Let’s Talk About Raccoons

Every now and then, photos of videos of raccoons will appear on my Facebook Newsfeed, talking about how cute or impressive the little buggers are. I have to admit, I used to agree. Raccoons can be little chubby balls of fur with masks and human-like grabby paws.

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Do you also like to rip feathers out of panicking chickens?

But ever since I got my first pair of chickens back in 2013? Ugh. Rarely have I felt such malevolence toward another living thing.

Recently, Toronto spent millions of dollars on “raccoon-resistant” trash bins, only to have some “uber-smart” raccoons still break into the garbage like it ain’t no thang. I wasn’t surprised. While memes might paint raccoons as chubby, lazy little critters, anyone who’s experienced them as a pest will tell you the opposite is true (okay, they’re probably still chubby, but they sure as heck aren’t lazy).

And they’re everywhere.

I live in the middle of a residential area, where lots are about 60 feet wide. Although houses are raised (thanks, sea-level elevation and flood potential!), the openings are fenced or bricked up. And yet, there are hoards of raccoons that are able to find someplace to sleep during the day so they can wreak havoc at night.

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Sneaky, sneaky.

Some of those masked grabby-bears are ballsy!

One night, my chickens started making concerned coos. I went outside with my hefty Maglite to scare off what I assumed was a single raccoon, or maybe a pair. When I round the corner, four pairs of eyes gleamed back at me from on and around the coop. There was a rustle overhead, and I shined the flashlight into the branches of the oak tree to find several more raccoons staring down at me. In total, there were more than half a dozen.

I inched closer to the raccoon gang, made noise, and threw sticks. None of them moved. Whenever animals don’t behave as expected, rabies is a concern. However, I’m more of the opinion that this particular gang was used to people and empowered by their numbers. Whatever the reason, I decided to put faith in the strength of my coop and go back inside. Fortunately, they eventually left without breaking in.

Other memorable raccoon run-ins include:

  • A raccoon chasing one of my hens and pinning her down. I caught them in time and she was able to get free, minus a few feathers.
  • A raccoon sneaking into my coop every afternoon for weeks to steal eggs and feed. It was pretty skinny and probably only out during the day due to desperation for food. I borrowed a trap and relocated the bugger.
  • A raccoon breaking the door of my nest box to try and grab my hen, who spent all night and day in the box due to a strong broody spell. She got away, and on the positive side, the attack broke her broody spell. Even though it was after midnight, I immediately repaired the nest box because…

Raccoons will always return.

Unless you physically relocate the animal beyond its reasonable travel distance, or you make whatever “treat” completely inaccessible, raccoons will keep coming back. They are persistent, surprisingly clever, and occasionally malicious.

A friend recommended I get an airsoft gun and pop the critters. I’m preeeetty sure that’s not legal within city limits, but even if it is, I have terrible aim and would probably hit a hen…or a neighbor!

Therefore, for current and would-be chicken owners, I have one major piece of advice:

Build a fortress.

When installing your coop and run:

  1. Cover all “open” sides and the roof and any windows in galvanized hardware cloth. Secure the hardware cloth onto your frame with exterior screws and washers (the hardware cloth holes are too big for the screw heads, so the washers hold everything in place).
  2. Bury hardware cloth or heavy pavers all around the perimeter of your coop and run, extending out at least a foot. This will prevent digging (and raccoons will dig).
  3. Invest in a treadle feeder that “hides” the food in a closed container when the birds aren’t actively eating.
  4. Place your nest boxes inside the coop and off the ground. If you include an “easy access” door that let’s you collect eggs from the outside, make sure it’s secure enough that raccoons won’t treat it as an easy-access door too.
  5. Secure doors with screw links/carabiners or actual locks. Raccoons can squeeze and work out rods, so simple carabiners or slides won’t keep things secure.
  6. If you feed your birds table scraps, don’t leave them out overnight.
  7. If your birds free-range during the day, put them up half an hour before the sun fully sets. I’ve caught raccoons prowling around my yard well before twilight.
  8. Realize that despite your best efforts, you might still lose a bird. Following all of the steps above should minimize your risk, but anything that lives outside may become a predator’s meal. Losing a bird sucks, but it’s not the end of the world.

