Understanding the role that landscape masonry plays in creating a functional and appealing outdoor space is an essential aspect of your overall landscape plan. Below is a guide that will take a closer look at your yard’s hardscape and all of the different landscape masonry types and how you can incorporate them into your yard’s design.
Many of us have found more time at home lately. Some have learned new skills such as painting, baking, and sewing, while others started growing plants and tidying up their yard.
If you are one of the thousands of people who are currently invested in the beautification of your outdoor space, you must have also thought of building additional structures like a kitchen, grill station, pool, patio, and walkway. These hardscape elements are typically constructed using landscape masonry.
What is Landscape Masonry?
Landscape masonry is a term used to address many hardscape features like walkways, patios, dry streams, columns, etc. Traditionally, the term masonry has been used more to describe stone, brick, block, or concrete work held together with mortar or cement. Lately, it has been used to include all types of hardscape installations, including dry-laid walls and flatwork.
Unlike other construction techniques used in our landscapes, like carpentry and earthwork, masonry is considered highly durable and permanent because of the materials used in the construction process. These structures, which are usually made from stones, bricks, or concrete, can withstand just about any weather event that may occur.
If you want to add some more hardscape features to your yard, you have the option of doing it yourself or hiring a professional. The materials aren’t particularly hard to obtain, but the work is rather technical and laborious, so if you do not like details and back-wrenching work, masonry may not be for you.
Two Landscape Masonry Techniques
When it comes to masonry, especially in the landscape, there are two basic construction techniques.
This technique is also referred to as mortared. The masonry structure is built adhering the stone or brick to each other using mortar or cement. While typically considered its own category and product, concrete could also be regarded as a wet-laid technique since it is gravel and sand held together by a lime cement slurry.
Wet-laid structured are typically seen as more durable than dry-laid because individual pieces are less prone to move with little force. When we are using stone and brick for home construction, it is almost exclusively wet-laid.
Wet-laid walls and patios will typically require a footing that extends down below the frost zone to avoid frost heave and cracking or a flat foundation. In cold climates, when the ground freezes, it heaves. It may only move slightly, but if your wet-laid patio or wall does not have a sturdy foundation below it, the mortar and stone will easily crack and shift with the force of the frozen ground.
This same freeze and thaw cycle forces boulders to the surface of the earth over time, so don’t disregard its power.
A wet-laid wall will typically have a footing that extends below the frost line. Here in Wisconsin, that is four feet below the surface. This foundation is what the wall is built upon, and it will ensure that the wall does not heave and crack because it is built low enough that the ground below it will never freeze.
On the other hand, a wet-laid patio is typically built upon concrete flatwork. Just like when laying concrete sidewalks and patios, concrete flatwork always has crack joints cut in it so that the walkway or patio will crack where we want it to crack as it moves with the surface of the earth. Using this method, we can adhere stone or brick to the top of this concrete flatwork so that it has mortar joints over the crack control lines so that the movement doesn’t damage the stone and mortar.
Wet-laid masonry is always more expensive due to the extra time and materials needed to build it properly. Even in warm climates where freezing is not an issue, wet-laid masonry takes more time to install.
This technique is the most widely used method of wall building and patio and walkway building in America. The technique involves removing any soft topsoil, compacting a flat base of crushed stone, and then laying or stacking the stone or brick on top of that.
Dry laid boulder or stone walls and patios are quite different in construction, but both rely on the same principles. We are using gravity to keep our project intact.
A dry-laid patio or walkway will have brick or stone laid flat on top of the crushed stone base. The stone or brick are set tight together with minimal gaps, and they are all set in one plane to create a pleasing flat surface. They are held there by gravity and backfilled with sand to fill the gaps. These patios and walkways will move with the freeze and thaw of the ground below, but as they are not mortared together, cracking is not an issue. The rustic old European cobblestone roads were built with this technique, so we know it stands the test of time.
On the other hand, a dry-laid wall uses gravity to keep it together by stacking the rock or brick to always bear on the course below in such a way that the gravity will keep it in place. This is why many dry-laid stone walls are wider at the bottom and more narrow at the top because the stones are leaning in toward the center of the wall to keep it standing. Once again, these walls will move with the freeze and thaw, but if built correctly, it will not damage the construction as there is no mortar to crack.
Side note: A retaining wall is typically a wall built to retain the soil behind it. Retaining walls are most commonly dry laid. Whether dry or wet-laid, a retaining wall’s durability lies in its drainage. When you see a retaining wall leaning out and looking like it might fall over, that is due to the ground behind the retaining wall pushing out on the wall. This can be from frost or simply from water and soil flowing down the hill that is being retained.
