Using rock in the garden
Expert advice for getting bolder with boulders
Big rocks are making a resurgence in designs of late, turning up in show gardens and domestic projects in recent years. Jo Thompson MSGD used slabs of York stone as seating in her 2018 RHS Chelsea garden for Wedgwood, while Cleve West MSGD used a sandstone monolith and slabs in his 2016 M&G garden. German designer Peter Berg has been dubbed “the king of the stone age” for his designs that showcase natural stone on a large scale; and Ulf Nordfjell has taken to designing bespoke granite features for his gardens. No doubt this trend will continue to trickle down to projects of all sizes, yet incorporating large stones into projects carries considerable risks and responsibilities. Mark Gregory, MD of Landform, says the primary consideration when designing with rock should be the ethical sourcing of the material.
That was easy for Dan Pearson MSGD, whose 2015 garden at Chelsea used gritstone boulders transported from Chatsworth and returned there once the show was over. For most projects, though, it’s not that simple, and it’s vital to know exactly where and how stone has been acquired, Gregory says. “People need to be conscious of the origins of the stone that’s being offered to them and should question its provenance,” he explains.
The rocks themselves are relatively cheap, but costs for transport add hugely to the expense; and the type of rock makes a big difference, Gregory points out. “Not all rocks are equal. Granite is very dense and heavy, while sandstone is relatively light compared to its mass.” The key to success, he argues, is making sure that designers work with contractors at the “fag packet sketch” stage to match the right machinery to the job. At a bare minimum, crane hire for moving rocks onsite costs £2,000 a day. Insurance, road closures and parking bay suspensions can all add to the time and cost involved. Gregory suggests designers consider what else a day’s crane hire could be used for, such as moving large trees. Kerry-Anne Austin, logistics manager for CED Stone, says the other major stumbling block for designers is underestimating transport times, particularly when stones are sourced from overseas. Inevitably, the shorter the deadline, the more you have to pay for transport. “The difference between bringing stone on a container and by road is about £1,000,” Austin adds.
All about accessibility
The other crunch points are access and availability of the right machinery for unloading the materials, she says. In Gregory’s experience, this is generally easier for show gardens than for domestic projects, although the array of modern kit available widens the possibilities. “If you’ve got 1m-wide access, you can get a decent size rock in there; a tonne or a tonne and a half,” he advises.
And when it comes to designing with rocks, there’s a strong argument for not curtailing your ambition, says Gregory. “Where most people go wrong in domestic situations is they end up with this almond pudding look – they go for football-sized rock and when the planting goes in the rock disappears,” he says. The best way to avoid that pitfall? “Contractors who understand and buy into the process are a designer’s best friend,” he says.