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.

Amazing Rhododendrons – Part 2 of Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden

Interestingly, this was written in 2009, revised in 2011 and left untouched. I kind of feel no need the change anything – even the cold part, lol.

I’m on a small story-telling bender. This one is recirculated yet again, for the reasons I outlined dealing with my post speaking of my experience with 100 sticks of dyanmite and landscaping, a couple of posts below this one.

Fortunately, this post here has abundant rhododendron pictures, which was the impetus behind the posting in the first place, until I wandered off into the personal. This is also important because it is freezing outdoors, lol. I mean, not a little.

(It is all of 7 degrees here in Louisville, Kentucky, as I write this. It was a balmy 27 yesterday at times,  so I am more driven to see something to mitigate this Winter pain. My stay in Louisville has been marvelous from a strictly people aspect. Taking care of my Mother is like – well – it IS actually – a walk in the park. No stress, lots of family for a change and my peripatetic daughter is in classes in San Diego. Life is good – if freaking cold. And it is cold. I do not much like it, lol. Let me rephrase this – it is dreadful. I am far too ‘West Coast-ish’, if that’s a term, which 42 years there would do to one. Plus, we get another few months of this, unless Global Warming gets it done!

This post was composed in May of 2009. It is a long one, filled with pictures of flowers, lakes, sun, ducks and some writing about someone I don’t mind reposting about – a fine person. Just to keep the Springtime vibes alive, read and I hope you enjoy:)

“Extravagance” is the term I am so often set with concerning Rhododendrons. Like the Proteus plant, the simple size, girth and literal glamor of the bloom have few peers anywhere. The profuseness of a Rhododendron when in bloom I honestly believe has no peer anywhere in Nature. I love so many plants – they have been my stock in trade – but this one hovers in another sphere of general gorgeousness.

(click any image to enlarge like mad…click twice for superdetail))

In the Northwest, there are rhododendron gardens all over the place. This week (May) in Florence, Oregon – on the Oregon Coast – there is a Rhododendron Festival, a full-fledged Rhodie fest complete with parades and displays and thousands of believers. Of course, everyone loves a party – so there is that. It’s been a long winter here – so there is that as well. But they’ve been having this particular festival for long years now. Love for the Rhododendron is not new here.

For purely selfish Photo Contest reasons, I add this earlier-blooming item here. I can’t imagine it not “belonging” anywhere, frankly.


When I lived in British Columbia, naturally a mainstay for visitors was the trip over to Butchart Gardens in Victoria – a world-famous garden and rightfully so, rich indeed with its own stash of thousands of rhododendrons and azaleas, like this Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in Portland, just 4 times bigger and ten times more groomed and cultivated.

Naturally, there are plants other then Rhodies to slake the thirst for extravagant beauty. Take these pictures, above and below, of Double File Viburnums – how those branches seem to be wearing epaulets of blooms down their long arms, making them appear to be wearing instead of producing them.

These are somewhat groomed for the appearance, yet this plant casually shoots off these blooms in a very regular fashion no matter how determined its pruners are to show off.

Other places in British Columbia and Washington have rhododendron festivals. And many, many other places have small parks – often made by devoted Rhodites (my newest shiniest original English! 😉 ) on farmland or just a once-open bit of land where someone tinkered themselves into some stunningly magnificent park, for which they collect money to visit and for which I was always so grateful to pay, just to see those exotics and bizarre rare species of Rhododendrons which eccentrics would specialize in. These were once virtual Hobby Farms, now ranked as parks. And there are more than one thinks.

I recall landscaping an estate in BC – 10 acres set in deep woods with 2,000 year old Douglas Fir stumps whose bodies had been felled in the original flurry of construction at the turn of the 20th Century, filled with a gassy pitch and crumbling peat-like deteriorated cores. One ravine near the home was particularly suited for Rhodies – deep shade with some dappled sunlight. I resolved to fill it with my own brand of a similar park but, naturally, budget concerns worried me immensely.

