Add Some ‘Zen’ to Your Back Garden with a Water Feature

If you read my previous post on how to create a small water feature to add curb appeal to your front garden, you’ll know that we were just warming up for our next pond! That little pond in the front was just a practice run for this bigger one we built in our backyard:

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Although the mechanics of building this one was similar to the front pond – i.e. we used a drop in liner – it was a lot more tricky because it was integrated into a travertine patio we were installing at the same time. The finished patio had to precisely end at the beginning of the pond so we could incorporate an accent border of stone around the perimeter.

I’m showing you two versions of this pond: one with a bowl that acts as a centre piece (Plan ‘A) and a second simplified version without the bowl (Plan ‘B’).


To start, we bought a pre-formed rigid liner – 4 feet x 6 feet and 2 feet deep.

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Hubs dug out the hole to the exact width and length of the liner. To calculate the finished depth, we had to consider the finished height of our travertine patio. The lip of the liner had to finish even with the underside of the travertine border to both support the stone and hide the liner.

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Hubs built the wooden structure you see below to fit into the hole for the liner so we could lay in our underbase – about 18″ of High Performance Bedding (HPB) – while we worked on the patio.

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We built a retaining wall of sorts around the pond to take the frost line into consideration and hold back the HPB aggregate from falling into the pond once the liner was installed. We built the height of the retaining wall even with the HPB so the travertine border could float over the top of it.

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In the view below, you can see that there are actually three layers of cement block that mesh together to form the retaining wall.  This ensured that the patio would be less likely to shift during the winter and  also gave a solid support to the edge of the liner.  If you are not incorporating your pond into a patio – or don’t live in a cold climate – this extra step of building a retaining wall won’t be necessary.

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As you can see in the picture below, we also installed metal edging between where we ended the travertine patio and started the retaining wall. Beyond the metal edging is where I installed the accent colour of travertine around the pond to tie in with the patio (which you’ll see later).

That’s as far as we got during our first season of construction. Hubs re-inserted the wooden frame back into the hole, because winter was soon approaching, so he could install the pond liner in the spring and finish it all up then. He sealed it up with a plywood cover to prevent snow/water from getting into the prepared hole over the winter.

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In the spring, Hubs removed the wooden frame so he could continue with the liner installation.

To prepare to install the liner, make sure the bottom of the hole is dry (if not pump out any standing water) then add sand to the bottom and tamp it down.  A good bed of sand helps nestle the liner into the ground and keep it level. Keep adding sand until the liner stays steady without any rocking motion.

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Continue to put the liner back in and check for level as you build up the sand. Making sure the pond is level is the most important step because water won’t stay securely inside the liner, where it belongs, if it’s tilted at all.

Once you’re satisfied with the fit, pop the liner in and start to fill it with water from a garden hose and continue to make sure the liner is sitting level as it fills. If you notice any puckers in the liner, you’ll need to backfill with some of the dirt you removed to fill any air pockets if there are any (you can also use some sand). The liner needs to be a fairly tight fit so it doesn’t buckle under the pressure of the water.

When the liner is filled about halfway with water, backfill around all the edges with dirt or sand. We used a plastic hand trowel to direct it around all sides. A deep dustpan works well for this purpose too — place it away from the gap between the side wall and the liner (under the lip), then brush the backfill into the gap to fill up the sides and secure it all around the edges.

For more about liner options and installation, here’s an excellent video to watch.

Once the pond was filled up, I was then able to complete the travertine accent stone all around the edges. I leveled each piece as I went, adding in HPB aggregate underneath as needed. As you can see below, the accent stone extends over the edge of the liner by about an inch in the front. I was happy to see that our measurements worked out perfectly!

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As I came around the edges of the pond and back, to finish it off, I added in metal edging (held in with spikes) all along the edge of the stones to keep them in place.

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Here’s how the accent border looked once I was finished; a nice blank slate for finishing touches!

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It was time for hubs to turn his attention to hooking up the electrical and then the pump and water feature. Here’s the electrical service to the pond Hubs installed before he finished the final connections.

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He designed this cedar cover to hide the ugly utilitarian look of the plastic pole and electrical box. The cover is both attractive and functional:  even though the electrical box is waterproof, it doesn’t hurt to shelter it from the rain!

