Monday, January 27, 2020

Spotlight on three: Easy, Pink, and Rare-ish.

These three species are very easy to grow, but also a little rare in rock gardens. 

My favorite combo.

Erigeron carringtoniae is adaptable, long-lived for me, quick from seed, and a punk with dyed pink hair. I think John Stireman says this is his favorite fleabane.  (There are about 200 species) 
That's like if Paul McCartney told you what his favorite blues album is.  
Will you heed the tastes of a man who has grown more species of Erigernon than God?

My favorite Prickly-Thrift is Acantholimon puburulum ssp. longiscapum.  Nothing pollinates it, so I have to take cuttings. The decent-sized flowers do not open flat, but they are held on scapes. 
I'm a sucker for scapes.
It's softball sized.
 Even the anthocyanic winter color is novel for a prickley-thift.

Asperula boissieri

You've probably weeded Gallium odoratum from some garden or another until you could scream. Most of us have. But this relative- alpine woodruff - is a slowly widening clump of easy bliss.  
Asperula boissieri

You can even divide it. Easily.  Not true of most great bun and cushion rock plants.   You won't be able to find it under the flowers. Put it on your list to find for 2020. If you can't find it, go with Asperula gussonii. I actually like it better. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Is This Greenhouse too Good to be Real?

We all dream about having a greenhouse.

But most of us don't.
Because they are a pain in the arse to maintain, expensive, and really expensive to heat and cool.  
That sucks.

The average American greenhouse costs four times as much to heat and cool, (per square foot) than a house.  -THAN A HOUSE.  Do you love paying heating bills as much as I do?

There is an alternative.
I'm dubious of alternatives. There is always some dark side, some sharp pin for every ballon of inflated expectations for some granola-hippy-pseudo-scientific "solution" to lots of things.  So I research the crap out of anything before I commit to it...

I'd heard about Passive Solar Greenhouses a bit, and then a friend gave me a book on them.  
Full of math, statistics, studies, physics (no metaphysics!) and living examples.  A great book. 
I'll save you the research. Even though all it did was show me how to build a greenhouse myself, it goes in the short list of books that changed the way I do things forever.  

Anyhow.  After several visits to functioning solar greenhouses, a few notebook drawings, a little math, a one-year trial with a little cold frame, and one year later, we built one last fall.

And DAMN it works. I know exactly what it's doing because I'm measuring it closely. 

It took a little extra thought to plan and build, and it is paying off already in trouble it doesn't give me. Just for fun, mine has no supplemental heat, just to see what it can do. 

Dry statistics:
7 feet x 16 feet = 112 square feet  (2m x5m = 10 m2)
About $500 in materials. $250 of that was insulation.
2 weeks of casually building it for half days.
2 layers of thick plastic (about $80 each)
30 degrees Fahrenheit (17C) warmer inside than outside on most coldest nights.
35 minimum, 82 max temp, so far. (1C to 28 C)
40-60F normal temp range. 
$0 heating cost.

Critical details: 
-Wood framing (because I almost know how to do that)
-Well sealed with weather-stripping.
-Faces South.
-Well insulated north wall, part of roof, and any non-clear surface.
-Foam insulation buried underground between outdoor and indoor dirt.
-Wax-powered vent openers to cool it. (vents equal about 20% of clear surface)
-450 gallons of thermal mass water inside (4 gallons per square foot)
-This design does not employ a ground-to-earth heat exchange. It could be made warmer!
-No electricity or wiring required to operate. None.
-No lock on the door so that a would-be thief finds it easy to discover there are no weed plants in it.

It is ideal for cool-growing plants.  It didn't take much dialing-in to make it self-regulate its own temperature.   A person could add a little heat to grow warmth-loving things in winter, and surely at great efficiency.  

We planted veg seed on thanksgiving. What I've heard and read and experienced about mid-winter day-length had me expect that nothing would actively grow during New Year's day. 
I was wrong!  We've got lettuce!

It makes me wonder why this isn't standard.  This will pay itself off for me in just one winter season. It's freaking magic. It gives me sanity, pleasure, and a place to start early propagation of rock garden plants. It was worth it. 

I know that a lot of greenhouse failures come down to inappropriate design for climate, or that owners didn't stick with it just a tad longer to iron out the wrinkles. 

In summer, I'll take the door off its hinges and throw a shade-cloth over it if necessary to keep it cooler.  I'm fascinated to see it how it operates in summer, when I'll use it to push warm-loving perennial and woody crops like Yucca and Soapberry.

