The Back Yard

We started with this

And ended with this

Click on this photo to see a slide show of the steps we took. Keep clicking each slide (right side) to advance to the next. Our back yard is 64' deep and 20' wide. We couldn't do anything with it until we built a brick wall to separate us from our neighbor and his horde of rats. We had to save for several years for that wall. Once it was in place, we built the back yard based on Jill's design.

We started with this

Work through to this

And ended up with this:

With a six-foot brick wall on each side, our yard is like The Secret Garden. Jill spends a lot of time out here, tending the roses and watching the fish in our pond. Teh fountain's gentle trickle and the shade of the maturing trees make this a haven we greatly enjoy.

Our pond offers a lot of interest. We have fish, tadpoles, snails, and frogs. Click the photo for a slide show of pond construction.

Bonus: video of fish in the pond

One of two garden gates. I built these on the pattern of the originals. It'd be nice if we could keep the grills open -- they'd show passersby our yard -- but we wanted some privacy.

Within another 5 years, our trees will offer a lot of shade in a yard that gets a lot of sun.

Quick Thumbnail Navigation

front yard first floor kitchen butler's pantry
second floor this old house feature wild life at our old house library
sleeping porch back yard jill's notebook details
your house featured here questions and answers before photos ron and jill
house love garage Ron's office jill's office videos
hollywood in our house
historic charles village the  houselove van resources
houselove gift shop

A Victorian Back Yard, Part II laying antique brick

Jill's dream for our backyard was that I would pave the entire thing -- 65 feet by 20 feet -- in vintage brick. Mind you, this was not my drfeam. Laying brick, on my hands and knees, for days on end! No, ma'am.The task was daunting in a dozen ways: we'd have to find hard-to-find, old brick, 3 tons, to be exact, then transport it, and then store it while I worked on the yard. You can't store that stuff on the sidewalk.

More daunting for me was the issue of leveling the yard so that the bricks would lie flat and drain in the right direction. Most daunting was that JIll wanted this brick laid in a herring bone pattern, the most difficult design. And then there was the issue of cost: bricks aren't cheap, running at $1 - $1.50 a piece. We'd need about 3,000. I told Jill that maybe I'd get around to this in 3 or 5 years.

Funny thing about the way we live, Jill and I never know when happenstance will change my mind or hers or both. We happend to be at an architectural salvage yard recenlty when we came upon pils of old brick for the rock-bottom price of 25 cents a piece. "We've got to get this brick," I said. Jill beamed agreeably. Several trips later, we had about 500 bricks, enough to do the middle section of our yard. I said I'd lay this down, we'd see how it looked, and then in a few years, I'd finish the job. You see where this is going?

My contractor friend, Nicholas, AKA "The Essential Handyman," offered to help me. Nicholas is a much neater, much more exacting builder than I am. He patiently watched me work, then made suggestions, then, by the end of the day, he was laying most of the bricks and I was cleaning and trimming them. As I watched him work, it occurred to me that 1) life is short, 2) I hate laying brick, and 3) Nicholas is much better at it than I -- and he does things like this for a living. So I gave him the job. "Do the whole yard!" I said.

More than a few people have mentioned that they liked the pea gravel that covered our back yard. "It's kind of zen," one visitor remarked. Truth is, the pea gravel was a nuisance because those little stones got into everything, especially the treads of your shoes. We have pea gravel scattered throughout the house. I went to Micronesia a few years ago -- halfway around teh world -- and guess what I brought with me? Pea gravel. So I must admit that the thought of being rid of the pea gravel once and for all acted as a tremendous encouragement to let Nicholas put the bric in.

It took Nicholas about a week to finish. But first we had to take up the 500 bricks we had already laid because you can't lay just any old bricks with any other old bricks. They have to be the SAME size; otherwise, they won't line up right. Nicholas and I found a guy who deals only in vintage brick. Our batch is 100 years old and they are pavers, not building bricks. The difference is that pavers are much harder -- made to withstand horse hooves and iron wheels. We bought 3,000 of them. The seller delivered them on a big flatbed and then, using a forklift, filled our garage with them.

So Jill got her dream in short order. And I can't believe how beautiful the yard looks now -- a totally different feel than before. It's more "formal," more dressed up, but also warmer. The brick gives us a courtyard feel. And they look like they've been there since the house was built, which is a testament to Nicholas's skill. Nobody does better work than the Essential Hanyman. Every time I walk to the garage, I glance down at the brick and shake my head in wonder. Honestly, I wasn't sure that I'd ever get to this job. And now it's done.


A Victorian Back Yard, Part I: iron cresting

In early spring 2011, we installed ornamental iron atop our brick garden walls for a thoroughly Victorian touch. It was specialty work, done by an ornamental iron company. We weren't sure it'd ever get done because we'd been waiting two years for the iron.

The stuff we got for our garden walls is called "cresting." It's not only for ornament but also for security. Cresting like ours discourages ne'r-do-wells from scaling a wall, something that has happened on a few occasions in our urban neighborhood. Just last year we discovered a large boot print in one of our flower beds. Cresting is a cost effective alternative to expensive electronic systems from companies like Livewatch.

You should know that Ornamental iron of such an elaborate design is no longer manufactured in the U.S. Ours had to come from China. If the molds themselves are not original, they are designed after the originals. You buy iron like this from an ornamental metal supplier. Baltimore happens to be home to one of the largest suppliers of ornamental iron in the nation: King Architectual Metal, located in the city's industrial east side. Jill and I pored over their catalogue for hours. Then we contracted C & S Ornamental Iron (also on the city's industrial east side) to install the pieces we ordered from King. But we had to wait two years for our order because there was none of our iron left in the U.S.A.

When I say "ornamental iron," you may picture a blacksmith pounding hot metal over an anvil. But that kind of work is for artisans, not routine domestic installations, and getting that kind of work -- blacksmithing -- is as expensive as, say, contracting a famous portrait painter to paint your house. All custom iron work these days is a matter of welding together pre-cast pieces, with only occasional fabrication from scratch. Still, installing cast pieces demands a considerable amount of thought and finagling. Our cresting, for example, did not come with installation instructions or support braces. It's not a do-it-yourself job, unless you know how to weld. But it is in keeping with our old house repair and renovation agenda, which is ongoing and, apparently, never-ending.

The guys at C & S made our installation look elegant by simply spot-welding each piece to a long metal plate that they bolted to the top of our walls. They also welded each cast piece to its neighborh to create a contiguous appearance. We were impressed with their work. Now, our backyard walls look thoroughly Victorian. It's the kind of thing that the original home-owners would have appreciated.

The added bonus of our cresting is that now our cats can NOT get out of the yard. Even our fat old tom, Simon, thought nothing of leaping from our six-foot-wall to the sidewalk and then hightailing it down the street. Many a time I've had to chase after him. But no more. Simon isn't happy about the new constraints but he's getting used to lounging in the yard with his sister Sophie (who used to jump into the neighbor's yard to chew on their flowers).

The thing we often forget is that, in its day, Victorian ornamentation looked modern, even cutting edge. Today it looks quaint and old fashioned in the best way --- that's why we like it. The equivalent today would be something sleek and minimalistic, I suppose. And perhaps today's hi-tech look will appear thoroughly old-fashioned in a 100 years. Or perhaps, in an odd turn-around, the Victorian style cresting we've put up today will look cutting edge in 100 years. There's really no logic involved in what is and isn't fashionable.