Stone on Stone: All by herself, a Philadelphia woman builds a rock-walled garden

By Lise Funderburg

House Beautiful
August 2003

Insistent mechanical bleating wrenches me awake. It’s a Saturday morning, not even seven o’clock. From the bedroom win-dow, I watch an immense backhoe strain up my driveway and beep its warning. I throw on shorts and a T-shirt and flip-flop downstairs just as the 14,000-pound bright orange machine maneuvers between the ancient maple and a mound of rocks, the house and the garage, stopping just behind the mudroom. Now you’ve done it, I think, as giant steel teeth tear into the earth. Now you’ll actually have to build the wall.

Four years ago, I moved into a 1906 house in my hometown, Philadelphia. The three-story brick building has two baths, a full basement, and triple the square footage of the Brooklyn brownstone floor-through my husband and I were renting before we moved here. Outside, the house was particularly ramshackle. Exhausted slate shingles had shaled, cracked, and fallen off the mansard roof, which caused leaking in two bedrooms and one hall. Two cement runners formed a driveway up one side of the property’s double-wide lot. They broadened out into a parking pad—the only level spot in the entire yard—which led to a two-car shed. Behind the house and garage, the yard opened out into a vast slope of weeds and vines and thorns. But inside, we gained sunny rooms, cozy rooms, rooms that barely made sense (too large or too small to be of any practical use), and altogether an embarrassment of riches including oak floors, a working fireplace, and wavy glass windows.

Everything suffered from neglect, the consequences of which only became clear after we took possession. What also became clear was how much life in New York had distracted my husband and me from a fundamental discord. We had always been kind to each other, but had avoided that essential act of truly marry-ing our lives and ambitions.

A year later, our real estate investment turned into my divorce settlement. I found myself the sole, unskilled custodian of a poorly maintained building and a garden so long untended it had become a de facto nursery for English ivy, Norway maples, goutweed, Star of Bethlehem, and spiderwort—all the local invasive species. When things broke, I had them repaired, but nothing more. I was too entangled in reframing the past to think about a future—for myself or for the house.

By the following spring, the sun had come out again. I painted my study a warm, creamy yellow and put in a new kitchen. I planted perennials. I spent hours meandering through the garden, taking notes: where the sun fell in the course of the day; how each open space descended too steeply for a gathering of chairs; how the high shade of the birch trees sheltered the hostas dug from my mother’s garden, their rippled, dull blue leaves as big as dinner plates. The bleeding heart and hellebore loved the spots I gave them, the rhododendrons did not. I mowed the lawn, found ancient recliners at yard sales, and installed a double-wide hammock.

Still, the garden didn’t work. It possessed neither discrete enclaves nor overall cohesion. The natural flow of the land bore ‘ no relationship to the buildings; the buildings bore no relation-ship to the plants; and the plants bore no relationship, height-wise, spacing-wise, or any-wise, to the undulations of the earth.

In search of a solution, I considered my goals: Outdoor par-ties that could accommodate ten as easily as 100. Room for my specimen plantings to thrive despite the gangs of children, led by my niece, who would need lawns to roll on, places to hide behind, and stepping stones on which to hop. I also pictured adults around a table heaped with platters of food, clutters of coffee cups and wineglasses. I imagined the rise and fall of conversation, laughter and debate, the occasional off-key song. I recalled old neighborhoods I’d lived in—outside of Boston and in Brooklyn—once tenement gateways for recently arrived Italians and Portuguese. Strings of light bulbs hung across minuscule backyards and thick-limbed grapevines trellised onto carports made of plumbing pipe. From early spring until the first frost, these places were havens, a way to spill out from congested houses into the open night air. I had ten times their space and none of their warmth.

