Pavers by the Driveway: a Birthday Mini-Project

Today marks my 32nd year alive! That seems way too high; I could’ve sworn I was just celebrating my 25th birthday. The traditional present for a 32nd birthday is hard labor involving pavers, right? Well, that’s what I gave myself.

The weather in Louisiana has been jerking towards cooling off. By that, I mean that rather than a nice gentle slide into colder temperatures, we’re bouncing back and forth between highs of 90F and 75F. Overall, though, we’re coming down from the peak heat of summer. Hooray!

As the weather cools down, it’s much easier to spend prolonged periods of time outdoors. I love spending time outside, and I love changing things around the yard. So what better way to celebrate my birthday than to tackle a project that’s been in the back of my mind for months!

When I had my new driveway installed last spring, I decided the little strip running between the turfstone and the fence would make a cute garden. I mulched and sewed seeds and . . . weeds grew.

Truth be told, I didn’t try super hard to grow flowers in the strip garden. I usually park on that side in case I need to pull out my bicycle or garbage bin (on the other side of the driveway is a low garden wall). That means I normally get out of my car and walk on the strip – and I’d be tromping any flowers that did grow!

mulched strip beside driveway, before pavers
Mmm those lovely weeds and grasses.

The best solution for now would be setting some pavers.

I already had a good bit of sand leftover from over-buying when I installed my garden paths. Therefore, all I had to buy was about $50 worth of pea gravel and 12″ x 12″ pavers. Nothing sexy, unless you think neat, square corners are sexy (I do!).

Step 1 involved pulling all the weeds and roots that I could and transferring the mulch to a storage spot in my backyard. I can always use mulch; I just didn’t have any Emergency Mulch Needs at that moment.

weed cloth, gravel, sand, and pavers

With the mulch out of the way, I pulled up the weed cloth and shoveled the sand into my handy garden cart. The cart was a gift from my mom last year. It’s great for toting heavy bags, rocks, etc. around the yard, and if I line it with a tarp, it doubles as a wheelbarrow. The sides even fold down for easy dumping.

The next step involved laying the weed cloth back down and leveling out the significantly uneven parts of the strip with the pea gravel. Then I shoveled the sand back on top of the cloth and gravel and raked it even.

a set of pavers by the driveway

Bing, bang, boom! Pavers.

I spaced the pavers with a piece of 2×4. I actually ran of pavers out at the end. Those last four are scavenged from the chicken coop (which is why they blend in with the sand). The rest of the sand filled in the gaps. The above photo still looks a little messy, but I’m happy with the result. I’ll probably shore up the driveway side with some edging so the next big storm doesn’t wash away the sand.

This project took about two hours, maybe a little less. I tend not to watch the clock closely when I’m in the throes of a project. I tell you what, though. It sure feels good to finish a project that’s been on my mind for months.

Here’s to another year of projects, big and small!

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Fence Installation: the First Step (also, tearing out bushes!)

Last time in Operation: Chaos into Beauty, we ripped up the lawn. The next step is technically “flowers will be planted” and then, after that, “a fence will be erected.”

However, at this point, I realized the fence should at least start going up first, before I planted anything. Also, we’re going to take a segue, because I totally forgot to mention The Bushes previously.

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Seen here:  The Bushes.

The previous owner planted a low-growing gardenia on the outside corners of the house, with Indian hawthorn in between. How much Indian hawthorn? WAY MORE THAN I EVER IMAGINED.

I had to remove to bushes.

My original plan for the bushes involved gently digging them out and finding a new home for them. They’re good bushes – shiny green leaves, little berries that the bird enjoy. pretty white flowers – but I never liked the idea of having bushes right next to the house. First of all, it’s very common, and I want my house to stand out. Secondly, I’ve also heard that having dense vegetation next to your house invites pests to intrude and damage the structure.

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A charming home for all the neighborhood pests.

Several times during the Day of the Digging, I wet the ground under the bushes (it hadn’t rained in a week, so the ground was pretty dry and hard). The dirt was nice and soft, but holy bananagrams, these bushes were deeply rooted. I ended up using a large set of loppers to basically chop the bushes to the ground in order to dig them up. Fortunately, I chose to get rid of the bushes the night before garbage day, because they ended up just going out on the curb. Wasting perfectly good bushes pained me, but they were totally mangled by the time I cleared them out.

nobushes.jpg
I decided to keep the gardenia’s on either corner of the house, as they have less compact branches and a slightly funkier look than the traditionally round leaves of the Indian hawthorn.

