Rock walls for gardens

Contents

Gardening In Stone Walls – Ideas For Planting Flowers In A Wall

Large stone or rock walls can sometimes dominate or overshadow the home landscape. The commanding presence of so much hard, cold stone can seem obtrusive and out of place. While many homeowners may see just a looming structure, gardeners will see the crevices between the stones as an opportunity for a new planting project. Growing plants in a stone wall can soften and blend the stone into the landscape. Continue reading to learn more about gardening in retaining walls.

Gardening in Stone Walls

Living stone walls are commonly seen throughout Europe. In England, stone walls are considered the bones of the garden and are built with planting nooks for herbs or other plants. Planting flowers in a wall is an easy way to bring life to cold, dead stone and many plants will thrive in the unique microclimates of the wall’s crevices.

Plants growing in these planting nooks will appreciate the moisture and cool soil that stones can provide in the summer months. In the winter, these same crevices will stay warmer and quickly drain excess moisture away from plant roots, preventing rots or fungal diseases.

Most experts would agree that the best way to create a living stone wall is by planting in the crevices as the wall is being built. This method allows you to plan out specific plant pockets in the structure of the wall, place good growing media in the crevices and grow plants with larger root structures. Plants growing in a stone wall generally require a well-draining, sandy loam soil. The gravely soil fill that is oftentimes used in the construction of walls may drain too well, and usually lacks any nutrients to help the plants establish.

After the wall’s first level of stone is laid, rich growing media and plants are placed in the nooks created by the naturally irregular shape of the stones. Then a next level of stone is gently placed over the planting pockets, and the process is repeated until you reach your desired height of the wall.

Unfortunately, it is not always possible to plant in a stone wall as it is being built, but most existing stone walls can still be planted in. Poor soil can be removed from potential planting crevices with a long bladed trowel or garden knife and repacked with good growing media. These designated planting nooks can either be planted with seeds or plants with small root structures. Take care when digging between rocks to not weaken the structure.

Ideas for Planting Flowers in a Wall

When gardening in retaining walls, it is best to avoid plants that develop large, strong root structures that could potentially damage the structure of the wall. The best plants for rock walls are alpine plants, succulents, and plants that are drought resistant. Generally, they can thrive with small root structures and little water or nutrients.

There are many plants that can grow well in the crevices of rock walls, so be sure to weed out any tree seedlings or other volunteers that may settle in between rocks. Below are some excellent plants for gardening in stone walls:

  • Alyssum
  • Artemisia
  • Campanula
  • Candytuft
  • Chamomile
  • Columbine
  • Corydalis
  • Creeping jenny
  • Creeping phlox
  • Creeping thyme
  • Dianthus
  • Hens and chicks
  • Lavender
  • Lemon thyme
  • Lobelia
  • Mints
  • Nepeta catmint
  • Primrose
  • Rockcress
  • Rosemary
  • Soapworts
  • Snapdragons
  • Snow in the summer
  • Stonecrop
  • Thrift
  • Wallflowers

Let’s plant a stone wall.

If only that were as simple as dropping a row of pebbles in the ground, stepping back and waiting a few weeks or months for a wall to appear. But, of course, what I mean is to grow plants in a stone wall.

The nooks and crannies in any unmortared stone wall cry out for a bit of decoration. So much so that, without any helping hand, plants — too often weeds — frequently insinuate themselves into such walls here and there.

Stone walls do a great job of defining the landscape with their mass and lines; plants soften and decorate these walls.

Climate change

Nooks and crannies in a stone wall can have microclimates quite different from the rest of your yard. For one thing, the soil in the wall usually drains off water extremely well. And temperatures are a bit different, the stone itself shading plant roots but absorbing and retaining heat to modulate temperature swings in the air nearby.

Microclimates vary, depending on a wall’s exposure. North and east walls stay cool even in summer, while south and west walls bake.

Walls are a great background

The hard part is building a wall; the easy part is finding plants for it.

The best plants for walls are those that enjoy dryish soils.

As far as looks, the best wall plants are those with relatively small leaves and flowers. And if the plants trail or drape, so much the better; foliage and flowers can drip like water from planted crevices.

The neutral grays and browns of stones provide ideal backdrops for setting off any color flower. A list of wall plants might include lavender, sea pink, lavender-flowered aubrieta, pink or white maiden pink, and purple flowered thyme.

A couple of natives that should do as well in built walls as they do in natural rock crevices are Dutchman’s breeches and wild columbine. Both are dainty plants with flowers that call for the close, individual attention they’ll get poking from a wall.

With some plants, it is their leaves, rather than their flowers, that earn them a backdrop of stone. An obvious choice here is hens-and-chicks; its fat whorls of succulent leaves multiply to tightly pack any cranny into which it is planted. Rock cress not only has downy leaves, but is covered with fragrant white flowers in early summer.

Wall control

Some plants that self-seed too aggressively “on the flat” are kept suitably in tow on a wall.

Chamomile — although lovely with its ferny, lime green foliage and cheery white daisy flowers — is one such plant, as is forget-me-not, an especially fecund annual. Snow-in-summer is a perennial that does not self-seed, but quickly blankets the ground with its creeping stems, which lope down from nook to nook in a stone wall.

Walls pretty much take care of the plants they house, but the plants do need occasional tidying. Most of the plants mentioned look better if they’re cut back after a flush of flowers. This cutting not only keeps them more compact, but sometimes encourages another flush of blossoms.

Another point of maintenance is the base of the wall. Sure, you could weed-whip the grass that presses up against the stones, but you can avoid this by planting the base of the wall, too. How about a thick stand of day lilies or oriental poppies there?

Rock and Boulder Retaining Walls

Discover how dry stacked stone walls are built

People have been building dry stone walls for centuries. Take a visit to Ireland and you’ll see walls that appear to defy gravity winding amongst the green hillsides. Similar walls can also be seen in older parts of the U.S. Today, you can create a similar look in your own landscape with dry walling techniques. You can opt for a wall made of many small stones or a wall made of large boulders.

These walls appear to be dry stacked, but really have a block support structure. Elaine M. Johnson Landscape Design in Centerville, MA.

Dry Stone Retaining Walls

In New England, dry stone walls of colonial times are still existent in the countryside while their mortared counterparts disintegrated long ago. This age old form of construction, brought with the colonists from England is more than just a building trade, it is an art known as “dry walling”. What makes it so difficult is the way stones are laid ensures the core remains dry in all weather. Water accumulating in the interior of any dry stone wall will destroy its integrity, particularly in cold climates with severe freeze-thaw cycles.

In the regions where it was first established, dry stone work remains a viable part of landscapes where the regional design vernacular has kept dry walling alive. The degree of difficulty drives the cost of such stonework much higher than any other form of masonry.

Marco Romani, Landscape Architect of Glencoe, IL believes the best way to obtain this look without the demand for a highly skilled drywaller is to use dry stacking. This technique utilizes a traditional concrete block core. “One end of the dry stone is stacked against the core where the mason mortars it in place, while the other half of the stone on the front of the wall is free and clear of any sign of mortar. This not only creates a believable effect, the block can be waterproofed on the back side so that moisture will not penetrate through to the dry stone mortar.”

On this property boulders were used to terrace the yard into two levels. Copper Creek Landscaping in Mead, WA.

