Friday, December 20, 2013

Old Dwarf Conifers

Those cute little balls of evergreen dwarf conifers seem like they will be small forever, but eventually, of course, they get big. It is sad, sometimes to see old dwarf conifers that have never been pruned because many varieties are so dense they form a solid but shallow encasement of foliage that reveals none of the plant's branching architecture. I did a program recently on dwarf conifers and dug up many of my old slides which included pictures of old plants that, because of their dwarf and slow growing nature, had acquired an interested sort of aged look to them. I am eagerly pruning my own dwarf conifers to try to accelerate that look.

An Austrian pine (Pinus nigra 'Nana') seen many years ago growing at the National Arboretum in Washington D.C. had acquired a venerable and distinguished look while remaining within a reasonable scale for most landscapes.

Japanese umbrella pine (Pinus densiflora 'Umbraculifera') is not a dwarf, but it is a fairly small, slow growing tree a with distinctive growth habit. If it isn't pruned it grows into a very uninteresting solid mass of foliage. The plant pictured above, as seen many years ago at the Cincinnati Zoo had been beautifully pruned to show off its many attractive features such as the orange bark, vase shaped growth habit and flat topped branching.

This dwarf eastern white pine (Pinus strobus 'Nana') also seen a number of years ago at the National Arboretum in Washington D.C. has a fascinating form that in a better setting and without the gravel and ring of exposed edging could be the centerpiece of a wonderful garden composition.
My own dwarf eastern white pine is only eight years from the container nursery and already I think it is starting to show some interesting branching habits that will only become more interesting with age if I prune with care. It may be hard to imagine, but shortly before taking this photograph I opened up the interior of this plant and removed a great number of branches.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Growing Weird Plants

I like to grow weird plants like Ephedra, and they can be considered weird for any number of reasons. Anyone who studied plant taxonomy would have to consider Ephedra weird because it just doesn't fit into the preconceived notion of a cone bearing gymnosperm. It seems like a remnant of evolution. They are also unusual for their essentially leafless habit, although in their typically arid habitats, that trait is shared by many. Finally the alkaloids contained within the plant have a long history of use and abuse which gives the plant special interest. Gardeners are often collectors, and there is great pleasure in being able to say, "Oh yea, I have that."

When I was thinking about whether to include this plant in my blog I checked the Internet for images of Ephedra minima, which is the one I have been growing since 2008. Most pictures show the red fleshy cones, which I also illustrate, but I didn't see any with the interesting growth up a vertical crevice with the leaf-like switches lined up in a similar vertical orientation as if the plant is flowing up the rockery. My weird plant also makes a nice aesthetic contribution to my rock garden.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

My Flat, Rock Garden

I love my tiny garden compositions. Judging by the current enthusiasm for fairy gardens and ongoing enjoyment of gardens for model trains and terrariums diminutive garden compositions seem to be popular. I guess I get my diminutive garden outlet through my rock gardens and in particular, for the sake of this edition of my blog, through my flat, rock gardens. One in particular has proven particularly satisfying, so I am in the midst of expanding and improving it. The photographs below portray a sampling of some of my favorite inhabitants.

I have access to a quarry's scrap sandstone rocks that typically have at least one flat side and are about four to eight inches thick. They are otherwise irregular.  I lay these down like a patio leaving abundant planting gaps where the irregularly shaped rocks don't fit together. I backfill with sandy loam soil.

Above is one of my favorites in this garden, Veronica prostrata 'Wine'. Although the growing conditions are very different from alpine screes, to me this sort of scene reminds me of that rocky, sparsely vegetated landscape.
This tiny clump of Lewisia 'George Henley' (above) is my only surviving Lewisia and it has been growing as this little clump for about seven years. Those sandy cracks between the rocks must be well drained, because I think my Lewisia growing in other sites died from winter wet. Its biggest threat is from encroachment by the neighboring Dianthus. See below.

A dilemma that always seems to loom for me in my rock gardening is what to do with expansive plants such as the above Dianthus gratianopolitanus 'Feuerhexe'. I relish its success in the site but don't want to lose the precious little specimens it engulfs. A balance must be struck and I have been brutally whacking the Dianthus back lately. Notice the above mentioned Veronica prostrata in the lower right hand corner for a size perspective.

I thought I had lost my fall blooming, questionably hardy Leucojum autumnale (above) from this garden, but I was thrilled this fall to find it growing and in bloom.

