Rock gardens are an amazing way to build texture and depth into your backyard. Find 32 awe inspiring rock garden ideas and designs to play with!
Welcome to our gallery of marvellous rock gardens! You’re probably here because you’ve heard of rock gardens before, and you’re looking for a little bit of inspiration. Rock gardening is becoming increasingly popular, and we wanted to get into our own rock garden design ideas!
The idea behind rock gardening is having a very minimal green space, either outdoors or indoors, that requires little no maintenance, and brings about a feeling of calm and serenity. They are usually a combination of various rock sizes, alpine plants, ornamental grasses, and other smaller plants.
By utilizing large rocks you can give your space a raw and natural appeal. This rugged look is great for adding texture to your landscaping. Smaller rocks and gravel can make a great bed for some plants and may be used rather than mulch or wood chips.
You may also choose to have rocks with no greenery at all! Sitting in a well organized rock garden without plants, or with manicured sand, is a very zen and visually intriguing idea. Regardless of your chosen garden design, a rock garden is low maintenance and beautiful way to enhance a green space.
History of the Rock Garden
Though rock gardens have recently experienced an influx in popularity, they have actually been in practice for quite a long time. The first rock gardens can be traced all the way back to early Chinese and Japanese traditions.
These early on gardens are actually known as the Japanese rock garden, or as the zen garden. This rock garden idea originated as a way to elevate an alpine garden. They were minimally designed to incite a feeling of calm and serenity – the perfect place for meditation.
Rock gardens were also exceptionally popular in both Victoria times and in the “golden age of botany” which occurred within the 1700’s and 1800’s. These were always designed by professional landscape artists and incorporated many exotic plant imports.
The Modern Rock Garden
In this day and age, the rock garden is also referred to as an alpine garden or a rockery. Even though the traditional Japanese rock garden only incorporated sand, various rock sizes, and alpine plants, designs incorporate more intricate designs and further additions.
A rock garden (read our 9 Types of Landscaping Rocks for specifics) is usually a small plot of ground that features a focal point of large boulders surrounded by tiny stones, and various other plant types. The decision is yours on what rock garden plant type you prefer, but some popular choices are usually low growing plants.
This can be anything from succulent plant types, to mosses and lichen, ornamental grass, or a flowering plant with extravagant foliage. Traditionally, usually a collection of small plant types are chosen.
What Rock Gardens Need
The beauty of the rock garden is that it encourages a very minimal design. This means that not all that much is needed to get started, nor to keep it maintained. To get started, you’ll need the following ingredients:
- weed resistant fabric
- pea gravel
- boulders or larger rocks
- pebbles or smaller rocks
- sandy soil (for good drainage)
- small plants
Again, the creativity is yours, but to help you get started, read a couple of these pointers!
Start out by picking an area of your lawn or property that receives a decent amount of shade. A lot of the low ground small plants incorporated into rock gardens are shade lovers (like sedum!).
You’ll have to dig away the grass and topsoil in order to put down your weed resistant fabric. Lay it down flat and cover it with sandy soil that is deep enough to plant your new rock garden plant specimens.
From here, place your larger rocks at the centre piece, and build the remainder of the garden around those. Place your smaller stones and smaller plants as accents, and then cover the entire remaining space with either pea gravel or your choice of small stones.
Pros of Rocks Gardens
- Minimal Maintenance – Stones do not need to be maintained very often. Sometimes rocks gather moss, which might be a positive in some cases. If you want a more rugged or natural aesthetic, a touch of moss may even be appropriate for your rock garden. Additionally, the plants usually incorporated into rock gardens only have one requirement: good drainage. This is already achieved by using sandy soil as your base.
- No Decomposition – Rocks don’t rot or fall apart when exposed to weather conditions. You don’t need to worry about the elements damaging or destroying your landscaping.
- Durable – Not only can stones and rocks stand up to natural conditions, but they can tolerate a bunch of physical abuse without giving way. It takes a direct and concentrated intentional effort to damage a rock garden.
- No Pests – Most other kinds of gardens attract pests. If you don’t want your space invaded by bugs and scavenger pests, rocks are ideal and not likely to be consumed.
- Affordable – Because of the overall low maintenance and low risk, the rock garden is very cost effective.
- Sustainable – Since mostly succulent plants and alpine plants are grown in rock gardens, they do not require much water. This is very important in areas that sometimes experience lawn watering bans in the hotter months.
- Year Round Interest – Possibly the most significant benefit of the rock garden is that it retains beauty all year long. Perennial and annual gardens only hold interest in the early to late spring, but a rock garden will be beautiful no matter the time of year.
Cons of Rock Gardens
- Sinking – If your rocks are heavier than the soil they’ve been placed on, the stones may begin to sink into the ground. This can become an issue as it can make the soil difficult to till or plant in in the future.
- Projectiles risk – If your rock garden has smaller stones, some of those stones may end up away from the garden. This can be an issue if they migrate into mowed areas. Lawnmowers can pick these stones up and fling them out at high speeds. This can potentially be quite dangerous if you are not careful.
- Heat – Many kinds of rocks can absorb a great deal of heat. They also reflect a significant amount of heat from their exposed surfaces. The heat reflecting off of the rocks makes the area warm during the day, and the heat absorbed is released at night, making the area also warmer at night. If you are not looking to make your area hotter all around a rock garden may not be for you.
- Does not provide nutrients – Sometimes you may want plants along with the stones in your rock garden. However, stones do not release nutrients back into the soil. Using stones will not improve your soil, so if you want plants to grow you may have to manually add extra nutrients.
Rock Garden Gallery
Now that we know the history of the rock garden, what it takes to create one, and the pros and cons of them, let’s get into a little bit of inspiration! We’ve included some of the most gorgeous and creative rock garden designs for your viewing pleasure.