Aaaaah, my house has breathing room now. And I really like the light brick skirt! I find it very charming.

So now onto the fence! Finally!

The overall plan for transforming my yard from grass into garden entailed several steps:  tilling, covering the tilled dirt with thick brown paper, and laying several inches of mulch on the top. Then, when I’m ready to plant, I’ll cut little Xs into the paper, place the seedlings inside, and put the paper and mulch back in place to minimize the chance of grass or weeds poking through.

I realized that if I planted before setting the fence posts, I’d be doing a lot of awkward rearranging of paper and mulch for the fence post holes. It made more sense to set the posts, then lay down the paper and mulch around them.

The fence will only be about three feet tall, but the home improvement stores don’t sell tiny posts. I ended up cutting eight-foot 4x4s in half with my circular saw (and yay! it was way easier than expected). As the posts were so short, I only dug about two feet into the ground. Then several inches of pea gravel went into the hole. Tamp down the the gravel and set the post inside to see how high it sits. To make sure my posts were even, I laid a 2×4, broad side flat, across the hole and measured from the 2×4 to the top of the post.

If I were a better blogger, this space would have a progress picture, but dangit, sometimes I just get so into the work that the rest of the world falls away.

Once the post was even (height-wise, as well as checking the sides with a level), I braced it with two narrow lengths of wood nailed to perpendicular sides. Then Quikrete Fast-Setting Concrete Mix went in until a few inches below the lip of the hole, to be followed by a gentle spray of hose water until the hole was filled. After ten minutes or so, the concrete started to set and the space between the concrete and the lip of the hole was filled with dirt.

setting a fence post
Eeeh, more or less like this, but much less neat. Source.

I spent the better part of a Sunday setting fence posts.

Fortunately, as they’re on the shorter side, they went pretty quickly. Unfortunately, I needed 15. I finished 10 that day and did the rest over the next day or two.

fence posts
Orange spray paint courtesy of the utilities company. Even though there was almost no way I was going to dig deep enough to hit a utility line, I still called 811.

I was extra fortunate to have some friends who volunteered to come over and help. They dug the trench that is slowly turning into a dry creek bed, to the left of the sidewalk in the above photo. My region gets some pretty heavy downpours during the summer, which overwhelm the soil under my porch’s rain chain. The dry creek bed will divert the extra water toward the street drain.

Around the time I set the last of the fence posts, exhaustion began to creep in. I was still doing my morning workouts (more on that in a future post), then working a full day before coming home to the front yard in the evenings. One of the downsides of being a singleton doing all her own work is just that – if I don’t do the work, it doesn’t get done! Especially on a large project, there’s only so much a human body can do each day, which is frustrating. Not only do I want to see the finished project, the weather will only get hotter over the next few months.

But for now, the days are sunny and warm and the nights are pleasantly cool . . .

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< Step 2:  How (Not to) Till Your Lawn

Step 4:  Laying the Foundation for the Garden >

Tiller Mania: How (Not to) Till Your Lawn

As a refresher, we’re in the midst of Operation: Chaos into Beauty, which consists of totally revamping the front of my teeny little city property. Last time, we watched my driveway turn from a narrow, broken strip of concrete and weeds into a spacious, organized set of turfstone pavers. The next step is, “The grass is getting ripped up and/or smothered,” so that’s where we are in this post. My lawn-annihilation tool of choice was the tiller.

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Get ready to go underground, you blades of nuisance.

There are a few different methods for getting rid of a lawn. I’m not keen on herbicide, not just because I have to be careful about what might get into my chickens’ and ducks’ systems (even though they stay in the backyard), but because I didn’t want to kill off the dichondra seedlings in my driveway or the new plants I’d be sowing in the garden. Smothering and decomposition would work, but I would’ve had to start that last fall. Finally, I’ve tried solarization (laying a clear sheet over grass and “cooking” it) in the past with no success. That method also requires several weeks, which I didn’t have. So that leaves . . .

TILLING!

A few days after the driveway demolition and installation, I took a Friday off of work (I was originally planning to work outside all of Saturday, but the forecast called for storms). I’d spent all week researching tillers on the local tool rental website and had found the perfect one.

My requirements:

  • The tiller needed to cut through tough sod and heavy clay soil.
  • I needed to be able to operate it by myself (I run and strength train, but I’m no body builder).
  • The tiller had to fit in the back of my Toyota RAV4 (and I had to be able to lift it in and out by myself).

