The stone work is underway, and it's turning out better than I had hoped. It's certainly more art than technical skill. Once I figured out the proper mix for the mortar things started going pretty smoothly.
I'm using 'manufactured stone' which is basically concrete poured into forms and tinted. It's about half the weight and half the cost of real stone, and much easier to work with. No, I didn't get it from Lowe's - there's a local concrete supplier who got me everything I needed.
I found that mixing less than a gallon of mortar at a time was best, because my skill level is low so I'm slow at it and that keeps the mortar from getting dry.
I've been looking around to see what I could put around the bottom of the porch for a nice stone look and found a local manufacturer of imitation stone veneer products.
This stuff is 1/4 the weight of real stone and looks identical. The only catch with this stuff is that the coloring of the stone is on the surface, so if it gets nicked you'll likely see grey. Originally I wanted a tight fit 'ledgestone' but the reseller talked me out of it since I've never done stone work before. He pointed out that it would take 4 times longer to cover the same amount of space because of how many pieces it would require.
Cost for the fake stone? Around $4 a sqft with tax. That's a heck of a lot cheaper than real, and should suit my purposes just fine. Besides, if I screw it up, I risk less money. :-)