Signs of Fall in Our Local Birds

One of our guest bloggers this week is Brian Smith, husband of master gardener Marlies Smith. Brian is a wildlife photographer, and I asked him if he had seen any changes in our bird populations this week.  I would like to thank him for sharing his photos as well and these are labeled below. Just click on the image.

If you are on Facebook, you can follow Brian’s page at:

His blog:

The first reaction of many nature-lovers is to think of fall in nostalgic terms — the beautiful songbirds that have been with us all spring and summer are leaving and our green vegetation is giving way to shades of red and brown.  Just as easily, however, we can think of fall as a time of new beginnings.  There are a number of stunning birds that arrive from the north at this time to spend the winter with us.  The yellow-bellied sapsucker, the two species of kinglets (ruby crowned and golden crowned), the brown creeper, the red-breasted nuthatch, the winter wren and the yellow-rumped warbler immediately come to mind.  Then there are many species of warblers that have spent their summer in Canada and are migrating through Virginia on their journey south.  The Cape May, the black-throated blue, the black-throated green, the magnolia, and the Nashville warblers are a few of the species that a diligent birder can observe at this time of year.  Mother Nature never sleeps — She has plenty to offer the dedicated nature-lover in every season.

The Mailbox Garden


Lynne Lanier is the bedleader of the Mailbox garden. She is our Blogger for this week. Thanks Lynne! Its a beautiful garden.  

I have been the bed leader of the Mailbox garden for two years. I don’t have a co-leader but get lots of help and advice from my master gardener team at the TG. I am now in my third year as a Prince William MG Volunteer. From the very beginning I was drawn to the TG for its beauty and peacefulness. I love learning about growing plants and garden design so the TG is a perfect match for me. You can find me working at the TG on Tuesday mornings.

There have been quite a few changes since I took over the Mailbox garden. I decided to design the bed in such a way that would enable me to maintain the plants that were in the middle. To do this I took almost all the plants out and put pavers through the middle of the bed and off to one side. I then replanted some of the plants I took out so that the bed was easier to maintain. I added a few new plants such as Achillea ‘Laura’ and ‘Moonshine, Salvia nemorosa ‘Sallyrosa Jumbo Pink’, threadleaf Coreopsis ‘Rosa’, Ziza aurea ”Golden Alexander’. I put low white fencing on two diagonal
corners of the bed. This spring I added Myosotis sylvatica ‘Forget Me Not’ on the outside of the fenced corners.

The Mailbox garden contains plants that are mostly drought tolerant, do well in full sun and are fairly easy to maintain. Several of the plants are very attractive to bees and butterflies such as the Salvia, Echinacea, Rudbeckia and catmint.

In the fall I plan to rearrange some of the taller plants to the center of the bed and smaller/shorter plants to the outside. I also may remove the Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ because the deer are quite destructive to it. The deer also nibble on the white phlox and flower buds on the Echinacea.

A Mailbox garden is an important part of a landscape design as it is frequently the first part of the property that guests and passersby notice. On the other hand, because of its location right next to the street, it can pose significant challenges. Plants are often subject to pollution, fumes from cars, road salt, heat from pavement, dust, animals, etc. Also, if your house sets back quite a distance from the road, it may be inconvenient or impossible to drag the garden hose to the mailbox to water the plants. This would mean the plants that are not drought tolerant are at risk of dying unless you carry water to them.

In planning a Mailbox garden one would want a vibrant and long lasting succession of colors. Some examples of annuals, perennials and vines that can do well, require little maintenance and make great companions in a mailbox garden design are:
California poppy, Coreopsis auriculata ‘Nana’, purple Verbena, purple wave petunia, Clematis, yarrow, stone crop, Phlox paniculata, violet blue aster, Echinacea cone flower, marigolds, Salvia, Lantana ‘new gold.

