How I made a brick patio in just three terrible months!

We just had our annual Independence Day family party, and it was lovely, despite the almost continuous rain. It’s a cookout party, and our house isn’t really big enough to host a crowd indoors, so we assembled our chairs and folding tables under two canopies and a tarp, and my sister brought a giant tarp which my two brothers-in-law turned into a serviceable tent.

AND, we had a patio! A brick patio that I’ve been working on since the beginning of April, hoping to get it done in time for the party. I finished the day before.

Here is what the yard looked like when I first started out.

I used to have some raised garden beds there, but moved them across the yard, and dumped the old tomato plants out of their buckets, and placed them to give me a general idea of where the patio would be.  

I took lots of pictures at every step because I didn’t want to be unpleasantly surprised with how it looked when it was finally done. Every time I made a decision about the design, I took pictures from every angle and stood in different spots in the yard and stared menacingly at it. I really wanted it to fit in the space in was in, and to look complete from every perspective.

That’s the part I did right.

The part I did wrong was . . . every other part. Now I’ll tell you about that! (Guys, this is LONG. Only keep reading if you like DIY stories with lots of pictures.) 

Building a brick patio in your yard is pretty straightforward. You have to dig down several inches all across the area you want to pave, and line the perimeter with some kind of durable edging to keep everything in place. Make the exposed earth level, compact it, lay down a weed barrier, lay down a layer of gravel and then a layer of sand, and then you can put down your bricks, keeping them level. Then you add more sand on top, sweep it in firmly (or maybe compact it again with a machine), and there it is. There are many websites and videos online that give you step-by-step details, but that’s the basic idea.

So back in April, I started collecting bricks. Bricks at Home Depot are about 74 cents each, and they’re made of concrete, which just doesn’t have a lot of character. 

They’re just big, red, friable biscuits in brick shape. The reason people like to reclaim used bricks is because the old ones are made of clay, and they look like they have seen some stuff.

And they feel good. Sometimes they’re almost silky smooth, and they hold warmth or coolness beautifully. They turn an incredible variety of colors — not only red, but pink and purple, orange, tan, white, green, yellow, blue, and black. Some of them are like little islands where you can imagine whole secret histories have taken place. Nothing like real brick. 

So Benny and I drove out to Templeton and bought a load from a guy who was remodeling his house for his in-laws to move in. I paid about 50 cents apiece for them, plus a lot of broken ones, which I thought I would need for design reasons. Loaded them up

brought them home, and trucked them into the backyard with a dolly.

But what would the patio look like? Pinterest, of course, has lots of ideas about patio shapes and brick patterns. I knew I didn’t want just a plain rectangle, because boooo, boring; but the space I wanted to cover was too irregular for a half-circle. So I tried this and that, and came up with some complex and incoherent designs.

I remember my father tiling the bathroom floor and coming up with a design which was very cool, but didn’t quite land in such a small space. It didn’t have enough room for you to see how the pattern actually worked. So I really wanted to get the proportions right. 

Eventually it dawned on me that the St. Joseph garden I was thinking of as a focal point could be re-oriented, and that could become a side garden, and I could put St. Joseph under the peach tree, and the patio could radiate out from that. Then it all fell into place, and I settled on a basic shape and orientation.

At this point, I took a little side trip and started collecting flat rocks from the stream which we are lucky enough to have in our back yard.

I wasn’t really sure if they would be all or part of the design, or if I was gonna have funky rock flowers in there, or if the whole perimeter would be rock, or what. But we sure do have a lot of rocks.

I collected a bunch and then paid a kid to bring them all into the yard for me, because I was starting to get pretty wheezy.

Then, surrounded by boxes of bricks, I finally started to dig. 

The ground slopes somewhat, and I thought I wouldn’t mind if the patio sloped a bit, too, as long as it did so at a constant rate. But you know, as I continued digging, and dumping the clods of earth into the broken wheelbarrow, and trucking them across the yard, and crumbling the soil away from the grassroots because I needed the dirt for my new garden and I freaking hate paying for dirt, I started to lose focus, somewhat, in this notion of how deeply I was supposed to dig, and where. I just kind of kept digging whenever I had time, and life kept chugging along, and it took a really long time and I changed my mind a few times about the shape of the thing, but I just kept digging. But was it level? Newp. 

I realized a little island of green would look nice around the peach tree, and would be very pretty inside a curve of brick, so I fenced off that area with dollar store fencing, and this helped me visualize the whole project. 

The next load of bricks I found was free. These were from a guy on Swiggey Brook Road who couldn’t stand NH winters anymore, and even though his backyard had one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous New England views I’ve ever seen, he said the only thing he would miss was the stately pink magnolia tree that sprawled all over his yard.

I had no idea how many bricks there would be, and there were SO MANY. These ones turned out to have holes in them, and are thicker than standard bricks. But SO MANY. I was by myself this time, and loaded and loaded and loaded bricks until either I or the Suburban was going to collapse like a bunch of broccoli

so I had to leave a hundred or so behind. Drove home, fishtailing like crazy, and Damien and I got those bricks unloaded into the driveway, praying I hadn’t wrecked the car’s suspension.

I can see by my camera roll that, at this stage, I was still taking screenshots from Pinterest and trying to figure out exactly what shape the patio would be. It finally clicked: A sort of . . . irregular half-octagon, with a long end and a curved chunk taken out of the middle side, and also another curve. You know, one of those! 

It had all the elements I wanted: Straight sides, so it would look orderly and wouldn’t be a nightmare to block out; but also not symmetrical, so it would work in the irregular space that it needed to fit in, and would have an organic feel; and with an interior design (rays coming out of a central spot) that was easy to grasp visually, and that would work no matter what size the patio actually turned out to be. (I am thinking of adding a path from the house to the patio in some future year, so I want to make sure it’s expandable.) I got some sticks and some string and mapped out the perimeter.

