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

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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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