Read on to see how I added curb appeal to our rockery wall with a small budget and simple tools.
Are you thinking “what is a rockery?” Before buying our house in Seattle, I had never heard of a rockery wall or Alpine garden. Oxford dictionary defines it as a “a heaped arrangement of rough stones with soil between them, planted with rock plants, especially alpines.” Our home has a two part rock wall that is separated by our staircase. The whole front yard is basically rock wall. Some of the existing plants, like ferns, were fine. But the majority were overgrown beyond pruning. With very little budget, I set out to tame the wild wall.
A neighbor told me the presence of rocks in the area is due to glaciation that occurred two million of years ago. How cool! As I was digging up plants, I found tons of rocks. In Southern California I would purchase bags of “river rocks” for my yard, while in Seattle I found them buried in my yard for free. I set aside the rocks I found and used them along the base of the rock wall and other areas of the yard.
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The photo above is actually the other side of my wall. I didn’t take any photos while clearing the section of wall seen in my “after” photos. But the methods used were the same; cut back shrubs then dig out the roots, remove excess soil. Some of the rock spray plant roots are so hard to reach in the crevices of the rocks that I let them be. In small scale, they are fine, but in their over grown state they look like haunted house plants!
Tools and materials.
When I started this project I didn’t have a lot of garden tools and my budget was very tight. I made do with my shrub shears for cutting through the thick plants. Luckily, there weren’t too many woody plants to remove. I used a small shovel to get in the small spaces between rock crevices. Landscape fabric isn’t pictured, but I linked it because it has really helped to block weeds on the slope.
Urban archaeological specimens.
After pulling out the overgrown plants, I had to dig out some of the dirt to get to the rocks making up the rock wall. Buried there I found old bottles and cans, as seen above, bottle caps, toys, broken perfume bottles, and lots of candy wrappers. As I cleared out the dirt, I was able to see what the wall actually looked like. Luckily, it is stable and in pretty great condition.
Choose plants and create a layout within a budget.
My goals for the plants in the rockery are low maintenance, year-round interest (lots of perennials), and small scale. To achieve this, choose a lot of ground covers that spread over the rocks. Then fill in with a few plants that have more height like hebes and heathers. My sister-in-law gave me some succulents from her own rock wall, and a cherry tree that I placed at the top. I left the existing ferns in place and I found some good plants in the sale sections of nurseries and big box stores. If I did buy a full price plant, I bought the smallest (read cheapest!) version of it. Helpful folks at a local nursery helped me to pick out some great plants that would stay fairly small with small root systems.
The plants seen in the above photo are (I am in Zone 8B and these plants perform well for me):
- Crazy Blue Russian Sage
- Purple Goose Leaf
- Sea Campion
- Wooly Thyme
- Heuchera (I used a few different varieties)
- There are also some Hebes, Heathers, Sword Ferns, Euphorbia, Hens and Chicks, and Mexican Fan grasses.
This was my first time planting on a large scale from scratch. In the past I had container gardens or inherited yards where I planted some new things here and there. It was really exciting to watch the space fill in, to see what worked well together. I especially love how the Sea Campion, Purple Goose Leaf and Wooly Thyme cascade over the rocks, softening the angular edges of the rocks.
I feel like it took me most of one summer to clear the space, and then part of the early fall to add some plants. I probably worked on this wall one or two days per week, for one or two hours.
A few seasons of growth.
These plants are coming up on their third summer and I’m really pleased with the way they grew in. Last summer I moved a few plants around and added in some new ones, like the Hebes and Heathers, but mostly left it as-is.
I can’t rattle of the scientific names of the plants yet, but my thumb is getting greener. Many neighbors have complimented how well this wall has turned out. One neighbor said he didn’t think I’d be able to make anything so nice out of the mess that it was! I remember I would be outside usually during my son’s naps, battling with the overgrowth, and this neighbor would walk his dog at the same time. Little did I know he thought my work was in vain! Many people would stop and encourage me, which was sweet. Between gardening and walks with my son, I got to know a lot of neighbors. Many of them probably think I’m mad; muttering to myself in the yard, cursing stubborn roots, dirt all over me, hair flopping around. Oh well, suits me fine to be the crazy plant lady.
Some Frequently Asked Questions
How do you prevent weeds from growing?
My favorite thing to use is weed barrier fabric. I have had many people suggest cardboard, tarps, newspaper, even old roofing shingles. I have used cardboard and the weeds grow way more in this area than where I have weed barrier fabric. I suspect newspaper would be even worse. If you have an old tarp on hand or loads of cardboard, try it out and see if they work. It is sort of impossible to prevent weeds from growing in the small crevices of a rockery and I haven’t attempted to add weed barrier in those awkward spaces.
Why do you need a rockery in your garden?
Since our home is on the top of a slope, the rockery is our retaining wall. Many rockeries are retaining walls, but rockery gardens can be made in corners on artificial slopes.
What are the best plants for a rock garden?
Depending on your climate, the plant selection will vary. I chose a lot of groundcovers that drape over the rocks in a really pretty cascade formation. The grasses also soften the sharp lines of the granite rocks. Succulents like Euphorbia and Hen and Chicks will fill in cervices nicely. Conifers look nice for a woodland garden feel. Rock walls, like other retaining walls do shift and plants with large root systems can cause the rocks to bow out and even slide. The large section of wall we have, had to be rebuilt because of this issue- not fun! A good rule for any rock garden would be to use ground covers, succulents, grasses and some taller plants for height variation. A local nursery would be a great resource to help with your specific selection!
Rockery Plant Guide
Pin the image below to save for future planting!
Thank you for reading. If this is your first time at my casa, welcome! Hope you all visit again.
Some more ideas for around your house:
A super easy wire espalier trellis that won’t break the bank.
A breakfast nook banquette made from stock cabinets and butcher block.
Ideas from friends around the web:
A DIY garden apron that will hold all your tools and look cute while doing it!
A DIY Garden Bed Cover to keep pests off your plant babes!