Urban Rock Garden Tips: Creating A Rock Garden In The City

Urban Rock Garden Tips: Creating A Rock Garden In The City

By: Liz Baessler

Living in the city means you might not have the choicest of outdoor spaces. Forget sweeping fertile fields – what do you do with a small, sloped area with little or no soil? You build a rock garden, of course! Rock gardens are perfect for small, barren spaces because they welcome plants that are used to just such an environment and make for a different, but still brightly floral, use of space. Keep reading to learn about city rock garden design.

Urban Rock Garden Tips

Creating city rock gardens isn’t all that difficult. Emulating the rocky outcrops and scarce soil of mountain ridges above the tree line, rock gardens are the perfect home for alpine plants. Used to buffer winds, alpine plants grow close to the ground and are great if you don’t have much space for your garden to spread.

They make up for what they lack in size with the brightness of their flowers, however. Compact, but brilliantly colored, flowers suited to growing in an urban rock garden include:

  • Stonecrop sedum
  • Saxifraga
  • Baby’s breath
  • Fried egg plant
  • Bellflowers

Be aware, though: These flowers are all accustomed to mountaintops and, by extension, bright sunlight. If your urban rock garden receives full sun, plant away! If you’re in a very shady space, consider covering your rock garden with moss.

Rock Garden Plants for City Dwellers

A rock garden in the city works best in full sun and should have very good drainage. Try to avoid shady or damp areas.

As you’re emulating a mountaintop, your city rock garden design will do best on a slope. It decreases shading, and it ensures better drainage. If no slope exists, build up a small one with your base layer.

  • First, put out a coarse base layer of gravel or similarly-sized rubble.
  • Cover it with a sheet of heavily-punctured plastic to make a stable base with free drainage.
  • Arrange your rocks on top, preferably with a variety of shapes and sizes.
  • Fill in the spaces between with garden soil and top with a mix of sand, compost, and loam.
  • Now plant your flowers according to their needs.

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Gardens In The City: Urban Garden Design

You don’t need vast acreage in the countryside to be able to get creative in your garden. We’ve found that the most challenging tasks often inspire us to push ourselves harder and become more creative. The most challenging garden design is often, not always, those projects which are either very large or very small. With an abundant amount of space, you have to work very hard to attain the right mixture of open space – you can risk the project looking sparse and you can see huge features dwarfed and made out of place. With smaller projects, like roof gardens, front gardens and urban gardens – you’ve got the opposite problem. You need to find the perfect pieces, the perfect plants, the perfect materials – then stitch them together in a way that makes the garden beautiful, but functional and usable too.

There are two main styles that we see urban commissions come through with. The first is the “I want a slice of the country here in the city” – where we try to emulate a larger space with more wild flower varieties and bring some agricultural relaxation to the middle of, often times, London. The second is “I want a contemporary, urban living space” where decking, paving and seating come first – a place for entertaining and truly an extension of the home. We get all kinds of requests – but these are the main two.

We’re always trying something new and we try to stay ahead of the game and deliver originality in every project. Here is some of the standard equipment in our urban garden design tool kit:


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Ready to rock? Here's what Payne suggests:

  • Study rockwork you admire and recreate it in small units. "Try to lay the stone so it looks like placement occurred naturally," Payne says.
  • Find a local quarry and buy samples of their stone, gravel and sand that you can use to make a "scree," or mixture of small pebbles and several sizes of sand. "Scree can be mixed in a wheelbarrow with a shovel," Payne says. "Composted pine bark—aka soil conditioner—is a good addition of organic matter in the scree."
  • Slowly build up the rock on a slight slope until you reach your final level. Stack large rock, fill in with smaller rock and stack more rock, ensuring it is stable as you go.
  • Allow large rock to protrude from the scree and plant conifers next to the rock. The North American Rock Garden Society provides a comprehensive and detailed listing of rock garden-friendly plants.
  • If you add a water feature, take the time to make it look like a natural part of the rock garden. Just make sure that moisture moves away from the crowns of very small plants. "The evaporation at the soil level can kill them," she says.
  • Weed your rock garden as you would any other to "allow small plants space and light to grow," Payne says, adding that rock gardens are drought-tolerant, so minimal water is required.

To find fellow rockers, the North American Rock Garden Society has volumes of information on the subject, plus a quarterly bulletin in which specialty nurseries offer "a whole world of new plants to those with interest in rock gardening," Payne says.


Elegant Espalier

The owners of this stylish formal garden in West London wanted an elegant outdoor space to entertain. Stefano Marinaz of Stefano Marinaz Landscape Architecture framed the perimeter with hedges, while fencing mounted on top of the existing boundary wall added privacy.

Fences are an easy and effective way to achieve privacy in a yard, though don't forget to check your local ordinances for height and placement. For fencing materials, Marinaz prefers hardwood over softwoods. "Hardwood lasts longer it's like iron," Marinaz says. "It's more expensive than a softwood, but it's more durable and nicer." If you can't put up fencing, consider planting trees, hedges, or vines. Marinaz favors evergreens from the Taxus genus.


Watch the video: how to build a rockery