Make a Quick, Safe, And Inexpensive Area For Your Outdoor Fire Pit

Outdoor fire pits are fun. They can also be dangerous. There are many different ways for building a fire pit, and I will explore some of them in the next few weeks.

This week we were cleaning up and planting winter pansies for a long-time client who asked if she could add something on. I walked with her to the back yard and she showed me one of those charcoal grill looking things that are most useful for enjoying outdoor fires. She told me that they had gotten something for the patio and had moved this apparatus out into the yard but when they built a fire they became afraid that something in the surrounding area would catch on fire. She wanted to know if I could put some gravel down so things would be safer.

I explained that the gravel would be no problem but that we should also install a border to keep the gravel from spreading out all over the yard. I also observed that the area should be leveled before proceeding with the project.

We raked away the leaves and other organic materials and used a mattock to level the area. While that was going on, I drove down to Willow Creek Nursery and got some “river rounds.” Here is the flat place and some of the rocks.

f1

For a safe fireplace, we need a site that is cleaned of any leaves or other flamable debris.

We used the larger river rocks to build a border that would hold in the “pea gravel” that we would use for the “floor” of the project. Pea gravel is a nice, small, smooth rock that is found in a lot of river beds. There are other stone materials, I’m sure, that would serve the same purpose. My favorite nursery has pea gravel in bulk or you may spend more and get them from a Box store in bags.

pea gravel will provide a fire proof base and a rock border will hold in the gravel.

Your border could be just about anything related to what we used. Bricks, laid neatly, form an excellent border for the gravel base. Then you have all sorts of manufactured concrete products, but the more you get into manufactured, the more you pay.

Of course, depending on how far you have to drive, you may usually find free rocks somewhere. You can probably find someone you know who may want some old bricks hauled off. It is probably not a good idea to use cross-ties or landscape timbers for this project.

f7

An outdoor fireplace with a safe base. I can envision seats of cut tree trunks and people sitting around playing the guitar, singing and grinning.

There are lots of pre-fab fire places on the market. You may also want to use a rock border inside the area and build the fire right there on the ground .

Thanks for visiting John the Plant Man

 

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Assignment: Design and Build An Attractive Mail Box Planter That Is Both Drought Tolerant and Deer Proof.

Nancy has a beautiful home and yard in a very nice subdivision. She had decided that she wanted to maintain the wooded lot and to have a yard that would echo the statement of a lovely home to be crafted with stone and timbers. Years later she decided that it was time to deal with the “ugly mailbox.” She called and said, “This is a job for john the plant man.”

mailbox 1

We need to build a planting bed that will make this look better and that will fit into the landscape concept.

Nancy had given the project a lot of thought. We talked about it. She had bought different varieties of thyme—four varieties, six pots of each—to plant the project with. She had learned some things about living in her house

  • Deer like wooded lots and eat up landscaping plants
  • Deer do not like thyme
  • Thyme, once established, is a hardy, drought resistant ground cover.
  • Thyme prefers a prepared, raised bed in order to thrive.

We decided to build a raised rock-bordered garden. We started laying the rocks to form the enclosure for the bed:

mailbox 2

A row of rocks doesn’t look right. We can do better.

At this point, the job didn’t look quite right. We decided that we didn’t want just a row of rocks around a pile of dirt.

Nancy said, “I don’t know quite how to describe what I’m looking for.”
I smiled and said, “I think we want it to look like God dropped a handful of rocks and they fell in just the right places.”
“Yes, that’s it,” she agreed.

So, we took it all apart and started over. I had been looking at bags of cheap “topsoil” that were being sold in the box stores. Lowe’s had some on sale for a dollar a bag and when I examined it, I found it to be ground and mostly decomposed pine bark. If you add lime to this, it is a rather good growing medium. We looked around the property (which was blessed with stones) and carefully, one at the time, chose the stones to fit the concept. We added the “topsoil.”

mailbox 3

After working on the layout, we got the stones to look purposefully random.

The rock job was now totally different looking. The new design fulfilled the purpose of holding the soil together, and it looked a lot more natural. Nancy looked at it, smiled, and said, “And praise His Name, they all hit the ground without denting the mailbox.”  We spread a mulch of wood bark and started planting.

mailbox 4

This is going to look good. A topping of small pine bark will hold everything in place.

The mailbox garden fit right in with the natural front yard.

mailbox 5

The garden fits right in

We ran a few hundred feet of hose out to the road and watered the plants. The different kinds of thyme looked happy in their new home, and the fragrance was delightful.

mailbox 6

Different varieties of thyme will grow well and safely in this environment

A couple of weeks later, I stopped to check on the project. I found that all was well and the plants were growing as they should. The deer had turned up their noses and moved on to other treats.

 

mailbox 7

A couple of weeks later everything looks happy.

Thank you for visiting Johntheplantman’s blog. There are a lot of helpful articles on this site. WordPress has included a very efficient search engine which you will find at the top of the page. Give it a try—type in the main words for your gardening questions and see where it takes you.

