The art of stepping stones, making your own
While waiting for the weather to improve enough to work in your yards, you may want to try a garden craft project. Stepping-stones are a popular and useful addition to the landscape and can be more like garden art than just an accessory. They may be scattered sporadically, lined up like hopscotch or trailing around the garden edge. They can be set in the lawn or garden to direct foot traffic, to avoid squashing little plants and to avoid soil compaction. They are also useful for getting to the back of garden beds.
You can purchase steppers, but they are easy and fun to make. Although there are several methods and creative ways to make them, they all use the same basic materials. 1. A bag of pre-mix concrete such as Quikrete Concrete mix. 2. A large mixing container such as a plastic tub or your wheelbarrow. 3. A trowel, hoe or shovel to mix the concrete. In addition, you will need embellishments to make them beautiful. One method utilizes the large leaves of rhubarb, hosta or ferns to make imprints. Another method creates designs with beads, tiles, seashells, marbles, pretty stones, broken plate fragments or mirrors. They can be left plain, choosing only to color the wet concrete with cement colorant, or they can be painted or stained after they dry.
I have seen pretty stepping-stones while on garden tours that were made with the leaf motif method. The following method makes steppers strong enough to support an adult, light enough to move, and able to stand winter temperatures. With this method, you will have to wait until you have large rhubarb or hosta leaves available. Any leaf with large veins should work.
Choose an area to work that will be undisturbed for several days. A driveway, concrete patio, bare soil or even grass will do. Cut a piece of plastic at least six inches larger all around than the leaf and place it on the ground. Place the leaf in the center of the plastic, vein side up.
Mix the concrete according to the package directions. It can be dusty, so you might want to wear goggles and a facemask. Add the water a little at a time and use a hoe to scrape and mix the water back and forth until the concrete is the consistency of the sand you would use to make sand castles.
With a gloved hand or shovel, move the concrete onto the leaf, spreading it almost to the edge to a thickness of 1 to 1 1/2 inches. Press firmly to get rid of air bubbles. Spread the concrete to form the shape you want.
To insure strength and durability, place chicken wire on the concrete to within 2 inches of the edge. Shovel more concrete over the chicken wire again, spreading to a thickness of 1 to 1 1/2 inches and press firmly.
Gently lift the plastic up around the design and smooth the edges with gloved hands or a trowel. Place earth or gravel around the form to support it while it cures. Cover it with plastic to keep it from drying out and let it cure for 48 hours. Carefully lift the stone from the plastic and turn it over. Remove the leaf from the stone with a spray of water. You may need to use a wire brush to smooth the edges. The stones usually take from five to seven days to cure enough to walk on.
Some people place the leaf over a mound of sand, even making them right on the sand of their beach. This way you end up with a concave stone that holds water. You may choose to paint or stain the stones to accentuate the leaf veins.
In the second method, a mold is used and the design is pressed into the top while the concrete is still wet. Sixteen-inch pizza boxes make an easy mold. Cut off the lid and tape the sides with duct tape to keep them from bowing out. Pie tins or pre-formed plastic molds such as an oil pan are good too, but any shallow container with a sturdy bottom and sides will do. You can also use a bottomless wooden form placed on a plastic sheet.
Grease the mold with vegetable shortening to make it easy to remove when the stepper is dry. Fill the molds with prepared concrete, enough so that it is at least an inch thick. Spread it out with a scrap piece of wood to smooth the surface. Jiggle the sides and tap the mold on the ground to get rid of air bubbles.
Decorate your stepper pushing the beads, stones, or pottery pieces a little more than half way into the surface. Make sure that there are no sharp edges sticking up.
Once the concrete is completely cured, pop it out of the mold. Then use a brush-on sealant such as Thompson's Water Seal to enhance the design and reduce moisture damage.
Steppers can be set right into the lawn and you can mow over them. To install, first place the stone and sprinkle flour around the outside to mark the edge. Remove the stone and use a sharp spade to slice the turf. Dig down about 6 inches and remove the dirt and sod. Put a 4-inch layer of sand in the bottom in order to level the stepper. Sink the stepper into the soil, level with the ground.
Design your stepper to suit your garden style or personalize them to honor someone or to remember a special occasion.