A New Brick Walk

In 2004 I bought 7 acres of land that was home to a pair of 15,000 square foot industrial buildings.  One of the buildings is home to all of the landscape vehicles, machines, tools and materials.  The other is a place where we fabricate ornament for gardens in a variety of media.  It was a big move, but the landscape company needed the space, and I needed to design and make things for gardens.  A brick road dating back to the 1920’s came with the land and buildings.  Buried under 8 inches of composted weeds, I did not discover the brick until I had owned the property for over a year.  Steve dug up a bucket full of bricks, and called me over to see them.  I was thrilled.  We have used them on several projects.  I have been waiting a long time for a 2 day break in the landscape schedule, so I could take some of that brick home for my front walk.  We had a breather; Steve and his crew would dry laid the brick on a bed of slag. 

These are handmade bricks, made in Ohio in the late 19th and early 20th century.  They are sometimes called shale brick, as they are made from that silica rich material.  They are sometimes called fireclay bricks, as they were fired at such high temperatures for so long that the clay particles actually melt, and vitrify, like glass.  They are incredibly durable, and absolutely impervious to weather or weight.  Not incidentally, they happen to be beautiful. 

The invention of paved roads had much to do with the invention of the automobile.  Dusty rocky roads were hard on paint, chrome, and touring outfits. Asphalt was invented in 1930, but it was a while before the material and technique was perfected.  These rock hard overscaled bricks were perfect for roads.  No cars come to my front door, but I knew they would be a welcome replacement for my broken and nondescript 1930’s concrete walk.  The tools are pretty simple, but the skill required is considerable.  Each brick is a different size, and a different thickness.  The walk needed to slope slightly towards the sidewalk, to insure positive drainage.  The steps needed to be level; a step out of level can trip someone.   

My front walk gets very little traffic, besides the mailman.  Mine is a corner house; the driveway is around that corner from here.  Buck and I use the basement door, and so do our friends.  In good weather, the gate to the garden is at the end of the drive.  I was mostly interested in a look that would compliment my 1930’s house. 

I had some worry about the color of the brick.  The house brick is a creamy, yellow-golden tan-how is that for a description? But the front steps and porch are quarry tile; it is as brick orange as can be.  I went for it.  I do not have enough knowledge to thoroughly explain how this walk was installed, but I do know a few things.  Almost everything in Michigan which is wet set, or mortared into place, will break or crack eventually, given the severity of our winters.  I dry lay stone or brick whenever I can.  A brick which has heaved up is easy to set back down.  A broken mortar joint-not so easy to fix.  A dry laid walk needs a base of coarse stone, so water will quickly drain away.  Freezing temperatures and water expanding as it becomes ice can play havoc with any hard surface in the landscape.     

The edges of the brick were captured by steel edging, and an existing stone wall.  This keeps them from sliding side to side.  The steps have to be wet set.  The mortar holds those bricks level, and in place.  No one needs a brick sliding forward, given their foot on a step.  This particular pattern of brick is called stack bond, or Jack on Jack.  For a truly tight and non moving walk that gets heavy traffic, choose a pattern where the joints never line up.  The bricks will interlock.  I like the look of Jack on Jack, and this is a perfect place to use it-a low traffic walk.

The mortared brick steps need time to set up, and become strong before anyone uses them.  The top flight of steps got set first; the dry laid walk was installed up to the grade of the steps.  On day 2, the lower flight of steps was installed.  Note the very thick steel holding the bottom layer of bricks in place.  No one needs a walk to slide out from under them.  Some improvements were made.  The lower flight of steps were quite steep, compared to the top flight.  Steve split the difference, so each flight is more uniform, and easier to navigate.  Most people navigate stairs without looking at them.  There is the instinctive expectation that the each riser will be the same.   

Last night, the walk was ready for company.  Of course Howard and Milo had to come out to see what all the hoopla was about. I’ll say there was hoopla-I think the walk looks great.  I will have to brush sand into the cracks quite a few more times to fill them.  There are other joint materials, but this is a traditional material.  The joints are wide enough that I could seed them with alyssum, or plant them with hens and chick babies.    

I am so pleased with the outcome.  The color, pattern and texture seem appropriate to the place.  I am sure you cannot make heads or tails of the landscape design on that upper level;  the plants need to grow in.  Given some time, you’ll see.  It is enough for now-a beautiful front walk.

Sunday Opinion: The Changing Of The Season

Every year I tell Buck with great confidence that I will keep my summer season going past Labor Day.  I watch the weather-especially the night temperatures.  I water like crazy-all of my completely root bound containers need water daily.  We just had a 4 day spell of temperatures in the 90’s-one day we soaked the roof boxes twice.  Of course I interpret this to mean that somehow summer will go on into September, at the expense of the fall. 

I have plenty of half baked ideas-this is just one of them.  I know Labor Day formally celebrates the economic and social contributions of people who work.  It is celebrated with speeches, barbeques, picnics, and fireworks.  I love labor day weekend-my neighborhood streets are jammed with cars.  There is music in the air.  My immediate neighbor always has a party.  I get to go to the party, based solely on my proximity.  But labor day also represents the opening day of the fall season.  Kids go back to school.  The night temperatures drop.  My containers may go on another 6 weeks, but the season is already changing.  Those beginning changes are so subtle, it is easy to ignore them.  The days are a little shorter, the nights cooler, the sun not nearly as hot.

