Saturday, January 21, 2012

Garden mirrors from start to finish

Following up on our "start to finish" series that includes stock tank gardens from start to finish, watergarden from start to finish, rainwater harvesting from start to finish, and ollas from start to finish, we now have garden mirrors from start to finish.
Right off the bat, I must warn you: this was a tougher project than the others we tackled.  You've heard the expression "go big or go home"?  Well, I wanted to go big, and what I didn't count on at the outset was the amount of work it would take.


Let me first explain what garden mirrors even are and why they are used.  Garden mirrors have not yet gotten very popular in America for a couple of reasons:
  • Most "new world" folks already have what outdoor mirrors are intended to provide an illusion of:  SPACE.  Mirrors tend to be more popular in Europe where, even if folks are wealthy, they often do not have much land around their homesteads.  Therefore, the clever use of mirrors can add extra dimensions to small backyards (which they tend to call "gardens").
  • It takes a relatively large mirror to do justice to even a small backyard space, and large mirrors are both expensive and difficult to install.  
Where people do incorporate mirrors into their landscaping however, the effect can range from pleasing to breathtaking:

While these definitely add to the landscape, I find them a little underwhelming because of their relatively small size.
From MoZone The Blog.

Now I'm beginning to get enchanted.
From, although that source may have obtained the photo elsewhere (they posted what appears to be one of MoZone's without attribution).

Even more enchanting. 

Mirrors.  I would not have attempted this project except for one stroke of good fortune: I found a used pair of enormous sheet mirrors at a church yard sale and bought them both for $40.00. If the same pair of mirrors had been purchased new at retail prices, they would have cost around $600.00, which would have made this project out of the question by virtue of unreasonable expense.   If you are considering a similar project for yourself, keep this in mind: wall-sized sheet mirrors are becoming less popular as designer trends dictate fancier framed mirrors in residential bathrooms.  For this reason, many suburbanites are de-installing their large builder-grade sheet mirrors when they remodel. If you can locate one or more of those secondhand, you might get them at giveaway prices.

Framing materials.  All of the framing materials came from a big box hardware store and are pretty simple (general inventory for two separate mirrors):
  • 4x4 inch pressure-treated posts (four 10-footers and four 6-footers)
  • three-quarter inch pressure-treated plywood (two 4 x 8 sheets)
  • exterior oil based paint (1 gallon)
  • common hardware (bolts)
  • aluminum mirror mounting track (4 pieces)
  • ready mix concrete for mounting the finished framed mirrors in the ground (about five 50-pound bags).
  • A circular saw with a good sharp blade suitable for cutting plywood and pressure-treated lumber.  (If you have more sophisticated equipment such as a table saw, your life would likely be easier with this project, but all we had on hand was a circular saw). 
  • Measuring tape.
  • Something to use to support lumber and the project as it is being constructed (we used about a half dozen cinderblocks)
  • A wood rasp or file
  • Post hole digger
  • Bottle jack
  • A great deal of construction-related brain power
Labor.  At least two large strong people would be needed to accomplish anything remotely resembling this project.  While the two of us were sufficient to actually build the mirrors, it was not sufficient to have just myself (130-pound unusually strong female) and my husband when it came time to set the framed mirrors in the ground; we needed a second muscular male to assist with that.


Now, this is the section where, if this were any other "start to finish" blog post from us, I would go through the construction in painstaking step-by-step detail.  In this case, however, I'm going to summarize general procedures, ideas, and limitations for you to keep in mind if you do your own project.  There are many different ways to put mirrors into a landscape, every landscape is different, and this is only one approach represented below.

Mirror frame must be both flat and rigid. This was by far the biggest challenge we faced in designing this project.  I managed to drag two enormous but cheap mirrors home from a yard sale, but at that point, we almost became stymied by the obvious technical challenge: how the heck were we going to mount these things in an outdoor environment in a way that both supported their considerable weight, would stand up to the wind (in our area, sometimes hurricane-force), AND would keep them from flexing, which would have led to breakage?!  And how were we going to keep that frame from deteriorating when exposed to considerable fluctuations in temperature and humidity?  And accomplish all of these goals at reasonable cost?  Yikes!!!

After great debate,we settled upon pressure-treated plywood as the backing.
A minivan is a wonderful thing.  It can swallow 4 x 8 sheets of plywood without even belching. I have an entire series of photographs depicting all of the remarkable things that my van has hauled over the years.
 The only trouble with this plywood was that it was very green and it had a very high moisture content. In order to get it as flat as possible and as stable as possible, I had to lay it out to dry on the garage floor in a process that took approximately three weeks!!!!!

