Cutting And Shaping Rocks And Boulders – Part One

This is an old favorite post of mine I thought I might recirculate. The subject matter – shaping rocks – is about as old as prehistory – and we know that is some really, really, really old stuff. In fact, it is an excellent concept for placing the interaction between Mankind and Rocks closer to Infinity.

Generally speaking, my landscape designs most often featured massive boulders in their natural “finished shapes”. By this I mean using what nature had wrought after rolling the rocks and boulders which chipped off mountains and fell into rivers or were formed under advancing glaciers. The river rocks of the West are these delicious and shapely granite pieces of amazingly sensual form and which fit incredibly well into gentle, humane landscapes.

(Click on pictures to enlarge)


These natural assets can even double as seating around a warm seasonal fire in Reno………


Disguising drainage swales by creating a semblance of a natural creek has always been yet another trick of artistic misdirection and a hugely satisfying one at that.


The “beauty part” of this is in creating an alternative universe, complete with riparian plantings which in just a few seasons produces a scenario a naive person might deem as natural, rather than some construct on the side of a newly-created land shaping.

Modern concrete technology is now proud of its replication of rocks. When replicating rocks is considered “modern”, then you have to realize rocks carry some value which might just mirror their age – often counted in billions of years, which is dang old.

Anyway, here is my experience with these hardbodies. ;-)

As if anyone wondered…… are some incredibly hard stuff. ;-)

Particularly rocks such as granite, marble and the various basalts landscapers encounter on a regular basis. Concrete products are obviously much the same – hard, unyielding and perfectly suited for their roles in pavements and building construction.

During the processes of landscaping, we are often asked to make products we use conform to our weird ideas and plans no matter how seemingly impractical on the face of it.  In terms of your basic rock impediments, we can encounter huge boulders right smack in the ground where no one guessed they would be. Take it from one who knows – as is illustrated further down – this happens.

So we learn ways of dealing with all aspects – boulder impediments, shaping stuff for practical and aesthetic purposes, slicing bricks to help us make a curving effect, cutting rocks up to clear room or to actually use.  We learn about cutting brick pavers and wall systems; we learn about the tolerable gaps which maintain the security while allowing us to provide a curving element to the landscape.

(enlarge any picture by left-clicking – some, twice, to get real detail)


What happens in the length of a landscaping career for the luckier – (or is that “Unluckier?” I forget!)  is that we run into these great persons with great tools, who can direct our energies to rectifying our little problems. Being willing to learn and listen comes in very handy when dealing with some of these smart fella’s who specialize in things we never even heard of.

As a perfect example, I was taught by an elderly Italian guy how to cut granite into increasingly small sizes. Here’s the formula:


Seems simple, eh? These little items go by various names – we called them “Pins and Feathers”, although I have also seen them as “Plugs and Feathers”.

But wait. The addition of a small sledge hammer and a masonry power drill complete the picture. Generally, as can be seen, the process does not involve dramatically pneumatic or gas-powered machinery. Nor does it involve psychic power to discern “weak spots” or advantageous lines for the work. The nature of these stones are somewhat uniformly crystalline – with some exceptions being breakage in handling – so one can literally create the line one desires to establish.

When all are engaged, it looks something like this piece of marble prepped for sectioning – prior to gentle taps which serve to break the stone:


To relate all this to my existence, a small story:

We encountered a project in Deep Cove, British Columbia (a gorgeous suburb of Vancouver, hard by the Burrard Inlet) on a chunk of land which was something like 30′ wide by about 200′ long – one of those chopped-up residential sections specially-inserted to allow more people to savor the salt air and shoreline. The property was shoreline property with a severe slope to the rear and a long boat pier extending outwards in to bay. Our client was interested in our  somehow providing some specific landscaping wants – walls for perennial beds, the irrigated lawn, a paver walkway and landscaped stairs to conduct folks down easier to the pier and his boat (s). Needless to say, it was an architectural feast for an innovative home designer and I was the chosen fool to implement the outdoor plan. The house itself was marvelously eccentric – as was the owner, lol.

Well we ran into “issues” right off the bat. Needless to say, the sloping nature of the hillside was the geological result of rock behaving very much like rock – in this case, the common granite which composes so much of the area’s geology. To make matters worse, the home was a replacement and “improvement” over what had once been there – all landscaped and apparently full of great pockets of soil.

