How to Build a Rock Garden

rock garden designed as a yin-yang

A rock garden is a perfect place to take some calming breaths and ease your mind after a hectic day at work. They’re simple to build, easy to maintain, and they’ll give you a natural space to escape the hustle and bustle and enjoy the outdoors. 

Building a rock garden is a rewarding, low-maintenance way to beautify that one bare patch in your yard, fix up a lonesome flower bed, or showcase those pretty boulders in your yard. We’ll walk you through the steps to create your own stunning stone-filled space. 

What is a rock garden? 

A rock garden, also known as an alpine garden or rockery, is designed to showcase boulders, stones, and (you guessed it!) rocks. Rock gardens are laid out in unique designs that include beautiful drought-resistant plants and decorations like pavers, sculptures, and fountains.

Rock garden designs: Raised and sprawling

If you have a small space, a raised rock garden can be the perfect lawn addition. Raised rock gardens look similar to regular elevated garden beds, but instead of wood or metal, rocks form the exterior and slant inward. Depending on the design, raised rock gardens can look similar to old-fashioned stone wells, giving your lawn a charming, antique flair.

Sprawling rock gardens are a great way to add some green style to areas of your lawn you’d like to highlight (or dry spots where grass refuses to grow). They’re less defined than raised gardens, so you can build them to fit your lawn’s unique topography. If you have beautiful boulders on your lawn, build a sprawling rock garden in the spaces in between to accent your natural landscape.

Types of rock gardens

Need some rock garden ideas? Rock gardens come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and designs. Some homeowner favorites include: 

  • Xeriscapes: Xeriscaping is the practice of creating a landscape that requires little or no water use. Xeriscapes are filled with drought-tolerant and drought-resistant plants, rocks, and hardscape features like footpaths. They minimize energy usage, save money, and protect the environment.
  • Japanese rock gardens (also known as Zen gardens): Japanese rock gardens are thoughtfully designed to encourage contemplation and meditation. Rocks represent mountains, animals, and islands, while raked fine gravel represents flowing water. Mosses, pines, and evergreen ground cover add texture and color. It’s important to understand the cultural significance of a Zen garden before choosing to build one. 
  • Water gardens: A koi pond or a fountain (or both) could be the perfect antidote to a stressful day at work. Watching koi swim in your own backyard is a magical, soothing experience, and listening to the murmur of a fountain is a lovely way to unwind. 
  • Native plant gardens: To encourage biodiversity and attract beautiful birds and butterflies, consider adding native flowers and shrubs. Native plants are fantastic habitats and food sources for native critters. You can even add a pond to invite frogs, toads, and turtles into your garden.

What you need for your DIY rock garden

  • Rocks: From boulders to stones to gravel, rocks will be the stars of your garden. Decide on your dream color scheme and choose an assortment of sizes and shapes to give your garden visual appeal.
    • Pea gravel (the earth-toned, pea-shaped pebbles you find near streams) is an attractive, inexpensive choice to fill in areas between plants.
    • For a natural look that’s long-lasting and drains well, try crushed granite in between stepping stones or around pathways. 
    • River rocks are smooth, small stones that look beautiful around water features.
    • Pro Tip: For larger rocks and boulders, choose stone that is local and easily deliverable. The cost of shipping can add hundreds to your bill. 
  • Sandy soil: Rock gardens need well-draining soil. If your soil has a high clay content, you may need to amend it by adding compost and sand to give it the permeability it needs.
  • Newspaper and topsoil: If you’d rather not dig up your grass, you can use newspaper and a light layer of topsoil to prepare the area.
  • Garden hose: You can visualize different design possibilities for your garden by laying out a hose and playing with a variety of sizes and shapes. 
  • Measuring tape: Measure out your garden space to decide which rocks and plants will fit perfectly and which ones might dominate your garden. Measuring also will help you figure out how many plants and boulders you’ll need. 
  • Plants: Drought-tolerant and drought-resistant plants are the way to go. Your rock garden will get good drainage, so make sure you choose plants that thrive in well-drained soil (not clay).
    • Go with plants that are native to your area. They’ll grow best in your soil type and climate. 
    • You can choose from a cornucopia of plants: Flowering perennials like phlox and yarrow, cacti like the prickly pear cactus, succulents like sedum, and shrubs like bayberry are popular choices. 
  • Trowel: Use a trowel to dig holes for your small plants and bury any rocks you want hidden on the bottom garden layer.
  • Shovel: Use your shovel to spread soil and dig deeper holes for bigger plants.
  • Wheelbarrow: A wheelbarrow is a must-have to transport heavier rocks, soil, mulch, and decorative elements like statues or pavers. 
  • Mulch: After you’ve planted, add a layer of organic mulch like shredded bark or wood chips to insulate plants, protect against weeds, and prevent erosion. You also can opt for a rocky look with stone mulches like crushed granite, pea gravel, or pumice.
  • Decorative features: Stepping stones, benches, statues, and fountains can make your rock garden the talk of the neighborhood.
  • Landscaping fabric (optional): To minimize weeding, you may want to install landscaping fabric before planting. 

