Monday, December 23, 2013

Rocks in My Head!

 “You’ve got rocks in your head.” So said my family and friends when they found out the top thing on my Christmas list is a pallet of Arkansas stone. Again. It was the top item on my list a couple of years ago, also. I built terraces and laid paths in the woods garden with it, but one can never have quite enough rock. There are still places in the paths that wash out in heavy rain, and a few well-placed flat stones will cure that.

Of course, if I hadn’t been messing around building raised beds and paths, I would not have changed the drainage dynamic on the hill, and there would not be an issue, but there it is and now I need to fix it. Besides, it’s an excuse to get more rock.

But for once the snarky remarks are true; I do have a head full of rocks. From the time I was a little girl sitting in the driveway of the Michigan house where I grew up, sorting out colorful agates from the quarry gravel, and plunking them into a Mason jar full of water so I could see the pretty colors, I have been obsessed with rocks and stones. As an adult, I dragged my children down New Mexico’s gullies and arroyos, hunting Apache tears, petrified wood, opals and agates, in the process creating a rock hound of my older daughter. We decorated gardens, made collections, and every time we moved I picked them all up again and we hauled boxes of rock across the country until they finally found a home around our fish pond.

But the obsession doesn’t stop. Jim and I have rock hounded all over the US; in North Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, filling our Airstream trailer and pickup with hundreds of pounds of stones—many of which have gone into our collections or were cut and polished to use in the wire wrapped jewelry I create—but most of them have gone into a small dry creek which bisects the woods garden, where they form a background for the wildflowers and mosses that grow there.

 Our own Ozarks are full of rocks, as anybody who has ever tried to sink a shovel into the soil here will testify. Besides all the interesting minerals that came out of the lead mines (you can see examples at the Mineral Museum in Shifferdecker Park in Joplin); sphalerite, lead, calcite, dolomite, pyrite et al, there is an amazing variety of fossils, Mozarkite, (a pink stone that polishes beautifully and makes wonderful jewelry), lots of mineral eggs of various sizes, and tons of just plain rocks. But even the plain rocks can be interesting. Some of them are real characters, with their lines and folds creating faces that make you think you are being watched by the spirits of the woods! Then there are the “holey” stones, with holes going all the way through, which, if you look through the hole and squint just right, you are supposed to be able to see into another dimension.

Who is this grumpy garden character? Look like anybody you know?


Or this guy? Boo!
A rock party!

Local calcite crystal

Fossil sea animal

Rocks are wonderful in any garden. Not only are they useful for houses, patios, walls, walks, benches and steps, there is a beautiful contrast in the solidity of stone and the softness of plants that lends serenity to a landscape; a fact that Oriental gardeners discovered thousands of years ago. In the Japanese garden, an entire culture is built around their careful placement.

We use them in the natural garden, the biggest ones we can find and haul home. Quite often good sized stones can be found at construction sites, they might be free for the hauling if asked for nicely. There are a couple of stone yards in the area also, where you can buy almost any kind or size of rock you want-which is where the afore-mentioned pallet of stone on my Christmas list will come from. We can’t, unfortunately, handle huge boulders here and I confess to severe rock envy when we see them used to effect in other gardens. Those big ones will just have to live only inside my head for now!

"You will find something more in woods than in books.
 Trees and stones will teach you that which
you can never learn from masters."
 ---Saint Bernard

"I love to walk the limestone cliffs
 in search of fossil stones.
 To read the story of time long past
Writ in dusty bones.                      
----S. Parrill

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Ice Storm!

 The only ice I care to see is in my tea in high summer. I hate ice storms. I'm ok with snow, rain, hail, whatever Nature throws at us (well, with the exceptions of tornadoes and drought) but ice storms are so relentlessly destructive, I dread them most of all.

This one started out innocently enough, a light rain mixed with a little sleet, but then the temperatures dropped just to the freezing mark and the rain turned to ice that started building up on the trees. It rained all day, and it just kept building up, and up, and soon trees and shrubs started bending double, their topmost branches touching the ground. It isn't cold enough for the streets to freeze with traffic-stopping ice but with nearly a half-inch of ice coating, power lines are sagging and snapping, causing power outages everywhere and police and utility companies to urge everyone to stay at home and not be out roaming the streets, gawking and getting in the way.

                          Shrub honeysuckle, nearly touching the ground. This is an upright bush.
The crashing sounds coming from all around are the most disheartening. We looked out to see our old Washington hawthorn toppled over, its root system heaving the ground, and big branches snapped off an old redbud in the front yard. I'm holding my breath over the dogwoods. One fairly young white one didn't lose its leaves this fall and it is bent double with an ice load on its leaves; but this is not the first time for it, and it recovered before, so we're hoping for the best this time too. A huge hackberry has lost at least one limb, and our bald cypress cross Nanjing Beauty is kissing the ground with it's top branches. We're hoping it and the white pines are flexible enough that once the ice is gone they will snap back upright.

