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How We Revived Our 5-Year-Old Backyard Planter Boxes

Today, we’re talking through the simple steps we took to bring life back to the 37 linear feet of planter boxes in the backyard of our Chicago home!

Our freshly stained planter boxes with evergreens and clematis // via Yellow Brick Home
sconce | trellis

5 summers ago, we took on the daunting task of turning our former weed patch of a backyard into an oasis of an urban patio! We started by laying a brick paver patio, then built 37 linear feet of DIY planter boxes to border the yard. Overall, the boxes have held up well and we’ve been happy with most of the plants we’ve filled them with. After 5 years of harsh Chicago weather, though, it was time to inject a bit of life into them. Here’s how we got them looking new again just in time for spring!

1| Replace Any Warped Boards

For whatever reason, the ‘top caps’ on the box to the left of the fire pit had begun to twist and lift over the years. As a first step, we started by removing the warped old boards and replacing them with freshly cut 5/4 deck boards. They were then fastened with our favorite heavy duty epoxy coated outdoor screws.

Newly replaced top caps on the planter box to the left of the fire pit // via Yellow Brick Home

The top caps were screwed into the vertical posts that form the framework of the planter boxes in the same manner as the original build. Since we used outdoor-rated pressure-treated wood, it’s important to keep in mind that the pressure-treating process can leave wood significantly wet. Prior to staining or painting, it’s a good idea to make sure the wood is dry and will accept the finish coat properly. This can be done by feel, or a simple test can be conducted to see if water beads up on the surface of the wood. If the water beads up as opposed to soaking in, the wood might need some additional time to dry.

A closeup of the newly replaced top caps on the planter box to the left of the fire pit // via Yellow Brick Home

We had carefully selected the driest pressure treated boards we could find, since we knew that we’d be staining them soon after installation, so now that all of our structural repairs were complete, it was time to…

2| Sand, Sand, Sand

Prior to tackling most stain or paint projects, it’s a great idea to sand surfaces first. Sanding removes loose stain and wood fibers and also helps to knock down surface dirt. For a project like this where there is a large amount of surface area, we almost always break out the random orbital sander with 120 grit paper.

Scott uses the random orbital sander to remove the old stain from the front of the planter boxes // via Yellow Brick Home

The random orbital sander makes short work of big projects and gives a perfect finish for stain or paint. Starting with a smooth surface ensures proper stain adhesion, which is key so you won’t be staining again prematurely. Since the new stain is solid (which allows no grain so show through) we weren’t looking to sand down to bare wood, just simply prep the surface as seen below.

The sanded planter boxes ready for the new black stain // via Yellow Brick Home

3| Apply the Stain

Once the planter boxes were sanded smooth and wiped clean, it was time to stain! Kim started by using a flat bladed shovel to gently pull the gravel away from the wood surfaces. This allowed us to stain below the level of the gravel without ending up with a bunch of discolored pebbles.

Kim uses a flat headed spade to gently move the gravel away from the planter boxes // via Yellow Brick Home

We picked up Valspar one-coat exterior stain & sealer in solid, which is the same brand of stain we used and loved for our Tree House deck project. For what it’s worth, this is the first time in our DIY lives that a product that called itself ‘one-coat’ actually needed just one coat! We used the color Darkest Night to compliment the fire pit, pillows and accents already in the backyard. The stain went on thick and easy, and we found that a very small amount of product went a long way!

We used Valspar one-coat exterior stain & sealer in solid finish. The color is Darkest Night // via Yellow Brick Home

Since the planter boxes consist of vertical posts and horizontal slats, we started by brushing stain into the cracks and tight spots using an older angle brush that we knew we might have to sacrifice since dark stains and paints are often more difficult to clean up than lighter ones.

Kim applies Valspar Darkest Night solid stain to the planter boxes with an angled brush // via Yellow Brick Home.

Once we’d brushed the cracks and gaps, we followed up with a 3/4″ nap roller cover for better coverage on the slightly uneven surfaces.

Kim applies Valspar Darkest Night solid stain to the planter boxes with a 3/4" roller cover // via Yellow Brick Home

Five years ago, when we originally stained the boxes, we used a dark brown semi-solid stain to give the look of a dark, natural wood. While it looked great for awhile, as it faded, it looked less and less natural. This time, we went solid black for a sleek look that wasn’t an attempt at keeping things natural. We love the pop and contrast of the bright green plants against the black stain!

This process was a fairly simple one and can easily be replicated for fences, playsets, decks or any other outdoor wood structure. This stain protects for 10 years on decks and 25 years on fences and siding, so we don’t plan on repeating this task any time soon!

4| Add Soil and Mulch

Over the years, soil naturally compacts and becomes uneven on the top surface, so each summer, we add some high quality topsoil to level things out and add some much necessary fertilizer in one step. Once we’d leveled out the soil, we added a healthy layer of mulch to finish things off.

Scott spreads fresh black mulch to aid in moisture retention // via Yellow Brick Home

Mulch not only looks great, but it helps to retain moisture in the soil by preventing evaporation. The black mulch with the black stain looks seamless and finishes things off nicely!

5| Water!

Speaking of retaining moisture, there won’t be any moisture to retain without heavy rain and/or watering! We’ve had a relatively dry spring so far, so we’ve been soaking all of the beds a few times a week to ensure that nothing dries out. The plants are loving it so far!

Scott gently waters the freshly stained and mulched planter boxes // via Yellow Brick Home

In addition to the refresh of the planter boxes, we also trimmed back all of our perennials to give them a chance to sprout new growth. We also made a couple of strategic decor swaps between the back patio and the front porch to optimize space and seating options.

Two faux wicker chairs flank the planter box that fills the space inside the staircase to our garden unit // via Yellow Brick Home
patio chairs (similar)

This refresh is the first of a few steps in prepping this space to spend as much time as possible in the backyard this summer! We have an outdoor projector in hand and we can’t wait to spend some warm summer evenings watching movies outside with friends! We’ve also been eyeing a few round dining tables, but can’t seem to find the right one, so that project might just take a back burner for now.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ How is your spring patio and yard prep coming along?

PS: How we built 37-feet of planter boxes, adding insulation and stain for plant longevity, our DIY modern trellis, and our DIY brick paver patio.

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  • Deb4.19.21 - 8:01 AM

    Every time I see that outdoor  fireplace, I sigh. I love that fireplace! ReplyCancel

  • Carrie Durward4.19.21 - 9:25 AM

    How has the stain held up at the tree house? How long has it been?ReplyCancel

    • Scott4.19.21 - 9:39 AM

      The stain on both the tree house fence and deck have held up incredibly well!ReplyCancel

  • Cathy4.20.21 - 8:15 AM

    Arizona is heating up fast! I’m going to revive a glass top table neighbors gave us and spray the glass with frost glass spray on the underside since it’s in not so good condition as seen from the top. Still hunting for the perfect tablecloth with an umbrella hole (oddly hard to find here).ReplyCancel

  • Cemre4.21.21 - 2:37 AM

    Waow this is great for me I always complain for this problem..ReplyCancel

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We’re Kim + Scott, Chicago based content creators behind the Home + Lifestyle brand Yellow Brick Home.

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