ROCK GARDENING SOCIETIES – BEYOND ROCKS – A SPECIAL GIVEAWAY

NATIVE PLANTS SHINE IN THIS WATER-WISE ROCK GARDEN IN SANTE FE ON A TOUR WITH THE NORTH AMERICAN ROCK GARDEN SOCIETY – A SOCIETY WHICH CAN HELP YOUR UNDERSTAND THAT ROCK GARDENS ARE NOT REALLY ALL ABOUT ROCKS.

Mention the term ‘Rock Garden’ and most people will offer a different definition. Even amongst the most passionate of rock gardening enthusiasts – member of the NARGS – the North American Rock Garden Society or the AGS – the Alpine Garden Society in the UK, even within the chatty, active chat rooms and forums of the very active and passionate SRGC – the Scottish Rock Garden Club folks disagree on what the exact definition is, but one thing is for certain – rock gardening has less to do about rocks, as it does about the plants – for each personal definition does provide a hint to what rock gardening is today – a hobby or interest which demands more than some basic knowledge about plant life. The art and science of rock gardening errs more on the side of science, ecology and botany than it does the ‘art’ part of the equation.

TROUGH CULTURE IS A VERY SPECIFIC TYPE OF ROCK GARDEN WHERE HIGH ELEVATION ALPINE PLANTS ARE GROWN IN HYPER-TUFA CONTAINERS MADE OF A SPECIAL BLEND OF CONCRETE THAT MIMIC’S TUFA ROCK – A HIGHLY POROUS LIMESTONE ROCK THAT MANY ALPINES GROW WELL ON, BUT THE TERM TROUGH CAN MEAN MUCH MORE THAN THESE ‘SINK-LIKE’ CONTAINERS.

Not that aesthetics aren’t important to rock gardeners, far from it, but rock gardening is about as far away from landscape design or outdoor decoration as a garden can get. In a nut shell, it’s more like recreating nature – think: habitat creation. Many rock gardens are like tiny zoo’s for plants. Want to raise a rare, high elevation saxifrage from the Alps? Then you will need to recreate the alpine conditions as best you can right in your own back yard – right down to the perfect drainage, soil pH and rocky outcroppings or screes where the specific genus once grew in nature. It’s a bit like creating a living diorama from a natural history museum – perhaps right in a small trough sitting on your deck, which is kind-of cool once you start thinking about it, right?

PURISTS IN THE ROCK GARDEN SOCIETIES STILL ENJOY ATTEMPTING TO GROW THE MOST CHALLENGING OF PLANTS – HIGH ELEVATION ALPINES SUCH AS THIS SAXIFRAGE SPECIES I SHOT IN ONE OF MY TROUGHS, BUT ROCK GARDENING TODAY CAN MEAN SO MUCH MORE.

Although many rock gardeners focus strictly on alpine plants in the UK, in the US the boundaries blur between interests – ferns, woodland plants, bulbs, shrubs, cacti and succulents and true, high-elevation alpines. So even though this movement, started by a plantsman named Reginald Farrer known as the ‘Father of Rock Gardening’ – the trend he igniting back in the Victorian era has evolved tremendously over the years. And although his books which outlined his many adventures collecting and growing alpine plants inspired many to attempt to recreate those very meadows and screes from the worlds highest mountain tops, today, rock gardening means much more – but it all depends where you live and garden.

ONE OF THE BENEFITS OF JOINING A ROCK GARDEN SOCIETY IS THE SOCIAL ASPECT, TOURS, LECTURES, TALKS, ROUND-TABLES, PLANT AND SEED EXCHANGES AND CONVENTIONS. THIS TOUR IN NEW MEXICO WAS ORGANIZED BY NARGS LAST YEAR, AND INCLUDED HIKES, STUDIES AND PLENTY OF CHATTY MEALS.

In California, it may mean a gravel or sand garden, as it deals with a water-wise world, in Arizona, it may mean a cactus garden or a Steppe garden in Colorado and Utah. In the North East, it may mean getting rid of your lawn and introducing native plants that enjoy heavy snows, wet spring conditions but dry summers – as gardeners, we are becoming so aware about the risks our lawns and other methods of gardening that many are rediscovering rock gardening – but then getting confused, as the many comments in this NPR article demonstrate – a rock garden seems to be a confusing term, even though suddenly it seems everyone wants one.

