The saga of the flagstone patio…

Oh. My. God. Just thinking about this project makes my blood pressure rise. I can feel it in my shoulders as the muscles tighten and I have to take a deep breath to relax. When we first bought our house, a wise person told us that any home improvement project we wanted to undertake would have a certain math equation to it. It goes something like this…

The first thing you must consider is: do you know what you are doing/have you done it before? Yes? Then this is your equation: Time you think it will take and how much it will cost, x2. If you think you can get it done in one trip to Home Depot/Lowes/other big box/DIY store, think again. This has held true for us, in a very solid, mathematical manner, as math tends to do. As such, it may be true that the people at Sherwin Williams in Newberg knew my name and number by heart for a short while in 2014 (great people there, by the way!), but that’s neither here nor there.

Now, I know you’re wondering -what about when you have NEVER done it, and have NO IDEA what you are doing? Well, then it gets MORE interesting. Oh boy! We take (the time you think it will take) ^3 power (and sometimes we double that just for fun). Oh sure you could try to divide it by how many people you convince into helping you, but honestly, it never helps change the outcome. In fact sometimes more people (if people helping are P) makes the equation= (time x P)^3. I’m not sure how it’s scientifically (or rather mathematically) possible, but I believe it to be true with every fiber of my being.

I don’t even want to talk about the cost equation here – and likely you don’t want to either. Oh, and you think you’ll be done in a week, maybe two- HA! That’s adorable! You think you can order enough 3/4 minus and decomposed granite and flagstone the first try, so you don’t have to pay the lovely people at Valley Landscape Center for four – yes, I SAID FOUR – trips to Newberg? THINK AGAIN ROOKIE!

*calming breaths* imaging a bubbling brook * smelling essential oils* in * out* in *

Alright, let’s just get into it, shall we? Here’s a “before” picture of our back yard. I took this from the house posting when we bought it. Keep in mind this is pre-puppies, and try not to judge us too hard on the current backyard!


Isn’t it pretty? They had hired someone who maintained it, btw. We did not… to our detriment, especially once puppies started destroying things. So, first of all, you see the cherry tree in the far background of each image (to the right of the deck in the first photo, and back left corner in the second photo)? That tree came down ASAP. Gene hated it, plus it was sick. It left us with a stump, which we attempted to burn out in our temporary cinder block fire pit (classy, I know, don’t be jealous) over the next four years (with minimal success). Here’s where the fire pit/patio idea was born!


So, next. we have the yard when we started this project in July – post puppies… (You can see to the right in the first picture where we finally got the cherry tree stump dug/chopped out, and started to till the dirt to help remove the sod (plus Luna tail).


I KNOW, I know. It needs some help. We’re working on it!! Below are a few shots of the prep work – we borrowed the rototiller and had the rest of the tools (plus Luna and Suki’s emotional support as you can see, which almost pays for some of the hardships. Almost.). Most of this was elbow grease and tears… I’m going to fast forward you through the tilling, sod removal, re-tilling, dirt removal, tilling again…I think you get the drift. It was time consuming, exhausting, and felt like it would never end. We (read: Gene) did some research about making these patios, and most recommend at LEAST six inches dirt removal, and most say more for a stable patio that will get a lot of traffic. We did the six inches EXACTLY – minimum requirement – check! This was A LOT of dirt. It may have been a literal ton or more, I can’t say for certain. All I know is I was always sore, every day.


You can see some of our dirt piles along the garden beds

Once the dirt removal was mostly complete, we had to figure out how to level it. This is apparently crucial to the whole thing. So Gene put some stakes down, ran some yarn/string around and leveled them all. We went back with the pick axe and loosened up the areas that still weren’t level, and then repeated that process many, many times, until we were satisfied tired of doing it.


All the emotional support a patio maker could want!

After this step, we were finally ready to start adding in some 3/4 minus gravel. Let’s talk for a moment about our materials and how we chose them…

In our research they say you should have a good base gravel, in a slightly larger size, for good drainage. The smaller, more fine materials for the next level are quite variable, and it really depends on your goals (ie: high traffic pathway vs minimal traffic patio), aesthetics and preferences. This is the same with the flagstone, but really I think the flagstones are primarily decided by aesthetics and maybe a little about how hard you want to work (or not). More on this later. I won’t bore you with the details about all the options for materials as there are plenty of informative blogs/articles out there on the interwebs about that.

