How Do I Know What to Grow?

Autumn might seem like an odd time to start thinking about a new garden. Although we aren’t even halfway through October, my friend in Colorado told me they saw their first snow last week.

Even if you’re lucky enough, like me, to live in a subtropical climate where the growing season more or less doesn’t stop, autumn is an excellent time to start planning next year’s garden. Depending on your weather, you might still be able to clear ground and start a brand new plot by making a lasagna garden – basically, layering browns and greens (say, cardboard and grass clippings) that will not only block the weeds, but will compost into rich food for your new baby plants.

But how do you even decide what to grow? Even when limited by the selections of local stores, there are still racks upon racks of little green producers competing for your attention, leaves waving in the breeze and blooming appealingly.

Start with a book.

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The first time my mom visited my new house, she bought me a great gardening book. It’s called Month-by-Month Gardening in Louisiana and is divided up into types of plants (shrubs, trees, herbs, vegetables, etc.). Basically, within each section, two pages are devoted to each month. You’d be surprised how much information they can pack into those two pages.

This book guides readers beyond just plant selection, including what should be transplanted vs sown as a seed, when certain plants should be trimmed back, and what pests a gardener might expect to see (and how to deal with them).

Month-by-Month is as close as I get to a gardening bible. There are a ton of really excellent gardening books out there, but if you don’t know where to start, I’d recommend finding a book in this series. A quick search shows me editions for most southern states, a few that cover regions, and some that cover multiple states.

Check out free resources.

Of course, check out your library to see which books they carry!

But aside from books, there are many free resources to help guide your plant planning. One of my favorites is the local agricultural extension service. Almost every state has one through partnerships with universities. My local service is supported by Louisiana Statement University, and they provide publications and guides on their website. I don’t even have to leave the comfort of my couch to learn about gardening in my region!

Talk to people.

If you’re someone who’d rather leave the comfort of your couch (which is good, since you’ll need to do that in order to plant your garden anyway…), another free resource is the knowledge in many of your fellow citizens.

  • Ask around your neighborhood to see what other’s are growing (or more importantly, what they’ve had success with or not).
  • Talk to employees at your local plant nursery. Trying to do the same at a big chain like Lowes or Home Depot will probably be hit or miss, but if that’s all you have, it doesn’t hurt to see what they know. This one might not be free; I’m never able to leave a nursery without buying something. Also, it’s a nice gesture when someone has taken time to share his or her knowledge with you.
  • Seek out clubs and organizations. Here’s a list from the American Horitcultural Society. In my city, various organizations hold free or cheap workshops every other weekend.

Happy gardening! (Or happy garden-planning!)

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Tightening My Belt

Normally, I’d say I’m somewhat thrifty. I regularly check on my bank accounts. I make myself wait on major purchases. If I need something, I research deals and coupons, or I wait for sales.

But this year? I’ve spent a little more wildly than normal this year.

  1. New turfstone driveway
  2. Turning my front yard into a garden
  3. Expanding my shed and turning part of it into a greenhouse

All of these projects together total more than the average American family spends on food (groceries and eating out) and entertainment in a year.

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Like this but replace the food with lumber, and the plates with lumber, and all the utensils and jewelry, and – you know, everything is lumber now. Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

That sounds outrageous. It feels outrageous. But I planned for these projects, and they were all paid for in cash. And, ya know, I love coming home and being greeted by a big, beautiful garden – sprigs of gaura waving in breeze, pink and orange zinnias blooming in clusters of little petals, butterflies skipping around on cosmos. Seeing a lawn that was overgrown 95% of the time (because when you mow in Louisiana, it stays neat for about two hours) depressed the heck out of me.

But some things are changing. I’ve spent the past several years renting out part of my house on AirBnB. I’ve met people from all over the world and, overall, hosting has been an excellent experience. My occupancy rate is around 85%, and while it’s deeply satisfying to provide a safe and comfortable place for visitors to our quirky, creative city…

Y’all, I’m tired.

Low-level stress underlies my every day. Will someone accidentally letting the cats outside? Will the next guest is going to rate me poorly because they expect me to play board games with them every night, even though they won’t say anything to my face about it*? And though I find cleaning satisfying, scrubbing the toilet can be a total skeezefest.

That combined with the stress of my regular job means that some days, I teeter on the edge of a meltdown.

What does all of this have to do with “Tightening My Belt”?

