Savannah Garden Diary

January 26, 2008

Building Patio and Pergola

It’s a wet, chilly Saturday. In lieu of the things I should be doing such as window-cleaning, I will belatedly get into by recounting the building of my patio. This is a view of the newly finished project. The pergola is now about 18 months old and already in desperate need of a paint job. (This is going to be a pretty boring read for anyone else, but I want a fairly complete record of my major projects.)
Before: View of the house from the back garden, with Scylla drinking from the bird bath, the decaying wooden deck, and horrible stains on the roof from a zillion pine trees.
Here I have already begun to dismantle the railing around the deck. And I see one of my pathetic attempts to grow Dicksonia antarctica in a pot in the distance, along with some pretty nice amaryllis in the foreground. The white pond on the right is the sink I removed when I remodeled my bathroom.

Tearing out the deck was fairly easy once I decided not to try to rescue the boards intact. (In fact, I saved a heap of boards of various lengths which eventually went into a fence.) Chopping up the deck with the circular saw was a lot easier than taking it apart with pry bars. The toughest bit was excavating the pilings upon which the deck rested. Thom did most of that.

The old shed is in the background, soon to be replaced by Thom’s storage shed. Also my potting bench. All of the gardening junk in that corner of the garden was moved to the east side of the back yard for sorting out later.

Also noteworthy is the mess to the left of the shed, not clearly seen in this photo. We called it “the jungle.” It contained some very unpleasant spiky things, brambles, overgrown azaleas, and the loquat seedling which eventually ended up in the front yard. The Robot I rented for the patio project proved very useful in demolishing the bramble thicket.
Also visible, in bud, is the magnolia I brought from Walthour Road (where it was in so much shade that it never flowered. Here it got more sun and flowered in that blowsy magnolia fashion. But the foliage was horrid–-diseased and turning brown early in the fall. I don’t remember the variety. It was one that Wayside Gardens swore was perfect for southern gardens. Mary Stoller inherited a huge one by her garage, which remains horrid to this day. I eventually replaced mine with a Prunus mume.

Tearing out the deck left a pretty big drop from the French doors out of the house, so for some months we entered the garden via the cinder block steps seen here.
This photo shows most of the materials for the patio (from Maxwell Beatty), as well as a good “before” view of the east side of the back garden. The gravel pile is in what is now the pond. It’s hard to imagine that I actually moved all that sand and gravel in a wheelbarrow. But that’s what happened.

The dump truck that delivered the gravel got thoroughly bogged down in the muddy low spot behind the Savannah holly. It managed to grind its wheels down to the roots of the mulberry we had removed 3 years earlier. Said roots were still very hard and very slippery.

The JCB Robot rented from Westside Rental made excavating and leveling a lot easier. Not that I was very good at operating the Robot. And I couldn’t figure out how to use it with the landscape lines in place, so most of the grading had to be done by hand. The patio area is 19 x 41. I’m not sure why, but that was what emerged when I had done all the calculations about where planters, steps, and pergola were to go. So far, I have spent $3,800 on materials and Robot rental.
With rare forethought, I realized that painting anything after the patio was finished would be a real pain because you’d have to keep the paint off the steps and pavers. (Which might not be a problem if you’re a tidy painter, but I’m not.) So here I am painting the main wing of the house. I haven’t touched the garage wing, and I’m not going to because it is two very high stories high, and we don’t need this little old lady with artificial hips falling off ladders onto the driveway. And Thom’s not going to paint it either. He can hire someone.
This seems to be my only photo of grading the gravel. You stake out the whole area, string landscape twine between the stakes, hang levels on the lines, measure down from the lines, and rake, and rake, and rake. A wedge-shaped 2 x 4 with a level on it gives you the slope away from the house. My notes say: Made a horrible mess of the lawn with the Robot. Feb. 1. Finished grading gravel. What a killing job! Feb 4. Rented plate compactor and compacted gravel. In the middle of all this, I discover from my scribbled notes, I was starting tomatoes and pimientos from seed and deciding we’d have to stay home this summer because the pimientos would need t.l.c.
Built forms and poured concrete for footing of herb planter: 5 wheeelbarrows full of concrete–killing. Lay out all concrete forms and rent a cement mixer! This, in practice, turns out to be difficult. Rental places have just about given up renting out cement mixers because they get stolen even from garages. After the patio was finished, I discovered I could buy an electric cement mixer for less than $300 and I did. Used it for various projects, but it would have been a lot more to the point to buy it before mixing 53 (a guess) wheelbarrow loads of concrete for the patio.

