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Can I run the GRASS command 'r.patch' on raster files which are not "loaded" into the current GRASS session? That is, rasters which are simply in my folder but not in a GRASS location & mapset?

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No, to work with raster files in GRASS you have to import the rasters with r.in.gdal or you can link external raster files with r.external:

r.external input=/path/to/raster1.tif output=raster1
r.external input=/path/to/raster2.tif output=raster2
g.region rast=raster1,raster2 -p
r.patch input=raster1,raster2 output=raster_patched

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