19 Beautiful Rock Garden Plants for Designing a Colorful and Carefree Landscape

Delosperma Pink Ribbon
Photo: Denny Schrock

These pretty, low-maintenance perennials make top choices for rock gardens, alpine gardens, or any well-draining, gravelly spot. That's because these compact plants will produce vibrant flowers and foliage, even in poor soil, drought, and heat.

01 of 19

Euphorbia

Euphorbia shrub
Ed Gohlich

If you live in a frost-free region, be sure to include Euphorbia in your rock garden. This amazing family of succulents comes in a seemingly endless selection of shapes, sizes, and colors. They are extremely heat- and drought-resistant and they have shallow root systems that allow you to easily tuck them into the tight spots between rocks and boulders. In the north, you can still enjoy Euphorbia by planting them in a large, flat dish and setting it in the center of the garden. When frost threatens, just bring it indoors.

Growing Conditions: Full sun and well-drained, dry soil

Size: Most are 4-8 inches tall, but some can reach up to 6 feet

Zones: 9-11 (depends on variety)

Buy It: Grande Diamond Frost ($37, The Home Depot)

02 of 19

Rock Cress

Arabis caucasica
Denny Schrock

Also called arabis, rock cress (Aubrieta deltoidea) gets its name from the fact that it will thrive in the thin ribbon of soil wedged between boulders. This pretty creeper produces masses of cheerful pink or white flowers in the spring. It can tolerate heat and drought and is deer-resistant. Rock cress makes a great container plant, too. Shear back plants after flowering to encourage denser growth.

Growing Conditions: Full sun to part shade in well-drained soil

Size: 4 to 6 inches tall

Zones: 4-8

Buy It: Rock Cress Cascade Mix ($2, Etsy)

03 of 19

Sedum

sedum spunum dragon's blood
Peter Krumhardt

If you want a "plant it and forget it" perennial for your rock garden, you can't go wrong with sedums. These tough-as-nails plants come in a wide variety of colors and shapes and will quickly take root in any sunny, rocky location. Plus, most varieties produce nectar-rich, white, pink, or mauve flower heads in the summer and fall that lure colorful butterflies to your garden. Ground-hugging sedums are often sold in mixed "tiles" that, like sod, you can cut up and tuck into any space you have. Look for sedum tiles at your local garden center.

Growing Conditions: Full sun in well-drained, dry soil

Size: Up to 3 feet tall

Zones: 4-8

04 of 19

Candytuft

Iberis sempervirens, candytuft
Denny Schrock

A reliable spring bloomer, candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) produces a stunning carpet of snow-white flowers atop bright evergreen foliage. As a bonus, when the flowers mature, they fade to light pink which gives the plant a second show of color. Candytuft is an easy-care perennial that's deer- and drought-resistant. After blooming, remove the spent flowers and enjoy the plants' rich green leaves right through the winter.

Growing Conditions: Full sun in well-drained soil

Size: Up to 6 inches tall

Zones: 3-8

Buy It: Outdoor Live Plant Iberis ($8, Walmart)

05 of 19

Alyssum

alyssum saxatile basket of gold
Denny Schrock

Commonly called basket of gold, perennial alyssum (Aurinia saxatilis) makes a wonderful wall or rock garden plant. Every spring it develops masses of cheerful yellow flowers that look terrific tucked between rocks and boulders. In warmer regions this plant can be short-lived, so replant every year or two. You can grow perennial alyssum from seeds or nursery transplants.

Growing Conditions: Full sun in well-drained soil

Size: Up to 12 inches tall

Zones: 4-7

Buy It: Aurinia 'Summit' ($13, Bluestone Perennials)

06 of 19

Thrift

red-leaf sea thrift
Denny Schrock

Here's a little charmer that's a lot tougher than it looks. Thrift (Armeria maritima) is also known as sea pink because it grows wild on ocean-side cliffs so you know it will tolerate salt spray, heat, and punishing winds. It's a compact plant with fine grasslike foliage and showy pink or white ball-like blooms in the spring. Thrift prefers poor soil and the plants may rot if grown in really rich or moist soil. Clip away the flowers as they fade to keep plants looking tidy.

