Laying stepping stones on non-flat surface

well_drained(z6a MA)March 23, 2006

Instructions about laying stepping stones assume a perfectly flat surface: dig out a hole, put down some sand, level it, then put in the stone and level the stone, making sure it is level with the surface of the ground or, depending on the use, just below or just above the surface.

No one seems to anticipate those of us whose property is not flat. My yard has slopes, bumps, raised and lowered areas, etc. How would I go about putting in a stepping stone path through this landscape? I mainly need it to get to certain parts of the yard without stepping on the plants. (There is already a winding path with wood chips, but there are some areas that I can't access directly from the path.)


- wd

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gottagarden(z5 western NY)

Do you want "steps" or a slope?

    Bookmark   March 25, 2006 at 7:49AM
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well_drained(z6a MA)

Thanks for the question. I'm trying to avoid steps - it's a long path (30-40 feet) and it crosses another path. I put some photos in the gallery of the Landscape Design forum. (This forum doesn't allow me to upload photos.)

-- wd

    Bookmark   March 25, 2006 at 4:23PM
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Stepping stone paths don't work so well on slopes. The surface is uneven and can be tricky to navigate on a slope, particularly when wet. Except on the very shallowest of slopes (certainly less than your photos show in places) I always put in steps and then use larger rocks or boulders at the sides of the steps to hold back the soil, since I just terrace the path itself, not the surrounding area. If you really don't want to put in steps, I would suggest only putting stepping stones on the flatter parts of the path and mulching the sloped parts inbetween. At least, that way the path can be safely navigated.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2006 at 7:10PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

That is an interesting question. I think if you don't want steps that you should be able to lay the stones parallel with the slope, because after all a sidewalk can go up and down a slope; why can't a garden path? The trick with stepping stones particularly is that they may slide down the slope, perhaps especially on sand, when you step on them or due to frost heave. I'm not sure how to deal with that. It might be safer to pack dirt around them (even if sand under for drainage) or dig in a couple of heftier rocks to kind of anchor them. Or would ground cover help? Above all I suspect that thinner stone, like flagstone, would be more prone to slippage, and that something like a brick path would be less so.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2006 at 11:22PM
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I think the difference is that when you step on a sloped sidewalk the force of your foot doesn't shift the sidewalk downhill because the sidewalk is much more massive, has tensile strength and is well anchored. If you can use stones that are more massive than the people using the path and can anchor them well, then they will at least stay put. It can still be difficult navigating such a path because of the uneveness of the surface.
I have all types of stone paths on my property, but have removed the ones that weren't set as steps on noticeable slopes, because even with ~40 lb stones they had to be reset at least once a year, either due to frost heave or due to useage. I haven't had to touch the stepping stone paths on flat or near flat areas.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2006 at 8:10AM
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I was able to do something in my zone that may not work in zone 6 or for a long path, but I'll share it. I have a fairly short (15 ft?) sloped path to the back gate to our deck. I had a similar dilemma. On our property there happened to be some large fieldstone, and I found a number of rocks that were largish and irregular but flattish on one side--but a key thing is the flattish side was a little irregular, not slick and the rocks were thick enough to be partially buried. I dug out a hole for each rock so that it was actually set in the angle of the slope but with the downside slightly up, or the irregularity angled up or level, if you can picture that. I had to set each one fairly carefully, fill in with soil underneath, orient its "irregularities" to the best advantage of how I would place my feet going up and down. Most were only about a foot square or less but a few much larger are the first stones as you step down from the decking steps so you don't have to hunt for footing. Since this would have been a pretty narrow path, a few more are set alongside, but off centered, not exactly aligned. Planted dwarf mondo grass around the edges. This path has worked great for 4 yrs for foot traffic going up and down and while I tend to step on individual rocks, the path as a whole unit is stablized by the slightly angled, rough rock surface so you can step anywhere or roll a wheelbarrow on it. I have another area in which I may do a similar thing, will have to buy rock but now know which ones to hand-pick for the same result.

Now, this worked for me because the slope itself took care of the drainage issue, I apparently do not have significant frost heave, and I could manage the installation and was willing to re-set an occasional stone (have not had to yet) , but it would seem less do-able for your many linear feet of path, you may need much more frost-heave protection. So you may need to look into doing the series of short terraced sections using rock or short lengths of timbers for cross pieces, and mulch or rock for the level areas. I've mentioned before on another thread, that you can find lots of photos by Google or in some books on "Paths" and sometimes under "Front Yard" design ideas.

Also, look at your yard layout and see if you can determine the highest-priority "main path" on which to focus your efforts. It may be impractical (read:expensive; I have no doubt it can be done) to install paths on the bee-line approach to each of several areas; perhaps there will be one main, highly stable downhill path and some lesser paths.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2006 at 7:48PM
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gottagarden(z5 western NY)

I just looked at Gordon Hayward's "Stone in the Garden" book. He shows lots of pictures of stone flagstone paths on slopes; they are all as "steps, not sloping with the ground. Not necessarily a staircase effect, but the surface of each stone is level, not sloping. Given these photos, frost heave, explanations given above, I suspect that is the way to do it on your property. The good news is that is can be done that way, and they looked great in this book.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2006 at 12:05PM
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gottagarden -- that book is a great suggestion. what frankie-in-zone-7 described sounds a bit inbetween steps and sloping stone path. in colder climates, the closer to steps you get, the better it works. but, as you said, it doesn't have to be an actual staircase look.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2006 at 8:08PM
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Hayward has (at least) 2 other books on pathways as well, for more and related ideas.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2006 at 8:13PM
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well_drained(z6a MA)

Thanks for all the thoughtful advice, warnings and suggestions. I haven't decided exactly what I'm going to do, but I do know I'm going to take it slowly. I may focus on the flattest portions of the proposed path first and see how that works out. Most of the stones are pretty thick, and it sounds like that may be an advantage for stability. I would really rather not have a situation where I need to stabilize the sides of the path -- I'd like this to feel like an informal path that just blends into the garden on both sides. Right now it is just a "trodden earth" path, as one of the books described, and I could live with it staying that way if that's the best option for safety. I am not sure how to choose between the 'level with the slope' and the 'level with gravity' alternatives. Maybe I will experiment with both options for different parts of the path and see which works best.

-- wd

    Bookmark   April 6, 2006 at 9:11PM
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