Nanjing Beauty cypress cross. Does this not make your heart stop to look at it?

Hackberry branch is broken and down, as are many other big branches in the woods garden. Lots of cleanup looming in January.
There are quite a few old oaks and other trees in the surrounding woods that have been damaged by the droughts of 2011 and 2012, and Mother Nature is doing a pretty severe pruning job on them, taking out deadwood and causing many of the scary crashing noises.

The ice has turned our chaotic garden into a glassy crystal fairyland, though, in spite of the damage it is causing, lending an uncommon beauty to dead seed heads, grasses and tree branches.


Sedum Autumn Joy, encased in ice, looking like exquisite art glass
seedpods of Rose of Sharon

Euonymous alatus Compacta ( Burning bush) fruit
But the flock of flamingos that hang out by our vintage Airstream trailer appear to have their own opinion of this weather: "When's the next bus to Florida?"


Mahonia (Oregon Grape Holly) doesn't appear to be fazed at all by its icy frosting
"Winter crowns the earth with crystals rare
And places diamonds in her hair."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Little Something Green

 A Little Something Green

Snow. Well, it is December, after all, and I suppose to be expected. Seems a little early this year, but every bit of winter moisture is most welcome, even though we’re all going to grouse and complain bitterly about it. (Whatever happened to zone 7?).  With temperatures dipping into the single digits a blanket of the white stuff will protect plants and keep the cold from freeze-drying them, as it could with bare ground.

It’s amazing the amount of plants that stay green in the garden all winter here. Years ago a gardening friend harped on me constantly about planting more for winter interest, and I guess all that nagging must have sunk in because on a walk around the garden yesterday I noticed that there was green everywhere, besides the junipers, nandinas, hollies and other evergreen shrubs and trees. There were holly and Christmas ferns, St John’s wort,  plenty of spring bulb foliage—scillas, grape hyacinths—as well as naked lady and saffron leaves; dianthus, spiderwort, arum italicum, heucheras, lamb’s ear, perennial geraniums, and basal leaves of most of the composite (daisy) family including coneflowers, rudbeckias, and daisies. I found liriope, honeysuckle, ajuga, euonymous, vinca minor, strawberry begonas (saxifraga sarmentosa), enkianthus, pachysandra, wintergreen and lamium. Plenty of spring blooming wildflowers get their start in late autumn, and there were tiny delicate wild ferns just coming up, corydalis, violets galore, lunaria, Virginia waterleaf, and my latest experiment, a loved plant from my childhood, trailing arbutus. There’s even a dandelion or two, butter yellow against the still-green grass!
Saxifrage (strawberry begonia)

Hellebore with Arum Italicum

But the hellebores steal the winter show, big, lusty dark green leaves; old plants are nearly big enough to be shrubs themselves. The so-called Christmas rose, H. niger, supposedly can start blooming in late December with pure white, single five-petaled flowers. I don’t know where they take those catalog pictures of them blooming in the snow; mine don’t usually bloom until early March. There are so many colors and forms of hellebores, from the dusty pink flowers of H.orientalis, the Lenten rose, to the newer cultivars of peaches, reds, creams, spotted and splashed flowers and doubles with delicate gold edges on the petals that it is hard to make a selection. I want them all! There are also H. foetidis with green flowers and foliage that smells bad when bruised, and H. argutifolius with beautiful silver streaked leaves and chartreuse flowers.

H. Orientalis in spring bloom

Most hellebores prefer light shade, are tolerant of even our rocky soil, and fairly drought tolerant too though they will wilt alarmingly during our usual August droughts and scare you into soaking them well. The old leaves can be cut back in February so the flowers show better but I prefer to wait until they finish blooming as I like to see the blooms against the leafy background.  New leaves will come up in spring and I cut off the old, ratty leaves then. My big 20 year old h. orientalis usually has close to a hundred flowers and is about 5’ wide, rivaling big hostas for size. Even the flowers are attractive when they go to seed, with their big green pods swelling in the centers of the petals.

 They are very prolific, too, casting their hundreds of babies close to their feet where they can be easily dug and transplanted in the spring and shared with friends. Varieties that bloom at the same time can easily cross, and you might find shades from pale cream, lavender, and pink, to dark wine red with spots and splashes of color through the petals, or not. If you don’t want them to reseed, just cut off the flowers as you notice the seed pods begin to swell.  It may take the babies three or four years to get big enough to bloom, but they won’t disappoint you. They are pretty low maintenance, and a bonus is that deer and other critters won’t eat them.

 I have them scattered all through the woods now, taking care to look down the road to their future size as I don’t want to crowd other plants too much. They are beautiful with daffodils, hostas, ferns and other shade plants, under oak leaf hydrangeas, and glorious in the winter when we crave the sight of something green!