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Rock Garden

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A garden in which rocks and plants that grows on rocks form the chief elements of the landscape is a rock garden. Rock gardening is a specialized and intensive form of gardening which requires special conditions for both growth and survival. The plants that are found in rock gardens are those that grow naturally at higher altitudes or under subarctic conditions, alpine gardens.

Rock gardens have become increasingly popular nowadays mainly because of the lack of space available for the average garden. People with intense interest in gardening and space constraints prefer a rock garden to indulge in their passion for plants. Although installing a rock garden is a challenging task, it is definitely fun. The rocks provide many different crevices and niches into which carefully selected plants can grow. Take a look at the features of a Japanese garden and Zen garden.


History of rock gardens

Records reveal that the earliest rock gardens were built in China and Japan. These gardens emphasized unusual rock forms rather than the plantations on the rock. Historically, rock gardening began in the British Isles. There were increased numbers of travelers from Britain who visited Switzerland and other mountainous parts in Europe. They were fascinated by beautiful alpine plants and sought to bring some back to grow them at home.

In the year 1919 Reginald Farrer wrote and published the book 'The English Rock garden'. This book is seen as the bible of rock gardeners world over. Rock gardens became a part of horticulture in Great Britain in the 1920s. From Britain the interest moved on to the United States. Since this gardening requires special conditions for alpine plants to grow, popularity of rock gardens remained limited.


Rock garden

Rock gardens are aesthetically appealing and horticulturally stimulating. Rock garden can be considered as an art form that is mainly based on the use of rocks in the landscape. Cliffs, outcropping rocks and similar formations inspire formation of rock gardens. Rock gardens combine the delicate beauty of flowers and plants with the ruggedness of rocks. Rock gardens encourage the study and cultivation of plants and wild flowers that grow amidst the rocks.

A rock garden demands dedication and attention. The initial construction may be time-consuming and demanding. Maintaining the rock garden is a very challenging task. One distinct advantage in rock gardens is the fact that a number of plants can be accommodated in a limited area. This appeals to the gardener and the viewer as well.


Rock garden plants


Rock gardens involve growing mountain plants that can withstand severe winter cold. Development of rock garden is also possible in warm temperate, sub tropical and tropical climates as in temperate ones. Many rock gardens feature different kinds of plants.

Terrestrial plants: These plants found in warm climates quite obviously differ from those grown in colder ones. In desert and semi desert areas, cactuses and other succulents grow well. They look especially good in association with rocks.

Alpine rock plant:
These plants are found on mountain tops and tend to be dwarfed with showy blooms. Alpine plants usually do not require much soil. They grow on a medium consisting of sand, organic matter and gravel. These plants are used to cool climates. They need minimum sunlight.

For humid and warm climatic regions, there are plenty of plants that are suitable for displaying in rock environments. They include ferns, as well as many kinds of begonias, gesneriads, peperomias, and other plants. These plants normally inhabit cliffs and other rock features. Other plants suitable in rock gardens are ferns, lichens, water plants and moss. If climatic conditions do not permit growth of some alpine plants, you can grow other plants and blend them with the cliffs and rocks in the garden.


  • Ferns such as Aspidium thelypteris, Onoclea sensibilis, Osmunda regalis, Woodwardia virginica

  • Ferns that do well in the sun such as Onoclea struthiopteris, Osmunda claytoniana, Dicksonia punctilobula, Asplenium felix-foemina

  • Ferns that do well in the shade: Asplenium ebeneum, Asplenium trichomanes, Camptosorus rhizophyllus, Polypodium vulgare, Woodsia obtusa

  • Flowers such as Lobelia cardinalis, Iris verna, Iris cristata; Lilium philadelphicum

  • Vines like Ampelopsis quinquefolia (Virginia creeper); Celastrus scandens (Bittersweet), or Clematis paniculata

  • Combinations of flowering shrubs and evergreens, grass and a few natural wild flowers

  • Plantations that suit shady place, fairly dry soil and fit beautifully into the rocks: Aspidium marginale, Aspidium acrostichoides, Dicksonia punctilobula, Osmunda claytoniana

Soil for rock garden

It is always better to select plants that grow in the soil available instead of changing the soil to suit the plant. As such, rock garden plants do not require heavy soil. Chips of crushed rock, coarse sand, perlite or crushed limestone or chrushed oyster shells can be used to improve the soil texture in rock gardens. Leaf mold, peat moss, compost and organic material can also be used. Use soil that has been fertilized and light in texture. This soil will facilitate water drainage.


