9 River Rock Landscape Ideas

Ricer Rock

Your backyard needs a new look–– can river rocks provide the landscape design you’re looking for? The color and size variety of river rocks offer a plethora of options. Despite the never-ending design options, we’ll help narrow your choices with these 9 river rock landscape ideas.

The following ideas range from crafting a retaining wall or water fountain to highlighting your fire pit and garden beds. Oh, and you might be wondering, what on Earth are river rocks? We’ll explain that, too. 

What are river rocks?

You would think that river rocks are rocks that come from a river because of the name. But river rocks aren’t actually specific to a river. The rocks can come from any body of water. Any rocks that have been rounded, rubbed, or worn from moving water are considered river rocks. 

River rocks have common characteristics, such as:

  • Smooth texture
  • Non-porous or slightly porous
  • Rounded edges
  • Various colors and sizes
  • Imperfections

9 river rock landscape ideas

Although there are far more than just 9 river rock landscape ideas, here are 9 different landscaping with river rock ideas to give you some inspiration.

1. Dry creek bed

Dry creek bed

River rocks can be used as a dry creek bed to help improve drainage and control erosion. 

With river rocks, water won’t run off after a rainstorm as it would with concrete or asphalt. Instead, the water soaks into the ground between the rocks. This happens because the rocks slow down the water flow, allowing the ground to absorb the water. Water flows quickly off concrete or asphalt, and there’s little opportunity for the water to drain.  

While river rocks improve drainage, the rocks also inadvertently help with erosion control. Erosion is a naturally occurring process that causes Earth’s surface to get worn down. It can be caused by water or wind.

By eliminating the water runoff and improving drainage, you help keep the soil secure, therefore, aiding in erosion control. This is especially true on a hill or slope. 

Tip: Larger river rocks are more effective at helping with erosion control than smaller rocks.

2. Retaining wall

A retaining wall helps support your landscape, securing the soil in place. It can help with erosion, provide a divided area of flat ground, and offer privacy. 

Consider using river rocks to build your retaining wall. As an added bonus, your river rock retaining will look beautiful while accomplishing the benefits mentioned above. 

Tip: Large, flat river rocks are a good option for building a sturdy base. Smaller rocks can be incorporated into the retaining wall as you continue to build. Hiring a pro might save your patience a little bit – stacking those rocks one by one can be exhausting, and try even the most patient person’s patience. Hiring a pro will also protect your safety and ensure a high-quality design.

3. Spruce up the garden beds

Use river rocks as an inorganic mulch to spruce up the garden beds. River rocks can be a convenient mulch option in dry rock gardens and xeriscapes. 

River rocks can be a good alternative to organic mulches, depending on the garden. Organic mulches, like shredded bark or wood chips, often require replacing. But inorganic mulches aren’t always ideal, either. So let’s take a closer look at whether an inorganic mulch like river rock can benefit your garden beds: 

Pros of using river rocks as inorganic mulchCons of using river rocks as inorganic mulch
✓ Won’t fade in color✗ River rocks retain heat, which may stress some plants 
✓ Great variety of colors✗ The heat from river rocks may dry out the soil, which isn’t great for moisture-loving plants
✓ Can use complimentary colors against landscape to create a picture-perfect scene✗ Not ideal for high-maintenance gardens which require lots of digging. The rocks will create more work for you. 
✓ Convenient for dry, low-maintenance gardens✗ Might need truck delivery as opposed to picking up traditional mulch bags at the home improvement store
✓ Won’t degrade over time, which means it won’t need frequent replacement✗ Unlike organic mulches, inorganic mulches don’t add nutrients to the soil

Tip: River rocks retain heat and dry up moisture. Why is this important to know? Because you’ll want to pair your new river rock garden bed with plants that love the sun and heat as well as plants like succulents that don’t want moisture hanging around the stem.

4. Xeriscaping

Xeriscape garden bed
leighklotz | CC BY 2.0 | Flickr

Xeriscaping is a low-maintenance, water-saving alternative to a traditional lawn. River rocks could fit in just about anywhere in your xeriscape. Why? Because you won’t have to water river rocks, and plants that usually pair well with river rocks won’t require much water either. River rocks are also low maintenance, which is a key factor in a xeriscape landscape.

