23 Plants For Rock Gardens

rock garden

Rock gardens are versatile, vibrant, and visually pleasing. You can have a rock garden about anywhere with a bit of research and planning. Here’s a sampling of 23 plants for rock gardens to get you started. 

What is a rock garden?

A rock garden, sometimes called a rockery or aspen garden, is a collection of rocks and plants that do well together. Rock gardens take on different names, such as Zen or cactus garden, depending on the design or the plants used. Gravel gardens are must-haves for gardeners who love succulents. A key feature of rock gardens is well-drained soil. Rocks, boulders, gravel, slates, and more surround plants. 

For a complete guide to building a rock garden, check out this Lawn Love article.

How to select plants for a rock garden

Research plants that interest you. Look at the plants’ horticultural requirements, such as water and sun needs. Will they tolerate dry conditions? Will they survive your winter? Do they need sun or shade? When is their peak season? Look at a plant’s bloom period and select those with different flowering times to fill out the season. Most of them will need well-drained soil.

8 flowering perennials for rock gardens

Perennials are staples of most rock gardens. They have various bloom periods, which means there’s something for about every season. Select for bloom time, size and color.

Candytuft

A candytuft plant in a lawn
Pxhere

A lovely, spring-blooming perennial with snow-white flowers. The flowers last several weeks, with dark green evergreen foliage for the rest of the year. Cut back flowers after blooming. Deer and javelina resistant.

Scientific name: Iberis sempervirens

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 3 through 9

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Blooms in spring, early summer, evergreen

Mature size: 12 to 18 inches tall and wide

Cheddar pinks

cheddar pinks
Alvin Kho | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Talk about fragrance! This plant gets the name Cheddar from the Cheddar Gorge region of England, their native area, and pinks because the flowers look like they’ve been trimmed with pinking shears. To transplant or divide, cut off a portion of the shallow-rooted plant (called dividing), rough up the soil in the new area, and plop down the division. Cut off flowers when they fade. These are deer resistant

Scientific name: Dianthus gratianopolitanus

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 4 to 8

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Flowers in spring/early summer; blue-green foliage year-round

Mature size: 6 to 12 inches tall and wide

Columbine

Aquilegia canadensis
James St. John | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Certain species of columbine bloom in certain areas. Aquilegia canadensis is native to the Eastern United States, A. alpina in western states, and A. pubescens in California. Columbine is a short-lived perennial that generously self-sows to keep the flowers coming. Hummingbirds love this plant. Cut it back as the plant declines. It is deer resistant.

Scientific name: Aquilegia alpina*, A. canadensis*, A. pubescens*

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 4 to 8

Sun: Full sun to part shade

Season of interest: Spring, early summer

Mature size: 12 inches tall and wide

Creeping phlox

A creeping phlox in a lawn
Pxhere

A low-growing, evergreen groundcover, this perennial can withstand hot, dry conditions. It’s not uncommon for this plant to rebloom in late summer, but not as fully as in spring. Sheer it back after the spring bloom, if needed, to rein in the spread in the rock garden or remove winter-damaged stems. It is deer resistant.

Scientific name: Phlox stolonifera*

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 5 to 9

Sun: Full sun to partial shade

Season of interest: Late spring into summer, evergreen

Mature size: 6 to 12 inches tall, 9 to 18 inches wide

Hardy geranium

Geranium maculatum
James St. John | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Sometimes called wild geranium or spotted geranium, this hardy plant is super easy to grow. It blooms in spring and periodically throughout the summer, especially when cut back after spring bloom. It self-sows a bit. The leaves turn a rich red to add fall color to the rock garden. Maybe semi-evergreen, depending on your climate. Cut back in spring when new growth emerges from the base of the plant. It is der and rabbit resistant. Don’t confuse the hardy geranium with the tender geranium (Pelargonium spp.), a popular plant for summer gardens and containers.

Scientific name: Geranium maculatum* 

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 3 to 8

Sun: Partial sun to shade

Season of interest: Late spring/early summer. May re-bloom in late summer, fall color.

Mature size: 24 inches tall, 18 inches wide

Sedum

Hylotelephium
xulescu_g | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Sometimes called stonecrop, there are 600 species of sedum, many of which do great in rock gardens. Some grow low like groundcovers, some are evergreen, and some are tall and filled with pollinators. They are easy to grow and are low maintenance. 

