably not coming anyway, and even if they do, they certainly won't show up before 10 or 11 am. At 8:15 I'm in the middle of a phone call to a friend back in Omaha when I see the workers pass my office window on their way to the backyard. I end the phone call, get dressed, grab the camera, and head for the backyard to get the photos before too much can be done. Too late! The black mesh laid down yesterday is already covered over with mustard-colored sand.

The workers spend the entire day leveling sand, toting huge blocks of flagstone, chipping them to size and shape, and laying them into the mosaic that is to become our patio. The crew asks to borrow a few tools and we locate them in the garage. The string guides they've set up in the yard indicate a triangular shaped patio spreading ever wider from the back steps towards the pond at the back of the yard. Eventually the string lines disappear and the patio spreads ever closer to the rose trellis off the back porch. By late afternoon the work is done, the crew has cleaned up and left.

Oh my God!! Neither of us was expecting the whole backyard to be done in flagstone. I thought I had seen a drawing, but couldn't find it. Pat said, no, we hadn't been shown a drawing. This was way too much! Or, so it seemed at first. A day later we both started warming to the huge patio. A few days later it just seemed right for the yard. Basically, we're taking a 'wait and see' approach. Besides, the landscapers themselves haven't been on the property for two weeks; they just send their sub-contractors over.

Day 6: Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Our first day of sunshine after three consecutive Pacific storms that started rolling in last Thursday. I get an email from Planet Horticulture saying they'll be here today by Noon. At 12:30 I spot the sprinkler installer who has returned for the first time since November 22nd. He trenches under the sidewalk to the strip by the curb and starts laying water lines from one end of the front yard to the other. At 3:30 the other workers show up in a pickup full of new plants, shrubs, and trees, unload them along with a roll of chicken wire. One starts cutting and forming little chicken wire baskets to protect each plant from gnawing critters. The others start planting. In an hour and a half our yard, both front and back, is transformed from a barren wasteland to a sparse nursery.

David and Roger, owners of Planet Horticulture, show up and start asking me questions concerning placement of existing plants I can't answer. They're not staying onsite too long, so I make a frantic call to Pat's cell phone to expedite his arrival. The flagstone in the backyard has interrupted the natural drainage of rainwater, leaving a two inch deep puddle around the corner of the garage near its entry door after a heavy rain. Pat tells David and Roger of an existing unused sewer pipe traversing under the backyard from the midpoint of the garage and they agree to do some trenching to utilize it for excess runoff. Pat and I agree we need new gutters and downspouts on the garage roof.

Day 7: Wednesday, December 18, 2002

More sunshine between winter storms today. The sprinkler system guy was out there a little after 8:00 o'clock this morning and worked through early afternoon setting in lines front and back. Plus, today he wired up the control box for the system on the back porch! Haven't looked for the manual yet, but at some point I will have to read it to learn how to operate the system. The rest of the crew showed up about mid-morning and was gone an hour and a half later. I presume they did more plantings, but it's all a blur to me at this point so I don't really know. Things are really starting to look nice. Next-door neighbor Tony meets me out front around 3:30 pm, identifies all the different plants, and tells me how nice this is going to look when it starts filling in. Clearly he's impressed with the work. Rona, from across the street, thinks we've been screwed and cites the sprinkler lines which have yet to be buried and the fact that the plantings are so young and far apart. Jane, from two doors down, takes one look at the backyard and announces, "I want this!!"

Day 8: Friday, December 20, 2002

The mulch arrived today in the middle of an afternoon downpour. But the workers managed to get both the front and back yards covered with it, finally obscuring the planting soil and sprinkler system. Hats off to these guys who worked in weather that kept me indoors and my camera dry; the photos will have to wait for clement weather. I also received an email from the main office reminding me of the lighting and planters that still need to be put in. Looks like we're coming in under budget and may be able to afford some additional plants.

