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Harvey's Blog

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CBC Radio Interview: Wrightman Alpines moves to St. Andrews

Interview with CBC "Home Grown" on the move to St. Andrews!

"Harvey Wrightman has been growing alpine plants for rock gardens for 30 years. He sells them to customers all over the continent through his mail order catalogue. While St. Andrews may not seem a to be great spot for alpine plants, that where he's moved his nusery and it turns out it's a perfect fit!"

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Video: How to Create Clay Crevices in a Rock Garden

This is the the movie clip that was embedded in my presentation which many you may have seen in the last year at various rock garden society meetings.  It  illustrates how to make a clay crevice within your garden for alpine plants - in this case i am using a with a split tufa rock.

For more information see here for some step by step photos of creating clay crevices in trough gardens. Have fun with it!

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The Search for two Penstemons

From the Vedauwoo we continued along I-80, passing north of the big fire raging through eastern Colorado.  It would have been perfect timing to go through the Snowy, but we had timeline to keep to… and I had this obsession to see both penstemon yampaensis and p. acaulis in the wild not perfect timing for flowers, but just to know what the habitat was like.

I-80 travel along the Continental divide through the very arid high desert of Carbon Cty   well named as there was an abundance of gas wells and drilling equipment. Crossing into Sweetwater Cty, we headed south on WY# 430 and crossed into northwestern Colorado heading for the Yampa R. valley and p. yampaensis.  How severe the drought was I wouldn't know, but certainly this was never the land of Caanan. I had exact directions from Barrie Porteous re: one spot where the pent could be found for sure. 

First we back-tracked a bit to get gas in a little town, Maybell, which lacked any sense of raison d'être but was there anyway.  It's been 8 years since we crossed all the way west and the decline of rural communities continues.  The gas station/country store had the usual mangle of fishing gear, ice, bacon, canned goods , beer and 2 hats  one with “Where the Hell is Maybell” stitched into the crown and the other  a more generic version with a trout leaping out of a river and “Colorado” emblazoned underneath   that one I could live with; but,  I think I paid a premium for it as the peak was frayed at the corners...well, who am I to write a paper on the state of other  people's towns  when I turn around and head out in the heat of the day to seek a tiny little plant that won't be in bloom  indeed, where the hell is p. yampaensis?

That we found it all was solely due to Barrie’s precise directions… and I stopped. It was ~ 12:30 and quite hot. The cap wasn't much use.  Everything was burned to a crisp, but with not too much searching, there were forlorn little clumps of the p. yampaensis, no flowers, but obviously a survivor it would wait for a better year.  The soils of the valley, silt/loam in nature, looked to be quite rich once the precious water from the Yampa R. was applied.

From there we drove along a forest service road that roughly followed the Green River, entering Utah only to see yet another fire (small), but in its final stages.  This was in the area of the Flaming Gorge.  Driving into Manila there is this dramatic setting of coloured stone walls of the gorge and a ribbon of blue twisting back to the north and then you enter the town of Manila, UT, (pop. ~350). In this parched country the reservoir formed behind the dam provides a well-used pond for recreational use a conflicting mix of high-powered boats and fisherman. The motel we stayed at catered to the latter functional kitchenettes with a prominent warning about tracking in mud and disposing fish guts in the sink. 

A front had moved in dropping the temperatures (there was a small fire nearby too.)  The wind was fresh with a complex mix of cottonwoods, juniper and I'm not sure what else a little town blessed with rare qualities.  Making small talk with the couple running the motel, I spoke with enthusiasm about seeing the penstemon yampaensis that afternoon.  The manager looked a bit perplexed and Irene explained it was a wildflower. “Oh,” he replied, “I thought he was talking about a woman.” I guess I'd better dial back the enthusiasm.

