Monday, April 17, 2023

Relic Boxwood



 Relic: "an object invested with interest by reason of its antiquity or associations with the past."  



I've been intrigued by boxwood shrubs for over a quarter century now, especially the older varieties found here and there in front yards and gardens around Victoria. Often they appear as thick-set hedges or path edgings, less frequently as screen plantings or specimen shrubs. To me the mere presence of boxwood near an older house suggests age and settled living, making it feel more homey. Years after first noticing these older plantings, I learned how to transfer them (and by extension, hints of their era) in the form of cloned offspring, a trick leading to a second life in a new locale. While I know little technically about them, the older varieties strike me as having leaf textures, colour variations, and growth habits that differ subtly from today's popular offerings. Some are decidedly coarser in appearance than current more-refined types, while a few are delightfully variegated and have a slight roll to their leaves.



I first began noticing these relic boxwood on walks taken in older neighbourhoods, where they firmly anchor houses to their surroundings even in smaller front yards. Most often they appear as fairly coarse hedging, tracing the line where lot meets sidewalk and marking a rectangular edge to the domestic realm while framing access to the front door. Here they may lend hints of architectural intent to otherwise utilitarian front paths and retaining walls, typically made of concrete. Less frequently, they are found serving as specimen shrubs in a border or foundation planting, where they are also likely to be taller and rather more open in appearance. In our more rural suburbs, where lots tend to be larger and sidewalks more rare, box hedging often echoes the property's frontage without defining it sharply. In these situations they serve as screens that help to integrate native species and natural features with human landscape choices, and they are often presented in the looser manner suited to more rural surroundings. 


Boxwood are also found tracing the outline of front paths to graphic effect, adding visual interest and vertical dimension to the ground plane. Somehow their mere presence intensifies feelings of long-habitation while adding form and character to the access spaces. Sometimes these front or side yard hedge plantings comprise most or even all of the small garden. 


The association of long-habitation with the presence of boxwood plantings likely derives from the fact humans have grown them ornamentally for so long a time and across so many cultures, both in the West (from before the Roman Empire) and in the East in Korea, China and Japan, where they are prized for their low mounding forms. Boxwood are native to many areas of the globe and have been used to order human landscapes for so long now that they are thought of as the world's oldest ornamental plant. Hence boxwood's presence imparts a sense of age no matter how recent the planting may be.



Ornamental use of boxwood today is broadly consistent with what we know from written records about its prior use - most notably by wealthy Romans at country villas in the heyday of their empire. Here it served as garden hedging as well as edging for paths, also as gradations between garden levels, and for topiary too - but much of it placed and arranged without any great formality. "The literary mentions of box clearly depict the plant's use in high-status ornamental gardens in Italy. Pliny describes in detail how to take cuttings of box for topiary bushes and Pliny the Younger's description of his own garden layout had box hedges separating paths. In fact, the selection of box as an ornamental garden plant has been attributed largely to its suitability for topiary." (L.A. Lodwick, Evergreen Plants in Roman Britain). 


Boxwood are broad-leafed evergreen shrubs with a naturally compact appearance, so their shape remains more stable over the course of the seasons. Part of the charm of these slow-growing plants is how readily they take to the shears, responding with architectural definition for year-round garden structure. The more-dwarf varieties can be set out as low geometric shapes, or placed in lines, or treated as garden incidents, elaborating structure with a note of elegance. The taller and ultimately tree-forming varieties of boxwood work well as specimen shrubs whose upward growth can be held in check with regular pruning. Lodwick also notes that box "obscures temporal changes between the seasons", making them attractive to gardeners seeking year-round effects. Boxwood can provide welcome continuity in gardens whose scenic show of flowering plants disappears entirely from late fall through early spring. 



Use of boxwood by wealthy villa owners declined with the demise of the Roman empire and little is known about ornamental use in the ensuing long period of instability and warfare. With the return of peace coupled with rising wealth in the later middle ages, the old garden habit of edging beds and paths in clipped boxwood revived among prosperous Italians. This easily shaped shrub appears to have an affinity for marking bounds and edges in the hands of ornamental gardeners, a quality this era would take to new extremes. Geometry was then in fashion too, and in aristocratic gardens this led to heightened formality, tight symmetry, and a much-stiffened use of boxwood. From Italy, a fad for stiffly controlled  designs spread across much of Europe, ultimately giving rise to severe parterres in Holland and France (as at Versailles, for example). This trend towards unrelenting confinement of plant growth was intended to symbolize wealth, grandeur and social standing, as it takes vast labour to constrain boxwood in the despotic manner pictured below.








European aristocrats, deploying fleets of gardeners, turned shaped boxwood into a symbol of pomp and splendour in their gardens, while demonstrating man's growing control over 'nature'. Even remote Norway, with a climate inhospitable to box cultivation except for a narrow strip along the southwest coast, initially adopted this stiffened look. Apparently, Norwegian gardeners working on grand gardens elsewhere in Europe brought rooted cuttings back home with them, setting these out parterre-style at the manorial homes of rich merchants. Interestingly, in Norway the vogue for tightly clipped plantings steadily gave way to a more loosened style of arranging and trimming boxwood, a trajectory that continues today (see photo cluster, below right). English gardeners in the seventeenth century also used boxwood fairly stiffly in their knots, mazes and parterres, and topiary uses had long been popular there. Topiary can include both representational shapes (birds, animals, initials, heraldry) and architectural or geometric shapes (pyramids, squares, globes, eggs, etc.). Despite the national inclination to trim box into fantastic shapes or to set it out in tightened parterres and knots, English garden use was never as stiff as the norm in France, Holland and Italy, and a counter tendency towards more-relaxed presentation always had a following. Later, when gardening became a more middle-class pursuit and the cottage-garden style came into fashion among owner-designers, a less-formal use of boxwood spread even more widely through English gardens.







The long human association with boxwood across Europe is due in part to its widespread presence as a native species, the tree version of it providing a hardwood valued for certain specialized articles like fine boxes, combs, carved religious beads and musical instruments. Our pagan forebears also used boxwood branches over ages in their rites and rituals, prizing them for their year-round greenery and the longevity they exemplify. The ancient Gauls chose their long-lived native boxwood tree as a symbol of immortality. Since medieval times these trees have often been allowed to reach great age within settlements (but shaped for a degree of compactness, as above). The relic boxwood pictured in the churchyard above has become a mature tree that's reckoned to be between 500 and 700 years of age.



The fashion for boxwood bones in garden design was reinforced among prosperous landowners across the entire western world during the seventeenth century, a time of European colonial expansion and rising mercantile wealth. Boxwood reached America in this era too, brought with colonists as a potent reminder of the home landscape - a tangible symbol of continuity with life there. Early American colonists brought slips and roots of boxwood with them to adorn their homesteads in the new land. Boxwood had long stood for 'home', a value it still carries today. In the southern colonies especially, where extensive plantation gardens were often maintained by African American slaves, boxwood readily gave novel form to new-world gardens. George Washington, America's first President, used boxwood extensively to frame the gardens at his Mount Vernon estate, and Thomas Jefferson in turn rooted cuttings from Washington's gardens to frame his estate at Monticello. From early on an American love affair with these shapely, reliable plants has ebbed and flowed repeatedly, dividing allegiance between a stiffer and more formal look and something more relaxed and informal (so likely better suited to garden-making in a previously untamed nature). The 1892 house by San Francisco architect

Willis Polk standing on Russian Hill (photo above) has a foreground planting of boxwood used informally. The descent of Lombard Street (photo to the right) is structured by switchbacks edged in trimmed but still-flowing dwarf boxwood.




The use of boxwood in older Victoria gardens is a more recent and far less-self-conscious matter than the stiff look of formal parterres, town settlement here only having come about in the latter half of the nineteenth century. From the turn of the twentieth century and with Victoria becoming a small city, boxwood have regularly been used in local shrubbery gardens, typically as front or side yard hedging that is kept with a certain coarseness of texture. My impressions of this versatile plant grew from noticing one such hedge crowning a low granite wall, first seen back in 1988 at the house at Fort and Linden pictured below. 



