Those of us of a certain age will remember using concrete blocks—yes, those concrete blocks, with hollow cores and rough edges—as shelf supports. They were lugged inside and, in conjunction with basic lumberyard boards, contained our stereos, books, and the occasional potted plant. We were happy to leave them behind when we attained a more secure economic status. Well, here’s a new way to think about using them, and they won’t contain any of those volumes the campus bookstore refused to accept for resale.
The idea is quite simple: find a level surface and stack them, so that the occasional block is extended from the pillar. Plant in the hollow core. You won’t need a master builder, but you will need to ensure the blocks are on a completely flat surface. Use a leveler to make sure. Depending on the amount of blocks you have, begin arranging them so that every second, third, or fourth level of your stack will feature an extended brick. You want strength out of the column, so stacks should probably be at least two blocks wide, if not more.
You might want to draw out a diagram, or ‘practice’ stacking the blocks. You’ll need an ample amount blocks, no matter if you build a column, retaining wall, support for a pergola, or something else. This part is the most time consuming, but you want to build with care, so your handiwork doesn’t topple over just as you walk away. Use both the logical and creative sides of your brain—right side and left—for building calculations and the look of your design.
Step back frequently as you stack to make sure your design is on each side of your stack. You want extended blocks on each side, and from each column. This step is important if you are creating a freestanding column because you want people to see your plantings on each side of the stack. Don’t be afraid to start over again! Design is about creating!
If you are looking for a permanent structure, then you can mortar the blocks. If not, think of this project as a great temporary addition to your patio or barbecue area where your guests will gather. Create a tower, have several blocks extending from it, then prepare to plant in the hollow cores. The best way to plant in them is to cut some wire mesh to create a pocket to hold the soil. Mold the mesh into the hollow core, with a small amount left as a securing ‘lip’ on the edge, so the mesh won’t fall through with the weight of soil and plant. Add a bit of potting mix, then your plants. Pack sphagnum moss around the plant to create a more finished look and also hide the mesh left around the edge.
Have fun with your plant selection because they probably won’t stay in their pockets long. If healthy, they’ll outgrow their space soon. Erecting these columns or walls in shady areas is a good idea because your plant selection can be more interesting and varied, and watering won’t have to be as frequent. Ferns, succulents, bromeliads, and specimens with variegated foliage should be used for best show against the concrete, so shade becomes even more important. Remember, cram it and shove it!! Don’t be afraid to use lots of varieties and LOTS of color!
Once you’ve created your tower, and planted in the little ‘balconies’ you’ve incorporated in your design, step back and admire what you’ve done. Using and stacking concrete blocks as a design for plantings beats a simple bookshelf any day.
Remember, Live Life to the Fullest!
Chris Olsen is a nationally known home and garden guru, designer, author, TV personality and public speaker. In his book, Chris shares his landscape and gardening knowledge along with his unique flair for home decor and design.He is also a member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. Learn more about Chris and all of his work at chrisholsen.com.