A Satisfying Stack of Stones


Fresh from a class on dry (mortarless) stacked stone wall building, I am appreciating anew the many contributions of stone to a garden. Of course, I’ve already incorporated two stone patios and a couple of stepping stone paths into my new garden, courtesy of my good friend Jason at Willowglenn Landscape, but I’d love to also include some vertical stone elements.

Here’s a shot of my Boise front yard from April of this year; stepping stone paths connect the round patio in the foreground with a larger patio near the front gate in the background. Stonework by local firm Willowglenn Landscape.

I did the stonework myself in my two previous gardens. Mainly this consisted of patios, though I also have built a couple of low retaining walls. However, freestanding walls over a certain height (not to mention cacti a la Ben Hartman) are much more intimidating do-it-yourself projects.

Having fun installing a rock patio in my Minnesota garden in 2008. (Photo by Deb Hudson)

What a thrill to have the opportunity a few weeks ago to learn from a visiting teacher, the amazing stone artist and author Dan Snow, whose books have been on my “to read” list for years.

My mom took the course with me (deep affection for rocks is bred into our DNA). Over two days, eight of us built a freestanding capped sandstone wall roughly four feet high and twenty-four feet long.

Mom laying the first course. We built our wall directly on a packed base of sandy soil — no digging! (Photo by Ellen Snow)

One challenge in this kind of project is the irregularity of the rocks. See the pile of them behind Mom in the photo above? But surprisingly, those pieces can be fitted together to make a sturdy wall that keeps livestock contained and will stand for decades if not centuries.

We used string and wooden framing to line up the outside edges of the wall. Between the outer rows of larger rock, we piled smaller rocks as we built. (Photo by Karen Bubb)
I’m pretty proud that I figured out a way to include a cylindrical piece in the wall. Can you spot its round end? (Photo by Ellen Snow)

Mom and I both left the class with dreams of building dry stacked stone projects in our own gardens. We also came away with that satisfying peace you get from spending time in hard physical labor with natural materials that are pleasing to the senses.

Our finished work. Can you believe it only took us two days to make this? (Photo by Ellen Snow)

Of course, this is pretty basic compared to some of the artistic stone structures Dan Snow has created over his 40 years of doing this work. One of my favorites of his recent projects is this sculptural rock wall created for the Glenmorangie Distillery in Scotland.


  1. Love playing with stone. That picture of you with a big grin sitting dusty and sweaty on you stone work is me to a tee. I want to take a dry stone class so bad. Gotta do it before my knees totally give out. Playing with old brick pavers is equally satisfying.

  2. It is amazing that it can stand, sturdy and solid for so long without mortar. Amazing! It would be slow going alone, but looks like a blast with many helping hands. Great job, all!

  3. Looks like great fun and hard work! Love the beautiful artwork at the distillery too. (And, yes, I saw your round stone)

  4. Almost 20 years ago in VA, I worked on a stone wall with Dan Snow for one of the annual meetings for the Stone Foundation (www.stonefoundation.org), essentially a stone mason’s guild. Walling is one of the most satisfying practices in building a garden. Glad you’re experiencing it. Hopefully more gardeners will realize that these dry stone walls are better looking, longer lasting and often less expensive than a fake stone wall of cinderblock with a layer of stone slapped on it with mortar. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. For another example of amazing dry stacking, Google “Tom Hendrix wall Alabama”. I’d post a link to a website, but I can’t find one specifically for the wall aside from a FB page. It is included on many travel sites and several newspapers have written about it.

    It’s an amazing place with an amazing story. Whenever I go to visit my family in Alabama, I visit Mr Hendrix and his wall. The structure itself is beautiful in any season, but many also find it to be a spiritual place.

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