A cold front this week blessed us with cooler temperatures and lower humidity. The oppressive summer air was blown out to sea, and what followed feels crisp and clean. I can see a few scarlet leaves and scarlet dogwood berries in the trees near my window, a sure sign that the season has turned, and the equinox is behind us now.
Each day will be minutes shorter now. Mornings come later, but the cool comfortable hours for gardening last deep into the afternoon. I’m drawn out again and again to tweak this or that and to capture a few photos. Colors have grown bright and intense after days of rain and real relief from summer’s heat.
Even as the wheel of the year turns towards winter, we enjoy the culmination of a fruitful summer. Beautyberries glow purple, inviting the many birds filling our garden to feast on them and spread their seeds. Goldfinches fly up from stands of Rudbeckia to safer perches in the trees at our approach. We find partially eaten hickory nuts and exploded beech nut hulls on the driveway, dropped by birds and squirrels.
It is a season of abundance for all the wild creatures our garden supports. Nectar rich flowers open daily, pushing against one another in their expansive growth. It is hard to walk through the upper garden now. The paths have filled with fallen stems, and I rarely cut back some faded something to make the way easier for our passage.
… While the calendar may promise cooling temperatures, we continue baking in the late summer heat and high humidity here in coastal Virginia. The plants are tired. We find freshly fallen leaves each day now, and the dogwood trees have already begun to turn towards their scarlet finale. Spiderwebs shimmer across pathways and openings as the zipper spiders grow fat and shiny. There are plenty of smaller prey for them to feast on, still.
So many leaves on trees and perennials grow ratty in September as insects eat holes in them and dry days leave them with crispy edges. Perhaps that is why the elephant ears stand out so beautifully in these closing weeks of the growing season…
Fern reproduction remains a bit of a mystery to me. A mystery that borders on the ‘magical’ when tiny ferns appear growing out of the mosses along the paths of our back garden. This two-step sexual reproduction appeared on Earth untold millions of years ago, allowing the first plants to recombine their genetic materials to produce new generations of some algae, mosses, liverworts, and finally ferns, the earliest vascular plants.
Most of our familiar plants produce seeds after fertilization of their flowers or cones with pollen. The pollen may be carried from one plant to another by a pollinating insect or other animal, or by the wind. Ferns, and other simple plants, don’t produce seeds. The microscopic activities of their spores are all but invisible to our eye. So, I am curious, and am studying others’ successes with fern propagation so I might learn to propagate my favorite ferns, too.
Ferns have successfully propagated themselves in nature, with no human assistance, for millennia. So it shouldn’t be too complicated, right? These very knowledgeable writers describe strategies that lead to success, and also explain how inattention to detail can lead to failure.
My first successes in growing baby ferns from spore were entirely accidental. Spore from potted ferns on my deck fell onto potting soil that I sealed up in a zip-lock bag for the winter while I waited for some seeds I’d sown in that shallow container of potting soil to germinate. At first, I thought a nice crop of moss was growing on the soil. As I kept checking the container every few weeks this spring, I was amazed and delighted to recognize tiny ferns growing from the green structures on the soil I had thought would become mosses.
Read more here on my new website, Our Forest Garden, which is a continuation of A Forest Garden. I hope you will follow the new site so you don’t miss any new posts.
There is an inspiring feature about fern tables in the current Horticulture Magazine, written by Richie Steffen. Steffen is the Executive Director of the Elizabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, Washington and President of the Hardy Fern Foundation. I’ve read the article through a few times now and studied the illustrations for ideas. It is an excellent overview of fern tables and I highly recommend reading it if you love ferns and enjoy container gardening.
A fern table is a representation of the forest floor, built up from a flat surface. The arrangement typically includes small to medium sized ferns, mosses, shade loving woodland perennials, small shrubs, vines, bits of old wood and rocks. Fern tables may be built directly on a tabletop, on a concrete paver, or on a tray.
These fern tables are designed as permanent outdoor installations, built on concrete bases and measuring several feet square. They are very natural and rustic. They may be used indoors or on a porch or patio, as a centerpiece or runner on a table, or may be placed in the garden as a focal point.
This form takes elements from bonsai, from kokedama balls, and from container gardening to create something new and different. Built up from a solid but flat surface, these displays look a bit illogical and perhaps a bit dangerous. One must break a few gardening ‘rules’ to create them. But they are also whimsical and fun. I wanted to try to create arrangements in this style.
Before investing in concrete blocks and pavers and building something permanent in the garden as a gift for my squirrel friends, I decided to experiment on a smaller scale. So I found some simple Bonsai trays to use as a base. These are entirely portable and may be used indoors or out on our deck. My rectangular trays are 8″ x 10″ and have a shallow side, perhaps a half inch deep. Perhaps I should call my arrangements ‘Fern Trays’ rather than ‘Fern Tables.’