Besides river rocks, xeriscaping can also include:

  • Native plants
  • Drought-tolerant plants
  • Organic and inorganic mulches
  • Patios and other hardscapes
  • Sand or bare soil

5. Pathway

You don’t want to commit to a concrete pathway in your backyard but you need something. A river rock pathway is an easy, DIY alternative to a concrete pathway. It gives your yard a different pop of color and design and that wonderful crunchy sound when you walk on it.

Tip: Pea gravel would be a great size choice for a river rock pathway. If you don’t want a full pea gravel pathway, consider installing stepping stones or pavers and surrounding them with pea gravel instead. 

Don’t forget to lay landscape fabric underneath the rocks to stop the rocks from sinking into the soil.

6. Lawn edging

River rock lawn edging gives a distinct border between your lawn and garden beds. This can make your landscaping easier on the eyes and highlight your hard work in each individual section of your yard. You can mix sizes and shapes, which allows your creativity to spark. River rock lawn edging also helps contain the mulch in your garden beds during a rainstorm or windy day. 

7. Firepit area

River rocks can serve as the last puzzle piece for your outdoor firepit to create a rustic corner in the backyard. Install river rock in the seating area and around the fire pit’s base to:

  • Take out some worry if sparks fly from the fire pit–– river rocks are a non-flammable material. 
  • Transport yourself to a new space–– The crackling fire and the crunching rocks can make you imagine you’re at a real camping ground. 
  • Save a bit of cash–– the labor cost of installing a fire pit patio or pavers is more than spreading out river rocks as an easy DIY project. Most river rocks cost $60 – $170 per ton.

8. Water feature

Oh, the serenity of a water feature. The beauty of watching the water flow effortlessly down, all in the comfort of your backyard. A river rock water fountain adds an element of escape and calm to your space. It might even make you forget about the mountain of laundry and dishes that you’re supposed to be doing inside.

Tip: Your options for a river rock water feature could include a raised pond enclosure, trickling fountain, or small waterfall. 

9. Zen garden

Zen garden
Tobias Kleinlercher / WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A Zen garden is a Japanese rock garden centered around the idea of serenity, using sand, stones, and low-spreading plants to create this environment. River rocks can be incorporated into a Zen garden as precisely placed pieces, ground covers, or an area of meditative stone stacking.

FAQ about river rocks

Where can I buy river rocks?

Most home improvement stores have river rocks readily available if you’re on a DIY adventure. The tricky part could be if you’re ordering a large quantity and don’t have a truck or other large vehicle to transport the river rocks back to your house. In that case, you may need to hire a professional delivery service.

How do I prepare my area for river rocks?

Depending on what your plan is for river rocks, you might need to do some of the following to prepare your area for river rocks:

Remove grass, weeds, or debris: You want to start with a blank canvas before installing river rocks. 
Level the space: You need a nice flat surface to get started. You may need to buy some soil to fill in those low spots. 
Lay landscape fabric: This depends on where you plan to place your river rocks. Laying landscape fabric for a river rock pathway is a great idea, but landscape fabric in the garden bed might make for more work down the road.
Place the rocks: Let your vision of your river rock creation come to fruition, and enjoy your new space. Sprinkle the rocks into their new home and use a garden rake to spread them around.

Is there any maintenance needed for landscape river rocks?

River rocks don’t require much maintenance. You may need to occasionally rinse off your river rocks if you notice they’ve gotten too dirty for your liking. Weeds could also pop through your river rocks, especially if you didn’t lay landscape fabric underneath your rocks.

When to call a professional

You’ve worked so tirelessly on your new garden design with river rocks that you don’t have the energy to take care of your lawn. You don’t want a messy lawn distracting from your new river rock creation. Let Lawn Love connect you with local professionals who can take care of your lawn maintenance while you take a much-deserved break.

Main photo credit: Publicdomain | CC0 1.0

Janae Soules

Janae Soules has a newly discovered love of gardening with her kids. She enjoys spending time in nature hiking, biking, or playing sports.