I consulted my usual nursery and had a line on some great buys of very small starter rhodies – with, naturally, a very restricted base of species and color. It weighed upon me as I drove the back roads of Langley and Surrey, BC, which was where my project was located.

While driving, I happened across a home – just caught by a glance out to the right of my window – where it appeared someone had themselves what looked like their own private nursery. I was curious and always looking for deals and I knew how cash spoke to growers – always subject to the whims of their small market of buyers. I braked, reversed and drove into the drive way.

As I drove in, I noticed a dilapidated older car parked, its door open and some cigarette smoke wafting from the driver’s seat. Walking up the small rise, I also noticed that as far as I could see, the entire nursery was of Rhododendrons. It stretched at least 100 feet to my left and was a good 20 rows deep of large – some huge – rhodies. This was a gold mine of specimens – gigantic and mature plants – and a variety to literally die for. I was nearly shaking after beholding all this because I really knew what I had found. (Hey, you had to be there.) 🙂

The man in the car was very old now – 77 – a Russian immigrant whose wife was cooking inside and whose relaxation and privacy included this car to a degree I speculate was pretty intense. He coughed and looked up as I stood outside the door of his smoking chamber and gave a big smile. He was delighted to have company. It made a great start to a long and wonderful relationship. How no one had found this man is still beyond me to this day. I am positive he never would have sold Plant One had I not stopped by – or some other young and enterprising landscaper – there is that.

He had a hothouse where he was cultivating starts – some from seed – and always had. He just loved Rhododendrons. As we ambled around the stock, his 6 foot 6 inch frame would bend over at a particular plant and I would get its very history. He knew each plant like children. It put a near religious reverence to the entire operation, I swear. Some of the newer Rhodies were 3 feet tall, lined up before being separated later to accommodate for their later growth. Meanwhile, some of the others were a true 8 feet tall – worth thousands of dollars each and too large even for me to relocate. I was boggled beyond belief.

He asked if I wanted to buy some of them, getting the hint when I told him I was a landscaper. Naturally, I said yes and awaited his pricing with some trepidation. “Which ones do you want?” he asked. When I showed him a 5 foot high plant in full bloom which any nursery would charge a full $400-500 for, he looked at me, squinted in the sunlight and said:

“What would you say if I wanted $25?” 😉

I laughed and said I would take it, of course. “Well, how many do you want?” was his next question. He then ran off the list, pointing to each plant and never going above 50 bucks for any plants – even the most extravagant and large. It became almost embarrassing and there was no way I was going to rip him off after the efforts he had put in. I gave him a figure that doubled or tripled what he had asked and he started blinking, counting up the dough. I also said I would begin with 100 plants. There was no way I was leaving that field without buying as many as I could.

He was delighted, but I was not done. I wanted to know why he wanted to sell them at such discounts after all the love he had labored over to get them started. I asked him point blank. He was so easy to talk with, it was crazy. We had definitely hit it off.

“Well, I am dying. I never wanted to make some big amount of money off these plants. There was a landscaper I used to sell 3-4 to now and then and it would be some cash for us. I spent a lifetime logging and doing the garden here just became a lot more of a hobby than I thought it would. We had all this land and it’s great land – perfect for Rhodies. If I could make sure the Missus has a few things before I go, I would be real happy. Heck, the land here is worth enough to retire on if we sold it. The Rhodies are just sort of gravy.”

He had a heart condition which gave him about a year to live. He had found out earlier that very week, it turns out. It’s funny how events gravitate towards one another in life. He looked at me with some real big eyes, smiled and knocked me over:

“I was hoping you would come by,” he said.

I felt overwhelmed by events on this boring Wednesday afternoon as I made my way through another torridly-paced business day, lit up on vanity, career concerns and selfish business worries like a junky. Then this tall Russian elderly drink of water delivered that line which I have never forgotten. Among my life’s most miraculous events, I always reflect on this moment as one of those. The suddenness and raw clarity of a synchronicity of need and of something more – maybe just Love itself – made its way deeply into my heart like a bolt of lightning.

