River Rock in the Landscape Means No Water, NOT “No Maintenance”
I personally love the look of rocks in a landscape. There is something very majestic and tranquil about rocks and there is a history and a story behind every single pebble and stone. Rocks have been in the landscape for millions of years and one can only speculate the amazing adventures and incredible stories they could tell if only they could speak.
From the Beginning
Having grown up in Illinois, spending many summer days at my Grandparents house on the Kankakee river and living right by a quarry filled by a natural spring, I must have skipped a thousand stones. I’m pretty sure I collected about as many along the way. I loved the uniqueness of each and every rock and I wondered in their creation. I am an admitted Rockaholic.
When I became a landscape designer it was for the love of flowers, but rocks are a huge part of my final creations. They can be incredibly functional and the best part of using river rocks and stepping-stones is that they become a permanent fixture. That being said, much like plants and mulch, they do require maintenance.
Expect Some Work To Get Started
Rock installation requires some muscle. First you need to remove the existing sod to the depths of 3 to 4 inches to make sure you can get a deep layer of river rock back in its place and remain level to the ground. This can be done by either renting a sod cutter or manual labor.
Then of course the removed grass and dirt needs to be transported someplace and if you have a natural space around you I always encourage people to give it to Mother Nature. Otherwise, it needs to be loaded into a trailer and taken to a landfill.
Use A Border
River rock spills over without a border so I always recommend that metal or stone edging be used on either side of loose rock to maintain its look. This keeps it looking neat and clean and from spreading into the lawn which can cause damage when mowing and weed eating.
Let me be as clear as I can be, river rock is NOT a no maintenance landscape, it is a no water landscape. If you are never going to get out and pull the weeds as they come in (about every week or two for about 10 minutes or so), then absolutely avoid river rock. Otherwise, all you’re going to do is cause a nuisance for yourself and the neighbors.
Don’t plan to spray weed killer to eradicate the weed problem when what you should have done is keep the weedy lawns and mow them every week. This photo below is NOT a solution, this is a problem…
Perfect Solution For Drainage and High Traffic Issues
Below is a solution for a drainage problem and it also serves well as an extension to the driveway. Adding river rock and stepping-stones creates flow and directs traffic to the front door without smashing your lawn and creatively extends the driveway and sidewalk. This river rock path flows all the way to the back yard to serve as a sidewalk as well.
Another great use for river rock is those weird spots along the fence and nuisance strip.
If you decide to go with river rock, you’ll need to manage the weeds as they come in and be sure to never allow weeds to go to seed (flower) or the problem will only get worse. You will notice a growth usually after a rain and in the spring time.
You can buy organic weed killer at the local nursery or big box stores and you can make a homemade remedy by mixing 20% acid vinegar (available at Lowe’s on 620) in a one gallon sprayer with 2 tbsp Epsom Salt and a tbsp of dish detergent. Shake and spray early morning to prevent harming bees! Another great weed preventative is an application of corn gluten every spring and fall.
I greatly prefer plastic over fabric
For small areas like the nuisance strip or fence line the heat and rock combo will break down the fabric in a couple of years. That being said, if you are on a grade or slope, you will need to use fabric instead.
I recommend 4 mil painters plastic and landscape pins to secure the plastic beneath the rocks. You can find these at most big box stores. You can buy a 20’x 25′ square for about $25 and here is a play by-play on how I use it…
After you have removed the soil, lay the plastic from end to end overlapping on the grade at the seams. Be careful not to run plastic up the sides of the edge because you want water to drain from there.
You’ll find that by adding bulk river rock, the sediment will fall to the bottom and create a firmer layering affect. The more you walk on it the more stable it will become. I recommend 3/4-1.5” rock for this job.
You will need to use landscape pins to secure the plastic into the ground along the edges of the plastic where it meets the metal. At this stage, if you are concerned about standing water you can pierce the plastic with a pitchfork if you choose, but I have found that it allows nut grass to come through pretty swiftly.
Tree’s Need Room
If you have Live Oaks, be mindful of placing rocks beneath the trees as the leaves do not break down quickly and you will have to blow or vacuum the leaves from the rocks to keep them looking neat.
Any time you use rock on a slope or around trees and plants, you will need to use landscape fabric instead of plastic to allow the plants to breathe and take in water at the roots. Leave plenty of room for the tree to continue growing.
All in all, I am a big fan of stone and I love to use hardscapes in my landscape designs. I also think there is a limit to how it should be used. We are not trying to turn Austin into a desert but as an alternative to an empty mulched bed when plants are not desired.
River rock and stone are a beautiful opportunity to create something unique in our landscapes.
The Heat Is On
Remember too that rock adds heat. So be careful where you use it and be aware that the few extra degrees of heat can be tough on fur babies and little feet.
Pea gravel is very fluid and aside from easily being kicked about, it can also be difficult to walk on. 3/4-1.5″ is typically the best to use in a nuisance strip or walk way. Larger stones look great but can be difficult to walk on.
in conclusion, If you are not willing to accept the amount of maintenance a river rock bed can be then leave your sod/weed strip and mow the weeds.
If you are looking to reduce your lawn, consider well mulched landscape beds with appropriate sized plants. If you choose to use rock in your landscape, understand and accept the maintenance. Then, you’ll be saving water and saving yourself a lot of trouble in the end.
Now go get your rock garden on! (or don’t 🙂
Lisa’s Landscape & Design (“like” me on Facebook)
“Saving the Planet One Yard at a Time”
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