14 Small Rock Garden Ideas

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Brock Ingham
Brock Ingham

When building your first rock garden there may be a few questions that come to mind.  “How do I set up the rock garden?” “Should I use plastic or fleece underneath?” or “what about mulch?” This guide will help you with your initial set up of the rock garden as well as spark some creativity from the different options for design.

Rock Garden 1

What you need to build a Rock Garden

So, let’s get started;

What you are going to need:

  • Depending on the size of your garden you will need some horticultural fleece or plastic landscaping sheets.
  • A shovel for moving the soil and digging out sections
  • A variety of large and small rocks in various colors, this can be determined by your overall goal of the design some people prefer all one color or size of stones, the choice is completely yours!
  • (optional) A water feature to include among the larger stones. In later examples you will see how a well-placed trickle of water can make your stones look aged and weathered.
  • (optional) Cedar Mulch for added design, this can also be used in place of the plastic cover or horticultural fleece. While it will look much better and be less of an environmental nuisance, mulch is typically less effective at keeping the weeds at bay.

Now that your well equipped with the basics lets get to the fun part and move on to the small rock garden examples to get the creative juices flowing.

Japanese sand garden with rocks

The Zen Garden

Rocks of all sizes have a unique way of bringing about calm and relaxation. This is especially apparent when creating a Zen rock garden.  This design makes great use of a natural stream that ran through their back yard.

Not close to running water?

Don’t worry ponds are an easy way to add depth to your design.  To complete the look, fine white sand was added to this small rock garden. Task yourself with the duty of raking the sand daily to put your mind at ease. And of course, a Zen Garden is not complete until the buddha statue is added!

River rock garden
River rocks assembled as a stream

River Rock Garden

Another great option if you don’t have a creek running through your landscape is adding the illusion of running water.

This river rock garden does a great job of tricking the eye’s into seeing much more than a bed of rocks.

Using small stones this river look is easily achieved.  Small stones typically sold as “river rocks” offer the best size and consistency. They are given this name due to the small and washed over look they have which is great for your river garden simulation.

By using much larger rocks as a border on each side not only are you able to keep the design contained but the border rocks add depth to your newly build rock garden.

Mini rock garden
Pot of soil with moss, groundcovers and pebbles

Mini Rock Garden

Working in smaller spaces? Try adding pots of mini rock gardens to your outdoor escape.

These fun little gardens are a great way to get kids involved in making their own little scenes.

Some popular additions to these tiny gardens include creeping herbs like thyme and oregano along side moss and mini painted mushrooms.  You can create a path with your pebbles or incorporate a rock garden wall as a backdrop for your mini garden scene.

Fountin rock
Large rock with waterfall feature

Rock Garden Fountain

Create something monolithic in your garden space by incorporating a fountain and waterfall rock garden. While working with water can be a bit tricky, over time it can create a truly serene experience.

This garden designer chose to focus their attention on one larger rock so they could create a waterfall effect from behind.  They carefully placed some greenery and let the grasses grow.

This option is still great for those looking to build something impactful in their yard or garden space.  While these larger rocks look nice, they are quite heavy to move and will require mechanics or a large group of strong friends to put in place. Watch your back!

Slate garden
Orange slab stone rock garden

Natural Slab Rock Garden

This option is great for the gardener looking to build something that looks a bit more natural.

Using well positioned flagship slate stones as steps are perfect for leading the eye up to a new section of the garden or can simply act as a focal point for your greenery.

This home owner in particular used a nicely shaded yellow stone that is rich in minerals. These minerals shine through and give the stone an almost painted look in the sunlight. As with the rock garden fountain, get ready for some heavy lifting!

Small rock border garden
Rock garden sitting area

Small Rock Border Garden

Not all rock gardens need to be fancy, sometimes all you need is a bit of the elements in order to get the look you are going after. Take this small rock garden for example, the gardener simply used the stones to create a nice border to separate the mulch from the river stone.  This makes for easy clean up as the leaves start to fall and creates some visual separation between spaces.  To add even more depth, follow this design lead by creating different levels between the separation of rocks for a more dramatic effect.

Transitional garden spaces
Organized rock garden with small and large rocks

Transitional Garden Spaces

Adding a small rock garden to your back-yard space can be a nice way to transition 2 different spaces. With rocks on one side and lush greenery on the other this garden creates great separation of space. Some garden centres will stock dark river rock like in the example above.  This will really depend on your area and the local stone available -you may need to do some searching to find the right color. Once you find the right color the accent stones can be placed. This home owner used tan accent stones for a bit of color and flagship stones to create a guided walkway for your guests.

Rocks and herb garden
Herbs and groundcovers in rock garden

Herb Garden With Rocks

Another great use for adding a small rock garden to your space is for cultivating herbs. Many perennial herbs growing directly in the ground or a raised bed will become crowded by neighboring plants as the season goes on.

Adding sparsely placed rocks throughout your garden can help to create little pockets for your herbs to flourish.  Take an herb like thyme, when left alone this plant will flourish, let it get crowded by other plants and you will be looking for something else to flavor your chicken with! Pairing perennials with rocks is ideals since you’re creating a permeant spot for your plants to grow again each year safe from critters looking for a winter snack.