The next day we travelled west climbing out of the gorge, turning north and within 10 miles crossing into Sweetwater Cty in Wyoming, looking for penstemon acaulis.  Well, you look and you can't see the forest for the trees, and then suddenly, there it is, all over the place large plants over 20cm across with the remnants of shriveled-up flowers we were a week too late for full bloom.  It was very quiet and beautiful there, at about 7000', which is about the altitudinal limit and higher than I had imagined that it would grow at that elevation.  With it was a gray needled phlox sp., like p. pulvinata but leaves were quite silvery and bright. There was lots of seed on the p. acaulis, not so much on the phlox (a good reminder why it’s priced at $1/seed from the collectors).  That morning was absolutely still - the smell of juniper and sage softened the dry edges of the land. A few locals went through in search of animals (for photos).

I always think of the seed collectors as the most dedicated folk.  The difficulties of travel, the expense and utter dependence on weather make it more like a lottery than a business enterprise. But the biggest reward is, chasing spring. That's the core.


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To Portland & Victoria, the beginning

I received requests from the Portland chapter of NARGS and the independent VIRAGS of Victoria, BC for late June, 2012. This timing works well for us as shipping and spring sales are complete. Daughter Esther can manage the nursery alone.

I had in mind for this trip that I wanted to see penstemon acaulis and its close cousin, p. yampaensis, in the wild. I would have preferred to start out a week earlier, but couldn't arrange it. That pretty much eliminated seeing these two in flower. No matter, we made preparations for this "field trip", with only 6 days to get to Portland, it meant some extended driving in the range of  +1000 km/day.  Driving across the belly of the continent from Indiana through Iowa and Nebraska takes 2 full days. By mid-June there were already signs of the severe drought that was taking hold.  I have always lived in a rural, farm setting. Droughts have happened before, they are deceiving in that crop yields are usually better than is predicted. Rarely is one catastrophic in the mid-west. Farmers know that flooding in a wet year is far more destructive to crops. 

Lupinus argenteus

Penstemon strictus

The dome of heat was just then taking hold Iowa/Nebraska and making haste to the mountains made sense. Driving into eastern Wyoming on I-80  Irene remarked on the white tissues along the road fence. We stopped. The tissues were flowers of Argemone hispida growing in the reddish, sandy soil of SE Wyoming. At ~25cm in height, it is the smallest species and the most northerly reaching of the genus. We have grown this one in our limestone garden for over 10 years. It blooms in July for almost the whole month. Very pretty and delicate, it is cold and heat tolerant and even withstood the excessive rains we had in 2011. Seed is sown in the autumn and left over winter outside. GA-3 doesn’t seem to enhance germination, but it germinates well enough on its own.  Seedlings should be left in their pots to grow on for a year. There is a one thin straggly root which is best transplanted in early spring. Once growing, it very reliable and thrives in dry sand in full sun and wind. It doesn’t take well to pot culture – therein lies the reason it is rarely listed in catalogues.

Argemone hispida

Crythantha thrysiflora 

Late in the day we stopped at a campground near the base of curious, weather-worn rocks, the Vedauwoo. The outcrops of granite are in very odd, improbable arrangements. Most of the campers were young people and the reason soon became apparent once we saw the main rock face.- rock-climbing was the attraction for them. One young couple was on the large granite face. The young woman, though well-secured, was not experienced and her male partner was giving instructions and non-stop encouragement. Perhaps she was thinking about getting a new boy-friend.

Turtle formation

Heuchera bractata

Irene as female Atlas

Penstemon secundiflorus

Oxytropis deflexa

The campground was  ~ 7500’ elevation so there were interesting plants, and I took photos with new Nikon D-5100 with stock 18-55VR lens. I like the swivel screen as it allows one to set the camera low for plant photos with some sky in the background. Bright conditions are still a trial for focusing; so, when I could not use the manual focus, I said a prayer and took several shots on auto-focus, which is quite good. The extreme ISO speeds make low-light photos possible without flash. Some were up to almost ISO 10,000, and shots were quite acceptable. The shots at the Vedauwoo were all taken after 8 PM.

Gaillardia aristata

Crythantha  virgata

The most interesting one is of a penstemon strictus where all the individual flowers having a bee tucked into the corolla for an overnight stay, transforming it into a weird delphinium morph! Irene spied this one. She has the sharp eyes. Had she been taught to shoot, she would have been a champion. Her skill would prove valuable throughout the trip.

It was great to be past the prairie. The  rock climber/campers all went to bed early and were very quiet.

