Arbors flanking an entry walkway bring some vertical features to an otherwise plain yard and give you a handsome place to hang potted plants. And a trellis covered with vines is especially effective for enlivening a drab wall, in this case, alongside a garage. The features take a weekend to build. Learn how to build them by reading “Entry Arbors and Trellis” below.
If you're stuck with a perfectly flat yard, a mounded “island” of earth is a great place to isolate and display plantings, yard ornaments, boulders or other eye-catching features. A yard with contours looks more natural than a flat yard. Order a dump truck's worth of topsoil, or use fill generated from patio or pond excavations.
Boulders are eye-catching and are natural locations for grasses, flowers and other garden plants. You'll find huge piles of boulders to pick through anywhere that sells landscaping supplies. Prices vary with size, less for breadbox- size ones and more for giant boulders that you'll have to have delivered and placed. Whatever sizes you choose, nest the boulders into the ground a bit. They should look like they were left from a receding glacier—not like they were just rolled off the back of a pickup!
Unless you're a seasoned gardener, get help with selecting and placing plants. Bring photos or a scale drawing of planting areas to the nursery and enlist the help of a knowledgeable salesperson. Your goals are to choose a variety of plants that lend color throughout the season (including winter), and to position them well, so their mature growth heights and widths fill in the planting beds and blend well.
Low stone walls are striking features that can define your entry and guide visitors up the walk. Natural stone is ideal but difficult to set. The decorative concrete units shown here are relatively inexpensive and easy to install. They subtly separate seating areas from public sidewalks and streets. And they're also great places for casual seating and potted plants. See “Stone Wall,” below, to see how to build one yourself.
Giving your yard's front entry area a face-lift will make it more inviting when you come home and add value when it comes time to sell your home. Upgrades don't have to cost thousands of dollars or make you a yard-maintenance slave. In this special section, we'll show you low-cost improvements that you can do yourself. The photos here show six strategies we used to dress up this drab-looking new home. Then below we'll show you how to do two of these projects: the simple entry trellis/ arbor system and the stone walls.
Hire a Design Service
Many homes, including the one we show here, are nice enough, but they don't look very inviting. If you're not sure how to improve the entry, don't be shy about getting professional help with designing your overall yard plan. Many nurseries and landscape suppliers offer design services. Our plan recommended specific plants and showed where to plant them. Many companies will subtract your design fee from future purchases, so the design work may not cost anything.
Note: You can download the Site Plan and enlarge it in the Addendum below.
You don't have to hire an architect to redesign your front entry to make it attractive and inviting. Sometimes a simple, inexpensive arbor or trellis will do the trick. This home featured a pretty brick facing . . . flanked by a big blank vinyl-sided wall that begged for screening. Our solution was to hide it behind a simple trellis. An even simpler version of the same design is used to frame an arbor that borders the sidewalk on both sides. This feature not only beautifies the entry but also guides guests to the front door.
In this article, we'll show you a simple technique that'll allow you to build both projects. Photos 1 – 7 demonstrate the building of the open-sided arbors. Photos 8 – 10 show how to assemble the trellis. This truly is a relaxed weekend project. You just need to be able to dig a few holes and operate a circular saw and a screw gun. You cut and assemble everything in place, so it's easy to measure and cut the pieces to fit as you go. Both the trellis and the arbors are 6-ft.-wide, 8-ft.-tall.
2x4 and 2x6 “sandwich” posts simplify assembly
The bottom portions of the posts are made from three treated 2x4s to keep the dirt-bound parts from rotting. The center 2x4 is continuous to keep the posts strong, but we cut the outside 2x4s off just above grade so we could transition to better- looking cedar. We chose cedar for its natural rot resistance, its ability to hold paint and its stability. If cedar isn't available in your area, use any naturally rot-resistant wood that's available for the above-grade wood. Redwood and cypress are excellent substitutes. If you want to save, you could even use common construction-grade lumber. If you paint all sides and the cut ends before assembly, the project will last for years. Or build it entirely with treated wood. But keep in mind that treated wood is often of low quality and has a tendency to warp, twist and crack. It may not be as handsome down the road as other choices. And you also may have to wait weeks for the treated wood to dry well enough to hold paint.
