Before we use an excavator to tear up a half acre of grass in the front “lawn” to turn our front yard into a permaculture project, I had already begun the painstaking process of hand-picking out chunks of grass to begin to building a rock path that meandered through the yard.
Once the permaculture was truly underway, creating paths out of wood chips the Public Utility District has so kindly provided us for free over the past few years (thanks PUD!) became far more practical to build and maintain, but I did continue to one primary rock path through the permaculture project, which I finally completed last fall. More than 200 feet in length, the rock path serves as the primary access point to the project, leading away from the front steps of our house, circling around our large Douglas firs; passing alongside tea plants, blueberries, seaberries, aronia bushes, and dozens of other perennials; past a raised bed for asparagus and two other raised beds for annuals; and finally meandering under an arbor alive with hardy kiwis, grapes, and clematis before arriving at a bend in the driveway.
Building a rock path isn’t difficult physically, but it takes a bit of puzzle work to fit together the rocks as you’d like them, and patience as you wait for the plants to grow in. I used rocks reclaimed from our property, which had been previously used to make a rock wall behind the house. We dug out these rocks and replaced the rocks behind the house with river rocks, which are less expensive and easier to acquire. Living rurally, it also would have been easy enough to purchase flat rocks from a local quarry, though it would have taken quite a few truck trips to transport the amount we’ve used. My advice here would be to start piling up plentiful rocks, gathered from friends, quarries or on your property, long before you actually begin your project.
This is a “before” picture of the last section of lawn that needed to be chipped away to complete the 200 foot rock path from the bend in our driveway to the landing in front of our front porch. The viewer can see the recent addition of a few rocks that have yet to be fully worked into the soil, and notice how the rocks in the background have settled after their placement a few months prior. The rocks near the back right of this photo were placed the previous summer, and thus have not only a more settled appearance, but also moss and other plants that have begun to grow in around the rocks.
To build your own rock path, first, use a mattock to chip away at any lawn you might have. A mattock is far easier to use than a shovel, as it’s blade is meant for getting through roots. Swinging the mattock allows the user to use momentum to break through the lawn’s rhizomatic root system, and then allows the user to pull the grass away in chunks. It takes a little getting used to (definitely wear gloves!), but I love working the mattock, both for its speed, and the workout my arms, shoulders, and back get. I’ve dug out hundreds of square feet of lawn with the mattock, for everything from raspberry beds to a garden around the guesthouse, from raised beds to rock paths.
Here’s the before and after of an area I’ve cleared and replanted to the west side of our Douglas firs:
The lawn I tear out I cart away in a wheelbarrow. These clumps can later be used as a foundation for a berm, buried deep with other organic matter, but the grass should be buried at least nine inches below the soil to ensure the grass does not re-sprout, nor any other noxious seeds that may be laying dormant (I’m looking at you creeping butter cup!)
Next, place your rocks on top of the ground, puzzling your pieces so that they fit nicely around one another, to your specifications of width and length. This as good a real-life, adult scenario of Tetris as there ever was! Leave 3-5 inches between each rock, so there is room for plants and the soil they’ll need to thrive. Once the rocks have been laid out, lift the rocks one at a time (I try to flip them in place, so as to hold their spot, which allows me also to observe the contours underneath the rock, to help determine the depth I need to dig), and use the mattock to chip out a space in the soil for the rock. Set the soil to the side for use in just a moment. Gently replace the rock, leaving the rock protruding approximately 2 inches above the ground.
I leave the rock protruding for two reasons. Though I can’t say I’ve never stubbed a toe on one of my freshly placed rocks, the rocks do settle. Expect each rock to settle at least an inch within the first 6 mos. to a year. I made the mistake of just barely keeping my rocks out of the soil the first fifty or so feet of my path, and spent the following summer using a crow bar to lift the rocks and stuff organic material underneath them, just to they wouldn’t get buried. Additionally, your plants will inevitably be planted in the soil, with a
1 1⁄2 – 4 inch head of foliage. The leaves/moss/needles/flowers of your plant will then be at approximately rock-level, and then can spread happily between rocks, and even over the top of them.
Once rocks are placed, use the soil set aside to fill in the gaps between the soil. I also use soil from our compost pile, and from the ever-present manure heap James collects from friends who have cattle or horses. We always have a huge pile of composting manure to use at a moment’s notice in our garden.
Next up is my favorite step – it is time to shop for plants! Pay attention to the region of your rock path. Is the area shaded? Is it partial or full sun? Understanding that the rocks will compact the soil around them is important, and also know that the rocks create micro-climates, warming the soil around them more than other regions of the garden. Strawberries love being planted near rocks, but beware of planting anything that requires plentiful water or shade, as the rocks will warm and dry soil out. I have only had success in growing moss in at least part-share to full-shade areas, and far away from the rain shadow of our massive Douglas firs. Creeping and woolly thyme do wonderfully with rocks (really, any type of thyme does fabulously), and if you have a bit of shade, Blue Star Creeper and Scotch moss are a few of my personal favorites. For warm and drier areas, ice plants and sedum (and other aptly named stonecrops) add texture and color.
Space plants out 6-12″ apart, or as your pocketbook allows. I generally work on 10-15 foot sections of path at a time, as this size section is manageable for me to chip, place rocks, and then plant, usually purchasing between fifteen and twenty 3-4″ starts. Once you’ve planted, make sure to water each plant, and water a couple times a week for the first few weeks under the new roots systems have established.
The path will take a two-three years to grow in completely, and you may need to replace a few plants that die off. The payoff will be a functional work-of-art you’ll get to use on the daily.