Renting out my rooms brings in extra money – usually at least $1000 per month. Those of you who can do math and followed the link at the beginning of this post will realize that amount easily covers even the most expensive of project-years. In non-project-years, that extra dough means I can get away with just sorta watching my finances but not counting every penny. That makes me sound like a slacker, but I do regularly budget.

My favorite tool for tracking expenses is Microsoft Excel, and I’ve tailored it over the years to suit my needs.

Budget example

Everyone should have some way of tracking his or her money. There are programs and websites to help with this – You Need a Budget, Mint, and the Personal Finance subreddit are solid places to start.

I love the flexibility of an Excel spreadsheet for budgeting.

In the image above, you can see how I track sources of income at the top (“Inflow“). Then I split my expenses (“Outflow“) into broad categories that are divvied up into more narrow areas. Based on studying my spending habits, I’ve estimated my expected expenses. Those are compared with what I’ve actually spent to then determine what’s “Left in the Pot.”

At the very bottom of the spreadsheet, each of the Outflow columns are totaled, and this is used to calculate the Balance at the top of the sheet (Total Inflow minus Actual Total Outflow).

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Oops – looks like I’ve blown past my budget in this example…

The final column (“Percentage“) shows my Expected Outflow as a percentage of my Total Inflow. In other words, if I want my hobbies to be 5% of my total planned income, I can adjust the Expected budget for that category until I reach 5%.

How should a budget be split up?

If you search, “How to budget,” many of the top results describe 50-20-30 rule. These guidelines put 50% of your income to living essentials (mortgage, transportation, food, etc.), 20% to financial goals (savings, debt repayment, etc.), and 30% for things you want but don’t need (travel, toys).

I sort of follow the 50-20-30 rule. On my “essential living” costs like mortgage and utilities (the category I’ve named “Bills”), I aim for less than 40% – preferably closer to 35%. Electricity and water are how I can control the percentage here because my usage impacts the cost. Unlike 50-20-30, my transportation costs are not included here, because that’s a highly flexible category for me (I live in an area where it’s possible to bike to work).

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Photo by Hossam M. Omar on Pexels.com

Once I set my “essential living” category, I consider how much I want to save or invest that month. Rather than basing this off my Total Inflow, I have it set as a percentage of the Balance predicted to be leftover at the end of the month’s expenses. The primary reason I’ve done this is because I’m trying to shrink my budget right now, but I still want to save. I’m in the process of adjusting my Expected Outflow numbers to be as conservative as possible, while remaining realistic. Failing to meet the high bar set for savings because you were too harsh when predicting your food budget can be pretty discouraging.

After a month or so with my newly-tightened budget, I’ll reassess how I figure out my savings/investment goal. All that said, though, right now I’m at about 25% of my Total budget example 3Inflow.

The rest of the categories have greater flexibility and “lower” priority. It feels weird to say food is a “low” priority, but I still have quite a bit of wiggle room there. Right now, it’s less of a concern to me than building my savings. On that note…

How much should you keep in your savings account?

At the bare minimum, aim for 6 months’ worth of your expenses (Expected Outflow). A more comfortable amount for me is 12 months because I’ll occasionally use a few “months” to pay for larger projects. If I do this when my account is at the 12-month mark, I can still maintain a safe emergency cushion. In other words, what I consider my savings account is half emergency fund and half rotating major expense fund.

So how are actual expenses tracked?

budget example 5Each month of my budget is actually a pair of worksheets in Excel. “A” is what you’ve seen so far – categories, totals, and comparisons. “B” is where we get down to business.

budget example 4

I track the date, where I spent the money, the amount, and the type of expense. At places like Costco where I buy a broad variety of things, I’ll split the receipt across the relevant categories. In the image above, the selected box also has an arrow because it contains a list directed linked to the narrow categories on the “A” sheet. In other words, if I need to switch around my categories titles, it’s just as simple as rewording whatever is on “A.”

If you want, you can use my Excel budget too.

Use it as it’s made or tailor this budget to suit your financial lifestyle. The downside of using something like this is you have to regularly devote time to entering every expense (as opposed to many of the professional products that automatically connect with your accounts). However, this one’s free, it’s easily tweaked, and I feel a bit more comfortable without having my accounts connected to another entity.

Download the Example Budget Spreadsheet here.

How will tightening the belt impact my projects?

