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From Floodplain to Backyard Oasis

She loved her wooded yard—until it filled up like a lake with every downpour. Here's how one homeowner carved out a flowering paradise (and a swimming pool!) from the muck.

Right Neighborhood, Wrong Yard

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

I fell in love with the town of Hampton Bays, on the eastern end of New York's Long Island. And in November 1997, I purchased this 25-year-old ranch-style house on half an acre. It had some woods, and the property was nicely secluded. It was my first house, and I figured it was something I could handle.

I bought the property in the fall, and I was really looking forward to the coming summer, when I could start gardening in my new yard. Then the spring rains came. During the first downpour, which went on for hours, I watched in horror as the backyard filled up. I'd always wanted a pool, but this wasn't it. The flood was runoff from the road behind my property, which slopes down from there. I hadn't realized until then that, basically, my place sits in a bowl. And it became all too clear in the months that followed that the flood wasn't a one-time thing. Read on to see how I went from a half-acre floodplain to the beautiful yard shown here.

Before: Washed Out

I designed a brick patio overlooking the backyard and found a contractor, but he vanished with my deposit. Moral: Get good recommendations and check references before you hire. Since I like to work with my hands—I make costumes for theater and films for a living—I finished leveling the area myself and paid someone else to lay the bricks.

Then came that first flood. I went to the town, because legally the road runoff is their responsibility, but they weren't much help. I fought them, but there was a flood every year. Some were worse than others, but it was always a nightmare. After every hard rain, the backyard was swamped with standing water that reached the edge of the patio I'd just built.

Before: Figuring It All Out

More than four years after buying the place, I finally tackled the backyard. I decided I could spend my money on suing the town or spend the same amount fixing the problem myself. I found a wonderful excavator who figured out what was going on. He regraded, took down more than 40 trees, and hauled in 32 cubic yards of topsoil. With all the ground-up tree trimmings and the topsoil, we built three berms across the back of my property to stem the floods. There's an opening where the runoff flows in and a contour to my yard, so the water skirts the house and makes its way into a huge dry well. It's not a perfect solution; last July we had 13 inches of rain in two hours, and everyone flooded. But it's much, much better.

After: Getting to Work

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Between deluges, I got busy at home. There was no foundation planting at the rear of the house, just pea stones, so I planted mint, herbs, and lilacs. I reused the stones for various things, like making French drains for the downspouts. I love to garden, but I hadn't done it in years. I didn't have any kind of plan. It was strictly trial and error, though I unconsciously plant swaths of color. I started two beds in the front, but I still had chaos in the back.

I saved money by growing many plants from cuttings or seeds including the lacecap hydrangeas here, and sunflowers. Various annuals and perennials, including castor beans surround the pool as well. There are two large lacecap hydrangrea shrubs in front of the berms that run across the rear of the property. I've grown four hydrangea plants from the stems of the first plant.

Vegetable Gardening

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

In the months right after the excavation, I put in a rock garden and a vegetable bed in the back and a shade bed in the side yard. With the trees removed, there was now ample sun in the back to accommodate my veggie patches. Of course, I did make a few gardening mistakes and learned a lot along the way—I had so many cucumbers last year that even after giving away as many as I could, I pickled three dozen jars. One thing I did right was put in a sprinkler system when I had the yard regraded.

Expanding the Harvest

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

The original 8-by-10 vegetable garden has more than doubled in size over the years, and I've also added a 6-by-8 bed for greens. I built this pea ladder from 1x material and chicken wire.

Sprinkling in Artwork

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

I've really enjoyed sprinkling artwork and structures around the garden. There are several mosaics that I made, including the one on the top of a metal patio table that I found at the town dump.

Nothing Goes to Waste

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

I make compost all year, and since I don't use pesticides I mulch the vegetable beds with lawn clippings. I also maintain the garden with very little money. I start a lot of plants from seeds or cuttings, and I go to yard sales. I got a $200 leaf mulcher for $25, and I mulch autumn leaves to use in the gardens.

Nothing goes to waste. I even edged a bed with old wine bottles inserted neckdown, and I put water in the depressions of the bottle bottoms to attract butterflies. Here, I used leftover brick blocks to edge a bed next to the patio, and filled it with pink lilies, purple phlox, and back-eyed Susan.

Do Your Plant Homework

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Another one to file under lessons learned: Plants grow, especially vines. You need to know what spreads and reseeds, like the rose of Sharon shrubs that now come up everywhere. Chinese lanterns are so invasive that I pull out as many as I can and cut what's left, and I still have lots. I also learned I don't like to baby plants; if something doesn't survive the winter, that's it. Three fig trees didn't make it, so now I have fig trees in pots and wheel them inside when it turns cold. Shown here is a pink-and-white 'Nelly Moser' clematis vine that climbs the front yard's curved iron trellis, which also holds an old tin birdhouse.

It's All in the Details

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

I've really tackled the yard by degrees. I'd do the side yard, then the back, then work on a bed in the front. I thought I'd just have shade gardens, but once those 40 trees were gone, I got a ton of sun for more gardening. I also built pathways and garden structures. I've done most of the work myself or with friends. I look in books and magazines like This Old House and just figure it out. This is an 8-by-10 shed built from a kit and tucked in a corner near the compost pile.

Falling Into Place

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

I had a pool installed three years ago. I chose a kidney shape because I love the '50s. It's vinyl with a black liner, which keeps the water warm. I love that I don't have to deal with nasty chemicals. Instead, I have a generator that makes chlorine out of salt. The water is soft, so your skin doesn't dry out. And I built a flower bed by the pool, where I plant sunflowers in spring. By midsummer, they tower over the pool, and I can watch birds eating the seeds as I swim. How cool is that?

I've named my house Tesserae, which means shards of glass or tiles used to make a mosaic. This house, the plants, and everything else in my gardens are a mosaic, just like my life. When you love something, all the little pieces just fall into place. Shown here is the bluestone patio around my kidney-shaped pool, a sizable splurge. But, it provides a welcome place for relaxing in one of my mosaic-topped chairs in the cool of the evening.

Plant Ideas

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Clockwise, top left: 'Stargazer' Oriental Lilies flourish in the front yard; Scotch broom gives the side yard a hit of yellow; Showy pink weigelas grow alongside the garage; Burgundy climbing roses add a deep velvety color by the patio

What I Did

Illustration by Rodica Prato

Resculpted a half-acre lot on New York's Long Island to address flooding issues, put in a patio and swimming pool, and carved out 15 beds for flowers and vegetables.

Landscaping costs: $15,600 for the flood work, $4,000 for an irrigation system, and $20,000 for the pool.

Time frame: 12 years. Four years of hassles before I figured out what to do about the flooding, and two months for the regrading. It took less than a month to put in the pool. I built garden beds over 10 years.

Where I saved: I started plants and shrubs from cuttings that neighbors gave me, grew plants from seeds, and used lots of recycled material.

Where I splurged: The pool's extras: $12,000 bluestone surround, $4,900 heater, and $1,750 salt generator.

What I'd do differently: Plan a sunroom off the back of the house.

I yearn for that winter room.

Biggest challenge: Solving my drainage problems.

How I solved it: I talked to neighbors, engineers, people who work for the town. When I found Tom Langsdorf of Micro Machines Excavating, in Hampton Bays, it was clear he knew exactly what to do. He's a local who grew up working with his dad. He also gave me credit for knowing what was happening, and my solutions made sense to him.