Whenever we think about a rock garden, many of us think about a high-maintenance Zen garden. But that’s not the only type of rock garden there is. I can tell you how to make a rock garden that’s easy to create and relatively easy to maintain.
Rock gardens can be of various types, and they can accomplish different goals. While you might be thinking about purely aesthetic reasons, rock gardens are also popular to reduce water usage in the garden. Zen gardens, while high-maintenance, are usually made as a meditation spot.
The main two types of rock gardens are natural and artificial. A natural rock garden is usually made in a place that already holds native rocks in various forms. When the rocks are imported from elsewhere, that’s an artificial rock garden.
In the case of a naturally rocky area, you might have to plant around the rocks already present. But when you are constructing a rock garden from scratch, you’ll need to plan many things. Let’s first look at different types of rock gardens, and then I’ll talk about the steps of making a simple, beginner-friendly rock garden.
Table of Contents
- Types of Rock Garden
- Steps to Make a Rock Garden
Types of Rock Garden
English Rock Gardens
Rock gardens became popular in England as early as the Victorian era. However, the attempts were haphazard at best and not always aesthetically pleasing. Victorians attempted to plant alpine plants that could not withstand the local climate and often died. Around 1870, the English rock gardens started to resemble something attractive.
American Rock Gardens
Rock gardening attempts in North America began around 1890. A significant difference between English and American rock gardening attempts was that in North America, rock gardens mainly included native plants and not exotic alpine species.
Japanese Rock Garden
Japanese rock garden, or Zen garden, is an intricate art form. These gardens resemble rocky islands rising from the sea. Sand or gravel is used to mimic waves in the sea, while clusters of rock and clumps of plants mimic islands.
Zen gardens are made to represent dry landscapes, and as such, they require a lot less water than a typical garden. However, a zen garden would need a lot more maintenance.
If your main goal is to reduce water usage, then you can try xeriscaping. This sort of gardening is said to reduce water usage by 50 to 75 percent. Other benefits include- improving the soil by using compost, reducing the size of lawns, prioritizing native and drought-tolerant plants, and providing efficient irrigation.
Steps to Make a Rock Garden
If you’ve never made a rock garden before, attempting a Zen garden or xeriscaping would be, regrettably, out of your reach. You might want to consider starting with a simple rock garden. Here’s how to make a rock garden from scratch.
Step 01 – Clear Off Some Space
You will be starting with a section of your garden. First, decide on how much space you’ll be using for your rock garden, and then clear any other vegetation from that space. Uproot any plants, weeds, or grasses in that area. You can try smothering if it’s a section of your lawn.
You could cover this portion of the lawn with a newspaper and weigh it down with rocks. This action makes sure the grass is smothered to death and cannot receive any sunlight or nutrition to grow back. Then you can start using this space as the base of your rock garden.
Step 02 – Plan Your Rock Garden
A rock garden takes careful planning, no matter how small or simple it is. From the color of the rocks you’ll be using to the types of plants you want- you should plan it all out in detail beforehand. Otherwise, you’ll be sorely disappointed when you start making your garden.
Take a pencil and some paper, and start sketching out details in the garden. I would suggest going for a simple, circular-shaped rock garden. You’ll have to place larger, rougher stones as the first layer, fill the circle up with soil, and place smaller, prettier rocks for the second course. Then you can start planting in the soil.
While you’re choosing rocks that will look pretty in your garden, pick plants suitable for a rock garden and compliment the rock’s color. When you’re choosing soil, go for something that offers good drainage. Now, after your planning is done, you can order these essentials.
Step 03 – Lay Down the First Layer of Rocks
After you get your delivery of rocks, you can start making the first layer of the rock bed garden. Usually, for rock gardens, sandstones and limestones are often used. Other choices include granite, tufa, and pumice, along with gravel and grit for more variety.
While choosing a type of rock, you should also search for a type that’s common to the local area. Try to use only one type of rock, and buy it from a single source. It’s best not to source new rocks from a quarry, as the rock would look unnatural and take a long time to weather.
While deciding on a rock, think about whether it will make the soil more alkaline and whether your plants will survive it. Pick out the least aesthetic-looking, larger rocks and lay them on the perimeter of the circle. I would suggest digging the soil up a bit so you can bury the rocks up to one-third of their length.
This gives the garden a natural look. It would look as if the rocks are naturally protruding from the soil. Remember, rock gardening can be quite arduous if you have a bad back. If you try moving too heavy rocks manually, you might even hurt your healthy back. Therefore, employ a wheelbarrow, a dolly, or even a forklift if the rocks are massive.
Step 04 – Lay Down Soil
Plants that go with a rock garden generally prefer well-drained soil, so that’s the type you should be getting. However, it should also hold enough moisture to nourish the plants. Usually, getting slightly acidic soil would help the plants.
If you’re using soil from your garden, make sure you get the soil tested. If the pH level isn’t acidic, you can add some amendments to achieve the desired effect. Moreover, you could add organic matter so the soil can hold onto some moisture but is still well-draining.
A significant problem that you might face while making a rock garden is clay soil. In cases like these, many people give up on the idea of building a rock garden bed. However, if you have the resources, you should mix sand and grit with the soil to improve drainage.
Step 05 – Lay Down the Second Layer of Rocks
There are a few ways to make this layer. You could create a smaller circle within the first circle or use small stones to create bands across the circle. You can also position a larger stone to protrude out of the earth, so it can provide shade for a plant that prefers indirect light.
The goal is to make little nooks for accommodating your chosen plants. Do not use up all the stones at this stage, as we’ll need some of them later.
Step 06 – Start Planting
Popular rock garden plants include sedum, succulents, and phlox. To make sure your rock garden does not look outlandish, look at how the plants you chose usually grow in nature among rocky terrain. Then, try to mimic that to the best of your ability. Pick a color scheme that works well with the stone you’re using.
These plants should thrive in well-drained soil and little irrigation. They should also be satisfied with the amount of sunlight that part of your garden receives. It’s best to pick up plants of different heights and textured foliages, although you should make sure they have similar water requirements. The typical plants suitable for a rock garden include:
- Herbaceous perennials (Creeping thyme, sedums, phlox, and violets.)
- Bulbs (Alliums and daffodils.)
- Dwarf shrubs and small evergreens
- Deciduous shrubs (Only the ones that have dwarf habits.)
- Succulents and cacti
- Certain small trees
Some of these plants are relatively short-lived, so you should always have plans to replace them with new ones as the old ones die. After you’re done planting, you could also apply moss and lichen to the rocks. They will start growing and covering the rocks soon and will give your rock garden a more natural and weathered appearance.
Step 07 – Putting the Finishing Touches
After you’ve placed the plants in their appropriate places, once the design is to your liking, start covering up the soil with smaller rocks and gravel or grit. Try to make it look like the plants have grown out of the gaps between rocks and gravel. It might be prudent to place some rocks in the nearby flower beds and bushes, so the rock garden doesn’t seem entirely out of place in your garden.
So now you know how to build a rock garden! Your next step should be to look at beautiful samples and examples of rock gardens and decide which would best suit your garden. Then, follow the steps I have mentioned on how to make a rock garden, and proceed accordingly.