As a young gardener, I bought and cared for individual plants I liked. I still remember a beautiful, red-leafed Begonia in a hanging basket that I bought at a Richmond farmer’s market in the early 80’s. I happily brought it home to my little apartment and hung it on the screened in porch. It brought tremendous joy as it bloomed and stretched and succeeded in that humble little space.
Many of us may spend our entire gardening lives focusing on single plants. There are orchid enthusiasts, African violet enthusiasts, rose enthusiasts and Begonia enthusiasts; and we can remain quite happy with our special plants in special little pots doing their beautiful genus specific ‘thing.’
But at some point, some of us experiment with putting several different types of plants, together, into a single pot or basket. You may have seen ‘how-to’ articles in gardening magazines that offer recipes for container gardens of 3, 5, 7, maybe 9 or more plants. When plants are grown together in a community like this, we call it an ‘association.’
It takes a little more understanding of the chosen plants to create a successful association. In addition to considerations of the various colors of the flowers and leaves, we also consider each plant’s form. What will grow tall? What will droop or drape down the pot? What will grow thick and dense? What will reach out of the arrangement for the sun, or what will creep across the soil as a groundcover? When will the flowers bloom, and for how long?
To create a good association, we also need to know what is happening in the soil. How deep do each plants roots want to grow? Do any have taproots? Will there be bulbs dividing and expanding? Rhizomes creeping?
And of course, we need to consider the amount of sun each plant needs to thrive, and which plants might die back with too much or too little light. Does the plant want the soil to dry between waterings, or should the soil remain moist? Or ever waterlogged? Most of us learn these things through our mistakes as much as through our study.
It may be simpler to use a recipe from a magazine, but experienced gardeners develop their own ideas of favorite associations that suit their own microclimate. A simple potted arrangement also allows us to learn about new plants, watching them carefully through a season or two to learn more about how they perform. We can decide whether to grow more, or move on to something else.
A good association of plants can carry a pot or basket with something of interest every month of the year. Winter blooming annuals, bulbs that begin their growth during the cold weeks of winter, and good strong foliage plants can bridge the awkward times when nothing else much may bloom. Annuals may be popped in and out of a grouping anchored by a shrub or an evergreen perennial.
Pots are a great way to try out new associations of plants. Some will work beautifully, and maybe others, not so much. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Pots are portable, allowing a gardener to easily move the grouping into different light, and to control the water more reliably.
Those of us blessed with a bit of ground where we can dig, and plant, will eventually create associations in our garden beds and borders. That is how great designs develop, as we get a good feel for which plants make good neighbors and stunning displays together.
Baby plants have a particular charm for me. I spent a happy half hour this afternoon browsing the display of tiny ‘terrarium’ plants in 1” pots at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond. and came home with more than a half dozen tiny starts of Begonias and ferns. What fun! I have a couple of future projects taking shape in imagination, and I gathered some of the plants and staging I will need for them today.
The charm of baby plants is their mystery and their promise. What will it look like as it grows? How beautiful will it be as it blooms? How will it fit into my garden?
I have purchased countless baby plants over the years that ‘seemed like a great idea at the time.’ And then there were gifts of little divisions that came from friends in grocery bags and old nursery pots. Gifts of love and kindness, all. Especially when our upper garden was largely an empty, mulch carpeted blank slate, gardening friends expressed their compassion and well-wishes with gifts from their own gardens. Plus, they know I’m a sucker for a new plant, right?
The promise inherent in most of these sweet little starts is that they will be happy in our garden, will feel comfortably at home, and will grow.
Here lies the irony experienced gardeners know in their bones: some cute little baby plants grow up to become out of control real estate tycoons. Sound like a familiar story?
Have you ever noticed how some gardeners want to show off their mulch? Every plant or species group is carefully set far enough apart from the next to grow neatly, like little islands, in a sea of brown mulch. These curated clumps of vegetation may be arranged into an arc or grid or another clever scheme.
If shrubs, they are neatly sheared often enough to keep them in their intended shape. And the whole scene is surrounded by a sharp bordered sea of fresh mulch to demarcate the planting space.
I see these neatly manicured beds at the entrances to shopping centers and upscale neighborhoods, always anchored by a few rounded, evergreen shrubs. The color plants usually get switched out seasonally, with a few dozen little Begonias planted in April or May, replacing the ornamental cabbages and pansies planted last October. Once the cabbages flower, they look weedy, and are goners.
