4 Tips on Landscaping with Rocks

Here are a few guidelines you’ll want to consider to make your garden look natural

When it comes to landscaping with rocks here are four design suggestions to make your project work.

Bigger is Better

The first is that bigger is better. Yeah, I know it ‘s a cliche but the rule of thumb in my old landscaping when I built a rock garden was that if I could pick it up easily — it was too small. If I had to use my tractor, it was getting to the right size.

What you ‘ll find is that a lot of small rocks here and there simply look “busy”. Take a look at any pro-landscapes and you’ll see they seldom (if ever) use small rocks.

More is Less

This falls into the rule above because when we ‘re landscaping with rocks we use fewer and larger stones than smaller and more.

Again, if you can pick them up easily — they won ‘t make a statement in the garden but rather just add a sense of too-much

landscaping with rocks - this is all man made
Yes, it’s man-made. Image by author

Naturalized Landscaping With Rocks

One of the reasons folks use rocks in the landscape is to make the garden look “more natural”. Take a look at any natural area and the first thing you‘ll see is the small rocks are almost always covered over with either soil or vegetation.

They seldom just “sit there” on the surface. And they seldom just sit there in an area that‘s not an alpine garden.

What you see are the larger rocks — the ones you can ‘t carry.

Interest

There are “rocks” and there are “rocks”. If you ‘re going to have rocks in your garden — do you want them to look natural or do you want them to look interesting and sculptural?

This is a serious question because a lot of rocks scattered here and there looks busy and un-natural. (Hint: if you really have to use a lot of smaller stones, then put them very close together (as in touching) so they look more natural but don’t scatter them randomly through the garden.

A single rock — an interesting shaped or colored rock — can be a sculptural element and stands by itself.

This speaks to the notion of garden design — is the design to be sculptural or is to be natural looking.

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Bottom line On Landscaping With Rocks:

Assuming we’re not landscaping with rocks to create an alpine garden — the rules of thumb are to use single stones that are “interesting” or multiple large stones that add a landscaping value and look natural.

I note that a single large rock dumped into the middle of a front yard doesn’t look natural nor sculptural. It simply looks lonely surrounded by it‘s obligatory bed of annuals and a few evergreens.


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How To Understand a Landscaping Contract To Save Money

There are 3 important things in a landscaping contract (and as a consumer you really want one of these if there is major work being done).

  • First – those signing must have the ability to enter into a contract. In other words, you have to own the house or have the right to make modifications, you have to be of legal age etc.
  • Second: There will be a “consideration” – this is where the landscaper agrees to do certain kinds of work for a consideration – you paying them.
  • Third : Lawyers call it a “meeting of the minds” – a written contract about what will be done and not done and the associated costs involved.
Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Note: This article should not in any way be considered legal advice. For any questions on this, please see your personal lawyer as state and provincial laws differ in many ways. This article is a general guideline only.

Why a Landscaping Contract?

The hard reality is that if a landscaper has been burned by customers in the past (an it only takes one or two and serious contractors quickly smarten up and expect contracts) then you can expect a contract. This should protect you both in the case of work that’s not done to satisfaction.

What You’re Likely To See?

Non-refundable deposits.

In some cases, a client will take on a landscaper, the landscaper will do a great deal of preliminary work and invest time and resources in the work before the actual landscaping will start.

But then, the client decides not to go forward and the landscaper is left holding the bag (and plants ordered and paid for etc).

So expect to make a commitment on this.

Payment Terms

Your landscaper will likely want a series of cheques as the project progresses and agreed on timelines are met and accomplished.

It is up to both parties to agree on those steps and how they are to be measured.

The larger the landscaping contract, the more important this provision will turn out to be.

Novice gardeners may find themselves surprised at how this works but landscapers will make sizeable investments in plants, time and resources to get a project underway and they usually want to make sure payments are coming in on time to fund the work.

Always get a hold-back amount (often 5-10%) of the landscaping contract until all work is done to your satisfaction no matter how much is being paid out during the work period.

Deposits:

  • A deposit of 20% is common on landscaping contracts.
  • Second payments: Some landscapers ask for another 50% on starting the project. This is negotiable.
  • Final payment: this is usually within 15 days of completion but sometimes 30 days.

