Sunday, August 4, 2013

Busman's holiday: a propagator's private garden

Mike Bone in native habitat
 Early August isn't a typical time to go garden touring in Denver--but then again, Mike Bone's private garden is hardly typical. Mike Bone happens to oversee the Propagation department at Denver Botanic Gardens, and is Curator of Steppe Collections. I know many competent horticulturists who live in plantless flats, and others with pedestrian home gardens. But then there are a few afflicted sorts who practice what they preach and strive to create a real garden at their homes: Mike is the poster boy of this last category. I find myself dropping in on Mike many times each year to keep tabs on what he's up to at home--and thought you might like to join me on my recent visit.

A garden of unique combinations
I love all gardens, but so many consist of the same old same old Rudbeckia, Echinacea and Hemerocallis in early August (again and again). Did I mention Perovskia? And my personal bête noire, Karl Foerster grass (insert shuddering emoticon please...). I am pretty sure there isn't another garden in the world with the plants that Mike has combined in this one spot. Do take a moment to read the labels above and marvel at the clever pairings and the astonishing diversity. What this picture doesn't show is that there is a husky Eriogonum jamesii also tucked in on the right and Salvia multicaulis in there as well--and lots of bulbs in the spring. The textures are wonderful, and the color blends are very Colorado..

Another view
Here from a lower angle you can see the wide spread of Mike's orange pineleaf penstemon and James' buckwheat to the right--their fine texture provides the perfect foil for the bold crambe and Agave in the middle, and of course the dark textures behind. This sort of artistry is probably lost on the petunia and marigold crowd, but for a card carrying plant nerd like me, this is Heaven.

Salvia penstemonoides and yellow Hesperaloe
 There is something about that wonderful violet purple Salvia color next to the innocent yellow of the Hesperaloe that summons something deep in me--the sort of pure color moments one has as a child. I have to admit, the Salvia was my pretext for visiting Mike on Friday.

Salvia pentemonoides
 There is something quaint about plants that look like other plants (and this salvia does look like a penstemon), but this Salvia is noteworthy for many reasons. Long thought to be extinct, it was re-discovered by Dan Hosage along a highway in Texas, and was subsequently re-introducued to horticulture rather widely for a while. High Country Gardens touted it, and we had a few husky clumps at Denver Botanic Gardens. And then just as suddenly it seemed to have disappeared (even the re-discovered colony was apparently destroyed in road expansion). I think a few others have been found in the wild, but this plant is nowhere nearly securely ensconced in cultivation yet. When I realized our last plants were gone at the Gardens, I was despondent--until Mike informed me he still had one: his one gets more and more massive by year, and he has harvested many cuttings and lots of seed, and it is being widely shared now once again. Let's hope this time we can firmly establish this wonderful, rare native in horticulture (at least in Colorado!)...

One of Mike's many troughs
How do I pick out my favorite plant in this ensemble: the Opuntia debreczyi 'Potato' loaded with seedpods is a winner, but so is the husky Campanula choruhensis in the lower right. And Hymenoxys scaposa provides a nice touch in the lower left of the trough (yes, Mark, I know that Flora of the US calls this Tetraneuris--old names are still valid, and may be resurrected once again!).

Purple sedum medly
 I so want to copy this trough filled with two dark Hylotelephiums...Horticultural plagiarism is fortunately not illegal. I particularly like the contrasting flourish of the silver Artemisia in the distance--this sort of counterpoint is what makes plantsmen happy.

Bouvardia ternifolia
 We grew a Bouvardia for years in  Dryland Mesa until a zealous and uninformed seasonal worker removed it (out of bloom). I rue it still...

Part of the veggie garden
 Mike doesn't just grow rare and recondite plants--he has a pretty amazing vegetable garden with an array of very productive plants....

Pink banana squash
 Mike had to show off one of his many giant winter squashes that are still getting bigger...AND BIGGER...

Solanu xantii
 Mike has great hopes for this husky, California nightshade--which would make a wonderful xeriscape perennial (or annual for a container come to think of it).

Centranthus lecoqii
 I don't know another garden outside California where you would find the lavender Valerian growing..

Mike alongside Bugmansia
 Wonderful vignettes wherever you look in this garden..

Bighorn skull
 You can't really be a bona fide Colorado garden without a O'Keefe skull of some sort--usually a cow's skill. But Mike has to have our state animal in residence...

A wonderful assortment of hardy cacti in pots

Another luxurious combination of plants in pots and the garden

Talinum calycinum adds a second season of interest to a pot with Pediocactus in it.

Heterotheca jonesii x villosa
 A wonderfully grown specimen of the hybrid golden aster found by Ray Daugherty, Mike's teacher at Front Range Community College...

Thelesperma filifolium
 Mike has long been a champion of these local cousins to Coreopsis--and as you would expect, he has a vigorous stand in his garden grown from seed collected on nearby Table Mountain. One of the common names is "Greenthread"--and it does have an uncanny resemblance to threadleaf coreopsis. Only a heck of a lot more xeric!

Greenhouse/spa room
In the summer I believe this is more a wonderful space for the Jacuzzi, but in the winter the greenhouse is filled with overwintering tender plants, and seedpots galore.

During the day, Mike oversees an ambitious and far flung Propagation program in two greenhouse complexes 18 miles apart: he has assembled an extremely talented team of growers and produces an an enormous volume of plants for staff at the gardens, but also for the Plant Select program, and plant sales.

I know that many plants that enter the Botanic Gardens collections began as cuttings, seed or purchased plants nourished at his home garden, with propagules flowing to DBG. I am sorry to have only shown you a glimpse--there is the better part of an acre of ground here--and although Mike has only been here a few years, he is rapidly transforming the space into one of the Denver area's premier gardens. You must meet the man, and weasel your way out there...I do on a regular basis! I can assure you that you'll walk away inspired!


  1. As someone a long way from Denver and the DBG, I would have enjoyed some truly close-up photography of some of these unusual plants. Wonderful glimpse, though.

  2. I have that same Centranthus lecoqii in my California garden, but hadn't realized this wasn't just a different color form of C. ruber. With how vigorously self-sowing this is locally, I'm kind of amazed it wouldn't be equally as aggressive there in Colorado. I must deadhead this continuously to avoid it running rampant.
    David in Berkeley

  3. Hi Panayoti, Mike's collection is superb. Also, thank you for putting labels on the pictures.


  4. I am a big fan of Mike! Thanks for sharing his unique garden.

  5. Hi Panayoti, I have the Salvia Pentemonoides in my garden. I didn't know what it was (until now). My Mother told me that my Grandmother had it in her yard, and my Mother said that it is a very old plant. Thank you for the information on this plant. Mike has a wonderful garden.


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