What to look for in patio flagstone work

laying flagstone

A job in process: Well-laid flagstone is evenly spaced. Gaps need to be filled and edges trimmed. Closer, tightly fitted installations are more time-consuming, but look more impressive and stand up better over time.

If you are planning to lay flagstone for flooring in your patio – or elsewhere – you’ll find there can be a wide range of prices quoted for the installation. That is because there are many kinds of flagstone that can be used and, depending on the texture and color you like, different stones can vary drastically in price. The other reason is that installer can also offer different qualities of workmanship. A more carefully placed job will demand more time than a job quickly done. The difference is easy to see if you know what to look for in patio flagstone work.

Price the various kinds of stone you like before buying. If you go to a builder’s supply store you can see not only many different types of stone, but get an idea of how each will look when spread out over a wider area. It can be difficult to get a realistic vision from a small, single piece.

Once you have your flagstone chosen you will want to choose the style for laying it. For an informal or more rustic look you can piece together complementary shapes so the rough edges remain at a consistent distance from each other throughout the installation. The closer the fit, the better job you will have. A good installer will chip edges naturally so gaps create uniform lines and the design will slot together like pieces of a puzzle. A poorly installed job will look more like slabs of stone that have been randomly floated on a sea of concrete. The best jobs will have even spacing and will fit accurately.

Another approach is a little more formal with a more polished look in that the stones can be fitted by cutting with a saw to have simpler, cleaner lines. Just like the chipped stones, the tighter the fit, the more time-consuming the job will be. The neater and consistent the spacing, the more polished your finished flooring will be.

A good job of installation will often come down to the finish work — the details of how pieces fit together, corners are joined and surfaces are smoothed. A good job of basic installation and finish work will make the difference between a good job and a bad one. Once you know what you are looking for, you’ll find the comparison to be easily noticeable.

flagstone floor

A good job will look smooth and even when finished.

Landscape Design with Rocks

Landscaping with rocks

A combination of real and faux rocks gives this garden and pool a naturalistic setting that looks much larger than it really is.

Although this article was written with Southern California in mind, the concepts are universal and can help people design landscapes in just about any garden anywhere.

One of the most powerful natural decorative effects in a landscape design is the placement of stone, rocks and boulders. Rock varies as you travel through Southern California. Even locally you can see the wide mixture of stone that has been pushed to the surface by the contorting jolts of earth movements in our hills and mountains. There are sandstone rocks in reds, beiges, yellows and whites as well as multicolored granites. You can find wind and water rounded rocks and boulders and sharp-edged splintered rocks. Some areas boast iron in the stone formations making them orange and others are laced with copper that turns rock green. Mica and quartz can make stone glitter. There are rocks and boulders that will go with just about any kind of landscape you may want to design on your property.

Rocks are perfect to enhance a Southwest landscape theme, to set off the interesting shapes of a cactus and succulent garden or to offer natural seating in a wild or native landscape design. Add a boulder to highlight an ornamental grass garden or use scatterings of rocks to trace out a dry riverbed. Single stones can be the focus of an Asian or Zen garden or they can be carefully placed to be used as furniture or to set off a shapely tree. Design with rocks and boulders into almost any theme to add accents and character. They can also be used to create spacial effects and perspective illusions.

You can buy rocks and boulders, priced by the pound or you can collect your own from your own property or from open, undeveloped land or dry rivers. Do not take rocks or stones from parks or other California public areas: it is against the law. If your yard has an unblocked view of surrounding land, you might want to choose the same kind of rocks that will blend with your local, natural stone. Using a material that continues outside your boundaries will help your garden to look like it flows beyond your property line

Avoid equally spaced rocks forming a pattern unless you want to create a formal, contemporary or minimalist design. Often landscapers with no design sense will line up stones or set them in neat, equidistant spaces. Nature would never do that and these overly calculated rock settings look silly in anything but an intentionally contrived – and carefully, artistically designed  –overall landscape design.

Rock and stone can be integrated in walls and into the surface of concrete. Pebble finishes can be used for textural effects and designs can be drawn into different areas of colored stone. Big boulders make powerful statements. They can guard an entry or tower over a natural-looking dry river bed, stream or pond. Rocks are heavy so expect to need power equipment to move them unless you stick to sizes less than 18 x 18x 18 inches. Medium rocks can be moved with a crow bar or lifted with the help of several strong backs. Be very careful when moving rocks. They are very dense and weigh more than they appear. Always lift with your legs and don’t try to move something that could cause injury.

Look around at some examples of the landscape design with stone and rocks by checking out garden magazines or the Internet. Visit parks and public gardens. Do you want to create your own stand of jutting rocks? Do you like the squat, rounded rock forms that pile into mounds? Are stacked walls or flat flagstone areas more to your taste? Decide on the kind of stone, rock or boulder you want and blend it into your own garden. Build with rocks and stone that will complement your garden style, the area you are living and even the design of your house.

Adding stone, rock and boulders not only creates interest in the design, but it can help you build areas of drainage and permeable paving that will help with excess rain run-off during the winter wet season. Gravel offers water-saving, non-growing surfaces for practical use, play or design. Use it to fill in hard-to-plant areas so they look great in hot or cold weather and smother invading weeds in spring. Stone is a natural product that can be used to advantage in your landscape design. It can even function as a top-dressing or a layer of mulch. Just remember that dark colors absorb heat so they can get hot in summer sun for delicate feet and plant life.

Natural rock comes in all sizes, shapes and a surprisingly wide range of colors. Use it in your garden for ease of care and beauty. It can become one of your most important and stable design elements.


