The Patio – What Is Possible?

This post was originally entered a year or ago. Since then I have visited a few places recently with owners wondering what to do with patios. It has inspired me to post this again, but with yet a few more example patios added. The constructions of these vary from stamped concrete to interlocking brick pavers toย  natural stone slabs. But the one thing I have prided myself on was in making each and every one of them appealing as possible to all of our senses.

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Patios are places to relax and enjoy the warmer air. We entertain there and we invite others to share our environments with food and drink and nice sights. I have a strong bias – and always have – towards using brick pavers and stamped concrete in my patios. I also love stone but I always found the durability issue led me away from using the native stones, at least set in sand. Bricks and cement rarely break down. I overbuild the bases of these things, beyond doubt, but the results have been universally stable which, to me, means much.


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There is also this – I prefer that the design of the patio be as pleasing as possible, by all means. But at the same time, I also prefer to know that the developments around the edges and background be equally important – if not far more so. Elements of night lighting, visible features such as waterfalls, gorgeous blooming plants, the many and various points of interest a landscaper and the gardener can provide occupy every bit as much priority in design for me.


In some ways, I guess I’m paranoid about eventually losing integrity of the bases of my constructions more than anything. Add that I have done so many driveways and fire lanes in large commercial projects and you get someone who values stability over just about anything. I suppose it is my own particular training and that experience of watching things over time more than anything that lends to biases towards surfaces. Issues of drainage, compaction, underlying strength are huge for me. But I also enjoy the notion that spills and accidents which regularly occur can be dealt with merely by replacing the bricks themselves instead of reinventing the wheel trying to find matching natural stone pieces, then worrying about their fits when dealing with some fairly obscene accidents and discolorations. In the end, no doubt, I have become a brick guy, with a definite nod towards poured stamped concrete. With all the new patterns, colors and textures, it just seems like the best product.

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I feature this patio below elsewhere and it is otherwise not particularly noteworthy in terms of creativity, but it illustrates well my sense of how I prefer putting them together and my sense, upon leaving, that this place will stay very much the way it began – with ample range for improvement and augmentation around the edges. I really do believe a surface is just the start.


In a patio such as this there was very little sloping tolerance allowing for drainage. It is also plain huge. The homeowner himself installed much of the piping (and we had to make a few “adjustments”) owing to such a small slope. We also figured out the best possible way of dealing with keeping the water from the occasional torrential downpour and Reno’s snowfalls away from the house, away from the pool and devise a way to make all that go away.


We arrived at the “Channel Drain”, coursing across the patio, as the ideal solution. Complexities such as this are why brick pavers are such a delight to work with as well. They lend themselves to such tricks by being segmented and adjustable at the onset. The remainder of the project, on the back sides, could simply be diverted into beds and away from both pool and house.



Nor are bricks the only cement solution. Large slabs can be artfully arranged as well, even split such as the ones below and filled in with Thyme and aromatic herbs whose smells light up when crushed by foot traffic and who don’t even mind.


Who wouldn’t enjoy a foot-massaging surface such as the pathway construction from Portland’s Chinese Garden below? Detailed and fascinating stone – or pebble – work such as this one show what is possible if one has the time and inclination for the installation. I actually did run across a few where homeowners have done something similar to this. They were an entire Summer’s work and they were amazing.


Imagine an entire patio of these:


Small, intimate places beg for sharp-looking and fascinating surfaces. Larger ones tend to relate to a theme which struggles to see the relevance of a surface dominating the view or even the local scenery.

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Since so many of my constructions have tended towards the “large”, I guess it should be understandable I would prefer some heavyweight base for the patio, driveway and sidewalk surfaces to lay on.

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๐Ÿ˜‰ย  Some of these are lots of work, too!

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Like Forrest Gump said. “I’m tired now. I think I’ll quit.”

Making A Somewhat Formal Waterfall



My good and hard-working friend Rick Barrett analyzes his most recent impossible situation, looking for clues. We got a call from a designer in Portland who designed this most interesting water feature from the comfort of her drawing board. While we agreed it would be a beautiful edifice, we also wondered just how we’d pull it off. The notion of hanging the deep black slate, composed of various thicknesses but the same color, off a block cement wall posed some bizarre and – to us – new material. It would have to be cement, owing to the varied thicknesses of the slate. All sort of adhesives could do the job, but the thickness thing hung us up. We needed a material which would allow us some “squeeze room” in order to have the absolutely perfect outer dimensions to align. Anything other than perfection – with water flowing over it – would show up like crazy.ย  And this referred not only to the top lip, where it would be grievous if not straight, but the front and sides as well.

Of course, I neglected to mention that the plan also called for adding real rocks at the front and a corner of both levels of the falls system, making the cement idea even more emphatically needed.

