October 18, 2009

Starting up a new season in the greenhouse

The bulbous oxalis are starting to bloom, here are a trio. And, just in time for our first snow of the season. Look at how floriferous the one on the right it, Oxalis lupinifolia. Last year it only had one flower.

The white Nerine sarniensis are particularly beautiful this year.

I am beginning to think of October as the start of my favorite gardening season. It's amazing what a greenhouse can do for you. Even though this is a time of transition, the phase isn't a shift away from gardening, but rather a shift indoors, where there is more to do. Upon entering the autumn greenhouse, one is met with moist air, which is a fresh as an early spring day in April, but scented not with Lilac's, but with the ssweet cent of Osmanthus fragrans, a smell which I instantly associate with autumn days in cool greenouses.

Bulbs in pots, that are all starting to grow and bloom, and the most exciting in these October days. Nerine sarniensis, Oxalis bulbs from South Africa's cape region all steal the show.

Oxalis ciliaris has few flowers, but their color is unique.

An early surprise snow, lands on Catalpa leaves, so early, they have not yet turned color for the season. Is this a sign of our winter to come?

A Cypella herbertii, an South African bulb in the Iris family, begins to bloom in the greenhouse. It seems to have poor timing, either blooming at night, or when I am not around. In bloom, it looks very much like a Tigridia.

Not all Nerine are big, this little Nerine masonorum is a tiny species which is evergreen.

The Nerine stems, when not staked twist and turn in the sunlight.

I cleaned the greenhouse walk today, and the garden in front of the south side of the greenhouse, which was planted with Dahlias and Colocasia, now dead with our killing frost this week. Now removed and tossed in the compost, I dragged over the sassanqua Camellia's. which can sit in their pots until it becomes too cold for them. By Thanksgiving, they too will be brought back into the greenhouse.

Cyclamen africanum beginning to bloom in the sand bed, in the back of the greenhouse. Many of my Cyclamen species are late this year, I don't know why. Maybe they too just want to sleep in late given our weather.

October 12, 2009

A Quintessential Autumn Weekend in New England

Heirloom Pumpkins and Squash in Stockbridge, Massachusetts

I and Pam Eveleigh at the Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge, MA

Giant Pumpkins in front of the Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge, MA.
It's been a busy week, but since we sort of like to be busy, it's OK. Besides, today is Columbus Day in the US, and a Holiday, so I have the day off. Back in April, we we're asked if we wouldn't mind hosting Primula (Primrose) expert, Pam Eveleigh, as she skipped between NARGS chapters ( North American Rock Garden Society), while on the Fall NARGS speaker's tour. We knew of Pam only from her fabulously informative web site Primula World, which is quickly becoming the source for accurate information and up-to-date photo images of Primula.

Pam travels around the globe to study Primula, and she is often asked to contribute her botanical expertise on expeditions most recently to China and the Himalaya's with the Kunming Botanical Institute. She is an accomplished photographer, and her images are some of the very best ever taken of many species, even beyond the clan of Primroses. Be sure to visit her site. Pam stayed with us Friday and Saturday, and we then drove her to the Berkshires where she presented a talk and slide show entitled the Genus Primula, to both the Berkshire Chapter of NARGS, and, the New England Chapter of the American Primula Society. The talk, which was very informative had amazing images of some primula rarely photographed in the wilds of China and Tibet. One chapter member even told me that he thought that she was one of the best speakers that they have ever hosted.

A white gourd dangles from a rustic pergola at the Berkshire Botanic Garden

Seed pod from a Magnolia macrophylla looks a bit like an artichoke.

Joe ( President of the American Primrose Society, 'father's' over the Rockwellian table during our lunch at the Red Lion ( notice the small, framed Rockwell on the wall to his left).

Before we arrived at the Berkshire Botanic Garden, we met some friends from the N.E. Primula Society in Stockbridge, MA, at the Red Lion Inn. The waiter asked us if we realized that the large table was the inspiration for local artist Norman Rockwell's famous painting (see below). WHo know;s if this is urban legend or truth, but we had a chuckle. It was a beautiful autumn day in New England, and I suppose there was no place many of us would have rather been, than sitting in the lobby of the Red Lion Inn, in vintage sofas, crackling wood fire, and brisk, cold New England air outside. Apple Crisp anyone?