Figure A: Trellis/Arbor Details
There's nothing magical about the heights or widths of the trellis or the arbors. Alter the trellis dimensions to fit whatever it is you want to screen or size the arbors to border your own sidewalks. But if you build a trellis or an arbor that's wider than 6 ft. (our width), add posts in the middle. If you want to walk under the arbor, be sure to make the 2x8 lintel high enough after allowing for ground coverings (80 in. minimum is a good rule of thumb).
Note: You can download Figure A and enlarge it in the Addendum below.
First, build a template and dig the postholes. A 2x4 template makes quick work of marking accurate post positions and of setting the posts (Photo 1). Decide on the best footprint for the arbors and make the template dimensions to match the corners of the posts. Be sure to square up your template by matching diagonal measurements (distances between opposite corners should be the same) and then add a brace to keep it square. Use screws for fasteners so you can take the template apart easily after you're through setting the posts.
Drive stakes into the ground at the corners to mark the holes and then set aside the template. Dig 8-in.-wide holes about 3 ft. deep and pack the bottom of each hole with a shovel handle so the posts won't settle later. After the holes are dug, return the template to the same spot for setting the posts.
Now build and set the treated posts.
The template helps keep the posts plumb and aligned. Push the preassembled posts against the template and plumb each post in both directions. Toe-screw each one to the template to hold it plumb while you fill in the hole with soil (Photo 3). If the template moves around too much, just anchor it to the ground with a few temporary stakes.
Use a single 2x4 for a template when you're setting the two posts for the trellis. Make sure the posts lie flat against the 2x4 to ensure that the post sides remain aligned. After plumbing each post with a level, add fill, packing it as you go. Fill the top 8 in. with concrete. If you're going to quit for the day, mix the concrete now and collar each post with a half bag (60-lb. bags). Otherwise, go on to the next step, adding the cedar trim, and add the concrete later.
Start by cutting the short treated 2x4s off a couple of inches above the final grade (Photo 4). Be sure to account for the finished height, including sod, pavers or mulch. The idea is to keep the cedar above the ground to prevent rot.
Cut the 2x8 lintels to length and cut the decorative angles on the ends (Figure A). Support one of the leveled 2x8 lintels on temporary blocks at the desired height to mark the top of the center 2x4 for trimming (Photo 5). Before you take the 2x8 down, use a level and a long straightedge to transfer the post height to the posts on the opposite arbor. That way the arbor tops will match.
Installing the cedar cladding is simple; it's just a matter of measuring, cutting and screwing the parts together. Photos 6 and 7 show you how.
Tip: You'll save tons of time by painting or sealing the cedar parts before assembly. You'll still have freshly cut ends to touch up, but that only takes moments.
We designed the trellis grid work with close spacing to support climbing plants. You can make your grid work with larger spaces, or tighter if the trellis alone will be the screen, without vines. We fastened the grid work high enough above the patio to allow space for a planter box below. If you're building the grid work to look like ours, get five cedar 2x4 “rungs” (horizontal members; Figure A) long enough to span between posts. Also pick up three 8-ft.-long 2x2 pickets (verticals) for each foot of width, or rip them from 2x4s. Assemble the trellis exactly the same as the arbor, except leave off the 2x4 post trim on the inside of the posts as well as the outside 2x6 (Photo 9). Cut the horizontal rungs to fit between the posts and work out your picket spacing on one of them. This takes a bit of figuring; allow for the thickness of the inside 2x4 trim and try for even spacing. Or simply position a picket in the center and work out in both directions. Once you have the right pattern, transfer the layout to all of the horizontal rungs (Photo 8).
Photo 9 and Figure A show you the correct assembly order and the spacing we used for the rungs and pickets. Start with the bottom 2x4 blocks, screw a rung to the tops, then another block, another rung and so on. Cut 45-degree angles on the picket ends for a more decorative look if you choose. Tack up a temporary guide board parallel to the lintel to help align the pickets as you nail.
