Where To Find It – Expanded Shale, Alpine Plants

This past week I was on the hunt for various materials and plants for the garden. I always feel a little chaotic when I’m roaming in search of known and as yet unknown objects – as if I’m contributing to the entropy of the universe – its tendency towards greater and greater disorganization. But psychotherapists who treat physicists always reassure them that people who inadvertently court chaos are those very people who are most apt to put it all back together again – in short, artists. There is a book about still life painting by European artists from 1500-1800 titled The Magic of Things.  These artists have the gift of assembling seemingly random objects into an organized whole – organized by virtue of color, lighting, and composition. These still lives remind me of gardening on a smaller scale, since gardening also deals with making sense and order out of diverse collections and seemingly incoherent sets of materials.

This still life painting at the University of Michigan Museum of Art  by the Dutch Baroque painter Willem Claesz Heda, shows an engaging composition with a sense of dynamic randomness and disorder – as if something just happened.  Painting by Willem Claes Heda Some artists can’t bear to take order too far. A great idea to inspire garden design.
Stop number 1 is about elements, but not just any element. Expanded shale has become the one element at the base of my gardening pyramid. It consists of shale heated to around 2000 degrees, which creates a porous, ceramic, volcanic appearing lightweight stone. It has all the qualities a plant would love:  insulative against soil temperature fluctuations, absorptive of both nutrients and water, preserving of air spaces, and architectural, creating a minature reef to anchor and support microbes. It is also called Haydite and is a favorite of bonsai growers. After many years trying to solve the paradox of “moist and well drained soil”, expanded shale provided the perfect soil additive. Tony Avent of Plant Delights describes soil building at length on his website. He says his favorite amendment to create good drainage and porosity is “Perma Till” – which is expanded shale. If that is unavailable, he recommends pea gravel in a half inch layer tilled or mixed in. I use expanded shale as about 1/3 of my potting mix, with the other 1/3 horticultural compost (without manure), and 1/3 peat moss or coir. To that is added various organic sources of NPK such as alfalfa meal and lime for plants that need it.

I find this expanded shale at an area concrete company, Consumers Concrete in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The expanded shale I get is about the size of coarse sand and is used by Consumers to make lightweight concrete blocks. We are able to purchase it in bulk by shoveling it into heavyweight plastic trash bags. We are the only ones using their expanded shale for horticulture – until we mentioned it they were unaware of this use for their product. But we are thrilled to find all the “Haydite” we can use for a very low price compared to the high priced tiny bags sold to bonsai growers.

The sales representative for HpbHaydite in Indianapolis steered me to this outlet for their expanded shale. Their website states clearly and in detail all the horticultural (and other) uses for it. I plan to experiment with its uses in concrete troughs and containers for Japanese Maples. Consumers Concrete also has a larger size aggregate, about 3/8 – 1/2 inch diameter, in a large pile, which they use for lightweight construction concrete. We also shovel this into the back of our plastic lined van for surfacing pathways and mulching pots. I’ve used this size in a couple garden beds, but the smallest coarse sand size is best for root crops like carrots. I can’t get all the graded sizes the HpbHaydite site describes, but these two sizes seem to work for just about all my gardening needs.

Last week, we also visited Arrowhead Alpines in Fowlerville, Michigan. This is a delightful and extensive nursery carrying rare alpines and other plants which are very difficult to find elsewhere (if at all).
Arrowhead Alpines - overview Arrowhead Alpines - inside a greenhouse

They specifically had two Chinese herbs I was looking for:  Siberian Solomon’s Seal or Polygonatum sibiricum, and Rhodiola. 

According to Ron Teeguarden of Dragonherbs.com, Polygonatum sibiricum has a “specific benefit on the energy of the heart and brain”. This plant is a done deal for me. He goes on to say it is a “potent mind tonic” and can “prevent mental and emotional breakdown when experiencing heavy mental loads.” Having experienced the phenomenal schizandra chinensis effects (see previous blog), I am fascinated by Chinese herbs and their effects on mental functioning. Ancient Tibetan and monks looking for mental conditioning for long periods of concentrated meditations led the way in these discoveries.

