Most gardeners talk about plants and flowers. Dick and Jeanne Phillips talk about the thousands of rocks and minerals displayed in their yard: albite, fluorrichterite, blue calcite, amazonite and pyrite – known as fool’s gold.
Oh, there are plenty of flowers in their beautiful gardens – coneflowers, daisies, black-eyed Susans, dahlias – but the Phillipses said they place the flowers to accentuate the rocks. Not the other way around.
For these rock collectors, color and contrast are key. Their rocks come in all sizes, textures and colors, glistening one recent day in the early morning sun.
“Rocks are always in bloom,” said Jeanne Phillips, a retired Buffalo teacher.
Unlike landscape plants, with rocks you don’t have to worry about a spring that’s too wet and cold or a summer that’s too hot and dry, she said.
They also provide year-round interest. In the winter, you can look out back and see rocks peeking up through the snow, she said.
The Phillipses are longtime participants in the Ken-Ton Garden Tour, which this year was held July 20-22. They also were in this year’s lineup of Open Gardens. Their time slot was 6 to 10 p.m. Thursdays so visitors could experience their collection of fluorescent rocks that are illuminated at night by a shortwave UV light in one section of the garden. (Watch Jeanne Phillips' video below.)
Dick Phillips, who taught Spanish and coached tennis in the Williamsville School District, said he had a small collection of rocks as a child.
Years later, when the Phillipses moved into their Town of Tonawanda home with a yard of undesirable clay soil, they built raised beds bordered by pretreated lumber.
When they added a pond – they now have two and a waterfall – they brought in more rocks. Rock walls soon replaced the pretreated lumber, and the serious rock collecting began.
“The ponds really kicked it off,” said Phillips, adding that Lafarge Quarry in Lockport was one of the early sites he visited.
Their collections came primarily from Lafarge and other quarries and mines in the United States and Canada. The Phillipses are members and officers of the Buffalo Geological Society. Membership allows you access to quarries, once you don steel-toed shoes and a hard hat, Dick Phillips said.
Group outings include field trips to Dolomite Products Quarry in Penfield; National Limestone Quarry in Mount Pleasant Mills, Pa.; Valentine Mine and other sites in St. Lawrence County, and elsewhere.
Bancroft, Ont., with its many deserted mines, is a favorite destination for rock collectors. The Town of Bancroft is known as the “Mineral Capital of Canada.” More then 1,600 different mineral species have been identified in this part of the province, according to the town website. The annual “Rockhound Gemboree” (Aug. 2-5) attracts thousands of people from around the world.
There’s even the CN rock pile in downtown Bancroft with public access where collectors can look for free interesting rocks.
Relatively speaking, rock collecting can be an inexpensive hobby. Rocks are free at some places such as the Bancroft rock pile. Others are rocks no one else wants, such as “waste drop” from a mine. Some sites charge a modest admission, Dick Phillips said.
Some rocks in their garden were purchased at rock/gem shows or from individual collectors and auctions. Phillips said he has paid less than $10 for one of these rocks or, on rare occasion, $25-$30.
The Phillipses enjoy visiting nearby Edison Elementary School and giving students a hands-on experience with identifying rocks – which is always a hit with the kids. They also share rocks with friends and neighbors.
When they bring new rocks into the garden, they often remove existing ones and set them out on the driveway. They have four or five regulars who know they are welcome to come and take some home for their own gardens.
Rock collectors – rockhounds, if you will – are very friendly, unique and like to share, said the couple, who belong to several rock collecting groups besides the Buffalo Geological Society.
On field trips to quarries, collectors help each other out.
"No one hogs a rock," Dick Phillips said.