Boulders and Rock Mulches – Animated Talks With Stones

As the systems and machinery involved in landscaping have evolved, we have become better able to do more with elements long-overlooked but readily available for use. Rocks and their large cousins – boulders – are the perfect example of this.

Below is a yard whose overall beauty just about entirely consists of a marvelously expansive view of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance. The foreground is dotted with homes, also in the distance, which provide a unique perspective of various layers of depth and a somewhat mind-clearing vision of distance and natural geology.

The landscaping requirements of a home such as this insist that the view be maintained. Yet, there is still the more immediate and entirely satisfying effect of “local” – back yard – gorgeousness that always provides a landscaper with design possibilities. This couple wanted an unobtrusive but running  water feature and something other than just the standard rear yard with flat lawn and a fence.

Our solution was to provide the small water feature in a corner of the lot which would still be visible and aurally satisfying, with motion and activity and a lawn which was “different” – in this case a rolling series of small hills, studded with boulders.

(click all images to enlarge)

Rocks are some of my best friends. Let’s face it, they offer a minimum of argument over even the thorniest issues and they behave once set into place. There is a lot to be said about this sort of loyal adherence to Natural Law. And, yes, I have abused the odd rock, I admit it freely. I have thrown them, hit them with baseball bats and golf clubs, used them as weapons against my enemies – the “bike-chasing barking dog” for example – and sometimes shamefully using them against bad friends.

Some, however, you can’t do much to. They talk back.

Some of the bigger guys you can tweak with machinery the size of Texas – just make sure they roll in the right direction when you stack ’em.

This applies to all versions of rocks larger than a fist –

No doubt, you will have noticed right away that the boulders and stones shown so far have all been of the “River Rock” variety – meaning rocks who were either tumbled under glaciers for miles and miles under enormous weight and thereby rendered rounded or else they were immersed in rapids of fast-flowing creeks and rivers with the same result.


Some other rocks cracked liked broken crystals during some epoch in the less-distant past, immune from the rushing waters of creeks and rivers, and maintaining and still-ancient, yet freshly-fractured look which allows yet another approach to working with them. They can make a bizarre, yet somehow artistic mulch, and one I personally embraced, loving the mix and the radical nature of the stones themselves, especially when mixed with similarly-fractured boulders:

Surprisingly enough, they can even work well in the midst of water – the color and fractured nature revealing sharp breaks which contrast with the softness and depth of the water around it.

All in all, they also take up space and are quite handsome, taken individually – no matter their origin.

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………and, of course, adding even more sensuous practicality, these rocks stay warm long after the sun sets and make for a terrific feeling on cooler nights.


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. Changing a landscape from its own natural high desert habitat into a Riparian lushness is just one of the tricks a designer can take into the work. It is more than a “small makeover” – it changes and sometimes improves on Nature. Needless to say, a small creek such as this can also conduct water into a direction more conducive to drainage on those torrential downpour days.


The “beauty part” of this is in creating an alternative universe, complete with “creekside” 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. Concrete also has varying densities – which typically rise in price when searching for a permanent hardness.

During the processes of landscaping, we are often asked to make products 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 the ocean water 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 Port 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 later on 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. I greased my own improvement by an offer of beer, lol. Which was gladly accepted with smiles from his crew.

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. We would pay whatever the going rate was. 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 – ;-). 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.

Rocks and Boulders In The Landscape

I have said many times how satisfying it can be, working with large boulders and rocks. These days, tools include such things as the Mini-Excavator shown in action below, which can nearly literally do the work of 4-5 guys – and without breaking anyone’s back. This technology now includes a “thumb” which can grasp a large rock between the bucket and the ‘clamp”, allowing a near-jeweler’s precision in placement. These are especially useful in creating water features as they allow on to lightly place large stones directly in top of the EPDM liners.

I see quite a few searches from people interested in this topic, some linking here and being directed to earlier posts. I like to think I can produce even more variations and maybe some pertinent “how-to” information on working with these elements of landscape design.

Rock Walls

Dry-stacked rock walls are an art. My own artistic fortunes in these constructions have more often than not depended on who was working for me at the time. Some are just plain better than  others at the craft and some, frankly, are also better than me. Just the same, I always loved working with them. Here’s one now:

(Please click any image to enlarge)

These walls accentuate the lines of all those long, tall Ponderosa Pines reaching skyward. They provide ground level interest and work well against the grass. They also provide an excellent spot to add color and form to a lower dimension of the landscape.

The next one was almost bizarre but it actually grew on me. Asked initially to use two different kinds of rocks to make retaining walls and to retain a steep bank with them, we mixed them up in what later proved to be an interesting way, I thought. This is a somewhat terrible picture but it’s all I have left of the site. Planted up and growing, the look became special indeed. We added tons of colorful, shade-loving perennials.

