The History of Rock Gardening in North America

Background. The earliest rock gardens were built in China and Japan. In these gardens, however, the emphasis was on unusual rock forms rather than on plants. The public's growing interest in alpine areas and their plants was described by Frank Cabot in "As It Was in the Beginning - The Origin and Roots of Rock Gardening in North America," written for the 50th anniversary of the American Rock Garden Society (ARGS). Cabot traced this interest from the 16th century, referring to early publications such as Paxton's Magazine of Botany, Ruskin's writings in England, and Andrew Jackson Downing's books written in America. Alpines they had seen in the mountains inspired many travelers to try to grow these beautiful plants in their own gardens. Many attempts failed. The first book that suggested growing alpines as they grew in their mountain environment was Die Cultur der Alpenflanzen written in 1864 by Anton Kerner von Marilaun, an Austrian botanist, based on his ecological study of alpine plants in the wild. William Robinson's Alpine Flowers for the English Garden was published in England in 1870, and Henri Correvon's Les Plantes des Alpes was published in France in 1884.

Reginald Farrer. Probably the man whose books had the most influence on the horticultural world was Reginald Farrer who wrote about his rock gardens and his plant explorations with great enthusiasm. He despaired of the many poorly built rock gardens describing them as the almond-pudding, dog's-grave and devil's-lapful styles. His book My Rock Garden, published in 1908, was one of many books written in the early 1900s by knowledgeable gardeners on the proper construction and planting of rock gardens. In 1919, Farrer's two-volume The English Rock Garden appeared. And as Thomas Everett wrote, it "became the bible of rock gardeners everywhere. A master of English prose, the author stimulated thousands to attempt the cultivation of the plants he so beautifully, entrancingly, and sometimes extravagantly described."

Some Early Rock Gardens. In 1872 Correvon wrote about Ida Agassiz Higginson who was the first to successfully grow alpine rhododendrons, gentians, and edelweiss. Her Manchester garden, Sunset Hill, is one of six gardens described in Susan Schnare's article, "Some Massachusetts Rock Gardens" published in the New England Garden History Journal in 1991. In the early 1900s, her garden was described as the finest and largest alpine garden in America. The Smith College Botanical Garden's rock garden was completed in 1897. Edward J. Canning, who trained at Kew Gardens, was the first head gardener. Canning contributed to the article on rock gardens in L. H. Bailey's Cyclopedia of American Horticulture in 1904. In 1906 the rock garden was described in The Garden Magazine's article on "Alpine Flowers of Easiest Cultivation."

Other famous early rock gardens in Massachusetts included Holm Lea (Brookline), owned by Charles S. Sargent, first director of the Arnold Arboretum; Thomas Proctor's rock garden; (Topsfield), an enormous garden, which took years to build; and The Mount, Edith Wharton's garden in Lenox. The earliest of these Massachusetts rock gardens was Rockweld (Dedham) built by General Stephen M. Weld in the 1880s and described in detail by both Cabot and Schnare.

The interest in growing alpine plants was not confined to the East Coast; plant explorers in the Western mountains were also attempting to grow the plants in their gardens. Descriptions of these and other rock gardens and rock garden plants appeared in numerous publications in the early 1900s. One of the best known and influential authors was Louise Beebe Wilder of Bronxville, New York, whose many books about her plants and gardens were published starting in 1916. She had been gardening for many years. Inspired by the rock garden built by Clarence Lown of Poughkeepsie, New York, she turned to rock gardening. In the October 1927 issue of House & Garden magazine she wrote about his rock garden and plants: "the finest collection of rock plants in this country." Many of Wilder's articles were featured in this magazine, which during the 1920s devoted 200 of its pages to articles about gardening, and in particular rock gardening, which was becoming increasingly popular.