 I also wanted lights around the patio. I have always loved string lights, and had seen several pretty patios with wooden or metal uprights anchored in flower planters. Those half whiskey barrels are unreasonably expensive, and I didn’t want some cheap plastic thing that would fall apart, so I thought maybe I would knock together some simple wooden planters and build a wooden upright directly into the planter. (I always think I can just quickly knock something together, even though I truly cannot.) Or failing that, I could just buy some plastic buckets with lids, fill them with rocks, cut a hole in the lids, and jam some t-posts in there.

But then I realized a late spring storm had felled several young aspen trees

which would make very pretty uprights, and they were FREE. So I finished detaching them from their stumps and clipped off all but a few branches (Sonny helped with this part, to his immense delight), and set them aside to figure out later. 

And back to digging! I kept it up, a little here and a little there until finally I got the whole thing dug out. 

I used some of the sod to cover the spot where we had a bonfire a few years ago, and nothing has grown since; and it took root very well, and now that’s all green again.

I dug up a bunch of marbles, some kind of strange metal thing,

plus a toy car, an old chain with a fancy hook on the end, and a little white ceramic pig, which has since disappeared again. 

At this point, I had filled the buckets with soil and used duck bedding and planted them with seeds and some lily bulbs that were on clearance. Some of the seeds were marigold seeds I had saved from last year’s garden! First time I’ve ever managed to do that. 

I also decided that I definitely wanted a “ray” or “pie slice” kind of pattern radiating out from the statue, so I tied some strings to the peach tree and segmented the dirt up into wedges.

Then I started calling around for sand and gravel prices, and let me tell you, if you want a woman to buy your sand and gravel, the main thing to do is to not act like she is an idiot who is making you angry by calling you. I’m not kidding, the first guy who didn’t treat me like an absolute pustular moron was a winner. We discussed exactly what project I was doing, and what other people had ordered, and I ordered five tons of 3/8 inch crushed gravel and about the same amount of sand, both of which arrived right away.

Or, what arrived was . . . a bunch of dirt with rocks in it, which was apparently the gravel, and a bunch of dirty sand with smaller rocks in it, which was apparently the sand.

But it was already May 31, and there were now two large heaps in my driveway (and we have a LOT of cars needing spots), and I was still riding on the high of not being yelled at by a stranger on the phone, so I decided it was fine. It was cheap, I have to admit! 

So by this point, I had been dealing with some kind of mystery medical problem for several weeks, and had spent a considerable time at various doctor’s offices, or worrying about my next appointment, and the project had really stalled out, mostly because I was not sure if I was going to drop dead unexpectedly. My hope was to do this project more or less entirely on my own, but after the piles sat there for a while, I just went to the kids and totally played the Wheezing Mother Guilt Card, and got them to bring the gravel down to the back yard for me. 

Then it was really time to settle on material for a perimeter. I didn’t have enough stream stones to go around the edge, and the kids were already mad at me, so I decided pressurized wood was the way to go. We have a lot of scraps of it left over from various I-don’t-even-know-what, old swing sets and horseshoe pits and who knows what. So I pieced together enough to go all the way around the perimeter, everywhere where there wasn’t already rock.

I made an attempt to hold it in place with plastic anchoring stakes, with mixed success. 

So, this is where the integrity of the project really started to slip.

I can’t quite remember the sequence of events, but I think I rented a plate compactor from Home Depot (they didn’t have a Jumping Jack tool, and the other local rental place didn’t even pick up the phone) and compacted the soil, and then I had the kids spill the gravel (or “gravel”) onto the soil, and I made a long screed out of scrap wood 

This struck me as highly amusing, because the number of times I’ve seen “FISCHER PRODUCES ANOTHER LOATHSOME SCREED” is higher than you might think! So there I was, with another screed. Ho ho ho. 

Anyway, I spread the gravel out as evenly as I could, and then I compacted it again. It’s very hazy in my mind now. That machine was super fun to use, though. 

I’m not being sarcastic; it was very satisfying! 

BUT HEAVY. Good lord. Getting it back into the car to return it to Home Depot may be one of the least enjoyable things I have done this decade. 

Then I had all my nonsense in the emergency room and lost a bunch of time, and the dog ran over my lovely compacted soil repeatedly, and  sometimes it just be that way.

But eventually! Eventually I was able to get moving again, and this time I decided I would leave everyone alone and bring the sand down to the backyard myself. The wheelbarrow was now busted beyond repair, and I had to use plastic tubs and a dolly. This completely sucked and I totally understand why I made the kids do it last time. 

But you know I would rather die than admit something is too hard for me twice, so I got that effing sand. 

I came up with many idiotic and inefficient systems for getting the sand dumped evenly over the patio without rolling the dolly wheels over the compacted gravel and ruining the surface. All were in vain. All I can tell you is it sucked, and the ducks heard all about it. 

I kept thinking about how all the articles said you could make a patio in a weekend. I think you really could. If you have a normal person’s yard, and if you don’t have to do anything else at all, and if you can just buy exactly what you need, and if people will deliver your materials right to your work area, and nobody gets sick, and nobody’s mad at you, and people aren’t constantly graduating and having birthday parties and going to the hospital and climbing mountains and having concerts and planting gardens and raising ducklings and so on. But where’s the fun in that? Where’s the romance? Where’s the ha-cha-cha?

So I got the sand on the patio, and again employed my loathsome screed, and there we were. Ready to think about bricks again.

Actually, first I sorted my stones and made a little ring around the statue. 

Here you can see the segmenting strings in this photo. Guess how many times I tripped over them. Guess!

