“Will anything even grow back here?” David asked, bending down to inspect the bare, sandy soil that looked as if horses had just trampled through it. We had just closed on the Retro Ranch and now owned 10,000 sq. feet of dirt that we had absolutely no idea what to do with.
“The hell if I know. This place looks like a rodeo ground.” I replied, kicking some of the dusty dirt with my sandal.
The Rodeo Ground, the Dust Bowl, Death Valley, The Grapes of Wrath–yes, we had developed several fitting nicknames for the plot of scorched earth that was our backyard.
“Well maybe we could spray that hydro-seed back here. Like the kind they use for the Portland parks.” David commented, wandering along the edges of the yard, surveying our dusty kingdom.
“I think we should try tossing down some grass seed first, to see if it even takes.” I responded. “We don’t want to pay someone else to find out that we are sitting on a barren wasteland that won’t even grow a weed. This soil might be laden with those weird 1960’s chemicals we found in the shed last week.”
In our backyard was an original midcentury aluminum shed filled with vintage gardening tools that would prepare us perfectly for a zombie apocalypse and dozens of canisters of vintage lawn & garden chemicals, the likes of which were probably listed alphabetically in Silent Spring, the famous Rachael Carson book about pesticide-based environmental destruction. DDT, anyone?
Regardless of how adorable the retro labels were, the contents of that shed definitely freaked me out. I didn’t like having all those mystery chemicals cooking inside a tin box on my property, waiting for some hot August day to spontaneously combust while I’m drinking lemonade on the patio. So we did what any good homeowners would do: we turned my car into a molotov cocktail by piling it’s hatchback full of all the chemical canisters and sped off into rush-hour traffic toward the hazardous waste disposal site, hoping that no one would rear-end us and wipe our neighborhood off the map.
Once the hazardous chemicals were gone we began to more seriously research how to make our dirt farm into an actual backyard. We thought we could try a DIY method, and tested a small area with some fast-grow grass seed. It did indeed grow fast, but was very patchy and never quite turned into the lush lawn I’d imagined. Maybe the soil was too acidic. Or perhaps I didn’t scatter the seed properly. Or use the correct seed-starter. Or enough fertilizer. Or I watered it to much. Or too little. Or I forgot to pray to the gods of abundant vegetation or whatever the hell people do to successfully grow things on their own.
Plus, it didn’t help that our Chihuahua kept peeing on it.
David and I agreed that this gigantic plot of dirt was not something we could transform by ourselves, and I eventually came to the realization that the only way I was going to be playing barefoot-badminton back there was to pay someone. We talked with several landscape companies, recoiling in horror every time we saw the cost associated with having thousands of square feet of sod professionally installed by a crew of experienced landscapers. And with so many other house projects on the horizon, we couldn’t even discuss budgeting an enormous landscape makeover until the spring of 2016. And it was 2014. Which meant that we would have to go through 15 months with nothing but this hillbilly heaven outside our back door. It looked like the end of the earth, and was the bane of my continual dog-paw-wiping existence.
Much to our surprise, the dirt did actually produce some weeds during the winter rain, which gave it a more green appearance (if you didn’t look too closely). But the following summer was the hottest and driest on record for Portland, with temperatures exceeding 95 degrees for several weeks at a time. This killed off anything that grew green, and ensured that our yard was not only a desolate wasteland, but also a complete dust tornado every time the wind picked up.
Yep. We are definitely in Kansas, Toto.
Keep Rollin’ A Lawn
2016 had finally arrived and after a very dusty summer and two muddy winters, I couldn’t have been more ready for grass. We scheduled the sod installation for the last week in February, which was an unseasonably warm and dry 60 degrees. The landscape crew worked for the entire week grading & leveling the land, prepping the soil, laying compost, and rolling out pallet after pallet of fresh sod (which totally looks like giant Swiss Cake Rolls), confirming our initial suspicion that we could never have done this by ourselves.
They progressed quickly, and when we arrived home from work each day, it was as if we were looking out on someone else’s property. We even had them add a little retro-sixties touch by curving the edging along the house to create that “organic flow” that those midcentury landscape architects loved so much, according to Sunset Magazine 1964.
The entire transformation was incredible. It was the complete opposite of the dusty, desert floor we had when we’d moved in. They had shag-carpeted our entire backyard! The before and after comparison (below) just about blew our minds.
The Final Payoff
After 4 weeks of rain (and a strict dog quarantine that included using patio loungers as makeshift fencing) the final product was lush and thick, and was everything I’d hoped for as I was writing that gi-normous check to the landscape company. We prepared for “opening day” by running around to local estate sales purchasing those fun, whirly, vintage sprinklers and strategically placing them to ensure that the grass would continue to grow thick and even. Our backyard was finally a REAL BACKYARD. It was ready for picnics, lawn games, doggie wrestling, and strolling barefoot on cool summer evenings. It was a state park! It was our back forty! And I couldn’t wait to start inviting people over to enjoy it.
Now, who’s going to be the first to mow it with our push-mower?!