Do-some-of-it-yourself backyard revamp

It’s been 55 days since I declared the start of Project Back Yard, Take 2. I had hoped to be sipping mojitos out there by June, and you know what? That is exactly what I did last night. So although it was a helluva lot of work and construction has been consuming all my leftover energy, I am calling this project a success. Here’s a look back at an 8-week, low budget revamp of this tiny rowhome “yard.”

Step 1: The fence

Nope nope nope.

This was the most important part of the job, and one I couldn’t pull off myself. I needed a good contractor. My initial round of googling resulted in a guy coming to my house and commenting that he “couldn’t leave his equipment unattended in this neighborhood,” but promising he’d email me a quote. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. He never answered his email or phone again.

Can I rant here for a sec? People. Port Richmond is not dangerous. It’s not trendy, that’s for damn sure, but there’s absolutely no reason I should be hearing “why do you live here??” from so many of my contractors. A) It’s flat-out unprofessional, and B) I’m paying you to install a fence, not review my life decisions. If you have concerns about my neighbors who work as plumbers and coach little league, do us all a favor and keep them to yourself.

I eventually found my contractors on Thumbtack, a site where you post the work you need done and receive bids on the job. I only received one bid, so I can’t vouch for the site being a solution for every situation, but my guys came out next-day and had the fence up within a week.

They made me two cute little gates: one to hide the breezeway where my drain, trashcan and gardening equipment live, and they moved this one — the main one — away from the ideal planting locations. They also rebuilt my stairs for free.

Cost: $1,300

Step 2: Cement

Step 2 was grueling. My existing concrete was level enough, but old and cracked and in all-around rough shape. It quickly became obvious that a patch job wasn’t going to cut it. So I decided to pour new cement over the existing slab.

Did I know what I was doing? Nope. Do I know that this won’t eventually crack again? NOPE. It probably will. But this solution had two clear advantages for the time being: it was inexpensive, and it was DIYable. I went one square at a time, recreating the divisions in the original slab by bounding each square with foam strips until the concrete had cured a bit. Then I rounded any rough edges with a sureform.

A few weeks later, everything was dry enough to give it several coats of concrete stain.

Cost: $165; lots of calories

Step 3: Planting

My original plan was to figure out a way to DIY a big planter box so I’d have a home for some perennials. And as luck would have it, the fence guys left a section of unused fencing that was just screaming for repurposing.


The process was super easy. I basically removed a few planks, sawed the rest of the sucker in half, trimmed off the ends at their cross braces, and used the free planks to build the sides. The boyfriend was here for plating day, so he assisted with installing a false bottom and lining the box with plastic sheeting. Cost: free. Although I did make us dinner.

I wanted my planting choices to be economical: stuff I’d use, stuff that was inexpensive, and stuff that will hopefully come back next year. In the sunniest corner we planted blackberry vines, which should spread out nicely over the trellis we installed.

Also in the box: sage. It’s already attracting butterflies and bees.

The mint is from my father’s garden. The oregano was one of the only things to re-seed itself in my previously-neglected yard.

I wanted a buddleia, too. My mother always had one when we were kids, and I had one little section of trellis left to offer it some support as it grows in.

This corner is a bit of a catchall for whatever else was donated to the back yard makeover effort. The baby lillies are leftover bulbs from my father, again, and the sedum are cuttings from his garden as well.

The succulent is a rescue from my office. I added tiny deer vertebrae because, you know. Why not?

Cost: $145

And there we have it!

After. Panoramas don’t make straight lines.

Total cost: $1,610. Definitely worth it for a whole new usable space; it may be small, but there’s room enough for yoga and reading and dinners outside. I didn’t realize how much I missed having a little privacy back there until the fence went up. No offense, fellow Port Richmonders.

Back Yard: Day 1, Take 2

I first declared Day 1 of Project Back Yard, oh, almost two years ago now. So long ago that a goofy image I hotlinked in the post is gone.

I am here to try this again.

