Removing our "retaining wall"... I use the term lightly

lindsrocApril 9, 2013

Ok so we have gotten some great ideas on these forums on what to do as far as some landscaping and we have a plan drawn out. The major obstacle is the rock wall in front of the yard. We were going to rebuild it but have decided to remove it. HOPEFULLY we can post an ad on craigslist etc and someone will want the rocks and come take them away. Not sure how realistic this is.
Anyways, my question is...once we remove the rocks and fill in any areas that need filling to get a nice slope...what could we plant there as a groundcover. Or....if you were to remove the wall, what would you do with the area? Just grass? A house up the road that is facing the main street has a very similar front yard. Theirs slopes down to the street, about 5 feet back they put a white picket fence and plant perennials in front of it. It looks very nice. The also have some trees etc. I am thinking i would rather invest the $$ in something like that (fencing) than rebuilding this wall.
Any ideas?

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carol6ma_7ari(zones 6 & 7a)

That rock wall is New England vernacular landscaping. It'd be a shame to remove it. You could try removing part of it and doubling the height of the rest by putting the removed rocks on top of the retained ones. Then put in the nice white picket fence along where the removed rocks were, and have the best of both worlds


    Bookmark   April 9, 2013 at 4:39PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

I think that Carol6ma and I are seeing something differently.
I don't see a New England vernacular wall, I see a hastily pile of loose rock that lusts to be a beautiful New England stone wall.

When weighing your budget vs. your landscape options & desires I feel that sloping the grade and building a fence will be a lot less $$ than rebuilding the rock wall with quality craftsmanship.
The fence will give you some privacy and a perimeter outline that you can landscape infront of and behind of.
Because you are on a corner you will only be able to build a 3 feet high fence, but I think that it could be quite beautiful .
You might like looking at Walpole woodworkers website. They are a Massachusetts based fence builder that does beautiful craftsmanship.

As far as a potential groundcover on the outward facing slope you might want to do a classic NE combination of flowering low shurbs in the back ground ( spireas) some perennials in the midground ( daylillies , echinecea, rubeckia , asters) and a low groundcover at the border ( potentilla)
There are a ton of combinations or you can choose to do just one or two varieties of plants.
A walk thru The Garden in the Woods in Framingham or the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain would be a great introduction into how plants are put together in pleasing combinations.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2013 at 6:03PM
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Hmmm... If calling something "vernacular" means it shouldn't be changed, I don't think I could agree with that. I think the wall is seriously deficient in quality. That said, I think the purpose it serves is good. It's material is good. And getting rid of it may be as much or a greater pain than re-building it, unless a reliable craigslist patron could be found. (There are pitfalls there, to be sure.) That all that expensive stone is already there is a point in it's favor. It does make one wonder what the points that favor it's disposal turned out to be. I hope it's not fear of difficulty of dry-stacking stone as it's a relatively cheap, easy skill to learn. Such is a project that even 10-year-olds, or unskilled friends looking for something to do, could help with. It's a bit therapeutic, too, fitting puzzle pieces together. I never liked those cardboard puzzles, but the 3-D stone-wall-building ones always seemed so much easier. I guess because there's always many puzzle pieces that will work instead of just one.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2013 at 6:19PM
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melle_sacto(Z9/Sunset 14 CA)

I can't tell the quality of your rocks wall, I am not an expert, but I like the way it looks. Our front yard has a slope, and mulch was always shedding off etc. We decided to try and work with it, but a level yard would have been nice.

I'd plant the groundcover down on the dirt area below the wall, and then put some pretty things like shrubs/perennials along the top near the rocks.

What design plan have you come up with?

    Bookmark   April 9, 2013 at 7:22PM
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Thank you for the feedback. I think we are going o remove a small portion and see what we think. These rocks are heavy!!! And my husband has a bad back so we would definitely have to hire out the job if we rebuild it. Cost of material is not a problem as we have about twice as many rocks in the backyard that we need to remove.
Here's a link to a post I made in the conifer section looking for tree suggestions. Let me know what you think. Keep in mind I am totally new to all this.

Here is a link that might be useful: Link to landscape design plan

    Bookmark   April 9, 2013 at 9:56PM
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melle_sacto(Z9/Sunset 14 CA)

I like your landscape plan; I don't understand why the rocks need to come out at all! If you want a fence, could you just install it behind them, on the upper tier of your yard? Then place a tough, low maintenance groundcover in the bare area along the front.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2013 at 10:38PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

It's one thing to stack stone ontop of one another ( see the photo above ) vs. crafting beautiful hand built stone walls.
It is doubtful that a 10 year old is going to hand hewn a well constructed dry lay stone wall.
It takes years of experience and apprenticeship to become a fine masonry craftsman.
Stone construction is more than stacking stones ontop of each other . It entails engineering knowledge and experience. There are proper tooling techniques required to properly dress the stone.
There is a reason why quality stone work is expensive, it takes years to attain the skill and talent to lay a beautiful stone wall.

