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Project: Upgrading North Side of House

Last Updated: 12/30/06


Click here for the "before" photos and early stages of this project.


The next photo is a view from the top of the hill, after my new fence was built in August 2003 (see Fence Building project).  All of the logs (BIG sticks?) at the bottom of the hill are from doing some major "pruning" of the plum tree which is right over my head while I'm taking this photo.  You can also see that I cleaned off that big concrete slab at the bottom of the hill.  I used my pressure washer for that and it cleaned up quite nicely.  However, it's still not level, which bothers my sensibilities.

So here I am down at the bottom again, preparing to install pressure-treated lumber at the rear of the little walled garden.  I have dug the dirt away from the fence.  I still have to get a capstone cut in half for the space beside the fence.

Here I've put in three layers of pressure-treated 4X4s between the fence post and the retaining wall stone.

Next I decided that I wanted to extend the retaining wall by a few more stones so that's what I'm doing in the next picture.

Apparently I did some work without taking photos at every step of the way.  At the bottom of this next photo you can see the end of the retaining wall section, and I've started to build the first of the pressure-treated wood flowerbeds.  On the right-hand side is another big concrete slab that I exposed, which is adjacent to the first one.

Here you can see the work thus far and both of the exposed concrete slabs.  Incidentally, the second slab is nice and level so it's even more irritating that the first one is not.

At this point I wanted to start putting steps in, right in the middle of the space, but I didn't know what to do on the right-hand side at the far end of the concrete slabs.  I knew I wanted to build something up relatively high so that I wouldn't have to keep making smallish step-beds like the one I had just made on the left, but I didn't know how to hold back the dirt.  I felt that a tallish "wall" made from pressure-treated lumber would just fall over once it was backfilled (because I don't really want to fasten any of this stuff to the house).  So I decided to build another little retaining wall section with blocks, taller than the first, but not very wide.  I started by deciding where the wall was going to be (I wanted the wall to butt up against the concrete foundation of the house, not the wood siding, which you can see on the very right-hand side of the photo below).  So I dug a hole, then filled it with gravel, then laid down three retaining wall blocks.  [This photo is kind of a weird colour because it was pretty late in the evening when I got to this stage and I had my camera on the wrong mode so the photos I took came out completely black!  And I didn't notice until I downloaded them at a later time.  I used my photo-editing software to play with the black photos and managed to salvage several of them but they're a little "off."]

Once I had laid the first layer of retaining wall stones, I needed to incorporate the bottom step in-between the retaining wall on the right and the pressure-treated wood on the left.  I had some "big" 4X4s left over from the fence building ("big" because they're truly 4 inches by 4 inches) and some quartzite slabs Peter and I had purchased a long time ago for this project.  I figured between the 4X4s and the thick quartzite slabs, the "rise" of the steps would feel about right, at approximately 6 inches.  In the following photo you can see the first layer of retaining wall stones and the first step.

Here I've built most of the retaining wall; just missing the cap stones.  At this point I still don't know how I'm going to enclose it on the left-hand side of the wall and accommodate further steps.

After a lot of pondering I decided that I'd install 4X4s on the left-hand side of the retaining wall, to define a sidewall for the steps.  I also decided that I wanted to put in landscape lighting, so (after a trip to Home Depot!) I've got the transformer (black box) for the lighting there on the top of the wall on the right-hand side, and I laid wire down underneath the stone part of bottom step.  The transformer will eventually be hung on the wall next to the electrical outlet.

Here I obviously did a bunch of work before taking photos again.  I've got three steps installed now, and the fourth one in the planning stage.  I've got four layers of wood on the right side of the steps.  Then, because I have to create retaining surfaces on both sides of the steps at the same time, I've had to work on the garden beds on the left-hand side of the stairs too.

While digging I keep running into these big chunks of concrete.  For now I'm just pulling them out and putting them aside, but I have no idea what I'm going to do with them or where they came from.  I assume someone broke up a concrete slab or patio once upon a time and just dumped the chunks at the side of the house.  They are very inconvenient.  The chunk at the bottom of the photo was obviously the poorly-made concrete footing for a fence post and it weighs a ton.  I cannot lift it; I can only shove and roll it around.
So here's a view from above of the four beds on the left side of the steps.

