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  • Writer's pictureDr. Farrukh Chishtie

Doing it Naturally


Zahrah Nasir

The use of natural stone, either in the form of existing outcrops and boulders or 'brought in' ones, in the garden creates a warm and comfortable effect. This is totally lacking in garden designs based on manmade material and yet, shockingly so in my humble opinion, many new gardeners consider the presence of huge chunks of stone to be a hindrance rather than a blessing.

Natural stone, however, whilst expensive to buy, has an intrinsic, tactile beauty that far outshines the cold, usually bleak effect of concrete which tends to come across as utilitarian at best and has the bad habit of erasing any expression of individuality and personality the gardener was trying to create.

Very few plains gardens are blessed with reasonable sized rock formations with which to work artistic wonders on and hill station gardeners, often have lots of wonderful stone and even too much of it at times, have developed the bad habit of viewing stones as a nuisance rather than something to be appreciated and incorporated in to over all garden plans. Yet, while the challenge is definitely there, the effort is well worth the back breaking work and patience involved.

A rocky outcrop on a steep slope at the back of my own garden in Bhurban serves as a prime example of the latter as it has taken almost 16 years, so far, of trial and error to transform it in to a kind of completely natural rockery. A task which has certainly not been helped by intermittent small landslides those always seem to occur just when I victoriously feel that I have finally conquered the mountain!

There is something, to me at least, extremely 'touchable' about any sort of natural stone and, to the embarrassment of anyone who happens to be with me at the time, I just can't resist running my fingers over the weathered surfaces of nicely placed boulders, smooth river stones, even sculptured pieces of rock art and marble chips which glint is extremely difficult to find a master of this ancient craft here in Pakistan and, if you are unlucky, you may discover that you have simply hired a mason who really does not understand the concept at all and who may throw something together which is not only ugly, but topples over with the slightest breeze. Dangerous stuff indeed!

For the uninitiated: A dry stone wall is painstakingly constructed out of carefully selected chunks of natural stone without the use of a single trowel full of cement or any other bonding material at all. The stones are laid and built up, piece by piece, in a kind of inter-woven method which holds them firmly together and, when properly made, they can, and do, stand for centuries without losing any of their integral strength and safety.

Such walls – they need not be high – can serve as rather low, say three feet maximum, dividers between different garden areas and, if correctly designed, are perfect in which to establish hardy, heat and drought tolerant, species of trailing, creeping and rambling plants. If you want to successfully grow plants in a dry stone wall then you need to incorporate suitable soil pockets at the time of construction, these soil pockets must be made in such a manner that heavy rain does not wash out the all important earth before the plants have had enough time to fix it firmly in place through the use of their mat forming root systems.

If your garden is not of a size to allow for the inclusion of dry stone walls then there are numerous other methods of incorporating natural stone into your garden area and its surrounding: Slate, which is not as widely utilized as it deserves to be, is pretty wonderful for paving patios, making footpaths, driveways, and rather interesting beds. If you leave gaps around each slab of slate in which to nurture low growing herbs and flowers and, if you really want to get into the artistic swing, then you can use slate for creating wonderfully practical, extremely cool, floors inside your home too.

Slate is mostly available in grey shades which have the inbuilt attraction of sparkling in very bright light, especially so if they have golden or silver specks of mica included in their natural composition and, outside in the garden after a shower of rain, they sparkle most enticingly indeed.

Footpaths, preferably meandering a little bit rather than the plain old straight and narrow designs people tend to opt for, comprised of natural sandstone blocks, or any other kind of stone for that matter as long as it has a relatively smooth and even surface, can make or break a garden. Too wide and they dominate the landscape to the detriment of whatever else is around; too narrow and they disappear from view altogether. The width of a garden footpath needs to be extremely carefully gauged to meld in with the size of the surrounding garden area, be wide enough for a wheelbarrow, a push chair or wheelchair, offer an interesting contrast to the rest of the garden and be complimentary to everything else in sight.

Laying a footpath, after designing it, takes quite a bit of thought and effort right down to the meticulous selection of each and every individual slab/piece of stone. If you examine, then closely enough, they are all different in one way or another and you will obtain great pleasure from having the most attractive ones laid in highly visible locations.

Creating flower, vegetable and herb beds and rockeries from natural stone is a wonderful way of adding character to your garden and a little artistic imagination can go a very long way. Actually, I will deviate a little here by also suggesting the use of manmade bricks, preferably recycled ones rather than shiny new ones, as these are much easier on the pocket than purchasing the quantities of natural stone. Bricks are also much lighter and easier to transport, plus, you can dream up some very intricate designs and have them laid in all sorts of interesting arrangements.

I do not advocate the use of marble slabs in the garden as these are generally slippery lethally, if they get wet, as they will, and they also have a tendency to discolor or stain when exposed to the elements. You can have satisfying crunchy gravel paths, although I strongly suggest that such paths be retained by a very low lying line of sunken bricks on either side to prevent the gravel escaping into the garden itself. Gravel and marble chips can also be visually effective when laid around cultivated beds and, unlike troublesome lawns, do not need watering, feeding or cutting although they will need weeding from time to time.

So, why not give some thought to incorporating natural stone, mellow bricks, gravel or marble chips in to your garden and save on water, labor costs and long-term general maintenance whilst enjoying a tactile feast?

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