Handmade steppingstones add personality and character to any garden. You can blend them with other types of paving or place them as creative accents to surprise and delight visitors.
To make a few unique stones quickly, use the ``mortar method'': decorate a layer of mortar placed atop a purchased paving stone. Or create an entire path or patio of ``Country Stone'' made of quick- setting concrete, formed in a $23 plastic mold called the Quikrete Walk Maker.
``Steppingstones in unexpected colors are wonderful treasures to discover, especially in the winter months when you are looking for more color. Children especially love them for their sense of magic,'' says Mattison FitzGerald, a San Jose artist and landscape designer who creates mosaic steppingstones to clients' specifications.
To make just a few steppingstones -- which takes less than two hours from start to finish -- apply a layer of mudlike mortar to the top of round or square steppingstones purchased at a garden center for about $1.80 each. After spreading the mortar on top of the base stone, much like applying thick icing to a cake, you have a blank palette for personalized designs.
For more pizzazz, you can tint standard gray mortar with cement and mortar color, which is available at hardware stores and home centers. I used a powdered ``Spanish red'' to match my purchased steppingstones and then pressed colorful acrylic rainbow circles into the top of one stone and a fern pattern into another.
INSPIRATION FROM YOUR GARDEN
Let your garden suggest design motifs: Leaf, flower and fern impressions or insect and animal figures are natural choices. You can create patterns with pebbles, seashells, broken tiles, crockery and marbles. Perennial favorites, of course, are children's handprints and pets' paw prints.
Place personalized steppingstones under an outdoor faucet, mix them with plain brick or stone paving, or lay them under an arbor or in front of a gate. Make steppingstones to honor special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries, or create unique holiday gifts for people who have everything.
FitzGerald enjoys placing colorful mosaic steppingstones in ``look- down gardens'' -- so the stones create visual accents when viewed from higher decks or hillsides.
``I want fun in a garden -- a sense of rhythm and music. I've created groups of stones in the shape of heavenly constellations, super-modern stones, Moorish stones -- never the same thing twice,'' she says. She has even created custom steppingstones for San Francisco fire escape landings. ``People enjoy replacing a view of rusty metal with art,'' she laughs.
Landscape designer Michael Bates of English Country Garden Design in Santa Rosa generally deplores the ``spotty, dotty look of steppingstones.'' He says, ``In my experience, people often go out of their way to avoid steppingstones.''
But he offers practical advice for their placement. ``Steppingstones too close together are even worse than too far apart. They should ac commodate a natural walking stride and be set at ground level,'' he believes.
If your garden needs a lot of steppingstones -- perhaps for a complete path or patio -- you can make realistic-looking ``stones'' from concrete with a Quikrete Walk Maker, a plastic mold available at hardware stores and home centers. The Walk Maker produces eight steppingstones per molded section -- an area measuring approximately 2 feet by 2 feet.
The mold can be rotated and sections interlocked to create curves, corners and stone pattern variations.
Within half an hour or so after shoveling Quikrete concrete mix into the mold, you simply lift it off and gaze upon a very handsome section of stone paving -- quite an achievement for someone with no experience in concrete or masonry. You still have to fill in the spaces between the stones with sand, grout or dirt, but the whole process is amazingly simple.
These steppingstones must be made in place, preferably in a sunken bed from which one inch of topsoil has been removed. There are several different paving patterns available, including ``Country Stone'' and ``Paving Brick.''
Compared to decorating premade steppingstones with mortar, however, this is heavy work. Bags of the quick-setting concrete weigh 60 or 80 pounds each, and it takes five 80-pound bags to make a 9-foot- long, 2-foot-wide garden path. The good news, though, is that an 80- pound bag of Quikrete costs only about $2.50.
``We had estimates of $600 to $700 to make a new cement walkway, but my husband and I used the Walk Maker and did it ourselves for about $50. Now all the neighbors are borrowing our mold,'' says Jane Anduha, a sales representative at Orchard Supply Hardware in Mountain View.