Day 9: Monday, December 30, 2002

The sub-contractors arrived early this morning and started digging in the flower bed along the garage to locate the sewer pipe we told them was there. At the corner of the garage they dug down and installed a catch basin and ran 4" plastic pipe to connect it to the sewer pipe they located rather quickly. Within two and a half hours, they were cleaned up and gone. The new storm drain should get its first test later today as another Pacific storm moves onshore. The natural drainage from before had been interrupted by the new flagstone patio, leaving us with our own little Lake Titicaca wrapped around the corner of the garage during torrential downpours (see Day 6). Normal rainfalls seemed to drain away just fine, but this new addition should resolve the issue during any type of weather.

Day 10: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

A mid-morning call from David McCrory of Planet Horticulture to ask if it was okay to send the workers over to start installing the garden lighting system got the day underway. David himself came along, giving me the opportunity to tell him we wanted the flagstone extended to provide pathways to both the rose arbor and the concrete slab behind the garage.

David noted I had once again put the Charbroil grill on the patio near the backporch and wanted to move it off the flagstone to just in front of the back porch window, just left of the rose arbor. I explained that would be problematic because I need light on the grill when using it at night. Not deterred for a second, David assured me light would be provided and ordered his crew to start digging out a placement area for the grill.

By the end of the day, six new copper garden lights had sprouted in our backyard and another control box was installed on the back porch next to the sprinkling system controller. The crew boss told me he and his workers would be back tomorrow to install the timer and the spotlights. Even without the timer, the copper garden lights were operational and we could hardly wait for darkness to test them out. Wow! What a difference they make in our backyard.

Day 11: Thursday, January 16, 2003

The crew arrived just ten minutes after I let Harvey, our 18-year-old white Siamese, out in the backyard. Spotting them from the kitchen, I ran out to the backyard to get Harvey in before he could escape down the driveway, only to discover the gate to the driveway wide open. Fortunately, Harvey had wandered into the garage to investigate and had not yet realized his opportunity. I had tried to get these guys to let me know they were here before going into the backyard but my Spanish and the crew's English are both rudimentary and clearly my point had not gotten through.

It was time for some help from the internet, so I logged onto Altavista's Babel Fish Translation Service. I typed in, "Warning! When the white cat is in the backyard, the gate MUST remain closed. Please notify the owner before entering." I pressed the Translate English to Spanish button and, Voila!, the following appeared:

¡Advertencia! Cuando el gato blanco está en yarda, la puerta SE DEBE mantener cerrada. Deje por favor a dueño de una casa conocerle están aquí antes de entrar.

The next step was to copy, paste, print it out, and show it to the foreman. He showed it to the rest of his workers, after which I scotch-taped the message to the driveway side of the gate. Hopefully tomorrow I'll hear the doorbell ring before I spot anyone in the driveway or backyard.

In my discussion with David McCrory yesterday, he had encouraged us to use packed sand for paths from the patio to behind the garage and through the rose trellis to the kitchen side of the house. I told him I made nearly daily trips to the compost bin behind the garage in my slippers and therefore wanted a path that would never be muddy, as it was now from the recent winter storms. I told him we could use the old rose-colored flagstone that had been removed and stacked up out behind the garage.

First thing this morning, the crew started schlepping more patio flagstone down the driveway to the backyard and spent the day installing it for paths in the two locations I'd requested as well as the indentation in the flower bed for the Charbroil grill. The new spotlights went in and the timer was added to the control box.

Of course, with all the activity going on in the backyard, I was not aware that the foreman had entered the backporch to finish the timer installation and left the backdoor open. A frantic search of the house proved none of the ferrets had escaped. Another logon to Altavista's translation website was in order, and ultimately another ¡Advertencia! was taped to the backdoor.

By day's end the patio had two flagstone paths leading away from opposite ends of the yard, the grill had its own flagstone dais and mounted spotlight, the foreman demonstrated how to use the new backyard lighting timer, and I was anxious for darkness to descend on the Bay Area to see how it would all look.

Oh My God!! It was fabulous! Now the rose vines needed pruning around the trellis and Pat & I happily got busy under a nearly full moon and mood lighting. Both new pathways invite you to explore the hidden recesses of our yard and the spotlights accentuate the sculptures placed in strategic areas. After sweeping up the rose trimmings, I ran two doors down to our neighbor, Jane Whitney, and invited her over to see the results. "I hate you guys!!" Best compliment we've ever received!

Now the fun part: photographing it. Stay tuned!