This hedge, which seemed venerable to my eye thirty years ago, has a timeless quality that runs with the genre. Once aware of the dynamic synergy between boxwood and stone walls, I began to notice it more and more, and of course I coveted the specific effect for the home garden.

At some point in the early nineties I happened to notice an older boxwood hidden behind the fence separating our yard from the neighbour's, which is on a panhandle lot subdivided from the original grounds. I realized then that our home garden had at one time hosted boxwood – or, at least, a single specimen - and I immediately wanted to reintroduce it. This old plant was still lovely, semi-shaggy after years of neglect, and distinctly tilted in direction. Strangely though, not long afterwards  my neighbour chose to pull it out, and then offer it up with its root ball badly mangled. I took it of course, then attempted a hapless rescue by replanting it in a shady spot and trying to keep it watered. I doubted its chances of survival, especially coming into summer drought, and so was not surprised when it quickly expired. 


Still, I wasn't at all pleased with how this all went down, realizing later that I had missed the opportunity to take cuttings from the doomed plant. I suspect I've been making up for that failure ever since! But in fact I was only just at the point of learning to root cuttings, so lacked the awareness to prompt the thought. However, once the feasibility of this process became more clear, I realized it could easily be applied to any older boxwood that happened to catch my eye.

Some years after the mangling incident, another situation inviting relic box rescue arose and by then I was ready for the challenge. I happened to be working with the Provincial Capital Commission (PCC) in the mid-1990s, at the time it was overseeing restoration of St. Ann's Academy and renewal of its extensive grounds. St. Ann's is one of those regional institutions with a long history of mixing boxwood into its surroundings. Today boxwood plantings deftly extend a sense of architectural arrangement outwards from the building's vertical lines to the park-like setting pictured below, here aided and abetted by yew, holly and hydrangea (also regionally significant landscape plants).

One day, while touring the grounds with PCC staff, I noticed a trio of shaggy older boxwood hidden in a rarely visited corner at the northwest end of the arboretum. Evidently these mature plants had been overlooked for some time in an overgrown shrubbery. I found them fetching, reminiscent of the deceased home boxwood, and so decided to try cloning them for our own garden. There was some urgency to this rescue mission, as a plan to open up a new public access to the grounds at the corner of Humboldt and Blanshard made it very unlikely these oldsters would survive the construction process (and none did). So with permission, I returned and took several dozen growing tips for rooting. I planted these directly into garden soil in a shady spot, kept them well-watered, and hoped for the best. I was excited to attempt to preserve this token of local garden history, for incorporation one day into our home garden. And this first try at multiplication of relic boxwood was ultimately to have beneficial consequences for design I did not remotely anticipate at the time.

It took about a year of keeping these cuttings moist until they developed roots sufficiently strong to support new growth. I lifted the rooted cuttings a year later, transferring them into pots where they grew on happily for many years. As a result, we began playing around with potted boxwood as garden accents, increasingly using them to add visual interest or soften transitions between garden spaces. With adequate watering and occasional light feeding, younger boxwood tolerate pot culture in our climate extremely well.

Eventually the rooted cuttings reached a size where planting them out suggested itself. At this point I made the fateful choice to set the St. Ann's boxwood out in curving lines (as pictured above). This we did in a number of other places too, often in proximity to stone retaining walls or other stone features, in order to gain synergy of effect.  

I was surprised how readily these gentle boxwood curves made themselves central to the garden's personality and overall look, so much so that it would be hard to imagine it without their presence now. Many years on, they continue to provide year-round structure while greatly enhancing a mood of age and repose in our woodland garden setting. The success of this foray in boxwood propagation, which led eventually to entirely new planting possibilities, whetted my appetite for more of these relic boxwood. The practice allows the transfer of some mood and magic from an older garden to a more recent one, thus romanticizing the past. No matter, it remains a good way of developing fresh plant material, material that ultimately contributes to intensifying feelings of serenity and repose in any garden. 
The older institutional settings dotting our urban region are among the more likely places to encounter larger collections of relic boxwood, sometimes used with greater formality than around homes. These boxwood may be trimmed up into neat rectangular hedges marking the edges of beds or perimeters, grown as specimens to a greater and more natural shape, or used as screens manifesting a residual shagginess. Boxwood add significant texture to any garden or landscape setting and will, varying with closeness of clipping, handily fill in a given shape.



Hatley Castle's grounds (pictured above and below) in Colwood sport a major collection of boxwood of different eras, some said to be over a hundred years old. Built in 1908 by Samuel Maclure for James Dunsmuir, heir to the Vancouver Island coal family's fortune, Hatley's immediate surroundings include a captivating Italianate garden with boxwood used as bed edgings. Overall, Hatley Castle's mix of formal and informal elements effectively binds its house, gardens and grounds into a unified whole - a place that feels like its various parts all belong together. This is based on using boxwood extensively to define intermediate spaces as outdoor rooms between the house and its surrounding woodlands. Hatley Castle is unique in the variety of boxwood used in contrasting styles of presentation, from orderly formal parterres and knots to sophisticated architectural sequences on terraces or as grand mounds and point plantings punctuating walkways.


The above shots of Hatley Castle's collection of boxwood include mounds and chopped pyramids in pots along walks, boxwood edgings in the Italianate garden (said to date from the 1930s), boxwood in a parterre of circular shapes at the front entry of more recent vintage, and rows of older box used as screens, which may date from the earliest days of the building.  
Another trove of these relic boxwood is found at Camosun College's Lansdowne Campus, where lines of box hedging frame the perimeter on two sides of its extensive grounds. These long runs of hedging colour up dramatically with the seasons, showing as fresh greens during our often-long spring while turning an eye-catching orange-gold in our typically wet fall and winter. This campus also has an intriguing raised circular parterre of clipped yew and boxwood, echoing the classical symmetry of the Young building, in addition to specimen plantings shaped into larger mounding sentinels. Finally, there are many old boxwood, some hard-clipped and maintained, others badly overgrown and calling out for fresh attention, around the Dunlop mansion (Maclure, 1928) which forms an integral part of the landscaped grounds on this lovely part of the campus.



A small collection of relic boxwood also survives on the grounds of the BC Legislature, where a further adventure in plant-transfer was to occur. One day, as a new-minted MLA, I was interviewed in the Rose Garden, a small sunken terrace on the west side of the legislature with a broken circle edged in older box (picture below). It happened these hedges were being pruned that very day, so it was evident exactly how much of their growing tips were to come off. There seemed to be just enough length to take viable cuttings, so I had a word with the gardener before taking a handful from above the trimmed height. I then carried on with the usual process of rooting them in pots.

This approach to multiplying plant material is slow and improvised compared to the ease and certainty of greenhouse propagation, yet it succeeds regularly here in our temperate marine climate. So it happened that by the time my term of office was over, the newbies were nearly ready to be planted out.
I decided to place them at the front of our house, along the edge of a stone retaining wall where I felt they would show well. The layout ran along the edge of our parking spot, making a hard right turn for the steps up from it (so requiring an L-shaped planting). I took a playful approach to the challenge and wound up with an unconventional layout. The result, more modernist than traditional, uses boxwood in units or short runs rotated slightly across the centreline of the L (below right). I further complicated matters by introducing a second type of relic boxwood, with a more rounded shape, to punctuate the runs of squared-up box at various points. This complexity has given the result a rather funky, segmented quality overall. The plants have adapted well to their difficult growing site, and the design seems to hang together reasonably well despite its unusual qualities.


