From first frost – which usually has happened by now even in most of southern Maine – until first snow is the best time to tackle your nonplant gardening projects.

Knowing I will be trapped inside from mid-December until the snow melts in March or April means that over the next couple of weeks I look for all sorts of projects I can do outside right now. In the landscaping profession, those projects are called hardscaping.

Do you want to add a patio where you can sit on warm summer days? Maybe you’d like a gazebo. How about a shed to keep your garden tools closer to the garden and out of the weather?

Do you need a fence to keep your pets from leaving or people from coming in? What about benches? Do you have a pile of rocks you dug out of your garden that you could turn into a rock wall?

I am not a trained carpenter or stonemason, but over the years I have laid a driveway, patio and walkways with recycled brick, built a garden shed that has lasted 20 years and still looks sound, built simple benches and installed a fence.

The secret to doing things you are not trained to do, I have found, is to read as much as you can before you start, figure out how much time you expect the job to take and then double it, be willing to walk away from it for a couple of days if it isn’t going well, and accept that sometimes you have to take apart what you have done and start over.

If all that has failed, figure you can do without whatever you were trying to build or hire a professional.

Hardscaping projects are useful; beyond that, they serve as focal points in the garden. A shed, bench, wall or arbor attracts the eye and serves as a visual contrast to the softer textures of leaves and flowers. If you really want to attract the eye, paint them colors that you don’t often find in nature.

This column won’t give you detailed plans about how to build anything: There isn’t enough space, and I don’t have enough technical information. It is just to give you ideas about what you may want to build. Once you decide, check online or go to a building-supply store to pick up detailed plans.

Our first hardscaping projects – extended over four decades – were creating walkways and a patio with recycled bricks. Paving projects are a good place to start, because while they might be physically challenging, they are technically easy. And the project is at ground level, so you know it isn’t going to collapse. Well, it may collapse but it won’t fall far.

The biggest mistake we made in the first patio and walkways we built was placing the bricks too far apart. We thought they should look like mortared bricks, with a half an inch between each brick. That arrangement meant rainfall splashed sand on top of the patio and walkways, so they had to be swept after each rainfall. Not fun.

In retrofitting the work over the years, we have put the bricks much closer together. If you are buying new bricks, get ones that are half as wide as they are long, so they fit closely together when you follow basket-weave or herring-bone patterns.

A patio requires digging out six inches of soil where you want it to go, filling in with sand or stone dust, packing it down hard and laying the bricks, using a rubber-headed mallet to pound them in place.

Start small, because you can always add on to a ground-level patio. We built ours in sections, whenever we accumulated enough bricks.

We liked bricks over pavement or concrete because it looks natural, and water seeps through the cracks rather than running off to street drains. Plus, if there is damage of some sort (for example, you’re cutting down a big tree branch and it lands on the patio, leaving a 2-by-6-foot dent), you can remove and replace the damaged bricks or raise the patio a bit by adding more fill before replacing the bricks.

Sheds just look good in a garden. If done right, they look like little woodland cottages, welcoming you to visit. With a shed, you don’t have to look at the wheelbarrows and snowblowers when they are not in use. In addition, you can grow vines up them, which always look good from a distance, or you can add window boxes or plant cottage gardens around the shed.

While you can buy pre-built sheds and have them delivered, you will feel like you have accomplished more if you build it yourself. Ours has concrete blocks as a base, three-quarter-inch plywood as the floor and inexpensive studs for the framing. It took about two weekends, and you do need two people to do the job.

If you want to grow vines but don’t need a shed, consider building a trellis or arbor. These are fairly small and complex, so you might want to make them an indoor winter project.

When we had our house built on a farm field many years ago, a short section of stone wall already existed. Over the years we dug up many stones in planting gardens and building patios, and we extended the wall with those stones. It makes our gardens look almost ancient.

My wife, Nancy, doesn’t like the look of most inexpensive store-bought fences (she doesn’t like those pointy pickets that give picket fences their name) so she had me build some out of two-by-fours and inexpensive lathing. It probably cost more than the lowest-priced box-store stockade fencing, but it fit our purposes better.

These are just a few ideas for things I have done. We don’t have room for a gazebo, and it looks complicated – so my advice is to try some smaller projects before you tackle that one.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]


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