Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Stonescaping Your Garden

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden


Some of the most famous gardens in the world don’t have a single plant in them (unless you count a few lichens and some moss.) The Zen garden of Ryoan-ji, in Kyoto, Japan, for example, is considered a masterpiece, and yet, it is composed only of raked sand and a few carefully chosen and placed stones. Those who visit Ryoan-ji are struck by its sense of mystery and tranquility and rarely leave wishing that someone had stuck a red-tip photinia into a corner.


While few Central Texans choose to garden with the minimal aesthetic of the Zen abbots of Kyoto, the use of stone has become one of the defining characteristics of our regional gardening style. Our native stone has been a source of building material and inspiration dating from the days of the first settlers. Stone provides its own sense of permanence and structure that can enhance any garden design. We are blessed with an abundance of limestone (those trying to garden on top of it may say cursed) and it finds its way into our gardens for all sorts of purposes. In addition, with the rich source of granite available from the area around Enchanted Rock, we have another excellent rock material that can be incorporated into our garden “hardscapes” and soils.


Most folks assume you need a highly skilled mason to execute any stone work, however, with a few simple tools and a whole lot of grunting, I have been able work truck loads of stone into my garden. And, yes, Tiger Balm is on my list of tools!


Cut limestone is the most popular of the stone materials in Central Texas. Some local masons have elevated the use of cut limestone to an art form and build works of enduring beauty. This is the stone that really sets our gardens apart. I have found that local stone yards carry a variety of cut limestone, and are often willing to special order stone cut to a specified size. Be aware, however, that special orders can be very expensive, so you may want to stick with some of the standard sizes.


Of those that are most commonly available, the most useful sizes that I have found are pieces that range from about one-two feet in length and about five-six inches square. I use these for trimming beds. “Dry stack” stone is usually about two feet long and eight inches square and is ideal for mortar-less retaining walls. If you don’t have your own truck, don’t worry, the larger stone yards all deliver and most now stack the stone on palettes and wrap it to prevent breakage. Just remember to inspect stone before you buy it for uniformity and quality, this stuff is hard to return!


You can usually use the stone “as is” without having to cut it at all. If you want to try your own hand at using cut limestone in your garden, I’d recommend purchasing the following items: a heavy duty dolly or hand truck to move the stone around, a heavy duty pair of gloves, goggles to protect your eyes from flying flakes, a heavy duty “mashing” hammer (they look like a mini-sledge hammers,) and some (you’ve got it) heavy duty stone chisels- two will do, one wide with a thin blade, the other narrow and with a thick blade.


Patience is critical when cutting stone- first, lightly tap out the line where you want the stone to break on all four sides of the block using the wide chisel, repeat this process with slightly more force, then one more time, again, with increased force. Finally, use your narrow chisel along the same line with real force. You’ll be surprised how often you will get a nice clean cut. Experiment with a few odd pieces to get the feel of this process.


The Art and Craft of Stonescaping – Setting and Stacking Stone, by David Reed, is an excellent book that provides step by step instruction for all types of stone construction including retaining walls, patios, and paths. It contains detailed information and is beautifully illustrated.


Decomposed granite gravel is another user-friendly stone material that is wildly popular in Central Texas. When packed down, decomposed granite can be used for inexpensive pathways and patio spaces. It works great in combination with simple limestone edging. In areas where I intend to use plants that like quick drainage, I often turn some decomposed granite directly into my planting beds. Plants seem to love this stuff and many species can be planted directly into it, even when it has been packed down. In fact, the only down-side to decomposed granite is that weeds will sprout in it, though a swivel or “stirrup” hoe, makes controlling the weeds a breeze.


The first kind of stone that I actually gardened with, are those interesting pieces that I have picked up here and there on my travels. I use them as accents in planting beds and along pathways. I have always been a rock hound and have obsessively collected stones from far flung places. In fact, I have been known to carry interesting stones down from mountain tops or up from steep canyon floors. I don’t know if these would pass through the upgraded security of our airports, but I have even been known to pack them into my suitcases. “Sir, we’ll have to confiscate your finger nails clippers and this rock.”


Gardening with stone is gardening for the ages, so grab a mashing hammer and some Tiger Balm and get cracking!



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