27 Nov Concrete thinking: How to make mod, stackable sculptures with concrete blocks
July 2022 update: We’re using some new colors and experimenting with a different (and exciting) shape of concrete block plant stands. Check out the latest post.
“What is garden art to you?”
That was the theme of the night during this week’s #GardenChat, the lively Twitter convo that happens every Monday from 6 to 7 PM PST. (Have you been? It’s a lively place to meet garden-minded people…)
That got us to thinking — and tweeting — about the ways in which Ryan and I like to add human-made flair to our yard. There’s the furniture Ryan designs, of course, and our luscious bird feeder and tuteur from TerraTrellis, which adds bold sculptural interest to our surroundings.
But these days we’ve been finding a lot of whimsy in…concrete blocks.
That’s right: good old-fashioned concrete masonry units. Their size, shape and negative space make them incredibly versatile to use inside a garden.
Find them at your local hardware store. Concrete blocks come in many different sizes shapes and can double as planters. Got a bunch of gourds to show off? Use concrete blocks to make a deconstructed jack o’lantern. Feeling down? Build ’em up into the throne for your spectacular self! You can, and should, paint them. (Instructions and reasoning in a minute…)
Our use of concrete blocks was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, who used patterned concrete blocks extensively — most notably in his “textile block” houses like the Ennis property in LA. The inherent contrasts — the heaviness of the concrete vs. the bricks’ intricate patternwork; weather-stained cement vs. emerald trees — are robust, and right up our alley.
We’ve been moving concrete blocks around into various configurations for three years now in two locations within our garden. Our first location is beneath our citrus trees. We love the shadows that Ryan’s LED lights cast on this 40-block sculpture at night, but we’ve noticed that three years outdoors have left our blocks stained and dull.
It is nearly impossible to clean stains off of bare concrete blocks due to its porosity. Concrete blocks need to be sealed before they become cleanable. So recently painted the forty blocks of our first sculpture a clean shade of “Rustic Taupe” to match our newly renovated “citrus room” that Ryan built beneath our orange and tangerine trees. When we brought the blocks into the new room, we configured them differently and used them to support a new bench.
DIY Painted Concrete Block Sculptures:
1. Arrange concrete blocks for cleaning. We recommend resting each block at a slight angle (atop wood slats, for example) so that the blocks are not flat against the ground when drying. We added a dropcloth and used this arrangement for painting as well.
2. Wash the dirt from your concrete blocks with a strong jet of water. We used a pressure washer. This step can be skipped if the blocks are new and clean. A scrub brush and garden hose sprayer could be substituted for the pressure washer. The cleaner the block, the better the paint will adhere and the longer it will last. We waited four hours for the blocks to dry before applying bonding primer.
3. Prime and paint the blocks. Bonding primer assures maximum adhesion of paint to concrete. We used Behr’s Concrete & Masonry Bonding Primer and Concrete & Garage Floor Paint from Home Depot for this job. Both are latex acrylic-based for easy cleanup. We used nap rollers to apply both products, making sure to thoroughly coat the inside of each block. We applied two coats of paint on top of one coat of primer. We waited a day between each coat.
4. Wait at least two days before arranging and stacking the blocks so that they do not stick together. Make sure your platform is strong and level.
Who knew a bunch of big, hulky blocks could feel so serene?
Speaking of peace and happiness, we hope your Thanksgiving will fill you up in every way that matters. Have a fun holiday — and see you on the other side of that pumpkin mousse cheesecake!
UPDATE: We brought in some staghorn ferns to warm up this outdoor room and to complement the geometric shapes of the concrete blocks. Check out our guide to mounting staghorn ferns here.