We have four seasons in Michigan.  Not just summer and winter-spring, summer, fall, and winter.  Each one lasts about 3 months.  The summer season has been extreme-lots of cold, then rain, then the fierce heat and more rain.  Most of the maples in my neighborhood have been defoilating from fungus for weeks. There is mildew on everything; I started getting calls for fall plantings two weeks ago.  I do not fault the gardeners for this.  There is always something that doesn’t work out. How hard you work, how passionate you are, the amount of time effort and money you spend, has little or nothing to do with success.  I have plantings that I have tried every gambit I can dream up; they can still do poorly, given the right circumstances.  The lime nicotiana I plant on my deck every year with glorious results is completely out of bloom. I can put the entire weight of my experience and interest to a planting that is struggling, and still come up wanting.  That summer is coming to a close can be a very good thing.  I am ready to be relieved of that which just didn’t work out.

This labor keeping up a garden is considerable.  This is a polite way of saying that should you decide to garden, you will have blisters, scratches, bug bites, soaking wet feet, aching muscles, sweat running everywhere, calloused hands, sunbaked arms, and a  A giant amount of sweaty work that every day will threaten to do you in.  Late this afternoon I chopped down the asparagus in between my roses to 12 inches above ground.  This took 2 hours.  I had gobs of debris-all of which I hauled down the steps to the trash.  This may not be the best move for the asparagus, but I have boltonia and white Japanese anemone coming on that I would like to look at. I went on to water 2 new plantings by hand.  I watered all of the pots-I have 26.  At the shop, I have 40 pots, the driveway gardens, and the roof boxes.  I am on duty for that over the holiday.  That the temperature is 59 today-excellent.  My labor day will not be labor free, but it will be manageable.   

Overall, the shop gardens look good-but for the window boxes.  There is too little contrast in leaf forms, and the overall shape is ungainly to my eye.  The mildew is spreading underneath.  Grassshoppers, snails and aphids have been lunching there nonstop.  On the up side, I will not have to deal with them much longer.  My windowbox troubles are about to be eclipsed by the coming of the fall.  A new season means looking forward another chance to interpret the garden.

At A Glance: Late Summer Yellow



The Making Of The Pots

What I know about making terra cotta pots wouldn’t fill a teacup, but I have pictures.  These first four are from a book Rob bought for me in France 15 years ago.  “Terres Vernissees” by Christine Lahaussois and Beatrice Pannequin is an overview of the art of French glazed ceramics dating back to the 16th century.  This method of making large pots with wood armatures wrapped in rope is a centuries old technique.  The form begins with a series of wood verticals that describe the height of the piece, and the diameter of the top and the bottom.

Multiple wood ribs that describe the overall shape of the pot are fixed to the central verticals.  Keep in mind that the pots are made top side down.  Heavy rope is carefully wrapped around the wood ribs.  The ribs and the rope create a template for the finished shape of the pot.  Wet clay is very heavy, and very sticky.  To throw a pot of great size takes multiple passes. Only so much of the finished height of the pot can be done before the pot needs to rest, and the clay become leather hard.  Then the next layer can be added.  A giant pot thrown on a wheel all at once would collapse under its own weight.  It is much more efficient to press the sticky clay into the rope.  The form keep the clay from succumbing to gravity.   

These pictures detail how the wet clay is pressed into the rope covered form.  The texture you see here-the finger marks of the person making this pot.  The evidence of the human hand-this is what these pots are all about.  These large pots have been made this way for centuries in France.  I think it is of utmost importance that this history be known, and appreciated.  I appreciate modern technology, and the important news of the moment, but there is more out there.  When I plant a beautiful handmade pot, the planting is as much about the the history of the making, and the maker of the pot, as it is about the plants.    

Once the wet clay is pressed into the ropes, the wheel turns, and the surface is smoothed.  The wood form is collapsed once the clay becomes leather hard.  The clay is cut, and the form removed.  The rope?  This will be burnt off in the firing. 

Rob took this picture 2 days ago.  That the construction of the giant vases has not changed for several centuries-this is very important to me.  How so?  The handmade French pots that will come to the shop in 2 months will have been made by a person, whose hand, skill and judgment will enchant me.  The history is long, the commitmment-just as long.   People who make extraordinary things-I value them.  I do what I can to support this industry, and am always sorry when I see a poterie close.  The making of the pots is an art I would like to see endure.
The finished pots in my shop do not tell this story.  Yes, they have beautiful shapes and graceful curves.  They are heavy, solid-very well made.  With proper care, they will last better than a lifetime.  But the story of how they are made makes for a story any passionate gardener would want to hear. 

The finished pots-they need to rest.

Once they dry, the pots will be fired.  The rope burns, but the pattern of that rope will be fired forever into the interior of the pot.  These pots are ready to be planted.  But please note that the interior surface is every bit as beautiful as the outside.     

Some of the pots get decoration.  Once the clay is leather hard, a potter will work hard to create and affix that garland, that medallion to the body of the pot. 

Giant pots drying have supports.  These supports are not so fancy, just useful.  Simply useful.  Gravity can drag down wet clay.  These not so fancy supports keeps the wet clay aloft.

The attic is a perfect drying room.  Imagine that every handmade French pot gets hauled to the attic to dry.  There are a lot of steps, and a lot of hands that come together to make these pots.  When they are thoroughly dry, they will be fired.  From these hands to yours-Rob does this part.