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Stone crop
Rock gardening may sound like a harsh terrain, 
but a certain Zen-like feeling emits from the landscape


May 2006

Stones create a dry riverbed effect in this David J. Frank Landscape Contracting design.

A rolling stone gathers no moss, but rock gardeners prefer their stones full of it and strategically placed.

Moss to a rock gardener is like tulips to a flower gardener; it brings beauty to their landscape.

Found across many cultures and ethnic groups, the first rock gardens actually originated in the Far East. Think of miniature Zen, stress-relieving desk garden kits with the teeny rakes except on a much larger scale. A very large scale.

Some rock garden designs incorporate stones weighing more than your average automobile. "To create a rock escarpment that might be a feature occurring in nature requires the use of massive chunks weighing 2 to 5 tons to create the illusion of a massive ledge," says Bill Wandsnider, owner of the Menomonee Falls-based Wandsnider Landscape Architects.

Japanese and Chinese rock gardens put their emphasis on stones. "In a Japanese Zen garden you’d have a few key, dominant stone features," he explains. "The bigger stones would miniaturize a mountain setting. The gravel would represent the sea or the water. You can give the illusion of waves raked into the gravel." Examples of rock gardens found in England and throughout Europe include various types of plants and feature the stones in a more supporting role.

From the Zen concept one can expand the idea to include rock or stone calculated to resemble the flow of a riverbed. Wandsnider uses beach pebbles or a black stone called "fashionette" in sizes from 1 to 4 inches to give the illusion of flowing water. A pond feature often includes a stone beach. Gravel can be added as mulch.

Fieldstone and granite boulders add interest to the landscape as long as they are not placed in a row, says Patrick Devereux of Stone Oak Landscape.

If a homeowner wants to include a waterfall in the design, Wandsnider will use granite products or black or gunmetal gray basalt from northwestern Wisconsin. "The thing that’s really interesting about stone is that various areas of the state produce very different kinds of stone," he adds. And since the price of stone depends upon weight and how far it needs to be moved, Wisconsin gardeners can inexpensively reap the benefits of the state’s geology.

Jane Wolf, with Germantown based-David J. Frank Landscape Contracting, worked with a homeowner who wanted elements of a Japanese garden incorporated into a low-maintenance project. "The use of water, while inviting, was ruled out due to maintenance concerns," she says. The homeowners opted for the use of stones that simulated water via a river bed instead of the real thing. "Rocks and water have been used in traditional Japanese gardens for centuries, closely interrelating nature, religion and the psychology of the mind."

Wolf placed the rocks to create a dry riverbed that suggested the presence of water. "Along the ‘river,’ which runs the distance of the backyard, one encounters two natural Lannon stone bridges, specimen evergreens and a variety of focal points such as natural stone steppers leading to the owners’ hand-painted Beastie," she says. The design also includes three large stones that represent a mountain range, a bird feeding area, a specimen Redbud given to the owner for an anniversary present and a large fire pit.

Bill Wandsnider of Wandsnider Landscape Architects often uses granite and Wisconsin basalt in rock garden waterfalls.

Patrick Devereux, a landscape architect and owner of the Cudahy-based Stone Oak Landscape, has seen increased interest in the concept of rock gardening during the past few years. Houses built on sloping or semi-sloping lots or a lawn that washes out during heavy rains typically require retaining walls for structural integrity. Rock gardens can accomplish the same objective and they’re much more artistic.

Some landscape architects frequently use Lannon stone for the basic foundation, a plus for southeastern Wisconsin residents because some of the quarries are located nearby. The big chunks that are blasted out of the quarry before they’re trimmed and dressed as wall stone give the finished area a natural outcropping look. Fieldstone or granite boulders add interest as long as they’re not lined up like rows of bowling balls. "Something I don’t like to do is to use fieldstone boulders and set them up on top of each other," says Wandsnider. "There’s not an artistic sense to it."

Rock gardens are only limited by the customer’s imagination. Devereux’s most unusual request was for a design that resembled the Rocky Mountains. "We got quartzite sandstone that came from Wausau," he says. The stone was brown and chestnut and flakes of quartz caused it to glisten in the sunlight. It also contained fossilized ripple marks. "We used them where the ripples could be visible," adds Devereux.

Plants help prevent erosion in rock gardens. Varieties that spread are best to use, experts say.

Certain plants will grow better in rock gardens than others. And the flora helps prevent erosion. Devereaux has incorporated creeping juniper and perennials such as sedums, phlox and creeping thyme into some of his projects.

"Plants have to tolerate well-drained soils and tolerate drought because sometimes the boulders heat up and you have gravel behind the boulders to hold them in place," he says. "I like to use plants that creep and spread. You can tuck them into small spaces and they will spread on top of or around the stones." Other botanic specimen suggestions include false cypresses, dwarf conifers, edelweiss, cacti and flowering plants such as begonias and dwarf rhododendrons.

For those who enjoy a challenge, tending an alpine garden might be just the thing. Alpine gardens are a specialized type of rock garden featuring plants that can tolerate limited extremes of temperature. Despite their advanced evolution, the plants are quite picky about where they choose to grow and too much water can destroy them.

To learn more about the art of rock gardening, visit the North American Rock Garden Society’s Web site at There’s even a Wisconsin-Illinois chapter that addresses local issues.