Monday, April 30, 2012


Toadflax Farm, late April
            Toadflax Farm is coming right along. Lots of passers-by seem fascinated by the front-yard vegetable garden concept. After 15 years on NE 13th Street, we’re finally getting beyond a mere nodding acquaintanceship with our near neighbors, and meeting ones who live farther down the block for the first time.

            No one ever accused us of being breezy extroverts when we’re at home.

Tim and I took today off to put in a full day in the yard, pruning away sun-blocking tree limbs, hilling the potatoes again, potting up the three new tomatoes given us by grower extraordinaire Christine and planting the 90 or so annuals and perennials I stashed in the truck when we visited Another Place in Thyme last Tuesday. (That sounds like a lot, but it’s only about 25 one-galloners and the rest three- and four-inchers. No, really, it isn’t a lot. For me.)

Echinacea paradoxa

            This year’s new-to-me specimens include Echinacea paradoxa. Haven’t ever had much luck with E. purpurea (plain ol’ purple coneflower and the zillions of recent hybrids), so the thought of giving another species a go appeals to me. The flowers look enough like Rudbeckia that perhaps my coneflower jinx will be broken.

Stromanthe sanguinea 'Tricolor'

 I’m also trying out Stromanthe sanguine ‘Tricolor,’ a tender foliage plant hailing from Brazil, and… 

Gomphrena 'Fireworks'

Delosperma cooperi ‘Fire Spinner,’ an ice plant that produces blooms in an eye-popping combination of yellow, lavender, magenta and orange, if you believe the tag. It should go well with Gomphrena ‘Fireworks,’ which doesn’t much resemble its stumpy little purple-, pale pink- or white-flowering cousins. Christine introduced me to ‘Fireworks’ last season; thanks to our mild winter, some of them overwintered. With the new ones I bought last week, our front yard is going to look like the Fourth of July all summer.


Well, enough about me. Let’s wind up this dissertation on pavers.

Dry-laid pavers are a breeze to install. Getting the ground ready to lay the pavers, however, is another matter entirely. And it all hinges on level, a concept you will come to believe exists exclusively to drive you ’round the bend.

Here’s a pictorial demonstration of the process, starring Tim and me and our friend Cornelia’s front yard. Like me, Cornelia has a fixation about losing lawn. She decided she’d like the strip of land between her graveled parking area and the sidewalk converted from scrubby grass and weeds to a little shrubbery bounded by matching walkways. (The pictures are dark and I’m dressed like Nanook of the North because the action took place on a January afternoon during a "normal" coastal North Carolina winter. As a point of interest, it was one of the last outings for those purple overalls with the Eeyore appliqu├ęs my mom thought I’d look cute in.)

ASSEMBLE YOUR MATERIALS. Having the right tools makes any job go better. Here’s what you’ll need, gathered all in one place for ease of access, to get your project rolling:

Pavers (duh).
Step 1a
Paver base, a cindery material that compacts to form an almost concrete-like underlayment.
Sand to fill cracks between the pavers. The kind pictured here is leveling sand, which resembles mortar sand. I prefer play sand, used for filling kids’ sandboxes. The leveling sand’s grains are large (relatively speaking, of course) and angular so they form tighter bonds when compacted. Play sand grains are finer and rounded, so it’s easier to get more of them into tiny openings, but they don’t mesh as well. Take your pick.

Step 1b
A tamper. Ours is powered by what Tim calls “Norwegian steam,” but you can also rent a powered one, looking, sounding and handling rather like a jack-hammer.
An expensive masonry saw, with accompanying masonry blade (if you’re doing an extensive installation, you may need more than one blade.) You might be able to rent these. The alternative is to plan your project to be perfectly straight with only precisely 90-degree turns and of a width and length that accommodate the exact dimensions of your bricks. Obviously, we opted for the saw. 
The stuff in the bucket is polymeric sand, used as the final step to set the pavers.
More paver base. You’ll want lots of paver base.
A section of 4x4”, for pounding recalcitrant pavers into submission instead of into multiple pieces. Two-by-four sections work just as well.
What’s missing from this photo is a shovel, a trowel and a long level. I’m assuming you know what those things look like.

Step 1c
And the small stuff: a short level; masons’ twine; a chisel (necessary if you don’t spring for the masonry saw);  a small sledge-hammer; a rubber mallet; and a T-square (for marking bricks that need to be cut). Not shown: 18”-long stakes.

Step 2

STAKE OUT THE SITE, using the stakes and masons’ twine.


Step 3
DIG OUT THE SITE. Here’s where things start getting interesting. You need to excavate to the depth of your paver plus at least three inches. That’ll put the finished project at ground level. If you live in an area where the ground freezes, you have to go deeper and build a thicker base to prevent frost-heaving. Ask around locally for advice. I live in a reasonable climate.

Step 4 (that's a long level I'm holding)

LEVEL THE EXCAVATION,  called "screeding." Tim and I use a section of 2x4”—ideally the width of the dug-out area, but things are seldom ideal—to start the leveling ball rolling. The process unfolds more smoothly if you take great pains to level the work area at this juncture.

Step 5

TAMP THE DIRT. Keep checking (and checking, and checking) for level.

Step 6
 ADD PAVER BASE, TAMP & LEVEL. Repeat until you have a firm and level base with just enough vertical space left so the pavers will be at grade. Don’t stint on paver base: it’s what keeps the finished surface from buckling or sinking.

Step 7

RE-TAMP & RE-LEVEL. Now that you’re properly obsessed with level, you can start laying the bricks.

Possible paver patterns

CHOOSE A PATTERN. Running bond is the easiest, but it involves a half-brick to start alternate rows. I like a modified basketweave, myself. Unfortunately, I also like curves and odd-angle turns. Fortunately, we own a masonry saw.


LAY THE PAVERS. Work across the smallest dimension of the space. Pound the pavers tight against the outside edges and one another using the rubber mallet. Although not absolutely necessary, it is helpful to have hard edges to work to. (Sand not being the most stable of soils, the Fitzes install a standing brick edging around the perimeters of our projects, a topic I'll cover next time.) Fill cracks with leveling or play sand as you finish each small section. (Tim uses a scrub brush for this purpose. I use my gloved hands.) Continually check for level, brick to brick and row to row. If you’re building on sloping ground, ensure that the angle of rise or descent remains constant.  Lay the board-section over the pavers and use the sledge-hammer to whack them securely into the base. Rub more sand into the joints. When you’re finished, spread polymeric sand over the entire project and water it in, following the directions on the package. When dry, the polymers act sort of like cement, only not so difficult to remove or replace individual pavers should that become necessary.

All finished!

CONGRATULATE YOURSELF ON A JOB WELL DONE. Treat yourself to a beer, or, if you’re a Fitzgerald, a bracing cup of coffee. Especially in January.

            So that’s all there is to it. The secret to all brick and stone work is to take your time. Don’t rush. If you don’t like the way a single paver or a whole section looks, take it out and do it over. Where craftsmanship is concerned, no one awards extra points for getting done first.

            Well, time to get out in the yard. Thanks for dropping by.