A Total Yard Revamp: By the Numbers

Okay, folks. Here is the part I am usually most curious about: how much stuff did I buy for Operation: Chaos into Beauty?

Note:  I did not include the driveway demo/install here, because that was a unique requirement and didn’t have that much to do with turning a lawn into a garden.

The purpose of this post is to give those of you out there with a desire to take on a similar project some idea of the cost. As a reminder, here’s the plan of my yard:

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Each of those grid blocks is 1ft x 1ft, to give you an idea of scale. Now let’s get to those numbers!

10

From my first trip to the store to filling in my walkways, this project took 10 weeks to complete. Could it have been finished sooner? Of course. But I had evenings and weekends to work (and one of those weekends was spent on a mini-vacation).

162

This project took 162 retaining wall blocks (lined up along the left edge of my garden), about 40 more than I’d calculated. This is a prime example of project creep.

101

101 bags of mulch ended up going into the yard. Could I have used more? Yeah. This is another area where the number kept creeping up. Next time, I’ll rent a pickup and buy in bulk. Granted, this can be difficult to coordinate when you’re one person, working full-time. But we aren’t doing this because it’s easy, right?

15

I drive a RAV4, which has excellent cargo space for something so easy to drive and park. However, the size of my car means that I took 15 trips to Lowes for materials. Although I ordered some things online and shopped at a few other places, Lowes was my main source for piecemeal materials because they offer me a 10% veterans discount.

Now let’s talk money!

Y’all. I didn’t have a firm number when I planned this project, and it ended up costing me. I don’t have any serious regrets, but I spent more than I would’ve guessed.

(quiet sobbing into my empty purse)

But on a serious note, I could afford it. Don’t take on a project like this unless you have the cash. How much cash?

$2,080

Let’s break that number down:

  • $409.89 in plants (this also includes plant-related items like weed cloth; the tiller rental cost also went here)
  • $195.49 in mulch
  • $155.87 in irrigation (I splurged on automatic timers for my soaker hoses – these are an essential if you live in a hot climate)
  • $429.59 in what I called “hard materials,” which includes things like retaining wall blocks and plastic edging
  • $417.18 in fencing (including the stain)
  • $286.05 for the dry creekbed materials
  • $185.59 in decor (including things like the glider bench and birdbath)

There are definitely areas that could’ve been slimmed down. The dry creekbed was more or less a whim . . . that ended up costing major moolah. That was a planning (or lack thereof) fail. And if I’d bought my mulch in bulk, I could’ve saved money there. I was actually surprised to see my plants total because I was buying them on clearance and in seed form – except that I’d buy plants on almost every trip to the store.

All in all, I’m very happy with how the yard’s looking so far. If you plan to undertake a project like this, here are a few tips:

  • Take advantage of discounts and sales.
  • If you’re on a tight budget, start with a small scale and build up from there (so you can avoid an expense whim).
  • Work at a slow and steady pace so you don’t burn yourself out.
  • Be prepared for a ton of neighbors to come out of the woodwork and talk to you while you’re trying to shovel mulch/stain a fence/etc. It won’t matter if you look like garbage and have earbuds in your ears. They will force themselves in your way.

But the most important tip:

  • Do it. If this is something you really want to do, don’t wait.

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The Final Step: Walkways!

I’ve spent the last several weeks or so tromping around on paths that were black weed cloth held down by landscape staples. They were ugly, and neighbors kept asking if I was putting in a water feature (I don’t know why that was the though process, and not “hey, that’ll be a path!”).

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What took so goshdarn long to get my walkways filled in? Buying filler material, whether it be mulch or sand or gravel, is way cheaper in bulk. Wait – didn’t I buy my mulch by the bag? Yes, and it was a pain in the butt and took several trips back and forth from the store.

I decided to fill in my walkways with a layer of sand to help block the light and prevent weeds and then top them off with pea gravel. I would love to use crushed shells at some point (just for the aesthetics), but my go-to materials yard doesn’t have that at the moment. My immediate goal for the walkway is just to have something to help maintain the shape of the paths and be easier to traverse than cloth over slippery clay.

While I adore my RAV4, it’s not great for hauling bulk materials. Therefore, this process required some strategy. The guy at the materials yard suggested I visit U-Haul for a pickup truck. All in all, that was a great recommendation. The rental was easy, and it was way cheaper than paying $150 for two deliveries (the sand and gravel would require separate trucks). I’ll include a cost breakdown at the end of this post.

My main concern with renting a pickup was damaging the truck bed, so I laid a heavy-duty tarp across it before the first load.

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So. Much. Sand.

I bought one yard of pump sand – the cheapest stuff they had – because it was basically a filler. It took me about two hours to shovel all of that onto the paths. A yard ended up being more than I needed for the paths, so I topped off my turfstone driveway and piled the rest in place that will eventually become (another!) garden.

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The ground beneath the weed cloth isn’t particularly even, but I tried to rake the sand to a somewhat level surface. Since I’m not using pavers, though, I spent most of my energy on slingin’ sand instead of making it look perfect.

