A rock garden that rocks

Modern looking Alpine garden
Modern Looking Alpine Garden

To most people, a rock garden is an Alpine garden. But did you know that the Japanese typically build their gardens around rocks? They start with carefully selected rocks which they place at the heart of their garden. Beautiful serpentine rocks are often chosen for their striking green color. They usually make triangular clusters containing an odd number of rocks arranged to look like miniature reproductions of large mountains. The goal is to give off a sense of stability, of the force and omnipresence of nature. Add various types of mosses and a few bonsais and you have a miniature forest right there in your yard. This can be a very good idea if space is limited and you want to be sure that nothing will outgrow the space and take over the whole garden.

The Alpine Rock Garden

But the Alpine garden may be more to your liking. So be it. Nordic gardens have things in common with Japanese gardens, but there are some important differences. The biggest difference has to do with plant selection. Alpine gardens typically feature plants found in colder climates and at high elevations. Low lying bushes and small trees, such as crowberries and creeping junipers, ground covers and mosses, bright flowers, such as bellflowers and edelweiss are good choices. And rocks, of course.

Rock garden with daphne arbuscula
Rock Garden With Daphne Arbuscula

Another difference between the Japanese and Nordic gardens has to do with how things are arranged: in the Japanese garden, things are more orderly, while in the Alpine garden, the feeling is more natural. The Japanese seem to think there is order and harmony in nature, but the people of Northern Europe apparently don’t share that view. In this case, its just a question of style.


When landscaping a yard at home, harmony is always a good choice. Even in the case of Alpine gardens. Make your rock garden an essential part of your whole landscaping plan. Here are a few pointers you might consider when creating your own garden:

Pulsatillas in a rock garden
Pulsatillas in a rock garden

To prevent water in the ground from thrusting the rocks up when it freezes, it may be a good idea to place each rock on a bed of gravel at least six inches thick. This will also make the rocks more stable when the garden is completed. Since people often step on rocks when working in the garden, stability is a good thing.

  • Rock gardens are a good idea if you want to turn a boring slope into a plus. But bear in mind that your garden will become one of the focal points of your yard, so plan and build it with care, in order to attract praise rather than criticism.
  • In a sloppy location where grass and plants don’t grow well, a rock garden can be used to stabilize the soil and prevent erosion. Rock gardens may also be used to hide the underside of a porch or the foundations of a house, on the side of a patio or along a stream.
  • Rocks are there to add structure and beauty to the garden, so you should choose striking, interesting rocks. Overall shape, texture and color are factors that you should consider. You may be surprised how much nice looking rocks may cost. The bland old rocks the contractor dug up from your yard are not a good choice and they won’t make a good rock garden, so it is better to have a few good-looking rocks than a lot of bad-looking ones.
  • The way each rock is positioned as well as the way all the rocks are placed within the garden is also very important. It may take a while for you to make up your mind and you may end up moving the rocks around a few times, but this step is crucial. Once all the plants and flowers have been planted, it will be too late to change your mind about the rocks. Set the rocks in place, observe and try to imagine the garden as it will be once completed. The “If I want that tree in that spot, then I can’t have these rocks there” sort of thing.
  • Just like choosing the right rocks is important, so is choosing the right plants. And choosing where to put each plant is also very important. When doing this, think of tomorrow. The plants you will get from the nursery will be quite small, but you should plan with their mature size in mind. Otherwise, you will end up having to remove plants and the end result may not be to your liking.

Some Suggestions

Japanese inspired rock garden
Japanese-inspired garden

When it comes to choosing plants for your garden, here are a few suggestions:

  • Trees: Conifers are a good pick for rock gardens. Taller conifers, like Japanese Yews and Rocky Mountain Junipers should be placed in the back. Tall and rather slender trees, such as Fastigiate Red Oaks or Serviceberries can also make a nice backdrop. A Japanese Maple growing in the back or on the side can be awesome. Smaller conifers, like Dwarf Balsam Firs or Chinese Junipers may be placed in the center. Creeping trees may be placed in the front.
  • Shrubs: Rhododendrons are always a good choice, but they are especially nice in a rock garden. Remember that some of them can grow quite tall, although slowly. Heather goes well with Rhododendrons. I personally like Holly for its bright green leaves and red berries. Sweetfern grows to about two feet in height and has a spreading, fragrant foliage. Red Strippers have a different shade of green and grow up to about twelve inches.
  • Perennials: Himalayan Fleece Flowers look nice in a rock garden, and so do Himalayan Cinquefoils. Of course, I like Poppies everywhere. Smaller ones, like the Iceland Poppies are especially nice here. Hens and chicks are always a good choice for rock gardens. Creeping thyme may be a good idea. It grows to a few inches in height and is covered with tiny, red and pink flowers.

And don’t forget about growing conditions, as explained in the section on landscaping plans, and about design rules.

So choose whatever you like, mix and match, or do your own thing using all this as inspiration. But keep it neat. Nothing looks worse than a cluttered rock garden, where the rocks seem lost among the overgrown vegetation.

Have you considered all the possibilities? There are some landscaping ideas you may not have thought of.

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The right plants in the right locations with the right conditions