11 Ways to Upgrade Your Backyard

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iStock

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.

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

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5 Easier Ways to Water Your Christmas Tree

Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images
Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images

A decorated Christmas tree adds instant holiday cheer to any room—for a few days, at least. If you neglect to care for it, however, it doesn't take long for that tree to start dropping needles and dry up into a brittle, brown fire hazard. The key to keeping your tree looking healthy until the New Year is to water it every day. Of course, that comes with its own problems, like sap-covered clothing and sore knees. Here are some alternative methods for watering your Christmas tree that won't have you wishing for the end of the holiday season.

1. Rig a funnel and PVC pipe.

The worst part of watering a Christmas tree is crawling around on your hands and knees, but once you've set up this funnel rig, you can water it while standing up. As Eric Palonen demonstrates in the video above, all you need to do is stick a PVC pipe into the tree stand, attach a funnel to the other end with an elbow connector, and pour in the water.

2. Dig out a pool noodle.

Don't have a spare PVC pipe at home? A foam pool noodle works just as well as the receptacle for your funnel.

3. Disguise a DIY water dispenser as a present.

On Instructables, Rickyspears shares his step-by-step process for building a Christmas tree-watering rig. Using a bucket and plastic tube with brass fittings, you can create a water-siphoning system that automatically keeps your tree hydrated. And because a big bucket of water beneath the tree isn't the most festive sight, Rickyspears also tells you how to disguise it by hiding it in a box decorated with wrapping paper.

4. Use a wine bottle.

Still have some leftover wine bottles from Thanksgiving (or the weekend) lying around the house? Use one of them to water the base of your tree while keeping a safe distance between you and the sticky branches. (Though if you do get some sap on your hands, there are a few easy ways to get rid of it.)

5. Invest in an automated watering system.

DIY watering rigs are inexpensive, but if convenience is your main concern, it's hard to beat a product that was designed just for this purpose. The Christmas tree watering bag from Elf Logic senses when your tree needs water and replenishes it automatically. Plus, it hangs on a branch like an ornament, making it easy to tuck away.

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