Growing Conditions: Full sun and well-drained soil

Size: Up to 3 feet tall

Zones: 4-9

Buy It: Sea Thrift Sea Pink Seeds ($2, Etsy)

07 of 19

Hens-and-Chicks

Succulents 'Hens & Chicks'
Matthew Benson

These adorable, ground-hugging plants are a lot like potato chips; you can't stop with just one. Hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum spp.) come in a wide assortment of shapes, sizes, and colors so they are super collectible. Each plant (the hen) sends out babies (the chicks) on short runners eventually forming a tight mat of pretty foliage. Hens-and-chicks are drought tolerant and are small enough to be tucked into even the tiniest sunny nook or cranny. The chicks can be separated from the hen and be replanted in other locations (they're also popular for growing indoors as houseplants).

Growing Conditions: Full sun in well-drained soil

Size: Up to 12 inches tall

Zones: 4-9 (depends on variety)

Buy It: Live Plant Hens N Chicks Jar ($15, Walmart)

08 of 19

Snow-in-Summer

Snow-in-Summer Flowers
Lynn Karlin

The pure white flowers of snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) appear in cloudlike drifts from late May to mid-June. Snow-in-summer also has soft gray foliage that looks terrific even when the plants are not in bloom. This plant will spread slowly through your rock or wall garden if planted in a sunny, well-drained location. It doesn't like heat and humidity, so it may need to be replanted every year or so in the southern portion of its range. Shear off flowers after they fade to keep the plants looking their best.

Growing Conditions: Full sun in well-drained soil

Size: Up to 12 inches tall

Zones: 3-10

09 of 19

Lesser Periwinkle

purple Vinca minor by metallic fence
Jerry Pavia

Commonly used as a groundcover, lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor) also works well in a rock or wall garden. This handsome, evergreen trailer produces lavender-blue flowers in late spring and early summer. This periwinkle prefers part shade and slightly moist soil so it's one of the best options for rock or wall gardens located under tall trees. The plants can spread quickly and are considered invasive parts of the southeast.

Growing Conditions: Full to part shade in well-drained, slightly moist soil

Size: Up to 6 inches tall

Zones: 4-8

Buy It: Periwinkle Vinca Minor Plants ($29, Etsy)

10 of 19

Red Creeping Thyme

Red Creeping Thyme
Matthew Benson

Unlike its culinary cousins, red creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) won't play a starring role in your kitchen, but it will add tons of color and interest to your rock garden. This gorgeous ground hugger will quickly fill in between paving stones or rock walls. Tough enough to take light foot traffic, this rugged perennial will release its rich fragrance every time its leaves are crushed. Red creeping thyme is smothered with tiny lavender-red blooms in the summer and grows well in containers, too.

Growing Conditions: Full sun in well-drained soil

Size: Up to 6 inches tall

Zones: 4-9

Buy It: Creeping Thyme ($7, Etsy)

11 of 19

Soapwort

Purple Iris Pink Soapwort
Laurie Dickson

Make your rock garden sparkle with a generous helping of soapwort (Saponaria ocymoides). During colonial times the sap of this pretty plant was once boiled to form a lathery soap that was used to launder clothes. Today, however, soapwort is prized for its fragrant pink flowers that will lure butterflies to your garden. Soapwort thrives in shallow-rocky soil so it's perfect for rock and wall gardens. The flowers appear from July to September; deadhead them as they fade to encourage more blooms.

Growing Conditions: Full sun in well-drained soil

Size: Up to 2 feet tall

Zones: 3-9

Buy It: Soapwort Garden Flower Seeds ($3, Walmart)

12 of 19

Deadnettle

Lamium maculatum Purple Dragon
Rich Pomerantz

Prized for both its colorful foliage and flowers, deadnettle (Lamium maculatum) makes a superb rock garden plant especially in shady locations. This handsome creeper comes in a variety of foliage colors including silver, chartreuse, green, and bicolor. The pink or white flowers appear from May to July, and it's also deer-resistant. When happy, deadnettle can spread quickly, but don't worry because the plants are easy to control with an occasional haircut.

Growing Conditions: Full to part shade in well-drained, slightly moist soil

Size: Up to 12 inches tall

Zones: 3-8

Buy It: Lamium Maculatum Beacon Silver Rooted Cuttings ($6, Etsy)

13 of 19

Creeping Phlox

moss phlox pink flowers
Denny Schrock

Just when you thought winter was never going to end, the jewel-like flowers of creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) burst into bloom in early spring. An ideal rock garden plant, creeping phlox thrives in poor, dry soil that drains quickly after rain. Creeping phlox produces carpets of blue, purple, rose, pink, or bicolor blooms. The plants also have dark, needlelike, evergreen foliage that remains attractive all year long.

