Building a Rock Garden - Anchors Aweigh
by Sue Leduc

What I'm going to describe is the building of a sort of hybrid of an outcrop and a raised rock garden. This type of garden is ideal for the Ottawa area because it incorporates the type of natural geology we are likely to find, addresses our need for perfect drainage in the spring and fall, and recognizes the underlying heavy clay soil that is so common.

Building your first rock garden is an exercise in contradictions. So prepare yourself for a lot of ‘buts'.

On the one hand, you want it to look like Mother Nature herself spilled the rocks into position and, over centuries, filled the gaps with soil and plants. You want it to seem to be a beautiful vista perched part-way up a rugged mountainside with pieces of the earth's own skeleton peeking out through the soil, and with a background of distant peaks, their snow-caps glistening in the sunlight. On the other hand, you're looking at an absolutely flat bit of land. The nearest ‘mountains' are ancient, low and rounded, covered by forest with an occasional solid granite cliff. The peaks in the background are the peaks of your neighbours' roofs. They only have a snow-cap at the same time of year that you're shovelling the driveway, not tending the garden.

Unless your rocks are all from the same geological formation, your first step should be sorting them into similar groups. We have two different colours of pocky limestone, a series we call the ‘rusty' rocks, the ‘anvil' group, the ‘water-worn' series, and the ‘transition' pieces that are sort of in between the other groups. All of these we've collected from rock piles within walking distance of our house. We have also received rocks that are completely unrelated to any of the local formations as gifts from friends. We love to include them in our garden. These ‘groups' should be clustered together as you build. The ‘transition' rocks are used to make a credible link from one grouping to the next.

Think of building a rock garden as sculpting a miniature landscape. The best place to start building is from your ‘anchor' points. These would be your biggest and most attractive rocks that you want to show off the most and be the central feature of your garden. They will establish the heights of the outer walls and the middle. But, make sure that your middle is not in the absolute middle. If you don't have any really massive rocks to use as ‘anchors', a cluster of smaller rocks can be just as effective. This will give you some nice tight crevices that certain rock plants need to thrive.

This is the time to establish the ‘grain' of your rocks. If there are any strata lines, make sure that they are parallel from the start. They don't have to be parallel to ground level but they should be parallel to each other throughout your construction.

When you finish getting your anchors in position, go get a cup of coffee and your spouse or best gardening friend. Stand back and take a critical look at what you've done. Do you love it? It will never be easier to make changes than it is now.

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