Another gardening enthusiast was Elizabeth Lawrence of Charlotte, North Carolina, who wrote numerous articles and published several books about plants and rock gardening. Frank Cabot describes four women from the West Coast, Lester Rowntree, Else Frye, Edith Banghart, and Anderson McCully who "extolled the beauty of the mountain flora of the Pacific Northwest'". Another monthly magazine, which carried rock gardening articles, was the Gardener's Chronicle of America. When the American Rock Garden Society (ARGS) was organized in 1934, this magazine was chosen to publish ARGS news and reports.

Plant Societies. Five years before ARGS began, a small group of enthusiastic rock gardeners led by Robert Senior, a Cincinnati businessman, formed the Rock Garden Society of Ohio. The most important requirement for joining was that the applicant's garden had to be approved of by the members. The society attracted members from all over the United States and Europe. The Alpine Garden Society was started in London later that same year, and The Scottish Rock Garden Club began in 1933.

Three formidable ladies, Dorothy Hansell, Martha Houghton and Florens DeBevoise, organized the American Rock Garden Society in 1934. Dorothy Hansell was the editor of Gardener's Chronicle of America; Martha Houghton and Florens DeBevoise were talented rock gardeners--their beautiful gardens were well known. The first president of the society was Montague Free, who in 1916 had built the rock garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), the first rock garden to be built in a public garden. Clarence Lown, whose rock garden had inspired Free, donated hundreds of plants to the new rock garden. At about the same time, Tom Everett, another one of the organizers of ARGS, was completing the rock garden at The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx. He had started at Kew and then moved to the United States where he built several gardens before going to NYBG to spend the rest of his career.

Canada. Seven enthusiastic growers of alpine plants started the first North American organization devoted to rock garden and alpine plants in 1921 in Victoria on Vancouver Island, Canada. They called themselves The British Columbia Alpine Plant Growers Society. They gradually added members and in 1935 briefly became the Western Canadian Provinces Region of the American Rock Garden Society. Nine months later the group broke away from ARGS and changed its name to the Vancouver Island Rock and Alpine Garden Society (VIRAGS). VIRAGS continued to grow and is still going strong today.

In the early 1900s, Cleveland Morgan, a distinguished citizen of Montreal, Canada, started building his outstanding rock garden, which he described in detail at the 1936 Rock Garden Plant Conference in England. "Rock Gardening in the Province of Quebec" also appeared in an early issue of the ARGS bullletin. Rock gardening was becoming increasingly popular not only in Victoria but also in Vancouver; in 1955 the Alpine Garden Club of British Columbia was organized. It now has approximately 500 members.

Publications. Articles were written in the Gardener's Chronicle of America not only on how to grow various alpine plants but also on how to construct a proper rock garden. Rock gardens built by Zenon Schrieber, Marcel Le Piniec and other talented designers for the flower shows in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia made an impact on gardeners. Louis Politi, head gardener at The New York Botanical Garden, wrote about rock garden construction in an early issue of the ARGS bulletin. Captain B. H. B. Symons-Jeune's book Natural Rock Gardening was published in England in 1932 but had an influence in North America also. His thesis was to lay the rocks according to Nature's rules. In Common Sense in the Rock Garden (1938), James Bissland wrote about the two types of rock gardens: the architectural or structural rock garden (pavement plantings and planted walls) and the naturalistic rock garden, developed to duplicate a piece of nature. The book contains excellent illustrations for this type of garden.

North American Rock Gardening Books. Although some people continued to grow alpine and rock garden plants during World War II and afterwards, interest grew tremendously in the 1960s when four books about rock gardening were published in the United States. The most popular, considered the American Bible of Rock Gardening, was written by Lincoln Foster and illustrated by his wife Timmy. Rock Gardening: A Guide to Growing Alpines and Other Wildflowers in the American Garden (1968) described 1900 plants in 400 genera. The book not only described how to build a classic rock garden but also discussed other ways to grow the plants. Doretta Klaber's Rock Garden Plants: New Ways to Use Them Around Your Home (1959); George Schenk's How to Plan, Establish and Maintain Rock Gardens (1964); and Walter A. Kolaga's All About Rock Gardens and Plants (1966) were the other three books that contributed to the renewed interest in the subject. Emphasis was mainly on the plants but construction of gardens to grow the plants was also discussed. George Schenk's book gave detailed instructions with illustrations on how to build a natural-looking rock garden. These books also described other ways to grow the plants, as did numerous articles in the ARGS bulletin and other gardening publications.

