But is it Art?, CRRRITIC

Look at My Big Rock

Big rock adding textural interest (and diverse lichens) to a xeriscaped parking strip.

Big rock adding textural interest (and diverse lichens) to a xeriscaped parking strip.

Not the kind that goes on your finger. We’re talking boulders here, folks. Specifically, one large boulder in the middle of a lawn. What’s up with that? What statement is it making?

Is it being displayed as a natural sculpture?

Is it being used to add a little textural contrast to the turf?

Is it a key element in an Asian-inspired front garden?

All too often, the statement it makes is more along the lines of “We just didn’t want to pay to have that boulder hauled off” or “Look at my big rock.”

This boulder adds to the garden's chores, but contributes mightily to its Asian-inspired design.

This boulder adds to the gardener’s chores, but also contributes to the Asian-inspired design.

I’m all for creating islands in the lawn—it’s a great way to add diversity, privacy, habitat, and 4-season interest. You can add several islands and convert the lawn to a pleasing path through a living community. An island allows a gardener set up different watering schedules or systems in different zones of the yard. A large enough island can incorporate a path–maybe even a sitting area–and become a new garden room. In a yard with trees, you might make islands around the trees and let fallen leaves accumulate in them for better tree health and less work. You can even strategically locate islands so it’s easy to rake fallen leaves into them from the surrounding lawn.

But a boulder in the middle of the grass? Doesn’t add biodiversity. Too short to screen out an undesirable view. Too small to reduce sprinkler coverage or to be a feature on a scale with the house. And it actually adds work; you’ll need to weed whip around it regularly so people can see your big rock.

Some of the best lawn islands I've seen are in Garden of the Woods in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Some of the best lawn islands I’ve seen are in West of the Lake Gardens in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Not that I don’t love rocks. Oh, I do! Big rocks, little ones, any size really. One of the best birthday gifts I ever received was a truckload of boulders.

If I were fortunate enough to have a big rock in my front yard, you bet I would keep it. I would feature it by making a rock garden, dry stream, lawn island, or other larger feature around it. I might use it as the focal point for a little herb garden or medicine wheel. If my big rock were flat and low, I might add a screen of taller grasses or shrubs and use it for sunbathing. If I had kids, the rock could be part of a naturalistic play area.

One thing I wouldn’t do is leave it all alone in the middle of the front lawn, to create work without contributing to the design. Even to a rock lover like myself, that just doesn’t add up.

So please holla, those of you with a big rock in your front lawn. What have you done with yours and how is it working out for you?

Sculptures make these rocks less lonely in the Frederick Meijer Gardens, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Sculptures make the big rocks less lonely in Frederick Meijer Gardens, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted by on November 20, 2013 at 2:31 am, in the category But is it Art?, CRRRITIC.
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25 Responses to “Look at My Big Rock”

  1. Pam/Digging says:

    Great advice, Evelyn — build a garden bed around that lonely big rock in the middle of the lawn. That’s what I helped my neighbor do with hers, and now it’s the centerpiece of a native-plant garden.

  2. Gail says:

    We have access to many size rocks due to owning acres of farmland. We have built a dry stone wall around two sides of our patio as well as incorporating some in various garden beds. My husband took a class in stone laying which helped a lot. We also have an informal house and landscaping so we try to make the stonework more natural with complementary plantings. However around the McMansion homes someone started a trend with the huge stones and big stone wall that seem to clash with this big brick formal style homes. And it is copied everywhere without any plantings to soften up that stonework. A lot of $$$ spent but it doesn’t do anything for me. Less is more in my book!

    • Yes, I look at those boulder walls (they have them in new developments in the Midwest too) and think, wow, at least more people are appreciating the beauty of rocks. But somehow those walls don’t look as “at home” in their location as, for instance, the mossy stone walls in older eastern US yards.

  3. Chris Coen says:

    We put our house number on ours. :-) But then, I’d had it placed there just for that purpose.

    • So really, yours is a sturdy and artistic sign! Thanks for sharing that idea. Now that you mention it, I have seen other boulders used in the same way. And every one is unique, making them so much more interesting than a run-of-the-mill address sign.

