Originally created 11/05/04

Garden business rock solid for stoneyards



A pity that New England's original farm families couldn't cash in on the hard harvests of a century or three ago.

We're talking fieldstone here - rocks worked to the surface by horse-drawn plows. They had to be carted off the fields before any seed could be sown.

In rustic New England as well as in rural areas elsewhere, the muscle-straining discards were turned into freestanding fences, dry stacked retaining walls, "pavers," "steppers" or facades for fireplaces and chimneys.

Landscapers and developers have discovered these relics of agricultural history. They're paying big bucks for entire fences, which they dismantle stone by stone for restacking hundreds of miles away in exurban yards.

"They're taking out 200-year-old (stone) fences with dump trucks," says Earl Mickel, of Beach Lake, Pa. "They take them back to their yards where they sort them, reload them, and then haul them down to New Jersey, New York City or Philadelphia."

Mickel says he still has a mile or more of weathered wall running through his fields and pastures but much of that pioneer history is disappearing fast.

"Fieldstone prices have gone up," says Abigail Kearns, who with her husband, Brian, owns and operates A&B Kearns Trucking and Stone Center in Culpeper, Va.

"Rock hunters have to go farther into the woods now because all the fields that delivered up the rocks have been cleared," she says. "They're (farmers) not working the ground that much anymore."

The Kearnses sell a great variety of blocks and rocks, artificial and real. When they bought the business three years ago, the previous owner had been selling basic aggregate and pea rock, loading it into pickup trucks.

Soon, customers began asking about patio blocks. Big box stores in the area either weren't reordering after selling out or they would warehouse their landscaping products through winter, Kearns says.

That left some contractors or homeowners stalled in the middle of their projects, so the Kearnses began selling patio blocks year-round.

"We were a little worried about starting this new product line in the beginning of the fall, (but) it took off," she says.

Now they carry around 30 kinds of palletized stone in various shapes and sizes, 20 types of bulk stone, brown and yellow mortar sands, concrete sand, topsoil and several different mulches along with an assortment of artificial blocks.

Many of the natural stone varieties are imported. "Veneer Black Regency," for example, is brought in from Colorado. The ebony, slab-sided rock is dappled with sparkling veins of gold or copper. "Variety is the key," Kearns says. "Landscapers and homeowners want to differentiate their homes from their neighbors'."

Stone is sold by the piece, by the pound, in five-gallon buckets or by the tractor-trailer load. Factor in the hauling, of course.

There's nothing wrong with collecting rocks from your property, from riverbeds or from roadsides provided you're not breaking any laws. But that kind of rock often is the wrong size or shape for whatever project you have in mind, or they simply don't appear natural.

Not all of the rocks finding favor these days come from stone yards or farm fields. Some are quarried, like soapstone, which increasingly is making its way into water garden setups.

Soapstone has many unique characteristics, says Bill Russell, chief operating officer for the Alberene Soapstone Co. in Schuyler, Va.

"It's heat-resistant, chemically resistant to acids and alkalis, electrically nonconductive, resistant to surface wear and easily fabricated," Russell says. "It's reported that Thomas Edison called Alberene soapstone 'nature's perfect engineering material.'"

Soapstone adds character to water gardens and winters well in the cold, meaning it doesn't fracture with frequent temperature swings. Soapstone also sheds microorganisms, unlike more porous granite or sandstone, he says.

Shopping for rocks may seem a bit much, but only certain kinds can be used in historical restorations or when trying to match specific landscaping themes.

"We've had people come in saying 'I can't believe I'm buying rock,'" Kearns says.

Recommended reading:

"The Art and Craft of Stonescaping: Setting & Stacking Stone," by David Reed. Sterling Publishing. $27.50.

On the Net:

For more about stonescaping and stone stacking projects, try this University of Minnesota Web site: http://www.sustland.umn.edu/implement/flagstone.html