What is a Rock Garden?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
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  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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A rock garden is a garden which is designed around rocks. Some rock gardens are installed in naturally rocky areas, taking advantage of the natural landscape rather than trying to suppress it. Others are built around a single existing rock feature, or gardeners may import rocks to their gardens for the express purpose of building a rock garden. Rock gardens are also known as rockeries or alpine gardens, and they are especially popular in regions where water availability is limited.

The tradition of building rock gardens is Asian in origin. Asian rock gardens are an important part of the tradition of aesthetics in Asian art, with each rock and plant being carefully and thoughtfully placed, and such gardens were often attached to monasteries and wealthy homes. In the 17th century, the rock garden reached Europe, and European gardeners started devising their own versions.

In the Japanese rock garden, also sometimes called a Zen garden, there are almost no plants at all. Instead, a wide variety of rocks are used to create a carefully staged scene, with the rocks varying in color, shape, composition, and size. Traditional Zen gardens are often changed with the seasons, and they may include isolated works of art and the occasional plant, with the rocks providing a stark contrast to the plant.


More commonly, rock gardens blend drought-tolerant plants with an arrangement of rocks of different colors, shapes, and sizes. The plants may be arranged in any number of ways, and usually they are chosen with the goal of complementing the rocks in the garden. Blue fieldstone, for example, might be highlighted with blue flowers. Generally, plants do best in a rock garden if they have low water needs, as the drainage in a rock garden tends to be very good, making it difficult to keep plants moist.

Rock gardens can be lush, with rich arrays of green mosses, dense shrubs, and creeping vines, or they may be more stark, with sparse plants and succulents. There are many directions to take when designing a rock garden, and most rock gardens are designed to complement the natural landscape in some way. Often, this involves creating hills and dips in the landscape to showcase the garden, if such terrain irregularities do not already exist.

For gardeners who are not working in a naturally rocky area, arranging a rock garden requires some serious muscle. It pays to sit down and make plans beforehand, thinking about how the garden should look and how it will interplay with the architecture of the house. Arranging delivery with a rock company which will also help to position large rocks is also strongly recommended.


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