Saturday, March 24, 2018

United Colors of Townsendia

While we’re all attracted to the bright, cheery, winter-shattering colors of blooming bulbs right now, we shouldn’t miss the subtle colors of buds and leaves, too, which are in a compelling place of ephemerally teetering on the mixed threshold of summer growing season and winter dormant wardrobes.

Townsendia hookeri (offered this year by Sunscapes Rare Plant Nursery, LINK hooray! It has been the longest lived Townsendia of all for me; my first plants are the ones pictured.)  
should not be assumed to be white:  
Warm Apricot
Tender Yellow 
and Cold Near-Lavander

Many great plants are reddish or even blood red in winter; it’s a special time when the leaves have both;

Like Rabiea cf. albipuncta ex Molteno, which will subsume its subtlety with garish dandelion like daisies soon.  I love how its spots phase from darker-than to lighter-than depending on where they are.

And Amsonia jonesii- Desert Bluestar- slow to establish but lives forever, in which raindrops magnify the very subtle cobalt blue suffusion tempered into the leaves and buds, a blue mustering for the real flowers soon.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Manzanita Season: Making them happy

 Everyone is looking at bulbs right now, coming up like garish confetti in our gardens.  Yeah, they're fine.  But look at the manzanita buds swelling!  (Arctostaphylos patula)

A bit on Manzanitas.

Manzanitas are the first plants I ever “hunted,” and I’ll never forget that glorious sunny day in snowshoes at about 7000 feet going above the scrub oak chaparral to a place not far from my home that before learning about the manzanita, I didn’t know existed.

Natural hybrids are the more easily grown and commercially available fleet including ‘Panchito,’ ‘Chieftain,’ and ‘Cascade,’ which I feel owe their grow-ability to a Kinnikinnik (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) grandparent in their lineage.  But the tall ones, with their smooth, red sinewy trunks and extra-green leaves in winter; they have proven a little harder to tame, and it’s taken a group effort for decades of the finest propagators in the state to learn how to propagate them from cuttings.  

Now that they are occasionally available, I’ve taken every opportunity to plant them, getting me safely on the roster of top manzanita killers in Colorado.  All those deaths, so many crispy lime grean wafers of leaves, were not in vain, because now I’ve got a system which gives me nearly total survival of all I plant now.

First, only plant healthy plants ready to be in the ground- not just well rooted, but actively rooting- making white roots- which seems to happen all year but summer, so I just don’t plant them May to September.  Fall is awesome.  They get bare-rooted and covered with shade cloth every time, and the cloth stays on for the winter if they go in in fall.

Not being a scientist, and being a very poor citizen scientist, I have not tested this by not doing it, but I equip new plants with a handful of soil taken from under big, old manzanitas in a garden or nature, hoping that they will get inoculated with their needed mycorhizae.  I feel it works but can’t prove it.  I’ll go back to killing them soon to find out for sure.

Next and perhaps most importantly, I have realized that true Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos patula or A. pungens) rarely make it in clay. It happens, but not often. (I can think of just 3 times. ever.) Stuck gardening in places with solid clay for soil, I’ve taken to sand or silt mounds just dumped there, at least 6 inches deep.  A bit of compost is appreciated, and a deep mulch of about 3 inches of gravel or wood chips.  Deep infrequent waterings are preserved with all that mulch.  I’ve gotten away with this arrangement in north shadows of homes and near downspouts, relieving of me having to water them in the long run, and I believe this is why they are prospering at APEX while elsewhere in our clay-based rock-garden planter’s mix mounds, most of the manzanitas are dead after a couple years.

Ironically, each of those key points:  sand, a bit of compost, maybe a bit of shade, and avoiding planting in summer- despite being gained by trial and error and attrition, are just replicating manzanitas in their natural habitat: Open ponderosa/conifer woodlands with gritty granite soil, and plenty of heaps of forest duff in the upper soil horizon.  I can’t wait to dig around some of these quickly maturing plants and see if their roots stay in the sand heap or if they venture deeper into the clay below, too.

The orphans from the closing of Timberline Garden’s Manzanita propagation program are now  growing 4-6” per year, filling in quite nicely, and festooned with buds which swell to bloom in March. Cocky with a bit of success, I sacrificed a few Californian species to find that Arctostaphylos parryana seems not only very much at home in Grand Junction, but threatens to grow and loom over the rest of the local kids.  (2 plants here in GJ)  Three years on, the collection is taking on the great billowy green cloud character of ones we see in nature huddled around Ponderosa ankles.  They beg a bit of labor to make a home for, but those wheelbarrows and truck beds of sand pay off nicely and are easily forgotten when you visit your own manzanita bramble on a sunny February morning, coffee in hand, to see the tiny pink blushing cheeks dangle from the branch-tips.

