Rock mulch for desert garden bed

This post continues the coverage of our front yard desert garden project.

In yesterday’s update on the palo verde trees in our front yard you might have noticed that our new desert garden bed is no longer bare dirt. As of last Saturday it has a nice layer of rock mulch—just in time for the first heat wave of the season that pushed us close to the 100°F mark on Wednesday and Thursday.


But before I talk more about the rock, I want to show you much the plants in this bed have grown, especially the perennials.


Click here to see what this bed looked like just five weeks ago. And this is what it looks like now.

140515_desert_garden_bed_rocks_012 140515_desert_garden_bed_rocks_009

But back to the rock. Since the planting scheme for this bed was inspired by my trip to Arizona last December, with some Southern African succulents (i.e. aloes) thrown in for good measure, I wanted a rock material that you might conceivably find in the desert, or that wouldn’t look out of place in the desert. This meant that anything smooth, such as gravel or river rock, was out since I associate that type of rock with flowing water, not with desert landscapes. Likewise, gray granite from the Sierra Nevada, greenish limestone or yellow-orange Sonoma Gold rock didn’t seem right either—and crushed lava rock, be it red or black, most certainly didn’t.

What I really wanted was the kind of rock I’d seen at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson…


…or slate chips like what I’ve been collecting near my in-laws’ place in Mount Shasta near the Oregon border.


Unfortunately, none of the rock yards in our area carry an exact match. Since rock is one of those things you need to buy locally, even in the era of e-commerce, you’re pretty much stuck with what you can get. I’d resigned myself to making do with California Gold, the same material I used on the succulent bed near the front door, when I found out that Dixon Landscape Materials, our go-to place for rock, soil and mulch, now carries a product they call “rock bark.” While it still isn’t a perfect match, it’s the closest I’ve been able to find in the Sacramento area.


The colors are a good mix of warm yellows and reds, and cool silvers and grays.


The edges aren’t as sharp as I would have wanted, but the overall look is still pleasing.

Here are some photos with agaves to give you a better sense of how this rock bark works in context.


Agave parrasana


Agave americana ‘Mediopicta Alba’


Agave colorata

I had 1½ cubic yards of rock bark delivered last Saturday, and moving it to where it needed to go, one shovelful at a time, was backbreaking work for a sedentary office drone like me. After I was done, I hosed it down to wash away the thick layer of dust. This did reveal the subtle colors in the rock, but more hosing down (or ideally rain) is needed to fully show the beauty of this product.

While I’m not kidding myself—this is a compromise, and the overall look is different from it would have been in a perfect world—I’m quite happy with the outcome.


  1. I think you made a perfect choice of what's available, and certainly is the closest to what you visualised. We love it, it looks so 'soft' and warm to the eye!

    1. I wonder if everybody agonizes the way I do over what to choose, LOL.

  2. Wow! Your project came out so beautifully. I do love the rocks . Great choice . You Palo Verde is looking healthy. Wish I Have Room For one.

  3. Oh that really does look wonderful, I doubt anyone but you would see it as a compromise. Well done!

    1. Thank you very much. Having lived with the rock bark for a week now, I'm happy to say that I'm quite satisfied with the look.

  4. Replies
    1. My back didn't hurt as bad as I thought. I was being careful. In comparison to moving 10 cubic yards of soil for the bed itself, this was child's play.

  5. How thick is the rock layer? I've never had luck with rock that contacted soil directly -- it always eventually ends up getting buried in soil. I guess that's probably due to precipitation?

    1. 3-4 inches. I don't think I need to worry about precipitation burying the rocks. From the way it looks, it'll never rain here again, LOL.

  6. I agonized over what kind of rock to use when I recently converted my front yard into a succulent bed, eventually ended up going with pea gravel due to the price--a decision I almost immediately regretted when the local cats decided it looked like a giant litterbox. So I'm stuck with spraying repellant all over the place until the plants grow in (or I get fed up and replace it with sharper rock). I think you made a wise choice with bigger rocks.

  7. Grace of the So. Nevada desertMay 1, 2023 at 6:18 PM

    As of this writing in 2023? Rock is NOT the best material to surround the base of a Desert Museum Paleo tree with; not at all. A mulch with some sand and more akin to the natural desert soil is far better...You will see what I mean; eventually.


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