Arrowhead Alpines also had a Rhodiola species, as yet unidentified, from China. I already have one Rhodiola rosea plant started from seed from Horizon Herbs, probably Russian, but I am interested in growing other species. Ron Teeguarden uses Rhodiola sacra or crenulata from Tibet saying it is the most powerful. (PHOTO of Rhodiola) He describes Rhodiola this way:  it replenishes Qi, strengthens mind and body, a powerful adaptogenic, improves blood circulation, lifts mood, improves oxygen efficiency, immune modulating, life prolonging, wisdom enhancing.” I think this is worth working with!

I also bought an enchanting dwarf Solomon’s seal, a Hakonechloa macra aureola, a primula auricula alpina ‘Gordon Douglas’ and a poor little blue Cordyalis ‘Ex Dufu Temple’.

Regarding my brush with entropy, I’ll let the physicists argue and hammer out the details. I’ll do my part to stop the onrushing disintegration of matter by scooping some up and trying to put my tiny corner of the universe back together again…

Life Extension

Here in Michigan’s winters all that stands between utter oblivion and a flicker of life is a hunk of Bob’s plastic.  Because of that exceptionally durable plastic we can eat from our garden while spring seeds are still dreaming in their soil cubicles of their future life in the sun.

But the price we’ve paid for such luxuries is a form so functional as to make any architect who touts the infamous “form follow function” dictum quickly reevaluate the meaning of function. Some functional structures are better left hidden, or placed in an out of the way tundra or other unpopulated area. There is such a thing as too functional – so functional that it squeezes out form to the point there is no form at all. This describes our greenhouse. All function, little form that could be properly called form.  It could simply be called an invertebrate greenhouse, with its primitive semi-circle frame, looking as if it could slither away or eat a smaller greenhouse with its hidden mouth underneath.

But as discomforting as its appearance is, as “laughable” and “unphotographable” (as in My Funny Valentine), its 100% function has us eating lettuce well into December, or wintering over hardier vegetables such as kale, swiss chard, and parsley till mid spring.   It has protected all kinds of potted plants through rough winters and turbulent springs such as Japanese Maples too small to set out, or without a prepared site. I usually sink these pots into the soil for added protection. In short, this greenhouse has been indispensable to a certain level of self sufficiency and soul sufficiency – in the case of Japanese Maples. Japanese Maple in the Greenhouse

If  I can find some time after fending off frost threats in the landscape, by covering Japanese Maples with a shaky edifice of slender bamboo poles and a roof of old sheets, I plan to make a recipe from The Splendid Table website called Masa Crepes With Chard, Chilies, and Cilantro using this newly regrowing swiss chard.

The new leaves on this last years kale plant I transplanted into the greenhouse at season’s end, are amazingly sweet and tender – fit for a salad. I find them irresistible when walking by. 

Just behind the greenhouse are some 4 x 4s – framing for a new greenhouse on a new axis. Formless things tend to have relatively short lifespans, although this greenhouse has lived for over a dozen years with the same plastic. It may take a couple of summers to complete, but we’re going to try loading this one down with form, form, form…….stay tuned…..

The Music of Moss

Moss in a Circle

Lately, every time I turn around, I see moss. Moss cannot be ignored – it needs to be looked at, thought about, considered. There is so much of it, for one thing – that in itself is commanding. It is also so primeval, the diametric opposite of hard-edged civilization, a constant link to our mysterious past. Extracting nutrients from air and water, it is both primitive and sophisticated at the same time. There is a spiritual quality in moss with its humility (it gets walked on!) and breatharian feats that always inspires me.

But there are many ways to look at moss.

Some years ago, I took a class on moss at the Matthei Botanical Garden near Ann Arbor, Michigan. In the back of my mind, I think I believed I was going to visit an oracle – to get a translation of deep wisdom straight from the earth itself. Maybe the translation would be scientific in nature, but it would still have startling undeniable kernels of truth which would startle and shock me out of my normal complacency. When I got there, it appeared that no one else had these expectations. Lists of mosses on the blackboard with names difficult to pronounce or remember hung lifeless  in the arid room. I had to unearth bits of Latin learned in bygone days, the tail ends of a classical education in a public school, in order to decifer them.  I finally enjoyed the field trip where we discovered those dusty names in real life:  dicranum on rocks, racometrium – a fast spreading carpet moss, bryum – the velvet carpet moss which can survive between sidewalk cracks, and brachythecium, another tongue twister fast spreading sheet former.

