I’d start this post with an apology about how long it’s been since I’ve posted, but I feel like maybe that’s starting to get old and embarrassing so let’s all just pretend like it didn’t happen. Sound good? Groovy.
Truth is, the pace of this renovation has been moving so fast. It’s kind of like this crazy roller coaster that I can’t seem to get off of and have a second to breathe. And rest. And blog. And generally function like a human being. I have so much to blog about, but to be honest my body just isn’t really keeping up—in the past few weeks I’ve been battling some serious exhaustion (probably lingering mono stuff…it’s still been less than 2 months) and, to top it off, a super attractive head-cold thingy that can probably account for an appreciable percentage of the Kleenex use in the state of New York. Exterior work overlapped with demo which has now overlapped with beginning framing out the interior and the whole thing has just been…nuts. I guess I’d rather things move too fast than too slow, but suffice to say I’m still trying and failing to strike a decent balance here.
Where last we left off, the house was looking a little something like the photo above. All of the crazy overgrowth and that big tree had been removed, chipped, and hauled away, most of the house had been painted, and things were looking a little bit…flat. Originally I was super into this whole monochrome paint scheme idea (except the window sashes—the plan was always for those to go dark), but then I saw it on the house and I was like…nope. Not right for this house. Y’all were not shy about unleashing your disdain (save for a few dissenting votes) for the monochrome in the comments, so it’s a good thing I already had your back.
Boom. Better? Better. The corner boards on the top half of the house are still yet to be painted in this picture, but you get the idea. I left the eaves overhangs grey, which I think adds some nice dimension, but all of the trim got painted out with Benjamin Moore’s Simply White, color-matched to Valspar Reserve exterior paint in semi-gloss. I’m really happy with it! It’s clean and classic and traditional, which feels more right for this project. With such a small house set so far back on this lot, the monochrome sort of just made it disappear and look a little lifeless, so I think this works much better!
Since this comes up a lot in the comments, color-matching is super easy nowadays! Most paint stores should be able to accurately color-match between paint companies using just the color name and brand, and sometimes the color code. It’s all computerized. I generally like Benjamin Moore’s colors without the price tag of the actual paint can, so I just take my color name to Lowe’s, they look it up in the computer, and the paint machines just mix it like magic in a cheaper (but still excellent quality) can of Valspar. Nothing to it! There’s no guess work or relying on scanning a paint chip or anything like that. I’ve heard this shouldn’t be attempted with more speciality brands like Farrow & Ball, but all the regular brands seem to work this way.
Also, before I forget, the casement windows on the first floor haven’t been replaced! The ones pictured here are just the storm windows (which curiously mount on the inside of the house, presumably because the casement windows open outwards instead of up and down like the double-hung sash windows). All of the casement windows are hanging out in my future-library, awaiting repair and re-glazing. It’s very tedious work. If/when I sell this place, I might have to put a clause in the contract that the windows cannot be replaced! Nothing chaps my ass more (I love that phrase, sorry) than seeing beautiful old windows ripped out of old houses for crappy vinyl replacements, so hopefully all of the TLC I’m putting into the originals will save them from future destruction.
So anyway, let’s talk about what’s happening on the side of the house! I’ve mentioned before that the front yard is CRAZY here. There’s about 30 feet from the front of the house to the sidewalk (meaning about 700 square feet of front yard!), and the whole thing is graded all wrong. The whole front of the house was sitting below grade when we started work (meaning it was rotted, meaning we had to replace the whole sill plate…oof), and grading back toward the house—meaning that water was running back toward the foundation instead of away from it. It was pretty much all the things you don’t want to see happening with land around a house.
After all of the weeds and overgrowth and craziness was removed, it was easier to see that there was also a small hill in the middle of the yard. Not only that, but the soil in the front of the yard was sitting about 2 feet above the sidewalk, all of it basically contained by the root systems of the enormous overgrown evergreen shrubs and weeds. Which are now gone. So what was left was a small landslide waiting to happen.
The old fence had to go, but the question remained as to what would take its place! My original instinct was a cute, classic white picket fence, because, you know, duh. But that really didn’t solve the insane grading issue. Either I’d have to get a backhoe in here to dig out half the yard, or I could work what I was working with and figure out some other solution.
I decided on the latter. Short of excavating the whole yard, the only solution I could really come up with was to create some sort of retaining wall situation to keep everything contained. At the same time, I didn’t want to totally abandon the idea of a fence for a little visual/physical separation from the street and the neighboring houses, and I thought it might be fun to use the opportunity to sort of build in a landscaping feature. Like a living fence/retaining wall/planter set up. Since I went very traditional with the exterior of the house itself, I figured I could get away with doing something a little different for the landscaping.
The old fence posts were actually in fine shape (pressure treated lumber, set in concrete, no major rot), and already spaced 8 feet apart, so it seemed logical and easy-ish to use those as the basis of the design. Basically the plan was to build a series of terraced planters down the side of the lot that would kind of step down with the land, and then continue with one long planter essentially spanning the width of the property across the front. Ya dig? It solved the retaining wall issue, it had potential to solve the privacy issue, and the planters themselves would be a good place to throw all of the excess soil in the yard and get things graded out properly. Solid plan.
I started by constructing the outer surface, which really just involved screwing my lumber into the old fence posts. I decided to use 5/4″x6″x8′ cedar decking boards from Lowe’s to construct the whole thing (which were significantly cheaper than 1×6 cedar boards, and thicker, too). Cedar was more expensive than pressure-treated pine, but the cedar allowed for the possibility of a nice stained/sealed finish whereas I think pressure-treated pine is better if the plan is to paint or use an opaque stain, which I kind of wanted to avoid here. Both are rot-resistant and should fare OK for something like this.