A few selections of the desert Pointleaf Manzanita, Arctostpahylos pungens, have proven hardy in Colorado and charm us with their waxy bluish leaves and cold white flowers.   (There is one at APEX, and I've got 4 in 2 gardens here in Grand Junction )

One year I managed to grow some from seed, which is generally considered impossible, and I put on real boots to kick myself every time I think about it, because I didn't record how I did it and have not been able to do it again.

"Wait, this manzanita in back has toothed leaves.  That's not patula... what the...?"

One quarter yard of concrete sand is one load in a half-ton pickup and a few buckets worth of traditional compost:  that is all it took to get A. patula  and A. parryana so happy in this roof-runoff-water-only situation.  Neighborhood cats found the sand, even under woodchips, which is why there is 1" gravel around them now.  Maybe the manzanitas like cat fertilizer.  I doubt it. 

Long tubes on A. patula in nature; there is so much variety.

Don't forget the bark.  It shines in winter against the snow.  There is even a wide variety in bark between neighboring plants- some checkered like alligator skin, others totally smooth, and many in-between.

A pure white Arctostaphylos patula plant.

If you garden on a sandy soil, what the devil are you waiting for!? 

The patterns in the mix of brush is mesmerizing.  I'd like to do this in a large commercial landscape.  I might need a whole lotta sand for that.  

Monday, January 8, 2018

Civil Disobedience in Suburbia

Just because they are retired does not mean the Mortons intend to sit around.  Armed with levity and good sense, they are going to war with turf.

Relatively recent settlers in a large new Broomfield, CO development, the Mortons got settled in before assessing their landscape and finding that it was excessive in sod.  On their own property, they have been rose and flower gardening for years, and this summer took out the remainder of lawn to have an amusingly two part: “His and hers,” if you will- crevice garden, which we put in to accomodate his dream of growing showy cacti like he did back in Tucson, and her desire for colorful alpine rock garden plants. (The old lawn sprinklers were retrofitted to continue irrigating the alpine side, although about half the water, and capped entirely off for the desert/cacti side).  

An important sidenote about cacti in Denver: the natural precipitation of the greater Denver area is higher than many places that collector’s cacti come from, and their natural homes are often hotter, so just growing them in Eastern Colorado means plants will get an extra boost by just being under that sky!  Supplemental water should be given judiciously if at all to avoid rotting plants and encouraging weeds.

The Morton’s Crevice garden “range” a few months after planting.

Their prior life in Tucson, Arizona informed their values where local-climate sensibility, economy, and conservation are concerned.  They feel that there will not be real change on the Front Range of Colorado unless there are regular water restrictions to force the public into a new norm.  They smile with intention when they talk about this.

And the Morton’s aren’t into just talking about doing stuff.

It’s not like taking out grass and putting in a crevice garden reduced the amount of plants.  Here, Mike stands in the armada of first-fodder plants to get a base palette growing.  

But the parkway- that strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street- they don’t own it, and most homeowners don’t- but they are required to maintain and water it, by, as usual, CIty and Homeowner’s Assiciation. The Mortons have already infiltrated the HOA, taken the proper channels, but have found that with the city, they cannot get permission and will have to beg forgiveness instead when they take out only a portion of that grass!  

Isn’t it amazing to think that this social change is not just an uphill climb from a public culture of water-overuse normalcy, but also roadblocked by official, municipal regulations?   

Back in Downtown Denver, my heart was warmed by the possibility of what a parkway can be: a glorious parkway strip settling nicely into a colorful maturity. A Roots Medicine Gardens design, it receives no water at all, and is a dynamic color fest even in the first week of September, immediately upon the heels of a hot summer which left all the street trees in Denver looking as lush as potato chips.  You’d think it was April or something.

Long live informed disobedience!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Post-Apocalyptic Crevice: Urbanite Outfitters at Plant Delights/Juniper Level Botanic

The limits for crevice gardens and where they can be built are being blown away. 

This year, my research mission was to find out the reasons the Czechs and the Scots/Brits dominate the rock garden world; and one of those reasons, simply and amusingly, was availability of rock in those places.  Those folks took what they had and did amazing things.

I feel the same way about Plant Delights Nursery and Juniper Level Botanic: They are forever looking for more ways to grow more taxa to add to their existing 24,000 (yes, no kidding) and they used stacks of demo material to do it.

