• David St. Russell

Our Very Own Urban Oasis

Updated: Aug 9

"Want to see the backyard?" We ask whenever guests press their face against the kitchen window.


Over the last decade we have learned a lot about ourselves. Mainly, we enjoy spending just as much time outside as we do in (this is especially true for me, David, who may enjoy it even more). And when people ask “what project has taken the longest” the honest answer is the yard - because despite the number of hours spent, it is never truly done.

 

How it Started



Many of you already know that our home was gutted and abandoned by the previous owner. We were welcomed by boarded up windows and despite the amount of work ahead of us, the interior was relatively clean. The exterior inversely, following what seemed like decades of neglect, was an absolute mess. Weirdly, this brought us immense joy.



Joy huh? - Well yes. The interior was the biggest undertaking of our lives, and completely overwhelming. The exterior on the other hand could be solved by something we were already very familiar with - manual labor. Every piece of trash collected, every bush cut back, made a measurable impact. The stakes were low, and the rewards were high. It was fun!


We left our closing and headed directly to the hardware store with a running mental list of supplies. Having spent the last two years in a small Boston apartment, we had abandoned all of our mediocre landscaping tools. Armed with new shovels, pruning shears, loppers, and lawn bags - we had everything we needed to get started. Stephen removed the boards from the windows and I tended to the shrubs. The neighbors circled, inquiring about who hired us and if the new owner planned to split this prominent corner home into a multifamily.



The word quickly got out that we were in fact the new owners - we had no intention to split the house into a multifamily - and despite our visible work ethic an anxious passerby reminded us that it is our responsibility to maintain clean sidewalks free from debris. They had no idea who they were talking to.



Lacing up on the day of our closing - boots by Payless.


 

A Fresh Start


Our first wave of effort was complete. While we were tied up with interior projects, we hired a landscaping company to grade the now barren yard and remove a couple of stubborn stumps. The newly graded soil and encroaching fall weather made it the perfect condition for growing grass. And that we did, from foundation to sidewalk.




We knew that there were many projects in our future - mainly a fence and landscaping - but without a kitchen it was hard to justify the expenses of these items right away. We wallpapered the yard with grass knowing it would need removing once we could afford a shrub.

FAQ: We always use and recommend grass seed, we have never used sod.

 

The Plan


Honestly, there was never really a master plan but our goals were fairly simple: a sense of privacy on our corner lot, a fence for the dogs (and for us if we are being honest), a spot for my budding interest in bees, and the backyard of our dreams.


We made a relatively large investment early that next spring on a few key items: the hydrangeas surrounding the porch, the river birch trees that would someday block the intersection, a star magnolia as a point of interest, and a large evergreen to block the future backyard and protect the bees. We bought these plants on the smaller side knowing it would be more affordable and with just a bit of patience would grow much much larger.



Every year since we have tackled different spaces as our time and funds allowed. In my opinion, this resulted in the best outcome. It allowed us to plant a new area, watch it grow, and learn. Our intuition about how plants performed, how big they would become (and how quickly) helped to inform our future decisions. Despite all of this experience we still sometimes find ourselves wandering through the nursery without a great sense of direction.


We get a lot of messages from people who “wish they could do what we do” or “had an eye for landscaping”. I have never really understood this sentiment and try my best to offer words of encouragement. Mainly, what are you possibly going to mess up? What is the worst that could happen? A shrub dies? You put something in the wrong spot? Who cares, get a shovel and move it.

 

The Fence


We get a lot of questions about our fence. It is a cedar baluster fence that was built to spec for our project. Once installed we left it natural for a total of 5 months or so which is key prior to applying any finishes. We then painted the fence with Benjamin Moore Solid Stain in Black Forest Green. We couldn’t tell you the difference between solid stain and paint but we have never taken the time to look it up either. The paint takes yearly maintenance which we have documented here.



In the backyard we used tongue and groove panels street-side for a more solid structure that you cannot see through. The remaining stockade sections are standard and our only regret is not continuing the tongue and groove around the entirety of the backyard.

FAQ: At the time of installation, the fence and paint cost us close to $20k.



 

The Back Yard


The backyard project is well documented in our Instagram Highlights under “Backyard” and “Deck” and you can read all about our deck here.


Our goal was to create a private oasis in the middle of the city. Having spent our summers in Provincetown we were continuously inspired by the beautiful spaces people created with limited space. Dinner parties, drinking parties, hanging out on a small deck or yard, was always a delight. An intimate space makes a night feel special and that was exactly what we wanted to create.



We started by designing a shape and digging a hole. Recessing the backyard added privacy and visual interest. The surrounding beds became space for landscaping (and fish) and defined the space. We hired a landscaping company to help with excavation and had railroad ties delivered by our local nursery. We then got to the absolutely grueling work of installation during peak summer. Looking back at those videos makes our bones hurt.



Without a budget for a stone patio Stephen laid down a weed barrier and we ordered pea stone for delivery. The initial plan was to install a patio at a later date but we have continuously put off the project due to priority, costs, and honestly - we like the stone.

FAQ: We have never had an issue with stone getting into the grass and we even shovel it in the winter.

Next came the arborvitae. At about 8 feet tall we purchased these shrubs on their brink of death in a hardware store parking lot. They already suffered some heavy damage but at $25/each we would take our chances. In the end, we lost one and another has a good sized bald spot. The most expensive piece of landscaping was the Bloodgood Japanese Maple. These trees are slowww growing and at this size was around 7 years old - and it cost us north of $700. We try to balance our wants and needs but this want seemed like the only option for shading the small koi pond below.

FAQ: The pond is not deep enough to overwinter the fish. One year we heated it, one year we brought the fish in, this year I am thinking of building a temporary greenhouse.


Over the coming summers we made small changes here and there but nothing major. We had various pieces of inexpensive furniture that we would scrape together during get-togethers and just enjoyed the space that we created.


This changed of course when partnering with Rejuvenation to furnish our backyard space.

 

Furniture


Throughout our various projects I can list the moments where I paused and said “woah” out loud. The moments when you step back, look at what you created, and feel a mixture of pride and disbelief. This is exactly how we felt when furnishing the backyard. We are so thankful to Rejuvenation for their partnership on this project.



The space itself has been a favorite for a while - but we had no idea what it would become once furnished. The dining room table, the dining chairs, the umbrella, god I love that umbrella. The seating area, the chairs, a table for my drink. The lights, oh we love the lights. The space is an absolute dream. Do we live here?



We are going to let these images stand on their own.



All The Things