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11 Ways to Upgrade Your Backyard

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Getting a dream backyard—not to mention maintaining it—takes a lot of work. If your space is looking a little unloved, consider these do-it-yourself upgrades that will have you enjoying your outdoor space in no time.

1. CONSTRUCT KEYHOLE GARDEN SPACES.

Permaculture expert Matt Powers recommends adding keyhole gardens to your backyard for both visual appeal and space-saving planting. These C- or U-shaped beds provide enough room for gardeners to stand or pivot while working, along with easy access from both sides. Keyhole gardens are easy to modify based on personal needs and your backyard vision, and this permaculture practice is an easy way to incorporate gardening for beginning green thumbs.

2. GIVE YOUR DIRTY DECK A FACELIFT.

Decks often take on a gray, grungy look as they age, making your entire backyard look frumpy. But with some elbow grease and a household cleaner, it’s possible to shave a few years off a wooden deck’s appearance without a power washer (which can often be too rough on wooden surfaces). This Old House host Kevin O’Connor recommends scrubbing wooden decks with oxygenated bleach and a soft brush to remove mildew and dirt. Follow a good cleaning with sanding and a new coat of protective stain. O’Connor suggests tackling deck cleaning during the springtime to avoid the further stress on wooden decks that’s often experienced by hot summer days.

3. PLANT SPEEDY SHADE.

A backyard with no shade can make summertime miserable. Ditch the basic patio umbrella for fast-growing trees (like willows, poplars, or soft-wooded maples) that provide natural shade. Selecting the perfect tree for your green space (and knowing how to care for it) can be overwhelming, so make the task easier with the Arbor Day Foundation’s tree wizard. This digital tool narrows in on the best saplings for your backyard based on climate, growth rate, and size.

4. END RAINY DAY SOGGINESS WITH SWALES.

If your outdoor space resembles more of a lake than a yard following a heavy rain, constructing a swale can help. Swales—shallow trenches that help slow and soak up excess water—can be used to redirect water for gardening or to simply avoid flooding. While this form of earthwork has a purpose, it doesn’t have to look like bare dirt. Permaculture author Amy Stross suggests using swales as borders for raised beds or filling with gravel for visually appealing pathways.

5. REPAIR AND REVAMP OUTDOOR FURNITURE.

Patio sets and lounge chairs aren’t cheap to replace, so consider giving new life to what you already have. Metal furniture can easily be wire-brushed clean of flaking paint and coatings while rust removers can finish off prep work. Several coats of primer and paint in a trendy color can give your entire patio set a new look. Older wicker furniture can also get a second chance thanks to some basic care. Furniture restoration expert Cathryn Peters suggests bringing natural fiber furniture indoors at night and in inclement weather to prolong its life. For older, worn pieces, freshen with a turpentine and boiled linseed oil mix before re-staining with an oil-based varnish, shellac, or lacquer.

6. DITCH THE SOD FOR FOOD.

Instead of begrudgingly mowing grass all summer, scrap your back lawn for greenery that gives maximum returns. Activist and author Heather Jo Flores suggests ditching backyard greenery altogether for homegrown foods in Food Not Lawns. By starting with small patches of yard and working up to larger areas (or the entire space), it’s possible to grow hundreds of pounds of produce per year without being overwhelmed by garden work. And if there’s no grass to dig, Flores recommends gardening in containers or using vertical spaces along fences and your home.

7. STAIN A CONCRETE PATIO FOR A POLISHED LOOK.

Concrete patios can get a facelift, too. Many homeowners settle for the standard (and affordable) gray concrete look, but adding a stain or pattern can personalize your patio space on the cheap. With this two-day project, it’s easy to replicate the look of bricks or stones without the cost—or the dreadful task of keeping grout clean and weed-free.

8. GROW A NATURAL PRIVACY FENCE.

Natural fences can help your green space feel secluded (even in a busy neighborhood), but know upfront that this form of fencing isn’t an instant fix, considering they can take years to grow in. Landscape designer Sandra Jonas says natural fences can keep intruders and wildlife out of your yard, especially bushes with thorns or rough leaves. While there are countless ways to design a natural fence, Jonas warns against planting bamboo because of its eagerness to spread—leading to a lot more outdoor work.

9. USE MIRROR TRICKS TO INCREASE THE SIZE YOUR YARD.

Mirrors have long been used indoors as room-lengthening décor pieces, but you can also take this trick outside to increase the size of your yard without having to purchase more space. Tuck mirrors into planters, along fences, and as large yard decor to reflect light and give the illusion of a larger space. Choose mirrors that can withstand outdoor weather and temperature changes, and avoid placing them in areas birds frequent to prevent collisions.

10. REGENERATE BALDING LAWN SPOTS.

Spring is the best time to weed out grass problems for a lush lawn, including unsightly bald spots. You may see dead spots in areas where pets urinate or children play frequently, or in spots where too much or too little water is an issue. The Royal Horticultural Society suggests cutting out dead patches of grass and lightly aerating before sprinkling new grass seed or applying turf. Matching up the seed or turf variety with your existing grass can help this repair blend for a seamless look.

11. ADD A SIMPLE (AND RELAXING) WATER ELEMENT.

Adding a fountain or pond to your backyard can seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. According to HGTV’s Chris Lambton, most water features have the same basic pieces—a liner, a pump, and an electrical source—making them fairly easy (and inexpensive) to install yourself. Whether you choose an earthy vibe or a modern concrete design, a water feature can elevate your backyard’s relaxation factor and act as a mini stress reliever. And, after all, isn't that one of the main reasons to have a pretty, well-maintained outdoor space?

All images via iStock unless otherwise noted.

