Building a Rock Garden - Where Do I Start?
by Sue Leduc

So, you’ve seen pictures of beautiful landscapes of alpine plants growing in their native habitats; you’ve seen other people’s gardens and have fallen in love with the look of tiny plants growing in almost impossibly rugged conditions. Now you want to bring that to your own home garden. But where do you start?

As with any new landscaping project, the first step is to pick your location. Most alpine and rock garden plants need a location in ‘full sun’. This means that they should receive at least 6 hours of sun each day. They also like a fair amount of air movement, especially in our hot, humid summers. Surface water (such as spring runoff, mid-winter melt and autumn rains) can kill many of the most delightful alpine gems. Many rock garden plants benefit from a bit of shade at midday in high summer.

With these points in mind, take a hard look at your own yard. You need to find a place that is relatively out in the open for sun and air movement. It should also be a naturally ‘high spot’ to reduce the effects of surface water. A deciduous tree or shrub on the north-west could give you that bit of shading from harsh midday sun in the summer. If you are lucky enough to have a natural rock outcrop in your yard, nature has handed you the ideal spot to start.

Once you have picked the location, you should consider the practicalities of that choice. Is it close to a water source so that newly transplanted seedlings can be watered? Is it close enough to where the inevitable pile of rocks and soil will be delivered that you won’t break your back (or your helper’s)? Will your wheelbarrow or dolly fit through the gates? Is it easily accessible from the house, to encourage you to visit it regularly for weeding, watering, tidying and just plain enjoying?

Now that you know where it’s going to be, you have to decide how big it’s going to be. As a general principle, it should be in scale with your yard. So, generally, if you have a small yard, it should be small. However, I have seen some magnificent rock gardens that take up the whole back yard on some fairly small lots. The matter of scale is probably more important if your yard is very large. Our property is just shy of 2 acres (.75 hectares), so a small rock garden would get lost. Keep in mind though that the larger the garden is, the more rocks (and soil and plants!) you will need.

Now, you should do your trial layout. Outline the space with a garden hose or rope. Remember that a curved outline is easier to mow around and is more natural in appearance. Place some empty pots or garden furniture in and around the future garden (to represent rocks and changes of level, and to help you visualize the garden) and once again get an idea of scale.

When you are happy with your plan, make a sketch of it on paper. Mark your compass points and any surrounding existing landscaping. Make notes about the measurements and proximity to property lines. Check to make sure that you are not building above any utility lines in the city (gas, water, sewer etc.) or services in the country (just ask about our cactus bed built on top of the wellhead...)

Now you’re ready to really get started.

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