High Ground 1

OVER THE LAST CENTURY

the art of the perennial border has become hugely popular, practiced by millions of gardeners. Rock gardening has remained the province of keen specialists who create elaborate sacrificial rock piles and worship at the altar of Reginald Farrer, high priest of purple prose and rare plant snobbery. Of course, creating and placing an artistic outcrop, or even a formal raised bed in a contemporary garden, isn’t quite as simple as spading in some compost and laying out an assortment of perennials against a wall or fence.

Maybe the greatest obstacle to rock gardening is the way rock gardening presents itself: everyone would love to grow some cushion plants or groundcovers in a trough or to create a magical corner from nature, but rock gardeners and their books insist on elaborate soils, complicated rock work, an endless palette of ungrowable treasures. More than any garden art, rock gardening yearns for the impossible. I’ve heard rock gardeners gently taunted that we reach our apogee when our gardens positively bristle with labels of very tiny, very choice plants; nearly all of them half-dead, mind you, but ever so rare!

Yet another obstacle has to do with the aesthetics of rock gardening—or the lack thereof. Perhaps if Gertrude Jekyll had published a separate book on rock gardening (instead of cramming the subject into Wall and Water Gardening), we might have seen the rock garden develop along artistic lines like the perennial border. Even though I have seen many rock gardens that were pure aesthetic bliss—such as those of the late Duncan Lowe, Lincoln and Timmy Foster, and Harland Hand, and today, the gardens of Nina Lambert, Bodizar Berginc, the Redfields in America, and who knows how many Czechs, Scotsmen, and Scandinavians—I don’t know a single rock garden designed primarily for artistic effect.

There must be a tremendous market for amateur and professional gardeners who would welcome sound information on how to design and build artistic rock gardens. Not another compendium of Latin names and repetitions, but a book that shows how to optimize color and texture through the calendar year. (It is sad that Harland Hand never completed a book on his theory of garden design. I believe this would have gone a long way to providing us with a manual on the art of combining rocks and plants.) Moreover, I think rock gardens designed along artistic lines (rather than as museum pieces, so to speak, to house plant collections) would surpass perennial borders in overall impact and utility thanks to their much lovelier winter appearance and potentially longer season of showy bloom. I believe, furthermore, that a renewed inquiry and respect for the aesthetics of rock gardening, coupled with a willingness to grant space in journals to the art of combining rocks and plants in gardens, would consequently open the door to a much wider audience for the art.

Why bother to expand the audience? I believe rock gardening is a valuable pastime and occupation for anyone. But it is also much more than that: it provides a tactile demonstration of geology, microclimate, and ecological associations, as well as a plastic, sculptural element in the garden. Rock gardeners come to know and appreciate the value of pristine wild places on earth, and of the delicate treasures that dwell in them. In the face of rampant urban and suburban blight, ever-expanding agriculture, and human overpopulation, rock gardens remind us, day in, day out, that there is a special providence in tiny plants in a crevice.

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