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The Garden Decoder: What Is ‘Crevice Gardening’?

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The Garden Decoder: What Is ‘Crevice Gardening’?

January 19, 2023

As a perennial student, I’m fascinated with new ways of gardening and different garden styles. Plus, to keep things even more interesting, I’m always up for a good horticultural challenge. So, when I saw a crevice garden while visiting The Gardens at Lake Merritt in Oakland, my curiosity was piqued.

The crevice garden at The Gardens at Lake Merritt in Oakland. Photograph by Kier Holmes.
Above: The crevice garden at The Gardens at Lake Merritt in Oakland. Photograph by Kier Holmes.

Needing to learn more, and wanting to understand how this was different from traditional rock gardening, I reached out to Kenton Seth and Paul Spriggs, garden designers and co authors of The Crevice Garden, for advice.

What is a crevice garden?

Asplenium trichomanes growing in the cracks of ruins. Photograph by Paul Spriggs.
Above: Asplenium trichomanes growing in the cracks of ruins. Photograph by Paul Spriggs.

As the name would suggest, tightly spaced rocks, almost rubbing elbows, are set vertically or at a slight angle into mounded soil, much like plates stacked in a dish drainer. Small plants that appreciate well-draining soil and low water get tucked in the tight spaces. Paul adds, “Crevice gardens are a popular style of rock garden specifically designed to facilitate the growing of plants that come from rocky places in nature. It can also serve as an interesting aesthetic feature in the overall design of the garden.”

This type of garden is inspired by sun-baked deserts, wind-whipped seacoasts, and resilient alpine ridges. If created properly, a crevice garden can be low-maintenance, space-saving, and easily integrated into your drought-tolerant landscape or water-conscious plant collection.

How is it different from a rock garden?

Crevice gardens have far more rocks than rock gardens. Here, Aquilegia jonesii thrive between rocks. Photograph by Todd Boland.
Above: Crevice gardens have far more rocks than rock gardens. Here, Aquilegia jonesii thrive between rocks. Photograph by Todd Boland.

Kenton says it best, “It’s like rock gardening dialed up to maximum, and perhaps a subgenre of rock gardens. It’s like a more serious effort to collect and grow special plants.”

Traditional rock gardening started with alpine and arctic plants, but these don’t translate to desert or subtropical regions. Crevice gardening, on the other hand, broadens the plant palette to embrace and showcase exotics and natives; plus it requires more rocks, as the distance between the rocks is only an inch or so. Paul explains, “The rocks in crevice gardens are set to specifically create deep running crevices, rather than just sit on top of the soil. A classic rock garden, while still often emulating nature, does not necessarily feature crevices, yet often it’s in these more extreme garden micro-habitats that some more extreme plants grow best. You could say that crevice gardening is an ‘improvement’ on traditional rock gardening, as it can expand the plant palette of what a traditional rock garden may be able to grow.”

Top tips for success?

Erigeron scopulinus nestled between stones. Photograph by Paul Cumbeldon.
Above: Erigeron scopulinus nestled between stones. Photograph by Paul Cumbeldon.

While it would make sense to start your crevice gardening adventure in a small hypertufa trough, you can also create one by mounding up gravelly and sandy growing medium, then adding an ample amount of vertical slabs rocks with minimal gaps. If you have budget constraints, consider repurposing broken-up concrete from driveways and patios. Once your plants are in, top dress with broken slivers or rock chips to help keep plant stems dry, to reduce evaporation and absorb ground water and heat.

Kenton shares, “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and re-do parts.” Paul urges people to be patient. “Rock gardening is the opposite of ‘instant gardening.’ It’s a longer-term commitment.”

Favorite crevice plants?

Above: Photograph by Paul Spriggs.

Plants not naturally growing in crevices can work but they need to like excellent drainage and low amounts of water. Succulents are a good type to start with.

Paul shares his favorites: Armeria, Dianthus, Lewisia, Delosperma, dwarf Silene, Daphne, Phlox and appropriate dwarf conifers. He adds, “There are lots of easy plants to grow but many genera are not available at garden centers. Often the difficulty is sourcing the plant, not growing it! This is why so many rock gardeners grow their own, most often from seed.”

Kenton has his favorites for the new gardener: Hens and Chicks and small Sedums (they don’t require crevices, but they love them.)  Also small Campanulas and Lewisia cotyledon hybrids.

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