No, more than that! I hurt myself so many times in such comical ways these past few months. I stepped on a rake like an absolute cartoon character. I hit my same thumb with two different kinds of hammer. I accidentally dumped dirt on my own head numerous times. My toenails are purple and my fingertips look like a crime scene. I got sunburned and road rashed, bitten by ants and frightened by toads. BUT, I did not drop dead unexpectedly! Or even expectedly. 

And then it was time to make some design decisions. I was pretty sure I didn’t have enough bricks to do the whole thing yet, but I didn’t think I would be getting any more bricks with holes in them, so I figured I could get that part of it settled. I discovered I had enough hole bricks to make lines between the ray segments, and also all the way around the perimeter. 

Here is where I started to run into my first real design difficulty. I had measured it carefully and staked the strings out so they came out evenly spaced and the wedges were the same size. But when I put the bricks down, it didn’t look right. I don’t know why — probably because the yard is not all flat and right angles and so on — but when it was measured right, it looked wrong. So I moved the bricks around until it looked balanced from all angles, and just had to tell myself to forget that it was in the “wrong” spot. But we’ll return to this later. Oh, we will return. 

Then I started to fill in the bricks. My technique here, as I am just starting out, is what we in the field call “chimpy,” and I hadn’t really figured out how important it is to try to knock the bricks closely together.

I also found, to my intense dismay, that the hole bricks are CONSIDERABLY thicker than the standard bricks. So if I wanted to lay them together and end up with anything like a level surface, I was going to have to either dig a channel for the hole bricks, or else build up an extra layer of sand under the standard bricks. 

Patio how-to sites will tell you to stretch a string tautly along the top of your work area so you can line up the top of the bricks against it and ensure that they are all on a level; but light had already dawned on blockhead, and I realized that I would be lucky if I didn’t somehow hit myself in the face with a hammer or get a brick lodged in my ear or something. So I didn’t stretch any more strings, but just sort of grimly surrendered to the fate of scrabbling out trenches for the holey bricks to sit in.

It was worse than I thought it was going to be. It took SO long and it hurt me knees SO much and there was so much crouching and dragging and lurching and lugging, and I kept putting tools down just out of my own reach so I had to get up and get them over and over again, and it was really hot and I smelled bad. I cannot overstate how hard I made this on myself, for no reason at all.

Luckily, I enjoy this kind of thing. 

I really do. Despite all my complaining and the deep frustration that I fell into again and again, this was a joyful project. I have been waiting for 25 years for the time when I can devote hours and hours, week after week, to a project that’s all mine, just because I want to. I love being outside, I love working with my hands and using my muscles, and I love designing things. It had been a truly punishing winter, and the hours that I spent sitting in the fresh air with the song of the birds and the smell of the wild mint and the rush of the stream, putting a foundation together piece by piece by piece — this was a pure gift. Pure gift. It did not escape me that I spent many hours on my knees, and I prayed many strange prayers. Silent St. Joseph heard all about it. He is a good listener, and there is a reason I put him at the center.

And I just kept filling in bricks and filling in bricks, and I got pretty okay at it. You lay the bricks pretty closely, and then tap them closer together, and closer to the previous row, with a rubber mallet, and then tap them more snugly into the ground. I never did figure out if I should be doing it in the reverse order, so I alternated. Follow me for more useless nonsense.

So then I ran into some more design problems, and realized too late that I was going to have to figure out how to make up the difference between the curved rows of bricks and the straight rows of bricks. Most people would have figured this part out already, but again

My great talent is the ability to sit in the dirt and hit things with a hammer even though I’m really hot. I can do it all day! And that is what I did. 

But then I ran out of bricks, and I thought maybe I could fill in the gap with stones from the stream. I gave it a shot, and it looked okay, but I wasn’t sure.

I was sure that I needed more bricks, though. I bought the next batch from a nice young couple who were renovating their house in Brookline. It had a paved walkway that ran alongside the house. Alongside, but not quite parallel, and it was driving them crazy, so I got a good price on the bricks. These ones were not clay bricks, but they had been in the ground for a while, so they had a decent aged look.

The dude was also very helpful in helping me pack the bricks in a more sensible way, with straps and pallets and stuff, so the ride home was much less exciting this time. 

Unloaded those mofos right into the backyard this time, because last time I unloaded bricks into the driveway, they stayed there for a month. 

I also tried putting a discarded playground slide over the gravel and sliding the bricks over it to myself,

allegedly to save time and energy, and this of course did not work, and was stupid. The only way to get a job like this done is (a) do a tremendous amount of tedious lugging or (b) make someone else do a tremendous amount of tedious lugging. 

Now, several people have asked me, “Didn’t anyone help you with this patio?” And the answer is, of course. Any time I asked someone to help me, they did. Sometimes they were nice about it; sometimes they were jerks about it. Sometimes I paid them and they were still jerks about it. And sometimes I asked Benny and Corrie, and they helped for a little bit, but THEN THERE WAS A FROG

The other problem I was encountering was that the bricks with holes in them were not actually bricks; they were ant condos. About half the holes were completely stuffed with soil that was studded with ant eggs and, more to the point, with their furious ant caretakers. So I had to spend a certain amount of time jabbing the holes with a stick to get the ant dirt out and reminding myself repeatedly that the bricks were free and the patio was my idea and ant bites don’t hurt that much.

But look, progress!

The thing that was taking the most time was removing sand, and sometimes gravel (not to mention convincing myself that there was a meaningful difference between the two, since I had paid a different price for the two materials). In some spots, I had to dig up a LOT of the sand and some of the gravel I had applied so carefully, to make room for not only the big holed bricks, but for the standard sized ones.

Why? I have no idea. I had made some kind of digging or filling mistake, and there was much too much sand on about half the area, so after all that lugging and spreading and compacting and so on, I just had to dig it up and schlep it away again.