Remember that you can always rebuild. I learned about 40% of what I know about coops and predators from research and 60% from failures and near-misses. The important thing is that you pay attention, learn from what went wrong, and immediately take action to remedy the misstep.

Although I prefer prevention as a way to eliminate painful situations before they arise, it’s not like I can eliminate raccoons from my neighborhood. Sometimes, all you can do is make yourself a more troublesome than everyone around you.

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The Evolution of a Pond

I’m rarely satisfied.

This trait is both beautiful and terrible. It pushes me to achieve more than I ever thought possible, and yet I almost never feel truly finished with anything – projects, writing, etc. I know that I can always improve.

In Season 1, Episode 7 of “Revisionist History,” Malcolm Gladwell describes two types of artists. Picassos seem to create pieces quickly (but often meditate on the piece long beforehand). Cézannes remake the same song, object, etc. over and over until reaching a “final” product.

Although I think and plan, I am a Cézanne.

I’ve previously traced my chicken coop designs over the six years I’ve lived in my human coop. But long before I ever decided to get chickens, I started thinking about ponds. I’ve always loved the water – gentle splashing, smooth reflections of light. The moment I started looking at houses to buy, in the back of my mind, I was also planning my first pond.

Before I dug into the ground the first time, I had a few goals for my water feature:

  • a small waterfall
  • fish
  • to be able to hear the water through open living room windows.
  • within reach of an outlet (for the waterfall)

The most obvious location was right outside my side door. There’s a covered exterior outlet, and the side door leads straight into my living room. Perfect!

I started digging and pretty quickly ran into a thick PVC pipe. Okay, so my pond would be two levels: the end with the PVC pipe would be about six inches shallower than the far end. I figured it actually worked out pretty well for water circulation because the deeper end held the pump and filter box, and a hose ran the water from the box to the waterfall at the shallow end.

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This first pond was basically a hole with a sheet of pond liner on the clay (what passes for dirt here), some river pebbles along the bottom, and pavers around the rim. I built the “waterfall” out of stones and old concrete chunks I found around the yard.

What that picture doesn’t show is the leaves that constantly rained onto the water from an oak tree overhead. The tree provided nice shade that kept algae at bay, but it made cleaning the pond a constant struggle. Those little rectangular pavers were also inching into the water too.

That said, the pond was cute and met my initial needs. It was enough low enough that the chickens stopped by for water breaks. The few goldfish that called it home seemed pretty happy too.

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Here it’s not as pristine, but the goldfish enjoyed the creeping jenny trailing into the water. I also added a second layer of pavers around the perimeter, which improved the stability. However, the leaves were still an issue, and the chickens kicked mulch and debris into the pond every time they went near it.

The biggest issue with the first pond? Look how close that wall (and the house foundation) is to the pond. Although the pond likely wasn’t deep enough to permanently impact the foundation, as a new homeowner, I grew nervous (ditto with the weight of the water on that PVC pipe). Having a hole so close to the foundation just wouldn’t do for the long term.

The second pond was a little bit away from the house, but still within reach of the outlet. The distance was maybe eight feet? I also wanted an above-ground pond to combat the mulch-kicking from the chickens.

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Rather than buy a bunch of pavers, I decided to build a wooden frame and make my own “pavers” out of Quikrete. They weren’t gorgeous, but they were cheap and functional. As there was no obvious place for a waterfall, I opted for a fountain in the middle.

Actually, what I really wanted was to a hand holding a sword coming out of the water – a la Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake – with the sword acting as the fountain. I tried to build one out of a plastic sword and a manicurist practice hand, but I just couldn’t get it to work. Years later, I’m still sad; the Sword-in-the-Lake fountain would’ve been awesome.

You may notice that this pond had the added benefit of being a nice gathering point for a sitting area. That wooden post between the benches is part of a pergola I built not long after rebuilding the pond. The only thing is, this space was cramped. The pond was also a bit too small because I opted not to dig down more than a few inches before building up the sides.