We chose 3/4 minus gravel for the base, tan decomposed granite (DG for short) for the top layer (that link is for the gold color but I’m 87% sure we got tan), and Tumbled Rojo Quartzite flagstone.

We chose DG because (in my deluded and overly optimistic mind) I thought the description “This decorative pathway material is very popular due to its ability to pack down very firm” (source: Valley Landscape Supply), sounded like what we needed! Think European gardens- elegance, luxury, beautifully manicured pathways of packed DG with nary a pebble out of place! With our beasts, I figured this would be the solution! AH! To be so young and naïve again…

Also, just as a teaser- the flagstone is SPARKLY! There’s flecks of sparkle in it from the quartzite and it’s beautiful and the sparkles are why Gene picked it!! He will likely deny it, but it’s true I swear! We still have the bucket of glitter dust to prove it!

We also wanted some kind of a border to hold the gravel and DG in place, and make a nice track for the lawn mower. I went on our local “Buy Nothing Group” on Facebook and picked up some gorgeous bricks that were being gifted from a fireplace demo. Score!!! We loaded up the Ranger and brought them home. They needed a little mortar removed and had some white paint, but around here we call that character and best of all-  they were free!


So, finally the day comes, the gravel and DG is delivered (July 5th)!!!


Our friend David (bless him) comes over and helps us start spreading gravel. I painstakingly (hours and hours people) level every. single. brick. to create a level border encompassing the patio (level with the cement pad by the deck). Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow is filled, lifted and dumped.

Annnnnnd … it’s not enough gravel. *Sigh*. How was I to know this was just the first of many miscalculations and set backs? Turns out I misunderstood Gene’s intentions for the volume of gravel we needed. (I swear I was successful in math classes, but that was 11 years ago, I mean come on). I thought we only needed a little more, so I asked the Padre to take the Red Ranger, fill it with as much 3/4 minus as it would take and leave it at the house while we were at work. He so very kindly obliged. Sadly, Still. Not. Enough.

Another delivery expertly maneuvered and dumped on our driveway and we finally had enough. Next, we got to do the packing! Uh…. yay? We had rented a hand tool for this (we rented it on the 5th, like idiots, thinking we would use it that fast… I think it got returned around the 12th? We should’ve just bought one at that point) for $7/ day from the local Reid Rental, and borrowed one of the dirt rollers you fill with water from a friend.

Next is the part I was excited about- the DG! Again with the shovels and the wheelbarrow and the lifting and the dumping. We had down about 3″ of gravel and our flagstones were 1-2″ thick so our first DG later was about 2″. We raked and spread, leveled and re-leveled. This level got a good packing, leveling was rechecked and then it got sprayed down. When you get it wet, the more fine particles all kind of filter down, settle and lock things into place. It looked gooooooood! Walking on it, it felt like it had a solid, hardened crust- exactly what I was hoping for!!! Surely this would stand up to puppy beasty abuses! More on this later…

In the interim, Gene did the research and math and figured out how many retaining wall blocks we would need to make a fire pit. I stopped at “The Depot” (home variety), hauled that bright orange flat bed cart to the back and started loading up the blocks. They were on the middle shelf, and I did it all by myself, in my scrubs. There were two employees in that aisle, bickering at each other, who did not offer to help me. Psh, I didn’t need their help anyway! A little Gorilla glue and some new gloves joined the blocks. The girl at the checkout was great, and I loaded them up in the truck (again, 99 degrees out- at least it was consistent, right?). Turns out we didn’t get enough blocks so I had to go back and get more later that week (surprise! who saw that one coming?). This was okay though, because the gloves I’d bought had already torn in multiple fingers and I wanted to return them (she “sold me” a different pair for a penny since I couldn’t really return them all trashed).

