Sunday, June 9, 2013

Stacked stone landscaping, Part 2

Sometimes, you just have to inject new ideas and perspectives into whatever you're doing, particularly when that wisdom comes from someone with significant experience in the issue.  I'm very glad that we contracted our first stacked stone bed to Greenscapes Lawn and Landscape, because the recommendations that we received along the way resulted in a design direction and a construction result which is far superior to what we would have developed on our own.  That's a big part of what you're paying for when you hire a professional. 
It was our idea to use this particular chopped stone for a dry stack, but the landscaper interjected a great deal of great design advice.  My worn-out steel toed boot is shown here for scale. 
Alas, we don't have an infinite budget for our front yard landscape conversion project, and so we did our second stacked stone bed ourselves - the one on the opposite side of our home's front entry. 
In Part 1 I showed this picture of the curved walkway with foundation beds on either side. 
Right off the bat, you can see that we had a predicament on our hands creating a stacked stone bed here, because our style morphed from the initial curved mulch bedding installed by our builder into the more cohesive and modern rectilinear arrangement that makes optimal use of the particular kind of chopped stone we used.  

The phrase "square peg into a round hole" quite literally comes to mind with respect to this predicament of the curved walkway.  Initially, my husband was convinced that we needed to have it re-poured into a right-angle configuration that would better accommodate the stone.  I disagreed because it would have involved a labor crew, re-forming, getting a ready-mix truck to deliver concrete, etc. - none of which were in the budget.  Only wealthy folks can afford to jack-hammer a perfectly good walkway for the sake of style.  Middle-class folks develop workarounds. 

And so we did.  But before I get to that, let me briefly walk through a few DIY construction tips.
This one began in the usual way - by excavating out an area to accommodate a supportive base.  You'll notice two differences here compared to the bed built in Part 1

(1) I bought bagged limestone rather than ordering delivery of a cubic yard of it.  Buying stone in bulk is usually cheaper, but I didn't need a whole yard here, so Home Depot was my source for the bags.  I was also in a big hurry because we needed to get this project finished before the worst of the summer heat started slamming us, and so bags were more convenient. 

(2) On the far left side of this photo, you'll see stacks of concrete top caps or capstones.  This Home Depot website lists these for $0.89 apiece, but I've never found them locally for less than $1.30 (the lower price might be a per-pallet equivalent).  Even at $1.30, that's only about $0.07 per pound, compared to $0.25 per pound for the chopped stone.  Moral of that story: it stretches the budget to incorporate as many of these into the structure as possible.      
The first layer of support consisted of the limestone.  The only difference here relative to Part 1 is that we put down landscape fabric to separate the stone from the soil. 
My husband decided on a different construction methodology:  "build as we go".  Rather than finish the entire trench and then lay the entire stone wall, we started in the corner and worked our way outward.  For this reason, using a hand tamper was more efficient (and cheaper) than renting a powered compactor as was done in Part 1

Hand tamping was also a lot more work, but half the reason why I do these projects is for the exercise. 

Adding the capstones, running the longest seam in the opposite direction to how the long axes of the chopped stone will run.  We leveled them one at a time.  Notice that the driveway is sloping to the right, but the stones are level, such that the farther to photo left we go, the deeper the "lip" of the concrete becomes. 
What have I said over and over again in post after post?  Make it level.  Make it level in every direction, every time. 
You might look at this and wonder why in the heck we didn't just pour a concrete footing instead of going to all the trouble to level individual concrete capstones.  Here's a reminder of the reason:
Because I've seen too many rigid structures crumble around here.  In Part 1, I described my rationale for making my landscaping improvements "float" instead of trying to fix anything in place. 

Galveston County Courthouse Annex on Calder road, low landscaping wall split by the local forces of nature.
You might also look at this and wonder why we didn't just use sand in the leveling process.  Sand doesn't have the shrink-swell problems of clay, and it's a lot easier to level than limestone.  The answer is as follows:  sand is the absolute favorite building material of fire ants.  Fire ants don't like gumbo soil any better than you or I do - they prefer the greater sorting efficiency and drainage characteristics of larger aggregate grain sizes.  I do underlay some landscape improvements with sand, but only as a thin final micro-leveling veneer - not as a structural support.  Never underestimate the capacity for fire ants to undermine anything built using a lot of sand. 

This is what I meant when I said "build as we go".  Because we were using the concrete capstones as underpinning, we tended to lay rocks as we worked in order to determine where the best slope step-ups would land.  This is a tough thing to describe in words because it's such an intensely spatial, non-verbal process of deduction. 
Ouch - here is where our middle-class budget imperfection starts to manifest: I've drawn a red line parallel to the straight portion of this bed, aligning it with the other bed in the background.  In following the edge of the concrete, we had to put a slight curve here to accommodate that existing walkway - it was physically necessary but highly undesirable from a design standpoint. 

But never fear - workarounds are here...
Fortunately, creativity can often succeed where budget is less than ideal.  Here is the final result, and let me explain why it works visually. 
NUMBER ONE - because that focal point is a show-stopper (and a car-stopper as well - people occasionally slow down to look at it).  It tends to draw the eye away from any other imperfections that might be present.  I chose it very carefully to be the proper size for this space, to be perfectly centered in front of that brick column, and also to be rectilinear as an echo of the raised beds on either side of it.  Repetition of right angles, in other words. 

It's an urn that I got at Maas Nursery for approximately $100.  Let me show a few close-ups...
Both that taupe color and the chocolate brown color are found in our house brick.  That underlying color conformance legitimizes the addition of the vibrant blue tones. 

We set it directly into the crushed granite, which I'll talk about in a minute.   
It's a rather high, slim urn and it wouldn't take much to tip it over.  We get visited by many neighborhood children whom we greatly enjoy, but sometimes children touch things they shouldn't.  To discourage contact with this urn, I planted a painful cactus in it, a spiral EuphorbiaEuphorbias are poisonous as well as painful, but reportedly not nearly as poisonous as other common plants such as Oleander

Cactus and succulents tend to be excellent choices for container gardening in greater Houston.  Containers dry out very quickly and also get very hot during the summer.  Water-dependent plants often cannot tolerate the extreme conditions that result from container planting. 
NUMBER TWO - the crushed granite packed to the same height as the concrete walkway unifies the whole scene.  It now looks like the walkway is just a trace within the larger solid mass, rather than an obligatory and inconveniently-curved design feature.   The crushed granite pad for the focal point looks intentional rather than a curve workaround. 
NUMBER THREE - Despite the fact that these two stacked stone beds don't precisely line up in the front, the two "prongs" of stacked stone in the back do align precisely with the edge of the little covered porch.  By making these two stone extensions consistent, the whole area appears intentionally asymmetrical. 
NUMBER FOUR - I've planted mint in this undesirably-curving corner.  Right now it's newly-transplanted and looks scruffy, but it will mound and cascade over this edge and disguise the curve with its bulk, visually filling out the volume that we couldn't square off with stone because of the curving walkway.  And it will smell really good, too.
So there's the construction of our second stacked stone bed.  I'm looking forward to continuing the rest of our front yard make-over, but the heat of summer is now upon us, so we're done with our work for the time being.  It's been fun and a great learning experience, but we need a break!

I put a cigar plant in the corner opposite the urn.  Like several of the plants I described in Part 1, this poor guy also lived in a container for three years until this bed was ready to receive him.  I got him from Faith's Garden Shed Naturally via the Clear Lake Shores Farmers Market

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