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Impressive Rock Gardens — an introduction

No matter your climate or region you can create an impressive rock garden that seamlessly blends into your landscape.

No matter your climate or region you can create an impressive rock garden that seamlessly blends into your landscape.

Rock gardens add unique notes to your overall garden design plans. A rock garden can exist in lovely harmony with water garden ideas, or in miniature as a detailed traditional alpine garden. No matter the size of your garden, or the climate of your region, rock garden ideas are unique and add beautiful touches to your property.

Even though rock gardens have been in existence for many years, the concept of rock gardening is confusing to many people. In a pure sense, a rock garden could be any collection or display of rocks, excluding plants altogether. The Japanese practice this type of rock gardening by artistically incorporating only rocks and sand. However, the English style of rock gardening is most commonly associated with the term.

Begun in England in the late 1800s, this style of gardening focused on creating an ideal growing site for alpine plants. Aesthetic quality increased as alpine gardening evolved, and rock gardens became more naturalistic in appearance. Garden designs attempted to capture the character and feeling of a mountain scene. Gradually, many excellent plants besides true alpines were introduced into the gardening as we know it today was born. In short, a rock garden is an integrated combination of rocks and plants selected to enhance both the cultural and aesthetic quality of the garden.

Rock gardens can be lush, with rich arrays of green mosses, dense shrubs, and creeping vines, or they may be more stark, with sparse plants and succulents. There are many directions to take when designing a rock garden, and most rock gardens are designed to complement the natural landscape in some way.

Rock gardens are often classified into two main categories on the basis of the arrangement of the rocks: formal (architectural) and informal (naturalistic).

Dry walls and paving stones inhabited by various plants are examples of formal rock gardens. These gardens serve a utilitarian purpose, yet at the same time they have an aesthetic function. Where a path or retaining wall is needed, the formal rock garden provides an excellent solution to the problem. A formal rock garden should always be constructed in response to such a need; the awkwardness of a rock wall or path built solely to accommodate plants cannot be overemphasized. Formal rock gardens can be used effectively around buildings and as a transition between the house and naturalistic rock garden.

The informal or naturalistic rock garden is the most common, yet the most difficult type of rock garden to design and construct. Its basic purpose is to recreate a natural setting where rock garden plants will look and grow their best.

Many people think that a natural rock garden can be constructed in a haphazard manner without regard to basic design principles. This misconception has led to the creation of more rock piles than rock gardens. Studying rock formations in nature is a prerequisite to understanding natural rock garden design and construction.

Both formal and informal rock gardens can be further subdivided according to the individual gardener’s interest. A specimen garden is primarily concerned with collection and growing as many different types of plants as possible. A design garden uses masses of plants in overall effect. Because the design gardener’s and the specimen gardener’s basic interests in plants are different, it is difficult to combine these two techniques in one garden. Thus it is important to determine your own interest before designing a rock garden.

Traditional rock and alpine gardens are garden surprises. They pair rocks with collections of miniature plants from alpine regions, many of which are often rare, prized plants.

The traditional rock garden idea plays with scale by recreating a landscape in miniature. Rocks can seem like boulders or even mountains surrounded by a collection of low-growing plants, which may include annuals, perennials, shrubs, bulbs, or succulents.

Intriguing effects can be achieved by combining two styles of garden — traditional rock garden and water garden — in close conjunction.

Many types of plants are suitable for rock gardens. Generally, plants that are low growing and have a clumping habit are preferred. Perennial plants are most common in rock gardens, although some annuals can be used.

The growing interest in gardening with indigenous (native) plants creates very interesting opportunities to recreate a wonderful rockery featuring only plants native to your area.

In temperate, arid and semi-desert areas rock gardens are often used to display succulents including plants such as Aloe, Cactus, plants from the Portulaca family, Mesemb, Euphorbia, Echeveria, Bulbine, Sedum, Rosularia, Yucca and Agave.

This is the first in a new series of posts on Rock Gardens. Very shortly the next feature dealing with “Rock Garden Design, Construction and Planting” will be posted. That will be followed by a posting on “Plants for Rock Gardens”. Come back to this section regularly, and feel free to send in your ideas and comments.