The habit of collecting older boxwood isn't abating, despite the spatial limitations of our suburban lot. It turns out that many different types of relic boxwood have been used hereabouts over the past century, so new discoveries of older boxwood exemplars are still being made. I find they tend to be less glossy, often more dull in coloration, and coarser and bulkier in habit than today's rather neater offerings. Perhaps more of the older box are in fact 'sempervivens' (native species, so given to taller growth) while the newer varieties have tended to be 'suffruticosa' (dwarf English variants that are naturally mounding and of tighter foliage density)? However that may be, my main interest is to obtain more of the look and feel of prior use by transferring older examples into the home garden.

Boxwood make an attractive choice of garden shrub insofar as they have few special requirements in our climate and soils. While they are said to thrive in full sun, they do seem to prefer sites where they get some relief from direct light for part of the day. It may be that on upland sites like ours boxwood flourish better without full sun exposure. Some varieties will tolerate deeper shade too, but many tend to be more straggly in such settings. It's vital to water them during our prolonged annual drought (last year over three months with no substantial rain!) but not too much. They like soil that drains well and will not put up with having wet feet. There is no need to amend most soils for boxwood (heavy clay excepted) beyond top dressing with leaf compost and possibly mulching (but don't mound either up to the leaf line, as that enables the diseases box is susceptible to). Also on the plus side, their slightly pungent odour and likely bitter taste deter deer from browsing them, a blessing for gardeners facing spiking herds. One caution here: male deer growing new antlers resort to thick shrubs as rubbing points, so any coarser boxwood along a buck's regular path is liable to serious damage. A further plus, to this point at least, is that Victoria's arid summers seem protective against the boxwood blight afflicting moister, more humid climates. There are other diseases that may develop from over-pruning, over-fertilizing and over-watering, but the likelihood is remote if one avoids these practices. However, this may all be different in the future, as a rapidly changing climate rearranges what plants can flourish here (just look at the amount of die-back in our cedars!).

With well-rooted cuttings in hand, the gardener faces choices of form for planting out, coupled with degrees of looseness in trimming. Are they to be grown as specimen plants or as part of a shrubbery, shaped into balls, pyramids or squares, or grouped to run in gently curving or staggered lines? Are they to be left to elaborate their natural billowing form, clipped more closely to emphasize their mounding quality, or rendered into some more fantastical shape via the legerdemain of pruning? Working through these choices is what designing your garden with boxwood is all about. I enjoy using them playfully and without too much preconception, as they can show well in pretty much any form they are given or allowed to take. If you have boxwood as individual specimens in pots, you can use potted samples to try a layout on for fit. A playful approach keeps it interesting for the amateur gardener, who is free to revel in having a supply of plants and just follow novel inclinations in placement. Boxwood do not have to be used in a formal way, and in fact there is a strong case that a more informal and relaxed look better aligns with the natural landscape we inhabit. In the end, as with everything in a garden, one is looking for mixture in an interesting balance.

If you're of a mind to try rooting relic boxwood here in Victoria, you won't need much equipment to get started (other than a pair of secateurs and approval to take cuttings). If there's any delay before the cuttings go into the ground, you need to ensure they remain hydrated (I use plastic bags with wetted paper towels to keep them moist). Boxwood roots quite easily given decent conditions, which in our relatively benign climate can typically be out of doors. (In places with harsher winters, a greenhouse may be needed for rooting cuttings, and the range of cultivars severely limited by the need for hardiness to counter prolonged freezing). Here on the peninsula at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, with weather moderated by proximity to the ocean, the range of usable cultivars is broad and the approach to rooting is to this point wide open.
However, do be aware that sudden reversion to frigid winter can subject unrooted slips to frost heave, which projects them right out of the soil and means having to resettle them afterwards. I think it is best to take cuttings in the fall when the rains are returning, so that plants lacking roots aren't subject to the added stress of sustained drought. I always select cuttings of vigorous young growth (avoiding older, harder wood), strip off most of the leaves to expose the stems for rooting, use a hormonal rooting compound (#2 is likely best for a shrub like box) to encourage root growth, and employ ordinary garden soil as a medium, amended with a little leaf compost if it is available. I like to put the cuttings straight into pots using holes made with a hand-cultivator, keeping them out of direct sun (dappled shade works well), and ensuring they remain moist (they initially absorb moisture through their stems, so pots can dry out very quickly). After a year or so, you will see signs of fresh growth and then it's either pot them on or plant them out.



Down the road, I can see myself introducing a screen of relic boxwood at the front of the house where it will help to mask noise and movement on a busy street. Likely this will be left to develop a bit more openly than city hedging. Loosened treatment allows box to develop its bulk more in line with natural growth, yet clipped enough to render its shape intentional. Our garden seems ideal for this looser use, being a piece of woodsy suburbia with many native oaks. As an overall direction for garden design with boxwood, I find the following comments from the American Boxwood Society to be useful:

"Generally speaking the landscape architect...errs in stressing formal effect, whilst the amateurs, seeking to express their personalities, overdo the informal. We believe one's endeavour should be directed, not to creating the garden of one's dream, but to confine one's self to trying to work with the natural setting and environment of your actual garden. Utilize the indigenous growth that can and does thrive where you live. By doing this, your work will blend in with the natural scenery which exists in the area. One cannot improve on nature, and, if one persists in trying to do so, one simply ends up with an artificial oasis." 

Secateurs at the ready, you can now go forth and multiply relic boxwood cuttings to your heart's content. Think of the possibilities of playing around with past time in your own garden today. Be sure to get permission (people do love to give away those cuttings) and remember to enjoy yourself!
Articles/links referred to in the text, all available on the web:

Lodwick, L.A., Evergreen Plants In Roman Britain

Master Gardener Program, The Italian Garden

Salvesson, P.H. and Kanz, B., Boxwood cultivars in old gardens in Norway

Salvesson, Kanz and Moe,  Historical Cultivars of Buxus sempervivens revealed in a Preserved 17th century Garden

American Boxwood Society newsletters
This post is adapted from one that first appeared in The Seasoned Gardener blogspot, published in February 2019. It is affectionately dedicated now to the memory of my sister Ann, a talented artist-gardener and floral designer who introduced boxwood to her garden for its shape in Ontario winters.
One of the themes explored in this post is humankind's long association with boxwood. The article invokes pagan use of box to symbolize longevity. But, as I inadvertently discovered recently while reading Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, the association with boxwood goes back much further than that! People who study Neanderthal remains have long surmised that these people were also skilled woodworkers, in addition to being highly skilled stone tool-makers. Proof of course has been elusive for the woodworking side, given the susceptibility of wood to breaking down in contact with soil. However, recent excavations at Poggetti Vecchi in Italy - dated at 171,000 years prior to the present - have unearthed worked wooden digging sticks, about which the following is remarked: "Excavations for the construction of thermal pools at Poggetti Vecchi (Grosseto, Tuscany, central Italy) exposed a series of wooden tools in an open-air stratified site referable to late Middle Pleistocene. The wooden artifacts were uncovered, together with stone tools and fossil bones, largely belonging to the straight-tusked elephant Paleoloxodon antiquus. The site is radiometrically dated to around 171,000 y B.P., and hence correlated with the early marine isotope stage 6 [Benvenuti M, et al. (2017) Quat Res 88:327–344]. The sticks, all fragmentary, are made from boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) and were over 1 m long, rounded at one end and pointed at the other. They have been partially charred, possibly to lessen the labor of scraping boxwood, using a technique so far not documented at the time. The wooden artifacts have the size and features of multipurpose tools known as “digging sticks,” which are quite commonly used by foragers. This discovery from Poggetti Vecchi provides evidence of the processing and use of wood by early Neanderthals, showing their ability to use fire in tool making from very tough wood." Here the boxwood is valued for its comparative hardness as a wood, but not overtly sentimentalized in discernible ways. However, this association with humankind is evidently ancient!

