Gravel paths wind around low mounds in Kathy Allen's Central Point garden. Inside the borders of this undulating terrain an international cast of characters lives in peaceful coexistence. Gathered from many continents and remote mountain regions, thousands of rock garden plants thrive and sometimes die with the Table Rocks and Mt. McLoughlin as their backdrop.
Kathy's long affair with rock garden plants was inspired by a gift of some spreading sedums and lambs' ears from a fellow gardener back in the early '70s. "They were weeds, really," says Kathy, but through them, she was introduced to the international world of rock garden specimens. She's never left the adventure.
Kathy Allen begins building her rock gardens by insuring they have good drainage, especially for our wet winters. The garden needs to be away from wet spots and the bed needs to be elevated with a fast draining mixture of soil. She uses a mix of equal parts sand, 1/4-inch crushed rock and leaf mold. Kathy starts with a mound, and then begins adding to it, placing the largest rocks in the center of the bed. She shapes the bed as she builds, creating varying elevations which mimics natural mountain terrain.
The perimeter of the bed gets the same intuitive shaping. Large, lichen-covered rocks are placed so they display their own beauty. Dwarf evergreens anchor the plantings and are replaced when they get too large. A path can be incorporated over the mound. Plants are tucked into planting pockets, with the same specimen grown in clumps, as happens in nature.
Rock garden plants are found in local nurseries, at the Spring Fair (see the April Garden Calendar in this issue), and through other rock gardeners, as well as on the Internet. Find other fans of the genre at the Siskiyou Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society, which meets monthly and has garden tours. For information about it, contact Roger Hutchings, 772-9190.
Begun in 1987, her second rock garden is grown in the center of the valley, with unobscured views of our major landmarks. She tends her exotic plants along with an extensive vegetable garden, orchard and vineyard. The rock garden has been created "bucket by bucket," by mixing soil (sand, gravel and leaf mold) in a cement mixer and hauling it to its destination.
"I never think of the big picture," she says. "If I did, it'd be overwhelming."
The 22 beds are grouped together, just next to the driveway. Visitors pass alongside the garden on their way to the house and it's visible from large picture windows in the living room. When Kathy says she's "done" with the garden, she means she won't be expanding its area. But with a strong plant collector's heart, and a body that complains but still cooperates, she adds 1,000 plants a year to her intercontinental landscape. Some years the number is closer to 3,000.
Some specimens, because they are only a couple of inches large at maturity, need to be planted in large numbers. Others are replacements for plants that expired in summer's heat. Often the natural habitat of rock garden plants is in high mountains at latitudes other than our own 42 degrees, she explains. "I try to plant them where they'll have a chance. I lose a lot of plants," Kathy says. "That's OK because I like to try new things." Still she has favorites; "the little cushion plants that don't spread too much." Spreading plants are put in the pathways, "so I have a better chance of controlling them."
She plants a few flats each day in the fall. When your collection numbers are in the thousands, organization is key. Kathy keeps card files on her plants, which include the plant's name, origin, and the name of the collector who sold it. She adds cultivation methods, and her success, or failure and sometimes photographs. The file has become rather extensive: "I have files for files," she says, laughing. But it's an invaluable guide to buying seed and planting advice.
In the summer the gardens are watered every three days using rainbirds and overhead sprinklers early in the day. These plants want fast draining soil, and some are even grown in a mix of sand and gravel — scree gardens.
"I love to weed the rock garden. You get to check over what's growing and what's not." Knee pads are an integral part of her gardening attire, and she does most of the maintenance with a digging tool, a clipping tool and a bucket.
The beds are mulched with 1/4 or 1/2-inch crushed rock, the same rock that is used in the paths. "It keeps the plants cooler and keeps weeds down." It's a handsome, neat look for a rock garden, so the focus stays on its radiant international stars.
Seed is the affordable way to get the variety she wants. "I don't specialize; I want to try everything." Since she often buys from descriptions, she loves seeing what the plants look like as they develop. Often, new specimens are given a trial in one of the 50 hypertufa troughs gathered in another part of the garden. Although she never fertilizes her beds, these troughs get a yearly dose of slow-release fertilizer "so the plants stay nice and tight and compact."
Kathy is convinced that rock gardens are less work than perennial gardens and "you can grow so much more." Her own garden is not so much an example of this as it is a place apart — a labor of love, where international stars live among the rocks.