Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


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Rocky gardening

2019-07 Shinn garden, Barb Gorges

The Shinn garden in Ft. Collins, Colorado, features several rock garden areas. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Rocky gardening featured in Rocky Mountain garden tour

By Barb Gorges

It’s always interesting to find out what is remarkable to visitors about your home or home garden.

In this case, the visitors were 83 garden bloggers/writers from 28 states, Washington, D.C., Canada and England. It was the 11th annual Garden Bloggers Fling, this year headquartered in Denver mid-June. I was the first blogger from Wyoming to ever participate, qualifying because my Wyoming Tribune Eagle garden columns are posted to www.CheyenneGardenGossip.wordpress.com.

Cheyenne gardening is a little tougher than down in the “lowlands” of the Colorado Front Range, but we have more in common with those gardeners than anyone else. I saw lots of plants we grow here. Then I’d hear other visitors say it was either too hot back home, or too wet, for them to grow them. It made me appreciate my favorite prairie and mountain plants more.

In the weeks afterward, several of the bloggers wrote posts noting how rocky the gardens we saw were. It’s the fashion here.

One private garden we visited was planted around an installation of 600 tons of beautiful sandstone rocks stacked as low walls, waterfall, pond, grotto and retaining walls for a daylighted basement. It was an amazing property—and it can be yours for the listed price of $4 million.

2019-07 Maxwell garden, Barb Gorges

The Maxwell garden in Boulder, Colorado, uses rock to create walls, waterfall, pool and grotto. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Looking through my photos from 21 stops over three days, I noticed how many rock gardens we saw, or crevice gardens—a subgenera.

I saw my first crevice garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens several years ago. I saw it again on this tour, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the one at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens now in extravagant bloom by the front doors of the conservatory. This is only the second year and it should be getting even more spectacular.

2019-07 Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Barb Gorges

The crevice garden at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens was in full bloom at the end of June. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Many of the rocky gardens on the tour featured cactuses and succulents, low-growing mats of creeping plants and neon bright delosperma, or ice plants.

The cool thing about rock gardens is that when rain (or snow) hits them, the water runs off the rock and into the crevices where the plant roots are. The plants essentially get more water than if they were planted in a normal garden. Jake Mares, the CBG’s outside horticulturist, expects that our crevice garden, once fully established, will be able to make it solely on naturally occurring precipitation—no irrigation at all.

Rocks as part of landscaping have been around a long time. Sometimes they are even naturally occurring. Often today rocks are stranded in a sea of gravel or wood mulch which is quickly invaded by weeds—whether there is weed-barrier cloth underneath or not. It would be so easy to plant a ground cover that crowds out weeds instead, I think.

Pea gravel is popular around here as mulch because it doesn’t blow away. And it shares some water-concentrating properties that the rocks in a rock garden have. Certainly, weeds have adapted to gravel roads whenever there isn’t enough traffic to keep them down.

But there are problems with pea gravel. It sinks into the dirt eventually. Someone in the future is going to cuss when they dig to grow vegetables. But also, when it hails, your plant leaves are caught between a rock and the hard ice. A softer mulch, leaves or even wood, absorbs the hailstone impact, even if a leaf is in between. It also keeps the hail from bouncing high and hitting leaves twice.

Old leaves and other organic mulch decompose and feed the soil, gravel does not.

In addition to bringing in rocks, several Denver-area gardeners featured on the tour created hypertufa pots (see how to make your own with cement, peat moss and perlite, https://www.marthastewart.com/268962/hypertufa-pots). Many featured collections of cactus, agave and succulents. All are fine outside year-round with winter-hardy plants.

2019-07 Kelaidis garden, Barb Gorges

The Kelaidis garden in Denver is one of several to feature hypertufa containers. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Speaking of concrete, one of the most amazing structures I saw in a tour garden was an enormous, permanent, concrete-topped table. As if in a baronial hall, it was set for 12 for a Father’s Day celebration later. It was decorated with pots of branches hung with candles in glass globes. Down the center of the table was a trough where more candles floated. With steel table legs, it never has to be put away for the winter and never needs refinishing.