Rock garden design

When choosing a location for your rock garden, look for a slope that will have good water drainage. Water trapped between the rocks can cause plants to rot. Look for sun or shade depending on the types of plants you want to use. Good drainage, light, pure air and a healthy soil are essential ingredients for design and construction of rock gardens.


  • Plants should be arranged in such a design that they look natural. If you observe a rocky terrain with wild plants growing on it, you will find large patches of low-growing plants. The areas without rocks afford relief to the eyes and a variety of plantations can be grown here.

  • There is no symmetry of design in rock gardens. Evenness in size or distribution looks unnatural in rock garden design. The rocks should not be distributed evenly as this will look very artificial.

  • Rock gardens look best when they are bold and large, rather than puny and trivial. The rocks should all be of the same source, but of different sizes. Avoid placing them regularly. The placement of rocks and plant is by itself a great art indeed.

  • Utmost care should be taken not to scar the rocks that are collected to create rock gardens.
  • In artificial rock gardens, there should be no impression that rocks are separate and they can be loosened and removed. The soil should be firmly packed and rocks should be placed in the best possible positions.

Landscaping with rock is an art. When constructing rock gardens, the plantings amongst the rocks take center stage. Popular rock gardening are alpine design rock gardens and Zen and Japanese gardens.


Types of rock gardens

The first step in creating rock gardens is to evaluate the area with reference to the contouring and availability of rocks. This is because rocks from the area will blend nicely and naturally into the garden. Appropriate sites for natural rock gardens are slopes, banks, and small valleys or dells. Pools, streams and waterfalls greatly add to the beauty and charm of rock gardens.

Artificial rock gardens are constructed in placed where native rock formations are not available. These artificial rock gardens offer opportunities for imaginative development. Artificially created gardens that mimic native rock formations can be seen in Europe and America.

Rock gardens should be meticulously planned and executed. The rock usually used in rock gardens is porous. Hard impervious types of rocks such as granites are not preferred. Hard sandstone is very good. Soluble limestone is not advised. But water worn limestone rocks are beautiful to look but unsuitable for acid soil plants such as heaths and heathers. Instead, a soft light weight porous limestone rock called 'Tufa' can be used as it is very congenial to plants.

Hard rocks are unsuited as they take long time to weather. They also do not encourage the growth of plantations like mosses and lichens. Sometimes suitable material for artificially created rock gardens can be even obtained from old stone walls. Boulders that are used in artificial rock gardens should be carefully sized and positioned. The boulders can be partially buried and partially exposed to give a natural rock garden effect.


Care of rock garden

Rock gardens demand regular care. Rock plants succumb to extreme summer humidity and harsh winter conditions Propagation of rock plants is an important aspect of rock gardening. Many of the plantations in the rocks are short lived. It is always better to have a stock of plants for replacement. Rock garden plants can be cultivated in several ways. Spring is the best time of the year to propagate rock garden plants. September is also an excellent time for some of the rock plant cultivation.


Zen Rock garden

The Zen rock garden emphasizes form, foliage and structure. While showy flowers are central to Western rock gardens, a Zen rock garden is more austere and simple. A Zen rock garden is often suggestive of a landscape of islands in the sea. Island stones are carefully selected and placed. Clean gravel is put around them in patterns resembling waves and currents. There is a mixture and contrast of forms and materials that make Zen gardens unique.


Japanese Rock Garden

Japanese rock gardens are built on certain basic design principles. The Japanese believe that one cannot and should not create something artificial in nature. For example, you would never find a square pond in the wild, so do not put one in your garden. You may certainly use a waterfall, but not a fountain.

A key point to remember in Japanese rock gardens is balance or 'sumi'. You are always trying to create a large landscape even in the smallest of spaces. The components have to be chosen with care. For example, a nine-ton boulder looks right at home in the six-acre stroll garden but you can imagine its absurdity in a small courtyard. The right kind of balance should be struck. Rocks can represent whole mountains, pools become lakes. A small stretch of raked sand is suggestive of an entire ocean. 'Less is more' is definitely applicable to Japanese rock gardens.

The elements of time and space are important in Japanese rock gardens. These gardens have lot of empty portions. This emptiness is a key element of design in Japanese rock gardens. The space defies and is defined by the elements around it. There are certain specific stones and combinations that are characteristic of the spirit of the Japanese rock garden.

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