The Evolution of Our Back Patio: Then vs. Now

We’ve been enjoying a stretch of amazing weather in Chicago, allowing us to take full advantage of our (even more) recently revamped back patio. As we sit outside – roasting marshmallows, brunching with neighbors or taking a break from the garden renovation – we’ll talk about how drastically different this yard looks from just one year ago. We’ll say, Do you remember when there was a 3-story staircase? Going back even further, I remember walking through this home the very first time. The inside was rough, sure, but when we were shown the backyard, we audibly gasped. Could we handle this… this beast?, we asked each other. 

Sure enough, last year, we ended in a really good spot. That 3-story bear of a staircase finally came down, and our home could breathe again. We worked every weekend and countless weeknights, pushing through the fall and crossing our fingers that the warmish weather would stay just a little longer. As winter creeped in, we were packing things away before we could truly enjoy the space, not to mention, we were still honing in on how we wanted our seating to look and taking note of where we wanted to make a few upgrades. This year, we started early and fine tuned the furniture, filled the sparse areas in our planter boxes, and now, we’re feeling cozy and really settled in. Scott surprised me with our closest friends for my birthday, and besides making me cry, my heart swelled seeing so many people enjoying the space! It was our vision for our little urban patio all along. (Psst: All sources are listed at the bottom of this post.)

A lot of the questions we receive at this time of year have to do with our small backyard – anything from local contractor recommendations to building a staircase to insulating our raised planter boxes. With summer unofficially in full swing, we thought it would be fun to start at the very beginning and compile this big project from start to finish! More than anything, our hope is that this big rundown encourages any of you that may be feeling overwhelmed by a project. We were there too (and continue to find ourselves in the same situation – ha!), but like anything else, with time and patience and just getting started, you can tackle the moon. You can. My former boss used to always say, How do you eat a whale? (Me: um.) One bite at a time.

The Back of the House

The 3-story staircase allowed access to the two apartments in our former two-flat, and at the very top, there was a teeny scary door for the attic. We installed an access panel to the attic from the inside of our house, and we hired a crew to tear down and haul away that entire rickety (very unsafe) staircase. What we thought would be an entire weekend (or week long?) job for a 10-man crew, took less than 3 hours for about 3 guys from start to finish!

Afterwards, the yard felt a thousand times larger, but we knew deep down that the grass wasn’t for us. We wanted minimal upkeep, and to be quite honest, the grass was an excuse to allow for the world’s largest dog potty. It had to go, and we had a (somewhat ugly) clean slate to start with:

The Siding + Staircase

We landed on LP SmartSide for our home’s siding, a decision we continue to love to this day. You can read more about our thought process right here, and although the back of the house is the only side with this upgrade, eventually, the other three sides of our home will receive the same! (At which point, we’d love to paint the whole house a fresh new color.) With the siding completed, we nixed the idea of a typical deck, and instead, we opted for a wide, welcoming staircase off our kitchen sliding doors. We are so happy we stumbled into this decision, a result of walking our dogs and seeing something similar on a neighbor’s house! Not only does it lend more room to the yard itself, it gave us the opportunity to fill the patio with more accommodating furniture.

Pavers + Planter Boxes

We hired out the initial work to properly grade our yard (all that math = no thank you), and from there, we hopped in and DIYed a full patio of pavers! We kept the perimeter clear to allow for a fireplace and raised planter boxes, which we made custom from inexpensive pressure treated lumber. The flower beds were insulated and protected with a semi-transparent outdoor stain, and on a whim, we added a 4′ bench underneath our garage window. Not only would it save us on soil, plants and mulch, but it turned into the sweetest little seat for two!

Deciding on Gravel

Gravel! Who knew this would be such a tough decision for us? Our neighbor recommended Lake Street Supply, a Chicago landscaping supply yard that’s also open to the public. With the raised beds in place, we wanted to top off the ugly pea gravel with something prettier, and we chose a pretty gray-blue-green chipped stone called Neptune. Have you ever wondered what it looks like to have a literal ton of gravel delivered to a city house? Like this. 

Adding Life to Our Planter Boxes

With all the elements in place, it was time for us to focus on adding some life! We hired a consultant from a local nursery for an hour of her time (worth it!), and she gave us suggestions on plants based on our sun soaked east-facing patio. Our insulated boxes fared surprisingly well over the Chicago winter, with only a few spots needing to be filled in! Looking back, one of our biggest regrets was not choosing that plants that bloom over the course of the season. We shopped for plants as it was nearing fall, so we were attracted to everything that was in bloom. Now that it’s early summer (again, unofficially), our boxes are very green, but at the end of summer, we’ll get a big pop from our echinacea, stonecrop and autumn clematis that climb up the DIY modern trellis.

Hiring out the Paint Job (aka #NoRegrets #YOLO)

We bit the bullet and asked for help when it came time to paint and stain the back staircase. There is something about painting hand rails that really test our patience, and after a fiasco with plastic tarps on a windy day, we threw up our hands and hired a team to get it done quickly (and without complaint)! The railings are painted in Sherwin Williams Extra White, and the stain is Sherwin Williams Flagstone – the same color we recently used to update our front porch.