I kept my spirits up by thinking about how, when I was done, without proper underlayment, the bricks would very likely just sink into the muck and disappear forever the first time it rained hard, and maybe I would do the same. 

One thing I could think of to cheer myself up was to get more bricks. This batch was free, the remnants of someone’s dismantled chimney in Keene, and they were beautiful, very dark and hardened, clouded with smoke stains. I guess I didn’t take a picture, though.

We picked them up on the way home from PorcFest, the annual Libertarian festival, where we had gone to cover RFK Jr.’s speech, because you never know how life is going to turn out, do you. 

At this point, I had to come to terms with the fact that I had made a grievous mistake with the design somewhere along the line, and when you’re doing a pattern made of lots of little bits, a little mistake turns into a bigger and bigger mistake as you go along. So I fixed it by adding another element to the design; but of course it wouldn’t look right unless I added that same element to the opposite side, also, because the design isn’t symmetrical, but it’s not completely chaotic, either.

Anyway, I kept slapping bricks down and digging gravel and sand out and smoothing it with my board and whacking it with my mallet, and when there was a weird gap, I had plenty of broken bricks to fit in there and whack into place. 

This in itself made the whole project worthwhile. There’s a gap, but not big enough for a whole brick, so you tap-tap-tap one side and get them all a little snugger, and tap-tap-tap on the other and get them in a little closer, and nope, it’s still not big enough, so you find a brick that doesn’t fit but one side almost does, and you wedge in the side that will stay still, and then you SLAM the other side with the mallet, and look at that! That little fucker fits after all.

Hit it a couple more times. Hit it till it’s level. And now it’s not going anywhere. 

But guess what happened? I ran out of bricks.

I found one more lady, also in Keene, who had some bricks. She was cleaning out the damp, weedy space on the side of her garage and felt that I was doing her a favor by taking them away. These bricks were lovely, too — cool, soft, and mossy and many-colored. There were some large white pavers mixed in, and a few half-crumbled bricks with “PRAY” stamped on them, which. 

Some of them were curved!

And now I was really down to the wire. I had toyed with the idea of taking the stream rocks out and planting some creeping thyme or other walkable ground cover in that tricky wedge-shaped spot, but I was just about out of time, and also would have needed to add more pressurized wood or something to hold the bricks in place.

So I just decided to keep smashing bricks in and filling up gaps, trying to keep some kind of coherent pattern but not wigging out about it, and trying to take a lesson from the old bricks I had collected: Enough time goes by, and they look how they’re gonna look, now matter how they started out. Right? 

So then, I, ran out of bricks again, and the time had come to go crawling to Home Depot. Hoooooome Depot. Home Deeeeeeeepot. Dammit.

I lugged over one of those terrible platform carts and loaded it up with 150 bricks, ignored how rude the embryo Home Depot lads were being about my need for bricks, loaded them into the car, unloaded them, lugged them down to the yard, and then, wow, did I really start bricking again that same day? I think I did. Anybody want to arm wrestle? I will win. 

It was pouring rain, so I got a kid to set up the canopy for me and I just kept slapping bricks down and getting them in there. The new bricks looked pretty dumb next to the old weathered ones. If I had had all my materials at the beginning, like some kind of DIY video person, I would have shuffled them all together before putting anything on the ground, and it would have been a normal-looking patchwork effect. Instead, it’s a little bit skin-graft-ish.

But that wasn’t the worst of my problems! The worst was that I FREAKING RAN OUT OF BRICKS AGAIN. Actually, the even worse thing was that I knew this was going to happen. I knew 150 bricks wasn’t enough. But I just wanted to get the hell out of there, so I stopped at 150.

I just did not, did not want to go back to Home Depot, not so soon. So I changed the design again. I inveigled some of my more public-spirited kids into moving a gigantic rock across the yard. It took all three of us almost having a simultaneous three-way heart attack, but we got it onto the dolly, and then I dashed back and forth putting one sheet of particle board and then the other in front of the dolly wheels, so they would have a smoother path across the yard. EXACTLY LIKE GROMMT.


 It landed in a reasonable spot, looking reasonably butt-friendly, and I decided it was the perfect place for a little permanent seating. 

And then I went around the yard finding all the biggest rocks I could lug by myself, and I fitted them in where I could, to take up as much brick-replacement space as I could without it looking too unnatural. Then I slammed in the rest of the bricks to fill up the spaces, and I walked around whacking it here and there and scowling at it, and realizing that there wasn’t even a single unused whole brick anywhere left on the entire property.

And then . . . . it was done. 

I mean kind of.

The brick part was done, but then you still have to get sand in and on and over it, which helps stabilize the whole thing, and bind it together, and keeps the bricks from grinding up against each other and damaging each other, or floating away, or any number of undesirable things.

You can get polymeric sand, which you brush on and then sprinkle with water, and it becomes a kind of glue, and really seals the bricks together. You can do this if you are a MILLIONAIRE. Polymeric sand is like 2 cents a GRAIN. If you are me, you will slink back to Home Depot and buy 12 bags of paver sand, and dump it over the bricks. I knew 12 bags wasn’t enough, but it was all I could stand to buy at the time. 

But first, you will take a little break and have fun doing some AESTHETICALLY PLEASING parts. Just to keep the old enthusiasm up.

First I gathered up all the potted plants I could find, and potted some more plants (I kept rescuing almost-dead, one-dollar petunias from Home Depot, for instance), and arranged them around the patio along with some more rocks, bird feeders, and so on, and also some dumb little picket fence sections I got on a whim. 

And then it was time to follow through with my plans for the lights! The young trees I had set aside were about 3″ in diameter, so I bought a length of PVC pipe that is 4″ in diameter and used a reciprocating saw to hack off four sections, cut flat on one end and diagonal on the other.