Here, thanks to the Deep Cove Yacht Club (link provided) is a look at the small burg and it’s lovely setting. The home referred to in this post is on the left back, about a mile from the harbor park, one of the piers jutting out into the bay. It’s pretty easy to see why someone would want to live there.


All that aside, we return to how great the landscaping looked to deal with and how simple this was going to be.  ;-)

Au Contraire.  Not really. I was kidding and so was Fate.

“Hey, Steve! This crap is all rock!”

As we stuck one of our first stabs of our ubiquitous shovels into what we figured was a great lush dollop of dirt, we heard the clang of all clangs and, as we explored more, we realized we were plain on top of good old rock. Lots of rock. Tons of rock. Uh oh.

“There”, thought I, “goes a perfectly good plan.”

We had a wall designed to be out front and, to be honest, we had not really investigated very thoroughly, seeing as how it was a long ride out through traffic to assess the place and it was in the midst of a rainy season. But – the saving grace: the “Price was Right” – we had something of a license to make it all work. It was an interesting moment.

Fortunately for me, I had been watching another construction project down the street that very first morning. Indeed, my attention was ostensibly focused on how they arranged parking (my original impetus) on the narrow little street. (One learns as a contractor – real early – to grease the wheels of all trades in a neighborhood, including those on separate projects! This is called “Survival”, for those wondering.).

That then led to more than one handy discovery, as I illustrate below. I also advised them that we had deliveries of fairly large stuff scheduled which might block access at a future point – always a landscaping dilemma.

As we conversed about logistics and what we could do for them to trade favors during the course of both projects, I could not help but notice the masons who were constructing the entire face of this other cool home with a Granite facing. I watched, fascinated, as an older gent ran his rock drill into a large slab of native granite, piecing off chunks of the stuff for the guys inserting these “chunks” into cement, and into what was an absolutely gorgeous finish.

He was amazing. He’d drill holes along this line of his devices – usually no more than 3 holes – and then add some grease to his “Pins and Feathers”, then insert them into the holes, wedges facing out. He tapped on the “pins”, just firmly, not terrifically hard, very patiently, running from one to the other in sequence. As he did this, suddenly you’d hear this cracking sound and the entire rock would split, exactly where he wanted . It would just fall right off into the pile of other pieces.

Here is a Youtube vid of a guy doing much the same thing. The short film was made by Coquitlam resident and professional instructional designer Brian Thorn who noticed my placement here and who delivers a perfect rendering of the process on a small scale. His  lesson is perfect and the video aptly describes the process to a ‘Tee’. The virtue of this video is in how it deals with a general stone – one which could be used as either an example of creating shapes or in removing obstacles. Both are the same, in the end.

Remember to wear your ear muffs as you watch this drilling festival – it ends soon enough,lol:

Indeed, cutting huge slabs of granite into increasingly smaller pieces turns out to be somewhat simple. It hurts, “giving away the store” like this – I mean, it seems so specialized – but this is one highly satisfying chore, in the end. It always seemed so “Lilliputian”!  ;-)

Anyway, as we discovered our rock hard impasse, I returned to the guy and asked if he’d give me some advice on how to deal with things. He was kind enough to wander up with me to assess my situation.

He was a virtual fount of information. I showed him the parameters of the dilemma and he had a very ready answer: “No problem! Just cut that granite out and use it for the wall!”

I blinked and asked if he’d help us out. We could wait for him to finish down the street seeing as how we had major work first, out back. He then informed me he was booked for 2 years, lol. My heart sank.

He smiled at me, seeing my obvious disappointment. “Tell you what,” he said. “You stay around after work and I’ll teach you how to do it. You’ll learn this in about 20 minutes.” I was dubious, but I was young and dumb and this guy was one interesting as heck guy. I gladly complied.

He came up and I delivered the promised beer – (a detail I omitted). In the end, it turned out he was right. Within 30 minutes, I had cut through two big portions of the impeding granite rock. I could barely contain myself, I was so crazy happy. He saw my wonder at the result and he well knew he’d “hooked me” into the whole “rock-shaping” world – a place where no one can be unaffected. I guess it’s short of “orgasmic” or “Cathartic” – but I wonder. ;-)

All of you “Closet Rock Fans” should thoroughly enjoy this next video!

