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!

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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.

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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.

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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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Building on a Budget

Since the last post was on tightening up my finances, let’s continue down that path and explore how to keep that wallet fat with a building hobby.

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Spoiler alert: it might be physically intensive. Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

It should be noted that “building hobby” refers to personal projects – cabinets, potting benches, weird little tables, etc. Do not skimp on materials for projects where doing so would risk safety or where the materials need to withstand significant weight or weather conditions. You don’t want to use old, termite-chewed posts for the new pergola beside your house because when that thing falls, it’ll take out your gutters and a chunk of roof.

Projects begin with a plan.

The plan is the step where you have the most control over your project’s expenses. Say you want to make a basic storage bench to keep by your front door for shoes. You have some scrap wood, but some of the lengths are a bit short. Also, some of the pieces are stained or blemished.

Rather than set your heart on a polished wood throne of a bench, maybe your storage bench will be low to the ground with small cubbies. Cover it with some old paint and add height on top of the bench with some cushions from a thrift store.

I look for inspiration on pinterest, as well as higher end stores like Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn. Once I have some ideas in mind, I’ll search for build plans that others have made, such as those over at Ana White. While I’ll ultimately draw my own plans, it’s good to check over the plans of others to make sure I’m not forgetting a step.

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One of the first things I built when I moved into my house was a storage unit for my entryway. Six years later, it’s still as solid as the day I built it.

Get your supplies second-hand.

Like the cushions in the bench example above, second-hand supplies are a great way to drastically cut down on expenses for the stuff you do actually have to buy. This isn’t exactly a new concept, and most frugalistas will tell you to a) determine whether or not you really need the thing, and b) if you do need the thing, buy it used. Getting supplies second-hand, whether you find stuff on the curb (make sure it’s marked for take-away!) or buy from a re-store, also saves the environment some grief.

Check around for stores that sell reclaimed building supplies. One of my favorite places in New Orleans is The Green Project. I build this entry table with a cabinet door and wood I found there:

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The other materials were paint (of course), modeling clay for the fish, clear floral gems for the “bubbles,” and resin to seal everything in.

While The Green Project is a place local to my area, there are several options where you might find free or cheap building supplies:

In terms of paint, you can usually find discounted buckets by the paint desk at Lowes or Home Depot. That probably won’t be the cheapest option; however, it might be better quality than something that’s been sitting in someone’s garage for who knows how long. If your project involves wood that needs to stand up to prolonged exposure, old or poor quality paint might lead to cracking and rot.

Or recycle an old project.

This option is more feasible if you’re years into building stuff and don’t have anyone around to complain when you start tearing apart bookcases.

My master bedroom has an old little alcove. One year, I decided to turn it into a reading nook, complete with a padded storage bench and bookcase. However, it was dark and tight. I ended up just reading on my bed most of the time.

Eventually, I needed to build a hide-away cabinet for a massive new litter box that now resides in the living room. Out comes the reading nook. Supports for a bench became supports for what my friend called “The Shit Shack.” Plywood and fiber board transferred over too, and the only thing I had to buy for the project was a bit of contact paper that looked like marble to class up the inside (oh – and to make cleaning easier). A new kitty W.C. for less than the cost of a bag of litter!

A note on tools —

Many of the places where you can find reclaimed building supplies also have secondhand power tools. Be careful, though, as these are often sold “as-is” and might not be returnable if they don’t work. I got lucky and inherited my first tools from my granny. Over the years, my parents have also gifted me with more tools for Christmas and my birthday.

If you have time to wait, try to purchase your tools around Father’s Day, when home improvement stores have sales.

If buying isn’t option, your area might have a tool “lending library.” These are community, co-op-type spaces where you can find low- or no-cost tools to borrow. Many also hold free or inexpensive workshops or offer volunteer opportunities where you can learn or hone your skills.

An even cheaper option? Make friends with your neighbors and borrow their tools. Return them cleaned and in excellent condition, ideally accompanied by a six-pack or a tray of cookies.

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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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Covering Up!

Where we last left off, the skeleton of the shed extension was more or less entirely in place, from floor to roof. So let’s jump right in:

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I ordered the siding in a big bulk purchase with the longer (i.e. 12-ft) lengths of lumber, the roofing, etc – all the stuff that was too large or unwieldy for my car. Therefore, I picked the siding out from descriptions on the website. I thought I was buying textured plywood that matched the existing structure. I did not read closely enough. What I actually bought was a “Brown Engineered Siding Panel.” (no wonder it was surprisingly cheap…)

These engineered panels seem pretty tough and they have good reviews. However, I was really worried when I first touched them – they almost feel like tough cardboard or fiber board. I’ve witnessed the latter practically dissolve when hit by water.

