Large Residential Landscaping Project – Part One

This post is of a project we undertook in 2004 – in the Spring – for a great couple, Jeff and Denise, and their young red headed kids who were not even arguably cuter than buttons. They were a feature every day, the little guys, and who were, not surprisingly, fascinated by their daily Big Show out back of huge machinery and big fellows moving dirt and rocks all around.

(click on any picture to enlarge)

What 4 year old in his right mind would not dig (pardon the pun) this set up?? Huge and gnarly, all these humongous toys kept them entranced as long as they were awake. Below, for example, is what it looks like when you get 20 yards of topsoil delivered to your house just a few feet from your favorite back window!

This picture is us digging those tiny (not!) channels for irrigation pipes. Hey, you use what you have!

The Story

The home was pretty much Jeff and Denise’s “dream home”. After getting the inside of their place whipped into shape, they then focused outdoors, naturally enough. They had a full acre out back and they wanted to maximize what they could get out of it. They provided me with a laundry list of things they wanted which read something like this:

1.) A running water feature with a creek and small pond. 2.) A platform and an electrical (220V) supply near the water feature for setting up a spa away from the house. 3.) A nice big irrigated lawn with a surrounding pathway for the kids and their trikes and – eventually – bikes and motorized transportation. 4.)A horseshoe pit straight out the back. 5.) A play area for the kids. 6.) Some pathways on the rear hillside. 7.) An upper level patio, very informal, bedded in Decomposed Granite.

They were looking for ways to squeeze the budget which would still allow them to get all the goodies they wanted. The list was long and challenging but I immediately saw the potential in the overall landscape. We would take advantage hugely of the hillsides surrounding the East and Rear sides of the property, using it for our creek and the spa placement. Providing pathways would be easy and interesting and would cut through the landscape in a winding way. Jeff and Denise and I huddled and came up with a reasonable budget. Helpful – no that is an understatement – what swung the deal in favor of total possibility  was that Jeff could provide all the machinery we would need. What also helped were his connections regarding trucking and rock suppliers – there being some excavations nearby that had the marvelous rocks you see throughout the property. That brought the budget down so far that suddenly it was all as doable as it could be. So we shook hands and took off on our grand landscaping experiment. It would be fun, especially inasmuch as Denise was at home with the boys and offered her opinions daily and in an unobtrusive and truly cooperative fashion. In the end, she has as much to do with the ultimate look as anyone. I consulted with her often, and as often at my request. She was always a treat, honestly.

Anyway, we began and, once we finished the irrigation issues, and after burying the pipes and backfilling them, we were ready to entertain deliveries of both rocks and soil, both in the 200 yard range as totals. So, here they came:

Once delivered, staging became an increasingly knotty problem. In the picture above you can see us placing rocks in their eventual resting places with the smaller excavator placing them and the larger one picking and separating them just after their arrival. They tended to come in 3 sizes, from humongous 2-3 ton slabs, to medium sized ones from 500-1,000 pounds, to smaller, one man sized rocks. It is actually somewhat tedious at this stage, in a way, although the placing of permanent fixtures is always bracing and challenging. You can never get bored with supplying something permanent for a client – the appearance and selection will be there for ever. Some heavy duty cosmetics here. So, anyway, things began taking some shape.  In this picture, both the “upper level patio” and the horseshoe pit have been outlined in boulder placement.

Yes, there is still one huge pile of rocks down there. That is for some detail work as well as almost entirely dedicated to the water feature, which is being scratched out in the picture below. We typically excavate the channel which the water and all acoutrements will follow, then add the liner and, of course, the rocks defining it last.

And there you have your standard-average scooped out water course. Next, we make the water feature, starting at the top:

Adding rocks on top of liner is always the single most nerve-wracking part of any large job. One false move with that machine and the rock – and especially this type of “fractured rock”  – can poke holes in the liner, the worst possible result. So we operate gingerly to say the least and we also use other pieces of the liner wedged between the new rocks and the liner to protect the all-important liner itself, providing a measure of security as we worked.

The excavators we like using for these events are amazing tools. You act like a jeweler or watch smith or something placing one and two-ton boulders as precisely as possible in place. Plus, as you can see by the always-helpful Fernando’s directions, you always get helpful advice, lol.

