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Stone landscaping a garden on a slope, between a fence and a waterfall: Part Two (C): Planting a Tiger-Eye Sumac

Aerial view of garden

Tiger Eye Sumac


Tiger Sumac








As I lay my 70th or 80th concrete block today, I recalled Mark Antony’s soliloquy from Julius Ceaser:

“The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious:

If it were so, it was a grievous fault,

And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.”


I only knew it because I memorized it in high-school for Sister Hugo. It must have made quite an impression because I can rattle at least half of it off on the spur of the moment. It’s the one beginning with, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…” And that’s only one of several that have stuck with me all these years; To be or not to be, that is the question whether tis nobler in mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…; Fie ‘ont fie, tis an unweeded garden that goes to seed, things rank and gross in nature possess it dearly…; What a piece of work is man, how noble in…;

Anyway, in this case, I felt like, in retrospect that my little project to be accomplished in evenings and every other weekend, was far too ambitious, and grievously hath I answer’d it.

For three weeks now, I’ve had a Tiger-Eye Sumac sitting in the driveway, slowly dying despite my ministrations and today it finally found a home:

It will have a mature height of 5-6′, and there is a matching Sumac across the head of the waterfall that is three years old, and of the approximate size of the one I just planted.

At least I haven’t had any more leg cramps. On the third night of my “vacation”, during which I logged four consecutive days of hard physical labor, I awoke at two in the morning with an ice-pic sticking in my quadriceps muscle from the front side and sticking out the hamstrings on the back side. I could barely get out of bed. When I did, the pain was so intense couldn’t tell where the doorway was to the bathroom or to the living room and I stumbled around, dizzy and not sure if I was dying or not. I couldn’t even say I was leaving the world with a sense of satisfaction, given my sadistic suffering torture I’d subjected myself to in the garden–my only consolation that came to mind was that it would soon be over. But then I found the door, then the kitchen, and chugged down a  bottle of Gatorade; and slowly, the ice-pic was withdrawn like the door of an iron maiden opening and I was made whole.

Three weeks or so into this, I am happy to say that everything seems to be lining up so perfectly that it is as though I drew up a plan with carefully measured elevations and laser site lines and so on and so on; but of course I did not. I laid those first rows of blocks and poured 1500 lbs. of concrete with a wild abandon and nothing more than a vision in my head. As it turned out, they are exactly where they need to be and of an elevation not off more than a quarter inch, easily withing the margin of mortar (type N). I can’t believe it. It’s a goddam miracle, and thank God for miracles, which I don’t doubt in the least having experienced them personally a number times, notwithstanding this last.

Stone landscaping a garden on a slope, between a fence and a waterfall: Part Two (C): Passing through doubt

Aerial view of gardenI lead a simple life. I get up in the morning, make the exact same thing for breakfast, drink 8 cups of coffee (I’m sure they’re small cups–it’s just what it says on the coffee pot when it’s just past half full), go to work, come home, work on the project at the work site on the south side of my house, make the exact same thing for supper (I ran out of the “same thing” so tomorrow there will be some change), read Great Expectations, sleep; then repeat.

It was a difficult week for me, plagued by doubt. What I had started with, what I suppose I would describe as great expectations, became, seemingly, a futile exercise with an endpoint so distant and so uncertain that I could do nothing but stand in the middle of my chaotic muddle and wonder what in the hell had I done with my garden. My trenches and concrete block that seemed to make so much sense when I dug them, placed them and then concreted them in for good were to my eye now unsightly and something arranged slightly less than random.

The shadow of doubt moved across the field of my enlightened vision four afternoons ago after I had spent a number of hours cutting stone for a section of the walkway/floor. It looked like this:

stone paversOf course I loved it; but, then, when I propped up the same stone against the concrete block, it all seemed too too monotonous. It was definitely too monotonous, and would not do. I think if I would have only vomited that I might have felt better. I had to do something different with the walls, but what–stucco was the only thing that I could think of, but how much more would that cost, and how in the F*^& do I do that. I still don’t even know how to be a stone mason.

After some consultation with a designer (thanks Honey), it was obvious that I would need to change the floor from stone to something else, and what better than the river rock that we already have around the pond that I was going to replace anyway; and that is what you see in the aerial view of the leading image. The river rock is constrained by the stone and flush to the top of it. It has all of the colors as the stone I’m sticking to the walls.

Lower entrypath






There. That’s better. I haven’t yet laid the concrete block at the top of the work site. I had intended to do all of that first, as part of my Part Two; but then I entered the winter of my doubt and thought I’d better figure this out before pouring another 1500 lbs. of concrete.

A second doubt-shadow invaded my consciousness three days ago when I mortared the back of a stone, stuck it against the concrete block wall, and it fell down. I wanted to vomit again. Faced with somewhere between 50 and a 100 concrete blocks, not so expertly laid with neat joints, etc. that needed covering with stone, I found myself mightily disheartened. This was shortly after my revelation of monotony. Clearly, I was doing something wrong, and most likely, to my thinking, it had to do with the mortar.

Now, I don’t know who’s the genius that came up with the instructions for pre-mixed mortar and concrete; about mixing a few ounces of water into each 60 pound bag of dust, but they must surely be short a few cards in the proverbial mental deck because it takes a hell of a lot more than what they say, by at least a factor of 2. When I hung my first stone, I thought I’d be exact, and I mixed and I mixed, and I mixed the 60 pounds of dust with a few ounces of water, and it was dry–but I followed the directions dammit. They were wrong.

