Thursday, October 20, 2016


My husband moved a ton of rocks this weekend. That's not an exaggeration or a figure of speech: he literally moved 2,000+ pounds of rocks, stones, and slate into our backyard this weekend. We now have a slate patio and a meandering path in the yard. Let's jump to the good stuff, and then I'll backtrack and tell you about our process.

Here is what the yard looks like now:


Now for all the gritty details:

After a summer of tedious tasks like stripping paint and patching plaster, we were feeling frustrated about the lack of visual improvement to our house. For the sake of our emotional health, we decided we needed a "quick win": a project that would boost the appearance of our home and provide us with a satisfying sense of accomplishment without requiring an enormous investment of time or money. In other words, we needed a project like those featured on HGTV, where a room/house/yard is completely transformed in a mere 72 hours.

Since we bought this house, we've talked about installing two patios in the backyard. Our backyard has two sections: an upper level near the house, with walkways and a small patch of grass. Right now, this is where we keep our barbecue, saw horses, and some construction materials. It's not a particularly pretty space. We'd eventually like to have a large patio up here.

Our yard also has a much larger lower level; it's reachable either by a short flight of stairs or by walking down our gravel driveway. We also envisioned a small patio in this lower level. When we moved in, this was just an enormous patch of grass. About a year ago, my husband S created a vegetable garden with raised beds. He also created a diamond dust path from the driveway to the garden. Since then, he's slowly been planting perennials and natives to make our yard a haven for all sorts of critters.

Backyard, Fall 2015. Looking towards house.

Backyard, Fall 2015

We hadn't planned to do any major work in the yard this year, since we have so many unfinished projects. But over the summer, my husband and father-in-law installed a slate patio in the backyard of his childhood home. My inlaws had quite a bit of surplus material, and generously offered it to us. They even offered to drive the slate to our house. Our largest car is a Honda Civic, so we especially appreciated their offer to help with transportation. Suddenly, the patio project seemed like it could be our "quick win." With the donated slate already in hand, we would just need to purchase diamond dust and any other decorative rocks we wanted. The cost of the project would be relatively minimal.

Thanks to a fair amount of planning, this project came together over the course of four long, sweaty non-consecutive days.

Day 1 (Saturday):
This first day is spent mapping out the patio and prepping the ground. As I mentioned earlier, we'd eventually like to have two patios: one on the upper level near the house, and a smaller one on the lower level. We decide to start with the smaller patio, based on the amount of slate we have. S charts out a 10'x10' square between the oak tree and the dogwood. Our goal is to create a patio large enough to accommodate some outdoor furniture (either a dining set or a lounge set), without significantly decreasing the amount of grass. We also talk about creating some paths: one from the stairs to the patio, and another towards the side of the yard.

Our backyard slopes away from our house at a pretty steep grade. This is great from a drainage perspective. However, it's a challenge when you need to create a flat surface. Most of day 1 is spent creating a level space for the patio. S ends up creating a 4-6" berm and filling in the 10'x10' space with dirt to create a smooth surface.

Day 2 (the following Friday):
S has taken a vacation day to work on the patio project. I'm feeling pretty grateful: not a lot of people would be excited to spend a vacation day pushing around rocks, but he is. As I leave for the office, the local quarry delivers three yards of diamond dust. This will be used under the slate tiles and in the walkways. All the diamond dust will eventually make its way down the driveway, then back up the yard towards the patio area.  Here is a visual of the long journey that S and that diamond dust will take together, over and over again:

While I'm at work, I get a text from S. He wants to know what type of rocks should go around the edge of the patio. We agree on pond stone, as well as some larger rocks mixed in for texture and visual interest. At lunch, I go outside and snap a picture to send to S. These are the larger rocks I'd like to see interspersed with the pond stone. They are apparently called river jacks.

This picture feels like such a fashion blogger cliche...

I return to our house 11 hours later, and the yard has been transformed. More than half of the patio is complete and both paths are in progress. I'm so thrilled that I forget to take a picture.

Day 3 (Saturday):
S continues laying the slate tiles on the remaining portion of the patio. I'm now able to witness how labor intensive this process is. Much of the day involves tamping the diamond dust before installing the slate to ensure the surface is as level as possible. Several times, I catch S lying face down on the ground, trying to get a good read on the level (or perhaps he is taking a much-needed break...I can't be quite sure). He also continues filling in the pathways with diamond dust, and tamping those as well.

I have a dentist appointment first thing in the morning, so I'm out of the house for three hours. My dentist is 40 miles away, and this is one of those times when I'm kicking myself for not finding a local dentist after we moved here. Apparently, I'm too lazy to research a new dentist, but not too lazy to drive an hour for a dental cleaning. It figures.

When I'm back home, S is putting pond stone and river jacks (those larger ones I requested) around the edges of the patio. Based on our bank account activity, I now know that S went to Lowe's six times on Saturday. He also went to the garden center three times. We needed a ton of rocks for this project, and you can only load so much into a small car. Luckily, we live close to both stores. But now there are even more rocks that need to be moved from the driveway to the yard. I help by moving 50 lbs of pond stone. S suggests that I leave this part to him; apparently I am lifting with my back and it concerns him.

Here is the part where I totally pull my weight: I leave for another three hours for a riding lesson. If you are thinking that I sound like a prissy princess, I can't say I blame you. La-di-da. My husband is moving rocks to build a patio. All by himself. I'll just go off and ride some horses. Isn't this a relaxing weekend?

For the sake of clarity, I should explain that the riding lessons are an occasional thing. This is only the third time I've ever ridden, and I'm very much a beginner. I received a package of lessons as a gift from S (as if you needed any more evidence that he's a wonderful husband). The lessons were not cheap, so I want to be sure I use all my lessons before they expire at the end of October. I'd love to continue riding in the future, but I'm not sure whether that will be possible. It's quite a commitment, both of time and money. By the way, if you'd like to see a picture of me riding, feel free to check out my Instagram account.

On my way home from the stables, I stop at an orchard to pick up S's favorite variety of apples, as well as some hard cider and some cider donuts. If there is ever a day when he should feel free to indulge in comfort food, it's today. Back at the house, I trim back some of the dying plants and rake the leaves from the front yard. Then I head inside to straighten up the kitchen and start dinner. Tonight, we're having margherita pizza (for homemade dough, I like this recipe from Smitten Kitchen). If I'm not helping with the manual labor, the least I can do is to prep something tasty and filling for us to eat. 

At the end of day 3, the yard looks like this:

Day 4 (Sunday): 
A pallet of fieldstone arrives from the garden center. Our neighbors must think we're planning to build a wall. My father-in-law also stops by. He and S have plans for a few hours in the morning. While they are gone, I paint window sashes in our basement workshop and do some laundry. When S returns, he moves the fieldstone, arranging it along the edges of the patio and paths. He also uses it to create a boundary between our grass and the mulched flower beds. This, along with more tamping, takes most of the day. I run errands and make another filling dinner: kale caeser salad and roasted butternut squash soup with bacon.


We have a few odds and ends to finish up before we'll call this project complete. Next spring, we will add some furniture to the patio so that it is fully functional (the adirondack is just there temporarily to show scale). But this project has definitely satisfied our need for a "quick win." Feel free to tell my husband he's a rockstar. I'm probably biased, but I tend to agree. 



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