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Tue, Oct. 15

Ask the Contractor: Caging rocks effective, appealing in landscaping

Gabions generally do not require a foundation, can be adapted to contours in the land, allow water to flow through without erosion, and can be inexpensively filled with site rock or recycled materials. (Courier file)

Gabions generally do not require a foundation, can be adapted to contours in the land, allow water to flow through without erosion, and can be inexpensively filled with site rock or recycled materials. (Courier file)

If I said “galvanized steel cages filled with rocks,” what word would you think of? Of course it would be “gabions.”

According to Marc Vetere, owner of Manzanita Landscaping, “gabions add an inspired and unique element into your landscape” and we are seeing more and more gabions being built in our area.

According to web lore, the gabion method takes its inspiration from ancient Egypt, where rock walls made from wicker were used for soil retention along the Nile. The name, however, is derived from the Italian “gabbione,” translating to “big cage.” The Italians employed gabbiones for fortresses and military purposes.

With the current focus on outdoor living, the method proves environmentally sound and durable. Sustainable, flexible and scalable gabion units can be as efficiently and aesthetically incorporated into huge commercial structures as smaller-scale residential backyards.

One highly visible treatment sits at the entrance to Yavapai College’s Prescott campus. The Sheldon Street entry is structurally appealing and eco-friendly.

The first gabions at Yavapai College date back to a 2005 master plan renovation, according to Mike Kervin, grounds and landscape supervisor at the college. Kervin explained that gabions installed near Building 3 (food court) and on the Verde campus are replicas of those original designs.

“They are mainly an aesthetic feature in the landscape and serve to separate different outdoor spaces,” Kervin explained. “They also make a nice backdrop for climbing plants like trumpet vine, honeysuckle or Virginia creeper. We also have a cool outdoor space connected to the library made of gabion and covered with Chinese wisteria.”

Gabions “definitely are gaining traction,” Vetere said, though not necessarily rapidly, after popping up locally over the past 15 years or so.

Robert Vastine, designer with Prescott Landscape Professionals is a fan of the technique, and said they remain “way underutilized” and “not as popular in Yavapai County as they should be.” He’s not sure why, because “they can have so many applications and can fit so many different styles of architecture — from modern to rustic — depending on the materials used.” 

Some of gabions’ appeal may arise from people new to the area and consumers’ online research, Vastine noted: “More people moving here bring more varied tastes and influences.

Central to the technique’s appeal is that gabions generally do not require a foundation, can be adapted to contours in the land, allow water to flow through without erosion, and can be inexpensively filled with site rock or recycled materials. The resourceful elements to their design also appeal to some consumers.

“Landscape applications for gabions are almost endless with creativity,” said Vetere. “We mostly see walls built using them, but they also work great as seating around firepits and other gathering areas. They can be scattered along pathways throughout the yard to make destination spots. We have built water features as well as benches, and the settings make great places to stop and relax.”

Much of gabion construction encompasses filling the cages with one or more types of rock. Although intensive labor can be required, it is much less specialized than the time-consuming precision of laying brick or placing pavers.

Options for obtaining the cages include employing a local iron expert to build a custom product or purchasing premade baskets online, Vetere noted. Whichever method is used for the metal baskets, any local rock yard can supply the fill materials, he added. Kervin recommended using large enough rocks so they “can’t escape from the baskets over time (because) they do try.”

Vastine characterized gabions as great do-it-yourself projects, but also advised homeowners to be aware of applicable building codes.

The cages should be manufactured for the express purpose of building gabions, Vastine recommended, so they “will have the proper strength and reinforcement ties to resist bulging as rock or other material is added. While the imagination is the only limiting factor as to what goes inside, rock is the most common material used. This can be ordered by the ton from any landscape supply yard.”

Vetere explained that “cages are pretty easy to install. The main thing is getting them level and then adding the rock. Cap types vary from flagstone, concrete, metal or even wood. Almost any type of rock can be used, depending on the mesh spacing. You do want to avoid rocks that break down over time. Use a really dense, strong aggregate for longevity.”

Additionally, Vastine offered “one note about construction if one should attempt as a do-it-yourself project. The rocks are not simply dumped in the cage. They are artfully placed on the outside to ensure they will not fall through the holes, and care is taken to ensure the exposed face will be pleasing to the eye. The fill material in the center can be dumped more randomly and oftentimes can be junk rock or recycled concrete, especially if you’re using expensive or hard-to-find material on the visible portions.”

For added visual interest, unique patterns can be created with multiple rock styles. Besides rock-only cages, sections of wood or glass can add visual interest. Distinctive accents from such combinations can provide years of solid landscaping and outdoor enjoyment.

The life expectancy of gabions depends on the lifespan of the wire, not the contents of the cage. The most common basket materials are galvanized steel wire, PVC-coated wire, or stainless steel wire.

Whether starting from scratch, assembling a kit, or hiring a contractor, Vetere urges consumers to “have fun with it and let their creative juices flow. With all the different types of applications, you can really enhance a landscape.”

Remember to tune in to YCCA’s “Hammer Time” every Saturday or Sunday at 7 a.m. on KQNA 1130AM, 99.9FM, 95.5FM or online at Listen to Sandy to Mike talk about the construction industry meet your local community partners and so much more. You will be entertained.

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