Many have winter interest, so cut back sedum in early spring as new growth emerges from the base of the plant. There are a few native species, including S. ternatum, an Eastern United States shade-loving woodland sedum, and S. lanceolatum in the Western United States. They tend to be rabbit resistant, and some types are more deer resistant than others. 

Scientific name: Sedum or Hylotelephium

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 3 to 11, depending on species

Sun: Full sun to part shade

Season of interest: Spring, early summer, and late summer flowers depending on the variety. Some are evergreen

Mature size: 2 inches to 24 inches tall, 12 to 24 inches wide

Red hot poker

Red hot poker plant in a lawn
Pxhere

These beauties look like red hot pokers poking out of the ground. Long-blooming, they add height to the rock garden. Flowers can be red, orange, yellow, creamy, or white. Plant in clusters of uneven numbers for the best show. Cut back in the fall. They are rabbit and deer resistant.

Scientific name: Kniphofia spp.

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 5 to 9

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Summer

Mature size: 24 to 36 inches tall and wide

Creeping thyme

Follow Thymus serpyllum
Andreas Rockstein | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Like all thymes, creeping thyme is a woody plant, so it tends to be a slow grower and thrives as a ground cover in rock garden conditions. Creeping thyme is edible, especially as a tea. Creeping thyme is usually evergreen, except in the coldest climates. It is deer and rabbit resistant.

Scientific name: Thymus serphyllum, T. praecox

Hardiness zones: USDA Zone 4 to 9

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Flowers in spring and summer, maybe evergreen depending on climate.

Mature size: 1 to 3 inches tall, 12 inches wide

7 shrubs for rock gardens

You should select rock garden shrubs for their mature height and width. When planted to accommodate that, there’s little to no maintenance. Shape matters as well. Shrubs that are allowed to take their natural shape – vase-shaped, fountain, rounded or sprawling – require little maintenance and generally do better than heavily pruned shrubs. Avoid trying to turn shrubs into balls and tabletops. 

Creeping mahonia

Creeping mahonia
Matt Lavin | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Also known as creeping grape holly, creeping mahonia has shiny, holly-like leaves and yellow flowers followed by blue-purple fruit. Pollinators visit the flowers, and the birds eat the fruit. The fruit is toxic. Cut a few branches for holiday decoration.

Scientific name: Mahonia repens*

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 5 to 8

Sun: Full sun to partial shade

Season of interest: Evergreen, blooms in spring, followed by berries in late summer.

Mature size: 12 to 18 inches tall, 12 to 36 inches wide

Dwarf mugo pine

Pinus mugo pumilio
Zeynel Cebeci | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

It may be called dwarf, but eventually, this shrub may get 10 feet wide, albeit not very tall. A naturally rounded plant, it holds its neat shape in the rock garden. Iseli Nursery, known for its dwarf conifers, has introduced the TRUdwarf Mugo Pine series, which is bred to be smaller than other mugs on the market. It is salt tolerant and deer resistant.

Scientific name: Pinus mugo var. pumilio

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 2 to 8

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Evergreen, forms new growth, called candles, in spring

Mature size: 3 to 5 feet tall, 6 to 10 feet wide

Heath

Erica mackaiana
Guarandu | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Strongly associated with the English countryside, heath does well in the U.S. when planted in the right place, including rock gardens. It grows best in moist but quickly draining soil and does best in soil on the acidic side like hollies and rhododendrons. Deer resistant and salt tolerant, its leaves take on different hues throughout the year, making this a four-season beauty.

Scientific name: Erica spp.

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 4 to 8

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Flowers in late winter/early spring, foliage interest year-round

Mature size: 12 inches tall, 18 inches wide

Lavender

Lavandula angustifolia
Laslovarga | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

A favorite of gardeners everywhere, fragrant lavender is at home in the rock garden as it is in the flower garden. The hardiest and easiest to grow is English lavender, such as Munster and Hidcote. The Chicago Botanic Garden evaluated lavenders for the northern garden in 2017. Allow the plant to stay upright all winter. Cut back stems as new growth begins in spring. Spanish lavender (L. stoechas) does well in warmer USDA Zones 7 to 10. It is deer and rabbit resistant.

