Landscape Walls – How We Make Them & Why

Walls in any landscape can perform more than one single purpose. Sometimes, as in this picture below, they separate elements of a landscape and add a certain orderliness which would not be there without those demarcations. As a predictable and handy side effect, they also are fabulous places to sit when “plagued with” overflow party-goers. These particular blocks and their caps have a rustic look which well-matched the informal ranch-style home of the owners. Their neighbors were fairly distant and the environment was wide open and range-like just outside their fence. Something more formal would look exceptionally out of place.

Note also the business of the lighting which we provided access for by drilling downwards and pulling the necessary wiring from the house. Along with railings, iron work and any number of possible additions, the lighting here adds a value-added and experience-enhancing element. The totally adjustable rate of light made for romantic or well-lit evenings, good for watching stars or for some more focused work.

(click all images to enlarge)

Other purposes for walls – and probably without doubt the most common – deal with terrain and grade changes. Steeply-sloped land causes some problems, not the least of which is the probability of erosion and the subsequent messes after torrential rains. Most of the prefabricated wall systems are designed to withstand the hydrostatic pressure which builds behind the walls when things get wet. A saturated soil still feels the gravitational pull of the water inside the earth and that water still acts like a river – everything wants to run downhill. This implies pressure, simply put. In fact, it implies one heck of a lot of pressure. Nothing, in the end, quite matches the power of water in its urge to break through to release.

We therefore work with this fact in every construction. In the rainy environments I have lived in, such as Portland and Vancouver, BC, the task  in many ways is easier, actually. Unlike Reno, the rain is predictable, even in the amounts – lots! Reno, meanwhile, can wait 7 months between rainfalls. Then you often get snow and rain – in order! All of that badly-needed precipitation is generally packed into about 3-4 months of time – Winter. And even then in strong deliveries. What is first involved, then, in any wall system, is the base.  Secondly, is the drainage. But we start at the bottom. If it is not sturdy and perfect, the entire edifice is not sound. And, yes, they will most certainly collapse.

Here’s typically what we begin with:


The initial excavation includes all the computations we arrived at in the design process. Where the drain pipes go, what to do with the water, how high the wall will be, all that. It’s always something else watching it knit together.

Once the wall is excavated, we bring in base rock, very similar to how we lay pavers. Where the blocks will go will have nearly a foot of base material to provide that sturdy foundation. Actually, we do this on all our wall constructions, no matter the material. Even large rocks, we like putting in a compacted base underneath. We will pound the loose ground under a construction until it is rock hard, then back fill or lay in the material. Even railroad tie retaining walls require the same. This picture is a small part of a quarter mile’s worth of double and triple stacked walls in Vancouver. Under each one of them, we added gravel and compacted it like crazy. Now 23 years from the time it was installed, it has not moved an inch.


The draining of the walls is probably number on on the Importance Index. Even a dry climate gets rain – and sometimes then, they are torrential. It can make life weirder.

Here’s an example of how we drain even small walls which have hills and thus wandering water building pressure behind it:

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Here is an example of drainage, right from the first. This will be a walled enclosure to hold a spa/hot tub. It will sit nicely into the hillside, providing privacy and some muted sound. The fabric-covered pipes will tuck in around the base of this wall at an angle that conducts the water away. From the top of the wall, we put a foot-wide gravel-filled trench close to the wall itself. This allows the water to drip down into the pipes and then get carried away. Since we also installed a paver patio on this project, we managed to trench ourselves and guarantee a proper course for the water by putting solid pipe underneath.

In stages:

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Here is what it resulted in:

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The wide array of rocks, concrete products and wood materials available for wall-making is pretty impressive. In most cases, the materials can be specified to match the desired ambiance of an overall project. From an aesthetic perspective, this is a total plus – I mean  just having that range of possibilities. But from a practical perspective, there are only a few “right” ways to build them.

Prepare the base well. Drain the walls. Take the water away or watch them fall down.

Remember the first picture up there of excavating? Here’s what it looks like almost done:


(pardon the incomplete look, by the way – the tarps, the bags of mortar – I have always had the methodology of completing work and then moving on. It’s only recently that I have considered I might want later looks at completed projects. I thus prove my standing as a contractor, lol. Not only can I be predictably late, I also forget where I’ve been!) 😉   Oh, and here is why this owner wanted that wall with few plants. Below is the view from his patio:

Doug and Ed 007

Another angle for this 270 degree vista of Reno and the distant mountains, looking South – he had a rare lot. An average house which he gussied up nicely inside, but one heck of a cool lot:

Doug and Ed 008

The neighbor to this project got into the act as well, lengthening the stay and complicating things in the best ways and so we ended up doing them as well. It actually made it easier because the neighbor had a great place to evacuate all the water. But we extended things and made stairs and a sort of a natural  finish by continuing the wall on the inside and outside. The curving wall at the end wraps around the neighbor’s property, complete with his own set of stairs.

