Gardens - Rock Gardens

Rock gardening 101

Anja Sonnenberg
Photography by
Marielle Thivierge

How to use alpine plants to create the perfect rock garden

Rock gardening with alpine plants originated in England in the early 1900s, but rocks and stones being used as decorative elements can be traced back to early Chinese and Japanese gardens. Traditionally, alpine plants were used when planting rock gardens. These plants are native to mountainous regions and grow above the tree line. They’ve adapted to harsh conditions such as wind, cold, low moisture and a short growing season. Today, many plants are considered rock garden plants because of their slow growth habit, small stature and low-growing habit.

Like all other gardening styles, there are no set rules when it comes to rock gardening—only guidelines. The plants, rocks and designs you choose will be as unique as you are. With a little hard work and imagination, you'll be able to create a rock garden that your neighbours will admire.

Design your rock garden space
Although there are several traditional styles of rock gardening, most gardeners use their own landscape as inspiration when designing their rock garden. If you have a sloped property, a rock garden is ideal to prevent erosion and provide anchors and shelters for plants. For those of you with flat gardens, don't worry about being left out. A berm rock garden is a type of raised bed with several rock groupings, which can be built on level ground. Marielle Thivierge, a member of the North American Rock Gardening Society's Quebec chapter loves the simplicity of rock gardening and the contrast between the rocks and plants. Once the garden is established, it is relatively low-maintenance, but it provides spectacular colour and interest in the garden year round.

When designing a traditional rock garden, the goal is to make your garden look as natural as possible. Create random groupings of large and small rocks positioned with mulched areas in between. For a naturalistic look, use only one kind of rock. If the stones are stratified, position each rock in the group so that the strata lines run in the same direction.  If you're trying to create a rock garden with a twist, try mixing several types of rocks with different colours. Instead of the rocks blending in, they will become focal points in the garden. While on vacation, Thivierge often collects rocks to bring home to use in her rock garden. Not only do these rocks add unique elements, they also become conversational pieces when she shares her gardens with others.

Belinda Gallagher, head of horticulture at the Royal Botanical Gardens suggests that beginners join a rock garden society so that you can learn first-hand from those who have created alpine gardens. She also recommend visiting your local library where you can find books on alpine or rock gardens that will help guide you along the way.

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