Things I learned I'd share as advice to anyone building one:

-Build it so the inside layer of plastic film is sealed well, if not better than the outside one, because that is the one that will get condensation on it that you don't want to trap next to the wood.
-Build it keeping in mind you want to caulk, strip, or otherwise seal it as airtight as possible. This is why most designs use traditional home building materials: for a good seal.
-If your vents/doors are wood, frame them so temp/humidity don't warp them out of square.
-Shade of a tree is not such a bad thing.
-Leave yourself room to compost in it as passive heat. I watch my outdoor compost steaming and want to capture it for heat in winter!
-Calling before you dig "811" won't help you not cut your own poorly buried electric services! 
-It would seem like there is not enough light, but by all observation of plants, there is.

The possibility to use recycled or reclaimed components is endless.  I had very little myself. Using Double-pane sliding glass doors would be awesome.

So if you have seriously considered a greenhouse but are a real or frugal human being (or don't want to ironically use lots of fossil fuel to heat your greenhouse), seriously consider a passive solar greenhouse. Well planned, you can harvest the joy of your dreams and not suffer the complications.


Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Lectures/Programs 2020

Feb 29: 
Reality Check: When natives do and don't work for landscaping and gardens.
Landscaping with Colorado Native Plants Conference, Auraria Campus, Denver.

March 12: Crevice Gardens or TBD
Christchurch Botanic, New Zealand

March 19: Crevice Gardens or TBD
Dunedin, New Zealand

March 20: Crevice Gardens or TBD
Invercargill, New Zealand

April 23: Reality Check: Renovating an existing yard into a xeriscape and actually succeeding.
Waterwise Seminar for Resource Central in Golden, CO

June 9: TBD
Plant Select Annual Meeting, Denver, CO

June 12: Crevice Gardens
New Mexico Master Gardener Conference, (June 11-13) Albuquerque, NM

July sometime: Crevice Garden talk/workshop, with Paul Spriggs,
Far Reaches Farm, Port Townsend, WA

Sept between the 3rd and 6th: Rock Garden Workshop
Inverewe National Trust Garden, Scotland

Sept 9-11, Crevice Gardens & Hardy Cacti and Succulents: Beyond Sedum
Urban Growth Conference: Perennials Plantings Beyond Nature. Malmö, Sweden.

Friday, January 17, 2020

A stroll through the House Range

Last June I took a hike thanks to a friend scouting for the Eriogonum Society conference; it was a great opportunity to see another new example of the puddles of plants that are isolated in the "sky islands" of small mountain ranges in the Great Basin, separated by seas and oceans of steppe and desert.  

The House Range is in West-Central Utah, near Delta, and it is mostly, if not entirely limestone. Perfect territory for good plant richness.  

The stepped-steppe pattern of the limestone ridges inspire me for garden designs that need to be big!

Heuchera rubescens, pinkish when in bloom, is like most dry American Heuchera and loves a nice North crevice.  This species has outliers near where I live in Western Colorado, where we are otherwise dominated by the sweet but boring H. parvifolia. None of them seem really specific about what kind of rock at all.

But the real shocker for me was this primrose.  Primula cusickiana var. domensis.  Sure, it was in mossy seeps, but not wet ones.  Nothing like the drippy places Dodecatheon (now "Primula", too) hangs on when it does show up in the low drylands.  

The "dom" in Primula domensis,  my friend told me was a reference to the House Range to which it is sort-of endemic.  (Like "domicile, domestic") It is arguable how related/similar it is to nearby P. cusickiana subspecies nevadensis... but whatever, let's not get all judgy about its family tree, it's freaking pretty and deserves our respect for being a Primula in the desert.

I've mostly given up on Primroses years ago, which all fainted to death at the mere whisper of forgotten waterings in the garden.  But this gem- it puts up with dry air and heat- I wouldn't mind giving it a go if I ever have the chance!  Look at those lovely eyes!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Are You Growing from Seed?

This is that time of year when perennial seed you've ordered, like that from seed exchanges, is coming in the mail.  Or it should be, if you are not.  (the NARGS seedex is still open right now!)If you don't grow your own perennials from seed, you are depriving yourself of a not-too-difficult way to keep you dirty hand in gardening and enrich your garden attainable by no other means.  

The pleasure of seed.

(Arisaema sikkokianum)

Know just two things:

1. It is deeply satisfying- you may grow things you could have never dreamed of or possibly bought.
2. It can be easy, and small. Just a tray in a shadowed place on your patio will do.

Your own plants will be truly more adapted to your climate and garden.  The next generation will be even better.