7 steps to build your rock garden

Ready to jump into the low-water, low-maintenance sandbox? We’ll go through the steps to build a raised or sprawling rock garden. 

1. Plan your design

Before diving headfirst into digging, put pencil to paper and decide where your rock garden will go and what it will look like.

Decide on the shape. 

Use a garden hose to test out different shapes for your garden. For raised gardens, many homeowners opt for a circular design, but you also can choose another shape, depending on your design tastes. Sprawling gardens have a more free-flowing design. 

Choose your garden size. 

The Rock Garden of Chandigarh may be spread across 40 acres, but you’ll probably want to go with a more manageable size. Raised rock gardens can be as little as 4 feet in diameter, while sprawling rock gardens tend to use more yard space.

Choose native boulders and rocks. 

Shipping boulders can cost quite a pretty penny, so it’s best to pick out rocks and boulders that are local to your area. You can buy boulders at home and garden centers, or you can visit quarries to check out their unique rock selections. 

Decide on a color scheme. 

This can change over time based on the plants you choose, but it’s a good idea to have a basic idea of what colors you want to include in your rock garden. That way, you’ll know which plants will compliment your stone. 

Measure and plan your planting area.

If your rock garden has a 6-foot diameter, you probably won’t need 15 purple coneflowers (no matter how gorgeous they are). Create a planting map (including dimensions) to estimate how many plants you’ll need.

Pick out your plants. 

Start building your rock garden with an idea of which plants will suit your yard and where in your garden they can grow. To minimize maintenance and water use, consider grouping your plants based on the amount of sunlight and water they need. Also consider plant texture, color, and height: Pair contrasting colors and different textures to make your rock garden visually pop.

Make an installation plan.

If your dream garden includes heavy boulders or statues, make a plan for how to get them from Point A to Point B without accidentally tripping over a sprinkler head. Create a safe pathway to move materials.

Pro Tip: Now is a good time to test your soil to check if it needs amendments like lime (for overly acidic soil) or peat moss (for overly alkaline soil). Call your local cooperative extension office for information about labs near you. Test your soil at least two weeks in advance to get your lab results in time.

2. Prepare your area

Once you’ve chosen the perfect spot for your rock garden, it’s time to clear the space. If the area is covered with grass, you’ll need to either dig up the grass with a shovel, cut it out using a sod cutter, or opt for the lasagna method. 

Intrigued by lasagna in a garden? The lasagna method, also known as sheet mulching, involves placing newspaper on top of your grass (without any gaps for sunlight to reach it) and then spreading soil over the newspaper for weight. This causes your grass to die and decompose, adding healthy organic matter to your lawn.

3. Create your first layer

Your rocks have been waiting patiently to see their home, and now is their golden moment. 

  • If you’re creating a raised garden, the first layer will serve as the elevated bed for your rock garden. Position the largest, heaviest rocks around the perimeter of your garden. 
  • If you’re making a sprawling garden, strategically position your boulders as focal points in your garden design. They’ll define where you place your plants and decorations.

The rocks used for the first layer won’t be very visible, so go with your least favorite rocks and save the pretty rocks for layer two. 

4. Spread the soil

Once you’ve positioned your rocks, it’s soil time. For plants to flourish in a rock garden, the correct soil conditions are crucial.

Rock garden plants thrive in soil that drains well, so you may need to amend your soil with compost, topsoil, and sand to improve your soil’s permeability. Adding compost and sand is especially important for soils with high clay content.

  • For raised gardens, fill your circular (or otherwise shaped) bed with soil. Then, walk on the soil to pack it down and reduce erosion. 
  • For sprawling rock gardens, spread soil in the spaces in between your boulders. 

5. Lay your second layer

Wake up your inner lawn fashionista and get creative with your rock design. The second layer features smaller stones than the first layer and is where you’ll showcase the prettiest ones. 

For raised gardens, create a second rock circle (or another shape) within your wider first circle. You can make all kinds of shapes beyond circles: Position your rocks in different patterns and see what appeals to your artistic side. You just want to make a shape within a shape, be it a circle, a square, a star, or anything else under the sun.

  • Take care that your second shape isn’t too large: You want enough room to plant in both the smaller shape and the larger border. 
  • Experiment with different designs and see what strikes your fancy. You may want to make stripes with your rocks down the center of your first layer, or you could place your favorite rock at the very middle of your second layer to give it center stage.

For sprawling rock gardens, choose spaces in your rock garden where you want to draw the eye, perhaps around a beautifully colored boulder or a water feature. Place your second rock layer in these areas. The second layer is what will get your neighbors “oohing” and “aahing.” 

6. Place your plants

Grab your trowel. It’s digging time. You’ve chosen your lovely, drought-tolerant plants, and now it’s time to get them into the ground. 

