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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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 Fall Vegetable Garden

We’re in October, you guys! This is my favorite month for a number of reasons. Halloween means costumes, my birthday means cake (I’m a funfetti gal, through and through), and autumn really kicks into gear!

October’s a time of change. Holiday decor starts to make an appearance. Leaves begin to change. Here in New Orleans, the weather finally cools off enough that festival season roars to life.

That said, our high temperatures are still in the 80s (Fahrenheit), so the weather doesn’t exactly feel like the North Carolina autumns with which I grew up.

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Photo by Ali Yasser Arwand on Pexels.com

If I lived further north, I probably would’ve planted my fall garden a few weeks ago. However, one of the lovely aspects of living in a subtropical climate is our winters are very mild. We might see one or two days with a hard freeze, but those typically aren’t until around February. This weather means that I can plant a bit later because the winter growing season is either long or doesn’t end at all.

What am I going to plant?

Well, one plant is already in the ground and has been all summer. My monster eggplant is huge and still producing, so it’ll stay in place until it starts to die back. This is the first time I’ve had such success with eggplant; I’ve planted it once or twice before, but they typically fail before reaching waist height.

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The eggplant currently stretches across the entry gate and beyond the boundaries of the garden. I cut it back a little bit so that I could put two-foot-tall poultry fencing at the top of the wooden fence (my younger chickens kept hopping in the garden and scratching around). Eggplants tend to max out at four feet tall. I’m five feet and change, and this beast is taller than me.

Anyway, enough with the monster eggplant. (can you tell I’m proud?)

As I’ve grown more confident with growing, I’ve experimented more with growing from seed. Doing this has a few benefits:

  • Plants are cheaper. I get most of my seeds from eBay and spend $1-3 dollars on a packet.
  • Unusual varieties are easier to find in seed form.
  • Seeds can be bought in advance and planted at your/the weather’s convenience (as opposed to a plant in a plastic carton, which should find a home in the ground or a pot quite soon after purchase).

Of course, many root vegetables like carrots need to be planted from seed anyway. Transplanting them, even as seedlings, can permanently damage the root.

As to the middle point in the list above, I’m not going too terribly crazy this year. This is the first time I’m doing everything from seed, so I’m sticking to more common standards.

Sweet Yellow Spanish Onion

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Gurney’s

Days to maturity (from seed): 110-115

Size at maturity: 4-6 inch diameter; up to 1 lb in weight

I’ve grown over types of onions before – usually as transplants or seedlings. This will be my first try at growing them from seed!

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Zellajake

Carrot Rainbow Mix

Days to maturity: 70-80 days, some varieties up to 120 days

Size at maturity: typically 6-8 inches long, but it can vary

Carrots are one of my go-to winter veggies because they’re easy and dependable. My one mistake is leaving them in the ground too long and allowing them to rot. The mix I’m planting this year includes “Atomic Red, Bambino Orange, Cosmic Purple, Lunar White, and Solar Yellow.”

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Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

Heirloom Lettuce Mix

Days to maturity: 45-70

Size at maturity: varies

This mix includes Lolla Rossa, Rouge D’Hiver, Salad Bowl, Red Salad Bowl, and Italienisher.

Snowball Cauliflower

Days to maturity: 70-80

Size at maturity: head is 6-8 inches across, weighs 3-5 lbs

I’ve tried to grow cauliflower from a transplant before, but I wasn’t successful due to pests. I’ll have to keep an eye out this year!

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Calabrese Broccoli

Days to maturity: 60-90 days

Size at maturity: head is 5-8 inches across

This is an “heirloom favorite.” Although I didn’t intentionally select heirloom varieties of plants, the idea of heading in that direction appeals to me. Growing heirloom varieties of plants has a romantic connection to the past – but I’ll only keep trying them if they produce.

There will be herbs too.

I don’t plan to plant any new herbs, but the ones I started in the spring and summer are still going strong. At the base of the eggplant, I have chives. In pots, I also grow rosemary, basil, thyme, and parsley. (I was going for the ol’ “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” combo, but I’ve never had success with sage in Louisiana.)

Basil usually dies back in the winter, but the others should keep on trucking, so long as we don’t get a hard freeze.

To be honest, one of the reasons I look forward to autumn and winter is to get a break from the voracious growth of summer. All my gardens in the front and back yard are a lot to tend for one person. Between the daily bright sun and the “wet season” with regular afternoon rain, the weeds tend to go wild.

I’m ready for things to quiet down a bit.

