Back Yard Habitat Restoration

When we bought our house here in Marblehead three years ago it was literally the only house in the town that we could afford—it was also aesthetically unique and we loved it at first sight.




The woman from whom we purchased the house was a flipper, and as such there were things left undone, incomplete, and in some cases half-assed.  This also made the house affordable for us, and thankfully I have enough knowledge of carpentry, plumbing, masonry and the like that I have yet to have to hire a contractor as we slowly get the house to where we really want it.  It has been without a doubt a labor of love.  Along the way, my daughter Elsie has picked up some good skills that will make her self-reliant when eventually she purchases her own home.

One of the major undertaking over the past three years was the landscaping of the “back yard” with the goal of certifying it as a backyard habitat (Elsie’s idea).  I put “back yard” in quotes because the small bit of land behind our house is not really a yard per se; it is an exposed outcropping of the Salem gabbro-diorite formation that underlies much of the North Shore..   This is what gabbro-diorite looks like (with a lovely syenite dike). (Photo from


By Marblehead standards, our home is pretty young having been build in 1938.  By contrast, the Abrose Gale house down in Old Town was built in 1663, while the town itself was founded in 1629.  The rock formation it all sits on is over 300 million years old (a bit of geological background  The outcropping rises about 25 feet starting 5 feet or so from the back door.  Therefore, a major part of the backyard habitat restoration was making the area accessible and plantable.  this meant building steps and retaining walls. Unfortunately, I don’t have many photos of what the “back yard” looked like when we first bought the house.  Here is one that may give you some idea of what was going on:



The slope from the lower retaining walls up to the top was really just a jumble of rocks that with several yards of wood chips dumped on top.  The seller had added a few plants here and there.  The area is pretty steep and was not terrible accessible.

Step 1: Building steps to the top of the hill

In the middle of the slope was a “V” shaped cut in the rock that contained a alrge tree stump–it seemed like a natural spot to build steps.  I removed the stump and  excavated down to gabbro-diorite ledge, drilled some holes with a rotary hammer and drove in (along with some anchoring epoxy) 1/2″ rebar to tie the steps to the rock.  I then framed the steps in 6×6 PT lumber laced the interior with more ½” rebar.  The concrete had to be carried back behind the house and up the slope in 80 pound bags—all told it came to about 3 tons of concrete.  This project lasted two summers (delayed in no small part by surgery I had to repair a torn labrum in my right shoulder).  Once the final bit of concrete was poured a few retaining walls were built and/or repaired.  My wife Hilary and daughter Elsie got in on the act collecting rocks and mixing mortar.  Now it looks like this:


We are now ready to add plants back.  We are also launching a program to get the invasive plants under control (mostly multiflora rose, common periwinkle (Vinca minor) and Norway maples) and also remove several tree stumps that continuously send out suckers.  This is an ongoing process that I will discuss later.  There are still some Norway maples to come out which I will get to as I purchase native trees to replace them. The periwinkle is going to be a major chore.  Part of certifying our habitat is controlling plant species that crowd out native species–it will no doubt be a multi year process.

Elsie and Hilary have both been driving forces in the effort.  Hilary and I met back in the early 2000s while working together at the Delaware Center for Horticulture—I was the community garden manager while Hilary was an AmeriCorps volunteer with the education program.  We are both plant people.  Elsie is a lover of all things wild, winged, furry, or feathered.  She has been the one insisting that we make our yard a habitat to attract lots of wildlife and that it also serve as a refuge for pollinators.  Anything I use (like fertilizer) has to be safe “in case a bee or a butterfly drinks it.”  Elsie is the one who routinely surveys the property to makes sure we have everything in place that wildlife need: food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young.  She is the one who went through the National Wildlife Foundation checklist to make sure we met the standards for certification.  So in addition to plants that provide seed, nectar (and that stabilize some of the steeper slopes) we have added feeders, bird baths, and nesting boxes.  Because of the shallow soils (that also are thin on organic material) we tend towards native plants that are drought tolerant: butterfly bush, cone flowers, sedum, monarda, Lupine, black eyed susan, daisys, and ornamental grasses.  For winter interest (and erosion control) we have massed together red and yellow twig dogwoods. More to follow as we make our way through our first serious planting year.IMG_1307


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