Then I put it point-down into the ground, laid a wooden board across the top, and whacked it with a mallet until it was sunk halfway into the ground. I reached into the pipe and gouged out as much of the earth as I could, and then fit the tree into it, and jammed some rocks inside to make it more secure.

And they looked ABSOLUTELY CRAZY. 

But in a way that I thought was fixable. I kept telling myself, This all just used to be grass, and you had a vision! You still have a vision! So I kept going, even though the whole thing looked like someone was having a nervous breakdown in brick form. 

Then, back to sand town. I ripped open the bags and Benny and Corrie helped me work it in between the cracks

We carefully avoided getting sand in the bricks with holes, partially to ration the sand, and partially because I thought it would help with drainage. I knew the whole thing was off kilter, and I didn’t want water to pool anywhere, so I figured it would just run out through the holes.

This part took a long time, because I couldn’t find the handle for the push broom. 

But a friend clued me in that sand is your friend, and if I didn’t fill the holes with sand, they’d fill themselves with water, and then freeze, and then go sproinging off in all directions, and in the spring, I wouldn’t have a patio at all, but only heartbreak. (That’s a paraphrase, but she was right.)

So . . . the next day, the day before the party, I sent Damien to Home Depot, and HE got more sand. And I put the sand in the hole bricks. And also in the cracks between the regular bricks, that I had already filled, but which were now empty cracks again because the sand had filtered down overnight. He also found a push broom handle for me, so I could sweep like a human being instead of a monkey version of Cinderella. 

At this point, you can get the plate compactor again and get it vibrating really good to shake that sand deep down into the cracks. But I had uhhh run out of money kind of a while ago, so I just kept sweeping. My plan is to buy more sand later in the summer and apply more as it gets shaken down. I was just focused on getting the patio functional for the party, which was the very next day. 

I clipped the tops off the trees so they weren’t insanely tall, and put the light strings on. (I had purposely left little crotched branches near the top so I could hook the lights on.)

Corrie filled the St. Joseph statue with sand so it wouldn’t keep tipping over.

I clipped and weeded the surrounding vegetation, and found more flowers 

and plant hangers

and put bird seed and nectar in the feeders

I bought eight little solar stake lights and put five around St. Joseph

and three at the base of the tree lights. I used the cheap sand to fortify the perimeter, and the little collar of rocks in the center.

And finally, I got Elijah to set up a purchase I splurged on months ago: A little propane fire pit.

I love a campfire, but I am 48 years old and sometimes I just don’t want to go tromping around collecting firewood. Sometimes I want to turn a dial and poof, there is fire. 

And here it is! Here’s the finished project:

I completely forgot to put weed cloth down. So, oops. 

Overall, the pattern is a bit of a mess. It’s also incredibly uneven and will just get more uneven as time goes on. And the mismatched bricks are very visible right now

but should start to blend better with time. 

I do think it’s pretty secure within its bounds, so whatever shifting the bricks do, I don’t think they’re going to straight up leave. Right now, when you walk across it, it just feels like walking on a floor: It doesn’t shift or wobble, and you don’t hear that horrible scraping loose tooth sound. So the sand I’ve got there now is doing its job.

And I’m very happy with the overall shape of it. It fits well into its environment, there are lots of spots for me to plant more perennials (and none of the seven buckets of flowers have even bloomed yet, but they will in a few weeks!), and it’s big enough for more than one group of people to sit around and chat on, which feels pretty luxurious. 

Everyone had a good seat for the fireworks at the party.

I love the tree lights! The pipe keeps them anchored and also may protect the wood from rotting; we will see. It has a pleasant, rustic look, and will be very easy to take down in the fall.

I may add some more rocks on the outside so the white PVC doesn’t show as much, but it doesn’t bother me a lot as is. I will probably add some more bird houses to the extra limbs, or maybe a quiet wind chime or something.


Success. Yeah. I did it. I did it!

Thanks, St. Joseph. 

What’s for supper? Vol. 326: Wads for supper

All week long, the kids have been asking me why it is raining. I don’t know why they’re asking me. It’s not like they think I know anything. The truth is, I made it happen, partially because I like to suffer, and partly so I could make soup one more time before summer. But I didn’t tell them that; I just made the soup, so we could all suffer. (It was delicious soup!)

Fried chicken caprese sandwiches, Aldi Cheetos

I bought one of those enormous sacks of miscellaneous chicken breasts suspended in frozen wads of broth, with the intention of doling them out over three meals. It actually worked, to my surprise (I was expecting doom and disaster, as usual). This chicken is actually okay, as long as you’re using it as a sort of raw material, like tofu or polymer clay, rather than as a centerpiece. 

Saturday we had chicken caprese sandwiches. If I have actual fresh chicken breasts, I will roast them with oil, salt, and pepper, but I thought these chicken wads needed more help than that. So I dredged them in eggs and milk and then seasoned panko crumbs, pan fried them, and then put them in the oven for a while to make sure they were done all the way through. 

I served them on ciabatta rolls with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and of course mozzarella, tomatoes and basil. Not spectacular, but fine. 

I haven’t really started my garden yet (we can’t plant anything but the heartiest things until May), but I’m already feeling the freedom of knowing I have decided not to grow tomatoes this summer. Homegrown tomatoes bring me nothing but grief, and hardly any tomatoes. I’m just going to excuse myself this time, and grow mostly flowers, plus a bunch of vegetables that don’t have all this weird cultural “oh yeahhhh, this here is the good life” baggage. I’m planning rhubarb and asparagus and strawberries and maybe some eggplant, probably various squashes and pumpkins, and I think some Brussels sprouts made it through the winter. And flowers! 

