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The 20 Best Plants for Rock Gardens

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Many people find rock gardens beautiful and practical. This type of garden doesn’t take as much effort to maintain as others considering that frequent mowing and deadheading aren’t required. A traditional rock garden can come with some important disadvantages that you need to overcome to have thriving plants in it. The soil in a rock garden is quite dry and lots of plants can find it difficult to grow between the rocks.

Although this kind of garden doesn’t give you ideal growing conditions, there are some better-adapted plants to try. Poor soil or drought won’t stop the following plants from making a colorful splash in your rock garden. As long as there’s good drainage, you can let many beautiful plants thrive here and elevate the hardscape look provided by gravels and rocks. There’s no strict definition when it comes to a “rock garden plant” but the following plants have many features in common that make them suitable for this kind of environment.

1. Rock Cress

As its name suggests, rock cress is a plant that’s well adapted to living in the soil between boulders. Known commonly as arabis, this creeper plant can beautify any rock garden with its clusters of pink or white flowers. There are multiple advantages to growing rock cress considering its ability to tolerate heat and drought. It’s safe to say that arabis is a hardy plant that matches the rock garden aesthetics and requirements.

Rock cress is a perennial plant that’s often used as groundcover and for erosion control. If you prefer, you can also use containers for planting. Another special feature of arabis is its great resistance to deer. When it comes to rock garden planting, it’s recommended to shear back plants after they bloom to allow the growth of denser clusters of flowers. Both full sun and partial shade can be considered acceptable for rock cress but well-drained soil is pretty much a requirement.

2. Thrift

Although it has a delicate appearance, the thrift plant is much hardier than it appears. This could be a great addition to a rock garden as it’s a compact plant that actually prefers poor soils as opposed to rich ones. There are other aspects that make thrift a reliable plant. It can withstand problems like strong winds and salt spray. The latter adaptation is mostly thanks to the original growing environment of the plant on ocean-side cliffs. For this reason, thrift is also commonly called sea pink.

When in full bloom, thrift plants can decorate any area with brilliant pink or white flowers. The grassy green foliage creates a great contrast and can have a decent ornamental purpose even by itself. This is a low-maintenance plant that you don’t need to worry about too much. It can tolerate drought and performs nicely in containers as well. The only weakness of thrift is soil with poor drainage that can cause rot issues. It’s recommended to place sea pink plants in full sun to maximize flower production.

3. Ice Plant

Many plants are commonly called “ice plants” but we’re referring to one particular species – Delosperma cooperi. This is a perennial that’s frequently used as ground cover for warm weather regions. The ice plant produces flowers for the entire duration of the summer season. It performs well despite strong heat conditions or periods of drought. This plant can be a welcomed addition in a rock garden as it adds splashes of pink and purple through its flowers.

Growing the ice plant involves a combination of well-drained soil and full sun exposure. It can have issues with certain types of soils such as dense clay. As long as you water this plant sparingly, it can easily thrive. Considering its warm weather adaptation, it may be important to add protective mulch during snowy winters. Ice plants are usually hardy enough to face cold temperatures but this particular variety is more sensitive. Some slow-release fertilizer can do wonders for the growth of this plant if your rock garden has really poor soil.

4. Dragon’s Blood Stonecrop

Rocky soils and drought conditions can make it hard for many plants to thrive. This is why opting for hardy plants such as succulents can be considered a smart decision. A great example is the Dragon’s Blood stonecrop plant. It features small dimensions and has a creeping habit. The pinkish-red flowers of the plant are attractive for butterflies. Unless you select a sunny spot for a Dragon’s Blood stonecrop, it’s safe to say that it won’t be able to produce flowers with vibrant colors.

Having this kind of succulent plant in a rock garden can be very beneficial. You won’t have to waste a lot of time with the maintenance as the Dragon’s Blood stonecrop is very easy to care for. The plant has a tendency to form a mat with a fleshy texture. The flowers will usually appear in the summertime. Thanks to its natural resistance to drought, the Dragon’s Blood stonecrop plant can be a striking addition to any dry rock garden. It’s recommended to opt for group planting or mass ground cover.

5. Prickly Pear Cactus

Hardy plants will make your life easier when it comes to maintaining your rock garden. This is why cacti are recommended for this area. One great example is the prickly pear cactus which boasts excellent drought tolerance and produces edible fruits. There are some disadvantages to consider like the spines on the leaves. You need to select an adequate spot farther away from the walkways. Growing the prickly pear cactus successfully requires a warm and dry climate.

