Monday, June 27, 2011

Border Control

As a gardener, I feel like I should be at peace with things that are out of my control.  I know in my heart that things change, plants are resilient etc., but this is not easy:

South fencerow in my garden, June 1st

South fencerow in my garden, June 27th

Yup, the bench and all of that loveliness is mine.  The privet hedge belongs to my neighbors.  They trim it every summer, but this year it was a major haircut.  I got a sinking feeling in my gut when I saw them string the line and start cutting.  I count on the neighbor's hedge to provide shade for the perennials in that bed.  There will be some unhappy days as the plants and I adjust to our new exposure.

At least he hasn't torn it out, as he casually mentioned two years ago.  And yes, the hedge will probably be better for it in the long run. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Homemade Hypertufa Rocks

Today's guest blogger is my neighbor Ray, who planted up a lime-loving trough in my yard last month.  He writes:

Brian – you can really put a guy on the spot – I guess I have to get this out before June is over. You already have three (scratch that) six more posts since the “Lime-Lovers Trough”. Since you asked for instructions, my science educator background has taken over and this is a bit lengthy.

Just as with cooking recipes, where a good cook understands a substitution or alteration may produce a new and exciting result, these “recipes” are just variations on the basic. The first rocks were from pieces of broken troughs and/or hardened leftover mix. 

A piece of a trough that broke before curing. It can be used to make a very attractive ‘rock’ with some chipping and carving. At least one half will be buried in the trough mix.

Basic hypertufa mix - three parts perlite and peat, two parts Portland cement. Bang and hack it with a mason’s hammer ‘til it looks like a nicely shaped rock. (I am reminded of a story about a sculptor. When asked by an admirer how he carved his magnificent images the sculptor replied, "Take a block of stone and remove anything that doesn’t look like the subject.") That’s what I do. I take a piece of hypertufa and remove everything that doesn’t look like an interesting rock, with a couple of fissures or niches to plant in or allow plants to scramble through. Voila, serviceable ‘limestone rock’. As they age, the peat chunks decay or flake off to form pits and voids for soil to fill and where plant roots can take hold.

Natural coral stone (left) and aged Hypertufa 'rock' (center) with Rosularia sedoides (right)

It's a great way to use material that would have been thrown out, but.... I always cringe slightly at the white beads of perlite exposed on the surfaces. Yes, they too will eventually weather and disintegrate, but much more slowly than the peat and in the meantime....distracting.  

Hypertufa 'rock' showing white perlite granules

So my second variation had no perlite. The perlite is mainly to make a light trough and the rocks are small enough that the weight is no issue.  So I mixed cement and peat with enough water to make a cottage cheesy mix slapped together to form a ‘proto-rock’. (Note: Be sure to wear gloves when hand shaping wet cement. It’s not nearly as caustic as lye but it does react with the outer layer of your skin.) As it sets up I fine tune the shape, try to make interesting bumps, peaks, fissures and niches and form a good portion to be buried in the trough planting media. Rocks, natural or fabricated, aren’t just decorations. They provide coolness and shade in summer, warmth and shelter in winter, channel moisture and encourage deep root runs. Like icebergs, the important part is below the surface. A little carving and roughing up of the above ground portion before it gets fully hard and a very convincing and attractive ‘rock’ is ready to age for the trough planting. (Like the troughs the rocks must age to modify the high lime content of the cement surface. Calcicoles like lime but not that much lime.)   

Hypertufa 'rock' made with only cement and peat

I was satisfied until I got a good look at the tufa stones at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morristown, NJ. The fissures and niches are like miniature caves with wormhole-like tunnels and tubes and minute stalactites and stalagmites scattered over the surface. Little seedlings have sprouted and matured in these pockets.  The tufa is home to choice alpine and rock garden plants, their roots running deep into the rock via the channels. I covet these rocks immensely but the rarity and expense of such magnificent specimens are beyond even MY penchant for indulgence and budget busting. But could something vaguely similar be crafted? I had an idea: Variation three.

The raised scree bed of alpines at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum

Close up of natural tufa stones.

