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An interview with Joseph Tychonievich

by Timber Press on November 15, 2016

in Design, Gardening

A crevice garden in a pot in Ev Whittemore’s garden in North Carolina. Photograph by

A crevice garden in a pot in Ev Whittemore’s garden in North Carolina. Photograph by Bobby J. Ward.

In addition to beautiful structural interest, rock gardening offers a low-maintenance and waterwise alternative to other design techniques. Why is rock gardening an underappreciated garden style?

Many gardeners, even if they like rock gardens, don’t know how to get started. The first time I thought about trying rock gardening, I got a book at the library and was instantly overwhelmed by a detailed discussion of how the geologic history of the rock you are using should dictate the placement in the garden. I’m a giant nerd, but that was a bit intense for my first foray into the rock gardening world. Rock gardening attracts some of the most intense and technically talented gardeners, but they can nerd out too hard and scare off beginners. It was several years after that first exposure that I had the courage to build my first rock garden, and I quickly found out just how easy and fun it can be. My goal with Rock Gardening: Reimagining a Classic Style is to break down rock gardening and make it approachable so new people can come to appreciate it, enjoy its beauty and practicality, and then, if they want, progress to geeking out over rock strata and the flora of the Dolomites.

Rock gardening had its first bloom of popularity in the 1930s and saw a resurgence of attention in the 1970s. Why is this technique especially relevant now?

I really think that rock gardening is the perfect style for today’s gardens and gardeners. The norms in gardening for a long time have been big, suburban perennial borders and annual containers with predictable design using the same old tired plants—daylilies, hostas, petunias, etc. But increasingly, gardens are little city lots and apartment balconies, and people want to do something fresh, different, and creative. Rock gardening is the perfect match for the modern garden: they can fit into the smallest of spaces, and they also can have an incredible diversity of different plants and styles.

Rock Gardening: Reimagining a Classic Style begins with ten international rock gardens from Perth, Scotland, to Penrose, North Carolina. While traveling to these gardens, you realized there is no perfect climate—many of the plants that thrive in your Michigan garden struggle in Rochdale, England, and vice versa. Can you speak to debunking the myth of an ideal garden climate?

I think often what we end up thinking is the “ideal” gardening climate is just the climate we read and hear the most about in gardening books and magazines. I grew up reading too many English gardening writers, and so I longed to grow giant delphiniums and all sorts of other plants that simply don’t thrive for me. It wasn’t until I really got to know my local gardening culture that I learned about the plants that love my climate. That’s why I put such a focus on traveling to gardens in all different parts of the world—so I don’t end up only promoting plants that love my Michigan garden. It can be fun, of course, to figure out a way to grow some lovely plant that usually doesn’t thrive in your local conditions, but you’ll probably have more fun if you focus your time with great local gardeners and at great local nurseries, getting to know the palette of plants unique to your particular part of the world.

Your book also includes profiles of the best rock garden plants, all of which require a minimal amount of soil and grow well in small spaces. Do you have a personal favorite?

Picking a favorite plant is impossible, but I’ll go with the genus Daphne. They’re beautiful little evergreen shrubs that look terrific all year, aren’t bothered by deer or rabbits, bloom heavily several times in the growing season, and are often fragrant. Best of all, I’ve learned that they’re plants that love my climate, which means they’re easy for me as long as they have good drainage. Almost as good, they don’t seem to thrive as well in places like Scotland, where many species that I grow effortlessly have to be grown in an alpine house to keep them from rotting in all the rain. After spending my early years as a gardener feeling horribly jealous of the United Kingdom’s climate, it’s nice to be able to grow this plant a little better than they can. Let the record show that if I did ever find myself gardening in Scotland, I would immediately collect every saxifrage known to man and be very happy indeed.

The book’s section on styles and construction includes guidance for container gardening. In addition to old shoes, what else can we use for “annoying uptight gardeners who don’t like having fun with their container choices”?