What’s so different about working with concrete?
Well, for one, it’s not stone.  Something I mentioned in the prior blog, and artistically something I’m still getting my head around.  Practically, it meant we could cut, break, chisel, and sledge to get peices we wanted. Jeremy was amazing at manufacturing the rough-edged but structurally-sound shapes needed to approach our very steep hill.

Jeremy, (Grounds and Research Supervisor) and Tony, owner/founder, pointed out to me that the three main components of this garden’s construciton are totally recycled.   The concrete chunks were from the driveway and barn floor of a removed building on property.  The Permatill, an expanded slate, which makes up most of the soil mix, is a cinderblock byproduct. And the compost which is layered over the open zones is made from the leaves from the nearby city of Garner, NC.

Just think: Waste products, waste products, and waste, put together to make a cutting-edge garden installation.  I’m so honored to be around for it. 

With help from Michael Peden, Jeremy and crew built the first third of crevice garden, I helped with third last week, and a third more remains to be done, literally down the road.

Let’s talk more about the mix.  Based on growth since just March in the existing beds, it’s been amazing.  Let’s call it the Schmidt mix.

The Schmidt mix:
8 parts Permatill 
1 part gravel ("#57 stone")
1/8 part  local coastal plain sand
1/8 part local Raleigh red clay
Trace parts organic matter

What’s this magic Permatill stuff? In Colorado, Expanded shale is our equivalent.  In Utah, it’s Utelite, in the UK, Seramis and in the Czech republic, baked clay. These materials are used in green roof mixes, as auto oil absorbers, kitty litter, and industrial settings like high-strength concrete.
It holds water, promotes oxygenation, and chemically holds on to and shares tons of nutrients for plants. (Jeremy would remind me that this is it’s “cation exchange capacity” for you science-heads)

We also used what I want to call the Utrecht trick.  We mixed in a bit of “clean gravel,” 1” size, to the Schmidt mix which went between urbanite layers.   Gerard Van Buiten at Utrecht in Holland told me that they mixed scoria into the soilmix which, like layer-cake icing, went in-between the layers in their crevice spheres, keeping the crevice open and preventing collapse/crushing/compaction of the soil.  

Photos of Utrecht courtesy of Jutta Arkan

Our soil using the “Utrecht Trick,” with temporary wood spacers.

Did I also mention the alkaline seep? No.  Well, we made a place for a trickle of water to dribble in, over, and steep in the concrete, creating a wet, alkaline place for plants which couldn’t even imaging a day in  the local soil’s 3.2 pH.  Jeremy Carved and chiseled channels in a few of the concrete chunks to divert the trickle of water.

Other fun things I learned with these geniuses:

Tony makes a lot of jokes in the PDN Catalogue about killing waves and waves of plants to get hardy plants or learn how to grow them.  Well, it’s not a joke!  Their successes are based on what they learn from the slaughter of a great deal of plant materials they’ve spent years growing, as well as nurturing the survivors of broad trials.
Onosma taurica from the NARGS seed exchange!

Oh yeah, plenty of plants in the first section of crevice died.  But what is alive which they could not grow before? Penstemon baccharifolius, Limonium, Goniolimon, Lithodora, Teucrium, and just about anything with silver leaves.  He is excited to grow the aroids which are found in rock rubble in the mediterranean like the elusive white form of Dracunculus vulgaris.

Jeremy’s Yucca treculeana "Sasquatch"

Jeremy taught me how using a breadknife upwards to prune out lower, dead leaves of Yucca not only can saw through the tough fibers, but the blunt end doesn’t poke/damage the base of living, healthy leaves.  

He also sold me on the idea of using rebar as a temporary, (perhaps permanent?) prop to hold up layers of our work while we were in motion.

I also had the pleasure of getting ot know Zach, their in-house Taxonomist (how cool is that?) whose golf-cart, among the fleet, certainly racks up the most miles of them all while he zips around the nursery tracking plants, their names, and their genealogy… It was surreal and dreamy to be in a place where there are real daily conversations about the marital history of agaves.

The future is bright green:

Agave montana and Allium kiiense.  (I know I will be snooping this year's seed lists for fall-blooming alliums.)

…and purple and silver…

x Mangave 'Moonglow'

Tony was excited to try Zauchneria cana as they have planted Zauchneria for years with no success.  I’m hopeful for it here.

There is no better institution better equipped to diversely populate and track and share the results of what can be grown in a crevice garden in the southeast.  Prepare to see some amazing stuff.

