Sunday, April 15, 2018

El Greco, Crevice Gardening and cross-pollination...a rock garden revolution

Yampa River Botanic Park in Steamboat, Colorado
If you haven't been living under a rock (so to speak) you've probably heard about the Crevice Gardening craze that's swept the rock garden world. It's one of those things that are hard to ignore once you've seen one: you either hate or love them at first. Perhaps with time, you can gain another perspective... Some are repelled by the fantastic up-tilted strata. Others wonder what the fuss is all about.

Linda Meyer rock garden
 This was one of the first private crevice gardens built by Kenton Seth--one of the remarkable group of Colorado rock gardeners including Mike Kintgen (Curator of Alpines at Denver Botanic Gardens--who has trained a whole new generation of crevice gardeners including Adam Burch, Michael Guidi and Gayle Lehman). There are enough of these around Denver that I've actually driven by neighborhoods and seen superb examples in front yards I'd never heard about. It's a whole new orogeny going on out here!


Linda's wonderful garden in winter exemplifies the qualities of classic crevice gardens: dramatic in extremis, intricate and very much up-tilted. Living as she does in a town home, this garden provides a remarkable opportunity to grow hundreds of plants in a limited area. It has filled in wonderfully (I shall add a picture of this at the height of spring this year (this picture is four years old)--you will be shocked at the contrast!)


The other day as I was mulling over crevice gardening, the image of rock work I've noticed over the years in Byzantine iconography rose up (so to speak) in my mind: a mental orogeny! There's not a lot of crossover between rock gardening and Byzantine art: two of my greatest personal loves. When I realized that mountains and rock outcrops had a certain stylized resemblance to crevice gardens, it got me thinking...


Just as crevice gardens turn timid folks off, so does Byzantine art: it's so extreme--so two dimensional, so different. As you acquaint yourselves with both art forms, however, you will perhaps notice that there are greater depths than you first suspect.  The Seussian forms of Byzantine mountains don't have obvious correlatives with which to be compared to in "natural" landscapes--unless you take things like Meteora in Thessaly into consideration, or perhaps the hoodoos of the American Southwest. In the case of the surrealistic landscapes of Canyonlands, the Byzantine mountains are almost literal portraits!


 The REAL reason for these stylized landscapes of sedimentary rocks tilted towards the Heavens is to suggest the extreme ruggedness of Nature herself--the non-human world of rock and gnarly plants, like the stylized bonsai palm trees above! Perhaps what we have here is an inkling of what would one day become abstract expressionism perhaps?



Of course, Byzantine art is highly structured, and seemingly repetitive. It would be interesting to know who the first iconographer who painted these stylized, sedimentary formations was and where he (undoubtedly a man) grew up. Perhaps some sandstone region in Syria or Anatolia? These outcrops don't really like the much more rugged and asymmetrical dolomitic limestone that fills so much or the Mediterranean basin. But they do maintain the symmetry of planes that Symons-Jeune describes in Natural Rock Gardening, first published in 1932 (that's almost 90 years ago!). This is considered to be a precursor to crevice gardening in its geological descriptions.

Once the formula in Byzantine art was invented, it was endlessly copied. Much of the pleasure of appreciating art is to watch how these formulas evolve over time. There nevertheless seems to be an awareness of rock layers and sediments that underlie the principle of the paintings that is maintained over the centuries.  One wonders any painters knew that such extreme tilting reflects enormous Geologic forces that has moves these strata to a near vertical position--a sort of God-like force to the Medieval mind....this is a stretch I admit. Look at the curly waves and the incredible stylized flower symbol mid-painting: we are removed from realism in Byzantine art: it is about spiritual truth rather than slavish imitation of natural rock formations. And yet the strata continue their Symons-Jeune symmetry through the aeons.

Crevice gardening likewise tilts strata vertically--in order to grow alpine plants better! These too are not slavish imitations of natural rock formations by any means!

Icon of the Dormition by youthful El Greco

Domenico Theotokopoulos (better known as "El Greco") was of course a conventional Byzantine oconographer in his youth: there are several of his youthful icons in the Byzantine Museum in Athens. This painting of the Dormition shows strong Italian influence although very much in the Byzantine mode. The Crete where El Greco was born and grew up was a province of Venice (Crete wasn't conquered by the Ottomans until 1646--36 years after El Greco died. El Greco arrived at religious art a hundred years after the fall of Constantinople. He was not longer bound by the strict modes of the imperial art--but personifies the transition from Byzantine to Western Europe quite literally in his career. And El Greco achieved a powerful synthesis of the two worlds in the process.


