How to Make a Rock Garden

Add a low-maintenance, drought-tolerant rock garden to your yard with these expert tips.

Photo By: Image courtesy of The Fockele Garden Company

Photo By: Image courtesy of The Fockele Garden Company

Photo By: Image courtesy of The Fockele Garden Company

Photo By: Image courtesy of The Fockele Garden Company

Photo By: Image courtesy of The Fockele Garden Company

Photo By: Image courtesy of The Fockele Garden Company

Photo By: Image courtesy of The Fockele Garden Company

Photo By: Image courtesy of The Fockele Garden Company

Photo By: Image courtesy of The Fockele Garden Company

Photo By: Image courtesy of The Fockele Garden Company

Photo By: Image courtesy of The Fockele Garden Company

Photo By: Image courtesy of The Fockele Garden Company

Photo By: Image courtesy of The Fockele Garden Company

Stone Age Love

Some landscapes are ideal for the placement of rock gardens and you can easily enhance the beauty of your yard by creating one. Mark Fockele, founder of Georgia's Fockele Garden Company, offers some basic tips on how to do this with examples drawn from the Wilheit-Keys Peace Garden at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

Rock of Ages

Selecting the rocks for your garden is an important consideration. In the southeast, for example, sandstone is quite popular. "Laid down in horizontal layers, they tend to be very rectilinear," Fockele says. "That is an asset when you're building a rock garden because the rectilinear shapes allow you to create the illusion that these rocks occurred in this location naturally."

Diggin' It!

If at all possible, make sure the site you select for your rock garden is well drained. "Depending on the terrain," Fockele states, "you might need to put in some underground drainage to siphon some of the water out, but ordinarily you can build up soil in order to create drier conditions that most rock garden plants are suited for."

Mound Maker

Preparing the soil mound that will serve as the setting for your rock garden requires ingredients that promote good drainage. "Red clay, properly amended, is a great growing medium," notes Fockele, who advises mixing it with stalite, granite dust, chicken manure and pine bark. If you want classic rock garden plants that grow in dry, fast-draining soil, add more aggregate (commercial brands are available at your local nursery).

Crane Delivery

If you don't intend to hire a landscape company for the job you can purchase large rocks directly from suppliers, but you'll need to transport them to your property and place them on your own. You might have some luck scrounging stone from construction sites but a better option is to buy them from "somebody who has a good selection of boulders that are nicely weathered and large enough to make an impact but small enough to be moved."

Placement is Everything

Placing the rocks is a crucial step. "That's when you succeed or not with the effort to make this look like a natural rock outcrop," Fockele advises. "The idea is to place the rocks in such a way that they relate to each other and look like they occurred naturally...lying alongside each other for thousands of years weathering."

Go With the Flow

Make sure your design blends in naturally with the landscape. Fockele states, "I prefer a modestly-sloped mound to a steep mound, and try to blend a mound into existing terrain features on the site so that the mound doesn't look like something's that been imported." He also recommends that the rocks, "need to be well-seated in the soil so they look natural. We expose only the top third of the stone."

Plant Plan

Most rock gardens are situated in sunny, well-drained areas, though some people have had luck with rock gardens placed in shady areas. In the Southeast, Fockele says, "We plant a lot of succulents. We avoid the alpines because they're just not adapted to our climate. Sometimes we'll get a dwarf conifer that looks like it might be an alpine and it will grow here."

Rock Garden All-Stars

Other plants which make ideal candidates for rock gardens are sedums, miniature daffodils, Muscari bulbs and hardy groundcovers such as creeping mazus (Mazus reptans), creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), dianthus and hen and chicks (Sempervivum). Once the planting is done, it is advisable to mulch your rock garden with pine straw or hardwood mulch to help prevent weed growth.

Site Establishment

After your rock garden is installed, you'll want to water it frequently until it becomes established. As soon as it begins to thrive, maintenance is relatively easy. You will certainly need to weed it occasionally but Fockele says, "in time, you're aiming for a garden that's almost entirely vegetative so that you don't need much mulch."

Look For Patterns

"One thing I suggest to people who are doing this for themselves," Fockele advises, "is to pay attention to rock outcrops when just driving around. Notice how the rock patterns that you tend to see are very organized. They're not just a big jumble of stuff. They appear in patterns that you can reproduce with rocks at your home."

Back to Nature

The cobblestone retaining wall in the background (designed by Steve Sanchez of HGOR) will eventually be framed by lush creeping groundcovers and other plants. The attractive vegetation will blend the stone work into the surrounding garden, making it look natural and not man-made. That is the main goal for anyone who creates a rock garden.

The View From Here

Adding a rock garden to the landscape is just another way to enhance its beauty without calling attention to the new addition as something that looks man-made and wasn't part of the original terrain. For more information on creating rock gardens, visit the Fockele Garden Company and the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET), the national landscape industry association.