All posts tagged: Bluestone Backyard Makeover

Bluestone Backyard: Concrete, Fencing, and Covering Chain Link with Wood!

This project is in partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

I’ve been putting in long hours over at Bluestone Cottage’s backyard, and I have the insane farmer’s tan to prove it! It’s really starting to look like something, and I’m so excited for the direction it’s going. Here we were a couple weeks ago:

When considering what to do with this backyard, it quickly became apparent to me that a new privacy fence would be the single most important investment I could make back here. There was existing fencing on all three sides of the yard, but each side was a different style: a falling-down stockade-style picket fence, newer but unsightly (and very see-through!) chainlink fencing, and a dog-ear style picket fence. In a larger space, I feel like this kind of thing isn’t as big of a deal—like there can be enough going on that the fence isn’t necessarily a major focus. But in a space this size, the different materials combined with the lack of privacy made it feel visually cluttered and too exposed to use comfortably.

First order of business was to demo the old fence. I used my Sawzall to cut through the rails and then yanked out the posts. The posts are pressure-treated 4x4s in decent condition (and, mercifully, not set in concrete), but the fencing was not pressure-treated and had a lot of damage and rot. A few days before, I discovered that not only does our municipal trash transfer station compost yard waste, but they also compost “clean” lumber—i.e. not pressure-treated or painted or stained! So it’s not in a landfill, and one day I’ll probably buy it back in the form of compost, basically.

Before installing the new fence, I took this as my only easy-ish opportunity to really deal with this pathway that connects the front and back yards. It was paved with a cobbled-together bluestone pathway, but with dirt on either side and impossible to maintain without a ton of weeding or spraying stuff that kills weeds. I think the bluestone (from which the cottage derives its name!) will be so much nicer to use in the front of the house than along this pathway, and a clean and simple concrete path will be practical and super low maintenance and keep water off the foundation.

SO. We removed the bluestone slabs for reuse elsewhere, excavated a couple inches and leveled, then laid about 4″ of item #4 gravel. Around that, I built a simple form out of 2x4s, driving stakes into the ground every 4′ or so.  You don’t typically need the steel remesh for a sidewalk application, but Edwin likes it and hey—can’t hurt.

For the pour, there are a lot of concrete options—including just scheduling a pour with a local concrete company. I was concerned that access/traffic flow would be real issues, and it wasn’t THAT much concrete, so mixing and pouring on-site seemed like the best option.

I found this Sakrete Maximizer concrete at Lowe’s, which made things easier! Like other bags of concrete, they weigh 80 pounds each. BUT! Every bag makes almost twice as much concrete as a typical 80-lb bag, which is a big deal when you have to mix a bunch of concrete—we would have needed about FIFTY MORE bags to do the same thing with regular concrete. That’s a lot of work to cut out of the process!

Don’t worry, that’s just a little over 6,000 pounds of dry concrete. Everyone’s favorite summer activity, am I right?!

After tamping down the gravel and affixing Sakrete’s Expansion Joints to the abutting side of the foundation, it was pour time.

No WAY were we mixing 80 bags of concrete on our own. And at this point, I’ve paid enough to rent concrete mixers that I could have bought two. So Edwin and I went halfsies on this Kobalt concrete mixer, and now we have a concrete mixer.

I know, it’s all very impressive. A pick-up truck, chainsaw, and concrete mixer in the space of one summer. This is not how I pictured things turning out for myself.

We built the forms and screed the concrete at a slight angle away from the house. After it had set up a bit, we smoothed the edges with a concrete edger and placed our expansion joints every 4′ with this concrete groover. Once it was pretty set, I misted it with water and covered it in 6 mil plastic, which helps it from drying out too quickly and developing cracks.

Hooray! I’ll be honest that it’s not the most exciting improvement but it feels super clean and practical and easy to live with. I’ve really grown to appreciate a simple concrete slab in my old age.

After the new path had dried out for a few days, the fence was delivered! HEYYYY.

(BTW—I opened myself up a Lowe’s ProServices Business credit card, which gives you 5% off everyday AND $20 flat-rate delivery from your local store. Consequently, getting big things delivered—like 80+ bags of concrete or 100+ 16′ cedar boards or like 120 bags of gravel—is my new favorite thing. So much time and energy saved on loading and unloading, which makes the project itself feel so much more manageable and leaves me more time to actually enjoy my summer! I wish I knew about this sooner—for real, talking about this is not part of my blog partnership with Lowe’s, but it’s a good deal if you do this work professionally, so I wanted to mention it. They were also running a limited-time 10% off promotion for opening the card, so that was a nice savings for these few large orders.)

