The Many Ways of Using Stone in the Garden

Plants and stones go together because they contrast one another: the mutability of plants contrasts the immutability of stone; the movement of plants and the immobility of stone; the organic, growing and temporal nature of plants as opposed to the inorganic nature of stones that carry with them all the timeless echoes of the past. Put Jade River creeping juniper and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’, both recently introduced plants, next to a lichen covered boulder that has come down to your meadow from prehistory, and you have a wonderful garden image. A garden image as such deserves contemplation and a degree of wonderment because it spans the millennia yet can be created in a matter of hours. Stones and plants go together, and they can do so in any number of ways.

Stone Walls

Stone walls, both straight and curved, can be used in any number of ways in the garden. Ideally the stone with which you construct the walls is indigenous so that harmony is created between the naturally existing landscape and your constructed garden.

As Background to a Perennial Border

If you have a straight or curving stone wall in your garden, then you have a perfect place for a three- to four-foot wide perennial border in front of the wall. If the wall is in shade, create a Spring-blooming shade border with columbine, witch alder, Hostas spp. (if the deer will let you), cranesbill, creeping phlox, bleeding heart, Helictotrichon sempervirens, and many other plants listed in such books as George Schenk’s, the Complete Shade Gardener. If the wall is in full sun, create a sun-tolerant combination of shrubs, perennials, annuals and bulbs.

The width of the bed, and the type of plants you choose will be dictated by the dimensions of the wall. It is better to have sections of the wall visible along its length so that it reads as the background for the bed. If the wall is three feet high, sections of planting can, here and there, be four- or even five-feet high, whereas many other areas should be limited to between groundcover height and thirty-inches or so. In this way, the wall will appear and reappear behind and along the length of the perennial/shrub border and act as a unifying element for the garden.

While traditional established walls are typically straight, modern day walls can be curved to create meandering, horseshoe shaped or arcing walls. My concern regarding curves is that they should be designed to look logical. Other elements of the garden, such as large trees, boulders or berms should add a visual support to the wall’s curves. Curving walls for curving sake do not work.

Newly constructed walls can also mimic old traditional walling systems. I developed a traditional barn foundation with stone. The wall in turn gave rise for places to construct a stream bed, to place plants and to support paths throughout.

As a Means of Enclosure

Stone walls can also be used to create intimate sitting areas adjacent to houses. Care should be taken to construct new walls to mimic existing foundation work. I created a stone enclosed terrace that provided a sitting and dining area. It also afforded a view of a pond and the distant views over meadows.

I placed boulders in the garden adjacent to this sitting area. They were from 200 year old walls which were visible across the driveway and up on the meadow’s edge. By using those boulders, I was able to create a visual link between the old and the new.

Paths of Stone

Another central element in creating the bones of a garden is the paths. Use stone paths in concert with well-designed walls and thoughtful plantings to ensure a coherent visual and literal link with the house via its doors. I start thinking about pathways and the materials appropriate to them by thinking about the doors of the house.

The Path to the Front Door – the Entrance Garden

The material and the degree of formality of the architecture provide cues about how to treat the path from the driveway or sidewalk to the front door. I would use cut Pennsylvania bluestone as it creates a formal atmosphere. It is tightly fitting, geometric (and therefore most appropriate for straight paths), and has a safe, textured surface. I often lay out plantings in a symmetrical manner along such a wall while bearing in mind the proportions and mood of the house.

The path to the front door of an informal suburban home or a weekend house in the mountains needs to be less formal. This path may even curve through a cottage garden or an informally planted series of beds. In front of such a home, I would use broken irregularly shaped bluestone or randomly shaped fieldstones that can be laid informally with gaps between the stones for plants like thyme or lady’s mantle. This is a stone carpet, where a number of stones are placed so as to create a four or five foot wide pathway.

