The wife and I used to go camping when we were first married, and living in an apartment. But once we became homeowners, we were amongst the first “staycationers”. Not because we didn’t want to camp anymore, but because we had our own piece of real estate to explore and alter to our own designs. It was (and still is) a modest little place with a small backyard, which we dubbed “Sanctuary”.
(Click on pictures to enlarge – having suggested that, I’ll apologize for the poor quality of some of them. Some are scans of very old slide transparencies)
We built one of the first residential ponds anyone had ever seen (that was 30 years ago). It was an unobtrusive effort, situated right in the middle of the backyard where the previous owner’s dog had dug itself a wallowing hole. I just figured we might as well continue what the dog started. Acquiring the materials to make it were quite a challenge since we couldn’t just purchase a “pond kit” as one can today.
Our first liner was a big sheet of plastic, with burlap over it to make it less visible, which we simply laid in the hole and surrounded with blasted limestone from a local riverbed deepening project. A few samples of wild plants from out and about, and we were done.There were a lot of mistakes made with that pond, and we learned from them.
We became confident enough to try creating another, somewhat larger, pond in the back corner of the lot.
We called the new one “The Africa Pond” as it turned out to be shaped like that continent. It turned out to be that shape because I hit a huge lump of clay which I couldn’t even pick-axe my way through. Attempting to avoid a mistake that we made with the first pond where the liner was visible at one end due to the uneven ground, I built the edges up. This made the Africa pond interesting in that it was above-ground. The surface of the water was above the rest of the yard, by about 6 inches. Unfortunately the visual phenomenon can’t be seen in the picture, but the effect was quite eye-catching in person. As you stood on dry ground, you’d be looking at a pond whose water surface was level with your shins.
This effect, though interesting, didn’t reflect (excusing the pun) the intention of building a “natural pond”. So I re-dug her up. This time, I took it to depth. Four and a half feet down. As it was, afterward, I spent near a month on my back in pain after digging this monstrosity with a short handled shovel. I’d shovel a wheel-barrow load, roll it up onto a landscaping trailer a friend of mine lent me, and dump it. Once full, I’d call him, he’d hitch it up to his truck, and take it to another friend of mine’s place where we’d dump it to help fill in a low spot in his yard. I don’t think I ever worked that hard in my life, before or since. As well, by that time, pond building materials were becoming available. Rubber liners had made the scene, along with fiberglass waterfall forms. They were still rather primitive in design, but any advancement was good advancement in that particular field.
At this point you might well be wondering “So … exactly how much does this stuff cost?”. A lot of our friends were wondering the same thing. Well, it cost a whole lot less than a mere week or two on some island in the Caribbean. AND, we enjoyed it for a whole lot longer than a week or two per year.
With the 401, the train whistles, the wrecking yard down the street, and the neighbour’s pool parties, we needed something to drown out the racket. Enter … waterfalls. Oh the waterfalls we built ! Oh the money we burned on forms ! Oh, the soil we piled up ! Oh, the rocks we pushed in, and the tear-downs and adjustments we made EVERY Spring ! If nothing else I learned from building waterfalls, there’s this : you can’t build a natural waterfall. You gotta bite the bullet and take your best shot with man-made materials, and hide the evidence. After a number of waterfall failures, I finally learned the trick. We hauled in a pair of 2 X 2 foot patio stones, an assortment of concrete blocks, and a coupla tonnes of blasted limestone. We set and levelled the patio stones, built a tiered superstructure of concrete blocks, placing the waterfall forms in place and building around them. Then, we covered it all in with the limestone chunks, covering and disguising the forms. That produced a rather natural looking waterfall.
Eventually the original center pond, became so congested with yellow flags, and combined with the mistakes we made in building it, we filled it in, leaving just the Africa pond. By this time, the patch of lawn where the previous owner piled firewood still hadn’t sprung back, so we figured we’d build a vegetable garden. That worked for a while, but we wanted color more than vegetables. We wanted a tiered garden to create a “flow” to the yard. So we gathered up all the remaining blocks from the waterfall, and put them to good use building retaining walls.
Eventually, we dug a further “sunken” garden in front of the tiered garden as if taking it one more step down, to below ground level. We dug a small pond in that “below level’ garden with an improvised fountain squirting water up into the air. From the entrance, it looks like water dancing above nothing.
I’d been taking some painting lessons at night school, and one of the better ideas my instructor had was to look at our unfinished paintings in a mirror to get a different perspective. In a mirror, the artwork would be at least backwards, hence appearing “different”. So, I scrounged an old mirror from the shed, and viewed the yard from the South side in an effort to see it as a stranger might. Intrigued yet thirsty, I hung the mirror on the fence and went inside to refresh my drink. Upon stepping outside again, our “neighbour from Heaven” Diny (I’ll dedicate an entire write-up to her someday) just walked through the gate with a plateful of freshly baked cookies. She stopped suddenly and exclaimed “OOOOH ! The village idiot cut a hole in your fence !”. The “village idiot” was our less than affectionate pet name for the neighbour on the other side (he never brought us cookies). I’ll have to write-up something about him and The Rat’s Nest someday too. Not to worry, I’ll remind you to wear depends ‘cause they’re some of the funniest moments of my Life.
Anyway, so Diny’s standing there staring at the South fence in horror as I walked over to take a look. She was absolutely right ! It looked for all the World like the Village Idiot had cut a 8” X 4” hole in the fence. It took me a second to realize what it was. The South side of our yard is perpetually in shadow because of the 8’ fence between the Rat’s Nest and the World of intelligent lifeforms. However, the mirror reflected the brightly lit North side of our yard, making it look like a hole in the fence.
Well, it didn’t take long before we were thinking about how an 8 X 4 foot mirror would look like a doorway right through to another garden beyond. We set about building an arbor that we’d fit the mirror into. Once in place, we set the mirror on such an angle as to reflect the brightly lit tiered garden but not reflect the observer until almost touching the mirror.
You’ve likely noticed how the lawn became stone ? Yeah, I hate grass. Don’t let the earlier pictures fool you. Our grass looked like Hell at the best of times. So, six tons of flagstone later … Ta – Da ! Since I’ve had a lot of people ask about it, I’ll tell you all now. No, planting creeping thyme between the flagstones will not produce a sweet scent as you walk on it. In fact, it smells of nothing even when you’re down on your knees, ripping it out by the roots because though it flowers nicely in the first year, it goes to Hell after that. The problem with creeping thyme is that it grows too far over the flagstone and “dies back” over the Winter. So you end up with a few flowering greens and an entire network of dead straggly stems sprawled across your beautiful flagstones. And, those stems are tougher than high carbon steel. We’ve pretty-much ripped ours all up, and replaced it with Dwarf Cinquefoil. Now that’s a lovely plant. The flower is bright yellow/gold and it’ll often flower again in the Fall. It does all that without the God-awful spectre of die-back.
So, as the season of “Garden Development” approaches, I’ll wish you the best for any projects you have planned. Should you have none planned, I’ll wish you :