Sunday, December 21, 2014

Winter Solstice

The semps look cold, like they've retreated under the blankets.

The birds haven't bothered to eat the seed that I put out a day and half ago.

I wore 3 or 4 layers on my 20-mile bike ride.

And I need the flash at three in the afternoon?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Recipe for Trough Planting

This square trough lives on our deck, outside the sliding glass door of the dining room.  We have a group of troughs on the deck that are a kind of living painting that we enjoy all year round.  I'm always drawn to this trough...I think because of the mix of evergreen textures.  There's a dwarf golden chamaecyparis, purple rockcress aubrieta x cultorum 'Joy', woodruff asperula gussonei, an abused weigela 'Wine & Roses', a self-seeded sedum cauticola, a self-seeded pasqueflower, and a couple kinds of sempervivums.  There are also some species tulips that come up right behind the cress.  We've got a lot going on, maybe too much, in the couple square feet of the trough.

The chamaecyparis seems to like the living mulch of the semps.

The asperula (left) is quite delicate-looking, but don't be fooled.  Last winter was tough on it, but it came back strong this summer.

These plants are all tough customers.  They tolerate full sun, an exposed site, no protection from snow, and still they flower reliably.  What more could I ask from a living painting?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Final New Troughs of the Year

I've had the last three new hypertufa troughs that I cast on November 2nd sealed in plastic, curing in the basement for a month.  I took them into the basement to keep the temperature steady, but I usually cure them under the deck.  The two rectangular footed troughs are part of an order of four that I'll deliver in early December.  The troughs behind are the rotating display of troughs, my little still life, in front of the garage, where I can see them from the kitchen and the second floor.  

This last trough, a footed round one, I cast for myself.  I made a few of this style earlier this year, but have sold all of them.  I wanted one for myself, so I used up the last of the Portland cement (it goes bad if it sits) to make one.

(Yes, that's a plastic bucket covering a new dwarf conifer in the trough in the background.  It's the first winter that I've had this one and I'm worried about snow load on its upright branches.)

I picked up an ilex verticillata 'Red Sprite' at an end-of-the-season sale at Terrain last month.  It's destined for a life in a container, at least for a few years.  I already grow the female 'Spriber' and the male 'Jim Dandy' in large hypertufa troughs in the driveway.  'Red Sprite' is also pollinated by 'Jim Dandy', so I'll keep her nearby.  Even though this shrub is a dwarf, this trough is probably too small to last a year.  At the very least, the hypertufa will help protect it during the coming winter.

It's too cold now to cast any more troughs in the garage.  I'm taking a break for the winter.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Out Front

Our front yard is a mix of small and medium-sized perennials. Since the erica got demolished last winter, not much is blooming in December.  Two things out front look great though.  The first is the tiny trough between the front door and the railing.  The mum's still in bloom, and the chamaecyparis obtusa 'Verdoni' always looks classy.  Blue spruce sedum spills at their feet.  If the squirrels didn't find the species tulip bulbs, the trough may have some spring interest too.

The second thing that looks great right now is miscanthus sinensis 'Gracimillus' going to seed.  I love how feathery and almost blurry it looks at this late stage.  It borders my neighbors' driveway and tends to drop over the driveway a bit.  I hope it's not driving them nuts.  I imagine them both going to work with grass seed stuck to their shoulders.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Autumn in a Trough

The trough plants as a whole are such spring bloomers that their fall colors always seem to surprise me.  This trough holds a dwarf chamaecyparis, a dwarf iris, a dianthus, a variegated sedum, geranium 'Ballerina', and a dracocephalum.  Yes, it sits directly on the drainage grate at the bottom of my driveway, right in front of the garage.  Why not put a trough on top, right?

That's sedum cauticola in the square planter behind the center trough.  It happily shares space with a large quince.  The trough on the right holds a lot of lewisias and is probably the leanest planting mixture that I've tried.  The plants seem to love it though.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Swan Song

Sedum sieboldii seems like the last one to bloom this year.  I love the combo of blue and pink against the grey of the trough.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Trough Gratitude

I asked my neighbor Ray last spring how I could pay him for all of the wonderful alpines from Oliver's that find their way into my troughs each year.  I offered to let him have any of the new, empty troughs for sale in my driveway.

He had something grander in mind, and told me which planters he REALLY wanted. We busted a couple of my older molds out of storage, and in July made the planters pictured above and below.  He paid for the materials, and we spent a humid Saturday afternoon casting them together.

I'll post more photos (I hope) once he plants them.