The Path from the Back Door

The same principles apply at the back of the house. Any terrace or patio onto which you step from the back doors needs to be made of a material that is consistent with the architecture. When I am using broken bluestone or fieldstone, I consult with the clients as to how tightly they would like the stone laid to form a patio; informal people like big gaps between the stones for plants; formal people like the stone laid tightly.

Away from the House – Stepping Stones

The further you get from your house, the less formal your gardens can become. It is in informal garden areas that I use stepping stones which not only underpin an informal mood but also determine pace. Place stepping stones two- to three-inches apart and you create a slow tip-toe effect. Place stepping stones six- to eight- or even ten-inches apart and your garden visitor will move much more quickly through the garden. Place stones close together when there is a lot of detail planting nearby. Where planting is broader in scale, place the stones further apart.

Steps

Along the paths, sets of steps enable people to go up or down slopes easily. Stone steps can be made of the same material as the path, or you can introduce a second material. Plants can be set into nooks and crannies in the risers to soften the steps. Bare in mind that intricate, finely patterned risers can be used to show workmanship.

If you have existing stone steps, a stone here and there can be removed and the resulting gaps could be planted to make the steps more interesting.

Rock Gardens

Stone and rock can also be used as the basis of an entire garden, namely, a rock garden. Alpines and evergreens that grow at high altitudes and requires excellent drainage grow well in a rock garden.

For a client I combined talents to create a rocky quote from the Vermont indigenous landscape. In a previously non-descript sloping lawn located between a stone terrace and a swimming pool, I created a garden of indigenous mosses, sun-tolerant hay-scented fern, low- bush-blueberry sods and sheep laurel. I then tucked all these plants between lichen and moss-covered rocks that we had laid to mimic a place where bedrock shouldered its way to the surface.

Gardening on Bedrock

I created a stroll viewing garden by stripping the weeds, grasses and saplings from atop exposed bedrock some thirty-feet wide, sixty-feet long, and shouldering up from the lawn six-feet or so.

I then pick-axed deeper declivities into the areas of “rotten” bedrock in order to create pockets sufficient for eighteen-inches or so of topsoil. (Also, I could have built small retaining walls of the same bedrock at the edge of the declivities to make the planting areas deeper.) Because there was a central natural cleft running the length of the rock, I set stepping stones atop gravel in the cleft and surrounded the stepping stones with Vinca minor ‘Bowles’, ‘Alba’, and periwinkle, foamflower and bearberry. Native azaleas and mountain laurel went into the deeper pockets and then my clients put two Japanese wrought iron cranes off the edge of a flat area to give the whole garden a center. It has become the prominent garden of the property.

Stones and Water

Stone and water go together too, and for many of the same reasons that plants and rocks go together. Water can fall over stones; stones can be used at the edge of a pool, pond or stream. Stone retaining walls can hold ponds in place.

In New England, farmers used circular stones with a hole cut in the center to cover the tops of wells. I have a marble one in my pool. I placed a pump under it and water in the form of a small fountain comes up through that hole to splash back down onto the marble wellhead.

Decorative Uses of Stone

Stone can be used in any number of ways to add detail and drama. It also can be used to provide useful and attractive edging, and to help create a valuable link to the existing landscape. For one gardening client, who is also an art collector, I discovered a stepping stone which, when split, suggested a Georgia O’Keefe painting of the steer skull. I set that split stone at the outset of the path into her home as a subtle echo of her collection.

Detail

Granite cobble can be used to create patterns or small edged beds within larger cobbled areas. Because the material is relatively small, interesting, varied patterns are possible with this small rectangular material.

Drama

Large craggy stones, the kind which you associate with Chinese gardens, can be used to form the center of a garden, the tone of which is also somewhat wild.

Edging

Granite cobbles can be used to create handsome edges around small beds, such as herb gardens. They can also be used to give a crisper edge to a stone carpet.

Bluestone edging, whether broken or cut, as well as fieldstone can be used to edge a garden. The English use cut stone creating an edge to prevent the lawn grasses from getting into adjacent perennial borders. Stone edging doubles as a surface onto which plants, such as nepetas, lady’s-mantle, and hardy geraniums, can spread, spill or flop without danger of the lawn mower cutting them off.

