When you live on the side of a hill like I do, everything is either up or down. There’s almost no flat, straight way to get anywhere. When we first moved here, the entire site was denuded of nearly all low-growing vegetation and the earth was eroding and sliding down the hill with each rain. As we developed the gardens around the house, it became obvious that we were going to need some stairs to make getting up and down a little less treacherous. Six years later, we have four nifty sets of stairs entering and leaving our garden space. If you have ever wanted to try your hand at building stairs but were worried about the outcome, I’m here to tell you it’s lots of hard work, but also much easier than you might think.
The first set of stairs I worked on were actually already built and made of concrete. The problem with these stairs was that the flanking stones were poorly laid and made up of a jumble of rocks that not only inappropriate in size and shape, but were quite literally rolling all over the place and doing nothing to hold the sides of the stairs in place.
Just to clarify; I use the words ‘flanking stones’ to describe the those objects that support and protect the sides of outdoor stairs from erosion. I cam up with the term for lack of a better descriptive, but I’m sure there’s a stonemason out there who knows the proper terminology…
In addition to looking horrible and being a tripping hazard, the lack of solid flanking stones allowed runoff to wash dirt and gravel all over the steps and the landing below them. We planned on having our garden on the flat terrain above these stairs, so the last thing we wanted was all of our ‘good dirt’ to wash away in a heavy downpour. Besides, the whole thing was just ugly and did nothing if not create a million hidey holes for copperheads.
As you can see in the photo above, the front half of our elevated garden space is held up by a rock wall about 3’ tall. These stairs are in the very front of the house and break the length of the wall almost in half, so it was important that they looked nice and functioned well. With the actual stairs already in place, all I had to do was rebuild the flanking stones. I started the project by building up the crown of the wall on either side so that it rose above grade. I then tore out the existing jumble of rocks and replaced them with naturally flat chunks of limestone gathered on the property (there is no shortage of stone in the Ozarks!). I used these rocks to rebuild the sides of the stairs to match the new height of the wall.
The trick to dry-stacking flanking stones that are strong and durable is to start at the bottom and stair-step your way up to the top. Choose stones carefully, testing them out to see how they balance on top of the course below. Try out several stones until you find the one that fits perfectly. It’s also important that as you add layers to the course, every stone should overlap the joint where two stones come together on the lower course. Think bricks in a wall. If you don’t stagger the stones, the wall will be weak.
As you work, use the stairs themselves as your guideline. I like for the stones used in the very top row to be nice and flat on top. This gives a finished look to the staircase. I also want the final layer to rise above or stand proud of the nearest step by at least several inches. Doing so defines each step clearly, so the user isn’t tempted to step on the flanking stones instead of the stair tread.
This was a great project to start on because I learned a lot about flanking stones, why they are needed, and how to lay them down dry-stacked so they don’t slip or slide. If you don’t have flanking stones built into your stairs, the first heavy rain will not only wash out the soil from above, but can undermine the steps over time. Plus, flanking stones take stairs like these from seriously ugly to something quite lovely with just a little effort.
As you can see, the stairs still go downhill but the earth around them doesn’t. The stairs are clean, functional, and beautiful. Now, instead of being dangerous, dirty, and snake-ridden, they are the purrrfect place to kick back and enjoy the garden.
© 2016 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
Show Me Oz | Living and loving life in the Ozarks!
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Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.
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