September 3, 2013

I'm Rockin' Rocks

At the end of August I decided to do something about the browned out mess of thyme that was draped over a little rise at the top of the driveway. It had to be removed, but how to hold back the dirt in the raised bed above from washing down onto the pavers?
Another creeping groundcover? I got some good suggestions from commenters when I posted asking for ideas to replace the thyme.

Or . . . how about a dry stacked stone retaining wall? It would only need to be a foot high. A low rustic wall, more ornamental than functional. Yes, that's it.  Off we went to the stone store to buy rocks and hire a contractor.

This is where it all went wrong.

The man at the stone store said a wall one foot high and 20 feet long was too small a project for a contractor. He looked at us, a gray haired couple in our mid 60s driving a sedan, and without blinking said "you can do it yourselves. Easy. Just put down 3 inches of crushed gravel and line the rocks up so they are staggered".

He sold us a pallet of rocks and sent us on our way. The pallet was delivered the next day.

Thus began our disaster.

First, it took us the better part of a week to hand dig the strip where the wall would go. The pennisetum at the far end would not come out, that clump of grass just would not budge. That took two days, but Jim finally got it hacked out with the crowbar and shovel.

Then digging up the thyme and removing the dirt turned out to be a huge effort. Who knew we had to remove a yard of soil by hand and put it somewhere? Aching bodies. Jim's back snapped, and we broke the bed on the John Deere lawnmower trailer hauling the dirt away.
Finally the area was dug out, the stone dust laid and leveled, and we began sorting rocks by size.

Did I mention we are both in our 60s? Did I tell you about Jim's back? Pick up rocks, put rocks down. Sort rocks. Move rocks. Exhausted, and the wall building had not yet started.
(All of my pictures are terrible because it was either overcast or drizzling each day we worked. It kept us cool and wet, but clear photographic evidence of this debacle is wanting.)
On a damp, muggy day, already sore and tired from the week's prep work, we began to build our wall.

As soon as we started to lay rocks, the painstakingly leveled gravel base was demolished. You have to rock the rounded stones into place, you have to scrape out a depression for the uneven sides to sit in, and then you have to move each one multiple times to try it out, rock it level, then try another, then try a third stone, squishing the crushed gravel every which way.

Apparently the whole rock laying thing is 99% art and only 1% careful preparation and measuring.

Jim discovered that one of the stones was shaped like a heart. I know nothing about wall building technique, and so far the whole thing looks like stacked rubble, but that heart had to be set in as an accent somehow. It took hours of jimmying and wiggling and it falls out each time I put a new stone anywhere on the wall, but you get the idea.
It's almost done -- I'm not showing you how the right side trails off awkwardly at an angle. That needs to be fixed.

And we still need to backfill behind the wall, somehow get level cap stones on top, and figure out how to stabilize the whole thing.

I am beyond confused about how to get these stones stacked at all, much less keep them from toppling over. It's impossible to put any piece on top of any others without it rocking and tipping.

Because I am constantly reworking what I build three and four times or more, I can't get the hang of mortaring stones in the back for stability where it doesn't show. That would mean I'd have to commit to the placement of at least two stones. I can't commit to any two, I keep moving every stone around.

I thought there would be more flat(ish) rocks to work with, but about 3/4 of the whole pallet, small and large sizes both, have uneven topsides and very rounded irregular bottom sides, so they will not stack on top of each other. They rock. I've already used the flatter ones I could find, and now am trying to fit increasingly rounded tippy rocks over them.
The shapes have so many corners sticking out at odd angles, that I can't place them side to side. I am not trying to get a fitted look, I just don't want the wall to wobble and teeter so much.

I shim with small stones underneath the wobblers, but there's a limit to how much chunky rubble you can stuff under every stone and I am already running out of small stuffer stones.

I have no idea what I'm doing. I am incredibly frustrated, Jim's back is very painful, and I am sore all over from bending and kneeling, and lifting and shifting rocks.

This is not a project for two older homeowners who have never laid stone. It simply isn't. What was the guy at the stoneyard thinking when he looked right at us and said "You can do this yourselves." WTF?

Stay tuned. I will post a picture of the finished wall if my painkillers and patience hold out.
 

36 comments:

  1. I love love love the look of your wall. What a beauty. If I hadn't read about all your misery I wouldn't have noticed a thing amiss. I do hope your back holds out and Jim's feels better soon. It will be worth it. I think when you get the back fill in it will stabilize. Now we know why it costs so much to have this done.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lisa, you are so right -- I have such an appreciation now for the exorbitant prices that stonemasons charge. This is skilled, hard work!!