But the biggest issue with this second version? My own desires and aesthetics. I yearned for mountain streams and curving water. The above-ground pond looked too constructed. I wanted something more natural and meandering, like the creeks of the North Carolina mountains where I used to hike. So down came Pond 2.0.

For the third pond, I started digging again. I laid out ropes and hold water hoses to approximate a winding creek. It would have a waterfall at one end and a pool (with the pump box) at the other. A second waterfall would separate the “creek” and the pool.

Fortunately, I was able to reuse all the pavers – bought and made – and the pebbles. I had to buy a few more bags of pebbles, though, because this new pond was quite a bit larger than previous versions.

Around the same time I was building this version of the pond, I had four ducklings quickly growing to adult size. One of the reasons I wanted to build larger was to give them a space (in addition to the repurposed bathtub in the coop) in which to splash around. Water isn’t required for ducks, but they sure do love it.

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The only downside of having a duck pond is those silly birds are also ravenous murder birds. I can’t really keep fish or any other living thing in the pond. Even the cleverest goldfish with plenty of hiding spots has eventually gotten snapped up.

This past summer, though, I tried an experiment and fenced off the upper pond with poultry wire. I added some aquatic plants and let the algae grow, hoping to create the perfect environment for toads and/or frogs. My end goal is to establish a toad or frog community for pest control in the gardens (which are only a few feet away from the pond).

It seemed to take forever – but I also didn’t have a good idea on when tadpoles appear in New Orleans. Then sometime around June, I realized little black dots were scooting around the pond!

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Pond 3.0 has worked well so far. It’s definitely my favorite design, and my qualms with it stem from structural choices. For example, the waterfall separating the upper and lower pond leaks water and is less of a “fall” and more of a “seeping pile of rocks.” I’ve also struggled to control algae at times because the pool sits in direct sunlight for much of the day (fortunately, the algae issue seems to have worked itself out, probably due to the ecosystem self-balancing).

I love ponds, and my favorite designs also skew towards more natural states. I enjoy watching plants and animals grow, develop, and interact. That’s probably why I also love creating gardens – it’s not just about growing plants. Gardens, for me, involve creating a natural community. Then, I just step back and observe.

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Chicken Coop Designs Through the Years

By the winter of 2012, I’d spent about six months in my new house. I’d learned that the dirt in my yard was hard clay that stuck to my shovel like peanut butter, that roaches appeared in surprising places during warm weather, and that I really enjoyed working outside and taking care of animals.

So I started planning for chickens.

Things I knew, starting out:

  • My backyard is fenced in, and I planned to let the chickens free range while I was home. Therefore, the size of the run could be a bit smaller than if the chickens were in there 24/7.
  • Everything needed to be enclosed. I wasn’t sure what my predator situation was yet (see a few paragraphs down), but I didn’t want to risk a chicken to find out.
  • Since heat is more of an issue in south Louisiana than cold, the coop needed good ventilation.

The feed stores wouldn’t have any chicks until February or March, so I fumbled my way through building my first coop in January. It was my first major build, the previous largest being storage bench. I researched and sketched and researched more. Finally, I ended up with this happy little blue number perfectly sized for two chickens:

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I couldn’t find any good pictures of the run, but it folded up small enough to fit into the back of my car. At the time – keep in mind I was in my initial year of living in a hurricane-prone area – I was very worried about how and where to take my chickens should we need to evacuate, so a transportable run seemed like a good idea. But I’d also overbuilt it out of heavy wood, so it was really unwieldy for everyday use. I hated run.

A few months after my first chickens arrived, I decided to get another pair of chicks. Halfway through 2013, I returned to the sketch pad.

This new coop would not only be larger, but it would have a fixed run. I was worried about the chickens scratching one spot of grass to mud, so I read a lot on chicken tractors. With some good wheels and mechanical advantage on my side, a heavy coop would be easy to move around the yard every other day or so, right?

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Those tiny, tiny wheels.
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Here, you can see the old coop behind the new one.

