Why I became a rock gardener

A new rock gardener succumbs to the appeal of tiny plants.

Courtesy of Helen Yoest
Rock gardens are appealing because of the tiny plants and overcoming what appear to be inhospitable conditions for growth.

As an on-again, off-again, card-carrying but generally uncaring member of the North American Rock Garden Society, also known as NARGS, I've learned that if someone has to ask what NARGS means, it's a sign they are not enlightened.

This is a serious group of gardeners. Not evangelical as are many other types of gardeners, but intense and committed to the tininess of tiny plants, grouped in a bunch of rocks with hopes that their stratifications look natural.

If you think rock gardening isn’t for you, you might find it interesting to know who else has succumbed to it. Just to drop a name, I am now rubbing elbows with the likes of Nancy Goodwin of Montrose. Yes, Nancy is also a rock gardener.

It was never my intention to become a rock gardener. I attended the group's meetings because it is widely known that they have the very best programs. They lured me in.

Rock gardening is a calling

When I announced on my Facebook page that I had become a rock gardener, my friend and fellow rock gardener Bobby J. Ward, NARGS executive secretary, wrote in the comment section, "Glad you finally heard the calling!"

This may sound a bit smug on Bobby’s part, but it wasn't meant to be. It’s just that rock gardeners are snobs.

Bobby is in good company, too. Elizabeth Lawrence wrote in her book, "A Rock Garden in the South": "All rock gardeners are snobs. ... Some snobbery is to be expected, for all are agreed that the cultivation of rock plants is the highest form of the art of gardening."

When I went over to the other side, joining this garden elite society, I got curious to hear others' perspectives on rock gardening.

Nancy Goodwin says:

Rock gardening is a challenge if we [in North Carolina] try to grow alpines that want cool air, constant moisture combined with excellent drainage, but if we accept those things we can't change and select plants that can tolerate our climate, it is one of the most delightful ways to garden.

There are no rules. The most important requirement for plants that grow in my rock garden is small size. This is a place for the tiniest aquilegias and other perennials, the smallest bulbs, very slow growing conifers, all plants that might be smothered in areas where larger plants grow. It is also an area which is viewed best at ground level. This garden can be in sun or shade and with or without rocks; its success depends on perspective and proportion.

I agree with her. I like to see the whole plant, on the tiniest scale. There is something very intriguing about this.

A different perspective

Bobby Ward says:

Whether growing rock garden plants in a raised bed, trough, wall, or berm, I am required to get up close and personal, thereby learning details about rock garden flowers, seed, and leaves that might otherwise go unnoticed by me.

For me, the rock garden is my favorite part of the garden because if demands focus and attention to detail that I overlook in other plants in other parts of the garden.

My calling officially came when Tim Alderton, fellow NARGS member and research technician at the JC Raulston Arboretum, spoke to my garden club, The Bloomsbury Garden Club.

His talk, entitled "Colorado Cousins," was about his journey with the NARGS annual meeting in Colorado during the summer of 2010.

Even though I didn't realize it at the time, he dumbed down his talk to my group, but that was OK, for it was still over most of our heads. But I was enamored by the plants growing at what would appear to be against all odds.

After I made my announcement that I was going to become a rock gardener, other friends wrote to say they were not surprised since, as Elizabeth Lawrence further wrote, "All gardeners become rock gardeners if they garden long enough."

This is not to say I will no longer garden for wildlife; I will. And I do love large, lusty blooms, the bigger the better. But, for now, I’ve carved out one area of Helen's Haven and made a rock garden.

I'll post about my new rock garden as I progress. If I start to sound a wee bit snobby, just know that I'm succeeding.


Helen Yoest lives in North Carolina and writes about Gardening With Confidence. She's a garden writer, speaker, and garden coach. She's also a field editor for Better Homes and Gardens and Country Gardens magazines and serves on the board of advisors for the JC Raulston Arboretum. You can follow Helen on Twitter and Facebook. To read more by Helen here at Diggin' It, click here.

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