Monday, June 14, 2010

(PUNK) ROCK Gardening 101

"For those about to rock, we salute you" – AC/DC's famous line plays in my head whenever I think of my friend Stephanie Ferguson, a hardcore urban (punk)rock gardener here in Calgary. She's the real deal, walking in the footsteps of people like William Roland Reader, the well-known parks superintendent who started planting the recently restored Reader Rock Garden way back in 1913.

He was (punk) rock gardening way before punk rock.

Only hardy types need apply for rock gardening. Needing both a hard and a soft touch, prepare your biceps for some heavy lifting of solid rock along with the delicate task of year round tender loving plant care. For all those who say you can't be a good gardener in Calgary, let's talk rock gardening! Our climate happens to be very well suited to plants from the Alpine/Steppe-Dessert region. We share certain geographical characteristics with places like Turkey, central Asia, Argentina, Greece, Spain, China, parts of South Africa, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, not to mention the less exotic western half of North America.

If you can grow it in Kazakhstan, you can grow it here! Above the tree-line, no problem!

The key is in the garden's structure. Stephanie walked me through her 'oasis of slate', giving me the step by step narrative in how it was built. First a layer of water-retaining silt is laid down and sculpted into ridges (cleverly resembling the hogback ridges of Longview). These built up ridges are covered with a thin layer of sand, on top of that, crushed gravel and then on top of that, a coat of broken slate (rock mulch). Hand-cut slabs of Rundle stone (slate/shale) from Canmore's own Kamenka Quarry are wedged vertically into the ground, on a slight slope, creating both a picturesque design as well as those much needed crevices crucial for the plants survival. Once the rocks are in place, each plant is carefully placed, close, but not too close, to other plants. (note to miniturists: you are going to love Alpine plants - designed to stay low in cold windy climates, these plants look like tiny replicas of larger variety plants)

Plants begin as seeds, purchased in the late fall, carefully cultivated indoors throughout the winter, ready for planting in April, and then enjoyed throughout the summer – that's right, the fun never stops all year!

Also known as zero-scaping (xeriscaping), Stephanie's garden takes very little maintenance (once it's all built and planted) with very little water and only natural fertilizer, (in the form of bone meal) needed. Originating in the Czech Republic (or the UK depending on who you talk to), this style of rock gardening also called 'crevice gardening', is extremely eco-friendly, with the north sloping sides of the rock garden staying cool and south-facing slopes retaining heat, the structure is always in perfect balance. Weeding is a cinch because there's very little space for the roots to take hold, and to top it all off, the garden attracts a wide variety of (good) insects like bees and dragon flies. Some plants (like the one pictured below) even attract humming birds!

Did I mention that Stephanie can name all 1,500 species of seedlings planted this year using their Latin names? Told you she was the real deal. In addition to having a green thumb, Steph's archiving skills rival those of a tenured professor. Each plant is carefully marked with detailed information including the aforementioned Latin name and place of origin (first with a temporary plastic marker and then, if it survives a season, with a permanent etched aluminum one). Not for the faint of heart, be prepared to lose around 25% of what you plant. Its all about trial and error, learning from the pros, and swapping notes with fellow enthusiasts.

It starts with seed swapping. Sounding vaguely solicitous, some well known swappers include the Alpine Garden Society in England, the Scottish Rock Garden Club, and the North American Rock Garden Society. A new arrival just launched this month, is the home-grown (pardon the pun) seed swapping website Every fall, conscientious gardeners all over the world harvest their seeds, package them up and send them half way across the globe for others to try out in their own backyard. Planting from seeds is relatively inexpensive, making this form of gardening open to everyone, not just those with an account at the garden center.

I'm not even going to attempt to tell you all the plants that can be found in this 70' x 30' space, but if you are interested, the garden is located in Mount Royal at 1412 Premier Way S.W. Although a private garden, because of its location in the front yard, it has become a bit of a public spectacle. If you are genuinely curious and extremely polite, Stephanie is a wealth of information with a good 15 years of experience under her belt. If you are lucky, she might even teach you the Latin names.

Rock on.

more links for rockers:

The Calgary Rock and Alpine Garden Society
Chandigarh Rock Garden in India
Brooklyn Botanic Garden- designing a rock garden

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