Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Rock Garden, Part 3: Creative Ways to Use Texture

In this, the final post on the Rock Garden in Truro Nova Scotia, I want to look at one of the design features that make this type of garden so appealing: texture.

Generally, we turn to foliage, bark and other hard surfaces to add a textural element to a garden's design. In a rock garden, however, a low dense blanket of blooms can be used to create an exquisitely textured surface.

White Creeping Thyme, Thymus praecox 'Albiflorus'

Saxifraga paniculata 'Brevifolia'

Texture can be defined as the tactile quality of a surface. In contrast with the rugged, weather-beaten granite, there something jewel-like about the tiny green rosettes of this Saxifraga paniculata 'Brevifolia'.

Texture has a marvellous tactile quality. It is hard to resist touching soft, fuzzy foliage like this Pussy Toes, Antennaria dioica 'Rubra' (seen below).

Pink Pussy Toes, Antennaria dioica 'Rubra': is a native wildflower that has grey-green leaves and pink flowers in early summer. Pussy Toes are well suited to hot, sunny spots and poor, dry soil. Height: 10-12 cm (4-5 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches) USDA Zones 3-9. 

So far most of my planting notes have featured alpines and perennials. In this post, I'd like to shift the focus briefly onto another key rock garden component: the conifers.

Darwin Carr, Operational Manager for the grounds at the Agricultural Campus of Dalhousie University notes:

"Dwarf conifers always look great when paired with alpines and rocks. They give the garden the look of high alpine terrain."

"Wind, ice and snow sculpt the native evergreen forest near the snow line of mountain tops into Krummholz, which is a German word meaning "crooked wood". Krummholz trees are usually short, attaining no more than six feet in height. These stunted, twisted trees are some of the inspiration for landscaping with dwarf conifers."

Picea abies 'Little Gem': is a Norway spruce cultivar that has a cushion-like habit.  This conifer is a slow grower (about 3" per year).  Full sun to light shade. Deer resistant. Needs regular watering especially during periods of summer heat. Height: 20-30 cm, Spread: 20-25 cm. USDA Zones 3-7.

Darwin Carr notes,"This is one of my favourite dwarf conifers. I have a nice one in a concrete trough at home that's been there for about 10 years. In that time, it has reached about the size of a dinner plate."

Carpeting the ground is Wooly thyme, Thymus pseudolanuginosus, in the left foreground is Cotoneaster adpressus 'Little Gem', directly behind the Cotoneaster is a Bristlecone Pine, Pinus artistata.

Too often people think a great garden is one that is filled with flowers but just look above to see how wonderful a scene that is primarily green can be. Contrast and texture make "green" interesting. The grey-green carpet of thyme is like soft velvet, whereas the Cotoneaster and Bristlecone Pine, by contrast, are stiff and spiky. 

Without the high drama of flowers, nothing demands your attention. There is a subtly at work here. I think that is why green feels so restful. It is like soft music.

The golden colored groundcover is Juniperus horizontalis. The weeping evergreen is Thuja canadensis 'Pendula'. The upright conifer is Juniperus chinensis 'Iowa'. 

When mixing together a scene that is generally green, you can add an extra level of sophistication by considering the directional flow of your foliage. 

In front of a group of upright conifers, this weeping evergreen Thuga canadensis 'Pendula' cascades in an incredible waterfall effect.

The plant with the silver foliage is Salix helvetica, the upright chartreuse shrub on the left is a dwarf Alberta spruce,  Picea glauca 'Rainbow's end' and the evergreen on the right is Picea abies 'Gregoryana Parsonii'.

Texture does not work its magic in isolation. Shape and color have a role to play in accentuating different textural surfaces.

This mix of plants includes is Phlox borealis ( magenta-mauve in color) and white Arabis x sturii and some small patches of white Candytuft, Iberis saxatilis.

And of course, in any rock garden, there is the stone. It is amazing to think that plants manage to grow in this spare, rocky landscape.

Spurless Columbine, Semiaquilegia 'Sugar Plum Fairy'

And yet they flourish and often in the most delicate way.

A cascading white Candytuft, Iberis saxatilis

Pinks, Dianthus 'La bourboule'

Sheriff's Rock Jasmine, Androsace sarmentosa 'Sherriffii': has mauve flowers and evergreen rosettes that form a trailing carpet. Excellent drainage is key to having success with this plant. Full sun or light shade (they may need a little afternoon shade in warm regions). Height: 10-12 cm (4-5 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches) USDA Zones 3-9. 

