Our Chicago Backyard – One Year Later

It has been one year since we finished our Chicago backyard makeover. It was a big project that cost us a lot of money (more on the budget here), but after living with it for a year, I would absolutely do it again. It has increased the square footage of our livable space because we can play, eat, and relax outside.

Sharing my thoughts about our Chicago backyard one year later

Someone recently asked me about our backyard design and if I would do anything differently back here. It got me thinking and I even sat down with Finn to get his thoughts too. Yes, there are many things we would do differently! But I feel like that’s the case with any big project. You have to go through it to learn and improve on your next project. This was our first outdoor project of this magnitude and our first time hiring a landscaping team, so we learned so much along the way. In fact, I shared a big blog post all about what we learned right when we finished this project last fall. You can read that here.

Today, I want to show you what the entire backyard looks like now – one year after finishing. But before we get to that, let’s backtrack so you can fully appreciate how far it has come.

Our Backyard Before

Backyard of our Finn Fixer Upper
Our garage before

The above photos are from May 2019, when we purchased our house. We were moving from a small condo, so the thought of having our own backyard all to ourselves felt magical! Yes, it wasn’t the prettiest space on the block but it was all ours! Not to mention, we even had another half lot of grass, which is a large amount of space for a city home! We lived with that space for two summers while we dreamed and schemed about all of the cool stuff we could do back there.

Our Chicago backyard one year later

Then, last summer we designed a new space, hired a contractor/landscaper, and spent the entire summer watching this space come to life. You can see the full reveal right here.

Our Backyard One Year Later

Our Chicago backyard one year later

Let’s tour the space now and see how everything looks. While nothing huge has changed, the landscaping has really grown in (well, some of it…) and the trees are so much bigger.

Our Backyard Makeover – What We Did Right

I figured I would share the good before the bad, so let’s review the things that I feel we got right!

The Layout

Our new deck in the backyard

Overall, I’d say that the new layout for the space really works well for our family. We opened up the deck so it has wide stairs with stadium seating. This has been amazing. We can easily get from the garage to the back door, and the stairs are fantastic with kids. Rory learned how to walk up stairs using these and Ellis is now crawling up them. It’s even a good spot to take pics of the kids sitting back here.

Our lounge area in our Chicago backyard space

Whenever I show our space on Instagram, I always get a question from a curious follower asking why we don’t swap the dining and lounge areas or move the outdoor TV near the couch.

The dining area in our backyard

For us, this current setup works well. We wanted the TV to be viewable from the house and deck instead of tucked away on the side of the garage. We also spend a lot more time at the dining room table than we do hanging out on the sectional.

Our cozy corner on the patio

If I do sit on the sectional, it’s usually to watch the kids playing in the grass, so this gives me a good view of them!

The grassy area in our backyard

Speaking of the grass, that’s another area I’m happy we kept. We really wanted to keep some green and a grassy place for the kids to play. Rory plays soccer over here and we put our water table in this spot on hot days. I’m so happy we didn’t do any additional landscaping over here.

The Pavers & Large Stone Steps

Our patio pavers in the backyard

We looked at a lot of different materials and options for the hardscaping in the backyard and landed on these pavers from Techo-bloc. The color is “Greyed Nickel” in the modular pattern. I absolutely love them! The color is perfection and the mix of sizes we chose works beautifully back here.

The stone steps in our backyard

I also like the natural-looking large stones our landscaper chose for the steps back here. We originally had gray ones, but we had him swap them out at the end of our project and I’m so happy we did. These look much more natural. Sorry, I don’t have exact information on these as that was something our landscaper handled.

The Hornbeams & Boxwoods

The hornbeams in our backyard

We will chat about the landscaping, as a whole, in the “what we did wrong” section, but there are a few pieces that we got right. First up, the three hornbeams that we added near the fence. Holy smokes, these look amazing this summer! Let me show you how much they’ve filled in…

Isn’t it crazy how much better they look after one year? These are supposed to grow taller and not too wide, so I’m hopeful they will continue to work in the space. We will have to trim them a bit, but I’m loving the privacy these give us in our Chicago backyard. Privacy like this is hard to come by in the city!

Boxwoods underneath the outdoor tv

I also really like the boxwoods we put underneath our outdoor TV along the garage. These were a last-minute addition and they turned out great! They’ve filled in a lot, so these, too, will need some trimming. But I love the color and shape that they add along that stretch of the garage.

The Lighting & Ambiance

Our backyard at night

Finally, I’m really proud of the ambiance we’ve added to the backyard through lighting. I just wrote an entire blog post all about this last week, so you can check it out. In short, we’ve incorporated a great mix of string lights, lanterns, uplighting, and torches to make it a beautiful space when the sun goes down.

Our Backyard Makeover – What We Did Wrong

Now, onto the lessons we’ve learned and the things we would do differently next time.

Rocks Near The Fence

When I shared the space, I didn’t share much about our experience with our contractor/landscaper. Let’s just say that by the end of the project, our relationship was very strained. It wasn’t a good match from the start and that’s absolutely something we would do differently!

We were never on the same page for the project. For example, we emphasized how we didn’t want to touch the side yard and how we just wanted to keep it grass. At some point, our landscaper discussed putting rocks along the fence (I believe to keep our neighbor’s weeds from getting into our grass?) and keeping the rest grass. We declined that idea, but he must have misheard us.

