Submitted by gsparrow on
Michael Wharton

I AM AN AMATEUR plant enthusiast and Midwest native that is absolutely in love with mountains. This love took off with our family’s many camping trips over the years to Yellowstone (Wyoming) and Glacier (Montana) national parks, much of Colorado, northern New Mexico, the Canadian Rockies, etc. I also worked summer jobs in the mountains, including Yellowstone, as well as Glacier, one of my all-time favorite places in the world. Working at these places, my downtime was filled with hikes, my first choice often being to go climb a peak, taking in the beautiful plants I would see along the way. My love for alpines grew off of this love of the mountains, even though back then I often only knew the common name (if that) of what I was looking at.

I have zero formal training in botany but have loved plants ever since I first helped my parents plant a veggie garden, along with the many houseplants we kept. I have especially loved wildflowers/natives ever since my grandma first showed me large clumps of Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) in her woods in Minnesota. The image of a little man inside the “pulpit” fascinated me as a kid to the point of not even noticing the swarms of mosquitoes eating us alive. My other grandmother had a more kept garden in the city, but she would teach me how to, and let me help, divide some of her many bearded iris and daylilies. She also taught me how to root cuttings from African violets and how to cross them to get seed.
Boy Scouts was also a big part of this love of mountains and native plants. I took multiple trips to high adventure camps in the mountains and later worked at camps in several places in the mountains, all the while hiking and not realizing I was beginning to botanize.
Since college, I have lived in several of the following states more than once: among the mountains in Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, as well as between the Coast and Cascade ranges in southwest Washington, and am now here to stay in western Montana. I am in love with the plants from all of these mountainous or rocky regions and wish I could have them all in my garden. In fact, I just ordered Olsynium douglasia to try.
I have had the opportunities to be mentored in this hobby by wonderful people like Diana Reeck formerly of Collector’s Nursery in Washington, and Maria Galletti formerly of Mont Echo Nursery in Quebec, when I lived nearby in the Green Mountains of Vermont, and have been fortunate enough to have met many more plantspersons of note along the way. I still remember Diana pushing me to learn the botanical names of each of the plants, and teaching me how to pronounce campanula when I had always thought it was pronounced “camp-a-nella”.
I am also a law enforcement officer of 17 years. I am well aware of the juxtaposition, this career not typically associated with “flower gardening.” I receive plenty of good-natured ribbing and eye rolls from my co-workers for my quick and cheerful enthusiasm in talking plants, though they are also quick to say they want me to take a look at their yard and “tell them what to do with it,” or identify some plant. Gardening is definitely my escape from the stresses of the job. However, when I thought about it, my guess was that I like alpine plants in particular because of their fine details, details obviously being an important part of my job.
My current garden sits just west of the Mission Mountains at an elevation of just over 3,600 feet (1,000 m) in western Montana on my in-laws' property in an opening among their many Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and western larch. The wife and I still live in a rental apartment in town where I’ve snuck a few super low maintenance plants and bulbs into our typical landscaping. Their property is just near enough to Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, that we do get some lake effect from it, often resulting in wetter winters.
The garden itself is not what I would consider big compared to many, at approximately 25 feet by eight feet (7.6 by 2.4 m). The Rock, as I call my garden (or my wife says “go out to your playpen,” partially because of the waist-high deer fence we had to have put up around it), is a large natural ledge. It must have had a tree rooted into it at some point, as much of the granite ledge is split and even hollow inside it in some places. I have had to fill loads of grit and soil into some of these hollows. The Rock runs approximately east and west, with one face of it due south and the other side facing almost north.
The former property owners must have battled with and lost to the deer and so The Rock (and the rest of the garden in general) was covered with hundreds of faded but never decaying silk flowers which I still dig up once in a while. The ledge was also covered in an interwoven mat of the dreaded Sedum album. It took me several full days to peel all the sedum off, to the point of even removing seedlings with tweezers. Most of the mat got relegated to hardy ground cover around the bottom part of The Rock.
The first year I planted a number of dry-loving plants, including several yuccas and the native Opuntia fragilis. My Yucca harrimaniae was immediately reduced to one leaf, while the very spiny opuntia had several large bites missing out of its pads, spines and all. Other deer-resistant plants were mostly completely yanked out by their roots and then discarded nearby. This is what led to my having to pen in this garden.
The other pest I have had to battle are the carpenter ants, presumably trying to finish off whatever tree roots are still inside The Rock. They have also attempted to bury several of my townsendias along the way, as well as other choice-but-small plants. I did resort to the granular ant killer, which stands out against the gravel mulch but does eventually disappear. I am winning, but the battle does continue.
