|NATIVE PLANTS SHINE IN THIS WATER-WISE ROCK GARDEN IN SANTE FE ON A TOUR WITH THE NORTH AMERICAN ROCK GARDEN SOCIETY - A SOCIETY WHICH CAN HELP YOUR UNDERSTAND THAT ROCK GARDENS ARE NOT REALLY ALL ABOUT ROCKS.|
Mention the term 'Rock Garden' and most people will offer a different definition. Even amongst the most passionate of rock gardening enthusiasts - member of the NARGS - the North American Rock Garden Society or the AGS - the Alpine Garden Society in the UK, even within the chatty, active chat rooms and forums of the very active and passionate SRGC - the Scottish Rock Garden Club folks disagree on what the exact definition is, but one thing is for certain - rock gardening has less to do about rocks, as it does about the plants - for each personal definition does provide a hint to what rock gardening is today - a hobby or interest which demands more than some basic knowledge about plant life. The art and science of rock gardening errs more on the side of science, ecology and botany than it does the 'art' part of the equation.
Not that aesthetics aren't important to rock gardeners, far from it, but rock gardening is about as far away from landscape design or outdoor decoration as a garden can get. In a nut shell, it's more like recreating nature - think: habitat creation. Many rock gardens are like tiny zoo's for plants. Want to raise a rare, high elevation saxifrage from the Alps? Then you will need to recreate the alpine conditions as best you can right in your own back yard - right down to the perfect drainage, soil pH and rocky outcroppings or screes where the specific genus once grew in nature. It's a bit like creating a living diorama from a natural history museum - perhaps right in a small trough sitting on your deck, which is kind-of cool once you start thinking about it, right?
|PURISTS IN THE ROCK GARDEN SOCIETIES STILL ENJOY ATTEMPTING TO GROW THE MOST CHALLENGING OF PLANTS - HIGH ELEVATION ALPINES SUCH AS THIS SAXIFRAGE SPECIES I SHOT IN ONE OF MY TROUGHS, BUT ROCK GARDENING TODAY CAN MEAN SO MUCH MORE.|
Although many rock gardeners focus strictly on alpine plants in the UK, in the US the boundaries blur between interests - ferns, woodland plants, bulbs, shrubs, cacti and succulents and true, high-elevation alpines. So even though the first rock garden movement in the 1910's, kick-started by a British plantsman and explorer Reginald Farrer - the 'Father of Rock Gardening' -as he he ignited the trend back in the Victorian era and it grew into a specialist favorite throughout the first half of the 20th century. Near the end of the 20th century, the trend started to wane, to evolve into what rock garden is today - more about interesting plants and the people who crave them, than anything else. Some of use still raise proper rock gardens in the English style, others, do it with a twist, raising plants in troughs, raised beds or pots.
That all said, 'Rock Gardening' expland into many tangential specialist groups including the Penstemon Society, the Primrose Society and many other highly specialized groups based around a single genus. Then, there is California and the water shortage, where rock gardening may mean a water-wise gravel or sand garden. Similarly, in Arizona, it may mean a cactus garden or a Steppe garden, or in Colorado and Utah a mixture of all three. In the North East, it may mean getting rid of your lawn and introducing native plants.
There is still an identity issue here to those trying to wrap their arms around what rock gardening actuall is, but there is one thing clear to all rock gardeners - a rock garden is not simply a garden of rocks. It's about creating an environment or a habitat where these plants can grow, as most will sulk in a regular garden. This may mean fast drainage, protection from winter wet, or sand beds, gravel mulches or tiny crevice gardens of clay.
Even nurseries and garden centers are confused, often clumping together various low-growing or dwarf plants in areas and labeling them as 'rock garden' plants. There are only a handful of true alpine plant nurseries in North America, but as the term broadens to include woodland and shrubs and grasses, you can begin to see that a rock garden enthusiast could find a suitable rock garden plant in many aisles of a nursery, but the purist would most likely need to either join a local club, or order plants from a specialist nursery as few garden centers carry any rock plant beyond a sempervivum or a dwarf campanula.
