If you choose to landscape your drought-tolerant garden using rock, here are some design tips and project options from Handy magazine, a sister publication to Gardening How-To.
Given the choice of vacationing in the mountains or on the prairie, most people will opt for the mountains. Now extend that reasoning to your yard: If even the rabbits that graze on your lawn seem bored by wall-to-wall grass, maybe it's time to enhance your landscaping with decorative stone.
Stone landscaping projects such as steps, paths, walls, patios, gardens and fire pits add texture, visual appeal and function that a field of grass can't match. And by including suitable plants, you can transform a boring, featureless yard into a natural (and low-maintenance) showplace.
These landscaping features are more than just attractive; they can solve problems such as erosion on slopes, undesirable traffic patterns, security and privacy concerns, and hard-to-mow areas. There's nothing high tech about landscaping with stones - it's all about design, planning, and hard work. To help you get started, here is how to approach a landscaping project as well as design tips and project options.
Before proceeding with a stone landscaping project, you'll need to take a few preliminary steps. First, check with your local building department to find out what codes may be applicable and whether a permit is required for your project. Then, depending on the complexity of the job, you'll need to decide whether to tackle the design yourself or hire a landscaping professional. A landscape designer can help you solve aesthetic and technical problems and avoid costly mistakes. (Check with nurseries and stone suppliers for references.)
Next, evaluate the site's appearance, grade change, proximity to other properties, drainage, accessibility, and underground utilities. (Always call to have utilities marked before you dig.) Then decide whether you can do the work yourself or if you need to hire a contractor.
Although creating a stone landscaping feature requires considerable effort, one that's properly designed and executed should require less time to maintain than mowing the equivalent area.
If you're creating your own design, follow a few basic principles to help you achieve a more natural look:
• Avoid symmetry. Group stones in odd rather than even numbers.
• Randomly vary the size, shape, and color of stones.
• Use interesting or colorful stones in prominent positions.
Depending on the size of your supplier, your choice of stone may be limited to what's naturally available within a few hundred miles of your location. That's not a disadvantage: Stonework should blend with the natural surroundings. For example, the stone used in a Northern stream or a tropical waterfall design might look out of place in a desert setting.
Types of stone
Stone that is suitable for use in decorative landscaping is available in a number of forms. Depending on your project, you may be able to choose from all three basic types of rock: sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic.
Sedimentary rock is formed from rock and organic debris that settled in ancient sea beds and solidified over time. It's relatively soft and splits easily, so it's easy to work. Limestone and shale are common forms.
Igneous rock is often the product of volcanic activity, and it results when gas and molten minerals solidify. This rock can be hard and porous or hard and dense. Basalt and granite are examples.
Metamorphic rock is sedimentary or igneous rock that's transformed by high heat and pressure-for example, marble and slate.
Here are a few of the common choices you'll find in stone yards:
• Fieldstones and boulders are available in various shapes and sizes and can be any type of rock. These are suitable for walls, water features, garden accents, etc.
• Flagstones are usually metamorphic or sedimentary in origin and are used for walks, patios, steps, and walls.
• Cut stone can be any type of rock. It's quite expensive, but it provides a smooth and somewhat formal-looking surface for paths, steps, and patios.
Almost any yard lends itself to a stone project of some sort. As long as the project isn't extremely large-scale, it can probably be a do-it-yourself endeavor. Any of the projects described here can be accomplished by someone who's in reasonably good physical condition, has access to a few basic tools, and exercises common sense. Of course, larger projects that incorporate massive stones should be handled by a contractor with the appropriate equipment.
Most projects require a base material, such as crushed rock or sand. Consult a stone supplier (check your phone directory or do an Internet search for "landscape supply") for information on the appropriate material and base depth for your project.
Steps, paths, and patios tend to be the most popular projects because they are a friendlier, more inviting alternative to plain concrete. Be aware that cut stones used for steps and walks are typically more expensive than most other types of landscaping stone.