There is a big problem here – no one can seem to agree on what a rock garden actually is or what it should be. Yet, one thing it clear to true rock gardeners – a rock garden is not – simply a garden of rocks.

Or the other way around, for that matter. Although, a search on Pinterest shows that this is what most novices believe rock gardening to be.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

A VIEW OF MY RAISED ROCK WALL ROCK GARDEN WITH A MIXTURE OF LOW GROWING ALPINE BULBS, SPECIES TULIPS, DWARF EVERGREENS AND PERENNIALS. I TRY TO NOT GET TOO GEEKY ABOUT STAYING TRUE TO WHAT A TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY ROCK GARDEN MIGHT HAVE HAD IN IT, I PLANT A LITTLE OF EVERYTHING, FROM ANNUALS TO TREES AND BULBS. I NEVER HAVE TO WATER IT.

Even nurseries and garden centers are confused, often clumping together various low-growing or dwarf plants in areas and labeling them as ‘rock garden’ plants. There are only a handful of true alpine plant nurseries in North America, but as the term broadens to include woodland and shrubs and grasses, you can begin to see that a rock garden enthusiast could find a suitable rock garden plant in many aisles of a nursery, but the purist would most likely need to either join a local club, or order plants from a specialist nursery as few garden centers carry any rock plant beyond a sempervivum or a dwarf campanula.

WE DECIDED TO ELIMINATE THE LAWN IN OUR FRONT YARD, WHICH NOW LOOKS LIKE NEW YORK’s HI-LINE MEETS THE NETHERLANDS, BUT EVERYTHING IN IT CAME FROM INSPIRATION I RECIEVED FROM NARGS MEETINGS, EVEN THIS BLACK, DWARF IRIS, WHICH I BOUGHT AT A NARGS PLANT SALE.

In many ways, the North American Rock Garden Society is stuck with a very bad name. The idea of a ‘scocity’ is limiting, and might offend some people. the words North American, are limiting, especially given that it is a global society now – thanks to the internet, the word ‘Rock’ has little to do with bulbs, or hellebores, woodland plants and wildflowers, prairie preservation or ferns and mosses – so the entire name of the society is misleading, if not wrong.

Clearly, this is simply a PR and identity issue more than anything else. We should be smart enough to be able to overcome such issues, but changing names of large organizations is challenging, and although acronyms seem to only make the matter worse (NARGS…really?), the future of these groups weighs more on the members and what they believe in more than it does what they are ‘in to’. It’s safe to say that NARGS, AGS and SRGS attracts the most intellectual of the plant people, sure, but it also attracts those who are curious, smart, adventurous and who love learning more about plants. Why not join one of these groups? All offer beautiful journals full of articles that are far more interesting than any other gardening magazine ( you will actually learn something), and each offer a seed sale of wild collected seed and garden collected seed.

A GROUP OF NARGS MEMBERS MEET ON A SATURDAY FOR A BOTANIZING HIKE. USUALLY THERE ARE A COUPLE OF INFORMED LEADERS, AND EVERYONE ELSE TAKES NOTES AND INSPIRATION. THESE ARE ALWAYS A GREAT TIME FOR NOVICES AND EXPERTS ALIKE.

Of all the benefits that are worthy with these groups, by far, the best part of membership are the sed exchanges. Annually, each of these clubs offered members a long, long list of fresh seed – seeds available from no where else – forget about saving heirloom tomatoes – what about an endangered plant from Brazil who’s habitat has been destroyed, thought to be extinct? I want to save THAT seed. Not a bean that I am saving because of some crazy, unfounded GMO fear. Make a difference in the world.