And of course, when I rolled up to the tool rental counter, the employee informed me that my carefully researched choice – the Mantis XP – would not suit my needs at all. A key factor in selecting the Mantis XP was the claim of heavy-duty power in a lightweight (35-pound) model. Apparently that wasn’t quite true. She suggested the lightest of the heavier duty tillers, the Honda F220.

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Or as I like to call it, “The Tined Terror of Tremors.”

I enjoy trying new things and working outside, but the closest things to a tiller I’ve operated is a lawn mower. I was so anxious about using the tiller that, after picking it up, I decided to run errands for the next hour. When I finally returned to my house, the day was starting to get niiiice and hoooot.

Safety nerds, unite!

If an activity requires a helmet, you bet I’ll have one strapped on. So I dug my old composite-toed boots out of my closet and wore thick jeans, gloves, long sleeves, glasses, and a ball cap to keep the sun off my face. I fancied myself a real landscape pro.

The finally, finally, I wheeled the tiller onto my lawn and started it up. Very little happened. Guys, at 53 pounds, this thing was way too lightweight.

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I might as well have been smacking my lawn with this feather.

Most of my yard sits in direct subtropical sun, so the grass that has survived has grown in thick, tough mats. Combine that with hard clay soil (which I thoroughly wetted leading up to TillerMania), and you have a yard that reeeally doesn’t want to change.

Tiller Trial and Error

I started out by letting the tiller mostly propel itself forward, while I tugged back on the handles to provide some resistance. I figured I’d let the machine do most of the work. Well, in order to do any work, the tiller had to make about 20 passes over a patch of ground. Ugh.

Finally, I figured out that to really get the tiller to dig in, I had to either pull it backwards or dig in my heels and just let it sit in one spot until it chew up that sod. My front yard is, oh, a thousand or so square feet, and I spent about five hours tilling, only stopping for short water breaks. The funny thing is, while I was tilling, I didn’t feel tired at all. It was only when I took a break that I realized my arms hung by my sides like dead lengths of rope. And all that work led to this result:

tiller
Welp, that’s disappointing.

As you can see, I did not end up with the fluffy, luscious soil that the internet said I should have. But at least most of the grass is dead. This is not ideal, but it is workable. My plan already included laying down thick brown paper and several inches of mulch, which should take care of the surviving grass and anything that tries to sprout.

If I ever have to till another yard, I’m getting the next size up in tillers, even though it’s 70 pounds heavier. I will find a daggum way to get it into and out of my car.

Side note:  A few days after tilling, I learned that rotting grass stinks, particularly if you have huge clumps of it all over your yard. Before I realized the source of the smell, I was afraid I’d nicked an unreasonably shallow sewer line. The dead grass does not just pleasantly decompose into the soil to create rich nutrients. Sooo keep that in mind if you plan to annihilate your yard anytime soon.

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< Step 1:  Demolishing & Installing a Driveway

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

Demolishing & Installing a Driveway

Step, the First in Operation: Chaos into Beauty was, “The ugly driveway is disappearing.”

As a reminder, here’s the old, busted driveway:

Inkedhouse - old_LI
Broken concrete. Weeds. Barely wider than the sidewalk.

 

Not only was I seeking something that looked nicer, the driveway needed to be widened so I wasn’t driving and stepping into muddy ruts on either side. I also wanted to add an off-street parking area for guests.

Driveways: To DIY or Not to DIY

At the beginning of a project, if you’re me, you plan and scheme and really try to figure out if it’s at all possible to do it yourself. A driveway demolition and installation is slightly out of my skill and resource levels, particularly with squishy clay sediment that gobbles up good intentions and concrete. Reluctantly, I had to relinquish total control and (gasp) hire help.

People who grew up in this area have a friend of a brother-in-law who has an aunt married to a guy whose cousin owns a whatever business that person needs. When my house flooded, I reached out to my (now ex-) boyfriend’s sister-in-law’s father who connected me with his drywall guy. Although I’ve lived here for years, my network lacks a driveway guy. I took to the internet.

Let’s take a moment to talk about fate. I don’t wholeheartedly rely on it, yet I can’t help but notice when things work out a certain way. Fate’s like a tide; if it’s tugging me in a certain direction, I try to float along rather than fight.

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“Guys? Hello? I think the rudder’s broken.     . . . guys?”

And boy howdy, did fate strike this time.