So, about this fence. I thought horizontal fencing would visually elongate the space and it just felt like the way to go here. I also really wanted to use cedar, since it’s what I used on the front planters and I know it holds up well. Pressure-treated wood just always disappoints me in a few years and I try to avoid it. Also—hear me out! It’s a small house, so treating this like another living space feels important. All of this to say: I designed an expensive fence, and the small size of the yard made me feel justified in this decision. Let us pray it was worth it.

After weighing my options, 1 x 6 cedar decking boards in the 16′ length were the best solution in terms of size, price, and quality. 16 feet is a long board, but it’s actually slightly less expensive to buy the 16-ft length than two 8′ pieces. By the way, the boards really are 1″ thick (rather than your typical 1x, which is 3/4″ thick), but are 5.5″ wide rather than 6″.

Is this overkill? Kinda, maybe, sorta, depends. Let’s put it this way: your typical 5’x8′ pressure-treated fence panel will run about $7.50 per linear foot of fencing. By comparison, 1×6 cedar decking boards will run about $17 per linear foot to achieve the same height (I went higher to match the height of the chainlink, bringing my linear foot cost to about $25). So it’s not a small difference—it’s definitely the big ticket item back here. In fairness, I expect this fence to last MUCH longer than typical 5/8″ thick pickets, so there’s that to consider too. But anyway—it’s so foundational to the space and not easily changed that I stand by it. I’ll just have to be crafty in other ways so this whole thing doesn’t cost a small fortune.

At this point, I’d exhausted the labor budget I gave myself on the backyard and was working solo. I removed the wood forms for the concrete path and used a post hole-digger to dig down about 2.5′, spacing my posts at 8′ intervals. I used 10′ cedar 4x4s, which I’ll cut the tops off of toward the end—it’s easier to cut down the posts after they’re set than try to get the tops all level as you install them.

To make my life SO MUCH EASIER (and more exciting), I treated myself to this Sika Polyurethane Fence Post Mix to set the posts. It’s kind of the coolest. Rather than schlepping an 80-pound bag of concrete for each post, you just need this little lightweight pouch of chemical potion that turns into this rapidly expanding foam. Because it expands and cures so quickly, you don’t need to brace your posts like you do while concrete sets—just hold it in place for a few minutes and you’re good. I LOVE it. I didn’t know what to expect, but the posts feel extremely sturdy and stable, and it made the hardest part of fencing feel…not very hard! Easy as a one-person job, and I had all my posts set in like an hour. Boom!

Maybe my holes weren’t quite deep enough, but the foam expanded above the ground, each one looking like a small mushroom cloud. This happens in a matter of seconds! I’ll post a video to Instagram—it’s weird ASMR to watch it grow. Science, man. It’ll mess you up.

The next day, I used my Dremel Multi-Max 50 to cut away the excess foam. Easy and done. Love that thing.

Time to start putting boards up! Hooray! This is a difficult one-person job and a somewhat easy and relaxing 2-person job.

Horizontal fencing is kind of like tiling—if your first board is right, it goes pretty fast from there. I left a 1″ gap or so between the concrete and the bottom board and used a level when attaching it. I used 2″ Grip-Rite deck screws to attach the boards to the posts.

With the first board secured and level, I used a paint stir-stick as a spacer between boards. This also allowed for a little bit of play to keep the boards level—you want to recheck your level periodically and make small adjustments as needed.

Because the boards are so long, I can span two posts with one board—which means a nice staggered joint! I think this looks really nice (more continuous, I guess), and also helps the fence stay rigid and super solid because there isn’t a big vertical seam on each post.

Before installing the last board, I marked and cut the top of each post at a 45-degree angle, which will prevent water from sitting on the top of the post without needing decorative post caps. I just thought this would look nice! It also saved a few bucks.

With the north side done, I pulled out the dog-ear picket fence on the south side, re-set the posts, and began hanging my fencing—making sure my south-side boards and north-side boards were level with each other.

Oh hi, fence! Looking fancy.

Now it’s time to cover the chain link!! I ripped a cedar 2×4 in half and mounted it to end of the new fence, where it meets the chain link. This is what the boards will attach to in this corner.

I’ve seen similar stuff done with conduit straps, but did you know there’s an actual adaptor part made just for this? I ordered mine online from Lowe’s and they were here a few days later.

