Hardscaping is not for the faint of heart or body

Two tons of stones showed up in my driveway last week. That sounds like a lot, but the stack is deceptively small, a revelation that only become clear when I tried to move a single stone.

It’s advised to install hardscaping — patios, pathways, walls and the like — in a yard or garden first, then create gardens and lawn spaces around it. The advice makes sense because hardscaping, which is crucial to the flow and feel of a yard, not only creates the skeleton of a space but also is incredibly destructive, so it’s easier to make a big mess at once and then fix the damage and bring in plants.

But the hardscaping-first advice applies only to people with the luxury of starting with or creating a nearly blank slate, are extremely decisive and have a large budget to plan and create a yard in one fell swoop.

Not only is that not realistic for most homeowners, I don’t think it’s practical. The landscape I envisioned 20 years ago when we bought our house has little in common with the yard that I aim for today. I shudder at the idea of being stuck working around a hardscape I might have created back then.

It was 11 years ago that I last took on a DIY hardscaping project, creating a few short terraced walls in a garden off our high deck and a flagstone and bluestone path to the garage. The path was far more taxing than the dry-stacked walls because leveling all those stones, not to mention moving them, was a bore. The walls, which I’m proud to say are still perfectly plumb and level a decade later, were relatively easy to erect thanks to my insistence that the base and first layer be perfect.

I’m using the same stone, a locally quarried quartzitic sandstone called Fond du Lac Silver, to create a few steps on a pathway with enough of a decline that you have to think a little too hard about going down. I’d walked it so often that I didn’t think twice about using it, but I noticed that almost every visitor approached the path with trepidation and often opted to skip it all together. And, from a practical standpoint, using the wheelbarrow on it was impossible.

One hardscape rule I’ve learned is that, much like a good paint job, you can’t skip the preparation. Poorly installed stone that hasn’t been set in a proper base is more dangerous (and looks worse) than a steep, mulched path.

I’ve been stewing over this project since spring, not because it’s complicated, but because moving stone is much less fun than playing with plants. With frozen ground looming as a hard deadline, I’ve learned another lesson about hardscaping — stone gets heavier as you age. It may defy the laws of physics, but I’m certain it wasn’t as difficult to move a decade ago.

Perhaps the best rule of hardscaping is to wait to do it until you’re comfortable with how you use your yard and understand the design you want long term, but keep in mind that the younger you are when you decide, the easier it will be.

Or just hire someone to do it for you.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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