One of the contractors I found through a Saturday morning internet search practically grew up in my house. His grandma owned it for more than 60 years. They planted the oak tree in my backyard when his aunt was born about 70 years ago. Before he even visited to build the estimate, he described the inside of my house perfectly (well, other than the furnishings). In the early 2000s, they sold the house to a couple who then, a few years later, sold it to me. To be clear:  the contractor and I had never met before. I had no idea about his history; I just thought his company had a pretty website.

To be honest, I didn’t really consider anyone after we realized his connection to the property. Most of the folks on my street have lived here for decades. Social bonds run deep in this city, and only a fool would do poor work when word can easily get back to Mama and Daddy. And the contractor was so flipping excited to work on Grandma’s old house!

On a sunny Tuesday morning, a work crew of more than a dozen red-shirted men descended on my front yard with excavators and wheelbarrows. The operation was magnitudes larger than I expected; trucks blocked the parking strip and a lane of traffic.

As the end of my workday drew near, I had trouble sitting still at my desk and took a little peek through my video doorbell:

Work on the driveway is underway
Creepin’ on the work crew. Isn’t technology amazing?

A little after 5pm, the contractor called me to come inspect the work before he dismissed the crew. He said my old driveway (which his grandma had hated too) was so broken and weedy near the street because the original contractors had skimped on concrete. But this new driveway, oh, she’s a beauty:

a turfstone driveway
Okay. So you know how someone’s all swollen and bruised after they get plastic surgery? Imagine the driveway a month from now, all cleaned up and fetching.

As a wannabe hippy and anti-bland crusader, I didn’t want the same old poured concrete that plagues neighborhoods across the country.

My new driveway is turfstone, a honeycombed set of pavers with holes for sediment and plants. Turfstone allows rain water to drain back into the ground instead of funneling it into the sewer system.

Many people grow grass in the pockets of turfstone. If you remember, though, one of Operation: Chaos into Beauty’s steps was, “the grass is getting ripped up and/or smothered.” Therefore, I decided to sow a few pounds of dichondra seeds due to the perennial’s low-growing nature (it should only get two inches tall), drought tolerance, and love of full sun.

I don’t have a picture of a lush, green driveway yet, but I’m happy to report that teeny tiny green sprouts have started to pop up. Although dichondra can handle some foot traffic, I’ll try to ease the vehicle impact by varying where I park (when I don’t have guests). A recent rainstorm also washed some of the river sand out of the pockets. The contractor offered to refill them, but instead, I think I’ll lay down peat moss to help retain moisture while the seedlings are trying to establish themselves.

Guys. Things are happening. The Operation is in full swing.

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< Step 0:  Operation: Chaos into Beauty

Step 2:  How (Not to) Till Your Lawn >

Chaos into Beauty: A Vital Operation

If you live in the average American neighborhood, chances are you have a front yard covered in grass. Perhaps you have chaos, and weeds rule. Me? I’ve decided to rip everything up and replace it with a massive, beautiful garden.

chaos and destruction lead to beauty and calm

One of the first major changes I made to my house was adding gardens in the backyard. Moving from an apartment to a house with plenty of green space was so freeing! I even bought a sledgehammer and demolished – bit by jagged bit – a concrete slab that served a long-gone shed to create more space. Recycled concrete rubble formed the sides of raised butterfly gardens. Lumber from the second-hand store and leftover chicken wire became a vegetable garden fence.

But this year, I’ve realized, I need more.

I’ve never been happy with my front lawn. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’m happy immediately after I mow and trim, and neat corners and crisp edges replace the jungle. But in subtropical south Louisiana, go in for a glass of lemonade and by the time you come back outside, the grass (who are we kidding, the weeds) is scraggly again.

My front yard is chaos.

Also, my driveway sucks. It’s broken. Huge cracks with woody stems and tiny green leaves creep over the concrete. And it’s only seven feet wide. What? Yes. Seven feet. Interestingly, the internet tells me the standard width for a single-car driveway is ten feet. That explains why the grass on either side of my driveway is usually a muddy rut.

Therefore,  I’m enacting a multi-stage plan for the entire front of my house. All of those problems going away

Inkedhouse - old_LI

The ugly driveway will disappear.

The grass will be ripped up and/or smothered.

Eventually, flowers will grow.

Then a fence will appear to keep the drunk fools and dogs from killing the flowers.

Finally, I’ll have a nice little area to sit where I can drink coffee on the weekends and wine on weeknights.

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Step 1:  Demolishing & Installing a Driveway >