Trowel & Error

Rock around the plot

Stones add form and interest

By Nancy Crowe

Master Gardener Nancy Crowe urges us to rock on in our gardens.The house in Indianapolis where I spent most of my growing-up years was a study in stone — not the house itself, but the landscape. When we moved there in the 1970s, there were two boulders in the front yard in a bed of sparkly white stone. The big one was perfect to sit on while waiting for a bus or carpool, or while doing absolutely nothing. According to Google Maps, the boulders are still there. Sadly, the magnificent pin oak that shaded them is gone.

Around the pool in back were more boulders (including a sharp-edged black lava one a little too close to the path — ouch!) amid the shrubs and yucca plants in raised beds made from railroad ties, all swimming in a sea of stone groundcover. This blend, which was probably river rock, included flat black rocks that looked like little blackboards, pink and red rocks with flecks of silver and gray and plain old rocks (every now and then you’d find one that looked like Mr. Potato Head or Richard Nixon). In the era of the Pet Rock, I had a herd in my back yard.

Stones and rocks add texture, form and interest to a garden, and you don’t have to water, fertilize or prune them. They can be used to create borders, retaining walls, pathways and more. They can also — well, sit there like rocks and help create a natural setting that appeals to you. Moss-covered river rocks are going to add a much different vibe to your landscape than, say, desert sandstone or craggy quartzite.

Phil Rutledge is president of Planscape, which does landscape design, installation and maintenance. Working with stone is one of the company’s strengths, he said.

“You can choose stone to fit your architecture or your personal preference,” he said, adding that sandstone is popular right now and native granite can be a nice complement to traditional red brick. Stone is also a natural for creating peaks and waterfalls in water gardens.

“We do a lot of stone patios, particularly flagstone, and a lot of retaining walls and stone steps,” Rutledge said; they’re both functional and natural.

Homeowners still occasionally use stone as groundcover, especially if they’re tired of mulching, Rutledge said. But it’s not nearly as popular now as it was in the 1970s, when he started in the business (and when whoever landscaped my parents’ house went nuts with the river rock).

The most important thing to think about when you’re working with rocks: Those suckers are heavy. Really heavy. They lift hard and fall fast, leaving strained backs, damaged fingers and injured toes in their wake. Depending on size and quantity, you will probably need a Bobcat or other equipment to move them, Rutledge said.

You can find everything from pea gravel to boulders at landscape supply stores and at businesses that specialize in rock and stone. You can even find fake rocks made of resin or other materials that actually let you move them without equipment. How well they weather may be another story.

Most of us, even if we are not rock hounds, have rocks we’ve picked up here and there. There are the rocks from Grandpa’s farm or the beach where you spent your honeymoon. There are also the random rocks that, because of their sparkle, color, shape, smoothness or reasons utterly unknown to you, you just had to have. These might add the perfect touch to your garden, even if they just sit among your potted plants on the back porch.

Of course, you can also buy stones with painted or engraved designs — images of fireflies or frogs, or sentiments such as “Bloom where you’re planted,” “What did I plant here?” or “I fought the lawn and the lawn won.” Some are billed as steppingstones, but they’re too pretty to step on unless you’re trying to avoid a lava boulder that just jumped out and took aim at your already-skinned shins.

So watch your step — and your back — but otherwise, be unafraid and rock on ...

Nancy Crowe

Posted Fri, 09/23/2011 - 10:12 am