Garden Cairns as Landscape Art, Monuments, and Soothing Fountains.

I recently received an email from a woman at Raytheon inquiring about mini cairns to be used as corporate gifts.  I hope I was able to help by forwarding her along to an Irish sculptor, a pebble artist, and a stone specialist (all people who I’d call about garden cairns). But I have to tell you, the whole thing was a bit strange.

Unknown to the person who contacted me, I used to work for Raytheon as a physicist-engineer. The irony of being contacted by them after so many years but in a completely different capacity was not lost on me. I once helped them build F-18 flight simulators, and later, I wrote software to fly commercial satellites. Now, I help them create mini cairn art for corporate gifts. An odd commentary about my own life path.

A stacked stone fountain in a garden.
A cairn fountain is a decorative design element commonly found in gardens, characterized by a stack of stones with water flowing through them. Its soothing sound and aesthetically pleasing appearance make it a popular choice for adding tranquility to outdoor spaces. Cairn fountains are commonly used to create a calming ambiance and focal point in English and other style gardens.
Image by Mark Thomson of the “Stone Totem Fountain” by Louis Pomerantz at the Cairn Croft Sculpture Garden

Cairn Art for The Garden – Pet monuments

I have a plan to create cairns for my own garden. Over the nearly 20 years of living in our home, we have buried a few pets in our garden. The burial sites cluster at one end of our garden in a wooded, shady, and peaceful area.

I’ve searched over the years to find any sort of grave makers or pet monuments that aren’t completely tacky, cheap, and covered in paw prints or some other cheesy pet-ish images. I also want something that is destination-worthy and tall enough to see even if we have a foot of snow on the ground.

My design answer is cairns, and as more special animals come and go from our lives, I think these small monuments will stand as a testament to how much we adored them.

Cairn Garden inspiration

A large pile of rocks in the middle of a grassy area.
This Carin is in Avila Beach, CA and the photo is by Sandy/Chuck Harris. It is more than I would want for my small pet markers. But this is exactly what I would create as a beautiful garden focal point.
A large rock in the middle of a grassy field.
Rock on Top of Another Rock by Peter Fischli and David Weiss at the Serpentine Gallery, London. You can see a companion piece in the Norwegian wilderness. Image by Dominic Alves
cairn garden

Monumental Cairn Surrounded by Daffodils

image by Fay Young.

Balancing Rocks (No Glue Used)

Created and photographed by Land Artist Richard Schilling (follow him on Instagram at richardschillingartist.)

A group of rocks stacked on top of each other.

Balancing Rocks

Years ago, there was a guy at the Chelsea Flower Show who was balancing rocks live. Right there in the middle of the crush of people and show garden chaos, he was seemingly defying gravity. It was an extraordinary display of skill.

We sometimes see pictures like the one above and think it is completely impossible that the stones will stand in such a way. I am not sure if the Chelsea Guy was Richard Schilling or someone else – but to watch someone stand stones – live- is more compelling than you’d think. It is a true testament to patience, control, touch, and concentration. As a generally somewhat harried person – I wonder if mastering rock balancing would make me a little more put together?

A stack of rocks on top of a mountain.
Image by …escher… (find him on Instagram at richardschillingartist) – Totem cairns in English are artistic piles of rocks that serve as symbols or markers, often found in Native American and other indigenous cultures. These cairns typically represent a connection to spiritual forces or ancestral spirits. They can be observed in various locations, such as trails, parks, or sacred sites, offering a glimpse into cultural heritage and beliefs.

The History of and Origins of Cairns

Their uses and origins of garden-sized cairns intrigue me. Wikipedia has some great information about their history.  The first was supposedly created when Greek gods Hera and Hermes had an argument that was put before a jury.  The jury heard the sides and then was instructed to throw a stone at the person they did not believe. Hera ended up not only losing but was entombed in a pile of pebbles.

In more recent history, cairns ensconce the dead, mark mountain summits and hiking trails, and give directions to walkers, native American and Norse hunters, and seafarers. They are also the foundation of artists like Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Shilling of Land Art Blog, or they can simply be a place where a farmer might have cleared a piece of land and interestingly piled the stones.

A pile of rocks next to a river.
Mysterious Stone Cairn with a square window near Ithaca Falls, in Ithaca, NY by flickrfanmk2007

In a large garden, it would be fun to create cairns at the far ends of paths as the result of a slow build-up of carrying a single stone down the path to stack with each garden visit. For small gardens, stacked stones can be a beautiful piece of garden art or a focal point.

