While some parts of the world receive increasing amounts of rainfall every year, others experience longer and more intense dry periods. One great landscaping option for gardeners in areas with limited water is a rock garden. Or perhaps, as is common in my area, you struggle to beautify a yard filled with jutting rocks you’d love to make disappear. Instead, consider incorporating them into your garden design! I’ve compiled a list of stunning rock garden ideas below to help get you started.
Rock Garden Ideas
There are so many ways to use rocks and pebbles in landscaping! Here’s how to create a rock garden, from choosing the right rocks to adding the perfect plants.
1. Incorporate bright colors
Complement the neutral, rugged appearance of rocks and stones with bright, cheerful flowers. Tuck plants like sedums, flowering thyme, dianthus, and phlox around decorative rocks or intersperse them with carefully placed stepping stones.
And don’t forget colorful foliage, which can contribute shades of dusty blue, bright green, deep red, and more for a vibrant rock garden.
Here are my favorite rock garden plants.
2. Add a water feature
Although rock gardens bring to mind dry landscapes, you can also incorporate a water feature for the soothing sounds it provides or simply to add another element to the garden.
Consider surrounding a small pond with gravel and stones of varying sizes, perhaps with a waterfall tumbling into it over rugged-looking rocks. Tuck moisture-loving plants into the crevices surrounding the waterfall for a vertical dimension.
3. Imitate water
If you do live in a dry area, imitating the appearance of water with rocks works remarkably well. Mark out a “stream” with gently curving lines, then fill it in with pea gravel, small river rocks, or slate chips. Line the edges with medium-sized stones and scatter a couple of larger rocks throughout the middle of the stream. To mimic underwater plants, plant a few well-spaced tufts of ornamental grasses in the gravel.
4. Hardscape with rocks
The rocks in your garden can serve decorative as well as functional purposes. Create pathways with stepping stones, gravel, or stone pavers, and use large, flat rocks for stairs.
Rocks of all sizes can be used for edging, and a stone bench or two will provide a place to relax and enjoy the garden. Need a retaining wall? Build it with stone!
5. Add succulents
Because they thrive in dry conditions, extreme heat, and rocky soil, succulents seem like an obvious choice for a rock garden. If your region experiences mild winters, there are countless varieties of succulents to choose from.
Those of us in areas that dip below freezing, however, need to be careful to look for hardier plants. Sedums, hens and chicks, and prickly pear cacti are great options.
6. Choose hardy coastal plants
Plants that grow in the harsh conditions of the coast tend to be hardier, making them perfect for rock gardens. These seaside species often tolerate poor soil, drought, and even some pests and diseases. Look for plants like pink thrift, sea lavender, and Mediterranean varieties like rosemary and spurge.
7. Consider moss
Aim for a more woodland-themed rock garden with the addition of moss. Soft in both texture and color, moss adds a cozy, almost magical feel to the garden.
In a yard with significant shade, you can even replace a patchy lawn with a verdant carpet of moss. It doesn’t have to be mown, and it stays green all year! If a moss lawn isn’t your thing, you can still incorporate moss by introducing it to the stones and boulders in your rock garden.
8. Opt for alpine plants
Like coastal plants and succulents, alpine species are known for their ruggedness. But since they typically grow at higher elevations, alpine plants are also cold-hardy. These often-petite plants offer a range of colors, shapes, and textures to add variety to your rock garden. Popular choices include thyme, primrose, campanula, and pinks.
9. Create a container rock garden
You don’t need a yard to have a rock garden; you can create one right on your patio or balcony in a container! Get creative about the vessel you use, which could be a wide, shallow flowerpot, old metal basin, or just about any recycled container of the size you want.
Fill it with well-draining potting soil (you may want a special mix for succulents), leaving room at the top for a layer of fine gravel and a few larger stones for “boulders.” Small succulents are perfect additions to container rock gardens.
10. Grow an herbal rock garden
Even herbs can grow well in a rock garden. In fact, many popular culinary herbs are Mediterranean natives, making the excellent drainage of a rock garden perfect for them.
Cascading herbs like creeping thyme look great tumbling down vertical surfaces, while lavender and rosemary add both height and depth. Other great options include oregano, marjoram, sage, and hyssop.
11. Design a Japanese rock garden
Also called a dry garden or zen garden, a Japanese rock garden uses raked gravel, large rocks, and a few shrubs to reflect the essence of nature. Unlike other gardens, it is meant to be viewed rather than entered, and the large, empty areas of gravel allow the viewer to mentally fill in the blank spaces. The meditative act of raking the gravel results in patterns that often represent rippling or flowing water.
Rock gardens offer a water-saving landscaping option for dry regions, provide a creative solution to rocky yards, and look beautiful with their simple textures and rugged plants. However you choose to design your rock garden, may it bring you joy for years to come!
Serena Manickam is a freelance editor and writer and sustainable market gardener in rural Virginia. She holds a BA in environmental science and runs Fairydiddle Farm, a small market garden in which she grows no-spray produce and herbs to sell at a local farmer’s market.