Dry Stack Retaining Walls are the Perfect Landscape Accent

Posted March 31, 2016 in Blog, Landscape Design

Close your eyed and think back to the most beautiful backyard you have ever seen.  What made this outdoor space so memorable?  Aside of the features themselves, think about the materials this space was constructed out of.  It is a fair guess to say that the materials used in this space were low maintenance, durable and natural.  Our general rule of thumb when designing our client’s backyard transformations is to use timeless elements like wood, metal and stone.  Using these materials not only look great, but guarantee to not fall way of a fad and have to be redone years down the road.  Using real stone in your backyard gives the space substance, richness and the feeling of security.  Stone can be used in so many different backyard applications but when using stone to construct walls, especially in the art of dry stacked retaining walls, it is best left to the professionals to install because they have the skillful hand for construction and the knowledge that needs to go along with it.

Dry stack stone work is accomplished by dry fitting each stone together without the use of mortar.  These stones need to fit together sort of like puzzle pieces, leaving as little empty space between them as possible, helping with the durability of the wall.  The stability also comes from the compressed force and batter of the wall.  The wall face will need to have a certain degree of slope, or batter, allowing the weight of the wall to project its force against the earth it is retaining, because without it, the wall will eventually fail.

While living in areas where the ground is guaranteed to go through the annual freeze and thaw, walls held together by mortar require footers that need to extend past the frost line to prevent movement and damage.  However, dry stacked walls have been constructed for hundreds of years that account for the expansion and contraction of the ground during these freeze/thaw cycles.  These walls depend on good old gravity and stone friction to keep them in place.

fieldstoneProfessional precision plays a large part in the proper construction of a dry stack wall, but the end result gives a feeling of elegant casualness.  Depending on the type of stone you use will determine the feeling portrayed in your landscape.  Using natural, irregular, out-of-the-earth looking stones will give your dry stack walls a softer, earthier look, perfect for a lush garden setting.  drystack stoneUsing a thinner, flat-face rock style will give your wall a more modern and refined look, perfect for a contemporary property where linear, clean-cut style is the focus.  It is very important to analyze your home’s exterior and talk to your landscape designer about the most cohesive materials and styles for your property.

Some important factors your installer must keep in mind when constructing your dry stack retaining wall:

  • It is important to install this wall below grade on undisturbed soil.  This soil will need to be able to withstand the weight of the wall itself and not shift or sink.  While no footers are required, a crushed stone base is imperative for adequate drainage and to make it easier to install the first row of stone.  Because there is only a simple stone base and no need for footings, this type of wall is a very price effective way to have a retaining wall without breaking your budget.
  • To the untrained eye, the stones might look randomly placed, but there is a method to the madness.  First of all, the largest and heftiest stones should be placed at the bottom to provide a sturdy foundation.  Moving up the wall, just as a brick wall is constructed, the stones should follow a 1 over 2, 2 over 1 pattern.  This will ensure an aesthetic look and provide more strength to the wall.  Following this pattern, every 4′ or so, a tie back stone needs to be installed.  This stone will act as an anchor to give the wall added stability.
  • Backfill is important.  Backfilling with clean, crushed stone as the wall progresses upwards is key.  This crushed stone will fill holes in the wall cavity that would cause future settling.  This stone also acts as a natural rainwater drainage system.  Adding a drain pipe behind the wall will also alleviate any hydraulic pressure.  Absence of the proper backfill and drainage will harm it in the long run.
  • When installing the uniform-sized cap stones on top to finish the wall, it is always best policy to mortar these stones in place as a safety precaution so they don’t shift or fall.

Dry stack retaining walls complement just about any landscape it meets and comes with its own set of benefits.  These walls resist fire, water and insects and the stones themselves can be recycled if need be.  Whether the wall is curvy and natural or arrow straight with hard cut stone, this method creates definitive areas in the landscape, combining function with splendor.  If you are interested in more function that just holding back a hillside, there are many more options to kick these walls up a notch.  Incorporating a larger stone slab in the wall can act as built-in garden seating, you can opt for built in cubby-holes to place your family’s favorite garden treasures, and depending on the hillside height, this wall can double as a seating wall or raised garden bed!  Versatility at its finest!

From retaining walls in luxurious gardenscapes complete with wandering paths to poolside patios fit with pavilions or pergolas, being able to combine beauty, utility and functionality is at the heart of MasterPLAN Landscape Design.  Designing and building custom-tailored backyard transformations for our clients that serve in their family’s best interests is our goal.  We understand that it isn’t just a pool, patio or deck, but a feeling you want to have in the backyard from sunrise to sunset.  When you are ready to take the first step into realizing the full potential for your backyard, reach out to MasterPLAN.  We look forward to hearing from you and would love to welcome you into the MasterPLAN family!

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