In many ways, the North American Rock Garden Society is stuck with a very unfortunate name. It may have been appropriate in 1930, but today, it can be misleading. First, the idea of a 'society' is limiting and off-putting to some, then there are the words North and American - it used to be called the American Rock Garden Society, but once again, Canada is left to fend for itself, so the name was changed. Even so, North America is limiting as well, especially as NARGS is a global society now. The word 'Rock' has many believing that rocks are essential to rock gardens ( and in many, they are), but as you can see here - rocks are only part of the story. What about bulbs, ephemerals, woodland plants, wildflowers, prairie grasses or ferns and mosses?
Clearly, this is simply a PR and identity issue more than anything else. We should be smart enough to be able to overcome such issues, but changing names of large organizations is challenging, and although acronyms seem to only make the matter worse (NARGS…really?), the future of these groups weighs more on the members and what they believe in more than it does what they are 'in to'. It's safe to say that NARGS, AGS and SRGC attracts the most intellectual of the plant people, sure, but it also attracts those who are curious, smart, adventurous and who love learning more about plants.
|A GROUP OF NARGS MEMBERS MEET ON A SATURDAY FOR A BOTANIZING HIKE. USUALLY THERE ARE A COUPLE OF INFORMED LEADERS, AND EVERYONE ELSE TAKES NOTES AND INSPIRATION. THESE ARE ALWAYS A GREAT TIME FOR NOVICES AND EXPERTS ALIKE.|
Of all the benefits that are worthy with these groups, by far, the best part of membership are the sed exchanges. Annually, each of these clubs offered members a long, long list of fresh seed - seeds available from no where else - forget about saving heirloom tomatoes - what about an endangered plant from Brazil who's habitat has been destroyed, thought to be extinct? I want to save THAT seed. Not a bean that I am saving because of some crazy, unfounded GMO fear. Make a difference in the world.
|MY LOCAL CHAPTER, THE NEW ENGLAND CHAPTER A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, WHERE THE LUNCH-TIME TALK WAS ON GESNERIADS WHICH ARE ALPINES. YOU MIGHT THINK THAT THIS WAS TOO INTENSE, BUT EVEN FIRST-TIME ATTENDEES WHERE ENGAGED AND MADE MUST-GET LISTS,|
Attend any NARGS meeting ( there are many regional clubs that you can join, or you can simply join the national organization of NARGS, which, some full disclosure here, I am currently the president of NARGS, something of which I am proud of, even though I still feel a bit inadequate in the role. Attend any local or even the national annual meeting ( in two weeks???) and you will find a cheerful, friendly group of plant enthusiasts who welcome both newbies and experts. You just need to be curious and open about learning new things. Friends tell me that attending meetings is a little bit of boy scout meets a college lecture.
|THE BRITISH SOCIETIES ARE VERY SOPHISTICATED ABOUT HOW AND WHAT ALPINES TO GROW, AND I TRY OCCASIONALLY TO IMITATE THEM IN THIS ALPINE HOUSE COLLECTION OF POTTED, TRUE ALPINES AND SMALL BULBS. NOT FOR EVERYONE, BUT I REALLY ENJOYED THE CHALLENGE.|
My love for rock gardening and alpine plants started early in life, when I was a gardener at a small estate here in my home town which happened to have an extensive rock garden, tufa rock walls and an important collection of true rock plants. I just never took it all very seriously until I was much older, when about 20 years ago I started visiting some of the British sites - the Alpine Garden Society in the UK , in particular, as well as the Scottish Rock Garden Club. Both have deep sites where they share many photos of their shows which happen it seems, every other week. No one can grow alpines in pots as well as those in the UK can, but believe me, I try. Just check out their show reports here - the Scottish ROck Garden Club imges are here. Ian Young's bulb log was the inspiration for my blog, he and his wife Margaret are both active members of the Scottish club, you just have to visit his extensive collection of images on his bulb log here. It is insane!
