Sunday, December 23, 2012

Underappreciation Files #3: Stud Puppy

Here is a grass that needs internet documentation as well as promotion into Horticulture.
Achnatherum scribneri  (AKA Stipa scribneri) or Scribner's Needlegrass.
{Eriogonum umbellatum 'Shasta Sulfur' and Penstemon alamosensis in background}
Until now, there were literally no pictures of this thing alive on the net.

Achnatherum scribneri is native to Colorado and a few other Southwestern States.  A warm-season bunchgrass rising some 2-3 feet tall and a little less wide, the stiff stems hold up against snow while they are a quite attractive natural-blonde.  The above wintertime picture is in an unirrigated grouping of them at Timberline Gardens, where this species is perhaps sold nowhere else in the world.  Seriously.

 It was supplied to Timberline by the great Texas/Colorado Gardener/Plantsman Tom Peace, who found it in the Crestone, CO area.  It was labeled in the nursery for some time, lacking a real identity, as "Muhlenbergia 'Stud Puppy'".  That "sexy moniker" encouraged those with a sense of humour to try it and for some years, Denver gardeners have begun to enjoy this durable plant in their dry gardens.
I write this post because tonight, having wanted to share it for some years, I've finally found some pictures.  More importantly, I finally managed to identify it scientifically based on deliciously obscure and sometimes painfully confusing botanical academia.

This is a long-lived and rock-sturdy species one could use to dominate a very dry meadow that wants a tall (but not very) tall grass whose round, clumping form will allow good foot-space for neighbouring wildflowers.  The dried leaf/stem material from prior years is acceptable to warrant not giving this plant a traditional yearly haircut.  Mr. Peace notes, and I can agree, that it grows in either clay or sandy soil, despite hailing from sands specifically.  

Let me sum up the key details- extremely dry growing, long-lived, low/no maintenence.  Yet rare as an ornamental.   I can't wait to use it more myself!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Underappreciation Files #2: Fringed Gromwell!

Fringed Gromwell- That is my favourite of several funny names, including "Puccoon" for this stunning little darling.

It is new to me this year- last winter my mountain-biking-wildflower-shooting bike-rafting buddies (who convinced me to blog, or rather, cooerced me) told me about a big-flowered, yellow, fragrant borage they saw in the desert.  I didn't believe them.

Lithospermum incisum

Hallelujah- I am a believer in this one; and now as a new convert, I am incensed to have yet to see it in a garden.  (I know it has been done) On my side of the mountains, it is few-and-far-between (but growing everywhere). It blooms  in Mid-April.  Rain increases both the size of the plant and the longevity of bloom, which, as a borage, can continuously bloom for a nice spell.
The flowers are not small- almost 2cm wide if I recall accurately, and they are fragrant in that fresh, fruity way.  In this summer of drought, the plants simply retired to a dried-up crisp so as to spring forth next ...spring.

Look at those elegant-sexy flower tubes!  Sumptuous! The seeds are white shiny things that look like parrot's heads; and in this way they are available to gardeners.  Again, what are we waiting for?  This one doesn't have a waiting period for "acquired tastes" like some of the oddballs I enjoy.  It's pretty right now.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Soapberry Paradise

The Western Soapberry tree (Sapindus saponaria var. drumonddi, or just plain Sapindus drummondii) is a southern plains beastie who promises to improve the world of small dry-growing street trees.  Only a few are familiar with this charming plant, and even fewer are actually using it.  And it is done.
I first met this plant as a kid on my bike; the transparent plastic-like dried seed capsules ("fruit") looked liek so many independently solar-powered Christmas lights.  I stuffed my pockets with these seeds, which would mix with my marbles and jacks as playthings.