In that first picture, you can see “levers” connected to the wheels. The idea was that the coop would sit squarely on the ground until it needed to move. Then, I’d pull those levers and engage the wheels.

That, er, didn’t exactly work. The coop was heavy and – once again – unwieldy. I also have far too little land for a chicken tractor to be effective; my entire lot is less than a quarter of an acre. So the wheels came off and the coop found a permanent home in my yard. I filled the run with sand, and for a short period, everyone was happy.

But it was with this second coop that I learned about my nocturnal predators.

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“Borrow a cuppa sugar, friend?”

See, the part of my yard that isn’t peanut butter clay is sand. Apparently, my area has many, many raccoons and opossums, and those critters like to dig. I woke up in the middle of many nights to chickens shrieking because something dug under the edge of the coop and squirmed inside. Fortunately, the only victim was the chicken feed. I laid down a perimeter of galvanized hardware cloth and heavy stones, and all was well again.

It was also around this time that I tried using an automatic coop door. The idea was that the coop door would slide closed at sunset and open at sunrise, so that even if something got inside the run, the chickens would be protected. Although now I see plenty of kits and ready-to-go options for sale, back then, it was more reasonable to put my own together with a solar panel, battery, and gearbox. Technically, it worked, but with the expansion and shrinking of wood, the door got stuck and trapped my chickens in the coop. I eventually gave up on it and resolved to put my energy towards making the coop and run like a fortress.

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It’s not perfect, but this was probably my most charming set up.

I was happy enough with that coop, until in 2017, I decided to get ducks.

So here’s another obvious mistake I made:  even if you think you’ve sealed your wood, don’t let it sit directly on the ground, especially somewhere with humidity and insect issues like Louisiana. As I dissembled the coop and run, some of the wood on the bottom crumbled. Of course, the pressure-treated pieces held up better, but still:  don’t let wood sit directly on the ground.

I had some experience behind me, and I’d gathered some tools since my first coop back in 2013, so the 2017 edition went up more quickly and was more solid than ever.

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Okay, so what do we have different than before? The whole thing sits up on leveled concrete blocks. All of the lumber is pressure treated and painted with exterior-grade paint. I actually built this in two stages – you can see the separate chicken coop to the left is actually finished and sealed off.The ducks have their own separate house, lower to the ground for stubby little duck legs (although one or two have already shown off that they can awkwardly waddle up the ramp into the chicken house).

Finally, this much larger run is easily tall enough for me to walk around in so I can clean. This is particularly important because the bathtub for the ducks requires a regular water change. The height also allows easy access to the feeder, the houses, the water reservoir, etc. And when the ducklings first moved outside in 2017, it was easy to cordon off an area and keep them separate from the adult hens until the ducks grew large enough to hold their own (which didn’t take much time at all – maybe a few months – ducks grow very quickly).

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Man, they were so freakin’ cute.

For anyone interested, I do water changes using a submersible pump that can handle large chunks (little pebbles and sticks often wind up in the tub). I swap out the water three times per week and sprinkle a few mosquito bits to prevent larvae in the standing water.

This coop has performed well. Zero predators have gotten inside. However, I’ve [grumble grumble] started having some problems with mice. I’m currently trying a treadle feeder to see how that helps the problem. And in the spirit of disclosure, I’ve also laid out poison (protected from the reach of the ducks and chickens). I don’t like using poison, but mice and rats are not only expensive (they blow through feed), they carry disease and can chew on and damage wooden structures.

Another change I made with this coop is the substrate. Previously, when I only had chicken, I used sand. It’s easy to rake and keep clean-ish. The chickens seem to like it for scratching around and dust bathing. But while preparing for ducks, I knew wetness was going to be an issue. Not to get too graphic, but while chicken poo is solid, duck poo is more like diarrhea. Yum. Therefore, in this coop, I used pea gravel almost everywhere; it’s easy to hose down and rake. There’s still one corner of sand for dust baths.

Alright, so what I have learned from building and rebuilding and building again?

