Monday, April 2, 2018

Xeriscapes march on in April

While The Aloinopsis spathulata hybrids bloom in my rock garden every afternoon- the yellow Rabeia albipuncta (left) starts in late morning, the others reliably after lunch- I'm reminded that while my neighbors are still doing all kinds of spring cleanup, mine took so little time all I seem to do is drink tea and look at these while their blowers howl on in the background.

And while my research on low- and no-water landscapes has taken a bit of a blow this week, (details later) the interest and awareness of this brilliant trend has full steam momentum.

I'm giving a talk for a beloved non-profit Resource Central (Boulder, CO) in Golden in a few weeks (April 19)- a practical, realistic,
HOW-TO talk:
  Xeriscaping in Colorado: Weather, Wildlife and Beyond!

It's wonderful how no matter what life throws at you- hail, rabbits, late frosts- xeric gardening still marches forward with the power of working with nature, not against her.

If this one is not pure Aloinopsis spathulata, it's pretty close.

Droolers over these non-photoshopped plants should know they can acquire seed from the:

-NARGS seed exchange (closed for this season, back again next December) or buy plants
-April 21 at Denver Botanic Gardens: the RMC-NARGS Plant Hunter's Market, or
 -Sunscapes under "Aloinanthus"

You have no excuse not to grow these sun worshipping gems!

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!