How to Use Stones in Your Landscape

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No landscaping material is more versatile or durable than rock. From structures to walkways, natural stone materials can elevate a landscape design from “excellent” to “extraordinary.” But knowing how to use rocks in your landscaping can be tricky. Read on for a range of ideas.

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Whether you have a large or small space to landscape, incorporating natural stone materials can make it more aesthetically pleasing — if done correctly. Here are 11 tips for adding rocks, stones, gravel, and more to your landscape.

1. Incorporate rock retaining walls
How to Use Stones in Your Landscape

There are few uses of rocks in landscaping more sensible than retaining walls. Wooden retaining walls can’t compete with the resilience of rock, and concrete retaining walls lack the natural look and feel of stone. From dry-stacked natural limestone to precision-cut bluestone, the aesthetic of rock can be made to suit almost any garden. For a modern style, loose stones enclosed in constructed metal cages — known as gabions — offer a chic twist on traditional rock retaining walls.

How to Use Stones in Your Landscape
2. Use rocks instead of mulch

Mulch helps to retain the moisture in planting beds and keeps gardens looking manicured and tidy. However, wood mulch breaks down and must be replaced annually, plus it can be washed away in a heavy rain. Using gravel or river rock as a mulch is longer-lasting and gives a clean, modern look.

How to Use Stones in Your Landscape
3. Construct a stone path
How to Use Stones in Your Landscape

Stepping stones are a quintessential part of any cottage garden landscape, but there are many other ways to use rocks in a path. Flagstones can be used to make a beautiful, continuous walkway — they come in a wide variety of textures, colors, and sizes. Crushed stone or gravel are also commonly used as walking surfaces in landscapes.

How to Use Stones in Your Landscape
4. Use rocks to make a border

One of the most traditional ways rocks are used in landscaping is to form planting-bed borders. Like any of the other applications for rocks in the garden, border rocks come in many different forms. Whether natural or geometric, large or small — different types of rock will create entirely different looks, working with styles from rustic to modern.

How to Use Stones in Your Landscape
5. Add a boulder feature

Boulders are visually arresting natural elements that work well as focal points or features in your landscape. A well-placed boulder can be used to hide an unsightly irrigation system access point, or it can be a central part of a water feature. Boulders can be artfully arranged as a border/retaining wall in a planting bed to increase its visual impact in the landscape or to give it a naturalistic look and feel.

How to Use Stones in Your Landscape
6. Use rocks to create mosaics or patterns

Ambitious, creative gardeners can lay underfoot mosaics using rocks of varying sizes and colors. River stones turned on their sides make wonderful textures, lending a unique effect in the landscape. Gravel or crushed rock in contrasting colors can be used to make stunning ground-level motifs for more whimsical or artistic landscapes.

How to Use Stones in Your Landscape
7. Create naturalistic planting areas

Stacked boulders offer the benefit of looking as if they are naturally occuring. Savvy designers can use this characteristic to their advantage in relatively flat spaces, breaking the plane to create elevated planting areas that complement the existing landscape. The effect is especially well-suited for prairie and desert landscapes.

How to Use Stones in Your Landscape
8. Craft outdoor furniture

Boulders are already nature’s perfect seating. Kids clamber all over them, and people walking through a garden are drawn to them when they wish to carve out a quiet moment in nature. Well-placed boulders in a designed landscape are no different. But rocks can also be used to create built furniture, from rustic benches to elegant tables. Never underestimate the power a slab of rock has to invite a picnic or an inspired bout of cloud-watching.

How to Use Stones in Your Landscape
9. Sculpt a water feature

No water feature is complete without stone elements. In fact, most water features rely heavily on cut stone borders, stacked-rock waterfalls, or a river stone lining. Stone basins are a mainstay of Zen gardens. And why not? Rock is one of the only materials that stands up to the tests of time, is non-corrosive, and doesn’t leach out chemicals that can poison fish in a koi pond.

How to Use Stones in Your Landscape
10. Engineer a rain garden

Most landscapes are carefully graded so that water moves away from living structures and garden beds. A rain garden does the opposite, working like a magnet to attract water from a heavy rain and hold it in the soil, allowing it to be absorbed slowly over time. Stone is critical to the success of a rain garden — from the gravel or river rock that encourages rainwater to flow into the garden to the rocks on the surface that prevent soil erosion during a downpour.

How to Use Stones in Your Landscape
11. Design an outdoor shower

Ranging from out-of-this-world luxury to simple and utilitarian, one thing that most outdoor showers have in common is a rock element. Because stone holds up to water so well and channels drainage so effectively, it is an ideal material in outdoor shower construction.

How to Use Stones in Your Landscape
12. Install a water diversion or swale

Properties at the bottom of a hill or located on a low point in a neighborhood often have trouble with flooding during heavy storms. French drains — sub-surface channels lined with rock — are a very common landscape drainage solution. But for a creative, naturalistic alternative, some designers instead choose to create swales. A swale is a rock-filled channel that is engineered to divert rainwater, but offers the outward appearance of a dry creek bed. Unlike other drainage solutions, a swale can become a beautiful part of a landscape.

How to Use Stones in Your Landscape

As you can see, the number of ways that you can use rock in your landscape are limited only by your imagination. From high-end design elements to whimsical or rustic flourishes, stone is a beautiful, expressive landscape material that will outlast the best of us.