Nothing's changed, really.  Last October, my dear friend Sonia and I went to Oklahoma to visit a grand gentleman who grows and utilises it very well in domestic plantings.  Steve Bieberich of Sunshine Nursery  (Clinton, OK) is perhaps one of the finest and humblest plantsmen/nurserymen I've met. (I've met a few...) He grows potted landscape trees a year faster than your average bear, but holds onto them to have a year-older root system, which dramatically increases the success rate of his plants in general.  What a guy. (Pictured above, right, admiring a "Gum Bumelia" or "Chittamwood": Sideroxylon lanuginosum)

We also swung through the South-East corner of Colorado where the trees natural range just pokes into our fine state, just in tiem to see the canyon-bottom dwelling Soapberries turning yellow.  ("Near" Kim, Colorado, USA)  


 It feels like a good omen to pass through a town that is your name.  I felt a wierd sense of proprietorship for the funny little place.

In cultivatoin, it is a fine shapely thing.  Round.  Nice, eh?  Maybe 20 feet tall at absolute maximum.  Small leaflets are easy to clean up or ignore in fall.  The decorative fruit are not pavement-greasing things like crabapples, but stay on the tree, so there are always golden orbs to be enjoyed in low lighting.

IMPORTANT FACTS are these:  as a nursery subject, it does not like overwatering.  This sensitivity is not extreme, but it is important.  Young plants are tender (many call this plant a zone 7 ot 8, where a healthy plant is probably really a zone 6).  Denver Botanic Gardens has one, and there is a naturalising group of them in Clifton, Colorado.  I have watched the above tree survive (with no ill effects) having been unwatered for years  (Clifton, CO: 8 inches of annual precip.) when the property was either empty or rented.

 LAST IMPORTANT FACT:  This plant grows a little (not a lot) slowly as a sapling (for nursery-growing reference) and is not "traditional," and has thus avoided widespread use as a wonderful dry-growing street tree.  Let's stop ignoring it and try it out.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hanging Gardens of Zion

"Hanging Gardens" is a technical term.  Really.  It's in Stanley L. Welsh's "A Utah Flora."
And Zion National Park in Utah, USA has them.  This early November....

The autumn colours were fine.  
(Acer grandidentatum, Wasatch/Bigtooth Maple lends the reds among Utah Juniper, Juniperus osteosperma/utahensis; Pi├▒on, Pinus edulis; Doug Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii; Singleleaf Ash, Fraxinus anomala;  Silktassel, Garrya flavescens, and probably other fun things )

While the big guys awed, the little guys intrigued. So much diversity grows in the cracks and fissures (this is a natural crevice garden...) of diverse sandstones in Zion.  Despite being unremarkable this time of year, I kept being attracted to the night-blooming phloxes called Leptodactylon. (unpictured)
In spring, Zion boasts its namesake flavour of the Shooting Star,  Dodecatheon pulchellum var. zionense, quite growable and availabel for gardens (look it up if you don't know it; it is worth it!) which is celebrated in the park's signage and easily seen up-close on the Emerald Pools walk.

Zion is a good place for plant inspiration for dry gardens, as the area gets about 20 inches (50cm) of rain per year, which is weighed against a hot summer more reminiscent of a furnace than one in Denver, say.  Great massive sandstone features channel, divert, and trap a certain amount of this water- a complex situation that favours a delightfully variable hanging-crevice garden flora:

Linanthastrum nuttallii, a new and charming plant to me. It had a confectionary odour that I can't name.

   In drier crevices copious Petrophyton caespitosum, or Rock Spirea, (A member of the rose family, no joke, at half an inch tall, and up to a foot wide, well- but plastered to a rock) showed some autumn colour as well as proved often to host:
...the ember-hot and supermodel-sexy dwarf "Rough Paintbrush," who tops my hitlist next year to try growing: Castilleja scabrida var. scabrida.  In botany, it was once called "Castilleja zionensis."

 A Heuchera literally hangs out in the shadier places. Generally, one tends to find these lot on North sides, which protects thier evergreen sensibilities from winter sun-burn.

 Zauschneria latifolia var. garrettii was the shocker- my first time seeing the "humminbird trumpet" in nature. We rely on this babe to produce traffic-cone orange  flowers all summer long in our gardens, but this wild one shocked my pants off with brilliant fall hues; I feel that as literaly half the plants in the area were like this, it must be a glorious response to the drought.  This special plant was largely popularised by the soon-to-be-much-grieved and recently-closed High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, NM.

