How to Tear Out a Rock Landscape in 13 Days or Less

Here's how the front yard looked in May before heavy rains contributed to a fungal disease in the lawn. The dark shrubs in the front right are spireas damaged by last November's hard frost.

Here’s how the front yard looked in May before heavy rains contributed to a fungal disease in the lawn. The dark shrubs in the front right are spireas damaged by last November’s hard frost.

If you ever need to tear out an existing landscape and install a new one, perhaps you can learn from my experience.

The 22-year-old front yard that I inherited when I moved into my place four months ago was overgrown and populated with plants that weren’t particularly thrilling, except for two 7-by-7-foot Peking cotoneasters. Winter interest was non-existent except for the spruce tree planted five feet from my foundation.

These two Peking cotoneasters are just beginning to take on their red fall color. I'll include these shrubs in the new landscape, but will cut them to the ground next February so they won't be overgrown. That's an irrigation line draped across them.

These two Peking cotoneasters are just beginning to take on their red fall color. I’ll include these shrubs in the new landscape, but will cut them to the ground next February so they won’t be overgrown. That’s an irrigation line draped across them.

I decided a makeover was in order. So I created a landscape drawing and contacted my homeowners association for approval. The HOA was incredibly responsive, and one of the board members and his spouse came by within a day or so to walk my property, review the plan and discuss the project. The board member verbally approved my plan on the spot, and by the end of the day, I received written approval by email. This was September 3. The saga was about to begin.

I had contacted the utilities locator a few weeks earlier, so I knew where my utility lines were. I had also had the spruce removed so that the roots wouldn’t threaten my foundation, and the crown wouldn’t threaten my roof.

My initial work involved tearing out all the steel edging and marking a new, smaller turf area with landscape flags.

Then I used a reciprocating saw to cut my shrubs down to the ground.

Next came rock removal. Although it’s difficult to see from the photo, my front yard had a lot of rock mulch, five cubic yards’ worth (about seven tons). I originally thought there was no way I was going to move that much rock. But earlier, a young couple in the neighborhood mentioned that they had removed all of their rock. Being no stranger to hard work, I thought, “If they can do it, so can I,” even though they’re 30 years my junior. It’s just a matter of being insane, getting up every morning and plugging away at it.

Using a rake, flat shovel and wheelbarrow, I moved the rock from my landscape and built a pile in the corner of my lot near the street. Rock removal took about eight days. Most days, I worked on it for two to three hours. On a couple of days, I worked five to seven hours.

Fortunately when I posted free landscape rock on craigslist, a fellow homeowner contacted me immediately and offered to haul it away for his own yard.

I then removed the landscape fabric and residual rocks.  To cut the landscape fabric, I used an inexpensive linoleum knife.

Finally, it was time to dig up the shrubs and perennials. I blasted all of the plants with my hose to loosen the soil around the roots. The next day, I started digging out the blue mist spirea. Piece of cake. However, the densely branched, compact, pink-flowered spirea were hell. So I whipped out my reciprocating saw, stuck it into dug-out areas around the root ball and whacked away on the roots. It took about 20 minutes to yank each of those puppies out of the ground. The perennials? Another piece of cake.

I transplanted a few of my favorite dug-out perennials in the back yard and offered the rest to neighbors.

The yard looks sad and barren now, but it offers a clean slate for installing a new landscape. Later this month, I'll overseed the turf area.

The yard looks sad and barren now, but it offers a clean slate for installing a new landscape. Later this month, I’ll overseed the turf area.

Last night (Day 12) I cut out some tree roots and added them to my debris pile.

Today, I hired someone to come over in two days and rototill two inches of compost into my soil. I also accepted delivery of five cubic yards each of compost and Western red cedar mulch. If I have material left over, I’ll use it in another part of the property.

Tomorrow, I’ll dig up remaining tree roots, rake up leftover wood mulch and tidy up the area for the next day’s rototilling.

Then it’s on to the fun part—plant installation. Once I’m done with that, I’ll add a new post to explain that process and show you photos.

By the way, I bought all my plants at the Labor Day sales and saved a small fortune.

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