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15yearsagoBy Stephanie Rose

‘If I were to ask the average watershaper to name the most versatile element in any landscape,’ began Stephanie Rose in her January 2004 “Natural Companions” column, ‘he or she would probably reply by talking about water or plants or some other equally prominent component.  If you asked me the same question, however, I’d almost always say rocks.

‘Some of you might be thinking I have a few too many of them rolling around loose in my head, but there’s a good explanation for my response.  First, rocks come in an infinite number of forms, shapes, compositions, colors, textures and sizes.  Second, they can be used to sit on, walk on, retain hillsides or create small mounds.  Third, they add dimension to designs and contribute in countless other ways to the overall aesthetics and beauty of a watershape setting.’  She continued:


‘If I thought about it for a bit, I’m sure I could think of a way in which rocks have been used in every landscape I’ve ever designed.  After all, they work in every style from ultra-contemporary to completely natural cottage gardens, and they do so in many different ways.’


‘One of my clients had a concrete-block wall that was a serious detriment to his landscaping.  It would have been possible in time to mask the wall with vines and larger shrubs, but we decided instead to reface the wall with stone.  In this case, we had no intention of making the stone a focal point, but rather used it as a backdrop to set off the plants we planned to place in front of it.’


‘[M]any landscapes will tend to look quite flat.  Placing a boulder in an expanse of lawn, as part of a border or within a planting area can “lift up” the design and lend it more interest, depth and dimension.  I like to create groupings of boulders, using specimens of varying sizes (but complementary tones).  And when I place them in a lawn or on the edge of a planting bed, I do all I can to set up the stone in such a way that visitors can sit on it – a great way to draw people out into the landscape.’


‘Rocks offer endless possibilities when it comes to texture – and similarly endless options when it comes to achieving the looks we want.  . . .  I like to vary the textures in my landscape according to function and design need, using, for example, semi-smooth stones for stepping pads (for added safety), very smooth stones for contemporary landscapes and rough ones in more natural designs.  The idea, always, is to avoid random choices or placements and to use the stones deliberately to create visual interest and add to the overall appeal of the design.’


‘[B]oulders and smaller rocks can be used to establish and maintain either subtle or significant grade changes.  Rocks used in this way can also play subtler roles.  Recently, for example, I designed a garden from which we removed a hot tub that had been sunk into a space between two patios – one about two feet higher than the other.  I had the contractor fill in the hole with soil and then placed 8- to 12-inch cobbles throughout the space to create level areas while conjuring the appearance of a dry river bed.’


‘There is no easier way to hide a metal pipe, a sprinkler valve or some other unsightly mechanical element in any landscape than with an appropriately placed boulder.  And they work better than plants, because, once placed, the stone will never shrink or die off.  I have even used (forgive me) “fake” rocks to hide electrical conduits and transformers left in the middle of patios from previous installations.’


‘There are many other uses for rocks beyond the few I’ve covered here,’ Stephanie concluded, ‘but the functions listed above represent some of the most common uses and suggest many other ways to go with respect to incorporating them into designs.’

Is your thinking about rocks and boulders in synch with the thoughts Stephanie expressed back in 2004?  Do you have any ideas to add to her quick survey of the possibilities?  Please share your insights by commenting below!


Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine.  She may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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  • To me the primary role of rocks is to evoke geological effects found in nature, and at the same time to serve as the bone structure of the garden. Just as in nature, rocks can be placed to evoke hillside outcroppings, ledges, the source of waterfalls, or the bedrock that causes a stream to turn. Rocks can be few, with most hidden beneath the surface, or clustered in formations suggesting mountains or craggy cliffs.

    from Cleveland, OH, USA