Friday, March 22, 2019

A New Crevice Garden in the Wonderland of Far Reaches Farms

Hardcore gardeners around the US and just into Canada are well aware of Far Reaches Farm in Port Townsend, WA. It’s on the Olympic Peninsula across from Seattle. Plenty of my friends in Colorado are on their mailing list and make regular orders. Sue and Kelly, along with their lovely half-dozen staff and two dogs, supply by mail some of the choicest perennials you can buy in North America.  Their new Botanic Conservancy merely officializes their long-standing mission to introduce new species into cultivation, especially from Asia, where plants and their native ranges are being gobbled up at an alarming speed. I think they have the guts to quietly face and respond to the inconvenient fact that a great deal of plant species on earth teeter between either going completely extinct or only existing in domestication. So they work towards the latter.

Classic rockery plant, 
still choice as hen's teeth:
 Polygala chamaebuxus

The NW native Fritillaria pudica

Their mission and niche really reminds me of Juniper Level and Plant Delights, from their truly amusing plant descriptions and nursery which supports a botanical garden, to their propensity to grow things in those magical 4-inch band pots. 

Kelly and Sue invited me up to build a crevice garden for them; they’ve been planning one for years. 
Since my crevice garden buddy Paul Spriggs is just right across the water, I insisted we invite him down, too and make it a crevice garden party.  It has been.

Their immaculate, organized, and efficient shipping room.

Their greenhouses are full of cutting-edge, extremely rare, dreamy, drool-inducing taxa. And you can just buy them. Just order them online. It’s insane. And wonderful.

I need to try not killing Pleione one more time, don’t you think?

The peninsula, by nature, is almost entirely dominated by basalt. So this sandstone which They sought out and stockpiled came all the way from Eastern Montana. It’s ideal for a crevice garden. It was 10 pallets weighing 15 tons.

It’s also possible that the stone dealer, the bubbly and brilliant Jeanine, who is totally passionate about stone, appeared one evening and a party broke out. For fun, she showed Paul and I proper technique of chiseling stone (for words and designs) as well as sharing some useful safety and rock-in-the-workplace tidbits.  Like this one: she recommends opening the wire cage of a stone pallet a bit at a time as it's used so that the lower layers are supported while you pull off of the stack, lessening the likelihood of them falling on toes or just collapsing on you.  Good trick. She and I bonded over a shared love for having a good clear work path between the pile of stone and the destination. I’m serious. It’s a big deal.

Senna has a rotating wardrobe of dog shirts; this one is her “eagle jacket” made of kevlar for when raptors are in the area, because she is right at the weight cutoff for being a bird supper target.

Callie, resident mouser and ratter, keeps watch and keeps cool belly.

I ordered and grew Iris unguicularis in Colorado. (This one is "Mary Barnard') For me, it sure wanted water, did bloom early, and the leaves came through winter even rougher than this.

Libertia peregrinans is not usually appreciated for its foliage; and I doubt it wants to come back home with me to Colorado.  

They are known for Cardiocrinum- the giant Himalayan Lily- and even a pinkish form. The seed pods are strait out of “Little Shop of Horrors,” eh? The massive 15 foot stems remind me of agaves; I wonder if they are related to agaves, as they are also monocarpic.

Wintersown seedpot frames. Everyone take a lesson from this. They face Northeast, which is a nice soft, cool, exposure. They are solid, foam-board insulated coldframes which have three possible covering layers: a foam top for super cold winter nights (and tender seedlings inside), the always-closed wire mesh (for animal and litter protection) and clear panels for warmth and winter wet protection. His version has sturdy braces to hold and lock the lids open. That’s a neat trick.

Their greenhouses are names after dead plant hunters.
I love this so much.

They are incredibly cognizant of fertilizer and chemical use and the environment -- In a daily, real, practical way. I watched Kelly dismount from a tractor to save a worm. They didn’t develop the crevice garden spot for some years because it was erstwhile a favorite nesting zone for killdeer, for whom Kelly and Sue chased away hawks and coyotes during several springs, until their dogs took over watch and starting chasing off predators on their own volition. A pair of ducks comes in and out of their small ponds all day.

By day, there is a cacophony of redwing blackbirds in the next-door wetland, and by night, a chorus of frogs.

This is a magical place.

Here is a new thing we're trying in this crevice garden. It's inspired by Cam, a friend of Paul's I recently met in Victoria. Cam is overwintering winter-wet sensitive succulents (like my heartthrob Aloinopsis) by tucking them into tiny overhangs. So, Paul and I engineered some overhangs- the lower stones are tapered so that their points support the rock above but provide a planting pocket in between them. The "roof" rocks above are wider so their rims catch the rain. We are excited to see how it works; we've designed little overhangs all over the garden facing different aspects.

With the Crevice Garden half-built, we will be having our workshop today where folks are coming from as far as Victoria, BC, and Oregon to learn about building a crevice garden. The workshop filled online in an hour and a half. These folks are going to be keen learners!

