Socked By Rocks

THE REAL DIRT

January 16, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Help! The rocks are back, and they're bigger than ever.

Rocks cover our lawn like crab grass, only they're harder to dig up. A trowel is no match for a 50-pound stone.

There are thousands of rocks of all shapes and sizes cluttering up our front yard. There are tall rocks and fat rocks; sharp rocks and flat rocks; brown rocks and gray rocks. There are rocks shaped like every state in the Union, including an armful of Tennessees.

There are several large rocks, like those in the asteroid belt, and a host of smaller rockettes. And they are sticking up all over the lawn.

Who landscaped this place, the Flintstones?

Workmen unearthed the rocks last week, while fixing our cranky septic system. Using a backhoe, they dug up the yard, made the repairs and filled in the holes. Now the commode works fine but the lawn is a mess.

I can live with the mud. It's the rocks I abhor. I've been chucking them off my land by the truckload for years. With every new garden bed I bare more stone, each one heavier than the last. Removing the rocks is painstaking, backbreaking work. I've killed two shovels trying to wedge rocks from the soil.

My wife, Meg, who thinks we're perched on a granite slab, says all this digging is bound to reveal a presidential face.

I've stopped cultivating new flower beds, so as not to disturb the rocks underground. I've learned that for each rock you exhume, 10 more wriggle their way to the surface and torment you for years to come. So I've quit breaking new ground.

It's best to let sleeping rocks lie.

Alas, the backhoe changed that.

Now there are rocks in my yard and drums in my head. What's to become of all that stone? I get migraines just thinking about it.

"How will I get rid of the rocks?" I asked Meg.

"Why bother?" she said.

Pardon?

"If life hands you lemons, then make lemonade."

Or, in this case, a rock garden.

Of course! I'll leave the rocks there and grow plants in-between. That's what a rock garden is -- a boulder holder with some flora mixed in.

Man has built rock gardens for thousands of years; wasn't Stonehenge the first?

Somewhat less ambitious are today's rock gardeners, who rarely use slabs of a ton or more. More modest gardens consist of plants surrounded by pebbles.

Most rock gardens are a showcase for blossoms, not boulders, says Norman Singer, president of the American Rock Garden Society. At the base of the large weathered rocks grow tough and tiny alpine plants like arabis and thrift that seldom grow more than a foot tall.

"Some people adore playing with the rocks, but generally the stones are a living room for the plants that live there," says Singer. "Any rocks will do, but it's important to place them naturally on the terrain, to keep it from looking like a dog cemetery."

Morris West spent months creating his masterpiece, a 1,000-square-foot rock garden in Red Lion, Pa. Unhappy with his own crop of rocks, he swapped for some 3-ton slabs from a nearby farm field. Several of the boulders were covered with lichens, a bonus.

The farmer, who got several loads of topsoil in the deal, was "more than willing to trade," says West.

Placing the boulders in the garden was less a challenge than cultivating the diminutive species of dianthus, gentians and other wildflowers that seem to thrive in their shadows, he says.

"Some rock plants are hard to raise," says West. Many species hail from high, dry altitudes and craggy soil where little else grows. Those plants are more vulnerable at lower elevations: If the humidity doesn't kill them, then bad drainage will.

Nonetheless, devotees find success. Marnie Flook of Chestertown created a rock garden at sea level, using mostly stones from the Chester River.

Some of her rocks have sentimental value and have been in Flook's care for years. When the family moves, the rocks go, too.

"I pack them in the back of the car when my husband isn't looking," she says.

For more information on starting a rock garden, contact the American Rock Garden Society, Box 67, Millwood, N.Y. 10546.

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