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Over time the grasses we planted in back of the pond grew so large, and the cedar shelter greyed, which blended it into the background of the fence.  You can barely notice it anymore – but it was a nice touch up until everything around it matured!

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Plan ‘A’

For the water feature itself, we purchased a concrete bowl, a pump and fountain. We used a powerful AquaSurge high efficiency pump to achieve the water fountain height that makes this version such a centrepiece for the pond!

We drilled a hole into the bottom of the bowl so we could install the water fountain through the middle:

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To house the pump and raise the bowl out of the water in the pond, Hubs designed a cedar casing that the bowl could sit on:

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To start, hubs built a box that was connected with angle brackets and screws on the inside corners. He drilled a hole in the top right through the centre (big enough to fit the pipe for the fountain).  On the outside of the casing he L-brackets to all four vertical sides – for a very good reason that will be revealed below.  All the metal was stainless steel so it wouldn’t rust in the water; the cedar is also durable under water.

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He cut a piece of travertine (left over from our patio) to the same size as the top of the box and also drilled a hole through the centre.  The travertine has two purposes: to weigh the box down in the water and to add a decorative element that coordinates with our patio. The wooden circle you see in the picture was an extra piece hubs cut in case he needed to raise the height of the bowl further out of the pond, however he didn’t end up needing it so it wasn’t used.

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The reason for the L-brackets? To install filters!

Hubs wanted an extra measure of water filtration. As you can see here, the L-brackets hold the filter cloth to the front and back of the box. The filter cloth just slips in and out of the channel. Shown below is the back of the box.

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Hubs turned the box around to face the front and added the piece of travertine onto the top. He then inserted the pump into the bottom of the box and connected the tubing from the pump through the hole in the top of both the box and travertine.

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Before adding the bowl, hubs cut a circular piece of rubber gasket (a bit smaller than the circumference of the bottom of the bowl) and placed it around the tubing so the bowl would be cushioned where it sits on top of the travertine.

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He placed the second piece of filter cloth over the front opening and then dropped the box into the middle of the pond, leaving the electrical cord out of the water to one side.  Hubs was able to straddle the sides of the pond to lower the bowl onto the box until it was sitting on top of the travertine. As the bowl is HEAVY, this is an awkward way to do it so I’d suggest adding a strong piece of plywood across the pond and even getting two people to help lower the bowl onto the box.

Once the bowl was seated, he then hooked up the fountain to the tubing inside the bowl. It looks like the bowl is floating on top of the travertine!

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Hubs plugged the cord into the electrical post (seen at the back of the pond on the right side) to test out the pump and set the height of the flow. Once the pond was up and running we finished off the landscape and plantings around it (like the grasses and day lily you see behind the pond).

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Each fall, we dissassemble the bowl and take the pump/box into the garage for the winter. In the spring we bring it back out again and re-connect the pump.

When the risk of frost has passed, we load the pond up with tropical pond plants!

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It’s nice to introduce some flowering plants into the pond as part of the focal point of our backyard!

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I had fun accentuating around the pond with decor items – like the yoga frogs and starfish. I also faux finished the mirror/shelf combination that you see on the fence. It adds some sparkle and depth to our small space – and also another surface for display!

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The height of the water in the fountain is fully adjustable; we generally have it higher when we have guests visiting but keep it lower when it’s just us enjoying the back.

With the addition of a canopy umbrella, we can relax in our zen-like outdoor space in rain or shine 🙂

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(Plan ‘B’) – Simplified Version

Because of the physical effort it takes to install the bowl each spring, the pond project described above won’t be for everyone! As a matter of fact, when Hubs doesn’t want to lug out the heavy bowl we revert to Plan ‘B’!

This spring, we swapped the bowl out for a much simpler, and lighter, water fountain that we can easily drop into the pond. It’s not nearly as showy a focal point, but it will be just as lovely once we add additional pond plants and bring out the rest of the decor. This is a great alternative if you don’t want to go to the effort – and expense – of building the box/filter system from scratch for the bowl.

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This fountain is run by a much cheaper pump and instead of the cedar box, hubs used a milk crate that he weighed down with two stainless steel pipes.

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He attached them onto the bottom of opposite sides with black plastic cable ties:

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He also used the plastic ties to secure the pump to the top of the milk crate. The milk crate is necessary in this instance because the pond is 2 feet deep and the fountain head needs to be raised out of the water. You’ll need to work out how high your crate needs to be depending on the depth of the liner you install.