Friday, October 3, 2014

New Trough this Year

I cast this rectangular trough last summer in a heat wave.  I had plans to sell it, then plans to use it at my garden at work, and finally admitted that, yes, I DID in fact need another planted trough in my driveway.  We gardeners all know how that goes.

L-R  back row: thuja occidentalis 'Teddy', phyteuma scheuchzeri (horned rampion), tsuga canadensis 'Jervis'.  Front row: dianthus gratianopolitanus 'Tiny Rubies', daphne cneorum 'Blackthorn Triumph', androsace sarmentosa, and globularia cordifolia 'Julian Alps'

I planted them in a mix of roughly 25% topsoil, 50% granite grit, with sand and Turface making up the last 25%.  It's mulched with a small gravel.  The trough gets good sun until midday, then is mostly shaded by the slatted fence and my neighbor's house.

I have high hopes for this group.  These are good plants.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Cotoneaster 'Tom Thumb'

Cotoneaster apiculata 'Tom Thumb' seems to have gotten the message about autumn starting.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hardy Begonia

begonia grandis

A friend gave this to me last fall, not knowing if it was hardy or not.  I planted it in the shady, moist bed on the north side of our garage.  In the spring it failed to reappear and I thought "oh well" and moved on.  Only in the early summer did I notice its distinctive leaves rising up from the ferns and Solomon's Seal.

I've been warned that this spreads very, very easily by little bulbils at the leaf axis.  I did notice that a small new plant sprouted where I dumped the extra potting soil from the pot that I had used to transport the plant.

I'll be watching this one.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

New Troughs

 I've been casting a lot of troughs lately, now that all of our vacationing is over.  I was hoping that it would be nice and cool but we've been having the hottest spell of the summer.

Above is a rectangular trough that's about 18 hours old, photographed as I removed the sides of the mold.  I've already removed the inner core and the foam blocks that make up the spaces around the feet.

I'm never sure if people understand how much of my handwork is visible in the trough and how much is inherent in the process.  For the record, the left side of the trough above reflects how it looks as it comes out of the mold.  The right side is after I've given it a good scrubbing with the wire brush.

I made these three in one long, sweaty session in the garage.  They are about a day and a half old in the picture.  Right after the photo, I sealed them in plastic and slid them under the deck, where they can cure for a month.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

It's the Little Things...

daphne cneorum 'Blackthorn Triumph'

I've always loved daphnes, even with their femme fatale reputation.  I ordered this teensy one from Arrowhead Alpines in the spring.  I knew that it would be small when I ordered it but was sort of shocked to see how tiny the cutting actually was when it arrived.  I planted it at the edge of a big trough and it's settled in nicely, even blooming this week.  What a treat.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Back from the Beach

We arrived home yesterday after a week at the Jersey shore.  My daughter got right to work sorting shells.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

New Plants. Old Trough.

I cast this trough about 6 years ago.  In its former life it had dianthus and other things that I've forgotten.  Gradually it got overgrown by a chamaecyparis pisifera 'Boulevard', so this spring I relocated the trough and replanted it.  I've read that hypertufa can have as short a life span as a decade, but this trough seemed totally healthy and solid.

That's ilex crenata 'Dwarf Pagoda' (back R), vitaliana primuliflora (front R), gypsophilia cerastioides 'Pixie Splash' (front L), arabis blepharophylla from Home Depot (back L) and armeria juniperifolia 'Alba' (center).

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Weedy, yes, but...

I confess, I love thalictrum rochebruneanum, even though it self-seeds everywhere and tends to fry out in the hottest heat.  When it works, like this summer, we get clumps of airy pink flowers at my eye level and above.

And I'm 6'2". 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Rattlesnake Master

Eryngium yuccifolium seed heads

I'd always admired eryngium yuccifolium, more commonly known as Rattlesnake Master, whenever I'd read about it in the prairie plant section of all those recent Piet Oudolf books.  I'd think "Hey, I never noticed that growing up in Iowa" about the same time that I'd think "I want that! How come I never see it in nurseries?".  It was on my plant lust list for many years.

Three years ago I was visiting dear friends on the way south side of Chicago...think suburban Chicago, closer to the cornfields than the Loop...when I saw Rattlesnake Master on a hike with my buddy.  It was going to seed...perfect.  I collected some seed, packed it in my carry-on and promptly planted it in a small pot when I got home.  

Then I waited and waited.  Sure, the seed sprouted the next year, but the plants were tiny so I left them in the tiny nursery pot in which they were sown.  The second year they were still small, but I'd read enough to know that the plant develops a deep tap root and hates being transplanted.  It was now or never.  I dutifully planted the seedlings out into the garden, marking each one so that I wouldn't absent-mindedly weed them out.

