Retaining wall dos and don’ts

SW residents go beyond the concrete-chunk look

Tish Pasqual and Chris McMahon's Lyndale Avenue South house sits high above the street in Southwest. After living in their home for several years they decided to address the problem of their sloping front yard with a retaining wall, to cut down on the soil erosion, make it easier to mow, and create more flat space.

But approaching a project that big required a lot of decision-making, from what materials to use to how to do it. The couple bought magazines, searched Web sites and looked around the neighborhood to see what others had done. In their research, they discovered that retaining walls could be more than chunky rectangular concrete blocks.

Ultimately, they chose Chilton wall rock, weathered natural stones, because it matched the slate inlay in the pillars of their porch and the coloration went well with the stucco exterior and the design of their house.

Each stone weighed about 5 to 10 pounds. They ordered 10 tons at a cost of about $250 per ton. McMahon, a mechanical engineer by trade, decided he would do it himself. He got written instructions about dry stacking stones from a Web site he found via the Google search engine and gathered advice from the people who sold him the stone at Magnuson's at 313 W. 61st St., near Nicollet Avenue and West 61st Street.

Chilton stones don't need glue or adhesive, they can be dry-stacked. McMahon dug a trench and laid the first level in a sand pea-gravel base and laid the second stack of stones at about a 5-degree back angle, taking out his level after every stone to make sure it was perfectly horizontal. It took McMahon about two weeks to complete the project.

The art of building

McMahon said he found it to be a very meditative task. Pasqual, who called her husband a man with the hands of an engineer and the soul of an artist, said he did a really good job. "He literally would lay a stone, stand back and visualize the total effect. He became obsessed with it and enjoyed it very much."

Elaine Brubaker, owner of Brubaker's Landscape Designs of the Twin Cities Inc., 3809 Grand Ave. S., said retaining walls have a long, distinguished history Even in ancient times people in China and South America were terracing in order to feed a large population with limited land.

"They exploited a situation by getting more horizontal surface to live and plant on," Brubaker said.

Brubaker said landscaping projects are the best investment a homeowner can make. Improving the curb appeal of your home through landscaping, she said, can bring a 100 to 200 percent return on their investment, given, of course that it is well done.

Most of the people who come to Brubaker are unsure about what they really want in a retaining wall. Part of her job is to offer them guidance and intelligent options.

First and most important, she said, is to make sure the wall matches the character of the house. Second, one should take into account the entire design of the front yard. How does the retaining wall connect into the neighbor's yard?

"Look at the whole, not the parts," said Brubaker. "What is the sense of place that you are trying to create on your landscape? And how does the structure of the wall play into that? Is the person walking by your sidewalk being faced with a 5-foot giant fort or a lovely pedestrian scale of terraces?"

Once those issues are settled you must choose materials. Like Pasqual and McMahon, Brubaker recommends stone.

"Natural stone is something that will grow with you because it is always in style -- whether it is stacked limestone walls or a natural boulder look, natural stone never outdates itself," she said.

Brubaker is less enthusiastic about other retaining-wall options. She feels railroad ties and timber walls are more ideally suited for cabins than urban neighborhoods.

Railroad ties became popular back in the 1970s when the government started ripping up old railroad tracks due to the decline in the railroad industry. There was a plethora of ties laying around and they were cheap to buy, so people started using them for landscaping. They can be found in abundance around South Minneapolis. Their life expectancy is 18 to 25 years.

Unfortunately, many of them were treated with creosol, a very oily toxic liquid that leeches into the soil. After many years the ties begin to rot, and while replacing them is easy, many garbage dumps will not accept the discarded ones because they are so toxic.

There are also problems with mason walls because the mortar used to seal them together breaks down because of Minnesota's freeze-and thaw cycle, where temperatures can reach the 100s in summer and -20 in winter.

People also call Brubaker inquiring about prefabricated block walls. Brubaker considers their Lego-like look more suitable for the suburbs than the city.

Once the material and the design are chosen, the next decision to make involves what kind of vegetation to plant around it. Not only does it help with the wall's aesthetic quality, it also helps eliminate soil erosion.

Some recommended plants which help with soil erosion control are diervilla, sumac, hostas, day lilies and creeping juniper.

The wall McMahon built made their yard easier to mow, cut down on erosion and created a look that passersby can't help but notice.

"It was a fun process that we went through," said Pasqual. "We really like what we chose."

