Our 1850s farmhouse was built back at a time when using heavy machinery to prepare a homesite wasn’t an option. The house is built into the grade with an aggressive slope towards our stream. Field stone walls have been built, some presumably centuries ago, to counter the slope, yielding relatively flat land across much of our property near the main house. We’ve never aspired to have the perfectly flat, perfectly green, sprawling expanse of monoculture that is the classic American lawn. We have a tidy 1000(ish) square feet of flat(ish) lawn that is usually more clover and dandelion than grass. It’s a nice sunny spot to kick a soccer ball, run around, etc. However, this spot isn’t contiguous to the house.
We’ve long wanted to deal with a few choice spots that would benefit from some “earth works.” The first was the area immediately off our small back deck. The deck, while lovely, was simply too small to accommodate more than a couple of people. Building a second, lower “grade-level” freestanding deck was a solution that is discussed in my How To Build a Deck post.
The second spot suffering from grade challenges is the “transition” from the back of the house and site of the new deck and patio to the aforementioned lawn. Squeezed in between a field stone wall that foots the driveway and a garden bed that parallels the stream embankment is effectively the “entrance” to the backyard. This is a prominent spot on our property, but awkwardly sloping and a low quality of lawn even by my very modest standards. While plenty sunny, a combination of foot traffic (compacted ground) and not enough top soil, made this little area (about 25′ by 15′) a prime candidate for a makeover.
I decided that the best use for the 5ish yards of topsoil (I excavated while preparing the site of our new ground level deck and patio) was as fill behind a new field stone retaining wall that would even out the grade in this part of our property. I figured, the soil was already there and I had plenty of it, and this being New England, there is no shortage of field stone on site as well. So, let’s build a low field stone retaining wall.
I started by marking the location of the wall using a garden hose. I wanted the new wall to follow the contour of a garden bed down grade of the new wall, defining a path of sorts, so I positioned the hose accordingly and verified with a tape measure that it was about four feet from the edge of the garden bed at several points along its length. Adding a bit of a curve to the wall also creates some visual interest.
Next I excavated the sod, tamped the bare soil with a hand tamper, and placed landscape fabric and 3/4 inch gravel and tamped that to form a solid base for the wall.
My wall is about 25 feet long and 3 feet high. It took about six hours to actually set the stones in place, but I had lots of rock on hand from various digging projects. You really can’t dig a hole of any meaningful size on our property without encountering sizable field stones. I did take about a dozen or so stones from another field stone wall on our property that I felt was unnecessarily high and beginning to crumble that I rebuilt one afternoon. I also ended up taking a few choice stones from our stream to complete the job, which is not something I really wanted to do since I’d rather not mess with riparian environments. But building a wall like this is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle and was able to complete it by finding a few pieced that fit just right.
Another key to building a field stone retaining wall is the use of “dead men.” These help tie the wall into the backfill and keep it from pitching forward. There is a lot of pressure on the backside of a retaining wall, so leaning the wall backwards and strategically placing long stones perpendicular to the wall should make for a long-lasting installation.
I backfilled with 3/4 inch gravel then covered that gravel with landscape fabric before backfilling with top soil.
The work moved surprisingly quickly. I wasn’t aiming for perfection. There are some truly stunning field stone walls in our area. I was principally aiming for functionality since the space created by the wall will be of much more visual importance than the wall itself. However, I think it turned out quite well.
We intend to landscape this area principally with edible perennials such as blueberry, currant, strawberries and elderberries. Perhaps a grape arbor, too, and definitely lots of herbs. We will develop that vision over the winter, but in the interim I sowed a winter rye/vetch mix (the newly sprouted green grass in the photo) to create fertile conditions when we do plant in the spring.