Casual Gardener: Crevice gardening – niche but nice

A new book reveals the history and intricacies of crevice gardening...

LIVING on the coast means many hours are spent on the shoreline, along the beach, among the weathered pebbles, and on the rocks, many upended so their sedimentary layers now stand vertical. The flora on the very edge isn't something you notice immediately. It's often low growing and wedged between outcrops, making the best of what little shelter there is, roots reaching deep in search of nutrients, providing anchorage in the process. It's such places and plants that fire the imaginations of Kenton Seth and Paul Spriggs.

The pair of North Americans have bonded over their passion for alpines and what's known as 'crevice gardening', an approach that seeks to replicate the Earth's more inhospitable environs in the pursuit of horticultural endeavour. They create a home for plants that normally thrive in places where humans rarely venture, mimicking micro-climates and extreme conditions – "from alpine ridges to windswept sea coasts and sun-baked deserts".

As detailed in their newly-published book The Crevice Garden, this form of gardening dates back at least to the 1800s, with one of the earliest references appearing in Irish-born garden designer and author William Robinson's Alpine Flowers of English Gardens. However, we learn that the idea of a garden devoted entirely to growing plants in crevices is a relatively new idea, popularised by Czech rock gardeners from the 1970s onwards. Its proponents developed their techniques using plants that grew locally and in neighbouring Slovakia's Carpathian Mountains. It developed as a 'needs must' approach to gardening in the latter years of the Soviet era, a thousand miles away from the commercial extravagance we witness annually at Chelsea. Latterly, as their reputation grew, the likes of botanist, landscaper and garden writer Josef Halda – "widely recognised as the father of the crevice garden" – collected farther afield in the "Caucasus of Georgia and 'the stans'".

The results are subtle. It's like a rockery but on closer examination it's not. Some may even struggle to see a garden, thinking it looks like an abandoned quarry on the edge of the Mournes, only without the rusting cars and farm machinery. It does – and that's the point. There is strong colour, such as aubretia's mauve rivers, but textures are what matters most, ranging in size from tiny, moss-like succulents to dwarf conifers, always planted in a naturalised way.

The movement expanded across the Atlantic, with Halda spending the greater part of 15 years in the USA, building rock gardens and developing his crevice concept: "His creations featured bold construction with boulders placed high, often tilted to a sharp angle of 45 degrees."

Others took the idea further, using a vertical or nearly vertical stone arrangements, the "signature feature the public would come to recognise as a crevice garden". Alongside the history, The Crevice Garden explains the science of why vertical crevices create the optimum growing conditions, why there's so much diversity and endemism (species restricted to one place) among saxatile plants (those living or growing on or among rocks) and why we're turned on by these almost natural creations.

Elsewhere, Seth and Spriggs share their hard-earned expertise on the design, construction, and planting of their wonderful rock-and-plant installations. They use real-life examples in a variety of climates, demonstrating crevices suitable for containers, gardens and public parks in a wide range of styles. We learn how crevices address urgent environmental concerns, beyond conservation of rare plants, by re-using waste materials such as concrete, creating wildlife habitats and making permeable, plant-friendly alternatives to solid retaining walls.

The Crevice Garden by Kenton J Seth and Paul Spriggs is published by Filbert Press on April 21.

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