Saxifraga paniculata 'Brevifolia'

Saxifraga paniculata: has rosettes of evergreen leaves and sprays of white flowers carried on maroon stems. This plant likes light shade and somewhat moist soil with good drainage. Height: 15-25 cm (6-10 inches), Spread: 25-30 cm (10-12 inches) USDA Zones 3-9. 

Red Lady's Fingers or Red Kidney Vetch, Anthyllis vulneraria var. 'Coccinea': has a low mound of silvery-green leaves and orange-red flowers in late spring. This plant tolerates poor soil and dry conditions once established. Full sun. Height: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches) USDA Zones 4-9. 

Pasque flowers, Pulsatilla are unique in the many ways they manage to add texture. Not only are the grey-green leaves and bell-shaped flowers are soft and downy, but the seed heads are also as fine as baby's hair. The flowers bloom before the foliage emerges each spring and open in the morning sunshine and close each evening.

Darwin Carr tells me:

"We have an enormous number of Pulsatilla in the garden... We started with two species, and they really like growing conditions here, so if we don't deadhead them after flowering, we will have literally thousands of seedlings the next spring."

In the foreground is Japanese Burnet, Sanguisorba obtusa. In the middle ground are Pasque Flowers, that have gone to seed and in the upper left is Kashmir Mountain Ash, Sorbus cashmiriana which has white fruit.

I want to close this series by recommending that, if you ever are lucky enough to tour Nova Scotia, a visit to the Rock Garden on the Agricultural Campus of Dalhousie University is well worth your while. Already I am looking for any excuse to go back and see the other campus gardens that I missed the last time around: the Butterfly Garden, the Chef's Garden, the Alumni Garden and the Herb Garden.

But then, it doesn't take much of an excuse for me to want to visit my old home province of Nova Scotia. ( Missed the two earlier posts? Here's a link to Part 1 and Part 2.)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Little Dog Lost

When I realized in panic that Rusty wasn't in the house or fenced yard, I naturally turned up our street calling his name frantically as I went. After all this was the path we walked each evening. That he might have turned the other way, toward the corner and the six lane highway, seemed unthinkable.

A neighbour heard me calling. Taking pity on me, improperly dressed for the freezing weather, he offered to drive me around to look for Rusty. 

And what a kind man he was to drive me all over the neighbourhood, even waiting patiently while I left our details at the elementary school on the off chance that Rusty might turn up there. 

When our neighbour finally dropped me back home, I went out again on foot, but it was if Rusty had vanished off the face of the earth. Frozen, I finally retreated home. Later in the afternoon when my husband came home, we went out in the car and continued to look well into the evening, but to no avail. We went up to bed with one less dog and two very heavy hearts.

First thing this morning the phone ran. It was the animal shelter calling. I heard my husband saying Rusty's name into the receiver and my heart leapt for joy. Somebody had found our little lost boy! 

But no, seconds later I heard my husband repeat the words "was hit by a car and had passed before the Police or Animal Control arrived".  I burst into tears.

A spring and the latch on the backyard gate usually means that the gate locks shut whenever someone goes out. Unfortunately freezing temperatures and snow had effected mechanism and yesterday morning the latch did not lock. A gust of wind and the gate swung open for only a moment. Rusty seized the opportunity to go on a walk-about. What made him turn toward the busy highway we'll never know, but before I even realized he was missing, he probably already gone.

How we will miss our sweet little dog. My husband and I are devastated.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Beekeeping Q & A with Duff and Donna Evers

Is it just me or is there an growing interest in hobby beekeeping? 

Just poking around for a few minutes on the internet lead to all manner of clubs, local associations and classes in beekeeping.  

I even found a local group, the Toronto Beekeeper Co-operative that has, among its many activities, a roof top apiary in the core of downtown Toronto. Beekeeping in the heart of Canada's biggest city? Hey, why not?

Last summer I visited Nova Scotia and stopped in for an afternoon to visit my friend Donna Evers. She and her husband Duff have been hobby beekeeping for years.

I asked Donna to tell me more about it:

"Duff first kept bees thirty years ago when we lived in New Brunswick and is delighted to be tending bees again. This will be the third year we have them in our garden in Nova Scotia. 

