Rock Gardening

There is something profoundly elemental about the interplay and connection between rock, plants, and people. Rock gardens seem to reignite a bit of the magic from the time when humans lived more closely to the earth, and each new tiny blossom that emerged was noticed and mattered. Borders, vegetable gardens, raised beds are far less subtle and evocative by contrast: spade in some manure, rake it out, put the tall ones behind the short ones in front and keep the colors tasteful: presto! But each and every rock garden is unique.

Traditional rock gardens summon images of babbling brooks splashing through rugged rocks, encrusted with bright yellow, pink, white and blue frothy flowers. But rock gardens can be a stylized Canyonlands with rugged buttes tufted with sagebrush and cactus, or they can be modeled on a prairie bluff with a few wind tossed grasses and pasque flowers basking in the early spring sunshine. Some make use of only native plants, or plants that occur together as a community in nature, while others are more loose and stylized in their interpretation. But all rock gardens evoke and celebrate the natural beauty of plants growing among rocks in the wild.

Begin by deciding just what kind of garden you want and what fits the spot you have. Make sure you have a good, rich soil with good drainage that provides a deep root run. Realize the rocks and soil will sink dramatically over time (build it boldly!) Arrange the rocks with circumspection: make sure they are not the same size and that you have ample spaces here and there: look at the garden from various angles as you build it.

Ultimately rock gardens gain much of their appeal and glory by a great contradiction: they are wonderful combinations of plants that paint a perfect picture if successful, but at the same time they are like jewelry settings that set off the bright gem-like miniature plants within them. Rock gardeners are torn between the artistic urge to paint with plants and the scientist’s zeal to collect everything individually. The best ones achieve both ends at once (a feat indeed!)

A few tips to keep in mind:

  • Visit public gardens with rock gardens that are near you to see what kinds of alpines are adapted to your region and site.
  • Wander and observe beautiful wild rocky places, regionally and the world over if possible. Learn how plants and rocks interact so you can evoke a similar scene at home.
  • There is a vast literature on the art of rock gardening in books and journals and on the internet—read, read, read.
  • Consider joining one of the many rock garden clubs.
  • Try designing a garden based on your native soil and conditions to begin with: you should have a rock garden you can neglect while on vacation!
  • Start small: rather than risking a hernia with hundreds of tons, do the garden piecemeal, one success at a time.
  • Try to keep to plants of a small stature and similar growth rates.
  • Design not just for the spring splash but for season-long color.
  • Mulch with small stone chips, it unifies the look and keeps down watering and weeds.
  • Learn to grow plants from seed or cutting: although rock garden plants are inexpensive, they are small and a garden takes up a lot of them (and the price adds up!)

Everyone I know who pursues rock gardening finds it an absorbing, rewarding hobby: a small garden just five or ten feet across can accommodate dozens, even hundreds of little plants that can bloom from early spring to late in the fall. I find that some new flower that entrances me often sends me to books or the computer to research it: a few years later I am climbing some remote peak seeking to find it in its wild haunt. For me, the rock garden becomes a kind of microcosm of the world itself, generating pathways to places far away and mysterious. At the same time, a rock garden brings the very world to your doorstep. I know of no other pastime that achieves so much in so little space.

Click here to watch a beautiful video on rock gardening.

A short list of rock garden plants I would not want to live without:

Aethionema grandiflorum
Aquilegia saximontana
Dianthus microlepis
Draba hispanica
Eriogonum umbellatum var. aureum,  Kannah Creek® buckwheat
Helianthemum nummularium
Primula auricula
Saxifraga paniculata
Veronica liwanensis
Zauschneria garrettii, Orange Carpet® hummingbird trumpet

And the list goes on forever…

Thanks to Panayoti Kelaidis, Senior Curator at Denver Botanic Gardens for providing this information.

Garden treasures
for small spaces

Plant Select® Petites  debuts well-adapted, smaller plants that have not yet been readily available to gardeners. Enjoy these treasures in garden situations where small gem-like but tough plants are best suited: troughs, permanent containers, rock gardens, patio gardens, fairy gardens, green roofs, and smaller gardens.