How Does Your Stone Garden Grow?
Creating A Rock Garden Using Natural Stone Boulders & Gravel
Ever thought of creating a stone garden or adding natural stone to your landscape? There’s nothing more complementary to the foliage, vegetation, and blooms of a garden than natural stone. That’s why we’ve sat on stone park benches since time immortal. Those stone benches provide a sense of place and connect us to nature. The irregular, interesting shapes and colors of natural stone can also add charm, whimsy, or elegance to your garden.
Bill Schnetz, landscape contractor at Schnetz Landscape in San Diego recommends clients work with a team to help design both layout—hardscaping and placement of stone features—as well as selection of plants and trees. Schnetz and landscape architect Gary Stone, ASLA, of Stone Grove Landscape Architects in Solano Beach have collaborated together for more than 30 years.
It’s important to work with a quality team that can provide a stone garden you’ll love. Get referrals. Then see work that the architect and contractor have done to assure it aligns with your taste. Schnetz and Stone don’t have many requests for whimsical stone gardens but rather focus on elegant, organic, and timeless gardenscapes. “Everything we do in stone tends to be more Zen or more organic and naturally occurring,” says Schnetz.
How to Work with Landscape Architects and Contractors
Your landscape architect and/or contractor will meet with you repeatedly to identify your needs and preferences, and to view your site to understand exactly what you’re looking for. Schnetz had one client who asked for a succulent garden she had seen in a magazine, with dry stream beds and stone pathways. “I showed her picture books of succulent gardens and with every meeting she just looked at the stone work.” Turns out, she was more interested in Japanese style gardens with large boulders and other stones she could see from her bedroom window, not so much the succulents. Oftentimes clients aren’t quite sure what they want at first.
The scale and style of your home will factor into the type of stone garden or stone art that’s right for your property. “You want to include enough stone work in a garden so you walk in and say ‘ah, boy does this feel comfortable,’” says Schnetz. Too much and it gets busy. There’s a fine line.
What’s Popular in Stone Gardens?
Low stone walls punctuate elevation change. Wide easy stone stairs take you from one elevation to another elegantly, with big slabs of stone. Water features are desirable, but can be expensive. Building small, quiet dry ponds with cobblestone where water falls into a vessel underground is an easy way to incorporate the sound of water without the maintenance required of a garden pond.
“Probably 70-80 percent of what we do is stand alone fountains,” says Liz Wittman, sales and project manager at Carved Stone Creations in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. Carved Stone Creations considers themselves a foremost authority on outdoor water features and installation. They design custom, hand-carved stone fountains and gazebos, and deliver and install them anywhere in the country. Wittman says if people have a picture or a drawing, with a size, color, and type of stone in mind, their team can take it from there.
Part of Wittman’s job is to teach people that while they may have a dimension in mind for their stone water feature, if something is taller than it is wide, water will splash out.
“Basically as far as water falls from a tier to the pool of water below, is how far it splashes horizontally,” says Wittman.
Schnetz and Stone take basalt or granite spires and cut them off, hollow out the top and drill a hole in the center so they’re fed water through the middle. But instead of having it bubble out of a hole on top, they shave the top flat and hollow it so it holds two to six inches of water that can build up and slide over the sides. These make nice self-cleaning bird baths.
Which Stone to Use
Wittman also educates consumers in the types of stone they should use. Clients may want gray and white marble in a Colorado hardscape, for instance, and she’ll have to tell them that it isn’t suitable for outdoor applications in freeze-thaw climates. It can weaken and crumble. She also had a client in Illinois who had a 16 by 18 foot travertine fountain in front of her home but every year has to put a huge tent contraption over it to protect it from freezing weather. That’s not something most people want to do after spending the money on a stone feature. And the travertine still didn’t hold up without cracking and chipping.
The sky’s the limit in stone choices but you should talk with your contractor about the best natural stone choices for your climate. Travertine, limestone or marble are extremely durable, but may not react well in sub-freezing temperatures and can respond unfavorably to some chemicals found in common cleaning products. Wittman sees granite as not only very easy to take care of—but durable since you can pour acid on it and nothing will happen. Carved Stone Creations use ferrous acid to remove iron stains and muriatic acid to clean calcium scale off the stone.
Schnetz says some people may have the budget to import specialty stones from Italy, China or South America. Carved Stone Creations sources from Indonesia and Turkey as well. “My old friend who owned a rock yard said rock is free, it’s the cost to get it to where you want to put it,” says Schnetz.
Stone indigenous to your area will always be the most frugal choice, if it matches your needs. “There’s no one right stone for anybody’s project,” Schnetz says.
Schnetz and Stone use wall stone, brick-sized stone pavers, or even reclaimed granite cobblestones from Chicago and New York for edging garden paths, planter beds and outlining pathways or driveways. Stone pool surrounds, stone patios and decorative garden boulders are also popular.
Likewise, stone walls are trendy everywhere. The type and size of the stone you choose can depend on the vernacular of the region, your home’s style of architecture, the location and utility of the wall, and how high the wall needs to be. In Lake Tahoe, for example, a popular style is the use of big chunks of split stone the size of wheel barrows that fit together tightly, like a giant puzzle. In the northeast you often see stone walls built from granite, limestone, and fieldstone, the generic term used for stones gathered from a field.
Wittman also points out that dry stone looks completely different when it’s wet. For a fountain, that means the water covered centerpiece may appear darker, and sparkle, whereas the exterior wall of the surround that holds pool water is dry, and appears a different shade. Various sealer products are available and can be applied to match the sections of stone on your fountain to get either the wet or the dry, muted look.
No matter whether you’re looking to add a Zen-inspired Japanese garden with dry stream beds and boulders, or a simple water feature, a stone garden lends a timeless appeal to your landscape, and can often look as though they’ve been there for a long, long time.