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How To Build a Patio and Retaining Wall

This courtyard-style patio is surrounded by retaining walls and long planters. A puzzle-like arrangement of flat stones between the patio and the house serves as a new walkway.

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courtyard style patio surrounded by retaining wall

Step 1: Prepare the Area

To ensure proper drainage, plan a slight slope (1-2 degrees) away from the home. Always make sure to call the proper utility companies before digging. Clear the old landscape down to the subsoil (Image 1). To direct water away from the house, construct a simple French drain, which is a textile-lined trench filled with coarse gravel. To level the ground, spread road base, a mixture of coarse gravel and sand over the entire area (Image 2). To complete the ground preparation, top the road base with sheets of synthetic textile (Image 3). This helps protect the road base while filtering water runoff, and preventing weed growth.

Step 2: Dig Trenches for the Borders

With the foundation prepared, shape out trenches in the road base for the border and retaining wall base. Make sure the trenches are deep enough to set the border stones flush with the pre-existing cement drive and sidewalk. Fill the trenches with sand, and then pack down with a tamper to create a smooth base for the stones. Use sand to level all ground level stones throughout the project.

fill trenches with sand

Step 3: Lay Stones for the Base

Along the front sidewalk, begin laying stones for the border and the stones for the front retaining wall/planter base (Image 1). Because the stones vary in thickness, add or remove sand until each sits flush with the sidewalk and the stones on either side. Use a slap hammer to set the stones into position (Image 2), and then check each one with a level.

Step 4: Build Up the Retaining Wall

With the front border and wall base complete, set several courses of stone to build up the front retaining wall. When a stone is too long, score with a diamond blade grinder (Image 1), and then break with a hammer and chisel. As you set each course, check each stone for level, wedging stone shims in the gaps when needed. Make sure to stagger the joints from course to give the wall added stability (Image 2). Because the planter adds pressure to the wall, backfill dirt on top of the berm as you go. After setting each course, "walk the wall to verify that each stone is tight and stable (Image 3). Set course upon course until the desired height is reached.

Step 5: Complete the Retaining Wall

With the front wall complete, continue setting border stones along the pre-existing driveway and cement walkway. These stones tie in the rough stone of the retaining walls with the stone of the new stone walkway. Complete the retaining walls for the planters and the patio. Repeat the same process as with the front retaining wall, again making sure to backfill the planters to gauge the pressure.

continue setting border stones

Step 6: Lay Stones for the Walkway

Before setting the walkway and patio stones, fill both areas with sand (Image 1). Pack with a tamper, and then use a long board to smooth the surface (Image 2). Lay out flat four-sided stones varying in sizes and colors over the walkway (Image 3). Staggering these joints while minimizing gaps is challenging and time consuming. Once the stones are shaped and the final pattern is laid, level and set each stone.

Step 7: Lay Stones for the Patio

The last phase of the project is the patio area. After preparing a sand base, begin the arduous process of strategically arranging the irregularly shaped stones to minimize the need for cutting. Once the desired pattern is achieved, set and level the stones.

arrange irregularly shaped stones

Step 8: Fill In the Gaps

To complete the project, make some cosmetic treatments. Fills in all the joints with crusher fine (finely crushed stone), which solidifies when it gets wet to further stabilize the stones.

fill in all the joints with crusher fine stone