Fieldstone can be used as well, but because they often do not fit so tightly together, the lawn can make its way between the gaps into the planted bed.

Boulders in Beds

I only use boulders that have been above-ground for many years as they have a patina, or a mossy lichen- covered look that reflects age and the passage of time. I avoid using stones that have recently been excavated from the ground. To me, they only endorse the fact that they were just excavated, and the garden has just gone in.

Ornaments

A sculpture in a garden does far more than make it look pretty. A sculpture helps you define the mood and tone that you want in your garden.

In her Maine garden, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller set several pairs of granite Korean tomb figures at regular intervals down the length of a gravel walk garden to create the structure of what she called her Spirit Walk. She then planted little else but the indigenous lowbush blueberry around those tomb figures and up to the edge of the eight- feet wide gravel walkway. The tomb figures add a heightened sense of reverence, solemnity and serenity to an already calm edge-of-forest environment. The path concludes at a tall granite stele in high spruce woods, another stone ornament that heightens the sense of the nobility of the woods. Behind the stele, Rockefeller had the woods thinned to allow for a grand distant view over treetops and mountains of what is now Acadia National Park. In a sense, then, you could argue that this garden is made a garden by its stone sculptures in concert with a gravel path and indigenous woods and cleared granite bedrock that have been treated in a sculptural, almost architectural way to create a noble, reverential space.

I use Japanese granite garden ornaments as visual centers along woodland walkways, especially in woodland that has a serene, intimate, and mossy timeless quality. These are particularly successful because the indigenous rock is also granite, so there is a harmony between the sculptures and the natural world. I allow moss to grow on the figures to further the link between the indigenous wild and man-made sculptures.

Granite fenceposts

In my own garden, I discovered fifteen or so six-feet long granite fence posts as I was clearing the land thirteen years ago. I set them upright and at irregular intervals to form a visual spine though my woodland garden. Without them, the garden would appear disjointed.

Benches, Tables and Sitting Spots

Large flat rocks set atop smaller flat rocks can be used to create large stone benches. These are especially relevant in natural settings among woodland or copses of planted trees.

Those same flat rocks can be set atop deeply and firmly set wooden supports to create broad tables.

Rounded or flat boulders, stone walls, or stone benches can also act as seats within a garden. Near what is the oldest white oak, I created a small section of stone wall with large flat pieces of stone to act as a bench from which to regard the tree. Any man- made bench would have looked out of place near this grand old survivor.

Pattern-making on the Ground

Cut stone in particular, can be used to make patterns within a field of gravel or lawn. Formal patterns such as those Edwin Lutyens created at Hestercombe, England are one option.

Rock Mulching

Crushed stone in the form of quarter-inch minus gravel can be used to form the paths and therefore the structure of a gravel garden. Three- eighth-inch peastone can also be used to form the surface of walkways. When walked on, the peastone (and gravel) crunches, a signal that you have entered a new garden space. To keep the weeds from coming up through the one- to two- inch layer of peastone, I lay a woven plastic cloth on the ground before putting the stone atop it. Maintenance is reduced considerably.

Summary

In my own 1 1/2 acre garden, stone appears in many forms: mica schist as stepping stones through my woodland and wild garden; cut Pennsylvania bluestone combined with brick to create a sitting area with mica schist steps up to the sitting area; a cut bluestone dining area; a 200 year old circular marble wellhead in our pool which is surrounded by mossy “ginger stones” peastone paths through the herb garden; rock mulching under a crab apple tree and as a decorative material under the dripline of garden shed; a carved stone pedestal for an armillary sphere; a single stepping stone set half in lawn, half in bark mulch, to mark the transition from a lawn path to the bark mulch path into the woods; and two-hundred year old tumbley stone walls around the perimeter of the garden. Stone is a leitmotif in my garden.