Building a Dry Stone Fieldstone Wall

In this post, I will explain about my latest fieldstone wall project and how anyone with basic skills can build a rustic fieldstone wall!
Fieldstone Wall Project

Fieldstone Wall Project

The vegetable garden area of the farm is on a slope (an area maybe 50 feet x 70 feet) and one end was in dire need of a retaining wall. I had originally used some bales of straw I had lying around as a makeshift retaining wall. This actually worked pretty well for about two years until the straw really started rotting and the turkeys tore it apart. So the edges of the garden were spilling over and hard to maintain. So it was time to build something a bit more permanent.
In the vegetable garden the temporary retaining wall of straw bales has deterioriated

In the vegetable garden the temporary retaining wall of straw bales has deterioriated

So I decided on fieldstones for a number of reasons
  • Relatively easy to build
  • Doesn’t need a footing
  • Can find stones for free
  • Basically lasts forever
  • Does not leach any chemicals (I know new pressure treated lumber is supposed to be okay for gardens, but I am not chancing it)
First step was to locate some rocks. I had a small supply of rocks to start off, but I needed many more. I put an ad on Craigslist and sure enough, someone the next town over had tons (literally) to get rid of. Apparently the builders of their relatively new home had to dynamite out some ledge rock in order to put in the foundation (the owner told me he still finds pieces of blasting cord!). However, I guess they just dumped all the rock pieces in the back yard and put topsoil over it. Now, predictably these rocks are working through the soil and they want them gone. No problem! I made about 20 or 30 trips with my trailer hauling all these over.
Hauling loads of free stone found on Craigslist

Hauling loads of free stone found on Craigslist

The next step was to clean up the edge of the garden. My John Deere 2320 with a front loader cut a nice sharp edge for me to start the retaining wall. However, I still did a lot of shoveling.
Shaping the "retaining wall" side of the garden

Shaping the "retaining wall" side of the garden

Okay, now before people start going bananas on me, (and as I previously mentioned), I don’t dig a footing and here is why:
  • It’s a lot of work and I’m lazy! (primary reason)
  • This is a short wall (only 3 feet tall max, most of it is about 2 feet), slopes backwards, and is relatively thick (about 2 feet)
  • I don’t care about widening gaps due to frost heaves.
  • If a few stones fall out here or there, or even if the whole thing collapses it will be easy to fix.
  • I have built about 300 feet of wall like this previously. That has been standing for nearly 5 years and no sections have ever collapsed and only about three stones have popped out in all that time (easy to pop back in)
  • There is about 500 feet of stone wall on the farm dating back to the 1700 and 1800s. I am willing to bet the builders didn’t put a footing under these walls, yet they are still standing just fine!
So instead, I just dig down to good solid dirt (remove the leaves and loose topsoil) and start stacking. If you are planning on building a bigger wall, cannot tolerate any shifting of stones, or definitely if you plan on using pre-manufactured blocks, you are going to need a solid footing. Otherwise expect to frost heaves to start moving things around. A short, dry stone wall such as mine has some “give” and thus is much more forgiving. So on to the construction process! It is really simple. First I separated out my stones
  • The largest, flattest stones should be saved for the top
  • The largest, roundest or irregular shaped stones should be on saved for the bottom
  • The smallest stones should be saved for the middle between the two wall courses (also called “hearting”)
  • Medium sized stones should be making up the bulk of the wall.
I build my wall as actually two separate stone walls next to each other, very similar to the diagram below.
Basic concepts of a double stone wall filled with "hearting" stone

Basic concepts of a double stone wall filled with "hearting" stone

I made sure the flattest and “best” face of each stone was facing outward. Stacking is relatively easy as they are stacked like bricks… “Two over one and one over two.” I would put down a course of larger rocks, and then literally pour smaller rocks from a five gallon bucket into the middle. You have to jigger these rocks around to ensure there are no air spaces. All the sharp angles of these rocks produced from the blasting effects really “bite” into each other and really help with the integrity. If I had baseball sized rocks, it would be a bit harder (but not impossible). For the section of the wall that was more for retaining (as opposed to free standing), I angled the wall backwards a bit as I worked upwards.
Wall project begins. The tractor was useful to ferry and sort rocks from the various piles

Wall project begins. The tractor was useful to ferry and sort rocks from the various piles

Close-up of basic wall construction

Close-up of basic wall construction

A few more courses on the wall, following the same method described

A few more courses on the wall, following the same method described

So, I continued like this.. oh……. for about two months until I had entirely circled the garden… leaving just enough space to get the tractor inside if needed.
More progress on the wall

More progress on the wall

Rounding a corner. Save some interesting looking stones for the corners as they naturally attract the eye

Rounding a corner. Save some interesting looking stones for the corners as they naturally attract the eye

For aesthetic purposes I bought a few pallets of flat Pennsylvania fieldstone for the very top course. This is not required at all, but gives the wall, a somewhat more finished look. If I was a millionaire, I could have built the entire wall out of Pennsylvania fieldstone, but it would have been at least $8,000 worth of stone! I got away with just buying 4 pallets for $800. But again, not really needed.
Finished wall with purchased Pennsylvania fieldstone as the top couple of layers. They add a nice finished look

Finished wall with purchased Pennsylvania fieldstone as the top couple of layers. They add a nice finished look

Another angle of complete wall

Another angle of complete wall

So in summary, I got about 200 feet of wall for about $4 dollars a foot (the cost of the fieldstone) and probably 200 hours of labor! Hey, the way I see it you can spend hours at the gym using a Nautilus machine for no purpose, or you can lift rocks in your backyard to the same effect, but make a useful wall that will last for centuries!

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