Sure give it a try. It's a thoroughly enjoyable craft. But don't fool yourself that you are going to create a thing of beauty on your first try.

photo _ lew french - Massachusetts based stone mason

Here is a link that might be useful: stone foundation - don't throw stones.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2013 at 11:05PM
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melle, here's an illustration that shows the most obvious differences between a nice drystack wall and a "hasty pile of loose rock." The cure for top and face are strings tightly stretched between stakes during construction.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2013 at 11:16PM
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D-d, I said "help" ... a 10 year old can help. Not run the job! All kinds of untrained people have been figuring out how to build some pretty nice stone walls for god-knows-how-many of centuries. Some people have the knack for art. Others don't. If one does, it's likely that they'll be able to create a decent looking drystack wall without much experience ... especially if the wall is only 18" high. As long as they learn the basic principles, which are almost common sense, they could do a pretty good job.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2013 at 11:32PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

To my amateur untrained eye, the 'wall' is too low to be considered a wall. If you want to use the stone, hire a talented mason to use it for a particular section -- not a complete enclosure. There is not enough stone for the visual impact needed for a complete enclosure. This suggestion requires thoughtful design (something I cannot provide). Because you have the material, it's worth considering a partial 'ruin' of a wall.

My primary question would be, what does a classic New England wall look like? What you show in your photo can't be 'it'. But maybe you can construct a partial classic New England wall for some visual impact, then enhance it with carefully selected plants, while leaving a large section of the garden open.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2013 at 1:19AM
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melle_sacto(Z9/Sunset 14 CA)

Yardvaark -- nice: "wall made by dump truck" ;-)

Actually, after looking at that, I can see the issues w/OPs wall. It does look more like rock piles than a structure. I guess I thought it was supposed to have a rough look, like tumbling stones...but I can see how that just comes across as sloppy.

deviant -- all those little rocks in the gap are amazing! Amazing the way that they all cozy together so neatly.

catkim -- I agree, another level to the wall would make is have greater visual impact.

lindsroc -- good luck, I think the plan that you linked will work out whether or not you keep the retaining wall. I, personally, prefer a level yard; your yard seems like it would have a fairly gentle grade though, which would be easy to live with. I do think your wall has potential. However, I have not a clue how much it would cost to make it beautiful or if it's in your budget.

If lindsroc leaves the wall as is, would it help to plant some type of overhanging plants along the wall, to sort of drape over it? Or would that just be tacky? ;-)

    Bookmark   April 10, 2013 at 2:07AM
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Yard - great job showing the difference in the rocks in your illustration. You showed the challenges of New England stone walls perfectly (I grew up building walls in RI)! Stones like Indiana limestone, West VA weatherface, or Pennsylvania fieldstone are more angular and in some cases pretty close to squared off. Those are more easily laid (ie, the bottom illustration).

A lot of the glacial till you work with in New England is rounded granite (which you can see in the OP's photo). Unless you know what you're doing, imagine attempting to build a wall out of bowling balls.

What the OP has is certainly what is used in the historical walls that drape across rolling New England farmland, because those walls were built from the crap brought to the surface every spring from the combined efforts of frost and harrow. To truly look good in a subdivision setting, where they'll be seen up close, they need to be built by a skilled mason. Otherwise you get what the OP has.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2013 at 7:22AM
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Right, these "walls" are common up here. It is very rural where I am, and was all farmland. I don't think they look bad when they are in a side yard separating properties, but right in the front it just looks sad.
S my question is if we remove it, what would we do with the space? Fill with dirt and slope it down? It's not that much of a slope to begin with. Or as someone else asked.... Leave it and maybe plant ground cover that would hang over it?
The picket fence will eventually happen, probably not this year as we are also finishing our basement....but maybe next spring.
Thank you for the feed back.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2013 at 8:30AM
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wait, did you just artfully steer the conversation back to the original topic? lol

Save some of the bigger stones and tuck them into the slope so they look like they occurred naturally. Plant a few evergreen groundcovers throughout to help hold the slope and give some winter interest, then mix in some awesome perennials like you mentioned. It'll soften the look nicely.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2013 at 9:14AM
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A few minutes off topic...When I had my New England business lunch hours were spent sitting, watching my stone mason build stone walls. Generally those rounded glacial boulders are buried right underfoot. Working with a backhoe operator the mason would set each stone as it was unearthed. His walls were works of art. I was an appreciative audience of his skillful talent.

How much does snow and road salt figure into this situation? Looking at the slope of the land it may be a pain-in-the-neck job to stabilize all if rocks are removed and future plantings are subjected to salt. Perhaps it might be best to hire a mason for several days to 'tidy up ' the present situation. Then continue on with your fence idea.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2013 at 9:57AM
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littlebug5(z5 MO)

Well, I'm not from the northeast, and to my Midwestern eye those short walls just look silly. Like someone had a few rocks to spare and decided to build short walls just to use them up. But what do I know?

If it were me, I'd advertise on Craig's list to give them away to whoever would come haul them off. Then I'd hire someone with a small bobcat to taper the low grade so it wouldn't erode, then seed it down with grass. Cheap and simple.

What's the bare dirt strip between the short wall and the street for?

    Bookmark   April 11, 2013 at 10:00PM
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