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Cliff Notes

Undaunted by a rocky outcropping behind her house, a Dutchess County horticulturalist creates a glorious alpine garden.

Photographs by Holley Meister

Ledges are lush in spring with pink and lavender Phlox douglassii that have hybridized themselves. Unusual plants include yellow Viola, aetolica from the Balkans, and sky blue Iris pumila from Asia Minor.

When Ann Spiegel came from Northern California to Dutchess County in 1965, she moved onto a quiet road in LaGrange — and into a house nestled at the foot of a rocky cliff. Sloping upward about 25 feet, the broad expanse of rock ledge is a dramatic sight. “I thought it was beautiful,” Spiegel says. “And I thought what a fantastic place for children to play.”

Although she considered herself a gardener (“You have to be a gardener in California, because if you throw something in the direction of the ground, it grows,” she says), in those days her young children left her no time to do much more than plant a few bulbs and thin overgrown rhododendrons and spruces on the six-acre property.

Visiting the New York Flower Show in the late ’60s, Spiegel was taken with an exhibit mounted by the North American Rock Garden Society. “I met Lincoln Foster at the Flower Show,” she recalls. “He’s the author of the first really notable book on rock gardening written with the North American gardener in mind. Most of the others were English, but he lived in Connecticut.” Foster and his wife invited Spiegel to visit their garden. “That’s when I decided that was the type of gardening I’d do here; those were the plants I wanted to grow,” she says. “It had to go on the back burner, because my children were still little.... I started excavating and getting serious in 1980.”

Rock gardening, at least for those who get serious, is more difficult than it may appear. Although beginners can plant sedums, dwarf dianthus, and other easy varieties, true aficionados want the rarer alpines or high desert plants — tough little specimens that have adapted to harsh mountainous conditions, but which have very particular requirements and are hard to propagate. “It’s difficult because you’re attempting to grow things so far from their incredibly specialized habitat,” says Spiegel, who learned to create scree (the rubble found at the foot of rocky slopes) and the soil, sand and gravel mixes that alpines need.

“I began collecting rare plants almost from the beginning,” she says. “I was on a quest to grow everything. Little by little, you learn. I’m in a cold, windy spot, and I don’t water because we’re on a well, so there were traditional European alpine plants that I couldn’t grow — saxifragas, campanulas, many gentians. I found I could grow high desert plants, plants from Turkey and the Caucases.”

Spiegel excavated to form planting areas among the ledges. “I moved tons of rock,” she says with a wry laugh. “There was lots of loose ledge that we moved with a tractor and a chain, and I used the world’s longest crowbar to move things down from the top — gravity helped me.” She brought in slabs of limestone for steps. Over the years, the garden continued to expand as Spiegel built terraces that act as raised beds. Three dozen troughs containing special plants are placed on walls or next to steps so they can be seen up close.

“It goes beyond making things pretty, although rock gardeners like making things pretty, too,” Spiegel says. “But if it’s a choice between making something look landscaped and having a favorable spot for a plant, the plant always wins. A visitor once asked me if I liked hot pink and purple growing next to each other. I said I didn’t particularly like it, but that’s where they wanted to be.”

Once established, a rock garden is fairly easy to maintain. “It’s very important to clean up in the fall,” Spiegel says, “because plants that thrive above the tree line can’t adapt to being smothered by wet leaves all winter.” But there are few weeds, which prefer better soil. “I can go away for three weeks to the mountains and it’ll take me only half a day to go around to deadhead this and prop up that.” (Spiegel’s reference to the mountains is telling: alpine plant enthusiasts often travel to mountains around the world to see plants in their native habitat.)

Epimediums, hellebores, dwarf columbine, phlox and other early flowering plants light up Spiegel’s garden in spring, which is at its showiest early on. “It has the big burst in May, and then it slows down,” she says. “But I have something in bloom until frost. Anyway, I think the rocks without flowers look pretty — they’re gorgeous. I think I had a garden to begin with, and I’ve just been playing with it ever since.” ●

Ann Spiegel’s garden is part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days. She welcomes visitors this year on May 18th, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, check www.gardenconservancy.com/opendays.

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