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Here you can see the how the pump is attached with the cable ties from the underside of the crate:

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If you’re interested in installing a pond in your own garden, but want to start out with a smaller project first, like we did, check out my post on how to create a small water feature:

Create a Small Water Feature

I also show you some creative planter ideas to finish off a backyard space:

Planter Ideas

Stay calm and relax on this summer!  If these projects have inspired you, please pin and share on Facebook.

For those of you facing winter weather and wanting to bring the outdoors in, check out my indoor water feature. Although I used a paint can, you can substitute anything, like a watering can, to craft this fun project and make it your own!

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At Birdz of a Feather, we’re feathering the nest… one room at a time. Follow my blog here or on Bloglovin’ if you’re interested in seeing other DIY projects, in and around the home.

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Low Maintenance Gardening (Part 1): Dry Creek Bed

When we finished installing a patio in our backyard, we were left with a lonely patch of grass in the back corner. It didn’t really make sense to get out a lawn mower every week to mow such a small area; not to mention how awkward it would be to maneuver it past our patio set! More importantly, not using electricity to cut the grass – or water to keep it green – was the sustainable way to go!

Our solution was to install a dry creek bed and rock garden to replace the grass (you’ll see how to build the rock garden in Part 2).  There’s nothing more rewarding than putting some sweat equity into building a sustainable garden when the outcome is this gorgeous!

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Here’s how the back corner looked before we started; to get a sense of the area we had to work with, I’ve included an overhead shot of the garden.


Here’s a complete overview of the landscaping plan:

Landscape Plan

The first order of business was digging an enormous hole to plant a Blue Danube pom pom juniper at the south end of the dry creek bed:

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By the time hubs dug this hole, we no longer had our clean fill bin to dump the soil, so he used some left over landscaping bags and filled them up. He placed the bags at the front of our house and the neighbours scooped them all up – waste not want not!

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Is China really at the other end of this hole?

Once the juniper was planted, we used a garden hose to help us outline the shape of the dry creek bed so we could dig out the grass.  We sloped the sides and dug out a shallow bottom so we wouldn’t have to fill it with too many stones. It was all hands on deck, so we didn’t get pictures of digging out the dry creek bed!

We added landscape cloth along the bottom and up the sides to prevent weeds from growing. We extended the landscape cloth a few feet over the edges so we could run it under some larger boulders we planned to place around the bed. In areas we weren’t planning on putting any boulders along the sides, we simply folded the landscape cloth under and staked it into the sides of the dry creek bed to prevent it from shifting.

When the landscape cloth was secured, we filled the dry creek bed with a colourful variety of smooth river rock.

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We then went shopping for flagstone to place around the perimeter of the dry creek bed so we’d have some stepping stones to walk around.  We handpicked the pieces at the stone yard that we thought would fit best. When shopping for flagstone, take along a sketch of your plan to help you visualize the space!

We also purchased some larger decorative boulders for the rock garden (which you’ll see how to build in Part 2) and a few extra boulders to sporadically place around the sides of the dry creek bed. When we got the stones home, we were excited to do a dry lay on-site to see how we did with our selection!

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Here you can see where the landscape cloth extends over the edge of the dry creek bed and is held down by some of the flagstone pieces. We had wanted to use this ‘landing pad’ as a base to level one side of a wooden bridge that was going to span across the dry creek bed – but we never got around to building that (you’ll see an inspiration shot further ahead)!  We were going to fill in the gaps with some pea gravel, but instead we filled them in with dirt so we could plant moss in between and around the stones (as you’ll also see further ahead).


We took our time with the dry lay of the stepping stones and boulders to make sure they were beautiful as well as functional!

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Once we were happy  with the placement, we dug around each stone with an edging tool and removed the grass as well as a few inches of topsoil. The goal was to inset the stones slightly below the surface to keep them in place and prevent shifting during colder weather.

Next, it was time to get down to fine the tuning details and be one with the earth!  I literally sat myself down in the dry creek bed and pushed all the river rock out and over the edge of the landscape cloth to hide it.


I kept a container of extra river rock (that hubs kept refilling for me) in case I needed to add more. I worked my way around the entire perimeter: it was a slow process but it really transformed the dry creek bed from a hole in the ground to something that looks like it’s been there for ages!