Building a Stone Patio for a SerenityGarden

Diane had only been in the house for a couple of months when I went over to look at the project. She took me to a side of the yard and we looked inside a small fenced in area. She said, “I want a serenity garden here where I can sit and sip my coffee and relax with my thoughts.”

I assured her that this would be possible.

She asked,“Where should we start?”

I thought about it and replied, “How about a stick of dynamite?”

The "before" picture for the serenity garden

It was going to take a bit of work to make this site “serene”

We moved all the furniture, ornaments, and small plants out to the carport to be dealt with later. A lot of roots needed to be dug up in the area where the patio would be built. A trip to Willow Creek Nursery was called for. We were able to pick out a ton or so of some really good looking flagstone.

Hand picked flagstone for a patio project

A ton or so of select flagstone for building a patio.

I played around with the flexible forming until I got a shape that I really liked. Diane and I had discussed building a separate landing under the swing but I liked it better making the landing a part of the patio. The plastic forming material is wonderful. Expensive but wonderful. We used to have to build the forms with one by fours or pieces of masonite that had to be ripped to size. I was lucky a few years ago when a cement guy needed beer and had the forms but no money. He gave me a great deal on them and I have used them for a number of projects.

plastic forming material for masonry projects

I love the bendable plastic forming material.

The forms should be laid out carefully. Water is the boss of the project and the patio should fall (slope) about 1/8 of a bubble to the lowest point. The cement is mixed just right so that it is just the right stiffness to react properly with the stone and the rubber mallet. We have to watch out for high places that we call “toe stubbers.”

We start laying the patio stone in an available corner.

We start laying the patio stone in an available corner.

We don’t worry about the joints until the rock is laid. Here is the first section

a section of flagstone laid for a patio without filled joints

a section of flagstone laid for a patio without filled joints

The main tools for the first part of the job are a trowel, a rubber mallet, and a two by four. The two by four is laid from one side of the forming to the other. This is the item that makes the difference. Careful attention should be paid to smoothness.

The necessary tools for the patio laying job: a trowel, a two by four, and a rubber mallet

The necessary tools for the patio laying job: a trowel, a two by four, and a rubber mallet

Here’s a stopping point for the day. The rocks are laid but all of the joints are open. It is time to “pour the joints” but that is a job that needs to be started of a morning. The mortar has to dry to exactly the right consistency before finishing and if we start on it in the afternoon it may prove to be a long night.

flagstone patio almost completed project

The patio should sit overnight and then it will be time to “pour the joints”

The next morning we use a thing from the cement company that looks like a cake decorator bag to pour a properly wet mortar into the joints. The cement will mound up over the rocks as in the picture below. We keep checking the consistency of the joint material and when it is just right, we cut it off to the level of the rocks with a trowel. It takes a bit of practice.

The first step in filling the joints on the flagstone patio

The first step in filling the joints on the flagstone patio

We want stepping stones from the carport to the patio. The level has to be just right and I found out long ago that a guy has to be very careful when he lays out stepping stones for a lady. Also, I’m going to set these stones with mortar so they won’t wiggle and it would be difficult to move them later. I worked with it until I was satisfied.

Stepping stones laid out just right for a lady to walk on

It takes a lot of care for a guy to lay out stepping stones just right for a lady to walk on

Since the patio is down hill from the gate just a little bit we use the level, the two by four and mortar mix to make everything come out right.

Using a level to make sure stepping stones are lined up with the patio

Using a level to make sure stepping stones are lined up with the patio

The stepping stones are satisfactory. The project will look different after the compost is added.

Flagstone tepping stones set carefully for walking comfort

Flagstone tepping stones set carefully for walking comfort

When the joint mortar is just right the edges are finished with a special tool. This step makes it look almost professional.

Using an edging tool to finish up the edges of the patio

Using an edging tool to finish up the edges of the patio

 

This is the part I really like. I refer to it as a “blank palette”.

new patio ready for landscapingTime to remove the forms, add compost, mulch, and plants

We took out all the small plants and then got out the motor pruners and did a good job of pruning and shaping the larger bushes. I wanted to get this cleaned up before putting in the compost.

A good time to trim the shrubbery

A good time to trim the shrubbery

I love the compost part. We hauled three pick up truck loads before we had enough. Then we raked and shaped until I was totally satisfied.

We add a mound of good black compost. It is ready to be raked out, covered with cypress chips, and planted.

We add a mound of good black compost. It is ready to be raked out, covered with cypress chips, and planted.

The planting part was easy. I didn’t have to purchase many plants—I just had to put the ones we took out back but in the right place. Diane had bought pansies, dusty miller, and some dianthus. She thought the finished planting was a bit sparse but I assured her that it would grow out just right. Over planting would not foster serenity.

The garden is ready for company. Maybe we'll straighten the swing a bit first.

The garden is ready for company. Maybe we’ll straighten the swing a bit first.

Thanks for visiting John the Plant Man. Remember, Requiem for a Redneck by John P. Schulz is now available in the Kindle Store

As usual, I would just love for you click here to go to Amazon and purchase the ebook edition of my wonderful book, Requiem for a Redneck to go on your Kindle. I have also noticed that Amazon now has a free Kindle app for iphones and tablets. Is that cool or what?