``Here's our trick,'' she advises. ``We mixed the concrete a little on the runny side and then, after removing the mold, we dipped a spade in water and smoothed around the sharp concrete edges, making them more rounded and stonelike.
``Be sure to use rubber gloves when you work with concrete and mortar,'' Anduha adds. ``They contain drying agents that ruin your hands.''
The Anduhas worked, off and on, about four hours per day for two days to create a new front walk. They chose red bricks for edging and filled in between the stones with dry mortar mix, which Jane swept into place with a broom. Then she misted the grout with a hose. ``In three days, the grout was dry and crack-free,'' she said.
I followed her technique in my own garden, but decided to add a layer of dirt on top of the grout -- when it was still wet -- because I want to encourage moss to grow between the new steppingstones.
``We're trying to get the Walk Maker back from the neighbors,'' Anduha says. ``Now we want to use it in our back yard.''
2 KINDS OF STEPPINGSTONES
Here are two ways to create original steppingstones.
You can add a mudlike layer of mixed mortar to plain steppingstones, then decorate them with pebbles, tiles, leaves and other materials. Or you can use the Quikrete Walk Maker, a heavy plastic mold that makes ``stones'' with a quick-setting concrete mix.
Time Required: About 1 1/2 hours for three stones
Cost: $12.18 for basic materials (not including decorations)
-- 3 concrete steppingstones, round or square ($1.80 each at garden centers)
-- 1 (10-pound) bag of mortar mix ($1.99 at hardware stores)
-- 1 one-pound package of cement and mortar color (optional); ``Spanish red'' costs $4.79 at Orchard Supply Hardware)
-- Decorative objects of your choice, such as pebbles, marbles, mosaic tiles, ferns, leaves and flowers. An acrylic multicolored mobile called a ``Ring Bow'' costs $11.99 at Orchard Supply Hardware. (Remove its connecting cords and embed it in a round steppingstone.)
-- 1 old pencil (optional)
-- Newspapers (to cover the ground or work surface)
-- Bucket (for mixing mortar)
-- Rubber gloves
-- Mixing spoon or stick (for mixing mortar)
-- Spatula (for smoothing mortar)
-- Old rags or paper towels
-- Cover the work surface with newspapers and put on gloves.
-- To prepare mortar for the tops of three steppingstones, pour about five pounds (half the package) of mortar mix into the bucket. Add as much powdered color as desired. You can continue to add color as you mix the mortar.
-- Make a well in the center of the mortar and add water while stirring, creating a mix with the consistency of thick paste. Add more water as necessary, in small amounts. (I started mixing with a stick and ended up squeezing the puddinglike mortar with my fingers in order to remove all of the lumps.)
The final mixture should be quite stiff; otherwise, decorative objects will slide out of the mortar and off the steppingstones.
-- Using your gloved hands or an old spoon, pile the mortar mix on top of a stepping stone, creating as level and smooth a layer of mortar as possible. The height of the mortar layer is up to you; mine were about 1/2 inch high.
-- Smooth the top of the mortar with the old spatula. Using a wet rag, shape and mold the corners and sides of the mortar layer to conform to the shape of the underlying stone. Hunks of excess mortar will ooze to the sides and must be wiped away.
-- Within a few minutes, embed decorative objects in the mortar, sinking them deeply enough to be ``grabbed'' firmly by the mortar. As you do this, you'll probably have to wipe and shape the surface again. A bit of water on your fingers helps smooth out imperfections.
--To write words or numbers or draw pictures on your steppingstones, let the mortar dry for about 15 minutes before you begin. If the writing does not retain its shape, smooth out the surface, wait a bit longer and try again.
-- If you embed ferns, leaves, or flowers in the mortar, leave them in place. They will turn brown and can be washed out in about two weeks.
-- Allow the mortar to cure for at least three days before walking on the new steppingstones.
-- When finished, rinse all tools immediately with water.
