A Day of Rock Gardening

Last weekend my friend Kathy of Cold Climate Gardening talked me into a plant sale.  No offense to her salesmanship, but it wasn’t the toughest sell considering I’ve been itching to get back to town ever since my first ‘Ithaca Spring Garden Fair and Plant Sale’ two years ago.  Covid you know… so I’ve been saying pass, but then Kathy told me about the spring plant sale of the Adirondack Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society.  It’s a members only thing, just a few people donating, buying and selling, but it sounded perfect.  Big deal that I wasn’t a member(yet) and it’s an over two hour drive, plus it’s a whole Saturday away from a garden which I should be weeding… and I already had plenty of unplanted things… but you know as well as I do that once the gardening gauntlet is thrown down it must be accepted, so of course I said yes.

It was a beautiful morning and the drive was a perfect trip up the Susquehanna river valley and then across the rolling dairy hills East of Cayuga lake to the plant sale.  The sale was fun.  Members (which now included me) were given numbers and each person had a chance to visit the sale tables and pick up a favorite.  After a couple rounds of this the tables were opened to everyone, and one by one they emptied.  There was more of course.  While this was going on plant talk was every where, an auction was lined up, a free table was filled and cleaned out… members introduced their favorite plants which they thought ought to be selling better, and at one point someone just stood on a bench and invited everyone over to visit their garden afterwards 🙂 I like these people, and this also brings me to one of the big selling points for me doing the drive and joining the chapter.  Garden visits.  I had heard that a local rock gardener had offered to open their garden after the sale, for members to visit.  It’s a garden I had read about and seen pictures of, and I knew it was a must-see garden.  Wow, was that the truth!

ithaca rock garden

A hillside was being excavated to expose the bedrock

Some of the epic rock gardens of Europe are heaps of stone built up to create mini-Matterhorns out of flat cow pasture.  This garden is not that.  Here a pair of inspired gardeners found a plot of land where they knew they could carve the earth down to bedrock, and then build a rock garden up that follows the natural cut of the ravine.  It’s actually quite a crazy idea, but awesome to see.

ithaca rock garden

One of the newest additions, a bridge now spans the gap between rocky outcroppings.

Of course these pictures don’t do the scale of the garden justice.  Massive boulders were being moved and placed in a way which looked as if the glaciers did all the heavy lifting thousands of years back.  Unearthing the bedrock sounds easier with the help of heavy machinery, but then consider the care which has to be taken to not gouge the naturally weathered walls and boulders as they’re being uncovered.  All the fine uncovering had to be done with hand… and then moved by hand…

ithaca rock garden

The earthworks from even further back.  All of this was uncovered, and much of it moved into a more effective place or position, even the larger slabs of stone.  Behind where this photo was taken there’s even more excavation.

One of the chapter members mentioned that the owners were back and forth about opening the garden.  ‘It’s not a garden, it’s a construction site’ is more or less what I got as the reasoning, but only half of that is true.  It’s an awesome construction site, but it’s also an amazing garden, and I think it’s even more amazing when you can see what went in to all the plantings.

ithaca rock garden

Plantings tumble down the slope, this one built up with tufa stone, a porous rock light and airy enough to allow plant roots to penetrate.

This is the first real rock garden I’ve ever visited so I can’t say much about the plants other than they looked perfectly happy.

ithaca rock garden

Rocks overhanging a small pool.  Tufa stone allows for plants to be ‘set’ directly into drilled holes.  Eventually the plants spread out on their own as the roots find their own paths into the rock.

ithaca rock garden

Oh, and just a big crevice garden for all those things which love a deep root run between stones.  Yellow delosperma and a yellow leaved teucrium (which I just happened to pick up at the plant sale!)

ithaca rock garden

Some of the plantings were really amazing

ithaca rock garden

Even a hosta!  -but I really love the yellow leaved saxifrage (maybe saxifraga ‘Cloth of Gold’?)

As I worked my way down the paths through the rock gardens, and headed closer to the house, I reached the patio area.  Here the garden hosts had set up a dining area with snacks and beverages and plenty of wine.  From what I hear this generosity was all part of a master plan to “loosen lips” and get the honest impressions of their visitors with an eye towards improvements and new ideas.  Sadly, I believe the wine was just wasted on me 🙂

ithaca rock garden

Bonsai and trough gardens.

