Gardens of the Arboretum Series: The Alpine (Rock) Garden

By Paul Kammerdiner

Perhaps one of our most underexplored gardens, but one virtually everyone walks by on a visit, is the Alpine Garden. This long narrow space runs in front of the Education Center and stretches from the service road in the west up to the Ornamental Grass Garden toward the east. It also includes the space right after the annual garden bed on either side of the memorial brick walkway into the Education Center.

This garden is described in the original master plan as a “Sand Blow”; this is what that plan says about it:

“Many people are not aware that yuccas and prickly pear are native to Iowa! This area of naturally occurring sandy soils offers an opportunity to display these plants and others such that prefer excellent drainage and do not tolerate wet conditions. The concepts of Xeriscape* gardening, water conservation can also be presented in an educational format in this garden display.”

According to the Wikipedia definition; Xeriscape is landscaping and gardening that reduces or eliminates the need for supplemental water from irrigation. “Xeriscaping.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

For several years as the gardens began to take shape, this spot remained untouched. Then in 2002 when the Education Center and the Children’s Garden were built, this “trench” of sandy soil became defined by the fences on both sides of it, and the section of ground just before you get to the Education Center.

According to our records; “In 2003 the “Fern Gully” was constructed with ferns, pieces of wood and small dogwood trees. Initial funding for the project came from a memorial gift in honor of Maurine Crisp’s mother. Arches with shade cloth were installed to shade the garden.”

I couldn’t find a photo that showed the arches in place but I am told that the shade cloth deteriorated and had to be removed; the following picture is what the Fern Gully looked like.

For the next several years, various types of plantings were tried with varying degrees of success. Finally, a group of enthusiastic volunteers from the P&O committee decided it was time this space was re-born. The name was changed to the Alpine Garden and in 2009 the existing plant material was replaced with succulents, groundcovers and rock garden perennials as a better fit for the poor soil and hot sun. The group also decided to “spruce” up the gully portion of the garden with the addition of stepping stones, hill side plantings, and fence plantings in the form of hanging baskets and box gardens. The garden that is located in front of the Education Center was also completely re-done with careful consideration to practicality and beauty. This next series of photos show some of the work done to re-create this space.

One of the lessons to be learned from this garden is that the right selection of succulents and ground cover can have a spectacular effect in your garden. The next time you visit us, pause before you go into the Education Center and take a look at the plants on either side. Be adventurous and turn left and walk down the stepping stones and view the surprises along the fences. You won’t be sorry!