Saturday, October 1, 2011

Concrete as the main attraction

Concrete: It's not just for sidewalks any more
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, October 1, 2011

SKYBALLS: Concrete balls come in many sizes. “Skyballs” at Anna Jean Cummings Park on Old San Jose Road in
 Soquel, features four HUGE sky-blue balls which appear to be rolling down a hill, about to crush cars in the
 parking lot. “Skyballs” was designed in 2001 by Oakland artists Steve Gillman and Katherine Keefer.

Up against all the Smithsonians, monuments and memorials, the United States Botanic Garden is one of the lesser draws on the National Mall, tucked away on Independence Avenue, just a stone’s throw from the Capitol. Like most of the DC attractions, it’s free, informative and fascinating. But—unlike the rest of Washington—it’s a surprisingly crowd-free oasis.

US BOTANIC GARDEN: Here’s the ball in the United
 States Botanic Garden that got me rolling.
Strolling along its pathways this summer, I was inspired by the decorative elements: upright plastic tubing that held gravel paths in place; colorful pyramidal plant supports; and multi-level arbors covered in plants from top to bottom. But what stirred me the most was a ball of concrete. Nesting at the base of a plant, this bowling ball-sized, cobalt blue sphere was a distinctive feature among the greens, pinks and reds of the surrounding regional plant-life.

ROCK ON BRAH: Terri Ryan recently took
 first place at the Santa Cruz County Fair
 for one of her signature concrete bras.
Concrete typically plays a utility role in most gardens—to invisibly anchor fences and decks, or just as subtly, provide low-cost but highly functional patios, sidewalks, curbs and retaining walls. Concrete is not there to be noticed, much less admired. It’s the stemware holding the fine wine: the clearer the glass the more its contents can be appreciated.
When concrete is used in a decorative way, it’s often encrusted with grouted mosaic pieces or textured plaster. But the blue sphere showed me that relatively unadorned concrete can also be attractive.
To find out more about concrete, I contacted Terri Ryan, who recently took first place in the Capitola Soroptimists’ annual “Bras for a Cause” competition which benefits two local women’s support groups. Her imaginative entry, “Rock on Brah,” was constructed of molded concrete and rocks—a wonderful tribute to the possibilities of concrete.

COURTYARD ART: Terri Ryan’s courtyard is a concrete art showplace
 featuring planters, pots, wall hangings, XXs and OOs, and pedestals,
 all made from concrete.
A hair stylist with a degree in design, Terri said she started working with concrete about 6 or 7 years ago. “I needed to be around the house for my teenagers. These art projects are a great way of being home and being there for them,” she said. She learned much of her technique from Coleen Sands, whose mosaic work she had admired on her house numbers when passing by her home. The two have since become good friends and have regular “concrete play days” to get together and make things from concrete. (To see Colleen’s amazing mosaic work go to

Terri’s Live Oak home and especially her yard is a showplace for her stepping stones, planters, pedestals, wall hangings and more—all made from concrete. Her courtyard workspace has shelves, bins and buckets full of objects and materials perfect for forming and shaping concrete. Inside her home she even has a bathroom backsplash make from concrete and river rocks.

SLURRY: One of the pleasures of working with concrete
 is the lovely texture and feel of slurry—a melted-chocolate-
like mixture of cement, polymer admix and water.
 Hollow concrete spheres can be made by covering a
 ball with self-adhesive fiberglass mesh tape, slurry,
 and then a thin layer of concrete. To work safely with concrete,
 always wear a face mask and gloves, especially when mixing.
On a recent Friday, she showed me how to make two concrete spheres and two stepping stones, while she continued work on a gigantic round planter formed around an inflated exercise ball. My much smaller spheres were shaped around a soccer ball and a school-yard rubber ball. We made stepping stones without a mold by adding a thin layer of concrete to the top of purchased concrete stepping stones, and stamping a circle into the concrete while still wet.

From working with Terri and from Sherri Warner Hunter’s book “Making Concrete Garden Ornaments” I got a better understanding of concrete’s properties.

  • Concrete is a mixture of cement, water and aggregate.
  • Aggregate is used to inexpensively bulk up the mixture. Common aggregates are sand and gravel, but lightweight material such as vermiculite, or more colorful material such as crushed shells or glass, can also be used. Rough, flat aggregates create a stronger bond than round, smooth ones, and smaller aggregates create a smoother textured concrete than larger ones.
  • Water added to cement creates a paste that coats each piece of aggregate and hardens the mixture into a solid mass
  • Chemical admixtures such as acrylic fortifier can also be added to the mix to increase moisture resistance, workability and durability.
  • Curing is the process necessary for concrete to gain maximum strength. Concrete cures gradually in a moist, controlled environment. So, at the end of each work session, the concrete must be covered in plastic and kept moist for a minimum of three to five days, and out of direct sunlight and strong wind.  Most of the strength is achieved in the first week, though strengthening may continue for decades.

STEPPING STONES: Terri Ryan’s colorful stepping
 stones, along with her dog Daisy, brighten a corner
 of her yard. Terri creates a circle in her stepping stones
 by pressing the rim of a bowl or pot into the wet concrete.
 She paints the dry stones bright colors using
 Smith’s Color Floor stain, available at Central Home
 Supply in Santa Cruz.
What amazes me most about concrete is its versatility. Concrete is often shaped by being poured into a mold (casting). But it can also be pressed into or on top of a mold; or sculpted with the help of armature, which acts like a skeleton to support the form; or carved while wet or dry. By controlling the amount of water added, concrete can even be mixed to a consistency similar to clay for relief modeling. Surface treatments for concrete include incising, stamping, polishing, painting, staining, embedding and mosaicing.