Of course, one must weed to keep it in shape. Seeds blow in from everywhere, so one must weed by hand, or spray periodically with an herbicide, to keep things neat. And often the answer is simply piling on more shredded bark mulch over the old, hiding what has faded. Mulch piles creep up the trunks of any larger trees like little brown mountains, beneath their leafy canopies.
This Aristotelian garden style asks us to make a lot of choices. First, and most importantly, what is a desirable plant, and what is a weed? What makes one plant desirable, and another not? The gardener always gets to choose.
Back in the day, I loved finding a plant or seed catalog in the mail. I studied each one carefully, marking up my wish list and then winnowing it down to something almost reasonable. I read the descriptions on each shrub and perennial, compared tomato, bean and squash varieties, and stayed abreast of all the latest and greatest plant introductions.
Over the past thirty years (plus or minus) I have ordered everything from fruit trees to roses, ferns, geraniums, tomato seeds and Caladium bulbs.
I have received some fine, healthy plants that grew well, and I’ve received some duds. Like you probably have over the years, too. I used to collect heirloom roses and fruit trees. There weren’t deer or rabbits in that garden, and I could grow vegetables and strawberries, too. I grew at least six varieties of apples and three different peaches, all purchased through the mail.
I remember those days fondly. The mail came every day, efficiently and without long delays. Prices were fair and nursery companies were honorable and cared about their reputations.
But things change over time, don’t they? For the last few years, most of the nursery catalogs that make it to my mailbox go straight to the recycling can, just as soon as I can remove and shred my address label. A quick glance shows me how ridiculously overpriced the most common perennial can be when ordered through the mail. What I can buy locally for $5 suddenly becomes a $20 a plant before tacking on the postage.
It has been a long time since I have found a good deal on anything other than my favorite Caladium tubers. A few years ago, I took a chance on ordering a rare, hard to locate Iris. I ordered from a huge national company that advertises heavily, used a coupon code, and waited excitedly for my Iris to arrive. The stock looked good on arrival and I potted up the several I had purchased. They didn’t bloom the first year, and so I had an entire year to anticipate these inky, almost black, species Iris flowers.
And then there were buds, and finally the buds opened…. blue. What had been sold as an Iris chrysographes bloomed as a pale blue Japanese Iris. It was a pretty enough Iris, but not what I had ordered. And so instead of refunding my purchase, the company sent me a letter promising store credit on my next order. That letter sat in my filing cabinet for a couple of years, because I truly wasn’t interested in buying anything else from them.
And then temptation struck me this past February. February does strange things to an otherwise sensible gardener’s sensibility. I found this fern I just had to have, and this company had it at a fair enough price. And so one freezing February day I ordered the golden fern and a couple of Calla lily bulbs, and paid for it with my letter of credit, plus a few extra dollars to cover the difference.
Well, the fern arrived just fine in early March, but no bulbs. They said the bulbs would be along shortly. And so I waited patiently through the time frame they indicated, and still no Calla bulbs. When I called customer service last week, the sweet lady apologized profusely while telling me that the next time frame for mailing them would be mid-May. No thank you.
I cancelled the order, scolding myself the entire time, and requested a refund. Well, I’m still waiting for that refund. Are you surprised?
I tried a new company last February, too. The Tennessee Wholesale Nursery has a professional looking website and carries a large selection of bare root ferns. I was in fern bliss ordering species never found in stores. The order arrived a few weeks later in March, and I was pleased with what I received.
Pleased enough that I had the botanical garden where I volunteer place an order for a project I was planting there. We were a bit shocked to pay around $30 for postage for a few packages of bare root ferns, but there was no stated shipping policy on the website other than a statement that they would determine the shipping on each order. Those ferns were shipped the same day they were ordered, and I was a very happy gardener to open that order, too.
Perhaps I should have been satisfied and left it at that. But no, I wanted a few more ferns for my spring projects, so I placed the third order with Tennessee Wholesale Nursery in mid-March. The website indicated it would ship out in March, and my credit card was charged on March 20.
And I’m still waiting for that order a month later in mid-April, while getting nothing helpful or encouraging from their customer service agent. When they told me last Monday that they wouldn’t be able to dig my ferns for several more weeks, I asked that the order be cancelled if they couldn’t ship by today. Numerous attempts to call the available numbers led only through the phone tree to full voice mailboxes.
Well, the order wasn’t prepared last week, and so on Friday, I requested that it be cancelled, and my payment refunded. No acknowledgement, just an apology. It is getting too late in the season here for me to want to start off with bare root plants. Our cool spring is history, and it is stressful for plants to have to grow new roots in our heat.