|THE PLANT SHOWS OF ROCK GARDEN PLANTS IN THE UK ARE SPECTACULAR. MOST GROWERS RAISE THEIR ALPINE IN POTS AND IN ALPINE HOUSES, WHICH ARE ESSENTIALLY COLD GREENHOUSES. ALPINE HOUSES ARE DIFFICULT TO KEEP HERE IN THE US, BUT MANY OF US TRY.|
I kind-of knew that I could not raise such plants here in the US, but I have tried - unfortunately, our climate doesn't' cooperate in most of the US (unless one lives in Alaska or the North West), but I tried, and continue to try to raise alpine-type plants in pots and containers. I brought a few of these to my first NARGS meeting where I quietly entered them into a show - basically, a folding table near a window in an all-purpose room our local chapter rented at a state park. Most meetings occur monthly, and some include an opportunity for 'show and tell', where members can bring in a pot or even a cutting of a precious plant, and members talk about it - sharing how they grew it. There is usually coffee and treats, and then a presentation of some sort, usually a guest speaker. A great way to spend a Saturday.
It was at this first meeting when I realized that although I knew so little about these plants, that everyone was taking notes, laughing, sharing stories about how they killed something, or triumphed with it. There was a plant auction ( it was spring) and members brought in plants that they grew or divided at home ( a note about this - NARGS members run the full gamut, from novice to expert - and it's these experts, which most chapters have in one way or another, that make membership so special - in this way, NARGS is not unlike an elite country club.
At this first meeting, I met and became friends with Darrelll Probst, the then epimedium expert who offered up few flats of rare plants that he raised from seed that he collected on expeditions to China with Dan Hinkley. These were amazing, to say the least - I mean, podophyllum that were just too precious or rare to sell to commercial nurseries like Plant Delights because he only had ten of them - each plant made me want to empty my bank account. " This white dwarf Iris came from my last expedition to China, we are not sure about the taxonomy, the species may be new to science, it's only 8 inches high, and covered itself with white Iris blossoms early in the year, super hardy and it makes a huge mound - no one has it yet, so I'll start the bidding off at $5 - any takers?). Crazy.
At the same meeting, I met chapter members allium expert Mark McDonough, bulb expert Russell Stafford of Odyssey Bulbs and the speaker who spoke on water-wise sand beds. I bought a beautiful hyper-tufa trough and a few flats of woodland plants, bulbs and alpines, a small Daphne shrub that a member started from seed ( a species which was hard to find) and I bought a tall stack of old journals that another member was selling. Throw in a few books from the chapter library that would be lucky to every show up on Amazon, and I was hooked.
I couldn't wait for the next meeting - but I had to wait for an entire month! How could I ever survive?
NARGS is like that. Nothing at all like what my mother said rock gardening was about - rocks, placed in a garden. Ha.
Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of rocks in rack gardens - in particular, tufa rock, a porous limestone rock treasured by rock gardeners for true alpines, as they can root directly into the rock, but it is difficult to come by, and if you do, it is expensive. Hyper-tufa is a concrete mix, I think you've all seen it - people use it to make troughs or bowls in which to plant alpine plants. You may remember it being used in some classic Martha Stewart Living TV episodes, or from a few DIY craft blogs. If done right, it can look very much like rock, and it is the preferred method for creating troughs, a very specific type of alpine garden where high elevation plants are raised in carefully constructed troughs which mimic the stone sinks early rock garden enthusiasts used in England, but if done poorly, it could look like dinosaur poop.
|TROUGHS, WHICH ORIGINALLY WERE WHAT FARRER CALLED SINK GARDENS IN 1900, ARE GAINING POPULARITY - EVEN IN THE SOUTH WEST - WHERE THIS ONE THRIVES IN THE SHADE OF A PINON PINE.|
Regardless of how you define rock gardening or what a rock garden is, the art and science of it makes sense, as explained in a nice post on the NPR blog this week - where the author has shared some interesting thoughts about how relevant rock gardening can be today.
|A SPREAD FOR THE CURRENT JOURNAL OF THE NORTH AMERICAN ROCK GARDEN SOCIETY, THE ROCK GARDEN QUARTERLY FEATURING AN ARTICLE ON PLANTS FROM AFGHANISTAN AND MUCH MORE. THIS IS CLEARLY NOT GARDEN DESIGN MAGAZINE OR WILDER, BUT IT SURELY HAS SUBSTANCE.|
MY VERY SPECIAL GIVE AWAY
So in an effort to promote rock gardening or alpine gardens, I am offering two precious copies of the latest journal of NARGS to two randomly selected readers who leave comments on this post - how great is that? In this issue, you will see articles on plants from expeditions to Afghanistan, to China, and Patagonia, but mostly, I hope that you will see that rock gardening is more about discovering the wonder of some of the most special plants in the world, be they endangered or threatened, curious or odd, or simply rare and undiscovered.
