DIY project gone awry

freebieMarch 26, 2011

As you can see by the picture, I am not very good at landscaping. I have been working on building this retaining wall with a flowing rock stairway. It was supposed to look as if a river of rocks was cascading down the slope providing a stair way to the top. Instead I have almost dug a trench through the slope. I have been working on it for a couple of years, but am determined to get it done this year. If someone can please advise me on how to build the stairs using the rocks (I really don't want to use cement). I virtually have tons of rocks at my disposal.

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Take your cue from nature. What do you see in a natural creek that "steps down"? You see bigger rocks that have caught the smaller rocks and other material behind them.

What do you see on stable creek banks? If the stream is steep, it will also be larger rocks. Inexperienced people often do not think about how to handle the sides of stairways.The steeper the slope, the bigger the issue

I'd siggest getting at least a minimal separation between your steps and the timber wall so that you can buffer it with at least some vegetation. It needs a disconnect.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2011 at 7:52AM
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I like the stone retaining wall at the top (if that's what it is), but I can't seem to get my head around this "stairway." Is this some exercise in postmodern sculpture, intended only for contemplation? You wouldn't actually try to walk on this, would you? Is it contemplated that the "stairway" would extend past the course of stone at the top to the area near the fence? Makes my ankles hurt to think about it. If it's all just for show, I don't see the problem with simply connecting the lines of rock. That would give you a better "cascading" effect than terracing. It would strike me as somewhat artless, but I know I'm slow.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2011 at 10:17PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

It would seem the roundness of the stones is an issue. Have you ever tried to make a pile of marbles?

As an avid hiker, I can tell you my least favorite trails are loaded with cobbles. Best: soft duff from naturally fallen tree debris, or granite stairways.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2011 at 11:01PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I agree you have either the wrong rocks for the design you have in mind, or the wrong design for the rocks you are determined to use. One of those elements needs to change.

For contrast, I'm posting a picture of a short rock stairway we built in our yard. If you compare the two it may help you figure out what is missing in your case. It also illustrates what Laag is saying about having to retain the sidewalls of the stairway.

Basically, you need a structure to hold those rocks if you are determined to use them, but frankly, I wouldn't. Those rocks are just not stairway rocks.

I do hear what you're saying in that you want something that looks like a dry creekbed. This is all well and good, but perhaps you should let go of the wish to use the dry creekbed as a stairway. Instead, consider getting different rocks, or using wood perhaps, to build a stairway or stepping stones separately, beside the creekbed.

Alternatively, as Laag suggests, get some bigger, squarer rocks to form the step front edges, and fill in behind with the river rock. But overall, that rock and "stairway" simply do not compute, nor does "flowing rock stairway" as a concept. Perhaps you've seen it done somewhere with less of a slope, or with more variety in rock size.

Concrete won't actually help you here unless you build a form for concrete steps, but then you have concrete steps.


    Bookmark   March 27, 2011 at 2:13PM
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As you can see by KarinL's picture, the round rocks you have are not particularly suited to building a staircase. If you're determined to use those rocks, you should look into a gabion system. It won't be particularly flowing though but will make use of those rocks. I'm linking to a picture of the most 'flowing' use of gabion boxes for a stair I could find.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   March 28, 2011 at 4:01PM
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That is a good suggestion tanowicki but it would look nasty in a residential situation which I think your caution attests to. Instead of using a cage to contain those pebbles do you think it would work if they were stuck on to concrete. Say you made properly proportioned steps in concrete, in a former and attach split stone on the front? I am writing while I think here but how would a raised aggregate riser with freebie's (scream) pebbles as the step work?

    Bookmark   March 28, 2011 at 5:24PM
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I kind of like the look of gabions but you would have to have the proper setting for it. I've seen it in parks and more modern houses. I thought about it for my house as a fence material but it's too much of a mismatch.

I think you could make a form, fill it with 'pebbles' and then put some concrete in to give it structure. If you didn't fill it full up but say 90% so some of the rock was sticking above the concrete, it wouldn't really give the impression of a concrete staircase on the step. The rise would most definitely be concrete though.

It appears that one of the difficulties freebie is having is that the round rocks don't want to stay where they're put and keep rolling away. Plus, the lack of riser and sidewall structure means that it's an almost impossible task. Freebie - do you have photographs of something similar to what you're aiming for?

    Bookmark   March 28, 2011 at 5:59PM
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Can't imagine someone walking on those gabions in heels, that chicken wire would cause a nasty fall. Only way I see would be to use deep steps with cement & the flattest rocks laid in the wet cement so almost covered & some of rocks held at front of form with chicken wire so they wouldn't move until dry & form removed(so riser area would have rocks) then possibly you could put a cement river beside it with rocks placed in wet cement so they will stay in place going down hill. But even in cement eventually the "river"rocks sticking up will get blown in dirt & lots of lovely weeds to have to remove. My dad made a lovely "river" where bro. had a drainage runoff, it was great for couple of years & then became a pain & since Ca. doesn't get too much rain they ended up removing the stones & putting in grass & letting the rain run over it & out(homes had a large hill behind(man made)them as often done out here. Grass got bit muddy couple times a year & bro just took shovel & scooped it off grass & washed area & it was fine. Your rocks would make a fine flowerbed if you like low maintenance, use the rocks & just a lovely tree in center & 2nd bed with couple of colorful shrubs. Use landscape fabric underneath rocks so you don't get so many weeds & use rocks on flatter areas of yard.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2011 at 2:10AM
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