Rock On! Go Bigger and Boulder with a Stunning Rock Garden

An expert shares tips on creating your own rock garden.
New York Botanical Garden's Rock Garden

New York Botanical Garden's Rock Garden

Horses and wagons moved rock from various parts of The New York Botanical Garden to build their Rock Garden in 1929. Photo courtesy of NYBG.

Photo by: Image courtesy of NYBG.

Image courtesy of NYBG.

Horses and wagons moved rock from various parts of The New York Botanical Garden to build their Rock Garden in 1929. Photo courtesy of NYBG.

"A rock garden is a group of plants that look good planted among rocks," says Jody Payne, director of the Rock and Native Plant Gardens at the New York Botanical Garden. "They can include small plants, unusual plants, shady areas filled with ephemeral woodland plants and sunny areas dotted with dwarf conifers and small flowering plants and grasses."

Ex-Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar says there's only one way to rock, but Payne disagrees. "There are as many kinds of rock gardens as there are people who build one," she says.

Spanning two and a half acres of alpine plants, woodland streams and a waterfall, the NYBG Rock Garden is the "best kept secret in New York City," according to Payne. "It's set apart from the other gardens and buildings by design, enclosing the viewer to encourage the illusion of being somewhere wild and far away." 

Luckily you don't have to have a 250-acre National Historic Landmark in your backyard to recreate this serene scene. "Rock gardening works well in small spaces and on patios," Payne says. "Containers of rock garden plants can be very attractive year-round compositions with sedums, succulents and other dwarf plants that need minimal water and attention." 

Ready to rock? Here's what Payne suggests: 

  • Study rockwork you admire and recreate it in small units. "Try to lay the stone so it looks like placement occurred naturally," Payne says.
  • Find a local quarry and buy samples of their stone, gravel and sand that you can use to make a "scree," or mixture of small pebbles and several sizes of sand. "Scree can be mixed in a wheelbarrow with a shovel," Payne says. "Composted pine bark—aka soil conditioner—is a good addition of organic matter in the scree."
  • Slowly build up the rock on a slight slope until you reach your final level. Stack large rock, fill in with smaller rock and stack more rock, ensuring it is stable as you go.
  • Allow large rock to protrude from the scree and plant conifers next to the rock. The North American Rock Garden Society provides a comprehensive and detailed listing of rock garden-friendly plants. 
  • If you add a water feature, take the time to make it look like a natural part of the rock garden. Just make sure that moisture moves away from the crowns of very small plants. "The evaporation at the soil level can kill them," she says.
  • Weed your rock garden as you would any other to "allow small plants space and light to grow," Payne says, adding that rock gardens are drought-tolerant, so minimal water is required.

To find fellow rockers, the North American Rock Garden Society has volumes of information on the subject, plus a quarterly bulletin in which specialty nurseries offer "a whole world of new plants to those with interest in rock gardening," Payne says. 

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