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The Fabulous Backyard Makeover

Or, What I Did This Summer

Why grass? Why is that the default for Toronto yards? It isn’t particularly easy to maintain; you have to mow the lawn, and water the lawn and weed the lawn etc. All of which is either time-consuming or costly or both. And really, unless you have small children or pets that need outdoor space, lawns are useless, not to mention pretty boring.

Tired of the mowing, weeding, watering and blandness a few years ago, after we renovated our house, I decided to take out all the grass in the front lawn and replace it with a “zen garden” of sorts. It was both an excellent decision and a huge mistake. A wise choice because I did the work myself, with some able assistance from my son, Jack, thereby saving myself a lot of money. I got outside, spent quality time with Jack, chatted with neighbours and saw my idea through from inception to execution.

However, as soon as I was finished, my wife wanted to know when I was going to tackle the backyard (and thus a monumental mistake). All I had really done (in her eyes) is prove that I was absolutely capable of rectifying approximately 2,000 square feet of weedy neglect and overgrowth. For ten years I had fought a good battle: staving off the dandelions, wild strawberries and such. I’d cut back the blighted Italian plum trees, removed the snails, tamed the wild raspberries and destroyed many ant colonies. But the wild disorder was spreading.

I had resolved to renovate the yard last year and declined to mow (reasoning that it was only a matter of days before it was all coming out anyways). The weather didn’t cooperate. Days became weeks. And when the by-law officer came snooping around on a “hot tip” that there was an overgrown lawn, I knew that I had dropped the ball.

So when I excitedly and earnestly pledged to finally fix the backyard this Summer, my wife just stared at me blankly and went back to reading her book. I not only faced my hellish “back 40” but also a serious credibility gap.

When I rented the motorized tiller and spent over three hours chewing up the weeds/grass on a mid-May weekend I realized there was no turning back.This shit was real. Next came the digging. Endless digging. The tilling was effective in breaking the sod and intermeshed weeds, but in order to get to the blank canvas stage I needed to de-root. And that meant digging and re-digging by shovel and then topping with lawn fabric to prevent re-growth. For weeks (because that’s how long it took) my kids refused to make eye contact with me, for fear they’d be added to the work crew.

By the beginning of June almost the entire back yard (except those spaces where there were mature trees, bushes and shrubs) was cleaned and covered with commercial grade lawn fabric. Well over 40 hours of intense labour just to get to the “blank slate” stage.

And that’s when I finally got to turn my vision into reality. As an amateur landscaper there were limits to what I was prepared and able to do. We had huge concrete pavers that ringed the yard. There are mature trees that could not be easily removed and there is a distinct grade that slopes down away from the house and slightly to one side of the lot. I hired a professional to prune the trees (particularly our gnarly crabapple) and decided to move rather than remove the pavers.

Sometimes limitations cause you to be more creative. The linear and heavy pavers inspired me to turn the backyard into an urban space designed in a neo-Mondrian grid: squares and straight lines. Corten steel, galvanized steel, stone, concrete, gravel, string lights. Silver, grey, black, white, and beige base colours with plants providing pops of colour throughout. There is both sun and shade. Areas to use for growing herbs, fruit, vegetables and flowers, or for cooking and entertaining or simple relaxing.

The next two weeks I spent filling the space. Starting with the rock and ground-cover. After extensive research I decided to go with Less Mess (perhaps, my best choice). It is extremely convenient. You can order online or by phone. Everything is delivered to your home. As I needed over sixteen cubic yards of ¾ gravel, pea gravel, river rock, limestone screening, soil and mulch, delivery was an absolute necessity. But even for smaller scale jobs that is a sure convenience. The rock/mulch/soil comes in reusable enviro bags that you can return for deposit or have picked up, which are more ecological and infinitely more convenient than thick plastic bags. All the Less Mess products I used were top quality and in addition to their online calculator, their staff were extremely helpful in making sure that I purchased enough (but not too much) product. Without Less Mess this project could not have been completed.