"The first year was quite uneventful. The bees went about their business, filled our garden with their presence and gave us about 70 lbs. of honey to share with friends. 

"Since then we have lost some swarms and caught swarms from neighbouring hives. A swarm of bees is a sight to behold!"

I confessed to Donna that while I find bees fascinating, like many people, I am a bit fearful.

Donna coached me to, "Read, read and then read some more before you decide to keep bees. The more you learn the less frightened you become. We have been stung, but it has always been our own fault."

"When there is a good supply of pollen and nectar, bees are happy to go about their business. Under these conditions it is a good time to check out what is happening in the hive. Weeks of cold, rainy weather tends to make them cranky, and then they are best left alone."

I asked Donna about the costs involved in beekeeping as a hobby.

Donna replied, "For backyard beekeepers like us the cost of a start up hive is around $350. This includes the nucleolus of bees and a wooden hive. A bee suit, gloves and a smoker are also necessary for investigating activity in the hive on a regular basis."

Picture by Donna Evers. Uncapping the honey before it goes into the centrifuge to be spun out.

"At the end of the season an electric knife and a centrifuge are needed for honey extraction. Often hobby beekeepers belong to a co-op and members share the equipment necessary for the extraction."

I also asked about the basic set up of the hives:

"Our hives are wooden boxes set on a base of cement blocks. These boxes are called supers and inside each super are ten frames. The bees build out honey comb on both sides of each frame. Then they proceed to lay eggs, store pollen and nectar in these honey comb cells. When a cell is filled it is capped by the bees. 

Picture by Donna Evers. Here Duff is looking for any queen bee cells. There is lots of evidence of stored and capped honey.

Picture by Donna Evers: "The hive's queen is in there somewhere!"

"When the frames in a super are filled, a new super of empty frames must be added.  We always leave two full supers for the bees when they are wrapped for the winter. These two supers are the winter home and food supply for the bees. "

Picture by Donna Evers.

"Bees do not hibernate. For the winter months we cover the bee hives with sheets of styrofoam and then wrap them in tar paper. An entrance is left for the bees to come and go and do a bit of house cleaning on fine days." 

Picture by Donna Evers.

Donna's honey is a pale, golden color. Generally the honey I find in the supermarket is a deeper gold. I asked Donna about the difference.

Donna: "Our honey is unprocessed. The color and the taste is largely determined by the plant material that the bees visit to gather the pollen and nectar."

"Pasteurized honey is honey that has been heated to 145F. Pasteurization improves the shelf life and helps slow the crystallization of the honey. Unpasteurized honey is run through a stainer and put straight into a container."

Picture by Donna Evers. A collected swarm following the queen into the hive.

Finally I asked Donna about swarms of bees.

Donna:"Swarming is the way bees increase, but a beekeeper discourages this from happening by inspecting the hive and destroying any queen cells. Two queens will not co-exist in a hive and a swarm results. After a swarm the beekeeper is left with a diminished hive. Honey production will drop and it will be a weaker hive going into winter."

" The little box on the top of the arbor is a swarm trap that is baited with lemon grass oil. The beekeeper crosses his/her fingers and prays that the swarm of bees which left his hive will be tempted to take up residence in the swarm box. Unfortunately our first swarm settled at the top of a 60' spruce instead. There was no way we could collect them. The weather at the time was rainy and cold. They remained in the tree for five days and never seemed to have considered the swarm trap. When the sun came out on the sixth day, they were gone."

"To capture a swarm is good fortune indeed, because the swarm is anxious to setup housekeeping and often becomes a very productive hive. In a swarm the bees cluster around the queen and scouts are sent out to determine where best to establish a new residence.  This is when a swarm must be captured." 

"Once a new residence is decided upon the swarm leaves and your golden opportunity is gone. "

"It is worth knowing that bees in a swarm are not likely to sting. They have engorged on honey before leaving the hive and finding a new home is top priority."

Picture by Donna Evers

Donna warned me,"Jennifer, I have just skimmed the surface. Don't ever get trapped in a room with a bunch of bee keepers ;-)"

I leave the final words of this post to Donna, "There is always something to learn. Bees are the most amazing creatures."