As I mentioned in the beginning, this was an extremely busy year for big projects. Moving forward, my projects will either be small-scale – i.e. laying a few basic 12″x12″ pavers – or they’ll be made from recycled resources. Fortunately, I have quit a bit of scrap wood leftover from the shed and fence.

In terms of gardening, I have a pretty good handle on growing most of the plants I favor from seed, which can be a tiny fraction of the price of a mature plant. The subtropical climate where I live also encourages lush growth, so long as there’s enough water. As to the latter point, I have a pretty good irrigation system in place in both my front and back yards.

I’m in a privileged position to cut back while maintaining a satisfying lifestyle. Necessary infrastructure, like the aforementioned irrigation systems, is already paid for and in place. My savings account isn’t quite where I’d like it to be, but it’s still plenty to take me through an emergency. I receive regular paychecks and have access to good healthcare. Being in a position where stopping (temporarily or permanently) a secondary source of income is possible? That’s a luxury, and I’m thankful for the choice.

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*Story time: a couple spent a week with me. We chatted a bit when we crossed paths in the kitchen or living room, same as I’ve done with guests for years. The couple was always smiling and seemed happy. A few days after their departure, they left a scathing review, stating that they’d felt totally unwelcome and had wished to place board games and have much longer conversations. After 100+ 5-star reviews, I was shocked and took the poor review very personally for a while.

There are a huge range of accommodations on AirBnB, ranging from hotel-like experiences to basically couch-surfing and communal living. If you’re looking for a host who will be a huge social part of your visit – someone to eat dinner or watch movies with – that will be advertised on the listing or it should be clarified through messages before your stay.

Plan Post: the Shed

Progress on the shed expansion has been slower than expected, but it is underway. This is just one of those tough things about trying to squeeze projects around a busy schedule. I work full-time during weekdays, and one week, for example, I had a book club meeting on Monday night, a date on Tuesday night, and a date on Friday night. Weekends are a little more open, but I still need set aside time to manage the bedrooms I rent out on AirBnB and the rest of my house and garden chores.

I’m not saying this to complain or make excuses. Rather, if you live in a similar situation, be aware that projects might take a long time to complete because you have to squeeze in little chunks of work over a period of weeks or even months. And that’s fine – the important thing is to make steady progress.

Of course, before any of that, I like to have a good plan. The plan for this expansion grew out of several sources. Since I’m building off of an existing shed, some of my dimensions (like wall-height and roof-slope) are already set. I also watched some YouTube videos and researched individual parts of the project, like joist spacing. The time from thinking about the project to researching to putting a plan on paper was about a month.

So how’d it turn out?

plan1

In the upper left-hand corner, you can see what the final project will look like. Originally, I just wanted to enlarge the shed, but later, I decide to turn the front-most four feet into a greenhouse. The diagonal lines are solid covering (wood or roofing), so you can see the framing and “windows” of the greenhouse on the front.

I’m starting the extension from the floor and working with 2×6 pressure treated lumber. For this project, I had a lot of the lumber delivered to my house, since I already needed to have my temporary storage shed delivered (it was too big to fit in my car and, at almost 200 lbs, waaay too heavy to go on my roof rack). That enabled me to buy lumber in longer lengths, which is a bit cheaper. To give you an idea of how much I ordered, my 10% veterans discount more than covered the truck delivery fee.

The existing shed sits on skids – basically, 4x4s that sit on concrete blocks, and the joists are nailed to the 4x4s – so I’m doing the same thing for the extension.

Before I attach the extension to the existing structure, the face of the existing shed needs to be removed. In many sheds, mine included, the walls act as part of the support structure and are nailed to the floor edge. In order to join the new and existing structures, of course, the floor edges need to be able to sit flush against one another.

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Of course, the lattice, doors, and trim work will also need to come off.

Once everything is level and lined up, I’ll connect the two edge boards and lay down the plywood floor for the extension.

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In 1(e) in the image above, you can see that I’ll have to use three pieces of plywood for the floor. That’s not ideal, but plywood doesn’t commonly come in 10’x6′ sheets. My 8’x4′ sheets of 3/4″ weather-treated plywood came on the truck with the rest of the delivery. I’m strong and capable, but I’m also smart enough to know how much or little to handle a 100 lb sheet of plywood. Know your limits, people.

Once the floor’s in place, I’ll build out the frames for the walls. Most people recommend putting your covering (plywood or what have you) on the walls while they’re laying flat. I plan to only partially do that, because much of my new walls will actually be covered in polycarbonate panels that I’ll screw, rather than nail, into the frame.