I had my garden haven in mind—still a vague notion, but certainly one that could embrace hardscaping, so I began to collect stone. “I’ll meet you at eight,” I told my sister Diane the night before our first episode of hunting and gathering. She groaned. “Okay, nine,” I conceded, and hung up the phone. We rendezvoused at a construction site, outfitted with long sleeves, long pants, hiking boots, and leather work gloves. We backed our respective Corolla station wagons up to the edge of the 20-foot-high dirt mountain, our hatches open, and began to unearth rocks. Diane had spotted the pile, dug to make the foundation for a new supermarket. It was only a matter of time before the dirt and its buried treasures were carted away for good.

My sister had no plans either, but she did have a small plot behind her house and an appreciation for the Wissahickon schist that is peculiar to our region. Philadelphia sparkles with the stone, its flickers of mica and quartz streaking through waves of cool gray.

Our boots sank into the loose orange earth as we excavated. Dirt worked its way inside our gloves and mingled with sweat. We tried not to fight over the best stones, the ones that lay par-ticularly flat or seemed to have better weathered the geologic pressures over the millennia. We drove home slowly, flashers on, wincing at every undetected dip in the road.

After about ten such missions, Diane stopped accompany-ing me. “I’m drinking coffee,” she’d counter when I called to set up another quest. I pressed on alone, thinking the less money spent on materials, the more to spend on labor. In three years, I amassed monumental quantities of free stone, a three-foot-high pile the diameter of a large above-ground swimming pool. On more than one occasion, I employed members of the local Quaker school’s varsity wrestling team and several college boys on vacation. I bartered cases of protein drinks for muscle power with guys from my gym. I wore out the shock absorbers on my Corolla wagon, smashed fingers, and scraped shins. I rented a truck with a hydraulic lift.

In the midst of creating my own stone yard, I dreamed up a scheme that considered light and dark, space and air, function and beauty. I dreamed of breaking up the land’s slope into out-door rooms defined by elevation, plantings, surface, and pur-pose. I would need a wall between the newly flattened terraces, and steps to link them together. The wall, running parallel to the back of the house, would be a tableau of gray and green, stone and plants—orange and pink lantana above the wall, I thought, and deep purple verbena mixed with thyme at its base.

Somebody had to plan and build all of this. I started talking to landscape designers and architects. I trawled the neighbor-hood in search of good stonework and when I spotted it, I rang the doorbell. I got names of stonemasons and tried to spark their enthusiasm both for the project and the leanness of my budget. With each meeting, I gleaned a sense of my dream’s enormity from their reactions.

“You’re talking about a barbecue kingdom,” joked one land-scape designer.

Exactly. I have called it that ever since.

I thought I’d found the right guy, but when his estimate came in, roughly the equivalent of a year’s mortgage payments, I real-ized I couldn’t afford any mason at all. I decided to build the kingdom myself.


Backhoes, I discovered, can be rented by the day, along with deft (if unlicensed and uninsured) operators. My earth-moving professional worked a 12-hour day, created mountains of dirt with the three-lined hoe, and made 4- to 16-point turns with only inches to spare, somehow avoiding irreversible damage to the birch tree, house, and burning bush.

Once the land had been roughed into its new topography— first by backhoe, then shovel, then bow rake—I began to build. The wall, as I imagined it, would bisect my back yard into upper and lower sections. It would stretch 20 feet across and three feet high. A set of wide steps would break the line of the wall and lead to the higher level. It would hold back the earth while offering up a dramatic focal point, the perfect marriage of func-tion and form.

Dry-laid walls, according to my masonry library (culled from the Internet and yard sales and used book stores), are always in motion. Without mortar to keep them locked in place, they respond to the thrust and pull of gravity, their own weight pushing downward even as the earth they retain, swelling and contracting as water freezes and melts, presses on them with tremendous lateral force. Since mine was going to be more than two feet high, it couldn’t be plumb but would have to slope back against the earth an inch or two for every foot of its height.

