Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability.
– Sam Keen, American author, professor, and philosopher
It’s all done now – the project that claimed every waking moment of my life the last month. What started as a dianthus garden in a corner of the backyard (it was the only place in the backyard where plants would not be smashed by basketballs and teenaged boys) bloomed into a backyard reclamation project and finally evolved into a cozy courtyard. My only regret is that I didn’t take “before” photos so that everyone outside of my family can appreciate the transformation as much as we can.
So just imagine a concrete square outside of our garage and utility room. As recently as two months ago, a neglected but thriving rosemary bush near the side yard gate planted by Joe, the first owner of the property, took up about one-eighth of the concrete square. I engaged in two separate hacking sessions to get the very hardy bush to its current small tree-like shape. When the weather got warmer, I looked longingly at our rusted patio furniture in the dust bowl of our center backyard – a table with four chairs and a chaise lounge, which Rex, in his younger, energetic days, used more than any of us, as his lookout for squirrels and neighborhood cat intruders. Discarded building materials comprising pipes and boards and a broken-up plastic bin full of sprinkler parts littered the concrete square. I threw them over the north side gate on the strip of concrete that harbors stacks of leftover slate from our south side garden, and dragged the patio furniture to the space.
That worked for a bit. When it was my turn to pick up Isabella and her friends from drama camp in the afternoons, the girls retreated to the chaise lounge and chairs, eating cups of ice cream in the warm weather, which was unusual for our June. That’s when I started imagining a cozy courtyard, filled with blooming flowers in containers, not just in the dianthus garden, but on the other side, up against the side of the house. I looked around the rest of the yard to see what I could spirit away or rescue to build into the courtyard. I wanted to use what we already had in our yard first in order to be green. A beloved rusted “garden” sign, which was hidden behind a small tree in our side garden found a new home on our red fence, and an angel, an acorn, and a bird feeder all migrated to the new space.
Smooth small river rocks that once graced the base of our trees, which Rex moved around as some form of dog amusement, covered up the dirt in between the containers with the dianthus. I then filled up the remaining dirt spaces with orange decomposed granite, leftover from the slate walkway in our side-yard garden. I grabbed some wedges of slate and patterned them around the rosary bush. We reclaimed the slab of leftover granite from our bathroom remodel that stood for years in a corner of the backyard and moved it over – with help from our wheelbarrow – and leaned it against the fence. Now things were starting to take shape.
We brought a few more containers from other parts of the backyard to the courtyard, and we turned out the very impacted alstroemeria plants and gave them new life – hopefully! – in the front yard. To the dianthus garden, I added scabiosa caucasica “Fama Blue,” scabiosa caucasica “Perfecta Alba” (snowy white!), catananche caerulea “Cupid’s Dart” (a sky blue) dinner-plate dahlias (purple, red, and white) and miniature dahlias (purple and yellowish orange), and more dianthus. My friend Shawn gave me a cup full of sweet pea seeds, and I’m hoping they pop up and climb the trellis that I found in our utility room and propped up next to one of the containers. Jacob helped me break up the hard clay soil with a pick ax so I could plant the dahlias in the ground.
He also helped me repaint the patio furniture. We washed, scrubbed, sanded down, and washed the seven pieces, and I spray-painted them to a smooth matte black. They looked brand new, and I broke out the navy-and-white-striped chair and chaise lounge pads that had been stored in the garage for years. Jacob had to scrub the concrete where I had gotten some black spray paint on the concrete, but the problem was that now there were clean spots amid the layers and years of grime in the concrete. So, being anal retentive, I took a steel scrub brush and scrubbed the dirt away – the manual version of power washing, but without the water. It looks so much better now, and with the large cracks patched, the courtyard floor is done.
Next, I imagined an additional smaller table and two chairs against one of the walls, which would accommodate having friends over. Happily, I found what I was looking for at a reasonable cost at Costco – along with the dinner-plate dahlias. I spied solid navy chair pads to complement the existing ones and little garden décor all on clearance at Target. Birdhouses on clearance at Jo-Ann Fabric & Craft Store hang stately from our peach tree. Candles and small vases for smaller blooms grace the tables, providing that extra decorating detail.
I wanted to showcase metal sculptures made of recycled metal barrels made by artisans in the Haitian village of Croix-des-Bouquets on the two walls and fence. These Haitian metal sculptures are very popular in our area. I found mine at Jenny K (6921 Stockton Avenue, El Cerrito, CA 94530, 510.528.5350), Annie’s Annuals (740 Market Avenue, Richmond, CA 94801, 510.215.3301), and Westbrae Nursery (1272 Gilman Street, Berkeley, CA 94706, 510.526.5517). My chosen motifs were the tree of life, birds, dragonflies, and plants and flowers, And, of course, no garden should go without a string of solar lights along the fence to provide night-time wonder.
During this transformation, when it was close to being done, Isabella took to reading her books in the morning. The chaise lounge became Jacob’s destination when he took breaks from hacking at the hard clay soil. While scrubbing the concrete, I took my rare break and sat back and stared at the garden and the courtyard. We were finally getting our little backyard area to hang out. We eat our breakfasts and read the Sunday paper under the umbrella at the patio table. We take our lunches at the courtyard. Sometimes I feel like I’m at the Wildflower Café in Exeter (121 S. E. Street, Exeter, CA 93221, 559.592.2656), enjoying the sun and breakfast and, believe it or not, relaxing.
I worked passionately on this project, getting every element in place, every position in the courtyard to have a pleasing view. I also wanted to get our cozy little courtyard completed by the time my cousin Janet and her husband Tim arrived for their annual Fourth of July visit. With flowers abloom on the patio table and in the colorful containers, David served a summer pasta of tomatoes, kalamata olives, anchovies, and herbs (mint, parsley, marjoram, and basil) and Isabella offered her home-baked chocolate chip cookies for a post-Oakland A’s game and fireworks meal for Janet and Tim. With dancing light from the votive candle and another candle under a hurricane glass, we stayed up late, listening to 70s music and catching up on the cool Bay Area night. Priceless.
We look forward to our little outdoor entertaining and then later for reading books and magazines, eating popsicles when the hot weather returns, serving gourmet meals, and being lazy outdoors, as these activities are what summers are made for.