Transform Your Yard into a Mini Mountainscape with a Rock Garden
Even in the Midwest, it's easy to get hooked on rock gardening. Just ask Joseph Tychonievich of South Bend, Indiana, who discovered the rugged garden style when he visited Arrowhead Alpines, a specialty rock gardening nursery in Fowlerville, Michigan.
"I saw all these cool and unusual plants and wanted to try growing them," says this horticulturist, author and passionate plant collector.
Twelve years later, he's become a champion for the iconic garden style. He's created his own rock gardens, wrote a book on the topic and edits the quarterly journal for the North American Rock Garden Society.
If you're considering turning your backyard into a beautiful, low-maintenance oasis, use these expert rock garden design ideas and tips to guide your project.
What is Rock Gardening?
"Rock gardening is a style of gardening inspired by landscapes we find on the tops of mountains," Joseph says. "At high elevations, you have these rocky soils and beautiful, little plants thriving among the rocks."
It's no wonder the style is attracting a new generation of fans, whether plant collectors, rockhounds or mountain hikers who want to recreate mini mountainscapes in their backyard. The style also is perfect for small-space gardens.
"You have these compact plants with over-the-top flower displays," he says, explaining that the alpine versions of traditional plants like this gentian or cacti may be smaller in stature but their blooms are often triple in size allowing them to attract pollinators to their sparse destinations.
How to Create a Rock Garden
To create your own rock garden, Joseph offers these tips with insights from his own installations.
Good drainage is the basic rule for rock gardening, and best way to do that is to build a raised bed, especially in areas with wet clay soil.
"Build a raised area with a few inches of just sand and gravel," Joseph says. "No compost or anything that holds moisture." Use large rocks to frame the space. In his garden, he repurposed clay tiles, arranged them in vertical layers and filled them with gravel.
Next, add plants among the gravel mix and water them. For the rock garden's first year, add supplemental water during dry spells. Once established, rock gardens are low-maintenance and plants should not need further watering.
"They thrive on lean, dry conditions – even neglect," he says.
Container Rock Gardens
Rock gardening also works in containers. Any container will work as long as it has a bottom drainage hole. Instead of filling the container with a regular potting mix, Joseph recommends a 50-50 mix of course sand and gravel.
Next, insert a mix of plants. Joseph suggests the familiar 'thriller-filler-spiller' formula with one large plant (agave), smaller plants (hens and chicks) and a trailer plant (creeping thyme). Finish the arrangement with a large accent rock or two.
Crevice Rock Gardens
Beyond the classic raised bed, another technique is a crevice garden – a popular style from the Czech Republic. To achieve the look, set flat stones vertically then fill them with gravel.
"They're really cool because the flat rocks guide plants' roots to grow really deep and shelter them from intense heat," says Joseph. "Plus, they're visually beautiful and create great conditions for fussy and more difficult, rare plants." He says you can see examples like this on display at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin.
The variations are endless. Rock garden aficionados add rock gardens to the borders of water features and even add model railroads to rockscapes.
Easy-Care Plants for Rock Gardens
For beginners, Joseph recommends this starter palette on compact plants.
To learn more, check out Joseph's book on Rock Gardening: Reimagining a Classic Style or visit the North American Rock Garden Society with local chapters across the Midwest. "Chapter meetings are a great place to connect with experienced rock gardeners, get advice, buy plants and tour others' beautiful rock gardens," he says.