Although it’s normally a good idea to seal wood projects soon, I was careful to immediately work on these panels to protect them. First, I caulked all the seams and nail holes/heads.

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Then everything got a nice coat of Kilz, inside and out (since I didn’t have the roof on yet). I’m happy to say that the panels seem to be holding up really well so far.

This stage is finally when everything started moving a little bit more quickly, not in the least because I was excited about the polycarbonate panels.

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I chose these specialized panels (ordered from Greenhouse Megastore) because they advertise “high impact resistance, excellent heat retention and 80% light transmission.” My other option was the standard polycarbonate ridged panel found at most big box stores. I opted against those, however, because the ones I’ve used on chicken coops tend to get brittle after a year or two under the subtropical sun. I’m hoping these hold up better.

As you can see in the photo above, installing them is more complicated than nailing siding to studs, but not by that much. Seal the top edge with foil tape (the silver roll) and the bottom edge with dust tape (the white roll) to keep out dirt and insects. Then plastic caps go on the top and bottom – but before the bottom cap goes on, drill a few tiny holes in it for condensation to drip out.

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Panels like these will tell you which side needs to face out (otherwise the protective qualities won’t work) – they’ll have different colored film on either side. On these, the blue side faces the outside world.

Finally, secure the panels in place with roofing panel screws that have self-sealing neoprene washers to keep the water out of the screw holes. If you’re lazy like me, you might not always stop to pre-drill holes, but it’s especially important to do so here. If you don’t pre-drill, you risk cracking your fancy new panel – ditto if you over-tighten the screw.

Place your screws wisely – the more holes you add, the less insulation your panels provide. These panels seem pretty tough, but they aren’t provided structural support. Therefore, the screws are mostly there to make sure the panels don’t rattle or fly off in high winds.

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Bonus chicken butt fluff

Unless you’ve designed your structure to match the panel dimension exactly, you’ll need to cut them at some point. Fortunately, there are blades designed for this delicate task. You’ll want a fine-tooth blade designed for plastics, plexiglass, etc. to reduce the risk of cracking. This one worked fine for me.

Now onto the roof! (shrieking, gnashing of teeth, general terror)

I read up a ton on whether or not it was okay to install metal roofing over shingles. The most frequent opinion I saw was, “Technically it’s fine, but ideally, remove the original roofing.” I tried ripping off the old shingles, but those suckers held on tight. Meanwhile, the sun beat down on my poor little back and sweat made tools slip right out of my hands. If I wanted to finish the project, I needed to give up on removing the shingles and focus on the new install. (I justified this laziness because it’s an outbuilding. I like to think I would’ve completely removed the shingles on a residential roof.)

Step one of covering up my past is a nice layer of tar paper, tacked down with roofing nails.

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Although the above photo makes the roof look tiny (instead of stretching back 12 feet), it does a good job showing how awkward it was to maneuver around. My ladder’s sticking up through the rafters. I have the chicken coop on one side, the resin shed around back, and a fence on the third side. Above, a live oak tree was always trying to smack me in the face with branches. For normal shed usage, it’s plenty of space, but for roof work and ladders, it’s irritatingly tight.

On top of the tar paper went metal roofing panels, secured by the same neoprene washer-screws as the polycarbonate panels. I needed about three little plastic boxes of screws for this whole project, and I chose the 2-inch ones to make sure they plunged all the way through the shingles and plywood.

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I chose metal roofing panels over more shingles for a few reasons. First, they’re lightweight and easy to manage. Second, I’ve toyed with the idea of adding some gutters onto the shed and collecting water in a rain barrel to use on the garden. I wouldn’t feel as comfortable doing that if shingle dirt was in the water.

Due to the combination of tight spaces, squishy ground underneath ladder legs, and a fear of heights, the most worrisome part of this whole project was adding the roof ridge. I used the same galvanized metal ridge for the whole shed, including over the greenhouse portion.

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The roofing panels extend at least a few inches beyond the edge of the shed on all sides. I also replaced some of the drip edge under the new metal roofing. I didn’t install drip edge under the polycarbonate panels because there isn’t a plywood substrate to worry about. I have some extra, though, if water dripping inside becomes an issue (we’ve had several summer storms, though, and the inside of the shed remains dry).

One of the most recent steps involved repainting the whole shed from tan to light green. The color is “Ballroom Dancing” by Valspar, and I love how refreshing and natural it looks, especially with the white trim and the “frosted” effect of the greenhouse panels.

So am I done?

…er, well, mostly. I’d argue that construction/projects and writing share something in common: they’re only ever done when you decide to stop working on them. I’m frequently going back and tweaking existing projects, just as a writer will return to revise a piece over and over.