Where we see the Byzantine (and crevice gardening) expressionism appear most dramatically in the landscape painting. I love the emphatic clouds and the famous portrait of Toledo: so motional, emotional and demonstrative, These clouds are to skies what Byzantine mountains are to landforms: explosive outbursts of power. YOu would have to go to the Impressionists to find grasses as svelte as those at the bottom of the picture: Monet! Eat your heart out!


The verticality of the towers and buildings in the city depicted here (and before) carry that attenuated suggestion of spirituality that is a feature of El Greco's human portraits (not to mention most Byzantine portraiture, and those skinny sedimentary mountains!). I have always been amused at the suggestion that this attenuation was due to astigmatism, or some other ocular problem! I suppose we have to assume Goya's squat Spaniards are due to the opposite eye problem? The scene of Toledo above almost resembles a painting by Paul Klee--talk about anticipation!


I searched high and low through El Greco's oevre, hoping to find one of those stylized hoodoos so common in Byzantine paintings--the closest I came was in this cameo in the corner of one of his lavish and complex canvases "the Adoration of the Magi"...


The little shelf the angel is perched in is as close as we get!

El Greco's synthesis of the Byzantine stylized tradition and the more naturalistic Italian school produced something utterly unique and different. Likewise Crevice gardening represents a sort of synthesis between traditional rock gardens, and more austere geology. They demonstrate a greater awareness of the cultural needs of rock plants--using the sort of narrow crevices that occur in geologic strata as a model. A sort of formula for success with such gardens is evolving, and these gardens have come to have a sort of family resemblance, rather like the fantastic rock-outcrops depicted on Byzantine iconography over nearly two millenia.

In any case, crevice gardens are hot. They have turned out to be the very best vehicles for growing the most challenging alpines--they provide the perfect drainage, microclimates and various exposures that make growing many challenging androsaces, gentians, primulas and the other denizens of high mountains to thrive. They eliminate competition, they provide a jewel like setting for plants and they WORK. They're magical. Kenton Seth has devised techniques using pure sand that make the cultivation of dryland plants possible that we wouldn't otherwise be able to grow. It is obvious to me that the new Crevice Gardening movement is bringing about a Renaissance of rock gardening, much as El Greco brought the ancient traditions of Byzantine Art to the West and fused them so astonishingly with Renaissance painting. And adumbrating both abstract expressionism and impressionism while he was at it. Can you tell I'm a fan?


This is the cover of the latest issue of the Rock Garden Quarterly, bulletin of the North American Rock Garden Society. This issue contains articles by Kenton Seth, a large piece by Paul Briggs (with whom Kenton is writing a book on Crevice Gardening) about the great Czech crevice gardens, and many other extremely readable and interesting pieces. If you're a member of NARGS you can access this on-line at Current Quarterly (once you've signed in that is). If you're NOT a member, I invite you to join! Click here. NARGS is a experiencing its very own Renaissance with Joseph Tychonievich as editor: time to come aboard!

Friday, April 13, 2018

High (and low) spring at Quince St. garden


Fritillaria imperialis
Crown imperials are impressive, but even more sow crowned with snow! It snowed again last night--we seem to get a snow every week--which has helped with moisture and not seemed to affect plants badly (although people get grumpy)

Tulipa fosteriana and Fritillaria imperialis behind
Here's the same view as the last from the opposite side of the bed--looks slightly different from this angle!

Fritillaria stenanthera
This bloomed for the first time for me this year--a plant I've wanted to grow a long time. Thanks, Odyssey bulbs!

Narcissus lobularis
The Tenby daffodil (the one Wordsworth rhapsodied so famously). Compare it with the backlight below--so different!

Narcissus lobularis

Colchicum hungaricus
 Second year for this: waiting for it to clump up!
Colchicum soboliferum
John Baumfalk, an amazingly talented gardener in Newtown Kansas gave me dozens of bulbs of this last year I poked all over the rock garden. Many of them bloomed: it looks to be a keeper! Very tiny. Growing in Asperula daphneola.