Just a Few of the Resources Available:

Donna had a few books to recommend for anyone interested in keeping bees:

The Beekeepers Handbook 4th Edition by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile (which Donna describes as "Duff's bee Bible")
Bzzz: Beekeeper's Primer by Evelyn Fatigati (Donna says it's her favourite, but is no longer in print. It  is however, available second hand from Amazon. Donna tells me that it is a "wonderful book about a young boy whose grandfather gives him a hive of bees for his birthday.")

If you are interested in beekeeping, be sure to check out the regulations in your area.
Donna's brief note on beekeeping regulations: "In Canada each province has a system in place for registration and inspection of hives. This has become very strict, because of the diseases that are threatening the honey bees." 

Online Resources:

French Bee Transfer (seen above) great for craft projects available as a downloadable file from the Graphics Fairy.

Creating a Bee Friendly Garden: Bee friendly project ideas


Links to area Beekeeping Associations by State: Apiary inspectors of America


Nova Scotia: 


Monday, January 12, 2015

The Rock Garden, Part 2: Planting Notes

Believe it or not, the Rock Garden, which now covers a good part of an acre of land on the Agricultural Campus of Dalhousie University had its early beginnings as one man's "little" retirement project. 

Dr Bernard Jackson had retired to Truro, Nova Scotia after spending 22 years as the Director of the Memorial University Botanical Garden in St. John's Newfoundland, when he was approached by the Agricultural College in Truro to create a new rock garden on their campus. 

With a modest budget of just five thousand dollars, Dr Jackson set about creating the garden you see today.

Basket of Gold, Aurinia saxatilis

As the Operational Manager for the grounds unit at the Agricultural Campus, Darwin Carr became the project's manager.  He made sure Dr Jackson had tools, materials and equipment, as well the labour for the daily construction and planting activities. Darwin oversaw the budget, as well as coordinated the efforts of the Friends of the Garden, the team of dedicated volunteers who help maintain the garden's specialist plant collections.

I owe Darwin Carr a huge debt of gratitude for providing me with all of the background information in this post, as well as assistance with identifying any of the unusual alpine plants. Thank you, Darwin!

In the limestone courtyard at the entrance to the Rock Garden, there are several large stone troughs that look like they must weigh a ton. Darwin tells me:

"The troughs are hand-cut sandstone. And yes, they are heavy! The big one at the entrance to the garden had to be carved right on location... We had a local stone mason/sculpture (Heather Lawson of Raspberry Stone) carve them out to provide room for soil and fragments of stone, then we planted them to create the miniature landscapes that you see now."

"Trough growing is a bit tricky in our east coast climate. The freeze/thaw cycles we generally get every winter tend to be hard on true alpines, but some things settle right in and love it."

Ice plant, Delosperma basuticum: is native to the mountains of South Africa. It forms a low cushion of succulent, green foliage and has starry yellow flowers. Full sun and excellent drainage are essential for this plant. Sandy or normal soils, with dry growing conditions, are best.  Height: 2-4 cm (1-2 inches), Spread: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches) USDA Zones: 5-9.

I asked Darwin to tell me a little bit about the choice of stone in the Rock Garden. 

"The choice of stone was a combination of factors. The natural bedrock in the area is a soft red sandstone, not very good for building rock gardens as it tends to melt away as it weathers... Luckily for us, there was a local rock quarry not far from Truro that has a surplus of red granite....They gave Bernard and me a tour and said we could have as much as we wanted. "

"Twelve loads of stone turned into fifteen as Bernard kept calling for "more rocks" as the construction moved forward. Over the next twelve years, we added many new features including a woodland walk, limestone courtyard with troughs, barrens and much more. We have plans to expand again next year."

With regard to the plantings Darwin informs me:

"We have been blessed to have formed the Nova Scotia Rock Garden Club with many members that are avid seed growers.  That's how half the plant material has come our way for the rock garden.  Many of the perennials plants are just not available in nursery trades. True alpines tend to be short-lived in our climate. So we tend to experiment with species. If we kill it, we try again until we find the right location. Our winters are hard on plants."

As you read through some of the plant profiles in this post, you will see that good drainage is a recurring notation. 

These are plants that hate to sit in damp earth, particularly in winter. But what constitutes good drainage? 

I asked Darwin Carr about the soil mix that was used to create the rock garden:

"The soil mix is equal parts topsoil from onsite (sandy loam), leaf mould/compost and sharp grit or pea stone. Then, once the plants are in and settled, we use course crushed granite as a mulch to cover the ground and protect the plant crowns from getting too wet.