Now that all of the “hard stuff” was done we were on to the fun, pretty, artsy flagstone placement. *cue maniacal laughter and pulling out hair*


First, we had to lay them all out to be sure we had enough.  Remember how we talked about the equations and the deliveries? Well one full pallet of flagstone wasn’t enough. Another half pallet delivered- also not enough. So finally, on a day off, I drove to Valley Landscape (almost to King City), loaded up the Red Ranger with sparkly stones, headed home, and triumphantly unloaded them! I mean, for reals guys, I felt like the ultimate badass!! Right up until I realized I still didn’t have enough. Fuming (and humbled) I headed back and loaded up the Red Ranger. This time, it WAS ENOUGH! Actually I had about four extra flagstones, which I count as a complete VICTORY!

Before the first Red Ranger trip for more stones. (Here we see the Luna, so proud of her and her sister’s mutual destruction of our hard work-more on this below).
Before the SECOND Red Ranger trip for stones…
FINALLY!!! (You can see the extras at the right of the frame), with the start of the DG spread (front and back by shed). Also, bucket of glitter dust in the lower left corner! Told you!

People tell you, in their own various ways, how difficult flagstone laying and leveling can be. Maybe you believe them, maybe you don’t. Please, please, please, do this one thing for me: BELIEVE THEM!!!! For a project like this, you have to level EVERY aspect of EVERY stone. This is where “the amount of work you want to do” comes in to play in regards to the type of flagstone you choose. Ours was incredibly “natural” – translation: extremely uneven and variable. Hence leveling (the opposite of uneven and variable) = very difficult! Sometimes (many, many times) you super duper effff it up, then guess what? You get to re-do it for that one AND ALL THE ONES YOU’VE DONE SINCE THEN!

Sometimes, you get to the fire pit part, and one side of the patio is inexplicably lower than the rest and try as you might (so many times) you cannot figure out how to fix it! Sometimes your husband rage quits (100% supported that decision). Sometimes it’s 99 degrees outside EVERY.FLIPPIN.DAY. (sure Oregon, that makes sense). Sometimes it takes three weeks to do the flagstones because every single one is uneven and unpredictable and you work full time and as previously mentioned, the husband rage quit (really, it was the best for all involved). Phew!

And sometimes, just sometimes, your adorable, sweet, cuddly muffin puppies WRASTLE ON YOUR BEAUTIFUL DG! This results in big gouges in your beautiful “crust” and 3/4 minus gravel churned up and mixed into the DG!! Also, in the wrastling, my beautifully curated brick borders- shambles. They didn’t have support on either side yet so when puppies ran through, it made them go all skeewadgie.

Just imagine: three weeks, on hands and knees, balancing on flagstones, positioning and re-arranging, digging down into the DG (and sometimes down into the gravel) due to super thick flagstones, picking gravel out of DG where the-beasts-who-shall-not-be-named ruined everything, and leveling all sides of every stone. Most of them more than once. Most of this done in evenings after work, in 99 degree sunshine, while yelling at the aforementioned, unnamed beasts “Off!” “Try again” “GODAMMIT LUNA I SWEAR TO GOD” and “SUKI! IM GOING TO KILL YOU! Yea, you better run!” (Well, technially they do have names). Like I could get up off my knees, and stumble across the flagstone fast enough to catch them! You know they were 100% aware of that too. The rage was real.

Disclaimer: *no puppies were harmed in the making of this patio*

Ok, let’s wrap this up- after all the stones were leveled, more DG was loaded, lifted, dumped, spread, and swept around all the flagstones. The next part was the most fun- spraying all the stones down to lock them into place! I loved spraying off each stone, seeing it sparkle and seeing the DG settling in all around. This joy was short lived as the girls (very quickly) figured out they could dig out the smaller flagstones, and still tear up the DG between stones with their devil claws.






I’ve decided to accept the rough and tumble look we have ended up with. It may be that having dogs just means not having nice yards! Would it have changed my mind about getting the girls-hell no! Would I have waited on this project, or made some different decisions- HELL YES! Still, I do love our patio and fire pit, and hope we get many fun years out of it with our girls.

To celebrate the end of the most challenging house project to date, we got some Pineapple Cider from Portland Cider Company, made some pineapple cups, and enjoyed ourselves in our new Adirondack Chairs (from Bi-Mart)! This was on August 19th – for those of you keeping track, this was 6 weeks and 3 days from when we started the project.

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