Why rock gardens rock

Gardens are intrinsically creative, blending colour, height and texture – which, for many, equals rocks

Words: Jade Beecroft

With different dimensions, height, shady crevices and even water features, rock gardens are a creative way to add colour, depth and interest to an outdoor space. Popular in the Victorian era and traditionally planted with alpines, they can also provide the perfect growing conditions for coastal plants, succulents and anything that requires excellent drainage. Sometimes referred to as rockeries, they were fashionable with gardeners in the 1970s and 80s, but are now making a comeback thanks to their wildlife-friendly credentials and suitability for small gardens, hard-surfaced plots and even balconies, as well as larger landscaped areas. Even if you’re a novice gardener, a simple rock garden can be easy to create and maintain.

Origins and history of rock gardens

The world’s first rock gardens, also known as Zen gardens, are believed to have been created in China and Japan at least 1,500 years ago. Their designers strove for a balance between rocks, plants and often water features, creating a peaceful place of tranquillity and reflection. Rockeries increased in popularity in the UK during the Victorian times, as it became fashionable for people to collect exotic plants from different parts of the world and attempt to cultivate them at home. According to conservation charity, the National Trust, expeditions to mountainous regions fuelled an interest in alpine plants.

How to use recycled rocks

The Royal Horticultural Society’s Wisley Rock Garden, at RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey in the UK, was opened just after this period, in 1912, and was built by specialist rock-garden firm James Pulham and Son. Sussex sandstone blocks and several thousand species of plants and trees were used to create a spectacular landscape that still attracts visitors today.

Alex Hankey is alpine and rock garden team leader there, and says rock gardens are great because they’re something that even a novice gardener can create and enjoy: ‘You don’t necessarily need a lot of space – we even have mini crevice gardens at Wisley, in old troughs made with reclaimed roof tiles.’

The biggest outlay when building a new rock garden can be the rocks, stones, gravel or other infrastructure, but Alex suggests upcycling materials wherever you can. ‘The sandstone for our newer projects at Wisley tends to come from reclamation yards,’ he says. ‘They’re aged and weathered in interesting ways and make great feature rocks.’

Learning about rock gardens

Having a specialised gardening interest can be a way to make friends and learn something new. Celia Sawyer lives and gardens in South Warwickshire in the UK and is secretary of the Oxford and district group of the Alpine Garden Society. ‘I joined the group in 1983 and have learned so much from being a member,’ she says. ‘Joining a local group will put you in touch with like-minded people, and you’ll soon find yourself becoming hooked on these little beauties.’ Celia agrees that rock gardens can suit all different types of spaces, suggesting planting alpines in large pots or troughs, with a few small rocks, to create a mini garden. She says: ‘In these days, where many people’s gardens are small, a rock garden is an ideal way to plant lots of relatively small plants in one area, which can provide great joy, especially in the spring.’ She points out that choosing plants thoughtfully can extend the alpine season from the beginning of spring right through to autumn.

Rock gardens for wildlife

Rock gardens are also becoming popular with people who want to encourage more wildlife into their outdoor spaces. You can cultivate plants that are attractive to bees and butterflies and add a water feature trickling over the rocks or a pond. According to the RHS, plants between rocky crevices can provide shelter for lots of different creatures, including mice and shrews, hunting spiders and even reptiles, such as small lizards, which enjoy sunning themselves on the rocks on warm days. ‘They are definitely great for wildlife,’ says Alex. ‘Plenty of alpines are pollinator plants and the rock crevices provide places for insects to overwinter.’ Celia agrees: ‘This is more important than ever in these days of dwindling numbers of insects – they need all the help they can get. Bees and butterflies are really drawn to the mass of flowers in one small area.’

A garden for you

Finally, Alex says it’s important to remember that, as with most gardening, in your own plot you don’t have to follow trends. Instead, create a space that suits you, based on the elements you like and enjoy. ‘You don’t have to stick to alpines if you don’t want to,’ he says. ‘Coastal plants and bulbs can work well in rock gardens, too. At Wisley, we have masses of snowdrops that brighten up the winter every year.’ Sempervivums, known as houseleeks, are succulents and make for easy and colourful additions to rock gardens. ‘We talk about gardening trends, and rock gardens may become more popular in places where people are experiencing drier summers,’ says Alex. ‘The most important thing is to enjoy your garden.’

DIY rock Garden

Celia’s Tips For Creating A Small Rockery

Location, location, location. If possible, choose an area in full sun and away from any large, established trees. Clear any weeds and grass, and consider laying a permeable membrane.

Ensure good drainage. One thing alpines hate is being waterlogged. Make a gritty mix of compost with at least 50 per cent sharp grit. Celia suggests John Innes No.2.

Get creative. You could fashion a gentle mound with your compost, make it terraced or undulating, or use existing slopes in your garden. Rocks can be sourced from a garden centre, reclamation yard or stone merchant.

Dig in. When you’re happy with the layout, bed in each rock individually. Ideally around a third of the rock should be buried, so it’s not just sitting on top. Fill the space between them with the gritty compost mix.

Broaden your horizons. If your local garden centre stocks only the basics, try a specialist alpine nursery. Many sell online and deliver their plants.

Plant carefully. Lay out your plants in their pots first, walk around to view them from all angles and only plant them out once you’re satisfied. Top-dress with grit to keep the necks of the plants dry, and water in gently.

For the Alpine Garden Society, visit To find out more about Wisley Rock Garden, go to

You can read more articles about creativity and wellness in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.