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In that last post, I don’t mean to imply that all veneer stone walls come from shady dealings, by any means, or that they are bad in and of themselves. I use veneer stone walls in plenty of my projects, and veneer is a valuable construction method in any number of applications. Often they are the best solution for a given site. And certainly there’s plenty of stone to go around in New England.

The cutting of larger, weathered wall stone into much smaller, weathered-face pieces is what I’m wondering about, and have no solid answers. Those smaller cut pieces can make a stunning chimney face, or interior stone wall, or, as in the case featured recently on a popular TV program, a knockout modern retaining wall backing a narrow reflecting pool. But each weathered stone taken from an old wall and cut up for one of those elements provides incentive for the removal and cutting up of the stones from other old (and still viable) walls.

On the other hand, not everyone wants the weathered look. A contractor once told me about a client for whom he had built a handsome fieldstone wall, one that he had been at great pains to use stone with nicely lichened faces. There was even a little moss on some of the stones, and because of that and its careful design, the wall looked comfortably situated in the landscape from the start. The client, who had been out of town and away from the project since approving the design, came home, saw the wall, and called his contractor. “What is this?!” he asked — “I don’t want old, used stone in my wall! I thought I was getting new stone!” The contractor shook his head as he told me the story, laughing at the idea of having to source stone that hadn’t been around for millennia….

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Quite frequently I design a project that calls for one or more stone walls, and almost as frequently the stone I specify is New England fieldstone. Fieldstone walls are ubiquitous in this part of the world, and a good wall, even if it’s newly constructed, can help give structure and readability to a landscape.

Because I specify stone walls so often, I see quite a few stone supplier ads. A newish product, fieldstone veneer, has been advertised in the last few years. Fieldstone veneer is made by cutting chunks of fieldstone into small rectangular pieces; the face of the veneer is left rough and weathered, or with a split, not sawn surface. The rectangular form makes installing the veneer a relatively quick process, and gives an architectural, or at least strictly ordered, look to a wall face. The contrast between that ordering and the naturally textured surface presents quite an appealing finish.

When I see videos of the fieldstone veneer cutting process, though, my mind drifts to the disappearance of historic stone walls throughout New England, and I wonder if any of the projects I’ve worked on contain some of that stone, hauled from its centuries-old home and sliced into construction-ready pieces. This article from the National Trust for Historic Preservation outlines the problem: stone walls are being taken without permission or compensation from private properties and reused elsewhere. As far as I can tell, there’s no way of determining the provenance of stone — and cutting it up only makes identification even more impossible. We can only see the ancient walls disappearing from roadsides, yard perimeters, and woodlots, and hope that what we’re using has come only from legitimate sources.

Here is a photo of intact stone walls in winter. p1000614These are freestanding drylaid walls, and one of their structural merits is that they move with frost. Their jointing methods – no mortar used – and wall composition insure that the walls move with the land as it undergoes the freeze/thaw cycle, and the relatively large stone size keeps the walls from falling apart even as they move.

With the ‘recycling’ of New England fieldstone for mortared walls, as in this wall,
Picture 5for instance, the cutting up of stones limits their future use, and the ability of future generations to recycle the stones once more. The argument could be made that veneer makes fieldstone a material accessible to more people because a veneer wall is less expensive to build than a full-depth stone wall — and it’s a valid argument. But the lifespan of mortared veneer walls has to be far shorter than that of traditional drylaid walls, given the nature of the freeze/thaw cycle, the shallowness of small veneers, and the prevalence of moisture in the New England winter — and that means that these walls will need maintenance and/or rebuilding sooner than the more traditionally built walls. Not to mention that if the natural stones themselves disappear, so too do the building techniques that produce the most stable and flexible kinds of walls for landscape use, and the possibility of being able to build them as readily as has been done in the past.

Is this a solvable problem? Is this a problem? I think that stone wall theft is definitely a problem, and I don’t know if it’s a solvable one. I’m pretty sure I haven’t explored the topic of New England stone walls, their disappearance, the metamorphosis of fieldstone into veneer, the use of veneer in landscape applications, or the costs (short-term and life-cycle) of veneer versus fieldstone with anything approaching thoroughness — but it seemed that recording initial thoughts on the topic would be a good place to start this particular conversation. Your thoughts?

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Fences 1

p10006321
p1000591p1000627p1000589One March day, Rhode Island rural landscape.  Wooden edges.

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Last August I went to a workshop in Westford, MA, at which two Massachusetts-certified arborists demonstrated how to move larger specimen trees using compressed air.  Mike Furgal, who developed the method about five years ago, and Matt Foti, who hosted the event at his nursery, showed a group of about 100 arborists, landscape contractors, and designers how they remove all the soil from a tree’s roots, pick the tree up, and move it to a new location.  This revolutionary version of the bare-root method creates relatively little stress in the tree, which typically can retain up 90% or so of its roots this way.  The technique gives landscape architects greater flexibility in specifying the safe salvage and reuse of trees from a mature site; far less transplant shock means shorter re-establishment periods and a much greater chance of success in transplanting.

The whole crowd was amazed by the efficacy of bare-root transplanting. It was remarkable to see a 20′ tall Japanese maple getting moved in the middle of a sunny August day, and settle into its new home without a wilted leaf; to witness the immense root plates that the arborists were unearthing intact on a variety of trees; and watch as a 4″ caliper birch — birches hate to be moved in summer or fall, and usually die in the process — was air-spaded up and moved without any problem.  Compressed-air technology points the way to a healthier landscape, and after this workshop, Massachusetts arborists started calling in their orders for Air Spades and Air Knifes.

I wrote a couple of articles about how this method works and what its benefits are.  The first article came out in American Nurseryman (1 December 2008 issue) and is reprinted in the March 2009 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine.  The second, published in the February 2009 issue of Lawn and Landscape magazine, describes a little more fully than the ANM article how the method works.  (This site is tricky to navigate; the article starts on page 76 of the February issue, and you have to click on the individual pages — the info should be worth the effort.)

One correction to the American Nurseryman article:  it says the standard formula for digging trees limits the size of trees that can be moved with a mechanical trees spade, and that no tree over 9′-6″ in caliper should be moved that way.  Well, that’s a misprint — how many 9′-6″ trees are you familiar with?  The real number should be 12″ caliper.  My apologies for the error, which originated on my keyboard…

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