March 30, 2016: We've gotten into rock collecting this month, although not quite in the way most collectors do. You won't find us hanging out at mineral and gem shows or prospecting for unusual specimens in the Arizona desert. Rather, you would be more likely to see us schlepping sacks of stones at the local home improvement stores and combing the bins of landscaping supply centers. As with most of our projects, this one started innocently enough and somehow turned into a major production the deeper we got into it. But let's start at the beginning...
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Spring has officially arrived, and so too has that annual burst of inspiration we receive from looking at our weed-filled yard, which motivates us to pick up our shovels, rakes and pruning shears in an effort to transform it into something more attractive and usable. Although Glenn had already been tackling some of the weediest patches along the side of the house and around the base of the ash tree, we waited until the weekend of March 19 to begin the more serious task of fixing up the front yard and the tougher-to-reach spots around the bird feeders, the retaining walls and our statue gardens. With Glenn on vacation for nine days from the newspaper and no travel plans, we figured it would be the perfect time to dive into a project or two we had been contemplating (and avoiding) since last year.
High on our list of improvement projects has been replacing the rusted rain gutters on the front of our house. They have been leaking for more than two years, but this winter the rust has grown so pervasive that we are literally able to stick big buckets underneath the eaves and collect many gallons of free rainwater. While this has some advantages, it is an unsightly mess that also guarantees unwanted showers to anyone coming up the front porch on a rainy day. Maybe that is why we've had so few solicitors lately. We had already measured the gutters and come up with a parts list for the job, so we thought Glenn's vacation would be the perfect time to order the supplies and install them. Didn't happen.
Instead, we started noticing all the other work that would need to come before the gutters, including repairing rot in the eaves, sanding and — while we're at it — painting. So once we started investigating those activities, we quickly lost interest in the gutter project and decided it could wait for another weekend. The rainy season will be ending soon, and there is little urgency to replace rusted gutters in the summer months.
But Roni still wanted to make use of our vacation time for home improvement, so she picked a project that she thought would be easy and fun — more fun than repairing gutters, at any rate. Looking at the preponderance of weeds in Winter's Garden as we pulled them on Saturday the 19th, Roni came back to an idea we have had for several years now to cover as much of the bare dirt in our yard as possible with permanent ground cover. Plants are always the preferred method to keep out unwanted weeds, but the drought has made it clear to many homeowners that anything requiring regular water probably isn't a great idea. We aren't great believers in turning the yard into a sea of concrete because, although an effective weed blocker, it is ugly to look at and expensive to install. Plus we already have a lot of concrete in our yards in the form of driveways and patios, brick paths, stairs and the retaining walls.
What we needed was a creative way to apply some concrete that doesn't look like concrete, and that brought us around to the idea of making pebble mosaics.
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N ITS SIMPLEST form, a pebble mosaic is an arrangement of small pebbles into a pleasing picture or pattern. The artwork is created by combining stones of various sizes, shapes and colors, much like using tiles, and then affixing them to each other and some surface. This might be a wall or a table top or, in our case, a section of ground in an otherwise barren or weed-covered yard.
We binge-watched several instructional videos on YouTube and were inspired to begin our own project. We decided to start in Winter's Garden where we had just weeded and knew we could reclaim a large section of it to create our design and not affect any plants we had intentionally put there. We first had to do some minor rearranging, which involved moving our Winter Season statue from where she had stood the past eight years near the front of the garden to a new spot for her between the two posts of a wooden arbor. It took both of us using a dolly to muscle her into place, and we figured after that task that anything else involving rocks with this project would be easy by comparison. Or not.
With the statue out of the way it was time to plan out how we wanted to design our mosaic. Although we would have liked to rock in the entire garden, having never attempted this sort of project before we decided to keep it simple to start. We measured the area and decided on a 4x4-foot square at the base of the statue. That would be large enough to create a nice design yet small enough to not be too noticeable in the event we screwed up and really hated the finished product. Glenn was more pessimistic of this possibility than Roni, who couldn't wait purchase the necessary supplies and get started.
