How to Build a Desert Rock Garden

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Prickly Pear, Sand and Rocks

  Nationwide, municipalities are discovering the need to restrict water usage by using odd/even day plans or other methods of controlling the amount of water available to water your lawn and garden.  The practice of watering lawns and other landscaping is becoming more strictly controlled as supplies of potable water decrease with climate change and increases in population.

As temperatures go up and supplies of water go down, that trend may now be sufficient economic incentive and even justification to seriously consider establishing a desert rock garden, or "Xeriscape", --a landscaping project that requires no  grass or lawnmower and no watering.

Is your own private, lush green lawn and landscape drying up in sweltering summer heat? Are you on a water meter and wishing you did not have to water the grass? Has your town or city ordered new restrictions on watering of lawns this year? These are common questions, and increasingly, the answer may be in learning how to build a desert rock garden.

In it's simplest description, a desert rock garden is a collection of plants,rocks, gravels, and sand. It may include dry land plants and other features as chosen and arranged by the designer. It can be any size; in a true form of diminutive scale, a desert rock garden can be a miniature garden arrangement set up on a table top in a tiny wooden box or in a larger container many feet square, set out on your balcony. In the extreme, a desert rock garden can take up the entire back yard out in the sunshine, entirely replacing traditional high-maintenance grass.

A highly developed rock garden

1.0   A highly developed rock garden

It is a simple thing to design and build your own personal desert rock garden and contribute to the conservation of water at the same time. Size and location are entirely optional. For our purposes, we will plan on building our rock garden in the back yard so we can see it easily from the patio. This is how to do it.

Planning Considerations

Some decisions must be made. How large will your rock garden be and where will it be located? Consider placing your project in an area of lawn that may be in poor condition, and solve two problems at the same time!

A desert rock garden does not, by any stretch of the imagination, have to replace all of the turf area to have an effect on conservation of water. Reducing grass area by even 25% with the installation of a rock garden can mean a substantial reduction in both water requirements and the cost of lawn maintenance. A desert rock garden is a permanent landscape requiring no fertilizer, little weed control,  and virtually no applications of water.  All plants used are carefully chosen for their dry-climate characteristics.


Supplies you will need:

• Pickets • A carpenter's line or string • Hammer • Shovel and pick • Garden rake

  •  Rocks (Man made or natural, and may be river rocks, field stone, old construction stones, or other conveniently available rocks ) Choose sizes appropriate to the design chosen.
  •  Sand: Clean sand, free of any soil, roots, or other trash
  • Gravel and cobbles (optional) of various sizes.
  • Accent articles. ( Try logs, antique pieces, items of iron. The idea is to look interesting, not trashy. Hint: use one larger article instead of 10 small ones)
  • Framing materials if desired: Framing materials can be highly variable. Use landscaping timbers, dimensioned lumber, paving stones, old bricks, or other items to outline your rock garden
  • Plants (if desired) Dry-climate species, prickly pear, succulents, cactus species may be variable.

Laying out the Rock Garden

Orient and outline the area chosen with pickets and a line for the optimum aesthetic effect and and then sit back and study it. Keep in mind the point from which the rock garden may be observed from, for instance, a window, patio or deck, and orient the rock garden for best overall appearance.

The shape can be random, round, square, or any shape desired that is visually pleasing. It can be installed close to a walkway of brick or stones to allow one to stroll along and admire the detail.

The rock garden can be outlined with semi-buried pavers, bricks landscaping timber or treated dimensioned lumber. Do keep in mind the future problem of trimming the edges of any grass growing to the edge of the rock garden. Do make the edges as machine-friendly as possible if adjacent turf is to be cut regularly.

Construct the Rock Garden

1. When you are satisfied with the shape, orientation and location of the proposed rock garden, excavate the grass from the whole area to a depth of several inches. Use the sod elsewhere if possible to repair lawn, fill holes, or donate it to someone.

2. Place a neatly fitted piece of black plastic or dense ground fabric in the bottom of the excavation, ensuring the overlapping of any seams necessary. Make sure the fabric runs up the side of the excavation to prevent encroachment of weeds.

3. Install framing if desired. For wooden framing structures, use pressure treated wood and anodized or stainless steel  fasteners to assemble the frame.

4. Paint or stain the frame as desired prior to installing it.

5. DO ensure the ground fabric or plastic extends underneath the framing and up the dirt wall to prevent emergence of weeds. Pin or staple the plastic in position on the outside of framing if necessary. For masonry framing, ensure that pavers, bricks, or stones are laying on top of the plastic or ground fabric to ensure weed growth does not occur between the stones.

6. Fill the structure with gravel, sand, or a combination to achieve the look you desire. Smooth the fill to ground level.

7. Place rocks strategically, nesting them in the sand and making them look "partially buried", keeping in mind the appearance of placement and the effect desired. For heavier rocks, always use caution and safety protocol and wear safety boots and use gloves. Ensure you have adequate help or a mechanical advantage, perhaps even a backhoe to place very large rocks! If not available, use common sense, leverage, and roll rocks into position.

8. Pile rocks up - or even build a partial dry stone fence or other structures for highlight or effect if desired, but ensure all stones rest in a stable position.

9. Rake the sand and gravel level, ensuring that all of the ground sheet is covered with 2" or more of gravel, sand, or cobbles. Adjust the rocks as necessary and place feature items as desired. Remember that simplicity is often best but be creative. For additional appeal, one might install an old iron gate, or an adjacent split-rail fence behind the rock garden using old, weathered poles and a rough-hewn timber bench to transport the mind back to older and more peaceful times.

10. Plant selected plants as necessary. In colder climates, place cacti and other frost-sensitive plants in unglazed ceramic pots and sink them into appropriately sized holes. When frost threatens, you can easily move the frost-sensitive plants indoors for protection.

11. For permanent bushes, slit the plastic carefully and install the plant itself into the soil, keeping in mind the necessity to water even most water-thrifty plant upon occasion. In hot locations, use succulents, cacti, and prickly pear or other species that thrive in hot, arid climates. In colder climates, prune suitable bushes with directional pruning and thin top growth to minimal to accent the gnarled appearance of the trunk and branches.(See "How to prune Bushes") Group similar-maintenance plants together to avoid over-watering plants that do not require much water.

12. Revisit the overall effect after a few days and adjust it as necessary. Add more rocks if desired, for instance accent rocks that are coloured, or exchange, remove, or change the location of any that do not appear "quite right".

13. For maintenance, add more sand if it is blown or washed away. Do pull any weeds that begin to grow before they have a chance to go to seed and establish colonies of weeds.

With your brand new desert rock garden, you now have that much less grass to mow, and you are proactively conserving water too. Forget the lawn sprinkler and lawn mower; all you need is a broken wagon wheel, some saguaro skeletons, and a sun-bleached longhorn skull.   After all,  you're the proud owner of a desert rock garden and a lower water bill.


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Photo Credits  1.0    Creative Commons, . Colin Kinnear

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