Designing a rock garden for hillsides

If you can't beat it, enhance it. A rock garden is a great way to handle a sloping front yard or to artfully plant any hillside. Rock gardens showcase the natural beauty of stone as well as plants.

Designing a rock garden for hillsides

Aesthetic tips for your rock garden

A well-constructed rock garden will look as if it has been there forever, especially once the rocks are clothed in care-free plants.

  • You can choose any style for your rock garden, from an informal tumble of stones to a simple garden built around existing ones.
  • If you need to stabilize the slope, add small, stacked-stone retaining walls backfilled with good soil. They'll serve the additional purpose of creating more planting pockets, particularly suited to those that require perfect drainage.
  • Choose local stone so that it blends in seamlessly with the surroundings, especially if you are adding rock to an existing outcrop.
  • Consider your options. Weathered, uncut stone gives a more natural look, while cut stone creates a more formal mood.
  • Garden artistry enters in when you mix and match a variety of plants with the stone. The most successful formula is to balance nearly equal areas of stone and plants, so that the soft textures of the foliage and the flowers are framed and flattered by the heavy, smooth surfaces of stone.

Soil for rock garden plants

From a plant's point of view, the outstanding characteristic of a rock garden is the superior soil drainage it provides. So it stands to reason that most rock-garden plants thrive when planted in a mixture of one part soil, one part compost and one part coarse sand.

  • Mix the soil for planting pockets in advance, so it will be ready as you place the stones.
  • Make little beds or fill nooks and crannies where you plan to place plants.
  • Wedge the soil mix into deep crevices or broad pockets between stones, poking about with a spade handle or metal rod to eliminate hidden air pockets.
  • Many rock-garden plants creep or cascade, forming low carpets of colour between stones. To avoid a patchwork look, group similar-looking plants together so they'll interweave as they mature.
  • Shrubs can become an integral part of the scene, but when planting them among stones keep the root ball level and the crown of the shrub upright.
  • Small planting pockets are perfect for clusters of little bulbs like miniature daffodils, squill or grape hyacinths.
  • Where the layer of soil is shallow, such as atop large stones, plant the area with shallow-rooted, hardy succulents, such as stonecrop and hen and chicks.
  • Most rock-garden plants eagerly spread to fill in vacant places, but until they do, you will need to patrol the area periodically and pull weeds by hand.
  • As your plantings mature, occasional trimming of plants to keep the scene neat and the stones visible becomes an important yet enjoyable, nurturing task.

Other plant options for your rock garden

  • Artemisia
  • Bellflower
  • Blanket flower
  • Bluebeard
  • Butterfly weed
  • Candytuft
  • Catmint
  • Clematis
  • Columbine
  • Coreopsis
  • Creeping phlox
  • Crocus
  • Daffodil
  • Epimedium
  • Euphorbia
  • Geranium
  • Grape hyacinth
  • Hellebore
  • Heuchera
  • Honeysuckle
  • Hosta
  • Hyacinth
  • Japanese maple
  • Uniper
  • Lamb's-ears
  • Lobelia
  • Ornamental grasses
  • Portulaca
  • Rock rose
  • Rose
  • Rose campion
  • Snowdrops
  • Statice
  • Thrift
  • Thyme
  • Trillium
  • Tulip
  • Verbena
  • Yucca

There you go -- now you can turn that sloped backyard or rocky hillside into a beautiful garden! Just make sure the plants are suitable for the terrain and soil.

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