Last night was also our first frost of the season, so we spent much of the day, moving heavy clay pots into the greenhouse. Notice how some of the bulbous Oxalis are starting to bloom in the sand, plunge bench.
Agave's and other tender plants are starting their journey into winter, in the cold glasshouse.

Last chance for fresh veggies before the killing frost. I quickly decide to save some chili peppers and tomatoes on my way back in from the greenhouse, as I pass through the veg garden. Rosemary was for the lamb roast, tonight.

I promised myself that I was going to edit what was going to go back into the greenhouse for the winter, since I wanted to leave room for some new plants. So I let my Begonia collection freeze to death. It was SO hard! Although, I saved this one. For now!

Here is what greeted me in the kitchen this morning, one of our ducks, let himself in. He has to walk up 10 steps on the deck, and then through the open door on the porch, and then the kitchen. Fergus and Margaret just sat and watched him. He wanted to be fed, I suppose. He is one of the baby ducklings we hartched earlier this summer.

October 9, 2009

An Evening with Ken Druse

This past Wednesday evening, we attended a lecture by America's premier gardener writer and talented photographer, (and a friend) ,Ken Druse. Ken's books are stunning, and they are all much more than mere gardening books, being beautifully designed, full of his amazing photographs, loads of information and highly inspirational, they are in fact, all of that, and more. My favorite (and I always say is one of my top 5 most influencial plant books in my gardening life, is his book The Collector's Garden. Find a used one if you can, but his more recent releases are just as great. HIs most recent book, Planthropology was printed and released last year. Kens many books are all worthy of space on any garden lover's side table but as many people at the lecture and book signing chatted about over cider and cookies, was that these are special books, rare today, since they are not coffee table books or display copies, ken'd books are used, revisited often, and many of us shared our torn, well used copies proudly as if they were Julia child Cookbooks, or, even, dare I say, plant porn. I watched people during the reception grasp their favorite books close to them as they sipped tea, as if to say, "My book, stay away".

Ken's garden moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey, and he shared an entertaining and beautifully designed presentation in the theater at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden, near our home in Boylston, MA ( Ken, we would have asked you to stay with us, but we are in the middle of hosting another garden Goddess, which you will see posted here tomorrow!) themed roughly on how design, culture and plants all come together. I shouldn't have said "roughly" for maybe it was the artist in me, but I found his talk completely engaging, since he made connections between physics, math, biology and the plants and flowers which are familiar to many. The overall them for the evening, was garden art, and Ken was asked to speak by the Botanic Garden about garden art, ( thank God I was't asked!), and then, share the evening with the curator of an exhibition of garden art which Tower Hill is hosting for a month, entitled THE SCULPTURE SHOW AT TOWER HILL , which was beautiful when viewed at night as we did, which included a tour and walk through the woodlands on perhaps the windiest night of the year. It was rather fun, and we almost backed out, planning to sneak out after Ken's talk! But with over 80 people attended this sold out lecture, it looked like it might actually be a bit of an adventure.

The walk started at the Stoddard Visitors center at Tower Hill, which is located at the top of a high hill above the Wachusett Resoirvoir in Boylston, MA. A cold front had just passed through, and although the evening was supposed to be full-,moon, lit, the lighting that Tower Hill placed was thoughtfully arranged, as was the art. Not particularly a fan of garden sculpture myself, I still found the work stimulating as an artist, even more so when viewed at night.

Ken's talk featured all sorts of garden art, and I think he inspired the audience to consider trying some of the more unusual work which anyone can do. I was amused how after a talk about the classics and well know gardens of the world, most of the questions from the audience focused on Ken's little joke about " how nice it would be to see a conservative 'Yankee' New England Gardener be daring, and paint a dead tree brilliant red" something which would integrate into a garden more successfully in California, or in the tropics, or desert, rather then in the north. Still, it came off as a challenge to many.....watch out Ken, you may have just ignited a trend!

