Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2021
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Between a Rock and a Metaphysical Place

The natural and spiritual rewards of gardening with stone

Canadians have a primal attraction to rock. It may be the work of those peaky young upstarts, the Rockies, or that oldest glacier-scraped stone we call the Precambrian Shield. Or it's the tent rings of an ancient camp above the stony shores of Nunavut, or even the "Rock" itself, floating "a half hour later" off our East Coast. Whatever the source, the rocky shape of our memories and imagination finds its way into our gardens.

For all its intrinsic beauty and strength, a stone alone isn't much of a head-turner. More often it's the water that splashes over it, the flowers and grasses that move around it, or the sky on its shoulders. Something of this combination of tectonic power held next to a delicate beauty is reflected when we use rock to make a garden in our own space.

Two forces of imagination are at work in garden design: an instinct to import nature as it is and a contrary impulse to mold selected elements of it into an image of our own. The logical extension of each approach might be seen, respectively, in the wild cottage garden of that woman with the English accent down the street, or in the trimmed and curbed formality of those lawns surrounding the marble fountain at city hall. Rock, unless it's cut and polished, more often expresses the former -- the primal and untamed side of nature. Whether constrained or free, it has the power to focus and define almost everything else in the garden. Quite a design challenge!

Are stones a do-it-yourself proposition? Of course. But it all depends on weight -- physical and metaphysical. Large and even not-so-large stones require a strong back, a backhoe, or a backup crew of Stonehenge engineers to move. If you're up to it, wear a sturdy pair of gloves and be prepared to get hurt a little more and accomplish a little less in a day than you expected. As for metaphysics, you may find yourself placing, moving and tweaking a stone for weeks, waking up nights with cosmic epiphanies and swearing you'll blast it to hell. But, when it happens, there's nothing more satisfying than that mix of sweat, pain and divine intervention that makes a stone feel just right.

The rock garden
Making rocks themselves into a garden is perhaps the closest we come to reproducing raw nature. In fact, the first motive for rock gardening is the lucky or unlucky circumstance of living with a lot of exposed rock around the house and wishing to do something with it. Once you decide to use the rock you have, or import it as a dominant feature, the design challenge is to combine rock and plants into an aesthetically pleasing arrangement. The growing possibilities hinge on the site -- how sunny or shady, wet or dry, temperate or cold. Choose plants that will thrive in the location and adjust the soils to suit them. One of the attractions of rock gardens is that a number of distinct planting sites can easily be combined in one garden by using variations in soil, sun and moisture. It's impossible to describe all the choices available in less than 466 pages, but fortunately there's a bible just that long -- Lincoln Foster's Rock Gardening. It's an indispensable guide through this art of endless possibilities.

A retaining wall, built to hold soil in the upper levels of a sloping garden, is a practical variation of the rock garden. Here you would do well to hire or consult an engineering expert before building it yourself. And also be aware that it takes at least a ton of stone to create just three square metres of wall! It's best to have a crew or a lot of time.

The garden path
The path is the governing principle of many gardens, especially important in Japanese tradition. A well-designed path will tell us to stop here, step over there, look at this -- in short, determine how we experience the garden. Not surprisingly, the size and shape of the stones will make a crucial difference to this experience.

Paving stones range between the random shapes, colours and sizes of "found" stone to those uniformly hewn from a quarry. It's often a good idea to combine them. For instance, a random array of found stepping stones is actually quite boring unless broken up with some predictable shapes -- a pair of matched and parallel rectangular slabs is a common solution to the overdone stepping stone effect.

Although built for walking, the key to garden path design is creating places to stop. The main path should offer some tempting diversions. A single large stepping stone to the side will be irresistible, and a bench, a cul-de-sac, or a small terrace will add still more excuses to stop and stay awhile. For a touch of Japanese eloquence, build a stone bridge. It doesn't have to cross anything in particular. Simply find a long flat beautiful stone and support it with a pair of stones at either end.

Once you've collected or purchased stones for a new path, cut out the shape of each one in newspaper or cardboard. Now you can place each one to its best advantage without breaking your back. The soil underneath the stones will have to be loose enough for them to settle in firmly. Stones that move underfoot are extremely frustrating and an invitation to sprained ankles. Add a generous amount of peatmoss to the soil or lay down a bed of sand to support the stones evenly. A rubber mallet and a level are used to make final adjustments for good drainage and stability. Place the stones five to 15 centimetres apart and fill the spaces with the soil mixture best suited to the groundcover or grass you want to grow between them.

Zen and the art of stone
Don't be surprised if some of your garden stones become soul mates. A Zen garden, for instance, creates a deliberate psychic connection to natural stone. Try this at home by placing two to five rocks together in a clearing or shallow pond -- the bed of white gravel is optional. Juxtapose the largest boulders with the long flat stones and move them around until you have a dynamic tension and balance that inspires reflection and meditation.

And remember, whether your motivation is mythic Canadian geology or astrological alignment, you'll never have to feed, water, mow or mulch your rocks. The longer they remain in place, the better they'll look, and when you have time to spend with them, you'll share the harmony of the garden they hold between earth and sky.


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