A water feature alongside wild moss and vines gives a rock garden a stunning natural feel. By leaving the rocks unattended you have a chance of cultivating an appeal like this. Your own personal waterfall scene!
A small pond is a great accompaniment to a rock garden. Rocks look perfect around a small pond and work to transition the natural look of the pond into the masonry of the walkway. Additionally, ponds are a very important point of refuge for smaller insect and animal species in the hot summer months!
Small stones make a great bed for a garden. These small stones reduce the amount of dirt that gets everywhere and also cut down on weed growth. While you may choose the natural look of rough stone, round and polished stone gives a different feel. Source: Zillow Digs™
One great use for a rock garden is to outline areas and separate different areas of your yard. You can make divisions between different garden beds and walkways. A mixture of large and small stones can work together to give interesting textures and visual appeal.
Even by adding a few stones to your garden you can introduce interesting textures to the space. This garden area has minimal stones, but these stones still have a dramatic effect on the area. They make the garden look far more naturalistic by highlighting the natural boulders in the ground.
As your stone ages and grows moss it may pick up some other wild plants. This makes the area have an aged and distressed appeal. This is the perfect longer term project if you’re looking for an old cottage garden look.
Here we see some blue and white stones being overtaken by greenery. If your stones are far enough apart you can have a variety of plants in your rock garden. Your garden only needs a few rocks spread apart to provide a natural feel and texture.
Stacked rocks can build an interesting and textured look that has a fabulous visual appeal. This style looks amazing surrounding bodies of water like ponds and pools. In this picture we see stacked rocks around a koi pond. This is an Asian inspired design that is both interesting and tranquil. Source: Zillow Digs™
If you want to further build layers of texture and color you can use contrasting stones. Using small brightly colored rocks around larger darker toned rocks can make the larger stones stand out and draw attention.
Rock gardens are perfect for lining paths and walkways. Large rocks work to keep people on track and off of areas that you don’t want them to travel. They act as decorative obstacles that can keep your plants safe. This is a more natural looking and less obvious barrier than a fence.
If you have bushes or taller plants in your garden, rocks can still make an excellent base for your garden; especially so on sloped surfaces, where the stones can give a mountainous feel to your garden.
Rocks pair well with water features. A rock garden with large stones can make the ideal base for a waterfall. In this picture we see a gathering of massive rocks setting the stage for a waterfall feature into a pond. If you want your yard to take you back to nature this is an amazing way to do it.
If you have a small pond or creek in your yard placing rocks in it can direct the flow. They can change the shape of your water feature into a more organic and natural feeling body of water. This works even better if you let the rocks get overtaken by greenery.
You can guide water through your garden with a lining of rocks. This can make your garden look like a wild river bed. This rock garden has a wonderful array of various ground cover, perennial, and ornamental grass plant species.
If your rocks have flat surfaces they may be able to be used as stepping stones. This can make getting around your garden have less of an impact on flowers and other plants. Source: jacki-dee / Flickr
With minimal to no plants your rock garden can still bring lots of texture and visual layers to your area. A plantless rock garden is great around a path or walkway.
Here we see a concrete stairway leading to a small patio and archway. The rocks here line the patio and walkway. They divide the plants from the walkway, creating a visually interesting and creative natural barrier.
In drier areas where plant life is not as lush, adding rocks into landscaping can help build a full look. In these climates, rocks are right at home. Source: Zillow Digs™
A garden does not need many rocks to attain natural texture. A few well placed stones of the right size can do the trick.
There is no rule on the size of rocks you can use. There is also no rule on the variation of rock sizes in one garden. Here we see many small stones and a few very large stones. This rock garden also seems to emphasize coniferous plant species!
A stone garden can also be very large. Here we see a large and interesting stone garden. There are even a few trees in the midst of it. There are a few very large rocks here as well, all well placed to make a visually interesting space. Using some nice colored sand creates a tropical warm feel.
If you let moss grow you may not even be able to see the stones. This picture shows rocks lining a stone stairway. The rocks are coated in moss nearly to the point of disappearing.
You don’t have to go big to have a lovely stone garden. This is a small stone garden with a few tiny succulents. The tiny pebbles still make a great bed for this dainty garden.
A small stone feature can make a great addition to a garden. This small stone fountain brings the appeal that rocks can add to your garden without taking up much space. Learn more here.
Here we see a waterfall and pond surrounded by rocks in this organic and natural looking space. One of the rocks here is very large. A very large rock like this can give your rock garden a center of focus.
If you are going for an American West motif in your rock garden you may consider using cacti for your plants. These plants go great with the rocks and require very little maintenance.
If you want clean looking rocks you can have flower bushes grow around your rocks rather than moss. This gives a very manicured and controlled feel.
Rocks and stones are often used in Asian inspired landscaping. Here we can see a traditional Japanese water feature in a small hidden rock garden. This is a wonderful place to go and meditate among nature with the soothing sound of running water.
Here we can see a small bed of rocks around a statute. Rocks are a great base for features such as statues; while letting the statute stand as the primary focus they set a stable and visually interesting backdrop.
Source: Zillow Digs™
Stepping stones are perfect for a zen garden such as this. Zen gardens are made of sand that can be raked and manicured. This look is paired well with large stepping stones and rocks. They give passersby a way through the garden without disturbing the work of the organized sand.
Stacking very large rocks creates a very interesting and wild looking yard area. You can build your own mini mountain in your own backyard.
These rocks are used to build a multiple-level garden mountain. There is so much visual appeal and depth in this landscape. It is both wild and organized, and the dream of any green thumb.