One of the earliest of these articles was written by Carleton Worth, editor of the ARGS bulletin between 1954 and 1962. He suggested growing difficult alpines in sand beds, a method later discussed by Norman Deno who had successfully grown many Western plants this way. In another article, Frank Cabot wrote about the benefits of using raised beds: "The Raised Bed, a Practical Solution." Rock walls, scree gardening, and growing plants on level ground were also discussed. Today raised beds, rock walls, plant boxes, sand and scree beds, and trough gardens are probably more popular with rock gardeners than the naturalistic rock garden of the past.

NARGS. In 1994, an amendment to the ARGS Constitution changed the name from the American Rock Garden Society to the North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS) in order to describe the society more accurately. Five of the 35 NARGS chapters are located in Canada.

The six purposes of the society listed in the 1974 Constitution remain the same:

The purpose of this Society shall be to encourage and promote:

  1. The cultivation, conservation, and knowledge of rock garden plants, their value, habits and geographical distribution;
  2. Interest in good design and construction of rock gardens;
  3. Meetings and exhibitions;
  4. Plant exploration and introduction of new species and forms;
  5. Study of history and literature on the subject;
  6. Acquaintance between members and groups with the resultant mutual exchange of experience and knowledge.

(For more information about NARGS and the benefits of membership, click here.)

Public rock gardens. Rock gardens like those at NYBG and BBG have been built in many botanic gardens in the US and Canada. Other well known public rock gardens include: The Rock Alpine Garden at the Denver Botanic Garden, Denver, CO; Betty Ford Alpine Garden, Vail, CO; Botanic Garden of Smith College, Northhampton, MA; Berry Botanical Garden, Portland, OR; The Alpine Garden at the Montreal Botanic Garden, Montreal, Quebec, Canada; and the E. H. Lohbrunner Alpine Garden at the University of British Columbia Botanic Garden, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

More public rock gardens are listed in Appendix B of the NYBG publication Rock Gardens (1997); some of those listed above and several other rock gardens will be described in Rock Garden Design and Construction, written by NARGS members and published by Timber Press in fall 2003.


  1. Rock Gardens and Rock Plants. Report of the Conference held by the Royal Horticultural Society and the Alpine Garden Society, London, England, May 1936.
  2. Bulletin of the American Rock Garden Society, Vol.42; No.5, the 50th Anniversary Issue: "As It Was in the Beginning - The Origin and Roots of Rock Gardening in North America" by Frank Cabot, 1984.
  3. Sentimental Journey, report of the Ninth West Coast Study Weekend celebrating the 50th anniversary of ARGS and the Northwestern Chapter, 1984.
  4. Davidsonia, published by The Botanical Garden of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Special issue: Dedication of the E. H. Lohbrunner Alpine Garden, 1978.
  5. Journal of the New England Garden History Society, Vol.1, and Fall 1991: "Some Massachusetts Gardens" by Susan Schnare.
  6. A History of the American Rock Garden Society 1934-1995 by Marnie Flook, Archivist. Published by the North American Rock Garden Society, 1997.
  7. Rock and Alpine Gardens by Thomas H. Everett and Members of the American Rock Garden Society. Published by the Hudson Valley Chapter, ARGS, 1992.
  8. For a complete history of rock gardening, mainly in the UK and Europe: The Rock Garden and its Plants by Graham Stuart Thomas, 1989.

Compiled by Marnie Flook, NARGS Archivist, ca. 2003