October 7, 2009

Elisabeth Zander's Home and Garden

After last weeks trough workshop, North American Rock Garden Society member Elisabeth Zander, invited us and a few other guests to her home and garden which was twenty minutes away from Robin Magowan's garden, in Goshen, Ct. Do you know that feeling you get when you suddenly realize that you are about to see something extraordinary? That's how we felt, when driving into the driveway at the Elisabeth's home. Massive rocks, limestone and granite lined the property and we're placed everywhere, since her husband Rod Zander is a stone mason, a craftsman really, and a well known builder of masonry ( stone) heaters which we have never heard of, but which we found to be an amazing
green' alternative to our old oil furnace. Be sure to check these out, for they have heated alpine lodges in Germany and Switzerland for generations, and they work. Rod is one of the few, if not the only person in the US who builds them.

When your husband is a famous stone mason, fantasy can become reality. Check out Elisabeth's stone sand beds in her beautiful glass greenhouse. I want, I want!
Elisabeth's garden was amazing, with a long, crevice garden built by Czech Crevice Garden and Saxifrage expert Zdeněk Zvolánek complete with dozens, if not a couple of hundred silver saxifrages hybrids and species, and an amazing assemblage of Ramonda seedlings ( a colony, really) which would make any plant enthusiast more than jealous (Ramonda are fussy high alpine relatives of the African Violet family, exceedingly challenging to grow unless you have the perfect spot, ( I have kept one and a half plants, alive in a trough for two years now), but Elisabeth had, oh, I don't know, about fifty which she started from seed. For alpine gardeners, it's like a chef saying "Oh, I brought two white truffles back from France last week", and another saying " Oh those? We have so many in the back woods that we use them as golf balls". She clearly is an expert at cultivating alpine plants, but then again, that should come as no surprise to those who have seen her name in Rock Garden and Alpine journals.

I particularly loved the Zander's home, for it was one of those homes where even if you never met the owners, you just sensed that they were interesting and curious. Not fussy, nor curated, instead it communicated that very interesting people lived here. An amazing ornate Victorian mutitiered plant stand, well worn oriental carpets, botanical books, the warmth of pure, unfussy stone and ancient wood floors all felt perfect.

The Zander's garden view, while under major construction, as we were warned, still offered the horticulturist plenty of things to look at. You know what I mean, not exactly a designed garden, instead, it's an interesting one. The plants and stone are thoughtfully placed, and when complete, everything will live in harmony. This sort of 'design' isn't assembled in a day, or in seven. It must be thoughtfully and consciously 'crafted', and that is the sense I had while viewing Elisabeth's garden. Even on a chilly autumn day, there was alot to see.

A Thyme tumbles over a massive rock

Ephedra ( yeah, it's really a plant too), poking over a boulder looks a but like a scene from under the sea.

Ramonda's are well rooted in the Czech crevice garden. I can only imagine these when they are in full bloom.

The Zander's sweet Australian Shepherd keeps guard.

A Ligularia dentata shout 'Look, yellow!' against the turning leaves, who were only, sort of wispering it at this point.

Farewell Gourmet Mag.. Are we on the precipice of great change, culturally? Or should we just be happy with bushel basket Mums?

Gourmet 1947

It's rant Wednesday..say, have you seen the news? Conde Nast is dumping Gourmet Magazine due to failing ad sales. While we who prefer coinnoisser tastes mourn the loss, I can't help but think that this is not the end, that the trend will continue and who could be next? Horticulture Magazine? Garden Design magazine? Journals and quarterlies of multiple plant societies?

Folks, it's not going away. We need to face this challenge now. Or, at least become part of the change. Doing nothing will only reinforce our Ludditeness, and allow more superficial sources to thrive. It's all part of a greater problem, but the problem is not what we think it it. The problem is simply us not adapting fast enough, and rejecting anything new, as if dismissing it will make it go away. This can be a brand new opportunity. We can't continue to sit at home and complain that electricity is ruining our lives, and that the automobile is destroying horse culture, let's do something. What we love and enjoy in live may no longer be in a magazine, or a printed journal, but it may be the most incredible web site in the world, imagine it, or the most awesome television program, or the finest singular magazine that we would all want.

Listen to what Seth Godin has to say on his blog.

Here's a little bit of what he wrote about the demise of Gourmet Magazine, and the techie conundrum of academics and atisans rejecting technology until it is too late:

Our Culture (high and popular) is usually created by people who are happy with the systems the world has given them. Magazine editors don't spend a lot of time wishing for better technology. Opera singers focus more on their singing than on microphone technologies. Novelists proudly use typewriters.