Leaving the halls of scientific learning, another way to look at moss is through the lens of design – both interior and exterior. Bonsai growers find moss to be the prefect soil topper with its storybook appearance and its ability to evoke landscapes with hills and valleys. According to George Schenk in his excellent book, Moss Gardening: Including Lichens, Liverworts and Other Miniatures, Bryum, Leptobryum, Pohlia, Hupnum, Antitrichia, and Homalothecium are known to work well for bonsai. They can be transplanted from such common places as sidewalk cracks in the case of Bryum, as sown bits of dried moss, or as a spread of slurried moss pulverized in a blender; he tells how in his book.

Spring MossMoss has an ancient place in the gardens of Japan. One thousand years ago, Zen Buddhist Monks saw a spiritual kinship in these zen-like plants and began to cultivate them. Mr. Shenk’s book has a photo of the remarkable moss garden, Saihoji, a naturalistic design where mosses ramble over bridges, logs, stone and earth, creating rythmic tapestries with a timeless quality. I would love to see this garden, but since Japan isn’t on my to do list, I’ll have to content myself with creating my own moss garden – fun in its own way. Mr. Schenk gives good grounding for such an endeavor. Daffodils in Delft

I took this spring photo of the up and coming daffodils and miniature forsythia, “Little Peep”. The moss seemed to emphasize the fresh yet ancient qualities of spring. These moss buns are fake – our Siamese cat mix Smart little Luvy loves to bat them around the floor, but they look quite like Bryum – that always green sidewalk moss.

If anyone out there follows the interior design work of Vicente Wolf, I just happened upon an interview in the latest House Beautiful (May issue) in which he states his design philosophy in a nutshell:  “First I make sure there is always a flow. Like water flowing down a river. There might be a little rock here and a little bit of rapids there, but the river never stops flowing.” Moss and mossy rocks would fit right in, “the minimal with the primitive.”

But mostly, moss reminds me of music – again because of its flow. Moss seems to flow around like little rivers and small lakes. A beautiful photo of a sea of Leucobryum in the book Moss Gardening, shows it as the moss version of white foaming waves. You can almost hear the sound coming from its undulating motion. If there were music emanating from moss, it would have to sound like the music of Philip Glass This music is not sentimental ( like the exquisite moodiness of Debussy), but a music which obliterates both thought and emotion and leaves us with a purity of sound and experience. A primeval sound, mysterious, direct, and both elusive and powerful – like moss. Glass has said that he doesn’t compose music, he simply listens to it, and sometimes can just barely hear it. In an interview on the DVD, Glass, a Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, he describes the origins of his music as a an underground river, always flowing.  I’m hoping one day to be able to just barely hear the river of moss. Then my science class will be complete….

            On the shingled gate

            Where in rain moss grows jade-bright

            Earth and heaven merge.


Pawpaw buds

One of the most beautiful and unusual flower buds in our yard is the pawpaw. They resemble a plush furry button –  and fur on plants always makes me smile.  Pawpaws are also called “Michigan bananas” and there is a city in Michigan named Paw Paw – given all this I assumed they would grow here. I also took more advice from my dog eared copy of Lee Reich’s Uncommon Fruits Worthy Of Attention. I noticed that Mr. Reich has a newer book out now called Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, but I haven’t seen it. For some reason, perhaps because many of these uncommon fruits have not been bred (for characteristics I probably wouldn’t like), they tend to need little spraying for insects or disease. That is certainly  a welcome feature of our our trees.

Since I love bananas, paw paws were probably the first trees I sought out for the yard. There happened to be a grower specializing in them in our general vicinity in the early 90’s named Corwin Davis. I remember making the pilgrimage to his home one spring day and meeting quite an elderly man – someone who dedicated much of his time to his small pawpaw nursery. I came home with 2 varieties called Sunflower and Taylor and a sheet of information.