Furnishing the Patio

Last year, we DIYed a hunky table, painted it a soft sage green and surrounded it with these cute white tabouret chairs. We’ve had those chairs for-ev-er, and over time, they’ve gotten rusty and slightly discolored. (They’re not made for outdoor use, and definitely not in our climate without protection overhead!) We knew we’d eventually replace them, so we kept them outside for the rest of the season, and they did their job.

The Mid Century fireplace we added is still going strong, and it’s probably our favorite part of the makeover! At the end of last season, we were using these wicker chairs as a placeholder to gather around the fire on chilly nights. I’ve since added a disclaimer at the top of our fireplace makeover post, but sadly, the DIY paint job began to peel after an extreme overnight temperature dip – an extremely common occurrence in Chicago! A reader recommended Fox Valley Sandblasting for a professional powder coat, and knowing that we want this fireplace to last for the long haul, we didn’t think twice about having it refinished in a pretty matte black. Over the winter, we protected the fresh coating with an outdoor cover, and even after the ups and downs in temperatures this season, it still looks beautiful! Seen below: The fireplace with our DIY paint job, which is a bit glossier than the powder coating. If you live in a dry or temperate climate, we still think a high temperature spray would work just fine.

Our Patio Today

Finally, let’s talk about what’s going on today! We worked with our longtime partner Crate & Barrel to create the comfiest fireplace zone and update our dining area (more on that here!). Starting with the fireplace nook, we added these cushy Morocco chairs, a thick outdoor rug underfoot, an all-weather knitted pouf and this cute jute cushion for Jack and CC. The majority of our outdoor pillows and cushions are made with Sunbrella fabric, and we simply hose them off when there’s a food spill or when they start to get dusty from being outdoors.

We moved the wicker chairs to the heads of the table (our eventual plan all along!) and replaced the white chairs with these outdoor-friendly metal stacking chairs. The large umbrella we added has made it so much more enjoyable to dine al fresco, especially since this patio is hit with hot direct sun for most of the day. You can catch the easy tutorial for adding an umbrella to any table right here!

Our 4′ bench was already a coveted spot on the patio, but we’ve since added a slew of outdoor pillows for the back. Because the bench sits slightly off the wall of the garage, we added a little ledge made from a scrap 2×4 to prevent the pillows from falling, and it’s worked like a charm. These jute pillows with black piping are my favorite, but this crochet pillow is pretty adorable, too!

All of our plants have tripled in size since I took these photo a few weeks ago, and despite hiding out in the garden apartment 24/7, we do find time to sit back and relax on the back patio. Besides, s’mores taste the best when they’re toasted in your own backyard!

Friends, if I forgot anything or left out anything you’d want to know, please ask away! We’re always happy to provide contractor recommendations for our Chicagoland peeps, so feel free to get in touch through our contact form on the menu bar. 

Source List:

Pavers: Lowe’s | DIY table | metal stacking chairs | wicker chairs | oval Morocco lounge chairs | pouf | thick outdoor rug | jute dog cushion | Sunbrella pillows | jute pillows w/ black piping | crochet pillowlarge white table umbrella | citronella oil lamps | Cobalt gooseneck light | Black farmhouse light | DIY Planters | Outdoor speakers | Sliding kitchen door | DIY Trellis | Staircase paint and stain: Extra White railings, Flagstone opaque stain by Sherwin Williams

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  • Rachel - June 8, 2017 - 7:30 AM

    How do you deal with your tenants inregard to back patio access… – we own a two family in Boston and live in one of the units as well And I’m FINding it difficult to navigate because I want to be nice to them but also don’t want them to try and take over our yard which I hope we can make half as nice as your back area.ReplyCancel

    • Kim - June 8, 2017 - 8:06 AM

      We’re still trying to figure that out ourselves, honestly. I think we’ll just ask them to let us know when/if they want to use it, and assuming they’re respectful, it shouldn’t be an issue. Those waters can get murky though, and we’re getting opinions from friends, too!ReplyCancel

  • Paige - June 8, 2017 - 7:36 AM

    The space turned out amazing! You guys did an awesome job!

    Paige
    http://thehappyflammily.comReplyCancel

  • Katy DeBardelaben - June 8, 2017 - 7:43 AM

    It’s perfection! So beautiful and well done. But my question is: where DO the dogs goootty? Just on the tiny sliver beside the house still?ReplyCancel

  • Katy DeBardelaben - June 8, 2017 - 7:44 AM

    Oops, hitpost before proofreading. That should read: where do the dogs go potty? :)ReplyCancel

    • Kim - June 8, 2017 - 8:07 AM

      We left the entire area underneath the stairs as gravel, so they go there. :) It’s bigger than it looks. Also, we still take them on long walks!ReplyCancel

  • Meg - June 8, 2017 - 8:49 AM

    Oh how I LOVE your setup in the back yard. I wish I could turn back time and make similar decisions with my Chicago lot. Unfortunately, the money for the large-ish deck is already spent and the pooch will never give up “her” lawn now. Seriously impressed with your vision and execution.ReplyCancel