A few tears streamed down my face as I drove home that day, in a bizarre mix of gratitude, joy, and simple awe at the outrageous unthinking compliance of Fortune itself. Oh – and I made me a great friend. That should be assumed.

Well, he lived for another two years. I was young and just starting out in landscaping but I had enough dust to provide his grateful hands with about $6,000 in purchases and – Man! – did I ever make out, too. I also bought one of those 8 footers. It took all day for 3 guys to transplant it at the new spread. The timing was stunningly apt – it had just begun blooming and, once planted, was in full flower when their homeowners – a local builder – had their house-warming party. Their gratitude for my work was pretty much off the charts and I won an award for the job – my first ever.

Today, that plant might fetch the entirety of what I paid for all 300 plants I got from Vladimir.

I did not plan to write all that but it’s one of those “Rhodie stories” I have that seemed natural to share. After all, one good turn deserves another, doesn’t it?

Details And Their Importance

As I progressed in landscaping as a career – and especially in my own projects – I came to realize how vital “finishing” can be. As the business owner who had a “speak freely” attitude I promoted among my crews, I learned many things I would otherwise not have attempted or known without their input. Nor is this some false modesty – it is simply truth. The only thing I did right was listen.

Finishing A Project

Well, it came to pass that my crews could get pretty upset with my behavior during finishing – the last day or two on a project where the time seems to slow down and a business begins chewing into profit lines. As well as I may have insisted we perform installing things, my frustration always seemed to emerge just about now.

We’ve used fire hoses tied directly into fire hydrants, using 2-3″ hoses to blast large projects into cleanliness. Needless to say, the need for an excellent pressure washer is must-have for projects where brick dust, soil amendments, bark mulches, street dust and – Heaven forbid – oil stains from standing, dripping vehicles (including the machines used for the work, like Bobcats) -can produce stains of potentially disastrous impact. Brooms, fine rakes for bark mulch, snippers for the tags which always accompany plants and which – if left – reduce the entirety to a more amateur status, blowers, you name it, all of which seemed diabolical to someone with my level of ADD, ha ha.

But the real fact was, they were prescient. They were totally capable of leaving a project looking as perfect as it could look. Plus, I would get the call when we were done and drive over to assess it all. I could still set standards, even if I was awful at the work. So they basically kicked me off the jobs. And I’m serious. I was hard to live with. The reason I say it was a factor is because crews from 2 different eras and 2 different countries did the same thing. I am a mess at the end. Luckily for the crew, it was so obviously unsatisfying to me, they both recommended that I go to the next project and begin. The truth is, I am, having said all the above, a monster at starting things. This was pretty much always where I saved and made money. I could destroy stuff at a dizzying pace!!  😉

Add that I was a sole proprietor in effect, we then saw how the wisdom of moving along rapidly and seamlessly became a truism in how to handle the work. An early or prompt arrival gave me time for the ‘soul-to-souls’ I could have with clients, as well as ascertaining potential changes they may have conceived and wanted to talk over. It also allowed me to arrange deliveries for the future, from machinery to sub trade scheduling.

The picture below is somewhat typical of the crude beginnings of a project. This is about the third day of work on a large residential project in Reno. I have spirited away one guy to run the larger machine, separating out boulders by size as I played around with actually setting the rocks into soil. Meanwhile, the other guys were finishing a project elsewhere.

(click any image to enlarge)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA   Eventually of course, the entire crew showed up and we were wholly underway, a glorious sensation to me as our attentions bent to newer projects. Soon, we would be doing the “mid project” Phase 2-3 work of final rock placement, irrigation and planting. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I would always collect the final check on a walk-through with owners, listening to any corrections they may have had from punch lists we both created and/or listening to them rave. The latter was always my favorite. 😉

Detail In The Work Itself

“The devil is in the details……..” .but so are some excellent angels.