Growing Conditions: Full sun in well-drained, dry soil

Size: Up to 6 inches tall

Zones: 3-9

14 of 19

Woolly Thyme

Woolly Thyme
Dean Schoeppner

The fuzzy, gray-green leaves of woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) have a soft, carpetlike appearance that contrasts perfectly with hard-edged rocks and boulders. But don't let its cushionlike appearance fool you; this little plant is tough enough to walk on and will do just fine grown between stepping-stones or pavers. Woolly thyme grows 3 inches tall and in midsummer develops masses of tiny pink, nectar-rich flowers that butterflies will flock to.

Growing Conditions: Full sun in well-drained soil

Size: Up to 3 inches tall

Zones: 5-8

Buy It: Woolly Thyme ($33, Plants4Home)

15 of 19

Ice Plant

Delosperma Pink Ribbon
Denny Schrock

Resistant to heat, drought, poor soil, and salt, ice plant (Delosperma cooperi) is about as indestructible as you can get. This mat-forming perennial grows 3-6 inches tall and can spread two feet or more wide. Ice plant has fleshy gray-green foliage that's almost hidden by a barrage of jewel-tone, daisylike blooms in purplish-pink, yellow, white, orange, or red. Tuck ice plant between boulders and watch it slowly frame the stones with brilliant color. Ice plant is more cold hardy in drier, western landscapes.

Growing Conditions: Full sun in well-drained soil

Size: Up to 6 inches tall

Zones: 6-11

Buy It: Orange and Purple Flower Fire Spinner Ice Plant ($20, The Home Depot)

16 of 19

Blue Fescue

'Sea Urchin' blue fescue
Marty Baldwin

Just as you would in a traditional perennial garden, it's important to include ornamental grasses in your rock or wall garden. Grasses add texture and interest throughout the year and keep the color show going while other plants come in and out of bloom. One favorite for a rock garden is blue fescue (Festuca glauca). This dense, clumping grass grows just 12 inches tall and has rich blue foliage highlighted with buff-color flower stalks in the late summer. Blue fescue thrives in dry conditions and mixes well with other rock garden plants.

Growing Conditions: Full sun in well-drained, dry soil

Size: Up to 12 inches tall

Zones: 4-8

17 of 19

Irish Moss

Irish moss white flowers
Bob Stefko

Because most rock garden plants thrive in dry soil, it can be challenging to grow them in wetter climates such as the Pacific Northwest. However, some perennials such as Irish moss (Sagina subulata) love moisture and are a great option for those regions. Irish moss gets its name from its soft, bright green, mosslike foliage that forms a mat so thick you can actually walk on it. In the spring, the plants are accented with tiny star-like white flowers. Tuck Irish moss between stones and water once a week if rainfall is scarce.

Growing Conditions: Full sun to part shade in consistently moist soil

Size: Up to 1 inch tall

Zones: 4-7

Buy It: Irish Moss Plant ($7, Etsy)

18 of 19

Blue Star Creeper

Blue Star Creeper stepping stones
Mike Jensen

Though it stays tiny, blue star creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis) should be on your must-have list for rock or wall gardens. This handsome perennial develops tiny green leaves that form a solid mat that can even take light foot traffic. In the spring, blue star creeper is covered with pretty, pale blue star-shape flowers. Blue star creeper prefers slightly moist soil, so it makes a great partner for Irish moss in moister climates.

Growing Conditions: Full sun to part shade in well-drained soil

Size: Up to 4 inches tall

Zones: 5-9

Buy It: Blue Star Creeper ($15, Walmart)

19 of 19

Yellow Columbine

Yellow columbine
Peter Krumhardt

Native to the Rocky Mountains, yellow columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) produces yellow flowers from spring into summer over a mound of lacy bluish-green foliage. Butterflies, bumblebees, and hummingbirds love to visit the blooms. This species tolerates heat well, especially in the shade, but may go dormant in summer if conditions are too dry. It may be short-lived, but it will reseed and slowly spread itself around.

Growing Conditions: part shade, especially during afternoon, and well-drained soil

Size: 1-3 feet tall

Zones: 4-8

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