Icon - Arrow LeftAn icon we use to indicate a rightwards action. Icon - Arrow RightAn icon we use to indicate a leftwards action. Icon - External LinkAn icon we use to indicate a button link is external. Icon - MessageThe icon we use to represent an email action. Icon - Down ChevronUsed to indicate a dropdown. Icon - CloseUsed to indicate a close action. Icon - Dropdown ArrowUsed to indicate a dropdown. Icon - Location PinUsed to showcase a location on a map. Icon - Zoom OutUsed to indicate a zoom out action on a map. Icon - Zoom InUsed to indicate a zoom in action on a map. Icon - SearchUsed to indicate a search action. Icon - EmailUsed to indicate an emai action. Icon - FacebookFacebooks brand mark for use in social sharing icons. flipboard Icon - InstagramInstagrams brand mark for use in social sharing icons. Icon - PinterestPinterests brand mark for use in social sharing icons. Icon - TwitterTwitters brand mark for use in social sharing icons. Icon - Check MarkA check mark for checkbox buttons.
You are reading

Hardscaping 101: River Rocks

Search

Hardscaping 101: River Rocks

August 17, 2017

River rocks can serve many purposes from drainage to decoration in a landscape. A common feature in Japanese gardens, they are culled from actual rivers or sometimes from beach deposits. Different from other, sharper-edged gravels and pebbles, they have been worn and smoothed by moving water, colliding rocks, or the abrasive effect of sand.

But first, a disclosure: I am not a geologist, so I did some Googling as a starting point to learn about the many different  sizes, colors, and ways to use river rocks in a hardscape. Are river rocks right for your garden? Read on for everything you need to know.

What garden designs look best with river rocks?

A Japanese-inspired garden features a smooth river rocks at the edge of a stone slab stoop in a Westchester County, NY landscape by designer Marc Peter Keane. Photograph by and courtesy of Don Freeman. For more, see Designer Visit: A Garden Inspired by Japan.
Above: A Japanese-inspired garden features a smooth river rocks at the edge of a stone slab stoop in a Westchester County, NY landscape by designer Marc Peter Keane. Photograph by and courtesy of Don Freeman. For more, see Designer Visit: A Garden Inspired by Japan.

River rocks are popular in landscapes because they bring a naturalistic look to areas surrounding swimming pools, garden beds, trees, and water features.

What sizes of river rocks can I buy?

A
Above: A 2-pound bag of Small Decorative River Rocks can be used an attractive surface layer on a potted plant; $12.62 via eBay.

River rocks are available in a wide range of sizes, from very small (approximately 3/8 inches in diameter) to 5 inches.

Tip: Explore your local stone yard to get ideas and pick up samples to bring home.  The colors are also variable, mainly earth tones, so they complement most existing color pallets. Also, because river rocks don’t break down (as mulch does) or need to be pruned (like ground covers), they are cost effective and a long-term solution.

In a Japanese-inspired &#8
Above: In a Japanese-inspired “ocean garden” by designer Marc Keane, smoothly raked sand contrasts with a rippling, rocky border. Photograph by and courtesy of Don Freeman. For more, see Designer Visit: A Garden Inspired by Japan.

What are the best ways to use river rocks in a landscape?

Let’s start at the top. The main reason people use river rocks is for creating water features, whether grouped around water fountains or used in waterfalls. Another main use is for building dry river beds, whether for the design aesthetics or to actually divert water away from the property and prevent erosion. Remember when building your river bed to incorporate various rock sizes to create a more natural look. Tip: Another field trip is to visit actual stream beds and see how Mother Nature builds them.

Polished Asian Black River Pebbles are available in five sizes, from 3/4 inch to 5 inch; for more information and prices, see Yardco.
Above: Polished Asian Black River Pebbles are available in five sizes, from 3/4 inch to 5 inch; for more information and prices, see Yardco.

Less popular but still pleasing uses of the larger size river rocks are to create a natural edging and boundary for planting beds or lawns. For low-traffic areas, river rock can be an attractive ground cover substitute.  While the large smoother pieces are difficult to walk on comfortably (and you should avoid running on them—I won’t go into the grisly details of why I know this), they have more permanence and a visual presence.

Photograph by Marion Brenner. For more of this San Francisco project by Monica Viarengo, see Mission Accomplished: A Modern Mosaic Garden in SF. Risseu is a traditional pebble-mosaic technique common in Genoa, Viarengo’s hometown in Italy.
Above: Photograph by Marion Brenner. For more of this San Francisco project by Monica Viarengo, see Mission Accomplished: A Modern Mosaic Garden in SFRisseu is a traditional pebble-mosaic technique common in Genoa, Viarengo’s hometown in Italy.

I admire when water-sensitive oak trees are underplanted with large river rocks, or when large maple trees with their dense, shallow, and challenging roots are decorated with river rocks.

Smaller river rock, sizes ranging from 3/4 inch to 1 inch, is suited for paths and walkways and their smooth texture makes them surprisingly pleasant to walk on.

Mexican Beach Pebbles in mixed colors are available in several sizes ranging from data-src=
Above: Mexican Beach Pebbles in mixed colors are available in several sizes ranging from 1/2 inch to 5 inches; for more information and prices, see Yardco.

And then there is Mexican beach river rock, also known as Mexican beach pebbles (as shown above). There are as many names as there are design ideas for this rock. Available in a natural dark finish and either a matte or a polished look, this versatile rock works as a final touch in containers, in a Zen-themed garden, and as a mulch substitute in a succulent bed.

How much do river rocks cost?

A detail of the risseu treatment in a San Francisco landscape designed by Monica Viarengo.
Above: A detail of the risseu treatment in a San Francisco landscape designed by Monica Viarengo.

Typically sold by the pound or the ton, river rock costs can vary considerably depending on their size and where you live. Also, Mexican beach river rock is usually an expensive choice, so factor that into the design.

Are there any drawbacks to using river rocks in a landscape?

A roll of Landscape Fabric is $data-src=
Above: A roll of Landscape Fabric is $11.29 from Rona. Another weed barrier is Vigoro’s Landscape Fabric; a 50-foot roll is $9.98 from Home Depot.
I won’t lie, weeding can be difficult with a large swath of river rocks because it is hard to get down to the weed’s roots without removing the rocks, so I recommend laying down landscaping fabric before installation.  Also consider using a blower to make cleanup of leaves and debris less painful.

N.B.: For more of our favorite walkway and paver options see our Hardscape 101 guides:

Product summary  

Have a Question or Comment About This Post?

Join the conversation

v5.0