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Wherever or Whatever Your Home, Plant a Garden

Scroll through the gardening subreddit, and you’ll see a variety of gardens. Some users own vast spans of land in lush, green countryside. Others live in the desert or at the base of rocky mountains. More than a few post photos of tiny gardens along windowsills in offices or a collection of pots along a balcony.

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I’ve been spoiled. For almost all of my life, I’ve had ground in which to dig. There were a few exceptions – my college dorm and the apartment in which I resided in Pittsburgh – but for the most part, gardening for me was as simple as choosing a spot with good sun, digging a hole, and tucking in a pansy or a tomato plant.

People are drawn to nature. Studies have shown that being around plants calms us, increases our concentration, decreases our stress, and fosters our compassion for others. Caring for something living makes us feel more alive and connected to the world. My friends who have houseplants speak of forgetting to water them in the same guilt-ridden tone as if they’d forgotten to give their dog breakfast. Most plants, however, have the benefit of not needing attention more than once a day, if that.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Let’s break this down even further. Whether it’s one ficus or an acre of sunflowers, caring for plants calls us to act (consciously or not) in several ways that can positively extend through the rest our lives:

Responsibility

Someone or something depends on us, and we are important to them or it. Without us, that person or thing will wither. At the end of the day, we all need to feel needed.

Compassion

By embracing responsibility for something even as small as a plant, we practice compassion. Like my friends who forgot to water their houseplant a few paragraphs above, by physically caring for something, we also learn to emotionally care for that thing.

Mindfulness

One of the ways gardens calm us is by encouraging a state of mindfulness, which roots us in the present. Gardening revives the senses and surrounds us with sensations – a prickly leaf, the refreshing scent of lemon grass, dew drops shining in the sun. Working with plants forces us to be slow and attentive.

light nature sky sunset
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Fortunately, even just looking at nature or going for a walk can provide some of the same calming, de-stressing power of gardening. Even the photos in this post should give you a little boost – searching for them gave me one! But there’s really nothing like the hands-on work of caring for your own plants.

When I lived in that apartment in Pittsburgh, I felt chained in. I really missed having a little bit of yard in which to dig around. And I’m kicking myself now because I barely made any attempt at a patio garden. I figured it wouldn’t work because I only knew how to grow things in the ground. But since I’ve lived in my house, I’ve grown things in raised and ground-level beds, in pots and troughs and hay baskets, in cheap plastic cups and specialized water-retaining planters. In doing so, I’ve come to realize that the set-up tends to be the same, no matter where you grow:

1. Study Your Location

How much space do you have? Is there full sun? Shade? Sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon? Is the soil soggy or sandy? Is it a place where squirrels like to dig? Or do you have pets that will want to nibble on the plant? At the very least, you’ll need to know space, light, water, and “predators.”

2. Know Your Resources

If you only have one store nearby that sells plants, it can be frustrating to build a huge list of amazing plants based off of internet research, and then arrive at the store to find nothing like what you hoped. Therefore, it’s helpful to have some idea of what’s in stock nearby. Of course, you can order plants online, but like anything else, if you’re just getting started, it’s a good idea to see the plants first-hand. Home improvement stores like Lowes and Home Depot will have a selection, but I also see plants outside grocery stores and pet stores. Farmers markets can also be a good source, particularly because they’ll probably have plants that grow well locally and are in-season.

3. Bigger Can Be Better

For folks just entering the garden game, stick to mature plants. Seedlings and seeds might be cheaper, but it’s really frustrating to nurture a seed only for it to die because you watered it a little too much. Mature plants are a lot more forgiving and you need fewer resources. It’s totally find to stick to them forever, but for the serious gardener, growing things from seed can be a fun and gratifying challenge. Keep in mind that depending on what you’re growing, seeds might require additional equipment – a humidity cover, seedling soil, etc.

4. Protect Your Plant

Protection means everything from mulching to fencing to hanging an indoor plant out of a curious cat’s reach. Unfortunately, sometimes you aren’t aware of dangers to your plant until after it’s in the ground (and you suddenly discover that squirrels just love to dig in that patch of earth to bury their nuts). But hey, you’re checking on it regularly anyway, right? So you’ll be able to adapt and help that plant thrive.

Much of the rest is just knowing your plant. Succulents needs much less water than bushy flowers with thin leaves. Butterfly bush roots will rot in boggy soil. The first year may be a rough one, but the second year will be easier.

You’ll learn and a little bud of pride will bloom in your heart.

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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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