The Artistry of Stone

Published on June 27, 2024

Waterfall with a natural look
Placement of artisan stone is critical to creating twists and turns in a waterfall that you’d see in nature. Use a variety of shapes and sizes to achieve a natural look.

For the pond-building artist, stone is your paint, and how you use it can make or break the look of a water feature. Choosing the perfect stone, however, is no guarantee of a beautiful outcome. That’s the realm where creativity and inspiration from Mother Nature and an understanding of the stone’s characteristics come into play. 

Ultra Balance

To illustrate, let’s roll through some simple tips for beginners that serve as good reminders for those with more experience. 

Be a Student of Nature 

Head out into local parks and wilderness areas to find natural inspiration. Study various stone arrangements. Although stacking flat rocks on top of each other is undoubtedly the easiest way to build a waterfall, it’s also the least natural method. It’s a dead giveaway that the waterfall is the work of unpracticed human hands. 

When you examine natural watercourses, it’s much more common to find large, irregular chunks of stone that appear to have shattered at some point in their history. This creates entirely random and naturally unique looks. You’ll also see stone in a broad assortment of sizes. Streambeds are covered by smaller stones that have been ground down to near-perfect, rounded forms. 

It’s not enough simply to be a constant student of natural streams, waterfalls, and ponds. You must also learn how to place stone in a way that makes your ponds look like nature created them. Note how the size, shape, and placement of rock causes water to twist and turn. Once you become comfortable using stone in building water features, enjoyment of the process comes from emulating nature well. 

Work with Great Stone 

You might think you can save a lot of money by collecting stone out of the wilderness and hauling it back home or to the job site. Even if you do find a spot where you can gain legal permission to do so, the wear and tear on your vehicle and the amount of time you’ll have to spend collecting enough stone for your water features will likely outweigh any savings you might realize. 

Instead, the best approach is simply to buy the material you need from a stone yard. But even there, finding great stone involves doing your homework. You need to become a detective in identifying local resources and their strengths. In some cases, you might even end up working directly with a quarry, although they tend to be far off the beaten path. 

It’s also a good idea to work with local resources. Although there’s some appeal to working with stone sources in China or Italy, the downside builds rapidly when one considers shipping cost. And if you want to achieve a natural look, there is a distinct advantage to using indigenous stone. It will blend visually with local rock formations and seem familiar to anyone who sees it. 

Different Regions, Different Stones 

Regional stones from the Catskills area create a natural-looking waterfall in a shady area. Moss and plants were artfully placed to design a water feature that no one would guess is man made.

If you study local watercourses and rock formations, apply what you learn and customarily choose only local stone, chances are good that your routines will carry you through projects on every scale imaginable. If your work carries you to different parts of the country, you’ll immediately discover that different regions offer different kinds of stones. You need to retool your approach accordingly. 

Indeed, each region of the country boasts stone that has its own character and style. The following is a sampling of some of the types of stone you can expect to see as you travel around the nation but be aware that these are broad generalizations. There is a lot of variation in each region.  

The Northeast boasts more naturally beautiful fieldstone than almost any place else on the planet. As you drive around, you’ll see plenty of examples in the dry-stacked stone walls built many generations ago. Most stone in this region is well weathered and either granite or sandstone. Of course, the best option for the pond builder would be rounded river rock. However, that’s increasingly hard to find because of widespread restrictions on harvesting stone from riverbeds. This doesn’t mean you can’t get any of it. It will just cost more. As a less-expensive alternative, seek out raw stone varieties that are most like boulders — chunky, irregular and a bit thicker than the thinner, slab-like materials that are so commonly available. And don’t even think about taking a shortcut and collecting stone from any of those dry-stacked walls. These historic landmarks are protected by law in most areas. 

South and Southeast Stone is Hard to Come By

In the South and Southeast, good stone can be rather hard to come by. For most projects you’ll face the added cost of shipping materials to the job site. This is a particular issue in coastal areas, all the way around the Gulf Coast and up the Atlantic seaboard. As you move inland and approach the Appalachians, however, you’ll find an abundance of beautiful stone of many types, including softer granites, sandstone, and some limestone. Regional moss rock from the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina is particularly prized for use in waterfalls. It gives ponds an immediate naturalistic quality. 