Plant List:

Salvia nemorosa -‘ Sallyrosa Jumbo Pink’
Echinacea – cone flower
Salvia ‘May Night’
Salvia ‘Ultra Violet’
Salvia ‘Hot Lips’
Tickseed Coreopsis Lil’l Bang –
‘Red Elf’
Achillea Yarrow ‘Laura’
Achillea Yarrow ‘Moonshine’
Rudbeckia ‘Goldstrum’
Delphinium ‘Blue Mirror’
Liatris spicata ‘Blazing Star’
Clematis ‘Jackmanii’







How Plants Cope with Drought and Low Water Conditions

Drought is a major abiotic stress for crop production and landscape plantings in the world.  Arid, semi-arid and desert climates are be found in the United States, as well as semi-tropical areas that see frequent drought with high temperatures. Arid and desert regions receive precipitation below the potential transpiration rates of plants. There are three strategies that plants use to cope in low precipitation climates: Succulence, drought tolerance, and drought avoidance.


Succulent plants store water in fleshy leaves, stems and roots.  They are often adapted to absorb large quantities of water in short periods, such as desert rains. Thickened leaves and globose stems minimize the surface area through which water is lost. Waxy cuticles provide a physical barrier to water loss. Surface hairs or spines provide a microclimate that also reduces transpiration. Some succulents have vestigial leaves and rely on the stem to harvest solar radiation.  Nearly all succulents have extensive, short root systems which are adapted for increased water absorption. Often their leaves have trichomes to absorb atmospheric water in dew, mist and fog.  Some species of succulents can survive for months without rainfall. Succulents may occasionally appear as epiphytes, growing on other plants with limited or no contact with the ground, and are dependent on obtaining and storing water in storage organs. Succulents are also found on sea coasts where they are exposed to high levels of dissolved minerals toxic to other plants. Succulents commonly use Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) as a biochemical strategy to minimize water loss during photosynthesis.

Drought tolerant plants can withstand desiccation without drying. They often shed leaves during dry periods and enter dormancy. Most water loss from these plants is transpirational loss from leaves, and dropping leaves helps to reduce this loss.  Some drought tolerant plants have resinous coatings. These plants typically make use of C4 carbon fixation or CAM to conserve water during photosynthesis. Other adaptations include reduced number of stomata, trichomes (small hairs) on leaves, adaptations in the root system to increase water absorption, and water storage organs such as tubers. Drought tolerant and succulent plants often have a thick, waxy cuticle to reduce water loss, reduced leaf surfaces and the ability to accelerate senescence.

Drought avoidance or “drought escape” plants are often annuals that escape unfavorable conditions by completing their life cycle during times of higher precipitation. One strategy are the spring ephemerals found in deserts. Desert ephemerals take advantage of spring rains, and the species survives through seed dormancy.   Other strategies include tight folding or rolling of leaves to reduce transpirational water loss. Perennials will die back to their underground parts and become dormant.

Many drought tolerant and succulent plants take advantage of C4 carbon fixation or CAM pathway to fix carbon during photosynthesis. Both are improvements over C3 carbon fixation and are more energy efficient. The CAM pathway is particularly good for arid conditions because carbon dioxide can be taken up at night allowing the stomata to be closed during the heat of the day. This reduces water loss through transpiration.

Xeriscaping, a landscaping style which requires little or no irrigation, was first developed by Denver Water in Colorado because of pressure on it’s water system. Xeriscaping is now recommended in regions that do not have easily accessible, plentiful or reliable sources of fresh water. Also known as water-conserving and drought tolerant landscaping, these designs often use plants that are native to the local climate, but not exclusively.  This allows for a lower consumption of water and also reduces maintenance. There are seven principles of xeriscaping:

  1. Orient your plot by grouping watering zones according to watering needs. Take into account north/south and east/west facing areas, as well as sun in water-conserving landscape and shade. Study natural contours and drainage of the plot and determine if terracing is necessary.
  2. Ideal soils for water conserving landscapes drain quickly and store water. It is important to increase organic matter in your soil, as well as aerate it.
  3. Create minimal turf areas, while retaining turf for activity areas.
  4. Right Plant, Right Place! Check nurseries for drought resistant and native plants
  5. Mulch using leaves, coarse compost, pine needles, wood chips, bark or gravel.
  6. Irrigate using soaker hoses and drip irrigation. Water deeply, and less frequently, and avoid watering during the heat of the day
  7. Maintain your landscape by keeping weeds from growing up through the mulch. Avoid over fertilization.

