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…

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