I had also been missing the flowers of my fall blooming crocus (Crocus kotschyanus)(above) from this garden but it appeared in good blooming order this year. I saw the spring leaves but have had problems in other gardens losing track of these little plants in mid summer after the leaves disappear. I think in this case the flowers were obscured by floppy bordering plants such as the Japanese anemone seen here. I have since beaten them back.

And finally, I want to mention this long time survivor of this garden pictured here several years ago before the stones became weathered and moss covered. This year's photographs of the plant don't do it justice. Its Antennaria dioica 'Rubra', a red flowered selection of a common native inhabitant of thin infertile soils around here. My rockery seems to suit it just fine and its another example of how I don't get too hung up on beating my head against a wall trying to grow true alpines in my hot humid climate.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Long Term Investments

These four dwarf confers (Pinus cembra 'Blue Mound') have been growing in my garden for eight years and are now ready to be pruned into something of interest.
This dwarf conifer (Pinus parviflora 'Miyajima') (next to the phlox) has also been growing in my rock wall for eight years. It was difficult to get it established in the thin lines of soil between the rocks, but now it should be perfect for sculpting as it continues to grow.

I have been growing a cluster of four dwarf conifers (Pinus cembra 'Blue Mound') for eight years now (top picture). I planted them with the notion that eventually I would like to make a landscape scale grove similar in concept to bonsai groves that I so admire. Inspiration for exactly what that should look like has not yet hit. Finally, however, they are getting to a size that I can start forming them into something of interest. My long term investment is beginning to pay off. I have the raw materials in hand to make something interesting of this little grove.

I have several other dwarf confers that all represent similar long term investments. Most are in rock walls (such as the bottom picture above) where I hope to make them into something like the wind swept confers (Krummholz) seen at the tree lines of tall mountains or the confers growing out of rock faces hanging on to tiny cracks in the rocks. A couple have been "in training" for a couple of years, but others are so small they can hardly be shaped yet. I lost a few initially that just couldn't get a toe hold on the rocky retaining wall, so it is gratifying to now have some well established plants in a difficult site that are getting to a size that they can be the objects of my artistic ambitions.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Even a Blind Pig...

I am not ready to shout, success!, but I do think this unlikely combination in the top picture looks kind of cool. It is Hibiscus 'Robert Fleming' and Clematis 'Mrs. Robert Brydon' growing at Kingwood Center. As an administrator I don't get many opportunities to garden at work, but I do have a few beds to tend, and I try to do weird things that are unlike what the other gardeners are doing. My efforts fall flat all too often, but I want the gardeners to experiment and try new things. Maybe if they see me doing it, and eventually succeeding, they will be emboldened.

We had Clematis 'Mrs. Robert Brydon'  for sale at the Greenhouse for two years and could hardly give it away. That is one reason I made a point of using it in the garden.

On the other side of the bed I am trying to do something similar, but instead of using 'Mrs. Robert Brydon' as the groundcover I am using Indigofera pseudotinctoria 'Rose Carpet' (Dwarf False Indigo). When I took delivery from our local supplier I noticed that he gave me more than I ordered. He said he couldn't sell them (I see a pattern here.), so he just give me the last of his supply. The first year they looked great and full of flowers as illustrated in the bottom picture, but I discovered they die back hard in the winter. The good news is the Indigo has come back vigorously in year two and has self seeded. I am counting on a robust groundcover eventually.

To me this is the sort of stuff that makes gardening fun.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Veratrum nigrum (Black False Hellebore)

Plants can be desired because they are rare, beautiful, fruitful, shade giving, architectural and so forth, but I also love plants that are intriguing. One of those intriguing plants is blooming right now in my garden and I feel a compulsion to share my enthusiasm for it. I can't say it is especially beautiful, although it is striking. Imagine coming across a patch of these in some remote Asian meadow. Who wouldn't be drawn to it? Perhaps I find it intriguing for its deep maroon flowers, pleated leaves and stark inflorescence, but that doesn't seem sufficient. Maybe it is because I have just the one and it has made itself a fixture in my garden since I bought it from Arrowhead Alpines nine years ago. I don't know, but I do relish it and why not? The flowering of my Veratrum nigrum is always a special event. How many other plants can offer that?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Needs Well Drained Soil

A new bed at Kingwood Center features a highly amended soil intended to offer excellent drainage to plants that are hardy but intolerant of wet winter soils.

