Southwest Regional Reports

Create a Water-Wise Garden With Stone

Use more hardscape in your designs to adjust to hotter and drier conditions

stone garden

As water becomes a critical issue in Southern California, it has become imperative to seek a new definition of what gardening is about and what we want our landscapes to look like. With a thoughtful approach, these spaces can be decorative, ecologically friendly, useful, and maintainable. But we need to expand our habits, expectations, and perceptions to embrace wider possibilities. Below you’ll learn how to create a water-wise garden with stone as a main feature.

cacti and succulent gravel garden
Stonework looks perfect in a Southwestern themed garden.

Stone is a perfect garden material when purposefully placed for form and function

Stone is usually associated with desert landscaping. However, most of the Southern California biome is more flexible than desert. Finding creative ways to mix nonliving materials with growing plants can increase visual impact while saving water.

Using a wider definition of stone, the creative gardener can incorporate stepping-stones, pavers, chips, rocks, bricks, boulders, blocks, gravel—and even decomposed gravel and tumbled grass—into the textural and color palette of the new SoCal garden.

large rocks and boulders around a garden pond
Carefully placed, natural-looking boulders provide interest in the landscape.

Hardscape materials offer many options and benefits

Stone, rock, and even concrete offer a medium that has endless possibilities. These materials will not burn, so they offer wildfire resistance. Stone can be set up to be permeable so that it helps save rain or run-off by filtering it back into the ground. It can also be used to create basins to store precious water.

Because it is strong and firm, stone and its many forms can support weight. Chips, pebbles, and slabs can be used to build fountains or other recycled-water features. Stepping-stones and gravel are solid choices for paving paths and patios. Boulders and rocks can be sculpted into beautiful and practical seating areas.

Filling areas between stones can offer opportunities for artistic planting. Beautiful and tough creeping perennials like sedums (Sedum spp. and cvs., Zones 3–11) work perfectly to fill between and to soften the edges of flat pavers. Partner boulders with small trees, colorful shrubs, or ornamental grasses. And liven up drifts of gravel with sprawling patches of colorful succulents, tough native shrubs, or brightly hued annual or perennial flowers.

Many stone designs require little or no maintenance

When combined with native or succulent plants, stones and rocks provide juxtaposed and eye-catching design elements that require very little care. Small pieces of rock and gravel can be spread as a mulch and to establish water-permeable surfaces. The addition of flat rocks to conduct water into depressions helps to retain water for slightly thirstier, drought-tolerant plantings.

Here are some ideas to help start the process of designing with stone.

1. Sketch out a rough, overall landscape layout with basic stone framework elements

  • Create practical access with artistic, meandering pathways.
  • Add informal patios to enjoy with friends, family, pets, or for a quiet time alone.
  • Form dry riverbeds for textural effects that will drain away occasional excess water.
  • Build walls that define rooms for seating, play areas, or custom-irrigated flower or edible gardens.
concrete leaf steppingstone
Concrete is a plastic medium for hardscape and can be cast into artistic shapes like this leaf stepping-stone.

2. Follow basic artistic rules to make the landscape picturesque

  • Keep group effects, such as boulders, clustered in odd numbers to look natural.
  • Use straight lines, circles, or right angles only in formal designs or for geometrical gardens.
  • Be creative with color. Complement dark with light shades, nonliving materials with patches of contrasting plants, or sharp angles with curves.
  • Terrace hillsides with regular or irregular designs that keep soil in place. Break up tiers and steps with flows of cascading flowers and greenery.
  • Mix and match materials such as bricks, decomposed granite, rocks, stepping-stones, and concrete to vary texture.
  • Design in color. Stone comes in a rainbow of colors. Not only can you create your own mosaics, but you can create the effect of grass with green gravel or a river/pond with blues. Add some magical sparkle with tumbled glass.
  • Concrete is rock, too, and it can be formed into any shape in any size, poured into patches, colored, stamped, or textured.

3. Take advantage of the properties of stone

  • Keep in mind that the density of rock and stone causes it to heat up in our intense sunshine and then to radiate heat when the air cools. Take advantage of this quality in areas that are chilly in winter.
  • Avoid using dark colors in exposed locations of dense surfaces like cement or rock where radiant heat can build up and harm bare feet or wilt delicate plantings. Alternatively, protect these areas by designing an overhead shade to shield them from direct sun.
garden full of gravel and stone
Combine varieties of color, size, and texture in stone to create an engaging scene.

Have fun choosing and designing paving materials. Stones, rocks, gravel, and preformed pavers can transform an ordinary garden into something special. Smaller stonework is simple to install and easy to move should you change your mind later. It can blend nicely with plantings, reducing the need for watering a full landscape without looking barren. A creative stone design offers limitless opportunities to customize unique, artistic, and practical gardens that will absorb excess rain in wet weather yet require minimal irrigation when it’s dry.

—Jane Gates is the owner of Gates & Croft Horticultural Design in Los Angeles and the author of All the Garden’s a Stage: Choosing the Best Performing Plants for a Sustainable Garden.

Photos: Jane Gates

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