Changes to the Design

This is a major problem for landscapers and a source of frustration for many clients. Often in the middle of a project, the client will say, “Don’t do that – do this instead”. And not realize the extra cost involved in “this” compared to “that”.

Some landscapers work this out on the fly but don’t be surprised to see a “change order” section of the landscaping contract that deals with the how and what of changes to the original order.

Many landscapers will also charge an administration fee for every change you make during the work as these changes cost them money to do. (You change your mind about how much brickwork you need and the landscaper now has too much brick or too many trees or not enough trees and has to absorb more shipping charges)

These change orders are important and can add up to significant numbers in a surprisingly short amount of time.

Warranties and Guarantees In Your Landscaping Contract

You want them! On both plants – and hardscape.

Sometimes the landscaper will balk at a full plant guarantee because they have no control over how (or if) you water or feed your plants. Negotiate. Most landscapers will guarantee woody plants for a year- but not perennials.

There will often be a clause that if the plant died from neglect or mismanagement (you whipper snip the base of a tree) the landscaper will not be responsible for replacement (and rightly so in my mind – you kill the tree in some way, it should be your problem not somebody else’)

One thing to have clear is who pays for installing the replacement plants?

Have this spelled out in the contract to avoid misunderstanding.

Hardscape warranties are a little harder to negotiate on your behalf. Problems with hardscape (brickwork) etc take a few years to develop as ground settles and drainage issues surface (or not).

Phone around to other landscapers in your area to discover the average length of time they offer. Try to get your landscaper to go beyond this number if possible but you may simply settle for the area average (your landscaper will be working to the competitors numbers)

Liens

There will be legal language relating to liens the landscaper will apply if you don’t pay or if there are problems. This will vary from legal area to other areas and the only way to know if they are correct is to get a legal opinion.

Permits

The contract should spell out clearly who is to get the necessary permits.

Without this, you could find yourself in a pile of trouble right away. Small projects aren’t usually a problem (fill out a single form – pay a charge – move forward) but larger projects that involve construction or water/electricity etc might involve drawings and code work and a ton of paperwork.

Get it spelled out who’s responsible.

Utilities

Here’s a really important but little understood issue. Somebody has to mark the utility lines if they’re buried.

Somebody has to mark sewer and electrical lines if there’s to be any digging,

Mess with those and you’re into big bucks as you’ll be responsible for any damages caused by lost power or sewage flooding!

Spell it out in the contract who is going to do this and who is responsible for any damages.

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Legalese

There is often legalese at the bottom of a landscaping contract that gives the landscaper rights to collect or not lose rights. Your lawyer will advise what this means.

Again, this article is not legal advice and any concerns you have should be dealt with by a lawyer in your area.

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What I Learned From Building A Dry Stone Wall

The lessons were worth the tired back and the smashed fingers.

I’d always wanted to build something from stone and a dry stone wall surrounding my garden seemed like a good idea at the time.

my dry stone wall under construction
My dry stone wall under construction

I’m a retired specialist plant nurseryman who needs firm boundaries to control his plant collecting. If I want to expand this garden, first I have to move 15 tonnes of one of the rock walls enclosing the garden.

I note this first load of 26 tonnes is only half of what I’ll need to finish this project and what you’re seeing is roughly the half-way mark along the front. The brown on the top of the wall is soil. I’ve filled the top 3–6 inches (between the two outer walls) with soil (the bottom 2.5-feet between the outer walls is hearting stone — individual smaller stones placed one by one to stabilize the wall.)

But with my plans exposed, and the stone delivered, a member of the dry stone wall association suggested I could have a group of professional wallers here to help and finish this project in an afternoon.

But this is my dry stone wall

It’s my project. To lift, sweat, bleed when a rock and fingers collide, and celebrate when a stone lands perfectly. And to celebrate at the end of each work session when the wall is longer or taller.

It’s my wall, my life. For all its faults, it’s an unbroken chain of hours and days spent in a significant project.