The metal poles sticking up mark the position of the pergola.

Potted up 2 tomatoes. Plants arrived from Parks. Potted up blueberries, clethra, pomegranate and gloriosa lily for later. (The pomegranate and gloriosa are the only ones that survived, which just proves you shouldn’t buy plants in the middle of a construction project because they will be neglected.)

Making progress on all three planters and on the steps to the breakfast room. Steps to the study were the last bit of construction. By that time we were both pretty exhausted with lugging concrete and cinder blocks.

The other thing I like about this picture is it shows so clearly the eastern side of the garden in “before” state. There is nothing there except a few wax myrtles, the neighbor’s dog fence, and, I think, that sugarcane from Seabrook. I’m not even sure the boats are there. Where were they? Amazing! When I think of the jungle of brambles, pine trees, oaks, and sugar cane that I cleared out after the shed was built in fall, 2006, I am amazed at how rapidly the jungle grows in this climate.

The other thing I like in this shot is the magnolia flowers. February was the only time of year that that tree had any socially redeeming value.
The planters have concrete footers and are made of cinder blocks mortared together and topped with pavers at what I hope is sitting height. I’m pretty pleased with the designs, as a matter of fact. They are based on the size of the cinder blocks: two small planters for herbs near the kitchen, and one large planter for a shade tree and experimental plants near my study.

In retrospect, the completed project cast a lot more shade than I anticipated, partly because I assumed palmettos throw almost no shade, which turns out not to be true. Also, I had no idea that the ‘Natchez’ crepe myrtles would grow as rapidly or be as generally weedy as they turn out to be.
We finally collected from Miles Nursery the plants I’d ordered: two ‘Natchez’ crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica), Yoshino cherry, ‘Nelly Stephens’ holly, yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). Love that name. Apparently, the Guale Indians on this coast made a tea of it for fiestas and sat around throwing up and enjoying themselves. (Not nearly as weird as some of the things we do.)

All the plants are pretty big. The pickup was groaning and it was a good thing there was a hefty youngster to help load. The yaupon holly was so big that I built the planter around it as shown here. There are already herbs in the herb planter by the kitchen window in the background. Time’s afleeting. I knew this would take forever, and if we’re to have any plants this summer, it’s time to plant.
I concreted the uprights for the pergola in place, but Thom kindly undertook to attach the rafters, on account I’m not fond of heights. Painting all this wood took about 2 weeks! And I now think I made a big mistake in using untreated lumber for the superstructure (although the uprights are treated).

Why is this a pergola and not an arbor? According to the book I’ve been using to tell me how to build all this, an arbor is freestanding (or, I guess attached only to a fence or wall) and a pergola is attached to a building. Why, then, is it not a cloister? Or, alternatively, what is a cloister? Never mind.
Much soul-searching and argument with spouse over what color to paint the planter walls. My initial idea was to stucco them and then paint. But I am rapidly running out of steam and stamina for this project. While painting the cinderblock foundation of the house (revealed now that the deck has been removed), I discovered that mixing cement paint with textured ceiling paint does a pretty good job of disguising the blocks without bothering with stucco.

There’s a note in my journal that says this blue-green color is horrid and not what I thought when I bought it. But it’s amazing how you adapt to a color, especially when replacing it would be wretched hard work.

Also visible to the right of the picture is the makeshift bird bath (saucer on an upturned terracotta pot) that was our temporary fix until I got around to building a proper one. It was a bit of a nuisance because saucer and pot were not attached and raccoons kept knocking it over.

