Friday, May 23, 2008

When Land Hands You Rocks

Build Monuments.

My Blogger icon was dressed up for Gardening Gone Wild's Design Workshop, 'Stone in the Garden' with the lei I was given on my departure from Maui on June the 4th 2007. The lei drove cross country with me and has remained on the dashboard of my truck all this time. A good lei can last for a long time; if it stays dry.

I lived on the volcanic island of Maui for twenty years. Coming from the flat lands and deep sands of Florida, the mountainous rocky terrain, that went from sea level to the 10,000 foot summit of Haleakala was an exciting new world. I went there to visit a friend and as a graduation present to myself from college. I had just gotten a Bachelor of Science degree in Ornamental Horticulture. I stayed for twenty years to garden.

Rocks were everywhere. The whole island was made of volcanic rock. Dealing with rocks was such a part of gardening it became almost unnoticeable. The easiest and most common method to accommodate all the rocks was to just bury them. That took care of most, but some always managed to stay on the surface. Another avenue was to use the rocks for edging. This was not wholly unattractive. They belonged and created a sense of place. Rocks as edging are a maintenance headache though. They eat weedeater line and are difficult to keep clean without resorting to glyphosate. The rich built walls with rocks they paid for, generally after bulldozing and burying the ones on site.

I had other ideas.

The cottage I rented for sixteen and a half of those years was brand new when I moved in. The land was virgin leeward Maui, a dry savanna grass and scrubland, littered with rocks. I didn't want to edge my beds with rocks. I piled them up into one great big Pile O' Rocks. Visitors to my garden always stopped when they saw my Pile O' Rocks.

It took two years to stack because the rocks were gathered as the land was prepped and a garden was planted. The dry stacked heiau/pyramid in my garden has stood for fourteen years. It will last long after I have been gone unless someone deliberately dismantles it. Not many people have that kind of interest or energy. I expect that future visitors to this cottage will stop and wonder when they see this Pile O' Rocks.

The last landscape design and installation job I completed only a couple months before my departure was a particularly difficult site. In essence it was a steep rocky cliff face with a small relatively level portion at the top that comprised about one third of the lot. The second to last portion of the landscape installed after all the construction was completed was the steepest section of the lot. There were an inordinate amount of rocks on this site from fill brought in, from major retaining wall construction and the natural land itself. It was my final project on Maui and there were several tons of loose rock that needed to be dealt with. I had an idea.

I would build another Organized Pile of Useless Rocks. Why should my soon to be former garden be the only one on Maui with such a unique structure.

In this garden it would make a strong focal point

At a major intersection and dividing point between the main house and the rental cottage.

Just in case, you know. Having a backup is a good idea.

Christopher C. was here!

So the normal average person is going to ask, "Why would you leave Maui?" with a tone of incredulity. Well there were a lot of reasons. The major contributing factor was an offer of an early inheritance of land if I would come back to live on the land. After decades of being a tenant, I was more than ready to own the land where I planted my garden.

When I arrived in the mountains of Western North Carolina to the place I would now call home, the trackhoes had already begun the work of clearing the land for a road and house pad.

The trackhoe guys said this site was like digging in a potato field. There were so many rocks. From my experience on Maui I saw way more soil than rocks and told them so. "This ain't nothin" I said. I did see Plenty O' Rocks and to me that was a good thing. I had no idea at the time what I might make with them. I just knew they would be put to use.

The idea of parking a small camping size trailer on the house pad for an instant home was soundly rejected. Building a small cabin that could become a guest cottage in the future became the main task. It was located on the slope off to the left of the driveway and forward of the future house site. Standing underneath the cabin floor one day in the rain I had an idea about what to do with all the space beneath it. It involved rocks.

The severity of the slope made this large covered space close to unusable. Even if it was used to store collectibles, something would have to be done to create a level space for storage. Peering out towards my future gardens between the massive architectural concrete columns during the rain, a semi-covered patio was born. All I needed was a couple of retaining walls to terrace the slope. The stones that littered the ground now had a purpose.

Initially I thought I would build a mortared wall. I thought it would be a stronger retaining wall. A probably subpar, for that type of wall, steel re-enforced concrete footing was poured. Then fate intervened and I met a local stone mason, David Reed at my first clients. We chatted and I read one of his books, The Art and Craft of Stonework. The wall was now going to be dry stacked.

A dry stacked wall has the advantage of being totally open to drainage. This makes them far less susceptible to freeze thaw damage and hydrostatic pressure that can build behind a wall. They are more flexible and can move without cracking or falling apart. They are easier and cheaper to build, easier to repair if needed and being that I am not a stone mason, if it turned out hideous, it wouldn't be set in concrete.

Landscape fabric was placed over the soil behind the wall to prevent the dirt from moving into the wall and slowing drainage. As the wall rose it was back filled with gravel in front of the fabric. The gravel helps lock the stones in place and aids in drainage.