Every time one side would begin to get a little bit dry, it would warp. I would then flip it over to re-flatten it, and let the other side dry. As I was doing this, I weighed down the curling edges using cinderblocks and my husband's set of free weights. This whole process was a pain in the lower anatomy, to be sure.
Once the plywood was as dry as I figured it was ever going to get, we cut each piece down to size, making them about 6 inches larger than each mirror. 

These cut-down pieces then received multiple coats of the outdoor oil-based paint.

Then it was time to construct the frames to hold the backing.  This is where my husband's engineering skills came in handy.  Basically we had to cut the frame posts so that they could notch into one another in the same plane...

.. but we also had to cut a groove around the entire frame perimeter into which the plywood could then be inserted so that it would not warp in the future (and crack the mirrors in the process). We considered stabilizing the plywood using other rigid means such as galvanized metal brackets, but that seemed too complicated.  The channel-inset solution was my ever-brilliant husband's idea. 

This pic shows The Engineer working on the top piece of the frame.  The plywood has alread been fitted into the inset channel in the frame piece to photo right.  The come-along straps were used to ensure that the plywood was all the way into the channels, and also to hold the frame tight while it was being bolted together.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, this was not an easy task, and it wasn't the safest project we ever did either.  If you do anything like this, proceed carefully after giving each stage in your process some good contemplation. 

This is not a fast project, either.  We worked on it on and off for a couple of weeks (for two mirrors). 
Once we got the frame bolted together and lowered into the holes we dug, we had to somehow hold it in place while the concrete was poured into the holes around the legs and allowed to harden. We used a floor jack and some cinderblocks to accomplish that. We also framed up the concrete "feet" using loose bricks, which we later came to regret because it was difficult to remove the bricks from the hardened concrete. On our second garden mirror, we used thin plastic forms instead of bricks because they were easier to remove afterward. 
Now for a bit of close-up finish detail:
Here's a close-up of the joinery in the lower right-hand corner of the mirror. It takes considerable construction skill to get these joints to match up perfectly.
We used aluminum mirror mounting track to hold the mirror sheet onto the plywood backing on both its top and its bottom. We sealed the top with clear silicone.  You have to remember that this kind of sheet mirror is not designed to frequently get wet. Most of the Internet resources I found (what few there were) recommended sealing glass mirrors to some kind of a waterproof backing if they are going to be placed outdoors. Otherwise, the mirroring might delaminate (peel off). 
We also silicone'd down each side...
...but we left the bottom without silicone. We figured there was no way to get a perfect seal all the way around the mirror - it was bound to leak a bit somewhere. Therefore, we left the bottom open so that if any water did get between the mirror and its plywood backing, it would have a place to drain out. Time will tell whether this approach is sufficient to prevent significant deterioration of the mirror. 
And now for the semi-finished product, and I do mean "semi" because as I write this, it's the month of January, which means we are in dormancy as far as most plants are concerned:
View of the larger of the two mirrors shortly after installation. Ultimately, I want to run vines up the fence and across the mirror frame so that it gets partially covered and therefore looks a little less stark. In this rather barren configuration, the combination of mirror plus stock tank is faintly reminiscent of a commode (it actually looks LESS like a commode when viewed in 3-D because, between the mirror and the tank, there's a gap large enough to walk through). 
Since the initial installation was completed, we've seen some softening with additional vegetation growing, and I have also discovered an unexpected bonus: 
Tank as of today.  That's broccoli in the rear, and onions in the front. The mirror actually reflects additional sunlight to the plants in the tank, resulting in more robust growth than I usually see.
Smaller mirror with smaller stock tank (this one contains mostly herbs plus one orphaned broccoli at the moment).  Again, in order to complete the picture, additional softening from vegetation is needed. In this case, it will be a southern wax myrtle that sort of cascades over the top of the mirror to soften the edges.  That is partially visible to photo left, but still has some growing to do.
I realize that, stylistically these things would not be to everyone's taste. Aside from wanting garden mirrors, the unusual design we chose reflected a bit of nostalgia on my part: the frames remind me of the Parks Canada signs which have been a part of fond memories throughout my entire life:
Cayley and her grandfather in Nova Scotia,
summer 2011.
So there you have it, and I will post additional pictures as these installations begin to approach their full aesthetic potential.

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