IT SEEMS TO me that most of the people writing about alpine gardening either started their garden the day after Appomattox or are related to the American aristocracy; or they have been involved for years and years and were given their first plants from Singer, Charlesworth or the Fosters; or they got a backhoe for Christmas and didn't know what to do with it.
But there are ordinary guys who wake up one morning and say to themselves, “I think rock gardening is for me!” This is my ordinary guy story.
As a kid, I had helped my dad in the garden, mostly vegetables. I emigrated to Canada in 1970, married in 1972 and, after we bought our first house in Orangeville, Ontario, Canada in 1975, I finally had a garden of my own.
Like my dad, I started to grow vegetables. I grew everything: peanuts, pumpkins, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, melons, peas, broad beans, zucchini.
I joined the Orangeville Horticultural Society in 1976 and showed veggies at most shows. In 1982 I had a nine-foot-tall (2.75 m) sunflower; it was so tall the local paper came and took a photo for the front page with my son Chris up a ladder with “The Monster.” I felt sure I was a shoo-in for the biggest sunflower head at the summer flower show, as it was 15 inches (38 cm) in diameter. Come the day, I was gently placing “The Monster” on the table when a little old lady staggered in with silver hair, a beatific smile and a huge, 23-inch (58cm) sunflower head with not a seed missing! Gladys Marr and I became firm friends and, until she passed away, I would always bow deferentially whenever we met around town, and she would laugh. Never underestimate little old ladies!
New Life, New Partner, New Home, New Horticultural Society
In 2012, Catherine, my new partner, and I moved into Kingfisher Mews, a 3.5 acre wooded property in the valley of a tributary of the Nottawasaga River near Alliston, Ontario. The previous owners had created a berm complete with a weir, damming the river, and forming a one-acre pond. A kingfisher overflies it most days, hence our choice of name.
Work on the garden which, for the most part, was nonexistent, began in earnest once we had finished completely rebuilding the house.
We planted numerous vines and interesting trees on the property, and then dozens of hostas, peonies, perennials, and small shrubs were bought, donated, begged for from friends and sales.
In 2015, my youngest son Phillip married a Turkish girl in Cesme, Turkey. We stayed in Turkey for a week and then, with only a small backpack each, spent two weeks roaming around Bulgaria and Romania.
While hiking in the mountains, we came across a patch of Gentiana verna and other alpines. I didn't realize at the time, but I had just botanized! A seed was germinating, in my head.
Which brings us to 2017, the year I started construction of the rock garden. The first part of the year was taken up with cardiac rehab. Then in June we had a horrendous rainstorm, over six inches (15 cm) of rain fell on the night of the 22nd; it broke the dam of a pond further upstream, and a wall of water three feet (1 m) high thundered down our valley. It was higher than the bridge I had just constructed (which held) and almost took out the berm. Cath and I spent the next month placing two truckloads of limestone chunks, by hand, to reinforce the outlet of our berm. It is still holding.
I began the rock garden by cutting down a few cedars on an existing rise toward the back of the property. The soil here is extremely porous (water just disappears) and elevates to about six feet (1.8 m) at the back.
I started with an area about four feet by eight feet (1.2 m by 2.4 m) surrounding a couple of immovable stumps in the Fall of 2017. I trundled rocks from my neighbor's to my yard with the trusty wheelbarrow, making 11 trips.
When we were having the new septic installed the contractor backfilled with the wrong sand, the inspector made him replace it with the correct specification and we inherited a goodly pile of sharp builders sand. So, my soil mixture was two parts sharp sand, two parts compost, and a handful or two of peat. This was mixed in the wheelbarrow one load at a time and trundled over to the garden.
Because I am coming to alpines at a late stage in life, I have a tendency to accelerate the processes and plant as many different species as I can get my hands on with the assumption that I will rearrange the layout, with regard to size, location, growth pattern, or desirability at a later date. The key is to get them started now and find out. And disregard all my whining and bellyaching, I’m having a ball!
My diary for fall of 2017 shows I planted mainly bulbs: Iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’, Iris reticulata, Tulipa tarda, T. pulchella ‘Eastern Star’, Muscari, Crocus ‘Yellow Mammoth’, Galanthus elwessii, Eranthis cilicica, Ipheion ‘White Star’, Chionodoxa forbesii, and Narcissus ‘Minnow', as well as Dianthus and Gentiana angustifolia.
Phase two began in the spring of 2018. I built two new areas, both three feet by six feet (0.9 m by 1.8 m). I used rocks local farmers had pushed to the side of their fields after plowing and any that friends would donate.
In August 2017, I joined The Ontario Rock Garden and Hardy Plant Society, and I made my first order to Wrightman Alpines in New Brunswick, Canada. Again my diary for 2017 shows I purchased Allium forrestii, Androsace villosa var. jacquemontii, Anthemis marschalliana, Campanula pulloides, Dianthus 'Blue Hill', Draba aff. bryoides 'Crevice Pygmy', Gentiana acaulis ex 'Coelestina', Gentiana verna 'Pyrenees', Juniperus communis 'Compressa', J. communis 'Horizontalis', Orostachys minuta, Primula 'Wharfedale Bluebell' and rooted cuttings of three saxafrages.
So far I have lost the Anthemis, the Campanula pulloides and the Juniperus communis 'Compressa'.
