Each year summer’s mid-day heat drives many gardeners indoors. Early mornings or late evenings provide the most comfortable time to drag a hose around the still colorful gardens. Even in milder times of day, the heat still bears down as the hose’s irrigation slowly revives the near-wilted plants. Summer’s end always causes me to contemplate switching to a more drought-resistant garden.
Rock Gardening (Timber Press, 2016) by Joseph Tychonievich offers an attractive source of information on a number of drier rock garden alternatives. As a 2017 American Horticultural Book Award winner, this book provides an adequate supply of entertainment and knowledge to keep the pages turning for both beginning and experienced gardeners.
A classic rock garden is characterized by “growing alpines and other miniature plants—often in the company of rocks—to recreate the look of a rugged mountain top.” This definition has been changing to accommodate various locations and climates in which interested gardeners live.
Descriptions of his visits to ten gardens in the United States and United Kingdom provide views of everything from classic gardens to those consisting of multiple containers filled beautifully with appropriate plants. Here Tychonievich gives instruction and advice on how to replicate the unique qualities of many of the gardens. A garden in mountainous Penrose, NC, owned by Ev Whittemore is one of the sites visited and praised for its spaciousness and variation.
In the second section, Tychonievich encourages gardeners to be creative in their use of miniature plants to create landscapes by “making your garden your own.” Here he discusses styles, containers, plant propagation, and climate. Not found in our area, the climate required by small alpine plants is best characterized by hot days, cool nights, good drainage, and low humidity. To achieve these conditions, Tychonievich provides ideas to make the climate conducive to alpine plant needs. If the challenge of growing small alpine plants in a hot, wet Piedmont yard doesn’t appeal to you, Tychonievich suggests alternatives and even recommends a shady rock garden
Twenty types of plants that are appropriate for rock gardens are discussed in the book’s last section. These groups include familiar names like cactus, cyclamens, daphnes, hostas, irises, succulents, and tulips.
In addition to reading this book, a visit to the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh will illustrate how appealing a simple Scree rock garden would look. This type of rock garden basically includes drought-resistant plants such as agaves, aloes and dwarf bulbs scattered on a slope with a gravel-like surface cover. If naturally formed, the small stones would have been from large rocks broken apart by water freezing in their cracks over millions of years.
Unlike the Arboretum, my rock garden will be limited to containers filled with suggested plants and accented by stones. This book’s beautiful photographs and excellent writing may entice other gardeners to start “assembling a palette of terrific plants” for their first rock garden.
Christine Thomson is a Raleigh gardener obsessed with plants. She is a volunteer at the JC Raulston Arboretum and fills her spare time reading books, especially volumes about vegetation.