Alpines require very good drainage as they are to survive our harsh maritime climate. That's the key to growing most alpines in landscape situations: drainage, drainage, drainage! Yes, I said it three times. Too many plants are put into regular garden soil and most don't survive one year. Many people think alpines are hard to grow or that you have to be a plant expert, but really it's just attention to the plant's needs."

The Rock Garden's collection of hardy cactus is a perfect example of the success you can have with plants when you address the issue of drainage properly. Darwin recounts:

"The hardy cactus bed is always of interest to visitors, especially when they start to bloom in early July. I've had many folks ask me if "we take them all in for the winter" or "how we glue on all those flowers". People are amazed that we can grow cacti in the landscape."

Cushion Spurge, Euphorbia Polychroma

Darwin: "Bernard decided that we would build a dry stream bed. It looks like water has been moving through the area, as is the case in all alpine streams which generally dry up in summer."

Cushion Spurge, Euphorbia Polychroma: prefers full sun and somewhat dry conditions. Normal or sandy soil is best. Trim Euphorbia Polychroma back in early summer to keep it neat and compact, but be careful to wear garden gloves as the milky-white sap the plant extrudes can be irritating to the skin. Height: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.

Evergreen Candytuft, Iberis sempervirens: Candytuft has glossy, evergreen foliage and white flowers that bloom for several weeks in spring. Prune lightly after flowering to keep it from getting leggy. Good drainage is essential and somewhat dry conditions are preferred. Candytuft is not easily divided.  Full sun. Height: 20-25 cm (8-10 inches), Spread: 30-90 cm (12-35 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.

The two bridges in the garden were built by students studying woodworking.

Grey cranesbill, Geranium cinereum var. subcaulescens 'Splendens': has grey-green leaves and magenta flowers with a black centre. Trim plants lightly after they flower to encourage new flowers and a bushier plant. Full sun or light shade. Normal or sandy soil and somewhat dry growing conditions are best. Height: 10-15 cm (4-6 inches), Spread: 25-30 cm (10-12 inches). USDA Zones: 4-9.

Dwarf Renard Cranesbill, Geranium renardii: is a great choice for sunny, well-drained sites like the Rock Garden. It has textured, grey-green foliage and white flowers veined with mauve in late spring. Full sun or part shade. Normal or sandy soil and somewhat dry growing conditions are best for this geranium. Height: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches), Spread: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches). USDA Zones: 4-9.

Bloody Cranesbill, Geranium sanguineum var. lancastriense : has green foliage and pretty pink flowers in late spring. Unlike the previous two geraniums, this one tolerates a variety of soil and growing conditions.  Full sun to light shade. It is also a bit taller than the previous Cranesbill geraniums: Height: 30-40 cm (12-16 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.

A Pasque flower gone to seed.

This is a plant for which I found many common names: Rattleweed, Cow Bell, Bladder Campion or Catchfly.

Bladder Campion, Silene uniflora: has a low cushion of grey-green leaves and white flowers in late spring. It can be grown in a range of soil types and tolerates both dry and moist conditions. Full sun to light shade. Height: 5-10 cm (2-4 inches), Spread: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.

The next plant makes a home in a tiny crevice in the rock.

Dwarf Snapdragon, Chaenorhinum origanifolium: has a purple flower with a white throat. It likes full sun or light shade. It has average water requirements, but like most of the plants in this blog post, it needs good drainage. Height: 5-15 cm (4-6 inches), Spread: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches). USDA Zones 7a-9b.

Purple Columbine

Bellflower, Campanula chamissonis: has compact green leaves which grow not more than two to six inches high. Light purple, bell-shaped flowers with a white throat appear in mid-spring. Again, good drainage is essential. This campanula is not invasive. Full sun. Height: 5-15 cm ( 2-6 inches), Spread: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches). USDA Zones 4-7.

Welsh Poppy, Meconopsis cambrica: Prefers moist, well-drained soil and part to full shade. Note: It is a very good self-seeder given the right conditionsHeight: 30-45 cm, Spread: 45-60 cm. USDA Zone: 3-11.

The seed pod sculpture is the work of stonemason Heather Lawson.

I end with this sculpture and the hope that this beautiful Rock Garden in Nova Scotia may plant a seed of inspiration. Here's a link to Part 3 in the series (Missed the first post? Here's a link back to Part 1)