Retaining wall dos and don’ts

SW residents go beyond the concrete-chunk look

Tish Pasqual and Chris McMahon's Lyndale Avenue South house sits high above the street in Southwest. After living in their home for several years they decided to address the problem of their sloping front yard with a retaining wall, to cut down on the soil erosion, make it easier to mow, and create more flat space.

But approaching a project that big required a lot of decision-making, from what materials to use to how to do it. The couple bought magazines, searched Web sites and looked around the neighborhood to see what others had done. In their research, they discovered that retaining walls could be more than chunky rectangular concrete blocks.

Ultimately, they chose Chilton wall rock, weathered natural stones, because it matched the slate inlay in the pillars of their porch and the coloration went well with the stucco exterior and the design of their house.

Each stone weighed about 5 to 10 pounds. They ordered 10 tons at a cost of about $250 per ton. McMahon, a mechanical engineer by trade, decided he would do it himself. He got written instructions about dry stacking stones from a Web site he found via the Google search engine and gathered advice from the people who sold him the stone at Magnuson's at 313 W. 61st St., near Nicollet Avenue and West 61st Street.

Chilton stones don't need glue or adhesive, they can be dry-stacked. McMahon dug a trench and laid the first level in a sand pea-gravel base and laid the second stack of stones at about a 5-degree back angle, taking out his level after every stone to make sure it was perfectly horizontal. It took McMahon about two weeks to complete the project.

The art of building

McMahon said he found it to be a very meditative task. Pasqual, who called her husband a man with the hands of an engineer and the soul of an artist, said he did a really good job. "He literally would lay a stone, stand back and visualize the total effect. He became obsessed with it and enjoyed it very much."

Elaine Brubaker, owner of Brubaker's Landscape Designs of the Twin Cities Inc., 3809 Grand Ave. S., said retaining walls have a long, distinguished history Even in ancient times people in China and South America were terracing in order to feed a large population with limited land.

"They exploited a situation by getting more horizontal surface to live and plant on," Brubaker said.

Brubaker said landscaping projects are the best investment a homeowner can make. Improving the curb appeal of your home through landscaping, she said, can bring a 100 to 200 percent return on their investment, given, of course that it is well done.

Most of the people who come to Brubaker are unsure about what they really want in a retaining wall. Part of her job is to offer them guidance and intelligent options.

First and most important, she said, is to make sure the wall matches the character of the house. Second, one should take into account the entire design of the front yard. How does the retaining wall connect into the neighbor's yard?

"Look at the whole, not the parts," said Brubaker. "What is the sense of place that you are trying to create on your landscape? And how does the structure of the wall play into that? Is the person walking by your sidewalk being faced with a 5-foot giant fort or a lovely pedestrian scale of terraces?"

Once those issues are settled you must choose materials. Like Pasqual and McMahon, Brubaker recommends stone.

"Natural stone is something that will grow with you because it is always in style -- whether it is stacked limestone walls or a natural boulder look, natural stone never outdates itself," she said.

Brubaker is less enthusiastic about other retaining-wall options. She feels railroad ties and timber walls are more ideally suited for cabins than urban neighborhoods.

Railroad ties became popular back in the 1970s when the government started ripping up old railroad tracks due to the decline in the railroad industry. There was a plethora of ties laying around and they were cheap to buy, so people started using them for landscaping. They can be found in abundance around South Minneapolis. Their life expectancy is 18 to 25 years.

Unfortunately, many of them were treated with creosol, a very oily toxic liquid that leeches into the soil. After many years the ties begin to rot, and while replacing them is easy, many garbage dumps will not accept the discarded ones because they are so toxic.

There are also problems with mason walls because the mortar used to seal them together breaks down because of Minnesota's freeze-and thaw cycle, where temperatures can reach the 100s in summer and -20 in winter.

People also call Brubaker inquiring about prefabricated block walls. Brubaker considers their Lego-like look more suitable for the suburbs than the city.

Once the material and the design are chosen, the next decision to make involves what kind of vegetation to plant around it. Not only does it help with the wall's aesthetic quality, it also helps eliminate soil erosion.

Some recommended plants which help with soil erosion control are diervilla, sumac, hostas, day lilies and creeping juniper.

The wall McMahon built made their yard easier to mow, cut down on erosion and created a look that passersby can't help but notice.

"It was a fun process that we went through," said Pasqual. "We really like what we chose."