Repairing a leaky water feature—Part two, putting it back together

The liner in the fountain had gotten old and needed changing so we took the whole thing apart and put in a new one. I started telling about the job of repairing a leaky waterfall in a previous post which showed the process of taking the water feature apart.  The main thing about putting it back together is to be careful.

We started by laying out the larger part of the liner in the bottom pool, fitting it just right, and smoothing out as many of the wrinkles as possible. When working with the liner we remove out shoes and work in socks to keep from poking any holes in it.

Take off your shoes when working with waterfall liner

Take off your shoes when working with waterfall liner

We fitted the liner and smoothed it out. One of the more difficult parts of this project was getting the liner to fit just right in the riverbed going under the bridge. The original project had been installed before the bridge was put in place.

Pool liner installation for a waterfall feature

Pool liner installation for a waterfall feature

Next, on the other side of the bridge, we needed to re-set and level the concrete blocks that formed the upper pool that is essential for the water feature to sound good. The blocks must be perfectly level and above the level of the stone that the water falls over. I call this the “fall stone.”

When dealing with water, level is important

When dealing with water, level is important

We pay particular attention to getting the liner from the bottom pool under the bridge and formed just right to the “river bed that flows into the bottom pool. The upper piece of liner will have to be placed over this so that there will be no leaks around the edges. Everything is built with the principle that “water goes downhill” in mind.

Taking care to prevent leaks.

Taking care to prevent leaks.

The liner is laid over the form for the upper pool and carefully tucked under the bridge. I allowed a lot of extra liner for this to be sure that there won’t be a possibility for a leak.

Laying out the liner for the top pool of the water feature

Laying out the liner for the top pool of the water feature

When we took the upper pool apart, I was particularly careful with the fall rock. I had built this with care for the original project and I didn’t want to do it over again. I like it as it is. We set it on the liner to get the placement just right. The water will fall over this rock and down into another small pool.

This is the rock that the water will flow over

This is the rock that the water will flow over

We tilt the fall rock assembly up and pack mortar under it. If this step is not done well, the water will go under instead of over and things will not be as they should be. Getting the cement under this rock and getting the rock leveled just exactly as it should be are very important. The funny thing is that the rock must be set correctly and you can’t try it out until the cement dries.

Cement keeps the water from flowing under the rock

Cement keeps the water from flowing under the rock

We use a trowel to pack the mortar around the entire fall rock assembly so that the water will only have one place to go when it leaves the upper pond.

cement keeps water from flowing around the rock

cement keeps water from flowing around the rock

Now we can finish off the decorative rock work for the pond. We use mortar to fasten the first rocks on top of the liner. Later rocks will be laid in without mortar. Note the small “torpedo level” sitting on the rock where the pump will be placed. It’s hard to get a rock completely level and you kind of have to average it out.

Border rocks set in concrete for the water feature

Border rocks set in concrete for the water feature

We build a secondary dam below the fall rock so that the water will fall into a pool and enhance the sound of the project.

A secondary dam to enhance the sound of the water feature

A secondary dam to enhance the sound of the water feature

We continue cementing rocks on the perimeter of the upper pond for a natural looking appearance.

adding rocks for appearance

adding rocks for appearance

The pump is exactly what it looks like. I think I got it from Lowe’s. It was a nice, red, functional hand pump. I took the working parts out of it and converted the hook up assembly so that I could fasten a hose from the pump to it.

The project calls for a bit of creative plumbing.

The project calls for a bit of creative plumbing.

Here is a picture that shows the tubing going from the pump in the lower pool to the non functional hand pump where the water comes out.

Not the hookup of the tubing from the submerged pump in the lower pool

Not the hookup of the tubing from the submerged pump in the lower pool

Looking down on the upper pool you will see that the bottom of the pool, where the water falls, has been covered with small river rocks. The water from the pump will go from there over the fall rock and into the smaller pool below. From there the water will flow gently down under the bridge and into the larger pool on the other side.

Finishing the upper pools of the water feature

Finishing the upper pools of the water feature

We give the cement a day or two to cure and then add water and turn it on. Everything works well. Yay.

all is well

all is well

 

And a Word from Our Sponsor:

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If you want a consultation in your yard in N.W. Georgia, send me an email at wherdepony@bellsouth.net

Repairing a Leaky Water Feature—part one, Taking it Apart

A very nice fountain--but it leaks

A very nice fountain–but it leaks

I built this water feature for a client quite a number of years ago. I don’t remember if the fountain or the bridge came first but it ended up being a waterfall with a creek under the bridge pouring into a small pond on the other side. The plastic liner in the system started leaking a bit here and there a couple of years ago and I have patched it over and over. This year, we decided that we just needed to change the liner. This article and part two which will follow next week should serve to show you not only how a pond liner is replaced, but also give you a good idea of how it is built in the first place.

To begin with, I drained the fountain and let it dry out. This picture is of the top pool where the water pours in and then cascades to the “creek bed.”

