Borrowing stones and scenery


Even in New England the snow is melting and soon I will be confronted with what the winter – and the plow truck – have done to my stone walls.  I take a particular pride in these, not because they are such beautiful specimens of the craft, but because I built them.  It seemed an obvious decision:  the house we built in the Berkshire Hills of southwestern Massachusetts is set in a landscape of stones so the material for walls was right at hand.  Besides, the woods that spread out around the house are full of inspiration; old, tumbled-down walls assembled by the farmers who were my predecessors on the property. So, soon after the house was completed, I set to work.

I made an early decision that I would use a minimum of machinery, just a block and tackle to lift the larger stones (some weighed a couple of hundred pounds) and a small cart pulled by my two-wheeled Italian tractor to haul them from the woods to the building site.  This decision slowed my progress, but I don’t regret it.  I came to know those stones intimately and considered the placement of each one carefully before I slid it out of the cart and lifted it into its final resting spot.

stone in cart

There is a concept in Japanese gardening called shakkei, which means, literally, “borrowing scenery”.  This involves including elements in the garden that echo features of the surrounding landscape, to link the two and make the garden part of something larger.

Certainly my stone walls accomplish that.  And they have inspired me to base the rest of my landscaping on something similar.  Instead of indulging my inner plant nerd with rare and exotic species, I am going to create a garden just out of the plants such as white birch and mountain laurel that are common in the surrounding woods and fields.

The challenge will be like that of the walls, to understand how to fit these common things together so that they become, collectively, something uncommon and special.   The trick will lie, I think, in considering the placement of each plant as carefully as I considered those stones.  Instead of imposing on the landscape with my gardening, I must try to truly understand it.



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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. Fantastic, there is nothing like the satisfaction of creating your own landscape. Will you grace us a DIY lesson on how to build a stack stone wall, if that is the proper term.

  2. Your commentary on your stone wall project was motivating. I am drawn by the graceful curve of the stones as they seem to invite you to follow them. I can truly agree that if you study your property it will provide direction, and in your word, “inspiration.” To work with, and not against the land, is always a successful partnership. How delighted I am to know there are those who desire to understand their landscape. You seem to have discovered the secret. If you listen carefully and follow its lead the land will show you the way. It will guide you to “something uncommon and special.” Seems to me you are well on your way to meeting your challenge. Have a joyful spring and place those plants carefully. Shuuuu, listen, I hear your landscape calling!

  3. Tom, I still remember the love and care that went into building that wall. Only you would insist on a block and tackle approach! The wall is a testament to your stick-with-it-ness and attention to detail.

  4. I love your rock wall! It is beautiful and looks like it will last generations.

    I like your garden idea too. You know how sometimes you come across a place in a natural setting that just feels right, a place you fell comfortable sitting in? Recreating something like that would be a challenge, but oh-so-satisfying. Myself, I would be apt to place plants in the wrong spot, survival-wise, because I would be so focused on my requirements, rather than the plants’!

  5. Very inspiring indeed, and a lovely wall you made with material readily available. We have similar material available here too with the tilling of agriculture fields and frost heaving. You see field stones in gardens and in landscaping everywhere around here. Makes me want to ask some of my farmer neighbors if I can have their rock piles for some similar barriers in my garden as you’ve done here.

  6. I love that you are describing the maturing eye and deliberate practice of a designer. As a Baby Gardener, I was in love with the showy, the brightest bright, the deepest darks – but now I am looking to what is close at hand and trying to draw inspiration from different sources. It is also in line with our developing knowledge about the needs of our environment and our place as stewards of our planet, which can sometimes put a garden designer in an awkward spot. Thanks for this eloquent commentary – stone walls have always been a metaphor for the solid and the mature, and this post spoke to this very beautifully.

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