Zion is the only place where I've seen Shepherda rotundifolia hang and cascade downwards with its mirror-glittery leaves.  It is a  much-sought-after-in-gardens evergreen shrub.

This year in gardening seems to have been rough for everyone.  Despite drought and a long, hot summer, nature still clips along, even beautifully.  The plants at Zion don't care that Colorado's Reservoirs are quite down right now, and that a favourite and progressive gardening mail-order nursery has closed, or that my home squash crop was a bust.  It's rather comforting, somehow.

 May we emulate the levity and steadfastness of nature.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Splitting Hairs

It is horrible to realise that one has not only fallen into, but long been buried in the gutter of that intolerable and irritating trend of making puns in healdines and titles.  I hate being such a hippocrite.

Somene needed ot add a photographic account to the net of this wonderful thing that happens in nature called


It is a scientifically defined type of hair that is literally split, the forks and "base" often roughly equal. Such observations of which way someone's hair is going is crucially important in botany, especially when in identifying some species.

All that said, I still don't know what this tiny alpine plant (1cm wide) is, growing at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA. (Photographed through a hand-lens)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Plant Pin-up: Astragalus spatulatus

Astragalus spatulatus

Cute name, eh?

It is a dolly-dynamite sweetheart beastie. It's been my heart-throb plant for the past year and a half since seeing it for the first time.

Blooming in April, it is being generally cute the rest of the year.

Our local form grows particularly particularly particularly short compared to what it looks like in other places, where in Saskachewan, Kansas, Utah, and elsewhere (the internet reveals)it is up to 6cm tall.

Astragalus spatulatus bun in bloom, April

Here she grows at the edge of the summit/crest of Mt. Garfield, just North of Grand Junction, CO, USA

Proof of proportion of Mt. Garfield's fantastic colony of Astragalus spatulatus.

Astragalus spatulatus
...And there is a plant, cute as a button, grown by Sunscapes Rare Plant Nursery, doing so-far-so-good in my crevice garden, looking all like proof of a pathological desire to mimic nature.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Underappreciation Files #1

There are so many fine plants underappreciated.

Case #1 (dare we start here):

Dalea frutescens. "Black Dalea"

Gardening folks may be more familiar with the Prairie Clover, Dalea purpurea, but this lovely pea-shrub is, indeed a small shrub.  In fact, that is what its name (frutescens) means:  "becoming a shrub."  Indeed, it is a wee one ringing in at a foot or three, (think of Baby Blue Rabbitbrush) with quite wispy and thin stems.  The extra tiny compound leaflets have a silvery heir, but aren't actually silver.  What I want to impress upon everyone is that it has been in full bloom all season. Just like the picture above.  All season.  And it's adorable.  All season.  Got that?

It comes from, well, generally South of Colorado.   But it appears totally hardy, I'd guess to zone 5.  Its fine texture mixes well with other plants in close quarters.  I do not know just how dry one can push it, but I will estimate it to perform well (continuing to bloom) with monthly waterings, given its inexhaustibly deep wiry roots.  Give it full to a half-day sun.  Why its common name is "black-"  I would love to know.

Where do we get it?  My own plant must be too lonely (for either a partner or a matchmaker), alas, for it is not setting seed to share.  It takes well from cuttings, which is how Timberline Gardens in Arvada (Denver), CO has it.  Our original material came from Allan Taylor, our great Boulder-based planthunter of the Southwest.  Further, one of the largest wholesalers of dry-growing plants, Mountain States Wholesale Nursery, offers a selection called 'Sierra Madre,' so impress upon your local nursery to carry it, there is no excuse.

What's more, there are a bunch of species of Dalea (some called Psorothamnus by some folks) out there  in North America that have either been only tried local to their home-haunts or appear not to have been tried at all.  (The easily grown and cheap seed for several are available from Alplains.)  Yet another frontier for new plants!

(Dalea capitata at Denver Botanic Gardens, 20 October 2012. Another plant in constant bloom.)

