Herbs for Rock Gardens

Rock gardens, also known as rockeries, are a unique and beautiful way to landscape your yard. Placing herbs in a rock garden offers many benefits. The rocky, fast-draining soil provides ideal growing conditions for most herbs, and the interesting heights and textures of a rock garden showcase herbs beautifully.

With some planning, care, and the right plant choices, including herbs in your rock garden can be highly rewarding.

Why Plant Herbs in a Rock Garden?

Herbs and rock gardens are a perfect match for several important reasons:

Excellent Drainage

Most herbs require very good drainage to thrive. Their roots easily rot if left in wet soil for too long. The gravelly soil mix and elevated mounds of a rock garden provide the fast-draining, well-aerated soil herbs love.

Drought Tolerance

Many common rock garden herbs like thyme, oregano, lavender, and rosemary are naturally drought resistant once established. The excellent drainage in a rockery mimics the dry, sandy conditions where these Mediterranean herbs originate.

Height and Texture

A key design feature of rock gardens is showcasing plants of varied heights, shapes, and textures. The diversity of herb growth habits allows for very interesting and beautiful combinations.

Deer and Rabbit Resistance

Deer and rabbits avoid the strong scents and flavors of most culinary herbs. Planting herbs may help protect more vulnerable flowers and greens.

Convenience

Having herbs right in the garden makes harvesting for cooking a breeze. No more trips to the store for a bit of parsley or rosemary!

Choosing the Right Herbs

When selecting herbs for rock gardens, the most important consideration is finding varieties that can thrive in the rocky, fast-draining soil. Avoid moisture-loving plants like basil, which will struggle in these dry conditions. Instead, focus on herbs naturally adapted to Mediterranean environments, where rocky, infertile soil and drought are common.

Some of the best herbs for rock gardens include:

Thymes

With over 350 varieties, thymes come in a wide range of habits, colors, and scents perfect for rock gardens. Creeping types like woolly thyme, Elfin thyme, and pink chintz thyme make excellent groundcovers between rocks. Upright thymes like lemon thyme, orange thyme, and silver thyme add height and structure. All thymes need sharp drainage and do best in full sun.

Oregano

Another Mediterranean native, oregano relishes the fast-draining rocky soil of alpine gardens. Culinary types like Greek oregano and Italian oregano offer pungent flavor, while ornamental oreganos like country cream and Kent beauty provide pretty flowers. Sturdy yet low-growing, oregano makes an excellent rock garden plant.

Marjoram

Similar to oregano, marjoram thrives in rocky, alkaline soil and hot sun. Sweet marjoram is the culinary variety, while ornamentals like gold-tipped marjoram offer attractive foliage. The fine texture and rounded shape of marjoram plants complement rock garden design.

Rosemary

With its shimmering needle-like foliage and delicate blooms, rosemary is a beautiful rock garden herb. Upright types like Tuscan blue and Arp add height, while prostrate forms like Santa Barbara and creeping rosemary spill gracefully over rocks. Being drought and salt tolerant, rosemary is ideal for xeriscaping.

Lavender

Another iconic herb for rock gardens and xeriscaping is lavender. Dwarf varieties like Munstead and Hidcote stay compact, with English lavenders being hardier than French. The silvery foliage and abundant blooms of lavender create lovely rock garden accents. Lavender also helps to deter pests.

Chives

With their grassy clumps of foliage and cheerful pom-pom blooms, chives make a great addition to rock gardens. Their mild onion flavor and vigor in poor soil make them a winner. Use common chives for cooking, or ornamental varieties like garlic chives for their showy blooms.

Parsley

A classic culinary herb, parsley actually does quite well in the well-drained confines of a rock garden. Curly leaf parsley offers vigorous growth while flat leaf Italian parsley has the best flavor for cooking. Parsley is also a host plant for swallowtail butterflies.

Sage

Sage is a Mediterranean native, thriving in hot, dry conditions with poor soil. Pineapple sage and tricolor sage provide attractive ornamental value, while garden sage and purple sage offer culinary versatility. The lush, textured foliage of sage contrasts beautifully with smooth rocks.

Savory

Winter savory and summer savory are the two main culinary varieties that flourish in rocky soil and hot sun. Ornamental savories like Creeping Pink savory spill attractively over garden walls and edges. Savories have a peppery flavor perfect for bean dishes, stews and more.