For more information on planning drought tolerant landscaping and recommended native plants for these areas:

Beneficial Drought Tolerant Plants for the DC Area:

Native Plants for Northern Virginia 

Drought Tolerant Plants for Virginia

Drought Tolerant Plants for the Mid-Atlantic

Creating a Waterwise Landscape

Waterwise Plants and Landscaping




The Drought Tolerant Bed

Using drought tolerant plants in the garden are important in the arid parts of our country, and in some areas they are the only ones that grow successfully. In our Mid Atlantic climate we typically have hot and humid summers, but it is not unusual to have periods of drought. Drought resistant plants need far lower amounts of water to successfully grow and bloom, and since many are natives, they are excellent additions to the home garden. Many are foraged by our diverse populations of pollinators.


The Drought Tolerant (DT) bed at the Teaching Garden is  beautifully maintained by Linda Ligon and Charlene Tolose.  Linda has been the bed leader for 5 years, along with Sally Peterson for the first few years. Together, Linda and Sally volunteered to work in the bed as part of their internship. This year, Charlene volunteered to be the co-leader and has already made excellent suggestions to improve some of the problem areas. Charlene is the one who made the baskets to protect the Sedums from the ever present deer at the Monastery. In addition to these ladies, interns have helped with edging and weeding, and special thanks this summer to Collin, the intern from VTech. You can find Linda and Charlene out at the TG on Tuesday mornings. Linda can be found taking accurate notes about the weekly changes and environmental conditions. Charlene can often  be found pulling a wagon of freshly baked, juiced and strained goodies that are made from the Cook’s Gardens’ bounties following recipes from her monthly collections that feature the vegetable of the month.  This month it is the tomatillo!


Linda describes the DT bed as a beautiful and easy to maintain garden that is attractive to pollinators. She is also an apiarist, or beekeeper and keeps her hives in West Virginia. The DT bed is a great place to experiment with pollinator attracting and drought tolerant plants, and good examples of this are fennel and Liatris, which bees love.

Linda and Charlene water new plantings twice every week, but once established, the entire bed needs water only during an extended dry spells of three weeks without rain, or longer.

I asked Linda what were some of the bed’s best features. She responded that everything is perennial, and reseeds/spreads easily from year to year.  It rarely needs supplemental watering.  The variety of colors of the flowers  attract numerous pollinators all year long. The shrubs are somewhat unique and attract a lot of attention when in full bloom, such as the complete coverage of white blossoms on the mock orange in late spring, and the copper-colored blossoms and leaves of the two Ninebarks.

Some of the bed’s environmental challenges that homeowners might also have include   plants that reseed or spread prolifically,  e.g.,  Nepeta. It smells great and pollinators are all over its beautiful purple blossoms, but it is a mint that grows and spreads rapidly, so they have to work to keep it thinned and pruned in order to stay confined and not take over other plants.  The Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed susan) reseeds very well, and seedlings pop up all over other areas of the bed, so they just keep pulling those.

When I asked Linda to describe some of the changes made over the years she wrote, “First year we removed the very aggressive Oenothera “Mexican primrose”, which was reseeding throughout the bed and still is sending up seedlings all these years later.  We planted many more daffodil bulbs (donated by Nancy Hanrahan from her White Garden), and we designed the Nepeta to grow in a swirl pattern from one end of the bed to the other, in order to tie together what was once three separate beds into one long curving bed.  About three years ago, we added a Sedum Rock Garden section to the bed, near the mock orange – the tiny plants have filled out well among the rocks that I brought from WV and the bed is very well established now. There are now four types of Sedums in the  Drought Tolerant Bed: Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ (delicate bright pink flowers on large heads) is getting ready to bloom, Hylotelephium ‘Matrona” (an old English variety with purple heads),  Sedum spectabile ‘Variegatum’, and Hylotelephium ‘Purple Emporer” (the one that hides!) There are lots of ground cover Sedums like ‘kamtschaticum‘ [aka Golden Carpet], ‘spurium‘ [aka Dragon’s Blood], Sempervivum’ tectorum [aka hen & chicks], as well as some miscellaneous unnamed succulents that we put in our small rock garden section.  Technically, the 3rd and 4th ones are a type of showy stonecrops called Hylotelephium.”

