Garden Designers Roundtable: Stone

It happened again! Each time I write a Garden Designers Roundtable post, the topic initially seems so straightforward and simple but I soon discover it is anything but. This month, I join my fellow Roundtablers in exploring the seemingly simple topic of stone and how it relates to the landscape.

Stone Walls and New England Potatoes

Part of a stone wall in Connecticut

A few of the lichen & moss covered stones in one of the stone walls on my property

I live in southwestern Connecticut where stone is literally everywhere I look. To say that iconic New England stone walls are ubiquitous here in Connecticut is definitely an understatement. On my one acre property, I am fortunate to have two different old stone walls.

In fact, it is the exception for a house in my neighborhood not to have at least one stone wall. Stones, from massive rock outcroppings to the ever present ‘New England potato’, are simply a part of the landscape here, the same way white oak trees (Quercus alba) and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) are.

For those readers who have never had the experience of gardening in New England, the ‘New England potato’ is a decent-sized rock that can generally be lifted with one hand. They may not sound like a big deal, but in some gardens every time you put a shovel in the ground, you hit a New England potato. They can make the simple act of digging a hole maddening.

So with stone walls all around me, I had initially planned to write about the beauty of New England stone walls and the unique story they tell not only about this part of the country but also about the people who built them. But truthfully, I worried my fellow Roundtabler, Scott Hokunson who lives in northern Connecticut might tell that story. Scott loves stone and I knew if he did, he’d do a much better job than I could ever hope to do.

And then I remembered something about stone and its link to sustainable landscape design practices that I had heard at a lecture a few months ago. To paraphrase the presenter, ‘Hardscape materials, just like the food we eat, should be locally grown and as unrefined as possible.’  It’s a great analogy that really speaks to the way I think stone is best used in landscape and garden design.

Is Your Stone Sustainable?

Sustainable gardening practices are as much about our values and the role we see our gardens playing in the larger ecosystem as they are about finding solutions to landscape design problems. While I know many gardeners and garden designers who are committed to creating a sustainable garden and will work with native plants, retain as much stormwater on site as possibe and maintain their gardens organically. But I wonder how many consider the choice of the stone they use as a sustainable one.

Here in my corner of Connecticut, where utilizing stone in landscape design often involves an expensive game of one-upmanship, the value of using indigenous stone is enjoying a quiet renaissance.  While I still hear comments from clients such as ‘my neighbor has a patio made of  Tennessee crab orchard, can we use that?’ or from landscape contractors like ‘Don’t worry…I’ll just pick up a pallet of Mexican beach pebbles’, at least people are willing to consider the benefits of using indigenous stone in their gardens.

Stones used for retaining in Connecticut

These stones, all found on the property during excavation, were used to create a retaining wall for this portion of the homeowners driveway.

Regardless of where you live, using native stone, rather than stone that is trucked across the country, is an easy way to be more sustainable. The savings in energy and reduction in carbon footprint can be enormous.

Indigenous stone also helps to weave your garden into the unique fabric of your region.  Using stone that literally can be found in your own back yard is the perfect way to allow your garden to showcase what sets your area of the country apart from every other area in a way that plants just can’t do.

I invite you to visit the blogs of my fellow Roundtablers, and our two special guests — Deborah Silver and Sunny Wieler – to learn more about using stone in designed gardens and landscapes:

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

Sunny Wieler : Stone Art Blog : West Cork, Ireland

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Jenny Peterson : J Peterson Garden Design : Austin TX

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Tara Dillard : Vanishing Threshold : Atlanta, GA

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

26 thoughts on “Garden Designers Roundtable: Stone

  1. I have harvested so many New England potatoes! Even a small dig in the garden unearths bushels of stones, and I used every one to build myself a dry creek bed and a low wall along a border, so I’m feeling good about sustainable hardscape practices! Locarock? The new Locavore?

