Brick by Brick, Plant by Plant

 Two years ago a building in York, on Philadelphia Street, burned down. This resulted in a terrible tragedy for the owner. The owner ended up being related to one of my good neighbors, and allowed me to scavenge bricks from the site. I explained how I work on putting in gardens in many areas of York city, and how there is generally no budget. I get materials by begging, borrowing, yorkWreck_blogsometimes paying for them myself, and in this case, bravely approaching with my trusty trowel in hand, and a truck bed ready to be filled. Be warned, I get a tetnus shot quite regularly. I am in great shape. I plan and research out my trips to scavenge materials for use in gardens very, very carefully. This particular project to obtain bricks is not a project for the faint-hearted, the dainty, the physically weak, the easily disgusted, or those afraid of becoming indescribably, totally, disturbingly filthy. You will also develop smells and people will edge away from you at every opportunity. No one ever said that preparing an area for flowers was going to make you smell sweet!

See this photo? What a mess. It’s a good thing that the owner of this area allowed me to take these bricks. If anyone ever wants to help themselves to discarded bricks, always confirm with the owner first that you are able to take them. Most used bricks, if in good shape, can be sold, and are considered a resource. Even if it’s a big pile of burned crap, its still belongs to someone else. Old wrecked-looking bricks can always be reused. To collect this filthy treasure, I wore very heavy, steel tipped work boots, very heavy thick leather welding gloves, heavy clothes in general, a hard hat and a really good face mask. Digging through an area destroyed by high intensity fire, results in EVERYTHING burning. Plastics, bricks, paper, old asbestos, wire, etc. it’s a real mess and its dangerous and you can NOT afford to take any chances with your health. I only stayed on the outskirts of the location in question, and didn’t venture into any areas that were literally over my head. Gravity was the only thing that kept those standing walls and heavy burned timbers in place. A good strong wind will blow it all down, and did. Don’t be next to it, or under it when it happens. I wasn’t, which is why I’m still alive to write this blog for you. No kidding. Pay attention, plan carefully and avoid problems.

The bricks I took were either full-sized bricks, or half-sized ones. These bricks were exposed to very high temperatures, and a great majority were pulverized into powder. The way that buildings in York, and many older American East Coast cities were built, were out of two types of bricks. Harder red bricks, used on the exterior of buildings, and softer, orange bricks that were used on the interior walls, were both present on the site I was digging through. The bricks also had mortar on some of them. Quite a bit of the mortar was literally burned away, and there was only sand and grit remaining.

I have found many a use for these particular bricks, as have others. The main amount of keyhole_blogbricks (over a thousand) were used to construct a keyhole garden last year at the Hope Street Garden and Learning Lab, part of the Lincoln School, here in York City. Each time I had dug and tampered and leveled the site to make it perfectly flat. I built it 3 times. The first and second time I had constructed it, in hot, humid weather when sane people were inside in air conditioning. It was determined that it needed to be moved later on, to make room for  other projects. This was ok for me, in terms of moving it around, because each time I made alterations in its construction, improving and learning. It was also possible to move it, because I had never mortared it permanently in the first place. Next time, I’ll know better. I’m not moving that dang thing anymore, at ALL.

walkway_blogThe next project I made with the bricks was a brick walkway. I didn’t make it right away, of course, I had to collect and stack the bricks, over and over, in many trips. I used only the best bricks that I had available to me, and this meant that some of the bricks I had chosen at the former building site, were not actually as strong as I had first surmised. I had to reassess the stacked bricks, several times, as projects did not get finished off as quickly as I wanted. (what can I say, a gals gotta sleep sometime). Some of the bricks have been existing in stacked piles, in unobtrusive areas for two years now. It becomes apparent after the first hard winter, just how well some of them hold their condition after their first hard winter. This is a LOT of effort to go through for bricks, but I really wanted older bricks that matched the age and coloring of our house (pre-Civil War era) and so I was happy to accommodate what ever I had to put up with, and learn from.

york_road_blogYork has totally cool bricks. We have a long history with them. They were MADE here! Check out all the new work being done on the streets of York lately. Those messed up bumpy roads of ours, that have kept auto realignment companies in business, have been around for nearly 300 years. The recent scrapings of our battered pavement to improve it, has revealed the older ones underneath. It has unearthed our city’s marvelous brickwork. It has seen horses and wagons and Model T’s and Ford Mustangs and all sorts of vehicles and people. That’s pretty cool. Those bricks get to have your car travel directly over them now as well. They are a time capsule of transportation and we get to try it out here in 2015. Not too shabby. Pay attention to them before they get covered up again soon!

Sometimes I find bricks that are relics, that physically capture the actual moment in time they were made. I just love when this happens. It generally doesn’t grab anyone’s attention, because, realistically, who spends their time examining bricks? Garden Nutjobs like me, that’s who. Garden materials are very important, and their condition and history lend a certain character to any project, that is impossible to reproduce in any other way.

See this pattern? I built this in the back yard of The Hive, a great art spot on King Street in York, in the Royal Square Neighborhood. The area was so completely square, even down to the bricks themselves, that I had to put a swirl into it. Know where the bricks came from? From the pile at the bottom of this page.  Knocked down or collapsed buildings make great places to gather old bricks from. Again, practice safety first.