Future changes Linda and Charlene have been considering are adding more red-flowering perennials, such as Salvias, to the already numerous and pollinator friendly  purple flowers.  They have had good luck in past years with annuals such as Celosia “cockscomb” because they grew tall and were very striking.  This year they added some of those again, as well as some orange/apricot “Mango Tango” Agastache perennials. No pollinators on them yet since one or two plants of something is not really enough to attract too many pollinators.

Problem spots including wet spots have been an occasional problem for some of these drought tolerant plants.  They have lost lavenders, an Artemesia, some Gaillardias in past years.  So they replaced the lavenders and Gaillardias a couple of years ago, and they have done better.  This year they added another Artemesia, relocated to a dryer, sunnier spot. There haven’t been any invasives in the DT bed yet, but plenty of aggressives.

 Deer have been a problem, and rabbits – always chewing on the Echinacea and Sedums, and the lower branches of the mock orange.  Ruth has sprayed them as much as possible as a deterent,  and they added some netting over the Sedums this year, which has made a big difference.  The Echinacea have survived the chewing, and they sent out more numerous side shoots with flower buds, which are flowering now.  

Beneficial insects in this garden include lots and lots of pollinators:  Bumble and honey bees, butterflies all the time, even visiting dragon flies.  This spring they found four praying mantis egg cases, but they don’t seem to have hatched quite yet.  


Linda gives the following recommendations for homeowners wanting to start a drought tolerant bed:  “Stachys monnieri is an excellent, compact plant with striking fuschia-colored flower spikes in June, very deer and insect resistant.  It doesn’t spread like the Stachys byzantine (lamb’s ear), which some people don’t care for.  Also, the Buddleia davidii “white ball” that we have is a compact, non-aggressive, non-invasive butterfly bush with pollinator-attractive white blossoms.  One of our favorites, is the Sedum “autumn joy” – it’s a gorgeous plant all season long, if you don’t have deer or rabbits!  It will soon be full of large, flat-head pink/red blossoms that the pollinators will be all over.  It’s one of the best-looking, low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants that a gardener can have.”

For more information on growing drought tolerant plants:

The Cook’s Garden, July 25

Hi everyone,

With much delight, Charlene, Collin and I were able to deliver not just vegetables to the monastery, but fresh cut zinnias. I must admit I watched the recipient’s face light up as we handed over the harvest. After all, how can one not smile when presented with flowers?

This is a first for us. Although we practice farmscaping in the vegetable garden, we have not specifically grown flowers to be cut for the sole purpose of being enjoyed inside. Let’s be honest; it can be hard for the gardener to cut and remove fresh blooms that contribute so much beauty to a garden bed. However, there sure is something magical about having fresh flowers on a table, especially next to a dinner made with freshly harvested vegetables. That was the thought process during the early planning stages, and it’s been a huge success, especially since our mystery wildlife muncher does not seem to have a taste for zinnias. Having a designated cutting garden of zinnias has other benefits too. These flowers are so easy! Plant some seeds directly into amended soil, water, and watch them grow, and bloom into all sorts of amazing colors. These beauties are also working to help keep the soil covered, suppress weeds, and attract pollinators. Oh, and did I mention the more these flowers are cut, the more they will bloom all summer long and into fall.

I’ve extended this idea into my personal garden, and I realize because I have labeled this small dedicated portion as a “cutting garden,” I have no reservations about removing flowers to bring inside. I also reaped an unexpected benefit. I found my daughter (who is not into gardening) with her camera taking photos of the arrangements I made. Our passions intersected!

hoping those zinnias, with all those different colors, will find their way onto a table and as the residents of the monastery gather around for their meal, will briefly pause and smile at the flowers before them, before feasting on vegetables harvested from the Teaching Garden.



