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.