Many thanks to Mike Kingen for hunting down the plant ID's!

To be continued…

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What’s New For Stonecrop

Running a specialist nursery that depends on the offerings of seed collectors and the oddities that may appear in any garden, provides both excitement and agitation. We  never ever follow the business plan exactly. Some of the “odds and ends” end up on a sales bench, and mostly depend on a spur of the moment sales talk to the buyers present – like a bazaar. Here are a few of those plants that need the extra attention of the gardener.

About 4 years ago I bought seed from Alan Bradshaw of a stachys sp. originating from a Czech collection on Ala Dag at 1700m. It wasn’t his collection, but he definitely felt it worth  a spot on his list.  It has turned out to be one of the most attractive mats that we grow – with soft, felted leaves which hug the ground quite closely. As one might expect from its place of origin, Turkey,  it is very heat and drought tolerant. To our surprise, it also tolerates wet conditions, such as we had last summer and  again in the winter despite the thick, hairy coat that covers its leaves . With its shallow roots, it is a friendly companion  in which to grow other plants (bulbs, small shrubs). The mat provides cool shade for the roots of others and the silvery carpet makes a good background for a floral display.

I’ve always had a fancy for western violets. They are not so prolific that you need to chase after them and remove them – they won’t take over. Although they can be a bit difficult to accommodate, I find viola douglasii to be the easiest one for me. It comes deeply cut leaves (typical of the group), and flowers of bright yellow with burgundy/brown veining -  quickly emerging in April and blooming very soon to take advantage of the vernally wet soil. Sensibly it disappears when the summer heat arrives and the ground turns hard and dry. The roots are thick, white, brittle – somewhat primitive. They like to grow and feed on the heavier soils and drought does not damage them.

Returning to the  East ,we grow a dwarf form of lobelia siphilitica , named “Mistassinica” as it was collected by Denyse Simpson near the lake in Quebec. It is just like the typical form only much reduced in size, growing no more than 10 cm tall. The flowers come later in July and august and are a rich blue/purple. A neat little plant which multiplies and divides quickly, one can soon create a stunning effect with a larger planting. It would grow comfortably with the smaller mimulus sp. or  calceolaria  sp.

More info on the Stonecrop Sale here.
Saturday, April 28, 2012 - 9:00am - 3:00pm 81 Stonecrop Lane -- Cold Spring, New York

81 Stonecrop Lane -- Cold Spring, New York


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A Tale of 2 Anemones

Anemones are amongst some of the showiest plants we have for the garden; and thankfully, the tuberous rooted species are some of the easiest to grow.

Anemone nemerosa is found on wooded hillsides throughout Europe. Digging up a colony reveals a mat of thin, woody stems that much resembles a writhing tangle of snakes – if only they would move a bit. This makes propagating straight forward as division of the “twigs” is all that is required. The result is a carpet of flowers (with 6 or more petals), mostly pure white in type. Of course gardeners being curious sorts, selections have been made. There is a plethora of colour variations and, as with snowdrops, nothing is more attractive than “the odd one.” A. nemerosa ‘Viridescens’ is most strange. All the flower parts contain chlorophyll.

Since it is a large and double form, there is no avoiding it and the weirdness simply draws you in. With this much biological usefulness, the flowers cum leaves are very long lasting. Even the most elitist visitor will ask, “What’s this?”

By contrast, Anemone blanda ‘Enem’ is more notable for beauty and grace. I received this from Janis Ruksans who collected it in a disjunct locality at the Western rim of the North Caucasus not far from the Black Sea.

Janis notes that it was a single population growing in a clay soil below rocky outcrops, the nearest village was Enem some 50 km away. This is the best blue form with large flowers of a deep, cobalt blue that one rarely sees save for gentians.

Flowering is in mid-May and continues for 2-3 weeks. The tubers are thick, black and knobby. We grow it in the rock garden in sand where it performs well, but does not increase as fast as A. nemerosa.