As I continue my fascination with rock gardens I keep coming up against plants that are hardy to my zone 5 but often die in the winter, not because they are damaged by the cold, but because they rot in the winter-long water-logged soils. I ran into this problem years ago and recall being perturbed by the garden centers that sell drainage sensitive plants like Aster frikarti, Lewisia, most Penstemons, Incarvillea delavayi (hardy gloxinia), many Agastaches, and most Veronicas without a word about drainage. Now that I am being introduced to more and more plants that grow in gravel, screes, sand, and rockeries I have become much more interested in this issue. I was pleased to see that the New Mexico nursery High Country Gardens was saved from bankruptcy. They offer a plethora of plants native to the west that would be hardy here in Ohio but just won't take our wet winter soils. I, like most any plantsman, want to grow those cool looking plants from the west as well as the ones already well known to me (such as the ones above) but that are likely to die over the winter without appropriate growing conditions.

I decided to experiment with a bed at Kingwood Center. I excavated several truckster loads of the underlying clay layer and replaced it with copious amounts of sand, incorporated into the remaining upper level soil layer. When I thought I had enough sand I added some more, because I know sand can just sort of disappear into the soil matrix unless you really add a lot. Now I hope I didn't just build a bathtub.

Then I started looking around for suitable plants. I asked one nursery we deal with regularly what plants they grew that would fit this definition. I enjoyed their reply when they said anything like that would be dead at their nursery. One plant I wanted to try was Euphorbia x martini 'Ascot Rainbow'. I first saw it last year when it seemed that every garden center was offering it as a good zone 5 plant. (Drainage wasn't mentioned on the tag.) I was skeptical but bought some anyway. They were profoundly dead in  the spring. I later read that it needs good drainage and also saw we were even selling them at Kingwood Center. I had to find out if it will perform as claimed. The survival of another selection may be wishful thinking. Every mention I read of Stipa gigantea (Giant Feather Grass) was expansively enthusiastic. Mostly it was listed as zone 7 but one authoritative reference said zone 5, everyone said good drainage is a must. I had to try it. I bought one for home and one for work. The balance of the plants selected for this experimental bed were similarly inspired. Everything has had a good start as can be seen in the above photograph. I will know more in the spring.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Desert Lifestyle, the Wallace Desert Gardens

I had the opportunity in the third week in June to make my first visit to Arizona, and I was particularly interested to experience life and gardens in a desert environment. In and around Phoenix and Tucson I visited five public gardens and several private gardens. Between those visits I was constantly scrutinizing other landscapes such as at my (and other) hotel, commercial landscapes, and typical residences. It was the Wallace Desert Gardens in Scottsdale that impressed me the most. Established in 1987, it is a twelve acre collection of desert plants from around the world. I was impressed by the diversity of ornamental forms exhibited by the plants and how effectively they were assembled into engaging spaces. I had come to Arizona as a sworn advocate of the land of water and lush plant growth, but left admiring the desert lifestyle and the plants that can be so instrumental in creating it. Unfortunately Wallace Desert Gardens' days may be numbered. Ensconced in an exclusive gated community the neighbors have the power and the will to so severely limit the garden's activities as to make it impossible to attract the visitation necessary to sustain operations.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Naturalistic Gardening

I recently had an opportunity to visit an amazing place in Scotland Neck, North Carolina called Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park, "...the worlds largest collection of waterfowl." They had a large deck overlooking a low wetland area pictured above. I was taken by the beauty of it and thought about what it was that so pleased me. First the wetland is a defined space as an opening in the woodland. Secondly the stream makes a distinctive sinuous line  through the space. But of most interest to me was the manner in which the herbaceous plants distributed themselves. Sweeps, clumps, masses, textural contrasts, color variations all played into my fascination. I have been experimenting with naturalistic plantings in my garden, and I use these sorts of plant communities as inspiration. I have found it to be a very difficult task, so I was interested to read recently an article by George Schoellkopf who created a highly regarded garden at his home called Hollister House. He says, "The trouble is that the absence of formal structure does not automatically result in a convincingly natural garden." "A successful naturalistic garden is designed so that we are not aware of its structure because the plants themselves provide most of the structure. This sort of design demands a high degree of talent and effort." He goes on to explain his preference for formality in garden design and concludes by saying, "It's actually an aesthetic that is more attainable."

