Bobby Ward lives and gardens in Raleigh, N.C. His most recent book is Chlorophyll in His Veins, a biography on the late J. C. Raulston.

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Between a Rock and a Hardscape
by Bobby Ward       #Design   #Hardscaping   #Misc


Stones not only work as accents in the garden, but they can also provide art in the form of sculpture. Make your own stacks for a creative new focal point. • Boulders serve as great accents in the garden, providing a sense of stability to flowerbeds. • Use rocks of different sizes to create a dry riverbed in your garden, adding a sense of motion to your landscape, and also giving you a new place to plant herbs and flowers that tolerate drier soil, such as black-eyed Susans and lavender.

A few years ago, a friend was installing night lighting in a garden for his client who wanted stone features as accents among the plants and around a backyard patio where he entertained family and friends. My friend invited me to accompany him to a garden center specializing in stone products. I was amazed at the choices of stone available – from small natural stone, to flat cut stone, to relatively large boulders. Displays showed examples of stone for terraces, walls, benches, paths and water features.

The possibilities seemed endless, and I began to see stone and rocks in an entirely different way. I began to notice them in fields and woods, along roadsides and in other natural settings. I began to realize that no garden could be complete without stone.

In my home state, we are fortunate to have an array of naturally occurring stone and rock. Your own area’s geology will likely determine the most affordable choices of stone to purchase from a local dealer for your landscaping projects. And, if you are lucky, you might even have it free for the taking on your own property.

As you shop around you will find sandstone, limestone, granite and slate. The dealer may also show you flagstone, which is really a catchall word for any type of layered flat stone, usually a few inches thick, quarried and cut to shape. Flagstone has many uses, including paving walkways and patios.

Another type you will likely see is fieldstone, a naturally occurring stone collected from the surface of fields or from the soil subsurface when it is plowed up during cultivation of crops. Generally rounded or smooth surfaced, fieldstone can be used in its original shape for building material and a variety of landscaping projects, such as borders and walls.

There is a range of colors in both flagstone and fieldstone, from light buff to gray, tan, brown, rust and black. Depending on the mineral content of the area, there may be veins or sheens of green, pink or blue, and most will take on a different hue when wet. You may also see river rock, which is usually worn smooth and polished. This comes in sizes from pea gravel to pebbles and large rocks.

Found Rocks
If you are lucky, the simplest and cheapest form of landscaping with stone is to look on your property for native stone, perhaps even those covered with lichens. Consider using the stones where you find them, just dig them out a little to make them more prominent. If covered with lichen they may already be in light shade, if not you can move them to a more shady location, where stone complements plants such as hostas, Asarum and shade-tolerant Sedum spp.

There are so many ways to incorporate stones of all shapes and sizes into your garden, from pebbles and flagstones that create a path to larger stones stacked up to build a wall.

Dry Rivers
Another simple option is to develop a dry riverbed with pebbles. These often imitate a winding “stream,” with swirls and eddies. It can “flow” through sunny or shady areas of your garden, or both. If in the sun, you may want to line the “bank” with some of the brightly colored forms of ice plant (Delosperma). Stonecrop (Sedum), hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum), and speedwell (Veronica repens) also work well. For shady areas along your “river,” consider small varieties of hosta (Hosta ‘Little Treasure’ and ‘Kinbotan’), spikemosses (Selaginella spp.) and ferns. For wintertime and early spring interest in sunny areas or under deciduous shade, plant dwarf bulbs, such as Narcissus ‘Tête-à-Tête’, various crocus and Iris spp.

In addition to a dry river, you can continue the Japanese theme by building a Zen garden with few stones and few plants simply arranged.

Stone walls are a beautiful addition to any home. Stacked in a regular pattern (top photo) they provide a sense of formality, and with a loose, more random structure (bottom photo) they add a sense of whimsy. Either way, the walls make a great backdrop for trailing plants.

Stone as Accents
Larger stones and small boulders make great accent points in the garden. One option is to place a few stones or small boulders along a path or border. When used in an isolated area on your lawn, boulders can serve as a focal point. An odd number is preferable. A large boulder can also create a quiet, meditative area in a shady spot with a bench nearby.

On a smaller scale, you don’t need huge boulders to make an accent in your garden with stone. I once saw a stone collection that had been gathered by children during a family vacation. It was planted with brightly colored zinnias and salvias, attracting both butterflies and hummingbirds. Another garden was created by a friend who drove from North Carolina to California, gathering small rocks and stone in each state she crossed. Once home, she arranged them in her garden and planted phlox and petunias around the eclectic mixture of rock types. This became a conversation piece for visitors with a story about each rock.

For gardeners with limited space, how about using stone and low-growing plants, such as moss phlox (Phlox subulata) or candytuft (Iberis), to anchor a birdbath? This is a perfect idea for the beginning of a children’s garden.

If you have a sunny spot at your back door, an herb garden planted around flagstone or fieldstone can be both attractive and functional. Also, it’s not uncommon to see flagstone walkways with low plants such as thyme, sedum or moss growing in the spaces, softening the otherwise sharp stone edges. A dry-stack wall of stone, maybe a foot high, can provide a border for a flowerbed and, additionally, holes to tuck in plants that will thrive in a crevice.


      Use boulders in your garden to add levels and create new planting spaces. • If you’re going for a “natural” feel in your landscape, large boulders are a great addition. With careful placement, they will look like they’ve been a part of the garden for eons, while adding an artistic flair.

Creating a Rock Garden
You may want to consider a rock garden that imitates a high-elevation mountain setting. It’s easy to develop a rock garden using thin soil, with sand or pea gravel for good drainage. Start out with native plants, and as you gain more experience, select a wider range of plants, both sun and shade loving, depending on the rock garden’s location in your landscape.

In rock gardens and other places in the garden where you are using stone, don’t overlook the use of woody plants and shrubs, including slow-growing or dwarf conifers (Chamaecyparis and Juniperis spp.) Although most conifers require sun, they will provide year-round garden interest.

Regardless of how you use stone in your garden, the rule of thumb is to consider stone features that look appropriate in your garden setting and are in scale to the plants and other stones around them. Strive for a simple, naturalistic planting that mimics the wild settings of your area.

It has been said that stones were the first tools and weapons used by early humans. But today’s gardener can use stone quite differently to provide a bold focus or a modest complement to plants.


A version of this article appeared in a print version of Carolina Gardener Volume 25 Number 9.
Photography courtesy of Helen Yoest and Bobby Ward.


Posted: 10/30/17   RSS | Print


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