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I was asked how I got into rock gardening. We lived in BC in the early 70‟s and spent a year wandering and working. I had a very good friend who was from the East Okanagan area, near Lumby. At that time forestry was king, and the wood came into the mills so fast the burners could hardly keep up with the waste – smoke filled the Shuswap valley so thickly it would drop the jaw of a medical professional today. No one seemed to care. Travelling east from Lumby on Hwy #6, the road climbs into the Monashee. At Cherryville, the main logging road heads north following the Shuswap River. and eventually you can drive all the way up to Revelstoke. In those days, they were still cutting old growth Douglas fir, cedar and hemlock. My friend, Jim, was building a barn in his spare time, and so he would drive in the road to find cedar butts (3` diameter and more) that were left behind and were perfect for making shakes. One trip he suggested we ride in on motorcycles to get up to the “meadows” which were accessed by a long, winding trail used to bring in cattle for a short, intense grazing season. The trail was rough but passable. There was not much to see – until the last turn; and then, it was the most perfect alpine meadow I could imagine. No cattle had arrived yet. What was there – well 40 years later I can‟t remember it all, but the sight of hillside flush with Dodecatheon pulchellum (or something like it), spiced with some Aquilegia flavescens and Castilleja sp. still lies vividly in my mind. Nothing really special, but all so perfectly arranged. It was this vision that was the inspiration. Unfortunately, you can‟t easily live in such places – 10‟ of snow will stop those ideas.

When I built our house in SW Ontario, we finally had the opportunity to act on the inspiration. Using the few stones available, the first rock garden took shape and I began looking for the plants. There were so few commercial sources in North America and though it‟s hard to imagine, there was no internet search, so growing from seed was the best choice. At that time, “shares” in a seed collecting expedition was the norm; but, this always gave the impression that distribution was based on a fraternal basis, with those deemed as superior growers, receiving preferential treatment. Jim Archibald and the Czech seed collectors democratized the process to a simple commercial exchange, which suited me better. The best aspect about rock gardening is that it is
an egalitarian experience. Money and class status mean nothing, and the Czech‟s, who suffered through 40 years of totalitarian suppression, have provided us with the most advances in both plant material and cultural methods.

I wonder where the next generation of seed collectors will come from. I can‟t say with certainty, but I can speculate it will be China. The recent Czech collections from there comprise a whole section of their own; they may become the largest section. China is still controlled with a heavy hand. It is illegal for citizens there to collect seed for commerce. Having escaped the last great glaciation, the diversity of the alpine flora is huge. A growing number of locals with expertise are interested in this flora. One wonders what ideas they will offer. This will all develop, heavy hand or not. All it takes is the inspiration of a vision.

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Growing Peonies From Seed

We started growing peonies from wild collected, Josef Halda seed ~ 15 years ago. Regardless of the species, they can be handled in a similar fashion. Early on I would soak the seed in 35% hydrogen peroxide – a very strong bleaching agent that will soften the seed coat. Leaving the seed in for ~ 10 – 30 minutes is sufficient. Planted in a some standard seedling mix, the seeds will swell, forming a small radicle (root only) during the cold months of fall and winter. Germination will happen the following spring.

In later years, I have changed over to the standard I use for almost all the seed I receive – soaking in GA-3 until the seed swells. The only extra step is rubbing the coat of the peony        seed on sandpaper to break through the hard, waxy cuticle. I’m not sure if the GA-3 is necessary, but it doesn’t hurt.

Germinating seedlings should be left in their pots for at least 1 full growing season –meaning they can be transplanted into individual pots in the fall if so desired. Otherwise, leave them in the original pots, but fertilize with some slow-release pellets for another season. The larger the roots are, the better the transplant will be. Like peony divisions, you can handle them easily in the autumn, leaving them bare-root for hours , even days without harm. Like other ranunculacaea, peonies do not like pot-growing. A mix based on composted bark with added grit and sterilized loam works best – addition of loam really helps. They are “feeders” and will respond to fertilizer. Such as a general purpose 15-15-15, preferably in slow release form. Pot grown for ~ 2- 3 years, they will be big enough for garden planting. In the garden, heavier, loamy soils are definitely preferred. From pots, they can be planted almost anytime as conditions are favourable.