True Rock Fans will endure this next one as well – especially inasmuch as it displays authentic and melodic Music. It’s a party. You also have to love the safety boots.

The project was an unmitigated success in the end – except for the raccoons – but that’s another tale.

Bamboo – Beauty And The Beast

I am hardly a bamboo expert. I did, however, stay in a Holiday Inn one night. ;-)

Having said this, my experiences with Bamboo over a long period of years in my different roles as equal parts designer, installer and “maintainer” have led me to various conclusions and not simply about their single most primary reputation: their unruly nature for anyone who hosts them.

The fact is, Bamboo can present an uncommon beauty of its own. And well it is that this is the case, because the “unruly nature” is a stone cold fact.

From the incredible other-worldly effects of bamboo forests in China such as the picture below, to the unusual coloration and clumping style of the various species featured below, we can all see the merits of this tough, enduring, troublesome plant.


I wonder how many folks realize there is a Blue Bamboo?

blue bamboo(picture courtesy of Joseph Clemons)

Golden Bamboo has always been a plant I enjoyed planting – along with other more water-loving bamboos for swampy or bog-like conditions.


The above began here:


Dealing With Bamboos – Root Barriers

The various cultivars and native species of Bamboo have waxed and waned in popularity over the decades. For a while, the glories of Japanese and Chinese Gardens were imported to the British isles and the US, including every instance of elegant bamboo screening and beauty. Inevitably, certain problems almost invariably showed up – almost always involving problems with rampant root expansion or else the issues of bamboo getting “too happy”, with where it was planted. Acculturation to new geographies’ for some plants can often be a synonym for “Thriving beyond measure”. ;-)

Bamboos are divided into two very distinct root patterns: “Running bamboo” and “Clumping Bamboo”. Running Bamboos have an impressively Imperialistic manner. They send out “rhizomes” – roots – which travel surprising distances and in water-hogging ways. In rainier climates, they can chew through a sidewalk or even cross under a street, simply because it can. Maintenance of these plants’ tendencies has historically involved “root pruning”. This implies digging down and find the expanding roots and rhizomes, then cutting them off. To say that this is ‘labor intensive’ is quite an understatement.

Clumping Bamboos have a far more manageable style. This varieties hold their roots closely without the rampant expansion of the “Running Bamboo”. Having said that, they also expand their very structure, growing at a reasonably rapid pace. All Bamboo – it seems – grow rather rapidly. In the end, true maintenance involving this plant can most easily be accomplished upon planting them.

Root Barriers

Modern technology has provided us with an excellent product for containing these gorgeous plants. Plastic root barriers are now readily available with which to contain the expansive qualities of the more aggressive types and which can reduce root pruning to “never”. Set around 24-36” below grade, during the planting process – or retroactively, of course – these plastic containment mechanisms act to prohibit expansion.


The limits, in terms of distances, around which these barriers can act are limitless, since the barriers themselves are segmented and easily attachable by hand. This can provide a truly wonderful scenario as we watch the expansion take place and halt at out predetermined dimensions.


The other truly marvelously efficient factor with barriers such as these are that many specialists in this product provide barriers which are also made completely from recycled plastic. As a Green Technology, this is a wonderful development. Efficient and Green both are a wonderful way to design and build are most gorgeous gardens.

It is hard to express enough appreciation for a well-conceived garden at any time, but some are more Heavenly than others.






Mike Snedeker – My Brother’s Guest Post

As is the case with all of my family members, I am inordinately proud of pretty much every single one of them. My bias causes me no trouble whatsoever, lol, because for the most part they tend to rely on the rewards of actual works and real history in trying to “be someone” who affects the world positively. I could wax long and hard in explanation, boring the Universe to literal tears in my hearty solipsistic rants. But why bother? I already did that over the last 453 posts!! ;-)

This story, however, reveals a deeper level of our personal family intrigue and one far less rosy. Let me preface any further statements by saying my Father was a much-loved man. My friends often dropped into my place regardless of whether I was there or not. Engaging “Flash” (short for the “Freddy The Flash” nick Eastern Illinois newspapers labeled this excellent football player with, and a sobriquet irresistible to my little vandal friends) was just too tempting to let go by. His big goofy full smile was the reward they waited for and he never failed them – not a once. He would grab a deck of Rook or Hearts cards and they’d get busy, sharing space and time. He is still my hero and I miss him dreadfully, each and every day.

