How to Create a Rock Garden

Although not a very recent concept, stone gardens have gained in popularity over the last few years – not unjustly so, as they feature many qualities that make them an easy-to-apply and really attractive solution for all types of gardens:

  • they can develop in large areas, or they can accommodate themselves in a tiny corner of your yard, and look equally beautiful in both instances;

Colorful rock garden: Flowering Kurume azaleas in May (Leonardslee Gardens, UK)

  • they can be built in sites with a lot of moisture and deep shadows or in dry and sunbathed places during most of the year;
  • their construction presupposes a reworking and reformation of the ground, thus offering an opportunity for very ornamental results;
  • they can really transform and show off a site which otherwise you wouldn’t know how to exploit.


Rock garden, nature’s tameless child

The most important thing to remember when designing and building a stone garden is that it is basically an imitation of nature, as we might see it in a somehow wild state.

Forget about orderly flower beds, square fences and conventional garden designs following the western standards (like French gardens and Victorian parks, for example). Quite on the contrary, imagine yourself up on a mountain or at a rocky area and try to figure how a landscape like this might have been created — with stones large and small, with pebbles drifted by the waters of dashing winter streams, with plants peeping out through every probable and improbable crack of the rocks and the ground.

There are two basic rock garden landscapes in nature:

  • Those developing on mountains or in desert areas: the vegetation is low, the plants creep and show a tendency of growing close to the ground. The environmental conditions, the wind and the sun, are harsh and require tough plants, species that will be able to withstand adversities. In this case, you must choose drought-resistant plants, such as agave, Texas lantana, desert willow, lamb’s ears, sedum (or stonecrop), etc;
  • Those developing in deep-shaded slopes and ravines, perhaps by the edge of a creek or some kind of water stream: these are plants that can grow well without ample sunlight and can tolerate moisture, such as ferns, which are also very decorative and give a forest-like image to your garden.


Water stream in a forest. See how the rocks are randomly heaped, covered by moss, with little tufts of green leaves here and there.


In both instances, you should keep in mind that the water, after being absorbed where it is immediately needed, is quickly lost due to sharp drainage conditions. This plays a huge role in the selection of the plants that you will be using: no plant types that require really damp ground will ever thrive, or even plain survive in a rock garden.


Why choose to build a rock garden

Stone gardens are usually designed in order to exploit sloping sites; in this case, you can easily achieve a striking naturalistic effect. However, you can just as well build one on a perfectly flat site by importing rocks in order to create raised beds, especially when you have to work with more restricted areas. In fact, you can create a miniature rock garden in no more than three square feet and make it look lovely and luscious, a tiny corner of serenity in your yard.


Miniature rock garden with ramonda and lewisia


If you are thinking of building a low wall in your garden, perhaps at the side of a driveway or as a means of containing an elevated bed-ground, you might just as well consider constructing one made of stone. Then you can have various plants grow out of the cracks and crevasses, thus creating a varied, playful effect – definitely more pleasing to the eye, adding character to the whole yard, and offering a beautiful view from your house windows. One more advantage: you don’t have to use any fancy stones for this kind of wall, as the plants sprouting from it will steal the show and make up its real charm.

Finally, rock gardens are ideal for areas suffering from drought during most of the year and especially in the summer. In this case, you will go for a desert or Mediterranean look, with succulents and aromatic herbs, such as thyme, that will thrive in those arid conditions and that will look perfectly acclimatized even during the worst heat waves.


How to design and build a rock garden

Choose a location: The most natural place to consider for the creation of your rock garden is a steep slope. Or, you may choose to exploit a part of your yard where nothing else seems to grow. Whatever the case, you’d want to build it at a spot that will be clearly visible, perhaps close to where you will be sitting, so that you’ll be able to really enjoy it after all the time and effort you’d be putting into its creation.

Clear the ground: Create a clean area on which to work by scraping the weeds and removing all vegetation that is there now.

Improve the drainage: Since rock gardens are usually found high up on the mountains, their natural tendency is to have fairly good drainage.Sandy soil is the best for this type of garden; if, on the other hand, you have to work with a clay soil, you will have to loosen it up. For this purpose, you will mix it with sand – then, you will add some compost to the mixture, because sand is a quite infertile medium.

Be random: A rock garden, as an imitation of nature, is not a strict geometrical creation. Variety is the key here: use varying rock sizes, distributed in random groupings of big ones, with some smaller ones scattered around. Basic geology dictates that a specific area abounds in the same basic type of rock – the difference consists in the sizes, the shapes and the way they are thrown all around the place.

Create a natural look: Partially bury the stones in the ground: from two inches up to one third of the stone. This will make them look as if they are a natural part of the milieu and it will add a deceptively pleasing effect to the composition.

Add coarse texture: Put the final touch by scattering some fine gravel or pebbles around, an imitation of what occurs in nature – somewhat like debris collecting in a valley bottom. The gravel will have the additional advantage of discouraging weeds from growing and making their removal a whole lot easier for you.


Image credits:

Colorful rock garden, Water stream in a forest, Miniature rock garden