Tips for building cement rocks and boulders


Building a fake boulder cavern

Building a fake boulder cavern

Once you know how and where you want to use a good sized rock or boulder in the landscape, you can make your own. There are latex forms you can use for molds or you can build your own form. Rocks and boulders can be fabricated out of cement, resin, plaster of Paris, and other materials. Here is some information about building cement rocks and boulders.

You will find it easier to build a large fake rock if you sketch it out on paper first. It can change as you construct it, but with a basic plan to follow you will have more control over the final results.

Next you will need to construct a skeletal framework or a basic form which will define the shape of the concrete.

For a small rock you can use a purchased prefabricated form to pour full of cement. Or you can make an impression of a real rock by pouring your own contractor’s sealant or latex material over the rock and pealing it off to give you a form to fill with concrete.

Small or medium rocks can also be built on forms you can sculpt with Styrofoam or foam rubber. This shape will need to be covered with a wire mesh so the cement has a texture to adhere to firmly.

For a large boulder try building a rough framework out of wood and rebar. Cover the form with a mesh such as hardware cloth or a small gauge chicken wire. Hold your pieces together with screws, nails and metal wire, sculpting and folding the surface of the mesh to create your rock shape.

Mix up your cement as a combination of Portland cement, water and sand with little water so the consistency is thick and easily molded with your hands. Adding perlite or vermiculite can make your mixture a little lighter and can introduce some texture to your rock finish. You can also add powdered colorants at this stage for the overall tint of your rock. There are many ways to texture and color cement rocks and bounders.

Apply the first coat of cement expecting a lot of the cement will filter through the mesh and be lost. You can do this with plastic sheeting beneath so you can re-use the cement for additional coats. As you continue to add cement in layers you will end up covering the frame completely. Use enough cement to provide a coating that is thick enough to cover the materials beneath and provide a shell that is dense enough to support any weight that might be appropriate for its use.  The final layer should be used to make your rock look real.  Sculpt your textural effects into the moist concrete surface to get the effects you want. You can also press materials like slabs of rock or textured cardboard into the surface to create surface effects.

When your rock or boulder is dry, paint it with spray paint or a brush. Adding cracks, lines and veining will make it more realistic.

For more info:

Stamp out ugly cement!

More on fake rocks

An article on cement rocks

Artificial rock and boulder molds

Dress up the landscape with exterior design

Recycle materials in the landscape

Designing with rocks and boulders

Southwestern garden design

Rocks, boulders and gravel are a major part of this Southwestern Design.

Tips on using rock, stone and boulders as building materials and accents in landscape design

Rocks and boulders are one of the best ways to decorate your garden. They not only make a powerful design statement in the landscape, but they can be used to anchor changes in the design, soften hard angles, offer play features for children and pets and to mask or hide undesirable views in the garden. The best part of using rocks and boulders is that they require no maintenance!

When using boulders in the garden as a design element, try to use large single specimens or group them boulders in clumps of three or five. Odd numbers always look best in landscape design.

Choose your rocks from a limited palette of color and texture. Different rocks come from different areas and you can find stone that is red from iron, speckled with glittering mica, perforated from volcanic gasses, smoothed from water erosion, or colored and textured in many other ways. Too many different kinds of rock used in the same landscape design will look disorganized. And if you want to blend in with the surrounding environment, consider using local rocks. The worst and most common mistake made with big rocks is to space them evenly like three-dimensional polka-dots. They look downright ridiculous, yet this totally unnatural spacing seems to happen all too often. Rocks and boulders are natural items that should be used in a natural looking design. For a highly controlled effect in a more formal garden design, arrange the rocks in artistic patterns that have a creative flow.

Using a big, interestingly shaped boulder or grouping of large rocks can create a powerful focal point. Planting foliage around rocks creates a lush feel and softens hard edges. For a Southwestern theme landscape, rocks can blend in nicely with succulents, cacti and other desert plants. Boulders and rocks can also create a woodsy feel. Add rounded shrubs, small trees and clambering vines to complete the effect.

There is nothing better to lead into a pond – or a naturally designed swimming pool – than a stand of boulders. Odd rocks and even gravel patches will naturalize the transition between gardens or the rest of the yard and a water feature. Gravel is ideal as permeable paving for patios and driveways. You can even use good sized rocks to create natural-looking fountains where water can pour down from a vertically placed rock. Such areas can appear to be normal outcroppings and blend into the landscape creating their own water feature or statement.

Rocks, stones and boulders can be used to herald entryways, to mark the beginnings of walls or gates, or to serve as sign posts. They can break up open fields or add interest to ornamental grass gardens. Set them into hillsides to form stairs or retaining walls. Soil mounded behind rocks can spill cascading flowers over the top of the rocks.

Rocks weigh much more than they look like they should. Feather rock is a rock that usually comes in dark grey or deep red and is formed by volcanic action. As a result it is perforated with thousands of tiny holes making it lighter than most other rocks. But once you get a rock more than a foot or two in size, even these rocks tend to become weighty. Plan on using the help of machinery to move larger rocks. This can get expensive if you don’t know someone with a crane or other equipment. Sometimes you can get the effect you want by grouping several large stones together rather than trying to move one big boulder. If you group rocks, try not to use all the same size. Using different sizes and shapes will be more appealing to the eye. If you enjoy crafting or sculpting you might even consider building your own cement rocks and boulders.

Always take care of your back when moving any heavy object like a rock. It is a good idea to wander around your landscape and mark out where you want the rocks before they arrive. Dig holes that can seat them securely and make the boulders and rocks appear as if they have erupted out of the soil rather than looking dumped accidentally on the spot.

Boulders, stone and rocks can transform a landscape into an impressive picture that will be a joy to look at day after day. Choose your stone carefully and plan for how it will be designed into your garden and you won’t regret using it in your landscape.