Yard Karma! Adventures in Concrete and Other Building Projects Totally Inappropriate in a Rental Apartment

Here are a few of the home improvement projects my boyfriend, Chris, and I have not quite gotten around to yet: the wood-fired hot tub, the brick pizza oven, the combination wood-fired pizza oven and hot tub that I suggested.
Publish date:
August 17, 2011
urban gardening, concrete, hot tub, wood-fired pizza oven, yard work

Here are a few of the home improvement projects my boyfriend, Chris, and I have not quite gotten around to yet: He has not yet built the wood-fired hot tub. He has not built the brick pizza oven. He has not built the combination wood-fired pizza oven and hot tub that I suggested, come on, is the only efficient solution to both.

We never did tear down the fence between us and the abandoned house next door to put in the two-lot veggie garden with swimming pool. This year, once again, I forgot to plant the Hopper-proof fence -- a barricade meant to keep our Brooklyn street cat, named Hopper, from rejoining the feral beasts of his youth; ingeniously (or so I think) comprised of hops, with which we will, of course, make beer.

Oh, and Chris hasn’t yet poured the concrete table with built-in grill/fire pit. But he swears, by September, he will get there, oh yes he will.

This is probably the place to mention that we live in a rented apartment in Brooklyn, New York, just off the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. I inherited the apartment in 2002 from another single mother friend, whom I met when we were both going to college with our children in the mid-90s, when she decided to ditch Brooklyn for Vermont. The important thing about the apartment then was the ZIP code -- 11215, for New Yorkers with children, the golden number that means your kid will be in the Park Slope school district even if, as it is in our case, you are so far south you literally have an expressway in your front yard.

But the back yard! When we moved in, I was in the upstairs apartment and could only look out on the yard, which then belonged to my downstairs neighbor, a school teacher. She didn’t do much with it: some stubby grass, a plastic porch swing from a big-box store, Christmas lights for her once-each-year parties. When she moved out and the middle floor neighbors got evicted, the yard lay dormant for three months. My landlord, weirdly, decided that he only wanted to rent the two apartments -- basement and middle floor -- together as one, despite the fact that they were unconnected. Whoever took them both got the yard.

When I took over the lease for both floors, Chris, who did not yet live with me, thought I was insane. After my first adventure in subletting off Craigslist -- involving a Wall Street type who moved out in the middle of winter, and refused to pay the last month’s rent after an unfortunate incident involving termites and his bed covers -- I was inclined to agree with him. But then one of our friends in a local band decided to move in, and stayed for the next three years. Chris moved in that winter. And the next summer, we had the yard.

By that time, the weeds had grown more than three feet high. When we cut them down we found, among other things, a porch swing, a broken lawnmower and a fish tank. Over my objections, we tore out all the grass, then all the wild bamboo that had inexplicably taken over most the back fence. At one point, the yard was nothing but a dirt pit:

Then, we started putting things back in: We covered the ground with weed fabric and built two-foot-high raised beds along the two back walls, which we then filled with fresh dirt -- 60 or more bags over the past few years -- seeing as Gowanus, Brooklyn is so polluted, it is actually a designated SuperFund site:

We planted two trees: one plain green and one, a mimosa, which started out as a stick transplanted from Chris’s grandparents' yard, then grew to cover most of the yard with a lacy canopy and its freakish, pink pom-pom flowers:

I also added a peony and a lilac in pots:

The rosebush is the only thing standing from the original yard:

To make the patio, we “borrowed” bricks from the Murder House next door (so named because the tenant actually did stab the landlord to death in a dispute, then ran over and confessed to our then-neighbors on the middle floor; we tried to tell ourselves that at least it was merely personal).

Chris built a wooden square, lined it with sand and levelled it. Then, we invited six of our friends over and, while drinking a bunch of Prosecco, laid each piece, brick by brick. Later, he built a slate walkway under the hanging strawberry baskets and a cement one under the grill.

Our then-housemate, Rob, is also an artist. He painted this mural for our back wall:

The other wall, between the trees, which is shared with the tire shop next door, we painted white and got a projector, which we use to screen summer movies. At one party, two Octobers ago, we set up our turntables in our kitchen sink.

This summer, Chris announced that he wanted to start working in concrete. The idea, he said, was to ultimately mold an entire table out of concrete, with a grill/fire pit running through the center, in which our guests could cook their own food without having to leave the table.

“You do realize we don’t own this place, right?” I asked. “And if and when we ever move, a concrete table will never, ever make it out of the yard?”

Chris’s idea, as he explains it, is yard karma. He wants to build up the backyard in each apartment we live in, then move on to the next. He has this vision that some day people will know his yards and seek them out all over Brooklyn, sort of like being the underground renegade artist of backyard design.

Well, OK. There are worse hobbies. Before he got to the concrete table, however, he decided to practice by making a few concrete circles for a new walkway. He was dismayed that our mulch appeared to be tracking inside the house. He envisioned concrete step stones, in pretty organic free-form shapes, cast in shades of aqua and pale yellow, lining the yard. It would take him a weekend, he said. Until then, perhaps, we’d hold off on parties in the yard. I agreed to postpone my birthday party.

That was the first week of June.

This is how one -- well, one 36-year-old Brooklyn man -- makes a concrete circle. First, he cut down thin sheets of metal and used them to form circular molds, which he laid down on top of the dirt, previously lined with weed fabric cover. Next he, mixed the concrete:

I suppose one should mention that first this person’s girlfriend -- who conveniently owns a pick-up truck, and is, unfortunately for her, the only person in the family who can reliably drive stick -- made an ungodly amount of trips to Lowe’s to pick up 40-pound bags of cement. At last count, we have gone through 40 bags. Yes, that works out to 1,600 pounds of cement. Before we even make it to the table.

After the cement is mixed, he pours it into the mold, smooths it out, then lets it cure. After 24 hours, it is safe to walk on; after 30 days it can be painted.

As of today, August 15, 2011, this is the state of our walkway:

I never did have that birthday party. Originally, we had wanted to mix pigment directly into the cement, but then we found out it was prohibitively expensive. I’d still like to paint the circles pale aqua, though Chris is leaning toward leaving them dark gray. He would like to line the spaces in between with gravel; I’m partial to greenery, particularly flowering herbs like creeping thyme. What do you think?

Oh, and when we get to that concrete table, I'll let you know...