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6 Things Americans Should Know About Net Neutrality
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Net neutrality is back in the news, as Ajit Pai—the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and a noted net neutrality opponent—has announced that he plans to propose sweeping deregulations during a meeting in December 2017. The measures—which will fundamentally change the way consumers and businesses use and pay for internet access—are expected to pass the small committee and possibly take effect early in 2018. Here's a brief explanation of what net neutrality is, and what the debate over it is all about.

1. IT'S NOT A LAW; IT'S A PRINCIPLE

Net neutrality is a principle in the same way that "freedom of speech" is. We have laws that enforce net neutrality (as we do for freedom of speech), but it's important to understand that it is a concept rather than a specific law.

2. IT'S ABOUT REGULATING ACCESS TO THE INTERNET

Fundamentally, net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should not be allowed to prioritize one kind of data traffic over another. This also means they cannot block services purely for business reasons.

To give a simple example, let's say your ISP also sells cable TV service. That ISP might want to slow down your internet access to competing online TV services (or make you pay extra if you want smooth access to them). Net neutrality means that the ISP can't limit your access to online services. Specifically, it means the FCC, which regulates the ISPs, can write rules to prevent ISPs from preferring certain services—and the FCC did just that in 2015.

Proponents often talk about net neutrality as a "level playing field" for online services to compete. This leaves ISPs in a position where they are providing a commodity service—access to the internet under specific FCC regulations—and that is not always a lucrative business to be in.

3. INTERNET PROVIDERS GENERALLY OPPOSE NET NEUTRALITY

In 2014 and 2015, there was a major discussion of net neutrality that led to new FCC rules enforcing net neutrality. These rules were opposed by companies including AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon. The whole thing came about because Verizon sued the FCC over a previous set of rules and ended up, years later, being governed by even stricter regulations.

The opposing companies see net neutrality as unnecessary and burdensome regulation that will ultimately cost consumers in the end. Further, they have sometimes promoted the idea of creating "fast lanes" for certain kinds of content as a category of innovation that is blocked by net neutrality rules.

4. TECH COMPANIES GENERALLY LOVE NET NEUTRALITY

In support of those 2015 net neutrality rules were companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, Twitter, Vimeo, and Yahoo. These companies often argue that net neutrality has always been the de facto policy that allowed them to establish their businesses—and thus in turn should allow new businesses to emerge online in the future.

On May 7, 2014, more than 100 companies sent an open letter to the FCC "to express our support for a free and open internet":

Over the past twenty years, American innovators have created countless Internet-based applications, content offerings, and services that are used around the world. These innovations have created enormous value for Internet users, fueled economic growth, and made our Internet companies global leaders. The innovation we have seen to date happened in a world without discrimination. An open Internet has also been a platform for free speech and opportunity for billions of users.

5. THE FCC CHAIR ONCE QUOTED EMPEROR PALPATINE

Ajit Pai, who was one of the recipients of that open letter above and is now Chairman of the FCC, quoted Emperor Palpatine from Return of the Jedi when the 2015 rules supporting net neutrality were first codified. (At the time he was an FCC Commissioner.) Pai said, "Young fool ... Only now, at the end, do you understand." His point was that once the rules went into effect, they could have the opposite consequence of what their proponents intended.

The Star Wars quote-off continued when a Fight for the Future representative chimed in. As The Guardian wrote in 2015 (emphasis added):

Referring to Pai's comments Evan Greer, campaigns director at Fight for the Future, said: "What they didn't know is that when they struck down the last rules we would come back more powerful than they could possibly imagine."

6. THE TWO SIDES DISAGREE ABOUT WHAT NET NEUTRALITY'S EFFECTS ARE

The Star Wars quotes above get at a key point of the net neutrality debate: Pai believes that net neutrality stifles innovation. He was quoted in 2015 in the wake of the new net neutrality rules as saying, "permission-less innovation is a thing of the past."

Pai's statement directly contradicts the stated position of net neutrality proponents, who see net neutrality as a driver of innovation. In their open letter mentioned above, they wrote, "The Commission’s long-standing commitment and actions undertaken to protect the open Internet are a central reason why the Internet remains an engine of entrepreneurship and economic growth."

In December 2016, Pai gave a speech promising to "fire up the weed whacker" to remove FCC regulations related to net neutrality. He stated that the FCC had engaged in "regulatory overreach" in its rules governing internet access.

For previous coverage of net neutrality, check out our articles What Is Net Neutrality? and What the FCC's Net Neutrality Decision Means.

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This AI Tool Will Help You Write a Winning Resume
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For job seekers, crafting that perfect resume can be an exercise in frustration. Should you try to be a little conversational? Is your list of past jobs too long? Are there keywords that employers embrace—or resist? Like most human-based tasks, it could probably benefit from a little AI consultation.

Fast Company reports that a new start-up called Leap is prepared to offer exactly that. The project—started by two former Google engineers—promises to provide both potential minions and their bosses better ways to communicate and match job needs to skills. Upload a resume and Leap will begin to make suggestions (via highlighted boxes) on where to snip text, where to emphasize specific skills, and roughly 100 other ways to create a resume that stands out from the pile.

If Leap stopped there, it would be a valuable addition to a professional's toolbox. But the company is taking it a step further, offering to distribute the resume to employers who are looking for the skills and traits specific to that individual. They'll even elaborate on why that person is a good fit for the position being solicited. If the company hires their endorsee, they'll take a recruiter's cut of their first year's wages. (It's free to job seekers.)

Although the service is new, Leap says it's had a 70 percent success rate landing its users an interview. The rest is up to you.

[h/t Fast Company]

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