Building a Rock Garden, Everything You Wanted to Know


For those who always wanted to create a rockery filled with diminutive plants, here is a primer to get you started. Don’t just dream of a rock garden, start making one

Why Do You Want A Rock Garden?


Erythronium dens-canis ‘Kondo’ makes a good addition to your display.


Answering this question, “Why do I want a Rock Garden?”, closely followed by considering the basic sources you have to begin with, may find you on your way to building this unique feature.

Do you …

  • …Already have a garden?
  • …Love a rock garden, but don’t have a yard?
  • …Wish for a complete rockery?
  • …Interested in just a small feature to enjoy?

It isn’t hard to have a rock garden if that has been a dream of yours.


The amount of land you have to work with is one consideration, and whether rocks are a natural part of the landscape.

The type of soil, its pH and texture, as well as drainage will be important to rock plants.

The kind of rocks available to you (or which you wish to use) rate some thought.

Start Planning

  1. Write down your answers to the above questions
  2. List your the ultimate size and requirements, such as budget limitations
  3. Will you do construction yourself, or hire professional help? Write down costs for those scenarios.
  4. Now you can start the planning phase

The planning is the fun part, and it will save mistakes and money spent.

Start Your Design

Victorian Obsession

The naturalism of this landscape feature fascinated the Victorians. It was the perfect showcase for their plant collections and artistic display skills.

We aren’t too different from people of that day. Growing plants, making miniature worlds, being creative and having a chance to engage in artistic pastimes still draws us into this form of gardening.

An easy planting with sedums makes a low maintenance front yard feature

An easy planting with sedums makes a low maintenance front yard feature

Types Of Rock Gardens

  • The Classic Rock Garden: built on a rise, it melds seamlessly into the surrounding environment. Often utilizes natural outcroppings of native rock.
  • Banks: Rocks preventing erosion become the perfect opportunity for a specialized garden. Usually a simpler planting with easy care, low growing plants is the best use of this opportunity.
  • “Walk-About” Bed: a central raised bed with paths cutting through. I saw an example of this at the Denver Botanic Garden.
  • Woodland Rock Garden: situated in the trees, this is a shady to partly sunny planted rock garden, which features ferns.

How to Create your own Rock Garden

Start with tutorials for making the rockwork structure of the garden. Then, choose the plants and plan the way you hope they will look within the site.


The Rockwork, The Plants

scree garden photo by brewbooks

Rock garden plants in a scree

Rock Garden Plant Tips

Not every low growing plant is ideal for rock garden conditions especially if you have small spaces. Some low growing plants are so vigorous they amount to thugs in a rock garden.

A case in point is the “Snow In Summer”, Cerastium tomentosum, which will grow by leaps and knows no bounds! Vinca minor, or any plant classified as a groundcover will also take over.

Two considerations are

  • the pH needs
  • the vigor of the plant.

If space is at a premium, don’t plant potentially invasive plant thugs.

Rock Outcropping

rock outcropping photo by loneangel

Rock outcropping with shade plants or mountain meadow, depending on the amount of light.


If you have a natural rock outcropping, please consider using plants to create a garden space that emphasizes its beauty. Research the native plants of your area. This gives a foundation of plant material that is most likely to look lovely, and reward your care with the best possible results.

Most of us must import rocks of some kind to give a naturalistic look (which seems paradoxical). I used limestone rocks that came from the north coast of Ohio. There are also quarried limestone rocks from my part of the state which I could have used, as well. Natural forms from the surface will give a different look to those cut from quarries, but the rules aobut the grain of the rock apply to both.

The placement is important since rocks have a “grain”. This is something like wood grain, with strata lines. These should be lined in such a way that it looks like the rocks were found naturally as they appear in your garden bed.

Complete rockery formations often have very large installations of big, heavy stones. You will likely need professionals for such work.

Advice On Rockwork

In general, rockwork, to be truly natural, can only show the rock on one side, or, at most, on two sides; as scars, cliffs, precipices, etc, are seen in rocky districts.
~ “The Villa Gardener”, by J. C. Loudon

Mountain Mimicry

mimic a mountain

Low plants and dwarf conifers combine well with rocks for a mountain look.

Stone Retaining Walls Have Nooks For Plants

look for a nook in a rock

The crevices in and between rocks provide footholds for plants.

