quick fixes for a bad yard

Note: Sorry for the poor quality of these photos. I took them last year in a different home, so I can’t retake them.

For the few months we lived in Chicago, we rented a house that was wonderfully renovated — inside. Outside, a garage that opened onto both the alley and the backyard was convenient, except the door on the yard side was permanently stuck in the “open” position. That meant that being or even looking outside meant staring at our cars and garden tools. The trellised sitting area was cute, but it was next to a covered walkway between the fence and garage that was dark, creepy, and littered with broken pavement.

I can’t live somewhere where I can’t enjoy my yard, but we weren’t going to spend big bucks to fix up a rental. So with the help of my very talented husband, we put in some quick fixes that made a surprisingly big impact.

I’ve always liked the looks of curtains on a porch, and anything was better than the current view, so I decided to give them a try. Because they would be exposed to the elements and we wanted to keep things on the cheap, we decided to buy shower curtains. (Also a great idea because there are so many cute options.)

For the walkway, we bought a striped curtain from Target, using a cheap tension rod to hang it. I can’t even tell you how happy I was to see cheerful curtains instead of creepy walkway!

Once the stripes were up, we realized that anything too busy would look a little nuts on the garage. We ended up buying two extremely thrifty, plain white fabric shower curtains from Menards — $9 apiece. To hang them, we went back to our trusty extra-long conduit curtain rod DIY, attaching the rod inside the garage door frame.

Because outside curtains blow a bit in the wind no matter what, I used a bit of picture hanging wire to secure the end curtain hooks around the rubber stoppers on the tension rod.

The final touch was so easy that I’m kind of surprised I didn’t do much of this before: we pulled some banged up and neglected containers out from under the porch, including two big flower pots and a small plastic garbage can, and filled them with several different sizes of ornamental grass. This was the biggest splurge, and probably cost about $60 total. It was amazing, though, how much it softened the hard edges of the yard.  The result was a yard I could live with (for a few months, at least).

From our partners

my first raised vegetable garden: the materials

I spent most of my life in Ohio, so moving to the Pacific Northwest was a shock for this laissez-faire gardener, who used to just throw tomato seeds on the ground, then sit back and harvest all summer long, thanks to the hot weather and frequent storms. Our first summer in Seattle, I got a reality check: it was in the 60s most of the time, so my tomato plants just kind of did…nothing. Silly me. The disappointment put me off vegetable gardening for five years, with last summer moot as I wasn’t living here at all.

This year, I decided to finally learn to vegetable garden in Seattle. I knew this would take a lot of planning, and it seemed that raised beds were the key. Not only are they better in a cooler climate because the soil warms up faster above ground, they are easier to weed and, in my case, easier to keep out of range of two big, nosy dogs.

Cement Block It Is

After doing some reseplace, I realized that I didn’t have to go all spendy on (admittedly nice looking) wooden raised beds. Instead, I could simply use concrete blocks to put a bed together. I’ve been using this SHTF blog tutorial on building a concrete block raised bed as my guide. I love the idea of cement block because they’re heavy (so there’s not as much digging required, as “Ranger Man” at SHTF points out), they’re inexpensive, and you can even plant inside the holes in the bricks. We’re putting our beds in a section of yard that’s oddly shaped and not visible from our house, so it didn’t matter to me that the cement block wasn’t quite as pretty.

How Much Will Blocks Cost?

After measuring the space where our beds will go, I calculated what I might spend, figuring that prices at the Home Depot site were probably a good standard to follow. The typical 16″x8″x8″ blocks cost $1.32 each at Home Depot. If each bed was three blocks high, three blocks wide, and seven blocks long (exactly the same as the SHTF post, basically), for a total of 60 blocks, I would be spending about $80 a bed. That was more expensive than I had hoped, so I went to plan B:


I posted that I was looking for concrete blocks, and got two responses in less than a week: one from a man dismantling his old retaining wall (those are his aged blocks above) and one from a woman whose blocks were just a few years old — and all for free!