The steps to the breakfast room are complete, although not tiled, and the forms are in place for the steps to my study. Behind this is the ‘Nelly Stephens’ holly. I’m slightly afeared that it is going to get too big for that spot, but I suppose it can be pruned. It serves a useful function in blocking the view from the road into the back garden.
It’s now so late in the season that getting plants in the ground is more important than finishing the paving. This is the Yoshino cherry in flower with the ‘Nelly Stephens’ holly looking very tiny on its left. I loved that cherry, but unfortunately it turned out to be much more drought-sensitive than I realized (since you are always told they hate wet feet), and I am no good at watering, so it died.
This trellis hides the mess around the back door from the patio. I decided it was unrealistic to think the back door’s surrounds would ever be attractive. It is where everyone washes paint brushes, and drops pipes, hoses, junk when coming in for a meal or escaping from the rain. Better to hide it than hope to tidy it up. The main vine on it is Bignonia ‘Shalimar Red.’ In retrospect, this was a mistake. Crossvine is native, and gets much larger than I realized until I saw one climbing 3 stories up the naked concrete wall of the parking lot at the South Carolina Aquarium. Two years later, I am still hacking it back twice a year to prevent it taking the roof off the house. Why does it grow toward the house instead of out toward the sun as I’d hoped? I need to replace it with something more manageable. I also stuck in some morning glories for a little rapid cover. Amazing to see that despite the total mess everywhere I went to the trouble of planting a few pathetic annuals! What a nut for flowers I am to be sure!

I’ve begun laying the patio pavers here. Like everything else achieved by trial and error, this took more time than it needed to because the patio was half done before I discovered that a diamond-tipped blade for the chop saw cost only about $30. I had already used more than $30 worth of cheap concrete blades, which were a royal pain to use.

This is the planting area by the breakfast room steps. (I had already started tiling the steps.) It contains the Lady Banks rose (Rosa bansksiae), which had languished in the front bed for two years because it gets no sun, as well as Gelsemium Rankinii, (swamp jessamine, from Secret Garden). This is native, but less common and larger-flowered than the Gelsemium sempervirens (Carolina jessamine or jasmine) which scrambles all over our pine trees in February and March. As its name suggests, it is supposed to like lots of water, which it won’t get here.

The little boxwood on the right hides the outlet from the a/c system.
Here is the Lady Banks on the pergola one year after it was planted. This has to be absolutely the best shade vine for this part of the world. What’s not to love? It is a thornless, evergreen rose with gorgeous flowers. Admittedly, it flowers only once a year and you have to prune occasionally to keep it from dripping and drooping all over the place. (The largest tree in the world is believed to be a Lady Banks in Arizona that covers about an acre of land.)

Culture is easy in this climate. She needs full sun (as I discovered with one partly under a live oak at Walthour Road which did not flower as well as its neighbor 6 feet closer to full sun). Not fussy about water or fertilizer. (Which means I have never watered or fertilized a Lady Banks more than 6 months old.)

The book says that outdoor ceilings should be higher than indoor ceilings not to feel claustrophobic and I believe it, so the pergola “roof” is almost 12 feet from the ground. This presents a problem when pruning and painting. The pruning problem I have solved with a truly excellent pruning shear-like gadget with a sliding trigger supplemented by a rope. It is powerful enough to prune the bougainvillea, so it makes light work of the Lady Banks.
Finishing touches include some furniture, which I don’t now like and planters of Pennisetum rubrum to prevent shortcuts across the gravel.
Here is the plumbed birdbath surrounded by fiberglass spheres, which are a homage to the esferas we so enjoyed in Palm Sur.
The esferas are echoed by spherical boxes on either side of the path to the pond. The one on the left needs a haircut.

Low-voltage lighting runs right round the patio and there are uplights in the Phyllostachys nigra. The white containers are wildly expensive Italian fiberglass jobs (the 5 of them cost $1,000 from Design Within Reach), but I love them and they are the only expensive items on the whole patio. (Well, I suppose the cobalt blue tiles on the steps weren’t exactly cheap.) I vaguely regret that I didn’t spring for proper stone for the patio, but that would have cost a fortune and the concrete pavers are pretty inoffensive now they have weathered somewhat.


  1. This is a great detailed post on your backyard project. Wow, what a lot of labor when into that project! I enjoyed reading it and picked it as a favorite post.

    Comment by — January 26, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

  2. Robin, thank you so much. Yes! When I look back on this project I am absolutely amazed that I had the energy (and time) to do so much work!

    Comment by karen — January 26, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

  3. This is very good! A complete tutorial on your project. It looks very nice after completion. I like the placement of your Yoshino Cherry!