It’s safe to say that you will have difficulties with this type of cactus unless you plant it in zones 9 to 11. Certain varieties like the Eastern prickly pear can withstand colder temperatures. Fruits won’t be able to appear if your prickly pear cactus doesn’t grow in ideal conditions. The juicy fruit of this cactus can be eaten raw or incorporated into flavorful desserts. Pads can be eaten too but you need to be careful about removing the spines very thoroughly.

6. Thyme

Thyme can act as a great decorative accent for any rock garden. This plant is recommended for covering a more specific area like an empty corner. There are some creeping varieties as well in case you prefer to cover the entire ground. Thyme herbs have bright green foliage and light purple flowers. You can make use of the distinctive aromatic properties of thyme to season your food. It seems to work quite well to keep meats fresh for longer due to its ability to act as a preservative.

The main reason why thyme can be considered great for a rock garden is its wide adaptability. You can grow it successfully by simply letting the herb alone. Its natural hardiness allows it to handle the difficult conditions that are usually characteristic of rock gardens. Thyme grows best in zones 5 through 10 but it depends on the particular requirements of the chosen variety. Wooly thyme works nicely for rock garden thanks to the cascading habit but you should also consider creeping thyme to meet any ground cover needs.

7. Euphorbia

This is an excellent plant for gardeners living in warm climates. Euphorbias are succulents that can tolerate heat and drought levels considered deadly for many other plants. The plant is available in a multitude of shapes and colors to match your rock garden aesthetic. It’s recommended for this type of garden thanks to euphorbia’s shallow root system which lets the plant become accustomed to tight areas between rocks. Keep in mind that this plant is very sensitive to frost.

There are many low-maintenance plants that can be included in a rock garden but euphorbia succulents can be considered ideal candidates. They will grow vigorously despite the challenging environment. While euphorbia lacks showy flower petals, it has a lot to offer to improve the visuals of the rock garden. The succulent’s bracts can bring some solid visual interest. Euphorbias’ bloom can be admired in the spring, summer, and fall. They can thrive in containers as well and propagation is done using stem cuttings.

8. Alyssum

If you’re looking to add some cheerful vibes to your rock garden, take a look at the alyssum perennial. It’s not surprising why this plant is often called Basket of Gold. Masses of vibrant yellow flowers bloom in the spring. The resulting contrast with the rocks and boulders can be simply stunning. Alyssum grows ideally in hardiness regions 4 to 7 but it can handle warmer weather. The only problem, in that case, is a potentially shorter lifespan.

Asides from the visual impression of its flowers, the alyssum plant is also appreciated for the subtle honey-like fragrance. This is why many gardeners include it for its ability to attract beneficial insects such as pollinators. Planting alyssum in masses can be a recommended solution to fill many of the gaps found in a rock garden. There are different flower color varieties so you can choose alyssum plants in shades of purple, pink, and white besides yellow. As opposed to other plants, alyssum flowers can be started directly from seed quite effortlessly.

9. Candytuft

With the help of the eye-catching candytuft, you can visually enhance the appearance of any rock garden. Whereas other plants are used primarily for their vibrant colors, the candytuft is more appreciated for the pretty pattern created through its petals. You will need to be extra patient for the flowers of candytuft to appear as this plant usually blooms in April and May. As the name “tuft” implies, this plant has a tendency to grow clusters of flowers. It’s probably related to the mounded growth habit as well.

Candytuft flowers are ideal for rock gardens but they can have many landscaping uses. Gardeners plant them as ground cover or along pathways. These plants show decent drought resistance and their showy flowers attract bees and butterflies. There are lots of great benefits to planting candytuft in your rock garden but it’s also important to be aware of potential drawbacks. Most notably, the flowers of candytuft produce an unpleasant scent.

10. Coneflower

With a look similar to daisies, the coneflower represents a hardy addition to decorate rock gardens. There are lots of colorful varieties to choose from but one of the most popular is the purple coneflower. This perennial is appreciated for its ability to bloom for extended periods of time. It grows in a reliable manner regardless of soil type while tolerating drought without problems. The secret may lie in its fibrous root system that’s more adaptable to difficult environments.

