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Are You Ready to Rock?

For the garden that lacks drama, stones can do wonders in accentuating plants and flowers. There's a crop of books that can help you with this, so you can give your landscape an artistic edge.

November 23, 2000|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

My very first garden--located behind a rundown old rental in Northern California--consisted of two moss-covered rocks I lugged home from a Sonoma County rock yard and one native plant, yellow-eyed grass, known as Sisyrinchium californicum, that I found at a nursery. I was copying a little scene from nature, and I can still remember how spiffy the small yellow flowers looked next to the yellow-green moss on the rocks. I got so excited when the first tiny flower opened, I took a picture of it.

Thirty years later in my present garden in West L.A., I still associate plants with rocks--only now the stones are smooth granite boulders from the San Gabriel River. I use the rocks to shelter particularly small plants, including a few choice little bulbs, a native desert fern (a Cheilanthes), and some short perennials that seem to like growing their roots under the cool river stones.

Practical uses aside, plants and rocks naturally look good together--one sets off the other--and gardeners have paired or contrasted the two for centuries.

The English are quite fond of rock gardens or "rockeries," as they often refer to them.

Some are more rock work than plantsmanship, but others are considered perhaps the pinnacle of gardening--exquisite tapestries of stones and plants that prefer a rocky soil.

The ideal is to contrast small, delicate and impossibly hard-to-grow plants--usually from alpine areas--with very big rocks. The rocks are even bigger than they look, since--in the tradition of Japanese rock gardens--two-thirds of a rock is buried underground and not even visible. This gives a boulder a can't-budge-it solid stance.

Rock gardening was a flat-out craze in England early last century, and those who wrote about rock gardening were held in the highest esteem. These early writers produced some of the most desirable of garden books, such as the 1928 classic two-volume "The English Rock Garden," by Reginald Farrer, or books by E.A. Bowles and W. Robinson, most of which have been reprinted time and again.

This tradition continues in the work of English plants-woman Beth Chatto and would be of little interest to the Southern California gardener if it weren't for the fact that she gardens in a very odd corner of Essex, which has an annual rainfall of only about 20 inches. So Chatto is not exaggerating when she compares her garden with "the sun-scorched hillsides in California."

Still, one must carefully consider the information in "Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden" (Viking, $35) to see if it will actually work here--and even those living on the rockiest of hillsides will never be able to grow a garden like Chatto's. But some of the plants do thrive here, and the book itself is a kick to look at and read through.

An opening photograph of her gravelly soil--her garden sits on top of almost 20 feet of the stuff--graphically shows how different her soil is from the average backyard here; but on the surface at least, it's a normal flat piece of ground artfully planted and laid out.

"Stone, Rock & Gravel Gardens," by English gardening columnist Kathryn Bradley-Hole (Casell/Sterling, $29.95), is a pretty, largely photographic look at the whole spectrum of stones in the landscape, though it too is skewed to the English gardener. However, there are some lovely images--and some useful ideas--such as pebble paving laid in a spiral pattern that resembles overlapping snail shells, or the foxgloves growing from the side of an old quarry that was made into a public park.

Stones alone can make a powerful garden, as slightly mysterious Zen gravel gardens illustrate. "Reading Zen in the Rocks," by Francois Berthier (University of Chicago Press, $20) is a fascinating examination of those plantless, Japanese dry gardens. Written by a French professor of Japanese art, the book was translated by Graham Parkes, a professor of philosophy at the University of Hawaii. The book includes Parkes' essay "The Role of Rocks in the Japanese Dry Landscape Garden."

The ways the Japanese use rocks in their gardens--how they are positioned, how deep they are buried, and how they are shaped--is the gold standard for using stones of substance in the landscape.

The Japanese have even developed an art form that allows one to display particularly handsome or intriguing stones in a container of their own--out of the garden. "Suiseki, the Art of Beautiful Stones" is a handsome book by German Willi Benz (Sterlin, $19.95) on this way of appreciating the timeless beauty of rocks.

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