English Rockeries and Alpine Flowers

During the spring and early summer of this waterlogged year (of 2012) I was busy restoring the rockery in my garden. This was something the previous owner established together with pond and water feature. The latter two I replaced with a summer flower bed but the rockery remained, neglected over the years as I concentrated on others area of the garden. I am fortunate to have a quality plant nursery nearby which has a good selection of alpines, so when my attention finally focussed on this area I was able to source a good selection of plants. As well as some small varieties of thyme, some dianthus and aubretia, I selected two types of saxifrage (white pixie and hybrida deep red), arabis (fernandii coburgi veriagata), camomile and helianthum (Ben Hope). The ground around the rockery is well drained and so far they have survived the heavy rains and general dampness. There is still some way to go however and the rockery remains a work in progress.

In his thought-provoking book on ‘The Origins of the English Imagination’, Peter Ackroyd dwells on the English love of the miniature in the Arts and that I think must also be true of domestic garden design. Most English gardens have some form of rockery and great delight is taken in creating conditions for a compact display of these smaller hardy alpine plants. Later in the year I had the opportunity to visit the French Alps for a short walking holiday. It was high summer and the alpine pastures were full of wild flowers in drifts of yellow and white, blue and purple. The natural rockeries we found along the high paths left my efforts at home looking a pale imitation!

Rockeries on a grand scale became something of a fad in the 19th century amongst English horticulturalists. In 1838, at Hoole House, Lady Boughton established one of the first rockery gardens in England to show off her collection of alpine plants; before then the style was more towards pure rock formations or grottos, aping the Italian fashion in garden design. One also thinks of the Alpine garden of Sir Frank Crisp (1843-1919) at Friar Park, near Henley – on-Thames, purchased subsequently by the Beatle, George Harrison, himself an enthusiastic gardener. At Friar Park Sir Frank, a keen horticulturalist, had 20,000 tons of granite brought from Yorkshire to build a miniature version of the Matterhorn, replete with tin chamois.

From 1875 Ellen Willmott (1855-1934),another grand eccentric in the English tradition and a leading figure in the RHS, developed a large garden including rockery and gorge at her family home of Warley Place in Essex. At her summer home at Ventimiglia on the Italian Riviera she created a steep rockery garden of equal magnificence. She also influenced the creation of the rockery at the RHS garden at Wisley and was a close associate of Gertrude Jekyl. To celebrate one hundred years of the rockery at Wisley a new ‘crevice garden,’ constructed of vertical rather than the usual horizontal slabs, was opened in July of 2012.

In the early 20th century a reaction set in against these ‘fancy’ rockeries under the influence of gardening  writers and horticulturalists such as Reginald Farrer (1880-1920) and E.A. Bowles, (1865-1954) who promoted a return to ‘naturalism’ and the creation of plant habitats which replicated the indigenous settings of alpine plants. Farrer’s ‘My Rock Garden’ (1907) was in print for 40 years and led to the expansion of the rockery into English suburban gardens on a mass scale. As a boy aged 14 he created a rock garden in a quarry near the family home at Clapham, North Yorkshire. At Oxford he helped  establish the rockery in the garden at St. John’s. Farrer travelled widely in Eastern Asia in search of plants. His ideas about rock gardens were heavily influenced by what he saw in China, Japan and Korea. In the 1920s Farrer established a nursery for alpines at Clapham, to encourage the adoption of hardier varieties in English rockeries. He also spent a good deal of time in the Alps, teaming up with his gardening friend Bowles, who was a keen collector of crocus varieties. Bowles developed a celebrated garden at Myddleton house, near Enfield, which included a rock garden. Gertrude Jekyl visited twice in 1910.

This English tradition of horticultural exploration and research in the high mountain places is maintained to this day by the Alpine Garden Society, which organises tours for gardening enthusiasts. The web site offers a specialist Alpine seed and plant purchasing service.

But there will always be something picturesque rather than natural about the English rockery garden, even on the smaller toned down scale. My walks in the French Alps revealed a wealth of natural alpine flora in its true setting. We spent as much time looking down at the ground as up at the mountain tops.

We were staying in the village of Chatel in the vallee d’ Abondance, about 30 miles south of Lake Geneva. One particularly fine walk above the tree line took us around the Pointe de Chesery (2251m) to Lac Vert, a small glacial tarn. The track led us across a high alpine pasture interspersed with outcrops of rock and small streams. Everywhere we could see drifts of wild rhodedendron, supported by clusters of marguerites and daisies. Buttercups and clover grew in profusion. White anemonies stood tall in isolated clumps and here and there we spied the blue and purple of the gentian, cornflower and campanula. On the moss covered banks of small streams grew ferns and lichens and away in the distance we could hear the clanging bells of goats, as they grazed on the summer pasture. It was almost too good to be true.

I returned to England a chastened gardener no longer thinking it possible or creditable even to attempt to re-create the natural splendour of the wild Alpine flora, but happy enough to develop and maintain my own little rockery with its compact display of delicate flowers.

Some more photos:


About jonathanspain

My blog reflects my interests in local history in South Cambridgeshire, growing your own food, and walking in the district and elsewhere
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One Response to English Rockeries and Alpine Flowers

  1. Peter Reason says:

    I think the main attraction of alpines is that they can be used in so many different ways, from having a number of different plants in a container, a raised bed on the patio, a small patch by the front door, or using low growing spreading ones in a pathway, or putting them along the front of a border or the obvious one of making an interesting miniature ‘Rockery’,
    I like your photo’s it’s always great to see alpines growing in their natural environment.

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