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Using Stone in the Garden

Master gardener Paul James discusses how to select and use the right stone for the right project in your landscape.

It's no secret that master gardener Paul James is a huge fan of stone. From flagstones to large boulders, he's used more than 100 tons of stone at his place for everything from borders and paths to patios.

Chances are there's a place to shop for stone close to where you live--a place where you can find virtually every stone imaginable. Whether you're in the market to purchase stone or just look around, it can be both fun and inspiring just to hang out at such a place.

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The type of stone available to you will depend largely on the geology of your area. The three most common types of stone are limestone, sandstone and granite. All three are available in different forms. Stones may be cut into uniform shapes and sizes.

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They may be more irregularly shaped. Cut stone is usually more expensive and is often used in formal designs, while uncut stones are used for a more informal look. Smooth stones are ordinarily used for paved areas while rough stones can be walked on as well and are often less slippery when wet. Flat stones are most often used as pavers, patios or stepping stones, while boulders may be found in sizes ranging from mini to massive and used for more sculptural purposes.

Among flat stones, the thickness can vary considerably. In stone lingo, a flagstone is any flat stone that is three inches thick or less. James recommends using a two- to three-inch-thick stone for patios or pathways, whether placed on top of soil or gravel, or mortared in place. One-inch stone is typically too fragile for any outdoor use.

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Laying the stones on mortar produces a crisp, finished look.

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Laying them directly on soil and allowing plants and grasses to grow between the joints looks great too.

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Besides flat stones, there are variously shaped stones. These are the most versatile of all because they can be used for an endless array of projects. In creating stone walls, whether mortared or dry stacked, these stones produce striking patterns and textures.

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Glacier stones are ideal for certain projects.

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"I especially like to use them in water gardens," says Paul.

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James uses tumbled stones to create simple borders for his ornamental beds.

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And he uses mid-sized stones for all kinds of projects, such as creating dry stream beds or water features.

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But boulders are perhaps his favorite stones of all. "Boulders come in every size and shape imaginable--from flat to rounded and just about everything in between," says James. "They're often full of character and make great specimens in ornamental beds.

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They're also great in stand-alone sculptures.

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River rock or gravel is another form of stone that's used in all kinds of project--from paths to water features--and it comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors.

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River rock combines well with other types of stone, or it looks great on its own.

When shopping for stone, keep in mind these tips:

  • All stone is sold by weight. You can purchase stone by the piece or by the pallet. If you choose to handpick each and every stone, it will cost you more money. Pallets of stone are cheaper and easier to transport, but you may not be able to inspect every stone in the pallet.

  • Most places that sell stone offer both full and self service. Full service, which often includes delivery, will cost you more, but it's very often worth it, especially if you don't have a truck or a trailer. If you do have a trailer, you'll likely be asked to drive on the scales that weigh your rig before it's loaded and then again after it's loaded. You'll then be charged for the difference in weights.

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  • Remember that places that sell stone in bulk can be dangerous. Make sure you wear heavy shoes, and whatever you do, don't let kids wander around unsupervised. Also, watch out for spiders and perhaps even snakes in some cases. Stones provide ideal hiding places for those kinds of critters.

  • Finally, remember that stones can be deceptively heavy. Even a relatively small stone can weigh several hundred pounds. Use a dolly or pay to have someone move your stone with heavy equipment.

    "Working with stone provides me a certain pleasure, and the look it adds to a landscape is unique," says James. "So consider taking the time to learn more about stone and how it can improve the look of your landscape."

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