Setting The Rocks

  • Try to use one type of rock
  • Sink larger rocks into the ground
  • Place a few half-sunk stones, of different sizes in groups (like a natural outcropping)
  • Combine a rock garden with a water feature, setting rocks around and to one side of the water.
  • Line the rocks directionally, so they seem to be rising from within the earth.
mini flowers

Professional gardener shares his passion


Places For Rock Garden Plantings

Rock outcroppings or stones placed to look like mountain crannies are possibilities, but those are not the only opportunities for growing pretty rock garden plants.

Dry stone walls, or a group of hypertufa troughs, are used for this kind of garden. Even small spaces or on flat terrain can look wonderful with this type of feature.

In England, stone troughs used by innovative gardeners for their alpines have become scarce. In the USAÂ such treasures are hardly to be found. Nevertheless, ingenuity percolated and the popularity of hypertufa containers was born.


You can make your own hypertufa troughs and pots with an easy recipe, a few inexpensive ingredients and a little of your time.

Use a mask when working with dry perlite and vermiculite, protect hands with rubber gloves

Combine in ration of 1:1:1

  • Portland cement
  • perlite (or vermiculite)
  • peat moss

Mix well and add 1 part water. Mix until moist and lumpy, holding together. Let rest for 5-10 minutes, then pat it over a lightly oiled mold. Make drainage holes.

Cover with plastic and let cure. After 48 hours or so, brush with wire brush and paint with a buttermilk mixture if you wish to encourage moss.

Expert Crevice Garden Construction

Low Plants
Dwarf Shrubs
Miniature Bulbs
Spring bloomers: Arabis, Moss Phlox, Alyssum
Varieties of Weigela, Spirea, Cotoneaster
Varieties of Daffodils, Tete a Tete, February Gold, Minnow
Diminutive Annuals: Dahlberg Daisies, Linaria, Nemophilia
Evergreen dwarf: Alberta spruce, Hinoki and Boulevard False Cypress
The minor bulbs: Eranthis,Galanthus,hardy Cyclamen,Snow Crocus
Sampler of suggested plants.

A Plant Primer For Your Rockery

The Rock Garden Plant Primer: Easy, Small Plants for Containers, Patios, and the Open Garden
The Rock Garden Plant Primer: Easy, Small Plants for Containers, Patios, and the Open Garden

Don’t know where to start? This primer guides you through creating your first garden rockery whatever the condition you begin with.


Pinks Are Excellent Rock Garden Plants

photo by wundoroo

Delicate Single Pinks

  • Achillea tormentosa
  • Arenaria montana
  • Armeria maritima
  • Arabis
  • Dianthus (Pinks)
  • Campanula carpatica,C.cochlearifolia, C.portenschlagiana
  • Edelweiss
  • Alpine poppy
  • Iberis sempervirens
  • Phlox subulata
  • Teucrium chamaedrys
  • Penstemons


  • Athyrium fern
  • Polypody fern
  • Dwarf columbine
  • Bergenia
  • Astilbe chinensis pumila
  • Corydalis lutea
  • Tiarella wherryi

Note that many of these plants bloom in the spring.

Small Spring Bulbs

rock garden crocus

One of the most delightful seasons for a rock garden must be the Spring. Besides the many rock plants which bloom at this time, the conditions are nigh perfect for bulbs. Small bulbs of many kinds are of the right proportions for a rockery. Some are very common, like the “Snow crocus”, while others may be rarities.


Choosing Diminutive Plants

Have you decided which type of rock garden to make? Here are some suggested plants to bring it to life.


  • Alpine fir
  • Acer palmatum (Japanese Maples)
  • Amelanchier alnifolia (Juneberry)
  • Dwarf pines
  • Ornamental Cherry or Crabapples


  • Heathers
  • Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
  • Dwarf Azaleas


  • Dwarf Chamaecyparis, ie. ‘Golden Pin Cushion’
  • Dwarf Cotoneaster, ie.’Tom Thumb’
  • Dwarf Junipers, ie. J. squamata
  • Dwarf Weigela, ie. ‘Minuet’

From the Owner of Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery

Rock Garden Plants: A Color Encyclopedia Rock Garden Plants: A Color Encyclopedia

It won’t take long before you hear of the famous Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery. The owner, with horticulturist Fritz Kummert, has created a resource for the rock garden enthusiast based upon his knowledge. This book is a must.