Spicy pulled pork on tater tots with cheese

First I started some focaccia dough for Tuesday. I saw all those beautiful focaccia loaves people made over the pandemic, with little garden scenes picked out in vegetables, but I never got around to trying it. But Sip and Feast promised an easy, no-knead recipe that is best if you start it fermenting several days in advance, so that’s what I made. 

So much olive oil, goodness! I made a double recipe. 

So I put that away in the fridge, rested on my laurels for a minute, feeling domestic goddess-y and accomplished thinking about how Tuesday’s dinner was already halfway done, until I suddenly realized we also needed to eat something today. Boo.

But, pulled pork is easy. It was a bit of a strange combination in the slow cooker, but here is what I did: First I cut the pork into hunks, seasoned it heavily with salt and pepper, and browned it in oil. Then I put it in the Instant Pot with a can of Cherry Coke Zero, three clementines cut in half and squeezed, a few big dark reg, glossy guajillo peppers, a handful of little orange arbol peppers, a heaping tablespoon of cumin, and a bunch of oregano. I left all the seeds in the peppers, and just tore the tops off.

Then I pressed “meat,” which just makes me laugh. Do it! Go be meat! Away! and left it alone to think about life for the rest of the day. 

When it was almost time to eat, I pulled out most of the clementine rinds and about half the peppers, and shredded the meat.

I drained the liquid, but ended up adding some back into keep the meat moist while it was heating back up while I cooked some tater tots and shredded some cheese and sliced some onions.

I had my pile of food in this order: Tater tots, then shredded cheddar cheese, then hot pork to melt the cheese; then cool onions and sauce on top of that.

It was really good. Not a delicate or sophisticated dinner, but REALLY GOOD. I did a bunch of digging and heavy yard work on Sunday, and this was a fine reward. 

Cobb salad

On Monday I drove an hour and a quarter to a super Newhampshirey-ish place to pick up a free load of bricks, and let me tell you, it was a lot of bricks! A! Lot! 

I haven’t figured out exactly how many I will need for my patio, but if the answer turns out to be “quite a few,” I may have arrived. I did start digging, and I’m gonna do a lot more digging this weekend, when it stops raining. 

For supper: Chicken wads, day 2! I broiled them with oil, salt, and pepper and served them in slices with salad greens, chopped bacon, hard boiled eggs, red onions, leftover croutons from last week, shredded cheese, and those crunchy fried onions that come in a pouch.

Nice little salad, much protein. I had mine with ranch dressing. This isn’t strictly speaking a Cobb salad, which is supposed to be laid out in cute little stripes and is supposed to have avocados, tomatoes, and I forget what else — I think chives, and probably some other kind of dressing. Get off my back, man! Cobb salad  sounds better than “wadd salad!” 

Sausage and kale soup, focaccia bread

Tuesday it was time to take the dough out of the fridge, that had been lurking there since Sunday afternoon. It needed 3-4 hours to rise, and then you just spread it in a pan, let it rest a little bit and then re-spread it, and then let it rise a little more, and then you can decorate it and bake it

I was rushing a bit and hadn’t really made a plan for how to decorate it, so I just grabbed what I could find, which was grape tomatoes, radishes, scallions, some garlic scrapes, red onions, and kale.

I thought the design turned out pretty (well, one did. The other one was kind of lame), but I didn’t know how well it would hold up in the oven. 

I actually baked it for slightly less time than it recommended, but one pan was still slightly burned, and the other was right on the verge. 

Still pretty, though! The dough is very stable as it bakes, so the design stays where you put it. I call it a success. 

Although the truth is, if you ever want me to do anything, anything at all, just offer me hot tomatoes baked into fresh bread. I will walk off a cliff with my eyes wide open, if I think there’s hot tomatoes baked into fresh bread at the bottom. 

It had a thin crust and was quite chewy, and the inside had very large air holes

(which I imagine was the result of letting it ferment for three days). I’m not a big focaccia expert, but I think this is how it’s supposed to come out. 

Guess what? Most of the kids wouldn’t even try it, because it had kale on it. Honest to goodness. Kale isn’t even that big of a deal. I feel like it’s like Sriracha sauce or Mondays or the word moist: NOT EVEN THAT BIG OF A DEAL. It’s just that people keep talking and talking about it, until everyone’s like, “oh my gosh, KALE, what is it even for, it’s garbage, only insane aliens would be in the same room with it!” Like, it’s a leafy green, it has a mildly sweet taste, and you can put it in salads or soups or whatever you want. It’s kind of dense, but who the fuck isn’t. People need to settle down about kale. 

Anyway, then I made some soup, also from Sip and Feast, with sausage, potato, cannellini beans, and kale. Very simple, easy li’l soup, tastes nice. I took a bunch of extremely blurry pictures for some reason. 

I grated some parmesan and set that out with the soup and the piping hot focaccia

and everyone stared at it and went to get some ramen or frosted flakes. I’m actually only pretending to be mad. I ate most of both loaves of focaccia myself. Can’t be mad. Too full of focaccia, here at the bottom of my cliff. 

Chicken fried rice, steamed pork and mushroom dumplings

On Wednesday, Elijah made supper, hooray! He took a cooking class last year and has a few recipes he likes. 

It was tasty if basic,with rice, onions and garlic, some frozen veg, chunks of chicken, scrambled eggs, and soy sauce. 

But nothing can beat that wonderful flavor of someone else making dinner, let me tell you. And we also got a lot of mileage out of “you telling me ELIJAH fried this” etc etc.

I stopped at the Keene International Market and picked up some frozen pork and mushroom dumplings, which I steamed in my nice little bamboo steamer,

and I served them in one of the dozens of dishes Clara brought home from pottery class. 