And I learned a great deal in the process

  • The biggest heaviest stones should on the bottom. But it takes all sizes and shapes to make a wall strong.
  • The biggest stones are nothing without the smaller hearting stones holding them in place. (Wallers individually place hearting stones to interlock and fill the spaces between the two outer walls)
  • A good foundation is essential.
  • The strangest looking stones fit in the most interesting places.
  • A stone put in the wrong place will crack and ruin the wall.
  • Every stone depends on its neighbours to work properly.
  • A well built wall will last for centuries.
  • Removing stones of any shape or size makes the wall unstable.
  • A wall of all — the — same stones is boring and doesn’t get a glance from passers by.
  • A wall of different stones is admired and people comment on it positively.
  • Cracked stones need to be removed and replaced with good ones. This would not happen in a well-built and maintained wall.
  • The cracked stones will likely fit somewhere else. As will very small, very big, very thin, very fat, different shaped and coloured stones.
  • And it’s all these different stones that gives the wall its unique character and appeal.
  • And this makes it stand for centuries.
  • Old walls mark our world with grace

A dry stone wall also makes it a perfect analogy for my neighbourhood, country and world.

I also learned something from the oldest walls

stone wall at Jericho
The Wall at Jericho.

What can this ancient dry stone wall in Jericho teach us?

Jericho was inhabited 11,000 years ago and this wall dates from 7000BC (or earlier). Jericho is the earliest known walled city and was on my bucket list for places to see on a recent trip to Jordan. I was fortunate to be able to take a side trip up into the West Bank to see and touch parts of it.

This wall endures and has endured for over 9000 years. Even when it was buried 8 metres down in the sand, ignored and finally uncovered a few years ago, it endured.

It tells me the story that my wall building shares a history, a tradition and a story with my human ancestors.

And that message and story, of sharing values with people from that long ago, from an entirely different culture is one to cherish.

Dry stone walls connect me to the world, to the peoples in it and our shared history even as I sweat by myself on my own.

And what connects you?

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Six Options in Landscape Edging

The use of landscape edging, if done properly, can reduce the time and effort any gardener takes to maintain the garden. Here are some options and thoughts for you to consider.

First, edging is normally used to “divide” one section of the garden from another. It’s important to think of it that way because there are some other kinds of edging other than the traditional ones.

Traditional Landscape Edging

The traditional edging beloved by English border gardeners is the use of an edging tool to cut a line between the lawn and the garden. This is a lovely “look” but a high maintenance activity in the garden.

Plastic Edging

There are different grades of plastic edging on the market and the problem is that beginners sometimes tend to make decision based on price. Cheaper is better. (note – I don’t garden this way but some folks do)
And this is where they get into difficulty.

Cheaper edging has several characteristics: the plastic is thinner (degrades in the sun faster) and not often as “tall” so the amount that actually goes into the ground is shorter (allowing grass roots to go underneath the edging) or it doesn’t come with enough holding stakes and easily bends out of shape or worse yet, pops out of the ground.

So cheaper isn’t necessary better. I have installed this in several garden areas in the past and wouldn’t touch the bargain stuff with a long pole after one gardener provided the cheaper stuff themselves, it and was never happy with it (or me) again. It didn’t matter that it was her decision, she believed I had installed it wrong because it broke in the sun quickly. Right – I told her it would but it was still my fault. Sigh.

The professional, heavy duty material will last for a longer time. The one thing you need to consider with a good plastic edging is to install on a hot sunny day if possible (lay the strips out in the sun to warm up) Or at the very least, allow the edging to warm up before you install it. It is usually thick enough that a bit of heat will make it far easier to bend and work with.

There are also plastic “boards” that you hammer into the ground. These interlock and some gardeners like the look of them. I don’t but then again, it’s your garden.

Aesthetics. I don’t want my landscaping edging to be the star of the garden so I want it to disappear after I’ve installed it.
This brown color landscape edging is well reviewed so it’s worth taking a look at.

Aluminum

Aluminum landscape lawn edging is more expensive than plastic, is slightly harder to install but it outlasts plastic seemingly forever.

You’ll go through a lot of plastic before you’ll even dent the aluminum.

The problem is that it can be tougher to find. The big box stores don’t often carry it because of the price. You’ll have to talk to your favorite garden center and beg them to order some for you.

Stone/Brick

There are a great many paving stone landscaping edging systems on the market now. These manufactured stone pavers work very nicely but grass does tend to invade through the cracks between stones or bricks.

