Sunday, May 29, 2011

building with natural stone

chilton limestone steps and walls- eventually on top it'll be a patio
I have a habit of biting off more than I can chew, especially when it comes to do-it-yourself handyman projects.  Because of what I do for work, and because I've seen a lot of these type of projects done, I always overestimate my abilities when it comes to yard and garden projects.

This spring's big project is a case in point.  We have had an ugly area of our backyard just off of the back of our house since we bought the place 5 and a half years ago.  It was a sort of half-ass attempt at a patio in an area way too small for anything resembling a patio.  There was a level area for 7 or 8 feet, then a steep slope with a drop of about 2 feet down to the yard.  Someone had tried to make a sitting area out of it by placing irregular yellow limesone flagging on top of the same nice rich black soil that we grow our garden crops in.

Only, when you try to build a patio on top of nice rich black soil, you get a bumper crop of weeds coming up between your flagstones.  And the flagstones tend not to stay level, even if you put them there level in the first place.

So I would have to mow the 'patio' on a pretty regular basis in the summers, trying hard not to hit the stones that had angled up over the winter; sending sparks all over the place and scaring the crap out of anyone within earshot.  I hated the 'patio', but Gita had other projects inside the house that she wanted me to work on, so remaking it had to wait.

She did let me redo the front yard two years ago (a few photos below) so I had the chance to rip out the lawn and plant a garden and build some cool dry-laid limestone pillars.  So that satisfied me for a while. 

But last fall I was determined to attack the 'patio'.  Some time around the beginning of November, I ordered a few tons of Chilton wallstone to add to the reclaimed and somewhat irregular limestone that I had purchased from someone off of Craigslist a few months before.  I ordered some stone steps as well to complete the look, and a big pile of class 5 gravel.

And I splurged on an excavator.  I rented a 'Dingo' from a rental place in Minneapolis that delivers them for a fairly reasonable fee, and had the run of the thing for a weekend.

So I went absolutely nuts with the thing for a couple of days, tore apart the 'patio' mercilessly, graded out the soil to the best of my ability, destroyed the concrete steps which I never liked anyway and built the first tier of the stone retaining wall.

Then a few days later we had 9 inches of snow. 

I waited for it to melt-- but this was a real Minnesota winter, not one of the global warming winters we've had so many of in the last two decades.

So I waited and waited and waited.  And in the meantime our offer on a foreclosed rental property was accepted and I got a whole new DIY project to work on.

Which was fine all winter, but then it got to be spring and suddenly all the projects wanted to be done at once.  And all the work at the office suddenly started to pick up at the same time when our clients looked out their windows and said 'dang!'

So it was on Friday when the paver base arrived, one of the final things to place before installing the pavers in the patio.  The company that delivered it left it half in our driveway, half in the alley- pretty much blocking it.  I couldn't just leave it there all night because it was a dark grey, and there was a good chance that someone would run into it.

So, after a long work week, I spent Friday evening slogging wheelbarrows of paver base to the patio.  I moved somewhere between 3 and 4 tons that way, and collapsed into bed after dinner that night.  Then Saturday, I had to work on a vacant apartment at the rental place.  Today too.  Then I came home tonight and moved another ton or so of paver base.

I tell myself that this will be worth it at some point.  The patio will be fabulous.  The rental property will someday make money.  My muscles will stop aching and I will be able to enjoy a spring without the anxiety of knowing I have things I should be doing somewhere.   And I will be able to enjoy planting my garden.

a chilton limesone pillar...
...makes a great chalkboard for little hands

limestone stepping stone walkway

an overview of the backyard as it looks today
 I am enjoying the front yard project of two years ago now- so there is hope for the future.  The kids are too.  The limestone caps on the pillars have become a chalkboard for my daughter (see above) and a place for my son to jump up and down and scare the schnitzel out of Gita.

Getting rid of the lawn was the best possible thing to do.  The front yard had been a weedy turfgrass lawn, and I turned the whole thing over and make a garden out of 3/4 of it.  I planted an elliptical area in the center with the 'no-mow' fescue mix from Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin.

The no-mow mix is easier than regular turfgrass so I don't mind having that.  I mow only every second or third time I mow the regular grass, so it's not a no-mow, but it's more of a low-mow turf.  I do a post about it some time in the future.

For now, I have to focus on finishing the backyard patio.  When I actually do have time to work on it, it's actually fairly enjoyable work.  Not so much the moving wheelbarrows of aggregate, but the placing of stones on top of each other to form a wall.