I’ll tell you, one minute you’re wiping bottoms, pouring juice all day long, and begging them to stop eating crayons, and then next minute you’re eating the dinner they cooked you off the pottery they made by hand. And looking the other way while they eat crayons, because you know everyone is on a journey. 

But seriously, Clara brought home some amazing pottery. 


and we don’t even have crayons in this house. 

Koftas, yogurt sauce, Jerusalem salad, pita

Thursday I made what probably can’t really be called koftas, because they’re round instead of sausage-shaped, and broiled in the oven rather than grilled or roasted on a spit, and not on sticks. They were, however, juicy and delicious and to me they tasted middle eastern. 

I mixed about five pounds of ground beef, five eggs, and then just started slamming in anything that smelled like it belonged in a hot tent: sumac, coriander, paprika, cinnamon, onion powder, garam masala, za’atar, and salt, and a big handful of fresh mint from the yard. Then I discovered I had used up all my breadcrumbs on the chicken on Sunday, so I made about six pieces of toast, and then microwaved them to really blitz the moisture out, and then ran them through the food processor. 

When it was almost time to eat, I cooked the meatballs on pans on racks in a 450 oven for about 25 minutes.

I also made a bunch of yogurt sauce with fresh garlic and fresh lemon juice and kosher salt, and I made a nice Jerusalem salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh mint, fresh flat-leaf parsley, a little red onion, fresh lemon juice, and salt. And that was it! A simple but nicely balanced meal. 

I briefly considered making pita or maybe making taboon bread, but we still had leftover focaccia, so I just stopped at the store and bought some pita. 

I think we are having quesadillas. Truly, I hated this week. Everyone was fighty and bighty, especially me, and it rained a lot, and I forgot about a bunch of forms I was supposed to fill out, and even though the sack of chicken wads worked out, it made me mad all week. The more I think about it, the more it was clearly the chicken’s fault. 

However, the ducks are growing nicely. EJ has started quacking, not just peeping, and Corrie has been great with them. They’re huge! Almost ready to live outside.

And I think the sun is going to come out this weekend. Literally, I mean, and also maybe figuratively; who can say? And I do have a lot of bricks. And ducks. Oh, and I fixed the What’s for supper volume numbering. Well, I didn’t fix it, but I got back on track. It went: 323, 324, 325, 236, 237, 238, 239, 240, 242, 242, 243, 244, 245, 11. But now we’re back on track. Quack! 

What’s for supper? Vol. 11. Vol. 11!

It has come to my attention that I have been numbering these posts wrong. I haven’t been able to bring myself to sit down and figure out how long this has been going on, but somewhere along the line, I think months ago, I jumped the track and slipped back into the 200’s, when I should actually be halfway through the 300’s. I think. I don’t know, I don’t know! I just keep cooking food and they just keep eating it, and then I keep taking pictures of it, and they keep making fun of me, and I keep saying, “But people like it! Well, some people, anyway.”

For example:

Hot dogs grilled outside

Don’t remember much about Saturday, ‘deed I don’t. 

Turkey bacon wraps

Sunday I was planning tacos al pastor, but by the time I got it going, I didn’t think the meat would have sufficient time to marinate, so I decided that would be tomorrow’s meal, and for now we would have wraps. Nothing spectacular, but tasty enough: Turkey, salami, bacon, and provolone with horseradish sauce.

And I had a nice little time working on the marinade. This is the recipe I use, and it’s rather time-consuming, but fantastically delicious. First you blister up the guajillo peppers

then you scrape the seeds out

and then you soften them up

and then you blend them up with a bunch of other ingredients,

including achiote paste, which I can never find, so I also make that out of a bunch of other ingredients

which you make into a paste

and then chuck it all into the food processor. Actually, I ran out of ground cumin, so I had to grind some up in my mortar and pestle. At this point I was starting to feel like it was possible this recipe was Too Much Work, but I was in too deep, so I went ahead and pestled it. And that was the last ingredient.

And then you can marinate the meat overnight, which I did. Whew. It felt a lot like finally getting a beloved but rather dramatic child to bed. (If you are planning to eat the child later, with sour cream.)

Tacos al pastor; pico de gallo and tortilla chips

Monday I made a big bowl of pico de gallo out of very sweet little grape tomatoes, onion, fresh lime juice, kosher salt, and cilantro. 

Jump to Recipe

And when it was almost dinner time, I heated up a bunch of tortillas, and then set up two greased pans to broil: One with the marinated meat

and one with chunks of pineapple; and I switched them and stirred them up a bit, so they both got a little charred. (The pineapple takes several minutes longer than the meat to cook, which I always forget.)

And that’s it. I had mine with just a little sour cream on the tortilla, just the meat and the grilled pineapple, and a little cilantro, with pico and chips on the side. 

Stupendous. The marinade has so much flavor, it’s ridiculous, and you will not want to add any hot sauce or salsa or anything. It’s got a tangy, nutty, smoky kind of sweetness that’s incredibly pleasing, and the meat is of course so tender from all that marinating. The pineapple turns almost candy-sweet on the outside when you grill it, and I am completely in love with the combination of the savory meat and the juicy pineapple with a little sour cream. It was not Too Much Work. It was Totally Worth It. I have made this recipe many times and it never even occurs to me to look for another one. 

Korean beef bowl with rice; cucumbers

Haven’t had Korean beef bowl for a while.

Jump to Recipe

It came out so nice. I used plenty of fresh garlic and fresh ginger, and what I’ve been doing is cooking the meat about 80% of the way through, draining the fat, and then adding the minced ginger and garlic and cooking it. The ginger and garlic bits stay really bright and pungent that way. 

I served it over white rice, and just served plain cucumbers on the side. I briefly considered one of those cute little piquant cucumber salads with the rice vinegar and the hot pepper flakes, but sometimes I like to have mercy on the kids and just serve regular old cucumbers.

