The Best Plants for a Rock Garden

Rock gardens are loved for their charm and their low-maintenance qualities—but which plants thrive in rocky terrain? Here’s a list of essential plants to enhance your rock garden’s rugged appeal.

Yearlong Beauty

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Best plants for rock gardens

Rock gardens can range in size and design, but what they share in common is a hospitable environment for drought-tolerant and shallow-rooted plants. Whether the rocky landscape is natural or man-made, rock gardens are a wonderful blend of eclectic and enchanting colors and textures, due in no small part to a gardener's choice of plants. Read on to see several stunning plants that can boost your rock garden’s charm.

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Columbine

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Columbine rock gardens

An exquisite herbaceous perennial, the Columbine showcases a unique bloom with long, narrow spurs. The flowering plant comes in a variety of colors and attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. Favoring full sun to partial shade and medium moisture, columbine grows three feet tall and two feet wide, making it a perfect choice for garden borders. Once established, this wispy wildflower is drought-tolerant. Cut it back in the fall, and watch for volunteer seedlings (columbine is a prolific self-seeder) in spring.

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Red Creeping Thyme

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Red creeping thyme rock gardens

Any rock garden comes to life with the addition of a lush ground cover, and red creeping thyme, known for its ability to endure poor soil conditions, is an ideal choice for sunny beds. Red creeping thyme, with its delicate greenery and fragrant pink blooms, can be tucked among pavers and along walkways to add beauty and repel weeds, or be added to any sunny space that needs a lawn alternative.

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Hens and Chicks

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Hens and chicks rock gardens

Your rock garden isn’t complete without succulents, and hens and chicks are among the most popular options. With its mossy green clusters of rosette-shaped leaves, hens and chicks can spread up to two feet and can stand up to four inches tall. This succulent grows best in full sun to partial shade, and while it’s suitable as a ground cover, it requires ample drainage. The “chicks” or offshoots can be easily transplanted throughout your garden.

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Cranesbill Geranium

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Cranesbill geranium rock gardens

Hardy geraniums are a favorite with gardeners because they require little maintenance. A placement in full sun results in high-yield flowering, but the geranium can tolerate partial shade. Magenta flowers pop against the geranium’s green, textured foliage, and the blooms bob and sway, mingling with neighboring plants. While relatively low-maintenance, the plant thrives with a bit of care: cut the plant to within a few inches above the ground after it has finished blooming to encourage a second bloom; divide the plant once every three to five years when the center of the plant dies back. In return, the plant will reward you with flowers year after year.

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Blue Fescue Grass

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Blue fescue grass rock gardens

Ornamental grass adds dimension and fullness to a rock garden, and blue fescue is an ideal choice. Its bluish-green color stands out among perennials or makes a decorative splash among stones and boulders. It prefers full sun but can handle some shade and is best suited for soil with medium to low moisture and can handle mild frost.

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Snow-in-Summer

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Snow-in-summer rock gardens

If you want to add little whimsy to your rock garden, snow-in-summer is a great choice for adding beauty along retaining walls or among rock structures—and because it’s self-seeding, you never know where it will sprout in the seasons to come. This low-maintenance perennial groundcover boasts silver-green foliage and bright white blooms in both spring and summer. Drought-tolerant, it requires full sun and good drainage for optimal growth.

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Rock Garden Mugo Pine

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Mugo pine rock gardens

Rock garden mugo pine is a dwarf evergreen shrub that will grow as large as two feet in height and three feet in diameter. This slow-growing plant holds its rich, green color during the winter months and requires minimal pruning. Preferring full sun and well-draining soil, it makes an ideal foundation shrub. And if you’re looking for something larger, consider the regular mugo pine, which grows upwards of 20 feet tall and 30 feet wide.

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Lavender

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Lavender rock gardens

Want to add fragrance to your rock garden? With its heavenly scent and storybook-worthy blooms, lavender is a garden classic. Suited for hot weather and poor soil, it’s ideal for rocky landscapes. It grows well on its own or when grown in combination with other shrubs and ornamental grasses. Lavender requires full sun and medium to dry well-draining soil. Lavender can be harvested for use in potpourris or teas, making it as welcome inside the home as it is in the garden.

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Purple Fountain Grass

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Fountain grass rock gardens

If you prefer a garden that makes a statement, consider planting purple fountain grass as a focal piece in your rock garden. This ornamental grass grows three to five feet tall and thrives in full sun and medium- to low-moisture soil. Its vase-like shape appears to explode with long, thin, green leaves, crowned with bottlebrush plumes that transition from purple to tan in early fall. Both low-maintenance and non-invasive, this perennial grass will continue to wow for years to come.

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Irish Moss

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Irish moss rock gardens

This lush groundcover will add a splash of lively green to your rock garden. Irish moss thrives in full sun but is not suited for intense heat. The plant requires regular watering, so place it in a location that's both easy to reach with a hose or watering can, and removed from plants that typically suffer from overwatering, like succulents. Intense heat can cause the plant to turn brown, but fret not; it’ll return to its original luster in the fall.

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Sedum Autumn Joy

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Sedum rock gardens

This stunning perennial’s deep rose blooms will bring ambiance and softness to your garden. With its height and density, autumn joy is a suitable substitution for a shrub. This bee- and butterfly-friendly perennial requires full sun, average moisture, and well-draining soil. This succulent is slow-growing and blooms in late summer through mid-fall. Divide the plant every three to four years to maintain its compact appearance.

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Ajuga Black Scallop

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Ajuga rock gardens

Add an element of contrast to your garden’s shades of green with this darkly colored evergreen groundcover. The ajuga black scallop’s foliage is a stunning combination of gloss and near-black color. It thrives in the sun but fairs well in the shade too. Blue to purple blooms appear in spring and attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees. Average moisture and well-draining soil keep the black scallop thriving all year long.

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