It turns out to be kind of a bad time for me to be taking on a house project, money-wise. Between the last gasps of my student loans, repairs to my 9-year-old car, and bedbug extermination fees (did I mention I had bedbugs?? I had bedbugs.*), I’m feeling a bit squeezed. But then I go outside, and…


Yeah, that’s no good. The time has come. And I figure it’s probably better to be a little cash-poor now and make it up over the summer than tackle this job in August when it’s 98 degrees and a billion percent humidity. So the fence guy is coming out to give me some quotes today. The plan is to pay for that job, and then DIY the rest (planter boxes, deck tiles, maybe some built-in seating if we’re feeling exceptionally competent with the power tools.)

Who knows? Maybe by June I’ll be sipping mojitos in my own private back yard oasis.

Until the mosquitos find me.


* A note on bedbugs: they are insanely easy to get, but there’s still a lot of stigma around getting them. Having bedbugs doesn’t mean you’re dirty, or poor, or careless, or anything else. Even The Wall Street Journal had them!

That doesn’t mean you have to tweet your head off about it like I did, but know you are not alone.

You can beat bedbugs, although I wouldn’t recommend trying to do it yourself. There is no Easy button when it comes to dealing with these incredibly well-adapted little assholes. They are very, very good at hiding. I hired professionals and it took 3 rounds of spraying my house’s teeny cracks before the job was done (and thanks for being so thorough, Point Pest). Just spend the money, if you can. I know it sucks. It’ll feel like insult on top of injury. But consider it a civic good deed. Getting them exterminated the right way keeps them from spreading.

The last time you’ll hear about baseboards

I remember why I put the baseboard project off for so long: baseboards SUCCCKKKKKKK.

The picture above gives you some idea of what I was working with. The living room (left side) had been carpeted straight to the walls–the drywall here was nice and clean, relatively speaking–but the dining room had once sported a few layers of laminate and baseboards installed on top of that, which left some rough-looking walls where it was all ripped out.

And the doorway was a freakshow: here, the original living room baseboards poked out from behind the drywall installed over them. The homeowners before me just covered that mess up with a weird section of purple wall carpet. You know, WALL CARPET. Pretty sure wall carpet is a thing people have in their homes. Yes?

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Every woman should own power tools, I tell you.

I’m exhausted, so I’m going to type less and photo-montage more. In progress, from Instagram:

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It was a slow, tedious job. The house is 93 years old and as you would expect, the floor has settled in its own unique way. This made boards rest at slight angles and caused them to come together strangely at corners. I just did the best I could and kept the wood putty nearby. In my limited experience, that’s the attitude you have to maintain when dealing with old houses.

I used up seven 12′ MDF boards (no real pine here, sorry–I am cheap) and chopped them to size with my favorite tool, the miter saw. I moved around the house in circles, installing the longest wall first and then the next-longest wall I could with the remnants of the last board I had used. This conserved materials in case I miscut and had to do a section over (which luckily, I didn’t. Um. This time, anyway). Total cost was $158.

And now for the payoff:

(Twitter pillow in the last shot courtesy of world-traveler @leek1729. Merci!)

There you have it! It was 4 days of straight-up grief, but I am so happy with the way it polishes the place up. I’d say I should have done it years ago, but I spent all of my previous 4-day vacations on earlier house projects. These things take time, I guess. That’s okay. Right, Lauren? It’s OKAY.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m taking these caulkpants off. They’re more caulk than pants at this point anyway.



Those of you who have followed this blog for a while (all three of you) may know that baseboards are kind of a recurring theme. Or, more accurately, the lack of baseboards. A quick summary:

Well, we don’t yet have baseboards or rugs, and window treatments are something of a dream. But now I have confidence that we’ll get there. Maybe next year, even.
July 2009

Yes, I know, I still have no baseboards. It’s been — what? — a year? I should really tackle that next.
March 2010

I could fix most of this situation with baseboards, if I ever get around to baseboards.
August 2010

(No, I still don’t have baseboards. Shhhh.)
May 2011

I clearly still need baseboards, though. Just how many yearly wrap-up posts will you have to suffer through before I can show you pictures of baseboards? Stay tuned.
July 2011

Work, little horseshoe! Win mama the money she needs to finish those baseboards already!
November 2011

Apparently after 2011 I decided that my ongoing unwillingness to tackle the baseboard project was probably no longer blog-worthy and I shut up about it.

But guess what.

They’re HERE.

They’re not installed yet, of course. They’re not painted yet either. But they are in my living room and now I really have no excuse.

Baseboards by 2014, guys. Four years late is better than never.