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Stepping out on a budget

  • McClatchy-Tribune
  • Published Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, at 7:47 a.m.

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Nationwide, homeowners are rethinking their midcentury tract homes that have become swanky architecture for the new millennium. Study these projects enough, and you realize that concrete has evolved from the low-cost choice to hot stuff. This trend is driven by the introduction of permeable paving, which is the green alternative to pouring a solid slab.

As part of the movement toward modern, minimalist layouts and organic style, precast concrete stepping stones are low-cost features that can make a big difference in a yard. The stepping stones are sold in home-improvement stores – a standard foot-square stepper costing about $1.40, a 16-inch-square stone about $3.25, both of which are an incredible value.

Here are some of the ways you can use the stepping stones:

• Create a linear pathway. The new look is a very straight, rectilinear layout for a walkway, be it used rarely or often.

• Create a wider walkway. For this option, you can use two 1-foot steppers set flush, edge-to-edge, for a 1-by-2-foot shape that no longer looks like a stepper at all. This is an alternative to hand-cut rectangular stone pavers that cost big bucks.

• Turn the lawn into checkerboard. Everybody wants to cut back on lawn care and water use. One way to explore this is to cut squares out of your lawn and replace them with concrete steppers. Anyone can do this for big results in one weekend.

• Lay a mini-patio. Steppers are great for renters or those who have a very small yard. Level the ground and set the larger 16-inch-square concrete pavers edge to edge for more stability. When renters move, they can take up the squares, pack them in the trunk and bring them along.

Whichever project you choose, the new permeable look features gaps between the concrete squares. How wide these gaps are depends on what kind of filler you choose.

• Lawn is a popular choice, but it’s hard to manage, so many people have discovered artificial turf. This is a great way to get the green grids you see in magazines without the high maintenance of living grass.

• Ground-hugging herbs and ornamental ground cover are another popular gap-filler. Herbs such as creeping thyme and chamomile are great choices, because they release fragrance when walked upon. Other ground covers bloom in a fabulous carpet of color, or mix them up with small clumping perennials such as thrift.

• Gravel is a popular choice, but avoid gray pea gravel. It doesn’t enhance this look. Take some time to find a truly attractive gravel. With gray steppers, consider contrasting gravel in dark slate, warm earth tones such as terra cotta or an unusual gravel in green that adds a lush feeling. For crafters, this is a great opportunity to dabble in pebble mosaics. Above all, choose gravel that’s readily available locally so you can always get more in the future.

• Though less available, recycled glass tumbled to gravel adds potent color that works best in tiny gardens needing a big design punch. This is an essential of the jewel-box succulent-garden look and provides an opportunity to make something special.

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