Crepe Myrtle: One Hundred Days of Flowers

Crepe Myrtle in James City County, Virginia

Crepe Myrtle in James City County, Virginia

Crepe Myrtle, Lagerstroemia, offers bright color and happiness wherever it is planted.  One of the most beautiful ornamental trees in all seasons, Crepe Myrtle is especially loved in coastal Virginia.  Our Crepe Myrtle, one of over 50 species, is the Lagerstroemia indica, originally from China and Korea.  It is hardy as far north as Zone 6.

Crepe Myrtle in front of Brusters Ice Cream shop in Williamsburg.

Crepe Myrtle in front of Brusters Ice Cream shop in Williamsburg.

White Crepe Myrtles front the Kingspoint Clubhouse property.

White Crepe Myrtles front the Kingspoint Clubhouse property.

In fact, the streets of Norfolk, Virginia, are lined with beautiful Crepe Myrtle trees, a project of the much loved Fred Huette.  Mr. Huette began the Norfolk Botanical gardens in 1936 with WPA money from the federal government, and spent the rest of his career beautifying the city of Norfolk with his staff and many, many, volunteers from Norfolk garden clubs.  Driving through the streets of Norfolk today one is mesmerized by the beauty of thousands of Crepe Myrtle trees lining its streets.

Crepe Myrtle trees line the entrance to the Holly Hills neighborhood in Williamsburg.

Crepe Myrtle trees line the entrance to the Holly Hills neighborhood in Williamsburg.

Mr. Huette, who went on to be appointed the Superintendent of Norfolk’s city parks, understood the impact the trees make when planted uniformly along a street. He sent his staff to plant two Crepe Myrtle trees in front of the home of any city resident who would allow it.  Since they were all the same color, and many planted at roughly the same time along a given street, they make a spectacular show today, some 80 years later.

Still popular throughout the area, residents today have a wide choice of cultivars from which to choose.  Crepe Myrtles are available in many different sizes and colors.  The newest hybrids are dwarf shrubs which can grow in a pot, and stay under 4’ high even when planted out in the garden.  The largest Crepe Myrtle cultivars of L. indica top out around 30’.

Crepe Myrtles at the entrance to a neighborhood in James City County, VA.

Crepe Myrtles at the entrance to the Foxfield neighborhood in James City County, VA.

McDonald’s Garden Center, based in Hampton, VA, offers its customers a Crepe Myrtle Festival each July, right at the end of the active season for buying summer plants.  For the past 23 years, customers have collected “Myrtle Money” from purchases earlier in the season to spend at the festival, which is a high point of the summer in Tidewater.

A dwarf Crepe Myrtle Hybrid growing in our friends' garden will remain at this height indefinitely.

A dwarf Crepe Myrtle Hybrid, “Cherry Dazzle,” growing in our friends’ garden will remain at this height indefinitely.

Thanks in part to their promotion of this beautiful plant, Crepe Myrtle trees are a familiar sight along city streets from Virginia Beach to Williamsburg.  Used extensively by VDOT for beautifying median strips, they are also found in neighborhoods, shopping centers, apartment complexes, and around public buildings.

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Crepe Myrtle trees grow beautiful trunks and branches.

Originally from Asia, the first Crepe Myrtle tree was imported through Charleston SC in 1790 by French botanist Andre Michaux. The largest species, L. speciosa, originally from tropical India, can only be grown in the southernmost parts of Florida, Texas, California, and in Hawaii.  It can grow to nearly 70’ tall.  L. indica is the common species found throughout much of the southern United States north of Zone 9.

Crepe Myrtles produce flowers in white, red, many shades of pink, lavender, and purple.  All of the flowers are relatively small, but grow in large panicles which cover the tree in late summer and early fall.  The orange stamens are more visible in some cultivars than in others.  Sometimes called, “The tree of 100 days,” Crepe Myrtle will bloom between 90 and 110 days each summer depending on the cultivar.

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Street side tree growing near The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

Crepe Myrtle growing in front of a local James City Co. garden center.

Crepe Myrtle growing in front of a local James City Co. garden center.

Crepe Myrtle, although not native to North America, has naturalized in many areas, and is an excellent tree in a wildlife garden.  They self seed easily and grow along the sunny edge of the forest in my ravine. They are much loved by birds for perching, nesting, and feasting on seeds in winter and insects in summer.  Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds visit their flowers.  They are rarely touched by deer.

