Friday, November 27, 2009

Three easy pieces...

Last summer I was lucky enough to
finally find gas plant in the wild: it happened to be Dictamnus angustifolius, very similar to Dictamnus albus v. purpureus I have grown for many years. Above you can see the latter combined in a sort of furious pastel pastiche with 'Diabolo'--that instant classic dark leaved form of ninebark and a Canadian rose in our "Perennial Triangle" in my Quince garden: the three make for an easy piece of springtime magic. Here gas plant thrives on rich, dark loam and regular watering. Below there are two very different variations on the theme: in the Rock Alpine Garden the clashing orange fury of Glaucium acutidentatum makes a stark contrast to the towering cool pinkness of Dictamnus: our hot sun and sleek steppe modernism almost lets us get away with the antichromal audacity (to coin a phrase). Finally in the last easy piece a rogue gas plant popped up in the front of one of our old rock gardens at Eudora: I know we dug this up and brought it to our new home, but meanwhile the mad patch of these at Eudora continues to proliferate and try to colonize the whole rock garden (I must warn the new owners...). I have grown gas plants with virtually no supplemental water on clay and sand, well-watered on rich loam, in part shade and blasting sun: surely no plant is longer lived, more easily grown and rewarding. I understand some people get dermatitis touching it: not I. As we descend into winter, I am warmed (by the glow as it were) with memories of gas plants on the steppes of Kazakhstan growing by the thousand, and their cousin, an essential and easy piece in all my gardens. Hard to believe we'll have all this color in less than six months!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What lingers down the Primrose path...

Last summer I was lucky enough to walk through vast fields of Nivalid primroses on various mountains in Central Asia: some were likely Primula nivalis herself, and in Mongolia I believe it was P. xanthobasis, and in the Tien Shan it was Primula turkestanica, all have been lumped under Primula nivalis by one worker or another, but they were distinct enough to my eyes. I have written these up, and the other members of the family for an upcoming issue of Primroses the journal of the American Primrose Society. Point of fact, I doubt whether 99% of the members of that society would be able to keep any of these alive for more than a year or two. I have grown armies of primulas in my day (albeit mostly in the 1960's and 1970's, before I came to my senses and grew mostly steppe adapted plants): fleecy Muscarioides section gems, and tall Candelabra section primulas. I sampled plants in the Cortusoides section and have seen dozens of Auricula section primulas march through my garden. A few linger here and there--especially in the last two sections, but eventually we forget to water or a fierce winter comes (or a vicious late spring frost) and suddenly the primrose are a memory.
As I was poring over some old digital images, this soft yellow vision of cowslip (Primula veris) flashed by and I remembered that that same plant has grown in that spot for more years than I can think of. in fact, I have cowslips and oxlips that have grown thirty or forty years for me and still are thriving, even sending out babies here and there. We struggle to grow the latest novely, and the choicest, rarest gem. But the plants that stick by us year in year out, eventually must be acknowledged. On Thanksgiving day, 2009 I would like to thank the humble European primroses of the Vulgares section, especially the oxlips and cowslips, which have provided me such pleasure (and stuck around) while their brethren from the Himalayas blew through town. Truth be said, they're just as pretty. We should be thankful for the humble beauties that grace our life effortlessly, and give them their due!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Autumn embers

Few falls have disappointed as much as this one (at least as far as trees are concerned): that mid October snowfall and 18F crisped most of the maples and ashes that give the greatest color in Denver. Even the cottonwoods turned brown. Even so, the 'Autumn Blaze' maples came through in fine scarlet and oaks colored up pretty well, justifying their robust (from Latin robur: oak) constitution...but at ground level, the rock garden plants colored up just as well or better than I remember (that 14" snow obviously protected them). Above, the orange mat in front in Dalmation geranium (Geranium dalmaticum) and behind the bluish shrub, the larger Geranium macrorhizum, both competing in orange and red coloration. Further on the left, Spiraea japonica is more a buff orange, and the brilliant red fan upper right is Euphorbia epithymioides. The picture was taken in late October, but the color persists on most of these now towards the end of November. Below is a picture I took a few weeks ago of Daphne alpina (deciduous, yellow) behind Daphne x susannae 'Anton Fahdrich'--a glorious dark green imp all winter, covered with deep rose red flowers in the spring. With this sort of Rembrandt coloration in fall, who needs the garish pastels of spring anyway, huh? The lesson in all this is obviously, if you want fall color for sure, you better have a rock garden!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Balance in the Gardening year

East ridge in mid May

What a difference half a year makes! The picture above was taken almost exactly half a year ago: the ridges at my home garden are in full foliage and the early spring bulbs are mostly done. You can see that by mid May the Agave parryi was already almost adult human height. Below, a month later (five months ago, seven to go), high summer has buckwheats, fleabanes and mariposa lilies in full throttle.