Next summer the Garden Bloggers Fling is in Madison, Wisconsin. My mother’s side of the family had a dairy farm there for over 100 years and I grew up nearby. I’ll get to see if Wisconsinites rock garden as much as we do.

2019-07 Boley garden, Barb Gorges

Two of the Garden Bloggers Fling participants examine the rock garden in the Boulder, Colorado, front yard of Linda Boley. Photo by Barb Gorges.

 

 


Gardening with rocks

2016-7 rock 0 Wendy Douglass' garden Barb Gorges.JPG

The quintessential rock garden has colorful carpets of alpine flowers, like this spot in Laramie County Master Gardener Wendy Douglass’s garden. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 17, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Journey Section.

By Barb Gorges

Rock gardens became popular in the 1800s when tourists started visiting the Alps.

Travelers were enthralled by the tough but colorful plants growing on the rocky slopes and brought home alpine plant souvenirs.

It took a few decades to figure out alpine plants need gritty soil, rock and a cool climate to grow successfully. True alpine plants don’t need inches of compost or fertilizer.

Today’s rock gardens aren’t limited to cushions of small plants like the ones we see in our nearby mountains. There are plenty of other kinds of naturally rocky places to emulate.

Master gardener Wendy Douglass takes her cues from the nearby mountains and the prairie surrounding her rural Laramie County home.

The following is a tour of different rock garden styles and options seen through the lens of Douglass’ garden.

2016-7 rock 1 Wendy Douglass, mountain Barb Gorges

Wendy Douglass enjoys her mountain-style rock garden. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mountain

In her backyard, Douglass has a conventional rock garden, emulating a group of rocks on a mountain side. On one side of it is a small waterfall that flows via recirculating water pump. On the other side, rocks have been arranged informally, leaving pockets to fill with soil and plants.

But since her yard doesn’t get as much water as the mountains, Douglass has arranged drip irrigation soaker hose throughout.

Another secret is that the base of the natural-looking pile of rocks started out as a pile of concrete blocks. No sense wasting purchased landscape rocks where they can’t be seen.

2016-7 rock 2 patio Barb Gorges

Johnny-jump-ups are welcome between the flagstones. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Patio

Normally, when laying a flagstone patio, one tries to get the stones to fit as closely as possible. But not if you are planning to plant it. Tough little plants were blooming in Douglass’s patio when I visited in June. They enjoy the sandy soil in the cracks. When it rains, the water pours off the flagstones and into the cracks, giving the plants more moisture than they would get in an ordinary garden setting.

2016-7 rock 3 prairie Barb Gorges

Rocks, gravel, daisies and penstemon are part of Wendy Douglass’s prairie-style rock garden. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Prairie-style

At the front of Douglass’s house is a dooryard, or more pretentiously, a courtyard, protected on the west side by the garage and on the north side by a low wall. Much of it is planted as a prairie rock garden.

The topsoil Douglass brought in has been eroded by the wind over the last dozen years, leaving a gravelly surface like the real prairie. In fact, among serious rock gardeners, this might begin to qualify as a “scree garden” – emulating those mounds of gravel below the rock faces in the mountains.

Douglas has placed a few rocks among the plants, just as they might show up on the prairie—in fact, many come from elsewhere on the property.

However, this is a garden and so it is a souped-up version of the prairie—more flowers and the grasses tend to be ornamental. Plus, many prairie plants are much taller than the diminutive alpine plants of the traditional rock garden.

And it harbors another secret—an artificial boulder. Douglass and her husband experimented with a technique taught by an Australian company that starts with a pile of rubble covered with a concrete mix and then artfully finished with colored mortar dabbed on by brush.

2016-7 rock 4 hypertufa trough Barb Gorges

Hypertufa containers are fun to make yourself, in whatever shape you choose. This one is in the Denver Botanic Gardens’ rock garden. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Trough

Similar to fake boulder-building, you can make hypertufa (lighter than concrete) troughs to display a particular collection of small rock garden plants. Multiple internet sites have directions.

2016-7 rock 5 Zen Barb Gorges

Wendy Douglass was inspired by Japanese and Chinese concepts of rock gardens for this spiral. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Zen

Rock gardening took off in Europe and America in the 1920s and, based on the number of rocks installed by landscapers in local front yards, it continues to inspire people today. However, the Chinese and Japanese beat us to it by 1000 years at least.

