Rock Garden

In the American Southwest, a rock landscape with hardy plants and trees that can live with less moisture is pratical and fits naturally.

Is the heat getting to your plants, making it impossible to keep anything alive in your garden? Are your water bills getting a little too high as a result of constant watering of your garden? Do you have a sloping lawn that’s eroding or difficult to care for? Consider implementing a Rock Garden in those areas to solve your problems.

You don’t need to live in a desert climate to have a Rock Garden, although this style is certainly a good choice for hot, dry areas. Rock Gardens can have a desert theme, featuring succulents like cacti, or they can be more reminiscent of a rocky hill or mountain. They work particularly well in small and graded areas. Consider replacing part or your entire front yard with a Rock Garden to save on your water bills this summer.

Rock Garden History

Rock gardens were first developed in Japan and China, although these early versions often didn’t include plants. Instead, they focused on interesting natural rock formations, almost like sculpture or bonsai would be used today. Rock Gardens didn’t really start to become popular in the United States until the late 1800s. Most early US Rock Gardens were woodsy, focusing on alpine plants. Desert versions developed later.

Now, there’s even a society dedicated to the Rock Garden. NARGS, the North American Rock Garden Society, offers information and tips for people who are really interested in learning more about the traditions of rock gardening.

Rock Gardens look particularly great with Pueblo Revival, Mission style homes, Bungalows, and Ranches. They also integrate well with Southwestern decorating, Rustic style, Asian or Modern décor.

The beauty and order of a Japanese style rock garden creates contrast and texture that are also in harmony with nature.

Rock Garden Characteristics

Rock Gardens aren’t limited to rocks alone. The rocks instead provide a natural looking landscape to house the plants you select. If the rocks don’t look right, it doesn’t matter how many plants you pile on top of them; the garden will never look quite right. As a result, rock placement is important. Place rocks in lines to create a grade. Stagger those lines slightly and vary the spacing so that they look more natural. Dig down into the dirt and settle rocks in rather than simply setting them on the ground.

Rock Gardens in general are very natural, integrating stone and plants to mimic the vista that you’d find in the woods, on a mountainside, or in the desert plains. While many Japanese and Chinese gardens use rocks in their overall design, they’re really very different from a true Rock Garden. Japanese and Chinese style gardens tend to be very minimalist, whereas Rock Gardens are more natural and less restrained.

When it comes to overall design, Rock Gardens offer some distinct advantages. Desert versions require very little watering and will thrive in extremely hot areas. Woodsy versions do very well in wooded lots where many other plants won’t make it. Because they’re less formal and rely mostly on hardy plants, they don’t require quite as much upkeep as say a Rose Garden or a Vegetable Garden. And this also makes this style a good choice for the novice gardener.

Rock Garden Layout

  • Rock gardens can have a natural look with curving paths, or you can inject a little formality with straight paths
  • Just about any material will work for the pathways. For paths that fade into the background, use gravel. Or try red brick or wood chips for a little color contrast
  • If you go for stone, consider placing the pavers with gaps between them so that you can plant a little creeping groundcover in the walkway
  • If you have a lot of small rocks or don’t want groundcover to creep onto your paths, you’ll need to edge your beds
  • Rock choices are important and will vary depending on what kind of plants you want to use. Porous rocks are good for a woodsy rock garden with mosses and woodland plants. Non-porous rocks work better for desert plants
  • Place rocks into the garden from largest to smallest, using the smaller pieces to fill in the gaps. Then place plants in the gaps between the rocks

Plants to Use in a Rock Garden

Plant selection is very important in a Rock Garden, although it might not seem like it at first. You can’t just run to your local nursery and pick up a flat of impatiens to put in your Rock Garden. You need to select varieties that work with the type of rock you’re using and with the type of vista that you’re trying to create.

Most Rock Gardens use plants that are low maintenance and not so showy when it comes to blooms, so if you like a lot of cut flowers this garden style probably isn’t the best choice for you. But again, your tradeoff is that they don’t require a lot of upkeep, and they don’t overshadow all of the work that you’ve put into placing the rocks into your landscape.

Perennials are good choices for Rock Gardens because they’ll spread naturally as the seasons pass. All you need to do is thin them when necessary, and it’s also fun to see where a new patch of your favorite plant has popped up.

Plant choices will of course vary depending on the type of Rock Garden in question. For a woodsy garden, combine mosses, flowers, and small trees or shrubs to create a natural vista. Some popular choices for a woodsy Rock Garden include:

  • Baby’s breath
  • Blanket flower
  • Dwarf conifer
  • Iris
  • Ornamental onion
  • Poppy
  • Rockcress

Order and shape play an important part in creating the minimalist Japanese style rock garden. Desert rock gardens tend to be informal and take advantage of more organic shapes.

For a desert garden, succulents and desert plants need good drainage to avoid developing mold. Some popular choices for a desert Rock Garden include:

  • Agave
  • Aloe
  • Cacti
  • Euphorbia
  • Lupine
  • Sedum
  • Thistle

Rock Garden Accessory Suggestions

  • Furniture materials:
    • Wicker
    • Wood
    • Glass
  • Some accessory ideas to integrate into your woodsy Rock Garden include:
    • Birdhouses on tall poles
    • Leaf wood carvings hung on the exterior of the house or shed
    • Place wooden benches along a long path as you’d find in a park
  • Some accessory ideas to integrate into your desert Rock Garden include:
    • Try some wrought metal garden art to add some vertical interest
    • Use Southwestern painted tile pieces to inject a little extra color
    • Use painted ceramic pots for cacti that need to be overwintered inside

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