Rocks, Pebbles, and Stones Are Replacing Grass

Conscientious homeowners are eschewing grass and going for rock, pebbles, and stone in xeriscaping, which is water conservation disguised as art.


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Forget grass. Go for rocks, pebbles, stone, and other drought-resistant greenery in the yard.

Photo by Ramona d’Viola

Drought has become the fifth season throughout the West. Lush lawns and water-guzzling annuals are a distant memory (or should be). So, with an eye toward an arid future, conscientious homeowners are eschewing grass and going for stone.

Pattie Fitzsimmons was weary of walking out her front door to a long-dead lawn and withering fruit trees. Her mid-century modern home, an anomaly among Upper Rockridge’s stately mansions, is built into a steep slope where only the front elevation is visible. The decline from the street creates an amphitheater of sorts and provides one of the only level areas on the property.

Fitzsimmons, who has lived in the house since the 1980s, wanted a landscape upgrade to complement the modern aesthetic of her home as well as to conserve water while bringing the property into the 21st century.

The solution — rocks, pebbles, stones — and lots of water-sipping greenery.

If you’re envisioning a yard full of chunky red lava rock or sparkly granite “artfully” arranged around a cinder block border, meet decomposed granite, or DG. A not-so-modern-day product, DG is just what it sounds like. If you’ve ever strolled the Tuileries Garden in Paris, you’ve walked on decomposed granite.

Versatile and wallet-friendly, DG was the water-conserving solution to a parched lawn and allowed Fitzsimmons to work with a color palette that complemented her home. She chose “Blue Fines,” a naturally blue/gray version of DG, accented with black basalt pavers set in shiny, pea-sized Mexican Pebbles.

The lawn and dying trees were removed, and lengths of bender board were installed to define the perimeter between the DG patio, walkway, and the planting beds. The soon-to-be patio was filled with a 4-inch layer of base gravel and compacted, then topped with a 2-inch layer of DG, and another thorough wetting and tamping.

Once compacted, the pulverized stone becomes almost as hard as concrete yet provides a pervious surface for water to percolate back into the soil, not into storm drains. Fitzsimmons chose not to seal the DG, but there are arguments for and against.

Next, the basalt pavers were set on top of 4 inches of sand, tamped down, and wetted to compact all the materials before topping with Mexican Pebbles. The pathway provided visual transition between the planting beds and patio, while adding another layer of texture to the overall design.

With the hardscaping completed, amended soil was added to the newly defined beds, and “sculpted” to accommodate several boulders of varying sizes. Pinkish in hue, they were chosen specifically to complement the cool blues of the DG and play up the blooms of the dry garden succulents.

Five boulders of varying sizes and shapes were positioned throughout the planting beds, the largest at the entryway. This anchor rock provided a reference for the other stones and unifies the design throughout.

Last, a dizzying selection of native and drought-tolerant plants were arranged visually before digging in. Fitzsimmons selected protea and kangaroo paw for their bird- and butterfly-attracting blooms surrounded by dozens of quirky succulents and echeveria to rapidly fill in the blanks. Euphorbia and pink Pennisetum vie for attention

Fitzsimmons utilized galvanized troughs planted with fast growing horsetail reed and crimson-hued smoke trees to unite the color scheme, add vertical interest to the side planting beds, and complete the modern aesthetic. 

“I love sitting out here drinking my morning coffee,” said Fitzsimmons. “Everyone who walks by tells me how much they love what we did with the yard. So do I.”

Resources

Garden Elements: American Soil Products, 2121 San Joaquin St., #A, Richmond, 510-292-3000, AmericanSoil.com

Trees and Containers: East Bay Nursery, 2332 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510-845-6490, EastBayNursery.com

Succulents and Drought Tolerant Plantings: Westbrae Nursery, 1272 Gilman St., Berkeley, 510-526-5517, Westbrae-nursery.com

Garden Design and Installation: Ramona d’Viola

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