Tips and Tricks on How to Design and Build a Rock Garden

Tips and Tricks on How to Design and Build a Rock Garden

Outdoor Additions
Outdoor and Gardening
By Mateos Glen Hayes June 18, 2022

Most of us have grown up with the idea that a fertile green lawn is the default outdoor setup for each home. This is why you can find large swathes of suburbia with expansive green lawns even in the aridest of places where water is increasingly an expensive commodity.

It goes without saying that this kind of setup isn’t great for the environment. Grassy lawns use a lot of water, pesticides, and manpower to stay in good shape. Plus, all of this work and resources are being spent on maintaining land that is producing essentially nothing but pretty weeds.

That’s not to say there isn’t something quite pretty about a well-manicured green lawn, but it is important to bear in mind that there are alternatives out there that you may like quite a lot more. A rock garden is one such alternative that can help your home’s outdoor environs stand out. In some parts of the country, a rock yard will also be far more appropriate owing to its low water usage. 

What is a Rock Garden? 

Rock gardens add texture and dimension.

Rock gardens add texture and dimension.

At first glance, you might not think much about this garden trend. After, it’s just a bunch of dull rocks strewn about your yard, right? This isn’t the case, however, as rock gardens are actually quite a unique and interesting way of decorating your lawn. Aside from being a garden full of natural mineral stone, rock gardens are also a spot for desert plants and can even be the perfect canvas for individualistic expression. Plus, having a rock garden means you can also set aside fertile soil for something productive like a California home garden.

There is actually an art in designing your rock yard’s layout, choosing the right rocks, selecting the plants that perfectly complement the hues of the rocks, and making sure the entire thing works well together. In effect, putting together a rock garden is like making a tapestry, and that makes it a lot more interesting than a standard lawn. You’re not just adding seed and watering regularly, but instead, you get to decide every detail of what your lawn will look like, and what colors it will emphasize.

Rock gardens are quite low maintenance too since they do not require much water at all, and are not affected all that much by changing seasons. This makes them perfect for those that have grown tired of the drudgery of lawn maintenance tasks like mowing a huge yard and blowing tons of leaves every fall. Plus, rock yards add texture and dimension to your lawn that isn’t really possible to get with a standard lawn, meaning that a rock garden tends to be more visually interesting.

Design Tips 

Designing the correct rock garden layout is crucial.

Designing the correct rock garden layout is crucial.

Before you can bring your rock garden idea to fruition you’re gonna need to consider what the layout and design of your rock garden will be. This means considering details such as costs, which types of rocks you want in the garden, and what plants you would prefer to have as well. All of these work together to give the rock garden its unique look. 

Keeping Things Affordable 

Cost is an important factor in the design process because while a rock garden isn’t expensive to maintain it can be a bit pricey to build in the first place. This really depends on the rocks you decide to use. Large rock yards especially can get expensive fast, so be sure to look for the most affordable stone options you can find especially if you want to keep costs low.

The best source of the plentiful and affordable stone is going to be a nearby stone yard or quarry so start your search by looking into local companies that specialize in this kind of resource extraction. Typically, the stone that is more common in your region is what is going to be most affordable as well. If you drive a big truck it will come in handy here since delivery costs are charged by the ton and can be rather high.

Of course, you may not even have to buy stones as there are plenty of places where it is possible to just go and find rocks yourself. Building sites, excavation sites, and farmer’s fields are all great places to go and look for stone if you want to pick it up for free. Farmers regularly dig up stones in their fields, and road works projects typically end up moving a lot of stones in the process. 

Succulents are the perfect rock garden plant choice.

Succulents are the perfect rock garden plant choice.

Choosing Rocks 

Harder rocks are not the best choice for a number of reasons. For one, they tend to be heavier, making them more expensive to move. Harder rocks are also less porous and that means they take longer to get a weathered look, preventing them from blending into your design and the wider landscape. You also want to avoid getting rocks that are too disparate in shape and texture since this can make your garden look unnatural or busy. 

Native vs. Nonnative Rocks?

In general, indigenous stones are going to be the best choice for garden ideas with rocks. This is mainly because they are found easily in your area and will be much more affordable. Native rocks will also help your rock garden to better fit with the landscape of your neighborhood, thereby helping to give it a pleasing aesthetic. Given the really high shipping costs of moving heavy stones, you should avoid choosing exotic rocks unless you really want them.  

Rock Garden Aesthetic 

Style matters even when we're talking about rock garden ideas. There are a plethora of different styles you can choose for your rock garden, and the stones you chose will play a significant role in bringing that style to life. Japanese Zen rocks, for example, will give your garden a more serene vibe, whereas alpine rocks will give it a colder, arctic feel. The rocks you choose will determine whether your garden ends up looking like a standard design or something unique. 

Building Tricks

You don’t have to only move stone by hand.

You don’t have to only move stone by hand.

Bringing your rock design to life can be best achieved by keeping a few basic pointers in mind for success. With these little considerations, your rock garden design will come to life in no time. 

Aim For The Aged Look

The weathered look is best because it allows your rock yard to best blend into the landscape, emphasizing the natural beauty of the garden and preventing things from sticking out like a sore thumb. Worn rock faces can be easily achieved by just waiting for nature to take its course, although you can encourage the process by transplanting moss from somewhere else, grinding it up and mixing it with yogurt and potters clay, and applying the puree to the rock faces.  

The Right Stuff (Tools)

You can’t complete a quality job without having the right tools at hand. A rock garden may sound relatively simple to set up, but it is typically physically challenging since stones are rather heavy. Moving large stones can be dangerous if you have back problems, so consider purchasing a back brace. Of course, you don’t have to struggle to do everything by hand so consider purchasing power equipment and winches to make things easier. When push comes to shove you can also hire a contractor to help you out with the hardscaping and landscaping.

Rock gardens can be green too.

Rock gardens can be green too.

Plant Layouts

Desert plants are the best fit for rock garden landscaping, especially in a desert region. They match the aesthetic and require little to no watering to survive. Of course, placement is still important, and a great way to get an idea of how to properly place plants is by looking at how plants naturally grow in rocky terrain. Low-growing plants — such as certain types of fall plants — are typically best as they thrive the most in a rocky environment. 

Keep Things Natural & Stone Placement

The basic maxim for placing stones in your rock garden is to avoid even distribution. In other words, avoid placing your rocks in unnatural grid layouts as this will look unnatural and disrupt the casual aesthetic that the rock yard embodies best. Instead, emphasize curviness and asymmetry in rock placement for the best results.


Written by
Mateos Glen Hayes

Written by Mateos Glen Hayes