How to Build a Garden Alpine Rockery (Tutorial)

Last update: 2 months ago

9 min read

rockery garden guide by fantastic gardeners

It is often said that beauty lies in simplicity. Rock gardens are the very embodiment of that saying. With a bit of thoughtful planning, what initially may seem like a bland mixture of rocks and plants can, in skilled hands, quickly turn into the peaceful retreat that any home needs.

If you’ve been playing with the idea of building your very own rockery for a while, you’re in luck. Below, we will walk you through the whole process of how to build one, as well as share some maintenance tips that you can use to sustain it’s appeal for the months and years to come.

Why should you consider building a rockery?

Rock gardens are a relatively low-maintenance solution that you can take advantage of regardless of how much free space you have at your disposal.

But don’t be fooled by their initially plain looks – depending on how each rock is positioned, rockeries can provide a suitable habitat for an astonishingly wide range of plant species.

For example, a rock’s south-facing side can be perfect for growing sun-loving plants, while shade-tolerant species will feel right at home protected by the shadow of its north-facing side, as James Allan at Puma Landscaping Edinburgh point out.

“Some rockery plants that simply love the sun are Dianthus, Sisyrinchium and Verbascum. Alpine campanulas are particularly recommended, they have a carpeting habit and produce lots of blue, white and purple bell-shaped flowers,” says James Allan. “For the shadier side of a rockery, there are plenty of options too. Aquilegia, Brunnera, Campanula, Cyclamen, Lysimachia, Omphalodes, Pulmonaria, Tellima, Tiarella, Vinca and hardy ferns are just some of the shade tolerant plants that will thrive on the north side.”

When is the best time to make a rock garden?

While every season is suitable for making a rockery, the best time you can cultivate your garden in is spring. This way, you will not only enjoy a rich choice of plants, but will also give the vegetation enough time to grow healthy root systems and prepare for the damp English winter. Of course, you can also prepare the foundation during the winter and add the plants later on.

How to determine the best spot for your creation

Before doing anything, consider researching your microclimate. In case you are wondering, a microclimate is essentially the tiny differences in the “general climate” that are unique to your specific area. These idiosyncrasies, no matter how tiny, can often make or break a garden, so studying them closely will ensure that your rockery will look ever healthy and captivating.

When it comes to building a rockery, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind as well:

  • Try to find an area that isn’t surrounded by overhanging trees or tree roots. This will ensure that your plants will receive a healthy dose of sunlight throughout the day.
  • Find a spot that already has great drainage. Otherwise, you may need to invest in raised beds in order to create suitable conditions for your alpine inhabitants.
  • Beware of frost pockets. If you live near hills or the terrain is marked by many dips, hollows, or dells, you may have to take extra measures to protect your garden. During chilly evenings, such locations can “trap” cold air, which will then sink to the ground and accumulate in low points of your garden, subjecting your plants to dangerous frosts.

Types of plants that will go well with your rockery

Rock gardens mimic the perfect conditions for alpine plant species, since they live in areas where rocky mountain slopes, good drainage, and plenty of sunlight are easy to come by. However, this doesn’t mean that your options are limited to just evergreens.

Here are some of the more attractive plants you can grow based on seasonality:

  • Spring flowering (evergreens): Euphorbia myrsinites; Gentiana acaulis;
  • Spring flowering (deciduous): Arabis ferdinandi-coburgi; Primula rosea;
  • Summer flowering (evergreens): Dianthus alpinus; Phlox douglasii;
  • Summer flowering (deciduous): Asperula lilaciflora; Erigeron aurantiacus;
  • Autumn flowering (evergreens): Sternbergia lutea; Zauschneria californica;
  • Winter flowering: Crocus laevigatus, Aquilegia laramiensis; Moltkia petraea.

Check out more of the most popular rockery plants here.

How to build a rockery from scratch

Prepare for the task ahead

Sketching a quick plan of the area you want to transform into a majestic rockery is just the start.

