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Planting for the rock garden

Although rock garden planting is often considered a specialised and difficult area of gardening, there is a huge range of plants available for rock garden planting. The good news is that many of these plants are easy to grow, without specialised knowledge. Here are Ladybrook Nursery’s tips for designing and planting the perfect rock garden.

What counts as a rock garden?

Traditionally, rock gardens are reserved areas where gardeners can grow the sort of plants normally found in high, mountainous, alpine habitats. Garden designs are therefore purposely constructed from rocks and stones in an attempt to mimic the bare outcrops, scree slopes, ledges, and crevices found at high altitudes. Most of the plants that thrive in this type of rock garden are small and compact, and tend to be tough and drought-resistant. Many of them flower profusely, in a range of brilliant colours.

Contemporary garden design, however, has broadened the definition of the term ‘rock garden and in many ways revolutionised what rock gardens can be. Drawing inspiration from Mediterranean and desert landscapes, and employing lots of hard surfaces such as paving, pebbles, river stones, and gravel, modern rock gardens are just as likely to feature cacti and succulents as traditional ‘true’ alpines.

Planting a rock garden

The best site for an alpine rock garden is normally on an open, sunny, south-facing slope. Almost all rock plants grow best with lots of light and in well-drained soil. Some rock-garden plants are true “alpines,” and some aren’t. Those that are actually come from alpine regions, where they grow above the tree line, have evolved to withstand the extreme weather conditions found at high altitudes. Most are dwarf or low-growing and hug the ground for protection from strong winds. Their leaves tend to be small, fleshy, and often covered by woolly hairs in order to help them retain moisture that would otherwise evaporate in hot sun or constant wind.

Non-alpines include dwarf trees and shrubs, plants that originate on cliffs and shores in coastal areas, a wide range of miniature bulbs, and even cacti and succulents. In general, however, all plants that are suitable for rock gardens share the same dislike of being waterlogged and a preference for free-draining, moderately fertile soils.

Practical considerations to think about before planting

Before you draw up a shortlist of your preferred plants, it’s worth taking the following points into consideration:

  • Make a plan before visiting the nursery, so the plants are well matched to the conditions you can offer
  • Plant all your chosen plants in open, sunny sites with good drainage and reasonably fertile soil
  • Most shrubs will, in time, grow too large for smaller rock gardens, but a few are sufficiently slow-growing or compact to be considered
  • Allow enough room for the plants’ growing habits and try to plant in groups to avoid a patchy, bity look
  • Be wary of conifers unless they are miniature, as opposed to dwarf: dwarf conifers may be slow-growing, but they will become quite large eventually and no longer be fit for purpose.

Small rock garden plants

  • Yellow alyssum
  • Purple ice plant
  • Angelina stonecrop
  • Creeping thyme
  • Blue fescue
  • Candytuft
  • Ajuga
  • Creeping phlox
  • Pasque flower
  • Reticulated iris
  • Wood spurge

Medium-sized rock garden plants

  • Moonbeam coreopsis
  • Lavender
  • Yarrow
  • Autumn Joy sedum
  • Royal Candles speedwell
  • Columbine
  • Blue Rug juniper
  • Shasta daisy
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Perennial salvias
  • Giant catmint

Larger rock garden plants

  • Mugo pine
  • Russian sage
  • Cotoneaster
  • Lamb’s ear

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