And now we pause to look up and see what remains ahead of us.  Left side:

Right side:

Again, I guess I did a bunch of work without taking photos.  Here you can see that I've added layers to the "wall" on the right side of the steps.  The wall bends a little bit, a few inches behind the leading edge of the fourth step.  I've also replaced the fourth step with a different slab of quartzite and put in a couple of stepping stones behind the fourth step.  This is a little bit of a flat area.  Also you can see that round black thing on the wall beside the steps - that's one of my landscape lighting fixtures.

And, once again, I did a bunch of work without taking photos.  So here you can see I've built another wood bed on the left, added a flat area in the middle, built three steps up the next section of hill, and started building a wood bed on the right-hand side.  Now, you're probably wondering what those big chunks of concrete are doing on the left-hand side.  My original plan was to build beds using the pressure-treated lumber up the left side but I concluded that the hill was too steep.  Furthermore, there are some of those big chunks of concrete completely embedded in the hill.  So embedded that the only way to get them out would be to use some heavy machinery.  So I decided that I would leave them there, and add some more concrete chunks, and it would be sort of a "rockfall" when I'm done.  I'll plant things that tumble over the rough edges and I think it will look OK.  Besides, it's a great way to get rid of all those nasty chunks of concrete I found!

This next photo was taken in better light.  Now I've added a fourth step and I'm working on the next level of wood-retained bed on the right-hand side.  I moved that cute little fern that was on the right-hand side down to the bottom of the rockfall (bottom-left).  On the left... well, this whole "rockfall" thing is easier said than done!  I've reached an especially steep section and I'm not sure how to deal with it.  As you can see in the photo I'm testing an idea with using some concrete slabs vertically.  Ultimately I decided I didn't like them.

Instead of dealing with the local steep section using vertically-oriented chunks of concrete, I flattened the steep section somewhat and then embedded some smaller chunks.
Here you can see I've added to the two wood-retained beds on the right-hand side and I've added a couple of steps.  My Quality Engineeer is inspecting my work.  She says I'm a good designer but my workmanship is poor.  My angles don't come together well, things are out of level, blah blah blah.  I know, I know.  But hey!  I'd like to see her swing a hammer!

We're almost done!  Here you can see four of my landscaping lights.  One on the first wood-retained bed (left side, at bottom) and three over the first set of steps and the flat area in the middle.

Here I'm working on the last few steps and on the last wood-retained bed on the right-hand side.  The end of the tunnel is in sight!

Here I have one step left to build plus the top step, and I've decided I need to work on the flat space at the top before I can build in the last step.  Along with all the ugly concrete chunks I found embedded in the earth while digging, I also found flat patio stones (like the pink one on the right near the shovel) and other useful bits and pieces.  I'm going to use them, augmented with some purchased patio stones, to make a big flat area at the top of the stairs.  Once that is done I will have a nice place for storing my yard waste containers, behind the fence and out of sight, but handy.

I won't bore you with every step of the patio stone laying.  Here it is all done, with the last two steps completed and the last wood-retained bed completed (bottom-right of photo).  I want to plant Corsican Mint between the patio stones.  I hope I can find it in seed form.

Here's the new home for the yard waste containers.  On the left is the small planting bed at the top of the rockfall.  I've purchased a few plants to plant among the rocks of the rockfall but haven't planted them yet.

Here we have the view from above.  Alex is acting as my Tester.  Now that I've cleaned the steps I think it's actually safe for him to use them.  Since taking this photo I've done a few little jobs, like planting the plants in the rockfall and screwing in some big screws to bring the wood angles together better, but nothing that has really changed the area materially from this photo.  I've tested the lights and they all work (after a bit of trouble) but I can't really get a good photo of them to post.  I have to fill all the beds with soil and plant in them, but the "hard" work is done.  I think it's going to look OK!  A heckuva lot better than it did before, at any rate! 


My next Northside update will involve the soil and planting.  That will probably come in late June or July.  I will probably post photos with the August update.

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