  • First, you may want to lay landscaping fabric to prevent stone mulches from interfering with your soil and prevent weeds from rearing their heads. Then, you can plant through the fabric, making a small incision and then digging a hole for each plant’s root ball. 
  • Group your plants based on their sunlight and water requirements to minimize maintenance, fertilizer needs, and water costs.
  • It’s a good idea to use the rule of three when planting. Plant three of the same type of plant together for a cohesive design.

Don’t be afraid to change up your design as it moves from on-paper to in-soil: If certain plants look fantastic together, go ahead and pair them up. 

7. Add the finishing touches

Now is the time to add the extra elements that will make your rock garden really shine. Intersperse small, multicolored stones around your plants and add a layer of mulch over your garden.

For visual appeal, you can add stone, brick, wood, or metal edging around your garden to outline your design. Edging will add curb appeal and make your garden extra eye-catching. 

Add an elegant statue or a cozy wrought-iron bench to make your rock garden the perfect place for relaxation.

Benefits of a rock garden

Rock gardens can be the rockstars of your lawn. They will:

Increase your property value

Rock gardens and other xeriscapes can increase your property value by up to 14 percent.

Conserve water

Rock gardens are perfect for drought-prone regions. With drought-tolerant native plants, your rock garden will only need infrequent, deep waterings in the summer heat. 

Save time, energy, and money

You won’t have to mow your rock garden, and you can forget about expensive, harsh fertilizer. If your rock garden needs a nutrient boost, you can just apply compost or manure. 

Protect the environment

Without the mowing, fertilizing, and frequent watering that a traditional turfgrass lawn requires, your rock garden will be an eco-friendly paradise. 

Increase your yard’s curb appeal

Your rock garden can transform a less-than-verdant part of your yard into the talk of the neighborhood. A rock garden showcases a diverse assortment of colors, textures, and dimensions. 

Provide a habitat for wildlife

With native plants, your rock garden will have pollinators like butterflies, birds, and bees buzzing about in no time. Water features can be excellent homes for aquatic animals like turtles, fish, and frogs. 

Give you a calming sanctuary

It can be soothing to sit in your rock garden after a long day at work, listening to the trickle of a fountain or the flutter of a goldfinch.

Survive in tough conditions

Rock gardens can tolerate drought, heat, intense sun, and strong winds. They’re built to survive in conditions that other plants can’t handle. 

Look beautiful year-round

Mix spring and summer flowers with fall foliage and evergreens, and you’ll have a rock garden that never goes out of season. 

Drawbacks of a rock garden

Before you dive into a DIY project, you’ll want to consider the disadvantages of a rock garden. 

Initially expensive

Though you may qualify for a rebate if you are replacing traditional turfgrass with a drought-tolerant environment, rock gardens can cost a pretty penny to install. Boulders aren’t cheap, and you can rack up a bill purchasing stones, plants, and decorations. The average rock garden costs about $700, though some homeowners pay as much as $1,500.

Can attract snakes

Eek! For slithering critters, the crevices of large rocks can be the perfect home. Don’t panic, though. To keep snakes away, opt for smaller stones like gravel or river rocks rather than big boulders. 

Requires intense labor

Boulders are heavy, and lifting them can be quite a strain. One cubic foot of limestone or granite weighs an average of 175 pounds, and you may want a larger boulder than that. You’ll need a dolly, pry bar, wheelbarrow, or machine, like a skid-steer loader, to move your rocks. To avoid injury and save time, it’s a good idea to call in a local professional

FAQ about rock gardens

1. How large do my boulders need to be? 

For most raised gardens, you can pick out boulders with a diameter of a foot or less. Your design tastes determine boulder size, so if you want one very large boulder at the center of your rock garden, go for it! Just keep in mind that boulders can be quite expensive, from $100 to over $1,000. 

2. Does my rock garden have to be outdoors? 

Nope! You can create a small rock garden in a terrarium, pot, or another container. Place your container by a sun-facing window, fill it with succulents or alpine plants (like sedges and mosses), and you’ve got a miniature garden to enjoy no matter the weather. 

3. How deep should a layer of rock be? 

To ensure your garden drains properly, it’s important to layer rocks to their correct depth. The depth of your rock layer depends on the size of the rock you’re using. 

Stones smaller than 1 inch: Layer 2 inches deep. 
Stones 1-3 inches in size: Layer 1-3 inches deep.
Stones 3-8 inches in size: Layer 3-8 inches deep (So if stones are 5 inches large, you’ll want to layer 5 inches deep). 

4. How should I care for my rock garden?

Rock gardens require very little maintenance. You’ll just want to: 

Water deeply and infrequently during drought periods and in the peak of summer
Weed as needed
Prune and trim as needed
Wash dirty rocks
Clear out debris (like dead leaves) from the space

Rocking a rock garden

Rock gardens are gorgeous, low-maintenance, and eco-friendly. If your yard is ready to rock some rocks, you can invite your friends and make it a weekend of DIY fun.

If you’d like guidance on which types of rocks and plants will make your lawn shine, or if your dream garden includes some heavy stones, a local landscaping pro can take the boulders off your shoulders and get your lawn looking its best.

Main Photo Credit: Kyle Pearce | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.