Gardeners know that a landscape is much more than plants. The lushest foliage and flowers have limited appeal without other elements to act as a foil. Rocks and stones play a vital role, setting unpolished grainy textures against delicate plants, playing earthy tones against vivid floral displays, and adding weight, mass and a sense of solidity to a dynamic green scene. Enlist these heavy hitters to take your garden to the next level of loveliness.
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Steady as a rock. The presence of rocks in a garden is calming and restful. Surrounded by seasonal changes of plants and weather, rocks stand firm. For some, this steadfastness promotes a meditative environment and a strong connection with nature on a spiritual level.
Creating a rock garden as a place for reflection is possible in even the smallest garden, using existing materials and virtually no water. Sitting in a quiet corner contemplating plants growing in harmony with rocks is a respite from the busy outside world.
Stones for sustainability. Rocks, stones and gravel cut down on areas used for lawns and water-hungry plants, substantially reducing water usage. “With our limited water resources and changing climate, sustainability is an underlying philosophy for most landscape designers,” says Janine Mendel, a landscape designer at Cultivart Landscape Design.
Local heroes. Mendel points out that many washed river stones for sale are from countries like Indonesia, and this contributes to erosion there. Buying exotic stone is really the reverse of sustainability, she says. Going local makes even more sense when you factor in the financial and environmental cost of transporting heavy materials long distances.
Aesthetically, local stones and rocks add a cohesive look, especially if there are already naturally occurring rock elements in your garden.
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Supporting players. Rocks and stones enhance feature plants as an attractive edging for garden beds. If existing soil is poor, they form a raised bed that can be filled with a more fertile medium.
When planting around rocks, consider color, shape and size. Dark green backgrounds make light rocks stand out, while pale planting makes an ideal foil for dark rocks. Don’t forget that rocks absorb heat — ideal for warmth-loving plants. Don’t plant shrubs that will grow to hide them.
Smooth stones are a lovely accent for tiny succulents in a small garden. Plant a selection of quirky cactuses in a light potting mix with crushed pumice or gravel mulch for drainage. Decorate with a layer of pretty stones — they’ll help retain moisture, which means that less watering is required.
Rocks au naturel. “The placement of rocks in a contrived landscape should reflect how they’d occur in a natural environment. It’s quite a creative skill,” Mendel says.
Japanese “dry landscapes.” Rocks and stones are fundamental to Asian gardens. The Japanese concept of karesansui, meaning “dry landscape,” has taken off globally as a way to use small spaces, reduce water consumption and provide a calm environment. Raked into ripples, sand or fine gravel represents ocean waves, while rocks symbolize islands. Moss is sometimes included, but no other plants or trees.
Water on the rocks. The alliance of rocks and water is key to Asian garden philosophy. It affirms the yin-yang concept of balancing opposite and complementary natural forces. Water is mercurial, filled with light and motion, while rocks are constant and immovable. Together, they create balance and unity.
Bring tranquillity and harmony to your garden by positioning rocks near water, whether it’s a small pond, a stone vessel or a bubbling water feature.
Water also intensifies subtle colors, sharpens contrast, and makes rocks and stones mirrorlike. Dull, dry rocks reveal their full beauty and character when wet, so submerge them or let droplets splash from a water feature to make them shine.
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Sculptural rocks. When it comes to garden sculpture, nature does it best. Wind, water, earthquakes and time shape rocks into astonishing artworks. If you’re lucky enough to have an amazing rock, position it prominently to reveal its most interesting face.
Note: Landscaping outlets sell naturally sculpted rocks. Also keep an eye on construction sites — you may be able to get permission to haul away excavated rocks. Before removing any rock from private or public land like a beach or preserve, check to make sure that it’s allowed.
Bold boulders. A boulder is a large rock worn smooth by water. Transporting massive boulders for landscaping is expensive, but using lightweight ceramic versions is one solution.
Stacking stones. Humans have built piles of rocks and stones for eons; dry stone walls date back to Neolithic times. Rock walls have survived in many areas, including England, Ireland, Scandinavia and South America. The Peruvian Inca city of Machu Picchu is made entirely of dry stone construction.
“Currently in Australia one of the trends is … stone used in walling and paving rather than as a more sculptural element,” Mendel says. Local stones and no adhesive chemicals make dry stone walls an eco-friendly addition to a garden.
Cairns occur all over the world. In some places, they are primitive stone stacks; in others, elaborate hive-like monuments. They often have religious, memorial or ceremonial significance, though many were built as navigation aids for travelers.
Building a cairn is an absorbing way to spend time in nature. Play “rock Lego” and plant feathery grasses, such as the variegated Japanese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegata’) that wave in the wind as a contrast.
A cairn can be as simple as a tower of rocks in decreasing sizes. Ensure that your rocks have a stable seat, or use a little help from cement. Practice on small ones until you get the idea. When you feel confident, go bigger.
Choose a spot where it shows to best advantage and where surrounding plants enhance it.
A liking for lichen. Moss and lichen add color and texture to rocks, and they bring the impression of age. Their amazing colors often occur naturally and turn a nondescript rock into a special attraction.
I’ve used a “moss milkshake” with some success — and a good dash of patience. Make a thick sludge of buttermilk or yogurt and live moss (many nurseries sell tubs of moss, or you could collect it), and then paint it on rocks and stones in a shady place. Mist with water daily until it’s established. Pitted rocks are a better medium than smooth ones.
Slab seat. Every garden should have a spot for sitting and enjoying the view. Make a pausing place into a fabulous feature with a custom bench.