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Monday, July 26, 2010

Best plants for rock gardens

Rock Gardens first became popular back in the Victorian era when avid plant collectors of the time searched high and low for something new and different. Indeed they found them in the very high Alpine mountains where the plants themselves grew rather low to the ground. Planting these new discoveries in their cottage gardens back home wouldn’t show off these alpine plants to their advantage, however. These delicate, small plants would be easily swallowed up by more showy perennials and annuals common to the cottage garden or the more formal perennial border. Thus came the need for a way to place them for the best show. That is how the  rock garden came to be.

The best rock gardens are on sandy, dry, rocky  hillsides or slightly sloping areas to mimic the natural environment for these plants. This allows the plants to be viewed at eye level and also provides excellent drainage, something Alpine plants require above all else. As for the plants themselves, the ones best suited to a rock garden set up in your own yard, miniature, dwarf and low and slow growing varieties are what you need to look for.

The rock garden is an excellent place to start practicing bonsai horticulture. This is taking slow growing plants and slowing them down further through careful pruning. Of course, using dwarf varieties accomplishes the same thing as long as you continually prune to maintain the small size. Just because plants are labeled dwarf doesn’t mean they stay small. Let’s take a look at an assortment of  readily available plants for the typical rock garden.

TREES- Dwarf Balsam Fir (Abies Balsamea “Nana”) is a wonderful little tree for the rock garden. Unlike its taller, more impressive cousins, this one looks a bit squat but has the typical Balsam scent and  stiff branching.

Dwarf Japanese Red Maple (Acer Palmatum Atropurpureum)- There are too many cultivars perfect for the rock garden to mention all of them but the smallest, most adaptable and most easily available would be the “Burgundy Lace” and the “Crimson Queen”. Both can easily be pruned to form small weeping mounds.

Hinoki False Cypress ( Chamaecyparis Obtusa)- This is a golden evergreen growing upright with branch tips that weep slightly. Make certain you get “Nana Gracilis” not just “Gracilis”. Both are considered dwarf but the second one can get to 20 feet high while the other, a miniature, only grows  to 4 feet, a much better choice for the small scale garden.

SHRUBS- Red Leaf Japanese Barberry ( Berberis Thunbergii  “Atropurpureum Nana”) are considered a bit of a invasive species in some areas of the United States where they have escaped into the wild but this particular miniature “Crimson Pygmy” growing 1 1/ 2- 2 1/ 2 feet high  is quite safe in the home garden. It makes a nice backdrop to smaller plants with its gracefully arching, brightly red colored leaves on spiny branches and  tiny yellow flowers in spring followed by little berries which attract birds.

Scotch Heather (Calluna Vulgaris) is an evergreen shrub with a craving for acidic soil. It  has  tiny leaves and sprays of small, bell shaped flowers in rosy pink, pale to deep pink, white, lavender and  purple. Different cultivars have foliage in russet, gray, pale to dark green and Chartreuse which often change in winter. Truly a wonderful plant for the rock garden. Varieties range from 2 in high to 3 feet. Too many to name but the best for rockery “Nana Compacta” growing 4 inches high with purple flowers.

Heath (Erica)- Another acid loving, evergreen shrub with small needle-like leaves, Heath is often mistaken for Heather. So low growing they act more like a ground cover than a shrub.

PERENNIALS-  Pinks (Dianthus) make a great addition to the Rock garden as they mostly all spread low to the ground. Cheddar pinks (Dianthus Gratianopolitanus) is a pretty greyish-green leaved cultivar with spicy clove scented single flowers in palest pink. It grows 9-12 inches high with the flowers sticking above the foliage.

Sedum- These succulent plants often called Stonecrop thrive in the rock garden. “Goldmoss” has bright yellow, star shaped flowers in spring and light green teardrop shaped leaves. This is widely available but can become invasive as it roots readily along its long, slender stems. Sedum “Dragon’s Blood” is more easily kept in check and has brilliant red flowers in early spring. “Hens and Chicks” (Echeveria Elegans, Imbricata or Secunda) though not Sedums is another succulent common to rock gardens. It grows in ever-expanding clusters of grey-green rosettes sometimes tinged with purple or red.

Geranium (Cranesbill)- These are not Pelargonium, the showy flowers commonly though mistakenly called Geraniums. The true Geranium is a hardy perennial perfect for woodland and rocky alpine gardens. These make pretty, tightly packed mounds of finely divided deep green leaves with small yet abundant flowers in pink, white, blue and purple. “Johnson’s Blue” is a readily available cultivar with blue-violet 2 inch blossoms.

BULBS- Scilla “Siberian Squill”(3-6 inches tall),  Narcissus Asturiensis ( 3 inches), Crocus, Grape Hyacinth (Muscari), Allium Ostrowskianum “ Zwanenburg”(6 inches) and Miniature Dwarf Bearded Iris can be scattered amongst the other plants for early spring color.

Now that you know any of these plants will look great in a rock garden, all you need is a bit of the mountain climber spirit in you to get going and start one in your own landscape. Learning to yodel is purely optional.

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