Renovating the Rock Garden

By: Joanne Everson - 03/02/2011

There is more to working on Kew's Rock Garden than looking after the plants; the rocks need attention too. Winter is the time when the Rock Garden team carry out important renovation work.

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The Rock Garden at Kew is built with Sussex sandstone and although in recent years there has been a lot of new construction, especially around the Davies Alpine House; some parts of the Rock Garden haven't been touched since the 1950s. Over time the rocks settle, the gaps between them widen letting the soil fall through and in the worst cases the rock can become unstable. The following picture shows some older rockwork, where you can clearly see how the rocks have moved and eroded, becoming uneven and creating wide gaps. 

Some of the old rockwork

Old rock work on the Rock Garden at Kew 

Before we begin working on fixing the rock we have to propagate or move any plants we want to save, so we have something to put back once the work is completed. The next picture shows the area we are working on at the moment. Most of the rocks have been rolled back or taken away, leaving a bank of soil and just the lowest layer of rock exposed. 

Rock removed to allow renovation work

Rock removed to allow renovation work 

The top surface of the lowest rock layer is then levelled using an electric power chisel to break away any lumps and a spirit level to ensure the resulting surface is level. Of course, all the correct safety gear has to be worn - steel toe-capped boots, gloves, ear defenders and goggles! 

Chiselling rock to creat a flat surface

Chiselling the rock to create a level surface 

The rocks are then carefully put back in position so that they fit tightly together. Even then there is more chiselling to do, this time by hand, to make them fit together exactly. This locks them into place and makes them very stable.

Moving a rock back into place Chiselling a rock by hand

    Left, a rock being moved back into place, and right, chiseling by hand to fit the rocks together

With a Rock Garden the size of the one at Kew, this work is ongoing and every winter we tackle a different area. It is a long process but worth doing well so the rocks stay in place for hopefully at least another 60 years.

 - Joanne -

4 comments on 'Renovating the Rock Garden'

Richard Wilford says

11/05/2011 11:12:02 AM | Report abuse

Hi Tim, thank you for your comment. I am glad you enjoy the Rock Garden here at Kew and yes, it does involve a lot of work to keep it looking good! This blog will continue to highlight plants and features in the alpine areas so keep checking back to see the latest news. You can also see more images on our Flickr set here Cheers, Richard.

Dr. Tim Ingram says

11/05/2011 8:02:14 AM | Report abuse

I've been visiting Kew since I was student in London in the late 1970's. Somehow I always graduate to the rock garden, despite the magnificence of the greenhouses and I think probably few visitors appreciate the amount of work involved in maintaining it! It's great to feel as excited about these plants just as much now as 30 years ago. Is there any opportunity to see more images of the plants and garden through the year? It would be good if more people could learn about and grow these plants.

Kew Feedback Team says

04/02/2011 12:39:27 PM | Report abuse

Many thanks for your message, Rodger - we've now fixed that second image.

Rodger Smyth says

04/02/2011 9:06:51 AM | Report abuse

Amazed at the attention to detail employed - eg exact fitting of adjacent rocks and the levelling of the layers. ps the 2nd photo 'Rock removed to allow renovation work' didn't open up

About us

Looking north towards the Davies Alpine House from the Rock Garden

Several people contribute to the Alpine and Rock Garden Team blog. Richard Wilford is the Collections Manager in the Hardy Display Section at Kew. His responsibilities include all the areas where alpines are grown at Kew Gardens. The three team leaders, Joanne Everson, Graham Walters and Katie Price, each have their own particular parts of the Gardens to look after. Between them, these four experts have over 55 years experience of growing alpines.

Alpines at Kew Gardens are not only grown to create colourful and informative displays, they also play an important role in the research Kew carries out around plant naming, classification, biodiversity and conservation.

Mountains are found on every continent and each range has its own unique alpine flora, but these plants are under threat from climate change. As temperatures rise, alpines are forced higher and will eventually have nowhere to go. The alpine collections at Kew are studied to help us all understand the mountain flora better and make informed decisions about protecting its future.

"Probably the most beautiful glasshouse in the world is the Davies Alpine House at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew", John Hoyland, Gardens Illustrated, April 2011

Richard Wilford has written a book on alpines, 'Alpines from Mountain to Garden', published by Kew Publishing. You can buy it in the Kew shops or from

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