The particular ‘rocks’ in your trough are probably not something too many people will be able to duplicate. They have a very unusual ‘ingredient’ in the mix. Although I indulge in troughs and their exquisite inhabitants, and have been training a collection of trees as bonsai, and dabble in all sorts of horticultural pursuits, my great passion is and always has been my orchids. And all orchids have very unique roots. In most the center of each root is a thin, almost wirey core. It is surrounded by a thick, almost spongy layer of tissue that absorbs water and nutrients in live roots and continues to absorb and hold moisture after the root dies. I decided to use the roots trimmed from repotted plants instead of peat to make the artificial rocks. My hope is that as the roots break down in the cement they will leave a network of long, branching tubes for plant roots, just like the tufa, with the added bonus of a compost filling. I have also thrown in some used osmunda, a thin wiry fern root sometimes used to grow orchids and other epiphytes. 

Orchid roots from different varieties come in various sizes.  The dark roots above are from osmunda fern.  

New hypertufa 'rock' made with orchid and fern roots

We’ll have to see how it works out as it ages.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

OK. I Take It Back.

Sedum reflexum 'Blue Spruce'

Yeah, I'll admit it.  I fantasized about deposing the dictator from this container on the deck.  The blue spruce sedum spreads a little too exuberantly for my delicate tastes.  Like a drunk, overweight subway passenger the sedum obnoxiously leans on the other plants in this container, blocking the sunlight.  To maintain it, I periodically pull handfuls of it and throw it over the deck, where it sometimes roots.  Planted in the ground, the sedum seems in control, making an excellent groundcover.  In the dry, raised environment of the hypertufa, however, it veers towards being out of control.

BUT, (yes, a big "but") it has its moment when it flowers and I forgive it...for this week at least.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Goldilocks Weather

As a gardener, I've always got one eye on the weather.  Last week was brutally hot and dry and followed a long couple weeks with little rain.  The weekend was rainy and chilly by Saturday night.  This week has been gorgeous: 80's with sun and adequate moisture.  I look at the weather forecast these days and don't find anything to stress about.  "Just right", I think.  What a relief.

Even my three-year old noticed it, saying to me yesterday "This is a great day, Dad!".

Rain in the forecast tonight.  Right on time.

Eremurus leaning on rhododendron

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Capital Trough Prototype

The inner foamboard core

Last week I cast a trough based on a column capital using the slump (no outer mold) method described in the previous post.  I'm intrigued by capitals because they are a transitional device in architecture, decoratively making the connection between the (usually) round column and the rectilinear vaulting or entablature above.  It's this circle combined with a square that I was interested in for this trough.  I liked the idea of the trough's organic, circular bottom touching the ground and the more manmade, unnatural square at the top rim.  The cast trough is still raw in the photos below but the idea is there, although subtle.  I may cast a more emphatic square rim on it next time. 

Still, there's something rustic that I like about this one, almost like a good raku teacup.  Maybe it just needs the right plants.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

New Trough Design

I've made a lot of rectangular troughs over the last year and have been hungering for something more organic and informal to mix it up.  I kept boring my wife with talk of the Guggenheim Museum crossed with a geode or scholar's rock.  Some version of this design appears off and on in my sketchbook for the last few months.  Above is a drawing from last week, with a note about a book mentioned on GardenRant that I want to read.  Since I finally finished all of the troughs that I had orders for and have time to play (I mean do research and development) I freehanded an interior core over the weekend with some 2" rigid insulation board.  I used spray adhesive to stick the layers together and shaped them with a large, sharp knife.

I skimmed the exterior of the form with joint compound to cover up the irregular surface of the foam.  I trimmed away anything that looked like an undercut.  My goal was a smooth core that could be pulled from the top of the final hypertufa piece with little resistance.

On Monday night I wrapped a couple of 1" nylon straps around the form to aid in pulling it out later on.  I then mixed up a batch of hypertufa and applied about a 2" layer over the inverted, plastic-wrapped core.  I packed the hypertufa mix as tight as I could on the core form.  I've found that the more the hypertufa is packed the stronger it is.  Casting hypertufa with only an inner core reminds me of turning clay on a potters wheel, only there's no turning and there's no interior (so maybe that's just my brain grasping at straws).  It looked pretty boring when I finished up Monday night.  I sealed it in plastic and hoped for the best.

On Wednesday, I gently rolled the whole thing over onto some foam scraps and pulled the core out with a flourish.  No cursing for a change.  I must be getting better.

Last night in a short, intense burst of sweating in a hot garage I rounded the rim edges with a trowel and gave the exterior a good wire-brushing.  Using a wire brush helps to remove the cement that has migrated to the exterior, and exposes the perlite and peat moss in the mix.  I'm not crazy about the chocolate chip cookie kind of look that it has initially, but I like the way that it dries to a nice weathered gray.

