Making Garden Steps From Bags of Concrete

Question from Arlene:
I need to make about 4 steps to go up a small incline to get to my fruit tree…I remember you telling about an easy way to make steps using cement bags….do you have those instructions??? I am also thinking of having someone help me install a small 5-6 foot curved path and a small retaining wall just about 3’x4 ‘…not huge so i don’t want to spend lots of money. Can you make suggestions?

Answer from Pat:
In my garden I have made steps more than once by using RediCrete in bags. About 54 years ago I read in Sunset magazine how one could make steps out of bags of Redi-Crete. There were three black and white photos showing the method. I made a flight of them in 1956 and they are still in use today. A few years ago I needed more steps over a bank, so this was a great moment to use the same technique again. In photo #1 you will see how I had a retaining wall built to hold up a bank I was re-planting. The bank had become overgrown and needed a complete refurbishment. Once the wall was built, and the ground amended ready to plant I realized I had left myself no way to reach the plants on the bank once they were growing. But—aha, I thought, here is a great chance to build those steps again using the same technique I’d used many years earlier. My dear friend, garden designer Bill Teague, who recently passed away, helped me by positioning the concrete in the right way so the flight of steps would look graceful and beautiful. He also planted the bank for me.

Here is the method of building these steps: Water the bank so the ground is moist. Using a hoe, dig out flat spaces for steps and walk up and down on them to make sure they are comfortable and well-compacted. Purchase the number of bags of Redi-Crete (ready-mixed concrete mix) you will need. Turn the bags over and over a few times to thoroughly mix the contents. Beginning with the bottom step place the bags on the platforms you have already dug out for them. (When doing this job myself years ago I got down on my knees and rolled the bags up the bank positioning them one at a time beginning with the bottom step.) Be sure an inch or two of each bag rests firmly on the bag below. Also make sure that every part of each bag rests on solid ground or on the bag below. (This is very important because any part that juts out will fall off when it gets wet because it’s not reinforced.) Once you have positioned all the bags just the way you want them, walk up and down on them to make sure they are comfortable and well placed. Then leave the paper on and simply turn the sprinklers onto them. Or let it rain on them. Let them harden. Don’t walk on them until they harden or you will crack them. Once they have hardened then you can safely tear off the paper and walk on the steps.

This is based on the idea that if you leave a bag of concrete outdoors even in summer, or in your garage, it will eventually absorb enough moisture that it will harden like a rock. Many people have had this sad experience. They go to get that bag of concrete to use it only to find they waited too long and it went hard simply from the moisture in the air. Fifty years ago when I made my first steps this way, there was no plastic inside the bags, only paper. Now there is plastic. I worried about this when I made these new steps so I did make a hole about the size of a quarter in the middle of the top of each bag and poured in a little water from the hose into the bags, ever so gently (being very careful meanwhile not to step on the bags.) I did NOT mix the concrete in the bags. (This is important!) I just let it harden naturally and the bag made the shape. We eventually extended the steps all the way over the bank and down the other side. We had one bag of concrete left over and I asked the man who was helping me at that time to put it on the other side of a little fence so I could use it as a stepping stone to more easily pick the fruit on my lemon tree. A month later I noticed that bag of concrete was hard as a rock and it hadn’t even been watered. My gardener had torn the paper off it and it now makes an excellent stepping stone so I can get over that little fence.

Making garden steps this way is really easy but it does take patience. If you step on the bags too soon the concrete inside will crack instead of hardening into a solid lump. Once your steps are thoroughly hardened, then tear off the paper. I think the finished look is artistic. To me these steps are reminiscent of something ancient one might see while hiking on an Italian hillside. In my Southwest book I included these photos in the introduction with brief explanation on page 28. I also included an explanation of this system on page 76 of “All My Edens.” Many people have been inspired by this easy way of making garden steps and have built them also.

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