In Defense of Non-conventional Rock Gardens

A guest entry from Panayoti Kelaidis, originally posted on the Alpine-L discussion list. Visit Panayoti’s Botanic Gardens Blog from the Denver Botanic Gardens.

I possess a classic sort of rock garden, chockablock full of androsaces, primulas, saxifrages, gentians galore and all the other card carrying members of the Bona Fide Alpine Plant club. In fact, I suspect I grow as many of these as just about anyone else. I love them of course. I would not want to be without them. You can find most plants in this garden represented in many of the several hundred rock garden books I have accumulated in the course of my lifetime: it’s pretty conventional really. I still like it.

And yet I have another garden where nary a saxifrage grows, let alone a primula, much less an androsace. Here you will find over 100 kinds of miniature cacti, South African succulents, penstemons, eriogonums, ten species of Talinum, oncocyclus iris, juno iris galore, crocuses, strange cushion plants like Satureja spinescens. These are grown in crevices and among rocks just as they might in nature. Probably half the plants in this garden have never appeared in a single rock garden tome. In my heart of hearts, I love both gardens very much, and would be hard put to choose between them: the dryland rock garden has one stellar quality, however. It is utterly novel and fresh in every way.

Mexican Hat in Blue Gramma Meadow

But what would we make of the blue gramma meadow filled with fritillaria, calochortus and allium? or the twin berms, one filled with tiny carpeting treasures from Western America (the usual steppe rabble) and the other from the Eastern hemisphere: veronicas, acantholimons, tulips and a jillion tiny mints and composites. And hardly a single rock in any of these gardens, which comprise many thousands of square feet? They would hardly qualify as a rock garden technically. They sure as heck ain’t perennial borders.

Or my little bog, filled with Sarracenia, Drosera and treasured Dionaea, with blazing spikes of Lobelia cardinalis and mats of cranberries and Mimulus primuloides, encrusted with Dodecatheon, Primula frondosa and Spiranthes cernua (still blooming alongside the piercing blue of Gentiana sinoornata). Are these to be excommunicated too?

I have but a few shady strips of garden here and there, but these are crowded with hepatica, six or seven kinds of Polygonatum, lots of Epimediums from Darrell, a few treasured azaleas and rhododendrons, and as many woodland waifs as I can persuade to join me in our godforsaken steppe. These are some of my favorite miniatures, and there are rocks among them in several beds. I brashly think of them as my woodland rock gardens (fool that I am).

Fragile Fern [Cystopteris fragilis]I have always thought that rock gardening was the last great refuge of the little plants of the world, the rock ferns that are so precious to us, and so ignorable to the masses. I realize it’s hard to define rock gardening, but while you’re at it, give me an air- tight definition of music, love, God, poetry or friendship. Show me a rock gardener who doesn’t grow (or wouldn’t like to) Cardiocrinums and Meconopsis and I will show you a paragon of purism: pin a rose on their nose, please, and call them rosy nose. Of course, we pay special honor to the treasures of the highest crags, but I would think that any rock gardener worth his or her salt would bow on their knees to worship bluets in a New England lawn just as fervently. And I would hope they would marvel as I have at Rhodohypoxis and Helichrysums and Craterocapsa on the bona fide Sani Pass tundra in South Africa, the very homeland of Mother Flora. And what about those Mediterranean hills, once so brimming with bulbs and tiny shrubs and herbaceous plants galore (now more and more replaced with barracks of beach homes for Northern European retirees?). Or the vast stretches of semi-arid steppeland on four continents, filled with tens of thousands of species of miniature gems, few of which have ever been cultivated (so many new to science even), chomped on for millenia by sheep and goats, now ground underfoot by guerillas, blasted by bombs and demolished hourly by the acre for oil and gas development? Who is to notice, to cherish, to champion these, if not rock gardeners? Are we to turn our back on the vastest treasure trove of rock plants on the planet, because they are not in Farrer or Sampson Clay or happen to grow in the Dolomites?

Perish the thought!

Panayoti Kelaidis
Denver, Colorado USA (Zone 5ish)

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