    Comment by — January 26, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

  4. Fantastic, Karen! I love seeing how a project like this progresses - especially the “action” shots. And the results are truly beautiful. Many thanks for this contribution for the Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop.

    Comment by — January 26, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

  5. Dave; Thanks. Yes, I too loved the Yoshino cherry and then I killed it so I need to find another. I was told to give it an inch of water a week and plant it high because they hate wet feet, all of which I did religiously for the first year. But the next year we had a long dry spell and I neglected the watering and it died. Woe is me! That’s actually the third cherry of one sort of another that’s died on me or that I’ve killed. One I think I drowned. One George weed-whacked, and I have no idea why the other died.

    Thanks, Nan. Design Workshop is a great project!

    Comment by karen — January 27, 2008 @ 8:09 am

  6. Quite the post! I enjoy Before & After photos and you’ve outdone yourself in that aspect.

    Thanks too, for sharing what some of the costs were. That’s one thing about magazines that I don’t like - they rarely ever cover the cost issue of makeovers. It’s good to know what’s in a budget and what can reasonably be expected to be done without contractors of some sort.

    Comment by — January 27, 2008 @ 9:16 pm

  7. It is great to see the progression from start to finish of a large project like this. Your pergola looks like a really nice spot to sit and enjoy your garden, shaded by a beautiful Lady Banks rose. I just love those.

    Comment by — January 28, 2008 @ 3:09 am

  8. I love the photo of you with power saw in hand. And that you documented in detail the entire process from beginning to end. And that you recycled your old deck into a fence. Doesn’t going back and looking at the before photos give you a wonderful feeling of accomplishment!

    This is a inspiring post to me because it makes me realize that somewhere in the world, ordinary people finish projects and end up with something very nice looking. My own big project last year, to build a ended in failure, despite (or perhaps because) I trusted someone else to do the work.

    We are starting over this year. Your post is very encouraging because I need to feel that someday our torn up yard will be a pleasant garden once again.

    Comment by — January 28, 2008 @ 11:07 am

  9. Yes, looking at the photos does give me a feeling of accomplishment. What I’m not sure is why I got into such major projects in the first place. I used to be quite content to create a garden with plants, and now I seem to want a vast number of structures.

    The DIY was sort of forced on me because Thom’s a carpenter by trade and hates anyone else working on our house because he’s sure he could do it better. And the horrible thing is, I’m beginning to think he’s right! I found myself the other day contemplating hiring someone to scrape the textured ceiling in the dining room, and deciding I’d do it myself because someone else would make a mess of it. So I guess I’m condemned to the building trade for as long as I can lift a bag of concrete.

    mss, when I look at the horrible state of the back yard even last year (when I built a large pond) and look at it now, I can assure you that your torn up back yard can make it back to the land of the living in a surprisingly short time!

    Comment by karen — January 28, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

  10. Now this is a class by itself for do it yourselfers. I admire your stamina and the end result is beautiful. Great post.

    Frances at Faire Garden

    Comment by — January 29, 2008 @ 6:35 am

  11. Summers in Savannah are so horrid that I enjoy having a project that will keep me outdoors for long hours during the winter–storing up vitamin D for the dog days to come!

    Comment by karen — January 29, 2008 @ 8:27 am

  12. […] Building Patio and Pergola (Karen at Savannah Garden): A detailed step-by-step of the creation a beautiful backyard patio and pergola in Karen’s garden. […]

    Pingback by — January 31, 2008 @ 5:02 am

  13. Wow I am worn out just reading all this work you did. It sure was worth the effort though.
    You have a beautiful patio and pergola. I am glad that you sprung for your Italian pots you
    deserve such a treat after all that hard work. The Cherry tree is so pretty. I haven’t had
    luck growing them either. They make such a statement specially during spring it is too bad.

    Comment by Lisa at Greenbow — January 31, 2008 @ 7:04 am

  14. It looks beautiful. What was the name of the book you used for designing it?

    Comment by kathleen — March 19, 2008 @ 10:14 am

  15. Well, darn, I can’t find the main book I used to build the patio. I think I lent it to someone, not thinking I would ever need it again. Sorry. Most ordinary DIY landscaping books give you the basics on leveling, foundations, etc. You’ll find something good in the local Home Depot or Lowes.

    Comment by karen — March 20, 2008 @ 10:39 am

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