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Landscaping: Tips for Your Backyard

Adding walls and paths to your landscape transforms it into something truly special. Here's a collection of pro building tricks for easier, faster and better path and wall construction.

FH071111_001_BYDLTT_01-5Family Handyman
Building brick paths and stone walls creates a magical landscape. It's also hard work. These tips will help you work smarter and faster and they'll help ensure that your paths and walls look as good in 20 years as they do the day you finish.

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Snap lines on the sand

Use a standard chalk line reel

You can stretch a string between stakes to create a layout line for setting bricks, but simply snapping a chalk line in the sand is quicker, plus you don’t have a string in the way. With layout lines snapped on the sand, laying bricks is faster and easier. The chalk won’t stick to dry sand, so you may have to mist the sand with water before snapping lines. Then snap layout lines directly on the sand using a standard carpenter’s chalk line reel.

Save your back

Use heavy-duty dollies

Heavy-duty two-wheel dollies ($40 and up) work great for moving flat stones and piles of brick. Special dollies called ball carts have a curved back to fit the root ball of a tree. These are available at some rental centers (about $24 per day) and are perfect for moving boulders.

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Roll heaviest stones over PVC pipe

Move really heavy stones by rolling them over lengths of PVC pipe. A lot like the ancient Egyptians did.

Cover your grass

Protect grass with plywood

Bricks and stone really tear up grass. If you’re not careful, you’ll have to lay new sod. Plywood keeps shards and soil from mingling with grass and makes it easy to clean up with a shovel. You can also prevent wheelbarrow ruts by covering the route with strips of plywood. Plus: Check out 11 of our favorite front yard landscaping ideas.

Keep sand in the cracks

Keep sand in the cracks

Dry sand tends to get washed away or swept out of paver brick and stone patio joints. One solution is to use special polymeric sand that binds together when wetted. You can buy the polymeric additive and mix it with dry sand yourself, or you can buy premixed bags of sand. Premixed sand is the most convenient solution. A bag ($24) covers about 120 sq. ft. on paver bricks. Check with landscape suppliers and home centers. Make sure there is no sand on the surface of the brick or stone before you wet it.

Apply a stabilizing sealant

Another option is to apply a stabilizing sealant after you finish the walk or patio. The sealant soaks into the sand and glues the grains together. Sealing a patio helps prevent staining from spilled red wine or greasy meat. One brand is TechniSeal Stabilizing Sealant for Pavers and Sand Joints ($47 per gallon). Visit techniseal.com for help finding a local dealer. Follow the recommended coverage instructions carefully.

Keep the dust down

Spray water while cutting materials

Spray water on the diamond blade when you’re cutting concrete, bricks or blocks. The small, controllable stream from a garden sprayer works best. The water also cools the blade and speeds the cutting process. Make sure the saw is double insulated or has a grounded plug and is plugged into a working GFCI outlet or GFCI-protected cord.

Save your fingertips

Wrap your fingers with athletic tape

Handling brick or stone all day can scrape the skin off your fingertips, even to the point of bleeding. Gloves are OK, but they limit dexterity and wear out quickly. Here’s a tip from our favorite landscape consultant. When you’re laying bricks, pick up a roll of 1-1/2-in.-wide athletic tape at the drugstore and put a few wraps of it around each of your fingers. You can still get a good grip on the bricks and your fingers won’t be raw at the end of the day.

Skip the mortar

Use polyurethane adhesive instead

Mortar is traditionally used to secure the top courses of stone on a wall. But polyurethane adhesive does the same thing without the hard work and mess of mixing mortar or the skill needed to trowel it on. Also, polyurethane stays flexible, so it doesn’t crack and fall out like mortar does. Combine stone chips with the adhesive to shim stones to keep them steady until the adhesive cures. Polyurethane adhesive is available at home centers and is at least as strong as dedicated landscape adhesives.

Pack the gravel in layers

Compact each layer as you go

Depending on the type of soil, most paths, patios and walls require an 8- to 12-in.- deep compacted base of gravel. But if you just dump 8 in. of gravel into a trench and run a plate compactor over it, only the top few inches will be fully compacted. The uncompacted gravel will settle later, creating waves in the wall or path. For a fully compacted base that won’t settle, add the gravel in 2- or 3-in.-deep layers, and run the plate compactor over each layer before adding the next one.

Build in drainage for long-lasting walls

Lay perforated drainage tubing at base

Water-soaked soil is the worst enemy of retaining walls because it exerts enormous pressure behind the wall. Adding good drainage behind block or stone walls is crucial for long-lasting, bulge-free walls. Start by laying perforated plastic drainage tubing along the base of the wall slightly above ground level so it can drain to daylight. Slope the tubing about 1/4 in. per foot.

Add outlets at 16-ft. intervals

Then add outlets at about 16-ft. intervals. Cover the tubing with crushed stone. Then continue filling behind the wall with crushed stone as you build it.