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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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 >

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.

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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!) >