The Hardscape Art
Of Victor Ayala
by Charles McGuigan
Over the past six years The Cottage Gardener has become synonymous with everything that has to do with landscaping. From mowing and annual lawn maintenance to landscape design and installation of plants, shrubs and trees. And, of course, hardscape, including walkways, borders, retaining walls, stairs and patios.
“I think one of the keys to our success is we think outside of the box,” says owner Tim McCaffrey. “We bring value to the table and we try to spend your money like it’s our money. We’ve had great success and book a lot of return business. No job is too big or too small.” We’re sitting in the living room of Tim’s Bellevue home and he gestures toward Victor Ayala, who has become his right hand man. “And Victor over here can do anything with hardscape,” he says. “And just about anything else.” Victor smiles.
Hardscape defines a yard, front or back. It is like a frame around a fine oil painting. It can be anything from a brick walkway to a field stone retaining wall, a border of cobblestones to a patio of flagstones. Without these accents of bricks and natural stone or manufactured stone products, your yard, though planted well with grasses and perennials, bushes and trees, can become a hodgepodge lacking in design.
After Tim meets with a client to get an idea of what they’re looking for, Victor visits the job site. “I just walk around the house and start taking note of the windows, the roof, the color of the paint,” Victor says. “And I start working in my mind. Then everything comes together.”
But not everyone is looking for a complete makeover. “A lot of times we might be replacing something that’s already there like a walkway, a stoop or whatever, and I’ll tell the homeowner the different types of materials available,” says Tim. “We’ve done everything from relaying an existing slate patio to putting in a new bluestone walkway. If it’s a really complex job I’ll bring Victor in and let him tell me what I don’t see because sometimes I’m looking at one thing and he’s looking at something else. And then Victor kind of does his thing getting his levels, getting his design so it’s a fairly fluid thing.”
Sometimes, homeowners in their enthusiasm, select stone and mortar work that simply don’t reflect the architecture of their home. Tim mentions a Cape Cod in Richmond’s Northside that features a contemporary mosaic walkway without a border made of stone that would be more appropriate in Albuquerque, New Mexico than in central Virginia. “It all looks wrong and I know the stone was very expensive,” he says.
Pete Rose carries hundreds of varieties of stone, several of which are very popular in this area. “We use primarily Winchester blend and Virginia fieldstone,” says Tim. “They’re very pretty stones and we’ve blended them together. We also use a fair amount of variegated bluestone.” Victor often takes clients to Pete Rose so they can choose the stone. “So it’s a very interactive process from the initial sale to Victor making it come to life,” Tim says. “He’s the guy who makes it speak at the end of the day.”
Giving hardscape a voice is no easy task. The first step in any hardscape project is the foundation. “If you walk up to a patio and you see humps in it and depressions the underlayment wasn’t done properly and if you don’t get the base right I don’t care what you do on the top you’re going to have problems,” says Tim.
Victor describes in detail a project The Cottage Gardener completed last year on Laburnum Avenue. The focal point was a circular patio about sixteen feet in diameter and the job took about three weeks to complete because of uncooperative weather. It all began with leveling the site for the patio, shaving off layers of dirt with the flat blade of a spade and then tamping the dirt down, compacting it with a tool Tim bought from RentalWorks—a mechanical tamper. “It’s probably one of the most valuable pieces of equipment we have because it’s critical to what we do,” says Tim.
But the most valuable piece of equipment The Cottage Gardener possesses is the sight of Victor Ayala. “I use my eyes for everything,” he says. “I get all the levels just right by eye and I piece it all together looking for an exact piece to fit just right.” After the tamping was completed they brought in crush-and-ground, the same milled gravel used to create the base of roadways, and laid a base for what was to come. Then Victor created a concrete footing with rebar on which he laid a circular wall of concrete block about 20 inches tall. On this he pieced together a mosaic veneer of Virginia fieldstone with uniform gaps of between one-half and one-inch thick, striking the seams as he worked. Then, using a piping bag, which looks and works just like a pastry bag, he filled the gaps and pointed the mortar. He then filled the sixteen-foot cavity with crushed stone, poured in concrete, laid flagstones in mortar and pointed them. He finished the entire project with a manufactured stone from E. P, Henry that you see bordering a lot of in ground pools, a bullnose coping product that rounds the rough edges.
“It is a real showpiece,” says Tim of the Laburnum Avenue job.
Victor has worked steadily at his trade since he was not much more than a boy and he has an uncanny natural aptitude for design and engineering. He came to this country from his native Guadalajara, Mexico when he was just sixteen years old. He crossed the Rio Bravo in an inner tube, spent two days and two nights crossing a desert only to be picked up by immigration authorities and returned to his native land. But Victor was persistent. He crossed the river again later that same day and this time made it into the heart of Texas where he dined on the finest fare from the Golden Arches and slept for a solid twelve hours. He then boarded a Greyhound Bus and spent the next three days en route to Richmond where he had a job as a landscaper waiting. Within the year he went to work for a local mason, starting on the lowest rung of the ladder, doing grunt work, and learning every aspect of the trade. The man who took Victor under his wing liked him immediately because of his work ethic and his ability to learn, and learn quickly. Victor spent the next four years at this man’s side, moving from apprentice to journeyman to master mason.
When the economy tanked, Victor went to work in the restaurant business for about a year and then a friend of his got him on with The Cottage Gardener. Since then, Victor has become Tim’s number one man and is now married and has a three-year old daughter, the joys of his life. His story is like the story of countless immigrants who needed only a chance in a nation that is made up of immigrants, regardless what members of the current No Nothing Party may say.
Tim looks at Victor with a paternal fondness and says, “Victor’s like a son to me. One day I hope Victor takes this all over and runs with it. Victor has a natural affinity for working men and that’s not a quality that a lot of people possess. He’s good at getting our crew to perform at their highest level and when I come on a jobsite I rarely ever say anything to the guys. I trust Victor. We think along the same lines. We have a lot of simpatico, I guess. Victor’s like family to me and I hope I’m like family to him.”
Victor Ayala smiles and nods.
“Family,” he says.