The paving stones.

Kieran Egan

Here is where the compromises really get underway. Behind the partially built wall and in front of the shed and compost heap, the grass gets hardly any sun. Also, as I was improving everything else, I realised that this stretch would look rather tatty. I decided to pave it. The books about Japanese gardening have endless pictures of stone paths, but they are invariably of carefully laid stones of varying sizes. But always in the set are a number which must weigh tons and, at least, require equipment to get into place. I was restricted by what I could get through our narrow garden gate and carry, or wheelbarrow, to the back of the garden. Also the stone-yards I went to were selling enormous stones by the pound. With prices equivalent to vegatables! Imagine the cost of finding an appropriate set for the six foot by sixteen foot area I had to pave.

Well this is in large part a sad tale of one mistake after another. But let me take them one at a time. I began by deciding to lay 2' (foot) by 2' concrete exposed-aggregate paving stones. At least they would have a stony finish that would be coherent with the rest of the stones around. I decided also to put 2" by 2" strips of wood between the large stones, and to stain the wood with the same dark charcoal-black as the fence.

The main compromise here was that these regular pavers contravene the principle that in laying stones for a path in a proper Japanese garden you would be careful to ensure that you would never have crude regular shapes. And particularly you would not allow four corners to meet together. My paving stones would be all such crude corners matching up. I consoled myself by defining these pavers as behind the garden proper and not strictly a part of it.

As usual, before one can do anything one has to do other things, and before doing the other things . . .I couldn't start laying the stones before I dug down and created a bed of compactable gravel, with some landscape fabric on top of that to prevent weeds coming up, and on top of that a layer of sand onto which the pavers would sit. But I couldn't do that, I reluctantly concluded, till I stained the base of the compost heap and the shed the same colors that I had used on the fence and that would be up against the strips of wood between the pavers.

So I dug down around the bases of the compost heap and shed and did some staining. The trouble with having a paint brush in hand, of course, is that everything one sees needs painting, and it is hard to stop. So I stained the whole of the compost heap and went higher on the shed than I had intended. Here is a picture of the area to be paved, after I had dug out the sod and tossed it to form a base for the garden on the other side of the partially built wall:

The area was largely weed and moss, as it surrounded by trees. As I dug down, I became only too aware of the number of trees, each of which had sent all its roots to congregate in the area in front of the shed and compost heap. It ttok ages hacking and cutting and heaving. You can see some of the roots in the picture above. One of the trees, which we'll come to again, is growing through the fence at the back. The stained Japanese-style fence comes to a stop, you can see, where there is a chunk of old weathered fence. That is being broken by a huge birch tree from the condominium that begins at the point where my new fence ends. The trunk of the tree has swelled and smashed the fence inwards into our garden.

The next step, after the back and knee breaking digging and cutting of roots, was to level the area with a bed of compactible gravel. This is easy to work. I dumped it from the same pile that I had used for the similar covering around the bamboo. Once covering the soil, it is a simple matter, and quite pleasant, to rake it level. It fills the dips and irregularities in the soil below. One then goes around tamping it down to make it firsm. At this point one discovers, or creates, further irregularities, and so a bit more raking and tamping are called for. Here is the result:

You'll be able to see, in the enlarged image at least, the big concrete pavers waiting to go into place, and waiting to wreck my knees in the process. Also there are the piles of bags of sand. The garden shed look much improved by its partial staining. You'll notice a small slope to the right, exaggerrated by the two by four at the end, which is not level. The slope is intended to discourage rain from sitting on the pavers.

The next stage was the landscaping fabric, which would discourage any weeds that might try to push through the gravel. One lays it down, overlapping by about six inches as one goes, to make life difficult for any unusually persistent weed--what other kind is there?-- to slither through. Once it was in place, we had something like this.

The pieces of wood on the fabric are the 2" by 2"s that I plan to use as decorative spacers between the paving stones. They are there at the moment only to keep the fabric from blowing out of place before I get the sand on it. Also they will provide a guide to scraping the sand smoth--one only needs to screed across the tops of the 2" by 2"s (once one locates them) and you have an easy guide to the depth of the sand. You'll see that I have also stained the 2" by 4"s that will form a frame for the paved area and also the 2" by 2"s that will separate the concrete slabs.

One of the big mistakes (I promised) was my assumption that the 2" dimension of a 2" by 4" would be the same as the 2" of a 2" by 2". Not so. There is a good quarter inch or so difference. This is a disaster because the paving stones are the same depth as the 2" by 4"s, but deeper than the 2" by 2"s. And this means that once the pavers are laid around the 2" by 2"s, I will have to lever out each piece of wood and pour in, very carefully, just the right amount of sand to bring the 2" by 2"s to the same level as the paving stones. Grrrr.

Pouring the sand from the bags didn't help my delicate knees. (Four knee operations, and counting.) But I emptied all the bags, hoping I had enough sand for the job. This is what it looked like with the sand down. You'll notice the tops of the 2" by 2"s. I have simply scraped away sand till I located them, then pulled a 2" by 4" across the tops of them, till the sand was pretty evenly spread across the whole area.

The sand needs constant wetting and tamping down, to make it firm and flat. Once that is done, one can begin laying the pavers.. These big two foot by two foot concrete pavers are pretty heavy. I managed to co-opt one of my sons (rear view, note soccer-induced calf size) and a friend of his who was visiting from Ireland. I don't think he had in mind when he imagined his Canadian holiday that it would involve the hard labor of heaving around paving stones, but he leaned into it with a will. Here we are, with the two young men laying the stones, and old guy making sure the sand was level and ready. In a few cases, once the paver was down, it was clear that I had put too little sand in a corner, or hadn't tamped it down firmly enough. This involved the increasingly less willing helpers in hoisting it out again, and me diving in with fistfulls of sand and tamping. That's what this picture captures. We called it the Zen Master technique, but that irreverence didn't cover my sense of incompetence.

(More to come--I hope.) I'll put in the set of pictures, and come back to filling out the text later.

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