Case closed.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Zoo Two

It has been an animal rich year; I cannot help but celebrate more:

 A greater sufferer of biophilia would try harder than I do find out what this very large 10 cm (4") moth is called.
 A Mutillid, or "Velvet Ant" on Opuntia sp.  These glorious beasts are said to deliver one heck of a sting, and have a special habit of starting their lives in the nest of- and eating the children of- ground-dwelling flying insects.  They are truly eccentric- do look them up and read about their other bizarre habits.  They are a special treat to see in the desert; this one is in the show garden at Chelsea Nursery.

This moment made me think of the late great Cindy Nelson-Nold, who often (always?) included a scientifically-appropriate insect within her botanical illustrations for the three books. {Cryptantha sp. on Mt. Garfield, Mesa County, CO, USA)

A Collared Lizzard is perhaps the least skiddish of lizards here; I find them so fearless and confident that they tend not to shy away (like our other lizzards) when approached closely for a picture.  They scamper with their bodies off the ground, requiring that long tail for balance, and are thus capable of greater speeds. (again, unlike to our other lizzards).  My entire childhood was an informal survey concluding that this wonderful beast is one of few who s not afraid to serve a generous bite to a capturer.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


I have been blessed to encounter a great deal of animals in the past fortnight due to horticulture in one way or another; be they attracted into a garden or on the road to a horticultural travel.  Be they a road runner, 21 quail, desert mountain goats, a collared lizard, a scorpion, et cetera.

May they be a reason to garden; the great Austrian Plantsman Fritz Kummert once noted how he sees more lizards in his rock garden.  I have noted more ground-dwelling wasps than I'd see in a normal garden as well as two black widows in my crevice garden.
I welcome them.

 And I thought I might pay homage to them with pictures of a few.

Tiger salamander finds cool refuge in a sunken tree pot.

 Tarantula takes his autumn pilgrimmage for sex. (Southeast Colorado)

(Added later:  This precious fellow is probably an "Oklahoma Brown;" Aphonopelma hentzi.  He will find a mate, then perish into the fall weather, but his tryst will overwinter to lay her eggs in June; her own longevity being a decade.  Further reading from CSU's Whitney Cranshaw: Tarantulas of Colorado)

 This year I have observed both small black and large red ants hauling away Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvfolia) seeds.  God bless their microscopic hearts!  But I have also observed them drilling  into and excavating my eggplant fruit and plant stems...

 Woodhouse Toad was groggily unearthed when I was digging in a crevice to plant. I excused myself and re-covered her.

A bug (technical term- Hemiptera) who is statistically bound to be a plant-sucker, but I'll love him anyway.

Garden Melange, or Bits & Bobs

 Oreoxis alpina needs more internet presence; (there are no pictures of them as tight buns- until now!)
This is on Loveland Pass, CO, USA; {I would trade my left index-toe for seeds; they must blow away in the wind (which is owed, perhaps, for the bun form) if they are produced at all on these plants.}
Can you belive it is a Carrot/Cilanto/Parsley family member?

 Hippeastrum x johnsonii is an heirloom naturalising Amaryllis in the Southern USA, I hear; it has grown for me in Grand Junction, CO for many years now.  I planted it several inches deep.

Manzanita bark. Arctostaphylos patula. A somewhat challenging beast to acquire and establish, but well worth it.

Stanleya pinnata young'un in a tight crevice.  Thoroughly watering nearby soils ensured that the root area would moisten by proximity until it could get a hold; and it has. Agave palmeri behind.

I didn't think Gentiana angustifolia, bought from LaPorte Avenue Nursery in Ft. Collins, CO, would bloom in the fall.

White flowers fade to rust on a garden-grown 7' (2m) wide Eriogonum corymbosum.

A trick from Jim Borland is to approach stab-threatening Yucca leaves perpendicularly if one needs to get in there to clean, weed, or prune. Y. harrimaniae

Planting/Establishing Dryland/Xeric Plants

An in-depth description of planting technique for dry gardens, rock gardens, and crevices, a statistical confession of everything I've killed this year,  and pictures to help.  (This year is not over yet!)

These techniques extend to pretty much all other plants.