These same blue/gray fractured rocks we used elsewhere but in more congruent forms. This one was per request with a similar mix of two sorts of basalt chips.

It’s difficult using two different colors and styles of boulders and wall blocks, yet, it happens. Here, below, is another landscape we did in much the same way. This time we decided to try and salvage the narrower rocks which were slated to be thrown away.  What was originally supposed to be all boulders took on an interesting look.

What became this:

Began as something else entirely. In fact, let’s take a time lapse look at this one:

We began with this. It aint pretty:

A really steep little bank which had a definite line at the bottom where the paver patio had been engineered to stop. It meant some pretty thick rock placements to divert water and to help the plants retain the bank itself. Also, there was a spa to put in, pretty much dead center to the operation.

We began in the spa first, having salvaged the rocks I mentioned and having also decided to build a dry-stacked wall with them, including a drainage system for the wall:

Then the rock work began. It was pretty much just a machine at this time. Density was asked for and we built everything bearing in mind the plants which were coming would be our eventual best friends:

I love that machine!

For the small walls we used the salvaged flatter rock material for can be seen better in this picture at the far end. We were pretty shameless in using them, actually, because I thought they looked real good. Needless to say, they functioned perfectly too. They make a nice, sturdy little edifice.

We built up the spa’s walls, then bent around the corner, sort of pasting rocks into place on our way out. We then addressed the brick paver patio, then added the spa.

We took a small “break” after dressing up the bank in our “Rockery” style. There was the small matter of installing a patio below it all – thus the increased incline of the bank itself and the care lavished on retaining the slope. In order to fit a good sized patio inside the yard, the bank needed to increase in slope.

This is what we ended up with, panorama-style:

And here it is all planted up:

Carried away once again with the good ole construction process, this was quite an excellent and very satisfying project. For those who wonder, the rocks are barely detectable now.

Large Residential Landscape Project – Part 2

We pick up from the prior post reprising this particular home in what I have always  felt is a perfect example of the entirety of a landscape affair, beginning from the initial meeting to the planning, and the budget work through all the various phases of their implementation.

I believe landscape construction processes are typically complicated dances around all this stuff – and not just rocks and dirt – but which also touch the persons involved as well, on both sides of the job. Of course, we can say this about anything one does to construct anything to improve or remedy the problems found in any home, so much so that my exposition relating to landscaping is not uniquely serious or somehow secret in the slightest. In the end, it is what I do and have done for a living and it’s really not more complicated than that. In a very general sense, it’s universal, yet I opt to make it unique because it’s what I know. I allow others to judge its merits as anything other than typing and pictures.

But it can be cool. 😉

So – with the creek pretty much 80% done, we begin running the water to check the electrical and pump systems and to finish all the detail work in the crevasses and work on ‘hiding’ the liner.  We also run the water to clear it. The first passes of water collect all the dust and grime from the initial construction phases- all the dust from feet and from spills and from the rocks themselves. Naturally, someone  washes off the rocks as well. We’ll then leave it running for a bit, then grab the end of the hose we saw inserted inside at the top for providing the initial flow, aim it onto the slope or some adjoining ‘dry creek’ and basically empty out all the water. We’ll refill it with the automatic fill apparatus we installed and work away elsewhere while it fills up, runs again and then clears itself a further step. We’ll repeat this step more than once, looking for that clear water.

(click on all pictures to enlarge)

Here we can see the water’s still running pretty murky, as we will also see in a lower photo. About this time, generally speaking, we are ready to start planting the plants and running lighting wire for the outdoor lighting system. You can see our ’12-2′ low voltage lighting cable (above) which we ran to a light under that small falls there. Some wires were also sent through the creek, between the rocks and over to the other side for uplighting trees with.

We also began adding the decomposed granite (“D.G.”) which compacts well and which will provide the traffic surfaces for the horseshoe pit, seen below leading off from the upper patio area. We are add “D.G.” to the pathways on the upper hillside which we carved out. We are pretty much at the compacting stage at this juncture. We will pack them, then get them wet and they tend to crust over nicely. In time, they make a perfect bottom.

Drainage Issue: What is a tedious chore is getting the grade just right, making sure rainwater and irrigation water all are directed away from the house to somewhere relevant that can conduct it then disperse it – in this home’s case – out to the front street. That’s a long way and we made small rock-filled creek beds to do this with. These end up being an aesthetic feature when possible, in the end, adding a designed touch to a very functional consideration. In the picture below, in the distance, you can make out a small creek bed we installed for this purpose. Basically, half the lawn and lower section drains directly to there.

