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Here’s How to Use Stone in a Garden

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Photos by Jan Johnsen

Landscape designer and author Jan Johnsen describes the Hudson Valley as a stone-lover’s dream.

“We have Mohonk and the Gunks, one of the premier rockclimbing areas in the East Coast,” says Johnsen. “We have Manitoga in Garrison; we have Opus 40, and Harvey Fite’s sculpture park in Saugerties. These spaces are a celebration of the natural stone of our area. You know that famous saying, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. We have rocks in the Hudson Valley. So, if life gives you rocks, make rock gardens.”

In The Spirit of Stone, Johnsen advocates stone gardening as a way to connect with the earth.

Johnsen, the author of The Spirit of Stone, incorporates stone into gardens in various ways. Aside from functional uses such as pathways, steps, and walls, rocks — from pebbles to boulders — can shape terrain or provide visual contrast. As a deer- and drought-resistant, maintenance-free, and non-invasive garden element, stone can add subtle character or make a dramatic statement. Adding visual drama can be as simple as finding a long, narrow stone shaped like a column. “You can set it vertically and use it as what I call a standing stone.”

The simplest garden addition, like a stone bench or large rock, offers more than a place to sit.

“We need to be a little bit more connected to the earth,” says Johnsen. “Sitting on a rock will certainly do that. In medieval times monks always had a stone seat, surrounded by chamomile or with thyme and when you stepped on it the fragrance would waft around you.”

Johnsen has long been intrigued by rocks, whether she was living near a Vermont granite quarry or working in Kyoto, the Japanese city that’s home to legendary rock gardens.

An equally strong influence  was the mountainous Hudson Valley, where after college she worked in the gardens at Mohonk Mountain House and taught landscaping classes at SUNY Ulster.

After moving to Croton-on-Hudson, she and her husband launched Johnsen Landscapes & Pools, which designs and installs gardens in the Valley and beyond. Johnson, who also wrote Heaven Is A Garden and Gardentopia, considers stone to be the most ancient of materials, Incorporating it in a garden honors the area’s natural history.

“These giant boulders, Native Americans referred to them as Memory Keepers. They were here before we came along and they’ll be here long after we leave. They endure, they are timeless.”