Rocks in all their forms--horizontal, vertical, rounded, jagged, pebbles or sand--are one of the foundations of an oriental garden. Both Chinese and Japanese cultures have used them as evocative symbols and solid structure for gardens of elegance and beauty. Whether or not you want to create a traditional oriental garden, you can learn much from these gardens about incorporating the solidity of rocks in a skillful manner.
A group of large stones or boulders is a common feature of a Japanese garden, quite often contrasting one or more upright "yang" stones with horizontal "yin" stones. Chinese gardeners, too, valued craggy, picturesque boulders, especially when placed next to a smooth or soft surface such as clay tiles or moss.
In your own garden, juxtaposing opposites will highlight both and make your focal point more effective. Use both vertical and horizontal slabs of rock, rounded and craggy. Place delicate ferns next to boulders, curves next to straight lines.
Study photos of oriental gardens for clues on rock placement--on setting them in the landscape so the stones seem totally natural, as if they'd always been there. Never dump a stone onto the surface of the ground and leave it. Stones in nature are always buried, sometimes half or even two thirds underground. Oriental garden designers are masters of setting stones, and it is well worth the effort of learning from their creations.
Paths And Stepping Stones
Flat rocks make a particularly effective pathway, either set in gravel or sand or spaced randomly through ground cover. They give a sense of stillness and age that is difficult to create with artificial materials. Each one tends to slow the visitor a bit, enticing her into the enjoyment of the garden rather than focusing on the doorway or gate beyond.
You may use either naturally irregular stones or rock cut into squares or rectangles. One very effective technique is to place rectangles with in a pathway or rounded river stones of random sizes.
Water Features With Rocks
From a hollowed out rock filled with water to waterfalls and ponds, rocks are an essential part of oriental gardens, contrasting the flowing transparency of the water with the heavy stillness of stone.
One feature to incorporate in your own garden might be a pond margin of rounded river rocks. This gives a natural feel to a pond and a sloping edge for birds and other wildlife to use.
Just as a Japanese garden designer would study the natural rivers and streams of his land, study the rivers close to your home. Note the type of rocks and how they are placed, the way the stones edge the streams. All these details you can recreate in your own garden.
The Dry Garden
One of the most famous Japanese gardens is the Ryoan-ji temple garden, fifteen moss covered boulders surrounded by raked gravel. It is a deceptively simple landscape, a small place that symbolizes a much more expansive world.
In your own garden, you can use rocks as symbols in your own mythology, give them your own meaning. You can place them along a path as a dry streambed, evoking the presence of water without a fountain or pump. You can rake a bed of sand into any shape you please, and change it tomorrow. You could even place your river rocks in one line today, another next week.