Outdoor Improvements

Back in 2017, I began dreaming about making some improvements to our back yard. Sections of our fence had blown over twice during thunderstorms, and while I had done my best to prop them back up and nail everything together, I really wanted to just replace it. The untreated lumber combined with too-long nails that stuck through every inch was all just terrible.

But the single quote I got for a new fence told me that I couldn’t afford it yet. Then, in 2018, Simon came along and we also needed to invest more into what I call “foundational” improvements. Foundational work is invisible but essential and included things like insulating our ducts, adding a vapor barrier to the crawl space, etc.

The summer of 2019, we learned that Simon (and probably all kids) loved to be outside. He wanted to play outside all the time. And while Simon wasn’t bothered by the desert wasteland that was our yard on summer afternoons, April and I were generally miserable out there. We wanted him to play outside a lot, but we didn’t actually want to be outside, which was a problem. So I took my dreams and started sketching out some ideas and doing a lot of research.

Uncertain how to fund everything that I wanted to do, I asked people on Reddit for advice during the summer of 2020. Simon was about to turn 2 years old and was now properly running around, and April increasingly wanted a patio roof so she could go out the back door when it was raining and not get wet. I also really liked the idea of being able to grill in the rain.

Reddit gave me the idea to refinance our house and take cash out of the equity. Thanks to pandemic weirdness, we were able to lower our interest rate at the same time our home value shot up, so we’ll actually pay our house off sooner and we got enough money from our equity to fund about 45% of the work that I wanted to have done. The rest of our Outdoor Improvement projects were funded by covid stimulus checks, holiday gifts, decreasing my 401k contribution for 5 months, credit card churning, and laser-focused re-prioritization using YNAB.

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How to build Garden Boxes

Garden boxes in place

My wife April has been making plans for some time now to build a garden this spring, and part of that included building some garden boxes. Our experience last summer indicated that our native soil wasn’t too great for growing vegetables, so we wanted to mix some better soil this time around. April’s end goal was for four boxes, six feet by four feet and one foot deep.

Building the boxes turned out easier than I thought, so if you’re interested in building some for yourself, just follow along 🙂

Note: All photos taken with an iPhone. All boxes built by a computer tech who dislikes working with his hands and has no real skill at carpentry. Attempts at hanging shelves have met with disaster, so if I can build these boxes, anyone can.

Step 1: Get the materials

Tools of the trade

Treated lumber is best for outside. It shouldn’t negatively affect the soil or plants (several years ago, the chemicals used in pressure treated wood were changed for just this reason), and will resist weathering pretty well. The screws or other fasteners need to be galvanized, rather than mere zinc plated–galvanized metal will resist rusting and won’t be corroded by the elements or wood.

To minimize cost, we used three different sizes of lumber:

  1. 12 feet long x 6 inches high x 1 inch thick — These were cut in half to serve as 6 x 6 x 1
  2. 8 feet long x 6 inches high x 1 inch thick — These were cut in half to serve as 4 x 6 x 1
  3. 8 feet long x 2 inches thick x 2 inches wide — These were cut into 1 foot lengths to use as braces

All told, we bought eight of numbers 1 and 2, and two of number 3. Lowe’s didn’t charge us for cutting them, and the final price for wood + screws was a little over $160.

I bought a cheap cordless drill/screwdriver when we moved into our house a couple of years ago, and after a full charging it did the job admirably. Be sure to select a drill bit that will fit your screws well. I used 2″ screws and the drill bit was 5/32″.

Step 2: Line everything up

Join 1

I used the 2×2’s as inside braces and screwed the walls of the boxes into those. To properly drill, you’ll want to line up the boards in advance. To keep the box square and even, I alternated these–see in the picture above how the 4×6 overlaps the 2×2? On the opposite end of that 4×6, I have its end even with the 2×2. I flipped these on the other end of the box, so the overlap will be diagonally opposite this one.

Step 3: Drill and Attach

Hold tightly to screw

It’s best to drill and then attach one pair of of holes at a time. I did the ends face down, per the picture in Step 2, held firmly on top of the 2×2 braces. Then I stood them up and held the walls tightly to the braces to drill holes and attach them. Note the staggering in the holes/screws–this is to ensure you don’t accidentally drill into a screw.

Step 4: Leveling up

Adding the second level

The second level is a lot easier to add than the first because you can just line them up with the existing boards. Set the second level boards on top of the first, drill the holes in a staggered fashion as mentioned in Step 3, and screw them in.

Step 5: Put the box in place!

Filled box

Of course, the harder part of all this is digging the hole, which April did quite well. We used a simple level to make sure the boxes were pretty even when we placed them in the hole, then packed a bit of dirt or dug a bit out where necessary to raise or lower a corner/side. Even with the minimal work that went into building the boxes, they hold the soil just fine.

See more pictures on Flickr. There are a ton of different ways to build these boxes, so share your tips or experiences in the comments!