Our trees have thrived since then, setting fruit most years – most because mid Lower Michigan is at its northern most range. I love these trees because they ease boredom by giving our lower ravine a tropical look with long unusual leaves – most unexpected. And since the dropped seeds encased in the fruit are quick to germinate, we now have the classic pawpaw patch, which, if I am not vigilant from now on, could grow larger, larger, and larger.

The small trees (around 15-20 feet tall) are undemanding and if I fertilize at all, I throw them some alfalfa meal, like a zoo animal — plus they don’t need much water after they put down their long tap root.  I once tried to dig one up to move it to a better location, but after heroic digging, could not find the end of the tap root, nor could I pull it out (I was getting desperate). After decisively losing the match – my first (and only) loss to smallish plant ever! –  the tree stayed put and now produces a great many pawpaws.

Pawpaws are harvested at the end of the season, after a light frost or two. Then I scoop out the flesh, sometimes leaving in the large seeds (to remove later) and put them in the freezer. My varieties have a flavor a little like a banana, but more assertive – of course. These trees have a position , a point of view, and personality! I find they blend well with some real banana to remind them of their roots and bring them back to a familiar taste. They usually end up in a smoothie, but recipes do abound. There is a pawpaw foundation at Kentucky State University which has all sorts of lore and information to keep one occupied for some time. But for now, I have a “Scattered Frost” looming for tonight. My occupation could be The Compleat Worrier because it is now dark and the low was just revised downward.

Gynostemma and Its Ghost

Gynostemma shoots in the early springThese are the new shoots of the delicate but rambunctious  Gynostemma. Towering over it is the ghost of Gynostemma past – a hint of what it could be if I leave it alone and unharvested as I unwittingly did last year.

There is no reason not to harvest Gynostemma – or Jiao Gu Lan as the Chinese  (and Horizon Herb Catalog) call it. It has a 5 star treasure rating in Ron Teeguarden’s book, The Ancient Wisdom of the Chinese Tonic Herbs (formerly called Radiant Health). Five stars is the ultimate rating, “reserved for the elite of the elite. An herb in this category is among the ultimate life-promoting substances ever discovered by mankind and should be considered by everyone interested in achieving longevity and radiant health.” Well, I have not only considered it, I have grown it, impressed as I was by its attributes. It is an adaptogenic herb, like ginseng, schizandra, and astragalus, helping bring balance to the body under stress. It is also believed to slow down aging, prevent senility, reduce fatigue and increase vigor, improve digestion, strengthen the mind, calm nerves, improve sex, and ease pain. Is there anything Gynostemma doesn’t do?

It is even used to treat coughs, bronchitis, and  inflammation, and remove mucus – all actions that I surely could have used when I had some sort of flu over Christmas. But by then, my Gynostemma was pure ghost.

Recent medical literature of China and Japan relates the clinical effectiveness of Gynostemma for a long list of health problems:  high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, migraines, diabetes, insomnia, gastric ulcers, arthritis, various allergies, headaches, and premature aging and loss of hair. I hope I don’t have to get all of these before I decide to harvest my Gynostemma!

I would need a horticultural psychoanalyst to find the buried reasons I never harvested my large climbing crop. Maybe it was “Gynostemma Fear” which came to the fore more each morning as it appeared the vines were at least six inches longer than when I left them last evening. Or it could be a case of “Dumb Struck”, the main symptom of which is a sudden dropping of the jaw upon walking past the masses of Gynostemma vines. Then again, I saw a large garter snake lounging one day, strung across the vines, as if he just bought the real estate. I don’t like to cede territory, but I’ve really had enough of snakes.

All these larger than life occurrences (especially the snake) put together provided compelling logic:  the Gynostemma was NOT TO BE HARVESTED.

Delving once again into the psychology of the matter, I never even expected these plants to grow at all. Rico Cech of Horizon Herbs says they are hardy to 10 degrees only. We are in zone 5, where winter lows can reach minus 20 degrees. So why did I even plant this? This is another question for the psychoanalyist. I think my tendencies to fantasy and dreaming helped me out here – I Really wanted this herb, and in my dream world, it would grow! Besides, does anyone really know anything about growing Chinese herbs?