Cf:Wooden tools and fire technology in the early Neanderthal site of Poggetti Vecchi (Italy), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Feb 5, 2018


Sunday, March 26, 2023

Romancing The Stones


"Paving in a garden is a rewarding extravagance." Russel Page, The Education of a Gardener

April 2013, waterfall step and landing


Asphalt surface in 1988, long before any thought of repaving

The job of remaking the path to the front door was unavoidable ultimately, but many years passed before I was ready to tackle the project. Partly I delayed starting because I didn't know how to go about replacing it (see picture above, in 1988). Asphalt to stone was the intuitive choice, but which stone, from where, and how laid to good effect? Over two decades of ongoing exposure to small-scale stone projects would elapse before I started on the path. Ultimately though, the old walkway had to come out, its asphalt veneer wearing thin after much use and constant weathering. And in fact, it had been rather hastily contrived - perhaps as an expedient when the original holding was first subdivided - and consequently brought off without much attention to detail. The conundrum here was how to go about making definitive change for the better. Complicating matters, I realized the surface would need to remain in service if we were to continue accessing the front door. There wasn't really any other option during a rebuild I intuitively knew would take a while, so there needed to be a way of constructing a replacement without taking the existing path out of use. Considerations like these stumped me for years. Then unexpectedly, in 2010, I  happened to discover a source of irregularly shaped, flattish sandstone, and that discovery set me on a fruitful learning curve. Initially I was preoccupied with gathering enough stone for the project, a calculation based more on gut feeling than real experience (I am an amateur rather than a trained stone mason). I also wanted the new path to feel more like a synthesis or unified whole than the afterthought I inherited with the place. This mattered to me because of the arts-and-crafts thinking behind the 1913 house the path serviced. Overall, in my opinion, its alignment needed only very minor tweaking, as it had been carefully fitted into the site's original contours. But the materials and finished dimensions of the replacement surface were another matter entirely. 


Raw materials for paving, newly washed and colour-saturated


I gathered the sandstone at a family place on Pender Island, collecting it from the many small landscape openings enabling driveways or new outbuildings in the neighbourhood. The pieces I selected were sufficiently flat to function as rustic paving stones. Over time I supplemented this stockpile with added pickings from a nearby rock quarry. I recall being impressed that my growing trove of stone was all-of-a-piece rather than a mix of materials drawn from far and wide. Gulf Island sandstone is a bedded stone laid down by annual deposits of granular sediment on an ancient river's delta, subsequently subjected to enough pressure to harden into stone. Because it is bedded stone, it tends to fracture into flattish chunks of irregular shape - perfect for my intended use. I soon fell under the influence of its subtle colour variations (bluish-greys, salmony pinks, brown-golds, most tending towards blue-green when weathered). I also found it fascinating how dramatically these colours intensified when the stones were wet.


Washed stone glistening in winter light


Once I had sufficient stone in hand for the project, the next obstacle was my lack of experience with sandstone. True, I had repaired a flight of stone steps linking the path to our elegant verandah (including fashioning a new step to reduce the climb) but it was made from Victoria's underlying bedrock, to make it consistent with the existing steps. Ultimately, Victoria bedrock is much harder than sandstone and not created by deposition, so is far less prone to splitting into flattish slabs. A few years prior I had also built a circular stone patio in the rear garden (inset photo, below right) from an eclectic mix of materials. Again, none of it sandstone. Here too, given that this was the home's principal approach, it felt like a lot was riding on the outcome. So, lacking direct experience in the medium, I felt a need to acquire some before embarking on the big job. I saw this project as my chance to create something to address the more glaring defects of the old asphalt paving - not least its baldly utilitarian quality. Asphalt is not (to me at least) an adequate paving choice for a self-respecting path - especially not one integral to the garden at an arts-and-crafts house. Asphalt as a building material doesn't reinforce a sense of place, nor does it leave a memorable impression when used. And as currently contrived, the path barely enabled the essential movements of people and goods. It was, for example, too narrow at points to function optimally. So I aspired to give its replacement more bearing, which to me meant a loftier treatment in worthier materials. Also, I was determined to add some beauty to the alignment's utility by emphasizing the quality of the materials used to construct it. Looking back on this more than a decade later, these aspirations did set the bar quite high - so it was no wonder I felt considerable pressure to make it look good!


Gathering suitable slabs from shot rock at a nearby quarry


Bryn washing quarry muck from newly collected paving stones

To this point I lacked confidence I could achieve an optimal design for the entire length of the path working through sequences of shorter bouts. The alchemist trick here would be turning the output of many separate bouts into a convincing and unified whole. Really, I had little to go on at this point, no tested rules of thumb to guide me in layout and design - not much more than my determination not to screw things up. While the patio project had taught me the rudiments of placing flattish stones of varying sizes together, it lacked the type of cohesion I aspired to give the path. Accordingly, I felt my approach to arranging random shapes into convincing patterns needed further consolidation. So, having a strip of fairly level space available near my cache of stone, I decided to lay out a sample run of 'imaginary paving' in order to gain some direction. I prepared the ground for this exercise by top-dressing it with a thin base of aggregate and rock powder (known locally as 'road base') which served to even out the coarser irregularities of level and give me a stable surface to experiment on. This setup allowed me to play around with placements without anything final riding on the outcome, which became an opportunity to learn by way of progressive refinement of layout. I soon found myself looking forward to the next session of layout-play. I relished it as a practical way of getting to know sandstone better, learning its characteristics and subtleties by working with it more. I was intrigued by the fact that manipulating the placement of individual pieces held out the possibility of intensifying the overall aesthetic effect. In this genre, combinations do count. This perception led me to explore the visual impact of aligning different edges with one another (some are curved, some relatively straight, most are irregular, some can be modified with hammer and chisel). Sometimes this meant simply rotating them in place in order to canvass options, but it could also mean trying out entirely different placements for their overall effect. As I gained experience working with the new material, I became more invested in this emerging method's results. In fact, looking back on that process, I am still fond of the imaginary pathway it led me to. At the time, I toyed briefly with hauling entire segments back to town intact, on the improbable theory that what had worked in one locale could be transferred to another. One attempt disabused me of the idea - literal transfer of already laid-out segments wasn't ever going to give me the path I was seeking on Grange Road (differences of width and lay of land militate against it, among other factors). But looking back on it now, I really did enjoy the process of refining that trial path and, as the pictures below attest, the process of laying it out suggested a viable method of composing more convincing wholes - primarily by arranging them so they feel comfortable sitting alongside each other. It also convinced me that achieving a tighter, more uniform fit among the random shapes had definite value in helping fuse them into a whole: edges echoing adjacent edges, as much as possible, in order to better establish a sense of ensemble. You can gauge my early progress in these new techniques from the next few shots. 


Small points of stone enable transitions between larger slabs

Edges echoing edges, so far as possible, without undue trimming 

Placing stones so they feel comfortable alongside one another


This experiment in 'imaginary paving' continued over many weekends, spaced out over a number of months. As I refined my approach, I came to realize that adding more base material under the stones enabled a process of finer levelling, which in turn more closely approximates the finished look of a given cluster. Gulf Island sandstone tends to split irregularly when fractured (some of which pieces are only level-flat on a single face). I first tried using sand for finer levelling (there was some ready to hand) but ultimately rejected it as being too unstable for this purpose. Then I recalled discovering crusher fines as a basing material during the patio project (aka three-eighths-minus - basically a mix of rock dust and stone chips less than three-eighths across). Recollecting this use was a real boon, as it is still my go-to base for both initial positioning and finer levelling of stones. A secondary process of fine levelling enables a more-flush alignment of presentation stones, which in turn approximates more closely the look of given arrangement when mortared in place. This brings the overall composition into sharper focus, while offering hints about where added shaping of the stones would benefit appearances (this involves lopping irregularities of shape off with hammer and chisel). Additional levelling-up also reliably exposes the true size of gaps between larger pieces, in turn suggesting where further tightening at specific points may be necessary. These gaps don't show as pronouncedly in the initial layout. All this led me to realize that a distinct step towards tightened placement was simply good practice: a way of making the finished layout clearer beforehand, which can add emphasis to the finished outcome. This approach enables a smarter and more formal appearance in the finished product. For me, this was an important insight when the main event finally got going.


