Update: The Birds

You guys, I know it’s more than halfway through June and I haven’t really peeped about my June project goals.

Eh, well, things have not gone quite as Snow White as I was hoping. Fresh off my trip to my parents’ houses, where each has created an avian paradise with feeders and a delightful variety of songbirds, I resolved to add some feeders to my front yard garden and create my own chirpy paradise.

My wise mother advised that the key to a variety of birds was a variety of food, so I added this sweet but sturdy shepherd’s hook and two feeders.

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Every few days, I stock one feeder with a songbird blend and the other with pure black oil sunflower seed. I haven’t yet decided what to put on the lowest hook yet, because the birds are like little piggies on the existing feeders. They fling food everywhere. That stuff that looks like grass in front of the bird bath? Sprouted birdseed. Lovely. Fortunately, it’s super easy to pull. I only fill the feeders once or twice a week, which forces the birds to dig around on the ground for scraps and (hopefully) minimize what’s left behind to sprout.

My mom’s significant other always sings the praises of suet. I always reckoned suet as a cold-weather food, but apparently you just have to make sure you get the no-melt kind in summer. I got a cheap little suet holder and hung it from a tiny shepherd’s hook below my crepe myrtle. Inside the branches of that tree, I also have a little nesting ball to encourage some birdies to take up residence in my yard.

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The blue circle is the suet feeder; the orange is the nesting ball.

Most recently, I’ve also added a little hummingbird feeder to my kitchen window. I’ve never successfully attracted hummingbirds, though apparently they’re prolific in my area. I’m also terrible at remember to switch out the nectar, which may be the problem.

So what has this bounty attracted to my yard?

Like 5,000 house sparrows.

For a while, I also has numerous crow visitors, but they seem to be taking a break.

Briefly, I thought I saw a chickadee or two. I love chickadees because they tend to look chubby and cheerful. A few grackles have also visited. I’ve also seen several brown birds with red heads. The internet suggests these are house finches, but elsewhere, it doesn’t look like those little guys are supposed to be in my region this time of year.

But I really wanted some variety – some robins and bluebirds and goldfinches. Some color.

Ask and ye shall receive.

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Pigeons.

Last weekend, the pigeons found my feeders. Oh boy, did they find them. They told all their pigeon friends and they had a pigeon party at Chez Robyn.

Ugh.

But maybe word will eventually get around to the other songbirds and I’ll see a bit more variety in breeds. I might eventually add a peanut feeder and see if that attracts anyone else. On the plus side, unlike my mom, I don’t have to battle a horde of squirrels. I really just have one stubborn little monster who digs up my bulbs. I think the armies of birds around my feeders intimidate the squirrel, as I haven’t really seen it go for the feeder. So yay for the small victories!

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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.

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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! >

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 >