After a quick lunch break, I headed back to the materials yard for the pea gravel. Because I ended up with so much extra sand, I opted for half a yard of pea gravel. Was it enough? Of course it wasn’t. There’s a few feet of path that’ll have to get covered in bags. 3/4 yard would probably be the optimal amount. Oh well.

The gravel also took a few hours to spread; it’s heavier than sand and I was beat to a pulp by that point.

Have I mentioned yet that my front yard is in the full, blazing sun?

And that my house is located in southern Louisiana?

Let’s take a glimpsie at the weather station to see how the day felt:

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Oh, it was only 104F!

*cries in sweat*

But it’s (more or less) done! Eeeeeee! Much excite! (and you can see a bit of my bird-luring efforts in the left photo – more on that in a future post).

Now for the cost breakdown:

  • U-Haul pickup truck rental:  $65.71
    • Includes $19.95 base daily rate, $10 insurance (because I live in a place with terrible drivers and I’m not used to driving a large pickup truck), mileage rate, and gas.
    • Delivery, as stated earlier, would’ve cost $150.
  • One yard of sand:  $27.50
    • The same amount of sand bought in bags from a big box store would’ve cost about $190.
  • 1/2 yard of pea gravel:  $38.50
    • The same amount of pea gravel bought in bags from a big box store would’ve cost about $170.
  • Even though I already have the spare bags of pea gravel needed to cover those last few feet, I’ll throw those in here:  $15.20.
  • Total cost:  $146.91

I didn’t include the tarp because that’ll be used for future projects. I can always use a good tarp!

Now that I’m more or less done with the transformation, I’m working on a total cost breakdown of Operation: Chaos into Beauty. I might also write up a list of things I wish I would’ve done differently, though I’ve mentioned bits and pieces along the way.

If you’re taking up a project like this on your own, I have two important tips for ya:

  1. Plan hard (and budget deviations from the plan).
  2. Hydrate.

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< Step 7: The Painting of the Pickets

The Painting of the Pickets

Guys, I was away for way longer than expected. Last week, I made my annual trek back home to see me ma and pa, as well as my best friend and her adorable baby. Great visits took up every day, but like most vacations, it was way too short.

But on the plus side, my lil picket fence is stained and lookin’ pretty. I have to admit, the fence took way longer to stain than I expected. I’ve come to realize that I have a very poor grasp of how long projects will take. With the pickets, for example, I planned one night for sanding all the rough edges and one night for staining.

And the universe laughed so hard, it ripped its pants.

Sanding took all of half an hour. I was mainly focused on smoothing out the “hang nails” and any remaining jagged edges. Afterwards, the fence got a thorough hosing off to wash away all the dust and bird poops that had already started to accumulate. Then, onto the staining!

If you have a large outdoor paint or stain project, I would 100% recommend getting a little powered paint sprayer. They aren’t perfect, but they will save you time. I got this Graco years ago (out of stock – but you can probably find a better one) and it sat unused until I built my pergola in 2016. There was no way I could get all the nooks and crannies with a paint brush.

Similarly, Senorita Graco also came in handy while staining my fence.

graco
Unless you plan on staining your mulch too, you might want to use a drop cloth.

I’ve never used a solid stain before. To be honest, I didn’t even realize they existed until right before I bought one! But the pickets ended up being such uneven shades that I needed something relatively opaque. Paint has a reputation for peeling, chipping, and coming off in all sorts of ugly ways. Voila, the solid stain!

An important thing to note:  I wanted to have the fence stained within a week of installing the pickets. I’ve only ever built fences in south Louisiana, so other regions may vary. However, we have so much humidity and heat and so many insects that even pressure treated pickets will start to show weathering very quickly.

Much to the chagrin of my dad, I frequent Lowes because it’s nearby and I get a veterans discount. Fortunately, I wanted a basic white stain – I say “fortunately” because there weren’t a ton of options available in-store. The solid stains were all similarly priced, so I went with a gallon the fanciest:  Olympic ELITE. The white color is called “Avalanche.”

It’s supposed to have super-duper climate protection and durability, so we’ll see. Here’s a disclaimer, though:  I didn’t 100% follow the directions. You’re supposed to use 2-3 coats for the stain to really be truly opaque and off the full protection. After one coat, I was ready to be totally done. I think the fence has a cute vintage look to it, and if my fence falls apart sooner than expected, I’ll know to use two coats next time.

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I love eet.

The pickets had different absorption rates, which accounts for some variation in color. However, They’re all close enough that the pickets look like a finished set (rather than a project in-process).

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Freakin’ adorable, y’all.

Is my fence perfect and even? Heck no. But I really, really love it. I never thought of myself as a “white picket fence” kind of person, but I really do find it charming. Coming home to this sweet little fence and garden every day makes me very happy.

One part where I reeeally kinda messed up was setting a few of the fence posts on the right-hand side. You can’t tell from the above picture, but I set the first several and got nervous about property lines*. I figured I’d subtly and diagonally guide the fence line more into my property.