The lower step added earlier, reducing an undue climb from the path

While I was learning from experimenting with sandstone layouts, I was also researching some more-stylized approaches to path making in garden traditions other than the British one I'd inherited - foremost, the many ways the Japanese compose distinctive stone pavements. Japan hosts what is likely the most-evolved tradition of path-making among the gardening nations, perhaps due to its remarkable access to so many different kinds of stone. Some of this stone is a by-product of natural processes like gravity and wave action, but some is due to more deliberate shaping by man, which the Japanese do (and employ) in striking ways. One precept I drew from looking at Japanese models involves the use of more substantial slabs to compose the edges of the path. This practise has a distinctive effect, imparting solidity and heft. It also allows the edges to serve as a visual frame for an engaging flow of smaller pieces of stone within. The technique of using larger stones as edging while framing the arrangement of smaller pieces within often results in outcomes that simply feel 'right' to the eye. Practice at working irregularly shaped sandstone chunks into compositions that hold together visually also prompted me to begin using smaller fragments (or points) of stone to reduce the gaps between larger stones. I tend to prefer naturally occurring quasi-geometric shapes for this: near-triangles, squares, oblongs, trapezoids and so on. When it works, this method of occupying openings between stones amplifies the feeling of congruity among the principal stones. However, I also realized that there's a fine line between using such points judiciously to animate the major intersections and over-relying on them to a degree where the composition becomes 'busy'. My feeling today is that the right balance is best achieved intuitively during layout, by aiming for general restraint and an overall feeling of repose.


"Until you can feel, and keenly feel, that stones have character, that stones have tones and values, the whole artistic meaning of a Japanese garden cannot be revealed to you. In the foreigner, no matter how artistic he may be, this feeling needs to be cultivated by study." In a Japanese Garden, Lafcadio Hearn, Atlantic Magazine, 1892


It also became evident that orienting the stones across the direction of the path (i.e. horizontal to its movement) lessens feelings of forward thrust, resulting in a more-relaxed composition and user experience overall. The converse is also true - and for my purposes was here to be avoided - i.e. that setting stone in the direction of the path's movement speeds things up, hurrying eye and body along its extent. My new path was intended to provide an experience for enjoyment, not one to be hurried through. Further romancing of these experiments in layout follows pictorially.



Levelling-up offers truer glimpses of final appearances

Finer levelling reveals the actual gaps between the stones

Literal transfer doesn't make a pathway that fits elsewhere

At some point I realized I needed to take a leap of faith and just get going on the project, so I began hauling stone to the site. Soon afterwards, I started laying the new path out in earnest. This entailed accepting that I could not have a complete impression of the path along its full extent before mortaring sections in place. Somehow I needed to gain confidence that I would be able to knit things into a unity as the project unfolded. At first this seemed a stretch, but in the end it turned out to mean simply accepting the uncertainty and getting on with the knitting. Knowing I had sufficient material in hand to finish the job with some consistency ultimately helped me believe I could unify the outcome despite working piecemeal. So, with some open time ahead, one day I just dove in. I began by tearing a section of existing asphalt out, about seventeen feet or so, from the base of the steps. Next I excavated and then removed the underpinnings - meaning suddenly there were oodles of material to manage as first asphalt, then coarse gravel and sand, came out, and a layer of road base topped with three or four inches of crusher fines went in. Once the new base material fully compacts, the paving stones rest on a stable platform that can withstand temporary use without needing to be mortared in place. Once fully compacted, the layer of crusher fines creates a sound base for mortaring in our moderate, wet climate.


Levelling up the layout on a base topped with crusher fines


There was no going back once I'd taken the initial plunge. Fortunately life contrived to hand me some disposable time, which was just what the project needed. The photo above gives an early look at the emerging path, with finer levelling still to come. You can see how the path edge wanders along the rocky outcrop in rough conformity to its contour.  Placing these first stones alongside their neighbours developed my expectations about the potential to evolve a convincing sequence of shapes on the land. Designing went on for a time while I consolidated my approach to these new materials. For one thing, it was clear that daily comings-and-goings over the unmortared paving stones effectively preloads the base layer (preloading occurs when the base material compacts to the point where there is virtually no potential for it to contract further). And because this project was not being done professionally (a process where time really does equal money) but rather as a labour-of-love and for intrinsic satisfaction, I could allow things to simply unfold while focusing on refining layouts. Once I got the initial section to a point where I was satisfied with its design, the next challenge was to find a way to keep the path operational while mortaring stone in place. Here I landed on the idea of working on only half the width at a time - a simple but effective solution, if necessitating some fussing in order to ensure prior and new work appear seamless. But this approach allowed newly mortared sections to be sequestered, affording them time to set up and harden. Use of barriers as visual cues helped keep people off work that was still drying. And fortunately, my family are the principal users, so they readily acclimatized to my slow-motion paving routine. I think the method adopted (i.e. working on half the width at a time) has a certain elegance - although only someone with the privilege of doing this work as an undertaking rather than as a job could indulge himself like this. Yet effectively, there was no choice at our house - the path to the front door simply had to remain in use!


Spring shows the new path emerging


Considerations of utility also played a role in shaping the path. While the existing alignment had been fitted harmoniously into the site's natural contours (credit to the original designer) the path itself needed widening where the asphalt iteration pinched unacceptably. I wanted to ensure it was sufficiently wide for people to pass each other comfortably. This is both appropriate on an entry path where it inevitably occurs, and also better accommodates the goods and appliances moving to and from the house (many of which are bulky and typically enter suburban buildings via the front door, which is usually the widest doorway).



Other factors needed considering too as things took  shape on the ground. As the path runs past the bedrock the house sits on, the land's contour rises sharply towards the house (inset photo, right, below). On the far side, the contour flattens out into a bench comprised of humps of glaciated bedrock  punctuated by narrow shrubbery beds. A vertical stone retaining wall on the house side of the path had been as hastily contrived (and as awkwardly realized) as the asphalt surface itself, rising so abruptly it called out for rebuilding in a more horizontal profile (a step that would serve to soften
its edge substantially). And I was also coming to think that greater symmetry (of material type and size) between the stones forming both edges of the path would have a positive effect. The local stone used for edging mates well with the rocky outcrops bordering the path, as it derives indirectly from them. There had been lots available onsite when I first landed at Grange Road back in 1988. But doing both sides of the path consistently would mean collecting more stone (stone was once readily available nearby, a byproduct of massive highway building projects that left lots of waste behind). The local stone edging contrasts pleasingly with the warmer and flatter sandstone used for the path.

Glaciated bedrock bursting through like whales surfacing

Another aesthetic idea gradually taking shape in the back of my mind involved the analogy of a stream flowing across the hillside. As I'd learned from looking at pictures of Japanese examples, stone paths can be designed to emphasize feelings of movement and flow. In that vein, I'd already decided not to speed the downhill motion visually, leading me to set my stones across the path's actual direction. But as design progressed, I also found myself wondering whether impressions of path-as-stream-course could be amplified by shaping other components. For one thing, if a path is consciously styled to resemble a stream course, then low boundary walls on either side stand in for its banks - a thought that reinforced the idea of making them of similar scale.


"Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because you want to get it right." Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft


I also felt that stream-like motion would be reinforced by reducing the pavement's incline somewhat, which meant raising it with a full step at its base. At this point in the trajectory, the land starts descending more sharply. The asphalt path 'addressed' this geological fact by using a half-step to break the grade slightly before giving in to the rapid descent. This seemed to me to be a makeshift solution at best. I found myself considering the impact of making a better-defined step down, possibly positioned further down slope in order to soften the gradient a little. The background idea of hinting at stream-like-flow ultimately proved fruitful, affecting both step placement and the dynamic shape its curving lip assumed. I wanted something that implied directional flow while mimicking, however distantly, the drop of a waterfall. But where exactly this full step would go, and how to make it reinforce feelings of stream-like flow - those details remained to be worked out. Complicating matters, this is where the path separates into distinct channels, the more major leading to what eventually became a landing, the more subsidiary veering off at ninety degrees, heading down hill, then linking via a series of further descents to a woodland path. You can see the existing half-step's placement in the photo below, and a first look at a potential shape for the waterfall-step.


