What is a rock garden?

A rock garden is a small field or plot of ground designed to feature and emphasize a variety of rocks, stones, and boulders.  Rock garden design can take many forms. For example, you will hear the terms “alpine gardens” and “Japanese Zen gardens” in connection with rock gardens. What is the difference?

An alpine garden is patterned after what one might find near or above the timberline in the mountains where hardy, adaptable plants grow in nutrient poor soil and scree amongst granite and basalt boulders. Compact, small-leafed alpine plants are able to survive cold, snow laden winters. Their substantial root systems allow them to utilize runoff from melting snow pack during sunny, dry summers. 

Japanese Zen rock gardens provide a place for quiet reflection and contemplation. Their approach tends to be minimalist, making as strong a statement as one can with the fewest components. In a typical Japanese Zen rock garden, for instance, a few choice, carefully placed rocks might form a focal point, set off by a large expanse of tiny rocks or sand that serves as a mulch. The mulch can be raked to form an intricate yet simple pattern. Compared to the Western approach, the plant material is de-emphasized. 

A rock garden can provide several different habitats even in quite a small area. A rock, for example, can be placed to that sun-loving plants make the most of its sunny face while shade-tolerant plants can hide in its north-facing shadow.  Or you may find a rock garden in a shady woodland area, situated within the trees and featuring a variety of ferns. 

So, it’s really quite simple, a rock garden employs rocks to create a natural, decorative setting. You can use big rocks, small rocks, any kind of rock. Rocks come in unlimited shapes, and a wide range of natural, earth tone colors. In creating a rock garden, there is no right or wrong. Take a big rock, or boulder, and build a flower garden around it. Or, you can use a number of rocks to frame a flower garden. You can also use rocks to create a frame for a raised bed garden. Rock gardens are also popular on hillsides for terracing, and to stop soil erosion.  The plants used in a rock garden might embrace alpine plants but may also include smaller shrubs and perennials that – because of their modest stature – look good in a rockery too.