Lisa's Landscape & Design

Saving the Planet One Yard at a Time

River Rock in the Landscape Means No Water, NOT “No Maintenance”

I personally love the look of rocks in a landscape. There is something very majestic and tranquil about rocks and there is a history and a story behind every single pebble and stone. Rocks have been in the landscape for millions of years and one can only speculate the amazing adventures and incredible stories they could tell if only they could speak.

Landscape design with rock, Lisa LaPaso

From the Beginning 

Having grown up in Illinois, spending many summer days at my Grandparents house on the Kankakee river and living right by a quarry filled by a natural spring, I must have skipped a thousand stones. I’m pretty sure I collected about as many along the way. I loved the uniqueness of each and every rock and I wondered in their creation. I am an admitted Rockaholic.

Rocks in the landscape

Rocks, rocks and more rocks

Creative Design

When I became a landscape designer it was for the love of flowers, but rocks are a huge part of my final creations. They can be incredibly functional and the best part of using river rocks and stepping-stones is that they become a permanent fixture. That being said, much like plants and mulch, they do require maintenance.

Landscape design with rock, Lisa LaPaso

Expect Some Work To Get Started

Rock installation requires some muscle. First you need to remove the existing sod to the depths of 3 to 4 inches to make sure you can get a deep layer of river rock back in its place and remain level to the ground. This can be done by either renting a sod cutter or manual labor.

Landscape design with rock

Lay the plastic after you remove about 3″ of soil.

Then of course the removed grass and dirt needs to be transported someplace and if you have a natural space around you I always encourage people to give it to Mother Nature. Otherwise, it needs to be loaded into a trailer and taken to a landfill.

Use A Border

River rock spills over without a border so I always recommend that metal or stone edging be used on either side of loose rock to maintain its look.  This keeps it looking neat and clean and from spreading into the lawn which can cause damage when mowing and weed eating.

Landscape design with rock

River rock is for NO WATER, NOT for NO MAINTENANCE.

Expect Maintenance 

Let me be as clear as I can be, river rock is NOT a no maintenance landscape, it is a no water landscape. If you are never going to get out and pull the weeds as they come in (about every week or two for about 10 minutes or so), then absolutely avoid river rock. Otherwise, all you’re going to do is cause a nuisance for yourself and the neighbors.

Don’t plan to spray weed killer to eradicate the weed problem when what you should have done is keep the weedy lawns and mow them every week. This photo below is NOT a solution, this is a problem…

Neglected rock landscape

This is not a pleasing aesthetic.

Perfect Solution For Drainage and High Traffic Issues

Below is a solution for a drainage problem and it also serves well as an extension to the driveway. Adding river rock and stepping-stones creates flow and directs traffic to the front door without smashing your lawn and creatively extends the driveway and sidewalk. This river rock path flows all the way to the back yard to serve as a sidewalk as well.

River rock landscape, with stone

Another great use for river rock is those weird spots along the fence and nuisance strip.

River rock landscape

Weed Management 

If you decide to go with river rock, you’ll need to manage the weeds as they come in and be sure to never allow weeds to go to seed (flower) or the problem will only get worse. You will notice a growth usually after a rain and in the spring time.

You can buy organic weed killer at the local nursery or big box stores and you can make a homemade remedy by mixing 20% acid vinegar (available at Lowe’s on 620) in a one gallon sprayer with 2 tbsp Epsom Salt and a tbsp of dish detergent. Shake and spray early morning to prevent harming bees! Another great weed preventative is an application of corn gluten every spring and fall.

 I greatly prefer plastic over fabric 

For small areas like the nuisance strip or fence line the heat and rock combo will break down the fabric in a couple of years. That being said, if you are on a grade or slope, you will need to use fabric instead.

Weed fabric after a few years in the shade...