I could see how easy it would be to make a misstep. Care-lessness could spell failure and possibly catastrophe. In order to manage the resulting anxiety, I regularly invoked a motivational mantra. What’s the worst that could happen? I invoked it as the massive dump truck groaned up the narrow driveway to unload seven tons of gravel. I invoked it as I dug out the footing for my wall, tied the leveling string to posts at the wall’s outermost edges, and began to lay rocks.

What was the worst that could happen? The answer varied with the task and my mood. The wall could fall down—upsetting, but not as dire as if I were to pitch the surface of the patio below the wall at the wrong drainage angle and flood my basement.

Most of my books were from the 1970s, written by resolute hippies who baked their own bread inside the cabins they had built with logs they had felled. I confess: I like having utilities provided for me, and so I skipped the chapters on dams and water turbines. But the authors’ reverence for stone—for the rituals of gathering and laying it—was infectious. I got lost in admiring mineral deposits, comparing coloration, and deliber-ating which piece of schist to use next. My view of the world changed: I had always thought of the ground beneath me as solid and immobile. Now it was a living, breathing force to understand, contend with, oblige. I took the authors’ advice to bend my knees, keep my back straight, and handle each stone as few times as possible, to build “one over two and two over one” so that no vertical joint ran more than one stone course’s height. I followed their directions to plant as I built, to embed sufficient soil into the wall pockets for sedum and thrift and thyme.

It takes a village to build a wall: both of my sisters scavenged stone and reported new caches. My mother clipped articles from gardening magazines and took me to see an 80-year-old schist wall at the arboretum nearby. My father supervised from a lawn chair now and then, poised somewhere between bemusement and disbelief, occasionally offering advice on shoveling technique. The landscaper neighbor I would see on the com-muter train deliberated step construction with me, took away my questions about slope and grade and rise, and returned the next week with reference books or mathematical formulas. The sculptor around the corner came by periodically just to ooh and ah. My peanut gallery, the woman across the street and her two young children, came for entire afternoons whenever heavy machinery was involved.

But for the most part, it was just me—as the sun came up, on wrenchingly hot afternoons, even in the rain. When life was good, when I was lonely, when I just needed a break from writing. I aimed to use each rock as I had found it, but when I had to chisel off an end or a bump, I whacked away with safety goggles in place, a how-to diagram in mind, and all my might. I was consumed, I admit it. I loved keeping my own company this way, chipping away at a monumental task stone by stone.

People mourn the dissolution of a mar-riage, and I did too, an entire past and future irrevocably torn asunder: but what they often don’t concede is the vast libera-tion from having to reach consensus. I was the queen and arbiter of all I surveyed. I chose the upholstery fabric for the din-ing room set that I picked up at the local thrift store. I decided to break ground in my yard and make it into something. I chose the plants. I overpruned the hel-lebore. I gave up on the Japanese maple, an inelegant volunteer I’d never liked and which was horribly sited, but which, with each other as witness, my husband and I couldn’t bear to destroy.

Some people will tell you that building walls around yourself is a bad thing, that a fortress protects but can also imprison. I found just the opposite to be true. I built a wall that served only, and in every way, as an opening. My humble dry-laid retaining structure was an assertion of my engage-ment with life and rootedness separate and apart from the married me. I discovered the top and bottom boundaries of my own aesthetic. This was a home I was making to suit no one but myself.

This tale of crumbling and building does have a happy ending. It’s not merely that I met a man along the way who could build steps, who fell in love with me and I with him, who sketches pergolas for me in his free time—although that’s happy enough. It’s not just the self-empowerment message: / am woman, watch me lay up stone. It’s that I made a home for myself out of broken pieces. I made it in a wacky way that may eventually need repair (the northern end of the wall began to show signs of bowing after one winter). I made it without knowing that I could, I made it without knowing how, I made it with-out a budget or a schedule or any sense of whether it would eventually come together. 1 did it anyway, and I’m proud of it, even though I would do it differently now (see bowing, above). But I did it, and I have transformed the yard into a sequence of verdant parlors that feed into one another, segue from one to the next, my own emer-ald necklace of welcome and love.