Anyway. The only really tricky part of working on the sides was getting everything level and figuring out the slope. I’m no smarty-pants mathematician, so the easiest method I could figure out was to hold the board level at the high point and measure the distance between the bottom of the board and the low point down at the other end. Then I just cut a diagonal line down the length of the board with my circular saw. I have no idea if that makes sense or if anyone cares. Here is a really heinous illustration of what I’m talking about which may or may not help.
So there. After the first board was in place and level (I used 2.5″ exterior screws), it was just a matter of stacking my subsequent boards on top of it and securing them.
See? Like so. I stacked the boards four high, bringing the whole thing to a height of 22 inches. I knew I wanted to keep it as low as possible while still doing its whole retaining-wall job, both because theoretically the plants contained in them will mature and add some more height (and privacy) but also because I didn’t want it to be like crazy cedar planter overload. I think the height feels pretty good. Substantial without overpowering.
Since I only had fence posts for support on the outer edge of the planters, I used 2×2 pressure treated posts as the support for the interior edges. I found it easiest to assemble the sides flat on the ground first and then move them into position. I made the 2×2 corner posts about 6 inches longer so that they’d help anchor the whole thing into the ground.
After moving the side panel into position, it was just a matter of spending some time leveling the inner edge with the already completed outer edge and getting everything square. Not so bad.
Since 8 feet is a fairly long span, I ended up screwing a 2×2 support to the middle of each panel and then a pressure treated 2×4 horizontally between the 2×2’s to keep the whole thing from bowing out. Wherever possible, I tried to drive my screws from the inside to cut down on the exposed screw heads and holes on the outside.
Moving right along…more planter madness! It’s sort of hard to believe that a few days before this photo was taken, this area was an insane jungle of shrubbery and weeds and litter. I know the overflowing Bagster and the empty, half-filled planters and all that dirt aren’t really looking like much of an improvement, but they will. Trust.
So…it’s possible that my big genius plan of shoveling all the excess dirt in the yard (to bring the ground level down to a reasonable, acceptable level) into the new planters might have been mildly delusional. I filled them to about 6″ from the top, reserving the top few inches for quality top-soil to be mixed in, plus the plants and the mulch. And, uh, this is about what the yard still looked like. Not gorgeous.
I sort of accidentally acquired some help throughout parts of this whole ordeal (long story, another time), and so the totally ridiculous idea of moving all of the dirt from this yard to my yard seemed a little bit less completely nuts than it had before. I mean, what else do you do? So that’s what we did. My wonderful go-to contractor, Edwin, volunteered the use of his monstrous pick-up truck, and we filled that thing one wheelbarrow load at a time. Then we did it again. It was amazing. With a few guys working on that, we got the whole yard (except where the Bagster was sitting) basically cleared, graded, and looking really good in about half a day.
My backyard, however, is a totally different story. It’s really bad. Like so bad. Maybe next summer will be, like, the summer of getting this backyard sorted out, since it certainly didn’t happen this summer and things are not looking hopeful between now and winter. It’s serious very shameful.
I should also mention that Edwin had just stopped by the cottage as a favor to let me use his pressure-washer for a different project (coming up soon!), and decided to just stick around and help us haul dirt and crap for funsies. He’s such a good dude, you guys. I love that man.
Before planting, the final step was sealing the cedar boards! I went back and forth on if/how I should seal the boards (and whether I should seal both sides before I started, but read somewhere that the boards might be better left untreated on the inner parts), but ultimately played it safe and did two coats of Olympic Deck Stain in the natural cedar color on the sides, top edge, and inner side of the top board. It did a nice job of bringing out and hopefully preserving the natural color, while also adding a little pigment. I feel like the natural wood tones play nicely off all the grey paint on the house. It dried a bit lighter and more natural looking than this photo suggests, but this is more or less how it looks. The deck stain also provides good water-resistance, so it should hold up to the elements well. I’m guessing it’ll have to be resealed every couple of years, and from what I’ve read the boards should hold up fine for a couple decades.
I feel like I need to save more of a reveal photo of the planters all planted and in action until I blog about the next exterior project because the pictures would spoil it (yes, you must live in brief suspense!), but I stuck a bunch of plants in them a week or two ago and they look good! Nothing like some plants to immediately make a house look better. I’m glad to have gotten some stuff growing before it gets too cold to plant, and hopefully everything will come back in the spring looking very beautiful and charming and some nice person who loves the house will be so charmed by my plantings and want to buy the house and live in it and stuff.
Despite its scale (about 50 linear feet of planter!) the planter project wasn’t super hard, and the whole thing cost a few hundred dollars—not bad for such a huge project with a big impact! I feel like the front yard has finally been tamed and is all primed and ready for the rest of it to start looking nice.
Day 11: Oversaw final painting day, paid Edwin and crew, worked on constructing second planter.
Day 12: Worked on planning interior layout and took dimensional drawings to building department for building permit. Borrowed Edwin’s truck for late-night Lowe’s run for rest of planter lumber and other supplies.
Day 13: Worked on building third planter. Got help from neighborhood guys removing stumps from old shrubs along front of property, then worked on removing old fence posts along left side of bluestone walk and leveling soil.. Dumped top soil from that area into completed planters.
Day 14: Very rainy. Worked with Chris, Kodi, and Mike in yard (miserable. wet.) and put first two rows of cedar on front span of planter to prevent run-off onto sidewalk. Went to Lowe’s. Tree guy came back to grind large Catapla stump. Purchased Bagster and cleaned up main floor of house. Mike began demo’ing walls upstairs. Demo’d walls and ceiling in kitchen.
This post is in partnership with Lowe’s!