Collecting your own seed is lots of fun., but be aware that hybrids may occur. With the woody peonies this is less a concern as most are derivatives of p. suffruticosa. The herbaceous species are more of a problem, indeed in nature hybrids occur between different species growing in proximity. In the garden you may have to take isolation measures if you wish to have pure seed.

The seed pods themselves are very decorative, having a thick, corky capsule that splits open to reveal the shiny, black  (or dark brown) seed. Brilliant red “seeds” are barren. Don’t keep them. They do add a splash of colour.

Besides the pleasure one derives from growing plants from seed, there is the added knowledge that they will be virus free – this is a big problem in the industry. Josef Halda, whose numerous trips to China were funded by specialist growers in the Netherlands commented once that these growers told him that the seed grown stock was so vigorous that they went on a crash program to clean-up their old “named cultivar” stock. They kept only the best of the old stock, putting it through tissue culture. Inferior varieties they simply trashed. The new stock was that much better.

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Growing Dionysia

The plants in genus Dionysia are some of the most demanding in cultural requirements that few people attempt to grow them. They possess beautiful flowers, form tight domes of tiny leaves and the intriguing habit of growing on near vertical walls with a ledge of rock protecting them from full sun and weather.

Clearly, they are not easy to please. Mostly they are grown in pots in a sand plunge bed in an alpine house, and so remain a plant for specialist growers/collectors. The few that I have grown are quite heat tolerant, but subject to rot from humidity and careless overhead watering. While we have potted specimens which we sell at the nursery or take with us to a sale, we don't list them as they are too easily damaged in transit. One day in a closed box is about all they can stand.

In our greenhouse, we overhead water as a matter of course - but carefully with the dionysia, allowing them to dry off. I have noticed that a bigger issue was that they are subject to late winter scorch - that is, the side of the plant that faces south will start growth first and the cycle of warm day temperatures w/ freezing night temperatures is too harsh for the new growth, causing those south facing rosettes to die-off. The solution is to provide indirect, bright light, mimicking the north facing "under-ledges" that they inhabit in nature.

When Josef Halda was here in 2009, he constructed just such an under-ledge and put in a line of plants. I didn't really hold out much hope; but, 6 out of 8 have survived and the floral display is well worth the effort. The construction is straightforward: any large slab of stone can be supported and counter-weighted on one end enough that a small den can be dug out on the underside. Make the exposure to the north or north east and the plants will be protected from scorch.


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The Whale - Robin Magowan's garden

Coming back from the recent NARGS Annual meeting in New Hampshire, we took a side-trip to stay with Robin & Juliette Magowan for a couple of days, knowing that they will be moving to New Mexico in the winter.

What a surprise on driving in the lane to the front entry. Greeting us before this curious, stiff 3-story New England style house is the most exuberantly luscious display one can imagine.

The old rock garden mounds are now completely re-done in a Josef Halda inspired style using a porous karst stone from a local quarry. Erosion by weak acids create the tiny cavities and fissures in karst. This particular stone has quite a bit of silcaceous material, which is acid resistant, so these harder bits figure prominently in the surface appearance, and probably determine the inner structure as well. Not surprisingly, vegetation will grow directly on the karst even though very little soil is present.

So, taking a cue from nature, Robin did plant in the crevices and anywhere he thought the roots might penetrate, and indeed he did push the boundaries. His planting strategies are:

  1. Planting with topsoil sometimes mixed with a sticky, local clay to better hold it all together.
  2. A 2-step method, first using a succulent mat (sedum spp. or smaller leaved sempervivum spp.) which when established provides an thin organic mat to work a small transplant into. Some drought tolerant, non-succulents are worth trailing too; i.e.,  arenaria spp, gypsophila aretioides, small thymus spp.,  and heterotheca jonesii which Robin used in one instance. View these as “nurse crops” somewhat akin to sowing clover with wheat to establish a new hay field.
  3. Water frequently. This spring has been unusually cool and wet, so the task was simplified. None the less, water is the key factor to ensure survival and obviously he has made sure this is done.

Most of the garden is really the “horticultural scree” that is used by rock gardeners. What’s different is this step into exploiting the rock surfaces. Tricky and dangerous? Yes, of course , but worth the effort.