Rock garden designs can range from to sprawling, naturalistic creations to faux dried riverbeds to rustic mounds of stones, soil, and plants.
It all depends on your preferences and the amount of space (and rock) you have to work with.
If you have a small area, often the best design is a simple, round raised bed made of select rocks.
This design can fit neatly into any well-chosen nook and will not be in the way when you mow your lawn. If you plant it thoughtfully, it also won’t require a lot of maintenance.
Build the first course
Clear the area of grass or other organic material, if necessary. Be sure to dig up sod and other plants below the roots to prevent new shoots from coming up later in your rock garden.
Lay out a circle of rocks as the perimeter of your base, making the diameter about four feet (or as desired). This forms the foundation of your garden and creates some elevation above the surrounding ground.
You can use up most of your largest, least attractive rocks in this bottom layer, but it does not require stones larger than about 12 inches in any dimension.
Fill the area inside the first course with sandy soil, which provides good drainage. If all you have is a clayey soil, add sand and compost to it to promote better drainage.
Walk on the soil to pack it down.
Add the second course
Plan the second course of stones. This can simply be a smaller version of the first course, forming a circle within a circle, or it can take the form of one or more bands of stone that pass through the centre of the bed perimeter.
In any case, the second course should provide plenty of room for planting between the bed perimeter and the second-course stones as well as in any additional spaces created by the second course.
Place the second course of stones according to your plan (and don’t be afraid to experiment). Since you used your heaviest stones for the first course, you have lighter, more easily manoeuvred stones to use for the second course.
Try to use the best-looking stones here (any size is fine) because they will be more visible than the foundation rocks.
Select Plants for Your Rock Garden
Start your plant selection by choosing a colour scheme that will work well with your stone.
For example, if the garden is made primarily with red sandstone, you’ll want some plants with a hint of red in them, as well as some plants displaying silver, yellow, white, or other complementary colours.
In addition to selecting for colour, choose plants that thrive in well-drained soil.
Also, confirm that the plants have similar watering requirements and are suitable for the amount of sunlight the garden receives.
Drought-resistant plants are best, although you can make an exception for a particularly handsome specimen that you can treat as an annual (that is, temporary) plant. Finally, seek variation in plant height and leaf texture for maximum visual impact and interest.
Plant your rock garden
Arrange the plants in your rock garden while they are still in their pots. Usually, it’s best to plant in threes: grouping three of the same kind of plant together or in a strategic arrangement. Keep in mind that you will intersperse rocks among the plants.
Once you’ve settled on a layout, begin planting with additional soil as needed, adding rocks for decorative effect as you go (if you add all the rocks before planting, they’ll just be in the way of your digging.)
If you want to cover small areas of soil with rock mulch (to prevent weed growth), use small stones of the same type (or at least similar colouring) as the major stones forming the rock structure.