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Rock to the Rescue: The Ultimate in Low Maintenance, Water-Wise Landscaping

Updated: Feb 11

(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)


The demise of many lawns in the Napa Valley has left homeowners asking a couple of common questions. Now what?


How do we fill these newly vacated dirt plots? In the past, luscious green grass covered a significant portion of their landscapes. But today, lawns are limited or non-existent and some homeowners are stumped. Exploring photos on Houzz, wandering through nurseries and even attending Napa’s water-wise seminars have left some even more stumped.


Landscape architects will agree that there’s more to a well-designed, well-executed gardenscape than meets the eye. As with any design, the basics such as scale, balance, proportion, color, and texture must be considered. Natural elements like the weather, soil, adjacent vegetation, sunlight, shade, critters, and topography also come into play.


If you’re lucky and on a roll, you’ve addressed all of the above and are now ready to select your new plants and trees. But soon, you discover that this isn’t easy, either. Plants don’t bloom in the colors you want, the trees you’ve chosen are deciduous when you want evergreen (and vice versa), and the abundance of rustic, drought-resistant grasses don’t stylistically work with your English cottage, Mediterranean farmhouse or Victorian lady.


If by chance you’ve jumped all these hurdles and your garden is now water-wise and adorned with the plants you like, you awake one morning to find that deer like them too.


Do not despair. Rock is here to the rescue. It’s time to develop a new appreciation for this age-old mineral and make it a main component in modern-day landscapes. The pros in doing so far outweigh the cons. First of all, rock is the epitome of green and sustainable. It doesn’t have to be mowed, watered, mulched, pruned or fertilized, and it can withstand heat and frost. It’s virtually a one-time, relatively inexpensive, lasting purchase that works with any style.


As for the cons, I can’t think of any unless you haven’t thoroughly planned your design. Using rock does not mean you can toss form and function aside. All design principles are still in play. It’s best to prepare on paper so that you can assess the overall design before committing to it. Winging it on the fly will lead to regret. I guarantee it.


Start with a bird’s-eye scaled drawing of the outline of your house. Then add the outline of your property. Draw in the driveway, patio, sidewalk, fences and any other hard surfaces that will remain and note locations of doors and windows. Draw in areas where trees and other plants will also remain and any topography that will affect the design. Now determine north, south, east and west exposures. Oh wait, you don’t have to do this because rock doesn’t care!


Now get creative. From this bird’s eye view, you may be inspired by the contours that have already formed in your drawing. If not, think about your doors and windows and pencil in logical pathways, sitting areas if any, and a focal point. Use these locations and interesting geometry to help develop your design.


Tweak and sketch again and again until you’re satisfied. Once your design is defined, think of those areas best suited for loose rock (gravel, decomposed granite, pebbles) and ones best left for aggregates, large pavers and concrete pads. Insert larger boulders to add dimension and interest.

Think about safety and stability. Smooth, inset, rounded pebbles may be slippery when wet. Some gravel may be too irregular for a level table and chairs and loose gravel by an entry door may be tracked indoors. Gravel in driveways should be large enough not to get stuck in tire treads and fine material is best for bare feet.


Also think about color. Black, white and grey rock are suitable for all garden styles. A mass of peachy terra cotta can be jarring and too reflective and white dolomite can be blinding in the sun.


Next, take a trip to a rock supply store to see the various materials available. Choose those with the shape, size and color that suit your design. Install and relax, knowing that your yard will look fantastic year round with little or no maintenance.


A few more guidelines:


1) The most attractive and dramatic landscapes are simple and cohesive. They’re also the most challenging to design. It’s easy to overdo and clutter but then each bit of your landscape gets lost and loses its importance. So, save tchotchkies, furniture, garden art and other trinkets for the back yard. They are distractions that devalue your curb appeal.


2) Potted plants in the front yard are another distraction. Keep to a minimum – two flanking your front door or one used as a deliberate focal point. Keep the color of your pots consistent.


3) Choose plants that coincide with the architectural style of your house. If that style is vague, create one (and only one) through your selection of landscaping materials and plants.


Photo courtesy: Peter Norris, Folia Horticultural + Design

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