|I AM OFFERING A GIVEAWAY TO TWO WINNERS - THE LATEST ISSUE OF THE ROCK GARDEN QUARTERLY, THAT I HELPED REDESIGN - NORMALLY ONLY AVAILABLE TO MEMBERS OF NARGS. BETTER YET, JOIN!|
All this said about rock gardens because our national Annual Meeting is being held in a couple of weeks in Ann Arbor. Hey, you could always attend and really get introduced to the whole scheme - I am bringing a couple of friends who have never been. If not, then at least check the NARGS sites for a local chapter of NARGS website here, and attend the next meeting - I promise you that people will welcome yo - tell them I sent you, and maybe you will be so inspired that you will join this great plant society that has such a long and respected history.
|ALL SORTS OF INTERESTING ARTICLES COME IN THIS PRESTIGIOUS JOURNAL, FOUR TIMES A YEAR.|
|A just past prime Spotted Coralroot or Corallorhiza maculate blooms near the Santa Fe Basin Ski area.|
|NARGS members stop and gather at a trail head, before heading into the forest for our first hike at the Annual Meeting of the North American Rock Garden Society in Santa Fe.|
|Allium ceruum, the Nodding Onion blooms in the Sangre de Christo mountains at around 9,000 ft.|
|An Acer glabrum, a trifoliate maple looks a bit like poison ivy to me!|
|Common Woordland Pine Drops, Pterospora andromedea on the trail|
|Look! A Gilia flower! We ere excited, that is until we found many more on another mountain ( see below).|
|Common Harebells, or Campanula rotundifolia|
|We were so happy to have found this alpine saxifrage, Saxifraga bronchialis growing on a rock
at around 9,000 elevation. I had to crawl out onto a ledge to get a photo of it.
|Gentiana calycosa (?) not sure. Please correct me! Image taken at 11,600 ft above the Santa Fe Ski Basin.
Sorry for the poor quality, my battery pack ran out so I had to use my iPhone.
|The great Panayoti Kelaidis from the Denver Botanic Garden, our hiking buddy, teaching me how to collect seed.|
|Ligularia pudica, a Ligularia with nodding flowers grows in a sub alpine meadow around 12,000 ft.|
|Zigadenus elegans ( or Z. venenosus) the Meadow Deathcamas|
|High above the Santa Fe ski basin, at about 13,000 we could see for over 100 mile. Absolutely incredible.|
|Panayoti from the Denver Botanic Garden and my friends, Bella and Barbara from the Ontario Chapter of NARGS
check out the roadside for some botanical treats. Below is what we found at about 10,000 feet.
|A close up, or as close as I could get with my iPhone camera of Gilia ipomopsis aggregata|
This weekend I am attending the Annual Meeting of the North American Rock Garden Society being held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Having never been to either Santa Fe or even New Mexico for that matter, I discovering why so many artists and creative people love this city. It's unique Pueblo style architecture with adobe brick and stucco is amazing, not to mention the food, the people, the weather and the chili's.
As some of you already know, I am so proud to have been elected as the new president of NARGS this weekend, and I am so excited to have been both nominated and elected into this two year term with such a respected plant group as the North American Rock Garden Society. In many ways, I feel so un qualified as there are many expert gardeners more qualified than I, as the membership includes some of of the finest botanists and plant enthusiasts of any plant group, but I understand the mission at hand - revitalizing, re-energizing and perhaps reinventing a group of smart, passionate and dedicated plant people and leading the way for a brighter future. Something many plant societies will need to address in the coming years. I cannot make many big promises, but I can and will tell the membership that I will do my very best to inspire and bring a positive energy to the group.
The adobe architecture in and around Santa Fe keeps authentic, much like parts of New England.
