Posted by joeabbott on April 3, 2014
The lay of the land
Not many people need “paths” through their backyard … most wouldn’t even consider it. Our yard, however, is fairly narrow and very steep, with a couple of “plateaus”. The main level comes off the back of the house and dominated by a large deck; there’s room for a small potting shed to the north and a small bit of lawn to the south. Above that we have our first plateau, an area that we’ve had covered in crushed gravel, a circle of 2-man stones and fire pit. We’ve added a couple of Adirondack chairs and in the summer we bring up a small table … just enough to enjoy a seat with a cool beverage while we roast a hot dog for dinner. Above this area is “Chickenville”.
We’ve fenced off the upper part of the yard and we keep a small flock of six chickens on the land. There’s a patch of land above the crushed gravel plateau on which we’ve built a couple of raised beds for growing summertime veggies; the last plateau is in Chickenville and where we have their coop. Outside of those small plateaus, however, the land is unrelentingly steep.
When we first brought the chickens in, we had a single gate on the north side allowing us onto their side of the yard. I was (am?) fairly proud of this gate: it swings both ways, allowing someone carrying water and feed up, or eggs down, to pass through without using their hands. We wanted another entry into Chickenville and so for Suzy’s birthday one year, I built the second gate … along with a small seating area and planter. All very nice.
Well, to get from the coop, on the north side of Chickenville, to the gate on the south side, we put in a path. Yes, you could walk the way without a path but as I’d established, the ground is steep and it benefitted from a bit of taming. Suzy cut in the path, edged it, and keeps it tidy with shredded wood chips. It, too, is very nice.
At the very top of our property we have a short row of cypress trees; we put them in when we first had some landscaping done and are delighted they’ve done so well. With the removal of the cottonwood from the south end of this top row, we’re considering further enhancements to the backyard: perhaps a small bench? maybe some flowers? absolutely a couple of trees.
Regardless what we do, we’ll need a way to get up to this area. Right now we find toeholds where the cottonwood has dropped branches and gouged out divots in the hillside … places the chickens dig at feverously. But, that won’t work so well if we’re heading up for a casual seat, needing to do a bit of weeding, or looking to prune or otherwise tend a tree. So, we considered another path.
And if you read my post from yesterday, that’s what all that rock and stone was brought into the backyard for … for building a path or stairway. Let’s check in on that project!
Steady as she goes
A lot of the work in setting out the path had already been done: I’d hauled up the load of stone and Suzy helped choose which step went best where; the rest was just digging flat spots and setting them in place. Although that was tricky.
To make a step a trustworthy place to put your foot, it needs to hold your weight without moving an iota. With our sandy hillside, that’s a tall order but we proceeded in this fashion: I’d cut away the turf and use that in other spots around the yard that the chickens have dug up; I’d then scoop out the soil to create a flat placement … some of that soil would be used to shore up hollows around the rock and the rest would fill in other chicken-dug divots. At that point I drop in a rock step, see what else needed to be cut away, do that cutting, add a bit of crushed gravel and sand to level things up, and then give it the “step test”.
The step test was just that: I’d step on it and see if it’d move. If not, I moved on; as was usually the case, I continued to tinker and putter with a placement until it was solid. At that point, Suzy would move in.
In any operation the bull-work part of the job is the easier: it’s the more exacting work that requires a lot more effort and diligence. Suzy’s job was to look at the rock placement and the earth that had been cut away from the hillside, then to choose from among the various riser stones and find a way to shore them up around the step without undermining the placement of the step. It’s challenging to get things “just right”.
In a few places I just wasn’t able to get a step solid: too much of the earth below it was dug away and I’d either need to place the stone stair farther away than was comfortable or find a new solution. In those places, I found a new solution: I’d use the risers just like traditional stair risers and have them assist in shoring up the step! The way I laid in the stone looked a lot more like a traditional stair than all the other places around it, but it worked perfectly at holding up the step and holding back the earth.
As we got toward the top we took a small break, but otherwise continued working on the stairway the whole day. I’d say we started on them before 9AM and continued to about 3:30PM; but, by that time, we were done. It was a big job and I was glad to have it behind us. We’ll very likely have to revisit a couple locations: some of the steps may get “mushy”, a few places didn’t have good erosion protection and we’ll need to add a couple more risers, and we may wish for different aesthetics. But that’s fine … we installed them once, we can fix them later if needed.
I think the most gratifying part of the day was when Suzy was standing on one of the steps and looked out over the yard; she turned to me and said, “this is the first time ever I’ve been at this place in our yard and have felt comfortable standing here.” That’s a rock well-set.
Building a set of stone steps through the backyard may not be on your agenda, but whatever project you take on, I wish you well! Thanks for dropping by.