The upper side of the fountain ready to take apart

The upper side of the fountain ready to take apart

After entering the top of the fountain, the water pours over a flat rock, down into a creek bed and then goes under the bridge to a pool on the other side.

The bottom pool holds the pump for recirculation

The bottom pool holds the pump for recirculation

We begin by cleaning out the lower pool. We look for any rocks, sticks, or other high points that will possibly poke a hole in the new liner. I will leave the old liner in the pool to serve as a buffer pad for the new one.

Cleaning out the lower pool of the fountain

Cleaning out the lower pool of the fountain

The rocks are stacked neatly to the side, out of the way of the work area.

fountain rocks set to the side

fountain rocks set to the side

The product was not available when I first built the pool, but this time I will use a Firestone rubber material that is rather thick (40 mil) and very resilient. It is guaranteed for 20 years and if it does, indeed, last that long, I shouldn’t have to fool with it again unless I feel like working on a waterfall when I am 87. We have to measure carefully for the needed dimensions of the liner. It is expensive and I don’t mind having a bit too much, but if I buy too little, it will be totally wasted. We first measure across the pond in two directions.

Measure carefully to determine liner size for water feature

Measure carefully to determine liner size for water feature

After measuring for width and length of the liner, we measure the sides and add them into the calculations. This will give us an overall dimension. I will use two pieces of rubber for the project—one to cover the bottom and sides and another to go from the top of the feature, down through the creek, and then to lap over the bottom piece. One must be very careful with a lap to insure that the water doesn’t escape around it so we will extend the lap into the bottom of the pool making sure that the sides of the lap are higher than the water level.

Measure the sides and add to the overall dimensions for the fountain liner

Measure the sides and add to the overall dimensions for the fountain liner

This is a float valve that was installed to keep the water level to the desired limits. To install the float valve I have modified the hook up of a horse trough filler that I purchased at the local Tractor Supply.

float valve installed to maintain water level in the fountain

float valve installed to maintain water level in the fountain

We have carefully taken the top part of the fountain apart. I will have to adjust and level the concrete blocks which hold the liner above the water line and also give a base for decorative rocks to cover the liner.

Under structure of the fountain

Under structure of the fountain

Now it is time to go shopping. Even though there are modern alternatives, I eschew them and use cement instead. When we put the fall rocks back together, we will mortar the joints to insure that water will only go over the desired rocks and not under or beside them. I have tried pre mixed mortar formulations but I have found that they don’t hold up as well as I would like. Over many years of building projects like this, I have found that I get much better results using Portland cement and adding sand. It is more trouble but worth it in the long run. Here it is on the rack at Lowe’s. Brand name doesn’t matter, just make sure that you are purchasing Portland cement and not a mix.

Portland cement mixed with sand is more durable than ready mixes

Portland cement mixed with sand is more durable than ready mixes

The project is not big enough to order a load of sand, so I will purchase a bagged all purpose sand. The formula for mixing thePortlandis 9 large shovels of sand to a half a bag of cement. We worked on it and figured that we would use two-50 lb bags of sand to a half a bag ofPortland.

all purpose sand to mix with Portland cement. Two bags sand to 1/2 bag of cement

all purpose sand to mix with Portland cement. Two bags sand to 1/2 bag of cement

My next shopping stop was at Willow Creek Nursery which is way on the other side of town. Willow Creek carries large rolls of pond liner in several widths. They will cut the liner to my specifications. This is where I must be careful. The guys at the nursery will only make one cut, and once it’s cut, it’s bought. If I make a mistake it will be costly—and I never have been good at numbers. I checked all of the widths, 10’, 15’, 20’ and 24’. I had to think about it a bit, but then I sketched out a diagram and decided that a piece of the 24 foot liner would be my most cost effective choice.

Figuring out the best size for the liner for your water feature

Figuring out the best size for the liner for your water feature

The guys at the nursery measured carefully and then measured both sides to make sure they were getting a square cut. The liner was mine.

purchasing water feature liner at the nursery

purchasing water feature liner at the nursery

We took the large piece of liner to the jobsite and laid it out in the parking area, measured carefully, and cut off an 8X12 piece for the top fall, leaving just the right amount to cover the bottom pool.

carefully cutting the pond liner

carefully cutting the pond liner–One piece for the pond and one for the waterfall

Next week I will have an account of the re-building of the water feature. In the meantime I will be working on pictures and ideas to continue my series on shade gardens

And a Word from Our Sponsor:

As usual, I would just love for you click here to go to Amazon and purchase the ebook edition of my wonderful book, Requiem for a Redneck to go on your Kindle. I have also noticed that Amazon now has a free Kindle app for iphones and tablets. Is that cool or what?

If you want a consultation in your yard in N.W. Georgia, send me an email at wherdepony@bellsouth.net

A garden path with hand made stepping stones, pea gravel mulch, and a rock garden.

Making stepping stones with whiskey barrel rings–part two

 There was a multi faceted landscaping problem to solve. I stood there looking at a long narrow pathway down a side yard. The drainage was critical to prevent flooding, and we had tried to grow all kinds of grass but it was just too shady. A few years ago, I had put in a rock border down part of the area with underground drainage and catch basins. Now, I was trying to figure out how to cover the ground between the rock garden and the house.