Where the dry creek bed ends, we found the PERFECT statue to accent the pom pom juniper. We trailed the river rock from the dry creek bed around the ornamental juniper and in front of the statue ending it beside a pond we installed when we constructed our patio.

The statue represents a tragedy and comedy mask; a great reminder of all the hard work  –  with all its setbacks and humourous moments – that we put into building the garden from the ground up!

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Dry creek bed wrapping around our ‘Comedy/Tragedy’ statuary with Blue Danube Pom Pom Juniper in the background

Once all the fine details were taken care of in the dry creek bed, we planted moss around the flagstones so it would grow in to fill the gaps between them. Around some of the boulders on the perimeter of the dry creek bed, we planted miniature day lillies (so they wouldn’t grow too tall) and some drought resistant (aka low maintenance) ground cover.

Remember the ‘landing pad’ of flagstones I showed you earlier?  Here’s the before and after of how that area filled in with moss. Isn’t it pretty?

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This is an inspiration shot of now I envisioned using the flagstone to support a bridge on either side of our dry creek bed. It’s the only thing I wish we had added, but it’s never too late – it’ll likely be a project we’ll attempt down the road.

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To finish the area around the dry creek bed, we covered a narrow pathway between it and the fence in mulch to keep the mud and weeds at bay.

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The moss gets billowy and full as it slowly spreads into the gaps

Here’s how the moss, ground cover and day lillies (in bloom) filled in over a few seasons of growth.  The dry creek bed looks seamless once the plants around it are fully grown; everything just drapes over and softens all the edges!

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The south east corner of our backyard went from this lonely patch of grass:

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… to this lush section of our surburban oasis.  For the time and effort we expended up front, it’s certainly a big payoff in the end. It’s far more interesting to look at than a patch of grass – and requires very little maintenance to maintain it! The only care it needs is a seasonal trimming of the ornamental juniper to maintain the round shape of the pom poms.

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The dry creek bed really added a special touch to the garden, but we didn’t stop there! I was happy to have hubs’ help through the next stage of the process too: I couldn’t have done it without my ‘partner in grime’ – as I like to refer to him! Check out part two of Low Maintenance Gardening to learn how to build a rock garden:

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At the side of our house, we found a way to protect our hostas from slugs – and we did it sustainably without the need for pesticides! Click here to read more.


We also added some privacy to our small yard by building trellises to support a variety of flowering vines and a screen for the BBQ area (behind the retaining wall).  In late summer we have a wall of green:

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Late Summer; we planted 3 Silver Lace Vines for this full lush look

By the time the Silver Lace Vine blooms in the fall, it’s magnificent! It’s important to select a wide variety of plants when planning your garden to provide bloom from early spring into late fall; just doing our part to attract bees to the garden!

Click the link for the DIY on how to build trellises and privacy screens.

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Autumn; Silver Lace in full bloom

Be sure to check out my other inspiring garden posts where I’ll show you how-to’s for an upcycled mirror and shelf to expand any small outdoor space, and;

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Creative planter ideas – where we make the most of repurposing items such as this chair and enamel pot!

Planter Ideas

Stay calm and relax on this summer!  If these projects have inspired you, please pin and share on Facebook.

At Birdz of a Feather, we’re feathering the nest… one room at a time. Follow my blog here or on Bloglovin’ to see other DIY projects, in and around the home.

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How Does Your Garden Grow?

Like the nursery rhyme, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, How Does Your Garden Grow?, there’s more to landscaping a backyard than meets the eye. The ‘silver bells’ and ‘cockle shells’ referred to in the rhyme were colloquialisms for instruments of torture. In a lot of ways, landscaping is much the same way—full of torture! So I’m officially calling this DIY project ‘the Mother (Nature) of All Projects’.

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I’ve never personally crossed paths with another handy woman crazy enough to build and landscape her own backyard. I used to be able to bench press patio stones with the best of them, but not now. I will likely never, ever again undertake such a strenuous project. NEVER. But then again….. maybe landscaping is like giving birth. You might swear you’ll never do it again, but then you soon forget the pain; especially as you see your creation grow and take shape.

Now, I have to preface my DIY story by letting you know that I didn’t do it all myself, but I did do more than my fair share. I needed my ‘partner in grime’ – my husband – to do some of the heavy lifting (and some of the heavy thinking—but I’ll get to that later).

