Garden Photo of the Day

James’s Rock Pile Garden in Iceland

Filling a garden with rocks for a purpose

rock wall covered in moss and flowers

My name is James Rail, an American, who has been living in Gardaber, a suburb of Reykjavik, Iceland, for almost 60 years. Obviously, gardening conditions in Iceland are different with a short growing season, cool temperatures, and strong winds. Nevertheless, with the long daylight hours of summer, flowers and trees grow surprisingly well. As a novice gardener, it has taken me a long time to establish my garden, which now has some 140 varieties of perennials, 38 different bushes, and 9 kinds of trees. I built a sunroom onto my house that has added several more months to my gardening joy. In spite of temps near freezing in the winter and with limited daylight hours, I have succulents and cactus surviving along with fuchsias and bougainvillea in the sunroom.

Rocks are easy to find in Iceland. The fact is that the whole island is one huge expanse of rocks, with a small percentage of the country made up of sand and soil that has been slowly building up in the fjords and flatlands. So when I need rocks to add to Stekkjarflot 8, going out and finding them is no problem. I started needing rocks when I began landscaping the yard back in 1964. Actually, the ground was loaded with rocks and stones that I spent a lot of time removing so I could plant a lawn. Fortunately, the house next door was excavating for a garage, so I could dump wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of rocks into the hole. But once I had the grass in place, I needed special kinds of rocks for stairs, retaining walls, planter boxes, trim lines, flower bed terracing, freestanding walls, flower bed enhancement, ground surfacing, and special projects. Of course, all of these needs for rocks didn’t happen at the same time. They came over the last fifty years, and I’m still adding rocks here and there.

rock stairs covered in moss and yellow flowersOne of my first projects was stairs that I needed to put in place from the ground level up to the house level. This was about a 4-foot to 5-foot rise that required seven to nine flat, steplike rocks. Luckily, I live near the large park Heiðmork, which was formed from lava flows from nearby volcanos about 7,000 years ago. The lava shapes and sizes are endless. So I explored the area and found the rocks for four sets of stairways. I loaded the rocks into my car trunk and constructed stairways in the front and back of the house using 33 no-cost lava rocks.

wooden deck surround a rock covered in green mossWith my house being built on a street that has a slope, there was a need to have retaining walls between the different ground levels. In the backyard, there is a 2-foot drop that required a retaining wall between my property and my neighbor’s. Again, I was in luck, this time with a street project close by where huge rocks were being blasted with dynamite. The rocks were being trucked away, and I asked if they would dump a couple of loads in my backyard. They were happy to do so, and I wound up with big rocks that couldn’t be lifted. I spent the next few months moving these rocks into place using an 8-foot, 2-inch pipe as a lever and mixed sizes of rocks as a fulcrum to tip the rocks up and over from side to side until they formed a wall. I had some extra rocks that I used to outline a deck. A tree started growing in a hole drilled for a dynamite charge that is now 6 feet high. The project required 23 large rocks.

solid wall of rock with two lights on topThe retaining wall I needed in the front driveway was much easier to build. This time I found long, straight-sided rocks along the highway that I drove every day to my job at the NATO base. I would spot some rocks that looked good, stop the car, and load three or four long ones into the trunk. Together they made a solid wall of rock.

small water pond outlined by rocksI had to use long, straight-sided rocks on the sides of two of the stairways. I also used these long, straight-sided rocks to build a retaining wall around the concrete hot pot that I built when the geothermal water was connected in 1978. Finally, I used a few more of these rocks for a small water pond that I made for the birds. It took 98 rocks to build all of these retaining walls.

rock slope covered by grass, flowers and mossIt was easy to see that I needed to slope the ground from the house level to the street level. This resulted in a slope that wraps around three sides of the house. I planted flowers on most of the slopes and used a mix of rock types to fill in for rock garden enhancement. I looked for rocks that had interesting shapes, colors, or lava flow ripples, or that were spotted with lichens. I gathered these rocks when I traveled around Iceland as well as from Heiðmork. I took 12 six-sided rocks from the top of a cliff on the farm Arnabæli, which I struggled to retrieve. I like these six-sided rocks and have taken them from Arnafjorður on the east coast and from a waterfall area. Total: 266 rocks.

