Rocky Resources

Every geographic area has a resource waiting to be used. I want to talk about areas that have stone easily accessible. Rocks can seem to be a huge obstacle to design and productivity, but there are some valuable advantages that come with having usable stone. Some advantages to using stone in a design can be: freeing the soil of obstacles to plant growth, being able to use that removed stone for retaining walls or other structures, using land far beyond what common ideology says it is worth, using otherwise unused material and simple beauty. Rocky landscapes can be very advantageous to a permaculture designer.

In many soils there are non-soil components, many times being large stones. Anything over 2mm in diameter is not soil. The stones that are in the soil can inhibit, at least to some degree, the growth of plant life and the ease of planting. Good examples of removing the stones from the soil for use can be seen in many fields in Britain. There is a large amount of work that is involved in removing these stones but in many cases removing at least some of them is worth the effort. Increased usability is the goal.

Removing stones from soil is just one side of the coin. The other side is the usefulness of those stones for building structures. I’m talking about retaining walls in particular. With a retaining wall, land can be leveled off, terraced, making it usable in the sense that it is easier to manage, so steep slopes do not have to be navigated. Terraced ground slows rain water, which helps it sink into the ground and combats erosion. A lot of areas are considered to be unusable because of slope, but terraced land becomes usable. Aeration can be increased by having a stone wall, as it lets air penetrate from the side, and not just from above. A stone wall also allows excess water to drain out. Stone walls also create unique microclimates, by absorbing heat from the sun and re-radiating it out to plants at night — allowing plants to grow that are not as cold hardy. A microclimate can also be created by using the walled terrace to block cold wind. It is the removal and use of the stone as a whole project that may make it worth doing, otherwise the juice may not be worth the squeeze.

According to the common ideology of food production, rocky, hilly land has little or no value. Permaculture finds the value others cannot see. For example, if a rocky, hilly piece of property is near a densely populated area and there is no farmland nearby, then people normally bring their food in, at great cost of energy, from further away. But, land that would normally be overlooked can give a permaculture farmer an advantage — as it is cheaper to buy, and can provide such locations with a closer source of produce. Common thought among ecologists is that most farmland has already been cultivated, and much of that has been eroded. With permaculture, the use of different kinds of land is possible, as soil-building can make almost any land entirely usable.

How to build a stone wall is important knowledge to have. Taking stones out of the soil on sloped land can be advantageous, because the stone can basically be rolled downhill. The easiest rock wall to build, and probably longest lasting, would be a dry stone wall. With a dry stone wall, the stones need to be large enough so the wall has the thickness to support itself and any weight on top of it. The wall should also be able to hold back the expanding and contracting soil behind it and even have a slight angle leaning in to the soil so that it does not get pushed over. Dry fit walls can expand and contract as needed, due to changing temperature and water content in the soil, and so plants can grow freely, without the wall cracking, as a typical masonry wall would. Backfilling a wall can be a task, but it does not have to be soil — other good fill can be added when available. Hugelkultur can be used in the design by adding wood to the terrace to add long lasting nutrients, organic matter, water-holding capacity and heat.

There is something inherently beautiful about a terrace; something that says "useful, bold and timeless". A retaining wall with a terrace on top speaks of human ingenuity, diligence and permanence. There is nothing boring or mundane about a feature like a terrace in the landscape.

Permaculture design has many uses for rocky ground, and stone walls are one of those uses with many advantages such as: helping plant growth, usability of removed stone, revealing the true value of land, having a place for otherwise unused material like logs and to just enjoy simple beauty. There are many opportunities with rocky resources waiting to be acted upon. There can be hard work involved in developing a rocky landscape but worth it in the long run.

Let us know your stony stories via comments below!


  1. Thank you for this beautiful article. Dry stone terraces are one of my favorite manmade landscape features. Thanks for showing us how to value “useless” land and work with the resources available to create something both useful and lovely.

  2. Rocky woodland hillsides were devastated by a ice storm in 2009. We have the ingredients -dead trees up to 15 inches in diameter and tops lots of hugelkultur material, rocks of every shape and slopes. The shortage is labor.

  3. I have fought with my stony ground since moving into our home four years ago. I sifted and screened my garden beds to create a double-dug bed of sorts, half below grade and half above using planks to raise the bed. This was before I learned about the mulching method I currently use.

    The previous homeowners had also dealt with the stony ground and had amassed quite a collection, piled around the yard and behind the house. Any tree planted, fence post hole dug, etc. produces a crop of large, round stones. Our ‘soil’ has great drainage since what is not stone is essentially gritty sand. So the removal of stones goes along with amending the soil to retain water.

    How I dealt with my surplus was to use the stones to create borders for the planting beds around the property. This has created a couple new conditions, however. Since we live in a suburban neighborhood with a Home Owners Assoc., there is an expectation to keep the lawn green and mostly grass. Weeding next to the stone border is hard on the weeder – either the electric or manual (pulling by hand) methods.

    And the stone border creates a wonderful habitat for slugs, spiders, etc. I’m happy with the diversity, but the large area of edge has made an imbalance in favor of these critters. In the case of slugs, that’s hard on whatever I plant. As many as I can trap I like to feed to my chickens, but so far I have yet to find a way of trapping them that works well.

    All this to say I am still learning about how to use this surplus in a way that will be a benefit to the land and create a more functional environment. I find them easy to work with, but yes, it is hard labor schlepping stones. I also find them beautiful. Thanks for a good article.