I am very busy here, as meetings and hikes continue every day, but I thought that I might share some images - with very little text. Enjoy!
|Centranthus ruber growing in a border in front of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.|
|Street markets around Santa Fe feature exactly what one would expect in such an alley.|
|NARGS members gather at a trail head for one of the many hikes, botanizing the mountains of Sangre de Christo in New Mexico.|
|The view from - of all things, the hot tub at one of the private homes we visited.|
|Many Salvia thrive in the arid, desert-like climate which still gets snow in the winter, but hot, dry drought in the summer. These plants were in the gardens at the home of a NARGS member.|
|This Erodium, related to the geranium, blooms in the bright shade. Not many alpine plants bloom in August, but the Erodiums do.|
|This Saliva azurea was stunning! I wonder if I could grow this blue beauty in my greenhouse?|
|A Cyclamen hederifolium in New Mexico? If sited right, many zone 5 plants can grow here if a bit of water is offered. Besides, this climate in not unlike that of Turkey or the Steppes of Asia.|
The Alpine Rock Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens is world-renowned for its diversity and collections of high-elevation alpine plants, and western US native plants, steppe plants and succulents. One of the largest rock gardens in the United States, I saved this garden for a different day, as it deserved a more focused visit. Rock gardens can be controversial - at least properly defining them when garden geeks get together. Even today, many gardeners cannot agree on where they should be gardens filled with rocks, or gardens constructed to house true rock plants or alpine plants. The Alpine Rock Garden at the DBG is a little of both - but it is clearly inspired by the great European rock or alpine gardens from the turn of the century. This garden houses many plants native to the prairie and steppe areas of the great American south west. Purists may grumble, expecting to see sweeps of gentians and pulsatilla such as those seen at Kew or the Montreal Botanic Gardens, but the DBG garden is unique in the world of alpine gardens, and it is often listed as one of the great three ( Kew, Edinburgh and Denver) Rock Gardens maintained today. It alone is worth a visit while in the Denver area.
|MANY TRUE ALPINE PLANTS GROW DENSE AND TIGHT UNDER THE EXTREME CONDITIONS FOUND AT HIGH ELEVATIONS. THE TIGHT GROWTH HELPS THE PLANTS CONSERVE ENERGY, AND MANY FORM TIGHT BUNS AND TUSSOCKS, LOOKING MUCH LIKE THE ROCKS WHICH THEY GROW NEXT TO,|
|A NICE, WHITE ALPINE CAMPANULA|
|A NEW FEATURE AT THE DENVER BOTANIC GARDENS IS THIS CZECH STYLE CREVICE GARDEN, NEWLY PLANTED WITH ROCK PLANTS.|
|Ehedra przewalskii, WITH RED BERRIES. IT'S IN THE JOINT FIR FAMILY- EPHEDRACEAE
A POISONOUS PLANT, THIS IS THE EPHEDRA THAT CAN CAUSE HEART PALPITATIONS
|Phlomis alpina, ALPINE JERUSALEM SAGE LOOKS NICE, EVEN AS DRIED SEED PODS FORM|
|Manfreda virginica, THE FALSE ALOE, NATIVE TO THE SOUTH EASTERN US. STILL A MEMBER OF THE AGAVAEAE ( AGAVE or CENTURY PLANT FAMILY), THE FLOWER STALK WAS NEARLY 5 FEET TALL.|
|A PRAYING MANTIC, HUNTS FOR SNACKS ON A Pelargonium englicherianum WHICH HAS GONE TO SEED|
|A MORE WELL BEHAVED FIREWEED, THE ALPINE WILLOWHERB OR Epilobium fleischeri, ALSO A PLANT SELECT® OFFERING IN THE SOUTH WEST.|
|THIS TINY FLOWER ONLY A HALF INCH IN DIAMETER ON A THREE FOOT SHRUB IS A CLEMATIS.