Dry Boulder Walls

Another method of using natural dry stone as retaining walls results in the use of boulders to hold back ground. This kind of wall depends on the very weight of the boulder itself for stability. However, this method should not be considered as solid as a more traditional retaining wall.

One reason for this kind of wall is to raise planting areas above grade due to high water table or dense, poorly draining clay, hard pan and bedrock. The boulder allows for a natural barrier to hold back imported topsoil. This elevation ensures the root crown and much of the root zone itself is adequately drained for the average landscape plant to survive. For customers who are keen on using native plants, particularly those that originate in mountainous regions of the west, fast drainage is essential. They may even choose this method to elevate planting even though reasonably well drained soils exist on site. Natives thrive in the nooks and crannies created behind and in between the boulders which create a setting that is similar to their habitat of origin.

Large boulders must be hand selected and heavy equipment is essential to setting them just so to exploit the natural beauty of each one. Your contractor may visit the stone yard and hand pick the boulders, particularly where lichen and moss encrustations are desirable for the project. Be aware that if boulders are not locally available, transportation costs can be considerable due to size and weight.

The weakness of this solution is that these boulders function much as they would in nature. It can be difficult to control water flow in and around such barriers because there are gaps where the stones meet unless mortared into place. These allow water and sediment to flow through and may deposit beyond the face of the wall during periods of heavy or rapid runoff. But when beautifully planted, there is no more natural solution to a slight grade change in a landscape.

Inspirational Natural rock wall landscaping ideas or how to create a functional retaining wall?

Mortared stone wall

How to build rock walls landscaping? If you need the rockery wall that will be really strong and will withstand the weight of the soil leaning on it, the mortared wall is a preferable choice.

Let’s build it step by step!

  1. Make sure you have a clear plan of the layout of the wall, it’s height and width. You should lay the contour of the wall with the rope or landscape marker to have it visualized. Important! You need to know what size of the wall you are allowed to build in your area without special engineer approval.
  2. Now the hard work – you need to dig the trench. It should be around 6 inches deep.

    For the width, add 6 inches to the desired width of the wall. Don’t throw the soil you dig out far away – you going to need it later (find out effective ways of killing unnecessary grass).

  3. One of extremely important things that you should know whilst building rock walls for landscaping is proper drainage. If it’s not done – the water will destroy your wall or damage it much sooner, then you might think.

    To avoid this – add a layer of fill gravel in your trench, as a base for the wall. The gravel layer should be about 3-4 inches of depth and then it has to be tamped very good, so in the end it shouldn’t take more than 2 inches of your trench depth.

  4. Now you put your first row of stones, make sure they touch side by side and leveled properly with the torpedo level. Check both side-to side and front to back levels.
  5. Not all the stones will be perfect shape to level them with the others. If your stones are quite odd, you will need to rent a wet saw for cutting them (learn how to clean rocks properly? ).
  6. Now you can add to the drainage. Add gravel to the back of the first course of stones in the trench (there should be left 4 inches of width for this), tamp it slightly.

    Place the PVC drainpipe on top, with the draining holes facing down. Cover the pipe with some more gravel. Now cover the gravel with the GEO textile fabric, that will serve as erosion barrier.

  7. You have to line the whole back of landscape rock wall with the fabric. The best way is to fold it onto the dirt, with each new row of stones.
  8. Now you prepare the mortar and evenly spread it onto the base level of stones. Add the next round and don’t forget to tap them slightly, so they sit in mortar properly.

    Use the edge of trowel to clean excessive mortar from the face of the wall. Build the wall of the needed heights.

Basically that’s it. You’ve made a solid wall, that will hold the soil in place. One problem – it might be not too beautiful. But this can be solved by adding some landscaping – flowers or creeping plants will help you.

Learn more information about rock types for landscaping: for pool, crushed rock, small, large and flat rocks, pebble rocks, white marble, granite, slate stones, glass landscaping rocks, lava rock and it’s pros and cons. Also fake and river rock.

Dry-stack wall

Now, if you want the wall to be a decoration itself, you can try to build a dry-stack wall instead. That’s how you do rockery wall design:

  1. Same way as with any other wall, first, you need to make a project, set a layout and purchase the materials. There’re three usual type of stones you will use for this wall: round field stones, stacking stones (that are more flat) or cut dressed stones.
  2. Place the strings or mark any other way the place for the future wall, make sure you don’t plan a dry-stack wall to be higher than 8 inches, otherwise the stability will be compromised.
  3. Dig the trench for the stone base 8-12 inches deep. You can add gravel, for better drainage, but make sure it’s tamped good and leveled evenly.
  4. Put the biggest rocks in the trench, slant them back about 8 degrees. They should be touching side to side and be supported from the back by the soil behind. Tap the rocks with the rubber hammer firmly (learn how to move large rocks for landscaping).
  5. Fill the space between the big rocks with the small stones, make sure they fill the voids properly. Lay out the other layers of the rocks. Advice! Place the rocks one over two and two over one, like you would in the brick wall, this will give your wall more strength.
  6. Make the top of the wall straighter by placing cap stones, they can help the wall holding together and will keep the water away.

When done properly, the dry-stack rockery walls can easily stay on their places for fifty years or more, so absence of mortar is not always a weakness. But if you’re afraid you cannot lay the rocks good enough, you can cheat and add a bit of mortar in the core of the wall.

Just make sure it’s not visible from the walls face. Also we want to mention that this project is one of the rockery retaining wall designs since it helps to keep soil in place as well.

Gallery

There are much more other creative rock wall landscaping ideas and some of them you can see on the pictures below:

Here you can find more design ideas of rock landscaping:

  • waterfall and other water features, rock bed;
  • how to create hill, edging, border, compositions around trees with rocks;
  • Japanese, Alpine and Creek rock landscaping;
  • pond rockery, ideas for small gardens and desert landscaping;
  • charming ideas for your backyard or front yard.

Video tutorial

This short video is about how to make natural rock walls landscaping:

More design ideas for your yard

Conclusion

As you can see there is a strong connection between rock and wall landscaping, since wall could be not only the decorative element but also a helper. Landscaping with rock walls is exciting experience that does not have any borders, all you need is fantasy and imagination. Good luck!

How to Build a Stone Wall

Q: “I’d like to build a fieldstone wall. What’s the best way to do it?”

—Norma Laren, Blackstone, Mass.

Roger Cook replies: Freestanding stone walls are a handsome way to define and improve your property. Building them is backbreaking work, but if done correctly, the wall will last a lifetime, if not a lot longer.

I like to set stones in mortar because you can’t beat a mortared wall for strength, which is important if a wall serves as seating or holds back earth. To preserve a dry-laid look, I set the stones in a mortar that’s pigmented a dark gray and then rake the joints clean.

Freestanding mortared walls, like the fieldstone one I’m building here, need a stable, frost-proof footing to prevent shifting, and that requires a lot of digging in cold climates.

Ask a stone yard to help determine how much material you’ll need, and have it delivered as close to the site as possible. Once built, you’ll have a rock-solid wall without all the heavy mortar lines.

