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Bowled Over By Boulders

Phillip Britt | Landscape


Boulders, rocks and artificial stone can add a tremendous sense of power to a landscape.
An interesting grouping of rocks and stones make homes, residential complexes and office parks unique. The use of natural and faux stone has grown sharply in the last decade.

Also known as hardscape, boulders and stone offer a permanence to the landscape not afforded by trees, plants and shrubs (?softscape?), particularly in moderate and cool climates. In many areas, softscape is green only a portion of the year, but hardscape looks the same regardless of the weather. Hardscape offers aesthetic differences as well.

The blending of hardscape and softscape provide the landscape contractor with the ability to make his work stand out above the rest, particularly in areas where there are several similarly designed single-family homes, residential complexes or office parks.

?Boulders, rock or stone add energy to a landscape,? said Hendrikus Schraven, president and owner of Hendrikus Schraven Landscape, Issaquah, Washington. Schraven, who uses stone in much of his work along the Pacific Northwest, is one of the favorite customers of Washington-area quarries. Schraven describes himself as a hands-on owner who personally picks and tags every rock he uses.
It?s a labor of love, according to Schraven. ?One thing I understood very early in life is that nature never does anything wrong. You never say, ?That?s an ugly mountain.? So what I?ve done with the stone is tune into that fact. Rocks are ageless. So stone can be used to create an incredible atmosphere.?

Using boulders in the landscape involves more than dumping a lump of granite on someone?s lawn. It requires careful planning in the design, taking into consideration the kind of rock to be used, the size, the shape, and the color. You also need to factor in whether the boulder or boulders will be used in some way, other than for eye appeal. Will they be used as a bench or seat? Will the boulders be part of a waterfall, or will they be used as a barrier of some kind?

Nearly every region of the country has a characteristic rock type that the suppliers sell. Using your region?s naturally-occurring rock not only will reduce your shipping costs, but the natural rock of your state usually complements the plantings that thrive in your region.

Owner Kevin Burke, of Burke Brothers Landscape Contrac-tors, a high-end residential design/build firm in Glenside, Pennsylvania, says, ?We try to have our landscape designs look as natural as possible. We try not to bring in anything too foreign.?

A simple way to make boulders and other rock forms appear to be a natural part of the environment is to bury one-fourth of the boulder into the ground. ?That way it looks like its been there for a while,? says Harry North, owner of Creative Environ-ments in Sonoma, California. ?There are ways of softening the rock to make it appear older.? One way is to encourage moss or lichen growth by applying organic slurry to the rock and letting the moss spores take root.

Depending on the type and size of the rocks or stone used, it is possible to create several different atmospheres. Some large boulders carry the aura of being gentle giants. River rock, smoothed by water over eons of time, imparts another feeling, one of permanence and calm. The water feature may be new, but smooth river rock makes the feature look like it?s always been there, with the water wearing down the rock, Schraven explained. Additionally, the sound of water is relaxing. Gardens have a calming effect that a property owner usually wants, to help him relax.

Other contractors may opt for a more exotic look, and may want to use a specific color or type of rock. For example, if you need a black basalt boulder, you can find a supplier that has that specific kind of rock, as well as others. Just about any kind of rock you?re looking for is available. Some suppliers have cold water tufa, a type of limestone that has pores within the stone, with natural pockets for the inclusion of small plants. Volcanic rock, cobbles from India, or quartzite from China are also available for the landscape.

Boulders can be used in any number of landscape settings. One of the most frequent uses for boulders is as a focal point or accent. The size of the stone, as well as its color and shape, stand as a pleasant contrast to the softness and expanse of green foliage, or a bed of annuals.

Columns or standing stones can be used in a grouping, as a sculpture piece at an entrance, or as a centerpiece of a landscape bed. They add geometric contrast to the soft, rounded shapes of plant materials. Columns can be turned on their sides and used as benches or even drilled for water fountains.

Some boulders are more structural than decorative. Franklin Burgess, owner of Mr. GoodTree of Florida, Gainsville, says, ?Florida capstone boulders have been used to reinforce the shoreline on the ocean side at some residential locations.?

In contrast, paramagnetic rock can be used along with potting soil to increase the life of plants, Schraven said. Other property owners want the landscaping to have an ancient feel. In those cases, Schraven might build a stone wall similar to those seen in many areas of Scotland or Ireland.

At times, Schraven will use a boulder to change the character from one part of the landscape to another. For example, on one side of the boulder there could be foliage that needs plenty of sun, and on the shade side of the boulder, foliage that thrives with less sun. The boulder gives the property owner a way to use these different types of foliage in the same setting without making them look out of place.

?It all depends on the effect I want to achieve,? Schraven said. ?You can use stone to create secret passageways. When you were a kid, you would go down a path and wonder what?s around the next corner. You can use stone to achieve that same effect by creating little secret places in the landscape.?

In most areas, landscape contractors use stone and boulders native to the region, though there are exceptions. In the West, a variety of stone is readily available. Granite is popular in many areas of the Midwest. Limestone is popular around Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Other areas of the country use still other types of rock. The amount of stone used also varies by region. For example, Schraven has set boulders as heavy as 15 tons, where various types of rock are readily available. Yet, in his native Holland, even a small stone used in landscaping would bring headlines. If natural stone isn?t readily available, artificial stone can provide a good option.

