If you have ever put an interesting pebble in your pocket, leaned against a warm rock on a sunny day or skipped along a stepping-stone path -- even if it was a long time ago -- you know something about the beauty and mystery of stone. Every garden ought to have a little bit of that.
"Stone is a material with history and legacy," says Jan Kowalczewski Whitner, a Seattle-area garden designer and author of "Gardening With Stone" (Macmillan, $39.95). "When I work with stone I'm tapping into history."
Studying stonework is now Whitner's profession, but she started small, with a pallet of paving stones from a local supplier and a simple plan to make a walkway from her driveway to the front door. As the path took shape, she began to see all the variety in the pile of irregularly shaped rocks, and to choose favorites.
"Sometimes I would like one stone so well in a particular place that, even if I had to try five different stones around it to make it work, I would do that," she says.
Such an appreciation for stone is practically instinctive in us all, Whitner says, yet stone is a neglected material in the garden, falling way behind flowers, water features or other kinds of decoration. Stone comes into play when people begin to look for ways to express stability and permanence in their gardens.
"There's nothing more real than putting your hands on a piece of stone," Whitner says. A weathered old architectural fragment or a small statue of stone can be a focal point in a small garden. A collection of cobblestones might line a path or surround a flower bed, making an authoritative edge that also keeps plants and soil within their bounds. In New England gardens, low stone walls establish a visual link to the rocky surrounding landscape. Real or carefully contrived stone outcroppings in natural gardens may shelter a community of interesting mosses and ferns.
The kind of stone you choose and the way you use it will depend on your garden's style and where you live. Most garden designers recommend using indigenous rock for a natural appearance, but Whitner is not such a stickler.
Her stone path is made of a pale gray stone from Pennsylvania that catches the diffuse Seattle light and looks almost luminous. She also has a big piece of calcium calcite from Mexico. She brought the 50-pound rock home in her hand baggage and put it on a pedestal in her garden.
Whitner has studied stone in gardens and in landscapes all around the country. In west Texas, cream-colored local limestone is cut into rough blocks and used to make walls and terraces that look as if they were carved right out of the hills. In Florida, walls made of native limestone and coral have a Spanish twist, a crumbling grandeur, she says. The influence of Italian gardens can be seen in formal stone walks and ornaments at estates across the country.
Rugged North American landscapes have influenced the natural style of great garden designers, too. Not everyone can have the Rocky Mountains in the back yard, but one magnificent rock or a swirling arrangement of rocks and pebbles like a dry creek bed can evoke the wonders of nature.
Finding the right rocks for your garden isn't difficult. Stone yards carry a large selection of stone of every description, including gravel for paths, steppingstones and more massive stones for building walls, making stairs or constructing a rock garden.
A more limited selection is often available at garden shops. Stone statues and ornaments often turn up at antiques shops, art galleries or flea markets. Rocks are, of course, the stock in trade at gem and mineral fairs.
For large projects with heavy stones, you'll probably want to hire stonemasons with strong backs and plenty of experience, but you may not need professional help to lay a path or patio or to edge a flower bed with rocks.
Take your time with these projects, Whitner advises. Whether you're building a wall or trying to find a place for a sculpture, you connect with what she calls the mystery and magic of stone.
She is not afraid to compare a rock wall in her back yard with the pyramids of Egypt. "The pyramids are a monument in stone for eternity," she says. "My rock wall is my own little monument to eternity."
Stone yards have the widest selection of rocks, and they will usually deliver to your house. Be prepared to deal with the scale of rock -- it is sold by the ton. A stepping-stone path through a large garden may require 7 tons. The price will depend on the quality, size and weight.
For sources in your area, look in the Yellow Pages under stone, stone yards and landscaping materials. Landscape architects can help you incorporate stone walls, paths or a patio into your garden, and they usually have sources for quality stone and stone masons.
Water-garden shops, especially those that design and install ponds, also may be able to recommend sources for stone and experts who can install natural-looking features.
Pub Date: 01/10/99