Two Wall Styles
The following terminology for the two styles is used more in home construction than landscaping, but the concepts might still apply if you create a mortared stone wall.
- Rubble Masonry: This uses undressed, natural stones set in mortar. This would be a natural fieldstone mortared wall, for example.
- Ashlar Masonry: This type of stone masonry is more expensive as it requires sizing, shaping, and smoothing the stones to create the desired appearance. This would be a mortared wall constructed using square-cut stone pieces. This is much more formal and stable due to each stone’s squaring.
Gone are the days when landscape masonry only focused on natural stonework. Now there is a dizzying array of materials and options that would beautify any backyard, so it can be tough to narrow down your choices. The list below is intended to help you choose what might be right for your landscape.
Natural Stone Masonry
Even though natural stone masonry is tagged as the oldest masonry technique, it still works in imbuing different structures with lots of sophistication. Natural stone is more earth-friendly as it is naturally occurring, but it is typically more costly.
There are many natural stone options that you can choose from if you prefer stone masonry. Some of the most popular choices are granite, limestone, bluestone, and sandstone. Typically, depending on the look that you want, you will be better off using a stone that is local to your area. Rock is heavy, so trucking it across the country can get costly.
Using a stone native to your area will better ensure its longevity. I have too often seen landscapes where people used sandstone in a northern climate only to realize that it quickly breaks down when exposed to freezing temperatures when wet. This is why you don’t find a lot of sandstone in Wisconsin. The seasons’ freeze and thaw turn it into sand in short order.
The most natural look for dry-laid freestanding or retaining walls is the fieldstone boulder retaining wall. These are natural stones taken from the earth and stacked to build the wall. The boulders are typically sized to match the wall’s scale, and they are generally dry-laid (stacked).
Many natural stone walls are built using outcropping stone. Outcropping stone is typically blasted out of rock quarries and fractures into rectangular blocks, making it ideal for stacked stone walls.
Many patios and walkways are created using natural stone that has been cut or fractured to a specific size or shape. Limestone is a very popular option for patios, walkways, and stepping stone paths because when it is blasted out of quarries, it will often fracture into thin layers that are ideal for these uses. Flat, natural stone is often referred to as flagstone. Flagstone is a style of stone, not a particular type.
Historically, bricks have been used to build walls and flat surfaces for many years because they can be made out of clay in areas that do not have access to flat stone material. Bricks are traditional rectangular and are relatively easy to use, laid flat, or stacked.
Although bricks won’t typically last as long as natural stone, there are many products on the market today that will get close.
Brick has been traditionally made using clay, so the brick’s color and durability were primarily tied to the region and soil structure from which it came.
More recently, the concrete industry has been making remarkable brick products in many shapes and sizes. These concrete products are very durable and can be made to resemble clay brick or even natural stone, so they are a very popular choice for many homeowners.
Brick can be dry laid or wet-laid when used in patios but would typically be wet-laid when used in walls as their small size does not give them great stacking ability when dry.
A Few things to consider when choosing brick:
- Natural clay brick can absorb water, leading to cracking and deterioration in colder climates.
- Because they are absorbent, natural clay bricks will often grow moss in shaded areas.
- The newer concrete bricks are generally very good, but some tend to fade in color.
- Some concrete bricks are colored throughout, while some are only colored on the outside, which means that any chip will reveal a different color.
There are many different concrete block products used in construction. The tried and true cinder blocks have long been a staple in the home construction industry and are often used as the foundation for wet-laid brick and stone walls.
Concrete retaining wall blocks are widely used to retain the earth in residential and commercial settings. These blocks come in many shapes, sizes, textures, and colors and can be small to create a pretty little garden or seat walls, or they can be quite large to hold back mountains of earth.
The retaining wall blocks are engineered specifically to fit their application and typically constructed so that they will tie into each other or be adhered to each other using construction adhesive.
Concrete may not be your best choice if you are looking for pretty, but you can’t argue with its adaptability, strength, and longevity. Poured concrete is used in both vertical and flat applications and can be engineered and reinforced to withstand almost any force.
Poured concrete has long been an easy and economical choice for landscape walls, flatwork, footings, and foundations. If you are looking for an economical patio or walkway at your home, you won’t find a better price than a poured concrete application. It can be formed to fit any space and will last many lifetimes.
If you have a bit extra to spend, you can look into colored and stamped concrete, which is poured concrete that is colored and/or stamped to have a particular look. Some stamped concrete patios could be mistaken for natural stone.
Poured concrete or modified concrete that can be blown in against the walls is a primary construction method for in-ground swimming pools. The two types of concrete used for pool construction are usually called shotcrete or gunite. Both types are blown onto a vertical surface and would definitely need a professional’s touch and equipment for application.
Stone or Brick Veneer Masonry
Veneer masonry uses a thin layer of stones or brick for decorative purposes and not for load-bearing. Usually, the thin layer is stacked against and tied to a poured or block concrete wall. While you will find some walls and pillars like this in landscapes, this technique is typically used in home construction.
Veneers can vary in their thickness and uses. A full-bed stone or brick veneer uses pieces that are four to eight inches thick. A thin or sawn veneer, on the other hand, uses natural stones or brick that were sawn down to create the ideal one-inch thickness. These days, they are becoming increasingly popular since they can be used in areas where full bed stone veneers won’t fit, and they are more economical.
Ways to Incorporate Masonry in Your Landscape Designs
There are several ways to include masonry in your landscape, and here are they:
Walkways enable you and your visitors to move through your landscape without damaging all your softscape. You can use pavers, poured concrete, or stonework to create this, but pavers are much preferable since they come in different tones that can be integrated into your landscape.
Stepping Stone Paths
Flat pieces of stone, large or small, can be laid in any design needed to allow for a very informal walkway through your lawn or garden.
Patios are perhaps the most common application of masonry in a landscape. You can use whatever sort of masonry material and technique you choose and create a very long-lasting patio of any shape or size.
Want to create a great first impression among your guests or create a security gate? Then you might want to build masonry pillars at the end of your driveway. This will make a formal entrance, and the pillars can support a gate.
Many driveways are constructed using concrete, but they can also be built with brick or stone.
Utilizing masonry to add retaining walls is quite practical as it provides structural support and aesthetically pleasing planting areas and terraces. These walls can be created using many different materials and techniques.
Wouldn’t it be fun if you have a fireplace that can provide your outdoor space with a warm ambiance? Natural stone or brick masonry can be used in conjunction with a masonry product called fire brick (used to line the inside of the fireplace) to build a fireplace out in your yard, just like one that you may see inside a home.
Outdoor kitchens seem to be gaining popularity and can be built using dry-stacked walls or wet-laid walls to create counters, cabinets, and enclosures for sinks, grilling areas, refrigerators, and more. Often concrete or granite can be used for countertops. Couple this kitchen with a fireplace, a table and chairs, and some new patio furniture, and you’ve got a full-scale living area outdoors!
Dry Stream Bed
A dry stream bed or dry creek bed is one of the most straightforward masonry applications in your landscape. All you have to do is line stones in a gully or trench for better drainage, to prevent soil erosion, and to add an artistic flair.
Garden walls can be created to frame in a special garden, or they can be used at the edge of a patio to separate it from the rest o the yard.
Benches and Seat Walls
Benches and seat walls can be constructed in many different ways to suit your needs. Creating a nice solid spot to sit and view your garden can be a nice touch in many gardens.
Whether you live in a tropical climate or not, constructing a pool to complete your landscape is a good idea. Pools can be created in any style you might like to suit your yard and lifestyle. Bring the vacation to your yard by giving yourself a beautiful swimming pool where you can enjoy the hot sun or a cool dip.
As mentioned before, columns can be built at the entrance to your home, or they can be used at the ends of walls or to draw attention to certain areas of your garden. Due to their height, columns will typically require a foundation. They can be used to create height in the garden and can have lights mounted on them if desired.
Another wall addition that will certainly add flair to your garden would be a masonry archway. Archways have long been used in more formal walled gardens and require a skilled craftsperson to build, making them a bit on the pricey side of things.
Many beautiful gardens have a masonry water feature. These can range from concrete reflecting ponds to fountains to large cascading waterfalls. No matter how you do it, a masonry water feature can be the life of your landscape.
Masonry has long been used to create enclosures for our fire. You can create a fire pit of many different materials and in many styles and sizes, although you should avoid using very absorptive stone as it may pop when heated if it has moisture in it.
Stone can be used to create outcroppings in your yard that can retain soil or be used as a backdrop or accent to a garden bed.
Masonry is the foundation of hardscaping. You won’t find a garden or a yard without stones, bricks, or concrete because they are the primary materials used for most landscape features. Whether you hire it done or do it yourself, landscape masonry will be the backbone of your landscape. It will likely endure for the life of your home, and your gardens will grow and change around your masonry features as the years roll by.