The Rock Garden

There is often a mystique and a complete misunderstanding as to the why, the need and the purpose of a rock garden. The novice will often be under the misguided notion that to grow rock plants/alpine plants, necessitates the construction of a rock garden. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth; raised beds, troughs and the alpine house are perfectly good alternative ways of growing alpine plants with great sucsess, without the use of great quantitys of rock.
Having said that, a rock garden is obviously an attractive and desirable feature to add to any garden, providing the plants and rocks are seen in context and harmony together, and the whole thing has an aesthetic and pleasing appeal. But get it wrong and it is nothing more than an eyesore; a pile of stones haphazardly placed on a mound of earth positioned in a dark ugly corner in totally unsuitable conditions. The plants will struggle to surv
ive, and will eventually die, and the creator of such monstrosities will bemoan that the failure is due to alpine plants being too difficult to grow anyway! The picture shown left, of the R.B.G. Edinburgh, is of a rock garden on a grand scale incorporating many tons of very large rocks in a setting of an acre or more of garden. Very few of us would have the space or monetary funds to embark on such a project, but we can all take ideas and inspiration from good garden design and construction

Do be wary of the great amount of bad advice from some of the so-called gardening “experts” that you may come across in print and especially on the internet. The unattractive example shown right is typical of rock garden construction promoted by some people on the internet; some even go so far as to make a video of this sort of work! The rocks are placed in a circle, usually incorporating an area of about 10 square feet (0.93 square meters) and isolated in the middle of a lawn, with a few rocks spaced equally distances apart from each other; or sometimes considerably more, piled up into a mound, disparagingly and rightly referred too by Reginald Farrer as "a dog's grave". These very same gardening “experts” recommend planting such rampant and invasive plants as - Campanula poscharskyana, Cerastium tomentosum, Euphorbia cyparissias and Sedum acre in such a small area. Looking at the picture to the right again, shows how artificial the rounded stones look in this poor excuse for a rock garden; ideally, they should be angular in shape, with a distinct strata line, and with each one closely butted up to the next. So let us now move onto the next stage….
Choosing and prepairing the site

All too often, the decision to construct a rock garden is done for the wrong reason. If you have an area in the garden that you consider is shady, damp and poorly drained where nothing will grow, a bad spot and an eyesore; and as a last resort you think a rock garden will solve the problem……then forget it!
If on the other hand you wish to grow some of the most gorgeously beautiful plant you will ever see – alpine/rock garden plants, and you want to give them the best conditions you possibly can…..then go for it!

A bit of thought should be given to where the rock garden should be sited. In deciding, take into account the following requirements that you will need.
1) An open aspect.
2) Freedom from perennial weeds and tree roots.
3) A pleasing integration with the rest of the garden design.
4) Good drainage.
5) Possibilities for future extension.
Giving careful thought to the above five requirements will avoid many future problems.

There is a huge amount of advice given by very many people on various ways of building/constructing a rock garden; some of this advice is good and some is not so good!
I do think that the bigger the area you can devote to a rock garden the better…so think BIG! On the whole, the majority of rock garden plants/alpines are easy, and unlike annual bedding plants, they will last and thrive for many years. Keep the smaller choicer plants for troughs; the bigger more robust plants for the rock garden. Good drainage is essential, and it may be that you will need to incorporate sharp sand and gravel, working this to a depth of about 45 cm (18”) and at the same time removing all perennial weeds. Do consolidate and tread down the soil to avoid subsequent sinking at a later date. You may have to add more soil to your site to achieve the level you want.

