Wednesday, June 4, 2014


DIY Stacked Stone Landscape Border

One of my latest landscaping projects was to do a stacked stone border around the trees in our front yard.  We had already completed a border on the trees in the backyard (see post here), but wanted to try something different.

My husband and I both liked the idea of a natural stone dry stack.  I was concerned about the stability of this type of border. The solution was to "back-mortar" the stack after it was completed - providing stability but still keeping the look of a dry stack in the front.  But that is jumping ahead a bit.  Here are the supplies I used and the process I followed...

  • Natural Stones - when using natural stone for a dry stack - it is much easier to use flatter stones.  Keep this in mind when searching for stones.
  • Shovel - for digging the trench
  • Level - to check the stack for level as you build it.
  • String Level and String - to check the stack for level.
  • Sand - to provide a more stable base.  (I used about one bag per tree)
  • Rubber Mallet - to tap the rocks in place and correct for level.
  • Mortar - I used masonry mix from Lowe's. (see photo below)
  • Two Large Buckets - to mix mortar.
  • Drill - corded drill to mix mortar.
  • Mixing Attachment for Drill - to mix mortar.
  • Dust Mask - to wear while mixing mortar.
  • Rubber Gloves - to wear while mixing and applying mortar.
  • Trowel - to apply mortar to back of stack.
  • Hose and Sprayer - for adding water to mortar mix and to mist the mortar occasionally as it dries so it does not cure too fast and crack.
  • Newspaper - To use as landscaping cloth to prevent weed growth
  • Mulch - to cover the base of the tree.


Start by determining the size of the bed around the tree.  We chose to do just a simple small circle.  Cut the sod and dig a small trench around the perimeter.  Note - there is a reason you dig a trench rather than just setting the stack on top of grass - the trench will allow the stack to block the grass from growing into the mulched area around the tree.

DIY Stacked Stone Landscape Border - digging around the tree

DIY Stacked Stone Landscape Border - Digging around the tree

The key to this whole process is starting with a level base.  If you don't start with a level base - these types of borders end up looking sloppy.  I used a basic level to determine if the stones were laying flat.  On dirt, this is not a perfect science but atleast it gives you a general idea. Using a level on top of natural stone with it's inconsistent surface seems kind of silly, however, I used it to make sure I was generally keeping the stack level. 

TIP - Keep in mind that these are natural stones and not perfectly shaped bricks.  When attempting to level the base, you will find your measurements with the level can be inconsistent in a single stone with the variations on the surface.  No worries - just do your best with leveling and move on.

DIY Stacked Stone Landscape Border - keeping it level
TIP - Sort through your stones before starting and you may find you have some with a side that is not so flat - you can use these on the base and bury the not-so-flat part in the ground.  This saves the flatter more ideal shaped stones for your project for the rest of the dry stack.

Fit the first stone into the trench at the lowest point.  Remove the stone and add some sand.  Replace the stone and use the rubber mallet to tap it and set it in the place.  Check that the stone is level using the hand level (both left-to-right, and front-to-back).  Tap the stone with the rubber mallet to level it if necessary.

Place the second stone next to the first in the trench.  As you place stones you may find you have to dig a little more dirt out to keep the stones level with the previous ones.  Remove the stone and add some sand.  Replace the stone and use the rubber mallet and tap it in place.  Check the stone for level against the previous stone and make adjustments where necessary (by tapping with the rubber mallet or adding sand if necessary).  Continue this process around the tree.

TIP - Choose stones of similar thickness as you start stacking.  I start each layer with medium thick stones and then stand back and review my work. If there is a "dip" in a layer, I can replace a few stones with thicker ones.  If there is a "bump" in a layer - I can replace a few stones with thinner ones.

TIP - As you move forward and check the stack for level - a string level can be helpful as well.  I didn't find using the string level so useful when the stack was short.  I used one at the end to re-check the stack. 

As I mentioned earlier, I started to set the base at the lowest point around the tree as our yard was slightly sloped (as most yards will be).  As you place subsequent stones, and the land is sloping upward, you will find you need to create a stair-step.  As I moved around the tree, I would stair-step my way up.  NOTE:  Make sure you have the same number of "steps" on either side so that when you start stacking you have equal levels on either side (In other words, you don't want to create a spiral of stones).  I made this mistake on the second tree because I was not paying attention, and had to go back and re-work a step into on one of the sides.

DIY Stacked Stone Landscape Border - stair stepping

DIY Stacked Stone Landscape Border - stair stepping

When you complete the stack, this is what you should end up with (see below).  Notice I have not yet pushed the dirt back against the stones.  I still need to mortar the back of the stack to provide some support.

DIY Stacked Stone Landscape Border

DIY Stacked Stone Landscape Border - before mortar is applied

DIY Stacked Stone Landscape Border - before mortar is applied

DIY Stacked Stone Landscape Border

I did a final check with a string level to see if I was still on the right track with the keeping the stack level.  A few adjustments were necessary.  Once I was happy with the stack, it was time to "back-mortar" it.  Here is how I went about mixing the mortar. 


Drill and Mixing Attachment


Supplies to mix mortar

Use the second bucket filled with water to hold the drill and attachment and keep it clean between mixing.

Mix some mortar in a bucket (follow the directions on the bag).  You want to mix small amounts, apply, and remix more mortar as you go.  Use a trowel to apply the mortar to the back of the stack. 

In addition to applying mortar to the back side, I picked up the stones on the top row of the stack and applied some mortar underneath each stone for some added stability.  Make sure you are not letting mortar seep to the front of the stack when doing this.  By using this method, all the mortar is hidden underneath the top stones and behind the stack (which will be covered by dirt and mulch), and therefore, you still have the look of a dry stack in front.

TIP - As I am working, and every so often, I go back and mist the mortar I have already applied (with water) so it doesn't cure too fast and crack.  A slower cure for materials such as this will result in a stronger structure.  Be sure to just mist the mortar (I have a "mist" setting on my hose sprayer), don't blast it with a hose and wash it away!

DIY Stacked Stone Landscape Border - applying the mortar

DIY Stacked Stone Landscape Border - applying the mortar


DIY Stacked Stone Landscape Border - newsprint as landscaping cloth

Once the mortar is dry, you can push the dirt back behind the stack.  Before placing the mulch back on the dirt under the trees, I laid down sheets of newsprint for weed control.  All the dirt was covered in at least 3-4 layers (a couple layers is not enough).  I found that misting the layers with a hose helped these from blowing around as I was laying them down.  Then I covered them with mulch.  The newsprint has worked out wonderfully in preventing the growth of weeds or grass.  I understand that over the years this will break down and have to be replaced but that's OK with me.  I know you can use landscaping cloth, but recycling the old newspaper for something useful seemed like a great thing to me.

I think the finished products turned out great and best of all - no more pulling grass out of the mulch around our trees!

For my other natural stone border see this post: DIY STONE LANDSCAPE BORDER 1

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