The trough gardens were particularly interesting, and not just because of the mini landscapes planted in them.  In the past these gardeners have hosted trough making workshops in the garden as well as publishing articles on the process, and I was excited to see that the troughs look excellent in person.  Excellent enough that I think I’ll give one a go this summer and see how it turns out!

ithaca rock garden

Some of the troughs were quite complex.

Wine and snacks have a way of gathering people, so at the patio I stopped and took in a few of the conversations.  Someone asked me how I liked the top part of the gardens and I said ‘Top?  There’s also a bottom?’ …and yes, there’s a whole other part to the garden.

ithaca rock garden

Below the rock garden a natural seep provides flowing water for the bottom part of the gardens.

As you come around a few more boulders you find yourself at the bottom of the ravine, where a mass of Primula japonica fill the low spots.  They were just starting their peak bloom, it was excellent.

ithaca rock garden

A path runs back and forth along the stream.

ithaca rock garden

Masses of Primula japonica

ithaca rock garden

The stream heads out to the lake.  You would never guess a downpour had this garden nearly flooded a few days prior to the opening.

There were more woodland plants, azaleas, rhododendrons, and tree peonies but of course I can’t show everything, so I’ll leave off with one last overview of the upper garden as viewed from the house.  As you can see ‘dwarf’ conifers are also an interest.

ithaca rock garden

A view from the other side.  You can see some of the deer fencing, obviously the hooved beasts have no respect for such a special place.

So this garden was amazing, but who would I be if I turned down another garden tour invite?  I headed a few miles further to the impromptu open garden which had been announced at the sale, and here I was able to enjoy huge beds filled with lush perennials all grown to perfection.  I’m afraid I derailed plenty of my host’s Saturday afternoon gardening plans since it was already kind of late, but she still gave me the full tour!

ithaca rock garden

Tree peonies were at their moment of perfection.

There were cool plants everywhere, and they were all so well grown that I tried to avoid all honesty about my own garden when asked.  My big regret though is that I didn’t take more pictures.  It’s almost criminal that there are no photos of the red horse chestnut (Aesculus x carnea ‘Ft. McNair’) which was in full flower over one of the back beds.

ithaca rock garden

Alliums, Aquilegia, and peony were at their peak but I could see that the show had started months ago with spring bulbs, and will continue for months more with all the other later perennials.

ithaca rock garden


So I’m also not even mentioning the shade gardens, the small arboretum of special trees, the field of dahlia tubers I was preventing her from planting… It was another fascinating garden and I have to say that the best thing about this day was meeting person after person who were so crazy about plants that it made me feel entirely sane.  What a group!

I rushed out of this stop with a new friend (and even more plants in my hands) and headed for my last stop.  It was already about dinnertime when I rolled into my friend Leon’s driveway but he didn’t seem too annoyed with me.  He knew I’d be late and still led me around the grounds of Der Rosenmeister Nursery and tolerated question after question.  I didn’t have time for a single picture.  I bought three roses.  I’m going back in a few weeks to see the hundreds of roses in full bloom, and it is guaranteed to be another great trip and I’m sure you’ll hear all about it 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this adventure !

21 comments on “A Day of Rock Gardening

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    This rock garden is mind boggling,especially the construction part. Who could imagine digging out all that soil? Where did they take it?? I am so glad they gave a before tour. Otherwise I could never get my mind wrapped around the scale of the operation. I love rock gardens. I have followed several rock hound’s blogs. Most I have seen are in Europe. What fun to discover this in the States. Thanks so much for taking us along.

    • bittster says:

      Cool isn’t it? It was really amazing to see how the rocks which were moved were all so carefully re-set to match the original strata, and so much care seemed to have been taken to protect the naturally weathered rocks from big machinery damage. I think you would really have been impressed to be down amongst the stone, the pictures really don’t do the scale justice!
      The removed soil was moved to other parts of the property as parts of the other ‘ideas’ in progress. The rock garden was only the tip of the iceberg and I suspect garden making will just keep spreading out from here. I believe the property is a total of six acres!

  2. Paddy Tobin says:

    That is an extraordinary garden; absolutely fabulous.

