Careless as we generally are, it now and again happens that we try to outdo Nature in carefulness. When we sow flower-seed, we choose a likely spot and watch it (blaming our seedsman if the seed should fail to germinate). But Nature takes no such pains; she has a larger way of being careful. Paradoxical as ever, she proceeds with amazing yet studious prodigality. To make quite sure of catching a sprat, she, so to speak, baits her hook with a whale; she strews the seed broadcast to the four winds everywhere, and it may come up where it can. It is for this reason that we meet with such erratic instance as that of Spiraea ulmaria growing along a damp, rocky cleft high up above the Grand St. Bernard road, a little beyond the village of Liddes - and growing, too, to all appearances, as happily as it grows among the marshes by the Rhone. We could never hope to grow it on a rock like this in our gardens. Plants in the wild state, with freedom of choice, can often grapple with seemingly adverse conditions by ways and means so subtle that they defy imitation in a garden. Moreover, if we knew all, when we find them, like this Spiraea or like Gentiana verna, flourishing though exceptionally placed, we should be aware that their circumstance was importantly allied to normal circumstance, and that they have found in this position the vital essentials of their ordinary life. But in a garden we must not think to treat a species after the successful eccentricity we have noted in some individual of that species; and it is in this, among other important matters, that the gardens in the Alps can offer so much useful direction. Here we are afforded a ready means of studying hundreds of different plants tended by experts, and growing, as far as is possible, according to the normal requirements of each individual kind.
And yet the visitor must remember that these gardens are in every sense Alpine. That is to say, he must remember that they are more or less subject to Alpine conditions - to, for instance, the long snows of winter and all that those snows mean. Therefore, much of what is learnt from these gardens must afterwards be made to fit in with the conditions of the home garden - with, for instance, the humidity of winter or the comparative dryness of spring. Let us again take the case of Gentiana verna as illustration. It loves moisture rather than dryness, especially during its flowering season. This moisture it obtains, in Switzerland, from the gradually melting snow; but on a rock-work in England it is not likely to have this steady supply of moisture. If placed upon a slope in the rockery, in imitation of its position on a sloping Alpine pasture, though it may receive the Spring rains, these will rapidly run off, leaving the slope dry again almost immediately. Although it abhors any approach to stagnant moisture, this Gentian cannot be treated like a rock-loving Saxifrage or Sedum, nor, be it remembered, like a deep-growing, tap-rooted Campanula or Phyteuma. For it to meet with anything like enjoyment, it should be planted in a well-drained, loamy hollow or depression in the rockwork, where, although exposed to all possible sunshine, it may benefit most by the rains.
The science of putting two and two together in order to make four is nowhere more essential than in the culture of Alpines away from their wild conditions. If thoughtful common-sense is a sine qua non of successful gardening, it is certainly never more so than of rock-gardening. Hardy as Alpines would appear, and as, indeed, they are usually styled, they often prove to be delicate subjects when removed from the severe yet logical conditions of their home-life; and those of them which flourish under the poorest, severest conditions in the Alps are those which, generally speaking, are the most difficult to deal with in captivity. To succeed in keeping a plant alive is not always the same thing as growing it successfully. Some plants may know how to adapt themselves more or less to unusual conditions, but this adaptation is not evolution; it is of a kind which lays siege to, and saps, vitality, and the life and character of such plants must suffer. In this domain a visit to a garden in the Alps can be of the very greatest assistance.
In these gardens, also, it may be seen that rock-gardening does not consist in simply putting a plant upon a rock or amongst a pile of stones, but that it begins with the very foundations of the rockwork. It may be seen how the natural character of the site has been adapted; how the artificial rockeries have been constructed; how carefully every aspect has been built up; how thoughtfully every crack and crevice has been used; how every slope, every hollow, every pocket, has a meaning; and, above all, how perfectly the drainage has been maintained throughout. For the purpose of noting these things, an early visit (say towards the beginning of June) is often of great advantage. At that season the gardeners may be caught busily reconstructing the older portions of the rockeries and ridding them of deep-seated weeds: for all is not select even in Alpine refinement. Such occasions will afford striking instance of the methodical work which rockwork-building is - when understood. To be noted, too, is the class of rock or rocks it is desirable to employ. No clinkers, flints, tiles, glazed bricks, broken china, or large sea-shells will here be found: for these 'beautifying' constituents of many an English rockwork are taboo. Here is purely a 'business concern.' Nor, for that reason, does it lack in beauty. Quite the reverse: it is too realistic to be ugly. Statues, fountains, goldfish and such-like accessories could add not one jot or tittle to its fascination. Many a rock-garden in England is reminiscent of the story of a Japanese gentleman who, taken to see an elaborate and costly 'Japanese' garden in the counties, declared with delightfully ambiguous enthusiasm- 'It is wonderful! Marvellous! We have nothing like it!'