rock garden

Photo: clearlens/Shutterstock

Live somewhere dry? Want to save water? Just want to mix it up a little in the garden? Have you considered installing a rock garden? Rock gardens can make great DIY projects to spruce up the garden whether you want to change the look and feel or prepare your home for sale and give it a fresher look to appeal to potential buyers.

Let's get one thing straight: Rock gardens are far from boring, contrary to popular belief. They can include a variety of plants and design elements including rocks of different colors, shapes and sizes, along with garden art. Rock gardens pair beautifully with fish ponds, bird baths, stone and ceramic planters, and similar garden features, and they can make a fantastic transition from the deck or patio to the larger garden, or between parts of a garden. They're also perfect for gardening on slopes, because they tend to take well to terracing and other vertical landscaping tricks.

From large to small, rock gardens obviously revolve around the inclusion of a rock underlayer, using porous rocks that hold water well while allowing it to drain. In addition, the rocks create part of the landscaping, serving as their own garden features in the midst of plants that can include succulents, trailing or creeping groundcover, upright flowers and low shrubs. One of the big advantages to a rock garden is the low maintenance: The underlayer helps to keep weeds down, and the garden should need watering only about once a week because the rocks will help hold water. 

Not only that, but covering an area that's difficult to mow and maintain with a rock garden will make your life a lot easier. Plus, it can help your garden look better and it can provide a fantastic transitional space with a gazebo or another central feature to appeal to visitors. It's a win-win for everyone, including the plants.

You'll need to start by establishing the base layer of the rock garden, which should include a mound starting with sand and pebbles for drainage, with soil over it. You can sculpt the mound however you want to add texture and visual interest, but remember that you will need to reinforce the sides to prevent collapses, and if you plan to add one or more terraces or raised areas, those will need to be supported too. You can use concrete masonry units, bricks and rocks for reinforcement, although particularly high mounds will need higher concrete retaining walls.

rock garden with yellow flowers

Photo: krungchingpixs/Shutterstock

Once your base is established, you can start to lay out your rocks. This isn't a haphazard endeavor; placement is very important since the rocks make up such an important part of the look and feel of your garden. You should start with the largest first, because they'll be the focal visual points. Get creative about placement and then start working with smaller and smaller rocks along with pavers and accent pieces to get the finished look you want.

You have a lot of potential sources for rocks. Many nurseries and garden stores sell them, as do hardware and home supply stores. One potential source for low-cost or even free rocks is a masonry company, which may have offcuts, discards and excess that they sell to the public. You can also collect them, but be aware that there are sometimes legal limitations on collecting rocks from the natural environment. You may not be permitted to take rocks and other items from state parks, for example, and there may be a daily limit on how many you can take from other areas in the interest of protecting natural resources.

Now it's time to plant! For serious xeriscaping, otherwise known as low-water gardening, few things are better than succulents. These hardy plants thrive in low water environments and they look great, putting out flowers in addition to lush leaves in a variety of colors. Consider hitting a specialty succulent garden to check out your options, because they will have a range of beautiful plants you can purchase including trailing, upright and bedding varieties.

You don't need to stop there, though. Most rock gardens are landscaped with small, understated plants that interact with the rocks and allow them to shine, instead of overpowering them visually. You can use annuals and perennials in a range of colors that bed, creep or grow upright, and consider planting bulbs for more visual interest. When they pop up in the spring, they can help relieve the dull look of the garden in winter.

Evergreen plants are another great choice for a rock garden. You don't have to use them across the whole garden, but as accent pieces, they can ensure that there's always an interplay of rocks and fresh greenery throughout the year.

Consider the best balance of plant types, colors and styles for you. While you're planting, make sure to group plants with similar water and sun needs together so they'll stay healthy. Once established, your rock garden should thrive on a weekly watering in the warm months, biannual fertilizer and periodic weeding and trimming to keep your plants looking neat.

Katie Marks originally wrote this story for It is reprinted with permission here.

Related stories on MNN:

How to design a rock garden
Here are the types of plants and rocks you'll need to create a beautiful landscape.