Now I know that you add water until it is right. You make it a little drier if you want to roll it or do joints, but it can be a little wetter for the veneer application. Type N mortar will work for anything. Type S mortar is not sticky enough for vertical application. And by now, of three things I am certain; it is impossible to cut anything other than a straight line in Door County limestone, limestone dust doesn’t smell half bad, and, I’m going to need more rock.

Ornamental treeThis ornamental tree is at the top of my garden on a slope. The entry into my terracing project will be just to the right of this tree. I’m going to lay some fabric and then black rock around the tree.




Now that I am aesthetically okay with what I have done below, I can now lay the rest of the block above. I have a six foot pillar of 30 blocks sitting in the driveway between the garage doors where I will be less like to back into them. I hope there’s enough.

I’m exhausted. Some people play the piano; some paint pictures; others golf or fly planes or drive boats; me, I prefer something much more self-flagellatory.


Stone landscaping a garden on a slope, between a fence and a waterfall: Part Two (B)

I still feel like I’m on part two, aesthetically I mean, and I don’t know how much of the alphabet I’ll get through before emotionally moving on to part three. My nightmare is that I’ll devour the 26 characters and have to start over with a Part Two A(a) or some such thing. Actually, I’ll be disappointed if I go past “D”.

IMG_0655It is my third day of vacation, each day a 12 hour plyometrics workout, kind of like a insane  12 hour session with Tony Horton, except more dangerous because I couldn’t count the times I’ve tripped downhill and nearly impaled myself on a stick of rebar. In fact, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened given my propensity for self-induced injury. As a naturally intelligent person, after the 4th or 5th stumble, I began stacking blocks around the rebar so that the shards of iron were at least covered. I also carry my cellphone in a fanny pack centered at the small of my back because in the front it would get too wet. That way, if something bad happens I can call 911 from my back, just like I did a few Memorial Days ago; only this time, instead of a bubbling brook rushing past me, I’ll probably be staring at a red piece of rebar sticking somewhere from out of me.

It’s kind of like building a pyramid I’m thinking, except that it doesn’t look triangular. I’ve been thinking alot about pyramids lately; like how in the f_@k did they build those things without Quickcrete and rebar? At least it was under 70 today, and breezy, and I even listened to the Packer game while assembling my obsession.

I have an inkling of what it must have been like to have been a prisoner back in the day when they had those chain gangs; you know, before flat screen TV’s and weight rooms. I have a huge pick-axe I’ve had for years, bought it at an antique store; and I’m swinging that, feeling the thunk before I hear it. I pry and pull and sweat, constantly sweat. Then I dig and pry and heave; and then I stumble up the hill to get something that I can’t remember when I get there so I drink the jug of water on the flat surface of a boulder next to the pond.

trenchingHere’s an example of the rebar. Problem was, I ran out of concrete blocks, so I couldn’t stack them around the rebar. I know it looks like a mess, but it’s starting to make sense to me. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing when I started; but I do now. I know that type “S” mortar does not stick well to vertical surfaces. I know that the mortar has to be more wet than dry to use in the joints between the blocks. I know that the liner of my waterfall had a low spot that leaked water slowly over time. I know that in some years not too distant I won’t be able to do what I’m doing now.


I definitely prefer this to pulling weeds or spreading mulch. I like the physicality of it. I like that I figure it out as I go. I like that I’ve lost ten pounds since starting and before it’s done I should most likely be rippling like a Spartan.

Thank God for the 5 yards of quarry wash at the side of the driveway that I had delivered 3 years ago for some reason I cannot now recall. It’s amazing what a modest amount of disposable income, quarry wash, and a stupid-strong back can accomplish.


Stone landscaping a garden on a slope, between a fence and a waterfall: Part Two

I’ve stopped keeping tract of the time. At first, I thought it’d be kind of cool to see how quickly I could knock this out; alas, it goes not so quickly, and one afternoon seems much as another, and day follows day, each ending in a pile of dirty clothes and sweat soaked work boots; and I’ve yet to lay an actual stone, stones that are stacked in low walls along random borders around the yard; tree lines, driveway, walkways, stacked stone that I pass between with wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of dirt and fill and rocks, maneuvering between the iatrogenically narrowed pathway, wondering why in the world I stacked them on both sides of the walkway at such an idiotic distance apart, but too tired and lazy to move them now.

Terracing the gardenI’m hoping that concrete blocks and core-filling grout are idiot-proof because I’m not specifically mortaring one block to another, except for the last row on top, and that didn’t seem to work so well. Maybe the mortar needs to be wetter–I’ll try that tomorrow; still, with the rebar and the pourable concrete, it all seems fairly solid; plus, I’ll have a series of irregular boxes (concrete block sections) before I’m done, and they will all be interlocked with each other as one unit, so I don’t think there will be much movement, at least, I hope not.

I want to get the middle level leveled and done (I’m adding one more row of blocks, 2/3rds of the way this side (on the far side will be the stairs going to the top) so that I can throw the dirt down into it to fill it rather than wheelbarrowing it up and out and beyond the fringe of the front yard, which has already developed  mounds of dirt like you might see in the unfriendly part of a golf course except of course that my mounds are not covered in grass.

Another angle:

Terracing a gardenI didn’t know there were so many kinds of mortar; type N, S, and I can’t remember the others–I just read the description on the placard associated with each kind of mortar and picked what sounded right. I’ve also become a low-voltage lighting expert, at least so far; I guess we’ll see when I eventually plug everything in.

I have this picture in my head, kind of, and I don’t know that it will come to pass; but at least I’m losing a hell of a lot of weight.