Midwest Boulders

Granite boulders predominate in the upper Midwest areas like Wisconsin and Minnesota and on up into central Canada, while limestone takes center stage in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. Much of the farm belt is loaded with limestone. There are pockets where lots of very nice local stone is readily available, and it’s generally easy to figure things out with visits to local stone yards. That said, this is also a market in which many projects involve bringing in stone from some distance. Fancy moss rock from the Rockies is a popular choice among clients. Prepare to pay $400 or more per ton. 

In the West and Southwest, you will be able to find any type of stone imaginable, generally speaking. This includes flat or rounded river rocks, weathered, moss-covered granite, various types of volcanic rock, a huge range of sandstones and plenty of limestone. There are so many mountainous areas in the West that are full of beautiful stone and water formations; you never have to look far for inspiration or material. In fact, visits to good local stone yards can be a bit intimidating. There’s just so much variety by way of stone types, and the range of available colors is so vast, it’s almost bewildering. 

Pacific Northwest Stone

The Pacific Northwest is another region with virtually limitless stone possibilities, and much of it is available at startlingly reasonable prices. But here it’s often about more than stone. In many projects, you’ll find yourself following nature by integrating other natural materials into your compositions, including moss, tree branches and stumps. Among the most common stone types is a uniquely lightweight volcanic rock, which is awesome for building waterfalls, and you can even shape individual stones without much difficulty. With all those natural rivers and streams in the region, you might think it would be easy to obtain rounded river rock, but that’s not the case. Environmental restrictions prohibit the disturbance of riverbeds and their surrounding areas, so this type of stone is becoming increasingly difficult to acquire at any price. 

As you work with any of these stone types in any of these regions, or even if you never wander beyond a day’s walk from your home base, it’s important to bear in mind that no stone is too common or too boring if you use it well. On the flip side, even the prettiest, most expensive stone can look terrible if you don’t know how stone and water interact in nature. No matter how you slice it, the fact of the matter is that working with stone is work. The more you know, the more observant you are and the more practice you get, the better your results will be. 

Limestone: Fact and Fiction? 

An expansive waterfall in Colombia, South America incorporates granite boulders and native plantings.

Have you ever had anyone tell you that you cannot put limestone in a pond? Although it’s generally true, it is helpful to know that there are exceptions to this rule. Some limestone is very hard and dense or has been weathered to the point that it is safe to use in a water feature. Moss or lichen growing on limestone (or any stone, for that matter) is a good indication of its possible use in a pond. 

With soft or porous limestone, pH and hardness will typically rise because the limestone’s minerals leach into the water. These minerals (basically phosphorous and several other micronutrients) also encourage algae growth. But when the stone has weathered to a point where low-pH-loving plants such as moss can grow, that stone no longer changes pH or hardness. Obviously, you must be sure before you introduce limestone to a pond, as pH levels above 9 can lead to irritated, stressed fish. 

When in doubt, test the stone by pouring on a little vinegar. If it foams and bubbles profusely, you probably don’t want to use it. But if you see slight, slow bubbling, the type of limestone can probably can be used, don’t be fooled. If there is no bubbling at all, somebody’s trying to sell you something other than limestone! 

Key Stone Characteristics 

An often-overlooked aspect of stone is its importance in the functional aspects of water-feature construction. The stone has structural characteristics that will stabilize the excavation and prevent it from collapsing due to saturated soil conditions and the action of freezing and thawing conditions in northern climates. This becomes even more important with deeper ponds and higher waterfalls as these forces are intensified. 

The other unique characteristic about stone is its surface. It may appear smooth or craggy depending on the type of stone. However, one look under a microscope will show you that even the smoothest of stones can be covered with minute mountains and valleys. This critical aspect of a healthy econsystem is unfortunately taken for granted. The surface of the stones will become the foundation for microbial colonization and all these peaks and valleys dramatically increase the surface area of the stone, making it a living, breathing colony of a wide variety of microorganisms.  

I’m a big student of biomimicry designs (using nature’s methods as a model). The peaks and valleys found on the surface of rock resemble the same peaks and valleys found within our intestines. If you’re familiar with human anatomy and biology, you’ll understand that there is a symbiotic relationship that occurs within our digestive system that uses microorganisms responsible for the mechanical and chemical breakdown of nutrients critical for our survival. Rock and gravel play a similar role within aquatic ecosystems. 

Armed with information about the aesthetics and characteristics that stone plays in a water feature, you’re better equipped to craft ponds and waterfalls that mimic and behave like nature itself. 

Kloubec Koi Farm

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