Creating Old World Charm: The English Rock Garden

The English garden is known for rambling, old world charm. Stony nooks and crannies are filled to bursting with foliage, and the requisite ramshackle grace allows plants to do as they will. English gardens make strong use of shale stone walls, gravel and stone pathways, rose arbors and pots of herbs clustered around doorways. These gardens feature extensive use of rocks or stones along pathways and surrounding groups of plants within the garden.

The Origin of the English Rock Gardens:

The traditional English country garden originates from the design of gardens around cottages in the 1800’s. These gardens were required to be useful, not simply beautiful. Because of this, English rock gardens are usually designed with a combination of ornamental and edible plants. In fact, traditionally every plant grown in English country gardens were used either medicinally or for food.

Quaint Versatility:

The English rock garden depends on providing a sense of grace and charm, rather than impressing with grand formal structure. Instead of properly trimmed bushes and precisely planted patterns of flowers, the rock garden will utilize vining plants, such as ivy, runner beans, potato vines, or climbing roses that tumble over the shale rock walls. These walls are usually appear to be loose stone, and function as retaining walls as well as accent pieces in the English garden.

English rock gardens tend to be small and dense, using informal design and traditional materials. Their size makes them a viable option for even the smallest of backyards. The stones bordering and dividing plants helped to reduce the natural spread of the plant growth, as well as reducing the necessity for extensive weeding.

Stone pathways of coarse gravel or flat flagstones were used as they required little care and have a pretty appearance. These pathways were kept clear of weeds primarily by the consistent passing of feet. Various stones can be used in English gardens.


Herbs are frequently placed in clay pots or in small garden patches right around the doorways, closely surrounding by heavy stones. Kitchen cooks may easily step outside and snip off a few leaves to use while cooking. Herbs that are also delicate are more likely to survive harsh winters as the warmth from the home will prevent them from dying of frost. The stones and clay pots also help to keep the herbs warm, allowing them to grow sooner in spring and last longer through the autumnal months.

Traditional Plants:

Herbs and and flowering veggies, such as onions, sweet peas and squashes provide nutritious beauty that doesn’t require much tending, but adds fresh organic foods to your table. Other traditional favorites include hollyhocks, yarrow, columbine, foxglove, crocus, climbing hydrangea, iris, dead and stinging nettles, lavender, poppy, sage, thyme, quince shrubs, tulips, bachelors buttons, bee balm, and peony.

Easy Tending:

The English cottage garden depends upon not requiring much maintenance. The densely planted surface area leaves little room for weeds, and the separations between plants are protected by stones. Plants are used to camouflage joints in the stone borders, giving the viewer the impression that the foliage is growing up out of the stones themselves.

This dense planting method may take some years to cultivate, especially if many annuals must be planted each spring. Primarily, however, perennials and plants that reseed themselves are used in such gardens to limit the necessity of heavy spring tending.

Aged Beauty:

The charm of the English garden is the feel of age that they have. Rose arbors and walls covered in ivy obviously will take some time to grow. You can contribute to the seeming age of the garden by introducing moss onto the rocks that border the plants and paths, as well as training quick growing vines over the retaining walls until the rose vines or ivy have grown larger.

You can also help to create an illusion of an old garden by interspersing plants among each other. Perennials with naturally try to take over the areas possessed by their neighboring plants, eventually blending together into a seamless beautiful bed. As you’re planting, allow some bulbs or cuttings to spill over the borders into neighboring plants territories. (Do NOT do this with aggressive plants, or they will take over your garden!)

Garden Stones:

English rock gardens will usually incorporate shale, limestone and sandstone. The retaining walls are usually a range of grey stones from charcoal to light cream grey. Stones used for bordering and pathways are typically made from the same stone used to build the retaining walls. Bricks may also be substituted for the walls and pathways, providing a more citified look.

We’d love to help you create your own English rock garden, and look forward to collaborating with you on designs and execution. At B&D Rockeries we are able to construct designs that suit your desires and look natural with your landscape. For those of you that have been dreaming of a beautiful self-sustaining backyard rock garden, we know just how to help you make your day dreams a reality. Contact us for further information.