A backyard tale

backyard garden

Once upon a time, a young couple bought their first home. They had a baby on the way, and a little dog too, and after eight years of apartment living, it was time to move.

The home they purchased was in an ideal location–close to work, the airport and public transit. It was just their style–cute and cozy with modern updates. Their neighbors were friendly; their neighborhood was picturesque. Everything seemed perfect, except for one tiny detail: their new home came with a lush backyard garden.

Expertly manicured shrubbery, lively wildflowers, spindly tall grass, blooming peonies and healthy hydrangeas surrounded a small backyard patio. The back right corner of the lot featured some potted plants, flowers growing up lattices and a sizable Japanese maple. Across the lot was a vegetable garden with kale, spinach and green tomatoes. But the pinnacle of it all was an 800 gallon pond, complete with a cascading waterfall, lily pads and five koi fish. It was, by all accounts, a hidden oasis in the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. Or so it seemed.

backyard garden
Our backyard garden, summer 2016

Even though others assured them their beautiful new backyard was “actually low-maintenance,” the young couple was skeptical. In fact, when they purchased the home, their first concern was how their new pets would survive another Chicago winter under their novice care. Furthermore, they worried how they’d manage such a yard come summer, with a new baby and two full-time jobs to juggle. One of them was already convinced they should sell the koi, tear out the pond and replace everything with sod.

Had they made a huge mistake? Would the koi survive the winter? Only time would tell.

Year one: Welcome to the jungle

That was nearly two years ago, and yes, that darling, naive couple was us. My husband Jay and I found our first home in August 2016, closing on it Halloween Day.

There’s usually something on which you compromise when you buy a home, and for us, it was the backyard garden. Neither of us pictured ever owning such a space nor did we have much gardening experience. We loved everything else about the place, and we knew, theoretically, if the backyard didn’t work we could always change it.

At first, everything went OK. My husband read up on koi care, winterized the pond, and the fish survived their first winter with us. On January 30, I gave birth to our son, Jack, and we began the lifelong adventure that is parenthood.

pond with koi at winter
Koi pond, winter 2017

We survived three months caring for Jack, and when spring arrived, Jay thought he’d give the garden a try. I was already back to work, and with breastfeeding our son, my free time was limited. I was too overwhelmed to help with the garden, and, since Jay resumed traveling for work, he could only work in the garden when he was home.

Weeks passed. Day by day, plants grew taller, bushes grew wider, weeds sprung up in the vegetable garden bed and by the middle of July, we found ourselves the unwitting owners of a backyard jungle, complete with a hidden koi pond.

The prior homeowners had always participated in our neighborhood garden walk, so when our neighbors suggested we consider doing the same it took everything in our power not to break down and laugh until we cried.

Although Jay kept feeding the koi, I avoided the backyard whenever I could, I was so embarrassed by its demise. I began parking on the street rather than in our backyard garage to steer clear of the overgrown plants and thriving bug life.

You know that expression, the grass is always greener on the other side? This was literally true for us. On either side of our lot stood our neighbors’ basic, green grassy backyards and I coveted them. Oh, how I coveted them. I fantasized about green, grassy lawn — no crazy weeds, no scary bugs and safe space for our dog and son to play. I lamented our situation — caused by our own inability to act — and wished someone, anyone would just swoop in and save us from this mess. I vacillated from feeling ashamed and embarrassed to completely apathetic.

Mercifully the remaining summer weeks passed quickly and the garden began to wilt away that fall. Eventually my husband braved the backyard to cut away weeds and tall grass and to prepare the pond for another winter.

As the seasons changed, my heart felt a little lighter, less worried about our crazy backyard. When snow fell for the first time, I felt giddy. Finally our yard looked like all the others! We vowed to do something about it next summer, to hire contractors to create the backyard we always wanted — a basic plot of green lawn.

Year two: The tipping point

In the margin of my 2018 planner, I wrote: Call contractors this spring. And in March, I promptly began bugging my husband about it. Jay, an engineer, is the one in our marriage who researches everything; he made spreadsheets comparing prices for our first car, spreadsheets charting our son’s sleep, etc. Naturally I assumed he would quickly and easily complete this assignment, but he repeatedly put it off. His inaction (and my own) was exhausting. Eventually we had one contractor we weren’t completely happy with, then the project stalled.

I wish I could say that this summer was different. It was different, in ways I’m not ready to share here, but in other ways it was identical. We couldn’t make time to tend our garden. Come July, the yard looked eerily similar — if not more overgrown — and I was parking in the street again, ashamed of our jungle backyard.

Late that month, on a particularly stressful night, I was doing a few sun salutations in the sun room after putting our son to bed. Out of the corner of my eye I spied movement in the backyard, but continued flowing. Inhale upward facing dog; exhale downward facing dog . . .

Wait, was that a racoon in the pond?

I stopped, mid-downward dog, and rushed to the window as a large, agile racoon slipped over the waterfall and out of our pond, closely followed by another racoon, and another, and another… I counted a total of four large invaders. I stared, breathlessly, as they romped through our backyard and on to our neighbors. Something in me snapped.

I stalked into our bedroom. “A racoon gang just took a dip in our pond,” I declared.

My husband, who was half asleep in bed the dog, sat up. “What?”

“You heard me. A gang of racoons,” I said. “This backyard is out of control. I’m calling the contractor tomorrow.”

The next day, I called the contractor. When we spoke, I was surprised to learn his team could come out as soon as the next Monday. I had a work trip to Boston, but my husband and son would be home sowe decided to move ahead. With one simple call, it was booked. WE WERE GETTING A NEW BACKYARD!

Finally, a new backyard

That weekend, Jay scrambled to call a local fish store and found a home for the koi, and I flew out for my trip. While in Boston I received a series of texts from my husband, mostly pictures:

Backyard, August 2018 (It’s a jungle out there.)
Backyard re-do, August 2018 (Praise the Lord!)

Staring at out bulldozed backyard covered in dirt, my heart burst with delight.

Was the change I’d so desperately wanted really that simple? All the hours I spent agonizing over the inconvenience of it all, what the neighbors might think and my own shortcomings could have been applied to solving this problem earlier. I was relieved the contractors finished so quickly, and a little embarrassed it had taken it so long to get to this point.

I hadn’t been there to see our contractor’s team in action but reports from the home front indicated it was a big, dirty job. (And we have a hefty bill to prove it.)

The next image my husband texted was surreal: a basic, green grassy backyard — no koi, no tall grass, no weeds, no bushes. Just lawn, a sight for sore eyes.

grassy backyard
The final product, August 2018

Finally our son and dog could use the backyard for playing. Finally I could walk through the backyard unashamed, and park in the garage again. In a summer marked by family hardship, this new backyard was giving me life. I couldn’t wait to get home and see it for myself.

The night I arrived home from my work trip, I embraced my family, put my son to bed and walked straight into the sun room. As I looked out the window, I almost cried: there, basking in the moonlight, was our new backyard.


Have you ever had an ongoing home project like this one that drove you crazy? Tell me in the comments. 

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