Scaling Back

I ended up with 60 blocks total, and we decided to try to break these into two smaller beds rather than keep trying to find more blocks for two bigger beds. Partially this is because I don’t want to burn myself out by taking on too much garden since it’s still a learning experience for me. Partially this is because, well, remember how I like the idea of concrete blocks because they’re heavy? Yeah, they’re heavy! Which means, they take some effort to transport. Our van just could not handle more than 30 blocks at a time — we really didn’t want to see how low we could make it sink onto the tires and still move forward. So we decided to call off the block seplace for now until we get what we have in some semblance of order. More to come!

From our partners

my new paranoia: fear of falling trees

This is a repost from last year. Stay safe if you’re in a Sandy zone!

I’m always remarking how much safer I felt living in the city rather than the ‘burbs. On dark and stormy nights, I miss being in close proximity of other apartment dwellers and having only one point of entry into our home. I also miss sleeping in a 12-story brick building that I know can’t be toppled by a falling tree. This weekend we were figuratively blown away by an extremely rare October snow storm. It was cold, wet and dangerous: The still-green leaves clung to tree branches, catching the damp heavy clumps as they fell from the sky, adding tons of weight to branches. Isadora and I sat inside, watching the spectacle out of the windows. POP! Down a limb would come crashing, just missing our neighbor’s car. Luckily no serious damage was done, but now I can’t help but look at the massive oak tree in our front yard with trepidation. It seems criminal to chop down a tree that’s been around hundreds of years. How do you know when it’s time to say good-bye tree, hello chain saw? This slide show, How Safe Are Your Trees at iVillage, offers some handy assessment ideas. Be on the lookout for warning signs like dead branches, splits in the trunk or even mushrooms growing out of the roots. — Angela M.

Have you ever had property damage caused by falling limbs or trees? Share your horror stories here!

Image from iVillage/Getty

From our partners

do you compost? novice needs advice

When it comes to being green, I try my darnest to be smart about not wasting things: LED lightbulbs? Check. Reusable grocery bags? Check. Eco-friendly cleaners? Check… Compost bin? … Um, compost bin? Okay, I confess. This is one green thing that I know we should be doing but I just haven’t yet made plunge to saving our organic scraps and making better soil for our garden. I know it’s easy and makes sense, but somehow changing our “everything goes in the garbage” habit has been a tough one.

This new Eco-Bin Composter might be the thing to push me towards productivity. It seems insanely easy. Its collapsible, spring-loaded design means that when it’s not use it won’t take up a ton of space in our garage or basement. It has an open bottom so worms can get up in there and do their thing. The sturdy mesh allows air in for faster decomposition, but it’s puncture proof. It comes with a lid and you can tie it down to an anchoring stake so it won’t blow away. Best of all, it’s only $40.

But here are some of my concerns; maybe some of you compost aficionados can alleviate them for me?
1. Won’t it smell? Our back yard is small and I’m worried about stinking up a corner.
2. Won’t it attract critters? We have raccoons, groundhogs, possum.. not to mention our dog!
3. It is only accessible from the top, how do you get to the good stuff down at the bottom, without making a mess?
4. Do I need counter-top container for gathering kitchen scraps?

Are you a backyard composter? Please let me know what lessons you’ve learned and what products you recommend for getting started. Soon we’ll be gathering piles of fallen leaves in our yard, so I figure it’s a good time to get started. Thanks!

Zero-Waste Kitchen: Could You Live Like This?

From our partners

help! how do you grow tomatoes in a container?

You’ve all heard about my black thumb before (and, in case you’re wondering, I finally gave up custody of that ill-destined terrarium). But I’ve recently moved to a new pad with a pretty fantastic balcony that gets all kinds of wonderful sun exposure…and I’m thinking tomatoes. Is there anything better in the middle of summer than wandering out to your garden, picking a few fresh tomatoes for your salad? I can’t imagine.

With all of those beautiful outdoor planting containers available now (have you seen the options at West Elm and Crate & Barrel lately?), I’m seriously tempted to try my hand at growing edibles in a container-style garden. But, as ever, I have no idea where to start…or, really, if such a thing is even possible.

So, here’s the question: what do you green thumbs know about planting tomatoes in a container? Is it do-able? Any tips, tricks or rules to follow? Can a beginner even grow tomatoes, or is this a project best left to serious gardeners? Leave me your best ideas in the comments!

Photo via Farmscape Nursery

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