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Cook’s Garden: Saturday July 8

This week’s Cooks’ Garden report from Harriet Carter. Thanks, Harriet!
Here’s the latest happenings in the veggie beds. The ground was still moist for the deluge on Thursday, so only the pots near Jannell’s raised bed were watered. Tatiana and I checked for bugs in the large enclosed area and found a couple of nasty squash bugs which we helped deliver into the swimming pool. They were sitting – you guessed it – on the lemon cucumber. There was one ripe cucumber, but we left it for the harvest tomorrow.

In the former “global bed” we harvested several yellow squash and three patty pan squash because they were huge. Sister Pat and company loved them and thought they would look great in a bowl as well. (See picture)

The tomatoes in Bio A are ripening nicely, though only Matt’s Cherries were there for the pickings. Hopefully we’ll have some of the others tomorrow. The rhubarb stalks look great however the foliage is another matter. We found a gaggle of Japanese beetles who were munching away. Many died in the “bad bug swimming pool” (soapy water), but still more descended. What’s up with these beetles? Rhubarb leaves are supposed to be toxic! (Several pictures as evidence enclosed.) 🙂 Every year their number seems to increase! We discussed using trap crop such as Virginia creeper which works wonders in my yard, and Leslie thought it would be ok to have some vines on the fence next year. Keep cool!

Purple Martins

This week we were lucky to have the husband of Master Gardener, Marlies Smith, come out and take beautiful pictures of our Purple Martins. Brian Smith has a Facebook page I highly recommend everyone check out! Gorgeous pictures.

Marlies wrote the guest blog this week:

It is wonderful going to work in the Teaching Garden and being greeted by the chatter of the purple martin colony.

Purple martins like open areas, and the field adjacent to the Teaching Garden is ideal for them to cruise in search of insects.

Martins are aerial insectivores.  They consume the insects during flight.  Dragonflies are a favorite, as well as moths, butterflies, flies , beetles, wasps and other flying insects.  Contrary to common belief, martins do not eat a large number of mosquitoes.  They cruise too high during the daytime to come in contact with mosquitoes very often.


rtins are also almost entirely dependent on nesting boxes provided by humans.  The house and plastic gourds adjacent to the Teaching Garden are ideal for them to breed.
Purple martins are very sociable, as  opposed to most bird species, which are often territorial.


Purple martins migrate from South America.  Scouts arrive first, selecting breeding sites.  They usually return to their nesting site from the previous year.  Once male and female form a pair, they build a nest which consists of straw, twigs and mud, followed by a compression lined with fresh green leaves where the eggs are laid.  They usually lay 4 to 6 white eggs.  Incubation lasts 16 days, and all eggs usually hatch within 48 hours.

Martins are dimorphic, meaning the sexes have distinguishing markings.  Adult males have an all dark, black/blue/purple plumage.  Females are not as dark and have a speckled white underside.

Martin scouts arrive in our area around the middle of March and will start their journey back to South America, usually Brazil, the end of the summer.  They have a long trip ahead of them.  For example: Migration from Erie PA to Sao Paulo Brazil takes an average of 4 to 6 weeks and covers 5,000 miles one way.  Wow!

Happy 4th of July and Welcome to the Celebrate Red, White and Blue Garden!

Mary Cullings Wright is the bed leader of the Celebrate Red, White and Blue garden.  This bed is a celebration of patriotism through the use of red, white and blue plantings. The concept comes from the VCE initiative to celebrate Virginia’s 400th year anniversary in 2007.

Mary has been a master gardener since 2012, and the bed leader of this bed since 2014. You can find her at the TG most Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. Mary has no co-leader at this time but she gets plenty of help from Ruth, Leslie, Kathy, Jean and Nancy. You can find Mary working during the day in the Perennial House at Merrifields.

The RWB  bed continues to be under construction, and Mary is always challenged to find new plantings that will show all three colors at the same time. The July 4th holiday is a good example. Some of the plants Mary finds as the best performers is the Plumbago, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, that surrounds the Nippon Daisy,  Nipponanthemum nipponicum,  in the fall.  The fall is the one time she can truly count on Red (leaves of the Plumbago in the fall), White (the flowers on the Nippon Daisy), and Blue (the flowers on the Plumbago) to all be in bloom at the right time!