My motivation for doing hardcore DIY projects is a little different than my husband’s. I had a bad experience at a young age with a contractor who ripped off my hard earned money. I swore that I would never hire anyone again, and have DIY’d just about everything ever since. My husband’s motivation, on the other hand, is that he’s cheap. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There’s a lot of satisfaction, and financial gain to be had, in improving your investment by feathering your own nest – and learning new skills along the way.

I guess you could call it a labour of love since we quite literally started right before our marriage and started right back up again the day after our honeymoom.  Our backyard project took a year and a half from start to finish (if you don’t count the ‘do-over’ explained at the end). The amount of time might seem excessive when a contractor could whip in and have it done in a few weeks, but a contractor would not have added all the special touches we managed to achieve.

We divided the work into four phases:

  1. Plan/dig/ compact base;
  2. Set pavers, fill in with polymeric sand, plant garden and install rock garden;
  3. Set up the pond; and
  4. Install dry creek bed/ flagstone/moss and build and install trellises so we could grow silver lace vine to bring privacy to our suburban lot).

By breaking the work into manageable sections, we were able to get it done at our own pace, and, I think, at a reasonable price (the budget came in at around $25K for everything).

If you’re not comfortable with landscape design, your local nursery often has designers on staff that will help you draw up a plan and also advise you on the plantings. The fee for this service would probably be around $60 – $120, depending on the time involved, but check with your local nursery.

Important: Before you break any ground, call your utility companies to mark the phone and gas lines so you don’t accidentally dig into these services!

My best advice when attempting a landscape project is to start small (or at least smaller, in our case!). As neither of us had ever installed a patio before, we decided to do our front walkway first – to practice and get all our mistakes out of the way before starting the backyard! Here’s a glimpse of that project, which I’ll detail in an upcoming post on landscaping the front walkway and installing a water feature:

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Practicing on a smaller project first, before taking on the mother (nature) of all landscape projects in the backyard!

Phase One

(Plan, dig, compact base)

Right before we were married, I had planned the design so literally right after we returned from our honeymoon, we broke ground.The goal was to dig the patio and pond, and get the initial base in place by the fall. Our idea was to let nature takes its course over the winter to help compact the base for us. It seems to have worked because nothing has heaved in the near-decade since it’s been completed.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m a big proponent of laying out a design on computer. Since our travertine had multiple different sizes of stone and an established pattern, I wanted to be sure I laid every stone in the correct order. Back then I didn’t have any fancy graphic programs, so I scanned a picture of the drawing, imported it into powerpoint and completed the paver layout there. I don’t know why, but somehow it managed to work it out to scale.

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Hardscape plan and landscape plantings

We really lucked out on the hardscape material. After seeing real travertine marble on display at the stone yard while shopping for the front patio, I fell in love with it… but not the price. My husband let his fingers do the walking and called the manufacturer to see if by any chance they were open to the public and we might be able to get a better price. Our timing couldn’t have been better!  The manufacturer was moving its entire facility and, since stone is expensive to move, they were selling off their inventory at incredible prices. We jumped right on it (even though we weren’t quite ready to start the backyard project quite yet), and placed our order.

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Travertine display at the stone yard

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Delivery Day

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Stages of prep work (clockwise from left): site grading and grass removal, digging the pond and pouring retaining wall, initial base of HPB stone in place to overwinter

Back in the day, we didn’t have a laser level so my husband used an ancient method – a water level – to establish our grade.

To start, measure out from the house where you will be digging for the patio and place some flags or markers at each corner of your project. If your patio is a rectangle, you’ll only need four flags, but we had a lot of jogs in our plan (plus a pond) to account for. Pound wooden stakes into the ground about 2 feet away from each ground flag. Tie some nylon string onto the first stake and stretch it to the one.

For the rest of the steps, I would suggest you watch this excellent video from This Old House. The video demonstrates three different methods for establishing a grade. We wanted our patio to slope slightly away from the house for water drainage so we laid out perfectly level lines, as they did in the video, and then we re-adjusted our lines 1/4″ lower for each foot out from the house to get the gentle slope we wanted.

One thing to keep in mind when you dig out the area for the patio is that you have to excavate BEYOND the size of the patio. For instance, if your patio is 10′ x 20′ you need to add at least 6″ onto each side (ideally, the area should extend past the pavers a distance that’s equal to the depth of the base material or 10′ + 6″ + 6″ by 20′ + 6″ + 6″ = 11 x 21). Of course, if one end of your patio butts up against the house as ours did, you wouldn’t need to add onto that end.

