Stone-Age Reprise : Landscaping With Rock Evokes Fantasy, Requires Less Upkeep

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What more could one ask of a landscaping material than to provide a mental escape?

As a landscaping medium, rock evokes fantasy, says landscape architect Dave Closson of Closson & Closson in Orange. Homeowners here frequently use boulders, lush plants and flowing water to create a tropical look in their yards.

At one home in San Juan Capistrano, James Jesser, a Laguna Beach landscape architect, designed a rock pool that appears to curve into the rocky hillside behind it. "We're trying to create a bit of Hawaii in San Juan Capistrano," he says.

But not everyone wants the look of the South Pacific. A rock landscaping called Desertscape, popular in Palm Springs and Tucson, requires less maintenance than traditional lawn landscapes. In a desert setting, boulders offer the mass and three-dimensional quality that trees create in a wooded area. And rocks can be used to form a dry stream bed that can serve as a functioning part of a drainage system, an approach that is used frequently in condominium developments, Jesser says.

He created a dry stream bed to pull together the landscaping at a Cape Cod-style home in San Juan Capistrano. Set in a former avocado grove, the home was built on a steep slope with a wood bridge connecting the road to the second-story front entrance.

Beneath the bridge, Jesser used varying sizes of rock on the slope to give the impression of a stream bed. He used white birch, a tree that is naturally found along stream beds, to lightly veil the front of the house.

In creating a stream bed, Jesser lines the sides of the depression with boulders, overturning some of them to enhance the naturalness.

Using large rocks on a sloping lot requires special care. You can't simply plunk a boulder on a hillside, says contractor Terry Locklear, whose company, Nature's Way in Fullerton, specializes in rock installation. Fixing the boulders in place on a hill often requires digging a hole or depression, and sometimes support with steel and concrete.

With a pool or spa, elaborate landscaping with rock can cost between $30,000 and $100,000, depending on the size and quantity of the rock needed.

Large boulders cost five to seven cents a pound to buy, and then you have to pay to have them moved and set in place with heavy equipment, Locklear says.

The bigger the rock needed, the more likely the designer is to go with fabricated rock. Rock specialists have perfected the art of manufacturing realistic-looking boulders with the appropriate textures and colors.

Manufactured rock is priced competitively with real rock, depending on how far the real rock would have to be hauled and how big the boulders are, Locklear says.

Landscape architects often design with a mix of real and manufactured boulders.

"The whole idea is to make the project look as natural as possible," says Mark Gennaro, landscape architect and president of Landshape Inc. in Irvine. "We can do with fake boulders what we can't do with real boulders." Artificial boulders are manufactured on the site.

o Locklear builds a rock either by creating a steel cage on which the rock's outer surface can be applied or by fashioning an entire concrete core tied with reinforcing steel. He uses recycled concrete from old driveways in these solid cores. Then he covers the core with gunite and textures and paints the surface.

A hollow manufactured boulder might weigh 500 pounds, compared with 4,000 pounds for its natural counterpart, Gennaro says.

Artificial rock is often used where weight is an important factor, Closson says. Large artificial rocks can be used to cover utility boxes without damaging them.

Architects and contractors say the manufactured boulders stand up well to weather and use. If artificial rock is used as decking that people cross, it will wear, but not appreciably faster than real rock. Where water is running over a rock, it may have to be repainted on occasion.

Artificial boulders are also made from fiberglass, although Locklear says he shies away from the material, noting that it can crack if people climb on it.

The use of rock doesn't end with inventing natural settings. Locklear, who sees himself as a rock sculptor and artist, continually experiments with the boulder theme.

With one eye toward conservation, he has encased a pair of speakers in gunite and has created "rock" furniture.

"We wrap throwaway furniture in wet newspaper, cover it with chicken wire, shoot it with gunite, then texture it and paint it," he says. "When it gets dirty, it can simply be hosed off."

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