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Designing with Boulders
by Kelly Bledsoe - posted 01/08/19

Umbriago … that’s what we called them. On those special Saturday mornings when my dad took my sisters and I for an outdoor adventure to a place we called “Rock City.” While exploring, he would ask us, “Do you know what my grandfather called large rocks like that? Umbriago!” I am not sure why he chose this word to describe such rocks, and I guess I never asked. All I remember is that it sounded right and felt great rolling off our lips. We yelled “UMBRIAGO” as we climbed up and down the enormous rocks.  

Funny how some things never leave us. Twenty odd years later, when looking for a place to build my home, I happened upon a lot at High Rock Lake. And yes, the lot was loaded with rocks. As I jumped from one to the other shouting “UMBRIAGO!” I knew I had found my future home. Friends and family looked at the rock-laden lot and offered expressions of concern and caution. I looked at the lot and saw treasure! I could envision a fish pond with cascading waterfall in that rock grouping, a flower bed in that grouping, a patio built amongst the large boulders over there.  

Since building my home 24 years ago, I have dug, hauled, heaved, chipped away at and incorporated these large rocks into my landscape. Walkways, fire pits and a brick oven have all been constructed using the marvelous rocks gleaned from my own yard.  

I am not unique in my passion for boulders. For years, people have been using boulders to accent their landscapes. Boulders can add a tremendous sense of power. An interesting grouping of rocks makes your home unique. Boulders offer permanence to the landscape not afforded by plants and trees. Rocks are ageless – symbolizing stability and endurance.  

Designing with boulders is becoming one of the most popular landscaping trends, but experts agree on some basic tips to consider when placing boulders in your landscape.  

First, have a clear understanding of where you want a boulder placed and why. Careful planning including considering the kind of rock, the size and shape, as well as the color, will ensure that you don’t end up with a sore thumb sticking out of the ground, but a natural, aesthetically pleasing addition to your landscape. Unlike shrubs and plants, once it is in place you’re not likely to move it.  

Boulders should be set down into the dirt. In a natural setting, boulders don’t hover atop the earth; just a portion is revealed. Always dig approximately one-third the size of your rock below grade to set your boulder. Situate the rock so it blends naturally with the surroundings. Most rocks have distinctive features that create interest. Take advantage of these characteristics when placing them in your garden.  

Don’t be afraid to be BOLD! Boulders should make a statement and will be softened by the addition of plants and flowers. Often a boulder seems big at a rock yard only to be dwarfed when placed in your landscape. Boulders should be arranged in a variety of ways – creating interest. Varying the shape, angle and placement will help rocks look natural and not boring.    

Boulders work well in groupings. A lone stone might look out of place. Experts suggest groupings of three. Make sure to use rocks native to your area. Purchase or scavenge local rocks, those that will authentically represent your region. The general idea when landscaping with boulders is to make it look like they have always been there.  

Boulders can also be placed in the landscape to serve as focal points. Rocks with a vertical shape can be placed in the garden as sculpture. They add a geometric element and create a pleasant contrast to green foliage. Lighting a boulder at night increases its powerful effect. A warm glow or a backlit silhouette adds intrigue and mystery to the landscape.    

Other uses for boulders include hollowing them out and using them to build a fire-pit or a planter. Boulders can be used for benches or as the backdrop for an address plate at the end of a driveway. Drilling a few holes, along with a little simple plumbing, transforms a boulder into a natural fountain. Boulders are used around pool edges and incorporated as fun climbing additions in playgrounds. They can be used to create “boulder walls,” terrace a sloped landscape, define garden bed edges or serve as steps. The possibilities are endless.  

The greatest challenge in placing boulders in your landscape is moving them. The average “home-scale” boulder weighs anywhere from 100-1,000 pounds and will require careful planning, as well as proper equipment. However, the addition of these “UMBRIAGOS” for their sheer rugged beauty is well worth the pain! 

 

 

 

A version of this article appeared in a September 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography by Kelly Bledsoe.

 


Kelly Bledsoe is a writer and photographer for the Denton Orator and gardens in Denton, N.C.