Scientific name: Lavandula angustifolia

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones, 5 to 9, depending on species

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Flowers in spring and summer, silver-gray foliage in fall and winter

Mature size: 12 to 24 inches tall and wide

Russian sage

Rationalobserver | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Russian sage is an aromatic plant that adds wispy, blue spikes of flowers throughout summer. It has an almost wind-swept look in the rock garden. The branches turn silvery in winter. Cut a few for holiday arrangements. There are many varieties on the market, so select for size and form. Sometimes the branches will touch the soil and take root. Don’t cut back until new growth appears in spring. It is deer and rabbit resistant.

Scientific name: Perovskia atriplicifolia

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 5 to 9

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Summer, fall, and winter

Mature size: 1 to 4 feet tall and wide

Spreading juniper

Spreading juniper
James St. John | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

A low-growing evergreen shrub, spreading juniper requires almost no maintenance in the rock garden. Varieties on the market have green or greenish-blue evergreen needles in summer. The needles become bronze-gold in winter. Plumosa turns deep purple in the winter landscape. Select for needle color and mature size. It is deer and rabbit resistant.

Scientific name: Juniperus horizontalis*

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 3 to 9

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Year-round, some produce berries

Mature size: 8 to 24 inches tall, 6 to 8 feet wide, depending on variety

Yew

Yew
Muffet | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0

Commonly planted around houses, yews bring that deep green look to rock gardens, too. Low-growing, spreading yews such as Taxus x media Densiformis, would be a better selection than a tall variety. Female plants form red berries in winter. The fruit and the plant are toxic to humans and many animals, including cattle. That doesn’t stop deer from browsing the plants. It is one of the few evergreens that tolerates shade.

Scientific name: Taxus spp.

Hardiness zones:

Sun: Full sun to full shade

Season of interest: Evergreen, red berries in winter

Mature size: 3 to 4 feet tall, 4 to 6 feet wide

5 succulents for rock gardens

Succulents are usually shallow-rooted plants. They don’t do well in wet soil, which causes crown or root rot. If you are interested in growing a succulent, such as Echeveria, out of its hardiness zone, consider growing it in a pot that can be sunk into the ground in the rock garden. Remove it in winter to grow indoors in a sunny window.

In hot climates, succulents benefit from filtered sun or light shade in the afternoon. Too much sun can scorch succulents’ leaves. Deer and rabbits don’t usually like succulents. Still, the animals will eat them if they are hungry. Succulent flowers can be cut for indoor arrangements.

Aloe

Aloe vera
PublicDomainPictures

Probably best known as a plant that gives relief to burns, sunburns, and other injuries, aloe is easy to grow. To relieve a burn, break off a stem and rub it on the spot. There are many species of aloe for rock gardens, including century plant, a popular specimen in the West and Southwest. Aloe vera is not only beautiful but also useful.

Scientific name: Aloe vera

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 8 to 11

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Evergreen, blooms in early spring to late summer

Mature size: 2 to 3 feet tall and wide

Echeveria

A echeveria in a pot.
Pxhere

Probably one of the best-known succulents on the market, Echeveria is almost synonymous with succulents. Regularly sold as a houseplant in cold climates, Echeveria is also at home in rock gardens. Echeverias form a tight colorful rosette that stays low to the ground. 

Scientific name: Echeveria spp.

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 9 to 12

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Evergreen, blooms late summer

Mature size: 12 inches tall and wide

Kalanchoe

Kalanchoe blossfeldiana.
Bernard Spragg. NZ | Flickr | CC0 1.0

Known as a flowering houseplant, Kalanchoe does great in rock gardens. It’s long-blooming, with yellow, red, pink, or white flowers. For those in northern climates, this might be a succulent you’d grow in a pot in the rock garden so you could take it indoors in winter.

Scientific name: Kalanchoe blossfeldiana

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 9 to 11

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Evergreen, blooms late winter and early spring

Mature size: 6 to 12 inches tall, 6 to 9 inches wide

Haworthia

Haworthia magnifica
Albert SN | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

A dwarf succulent, haworthia is distinguished by its growth. Pointy columns with white specs emerge from the base of the plant. An easy succulent to grow, it’s popular as a houseplant but does well in rock gardens, too.