Step 1

Prepare The Footing

Photo by Russell Kaye

How to build a stone wall: Dig a trench that’s below the frost line and 2 feet wider than the wall. Line it with landscape fabric overlapped 12 inches at the seams, add a 6-inch layer of ¾-inch stone, and tamp it with a plate compactor. Add and tamp more layers until the footing is about 8 inches below grade. About a foot beyond each end of a straight wall section, drive two stakes, separated by a distance equal to the width of the wall.

Step 2

Lay The Base Course

Photo by Russell Kaye

Connect the stakes with a mason’s line set just above grade. Place the first stone at a corner with its face grazing the line. Position the next stone against the first, face to the line, and so on until the first course is laid. Repeat on the opposite side. Fill between the two rows with smaller stones, set flush with the tops of the face stones. Top this course with a bed of mortar.

Step 3

Build Up The Wall

Photo by Russell Kaye

Reposition the line higher up the stakes and start the second course from a corner. Dry-fit each stone first to see that the vertical joints are staggered and the outside faces just touch the line. Remove the stone, spread a trowelful of mortar on the wall, and tamp the stone into it with a mallet. The face stones’ visible edges should rest only on stone, not mortar, so scrape away any mortar that squeezes out.

Step 4

Mark The Stones to Cut

Photo by Russell Kaye

Eventually, you’ll have to cut a stone to make it fit. Use a wax pencil to mark the sections of the stone you want to remove. (For this wall, the goal is to keep the joints tight, less than 1 ½ inches wide.) To make cuts, you’ll need a 3-inch carbide chisel, a 3-pound hand sledge, and safety glasses.

Step 5

Cut The Stone

Photo by Russell Kaye

Place the marked stone on the ground, waste-side down. Set the chisel’s carbide tip on the wax-pencil line, and aim it slightly downward. Strike the chisel once, then reposition it so that the blade is half on the score you just made and half on fresh stone. Strike it again and repeat until the waste pops off.

Step 6

Tool The Joints

Photo by Russell Kaye

Trowel the joints between the capstones with a brick jointer, making them slightly concave to channel away water. On hot, dry, or windy days, mist the wall with water as you work so that the mortar cures slowly and completely. Finish by applying a wedge of concrete along the base course, front and back, to keep the wall from shifting. Use a brick trowel to make each wedge 6 inches high and 12 inches wide. Hide them with backfill.

How to Build a Dry Stone Wall

So a little decorative wall only 3 feet high, two feet wide, and 20 feet long weighs some 5 tons or more (depending on the amount of air space built in) and comprises a thousand or more average-size stones. If you have to fetch stones from somewhere, there is the loading and unloading in addition to the building to consider. That little 20-foot wall can have a man lifting well over 20 tons of dead weight before it is finished.

(If you’re old enough to remember listening to Fibber McGee and Molly or Your Hit Parade—before television—I strongly suggest you get your physician’s okay before taking on a stone wall, especially if you’re a desk worker and unused to strenuous labor.)

In any event, plan to take your time and use carts, ramps, barrows, and levers to move larger stones. There’s little point in hurrying to complete a wall that will likely endure into the next millennium. And no point at all in busting a gusset doing it. There’s a right and a wrong way to lift. Just keep your back straight and the stones close to your body. Lift with your legs and arms, not with your back — at least not if yours is as easily sprung as mine.

Picking Your Stone

Building stone walls begins with the first step: finding stone. Most everything I’ve read about building with stone assumes you have a sufficient supply of “good,” easy-to-build-with stones with three or four flat sides. And they suggest that if you don’t have enough good stone lying around your property, you can buy or quarry it or dress your rounded stones flat.

Quarrying by hand and dressing stone is devilishly hard work, and paying to have rock trucked any distance is expensive. Certainly, good stones are easier to build with and make a classier-looking wall. But if some or all of the stones you have are in the “not-so-good” category, go ahead and plan to use them anyway. We’ll discuss using both kinds for wall construction.

Probably the best wall stones come from hard shales and schists — rock types that developed flat cleavage planes during metamorphism that split out into layers with flat tops and bottoms. Many will break naturally into stones with flat sides as well. Others may not come with good flat faces, but can be dressed quite easily. I’ve worked with some metamorphic stone that split almost as easily as a block of wood.

Hardest to build with are igneous stones found in fields or running water. Glacial action or gradual erosion in a stream will round even these very dense and hard rocks. Though nearly all rock has a “grain,” or a tendency to split along a fairly flat place, finding the grain in granite and the like is difficult, and splitting faces off small rocks takes more time and effort than it is worth.

Sedimentary rock formations, having been laid down in sheets, tend to occur in layers — properly called strata. Most are relatively soft, and easily split or cut by nature or a quarrier into good building stone. But they also wear faster than other kinds of rock. Windborne particles will wear down sandstone in time, and limestone gradually gets eaten away by the natural acids in rainwater. A sandstone or limestone wall might not hold up for more than 10 or 12 thousand years!

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Besides its good breaking tendencies, metamorphic rock is usually durable — even though it is often soft and easily worked. Marble is the traditional medium of sculptors, and much ancient Greek and Egyptian marble sculpture has withstood wind and rain for thousands of years. Another metamorphic rock, slate, was used for gravestones by the earliest settlers in America. Go to an old Colonial graveyard; you’ll note that it is the slate stones whose inscriptions are still sharp and clear. Markers made from igneous rock have nearly worn flat.

Sources of Stone

Lacking a supply of stones on your own place and not wanting to buy them, you can look several places. Perhaps another landowner will let you haul off rocks from his walls or abandoned stone buildings. Rock ramps, cellars, and foundations left after an old house or barn has burned down provide one of the best “good” stone sources you can find. Often these old cellar holes are dangerous or an eyesore, and owners are glad to have part of the demolition or fill-in job done for free.

Construction sites often provide excellent flat-sided rock picking, especially where new highways are dynamited through hilly country. Some streams, rivers, lakes, and seashores are good sources for frost-split or water-rounded stones. And you’ll find that stones only weigh half as much moved under water.

If there are a good many old stone buildings or foundations in your area, you may find abandoned quarries or gravel pits scattered throughout the countryside that were dug by the original stone builders. Ask around, or consult a U.S. Geological Survey topographical map. Abandoned and active quarries and gravel pits are shown on these detailed maps.

Equipment for Building With Stone

I’ve found one of the handiest pieces of wall-building equipment — better than a wheelbarrow — to be one of those high-wheeled, box-shaped garden carts. You can tie one up on its square end and just roll the stones in. (Don’t overload it, as I once did, and have a wheel collapse on you.) Used sensibly, the carts save much lifting, and you can run larger stones up planks to the wall top with one.

Other tools include a yardstick, a hank of stout cord, several stakes a foot or so longer than the wall height, a line level to go on the cord, a mason’s level, and perhaps a long and true board to tie to, plus a good digging spade.

To move larger rocks around, you’ll need a long (5 feet or more) steel crowbar and a smaller crowbar, or pinch bar, that has one curved end. Another device is the hoe/pic. This tool is 26 inches long, weighs about 4 pounds, and is somewhat expensive (about $17). However, it has many uses-pick, wedge, pry bar, and hoe. Its versatility goes beyond stone-wall building and has a decided advantage over conventional pry bars when you’re digging large boulders that are embedded in the ground. You’ll also need a collection of thick planks and short lengths of 1 ½ or 2-inch iron pipe to serve as rollers if you are working with really big stones.

