Saturday, April 21, 2012


Old-field toadflax

            “Let’s call it Toadflax Farm," I said to Tim, "because of the bushels of old-field toadflax I yank out every spring.” (Old-field toadflax is an attractive, airy wildflower/weed with sweet little lavender-blue blooms and a germination rate close to 120%.)

We surveyed our transformed front yard, now a maze of raised beds and Grow-Bags festooned with miles of toe-grabbing bird-netting. The faint dead-animal stench of the soured milk we’d poured on the Grow-Bag tomatoes (for the calcium, that’s why) wafted past on the evening breeze. “More like ‘Green Acres,’” my husband replied.

Toadflax Farm, scoffers notwithstanding
Hmph. My enthusiasm cannot be dampened this early in the season. I go walkabout every morning, camera and harvesting colander in hand, looking for new stuff. Yesterday, almost all the beans had sprouted where the day before only one bent stem could be seen. The peas and strawberries dribble in. (I’ve learned you have to plant a hell of a lot of shelling peas to bring in even a modest crop. I don’t really have the room, so mostly I eat them raw as I pick them.) Baby tomatoes and cucumbers proliferate. Thirty out of 31 peanuts sown are up. The potatoes will need their first hilling this afternoon.

  I am so psyched. I’d rather be puttering around my own yard than working gainfully, or blogging. April, ever one of my favorite months, has outdone herself this year.

Now let’s move on from paean to paving.

Open, flat patios work fine for extending the deck or house out into the garden; they look a bit forlorn, though, when floating on their own out in the yard. Some clients of ours envisioned a curving floored space, complete with firepit, for outdoor entertaining; close to but not abutting the back of the house; and viewable from inside the house. Accordingly, they hired a mason (who managed to pave over only one irrigation head in the process: good thing Tim’s the Leonardo da Vinci of integrated landscape systems). The two-dimensional reality left something to be desired, however. In an attempt to provide the missing j’en ne sais quoi, they tethered the floating patio to the house with a straight and narrow flagstone path at a 94° angle from the bottom step. Didn’t help much.

A friend recommended Fitzgeralds Gardening. When consulted, we suggested a seating wall--so-called because the top of the wall is wide and stable enough to sit on--to enclose the patio, and a wider, more meandering path.

And that’s what we did.

This was in the days before we had a digital camera, so the work-in-progress photos have disappeared into the black recesses of the office closet, probably never to see the light of day again. But I did manage to salvage the before-and-afters for your edification. What a difference a wall makes! 

"Floating" patio
"Floating" patio, grounded

As does the curved as opposed to stick-straight path. (Notice that instead of skirting the clump of three crape myrtles, we routed the path through it. When the trees leaf out, passing among them will make visitors feel more like they’re on their way to a destination. It’s a subtle, subliminal design trick, but it really works.

"Floating" patio tethered better
"Floating" patio tethered, barely

Low walls help define garden rooms, too. One lady asked Tim and me to impose civility on part of her wild-ish back yard, and give her a reason to leave the screened porch. Here’s what we came up with.

Garden room from the rear
Garden room from the front

Low edging wall
Have bermed planting areas that could use some retaining? Need an edging that prevents lawn from creeping where you don’t want it to go? Dream of stopping the lawn guy from slowly decreasing your grassed area by pretending a weed-whacker is an edging tool? A low wall might just be the answer to all these landscaping conundrums. 

Retaining wall, take one:
après ça, le déluge
In this age of proliferating concrete wall-block systems, anyone with a reasonably strong back and knees can build a low wall. I keep emphasizing “low” because anything higher than 18 to 24 inches requires battening. If the word “battening” means nothing to you, don’t plan on going higher than three tiers, four as an absolute maximum. (Wall blocks run to around four inches in height.) For actual retaining walls—designed to hold back tons of soil—hire a professional. Ask for references, and check them. We have a friend who contracted with his mulch provider (?) to install a five-foot high, 115-foot long retaining wall above a pond. The first-time wall builders had no idea they needed to batten such a structure; ergo, the first heavy rainfall toppled several sections and undercut the base in places, because it was improperly done.  

Oh, dear.

Should you undertake a do-it-yourself wall project, the local home-improvement emporium is a good place to start. (Here are links to the relevant webpages for Lowes and Home Depot.) They stock all you’ll need in the way of materials and tools. Selection has improved tremendously from the days of one-size-fits-all concrete lozenges, with more shapes, colors, finishes (i.e., tumbled, smooth, scored) and price ranges to choose from.

More Lowes wall blocks & pavers
Some Lowes wall blocks & pavers

Paver company catalogs
If you’re not a DYI kind of person, visit a brick- or stone-yard instead. In the Oak Island/Southport area, check out Bianchi’s Brickyard. Proprietor Dave Bianchi is a master mason, which is evident the second you pull up in front of the place. (Those of us who watched it never cease to marvel at the transformation of a nondescript vinyl-sided house set toward the back of a weedy lot to the lovely building and grounds of today.) Tim and I source materials for our projects there, because Dave carries the more up-scale Anchor Block's Holland Pavers (a division of Metromont Materials) and Belgard lines that can be tailored to the particular job, and provides tons (haha) of professional advice.

The orange wall; or, Caveat emptor
Speaking of professional advice, here’s some: choose colors carefully. Err on the side of neutral greys and tans. One client chose the wall block herself for an installation we did. She meant to pick up a subtle pink tone in the bricks of the house, but she didn't have a spare to take with her to Lowes for comparison. Although you can’t really see it in its full glory in this picture, what she got was an orange wall.


Must run. Oak Island, it seems, has lost its deer immunity: my ‘Red Zebra’ baby tomatoes and the top of the plant were gone yesterday morning, and poor ‘Black Trifele’ now nothing but a stalk. So we’re off to Lowes to investigate fencing options. No, a low wall won’t do.

Thanks for dropping by.


P.S.—Welcome to Laura, décor addict, artist and musician, who arrived as GFTGU’s 15th follower this morning. I’m glad you’re here.