rocks and flower bedsI needed to separate the lawn and the flower beds that I planned. So next came finding rocks with straight sides that were 6 to 12 inches high to terrace the flower beds. Again, I found most of these rocks along the road to Keflavik. I would load 6 to 10 rocks in the car trunk depending on their size. These rocks were used in long lines in the front and back of the house. Much later I removed a slope of grass and terraced the area for flowers, placing large flat rocks on their edges. It took many hauls because I needed 138 rocks to complete four flower beds.

patio enclosed by a small rock wall or ledge I enclosed a patio area with glass in 1970, which became our groður hus (greenhouse). With the greenhouse effect, the temperatures were suitable for dining and growing special flowers and succulents. I planned for two large planter boxes about 2 feet high. Finding rocks for this project took some time, since the heights and thicknesses of the rocks had to be about the same. This time I cemented the large, flat rocks in place. Twenty-one rocks did the job.

20 rocks in a lineIn the early days of starting the garden, I needed a freestanding wall to divide the garden in the front of the house from the backyard. I found large flat rocks that stood on their thick edge and also laid them flat. For the division, I placed the 20 rocks in a single line.

rock pathway to the deckThere are a few level places in the yard that needed rocks for flat areas. I went to the ocean shoreline to collect round, smooth rocks the size of pancakes but thicker. I filled an 8-foot by 8-foot space with about 250 rocks. Over time, thyme and ground-covering plants have grown over them. In another area, I removed a wooden deck and filled the space with 36 larger flat rocks that came from Heiðmork. I also filled a flat space at the top of a stairway with nine large smooth rocks that I found on the ocean shore.

rock seat with a moss cushion Then there are some rocks that stand on their own for various reasons, like this moss cushion seat.

As you can see, I don ́t really have a rock pile at Stekkjarflot 8. All of the rocks that I gathered are doing the special job they are intended to do. However, if I would pile all of the rocks together, all 996 of them, there would be one big rock pile. Whatever, I ́m happy that all of the rocks have found a new home.

View Comments


  1. runfortheroses 01/26/2022

    Amazing, James! Truly unique! The geothermal hotpot… so cool

  2. nwphilagardener 01/26/2022

    What an interesting photo series and story! I'm guessing that in the 60 years that James has been away from the United States there have been changes -perhaps regional- that make the gathering of stones without expressed permission by a land owner or municipal authority not cool, perhaps illegal. That aside, the description of the discerning collection of rocks with different character to serve different purposes within a series of gardens is compelling. I think gardeners underestimate the impact and opportunities inherent in the inclusion of stones within a garden. These photos showcase those results. Oddly charming is the count of stones used for each project.
    Thanks for sharing!

  3. sagebird52 01/26/2022

    Interesting use of a lot of rocks and a good result.

  4. User avater
    user-7007816 01/26/2022

    James: Fun to see all the different ways you have used rocks. I have also used lots of rocks in our garden, My rocks were carried to Michigan during the last ice age.

    1. User avater
      cynthia2020 01/26/2022

      Re: rocks

      Yes - I like rocks in my gardens as well - have carried rounded, softball sized rocks home in luggage from various shorelines where I know they won't be missed. Rocks can add a pleasing element... and can bring about happy memories, too.

  5. User avater
    treasuresmom 01/26/2022

    Oh, my, how very interesting. Certainly you have bloomed where you are planted.

  6. mainer59 01/26/2022

    I'd love to see another post about the plants used among the rocks!

  7. Maggieat11 01/26/2022

    How interesting! Thank you for sharing
    your huge project. I'd love to see how your home
    nestles in amongst these rocks. The "chair" is a wonderful inclusion in your landscaping.

  8. pegmccann 01/26/2022

    Thank you for showing us your place! You must have had good springs on your car.
    What are the long-stemmed yellow flowers in the first photo and again near the end?

  9. shegardens 01/26/2022


    I’d love to have James step back with his camera and give us a few pictures which portray the effect from the street or another vantage point, but it’s the wrong season, isn’t it?

  10. Carolyn3134 01/26/2022

    Totally AMAZING!! You must be very STRONG!!