*The much-anticipated folding of Gourmet magazine is proof of what happens when the top left refuses to move right. Most of the Conde Nast empire is facing the abyss of this problem right now.

Seth Godin may just have confirmed what I, and a few others have been sensing for a while. The world is changing fast, and get ready, it's changing even faster than we have imagined. The passing this week of Conde Nast's Gourmet Magazine, not only a cultural icon, but an even likened to the loss of Julia Child, has raised more than eyebrows amongst the food and garden writers of the world. But whoa Nelly....the desire for cultural inspiration and lifestyle enrichment has hardly weakened, if anything, it has grown. More people, than ever, are accepting and patronizing ventures and businesses who sell and service the industries that swirl behind the trends. Globally, from apartments in Tokyo to Chalet's in Swiss mountain villages, to sleek condos in New Zealand, we as a species are spending money on granite kitchen counters, stainless steel monster stoves, professional refrigerators in which to keep our Pellegrino and organic Mache. Yeah, things have changed, but is it really all that bad?

Look. Gardening as a hobby, lifestyle, passion, whatever...is still happening. I think even the numbers of people somehow involved with gardening are even higher than ever before, but again, it is how we consume, and how much. I feel that the real issue isn't that Gourmet Magazine has gone out of print, for, although it saddens me, and makes me want to drag out that big box of vintage 1940 and 1950 Gourmet Mag's that my Aunt Ann left me so that I can flip through the musty pages and advertisements for Vermont Ham's and reminisce through the decades of Chutney, Relish, Brioche, and then skip the 70's quiche era. Sure, I too sometimes hate change, but at the same time, I relish ( or chutney) it. sorry.

Last night I was having a drink with a friend, and over our fine glass of house Chardonnay at Chili's, were discussing the future of garden writing and food, and even some other lifestyle brands/products, since, that's what we do for a living, anyway, at least, during the day. We settled on, that today, there are more people than ever who want to experience gardening. The difference is, that the audience is scaled differently, if anything, it is scaled by experience and expectation.

Looking at Seth Godin's chart, I am not sure that I agree completely with it's structure, but the fundamental point is brilliant. That far left top area is what keeps us from moving forward. Many of us plant geeks are comfortable with being experts. We are completely 'fine' with other's not understanding what we do. If anything, we love ( relish) the idea that friends think that we might be a bit horto-nerdy when we carefully plant our Nomocharis bulbs in a specialized gravelly, peaty soil that drains well, yet stays moist, while they are more than happy to limit their 'experience' to dumping a mesh bag of discount Home Depot daffodils in a hole dug around their lamp post and call it a day. This is both considered gardening, folks. The fact is, more people are indeed gardening, but, they far outnumber the plant geeks like us who demand more. The others will not learn 'more' unless we inspire them. ( and their kids). This can take generations. But it took generations in England, too. And...by the way, they too sell Daffodils to the masses at Tesco's, and it's OK.

A few thoughts on that. First, I want to believe that this trend might be very similar to what happened in England in the early 1800's, although class and elitism factored in, too. Still, the common man ( woman) found that a potted Auricula Primrose added some value to their coal dust covered lives. That a nosegay of Violets enriched their few, brief moments when they we're not boiling sheets and socks. They appreciated plants and gardening, which, of course, has changed over time. Still, gardening and an appreciation if not an obsession for plants began in England, and it continues today. Still, it's different now, than then. Again, I feel that it's not the appreciation which has changed, it's how and what we appreciate, not why.

In the 20th Century, especially after the war steadily until now, we somehow have become complacent. We don't want things to change, we like ritual, it's comforting. In fact, it may be a very human behavior to expect and look forward to the ritual around gardening and plants. Every year, there are fall bulb catalogs that arrive in the mail, seed catalogs in the spring, moments in bed at night writing out orders, or hours making wish lists in front of the crackling fire of birch logs as the snow..... you know what I mean. Then, little by little, it all started to get ruined for us.

First, remember in 1980? When that Thompson & Morgan catalog would arrive in mid January? Then, in 1987 it arrived in late December, then in 1994 it came well before Christmas. Soon, spring seed catalogs might come out with Halloween Candy in August. That should have been a big sign that things were about to change. Then, our favorite plant that we wanted, would be sold out because everyone ordered it online, damn computer. Then, 'hot' plants would be sold out before the catalogs were mailed. How dare they.

