Amanda ComminsMy backyard challenge – bitumen and bore

In mid-2008 my husband Mark and I bought our first home together in Perth. It is a small house on a 617 square metre block. I was a new gardener and the garden has presented some challenges. I thought that others might be interested in the challenges and the solutions that we have tried.

The front yard was adorned with a large frangipani and roses – pretty standard. The roses have gone (to a good home, not the tip) and some changes are afoot. However the real story involves the backyard.

My backyard challenge - a sea of bitumen with roadbase underneath

My backyard challenge – a sea of bitumen with roadbase underneath

The Backyard Challenge
The backyard was another story altogether – a sea of bitumen, and not just bitumen but bitumen with a good thick layer of road base underneath the bitumen. I exaggerate of course – there were also seaside daisies, a camellia, a NZ Christmas Bush, some rosemary and a large but sad looking jacaranda tree – but at least 90% of the available backyard space was bitumen.

Not being seasoned gardeners we didn’t really appreciate all the challenges the backyard represented. Had we known more we might have baulked at the work involved in turning the bitumen moonscape into a garden – but ignorance and enthusiasm are wonderful things. On the upside we didn’t have much of a problem with weeds, and we did have a bore. On the downside there were many, many factors. Our backyard is west facing so along with a total lack of any visual appeal, it was extra hot, hot, hot during Perth’s long and very hot summers. In winter the garage was in danger of flooding during rain. And when planting involves hacking through bitumen and road base, you have to be feeling very committed.

Straw bale garden beds

Straw bale garden beds

Where to start?

So far as our ongoing garden conversion is concerned, not much happened for the first 2 years. In early 2010 I did a 6 week evening course in garden design / landscaping. I really enjoyed the course, presented by a local landscape designer, but I was still a bit lost as to how to tackle the backyard, where and how to start. It was such a big task and I couldn’t seem to get started.

Chook shed tries to ringbark the jacaranda

Chook shed tries to ringbark the jacaranda

I mentioned this on the final evening of the course and the presenter suggested using straw bales to build some walls and define areas of the garden. This was the direction we needed and at least part of Easter 2010 was spent tracking down straw bales and deciding (arguing about) where they should go.

We used pea straw bales from City Farmers to construct a garden wall around a pre-existing bed with the bales sitting on the bitumen. This allowed us to maximise the garden area and followed the line of the reticulation. We found that the bales were sturdy enough and did not need to be anchored down. They were also a great height for impromptu seating. For us the straw bales worked a treat and allowed us to get started. The approximate cost per bale was $17 with approximate dimensions of 900m long x 450m wide x 350m high. We still buy bales from time to time. The dog adopts them to sit on and chew bones, they make a wonderful addition to the garden as they break down and the earthworms love them.

New natural limestone raised garden beds

New natural limestone raised garden beds

Since then the straw bales have given way to natural limestone walls, most of the bitumen has been removed and a lot of planting has taken place. An old derelict chook shed in the back corner has been removed – just in time as the roof was in danger of ring-barking the jacaranda, and the fences have been painted. Given that we have a bore and the associated stains that can result from bore water, my criteria for a fence colour was something dark to hide the stains. We chose a colour called Loft – a colour from the Colorbond roofing selection. It has proven to work well to hide bore stains and is a great background colour for the plants.

It is still very much a work in progress but we feel we are winning.  If nothing else, the garden is now a much more pleasant place to sit.  The photos below show the garden as it is today.

Back garden with 'Phases of the Moon' sculpture

Back garden with ‘Phases of the Moon’ sculpture

The blue circle ‘phases of the moon’ sculpture in the picture is the top of the bore. We had the top cut off the bore and I must admit that I expected to come home to find that it had been broken up and removed. Instead it had been moved, whole and heavy, underneath the jacaranda. As I possessed neither the strength nor the inclination to break it up and remove it, it has been painted and is now part of the garden!

In late 2011 the adjoining house to the south of us was demolished and the block cleared to make way for a new house. Out went a number of large trees (a eucalypt, 2 casuarinas and a tamarisk) as well as a variety of established plants. Whilst it was sad to see the trees and other plants go, it has allowed our jacaranda, the crown of which was being crowded out, to flourish. It is now sending out new shoots to the south which is great.
As mentioned earlier, the garden is west facing. Whilst the jacaranda does provide a degree of summer shade, we also installed two pergolas to the rear of the house to reduce the summer heat. After exploring various options for a permanent pergola we decided on a Bunnings solution as a short-term (2-5 year option) and this has worked well. As the fabric tops can be removed in winter, we can allow winter sun in without the need to swelter in summer.

The garden today with linkstone cobbled path

The garden today with linkstone cobbled path

We have used stone pavers and linkstone paving to create pathways. I am a big fan of the linkstone paving. It is very easy to lay and as the underlying ground does not need to be dead flat it was wonderful for our purposes. It is not easy to get road base dead flat and the linkstone paving was very forgiving. Ours came from Soils Aint Soils but sadly I believe it is no longer available. The large stone pavers came from Eco Outdoors and just add another interesting shape to the garden.

It has been both a challenge and a joy developing this garden. I hope that you have found this background story of interest and look forward to sharing further challenges, successes and developments with you.

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Amanda Commins

About Amanda Commins

Amanda has no formal qualifications in gardening and has not authored any gardening books. However what she lacks in formal qualifications she makes up for in enthusiasm. Her interest in gardening developed during her 30s and has become a bit of an overwhelming passion. Amanda lives in Perth and is particularly interested in native and waterwise plants.

