Natural stone paths look good in almost any landscape. They never go out of style like so many man-made paver materials. Like most things made of stone, they will stand the test of time if they’re built carefully. Stone construction is one of the most satisfying home improvement projects you can do, for that exact reason. Stonemasons are generally a happy and satisfied group, because they build things that last and no two projects are exactly alike.
We often see stone paving and stepping stones that have sunk into the ground, sometimes so much that they become buried. Settling can make the stones uneven and hazardous to walk on, and can cause dirt and grass clippings to pile up on them. Another common problem with stepping stones is that they aren’t hard enough; the wrong type of rock was used. Stones that are laid on the ground will absorb water if they’re too porous, so winter freeze-thaw will crumble them to bits eventually.
Home handymen can build with stone, however there are some common pitfalls to avoid. Backaches, crushed fingers and even hernias are a real hazard, so you need to be aware of your own limitations. Having a helper is a good idea, but handling stones is a bit like dancing; your partner must work closely with you or there can be bumps and bruises, or worse injuries if you’re not extremely careful. Respect rocks. They can hurt you badly in a careless moment.
Here’s how to build stepping stone paths that last. First, select dense, hard rock like ledge limestone or granite, at least three inches thick. Porous stones like “creek rock” or “fossil rock” absorb moisture and then crumble over time, as they freeze and thaw repeatedly.
Dig a trench an inch or two deeper than the thickness of the thickest stone, wide enough for the widest stones you have. Spread an inch or two of one-inch “crusher run” limestone in the trench, and pack it with a tamper until it’s solid. This is called a “footer”. Add an inch or so of pea gravel (tiny round river pebbles) on top of the compacted limestone, and then lay the stones out on the pea gravel. Space them for a normal stride, so that an average person can walk on them comfortably.
Now heap pea gravel all around each stone. Using a level, raise or lower each stone so it’s level across the top and level with the stones next to it, working pea gravel up under the stone on all sides with a shovel. Wiggle and twist the stone to “settle” it so it won’t “see-saw” or rock no matter where you step on it. Once you’re done this step, walk on the path in both directions to check the spacing and make sure the stones don’t move, and that there are no tripping hazards. Using a rake, pull the extra pea gravel up around each stone so that there are no gaps under the stones.
If your stone path is across lawn, take special care to make the top surface of each stone level with the ground around it. This way you can mow over the finished path easily, and it won’t matter if grass grows between the stones.
If your path is across landscape beds, you might want to set the stones higher than the surrounding ground, so that you can mulch around them a few inches thick. Wash the stones thoroughly so that any dirt or weed seeds clinging to them won’t wind up on top of your clean, sterile mulch. Carefully stuff mulch between the stones, and then spread mulch flush with the top of your path. Brush or blow off any mulch that gets on top of the stones.
Now, stand back and admire your work. It’s safe and solid, on a compacted footer that won’t allow it to sink. Because your stepping stones are set on a bed of pea gravel, will always be easy to level up and adjust any stone that settles or moves out of place. You’ve made a permanent improvement path that will last for generations.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.