I bought my first 6 plants from Horizon Herbs and put them in my unphotographable greenhouse (which I will photograph soon) and sure enough, one cold spring night, the tops all died. Vowing to be more protective, I ordered 6 more (budget be damned). But before the replacements could arrive, the original 6 started sending up new shoots. This is the perennial concept, where tops die down and roots survive. Ever since, these perennial vines have spread and overgrown the greenhouse. They’ve also survived outdoors in the garden in normal good soil with a light straw mulch.

I’m actually looking forward to harvesting Gynostemma this year. But I am also going to look for a trained horticultural psychoanalyst, someone who knows just how shocking it can be to encounter a garden every day.

Cherries from the Past

Today I walked around our one acre yard and garden to see what was venturing forth during this warm spell. Everything is starting to grow but there are always a few early birds way ahead of the others. One of these is the Cornelian Cherry, well known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Referring to the Golden Age, Ovid wrote:

      And the earth, untroubled,

      Unharried by hoe or plowshare, brought forth all

      That men had need for, and those men were happy

      Gathering berries from the mountain sides,

      (Cornel) cherries, or blackcaps, and edible acorns.

                   From The Metamorphoses

Our two Cornelian Cherry trees always bloom in early spring if the weather warms then. I’m happy to see these delicate yet sturdy blossoms – but even though they tolerate some frost and have an extended flowering time, I have lost cherry harvests if the temperature drops too low. Now I take no chances if the temperature drops below 29 degrees and drape lightweight row covers over as many branches as possible. I stand on a ladder and use clothespins to secure the fabric – a little precarious. This is the time of year I am glued to the weather reports every day and hope I don’t have this assignment!

The reason I go to these lengths is that I love Cornelian Cherries. I toss them in the freezer after removing the pits and then use them in smoothies or fantastic jam. Basically, they can be used any way traditional cherries are used. If the gods are with me, I plan to use them in more recipes this year. Cornelian Cherries are very tart until they ripen and fall easily from the tree. Then they are somewhat soft and have a sweet and powerful taste. Our Red Star variety is very productive, especially if frosts haven’t thinned them. Our other variety, Pioneer, is somewhat less productive but I am trying to give some extra care lately. They are perfect for organic growing because they need no spraying for any disease – I’ve had no problems in the dozen or so years I have tended them. They are easy to grow and don’t take up a lot of space  – ours are only about 15 feet tall. My only nemesis is deer who love the winter buds and shoots. I once lost all the fruit this way. Now I spray with Deer Scram from Pinetree Garden Seeds. I learned all the fascinating lore and growing requirements from one of my favorite books, Uncommon Fruits Worthy Of Attention, by Lee Reich. Those requirements are quite simple: sun and good garden soil preferably with some calcium also added. They grow well from zones 5-8.

Since we ran out of frozen cherries in February, I recently checked the website, RaintreeNursery.com, the only nursery I know that has named varieties bred for fruit quality. This is where I purchased the two that I have and was thinking of perhaps  purchasing one or two more. But I was surprised to find only one yellow fruiting variety there. After a phone call, I was told that they do sell other varieties but they were already sold out in January. The red varieties they sell are:  Red Star, Black Plum from Russia (even the name sounds good!), and Kazenlakz from Bulgaria, which has 11/2 inch long fruits. I may talk to their horticulturist on Monday regarding the yellow variety, but its description made it sound more ornamental, which is the usual use for them.

These fruits have always been a staple in Eastern Europe and grow wild there. According to Lee Reich, ” a former monastery garden, (now a botanical garden) near Kiev has trees that are between 150 and 200 years old and still bear regular crops of fruit.” The wood is extremely hard – considered as hard as iron,  and was used for spokes of wheels and spears.

The more I think about these trees, the more determined I am to order very early for next year and prepare a location. And since any organic fruit is on the pricey side in stores, my vacillation has now officially ended! I may even try making one into a standard…

Here’s to the new Golden Age!