Early design for a step moved down slope, old half step behind

Shape of new step emerging, amplifying sensations of flow

Initially I was hoping to retain the existing half-step to shore the base under the new path, so I tried this on for size (see photos above). But it was apparent the old makeshift had to come out in its entirety. Also, it was clear that a more distinct step up from what became a landing was desirable for overall ease of access. An initial layout along these lines showed that this direction did contribute to impressions of stream-like movement. And, best of all, the effort of prospectively laying out a potential top course helped me to conjure a flowing shape for the waterfall-step's presentation edge. Having the top course roughed-in in design (photo above) also helped solidify placement of the base course beneath it! The next two photos show a more final layout evolving.


Half-step gone now, new base course being mortared-in


View of the turn to the left and the overall styling of the lip 


There was a lot of playing around with possibilities at this point. I wanted the layout to express free-flowing movement while retaining the feeling of being nestled into the land form. There's no inherent contradiction between these aims (streams cut channels naturally, so fit themselves into host landscapes seamlessly) but this double imperative (free flowing and built-in) made for plenty of tightening and refining of layout before any mortaring could happen. Once the base course under the path's curving lip was in place, a crib was created that could be back-filled with crusher fines and raised towards working grade. The step-base has an intriguing curve that implies forward momentum as it curls past an emerging rockery bed (photo below).


Base course set, crib back filled with fines


I also got caught up in shaping the rockery bed adjacent to the path (to the right, photo above). I wanted it to harmonize with the surrounding contours and nearby planting beds, so I continued using native stone for continuity of form. I realized while working on this piece of the puzzle that rockery bed and stone path were actively defining one another. You can see how I accommodated the diverging paths here, also just how co-defining bed and path are in the pictures above and below. I took a lot of pleasure in knitting these elements together in design before finally fixing them in place with mortar.


Lip of emerging waterfall-step, curling past the new rockery

My approach to path-making involves focusing on creative placement that allows drawing out of patterns among stone shapes. This objective (discerning latent pattern among randomly shaped stones) benefits from the habit of experimenting with possibilities during layout. Experimentation nearly always produces better outcomes if one is in a creative frame of mind where possibilities can be explored. This frame of mind, sometimes referred to as 'flow', is ideal for creativity. A state of flow affords better outcomes the time and space needed to develop fully. All that inhabiting a state of flow really means is that the maker's mind is fully engaged by the process at hand - in other words, lost inside the work, with no competing awareness of time or other obligations. Accordingly, we are enveloped pleasurably by the job.


"When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point."  Dogen, 12th century Zen master



Zen-like moment with stones mortared but seams unfilled


I do enjoy getting to the point where the stone's pattern is set but the seams have yet to be filled - arguably a path's most zen-like moment, because the effect of the voids is to render the pattern graphic (photo above). Yet despite the appeal of leaving the seams open (as is sometimes done in Japan) I opt to fill them with mortar because it simplifies ongoing maintenance. In our wet winter environment on Canada's west coast, any trough left open to the elements quickly fills with soil-forming material that supports organic life (which usually means moss). It is time-consuming keeping open seams clear of debris buildup (fine perhaps for those with minions to do their bidding, but for the rest of us, not so much!). Filling the seams checks soil development to a degree, although it doesn't block it entirely. Eventually moss has to be reckoned with, as it tends finally to cover even mortared seams. Along with regular sweeping to prevent debris building up along seam edges, I rely on a product like Thirty Seconds to kill moss on contact without toxic side effects (Thirty Seconds is apparently a molecule shy of being bleach, which it smells like). However, one still has to deal with the encrusted remains of the dead moss after using a product like this. A further advantage of filling seams is that the surface can be tooled with tuck pointers, both for appearances and to torque the path's grip under foot. And, my conclusion is that tooled seams subtly reinforce a blended - or in Japanese terms a 'gyo' - quality in the overall look, which emphasizes unity of ensemble over its constituent elements. In the English landscape lexicon, designs are typically seen as either formal or informal. However, in Japan there exists a middle term ('gyo') for designs blendng formal and informal characteristics. So a path that is 'gyo' by design might involve the use of informally shaped materials (say, irregular chunks of flattish sandstone, in this instance) but placed for compositional formality or at least a certain neatness of effect. The modern term for paths designed in this way is 'stone carpet' ('nobedan' in Japan) which characterizes styles seeking a blend of formal and informal effects.



Layout finalized, base course set, mortaring presentation stones


Even an approach as slow as mine eventually yields a complete outcome, after which the paver can take satisfaction in the work done, even while anticipating the work that lies ahead. In the picture below, I am definitely drawing satisfaction from the job, despite it having only just begun. In fact, the section I'm sitting on will turn out to be the first of four phases that now make up a complete sequence of walkways. Here I am also enjoying the way my stream-like-flow idea appears to have borne fruit, affirmed in the path's dynamic curve alongside the emerging rockery bed. I am equally pleased with how the lip of the waterfall-step thrusts forward, symbolizing water's movement. At this point my expectations of where this project is heading are expanding in lockstep with my appetite for the work to come!


Surveying results to date, preparing for whatever comes next   

Contriving A New Landing

Given that the way I work with stone is more adaptive than prescriptive - meaning, more by eye and intuition rather than exact measurement - I tend to discover things along the way that are knock-on consequences of my prior choices. So, for example, when I intuitively decided to introduce a full-step to soften the incline of the main run of path, in effect I was also tilting towards making a landing below it (as a way of levelling out a sloping section of path). That conclusion wasn't immediately apparent to me however. Only gradually did I realize how sharply the asphalt path descended through this section, leading to the realization that raising its alignment by a full step at the lower end would result in a more level platform. And a landing, while more formal than the asphalt path, was also potentially much more elegant. Despite the uncertainties here, I felt I ready energy for whatever challenges came along. So I continued my experimental approach by excavating the lower half of the asphalt, just to see where that led. It was readily apparent that the entire old path needed to come out, in order to optimize advantages. Once I resolved the framework, the idea of a landing came into sharper focus.


Asphalt and underpinnings partly gone, new base compacted


I recall this sequence of decisions vividly because I was now far inside the process of path-making and feeling confident I could resoIve any problems encountered along the way. This is a great mental space to inhabit, one where creativity flows on despite the challenges one is facing. I felt optimistic about coaxing this new form into harmony with the previous section's character. By this point, I had real appetite for more of this sort of self-expression, so was coming at things with a serious wind to my back.


Quickly (and carelessly) roughed-in


Defining the height of a new step up, for a more level landing


The new landing was laid out in late spring 2012 and mortared-in during the summer and fall. Once the idea of making a landing was resolved, I found myself caught up in sequences of entirely creative bouts. The photos below show the evolving progression towards a levelled landing in preference to retaining any of the old path.


Some asphalt still, but the grade is wrong


Bullet bitten: asphalt out, base going next

With my earlier lack of clarity about final gradients (and the imperative to decide these first) I realized that I hadn't been paying close attention to the orientation of the stones. We weren't close to finished design at this point - simply canvassing options hastily in order to glimpse potential outcomes - so hadn't been ensuring that stone was being laid across the path's direction. With the landing settled upon, there was fresh opportunity to be more systematic about layout. A new wrinkle emerged however in the necessity to manage my stock of stones optimally for the phases of work still to come, which included the landing, a new flight of steps and an additional but as yet undefined pathway. Principally this meant retaining sufficient of the larger pieces to meet my needs for edging stone. This ultimately led me to deploy more of my stock of smaller pieces of stone for the landing's interior. The following shots show how I sorted this out.