Looks like Chaos, don’t it??  😉  Note also another wonderful development which is the very durable flexible pipe we use as the source. This one was a 4 inch pipe and made the project ten times more do originates in the lowest level, at the bottom of the pond itself, then stretches back up the hillside to where we see it, ready to provide the essential “source” for this recirculating edifice.

Now just add cement and we’re finally getting somewhere!

So that yields to this:

Next post, we add plants, grass and finish all the paths and stuff. I think you can see the madness all actually had some later-crystallizing plan to it. Thousands did not!  Had to say it.

The Form and Occasional Placidity Of Stones – Rock Work

I’m recirculating this post from over a year ago, as well as making substantial changes to it. The density of posts now – and their length – means many of these get lost in the packaging of the entire blog. This is a post about boulders and big rocks – and the joys and intensity of placing them. I hope no one minds……..

Much of what I blog about refers very specifically to what I know. It gives me a certain freedom of expression within these landscaping parameters that I don’t have when speculating on matters I may think about but which I have not, in fact, done. Politics, for example, while I spend ample time considering the greatness of some famous politicians and the lying weasel aspects of others, are a pastime and not something I am utterly competent to speak of. Like most of us, I can complain  a lot! 🙂 I do that pretty well, the fact is, just not in here. But I do know rocks. By golly, I know rocks like a lover knows the curve of a spine or the taste of familiar  lips. But rocks are family too! I have such a long term relationship with rocks, stones, gravel and rock mulch, when I get to Heaven I am positive they will put me in a celestial excavator and dump some titanic load of fractured Glacial Schist for me to make stuff out of. Yesssssss!! ………………………….. “Hey, is that all you got?”  🙂 “Is this Heaven, Man!”

The not very secret fact is, I would be more than delighted. Placing rocks – the art of integrating boulders into a landscape and providing an almost immediate sense of permanency – to me is perhaps the finest form of artistic expression landscaping allows. The intensity of placing rocks lies in their permanence. As one adds boulders into the primitive beginnings to an eventual landscape, the heart always beats a little faster. I always get the feeling of “setting the stage” for everything that follows – plants, paving, the envisioned walkways. It therefore becomes something more than just a few rocks in the ground. These become the spine of the body of work. You tend to think in planes – geometrics. For example, many of my landscape rock placements have flat tops on them, hopefully virtually parallel with the ground itself. This gives yet another plane aspect to what will eventually rear up so vertical in the person of plants and constructions. In fact, it never seems enough. I want every rock to be that plane. (Left Click all images to enlarge) Interestingly, in denser concentrations such as the “rockery” retaining system below, they can be used as virtual steps to climb and deal with plants or just to make one’s way up the hillside. Crystal Springs March 3 09 291 Dropping a rock into place follows some very standard guidelines – typically, you want about a third of it underground. This to insure they don’t roll over and ruin the siding or worse, but also to embed itself so that eventual erosion and winds don’t expose the bottom. Nothing looks less permanent than some gigantic marble in your front yard or patio. Boulders like the ones below – your water-formed, circular and soft-lined river rocks – form a gentle presence stuck into a landscape. I use them here as seat rocks surrounding a fire pit and they serve that function well. The mellow curves and solid appearance of such well-formed boulders makes them an entirely welcome addition, blending as they do with the gentle curves of any landscape. They have a sensual style, nearly anthropomorphic, resembling things like clouds in the sky, rich for imaginations and for their gentle acceptance. Used economically, they can anchor a landscape with permanence and form and provide lines which break up the monotony of paving or otherwise simple constructions. These rounded rocks, showing the effects of centuries of wear and tear – of rolling around on river bottoms and being pummelled relentlessly by rushing water – seem so innocent and placid when in place. But then, all rocks do this, don’t they? We look at a rock and we see our innate vestigal human image of something totally permanent. (Unless, of course, we are geologists.) We see rivers and we see creeks when we see these rounded items – Or more placid settings where the pools formed over centuries are bordered by such well-worn stones – But not all rocks are equal! These cute little round boulders are great for the gentle among us. But there are other stones whose very form challenges us, in the most riveting and jarring artistic ways – These may also be anthropomorphic in their own rights…………what do we make of that hulking beast above? Some daemonic Chinese stone that wakes up at night to prowl our ‘hoods, made to order to scare little kids into making sure they go back to bed? Or we can go contemplative like those tricky Japanese who always mess with us like –