In my garden – they tend to form naturally, here and there; these gardening and landscaping cairns are, more than anything else, an attempt to get the percolating rocks out of the way of my shovel and the plants.

A group of rocks stacked on top of each other in the sand.
Mini cairns by Lenny&Meriel

I think this must be what my old Raytheon friends must think they would like to create.  They are beautiful, and I suppose that now I know a bit more about them, to be given one of these would be a very nice gift.

More on Stone Cairns for Gardens and Landscapes

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  1. Kerry Harvey says:

    So sorry for your loss. RIP Chuck. 🙁 I really like the first image of the stacked stones, it has a very serene quality.

  2. Jenn says:

    Always hard, to lose an old friend and family member.

    Loving that stone totem. Is it a recirculating fountain? the wet look is fascinating. (Although, not, perhaps, what a resting in peace cat wants over his head, no?)

  3. rochelle says:

    Jenn — that fountain is great (yes, I think it is a fountain) — but I think my purposes a bit too tall….and certainly not a fountain – like cat torture ….but lovely nonetheless.

  4. geoff says:

    My condolences on your loss. I just had to put down the second dog in 2 years so I’m working on the same situation. I’ve found that beating on the native Berthoud Pink sandstone does wonders for the sadness. A few hours of hammer and chisel work and I can build a nice 2-ft Goldsworthy-esque egg up on the hillside with an iris bed in front of it. Tough, stately, and in keeping with the homesteads here about. Good luck.

  5. I’m not sure about the snow since that would never enter my mind here is So Cal, but when one of our dogs had to be put to sleep, the kids made a grave marker with one of those kits for a stepping stones. Maybe you could build on that idea – make it a project to help work through the grief. I know how awful it is.

  6. Tina says:

    I am so sorry about Chuck. It is so hard to have to say goodbye that way. Almost one year ago we had to put down both our elderly cat and dog within a few weeks. We had them cremated planning to bury their ashes in the garden with a marker but I still haven’t picked them up yet. I was paralyzed by indecision and wanting it to be just so. Finally a few weeks ago I ordered a bowl/pedestal combo from Charleston Garden. I am planning on filling it with white annuals and a small conifer for winter interest. I thinking tending it will be a nice remembrance and we can have a memorial service of sorts when we set it up. Heartfelt sympathy.

  7. For me it has to be a living thing, a plant…or a few. The day my grandmother died I was lost and just cried and wandered. I ended up at a nursery where I bought a few plants, different colors of the same thing. When I moved I dug a couple up and they moved with me. When they bloom my grandmother is there in the garden with me. Good luck, take your time.

  8. rochelle says:

    Geoff — Berthoud Sandstone? Where are you?
    Katie – good idea…
    Tina – you are making me feel better and a little less rushed….I have this sense that I want to do something right this second, but the extra stress that is giving me, ultimately makes me sadder. Not sure why I feel that way, there is absolutely no reason why a marker has to be decided and installed today, like you, I think I should give it some time and patience. Thanks for making me realize that.
    Loree – Love the plant idea…lily of the valley grows wild where we buried him…and it will certainly take over if left alone, but I think we shoudl augment it – even if it is just with a little catnip. I love that you move plants with you. My family has always done that….it makes sense though given that most mothers day gifts are special roses or other cherished things.

  9. geoff says:

    Just north of Carter Lake, West of Loveland, CO

  10. Michelle says:

    I love the stacked stone fountain! I want to make one – but imagine drilling through the stones would be a challenge. Guess it could look fantastic as a sculpture sans the fountain – and there is a concrete sealer we used on our exposed concrete patio that cound give it that wet look – not to mention I live in a rainforest and it actually would be wet the majority of the time. 😉 I am on the hunt for beautiful round stones!
    Sorry about your cat – we’d be heartbroken to lose one of ours too.

  11. rosekraft says:

    Concur with Loree and the living plant tribute – every summer the three foot calla lily shoots up from the cats’ grave in our backyard, and I quietly call out “hello Fred, hello Leroy”.
    In terms of something a little more permanent, you’ll know what’s appropriate when you stumble across it sometime in the future.

  12. Joy says:

    Rochelle – let the grief simmer and you will find that the perfect memorial will rise to the surface in time.

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