Layout redone more horizontally, in a more uniform gradient


From above, format now more horizontal

Once the layout felt plausible to me, mortaring could begin. This work ran through fall 2012 and was followed, weather permitting, by bouts of filling and tooling of seams. While I recall being busy with other garden chores (fall is like that for gardeners) I somehow found the time and energy needed to bull the new landing towards closure.


The landing now rises a full step, effecting a hard right turn


Late October, new landing mortared-in


Opposite view of the new landing


By the spring of 2013 my new landing had weathered a winter and I was getting ready to tackle more paving. Our exterior restoration efforts were to be recognized by the Victoria Heritage Foundation in our home's centennial year, and we had also been asked to show the house publicly on Saanich's Fall Heritage Tour (which we were keen to do). My goal, however, was to advance the paving as far as possible before the tour happened. The next section of path posed some novel design challenges, which gave it an engaging complexity from the outset. But by this point the merits of trying layouts on for size - and the clear glimpses this provided of how things would look when mortared in - made me confident of getting a good outcome. As the old zen saying has it, 'the obstacle is the path' - meaning to me that facing and surmounting obstacles along the way defines the ultimate shape of the path.


Looking smart, if new, for the centennial


Fashioning A Flight Of Steps

"Where there is a path or flight of steps, the course of it is ruled by the contour of the ground, so that the whole impression is that of Nature smoothed down in places and in others encouraged to do her very best." The Natural Garden, The Craftsman, January 1908

Recall that the main path splits into distinct channels at the base of what I am calling the waterfall-step, the secondary path angling off sharply towards another part of the front garden. The question here was how best to go about effecting a ninety-degree turn, especially given accelerating descent through this section. Here, I thought the analogy of frozen movement captured by the waterfall-step and landing should be allowed to flow right into the topmost of a new flight of steps. This would give this section of path both mystery and interest. It also reinforces arts-and-crafts motifs by allowing me to settle the new path organically into the surrounding contours (the house has built-ins, such as window seats, fitted into the surrounding decor, and the building itself had been carefully inserted into the original landscape without major disturbance). The typical front walkway in modern suburbia comprises a fairly straight shot from parking pad to a nearby front door. Typically rendered in concrete - a wonderfully serviceable if rather bland building material - this path is often too narrow for two-way use. Our front path's alignment falls at the opposite end of this spectrum. Built into the site's natural contours, the path takes us for a stroll along the entire facade, before switching hard

Switchback path to verandah
back to another flight of stone steps leading to a welcoming verandah and front door. I thought the path, with its rustic alignment, should provide a more memorable sense of entry without sacrificing feelings of belonging right where placed. But as I was learning, consistent use of similar stone materials as paving strongly reinforces impressions of long habitation.



Imagining the new flight of steps

The challenge here was to find a way of tying the main run of path seamlessly into the new flight of steps, which were no more than exposed bedrock initially. The existing setup connected precariously through some sharp descents before accessing a distant woodland  path. Heading the other way, the land rises sharply towards the main path, which is what prompted me to think of steps in the first place. Anyone utilizing the old arrangement was obliged to scramble up a sharp incline in order to gain the main run of path. The exposed bedrock made it difficult to navigate (slippery when wet, mossy in winter) a feature that would only become more difficult with time as the occupants age and their movements become less certain. So my first thought was to offset this rise by making at least two, and perhaps three, generous steps. Steps here would lessen the challenge associated with taking this route, enabling more comfortable access from below. A major issue was scaling the new steps to fit in with the main path and landing. This meant avoiding mistakes, such as making the steps too petite for the proportions of the main path. Initially (photo below) when I roughed in the first step, I gave it insufficient tread-depth to feel truly comfortable in use. The experimental method however, which affords a glimpse of outcomes before constructing, was invaluable in working this piece of it out!



Complexity: bed edges to shape, steps to fit into landscape


There were many things to consider in arriving at a design for the new flight of steps. First was the decision to flow the landing's level around the adjacent edge, so making it continuous with the surface of the first step (layout emerging in the picture above). This feature enables one to move a loaded wheelbarrow from top step to landing without having to hoist it up to the main run of path (a choice that is motion-minded, especially if said wheelbarrow is loaded with heavy material like stone). But the steps themselves also needed to feel settled into the site's contours similar to the rest of the path. Rockery beds on either side of the steps helped me orient my designs - once again, they became co-defining, so emerged in tandem with the shape of the steps. Accordingly, there was a lot of feeling-our-way through this piece of it, ultimately leading to choices about how deep to make the steps and what finished look we were hoping to achieve. This is where a willingness to play around with possibilities can pay huge dividends.


Top step now deepened to fit with the main path and landing


Introducing steps in this location had distinct advantages, but the actual number required remained unclear (you can make out an embryonic third step at the base of the photo above). Finalizing this layout would ultimately define a fourth phase of the project - but at this point it was still up in the air. I began with the idea that the steps needed to be sufficiently deep to allow secure use when transporting goods from below (there is a second parking bay at road level). One needs to be in the right frame of mind to get results from this sort of design exercise, where discrete entities like bed edges and paths are co-defining. But the return of spring inspired getting out there on the land and getting on with the job, so I just rolled on! 



Spring's return brings fresh opportunity for stone step-making

There was a lot of fooling around in getting to final design, but the bedrock the steps sat on made for a stable foundation. And once you commit to mortaring stones in place, they are well and truly fixed there (comprising the new datum, as it were) - and so I wanted to be certain that things were going to work out, in every dimension, before mortaring any layouts in place. 

First step at landing level, larger stones lending greater heft


Top step settled, second now taking shape

By May and on into June 2013, things felt like they were progressing fairly well. The following pictures show the steps being mortared-in. I find the act of setting an emergent step's shape to be supremely satisfying - you get to witness the birth of finished form, but with the voids still open (emphasizing the gaps - photo below). Filling of the seams demands careful work too, time-consuming and finicky as regards placing mortar in situ, but also highly rewarding as you move towards full closure by fusing component elements into a single composition.


"Follow the path through a picturesque landscape and you will come upon a succession of distinct places, each designed to evoke a distinct emotion." Michael Pollan, A Place Of My Own


At this time of year, paving needs to be got at earlier or later on in the day, as the sun is simply too strong otherwise and hurries the mortar relentlessly. This in turn hurries you, increasing the likelihood of mistakes. If mortar sets up too quickly through direct exposure to intense sunlight, it also fails to develop optimal strength. Things can be done, however, to slow sun effects down, such as using a hand mister to keep mortar and adjacent stones moist during seam-filling. You can also cover  the newly mortared stones - I find old election signs are ideal for this purpose, elevated above the mortar on small bits of stone to avoid any contact with the freshly tooled seams - to keep them out of direct sunlight as the mortar sets up and starts to cure.


Tooling seams for better grip and effect


Tooled seams made using tuck pointers of varying widths
Hand-misted after tooling, drying slowed for optimal strength


Inventing A New Stub Path

As noted earlier, I had difficulty deciding whether it would be two steps or three. That was because there remained some distance to be traversed before reaching the beginning of the woodland path. The choice resolved into either making a deep third step or, more realistically, designing a short section of path instead. So I decided to try laying it out as a stub pathway in order to get an impression of how this would look on the ground. The alignment ran through a dip in the land here, complicating matters. I decided to level the dip with crusher fines, to enable roughing-in the short section of path. The picture below shows the dip filled with base material and a rough path layout placed. All of this served to reinforce the idea's feasibility and obvious utility.