  • Caroline - June 8, 2017 - 9:49 AM

    Im a little hesitant to ask but where you let your dogs use the bathroom?! I LOVE the patio but I am wondering how you do it with the pups!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - June 8, 2017 - 9:53 AM

      There’s an entire gravel area under the stairs, and they’re free to go as they please. We have a little doggy bag station on one of the supports of our staircase, where we can pick up any messes and toss them in a little trash can nearby!ReplyCancel

  • Ashley Wilson - June 8, 2017 - 1:34 PM

    It looks so cozy! Question- when you had your fireplace powder coated, did they come to you or did you have to transport your fireplace?
    What a pretty backyard. We only have a small deck so I’m a little jealous of how perfectly sized your backyard is!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - June 8, 2017 - 2:09 PM

      We went to them, which is a little out of the way (about a 45 min drive from home for us), but not bad and definitely worth it!ReplyCancel

  • Julie - June 8, 2017 - 3:05 PM

    So… Where do your dogs do their business now? On the gravel under the stairs? As someone living in California I see awesome benefits to a no-grass yard, but I also have a doggy who likes running and relieving himself on his schedule. Thanks!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - June 9, 2017 - 9:48 AM

      I should have been more clear in the post! Yup, the gravel area under the stairs is pretty spacious, and they go under there. We have this doggy bag dispenser that we hid behind one of the porch supports and a small trash can to pick up and toss their business.ReplyCancel

  • Nina - June 8, 2017 - 8:18 PM

    You two do exceptional work! Well done Kim & Scott. I cannot believe the transformation. Also, I love seeing the pups happily lounging around.
    1. Did you cover your outdoor furniture over the winter or store it? (If you covered it do you recommend your covers?) 2. Do you have anything protecting your deck from your grill? 3. What is that circular stone thing under the deck? (on the right side while facing the house)ReplyCancel

    • Kim - June 9, 2017 - 9:46 AM

      Thanks, Nina!

      1. We did cover things over the winter! We had a custom made cover for our freshly powder coated fireplace, and we used the recommended Crate & Barrel covers for the chairs/umbrella. We got a table cover on Amazon that’s fine (not the best), but it does the job.

      2. For deck protection, we don’t have anything – yet! Down the road, we really want to add some sort of awning over the french sliders for protection from weather (when we’re getting in and out of the house) and the grill. That, fingers crossed, might happen next year?

      3. That weird stone thing is an antiquated access to the sewer line under our home. It’s actually been pretty useful (although unsightly!), as we’ve had it reamed before to rid the pipes of old tree roots, which has been a huge help in rainstorms! We can’t stand that it sits up so high, but it’s one of those old house things that we’re just sort of dealing with. ;)ReplyCancel

  • Gayle Parrish - June 8, 2017 - 8:42 PM

    For more spring color in your planter beds, plant bulbs. I love species tulips (tough, pretty, and no big floppy foliage that takes forever to die off. Im also fond of miniature daffodils, but my absolute favorite bulb is Allium Schubertii. The seed heads are amazing and they last for months. You can even spray paint them. I like to buy from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (no affiliate, just a happy customer.)ReplyCancel

    • Kim - June 9, 2017 - 9:42 AM

      Spray paint?! I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that! Thanks for the tips, Gayle!ReplyCancel

  • Lori - June 9, 2017 - 9:35 AM

    I second Gayle’s comment! I was just up in WI and alliums were blooming everywhere, and they’re fantastic and add such an air of drama.

    I love how your backyard turned out,and I remain so jealous of your fireplace. I’ve been watching Craigslist for one for over a year, but no dice.ReplyCancel

  • Molly - June 10, 2017 - 7:53 AM

    Hey Kim! Where do your dogs use the restroom?(kidding) I do have a more serious and slightly unrelated question though: how do you handle/hide unsightly but quite necessary things around the home such as smoke detectors?ReplyCancel

    • Kim - June 12, 2017 - 10:48 AM

      Ha! Thanks for making us laugh!

      We tuck smoke detectors into corners, or where there might be a room division. Like in our studio, there’s a detector on one side of our exposed brick, and in our living/dining, there’s one juuust on the other side of the support beam that divides the two rooms!ReplyCancel

  • Ann - June 12, 2017 - 8:34 AM

    I’m interested in how your outdoor rug holds up- not in terms of durability so much as showing dirt, pollen, and other general nature mess. Any tips for picking on that will look good without a lot of maintenance?ReplyCancel

    • Kim - June 12, 2017 - 10:47 AM

      Because it’s such a neutral color, we haven’t had any issues with dirt or other elements ‘showing.’ That said, I have honesty to goodness taken my cordless vacuum cleaner outside and just vacuumed it! It’s VERY low maintenance, and rain washes most debris away.ReplyCancel

  • Tami - June 16, 2017 - 7:17 AM

    Loooove the transformation. If you don’t mind me asking… where did you get the candle holders seen on your patio dining table?ReplyCancel

  • Diana Lopes - June 19, 2017 - 5:25 PM

    What an amazing job you guys did there! I’m amazed, it’s looking beautiful!ReplyCancel

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