One of the original items on my wishlist was an outdoor oven. Which is all hipster and romantic, but in all likelihood would go unused. I still liked the idea of a cooking area - that would be both utilitarian and architectural. So I decided to install a fire pit. There are many offered by the big-box stores. But I was particularly intrigued by the fire pits made in Ontario by RealStone Granite Fire Pits. Based in London, RealStone offers do it yourself kits that can be delivered to Toronto (or cottage country) and can be built in as little as 30 minutes.

The Fire Pit we chose was bigger, so it took us a little over an hour to install. But it was dead easy. Clear and level the ground and stack the recycled granite blocks around the steel insert. You can use adhesive to bond the granite, or you can leave it so that it is movable. The result is stunning and is one of three focal points of the yard.

Although I had decided to remove the lawn, I still wanted green areas in the yard. I came across a product that allowed me to maintain my urban style and have a functional garden. Conquest Steel, a Toronto company, makes customized galvanized steel raised planters that look like industrial window wells (because it’s the same material). The steel is entirely safe for your plants, as it is coated in zinc. Raised gardens are easier to access, as you don’t have to stoop down, and can accelerate plant growth, as the contained earth heats up faster in spring than earth in the ground. I chose 22 inch high planters to create dramatic height in an otherwise low and flat area of the yard. Requiring the turning of a few wingnuts, they were also easy to install. Filled with herbs and perennials, the three planters are the second focal point of the yard. 

There is a crabapple tree that sits in the centre of the yard. In and of itself, it is the third focal point. But it still required adornment in order to bring it into my urban theme. In looking at fire pits I was attracted to corten steel as a material. Corten steel is specially treated to have a purposely “rusty” look and rough texture over time. I reached out to local artisans, Punchclock Metalworks, who make planters out of corten steel. Their work is decidedly urban, and exactly my aesthetic. They designed, built and installed the fantastic and dramatic low-rise planter around the tree.

Because the existing ringing pathway is made of the bulky concrete, I thought that connecting routes should be lighter in mass, but darker in colour: Black tile. I visited the experts at Olympia Tile & Stone. They recommended a durable, non-slip tile that was rated for outdoor use. The two perpendicular tile paths define the three key areas of the yard with my Mondrian inspired grid. The tile was durable and easy to work with. Although I will say that evening the ground, spacing and setting the tile proved to be the most challenging work for me. It was pure finesse work, unlike moving rock. 

My last nod to urbanity, and perhaps the most challenging materials to source were commercial grade edison drop string lights. My online research told me that the string lights sold at the big-box stores were of poor quality. Because I was installing them permanently, they had to be sturdy enough to endure our winters. So I purchased mine online at (Note: They do not deliver directly to Canada). My most technical task was running a wire from the house underground to the tree and affixing the wire to the tree with plastic ties and stainless steel screws, up the trunk and across the branches. I overcame my fear of heights to climb up a 32 foot ladder to get those lights as high as I could. But the resulting effect was worth it. The warm lights fill the air and make the space usable at night.

You can’t redo a yard without creating a place to relax. That’s where comes in. I needed seating, but I needed the lines of the furniture to be clean. I found exactly what I was looking for at Two low rising, wavy Gemini lounge chairs were the perfect final touch to the relaxation area of the yard. Ordering online was a piece of cake and the chairs were delivered right to my door, within days.

The last step in the process was the planting and mulch covering. The challenge was integrating the new plants in with the existing mature flora, planted 10 years ago to cover the perimeter of our raised deck and picking hardy plants that would thrive in the clay soil and mixed sun-shade exposure. My solution was to create spacing featuring plants that would eventually integrate in height with the existing growth.

In the end, I’m very happy that I took on this project. It was a lot of work, and I underestimated by about 30% how much time each step would take. But there is genuine satisfaction in doing the work yourself. The weather cooperated, so I enjoyed my time outdoors. I spent quality time with my kids. I chatted with neighbours (who all wanted to know what the hell I was doing). And I took back my yard and created usable, attractive space.

For more information on the amazing products and services used visit:


Jamie Bussin is the Publisher of Tonic Magazine, and an amateur landscaper. He doesn’t wish to see a shovel or wheelbarrow for a long time and will be found lolling on his new chaise lounge for the remainder of the summer.