      Delete
  2. First off, the guy at the store obviously does not have to live with an aching back. Having built, dismantled, and rebuilt many similar stone walls on my property, I completely understand. In fact, I have two smallish stone wall projects swimming around in my idea-bank right now ... just waiting for the moment when I decide it's time. Lisa is right, backfilling will help stabilize it somewhat. But, try to find more chinkers and plan to re-chink here and there for a while until the stones settle in, and again each spring to stabilize what frost/snow cycles have moved. It sounds like a lot but it doesn't take long to do in early spring when you need to be outside in the warming sunshine. Your wall looks wonderful ... please share this with Jim. As time passes, the memory of the back pain will diminish but your wall will remain and you and Jim will look at it and proudly say, "We built that!"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Joene, such encouragement! Thanks. I will definitely do the chinking and rechinking you describe.

      With the rock walls you have built, did you use mortar in back to stabilize, or just use the gravel and dirt as backfill to stabilize the wall? That's the part that has me mystified. I can't figure out how to get bits of mortar in behind the front rocks. Each is laid so precariously on top of others, and I can't picture cementing them in without messing up the next one . . . tell me you just used soil to back it all up.

      Delete
    2. Sorry for my late reply ... I just use soil.

      Delete
  3. Everything I have ever read about drystone walls says that making them is a skill that takes a long time to master. I think the man at the store just wanted to sell you some rocks. They also don't seem ideal for the job. Despite all this, your wall looks good. I hope you can stabilise it. Maybe there is some online advice available? Even a Youtube video? There seems to be advice on most things out there somewhere. Look after yourselves, especially your backs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lyn, we've been scouring the online advice on building walls and there is a lot of good stuff out there. That's how I know we should be mortaring some of the stones. But it really is an art that you have to practice. I could build a better wall now the second time, having had this practice!

      Delete
  4. HA! I am rolling over here! Holy crap! Ok....first off when you said that you were making a raised bed I said to myself...great idea! My brother just worked on making one next to a little stone patio in the back corner of his house. He had tons of rocks all over his property when he moved in. He used cement between all of the rocks for his wall. The cement just looks like a little bit of grout. It sounds like it is driving you nuts but lady it looks so pretty!!! I think the idea to create this vs trying to grow some type of creeping plant is spot on for the space! Here is hoping your aches fade and that planting can begin!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nicole, you are right -- the wall is driving me nuts, and I need to step back and see that it is coming out all right, and we're almost done. Boy, could I build a great wall the next time now that I know how it's done : )

      Delete
  5. have you ever seen Karen's blog from Quarry Garden Stained Glass?
    http://krensgarden-karen.blogspot.com/

    These folks have done more things with rock than you can imagine, and I know she would be happy to give you some pointers on stabilizing this wall. They are just average folks who can do amazing things with rocks.

    I hope this turns out okay. I know how tired you must be. I tend to make low retaining walls like this out of small boulders and then plant sedums to creep in any pockets formed between the boulders. I love the heart rock. I had a heart shaped rock show up on my latest rock project, too :-)

    Best wishes -- keep us posted! Call/email Karen!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Toni, thanks for the resource link -- really helpful. I checked out their rock wall creations and they are amazing. They are doing big things with very big boulders (using bulldozers!!) -- really impressive. My little wall looks so simple in comparison : )

      Delete
  6. Like others have written, I think the (not quite) finished product looks great. You should both be very proud of yourselves.

    At the same time, it does seem like the guy who sold you the rock misled you on the amount of work that the project would entail. I've found it difficult to find trustworthy and competent craftspeople who are willing to work on what they consider to be small jobs.

    Anyway, I wish you both a speedy recovery from the physical ordeal of building the wall, but I hope you will be able to enjoy its beauty for a long, long time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aaron, at first I was annoyed that no contractor would want our job. Then I was angry at the stoneyard guy for selling us rocks and deluding us. Then I was angry with ourselves for being so naive. Now I am ok -- as many have mentioned, it is coming out ok and we will like it!

      Delete
  7. After playing with stone and building a couple of small decorative stone walls I'm in the chinking camp. It's amazing how a small well placed stone can stabilize a teetering section. Despite the trials and tribulations, the wall looks great and will be fine for the intended purpose. After the aches and pains go away the satisfaction of having built the wall yourselves will remain.

    When I had the large stone wall built around my driveway, I occasionally watched the mason work and he often chipped and chiseled at many of the stones to get them to fit just right. Stone work is an art and although some masons may have a natural aptitude, I suspect most others rely on years of experience and apprenticeship.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sue, it is funny that you mention how stonemasons chip away the rocky points and chisel the stones for a better fit -- I actually discovered we could do that when we were at the top layer! Not finesse work, but I figured out we could sledgehammer away some of the worst protrusions. Boy, after all this learning my next wall will be perfect : )

      Delete
  8. This is why every time I have a grand idea I want to try, I never even attempt it:) But I think your wall looks great, Laurrie, and like Lisa, if you hadn't explained all the problems, I would never have known anything was amiss with it. I hope your husband's back recovers soon, and I hope you find some tips to solve the stability issues. You would think stacking rocks on top of each other wouldn't be that difficult, wouldn't you, but we all now have a new appreciation for stone masons.

