Sunday Almanac: We Need Lowcountry Tabby Concrete

Tabby sidewalk, public domain image

Tabby is a type of concrete made by burning oyster shells to create lime, then mixing it with water, sand, ash and broken oyster shells. —Wikipedia

“Maybe we ought to build a wall instead of a fence.”

The words spilled out of me suddenly as they’re wont to do, even though the thought had been knocking around in my head for a while.

Chef David drove along quietly before he said, “Now you’re talking a substantially higher price tag.”

It’s my curse, possessing a taste for things forever outside my budget. I’ve been like this, I don’t know, probably since childhood, at least since my parents sent me to an Episcopal school in midtown Memphis, far away from our white-bread suburban neighborhood, where I learned to love all the Craftsman-style homes with porte cocherès and dumbwaiters and other historic whorls and flourishes our house didn’t have. Just one or two birthday party sleepovers, was all it took.

But yesterday I was speaking to The Chef about a different bit of architecture, our patio enclosure, the one that was staged so beautifully the day we were shown this house where we expect to live forever. A huge appeal of our little south-Wilmington enclave is the charm of the same-y homes here, same but just different enough not to be boring. When you pull off the busy main north-south thoroughfare and onto our street, you’re transported instantly into, I don’t know, maybe downtown Charleston. At least that is the feeling I had on that day.

And while it’s certainly not historic, like midtown Memphis or downtown Charleston, our neighborhood is old enough that the vegetation here has had some time to mature and flourish in some spots. Nobody owns any land here except the soil under their home, and a few feet around it, where most have tidy beds planted with native vegetation…pampas grasses and smallish palms, for example; one of our beds has all these together with a thick patch of established lavender and an exquisite butterfly bush as the exclamation point at one end. But the lawns here are all considered community property, maintained by the HOA, ditto the trees. Behind our house is a dense wood that also belongs to the neighborhood, with serpentine pathways winding through it. To be sure, it needs some work, but we anticipate this will happen sometime in the next year. We get the feeling COVID upended some of the basic maintenance this neighborhood deserves, but our HOA has an energetic new can-do president and has just hired a new lawn and grounds maintenance company. Feels like a fresh start.

Anyway. The point is, like all the other homes in this tidy little community, ours has an enclosed patio out back, and that is all we get as a private “garden” area. We’re also lucky enough to have a screen porch in front of the patio, so that when the conditions outdoors are right, we throw open the French doors leading out onto it, effectively increasing our living area by an entire spacious room, with the courtyard-style patio just beyond it. It is a thoughtful design.

After the ink had dried on our closing papers and we settled into our new digs, we realized in short order the patio was downright barren without the big glazed enamel terra cotta pots overflowing with colorful flowers, which the listing agent reclaimed in due course. Not only that, but the attractive flagstones on the ground are filled in with gravel, rendering the patio useless in bare feet.

Earlier in the fall, I removed some of the gravel in one corner and planted creeping thyme seed to see if it would go. The idea was, we’d encourage it all over the patio if the seed took, thus softening the landscape and making it more inviting for bare toes. There are some green shoots poking up, but we can’t tell whether they’re thyme or just weeds.

And there is the matter of the fence. It’s not in the worst shape—some of our neighbors’ fences are way past their expiration—but it has definitely seen better days. There’s nothing special about it, a dog-ear variety where each picket is offset from the next one and attaches on one side or the other of a pair of interior crossmembers. The result is a mainly private patio, but if you wanted to look inside, you could, kind of thing. Not that anybody does. And a couple of the pickets are separating from the cross boards. So at the very least, the thing needs repairing if not a complete overhaul.

I scrapped the creeping thyme idea and came up with a new one, to remove all the flagstone, level the ground beneath it (which is mainly a sandy silt), and then lay in a pathway using brick pavers in a herringbone pattern. It would lead from the screen porch door and to the left for access to our grill, and to the right for access to our not-yet-acquired hot tub. We’d fill in the edges with some of the flagstone pavers, a few of them, and repurpose the balance of them to use elsewhere around our flower beds out front. Okay, so maybe we’d plant creeping something-or-other between them.

We were both of the same mind about this plan, until I introduced the idea of a wall yesterday, instead of a fence. Not only that, but a masonry wall built using a material indigenous to the Southeast Coast, called tabby.

The Chef had not heard about tabby, but as we drove along, I pointed out one and then another wall made of this distinctive concrete chock-full of broken bits of seashells. My mind drifted way, way back to my undergraduate years as a student of historic archaeology when my mentor, one Dr. Charles Faulkner, introduced tabby construction during a lecture about Lowcountry architecture. I recall thinking, of course indigenous populations and European settlers would have appropriated natural resources to use in their building methods. And then I was instantly envious that landlocked Tennessee had no such charming material to brag about in the vernacular architecture of the region. Just impossible-to-permeate red clay soil, good for making bricks and pottery and not much else; I knew, because I’d spent hours dragging a trowel through it during various chapters of archaeological fieldwork.

Tabby structure on St. Simons Island, Georgia; public domain image
Tabby slave quarters at Kingsley Plantation in Jacksonville, Florida; public domain image

And so now here we are, living in an area where tabby is authentic and available. Will it complement the style of our home? Heck, yes it will. I continued to make my point as we drove along on our weekly errands. Maybe not solid tabby, I continued. Maybe we build tabby pillars that are separated by wood sections. What is under the tabby, The Chef wondered aloud. Cinderblock? Well yes, I imagine. And cinderblock is not especially costly, I added hopefully.

Earlier in the day we’d been in a fancy retail store known for its highfalutin kitchen products, and had fingered a portable pizza oven. We were not there for that specifically, just to browse mainly; I needed a biscuit cutter. But we’d seen this particular oven in a couple of other stores and stopped again to admire it. The Chef observed it was a nice size, and would be so easy to use with a small propane tank attached to it. The price on it, like the price on everything in the store, was stupidly high.

Now I seized upon this notion: What if we built a pizza oven, our own pizza oven, and incorporated it into the design of the tabby wall? I mean, if we ever decide to sell and move, we couldn’t take it with us like we could the portable oven, but it would be such a fantastic architectural detail. The Chef nodded quietly and I could see the wheels turning. I pointed out a few more examples of tabby along the way before our conversation drifted into other spheres.

And now this idea has taken root the way others have, and I’m determined to find out more about what I believe will be our new tabby wall. Cost-effective, sturdy, and eco-friendly, crowed one website I came across. I’m smart enough to know one woman’s “cost-effective” is another’s “stupidly expensive,” so this ain’t a done deal, gentle reader. It’s just, when ideas have taken root in my head, they—some of the best ones of them, anyway—have a history of realization. Time will tell and I’ll keep you posted.

P.S., not too soon. 2023 already has a lot going on, and it’s not yet February. But the wheels are turning. Maybe somewhere right now, somebody’s adding the right proportions of water, sand, ash, and oyster shells to the tabby that will fortify our new courtyard patio. Maybe.

blank slate

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