      One of my ancestors has a gravestone that was made of a bunch of mortared-together pebbles. Looks completely different than all the other headstones in the cemetery. I never met him but like to imagine he was a unique and interesting person.

  4. Laura Bell says:

    Personally I’m a rock person – would’ve (should’ve?) gone into geology if i hadn’t gone into cartography. No big rocks in my yard, though there are many I covet. The town next door is Rocklin, supposedly a misspelling or mispronunciation of Rock Land – and it lives up to the name. In that town there’s a vacant lot I pass now & then, full of boulders. Some are beautifully rounded from their trip down an ancient river that has long since left the region; others are split & jagged. Most of these have been recently unearthed, so no lichen or moss grows on them. I’ve picked out a few I’d love to take home with me, but haven’t taken action on that yet. And further up the hill (the foothills of the Sierras) there’s a particular elevation at which massive rocks, some the size of at least outbuildings if not small homes, protrude from slopes & meadows alike. These guys are full of all lichen-y & mossy goodness. My dream is to one day buy a parcel on which one of these boulders sits and build a house around it. My kids laugh at this idea – Mom would no longer be bringing home amazing rocks. She’d be bringing the home TO the rocks.

    • Oh I love that idea. In parts of Minnesota, I’ve seen homes built on land where the bedrock rises up in a shelf. Some are landscaped so the rock just emerges out of the lawn (like a crocodile). Others have built a more naturalistic garden of creeping plants around their rocky shelf.

      It does seem like a large ancient rocky outcrop or boulder would make a truly special place and be a beloved part of the property for its owners.

  5. Chris says:

    Why a rock in the middle of your lawn?
    - Somewhere to perch while your dog finds the perfect spot to do his/her business.
    - A spot to perch while gossiping with passerby and neighours
    - A spot for kids to take off into space while playing on your lawn (under adult supervision of course)
    - A backdrop for small spring bulbs coming up thru the grass to flower against – Crocus, Galanthus etc –
    - Possibly a spot for snakes and dragon flies to sun themselves
    - A warm spot on which to perch on cold but sunny winter days after building snow people
    - most of all, for me, the year around visual interest

  6. These are great ideas. What a well used rock that would be!

  7. anne says:

    I’ve long used rocks, big and small, in my landscaping and gardening (we have lots around here). In some spots they’re organized into a wall or barrier, in others they stand alone. I’ve noticed 3 useful things about them:
    1) they absorb and hold onto the heat of the day, creating a mini-climate that’s useful in shoulder seasons.
    2) placed right, they provide shelter from the wind, even on a small scale.
    3) depending on placement, they provide a water collection site, and it even seems like they channel water down into the soil where they are.

    Mostly I just like the visual interest they provide; like a mountain peak, they draw the eye.

    • Anne, good points all. Big rocks are great for creating a windbreak, a sun catcher, a moisture source (they even condense dew onto them, giving plants a little more water in dry areas). And I like your comparison to mountains. Those craggy surfaces…

  8. gemma says:

    The big rocks that look best in landscapes are usually the ones that have been “planted”! Rocks that look like they were just dropped and abandoned look out of place. Rocks that are partially buried look like they belong there.

  9. I’ve got lots and lots of small rocks (our property is a former rock quarry) but, not counting our flagstone pathways, the only big rock sits at the front of the property bearing our house number. Since I’ve thus far failed to dig up anything big, I’ve considered acquiring a good-sized boulder for use as seating in one area but the cost, the hauling hassle and and the need to dig it into the soil so it looks at least somewhat natural has me considering other options.

    • Kris, I hear you. For years I have thought I would love to make a little circle of standing stones in the garden–sort of an older and wilder “ruin”–but have not even attempted to figure out the cost as it is no doubt way too high.

  10. Rae says:

    Your pieces goes straight to the heart of all of us who have “rock envy.” Those who can’t afford to pay to have a (big) rock or rocks “hauled” on to their property. Being of small stature I have had to be content with ones I can lift myself. A friend of mine has made wonderful use of a rock in her garden: it is a quite large natural rock that had a hole drilled into it and is now a fountain. Gorgeous.