Here are some suggestions for get started with concrete:

1.  Seek out Sherri Warner Hunter’s books at the library—she will help you see concrete in a whole new way. Her 2005 book “Creative Concrete Ornaments for the Garden” will be available in paperback in March 2012.
2.  Consider these new books: “Concrete Crafts” by author Alan Wycheck will show you how to make tiles, tabletops, stepping stones, bowls and planters cast from molds with lots of great step-by-step photos. “The Revolutionary Yardscape” by Matthew Levesque will give you radically new ideas for repurposing materials, such as garden walls made from wine bottle corks and pathways made with tumbled dishes. Levesque makes concrete bowls incorporating decorative materials such as tumbled glass, marbles, and even old keys.
3.  Learn several different techniques for making concrete spheres by Googling “How to make a concrete sphere.”

Fall, a great time for outdoor projects

This beautiful rose arbor at Sierra Azul Nursery in Watsonville, is actually
 a pergola because it shades a long walkway. Note the pointed roof shape.
7 Secrets to the 2 hottest, dreamiest backyard projects yet
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, September 10, 2011

Throughout the spring and summer,
Sunset uses fashion/beauty lingo to sell

March: Makeovers for small backyards
April: 7 secrets to beautiful backyards
May: Get your backyard ready for summer
June: Create a dreamy backyard retreat
August: Hottest backyard looks

Obviously, Sunset has to compete in supermarket check-out lines with the glamorous covers of Marie Claire, Seventeen and In Style.  The difference is, as the weather starts to cool in September, so does the intensity of Sunset’s backyard teases.

September: Easy-grow gourmet lettuce

But September and October are actually perfect months to start new backyard projects. The warm days start with sunshine instead of fog and still last well into the evening. The two “hot” projects I propose also make practical sense as fall projects. The first, an arbor, will add a beautiful focal point to a yard that may not be as verdant and colorful as it was in the spring and summer. And the second, a compost bin filled with spent annuals, fall leaves and kitchen scraps, will save you money and time because you won’t need to shop for garden soil and amendments in the spring.

All About Arbors

Painted red, black and turquoise, this arbor serves as a
gateway to the Japanese Garden at the Sesnon House at
Cabrillo College in Aptos
Although arbors generally play supporting roles (for plants and vines), they can also be the mood-setting stars of the show. An arbor—especially a colorful one—can provide a splendid vertical highlight in an otherwise placid garden. Or, when fitted with a bench or swing, can draw you in to a relaxing getaway. A gated arbor can offer a warm friendly welcome in front of a home, or add a sense of wonder as you enter a private garden retreat.

Although arbors are typically made from pressure-treated lumber, eye-catching arbors can also be made from a variety of unexpected or cast-off materials such as curving willow branches, rough hewn logs, or even iron rebar.

The graceful arc of this arbor complements
the round shape in the gate to this
apartment complex entrance in Gilroy
Larger than a trellis but smaller than a pergola, an arbor usually consists of two or four upright posts connected overhead by a horizontal lattice which offers shade below and a climbing structure for plants. The overhead connection is typically flat, but can also be rounded like an arch or peaked like a roof.

Arbors are often designed to complement the style of the surrounding home and garden. A traditional design will feature crisp, symmetrical lines. A cottage design will typically have curving lines and liberal embellishment. A simple, contemporary design will make use of sleek industrial materials like metal and concrete.  A rustic design will be more freewheeling and one-of-a kind, sometimes making use of found, rusted or improvised materials.
The Garden Company Nursery on Mission Avenue in Santa
Cruz is a great place to see lots of different arbor designs.
This one supports hanging plants and provides shade
 to seedlings below.
You can find lots of free plans and instructions for arbor-building online or at your local library. The ideal money-saving arbor would be made from recycled materials. But a simple, yet sturdy arbor can be made from new lumber for about $100. Start your Website search with “how to build an arbor” or flip through the pages of “Making Arbors & Trellises” by Marcianne Miller and Olivier Rollin for lots of ideas, plans and instructions.

Surf City Coffee Co. in Aptos has a thick, asymmetrical arbor
to support a beautiful, mature wisteria.
Compost Bins

My favorite DIY Website, Instructables, has plans for several compost bins made from recycled products like garbage cans and pallets. I've used a black plastic orb for composting for years, but it gets too heavy to roll around as it fills up with moist material. I wanted to make a sturdy bin that was easier to use, would not compost itself, and could accommodate more waste, without spending too much on materials.

Wooden compost bin plans often call for pressure-treated lumber, but I don't like the idea of pesticides in the lumber leaching into my compost and soil. So I decided to use recycled redwood, which I had in abundance from a play structure we built for our kids when they were young. Redwood or cedar are the best choices since they are rot-resistant, and will keep the garden organic and safe.

Although the triple bin I built uses lumber, the sides are made from wire hardware cloth, so this cuts down on the expense of using all wood. You'll need a 3x9 foot space in your yard to accommodate this bin. The large size will allow you to compost everything you've got—from garden trimmings to kitchen waste. Ours is place in the vegetable garden but not too many paces from the kitchen door, to make composting as convenient as possible.

The triple bin will also allow you to compost in stages, moving the contents from one bin to the next as the material breaks-down. With removable wooden slats in the front, the compost is very accessible and easy to turn, stir or shovel to the next bin or the garden.

For my step-by-step instructions with photographs, see There is also a lively discussion in the comments section on the best methods for effective composting. Incorporating recycled lumber will cut down on the cost, but with purchased hardware and Con-Common grade redwood the total cost would be about $220. If you don’t have space for such a large bin, you can cut down on the materials (and cost) by building just one or two bins with the same basic principles of construction.