Turning an overgrown nightmare of a backyard into something better

The amount of work that is needed in the backyard to be able to start our herb and vegetable garden is just one more example of the never-ending chain of related to-dos around the old rowhouse.

To wit: For two years, Rachel has been eagerly waiting for the day when she can start planting the backyard. But for the veggies and herbs she’s planning, we’ve gotta have some raised beds with fresh, non-polluted soil. Before we can build the raised beds, I need to get a new fence installed around the whole yard. Before I can build that fence, I have to do something to correct the severe slope of the yard back to the alley. And before I can solve that problem, I need an overall master plan for what’s going to go where so I can see all the components and fit everything together.

You get the idea. The list of jobs to get to the point where we could get back to desired task of “plant veggies in raised beds” was a mile long.

Our backyard was an overgrown nightmare when we bought the house.

Pre-closing: backyard

There were crazy hedges so thick and tall that they couldn’t be easily pruned lower than 10 feet or so, because the 3- and 4-inch thick trunks had grown up that high. The hedges made the yard feel 30% smaller than it actually is. There were remnants of an old concrete driveway — formerly just for two tire tracks that had since been filled in between — though the erosion of the yard and the plants and the weeds had broken it up throughout the yard. There was an ugly chain-link fence in the back with a broken gate.

Backyard and alley from above
How things looked after we moved in. Only thing that changed from pre-move-in was the new porch and stairs.

We’ve made a lot of progress on the yard, but it’s all been of the “it gets worse before it gets better” variety. I ripped down all the ancient hedges that separated us and our neighbors’ yards, as well as all the hedges along the alley with the chain-link fence. My brother-in-law helped me break up all the concrete in the backyard and haul it off to the dump.


After all that, we had a bare, ugly backyard that rapidly filled with weeds with all the sunlight.

Backyard before fence 7/16/12

It’s all been getting worse before getting better. But this weekend, I think we finally passed the tipping point towards getting better!

As I got fence estimates, I realized that we were going to need some sort of retaining wall in the back of the yard at the alley to level out the yard and reduce the slope of about 3 feet down from the house to the alley.

After finalizing my plans for the backyard more or less and getting a good estimate on a new fence (that was HALF the cost of the big fence companies), I turned my attention to the retaining wall. I was planning on doing a concrete wall, mostly for no good reason other than the fact that I hadn’t really thought about any other materials and concrete was included as an option in one of the fence estimates.

I called probably 8 different companies/contractors to give me an estimate for a concrete retaining wall. Most never got back to me. One declined to bid. One other came to give an estimate for the permeable pavers for the walk we’re doing next (a different post for another day) but was too busy to do the wall.

I had money ready to go and couldn’t find someone willing to take it from me in exchange for work. And though that was frustrating, boy am I glad that I couldn’t find anyone.

I stopped by my pal Chuck’s house Thursday after work to borrow his sledge to break up a last bit of remaining concrete and I mentioned that I was thinking of doing the concrete myself. Like most other things around here, I’ve never done it before — though I hadn’t even started doing any research yet. He told me that I’d need to get below the frost line, which is about 30″ below grade. 30″ of digging down for a 24″-tall fence. Hmm. Next door to his house in Adams Morgan is a house with a timber retaining wall. I was inspired, and Chuck helped push me towards using timbers — and doing it all myself. (The 8 months it took him to build his out of concrete block, poured concrete and mortared stone also helped dissuade me.)

retaining wall inspiration

24 hours later right after work on Friday, I was digging like a madman in the backyard and prepping things for a new retaining wall. I reserved a ziptruck for Saturday morning  and went up to Galliher & Huguely to get a load of 6×6 timbers, spikes and rebar. I continued with the digging Saturday afternoon sometime and by 6 p.m., it looked like this.

Backyard excavated for wall

For a 6×6 timber retaining wall, you want to dig about 6 inches down or so so you can bury the first run of timbers in the soil, and dig another 4-6 inches to fill with gravel below that. (You could probably do with less space for gravel — I’ll end up filling in with some dirt before adding more gravel for my drainage system, and my bottom beam is more than below grade.) And then make it about 12 inches wide, so you have enough width to add a drainage pipe and backfill with gravel.