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So we arrived at a conclusion – erect the walls first, then nail burlap to the block walls, which would give the cement something to grab onto. It would also allow us just enough “wiggle room” to align all the slabs of slate so that they matched at every possible angle. Now, inasmuch as we are working with a natural stone product, total perfection would be absurd, layered and split as they are. But I believe Rickย  got very, very close.

He’s a working dude! ๐Ÿ˜‰


I missed many episodes, picture-wise, as the construction proceeded, which I now regret. Often, we were busy elsewhere from the rear of the home, working on the landscaping out front or one the sides, which involved irrigation and the construction of some garden carpentry projects.ย  Rick did almost every bit of the water feature by himself. He also – it bears mentioning – erected the stone walls. I thought his work was masterful and so did the client and even the designer.

The blue tarp, for the record, was not only handy for preventing the brick walls from getting splashed with wet cement or from the splatter from the debris of brick and stone-cutting, but it also doubled as a “rain roof”, keeping the guys and the stuff dry.

Generally speaking, here it is on the day we pretty much left, all done up and proper.


Quite a change from the first shots…………..note the stones – and not only the Basalt Chrystal cemented around using that “exposed aggregate” concrete finish. Note as well the insertion of natural stones by the bottom basin as well, sort of stuck into the patio floor finish. It added a natural touch. The patio is also cantilevered over the water, allowing us to hide the water pump which sits in the bottom basin. There is far more to this project than meets the eye, I guess is what I am saying.


A bit longer view –


Now closer –


With some cool garden carpentry in the form of these trellises.


This was an interesting project, also.

Paver Patio Construction – Before, During and After

In this Reno landscape project, taken in the construction process, here are some shots of a one acre lot, sloping in the front and pretty flat out back. It required that we build walls out front, to make an approach possible from the street and to welcome those who came that way. These guys also had a mass of concrete which was nearly overwhelming in its sun-washed brightness. It is why the addition of brick pavers not only widened the concrete sidewalk but it brought in an earth tone to border on green grass. The many paver pathways, the huge patio out back, the smaller patio in the front and the spa facilities to the East were instrumental in providing interesting surfaces and deciding the planes. (Note: Left click all images to enlarge)


The front yard consisted of a narrow walk which we bordered with bricks. The bricks were tumbled brick pavers, made to look antiqued before entry. It provided a softer touch to the hard surfaces and the hard lines all around the property.


The front walls were extremely fun to make. The material was called Celtic Wall Block, from a manufacturer known as Belgard Pavers. It is a top of the line product, very secure and with a rough-hewn frontal feature which appears stuck there long before now. Really cool wall blocks.

Bear in mind as well that these pictures were all taken just a few months after completion, in its first year, no less. The development of the pants has actually made it something of a jungle by now.



The front yard also needed some “hot” green in the person of lawn grass. The spacing came out fabulous as we got a legitimate lawn in a manageable space. It’s placement guaranteed a bit more moisture in the air and was – as always – pretty cool to walk in. I tried it myself! ๐Ÿ˜‰


It was interesting, finishing. We were able to acquire some great Tanyosho Pines which we used to frame the courtyard opening gate.ย  We also had some fun in the courtyard itself.



Further along, out back, we had a big patio to build with a fire pit and a nearby water feature. An fairly expansive lawn would cover the rest, with beds and planting beyond it.


It was a long process. Or it sure seemed so. But we busted it out anyway. We also added boulders, around which we put our pavers, to break the line a little and to hopefully supply an additional aura ofย  permanence.

I just thought some construction pictures was what this blog needed. And I am way into dust.


The Fire Pit was basic. No gas lines or any artificial source of heat. They were content to burn stuff. So we had to arrange for a nice informal protected pit for fires.


And the rest of the patio stretched on for a while. While this was not an estate job, the impression was what they wanted. The lengths and breadths of some of the walking features were huge. It made for an extremely lush and amiable environment.


We were delighted in how it all came out. Low lines, nothing outrageous, great color. I went a bit nuts on the color. Lots of perennials and roses. We had some fabulous Smoke Trees out front as well.


The water feature was redone later. The splash sound was too intense for conversation. But its size I think fits perfectly. Considering how dusty this place was when we began, there was no feeling bad with the results.


But, what we liked best were the walls.


The walls not only help so much with the grades and retaining them in place, they also are pretty cool just to look at. Attractive and solid, these – once again – were a terrific product.


The pavers circled the home entirely and provided planting pockets galore. This view is to the East from the front gate at the entry. The rock mulching is from gathered stones during the construction. Lord knows there were enough of them, ha ha.


Waterfall, Creek, Pathway and Landscape Construction

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This is the front yard of the project in question. Those exceptionally healthy-looking Ponderosa Pines tell us we are quite a bit above Reno, Nevada. In fact, it is well on the route to Lake Tahoe via the highway which tops the hill about 15 miles later at 9,900 feet above sea level.

