Review of Kenton Seth and Paul Spriggs,The Crevice Garden: How to make the perfect home for plants from rocky places. Filbert Press, 2022.
Although I’ve gardened for well over thirty years, I’d never encountered a crevice garden until I went on the Victoria Conservatory of Music’s gardening tour this past summer. One of the standout gardens for me belonged to Paul Spriggs, the author, along with Kenton Seth, of Filbert Press’s recently published The Crevice Garden. His crevice garden was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It certainly bore no relationship to any rock gardens I’d previously encountered - primarily piles of rocks and soil with whatever happened to be in the alpine section of the garden centre unceremoniously plonked in to punch it out with the weeds. This crevice garden was quite different: while appearing to be a natural rocky outcrop covered in exquisite miniature plants, it was in fact a beautifully designed work of art.
As Zdeněk Zvolánek - the authors' mentor - notes in the Foreword to this book, crevice gardening is unlike most traditional approaches to gardening in that it has ‘rules for placing stones, imitating layers of sedimentary rock, and this brings a feeling of natural order, balance, and harmony’. It’s an approach to gardening completely unlike my own, which tends more towards chaos, but an approach that has a huge appeal and clearly brings great satisfaction.
A crevice garden, the authors explain, appears as a natural rocky outcrop; indeed, the best compliment a crevice gardener can receive is if the viewer assumes an outcrop is natural and not built. To create this impression at least half of the surface consists of buried rocks, with crevices in between to mimic the conditions required by plants otherwise difficult to grow. And these planting areas offer diverse micro-climates, from cool and shady to warm and sun-baked. There are no dreary seas of mulch or soil to look at here (my own particular bête noire when it comes to gardens), only rocks and plants.
The opening two sections of the book provide the background: first, information about rocky habitats and the different environments in which they appear; and, second, the history of crevice gardens from rock gardening in the late 1800s, through the popularisation of the crevice garden by Czech gardeners in the mid-1980s to the global spread of interest in the present day. This is followed by a section explaining how a crevice garden works, how it ‘pushes the edge of what is a plantable space’ – and in the process providing information about soil and aspect, including that perennial puzzler, ‘moist but well-drained’. Central to the success of a crevice garden is the way it channels and conserves water, and it is this which allows it to grow plants far more effectively than other rock gardens.
From here, the authors move on to ‘Planning a crevice garden’, and in this section, there are some photos of miniature crevice gardens in small containers and in troughs that may spark interest in those of us who feel we don't have the right environment for a full-scale crevice garden. Go Small – I really do fancy trying this.
Chris Dixon's tiny crevice planters. Photo credit: Paul Spriggs ⓒ
One of the wonderful things about this book is the playfulness it demonstrates in its approach. Yes, there are rules to be followed. Variety and unity must always be in balance, for example, and in terms of form, for the sake of naturalism the garden should 'embrace asymmetry because it looks more alive, like a person in contrapposto with their weight on one foot and a tilt to hips and shoulders'.
On the other hand, the authors demonstrate the pure fun to be had in crevice gardening, and the photos demonstrate the wide range of ways in which it has been interpreted. There are even examples of crevice gardens that are not intended to emulate nature: one made of concrete cut into modernist cubes in Colorado, and another using styrofoam blocks on a roof to create a lightweight crevice environment in Sweden.
There’s lots of advice here about choosing and orienting your stone, what to do about edges and paths and irrigation, and other practical matters. There are recipes for appropriate soils and, in ‘Building a crevice garden in 8 steps’, there's everything you need to know to build your garden, from calculating the amount of rock you need to setting the stone, filling the crevices and planting. I'm sure even absolute beginners would be able to create a crevice garden if they followed this clear and detailed advice. ‘Living with a crevice garden’ moves on to deal with various other practical matters, including tools, irrigation, dealing with weeds, pests, diseases, and propagation. This is all immensely helpful - I actually picked up a number of tips in this section that I will be applying to my gardening more generally - and accompanied not just by photographs but by beautiful drawings from Kenton Seth that reveal the underground workings of the crevice garden.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is the series of ‘Case Studies: Lessons from the Best’, exemplifying different approaches and ways of dealing with various problems. Once more, this encourages an experimental and playful response to the crevice garden and includes both traditional and more cutting-edge approaches. Hard to pick favourites, since they are quite diverse, but I did admire the very traditional approach of Zdeněk Zvolánek’s Beauty Slope, just outside of Prague, where he has truly created a site of beauty from the most difficult of circumstances. And I loved Paul Cumbleton’s Somerset garden, which not only shows just how colourful a crevice garden can be, but is also a lot curvier than most and appears to almost sparkle with all the plants set like jewels against striking local white limestone.
Finally, there are plant profiles, listing suitable plants for different habitats and levels of experience and full of photographs that will have you reaching for the seed catalogues and joining rock garden societies to access the seed exchanges.
This is clearly the definitive book on crevice gardening. It’s not just packed with information on the historical, theoretical and practical sides of crevice gardening, it’s also a beautiful book in itself, impressive in terms of presentation, and a pleasure to read. The authors have a way with words as well as a way with rocks and plants.
And there are some quite lovely photographs (spot the snake in the Erigeron). Just the gorgeousness of some of the plants will have you hooked. If a small crevice garden will let me grow Lewisiopsis tweedyi, then I need one, and will happily provide it with a diet of David Sellars' soil mix, The Sellars: On the Rocks.
Reading The Crevice Garden reminded me of my pleasure, when I lived in Menorca, in seeing the caper plants high up in cracks in the grey and forbidding harbour walls suddenly appear and burst into bloom each spring. What comes out of this idea of the crevice garden is the strange life-affirming beauty produced by setting the living pliable plants against the cold hard rock, the compelling sight, as the authors observe, of ‘delicate organic life … set against its hard mineral home – perhaps an aesthetic metaphor for life on Earth.’