A solid walkway would inhibit the water flow, so we decided to make stepping stones from whiskey barrel rings and let the water flow around them. As for a ground covering, I was afraid that any kind of wood mulch would float and cause a problem, so we decided on pea gravel. To see how we built the stepping stones, read this article

 The stepping stones had been built and we decided to install the pea gravel before finishing them in order to avoid damage from the wheelbarrow. Finally, the gravel was in and we had removed all of the barrel rings. It was time to finish the job. We washed and cleaned the stepping stones. I used a wash of muriatic acid to remove the cement powder and to help to free up any plant material left from the impressions.

Washing stepping stones in preparation for staining.

Washing stepping stones in preparation for staining.

Next, we applied the stain. There are many choices for stains for concrete. I wanted one that was easy to use and which would be translucent, providing me with a variety of tones. I chose a water based stain that was recommended highly by my friend at Basic Materials, a company that specializes in concrete related applications.

water based concrete stain

water based concrete stain

The concrete stain was a bit expensive, but it mixes with three parts of water. I mixed it up and sprayed it on with a pump up garden sprayer.

applying concrete stain with pump up garden sprayer

applying concrete stain with pump up garden sprayer

 I didn’t want a solid color, so I concentrated on getting more stain in the impressions and then leaving a mottled effect on the flat surfaces. I thought it came out well, but we will watch the stepping stones as the color cures and decide whether to add more or not. With concrete stain, you really don’t see the true color until after the sealer is applied, but when the sealer has been applied, it is too late to add more color. I thought the stepping stones looked pretty good at this stage

concrete stain on home made stepping stone

concrete stain on home made stepping stone

We raked the gravel out around the stepping stones and ended up with a finished product that please me. The ground has been covered and the water should now flow through the pea gravel into the catch basin.

Stepping stones and pea gravel with a rock garden border

Stepping stones and pea gravel with a rock garden border

The next part of the project will be to plant the raised rock garden with plants that will tolerate deep shade. I’m researching the choices.

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If you like this article on stepping stones, you may wish to see “Building Rock Steps,” parts one and two.

Would you like a consultation with johntheplantman in your yard? Contact John Schulz BY EMAIL

Do you have a landscaping problem that needs solving? Leave a comment.

As usual, I would just love for you click here to go to Amazon and purchase the ebook edition of my wonderful book, Requiem for a Redneck to go on your Kindle. I have also noticed that Amazon now has a free Kindle app for iphones and tablets. Is that cool or what?

How to make stepping stones with whiskey barrel rings–part one

How to make stepping stones with whiskey barrel rings–part one

For part two of this article, click here

There’s a story behind this picture, read on

Amanda likes to make a good impression wherever she goes

Amanda likes to make a good impression wherever she goes

Halves of whiskey barrels make great planters but the barrels don’t last forever. Years ago, I realized that one of my recurring duties as a landscaper was to remove rotten barrel planters and replace them with new ones. I realized that the oaken staves, though partly rotten, would make good kindling and I shared them with my friends. I kept looking at the left over rings which held the barrels together and thought that I might, someday, find a use for them, so I began saving the rings. People who saw my growing stack of whiskey barrel rings often questioned my sanity. I didn’t care, though, because I knew I would find a use for them some day.

Then, one day, it dawned on me that the rings would make great forms for pouring stepping stones. I tried it out and made a few mistakes before I figured out a good way to make unique stepping stones that wouldn’t wiggle and which had lots of character. The process developed over the years. I finally got the concept of stepping stones that looked as if they were slabs cut from a petrified log full of fossils.

 We were working on a long (100 foot) narrow side yard on the north side of a house. The drainage is critical and a normal walkway just won’t do. We had built a long rock garden at the bottom of a retaining wall and were looking for a sustainable walkway, so we decided to use poured stepping stones surrounded with a pea gravel mulch. Here is the first part, step by step:

We dig out a circle to set the form so that will be level and rise to the proper elevation. The stepping stone will be poured in place and therefore won’t wiggle when finished. The barrel ring is slanted and we make sure that the side of the ring with the smaller diameter faces up so that we will be able to remove it from the finished stepping stone without lifting it.

Be sure to get the ring level, with the narrow diameter facing up

Be sure to get the ring level, with the narrow diameter facing up

We line the ring with plastic which will make it easy to remove the ring when the cement is dry. Then we start filling it with cement. I used Sakrete concrete mix for strength and durability. Be sure to use a concrete mix, because mortar or sand mixes will not set up strong enough for a stepping stone.

Lay plastic over the ring, shape it to the corners, and add cement

Lay plastic over the ring, shape it to the corners, and add cement

With the plastic folded back, we smooth out the cement to the top of the stepping stone.

Smooth out the cement to the top of the barrel ring

Smooth out the cement to the top of the barrel ring

There is almost no limit to the choices for an image in the stepping stone. I chose a fern for this one which will come out looking like a fossil. The fern frond was placed in just the right place and smoothed in with a trowel. You will need to experiment to find just the right stage of curing to wait for before troweling the inset into the cement.

