Installing a Fence: Time to Get Railed

A little over a week ago, we got started with setting fence posts. What’s the next step in building a fabulous barrier between your garden and the neighborhood stumbling drunkards? Fence rails!

I was running up against a bit of a timeline with these rails. As I work all day long, I can only devote some time in the evenings to the yard. But the rails were a priority because we were approaching a music festival that spans two weekends and brings hundreds, if not thousands, of drunk people to my neighborhood. Also, the weather’s only getting hotter from here.

After two trips to Lowes, I finally had enough 2x4s. You might remember the rough plan I drew off an Excel spreadsheet, but did you notice the numbers and letters between the purple fence posts?

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Those bad boys made cutting and installing the rails so much easier. I had two sets of A, two of B, and so on. Before I screwed them into place, I went around to all the fence posts and drew two lines – 1 inch from the top of the posts and 30 inches from the top – using my hand speed square. If you don’t have a speed square but want to do any kind of wood work, trundle on out to Lowes and get one. Speed squares are extremely handy for drawing straight lines, taking short (six inches or less) measurements, getting a rough idea of angles, and making sure two pieces of wood are meeting at a right angle.

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Or pop over to Amazon and have one sent to you.

For the first few years I lived in my house, I used a hand-me-down corded drill that had belonged to my granny. It was very basic but powerful and worked well as I fumbled through the basics of building. But a few Christmases ago, my dad gifted me a cordless Ryobi drill and circular saw and holy shebang, what a difference. On his excellent advice, I ordered a few spare batteries from eBay – it sucks to have your battery die in the middle of a project.

So I cut the 2x4s down with the circular saw, and while they were still on the ground, I pre-drilled holes with the cordless drill. I like to use star-drive exterior screws for just about everything because they don’t strip as easily as a Phillips head. Even though these are self-drilling, creating a hole first helps them immediately grip and head into the wood in the intended direction. Sometimes wood that’s a bit on the harder side will send a screw careening off in the wrong direction.

Once all the screws were partially drilled into the face of either end of the rails – two per side – installing them was as simple as awkwardly bracing them with my leg while matching the rails up with the lines I’d drawn on the posts. The easiest way I’ve found to set the rails involved drilling the screws in the following order:

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Also the maybe steps to a dance that was briefly popular in the mid-50s.

And voila! My yard looks like an experimental western project completed by a kindergartner.

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The rails were up for a few days before I started on the pickets. A neighbor came by and actually mentioned he thought I was trying to do a western theme. #awkyard

I normally alternate building posts with non-project posts, but the next one will be on pickets. Quite a bit of work has gone into something as silly as a thin board, a few inches wide and less than three feet tall. Those darn pickets deserve their own post, but I don’t want to drag out the fence part of this project too much longer.

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< Step 4:  Laying the Foundation for the Garden

 Step 6:  Installing a Fence: (not so) Perfect Pickets and the Women Who Love Them >

Make the World a Better Place Through Hard Work

What makes someone decided to dig up her lawn and plant a garden by herself?

Or another person sail across the Atlantic Ocean alone?

Or move across the country, away from friends and family, to attend school?

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My local library has a ton of audio books available to borrow through Libby. I’ve really enjoyed listening to books while working on Operation: Chaos into Beauty, and recently, I’ve been working my way through Malcolm Gladwell’s repertoire.

Although Gladwell’s anecdote-heavy style is not my favorite (I’d prefer principles introduced first then explored through anecdotes, rather than scattered or buried throughout), David and Goliath studies how and why underdogs win. A David cannot demand respect in the same way that a physically imposing, battle-hardened Goliath can. So what’s an underdog to do? The answer probably won’t surprise you:  play to your strengths (and against the weaknesses of your opponent), change the game/field, and use desperation as your fuel to worker harder than the norm. I’d like to focus on that last one, but rephrase it a bit into something more akin to seeking out challenges.

Years before listening to Gladwell’s books, I started reading Mr. Money Mustache, written by a guy who certainly isn’t afraid of a little DIY. In fact, he espouses hard work as necessary to ultimate happiness: “Every single second of hard work you perform in your life, will come back and benefit you many times over for the rest of your life – in often unexpected ways.”

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Shuttle crews taking the easy way out – slackers!

An underdog (or a David, to use Gladwell’s example) has two main choices:  accept that she is weaker and less capable than her opponent (give up ) or immediately start to plan how to face and surpass her opponent (fight). The former is easier and safer. And it can be the right choice sometimes.

A week, a month, or ten years from now, will this fight matter? Every now and then, the answer is “no.” Or rather, “not right now.” Sometimes you need more time to gather resources, to build your strength, to sharpen your skills. That’s okay, but it shouldn’t be the routine.