  3. Eliza Waters says:

    WOW!!! Jaw-dropping rock garden. I cannot imagine the expense of such an endeavor. I hope this one is destined to become a public garden when the owners pass. Such work deserves a wider audience. Definitely worth the price of membership and look at all your new plant buddies. Thank you, Kathy! 🙂 Thanks for sharing these wonders with us, Frank. I imagine it has ignited a new passion in you. 😀 Can’t wait to see it unfold.

    • bittster says:

      Haha, the bedrock around here is safe, I don’t think I’ll be digging anytime soon, although trough making is definitely on the summer to-do list 🙂
      I’m sure the price tag isn’t cheap, but much of it was done by the owners, and it seemed like a slow and steady wins the race kind of project. Huge boulder in the driveway? Learn how to quarry it into more manageable pieces that can be moved. Nursery going out of business? Buy all that old stuff they’ve had sitting in back for years for a nice percentage off. It’s not a checkbook garden… although I’m sure the checkbook gets a decent workout!
      I’m sure as the garden progresses there will be more and more visitors, it’s really going to be a special place.

  4. Carol E. says:

    As a long-time member of this rock garden chapter (we are part of the international North American Rock Garden Society), it’s quite interesting to read about us from a new member’s point of view. Yes, we are all a bit plant crazy and not just about rock gardens either.

    • bittster says:

      Hi Carol! Thanks for an excellent day, I really enjoyed it and hope to get up there for another event one of these days. You seem to have a friendly, close knit group, and the plant craziness was probably the best part to the day! I love it when two or three people can gather around a stick with roots and get all excited over what it can become with time.

  5. As Eliza said, wow! I love the plantings in crevices and the combinations of water and rock.

    • bittster says:

      The owners had a few pictures of the garden after a good downpour. There’s a set of two waterfalls which carry the runoff from above the garden and it really makes for a mountain snowmelt kind of feel.

  6. Rick Goodenough says:

    Frank….a grand garden, loved every aspect you covered. That was the finest crevice garden I have seen as it was such a natural result. Blown away by the excavation work and the massive stones that were revealed! What a treasure.

    • bittster says:

      The crevice garden bowled me over as well, normally I think they look a little contrived but this one looked perfectly natural with weathered stones positioned just as you’d expect them to be. I think you’d really enjoy seeing this, and perhaps you’ve already visited!

  7. Cathy says:

    I am so envious! Not only of that amazing rock garden, but of you visiting it and two other places too! Rock gardens are full of surprises… I used to think they were boring until I got my own rockery and started looking for plants that like dry and well-drained positions. The shapes and colours of each individual plant stand out so well against the rocky background. They have put so much work into that place. Love it!

    • bittster says:

      It was a fun adventure, and it’s been a while since some serious garden visiting took place 🙂
      Funny that you mention once not liking rock gardens. I also used to think they were boring, but that was back when I had to pick grass out of a bed of hens and chicks and then try to avoid getting the prickly pear cactus spines all over my hands and wrists! It was inspiring to see how much more was possible.

  8. What a fabulous day! I have been inviting friends to our garden even though it is a construction site as well. I think it is really interesting to see how things happen. Afterwards you can never figure out how it was done. Beautiful design and plants at both locations. What an inspirational Saturday.

    • bittster says:

      I’m glad you’re still having people over to see the progress… even when you’re at the point where it seems so much more destruction than construction! I always love hearing about the crazy plans and visions of Eden almost as much as I enjoy seeing cool plants!

  9. I think the tree peony you enjoyed looks like an ITOH (intersectional) peony. Gorgeous and a fun trip down some garden paths! Thanks.

    • Debi Lampman says:

      The first tree peony is called Leda, the second name I have forgotten but definitely they are sufruticosa as the Itohs are just now coming into bloom, just in time for the second wave of 90 degree weather

      • bittster says:

        … and thanks again Debi for all the time you took with me and all the plant talk! Hope your garden weathered the heat and whatever other weather came your way. Blooming peonies almost demand that bad weather show up.

    • bittster says:

      Yes! It was a lot of fun seeing so many excellent gardens 🙂

  10. What a rock garden! They dug for gold and got it! That gave me chills – what a garden!

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