  4. Thank you for the feedback, glad you have got something out of this article. I think the main reason we look at projects like stone walls and terraces in that way is because we know how much labor is really involved! I think we look and think “Wow, that must have taken so much effort! I have built a few walls like that, the highest being just above waist height and I can still look at them and have a sense of satisfaction from an enduring work (plus I like hard work). I want to encourage us to take up the seemingly daunting tasks before us and be those that do hard things selflessly for those that follow after us to enjoy.

  5. Hi Jon, thanks for this article, very useful. Would you say the same if it is the subsoil to be rocky? The place where I come from and I have my farm is just like that. And it is not just a case there are dry wall stones everywhere. It is on the Murge area, in Bari, Puglia, Italy. The Trulli (houses with the conic roof) are also made from the rocky stones coming from the subsoil. Still Though I am wondering if it is right breaking the subsoil in order to get the stones and try to adjust the top soil. My farm is just on a rocky hill covered by olive and almond trees but you can see the rock coming up over the top soil in many different areas. I thought that would be a nice spot for capers but I haven’t tried yet. Many Ceratonia Siliqua all over the place too.
    Take care,

  6. Galen,
    Thank you. I appreciate the work you are putting in, it inspires me! Something different about permaculture is acknowledgement of the “edges” and using them to do exactly what you are describing. The tough part is when you see that added wildlife eating what you worked so hard for. However, permaculture is all about finding wise ways to fix those problems that do arise by using more permaculture. I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t know but I am wanting to encourage you to come up with those idea that will cause more food to be on your table. I would suggest mulch or a low growing crop such as clover to help bring a better balance in your favor. Also an animal like a cat could help. Good stuff!

    You bring up a good point, that is a valid question, “How much is too much?”. One aspect of permaculture is all about using resources and another part is all about doing less work and letting nature do the work for you like it was designed to do. The wisdom of permaculture has a lot to do with understanding where these two factors meet. In the end I think you have to figure out what you think is the right amount of work and yes you can use those outcroppings to your advantage. All the best to you.

  7. How about using stones for the walls of raised beds, particularly african style keyhole or hugelkultur beds?

    You can use them to create solid retaining steps where a pathway crosses over a swale. The top step will support planks bridging the swale.

    If you are energetic or labour is cheap make your own aggregate with a sledge hammer.

    I am planning to do this on my stony land in Kenya.

  8. I live near the Burren, a limestone karst region in the West of Ireland that is criss-crossed with drystone walls, layer upon historic layer going back thousands of years, with ancient small and irregular patches and larger, more recent (18th/19th century) enclosures overlaying the older field systems. Aerial views of that landscape are breathtaking. High up on the mountains one can find large T-shaped walls where livestock can find shelter no matter which direction the wind comes from. They are build in such a way that they are just permeable enough not to be toppled by the frequent strong winds or even gales. Stone monuments, forts, enclosures and habitations going back 6000 years abound. On the geologically similar Aran Islands off the Burren coast in the Atlantic almost maze-like field systems have been made with rock cleared off the surface. (see The walls shelter grassland, livestock and even small patches of arable land where potatoes or rye for thatch are grown. The soil there was made by layering beach sand, seaweed, and some manure I’d think, on the bare rock. If you can’t go down, go up. Talk about eeking out a living! But a great example of “Use what you have.”

    I don’t live on the Burren karst proper but one of my old neighbours, now deceased (he’d be in his 90s now) used a similar technique to build up the soil in his beloved vegetable garden. Stonewalls abound here too. Our 2.5 acres are almost completely enclosed with drystone walls and there are additional internal walls. Right now I am using some surplus rocks to build a keyhole bed in the centre of one of my polytunnels as a heat sink and grow-bed in one. And I have started to remove rank grass and moss from certain walls that are east-west aligned (thus catching the sun very well if and when it actually shines…) and could store&release some additional heat for fruit-trees planted alongside.

  9. Nice article. This is a topic that interests me.

    I wonder what to do where the land is mostly rock. So far, the solution I decided on, is to grow some trees using something like the Groasis waterbox, start building some organic matter from their falling leaves, and then grow pastures managed holystically. Do you know of a land that’s mostly rock that’s been turned into fertile soil with permaculture that I could study a bit? Thanks!

    By the way, I think that piles of rocks can also be used to condense humidity in the air and water the soil.

  10. Cristian,
    That sounds similar to the area I live near, the Texas hill country. I know there are a lot of places like that, some are limestone like by me and the Israel/Jordan area as you can see with the Greening the Desert II Project and others have different types of rock. If you use just a line of stone on or close to contour you can catch some organic matter eroding away and some broken down rock particles. Soil is basically that, degraded rock, organic matter is added over time by decaying plants and animals. You could also use any little bit of soil to plant cacti which I have seen grow in almost nothing. Much cacti is edible if cooked right and good for you while helping to add carbon and create micro climate. I like the thorn-less varieties myself the kind with broad leaves. Hope that helps.

  11. That’s a wonderful tip, Jonathan! I had not thought about creating a barrier to accumulate organic matter. I’ll keep it in mind! Thank you so much. :)

    I know that using keyline plowing on rock would not work, but would swales help at all? I’m guessing that even if not as much as with soil, keeping the water in the land as long as possible, even if it’s mostly rock, it should help in some way. Of course, creating a swale in rock would be difficult too.

    Your dry stone wall on contour would definitely be simpler to implement, and on top of collecting soil I think it’d also help with water flow in some way, slowing it down and keeping it there longer. Maybe instead of contour they could follow the keyline idea leaning towards ridges even.

    If several of these are created at different levels, and then seed balls spread over the area, some vegetation should sprout in several places.

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