I found a lovely two-foot-diameter (60 cm) concrete urn for ten dollars. This was to be my first trough. Having seen several troughs, I felt that it would be better if you didn't have to bend down to look closely, so it now sits on top of a cedar plinth at chest height. For 50 cents, I found a light fixture that I cobbled into a roof which is only in place during the winter. The trough is planted with Draba aff. bryoides 'Crevice Pygmy', Orostachys minuta, the saxifrage cuttings, plus other saxes, semps, Androsace villosa var. jacquemontii and A. sarmentosa. As I send this article off, the trough is doing splendidly: all the plants are forming lovely tiny buns.
The diary for 2018 shows I planted Androsace 'Chumbyi', Arabis alpina subsp. caucasia (from seed), Androsace sarmentosa, Buxus 'Kingsville Dwarf', Campanula portenschlagiana, Callianthemum coriandrifolium, Dianthus myrtinervis (from seed), Draba cretica, Gentiana andrewsii, G. cruciata, G. gracilipes, G. clusii, Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star', Ramonda myconi, Sisyrinchium angustifolium 'Lucerne', Saxifraga urbium 'Aureo Punctata', S. arendsii 'Touran Scarlet', S. cotyledon, S. fortunei 'Cheap Confection', S. macnabiana, S. 'Whitehill', S. 'Sieberi' and mystery seeds from a seed exchange which were thought to be Veronica gentianoides 'Barbara Sherwood' (the jury is still out).
In September 2018 I joined The North American Rock Garden Society.
Spring 2019 brought good and bad news. Two agapanthus (grown from seed) which I had nurtured through two winters unscathed. But a Ramonda met a lingering end and Draba cretica and Allium forrestii are missing in action. On a positive note, thanks to the NARGS Seedex, over the winter I started quite a few different varieties of seed.
Work on the west end of the rock garden continued apace and another 25 square feet (2.3 m2) was added, which allowed me to plant a cornucopia of new goodies.
I have placed a label for each plant placed in the garden, mainly because my memory is not getting any better, and to allow other people to see what is where. I currently count 145 labels, some of which are doubles, so maybe 130 varieties in total.
Last week I dragged several huge flat rocks, about three feet by three feet by three inches (9 m by 9 m by 7.6 cm) for the last course before the top. They were buried in an old pond area on the property and had to be moved end-over-end up a steep hill and out to the garden.
If you are in the neighborhood please drop by, and please feel free to give me lots of advice. We always have a bottle or two of chilled wine ready for guests!
Dave Pound's Rules for beginning Rock Gardeners:
In hindsight, I probably should have selected a different location for the rock garden, but it is too late now! In the interest of you learning from my mistakes, here are my rules for starting a new rock garden for anyone else who is starting from scratch:
1. Unless it is untenable, select a location close to the house. As you get older it is amazing how many miles you walk to and from the hallowed spot because you forgot something.
2. Same for the water source. We have this humungous pond, but I’m somewhat suspicious of the water (I know, I know: I should get it checked) so I lug two watering cans from the rainwater tanks.
3. Try not to pick a spot under trees or you will be picking up leaves ad nauseam, a sure-fire cause of an aching back.
4. Spend a day checking the amount of sunlight that lands on the prospective garden. Some shade is manageable. As Farrer said, “A dank hollow is doom, a drip damnation.” Remember, Ramonda and Rhodohypoxis can always be grown in the shade of an appropriate rock.
5. Remember you have to get the rock to the rock garden. You are going to lug tons of the stuff, so if the garden isn’t close to the road, please ensure you have access by trailer. Failing that, it's the damned wheelbarrow. I spent three days last week rolling a huge rock 60 feet (18 m) per day all the way from in front of the house back to the new section of the rock garden. Some days I feel like Sisyphus!
6. If the soil is not what you want, you will have to haul amendments in. I have, so far, mixed by hand all the ingredients close to the house and then wheelbarrowed it in, sweating and straining. Rock gardening is certainly not for the elderly. Did I mention I had a triple bypass in 2016?
7. Purchase, borrow or steal these books: Rock Gardening by H. Lincoln Foster, Rock Gardens by Wilhelm Schacht, Collectors’ Alpines by Royton E. Heath, Rock Garden Plants by Baldasarre Mineo, The Manual of Alpine Plants by Will Ingwersen, Alpine Plants of North America by Graham Nicholls, and, my newest addition, Saxafrages by Malcolm McGregor.
8. Read all the books mentioned above again and again. You could also try Reginald Farrer, a sometime Yorkshireman who was born in London and spent parts of his life at his family estate in Clapham. His language is incredibly flowery, but he definitely loved his alpines.
9. Decide which type of rock garden you want. Don't be influenced by anyone else as it is you who have to live with your decisions. Modern thought is leaning toward crevice-type beds which allow close contact between plant roots and the cool, moist rocks. This would be ideal if you were lucky enough to have access to a broken-up concrete barn floor, slate of a suitable thickness, or if you were sufficiently wealthy to buy said items.
10. All requisites must meet a strict budget, in my case, nothing, or very close to it. I should have mentioned earlier that, as a retired gentleman, with very limited means, and originating in Yorkshire where, "if tha as no brass then tha must mek do" (translation: If you have insufficient means, then one must make the most of what one does have.)
11. Buy some good tools, especially a mattock (a gardener's adze); you'll wonder what you ever did without it.