Gardening with Deb: Rock gardens a natural for mountain towns |

Gardening with Deb: Rock gardens a natural for mountain towns

Deb Babcock

CSU Master Gardeners are available to answer gardening questions 10 1 p.m. Thursdays throughout the gardening season. Call 970-870-5241, email at csumgprogram@co.r... or visit them in the Extension Office, 136 6th St.

In every direction, a Yampa Valley resident is mesmerized by majestic vistas of mountains, cliffs, boulders and Alpine terrain. So why not bring some of that majesty home to your backyard garden?

A rock garden that simulates the slope of a rocky mountainside with a tumble of boulders and stones can be created in most any environment. Panayoti Kelaidis, creator of the Rock Alpine Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens, said, “Rock gardens can be adapted to any kind of site — since soil can be bermed and appropriate rocks selected to echo house color etc. — but obviously, they are the perfect solution for house sites on steep slopes or with any kind of bank that is otherwise hard to maintain.”

Even if your garden is on a level plane, you can construct a rock garden and display beautiful and rugged stones. According to Planttalk, a service of Colorado State University Extension, it’s best to place the largest rocks within the soil base towards the bottom of your slope. Arrange smaller ones to give the impression they have tumbled down. Place all rocks on their broadest side and bury them at least half way into the finished grade. Kelaidis says that one of the biggest problems that faces people building rock gardens is the artistic placement of rocks.

“The more naturally and artfully the rocks are arranged, the more successful the final rock garden will be,” he said.

Add color and interest to your rock garden with a variety of plants — from small hardy bulbs, to mounds of ground cover, to compact perennials and ornamental grasses.

Here in the Steamboat Springs area, plants that do best in a rock garden environment include: white rockcress, Alpine aster, little bluebells, spotted pinks, mossy saxifrage, baby’s breath, wooly and creeping speedwell and many others. The Yampa River Botanic Park has two rock gardens that showcase a wide variety of plants that grow well locally.

As you create your rock garden, keep in mind the short growing season and the long dormant season we experience here in the Yampa Valley. Consider plants that offer color, texture and interest early and late in our growing season. Several grasses and small shrubs have gorgeous foliage into the winter months. Early blooming bulbs, such as crocus, miniature daffodils and tulips, give you early color in the spring.

Another consideration when choosing plants for your rock garden is the site environment. If it is shady or has regular irrigation, more traditional Alpine plants may be appropriate. In a sunny, dry environment, concentrate on native plants, succulents, drought-tolerant and heat-tolerant plants.

“There are not one but two rewards for rock gardens;” Kelaidis said, “a well-planted rock garden is a visual feast for the eyes — an object of beauty that provides year around delight. More than any other kind of garden, however, a thoughtfully planted rock garden contains treasures from high places all over the world: It is a powerful tool for educating the gardener about botany and can lead many of us to seek out wildflowers and study Alpines all over the world. A rock garden is a key to both aesthetic delight and intellectual enlightenment — tall order for a mere garden!”

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Questions? Call 970-879-0825 or email

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