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Retaining wall 101. The anatomy of a dry stacked wall and how stone choice affects the formality of a hardscape

Today’s post on retaining walls in the landscape comes from Richmond native Doug Nolan, owner/operator of Stonescapes Inc.  Doug and his business partner Fred have built many walls, walkways, and patios throughout Vermont and New Hampshire for over 22 years.  Hardscapes are key elements of many landscapes and it is imperative that they be constructed well so that they stand the test of time.  The plantings surrounding your hardscape need time to establish into full mature size and shape.  It is devastating to the landscape to have to pull plants to come back through and re-construct the failed hardscape.  Starting with a good design and following with sound hardscape construction technique will insure the success of your landscape many years into the future.

A retaining wall should  be built upon a base of  geotextile fabric and  6” to 8” of crushed stone-more if you are building in an area that has a lot of clay soil.  The base of a retaining wall should be as thick as it is tall up to 3’ in height. If you are building a wall that is 4’ or more, the base should be two thirds the height

For example the wall pictured is roughly 14’ in height,  so the base is 9’ 3” in thickness. The back of the wall slowly tapers over the total height of the wall to a cap width of 2’.  When building a wall, you stack a face course which, is the front of the wall stack back building courses, which make up the middle and back of the wall. Face stones should extend into the middle and to the back of the wall every 3’ to 5’ over the distance of the wall. This should happen on succeeding courses as the wall gets taller. Each stone that is stacked  in the wall should be level or pitch slightly towards the back of the wall. If a stone tips towards the front. Over  time it will slide out which will cause more stones to slip out and will eventually cause the wall to fall apart. Wall stones should also be stacked so that joints are covered. For example,  you place two stones together  that are approximately 4” in height . These two stones have a joint in between  them. When building the next course you should place a stone directly over this joint . This will make the wall stronger because you  will not have a vertical joint traveling up the wall. The wall can be stacked so that it is plumb or has a batter. Plumb means that a surface is perfectly level from bottom to top and batter means that a surface has a slight pitch from bottom to top. In most situations walls should have a batter. Retaining walls should also have a layer of crushed stone and geotextile fabric between the back course and the earth they are retaining. The geotextile fabric allows water to travel through but will not allow silt to work its way into the wall.  The crushed stone allows the water to find an easy path back to the ground or to a perferated drain pipe laid behind the wall. Dry stacked retaining walls, when built correctly,  allow water to travel through them and do very well with frost.

Stone choice sets the theme for the wall.

When building a wall: you can use round stone, flat stone, quarried stone, stone recycled from old foundations or walls, or large stones that you set with excavators.  Each of these choices will give a certain flavor to the wall. Round stone and large stone tend to look less formal. They  make a hardscape feel more relaxed. Stones collected form old foundations or from old walls also lend themselves to this relaxed feeling. These stones often have moss and lichen on them and a  patina that only comes from being exposed to the  patterns of weather for decades.  Flat stone and quarried stones give the hardscape a more formal feel. This type of stone tends to be smaller in size and has a block-y feel to it. You can stack the courses level and  have extremly tight joints. This stone is great for building smaller retaining walls where you want to see more detail. It is also great for architectural details like cheek-walls next to steps or column details to end walls with.


Retaining walls add function to a landscape by creating level areas above or below. They also create great back drops  for trees, shrubs, and perennial plants.  Proper construction is key so that the planting can grow into maturity with no disruption–Stonescapes Inc. and S & D Landscapes LLC can bring a hardscape/softscape combo that will beautify your home now and into the future.


Fall is for Planting

September has come in warm in northern Vermont, but the forecast shows cooling and fall rains perfect conditions for planting.  Most people see Labor day as the official end of summer and the beginning of winter and they push back their landscaping plans till the following spring.  Let’s not be too hasty.  Fall is perhaps the best time to establish a new lawn or landscape.  Typical Vermont fall days include cooling temperatures, consistent rainfall, and heavy morning dew.  These ideal conditions allow new plants and grass easy establishment before winter’s cold and spring cool temperatures help complete establishment before the onslaught of the following summer’s heat and drought stress.  What are good fall planting tasks?  Let’s divide this into three major planting types–landscaping trees, shrubs, and perennials, lawns and turf, and fall and spring seasonal color. Landscaping trees, shrubs, and perennials: There are many trees, shrubs, and perennials that provide awesome fall interest either through late season flowers, gentle waving seed heads, or brilliant fall foliage colors.  Perhaps your landscape is in need of some late season pizzazz. and now is the time when we can see what is missing and see exactly how we can improve the late season color.  Nurseries also have an opportunity to dig field grown materials again in the fall when the weather cools.  That flowering tree you had your eye on in the spring, intended to plant in the summer but it was sold out will become an option again–don’t miss a tremendous spring flowering display for another season.  There is still also ample time in the fall for planting the landscape of your dreams–start the 2015 season off enjoying your new landscape not on a waiting list by preemptively  installing your landscape in the fall of 2014. Lawns and turf: Fall is the best season to for planting a new lawn or rejuvenating an existing lawn.  If your existing turf is tired from the summer heat and drought but still has over 70% density we suggest a fall aeration and overseeding as well as a fertilization application.  If your lawn has poor density and tons of weeds we can thoroughly renovate and install sod.  You can see a new lawn we installed last October here.  When spring comes you are out playing kickball with your kids on dense, well established turf.  We use the highest quality sod direct from Green Thumb Farms, and we have specialty equipment for renovating lawns and creating an ideal root-zone for fantastic lawn quality. Seasonal Color: Fall offers many colors–reds, oranges, and yellows and we at S & D can enhance these warm tones with a planting of fall mums–bright colors to enjoy during the cooler autumn days before the onslaught of winter.  Mums are available as mass plantings in landscape beds or as a switch over in container plantings.  Beyond mums there are many other fall annuals that can be mixed and matched to create a vibrant celebration of these autumnal days.  In anticipation of spring 2015 there is a window for planting bulbs–tulips, daffodils, gladiolas, hyacinths in the later fall and we can provide this service as well. Fall brings a ton of opportunity for planting and enhancement both to add color now and in the future.  We would love to setup a meeting with you to discuss how S & D Landscapes can partner with you to bring you the most value from your landscaping investment.

