An expert explains this rugged, low-maintenance garden style and shares inspiration and practical advice for starting your own rock garden at home—even if you have a small space.
Advertisement
Alpine rock garden and gravel pathway
Credit: Joseph Tychonievich

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.

Rock garden with winding gravel path and house in background
Rock garden close-up photo of purple flowers amongst rocks
Left: Credit: Joseph Tychonievich
Right: Credit: Joseph Tychonievich

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.

Unfilled raised bed for rock garden
Filled raised bed for rock garden
Raised garden bed with sand, gravel and plants
Left: Credit: Joseph Tychonievich
Center: Credit: Joseph Tychonievich
Right: Credit: Joseph Tychonievich

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.

Rock gardening in a container
Rock garden container garden
Left: Credit: Joseph Tychonievich
Right: Credit: Joseph Tychonievich

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 garden
Credit: Joseph Tychonievich

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.

Rock garden with water feature
Rock garden with railroad tracks
Left: Credit: Joseph Tychonievich
Right: Credit: Joseph Tychonievich

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.

hens and chicks alpine rock garden
Credit: Teresa Woodard

Succulents

Hearty succulents like hens and chicks are tough and multiply in well-drained soil

Alpine versions of dianthus create dense mounds of silver foliage with pink blooms
Credit: Joseph Tychonievich

Dianthus

Alpine versions of dianthus create dense mounds of silver foliage with pink blooms.

Flowering alpine daphne shrubs thrive in the Midwest climate when planted in raised rocky soil
Credit: Joseph Tychonievich

Daphne Shrubs

Flowering alpine daphne shrubs thrive in the Midwest climate when planted in raised rocky soil.

Hostas alpine rock garden
Credit: Teresa Woodard

Mini Plants and Bulbs

For shady locations, use mini hostas and ivy-leaved cyclamens. Rock gardens are also a great place to experiment with smaller spring bulbs like mini daffodils and crocus. "It's a great way to display these tiny precious bulbs that can easily get lost in a larger garden," Joseph says.

Related:Make a Daffodil Kokedama

Rock Gardening book cover by Joseph Tychonievich
Credit: Joseph Tychonievich

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.