In the 1970s, it was the cornerstone of the suburban garden, as common as pampas grass. But by the end of the century, the rockery had plunged from the height of fashion to naffness, with stones and dainty alpines replaced by decking, olive trees and bamboo.
Now, perhaps because of our shrinking outside space and straitened times, the rock garden is on the verge of a revival. The Chelsea Fringe festival next month will feature a rockery as the centrepiece of one of its gardens, while membership of the Alpine Garden Society, a haven for collectors of rockery plants, is rising. Rockeries have also received the Gardeners' World endorsement, with Monty Don creating a miniature alpine garden on the show last week.
John Fitzpatrick, the editor of The Alpine Gardener, the journal of the Alpine Garden Society, said the decreasing size of the average garden had led to a renewed interest in low-growing plants such as thrift, saxifrages, sedums and dwarf narcissi. "Our gardens are getting smaller because more people live in flats and only have limited outside space," he said. "So people are going for smaller plants. Alpines fit the bill for that."
Mr Fitzpatrick said crevice gardens, an updated version of the rockery – where rocks are placed on their ends and packed tightly together, and flowers placed in the tiny gaps, mimicking an alpine slope – were being used increasingly in public gardens, including at the Royal Horticultural Society's home at Wisley and at Ragley Hall in Warwickshire.
One other contributing factor in the return of the rock garden is the declining interest in Mediterranean plants, such as olive trees and oleander, because the hotter summers predicted due to climate change have instead been cold and wet. Mr Fitzpatrick said alpine plants, although originating in dry, windy mountainsides, could thrive in a wet climate – as long as they are on free-draining soil.
Membership of the Alpine Garden Society is around 7,000 and rising, he added.
Rock gardens have not featured at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show since the 1970s, having fallen out of fashion at the world's largest horticultural event long before they faded from most people's properties.
But at the Chelsea Fringe, the grassroots, independent alternative to the Chelsea Flower Show, there are signs of a comeback. The Chelsea Fringe rock garden has been created by Ian Drummond of Indoor Garden Design, and will be on show at the Goldsmiths' Centre in central London from 21 May until 5 July.
There will also be a mini rock garden design competition for children, using mirrored trays – yet another craze from the 1970s.
'The Chelsea Fringe' is from 18 May to 9 June across London and at venues around the UK
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