The flowers of this plant are sought by many pollinators thanks to being rich in nectar. Keep in mind that compared to other plants, the cornflower will require some extra effort to maintain it properly. Deadheading is one essential procedure needed for coneflowers to keep blooming for longer. Most coneflower varieties can be grown directly from seed. Spent cones can be used to recover the seeds stored inside. Although it’s relatively easy to plant the seeds in the ground, germination may require cold stratification.

11. Soapwort

Soapwort gets its name from the way its sap was used to craft soap in the past. The plant shows off sparkling pink flowers that act like magnets for butterflies. It’s a solid choice to decorate your rock garden with some vivid splashes of color. The main reason for that is the soapwort’s excellent tolerance to difficult growing conditions. In fact, this plant seems to prefer shallow-rocky soil. It grows vigorously offering a large collection of blooms that are avoided by rabbits and deer.

Soapwort’s flowers resemble the look of phlox blossoms. They’re usually small and produce a sweet fragrance. It’s recommended to opt for a low-growing variety of soapwort to let the plants spill over rock gardens. In terms of flower color, soapwort types bloom in shades of white and pink. The green foliage can have some tinges of blue. A great advantage of this plant is the long lifespan of its blooms though regular deadheading represents an important part of the maintenance process.

12. Blue Fescue

Attractive rock gardens can definitely benefit from the addition of some ornamental grasses. A hardy choice for this kind of environment is the blue fescue. This perennial plant can bring a new dimension of texture and visual interest with its dense clumps of grass. Blue fescue grass retains its color despite the changing of the seasons. It can reach maximum heights of 12 inches so it won’t overwhelm the area too easily.

The foliage of this ornamental grass has a blue color which is a welcomed shade to improve the look of a rock garden. In late summer, blue fescue will bear flower stalks. The plant is reliable when it comes to facing drought. Its main advantage is the versatility as you can accent various areas of the garden with its unique blue-toned foliage. To add a solid visual punch among rocks and boulders, consider taking advantage of this plant’s clump-forming habit. You can incorporate neatly-formed blue fescue balls of foliage in tight spots between rocks.

13. Creeping Phlox

If you’re looking for a reliable ground-hugging plant, there are few options better than the creeping phlox. It has great potential to fill in those tight spaces between stone walls and boulders. When you also take into account the beauty of the plant’s jewel-like flowers, it’s safe to say that creeping phlox can be suitable for rock gardens. You don’t need to worry about poor soil quality or dry conditions as this type of phlox is highly adaptable to different environments.

The creeping phlox is able to withstand some heat and offers decent resistance to extended periods of drought. You can grow this plant in hardiness zones 3 to 9 without too many issues. There are multiple flower colors to consider as there are purple, pink, and white varieties of creeping phlox. Another solid advantage of this plant is the appearance of its dark evergreen foliage that provides good contrast in the rock garden all year long.

14. Ajuga

Used primarily for its ability to act as ground cover, the ajuga plant deserves some more attention if you’re planning to create a rock garden. With full sun and medium moisture conditions, ajuga is capable of spreading very efficiently. In some cases, the plant can become invasive but you don’t really have to worry about that considering the less-than-ideal growing environment found in a rock garden. Ajuga works nicely to fill in those shady crevices between rocks where it’s difficult for other plants to thrive.

Also known as bugleweed, the ajuga plant shows off some pretty flowers formed in a dense mat. Weeds won’t be able to grow near these plants while ajugas offer great resistance to deer and can thrive in inhospitable spots under trees. The tiny blue-violet flowers of the ajuga appear in spring. This is a fairly low-maintenance plant with multiple color varieties to spice things up when it comes to the look of your rock garden.

15. Sedum

Sedum plants are incredibly hardy as they can develop well despite harsh growing conditions. Rocky locations are suitable for all types of sedum plants. There are usually two main varieties to choose from – creeping or upright sedums. It’s recommended to opt for a creeping sedum that’s able to take root and spread effectively in tight spots between boulders. Upright sedum plants work better in areas where you wish to add tight clumps.

In terms of colors, the impressive variety of sedum plants won’t disappoint. There are different types that show distinctive foliage characteristics in bright or dark colors. The blossoms of this plant do a great job attracting helpful pollinators. Thanks to sedum’s drought tolerance, the plant won’t be impacted by the dry environment of a rock garden. The succulent leaves are capable of managing water very efficiently so it’s important to avoid overwatering. Full direct sun is beneficial whereas sedums can start to wilt in excessive shade conditions.