This first wall went up pretty quickly. I had been sorting and storing rocks for some time as I gardened around the edges of the property and built the foundation and floor of the cabin. Most of the stones were uphill and close by.

For the second retaining wall and to complete the terrace for a level patio floor, I was going to have to collect rocks a bit farther afield.

First I had to dig out the back slope. The patio would be half under the cabin and half in open air. I would be able to change sitting locations on the patio depending on the weather conditions.

This time a trench filled with gravel was used as the footing for the wall. A short dry stacked wall does not need a concrete footing. This same gravel base will extend to the front retaining wall and be used down the road for a stone floor.

The same method is used of placing fabric over the soil and back filling the wall with gravel as it rises. Let the stacking begin.

A conscious effort to slow down while building this second wall, enhanced by having to fetch the stones from much further away is giving this second wall tighter seams and a more polished look.

As polished as a wall made from fieldstone found on site can look.

If Michelle Derviss at Garden Porn does a post on Stone in the Garden for this workshop, you will get your rocks knocked off.

These are not fancy, store bought, dressed stone.

Two walls and landings and steps on both sides that will transition back into the slope are being fashioned from the rockpodge this land gave me.

There is a cabin that needs to be built as well. The walls have taken a back seat for now. The lower wall still needs the top to be polished off. The upper wall under the cabin has about another foot and a half to go. A roof over my head takes precedence.

There is another stone project in the contemplation phase. The boulders that were too big to tote up the hill for the walls lay in wait.

At one point I saw them as a snake in the grass. I think that has changed. They are too irregular in size and shape to sculpt a credible snake, at least to my satisfaction. The "grass" grows too tall and a short slithering snake will be lost. I need something more monumental, something that stands out. Will it be another heiau/pyramid or will it be something else? I'm thinking.

What ever these stones become they will be viewed from above. The Nazca Lines have a certain appeal.

There is no shortage of rocks on this land. There is no shortage of time. This is where I plan to stay until the end.

A patio made of stone takes shape under a small cabin gaining form.

The Beginning.


Lisa at Greenbow said...

I am sure this will be inspiration to many Christopher.

Les said...

I have been reading your posts for a couple of months, and it was interesting to learn how you got where you are. I like what you said about having plenty of time and plenty of stone. Stone adds a sense of age and permanence to the garden. However, here in the coastal flat lands, stone is a foreign object in the landscape. It can just as easily be used where it looks appropriate as it can be where it does not fit in. I guess it is one of those things, those with it don't want it, and those without want it.

Unknown said...

Wow. I know it didn't seem like a big deal to you after Maui, but those rocks in your NC place... very daunting! It's so cool to see you approach them like a kid in a candy shop and make such beautiful walls out of them.

Christopher C. NC said...

Thanks Lisa. At the very least it might give folks some ideas about what to do with rocks.

Les, having grown up in Florida I know what you mean about stone being out of place or inappropriate at times. There, coquina, limestone or coral rock was native and very hard to find.

I do like my rocks Kim. Now if I only had a small forklift or backhoe for the really big ones I had the trackhoe guys set off to the side.

Chris Kreussling (Flatbush Gardener) said...

Great record of some of your journeys.

Annie in Austin said...

You've been showing what you do with stone for a couple of years on two blogs, Christopher so I've seen most of this in stages. That was impressive, but when it's put into one post the volume of rock you've moved is staggering.

Last year you inspired me to take all the rocks we find when planting trees and dump them in one place to make a rock river in the woodland garden.

Will there some day be signs painted on barn roofs saying 'See (Christopher's) Rock City'?

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Anonymous said...

Christopher, I had no idea your history with rocks went back so far. That was entertaining reading; thanks! Now I don't feel quite so inadequate after seeing how good your very 'first' rock wall looks. Can't wait to see the finished patio.


Christopher C. NC said...

Thanks Xris.

Annie, nice to hear I inspired you a bit. More rocks make more of an impression than scattered rocks. I still have the streambed option with the boulders in the bottom of my valley. Yes putting this post together was exhausting, looking at all the rocks I have moved and these are really just the tip of the rockberg.

Yes my "first" rock wall is a bit deceiving I guess Bev.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to put this post together, Christopher. We got a taste of what you've been up to through Frances' recent post at Faire Garden, but it was fascinating to read about and see the whole story here.

ryan said...

Good stuff, good looking walls. I've seen a pyramid of rocks that Andrea Cochrane, a designer here in the Bay Area, made out of stone excavated on a site in the wine country, similar idea with a much bigger budget, might interest you. it'll be on her website if you google her name.

Christopher C. NC said...

Hi Ryan. That was a very interestingly shaped pyramid that Andrea Cochrane did. I wish there had been more closeups of it at her site.