Choosing the type of rock
It used to be said, that if it is at all possible, it is always wisest to use a local stone; this was in the days when there was not a great choice of stone to be had, and few garden centres had much choice. Nowadays, many garden centres have an immense choice of various types of stone, and it can be quite bewildering for the novice to make a wise choice. You can get green, plum and blue coloured slate; there is black and red larva rock, orange moon stone and even a green translucent glass rockery stone. Then you have the more traditional stones, like Cotswold, and the various limestone, sandstone and granites. All these stones have their matching grits, and you will also come across grits that have stark outlandish colours of white, yellow and blues etc. Whilst many of these so called innovative rocks and grits are used and promoted by the more ‘Avant-garde’ garden designer, along with coloured plastic balls on bamboo canes, mirrors, stained glass and ‘modern’ sculptures in stainless steel and wire bound bamboo etc; I feel that this is completely out-of-place with the cultivation of alpine plants. You may sometimes come across rock gardens constructed from reclaimed smashed masonry, broken concrete slabs and smashed-up breeze-blocks. These are no more than unacceptable substitutes; and in my opinion, should not even be contemplated!
The two pictures above show a choice of four different rockery stone on offer at a local garden centre. You will perhaps notice that very many of these rocks are much too small and awkwardly shaped to be used in making an attractive feature for a rock garden.
Whatever type of stone you decide to use it will be quite expensive, and whilst one ton may sound like a large quantity, it will only make a very small rock garden. Another important factor is the size and shape of the rocks. If you can pick up a rock in one hand it is most likely much too small, (with the exception of tufa rock). Ideally, you want pieces from 30 kilograms up to and possibly a little over 45 kilograms in weight; at a very rough estimate that would be about 25 to 30 pieces per metric ton.
Now onto the shape of the rocks; if they are pyramid shaped, wedge shaped or oval/round shaped, you will have great difficulty in placing them to look natural, no matter which way you try them! You want them to be roughly rectangular in shape with each face close to right angles (90 degrees) to the next. The bulk of your rocks should ideally be about 46cm x 23cm x 23cm (18" x 9" x 9") in dimension. You won’t of course be able to get every rock at this rectangular size, so you use smaller and irregular shaped ones to build up to this size. You can use longer and deeper rocks also.
It is worth mentioning at this point that once you have decided on what type of rock you would like for your rock garden, do make sure that the garden center/supplier has a good stock, and that the same rock will be available in the future should you wish to extend your rock garden. Do not make the mistake of just ordering a quantity and leaving it to the supplier to pick out the pieces for you; pick out each piece yourself, place one piece to the next, and then another, discard those that are too small or badly shaped. Try and visualize how each piece will look when viewed from different sides, and remember that the faces that are buried need not be square to the others. Once you have picked out your pieces purchase them there and then and take them home in your vehicle with you, or have them delivered, getting assurance that they will be the pieces that you have chosen.
Building a rock garden
It’s a good idea to sit down at the table with a pencil and a sheet of paper and sketch out your rock garden, if you use graph paper you can scale the distance from pathways and other garden features; the shape of your rock garden can be almost any shape you wish, but avoid a square symmetrical shape with sharp corners, use gentle curves and make it look natural. One of the most pleasing shapes I have seen of a rock garden can be best described as that of a dog’s hind leg!
Your design will depend, up to a point, on the contour of your garden. If your garden, or part of it, is on a gentle slope you can build terraces, which step up from one level to another; and if that is the case you can have the rocks flat as shown in the picture left. If you decide to build terraces on a flat site you will have to tilt the rocks so that when the rocks are seen “face-on” the back of the rocks are tilting at an angle into the soil. It is important to maintain the same angle of tilt for every rock you put in. I feel that this is always difficult to do, and at the same time achieve a natural look to the rockwork, but in the hands of a skilled and experienced builder of rock gardens it can very often look attractive and natural. Do avoid a double tilt; in other words if you can see the “face-on” rocks looking south and you then walk round the other side of the rock work and view it to the north, the “face-on” rocks can’t be seen.
Do bear in mind that very steep angles of stratification, of about or near to 45% do occur in nature as do various angles between; right up to horizontal angles of stratification. Rock falls are frequent in mountains all over the world. There are a number reasons or factors that can start a rock fall; changes in the climate like freeze-thaw, the movement of surface and ground water, external stresses and root movement are some typical causes. It might start by the movement of a relatively small rock, but the tumbling and bouncing of this one rock can cause other larger rocks to become dislodged, and they in-turn cause other rocks to fall down the sub-vertical slopes of a mountain to finish up as a huge rock fall of many tons at the bottom creating a talus or scree, where all sizes of rock, from huge boulders to small pebbles will finally settle. The picture right shows how a rock fall might look, with all sizes and shapes of rocks in compleat disarray. This then, is one of natures way of creating a “rock garden”, plant and soil debris will also be washed down the scree slope to provide food and nutrients to the seeds of plants that will eventually find a home amongst this rock rubble. It is very often difficult to create this natural chaotic look in cultivation without it looking too artificial and unnatural.

The picture left shows an attractive scree viewed from its lowest point and the well placed rocks don't look too obtrusive and unnatural. This is in a large garden in an open aspect and contains dwarf conifers and shrubs as well as many choice alpine plants. The vertical face of the rocks as seen from this view are not much more than 12 centimeters high and the back face of the rocks slope into the soil.

Click on any of the three images below to see a bigger picture.
The larger of the two rocks shown here is 90cm long, 26 cm at its widest point and is 22 cm deep. (Having about 2 cm below the soil level)
The combined length of these two rocks is 110 cm, 28 cm at the widest point and 22 cm deep. (Having about 2 cm below the soil level)
The combined length of the two rocks shown here is about 82 cm, 26 cm at the widest point and 22 cm deep. (Having about 2 cm below the soil level)

