MSL copy chief/articles editor Myles McDonnell, a lifelong Manhattan apartment dweller transplanted to the suburbs, recently tackled a patio project in his backyard, with the assistance of paving stones and advice provided by Pavestone. This is the second installment of his great DIY landscaping adventure, which begins here.
The first part of the task of building our patio didn’t involve the paving stones that would make up its surface, or even the large piles of gravel and sand that were now looming in our driveway. It just involved shovels. We needed to excavate the ground on which our patio was to be built, making it as flat to itself—taking into account the slope, which we were trying to preserve—as possible.
And that meant an intense round of digging, during which I discovered that it’s a good thing I never ended up on a chain gang. (I’d never had a lot of illusions about that, admittedly.) At first it was exerting but seemed manageable—after all, this was only 30 or so square feet in all. Plus, since we were only trying to build the patio up to the level of the four-inch retaining-wall blocks from Home Depot that would line the front edge, we didn’t need to dig very deep. But before long, we made a disturbing discovery, one that threatened our entire project. One that we should, frankly, have foreseen.
Remember those giant tree roots I mentioned in my first post? Well, unsurprisingly enough, as we dug deeper we found more. And more. And more. Not only were we failing to get the dirt out of the way as quickly as we would have liked, but when I started trying to tamp the dirt down a bit (to compact and flatten it before covering it in gravel and sand layers), I could hardly find a rootless area to flatten. It finally dawned on us that we had essentially no chance at a remotely level surface under the paving stones here.
We put down our tools in despair and thought. We saw only one solution: We would have to build higher. A second layer of retaining-wall blocks on top of the first would allow us to bury all the tree roots—even the massive one we’d known about from the start, and had so blithely thought we could work around—under our base layers of gravel and sand.
Which meant our next step was to put the shovels and tamper away, take a hot shower to relieve our aching backs, and then head back to Home Depot for 14 more retaining-wall blocks.
Lurking in the background (along with that damn tree) was the knowledge that we’d settled on this solution to our tree-root crisis because it was the only one that even might work. We sure hoped it would.
Stop by tomorrow for the next post in this series, in which I puzzle over my own preconceived notions of both gravel and sand.