This section is from the book "Beautiful Gardens - How To Make Them And Maintain Them", by Walter P. Wright. Also available from Amazon: Beautiful Gardens: How To Make And Maintain Them.
There is no phase of flower gardening which is fuller of interest, or which makes a stronger appeal to the finest feelings, than rock gardening.
In the building up of rock work there is scope for the liveliest imagination, the most exquisite art. It is valuable mental training, for the constructive faculties are called upon, sharpened, and polished.
Nature, which generally grows bad plants, certainly builds good rockwork. The Briton need not leave his own shores to learn her capabilities. On the coast of Cornwall he will find constructions that are at once extraordinary and beautiful. It is true that on those iron rocks the accumulation of débris to serve as soil is too slight to support a varied and luxuriant Flora; nevertheless, the flower lover may find some charming pictures, while he will discover feats in the poise of stone that might well fill the boldest imagination with wonder.
It is a somewhat remarkable fact that those students of human nature who trace in individuals an association of ideas from childhood to maturity and old age have not hitherto discovered in rock gardening a natural development of toy building. Just as the infant loves to build houses and castles with toy blocks, so the adult likes to pile up stones in his garden. If a somewhat startling, this is, nevertheless, an eminently natural explanation of the immense popularity of rock gardening. Are we not all merely grownup children? Is there one of us who does not exhibit some of the traits and characteristics at forty that were visible in us at four?
If, however, the impulse that bids us gather stones and build them into habitations for our plants is no more and no less than an eddy of juvenility, the experience of intervening years should have taught us at least something. At the outset, our conception of the garden that we are going to construct may be almost as crude as the idea that we formed, in early days, of the block mansion; but we do know that merely putting one stone on the top of another will not suffice. We have another advantage over our early selves. We know that if our own feeble and clumsy fingers, our own imperfectly trained minds, are incapable of giving us the success that we seek, we can learn valuable lessons by studying the work of others.
However modest, or however ambitious, the projects of the rock gardener may be, he will be wise to take note of the work of experienced and successful men. He may see something defective. He may discover over-elaboration. But he will none the less acquire valuable hints for the guidance of his own handiwork. Nowadays there is no dearth of such examples. In almost every district there are either public parks or large private gardens, in which examples of rock gardening can be found. Alike in their good and their bad qualities, these will be instructive. It is not to be assumed that the intelligent flower-lover will go merely as a copyist. He will not take an exact drawing of what he sees, and proceed to reproduce it. The chances are that if he started out with any such idea he would find himself compelled to abandon it, owing to differences in circumstances. No; he will go to learn the principles on which the rock gardens are made. To a certain extent he will imitate, but he may even also amend.
We began by alluding to the interest, the appeal, of rock gardening. Let us, however, emphasise the fact that these charms only exercise their fullest sway when the flower, and not the stone, is paramount. There are persons whose minds are debauched by stones. They riot in an orgy of rocks. One may see numerous examples, in both public and private gardens, where there is a miniature Gurnard's Head, and scarce a blossom to its name! Piles of bare stone are striking enough when poised with all the grace and power that Nature knew so well how to employ when she built to baffle the stormy waters where Channel and Atlantic meet. But in a garden! Better the stiffest terrace garden than these monstrosities. It at least has harmony with its surroundings. It is not a mass of incongruities.
The plant first - always the plant first. We must press for this, insist upon it, reiterate it. Unless a strong line is taken and maintained, the rock faddists will continue their career until they bring rock gardening into unmerited disfavour. The stones we use we must look upon as receptacles, not as statues. A true plant-lover would no more glorify a lump of rock into a garden ornament than he would a 6-inch flower pot.
Fig. Stones as receptacles, and not as statues.
It has been objected by some few of those who have had opportunities of seeing the practical expression in the author's own garden of those ideas of bold flower-gardening which are given in the chapter on herbaceous borders, that, while undeniably effective, they are less suitable than rock gardening for very small places. In demurring to the suggestion that good herbaceous gardening is not within the compass of owners of small gardens, he nevertheless readily admits the important fact that the planting area of a small place can be materially increased by practising rock gardening. By building up mounds, the planting of a given portion of the garden can be doubled. He will go farther, and concede that if less art is called for in grouping and blending colours, there is still abundant scope for taste and fancy in associating plant with stone. A well planted rockery is no less a work of art than a well-designed border. We admire a little sea picture by Mr. Tuke as much as we do the flamboyant portraits of Mr. Sargent.