There?s no hard and fast rule for what types of boulders should be used in what type of setting. The boulders themselves usually aren?t selected until the design is completed. The hardscape materials define and set the tone for the entire design of a landscape. Some granite offers high-colored hues that complement the surrounding landscape. Other, darker boulders tend to work better in the background.

Boulders with holes provide not only a unique look, but can also serve as planters, with various plants and flowers in the holes, providing a blend of hardscape and softscape in an unusual setting.
Bricks, stones, surface rock and boulders tend to serve more of a decorative function. Other natural and artificial stone are used for practical purposes, like retaining walls or terraces, particularly in areas with uneven ground. Boulders can serve practical purposes as well.

For example, a boulder at the end of a lawn of a corner home not only becomes a focal point for residents and visitors, it also deters drivers from trying to take a corner too fast and driving on the lawn.

Wherever they?re used, boulders or rock should look like they belong ? that they?re a part of the setting. Using rock just for the sake of using it looks contrived and, therefore, takes away from the landscape rather than adding to it. Whereas river rock would be natural for a water feature, it could look out of place in a ?dry? setting. A 15-ton boulder would be out of place in a water feature.

Another option to handle water is to use rock in combination with a dry riverbed to enhance the look of a property, making it unique among other properties with the same basic construction, while also providing a much-needed ?natural? drainage system.

In addition to being attractive and sometimes functional, boulders and stone can provide an important, distinguishing feature. Single-family homes, residential complexes and office parks are all competing for customers, said Bruce Hunt, corporate vice president for The Brickman Group Ltd., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By blending stone and other hardscape materials with softscape, the property stands apart from the competition. Hardscape and water features like fountains or waterfalls add tremendous curb appeal to these properties.

For example, The Brickman Group built a $1 million artificial stone wall as a frontage for a residential community that caters to seniors ? Sun City in Huntley, Illinois. The developer wanted a single, dramatic unifying element for the community to draw people to Sun City, rather than going to the several other senior communities people can choose from in northern Illinois. So Brickman constructed a low wall with pillars every couple of hundred feet to frame the landscape. The wall, which runs for a mile along a state highway, creates a dynamic frontage along the length of the property. The wall also helps community residents have the convenience of the highway without the constant visual reminder of cars and trucks from their homes.

Other multi-family properties and subdivisions will use boulders at the entranceway, drawing the eye to model homes, Hunt added.

Multiple boulders can be used to create dramatic pathways.
Most municipal codes require that new residential complexes and commercial properties have some type of water retention feature. By using artificial and natural stone, the landscape contractor can turn a potentially negative requirement into a positive feature.

Office parks use stone, waterfalls and other landscape features to attract tenants, as well as set a tone for the complex, said Rick Doesburg, president, Thornton Landscape, Maineville, Ohio. He adds that different office complexes will want different feels, so they will use hardscape and softscape in different ways.

?Hardscape can be used to define the area that you landscape,? Doesburg said. ?It should never look forced. It helps add interest if it?s done correctly.?

Thornton Landscaping, for example, incorporated rock outcroppings into the landscaping for an upscale Cincinnati area office park that includes five, 10,000 square-foot buildings. The rock outcroppings, two to four feet across and 18 to 30 inches thick, serve as a focal point at the end of a bridge over a water feature in the office park. The use of the rock outcropping is a selling point for the property owner. It also gives employees and managers a sense of pride in their work setting. Office park owners want these types of distinguishing features in order to set their properties apart from the competition.

Doesburg added that landscape contractors should also take care when placing boulders. Just because a boulder can be used doesn?t mean it can just be placed in any spot. The boulder should be examined for the best side and the best view from different angles.
Similarly, when using multiple boulders, they should be placed with artistic design in mind. Three separate boulders shouldn?t be strewn haphazardly around a landscape. A cluster of three can look like a natural phenomenon. Another possibility is using multiple stones and soil to make a rock outcropping that is aesthetically pleasing.

?There needs to be continuity in the use of hardscape,? Doesburg said. ?For example, you could use a stone walk to lead someone through the garden to the front door. You don?t just stick it anywhere. You need to balance the look of the hardscape and softscape. They can both look nice when used for a home or an office.?

Though hardscape can be expensive, even a simple concrete walk or patio, if done properly, can add to the aesthetic value of a property for a relatively low cost, Doesburg said.

Artificial stone is becoming increasingly popular as the materials improve, making artificial rock virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Of course, not all artificial rock is the same. Some can be carved, including fracture lines and bulges, then painted with acrylic paint to look very natural ? the paint soaks right in. With the proper carving and painting, the landscape contractor can design the artificial rock to look like many other natural rocks. Many zoos now use artificial stone.

However, other artificial materials just look fake and out of place. It?s better to go without the hardscape look than to use poorly constructed or prepared artificial stone.

Natural and artificial stone can provide function as well as form in the landscape. Some upscale homes near large bodies of water use stone and boulders for lake edge treatments. Artificial stone might be used instead because it can be shaped to follow the curve of the lakefront.

Boulders, no matter what their shape, size, or composition add character and drama to your landscape designs. ?Stone and earth are an integral part of the palette,? Hunt said. ?If you were painting a picture, you would want to use the full range of colors. Hardscape and softscape are all part of the equation. They help provide different perspectives to the landscape.?

June 2002

 
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