The picture below illustrates the extra width around the perimeter of our patio. When the base material extends beyond the perimeter of the patio, this stabilizes the edge and will allow you to install your edge restraints.

Once the patio is complete, all you need to do is back fill with some dirt and plant grass seed – or put in strips of sod to fill in the gap if you want it to grow in faster (be sure to water thoroughly until grass is established).

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DO NOT skip the step of installing edge restraints around the exterior edges of your patio or it will shift over time and your hard work will be a waste (again, it’s not needed up against the  house). We chose metal edging and installed at least four spikes for every 6 foot length.

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Install a minimum of 4 spikes every 6 feet

As a base material we used a stone called HPB (High Performance Bedding). I have to say that HPB was a dream to work with; it can be ordered through some local nurseries or a stone yard.

HPB does double duty by replacing the bedding layer and the base layer of material with only one material (vs. sand and stone) under pavers. HPB is also a real convenience to use because only one huge pile of material gets delivered to the site instead of two!

Before you have it delivered, but sure to put down tarps on your driveway and along the edge of the grass to keep it contained (you can drape it back over the stone afterwards and weigh it down to keep the tarp from killing your grass). If you don’t prepare your area this way you’ll be picking stone out of your grass for years to come.

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HPB delivery day – make sure to tarp the grass too!

HPB provides excellent drainage and because of the size of the chip (3/8″) it is 97% compacted without any compaction, however I would still recommend compacting it.  Don’t be tempted to dump all the HBP onto the ground and compact the stone only once – it won’t work.

Using a rented compacter, compact the ground first, then also compact after you apply each 4 inch layer of HPB.

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Compacted, graded and ready for HPB

There isn’t a rule of thumb when it comes to the depth of the base material. We used way more HPB than would normally be recommended – which might be overkill, but we didn’t want anything to heave during the freeze and thaw of our Canadian winters. You should ask for advice from your local dealer; Unilock also has a great technical guide that you can read for further information on how to determine how much material for your base (amongst other great information): Unilock Technical Guide

When removing large areas of grass, rent a dumpster that’s specifically made for compost material (as opposed to renovation waste) as it will be cheaper. If you can rent one that opens at the side for easy access, your back will appreciate it; its amazing how quickly the pile builds up! Removing grass is dirty dusty work; here you can see I’m wearing goggles, mask and gloves.

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Forget the diamonds. A wheelbarrow is a girl’s best friend (when it comes to landscaping)!

Don’t forget to trench out for electrical if you’re installing a pond with a pump. When it comes to electrical, be familiar with your local building codes – or better yet, hire a licensed electrician to complete this aspect of the project.

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Electrical wiring is protected in tubing before it’s buried in the trench

When you are doing your own landscaping, and are novices like us, you need to keep a flexible attitude because you’ll likely run into several challenges. We ran into two obstacles:

Our first challenge came after realizing that the side of our house, where the patio was extending fully to the fence, had a drop off to our neighbour’s lot line. It’s very common in suburban areas, where houses are tightly packed together, to have a subtle valley between each house to direct rain water away.This discovery meant we had to find a solution to contain the HPB base and prevent it from falling out from underneath the pavers.

We ended up having to build a retaining wall against the fence that we didn’t plan for. Since we were building a step under our sliding patio doors, we had to construct the retaining wall first. Back again we went to the stone yard to get the proper retaining wall system! Retaining  blocks have ledges that stack together, so you really can’t stack them wrong!

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When the landscaping odds are stacked up against you, you’re going to have to stack a retaining wall – or two!

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In the end, the retaining wall was a nice addition; it frames the privacy screens we built beautifully!

Our second challenge came after discovering that the entry into our backyard would also need a retaining wall of sorts too. I didn’t want a different stone there however; I wanted the travertine to be the first thing you see as your step into the backyard. Since necessity is the mother of invention, I designed a semi-circular step. It entailed making a concrete form and pouring cement so there was a permanent structure to float the patio over. We ended up mixing all the cement ourselves in one of those ‘rolling’ buckets, similar to the one pictured below. By the seventh bag, I was exhausted. If we had to do it all over again, I would plan ahead and look into the cost of getting a truck to deliver a pre-mixed batch so we could pour it all at once.

