by Sandy Swegel
Sometimes there’s a difficult spot in a garden when plants just keep failing. Or sometimes there’s a plant you really want in your garden (you know who you are butterfly weed) that keeps dying even though you think you are giving it perfect conditions. The easy thing to do is give up and plant a different plant or in a different place. But the determined gardener can reach into her magic toolbox of helpers for a Nurse Rock to give her plant the extra edge.
What is a nurse rock? Basically, it’s just a rock…most any old rock…that you strategically plant with your new plant. In hot arid Colorado, I usually plant on the north side of the rock so there’s just a bit more water and shade for the young plant. I learned about nurse rocks from a gardening friend who liked to grow the native plants she saw when she was out hiking. In nature, you’ll often see that plants are more likely to be growing near rocks rather than out in the open field. Even in your own suburban garden, you’ll see the edges of your beds or even your sidewalks have more robust plants.
There have been many scientific studies about why plants do better with nurse rocks. The obvious speculations are improved water, improved drainage, protection from sun, space from other plants, protection from wildlife, less evaporation, better soil nutrients under rocks and even more mycorrhizae. Old garden folklore highlights the image of the rock as a protector of the young plant from the big world.
I encourage you to give it a try. In the wild, nurse rocks are often large rocks a foot or more high. In the home garden, I’ve found even a small rock that fits easily in my hand gives a plant an edge. I’m trying this week with a spot in a narrow garden bed that just has had several different plants die out despite our ministrations. We’ve come up with reasons why the plants die…that one spot gets a little more sun and it a tiny bit higher than surrounding soil, or it’s a good hiding place for the bunny who ate the beautiful fall anemone down to stubs. We’re going to try again with an adorable small upright clematis, Sugar Bowl, and a good baseball sized nurse rock planted at its base. Thank you nurse rock.