Here’s how to tackle this common landscaping challenge.
Ellen Ruoff Riley

It's a no-man's-land most of the time, the narrow alley that stretches between a house and the side property line. Tommy and Michael Porter, with Porter Bros. in Birmingham, took on the challenge and turned this area into a functional, attractive part of the home. Adapt their design ideas to your own space, and enjoy the results.

The Problem
While mature crepe myrtles add magnificent structure down the fence line, their expanding roots made an old rock pathway unstable. The area’s usefulness was diminished and clearly visible from indoors. “Glass doors open from the dining room and the kitchen has solid-pane windows, so everything in that area is right in front of you,” Tommy says.

Fixing It
Fortunately, the crepe myrtles were healthy and a fabulous Japanese maple anchored the garden’s long end. Tommy and Michael made the area usable and beautiful, from both inside and out.

1. The design: They replaced the rocky walkway with a mosaic path. “I wanted the new path’s design to mirror mosaic patterns I saw when traveling abroad. It needed to be simple and sophisticated in layout and slightly aged in texture,” Tommy says. While the stonework process is not difficult, it is time consuming. (Along with instructions, you can see step-by-step photos on our Web site.) “If we hadn’t done the walkway like this, we could have reset the old stone or carpeted the area with mondo grass,” Michael adds.

 

 

2. Creating good views: The original small garden at the path’s end grew by 3 feet. “We raised it to make the textures of the shade plants more visible. We repeated the rock from other areas of the yard in the wall for continuity,” Tommy says. The path also widens at this end to accommodate a seating area and to create a stopping point for the eye.

3. Accessorize: Two red Adirondack chairs frame the area and anchor the garden’s end. “Red is considered a warm color, but in the shade it also works well to anchor the area with a vivid accent,” Michael explains.

 

Tommy and Michael Porter suggest learning the mosaic process with a small project. Perfect the technique, and then think big. You can find most materials at a large garden center.

Materials

  • Lumber for the framework ( the Porters used 1 x 4s.)
  •  construction-grade sand
  • 1 x 8 board for leveling
  •  foundation gravel
  •  ground tamper
  • gloves
  • lightweight mortar mix
  • decorative river rocks (available in large bags)
  • Mexican beach pebbles (purchase in bulk)
  • soft bristle brush
  • rubber mallet
  • hose with adjustable spray nozzle

 

 

1. Build the boundaries of your pathway. Here, 1 x 4 boards make the framework. Fill the area with construction-grade sand, and level it with a 1 x 8 board. Then, cover the surface with foundation gravel to a depth of at least 1 inch.

2. Tamp the gravel into the sand with a ground tamper to make a firm foundation.

3. Wearing gloves, spread mortar mix into the area, making it level with the border’s framework. Michael suggests working in small sections.

4. Set river rocks and beach pebbles into the dry mortar mix, in a pattern if you like.

5. Use a soft bristle brush to work the mortar into spaces between the stones.

6. Place the 1 x 8 board over the freshly placed rocks and gently tamp it with a rubber mallet. “This levels the pathway and prevents pockets that could collect moisture,” Tommy says.

7. Use the “mist” setting on the hose nozzle, and wet the mortar. “This is the most important part,” Tommy says. “Wet the mortar’s surface and let it sit for a moment. Then, wet it again, and then again until it’s thoroughly saturated.” Mortar hardens, or cures, over several days. “The key to the mortar’s stability is moisture,” Michael says. “Wet the path at least twice a day, or cover it with plastic to keep it damp for several days.” Once uncovered, allow it to dry for several more days before walking on it.
For added strength, protect the mortar with a concrete sealer. Choose the patina you like and apply it according to directions.

"Make the Most of a Tight Spot" is from the May 2008 issue of Southern Living.