I asked Mary what she has changed over the years and she gave me the following. These are great ideas for anyone who would like to start their own:

“Almost everything in this bed could be considered changed. I removed any non-red,white or blue plantings and the Barberry shrubs (tick-haven). Added three shrubs Dappled Willow-white, Viburnum ​dentatum​ ‘Chistom’ – Blue Muffin, Viburnum ​dilatatum​ ‘Henneke’ Cardinal Candy and then edited out one, ‘Cardinal Candy’ to the Shrub bed (I over crowded).”

GROUND COVERS: Added ​Veronica x Tidal Pool​, Campanula ​poscharskyana​ ‘Blue Waterfall’ and Arenaria montana ​Sandwort ​to already present,​ ​Ceratostigma​ plumbaginoides​ Hardy Plumbago, and Myosotis ​scorpioides,​ Forget me Nots.

BLUES: Agastache ‘Black Adder’ x3 (blue), Salvia ​guaranitica​ ‘Black and Blue’, Clematis x
jouiniana ‘Praecox’ Sapphire Indigo, Goldwell Creeping Veronica, Salvia x sylestris, May Night.  The Viburnum shows dark blue berries in the fall, and this contrasts nicely with the white in the foliage of Dappled Willow.

WHITES: most have come from Nancy H: Salvia Snow Hill and Veronica alba, Buddleja lo & Behold ‘​ Ice Chip’,​ Dianthus​ Early Bird Frosty, White Obedient plant,

REDS: Salvia​ lyrata​, lyre-leaf sage (red leaf, white flower), Monarda ​didyma​ (red bloom),
Crocosmia ​Lucifer​, Lychnis​ chalcedonica​ Maltese Cross (survived two seasons but not last
year) Dianthus Hybrid ​Fire Star, ​Salvia ​Arctic Blaze, Cardinal plant, Peony ‘Carl Rosenfeld’

This year she added  Clematis x jouiniana ‘Praecox’,  Sapphire Indigo, a ground
cover,  which if all goes as planned we should expect the carpet of blue in three years, and she added the Cardinal plant.

The bed is “full sun” with poor/dependent drainage in the lower dominant
side of the bed. She has placed the Dappled Willow shrub, (Salix integra “Hakuro-nishiki”) which likes wet feet to encourage ​Right Plant – Right Place​. Additionally, the bed is front and center for the deer to venture towards on their walk up the field, so identifying plants that the deer are not as fond of has been important. Mary has found evidence of fawns sleeping in the bed.  If starting your own patriotic bed, remember that patience is the key and keep moving/adding plants as the season progresses. The foliage colors are also a key component. Airflow is crucial, so prune and plant to allow adequate ventilation.


Thomas vs. The 2 Ft Tall Groundhog (?): Cooks Garden 6/27/17

Just a quick summary of the day from Thomas:

Lots of things going on in the garden this week. We had a children’s group come by. We dug a few potatoes for them and a carrot or two in the course of their visit. Thanks to Charlene for leading the tours for the entire garden. Our Jalapeno has some small fruit. The peppers as a whole didn’t really do much this past week and still seem to be struggling to start growing.

Charlene planted 2 eggplant in RB1 for Jannell. In A, the tomatoes seem unaffected by the wilt that devastated the potatoes last week. The sweet potatoes in B/C seem to be doing well.

The potatoes don’t look great, but the few we dug were in decent shape so we didn’t dig out the whole lot. The tomatoes were trimmed and attached to the trellis. The Mountain Merit are growing much more aggressively than the San Marizanos.

Our temporary fix to the bunny holes in the deer fence around E,F G and H seemed to be holding but another creature with more reach got in since last week. It virtually stripped our volunteer tomatillo, clipped a nasturtium and randomly bit off parts of the cucumbers. Judging from the reach, it could have been a groundhog or a raccoon but no tracks were left to be sure. At least, whatever it was left our newly sprouted beans alone.