This is expensive edging compared to plastic or aluminum but it can be extremely attractive if done properly. The easiest way to do is is to lay it down flush with the lawn to form a mini-walkway between the garden and the lawn. I’ve seen people put it on edge but this only creates a lot of maintenance.

When it’s on edge, you can’t mow the lawn right up to the edge of the garden. There’s always a bit of grass you can’t reach next to the edging and you have to use some kind of string trimmer to get it cut. If you put the pavers flush with the soil, you can run your mowing machine right over top of the edger and cut the grass right to the bed. No string trimming!

I note that manufactured stone is weather resistant and won’t usually crack in cold winters. Brick on the other hand will deteriorate quite quickly in areas that have severe winters.

Wood

It is possible to use wood landscape edging in various ways. The most common is the landscape beam – usually a 4×4 that is set on the soil line. The problem with this is the same as the stone, you can’ t mow over top of a beam sitting on top of the soil, you have to use a string trimmer to clean up the area. Putting the beam flush with the soil is the solution here.

In our case, we have had to construct raised beds (no soil in our garden area) so the weeds and grass really want to crowd up against those beds. To fight this off, we install either a horizontal landscaping edging – a wood plank laying on the ground next to the bed or we use some old roof shingles leftover from construction (that would have gone to the landfill) and lay them slightly under the beam and out onto the lawn area. I can mow right over top of the shingles so the lawn is well maintained next to the beams and I don’t have to use a string trimmer.

Those are the pro’s and cons of basic landscape edging. I hope it gives you something to think about.

Fibreglass Edging

This is not something you normally see in retail shops or box stores because of the price-point. The advantage is that it is very long lasting, doesn’t crinkle or bend out of shape easily. Here’s a source for some comparison shopping It is not as expensive as brick but more than plastic so it’s a halfway point that some people like.

The trick with all these things is getting the “look” you want. In my case, when I used to use this material, the “look” was to disappear. 🙂 (now I build raised beds because of our shallow soils.)

Note: fibreglass edging is NOT as flexible as plastic so if your designs have some radical corners, then you may want to avoid this material. It will handle 90-degree bends if the material is warmed up in the sun (a good trick for plastic too) but not happily anything more than that.

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The Dry Stone Wall Begins For 2017

It stopped raining here some time on Saturday night (April 8) so Sunday afternoon I  ventured out to do some gardening work. Did a bit of cleanup, put a few tools away in their proper home, found a things in the shed I’d forgotten about – you know the drill for the first time out “there” after the winter. After about a half hour of wandering, picking up bit and pieces of branches etc., I decided it was time to look at the main project.

The Dry Stone Wall.

Rescued the fence post tripods from where they were marking the waypoints for the snow plowing team.  Set them up at the ends of last year’s wall, strung some string to mark the east wall and took a few minutes to appreciate the amount of work I’d already accomplished.
When the small voice in the back of my mind said, “Not nearly enough to call it done, is it Doug.” I knew I had to do some work on the wall.

2017 Starts Off Really, Really, Well

There are days when things go well in my rockwork days and there are days I should just go swimming. This was a good day.  Given the temperature of the water, I’m really glad it wasn’t the alternative.

Found a perfect rock. Well, except for that long overhang. Got out the stone hammer and chisel. Carved a straight line across the offending end. Gave it a wicked smack with the hammer and (YES!) the stone split exactly where it was supposed to. I don’t mean close, I mean dead on,  straight down the crack just as nice as I’d want.

While I rather doubt they’ll all go that way, it was very, very nice to see the first one work properly. I decided this was a good omen for the rest of the year.

Setting up the guide strings, Moving the two big stones in the front (they’re not in permanent position) and the newly cut stone on the right end of the wall were the sum total of my work on the wall for the first time this season. Every little bit counts I note

A Half Hour Later

I had moved several honking big rocks into position to be used. Trimmed another one (I was on a roll). Ready for the 4th big stone…
And I felt the first twinge in my back.

The muscles had bypassed central brain control with its insistence on carrying on with the work and telegraphed their concern directly.

  • Got the message.
  • Packed up my tools.
  • Celebrated the first half hour of the 2017 season.
  • And decided it was high time for a Saturday afternoon nap.
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