How do you build a stone garden wall

How to build a stone garden wall

Stone Garden Walls for around Victoria BC

When it comes to building a free standing stone garden wall, there are 2 types; dry-stacked and mortared. For a dry stacked style, each stone is carefully stacked side by side and on top of each other without any assistance from mortar. This style can be found throughout England as it was the main way for dividing land and securing farm livestock.

Mortared walls are basically the same except they are built using mortar to keep everything in place. Most of the time a mortared type will be built on a formed concrete footing to keep its strength, where as a dry stack is built on a compacted crush base and has the ability to move with ground adjustments.

Where would I use a stone wall?

Anything with two exposed sides also known as a freestanding walls are mostly used one the perimeter or boundary. This can look very appealing on the front of the house, especially if you have a neatly finished natural cap to it.

If you only have one exposed side, also known as a stone retaining style which is often used to create raised planting beds in the garden and to give a clean change to grades when creating divisions between two or more level areas. With this type, you only need to focus on the exposed side looking nice, making use of the best side to each rock and burying anything else into the ground behind.

When constructing any kind of wall, always good to think about drainage and hydro-static pressure. Both of these, can cause problems over time if ignored when being built.

What sort of drainage does my project need?

When constructing any kind of retainer whether it is stone, wood or block, you need to think about the excessive water and pressure behind it. To do this, there are two things you can do that can to fix this problem. First, installing drainage pipe and drain rock wrapped in fabric behind it, which is then in turn routed out and away. This will allow any excess water, to escape and drain away from your newly built project.

Secondly, when constructing the project, don’t build it completely ‘plumb’, there needs to be a slight bit of slope. This allows it to lean back against the supporting bank or material. Also consider having the base several inches below the finished grade of the low side, this will prevent the finished product from kicking out on the bottom over time, adding strength to everything.

It is also advisable to check your local bylaws regarding retainers in your garden, to make sure you meet them. Usually anything over 3ft need to be engineered and signed off once completed. Also if it is high enough, you may want to consider some form of railing if people are going to be getting to close to the edge, especially if you have young children or pets running around in the garden or on the property.

They are used to create a transition from one level of ground to another. By cutting into a slope and allowing for level ground both above and below, they will increase the amount of flat, usable ground in a garden. It is suitable for DIYers as long as it is a maximum of 3 feet tall (in most areas). Anything taller should be handled by professionals.

The easiest way to install a stone retainer is to use the dry-stack method that requires no mortar between the rocks and does not need a concrete footing, like mortared ones do. Dry-stack style also drain well, allowing water to pass through by itself. This helps reduce hydrostatic pressure imposed by wet soil behind the face, which is the most common cause of failure. Backfilling it with rock promotes drainage through and prevents soil from pushing through the cracks in the rocks.

Codes and Regulations

Check with your city’s building authority for applicable code rules and zoning laws governing your project. Most areas require an engineer’s stamp for anything over 3 feet, but some draw the line at 30 inches. Also, your city may require a permit and inspections for a project of a certain height, even if you do the work yourself. Be sure to check before you start work.


Call before you dig. Before breaking ground in your garden, call 8-1-1, the national “Call before you dig” hotline, to have all underground utility lines marked on your property. This is a free service that can take a few days, so call well in advance of starting your garden project.

What You’ll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Wood stakes
  • Maul or hammer
  • Mason’s line
  • String Line
  • Shovel
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Utility knife
  • Rake
  • Short 2×4 board
  • Hand tamp
  • 4-foot carpenter’s level


  • Field rocks or cut stone
  • Landscape fabric
  • Compactible gravel
  • Coarse sand
  • Drainage gravel
  • Masonry adhesive (optional)



Organize everything roughly by size and shape, making different piles as needed. You will use the largest, flattest ones for the base, and reserve the widest, smoothest, and best-looking ones for the capstones at the top. Keep in mind that odd sizes and shapes can be mixed in with more regular sizes to maintain overall consistency, and you can knock off peaks and other formations with a brick chisel and maul, as needed, to make them fit during construction.

Set Up a String Line

Use wood stakes and a mason’s line to mark the location of the front face of the base. The string also represents the front of the trench for the base. The width (front to back) of the trench should be at least one-half the total wall height. For example, if the end result is 30 inches tall, the trench should be at least 15 inches wide. Place a line level on the string, then pull the string taut from one end, and level the line before tying it off to the stake.