Well, I once planted up an old file cabinet. And a couch. And I visited a garden where they took dolls, sawed the tops of their heads off, and planted them up with sedums. It was creepy, but cool. So really, you can do just about anything. And though I personally like the absurd, nontraditional containers don’t have to look jokey or ridiculous either. A talented gardener near me in Michigan managed to get some segments of enormous concrete pipes intended for use as some sort of drain or sewage system. Set vertically in the garden and filled with soil they look incredible. Very non-traditional, very modern and chic.

An assortment of rock garden plants ready to be shipped from Arrowhead Alpines nursery in Michigan.

An assortment of rock garden plants ready to be shipped from Arrowhead Alpines nursery in Michigan. Photograph by Joseph Tychonievich.

After studying at Ohio State University, you became the nursery manager at Arrowhead Alpines in Fowlerville, Michigan. What was one of the most frequently asked questions from gardeners who visited Arrowhead Alpines?

A lot of people came through and loved the rock garden plants but didn’t know what to do with them—the tiny, intricate forms are so beautiful and different from what we’re used to seeing at a nursery, but most of us just aren’t familiar with how to grow them. That’s part of why I really wanted to write this book, to give people a way to get into growing and enjoying these wonderful plants.

You also worked for a summer at Shibamichi Honten Nursery in Japan. What was the biggest lesson you took away from that experience?

Gardeners are really the same wherever they are found. I spoke little Japanese, they spoke almost no English, and I didn’t know as much as I should have about Japanese culture and manners, but somehow none have seemed to matter—loving a beautiful, unusual plant is universal and needs no translation.

You have been spotlighted by various gardening and nursery publications and were named one of the top “young horticulturists who are helping shape how America gardens” by Organic Gardening Magazine. What is innovative about your personal approach to gardening?

That’s such an interesting question. I think I’d point to two things. First and foremost, I strongly believe that the best way to garden is the way that brings you, personally, the most joy. All the advice about design and plant choices writers give out are just ideas to get you thinking. The only real measure of how good a garden is is how happy it makes you. Secondly, I love to understand the science and reasoning behind my gardening techniques. Part of that is because I’m a nerd and it makes me happy, but mostly because I think once you understand what is going on in your garden and in your plants, it gives you the knowledge to make whatever sort of garden you want.

Speaking of being a nerd, how is your passion for rock gardening informed by your education and experience in plant breeding and genetics?

I’m always breeding plants. Lots of rock gardeners like to collect as many different species or varieties as possible. I do that and then start interbreeding them. It is like a sickness, only I don’t want to get better. I’ve been growing a lot of cold-hardy cactuses in the genus Echinocereus in my rock garden, and of course I’m now germinating seeds from some new hybrids I’ve made. The great thing is that rock garden plants are small enough that a crazy breeding project takes up less space in the garden than breeding projects with big sprawly plants like squash and tomatoes.

You asked for seeds for your fifth birthday, and I image there have been some changes to your gardening strategies since then. How has your gardening changed the most over time?

I’ve been through so many phases as a gardener. . . . Early on, I only wanted to grow roses. Then I got pretentious and only wanted to grow plants that were super rare and unusual, preferably with tiny, uninteresting flowers. These days I’m learning to leave my judgments at the door and embrace any plant that I enjoy, tracking down the rarest, coolest alpine plants for my rock garden and growing big patches of the most common—but beautiful—zinnias and marigolds.


Joseph Tychonievich studied horticulture, plant breeding, and genetics at the Ohio State University and was the nursery manager at Arrowhead Alpines, a premier rock garden nursery in Fowlerville, Michigan. He spent a summer working at Shibamichi Honten Nursery in Japan and has been a repeat guest on public radio’s food show The Splendid Table. Organic Gardening Magazine called him one of “six young horticulturalists who are helping to shape how America gardens.”


Click the image below for a look inside this book.

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Created by Joseph Tychonievich.

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