  11. Marte says:

    OH Evelyn! I am sure you know how much I would love a huge boulder to go into that front lawn island area I am developing. I have told Mike several times that I just want a boulder for my next birthday. Great post!

  12. I have two big rocks and I love them both. I specially requested them from a nursery that did a bit of design work on my front yard. Some of the shrubs they installed (I have a very difficult root-ridden) soil out here) are long gone, but the rocks remain. Neither could be listed or placed without heavy equipment.

  13. Fellow rock lovers: we ought to start some local boulder exchanges, where people can sign up to have a big rock hauled away and those who want a big rock can bid on it!

    It’s interesting that no one has posted about how they were stuck with a big rock and wish it was gone. Maybe no one wants to get rid of theirs?

    Finally, am I right to conclude from all these responses that, for some of us, one big rock in a lawn without any other adornments does qualify as a garden?

  14. Ivette Soler Ivette Soler says:

    Hmmm… I’m going to address your last question, Evelyn: Does one big rock in a lawn without any other adornments qualify as a garden?
    The way I see it, no. I love expansive ideas of what a garden is and what it does, and I don’t usually like strict definitions because they tend to confine people’s creative process, but I do have a loose definition of what a garden is, and that is a series of complex associations. To me, a garden functions best when plants and other chosen elements of the landscape link together to take the eye and the mind on a journey. My stance on lawn is that in many cases it is a default; people use lawn because that is what is done, rather than using lawn because it is a purposeful element that functions in a specific way. A lawn and a large rock and nothing else would look to me like a simple solution to this problem: I have a huge rock that can’t be moved and I need something to cover the dirt in my yard. THAT SAID, I can also imagine the opposite – a perfectly placed, beautifully exhibited stone surrounded by an ocean of lawn that creates the classic Japanese metaphor of mountain/earth or island/sea. But even that ideal; the carefully edited and perfectly balanced instance of rock meets lawn would need other elements surrounding them to give them context and a sense of place. So I guess my answer is no, a big rock in a lawn with no other adornment is NOT a garden.
    Omigod it ALWAYS takes me so long to answer a question! Love the post! XOXOXO

  15. Ivette, I think it’s great that you consider nuances as you answer a question! Just one of the characteristics that makes you so interesting.

    When I first posted this, my impression was that a boulder in a lawn would not be enough to make a garden. Too simple, just a couple of materials with no interplay and no connections to house, people, wildlife, or other elements of the surrounding landscape.

    However, reading all the uses for such a rock makes me wonder, what if there are connections and we who aren’t the garden’s residents can’t see them?

    What if that rock is used as a diving board and the lawn around it is the swimming pool? That’s a deliberate design, right? Even if it may not be obvious to anyone else.

    As for additional elements to give context, would a circle of mulch around the rock be enough to turn it into a garden? Applied in a definite shape and periodically replenished, the mulch adds a sense that the place is deliberately designed. Especially if the mulch is gravel, with its little rocks echoing the big rock.

    Would it be a garden only if the shape and dimensions of the mulched area struck the observer as a carefully balanced and considered design, or would just any old circle of mulch do it?

    I guess I’m trying to find the line at which you have or don’t have a garden. Does that line exist?

  16. Chris says:

    When the stone mason was doing the walls and walkways in my yard he found a rock about the size of milk crate. It was right at the area where he was putting in the stone path around a circular planting area, so we just had him use the rock to end the path.

    It comes in handy, since I can sit on it to cut down branches I have pruned, and even to stand on to reach into the trellis to adjust the grape vine.

    Due to having being under a huge glacier thousands of years ago, we can find some doozies. Like this one that had to literally be built around:
    http://wedgwoodinseattlehistory.com/2012/01/31/wedgwood-rock/

  17. Deirdre in Seattle says:

    A few years ago, a teen driver took the curve too fast. She went through my garden and hit the porch. Among other things, she took out a very large, old rhododendron. I asked the insurance agent if I could use the money from the rhododendron to put in a rock big enough to stop a car. When she stopped laughing, she said yes. I now have a group of three rocks in the corner. I like them very much. I like them better than the rhododendron. I have added some smaller rocks around them to keep them company.

    Most of the rocks I see in lawns are along the road in neighborhoods without curbs to keep people from parking on the lawn.

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