18 thoughts on “My backyard challenge – bitumen and bore

  1. You’ve done a really fine job Amanda. Isn’t it great how gardening is a learning experience! Glad that the jacaranda is getting another go. Can you tell me more about linkstone paving?

    • Hi Anne and thanks for your comments.

      The cobblestone pavers are made from a concrete and limestone aggregate mix linked together with nylon cord. They come in sheets approximately 1.2m x 0.4m in size. In my experience they were very easy to lay as they could be installed over uneven ground. The cord could be cut to make smaller sheets and the sheets could be curved and manipulated to fit. They come in 3 colours – limestone, terracotta and charcoal (I used charcoal) and in 3 styles – straights, fans and circles.

      The link to the paving website is The business (based in Western Australia) is up for sale and they are running down existing stock. Hopefully the business will continue on and these products will continue to be available.

  2. Great job on the garden in such a difficult space. This was such an interesting article – thanks for posting it! I will use your ideas for inspiration, as a beginner gardener and wannabe home landscaper myself. I would like to know how you broke up your bitumen, as I have a vast expanse of it to get rid of myself.

    • Hi. We did consider having someone come in and remove all the bitumen in one go. We decided against that on the basis that we would then have a large dusty mess that might quite possibly be worse than the bitumen. In the end we decided to do it ourselves in smaller more manageable chunks.

      Once we decided on the area to be removed, we cut through the surface of the bitumen using a hired concrete saw and then lifted the bitumen. On smaller areas we just used a mattock (pick axe) to lift the bitumen but when it came to the larger areas we did hire a Dingo mini digger – great fun once you get the hang of it (but I did almost put the bucket through the side of the house on one occasion). Once we lifted the bitumen it would generally break at the cut although sometimes additional force was necessary. We then hired a mini skip to get the bitumen off site.

      We never priced getting someone in to do the job so I’m not sure whether our way was cheaper or more expensive – but it was quite satisfying and more convenient for us.

      Two other points are relevant – because it only rains in Perth in winter we tried to remove the bitumen in autumn/early winter as we found that the rain would wash the finer parts of the underlying roadbase in and we would be left with the bigger chunks of blue metal on top. This meant less dust come summer. The other point is that the Dingo came with 2 attachments – a bucket and a ripper. Once the bitumen was up we used the ripper to rip through the heavily compacted road base (watch out for pipes etc) to help the water penetrate.

      Thanks for your lovely comments and enjoy your landscaping.

  3. Great job Amanda. It’s true what you say about getting started. It takes just the first step to get the biggest ball rolling. You have created a wonderful space and love what you have done with the bore top – colour and statement And success breeds success., Now there will be no stopping you and the results bring such joy. I have a large area of ugly cracked concrete I want to do something with, but removal is expensive and camouflage with paving paint short-lived. I will blog about it and maybe you’ll have some ideas.

    • Thanks for your great feedback Julie. Will await your blog with interest and see if inspiration strikes. I loved your blog about ‘That’s what gardeners do’. Whilst gardening alone is enjoyable it is fun to be able to share ideas, problems and plants.

  4. When I started reading your story I thought this is too much of a challenge! Amazing what you have done. The straw bales are a great idea – good too to edge compost “bins” because you can break them up when they get really manky and use them as mulch. You must be very happy with the result of your work.


    • Thanks Peta. I have really enjoyed watching it develop. It’s great to see something growing where once there was just bitumen, and to see the garden attract birds and lizards. Haven’t managed to get a resident frog yet – but we’re working on it.

  5. I enjoyed reading about your garden transformation and think it looks
    wonderful.Hope to hear more about your gardening experiences.I’ve
    been gardening for 50 or more years and still learning.

  6. Hi Amanda,
    It’s inspirational to see how much your garden has evolved since buying the property – it’s lovely and looks completely different now.

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  8. I was very happy to see this article again. I have often thought of your blue sculpture, but it’s also great to be reminded of the beautiful results you created throughout the garden. Your work helped to inspire the transformation of our drab grass/dust front yard, that was complete with a garden bed choked with fish ferns, and another with just a few scrawny roses and weeds. We now have an oasis with a clever covered privacy screen with deck, a funky grass mound topped with a dogwood, three lush “loosely cottagey” garden beds, and some clever paving done by my husband. All in all so satisfying, and articles like yours have helped us along the way. Thank you! Now we’re up for for the harder bit – propping up the old house that’s on a lean!

  9. What an amazing transformation. Well done. We’re in Qld and I’m interested in the” Bunnings solution” for summer shade. We’d love to put more shade along the western side of out place but the cash and expertise required as a DIY are sadly lacking. Your garden especially in such a hot summer climate is inspirational.

    • Thanks Sue and sorry for the delay in my reply. I have had a look at the Bunnings website and it doesn’t appear that Bunnings still stocks the pergolas we used. The Mimosa 3m Dubai Semi Permanent Natural Gazebo ($299) appears to be the closest available option. We attached the legs of our pergolas (we used 2 side by side) to limestone blocks, which gave the pergolas a bit of extra height and anchored them to the ground a bit more solidly (this was done with the help of a useful friend with more DIY skills than we possessed at the time). From memory, they used dynabolts to secure the pergolas to the limestone. The other issue was getting the levels of the limestone blocks the same. I hope this helps.

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