How to Build a Small Brick and Mortar Retaining Wall By Yourself!
February 4, 2018
Let me give you a little background on why I called the site The Homey Bee. Obviously, it’s a play on Honey Bee and all “hive” related names were taken. But why the bee obsession?
Funny story. Well, a story at least. My name Melissa comes from the Greek word for honey bee. All my life people have given me all kinds of things bee related. Bee-shaped jewelry, bee art, bee everything. So why is that a story? When I was about 4-5 years old, my neighbor and I were playing outside. He had an old hollowed out tree in his backyard that had a beehive. We sat there inspecting the beehive for a little bit. It was pretty cool. The bees didn’t seem to mind us. Until Mr. Neighbor-Boy decides he wants to impress little Melissa and poke the hive with a stick. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I do this all the time!” Lesson #1 that boys lie exaggerate came at a very young age. Well, the swarm decides to all come after ME! Innocent bystander me. Probably because I’m sweet like honey, but whatever. They were tangled in my hair. I ran home screaming “BEES!!!!!”. Which began my lifelong phobia of all stinging bugs, also known as Melissophobia. Oh, the irony!
When we moved into our house, there was a small flower bed between the walkway to our front door and the garage wall. It was full of overgrown bushes. I DESPISE bushes. Let me tell you why: they are the perfect harbor for stinging bugs. It has taken a lot for me to get over my fear of bees, but I’ve made myself confront that fear. Bees generally aren’t too aggressive. They don’t scare me too much anymore. Wasps on the other hand. Those flying demons are a whole different story. Every time I walked up the sidewalk to my front door I was getting buzzed by the dreaded yellow jacket. The bushes had to go. Not to mention, they had basically grown to the size of a tree and were crowding the sidewalk.
I went outside armed with some hedge clippers, an ax, and a shovel and began the arduous task of hacking out the bushes. Two of the three bushes were smaller, I inspected them, determined they were flying demon free and got to work. It was labor intensive. The roots had grown very deep. I imagine the bushes had been planted there when the house was built in 2009, so they had years to establish themselves. Eventually, I Hulk-ripped those puppies out. Then I had to tackle the mother bush. I started trimming away. I had my hedge clippers on a branch, about to clip, when I saw the nest of them. The mini fire dragons, just staring at me, ready to pounce if I moved another muscle. I left the hedge clippers halfway embedded in the branch and ran inside to make my husband slay the beasts. I generally don’t like to kill any kind of pollinator (yes, terrifying wasps also pollinate and eat spiders), but relocation wasn’t an option. I’m not sure what he did with them. Ignorance is bliss. Although, I’m pretty sure a can of wasp spray was involved. Once the threat was neutralized, I continued. This bush was brutal. I had to employ help. We tried killing the roots. Apparently, they were immortal. A pickaxe was involved. It took some time, but eventually, I had my blank canvas.
Now I had to decide what to plant in my new flower bed. It was actually a lot larger than I thought. The bushes had really minimized the space. I wanted something that would be low maintenance and wouldn’t quickly become overgrown. Then I had a stroke of genius. Our backyard was full of random bricks left over from the construction of the house. They were arranged around rose bushes and plants, but nothing stable. The backyard is getting a makeover eventually anyway. I excavated all the bricks from my backyard. I had enough to build a small garden wall and best of all, they were all FREE!
I went to Lowe’s and purchased a bag of mortar, some sand, and a trowel. I got home and began the prep work. I needed a level surface for my wall to sit on. I used a long board we had in the garage and smoothed the ground out. I filled in any low lying areas with the sand I bought. I dug out any large humps of dirt I found and dispersed that through. I just used the board to scrape the ground over and over. I was looking for any areas where there was space between the ground and the board. The goal is to have the board sit flush with the ground for the whole length of the board (as long as your board isn’t bowed). This should give you a level enough grade to work on. Don’t worry if it isn’t true level (Rick and Morty anyone???). You can make small adjustments with your mortar as you go.
To assemble your wall you will need mortar, a trowel, bricks, a level, a block of wood, and a rubber mallet. Some tutorials recommend using a story pole and a mason line. I was making a small garden wall and didn’t find this to be necessary. However, if you are planning a longer or taller wall than I made, this may be helpful. A story pole is just a board with markings indicating approximately where each new level of brick should be. A mason line is a long string going along the length of the wall to use as a level. I’ll explain how I bypassed those steps in a minute.
The first step is to dry fit your first layer of bricks. I used the same board I previously used for leveling as a guide to make sure my wall was squared. You can use a chalk line or just measure each end if that’s easier for you. Remember, you need to leave space in between each brick for mortar. You can’t butt each brick end up to the next. When you get to the end of your first row, turn your last brick to make a 90° angle. This is an easy way to avoid having to cut brick and serves as your first brick for the side of your wall.
