General gardening topics

How to create and build an alpine rockery garden

Last updated on January 21st, 2020

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If you are looking to create and build an alpine rockery garden, it’s all about getting the right rocks and stones to offset the alpines to your advantage and most importantly having well-drained soil which sometimes means adding plenty of horticultural grit into the soil the improve drainage. 

You can use a rock garden to give sun-loving plants access to the bright sun, with shade-tolerant plants nestled in a corner where sun doesn’t reach as often. There is a lot of flexibility here. Moreover, with alpines, you have so many options. Originating from high altitude areas higher than the tree line, these rock plants really embrace the cold. They won’t grow too tall, but you can gather a lot of them in one place and design a stunning rock garden. 

What’s more, you don’t need a large space to do it. Small spaces are perfectly suitable, as the key features are often dry stone walls or troughs inside of which are containers of alpines. The alpines in question don’t get very big, most hovering around 10-15 cm.

Check out our top 10 alpines for planting a rockery garden here

planting a rockery garden

When to build your alpine rockery garden

A good time to construct the features is in Winter or Autumn, especially as there is a lot less to do in your space otherwise, fewer plants in the way you need to be careful of, etc… 

Spring is when want to put the plants in but adding extra plants through summer will also work well. They ideally need time to establish themselves in their new space before the main part of the growing season which is why planting in Spring is ideal, plus garden centres and nurseries usually have the biggest selection of rockery plants in spring. 

Plan ahead when creating a rockery

It is important to plan ahead when you create and build the rockery so that you don’t have to go back and move heavy rocks or reposition pots. To that end, if you follow these steps you can make sure that does not happen. 

Dividing rockery plants and planting into rockeries

Step 1: Choose the Site

When you are ready, it’s time to choose a site. The site can be a small corner of your garden or your entire garden, depending on your microclimate.

Your goal should be to find the area that is most open, far from overhead trees or large tree roots, where your plants will get sun for the majority of the day. Remember, these are alpines that tolerate cold, and wind, but they are still growing naturally above the treeline with direct access to the sun. 

The more sun the better

It is important that you find a spot with access to the sun, even if only a few hours, over a spot with only shade all day. 

Well-drained soil is a must

The position you choose should also be one with good drainage and this is probably the most important thing to consider. You can, of course, take the time to enhance your garden using raised beds but it’s simpler to focus on a naturally well-draining area or containers that are well-draining built into the area. one final point to consider is to always avoid a frost pocket if you can. 

Step 2: Prepare the Site

Add drains if necessary and dig plenty of grit into the soil

Once you have found the site, it is time to prepare it based on the gradient, any necessary pipework underground, and how you plan to view it. You might take some time to do a few sketches at this point, to really get a feel for what options you have. The important thing here is to insert and drains to improve drainage if needed and dig plenty of horticultural grit into the soil to further improve drainage. If you’re lucky you already have good-draining soil and simply digging in a little extra grit to be all you need to do

preparing a site for a rockery

Step 3: Gather materials

Time to get your rockery stone pieces

Now is the time to get the materials. These are hard and heavy, and an investment. The materials you need are often rock, slate, or gravel. It is good to take a look around your local area to see what’s common, then find local stone if you can. Local stone goes a long way toward making your rockery look normal, blend in with the surroundings, and it will probably be easier to find. You can purchase salvaged stone or second-hand stones if possible. Garden centres and nurseries also usually sell rockery stone in different sizes and this is usually a good place to start.

Recommended stones:

  • Sandstone is not too alkaline or hard and is widely available. 
  • Limestone is equally popular but they more alkaline.
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Step 4: Construct the rockery

This construction phase might seem daunting, and it could prove useful to engage the assistance of a local landscaper to help depending on the size and scope of your project. The instructions below assume you going all out and not just digging some grit into the soil and then laying rockery stone on top for planting. You can, of course, try this but you will have a more natural rockery if you follow the steps below:

  • Start by marking out the area so you nowhere your rockery will be, a good way to do this is to get a bag of sand and pour it with a bottle. 
  • Remove any weeds by hand or use a weedkiller if necessary.
  • Build your base out of stone, broken bricks, or other coarse rubble 15cm deep. This will form the base of the whole rockery but will later be covered with a layer of soil.
  • Cover the rockers with polythene sheet with holes every 10cm, so that it doesn’t mix with your compost.
  • Select bigger stones as your main stones and put them in place first. 
  • Then spread out the remaining stones around the keystones. 
  • Use a shovel or spade to make hollows in the ground into which the stones sit, for varying heights.
  • Use things like small bricks and smaller stones to help add layers. 
  • Remember, the rockery should seem natural, not man-made, so you can do things like tilt rocks backwards to achieve a good effect. 
  • Finally, add weed-free topsoil under and between the stones. The stones should be buried in place about one-third of their total size, deep. The best soil for this is to use a John Innes potting compost but this can be expensive so at a push, you can use normal topsoil.
  • Around the stones, you want pockets with quality compost, where the plants will be planted.

Step 5: Planting rockery plants

Now it is time to put in the plants. These can be directly in the ground or in pots, put in the pockets around the stones. Note that if you plan to use containers, you need to leave pockets big enough to accommodate them. 

The area for the plants needs to give them adequate drainage, access to sunlight, and allow space for them to spread out as they grow. 

If you are planting directly from another container, remove the plants carefully. Gently tease out the roots and remove any weeds. Then plant them firmly in your compost mix. 

Dianthus are perfect for rock gardens

Recommended Alpines

Now that you have things set up, it’s time to find the right alpines. There are many from which to choose, but below are a handful of top options:

  • Dianthus ‘Popstar’: bright pink, toothed flowers, subtly scented
  • Lewisia longipetala ‘Little Plum’: pink and apricot coloured, star-shaped flower clusters.
  • Lithodora diffusa ‘Heavenly Blue’: bright blue flowers on top of evergreen foliage.
  • Phlox subulata ‘McDaniel’s Cushion’: bright, magenta flowers, need a sunny spot.
  • Saxifraga ‘Winifred Bevington’: pink flowers on a red stem with evergreen foliage.
  • Sedum spathulifolium ‘Purpureum’: purple-tinged leaves with golden flowers.
  • Sempervivum: many varieties available, with green foliage.
  • Thymus ‘Silver Posie’: a variety of thyme which grows upward and has variegated leaves.
  • Veronica prostrata: a spreading plant, with blue flowers. 

See our detailed article on 10 of the best rockery plants for making a rockery

Learn how to grow rockery plants from seed

Potential Problems

There are some potential problems you need to be aware of. These include: 

  • Ants: these can be problematic in the soil and are best treated with an ant killer if needed.
  • Aphids: these can damage the plants as with most plants, these are best sprayed with a bug killer if they become a problem.
  • Birds: these can pull the rosettes apart, providing nest boxes and bird food can help distract them from doing this.
  • Slugs and snails: these can damage the soft growth, products like slug pellets will work well but we prefer to use more environmentally. friendly controls such as slug catches which you fill with beer.
  • Vine Weevils: these can damage roots.

Best selling rockery plants

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Last update on 2022-01-06 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Welcome to my site, my name is John and I have been lucky enough to work in horticultural nurseries for over 15 years in the UK. As the founder and editor as well as researcher, I have a City & Guilds Horticultural Qualifications which I proudly display on our About us page. I now work full time on this website where I review the very best gardening products and tools and write reliable gardening guides. Behind this site is an actual real person who has worked and has experience with the types of products we review as well as years of knowledge on the topics we cover from actual experience. You can reach out to me at

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