Now, as an aside:  for a while, I was planning on just ordering the wavy PolyCarb panels from Lowes. Those would’ve been cheaper than the ones I ordered, so why did I change my mind? Well for one, the double-wall polycarbonate panels I ordered are designed to be used for a greenhouse. For a project like this, where the materials I use will have a significant impact on the utility of the building, I’d rather choose panels made for the job. Also, I’ve use the cheaper PolyCarb panels around my chicken coops over the years, and they become very brittle in the south Louisiana sun. I really didn’t see them holding up under years of subtropical sun.

plan3

In the final stages of the plan, you can see the last wall frame, including the doorway. I plan to reuse the existing doors and hardware, although they’ll shift to the side of the shed. One impact of this move, though, is the doors will have to shrink by a few inches. This really isn’t a huge deal; I’m 5’4″ and the doors will be plenty tall for me.

Going back over the plans, you can see where I noted the materials at each section and then tallied everything on the final page. This is a must to make sure you aren’t under-buying materials. Getting in the groove and then realizing you’ve run out of 2x4s sucks.

I’ve mentioned previously that I was worried about the strength of the existing shed. As I started to work on it, I realized how strong the structure really is. However, I should have excess lumber, and there are a few spots – at the bases of walls, for example – that I plan to reinforce. Those aren’t in the plans because they’ll be done on an as-needed basis.

Here we go, folks!

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A Total Yard Revamp: By the Numbers

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

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

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

plan

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

10

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

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

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

15

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

Now let’s talk money!

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

(quiet sobbing into my empty purse)

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

$2,080

Let’s break that number down:

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

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

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

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

But the most important tip:

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

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Next Month’s Project List: June 2018

During my annual visits home, I always come back brimming with ideas for house projects. My mom still lives in the house where I grew up, so it’s interesting to see what she’s done with her gardens. She and her significant other have also worked hard to attract a variety of birds to her yard.

My dad, on the other hand, is more a construction and carpentry type guy (perhaps important to note here:  my parents don’t live together). He has a house in the mountains but also spends a lot of time at his girlfriend’s house, closer to a city. I normally visit the girlfriend’s house, and during this visit, he was showing me the new shed he built and the welder that she got him for Christmas (drool; I’ve wanted to learn metalworking for years).

So for June, I’d like to focus on two areas:

1. Bring all the birds to the yard.

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Sparrow by Flickr on Pexels.com

My backyard is dedicated to the ducks and chickens. I don’t have bird feeders back there, though, as wild birds can bring disease to my flock. The crows have descended with a vengeance anyway. I’ve also seen increasing number of house sparrows. My younger chickens have even made a game of chasing and trying to catch the sparrows (it ain’t happenin’, girls). But as for wild birds, those two are it at the moment.

My mom’s yard, however, has probably a dozen different types of birds – cardinals, woodpeckers, robins, etc. The secret is, obviously, a large selection of feed. They have various seeds, peanuts, and suet cakes. While I don’t want to go that far, my goal is to lure the sparrows and crows out of my backyard and also increase the variety of bird visitors. My bird bath has seen some visitors, but I’m adding another traditional feeder (for a total of two) and a suet cake cage. As my garden gets established, there will also be more plant-based food and places for birds to hide.

2. Expand the shed.

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From the beloved musical “Mulch Sweeper”

When I bought this house, there was no exterior storage. My first lawn mower lived under a tarp. But when my granny passed away, I got a little bit of inheritance and used it to buy a 10×10 shed from the big box store. It’s been a good, solid shed. The ex and I even jacked the building up, put it on rollers, and scooched it back about 10 feet. But y’all, it’s too small.

I’ve tried downsizing the shed contents, but the reality is, the majority of things I like to do involve tools and materials that live outside. Ideally – and I may be dreaming here – the shed would have at least one electrical outlet and a nice workbench too. Nothing too dramatic, but right now, I cut my 2x4s on a wobbly folding table. Kiiind of unsafe.

The plan is to expand the shed (towards me, in the above photo) by four feet. My dad thinks that’ll be too small, but anymore than that and it’ll be hard to navigate around my established gardens. The end result should be a nice 10×14 shed.

Even though there are only two projects here, I’ll probably do other little things along the way. Also, as I’ve previously noted, I really struggle with predicting how long projects will take. After all, I work during the day and only have the nights and weekends for project time!

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