MY LOCAL CHAPTER, THE NEW ENGLAND CHAPTER A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, WHERE THE LUNCH-TIME TALK WAS ON GESNERIADS WHICH ARE ALPINES. YOU MIGHT THINK THAT THIS WAS TOO INTENSE, BUT EVEN FIRST-TIME ATTENDEE’S WHERE ENGAGED AND MADE MUST-GET LISTS,

Attend any NARGS meeting ( there are many regional clubs that you can join, or you can simply join the national organization of NARGS, which full disclosure, I am currently the president of,, Attend any local or even the national annaul meeting ( in two weeks???) and you will find a cheerful, friendly group of plant enthusiasts who welcome both newbies and experts. You just need to be curious and open about learning. Friends tell me that attending meetings is a little bit of boy scouts meets a college lecture. About this ‘expert’ thing – relax, as most members are just there for the pastry and coffee. I have to admit that 12 years ago or so, when I first joined NARGS, I was so intimidated – really. Even though I was attempting to grow some alpines and to raise some trillium from seed, I really didn’t know how. I left that day so pumped up, that I could barely drive home. I had never learned so much and the members were so friendly and welcoming. Not exactly what my first college experience was like!

THE BRITISH SOCIETIES ARE VERY SOPHISTICATED ABOUT HOW AND WHAT ALPINES TO GROW, AND I TRY OCCASIONALLY TO IMITATE THEM IN THIS ALPINE HOUSE COLLECTION OF POTTED, TRUE ALPINES AND SMALL BULBS. NOT FOR EVERYONE, BUT I REALLY ENJOYED THE CHALLENGE.

It all began with visiting some of the British sites – the AGS, in particular, their photos on-line of the many shows that they have (in the UK, where rock gardening began, it continues to attract very experienced garden folk and in particular, highly skilled growers which are competitive). There are weekly shows throughout the UK where growers display their alpines and small bulbs, shrubs and trees in pots – just amazing and inspiring, I highly encourage you to check out the show reports here.

I kind-of knew that I could not raise such plants here in the US, but I have tried – unfortunately, our climate doesn’t’ cooperate in most of the US (unless one lives in Alaska or the North West), but I tried, and continue to try to raise alpine-type plants in pots and containers. I brought a few of these to my first NARGS meeting where I quietly entered them into a show – basically, a folding table near a window in an all-purpose room our local chapter rented at a state park. Most meetings occur monthly, and some include an opportunity for ‘show and tell’, where members can bring in a pot or even a cutting of a precious plant, and members talk about it – sharing how they grew it. There is usually coffee and treats, and then a presentation of some sort, usually a guest speaker. A great way to spend a Saturday, and since then, I’ve become hooked – trying to attend most meetings and also bringing a few friends who are at first, nervous, but then discover that even though they know nothing about rock gardening, they get drawn in – it’s cub scouts for adults.

FORMER NURSURY OWNER AND PLANTSWOMAN ELLEN HORNIG, THE PRESIDENT OF MY LOCAL CHAPTERS AUCTIONS OFF A RARE MONOGRAPH ON THE GENUS GALANTHUS (SNOWDROPS) AT OUR LAST MEETING. I LEFT WITH ABOUT 25 BOOKS! THE TABLE IN BACK WAS A SHOW AND TELL OF MEMBERS PLANTS. IT WAS MARCH, AND MANY PLANTS WERE LATE THIS YEAR.

It was at this first meeting when I realized that although I knew so little about these plants, that everyone was taking notes, laughing, sharing stories about how they killed something, or triumphed with it. There was a plant auction ( it was spring) and members brought in plants that they grew or divided at home ( a note about this – NARGS members run the full gamut, from novice to expert – and it’s these experts, which most chapters have in one way or another, that make membership so special – in this way, NARGS is not unlike an elite country club.

At this first meeting, I met and became friends with Darrelll Probst, the then epimedium expert who offered up few flats of rare plants that he raised from seed that he collected on expeditions to China with Dan Hinkley. These were amazing, to say the least – I mean, podophyllum that were just too precious or rare to sell to commercial nurseries like Plant Delights because he only had ten of them – each plant made me want to empty my bank account. ” This white dwarf Iris came from my last expedition to China, we are not sure about the taxonomy, the species may be new to science, it’s only 8 inches high, and covered itself with white Iris blossoms early in the year, super hardy and it makes a huge mound – no one has it yet, so I’ll start the bidding off at $5 – any takers?). Crazy.