If you plan to do any trimming or dressing of stones, get a pair of safety goggles. Rock can splinter into razor-sharp fragments, and even a dull chunk in an eye can mean trouble. Be sure the goggles are well ventilated so they won’t fog up on you during a hot day’s work.

For trimming and dressing you should have a set of mason’s or geologist’s hammers and chisels. These come in a variety of widths and shapes, and are used mainly for scoring and splitting both brick and stone. A relatively new tool available to stone builders is the rockhound’s gad-pry bar (about $7). Used with a heavy crack hammer, this 18-inch tool easily open seams and crevices in stone. It has two hammering faces that pen-nit you to drive the bar down into a seam and then drive it to the side to force the crack or seam apart.

Hammers come in two types. The first has a head with a flat side and a wedgeshaped side — this is the traditional stonemason’s hammer. The other, a Bush hammer, has a flat, toothed head for really getting a purchase on a piece of rock. You can also get a lightweight mason’s hammer shaped like a geologist’s pick. It is for more delicate work and has a small pounding face and a long, thin chipping blade on the other side.

Laying Out the Wall

To get the essentials down pat, let’s build a section of a basic 3-by-2-foot wall (it doesn’t matter what kind of stone we use as the principles of wall building are pretty much the same). If the wall is to run along your property line, be sure that the whole thing is within your boundaries, unless your neighbor is eager to share in the cost, construction, and upkeep of a shared wall.

In the old days, New England farmers would patrol shared stone fences every spring, each replacing the smaller winter-dislodged stones on his own side, and joining forces on the big ones.

As the crochety Yankee farmer in Robert Frost’s Mending Wall puts it, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Don’t know as I agree with the sentiment (Frost didn’t). I’d say: Don’t build a shared fence astride your property line unless you are already good neighbors and plan to remain so for the next several generations.

First, lay out an outline the full length and width of the wall with cord looped to short sticks. For a curved wall you may want to lay out a thick rope or garden hose to describe a fair curve.

If you can’t avoid them, grub out any trees, stumps, or underbrush in the wall’s area. Remember: That little maple sapling a few feet from the wall is going to grow. In time its roots will heave the rock, and the trunk may expand and push the wall aside. Cut it down.

A low wall can be built right on the ground. In a few years the lowest stones will sink into the sod a bit and no one will know the difference. It is better stonemasonary, though, and will make for a sturdier wall, if you dig out sod and topsoil so the footing — the lower courses or layers of rock — rests on the underlying subsoil or hardpan.

In most places where you find plenty of native rock, the topsoil layer will be shallow (a foot or less deep), and removing it will be a minor chore, likely turning up an additional supply of rocks in the bargain. In some valley and lowland areas with deep, loamy topsoil a stone wall set just on the surface would gradually sink out of sight. But then, I don’t think an honest stone wall would be comfortable in the flatlands.

Footing trench or no, the next step is to lay out your batter boards — stout stakes hammered in to mark the four end comers of the wall. Put the stakes in good and deep and use your mason’s level to make them plumb — straight up in all dimensions. Make sure the tops of the stakes are several inches higher than the planned wall.

Next, tie your cord to the four stakes at wall-top height and stretch the cord as tight as you can. Every 6 to 10 feet, on both sides of the wall, hammer in more stakes. Make sure they are outside the wall area so string touches the inner-facing sides of each stake. You may tie or staple line to the stakes if building up or down grade or if the wind is bellying the upwind line on you. (A good many wall builders, this writer included, have neglected to use the auxiliary stakes only to find that their supposedly straight wall ended up with a slight curve due to a prevailing wind blowing the guidelines.)

Now, attach the line level to the cord and adjust until all four sides and both ends are level. This will define the approximate plane of the top of your wall. For the most pleasing appearance, sturdiest construction, and most satisfaction from the work, the wall top should be flat and level from side to side, either following the lay of the land in the long dimension or remaining horizontal, following the grade in carefully graduated steps.

On a grade or flat, courses should be about the same thickness, each course running horizontally — parallel to the level. Sides of the wall should be vertical, or in higher walls they should have a slight inward slope (a slight batter) on each side. Ends and comers should be square and vertical.

This isn’t feasible 100 percent of the time with stone, but try to keep all dimensions as plumb and square as you can. You’ll probably be looking at that wall for the rest of your life. Come fire, bail, or high water, it may be the one thing standing for your great-grandkids to remember you by.

Remember that gravity pulls straight down: Unless the wall rests on a flat, horizontal, and level plane (or sections rest on a succession of flat steps on hilly ground), gravity will slowly pull your wall downhill. So either level out the ground or dig footings with bottoms having a plane parallel to the guideline.

A lot of people will tell you to put your biggest, flattest-shaped stones at the bottom of the footing — then later on tell you to save them for the topping course. Having worked mainly with odd-shaped stones the glaciers left in our cornfields, I pick the absolute worst stones for the bottom, the ones with not a single flat surface or with oddshaped protuberances. I find the least unreasonable side, then bury the stone in whatever shape hole is needed to get the best side exposed at the depth I want the bottom of the first course to run.

The objective in all this is to give the wall a good, level base to rest on. Even if you must dig a series of notches in a hillside, your wall will be the better for it. In all below-grade work, keep stones several inches apart, filling the open space with smaller rocks. This will permit water to drain through easily.

The footing course or courses should be laid to be a bit lower in the center-higher out at the edges. This slight “V” angle is often maintained throughout construction. Thus the outer walls of the structure lean in against themselves. Gravity helps keep the wall standing by pulling rocks down as well as “in” toward the wall’s center.

Aboveground Building

With the footing laid to ground level, lower the guidelines to what will be the top of the first aboveground course. This should be the average height of the thickest, heaviest rocks you have. No point in lifting them any higher than necessary.

Do try to save the flattest rock with the most uniform thickness for the top. The bigger the better, though don’t save any stones, no matter how flat they are, so large you can’t handle them easily at the top.

Now begin layering the wall. Keep the best flat face of the narrow dimensions of each stone facing out when possible. Be sure each stone is bedded solidly on the stones below it. If a stone wobbles, it is better to chip off a wobble knob or dig out a hole or make a joint in the rock below than try to shim it up with smaller rocks and wedges. If you do use smaller rocks to get the wobble out of a big stone, be sure they are wedged in tight and held in place by other large rocks.

Keep the guidelines level, and continually sight along the side of the course, adjusting rock placement with level and yardstick to make sure all remain square.

To be sure the sides are as vertical as possible, or that they slope inward at the desired angle, hang a small pebble from a length of string. Put a bent wire on the other end and hang it from the guide line. Run the plumb bob along as you lay up wall. Keep moving the guidelines up as you finish each course.

With a small wall only a couple of feet wide and with reasonable luck in getting good stones, your courses will seldom be more than two stones wide, and many of the bigger stones will reach all the way across.

Don’t use any small stones in the outer faces; they’ll be the most likely to work loose in time. Put the little stuff in the interior to fill gaps between the larger stones.

Often you’ll find a good-fitting stone that is too big; one end or corner sticks out. Take your wide chisel, score all around the chunk you want to remove — score one-half to one-eighth inch deep all the way around if you can. Then knock off the extra. You may have to get some heavyduty equipment such as a heavy sledge. If the steel strikes cause sparks, then you probably have an igneous rock and should find another place for it to fit.

