Natural stone or concrete for garden wall? Two reasons why stone is easier

August 16, 2016
building garden wall at Waterman's in Concord NY

Natural stone is lightweight compared to concrete blocks. You can pick up natural stone in one hand. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Natural stone not only adds charm to your landscape, it can be easier to work with than concrete, said Ethan Waterman, manager of Waterman’s Greenhouse, 12317 Vaughn St. (Route 240), East Concord (Springville).

The first reason that it’s easier using natural stone for a garden wall is that a piece of natural stone is smaller and much lighter than a concrete block, he said. You don’t have to be a weight lifter to work with natural stone.

Before we go any farther, let’s note that when we’re talking about a garden wall, we don’t mean a large retaining wall that is meant to hold back a large mass of dirt, such as on a hillside. That’s something you probably want to get a professional to do.

By garden wall, we mean a wall around a garden bed that is perhaps six to 12 inches tall. While it does help hold the soil in place, it’s more decorative than functional. That’s a project a home gardener can tackle.

The second reason that natural stone is easier to work with than concrete is that natural stone is more forgiving. You can skip some of the steps that you must take when working with concrete blocks, and even if your natural stone wall isn’t perfect, it will look fine.

The thing about garden walls is that the ground underneath them can move. When the ground freezes and thaws, it tends to heave. That shifting soil can in turn move the blocks in the wall.

With concrete blocks, you have to take extra steps to counteract the forces of freezing and thawing in order to keep your wall even. You have to first dig a trench and add crushed stone before setting your blocks in place.

Because concrete blocks are uniform, they’re supposed to be set in place perpendicular and plumb with perfectly straight lines. If your wall is off just a little, it will look crooked.

“Unless you do it the right way, it will look bad,” Waterman said.

With natural stone, there are no perfectly straight lines. The stones have irregular shapes and so will your wall.

The stones look beautiful that way, but there’s another advantage. When the soil heaves, the irregular shapes of the stones allow them to move and settle back in place. So even if the wall shifts a bit here and there, “It won’t look crooked,” he said.

That means that when you’re working with natural stone, you don’t have to dig a trench or use crushed stone; you can just set your natural stone directly on the ground. (You can set newspaper down first to kill the grass if you like.) That will save you some time.

When working with natural stone, you do have to make sure your garden wall isn’t too narrow or it will be unstable. The wall should be at least 12 inches deep, Waterman said.

You don’t want to set down a string of long, narrow stones. Using terms you may be familiar with from your office printer, don’t set the stones landscape or horizontal; set them portrait or vertical. If you have smaller stones, you may need to use two in one spot. See the diagrams below.

stacking stones like this will make wall unstable

If your garden wall is too narrow, it won’t be stable. It should be at least 12 inches deep. Flip those stones around vertically and use them next to each other rather than end to end. Illustration by Connie Oswald Stofko

stacking stones for stable garden wall

You may have to use two smaller stones in a spot to make sure your garden wall isn’t too narrow. Illustration by Connie Oswald Stofko

Because the stones are different shapes and sizes, you have to try various pieces to see how they fit together best.

“Natural stone is like a big puzzle,” Waterman said. “You can spend a relaxing evening putting up a garden wall with natural stone. You can put up a nice wall fast.”

How much stone will you need? Measure your garden so you know how long your wall should be, then decide how high you want it. The staff at Waterman’s will calculate how much stone you need.

Some people take the stone home themselves in their car, often making multiple trips, Waterman said. If you have a truck or trailer, the staff can put the stone on a skidsteer and load it for you. They also deliver.

Waterman’s also carries flagstone for patios.

For more information on stone for garden projects, call Waterman’s Greenhouse at 592-9186.

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8 Responses to Natural stone or concrete for garden wall? Two reasons why stone is easier

  1. Linda on August 16, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    I love stone walls. Thanks for the tips.

  2. Bill Daniels on August 16, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    I had my 12 inch height natural soft rock / creek bed liner installed on an existing 6 inch thick concrete footer. The previous brick wall split because of lack of peep holes. Plenty of gaps for drainage on my natural stone wall. Looks good, no problems after four years.

  3. Bill Daniels on August 16, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    I had my 12 inch high natural soft stone/ creek bed liner installed on an existing 6 inch poured concrete footer. The brick wall previously installed failed due to lack of drainage options and split. Many peeping opportunities when using natural stone. No problems in 4 years- still looks good

  4. Connie on August 17, 2016 at 8:01 am

    Linda, hardscapes such as walls and paths add so much to a garden, but we often concentrate on plants and forget about the other elements.

  5. Connie on August 17, 2016 at 8:03 am

    Bill, thanks for the story. That’s a good point– natural stone lets the water seep out.

  6. Co on August 18, 2016 at 9:23 am

    How about an article about using natural flagstones vs. concrete to make a flat area?

  7. Connie on August 19, 2016 at 11:31 am

    That’s an interesting idea. Let me see what I can do.

  8. Donna on August 20, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    This type of stone really only makes a decorative border to a garden. It has no gravel foundation (to help with movement) so if the ground heaves and shifts, or if water compromises the area, the curb height wall is easily affected. It also uses very light and small stone pieces of very little weight. It is easy to topple as a result. Block gravity walls if done to specification and done properly will last a long time without any heaving defects, as will dry laid stone walls using much larger stone, like you might see in rural locations. One thing I learned on my trip to England, stone walls are not like a puzzle. The experts there work with the natural shape of the stones. Slate is used as an accent, and large stone is used for the walls maybe 3 to 4 feet in height.

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