Every day that I work with what I call my "meadow garden" (see below) I come to appreciate the utility of figuratively hanging my plants (in other gardens) onto formal structural elements.

As I review the above photograph I am reminded that the blue Siberian iris and the red oriental poppy gradually faded away over a number of years under the competitive pressure of  the surrounding and naturally introduced plants. I also notice that the placement of the plants is very suggestive of the hand of man and lack the natural beauty of the wetland image at the top of this page. Where I have had the most success with the naturalistic aesthetic is where only one or two elements of the garden are permitted to naturalize such as biennials like Verbascum or Myosotis. They distribute themselves in very aesthetically pleasing ways within the context of a garden in a formal context. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Orange Willows

Winter is a difficult time for me to write about gardening, so I have been delinquent with my posts. Looking through my recent photographs (recently saved, with cataloging, from a crashed hard drive!) I came across the willow, Salix alba 'Britzensis'. About fourteen years ago I started bringing home cut stems of the plant from spring coppicing at Kingwood Center where I work and sticking the stems in the mud at my home. The initial "plantings" worked very well for about the first three years and gradually my grove got bigger and bigger. Then we had a series of dry springs and I reached some gravelly soil resulting in a few years of failure, but eventually success resumed, and I finally exhausted my desire for more of these willows and this free and easy means of creating a little woodland. Now I just enjoy them.

This orange barked willow (Salix alba 'Britzensis' ) has been cut to the ground every year at Kingwood Center for about twenty years. It makes a wonderful shrub that is especially ornamental in the fall and winter. It was these spring cut stems that I used to stick in the mud in order to grow my grove seen below. 

The orange color of the bark is always tricky to catch in a photograph, but this grove of willows is very beautiful with the orange color covering the upper portions of the trees, especially when viewed from above in the house. In the foreground are the trees that were rooted about three years ago. The background is the front of a linear grove along a creek that were rooted about ten years ago. The ones that date back about fourteen years were cut to the ground once when I supposed I would coppice the whole planting. I later decided against that and the new sprouts are as tall as any. I think I will manage them more passively than I first thought after reading Ancient Woodland by Oliver Rackham.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Naturalizing Within a Stand of Ornamental Grass

I continue to be fascinated with the popular horticultural efforts to create ornamental plant communities inspired by naturally occurring plant communities such as meadows. One approach that has interested me for years and that I have experimented with repeatedly is to create a sort of matrix of a clumping ornamental grass and then introduce compatible flowering plants. (So far the grasses I have used include Deschampsia flexuosa, Deschampsia caespitosa, Calamagrostis brachytricha, Sporobolus heterolepis, and Festuca ovina, and I just started playing around with Sesleria autumnalis which I think is promising.)  Getting the grass established first will help to get ahead of the weeds, and I love the sweep of the grass matrix and the challenge of finding the right flowering plants to insert.

Above is a picture of turf that is mowed only two or three times a year. As you can see yarrow has established itself nicely in a portion of this field and represents a simple form of what I am talking about, but it is a bit rough for a garden.

Above is a picture I copied from William Robinson's 1881 edition of The Wild Garden in which he suggested planting peonies in the midst of a stand of grass. I experimented with that idea myself as can be seen below.
As is so often the case, I think I could do a better job if I could start all over from scratch, but instead I will continue to tweak it to get just the affect I am looking for.
Above is my first attempt (1990) at this type of planting which I thought went fairly well but my work colleagues never seemed very fond of it. The grass is Sporobolus heterolepis along with the blooming Allium cernuum on August 6th. Belamcanda seed pods are about to open. I think this made a nice late summer display, and earlier in the year Allium aflatunense, Liatris spicata, and Hemerocallis flava added seasonal floral interest. One problem was the encroachment of the adjoining turf grass, and I guess the other was that it never looked "composed." Perhaps placed in a location with lower expectations of cultivated splendor it would have been better received.

Another project, still in development, is to create a little community on about a 300 sq. ft. terrace between two rock retaining walls. Above Verbena 'Annie' proved a pleasant surprise in this dry sandy site, growing nicely with Festuca ovina. Judging by how quickly it established itself the Verbena may prove to be a bit aggressive.
Below is the same planting with another pleasant surprise. After having killed Incarvillea delavayi a couple of times this Festuca ovina planting proved to be a place for it to thrive. I will continue to search for suitable companions to join this little community.