Time to start planting! Bear in mind, this is as exciting as it gets for me. I always see the future in what I put in the ground. Frankly, a newly-planted landscape can look pretty barren when just-finished, and especially one this large. I posted a picture below that shows us a look at this landscaping 3 years later. Suffice to say, you won’t believe the change. Yes, it is the same place.

OK, so on with the planting and the Green part of the gig:

It’s looking a bit more orderly out there now, don’t you think?

Hey!  Here’s the sod! (below) The sod comes on pallets of about 550 square feet each, with about 60-65 rolls per pallet or so. We lay these suckers one at a time, just like a carpet. While it is an exceedingly reliable “plant”, the grass, since it occupies so much space, is a huge development towards finishing. It makes everyone’s day, honestly. Grass is the one finishing operation that really brings it all together and points the way ‘over the hump’. There is much to be done yet, but there is something “final” about seeing the green grass outside after staring at dust and mud for a month or so.

Here, we are adding the final pieces, getting ready to trim the edges, roll it all down firmly, then give it its first dose of good watering. We will adjust the sprinklers perfectly at this time and set the clock for a test of it. Right now, Hugo is adjusting the radio, a constant need (!) while sodding as everyone must surely know! We had some good dance music going on for much of this, I remember. Yes, some of it was Mexican on demand, but I got my time in with some good R & B, too. Sam and Dave and James Brown can do a lot for motivation!

Here’s a look from above. What a difference a day makes!

The two colors of the grass were merely different crops, cut at different times. I warned them of this possibility and that it meant zero, in the end. Inasmuch as the grass comes essentially fertilized, it takes about two-three days for the green to really start setting in.

Our remaining work is all “finishing” at this stage. I term applying the drip  irrigation to all the plants as “finishing”, although classically, it’s still strictly  ‘construction’. While setting up the drip irrigation lines and running the appropriately sized pipes and emitters to the trees and plants we bury the lines, then rake the dirt – in other words, we finish those areas. This project would not need mulching until some future date, owing to the expense – it was one of the ways we budgeted things – and it turned out delightfully. We were able to use a pre-emergent herbicide for the first two years and the weeds just never got any purchase at all. Jeff and Denise were also able to add plants wherever they wanted quite a bit easier than by dealing with a mulch cover.

Here below, Romero is adding the emitters to the “main line”, a 3/4″ drip line that he sends a bit of smaller pipe off of attached to an emitter which regulates the amount of water delivered to the plants roots per hour. The coiled pipe seen in the picture above is this 3/4″ pipe. It goes to every single plant on the property, run off a valve in a timed release.

Drip irrigation is the single greatest achievement in landscape technology in my recent memory. It applies the water exactly where it goes – to the roots – and does not evaporate in the air or cause wasteful watering which is endemic with spray systems. For those who wonder, that’s a Weeping Larch tree beside Romero there, a favorite plant of mine. The Larch is one of only two deciduous conifers in the world. They look amazing in the Spring, when they ‘re-needle’, in a soft green that gets greener. The weeping characteristic I have always found terrific around water features. “Weepers” are a Steve characteristic.

We also did work on the upper paths, naturally, but in every respect relating to finishing, starting with the top – running the irrigation up there and then bringing it around – we were always working our way ‘out’.

Here’s the patio area. The grass is greening up as promised and the line is about to be buried.

Time for the all-important “Road Testing” of the horseshoe pit. The owner, Jeff, was never going to be easy to please, and especially with his Father-in-Law as competition. I gave them a break and didn’t compete with them. They got a break without knowing it, lucky stiffs. I would’a massacred ’em.  😉

He liked it!  Well, we were just about finished. Please note the scrawny and tiny little plants all set there looking so lonely and forlorn. Then please look at the picture at the very bottom, 3 short years later.

Meanwhile, guess where our next project was!

Here you go, three years later! Different?

Here’s another look at the more mature place:

In the end, I stood next to Denise as I collected the final check and we had a moment to assess everything – the relations, the progress, the push and pull sometimes, all in respectful ways – and we shared one of the best moments I ever had as a contractor. We hugged briefly, and she spoke of all the guys she would miss (It’s an excellent, proud, professional and nice crew) and how the action would be so slow now for her hyped-up young red heads and how they’d miss seeing us. (It did take a full month to do.). I looked at her and I quietly asked: “Denise, do you like it?”


Denise started sobbing. “God, Steve, I l-l-l-ove it!” she said, tearfully. I looked at her and was just awed. I was dumbstruck, I swear. She was telling the truth. We had shared the deepst sort of history and a nice and sincere warmth together in just that moment and not just then, either. I was embarrassed, because I had put a lot into it, myself, and I began tearing up a little myself. Honestly, who wouldn’t??

It was just the best dang thing I ever heard. I’ll cherish that one moment forever. Love you, Denise!