Mary Kay submitted this comment on my About page, so I am duplicating it here along with my answer:

Hi Mary –

I just wanted to tell you that I loved your article on your cornelian cherries. I am thinking of ordering a fruit-bearing size tree from whitmanfarms.com Lucile Whitman has a good selection and sells larger trees as well as grafted plants. I think she grows plants for Raintree as well as other nurseries. I am very interested in “Elegant” and “Red Star.”

Can you tell me – how long did it take for your Raintree plants to bear after planting and what size did they ship? Do you prefer one of your varieties for eating fresh? I love the idea of using them for smoothies, too.

Thanks so much!

Mary Kay Crowder

My reply is:

Hi Mary Kay –

Thanks so much for your generous comments! I noticed that One Green World also has the Red Star and Pioneer varieties (plus a yellow variety). Whitman Farms seems to have them at a lower price which could mean that they are younger hence would take longer to bear. Some nurseries also sell seedlings, because they are also sold as decorative trees rather than for harvesting. But the seedlings would take much longer to bear and the fruit would not likely be as good.  It would be helpful to confirm that you are getting a grafted named variety. Whitman’s should know how old their grafted varieties are and when they are likely to begin bearing. If I remember, mine began bearing several years after they were planted – they were around 2 – 3 feet tall when planted. At first the flowers are all male – the Latin translation of cornus mas is “male cornel”, but after a couple years, the perfect flowers are produced. Every year after that my trees produced more and more cherries till last year (about 8 years later),  the branches were solid fruit! Red Star is my best producer, but I have voles, so they could have affected the Pioneer more. Two varieties are needed for pollination. Both my varieties taste about the same with a very deep somewhat wild, fresh, sweet taste, like a fine wine to me with a hint of the earth they were grown in, and a hint of long ago memories. Their final sweetness evolves after the fruits are fully ripe, being loose enough to fall or even on the ground. I’m still enjoying smoothies from last year’s crop and they make a great raw jam simply blended with honey. Hope this helps, and best of luck with your trees!

Mary Kay emailed to ask about pitting — here is my answer:

Hi Mary Kay –

Thanks for your question…..For some reason, perhaps because I worked so hard growing the cherries, I pitted all of them by hand with a small serrated paring knife. It took some finger judo and hours of time, but I became somewhat adept after the first hundred or so. When my husband wandered over and suggested using a cherry pitting tool, I probably looked a little askance, like farriers must have looked at the first automobiles. I may graduate from my medieval time warp this year and try a pitting device. The pits are oblong, like the cherries themselves, so they may not adapt to the gadget idea, but I will attempt to propel myself out of my Dutch indigenous ways and report the results on an August blog.

Happy Tree Growing

Gardening in the City

Houston Skyline with Mathew Geller sculpture in foreground

Our son, his wife, and their two kids live in the city of Houston, in the Old Sixth Ward – one of the few neighborhoods which have not been razed and turned into cardboard-like condominiums.  It is located tight up against the core of downtown, and the contrast between the high rise skyscrapers and the modest but charming houses is dramatic. It is the contrast between yin and yang, right brain and left brain, old and new. The neighborhood reminds me of the setting of the movie and book, To Kill A Mockingbird – I half expect to see  Gregory Peck leaving a house for court, the weight of good versus evil slowing his walk. But instead there are modern families finding the good in preserving the past and their connection to history.

Example of a "shotgun" house in the Old Sixth Ward

The houses have that nineteenth century quality, with gingerbread trim, the essential porch for sociability, shotgun long narrow shapes to fit narrow lots, and happy colors like pale pink and spring greens. And front doors are always special and detailed. There are stories in details.

Door of an Old Sixth Ward house

Even though the lots are narrow and small almost every house has a garden in the front yard. Fig trees, orange trees, nandina, boxwood, and shrub-like rosemary are common there. But the biggest impression was that the whole neighborhood was a garden. The houses were like ornaments, the streets and sidewalks like garden pathways, and the small gardens were like parterres, rimmed in boxwood.

The whole neighborhood seemed integrated, producing a feeling of wholeness the way a good garden does. It was a world within a world, a deeper layer of nourishment which helped us all feel more human and sheltered. Sidewalk in the old Sixth Ward, Houston

Front Garden in Houston's Old Sixth Ward