Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Garden Enhancements Go Local for Rocks

By Ron Sullivan
Friday April 14, 2006

There’s a lively side discussion going on within a California native-plants email list about how to garden with the least impact. 

Part of it hinges on things like the comparative drainage of blue path fines versus gold path fines—“fines” or “quarry waste” are the almost-sand-sized bits of rock you see around some civic trees, for example at the Ashby BART station—when used as inorganic mulch. 

Some native plants do better in “unimproved” soil than in the loamy garden soil that organic mulches eventually make.  

From that point, the topic moved to just how much one is screwing up by importing things over great distances using resources like petroleum. This one reaches into homes, too: Imagine the real cost of hauling a few tons of granite for garden rocks or countertops from China. (Then there’s that interesting trade imbalance that seems to profit a very few Americans, at least in the long run.) But how much more of the Sierra do you want to mine? 

Those of us who live in the flatlands where the native rock is mud might despair of ever having the flag path or planting wall or featured boulder we dream of, if we also want a clear conscience. If you really want to torment yourself, there are a couple of places around the Richmond/Albany/El Cerrito border to do so.  

American Soil is the better known, having been right here in Berkeley for years, at Bancroft between the railroad tracks and Aquatic Park. I took my brand-new pickup down there to baptize it with a cubic yard of Walt Whitman, one of their most useful compost mixes. Here came a guy on a front-loader; he raised it waaaayy up and dropped its load into my truck. “Oof!” said the truck, and then we drove home very slowly because the braking distance was new to me. Lesson: a cubic yard of dirt about fills a six-foot compact pickup bed.  

American Soil, in its new location north of Central Avenue on the frontage road, has amazing big rocks, pavers, amusing sculptures, and a menu of some 15 soil amendments and various mulches and gravels, with swatches in a bin to help you choose. They carry assorted handy supplies like jute netting and rhizome barriers. The inimitable Keeyla Meadows has a display garden there, too.  

On the other side of Central Avenue, on the same frontage road, is the comparative upstart Acapulco Rock & Soil. It has a smaller menu of soil amendments, mulches, rock, sand, cobbles, and fines, but if it has the rock you’re fated to fall in love with, you’re in luck: the prices there are a shade cheaper than American Soil’s. Their quick can-I-help-you works well for those new to gardening or just bewildered.  

Here’s the rub, at any such store. The stated prices are just for the stuff; delivery can cost more than the material. So if you have a good friend with a pickup, you know the time to call in your favors. You can get stuff by the bag, too—more pricey and heavy lifting if you need lots. So call in your favors from the friends with linebackers in the house. And for mercy’s sake, feed them.