I requested again today that the order be cancelled. And I followed up with an email to the owner. Still, no acknowledgment that it has been cancelled, or that my refund is in process, even after writing to the owner. Instead of happily planting my ferns, I am left pondering next steps . . .
I have one more plant order ‘out there’ that is supposed to ship this week from Plant Delights in North Carolina. This will be my first order with them in several years. Once their shipping costs went above $30 for even a single plant, it cooled my plant lust considerably. All it took was a few moments of ‘doing the math’ to figure out the actual cost of the plant to convince me that I didn’t need it that badly.
But I was given a gift of cash and asked to get something I had been wanting for a while. And after several days of thinking about it, I decided to support the work that Plant Delights does for the horticultural community with a purchase/donation. I say donation because the prices are so high. But they are quite honest and let you know that your purchase helps support their botanical garden where the plants are trialed and cultivated. Fair enough.
I am waiting to hear that the order has shipped. Plant Delights has a good track record of customer service. If you don’t mind paying $20-$30 a plant for a little something in a 3.5” pot, you can source plants from them unavailable from anyone else. And, the plants are healthy and correctly labeled.
Buying new plants should be joyous. We all want to be treated fairly and to receive good value for our expenditure. The plants we receive should be healthy, arrive at the correct time, and we should be able to communicate with the nursery staff if problems arise.
Many of the old names in the mail-order nursery business have gone under in recent years. Others have consolidated. This past year has presented special challenges for every sort of business, including mail-order nurseries. I appreciate the work they do and the opportunity to purchase unusual plants few others carry.
This past week I unsubscribed from the emails of all but two nursery companies. Why read the emails and see the sales when I’ve decided to stop ordering from them? I am still allowing emails from Plant Delights, because I enjoy seeing their new introductions. And I am still impressed with the quality, service and selection at Classic Caladiums, in Avon Park, Florida.
Beyond that, I have placed my final plant order. I will shop locally or find happiness with whatever wildflower or sapling pops up in my yard. Because peace of mind is priceless.
Rainy weather and frequent storms over the past few years have presented a particular challenge. We are situated on a sloping bit of land on the side of a ravine. A creek runs through the ravine below us and empties into a small lake.
Working with the continual erosion has remained a constant theme of our gardening here. Our challenge is to slow the flow of water to increase opportunities for rain to soak into the soil for later use, while reducing the amount of flowing water that erodes the soil and runs off into the ravine.
Read moreabout the construction of this new series of raised beds, and see photos of some of the ferns we’ve chosen at my new site, Our Forest Garden.
If you enjoy these posts. please follow my new site, Our Forest Garden, so you remain up to date with all of the activity in our garden.
Did you know the majority of bees that pollinate our food crops and wildflowers do not live in hives and do not produce honey?
Hive-dwelling honey-producing bees did not even exist in North America until they were brought here by European immigrants in the early 1600’s. That means the honeybee, which has become important to commercial agriculture and has captured press attention due to hive collapse, is not a native insect species.
There are roughly 4,000 species of native bees and they are all in grave peril because all of them are in population decline.
Informed gardeners know and love native bumble bees, carpenter bees, mason bees, leaf cutter bees and sweat bees, to name only a few. This branch of entomology is still expanding as scientists are now beginning to understand just how important native bee are to healthy ecosystems. Many native bee species haven’t yet been thoroughly studied.
There are things that gardeners and enthusiasts can easily do to support our native bees. A gardener’s most important role in protecting and supporting bees (and other pollinators) is to grow plenty of flowers to provide them with nectar and pollen. Bees come out earlier in the springtime now than in previous years, and so it is helpful to provide early blooms to feed them.
Flowers vary in the quality and nutritional value of their pollen. Native plants provide the highest quality food for native bees.
Any gardener who supports wildlife simply must not use pesticides or other chemicals in the garden that will poison them. Pesticides and herbicides get into the ecosystem of the garden and have a profound impact on pollinators, birds and small mammals, in addition to the problem insects they target.
Bumble bees are probably the largest and most recognizable of our native bees because they are large and easily observed. They are ‘generalists’ and will visit almost any blooming flower. While other bee species will only forage from one type of plant at a time and may prefer certain flower species or flower forms, bumblebees will freely visit most flowers in bloom. Bumblebees often live in communities underground with a queen and her daughters managing the hive and caring for the young.
While some native bees prefer to live in the ground, many other species are solitary, and make nests to lay their eggs in wood or the dried stems of plants. When we thoroughly clean up our gardens each fall, cutting the drying, dying stems of perennials, picking up all the sticks and raking all the leaves, we also dispose of many larval bees and other important insects.