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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Makin’ Mosaics: Part I

By Jim Bishop.

This is the first of a two-part series about Jim's evolving interest and skills in making garden mosaic pavings.

Jim Bishop's first mosaic landing, made from materials found on the hillside on his property.

I’m not sure when I first became fascinated by mosaic pavings. Perhaps it was while looking at photos of the ancient Roman villa floors of the ruins of Pompeii. Or when traveling to Europe and noticing the intricate pavings in many public sidewalks and streets. Over time, I became aware that this was the paving of antiquity for many cultures, from Asian palaces to the Appian Way.

By the early 2000s, it was my paving of choice for the first landing we would create on our hillside. It seemed perfect given that the clay in our hillside expands and contracts seasonally with the winter rains and the dry heat of summer, and there were many readily available materials to use. We had lots of broken red clay roof tiles that a former owner threw down the hill as well as rocks and even discarded orange and gold ceramic tiles with a definite '60s vibe. So I attempted to create a star-like pattern on a semi-circular landing with a round fountain (today a planter) up against the hill. It turned out much cruder—or, shall we say, rustic—than I anticipated, but it quickly became a stopping spot for garden visitors and many have commented on it.

Fast forward a decade and I became of aware of Portland, Oregon artist Jeffrey Bale’s wonderful stone and pebble garden mosaics. He was once an SDHS speaker and he dazzled the audience with photos of his artistic creations. I follow Jeffrey's blog as he takes annual winter-long trips exploring gardens around the world. Jeffrey’s mosaics are set in mortar and he often collects local rocks to tie the works to their immediate environment.

Jim's Starry Night landing from cut roof tile...and Stanley the cat, resident art enthusiast.

Jeffrey became an inspiration for me to create more mosaics. I was determined to add more mosaics to the garden using found, discarded, and recycled items. Several years ago, we had our house re-roofed and I saved a very large pile of broken and leftover red tile. It sat for several years and we slowly used the unbroken pieces to create short retaining walls next to pathways through the garden. However, this left a large pile of broken tiles. After some trial and error, we ended up running them through the tile saw and cutting them into two-inch-wide strips. These were used to surface a flat landing for the shredder halfway down our hill. They were set on end in decomposed granite in several circular patterns. The center of each circle was filled with small rocks from the hillside. The result was something that looked a bit like Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night recreated in terra cotta. However, the resultant landing was too nice for the shredder, which now sits to one side of the landing. I posted a photo of it on Facebook and, much to my surprise, it got shared quite a few times and became the single most liked photo I ever posted.

Gabions (seen at far end of this image) are a DIY retaining wall solution. Read more about the mosaic in the foreground in the next installment of this series.

Last year, we finally got around to replacing the heavily damaged chain link fence between us and the hotel parking lot at the bottom of our hill. We chose an eight-foot-tall wooden fence, which gives us pretty good privacy from the hotel. However, before it could be installed, we needed to move the two-foot-deep pile of boulders and rocks that had been placed at the bottom of the 200-foot-long fence. They were piled up away from the fence by hand carrying buckets of rocks. I estimate there were about seven tons of rocks. I had long wanted to try using gabions in the garden. Gabions are wire cages filled with rocks and other materials to create retaining walls. I ordered online fifteen three-foot high, eighteen-inch deep cages. Next, we had to excavate the hill and create a flat spot for a landing. As we leveled the landing, we found more rocks that we sorted by size. The cages were then assembled and placed in a seventeen-foot diameter ring with an entrance on one side. Finally, the rocks were used to fill the cages with the best looking rocks on the outside and broken concrete and other objects hidden on the inside. The project then sat untouched through the long hot summer we had this past year...

Stay tuned for Part Two of Makin' Mosaics in Jim's next column.

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