With good, longish, relatively flat stones, you should never have a vertical fissure in the wall that extends up from course to course. In other words, each rock should rest on at least two others in the course below, and joints between stones should not extend from course to course. Too many such adjacent joints are called a “run” and greatly decrease your wall’s stability.

You may not see it move, but any dry-laid (mortarless) wall is in continuous motion during settling, as soil is moved around underneath by flowing water and, in the North, by the freezing and thawing of the earth.

With too much run, these stresses will concentrate at the weakest point, where a joint extends through two or more courses. In effect, the wall will try to fold there, and in time will fall.

Another topic of dispute is chinking: Do you chink in or out? That is, when rock surfaces don’t mate well or where there is a substantial gap in a face, do you fill these holes with shim rocks laid big-end inside the wall (chinked “out”)? Or do you hammer in a wedge-shaped shim from the outside (chinked “in”)? I do it both ways.

Gophers, squirrels, woodchucks, and all manner of other wildlife find a stone wall a natural-grown homesite. The wiggling of a litter of rabbits can dislodge a stone that is too small or poorly set. So can a dog dig ging for a chipmunk, or the steps of youngsters, or hunters walking the top of the wall.

From time to time — every 6 to 8 feet if you can — place a long stone with its longest axis aiming into, rather than along, the wall. Alternate sides when “tying” the wall, as this is called. The tie stones keep the wall from merely being two unattached outer layers; the tie stones literally tie one face to the other.

Ends and Corners

Save the best rocks, those most nearly rectangular and of even thickness, for ends and comers. A wall end must stand on its own, and for appearance’s sake the end stones should have at least one good square corner — or those at the outside edges should. The top stones should be the biggest you can handle. I like to keep the longest rocks for ends, so they can extend as far back into the wall as possible. It is also a good idea to have ends particularly well-tied crosswise.

Corners are more complicated still. First, you want to tie your comer into both lengths of wall — which is to say that in each course it is well to have an extra-long rock extending from the comer into both the north/south and the east/west length of wall. If you lack enough long stones to tie into both walls during each course, alternate them — tying first into one, then the other.

From the footing course up, you must take another precaution. Remember that the comer must withstand the expansion and contraction coming from both lengths of wall. A bias toward the lay-up pattern of one length over the other would cause the corner to work loose in time.

So try not to let any edge of any rock line up with any joint in the course below. Or, don’t let the edge of any rock line up with the edge of a rock below — except, of course, on the outer and inner faces.

In still other terms (this being a bit complicated to explain), put each stone so as to cover as many joints as possible, being sure each covers some north/south joints and some east/west joints.

So now we have a 2-by-3-foot wall with ends and a comer. How about a larger wall? It is more of the same with a few exceptions. First, going much over 3 feet in height, you should increase the base or overall width by some 8 inches for each added foot of height. For example, a 7-foot-high wall needs a 4-feet-8-inch-wide base. For a 10-foot height, the base should be 7 feet wide. Width can remain at the base dimension right to the top or can taper (to a point, if you like).

The higher the wall, the deeper should be your footings. For any wall much over waist high (a major undertaking that presupposes an ample supply of stones), you should go down to below frost level or a depth of 2 feet, whichever is deeper. This is a lot of work lost to the eye forever, but it guarantees a good wall.

Editor’s note: John Vivian’s book Building Stone Walls expands on this subject and discusses how to quarry rock and build stairs, stiles, gates, and retaining walls.

A rock wall is a smart landscaping solution that becomes a unique garden feature. It may help to redirect water from buildings, stop soil erosion, or help with steep elevation changes on a property. Without a doubt, it also becomes a garden showpiece. A rock wall garden has unique planting and care needs from an in-ground garden and yet it also adopts some of the design rules of container gardening. Read about how Patty from Lancaster, PA, created a rock wall that provides color and enjoyment all season long while saving their home from flooding.

This Gorgeous Rock Wall Garden Saved The Day!

Photos and story by Patty from Fun Fam Living

Built from Necessity

We had a landscaping problem: our backyard is on a semi-steep hill and when it rained heavily, the water flow would wash into our basement! So, we asked a landscaper friend for help. He suggested we build a rock wall and install pipes behind it to redirect the flow of water out to the end of the wall. This was far enough away from the house that the water flow gradually watered the lawn, a double bonus!

The rock wall presented us with a new design feature for the landscape and an opportunity for me to do some interesting gardening. Come along on the tour of my rock wall garden.

First, There Was Rock

We found the rocks on Craigslist in a PA town called Brickerville. The man selling the rocks was digging them out of a portion of ground that he wanted to use for a lawn. He just wanted them out of his way and was selling them all for five hundred dollars. It was impossible to find the stone to build a wall the size we wanted so we jumped on it. We did have to pay for an excavator to haul the rock and place the rocks with his equipment. Even so, we ended with two stone walls for less than paying for materials and a mason to build one. We have woodland around us so the natural look of the wall fit in nicely.

Then, There Was Soil

Our soil was disturbed during all the excavating and there wasn’t any good quality of topsoil left after the grass was dug up. Most landscape supply stores will sell you a truckload of topsoil by the yard and will deliver it. We bought our topsoil from our excavator friend. The soil was the product of many years of growing and amending, probably with manure and other fertilizers so it was just right for our project.

Once the soil was in, it was time for planting.

Hot Rocks!

All the plants I used along the rock wall grow best with full sun. Rocks will radiate extra heat when the sun is hot. Tender plants are not the best for rock walls, even if they do well in other parts of your garden. Look for plants that can handle heat and excellent drainage, as the soil will be warmer and drier than you are used to.

I’m a big fan of mulch! Mulching around the plants will help hold the moisture in longer between rain and watering and it can give the spaces a finished look as the plants grow in.

How to Plant a Wall

Water the soil in the rock wall spaces well and transplant healthy nursery plants in. Slip the plant out of the container and gently loosen the roots. Place the plant in a hole so the top of the dirt and the base of the plant will be even.

Thrill, Fill, and Spill

As with a container garden, a rock wall garden looks best when planted with thrillers, fillers, and spillovers. I use a lot of perennials that bloom most of the summer as my thrillers. My fillers are fuller perennials and annuals in different shades of green, varying sizes of blooms, leaves, and textures. My spillers are dependable hanging basket plants like sweet potato vine and petunias.

Here are some of the plants that have thrived in my rock wall:

  • Sweet Potato Vine, Ipomoea batatas ‘Black Heart’ and ‘Sweet Georgia’
  • Petunia ‘Tickled Pink’
  • Supertunia ‘Black Cherry’
  • Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’
  • Purslane ‘Mojave Pink’
  • Verbena hybrid called Superbena ‘Coral Red’
  • Salvia ‘Hummingbird’
  • Salvia ‘Sensation Rose’
  • Stonecrop, Sedum rupestre (reflexum) ‘Angelina’
  • Hens and Chicks, Sempervivum ‘Ruby Heart’
  • Sedum Sexangular

A rock wall garden is a fulfilling and exciting garden to work with. If you have the opportunity to create one in your space, you will not be disappointed!

