Boulders In Modern Landscape Design

90703thumbIt is hard to say why boulders and sculptural stone are sometimes incorporated into American landscapes. A long time ago, boulders were only left in landscapes if they were to big and heavy to move out of the way or break apart. Early American landscapes were designed to express dominance over nature by replacing as much of it as possible with unnaturally organized landscapes.

Slowly through history, less refined and more relaxed landscapes became more tolerable, and then became popular as an expression of rebellion to earlier formality. Nowadays, most landscapes are inevitably informal, partly because so many believe that informality is more natural, and partly because few landscape designers will design anything else. Simplicity and symmetry are passe.

This informality allowed for the incorporation of various elements from various styles of landscaping, regardless of how incompatible some of such elements were with each other. Boulders and sculptural stone that had been traditional with many Asian styles of landscape design were added to American landscapes in rather nontraditional fashion. It has been a slow process of evolution.

Boulders are obviously nothing like viable and dynamic plant material, although they do contribute form, texture and color to a landscape. Designers might say that bigger and sculptural boulders add drama without even trying. In some situations, boulders are as functional as they are aesthetically appealing. They can obstruct unwanted traffic or hold back soil that is at a higher elevation.

If they need not conform to any of the various Asian landscape design traditions, there are not many rules for the use of boulders and sculptural stone. Exotic stone that might be incompatible to big open landscapes where exposed endemic stone is visible nearby, might be just fine in enclosed gardens where there is no reference for what is natural.

The standard rule of burying as much as two thirds of a boulder to make it seem as a natural outcropping is only valid if it is intended to look like a natural outcropping.

Six on Saturday: Infrastructure


There is so much more to horticulture than plant material. There is a lot of hard work, which is hard to get in pictures. There are a lot of materials. There is a lot in infrastructure.

Well, I do not have pictures from the farm to show how our horticultural commodities are grown. That would not be very interesting anyway. These pictures are merely odds and ends of what we work with in regard to landscape maintenance.

1. Incarcerated stone. Yes, it is quite obvious that this prison is overcrowded. This is where they do ‘hard’ time. Incidentally, ‘Pet Rock’ was invented in Los Gatos.P80630
2. Half barrel. Back when there were more real wineries in the Santa Clara Valley, barrels such as this were cheap, and could sometimes be found left on the sides of roads for anyone who wanted to take them for kindling. At nurseries and lumber yards, they could be purchased already cut in half, perforated with a few drainage holes on the bottom, and painted with wax on the inside, for use as planters. They are more expensive now. This particular barrel came from France, so is not even made of local valley oak. See the fancy label at the top of the picture? The drainage hole on the left was not drilled through because the drill bit encountered something metallic in the wood. Check out the tips of my stylish boots at the bottom of the picture.P80630+
3. ErmitagE France. This metallic label on the wine barrel is so comically contradictory! The lack of an ‘H’ at the beginning, and the capitalized ‘E” at the end of ‘ErmitagE’ implies that the former contents of the barrel was something fancy, but is then followed by ‘France’.P80630++
4. NO DUMPING ALLOWED. This is a classic example of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’. We dump debris from landscape maintenance all the time. When we prune for road clearance, much of the debris gets thrown back out into the forest behind what was pruned. In some spots, it works like mulch to keep some of the weeds down. Larger bits must get taken away of course. This sign will be posted on a wide spot on one of the roadways where dumping had apparently been a problem. By the way, it is just coincidence that the two words ‘CHILD DUMPING’ lined up like that.P80630+++
5. White star magnolia. This was just moved to the new landscape of a newly renovated building. We would have preferred to wait for it to defoliate in autumn before relocating it, but it was in the way within another recently landscaped area, and we really wanted to install it here in the new landscape before other material gets installed around it. It does not seem to know that it has been moved. I happened to grow these along with many other magnolias back in the late 1990s, and really did not like working with them in the nursery. We just were not set up for them. However, I really like them in the landscape. This particular magnolia grows like a large shrub, so will not get big enough to drop flowers onto all that pavement. That would have been a concern with larger magnolia trees that bloom with larger flowers that can be a slipping hazard when they fall onto pavement.P80630++++
6. Epiphyllum. This just happens to be in bloom at the shop. It belongs to the horticulturist who maintains all the landscapes here, so has nothing do do with the landscapes. With all the pictures of inert items and only one white star magnolia, I thought I should include something a bit more colorful. It does not get much more colorful than this.P80630+++++
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Six on Saturday: ROCK ON!


This might be the very first post in the history of Six on Saturday that lacks any plant material! There are certainly plenty of flowers blooming out there, but that was not what I was working with this week. The first two pictures were at a site where I was working earlier in the week. The other four pictures were at a larger landscape that is in the process of being renovated. Until this week, I had not seen much of the site, but heard about it daily. The work is behind schedule, so a whole bunch of us went to the site to help. Although we were very grateful for the help, and everyone was genuinely pleased to be of service, I can not help feeling guilty about my esteemed colleagues engaged in the unpleasantries of such dusty and dirty work, especially when they have so much of their own work to tend to.

