Garden Designers Roundtable: Stone


Designing, planting and tending a landscape or garden is an avocation, a profession, a passion -and a nemesis of the most unpredictable and formidable sort.  The pure joy that a great garden has to give back has a substantial responsibility that comes along with it.  The landscape could be described as the responsibility for the health and happiness for a flock of living things. A lot of marbles have to be kept on the table-all at the same time.  Every plant that dies on my watch-I take it very personally.  Plants die routinely, and with astonishing regularity-in spite of knowledge and experience.


Some plants die from old age-every living thing has a lifespan.  Some things die from a particularly fierce winter, or relentless rain, or extraordinary heat.  Some things die from lack of water-of these deaths,  I am particularly ashamed.  Some things die from poor siting, or a a site whose ecology changes drastically-as in the loss of an old mature tree.  The living community that describes my garden is ephemeral-fleeting.  No tree, shrub, perennial, or garden experience comes with a lifetime guarantee.  Should you decide to garden, the disappointments are part and parcel of the experience.  Fortunately, a landscape has other elements that live longer.

Some elements in my landscape shrug off the water, the winter, the heat; the stone in my garden is the next best thing to indestructible.  Stone persists in my landscape in spite of my neglect, poor science, or ignorance.  What can I count on to be there every day, as best as I could count on anything?  The stone stairs to my rose garden have been there as long as I have had my garden.  I would guess it will still be there, when I celebrate my 100th birthday.

Stone in the landscape roughly refers to what we call hardscape.  Stone beautifully populates those places to be, that soil to be retained,  those spaces to entertain, and those walks with a natural material that provides an enduring hard surface.   Stone is eminently capable of expressing your need for a change of grade.  Stone provides paths and walks that enables travel from one space to another.  Stone provides a beautiful and durable surface for a terrace.  Compacted decomposed granite- shards 3/8 inch in diameter and smaller- makes level and hard surfaces that survive in driveways and garden paths, year after year. I so like balancing those living, and therefore fragile elements in a landscape with a crispy defined highly textural natural material that endures.

I am not a geologist-I am a gardener.  But I can say with great conviction that the stone readily available to me regionally is always my stone of choice.  Regional stone that is native to Michigan will look like it belongs in a Michigan garden.  Stone native to the East coast, or west coast I can appreciate, but a sense of authenticity of place is important in making a landscape visually believable. No doubt an entire library exists which describes the color, texture and use of stone world wide.  But I am primarily interested in stone that naturally occurs in my region of the country. In addition to bluestone and granite,  Indiana limestone, and Valders stone from Wisconsin are favorites. 

The fountain in my back yard is finished in Valders stone. The step down in submerged in water the entire season. This very high density dolomitic limestone is prized for its low water absorption.  This makes it ideal for applications in or around water. Indiana limestone, also known as Bedford limestone, is principally comprised of calcium carbonate.  The decomposition of marine animals at the bottom of the inland sea that covered the Midwest for countless centuries created limestone.  The limestone quarried near Bloomington Indiana is acknowledged to be the highest quality limestone in the United States. It readily absorbs water; the limestone caps on my retaining walls have aged beautifully.

Should you need a hard and enduring surface or wall, natural and native stone will endow your garden with a sense of permanence.  The formation of stone takes generations, and it will take generations to decompose.  Do not be shy about inviting a natural element into your garden with proven longevity.  It provides a quiet and appropriately natural foil for your plants.


I was a rock collector, as a kid.   Every type of rock, every shape, every surface-I was enchanted.  Nothing has much changed; I have a big love for all manner of rock.  Stone carpeting the ground, stacked up like a wall, hand carved into a cistern, or half buried in a rock garden-I value it all.   The stone slabs carpeting this conservatory floor-I have never seen anything remotely like it before.  It has an exotic, architectural, and other-worldly look.

Stone cold, set in stone, stone faced, hard as stone -these are all phrases that describe a certain attitude that withstands the elements, the vagaries of nature, and popular sentiment.  Stone comes with an aura of history about it.  The eldest plant in my garden I estimate to be about 80 years old-a trifling age, compared to my stone. Relationships in a composition might be more important than the one, or the other. How an ephemral element interacts with a permanent element-always interesting. That great age one associates with natural stone has much to do with the creation of,  and value,  of stone garden ornament. 