Sprayed with water and wrapped in plastic for a month, the trough will sit patiently (unlike me).  The waiting makes me feel like some sort of insane baker with an oven that takes a month to bake.  When it's cured I'll use the hammerdrill to put a few drainage holes in it.  Planting will have to wait for cooler weather.  In the meantime, I can use the core to make more, when and if it cools off.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

It Lives in the Shadows!

Look! It's that palmate-leafed thing between the hostas and the privet.

I had given it up for dead this year.  My sharp-eyed neighbor found it last year at the Maplewood Garden Club's spring sale.  It was labeled Arisaema Tortuosum, a tender Asian, and it was not cheap.  "The label's wrong", my confident friend assured me, "it is hardy, and you're getting it".  We put it in a nice shady spot at the feet of the privet hedge, where it's cool and shady and wet all year round.  I tried to enjoy it, but worried about its survival prospects through a brutal summer.  I was not surprised when its leaves dried and it was gone without a trace in August.  I looked all spring for it this year, then gave it up for dead sometime in May.  I was surprised to see its remarkable leaf sending up its signal flare (look over here!) this weekend.  I followed it down to the ground to see this:

That's the leaf stem coming towards the camera

Definitely not A. Tortuosum, which has a pale green spathe.  It must be some sort of A. Speciosum.  I love the fact that I have to walk into the bed, part the shrubbery and ferns, and bend over to look at such a weird thing.  I also kind of love the fact that it seems alien and impossible to photograph well, but I know that's due to my six-year old camera.  

I promise to have faith in its eventual return when the mothership takes it away in August.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

New Combo, Old Song

This year I tried salvia verticillata 'Purple Rain' near the pale yellow rose 'Teasing Georgia'.  I kind of like it today, but we'll see what happens in another month.  The salvia replaced some orange/yellow coreopsis that were perfectly happy in their spot but clashed perfectly ugly with the purple/magenta phlox paniculata 'Nicky' behind them.  I'm hoping the salvia has a nice rebloom in July so I can see it slow-dancing with Nicky.  Yes, I always think of the Prince song when I see that salvia.  Always.  Not fair, salvia breeders.

I've sown some black bachelor's buttons at the feet of the salvia, hoping they will mediate any fighting in this bed later on.  Now if we could just get some rain to go with our unreasonable heat this week...

Monday, June 6, 2011

New trough for lime-lovers

No, not margarita drinkers, lime-loving (calcicole) plants.

My neighbor planted up one my medium troughs for me this weekend with a mix of saxifrages and a silene the he had found at Oliver Nurseries.  It's gorgeous, even in its newly planted phase.  I've asked him to write up the details on the planting medium mix, the homemade "tufa" rocks, and the plants for the blog.  Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Still Spring despite the thermometer

Climbing rose on back of garage

The heat is wilting me already but the garden seems fine, probably due to ample moisture in the ground and coolish nighttime temps.  Rose season is in full swing, except on the left side of the trellis on the back of the garage.  The rose on the right (Coral Dawn, if I remember right) blooms a few days earlier than the one on the left (New Dawn).  We didn't paint the garage that crazy blue color but it really sets off the pink.  We did design and install the trellis.

Gothic hypertufa planter with bench and trellis

The mowing sweat was worth it on Monday.

North side of garage

I've always been a texture/shape gardener more than a color/bloom gardener.  I've been called too subtle (ahem, Amir!), but I really like this bed along the garage.  It's a mix of sweetbox, brunnera, autumn fern, anemone, kirengeshoma, hakonechloa, japanese painted fern, with a potted fuschia summering above it all.  That crazy blue wall coloring sets it off.

Queen Elizabeth rose (left) and Don Juan climbing rose (right)

The giant Queen Elizabeth rose was one of the only nice plants on the property when we bought it.  We bought a second one to match it for the other end of the deck.  I prune the original Queen back to an 8' framework every spring and it gets 12 or 13' tall by the end of the summer.  Don Juan was a gift from our plant guru neighbor (thanks Ray) a few years ago.  I finally replaced the broken trellis under the deck this spring (think cheap lattice panels on the bias) and replaced it with one of my own design.  

The deck planters as seen from the back door.

I love that little pink Lewisia cotyledon sticking out in the middle.  Its flowering time is brief, but the flowering stem is very architectural, sticking up from its flat evergreen rosette of leaves.  Dianthus 'Tiny Rubies' is finishing to the left.  The spring flush of bloom is almost over for this group of planters.  It's back to size, shape and texture for another ten months.