Garden report: Hands-on flagstone

One April morning a year and a half ago, a truck loaded with three pallets of sandstone flags pulled up in front of our house, and I guided the driver and his bobcat across our winter-brown wildflower “unlawn” to where he gently set each pallet down near the petanque court. 


The flagstone was my Mother’s Day present, to build a patio in the courtyard off our bedroom. Richard moved about half of the flags, one by one, through the kitchen garden into the courtyard over the next month (many weigh 200 pounds or more; moving them by hand requires a sturdy cart and a knowledge of rocks and physics). We “drew” the shape of the patio on the ground, and were poised to start…

When a new tumor reappeared in Richard’s right brain, necessitating his second brain surgery and the removal of most of his right temporal lobe that August, followed by the discovery that the tumor was a glioblastoma, the worst form of brain cancer. Then came my mother’s decline, helping with her hospice care, and her death in February. Immediately following that, Richard’s three brain-swelling crises, two brain surgeries in March, and the tumor commandeering his right brain.


The flagstone sat waiting through a summer, fall, winter, spring, and into another summer. Oh, I used some of it for a front walk last July before the North American Rock Garden Society toured our “unlawn” and gardens as part of their annual meeting. But the rest sat untouched.

Until today, when I decided I’d just lay one flag, the extra-big one we’d picked to go right outside the sliding glass door, to begin the patio project. I figured I’d prepare the ground, set that one stone, and be done by lunch. Hah, hah!


I gathered my tools, including the industrial-strength rake we use to work our “soil,” a mix of about 35 percent rounded cobbles, plus gravel, sand and a bit of silt; a flat-bottomed shovel; the screen Richard made for me; and his level and T-square. Then I started raking and picking rocks. I sorted out the cobbles for another project, and then screened the piles of loose material, spreading the pea-gravel on a nearby path, and piling the finer remains as a bed for the flagstone.


When it came to smoothing the bed to slope away from the house, I asked Richard to consult. Then came wrestling the 200-pound, awkward flagstone into place. He’s a genius with pivots and levers and using scraps of wood for sliders. Still, it took more than an hour to finesse that rock’s journey from leaning against a wall to resting in place. (There it is in the photo below, with the level measuring the drop from the house.)


It was two-fifteen when Richard and I straggled back inside, sweaty and starving. But we had the first flagstone laid! We washed up; he took his lunchtime drugs and laid down; I made lunch and let him sleep for 45 minutes before I roused him to eat. 


After our late meal, I was so jazzed that I went out and raked and screened and leveled and laid a flag small enough to manage by myself. (The Chinese pot glazed with sunflowers in the corner is our mini-water garden.) As I finished, a few drops of rain fell, infusing the air with the fragrance of life–like a blessing from the sky.

Here’s the best gift from today though: Richard hasn’t handled rocks since the tumor took off this spring. His vision is impaired (he essentially sees in two dimensions, not three, a real liability for a scuptor) and his ability to imagine spatial relationships is hindered too. But when I asked for his help with that huge flagstone, it came back to him. Slowly, but once his hands were on the rock, he knew just what to do.

“I’ve been thinking about that patio,” he said over lunch. “But I couldn’t see the project all the way through, so I was reluctant to start. You got me going. Thank you.”