Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Wetland in a Box

My friend Trish Hacker-Henig and I have agreed that my one true addiction is native plants. Like cats, I want them all. Unfortunately, I don't have sufficient property to indulge my addiction beyond certain specific physical limits (which may be a good thing) and I don't have the range of habitats to do so either.

Finishing up filling with soil, getting ready to plant.
Not being one to passively accept externally-imposed limitations, I've been working on ways to alter my habitat with minimal impact. By sinking a three-foot square plastic fountain basin I purchased from my friend Chris Hopp and back-filling it, I've managed to create an environment where Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) can thrive with minimal input on my part, to the extent that the Cardinal Flower has reached, in one instance, over six feet in height. I've also been able to include other marginal wetland plants in my garden, including Spotted Joe Pye (Eupatorium maculatum), Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) and Swamp-rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) by either creating small swales or sinking them in pots which I can closely monitor and water specifically for the greatest help to those relatively thirsty plants. I had lost both the Spotted Joe Pye and Swamp-rose Mallow to drought in past attempts. All are thriving at present.

Planted, mulched and watered.
Most of these are rather marginal plants - they can do all right with some relatively minor alterations to the environment. But I really wanted to grow Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), partly because I wanted to have it as a member of my "Zoo Garden" but, honestly, mostly because I really couldn't grow it.

Skunk Cabbage is, not surprisingly, not a plant one usually sees in the average garden. Aside from its cultural needs, it's not perhaps the prettiest thing plus it smells like, well, like a skunk. Blooming very early in the Spring - so early that there is often still snow on the ground, which somehow the plant is able to melt through energy it is generating, it is pollinated by flies; hence the stench. It is a member of the Aroid family, along with Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllym) and Green Dragon (Arisaema dracontium). An endangered plant in Tennessee, it is kept under lock and key in European botanical gardens, as they have nothing at all like it.

(L-R) Sweet Flat (Acorus calamus); Buck Bean
(Menyanthes trifoliata), Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus
 - just emerging from summer dormancy), Wool

Grass (Scirpus cyperinus) and Marsh Marigold
(Caltha palustris)
So I wanted Skunk Cabbage. But not only is it a wetland obligate (a plant which requires wetland conditions, as opposed to a "facultative emergent", which can tolerate a wider range of conditions, especially in terms of moisture); it also has a tap root, sulking and finally dying if it doesn't have enough room to grow as it requires. I started talking with Chris Hopp about making a big hypertufa tank, having consulted with Trish about how much room Skunk Cabbage would really need to be (hopefully) happy. We settled on a piece four feet long, a foot wide and 18 inches deep, which he delivered just before our tour June 2, 2012. (It was truly amazing to see Chris, assisted by his girlfriend Chelsea Martin, maneuver the 300-pound piece into position.)

We couldn't plant right away because the Tank (as we decided to call it, because it was so huge) needed to cure, plus it needed to be rinsed numerous times to minimize the alkalinity of the matrix. I stopped up at Trish's nursery (American Roots Native Plants, Ortonville, Michigan) and selected a group of four plants - Skunk Cabbage, Sweet Flat (Acorus calamus), Buck Bean (Menyanthes trifoliata - a bonus for the "Zoo Garden") and Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) for the Tank. I wanted to have it planted by the second garden tour of the year, on August 18.

The finishing touch: a set of
Black Cat Pottery Cat-tails.
Well, the weather didn't really cooperate, did it? Ghastly hot and droughty June and July. Finally, August 15, I went back up to Ortonville to pick up the plants (as well as a few for some other parts of the garden) and selected Wool Grass (Scirpus cyperinus - which isn't a grass at all but a rush) to complement the other plants I had chosen for the Wetland Tank.

I finally planted the Tank the next day. I started on Wednesday but realized I didn't have enough planting mix - it took the better part of four two-cubic-foot bags of Schultz planting mix to fill the Tank. I planted everything in, top-dressed with mulch, and started watering it.

Chris and I had concurred that we needed an outlet for excess water come the end of the season so any freezing action would not crack the Tank. He had drilled a one-inch hole close to the bottom, which I had fitted with a typical stopper. After I finished planting and mulching, I started to water with rain water from my rain barrel. Using two 14-quart galvanized buckets, I made four trips, for about 28 gallons of water. I topped off the composition with a set of three Black Cat Pottery Cat-tails.

So far, the plants seem to have settled in. It is truly amazing.

1 comment:

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