MEET Clematis stans NATIVE TO JAPAN
|ANOTHER VIEW OF THE CREVICE GARDEN. I WILL HAVE TO COME BACK AND SEE THIS IN JUNE.|
|SENIOR HORTICULTURIST, MIKE KINTGEN, CAN BE FOUND TENDING THE COLLECTION IN THE DBG ROCK GARDEN MOST EVERY DAY, AT LEAST WHEN HE ISN'T IN HIS OFFICE. WHO COULD BLAME HIM!|
|MAIN VIEW OF THE DENVER BOTANIC GARDENS' MAGNIFICENT ALPINE AND ROCK GARDEN|
|PRIMULA ALLIONII X 'JOAN HUGHES'. IT LOOKS BIG, BUT USE THE SPRUCE NEEDLES FOR SCALE|
As many of you know, I adore alpine plants, and some of my favorites are the Primroses ( Primula) which grow near the highest peaks of the world. Here are a few of the highest elevation primula, which happen to be our first blooming primula of the season - much more to come. These are being grown in stone troughs, and in crevice gardens, where the tight spaces allow the primula's roots to grow deep in search of water. Primula allionii blooms very early in the Alps in France and north western Italy, where it grows on steep cliffs where it is protected. Hard to reach, these tiny primroses can grow in the tightest of crevices. There are many named forms and selections of P. allionii, and in England, a plant grown in a cold alpine house with care, can be covered completely with flowers so thickly, that you cannot see the foliage ( see one here). In North America, we are lucky if we get 5 or 6 flowers, which are still beautiful, especially this early in the year.
|PRIMULA MARGINATA, A HIGH ELEVATION PRIMROSE, WITH SERRATED LEAVES AND VIOLET FLOWERS.|
|PRIMULA MARGINATA, GROWING IN A CZECH STYLE CREVICE GARDEN, WHICH MEANS ROCKS VERTICALLY PLACED CLOSE TO EACH OTHER LIKE A SANDWICH.|
There are many named selections of Silver Sax's as well as many species but they are not easy to find. One must either mail order them from a handful of alpine plant nurseries ( mine are from Wrightman Alpines) or, one can start them from cuttings that you can take from a friends' plant. I plant my cutting in holes that are drilled into Tufa rock, a limestone rock which is porous, and also hard to find, but worth searching for at alpine nurseries, for it is the only rock that these planted will grow in. You might try these alpined in soil or a gravelly mix, but between you and me, there is really only one way to grow the giant specimens like these, and that is to root your own plants directly into Tufa rock. Once established, they are rather care free.
A silver saxifraga growing in a trough. I still need to clean up the troughs, use tweezers to remove pine and spruce needles, and then spread a new layer of granite chips, but beyond that, there is little care.
This slow to establish beautiful and rarely seen member of the Buttercup Family is perhaps only occasionally seen in plant collector's gardens, but that's a shame, since once established ( it is only difficult to transplant), it can live a long time. As one collector stated, "Adonis are easy to grow, but difficult to find", this is because they plants resist domestication. If one is able to obtain a plant that was carefully divided while dormant, and gets it planted immediately, then one must leave it alone and let it grow undisturbed. If new plants are desired, even seedling resist any disturbance, so although not difficult to raise from ones own fresh seed, success if better if the plant is allowed to drop its own seed into the soil, and young plants moved extremely carefully in the following years.
This is our second year with this division so it is still just settling in, but once established, I expect a dozen or so of these bright cheery yellow buttercuppy flowers very early in the spring, perhaps even with some snow on the ground. It is perhaps the most desired plant by many plant enthusiasts the Ranunculaceae family and its leaves and flowers look very much like the genus Anemone, and not buttercups, which is a good thing. In the garden, the overall appearance in not very buttercup-like at all, and more like Eranthis, the winter Aconite, if anything.
Adonis vernalis is native to Europe, whereas the more commonly seen, if one can say that about Adonis, is the Asian species, Adonis amurensis, which is highly collectible in Japan where many forms have been introduced. Our Adonis vernalis was started from seed collected in the Czech Republic started by Harvey Wrightman's Nursery, where he shared a few plants with us. Harvey WrightmanMostly this is a plant shared by collectors, but look for it, for one could call this the Peony of Ranunculus'. The other species which is sometimes more available is the Asian form, Adonis amurensis. Try ordering it from Asiatica.com.
When I planted the dormant potted division last autumn, I didn't realize that I planted in near a dormant Corydalis bulb clump, so this late summer, I will relocate the Corydalis solida, not the Adonis.
