By Panayoti Kelaidis:
The edges of most cities in America aren’t peppered like Denver is with “rock yards”—large outdoor stores where you can select your favorite flavor of granite, limestone or a variety of sandstone in all sizes from “breeze” (a local term for crushed stone for paths) to multi ton boulders needing a front loader to be moved. Often, large stones are placed like sculpture in the garden, or assembled in clusters with a few groundcovers and a conifer or two to bring a whiff of the Rockies to your garden.
Quite a few of us are smitten with the beauty of rocks and plants. Colorado has the largest membership of any state or province in the North American Rock Garden Society. Rock gardens have been the province of keen gardeners who want to grow a wide spectrum of wildflowers and even high alpine plants. By utilizing a steep slope or creating berms with special well drained soils you can often create habitats for plants that would be impossible to grow on a flat site or border. Not surprisingly, a half dozen or so public gardens in Colorado and neighboring states all feature rock gardens—often conspicuously. This is particularly the case at Betty Ford Alpine Garden in Vail (which is mostly rock garden), the Yampa River Botanic Park in Steamboat Springs, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, and the Gardens on Spring Creek in Fort Collins. There are other ambitious examples in public spaces as well.
For most of the last century, rock gardens followed models developed in England and Western Europe with horizontal bedding of stone, and often a waterfall and pond creating a picturesque scene. In the middle of the last century, something resembling a sort of earthquake in the art began to emanate from the Czech Republic (at the time still “Czechoslovakia”). Perhaps because entrepreneurs were stymied by the stultifying Russian dominated state that frustrated any business ventures, and likely inspired by the spectacular mountains of eastern Europe and the Balkans, creative Czechs began to take liberties with how stone was arranged. Instead of placing slabs of sandstone horizontally, the stone was upended forming narrow crevices that were filled with fast draining soil mixtures. Dramatic outcrops were designed with extraordinary artistry. Challenging plants grew easily due to the newly discovered vertical engineering of rock which allowed water to percolate downward quickly instead of running off horizontal surfaces of old style rock work.
The “fathers” of this school of gardening, Zdenek Zvolanek, Joseph Halda, and Vojtech Holubec, were frequent visitors to Denver Botanic Gardens in the 1990’s and have continued to visit since. I created a sort of crevice garden there with Sandy Snyder in the mid 1990’s and Mike Kintgen and various staff were the first to create models closer to the Czech ideal. But the crevice gardening bug did not truly reach a viral threshold (as it were) until Kenton Seth visited Victoria, British Columbia where Zdenek Zvolanek spent much of every winter with his partner, Joyce Carruthers. There they mentored Paul Spriggs (a Victoria landscape artist). When Paul and Kenton met they instantly created a professional bond that has led them to join forces on gardens across America. Together and separately, they have created dozens of ambitious crevice gardens in New Zealand, Scotland, North Carolina, Oregon, and dozens of private gardens in both Victoria and Colorado.
They have now partnered to write the first comprehensive guide to how to create a truly beautiful crevice garden, with detailed construction drawings (by Kenton) and illustrations of the challenging plants that can be easily adapted to this novel garden art. Crevice Gardening was published by Filbert Press in England, but widely available mail-order in the United States. I suspect it will appear soon in leading bookstores in our area.
A number of garden artists in our region have been inspired by the Spriggs/Seth duo to specialize in crevice gardens. A particularly dramatic example is situated in the back corner of Summerhome, that fantastic neighborhood pocket park in the Washington Park neighborhood of Denver designed by Kevin Williams of Denver Botanic Gardens. Ryan Keating is also active in our area—just this month he completed a 1000 square foot masterpiece on the campus of Fort Lewis College in Durango featuring monumental rocks placed in crevice fashion. He has created a number of crevice gardens in the Denver area, some (including one at my house) with rounded granite boulders. These are masterworks of naturalism!
The most ambitious and large scale crevice gardens in our area are products of the Spriggs-Seth collaboration. The Simms street APEX athletic complex in Arvada has a stunning low-water crevice garden featuring an astonishing range of xeric plants, beautiful in all seasons and maintained with minimal irrigation.
My personal favorite is the black granite crevice garden Kenton and Paul built in front of the conservatory of Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. Cheyenne is the hail-capital of America with a climate that makes the Colorado Front Range seem almost tropical. But this garden is full of alpine treasures from Europe and the Rockies that we struggle to grow, plus African succulents and even agaves I never dreamed would be hardy in Wyoming. Jacob Mares worked with the designers on the first phase when he was on CBG staff and expanded this garden artistically. He now works at Spring Creek in Fort Collins.
Once you dip your toe in crevice garden waters you may be tempted to place one somewhere on your property. They can turn a steep slope into a garden feature, or be a modified barrier to hide an unattractive corner. Or you can build a miniature one in a large container. Before you launch forth, obtain a copy of Crevice Gardening to ensure that what you create will exceed your expectations. In the meantime, scout out a few of our special “rock yards” for inspiration!
Panayoti Kelaidis is Senior Curator & Director of Outreach for Denver Botanic Gardens where he established the plantings of the Rock Alpine Garden 40+ years ago. He is current president of the North American Rock Garden Society.