June | 2013 | BluGill Urban Farm

A Beginner Mason’s Garden Edge

June 15, 2013 in Stone masonry, Urban Farming

It is that time again, for another installment of “the Adventures of Blu Gill Urban Farmer.”  This week we examine the topic of laying bricks to make a nice garden edge with basic tools and no mortar.  Let’s review a pictorial of the steps recently followed at Blu Gill Urban Farm.

Preparing the area

1) Using a hoe, rough out the starting area for your brick edging.  2) Remove any large debris and level  the area.  I recommend at least one-half inch to 1 inch below grade.  3) I highly recommend using a large nail or stake and string or twine to maintain a straight line.  4) Be sure the area is level or if water drainage is an issue, you can use a level to ensure th eslope is falling in the correct direction.  Normally, your edging will be level left-right and up-down.  For the edging near the perimeter of the house, a slope away from the house is extremely important.  For other areas of your yard you can follow the slope of the yard as necessary.  Bricks could be stepped down and stacked for larger slopes, but mortar would probably be needed.

5) Your area is prepped and generally leveled or sloped sloped. I also use a hand-fork to comb through the surface of my prepared area to ensure the soil is not packed tight and all larger rocks have been removed from the area.

Laying the Bricks

6) I prefer loosening the soil which allows me to compact it to the desired level at time of installation.  Rather than use a rubber mallet to pound the bricks into place, I use a left-over concrete pave stone.  I find it actually works better than store bought tools. It has the perfect amount of mass and area to lay bricks.  Earlier in the project, using a rubber mallet had an unfortunately outcome.  The mallet came in contact with my index finger, seriously smashing the tip of my finger, probably requiring stitches.  But, I cleaned and bandaged the wound and a couple weeks later the finger healed nicely. Please take precautions around the use of any tools and consider protective wear, such as gloves and safety glasses. Also, take your time, plan, and if you become tired, take a break.  In the summer heat, be sure to drink lots of water and wear a brimmed hat and sunscreen lotion.

7) Once the initial bricks are lain, use a level to check the width and length.  On the first attempt, the two initial bricks appear dead-on level short-way; 8) long-way shows a slight slope toward us.  9) Carefully lift the brick from its placement, add fine soil or mason sand to the needed area. 10) Once again, use a mallet (or make-shift tool) to pound the top of the bricks to an even level. 11) Pounding on the edges where the two bricks meet ensures each meets each other at a similar level. 12) Check your handy work again, and when both directions indicate proper slope,  move onto the next brick. 13) Lifting the first brick shows the well-packed soil beneath the brick.

14, 15, 16, 17) Continue repeating the above steps again and again, pounding the top of the bricks to reach the desired level, and pounding the sides to pack in each new brick into your pathway.

Making more permanent

18) After about an hour the path will begin to form, progress can be seen.  If your soil is clay-like and sandy, sift the soil around you and sprinkle on top of the completed brickwork. Or, purchase mason’s sand and sprinkle over.  19) Use an old broom and sweep the sand into the grooves of the bricks. 20) Eventually the sand will fill the gaps. 21) Carefully spray a fine mist of water on the recently sanded bricks to allow the sand to become moist.  22) The moist sand water will accumulate in the crevices to form a bond to one another like mortar.  Let dry and repeat if any obvious gaps remain. The bricks can still be pulled apart with enough force, but the adhesion should withstand any normal wear and tear.

23) After several days the bricks will make a very nice semi-permanent edge.

The finished product

24) Continue to lay your path, properly prepare the area, lay straight level twine for the best edges, spread loose soil or sand, pound bricks into place, and leveling each one, and within a couple hours, the garden edge will begin to shape.  25) After several hours and a couple days’ time, the backyard will truly begin to take shape.

26) A nice grass edge and pathways will materialize.  27) Until finally, the area is fully formed, with lovely red brick edging for a well defined grass area.

Disclaimer: Remember, the authors at BluGill Urban Farm are not professionals, have no special education or training, and far from experienced on the topics discussed. The information is provided as-is with no guaranty of success. Professionals and Do-it-Yourself (DIY) veterans may provide more appropriate methods. These techniques, however, have succeeded as described in the articles, and should adequately get the job done for anyone wanting to create using the most basic tools. These techniques are provided as guidelines when a professional landscaper, DIY’er or specialized tools are not available.- BluGill Urban Farm

Benefits to Making a Rock Quarry

June 8, 2013 in Stone masonry, Urban Farming

A Rock Quarry? Really?

If your backyard is a relatively new developed area such as what I find here at BluGill Urban Farms, you may find soil devoid of good organic matter to encourage plant growth and more likely than not, a whole lot of unwanted rocks. Every time I place my shovel in the ground, WACK! I hit another rock.  In fact, my soil is particularly full of rock; the native ground is actually a very thick mountain of granite (white with black speckled variety).

Even in richer soils, you may still find undesirable materials such as rocks and construction debris, even if you don’t find your garden sitting on a bed of granite.  I decided to experiment at making a rock quarry out of the native soils in the yard; could I succeed at removing unwanted materials from the area and creating creative good uses in other areas of the garden?  Time will tell.  Later we will attempt to find cleaver uses for the rock material:  what a great idea for a future article.