Many non gardeners may think that the winter garden offers little in the way of interest or display. But many plants offer year-round interest, and walking to the greenhouse today, I noticed how pretty my many troughs of Saxifrages look in the winter, with their lime encrusted foliage, and their silvery leaves that are as hard as rock. I am amazed at how sturdy these high mountain plants are, and each and every year, as I add and collect more, their diversity and beauty stops me, and I am reminded of why I love unusual plants so much. You are unlikely to find Saxifrages at your local garden center, or at a big hardware store garden shop. But you can find them online at a few alpine plant nurseries. Saxifrages are worth searching out, for these are one of those things like the finest cookware is to a cook, or a fine imported tool, that get's better with age. Saxifrages seem to say " Hey, you are a serious gardener, and you undoubtedly know what you are doing". Well, if you are like me, you may like things that 'say' that.
Not all Saxifrages are alpine plants, for some are downright huge, and tropical. But it is the alpine species that are so collectable and cherished by rock gardeners, and alpine plant enthusiasts. Saxifrages that are alpines are tiny, lime encrusted plants, and often for dense, hard mounds that alpine gardeners lovingly call buns. The dense buns are hard, and tight, they way we like buns. In the wild, they cling to rocks and cliffs on the highest peaks above the clouds, in in the mist, but they are sturdy and strong, in fact, they are designed for snow and harsh, misty conditions, but, conditions that are exact. T
So why don't you see them everywhere? Well, the reason you don't see them that first, they are considered challenging to grow, and, they are not suited to mass productions for retail garden centers. Plus, they bloom in the late winter, or very early spring. When you see a trendy trough garden workshop on TV or on a make over show, what the host reccomends planting is often hens and chicks, sempervivums, and sedum's. These are incredibly foolproof we all know, but hardly something you can show off or impress with. I like semps, but sempervivums are best left to the casual gardener, for although pretty, they are rather unexciting, and boring, a toddler can grow them.
Saxifrages require an informed mind, and an experienced alpinist to master. ( They don't, but everyone still thinks so, even experienced rock gardeners ( read on) Or, so, they did, for today, I feel most anyone can 'master' growing this once difficult and fussy alpines, but don't share my secret with too many people! Just quietly order some, and pot up a trough, and leave it alone. Then, sit back and watch the most experiences horticultural snob's eye's pop out when they see your trough of these precious, high alpines, all dense and bun like, and you can exclaim...."oh those?, They're so easy, I really don't pay much attention to them". And, here's how...
Here is my big secret - although they are notoriously fussy ( I don't think so, though), they are easy if purchased from one retailer online Harvey Wrightman, for he not only has a premiere collection from the finest sources in Eastern Europe where the best come from ( the Czech's are crazy about Sax's), Check out their Rock Garden site if you want to see some incredible Sax's. But the reason you must get your plants from Harvey is because he grows his Saxifrages in blocks of Tufa rock, which makes them incredibly fool proof.
Look, you can still kill them, but think about this: I lost hundreds of Saxifrages until I bought Harvey's stone grown plants. I have lost none in over 4 years, and although costly, they have grown into large, if not huge, specimens in my troughs. And.....I rarely do anything to them. They get snowed on, rained on, full sun, and rarely watered, they are exposed to all of our New England elements. So, if you've ever wanted a winter garden, or a container that looked as good on the New Year, as it does in March, and in August, then consider planting a trough of Saxifrages, and maybe next year, you too can have a container of stars on your terrace or deck.
The only thing they dislike is winter moisture, and summer humidity. Many of these Saxifrages offer pretty flowers early in the year, perhaps late February or March here in New England, and often are the first sign of spring in our garden, long before the crocus and spring bulbs even think of emerging. Easy to grow in Hyper-tufa troughs, the sort Martha Stewart has shown being made out of concrete and peat, or grown in a frost proof stoneware container, Saxifrages are fun to collect, for there are countless hybrids and species.
The next three posts will show what we did last weekend. IT started with a Trough building workshop hosted by the Berkshire Chapter of the NARGS ( North American Rock Garden Society and Wrightman Alpines) and was held at the home of Berkshire NARGS chapter member Robin Magowan in Litchfield, CT. We then moved on to tour the gardens of another NARGS member, Elisabeth Zander in nearby Goshen, CT. So these three events and gardens deserve three distinct postings, the workshop by Harvey and Irene Wrightman, Robin's garden, and Elisabeth's amazing garden. First, the workshop.