I recommend 4 mil painters plastic and landscape pins to secure the plastic beneath the rocks. You can find these at most big box stores. You can buy a 20’x 25′ square for about $25 and here is a play by-play on how I use it…

Plastic liner under river rock

After you have removed the soil, lay the plastic from end to end overlapping on the grade at the seams. Be careful not to run plastic up the sides of the edge because you want water to drain from there.
You’ll find that by adding bulk river rock, the sediment will fall to the bottom and create a firmer layering affect. The more you walk on it the more stable it will become. I recommend 3/4-1.5” rock for this job.

landscape pin used to pin the plastic into the ground.

You will need to use landscape pins to secure the plastic into the ground along the edges of the plastic where it meets the metal. At this stage, if you are concerned about standing water you can pierce the plastic with a pitchfork if you choose, but I have found that it allows nut grass to come through pretty swiftly.

Landscape bed and river rock with step stones

Tree’s Need Room

 If you have Live Oaks, be mindful of placing rocks beneath the trees as the leaves do not break down quickly and you will have to blow or vacuum the leaves from the rocks to keep them looking neat.
Any time you use rock on a slope or around trees and plants, you will need to use landscape fabric instead of plastic to allow the plants to breathe and take in water at the roots. Leave plenty of room for the tree to continue growing.

Landscape fabric on a slope

Be Thoughtful 

All in all, I am a big fan of stone and I love to use hardscapes in my landscape designs. I also think there is a limit to how it should be used. We are not trying to turn Austin into a desert but as an alternative to an empty mulched bed when plants are not desired.
River rock and stone are a beautiful opportunity to create something unique in our landscapes.

River rock landscape design, Lisa LaPaso

The Heat Is On

Remember too that rock adds heat. So be careful where you use it and be aware that the few extra degrees of heat can be tough on fur babies and little feet. 

Size Matters

Pea gravel is very fluid and aside from easily being kicked about, it can also be difficult to walk on. 3/4-1.5″ is typically the best to use in a nuisance strip or walk way. Larger stones look great but can be difficult to walk on.

in conclusion, If you are not willing to accept the amount of maintenance a river rock bed can be then leave your sod/weed strip and mow the weeds.

If you are looking to reduce your lawn, consider well mulched landscape beds with appropriate sized plants. If you choose to use rock in your landscape, understand and accept the maintenance. Then, you’ll be saving water and saving yourself a lot of trouble in the end.

Now go get your rock garden on! (or don’t 🙂

Lisa LaPaso

Lisa’s Landscape & Design (“like” me on Facebook)

“Saving the Planet One Yard at a Time”

Check me out on YouTube!



  1. Rocio.

    Very interesting. We just changed a space in our backyard from lawn to river rock. We did use landscaping fabric, because I had read that plastic eventually cooks up and “kills” the soil underneath. Also, in another space we have with plastic (from previous owners) when it rains it puddles up immediately, and I didn´t want that in the new space. I do go out for the weeds and I have my vinegar spray too, so I intend to keep my stone space pretty and tidy like yours 🙂

    • Hi Rocio, you are correct, the plastic will kill the soil beneath and for a space like your “nuisance strip” that is not a problem. You would not want to use this method on a hillside, an area where small trees are growing or on land that is prone to bad drainage. It is a great method for weed control when used in moderation. Great comment!

  2. Great post. We put down rock over a French drain without plastic underneath, and then had to rake it all off the next year and redo it. Doesn’t drain as fast now (holes in the plastic over the French drain), but weeds are less of a problem.

    • Good to know it is working for you. There are definitely some circumstances where plastic is not the answer, but when it is, it works great.

  3. sandy lawrence

    Tops my list of the absolutely most helpful how-to gardening blog entries I’ve ever read. Thanks!

  4. Scovill Allan

    Hi Lisa, yeah the weeds are a drag, plus I have all the chinaberries on top of that! Regarding your weedkiller recipe, I assume that’s 1 whole gallon of 20% acidity vinegar? Also, wont it react violently when you mix baking soda with vinegar? Good post!