Easy Ones
I like plants who don't wince when they see their moving truck.  Some species are equipped in such a way that makes them very easy to establish.  Topping the list are Cactus.  Agave are also especially easy.  I've planted several dozen this year, and I've lost 0%.  Yucca, too. Most Sedums.  Winterfat (Krasheninnikovia lanata) suprished me with its indefatigable personality, even when I forgot to water new plants for two weeks in summer heat.

Why Bareroot Planting
Perhaps the biggest recent push in this school of thought came in Bob Nold's 2008 High and Dry.  I, like most folks, read over it like a a speedboat on choppy water because it was so radically different than what we expected to read and had been doing.  I did at first, and then it soaked in  Since I've started planting this way, I've seen staggering results.  It is as though the plant grew there from seed.

The big key is eliminating the interface between nursery-soil and ground-soil; this is done by eliminating the presence of nursery-soil.  Failure to do this breaking of the barrier, essentially plugging in a pot-shaped mass into the soil, confines the plant to its "comfort zone," while the gardener hopes to coax the roots into the ground-soil, which is a tedious game played invisibly underground.  This is what most folks do.  The best anecdote I've heard came recently form one Billy, a passionate home gardener.  He changed his mind and removed a five-year old English Ivy plant (which, despite being one of the most viciously vigourous plants, didn't grow much in that time) only to find the whole root mass in the exact shape of a nusery pot.  Five years.

How To Bare-root Plant
Go out and buy the abovementioned book, High and Dry: Gardening with Cold-Hardy Dryland Plants. And read that.  Or I'll summarise here.  But still go get the book.

Start to dig the hole.  About the size of the pot.  You will probably have to dig at it again later because you will finish digging the hole aiming to accomodate the shape of the roots, but you find out what they look like...

Remove the plant from the pot.  Tap/shake/wiggle/abuse the mass of soil and roots so as to knock off the nursery soil.  If the plant clings fast to a bit of the soil, so be it.  I like shaking because it separates loose soil from rooted soil.  Remove most of it.

Don't freak out!  That's the plant's job.

(Titanopsis calcarea is on the "easy" planting list, as a rugged succulent, succumbing only to prolonged wetness)

You can do this either dry or wet.  The wet method (by say, dipping the plant into a tub or bucket) uses water as a lubricant to make prying easier as well as make the process appear phychologically less tormentous; but I have no evidence for this. The dry method avoids matting the roots into a wet-paintbrush-like downward-taper all bunched together, allowing the roots to be more spread (like an inverted bad hair day) when they are buried.  Both work.

(Chrysothamnus nauseosus spp. nauseosus, "Baby Blue" form with Macgyver.

This is where you may have to dig the hole deeper when you find just how long the roots are when teased out. There is a good chance that if it is a dry-growing plant, it has a grounded plant's root system curled up in that pot.  The above is an extreme example for which I'd not dig a four-and-a-half foot hole, but probably one almost twice the depth of its pot once the greater "root ball" is drawn out. But it proves a point.  Just think- planting correclty, you will encourage it to re-grow a root that long to go find water itself.

I personally carry around a bucket/can/pail/jug/wine-bottle of water and an empty bucket to recieve all the potting soil from plants I am planting, which I re-use for potting up future generations of young'uns. (But not seeds/seedlings, for hygiene/cleanliness reasons)  Alternately, you may want put it in your compost or veg garden.

{What if it is root-bound, the roots so tightly woven that it is a solid shape?  Get abusive and get your hands dirty, prying roots out or even chopping slices downwards though the roots to splay out the "root ball" (Bob hates this term, I think) and fan it into the planting hole.}

Water the roots in the hole as you backfill.  I generally fill the hole to the top with water when I have the hole halfway filled, then continue replacing soil when it has soaked in.

 The water marries the plant's roots to your garden's soil so that they are in immediate and intimate contact.   I like to even backfill soil on top of standing water in the hole, thoroughly wetting everything.  This has been called "muddying in."  What a nice, descriptive term.  Now that it is all backfilled, water again for good measure to settle the surrounding soil and plant crown.

Biology tells us that this new plant's ew root hairs which may appear within 48 hours, {Root hairs live only a couple weeks and are continually replaced) will be touching your garden soil, and, to an extent established already!  I will refrain from a diatribe on soil moisture subtleties for now, just take my word for it that this intimate root contact gives the plant the opportunity to take up scant soil moisture and survive dry moments staggeringly better than if planted not bare-rooted.

