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Large stones add design element to gardens

Sarah Herman/Special to the Town Crier
Incorporating natural boulders into a landscape represents mass, durability and stability and can evoke reassuring permanence.

Most of us have gasped in awe and wonder at the phenomenal geological formations of Yosemite, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. Nature’s most breathtaking landscapes, carved by wind and water over millennia, trigger our deepest emotions. We respond to the harmonious balance of rock, plants and water and experience a kind of transcendent beauty.

Of these elements, rock is everlasting. Its mass, durability and stability are timeless and evoke a sense of reassuring permanence. In a man-made landscape, we can create a similar tranquility by incorporating natural boulders into designs.

Well-placed large stones can help achieve a sense of stability in the garden, and act as a foil for the more ephemeral plants. They will outlast every other landscaping element and convey an eternal sensibility, giving the garden metaphysical structure and balance. And, just as using native plants can integrate a garden into the surrounding natural environment, use of local stone can enhance a feeling of greater belonging in the garden’s regional context.

When properly placed, boulders can provide an artful intention in the garden, acting as focal points, framing views and providing textural contrast to companion landscape elements, as well as rhythm and context. They can be manipulated to influence a viewer’s emotional and aesthetic experience of the garden.

Be bolder with boulders

At a recent presentation to the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, Bill Castellon, boulder expert and licensed landscape contractor in the Bay Area, outlined some fundamental considerations when placing large boulders in the landscape.

• Look for rocks that appear to go together. Use all the same types of rocks – don’t mix various types, as it won’t look natural.

• Aim for stability when placing large stones. A rock should look like it’s been there forever and is not going anywhere. Burying the stones helps achieve this effect. They should also be leveled and not leaning into each other. Horizontal rocks create stability.

• When placing the stone, start with the largest focal-point specimens. Use one primary rock, then scale down to smaller-sized stones.

• Rocks should be placed at varied distances from each other and at different heights (use different shapes and sizes of stones). They should not hide each other.

• Group boulders in odd numbers.

• Rocks can be oriented to guide the viewer’s eyes toward certain garden elements. Vertical rocks block views and diagonal angles point the eye toward certain views. Try not to obscure boulders with higher plantings.

As summer approaches during this drought-plagued time in Northern California and we are called on to reduce landscape irrigation, it’s important to note that boulders are by far the most drought-tolerant natural landscape element. Large stones in the garden displace plant material and require virtually no water or maintenance – yet another reason why boulders can increase our sense of tranquility.

Sarah Herman is a landscape designer and member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, where she currently serves on the East Bay Chapter board as associate program coordinator. For more information, call (510) 559-4069 or visit

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