Stonework gives any garden -- country or city, spacious or small -- a feeling of permanence and calm and provides beautiful "bones" around which to arrange your plantings. Joanna Atherton's award-winning garden north of Kingston, Ont., is one of the spacious sort. It's half a hectare or so of retaining walls, terraces, paths and freestanding rock walls that support hundreds of shrubs, perennials and rare alpine plants.
DIY project: Build your own rock wall in your garden
Amazingly, all this stonework was built by Joanna herself. It suggests hours of backbreaking labour, but Joanna insists that working in her garden is sheer relaxation, even meditation. "You get kind of addicted to it," she says. "You absolutely cannot think about anything else when you're doing it."
Her husband, David, gathers the largest boulders from their farm with his tractor, but after that it's up to Joanna. "The stonework is a major part of my garden," says Joanna, "but the beauty is that once it's done, it's done."
Her retaining walls are used to terrace a long slope and to surround raised beds. These elevated beds ensure the perfect soil drainage that most alpines require and raise the small plants up where they can be more easily seen and tended. They also offer crevices of soil and patches of shade for tender roots. And they're still standing firm after several Zone 4 winters.
Here Joanna shares her tips and step-by-step instructions for stacking a stable wall to surround a raised bed. If you feel inspired but don't have a large-scale site, remember that even a tiny town house patio could accommodate a rock-walled alpine, herb or perennial bed.
Joanna's stoneworking smarts
Where to find stone
• Freestone (also called drystone) walls are held together by weight and gravity, not mortar, and to build one you'll need natural stone. Unless, like Joanna, you live on a large property in a rocky area, you'll need to look under Stone in the yellow pages to find sources such as quarries, stone yards, nurseries or building supply stores. Some farmers will also sell stone on a pick-your-own basis. Resist the urge to pick up roadside freebies; some municipalities have stiff fines for this practice.
• Determine the desired height (for safety's sake, consult a professional for any wall over 60 cm/2 ft tall) and length of the wall, then consult sales staff when estimating number of stones required.
Page 1 of 2 -- Learn how to choose a stone and stack it up in your garden on page 2