Elements of Landscape Design: More than meets the eye.

Today’s post on on elements of landscape design comes from former classmate and colleague Heidi Wilk.  Heidi is a Landscape Designer, located in Stillwater, MN and holds a Master’s degree in Horticulture from the University of Minnesota.  Her company, Spruced Huis, is a women’s owned company, offers services including landscape design, seasonal container design and front porch styling.  Landscape design is something Heidi really enjoys.  She loves the challenge of creating a space of seasonal change, plant diversity, and admiration

Several years back, I worked on my thesis for my Landscape Design Degree.  I won’t bore you with the lengthy details, however, I wanted to share a few key principles that I learned from this project that I continue to find important today. As landscape designers and architects, we follow a few key principles that allow us to create unusual and interesting landscape designs.  For example, asymmetrical balance, seasonal interest, authenticity (materials and habitat), proportion/scale and simplicity.  In addition, I would like to share a few more unique design principles, often utilized in Japanese garden design.  They will surely add value to your curb appeal!

Hide and Reveal

One of the most prevalent elements of subtlety and mystery in the garden is the quality of “Hide and Reveal”.  The Japanese believe that in showing the viewer the whole garden all at once, the interest of the viewer is lost.  Gardens should be looked at from several different angles and viewpoints in order to discover the hidden treasures of the garden.  To best use the method of “Hide and Reveal” elements in the garden ought to be partially concealed, creating a sense of mystery and encouraging visitors to continue their journey.  It is the glimpse before the reveal.  For example, imagine walking along a winding path.  Around an upcoming bend you can see a branch sticking out with brightly colored blossoms, as you get closer and turn with the bend, the rest of the tree is revealed.  Off in the distance you can hear the bubbling sound of running water.  You follow the sound to discover a small waterfall or fountain.  “Hide and Reveal” can appeal to all of the human senses.  Your space is yours to create.  Try using “Hide and Reveal” with whimsical elements, such as placing a carved sleeping cat within a glade of ferns or under a low-lying tree, or place a small stone frog next to a pond.  You could even imprint little paw prints or leaf prints into a path.  The path through a garden is a journey.  “Hide and Reveal” makes the journey enjoyable and encourages you to keep looking.


Particularly in the dry landscape garden, communication through implication or suggestion, rather than direct statement, is important.  Sand or stones can be placed in a manner to imply water.  Implication is becoming more common in the form of dry creek beds.  These are designed to capture and guide rainwater to an area where the water is then dispersed.  A winding trench is dug out and replaced with river rock and boulders in the same pattern of a creek.  Dry creek beds can be very beautiful in the landscape.  Using implication is a low maintenance and inexpensive way to imply water in the garden.

 Inspiration from Famous Landscapes

Capture the essence of locally well-known scenery in the garden.  For example, you may want to create an impression of the local river valley, lake or sea shore.  To accomplish this, use materials and elements found in the region to make the scene convincing, such as rock, boulders, native plant material, wood, and metal.  A second example of a more common landscape might be a site with a pond.  To accomplish an authentic habitat, plant a weeping willow along the shore, aquatic plants in pond, scatter regional rock along the perimeter, and finish the site off with plants native to the area.  Be sure to interpret the most interesting points without literally copying them.  Copycat gardens are empty of significance and lack integration with the landscapes around them.

Signs of Maturation

Aged quality and time is an important concept in Japanese gardens.  Using materials or elements with mature characteristics help make Japanese gardens unique.  It is simple to include signs of maturation in the garden.  For example, encourage the growth of moss and lichens on trees and rocks, include rocks with water stains and striations, and use weathered wood with bleach marks in the landscape.  These subtle characteristics will give the garden an overall feeling of peacefulness and mellowness.


For many Japanese people, wabi-sabi describes a mind-set for how they live their lives.  Living a wabi-sabi lifestyle means living modestly, learning to be satisfied with life as it is, without materialism, and living in the moment.  Wabi-sabi is also the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection, accepting the natural cycle of aging.  When applied to outdoor spaces, creating a wabi-sabi environment means designing a humble and simple space using organic materials and elements that will show their wear with time.  The space should be uncluttered and well maintained.  Examples of elements in a wabi-sabi space would be a boulder with divots, scratches and moss growing on it, a wood fence made from weathered and twisted wood, or an old wheelbarrow or shovel with wear marks on the handles and rust on the metal sitting against a crooked shed.  It also includes plants, such as an old, gnarled, bur oak tree with large crevices in the bark, or a peeling river birch tree with lichens growing on it.

Regardless of the size of your garden space, try to utilize some or all of these ideas.  You will find that it will make your space more interesting and others will too.