Or something like this big fellow, wise beyond it’s ancient years, standing alone and all-seeing among the plants he watches over, yet still able to evince a wonder at its teetering presence? Rocks speak to us if we care to listen. They come in a pretty stunningly wide variety and they can be placed in remarkable ways by the enterprising landscaper. Some, we put together in combination’s to simply attract attention, almost always in 3’s – (click this one twice to see the water coming out of the medium guy here) Some we bore holes into – all the way down their length – in order to have them perform a water dance while looking gorgeous as is their wont – And some we just plaster together to see what happens – We hang them off stuff, just because they are good-looking – And still others beg us to do weird things with. They plea for an arrangement where they can show off best and give us humans some wonder in our boring lives – Working with rocks and boulders has always been one of the true treats of my trade. I am sure it’s obvious I enjoy working with them and the very obvious truth, as well, is that I like operating machines that move them around! NO – let me rephrase that – I LOVE operating those machines! Honestly, there is something more than a little appealing about arranging these behemoths in a morning and have a client come home and see 30 huge boulders set in place. For example, we did this (at least the rocks) in about one day – he was pretty shocked. But aside from my personal inclinations, rocks themselves are a marvelous adjunct to any landscaping enterprise. They can provide lines that interrupt or they can supply lines in a landscape that emphasize a certain quality of horizontal or even vertical planes. Oh – almost forgot – they can also provide seats! These are particularly interesting inasmuch as they store heat during sunlit days. It takes hours for them to cool down, too. It makes sitting on them during cool evenings yet another experience entirely. I have often said “Warm butts, warm hearts!” 🙂  Well, OK, but I said it a few times. In short…………………Rocks rock! Crystal Springs March 3 09 271-1200

Rock & Boulder Month – Fractured Basalt

“Fractured Basalt” is essentially another name for rock and boulders who were displaced or dynamited apart to become either the boulders that they are or to become an excellent crushed gravel product, suitable for the bases of roadways the world over. They show a “fractured” appearance because they have been – fractured, that is.

(click any image to enlarge)


Obviously, I don’t hesitate to use them in water features of my own as the picture above testifies. Living in the West, we see relatively younger mountain ranges and stone complexes and it is not unusual in the slightest to see this sort of conglomeration. Aside from that, these stones have fabulous color and shapes. They combine well with other types of stones, to add to their appeal for a designing landscaper.

douglas drama

Arriving on a site, these boulders can be intimidating. Local quarries in both Reno and Portland, Oregon deliver this rock in massive, 20-25 yard quantities at the end of these long semi end dump trailers which reach to the sky when dumping. You want to give these guys some flat ground to dump on, trust me. Anyway, once you get a few of these loads, the work of selection gets intense. They come in wonderful and surprising shapes which challenge an orderly mind like few other things.

Arriving at a result such as the one below is weird ……………..when the picture below it is how you began


Pretty big mess…….. 😉   My favorite thing.


Just a bit later – But these stones are obviously not the rolled upon and rounded river and glacial rocks of the former post. These have edges, breaks and – often – fabulous color in their own right.


In yet another water feature, we can get an idea of the deeper colors and the variety of shades these basalt boulders have –

Doug and Ed 099

Some of the shades are remarkably different. Truly, not all fractured rock is “fractured basalt” – one can, in fact, find Quartz in the local mountains around Reno of impressive size and amazingly white or absolutely “clear” quality. There is a “Quartz Mountain” just west of town which has been a garden resource for countless devoted quartz lovers and gardeners. It used to be that people would drive up and just load out whatever took their fancies. Below is an idea of what one of these boulders looks like in its natural setting:


Here is a browner toned basalt piece in Portland we worked into a small water feature.


Split further, they make fabulous stones for walls and for garden path ways. We’ll see much more about the possibilities of garden paths in the very near future.


