The Edible Landscape: Building a Stone Wall

The Edible Landscape:  Building a Stone Wall

In the lowest part of the garden, where a wide staircase leads down from the back deck to the old apple tree, a new vista has opened up. An old and rotting redwood retaining wall used to stretch some 30 feet toward the back of the yard and was sketchily shored up over the years with concrete rubble and densely tangled invasive ivy.

By: Abby Bard

Feb. 21, 2012

The decaying relic now has been replaced by a beautiful stone wall, a sinuous sculpture that begins at the foot of the stairs, wraps around the base of the huge photinia shrub and gracefully meanders past the apple tree and blackberry patch to the left, around the stand of lilacs to the right, and back up the hill. What was once a dark and unmemorable corridor has become an inviting entry from the narrow side yard into the back garden.

For years I would carry my pruners down the stairs, ducking my head under the lateral branch of the apple tree that almost met the wall, and clip my way out, cutting back the dense thicket of ivy and thorny wild blackberry canes that would reach out to grab me along the way. Sneezing from the ivy dust, disentangling nasty thorns from my sleeves and sometimes my hair, I attempted to maintain some semblance of a pathway. Every time I would mutter to myself, “I’ve got to do something about this wall.”

Because the project would be big and expensive, I gave it a lot of thought over the years. With so many other projects to do in the garden, the wall situation seemed a low priority. But as it continued to crumble and the ivy slowly killed the rose, mint and lavender shrubs that provided privacy for the hot tub, the time came to make some decisions about replacing the wall, the main one being: wood or rock?

Wood would be cheaper and faster, but I am not a fan of straight lines in the garden. Much of my landscaping over the years has been done with rocks and bricks found in the yard or scavenged from remodeling projects. With these, I’ve built little curving terraces into the slope of the yard, following the graceful lines and the fractal habits of plant growth.

I was afraid that a rigid, 30-foot wood retaining wall would clash esthetically with the natural look that I cherished in the garden. So I decided on stone, but what kind? I started paying attention to stone walls, noting which ones appealed to me and why. One that really caught my eye was along the pathway to the outdoor massage pagodas on the grounds of Osmosis Day Spa in Freestone. Pleasing to the eye, it followed the natural curve of the land and was hand built out of fieldstone.

I contacted the owner of Osmosis to find out who had built ?the wall. It turns out that the person who had designed it was now a monastery Abbott and, unfortunately for me, no longer in the stone ?masonry business.

I mentioned my quest to my son and he suggested I call his friend Zion Melville, a local landscaper. It turned out that Zion and I had a perfect meeting of the minds—he understood my desires and concerns, took me on a field trip to see some different stone walls, and we went to the Wheeler Zamaroni landscape yard in Santa Rosa  so that I could see the available types of stone. Together we made a plan, discussed logistics and figured out a timeline. I chose a type of rock called Pomo Tan in randomly sized pieces with various shades of gray shot with warm golden hues.

On a sunny September day, Zion’s landscape crew arrived with pickaxes, shovels and wheelbarrows and got started. The efficient and hardworking crew—expert stonemason Octavio Chavarin, his son (also named Octavio), and Orlando Cruz—spent the first two days excavating the old wall, ripping out a small mountain of ivy and restacking rubble on the south side of the yard (where it helps to retain another embankment), digging out yards of dirt, and hauling in truckloads of rock and cement by wheelbarrow from the driveway.

They carved a sinuous line in the dirt to mark the base of the wall and laid a foundation with rebar and cement. Day by day, Octavio Sr. would carefully choose the stones from the pile, inspect their shape and size, and set them in place. His son would mix cement and backfill the wall as it was being built. In two and a half weeks, a magnificent stone wall was completed and what was once a neglected and overgrown eyesore was transformed into a beautiful, functional space. It is a wonderful wall, enhancing the entire back garden and exceeding all my expectations. Yes, it was expensive, but well worth the cost.

This spring begins another cycle of life in the garden. I will set new plantings of fragrant, bee-attracting rosemary and lavender along the top of the new wall. Where straggly shrubs once blocked the sunshine, the lower beds will have increased access to light, and the rocks will reflect heat onto the plants. The lilacs have been freed from tentacles of choking ivy and can flourish. More light, more warmth—welcome back, Spring!

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