Rock on! Tiny flowers have big impact in National Aviary rock garden
The tulips in the rock garden in front of the National Aviary on Pittsburgh's North Side are putting on a spectacular show in consort with other colorful, unique alpine plants. An employee walks by with camera in hand explaining she'll be back later to get some pictures.
The garden is a favorite of locals and is cared for by members of the Allegheny Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society. Sandra Ciccone and Lyn Lang have come to water, pull weeds, deadhead flowers and do some other chores, too.
"Members come here twice a month and maintain the plants and learn all about them," Lang says.
"This group is the nicest, kindest, most generous group of people I've ever worked with," Ciccone adds.
It's a team effort that makes the garden a showplace as visitors going to and from the aviary stop to admire the diverse blooming plants. The aviary has been a big proponent of the garden, providing water and other support through the years.
Ciccone is relatively new to the group, joining in 2012 as a way to educate herself on a new way of gardening.
"I had retired and been a gardener my entire life. I wanted to challenge myself to learn something different," she says. "I knew nothing about alpine rock gardening and so that's why I ended up doing this.
One side of the garden is filled with a plethora of alpine plants and the other with native varieties. Anemone, hellebores, primrose, tiny hostas and pretty yellow epimediums are in the native garden.
"There are plants from all over the world," Lang says of the other garden. "Some might be endangered. We can carry that forward by growing these plants."
The group recently celebrated 50 years of its Rock Garden Plant Show and Sale last week. In the garden, miniature iris 'Hot Coals' is in full bloom and makes a perfect plant for the front of the border. The flowers combine apricot, orange and black, which draws visitors to the tiny blooms like bees to pollen.
One tip to make these plants thrive is that most need good drainage, as they don't like wet feet. Both Lang and Ciccone have fallen under the spell of these diminutive plants.
"It's a very enjoyable gardening activity, Lang says. "Many of them are very easy to grow; some of them are very challenging to grow."
Ciccone then adds with a laugh, "I've killed more plants than I want to talk about."
It's part of a learning curve, she says, and Lang agrees.
"The best way to learn about the plants and how to care for them is to do it," Lang says with a little smile.
The main characteristic of a rock garden or alpine plant is that it's small, with tight foliage but big flowers. That plays out in the garden on this morning as perennial white candytuft sets off pretty yellow 'Batalinii' tulips. Red 'Little Lanterns' columbine self-sow everywhere in the garden. There's even a tiny plant blooming in a small crevice of a rock.
Lang always hopes to attract some new, younger members. It's a great way to grow for people who might not have a lot of room to garden.
"One of the benefits is that they don't have to be big," Lang says. "You can even have a rock garden in a container, a trough, if you just have a balcony."
She thinks the success of the award-winning book, "Rock Gardening: Reimagining a Classic Style" by Joseph Tychonievich, bodes well for the future of rock gardening.
"I think there could be a growing interest in it," she says.
Ciccone painstakingly weeds around a type of columbine, Aquilegia flabellata, which is covered in luminescent light purple flowers. She talks about the upcoming show and how much fun it is for members and visitors alike.
"That's what gardening is about," she says with a smile. "It's sharing (plants); it's learning about them, and it's just perpetuating. I mean how can you not love a plant, they are all so beautiful."
The storied history of the group is not lost on either as Ciccone takes a breather and sits on a stone bench overlooking the garden. She thinks about 50 years of gardeners who have a passion for rock gardening.
"The plants that I treasure more than others are ones that members have given me," she says. "When I see them, you remember people; that's huge for me."