Recommended Tools

First, what tools does one need for such a task? Please see previous Article: Tools of the Trade  discussing various tools you may want to use for Masonry, carpentry, gardening, landscaping.

Common tools working with rocks: Cart, Sifter, Bucket, trash can

If you are unfamiliar with typical types of tools used for such a task or just curious, please review the photographs in the previous article for the most common garden and mason tools.  Common tools working with rocks is also displayed to the left of this text for your convenience as well as in the previous article.  Rock sorting may require a standard shovel, perhaps a hand spade and fork, a large bucket, a small refuse container, gloves and a cart.  I recommend gloves if a high chance of unknown construction debris may be found in the digging area, such as rusty chicken wire and nails.

In Arizona, there is a likelihood to encounter a scorpion in the soil, although I have yet to encounter one personally while digging in the soil.

Sample mound of un-sifted soil in the foreground; bucket, sifter and cart in the background.

Since landscaping nearly always requires digging in the soil, the tools referenced above and in the previous article are a good choice to make sure is available regardless of whether you will be going to such extremes as I, at creating a rock quarry.  If money is tight, a couple good shovels are key; consider the fiberglass handles.  These are made better and the material will last a life time.  If you do choose the wood handled variety to save on cost, be sure not to leave them out in the elements, heat or rain.  Consider sealing them with a water sealant to protect the wood for up to 5 years of heavy use.  I recommend Thompson’s Water Sealant, found in any local hardware store.

The Quarry

First, decide to dig out a small area large enough for a raised garden bed.  Once the pile of removed earth is formed, set up a sifting station near the area, to easily sift through the soil, sort the rocks into sizes and categories based on the common types of material particular to my backyard, and transport to an unused area of your yard for later use or for later hauling away if you no plans to use the excess material.

I recommend having at least two sifters; one with screen mesh less than an inch to a half-inch opening, and another for finer sifting of around one-quarter inch mesh.  The larger sifter allows me to quickly sort out the construction debris and gather the rocks larger than one-half inches, set them aside to hopefully find a decorative or building project in the future.  you can make a rock sifter out of old unused components.  I created my larger diameter sifter from an old unused floor fan; see the resemblance now?

The art of sifting is merely scooping 2 to 3 shovels full  of soil into the center of my sifting apparatus, making shaking motions (back and forth) or swirling motions (clockwise and counter-clockwise), stop periodically to pull out the largest stones and debris, and repeat as necessary until I am satisfied the finer material has fallen to the lower bucket.  I find using a four-wheel garden cart to transport my left over material to another area of the yard much less labor intensive than carrying the bucket or hauling with a wheelbarrow. Dump the material into a designated Rock Quarry area, to later eye the treasure and create future uses.

The finely sifted material is either re-integrated into the garden area, usually mixed with mulch and top soil picked up from a local nursery or mulching farm, or placed in its own pile in the Rock quarry until needed.  I sometimes sift the finer material further, since the first method captures a lot of one-quarter inch rocks with the sandy and silty  soil.  Sifting out roughly one-quarter inch and sometimes smaller gravel, may provide another potential use for the for the gathered gravel without having to purchase a ton of it (literally), paying a delivery charge for transportation, corralling a labor force to move it a mere few feet from the front delivery site to the backyard, when the material already lays everywhere in my backyard for the taking.

Sifting apparatus showing sorted material: 1) jagged rocks, 2) debris, 3) river rock

Smooth river rock and debris

The photo to the left shows the material typically found in my particular soil, which includes smooth small river rock, construction debris including chicken coop wire, wood cuttings, concrete, stucco chunks, rusty nails, and screws.   The photo to the right shows the growing pile of river rock for my efforts and a black tree container repurposed as a trash bin for my construction debris.

Toss the debris into a trash container, add the river rock and jagged rock to another pile, combine similar sized rocks into separate piles, and your rock yard will begin to shape from your make-shift rock quarry.  Try designating the storage rock yard in an unused out of the way area in your backyard, or an area that will not be used in the immediate future to avoid having to move your sorted material multiple times.

My final photo to share with you is the living, growing Rock Yard.  I use other larger rocks to separate the various separated materials.  I also create a designated place for my top soil, mulch, and other dirt as I introduce it into the backyard.

The Rock Yard


I understand that this may take a significant amount of back-breaking time to accomplish and if merely a cost at $15.00 an hour applied to the manual labor hours, it may make no business sense.  But the satisfaction received from the use of raw materials from excess backyard components offsets the lack of ultimate money savings.  Understand there may still be money saved not having to purchase raw materials.  It could be much cheaper and simpler to purchase the same basic material from a rock yard or home retain center.   However, have you heard the term, “dirt cheap?”  Like everything else, dirt and rock is no longer cheap.

Not only do I receive great satisfaction, but there is much more beneficial Earth favoring effects working a simple backyard garden in that manner, including creating an Earth conscious and ‘go green’ environment of recycled components.  Otherwise, the same unusable material would be hauled away (at an expense) to a dump site (for a fee), and add to the ever-growing trash material to the ever-shrinking disposal sites.  I am far from a tree-hugger, global warmer, New Age Hippy or whatever term may apply, but, if everyone made a simple attempt to protect the Earth, everyone can agree that cannot be a bad thing.

Remember, ones leaves behind only the permanence (or consequence) of ones actions.

Happy Gardening.