Monday, September 16, 2013

A river runs through it, finally, almost

I posted a couple of years ago on this topic and didn’t realize quite how aspirational putting in a dry river bed proved to be. Never fear, it is still aspirational. This means I haven’t finished yet, but “aspirational” sounds so magazine editor I just can’t resist. “Unfinished project” sounds more Alaskan though, so it’s a toss up.

rusty salmon with Physocarpus Center Glow

1. Now every river in Alaska need some salmon. If I have a trademark (besides inserting (unnecessary) parentheticals in my blog posts or having my hair done a brand new color every 6 months) it is my rusty salmon. So clearly they are included in a dry river bed.

driftwood and Calamagrostis brachytricha

2. How about some driftwood? Luckily Alaska has about as much coastline as a small continent, so plenty of places to harvest that. Currently acquisitions are from the mudflats behind the Kincaid Park chalet. Yes, there were inquisitive looks as I stumped up the paved trail with a twenty foot hunk of battered tree on my shoulder. To say nothing of the smaller pieces shoved willy nilly under my other arm. Luckily driftwood is very light weight. One observer actually had the temerity to laugh when a very long piece would not quite fit into the back of the truck. Phooey!

small, obliging boulder and Physocarpus, Bergenia, and Deschampsia

3. Rocks. Must not forget the rocks. Gravel river beds are as Alaskan as blue tarps, moose, and junked automobiles in the front yard. The autumn of 2012 saw the delivery of 13 tons of gravel to the Last Frontier Garden. And since my garden motto has been reduced to “go big or go home” we are having another 12 tons delivered next week. As we have no excavator handy, my back is starting some anticipatory twinges for the shovel work.

Also in this category are large rocks. Back twinges from shoveling gravel graduate to spasms with a sure promise of shooting pains. I don’t rule out groans and grunts when dealing with the small boulder size. My two best friends: a long pry bar and an electric heating pad for when it’s all over. Also useful: family members built like NFL linebackers with about 300 pounds of pure muscle. I’m still looking for a few on Craigslist.

Calamagrostis brachytricha

4. Alaska is home to a bazillion kinds of grasses and grass allies. I once wrote a (slightly) technical article on the subject for the Alaska Master Gardeners, Anchorage home page (read it here), but I am too lazy to consult it for the actual number of grasses in this 49th state. Suffice to say, there are not may rivers in Alaska without grass waving around nearby.

I didn’t want the river to look too fancy (Alaska is not fancy in any way), if that makes sense, so no variegated grass. You’ll pardon me a moment while I mop up my tears, for variegated grasses were so beautiful and useful in my last garden it nearly breaks my heart not to use them liberally in the dry riverbed. Must. Be. Strong. I guess the yellow and chartreuse leaved grasses are out under the “fancy” rule, too. This just sounds no fun anymore.

Yet I persevere and come up with the (apparently ubiquitous in the Lower 48, but still not well enough known in Alaska) standby: Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster.’ I didn’t know this plant was as common as Potentilla or Pelargonium until a national gardening magazine informed me of the fact, having the gall to write “overused”. I generally like the aforementioned publication, so instead of firing off a heated letter to the editor, I just imitated my 12 year old and said, “whatever.” It helps somewhat.

Calamagrostis brachytricha was chosen to keep it’s taller and stiffer cousin company in the river. Not a “look a me” type plant, but a good mingler and not fancy. Alas.

a long piece of driftwood that barely fit into the truck

5. Structure, woman! What are you going to look at when it snows? Besides the driftwood, big rocks, and rusty fish. So in go a couple of Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Center Glow’. Don’t judge me. I have to deal with moose, bears, and a snow blower in the unfenced front yard so sacrifices must be made. Remember, no fancy.

a salmon, vainly struggling to get across the gravel pathway and join its fellow salmon in the dry riverbed6. And the piece de resistance will be a Pinus aristata, the sublime bristlecone pine. I left a small 3 foot specimen at my last garden and haven’t forgotten it. Tragically for my wallet, a small specimen would look ridiculously out of scale next to the tall front facade of my house. So a bigger chap will be necessary and very pricey. I’m taller than the 5-foot, $700 specimen balled and burlapped at the tree lot, but the cost of an 8-footer might put me behind on the mortgage payment for a couple of months. Perhaps I should print up my standard “new garden” flier for the neighbors: Looks dumb now, but wait 10 years!

All this dry riverbed business at my place was started because we had some drainage problems that required a massive excavation and French drain installation in front of the house. Since some of the turf grass was demolished for that, it seemed the perfect excuse to put in my first garden at our new house. It took three years, but now I feel more legitimate. The Last Frontier Garden has a garden. Woohoo!


What is part of a dry river bed in your area landscapes?


  1. I hope the back survives and we see a finished complete view!

  2. Thanks Sue. I will be posting updates on the riverbed for sure. It's the only show in town (in my garden at least).


  3. I am very inspired (despite the back jokes (back not bad)). I can't wait to see the final project.

  4. Woohoo! It looks great. I like it.

    I'm feeling your pain. We had a bazillion tons of gravel delivered for our new cement patio. Once that was done and a half-bazillion tons remained, I started shoveling quarter-bazillion pound wheelbarrow loads to various sites around the garden. My body hates me.


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