“What on earth can I do with all these stones?” is a frequent question from inexperienced gardeners. Here are some solutions to help you work out what to do if you’ve got an especially stony patch.
It may be that you have moved into a new place where the garden was a building site, or you are digging out an abandoned section of your back garden. If it is a vegetable garden, some stones may need to be removed before planting, but these excavated stones may be useful for adding decorative elements and creating useful rock edging.
Let’s get some inspiration first for using those stones as an integral part of your garden design. After that, we will look at common questions about stones and how to fix them.
Stone gardens for inspiration
Tout Quarry in Dorset is a garden based in an old, disused quarry.
It is worth a visit for the views alone but the area has been transformed by artists who have added their personal touch by sculpting the local stone, integrating art with wildflowers and creating homes for insects and wildlife. The park has fantastic views of the sea and the sandy soil is home to coastal herbs and rare flowers like the Pyramidal orchid.
Japanese Zen gardens use simple features and colours to create spectacularly beautiful garden designs.
The famous Ryoanji Temple Rock Garden in Kyoto is now a Zen monastery, and the garden designer is unknown. The rock garden can be viewed within a border with cherry trees framing the edges. 15 large rocks are arranged on patches of moss and surrounded by white pebbles. The meaning of the garden is open to interpretation, some people see the rocks as islands in the middle of a sea and others view it as a tiger carrying her cubs across the ocean.
The gardens and the architecture have given it UNESCO World Heritage Site status and this famous garden might invite you to look at stones as a potential garden feature rather than an annoyance.
Inspiration from Brazil
This stone wall was in a private garden I visited in Sorocaba. It uses local stone and as you can see, provides a perfect home for lizards. I adore the contrast between the whitewashed walls and the larger stones.
The Botanic Gardens in Rio de Janeiro opened in 1822 and I visited them when I travelled in Latin America. The space provides locals and visitors with a cool, green space in the extremely hot summers, where you can stroll among Royal Palms and bamboo forests.
The use of stone in the park intrigued me. I stared upwards at a huge wall that doubled as a waterfall, close to the large lake and marvelled at the stone follies that were built around the area. Irrigation streams had waterfalls and the verdant bamboo stalks interspersed with exotic birds and flowers provide me with inspiration to this day.
Stone bridges, stone steps and water features can be added to your garden designs to provide sunny and shady spots for you and wildlife to enjoy.
10 Ways to use stones in your garden
1. Make a wall
I found this dry stone wall near Kendal in northern England. The green moss adds a special something! You may need some help with the construction. Dry stone walls have no cement and were built as boundaries to separate farms or fields, using the large stones that made the soil unsuitable for farming.
Take your time and place larger stones at the base, followed by similar-sized stones but placed like bricks, over the division of the stones underneath. It takes some skill and your first attempts may fall but it’s all good exercise and you may discover a new talent!
2. Build steps
Gather your stones in one area and put similar-sized stones together. For steps, you will need large, flat-edged stones for easy walking, particularly in the centre.
Mark the shape you want by laying some sand on the ground and use this as an outline before you mix up cement. This design is quite complex but you can make simpler steps using gabions.
3. Create a path
For stone paths, it is important to get rid of weeds first. Otherwise, you will be weeding this path forever.
Dig out the area and then stamp it down with your feet. If your soil has bad drainage, then add a bag of sand to improve this. Just rake it directly onto the path area. You can also lay down a membrane that will suppress weeds if you like. Then edge the path with larger stones first, and add the smaller stones to fill in the path.
This path looks gorgeous in contrast to the huge, rhubarb leaves and trailing nasturtium. If you use a wheelchair, a stone path will be awkward so it may be better to reserve the stones for a decorative area and ensure a more solid surface for wheels.
4. Lots of big boulders? Make a feature!
Big stones add an architectural element to any garden. Choose the right size so that they do not obscure any flower beds you want to view when sitting in an armchair.
Add some soil around the base of the boulders and plant up with geraniums, dahlias, sunflowers and herbs. The bright colours will contrast beautifully with the stone and attract wildlife too.
5. Design a wishing well
This picture was taken at the Upwey Wishing Well in Dorset. It is quite a large stone feature and water pours in from the river behind. Over the years, the moss has claimed its place. People visit from all over the world to see this well and make a wish.