16. Snow-in-Summer

Anyone who wants to add delicate white flowers to the rock garden should check out the snow-in-summer plant. It’s remarkably tolerant of drought and gets its name from the sparkling white blooms appearing in early summer. Although snow-in-summer plants are fairly tough, they do have some weaknesses. Plants won’t be able to perform very well in very humid conditions so extra replanting effort could be required for certain locations. Snow-in-summer can be expected to grow in USDA zones 3-10.

This plant represents a fitting choice for rock gardens. Even when the blooming period is over, the area can take advantage of some visual interest provided by the soft gray foliage. Snow-in-summer plants don’t spread very fast but that could be an advantage depending on your gardening goals. It’s recommended to set aside a sunny, well-drained spot to allow snow-in-summer plants to thrive. They will showcase particularly bright foliage when the growing conditions are optimal. More blooms can be encouraged to appear through deadheading.

17. Moonbeam Coreopsis

Part of the aster family of plants, the moonbeam coreopsis perennial doesn’t mind poor soil conditions. It’s fairly well adapted to sandy or rocky soils that are often found in rock gardens. Moonbeam coreopsis produces yellow flowers growing in clusters. Their blooms resemble the appearance of daisies while the plants can reach maximum heights of two feet. Full sun and well-drained soil represent perfect growing conditions for this plant but make sure you also stick to hardiness zones 3 to 9.

Moonbeam coreopsis plants show some decent resistance to drought and humidity. Its hardiness is the main reason why it would be a fitting solution for decorating a rock garden. They’re also often used to inject color along borders and are highly appreciated for being quite tall. The attractive blooms of moonbeam coreopsis are frequently visited by butterflies. If you wish to encourage the production of new flowers, it’s highly recommended to make use of deadheading.

18. Blue Rug Juniper

If you’re already satisfied with the number of colorful flowers in your rock garden, perhaps it’s time to deal with those empty areas in sunny slopes. The large majority of plants can’t grow successfully in such spots where water drainage is simply too fast. This is where a hardy groundcover plant can make an important difference. Take a look at the blue rug juniper which can be planted in the most difficult parts of the rock garden.

This is a ground-hugging evergreen that can actually benefit from quick drainage. Although it prefers sandy and dry soils, the blue rug juniper can be accommodated to different environments. This type of juniper plant is highly appreciated for its visually-appealing green foliage that has tinges of blue. As this is a ground cover, you can expect the plant to reach heights of just 6 inches. The evergreen is characterized by an ability to spread wide in a fairly efficient manner. Besides resistance to fluctuating temperatures and good frost tolerance, the blue rug juniper is also avoided by deer.

19. Lamium

Lamium plants can be considered excellent additions for rock gardens. They perform really well in secluded spots that don’t get a lot of sunlight. This is a creeper plant that’s commonly known as deadnettle. It blooms colorful flowers in early summer but the main highlight is the color of its foliage. There are different varieties that show distinctive shades of green, silver, and gold. Lamium is resistant to deer and spreads very fast.

This is a great plant for a rock garden thanks to its reliable adaptability. It doesn’t pose too many difficulties to grow while its flowers stay in bloom for quite a while. Established lamium plants can easily tolerate dry conditions so that’s good news for owners of rock gardens. Seedlings may develop very quickly so it’s recommended to keep the plant in check to avoid excessive spread. In peak season, deadnettle plants can be encouraged to bloom again if you shear them back.

20. Lamb’s Ear

Grown for its velvety texture that resembles the feel of a lamb’s ear, this plant represents a solid choice to bring into a rock garden. Besides its unique textural properties, the lamb’s ear herbaceous perennial has other benefits that make it worth considering. It can resist drought and grows well in almost any type of soil. The plant is highly recommended to act as ground cover and its foliage color brings some visual interest too.

The lamb’s ear is native to the Middle East and it can grow successfully in hardiness zones 4 to 7. Considering the fast spread, the plant can easily take over areas in the garden. Lamb’s ears can be invasive in certain regions but deadheading can keep them in check. Edging may also be required due to the plant’s spreading method through creeping stems. When caring for lamb’s ear plants, it’s important to water them correctly because overhead irrigation can cause rotting of the foliage.

By Stefan Bucur

Stefan is the founder and owner of Rhythm of the Home. He has 6 years of experience in home improvement, interior design, cleaning and organizing.

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