Everything to Know About Rock Gardens

Dina Cheney
Written by Dina Cheney
Updated February 14, 2022
A landscaped garden with rocks and fountain in front of the house
Photo: elenaleonova / E+ / Getty Images


  • Rock gardens are artificial but designed to look natural.

  • Rock gardens are a low-maintenance alternative to turf or flower gardens.

  • Rock gardens provide year-round beauty and conserve water.

  • You can choose from various types of rock gardens, such as Zen, water feature, boulder arrangement, or corner.

  • The cost of rock gardens depends on the type and quantity of rocks you choose.

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From Zen rock gardens to artificial waterfalls cascading from rock walls, rock gardens can take many shapes and forms. Low maintenance, they’re ideal for arid climates and areas that are difficult to landscape. Plus, they add drama, variety, and natural beauty. Read on for the lowdown on rockeries, from their types to their pros and cons and costs. 

What Are Rock Gardens?

Rock gardens, or rockeries, are intentional arrangements of rocks, including pebbles, stones, or boulders. Although they’re artificial, they’re designed to look natural. Sometimes, rock gardens include rocks only, but often, they feature plants as well.

Pros of Rock Gardens

The benefits of rock gardens are endless:

  • Add Structure: Rock gardens can separate different areas of a property (such as setting off a slope or raised garden bed). They can also add height and depth.

  • Versatile Design: Create a rugged rock garden with rough, irregular rocks and a formal rock garden with smooth pebbles or white gravel. A mix of slabs, black pebbles, and white granite looks modern, while a combo of stepping stones and lush plantings adds charm.

  • Year-Round Beauty: Even in the middle of the winter, rock gardens provide contrast, structure, and color to gardens.

  • Low Maintenance: Rock gardens require much less maintenance than grass or flower gardens. Just don’t forget to weed and to fertilize and irrigate any plantings.

  • Long-Lasting: Rocks last longer than mulch. Unlike wood chips, you won’t need to replace them.

  • Promote Drainage: Use river rocks to help protect your yard from water damage and wet spots.

  • Variety: Rocks come in a ton of textures, sizes, styles, and colors.

  • Pest-Resistant: Unlike mulch, rocks don’t attract ticks, termites, and other insects.

  • Ideal for Arid Climates: Rock gardens are perfect in drier parts of the country, including deserts.

  • Water-Conserving: You'll save water by installing a rock garden rather than turfgrass or plantings.

  • Can Go Anywhere: Consider a rock garden in a part of your property that’s difficult to landscape, like rough terrain or a steep slope.

Cons of Rock Gardens

  • Heavy: Large rocks can be difficult to lift and set in place. You’ll likely need to hire a local landscaper for the job.

  • Expensive: Some rocks are quite costly. To save money, buy in bulk and consider using more economical crushed granite, river rocks, and pea gravel. Also, try Craigslist, Freecycle, and rock quarries when sourcing materials.

Types of Rock Gardens

Cacti and rocks in the front yard of a house
Photo: jgareri / E+ / Getty Images

Here’s a sampling of a few of the options for rock gardens. Be sure to check building codes and apply for permits for upgrades like water features, retaining walls, and firepits or fireplaces.

  • Zen: These structured arrangements of smooth rocks, raked sand, and minimal plants are serene.

  • Cactus: Intersperse rocks and cacti in desert climates.

  • Water Feature: Surround a waterfall or pond with large rocks and adorn it with plantings.

  • Border: Use rocks to create a margin around decks, patios, garden beds, and paths or walkways.

  • Raised Bed: Stack large and small rocks, then fill with mulch before planting.

  • Retaining Wall: On a slope, erect a stone retaining wall.

  • Boulder: Arrange these large rocks to create a focal point.

  • Steps: Use rustic natural stones or rectangular slabs.

  • Path or Walkway: Opt for rectangular slabs or line a pathway with river rocks, lava rocks, crushed pea gravel, or crushed granite.

  • Fire Pit or Fireplace: DIY a firepit by stacking large rocks on the bottom, filling in empty spaces with small rocks, and lining with heat-resistant stones like lava rocks. Use stone and concrete to create an outdoor fireplace.

  • Dry Creek Bed: For a wet area, dig a trench, fill it with river rocks, and line it with large rocks.

  • Corner Or Nook: Create a small rockery in a corner or awkward area. Try lining it with large rocks and placing soil and plants in the middle.

Best Rocks For Rock Gardens

Ask your local landscape designer what they recommend, but consider these pointers:

  • Try river rocks for borders and to promote drainage in wet areas.

  • Cover large areas with pea gravel.

  • Add height or create dramatic displays with boulders.

  • For pathways and short walls, consider flagstones. 

Costs of Rock Gardens

The price of the rock garden for your landscape will depend on the type and quantity of rocks you choose. Here’s an idea of what you’ll spend per material:

  • Boulders: $100–$1,500 per rock, plus $50–$300 for delivery

  • Pea Rocks: $3–$6 per bag

  • River Rocks: 5–40 cents a pound or $100–$800 per ton

  • Decomposed Granite: $2–$5 per bag or $30–$60 per cubic yard

Best Plants For Rock Gardens

Plants add color, texture, and contrast to rock gardens. When selecting plantings, aim for a mix of creeping and upright varieties whose hues mesh or contrast with the colors of the rocks. Also, make sure your climate and light and soil conditions suit the plants you choose. Here are a few tips:

  • Alpine and other drought-tolerant plants thrive in sandy soil with good drainage.

  • For a rock garden in full sun, try sedums, succulents, lavender, ornamental grasses, narcissus, alliums, creeping thyme and phlox, and dwarf conifers.

  • Think about hostas, ferns, or moss if your rock garden is in the shade.

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