Princeton Patio Reveal

I am a notorious under-estimator of time. How long to read an entire book? Oh about three hours. How long to prepare a dinner party for eight people? Eh, also three hours. How long to turn a dirt patch backyard into a charming English cottage-inspired hangout space? Like one day? Two tops? None of these estimates are even remotely accurate! But perhaps maybe it’s good that I don’t ever learn my lesson, because if I had a better grasp on time required to complete activities, I might never start anything.

Moving from a four bedroom house in Algiers with ample outdoor space into a one-bedroom apartment in Princeton was always going to be a tough adjustment for me. While so many things about the apartment are ideal – the cute decor, renovated and fully-stocked kitchen, and perfect location – the small size and the lack of outdoor space are not. The condo is one-quarter of an old Victorian home and actually has a small (probably 20’x20′) yard, but the yard was just dirt when we arrived. Our friend/landlord has plans to build a deck, but COVID wait times were a real thing and so alas it was just a dirt pit when we moved in. Adam tried to convince me to not waste money and effort on transforming the yard as we’d only be here a year, it would be cold soon, and that the campus and the town of Princeton are our “yard.” I might have been on board with that logic, except for there is no dining room or kitchen table in the apartment so where would we host dinner parties? Ever since I saw a large table-shaped concrete sculpture on Princeton’s campus, I’ve been itching to host a big bring-your-own-chair dinner party on it, and I still might, but I need my very own dinner party space. In my house, or at least right outside of my house.

So, yeah it took me about a week to devise a plan to transform the dirt pit backyard into a hangout space inspired by an English garden, drawing on the fact that Princeton was modeled after England’s Cambridge University. I started seeing inspiration for the space all around: crushed gravel; cobblestones; concrete pavers; latticework; the colors gray, black, and brown; ivy and boxwoods and pine trees. (Here’s my Pinterest board, where I kept track of some of these inspirational photos).

I asked my Aunt Patty, she of the fabulous Michigan historic homes, and Uncle Mark, who is spending his retirement creating an English garden that should be on the cover of a magazine, for some tips. They suggested pea gravel, as it’s cheap and is something one could do themselves. I decided on a 12′ x 12′ square would be the pea gravel patio where a table with an umbrella and chairs would go. Estimated time to transform the yard? One or two days. Actual time: Several weeks of achingly hard manual labor during the hottest and most humid time of the year. Lost five pounds. Developed (temporary) acne from all that dirt and sweat on my face. But all of it was worth it as we now have lovely patio space.

Before breaking ground, I found this Lowe’s tutorial and this Pine and Prospect YouTube tutorial about how to DIY a pea gravel patio very helpful. After taking the first of many trips to Home Depot for tools and supplies, I dug out the 12×12 area by a few inches. Immediately, I noticed there were tons of palm-sized rocks so I had the vague notion that I’d edge the pea pebble area with these rocks and I started tossing them into a garbage can for later use. After I dug down the area to what seemed like a more level square (it was on quite a slope before), I used a tool called a tamper to bang it all down flat.

Then, I laid plastic edging (nailed in with plastic spikes) and put down landscaping fabric to prevent weeds from popping up under the gravel. And then 22 bags of pea gravel. Then I used all those larger rocks I’d collected to edge the whole thing. Voila, it was a pea gravel patio.

There were many concrete pavers piled up in a corner, remnants of an old patio that had been dug up. I began laying those into a path but it grew wider and became more of another sort of patio space.

I planted some hostas and some red leafy thing under the lone tree in the yard, planted some small boxwoods along one fence edge, and added three small pine trees in white square planters along another. Then I spread black mulch around the edges. Funny, after I spread the mulch, Adam realized there was a large tree in the yard. So I guess dark mulch really makes the plants pop.

For furniture: I ordered a black cast aluminum table, six rattan stacking chairs, and a white wrought iron side table from Target, the umbrella and black-and-white cabana striped cover from World Market. I had my eye on this red “sofa” from Ikea as a bench, but it sold out. I found a decent approximation for a fraction of the cost at At Home, but it was more of a rust color and I wanted it cherry red, so I gave it a coat of spray paint. (Side note: Our new-to-us Fiat 500, while having the appearance of a tiny Euro city car, has a spacious hatchback and you’d be shocked at what will fit in there).

The whole project – tools, gravel, plants, furniture and accessories – cost about $1,800. Worth it. I am out there every day having lunch, we often eat dinner there, and last week we had a dinner party for 10 people. Our first dinner party in the new place! (That involved borrowing a few folding tables and chairs). It is not the most level space, and there are a few things I might have done differently, a few left to do (staining the stairs and painting the door black would be an improvement) but I’m pleased with the outcome: A virtually unusable space made useful and cute.


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