With most kinds of gardening or landscaping, the gardener may exercise a rather wide range of choices when it comes to treatment; he may make his planting formal, informal, natural, highly decorative, or more picturesque.
With a rock garden however, formal treatment is precluded. Neither the materials used in the construction of the rock garden nor the plants which will occupy it, lend themselves to any formal arrangement. Straight lines, regular angles or curves, the trimmed plants, statuary, fountains, and all that sort of thing are so foreign to the whole conception of the rock garden that any attempt to introduce them would appear ludicrous. A rock garden is the most natural kind of garden there is, chiefly designed to be constructed with materials that are already present. A lot of fuss is just not appropriate or necessary.
One may, however, choose between a naturalistic treatment and what may be termed “the Japanese style,” the chief difference being that in the Japanese style an effort is made to reproduce a miniature landscape. This requires an excellent sense of proportion and a knowledge and use of a wide variety of plant material. The satisfactory execution of a Japanese rock garden is much more difficult than that of a rock garden which will appear satisfactorily natural looking. Unless the services of a landscape architect are available, it is better to try the simpler form first.
It will become apparent that in planning a rock garden even a simple one, that the gardener will be presented with the choice of a number of different types. It is a sensible route to take to plan what type of rock garden that is desired beforehand so that time, resources, and materials are not wasted.
The first step in success with rock gardening, as with other types of gardening, is to have a definite objective before starting. It is not practical to plan a rock garden in every little detail before one begins the construction; but a fairly definite idea as to what is to be attempted there should be.
One of the most critical elements that should be taken into consideration in determining the type of rock garden to be made is space available:
A rock garden may be built on a few square yards of ground, or cover a considerable area. The expense is not, necessarily, in direct proportion to the size, particularly if there are natural features that can be taken advantage of. On a small place, however, the size of the rock garden should not be out of proportion to the other elements of planting. Where outcropping ledges or rocks flourish, it is sometimes possible to convert the whole place into a naturalistic garden. Where this may be done it is economical as well as one of the most attractive of all methods of treatment.
The character of location is another critical element that should be considered prior to beginning. Where the rock garden must be built artificially, “from the ground up,” it should not be made too conspicuous. Small rock gardens, fairly well done themselves, but planted squarely in the middle of the front-lawn area and look even more out of place than the old-fashioned geometrical flower bed which has, happily, pretty much become obsolete.
For a small rock garden a corner of the grounds, preferably flanked by evergreens or by a thicket of shrubs and providing some seclusion as well as protection and shade usually offers the best opportunity. A conservatively placed patio water fall never hurts either.
Time available for taking care of the rock garden is another consideration. If its construction is simple, and the plants in it are such that they will largely care for themselves, the rock garden will require very little time. A more elaborate scheme and the inclusion of varieties which easily perish or must be protected from more rampant growers, require just as much care as any other kind of a garden.
The most important thing, however, is to plant a rock garden which will please you. Before starting your own rock garden you should by all means make the effort to visit several rock gardens so as to see firsthand for yourself the results which are possible. Observe elaborate gardens, complete with garden fountains and outdoor water features, as well as more basic gardens.