Small Rock Fountain
Bamboo fountain rock garden

Bamboo Rock Fountain

Nature, when left alone can lead to some wonderful creations, take this rock fountain for example in Japan.  Hundreds of years worth of water flowing out of the spout and into the basin of this rock slowly formed the shape it is today.

While you might not have the patience of waiting even a few years for something like this to form it’s still an interesting sight to see. A similar effect can be made with a chisel and some smoothing out.  Not only will you be able to enjoy the tranquil noise of the water flowing, the fountain will serve as a nice bird bath for the local wildlife.

Large rock small fountain
Carved out rock and fountain garden

Small Rock Fountain

Similar to the example above this rock garden uses the power of mother nature to slowly carve out a place in this wet stone. Surrounded by grasses and low sitting plants this rock garden will add a sense of tranquility to your outdoor space.  Nestled into a walk way this fountain offers the perfect resting area for you to ponder the day or clear your mind.  Water features like this are a fun way to bring your rock garden to life. Rocks are ideal in all soil types for proper drainage so you can easily create a filter system that returns that water back to the top of the fountain through pump buried below.

Rock wall
Wall of rocks and tucked in plants

Rock Wall Garden

Sometimes as gardeners we are not always blessed with the perfect growing areas.  Sometimes the soil quality is less than ideal while other times we are forced to work with structures and slopes. If you’re like me living next to an escarpment having a rock wall in your yard can be a great garden transformation.

Some plants love being stuck in the nooks and crannies of rock walls due to their preference of low water and poor soil. Be sure to outfit your rock wall with these varieties, at first the wall might look like it’s lacking the proper vegetation, be patient and allow these hardy plants to establish and spread out.  Take a step back and review your work next year for gaps and holes that can be filled with new plants.

Desert Rock Garden
Dry desert plant and rock garden

Desert Rock Garden

Depending on the climate you live in a desert rock garden may be your best or only option.   Luckily for you desert plants like succulents, cactus and other low water plants love being planted among rocks. Some garden beds like this one can be made up almost completely of small rocks for your growing medium.  This gives you a wide variety of options when making your plans, small rocks in beds and post while the larger stones nestle up against your aloe plants.  So, sit back relax an enjoy the heat!

Japanese rock garden
Japanese mini rock garden

Japanese Garden Bed

Miniature creations can have the most rewarding outcomes. There is something special about scaling down a scene to only a few square feet. From tiny cooking videos to mini gardens this Japanese garden boasts true serenity. While it’s not easily seen in this picture the rock garden is surrounded by bamboo to keep it protected from tropical storms. The home owner recreated a dried-up riverbed to fully accentuate the different sizes and compositions of the rocks being used. While adding in a bit of overgrown grasses to complete the aged appearance in its true form.

Checkerboard Rock Garden
Large walkway checker board pattern

Checker Board Walkway

Not all rock gardens have to be sticking out of the ground. Take this example, the checker pattern of the rocks creates an optical illusion that can bring just as much joy as a small and tamed cluster of rocks. By using square cut flagship stones the pattern is kept clean and simple with clear structure throughout.  As time goes on the grass will begin to overgrow, this can already be seen in the upper hand corners of the image.  Some might prefer this look as it adds a bit of character to the otherwise predictable pattern.

You made it to the end of the list!

Thanks for sticking around and going through all of our examples.  Have you come across a garden idea worth sharing? We would love to hear it, leave a comment in the box below so we can follow up.

Common questions:

How much will this cost?

While the cost will really depend on how much you are looking to build this chart below will give you a sense of what each commonly purchased stone will cost.  (prices vary based on your region)

Landscaping Rock Prices

Landscape Rock TypeMinimum CostMaximum Cost
Crushed Granite  $50/cubic yard$70/cubic yard
Pea Gravel $2/bag $3/bag
River Rocks$0.05/pound $0.35/pound
Mexican Beach Pebbles$20/bag $30/bag
Cost estimate table

Where should I build my rock garden?

It’s a good idea to build your garden in a place that’s easy to access. After all you’ve spent all the time building its your going to want to easily visit your creation from time to time. This is especially important during weeding season when fleece or plastic is not being used below.

Plants to choose from:

Small grown cover plants are your best option for small rock gardens. When building on a desert landscape look for drought tolerant plants like succulents.  If you choose to add a water feature then try including some creeping thyme or ferns.

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  1. I’ve always wanted to have a rock garden in my backyard, so I’m currently looking for suppliers to contact regarding the materials I’ll be needing to set up one soon. I appreciate your suggestion when you told us to consider adding creeping herbs like thyme and oregano along with side moss to our mini rock garden while placing a path made of pebbles as a walkway. I’ll take note of these ideas while I look for a rock supplier to contact for my hardscape plans soon.

  2. I have a 3×6 river rock in an area underneath a window in the back of house. Looking to plant herbs there. Any idea what herbs are best and a layout so I don’t plant wrong herbs in front when better in the back? Thank you for your advice.
    Connie R

    1. Hi Connie! I’d stick growing creeping herbs like thyme and oregano in the front and large bushy herbs like rosemary in the back. If your rock garden receives north or south facing sun then these plants will grow well. 🙂

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