Stone ornament for the garden is a centuries old art and practice.  A material which is virtually impervious and certainly accepting of the weather makes an ideal medium for sculpture, urns, finals, cisterns, plinths, and benches. Many antique pieces provides homes to thriving colonies of moss and lichens. Before Michaelangelo’s David was a sculpture, it was an ancient block of marble from the earth.  Antique containers and urns hand carved from a single piece of stone are rare, and very costly.  Dry cast limestone is a dry mix of cement, sand, mineral pigments and crushed natural stone, which is forced into molds, and vibrated under pressure until it fills the mold evenly.  This method of manufacture makes stone garden ornament more readily available and affordable.

The stone in my garden is beginning to settle in.  Plants have decided to take up residence in its crevices, and on its surface.  I like how this makes me feel. This Belgian bluestone table with antique hand-carved corbel bases would indeed be lovely in a garden. Any gardener who has ever carried rocks around their garden, or had their fingers pinched setting a stepping stone knows that stone does not give.  I like a material in my garden with this attitude.

I wrote this essay in a special capacity.  I was so pleased that The Garden Designers Roundtable invited me to guest post with their group for the month of May.  The Roundtable is a group of garden and landscape designers who write regularly on topics related to landscape design.  This blog is a great read.  Interested in an ongoing discussion of plants, gardens, landscapes and design?

To read all of the posts on the May discussion of stone in the landscape, click on the links below.  Enjoy!

Sunny Wieler : Stone Art Blog : West Cork, Ireland

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Jenny Peterson : J Peterson Garden Design : Austin TX

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Tara Dillard : Vanishing Threshold : Atlanta, GA


Sunday Opinion: Patience

Someone told me they read somewhere that our midwest spring is the coldest, wettest, and most disappointing and lousy spring in 40 years.  I did not need any news article to bring me up to speed on this topic-I have been living through it.  Our spring has been anything but spring.  Lingering cold, and non stop rain-terrible.  The winter lingered on through March, and way into April.  The magnolia flowers were over in two days-the crosus and hyacinths were nothing much to look at.  Yesterday it was 80 degrees and windy-I could see my tulip petals browning on the edges.  The next 6 days weather report calls for 5 days of rain.  But have I lived through anything remotely resembling the devastation, distruction and displacement dealt to the people of Japan via an earthquake and tsunami of catastrophic proportions?  Never.   I think about those Japanese familes regularly-their lives turned up side down.  Family members who perished.  I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like to live through it,  survive, and then start over.  I cannot imagine the collective grief-so many people died.   My spring troubles are less than nothing by comparison. 

My less than ideal spring, could it begin to compare with all of those people, homeowners, farmers and gardeners whose homes, fields and landscapes have been flooded and ruined by the Mississippi River overflowing this spring – not a chance.  I have never experienced this level of natural disaster, ever.   Have I ever seen a tornado bearing down on my neighborhood, as Tuscaloosa Alabama just endured-no; never.  Just today, Joplin Missouri-devastated by deadly weather.  My weather has been exasperating, disappointing, irritating and dissatisfying- nothing more.  Given that most everything I have lost to bad weather can be replaced or fixed, I ought to be swimming in patience, as my patience has never really been tried.  The disasters I see others endure, teaches me much about what the word patience really means.

Having patience does not mean the willingness to wait for a few moments, a few days, or a new season.  It means the willingness to start over, recreate and remake –  from the beginning.  If the day ever comes that I have to do that, I will feel entitled to whatever feelings might surface.  But until then, I will try to remember that I have vast unused stores of patience at my disposal.

At A Glance: Soaking Wet

Styling A Container


What do I mean by this-styling a container?  I could take 5 plants, and plant them in 5 identical containers in such a way that the end results would feature 5 different looks.  The style of planting you like informs how you arrange and choose numbers of plants in a container. 