We trekked to Home Depot on a rainy Sunday to see what they had in the way of rocks. We figured we'd need three or four bags to get us started, so we picked out what we could find in their garden center. Each half-cubic-foot bag of 1.5-inch rocks ran us about $12, which is a princely sum, so we tried to limit how many we bought. We got one that came in shades of red, one that was mostly black, and another filled with plain old gray river rocks. We already had a few white Mexican beach pebbles at home that Roni had purchased for another project, so we thought this would be enough large rocks.
Next we found some smaller polished stones that came in round plastic containers for about $5 each. They were sold in the indoor plant aisle, intended to be used as landscaping in potted indoor ferns and the like. We liked that they were small and shiny, so we picked up two containers of black half-inch stones and one of multicolored pea gravel. Then we scoured the tile aisle and picked out three sheets of mosaic tile that we planned to break apart and use as accents in our own design — whatever that would be. Two of the tiles contained pretty glass squares, and the third one (priced at $15!) was made up of long, thin stones. We didn't like the price, but we did like the design possibilities they offered, so we added them all to our cart and proceeded to the masonry department.
We didn't have any sort of plan for this, so we came up with an idea on the fly to border our 4x4 area with bricks. We picked up 26 of the ugly gray concrete ones because they were relatively inexpensive and we thought that we could disguise them with tiles or something as our project took shape. Then we grabbed a 50-pound sack of mortar mix, figuring that would be plenty to get us going.
What we wound up with was about $130 worth of rocks, tile and concrete, and we still had no idea how we were using them.
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EALIZING WE NEEDED to come up with a design before we set anything in concrete, as it were, we put a 4x4 board on our dining room table and started arranging our rocks into patterns. We thought it would be a good idea to practice for a while first, but we quickly discovered that arranging rocks on a board is nothing like trying to display them in mortar, where you can stand them on end and stacked tightly together if you need to. So Roni came up with the idea of filling a cardboard box with sand that could simulate the mortar, and we designed in there for a bit. She wanted to incorporate "daisies" into our design. We had seen these in some of the pictures others had done online, with a large stone at the center and longer, flat stones protruding from it to resemble petals. The problem was that we really didn't have many long, flat rocks in the collection we'd purchased at Home Depot. We quickly decided that we would have to look for another source for rocks.
The next morning we visited Morgan's Home and Garden in Antioch, which in addition to selling plants carries a huge selection of landscaping materials that can be purchased in bulk. We inspected all the rock bins until we found a size and color we liked, then we had the yard attendant bring up what must have been a 50-pound bag for us. In bulk, the rocks were considerably cheaper than what we had spent at Home Depot. We got about twice as much weight for about the same price. But Morgan's also had a variety of flagstones and slates that came in different sizes that we thought might work well in our project. We could always break them, Roni said, and incorporate them into our design — whatever that wound up being. The yard attendant was nice enough to let us have for free the few samples we picked out.
But we still hadn't found the flat rocks we really wanted, so next we checked out Mt. Diablo Landscape Center in Pittsburg. Like Morgan's, these guys had lots of rocks in bins and on pallets that we inspected thoroughly, finding nothing of the small, flat stone variety we needed. We chatted up the man at the sales counter who informed us that their sister store in Concord had exactly what we were looking for, and that we could buy it in bulk. We got the address and decided to make a trip to Concord later in the week.
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EANWHILE, WE HAD been procrastinating for days on our project. Although we had plenty of rocks to get us started and had made yet another run to Home Depot to buy 160 pounds more of dry mortar mix, we were still no closer to a design or placing our first rocks on the ground. Roni took care of the design part, coming up with a 4x4 picture of a jumping fish surrounded by the daisies and other swirly features she envisioned. Glenn printed out the fish in sections on our computer printer, then transferred the pattern on to Styrofoam so that it would form a dimensional placeholder once we started pouring mortar around it. From the videos we had seen, the Styrofoam could be staked down and then easily lifted out when it came time to complete that part of the pattern. We would start with Roni's daisies in the corners and come back to finish off the fish once everything else was done.
