Since I was already on the topic of rock gardens in the last post, I thought I would continue the theme with the greatest rock garden I have ever visited: Le Jardin Botanique Alpin, in Champex, Switzerland.
“Huh?”, you may ask. I would guess that not a lot of people have heard of this garden, which is a real pity. We accidentally stumbled upon it on a hiking trip to Switzerland a few years ago and I was completely blown away. So much so that on our trip to the Alps this year, we absolutely had to hike for a full day there and a full day back to see it again.
A quick disclaimer before I begin: I don’t really like rock gardens. In most cases, rock gardens are created to grow alpine plants in places where alpine plants really don’t want to grow. More often than not, the result is a few microscopic plants, evenly spaced and completely lost in a sea of rock and gravel. Even worse, these “alpine” gardens are frequently found in flat suburban gardens or parks, hundreds of miles away from any hills or mountains. It’s not surprising then that results are usually artificial and tacky, and no matter how well done, they just don’t feel right. While the plants may be interesting and beautiful, visually one can’t get around the fact that the rock garden just doesn’t belong.
Le Jardin Alpine doesn’t have any of these problems. Located in the heart of the Swiss Alps, it benefits from a naturally rocky, sloped site with a spectacular backdrop of snow-capped mountains and pine forests on one side, and Champex lake on the other side. There is even a natural spring at the top of the site, which is channeled through meandering streams and waterfalls to several small ponds below. Unfair advantage, I know. But in truth, this is the only place where a rock garden actually belongs.
The garden grows an incredible 3000 species of plants. To put that into perspective, the Royal Botanical Garden in Hamilton, Ontario grows 1100 species of plants on an area about 50 times bigger (counting landscaped area only). However, in my opinion, the best part of the garden is how the planting is done. Plants at Le Jardin Alpin are not what one has come to expect from the standard, controlled rock garden. Instead, they come in billowing masses, spilling over each other in the beds, between cracks in the paths and on the side of streams. If you’re a plant enthusiast, you can probably spend a few hours just examining the incredibly diverse flora in a small corner of the garden.
It’s so refreshing to see that rock garden plants can grow together, and don’t have some sort of aversion to neighbors which requires them to be kept a foot apart. I think it also better reflects the true nature of rock garden plants – in their natural environment, they are not as delicate as we think. In most cases, many plants will be found elbowing each other for room in a small crack with favorable growing conditions.
Although the garden is quite small, it has a great feeling of discovery, even after walking around it several times. All the paths are relatively narrow, with many changes in level, which means you can’t rush through the garden (though I can't imagine anyone wanting to!). They are laid out informally, and meander between the lush plantings, along streams and over miniature stone bridges.
One more neat thing about Le Jardin Alpin is that you can stay overnight in the small chalet in the garden, which we did this year. It’s not very fancy and could use some upkeep, but it’s well worth it for a chance to enjoy the garden all by yourself. Watching a sunset over glowing grasses with Champex lake as the backdrop was definitely something I won’t soon forget.