So typically, these would install onto the vertical chain link metal poles, like so. From there, you’d treat them just like a 4 x 4 post, installing your 2 x 4 fence rails to the adapters and hanging your pickets as usual. In some cases it’s appropriate to remove the chainlink itself, but since this is part of a much larger fence that’s not mine, it stays.

In this case, I used the horizontal rails of the chainlink to attach my adaptors.

Then I just screwed in cedar 2x4s as my verticals. Like fence posts! Obviously there’s a small gap between the adaptor and the 2×4, but that’s as close as it goes with the chainlink still in place. The screws are long enough to keep it very secure.

Like so! There’s an adaptor on the top rail and the middle, but the bottom was buried so far down that I just kinda buried the bottom of the 2×4 “posts” and called it a day. Note also that attaching the adaptors to the rails rather than the poles allowed me to control the spacing—the span is too long for a single 16′ board, so I needed two “posts” in the middle to keep my staggered seam. If that makes sense? It took some head-scratching once I actually started. You, too, can figure it out.

Here! We! Go! From here, the fence went up much like the other sides. Glorious! Because the side walls are attached to each other by the center section over the chainlink, the whole thing is square and level and impressively sturdy.

In case you’re wondering how this looks from the back—I think it’s pretty clean and nice! The gardeners seem stoked, too. I hope they find that it makes a nice backdrop for whatever they want to hang on it. I didn’t treat it with anything, but cedar should weather to a nice silvery grey in a few years. I think that’ll be swell.

Remember this, a couple weeks ago?!

SO MUCH BETTER. I decided to extend the concrete pathway straight into the yard, leaving about 7′ of unpaved space in the corner for a tree. I feel like this paved area could be used in a variety of ways, like a grill and some outdoor chairs, or a small bistro table, or a swanky bar or buffet surface.

While the community garden was nice to look at, having all the sides fenced in a solid material really makes the space… feel like a space? It feels like a (currently comically barren) private little courtyard, where you could totally kick back and read a book and drink rosé or whatever. It’s so small and cute!

So happy to have this fence done! This feels kind of like an interior renovation—and now that we have walls, it’s just floors, furniture, and decor to go! I can’t wait to get some plants back here and really see it come to life.

By the way! I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all the awesome ideas y’all had for this space—I seriously considered ALL of them, and I’m so grateful for the feedback. This feedback included a lot of suggestions about the chain link conundrum in particular, so if covering your chain link with wood fencing isn’t your speed, here are some great options offered by your fellow readers!

  1. Climbing plants! Easy, cheap, and effective! Climbers LOVE to grow on chainlink (honeysuckle, hops, ivy, Virginia creeper all come to mind). They’d take a few years to take over, and in this climate would still die back in the winter but provide privacy all summer long. I didn’t go with this option in large part because the community garden actually owns the fence, and climbers can become quite invasive and even damage the fence long-term, and they expressly did NOT want it.
  2. Hedges! Also effective, but slower, and more expensive. Lots of options: Arborvitae, Holly, Privet, Laurel, and Forsythia are a few I can rattle off.  Of course something like that takes up more space than fencing or climbers, but not a ton.
  3. Privacy Slats and Screens! There are various products designed for this very purpose that are affordable and practical, like privacy slats you can kinda weave into the chain link, or privacy screening meant to hang in front of it. Within the privacy screening category, there is black (which can be a good neutral backdrop for plants) or more decorative options which I’d assume look good from afar and a little cheesy up close. My favorite option here is probably a natural reed or bamboo screen—natural reed in particular I think is versatile and can work in a lot of different styles. You can also get creative! Recycled billboard vinyl is well-suited for outdoor use, or waterproof canvas, or sail cloth, or…IDK THIS IS YOUR PROJECT, YOU FIGURE IT OUT.

Onwards! I’m so glad to be getting this done now, while the next steps on the interior work are still being debated between the pros and the building department (I’ll tell you all about it—it’s nuts but informative, I guess), and fall/winter are just around the corner! I’m glad this is going pretty quickly because I’m still hoping to circle back to a few improvements to my OWN backyard/exterior before it’s too cold and I shift back indoors. Anyone else starting to feel that crunch? Just me?

Bluestone Backyard Makeover: Welcome to the Jungle!

This project is in partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

Since the basement laundry room renovation a few months ago, progress has been a little slow over at ole’ Bluestone Cottage. I’m itching to get going on the finish work (the fun stuff!), but there are some hurdles to overcome first. Right now getting the insulation sorted out is the main priority—something that sounds simple but has required all this back-and-forth hassle between professional installers and the building department and inconsistent information and CAN ANYTHING JUST BE EASY?!

