Stone Garden: Concepts of Eastern and Western Design

A stone garden.

Stone gardens come in distinct styles. Will your garden reflect an Eastern or Western style stone landscape? Today's gardeners can incorporate elements of both Eastern and Western style rock garden features to reflect their own style of aesthetics.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Rachel Klein adds, "Artistically, the eye is drawn to contrasting colors and textures. However, too much contrast will look too busy or even clashing. To avoid this problem, choose all the same colored stones with varying grains or textures. Or choose stones with the same hue of color but different shades."

East vs. West

When considering an Asian style garden, it's helpful to think of elements and features that reflect or seek to imitate nature. A Japanese or Chinese rock garden is an excellent way to interpret aspects of the natural world right in your own back yard.

Conversely, a western-style or European style rock garden typically emphasizes man's dominion over nature; Western style gardens showcase man's ability to tame nature to his design or plan. Both styles have created marvelous gardens. Your garden can incorporate stone into either style for dramatic results.

cactus plants with blossoms in a rock garden

TIP: Rachel cautions you, "To be safe, avoid using sharp stones near pathways or walkways. When using stones in a walkway or as stepping stones, make sure they are even, level, and steady. Keep in mind that stones can become very slippery when wet or when covered in flower petals."

Eastern Rock Gardens

Creating an Asian stone garden is ideal for any space. Even a stretch of land along an alleyway can be transformed into a small courtyard garden showcasing Asian design principles. Naturally, a large space will allow you to incorporate various stone and rock features for great effects. Eastern gardens are supposed to be tranquil, natural, and simple. Stone provides the backbone of the entire design.

Think of stone as reflective of mountains in the landscape. Usually, stone will be used in natural, uncut forms in these landscapes. For example, where a Western garden might feature a neat terrace garden on a slope, an Eastern garden will place large rocks haphazardly throughout the slope to reflect a more naturally occurring situation.

a natural rock garden with grasses and flowers

Japanese gardens regularly feature groupings of natural stones of various sizes. This might be a focal point, but it also works as a great border between sections of the landscape. In a traditional Asian garden, group uneven numbers of rocks together with uneven spacing between them to mimic a natural look. No straight lines in your Asian garden. Traditionally, rocks should be placed in the same positions in which they were found in nature. Mix sizes, colors, and types of rocks to form beautiful groupings.

Of course, Asian gardens feature traditional borders like rock walls to great effect. Chinese gardens in particular make use of many walls to section off garden areas; in this way, each section is a separate outdoor room. Asian rock walls often resemble rock piles and are seldom given a "finished" look the way rammed earth walls have in Western gardens.

TIP: Rachel advises, "Cut rocks are sold especially for the purpose of being mortar-less. These stackable rocks make stable walls even without the use of mortar to glue them together. You can buy these rock kits at garden supply stores or order them online."

Eastern gardens generally feature small rock elements as well. A rock with a dip to collect water becomes a simple basin for a traditional Japanese tea garden. A miniature rock wall acts as a support for a small cascade in a Japanese courtyard garden. If the garden happens to be in a dry climate where water is not easily kept, pools or streams of gravel can be installed to reflect the element of water even though it is not present.

Stones like white quartz can be sprinkled atop the dry streams to represent foam and moving water. Sand or gravel can be layered on top of the ground and raked into different patterns to represent wind and water. Stone can also be used to form Asian bridges over true water features like creeks or ponds. Or, consider adding a few large rocks to your pond to jut above the water's surface like islands for a quintessential Asian look.

rock garden with bushes and flowers

Western Rock Gardens

Western rock gardens employ stone a bit differently. While natural stone features now occur in many Western gardens, traditionally rock and stone has been used in a more structured way. After the fall of Rome, stone was needed to create barriers in the form of walls. Monastery gardens were some of the first European walled gardens. Think of medieval castles and you get a good idea.

Many medieval gardens featured a single stone focal point. This might have been used to house a water feature such as a bird bath or a basin. Modern Western gardens still use stone to create their water features. Many garden ponds are rimmed with decorative stones. Stone also is a prominent component of classical fountains like statues of figures from antiquity. Think of a Grecian water nymph holding a jug where a stream of water flows into a basin that surrounds her. This is a typical use of stone in a Western garden.

Western gardens also employ stone in very low-key ways. A pretty pool of white stone might be used to mulch an area that surrounds an ornamental tree. Stone works well as mulch, keeping the soil moist and inhibiting weed growth. Stone might also be used as a simple border along the garden's path.

Stone cut in geometric shapes might even be paved for an elaborate garden walkway. Stone can be used to construct steps, terraces, even patio areas. Stone might be used more dramatically when carved into large-scale planters or a pair of lions that guard the garden's entrance. Create a stunning feature by mounding beautiful round stones around the base of a large pot or planter.

a woman laying rocks in her garden

No matter which style of garden you choose, look for rocks with unique and beautiful colors, textures, sizes, shapes, and grains. These can be bought at garden supply stores or simply found in nature. Given a nice rinse and polish, you'd be surprised how well rocks found in stream beds can compliment your garden. Boulders, alone or in groups, add a stunning focal feature to any landscape design. For larger rocks, you may want to consider buying synthetic rocks, which are lighter and much cheaper than real rock boulders.

TIP: Rachel recommends, "Plants that look great in rock beds for any landscape style include hens and chicks, rock cress, and creeping phlox."

Working with rock and stone is easier than ever, given the wide array of types to choose from at home improvement or garden centers. Ornamental stonework is a beautiful way to decorate the outdoors, but stone features are usually quite functional for both Eastern and Western style gardens.

Whether you're attracted to the more natural style of an Asian garden or the structured and planned look of a Western garden, there will be a wealth of ways to showcase your durable features built to withstand the elements. Maintaining a rock garden in either style is sure to create an impressive landscape.

TIP: Rachel notes, "Many garden supply stores carry plastic covers that are decorated to look exactly like rocks. These are hollow inside and can be placed directly over a, perhaps unattractive, spot in your garden such as a place where grass won't grow or an old stump. Some even come equipped with hidden speakers that can play soothing music while you garden or entertain."