Eventually, what I found was a profound sense of feeling well-served on the parts of clients who almost daily checked out our progress and who expressed the severest appreciation for how we handled details. I learned, for example, to actually work to produce details someone would admire. Rather than shy away from difficult aspects of projects, I learned to embrace them instead. For example, this rock grouping clustered around a gas-fed fire pit we designed and installed was never even spoken of during the original design consultation. I just went and thought it was too cool not to try.001 The “trick” here is the absolute snugness of the bricks which were custom cut to nestle in next to these boulders with zero tolerance for clearance. It made them look far more natural. (double click to get a better idea of how perfect I required the fit.) SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA The owner later lamented he overspent on chaise lounges and bar seating in his back patio “because everyone wants to go sit on the dam rocks!” 😉 (He said it with a smile, let me add, lol). He learnbed how large boulders retain the heat from the sun for long hours into the njight and how nice that feels on a bum, lol.

Below is a picture 20 feet away from the fire pit, illustrating how I would use the same “snug” technique with boulders I would insert to break up boring and predictable lines on the outer edge of the patio. I always thought it gave a far more “lived-in” look and seemed incredibly more interesting if not natural. 001

Here is the same patio, looking out at a small hill we created in order to supply the owner’s requested waterfall, creek and fish pond.


A view of the same project from a different angle, looking back………..


More detail, this time merely providing an interesting edge, snugging up nicely to the concrete border.


This entryway to a home – below – was a process of gluing bricks onto the existing very bare concrete left by the builders. Note, on enlargement, the circle pattern we cut and forced into the mix right at the door way itself. I wasn’t asked for this, either, but this detail proved a winning formula and honestly didn’t take too long to manufacture.

From the very front:


A better look, when enlarged, from the side.


“Detail” also took place at the very end of jobs, during the cleanup I mentioned I was forced to avoid. 😉  (kicking and screaming………not). Below is the day of completion at the finishing touches around a small pond in the woods we created by falling trees, digging a hole, and trying to make it look as natural as possible. In the end, this is probably the best detailed finishing I ever saw. It looks like it’s been there forever.





Inasmuch as most of our larger work looked something like the below about mid-way through, the “End” so often seemed so remote. Imagine all the work involved and then imagine not attending to the small stuff.


But rescue is at hand by some willing labor and the good vibes we always tried to support.




Renovations Vs New Construction-The Ultimate Cosmetic

45 Which do I prefer? Renovating an existing place or working with new homes, set on earth and nothing else? In landscaping, it’s almost a tossup. Going in and facing this totally blank tableau of dust and flat or steeply-angled dirt has much appeal. So much appeals immediately – images form based on one’s experience and garden design logic based on the past. The very idea of wrestling something civilized and becoming out of simple bare earth has a rare fascination. (enlarge all pictures by left-clicking the image) part9rI have always depicted landscaping itself as an “Ultimate Cosmetic”. There are very few trades indeed who literally “finish” the expanses we deal with on a daily basis. I was told by the owner of this home, below, to “do what I wanted”. It was 10 acres.  😉  Sure enough, we did and he paid happily for the service. We began, more or less, right here:

212 And we ended up with these two views – for a microcosmic look at progress:


Crystal Springs March 3 09 259

Panning out – we have this oft-cited photo from here: (big job on lots and lots and lots of dust)


This has always been a favorite of mine..under the new construction theme:

With an interesting result:

And yet, we also have undertaken projects such as the one below by crashing our way back into the thickets of forestation and undergrowth, rendering it something else entirely.

bo-020What you see on the periphery of this pond and patio was what was at the exact spot that pond now lies. To even call this a renovation is almost funny because it involved such epic change and deconstruction first.


Other types of renovations include the epic “Get my broken cement outta here!” Such as this one:


Ending with this and a far happier client:


And on and on it goes………. Truth is, they all have many moments of pure constructive joy, along with injury and accidental failures and successes. Landscaping itself is creating something from either nothing or recreating Nature with our own intervention.

Face it. It can get pretty wild going from this:


To this:


As for renovations, this is almost not fair. From this humble beginning:

We achieved this result:

And this:

Became this guy:

And this: