Gardeners' Dirt: Stones in the landscape brings wilderness home

By Beth Ellis - Victoria County Master Gardener Edited by Charla Borchers Leon
June 9, 2011 at 1:09 a.m.

The use of stone in the construction of a small culvert at Caddo Lake State Park is an imaginative example of routing drainage in the wilderness that could be applied to your own landscape.

The use of stone in the construction of a small culvert at Caddo Lake State Park is an imaginative example of routing drainage in the wilderness that could be applied to your own landscape.

"Whether it's called Rustic Design, NPS (National Park Service) Rustic, or Parkitecture, homeowners can echo the Great American Wilderness by taking inspiration from architecture found in America's treasured state and national parks." - Beth Ellis

Change was definitely riding on the wind at the onset of the 20th century. The concept of preserving wilderness habitat as state and national parks was brand new. Also new was the automobile, which for the first time allowed average people from all across America access to wild places like Yellowstone and Yosemite Valley.


At the same time, the English Arts and Crafts movement - which promoted the work of hand, heart and harmony with nature - jumped the Atlantic and took the American middle class by storm. Tired of the architectural and social excesses of the Victorian age, and experiencing new accessibility to the great outdoors courtesy of the automobile, Americans were entranced by the concept of a return to the natural life.

Young architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Herbert Maier, embraced these concepts and applied them to a new architectural style with a uniquely American twist, called "Rustic Design." With the advent of the Great Depression and work programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, this new style became an integral part of American architecture. Nowhere is it more obvious than in the structures developed by the CCC for use in state and national parks.

Rustic design as expressed by the great works of the CCC focused on the use of natural materials. Grounded in stone and augmented with wood, buildings large and small were constructed to reflect the idea of their being part of nature, as opposed to being separate from it. Today, the work of the CCC provides modern homeowners with inspiration in adapting rustic design to their own landscapes.


Erosion control

In home landscapes, rustic design serves its most basic function in erosion and drainage control. Retaining walls constructed of locally-available or manufactured stone feature asymmetric placement of stone to suggest the appearance of natural outcroppings. Carefully placed nooks and crannies filled with vegetation promote a natural feel, and incorporated stone seats double as steps to accommodate yard access and encourage outdoor entertaining.

Drainage routing

Drainage issues are controlled through the use of dry stream beds and small stone culverts. Culverts provide double duty by redirecting occasional inundations and also acting as foot bridges or pathways. Small bridges incorporating stonework can also be used to span ditches.

Elevation differences

Irregularly placed stone steps, often flanked by additional stone to create the appearance of being carved from living rock, is a rustic design favorite for addressing elevation differences.


Fire pits

Rustic design provides a whimsical and visually pleasing way of incorporating regularly used items into the landscape. Large stones encircling fire pits not only appear to emerge from the ground, they also provide a fire barrier, as well as a convenient place to set pots and pans.

Cooking and seating areas

Stone incorporated into chimneys or raised cooking areas provide visual continuity with natural surroundings. Stone, stumps and logs, and artfully constructed concrete elements can be used to create charming tables and seating areas. Some of the most effective appear to be native stone rising gently from the ground.

Other structures

Other opportunities for rustic design elements abound in the yard and garden. Pillars of stacked stone make attractive supports for mailboxes or trellises. Rustic wooden gates flanked by stone pillars and topped with stone arches or rustic wooden crossbeams invite visitors into the backyard wilderness beckoning beyond. Small stone grottos standing alone or inset into retaining walls provide a delightful setting for small waterfalls. Birdbaths and bubblers constructed of dished stone are visually pleasing, create the soothing sound of moving water and draw birds in droves.


Shelters of various sorts, whether garden sheds, porches, arbors, garages, studios - and even houses - are perfect opportunities to incorporate rustic design. Additions of real or manufactured stones to foundations and support structures give buildings the appearance of growing up from the ground.

Wooden elements, such as stumps, branches, and rustic posts, add continuity. The addition of moss, vines, shrubs, trees and flowers provide the final step in creating a wilderness themed habitat for your landscape.

Just remember that asymmetry, the inclusion of natural materials retaining their raw appearance and the avoidance of formality are the keys to developing a sense of rusticity and wilderness in any project - large or small - involving rustic design.


In today's hurried electronic world, many Americans are once again experiencing a longing for the natural world. But in contrast to the wide open horizons of the Great American Wilderness made accessible to our great grandparents by the invention of the automobile in the early 20th century, our natural horizons are shrinking at an unprecedented rate. What better way to counter encroachments on America's wild places - and at the same time feed our longing for the natural world - than by helping Mother Nature through the use of rustic design to create small spots of wilderness-inspired habitat in our own backyards?

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at



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