    I really, really do like this retaining wall!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rose, that's what I thought -- stacking rocks would not be difficult --- Ha! It's like making pancakes, the first tries should always be discarded, but the second batch is great. I have learned a lot, and could build a better wall the second time. There really are little "art" techniques you can only pick up by trial and error.

      Delete
  9. Oh no! I feel for your poor backs! It looks AWESOME. I love that incorporated the heart shaped rock, too.

    I would like to give that rock employee a piece of my mind. For Pete's sake!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Heather, thanks. LIke your experience with hanging light fixtures, this has been a brutal job but when people see the finished result they won't even know. But we will . . .

      Delete
  10. My Dear, Dear, Dear Friend - you HAVE lost your mind! I took a 2 day rock wall building class & it was darned hard work,convincing me I wouldn't be doing one soon. All that said; the wall looks lovely & you WILL enjoy it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Becky, you took a class on rock wall building, and you failed to warn me or give me any wisdom on this foolish idea, so you will be partly to blame when it all falls down! Not really, of course, but if I had known . . .

      Delete
  11. Having rebuilt a "thrown" stone wall, and having turned a failed project into a scree, I feel your pain. I also feel you've done a fine job on your wall. Also, it's nice to have company among Nutmeggers who, like us Georgians, have to buy stone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lee, there was a point when I thought my wall would become a scree, but I think I finally got it to stand up enough. In your old garden you used stone so creatively. It doesn't always have to be a stone wall, there are lots of ways to use rocks, either found or boughten.

      Delete
    2. 'Preciate your appreciation, Laurrie. If I could have waved a magic wand, I would have brought some of those creations down to Georgia.

      Delete
  12. I love your wall, and especially that heart in the middle! Genius! But, I have no idea how to build a stone wall - wish I could magically give you some easy advice that would make it all come together perfectly. It looks great. I hope when it's all finished, you'll be able to look back and laugh.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Holley, well, I don't know about laughing when this is all done, but I am definitely calming down now. I can see an end to the project and I can see that it will look ok. I'm getting there!

      Delete
  13. Laurrie, I have to admit I laughed, even though I shouldn't have. Your wall does look great, and I really admire your determination and your skill! My husband's favorite line is, "How hard can it be?" That applies to cement board siding, new windows, installing a toilet, stone pathways, and yes, stone walls. It turns out, the answer is, Pretty darn hard. That's why there is Advil.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sarah, how hard can it be? I could be married to your husband, as I tend to start every project with that question. Really, it's just some rocks, how hard could that turn out to be??

      Delete
  14. Building a wall- a few simple words, but it is no small undertaking as your backs have discovered. At least you can comfort yourselves with thoughts of how great it look when it is done. I love the heart! Heart and soul went into building your wall.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jennifer, I will always think of your last line when I look at this wall -- our hearts and souls went into building it! I did not think of that when we discovered the heart rock, I just thought it would be a good accent. But you captured the essence -- heart and soul went into this wall : )

      Delete
  15. Oh, Laurrie, I think your wall is looking amazing, but I am sorry it has been such a chore. You need Paul, the stone guy who did my rock stairway to the woodland garden! He does stone projects on the side. It seems it would have been easier to mortar the rocks, rather than dry stack them, because then they don't have to fit so precisely. But I know what you mean about committing a rock to a particular place. I have some low stone walls in my arbor garden that are dry stacked for the reason that I am afraid I will want to move rocks around. But after watching Paul, I am seriously thinking about mortaring them, I will also buy some really flat rocks for the top. Right now my little walls are very unstable. I do think you have done the right thing by putting a retaining wall in. I love the heart, and I hope after it is all over you will love the results, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Deb, You can send Paul up here any time! There are rocks left over from the pallet and I can think of ways for Paul to make use of them : )

      Delete
  16. hey man, your work looks really good! considering the big ish area you have to lay down the rocks and the stones you have to work with i'd say the finished product looks like it was done by a proffesional! ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maurice, thanks! It doesn't look professional to me, but I'm glad it does to others : )

      Delete
  17. I'm so glad I found your blog. I just bought a piece of land and can only dream of creating as beautiful a landscape as you have. Keep up the good work and thank you for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tracy, thanks! And good luck with all the landscaping you have ahead of you.

      Delete

Sorry about requiring code verification -- I experimented with turning it off to make commenting easier, and I got too much spam. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and to type in silly codes. I appreciate hearing from you.