    • Laurrie, A dry creek bed is a great idea! Like you, we have sooooo many stones, the larger ones that we’re lucky to even get out of the ground become ‘accents’ in the garden and are evidence of the struggle to dig a hole for a new plant.

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  3. Hee he ‘New England potato’ I like that. I believe we have a similar cultivar here in Ireland, ours seem do duplicate at a rapid speed. I agree about the importance of using local stone, and the numerous benefits of using it over imported stone.

    • Sunny, I think you actually may be right. I was reading a book about NE stone walls and it did say the geology of the UK is very similiar to NE, which I found surprising. Perhaps we can find a way to capitalize on the ‘reproducing rocks’. Could be the next hit fad!

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  6. Like so many other things that I use in my life, I really hadn’t considered where stone might come from. Great post on reusing what you already have. Although there isn’t much stone where I live now my former garden was full of it. My favourite tool back then was a pick axe for prying stones out of the ground.

    • Marguerite, I’m so glad my post got you thinking along a different line. It sounds like your gardening experience must be completely different now. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to just stick the shovel in the earth and not have it hit a rock.

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  8. New England potatoes — funny! Here in Austin we have a LOT of rock too, but ours is mostly limestone and some pink granite. I totally agree that using locally sourced rock is a great way to highlight the uniqueness of one’s region plus make a less expensive, more sustainable choice.

    • Pam, I’ve never been to Austin but I do think stone when I think of Austin. Good point about the $$ of indigenous stone. That’s another important consideration.

  9. It has always appealed to my penny pinching side, but the sustainable angle is so much more elegant. I am a nut for rocks, and plan to do a post about that soon.

  10. Here here! Wonderful job explaining the importance of thinking locally when choosing garden resources. I love your paraphrased quote comparing landscaping to eating locally.

  11. I’m so happy that someone tackled the idea of regionalism and sustainability with regards to stone. Last time I was in Southern California I saw a brand new house clad in PA bluestone. It looked so out of place–not to mention the footprint all that stone must have made coming across the country. One of my CA friends told me that at that time PA Bluestone was about $1000 a ton. YIKES!

    • Susan, I love bluestone but I can’t imagine paying that much for it! Yesterday I was driving in Greenwich (w/out my camera) and I saw several houses in a row with beautiful native stone walls all @ 6′ tall. Then there was one made from some type of pinkish-tan rectangular stones and it looked so ridiculous. It was so out of place it was comical. I imagine your bluestone house in CA was much the same.

  12. Yes, out here in CA I have so many clients who long for the deep blue/gray Connecticut Bluestone (which is SO expensive – on so many levels!) Many are from the East coast, longing for a bit of ‘home’. Many want their garden to have a different ‘feel’ than their neighbors. I’m so glad you raised this point and reminded us of the hidden costs of stone!

    • Rebecca, Isn’t it funny how people move around the country and just can’t seem to embrace the uniqueness of their new surroundings? I can understand the need to have something familiar sometimes it’s just taken way too far.

  13. Ah the New England potato… so beautiful to behold, so hard to mash! LOL

    I feel your pain Debbie. We rarely get to work on a site that is easy diggings, but that also means we have plenty of stone to work with. I have been agonizing over the sustainability issue as well. So much stone in our stone yards is brought in from all over the globe, and the farther it comes from the more prestige it seems to carry.

    Great post and great points to consider!

    • Scott, I do think the stone/sustainability issue is one many designers are starting to consider. In the past, we’ve wanted to create something unique and haven’t really thought about the implications of using pebbles from a beach in Mexico vs. pebbles found right here. I’m glad to see that we’re all beginning to broaden our definition of sustainable.

  14. This is SUCH an issue! Just between you and me, I know a gardener in LA who is so proud of using synthetic lawn, but ALSO uses bluestone trucked in from Pennsylvania! WHAT? Thank you for writing about using locally quarried stone – it DOES look better in situ, as well!

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