Things changed gradually, but steadily. Plant Society meetings on Saturday afternoons started to become more sparsely populated. Where were all of the young people? Yet, super mega shopping centers had massive displays of Hellebores and fancy Daylilies that swept out of the door faster than Styrofoam pumpkins the day after Halloween at Michael's Craft stores.

As gardeners, we should just get over ourselves, and embrace it. So buckle up buttercup....What they Hell?! We garden types are tougher than cooks, foodies, dog show people (w ell, maybe not them but the orchid society could give them a run for the money). We can handle this challenge, no CHANGE.

WE will adapt and then find a way to do it better. So what if all the gardening magazine go out of business, are they really THAT good anyway? What we need to do, is to support and improve the quality of what we want, and expect that maybe there will be less of it, but, better product. In a way, we all control the numbers. We need to get over many things first. So if you are still complaining that you miss real film, Ektachrome, slide projectors... if you are still bitchin' about how great the page count in your society journals used to be, and how the cost of printing is killing you. If you are a small plant society not willing to change, and you are still complaining that your declining membership in the micro gesneriad society of northern Ontario is out of control, get over it. There are only 6 of you, and you are freaking awesome....go with it. Woot!.

For the rest of us, get ready for change. But don't just site there, consider options, even big ones. For instance, if all of the plant societies in the world got together, imagine the power they would have. Imagine a 4 color printed glossy perfect bound journal with 400 pages that everyone could enjoy, beautifully designed. Imagine even if only all of the alpine plant societies and rock garden societies could just join forces, Heck, we could sponsor global expeditions, a television program, a touring conference. Imagine even the small things - if the Northern, and Southern UK , and western and eastern US Primula societies could merge into one, mega primula society. What do you think their journal and web experience would look like? FIrst of all, I think the 'experience' of being a member would not change all that much, but the future may depend on globalization of first, the specialty plant groups, and then, a globalization of all of the, perhaps.

Sure, freak out. But how would you stop this trend? And actually, what IS the trend, anyway? I am not convinced that it is declining interest, as much as it is declining free time and depth of interest. I would imagine that if tiered properly, any plant society could attract more people by making what they know and love appealing to entry level gardeners, that young woman in Brooklyn who love design and modernity, but who has little knowledge nor time with work, and a baby, that middle aged dude in western Iowa who works full time in a cubicle, and looks forward to driving his kids to football practice and soccer on Saturday, then Pizza at night, to the just retired couple in New Hampshire who still need to work part time jobs, but who are on a fixed budget, and who never gardened before and who would like to try, but don;t know where to start?

Sure, today, plant societies may be struggling, but they do need to change, or, Seth is right....they will fade away painfully slow. So the big question is, how do they change? Well, I have a few ideas.

First, don't complain so much. It's just not productive, and don't ignore it either. Make change. The complaining makes plant society meetings painful to attend, believe me, I sometimes wonder why I even bother to go to some. It makes me feel unwanted, and unwelcome, and there is little to look forward to. I can tell you how many times I've heard " guys. come on, this is a Plant Society...why are we arguing so much?" I mean, I get it. Change is hard to accept, but still.....

Second, you will need to educate your society to learn digital tools, computers, etc. more. In a year or two, we will all have digital TV and flat screens. The one we just bought, a 54" LCD screen which was $11,000 3 years ago, was only $1500, half the price of our last TV. And I can cruise the Internet with it, my blog looks awesome at 54" in high depth. Wait till I add video, and music! Today, we all will start seeing more than a website with some sites, why not be the first plant society to do this ( and, if we all joined forces, it could literally become a plant network with an hour for the evergreen society, an hour video program on alpine plants, etc. And once big business understands that suddenly, thousands of eyes worldwide are looking at interactive sites on line on their home TV's, you know that dollars will be thrown at it fast via advertising bucks. Remember, the number 1 reason why Gourmet is dead, is failing ad revenue. The Internet is basically free.

One of the easiest benefits you can produce is a .pdf Newsletter. Now, they can be in color, and easily distributed. I know, not as fab as a printed journal.....but wait...

Print a journal?