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Once the cement was poured and cured, I applied stone to the face of the inner curve with adhesive made especially for marble (other adhesives may stain and show through natural travertine). Then we were able to lay the patio stones over the top cut them to size.


Fast forward: when we finally laid the travertine up to the step, we lined it up against the edge, transferred the curve of the step with pencil to the underneath of each stone – adding on a 1″ overhang – and then cut them all on a wet saw.

Be sure NOT to cement the edges down: I know this from experience.  If there is no flexibility at the point where the pavers meet the top of the poured cement retaining wall, these stones could crack and/or heave. The best option is to adding some flexible caulking under the edge of each tile (where it meets up with the rim of the wall) to hold them down and prevent them from gradually shifting forward over the edge. If the pavers do happen to ease forward over the years, you can reapply some caulk and stick them back down.

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Our two extra challenges were a lot more work than we bargained for. However, when it comes to landscaping, as novices, you just have to go with the flow!

Phase two:

(Top up the base, grade away from the house for water drainage, set paving stones and fill in with polymeric sand, shop again – for plant material and pond accessories, install rock garden and plant garden).

After nature took its course and compacted our initial layer of HPB stone, we topped it up in the Spring and did our final tamping and grading.

You’ll need some long metal pipes to do your screeding and final levelling; as you can see here we used aluminum. Lay the metal pipes on either side of the area you’re levelling and set them to the finished height of the string you set up. Make sure you have a straight edge that’s long enough to span the two pipes and then set it on top of the pipes and drag it along, steadily levelling off the top of the stone.

After the first pull through the stone, check with your straight edge to make sure you don’t have any gaps underneath. If you find gaps, throw a little more stone in that spot and then re-screed until everything is perfectly level. When you’re happy with it, carefully pull out the screed rails and fill in the indentations with more HPB and pat it down level (I did this as I laid the patio stones because my reach into the field only went so far!).

This video demonstrates how to screed (they are using sand instead of HPB, but the technique is the same).

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I started laying my stone right in front of the step and retaining wall. I kept a small bucket of HBP with a plastic scoop by my side so I could fill in where the screed was. I also had a small level so I could ensure that everything was still flat before placing the stones.

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Filling in the screed indentations and doing one last check to make sure everything is level

Once all the pavers are laid, wash them down and let them thoroughly dry before applying polymeric sand. Polymeric sand should be swept into the spaces and lightly misted to allow it to set. It’s a great product; it will repel ants and prevent weeds from growing between your beautiful pavers. Check out this Unilock video to learn more about polymeric sand  – and no, I don’t have an affiliation with the company 🙂

Some words of caution when using polymeric sand with travertine pavers: our pavers happened to be ‘unfilled’ and in their natural state… meaning that any natural imperfections, pits and holes on the surface were not filled in. We personally love the rustic look of them, but when you add polymeric sand, keep in mind that it will settle in these crevices and may become noticeable.

There are two common sense solutions to this dilemma: buy filled travertine pavers instead or make sure the colour of your polymeric sand is as close match to your travertine pavers as possible.

Now, don’t laugh too hard but I went the extra mile and came up with a third solution to this problem – a solution that actually sucks! Yes, that’s right, that’s me vacuuming …. the patio! I pulled out my wet/dry vac and sucked all the noticeable sand out of the crevices of the travertine BEFORE I misted them with water so I wouldn’t get what I affectionately call ‘sand boogers’ on the surface of my pavers. #vacuumingsandboogers

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This job really sucks!

Once the patio and garden was done, we completed a rock garden to fill in the left corner of the yard.

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Ginko tree waiting to be planted in its new home

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Final landscaped view of back corner (rock garden in the background)

By the way, in case you’re thinking we must have had a rugged vehicle of some kind all lined up and ready to transport our MANY MANY rock purchases home with us, below is the actual car we used to schlep every piece of rock and flagstone home. It’s literally being held together by duct tape!

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The trusty old beater used for lugging stone home

Now for the exciting part: buying the plants and installing all the ‘softscape’. This is the part I LOVE – seeing it all come together.

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Busy as a bee

Phase three:

(Set up the pond)

After everything else was done, my husband took over to figure out all the mechanics of the pump for the pond.

