Natural stone walls, patios, steps and walkways can transform an unused slope into a home’s centerpiece of beauty and function.

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Q: We’re having major landscaping challenges due to our sloping and uneven yard. Is there anything we can do that will look halfway decent?

A: Seattle’s hills challenge local homeowners with questions of best use for the areas of sloped earth on our properties. Natural stone walls, patios, steps and walkways can transform an unused slope into a home’s centerpiece of beauty and function. As in nature, exposed rock faces are works of art that communicate strength and elegance.

Stone walls

A well-built stone wall holds back the hillside, allowing sloped areas to be leveled for use as patios, gardens or play areas. Multiple walls distributed over larger slopes create attractive terraces. While concrete block is practical for walls hidden from view, nothing replicates the aesthetic quality of natural stone.

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A wide variety of stones can be used in building retaining walls. Whether the wall is mortared or “dry-stacked” is the first factor guiding stone selection. Drainage considerations are also critical, as a dry-stack wall drains more easily than a mortared wall.

Thinstone is a great option for both exterior and interior walls. Gauged to a 1-inch thickness, thinstone is lightweight veneer and easy to install over new or existing walls of concrete, brick or plywood. Corner pieces are specially milled to give the appearance of “full-bed” veneer stone.

Patios, walkways, steps

A stone patio — installed above, below or between retaining walls — creates an outdoor “room” for relaxing, dining and social gatherings. Flagstones or dimensional pavers (of bluestone, quartzite, slate or granite) are the most common stones for patios and entryways. Crushed aggregate forms a clean, consistent surface for garden paths. Stepping stones are an option that blends harmoniously with plants and garden beds.

Dimensional pavers can be arranged in patterns of various sizes to create a formal patio. Flagstones are flat stones of varying shapes and sizes that are puzzled together with irregular gaps between each stone. Gaps can be made consistent by meticulously trimming flagstones by saw, creating a more elegant, artistic floor.

Patio stones are set either in mortar or on a compacted bed of crushed rock or sand that allows water absorption and minor shifting of the stones. With either method, a good foundation base is critical to the lasting quality of every patio, walkway or stone wall.

Selecting the best stone

Stair treads and risers are key for making a slope useful. These larger stones come in many forms, from rugged quarry slabs to custom-fabricated treads of bluestone, basalt, limestone or granite.

Other stone accents, such as benches, a fireplace or a birdbath, invite one to linger in the beauty of fine stonecraft.

Drawing rough sketches is a good way to explore designs options for the sloped area. Visiting a local stone supplier will help in selecting the kinds of stone that is best suited for the project. Seeing and touching stone stimulates the creative imagination.

Stone suppliers can provide information about availability and pricing, referrals to stone contractors, and helpful tips for those enthusiastic homeowners with a strong back and free weekends.

Tobin Marsh is part of the team at Terrazzo & Stone Supply Co., which is a member of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. HomeWork is the group’s weekly column. If you have a home improvement, remodeling or residential homebuilding question you’d like answered by one of the MBA’s more than 2,800 members, write to homework@mbaks.com.