What is also deeply exciting is that Juniper Level is exploring for Americans, with all the reluctance of a sumo wrestler doing a cannonball into a kiddie pool, the wider universality of crevice gardening- that a concrete crevice garden can be made virtually anywhere there are people.  Now the playing field is level!  There is no excuse for any region not to be able to build crevice.  

It's timely that there is even a current article in the NARGS Quarterly by one Mr. John Beaulieu about building a backyard broken-concrete raised-bed crevice combo. (Which is also interestingly inspired by limestone cliffs and the Niagra escarpment)

(Warning: more recycling ahead)  We went all Angkor Wat/Ta Prohm to  include a rotten tree trunk here, worked into the concrete as though it had grown out of it and helped break it apart.  A little nihilist’s garden feature.

Jeremy has continued the theme.

(Last two pictures courtesy of him)

Although my heart shall always be in the mountains and desert-steppe of Colorado, what I truly love about this 
project is a new aesthetic.  It is not about mimicking natural appearances as much as mimicking natural processes.  Grasping for an intuitive logic behind this, I kept thinking 

“What would concrete look like in an abandoned city taken over by plants?”  

This is some Mad Max rock gardening.

The rusty concrete-reinforcement wire… a fossil-like relic of a time when civilization didn’t honor nature and paid a price...

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Concrete Garden in Paradise: the Urbanite Crevice Garden At PDN

I woke up in a botanical garden again; this time it's real.

I'm helping out Jeremy Schmidt here at Plant Delights/Juniper Level Botanic in Raleigh, North Carolina today.

He, with help from Michael Peden of New York, built several crevice garden beds this spring, which are already planted up with crazy things.

But these crevice garden are made with "Urbanite," or broken concrete.  The brilliant gents at Utrecht Botanic have famously done this into spheres and diagonal walls, but there are few if any examples in the US.

So I'm here helping them get more of this bed finished before the NARGS AGM here November 17-19, where I thought I heard a rumour that our Panayoti will be helping  Tony Avent  peddle plants.  Ought to be awesome; Don't be a sad fool like me and miss it!

So, what are we doing?

Jeremy and friends already started; so there is an established look, motifs, etcetera, that anything I do ought to compliment.  I don't see my visit here as shoe-horning yet another ("my") style onto the grounds as much as seeing what they've started, and then extrapolate from that flavor to fill a larger, challenging area.   Here's what PDN has done so far:

The first section are in divided beds on a corner.

Ooo, look, it's Agave montana in a crevice garden. I could faint with delight.  You know, tons (most?) agaves are crevice plants out in the wild.

Crevices aren't totally new at PDN- here, Bommeria hispida from AZ colonizing a drystacked sandstone wall gloriously.

Zach, their in-house taxonomist, says Teucrium polium was the plant whose surprising success seemed most due to life in a crevice.  

The concrete color has already aged warmly since this spring when the first section went in..

So I landed here and am trying to absorb the spirit of this thing.

Concrete is not rock. It's funny, because none of us can help ourselves from calling it "rock" or "stone" as we work with it.  But it isn't.  All the cerebral and intuitive attitudes I have about placing stone is just baggage here.  This is a garden which intends to be a garden- and as much as it may give a little nod to natural rock outcrops  (in this case, Jeremy had the Canadian Shield in mind), it is only a nod, and cannot possible try to replicate or mimic rock, because it isn't.   So we shouldn't.

Yes,  it's a sculpture, an artifact, a garden installation.  It's human-made.

So creating regular- two-by-four width spaced crevices is fair game.  When starting my fanned/fluted section, I used two-by-four lumber's different dimensions to vary the crevices...
Props to Jeremy for the two-by-four idea.

Some of the native beach sand soil we are cutting into is madly beautiful.

Instead of fossils, there are rusty shadows of wire reinforcements.  There is no strata, just the relentless one-flat-sided nature of concrete which was once one big flat thing.  So you shouldn't fight that to fake a mountain.  I believe.

That's also why it doesn't bother me at all that the cold dark gray Permatil (expanded shale) de facto topdressing absolutely contrasts to the warm white- gray concrete.  Especially when there are Mammillaria plumosa. (Yeah, that's a total gambit)

So this crevice garden must honor its material, which is the broken up foundation of an old razed barn.  At its core it is doing something great- cultivating rare plants- with something nasty- human leftover waste-materials.  It a little Tyler Durden, a little Hugelkultur, and totally contrived. And we're running with it.

Coming to you, from a place totally infested with Agave ovatifolia.  Collect them all.