If I spend the evening watching The Office for the eighth time instead of doing my laundry, it feels good and easy in the moment. Later, though, I’m frustrated with myself for not using the time productively. I regret the evening spent spacing out in front of the TV. But if I flex a little self-discipline and do the laundry, I don’t regret missing the TV. I don’t even think about the TV. My mind is clearer. An obstacle is out of the way. I’m satisfied with my choice – and I have clean underpants to wear the next day!

All of us are underdogs, in some facet of life. Fiction is the only world where all-around topdogs live. I’ve never liked Superman very much because his vast skills and strength in everything from physical fights to morality make him boring. Acknowledging and challenging your weaknesses – now that’s the current of life!

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Last weekend, I was planting marigolds in the blazing Louisiana sun, knees and fingers deep in mulch, when an older neighbor passed by and asked me if I’d done the whole yard myself. He gestured to the fence, the paths, the mountains of mulch. I told him I had, and he smiled and nodded. “And you get so much more than a pretty yard for your effort,” he said. “What you’ve gained will be with you for life.”

Everyone else who passed my yard said something like, “That’s a lot of hard work” (accompanied by a little shake of the head) or “Why isn’t your husband doing this for you?” (cue my teeth grinding)

But that neighbor gets it.

When you force yourself to complete hard work, at the most basic level, you gain or sharpen the skills directly associated with the task. For my yard, this involved learning what to do and what not to do with a tiller. Hard work also forces you to become resourceful, which entails examining yourself and your surroundings and perhaps “changing the playing field.” Another way of saying this might be “thinking outside the box.”

I wanted to add a birdbath to my front yard, but all of the ones that I liked were upwards of $100-200 and not 100% suited to my needs. But I had some pre-existing knowledge:  birds like the pond in my backyard, which is in the ground and flowing. And what materials did I already have? Silicone caulk and leftover pea gravel. I bought a wide, shallow plastic planter, a solar-powered fountain, and some blue glass pebbles for pizazz, and I made a birdbath that far better suits my needs and aesthetics than anything I saw in stores. Total cost? About $60. Frankly, it would’ve been half that if I hadn’t used the glass stones, but ya know, pizazz.

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And it has a nice, wide edge for landings and takeoffs!

To top it all off, when someone says, “Ooh, that’s nifty,” I get a little spark of pride and achievement. Something I created received notice and acknowledgement. In some small or fleeting way, it has improved the world by inspiring or bringing an iota of pleasure to someone.

And while money is not a forefront topic on this blog, it is important. Financially, the hard path is often the cheaper one. In some instances it might be slightly more expensive in the short term if you end up wasting materials or decide to take a class. But the knowledge, skills, wisdom, and confidence that you’ve gained will take you much farther than clicking “buy” on a not-quite-right fiberglass pedestal birdbath.

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The Importance of Having an Adaptable Plan

I was working the fence one evening when a neighbor stopped by to introduce himself. (Side note:  Want to meet your neighbors? Drastically change your front yard.)

We talked about the yard and how I was doing the work myself, with a main goal in mind but making some other things up as I went along. I made it sound like I didn’t have a plan, which wasn’t entirely true. In the moment, though, I felt like I needed to make excuses for why the fence or wall blocks might not be perfectly straight, or the mulch looked half-finished.

The truth is, I absolutely, 100%, always make a plan before starting a project. And I research techniques and plans for weeks before putting any sort of plan on paper. But I also freely adjust that plan as I go along. I might learn an easier way to do something or realize that things aren’t going to look the way I envisioned.

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This is my front yard. The initial grid and solidly colored areas (the driveway in grays, sidewalk in more gray, the green block that represents my crepe myrtle tree, and the yellow block that shows where the front of my house juts out) were made in Excel. Each block represents one square foot. Although a 1:1 ratio can be unwieldy for larger spans of land, I have a much easier time envisioning the project without constantly trying to translate measurements in my head.

After printing out the base plan, I added the paths. That little blue square on the left side was going to be a bird bath, because one of my goals for this garden is to make it a friendly haven for the birds. Once everything started to take shape, however, I realized that placement wouldn’t work.

I try to keep wild birds out of the backyard, though, because they can carry and spread disease to the chickens and ducks.

In addition to the bird bath, the paths also changed a bit:

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It’s hard to see from this angle, but the right half of the yard has a path that basically follows the plans. The left half, however, has a simplified path. The primary reasons the path got trimmed are 1) I decided to install a dry creek bed and the fewer paths crossing over it, the better, and 2) there really wasn’t a need for another path branching off. The primary purpose of the paths are to keep feet away from the garden soil and avoid compressing fragile root systems.

Things that didn’t change – and were perhaps the most important plan – were measurements. Using the 1:1 ratio helped me get a pretty good idea of how much mulch I needed, how many 4x4s for fence posts, and so on. This was important because when I was in the planning stages, I was able to jump on sales and bulk buy my construction materials at a lower price. $0.30 off a block might not sound like that much, but when you’re buying 100 blocks, that’s $30.

