I’m in love with gabions. At once both industrial chic and quaintly folksy, there’s something about that combined texture of stone and the sheen of metal mesh that really appeals. The other reason is they’re so DIY, as I’ve discovered since our first foray into gabion building early last year.
A few months ago, the wonderfully talented Steve Warner (Outhouse Designs) did a quick sketch of a new backyard design for me. It included some low, curved, dry stone retaining walls and an free-standing stone ‘echo’ wall a few metres away and on a similar curve to help define a pathway. I ummed and ahhed about it for a while – I loved the shape and texture of the walls but the cost of buying the dimension stone and getting a stone mason in to build them……
When I realised I could build them as gabion walls at a fraction of the cost, it got me thinking about all sorts of ways you could use gabions in garden design. If you have access to local fill material (which can be any rubbish stone as long as its dimensions are bigger than the mesh openings), they’re cheap as chips to build, as the cages or mesh will only cost a few hundred dollars.
Gardens that reflect their local natural landscape have a genuine sense of place. Using your local stone, whether that’s sandstone, basalt, slate or granite will make it feel like it fits in with its surroundings. The stone can be either rounded boulders and large pebbles or angular broken stone but if you don’t have access to stone, or it’s not appropriate, you can also reuse broken concrete, old pavers, bricks and tiles for a more industrial aesthetic (and it stops them ending up in landfill).
Whatever your fill material, the wall is very textured and dominating, saying very loudly ‘look at me’. Keep that in mind when choosing adjacent surfaces and plants, as smooth surfaces from large unit pavers, poured pavement, or lawn will look better than busy small unit pavers. Soft, weeping grasses or clipped plants are also a perfect counterbalance to the hardness of the stone.
While most gabion kits are rectangular, don’t let that limit your design ideas. You can also build a curved gabion wall, as I’m currently doing, and I’ll be blogging about its construction details here soon.
If the walls are low, than it’s the top of the wall that matters most, so keep that in mind when you’re packing the rocks, and save the best and most interesting pieces until last. If you want to incorporate a seat, you can attach some outdoor blueboard to the top mesh panel and mortar pavers onto that, or add a backing piece underneath the top mesh panel onto which you can attach timber boards – or just add some thick seat cushions.
A wall top can also incorporate succulents or epiphytic plants like bromeliads that will grow in bark chips, which you can hold in small pockets of geotextile.
Or form the basis of a greenwall, as in this example from Badec Bros Deco in Pretoria, SA
Screens and fences
Gabion screens and fences need the rigidity of a surrounding frame of either timber or heavier metal. At eye height, the fill material becomes more critical and potentially more decorative, so you could introduce some subtle colour variations with bands of differently coloured stones but again it’s the texture that’s the most important element.
While the screen can be opaque, why not incorporate some spyholes using old-style concrete breezeway blocks or a few terracotta pipes. By using smaller cages and finer mesh you can even create a sort of vertical mosaic of all sorts of objects, using shells and bleached driftwood for a beach look, brightly coloured plastic for retro kitsch, old wine bottles (ahh… remember the night we had that delicious Grange Hermitage……) or rusting metal objects for a steam-punk screen.
David Hocker of Hocker Design Group incorporated a gabion-style wall filled with blue slag glass in his ASLA 2010 Award winning garden, and installed internal lighting for an amazing ethereal glow.
This ingenious gate design and construction by Goodman Fabrications, Arizona, makes a gabion gate light enough to swing by incorporating a self-contained internal open section.
You could also use the gabion framework like a large vase to support dried willow, bamboo or reeds to form a light and lacy screen, or even just dried leaves and twigs like this screen at the De Young Museum.
The Cafe Ato in Seoul, South Korea, designed by BONO, has one of the most innovative gabion screens around. The heavy solid mesh and rocks are transformed into something airy and light by ‘floating’ rocks, suspended within open mesh cages. Brilliantly beautiful.
When they’re not retaining much, gabion cages can be as narrow as 20-30cm (8-12in), so you can use them to build a container for a small tree or large shrub. A geotextile fabric or weedmat behind the wall prevents potting mix from washing through. Roots won’t grow through the gabion wall as they are airpruned.
I love these squat pieces by sculptor Natalie Clark, based in Idaho, USA, and the way they lean over, seemingly past their centre of gravity, plus her tall gabion fountain which spills into an underground sump.
Once you have the ability to cut and join mesh, the design possibilities are endless.
Or how about a gabion labyrinth, like this one called ‘The Minotaur’ at Keilder Castle in Northumberland, UK, designed by Shona Kitchen and Nick Coombe. Using 200m of 2m high basalt-filled walls, it has some of the darker feelings of the original Greek myths, where labyrinths were a place of slow death.
Gabion furniture has a non-nonsense ‘I’m here to stay’ look about it. I’m not entirely sure I like it as I’d prefer to have something I can move about but if your outdoor furniture, say in a front garden, is vulnerable to theft, this is for you. Or it can be high quality sculpture like this sleek and fluid gabion chaise by Florida sculptor Celeste Roberge
Water features and ponds
While dry stones are beautiful, many really come in to their own when glistening wet so a gabion fountain is a perfect way to achieve that in all weather. A submerged pump hidden in the bottom will also have its sound muffled by the surrounding rocks.
You can insert a blade spout into a gabion wall as in this example from Gabion Schanskorven or copper spouts, as used by the innovative Badec Bros Deco in Pretoria, SA. Use a lintel beam to build an archway water feature like the one by Ore Containers below. Gabion walls can also form the support for a pond liner.
You can find even more stunning gabion ideas in this video from the Dutch company Gabion Schanskorven which includes gabion walls with fireplaces, letterboxes, waterfalls, tables, benches and planters.
Update September 2014 – just came across this very interesting gabion wall which has used old house bricks from the demolished house to make a small boundary retaining wall. Love the way they’ve been packed on the angle.