If you're building a trellis next to a wall as we did, you may not be able to fit a screw gun between the wall and the trellis to drive the screws. If so, just toe-screw those parts from the front.
Building a low stone wall is a simple project that will have a big impact on the front of your house. It's a welcoming portal drawing guests to your front door, and it can complement other yard features like patios, walks, flower beds and arbors as well. But natural stone walls are expensive, and the stones' irregular shapes and sizes make them tricky to lay up. In the last few years, new, natural-looking concrete modular blocks have become available at landscaping centers. These modular wall blocks offer significant cost savings and simple installation techniques.
In this article, we'll show you how to assemble one of these systems from start to finish. We'll include the critical base setting details that ensure stability and longevity. And we'll also show you how to cap a wall with handsome natural stone.
You won't need any expensive tools for this project, just standard digging tools, a sturdy wheelbarrow, a 4-ft. level for establishing a level footing, and a 2-ft. level for setting the blocks. It's also handy to have a 3-lb. hand maul or sledgehammer for fine-tuning block positions and a hand tamper to compact the gravel base (Photo 3). If you have overlying sod, it's worth renting a sod cutter. To trim the natural stone top cap to fit, buy a diamond circular saw blade.
Choose a compactable footing material
Measure the desired length of your wall and take that figure to the landscape supplier. The staff will help you calculate how many blocks you need for the style you select.
Order the gravel footing material at the same time so you can have it delivered with the wall blocks. Your choice will depend on what's offered at the landscape center. The key is to select a granular material that's easy to shovel and level and that will compact when you tamp it. We used “Class II” (as in “2”) fill, a coarsely ground limestone combined with finer granules. It's a great footing because it packs and drains well and is easy to level. With moisture and compaction, it forms a semi-solid footing. If Class II isn't available in your area, you can use any type of 1/2- to 3/4-in. crushed gravel. But avoid rounded stone; it won't compact. The landscape center staff will advise you on the best available material.
Figure the footing volume by multiplying 1.6 ft. (trench width) by .66 ft. (8 in.; the depth) by the length of the trench. That'll give you the volume in cubic feet. Divide that by 27 to get the quantity, in cubic yards, that you'll need to order.
First, lay out the footings and dig the trench. Straight walls are easy to lay out; just use marking paint to outline a trench 6 in. wider than the width of the blocks. But if you're planning on a curved wall like ours, first lay a row of blocks on the ground and adjust the pieces until you get the even, gradual curve that you want. Then use marking paint to mark the trench outline 6 in. on both sides of the blocks (Photo 1). Remove the overlying sod and dig the trench to a depth that'll allow for 8 in. of gravel plus one-third the thickness of the first row of block. Our blocks were 6 in. high, so we dug down 10 in. Setting the first row of blocks slightly below the ground looks best and locks the wall into place. As you dig, check the bottom of the trench with a 4-ft. level to keep a reasonably consistent, level grade. The gravel will take care of minor variations. If your yard has a slope, begin your trench at the low end. (For steeper slopes, see “Building on slopes” below.)
Ideally, this depth will get you through the topsoil and into solid subsoil (clay, sand or a mixture). Topsoil can settle and cause the wall to sag or lean over time. So if digging a few extra inches gets you down to subsoil, it's worth the trouble. Pack any disturbed soil at the bottom of the trench with a hand compactor before you pour in the footing material.
It looks best to match the horizontal joint lines with the lines on nearby walls. Our two walls flank a sidewalk, so we leveled across from the lowest block on the first wall to position the second wall (Photo 2).Add the block and footing footing thicknesses to establish the bottom of the trench. Use the same technique later when you're packing in the footing material so the first row of blocks will match the other wall.
Building on Slopes
If your yard slopes less than about 6 in. or so over the length of the wall, dig your footing down to the proper depth at the lowest part of the wall and level the whole trench bottom from that point. At the high end of the slope, the first row of the stones will be nearly buried. But if your yard slopes more, you'll have to “step” the footings. The manufacturer's instructions will help with the details.
