A Very Rocky Obsession


Back when the gardening bug really hit me, we were raising two kids and watching our dollars. Or, at least watching the few we acquired being whisked off to creditors. We had no extra money around to buy soil, plants, mulch, or anything else. Yet, I was obsessed, and I kept starting new garden beds.

Managed this mostly by filling new beds with whatever flotsam and jetsam I could find–old bricks, rotten firewood, AMC Pacers, whatever, and then covering it all with a few inches of whatever soil I could scrounge. This could be small amounts leftover from landscape work, scraped off topsoil from the woods, and sometimes a sandy, gravelly mix filled with weed seeds from a nearby creek.

The soil in this bed consists mainly of gravel and sand from a creek bank. Very spare and quick to drain, but a lot of plants seem to thrive in it.

For plants, I was equally creative and unethical. A lot of things I grew from seed. Some of this came from seed exchanges and trades with friends, but I also kept a box of baggies in my car and on occasion, during my travels, seeds got into them somehow.

Seedling hellebores rescued from beneath their mommas. Great filler. As the area became shadier, moss moved in as the grass faded, and we love it!

I also pilfered rocks from construction sites and road cuts. A lot of rocks. All gathered the hard way.

I love the way rocks created cool spaces that really show off favorite plants.

A typical raid would have me hit a construction site on weekends or after dinner when I could be reasonably sure the workers would be gone. There, many rocks were picked up and thrown into the back of my truck until it sat disturbingly low on its springs. The rocks were then brought home, unloaded into a wheelbarrow, and then placed in a wall or garden. I found I was most productive on a cold weekend day with a light rain. Hours would go by. Progress would be made.

I estimate well over a hundred such trips. I have no idea how many tons of rocks I hauled, but I killed a perfectly good Toyota pickup, and a GMC Sierra, and umpteen wheelbarrows. My current truck’s condition is highly questionable. Thankfully, these days I’m not hauling many rocks anymore, and I don’t use the truck very much.

A couple of times I found rocks like these, which I think might be dolomite. No idea about the geology of them or why these were in the region.

As for lining beds and making walls, I had no idea what I was doing. Growing up, my dad had a rock garden, so I mimicked his technique of making naturalistic and pleasing curves to create sweet little planting pockets that would feature favorite plant s. I learned to use rocks also to create a little topography by retaining soil. That was pretty easy, and mistakes were easy enough to fix simply by picking up the rocks and putting them somewhere else.

Walls were a little harder. Nope. Never read one book about making stone walls, and never Googled anything either. That would be just wasting time when getting something done beckoned. But I really liked old walls and wanted some to define paths and create pleasing lines. Over time, I learned to stack a wall well enough. It was never my goal to make professional-looking, perfect rock walls, and I must admit that I was very successful at not achieving this goal I never had. Our house was built in 1890. It’s the original farmhouse in the neighborhood. I was content to have my walls look like something an exhausted farmer would build as he cleared rocks from his field. No more, no less.

Oddly enough, I never really thought about the rocks themselves until I noticed my brother-in-law, a California boy, carefully studying the fossils in them. Having grown up here, I basically took fossils in rocks for granted and assumed everybody else did too. But, turns out, Cincinnati has a fairly unique geology. In fact, we have our own geological period in the Ordovician period called the Cincinnatian, which, sadly, hasn’t translated into any increased income for even a single one of us. Nevertheless, about 450 million years ago the entire region was a warm, shallow sea filled with marine invertebrates.These all lived happy lives with descendants that numbered more than the stars and over eons their calcium rich earthly remains settled in the muck and turned to stone. Limestone, in fact. Eventually, the ground rose up out of the sea and over many more years enough limestone eroded to create a thin layer of soil which has a pH of about 8. I garden in this, and, of course, can’t grow rhododendrons for shit despite many stubborn attempts. Other plants aren’t so fickle, however, and this limestone region is known for beautiful creeks, fast thoroughbreds with strong bones, and just the right kind of water for making bourbon. Oh, and if you’re paying attention, for rocks loaded with all kinds of fossils, about which I am gradually developing a fascination.

I gathered most of my rocks from two construction sites near my home. I’m up on the ridge top not far from the Ohio River. For whatever reason, these were mother lodes–high concentrations of rocks all pocked by clams and brachipods and other things. I believe these were true Cincinnatian period sites. I also collected rocks from road cuts in Kentucky, but these rocks were different, blue in color, often with fewer fossils, and more slate-like. I think these possibly came from deeper in the strata, but I really don’t know. I hope to learn more. If I do, and if I think about it, maybe I’ll follow this with a sequel.

A few boulders were on the property and I’ve picked up a few over the years, but they don’t seem as natural here as the limestone field stone.
Likewise my crevice garden which is built with leftover sandstone flagstone. But it is a fun place to try to grow alpines and kill daphnes.

In the meantime, consider more rocks. Obsess about them even. Begged, borrowed, stolen, or even purchased, they add lots of interest to any garden. And, subjected to the elements, they only improve with time.