No it cannot. We’ve discussed this at length for roughly nine years. Get with the program.

So here we are in the middle of summer. My strategy is to get the house to the point this fall that the exterior’s in good shape and the interior is insulated and heated and ready for all the fixin’s. I’d really like to have this house occupied next spring, and I really don’t want to have a major exterior project hanging over me when that time comes! SO, while I’m waiting on these few interior things to materialize, and the weather’s good, and fall is just around the corner, I’m finally tackling…THE BACKYARD.

I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about the backyard? I don’t think I ever really showed it? Much like the front of the house, it was a complete jungle of overgrowth and trash when I bought this house, so it wasn’t really possible to take photos that show the whole space. It’s very small—less than 500 square feet!—which I find kind of exciting. It feels manageable in a way that my own much larger backyard doesn’t, and the volume of materials needed for any given improvement isn’t so huge. At the same time, it’s a real design challenge because you still want to include everything you’d want in a larger space, but don’t want it to feel crowded or busy or stupid. Challenge accepted? Great; you don’t have a choice.

By the way, should I be referring to it as the…rear garden? That sounds so much more sophisticated than “backyard.” I feel like that’s what Monty Don would call it.

This is one of the only photos of the rear garden I have from when I bought the house. Cute, right? There was this big storage shed back there, which I think partially collapsed after a tree fell on it. At the time I remember thinking it took up so much space and that the backyard would be so much nicer without trying to also use it as a storage facility, but I now understand why the shed was necessary. Because the house is small, too! The old shed held a wild assortment of toys and figurines and picture frames and stuff, but I’ve really tried to design ample interior storage space for that kind of thing. That said, with only a little tiny basement, there really isn’t anywhere inside the house for gardening tools or outdoor power equipment or snow shovels, fertilizers, seed, etc. This is fine for now since I just bring all that stuff over from my house when I need it, but eventually this house needs to grow its own wings and fly. So keep that in the back of your brain: STORAGE!

Anyway. The shed and its contents were disposed of years ago. And that’s pretty much where the progress in the back stalled until about a week ago.

DO YOU FEEL INSPIRED OR WHAT?! Yikes. What you’re looking at is the north side of the spaceThe back of the house is on the left, and a 4-ft walkway between that and the rickety wood fence provides access to the space.

So. Lots of old trash—the overgrowth conceals some of it but trust me it’s there. I swear this was just used as an unofficial dumping ground for a while. There’s an oil tank leftover from the house’s old heat system (which had been stripped out, presumably for scrap, when I bought it) a mysterious pile of sand, and just general mayhem.

(Related: if you’re local and need a perfectly good oil tank, hit me up.)

Moving ’round clockwise, the back corner is mostly obstructed by this big tree, which is growing RIGHT on the fence line. This tree was actually supposed to be removed back when I had some other tree work done, but I think a miscommunication resulted in it just getting some pruning. It’s a mulberry tree, which is both yummy and a total mess because those berries drop everywhere.

This is the entire view of the back of the property (it fits in one photo! the whole thing!), which is comprised of a tall chain link fence owned by the community garden behind it. I love having the community garden as neighbors but I always hate chainlink fencing, and since people come in and out of it all day, it makes the backyard feel very exposed. So keep that in the back of your brain: PRIVACY!

Moving clockwise, we have the other side. Here, we threw up a quick fence when I bought the house with some pre-assembled panels mostly to keep the neighbors from disposing of things by just moving them over the property line. Now they just throw things over it, I guess? In fairness I accept responsibility for this—I don’t think people are nearly so inclined to act this way when it’s apparent that a space is being cared for and this one hasn’t really been. So hopefully that won’t be an ongoing issue.

There’s also a nice maple tree! I like the maple tree. I’m guessing it wasn’t planted intentionally but it’s big and appears healthy and provides some shade, so I think keeping it is the right move.

Continuing clockwise around the yard…these “before” photos are gonna be a lot more fun with some “afters” to throw up next to them. I’m working on it!!

Annnnd, we’re back to the rear of the house. Do you have your bearings? So compact!

OK, SO LET’S DIVE IN. The first phase of any landscaping work is to clear, clear, clear. Clear anything and everything out that you don’t need or want. I’m so glad this space is small because this was a big job.

On the first day, I did a bunch of smaller brush removal and filled about 15 paper yard bags with debris. It took a while because I try REALLY hard to keep any bits of trash out of the yard bags, since the county composts and resells it to people (like me!) in the community. Nobody wants plastic in their compost!