The problem was that Glenn wasn't comfortable with our methods. We didn't know how much mortar to use, how fast it would set, how difficult it might be to place the stones, or whether we had chosen the right stones for each part of the project. He worried that instead of a whimsical pebble picture we'd wind up with a mortary mess that couldn't be fixed without a jackhammer. But Roni reassured him that this was all intended to be a fun learning experience and that even if we screwed up it would be confined to a part of the yard we rarely visit.
With this in mind, we used an old cat litter pan to mix up a small batch of mortar, enough to set the first daisy we had designed in the sand box. Glenn troweled the batter into place and packed it down, then we worked quickly to move the rocks from the box to the project. Of course there were adjustments along the way. We found that the stones sat differently in the mortar than they had in the sand, and like building with an erector set and having a few extra screws, we found that we had a few stray parts left over at the end. Not to worry, the first daisy looked okay. We let the mortar cure for a few hours and came back the next morning to continue the project.
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HAT WE THOUGHT would take us a day to finish was now a week in the making. On Friday the 25th we placed our second daisy, which out of necessity was designed from the rocks we had purchased from Morgan's. First, we liked these rocks better because there were more long, flat pieces we could use for the petals. Second, we had burned through the small supply of appropriate rocks we had from Home Depot. We had spent nearly an hour sorting through our bags in search of stones that would work – not too large, too small, or too round. We'd sorted them into buckets to have at the ready for when the mortar hit the ground. Again, we practiced in the sand box first.
By the time we got the second daisy installed we were nearly a third of the way done with our design, but we were starting to discover the flaws in our technique. We learned that packing the mortar might be a bad idea because it made it more difficult to embed the stones. We also learned that a mix that was too soupy was as bad as one that was too dry; a wet mix meant that the stones sank or moved too easily, while a dry mix didn't stick so well and resulted in stones that dislodged after the mortar cured. Working in sections meant we didn't have to worry so much about the mortar setting before we could use it all, but it also created uneven seams between sections that were difficult to blend together well. Our biggest realization was that despite all the rocks we had purchased, we still needed more!
Our wedding anniversary fell on Saturday the 26th, so to celebrate we decided to go to lunch at our favorite Cajun restaurant, the NOLA Po'boy and Gumbo Kitchen in Concord. That put us in proximity to Mt. Diablo Landscaping's Concord store, where we had been told we could find the flat rocks we wanted. We drove over there after our meal and were pleasantly surprised to find tons of the flat stones just waiting to be scooped up.
At first we tried to hand pick the rocks we liked, but we felt a little foolish sifting through those giant bins and decided that even a random scoop yielded enough flat stones to make it worth our while to simply shovel them into our sack. We went a little nuts doing so, resulting in one bag that weighed nearly 80 pounds and was too heavy to lift onto the scale. Our whole purchase came to about 130 pounds, which at 30 cents per pound was around $40. Not too bad for the amount of usable rocks we'd gathered.
By now we had found that we liked the larger red and black Home Depot rocks best for using to fill gaps around our daisies and to define the borders of our design. But we were running low on those and unfortunately there were no more left at the store where we had bought them, so we would have to improvise. We altered our design to incorporate the new flat stones we'd purchased, using them to make a giant swirl shape by placing them on edge in the mortar. We spent our Sunday doing that, by now more than halfway through the project.
As of this writing, that is where things stand. Vacation is behind us and we have yet to finish placing the stones around the fish. It will take us at least another day of work before we are ready to remove the Styrofoam and start in on the last phase of he project. In the meantime, we aren't sure what to think. It's not as beautiful as the intricate mosaics we admired online, and it hasn't been as stress-free as we had hoped, but we're planning to see it through. By next month we may have pictures of the finished project to share. Hopefully.
That's all the time we have for this month's missive. Hope you had a pleasant Easter and get to take advantage of the nice spring weather to tackle your own outdoor projects, whatever they may be.