You will also need to take into account several other factors, such as whether the terrain is level (if it is, you will need to improvise a slope or a mound for proper drainage), if there is any underground pipework you need to worry about, how much sunlight and shade your rockery is going to receive at all times and, of course, what’s the most “scenic” angle you can view it from.

Of course, you also need to keep in mind the size of your project. If you’re planning on building a large-scale rockery, you will most likely need to hire excavators and other professional equipment in order to create the optimal drainage conditions for your leafy inhabitants.

Smaller projects can be usually done with regular gardening tools, although it might be wise to pack a crowbar as well since it will be of immeasurable help to you when moving bulky rocks.

Gather the required materials

Here is what you will typically need to build a small to medium-sized garden rockery:

  • A crowbar for moving the biggest (keystone) rocks around;
  • Shovel for moving soil, rake for spreading compost and a trowel for planting;
  • A selection of alpine or other suitable plant species;
  • A mix of weed-free topsoil, horticultural grit and leaf mould;
  • Permeable landscape fabric/polythene sheet or inverted turves;
  • Broken pots, small stones, old bricks, and other hardcore materials;
  • Rocks of varied sizes (preferably locally sourced, such as slate, granite, or sandstone).

Bring your rockery to life

  • Mark the boundaries. Use pegs and a string to define the area where your rockery is going to be raised. You can also get a marker spray from your local hardware store.
  • Do away with weeds. These parasitic plants simply have to go. Start by hand weeding them and use a herbicide to kill more resilient weeds, such as bindweed or ground elder.
  • Add a 15-cm-deep base. Set the stage for your rockery with broken bricks/pots, gravel or pea shingle. The base will improve drainage and will also act as support for the rocks.
  • Separate the base layer from the compost. You can do this with a layer of permeable landscape fabric. This will also discourage weeds from growing in between the hardcore. Alternatively, you can also use a polythene sheet with small holes made at 10 cm intervals or inverted turves (matted earth formed by mixing grass with plant roots).
  • Place the biggest rocks first. Use your spade to dig out small hollows for each stone, then take the crowbar and move your keystones into position. Figure out which direction your garden is facing (north, south, west, or east) to place your rocks at just the right angles and create the perfect microclimate for your plants.
  • Mix your compost and add it around the rocks. Use the mixture to fill in the areas underneath and the gaps in between each rock to keep them firmly in place.
  • Grab a rake and spread the compost. Spread out the mix evenly across the entire rockery space, making sure not to compact the mix in the process.
  • Add the living components to your garden. Start by placing your potted plants at the desired spots in your garden. Once you’re happy with the arrangement, gently transfer each plant from its pot to the compost mix, and top-dress them with some gravel or grit.
  • Add a mulch layer of small stones on top. Cover the area with a layer of tiny stones. This will hold the compost in place and give your space that distinct rockery garden look.

Some alpine rockery words of maintenance wisdom

With your rockery complete, it’s time to learn how to preserve its majestic appeal in the long term. For starters, you need to know that just because your garden is mostly made of rocks doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s immune to pests.

Some of the troublemakers you should keep an eye for include ants, birds, slugs and, the worst offenders of them all – aphids and vine weevils. If the latter two are giving you a major headache, check out our guide on how to combat these pesky insects using natural methods.

To maintain your garden healthy, you also need to:

  • Promptly remove any fallen leaves and cut back any overgrown plants come autumn;
  • Identify, label, and cover any plants that are not likely to survive the winter on their own;
  • Enforce weed control measures every chance you get, regardless of the season;
  • Be careful with your watering regime to avoid root rot issues down the line.

***

Just like any garden, even the unconventional rockery landscape will very much rely on your undivided love and attention for its survival.

From picking the right tools and plants to preparing the area for your to-be-garden, you need to be dedicated from start to finish if you hope to end up with something truly special.

So, take a deep breath, make a checklist of all the things we’ve mentioned thus far and you should be looking at a “Rock Garden of the Year” nominee in no time.

Did we miss anything? How about you – do you have any rockery building tips of your own? Let your voice be heard by writing us in the comment section below and make sure to follow us on social media so you don’t miss out any future bits of gardening wisdom.

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