What To Do When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing.

Not that I ever have no idea what I'm doing...
Not that I ever have no idea what I’m doing…

Earlier this summer I posted this photo of dogs in our backyard:

Patsy & Freddie, getting along. 
Patsy & Freddie, getting along.

I wanted to show that our dog (Patsy, right) was finally getting along with our foster dog, Freddie (left). My husband saw this photo and immediately commented on how crappy our yard looks.

I looked at the photo again.

Dead wreath in the corner, shabby woodpile to the left, a few crummy hostas and scrubby trees, a crumbling concrete wall… hmm, when viewed through this new lens, I guess he had a point. I’d become blind to our lackluster yard. This photo incited a chain reaction that lead to us scouring Angie’s List for landscapers who could turn our trash into treasure.

As I mentioned, oh, I don’t know… ONE MILLIONS TIMES ON THIS BLOG, my hubby Josh is super handy. While I have ideas for what I want a final project to look like, I don’t how to get there. So if we’re talking with contractors, electricians, or anyone quoting anything for our house, I let Josh take the lead.

Josh contacted a few landscaping companies, briefly outlining what we were looking for:

  • a sidewalk that stretched from the front of the house to the back
  • a paver walkway from the patio to the garage
  • ripping out some scrubby trees/weeds & planting grass.All three responded and offered to come check out the yard. However, Josh was traveling all summer for work… which meant I would be the one meeting the landscapers.


I was terrified that the landscaping guy would come over, see big, dumb idiot written all over my face. He’d realize I knew nothing, and use it to his advantage to manipulate me– or worse, write me off completely, gently suggesting he’d “just speak to my husband later.”

I did not want that! I wanted to confidently explain the project. I wanted to speak clearly and give precise direction. With authority. Like Eleanor!

I was determined to fake it ’til I made it.

Or whatever.

I started by compiling a bunch of examples of what Josh and I liked on Pinterest. What better way to explain exactly what you’re looking for than with visuals?

My Pinterest patio board. PS are we friends on Pinterest yet?
My Pinterest patio board. PS are we friends on Pinterest yet?

Next, Josh and I walked through our yard, discussing our vision. Sidewalk here. Walkway there. Grass here. I took mental notes. I felt prepared to meet with the first landscaping dude.

I can do this.

The next day, the landscaping guy arrived. We started in the front yard. I briefly explained where we wanted the sidewalk to go. He traced the imaginary sidewalk with bright orange spray paint. As we walked along the side of the house, he sprayed a bright orange line from the front to the back.

When I looked at the line, it seemed really wide. Wider than Josh and I had talked about. When I said we’d wanted something more like 2.5 – 3 feet wide, he responded kindly, but with authority: “Well, a traditional sidewalk is 3-4 feet across.” Well… he’s the expert, and I have no idea what I’m doing.

I let him do his thing.

By the time he’d walked through our yard, the lawn looked more orange than green.

When we got the quote two days later, the price was roughly three times more than we’d expected. Without me standing up for our vision, we basically ended up for a full yard of concrete. Obviously, this was not going to work.

Before the next company arrived, Josh and I went over the plan. Again. We were firm on the width of the sidewalk (3 feet, max!). Firm on the walkway. Firm on where we’d plant grass, firm on where plants would go. Okay, I got this.

I met with the next landscape company– someone I know through my dad, but not well. I explained exactly what we wanted. The quote came back at half the price. We went for it.

Two weeks later, his crew arrived with a Bobcat.

Just a little light dirt relocation. 
Just a little light dirt relocation.

We knew they needed to regrade a bit… but we weren’t exactly expecting this:

Uh... remember when this was our yard?
Uh… remember when this was our yard?

Since I work from home, I’m the default on-site decision maker… which made me panic as this “small landscaping project” had all of a sudden turned into an archaeological dig.

As the first day went on, the well-intentioned company owner started peppering me with questions: Do you want a French drain? What about raised flower beds over here? Ever thought about a grass-and-paver patio? We could do that instead. We could add a stone veneer to that concrete wall. I know you want a classy, sophisticated yard, Molly, he said.

On the inside, my head was spinning. I’m open to suggestions, but this was a bit much. How in the heck do you know what I want? And WTF is a French drain?! AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S EVEN GOING ON ANYMORE!!!

On the outside, I said, Yeah, maybe. Why don’t you just ask my husband later. (!!!!!)

So much for all that confidence I was pretending to have.

I went back inside the house, took a few deep breaths, and maybe cried a little. Then, I called Josh.

He’s confusing me with all sorts of new options! I don’t understand and I don’t know what to do! Josh and I talked over the plan, again. Concrete sidewalk. Paver walkway to the garage. Grass seed in the yard.

Easy. Straightforward. Simple.

And yet for nearly a week straight, every time I tried to explain this to the guy overseeing the work, it just kept getting more complicated. He’d come up with six variations of what I wanted, and 10 new ideas for things I didn’t.

Our simple sidewalk... exactly as we wanted it!
Our simple sidewalk… exactly as we wanted it!

Slowly as the week went on, I shrank. My confidence disappeared. My stomach turned every time I went outside. I’d take deep breaths and strike power poses, and yet… nothing seemed to help. The project was looking fine, but I felt like I’d lost control. This was my money, and my house, and yet I wasn’t steering the ship.

I was so incredibly disappointed in myself.

And then one day, the head honcho wasn’t there. It was just the crew. They started asking me clarifying questions:

It sounds like you only want a 3-foot wide sidewalk, right? You don’t want us to plant flowers in the back, right? You just want a plain, simple paver walkway to the garage, right?

Yes! That’s exactly it!

Forgot to sign my name. Next time, I guess. 
Forgot to sign my name. Next time, I guess.

As it turned out, they’d followed my storyline perfectly. They knew what I was asking for. They got it! I was just having a communication issue with their boss. Once I knew the guys doing the actual landscaping and concrete work were tracking with me, I felt total relief. Both about the project, and myself.

Look at that paver walkway = || = || =
Look at that paver walkway = || = || =

Ultimately, the yard turned out great.

Though messy, the regrading ended up making our basement less damp. The sidewalk is simple and perfect. The walkway? Basic pavers that get the job done. The grass is finally growing in. We still have some planting to do this fall, but it’s exactly like we wanted.

Our new sidewalk!
Our new sidewalk!
The new fence that my hubby built (I even helped a little). 
The new fence that my hubby built (I even helped a little).
Personally, I think he did a great job.
Personally, I think he did a great job.
The grass is starting to, uh... look like grass.
The grass is starting to, uh… look like grass.
Look at the grassy runway for our doggie :)
Look at the grassy runway for our doggie 🙂
The paver walkway. Chicken wire = not permanent. Just keeping the dogs off the new grass.
The paver walkway. Chicken wire = not permanent. Just keeping the dogs off the new grass.

My biggest takeaway from this entire project: No amount of confidence can make up for a lack of communication.

Next time I have no idea what I’m doing, I’ll focus on communication, not confidence. If things stop making sense I won’t see it as a reflection of my intelligence. I’d see it as a communication problem. Just because someone is good at, say, landscaping, doesn’t mean they’re good at communicating. And certainly, just because someone owns a house, it doesn’t mean they know what goes in to fixing them up.

The challenge is both sides admitting their shortcomings, then working together to figure out the disconnect.

I’ll try harder to make that happen next time. But for now, I’m just going to enjoy my lovely backyard.

* * *

A few other things that have happened in our yard: I used a circular saw & built a fence. And then this other time, I learned how to break up a dog fight. It was so, so scary!

Stuck in a rut?


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