A level, compacted base will keep the wall true. If you're using crushed gravel as your footing, just pour it in, level it, pack it and start the wall. But if the footing material contains clay or is crushed limestone like ours, add the footing in two 4-in.-deep &ldquolifts” (layers). Roughly rake the first lift flat and then mist it with a garden sprayer and compact it with the hand tamper. Dampening the footing makes the material compact easier and better. Overlap each tamper footprint, working your way from one end of the trench to the other. For extra insurance against settling, tamp it twice.
Use more care when you're leveling the second layer. Rake it flat and use a level to fine-tune the grade before tamping. Use a shorter level to make sure the footing is level across the width as well so the wall won't lean. Strive for a grade that varies no more than 1/8 in.
The first row of blocks is critical to your wall's appearance. It defines all of the overlying rows. Small variations will create gaps and cause the wall to lean, so take your time. Start your wall at ends that abut other walls or sidewalks. Alternate block sizes for variety. Be patient and level each block perfectly both ways before you set the next one (Photo 4). Light taps from a sledgehammer will nest blocks into the footing slightly to help with the leveling. Be careful—pound too hard and you could crack the block. If a block is too high to level by tapping, remove the block and scrape away some of the gravel. If a block is too low, sprinkle in more footing material, retamp it and try again.
The next rows go on fast. In fact, building the rest of the wall will usually take less time than setting the base course. With each row, dry-lay the blocks with pins (no adhesive), choosing widths so the blocks straddle (offset) the seams below. This takes a bit of picking and choosing and switching sizes. You also want to get a good random mix of colors. The instructions will tell you how many pins are needed and where they should be placed. There may be concrete “crumbs” plugging some of the holes. Just scrape those away with a screwdriver.
When you're satisfied with the look, remove the blocks one at a time, add a few beads of adhesive and set the block back into place. Keep the adhesive away from the edges, where it could ooze out and be visible. Use tubes of polyurethane adhesive for dry blocks (or the adhesive recommended by the manufacturer). If blocks are damp, use a liquid polyurethane glue, which stick and cure on damp surfaces.
Simply follow the manufacturer's directions if you're capping the wall with modular units. Usually that's just a matter of fitting and gluing down the cap blocks without pins. But fitting natural stones calls for cutting as well, especially on a curved wall. The trick for nice tight joints is to set the stones into place and scribe the cutting lines (Photo 7).
Start by laying the first stone into place, scribing and cutting an angle on the end if it's needed where the wall abuts an existing wall or column.
Cutting stone is easier than it sounds. A diamond blade in a circular saw does the trick. Just follow the line with the blade, just as if you were cutting wood. The stone we used was soft enough to cut in one pass with the blade all the way down. But harder stones may need several passes: a shallow cut first and then deeper cuts. It works great to rest the stone right on the grass while you cut. It's a dusty, noisy process, so wear a dust mask, safety glasses and hearing protection. Reduce dust by having a helper aim a thin stream of water from a garden sprayer into the part of the blade that generates the most dust (Photo 7).
Center the second capstone on the wall and butt it against the first. Center a straightedge over the joint and draw cutting lines on each stone. Adjust the lines if necessary to minimize stone waste. After cutting, set the stones into place and add the next stone, draw lines, cut and so on. You can cheat the stones around a bit to close up small gaps, but not too much. Otherwise variations in the overhangs will start to be obvious.
Choosing Modular Block
Realistic cast wall materials rival natural stone in looks, but not, fortunately, in cost (or in tricky fitting techniques!). In fact, a modular block wall costs less than half as much as a natural stone wall. Manufacturers mimic the natural appearance of stone by varying the sizes, colors and textures of each block. You mix up the blocks while assembling the wall to better mimic the random sizes of natural stone.
Most systems offer blocks that are finished on all four sides. You'll need them for corners, especially if you build columns at the wall ends. Be sure to include capstone for the top of your wall. Most manufacturers offer thinner cast versions of the blocks for this. Instead, we decided to use natural Indiana limestone instead and cut it to fit to add to the natural appearance of the wall (Photo 7). The cost of a natural top cap can rival the cost of the block wall itself!
- Professional site plan
- Figure A: Trellis/arbor details
- Figure B: Stone wall details
- Arbor/ trellis materials list