Back to the fractured basalt, here’s an example of yet another water feature, done in Portland, using the fractured rock.



We now venture back into “bubble rocks”, split or fractured rocks we like so much, we pay to have them cored for water to run over there surfaces.


And another:


I took a chance once using a mulch of this stuff – in a billion different sizes. There was a quarry nearby and the client was game to try something I mentioned I thought might work well. So we used the fractured stones as a mulch, in combination with larger pieces of the same ilk. I knew it would turn out good andf it did – right from the start.


It was a lot of rock!


A year later, it looked as good and remained nice and easy to maintain.


Even the front yard benefited from these interesting stones. I think the mixture of the deep green lawn and those gray-blue rocks are very effective.


Landscape Rocks & Boulder Month – Rounded River and Glacial Rock

I typically have worked with 3 major categories of rocks and boulders in the landscapes I have designed and installed. Since I am newly-arrived in Kentucky, the more “Eastern U.S.” types of boulders and rocks – the Shales and the Limestones – have not been much in my headlamps. I truly admire their potential as the prior post points out. Particularly the limestone slabs interest me, with their horizontal possibilities. The list of more Western boulder types is this:

1. Rounded River Rocks, smoothed by tumbling under glaciation and running water

2. Fractured basalt rocks, into which I include “Glacial Schist” – also included in the Basalt rock  column would be the pillars and crystalline rocks of basalt origin

3. Igneous rocks of particular individual merit……….and I guess I could include Fossilized Rock – ‘petrified wood’ – as well, since I have actually used it in landscapes.

River/Glacial Boulders

I find these multi-utility rocks. They come in large numbers, very naturally. Aside from how we view the West, it was real wet at one time, with glaciers advancing and retreating, big boulders and small ones tumbling under mile-thick coverings of ice. As well, many rocks sat under water and the incessant pounding of running water rounded them off into interesting and sometimes literally circular shapes.

In landscaping, I like using these for water features (insert “duh!”), owing to the natural affinity with water in all its guises. I use them also for constructing artificial creek beds which double for a site as drainage trenches, moving rainfall and snow melt off the property and directing it where we want it to go. These are a delight to construct:


We assume the most natural effects in making these. Notably, for example, water will encounter an obstacle – such as a large rock – and find a way around it, thus the curving parts of my artificial creeks have larger boulders at junctures where the bends take place. We also try and find what would be a natural course, including its origins. When things make sense, the senses agree.


As can be seen above, I also use these to solidify a hillside as well. Inserting boulders does indeed help with erosion control, sitting all hefty and attractive, they supply ideal locations for planting as well as for diverting tides of water.


The picture below has a bunch of grouped boulders “Keyed” to prevent an erosive collapse onto what will eventually become an expensive and very long concrete driveway. They retain a secure place, especially when we add channels to it which will direct the water away. Nevertheless, this being such entirely new, basically ‘sculpted’ and not very compacted terrain,  and composed of soft, dusty, silty material, we did what we could to avoid future problems. It turned out, the first year, we were glad we did.





And we play, too, attempting to make remarkable pieces of art out of our soil and rock sculptures. For example, on this same property, we made sets of stairs out of large, up to one ton boulders, in two different locations. These stairs are not for everyday traffic but they were still functional, keeping one’s shoes out of the dirt and garden – the intent of any garden pathway.


The steps are on the right in this picture. If you enlarge it, you can far more detail and I am really not all that at editing pictures to show the features I want most to focus on. I just take them.

The above picture is taken at the bottom level, just as Spring had arrived and in time for us to address the disasters which a 100 year rain event had caused. We were more than a little glad we had taken what steps we did take to minimize erosion damage. It could have been worse. This project was about 6 months old at this time – in construction terms, from when we began.

This is another level up, between the home itself and a huge garage where garden tools and an RV shed are located. The stairs here are obviously on the right.


Other functional and very playful uses of these rocks carry a softening effect to hard surfaces –

Doug and Ed 028

The intrude into the lines we devise, offering a small anarchy



But my single most primary usages of these gorgeously-shaped stones is generally related to their natural affinity with water.






Don’t do these at home!! 😉