I used the level line of the alley at its lowest point at right (it slopes left to right in the photo above) for the baseline to measure how deep the dig needed to go. Or put another way, because the alley is higher on the left, more of the bottom beam on the far left is buried below the grade line than the far right.

(There’s a great video tutorial of building a timber retaining wall here from Rajjahhh Cook and This Old House. Nothing better than hearing a Bahhstan dude say the word “hi-PAHT-a-noose” while measuring a triangle.)

To dig that left side, I had to get rid of this last bit of concrete that Jeremy and I left in place. It’s the old left tire track of the driveway that runs all the way up to the house buried under a 6-12 inches of topsoil. At the time, we had decided to leave it since it’ll be well under the new raised beds. But this bit at the edge of the alley had to go for the new wall. Using the mattock to dig out the dirt underneath the concrete made it easy to break it up and get it outta there.

Hunter mattock to dig out dirt under concreteSledgehammering
Breaking up concrete remnants

(Bonus is that my new wall will help support this sagging retaining wall of my neighbor’s above. Or is it ours? Who knows.) More digging on Saturday and the trench was just about deep enough and ready to level out and add gravel for the base.

Excavation complete

The wall cuts into the yard on the left side there so we’d have room to store our trash and recycling outside our yard, and also because the retaining wall spans the full width of the yard, we have to cut it in at some point so we can have steps up to a back gate without putting them in the public alley. Once I get the wall in, I’ll do some more digging there to level it out and put down pavers in that entire area and build steps.

I went over to Home Depot on Saturday night and somehow managed to fit 25 bags of three-quarter gravel into a 2-door VW GTI, loaded to the gills. Sunday I went out with a level to check the run of the channel and use the tamper to pack down the dirt. That sounds simpler and less painful than it really was. All that tamping is the reason why I can’t grip my water bottle right now, and why my thumb twitches while holding my phone.

After it was packed and mostly level, I poured in the gravel, graded it out level and packed it down. With all of that done, I was ready to start measuring and cutting the timbers and fitting the wall together.

retaining wall bottom run north

I also added two “deadmen” anchors that will help hold the wall upright via the force of the dirt downward onto them, one on each side. (For bigger walls, the deadmen are usually two posts attached as a “T”.) One of the landscapers I’d talked to said I probably wouldn’t need them for such a small slope and short wall, but I’m not taking any chances on this thing sagging over in a few years.

Retaining Wall Night 2012-09-16

Unfortunately, I couldn’t actually finish the wall out this weekend, since I’m waiting for Pepco to come out and mark the electrical line I assume is buried in the backyard. Without that, I can’t spike the bottom row of the wall into the ground, since it’s 4-foot long rebar driven into the ground to anchor the whole thing to the earth. Then the pieces of the wall will get attached with 10″ spikes. Once they mark the lines for me, I’ll just need to disassemble it and spike it all together.

Not bad for a weekend of work. I thought I might be working on this thing for a month when I started. 3 days of hard labor later, and it’s basically finished.

Retaining wall timbers dogleg
Retaining wall timbers laid deadman northRetaining wall timbers laid south

But the best part? Saving tons of money. The estimate I had from the Big Fence Company for a concrete wall was $3200 for a two-foot tall wall…that was only 15′ wide — not even the full width of the lot.

The grand total I’ve spent on this timber wall so far? $506. Saving $2500 or more is well worth a weekend of my own time, and I think the timbers are going to look really nice below the wooden fence, possibly stained to match.

And in theory, I guess it should make the fact that I can’t close my hands around my water bottle right now feel like a victory.

When finished, the yard will slope down from the garage only about 6 inches to the top of the retaining wall — a change of about 2-3 feet from before, and it’ll have proper drainage and erosion control added. I might have to add one more run of timbers on top. We’ll see.

Once the wall is finished, I can start backfilling the wall with the dirt, adding the drainage system and leveling out the backyard with the excavated soil. Hopefully I’ll be back with more in a few days.

The final before/after

Backyard before fence 7/16/12Retaining wall timbers laid east

Leave a Reply