Good to Grow: I like my gardens on the rocks

Alexis Nadler lives on a farm in Ohio. These stones were dug up in her fields, then used for landscaping.
Article by Jane Powell, Good to Grow

I am in love with rocks. Old, weathered rocks are my favorite; but big rocks, little rocks, even pebbles, I love them all.

Recently I was visiting with two separate friends, and since walking through their respective gardens, I’ve been thinking about rocks and how they can enhance the design of a garden.

My friends have made it a practice to collect rocks on their travels, bring them home and then place the rocks as edging in their garden. How great is that? A border full of memories right outside your door. Each had tales of the road trips and hikes with friends; they smiled when telling me the stories.

Driving by the newly remodeled Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center, I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful stones in the garden near Quarrier Street. These stones look like mountains rising from the garden beds, adding interest and beauty while giving a nod to our Mountain State. I also think they are a subtle way to keep cars from driving through the tiny garden.

Yes, rocks in the garden are everywhere. I even noticed the dry creek bed created during the recent construction near the bottom of Corridor G.

A dry creek bed can be a practical solution, but also a very beautiful way to deal with drainage issues. In this area, I often see them leading water down a slight incline or small bank. If this is something you are giving thought to, first take note of how and where the water flows after a heavy rain.

Water tends to create and follow a path over time. Notice how it drains. If the drainage is good and the water absorbs into the soil in a reasonable time you’re in good shape.

If not, and your landscape design permits, think about how a shallow rock bed may allow the water to travel, and slowly soak into the ground without creating damage or flooding to other areas.

I saw a photo of a small rock bed coming off a down spout, guiding the water off the slope. It was a clever design and a smart way to manage the water flow. I have the perfect spot to try this in my backyard.

Too much moisture is not the only reason to landscape with rocks. Sometimes it is the opposite.

Sunny, dry spots can be perfect for a rock garden, and a way to save on watering and maintenance. We’ve all seen the landscaping in Arizona and Nevada. Often there is no green grass in sight.

Rock gardens can have a place on the East Coast, too. Our Appalachian terrain can be ideal for both shade and sun rock gardens. We know in shady spots, rocks will become covered in moss and ferns and create beautiful textures in the heavy shade.

Let’s talk about creating a sunny bed using rocks. If you are working with a naturally rocky spot, great. If not, begin by placing the larger stones so at least one-third of the rock is in the soil. This will help to keep it stable and look as though it has always been there and has become exposed over time.

Choose various sizes, but do keep somewhat in the same stone family. This sounds like a silly statement, but what I really mean is, try staying with porous rocks, which will absorb water and keep the plant roots dry. Examples would be limestone, sandstone or shale. Choices like marble or granite will not absorb the water and will work better for desert landscaping.

There is no need to worry about a heavy layer of soil. Most of the rock-loving plants have very shallow roots and will flourish in the most unlikely situations.

They don’t need much soil, and they don’t need much water. Again, the rocks should create natural drainage (porous rocks) and keep the plant roots dry. Try planting hens and chicks (sempervivum), rollers (jovibarba) and stonecrop (sedums). For a little color, consider perennials such as pinks (dianthus). Lichens and moss will also add interest to your rock garden.

Whether you’re landscaping with bags of pea gravel, river rocks from a hike, stones dug up from a field, or boulders set in place with a crane, enjoy bringing the natural element into your design.

Experiment with plants, sizes, and textures; most of all, enjoy the time spent outside in your garden.