There is something primal, or more likely, stone-aged, about building a wall from irregular stones.  I first marveled at the beauty of stone walls during my summer as a gardener in Scotland.  Stone walls were everywhere there.  The land was rocky, and when farmers moved the stones out of their fields, they placed them near the property lines.  Eventually, the piles were reorganized into walls.  The walls aged in place, became covered with moss and became a natural-appearing part of the landscape.

One of my jobs as a gardener while there, was to take stones off of an old wall, and bring them to the botanical garden to be used as edging in the rose garden.  Which felt really wrong to me.  Disassembling this old and beautiful thing so it could be used as edging

I'm making up for it now by building my own stone walls that I hope will outlive me- though that may be optimistic. 

musa sikkimensis waiting to be planted
 'Chilton', by the way, is not a commercial label or trademark for a type of stone.  It's an indicator of origin.  It's quarried near Chilton, Wisconsin, not far from where I spent most of my childhood.  It's a unique type of limestone, having blue and green and magenta layers within the stone.  I don't know exactly why these colors seem to appear only in Chilton limestone, but they do, and I like them.

It's a bit more expensive than the local Minnesota limestone, but in my mind it's worth it.  I figure I make up for the cost many times over by doing my own labor- which is always the most expensive part of landscape projects.

'sparkle'  strawberry

wegelia 'wine and roses'
Outside of the world of stone masonry, the garden continues to grow.  I have a musa sikkimensis that I overwintered by digging up the corm, packing it in peat moss and keeping it in a cool corner of the basement all winter.  I potted it up at the end of April and it has one large leaf now, with another beginning to unfurl.  It's a Sikkimese/Bhutanese/Nepali banana species that survives in the mid-height mountain ranges of the region.  Apparently it can be found at elevations up to 6000' in Bhutan, and is the second- hardiest banana species, after musa basjoo.

Unlike M basjoo, M. sikkimensis has edible bananas- if just barely.  Gita thinks I'm nuts for trying to grow them here, but that doesn't stop me from trying.  Even if we get no fruit at all- I like the foliage-- It's a really striking maroon and green striped leaf that looks like a variegated canna or some such thing.

I planted two of them from seed last spring, and transplanted one to the yard and kept the other in my office in a south-facing window.  That one hasn't gotten the striping on the leaves.  I assume that it's because the office windows reflect most of the UV light, which is good for people, but not so good for developing pigmentation in banana leaves.'

The 'Sparkle' strawberries are growing in really nicely in the new terraced planters off the future patio.  The everbearing 'Seascape' hasn't done as well, and there are few, if any of them left.  The asparagus keeps coming and a few flowers, such as the 'wine and roses' wegelia are starting to come into bloom.

Being that tomorrow is memorial day- I should have waited to plant my tomatoes until then.  I've jumped the gun every year for the last 15 years or so, and planted tomatoes in mid-may.  Usually they're fine, but not this year.  I may have lost all of my Opalkas.  One is hanging on, but barely.  One Federle has bit the dust, and the Garden Peach have survived but look scraggly as well.  The peppers are worse.  I transplanted seven, and all but three are completely gone.  And the survivors don't look good.

But what can I do now?  Hope for hot weather?  Plant more?  Somehow I hate to do that- plant more that is. It feels unfaithful to the little plants I raised in the window for 2 months.

Has anyone else had issues with keeping your starts alive this spring?  I had a co-worker who claims that putting 2-liter soda bottles cut in half over his tomato starts has worked.  Anyone ever tried that?


  1. Your yard looks beautiful. I bet you have been working for a long time.I wish more people feel it is important and satisfying to have a nice yard.

  2. My friend's garden in Western MA has had issues with some of his garden. I know he uses half a plastic cup for one of his vegetable crops but I don't remember which. It has been difficult for him to grow lettuce, spinach, peas, and some others. I think the only crop that seems to be pretty strong are the potatoes. Good luck with everything!

  3. Wow, Jeff, that is so beautiful. You WILL love it when it's completed! We are fortunate in having a neighbor that did a similar project a few years ago, which beautified our own garden immensely. One of my main perennial beds now has a stone wall topped by a black fence; it's very classy! Hmmmm, I just created a new bed in the front yard. I may have to build a low stone boundary for it next year. --Jodi

  4. Candice- I may try the plastic cup trick next year if it's cold and rainy again the way it's been in Minnesota this spring. I haven't planted my potatoes yet, since I'm using the area where I plan to plant them as a ramp for running loads of gravel up to the new patio. Someday soon I'll plant them! The way this spring is going, it seems there's no hurry.

    Jodi- thanks for the encouragement! I am looking forward to having it finished- that's what keeps me going. BTW- I saw your blog- or the blog of a number of like-minded people- and really liked it. Compost Cowgirls is a great name! I put a link to it on the sidebar. Hope you don't mind!


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