Thursday, April 12, 2012


            "Where do you come up with ideas for all the things you write about?" my friend Chuck asked last Tuesday evening over ribs and his wife Maggie's fabulous, secret-recipe potato salad.

The French House, Wilmington, NC
            Ideas for topics come from all over the place. For example, Miss Janice, owner of The French House bed-and-breakfast in Wilmington, phoned on a Sunday morning not too long ago. About to convert her dirt driveway to period paving bricks, she wanted to know what to use to underneath them to prevent the pavers from sinking into our sandy soil.

            Well, huh, I thought as we chatted. There’s a post.

            Tim and I do a bit of paver and wall-block work in our business. Almost all our projects are dry-laid, meaning we use no mortar. The ground in southeastern North Carolina never freezes; ergo, it never heaves.  I enjoy the work, as it requires precision. (Although Nature abhors a straight line, those of us afflicted by anal-retentive tendencies secretly adore them.) We’ve installed circular decorative medallions, angular sidewalks, flat patios, patios incorporating steps, seating walls, low retaining walls and, once, a grand surround for a fountain. We’ve also run about a mile of standing-paver edging.

            Yep, I’d say we know our pavers.

Some paver colors & styles
            Pavers come in various sizes, shapes and colors, and, for the purposes of this discussion, include concrete stepping stones, or “steppers.” There are even paver “systems,” sets of blocks in differing shapes that fit together to form patterns. A visit to the home improvement emporium or—better yet—your local brickyard can leave you reeling with ideas for embellishing and enhancing your garden. Prices range from very affordable do-it-yourself to moderately expensive hire-someone-else-to-do-the-heavy-lifting projects, to over-the-top master mason-created objets d’art.  

            In the interest of getting this post out before the end of April—the farm in our front yard consumes a great deal of my time these days, not to mention our beloved regular clients who have grown weary of looking at their tired violas and bolted mustards—here are some pictures of several Fitzgerald projects from ridiculously easy to quite complex for a couple of gardeners giving themselves on-the-job training.

            Just below on the left is an example of Belgian block plopped on the ground to serve as edging. I love Belgian block, with its rough-hewn surfaces, unique cubed forms and considerable heft. The downside? It’s pricey. I dream of one day having a dry-laid Belgian-block driveway: stately, textured, pervious, and great traction. But for now, 12 feet of single-wide edging represents the extent of my budget. (I blew the bulk of it on what Tim indulgently calls my $700 potato.)

A proper Belgian block sidewalk
at The Stone Garden,
Wilmington's premier stoneyard
Rudimentary Belgian block edging


             Here are two toss-it-on-the-ground projects utilizing square steppers. I wanted a level place behind our screened porch to put pots on and to quell a stubborn crop of fleabane; our friend Cornelia needed a hard surface on which to drag her garbage cans to the curb. Lest you be misled by my literary insouciance, “toss it on the ground” doesn’t really describe the installation. Level is the operative word here, and will pop up many, many times in the next few posts.
Steppers make it easier to get
your garbage to the curb

Steppers make a base for pots


            Next we undertook a sidewalk, also at Cornelia’s, that presented new challenges and educational opportunities. First, part of the space was really narrow; second, the walkway took two 45-degree turns; and lastly, we wanted to maintain the integrity of the pattern, a kind of modified basketweave. All three required sawn-to-shape pavers. To make precision cuts with minimum effort, you need a special chop-saw with special, heavy-duty blades.  Unfortunately, Tim muscled through using a masonry blade on his regular chop-saw. Live and learn, right? Still, the project turned out very acceptably.

Challenge # 1
Challenge # 2

Notice how evenly the water's dripping down
             When our friends Charlotte and Tom bought a graceful, three-tiered fountain for their back yard, they asked us to install it. Level is paramount when dealing with water features: nothing reveals the tiniest tilt to port or starboard, fore or aft as glaringly as water. Other aesthetics to consider when constructing a base are shape, color, and dominance. The fountain was grey and circular, so we built the base to match in order to showcase the fountain rather than its surround. (It can also be done the other way ’round, and we’ll get there shortly.) For now, suffice it to say Charlotte’s fountain introduced us to The Circle Kit, one of those paver "systems" mentioned above.

This is what you call an irregular shape
          Charlotte and Tom loved our fountain job so much they asked us to continue the paver motif by building a patio off the back steps. Bordered by an extruded-concrete edging, the challenge here was the area’s irregular shape. Another learning opportunity!

Circular medallion in the center
A semi-circular medallion at the bottom step echoed the full circle at the geographical center of the space. We filled in with a gently curving running bond. Having by now obtained the special chop-saw and special heavy-duty blades, all necessary cutting went smoothly.


The step the mason forgot
The original brick mason paid meticulous attention to the job specifications: the plans called for three steps, so three steps are what he built, regardless of the fact that there were 13 inches between the bottom step's tread and the ground instead of the seven-inch height of the rest of the risers. I pointed out this little lawsuit waiting to happen to Charlotte. “So fix it,” she said. We did, and quite elegantly, too, if I say so myself. Tim insisted we mortar the upright bricks for sturdiness. I insisted the same uprights be a different color for visibility. (Scarred by 12 years spent in lawyer-land, I see potential liability suits everywhere.)

Remember me saying fountain surrounds can be subtle or not? Here’s our “or not.” An enormously fun project to design and execute, this paver / seating-wall / entrance column construction took eight weeks on the ground to complete. It ended up costing 35 times as much as the putative centerpiece, a rococo Italianate-style fountain. Apparently, the angels were as pleased with the outcome as the homeowners, because we have photographic evidence.

A heavenly blessing

The grand fountain surround

Next time, a bit about wall-blocks, standing-brick edgings, and a primer on laying pavers.

Thanks for dropping by.


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P.S.—Gracie, this is for you: grow-bags galore!

1 comment:

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