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Tree House’s Backyard Today (And It’s Not Pretty)

This isn’t the prettiest update. (In fact, I couldn’t take a somewhat decent photo if I tried.) There are no afters. This is, hands down, all about the process. Our backyard? We’re in the thick of it. This is where we are today, and in this process, we are making progress! The only thing we can keep repeating to ourself is, it gets worse before it gets better. Over and over again. We knew that going in, but when the going gets tough, it’s easy to forget.

Not long ago, we took you around the exterior of our Tree House. Those photos were taken at the tail end of (a very long) winter, and today, the trees lining the perimeter are full and green. Finally! At the time of that post, the only real greenery in the yard came from 8 overgrown yews, all of which have since been pulled out. We also had a 100+ ft silver maple that had been neglected, and that’s where you came in; several landscapers (and a couple of arborists) told us that the maple had to be cut way, way back, if we wanted to salvage it at all. We said, help!, and you all came through with the most thoughtful advice. We took notes, brought in more opinions, asked more questions from the professionals and – well, the tree ultimately had to come down. (Here’s that post again with all of your feedback!)

Was it sad? Absolutely! But further inspection had us realizing that the tree was full of rot and dangerously top heavy (and right over our roof!). We could either wait, deal with it later, and cross our fingers that a bad storm wouldn’t send a rogue limb onto our roof, or we could book the job to take her down and breathe a little easier. After our conversations with you and again with the pros, we felt at peace with our final decision.

The job took the better part of a week, and I wish we could have been at Tree House the whole time to watch it unfold!

There is a bit of a silver lining, and it’s that we were able to salvage several parts of the trunk! The largest piece is at least 2′ wide, and they’re all between 5-8′ long. Many of you suggested we save what we could, and our idea is to make furniture (our dining table, at the very least?) for Tree House. We found a local guy who will come to our home and mill it into planks, and he’ll be back in July to help us through that! (We honestly didn’t know that was a thing, but how awesome is that?) We’re really looking forward to sharing that with you.

After the tree came down, we could really, really see the yard. That was the whole goal, but, yeeesh. Suddenly, we had a lot of other problems on our list:

The Fence

We’re not sure if the fence belongs to us or a neighbor, but what we do know is that it’s different in the back than it is along the sides, and even into the front yard, too. If the fence was consistent in style – and more importantly, if it wasn’t completely falling apart – a pressure wash and stain could work wonders! But you’ll also notice that the level of the yard has shifted over the years, causing our neighbor’s debris to spill out from under the pickets:

The mud

It’s bad. This backyard slopes without any proper drainage, and the slightest drizzle will cause massive muddy puddles. All Jack and CC want to do is run free and scratch their backs on the earth, and one day – one day! – they will. Of course, taking the tree down didn’t do the yard any favors, so we have even less grass now than when we started:

The bed of ferns. And the outhouse?

On one end of our yard, we inherited a long bed of ferns in a raised planter. Next to the ferns? An outhouse. While every boy that has seen our home thinks the outhouse is the coolest thing, I’m turning a blind eye for now! But what we could both agree on was the fern bed made no sense, and it was time for it to go:

The Plan

With the yews and the tree removed, the yard was our blank slate! (We’re trying to stay positive here.) After a long meeting with the lawn care company, we knew that we could remove the bed of ferns and repurpose that soil to grade the yard. To completely eliminate the excessive mud / puddles / mild flooding, we would be installing a dry well! The dry well was new to us, but essentially, there’s a physical, porous structure that lives underground at the lowest point in the yard. At ground level, we’ll see a grate where water can easily flow in, and the well allows the water to slowly soak into the earth.

A few days after the tree was cleaned up, the team came back to get started:

Above, the planter bed is being removed, and below, the hole for the drywall is being created. You can see in the close up that they were barely 3′ underground before they had already reached standing water (which we learned was pretty unusual). There has been a lot of rain this past season!

We had to head back to Chicago before the dry well was installed, but we did get a sneak peek of what it looks like:

The next time we returned to Tree House, it rained. And rained. And rained. Honestly, we joke that the rain in our part of Michigan is starting to feel cozy; we have a hard time imagining Tree House on a sunny day! But because of all that rain, we were able to see the dry well at work, and you guys. There was no standing water. Okay, so there is a grate in our yard, but once the grass grows in (or should we sod?), it’s in a mostly inconspicuous place. The landscaping team threw down a bunch of grass seed, but of course the rain washed it all away – ha! In any case, we’re not too worried about the grass – yet.