Doug and Ed 011

Doug and Ed 015

In case you wondered about the copper-colored tiles, they were actually water features themselves. Quite attractive and quiet, they supplied the virtual sheet we and the owner were looking for, all controlled from the house. With the lights embedded into the pavers and some nice underwater lights in the reservoirs of the cascades, this made a totally warm and impressive patio, fabulous for parties. Here’s what it looks like when running:

Doug and Ed 004

All our walls are way too interesting to do. For some reason, I get a real kick out of wall-building. For example, this becomes the picture following:



Large Landscaping Project II – Recapping

I managed to find some previously-lost pictures which describe the scene a bit better. I am definitely not a good picture editor, so I will leave this scan as I found it. However, it does present a good picture not only of how dusty the entire place was to begin with, but it also gives a real look at what we dealt with in terms of plants and trees. Since we had just truckloads – semi’s – of plants delivered, one gets a far better idea of the scope of the project, I think. Sometimes, it could take 2 hours just to off load the plants from the truck. It was a damn fine plant orgy! Totally Roman! It is almost impossible to detail the sensation of going to Moana Nursery in Reno and just either pointing a finger or decorating a tree with a red ribbon indicating “Sold”, then knowing that plant would be out on my site in a day or two along with other virtual “Specimen Trees” and plants.

Each of those trees required careful handling, using chains and our largest machines to lift them from the truck and to set them gently down. Obviously, it was no slam dunk planting them either, but the picture below these shows we had some definite “beef” handling the merchandise.

Here’s the “Beef”! Yes, I am the joker in the middle, surrounded by 200+ pound Mexicans. The guy with his arm around me was a baseball legend in Mexico, all from the same ranchero. I’ve been to their parties and their Baptisms and, to this day, I miss them all. Good folks and hard working as heck.

Keeping it non-weather-related as yet, let’s go ahead and take a look at what we had finished when the weather did hit. Here are the results of 3 months of work, pretty much 6 days a week.

Starting with the trees, we moved to paving, then lawns, complete with irrigation – and lots of that. We also picked up another family of guys along the way, 3 more brothers, who sped us along. Let’s see what we did:

The brick paving wound around the entire house, from the driveway to the patio at the “back” of the house (from this view) and back again, to the driveway. After finishing the paving, we paid attention to those “Bubble Rocks” mentioned at the onset. We had two clusters of them to make – one much larger than the others. The smaller set of 3 were geared for sheer sound alone – a gentle trickle to help my friend’s mother-in-law sleep better at night and to balance out a sense of scale. Thus, we used some pretty small rocks and had them bored out. We did have a semblance of a design in mind but – as is always the case – seeing the rocks themselves finished it off. Here’s what we came up with:

This (above) picture is during their construction – with the water running – and here’s a somewhat dark look at a reasonably finished product:

And here are their “Big Brothers” at the other end of the patio:

Or from a floor-level perspective, down the patio, they are at the end:

After pretty much finishing the patio area, we began focusing on filling in between the trees we planted with plantings next to the house. At the same time, we began putting down the lawn:

I looked for ways and reasons to integrate wide-sweeping curves into the parameters of the lawn and so we invented some roadways and pathways just to say we did. It resulted in inventing an access point for the owner’s wife and her small 4 wheelers and turned out to please them immensely.

Now, some of these are taken during the Spring following our “Disaster cleanup” so forgive the sequence dissonance if you have some. It would be understandable. Had I realized I would be supplying a blog like this back then, the pictures would have been something else. But as it is, I think we can see what was going on in general.

These two pictures (above and below) are taken from the highest lawn level, up by the garage housing equipment and a big old RV. These pictures are taken from the farthest North and South corners of that upper lawn.

And here’s some plantings, mixed in with this lawn shot on the outside of the partio area.

Here’s a look in the other direction, pardon the amateur second picture.

A final look at some plants, this down the driveway:

It was a lot of work, lol.

Large Landscaping Project II – Part One

(click any picture to enlarge)

This is a view of the project from the nice and bucolic highway out front of this place. The road actually travels the length and width of Washoe Lake, a lake about 15 miles South of Reno that has been a recreational and great fishing spot for Renoites for decades. This particular highway was once used as the primary link between Reno and the state capital of Carson City until a sort of super highway was constructed on the other side of the lake in a more direct path to Carson City. Yes, it is smack in the middle, more or less, of Northern Nevada’s High Desert. And, yes, this property is pretty doggone large – 10 acres of landscaping, in fact. That’s big for anyone, much less my crew of about 4 other persons. But it was one of those challenges I could not resist. The owner – a friend and client for commercial purposes – is a local builder who loved the relative isolation and the superb vista’s this place tossed out like “mana from heaven”. As the post continues, you will see what I mean. It is every bit of that – just gorgeous. Well, our job was to make it gorgeous at home too, not just for the view. The fact is, we were working on someone else’s “Dream Home”. When this happens, you raise your game just a little.