1. The soil at the first job site is of exceptional quality, but is only about a foot deep! This now broken mudstone is what lurks below, but it is not broken down under. It is only broken in the picture because it needed to be pried up so that larger plants could go into the ground. It took all morning just to install a few #5 plants. The smaller #1 plants were planted much more easily on top of the mudstone.P806162. This sometimes happens when prying up mudstone.P80616+3. At the second and much larger landscape, the irrigation system and lighting needed to be installed before the rest of the landscape. There is now irrigation pipe and electrical conduit everywhere! It took some serious digging. Because so much excavation had already been done at the site for the installation of big wide walkways, much of the soil was being moved a second time. The soil is so loose and sandy that much of it needed to be dug a few more times from the ditches as the irrigation system was installed.P80616++4. A few big boulders were installed on the site. To avoid driving the heavy machinery on the new concrete, the boulders were installed early in the renovation process, before the new concrete was installed. Consequently, they were buried by the soil that came from all the ditches for the irrigation and lighting systems. They reappeared as the ditches were filled. I still do not understand the appeal of stone and boulders in landscapes. The mudstone that was encountered earlier in the week was not much fun.P80616+++5. Plant material has not yet been installed, so the landscape features only a few dogwood trees that were already there, and these few boulders scattered about in the dusty soil. It really is dusty! I cannot figure out why the dogwoods are so happy there. I can not figure out why the boulders are so happy either, . . . or if they are happy . . . or if they really care at all. I just do not know.P80616++++6. One of our soil science professors at school was emphatic about soil being ‘soil’. We were not allowed to refer to soil as ‘dirt’. Well, this soil happens to be better than it looks, and it is good enough for dogwoods, but it really is very dirty soil.P80616+++++This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:

Six on Saturday: Rock Concert


Designing a landscape is too artistic for me. I am just a horticulturist. I just grow things, and sometimes tell others how to grow them in a landscape.

Rocks sometimes get in the way when I grow things. They are not something that I often consider to be an asset to the sorts of landscapes that I typically work with; although I have worked with some landscapes in which boulders and stones work very well. I happen to think that they work well in this landscape. I did not design it of course. I merely helped with the installation of new plant material, and the salvage of old plant material.

1. The Rock Stars! It was not easy getting them here!P80407
2. The Concert Venue: This is not a big landscape, but happens to be in a prominent location.P80407+
3. Blue flowers were added in front, off the left edge of the previous picture. I do not remember what species this is, but it is common nowadays.P80407++
4. Escallonia was added just behind the blue flowers in the picture above. I do not remember what cultivar this escallonia is.P80407+++
5. ‘Winter Orchid’ Wallflower was added in front of the Rock Stars, just off the left edge of the first picture. It might be ‘Winter Party’. I do not remember.P80407++++
6. Yellow Freesia is a remnant from the original landscape. There are red freesias too. We like them too much to remove them.P80407+++++
This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:

Is That A Body?!


It seems that changes in fashion are sometimes partly motivated by rebellion against what they are changing from. The comfortably loose and pendulous ladies outfits of the 1920s that were so unflattering to the human form while revealing more of it than ever before were probably a rebellion to the impractically uncomfortable and strenuously refined ladies fashions of the late Victorian period that were designed to enhance the ideal of feminine form while also obscuring it. The simple and squared landscapes of the 1950s that were so neatly tailored that they would be considered to be bleak by modern standards were replaced through the 1970s and into the 1980s by a much more relaxed and curvaceous style with sculptural trees, shaggy foliar textures, hills and boulders. Ah, the boulders. They were still cool when Brent and I were studying horticulture at Cal Poly. We had to get some.

While Brent’s friend William was visiting from Los Angles, we drove out behind campus, and into the narrow and rocky Poly Canyon. Big serpentinite rocks often fell down the hillside above and into and sometimes blocking Poly Canyon Road. We found the smaller of the two rocks collected that day almost immediately and still within view of the campus. The second and much larger boulder was obtained closer to the gated end of the narrow one lane road. It took all three of us to get it into the trunk of the old Dart. We could not close the tailgate with the rocks back there, so we covered the rocks with an old wool army blanket from the Korean War, and tied the tailgate down against the rocks with an old hemp rope. We drove to the end of the road where we could turn around, and started to return home with out boulders.

We did not get far before we encountered a dusty white Maverick coming into the canyon. We simply pulled off into a turnout to let it by. Instead, the Maverick stopped next to the front of the Dart so that we could not leave, and the driver got out. She was an earthy looking hippie with long and flowing chestnut hair and lots of brown wooden beads that she clutched out of her way as she walked towards us. She looked concerned. She came over and asked loudly and seriously in an almost rude fashion (and none of us three will ever forget this) “Is that a body?”.

Now, consider this. On a secluded road without any witnesses around, a thin young lady encounters three healthy young men who she thinks have a body in their trunk . . . and she stops.

I was dumbfounded. Seriously, I could not say anything because I did not know how to respond to here craziness. It took me a moment to comprehend what she was asking. Brent’s response was exactly the opposite. He yelled at her to get out of the way, and that we only had a rock in the trunk, and then continued to say that if it were a body, that she would end up back there with it. William could only laugh, and laugh, . . . and laugh out loud uncontrollably. I was still trying to figure out what was going on.

To make matters worse, the hippie went to the rear of the car and started to untie the tailgate! Brent got out and tried to get here to stop literally by trying to shoo her away like a naughty dog. She was persistent and said that she wanted to make sure we were not dumping a body, and even told Brent, “I thought I saw it move.”. The crazy thing about it is that she seemed to be serious. Brent finally pulled the army blanket back enough to show her that it really was a rock. Brent continued to express his annoyance by shouting how stupid she was as she went back to her car and drove away. William was still laughing uncontrollably. I was still dumbfounded.

After all that drama, the big rock broke into smaller components when I unloaded it into my mother’s garden. They are nice pretty rocks nonetheless, and represent my little pieces of San Luis Obispo. The rock in the picture is one of the pieces of what my mother knows as the ‘body rock’. Incidentally, just in front of the rock are bits of the ‘Yellow Karma’ iris from ‘The Colors Of Karma’ at . The little terrier who is obviously unimpressed by any of this is Bill.