Rockery stone by pond lake

There’s definitely an art to building an attractive rockery garden. You can’t just rely on beautiful materials and some splashes of colour here and there from some plants – real thought needs to go into the positioning and layout. We’ve found this thinking about layout is not only important for aesthetics but even more so for the gardens ongoing use. When clients discuss these type of projects with us we always urge them to think about how they will use their garden; what does the space represent to them? How can it be utilised to give them what they want or need? Some clients are simply looking to create a low maintenance attractive looking space that they will not actually use, others want to create a rustic outdoor living space or seating area. These objectives need to guide your selection of materials, plants and layout.

We asked RHS Chelsea exhibiting garden designer Michelle Brown for her thoughts on how best to layout a rockery garden:

My rules would be to look for unity when selecting stones and think holistically about the whole garden. As a guide for colour I’d be using something that already exists within the garden- be it paving, some existing planting or use your house (this could be roof, walls materials, texture colour etc).  For example you could take red brick from the house walls and harmonise the colour of the rocks you choose with that. Think about tonal depth too; so shades of a single colour. Or perhaps look to create contrasts – consulting the colour wheel here and going for opposites works well.


The key to an attractive layout for me relies on making a focal point to start with. This could be a vertical stone or a big round smooth boulder. From there start to create triangles when placing and reducing size as you come forward in the space, then maybe put in a pop of height towards the front. It’s also good to have a few verticals of differing sizes to keep it visually interesting. Odd numbers in grouping seem to work best.
Treat the larger stones you use as one solid mass and give them space if they are being used as a feature. Help to ground them by using plants around for example a tall vertical stone may need a grass or fern which is perhaps a third of the overall height of stone. Low flat stones use even lower ground covering plants that flow around the stone. I guess what I try to do is use the stones and rocks like plants.
In terms of plants, I always look for height variance. I think of drama as the vertical and balance is the low. I’d look for tall jagged stones and make sure the strata are laid as they are formed geologically. Then use low more spread out stones to create the balance.

Rockery stone feature

A common objective with rockeries we hear from clients is that they want something natural looking but reasonably low maintenance. Many of them are looking to creating a rockery space instead of lawn or a full flower bed of planting. We spoke to Lisa Potter at Room With a View Garden Design for her take on making a rockery garden that’s attractive and low maintenance:

A rockery garden is low maintenance, it can either be a ground level scree type garden or used to retain a bank / slope. In my opinion a random hill can look a bit out of place & not something I would design in.

If there are feature plants such as an Acer I would be using bigger pieces of stone around that plant and grading the size out to smaller stone / rock then cobbles. Alpines such as Almeria, Arabis, Aubretia are evergreen and no maintenance. Evergreen grasses such as Carex Everillo, Carex Silver Sceptre, Festuca Elija Blue give good year round structure without getting too big. Flowering plants with grassy foliage and evergreen or semi-evergreen such as Libertia, Agapanthus & Sisyrinchium also require very little maintenance.

Conifers went out of fashion but there are some beauties like Thuja Amber Glow, Chamaecyparis Curly Tops, Chamaecyparis Rubicon & Pinus mugo mops which are all evergreen and architectural. The Amber Glow and Rubicon changing colour in the autumn.

On the same subject Michelle added:

My best advice for low maintenance would be choose your plants knowing exactly how big they will become and allow for that in your design. This means you do not have to prune constantly to keep plants looking right for your space and allowing their picturesque form to shine.

Evergreens, will hold their form of the space and if they flower/fruit/berry that’s a bonus! My faves are Acorus Ogon (grass vertical 30 cm) Ajuga varieties (low groundcover) grown for diverse purple foliage with a beautiful miniature blue flowering spike, think foxglove but 3 inches tall. Yellow and blue/purple contrasting and creates a livlier feel and would be great for brightening up a shady corner.

Tiarellas’ beautiful green and purple leaves with wands of white pale pink mini flowers would be nice in a garden like this – it would be like lots of fairies dancing through your rockery. Heucheras, heucherellas, are all evergreen, some have vivid flowers on 30cm high wiry stems. Hellebores; any variety I love using these in all styles of gardens from Japanese, Jungle cottage, they are just so versatile and flower early, they have textured foliage for the rest of the year.

All of the above are low growing evergreen plants so these will work like a carpet or tapestry of colour they will need dead heading and removal of faded leaves for maintenance.

Rockery garden

And finally we can’t talk about creating rockery spaces without covering Japanese gardens. So many of our clients are influenced by Japanese planting and aesthetics when creating this kind of space. We got the garden designers view on some key points on creating Japanese inspired rockeries;

For the hard landscaping products; be it big smooth boulders to small paddles stones, rugged standing/obelisk like stones the plan would be to createc focal points. I would then look to surround these with ferns, grasses, evergreen mounded shapes, to imitate the boulders/stones. Creating winding paths and places to and sit are really key for making spaces like this usable day to day. And don’t forget to use trees if you can especially acers, their Ace!

For plants I’d look to Acers, Loropetalum ( Chinese witch hazel) woodland type of plants Witch Hazels, Corylopsis, Dogwood,  Topiary, Cherry blossom trees and peonies. Whether the plants are native to Japan or the UK I am always looking for form in the bare stems – I’m always attracted to Acers as they have a romantic picturesque feel in my eyes. Evergreen buxus sempervirens, Box Balls or if you prefer a natural look create mounds or cloud-like placing works well too. Grasses Acorus above or Hakonechloa aurea (deciduous) yellow variegated leaves which form low swishy mounds.

Michelle Brown

On planting for Japanese rockery gardens Lisa added:

For me a Japanese garden needs an Acer, the atropurpureum dissectum are very graceful. Remember that Acers can suffer from sun and wind burn so this might affect the positioning within the space. I am a big fan of architectural pines, do not worry about the size- simply do as the Japanese do; prune to the size you want (bonsai).

If you’d like to see more of the respective work of these garden designers please take a look at their websites and if you need help designing your new outdoor space – get in touch with them!

Gardens by Michelle | Based in Weymouth, Dorset

Room With a View | Lisa Potter | Based in Winchester