This is a “guest post” – a first in this blog. As the “About” section implied, my move to Louisville has long since transpired and I have lived with my Mother and younger brother for the past 3 plus years. Mother is now 94 – a couple months from 95 – and she has taken a few tumbles and challenged the resourcefulness of her younger charges in keeping her active and alert. That may have been the easiest part, actually, come to think of it.

But the last “event” seemed more “major” than most, so my older brother Mike decided to wing down on a whim – which he somewhat explains in the post. Mike has successfully authored books and writes – and speaks – in elaborate arguments of legalese for Appeals Courts who hear his Death Penalty and the bizarre Ritual Child Abuse cases which formed the subject matter of this excellent work:  Satan’s Silence. (the link is to Amazon books, if you click). But this time down, there was enough emotional atmosphere to choke a horse, as we all were completely worried about her. It makes his writing so clearly affected by his own discoveries and emotions that I found it irresistible. Here ’tis:


On July 16, my 94-year-old mother finished talking to my brother, turned, and fell down hard, banging her head on the corner of his chest of drawers. Her skull and brain were fine, but she broke her neck in two places. My brothers Steve and Tom live with her. Steve told me that I couldn’t talk to her because she was so doped up to control the pain that she didn’t know where she was. When a sweet spot emerged for medication that blunted her pain but left her conscious, I decided to go back to Louisville and have the Final Conversation with her. We talk once a week, but we both like to look ahead, so we’re always talking about what the kids are doing and whether the Cardinals will go to the World Series.

She’s been written off several times before, most recently when she fell and broke her hip, but her bones heal quickly, and she always bounces back. I decide not to count on that, and go tell her what I really felt about her, and ask any lingering questions, like….why did we never go visit dad’s parents when we went to Illinois to visit mom’s parents? And, if she rallies yet again, we can pick right up with our weekly updates.

Here she is, a model at Marshall Fields in Chicago whisked away to San Diego at the beginning of World War II, holding me and looking ahead with an open, happy expression.


And here is dad, being admired in his navy blues.


We were a rootless American family that rolled around America through the middle of the 20th century, but we always went back to the tiny town of Humboldt, Illinois, for two weeks in the summer to visit my mother’s parents – the highlight of my life. Dad’s parents lived in Homer, Illinois, just a spit away if you’ve come in from San Diego or New Orleans or Toledo. “Why didn’t we go over there, too?” She paused, and said, “You never saw your father with his shirt off, did you.” “Well, er, no.”  “There was a reason for that.”

Here are my parents outside granddad’s house on their wedding day, February 12, 1942.


I was born nine months and ten days later. When my mother touched dad’s back it was covered with welts and scars. She asked him what had happened. He said, “I’ll tell you because you deserve to know. But I don’t want any questions and I don’t want to ever talk about it again.”

Granddad and grandma’s house was the center of the universe. Here is a picture of my sister Diane and I cross-dressing in the front yard.


Humboldt was an anything-goes kind of town for us. Granddad was the mail carrier and drove a 52-mile grid through neighboring farms, six days a week from 1917 to 1962. He was off work by noon, and would take me around with him after a big lunch, across the railroad tracks to the grain elevator, and into the railway station where serious men tapped out messages in Morse code. Then, we would visit the men lounging round the DX station on highway 45, and buy cokes. Everyone would look at the bottom of the bottle to see where it came from. Mostly they were from Mattoon, ten miles away. Occasionally Champaign Urbana, or Chicago. Once, I got one from Denver Colorado, and I was noisily celebrated. Then we went over to see Clint the barber, whose shop was the best-smelling place I’d ever sniffed, and over to spend time with the wastrels hanging out behind the post office playing washers. They would always let me throw in for a game or two. In the evenings, granddad and I would watch the freight trains and count the cars and wave to the caboose, and see the City of Miami and City of New Orleans whoosh by…All in all, as Tom Sawyer might say; it was miles better than anything else.

