Backyard Questions

Rock Garden Ideas: What Is a Rock Garden & How to Plan One?

Rock gardens are fun to set up and provide an affordable, low-maintenance alternative to costly lawns that always require the gardener’s attention.

When you hear the words rock garden, you might picture a pile of random rocks stacked together. A rock garden isn’t exactly something similar to Stonehenge if that’s what you were imagining – although a Stonehenge-inspired rock arrangement wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Of course, at a smaller scale, as not all of us have the necessary space in our gardens. Unlike this megalithic monument, a traditional rock garden or rockery consists of natural or artificial rocks of different shapes and sizes with small gaps in between in which attractive plants are inserted.

Over the years, rock gardens have become more and more popular, partly due to the propaganda of influential gardeners Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson. Many gardeners loved the idea, as they were already over the formality of mid-Victorian garden designs. They were fascinated with its novelty, along with the fact that it fitted perfectly with the theories of naturalism that were becoming a big part of garden designs during that time.

Rockery with pond insert
Rockery with pond insert

Nowadays, modern rock gardens have transformed into something more eclectic and eye-catching. While rock arrangements remain the highlight of the design, other elements are integrated as well, such as water features, sand, moss, and various small plants. Rockeries are great for enhancing open spaces and large gardens.

Rock gardens are fun to set up and provide an affordable, low-maintenance alternative to costly lawns that always require the gardener’s attention. Depending on the style you prefer to have in your rock garden, stones can be used differently. For example, to create a rustic look, you can use rustic stone masonry walls and pavement. In modern rockeries, you can use a mix of stones and pebbles of marble or granite to help secure flowerbeds. Oriental-style Zen gardens can combine stones of different sizes to create a minimalistic visual image.

What Is a Zen Rock Garden?

In some cultures, rock gardens aren’t meant to just look good. Japanese rock gardens or Zen gardens are meant to help people connect with nature and facilitate meditation. The benefits of such a relaxing space include alleviation of anxiety, stress relief, and a boost in mindfulness. Moreover, the process of creating a Japanese Rock Garden is a mindfulness activity that brings one’s attention to the present moment.

A Zen garden is usually quite minimalistic and small. Outdoor Zen gardens might be more spacious, while indoor Zen gardens can be just a few square feet. When it comes to Japanese rock gardens, size doesn’t matter that much. What’s important is to arrange rocks in a mindful way that promotes calmness and meditation.

Zen Rock Garden
Zen Rock Garden

Around the 14th century, Zen rock gardens were designed mainly by monks. During the Muromachi period, they were created mainly out of rocks and sand so they could reveal the true substance of nature and life. Muromachi rock gardens are meant to oppose the phenomena of the material world and meaningless facades.

Sometimes, small evergreen bushes were inserted into the design, but not as the centrepiece. Zen monks mindfully draw wavy patterns in the sand using a rake so they mimic the movements of the streams. Every rock represents a certain element that you’d normally find in regular pond gardens. In Zen gardens, mountains, bridges, trees, islands, and even animals are represented by different rocks. Imagination is key!

How to Plan a Rock Garden

There is no right way to design a rock garden; however, it is a good idea to get some tips about how to prepare a base and plan where everything goes. This is essential to make sure rain, pests, and weeds won’t ruin the aesthetic of your stone garden. You can make your arrangement of rocks, choose the plants you like most and turn your vision into reality. With a bit of motivation and planning, you can create a low-maintenance area that will delight your senses.

Setting up a rock garden involves quite a bit of work, so make sure you have a design in mind before starting to move rocks around, especially if you’re doing it alone. It’s probably a good idea to have a friend willing to help with this project. One of the most important things is to make sure your rockery will have proper drainage and soil. Moreover, you need to be prepared to wait for the rocks to settle in before planting. Here are some tips for planning an aesthetically attractive rock garden that won’t be too much of a hassle to maintain:

Step 1 – Clear off the land

If you plan on doing some digging and planting, contact a specialized underground cable locator service to make sure you won’t damage any cables or pipes that might be buried under your yard. After you’re cleared for digging, clean the area from weeds and debris. Usually, rockeries are higher than the ground around them, so you will need to create a raised bed and then build upon that.

If the area where you want to set up your rock garden is not covered with grass, add a layer of rubble to improve drainage and hold the stones, followed by a layer of weed resistant fabric. Top that off with some compost or nutrient-rich soil.

If the area you wish to build upon is covered with grass, you should first decide what to do with the grass so that it doesn’t start growing around or in your rock garden. There are many ways to get rid of grass and weeds naturally, such as digging them up.

Another amazing, low-cost solution is to create a carpet of newspapers on top of the grass and then cover it with dirt. The layer of newspapers will block oxygen and sunlight from reaching the grass so that in time it will die and decompose. Keep in mind that some newspapers contain metals or chlorine bleach that can pollute the soil. Avoid any newspapers that have coloured inks.

