Natural stone has a place in every garden. As a complement or counterpoint to plants, stones and rocks add depth, dimension, texture and color to the garden. When landscaping with stones and plants, draw inspiration from how many global cultures use stones and rocks in their landscaping design, from Zen sanctuaries to Mediterranean gardens.
For xeriscape gardens in climates with little rainfall, rocks and stones are important companions for drought-tolerant plants. Low, creeping plants meander around and between stones, while taller plants, like swaying ornamental grasses, provide contrast paired with larger rocks.
Plants That Grow on Rocks and Stones
Plants that grow on rocks and stones generally have long roots to absorb moisture even on dry surfaces. Many low-growing plants are well suited to rock gardens, some preferring well-drained soil and others preferring moist soil.
For year-round interest, the quintessential rock garden plant creeping phlox has evergreen foliage that spreads carpets of colorful blooms.
Sedums are easy-care plants you can forget about after planting because they quickly take root in rocky locations. The drought-tolerant ground cover comes in a variety of colors and textures. Some flowering varieties, like the variegated 'Atlantis' sedum, will also attract clouds of pollinators.
Lysimachia (aka creeping Jenny) adds color and texture between rocks or cascading down a stone wall.
For high-trafficked areas, 'Irish Moss' sagina forms thick, flat cushions of moss-like foliage that will survive endless trampling.
Some plants, like carex, are just easygoing. With a myriad of species for a variety of habitats, carex is adaptable to most conditions, whether in sun or shade, wet or dry environments, or rocky or loamy soil.
Ideas for Landscaping With Stones and Plants
Walkways With Pavers and Stepping Stones
Filling the gaps between pavers with low-growing, creeping and spreading perennial plants is both practical and aesthetic. Go for low-maintenance, robust, noninvasive plants that provide soil cover, prevent erosion, soften the edges of hard slabs and create a dense carpet to help inhibit weed growth.
Though some fillers are tough enough to tread on, it's generally wise to keep plants between stones to about one-quarter to about 2 to 3 inches in height to keep folks from tripping. Depending on the garden style and pathway, pavers and stones may be tightly placed only a few inches apart or have as much as 6 to 12 inches between them. The larger the space between stones, the taller the filler plants can be.
Go for continuity with a single type of plant or combine varieties. The textures, colors and shapes of both plants and pavers should work in concert with your garden's design. For a formal look, place uniformly sized slabs in geometric patterns set apart with ground covers. Or for an informal vibe, lay a path of stepping stones in various sizes and shapes, arranged to blend naturally with the surrounding habitat.
Between and Around Boulders
For contrast between large rocks and boulders, integrate meadow-like flowering varieties, such as chamomile, with taller ornamental grasses like fescue and sedges, such as carex.
With its fine-textured, green foliage and golden stripes, mounding 'Evergold' carex will spring up to 18 inches and, with its narrow leaves, fit neatly in small spaces between rocks.
Clumping 'Blue Fescue' bears fine, silvery-blue, semi-evergreen foliage that provides winter color and texture. At 8 to 12 inches tall, the grass offers a striking contrast against rocks.
The mounding, spreading, 'Purple Prince' alternanthera rolls out a magic carpet of burgundy-purple leaves complemented by ruby-rose undersides. The tall, nonflowering ground cover is ideal for cascading over a large boulder or stone wall.
Great for fire-prone gardens, the low-growing perennial ice plant can spread more than 2 feet wide, so it's better between boulders than between pavers. Throughout summer, its fleshy, gray-green foliage can almost become obscured by a profusion of jewel-tone, daisy-like blooms in purplish pink, yellow, white, orange or red.
Borders and Walls
Stone retaining walls on terraced gardens contrast well with plants cascading over the top. Allow 'Prostratus' rosemary to scramble over the rocks, or train it to drape over the stones for an herb garden wall.
Gabions, or wire mesh cages or boxes filled with rocks, make unique and cost-effective walls. For a planter, fill the gabion to the desired height, then center a planted pot and surround it with stones.
Dry Streams and Dry Gardens
Traditional Japanese gardens often integrate plants with stones, featuring rocks that represent mountains or emulate other elements of the natural landscape. In traditional Japanese "dry gardens," gravel replaces water to replicate winding rivers through the landscape. Easy care, practical solutions for catching runoff and aiding drainage, dry streams blend well with low-lying specimens alongside taller feathery-plumed ferns.
Stone Garden Steps
Elevate your garden plan by planting crevice-loving sedums or a robust perennial edible creeper like 'Golden' oregano between the risers of stone garden steps.
Stone mulch protects plant roots and retains moisture while allowing air to circulate. Practically maintenance-free, gravel and rock ground cover suppresses weeds, conserves water, improves drainage and makes a great partner for plants.
Not only will landscaping with stones and plants make your garden rock, but incorporating different textures throughout the garden creates interest and intrigue.
For more garden inspiration, check out Burpee's guide to creating a vertical garden.