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First Steps

by Nellie Neal

Whether your stepping stone path leads to a gazebo, winds its way between beds or just lets you step in for maintenance, use it to express your garden style. A wide variety of precast stones work well in most settings, but you can make your own in more styles and sizes, with decorations to reflect your personal taste.

Make precast stones personal

Choose precast stepping stones with flat tops in squares or circles and paint them: garden green, blue to match your irises or for truly unique designs turn the kids loose with acrylic or latex paint. Use stones with exposed gravel aggregate tops in areas around entry doors – their rougher surface helps catch dirt and keep it out of your house. Spray on a clear coat to resist the elements longer.

Do some yourself

Here’s what you need:

bags of sand or gravel mix
a big plastic container to mix it in
stick to stir with
paint pigment 
a heavy trowel 
a flat board or concrete finishing tool to level the stones
frames: wood pieces (1x3’s) work well for squares and rectangles, cut rounds from heavy plastic buckets deep enough to hold two or three inches of concrete 
decorations: limited only by your imagination

Handling concrete

You can wheel the mix to irregularly shaped forms you’ve made in the garden, then pour and decorate them there for a very informal look. If you’re not sure where the path will lead, or if the weather won’t hold long enough to set the concrete, set up an assembly line on a sheet of heavy black plastic in your garage. Mix the concrete, add pigment if you want to color it, then use your trowel to spoon it into the form, pressing it down and shaking the frame as you go. Work quickly, adding and packing, to make a dense, longlasting stone. Level the surface with a flat board or concrete tool – make it flat with the top of the form and return any excess concrete to the mix. 

Unlimited imagination

As soon as it’s poured, begin a mosaic of decorations pressed into the stone – anything will do so long as it suits your style. Make a whirl of marbles and mirror pieces, edge the stone with shells or celebrate each of your children with castoff toy parts and early attempts at pottery. Next go for an organic look with leaves or seeds pressed lightly into the concrete to make a silhouette. Capture your child’s footprint or record important dates and sayings on your stepping stones by writing on them while the concrete is wet – a wooden chopstick works perfectly for inscribing concrete. If you’re working outside, cover the stones loosely with clear plastic while they cure. Depending on the humidity in your area, concrete will set in 2 days to a week. Peel off the plastic, break off the forms and take a walk through your garden!

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