The gardens use the local stone to make paths as well and there is wonderful planting with bamboo, flowers and vegetable growing. The café cooks with the food produced onsite so this is a lovely experience for a whole family, not just the gardeners.
6. Interplant boulders with plants
Another option with large and irregular shapes is to interplant. Put a handful of earth in between the gaps and either plant seeds or let Mother Nature take its course… I saw these used very successfully on the west coast of Ireland, where the winters can be bleak but the shelter provided by the rocks allowed plant and insect life to thrive.
Astilbe flowers beautifully in borders with stone, or plant hydrangea bushes for autumnal splashes of blue or pink, depending on your soil type.
These rocky spaces are perfect for wildflowers, succulents, herbs and even marshy plants, depending on your soil.
Plant carefully to ensure colour and interest all year round. In summer, the rocks will also attract wildlife. Butterflies, lizards and insects love large sunny stones to rest on in hot weather too.
7. Use a stone base for a water feature
There are some gorgeous designs available for stone bowls that allow water to bubble through with a rippling effect. If you want to add a water feature to your garden, use the excavated stones to place the bowl on.
8. Lots of smaller stones? Create patterned rock edging
Try to separate stones into different colour groups and then use them to surround plants, or add some to the edges of a pond for a very organic look. The stones will act as a mulch to retain moisture and give some frost protection too.
You can also use small stones, rocks and pebbles to create a bee watering station.
9. Use a mixture of big boulders and small pebbles
Take inspiration from the Japanese Zen gardens and go wild. Mark out a part of the garden and use string as guidelines. Send us your pics!
10. Create a rockery garden
It’s all in the name with this one! If your garden is on a slope, then the rocks can be used to raise the level in your garden. The stones can make excellent edges to each step or layer. Cottage gardens often use a spiral shape for rockeries and place different plants in each section. This will use up your stones beautifully and provide some frost protection too – see more on this below.
Rockeries are fabulous spaces for both herbs and succulents because you can make the soil slightly different in each section and you can replace frost-tolerant plants easily in the autumn.
Do stones help drainage?
Yes, and there are other advantages too. Stones are often added to large planters to help the roots to stay clear of water which can cause the pot to become waterlogged. It means roots are not sitting in wet soil too. Instead of removing all the stones, think of them as soil improvers.
Stones retain heat longer than soil, which is why you see lizards and butterflies landing on them to sunbathe. This keeps the ground warmer so plants with sensitive roots will be glad of the extra heat too.
Do I have to remove stones to grow carrots?
When I was a less experienced gardener, I once grew a carrot with an odd circular shape on one side, which turned out to be a large stone I did not remove before planting the seeds. Carrots like deep, stone-free soil, otherwise they will form their roots around the shape that blocks them. Prepare the ground carefully and do not add manure because this causes them to fork. Another of my learning experiences!
Can stone mulches protect against frost?
As previously noted, stones retain heat so they keep that warmth in the soil for longer when the nights are cool. A layer of stones around some delicate plants will certainly keep their roots warmer for a few more hours than normal. A layer of stones will do the opposite in warm weather – it keeps the moisture underground so the soil does not dry out so quickly.
Release the inner you! During the pandemic, I took great pleasure in making stone sculptures all over my allotment and even on beaches and now I make stone patterns whenever I am gardening. Other people love them and you can encourage family members to join in, by sorting the stones into colour groups or adding to the design.
If you use the stones you find in your own soil, you may find they have distinct colours like mine. We have dark grey flint with plenty of chalky white stones and a mixture of yellow and reddish stones, which makes a perfect palette for any budding artist who wants to create a Zen garden. Have fun and do send us pics of any of your creations.
While it is important to remove large rocks that can damage lawnmowers or for growing root vegetables, there are plenty of ways you can use the stones in your garden in a positive way. Whether you make a stone wall, a path or a garden feature, the stones can decorate, become a design feature and even release the artist in you.
Stones will retain heat, add structure to your garden design and may even encourage you to make a feature like a wishing well or a rockery. Last but not least, stones are valuable natural habitats for wildlife and you can encourage insects, pollinators, lizards, hedgehogs and birds into your green space.