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Life among the rocks

June 23, 2008
By KATHLEEN EVANOFF-Tribune Chronicle

If your property slopes, as does many areas in northeast Ohio and Trumbull County, creating a rock or alpine garden design is one way to make a lovely landscape from a problem area. Rock gardens are more than simply setting a few large stones among the plants. The idea is to create an area that looks natural, as though the stones had been there for decades, even centuries. The way to achieve this look is to basically "plant" the rocks halfway to three-quarters into the soil. The interest in taming the wild alpine rock gardens of the European mountain ranges was first developed in England in the late 1800s. A little later, by the 1920s, the idea was catching on in the United States and amateur gardeners were anxious to create their own rocky gardens. But true rock garden plants, those that are called alpines, aren't easily grown in the climates in the United States, unless you live in the mountains where plants can survive extreme winters and often drought-like conditions. But Americans were not about to give up on rock gardening and like many other areas of interest, set about creating their own versions of this new garden design. Gardeners here in the states looked for plants that could survive whatever climate the area called for, from tropical areas to deserts. All it took was the creative placing of rocks throughout the garden to create that natural and aged effect. When designing a rock garden, like any other garden, it is important to first look at the site. Most rockeries are set on sloping land; although, flat areas can be mounded with extra soil to give it the look of a hilly terrain. If there are trees on the section chosen, decide carefully which ones should be removed. Not all need to be taken out as some plants, such as pulmonaria, lily of the valley, ferns and mosses, will prefer shadier locations. If there are rocks already there, check their placement. You may want to move some around to shape the site and make way for plants. Don't place rocks in patterns or symmetrical designs. Instead, position them to look as though nature had intended them to be in a particular spot. Don't be intimated by the placement of the stones either. Move them around before burying until you achieve the look you want. Be sure to place the most massive rocks first. You may want to add a water feature, such as a waterfall that flows downhill into a larger pond, and then create your garden around it. Once the site has been arranged, extra soil has been brought in, add any more rocks as needed. Look closely at the rocks you have chosen. Decide on their best sides and bury them to show off those features. Some stones may be flatter on one side, which would look natural as they protruded from the sides of the hill. Others may be round and would benefit from deeper burying. Not all rocks have to be buried if the site determines. The idea is to try to imagine how nature would have revealed all or portions of these rocks as wind and water changed the course of the terrain over many years. Improving the soil is important, especially if you've had extra topsoil brought in to build up the area. Adding organic matter, such as well-composted manure, leaf mold, peat moss and compost will give the plants a good start in their new home. Be aware that water runs downhill, so you want a nice loamy mixture for water to flow into rather than downhill and over the top of heavy clay soil. As part of your design, be sure to leave plenty of flat areas, as well as cracks and crevices among the rocks for plants to be tucked into. Don't be impatient. It might not be a bad idea to create your rock garden oasis one year and plant the next to give the soil time to settle. Keep in mind, when creating those planting areas, the types of plants you may want to consider, as their ultimate sizes at maturity will determine where in the garden you will want to place them. You can imagine smaller plants on the outer edges of the garden with taller plants, shrubs and even conifers near the top or back of the garden. But you don't have to build a mountain in your back yard to design your own rockery garden. There are all sorts of rock garden designs, including planted free-standing walls, or plants that fall over stone retaining walls. You can half-bury a few rocks on a flat surface of land and use attractive plants to set off the shape of the stones. You also can create a rock garden adjacent to a building or on a section of the lawn that protrudes from the existing foundation plantings. Finally, plant the garden. On the larger areas to the top or back of the garden, place larger plants. Near the base of the garden, place shorter plants to keep from overwhelming the smaller rocks. Some of these plants can include dianthus, primrose, crocus, cyclamen, sedum and lilies. There are many plants to consider when designing a rock garden, whether you prefer native wildflowers or cultivated collections. Just make sure it looks natural and blends in with the design you've chosen.



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