But those gardens are more about emphasizing unusual rocks, not so much about plants. Douglass has what she calls her Zen garden, a tiny area protected by the house. The plants there can be pruned and shaped by Douglass, rather than the wind and the deer. Small rocks form a swirl on the ground. Sand can be raked in patterns as an act of meditation.

Nearby inspiration for your own garden

There are two fantastic resources close by, public rock gardens, where the plants all have nametags.

2016-7 rock 6 DBG shade Barb Gorges

The Denver Botanic Gardens’ rock garden includes a shady section. Below, the garden is a mosaic of plants from rocky places all over the world. Photos by Barb Gorges.

The first is the Rock Alpine Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Designed by Panayoti Kelaidis and established in 1980, it is anchored by real boulders and every pocket is stuffed with plants from rocky habitats around the world.

On the left is part of the well-established crevice garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens. On the right is another, newly established for the future steppe garden. Photos by Barb Gorges.

The newest form of rock gardening is here too, crevice gardening, installed by Mike Kintgen, the current curator. You know how freezing and thawing will cause rock to crack along parallel faults? These cracks, or crevices, can be simulated by laying flattish rocks on edge, stacked against each other. Gritty soil placed in the cracks is just perfect for rock plants. Their roots are protected while they spread mats of colorful flowers.

2016-7 rock 7 Gardens on Spring Creek Barb Gorges

The rock garden at the Gardens on Spring Creek feature varieties of columbine in early June. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Closer to home is the Gardens on Spring Creek in Fort Collins, Colorado. Installation began there about eight years ago. Arrangements of locally quarried rock display a colorful assortment of heat-tolerant perennials that would do well here in Cheyenne.

2016-7 rock 8 Snowies 2 Barb Gorges2016-7 rock 8 Snowies 3 Barb Gorges

A tiny species of chickweed (top) forms a carpet and columbine (above) gets a toehold in a rock pile in the Snowy Range. Photo by Barb Gorges.

My favorite rock gardens are tended by Mother Nature, up on the Snowy Range, especially along the trail that begins at Lewis Lake. The plants aren’t labelled, but at the Forest Service visitor center above Centennial you might find a copy of a book published by the University of Wyoming Extension, “Plants with Altitude.” It identifies high elevation plants that adapt well to gardens and that can often be found at local nurseries.

A word about collecting rocks and plants

Do not take home rocks you find out in the country without permission from the private landowners or permits from the public land managers.

It is illegal to remove anything from a national park—rock, plant or animal, dead or alive. Period. Wyoming’s state parks also do not allow the removal of rock.

Our closest forest, Medicine Bow – Routt National Forest, no longer makes permits available for removing landscape rock for home use.

The Bureau of Land Management’s Rawlins Field Office, which includes southeast Wyoming, allows rock collecting for personal use with stipulations. Only collect along roads and trails, only by hand (no heavy equipment or explosives) and only less than a pickup load. Otherwise, a contract is necessary.

Check local landscapers and rock companies to find out where they obtained their rocks, especially moss rock—the kind that has moss and lichens growing on it. It should have been bought from private landowners or bought via permit from public land. Quarried stone is less likely to have a shady past.

As for collecting plants, cross public lands off your list. Consider private lands only with landowner permission. But usually, the domesticated relatives found at local nurseries transplant better than wild plants. Check the North American Rock Garden Society website for specialty catalogs for rock garden plants.

Resources mentioned

–Denver Botanic Gardens, www.botanicgardens.org.

–Gardens on Spring Creek, http://www.fcgov.com/gardens.

www.ArtificialRock.com.au

–North American Rock Garden Society, www.nargs.org: illustrated plant list, beginner instructions, recommended resources.

–“Plants with Altitude” by Fluet, Thompson, Tuthill and Marsicek, available through the University of Wyoming Extension.

2016-7 rock 8 Snowies 1 Barb Gorges

The natural, alpine rock garden, mid-July: This one is located at 10,000 feet elevation in the Snowy Range in the Medicine Bow National Forest, west of Laramie, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.