Monday, March 24, 2008

Wall Options

Many of you will know that we built a house some years ago. We selected a nice flat oversized pie lot on which to build. And then the area's developer dug down the front of the lot prior to building the house. The result of this is that we ended up with a six foot tall hill in our backyard. It eats up almost the entire yard. It slopes downward towards our house. And the garage sits atop it, with no footings. Over time, we have been advised that the slope can erode, and the garage can then slide down the hill into our house. Obviously, we would like to avoid this.

The way to avoid this is to build a retaining wall. Many of our neighbours have already had these walls installed. We have postponed it, contemplating different ways to do things. But the wall really has to be completed before the backyard can be completely fenced in. Otherwise, we lose the option of fitting a bobcat into our yard to do the digging. And excavating six feet of height by twenty feet of length of clay soil with shovels sounds rather unappealing, to say the least. Even if we were so inclined, once you've dug the hill out, try to get the excess dirt out of the yard. So ... no.

We need to fence the yard in soon, so that J will have a safe outdoor area in which to play. So this summer, we figure we need to get the wall in and finish the fence.

We checked with our neighbours. The walls that they have installed are made of pre-fabricated concrete blocks. Most of our neighbours have had engineered walls professionally installed, and have maximized the yard space by installing one single six foot tall wall. The effect is not entirely unattractive, but not at all natural looking. When you look at their yards, you can't help but notice that the wall was not a desired landscape feature. Rather, the wall appears to be a necessary evil. There is no fence at the top of the wall, so the neighbours' toddlers balance precariously atop a six foot tall concrete cliff, which they like to use as a balance beam. And the walls cost around $13,000 to install.

We are not doing that.

So I've been calling around to landscapers lately, trying to get ideas. How can we remove the hill and maximize our yard space? How can we stabilize the ground in a cost-effective manner? How can we blend a wall into our existing landscape and make it look attractive? Is there any way to do this without the engineers? Without the drainage requirements? Without a foundation base? Can we use more natural materials and less concrete? Can we "plant" the wall, so that it looks like an attractive greenspace, rather than a necessary evil?

We have friends who own a landscaping company. But they only do commercial work. They did refer us to other landscaping companies who do residential projects. We called these landscapers. And in so doing, we have learned that these particular landscapers do not return phone calls. Important information, I suppose, but not helpful to us at this time.

Today, I called a trusted garden centre looking for a recommendation. I explained what we were looking for, and received a phone number to a delightful and highly recommended landscaper. We had a most pleasant chat.

I was told to contact a particular contractor for the bobcat work. He has two bobcats of different sizes, and apparently can get into all the little nooks and crannies. We should have him dig out the hill as two three foot tall steps, rather than one six foot tall step. This way, we avoid having to have the wall engineered at additional cost, and we also avoid the peril of a toddler balancing on top of the wall. Each step should be set slightly back from where we want each eventual wall, so that there will be room to backfill behind the walls. We should then cover the exposed dirt with tarps to protect it while we construct our wall. She recommended that we get wood wraps from Totem (which are free) for this purpose, and just weigh them down well so that they don't blow away.

For the wall construction, her recommendation was that we purchase "reclamation baskets" (also called "gaming baskets", which are just large wire bins) from another specified company, and fill them with pretty and reasonably large stones, purchased from a third source. And then we would sprinkle garden soil into the baskets between the stones, wet it down, and continue to sprinkle and soak until the baskets are well packed with dirt and rock. This is a cost-effective way of essentially making our own landscape blocks.

Then we would stagger the now heavy baskets on top of one another, setting back each row slightly so that each of the two walls leans back a touch into the hill as a support. The weight of the baskets combined with the slight lean back will hold the hill up. And then we would backfill behind each wall with some of the clay soil that was dug out earlier, tamp it down, and make it really sturdy. It will look like a stone wall. It will not need to be perfectly even. Therefore, no foundation base will be necessary.

As a final step, the two walls would be planted. We suggested pink panda strawberries, which the landscaper felt would be beautiful. She also suggested planting some ornamental grasses throughout, just to give the walls some visual interest. Both the strawberries and grasses are evergreen plants, so the wall would remain attractive year-round. And the pretty pink-flowering strawberries are very fragrant, flower from early spring to late fall, produce small fruits, and spread into low-lying mats that provide nice coverage. They're quite thick, too, so weeds have a tough time getting through.

And then we can plant shrubs and perennials on the ledges at the top of the two walls, to make nice garden beds.

This sounds beautiful. And cost-effective. And totally unique to our area. But it also sounds really labour-intensive. And if you know us, you will know that we tend to procrastinate. A lot. Labour-intensive options may not be practical to our personalities. So we shall discuss it and see how we feel about this option all around.

In any event, I think this particular landscaper has awesome ideas! And I sure was impressed.

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