QUIKRETE WALK MAKER
Time Required: 20 minutes per 2- by-2-foot section (plus 20 to 40 minutes on a warm day for each section to ``set up'' before removing mold)
Cost: $2.50 per section, plus $22.99 for Quikrete Walk Maker
-- 1 ``Country Stone'' pattern Quikrete Walk Maker mold ($22.99 at Orchard Supply Hardware stores)
-- 1 80-pound bag Quikrete concrete mix ($2.50 at Orchard Supply)
-- Wheelbarrow for mixing concrete
-- Rubber gloves
-- Dust mask
-- Dry grout, sand or dirt, to fill in the spaces between the stones
-- Wearing the dust mask, combine the concrete mix with water in a wheelbarrow, using a shovel to form a thick but workable texture.
-- Place the mold where you want to start the walkway or patio. For best results, remove about one inch of soil and level the area.
-- Shovel the concrete into the mold, then pat and smooth it to fill all of the cavities.
-- Remove the mold when set. (The timing depends on the weather; I waited about 30 minutes on a warm summer day.)
-- Fill in the spaces between the ``stones'' with grout, sand or soil and mist lightly to help it settle.
-- Rinse tools promptly with water after using them with concrete.
Mattison FitzGerald, San Jose artist and landscape designer, makes custom steppingstones geared to clients' interests, favorite colors and garden styles. She offers the following advice, based on trial and error over the years:
-- For extra strength and longevity, consider personalizing a paving stone made for driveways, instead of a garden stepping stone. ``Pavers are made to withstand the heaviest weights and all temperatures. When you put a lot of creativity into a stepping stone, you want it to last,'' says FitzGerald.
-- If you use broken tiles or glass to decorate stones, the sharp edges must be completely buried in the mortar or grout; otherwise, barefoot walkers might cut their feet.
-- You don't have to place a decorated stepping stone on the ground. You can prop it up on an outdoor ta ble or hang it on a garden wall as a work of art.
-- If you choose to use metal strips or objects on a stepping stone, be sure to balance the slick metal with plenty of rough mortar or grout, so walkers' feet don't slip off the stone.
-- FitzGerald uses concrete stains, which are available at hardware and home supply stores, to color steppingstones. For an even wider palette, you can order coloring products from Davis Colors. (See resource box.)
STEPPINGSTONES FROM PIZZA BOXES
Empty pizza boxes (medium or large) can be used as molds for square steppingstones made with quick-drying concrete. A 60-pound bag of Quikrete concrete mix fills two medium-size pizza boxes.
Since the resulting stones are so heavy, it's best to make them right where you want them.
Don Barkley, owner of Rancho Hardware Store in Los Altos, recommends placing a layer of chicken wire in a concrete ``sandwich'' to make the stones stronger. Pour a layer of concrete in the box, lay chicken wire on top, then pour a second layer of concrete on the wire.
After adding water and pouring the concrete mix into each box, I noticed that many rocks rose to the surface. I wanted to make my own design on top, so I pushed the rocks down into the mix and made the top smooth before adding my design.
I decorated the steppingstones with pebbles and agates, embedding them firmly in the concrete. Let cure for a couple of days before tearing away the cardboard.
--Davis Colors, (800) 356-4848. Offers wide palette of concrete and mortar coloring products. Free catalog available.
-- Mattison FitzGerald's M Landscape and Art, 31 Union St. (at South First Street), San Jose; (415) 322-0827 or (408) 947-7878; Web site: www.rhinodev.com/M. Garden design and construction with accents of art and craft
-- Michael Bates English Country Garden Design; (707) 578-5853. English-style garden design adapted to the Northern California environment.
-- Orchard Supply Hardware. Stores throughout the Bay Area. OSH carries all of the supplies needed for making mortar- topped steppingstones or building paths and patios with a Quikrete Walk Maker. Also available are pebbles for steppingstone designs and acrylic ``Ring Bow'' mobiles suitable for decorating round steppingstones.