Using natural materials for your landscaping

Story and Photos By Diane Beyer

More and more gardeners and landscapers are heading “back to the land.” In addition to self-sufficiency, less pesticide use, growing heirloom vegetable varieties, urban homesteading, hardscaping using natural materials is also becoming more popular. Here in the South, where physiographic regions are so diverse, this provides a wealth of natural materials for landscaping and design work. 

Using native stones as borders gives beds a natural look. Native stone can be used in many different landscape styles – formal to rustic.

In the mountainous areas of the South, limestone, granite, and slates have been mined for decades, and used as building materials for prominent sites such as the “Hokie stone” used to build Norris Hall at Virginia Tech, or the buildings in aptly named Rockmart, Georgia, contracted using locally quarried Rockmart slate. Fieldstone is a generic term indicating stone that has been removed fields that have been tilled for agricultural use. Fieldstone is also abundant throughout most of the mountainous areas and is a great material for dry walls, steps, and fire pits. River rock of varying sizes, colors, and shapes found in the rivers of the mountains and Piedmont regions are often used to create dry creek beds in areas where runoff may be an issue It can be used as mulch material around shrubs and trees, allowing rainwater to percolate down into the soil. Since it will not wash away as easily as other organic mulches, replacement cost is low, unlike traditional mulch. 

River rocks are great for dry creek beds that divert heavy runoff away from lawns, driveways, and foundations.

In coastal areas, landscape materials such as oyster shells, driftwood, bluestone, and slate are available. Oyster shells make great mulch, and are a beautiful addition to driveways and paths. Be aware that when using oyster shells around plants, they may leach materials into the ground such as salt and lime, causing the soil to change slightly in salinity and pH values over years. Driftwood is abundant along the coast and is an interesting material to use for fences, arbors, furniture, and planters. Bluestone is mined extensively for use as gravel, and can be used to create pervious driveways, walkways, and patios. Slate is another great material for patios and steps. 

Here, very large boulders have been used to create a waterfall feature that blends seamlessly into the surrounding woodlands.

The wide variety of available materials allows for diverse hardscape styles – from a “beachy” feel to more formal designs. 

Keep in mind the style of your home. Unless you are planning an area where the house won’t be a factor, a formal walled garden might not be right for a beach house or a modern sculpture garden in front of a Victorian house. Nature provides so many textures, colors, and shapes, so use materials that will complement your house and landscape.

Keep the style of your home in mind when planning hardscape features. Borders of natural stone work well with the home’s foundation.
Use small stones to highlight unique plant specimens.

When purchasing materials, more is usually better, as natural materials are hard to “match” from lot to lot or place to place. If you finish a product and still have an abundance of material, it should be relatively easy to work into your landscape later, perhaps as steps or other type of accent. 

This fieldstone wall serves not only as a border, but also adds an artistic touch. The craftsman spent weeks choosing just the right stones for the perfect results.

And don’t forget about the plants. Choose plants that work with the style you are trying to create. Plants can soften natural materials such as rock and stone and blend the new elements into the existing landscape. 

This rock wall blends in seamlessly with the rest of the landscape.
The trailing plants soften the hard lines of the stones.

There are a few things to keep in mind when working with natural materials:

Will the materials need to be eventually replaced due to weathering or decay? If so, how can that be effectively accomplished? 

Know what will be necessary to maintain the area around your new hardscape. Will you be able to do it yourself or will you need to hire a maintenance service? 

Always keep sustainability and the environment in mind. Does your plan allow for water permeability? If not, is there a plan to accommodate water runoff?

Slate is a great material for pathways. It is stable and allows water to percolate into the soil.
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