What Is NARGS?

Ever since I joined NARGS in 1996, I have observed that many members (and even more non-members) have an extremely narrow, and therefore fundamentally mistaken, concept of what the organization represents.  A lot of people think of NARGS as an “alpine plant” society. Others believe that if something grows more than a foot tall, it’s “not a NARGS plant.”  I have heard that chapters in the South and the Midwest are convinced that their members cannot grow “rock garden” plants, so they increasingly view themselves as garden clubs focused on hardy “perennials.” Of course, this leads to fewer and fewer chapter members joining NARGS or, having joined in the past, keeping their memberships active.

So, what’s the truth about NARGS and rock gardening?

Our Web site describes NARGS as an organization “for gardening enthusiasts interested in alpine, saxatile, and low-growing perennials. It encourages the study and cultivation of wildflowers that grow well among rocks, whether such plants originate above tree line or at lower elevations.” I looked up “saxatile” and found that it means “growing on or living among rocks.” We all know what alpine means, and no one can misunderstand “low-growing.”  Thus, we are an organization of people interested in perennial plants that grow well among rocks and that are relatively short.  That sounds pretty inclusive to me, and it certainly doesn’t in any way imply that the plants must be alpine, or tiny, or even particularly rare. It certainly does include plants that are native to every region of the world.  For example, I grow townsendias native to Kansas, campanulas native to Turkey, epimediums native to China, a Calceolaria native to South America, and alpine plants from the Alps, the Rockies, the Caucasus, and the Adirondacks among others. I have lime lovers, ericaceous plants, and plants that ask only for some sun, some water, and a bit of soil.  I also grow all over my property tall plants, such as Echinacea and asters and bushy plants like Buddleja.  So what am I?  Well, my major interest is growing plants that like to live among rocks, which makes me a rock gardener as far as I’m concerned.

Why are so many people convinced that drabas are real rock garden plants and that epimediums are not?  Or that salvias and hellebores are forbidden because they are not included in some mythical list of approved “rock garden plants”? Far too many of us seem to think that, because the British named their organization the Alpine Garden Society, this limitation somehow applies to us.  It does not. We are the North American Rock Garden Society, and our approach to what we love and what we grow is inclusive, not exclusive. We understand with absolute clarity that many gardeners cannot grow Astragalus utahensis, but that almost all of us can grow Gentiana acaulis, or Penstemon ovatus, or Sedum kamtschaticum. And those, among literally thousands of rock garden plants, can be grown in all climates, at almost all altitudes, and on virtually every continent.

Furthermore, for most of its history, NARGS has published a journal that has focused on plants that far too many of us may have considered inappropriate for rock gardens. Before sitting down to write this, I pulled out two old issues of the NARGS publication at random, just to see what they contained. The spring 1991 issue was dedicated to primulas, and the lead article is entitled “Primulas for the Southeast,” by Nancy Goodwin. Nancy is from Hillsborough, North Carolina, a part of the United States not commonly associated with rock gardening. The second issue I selected was the fall 1985 issue, which featured an article called “Native Plants of Vermont.”  Anyone who is not familiar with the botanical wealth of New England, and who subscribes to the narrow view of what a “rock garden plant” is, will be surprised to learn that the article focused on what we call “woodland” plants, including Claytonia caroliniana, Erythronium americanum, Trillium erectum, Asarum canadense, and Asplenium ruta-muraria. Are these rock garden plants?  Some would say they are not, but I vigorously disagree, and – more to the point – so does the NARGS journal. 

So please, let’s keep NARGS as inclusive as possible.  To be sure, we are not simply a garden club (we are not interested in growing vegetables, annuals, roses, etc.); but neither are we an elite group of the wealthy and powerful who want to keep their organization small and exclusive.  We are a large, geographically diverse body of people who simply love gardening with rocks. Let’s focus on that, and work a bit harder to find commonality in purpose; by doing so, we will strengthen our organization and enhance its ability to provide valuable services to rock gardeners.

Peter George

Contact me for comments and questions.
[Peter George, past NARGS president, lives and gardens in Massachusetts.]