About the Author

Patty is a Wife, Mother of 4 adult children, and Nanna to 4 Grandchildren. She loves to be creative in the garden, home, or with anything that could be made useful again. She writes and hopes to inspire people who’ve struggled through trauma or bad times by sharing her story, in her book and on her blog, Fun Fam Living.

More Posts You Might Like:

  • Edible Edges: Landscaping that’s Good Enough to Eat!
  • A Beautiful Way to Catch Runoff: How to Build a Dry Stream
  • Visionary Landscapes: Finding Balance in the Gardens of Hoichi Kurisu
  • Walking the High Line
  • Landscaping for Drought: Inspiring Gardens that Save Water

Rock Wall and Walkway Gardening: Trailing Plants

Credit: Carolyn Jones/David Jones

Fill those spaces in your dry-stack rock wall with some hardy creepers, or tuck them between stepping stones to create a whimsical walkway

For me, one of the joys of working in a garden centre was sharing beginning gardeners’ delight at discovering “new” plants—even the most common. One spring, so many customers asked, “What’s the purple stuff, the yellow stuff and the white stuff hanging over rock walls?” that we made a poster with the query and the threesome. As early as March in mild years, purple aubrietia (Aubrieta), yellow alyssum (Aurinia saxatilis) and white candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) burst forth with other spring flowers, announcing another gardening season. Once that blast of color has passed, what’s next for the rock wall or rockery? Here are some suggestions.

Thymus lanuginosus
Lysimachia nummularia
Phlox Subulata
Euphorbia myrsinites
Arabis caucasica
Stachys byzantina
Saponaria ocymoides
Thymus serpyllum ‘Mother of Thyme’
Sax. umbrosa ‘variegata’

The many hybrids and cultivars that fall under the general umbrella of creeping thyme (Thymus) add “foot interest,” as my friend and garden designer Claire Bennett calls it. Planted at the edge of a path, thymes tickle your toes as you go on your way, releasing a Mediterranean aroma. Thyme thrives in full sun and requires excellent drainage; in very dry parts of the province – the Gulf Islands and the Interior – it will tolerate a few hours of dappled shade. My favourites include woolly thyme (usually called T. lanuginosus but correctly called T. pseudolanuginosus), with its hairy leaves that give a greyish cast to the plant, and the lemon-scented thymes, such as T. x citriodorus ‘Bertram Anderson.’ Nomenclature on these little gems is confused, but if you like the look (and aroma!) of a plant, don’t worry about the name – give it a try. Common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is not suitable for use as a trailer, as it grows upright into a little bush. It is the best one for cooking, though, so worth a spot in the garden. Rock soapwort (Saponaria ocymoides) is a delightful creeper native to the mountains of Europe. It produces pink flowers (a white selection is also available) in early summer, covering a low mat of hairy, bright-green leaves. The flowers are held open flat above a long, narrow calyx – a pleasing arrangement known as “salverform”: platter shaped. Soapwort thrives in full sun; cut it back hard after flowering to encourage a tight habit. Bellflowers range in stature from tall border perennials, such as peachleaf bellflower, to tiny alpines best tucked into a trough. Among those suited to trailing over walls or spilling onto paths is Dalmatian bellflower (Campanula portenschlagiana), which has open, bell-shaped flowers of deep purple that appear from mid- to late summer. Its toothed, heart-shaped leaves are evergreen. It grows to about 15 cm (6 in.) tall and prefers well-drained soil in full sun or part shade. An entirely different look is provided by myrtle spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites). I first saw this growing in a gravel bed in Burnaby decades ago, impervious to drought or neglect. Gardeners east of the Coast Mountains should not grow this evergreen perennial as it has been known to invade wild lands; west of the mountains, where the weather is wetter, it doesn’t misbehave. Creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) is an amazingly adaptable plant. I’ve seen it growing in a pond in North Vancouver and it grew in full sun in a dry spot at VanDusen Botanical Garden. It’s very flat so doesn’t add much textural interest to the garden – best to use it peeking out from low shrubs or perennials, creeping onto a path or trailing from a container or over a wall. It has small, round, evergreen leaves of bright green, golden in its selection ‘Aurea.’ Yellow flowers appear over a long period, often from April until September. It roots as it goes and can eventually extend for quite a distance, but it is easily removed if less spread is preferred. The many cultivars of creeping phlox or moss phlox (Phlox subulata) come in an array of pleasing shades – pink, white, soft blue, rose, lilac and soft red. The fine foliage of fuzzy, vivid green earns it the “moss” common name. Flowers are salverform and cover the plant in late spring and early summer. This eastern North American native thrives in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun on the coast, but in protection from hot afternoon sun in warmer parts of the province. Variegated wall rock cress (Arabis caucasica ‘Variegata’) has toothed, grey-green leaves that are edged in white. The foliage is evergreen, but may look untidy after a wet winter. Fragrant white flowers appear in late spring. The striking feature of woolly lamb’s ears is just that: its wool! Stachys byzantina (formerly S. lanata or S. olympica) spreads gradually and produces fuzzy white stems and large, fuzzy leaves as well. Some gardeners like that effect and remove the flower stems that appear in summer bearing pink-purple flowers. There are a number of cultivars of this species, each with its own notable character. Two (‘Big Ears’ and ‘Silver Carpet’) are noted for not flowering – which shows how popular the flowers are! Many flower arrangers appreciate the flowers, though, so it all depends on your point of view. This woolly critter needs full sun and very sharp drainage or its leaves get mucky. It looks great tucked among rocks. For a shady spot, slip in some charming variegated London pride (Saxifraga ‘Aureopunctata’). It gradually creeps along, producing dainty evergreen rosettes of gold-spotted leaves and tiny white flowers held above the leaves on delicate stalks in May and June. Give it full or part shade, humus-rich, moist, well-drained soil and not too much competition. With all the choices for trailing plants to edge paths or tumble over rock walls or the edges of containers, your garden will be a delight at toe level throughout the season.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: Arabis caucasica ‘Variegata’ (variegated wall rock cress) – zone 4 • Aubrieta cultivars (aubrietia) – zone 5 • Aurinia saxatilis (alyssum) – zone 4 • Iberis sempervirens (candytuft) – zone 5 • Campanula portenschlagiana (Dalmatian bellflower) – zone 4 • Euphorbia myrsinites (myrtle spurge) – zone 5 • Lysimachia nummularia (creeping jenny) – zone 4 • Phlox subulata (creeping phlox, moss phlox) – zone 3 • Saponaria ocymoides (rock soapwort) – zone 4 • Saxifraga ‘Aureopunctata’ (gold-spotted London pride) – zone 5 • Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ears) – zone 4 • Thymus pseudolanuginosus (sometimes sold as T. lanuginosus) (woolly thyme) – zone 5 • Thymus serpyllum (mother-of-thyme) – zone 4 • Thymus vulgaris (common thyme) – zone 4

With more than 30 years experience in horticulture in B.C. – in wholesale, retail and at VanDusen Botanical Garden for a decade – Carolyn Jones brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to GardenWise and www.gardenwiseonline.ca as staff horticulturist.

Brick Raised Garden Beds Overview

Raised bed and garden

The stone wall and flagstone path blend perfectly into a lush garden setting.

