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Rockeries Became Popular in the 19th Century to Showcase New Plants

The rock garden has a long tradition in American gardening, dating to the nineteenth century.

The name for this type of garden might have been rock work, rockery, and, of course, rock garden, but they all meant the same thing. Allison Kyle Leopold in her book The Victorian Garden defines a rock garden in this way, “Partially surrounded by trees or shrubs, rockeries were collections of large stones of a single type, piled up in as natural a manner as possible, over which plants and vines were trained to grow.”

She claims that  the rockery was an immensely important part of the Victorian garden scene during the 19th century. It was, she says, ” The firm belief that no garden, large or small, no suburban plot, no backyard however dark or miserable looking, could not be improved by the introduction of a rockery.”

In visiting gardens over the years I must say that I have seen many examples of a rock garden.

What makes people want a rock garden, besides because it is the latest fashion?

Therese O’Malley writes in her book Keywords in American Landscape Design, “The primary stimulus for the development of rock work was the interest in and availability of specialized plants and shrubs that required special soil and climatic conditions.”  Alpine plants became popular both in England and America during the Victorian period and a rock garden provided an ideal setting for them.

Nineteenth century gardeners wanted to show off their new plants.

Rochester, NY seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1879, “The English people, I noticed, have a great predilection for rockeries and garden houses, and considerable taste and ingenuity is sometimes displayed in their adornment.”

Perhaps he meant the English taught us to make a rock garden. Vick included this engraving in the same issue of his magazine. [below]

Vick't Illustrated Monthly, 1879
A rockery in Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1879

Maybe your property just has a lot of rocks in it and somehow you need to use that area for gardening. Vick in his magazine from 1881 said, in your case,  “Nature has made the rockery.”

My property includes a great deal of ledge, so I have a rock garden whether I want one or not. You might say that nature made it for me. Here is the ledge on the side of my driveway with plantings that I have installed over the years including hostas, a Japanese maple, a trailing sedum, and daylilies. [below]

Ledge in my garden has provided a setting for a rock garden, which here includes hostas and a Japanese maple.
Ledge in my garden has provided a setting for a rock garden, which here includes hostas and a Japanese maple.

The rock garden became popular in Victorian England and played an important role in American gardens as well.

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