Last week, Merilee Barnett and Diana Capen visited DBG and we strolled through the Gardens together: they are the terrific owners of Perennial Favorites, a destination specialty nursery in Rye, Colorado. As we strolled through DBG, on a balmy day much like today, there were tons of fall crocuses blooming here and there, Cyclamen intaminatum in full bloom, and the autumn colors were really splendid (considering this is one of our less splendid years for fall colors). Quercus buckleyi and Q. shumardii are both fulminating purples and reds, and Korean spicebush (Viburnum carlesii) is truly spectacular. Diana said this was really her favorite time of year. I have to admit, walking through my gardens or DBG, I really enjoy the colors and textures of this season. Roy Davidson was another enthusiast for fall--saying it had as much color as springtime and a lot less anxiety.

Why, then, do I love sorting through my pictures of the garden in high spring and summer? Maybe because this time of year, our life is peaceful enough and rich enough to absorb not just the present but the past and future?

If so, then let's celebrate November as the very summit of the gardening year when the garden is still glorious, and we can perch from its summit and survey our whole gardening year. It's a terrific balance for the madness of May when you come to think of it!

West ridge in mid June

Monday, November 9, 2009

Half a year later...

I was looking out at this same rock garden at the crack of dawn and marveling at the wonderful textures and autumnal colors and thinking, could it really be that much better at the height of spring? Then I stumbled on this picture. Yes: a rock garden is prismatic and delightful in the spring. Of course, if I had taken the picture a few weeks before or after this shot, there would have been a kaleidoscopic shift of colors, and in fact there is almost always something blooming out there from February right through to now (Cyclamen intaminatum and Crocus speciosus are blooming on the shady side as I type on November 9, with speckled off season bloom on a half dozen other plants). This is about as colorful as it gets--and notice that only a fraction of the plants are blooming: that's because the blue and gray and green mats and blobs and cushions will be blooming sequentially for months. By midsummer it's garlanded with Origanum and sprinkled with annual poppies and a few alliums--an altogether different affair. This sort of garden has been the focus of my hobby (and my professional) life for over 50 years: the allure and fascination are stronger now than they ever were: each morning I dash out to see what's blooming now, if the Helleborus vesicarius is poking up, if the seed is ripe yet on Allium thunbergii, and is the Euphorbia epithymioides foliage at its most flagrant and fiery...Come to think of it, the sun is up high enough, time for another stroll!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Rock gardeners are renowned for their plant idolatry: we are the ultimate plant nerds who worship all things small, jewel-like and lofty. You can peruse no end of books and journals on alpines, and page after page of lovely portraits will unfold, usually of plants in lonely isolation on a cliff, or nestled in a pocket of the garden. Perennial gardeners, on the other hand, insist on combinations. I think that we who love xeriscapes, rock gardens and naturalistic plantings could benefit a bit more from their combinational skills. I took this picture of a truly marvellous plant that somehow hasn't caught on: sometimes lumped with the more widespread Verbascum phoeniceum, I first obtained V. atropurpureum from one of the indefatigable Czech seed collectors (must I look it up?) and I admit the plants are similar. This Central Asian plant (I saw it everywhere in Kazakhstan last summer) is very long lived in the garden, and extremely xeric as well. And very adaptable. Now a dark purple mullein is apparently not that compelling: I now know that had I moved a bit to the left and lifted up a bit and had those violet purple flowers against the soft pink Helianthemums, it would make an even better picture. Both plants--a tad bland in some ways--are work horses for my garden. They are plants everyone--certainly everyone in a semi-arid, sunny climate--ought to be growing. By putting them together like this, it brings out the best in both. I will be posting lots of medleys like this in the future: and I must recreate this one in my garden if it's morphed away...

Monday, November 2, 2009

A paean to Paeonia

What this picture doesn't show you is that the whole plant is only 10" tall or so: full sized peony flowers on a little pipsqueak plant. Of course, this is Paeonia cambessedessii, the tiny peony of the Balearic Isles of Spain that is mentioned with hushed tones in various rock garden journals and publications, always implying its difficulty and tenderness. I got my plant four or so years ago from Arrowhead Alpines (fully grown: it wasn't cheap, but worth every penny). It bloomed the first year with two flowers, the next year with five or six, this year with a dozen or more. It's the sort of plant the rivets the attention of your visitors, so even the mass of Gentiana acaulis growing next to it with a dozen trumpets barely elicits a comment. It blooms early in May, even in late April, when the weather is cool. This year the flowers lasted almost three weeks--even coming through a snowfall unfazed. Did I mention that the plant is sleek mahogany purple as it emerges, and that it keeps this color under the foliage all year, and that the upper leaves have a metallic, bluish sheen, and that everyone I who sees it wants it? When the seedpods finally opened in late October, they were enormously decorative: I shall have to blog separately on them. They're worth it!
One of the great pleasures of plantsmanship is finding out a rare, choice plant is also extremely accommodating, and down right chummy. My garden is full of treasures of all kinds, plants I have grown since childhood that are like family to me, that have prospered and propagated and now grow in gardens far and wide. But it is always the new gem, that is novel and utterly resplendent (like her majesty here) that fills one with pride (like a dumpy poltroon, with a gorgeous woman adorning his arm). This year this peony produced almost 200 seed that I have shared with a half dozen of the best plantspeople in Colorado. I suspect one of them will hit pay dirt, and in a few years we'll see this at Costco or worse in the spring. Oh well!
By then I shall have more trophy plants leaning on my elbow!

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