Natural stone

The rough, randomly stacked stone softens with time and weathering, growing more attractive as it ages.

If one of your family members loves plants and flowers, why not build this raised bed? It not only allows you to get just the right soil mix for healthy plants but also reduces back strain, because you don’t have to bend over so far to tend it. The natural stone walls also look great and are easy to build.

Plus: Keep weeds out of flower beds with these five clever tips.

In this story, we’ll show you the easiest, most time-efficient way to build a stone planter that will last for decades. We’ll also offer tips for sorting and placing stones so you end up with great-looking stonework. You can use these techniques to build a raised garden bed of any shape and size.

This project doesn’t require any special skills, but it does require a bit of muscle to lift the stones. The only specialty tool you’ll need is a diamond blade (sold at home centers) in your circular saw. Our 4-ft. x 16-ft. planter took two of us about 16 hours to complete.

Don’t know where to start planning your flower beds? Check out options for a free flower bed planner here.

Plan your raised garden bed

Start by marking the planter outline on the ground, using a rope or garden hose. Dry-stacked walls like this are limited to 3 ft. in height or they could tip over. Call to have underground utilities marked in your yard before you dig and before you have materials delivered, in case you have to move your wall location. The North American One-Call Referral System number is 811. Make your garden easy to care for, too, with these low-maintenance flower bed tips.

Once you determine the shape and size of the structure, you can order the materials. Take your dimensions with you to the stone supplier, who can help determine the quantities of stone, pea gravel, landscape fabric and topsoil you’ll need. Order 10 percent extra stone so you have plenty to choose from. You can always use leftovers for borders around gardens.

Next, check out our favorite flower bed edging ideas.

Browse suppliers to find a stone you like (selections are often regional). Costs vary a lot among stone types. We used a stone called weathered Chilton. We needed three tons of the stone, a yard of pea gravel and three yards of topsoil. You can use a different (and less expensive) stone, as long as it’s relatively flat on the top and bottom. The more flat-surfaced and square the stones are, the easier they are to stack. The techniques we show won’t work for rounded fieldstone. You can buy capstone, which is a special stone for the top course, or use the same stone as for the rest of the planter.

When you’re ordering materials, ask about delivery fees and forklift services. It’s worth the extra forklift charge to have the materials placed right next to the work area. Trust me on this. Our driver couldn’t get his forklift to the backyard at our location, so we had to move everything by wheelbarrow (it took more than 50 trips!).

Figure A: Raised Bed Details

Build the wall on a gravel base for stability and drainage, and cover the back with landscape fabric and more gravel before filling in with soil.

Sort stones by size

To make placing stones easier, first arrange them into groups based on similar thicknesses and lengths. As you sort them, set aside nice-looking stones to use as capstones. Keep their thicknesses within a 1/4-in. variation. We set aside 3-1/4-in.- to 3-1/2- in.-thick stones for our capstones.

Spread out the stones on tarps, rather than stacking them, if you have room. It’ll save you from digging through the piles later to find the stones you want.

Dig the trench and add gravel

Photo 1: Dig the trench

Mark the border of the raised bed with a rope. Dig an 8-in.-deep x 10-in.-wide trench next to the rope. Level the bottom and create steps to accommodate sloped areas. Fill the trench with 4 in. of gravel.

Photo 2: Lay the first stones

Set stones on the gravel and check for level. Add or remove gravel to form a level base all along the trench.

Dig a trench alongside your hose or rope, starting at the lowest point. Use a square shovel for crisp edges and keep the trench bottom roughly level. Dig the trench deep enough to hold 4 in. of gravel and still bury at least half the first course of stone. If the yard slopes, gradually “step up” the trench to follow the slope (Photo 1). Make the steps match the thickness of the stones you’ll use for the first course of stone. Toss the soil from the trench into the middle of the planter area for use as backfill later.

Once the entire trench is dug, add 4 in. of pea gravel. As you add the gravel, place a stone over the top every foot or so and check for level (Photo 2). Add or remove gravel (a little at a time) as needed until it’s roughly level. You’ll fine-tune it when you install the first course of stone (called the “base course”).

Lay landscape fabric and the base course

Photo 3: Anchor landscape fabric

Lay landscape fabric over the gravel (Figure A), then place the base course of stones over the fabric. Check the stones for level. Add gravel under low stones and pound down high stones. Butt the outside edges of the stones tightly together.

Photo 4: Start the second course

Add a second course of stones, mixing sizes and staggering the joints from the base course. Keep the joints tight on the exposed side.

Photo 5: Trim stones to fit

Use a 4-lb. hand maul and masonry chisel to knock “burrs” off the stones so they fit more tightly together.

Roll out landscape fabric along the trench, keeping one edge of the fabric in the center of the trench. Temporarily weigh the fabric down with stones to keep it in place.

Next, install your base course of stone over the edge of the landscape fabric and the gravel. Use the less attractive stone for the base because it’ll be hidden by soil and grass. Check every couple of stones for level. Pound down high stones with a rubber mallet, and add gravel under low stones, placing the gravel on top of the fabric (Photo 3).

For good-looking stonework, avoid large gaps between stones on the exposed face of the wall (Photo 4). To get a tight fit, knock off protrusions (called “burrs”) with a masonry chisel (Photo 5). Don’t worry about gaps inside the wall; they won’t be visible.

You’ll have to cut some stones to fit. Mark the stone and, using a diamond blade in a circular saw, make a series of cuts about 1/8 in. deep along your mark, lowering the blade with each pass until you’re one-third of the way through the stone. (To limit dust, have a helper squirt water from a spray bottle on the blade while you cut.) Then flip the stone over and cut from the opposite side. The cuts don’t have to be perfectly aligned. Tap the waste side of the stone with the maul to break it off. Save the leftovers for filler.

Stack stone randomly and backfill gradually

Photo 6: Backset stones

Backset each row about 1/2 in. from the course below. Break up courses with thick “jumper” stones to create a random pattern.

Photo 7: Backfill

Lift up the landscape fabric and backfill inside the planter every couple of courses.

Once the base course is installed, lay the remaining courses, except the capstone. Offset joints between courses to give the walls greater strength and to achieve a more pleasing look. Mix stone height, length and color as you lay the stones. Place exceptionally thick stones (called “jumpers”) where you want to break up a uniform pattern (Photo 6). Backset each course about 1/2 in. inside the previous course so the wall slopes slightly inward.

The toughest part of building the planter is laying the stones in an attractive, yet seemingly random, pattern. We often set a stone in place, then moved it several times to find the best fit. Grab stones from different piles (except the capstone pile) for each course to ensure a mix of lengths and thicknesses. Take your time and don’t hesitate to take a section of wall apart to redo it if it doesn’t look good.

As you complete every couple of courses, pull the landscape fabric tight against the stones and shovel backfill (topsoil) against the walls (Photo 7). Backfill to the top of the last installed row. This helps hold the stones in place.

Level the last course and dry-fit the capstones

Photo 8: Set and mark capstones

Set capstones in place, overhanging the other courses by 2 in. Mark the stones and cut them to create tight joints.

When you’re laying the final course, patiently select and place stones so the top of the entire course is flat and level (the stones should be within 1/4 in. of level with adjacent stones). That way, you can more easily lay your capstone flat and level. Place a straight 10-ft. 2×4 over the last course as you lay the final course to check for level.

