Every since I was a little boy, I’ve had a fascination with bricks. I know this may sound a bit strange, but it’s true. While other kids were entertaining themselves with board games or erector sets, I could usually be found in the sandbox, playing with my favorite toys: a dump truck, a front-end loader, and several dozen bricks that I would fashion and refashion into an endless series of child-sized highways, bridges and other structures. I suppose it’s little wonder then that thirty years later I wound up heading my own landscape design/build firm, where I still play with trucks, front-end loaders, and bricks, though in quantities and sizes I couldn’t have begun to imagine as a child.
One of the lessons I’ve learned from this decades-long acquaintance is that although brick is a common element in our landscapes, it is often misused, or perhaps more precisely, not utilized to its fullest potential. Despite the beauty of brick – to my eye, there is no surface more warm and inviting than a properly laid brick walkway or terrace – and despite its ease of installation – brick is one of the least difficult paving surfaces for the amateur to install – far too frequently ugly asphalt or concrete pavers become the hard surface of choice in our gardens. Or, when brick is in fact used, it’s most often laid in simple, prosaic patterns lacking any imagination. If you would like to make better use of brick in your garden, then here are some important pointers to keep in mind.
Don’t skimp on site preparation.
A friend of mine, a full-time mason, often quips to his clients that he isn’t really paid to lay bricks, he’s paid to lay the base – once that’s accomplished, the bricks almost lay themselves. This is actually quite true. The key to laying brick successfully is the work that occurs before the first brick is put in place. Once the site prep is done, bricks go down much like icing on a cake. Often however, home gardeners attempt to lay brick without taking time to fully excavate and prepare their site, inevitably resulting in a bumpy, lumpy surface that soon heaves with frost and completely disintegrates. If you want a professional looking terrace or patio, first prepare a professional base.
Pay attention to brick color, size and type
Many people presume that all bricks are created pretty much the same, but in fact they vary substantially in shape, color and quality (and cost!). Bricks are generally divided into two basic groups: molded and wire-cut. The modern method of producing bricks is to extrude and then wire-cut them, which produces units that are extremely uniform, and because of their regularity, are easier to lay, especially in complicated patterns.
The traditional method of producing bricks – molding – creates bricks that are much more randomly shaped, and often vary in width and length by over a half-inch. While molded bricks are more difficult to install, to my mind, their handmade look is much more appealing and far more suitable for traditional applications. Both molded and wire cut bricks come in a wide variety of colors, ranging from light cream, through every shade of red, to dark brown. The color brick you choose will have a terrific impact on the final look of your project, in much the same way that changing the color of a rug can alter a room’s appearance. If you’re unsure about what color is best, get two-dozen individual bricks of several different types, and try them out in your garden space – just as you would swatches of carpet indoors. Also, be sure when choosing bricks that you purchase those specifically made for paving. Wall bricks, core bricks (those with the holes inside) or re-used bricks from unknown applications, often lack the durable top surface required to prevent chipping, and will quickly disintegrate from wear and frost damage when laid as pavers.
Finally, perhaps the most overlooked aspect of brick laying is the need to pay attention to pattern. In the same way that a brick’s color can change the look of your garden space, pattern will have an equally important effect. The easiest, and most common pattern is called running bond, which as the name implies, is a combination of bricks laid in rows end to end, with their joints staggered. While fine for walkways, running bond tends to have a monotonous effect in ample areas such as terraces or patios. Far better would be to use a more intricate pattern such as herringbone, perhaps even surrounded by a running bond frame. It pays to experiment with different patterns or combinations of patterns when laying out your brick surfaces. Remember, besides forming the utilitarian part of your landscape, hard surfacing can and should be an aesthetic enhancement as well. Properly designed and laid, a brick terrace or walk can take on the all the intricacy and grace of an oriental rug, adding year-round beauty and interest to your garden.