Landscape design is not my strong suit. I recognize and appreciate what is functional and beautiful — but I haven’t the imagination or the vision to execute a fluent and balanced plan. So at home, I tend to stick with my pragmatic gardening methods, hoping that over time my backyard projects will grow together and become cohesive.
For others, landscape design is almost second nature. Design elements of line, form, texture, scale and color meld together to create a balanced garden — and some gardeners just get it. Professionally educated or not, some can design a space that captures every element, making it hard to determine what has been created and what lies in nature.
One key material that helps capture nature in a landscape is stone. John Newman, a local garden designer, has a reputation for his stone-heavy landscapes, which are scattering among private and public spaces throughout Winston-Salem.
There is an impressive air to a garden that is rich with stone. Boulders especially give a garden a feeling of permanence that can only be felt within nature. Wild, natural places tend to make the world seem a bit larger and our footprints a little smaller — which is the way I sometimes feel standing in the middle of one of Newman’s gardens.
Newman recently gave me a tour of one of his stone-rich gardens, which is in the Old Town community. The homeowner asked to remain anonymous, but agreed to let us tour the garden. This backyard Japanese water
garden is rooted in intricate stonework and heavy on precisely placed boulders. A tiered patio leads from the driveway up to a massive waterfall,with numerous boulders flanking the hillside.
Most of the boulders were procured locally, although they were sourced from different parts of the United States. Many are from Tennessee and Arkansas. Situated at the bottom of the hillside garden are several unique boulders, which came from the Western part of the country. Textured and craggy, these large stones seem to serve as the heart for this landscape.
“The homeowner loves Montana and goes out there a lot,” Newman said. “He send me pictures of Montana landscapes. He already had a lot of big stones, he’s a real stone collector.”
This garden was constructed in 2014 and took about ten weeks to install — a relatively small amount of time considering the labor involved. Placement of large stone is key in a project like this, which is where a designer’s eye is crucial — both for flow and time management.
“We were able to get a crane truck up into the area,” Newman said. “The length of that truck’s ability to go was really what determined the length of the waterfall. A landscape reads from the farthest part of where stone is. It reads from stone to stone, not from plant to plant.”
Years of work and design has honed Newman’s ability to gauge stone arrangement within a space. He explained how different stones can have distinct impact on a garden.
“They (stones) generally have a perpendicular potential or a horizontal potential, which you would use in a bank a lot of time. Some have a more angular position, which makes a landscape more dynamic, like stones with a 45-degree angle. Around here, there’s a lot of 45-degree angle in our natural geology, which you can see along streams. Stones that look like they’re often swimming upstream.”
Although stone and boulders harness this garden, water and plants help to soften these strong anchors. Meticulously pruned Japanese maples, black and white pines, chamaecyparis, junipers and azaleas are scattered throughout. Tightly spreading ground cover fill in spaces between stone, including dwarf mondo grass, acorus and chocolate ajuga.
Even in the depths of winter, the plants in this garden provide winter interest. Hellebore are tightly budded, as is a hardy edgeworthia. The bare branches of a fastigiate dawn redwood creates an architectural contrast between the house and the garden. Brightly colored green moss pops against the Pennsylvania bluestone of the patio floor and the surfaces of many boulders. So while the plants in this garden might play second fiddle to the stone around them, they have certainly been designed with precision.
This garden has a flow to it, which can be felt from every angle. Without the stone, it wouldn’t have the same continuity, as this element adds a balance to the space.
“You usually put stone in combinations where the weight is distributed and where it’s compositionally gratifying,” Newman said. “Also, you use them to support terrain so that you can achieve elevation and have things undulate rather than be flat. You can’t do that very convincingly unless you have stones to make it look more natural. It (stone) allows things to have context, and it evokes an environment.”
As with any garden, this is an ever-evolving space. Once the bones of the backyard Japanese garden were in place, Newman continued to wrap the design around the house and into the front yard. Storm water management has been a part of these extensions, as well, with dry waterways made from Delaware river stone becoming part of the design.
Upon first sight, the sheer brawn of this garden was enough to take away my breath. The fortitude of stone in combination with a large water feature instantly made me feel as if I was at the apex of a long hike. It has such a steady balance.
“Stone gives so much integrity and connection to nature,” Newman said. “It just gives it strength. It’s a coequal element, along with plants and the soil itself. They’re the three things you have to work with to make a landscape as opposed to just an area planted with plants.”
Stone and boulders can quite often speak much louder than plants, and can serve as the base for any new garden. Whether it’s one boulder or multiple small stones, we can all find ways to incorporate this strong element into our gardens.