Now use a utility knife to trim the landscape fabric, making it cover the last course of stone by about 4 in. (Photo 9). Then install the capstones so they slightly overhang the underlying courses. We made ours overhang 2 in. Leave gaps at least 1/4 in. wide between capstones so you can tuck mortar between them. But avoid gaps more than 3/4 in. wide because they’ll look bad.

To cut them to fit, place the first two capstones on the wall. Use a straightedge to mark roughly parallel lines on both stones so the edges will match (Photo 8). You don’t have to make this cut perfect; mortar will fill the gap between them. After you cut them to size, set them in place.

If two capstones fit nicely along the outside edge but leave a large gap on the inside, fill the gap with a wedge of stone (cut to fit if necessary) rather than cutting off large sections of capstone. If the gap-filling stones aren’t as thick as the capstone, make up the difference by piling more mortar beneath them.

Setting capstone is a time-consuming process, since you have to mark, cut and dry-lay them one at a time. The positions of the capstones will change slightly after cutting, so mark and fit them one at a time all along the wall.

Mortar and tuckpoint the capstones

Photo 9: Mortar the capstones in place

Remove a few capstones at a time and lay a 1/2-in.-thick bed of mortar over the back half of the wall. Fold the fabric over the mortar. Add another 1/2 in. of mortar, then set the capstones in place.

Photo 10: Fill the joints

Pack mortar into the joints on the top and front of the capstones. Brush off crumbs of mortar after they dry.

After dry-laying the capstones, apply mortar to permanently hold them in place. Mix one bag of mortar with water in a wheelbarrow until it’s the consistency of peanut butter, then put some in a 5-gallon bucket. Like any cement-based product, mortar can burn your skin, so wear gloves.

Remove a few capstones from the planter, then apply mortar, both under and over the landscape fabric (Photo 9). Set each capstone back on the wall, pressing it into the mortar. Work in sections of two or three capstones at a time so the mortar doesn’t dry out on the wall. Mortar and set the entire course of capstone.

Then go back and fill the joints with mortar (Photo 10). Scoop the mortar onto one trowel, and use a second trowel to push the mortar into the joints, slightly overfilling them.

Let the mortar dry, then use a whisk broom or a wire brush to brush away any that has splashed onto the stones. If you discover stains later, scrub them away with a diluted mix of muriatic acid.

Allow the mortar to set overnight before topping off the planter with soil and mulch. Then fill it with the flowers of your choice!

Required Tools for this Brick Raised Garden Beds Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Bucket
  • Circular saw
  • Cold chisel
  • Level
  • Rubber mallet
  • Safety glasses
  • Spade
  • Trowel
  • Tuckpointing tool
  • Utility knife
  • Wheelbarrow

You’ll also need a diamond blade for the circular saw, rubber work gloves, a hoe, a pickax, rope, stiff brush, and a 4-lb. hand maul

Required Materials for this How to Build a Flower Bed Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.

  • 2×4 x 10
  • Gravel
  • Landscape fabric
  • Mortar
  • Stone
  • Topsoil

Do you have any plans to work on the landscaping projects around your home? If so, I have a project that can be done in a day or weekend with a little planning ahead. I have gotten so many emails asking about the low fieldstone garden wall around the hydrangeas I posted about a few weeks ago that I felt I needed to create a post about how I built it.

How to Build a Fieldstone Garden Wall

The reason I never posted about how I built the garden walls before is because it is a project I DIY’ed at least 19 years ago. I went to a free workshop at a landscaping supply company. I remember it was on a weeknight so that landscaping contractors could attend. I was the only woman and the only non-contractor in attendance.

I have built six of these fieldstone walls around my house. Two in my front yard and 4 in the backyard. The one in the photo above is in my backyard.

I am no landscaping pro, but have gotten pretty good at building them. All of the walls I built have held up fine until this past winter when the crazy amount of snow and ice we had was too much for the age of the one in the front yard. It was falling into the bed.

The wall needed to be redone, so when I was cleaning out the bed for Spring, I took the wall apart so I could put it together again. It was much easier this time and took about 3 hours.

The reason I could take it apart and rebuild it was that I built the garden wall with fieldstones – no mortar was needed.

When I first built the wall, it took longer since I had to dig a trench and then wheelbarrow the fieldstones from the driveway where they were delivered to the garden bed.

I also have used Flagstones in the landscaping around my house. Flagstones are flat and cut to the same size – usually rectangular. I used them as paving stones to walk on around the pool and grill.

Fieldstones come on pallets. There are flat fieldstone pallets and mixed sized fieldstone pallets.

I have used both, but prefer the look of the flat smooth stones shown above. They are more uniform in size and height which makes them much easier to fit together as you build the wall.

I used Colonial Grey fieldstone, but they also come in a lighter rusty orange color called Laurel Mountain. These are mixed height stones.

When shopping for fieldstones, be picky. Pretend you are a contractor and ask to see what is in the center of the pallet. In every pallet I received, the center was where big and uneven stones were hidden. Some can be broken apart with a hammer and pick axe, but the rest are unusable for building a garden wall.

The hardest part of the project is literally getting the stones from where they are delivered to your home – usually your driveway and getting them to where you want the wall. Once the stones are where you need them, building the wall is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.

How to Build a Fieldstone Garden Wall

supplies needed:

  • Pallet of Fieldstones – the amount will depend on how long and high the wall you want to build will be
  • Shovel
  • Hammer and chisel
  • Optional: Pea gravel and a bubble level

Bring all the stones to the area you are building the wall and spread them out so you can see all the sizes and shapes.

1. Dig a trench around the bed. You want it to be wide enough so two stones will fit side by side and about 4 inches deep. This will make a stable base.

2. Optional: Lay a 1-inch thick layer of pea gravel in trench – smooth it with the back side of a shovel to level. (I have only used pea gravel on one wall I built. I don’t have a photo of this step.)

3. Start to build the wall with the largest stones as the base. The stones have dirt on them because I just dug them up to rebuild the wall.

4. As you build each layer – try to find stones that will fit together. Use a hammer and chisel to create the size you need. I only needed to do this a few times.

5. Complete each layer before adding the next- this will help keep the wall level. If you want to make sure the wall is level, you can use a bubble level to check. I never used one – I just eye-balled it.

6. Use the flattest nicest looking stones for the top. For the ends – you can step-stone them so they end in the grass or you can butt the ends of the stones right against a sidewalk or building.

That’s it. Done! It is really not that hard and since no mortar or special tools are needed – the only cost is for the stones.

From time to time I have noticed a top stone has moved. It is simple to just pick it up and place it right back into place.

Now that the garden wall is done, I just have to wait for the hydrangeas to bloom, in the meantime, I am enjoying the peonies that just started blooming yesterday in my backyard…

…and the pink Verbena planted in a long bed. They will stay in bloom all summer. By the end of the summer they will cover the entire bed. They love full sun and are pretty drought resistant. I found that out one summer when we had a drought. They were the only flowers I had planted that survived. They are my number one bedding flower now 🙂

I have a few more beds to clean up for the summer, then I can just sit back and enjoy my efforts.

What are you up to this weekend? Anything fun or relaxing?

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