Fun With Concrete
This post is going to explain the fun times we at the Fairegarden have had making things with concrete, in particular, steps and stepping stones. To tell a story, any story, one should begin at the beginning, to quote Alice. The beginning of this incarnation of the Fairegarden, its third, begins in the summer of 2000. A major renovation is being done to the house that had been purchased for offspring Semi and Chickenpoet to live in while attending college in this small southeast Tennessee town. The girls are out of school and The Financier has been transferred back to Tennessee after a three year stint in Texas. Along with the complete redo of the house, the back yard, a steep north facing slope needed to be tamed. The backhoe that was brought in to dig the foundation for the addition was used to clear and terrace the slope. The shed was moved to the top level. Several large dump trucks of mulch were brought in after clearing a road from the closest street to the top of the hill. It was a clean slate, but very difficult to get to the top, climbing a mulched hill was nearly impossible. We needed stairs of some kind, big ones and lots of them. While cogitating on what type of steps were needed, how to get them, where they should be placed, the foundation was poured for the addition of the main house. A small covered vestibule, mudroom and greenhouse were to have a poured concrete floor with a drain in the greenhouse.
Wet concrete has always been enticing to me, like a moth to a flame. I want to write, draw or put stuff into it. Like black river rocks that were on hand for craft projects. Just to dress it up, the contractor placed a shiny new Sacajawea dollar coin in the middle of the design. Much has been learned since that first day. Like put the stones in the concrete as soon as it has been poured, don’t wait for it to set up some first.
Many workmen came to do various tasks constructing the addition and renovating the old part of the house. I was here with them every day. As I shopped and searched for a step solution, one of the workmen told of steps he had made for his own hilly yard and garden. He had used two by four lumber cut to the size needed and filled them with concrete. He offered to cut the lumber and fasten it together for two steps, each one eighteen inches by four feet. After measuring the space from the knot garden top to the middle terrace and dividing it up, it was determined that four steps of the above size would be just right. The wooden form was set in the exact spot and several bags of concrete were mixed in the wheelbarrow and poured into the frame. A few pieces of two foot long rebar were driven into the ground through the wet mix for added stability. The finishing touch was the black river rocks at the edge and some maple leaves laid across the top for texture and visual interest. The final step was a light dusting of sand to hold the leaves in place and help add age to the starkness of the new concrete. Those first four came out nicely and the climb was easy to make. Next up was the much steeper ascent from the first level terrace.
The same forms were used for these lower steps, but the risers were much steeper. It is more awkward to climb this set and going down one must gingerly place one foot then the other on each step before descending to the next. I am used to it, but must caution visitors about the precariousness. The original plan called for three sets of steps, each offset slightly with the top ones centered on the back of the house with the bench in the knot garden centered at the very top of the property. There was a problem with that delightful design however. There was not room for the last row of steps. The long wall was ten feet from the back of the house. The steps would have run into the back of the building and blocked the pathway. No good. Instead the steps deadended at the wall with a choice of left or right to get to ground level.
The far end to the right as you come down from the knot garden, by the fence was taken care of by The Financier himself. He cleverly used metal roof flashing to form a curved top to these beautiful steps. He began with the lowest step, built the frame, poured the concrete complete with a sprinkling of gravel to dress it up and help to keep it from being slippery when wet. No black rocks on these however. Each subsequent step was built overlapping the lower one until he got to the top with the half moon curbing. It was the most artistic of solutions and makes me smile each time I use it, several times a day.
Progress was being made on the house reno while the steps were poured by The Financier and his helper and design consultant, moi. The front porch needed new steps and sidewalk from the driveway. The contractors built these steps, but I added the river rock to them as well. Step stones were made using wooden two by fours cut to sixteen inches by fifteen inches. Whoever came up with these dimensions should have made them larger. Moi. This path leads around the front of the house to the utilities at the side. No more muddy feet as that trail is followed.
The next chapter of this riveting saga begins with the purchase of the house next door midway into the main house reno. It would have been nice to have done this first, the house could have been extended sideways instead of back into the slope, but that is not how it happened. To the point, there was a set of steps next door that led from its lesser slope to the back door of the house. Excavation to build the garage had taken the ground level well below the level of the lowest of these old steps. Two new steps were added at the bottom, and recently two more were added at the top to make the climb less treacherous. Gravel paths on steep slopes can be very slippery. So can wet rock steps, or mud. Well anything wet is slippery, so care must be taken, especially if one is wearing muddy boots, or sloggers and one’s hands are full of a tub filled with weeds and one can’t see where one is stepping. Can one?
More and more and more of the stepping stones were added until the entire property is now traversable without getting muddy feet. At the above junction two triangular forms were used by inserting a board diagonally into the form. It should have been mentioned earlier, that one forty pound bag of concrete will make one stepping stone. No measuring. It also should have been mentioned that the form needs to be taken off the next day, carefully, so the edges can be softened for a more worn and aged appearance. Carefully. It should also have been mentioned that the step stones are made in situ, on leveled dirt. They have not been moved once poured.
Here is the form, placed for the last step stone that needs to be made. (Yes, those plants trying to eat the form are the ever present violets and some kind of creeper.) There are four such forms, for that was how many steps stones we felt comfortable making at a time. It should also have been mentioned that screws, not nails should be used to hold the forms together. A drill with the proper bit can then be used to loosen the form while the concrete is partially dry without damaging it before it is completely cured. The mixing of the concrete is the most ardous part of this project. While I did my share, the Financier did many and all of the large slabs, one in front of the shed and one at the landing between the two sets of steps. While we do not work together well, after a very sad incident wallpapering the bathroom of our first house more than thirty years ago, we are quite the concrete project team.
The list of projects that can be made with straight from the bag concrete are many. We delved into the making of solid balls after watching a show on HGTV. A child’s toy ball is used, set into a bed of sand to keep the bottom round if you want it to be round, or on level ground if you want it flat so it doesn’t roll around. A small hole is cut in the top of the ball and the concrete is carefully scooped inside, poking it with a stick to get the air bubbles out. It should have been mentioned earlier that after concrete is poured into anything, it should be tapped on with a board to get the gravel in the mix to the bottom and the air bubbles out. We used a piece of four by four about a foot long on its side and went over the entire surface at least twice before the black river rocks and leaves and sand were added. It should also have been mentioned that the black rocks can be purchased at craft stores or Walmart in the fake flower section in small bags. Back to the balls, after a couple of days, the ball can be peeled away and the surface smoothed with a file if needed. A metal file is what was used to soften the edges of all the projects after the form was removed. One of the small balls was covered with moss that occurs naturally here, wrapped in fishing line to secure it. It was then placed in one of the troughs as an objet d’art. The moss filled in nicely and it now looks like a lump of moss rather than a ball of moss. But that’s okay.
Since learning the wonders of making things from concrete, we have branched out to hypertufa and leaf casting mix. These can be read about here and here. The Bongo Congo family have joined the Fairegarden clan as well. Their story can be read about here. (So sorry Whimsy, we completely missed your first birthday!) There are still so many ideas swirling around of projects that could be done. All you add is water. And your imagination.