Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

Building a Dry Stone Wall

Previously living in Bristol not far from the edge of the Cotswolds and working mostly in Bath and the surrounds, I was often in contact with limestone. My journeys through the countryside from garden to garden were often guided by a labyrinth of limestone walls that define the aesthetic of the area. The light and warmth on a hot summer’s day gave the outskirts of Bath the air of a holiday in the Luberon. One could be forgiven for forgetting where they were, as I often did.

Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

In the Poitou-Charentes old buildings are also characteristically built from limestone. So when contemplating moving here, my thoughts moved to incorporating dry stone walls in my designs. There are plenty such boundary walls already here; though many in a state of disrepair.

Earlier this summer, I flew back to the UK in order to attend a weekend’s course in basic dry stone wall building techniques organised by the South West branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association. Of course there are similar organisations here in France that operate such courses. However, my French is still developing. I felt that, I would learn much more about the skill if the course were delivered in English.

The idea of getting involved in the continuation of a traditional craft practised for centuries seemed much more appealing to me than the oft employed (although sometimes necessary) landscaping trick of erecting concrete block walls merely faced with stone mortared behind to give the illusion of a dry stone wall.

There is something about the elegance of a self-supporting wall that you have made with little more than your bare hands and a hammer. There is also, perhaps, something of the appeal of my childhood love for Lego about it too.

I couldn’t have picked a worse/better weekend for the course; the temperatures were unusually high for the UK – in the mid-thirties – and the venue offered no shade protection whatsoever.  Lots of sun cream, hats and water was definitely the order of the day. We were situated in the middle of open fields charged with the task of dismantling and re-erecting a dilapidated section of a farmer’s boundary wall.

Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

The staff on hand to guide us through the process were very helpful – one was called Barry! – and I took an enormous amount of valuable information and enjoyment from the weekend. It is a course I would recommend to anyone interested in the subject.

Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

So what is a dry stone wall?

It is a wall comprised of irregular shaped stones erected without the use of any mortar to bind the stones together and is therefore ‘dry’.

Why would I need, or even want, one?

The use of dry stone walls dates back millennia and adds a timeless, aesthetic beauty to the countryside. Adding a dry stone wall to your boundary, or within the garden, captures some of that beauty. Dry stone walls are an alternative to hedging as a means of dividing the garden space. To me, dry stone walls are endlessly more beautiful than a standard brick wall or off-the-shelf DIY store wooden fence. Dry stone walls are thicker than the average wall adding a sense of stature and permanency.

Constructed and maintained properly, a dry stone wall will last considerably longer too; small gaps in mortared walls allow water to penetrate, which freezes in the cold and cracks the mortar. This ultimately leads to the mortared wall failing. Dry stone walls have no mortar and therefore do not have any such weakness. Water simply passes through the voids and drains away.

Dry stone walls offer habitat for many insects, reptiles and other wildlife offering a far greater haven than any garden centre bug hotel could hope to offer. They also support plant life, such as lichens, moss, ferns, sedums, and the ubiquitous centranthus.

Erecting a dry stone wall can be more sustainable than other types of structure. Cement and mortar are not sustainable products. They use large amounts of energy in their manufacture (I’ve read that for every tonne of cement manufactured roughly a tonne of carbon dioxide is produced). They often have to be transported many miles between source and end user. Then when on site the constituent mortar parts must be mixed, which requires water resources and the use of machinery.

Stone sourced locally (in the case of repairs in situ) can have a considerably smaller carbon footprint. Dry stone wall construction is far less messy work that other types of walling and requires little more than the stone itself, a hammer, string, a batten frame and a human being to work the stone and position it in place.

How does one go about building a new, or repairing an existing, wall?

A dry stone wall is more than merely a stack of boulders and stones. Although it is quite probably something that everyone can do, it is not something one should do without the proper knowledge and by employing the correct methods. The following images are examples of walls incorrectly built I suspect by an untrained amateur who has fallen into the trap of thinking stacking a few stones is easy:

This wall has many problems; small stones being used as a foundation, running joints all over the place and stones not being arranged with their flat side up.

Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

Here the stones are not arranged with their longest sides protruding into the wall. Furthermore, the hearting looks to have simply been thrown in as a loose filler. It should be tightly packed in the voids between to lock the large walling stones in place.

It is a surprise that either wall in these images is still standing.

Are they easy to maintain?

Relatively, yes. Like everything else exposed to nature and the outdoors elements, dry stone walls do require some maintenance.

As a preventative measure they should be kept free of vegetation likely to grow through and force the wall apart. Typical culprits of dry stone wall damage include Ivy, Wisteria, Bramble and tree seedlings that have been allowed to grow in the cracks and force the stones apart as their stems  mature and thicken.

Misuse of a dry stone wall, such as climbing over it, can dislodge stone.

Problems may be masked by summer foliage and winter is an excellent time to inspect walls.

Although dry stone walls can be built or repaired at any time of year, winter is a great time for doing so. Access and movement is far easier once garden vegetation has died back. Transporting stone is hefty work and so potential damage and disturbance to prized herbaceous planting at this time is minimised.  Furthermore, walls requiring use of cement-based mortars may only be built when the temperature conditions suit; dry stone walls have no such restriction.

My own garden project

I have recently begun the renovation of my own new garden, which I am documenting elsewhere in this blog. Anyone who has been following this blog to date will know that integral to my new design is the building of several dry stone walls in various places throughout the garden. I will be creating a dining area exclusively for our gite guests. Also, there were be additional, smaller, walls around the garden to define areas and set off planting against.

I will be sharing the results of the build shortly via le jardin contemporain’s instagram account (the weather lately has been absolutely atrocious which has delayed the build slightly) so please follow us to see the results.

If you would like help with building or the repair of your dry stone walls, please get in touch here.

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