Monday, May 20, 2013

Personal Confessions: The Horrors of Using Rock in Landscaping

In my first college horticulture class, the professor told us never to use rock as mulch.  At that time, I did not know the full extent of the reasoning behind this, but I tried to explain what I understood about it to my father, who was redoing his landscaping.  “It will kill the plants,” I declared, “it burns up roots and leaves.”  But we still went with rock, since it is “no-maintenance”.  What did I know anyway?  The neighbor’s curving beds of roses and river rock did look tidy.

So we had 12 tons of a blue-grey variety delivered to the driveway, and $1,104 dollars later we were shoveling it onto the landscape beds.  Our gardening lives have never been the same. 

First of all, most of the plants did die, which may have been less related to the rock and more related to the awful, gungy clay that the house is sitting on.  But do you know how absolutely horrendous it is to replant a rocked area?  I do.  Rock is heavy and does not like to be moved around.  It resists a shovel’s embrace more adamantly than Donald Trump resists a new hairstyle.  Our gloves got holes in them and my nails were effectively destroyed.  What is really crazy is we have had to do this three times in four years because most of the plants keep dying in the awful soil.  It would be great to amend all of the bedding areas with compost but we hesitate because we dread moving the rock so much.    

And maintenance-free?  Even if our plants had all thrived the first time around, dead leaves and branches get mixed in that have to be blown out for fear they will decompose and allow weeds to grow.  Once in a while, the rock has to be deep-cleaned to remove caked-on dirt, which is a grueling process. 

Furthermore, I know now that rock does not allow for sustainability.  Not only is the carbon footprint sizable because it must be extracted out of the ground, broken into pieces, and transported across the country, but since it is inorganic it also does little to encourage microbial processes that nourish the soil.  Additionally, rock does not permit plants to spread and move.  This means that once a plant dies it must be replaced, which makes a garden high-maintenance.  A truly sustainable landscape should be treated as an ecological entity, with the plants free to set seed and relocate to where they can thrive.  That way, the plants can manage the garden themselves by filling in bare spots and suppressing weeds. 

With the latest cycle of vegetation, we hope that we have learned enough from our failures to keep things alive.  This time around we tried to bring out the aesthetic of the rock by creating a Japanese garden vibe, so it actually looks really good.  But for all that money my father spent on the rock, he has gotten some big hassles in return and is always fighting with it.  “Hey, look at the bright side,” he said the other day as he was screening yet another pile of dirty stones, “now you have some great experiences you can relay to any future landscaping clients who think they want rock.”  Agreed, Dad. 
Rachel Anderson,
Nebraska Forest Service & Nebraska Statewide Arboretum