After you are happy with your brick layout, it’s time to mix your mortar. You can do this by hand, but it will be labor intensive. We have an attachment that goes on the end of our drill to mix. You want your mortar to be about a brownie batter consistency. If it’s too runny, it will just ooze all over the place, make a mess, and not hold the bricks in place. If it’s too dry, you won’t be able to spread the mortar where you need it to go. If you feel you have the wrong consistency, no worries, it’s an easy fix. Just add more water or mortar mix, depending on what you need.
Remove the bricks you had previously dry fit. It’s helpful to just move them back a few inches, but keep them in the same layout. Put a layer of mortar down, running the length of your wall. Then move your bricks onto the layer of mortar. Place the wooden block on the bricks and gently tap the bricks into the mortar with the rubber mallet. Take the level and place it between the seams of each brick. If it needs adjusting, just tap with the rubber mallet until level. If it is being difficult and you can’t get it level, you may need to remove the problem brick and add or remove mortar from that section. Once you are done, spot check a few bricks to make sure the whole layer is level. Lay down the entire first layer this way. I only had to make a “U” shape. If you have to do multiple corners, be sure to take the time to plan out your spacing. I would recommend building out the corners first after you get your first layer down and then filling in the middle spaces.
Once you get your first layer down, the rest is easy. It’s basically just following a template. Stagger your bricks so that you don’t have a uniform pattern. They should be naturally staggered because of the corners. Keep some water and a sponge handy in case you have any globs of mortar that drip down. You want to clean it up while it is still wet. Otherwise, you will have dried mortar all over your bricks. After you have finished assembling your wall, take your trowel and use it to clean up the mortar lines by gently smoothing/scraping any excess out. My wall isn’t 100% finished. Depending on the types of bricks you use, you may be left with brick holes in your top layer. I need to find a brick cap or plug to put over these holes not only for aesthetics but also so that water doesn’t settle. I know these things exist, I just haven’t been able to find any that match my bricks! Talk about frustrating. I built this whole wall in a day by myself. It is a very manageable project. I had no idea what I was doing, but once I started going, I realized it wasn’t that hard.
I know that’s wordy. But once you get started and see the pattern you’ll get the flow really quickly. It’s less than 10 easy steps. To break it down:
- Level the ground.
- Dry fit your first layer of bricks.
- Mix your mortar to a brownie batter like consistency.
- Spread an even layer of mortar.
- Lay bricks on the layer of mortar.
- Tap down and level bricks.
- Build up corners.
- Fill in the wall, leveling as you go.
The next day was time for the fun part. Planting!!! I filled the bottom layer of the wall with lots of rocks and then sand for drainage. This is important for the location of my wall. It is right under the awning of my garage roof. A lot of newer homes in Texas don’t have gutters for some reason. Probably because we had a decade-long drought so there didn’t seem to be a point. Well, that drought ended the year we bought our house. We had historic flooding. My new flower bed catches a lot of that water. The rocks and sand seem to help though. Before I pulled the bushes out, the whole area just turned into a mud pit. Now the water settles and is used by the plants. I haven’t had any shifting or cracking on my garden wall either.
It looked even better once all the plants were established and some of the mortar dust washed off. When this planting season rolls around, I’ll post an updated picture. The monkey grass (liriope) has grown in all the way. It spreads really quickly and is a great filler for spaces like this. The kangaroo paw I planted in the back, unfortunately, didn’t make it. Like I said, the drought ended and the bed collected a lot of water. I tried replanting it elsewhere, but it was too late. The purple heart plant is another great filler plant that grows quickly. It’s not really the star here, but now, it is the main component. I have to thin it out every few weeks. Don’t let that deter you, it’s easy to thin out. You just grab handfuls and yank. It’s very watery, so the stems break off easily and it grows back quickly. That may not be the proper way to maintain it, but it works for me. I’m excited about spring and can’t wait to plant a new bed. I’m tempted to go ahead and plant now since we’ve been having 70° weather, but I’m sure if I did, we would have one last cold snap. I mean it has snowed twice here so far this year. Which is HIGHLY unusual for Texas. One snow is highly unusual, so I’m not going to take any chances with this crazy weather. Any suggestions for what I should plant this year? I think drought conditions are coming back. A succulent garden would be pretty cool, but I have trouble keeping them alive (I think I just give them a little too much attention). I also try to plant flowers that attract bees and other pollinators (I know, I know). I’ll have to go stroll some nurseries for inspiration!