Outdoor spaces have magical powers. As we spend more time at home and look for ways to integrate our backyards into our living environments more seamlessly, many of us are looking at these spaces and wondering how to transform them into a place of respite.
Nina Mullen, landscape designer and principal of northern California-based Mullen Designs, admits she’s always trying to figure out ways to bring people out into the garden. Mullen is an award-winning landscape designer—in 2019, she was named Landscape Designer of the Year by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers for her panoramic haven project.
Before the global pandemic, our outdoor spaces were a place where we’d come home to gather with friends, to grow things, and to play, she says. Since then, Mullen has noticed our outdoor spaces have become a refuge, a safe and embracing space that can help protect us from the world.
Home improvement projects have surged in the past year. Many people are realizing what the growing body of research has been showing for years: spending time outdoors can improve our health, from being able to better focus to reducing the risk of major health issues such as cardiovascular disease, stress, and high blood pressure.
Natural stone plays a pivotal role in our outdoor spaces. Stone can help unify a space, through a path or patio, and pull together flowers and plants for aesthetically-appealing environments. Sometimes, natural stone can provide seating so people can spend more time outdoors.
When Mullen begins working with homeowners, she asks them to fill out a questionnaire to get a better understanding of their needs and wants. Sometimes the end goal is to create a serene environment, so she might look at a Zen garden. Other times clients want something more contemporary.
“When I’m designing a garden with a client’s landscape, I really want to understand their family’s culture and how they move through the space; what will get them out there,” says Mullen. “I want to create an outdoor space that’s really functional, but also just really inviting and feels right.”
For Mullen, what “feels right” also comes down to what types of natural stone to use in a project. She tries to identify stone that is native to the area and will work with their landscape whenever possible. In California, where she’s based, many clients love the rocky granite landscape, for example.
“I want the stone to feel like it belongs,” she says. There are several types of natural stone she tends to use regularly including Pennsylvania full color flagstone, “which is a really warm, green gray, that sometimes has a little bit of gold or a little bit of rust tones to it. I find that works really well for this area.”
One Stone, Many Uses
For her own home project, Mullen fell in love with black basalt remnants from Washington state that were available at a local stone yard. She didn’t even know what to do with them when she first saw them.
There were some big basalt columns, she says—about four or five feet in diameter, by her estimation. There were also two pieces of the stone that were just sitting there: triangular pieces about 14 inches high and maybe 18 inches by two feet.
“I knew I wanted to do something with those two pieces,” she says. “They’re so cool, what can I do with them?” She brought them home and those pieces created the impetus for her yard entryway and a retaining wall.
“The outside of the stone has a ‘skin’ that’s like a gold color,” Mullen explains. “The inside is a really dark, rich gray. The retaining wall is basically these triangular pieces that are just set in the soil, kind of battered back, but they’re heavy enough, they’re not going anywhere.” Those stones, she says, show off the “skin” of the basalt.
Mullen knew she wanted to continue to work on her entryway and went back to get those columns and had them cut off the “skin” to show off the beauty inside the natural stone.
“You know how they have these chef challenges where the chefs have garlic and they have to make all these dishes with just garlic? This is basically that same idea – we’re using the same stone in different ways,” she adds.
She added a bird bath but notes she didn’t do anything to the stone to create that groove. Again, that’s the beauty of natural stone—it’s natural and while it can be manipulated, sometimes nature’s work is perfect as it is.
Field Trip: Visiting Stone Yards
What most of her clients don’t realize is they’re often welcome to visit a stone yard and get inspired and see how it makes them feel to touch and see the stone in-person.
“They’re kind of surprised at the range of different kinds of stone and how they can be used in different ways,” she says.
Mullen recommends asking the stone yard if you can take samples of stones you think you might want to use. She recommends choosing pieces that are at least a foot square or larger, so that you can get a real sense of what it might look like in the space. It will be worth the sample size investment. “Think of it like you’re bringing home a paint swatch or small can of paint to use on a wall inside your home,” she says.
Many of Mullen’s clients find that although they fell in love with one type of stone, after bringing home samples, they discover another stone that looks better in the space—perhaps because of how the sunlight hits it, or how it looks next to the house or other outdoor elements.
At the end of the day, our outdoor spaces contribute to our health and wellness. After all, as Henry David Thoreau once said, “Nature [is] but another name for health.” Taking the time to consider how natural stone can affect the overall look and feel of your outdoor space can reap rewards for years to come.