Rock gardens are a low maintenance style that never goes out of fashion. Whether you’re working with lots of room or just one border there are plenty of plants that love the well-drained conditions a contemporary rock garden creates.
What Exactly Is A Rock Garden?
It’s a garden that displays rocks, gravel, and stone to enhance the space. It’s thought the concept originated from China and Japan where stones are used to create tranquil spaces for meditation.
Rock Garden VS A Rockery?
These two terms mean the same thing. Your whole garden can display rocks and stones or just one area generally termed a ‘rockery’. Rockeries are borders designed with free-draining gravel and ornamental stones with planting pockets to hold soil.
What Is A ‘Rock Garden Plant’?
It’s any plant that will grow in rock garden conditions. There’s no specific ‘rock garden plant’.
Well-placed rocks catch the full sun and soak up heat, but they also create a shadow. This opens up a whole world of different plant choices.
Rock gardens include large specimen plants as well as cutesy alpines. There’s a lot of choices when you’re planting up a rock garden. It’s best to make a plan!
What To Plant In Rock Garden
The best plants for a rock garden are ones that grow in a mountainous area. When you read ‘originates from the mountains of China’, ‘an alpine species’ or ‘enjoys well-drained conditions’ then they’re suitable for a rockery.
Good Plants for A Rockery
Rockeries are good places to display smaller alpine plants that love windproof, warm, and well-drained conditions.
There are lots of alpines but the more popular ones include houseleeks, cyclamen, aubretia, heathers, sedum, asters, saxifrage and hebe. Green Globe is a small shrubby hebe that doesn’t get too large. Rock roses are a good choice too – their name gives it away! We love the pretty Cistus silver pink.
If you like a splash of colour then you’ll love rhododendron Purple Pillow dwarf. This small rhododendron only reaches 50cms tall and has beautiful purple blooms. It likes acid conditions, so dig in lots of ericaceous soil or sink a container into the rockery in one of those shadier spots we talked about earlier.
Conifers like Juniperus Blue Carpet, an AGM winning low-growing evergreen that spreads over 1.5 metres but gets no higher than 10-50cms, is great for softening rockery edges.
Good Plants for a Rock Garden Or A Gravel Garden
Rockeries are lovely features and you can extend the stone theme into a full-on rock garden using larger plants that enjoy good drainage and are drought tolerant.
The butterfly’s favourite buddleia is tough stuff and does well in dry rock gardens. The small patio version Blue Chip is a Perfect for Pollinators badge winner, and the standard sized White Profusion buddleia holds an RHS AGM.
Lots of evergreens like well-drained rock garden conditions too. Mahonia Soft Caress is a good example. It’s another RHS AGM winner with bright yellow flowers from November to March and soft child-friendly leaves. Euphorbia Characias Wulfeniigrow will love it there too. It’s an upright, contemporary, and pollinator-friendly plant.
Unfussy Viburnum is a tough rock garden plant that will grow pretty much anywhere and produce fragrant winter flowers. Larger hebes like Hebe Rakai, an RHS AGM winning variety that reaches about a metre by a metre, is a good planting partner.
Hard-working evergreen box and yew suit the sunny and shady sides of rock gardens. They don’t have spectacular flowers but you can trim them into small hedges, balls, pyramids, flying saucers – there’s lots of fun to be had with these topiary tolerant plants!
Japanese Rock Gardens
Japanese style gardens are built around rocks, water, and a limited colour palette of plants. One of the best additions is Ellwood’s Lawson Cypress Pom-pom tree. Choose acers, and maples for shadier areas and RHS AGM winner Cherry Tree Kojo No Mai for sun and partial sun.
Let’s not forget evergreen bamboo. It suits rock gardens, especially the Japanese style.
We have lots of varieties but recommend that you don’t plant them straight in the border or they’ll go feral. Bamboo roots are invasive, so it’s best to use a root blocker membrane or sink a container into the ground – a bucket with lots of drainage holes works perfectly well. Golden Bamboo Aurea is a popular choice with its yellowy stems. Worth the effort!
How To Maintain A Rock Garden
Rock gardens are low maintenance but do pull out wayward weeds regularly, clear fallen leaves, and prune where it’s needed.
One of the most appreciated benefits of a rock garden is its low water requirements. In very dry weather rock garden plants appreciate a soak, but they certainly won’t need daily or even weekly watering as they have dry, rocky origins.
Ouch, The Expense!
If you love rockery plants but don’t want to build a rockery or a rock garden – we know purchasing stone and gravel is an expensive business – then try a raised bed. This provides the well-drained conditions drought-tolerant plants enjoy.
We specialise in large rock garden plants and while they cost more than one litre or 9 cms pots, they are already established and provide instant impact.
Younger plants need more fussing over and may be too small to withstand intense reflected heat from stones. Our big boys are more likely to take it in their stride – but they will need water when first planted out.
Get Rock Garden Inspiration
We bet you can hardly wait to start picking out the best plants for a rock garden, but if you need inspiration Sizergh Castle Gardens in Kendal has the largest limestone rock garden in the National Trust. It was built in 1926 and is glorious – one for the list when we’re allowed to travel again.