There are several sections of The Rock where I added on to the natural ledge, trying to match the new rock as best as possible with the natural. This was particularly hard because there actually wasn’t that much rock just lying around so I had to scavenge from the few piles of it there were, or utilize rocks that were dug up during other projects/plantings. Patting myself on the back though, I will say that people often do not notice where I added on to the ledge on the one end.
As far as plant material, I am a plant collector and have little sense of gardening style, though I try my best in the parts of the yard that are more for my in-laws. Like I said before, I want plants from all over.
I will often ignore (within reason) planting zones listed on plants, and/or take my cues from others that have experimented before me. We are in an odd zone anyway, with enough warmth to reliably grow sweet cherries, peaches, and other tree fruits here around Flathead Lake; but then also get down into some brutal subzero Fahrenheit (below -18°C) temperatures, not to mention very dry summers. Then there are years (including this one) when we have minimal snow cover, as well. However, like many gardeners, I have a bit of a competitive streak. (I also just started powerlifting in my late 40s.) Many of us want to try to grow something that others can’t grow, or grow it places others haven’t yet.
Monardella macrantha 'Marian Sampson' was one that I saw people already growing in colder climates then it was listed for and so decided to try it here. It has done well, flowering several years in a row now. I stuck cuttings in several cracks this past fall to see if they will take this year. Hesperaloe parviflora is fairly common over in nearby eastern Washington but I hadn’t seen it here so I had to try. No flowers yet, but it is still growing. Penstemons native to many parts of the West have done well here. I have Washington native Penstemon rupicola blooming feet away from the Southwest’s P. rostriflorus. I probably have several dozen species of penstemons. I have also been selecting out the white-flowered (versus cream-flowered) plants of the local P. confertus.
My experiment with Crocus sativus has resulted in nothing but leaves with no fall bloom, so they will probably be edited from the garden; but as I write this in late March, Narcissus romieuxii ‘Julia Jane’ is getting ready to bloom with many flower buds. Orostachys sp. cuttings that were sent to me last summer appear to be a mixed bag right now over which survived, though it appears to be better odds if the whole rosette was slightly below the grit dressing level or down between the cracks of rocks.
Seeds are my friends, especially with as narrow as some of the natural cracks in The Rock are. I collect seed from the wild, buy from as many reliable sources as I can find, and have very generous friends that have given me some great stuff. I direct sow most things since I do not have the time or facility to grow seedlings on in pots, with the knowledge that nature will pick and choose which ones will germinate where. With the cracks, I use something to funnel or scoop the seeds into them and then wait and see.
I am very excited about the local, but rare, Douglasia conservatorum, whose cushions, sown from seed collected from its only known location, have steadily increased in the garden for the past several years now and are also ready to bloom soon with its bright, hot-pink flowers. I also have a nice clump of Silene acaulis growing on the north side of The Rock that bloomed for the first time last year and I observed was greening back up the other day. It was so brown I thought I had lost it over the winter. Meanwhile, several Aloinopsis x nananthus hybrid seedlings are slowly but surely increasing in size near the top, out in what is usually the hottest part of The Rock. Castillejas excite me and several have been moderately successful from seed, sown with one of the very dwarf eriogonums as a host.
Lewisia is one of my favorite genera, a few of them getting almost weedy with their seedlings. Our native Lewisia rediviva is one of my favorites when it blooms, though the early green leaves it has up right now are a nice sign of spring. Lewisiopsis tweedyi is another experiment that so far has made it through the winter with little snow cover. Several native creeping phlox, including the local Phlox kelseyi var. missoulensis, are slowly increasing in size though I sometimes wish they grew as fast as the usual garden cultivars. Phlox longifolia is growing at a steady rate, however.
One of the problems I have is that the wonderful burst of spring color is followed by a gap in the summer when fewer things are blooming in my garden. I am still working on being better about thinking about bloom time when I consider plants, as well as making sure these plants are scattered around the garden, and at different levels if possible, instead of all clumped in one area. So far, late summer/fall brings things like zauschneria (epilobium), colchicum, autumn blooming crocus, and some plants repeat blooming. Many of the plants also get good fall foliage color.
Speaking of colchicum and crocus, another issue I learned the hard way is that even though it is awesome to have small bulbs pop up through a cushion plant, consideration must be made for the bulb's foliage covering parts of the much smaller plants. I have had to edit a few bulbs, moving them from one location to another. Digging around and under the cushion plant to get the bulb out while attempting not to kill your plant is nerve-wracking.
The Rock is no stunner by rock/alpine garden standards, but when I need to get away I just go out to my playpen and edit, plant, trim, or even sit and just disappear up into the mountains.

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. - John Muir