Weird leaves, right? (two Rattlesnake Masters in front, but that's a hesperaloe in back)

This year they finally bloomed.  It reminded me that good things come to those (gardeners) who wait.  I hope that the plants clump up and come back sturdier and showier each year...without self-seeding everywhere and becoming a scourge.  It's a fine line, I know.

And, oh yeah, it doesn't treat Rattlesnake bites.  Sorry.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Tiny Pot, Tinier Treasure

Doing sit-ups (don't ask) this week, my point of view was low enough to notice this contrast in flower size and pot size on the deck.  I made this small hypertufa pot one day when I was casting a larger trough and had extra material left over after the session.  I think that it was cast inside of a black plastic nursery pot.  It's about 7" high.  I planted this erodium x variablile 'Flore Pleno' in it so that I could bring this treasure into the house for the winter (it's not reliably hardy in this zone).

A little shade from the hottest sun, and a bit of water, and the reward is tiny, delicate double pink flowers all summer long.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Settling In

Almost all of the tiny plants that Ray and I planted in tufa in late May are settling in.  I'm amazed at how mossy the tufa is already.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Available Troughs

People often ask me if I sell troughs (yes!) and if so, what I have available.  The six planters pictured above are all in need of good homes.  Round ones are $65; the rectangular one is $85.  

I'm in north NJ, outside NYC.   If you're interested, shoot me an email and we'll figure out logistics.

Sunday, July 6, 2014


We spent the last week of June in Maine, partly in Acadia National Park.  I'd never been to Maine before, and between the lobster, the craft beers and the scenery, my face hurt from smiling the whole week.  I shot the above photo in the parking lot (!) in Acadia, near Otter Cliff.  I love the mix of texture and colors.  That sheep laurel is tough to grow at home, but was all over the park.

Our discussion while hiking with the kids focused on wood elves, trolls and faeries.  No wonder why.  The whole place feels magical.

Moss grout?

A little campanula growing quite close to the ocean.

The three-toothed cinquefoil, potentilla tridentata, was everywhere.  I probably photographed it 25 times.  What a beauty.  It was humbling as a trough gardener to see how Mother Nature combines alpines and rocks.  I'm just a piker.

I love the combo of rock, lichen, moss and evergreen.

Painters talk about maintaing the 'wet edge' as they work.  Here's a drippy moss version.

The micro view on Mount Cadillac.  A stunted evergreen takes shelter in the lee of a rock.

The macro view from Mount Cadillac, with islands and the Atlantic in the background.

Can't wait to get back there sometime.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Planting Tufa in a Hypertufa trough

 As the "hyper" in "hypertufa" signifies, hypertufa is an approximation of real tufa rock.  My whole infatuation with hypertufa is based on fakery!  Real tufa rock, a type of limestone formed by the accumulation of carbonate materials leached out by water, is found in very few places.  Tufa is beloved by gardeners because it is very lightweight and incredibly porous, allowing tiny roots to grow deep into it.  Because it is so porous, it holds water like a sponge.

I was lucky enough to be given half a dozen pieces of tufa by a fellow member of the Watnong Chapter of the National Rock Garden Society last year.  I'm still not certain why she gifted me with such valuable chunks, but I won't question it.

All winter long I'd looked forward to planting a saxifrage trough with the tufa, so this spring I cast my favorite rectangular trough for myself, and included a crevice for growing a plant sideways.  

My neighbor Ray and I started by filling the trough with a lean mix of gravel, sand, grit and a bit of topsoil.  I threw a piece of iberis from the back yard into the crevice as we filled the trough.  Being rudely dug up and planted sideways is a lot to ask of plant, but I've got lots of iberis so it's worth a try.

We used my cordless hammer drill and 3/8", 1/2" and 3/4" masonry bits.

Ray drilling holes.
We kept the holes blind, and about 1 1/2" deep.  We enlarged them a little at the top to allow for the larger crowns off some plants.

I've got 4 or 5 different saxifrages growing in various troughs, so we grabbed small rooted pieces from all of them.  I also had a couple small saxes that I'd purchased at various plant sales this spring.

Tiny saxifrage chunks packed into the holes with the same mix that filled the trough.  We found a chopstick the perfect tool to pack the mix in around the tiny roots.  Ray brought moss to the party, using it as topdressing to wedge the tiny plants into their new homes.

A tiny primula allionii in the shady side of the tufa.

More saxes on the top of the tufa.

The finished left-hand side of the trough.  We planted choice larger plants like horned rampion, another primula, a big chunk of a saxifrage, and an epimedium in the growing medium around the tufa.  

I feel like a real "rock" gardener now.
Fingers crossed that our tiny masterpiece flourishes.