For larger projects, longer-term planning and taking advantage of every little discount make a huge difference.

Now, not every plan is written down. I’ve been a little more loose with the flowers I intend to plant, but I did set some parameters from the beginning:

  • Choose flowers that attract bees, butterflies, and/or birds.
  • Work within a simple color palette of yellow, orange, and pink.
  • Aim for leaf and flower shapes that are reminiscent of a meadow, if possible.
  • Look for plants that are drought resistant and/or thrive in the climate.

Every time I’ve gone to Lowes to pick up materials, I’ve stopped by the clearance racks. There, I’ve picked up local favorite lantana, as well as standbys like marigolds and dahlias.

While it’s totally possible to work on projects with either no plan or a plan to which you strictly adhere, expect both options to cost more time and money. It’s also easier if you accept from the beginning that the dream garden (or bench or coop) you’ve envisioned based off of staged Pinterest photos will probably end up being a little messy. Angles might not be square. Mulch will get in your rocks. Wood will have knots. But one of the reasons I love DIY projects is precisely because of these imperfections. They are utterly charming.

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Laying the Foundation for the Garden

If you’re a logical person, you might think this post would be about the second step of installing a fence. Surprise! At this point in the process, I was getting antsy about smothering all the little seedlings and what was left of the grass after TillerMania 2018. Before I worked on anything else, I wanted to lay down some top quality smother.

For the removal of my lawn, I used a combination of two techniques:  digging it up (with the tiller), and smothering/composting.

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Who’s ready to get smothered?!

But wait! I realized, with smothering materials in hand, that I should proooobably lay out my paths first, since I’m planning on using mulch in the gardens and gravel along the paths. To separate the paths, I got about 160 feet of the cheapest edging, which is 4-inches tall and plastic. Unlike most of the easier-to-use edging out there, digging a trench is required.

Ugh. This project has had so much digging.

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*wipes hand across sweaty brow* One side of the path is done.

With the path laid out, I could finally get to smothering the lawn. I worked on one side of the yard first, then the other. Working alone on a big project like this, you really do have to divide it up into smaller portions to keep from getting totally overwhelmed.

Now, I know a lot of people use weed fabric under their gardens. I’ve never been a fan of weed fabric, though, because it’s expensive and blocks some bio-friendly processes. Earthworms may avoid the area, leading to compacted soil, and the fabric prevents mulch and other organic matter (i.e. dead leaves) from returning to the soil to decompose.

Astute readers may notice in my photos that I’ve used weed cloth in the non-plant areas – the dry creek bed and the paths. I needed something more durable in those places, and I wasn’t worried about having mulch decompose back into the soil since, ya know, those areas had rock.

One fact I had to accept when undertaking this project, though, is that I will be constantly battling grass and weeds, for at least the first year or several. In that regard, it didn’t really matter what I put down under the mulch, as long as it was thick enough to block sunlight.

Instead of weed fabric in the garden areas, I’ve experimented with layering thick brown contractor’s paper in my gardens (thanks, previous owners, for leaving a roll!). The trick is finding paper that’s thick enough to block the light and smother the weeds but will still break down within a few seasons.  Paper is also cheaper than weed cloth. This 3ft by 140ft roll is $11.98. A similar price ($12.98) nets you only 50 ft of weed cloth in the same width. If you’re doing a whole yard, the costs really starting to add up. I ended up using over 400 feet of paper to cover my yard, between overlapping edges and working with weird corners.

**Do not order “thick” kraft paper from places like Amazon. I did that and it was way too thin. Your paper should resemble the thickness of construction paper.”

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The process is super straight-forward:  roll out some paper, dump a few inches of mulch on the paper, repeat until your yard is covered. I buried the plastic edging 1-2 inches in the ground and piled up the mulch until it was level with the top.

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I used bricks to weigh down the paper while I ferried a bazillion bags of mulch to my front yard.

It’s been more than a week since I smothered the first half of my yard. So how well has this held up?

Ehhhhh.

Remember the italicized warning about thin kraft paper? That’s what I used on the first half of the yard. We had a day or two of heavy rain. I did a minor bit of tromping around the mulch. All too soon, the thin paper fell apart and little leaves of grass peeked through. At first, I thought it’d be manageable with selective grass killer (I hate using herbicides, but this seemed like the best option). But eventually, so much sprouted that I ended up raking back the mulch and replacing the paper with the thicker contractor’s paper.

But we should be good now.

I hope.

Up next, I’ll be installing the rails and pickets, all while a major music festival draws thousands of people to my neighborhood to gawk while I flail at lumber! Yahoo!

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< Step 3:  Installing a Fence: the First Step (also, tearing out bushes!)

Step 5:  Installing a Fence: Time to Get Railed >