So! Here’s our yard today. This is the process. It gets worse before it gets better. It gets worse before it gets better. It gets worse…

Tree House to Our Left | Tree House to Our Right

Tree House Behind Us

And then there’s our tree. That silver maple was how Tree House got her nickname! (I mean, we’re literally surrounded by trees, but still.) We’re so happy we could salvage so much of her trunk, and we’re looking forward to creating something from it. But I digress. Here’s the view from our patio with the tree and yews and that jumbled up fence that we couldn’t even see:

and here’s our view now:

Friends, we remain hopeful! We’re playing the long game, and we’re dreaming of the potential. We see Lucy and her cousins playing Red Rover and kickball and running in circles. We see the dogs lazing in the hot sun. We see all of our favorite people huddled around a big circle fire pit. We hear belly laughs and kids shrieking and birds sing-songing! It gets worse before it gets better.

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  • Southern gal6.28.18 - 7:36 AM

    Please tell me you didn’t throw away those beautiful ferns.ReplyCancel

  • Karen6.28.18 - 7:46 AM

    Is your neighbor diverting water from their yard into yours? I looks like black drainage piping coming under the fence in one photo.ReplyCancel

    • Kim6.28.18 - 8:43 AM

      Hi Karen! Ah, I can see how it looks like that. That’s actually just some waste from their yard that’s starting to spill under the fence into our yard. We wouldn’t have ever noticed if the yews weren’t removed!ReplyCancel

  • Marilee Sulewski6.28.18 - 8:14 AM

    I just wanted to say that we are going through a very similar process on our new home – right down to the tree and the yew bushes removal! It definitely gets worse before it gets better but we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Thank you for talking about the process and the goals, not just the end result. It reminds me that this is normal and that the struggle is absolutely worth it. I love what you’re doing at the cabin – keep up the good work!ReplyCancel

    • Kim6.28.18 - 8:42 AM

      Appreciate this, Marilee! There is SO much thought and effort that goes into the process. We think it’s worth it to share that not everything can be quick a before/after (although we sure wished it could be at times!). :DReplyCancel

  • Caitlin Leonard6.28.18 - 8:32 AM

    I’m curious to hear more about the dry well! We have similar backyard issues. Was it pricey?ReplyCancel

    • Kim6.28.18 - 8:41 AM

      The tree removal was so much less than we thought it would be, and it left room in the budget to move forward with the dry well. Even the dry well was a lot less expensive than we thought it would be. It’s worth grabbing a few quotes from landscapers in your area!ReplyCancel

  • Lori6.28.18 - 8:33 AM

    Definitely sod right around that dry well cover ASAP. Soil washing down into the well will clog it up & reduce its effectiveness. I’m a little surprised that your landscapers didn’t do that before they left.ReplyCancel

    • Kim6.28.18 - 8:40 AM

      He added mesh screen under the cover to prevent that very issue!ReplyCancel

    • susan6.28.18 - 5:39 PM

      I was thinking the same as Lori… I hope all that grass seed didn’t wash down the dry well!ReplyCancel

      • Kim6.29.18 - 10:40 AM

        Most of it did, but we’re taking baby steps at this point! The landscaper added mesh to the dry well so it doesn’t get clogged up with debris though.ReplyCancel

  • Heather Lins6.28.18 - 9:41 AM

    Thanks for talking about the dry well. We have similar drainage problems in our yard. There’s always a low point in a project and you just have to push through and keep the faith. I think outdoor projects are particularly challenging because it takes awhile for everything to grow back. Patience is key. Thanks for sharing. This gives me gumption with my own projects.ReplyCancel

  • Sarah6.28.18 - 11:02 AM

    Super excited about your table and your maple logs! We’ve made our own dining table plus an outdoor table for our deck along with some custom shelves, stump stools, a bench, side and end tables, and a wine rack from live edge pine and cedar that my dad milled for us. We always get a ton of compliments on them and it’s really awesome to make them yourself. Have you already bought the wood for your kitchen shelves? If not- some live edge maple shelves would be a unique touch!

    Excited to see what you do with your maple!ReplyCancel

    • Kim6.29.18 - 10:36 AM

      So cool! We’re so excited to see what we can create from our Tree House tree :DReplyCancel

  • Cheryl6.28.18 - 11:41 AM

    So – you kept the outhouse???ReplyCancel

    • Kim6.29.18 - 10:35 AM

      Ugh, don’t remind me! For now, it’s still there. It’s non-functioning though – don’t worry!ReplyCancel

  • Lisa6.28.18 - 1:21 PM

    In re the fences. Usually, a fence is put up with the good side facing out. I found that out when someone in my area put one up wrong side out and there was a big to do in the local paper about it. If that’s the case, it would seem one is yours and the other is your neighbor’s.
    Looking forward to seeing what you do. Everything now will be positive.ReplyCancel

    • LS6.29.18 - 9:11 AM

      I was just coming to say the same thing! Which unfortunately means that the fence that seems to be in rough shape is the neighbors.ReplyCancel

    • Kim6.29.18 - 10:35 AM

      Lisa, yes! That’s common here. That has us thinking the ugliest part of the fence actually belongs to our neighbor (in response to LS as well).ReplyCancel