Step 2 – Decide where everything goes

After completing the first step, which is to clear up space, it’s time to plan where all the elements of your rock garden will go. You can start by drawing everything on a piece of paper just to get an idea about what you need. If you want to take it one step further, you can draw your plan to scale. Start by measuring the distances in the garden such as the perimeter, the size and shape of shrubs and trees, and the size of existing garden beds.

Next, write down the measurements on scrap paper. If you have an average size backyard that is around 18 feet wide you can assign a scale of 1 inch = 3 feet. Outline the perimeter on graph paper of a sheet of plain white paper. Sketch in permanent features, including paths, fences, and existing plants. For the next step, tape a piece of tracing paper on top and sketch the rocks and plants you wish to add to the garden. You can look up some rock garden pictures to help you out if inspiration runs dry.

If you’re not the type of gardener that likes to plan every square inch of the garden on paper, that’s fine. Just go with the flow and do whatever works for you best.

Step 3 – Choose the rocks

The next step is to decide what kind of rocks you want to use. You can either choose to buy some from stone suppliers or see what your local landscaping or gardening store has available. Smaller stones and rocks shouldn’t be hard to come by at local stores. However, it can be difficult to find larger boulders and rocks. A good idea is to contact a stone supplier and see what they have available.

Mix small and large rocks
Mix small and large rocks

If you already have some rocks or stones, you can lay down the first layer to create an elevated bed. We recommend creating a circle for the base, although you can use whatever shape you want. For a small rock garden, a width of approximately four feet in diameter would be ideal. For this step, use the bigger, unattractive rocks, as the first layer won’t be so visible. Using the bigger, heavier rocks will spare you from having to lift them for the next layer.

You don’t need to create a raised bed if you’re looking for a more sprawling look. Just place the heavy boulders first and then build the design around them.

Step 4 – Add some soil

After placing the first layer of rocks, it’s time to add some soil to fill it up. Plants used in rock gardens usually require well-draining soil, so this means you will need to use some sandy soil. If you have clay-like soil, you can mix some sand and compost to it to promote better drainage. If you’re planning a classic alpine rockery, then rocky soil will be appropriate for the plants.

When grown in rock gardens, traditional garden plants will do well with garden soil mixed with compost, peat moss, or other organic ingredients. Keep in mind that creating the right soil depends on plant selection, and although most plants require well-draining soil, it’s best to know their particular requirements and base the soil preparation on that.

Step 5 – Lay down another layer of rocks

To lay down the second layer of rocks, simply make another smaller circle within the first circle. Make sure that this second layer of the raised bed is small enough so that it leaves a large enough area between the two circles where you can place the plants. Alternatively, you can create a different shape of your liking.

Because you already used all the heavy stones, laying this layer should be easier. You can save one or two heavier stones for this step if you feel strong enough to lift them. The second layer is more visible and eye-catching, so lay the rocks in an aesthetically pleasing way. Place rocks of similar appearance together throughout your rockery to create a more natural look.

Mix plants within the rock layout
Mix plants within the rock layout

Step 6 – Choose the plants

One of the most important steps when planning a rock garden is choosing the right plants. Unfortunately, you cannot select the plants based only on their colour or appearance. After all, we want to keep the plants alive. If that’s too much responsibility, you can design a Zen rock garden and avoid all the trouble. However, if you do want to incorporate live plants into the design, there are a few things you must consider.

Rock garden plants are supposed to be low-maintenance, so it’s a good idea to select them based on your climate. For example, if you live at high altitudes, a classic alpine rock garden might be the best choice for you. If you live in the desert, cacti and other succulents are perfect for your rock garden. If you live in a warm and humid place, consider using begonias or ferns. Some plants prefer either sunny or shady locations, so if you have full-sun conditions in your rock garden avoid shade-loving plants.

Beautiful colorful spring rock garden
Beautiful colorful spring rock garden

If you are considering a natural, native look for your rockery, check out some public gardens or arboretums and pay attention to what types of plants naturally grow there. If you are more into a themed garden such as desert, alpine, or Zen, choose your plants accordingly, but make sure they can survive in your climate. Although you should choose plants with similar growth requirements, you can find some that vary in height, leaf texture, and size. This will add a nice visual effect and prevent your rock garden from being too boring.

In Conclusion

On the face of it, planning a rock garden design may seem simple, but in reality, it requires a good amount of time and effort on your part. The best rockeries are the ones that enhance the garden without requiring too much TLC. We recommend going for a more natural look and using low-maintenance plants that grow well in your climate. Hopefully, this guide will motivate you to start building your own rock garden and bring your ideas to life.

If you already own a rock garden tell us all about it in the comments!

Miruna is an experienced content writer with a passion for gardening. She is the proud owner of an outdoor rose garden and an indoor collection of tiny succulents. She bought her first succulent 10 years ago - an adorable Echeveria Setosa. Now she owns more than 100 succulents and cacti of different colors, shapes, and sizes. Miruna is a versatile writer and, as you might have guessed, her favorite topic is gardening. Contact miruna@gardenbeast.com

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