Mar 7, 2017
By Joe Schriner
Stone has long been a favorite building material in the garden. Its weight and mass make it a wonderful choice for retaining materials such as bark, soil, and mulch and its natural beauty has a way of fitting in to any landscape seamlessly. The earth-color tones of natural stone contrast nicely with the bright colors and soft textures of lushly planted borders and provide a cool and peaceful place for the traveling eye to rest. Artfully placed “head-stones”(so-called because the stones used are approximately the size of a human head) can make beautiful paths in our gardens, both keeping the gravel where it should be and also defining in a natural way the perimeters of our planted areas.
Whether you are building a new garden border or repairing an existing one, I urge you to consider using head-sized stone. Certainly there are other materials available for defining path borders—rough lumber(usually 2x4” redwood), plastic “bender-board” and steel “bender-board” all come to mind—and while these choices may have their own respective qualities, they lack the versatility, durability, and beauty of stone.
In my experience, stone will work on all terrains and under all circumstances and has long been my go-to when landscaping sloped or uneven land. My clients like it because it is beautiful, sustainable, and will last forever. If you find yourself working with stone, it is safe to say those rocks you’re lifting were around millions of years before you existed and will be around millions of years after you! This provides your garden with a sense of longevity and peace that you will appreciate for all your years of living with it.
Stone is also an excellent choice for building walls, and is often selected over materials like concrete blocks, which may be easier to lay but lack a little in character. A well-laid “dry stacked” stone wall is largely considered the more artful approach to building a garden wall, in comparison to a wall made with pre-manufactured concrete blocks and such a wall will add value to any home. If you have a slope to your yard, consider terracing a section of it, with the addition of a stone wall. Be sure to plant low-growing plants at the top, where they can soften, and trail over the front of the wall. This effect adds a huge amount of interest to any garden—just be careful not to over-plant, as your goal is to accent the stonework, not hide it. Remember that a skillfully crafted stone wall is a handsome monument and one you’ll want to celebrate and highlight in your garden!
If you love stone, but don’t have the need of a retaining wall in your yard, consider building a seating wall. Seating walls are just what they sound like, and are usually built in conjunction to a patio area or walkway at the comfortable seating height of 18”-20”. The use of concrete as well as stone is necessary when constructing these walls. Whenever possible, I try to place these walls where they can be seen and appreciated frequently by those inside the house, like near an entryway or a window.
Luckily, here in Sonoma County, stone is not difficult to come by! In some cases, depending on your location, you may be able to harvest stone from your site. This is often the case for those who have property in the foothills east of Alexander Valley and Santa Rosa. If you’re not so fortunate as to have stone on site, you’ll need to visit a landscape materials yard. There are several listed in this publication of the Sonoma County Gazette's 2017 Gardeners Guide. My favorite kind of stone for building walls is called Napa Syar; I like it because it is more angular than round, and it always has at least one good side that can be used for the “face”, or visible portion of the wall.
If you think your garden could benefit from the addition of stonework, the chances are good that you’re right! The peaceful and strong atmosphere that stone provides cannot be overestimated, and as an experienced landscape designer I urge you to follow your instincts: you know what looks good to you and the main purpose of a garden, after all, is to provide you with the particular happiness that only nature can provide.
That said, should you choose to do the work yourself, I urge you to be realistic about your own physical limitations. Stone is fun to work with but very heavy. Always use proper lifting techniques: bend your knees and keep your back straight. Small garden walls can certainly be accomplished in a few weekends by the eager and hardworking do-it-your-selfer. Larger walls require more planning, expertise, and labor and in those cases you may want to hire a licensed contractor.
For more information on building stone walls, look for the book Building Stone Walls (John Vivian; Garden Way Publishers; 1976). Joe Shriner owns Earthworks Landscaping, Cloverdale. 707-894-4311, earthworkslandscaping.com
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