illustrations by DAN VASCONCELLOS


‘The Lawn Maniacrsquo;


‘The Dirt Connoisseurrsquo;


‘The Bulb Fanaticrsquo;


‘The Rose Loverrsquo;


‘The Earth Motherrsquo;


‘The Control Freakrsquo;


‘The Pest Persecutorrsquo;


‘The Tomato Mavenrsquo;




In a canyon of sandstone, El Khazneh was carved from solid rock (Petra, Jordan).

In Pompeiian gardens, stone was used in sculpture, furniture, and fountains.

Earth is a stone orb, thinly upholstered with oceanic membranes and complex carpets of plant and animal communities. Human settlement patterns have been controlled by mountain and volcanic outcrops, from the barriers of the Himalayas to the spiritually charged peaks of Machu Picchu, and monuments of past civilizations have literally been carved from stone. Whether in nature or in man-made environments, stone speaks of durability and connection to the planet.

Basic differences in the evolution of the philosophical and conceptual bases of Eastern and Western cultures have led to different interpretations of our geological underpinnings and the role they play in cultural expression. As we trace the uses of stone to the intimate level of our personal gardens, we can strengthen our ancestral cultural connections by sympathetic use of the stone in modern landscapes.

Nature changes stone through the actions of wind, water, and ice, forming the caves and canyons and sculpted topography that distinguish old landscapes; it also shifts and arranges stones into arrays and masses—like pebble beaches and glacial erratics—in ways that add texture to our environment. Humans have used these two basic sculptural methods—carving away, or “subtractive,” and building up, or “additiversquo;—for making shelters, from caves to freestanding buildings.


In the West, stone was used to build the walls or colonnades that enclosed the garden, and was also used for furnishings—fountains, seats, tables, and sculpture. In Pompeiian gardens, busts of gods and family members were displayed on columns—like a picture gallery—but the most common figure in ancient gardens was a herm. Herms evolved as shrines to Hermes, son of Zeus, brother of Apollo, inventor of the lyre and pan pipes, and god of commerce—quite a resume. Originally, herms were built at crossroads in the form of a pile of stones, or cairn; they then evolved into a stone shaft with smaller stones around the base, and finally became stone shafts with a bust on top, feet on the bottom, and sometimes private parts in the middle. These herms were talismans of agrarian fertility in the landscape and in the garden, and eventually became part of later European garden traditions. Those at Vaux le Vicomte, for example, combine this classical garden allusion with more contemporary figures. The tradition of figurative and decorative stone sculpture in Western gardens is a rich form of cultural expression, and continues today. One of its more unusual manifestations is the use of ornamental ruins to allude to prior periods and styles in human history.


In the East, stone was put to different uses in gardens. It first took the form of miniaturized mountains that were meant to emulate the home island of the Taoist Immortals, who might therefore be induced to visit one’s garden. Later it evolved into the building of stylized miniature landscapes recalling the bold mountain and valley formations that inspired artists and poets. These gardens became idealized pieces of nature, captured within the confines of the home, and geological detail was as important as composition. Figurative sculpture, both religious and secular, was considered too literal and out-of-scale for these illusionary spaces, and did not develop a strong tradition. On the other hand, garden furnishings—tables, stools, bridges, and so on—were often made of stone, as meticulously crafted as those in wood joinery. Rich stone pavements also decorated these gardens, but the most distinctive stone form to develop was the Taihu stone.

The significance that these stones acquired can be traced back to the mountain forms that developed in Chinese gardens, which embodied the power and presence of the mountains in nature. The effort to pack as much power into as small a stone as possible led ultimately to the appreciation of the baroque, water-weathered stones found in Lake Tai. A single vertical stone—whether a giant in the garden or a six-inch-high version on a scholar’s writing table—represented an entire mountain. By the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), Taihu stones had achieved great status, and a petromania rolled over the land, gripping collectors from the emperor on down. This appreciation of stone continues today in both China and Japan, where some of these traditions took root along with Buddhism.

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