Building a Rock Garden - Site Preparation
by Sue Leduc

It’s spring. All your little seedlings are screaming to get out of their pots and into the garden. But the garden is still an undeveloped area that is a beautiful garden only in your mind. It’s time to get down to some serious graft.

Preparing your site well can make the difference between a rock garden that is a source of joy and one that is a source of never-ending toil.

The first thing to deal with is the plant life that is already occupying the space. You don’t want lawn grass or weeds coming up from below. It is very destructive to have to dig out spontaneously occurring, positionally-challenged native flora (read: weeds) whose roots are over 6 inches (15 cm) below the surface of your garden. They invariably come up right between your 2 favourite ‘dislikes disturbance’ plants or in that tight crevice between the biggest rocks where you’re planning to grow some very choice but difficult alpine beauty. There are three ways to deal with vegetation that is already established where you want to place your rock garden - poison it, dig it up, or squash it.

Poisoning can be effective The broad spectrum herbicide, RoundUp (which most organic gardeners agree is not completely unacceptable) can be used according to the product directions. Exercise great caution when using it though. You can very easily damage the surrounding area and kill plants that you (or your neighbour) want to keep. More than one treatment may be required, so you will need to be patient. Once all the vegetation is dead, give the entire area a good piercing with a garden fork to encourage drainage.

Digging has many advantages. You can recycle the ‘waste’ product by inverting stripped sod to form the bottom layer of the garden. You can winkle out the tap-rooted weeds. You may find rocks that you can use in the construction of your garden. And you can break up any clay hardpan all at the same time. We’ve all ‘dug’ a new garden. One disadvantage to digging is that you’re disturbing the surface of the soil, which could create a perfect environment for those dormant weed seeds. You could be breaking up quack grass roots and spreading them all over the base of your new garden. And, of course, it’s genuinely hard physical labour.

I will now admit it - I am a lazy gardener. If there is an easy way to achieve the desired results, I will figure it out. I favour the ‘squash’ technique of site preparation. Quite simply, I create an impenetrable physical barrier between the existing soil and vegetation and the growing medium for my new garden. I have used landscape fabric but I find the best (and cheapest!) to be multiple layers of large sheet newspaper. The technique is very easy, but try not to do it on a windy day. Mow the area with the mower blades at the lowest setting, leaving all the debris where it falls. Cover the area with pads of newspaper 8 or more sheets thick and overlap them by 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm). Spray the area with water as you go to prevent the paper from blowing away. This will also serve as a good base for the gravel path or mowing edge that you designed into your garden. Cover the paper with a layer of gravel or stonedust to hold it in place, to protect it from accidental damage that could let light through to the weeds below, and to provide a free-draining base for the garden.

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