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Colorado Master Gardeners: How to install a rock garden

Barbara Flowers/For Steamboat Today
This rock garden belongs to Master Gardener Barbara Flowers.
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CSU Master Gardeners are available to answer questions from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Thursday at the Extension Office. Stop by 136 Sixth Street, call them at 970-870-5241 or email to csumgprogram@co.r...

My husband and I recently decided to install a rock garden, or rather, I decided, and he foolishly agreed. A local nursery was giving away landscaping rocks, so we went by and picked up a load for a patio for our outdoor firepit. This led to the rock garden idea. We have a west-facing slope that gets full sun, and grass will not grow there.

“Let’s dig it up and plant rocks,” I said.

OK, so now, I will tell you how to install a rock garden. I will not tell you how we did it, because we did it wrong. My first piece of advice is, don’t do it!

But if you must, instruction for doing so follow.

• Gather the rocks. It took us three loads; we thought it would only take one. We — or rather, my husband — has developed some new muscles from carrying all the rocks. Use a wheelbarrow and/or a dolly. We didn’t, and that was dumb of us.

• Dig down 18 inches. Hopefully your soil isn’t solid clay, like ours. At our age, slinging a pickax and shovel is no picnic. Why are we doing this, we asked ourselves? Too late — we have the rocks now.

• Arrange the rocks according to size and shape. You should use the same kind of rocks for a more natural look. Try to emulate mother nature (not easy) in your arrangement, keeping the rocks in groups of three, offset from each other so soil will catch between them.

• Fill in with a soil mixture of pea gravel, topsoil and compost. I put a thin layer of gravel first, then topped with the soil mixture.

• Begin planting. Choose plants best suited to the exposure of your garden. There are good books in the library with plant suggestions. The local nurseries can also help with your selections. The Yampa River Botanic Park has several rock gardens that demonstrate design ideas and plant selections. I am doing a mix of perennials and alpine plants that I am moving from other sections of my garden. All of these plants are suited to west facing, full sun and dry conditions.

• Apply a layer of pea gravel as mulch. This will help hold the soil until the plants have established their roots. Water well, and do not let the garden dry out until the plants have taken hold.

Okay, my garden is done. Well, not quite. I am still planting. I hope to get most of it planted before the snow flies. I think it looks pretty good. Next, I have to figure out how to keep the grass from growing where it didn’t before.

Now, off to the chiropractor and massage therapist!

Barbara Flowers is a Routt County Master Gardener.  She is a retired interior designer, certified botanical illustrator and student of plein air painting.


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