One time, and one time only, we drove up to Homer to visit my dad’s dad Fred Sr., along with stepmother Ru, and Lester, the most disconcerting, intriguing sight of my childhood. Lester was genetically deformed and large. He emitted loud barbaric yawps but could not talk. He was tied by his ankle to a post, with a rope that gave him about a 15-foot circle to roam in. He was a good boy, Ru explained, but when he got too happy, he would bang into people and if he felt bad, he would throw himself down and around….Lester knew nothing about body boundaries, his or anyone else’s, that was clear. I slowly approached him, and shook his hand. The visit unfolded, my other granddad hesitant, with a glazed look and none of the ease and grace of my first granddad, and Ru, with exaggerated nods and shakes of the head and untimely, braying laughter…I stayed in the family circle watching and listening, better behaved than usual, one eye always on Lester.

My father’s father had been a maker/repairer of buggies and buggy whips in Greenwood, Mississippi, until technology finished off that line of work. He moved to Marshall, Illinois. Dad’s mother died when he was very young. Sometime later, his dad came home with Ru and her son Hank. Hank and Ru moved right in. They didn’t like dad or his older sister Reba, and dad and Reba did not like them. One day his father told the two kids that he was thinking of marrying Ru, and said that they could decide whether or not he should go through with it. They voted against it, but he married Ru anyway. It started one day when Hank did something wrong and blamed dad for it. Ru whipped him, and when the same thing happened again, she got a buggy whip, and whipped him again, and again, and again. Reba made desultory efforts to help, but could do nothing. His father never intervened.

Dad would leave the house for days and weeks at a time. Sometimes he would travel, sometimes he would go stay with neighbors. Mom met a woman from Marshall when she worked in Springfield, the state capitol, who told her that dad would come and stay with her family sometimes, that it was “unthinkable” what Ru was doing to him. In New Orleans, dad’s doctor asked mom if dad had been a Prisoner of War.

Hank, meanwhile, was always getting in trouble. He dropped out of school and drifted away. Once, he came back home with a baby. He asked his mother to watch it for a couple of days. The baby was Lester. Hank never came back, and Ru spent the next 30 years taking care of Lester, until he died.

Here’s a picture of mom and dad in the early 50’s, riding the “trentes glorieuse,” or thirty-year wave of prosperity that washed over the Western World from 1945 to 1975, looking relaxed and confident in Paducah, Kentucky, where dad supervised the building of a subdivision for workers at the new nuclear processing plant.


I was a difficult child because I determined around age 11 or 12 that I would go and seek my fortune, beginning in either New York or California, or perhaps Chile or China…I went through the motions of being an ordinary teenager, but my soul was already gone. I left home in 1960 and did not reconnect with my parents until 1980 – just in time, because dad died of lung cancer in 1983. I told mom that without her warmth and steady devotion I would be nothing, but she waved me off, and we resumed working on her Kindle word game, nailing down Level Nine. She no longer walks for miles every day like she did into her late 80’s. She reads a book every day now, sitting in her chair — Robert Patterson thrillers, a biography of Nikolas Tesla, anything at all. She’s always been weak for narrative, and is swallowing whole two east Louisville branch libraries.

Stendhal in the early 1840s became fat and suffered from gout and other ailments. “Staying alive is troublesome and exhausting,” he said, “and I would gladly give it up, but I need to know how things will turn out.”  Mom’s deep desire to see how the stories around her unfold will keep her going for God only knows how long. The broken neck is already fading into the past, no more than a bump in the road. When I arrived in Louisville a week ago she was disoriented, delirious with pain. Now, her bones have fused as they should. Physical therapists are working out her badly faded muscles twice a day. She will go home in a week, where my brothers will help her do what used to be the simplest things, and roam Louisville for her, tracking down libraries with stories she has not yet read. 

Landscaping As A Career – Breaking Out

The “Career” of landscaping has evolved so vastly during my own experience. In Vancouver, in 1971, “landscapers” were literally not a recognized trade at all in that town. Of course, in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Florida and other Sun-friendly environments, “landscaping” was a long-respected trade. But in more Northern climates, these persons were more commonly referred to as “gardeners” – and not particularly respectfully. Things then changed because budgets began to include the inclusion of the outdoors in building plans - and they became  mandatory. A 5% principle attached soon and the trade swelled with participants.

