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seeding alpine dreams

February 1, 2010

Campanula alpina somewhere in the Alps

During hours & days in the mountains of the west, and now back east, I’ve spent almost as much time wishing i knew the names of the plants around me as thinking about a climbing or hiking destination. I’ve apologized to unknown trees as I gripped them for dear life while scrambling down a slope, and apologized to my companions for holding things up while I stopped to gaze at tiny flowers creeping along paths or spilling sideways from cracks high on a wall.

Serendipity and a climbing trip once took me through Death Valley during the “100-Year Bloom,” but I didn’t know the name of a blooming thing. I never carried a wildflower guide, content with the mystery since I had no more than a patio to grow things on, and it was full of potted cactus.

Then I came here, and trips to the mountains became trips rather than something to do after work. But I finally got to garden on a real piece of land. And the paradox is that gardening brought the mountain plants to me, told me their names, and showed me a world of extraordinarily knowledgeable people dedicated to growing them in the most un-mountainous places, the garden.

Actually, that last part was Craig at Ellis Hollow. He’s a generous gardener, neighbor, and excellent blogger, and on the board of the local chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society. I joined up on the strength of his recommendation and entered the world of rock gardening like a child walking alone into a nanotech lab–ignorant, babbling, and dangerous around the sensitive equipment.

In case you’re wondering about the enthusiasm of NARGS members for alpine, saxatile, and low-growing perennials, explore the wiki or the 4,000+ different species of seeds available in this year’s member seed exchange, most of them garden-collected. Trying to pick my 35 has been fun and tiring, since I know so little that it takes Google to tell me if a pick is 1) hardy  2) going to germinate in under a year  3) likable and  4) not going to kill the Beagle. But picked I have! If it isn’t too late when they arrive, I will winter sow any that need cold stratifying and do my best with the rest.

We don’t have a scree slope or rock outcroppings or even a hypertufa trough, and I despair of ever seeing or growing any alpine plant in a garden that will strike me the way it does in the quiet mountain air, unlooked-for and in the oddest, barest, least garden-like places. But now there’s a chance I’ll know it, and call it by its name.

UPDATE: A discussion is beginning on how to even start a real rock garden, how to settle on what it will be, since the choices really can be overwhelming. Anyone like to share their path to alpine bliss in the comments?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2010 10:34 am

    I have been cruising the nargs site lately trying to find the keys that might open the door to our Rock Garden. Over the last few years it’s become such a weird smishsmash of non-rock-gardeny plants and without having a clue (not even recent mountain travels to use for reference), I’d like to transform it back into something that a real rock gardener might recognize. But it is so overwhelming! – Matching names to plants, and plants to habits, and habits to garden is a (low paying, ultimately rewarding?) full-time job… Will you let us know what arrives in your seed order?

    • February 1, 2010 1:24 pm

      I hear you on the complexity issue, Kris! It seems like the question of “what is a rock garden” can be answered a million different ways. Coming from the desert west, my concept was totally different from what I’ve seen grown here (and I haven’t seen much). You have the added burden of harking back to the historical garden at Blithewold. I hope some other commenters will let us know what inspired and how they designed their rock gardens, and will update the post to invite discussion (I’m learning from you that way). Me, I’m growing what’s easy for a beginner to grow in the open garden and what I’ll be able to enjoy soon, since I’m here for a good time, not a long time. I can send you my list.

  2. February 1, 2010 6:34 pm

    I will not share with you my alpine/rock garden because I don’t have one. However, I love them, but more so in the natural state as I scramble over rocks breathing in mountain air and scenery. We had a wildflower guidebook in hand while hiking in Rocky Mt. NP this summer. We were above the tree line and this flatlander was not entirely accustomed to the altitude. It was definately alpine bliss as the wildflowers were abundant. The guidebook came in hand when I needed an excuse to catch my breath, “Hey, what’s this?”, then proceed on.

    • February 2, 2010 12:03 pm

      Well OK then! I wonder if I really have it in me to be a serious rock gardener, taking pains to make the right crevices and drainage, since the “natural state” is still missing. But seeing good ones is really inspiring. One great one on our member tour makes use of a steep slope for little rock garden plants, but it took hauling in looooooots of gravel. The effect is stunning. Hm, I should ask her if I can photograph it in bulb season… The NARGS national meeting is in Salida, CO, this summer. I would love to go on those hikes with some living wildflower guides.

  3. February 2, 2010 2:47 pm

    I’m not sure about your part of the world, but now there’s an iPhone app for California native plants. If you travel with an iPhone, then, you’ve got a guidebook. If you have reception (in the wilds?) you can also link to databases with more photos like CalFlora. Since I don’t have an iPhone, however, all this is academic.

    Out here in the dry west the idea of rock gardens don’t seem to a big gardening category, though I think we all have an appreciation for those death-defying plants that manage to eke out an existence hanging to granite faces, seemingly removed from any soil, let alone water supply. And maybe the idea of growing alpines with any success at all is so foreign to our thinking that we’d never try such a thing…

    • February 2, 2010 3:12 pm

      No iPhone (or service) here, but those are beautiful things. I went to a guided bird watching thing recently, and the guide had an app that let her pull up bird calls and play them! Tripped out the birds. Coming from the west, I too found the rock garden concept foreign. It’s all a rock garden out there! The NARGS forum has a category for cactus and succulents, which may not be alpine, but fit nicely into rock gardens, like Opuntias native to the northeast!

  4. February 2, 2010 7:21 pm

    Right now my “rock garden” is a small area where I have conventional plants but throw interesting rocks I pick up on our trips – a rock from Plymouth, a fossil from Niagara Falls, volcanic rocks, glacially-formed turtle rocks and such.

    The first time I saw a real rock garden, with Alpine plants, I was blown away. It was in Scotland in the Royal Botanical Gardens and they were in hypertufa troughs. Each small trough was a landscape in and of itself. They were fascinating. I vowed I would have my own some day. Sadly, that day is not here yet.

  5. February 8, 2010 6:20 pm

    very cool campanula…

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