Excavate the Area

Excavate the area, starting from the string and moving back toward the slope. Dig down 12 inches into the ground to create a trench for the base and first row of block, which will be below grade. Dig into the slope as needed to create a 6 to 12 inch wide space between the backside and the slope, for drainage rock. Measure down from the string line to make sure the excavation is level as you go.

Add Landscape Fabric

Cover the excavated area with strips of landscape fabric (not plastic) laid perpendicular to the front of the wall and extending a few feet onto the upper ground. Overlap adjacent strips of fabric by 6″. Cut the strips to length with a utility knife.

Build the Base

Fill the trench with 5″ of compactible gravel. Rake the gravel so it is flat and level, then tamp it thoroughly with a hand tamp or a rented power tamper. Add a 1″ layer of coarse sand over the gravel. Smooth the sand with a short 2×4 board so it is smooth.

Lay the First Row

Set large, flat ones along the front edge of the trench to build the first layer. Add or remove sand beneath each rock, as needed, so the tops of the stones are flush with one another. Use a 4-foot carpenter’s level set across multiple rocks to make sure to be levelling the stones as you work.

Lay the Second Row

Place the next row of stones on top of the first, offsetting (or “staggering”) the joints between them with those in the first layer, similar to the 1-over-2 pattern of bricklaying. This adds strength to the wall. Also, set the front faces about 1/2″ back (toward the slope) from the front of the first. This creates a slight stair-step pattern, called batter, that helps it resist forces imposed by the slope. As you place each one, check that there is as little wobble as possible. You can use small, flatter rocks as shims to prevent wobbling.

Begin Back-Filling

Fill the space between the wall and the slope with drainage gravel. Rake the gravel fairly even, and tamp it thoroughly with the hand tamp. Back-fill only up to the highest point.

Install More rows

Lay the third and subsequent rows, using the same techniques, adding 1/2 inch of batter for each layer and staggering the joints with the ones below. Starting with the third row, install “deadman” – long stones that reach back into the slope to help tie it into the earth. Place a deadman every 4 feet or so, and dig into the slope, as needed, so they sit level front to back. A design that is 30 inches or less needs only one course with deadmen, but plan on two layers for anything taller. Back-fill it with gravel as you go.

Completing the Top

Fold the landscape fabric over the drainage rock as you near the top. You can do this before the last one or two standard courses or before the capstones (the top-most course), depending on how much soil you’d like at the top (for growing grass). Lay the final course and/or the capstones to complete it. If desired, you can glue them to the course below to help keep them in place, using masonry adhesive.

Back Fill With Soil

Trim the landscape fabric so it is just below the top of the wall. Cover the landscape fabric and back-fill behind the top with soil, as desired. To grow grass in this area of your garden, the soil layer should be at least 6″ thick.

Stone Wall Tips

You can build a wall with natural fieldstone that you have in your garden, provided the materials are flat enough for stacking. If you have to buy stone, choose a flat ones, such as flagstone, or a cut veneer product like ashlar. Flat or cut finished products are much easier to work with than fieldstone and will make a sturdier finished product.

To create a more natural or aged look, plan to add plants in various places in the wall. Rougher stone will automatically have gaps large enough for packing in soil and planting. If you use cut stone, plan for plantable gaps when building the garden wall. They don’t need to be large and should not compromise the overall integrity. Cascading plants, such as Thyme or Alyssum, look very attractive spilling down the sides of the garden retainer. Herbs also work well growing on or near rock garden walls.

Few Answered Questions

How high can it be?

Several factors will determine how high yours will be. Some may only need to be 2 feet high while others on commercial land might exceed 40 feet. It will depend on your property and how much protection you need it to provide. Our experts will determine the right size for your walls.

How long will it take to build?

The length will be based on the conditions of your property. It might only be 5 feet or it might stretch across your entire backyard. Let our experts help you find a visually appealing solution today.

How many different looks are available when retaining?

There are countless possibilities for your commercial or residential retaining . Blocks are available in different sizes, a variety of colors, and from different materials. The walls themselves may be anywhere from a single foot tall to several feet tall. Ask our Office for details about custom retaining designs for your property.

What are the benefits of a garden wall for my home?

Residential garden walls are most often used to protect exposed basements from the effects of erosion. With enough time and rain, soil can block basement doors and windows if not restrained correctly.

Houses on top or below high hills also benefit from garden retaining walls. For homes on top of hills, retaining grades and slopes keeps the foundation from shifting. For homes at the bottom of a hill, a retaining wall will keep loose soil from building up around the house. Different placement of rocks will provide different results for your home and yard.