The fern will look like a fossil in the finished stepping stone

The fern will look like a fossil in the finished stepping stone

Gently pull the plastic toward the center to make sure that there is no overhang of cement. This will also give a nicely finished wrinkled effect to the edge of the stepping stone.

Pull the plastic toward the center to form a finished edge

Pull the plastic toward the center to form a finished edge

Fold the plastic over the stepping stone. I like to gently mash the wrinkles of the plastic into the cement to create random lines of interest.

Mash the plastic wrinkles gently into the stepping stones to create a neat texture

Mash the plastic wrinkles gently into the stepping stones to create a neat texture

Gently place a rock or two on the plastic so that the wind won’t blow it around and walk away from the project until the next day.

allow the stepping stone to cure for a day or so

allow the stepping stone to cure for a day or so

After the project had dried for a day or two, the barrel rings may be removed. At this point, we trim the plastic at the bottom of the stepping stone, leaving the circle of plastic under the cement alone. If you are careful, the stepping stone will not be disturbed and will not wiggle when walked on.

pull the barrel ring from the dry stepping stone

pull the barrel ring from the dry stepping stone

Feel free to be creative with the images left in the cement, too. In the picture below, we used hydrangea leaves and parts of artificial flowers that we got from the dollar tree. The materials used to make the images will be removed, leaving their impressions in the finished product.

Flowers in a stepping stone

Flowers in a stepping stone

That’s it for the first stage. Be careful to allow the cement to set up well before allowing any traffic on them. In a week or so, these stones will have cured enough for me to stain them. Part two of this series will deal with staining and finishing the stepping stones as well as with mulching and finishing the total project. Stay tuned!

To see part two of this series, click here

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If you like this article on stepping stones, you may wish to see “Building Rock Steps,” parts one and two.

Would you like a consultation with johntheplantman in your yard? Contact John Schulz BY EMAIL

 These articles are brought to you by John P. Schulz, author of the novel, Requiem for a Redneck

As usual, I would just love for you click here to go to Amazon and purchase the ebook edition of my wonderful book, Requiem for a Redneck to go on your Kindle. I have also noticed that Amazon now has a free Kindle app for iphones and tablets. Is that cool or what?

Building stone steps with a retaining wall—part two

To see part one of this article, Click here

 I often tell people about the old man who taught me to lay steps with stone. This morning I got tickled when I realized that that old man wasn’t any older than I am now. He has gone on to his great rewards and I have become the old man teaching people. Time does pass, doesn’t it? Last week I showed how to lay out the project and to build a foundation with concrete blocks. This week we finished the project. This job was different from most because we were using rocks that were already on the site. These were some might fine rocks and I doubted if I could find more like them. We had to be very careful.

If you missed part one of this series, you will find it if you click here.

To begin with we played it safe by laying out the larger rocks so that all of the edges would be just right. I figured that if I ran out of rocks, I could find smaller ones to fill in the spaces. I wanted the edges of the steps to be as natural as possible with no cuts. We paid particular attention to the area where the ramp from the deck ran into a landing. It needed to be exactly right. This landing had been a focus from the very start.

finding the right rocks for the right places

finding the right rocks for the right places

The other part of the project that had to be just right was the top of the steps. The transition through the grass border to the top step had to be just right. I knew that if we got the top where it should be and the landing fitting perfectly into the ramp at the other end, we could adjust any differences in between.

Start at the top to be sure everything is at the correct level

Start at the top to be sure everything is at the correct level

One other consideration in laying out the rocks was color. The old man had told me that stonework is not a color in itself, but the “color that it casts.” I learned that one can change the “cast” of the color by moving pieces of stone to different places in the design. Curves can also be “insinuated” by using the larger stones in different places. It’s an art form. We started laying the stone in a rich mortar mix. The larger stones are laid first and the interstices are filled with smaller ones. We started at the top. Note the catch basin set in the driveway. It’s going to go away.

Getting started with the rock steps. We will remove the catch basin and use the steps to control water runoff.

Getting started with the rock steps. We will remove the catch basin and use the steps to control water runoff.

Leveling is critical on steps. We don’t want water to stand on any part of it, but we want it to be “safely walkable.” I had studied the catch basin at the top of the steps and I didn’t like it for two reasons: it was unsightly and I felt like it could turn into a safety issue. I decided to take it out and put in the walkway so that it worked as a waterfall, taking care of the water flow much better than the catch basin would. I remembered Tom Sellick in one of my favorite movies, “Quigley Down Under” when he looked at his lady and said, “Lady, I do believe you’re about a quarter bubble off of plumb.” That’s exactly where we wanted the steps to be. We wanted the water to roll down the center and fall slightly to the outside. A quarter bubble off’n level was just right.

A quarter bubble off level to the inside will do just fine

A quarter bubble off level to the inside will do just fine

After setting up the top step and getting it exactly right, we moved to the landing at the deck ramp and did the same there. If I had any problems, I wanted them to be in the middle.