  11. deodasher1 01/26/2022

    This is a most interesting story, What an incredible labor of love. You have a wonderful sense of design.

  12. User avater
    cynthia2020 01/26/2022

    James - thank you for sharing. I like the rock and plant composition best in the rock stair photo with the yellow flowers. I also like the smooth flat rock rock layout next to the deck.

    Maybe you will show us more plant focused groupings in another set of photos? And maybe tell us what kind of soil you have (or the amendments you use) and if you have plants that are easy to divide or propagate to create new beds, borders, or to fill in crevices?

    Happy Gardening!

  13. Sunshine111 01/26/2022

    Oh my goodness! So much work! But it is a labor of love

  14. user-6841468 01/26/2022

    wow! i have rock envy and muscle envy... you must be incredibly strong to move all those rocks! Now i want to see all the flowers, shrubs, and trees.

  15. alicefleurkens 01/26/2022

    Hi James. Me to loves working with Rocks, and sometimes it is not as difficult as it looks. You have placed them very cleverly. However even at that, how did you get them even into your car. My husband and I went out to look for rocks by the side of the road, and in this certain area they were very attractive rocks. Next thing you know a policeman rolls up. We were unknowingly collecting in a protected area. So with a warning we went home again. Nowadays they even sell field stones, however we can still find free ones of those. Most other rocks we pay for. You did a great job. Alice

    1. User avater
      cynthia2020 01/26/2022

      Hi, Alice.
      Re: by the side of the road
      Ha - I have collected rocks adjacent to roadcuts, but they were not that great and ended up splitting... guess I didn't remember enough from university geology class that day...

  16. wittyone 01/26/2022

    You do beautiful work. This certainly shows your perseverance over the long haul. All the moss and lichen on these biggies gives them such a lovely soft appearance which greatly enhances the plantings within and around them. As others have requested I'd love to see more pictures of how the beds you've created relate to your house.

  17. User avater
    simplesue 01/26/2022

    Your garden is fantastic!!!!
    An amazing accomplishment to gather all those heavy rocks and create a garden out of them- I just can't get enough of your photos- all the moss, unusual plants and interesting garden features you created....a geothermal pool!!!! Wow!
    Until now I never even imagined a garden in Iceland.
    Your garden has an ancient feeling with all those rocks, I just love it!

  18. sheila_schultz 01/26/2022

    James, the natural beauty you have slowly and thoughtfully created with the 996 magnificent rocks in your yard is inspiring. The moss and lichens so comfortably blanketing the rocks make me swoon. The flowers and plants are a lovely addition to complete your incredible vision. My jaw has dropped. You are truly an artist.

  19. wildthyme 01/26/2022

    James, I love working with rocks, although most of my rock work was undone when the people who bought our house dismantled it all to build a garage (ugh).

  20. User avater
    bdowen 01/26/2022

    One of the great aspects of GPOD is that we get to travel the world to other gardens while sitting in or gazing out at our own. I agree with others, I would love to see more photos of this garden with its impressive rock collection.

  21. btucker9675 01/26/2022

    Great photos and great story about an absolutely beautiful garden! Love the mossy rocks especially. I had to laugh because when we moved into our current home, new houses were being built and large rocks were being dug up. We would drive around in the early evenings and load up our Rav4 with stones to edge our borders, etc. We did feel a bit furtive, but they would have all been hauled away and dumped so we put them to a much better use! Thank you for sharing this excellent gardening story!

  22. stewpot 01/26/2022

    I can't add anything to new to the others comments other than just ... WOWZER! I loved this post, good job James!!!

  23. [email protected] 01/26/2022

    Hello James. I had to go back to your introduction to see whether I had misread the sentence where you refer to yourself as a "novice gardener". After seeing what you have done, I would never have considered you to be a novice gardener! I hope to see many more submissions by you, and have to wonder if everyone in Iceland picks up rocks wherever they wish?!

  24. Pollen 01/29/2022

    "You are 'the man'" to be sure! Avid gardener, as you provide the relief we all sustain to achieve! We just so admire your skill and perseverance! Do keep photo's coming with your additions and changes of season, we look forward to them.

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