Before: October 2008
We almost didn’t buy this house because we didn’t like the front exterior. We’d read the listing online and drove by but were turned off by the bland, 1970s style and the way the heavy-browed garage wing in front appeared to be sinking into the bermed front lawn. Not charming. Our realtor convinced us to take a look, however, and the inside turned out to be very appealing and we loved the back yard, so here we are.
But that grassy berm out front continued to irk me on a daily basis. I park in the driveway, and every time my kids and I got out of the car, we’d slip and slide on the slope. Mowing the sloping lawn was unsafe. And there was no easy access to the back of the house in that direction, not without clambering up the slope or shimmying along the foundation of the house. (I immediately removed the tired foundation shrubs along the garage, but the sloping ground still made passage difficult.) So I saved up, and this fall I bit the bullet, hiring a contractor to fix the problem.
After: December 2012
I decided to build a retaining wall to hold back the slope and create level areas along the driveway and the foundation. After a lot of measuring, I marked a two-foot push-back along the driveway to make room for open car doors and getting in and out of the car, and a five-foot push-back along the foundation to make a pathway and keep water runoff away from the sill of the foundation. I considered both poured concrete and Corten steel, but the former seemed unsuited to the style of the house and the latter proved too expensive. Instead I chose to have the wall built with native limestone, a common and economical building material here in Austin. After interviewing several contractors, I hired De Lara Landscaping to do the work.
Before: The berm is a natural feature of our sloping lot, with the driveway cutting right through it; the other half of the berm is the island bed in the center of our circular drive.
During: Cutting into it was a big job. Limestone slabs and small boulders lurked under 4 to 6 inches of soil, delaying the pouring of the wall’s concrete foundation by a day. I’d consulted an arborist to make sure there was enough clearance for the trees, and during the dig-out we were careful not to cut any large roots. We did run into two large roots and made adjustments to work around them.
After: The new retaining wall eliminates the slope along the foundation and driveway, creating flat spaces to walk and to mow. Of course I have no intention of keeping the lawn. My plan is to replace it, perhaps by this spring, with an alternative lawn of Berkeley sedge in the shade of the live oaks, with an agave-and-wooly-stemodia combo along the curve where the sun bakes the grass to straw every summer.
A side view. My original plan was to continue the foundation path around the far corner of the house and run it to the back gate. Unfortunately, a big tree root near the corner of the house required a change of plans. Rudy, the construction manager at De Lara, and I brainstormed and came up with the idea to build boulder steps to the top of the wall, where a path of large stepping stones could be laid to connect with an existing decomposed-granite path. This adjustment allowed us to shorten the wall by a few feet and skirt the tree root.
Fellow Austin blogger Randy recently gave me a pair of cast-concrete columns (half-pipes, actually, which make a column when paired up), and they’d been lying in my side yard while I waited for inspiration to strike about how to use them. Once the wall was finished, I decided to place one of the columns in front of an irrigation pipe that juts out of the front of the house. That seemed good, so I placed the other near the boulder steps, and I topped both of them with white bowls planted with shade-tolerant, deer-resistant foxtail fern. I know, I know—the bowls don’t match. I visited seemingly every nursery in town for two neutral-colored bowl planters, and brought several home to try out, but these were the only two I liked, and the nursery only had one of each. You have to be flexible sometimes!
I still need to plant something at the corner of the garage to soften it, probably a feathery bamboo muhly. And I’m already giddy over the idea of the Berkeley sedge “lawn,” studded perhaps with oxblood lilies and accented with a ‘Margaritaville’ yucca or two. Luckily, that’ll be the easy part of this latest “lawn-gone” project.
All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.