To many people herbaceous and rock gardening are one and the same. Quite commonly they are spoken of as though they were identical in their essential features. The truth is that they are entirely dissimilar. Certainly one can put herbaceous plants on a rockery, and what are generally recognised as rock plants in a border, but that does not bring the two systems together. For all practical purposes there is nearly as much difference between herbaceous and rock gardening as between either and the bedding system.
It is important to recognise that, except in special cases, good rock gardening is far more costly than good herbaceous gardening. There are few districts in which suitable stone can be procured locally. Kentish Rag, or any other soft stone, crumbles quickly, and is - at least in damp districts - not suitable, in spite of high authority for its use. Hard limestone and sand stone are best, and it is when they have to be purchased and transported from a distance that the cost of rock gardening begins to show itself. Wealthy flower-lovers frequently purchase hard stone from Derbyshire.
The second item of expense is soil. As already stated, the ordinary soil of most gardens can be so improved by double digging and manuring as to grow the majority of herbaceous plants luxuriantly, just as it will Peas and Onions. Strong clay, for example, gives splendid results. But experienced men would hesitate to rely on manured clay for rock plants. The very best fibrous loam is advisable for the staple. The "undercut" off a loamy meadow - that is, the rich layer from above which turf has been pared - is almost the ideal thing. It is no use attempting good rock gardening with poor soil - better leave it alone, and grow Nasturtiums.
These difficulties are not raised lightly. The author has himself had to face them. It is wise to take a sane and accurate view when contemplating rock gardening, just as it is when looking through the Stock Exchange list with a view to investing money. In no circumstances should the flower-lover yield to the temptation of investing in clinkers, burrs, or any hashed-up ugliness. Would he drink doctored claret if he could not get good Burgundy? Let us have real stones - or Nasturtiums!
Whether the cost in plants is considerable or moderate depends in a great measure on the standing which the flower-lover intends to assume. If his point of view is that he wants a rockery well furnished with good plants, and nothing more, the outlay need not be excessive, although even in this case it will exceed that of bedding plants. Home propagation will increase the stock. Suppose, however, that he enrols himself with - or, which comes to the same thing, insensibly glides into the ranks of - those whose happiness in life depends upon their securing every new form which appears, a dip into capital becomes transformed into an annual drain upon income. There is no gainsaying that a formidable prospect is opening up for hardy flower-lovers. Numbers of standard hardy plants are being elevated (or depressed) to the ranks of florist's flowers. That is to say, lists of variations, engagingly named, and alluringly described, are being tacked on to them. Immediately a coterie of specialists is formed, prepared to pay the price of every "novelty" which appears, there will be an annual flow of these fresh varieties, just as there is in the case of Dahlias, Roses, Sweet Peas, and Chrysanthemums. It is possible that they will please because of their inherent beauty and freshness, but it is quite certain that the primary reason prompting their purchase will be desire to possess what less wealthy people cannot afford.
Specialising in hardy plants is not rock gardening in the purer, the better sense. Let those whose minds know no higher impulse than an ignoble longing to be better off than their fellows practise it if they will; the majority will think of garden beauty first and always.
Good plants, good soil, good stones, are our rock garden trinity. A great deal might be said about stone arrangement, such as the necessity for placing the rocks thinly, in a way to form large and deep pockets, and to guide moisture in rather than to drain it out. But when once the point has been grasped that the plant, and not the stone, is the first consideration, the necessity for labouring these points is past. The wise flower-lover will not dump down stones, and then pepper soil into them; he will first make his mound, and then firmly fix the rock. "Never," said the late Rev. C. Wolley-Dod, " put a stone in a position where it will not support your heaviest labourer." Let the larger part of each stone be in the soil, and it follows that the pockets will be comparatively narrow at the bottom, and comparatively wide at the top, which is just how they ought to be.
Finally, never build a rockery in shade.