Rock walls are great places to sit and rest. And to think. And to set your stuff.


  1. My sweet Mother-In-Law lives way out in the country. She has zero problem ambling up to a nearby farmer’s house to ask permission for us to pilfer the piles of field stones in their ditches or corners of fields. They almost always say yes and we’ve tested the springs in our trailer more than once. I believe at least a few good rocks are necessary for every garden- and I love the walls you created!

  2. My husband and I walk the farm fields around our house regularly and collect rocks. We’ve found some beautiful granite and banded slate, among other things. And yes, they’re used in our gardens. The latest use is for a gabion bench.

  3. I’m a lover of rocks, and your photos of them left me drooling. How wonderful that you are still living in the garden that you’ve created, and that you are reaping the fruits of all your years of labor, including the unexpected bonus of a new passion for fossils and geology.

  4. Wonderful post! I can totally relate as that is how I built my garden. I also used broken concrete slabs from sidewalks being torn up. They stack really well. Kids HATED what I did. Once I stopped a truck hauling concrete debris from a site right next door to their school and handed the driver $20 to unload in my front yard. Of course between work and family, the wall went up slowly. Neighborhood Association none too pleased, either. But to the stones, we live across from a creek and that has provided a rich supply. There are lots of fossils in them. No Idea the geography here in Maryland. You’ve inspired me to research.

  5. And yet another wonderfully entertaining and revealing piece, Scott. I, too, am a big fan of rocks, and have “rescued” many a trunk load (I have never had a truck, but have borrowed one from friends… once). My husband and I even rented a moving truck and, with the great help of my Dad and a much younger and stronger friend, gathered up about 8 tons of old granite curbing from downtown Charlotte. Most of these garden gains are still stacked neatly where they were placed when they were initially unloaded. I’ve got plans, man… PLANS. Your rant fuels me with the inspiration to get going, get out there and get those rocks placed! Thank you, as always. Happy gardening, rockin’ it out!

  6. Thanks for your inspiring essay on how much rocks improve our gardens. Your photos showcase all the ways that nooks and crannies between and within stones can create a perfect foil for special little plants like the edimedium and corydalis. Yellow Corydalis lutea seems to create seeds that ants like to carry high into crevises in rock walls.
    Here in SE Pennsylvania, we have some mica- embedded schist that sparkles and draws one to some innocent pilfering of small stones from parks or excavated sites.

    • That’s one of the best things about using rocks, creating places that compliment and highlight plants. The Corydalis does seem to find unusual places to live. Usually, it’s in the right places, but sometimes I rip it too. I love the schist I’ve seen in the Philly area, especially the old buildings on the Swarthmore campus.

  7. I don’t need to scrounge for rocks. I live in western NY, and the glacier ran right through my yard. I harvest a fine crop of rocks every spring when I start digging. All shapes and sizes. It’s a marvel to me that there’s so much agriculture in this region – I’d have thought the early farmers would have gotten discouraged when they constantly broke their plow blades.

  8. I too am a rock scrounger. Also paving bricks. I live near communities that were once known as the clay capital of the world. Lots of of brick. And a husband who had always worked where he could salvage pavers and sandstone. You never can have too much of either.

  9. Another rock hound here except I had the benefit of working on construction sites for several years and found lots of amazing rocks. Boston area is filled with stray granite cobblestones of which I have more than I can count. As my cousin says it’s in the DNA with a great great grand father who was a mason.

  10. A lovely and interesting garden but as a resident of the far side of the world (i.e. Tasmania) I’m amazed there is no recognition of natural field or streambed rocks as habitat. The collection of “bush” rock has threatened the existence of some reptile species in Australia and near my home the cobbled streams are home to platypus and the threatened giant freshwater crayfish which use rocks for shelter and food sources. Perhaps it’s not an issue there but may be something worth thinking about.

    • Tasmania! I should have mentioned that my walls do create habitat. Here in Cincinnati, an Italian lizard imported by kids in the 1930s has made itself home, and it loves the walls. A native black rat snake has taken up residence recently in a wall and yesterday I found him on the hunt halfway into a rodents den. I don’t see others collecting stone here very much, and only along roadways and construction sites when I do. The vast majority of stone used in projects is not local limestone but imported from other parts of the country. Limestone is just sort of taken for granite (er, granted), and overlooked.

  11. Going by the geology of my limestone-rich county (now mountain footnills, we were once a balmy sea), that bluer, slatey rock you found in Kentucky might be just limestone with a lot of manganese in it. There are seams and pockets of such rock all through southwest Virginia, and a little population of endemic plants that thrive on the Mg.

    • Interesting. It’s funny because both sides of the Ohio River are big hills going to somewhere between 700-800 feet. No real reason to feel like the geography should be different but the KY rocks are different from the OH rocks. It might be in part because the glaciers stopped right about at the present location of the river in this area, but I don’t really know.


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