Rocks near the fence in the backyard

Then, one day we looked outside to see that they were digging up the area near the fence and adding rocks. At the time, we didn’t say anything (the grass was already all gone and work was almost finished!) and I wish we would have spoken up. Rocks are expensive and they added more to our bill. Plus, now the rocks get weeds and we don’t have as much grassy space for the kids. All in all, I would never do that again.

The Japanese Tree Lilacs

The Japanese tree lilacs in our backyard

Finn and I are very new to landscaping, especially choosing trees. I let Finn take the lead last year and he was very excited about choosing Japanese Tree Lilacs for our space. We ended up putting two in our backyard – one near the chaise and another by the back fence. These are supposed to grow up to 30 feet tall and they have fragrant white blooms in the summertime.

splitting on our japanese tree lilacs
Bark splitting on a Japanese Tree Lilac

Well, our trees are not doing well. As you can see from the above pictures, the trunks have lots of damage. I had no idea what to do about this, so I reached out to the Plant Clinic at the Morton Arboretum (our local arboretum) and they got back to me within 24 hours. Here’s what they said…

These are cankers, which are wounds in the bark either with or without disease, that has entered the tree. The original wound can be caused by anything that makes a nick in the bark, lawn equipment, a pruning cut, or even the rock mulch you have at the base. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot you can do about the wound. The tree needs to take care of that itself. Keep them watered during dry periods.

Our Japanese tree lilac trees

So perhaps the rocks created some damage to the bark? For now, we’ve been watering and seeing how things go. The trees appear to be dying more and more, but I’m hopeful they’ll turn around. If not, I would love to add a new tree near the chaise…maybe one that doesn’t grow straight up but spreads out a bit more for shade? If you have any suggestions, let me know!

Dying Coralbells

Coralbells in our landscaping

Our main goal with the landscaping was to add color to the space. You can read about each plant that we chose right here. That’s why we chose coralbells throughout the yard. They’re a deep purple and add some color and texture. However, they have not faired well in our yard. Again, I’m not a gardening expert, so I likely did something wrong. (Perhaps, not enough water?. ) We added eight throughout our yard and I had to rip three of them out completely because they were shriveled up and dead.

My dying coralbells

Of the five that are left, a couple are doing well and a few are just okay. Again, if you’re a garden enthusiast, I’d love your thoughts. Would you take them out and plant something new? Why are some thriving, and others, just two feet away, dying?

I’m also not in love with the Dwarf Bush Honeysuckles we added near our deck. Again, I wanted some color in this area to camouflage the deck. They grew so much in the past year, which is amazing, but they’re not my favorite look. I look at ours and just see a giant weed. I wish I would have planted hydrangea bushes here instead. We have a few in the front that I adore!

Our Paver Materials

The material in between our paver stones

I talked about this problem last year, but we’ve struggled with the material in between our pavers. First, our landscaper put down gray sand and it made a huge mess of our yard when it rained and kinda flushed out. Then, he put down a gray-colored gravel. This, too, got messy and washed out. Finally, he added a tan sand.

Adding material between our stone pavers

From the start, we wanted to use this polymeric sand but our landscaper talked us out of it. Apparently, the stone should settle for at least a season or two before adding a product like this, which makes sense. We’ve wanted to add the polymer all summer but we haven’t gotten around to it. I know I keep saying this is gonna happen, so I really need to get on it! I’m hopeful that that will solve this dilemma back here.

Forgetting to Weatherproof

My outdoor coffee table

This last one is definitely 100% on us. We didn’t store any of our outdoor furniture last winter. I had Ellis in September and by the time the first snow came around, I was still in a total newborn haze. The backyard was the last thing on my mind! We didn’t cover the outdoor dining table and we left the coffee table out too. Bad idea. The coffee table looks pretty terrible with a lot of the finish coming off on top. I doubt this would have happened if we stored it in the garage for the winter months.

I want to sand down the top to salvage it, but again, I’ve gotta get around to that DIY project! I put a blog post on my editorial calendar about weatherproofing the outside for the winter season, so that will hold me accountable to do things right this upcoming season!

Our Chicago Backyard – Sources

Our Chicago backyard review

Lanterns // Solar Lights // DIY Tabletop Fire Bowl // Tiki Torches // String Lights // Outdoor Smart Plug // Battery-Operated Candles // Garage Door Color, Benjamin Moore “Blue Note” // Pavers (color “Greyed Nickel”) // Composite Decking (color “Pecan”) // Black Contemporary Railings // Outdoor Dining Table & Chairs // Umbrella // Umbrella Base // Grill // Outdoor Sonos Speakers // Outdoor Sconces // Lounge Chairs // Side Table // Planters  // Outdoor TV // Chaise // Sectional // Coffee Table // Palm Print Pillows // Striped Pillows // My Favorite Hose // Storage Box

Final Thoughts About Our Chicago Backyard

Our backyard review

Overall, I absolutely adore our Chicago backyard. I love entertaining back here and it has worked so well for our family. (We just hosted my book club and a family dinner party!) Of course, there are things we would do differently, but as I said, that happens with any big project. For now, we’re going to continue to enjoy this space and utilize it as long as we can.

Catch Up On Our Backyard


The Year of Casey

Hey there!

I’m Casey Finn, the voice behind The DIY Playbook. I’m a Chicago gal teaching you how to design, DIY, and maintain your home…by yourself! Learn more about me right here.