As time has gone on, many projects included much more elaborate gardens and outdoor premises as Landscape Architecture also began its own forward march in expertise and ability. An entirely new range of materials began competing and technologies of irrigation and waterproofing became essential findings which allowed a near-exponential expansion of “the possible”.

Pretty cool place to make, eh?

Once we’ve covered the “hard” portion of the trade, as was done so last post, we come to the nexus where someone seeks to improve his position in life. No one will or should impair a young person’s urge to uniqueness and achievement should they get restless about their lot in life. We tend to underestimate the peer-pressures facing 20-somethings as friends and acquaintances apparently pass them by on the graded social scale. They hear it from home, at pubs and on the job maybe most of all. Facing a gigantic pile of rocks in a driveway, scheduled to be relocated by 4 PM on a 100 degree day, is not the same as a vacation in January in Lahaina, Maui.

This is the point at which I ask anyone just how serious they are about a career. It might be the single most opportune time to ask one’s self the same question. In the end, serious movement requires serious actions. What I offer here is a rough guide on how to accomplish the next step for those who wonder. There are just a few tactics available, the truth is, and taking them seriously is what this is all about.

Take the trade seriously

Our minds don’t automatically cease operations simply because we have a wheelbarrow in our hands. (While tempting and oddly satisfying for its simplicity). The purest path to advancing in any trade is to acquire knowledge about it. In landscaping, this opens up far more realms of study than one might believe. For example, relevant Electrical aspects of landscaping include Low Voltage Wiring from Hot Voltage Transformers; waterfall/swimming pool/to tiny electrical bubble rock pumps; the timers, moisture sensors, irrigation valves and even audio aspects of patios and back yard privacy enclaves. All of these items and concerns have been at least parts of landscapes I have designed and installed, if not most of them included on every single one.


The term is a latter-day term describing the constructed structural elements of landscapes, from patios and walls to gazebos and fencing (carpentry). Owing to the outdoor nature of the work and the search for durable products and materials where landscaping resides – in the weather – cement products are often a huge feature, representing an outsized group of products requiring certain inescapable preparations. The entire notion of “Compaction” – as well as the quite specific materials and tools to complete their installations – figure largely here, even for carpentry projects. I have seen projects and even companies rise and fall over their comprehension of the entire premise of “compaction”.

Plants and Trees

It’s too easy to say plants are an essential part of any good landscape because it’s not always the case. Many landscapes any more have taken on spare-looking/minimalist characteristics not just attributable to our unique position as serious water-users for gardens, but also attributable to a tangential notion of some very creative designs. There is incentive – yes – in designing a less water-hogging landscape. It is a responsible move in the face of our looming water scarcity issues. But many of these edifices stand on their own as gorgeous landscaping – just without plants.

And having said all that, a thorough knowledge of plants, plant behavior and their afflictions and favorite moments is an absolute must for any landscaper. Here such concepts as ideal soil conditions, shade, traffic and the acidity produced over time from rooting and the breaking down of leaves or needles all converge with water needs and even drainage to produce a world-view of plantings at a basic level.

And even this disregards the even-more-essential elements of blooming, leaf structure and color, shape and eventual size. In fact, when all is said and done, we will forever and always return to these basic factors of any plants we use. Expert choices make expert results.


To a certain degree, we have already addressed this above. But it well behooves avid students of landscaping to try and understand the reasons for certain design elements. “Foundation planting”, “mass planting”, “specimen-planting”, the use of grass, hardscapes, lighting, water in a landscape all have a certain place which should fit with the rest, no matter the current fashions.

Differences in design are as numerous as differences in their purposes. Back Yards are often the result of a search for privacy and contemplation.


Public spaces, on the other hand, are nearly the opposite – with celebratory edifices such as public fountains, prominent features like statues and art works and even especially riveting sculptural/landscape elements built together to simply draw attention and interest, supplying something unique and impractical for our everyday lives. In public space, predictability is over rated by a huge amount. People seriously want to share amazement – most truly amazingly beautiful things are simply designed to share.



Lovejoy Fountain



Meat and Potatoes

Here are other categories it well behooves an aspiring landscaper to appreciate:

Soils -

Machinery -

Labor Relations -

Client Behavior -

Maintenance -

Sales  and Customer Satisfaction -

We’ll address these next time.