How to Build a Rockery – An Easy Step By Step Guide

Updated/Fact-Chacked on January 26, 2022 by John

If you love gardening, chances are that you would relish building a garden rockery. Rock gardens imitate rugged, high-altitude surroundings that favour alpine plants. If done well, a rockery feature could be a stunning addition to your outdoor space.

The process of transforming a section of your garden into rockery is not only inexpensive and is a great project to try.  A rockery will add another interesting section to your garden; creating sections is a key part of garden design. Besides that, it improves the ‘curb appeal’ of your property if created at the front of your property.

The best part is that a garden rockery is easy to maintain. They don’t demand much in terms of resources and time and the plants that work well are generally low maintenance.

Custom built rockery section of a garden

What is the best location for building a rockery?

The open space outside your home with a sizable patch of soil would be the ideal spot to build a rockery. The preferred location should be bright, without any shade from trees, although some alpine can thrive in partial shade. However, if you do not have a suitable space, you can create a rock landscape in a container if you have a small sunny spot. To achieve this, you will need pots and troughs.

small rockery design in a stone trough

Rockeries are quite flexible. You can opt to make them on sloping or flat ground. You can either build a large or small rockery depending on your preference as well as the available space.

When should you make a rockery?

Early autumn is a good time to build a garden rockery. Mid-September generally works well as temperatures have started to drop. If you are planting young alpine plants, you don’t want them getting scorched by the summer heat.  You also don’t have to lug heavy rocks about in 25 degrees heat!

Spring is also a good time to build a rockery as you will have more plants available in local garden centres.

What you will need to build a rockery

  • A spade and a trowel
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Compost and topsoil to plant into
  • A crowbar for rock moving (If very large)
  • Gravel
  • Stones
  • Grit
  • Broken bricks or coarse rubble
  • Large and small rocks
  • Alpine plants preferably dwarf and succulent conifers
  • A marker for marking the area you intend to put the rockery

natural rockery in a an alpine setting, this is what you want to emulate

How to build a rockery

Before starting,  plan exactly where your rock garden is going to go, draw out a garden plan on paper – you don’t need to be a great artist, a simple sketch will do.

rock garden design on paper

Step 1 – Clear an area

Clear and weed out the area you have marked for your garden rockery. If you notice some resilient variety of weed, invest in a quality weed killer to eliminate it. If you decide to build your rockery on level ground, you will be required to do a little bit of digging. Dig on the front of the earmarked area to create some depth for your setup. Use the native soil to create a sizable mound.

Step 2 – Add a weed-free membrane

Add a weed prevention membrane to stop any weeds coming through; weed roots could make the whole rockery unstable. Once the membrane is in place, add your layer of gravel or small stones.

weed free membrane for rockery

Step 3 – Place the larger rocks in position

In your collection of rocks, select the best. Use a set of stones that will make your rockery look spectacular. Working with native rocks will give your garden rockery a natural look. Apart from that, they are easy to source.

Place them carefully and orderly on your gravel layer, start with the larger rocks to form a mountain-like arrangement, making it look as natural as possible.   Give it a little bit of style and personality. After you are done with laying out the large rocks, move on to the small ones, allowing some spaces for planting.

Step 4 – Dig some holes for planting

Place your plants (in the pots) in the desired location, you can move them around to get the best arrangements. Once you have the perfect look, dig the holes for each plant.

Mix your compost. It should consist of horticultural grit, weed-free topsoil, and coir or leafy mould in equal quantities. Fill in planting pockets with compost. Alpine plants do not need overly fertile soil to thrive. Therefore, you will not need fertilizer.

Step 5 – Plant 

Take out your collection of alpine plants from their respective containers. Start planting them in between the spaces of the rocks filled with compost.

Step 6 – Add top gravel or small stones to act as a mulch layer

Use grit to cover the bare sections of the soil. It will not only prevent the growth of weed but also help with water retention.

rockery 3

How to take care of your rockery

Learn to determine when your plants need watering. Inspecting the moisture in the soil by dipping your fingers should work.  When you do this several times, you will figure out the watering pattern.

How to water your rockery

Every time you water your garden rockery, flood it with water and then allow it to drain it. However, ensure that you are not overdoing it. Follow the watering cycle that you have established.

Weeding should be a frequent exercise. You don’t want it to get to a point where the weed dominates the garden. While doing it, do not use chemicals. Herbicides may affect or kill your beautiful alpine plants.  You can also limit the growth of weeds by covering the bare soil with extra crushed rocks.  As such, the weed will not find spaces to thrive.

How to Build a Rockery

Mulching will play a crucial role in protecting your alpine plants during winter. The best materials to use for mulching are spruce and pine branches.  Experts also recommend pruning to keep plants within their designated boundaries.

The truth is that building a rockery is quite fulfilling for any gardener. It gives you a great sense of accomplishment.  Rockeries are built to last, with minimal maintenance, you will enjoy your rockery for years to come. If you have been putting the thought of making your rockery on hold, it’s time to act. Follow this guide carefully diligently, and you will succeed.

The Best Plants for a Rockery

Alpines work really well in a rockery, along with outdoor succulents.

If you are looking to attract more bees to your garden, consider planting some bee loving alpine flowering plants like these below:

-Armeria maritima ‘Armada Rose’
-Campanula poscharskyana
-Primula vulgaris
-Erica carnea f. alba Whitehall
-Ajuga reptans ‘Catlin’s Giant’

If you are on a tight budget, consider growing alpines from seed.  If this is too much hassle, find a local nursery with a good selection – nurseries are generally cheaper than garden centres.

Rockery Ideas

There are many types of rockery designs to choose from, to get inspiration head of to interest.  If you don’t want to head down the traditional English rock garden, consider going more minimal with a Japanese rock garden or Zen rock garden.

Japanese rockery design

Building a Rockery FAQs

Can you build a rockery in the shade?

While most alpines require full sun, you can build your rockery in a partial-shade area if you choose the right plants. Saxifrages, ajuga, pasque flower, reticulated iris, wood spurge, columbine all love partial-shade and growing among rocks.

Can you build a rockery on a slope?

Yes, this will be the most natural-looking setting as it will mimic the mountainous regions your alpine plants are from