Building Rock Steps in Your Rock Garden

What You'll Need
Tape measure
Wood block
Small sledge hammer
Rock steps
Small rock shims

If your rock garden is built on an incline, stone steps are a natural choice for garden enhancements. Choosing a flat rock is critical to achieving a stable step that won't wobble over time. The rock tread should be at least five inches thick to ensure that it doesn’t break. Ideally the rock will be the full width of the step. This saves having to conform multiple rocks into one step. One rock can be very heavy however, so you will need to balance your skills and lifting abilities. Here is a simple plan to build rock steps into your garden design.

Step 1 - Site considerations

How steep and how long is the incline you are working with? The answer to these questions will determine how many steps you need to build.  A shallow incline is no problem but an incline too steep could be dangerous. Plan room for a landing area at the top and bottom of the steps. A good landing should be at least three feet square. Also consider if the landings will shed water run off appropriately.

Step 2 - Design considerations

The vertical part of a step, or the part in front of your toe as you walk up, is called the rise. Common practice is to set the rise to seven and one half inches. The part of the step that you actually stand on is called the tread. A tread size of at least 11 inches deep will provide a safe platform for your feet. You can deepen the tread size for shallower inclines. The steps should be at least three feet wide for good function.

Step 3 – Create a platform

Begin at the bottom landing. Use the shovel to carve out the earth and create a stable platform that conforms to the bottom of the first rock step.  Deduct the thickness of the stone step and carve out the earth such that the rise will equal seven and one half inches after the stone is placed on the platform.  Make sure the earth platform is packed solid enough to prevent movement from the weight of the stone plus a person standing on it. Use small rock shims, sand, and the level to fine tune the platform such that the rock step will set perfectly level. 

Step 4 – Set the stone

Set the stone on the platform and tamp into place with a block of wood and hammer. The block of wood will prevent the hammer from damaging the stone. Repeat step three and four until you’ve reached the top.

The tread can over-hang the riser, by an inch or two, to create a nice finished look and improved function. Take advantage of opportunities to add electrical and irrigation lines under the rock steps. Rock work can be strenuous. Take your time and be kind to your body and you will enjoy your rock steps creation for a long time.