Moussakhan and taboon

Always a popular meal. This time I had some especially good sumac from the International Market, and woof, it made my nose quiver. Lovely dark plum color, in glossy little flakes.

This is quite an easy recipe with a massive return on your effort, and you can serve it over rice or just eat it plain, or with pita, or whatever you want. I do like the dramatic presentation of the enormous platter of piping hot taboon bread, with all the chicken and its juice served on top of it, so everyone can help themselves to whatever pieces they want, and tear off some taboon to go with it.

I had a long tray of drumsticks and a half dozen thighs, and you slash the meat to the bone to get the marinade really deep in there, and then just marinate it for half a day or so. 

I only had two regrets: One was that I ran out of lemons to juice, and decided to use lime juice, which wasn’t disastrous, but it’s not ideal; and the other was that I was working outside on moving my raised garden beds around and whatnot, and was so afraid I would get garden madness and lose track of time, so I checked the clock frequently and had it all worked out exactly when I had to put everything in the oven so it would be done on time, and I did work it out, down to the minute, but then I . . . . forgot to do it. And you know, it really just doesn’t cook well that way, I find, when you don’t actually put the food in the oven. Awfully slow.

But EVENTUALLY we did have supper, and it was delicious. 

I made my Giant Pan o’ Taboon, which is quite fast to make, and only takes one rise, so you can start it about an hour and a half before you want to get dinner on the table, and that’s enough time. 

Jump to Recipe

and I used the last of the big pouch of pine nuts I splurged on a while back. You toast them up in olive oil just before serving the meat,

and you put the chicken and onions on the bread, and sprinkle that with sizzling pine nuts and chopped parsley, and BOY is it good. 

Just so good. 

I decided that the taboon recipe as written had a silly amount of salt in it, so I decreased it, and you know, I just didn’t like it as much. I honestly don’t know if the amount of salt I wrote is a typo or not, but I like it that way, so I’m going back to a truckload of salt next time I made this. Salty taboon for all!


The kids were on vacation all week, so most days this week, I have been rushing around doing a lot of pent-up yard work and gardening and whatnot. The ducks have been spending more and more time outside, and overall I like the looks of things around here, and I’m making slow but steady progress toward my patio area. Thursday Benny and I made a little trip into Massachusetts to get some used bricks,

and then she had a couple of pals over. Corrie had a friend over earlier in the week. Why is it so hard to have friends over! I guess it’s because we live far away from everything, and so does everybody. But having ducks helps. People do want to come see ducks, even if they have their own ducks. 

Aldi pizza

Friday Elijah and I climbed Mt. Cesar.

This is not a very big mountain, but it was steep enough to make me wheeze like a, like I don’t know what, a big wheezer. I’m not even in bad shape, it’s just my dumb lungs. Whatcha gonna do. Go to the doctor, I guess. But Friday was also the most important day all year in our little town: Rummage sale day!!! It’s not even a very good rummage sale, but there are people crowded outside the door waiting to get in. So we went and got our weird mugs and our dubious John Le Carré paperbacks and our little glass hummingbirds and our rusty scooter and then came home and,,, had some Aldi pizza. 

And this is the kind of paragraph that makes me think it doesn’t really matter much which volume of What’s For Supper? it really is. It’s eleven. It goes up to eleven. 

Pico De Gallo

quick and easy fresh dip or topping for tacos, etc.


  • 2 large tomatoes, diced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced OR 1/2 serrano pepper
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1/8 cup lime juice
  • dash kosher salt


  1. Mix ingredients together and serve with your favorite Mexican food


5 from 1 vote

Korean Beef Bowl

A very quick and satisfying meal with lots of flavor and only a few ingredients. Serve over rice, with sesame seeds and chopped scallions on the top if you like. You can use garlic powder and powdered ginger, but fresh is better. The proportions are flexible, and you can easily add more of any sauce ingredient at the end of cooking to adjust to your taste.


  • 1 cup brown sugar (or less if you're not crazy about sweetness)
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp red pepper flakes
  • 3-4 inches fresh ginger, minced
  • 6-8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3-4 lb2 ground beef
  • scallions, chopped, for garnish
  • sesame seeds for garnish


  1. In a large skillet, cook ground beef, breaking it into bits, until the meat is nearly browned. Drain most of the fat and add the fresh ginger and garlic. Continue cooking until the meat is all cooked.

  2. Add the soy sauce, brown sugar, and red pepper flakes the ground beef and stir to combine. Cook a little longer until everything is hot and saucy.

  3. Serve over rice and garnish with scallions and sesame seeds. 


taboon bread

You can make separate pieces, like pita bread, or you can make one giant slab of taboon. This makes enough to easily stretch over a 15x21" sheet pan.


  • 6 cups bread flour
  • 4 packets yeast
  • 3 cups water
  • 2 Tbsp salt
  • 1/3 cup olive oil


  1. Mix the flour, salt, and yeast in the bowl of a standing mixer.

  2. While it is running, add the olive oil. Then gradually add the water until the dough is soft and sticky. You may not need all of it. Let it run for a while to see if the dough will pull together before you need all the water. Knead or run with the dough hook for another few minutes.

  3. Put the dough in a greased bowl, grease the top, and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm spot for at least an hour until it has doubled in size.

  4. Preheat the oven to 400. Put a greased pan or a baking stone in the oven to heat up.

  5. If you are making separate pieces, divide it now and cover with a damp cloth. If you're making one big taboon, just handle it a bit, then put it back in the bowl and cover it with a damp cloth. Let rest ten minutes.

  6. Using a little flour, roll out the dough into the shape or shapes you want. Poke it all over with your fingertips to give it the characterstic dimpled appearance.

  7. Bake for 10-12 minutes until it's just slightly browned.