Hardscaping—Using Rock as an Artform in the Landscape

Rock wall at garden.©Mary Menz

[San Juan Silver Stage | May 2021 | Mary Menz]

Attractive gardens mix plants and hardscape together to tease the senses. Flowers, shrubs, trees, and cactus provide scents and textures, while berms and pathways create divided spaces. Rock provides visual interest, color, and function in a landscape of living organisms.

Hardscape refers to the non-living elements in a garden space and can include seating, sculpture, decks, and pergolas to name a few. A popular hardscape element is the use of rock as art—whether functional, aesthetic, or both.

The choices can be overwhelming: Decomposed granite or pea gravel? Lava rock or river rock? Sandstone or boulders? Masonry or dry stack? Consulting with a landscape professional can make help narrow the options to the specific purpose and feel of your landscape design.

“Artfully placed rock can be functional and decorative,” explains Christine Wilson, landscape designer and owner of Christine Wilson Landscape and Garden LLC (www.wilsonlandscapers.com). “Dropping boulders randomly in a landscape doesn’t really fit that purpose.”

Rock masonry used artfully for seating or walls can make a garden space more intimate, especially when built into a hillside. Image © Mary Menz.

Wilson stresses paying attention to both the form and function of rock in a landscape and to avoid just plunking big boulders down without a plan. “Rock can function as seating and walls; it doesn’t have to be limited to garden borders, pathways, or ground cover,” she says. Wilson also recommends paying attention to the color of rock as well as the general shape of it.

“A landscaping plan should incorporate color and texture of hardscape as well as plants,” says Wilson. “The plan should also complement your property and the area of the property the plan addresses.”  A Japanese Zen garden, for example, may not be the best choice in the back yard of a home that screams Tudor design elements.

How to Determine Your Style?

Browsing the internet and clipping photos from magazines is a great way to get started. Look specifically at rock options you see around town.

Gabions, or rock-filled wire structures, can be used to flank a driveway, as pillars in a modern fence, or as decorative walls for erosion-control. Image © Mary Menz

  • Are you enamored with the gabions (rock filled wire structures) you see flanking a neighborhood entrance? Take a photo and add it to your idea file.
  • When you see a masterful rock wall on your walk around town, ask the homeowner who crafted it for you.
  • Did you spend an afternoon in a friend’s garden? Ask her who designed it for her.
  • Visit your local botanical garden, such as those in Grand Junction, Montrose, and Durango. They are filled with spectacular examples of rock art.

Many landscape designers offer a free consultation, but the more work you do up front, the more valuable your time spent with a designer will be.

Mary Menz is a Colorado Native Plant Master(R), writer, photographer, and the co-author of Common Wildflowers of the San Juan Mountains.