Scientific name: Haworthia spp.

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 9 to 11

Sun: Part shade

Season of interest: Evergreen, blooms in summer and fall

Mature size: 3 to 5 inches tall and wide

Hens and chicks

hens and chicks
manuel m. v. | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

One of the best hardy succulents for cold climates, hens and chicks grow well in rock gardens. Hens and chicks have a rosette form and alien-looking flowers. 

The hen, or parent rosette, blooms and sets seed when it’s two or three years old. After it blooms, the hen dies, but not before forming another rosette, the chick, to take its place. You can cut the flower for indoor arrangements, but it won’t stop the flowering rosette from dying. Cut off the dead rosette when the chick forms.

Because of their versatility, colors, and forms, hens and chicks are so popular they have become collector’s items.

Scientific name: Sempervivum tectorum

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 4 to 8

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Evergreen, blooms mid-to-late summer

Mature size: 6 inches tall, 18 inches wide 

3 trees for rock gardens

For the most part, the best trees for rock gardens are conifers, cone-forming, and needle evergreens. Usually shallow rooted, conifers need supplemental water during dry periods for the first couple of years after planting. They may be thought of as evergreens, but some have attractive cones, especially Korean firs.

Dwarf evergreen specimens are always good selections for rock gardens, but larger varieties also have their place. For instance, they can be used to cast afternoon shade on more sun-sensitive plants. 

False cypress

false cypress
Drew Avery | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The needles on false cypress tend to be soft for an evergreen. Branches are lace-like. Nana Gracilis is an excellent choice for a rock garden because of its size and form, which is compact, multi-stemmed, and slightly rounded.

Scientific name: Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 4 to 8

Sun: Full sun to part shade

Season of interest: Evergreen

Mature size: 3 to 6 feet tall, 2 to 4 feet wide

Korean fir

A korean fir in a lawn
Pxhere

Korean firs have blue, purple, pink, or red cones, adding unexpected color and texture to the rock garden. The needles have silver undersides. Avoid planting where it will get wet feet. ‘Green Carpet’ forms a lovely, low-growing mat. Korean fir seems to be on the deer dining list. Select for size and cone color.

Scientific name: Abies koreana ‘Green Carpet’

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 5 to 7

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Evergreen, lavender cones form in spring

Mature size: 12 to 24 inches tall, 6 feet wide

Bristlecone pine

Pinus aristata
S. Rae | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Horstmann is the perfect size and shape for a pine tree in the rock garden. Large, showy pine cones form on this variety to add another attractive element. Other pine specimens also work well, especially dwarf varieties.

Scientific name: Pinus aristata ‘Horstmann’*

Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 4 to 7

Sun: Full sun

Season of interest: Evergreen

Mature size: 4 feet tall, 3 feet wide

Frequently asked questions

What does deer, rabbit, or javelin resistant mean?

The term resistant means animals tend to avoid them. However, except for every few plants, daffodils being one, hungry animals will eat all or part of them. Animal repellents, such as organic Plantskydd, are effective at keeping browsing animals away. Always read and follow label directions.

How much water do plants in rock gardens need?

Most plants in rock gardens have shallow roots. The soil topped with rocks acts as a mulch to help the soil retain moisture. But the rocks gain heat from the sun, which can increase the temperature of the soil. 

Consider testing for soil moisture. Drive a long screwdriver or narrow metal pole into the ground. Pull it out, and you should be able to tell where the soil is moist on the device. Translate that to how deep the soil is moist. If the piece of metal is dry below 4 to 6 inches, water the plants.

When to call a pro

For help caring for plants in the rock garden, such as pruning, contact a local gardening pro. If you have other landscape needs, such as mowing, trimming, and edging, connect with a lawn care pro.

Main Image Photo Credit: Unsplash

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp award-winning garden writer, editor, and speaker. (She speaks at libraries, garden clubs, public gardens, home and garden shows, Master Gardener groups, and horticulture industry events.) Known as a hortiholic, she frequently says her eyes are too big for her yard. She blogs at hoosiergardener.com.