Also, Harriett worked hard with Joe deconstructing one of the compost bins that had started fermenting with brewers yeast.  Bob wasn’t here today, so Harriet dove right in!

Rock Gardening, A Brief History

Rock gardens, also called rockery or alpine gardens, can be traced back to early Chinese and Japanese culture. Alpine rock gardens are found in more recent history, and were common during the Victorian Age. The focus in early China and Japan gardens was on unusual rock formations and not plants. The Taoist and Buddhist love for nature inspired the use of  rock formations to invite into the garden mythological immortals, who lived in mythological mountains. The Chinese, especially,  have a tradition of mountain worship and rockery in gardens to recreate mountain scenes and these can be seen as early as the late Yin and early Zhou dynasties (1600 BC- 771 BC).

Interest in rockery dates back to the 16th century in Europe when explorers brought back exotic plants from the Americas and Africa.  During the Golden Age of Botany (early 1700’s -mid 1800’s) there was widespread interest in exotic plants and these became part of the Victorian rock garden. Inspired by mountain scenes, tundra plants were brought back from alpine regions. Travelers and English gardeners tried to recreate these scenes using rockery. In 1908, a very influential book on the Horticultural world , “The English Rock Garden” by Reginald Farrier, was published.


In North America, (beginning in New England) rock gardens became a popular frenzy in the late 1800’s until the 1930’s. Americans competed to make the most unique rock gardens and they were popular because they were low maintenance and required little water.  Another resurgence in interest took off in the 1960’s, and many of us can remember our parents building rock gardens.


Rock gardens are an excellent choice for steep hillsides and difficult growing conditions, such as poorly irrigated soil. They are low maintenance, and do well where water is a limiting factor. Rockery is an excellent  way to use those rocks and boulders found on many properties. They can be used to control erosion and water run off on slopes and are a good alternative in arid climates.

When beginning to design your rock garden, it is always nice to use locally sourced rocks and minerals to showcase Virginia’s geological diversity. Examples include black and gray limestone, gneiss containing biotite, quartz and feldspar, gabbro, sandstone ( you may find some with fossils!), marble, shale, siltstone, quartz, slate and calcite. Landscaping rocks and minerals can be found at stone centers, and if you have been collecting rocks on trips, rock gardens are an excellent place for them.


The Educational Rock and Mineral Garden, run by the Division of Geology and Mineral Resouces, in Charlottesville, VA has some excellent ideas for your rock garden.



When starting your rock garden, chose a location on your property which will show a seamless flow into the surrounding landscape  for a natural look. Position the largest rocks first, and partially bury 1/3 of the rock. Do not place them on top of the soil.  Tilt them backwards slightly to funnel water. You can also group rounded rocks in a flat area to imitate a boulder field left behind by glaciers.  It is important that the soil is fast draining. Creating a meandering path invites visitors into the garden.



When designing and planting your rock garden, look for plants that are small and do not grow taller than 2-3 feet (some say only 12 inches tall) . Fast growing ground covers are excellent choices to fill between the rocks.  Depending on the space, add small trees such as Japanese maple and dwarf conifers and shrubs to create a focal point, and shade for woodland plants. Conifers such as low growing juniper and mugo pine are excellent for adding texture and year round color.

Choose a combination of distinctive foliage such as ornamental grasses and colorful year long blooms.   Using natives somewhere in your planting are always a good idea, as they often are drought tolerant and attract pollinators. Fill in tight spaces between rocks with flowering plants such as saxifrage which is an easy to grow crevice dweller.  You may want to consider using the color wheel in your design.  Choosing complementary colors, across from one another on the wheel such as red and green, or orange and blue, are a good way to emphasize each plant. You can also plant annuals as border plants such as petunias, Dianthus, Alyssum and Vinca.

Rock gardening has always been easy for northern gardeners. They have plenty of rocks left over from retreating glaciers, and deeper soils. Rock gardens can be successful in southeastern areas, even with our heavy clay soils and high humidity.  Consider growing some of your plants in pots or troughs that can be moved around. Look for natives  adapted to our climate that have the right growth habit for your plan. As always, use the right plant, for the right place and check often for pests.