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MOCK ROCK : Fake Boulders Look, Feel Like the Real Thing But Weigh Less and Are Easier to Maneuver

TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Rocks are cropping up in all sorts of California back yards. But they weren’t left by a retreating glacier and they didn’t wash down from a nearby mountain. They weren’t discovered just below the surface and they aren’t part of a natural outcropping.

They are, quite frankly, fake.

They are being manufactured, some right on the site and others at a plant, although it might take a geologist to tell real from counterfeit. The fake rocks look and feel just like natural boulders. But they weigh only a fraction as much.

And that’s the reason for the increasing popularity of bogus boulders. “I like to use real rocks,” said landscape designer Kent Brown of West Los Angeles, “but the logistics are something else.”

You need access and heavy equipment, and “once the forklift or bulldozer sets it down, it’s there for keeps,” he said. “Try moving a 400-pound boulder once it’s in its hole.”

And 400 pounds is not even a big rock. In fact, Touchstone Products in Santa Ana, which makes a very realistic line of man-made boulders, says that their smallest model, which measures less than 2 feet by 2 feet, would weigh 400 pounds if it were the real thing. The fake weighs 55 pounds, still pretty heavy, but less than a sack of cement.

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“With a dolly, almost anyone can handle one of these,” says Jerry Grimshaw, yard manager at Armstrong’s the Home and Garden Place, in West Los Angeles.

Dennis Gorski of Touchstone says the large model boulders, about 3 feet by 3 feet and weighing in at 185 pounds, would weigh a ton if they were real. He says that most of their rocks weigh about 10% what the genuine article would.

The mock rocks are lighter because they’re hollow and because only the top half or third of the rock is modeled, a dead giveaway when seeing them laying about at a nursery.

Nature doesn’t leave rocks lying around on the surface like a bunch of spilled marbles, so real rocks must be partially buried to look natural. This can drive you crazy if you have just spent a fortune for a big boulder and now have to bury most of it underground.

Counterfeit rocks, like Touchstone’s, only need to be buried about an inch deep--they don’t bother making the rest of the boulder that would be hidden underground.

Don’t think that fake rocks are cheaper than the real thing, like imitation diamonds.

“It’s the most expensive thing you can do in the landscape,” said Ken Macaire of Macaire Rock Formations and Waterfalls in Sherman Oaks. His typical job of on-site rock construction costs about $25,000, and "$100,000 is not unheard of,” he said.

Even small bogus boulders don’t come cheap. Touchstone’s smallest mock rock, the Model 101, costs close to $50.

Gorski started Touchstone in his garage 3 1/2 years ago, when he was a landscape contractor and couldn’t find good artificial rocks. “I was tired of throwing out my back trying to deal with the real things, and the imitations were pretty poor.”

Most fake rocks are made in a similar fashion, although his is a patented process. The basic shape, a two-inch shell of cement, is made in a mold, and then a finish coat applied. The finish is the key to whether the rock is believable or not.

Macaire builds his on the site. He uses a steel wire frame, covered with two inches of cement, another two inches of colored finish coat, and then they press a mold onto the rough “rock” or hand carve it, and finally add any markings, such as the speckles on granite, with acrylics.

Most of his projects involve swimming pools, or koi ponds, where real rocks would look odd because construction methods require they sit above the water on the pool’s edge. Macaire’s man-made boulders wrap around the edge and disappear under water, like they would in nature, because they are formed in place. They completely hide the edge of the pool and “they don’t leak like real rocks that have been mortared together.”

Macaire has been making rocks for more than 20 years. He uses the techniques of an artisan to make waterfalls as dramatic as any at Disneyland, counterfeit crags, patios that look like exposed rock outcroppings, retaining walls, even fake flagstone paving.

“Artificial rock makes great paving near water because the surface is rough and it doesn’t get slippery,” he said.

Jerry Grimshaw at Armstrong’s has seen a few other uses, including a fountain made by drilling a hole through one of Touchstone’s boulders. Also, when used indoors, you “don’t need to reinforce the floor because they’re not that heavy.”

The most unusual fake rock has been developed by a company called the Dish Guys, in the Northern California town of Concord. In their parking lot is a huge boulder, about 6 feet around, with a sign on it that says “This is a satellite dish, for info call (510) 798-3474.”

Made of fiberglass and foam with an aluminum foil satellite dish sealed inside, it is designed to pick up television signals from space without being an eyesore.

“A lot of communities don’t allow satellite dishes in their CC&Rs;, but boulders are OK,” said Wayne Reinhart of Dish Guys. This boulder even rocks back and forth, like the teetering rocks at Disneyland, so it can be aimed at different satellites to get all the signals. It costs about $5,500.

Although this pseudo-boulder is quite light, most fake rocks are nearly as solid as the real thing. You certainly can’t tell they’re hollow by tapping on them and they will take a lot of abuse, although they can’t be dropped. “We did have one break when a semi drove over it,” said Gorski, but they’re almost as strong as natural rocks. The finish is quite permanent so they don’t fade.

Sometimes designers salt the field, scattering small and manageable natural stones among the fake to make the latter more believable. “It’s almost impossible to tell one from the other,” said Brown.

There’s a knack to using rocks, real or otherwise, in the garden.

The Japanese have made it a science. In the recently republished “A Japanese Touch for Your Garden” (Kodansha International, New York: $15) , perhaps the best book on making a Japanese garden, the authors point out that as long ago as the 11th Century, Japanese books discussed in great detail the positioning of rocks in the garden, even suggesting that poor placement brought bad luck upon the gardener.

They suggest using rocks in odd groups of three, five or seven, and that it should look as though most of the stone is underground so “the stone appears to have been in the garden forever and to be spreading outward below ground.”

Stones that “look as if they are about to fall over create a tension that detracts from the stable qualities favored in the garden.”

That’s the reason landscapers like to use rock in gardens. Rocks bring a stable, been-there-for-ever look to a garden, even a new one. Done right, said Brown, they look like “they were there first and you worked around them.” They also “break up the masses of soft, green plant materials,” Brown said. “They’re a great contrast to the soft plants,” adds Macaire, and nothing makes a garden look more natural.” Even if they’re anything but.


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