At the same meeting, I met chapter members allium expert Mark McDonough, bulb expert Russell Stafford of Odyssey Bulbs and the speaker who spoke on water-wise sand beds. I bought a beautiful hyper-tufa trough and a few flats of woodland plants, bulbs and alpines, a small Daphne shrub that a member started from seed ( a species which was hard to find) and I bought a tall stack of old journals that another member was selling. Throw in a few books from the chapter library that would be lucky to every show up on Amazon, and I was hooked.

I couldn’t wait for the next meeting – but I had to wait for an entire month! How could I ever survive?

NARGS is like that. Nothing at all like what my mother said rock gardening was about – rocks, placed in a garden. Ha.

THE PAGES IN THE CURRENT JOURNAL OF NARGS SHOWS THE DIVERSITY OF WILD PLANTS IN NATURE, FROM PATAGONIAN OXALIS TO RARE PRIMROSES NOT IN CULTURE YET AND POPPIES FROM THE HIMALAYA. TELL ME – WHAT MAGAZINE FOR $35 OFFERS THIS SORT OF CONTENT TODAY 4 TIMES A YEAR? AND AT THE SAME TIME, OFFERS SEEDS OF MANY OF THESE PLANTS?

Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of rocks – in particular, tufa rock, a porous limestone rock treasured by rock gardeners for true alpines, as they can root directly into the rock, but it is difficult to come by, and if you do, it is expensive. Hyper-tufa is a concrete mix which you may remember from some old Martha Stewart shows, or from some DIY craft blogs – if done right, it can look very much like rock, and it is the preferred method for creating troughs, a very specific type of alpine garden where high elevation plants are raised in carefully constructed troughs which mimic the stone sinks early rock garden enthusiasts used in England, but if done poorly, it could look like a fairie garden on steroids.

TROUGHS, WHICH ORIGINALLY WERE WHAT FARRER CALLED SINK GARDENS IN 1900, ARE GAINING POPULARITY – EVEN IN THE SOUTH WEST – WHERE THIS ONE THRIVES IN THE SHADE OF A PINON PINE.

Regardless of how you define rock gardening or what a rock garden is, the art and science of it makes sense, as explained in a nice post on the NPR blog this week – where the author has picked up the how ‘right’ this rock gardening thing really is, even though people are still clearly confused by what it actually means if you read the comments. You may have always thought of rock gardens as simply gardens planted in rock, or among rocks, but I encourage you to look at this type of gardening a little bit deeper. Get involved, join the NARGS or AGS, you might find that it’s like college!

A SPREAD FOR THE CURRENT JOURNAL OF THE NORTH AMERICAN ROCK GARDEN SOCIETY, THE ROCK GARDEN QUARTERLY FEATURING AN ARTICLE ON PLANTS FROM AFGHANISTAN AND MUCH MORE. THIS IS CLEARLY NOT GARDEN DESIGN MAGAZINE OR WILDER, BUT IT SURELY HAS SUBSTANCE.

MY VERY SPECIAL GIVE AWAY

So in an effort to promote rock gardening or alpine gardens, I am offering two precious copies of the latest journal of NARGS to two randomly selected readers who leave comments on this post – how great is that? In this issue, you will see articles on plants from expeditions to Afghanistan, to China, and Patagonia, but mostly, I hope that you will see that rock gardening is more about discovering the wonder of some of the most special plants in the world, be they endangered or threatened, curious or odd, or simply rare and undiscovered.

I AM OFFERING A GIVEAWAY TO TWO WINNERS – THE LATEST ISSUE OF THE ROCK GARDEN QUARTERLY, ONLY AVAILABLE TO MEMBERS OF NARGS – PLUS, IF YOU CHOOSE TO JOIN NARGS, LET ME KNOW, AND I’LL SEND YOU A SPECIAL GIFT!

All this said about rock gardens because our national Annual Meeting is being held in a couple of weeks in Ann Arbor. Hey, you could always attend and really get introduced to the whole scheme – I am bringing a couple of friends who have never been. If not, then at least check the NARGS sites for a local chapter of NARGS website here, and attend the next meeting – I promise you that people will welcome yo – tell them I sent you, and maybe you will be so inspired that you will join this great plant society that has such a long and respected history.

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