We pay close attention to the elevation of the landing. No mistakes allowed

We pay close attention to the elevation of the landing. No mistakes allowed

When the rocks were all mortared in on the tops of the steps it looked like this:

The tops of the steps all mortared in

The tops of the steps all mortared in

The original plan had been to lay rocks as stepping stones from the bottom step to the pool deck but We couldn’t get away from the feeling that the overall job would be much better if we did a walkway instead. I had invested some time ago in reusable plastic forms that we can curve and shape. I love them. We put in a form from the bottom step to the pool deck and began laying rocks. I couldn’t get a good curve to the top side of the walkway so we decided to lay the larger rocks and cast a curve. You’ll see it in the finished picture. Here’s the beginning

Starting a stone walkway to the pool deck

Starting a stone walkway to the pool deck

Here is the rock laid in the walkway. The level is such that any water running downhill will fall over the walkway and head on down to the retaining wall and french drain.

The stones are laid for the walkway. Do you see how it "casts" a curve?

The stones are laid for the walkway. Do you see how it “casts” a curve?

While everything in the rock work project cured, we decided it was time to take care of the retaining wall. I knew that there would be steps going from the retaining wall to the lower garden area and I wanted to insert a stone that would direct traffic in the proper direction. We took out a couple of wall caps and put it in. It makes a good visual statement:

This rock step will signal the entrance to the back garden

We laid 4” black perforated pipe behind the wall and put a tee in at the lowest level, running a pipe out under the wall. The correct way to lay the black drain pipe is with the holes down. I had to explain it to my client. The way it works is that the holes go down and the water goes up through the holes. A hydrologist explained it to me one time long ago. He was an old guy, too.

The black drain pipe will direct water into the lower garden instead of causing erosion

The black drain pipe will direct water into the lower garden instead of causing erosion

I have experimented with all kinds of adhesives and I have found that one containing polyurethane is best for gluing the caps down. We put a bead of the adhesive all around the base and stick it down.

The retaining wall caps are glied down with polyurethane.

The retaining wall caps are glied down with polyurethane.

The next job is to “pour the joints,” using a thin mix of “type N” colored mortar. We mix this to a pourable consistency using two shovels of sand to one shovel of mortar. The mixture is poured into the joints so that it sticks up above the rocks. We will trowel it off smooth when it reaches just the right level of dryness. Too soft, it messes up and too hard, it won’t come off. It has to be just right. There is no hurrying on this job.

Pour the joints with a "type N" cement mixed thin

Pour the joints with a “type N” cement mixed thin

This is what the joints look like after they have been scraped and finished.

The joints look really good when properly finished

The joints look really good when properly finished

We put in a set of stepping stones from the walkway to the step at the retaining wall and filled in behind the wall with my wonderful compost.

Stepping stones lead from the rock walkway to the lower garden path

Stepping stones lead from the rock walkway to the lower garden path

We finished moving in compost and took care of the edges. The zoysia grass will grow in rapidly.

Filling in the edges. The zoysia grass will grow back rapidly

Filling in the edges. The zoysia grass will grow back rapidly

We finished the transition to the lower garden path

The finished stone walkway with a garden path

The finished stone walkway with a garden path

And then we cleaned up the job. One time I did a really nice job for a lady and she said, “John, it is lovely. It looks almost professional.” I have always laughed about that. Does this qualify as “almost professional?”

 BEFORE:

This is what it looked like before we started

This is what it looked like before we started

AFTER

Finished rock steps to downhill pool and garden entrance

Finished rock steps to downhill pool and garden entrance

******Related information:

If you missed part one of this series, you will find it if you click here.

To see how we built flagstone steps and a garden entrance, part one, click here

For “flagstone steps and a garden entrance, part two, click here

Would you like a consultation with johntheplantman in your yard? Contact John Schulz BY EMAIL

 These articles are brought to you by John P. Schulz, author of the novel, Requiem for a Redneck .  

As usual, I would just love for you click here to go to Amazon and purchase the ebook edition of my wonderful book, Requiem for a Redneck to go on your Kindle. I have also noticed that Amazon now has a free Kindle app for iphones and tablets. Is that cool or what?

Rock garden steps with a retaining wall–part one

How to build stone garden steps with a small  retaining wall for erosion control–part one

step by step instructions with photographs.

  Ann is a gifted gardener and she is proud of her beautiful pool. Ann knows a lot about building and landscaping, but she decided to call in some help on this project. The problem was a set of “wobbly” steps going downhill, past a flower bed, to the ramp from the deck and the pool entrance. There was also an erosion problem above her perennial bed at the bottom of the hill. I decided that it would be a good time to provide step by step instructions for building rock steps and a simple retaining wall. Here’s the “before” picture:

scope: build wider, stable rock steps, take care of lower erosion

scope: build wider, stable rock steps, take care of lower erosion

You can see that the stones were laid into the ground with no real provision for stability. They were too narrow, also, and by not being level, they became slippery in wet weather.

stones not stable, and slick when wet

stones not stable, and slick when wet

In the following picture, you can see part of the erosion problem at the bottom of the steps. This needed to be fixed, also, and the entire project needed to be tied in as a single entity.

an erosion problem at the bottom of the steps

an erosion problem at the bottom of the steps

The grass at the back side of the pool fence was probably a good idea at the time, but a lot of water runs down over it and the side of the hill is eroding. Ann loves her perennial flowers and wants to protect the lower bed. We decided to fix it with a French drain backed up with concrete “wall blocks.” I’ll show you more about wall blocks later in the article.

erosion problem below pool. How to solve the problem?

erosion problem below pool. How to solve the problem?