  • Never let wood rest directly on the ground; set it up on concrete blocks.
  • Build a run big enough for an adult human to stand up in and move around.
  • Bury hardware cloth around the outside and secure 1/2″ or smaller hardware cloth to all openings using fender washers (they have a large diameter); assemble that coop and run like a fortress.
  • Given tools, time, and the ability to understand your mistakes, you can always rebuild.
  • Sand for chickens; pea gravel for ducks.

Every time I was preparing to build, I’d also visit the BackYard Chickens forum for ideas and instructions. The trick is, though, understanding your environment and building (or rebuilding) to that. My chicken-keeping friend in Colorado has no roof on her run – it’s basically a fenced-in patch of yard – but she doesn’t have the same predators that I do. Understanding your environment might mean that your first stab at a coop sucks, and that’s okay. It’s only a problem if you never do anything to make the situation better.

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The Project Just Started and I Already Screwed Up

Ya know, I guess it’s nice to get mistakes over with in the beginning. At that stage, work can be undone – or at the very least – it can be easier to revamp the rest of the plan.

Before the Great Shed Revamp really began – as in, before I started the fun building stage – some prep work was required. Part of this entailed setting up a temporary shed for equipment like my lawnmower that needs protection from the elements. The other big – huge – MASSIVE part involved moving the shed.

A few years ago, an ex-boyfriend and I used a jack, 2x4s, and poles leftover from a chain link fence to roll my shed back about ten feet. My initial plan involved moving it forward, thanks to an oak branch that had so delightfully decided to prop itself on the back corner of the shed.

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Ya jerk!

I was a little worried about the stability of the shed after moving it and then however long the branch was propped up there. Also, just moving a shed is definitely a two-person job (not to mention, I couldn’t jack it up like last time, thanks to Mr. Branchenstein up there). Therefore, I decided to dissemble the shed and rebuild it. Bigger. Faster. STRONGER.

Or at least more stable and scooted forward about four feet.

Step one of disassembly involved removing the roof and OH MY GOODNESS Y’ALL, that was not easy. I mean, it’s great that the roof was on there so securely, since south Louisiana is prone to hurricanes and storms, but not so great when I was trying to pry the plywood away from the rafters. But I finally popped piece free!

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Yaaay! Don’t look at the hastily propped up window! Stop looking at it! Stop!

Before I got too much further, I realized I should go ahead and trim some of the smaller branches above the shed so that I didn’t have a future of leaning branches ahead of me, no matter the shed’s location. Previously, on smaller limbs, I’ve tortured myself by using a handsaw. Not this time.

A few years ago, my dad got me a circular saw and a drill from Ryobi’s ONE+ line. They’ve held up well and are my go-to tools. On his advice, I bought several batteries, so I never run out of juice. I was all too happy to see that the ONE+ also had a pole saw, and it was cheaper than most I’d looked at, so yay for that.

Once I got back to my house and set up the pole saw, I…well, I went a little wild. Slicing through all the irritating, half-dead limbs that had bugged me for months was exhilarating. Within half an hour, I’d created a small mountain of detritus.

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Destruuuctioooon.

Then an idea occurred to me, and the icy flames of excitement and dread licked my neck.

I walked around to the back of the shed to check out that branch, that core reason for shed disassembly and pain…

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Sweet Sally May.

Sure enough, my enthusiasm with the saw removed enough weight for the branch to lift off the shed.

Overall, this is fantastic. I no longer plan on moving the shed (one of the downsides of the move was that the new shed would eat up some of my precious, tiny yard). However, groan, I have to scrabble all around the roof and nail it back down.

At some point, I will probably tackle the rest of the branch and trim it back down to the main trunk, but oh man, do I wish the idea of the trimming the tree would’ve occurred to me earlier. Oh well. Better now than after I’ve taken the whole shed apart.

I still plan to reinforce the inside of the existing shed, just in case there is hidden structural damage. I’m also replacing the roofing. My plans have changed slightly (more on that coming soon), and shingles aren’t really viable for my long-term plans. Also, I hate shingles. I used them on my first chicken coop – never again.

Alright, I have a roof to nail back on…

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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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