*My neighbors are super cool and have helped guide escapee ducks and chickens back into my yard. They probably wouldn’t have cared about too much fence, but I didn’t want to cause any problems in the future.

Hrm. Well. The fence line didn’t not exactly end up being subtle. I didn’t realize how unsubtle it looked until the rails and pickets were in place. I was not willing to rip everything apart and redo it. Therefore, I decided to get some vines.

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That little blue box is a free neighborhood mini-library – I love my street!

As my main flower colors are yellow, orange, and pink, I wanted a vine with yellow flowers, then one with orange, and finally, pink. The yellow and pink were super easy. Mandevilla grows great in my yard. It dies back a bit come winter, so the vine should grow lush without every totally taking over. I’m still on the hunt for a vine with orange flowers, though. The main contender seems to be honeysuckle and other creeping vines, which are notoriously invasive. I don’t want to introduce something that’ll require significant wrangling in years to come. Ideally, the vines will grow over the fence and balance out or obscure the, er, less even bits.

So does this mean we’re done with Operation: Chaos into Beauty??? Eh, mostly. I’m still slowly adding plants (guys, I know I’m trying to budget, but it’s thrilling to wandering through a nursery and actually “need” plants). The walkways also need to be finished with sand and gravel. But yeah, all the main structural stuff is done. Hooboy.

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

Step 8: The Final Step:  Walkways! >

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

When we last met, the fence rails went up and my neighbors started wondering why I was turning my yard into a pastoral, split-rail wonderland.

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Darn, this is rather charming. Maybe I should just rip out everything and move away from the city.

One of my concerns with this fence was building it so that my house didn’t feel closed off. I host a regular stream of guests through AirBnB, and my goal is to offer a welcoming house to strangers from the moment they step out of the car. Therefore, I planned my fence about three feet tall with plenty of space between pickets. The main reason I wanted a fence at all was to help the garden seem a bit more contained – actually, the real reason it’s there is to keep dog pee and drunk feet off the flowers.

Now, do you remember how valuable hard work is? Let’s talk tedium! Because my fence was only going to be about hip high, and I’m trying to avoid bankruptcy-via-projects, I figured the pickets should be on the narrow side. It’s totally fine to use six-inch-wide pickets on a short fence, but for my cottage aesthetic, I needed something narrower.

I’m sure you can buy pickets that are three inches wide and three feet tall. Lowes even sells panels that are pretty close to suiting my needs. However, for less than half the cost (and better quality, according to the reviews), I could build exactly what I wanted. It just involved a ton of sawdust all over my body.

I bought over 40 standard, six-foot-tall, six-inch-wide, pressure-treated pickets that were on sale for $1 each. Then, before I even set the first post, I started cutting them down. It took forever, but it was kind of mindless work. A little meditation with nothing but the endless shriek of the circular saw in my ears.

First, I cut each of the boards in half, into three-foot-tall sections. That was the easy part, and the work went quickly.

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Lined up like little drunken soldiers – and my trusty speed square is peeking at the bottom!

Then I sawed each board into two three-inch-wide halves. That work went extremely slowly. I don’t think my saw much cared for the curves in the cheap fence boards. I actually sawed these in batches as I worked on the fence over a week or so because this was the tedious part.

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We draw the line. Then we cut the line. We draw the line. Then we cut the line . . .

But I finally ended up with a set of narrow, short pickets. Yay! But wait! All of the tops are uneven! Once again, I am faced with a few choices as to how to shape the tops of the pickets. Gothic is very pretty but way to intricate for me to cut a hundred times. A simple point is easy, but remember how we’re trying to make my yard welcoming and not like the land leading up to Vlad Dracula’s castle?

I ended up going for the tried and true dogear cut, using a pre-cut piece as a stencil. Then bzzt! bzzt! Voila, dogear.

Sooooo I know most people put up fence boards with nails. But here’s the thing:  I hate nails and avoid using them whenever possible. If I even look at a hammer too closely, I get blisters on my hands. Therefore, these puppies got installed with one 1 1/4″ screw in the top and one in the bottom. I spaced them three inches apart – the same width as the pickets – for an airier look.

My routine for several evenings involved heading to my front yard with a stack of pickets, Sir Speed Square, a beer, and some music. As much of a pain as cutting a bazillion pickets was, installing them was the nice kind of tedious where you step back and are proud of what you’ve done.

Are my pickets perfect and parallel? Pfft no. But I have to say, I’m pretty happy with the result.

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“That is one fiiiiiine fence,” you might be saying to yourself as you lick your lips (okay, maybe not that far). But wait! We’re not done yet.

See, this project is happening in the land of termites and rot. It’s a beautiful place that’s full of life, but that comes along with tons of bugs and micro-organisms. That poor little fence won’t last long without a stain or paint or a little raincoat covering it.

But covering the fence has been it’s own ordeal, so we’ll save it for next time!

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

Step 7:  The Painting of the Pickets >

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?

plan

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 >