Building a flagstone walkway and garden entrance

Building a garden walkway with flagstone-part one

I cringed when I first looked at the walkway and entrance from the driveway.  Everything else about the mountain home was perfectly lovely.  Rebuilding this part of the garden would be a challenge.  I don’t usually take “before” pictures but I thought these would be interesting.

See how they had to walk up the steps, grab the door handle and back down the steps with nowhere to set the groceries?

See how they had to walk up the steps, grab the door handle and back down the steps with nowhere to set the groceries?

Steps down from the driveway and water running toward the house

Steps down from the driveway and water running toward the house

She asked, "Could you perhaps add a few curves"?

She asked, “Could you perhaps add a few curves”?

The design request was not only to build a useable and visually pleasing entrance to the back door and down to the pool deck, but to also work everything into one of the nicest gardens I have seen in my thirty odd years of landscaping design and installation. The project also had to deal with a myriad of water issues.  I took the pictures above and then went home to sleep on it.  I tried a nap but found it insufficient.  I then slept on it for two or three nights before showing up with my measuring and drawing materials.  I knew that a drawing would be essential, and after several false starts I came up with this:

Driveway entrance from the lower end of the drawing to door at the upper end. Lots of curves and planting areas.  Brilliant?

Driveway entrance from the lower end of the drawing to door at the upper end. Lots of curves and planting areas. Brilliant?

I wanted to get rid of as many steps as possible and to build a practical landing at the back door that would allow a person to open the door without having to back up and step down.  This called for a six foot by four foot  platform landing.  To do this, we measured and built up a level base with concrete blocks.  We formed in the steps and added a flagstone veneer. The level of the walkway was also raised so that water would run toward the driveway instead of toward the house.

This makes it easier to open the door and creates a place to set the groceries.

This makes it easier to open the door and creates a place to set the groceries.

Years ago, I had made a mold for a butterfly stepping stone and given it to a friend.  A few days before starting this project, I found that the friend didn’t appreciate the gift and was keeping his garbage can on top of it so I repossessed it.  I didn’t know what to do with the stepping stone, but when I showed it to the client she asked if it could be inserted into the flagstone.  I was delighted.  Not only would the butterfly occupy a place of honor but my ego had been returned to the right level.  I really thought it came out nice.

I was happier having the butterfly here than under a trash can

I was happier having the butterfly here than under a trash can

Building with flagstone is both a skill and an art form. Installing flagstone veneer for a walkway is not quite as straightforward a job as laying tile or brick.  The installer is working with lots of variables such as shape and thickness of the block and maintaining a level without what I call “toe stumpers” (or little protrusions that catch the front end of a shoe).  The base for the project must be prepared with the thickness of the thickest stone in mind and then the stones are chosen for size and fit before being laid perfectly flat but not totally level (providing for water run off).  The first stage looks like this:

At this point a lot of careful work has been done.  Filling in the joints will tie everything together.

At this point a lot of careful work has been done. Filling in the joints will tie everything together.

When all of the flagstone surfaces have been carefully put into place and everything has been meticulously checked, we wait for the base mortar to dry.  The next step is to “pour the joints”.  This done with the use of a canvas bag that is not unlike a cake decorator bag.  It takes practice and skill to get it just right.  You will notice that the cement at this point sticks up above the surface of the rock.  This is essential for a good joint.

Pouring the joints.This takes practice, time, and care.

Pouring the joints. This takes practice, time, and care.

Waiting for the joints to dry--not too dry, not too wet.

Waiting for the joints to dry–not too dry, not too wet.

After all of the joints and crevasses have been filled and when the cement mixture has reached the perfect point of curing-not too dry and not too wet- the excess is carefully scraped off with a trowel making the entire surface smooth and walkable.  After scraping the joints, the entire surface is covered with a thin layer of sand and rubbed down with rags, taking off the excess cement and cleaning the project so that it looks like this:

Nice and smooth.  I love the random patterns in the rock.

Nice and smooth. I love the random patterns in the rock.

Mike Hutchins shows up with a dump truck load of the finest compost which he makes for me.  We will use this to fill in and to build rock gardens as we finish.  This compost is so good you can stick in pencils and grow erasers.

Magnificent!  There must be a pony in here somewhere.

