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All About Rock Gardens  

Explore the World of Rock Gardening


Rock gardens are not just gardens full of rocks. A traditional man-made rock garden can contain a ton (literally) or more of rocks, but they are placed artfully among the rock garden plants that will surround them.

In nature, rock garden plants occur in pockets between the stones where soil has blown in or scree (bits of ground up rock) has been created by the action, over eons, of wind and water. The plants that survive in those conditions have evolved over time to require excellent drainage. many rock garden plants would do poorly in the average garden border where they might receive too much water, but they thrive in the most dry areas of the landscape where other plants won't grow. Sound interesting?

With a little planning (and some work) you can create a rock garden of your own wherever you live, even where there is high summer humidity as in our region. Your rock garden will be most successful when you mix rock garden perennials, small garden shrubs and trees, and dwarf varieties of other plants that can be adapted to rock garden culture in the area.

You can do it yourself or hire a professional designer and installer to do the work for you. In either case, the idea is that the garden should look as if it were created by nature, as though the gardener’s hand has never touched it. Plants should appear as though they blew in with with wind and landed randmomly in the garden.

Rock gardens can be located in sunny or shady areas so long as the soil is consistently dry, and well-drained. Rock gardens are really beautiful so try to position one where you can see and appreciate it from a window inside your home or near outdoor living areas where you will spend time outdoors. If you can see it every day, you will appreciate it all the more.

Hillsides and slopes are perfect for building a rock garden on. Rock gardens can be made on flatter ground, but even slight elevations in parts of your garden will make it look more natural and provide the drainage that most rock garden plants prefer.

If your rock garden will be small, you and your family can probably handle the earth and rock moving chores yourselves. However, if you intend to place large boulders in the garden or on a hillside it might be best to consider having professionals who have the experience and necessary equipment.

The rocks placed in your garden should look as natural as possible. That may sound like a no-brainer, but there are several things to consider. If possible, use some rocks and boulders found on your own property. If there are none, or not enough, visit a local stone yard to choose rocks that will blend with the environment and with rocks that may already be there.

Each rock has several surfaces; usually all of the back and bottom surfaces and much or all of the top and sides will be buried in the garden soil. Therefore, choose stones that have interesting “faces” (the front surface, the one that you will see most or all of) and bear in mind that the “grain” of each stone’s face should run in the same direction – again to mimic nature.

Size of rocks is also a factor. The stone outcroppings in an actual hillside will be of many different sizes and shapes, and that is what you want to duplicate.

Just as in any garden, you will want something to be in bloom during each season:

Place a few smaller growing specimen trees in the garden if space allows. Japanese Maples, Hollywood Juniper, and Hinoki Cypress are excellent selections. You might want to check out the Japanese Garden Plants for some ideas as well.

Bear in mind that even in natures rock gardens, where most of the plants are quite tiny, there is variation in the overall size and shape of the plants as well as in the size, shape and color of the leaves and flowers. Just make sure that the plants you choose are drought tolerant - requiring little, if any atatention to watering.

Combining the rocks and the plants can be a wonderful creative exercise and fun for the entire family. Even if you are using professionals to design the garden, your input should be welcomed and acted upon. It is, after all, your garden. Use the descriptive listings with photos on our site as a source for selecting the drought tolerant rock garden plants that perform well in our area (zone8). These plants should be the staple in your garden.

Drought Tolerant Perennials I Drought Tolerant Shrubs


Building & Planting Your Rock Garden

Steep Slope Rock Garden - When planting a rock garden on a steep slope there isn't much one can do to safely go about tilling or preparing the soil. Usually these areas are well-drained and do not require preparation anyway. Choose smaller rocks and boulders that you and your friends and family can manage, or have a professional landscaper place larger ones for you.

After boulders and rocks are in place you can go ahead with planting plants you have selected. On steep slopes it is best to integrate groundcovers, such as creeping sedums, that will spread throughout the garden area and between other plants and shrubs. The groundcovers will prevent erosion and also replace the need for mulch.

Space larger growing shrubs a good distance apart and use the smaller plants and groundcovers between. Try to avoid overcrowding plants. Rock gardens look best when each plant can be noticed. Also avoiding planting too many of the same thing. Try to make every plant in the garden a different one.

Use several different kinds of groundcovers in patches throughout the garden. At the nursery we stock several sedum groundcovers to choose from at any given time. Most sedums are evergreen which is a great bonus.

When installing plants on a slope simply remove them from their containers and plant them so that the top of the root-ball is level with the existing grade. Using an organic soil ammendment mixed with sand to add to the soil you remove from digging the hole. Dig holes twice to three times as wide as the container the plant came in. Tamp soil mixture as you backfill to remove any air pockets.


Level Site Rock Garden - If you know that the soil in a more level site is rocky, sandy, and well-drained you can follow the same instructions above for planting a rock garden on a slope.

If you know or suspect that the site you have selected for your rock garden does not drain well then there will be a little more soil preparation involved before you can begin planting.

The best thing you could do is to raise the bed area up by using sandy native topsoil and then turning in additional sand and gravel to enhance drainage. Raise the bed up by 10" or more above existing grade if possible.

If raising the bed is not possible you will need to do the following:

Once a site is selected and its boundaries are marked off, the area should be dug out to a depth of at least a foot or more especially in low ground. One condition that rock garden plants plants almost invariably require is good drainage. The excavation should then be refilled with a 50/50 mixture of the soil removed from the excavation and gravel, rock, broken brick, or other stone material. After bacfilling soak the bed down so that soil will fill any air pockets and then backfill with more of the soil/gravel mixture as is necessary to fill.

You are now ready to plant. Remember not to overcrowd larger plants in the rock garden. Select as many different types of plants as possible including groundcovers. Rock gardens should be interesting to look at.


Miniature Rock Gardens in Containers

Designed to resemble a scene or natural setting, rock gardens mimic nature. You can easily create your own miniature rock gardens in a container and display it on your patio or indoors, depending on the plants you choose. For an outdoor rock garden, select herbs, succulents or annuals. For an indoor garden, try low-growing tropical plants.

When you're digging in your yard, on vacation or traveling, keep your eyes open for interesting rocks. You'll be amazed at the variety you find. You can also find a variety of smaller stones at your local stone yard - sometimes they will give the tiny ones to you.

The project described below combines herbs and annuals. Select plants with the same requirements for water and sun or shade and varieties that are low-growing or trailing so they won't obscure the rocks. Choose plants with foliage textures and bloom colors that harmonize with the rocks. Hens and Chicks and small sedums are excellent selections for a container rock garden.


  • Container - Preferably made from clay, stone, or concrete
  • Potshard or gravel to cover the drainage hole
  • Lightweight potting soil
  • Plants - Succulents, sedums are great selections
  • Small rocks
  • Pea Gravel

NOTE: Depending on the size container you select, the finished project could be quite heavy. Consider building it where you plan to keep it!

1. Begin by placing a potshard - or a piece of plastic window screen - in the bottom of the container to prevent soil from washing out. Place some gravel or small rocks in the bootm of the container as well.

2. Then fill the container half-full of fast-draining potting soil. Add small pea gravel to heavier potting soils that retain too much moisture.

3. Select rocks with interesting textures and shapes, and experiment with their placement atop the soil until you like the look of the container. Place the tallest rock toward the back or center of the container if it will be viewable from all sides.

4. Place taller plants toward the back of the pot or center, gently loosening their root balls before planting. If you like, move the rocks out of the way to make planting easier. After planting, water well.

5. Cover any spaces where soil shows with pea gravel


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