Back to the Stone Age: Rock Gardening Basics

Time to Rethink Rock Gardening

If the idea of “rock gardening” conjures an image of a bleak, desolate spot with no living thing in sight, then think again.

Modern rock gardens are places of rugged natural beauty, with a plethora of plantings and masses of vibrant color. For instance, take a look at the following clip:

An Old Idea

The idea behind rock gardens is very old—ancient, in fact.

Ancient Chinese and Japanese cultures were fascinated with rocks and unusual rock formations. As early as 1600 B.C., rock gardens were popular in these cultures.

But it wasn’t until the late 18th century that alpine rock gardening became popular. That’s when British tourists visiting the Alps became enthralled by the tough but colorful plants growing on the rocky slopes. They brought some of these plants home for their Victorian rock gardens.

Still, it took a few decades to discover that alpine plants need gritty soil, rock and a cool climate to grow successfully. (True alpine plants don’t require lots of compost or fertilizer.)

In North America, rock gardens became a popular frenzy (and somewhat of a competition) between the late 1800s and the 1930s because of their low maintenance.

Mountains as Inspiration

Conventional rock gardens mimic the way rocks appear on a mountain side. This makes them an excellent choice for steep hillsides and difficult growing conditions, such as poorly irrigated soil.

They are low maintenance, and do well where water is a limiting factor. In addition, the rocks can be used to control erosion and water.

Traditionally, Japanese rock gardens (also known as “Zen gardens”) were designed as an extension of the surrounding mountains and rock formations. They emphasize the unusual rocks, more so than the few pruned, shaped plants. Small rocks are also used to form a swirl on the ground, and sand is often raked in patterns as an act of meditation.

Want to Start? Here’s How:

When creating your rock garden, choose a location which will allow a seamless flow into the surrounding landscape for a natural look. Rocks arranged informally will leave pockets to fill with soil and plants.

Position the largest rocks first, and partially bury 1/3 of the rock in fast-draining soil. Do not just place them on top of the soil.  Tilt the rocks backwards slightly to funnel water.

Plant Choices

Select small plants that do not grow taller than 2-3 feet. (Rock plants usually have long roots that enable them to obtain moisture even when the surface is hot and dry.) Fast-growing ground covers are excellent choices to fill between the rocks. Conifers such as low-growing juniper and mugo pine are excellent for adding texture and year-round color.

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Using natives plantings is always a good idea, as they often are drought-tolerant and attract pollinators. Fill in tight spaces between rocks with flowering plants such as saxifrage, which is an easy-to-grow alpine plant and crevice dweller. Stonecrops and species of columbine, phlox, bluebell and rockrose also work well.

Rock gardening is a perfect way to display native plants on a small scale. A single native plant will not get lost in a rock garden as it might in a traditional garden landscape.

Include the Patio

You can keep the rock garden atmosphere flowing throughout your landscape by extending it to your patio. Leaving crevices between flagstones in your patio will allow tough little flowering plants to spring up through the cracks.

Pick species that thrive in sandy soil. When it rains, the water pours off the flagstones and into the cracks, giving the plants more moisture than they would get in an ordinary garden setting.

In fact, crevice gardening is a particular type of rock gardening which has become increasingly popular. (See sidebar.)

Prairie Style

If you want to include larger, flatter areas in your rock gardening landscape, you may wish to consider the “prairie style” of rock garden. For this, some gardeners even opt to use topsoil that has been eroded by the wind for many years. The result is a gravelly surface like the real prairie, which can also resemble the mounds of gravel found below rock faces in the mountains.

Many gardeners choose to add more ornamental flowers and grasses than may naturally occur in a prairie rock garden. (Indeed, many prairie plants are much taller than the diminutive alpine plants of a traditional rock garden.)

Plants that thrive in a prairie environment would include coneflower, butterfly weed, black-eyed Susan, goldenrod, and aster.


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