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yard & garden, part 3: putting down gravel

09.05 reason #2,347 that we really need an alley

click to see the full photo galleryWe've had the backyard dug out for a few years now, and the retaining walls built for almost as long, but still haven't been able to enjoy our backyard. Our attic project is the main culprit, which consumed almost all of our home improvement time for a little over a year, as well as our home improvement budget during that time; we hardly had time to keep the weeds down, and not even that so well as we should've, let alone time to spare for anything else in the yard.

So despite having a nice clear area in the back for a patio, with a table and some chairs where we could sit and read, it's been nothing but a dirt pit with a nice stone wall for awhile. Or a mud pit, when it rains. Well, we finally got fed up and decided to do something about it. We still wouldn't have time to really work on the yard until the spring, but at the very least, we could put down a nice surface so the dirt and mud was no longer an issue.

When we'd originally dug out the yard, we'd envisioned flagstone for the walking surface, with moss packed between the stones to allow drainage and give the look we wanted. We needed a walking surface not just for our patio area, but also for the easement strip along the north side of the house, the small landing area just of the front porch, and around the two raised planting beds we were planning to put in. Altogether, it's a huge area, and that much flagstone just wasn't in our budget. Heck, there wasn't enough in our budget for flagstone for just for the patio area.

So that meant Plan B. Bricks and pavers were out -- almost as expensive as any of the flagstone types -- and we didn't want to put down concrete. We briefly considered regional alternatives, like ground oyster shells and crunched up hazelnut shells, but decided against them -- the former because we couldn't get the quantities we needed, the latter because of their similarity to walking on pea gravel. And we knew we didn't want pea gravel, since it can be as hard to walk on as walking on dry sand. Which is when the obvious question occurred to me: what do plant nurseries use for their gravel paths? A quick call to Portland Nursery yielded both an answer and a solution: chipped granite gravel. It's economical, readily available (at least here), and packs down really tightly, so it's easy to walk on and you can even wheel your rolling garbage can or wheelbarrow across it without making ruts. Perfect!

To get a good, thick layer down, we calculated that we needed 16 tons of gravel, which meant ordering it directly from our vendor's wholesale supplier, who would have to bring it in a dump truck instead of bagged (it would've cost significantly more to have it bagged first, and we would've had to wait several weeks because our order was so large). Normally, this wouldn't be a problem for pretty much everyone else. Except us, of course, because of those damn stairs that are, at times, the bane of our existence.

Yes, we'd hauled over 7 tons of retaining wall stones up those stairs (and when I say "we", I mean "Sal"), but this would have to come up in buckets, and there was more than twice as much as there had been of those stones. There was no way the two of us were going to be able to get all the gravel hauled up the stairs in a single day. (The gravel would have to be dumped on the street and the city requires it to be off the street within 24 hours.)

Which is where, yet again, our good and generous friends came to our rescue. (Different batch than the ones who came out to save us on the drywalling project -- you have to spread out these special requests amongst your friends or you soon run out friends.) It's a testament to both their goodness and generosity that when we uttered the words "16 tons of gravel", none of them changed their minds about saying "yes". It's an even bigger testament that when they first drove up and actually saw that 16 tons up close and personal, that they didn't just keep driving.

So late on a Friday afternoon, a dump truck from Scappoose Sand & Gravel dumped a big pile of chipped granite gravel in front of our house and early Saturday morning, the two of us and five very good and generous friends attacked that pile with shovels, five gallon buckets, and a wheelbarrow. And don't think the chorus of that Ernie Ford song wasn't playing in my head All. Damn. Day.

Instead of weed barrier, we've been using several thicknesses of old newspapers all over the yard. To that point, we'd been using it to kill off our grass, in preparation for barkdusting and planting eventually; the newspaper works beautifully, it's biodegradable, and since Sal does the recycling for the bakery, freely and abundantly available. So we used it as the weed barrier for the gravel, laying it down thick, then wetting it down to hold it in place, then dumping the gravel on top.

We put gravel down in our patio area in the back, in the easement along the north side, and at the landing in the front. What was left had to go around the planting beds, which weren't built yet, so we formed a bucket brigade and piled it up in the yard in the meantime (and since we were trying to kill of our grass to replace it with native groundcover, a big pile of gravel in the yard wasn't an issue). By three o'clock, every last bit of that daunting pile was up off the street and placed somewhere in our yard. That, dear readers, is friendship.

So once again, those stairs presented a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, and once again, we bested them. With a  little help from our friends, and not without a few injuries -- very few things will make you ache all over like filling a five gallon bucket full of rocks, lifting it up as you twist 180 degrees, and handing it up over your head -- but we now have a backyard that, while not yet landscaped or "prettified", is no longer a big mud pit.

click to see full photo gallery