  • Jenny M6.28.18 - 3:15 PM

    Yes, I’d suggest get the yard leveled and adding sod if you don’t have any grand landscaping plans in the near future. If you do, then leave it until you have a chance to live in the place and think about what your needs are. After 3 years of being in my house, I finally removed a lot of the trees so that I could reclaim the space for our family. Our yard feels bigger and more useful.ReplyCancel

  • AmandaKB6.28.18 - 4:50 PM

    I really appreciate you sharing “progress” posts. I know these steps feel so not glamorous, but the work you are putting in right now is going to be so worth it in the long run. I really like that you guys try to do your research and make the best choices even if it changes the budget or plans for a bit. Thanks!ReplyCancel

  • Jen6.28.18 - 10:23 PM

    Honestly, it’s not so bad. Really. Maybe that assessment comes from the fact that I prefer a more organic, slightly overgrown garden aesthetic, and the only outdoor space my city rental has is a small side alley that’s all dirt and weeds :( You have so much enviable, beautiful green even with so much of the yard being dirt! I know everyone’s tastes are different, and you guys seem to prefer a planned and formally structured outdoor space. But I do hope that you take into account the natural setting a little bit in your plans :)ReplyCancel

    • Kim6.29.18 - 10:39 AM

      Such great points! We do love the look of all the greenery that is still surrounding us, and we have plans to add more green back in – but in a very different way than we started with.ReplyCancel

  • Tracy6.29.18 - 8:44 AM

    Maybe incorporate a lot of moss into the lawn? It’s so lovely underfoot and it looks like you’ve already got a good patch started:)ReplyCancel

  • Marti6.29.18 - 10:07 AM

    So much potential!

    No Mow Lawn grass might be a good option for you, especially since you want the house to be low-hassle:

    • Kim6.29.18 - 10:38 AM

      Whoa, we hadn’t heard of that! It looks like the softest blanket of green!ReplyCancel

  • Vanessa6.29.18 - 3:49 PM

    Every house teaches you (and us) something new! On my last house I learned about ridge vents on the roof. Now I know.ReplyCancel

  • Stephanie6.29.18 - 7:58 PM

    Although our yard is much smaller, we have the same problem with a neighbors fence with gaps (and a dog so we didn’t want to just cover it with plants and hope for the best) so we built a raised bed along the fence. Covers the bad fence areas and keeps the dog in securely (not that she is a runner, but you can never be too careful. It may be a solution for the worst areas if you don’t want to build a second fence.ReplyCancel

  • Ann6.30.18 - 6:36 AM

    It looks like the corner of your deck was built angled specifically to fit around that tree. As a result, that corner where the tree was looks bare – are you planning to plant another tree right there, maybe.a smaller, ornamental one that won’t threaten your roof in years to come? (Though knowing you guys, you are probably planning to rebuild the deck anyway one of these years.)

    Maple furniture gets a bad rap, largely because some woodworkers say it won’t take a stain – so you see in its very blond natural state (which some find bland), or with very dark paint-like stains that cover up all the nice grain patterns. I haven’t found this “won’t-take-a-stain” to be true – if the wood is too light to look good with your other woods (though the light colored wood might go with your kitchen wood just fine), I’ve had some maple wood furniture stained just slightly to be that.lovely color of just new, barely-darkened-yet, natural cherry furniture (which I think is actually prettier than my natural cherry furniture that has darkened to its medium color after a few years.). The maple took the stain beautifully and looks lovely, whether it was softer Pacific coast maple or harder east coat maple, using mahogany or fruitwood stain colors, respectively. You’re going to have fun building with your tree!ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.1.18 - 3:52 PM

      Thank you, Ann! We are loving lighter toned wood in Tree House, so who knows if we’ll stain it at all! We can’t wait to start designing that table. Re: the deck, yes, it seems like the deck was built around the tree. We’re fine with the deck for now, but you’re right – we’ll likely rebuild once we come up with our overall outdoor plans!ReplyCancel

  • Jackie7.5.18 - 12:16 PM

    Hi – you need to check out ‘Thirsty concrete’ – it is sidewalk material that drinks water into the ground beneath it to mitigate surface flooding. I saw it installed in New Orleans and it is amazing. It would be so cool to see you figure this out for everyone in the blogosphere. That drain just does not seem like it is enough. While I understand removing the tree to mitigate risk from tree-fall and other reasons- removing trees severely disrupts things – especially trees of that age and size. It can increase the risk of tree fall for neighboring trees, decrease drainage/increase surface flooding, etc. Not sure what the basement/building depth above-ground situation is for your home but check out Smartvents too. They are another amazing company with amazing patents and you get a reduced insurance rate for having them installed that more than makes up for their cost. I don’t have any stake in these companies – quantifying insurance risk to flooding is my professional area of expertise and recent tree removal, high water table, low point of local elevation within 10 feet from the house is ringing the alarms for me. I just wanted to drop a note to mention this so that you can future-proof your home as best as possible. :)ReplyCancel

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