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Rock and Alpine Gardens

 

 

Are there not a thousand beautiful flowers from the mountains which long for acceptance into our rock gardens

 

 

The rock garden is a definite piecing together of natural rock and stone, and is so formed that it offers ideal conditions for the growing of Alpines and such plants as occur naturally on mountain sides and at high elevation.

In the rock garden the first thought is for the plants that will occupy it. It is possible to make a charming home for Alpines which will cover only a few square yards of earth, and if the plants and not the stones are the reason for its existence, it will surely be a garden of beauty.

In all good gardening it is necessary to have a clear idea at the outset what we mean to do.

The rock garden is no place for overcrowding, or for the indiscriminate mixing of plants, large and small. Each plant should be carefully tended, and not left to battle for existence with others of stronger habit. The rock garden may contain representatives of most of the Alpine families, from the tinyAlpine Plants Androsace, which clings to the rock face among the snows, to the Gentians and Harebells which stud the mountain meadows far beneath. But the plants must be grown in colonies, the strong with the strong, the weak with the weak.

It is seldom that unsuitable soil or aspect is the reason for the annual dwindling away of choice seedlings, but very often may be caused by the encroachment of other plants. This crowding out process may not be visible to the eye - to all appearance the plant is quite isolated. But below the surface, other roots are absorbing all the nourishment, not infrequently the fibres from some neighboring tree or bush are allowed free access to the best soil in the rock garden. Root restriction in the case of large plants is just as needful as sufficient 'elbow room' for the smaller.

Most Alpines and rock plants require great depth of soil, a fact which will, perhaps, come as a surprise to many. The professional builders of certain rock gardens entirely overlook this point. Their work is finished when they have transported some tons of stone or cement to form miniature precipices, crags and jagged cliffs. The gardener must attend to the work of planting, and a hopeless task he often finds it.

Having no knowledge of the ways of rock plants, no provision has been made for rooting, and the stone ledges are covered with a few inches of soil. A cup shaped depression in the surface of a boulder is filled with a pinch of earth, and in this miserable dwelling any small Alpine is considered to be perfectly at home.

Take the case of the tiny Stonecrops, which in the high Alps may be found clinging to the edges of almost perpendicular rock faces. To outward appearance they must exist on such food and moisture as can be obtained from the atmosphere. Yet if we break away pieces of the shaly rock, we shall find small white rootlets thrusting themselves into minute crevices through which a drop of water could hardly percolate. Were it possible to extract one of these roots whole, we should probably find that it was some feet in length.

So that even in these barren regions, the forces of nature have been, and are, slowly disintegrating huge rocks, grinding them down into particles from which a plant, but an inch high, may draw life and sustenance.

This simple fact should be of most practical assistance to growers of small plants in rock gardens. In itself it explains why, without apparent reason, small Alpines are constantly dying. That they should have been starved for lack of necessary plant food is the last thought to occur. Alpines are credited with extraordinary powers of endurance. Rich soil they certainly do not need. Under natural conditions the roots are found in that of the poorest quality, a mixture of sand, coarse grit, and earthy particles.

Even in the most unlikely places where Alpines are found, there is soil of some description, and if at any reasonable depth the roots will find it. Unless the designer understands and appreciates the conditions under which rock plants occur, he cannot hope to make a garden home in which these transplanted wildings will flourish and multiply.

In the placing of stones forming the rock garden, valuable lessons may be gained from a study of Nature. Not that we want to imitate natural features or erect a miniature Alps in a small garden, but because Nature's arrangement of rocks is nearly always best suited to the growth of plants.

If we notice a particularly vigorous outgrowth of vivid mosses, small plants and ferns, we shall nearly always find that the rock face is neither perpendicular nor recessed, but that it slopes backward.

The full exposure to sun and air, and the certainty with which after every shower the rain trickles into the crevices, accounts easily for the increased vegetation. Not so when the rocks overhang. Here there are dark gloomy hollows, which the sun's rays never pierce.

The earth in the fissures is dry and powdery, and in such places a flowering plant is a rarity. A tattered curtain of dark ivy may veil the naked rock, or on a porous limestone green vegetable growths will spread like stains, but of brightness and beauty there is none.

If advantage were taken of mounds and natural ridges, much labor and expense would be saved, at any rate in districts where there are rocks and mossy boulders cropping out of the earth.

On high ground where the surface soil has been washed away by rains, a minimum of labor will ensure a beautiful rock garden. After all, it is for those who live in favored localities to make the best use of their advantages.Saxifrages and Sedum

The extreme hardiness of most Alpine plants is often overlooked. The smaller and rarer the flower, the less necessity for "coddling". It commonly happens that a pocket of rich, loamy soil in a sheltered corner, is regarded as a suitable spot in which to establish some choice seedling. The seedling nearly always dies. If the same plant had been given a fully exposed position in poor gravelly soil, interspersed with small stones, it would probably have survived and flourished.

It is astonishing the numbers of Alpines which are perfectly at home along the edges of rough paths, between stones, and in the joints of steps. The roots twist among broken stones and push their way through the coarse grit, always finding abundant moisture, surface evaporation being far less under these circumstances than in borders of good soil.

Many small plants thrive best when their roots are in dry quarters during the winter, in the chinks of an old wall or in a rock fissure, they escape altogether the moisture of the earth. Although water, either in the shape of a small stream or still pool, often occurs in beautiful rock gardens, it should never be found in places where Alpines are exclusively grown.

A lonely tarn may be found on the mountain side, or a tiny spring gush from the rocks, tracing its way like a silver thread to the valley below. But these instances are the exception, not the rule, and in the small space of the Alpine garden, water is destructive to the best effects. All signs of bold vegetation disappear as we ascend the mountain side and approach the home of Gentian and Edelweiss.

The rock garden should not be situated near highly cultivated ground, neither should walls or buildings come into the view. It is best approached from the region of woodland or shrubbery, and by walks, the margins of which are left undefined. Occasional mossy boulders, with bold grouping of Foxgloves and homely plants, will prepare the eye for a change, and incidentally heighten the effect produced.

Perhaps the most beautiful way of all in which to gain the garden of Alpines would be across a stretch of turf, through which in places the natural rock appeared. Here we should have patches and drifts of Gentiana acaulis, Muscari, Narcissi and Scilla. Fortunate indeed are those who may attempt something of this kind, a happy reminder of those exquisite gardens of Nature, the upland pastures of the Tyrol.

 

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