This clients were an older couple who were based both in San Diego and Reno. The man of the house had an extremely active interest in the landscape. He also had his “wish list” of items – he wanted a nice, roaring water feature off his back deck, a walkway bisecting the back yard with turnabouts/patios at each end and – he was adamant – a vineyard. He also wanted a gas-fed fire pit in one of the patios. The goal was to “complete” the total yard. Our interest therefore was pretty much completely out back where he often entertained and sat and considered ponderous thoughts like “Will Steve drink another wine?” ๐Ÿ˜‰ย  Great guy, generous but really involved. Anyway, so we went to work. We paved our way to the back yard with an access road and carried all you see 100′ to the “back 20”.

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Pictures of this project pick up from the point of construction of the waterfall set at the back of his thin but 150 feet wide back yard. The falls sets up the running water in the creek and it is a rambunctious one, running a good rate of water with some serious sound qualities. From the raised deck above, I rate the sound factor as a home run. It is throaty and deep, but not overwhelming so no one has to raise a voice to be heard. I sort of regret not taking earlier pictures, but it should be fairly obvious that we did our typical build. Liner underneath and rocks placed to give as naturalistic a picture as possible. I also wanted the river course itself to be deep, so I excavated more than usual. I was interested in hiding underwater lighting under the water at various points and the raised level of observation would compromise that. It made for an interesting depth which somehow seemed more real than many others, as if formed from a true chasm.

Work also proceeded at other locations while we constructed the falls and creek.

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As is obvious, it began getting cold. We were on the verge of Winter when we got underway and it did not disappoint. Just the same, planting in these conditions is still fine. At the very end is our “vineyard”. It also shows an antique wagon tucked in behind that we picked up at some second hand dealer and carted back to the job site on a trailer. It was pricey but it was effective. It gave an Old West sort of ambiance to the overall project which we later exploited with a wagon wheel or two in the landscape. The grape plants, by the way, grew from the day we put them in. Grapes really do have a remarkable growth rate when happy and – the fact is – they get happy in some pretty bad soils. Grapes are a landscaper’s friend, in my opinion. That is a reliable plant. These were green grapes, climatically suited for the Reno alkaline soils as well as the hard-freezing climate conditions. They simply thrived here. There was a monster crop at the end of the first year.

Here’s a late season look at the vineyard and the wagon on a dark November day as we hustle to try and get the stamped concrete walk in place. The flags and paint represent the excavations to come.

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We begin excavating and calling for cement. It takes a couple of days to get everything set up just right. The excavated material, by the way, will be used to set a bearm to the creekward side of the walkway-to-be.

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We got blessed by great and surprising amounts of sunshine for the period of the project and there were smiles all around. I remember worrying about some weather front which missed us. The set up took an extra day. There’s more work here than it appears! ๐Ÿ™‚

Finally, we got it poured and our walkway was now completed.

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We re-graded and smoothed out the bearms and planted some more plants, but we basically took off for the Winter after most of this. The next time we came back was about 3 months later.

Here’s a shot of one of the wagon wheels along with a wide angle look at the creek and the final basin (where the pump is) itself:

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However, we did get a marvelously sunny day to get some pics before leaving.

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When Spring rolled around, we were suddenly able to finish things. We had grass to lay, mulch to put in, more lighting to tweak, fertilizing on the mind, salvaging a couple of Winter-damaged plants – the usual Springtime stuff. We put in the grass in short order:

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Things were very much taking shape now. We were on a definite finishing roll.

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My buddy and work mate Raoul and I stand somewhat triumphantly over our “slain dragon”. This is the finished look at the source of the creek and the noise.

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Another shot and one I feature in this blog a few other places. It’s a particular favorite because I think it reflects my sensibility about the “depth issue” of the creek as a slow moving but still-substantial artifice, as natural as we could make it. Yup, that is another wagon wheel!

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A look at the Main Patio, at the opposite end of the property from the vineyard and wagon. This one has that gas-fed fire pit in the center, yet still has room for tables and chairs. Yes, I had some fun with the boulders, as usual. The “cut” between the boulders in the distance essentially drains the property in the event of overdoes of precipitation. It has a small rock creek dry bed of some real gorgeous river rocks. Plus, it works!

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This was a design and build home run, one of my favorite ever projects. Not only were the people great but they allowed some license and were proud of the overall accomplishment. They also had a stash of incredibly good wine. Oh wait – I said that.

Anyway, here’s what it looked like in Autumn – and, yes, we did plant for it. Thise spectacular maples are by design. Down at the end are the grapes after one year. What’d I tell you? ๐Ÿ˜‰

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