Magnificent! There must be a pony in here somewhere.

As we raised the level of the walkway, we were careful to put in a drainage pipe to keep the entrance bed from filling up with water.  On any landscaping job, water is the boss.

We had the forsight to add a drain pipe at the start.  This was learned through hard experience.

We had the forsight to add a drain pipe at the start. This was learned through hard experience.

Field stone is placed around the edge for a raised garden bed.  I felt like the field stone would give an added juxtaposition of color and texture.  I can’t wait to see it planted.

A fieldstone flower bed border will add a juxtaposition of color and texture.

A fieldstone flower bed border will add a juxtaposition of color and texture.

The client was excited as her planting areas started taking shape and she felt comfortable pointing out little details that she would like to see as the field stone was installed.  I always enjoy such input as the job progresses because it provides for more thought, more comments, and therefore for more creativity.  It makes for a happy working environment and this helps us to end up with a happy garden.  I like a happy garden.

She observes, "a curve is more difficult than a straight line, but well worth the effort".

She observes, “a curve is more difficult than a straight line, but well worth the effort”.

John the plant man’s blog will have the rest of the story next week.  Of course, it may only be a part of the rest of the story.  Next week we will install shelves by the back door for potted plants. Then we will build rock terraces and fill the area from the walk to the landing, installing irrigation as we go..

It will never be finished, though.  A good garden is never finished.  Stay in touch.

To view part two of this article click here

Turn your friends on to this site.  Leave your comments and questions.  I am always looking for a new topic to write about.

You may see the adventures of Johntheplantman in the book Requiem for a Redneck by John P. Schulz (Illustrated by my son, J.R. Schulz) at

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00FOAJCGO

You may also wish to read the reviews on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Requiem-Redneck-John-P-Schulz/dp/0981825206/

Funny, philosophical, and poignant.

Funny, philosophical, and poignant.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mary
    Feb 28, 2010 @ 18:40:03

    Nice explanation about the flagstones, and the butterfly punctuation is a nice touch, just right there. I have never grown erasers from pencils but I’m going to try it now. I have lots of small, well-chewed pencils, and you never have enough erasers. Thanks, John the Plantman.

    Reply

  2. bill amos
    Mar 01, 2010 @ 09:08:55

    NOW OLD FRIEND IF I WERE ONLY STILL MAKING GARDEN SCULPTURES SO WE COULD ADD A FEW OF THOSE,,GOOD TUTORIAL ON ROCK WALKWAYS IF YOU HAVE EVER BUILT ONE YOU CAN APPRECIATE ALL THE EFFORT AND HARD WORK.. NOW THAT I LIVE IN THE LAND OF SAND…I MISS THE ROCKS.. USED TO BE ABLE TO PICK ENOUGH ROCKS FROM THE EDGE OF THE LAWN TO BUILD A DECENT BED …NOW I HAVE TO””’GASP….BUY ANY ROCK.I NEED..MAKES YOU APPRECIATE THEM MORE..THANKS FOR SHARING THE EXPERIENCE BILL

    Reply

  3. Jane Schulz
    Mar 01, 2010 @ 13:13:38

    John, this takes me back to our log house on Locust Creek Road. When we moved in there were no steps from the driveway to the walkway; the walkway was only loose stones placed at intervals. When our friend fell trying to go to her car, we called Tom. He built stone steps, a stone wall with a rail, and a cement sidewalk. You, of course, came in and made flower beds. It changed the whole function and looks of the house. How lovely it is to have artists in the family!

    By the way, could the door open into the kitchen? It would make it still easier to carry groceries in.

    Reply

  4. Ruth Shaw
    Mar 01, 2010 @ 14:31:22

    John…I loved spending some time viewing this beautiful project. Lovely work…so John the Plantman does more than plants? I am ignorant of the process but I would think for a “client ” to get tht kind of personal time and creativity, you would have to charge more than many could pay.

    Reply

  5. Trackback: A beautiful backyard garden path « johntheplantman's stories, plants, and gardening
  6. Trackback: Rock garden steps with a retaining wall–part one « johntheplantman's stories, plants, and gardening
  7. Trackback: Building stone steps with a retaining wall—part two « johntheplantman's stories, plants, and gardening

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