Rocky Road

Photo by Rimas Zailskas
Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Mary Lou Kemp, Chairperson of the Southern Appalachian Rock Garden Society (SARGS) shares her story of being bitten by the rock gardening bug, learning to observe plant life at the micro level, and encourages us not to miss the myriad wildflowers and mosses that are literally right under our noses.

CHG: Rock gardening is a not-as-frequently-heard-about subtype of one of America’s favorite hobbies. What attracted you initially to SARGS?
MLK: My husband Bob and I moved here in the summer of 1999 and his coworker, Joe French, asked if we’d be interested in attending a SARGS meeting. We did; I learned more, but also saw chapter founder Evelyn Whittemore’s garden in Penrose, which left me awestruck. Evelyn and her late husband were New England transplants who created three stunning gardens. I was hooked from then on.

I’m impressed that the Society’s mission is so overarching. Members can participate in a seed exchange, go on garden tours, and attend lectures. Tell me about the upcoming 2013 “Exploring the Flora of the Blue Ridge” conference.
Right, the conference is scheduled for May 2-4 at Asheville’s Doubletree Hotel, and will include “field trips” which showcase our region’s wild gardens. One destination is Panthertown Valley, the “Yosemite of the East.”  We’ll also have wonderful speakers discussing everything from native wildflowers to our region’s geological features, and Sunday will feature private garden visits in Asheville and Hendersonville.

Since your membership consists of beginners and very knowledgeable and experienced rock gardeners, I’m assuming this is a versatile art.
That’s true; rock gardening is a most “un-fussy” type of gardening. It’s based on creating a garden plan that’s completely aligned with nature’s requirements and intentions. We don’t struggle to create a landscape where we’re at odds with what we’re growing to make it survive. Success is about encouraging hardy plants that are compatible with a woodland or alpine environment to thrive. One thing I’ve done to follow this rule is to turn half my lawn into a moss lawn; it’s beautiful and requires little care.

Kind of the antithesis of the Santa Fe homeowner who insists on recreating that mid-century thatch of carpet-like lawn, despite the fact that it requires obscene amounts of water?
Successful rock gardeners aim to accurately assess what a particular site requires in terms of light, moisture and soil. If you go to a natural rock garden, you’ll find beautiful but tough plants whose seeds blew in between crevices and are interspersed with rugged surroundings, like boulders and moss, and growing happily in soil composed of fine rock. We take plant height into consideration too, and often encourage low growing perennials and dwarf conifers — nothing that would overtake the rest of the garden. Compatibility is key. Rock gardening is also versatile in that you can have woodland, bog, living wall, and even container rock gardens.

It seems to me like the process of creating a rock garden involves equal parts planning and construction and the actual gardening.
That’s right. For example, our chapter’s founder, Evelyn Whittemore, a nationally and internationally known rock gardener, was the “plant person” to her husband’s “structure person.” Plants are like people: when you put them in the right environment, they’ll thrive.

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