Back-filled, quick rough-in for glimpses


This was all happening in early autumn 2013 after the fall heritage award ceremony and tour. Conditions for path-making were then ideal: warm enough to make it pleasant working outside in shorts, but not at all uncomfortable working in direct sunlight. These are optimal conditions for the sort of playing around with layout possibilities that enables novel design to emerge. Despite this section of path being much narrower than the main run, I nonetheless wanted it to feel substantial and so be in balance with the scale of the new steps. I still had some chunkier pieces of stone left in my cache, so I could continue the practise of using larger pieces to define the edges of the pavement. This larger material gave the new path an appearance of heft and solidity, which is good because in this location it is more visually exposed than on the bordered edges of the main run. Anyway, I was determined to finish the job with materials already on hand rather than cause delay by going off to collect more stone.


Spring freshness, refining layout in ideal working conditions

I realized that beyond the now-infilled dip there was another issue, to do with a significant cross-fall through this section of path - meaning that the gradient fell away on the south side of the path (i.e. to the left in the picture above). Given this geodetic fact and the reality that this segment of path sits visibly above-ground along the southern edge, I decided it would be prudent to add a base course under this edge (which had the effect of thickening the path and projecting it as stepped down to fit the sloping ground). The next picture shows the stub-path with a base course of stone placed under it. Shoring up the edge in this way gave the path greater stability, but it also entailed substantial additional mortaring. The idea appears in draft form in the next photo.


Base course under the stub path's south side, for stability


About this time, I realized my stubby path had assumed a rather phallic appearance, a thought that was initially somewhat off-putting (photos above and below). But thinking it through more deeply, it struck me that the path's shape was derived organically from the space it was contrived to fit - and that no matter how phallic it appeared, it did enable movement in the needed manner. That awareness allowed me to relax somewhat about the implications of its shape, ultimately meaning a focus on refining the design as much as possible (phallicity notwithstanding).


Modestly phallic stub pathway emergent

Once layout reaches a point where all inner tests have been met, the process of mortaring stone in place can begin (a most enjoyable moment in path-making, the more so as this was the last phase of the project). By this time I was confident of being able to shape my stone in ways that would stand the test of time, so fixing the last stones in place felt supremely satisfying. The following shot reveals that part of the process in motion.


The stub path being mortared in place

Once set in mortar, the artistry of tooling the cemented voids awaits. This is the moment where finished paving fully emerges, where we get to see what's been held in the imagination for so long suddenly 'pop' as built object in a real landscape. Feelings of pride and satisfaction ensue!


Just finished, mortar still wet, joints tooled and looking smart


When a project has gone on for years the way this has (executed mostly in spare time, in a leisurely manner, weather permitting) the maker gets attached to the work process and used to watching its slow progression towards finished form. When it all finally does come to an end and the job is apparently complete, there ensue contradictory feelings of satisfaction and, perversely, intense longing for more! In the end, the job really isn't completely done anyway, because there is still finishing work on the adjoining beds and path edges. And, of course, there are other paving jobs calling for attention elsewhere in the garden, and likewise many other garden responsibilities neglected during the paving exercise. But none can seem as prominent as this undertaking has been, and certainly none has so much riding on the outcome. Looking back on it more than a decade later, I still find recalling the long process of design and construction immensely satisfying. The finished path feels like an enduring part of the gardens here - so much so that it's virtually impossible to imagine the place without it. The sandstone I used comes with grain open enough to age and weather readily, which is both a strength and a weakness. On the plus side, it does mean the stone appears not-new in short order, reinforcing the impression it belongs where it's placed - indeed, that it may really always have been there! This sense of it being fit-for-purpose contributes to the overall feeling of repose that I want for the gardens surrounding our arts-and-crafts house. And of course, this entry pathway helps structure perceptions of that garden's spaces and of the architecture's overall harmony with the land, drawing you in as it carries you through sequences of engaging scenery. Below, a few more shots of the front path evolving and changing through the course of the seasons and the years.


After spring's flourish, trimming time


Stub and steps in wet fall, oak leaves down  

 Drying out after a mid-year downpour

Stream channel traversing a hillside

Woodland path, early spring bluebells


Rockery beds, flight of steps, and Rumble the cat, fall 2022


A note on stone carpet (nobedan) paths:

Nobedan is a modern Japanese term for a particular approach to path design, involving contrasting arrangements of stones that mix naturally rounded pieces or chunks split into flattish slabs with stone that has been worked into more formal shapes (oblongs and squares mostly). The path pictured to the right gives an idea of how this technique is used in Japan, but stone carpet paths are also made outside Japan too, where they tend to be less formal and less-zen in appearance than customary in Japan. Nobedan translates roughly as 'stone carpet' in English, an approach to design that results in distinctive outcomes. Antecedents of stone carpet designs were often called tatami-ishi (literally, 'stone mats', after the tatami-mats that figure prominently in Japanese homes). Japanese path makers sometimes mix cut stone panels as edges with sequences of irregular found-stones in ways that have zen-like results (photo, right above). These stone mats often come with quite strict linear edges due to the use of cut stone. But in North America, stone carpets tend to be fabricated using irregular fragments of fieldstone or flagstone, but without the characteristic use of squared or rectilinear stones (not readily or commercially available, as they are in Japan). My own path was contrived from flattish sandstone pavers, hand-collected and of random shapes and sizes. My design challenge was assembling them into an ensemble that was both useful and beautiful (cf William Morris). One thing I learned from looking at photos of other stone carpets is that a distinctive look can be achieved by using heftier stones for the edges. I borrowed this idea for my design and found it to work well in practice. I also began seeking a rough equivalence of size between edging stones sitting across from one another, an idea that tends towards a balanced outcome. Another idea gleaned from photos involves the practice of echoing adjacent facets of stone in layout, so that the individual pieces are blended more readily into a whole. This in turn helps the stone feel like it belongs where it's been placed. This became a key organizing principle too – one face echoing the next as much as possible, without extensive reworking of surfaces with hammer and chisel (I try to avoid over-working my stone, as going further with local sandstone inevitably runs a risk of epic failure). As much as possible, I try to utilize the facets the stones come with, seeking ways to amplify distinctive association among slabs through creative placement. I am very pleased with the outcome of this principle of placing like-with-like-facets and would recommend it as an approach to anyone thinking of building a path in stone-carpet style. Japanese path-makers also readily accept the use of mortar as a medium for knitting arrangements into permanence, recognizing it increases the range of design choices. Using mortar allowed me, for example, to 'float' the individual pieces of stone towards a final placement that strengthened the association of the parts as an ensemble. 

Japanese artist-gardeners also employ a trio of terms, originating in calligraphy, to describe the composition of their aesthetic objects, including garden paths: 'shin, gyo, and so', where 'shin' refers to the formality of geometrically cut stone, and 'so' contrasts with it in the rustic quality of broken stone or rounded cobbles subject to gravity and rivers. 'Gyo' is the middle term, chiefly used for designs that seek to balance the poles of formality and rusticity. Overall, my path was decidedly 'gyo' in composition and arrangement, but the stone slabs were probably somewhat 'so', inasmuch as they randomly broke into their various shapes by whatever process was used to extract them from the ground. My attempt at 'gyo'-like quality derived from combining edge-stone discipline with the echoing of like-with-like-facets, which was a way of composing a cohesive whole from the fragments and residuals of eons of geological process coupled with more recent human extraction. There was also the idea of setting stones consistently across the direction of the path, slowing its aesthetic momentum down. I must say I enjoyed every minute of this exercise because it served to stretch me creatively!

Books For Looks:

Michael Pollan, A Place Of My Own, Random House, New York, 1997.


Garden Technical Series

ISBN4 - 87460 - 778 - 0



Japanese Garden Design, Marc P. Keane, Tuttle Publishing, 1996.

Space & Illusion In The Japanese Garden, Teiji Itoh, John Weatherhill, New York, 1973.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Harper Perennial, July 2008.

Garden Paths, Gordon Hayward,  Camden House Publishing, Vermont, 1997 (especially Chapter Four: Stone Carpets: Informal Fieldstone Walkways).

Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into The Value Of Work, Matthew B. Crawford, Penguin Books, 2009.

Path pictured by Vasila Romanenko showing restful crosswise placement of paving stones.