Iris aucheri
A classic. I dote on the junos.

Coluteocarpa vesicarius
A striking crucifer from Turkey which is beautiful in seed as well! I believe this is a monotypic genus.
Narcissus watieri
Everyone's favorite daffodil in my garden. Mike Kintgen has one in his buffalograss lawn that has clumped up enormously...that's the way to grow this I think.

Corydalis malkensis and Anemone blanda
  Probably my most spectacular mass planting (just a part of it).

Closer view of same


Iris bucharica 'alba'
My main stand of this won't bloom for another few weeks on the rock garden. Microclimate is magnified in our steppe.

Fritillaria caucasica
Possibly my favorite Fritillary. Probably because it is so early, so robust and hardy. And possibly because it likes me.


Tulipa praestans
There is no such thing as too many tulips!
Corydalis solida 'George Baker' types and Anemone blanda
I never cease to be amazed by the difference between oblique light and backlighting: another comparison to the one above and below...

Same as above, only in oblique light


Draba aurea type
 Mike Kintgen gave me this from wild collected seed in the Rockies. The jury is out on the name (and whether it stays around!).

Erythronium 'Pagoda' and Veratrum nigrum foliage
Common as all get out, but one can never have enough. Love it with the Veratrum.
Erythronium 'Pagoda'
All bulbs are best in drifts! I saw a half acre of these at Wisley last year--about right.

Erythronium umbilicatum
Some gifts from the talented Tim Alderton in North Carolina. Plants are treasured for their associations as much as for their beauty.

Corydalis glaucescens
A very different Corydalis that comes later than most and seems to have spreading rhizomes.

Hacquetia epipactis
I divided my big clump so radically (filled a flat or so in the process): glad my little piece persists!
Anemone ranunculoides
 Seems a bit more drought tolerant than A. nemorosa. Just what my garden needs: more yellow!

Caltha palustris 'Flore Pleno'
 Yes, there are some wet spots in my garden.
Ornithogalum oreophilum
 You know you're a collector when you suddenly find four different Stars of Bethlehem blooming in early spring...

Ornithogalum sintenisii


 Grown for many years, I  have lost my data and forgot to enter it into the database...I think it came as 'nanum'


Another miniature star of Bethelem I've grown for years...possibly also O. sintenisii?

Draba hispanica

 A few plants get out of hand--I've had to weed out quite a bit of this draba over the years--it loves my garden a tad too much!


But it is fetching in the snow...

Narcissus requinii
Quite a few daffodils in this group have proved to like our Colorado climate--this species is perfect for the rock garden: alas, rare as hen's teeth in the trade.

Fritillaria meleagris and Narcissus 'Jacksnipe' behind
 They may be common, but I for one love many common plants...
Primula elatior
 The oxlip is possibly our toughest primrose, even growing in sun with a little occasional moisture.
Alkanna orientalis
 I've weeded this out of most of the garden, but can't resist a few here and there...now to get the OTHER Alkannas to seed around like this!
Fritillaria michaelovskyi
 Probably my favorite frit. But I say that about all of them...
Paeonia tenuifolia
Can't resist this in bud. I may even like these more than the flowers!

Arum italicum 'Marmoratum'
 Horrendous weeds in Britain, this is a restrained and welcome guest in my garden...
Arum maculatum 'Broadhust'
I have a story about this plant. I yearned for Lord's and Ladies for years before finding this in an Englishman's garden in April 1981: he'd shown me hundreds (maybe thousands) of treasures in his alpine houses and endless rock gardens. So many my head was spinning: they he invited me to have cuttings or divisions of anything (knowing I was overwhelmed perhaps?)...I'd noticed no end of these in his hedgerow: you should have seen his crestfallen face when this is all I asked for. "Take them all" he said... I made a bee-line to the most spotted plant in the back forty. When I dug up the whole thing and began to put it in the bag he said wistfully "leave a bit!"...Jim Broadhurst was his name...

Tulipa greigii
 Before...
Same shot, taken this morning.
And the next day...
Phaeleonopsis rebloom
Finally got a phaeleonopsis to rebloom, and it's gone alpine on me! That's it folks! At least until the snow melts...

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