Thursday, October 21, 2010

Learn how to build patios, walks & walls

Duke Gardens' terrace walls

By Lauren Sims

If you’re planning a stone walkway as your next big home and garden project, be sure to pay attention to the foundation that supports it. Stone mason Cleve Wagstaff notes that improper foundation planning and care is one of the most common mistakes he sees in home walkways.

Wagstaff’s expertise has played a large part in Sarah P. Duke Gardens. When the Terrace Gardens were renovated, he shaped the Duke stone walls that complement the plantings so beautifully. He also worked on the newly renovated Fish Pool at the foot of the Terrace Gardens, the Berini Bridge nearby, and other Gardens sites, as well as stonework throughout Duke University. (See Wagstaff's latest Gardens project.)

But his company, Cleve Wagstaff Stone Masonry in Roxboro, works with backyard landscapers, too. So he was an ideal choice to teach our new Duke Gardens evening course, “Patios, Walks and Walls.” The class will deal with the myriad problems homeowners may encounter when planning a new path or border, and provide critical tips.

Foundation is the first aspect to consider.

“The more you do to the foundation” before setting your stones, Wagstaff advises, “the less upkeep in the long run. But the less you do to the foundation, the more natural the look you would have.”

The presence of nearby tree roots or the absence of good drainage may necessitate a concrete base to stabilize your path, he says. Setting stones directly into the soil gives a more rustic look, but they may need to be reset periodically as that foundation shifts. Homeowners need to plan ahead in order to strike their perfect maintenance balance.

Your choice of stone may also influence the amount of foundation work needed. Stone suppliers will carry a range of paving stones with a wide variety of thickness and durability. One variety of this natural stone “comes out of the ground an inch to 2 inches thick,” Wagstaff says. “They’re selected for walkway stones and pathway stones—it’s just a natural, small, thin piece of rock.”

A walkway featuring these stones will require a sturdy foundation, one in which the stones are set in wet cement or mortar and allowed to harden. The stones won’t hold up on their own, Wagstaff says.

Homeowners also have the option of using thicker, denser stone, which is found deeper in the ground and forms under greater pressure. The rocks are then sawn or hand-split into the appropriate shape. These thicker stones are more durable and can be set directly into the soil for a more rustic appearance.

“Sometimes they’ll become broken, but the sheer weight of them keeps them in place even if there’s a lot of water flowing across them,” Wagstaff says. “If a tree root starts to invade underneath them, they can stay stable for a long period of time just being on a soil base.”

To learn more about hardscapes, join Wagstaff in the “Patios, Walks and Walls” class on Nov. 4 and 11 from 7 to 9 p.m. Janice Little, a landscape architect and Duke Gardens’ director of education and public programs, will teach with Wagstaff. To register, call 668-5309 or e-mail

Lauren Sims is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens. This article appeared in the Herald-Sun's Oct. 16 Home & Garden section.

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