Chamomile

With their delicate fern-like leaves and cheerful daisy blooms, chamomile varieties like German chamomile and Roman chamomile make delightful rock garden additions. They can tolerate some foot traffic while emitting a soothing apple-like fragrance. Chamomile tea offers many medicinal benefits too.

Angelica

Reaching up to 6 feet tall, angelica grows well in moist, rich soil and also tolerates drier conditions. Its statuesque size provides dramatic vertical interest to rock gardens. The fresh stems and seeds lend a sweet, anise-like flavor. Songbirds also love the umbrella-shaped blooms.

Additional Herbs

Other hardy herbs that grow successfully in rocky soil include catnip, yarrow, tarragon, hyssop, lemon balm, cornflower, borage, and sweet woodruff. Culinary herbs like sage, French sorrel, and creeping thyme also combine well with ornamental rock garden plants. Even miniature vegetables like baby carrots and radishes can be incorporated.

Designing and Planting Your Rock Garden

The fun part is choosing herbs and putting together combinations for planting! Follow these tips to design and plant your perfect rock garden:

Select a Site

Pick a sunny, well-drained spot for your rockery, on a slope if possible. This allows for better drainage. Avoid low spots where water collects.

Plan the Design

Think about the layout and where you want to place taller herbs like angelica with mid-size rosemary and lavender shrubs, along with low-growing thymes and chamomile. Repeat plantings of the same herbs together for impact.

Build the Structure

Construct the raised planting beds and mounds from layered rocks. Incorporate gravel walkways and stepping stones between planting areas. The structure should provide excellent drainage.

Enrich the Soil

Fill the planting beds with a mix of sand, gravel and compost. This gives nutrients but stays fast-draining.

Plant According to Directions

Follow proper planting directions for spacing, depth, etc. when transplanting seedlings. Take care not to bury the crowns too deep.

Use Mulch

Apply a thin layer of gravel mulch to conserve moisture during herb establishment. Top off the mulch yearly.

Water Wisely

Water new transplants regularly until they root in. Then taper off to water only during droughts. Most rock garden herbs are quite drought-tolerant.

Fertilize Lightly

The rocky soil does not require much fertility. Lightly fertilize herbs in spring with an organic balanced fertilizer or compost tea.

Prune for Shaping

Prune woody herbs like lavender and rosemary in spring to shape the plants and remove old wood. Shear thymes to encourage bushy growth.

Caring for Rock Garden Herbs

While most herbs for rockeries need minimal care once settled in, some general maintenance will keep them looking their best:

  • Clear away weeds and grass encroachment regularly so they don’t compete with the herbs.
  • In very hot climates, provide partial shade or afternoon shade to prevent excessive stress.
  • Watch for signs of diseases like mildew on mature plants and treat organically as needed. Disinfect tools between plants.
  • Monitor for insect pests. Rock garden herbs are fairly pest-resistant but can get aphids, spider mites, or scale. Use insecticidal soap or neem oil treatments.
  • Divide large perennial clumps every few years in early spring to maintain vigor. Replant divisions elsewhere in the rockery.
  • Cut back any frost-damaged or unsightly growth on herb plants at the end of the season.
  • Consider protecting plants with evergreen boughs or fabric covers to avoid severe winter dieback where frost is an issue. Remove promptly in spring.

Harvesting and Enjoying Rock Garden Herbs

The great benefit of including herbs in your rockery is having their flavorful leaves and flowers right at your fingertips!

  • Snip off leaves or stem tips frequently to encourage bushy growth. Always cut above a set of leaves.
  • For woody herbs, do not remove more than a third of the plant when harvesting.
  • Harvest herbs in the morning after any dew has dried for best flavor.
  • Rinse off dirt then pat leaves dry before using. Strip leaves off thicker stalks.
  • Add freshly picked herbs at the end of cooking for the strongest flavor.
  • Store excess leaves by air-drying, freezing, or in vinegar or oil. Freeze herbs in ice cube trays.
  • Make herb butters, pesto, herb vinegars, seasoned salts, or flavored oils. Infuse herbs in honey or sugar.
  • Craft refreshing herb teas from lemon balm, chamomile, mint, and scented geranium leaves.

With this helpful guide, you now have all the information needed to successfully grow an abundance of tasty herbs in your own unique rock garden. The rockery environment is perfectly suited to herbs, and combining their flowers, foliage, and scents makes for a beautiful landscape. Get creative with designing your own herb rock garden, then be sure to care for the plants properly. Soon you can enjoy harvesting healthy herbs just steps from your kitchen.