Last Saturday was about a perfect, an autumn day can be in New England, and Litchfield County, Connecticut wasn’t too shabby, either. Joe and I we're fortunate enough to be invited to participate in a trough building workshop arranged by various members of the National Rock Garden Society's Berkshire chapter, and alpine plant nurseryman, Harvey Wrightman, of Wrightman Alpines in Ontario (they ship to the US, thankfully!).
The workshop featured a demonstration on a new way to grow alpines in troughs, which was introduced to Harvey by plantsman and explorer Josef Halda, who is friends with Harvey, and who toured the US and Canada earlier this year while on the NARGS national speakers tour. Halda also stayed with us while in New England in May, but we only discussed this new method, which seemed rather unbelievable, but the results we are seeing are quite impressive.
Saturday's workshop/Demo showed how clay can be used as a growing material for some high elevation alpines when sandwiched between sheets of split tufa (limestone) rock, which is porous.
About 15 of us watched Harvey's wife Irene demonstrate how to wash the soil off of young, potted alpines, or from rooted cuttings, and then focus on how she smeared with a trowel, a slab of rock with the muddy mixture, not unlike making a sandwich. The plants roots are pressed gently into the clay, and the top, growing crown is left emerging. Finally, another rock is pressed on top, sometimes with a bit more clay (mayo) and voila, you are done.
We all enjoyed making these alpine sandwiches, and then placing the assemblages into sand and gravel, which filled our troughs that we brought. Then, smaller plants, some rooted into pure tufa rock, are places around the structures we made, and finally top dressed with gravel.
Trough are a traditional English method of cultivating certain more challenging high alpine plants which prefer particular conditions such as scree, crevice or tight rock cracks, where they often grow and mature into tight, hard, bun-like structures, or, simply remain small. Although these plants demand exacting conditions, often a complex combination of fast drainage, constant moisture and frigid winters with no thaw, fast snow melt, permafrost, etc, alpine plants are becoming more popular with people who are concerned about the environment, for they are more endangered than ever, with threats of global warming, and ski areas being relocated higher in the alps and world wide, the declining phenomenon of permafrost in Alaska, and other environmental threats from the encroachment of humans into fragile habitat, if you are looking for a true 'green' statement that really means something, an alpine trough garden may be something to consider. These are not easy plants to get, or to grow, but once established, are rather care free, which is surprising, even to me. A perfectly planted trough can remain untouched for years if sited well.
This workshop introduced many of us to a new method of growing these fussy plants. The method is just about the exact opposite of how the world of rock gardeners have traditionally cultivated these plants, so sit tight, and listed. These hard, limestone encrusted Saxifrages and alpine gentians and primula which typically would be grown in a gravelly, mix of perlite, rock chips and soil, are instead, planted in wet clay. That's right, wet, sloppy, clay. This is the odd part of this method, - the clay, since it seems counter-productive to what one normally uses to pot alpines in, mainly, and alpine mix which is fast draining, with a little organic material. But when one thinks about the science of it a bit more, you can see the logic. Many alpines grow best, to character, dense and tight buns, when grown in pure tufa or limestone rock. Their tiny hair-like roots can move between the channels in the rock, and the plant grows hard and dense. Clay, when surrounding the roots, is mostly limestone elements and particles, with enough grog and chip to still move water through, but only when not fired (think clay pot, when wet), It is both porous and solid. I assume the clay soil once dry, never becomes mud again, but simply sponges water in a capillary action. And since the volume of clay is small, the mass never really exposes its surface to large amounts of water, since the clay is basically filling a crevice, and not a pot. Gravity and capillary action drays water up and down, and in this 1/4 -1/2 inch sheet of dry clay sandwiched between to porous slabs of rock, the perfect temperature and moisture levels are maintained.
Of course, we still need to see results, so stay tuned. But the pieces I have of pure tufa, in which silver saxifrages and Primula allioni are growing in, are 2 years old, and in perfect, hard, character, as if growing on top of the Alps. And, they are in full sun, in troughs, which I rarely water, if at all in the summer, and are exposed to all the winter snows and cold a New England winter can toss at them.