It provides me with a great deal of wintertime sanity: to watch green things growing under lights in the spare room, to go outside for brief moments to see how cold it really is or isn't- and better appreciate a heated house.  It also forces me to do a little something on a timeline instead of slipping into the depths of winter complacency. Lastly, it breeds excitement and dreams of new and colorful plants- unbridled by the realities (yet) of getting it done. Is there nothing more delicious than looking at seed catalogues?
For rock gardeners, yes: reading Czech seed hunter lists, seed exchange lists, and and googling names they've not heard of.  It sets me on research benders for whole worlds of amazing plants I've never known before.

You can go nuts or stay small. It's up to you. You feel like God if you wind up having a patch of tiny pots like this, seemingly waving up to you with their tiny tags.

I'm not going to write completely about growing rock garden plants from seed, because my friend John wrote a very practical, thorough article here on it.

Most folks find that re-using standard pots they buy plants in is ideal and easy, since they come with trays, but use whatever containers work for you. Egg crates fit into windowsills for things that like indoor temps.

Not all will germinate, and it's not your fault.  The more experimental you are, the lower percent germination, but more lessons learned and higher odds of discovering something very cool.  

If you like to see things grow in the dead of winter, you don't need a home greenhouse. A windowsill or shelf outfitted with fluorescent lights works for species that are happy with house temperatures (or don't need winter stratification- or, have already been stratified)

Lastly, three very easy groups to start with:

1. Aquilegia. Columbines are fast and easy and don't mind being crowded in a pot for a while.
2. Draba. Needs no stratification; I found just days ago. Quick because they are mustards.
3. Yucca. You can start indoors with no strat

The value of a baby plant is so much more when you have known it since it was in a packet that came in the mail.

Or, how else will you be able to enjoy a little gem in your garden you've only seen hiking?

(Erigeron vagus)

Another Concrete One

This crevice garden was a side order.  

I was creating a small, exotic-fruit-tree orchard in Bret's backyard. Pawpaw, Jujube, Kiwi, Figs, trifoliate orange, Che, and the like. Bret is the prez of the local cactus club (his unwatered front yard has the cactus).  The back yard project entailed taking out an old concrete patio to re-pour a larger one. The plan was to have small rock gardens in his re-purposed two 6' (2m) wide (400 gallon) stock tanks, or horse troughs. But instead of buying 3/4 of a dumptruck of rock, it occurred to me mid-way we could use the concrete from the old patio, saving new material costs and disposal costs. It's about 7 tons (6300kilos) of concrete.  

I did break the slabs into deliberately different-sized chunks as I went. I used two different soil mixes to give him options and see what grew mesembs better- he wanted Aloinopsis and Delospermas. One of said mixes is mostly decomposed granite fines. A third trough nearby is full of sand and compost as a vegetable bed.  I cut 4' (1.3m) wide holes in the bottoms of the troughs to  minimize the perched water table and allow complete drainage into the soil below, while keeping some of the base for structural integrity to support the sides. They are essentially raised beds, which are awesome for folks with limited mobility.  Did you know that even galvanized metal still rusts? I didn't. It's just slower. I grew to like the bands of rust, (which are merely on the surface and one side) so I used them and turned them to be featured. the insides I lined with a marine sealant. In retrospect, it's a funny accidental echo of the historical British Alpine trough which came about from using abandoned stone-hewn livestock troughs when they were replaced by metal ones.

I used 1/2" (2cm) crushed basalt for the topdressing: a third gray color that intentionally doesn't try to pretend it broke off of the slabs, because I'm not trying to fake a mountain here. It sets off the linear pattern in the design; something I'd want to cover up in a natural garden. The form- the diving in and out of the containers- was inspired by Jiří Papoušek in Prague, who is perhaps the most active crevice garden innovator in the Czech Republic now.

The prettiest things in my designs are always accidents.  Winter colors here: Delosperma nubigenum is red, D. cooperi and friends are a nice green, and the thyme is purple.  I even like the tan/straw-bleached Zauchneria skeleton.  Our first frost was a rude 16 F (-9C) this year, but luckily most plants seemed to have been hardened enough. Except figs- both mine and Bret's look bad; let's hope they return from the ground next year.

Folks often ask about the alkaline nature of concrete.  I've been measuring pH of water with new concrete soaking in it- and it starts strong- like ph11 when it is young; then it mellows down.  It seems that cured concrete is inert- or inert enough that nothing cares. In fact, it is probably a little helpful; more so in wet climates. Its mild long-term basic-ness is on its surface, so as a friend said "broken concrete is basically cheap limestone!" 

While I'm still too much of a nature nut to use concrete for my own personal crevice garden, it's so legitimate.  Rock can be expensive. Crazy expensive, depending on where you live. And we're not all rich; I'm still trying to find a source I can afford for my own home rockery. I think broken concrete not only is a brilliant blue-collar, ecologically-minded garden material, but something that allows gardeners in places where stone isn't even available to have a crevice garden.