Good Walls Make Good Gardens

Stone wall at Redwing Plants

Written on

December 01 , 2010

The phrase “New England stone walls” conjures images of dilapidated boundary walls winding through our forests, half buried by leaves and by the sharp turns of our region’s economy. But stone, and stone walls in particular, are enjoying a renaissance, of sorts, as gardeners are discovering that the simplest stone work can lend structure, meaning, and a living complement to the seasonal and perennial plantings of an outdoor space. I first discovered my passion for stone work while helping a friend build a stone bread oven near Hardwick. I subsequently learned about the large number of experienced “wallers” in Vermont—a unique community of women and men as generous with their time as they are skilled with stone. Since then, I have shifted my landscaping business to one that focuses on creating original stone work and offering walling workshops. I have based my business in Hinesburg, and especially enjoy working with homeowners who share a love of Vermont’s native stone and want it used in their backyards. Following are a few examples of what can be created.

Stone wall at Redwagon PlantsAt Red Wagon Plants in Hinesburg, owner Julie Rubaud created a display garden for the organic kitchen-garden plants and perennials she grows and sells. With the assistance of Williston-based landscape designer Joe Haller, we marked off the garden area with a free standing stone wall. The use of Hinesburg’s local stone—a rounded glacial cobble stone—made the wall as distinctive and appropriate to the area as Julie’s plants. She reports that the tomatoes, peppers and brassicas closest to the wall have been growing much taller than the other plants, their day extended by the stone warmed by the sun. The warmed wall has also made an attractive home for snakes who can keep a watchful eye on the garden.

Stone herb spiralGarden plots don’t have to be rectangular and walls don’t have to be linear. An inviting addition to a family garden is an herb spiral—a curving wall that climbs higher and higher as it spirals in on itself. The resulting bed has varying soil depths so that plants such as rosemary and thyme, which want to be well drained, can live at the center or the highest point of the spiral, and plants like mint that can handle wetter conditions can be at the “outside,” or lower areas of the spiral. What’s more, spirals can be created from any stone that is available—rounded cobble, leftover stone from previous projects, even awkward chunks of concrete from a sidewalk.

And as each Vermont spring bestows upon you the “gift” of additional stone due to frost heaving, your spiral can grow over the years. Participants in a recent spiral workshop at the Rosie’s Girls summer camp program in Essex created a 50-foot spiral in two days that took nearly three tons of stone to build!

Cedar and stone wallStone can be combined with other recycled or local building materials in the garden. In fact, many historic New England walls were combinations of stone and timber fencing. Charlotte-based landscape designerAshley Robinson designed a version of the traditional stone and wood fence as part of a sunny garden that eventually included kitchen herbs and vining vegetables such as beans and peas. Cedar posts were set deep in the gravel footing for the stone wall, and the free standing wall was built wide enough so that the posts came up through the hearting, or packing, stone that was located in the center of the double-sided wall. A wide mix of Vermont stone was already on site—blocky, rough limestone from Panton and a flatter, almost glistening greenstone from Waitsfield among them. To play with the light and colors of the garden, we used pieces of the grey limestone, as well as some darker ledgestone from Plainfield. After completion of the wall, we ran strands of willow between the cedar posts that could then be used as a trellis to support beans and peas. A bed for the plantings was placed within the top center of the wall—a “planted” wall similar in principle to the sod-topped walls of the British Isles.

Stone calf corralStone work can create new outdoor living spaces for four-footed fauna as well as for flora. At Family Cow Farmstand, a raw-milk dairy in Hinesburg, Evan Reiss and Lindsay Harris created a sunny, protected area for calves to enjoy during their first days and weeks after being born. We enclosed the space with a traditional “stock-proof” stone wall, scaled down to calf size. We used local Hinesburg stone for the wall stone, supplemented with Isle La Motte limestone and Plainfield blackstone for structural features so the pen could withstand active calves.

Stone cranberry bogStone work has been embraced by homeowners whose gardening reflects a commitment to making the most of local resources and rejecting standards of garden beauty that require fossil fuels. A Burlington family recently looked to change the landscape of their front yard by removing all the grass and then making a central portion of their newly designed edible garden hospitable to cranberries. To do this, we used the classic “redstone” quartzite from Monkton to raise the area enough to create a sunken garden in the center. In combination with Champlain Landworks in Burlington, we created both the cranberry bed and a rock garden of similar stone for additional plantings around the bed. The finished garden was topped off by pine needles rather than traditional mulch—both for the health of the acid-loving plants the family had chosen and to make the most of what’s right around us.

Stone is often used in a garden for its permanence and solidity. But each stone also has a story—collected when the garden was initially laid out, found in the woods next to a favorite stream, or recycled from a pile of stone dating back to when the land, and Vermont, was a very different place. The stories connect a wall to moments and people that are important to us, bringing layers of meaning to a garden. At Wheelock Mountain Farm in West Wheelock, we organized a community stone wall workshop. All the stone came from a stone dump pile, a remnant of when the farm’s fields had been part of the area’s potato-farming era. Each spring the fields were cleared and the stone dumped in the same pile. Nearly one hundred years later, as we pulled out enough stone for the workshop wall, we never did find the bottom or the edge of the mound. The seemingly endless pile of stone left us the challenge of creating a strong wall that also had meaning to the people who lived there.

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So far we’ve focused on the presence of stone work in the garden. But actually building with stone changes your relationship with a gardening space. A participant at one of our stone wall workshops compared wall building to her meditation, and the comparison is an apt one. Building a wall is a practice. There is a discipline involving skills that you can get better at. But trying to find the perfect stone every time is a bit like trying to be the perfect person every day. Such strictness can lead to a lot of frustrating days of wall building. A gentleness is called for in walling. And sometimes that means acknowledging that the stones are just not cooperating that day.

Walling need not only be a solitary task, either. Vermont wallers in Starksboro, Hinesburg, Winooski, Dummerston, and elsewhere have initiated community stone projects at town halls, elementary schools, and teaching gardens. Combining the skills and traditions of wall building with the values of an inclusive community is transforming the tradition of wall building in Vermont. Where in the past walls were often used to divide people and carve up land, groups of wallers are now using stone to both build community and create enduring works of elegance.

Red Wagon Plants—Photo by Allison Lea

Herb Spiral—Photo by Charley MacMartin

Cedar & Stonewall—Photo by Ashley Robinson

Cattle Corral—Photo by Jonathan Couture

Cranberry Bog—Photo by Charley MacMartin

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