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We found a concrete bowl, and the plan was to  drill a hole in the bottom and insert a fountain in the centre of the bowl. But because he wasn’t sure about the capacity, he bought two pumps so he could test them both out; one after the other. One hose was mounted in the pond and the other one was set up to recirculate water from outside of the pond—precariously balanced on top of our brand new green bin and weighed down by a patio stone. Upcyling at its worst …and a big mistake, as it turned out!

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The ‘makeshift’ pump

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Closeup of the makeshift pump – don’t do this at home!

One fateful day, when we were out until almost dusk, hubby left the pump with the makeshift hose running outside the pond. Some rascal of an animal knocked over the stone securing the hose to the green bin and ALL the water in the pond drained out and seeped underneath, which floated the liner like the Titanic! It was an ‘Ay Carumba’ moment of gargantuan proportion. By the time we came home, our liner was pointing up to the sky and all the plants were figuratively screaming to be rescued (sadly, even the floating plants were landlocked).

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Disaster struck

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Oh well, it’s water under the bridge…er, I mean the liner

We worked like mad to lift everything out and drain the water before it was pitch dark. But right in the middle of our panic, my father and sister dropped by for a visit. Talk about bad timing. But—take it from me—if you ever want to get rid of uninvited guests, threaten to put them to work. And then grab a tool—any tool—like you mean it! Works like a charm 🙂

See the complete how-to for the pond here.

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Next season after the ‘do over’

Once the rock garden was done, we were at the end of our first season of hard work in the backyard and had to stop to get ready for fall and winter. A LONG LONG LONG LONG LONG INTERMISSION GETS INSERTED RIGHT HERE :)…….The next spring, we re-dug the pond, fit the liner back in and my husband, bless his heart, set the pump up safe and secure and permanently attached INSIDE the pond!

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We finally turned our attention to installing a dry creek bed and replacing the one patch of grass we had left in the yard:

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Lonely patch of grass

We couldn’t really be too upset about the do-over situation when the yard had come so far. Afterall, our pond started out as a dead twig growing out of the ground and ended up as part of a tranquil spot to relax.

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From bare and sparse (to put it nicely)……

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Lonely patch of grass

Phase four:

(Install dry creek bed/ flagstone/moss and build and install trellises)

We decided it would be silly to have a tiny patch of grass left in our garden because it would be too awkward to maneuver a lawn mower through the backyard to mow it. We dug out a flowing shape for the dry creek bed, added in landscape cloth (which we staked into the side to prevent it from shifting) and then filled the dry creek bed with a colourful variety of smooth river rock

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We then went shopping for even MORE stone – this time flagstone – and handpicked the pieces we thought would fit best. Then we did a dry lay before we dug around each one (digging around each one with an edging tool and removing a few inches of topsoil so we could inset them slightly into the ground to keep them in place and prevent shifting).

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We also found the most PERFECT statue to watch over our newly fixed pond. Given the aforementioned pond disaster the previous fall, how fitting is it that we should find a tragedy and comedy mask statue???  It’s like it was meant to be!

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Dry creek bed wrapping around our ‘Comedy/Tragedy’ statuary with Blue Danube Pom Pom Juniper in the background

After the stepping stones were in place we planted moss around them so it would grow in to fill the gaps between the flagstones. We added a few larger stones on the perimeter of the dry creek bed and planted day lillies and some drought resistant (aka low maintenance) ground cover.

We left a narrow pathway between the dry creed bed and the fence that wrapped around the rock garden and ended at the pond; it got covered in mulch to keep the mud and weeds at bay until the moss filled in.

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The moss gets billowy and full as it slowly spreads into the gaps

Our final project was to build trellises to support some vines and a privacy screen for the BBQ area (behind the retaining wall). Click the link for the DIY on how to build trellises and privacy screens.

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Early Spring

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Late Summer; we planted 3 Silver Lace Vines for this full lush look

By the time fall rolls around the Silver Lace Vine blooms; it’s magnificent!

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Autumn; Silver Lace in full bloom

The garden facinates me as it changes with the seasons. It even looks good in the rain.Be sure to check out our other inspiring garden posts where we show you how to build trellises and privacy screens, a coordinated mirror and shelf to expand any small outdoor space and some creative planter ideas (as shown below)

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After a summer shower

Phew – I’m almost as exhausted writing about the ‘Mother (Nature) of All Projects’ as I was actually doing all the work! So the final word goes to…..


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We’re too cool for this garden!!

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