By Jim Bishop.
One of the frequent questions we get about our garden is where did all the retaining walls come from and who built them? All of them except some of the most recent walls were built by me and my partner, Scott. We learned from trial and error as we went --- but we were much younger and more energetic when most of them were installed. We read the brief instructions on how to create a retaining wall and then mostly did what worked for us. For example, the walls are supposed to be set on gravel and backfilled with gravel. However, you have to buy gravel and carry it down the hill, so we just laid the walls on top of the native soil. Construction rubble we found on the hill while digging was used as backfill for drainage. And surprise, 15 years later, none of the walls have fallen over. We gradually worked our way down the hill building from the top down. We’d lay steps as we went which would open a new level for more walls. Steps are supposed to be laid from the bottom up. However, since most of the hill was too steep stand on, they were built from the top down. Many of the walls didn’t work out quite right and were either removed or re-laid until they looked the way we wanted. The blocks were mostly carried one or two at a time down the hill. Scott did try using long boards a few times to slide the blocks down the hill. However, an occasional block would go airborne and tumble down the hill to the fence at the bottom. Retrieving it by going through the chaparral and climbing back up carrying it without any steps is about the equivalent amount of work and time as carrying 15 blocks one at a time down the hill.
When we started building the walls, about the only easily obtainable retaining wall block was the polygon shaped one with a lip on the back to lock it to row below. Over the years, as new types of blocks were introduced, we started using those. There wasn’t, and still isn’t, any block that is made for making steps. So I’ve improvised many different ways to build steps with different materials.
I have no idea how many pallets of blocks we had delivered, but it is surely in the hundreds. The delivery truck is too long to get down our street. So they park in front of the school at the top of our street and use a forklift to deliver the blocks down the hill to brick sidewalk in front of the house. Much to Scott’s dismay he’d come home from work to find that RCP had delivered another full truckload of blocks. The RCP driver still remembers where we live after 17 years of deliveries.
Hillside Before with Crumbling Brick Walls
Demolition and the start of the first wall
Completed Walls and Steps
After the initial Planting on the side yard
The most difficult part of creating a wall, is laying the first course of blocks. After that stacking goes pretty fast and carrying blocks is the main activity. When we started, carrying the blocks down was the most difficult part. However, now that we are 7 stories below the street, walking back up is now the most difficult part. Since you can get quite warm carrying blocks, I’d often carry blocks down after work for an hour or so in the dark when it was cooler. There is just enough ambient light from hotels on I-8 to be able to see where to step. I’ve occasionally hired younger and supposedly stronger help to carry blocks. They always start out by running up the hill after carrying a load of blocks. I’ve warned them that they will be sorry tomorrow that they did that. Later in the day, I usually find them sitting down partway up the hill resting and catching their breath. Only a hardy few have returned for second day of work and they work at much slower pace.
In 2003, I saw an article in Sunset Magazine about a new home garden in the Bay Area. It had wonderful curved walls that looked like stone, but they were made from concrete block. At the time, we were in the process of completing the project of filling in the swimming pool and building the stair tower and casit
a. I thought these blocks would be perfect for retaining walls in that area. I looked up the resource in the back of the magazine and found out it was Keystone Block product. I knew that RCP was the Keystone distributor for San Diego, so I called them up. It took a while to find someone that could help me, but it turned out they were just in the process of making their first batch of these blocks and didn’t want to sell them to me until they were fully cured (a drying process to harden the concrete). However, I persisted and we received one of their first deliveries of Keystone Country Manor blocks. These blocks use fiberglass pins to hold them together so walls can be vertical. A cap is glued on top to complete the wall. They are fairly easy to make curved walls, pilasters and other shapes from. I loved the look so much, that almost all of the walls since then have been built from Country Manor blocks.