In terms of this project, there are a few smaller things that need finishing. If you look carefully, you may notice missing fascia (the horizontal facing board) underneath the greenhouse roofing. I’ll need to add that at some point to keep out critters and to help insulate the shed/greenhouse a bit better.

I also need to go back and seal up the areas between polycarbonate panels, the meeting point between the metal and polycarbonate panels, and the gaps between the roof ridge and the panels. For larger spaces, I have sealing spray foam – that stuff is messy, but I love how easily and quickly it fills gaps. Then, for the smaller spaces and perhaps over top of the spray foam, I’ll use clear silicone caulk. Manufacturers of polycarbonate panels will specify which sealants can or cannot be used with their products – make sure you check before buying!

As far as the inside, I’m working on that as I go. The first thing I knew I wanted and needed were some nice shelves for potting and storage. Fortunately, I overbought plywood, so those were relatively easy to whip up and put in place. I also had spare shelf brackets from an earlier house project, which certainly helped.

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It’s not perfect, but it’s functional and I love it.

Future ideas for the inside include building more shelves (whoo, storage) and maybe a flip-down workbench in the “shed” part of the shed. I’m also considering adding some plastic sheeting to separate the shed from the greenhouse and concentrate the heat and humidity in the latter portion. However, as it’s still summer and highs are around 90F, I have some time to get there.

Overall, this shed extension/greenhouse addition was a monster of a project. Summer was not the time for this kind of build in south Louisiana, but I’m glad it’s (mostly) done. My “new” shed is extremely spacious. I no longer have to worry about balancing trays of seedlings on scanty window sills inside my house, where one of my cats could easily take a wrong step and flip potting soil onto the floor. I’d say that alone is a win.

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< Step 3: Working on a Roof When You’re Afraid of Heights

Working on a Roof When You’re Afraid of Heights

I was never a big fan of heights. Growing up, my brother was the one who climbed up on the roof to clean leaves out of gutters. High ropes courses left me jelly-legged and lightheaded (that’s assuming someone was able to persuade me to even scramble up the ladder).

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HAHAHA, NOPE. Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

Then in my late teens, I found myself working in a clothing store with one pregnant co-worker and another stricken with vertigo. There was no else to climb up to the tippy top of the ladder and change the light bulbs – except me. I learned to tolerate heights, but I’m still not a great fan. I can climb up on my roof a) if it’s the flat part and b) if I stay at least four feet away from the edge.

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As a homeowner working on a budget, sometimes you just have to face your fears and patch roof leaks on your own.

So you can imagine how much I looked forward to installing the roof on the shed extension.

As with the rest of the framing, I wanted to mimic the rafters of the original shed. It was a basic design – a 2×4 on each side with a trapezoid of plywood nailed to the front and the back, stabilizing the whole structure. Then the rafters are then toenailed into the header (the board laid horizontally across the tops of the studs). And if I’m particularly good, they’ll be further secured with hurricane ties to help them stay in place during high wind or pressure changes (thanks, hurricane season in the Gulf!).

I could’ve done a bunch of math and measured angles to determine the cuts, but truth be told, I have a history of messing that kind of thing up. The faster and more accurate route that works for me is to trace the original and make a pattern.

In the above photos, you can see how I made a paper pattern of half of the original trapezoid (it was easier to do half) and then turned that into a full plywood pattern, which I used to draw the rest of the pieces (6 total).

The surface where the 2x4s met was a similar process, although I actually tried to measure to angles and had to make a few practice cuts to get it right. Honestly, guys, geometry was one of my worst subjects in high school, which makes building things really challenging sometimes.

The angles were the hardest part of the rafters. It was easiest to start the toenails with the rafters on the floor of the shed, so that when I lifted them to the headers, I could support the rafter with one hand and hammer with the other.

In the “shed” portion of the, er, shed, the plywood roofing is nailed into the rafters, securing the structure to itself. But for the greenhouse portion (the front 4 feet of the shed), the polycarbonate panels were a bit different. Most sources I found on the internet advised installing boards to stretch between the rafters for the panels to “rest” on. Since I’m a one-woman shop, nailing those boards onto the rafters while they were still on the floor – or even while they were in place – wasn’t going to happen. Fortunately, there’s hardware for that!

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I chose supports for fence beams so that I could easily slide the boards right on in. Supportive hardware makes things soooo much easier when you’re working by yourself.

After that, I popped the boards in.

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The directions on the polycarbonate panels stated that underlying wood needs to be painted white. Well, they just so happens to jibe with my aesthetic anyway. Truth be told, my white paint is just a few layers of Kilz primer. When I’ve needed to slap some white paint on something outside, I often just end up using Kilz and it tends to hold up pretty well.

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I think we’ll call it quits for now. The next post will be dedicated to covering all of the – well – coverings!

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< Step 2: And the Walls Rise

Step 4: Covering Up! >