The picture shown left is not of my garden; I can not remember whose garden it is and I don’t recall taking the photograph. (If anyone can tell me whose garden and photo it is I will gladly give credit). I love the way the large rectangular rocks have been laid on different levels, how the plants tumble over the rocks and the planting in the gravel pathway. Of course, quite a few tons of rock has been used, and you can see in the bottom of the picture how large some of these rocks are.
Notice how, at the back of the front section, it is steeped up not once, but twice, to give different levels. This, to my mind, is the way a rock garden should look, and is much like the wonderful garden in Handsworth of the late Roy Elliott’s which I used to visit at every opportunity.
It was this picture, (and Roy Elliott’s garden) which prompted and inspired me into digging up my lawn to create a rock garden like this!
But I never did create a rock garden like this! The cost of the amount of rock needed for such an undertaking was way beyond my means at that time. So what did I do; ~~ I compromised somewhat. I took the cheaper option of using house-bricks to build a number of raised beds to look very much like the shape and area that you see in the second photo shown below.
The raised bed has been a great success; I don’t now have any lawns to cut as the whole area is devoted to growing alpines. There is extensive planting of bulbs and alpines in the gravel pathways. More about the raised bed will be discussed in the appropriate section below.

Raised beds for alpine plants  

A raised bed is an excellent way of growing alpine plants and is usually much cheaper and easier to build than the conventional rock garden. They can be small or big and there is a wide choice of materials which can be used. The smallest size could be no bigger than a trough, whilst a bigger, (area) raised bed can be as long as you wish, but do bear in mind that the width should not be so wide that it is difficult to reach some areas for weeding and maintenance. So if the bed is approximately between 0.70 to 0.76 meters, (2 feet to 2½feet) high, the width should be no more than about 1.5 metres, (5 feet) wide.
The beds can be formal or informal regarding the shape and materials used. The walls may be stone, brick, old railway sleepers, upended paving slabs, lightweight foamed concrete blocks and other materials.


The picture on the right shows an attractive and colourful raised bed, displaying very many alpine plants and dwarf shrubs. The stone walls are laid in a dry stone wall fashion, which is a wall that is constructed from stones without the use of mortar to bind the stones together.This type of wall could provide crevices in the vertical wall, which are perfect for plants like Ramonda, Haberlea, Campanula, Silver Saxifrages and Erinus to name but a few. If bricks or small stones are used, a trench, (20 cm wide and deep) should be dug out. Use a lump hammer to pound and consolidate the bottom of the trench with course rubble and stones, or stamp and jump on it with your gardening boots. You can then finish filling the last 80 mm of the trench with a mix of sloppy concrete to give a strong and stable foundation. With a dry stone wall, it is recommended to slope the sides inwards by approximately 10 degrees, likewise the stones should tilt the same angle as shown in the drawing on the left. Lay the larger stones first, as a firm foundation for all the other stones which will be placed on top of these. Make sure they do not wobble or move by bedding each one on top of another, so that each stone is in contact with its neighbour, with a loamy soil which is not too sandy, filling the space where the stones don’t meet. Make sure you do not leave any air pockets which will harbour slugs and ants.
It is worth mentioning at this point that the traditional dry stone wall is built without the use of a cement mortar mix between the joints, but if you feel you are not adept at this skill then a little mortar could be used towards the back face of each stone where it wont be noticed when the finished wall is viewed from the front. Once you have finished the second row of bricks you can now start to introduce some of the plants already mentioned, into the crevices in the vertical wall; it is much better to do this planting as you proceed with building the wall, than to try and squeeze their roots into the small gaps in the front when the wall is completed. The planting positions should be at the bottom of the vertical spaces between the stones as shown in the drawing right; lay the plant roots against the last stone you have placed, directing the roots towards where the bulk of the soil will be in the finished wall; then place the next stone tightly up to this stone and the plant. Only young small plants should be used for this. It is unwise to put in larger plants as these will prove to take longer to establish and are difficult to plug up with soil.

Shown in the picture to the right is a partial view of the five large raised beds that have now replaced my lawn. This has given me a huge area to grow and enjoy many more alpine plants where at one time only grass was grown! I have built these raised beds with house bricks which closely match the house. The 4 bricks raised beds (including the capping stones) are about 15 inches high. There are two beds of 3 bricks with capping stones which are about 12 inches high.
All the beds have various serpentine shapes where the gravel and paved pathways meanders around them. Daffodils, Crocus, Hyacinths and various other bulbs as well as a number of alpine plants have been planted up against the walls of these raised beds in the gravel of the pathways. There are many self-sown seedlings which have found there way into the pathways – Cyclamen, Dianthus, Polygonatum, Pulsatilla and the delightful little short-lived perennial, Oenothera ‘Colin Porter’ with tiny flowers, of a fiery orange red, which succeeds in the pathway better than anywhere else! This little Oenothera arrived as a “stowaway” in a pot of some other alpine plant I bought.
I can highly recommend getting rid of the lawn and replacing with raised beds. It was a chore cutting the grass, raking and feeding it to make it grow; and then cutting it again when it did grow! I can go into the garden and get much enjoyment tending and admiring all the many plants in the raised beds, and I very often here the neighbours ‘Flymo’ or petrol machine with there noise pollution; and I know I have done the right thing


To conclude this page I will finish with this picture, (shown below) of the long raised bed at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, photographed in 1986.


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