    • OMG, I meant Epsom Salt!!! Thank you for noticing that, ha ha, that would have been interesting! I’ll make the change

  5. Laura M

    My natural herbicide recipe is very similar to yours but I don’t use epsom salt, I use horticultural grade orange oil. My entire recipe for a small batch is 1/4 cup orange oil, 8 cu 20% vinegar, 1/2 tsp liquid soap. I’ve never used it on weeds but it works amazing on poison ivy. FYI the orange oil on its own is great for a lot of things including killing fire ants (and the grass around the fire ants, unfortunately) and cleaning floors. It is recommended to rinse your sprayer really well every time you use this stuff b/c the vinegar will break down the soft parts of the sprayer.

    I plan to put rock in some small spaces between my A/C condenser unit, rain barrels and exterior walls; it’s impossible to weed-whack those areas b/c they’re too narrow, and I hate seeing long grass growing there b/c I feel like it could be harboring nasty critters. I guess I will just have to be on the lookout for weeds! I found this post very informative- thanks for the info!

    • Thanks Laura, I have not heard that recipe but will definitely check it out and I have certainly not heard of anything natural that kills poison ivy. Great information! Thank you for sharing. I will share that recipe on my Facebook page too!

  6. Clara Beym

    I have river rock on my front lawn at our coastal home. It is a larger size rock and is difficult to walk on. I would like to add a stepping stone walkway.. do I need to remove the rock or can I just lay the larger 2ft x 2 ft flagstones over it?

  7. Pam DeMartino

    Great article I am in my mid 60 have a bed around pool with palm tree Japanese yew and BIG pheledemdrom plants I was going to put fabric and river rock because I can no longer put mulch getting above stone boarder around pool ( too much dirt) I felt rocks are permanently and I can maintain the weeds is this ok and can I not use an organic weed killer on weeds as the pop up? My first thought was to do river walk on edges and regrass other but I think San Augustine grass will invade all the plants and that will be a mess

    • Hi Pam,Yes,the rock is a great solution as long as you keep up with the weeds. I recommend an organic weed killer or a 20%acid vinegar solution mixed with 2 tablespoon epsom salt and 1 tbs dish soap.

      • Pam DeMartino

        Thank you for the organic weed killer recipe . I put fabric down around pool equipment and it will be three years no weeds! I double the fabric except around plants . Now to shop for cost to get job done! 😃

  8. Steve Bosch

    Do you see a problem with 4”to 6” cobble stone place around the bottom of a 30’oak tree in a 6′ ring to replace lawn???

    • Hi Steve, I would stay with 4 inch or smaller because Oaks do not like a lot of heavy weight on their roots. Also, make sure there is good filtration and as much of the root flair is exposed as is possible. This is one area I would recommend Landscape fabric as a weed barrier as long as the tree roots and flair are not covering the existing bark.

  9. kris

    Hi, I have a steep slope backing up to trees and a creek. Bermuda grass isn’t growing well in shade on sides of house on steep slope, and we have erosion. We plan to install a swale or dry creek bed along the sides, that we can also walk on with flat paver stones, but just wondering if we have to use some type of weed barrier? Is there another way to install the rocks over the existing soil without doing that? Thank you, Kristen

    • Kristen, I do recommend landscape fabric in that situation. You can also plant native grasses like sedge, or plants with deep root systems that prevent erosion as well. The combination of the two is ideal. You can create berms or swales with soil and plant on the top, or highest point of the swale with ferns, native plants or grasses in pockets which will break of the space with texture and still be functional. I hope this helps!

  10. The fact that there is history and a story behind every rock makes adding them to your landscape even more critical and better. I just love the fact that rocks, no matter how simple, have seen so much. It’s fantastic, really.

  11. Carolyn Parrish

    The ground out my back door stays muddy after rain. It has a dip in the middle. Can I level with rock to fill in them put square stepping stones over that? My yard is higher than than existing blocks.

    • Hi Carolyn, you absolutely can. River rock is a great solution for muddy areas where standing water isn’t an issue. I would recommend that you use some landscape fabric beneath the rock in that area simply to keep the rocks from melting into the dirt. I would also recommend that you use somewhere between a 1 inch to 2 1/2 inch size river rock to make sure they’re not so small they become fluid and kick up easily. I also recommend you use some type of metal edging to define the space so the rock doesn’t spill over into your lawn which can be a problem with the mower. I hope this helps!

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