We began by removing all of the existing steps. We stretched a line from the top of the hill to the deck ramp. A line level was used to get an indication of the entire fall of the step project.

Using nylon string and a line level to determine number of rock steps

Using nylon string and a line level to determine number of rock steps

We measured from the level line to the ground to ascertain the number of 8 inch steps that would be required to line up perfectly with the landing at the bottom of the ramp. I used a calculator to multiply the number of feet by 12 to get the number of inches and then do divide by 8 (inches down per step) to get the number of steps. It came out to 5.25. I would need to divide up that quarter of a step somewhere in the layout.

Measuring down from level line to determine number of steps

Measuring down from level line to determine number of steps

We would be using 12 inch concrete blocks to form the foundation for the steps. These blocks measure 16 inches long by 8 inches high by 12 inches deep. They are perfect for steps because the finished dimensions of a comfortable step should be 12 inches out by 8 inches down. These steps will be 32 inches wide for further comfort. We laid the first two steps perfectly level in all directions with the top of the block far enough down from the grass to allow for rock veneer on the top. A slow and careful beginning is essential because verything has to work out just right.

The first step must be laid in to perfection

The first step must be laid in to perfection

We continued laying the blocks, moving out and down so that the number of actual steps would end up at the proper level at the bottom. The quarter step difference is worked out in fractions as we go down. The catch basin which was originally put in for drainage will be removed and replaced with cement. The steps will take care of the water, acting as a “waterfall” in rainy weather. The project is starting to take shape:

concrete block framework for stone steps

concrete block framework for stone steps

When the step foundation reached the bottom of the steps, it was time to form in a landing. In order to make everything work out properly, the retaining wall had to be started at this point.

stop here to determine level of retaining wall

stop here to determine level of retaining wall

We used a string and a line level to determine the bottom level for the wall and dug out for the basic wall foundation. The wall will consist of wall blocks backed up by a 4 inch perforated drain pipe with gravel over it. This is digging as an art form.

foundation dug for base of block retaining wall

foundation dug for base of block retaining wall

The initial wall block is set in place leaving room for the drain pipe and gravel. The level on top of the block indicates that we have the right amount of room for the 4 inch cap stone to bring the level up to exactly where we want it.

initial block in place for retaining wall. Note room for four inch cap.

initial block in place for retaining wall. Note room for four inch cap.

The steps and the wall come together. It is now time to begin framing in the landing.

foundations for rock steps and retaining wall come together

foundations for rock steps and retaining wall come together

We use wood forming to tie the base of the ramp into the back side of the landing. This will be filled in with concrete.

Wooden forms installed to pour concrete from the ramp to the rock step landing

Wooden forms installed to pour concrete from the ramp to the rock step landing

We finish laying the blocks which will provide the final step to the walkway which will lead to the pool entrance. Note that wherever the blocks don’t fit tight, the spaces are filled in with mortar mix.

Final step/landing formed and filled

Final step/landing formed and filled

Now it is time to apply the rock to the step “risers.” We have found that we get much better results if we apply the riser facing to begin with. By doing this, the rocks on the tops of the steps will lock the risers in, providing a more durable finished project. It is also much easier in the long run. First, we measure and cut each rock. We use an angle grinder with a diamond blade to score the rocks on each side and then pop it with a hammer.

cutting steps for stone risers

cutting steps for stone risers

Sticking rock veneer on an upright surface requires a bit of technique. What we do is to build an actual “suction cup” with the mortar mix. When the rock is applied to the riser, the mortar gives as the air is forced out. This works just like a suction cup on a kid’s play arrows.

"suction cup" of mortar to stick rocks upright

“suction cup” of mortar to stick rocks upright

The rock with the mortar suction cup is carefully tapped into place with a rubber mallet. The air is forced out and the rock stays in place.

set rock upright by tapping with a rubber mallet

set rock upright by tapping with a rubber mallet

It is quitting time on a hot Friday. The risers have been prepared. It is time to call it a week. Come back next week for the rest of the project.

To see part two o fthis article, click here

 **** Related posts:

To see how we built flagstone steps and a garden entrance, part one, click here

For “flagstone steps and a garden entrance, part two, click here

Would you like a consultation with johntheplantman in your yard? Contact John Schulz BY EMAIL

 These articles are brought to you by John P. Schulz, author of the novel, Requiem for a Redneck 

As usual, I would just love for you click here to go to Amazon and purchase the ebook edition of my wonderful book, Requiem for a Redneck to go on your Kindle. I have also noticed that Amazon now has a free Kindle app for iphones and tablets. Is that cool or what?

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