The retaining wall.

Kieran Egan

The soul is soothed by the sound of running water, and as a Japanese garden, like many other gardens, is composed with the soothed soul in mind, we need to move water. This is not so easy on the flat piece of land I began with, so I needed to shift some soil. I will dig a hole for a pond, and the soil from the hole can be banked against a wall. A pump in the pond will carry the water to the top of the raised garden and let it trickle over stones back to the pond.

Sounds easy.

But the area in front of the fence where I put the bamboo also had to be dug down so that I could compact gravel, cover the gravel with landscaping fabric against weeds, and spread appropriately decorative stones on top. The soil from that digging had to go somewhere too. The usual principle of having to do something before one can do something, meant that before I could work on the bamboo strip in front of the fence, I needed to build a small retaining wall.

To build a wall, one needs stones. What kind would best suit a Japanese garden? I entered the wonderland of stonemasons' yards. At the nearest, the man who took me around, discussing the virtues and drawbacks of different kinds of stones, seemed oddly misplaced. He was a slightly dissolute looking character, but would have been more acceptable as the headmaster of an expensive English boarding school, discussing the curriculum and, more demurely, the fees. But the owner turned out to be an enormous sun-darkened Portuguese, who seemed to spend his days in the yard cutting stones. He also decided prices for the various stones, so no deal could be struck before consulting him.

The effete headmaster diffidently approached the somewhat wild stonemason and mentioned the various quantities of various stones that we had discussed. Prices were shouted in an approximation of English, as the headmaster and I tried to write them down. Unable to understand the heavily Portuguese accent, I asked for clarification of one of the prices, and was given a new price that didn't fit with any I had heard before. The headmaster assured me later that this was normal and the trick was to take the most recent and favorable quote. He had to be careful, though, as he would sometimes get a tongue lashing for selling something too cheaply or too expensively--either was equally abused.

I finished up buying plain grey basalt in palates, from another stone yard, I regret. This is what it looked like arriving.

In this same shipment came the compactible gravel. The small problem now was to get the pallet of stones from the gate to the back of the garden. A few hours of toting in the wheelbarrow got the stones piled close to where the wall was to be, and a few more hours got the gravel in a pile at the building site.

Here's the heroic wheelbarrow, gloves attached, ready to take the next load by itself:

I dug down about six inches, about a foot or so wide. I had no precise sense of where the wall was to go, and let it follow the path my digging led me. Once I had a narrow trench, I laid a base of gravel, and then began piling in the stones. Then it was a matter of fitting stones together. A lot of skill would produce a better wall than I put up. Like all such jobs, once one has done it one is ready to begin and do it right. But, unless we are heroic, we get to do each job only the amateur once. This is what it looked like after a surprisingly few hours:

Building a dry stone wall well, like anything else, is difficult, but building one that is adequate is quite easy. The only trick to bear in mind is to slope the wall back a little as one goes up, and then toss in soil at the other side and tamp it down as one goes. So I dug bits out for the pond and threw the soil against the growing wall, so that each supported the other. I also laid landscaping fabric on the inside of the wall (the black plastic-like stuff you can see peeping over the top of the wall) to discourage any weeds and their seeds in the soil from finding a happy outlet to the sun through the chinks in the wall. I wanted to be able later to pack composted soil into the wall cracks from the outside--the side you can see in the picture-- and grow various small wall-plants.

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