Rock Garden Expansion: review

Rock Garden, Spring 2014
Rock Garden, Spring 2014

DSCN1582The original rock garden was a granite outcrop in front of the barn, around which lots of chives had seeded themselves. On the rock itself, two varieties of sedum dragon’s blood and gold acre, persisted from some long forgotten gardening foray.

Last spring, I pulled out chives and encroaching lawn grass and added creeping phlox, creeping thyme and a clump of the fine autumn-blooming Sedum sieboldii. These were purchased at a nursery. More importantly, I added a great many native species. (I suppose creeping phlox is native in some sense.) From the ditch along the farm road, where the local blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium montanum) was abundant, I dug up a few clumps of this little iris relative and planted them in a deep crack in the rock. From the dry hill behind the barn, I collected some offsets of field pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) and added them to an area of shallow soil where they immediately began to spread vigourously.

From seed I had collected in the wild the previous summer, I had quite a few tiny plants of early saxifrage and pale corydalis. They were hardly bigger than dimes and yet they grew strongly when planted in tiny pockets of soil on the rock outcrop. The exceptionally wet summer we had in 2013 certainly helped them get established. I also planted seedlings of hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus) and harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), which I had grown from wild-collected seeds.

Hairy beardtongue.
Hairy beardtongue.

This spring the early saxifrage bloomed so beautifully and abundantly I resolved to expand the rock garden to encompass the next mower-ambushing ridge of granite in the lawn. I foolishly failed to take a picture of the white froth of early saxifrage bloom – you will just have to take my word for it that it was lovely. I was too busy with other gardening and nursery task to get around to lifting the sod for the new garden until the grass roots were deep and very laborious to remove.

American painted lady: adult.
American painted lady: adult.

The pussytoes flowers soon followed the early saxifrage, and by June the hairy beardtongue was a pretty complement to the flowers of the remaining chives. We also enjoyed watching a mama American painted lady lay her eggs on the pussytoe foliage, then watched her caterpillars develop. Caterpillars can chew through a lot of pussytoe leaves, leaving them look ragged indeed. Not to worry. Caterpillar and host have been evolving for millenia and the plants always recover by late summer to make a fine low carpet in the fall. Providing for the butterflies is one of the reasons I like to plant field pussytoes and the slightly larger and more shade-tolerant plantain-leaved pussytoes (A. plantaginifolia).

American painted lady caterpillar on plantain-leaved pussytoes.
American painted lady caterpillar on plantain-leaved pussytoes.

Eventually I could turn my attention to expanding the garden. The rock surfaces slope down to a little depression in the ground. Michael had a tiny artificial pool once used in a small urban yard. It seemed too small to be useful almost anywhere on the farm but I had  the idea I could put it at the bottom of the rock garden, where it could mimic the small pools that occur on granite in spring and after rains. The soil is very suddenly much deeper there, so I could plant some wetland plants around the pool: blue flag iris, cardinal flower and great St.John’swort.

Crushed stone path through the garden.
Pool and crushed stone path through the garden.

I wanted a little path through the rock garden: narrow, made of crushed granite and edged with more chunks of rock. Playing with scale, we replaced the plastic heron which had long been part of the rock outcrop picture, and added an oversized frog to the pool edge.

Throughout the summer, I added little seedlings from the greenhouse as they became large enough to set out. Some of the seedlings of rock garden plants were very tiny. Bluets are tiny plants when they are full grown. Bluet seedlings are no bigger than shirt buttons. Bird’s foot violas are a bit larger but they seemed unhappy in greenhouse conditions so I planted them out as soon as I could. Tiny plants mean a great deal of weeding as they can so easily be overwhelmed. I know that rock gardens are labour intensive but I sincerely hope that this one will be a little more self-reliant once the little plants have filled in and covered the ground.

Bluets bloomed their first year.
Bluets bloomed their first year.

Bluets and violas bloomed in the fall. Some boreal Jacob’s ladder filled in nicely and bloomed until hard frost. Some little plants of the annual/biennial pale corydalis which I had moved from the original rock garden bloomed continuously for months. The other little seedlings of native plants stayed small but seemed to be rooting in well. I hope many of them will bloom in the summer to come.

Boreal Jacob's ladder.
Boreal Jacob’s ladder.

viola

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Trish Murphy

Artist: botanical, still life, and natural history illustration. Garden designer: native plants and naturalistic gardens

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