Now when it comes to constructing our walkway, we had hand dug out a section that had been used as a pathway. In the winter it was a muddy, icy-clot filled messy strip of earth. It was filthy and unsafe and resembled a track some sort of thrashing wild animal would have made. It needed some bricks! We chose bricks because it matches our old brick house and it is also extremely durable. As many of the bricks were obscured by soot and workingWalkway_blogash, it was harder to determine what was softer brick and which was harder. We wanted the harder bricks, especially for a walkway that will endure heavy use. But some where along the line we misidentified some bricks, and used them by mistake. Here’s a photo of what our walkway’s condition looked like when we were installing it,  before its first winter. We had to look up instructions on how deep to dig, and what other materials, such as weed blocker, gravel and sand, ended up being required to get the job done.

I had some bricks left over that I had my heart set on, in putting along side our driveway, because I wanted to make a container type “holding bed” for plants, both permanent and temporary. It also makes a nice method to control raspberries, and other plants that my have a tendency to spread uncontrollably, like oregano. The tilted method of having bricks standing upright is called “soldier” bricks, because they are standing at attention. Try to make your lines straighter then I did, both my bricks and my plastic edging were pushed up against loose gravel, that left me with chisels_blogvery little support when it came time to place them in each spot. You can see how some of the soft bricks, mistakenly used, crumbled into powder and will have to be replaced. Any bricks that were odd edged, we used a hammer and chisel in order to form them better. Some were so oddly shattered, we just used them as fill material when we found we had holes we needed to remove, either in the earth itself, or inside the odd hole or two.

We also put bricks right by our porch lattice, because it’s a great way to keep critters from nosing around by the dirt, digging a quick tunnel, and making a home where it is not supposed to. I reference this in an earlier blog about those crazed rabbits that try to destroy my yard at every sneaky opportunity they get. Not only does using bricks in gardens serve as a great way to make walkways or borders, it also serves to mark areas that should remain permanent, like covering buried electrical lines in a garden that would regularly be tilled every spring. There is no shortage of brilliant, adaptable methods of using bricks. I find that a quick online search also helps when you find you have a big pile of them, and you want to use them up somehow.

soldiers_blogWhen I have black raspberry plants that are trying to send the tips of their new canes down into the earth, (always in the wrong place) I usually pick up the wandering tip, relocate it to a better spot, by digging a small hole for the tip. I place the end of the raspberry cane down in there and cover it well with dirt. It will generally pop up on its own and be obstinate, so I always put a half brick down on top of it to hold it into place, before it gets a chance to grow roots and hold itself in place. Also, when I have green beans growing and I require an item to help me control the string and vines, I tie a brick to it. It helps to weigh it down, and everything grows better because of it.

I have to say, overall, the oldest bricks, were by far superior to any of the others I have used. The ones that were placed next to the fire when they were being hardened in the kiln, also still retain the original glassine effect that happens when it is so close to the fire that the actual sand in the clay mixture becomes superheated and turns into GLASS. These were rare, and very prized bricks to have. Only the wealthiest clients bought bricks to have their houses constructed (just by using bricks was a far costlier construction cost, then a regular wood house). This holds true for today as well. And to top it off, the glassine bricks were even more expensive, as they were specially set aside and inserted into the building of the exterior walls.

Why expend this extra effort, you ask? For a lowly brick that didn’t match any of the others and cost more? Its shiny, darker discolored surface was excellent at reflecting light, which made it a visually striking addition to home builders eager to show off their wealth. These glassy bricks were arranged in a pattern, either in lines or diamond patterns or rough hexes, on the side or front of a house. These bricks would catch the light and literally sparkle from a distance. It was used as a method to tell what time it was, from a distance, because as the sun would move its way across the sky, at cerain times of the day. On really sunny days, it would reflect the light and set off a visual spectacle that could be seen from farther away, then say, a clock. I bet you didn’t know that did you? That’s pretty cool, I think. Bricks were used in both the duty of a structure, and the beauty of a pattern and the duty of telling time. That’s remarkable. Try THAT with Vinyl Siding!


All in all, I have to say that hunting down, collecting, reusing old brick is a very worthwhile effort, but it does require significant amounts of time, and heavy hard work in general, far more then just going out and buying new ones. For any project you try with these, always have a plan! Its too much heavy work to do, otherwise.

2 thoughts on “Brick by Brick, Plant by Plant

  1. Wonderful article!! Super awesome article!!
    Wow!! Wish I could get some of those bricks!! You said it took over a thousand bricks to do the Keyhole Garden? Can you say what the measurements are please?
    Can you please, please, please, Please give me the details for relocating the Keyhole garden? Please? I built one in Jamaica, West Indies and I want to redo it but it seems such a daunting task!! I am in awe that you moved yours not once, not twice but Three Times?! That is major awesome!! Respect! I am not moving ours from it’s present location but some of the bricks have come loose and I want it to be done higher. I didn’t use any cement, I used mud instead so it should be easy to pull the bricks out, but what about the soil? Did you empty the garden of all the soil before you took away the bricks? And the compost basket, what happened with that? I hope these questions don’t seem too inane. (I planned to use cement on the Keyhole garden this time.) Thank you for any information that you can send my way. Have a super awesometacular day!! All positive vibes from Jamaica!!

    1. Hey there, Jamaica! The keyhole garden was about 10 feet across, I think. It was about 3 and a half feet high. It was empty and all I did was level the ground as perfectly flat as possible, then added lots of dirt and compost and buried weeds in there as well. We didnt have a lot of soil to use, and so we made do with what was available to fill it up. I figured the organic plant matter would break down over time, and it did. I didnt use mud or cement, but should have. I just depended on gravity to hold the whole thing together, which normally works fine, until a water hose was left on while watering everything, and we had a minor washout, and wall collapse. Easily fixed. Let me know what happened with your project, I would like to see photos of it!

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