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Crafting the Perfect Garden with Rocks


Sculptor Karin Stanley works with large stones, shaping them in ways that resonate with sun, shadow and the rest of nature before carving ancient symbols onto them. She calls some of these Lifestones. Stanley is also a garden designer, so she responds to the way rocks and stones fit into the landscape. Her commissioned work is found in various private collections.

Although I can’t do special carvings like hers, stones and rocks make me happy. With their diverse colors and shapes, they are so strong and natural. I have tried my hand at pebble painting, and modest success was mine right from the start. I’ve made little gifts like plant labels; zen stones with mandalas, mottos or faces; garden accents; and paperweights. Some people paint smooth little stones red with yellow dots and a leafy top, and set them among the strawberry plants to discourage birds from pecking the real fruit. Ouch! 

A stone or small rock can be painted to become a face, a fish, a frog, a cat, a little hippie bus or a toy-sized fairy house. A set of stones painted with the names and images of garden vegetables or herbs is a great gift for a gardener who wants a cool way to mark the rows. Another idea is to fashion a set of place markers for guests at an outdoor lunch or dinner party.

Smooth river rocks are used, and they’re easily found at garden-supply and hardware stores (not taken from a public park, mind you). For more advanced projects, go to a landscape dealer who offers pallets of rocks and stones of many types. 

Unless you’re up for lots of little pots of paint and tiny brushes, invest in a set of oil-paint markers or permanent sharpies in multiple colors. Sharpies are better because they’re opaque, and the lines they make are three dimensional. White, silver and gold paints look great. Easy and adequate for small projects, these can be found at consumer building supply places such as Home Depot and at art stores. When my sharpies were new, I had to prime each one by tapping the point onto scrap paper until the paint flowed into the tip. Gloves are a good idea. Work on a surface protected with plastic or newspaper. Be sure to put the caps back on the markers immediately afterward, so they can be used more than once.

First, decide what you’re making. Wash the stones and let them dry completely. It’s not necessary to prime them. Should you fishstoneradc1cover the entire pebble with paint or not? It’s a matter of style, but I prefer to let the rock shine through and be part of the
design. If one color will touch another, let the first dry to prevent running. Work from the top toward the bottom to keep your hands clean and avoid smearing the design. If there will be text, do a practice run on a piece of paper the same size as your stone to test the fit, style and spelling. 

Pebble mosaics are more complicated. I once took a rusting metal outdoor café table and made a mosaic top for it, which added years to its life. I covered the top with an inch of concrete mortar mix combined with as little water as possible. I quickly pressed four large tiles into the mortar mix and surrounded them with small pebbles and tiles about the same thickness as the main tiles. I added more mortar mix wherever there were gaps and smoothed it all, covering it with plastic overnight to cure.

The next day, I uncovered my project and polished off smears of mortar on the tiles or stones. That was six years ago. At this point, the outer edges are wearing off a bit, but it’s still strong. I use it as my outdoor potting table. 

My research shows that this is a primitive way to make a mosaic. There are many books and articles on mosaic making, plus videos and YouTube demos. Working spirals or other mosaic designs into stone paths looks like the most fun. But you better look into this carefully and follow the product directions. You can find a sanded grout polymer in white and colors, plus mortar mixes of varying types and colors.

rocksingardenWhile on a trip to Michigan, I watched in amazement as Jacques Thompson took a large block of sandstone and carved it into a trough. He made it look easy—if you think of picking up a hundred-plus-pound rock as easy. He scored cuts into the top of the block with a diamond-edged saw, then chiseled away, starting from the cuts, until the trough was hollowed out. The hammer and chisel were all it took once the shallow score lines were made.

Thompson said he learned this by watching a rock carving demonstration in Ireland a few years ago. He let some of the ladies in the audience take a few whacks at it too, while reminding us to make a drainage hole.

I’ve been looking at rocks in a whole new way these days. You can, too.