In Your Yard

[yop_poll id=”7″]


This is the easiest situation of all, because you have all the components you need. The biggest challenge? Helping it to look like a natural part of the landscape.

My First Rockery

I had a small rise in my front yard in a home I lived in long ago. I built my first rock garden there.

I made irregular terraces by digging rocks into the side of the rise. Placing a small shrub and dwarf ornamental tree on the upper right created a backdrop and enclosure. By filling with miniature spring blooming bulbs, creeping plants, it became a suitable rock garden -though only six by ten feet in size.

It was a front yard feature that gave my neighbors and passers by much pleasure, because they often commented on it!

Rocks Around a Pond

My second time building such a garden evolved around a small garden pond. I view it from the windows in my house.

This feature is surrounded by a dogwood, dwarf Japanese maple and a Hinoki cypress. The rocky part of the garden is screened from the rather flat, wide-open landscape of my yard. That open quality, in itself, was a personal challenge. I didn’t want it to look like something just plunked down into the yard from outer space. The small trees and some shrubs at the back provided a sense of enclosure.

The key for a successful integration of a rockery into an existing garden is to create its own “room”. You might have similar conditions to me, or you may not, but if you can isolate it into its own place, the feeling of a mountain environment is much more plausible.


Sometimes we have real barriers to wishes and dreams for a garden, even as basic as not having a yard.

Solution: The feeling of a garden could be attained with a trough garden. You can make your own trough with a material called hypertufa. Once you have the container, it can be filled with gravel, rocks, and rock plants, making a small, but satisfactory rock garden feature for your balcony or patio.

Look for ways to overcome potential obstacles to your idea of the perfect garden, it is surprising how many solutions there are to landscaping problems. Many innovative and original garden designs have resulted from challenges such as this. Even the whole concept of the rockeries might be seen as a solution to the Victorian desire to bring a bit of the mountains into the garden.

Create An Alpine Trough

Creating and Planting Garden Troughs
Creating and Planting Garden Troughs

Now in paperback, the addictive hobby of making an alpine trough combines these decorative containers with the fun and challenge of making a miniature world. Learn how to make a hypertufa trough!

Delving Into the History

“The primary stimulus for the development of rock work was the interest in and availability of specialized plants and shrubs that required special soil and climatic conditions.”

“Alpine plants became popular both in England and America during the Victorian period and a rock garden provided an ideal setting for them”

.~Therese O’Malley, Keywords in American Landscape Design,


A Complete Rockery

The most ambitious plan would be to have a complete rock garden along the lines of the Victorian plans.

Perhaps you are already familiar with the features of this type of garden, but for those who haven’t seen such a garden, let’s start with a bit of history.


Some of the earliest rock gardens were made by the Chinese, such as the the Liu Yuan garden.

The Japanese created their Zen garden, in which rock was a key element. However, for most of us, it is the European fascination which began closer to the 18th century that forms our idea of what a rock garden should look like.

The Victorians, in their age of exploration and collection, loved to create “grottoes” and some of their rock gardens were more “grotesqueries” than anything we would now admire.
The ideas of rock gardens divided into three main categories:

  1. replicating a natural landscape in miniature, such as a mini-Matterhorn;
  2. making a place for alpine plants, such as a scree garden; or simply a natural rock outcropping.
  3. The third type, the alpine garden, was focused on the beauty of the alpine plants, which sometimes require very specific growing conditions. It was a specialists garden, and needed something of an expert construction and care of the plants.

John Loudon’s Design Circa 1838


Classic Book by J C Loudon

The Villa Gardener: Comprising the Choice of a Suburban Villa Residence; The Laying Out, Planting, and Culture of the Garden and Grounds; And the ... the Dairy and Poultry-Yard (Classic Reprint)
The Villa Gardener: Suburban Villa Residence; The Laying Out, Planting, and Culture of the Garden and Grounds(Classic Reprint)

It is surprising what some of the old classic garden books can offer. They don’t have bright illustrations, but make up for it with real how-to and sound opinions on creating a beautiful garden.

Loads of Design Ideas

Rock On!

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author


I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of "Ilona's Reflecting Pool". Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. The work on "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.