Let’s pick 5 plants.  Verbena bonariensis-a very tall verbena with small knobby flowers that are emphatically lavender.  Nicotiana alata lime-a rangy and tall flowering tobacco whose flowers are the most divine shade of green.  A Gallery – meaning fairly short-  dahlia in a peachy orange.  Heliotrope “Marine”-a short growing, dark purple flowered and very fragrant heliotrope.  Plant number 5-lime licorice. This felted leaf foliage plant known as Helicrysum has a horizontal and spiky habit of growth .  You’ll have to bear with the pictures that do not match the text-I have never planted a container with these five plants.  My main idea is to speak to the idea of style.

Suppose you have a very formal and symmetrical, very classically inspired home.  Given that you like that formal house, you might style you containers in a very formal manner.Verbena bonariensis is formal in the sense that it grows straight up in a V shape, and never goes over in a bad wind.  Want to contain it, and feature it as a centerpiece in a formally styled pots? 

Gather up all of the arms once they grow tall, and tie them with a raffia bow.  That bow should be symmetrical, mind you. The above picture features datura-and not verbena, but the idea is the same.  This datura has had all of the lower leaves removed-it has a more topiary, rather than shrubby look.  Each arm is staked, to further give it an upright appearance.  For our imaginary container, plant the lime nicotiana all around this centerpiece of verbena.  As nicotiana tends to grown grow wild, scoop up those branchas at a lower level than the verbena, and discreetly stake and tie them just below the flower stalks.  Keep the lower leaves removed. Alternate the peach dahlias and heliotrope.  You may need two heliotrope for every dahlia-so the volumes are equal.  Lime licorice all around the edge of the pot will provide a uniform petticoat upon which the rest of the composition will rest.  Trim off any branch which dips below the horizon.

Regularly pinch any wild branches to produce a uniform thicket of licorice-trim to an end that resembles a tutu.  Every plant has a habit of growth. If you want your containers to have a little attitude, you must supply that yourself. This is to say that you are somewhat in charge of how things grow. Even this container of zinnias and petunias can be trimmed into a more formal shape without any loss of bloom.  If this is your style of planting, a little maintenance will go a long way.

If lush and profuse in the English style is your idea of a great look, I would pack your container with the verbena,  nicotiana, and dahlias mixed-but I would switch to a tall lax growing dahlia that you discreetly support with a tuteur.  The rod steel plant climber is this pot has competely disappeared from view.  Stake as little as possible.  Keep every asymetrically growing unexpected leaf that you can.  The lime licorice, if it is happy, will weave itself in and out of every other plant you have in a natural way.   The heliotrope will have to get leggy and rangy to keep up, and it may finally disappear in the jungle of other plants.  How an English-style cottage garden planting changes over the course of the season is part of its charm.  The big idea here-plant big plants, and enjoy how they relate to one another with a minimum of interference.  Bug-chewed leaves are welcome here.

If a container planting which is more architectural is your style, you need to ditch both the verbena and the nicotiana.  Neither one of them are particularly architectural plants-they are wispy, and move in the breeze.  Opt instead for a centerpiece plant with bold leaves and habit of growth, and key everything else to enhance that idea.  The peach dahlias would color compliment this dward striped-leaf canna pictured above in much the same way that the heuchera does.  The toffee colored grass is an unusual color, and sets off the canna leaves in a dramatic way.  There are only 3 plants here, instead of five-modern and contemporary style plantings ask for a restricted palette.

If very loose and meadow like is a style you appreciate, take all five plants, and plant them randomly, but in very different numbers.  10 verbena, three lime nicotiana, one dahlia, and equal numbers of heliotrope and lime licorice mixed will result in a random and casual, road-side weed like planting.  This planting with dwarf cleome, juncus white angelonia, euphorbia and petunias features a little bit of everything in a wispy way.  All of the leaves are small; all of the flowers are small and subtle. Euphorbia diamond frost does a great job of obscuring foliage, and imparting an airy and natural look to any container.  Were I to plant in this style, I would choose the euphorbia over the heliotrope. 

 Small containers can have just as much style as big ones.  I particularly like this table top pot-yellow potunias, lavender star verbena, and gold marjoram.  It has a great natural shape, interesting color, and relaxed styling, does it not?