Note the mass of potted-roots and then the recent roots at the bottom of this rock, (that's 18 inches or 45 cm down) issued from this Eriogonum after only a few weeks in the ground!  (This plant was evicted due to that remodel of the middle section of my crevice garden) Also note how dry the soil is an how unaffected the plant is.

As always, keep the crown (where the stem and roots meet) at ground level. When in doubt, go a little high.  With the exception of say, Zauschneria (now lumped into Epilobium), which can be planted deeper to as to put their tender buds lower in the ground out of cold weather's way and in a position to spread better- just remove the leaves that will be buried.  The great Garden Authoress Gwen Moore (Kelaidis) told me this, and it has proved true.

What if the plant is extra leafy, especially in comparison to a scant root system?  Remove some of the leaves.  Take off say two-thirds f them, leaving the young ones.  This reduces the water-consuption/loss of leaves when the roots are too busy being disturbed to support them.  I experimented to ensure this theory of mine was true:

Two Buffalo Gourd plants (Cucurbita foetidissima) which were the same size, planted in the same hole a week or two before being photographed.  They each had a 3" (8cm) of carrot-like taproot with a small wad of real roots on the end.  The one on the left had all but one full leaf cut off, the one on the right kept them all.  It is stressed and wilting, struggling to supply water to those leaves.  The one on the left.

Another way to reduce water loss is through shade covers.  These needn't be fancy; they only need to be A. breathable and B. block out at least 50% of the sun.  Leave these on a week or two.  This applies especally in summer if you are silly as I to risk planting then and also especially to plants that came from a greenhouse or more "hospitable" climate.  It also holds very true to cactus, who have a keen sense of direction given that one side of the plant gets baked with Southern sun and the other may have never actually been kissed by the sun!

The "Stireman design" shadecloth tents, protecting summer-planted crevice-dwelling subjects.

A classic "moat" for Sporobolus airoides, Alkali sacaton. 

For shrubs and trees with larger, thirstier, root systems as well as any plant that is going to get watering (for establishment) infrequently.  The old-fashioned castle-moat -stlye water "well" is great.  The more water it can hold to soak in and charge the soil, the better.  I make tiny temporary dams in the crevice garden for small plants, too.

(note the small well at the top of this crevice-planted Arenaria hookeri spp. desertorum. 

Water Regime
Mirabilis alipes/multiflora? has no trouble its first season at all.

My jury is still out on this, but I think we're closer after this year.  I'll use the term "establishment-watering" to describe what is done with the purpose of getting a plant established, not what they will see in the future, because some will be intentionally unwatered for the rest of their lives while I fuss over different things.

I have been establishment-watering exactly once a week this year.  Honestly: Mondays.  I am starting to think that doubling up in would have cut the losses down.  Generalisations are dangerous, but I love danger:  I currently opine that more water when young gets the plants further along so as to have better plants who re ready when it is time to cut them off.  Another dangerous generalisation is to expect to establish-water for two seasons running before you can walk away entirely in the dry Western US.  This may mean much less frequently that second year.

A bigger specimen, (Like a five-gallon tree) and especially one with a pot-bound or in-grown root system will need to be watered over a longer span of time, as it will take it longer to establish than a small plant with loose roots, I find.  Bigger plants are thirstier, and  where root system shapes are concerned, old habits die hard for mature plants.

There is definitely no definite formula to water regime; the best method is to use one's judgement based upon trying the soil with one's finger.  And each plant is different- drastically so; and this is what keeps us interested.

Confession Time
I've lost 14% of all plants I stuck in the ground this year. (Out of well over 200 planted) Cold hard numbers rudely proclaim that there was much experimenting.  Murdering plants in the name of knowledge.  Checking my records closely, the majority of the doomed were planted in July, and died within a week or two.  Lesson: avoid July, and probably August, unless you like to water frequently. And even then, feel the shame.

Near Onion Creek Rd, Highway 128, Utah, USA