For the Mulberry tree, I called my normal tree guy (whose prices seem high to me, but he’s in the neighborhood and a good dude), but couldn’t get a call back! I asked Edwin to help me with some other odd jobs for a few days, and we figured we could tackle it together.  

Except neither of us have a chainsaw.

SO I BOUGHT A CHAINSAW. I figured the professional tree removal would cost 3x as much as the chainsaw anyway, and I still wouldn’t have a chainsaw. Feel free to borrow this logic when you want to justify power tool purchases. It works for me all the time.

Small note: if there are structures nearby or the tree is big or there are any doubts or hesitations, hire the trained and properly insured professional.

I picked up the Greenworks Pro 60-Volt battery-powered chainsaw, and it is GREAT. Edwin, a straight man, likes to destroy things possibly more than he likes building them, so he tore it out of my hands and climbed the tree before I could take the tag off or fight him for it. He had the time of his life, I think?

So the chainsaw. I am genuinely impressed. We took down the whole tree on one battery and it had no problem getting through big limbs or even the base of the trunk.  It uses the same battery as my leaf blower and lawnmower and hedge trimmer, and I feel really good and grown-up about assembling this arsenal of high-quality battery-powered tools. I’m consistently impressed by their performance and expect to use them for a very long time!

And then I took this photo of ol’ Boondock, which is carrying most of a Mulberry tree in its bed. It took two trips to the compost pile at the dump and about $15 and the deed was done.

Many more yard bags and contractor bags later…

HELLO (almost) blank slate! I feel like now we can get a better sense of what we’re working with here. Don’t worry, I’m sure I will find a way to overcomplicate this whole endeavor.

Of course without the tree, it feels a little like a fish bowl because of the chain link fence. I think I have a plan. The community garden folks are thrilled to see the Mulberry tree gone, by the way.

In the foreground, there is an odd pile of large rocks and broken bricks and pieces of concrete. I didn’t have the strength to start dealing with that. Pls ignore.

Sadly the kitchen windows are currently boarded, but I’m working on that too. I’m working on, uh, a lot of things.

Here’s a rough sketch with dimensions so you can see where we’re starting. So! WHAT DO WE DO. THAT IS THE NEXT QUESTION. Remember, this house is not for me to live in, so this is a real question. What do people like to do in backyards? Obviously we are dealing with major size limitations.

Here are some things I’m thinking about as I lay awake every night (it’s getting annoying):

  1. New fence. Private, and uniform all the way around. I think this will make a huge, huge difference. I think horizontal cedar boards will make the space feel a little bit larger. I spoke with the landlord who owns the existing picket fence on the north side and he’s totally on board with letting me replace it with whatever I want.
  2. Storage. Not a TON, but enough for outdoor/gardening-related stuff. This isn’t on the mood board because I think I’m going to try building something custom.
  3. Place(s) to hang out. I’m torn here. Chairs? An outdoor sofa? A dining table? A bistro table? Some combination? It’s tricky. I want it to be cozy and a place that will actually get used. I like a classic Adirondack chair…and a small table and chairs to sip morning coffee or evening cocktails (or morning cocktails and evening coffee; you do you). Pretend you’re renting this house: what would you want? Lowe’s has a whole lot of options!
  4. Low-maintenance. This kind of goes along with storage and places to hang out, but I really don’t want to deal with trying to grow/maintain/mow grass back here. I have a low-key pea gravel fetish, so I’m thinking a combination of concrete paving, classic pea gravel, and mulched beds—things that theoretically have to be dealt with only about once or twice a year.
  5. Outdoor cooking. Nothing crazy but it should have a grill, right? Sadly fire pits are a no-no in Kingston, but grills are OK. I love a classic little Weber charcoal grill, and I’m intrigued by this newer design that makes the charcoal/ash clean-up easier. And it comes in cool finishes like copper and this dark green!
  6. Plants. You could totally go all Secret Garden vibe back here, but I feel like that would not work with the aforementioned practical priorities, so I’m thinking more along the lines of some nice mulched beds along the fence. Maybe some climbers on a trellis, like this one? Maybe some container gardening in some classic terra cotta pots? Maybe another tree? Also, those kitchen windows are gonna need window boxes, right? These window boxes seem promising, and I wouldn’t mind buying something prefab rather than turning that into another project.
  7. String lights, because what kind of monster doesn’t love a string light?

OK! Past experience has taught me that there are some very good brains out there reading this, so I’m curious what your priorities would be! Tell me what you think at once! I insist.

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