Sue and Kelly have spoiled the crap out of us and made us feel like family. They are obviously lovers of people, too, for their staff often eats together in the shade house. They also know the customers so well- their lives and histories and gardens.

Unusually, they also have volunteers, and have done for years, in addition to staff, because its such an enriching environment with such a real, meaningful mission. 

You may croon for the satiny petals of Olsynium (Sisyrinchium) douglasii, but did you know there were clown striped forms? Gush.  Note how all their pots are topdressed with Hazelnut shells which suppress weeds, moss, and liverworts. Brilliant.

One morning we heard heavy metal music blaring from the office. We were told that Kelly must be writing plant descriptions. If you've read them this will make sense to you.

I get to be here until Tuesday, pushing stones under an unusually clear sky (for spring in the Pacific Northwest).

Thursday, March 14, 2019

How Long do Fancy Soil Materials Hold Water?

I never planned to share this.
But I did a home test of some soil additives and it might be useful to you.

Especially rock gardeners, orchid growers, bonsai enthusiasts and green roof builders have been more and more embracing permeable aggregates. They are a wide array, like Expanded Shale (Utelite in Utah), Expanded slate (Permatill in North Carolina),  the porous but fired ceramic (Seramis in Germany, UK, EU), Turface (the red of baseball diamonds), as well as older, well known natural materials like gravel made from shale stone, limestone, and gravel from scoria (lava rock) and pumice. You can also count diatomaceous earth in its non-pulverized form. 

Very, very, very fancy kitty litter:
This expanded shale made in Denver is used as the main component of soil for greenroofs. 
Expanded shale has been mixed into sand-based rock garden mixes at Denver Botanic, and makes up a third of my current favorite xeric/rock garden seed pot mix. It has been sold in bulk by nurseries and comes in different screened sizes.

All of these "gravels," natural or manmade, hold water and nutrients, to varying degrees. What I want to share was a fun home science project from a few years ago in which I wanted to know how much and for how long water was held by a variety of these available materials.  So I filled pots with them, having been dried to air temperature in the house for months.  They were each soaked with water, allowed to drain a set time, and then weighed daily for their water weight for 25 days.  My "science" was not airtight on this, but I tried to mimic good practices on my kitchen table. I know- I forgot a control pot that was not wetted, which would have ensured that my thift-store kitchen scale wasn't inaccurate.

Let's cut to the chase.

Turface held the most water, by weight, and for the longest time. It's comparable to expanded shale.

The first graph is simply the weight of each material every day after being soaked.
The second abridged graph is the weight of the water alone, and as you can see, some of the materials still had water trapped inside the aggregates at the end of my "study", 25 days later.

My deeply scientific label "hydropebble things" are ceramic pebbles used in hydroponics and orchid growing, the size of marbles. They would be useless for alpine and xeric plants but do a great job for orchids and hydroponics watered frequently. My "pink shale" is a 1/2" screened gravel crushed from pink shale rocks that I think are quarried in Wyoming and sold in landscape yards here in Western Colorado. The "Bond Pumice" is actually scoria (pumice and scoria are geologically different, I would learn) mined in Colorado, but common around earth as a normally black or red "lava rock" used in cactus mixes, et cetera. Utelite is the brand of expanded shale manufactured in Salt Lake City and used in their green-roofs there and probably in architectural concrete. The Turface came from a bag that was meant to go to a playing field. It's more expensive per weight but is mercifully available in a bag most anywhere people play baseball.

These red scoria chunks are screened a bit too large for use in small containers; 
1/2 inch (1.5cm) size is better.

This isn't a new idea, but it's more popular, that's for sure. The old school version was crushed flower pots, which were terra cotta: able to absorb water but were in little gravelly chunks to the consistency of kitty litter, allowing air and water to pass and drain around them.

Know that the test used these materials alone in pots, with air spaces between their particles. If these materials were used in a mix, especially one with peat or other fine materials, those fines would fill the gaps and certainly transport water around a container and change the way it is released and evaporates, which adds a big layer of complexity to how such permeable materials work when they are merely one component of a mix.

Also know that this doesn't say anything about the nutrient holding abilities of these materials, which probably varies dramatically between them, and would be lab tested as CEC, or Cation Exchange Capacity. What is so attractive about these materials is that they can hold nutrients without being organic matter, which is useful when we are growing plants from rocky places and aridisols, et cetera. Such plants are often sensitive to fungus and bacteria which thrive in a rich organic nutrient environment. Permeable aggregates also don't break down and can be sterilized for re-use.

I am too lazy to write any further depth, as I just wrote a chapter on it for our book, but this graph has been sitting around my computer for a while begging to be shared with folks who have been playing with these materials and would stand to learn from it.  I hope it is useful to you, friends.

Happy Spring and "Media Mania," (the season when you obsess over potting mixes)

Manfreda maculosa seedlings in the "trinity" of equal parts peat-based seed mix (Promix), perlite, and expanded shale.