Secret Wall, Secret Garden

This past year we had a client in Sautee Nacoochee that had a failing wooden retaining wall supporting a cracked and failing driveway. The yard, however, was a beautiful array of mountain laurel and native North Georgia foliage. Our job was simple: tear down the current construction and replace it with a wall and driveway that was functional, attractive, and wouldn’t disturb the surrounding beauty. We love projects that involve accentuating the client’s natural landscape in ways that also solve their logistical problems – it’s always a win win. However, this project had more challenges in store for us.

Here is the wall we needed to take down: clearly old, nothing too special about it. Unfortunately, it was disintegrating before the owner’s eyes and causing the driveway to crumble as well.

This image shows the cracked concrete that made up the driveway. As the wood of the retaining wall started to fall apart, the soil became loose and pulled the concrete down with it. Precipitation was also a factor, as it almost always is. Rain sped up this erosion process and caused the driveway to split even more.

The trickiest part of this project was preserving the client’s coveted native mountain laurels seen here on the right hand side of the photo. Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is a shade-tolerant North American shrub with gorgeous small pink and white wildflowers. Growing often in tangled thickets along Blue Ridge mountain slopes, they provide beautiful colorful foliage with their deep, evergreen leaves. They’re also an important part of the Northeastern ecosystem as their blooms provide important pollen for bees and other insects to harvest. 

The roots of the mountain laurels tunneled throughout the client’s yard so we had to figure out a means of safely dismantling the old wall without disturbing the nearby scenery. We decided the best course of action would be to work from the top of the driveway down. Here is an image of Jason in an excavator on top of the wall, removing dirt, debris, and wood . Most landscapers would have started from the ground up when rebuilding a wall because it’s so much easier and allows for more space to work, but I guess we aren’t most landscapers! We didn’t want to run over the roots of the mountain laurels with our equipment and cause any harm to the natural order of the yard. I guess you could call us a bunch of tree huggers. Anything for the native plants!

Once everything had been removed, we found a secret… there was a concrete wall hidden beneath the wooden one! I guess once you start digging in the earth, you never know what you’re going to find. 

To go any further, we had to remove the newfound concrete wall which was, again, a challenge to complete without disturbing the surrounding foliage. We used a jackhammer to break up the concrete and an excavator to remove all the debris before building the new wall. 

Next we just needed to compact the soil. We used a plate compactor and jumping jack. Here is Jorge in the green shirt using the jumping jack. 

And the rest was history. We added gravel below the wall, then came the blocks that we also filled with gravel, and finally we put more gravel behind the wall following ICPI (International Concrete Paving Institute) specifications.

The final product is a simple yet effective block wall that doesn’t detract from the surrounding native landscape and supports a functional driveway that will last the owner for decades.

I will leave you with famed nineteenth-century author, Louisa May Alcott, and her fervent love for mountain laurels. 

 My bonnie flower, with truest joy

Thy welcome face I see,

The world grows brighter to my eyes,

And summer comes with thee.

My solitude now finds a friend,

And after each hard day,

I in my mountain garden walk,

To rest, or sing, or pray.

You can read the full poem here.

Kalmia latifolia

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