Sure, just steer your membership costs towards it. On line printing sites like Lulu, which is owned by Amazon, and who can distribute your journal through Amazon is one great option. Yeah, the cost is a little high, but not prohibitive, especially if the quality of the writing and book, is high, and it is only getting better. I would pay $20 per issue if it was printed on Lulu with a thick glossy cover,and stunning photos on every page......but remember, you can offset the cost with color ad's too. At low pricepoints, since advertisers need a break, too. I am currently working on some creative solutions for digital printing that all societies can think about. Other online print services is Blurb, which many of my younger designer pals use frequently for self designed books, portfolios and magazine type books. Their quality is even better. On society could publish a hardcover journal annual or biannual with the highest quality printing.
I use Magcloud for my magazine, and still a little costly, a 60 page magazine would cost less that $12.00. That price will go down, and advertising may help.

The big publishers are all jumping in, so don't think they are really just dumping their magazines. They are investing in digital options fast. In one way or another, if a publisher or printer isn't looking at digital options, they may not survive. Rumors are that even Timber Press is looking at options. We cannot just wait.

Lightning Source owned partly by Ingram
Author House is partly owned by Barnes & Noble investors
Booksurge is owned by Amazon
Lighting Source
XLibris is owned by Random House
Then, check this out. Print on demand, journals.

Third, consider weekday night meetings, if you want younger people. Hold them at cool small cafe's, where slide presentations can be shared. the art community is doing this now with a movement called PECHA KUCHA, just Google it and you will be amazed, especially if you look for it on You Tube. PECHA KUCHA events are held world wide, in cafes, restaurants, and bars where people of all ages, share their passions and interests, but in 20 slides, in 20 minutes. Imagine if the plant world could start at trend like this.

See, it's not that we are all avoiding plant societies, it's that we just need to consume our passions, differently. I may not join a society on Hellebore's, and attend 2 hour meetings on the only day a week that I have off, but, I would stop off on the way home from work, on Ephemeral Night at Pecha Kucha Green ( making that up), and have a glass of wine and listen to a plant geek share her 20 slides of her favorite Hellebore's, and then listen to the next speaker talk about Anemone nemorosa in their woodlands for 20 slides, and then pay the $5.00 for a membership donation, and then go home. I just might do that.

Think about it...what we gardeners have adapted to over the past few years.

the Internet
bank debit cards
digital cameras

In Japan, on my last trip, every ones cell phones have scanners that sweep across digital UPC codes, and they pay for everything this way. Taxi's, vending machines, fast food, all with a sweep of their cell phones. But the feature also allows them to scan a code on posters, on ad's on the train, on buses, in magazines, and instantly, a load on info is downloaded into the palm of their hand. A bit much perhaps, but this technology is on its way, along with mobile TV, so once this all merges, we will have to adapt, or lose ever everything.

Move forward!

October 3, 2009

A visit to Robin Magowan's garden in Connecticut

Anemone japonica in the Connecticut garden of Robin Magowan. Nearly more beautiful than any Mary Cassatt or Willard Metcalf painting.
One of the greatest pleasures of being active members of plant societies such as the North American Rock Garden Society, ( NARGS), is the people you meet. Over the years we have met many interesting people, with amazing life stories, incredible gardens and have made long lasting friendships, and in a world of Facebook, blogs and email, meeting real people is a rare thing sometimes! Last weeks' workshop on trough-making was held in the western Connecticut garden of Robin Magowan, well known for his alpine garden plantings, and frequently featured in journals, magazines articles and on television programs. It was a treat to be able to take some time after the workshop and tour Robin's garden.

A Zinnia grandiflora blooms in the rock garden

Grasses and maples in full, autumnal glory edge the clearest and cleanest Koi pond I have ever seen. These are the luckiest fish in the world.
A Colchicum 'The Waterlily" blooms solo, near a large rock.

I'm guessing that this is a Glaucium grandiflorum or G. flavum, a 'horned poppy' in bloom on the slopes of the massive rock garden in full sun.

These 'mountains' mimic the real hills in the distance, a thoughful landscape design is the first thing I noticed about this garden.

A good garden has both humor, folly and botanical interests in it. Robin's garden has it all. Plus art! It's not too serious, nor too horticultural, with tags ruining the view. I like that. I try to remove all of my tags in the rock garden, opting to look things up, instead.

An autumn Clematis never looks much better than this. Clematis paniculata is the king of fall vine displays.

October 1, 2009

A Trough Building Workshop

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.