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September 20, 2006 

Landscape Design Getting Bolder in Use of Natural Stone

Designers say more homeowners are incorporating large rocks and boulders in their yards, in part because more kinds are available and people are creating more elaborate landscapes.

Hank and Gae Robertson had rocks and boulders put in their backyard about five years ago. Some line a creek bed designed to route rainwater.
Besides being effective, "It's appealing to the eye. It makes you feel like you're up north," said Hank Robertson, 60, who owns a business selling power equipment parts in Washington Township, Mich.

The Robertsons' landscaper, Terry Newman, president of Superior Scape Inc. in Shelby Township, Mich., says the main choice for stone outcroppings used to be Michigan granite, also called fieldstone. But that's changing.

"Now all of a sudden we have all these other varieties from other states and Ontario," he said. A 5-foot diameter, 2-ton boulder of granite runs about $300 installed, according to Newman. Other types of rock may be more expensive.

Whatever the material, placement and scale are important.
"You want to make it look as natural as possible and not just something that fell from outer space," Newman said.

That involves an artistic eye and plenty of turning and moving to test the possible locations.

As in the Robertsons' backyard creek bed, stone, rocks and boulders can be functional, perhaps as permanent mulch or in a retaining wall.

Other outcroppings are strictly aesthetic. Boulders in Alphonse and Barb Deeby's yard in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., line the road in a perennial bed. There are more rocks elsewhere.

"It's more decorative or beautiful than it is functional," said Alphonse Deeby, 47, an auto dealer.

Putting plant material around large rocks helps them fit into a naturalistic theme, says Jim Berns, president of his own landscaping firm, which worked with the Deebys.

"We try to incorporate perennials or groundcovers to really soften the look," Berns said. "As long as you design material to soften the look, they can be very effective."

They can also be subtle. In Nancy Bordato's front yard, eight flat boulders are mostly buried around the edge of a large mulched bed. Only part of each boulder extends above soil level.

"It's just an accent look that you can't get with plantings," said Bordato, 52, who works in purchasing at a metal stamping company. "It defines the bed with a natural look."

She says each boulder added about $125 to the cost of her landscaping.
Berns' company, which installed the boulders and designed the bed, also used a boulder as a stepping stone next to Bordato's patio.

With boulders, the challenge is to make them look natural, says landscape horticulture instructor Marshall Baeckeroot. Grouping them helps.

"Generally, there is one stone that becomes the focal point, then two or three to five more that support it," he said. "When people use rock, they just put one out and don't understand why it looks odd."

Newman says the expanding array of boulder material mirrors the growth in landscaping and what people are putting into it.

In 2005, according to the National Gardening Association, Americans spent $35.2 billion on lawn and garden products and roughly the same hiring landscape work.

That appetite has spurred greater variety in many parts of the landscaping market, from selection of plants to sprinkler systems and pavers as well as big rocks.

"Most people like boulders, and some people are just crazy about them," Newman said. Part of the attraction, he speculates, is that each giant rock is different and "they're so ancient."

They can also plump up a landscape's "wow" factor, as in Rob Abram's front yard near Alpena, Mich.

A middle school teacher whose hobby is landscaping, Abram, 38, found a 6-by-3-foot boulder in a field, which the farmer was happy to have removed. Abram hired a contractor and the boulder is now in Abram's front yard, surrounded by plantings.

A person who engraves gravestones put the house numbers on the rock. The address rock is tall enough so the numbers stay visible even in deep snow.
Abram has many rocks in his yard, some half-buried to give them a natural look, and adds more all the time.

While he says he's not sure exactly why he likes rocks so much, he knows the address rock is his favorite.

"The massiveness of this thing - it's pretty impressive," he said.

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