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The Dirt on Saving Money

Ylan Mui

Today we have another guest blogger for you, our colleague Kelly Johnson. She solved a big financial and logistical headache with a little savvy frugality:

It took me most of an afternoon to realize he wasn’t coming back.

The contractor had honored nine-tenths of our agreement. That last bit on paper amounted to several tons of dirt and rocks in my front yard.

His crew had dug out the earth from beneath the porch to knock through the wall and add a front entrance to the basement apartment.

We were down to finishing touches, he said, and he’d just need that final check to wrap up the work and clean up the site.

That’s right. What can I say? It was a rookie error.

The heap he left behind was enormous — my very own Kilimanjaro of trouble. It was unsightly. I’d set out to improve the place and here I had the biggest mess on the block.
I called other contractors and took bids for its removal. Frankly, the expense of the renovation had wiped out my savings and I couldn’t justify $1,000 or more to haul dirt. And considering the economy’s slide, would I ever be kicking myself right now if I had written a big check to make the problem go away.

Instead, I casually asked neighbors with trucks whether they knew anyone with a vast hole to fill.

I also tried a “Free Dirt” posting on craigslist. No luck.

Then, a friend who shares my dedication to sprucing up our Northeast Washington neighborhood hit pay dirt. The solution, he said, was curbside flower boxes. The rocky earth would be perfect as fill dirt.

By summer’s end, we’d built four huge boxes for less than $50 each in materials. And bucket by bucket, I took down that mountain.

We’ll build one more box this spring, and that’ll be the end of it.

The lovely flower gardens, however, are just taking root and will brighten our street for years to come.

And they were dirt cheap.
— Kelly Johnson

Here's how Kelly made her frugal flower boxes in less than 10 easy steps:


1. Friends: From among your neighbors, select one with gumption and power tools.

2. Measure: We wanted our boxes to fill the space from curb to
sidewalk. So they were about 32 inches wide and as long as 15 feet. We
figured our beds would be four timbers deep. Each timber is eight feet
long, so we ran the math to see how many timbers to buy.

3. Buy materials: Landscaping timbers and 7-inch nails.

4. Gather tools: Power saw, drill, hammer, level, measuring tape,
pencil, garden spade, hoe or trowel.

5. Level the earth where you will build the bed.

6. Dig a trench along the perimeter about five inches wide and three
inches deep.

photo-4.jpg 7. To build the base, place the timbers in the trench. You’ll need to
cut the timbers to fit end-to-end to fill in the rest of the trench.
Make sure they are level and secure. If your trench is uneven, the
base won’t be solid.

8. Add the second level of timbers, using a log cabin pattern. Drill
holes every few feet to drive nails through to secure to the timber
beneath. Repeat for the third and fourth levels.

9. Dump in fill dirt, leaving four or five inches to top off with garden soil.

By Ylan Mui  |  April 20, 2009; 12:07 AM ET
Categories:  Cheap & Green , Faces of Frugality , Ylan Q. Mui  
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Next: White House to Look at Credit Card Fees


A happy ending to an obnoxious problem.

I think you still get to be peeved about the contractor and I hope you told all your friends and neighbors who they were!

Do you cover the boxes in the winter? I've found that salt/chemicals from snowy roads are a problem for beds like that.

Hopefully walked dogs won't pee all over it.

Posted by: RedBird27 | April 20, 2009 7:07 AM | Report abuse

Interesting solution.

However, did you investigate the legality of planting on the "hell strip"? Some cities would not allow that type of change.

Also, did you research how the changed level of dirt under trees could harm them? That added dirt can actually suffocate the tree roots, thus slowly killing the trees.

Posted by: peonymom | April 20, 2009 7:26 AM | Report abuse

I think they look great. did anyone get mad at the changed amount of width on the sidewalks? They would in our neighborhood.

Posted by: ShaniG | April 20, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

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