Table of Contents

Plants for a Rock Garden with Year-Round Interest

Reaching for the Rocks

As a lifelong gardener, I’ll admit that my interest in rock gardening didn’t take root (pun intended) until I relocated from Connecticut to the challenging climate of Raleigh, North Carolina. You see, back in the Northeast, I could easily grow a wide variety of alpine plants. But here in the Tar Heel State, our hot, humid summers and mild, often snowless winters presented a whole new set of obstacles.

That is, until I discovered the power of the crevice garden. After attending a few meetings of the local chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS) and hearing from experts like Panayoti Kelaidis and Mike Kintgen, I was hooked. I started volunteering at the incredible crevice garden at Juniper Level Botanic Garden, learning from the master himself, Jeremy Schmidt. And let me tell you, seeing those delicate mountain plants thriving in the steamy Southern climate was a revelation.

NARGS soon became my rock gardening mecca, and I was eager to try my hand at creating my own crevice garden at home. With Jeremy’s guidance, I set out to transform a drab car pullout space into a dynamic, year-round display of botanical wonders. And let me tell you, the results have been nothing short of spectacular.

Sculpting a Crevice Garden

The consultation process with Jeremy was a bit unorthodox, but I trusted his expertise after getting to know him at Juniper Level. He visited the site, we chatted over some Diet Cokes, and the project just started to take shape organically as construction progressed. No detailed drawings or estimates – just Jeremy’s keen eye for design and engineering.

The goal was simple: create a natural-looking crevice garden that would seamlessly integrate with the existing landscape. We started with a carefully curated selection of flagstone and boulders from the local stone yard, ranging from 800 to 1,200 pounds each. Jeremy’s skillful placement of these massive elements formed the backbone of the garden, like glacial boulders cleaving through a stratified uplift.

As he worked, I couldn’t help but be in awe of Jeremy’s process – about a third of the time was spent in contemplation, mentally piecing together the intricate stone puzzle. The end result is a dynamic, vibrant display that looks as if it’s been there for ages, rather than a freshly constructed garden.

Transitions and Special Features

One of the trickiest aspects of creating a cohesive crevice garden was ensuring smooth transitions from the existing landscape. Fortunately, Jeremy had a few tricks up his sleeve. The transition from the formal raised bed to the crevice area is seamless, as if the stone wall had simply tumbled over itself and into the garden.

The other transition, from the crevice to the wooded area behind it, has evolved over time through thoughtful plantings. I used leftover boulders and flagstone to create the impression of underlying rock continuing into the hillside, gradually dwindling to natural outcroppings. The plants help to soften and naturalize the effect, blending the crevice garden into its surroundings.

Another brilliant feature is the seep. Jeremy engineered a simple but effective system, using a PVC pipe running down from an uphill well and cleverly concealed by the rocks. The water cascades silently over a moss-covered boulder, providing the perfect microclimate for moisture-loving plants. And to make navigating the garden a breeze, he installed a set of stepping stones in such a natural way that I didn’t even realize they were there until I started working in the space.

One final surprise was a small, shady pocket of crevice garden tucked away in the northeast corner of the house. This hidden gem, separated from the main display by a pathway, is home to a few shady-loving treasures like Acer palmatum ‘Twomblys Red Sentinel’ and Kalmia latifolia ‘Pristine.’

Planting the Crevice

When it came to selecting plants for my new crevice garden, I knew I wanted a mix of reliable performers and some more experimental options. After all, this was my chance to grow some of the more esoteric alpines that had previously eluded me in the heavy clay soils of my regular garden beds.

I started with a few easy and dependable choices, like Epimedium ‘Amber Queen,’ Dianthus ‘Baths Pink,’ and Iris cristata ‘Eco Bluebird.’ These plants have remained cheerfully blooming in the first planting area, setting the stage for my horticultural adventures.

Everywhere else, it’s been a delightful mix of disappointments and surprising successes. I’ve had my fair share of failures, but I’m undaunted – each one is a learning opportunity, and I’m eager to try again with different species or cultivars. After all, the joy of rock gardening is in the experimentation.

That said, I’m fairly confident that the following plants would work well for other Southern rock gardeners, as they’ve performed admirably in my own crevice:

Woody Plants

  • Cryptomeria japonica ‘Vilmoriniana’
  • Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Bess’
  • Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Cumulus’
  • Ilex ‘Rock Garden’
  • Ilex crenata ‘Brass Buckle’
  • Nandina domestica ‘Aka Chirimen’
  • Rhododendron keiskei ‘Yaku Fairy’
  • Mahonia confusa (silver seedlings)
  • Daphne odora (and a few alpine hybrids)

Succulents

  • Agave bracteosa ‘Squidget’
  • Mangave ‘Man of Steel’
  • Dyckia ‘Pale Rider’ and ‘Grape Jelly’
  • Graptopetalum paraguayense
  • Yucca (variegated)
  • Opuntia wrightii (syn. Cylindropuntia kleiniae) and Opuntia fragilis ‘Potato’
  • Notocactus spp. and hybrids
  • Delosperma cooperi and D. dyeri
  • Sedum spp. (including S. confusum, S. japonicum ‘Tokyo Sun,’ and S. palmeri)
  • Orostachys spp.

Bulbs, Corms, and Tubers

  • Cyclamen graecum, C. hederifolium, and C. coum
  • Tulipa cretica
  • Galanthus elwesii var. monostictus
  • Corydalis leucanthemum ‘Silver Spectre’ and C. heterocarpa
  • Ledebouria cooperi
  • Barnardia japonica (syn. Scilla scilloides)

Ferns

  • Astrolepis sinuata ‘Jo Levy’
  • Cheilanthes lanosa
  • Pyrrosia lingua and P. lingua ‘Cristata’
  • Asplenium scolopendrium
  • Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’
  • Selaginella braunii and S. uncinata

Other Flowering Plants

  • Dicentra eximia
  • Viola labradorica
  • Aethionema spp.
  • Dianthus henteri and hybrids (D. ‘Cherry Charm,’ ‘Kahori,’ and ‘Mountain Frost Pink Twinkle’)
  • Phlox spp. (Paparazzi and Bedazzled series)
  • Globularia cordifolia and G. valentina
  • Ipomopsis aggregata subsp. candida
  • Geranium spp.
  • Campanula portenschlagiana
  • Ajuga incisa ‘Bikun’

Lessons Learned

On the whole, my North Carolina crevice garden has been an absolute joy – a place to play, experiment, and witness the thrilling successes that make all the failures worth it. I’ve certainly made some big mistakes along the way, like not removing every single pine tree in the vicinity (resulting in perpetual pine debris), and poor plant choices for the seep area that didn’t receive enough sunlight.

But the lessons I’ve learned have been invaluable. Finding the right person to build the garden was crucial, and I’m forever grateful to Today’s Gardens and Jeremy Schmidt for their skill, knowledge, and inspiration. I’m also in awe of the incredible crevice garden at Juniper Level Botanic Garden, and the opportunity to volunteer there and learn from the best.

As I look forward to many more years of horticultural adventure in my crevice garden, I know that there will be both triumphs and tribulations. But that’s all part of the magic of rock gardening – the thrill of the chase, the agony of defeat, and the pure, unfiltered joy of witnessing those delicate mountain beauties thriving in the most unexpected of places. After all, isn’t that what gardening is all about?

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