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In their natural habitat, mountain plants are usually covered and protected with a blanket of snow, have a short growing season, and do not suffer from some of the high temperatures and humid conditions that they may face planted in many rock gardens in different zone areas. If you have little dependable snow in your area, even if the winters are cold, rock plants will still need the protection of a loose mulch. Mulch should be applied after the soil freezes. Pine boughs are especially good.
Many rock plants are easy to grow if you provide an imitation of their natural habitat with good drainage. Most rock plants have brilliant colors and their small sizes allow them to be grown in containers or troughs, cascading over rocks or peeking through paving stones. They demand little attention except for keeping weeds free around them.
Good drainage is essential for a rock garden, since most rocks plants will not survive damp conditions. A light soil on a gravelly subsoil will have sufficient draining, but a heavy claylike soil with a subsoil of clay may need artificial drainage if you can't break through to a porous layer. This is particularly important on a flat site.
You will need about 1 ½ tons of rock for an area roughly 10 feet by 15 feet. You will also need a supply of ¼ inch chips, gravel, or crushed stone to act as mulch around your rock plants. Whatever rock mulch you use, be sure that it blends rather than contrasts with the surrounding rocks.
Rocks that are all of one type, like sandstone or limestone should be used in your chosen area. Whenever possible, try choosing the rocks yourself and select for uniformity of color and texture. If you order from a supplier, ask for a variety of sizes. Large rocks, although they may be quite heavy to move and put in place, provide the most natural effects, but smaller sizes will be needed as well.
Rock gardens are most practically constructed by using the “outcrop” principle—partially embedding a few large rocks in the soil to give the impression of more rocks under the surface. The outcrop system is possible with most types of rock, although rounded stones need a little more effort as well as a deeper setting in the ground to achieve the proper effect.
A cascade of water flowing into a pool through a rock garden makes a lovely effect. It may be just a stream or a whole series of waterfalls. For a natural look, plan the cascade so that the water changes direction as it flows.
An attractive way of extending a rock garden is with the use of water.
A pool with aquatic plants and perhaps fish will also enhance a rock garden's overall look. Take care not to make it look too artificial or controlled.
The ideal location for a rock garden is a gentle slope protected from strong winds. A sunny site is best for most plants, but dappled sunshine coming through a tree several yards away is acceptable and can be beneficial during hot summer days. Do not build a rock garden under trees that cast heavy shade unless you plan to grow only woodland plants, although too much shade can be reduced by cutting off lower branches and thinning upper growth. A flat site can be made suitable if adequately drained.
A successful rock garden re-creates the natural outcrops on mountain slopes. Select only plants that thrive in stony terrain. Since the original homes of many species of rock plants are the mountains and rocky regions of the world, they are usually hardy and can tolerate thin, stony soils and some can survive drying winds.
Before attempting to build a rock garden, you should have a plan, preferably on paper, of the basic design for the garden you wish to make. Try visiting a rock garden in one of the many botanical gardens around the country to get some ideas or visit private gardens through recommendations from local gardening clubs, horticultural societies, and even garden sections of newspapers.