Preparing the site properly with compacted stone aggregate and sand is essential to ensure that the stones stay in position and allow proper drainage.
If you choose to build a path with mortared joints, you'll need to pour a concrete base. Dry-laid stone requires occasional, incremental maintenance, whereas mortared stone will last for many years but will eventually require a lot of effort to rebuild. If you're opting for a dry-laid path, keep in mind that the sand or gravel used to fill the joints can easily be tracked into your house.
Walls can be freestanding or used for retaining, and the different types require different construction techniques. Retaining walls should always be backed with a base material. The soil under a wall should be undisturbed or compacted if it's loose.
For a freestanding wall, the ratio of width to height should be 2:3. For example, a 3-foot-high wall should have a 2-foot-wide base. (The underlying aggregate base should be even wider.) A base that's too narrow will make the wall unstable. As with a mortared walk,
a mortared wall should be built on a concrete base. The most time- and cost-effective way to build a dry-stacked wall is with a hollow core that is filled with stone rubble to stabilize it. A dry-stacked wall will hold up better if you use mortar to attach the capstones.
Stone landscaping for a garden can be among the easiest projects. You can take a free-form approach, simply placing stones in groupings that harmonize with plantings, or create a more structured look with walls and planters. You can use stone to channel or disperse water and prevent erosion, to define edges, or to create sections in the garden. You can also use a few randomly placed stones to accent planted areas. Using stones as outcroppings on slopes prevents erosion and lets you plant in what might be an otherwise unusable area.
Fire pits are easy to build and provide a great backyard retreat for chilly evenings. However, there are some important considerations before you build. Make sure that your municipality permits recreational fires and know what type of siting is required for fire pits. Fire pits usually can be no more than 3 feet in diameter and must be at least 25 feet from structures and trees. Also, be aware that you can't use just any type of rock. For example, granite is a poor choice because it can shatter when exposed to high heat. Use the same type of base for a fire pit as you would for a patio.
Whether you plan to build your stone feature yourself or hire a contractor, the best place to get information about materials, and sometimes to rent equipment, is at your local landscape stone supplier.
Before you shop, you should have a rough idea of the volume (cubic feet) of your project. Because most stone is sold by weight, the tonnage will vary depending on the type of stone you select. Figure what you need and add 10 percent for waste. (Most dealers will be happy to calculate tonnage for you.) Be sure to order your base material at the same time. Most stone suppliers will deliver the materials for a fee. Unless your project is very small, it's worth the price to save wear and tear on your vehicle.
Once you have a concrete vision of the finished project, dig out your steel-toe boots, grab your shovel, and get to work. When handling rock, follow this common-sense safety rule: If it seems dangerous, it probably is. Take these precautions to help avoid injuries:
• Whenever possible, use mechanical assistance for heavy lifting.
• Wear steel-toe safety boots.
• Use eye and ear protection, a dust mask, and heavy-duty gloves when cutting or breaking stone.
• Never work on steep or unstable slopes.
Many tools can help you do the job with less effort, including a winch, a wrecking bar, a cart or dolly, a plate compactor, a power wheelbarrow, a sledgehammer, a dead-blow hammer, a rubber mallet, mason's chisels, a circular saw and stone-cutting blade, a sod kicker (for removing turf), shovels, a pick, a rake, a level, and a mason's line. If you're really ambitious, you can use a skid-steer loader for moving big rocks. And remember, renting tools you'll only occasionally use makes more sense than buying them.
The visual contrast between rocks and plants seems to strike an aesthetic chord in nearly everyone. Rocks are hard and typically muted in color, whereas plants are soft and more vibrant. The mixture of the two is simultaneously calming and irresistible. Every region has plants that are suitable for its climate, so make your choices accordingly. A popular and growing trend called xeriscaping emphasizes using drought-tolerant and low-maintenance plants. Even though this movement started in arid parts of the country, its common-sense approach works in most environments.
(Larry Okrend is the editor of Handy magazine)