Here is that view from the house:

And here from the road down below:

Back to the house now………………………………

A bit closer look here, inside the fence. If you notice the fine dust in the foreground, bear in mind the entire property was nothing other than that when we began. It was entirely shaped using local topsoil which was incredibly sandy/silty and which caused no end of problems for no end of reasons. It was the old lake bed, in fact, since about 10,000 years ago there was a 6,000 square mile lake connected to this one – Lake Lahontan. Up there in those hills – at about 200 feet – you can still find caves where fishing implements were found by local archaeologists.

Prominent among the problems we faced, of course, was the dust factor which the rather constant winds just exacerbated no end. (Our debt to the Almighty for creating the phenomenon known as “grass” knows no bounds.)  The other humongous problem, later, was erosion. Everything we did – even from the first – bore this in mind and we enacted every single bulwark we could against having the place just erode away. Our efforts paid off but there were still some dreadful surprises, including a legitimate “100 year storm” which tested our construction to the max.

You might know! 😉

My charge was to complete his own small laundry list of items – 1.) 2 “Bubble Rock” clusters in his patio; one much larger than the other; 2.) for us to irrigate and supply some lawns areas, the design of which were up to me; 3.) obvious pathways throughout the property; 4.) a system of retaining the inclines throughout using rock placements; 5.) plantings for all these things and more. His wife and he were very much involved at every stage and were always helpful – never bothersome. She had a number of specific plants and he had his own specialties he wanted and could not care less about plants. “That’s all her’s!”  LOL.  Funny enough, what got done was they both maintained how much they enjoyed the specialties of the other, when completed. It was win-win! They and I could all feel smart as whips. 🙂

Inasmuch as we showed up on that dustpile with it absolutely fresh and barren, our first order of business – as usual – was to arrange rocks/boulders. We had some 25 loads of rocks delivered altogether in either doubles or in the back of 25 yard trucks. That makes just about 500 tons or so. Since we began the project in September, we had some pressure to try and shore things up and get the rock work done by the Winter, when Reno gets its snow and rains. It was fortuitous in so many ways for us. We pretty much finished the rock work in late October and began walkway paving and planting the trees next.

Many of the sloped areas – and there were a lot – required “keying in” lines of rocks at the base for purposes of holding the banks up. In some cases, more extremely-sloped areas, we added a row at the base. As well, we inserted boulders to help fortify the overall integrity of the slopes. I regret that quite a few pictures of this project have been lost – from the earlier stages. Nevertheless, I think it won’t take a brain surgeon to figure it out. After all, consider the author of this post.

The visible pipes and even the wires seen here are strewn completely throughout supplying the drip irrigation and the “uplighting” around trees which we installed soon after completing the tree planting. As can be seen, the pathway itself – and also the driveway – was also lit by small 7 Watt bulbs in frosted covers, illuminating a walkway and the drive in an area that can be virtually pitch black on cloudy nights. As astounding as the night sky was when it was cloudless, with a starry heaven just remarkable to behold, it could be just an severe when the night sky was not lit by a moon or stars. We are definitely talking about “out of town” here.

One of the “great good fortune” aspects was the time of year when we decided to go purchase plants and trees.  A local nursery – the largest in town – was clearing out a humongous stash of trees – any of which had been sitting in their nursery for more than 2 years. The implications for us were that we were able to acquire an absolutely obscene number of huge trees for about 1/3 their normal prices or even less. It was a fantastic development and it allowed us to plant better trees and plants arranged much thicker than I had ever dreamed. Needless to say, it made me look like a genius to the homeowner and he gave me some room to buy what I deemed worthy and plant them all appropriately. I was in 7th Heaven.

We were enabled to plant literal groves of trees such as these Jackmontii Birches above on the left. We also found 20 foot high Sequoia’s, a wild number of large Blue Atlas Cedars and Pines of all types. Blooming trees were available in abundance as well and I scooped up nearly everything they had for a serious Springtime Show for my friend’s place. We’ll see in the next post how that all worked out.

Only one thing kept the project from working out like an absolute dream…………………………… Weather.

That 100 year event I mentioned really did happen. Fresh off a huge snowfall, unbelievable rains began hitting an already-saturated ground, resulting in a basic catastrophe. All those hidden concerns about drainage and moisture disasters descended on the place and created a disaster. Next door, the entire hillside collapsed, running down onto our project, just liquid dirt, in tonnage, not just a little. Not only that, but the amount of water collected from the entire mountain came down as well. It seemed all those smart and wary moves we made considered everything but a disaster resulting from someone else’s property.

I’ll delve more into this insanity in the next post.