Though beautiful, the flowers can make a mess when they fall in heavy rain.  It is best to avoid planting the trees where they will shed onto a driveway or other area where cars are parked.  Spent flowers can be annoying on walkways near the house where they can be tracked inside on shoes.

Similarly, the bark exfoliates as the tree grows.  This makes for beautiful stems, but the gardener may wish to clean up the fallen bark.

Crepe Myrtle bark peels in summer while the tree is growing.

Crepe Myrtle bark peels in summer while the tree is growing.

Crepe Myrtles can be trained to a single trunk, but many cultivars prefer to grow as a multi-stemmed shrub.  Suckers form from around the base of the plant each summer and are usually trimmed off.

Crepe Myrtle at the entrance to Kingspoint was brutally pruned last winter and now struggles to survive.

Crepe Myrtle at the entrance to Kingspoint was brutally pruned last winter and now struggles to survive.  It has numerous suckers coming up from the roots which need pruning.

Some gardeners indulge in a particular form of Crepe Myrtle cruelty by heavily pruning the tree each winter.  Often done to control size, this heavy pruning leaves the tree looking like an amputee all spring as the tree struggles to produce new branches.  Crepe Myrtle flowers on new wood each season.  It is a fast grower, especially when the summer is wet.

Better to purchase a cultivar which will grow to the size required than to butcher the tree annually to control size.  The grace and beauty of the tree’s natural shape is completely lost.  The tree can still be cut back an thinned in late winter or early spring, but severe coppicing is unsightly and ultimately weakens the tree.

Crepe Myrtles shade the picnic tables at Bruster's Ice Cream shop.

Crepe Myrtles shade the picnic tables at Bruster’s Ice Cream shop.

On smaller trees, spent flowers can be trimmed back in late summer before seeds form to encourage another flush of flowering.  This extends the season of bloom into September.  Once seed heads form, they linger throughout the winter months.  They can be left to feed hungry birds in winter, or can be snipped off of smaller trees without interfering with the beauty of the branches.

Crepe Myrtle blooming near the Williamsburg Airport in early August.

Crepe Myrtle blooming near the Williamsburg Airport in early August.

The beauty of Crepe Myrtle extends into the winter months.  Although somewhat brittle, they are open and sculptural enough to be a good support for white lights during the holidays and into the new year.

A naturalized Crepe Myrtle blooms in the edge of the woods behind a Butterfly Tree.

A naturalized Crepe Myrtle blooms in the edge of the woods behind a Butterfly Tree.

Plant Crepe Myrtle in sun or part sun in any well drained soil.  They are widely adaptable.   Crepe Myrtle is a tough tree.  Although fall is considered the best season to establish new trees and shrubs in our area, potted Crepe Myrtle trees can be planted most any time.  Water well during dry spells for the first year or two until they establish good roots.  Fertilize in early spring with Espona’s Plant Tone organic fertilizer.  Newly planted trees also respond well to Neptune’s Harvest mixed in a dilute solution every few weeks.  Neptune’s Harvest, poured over a small tree or shrub, is a good foliar feed and offers additional minerals to encourage early growth.

Powdery mildew will afflict some cultivars during especially hot and humid weather.  Newer hybrids, especially the ‘Fauriei Hybrids’ (with the Native American Indian tribal names) are resistant to mildew; are strong growers; and have good fall color and beautiful bark.

This small crepe myrtle is still a favorite for nesting birds.

This small crepe myrtle is still a favorite for nesting birds.

This group includes Natchez (white), Muskogee (light lavender), Tuscarora

These beautiful old trees are growing in the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery on Henry St. in Williamsburg.

These beautiful old trees are growing in the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery on Henry St. in Williamsburg.

(deep watermelon pink), Tonto (deep watermelon red), Arapaho (deep red), Sioux ( intense pink),  Catawba ( purple),

A remarkable tree, Crepe Myrtle adds beauty and drama to the garden throughout the year.  Planting one is a loving gesture to all who will admire it and to all of the garden creatures who will enjoy its shelter and nectar for decades to come.

Crepe Myrtles on the lawn of the William and Mary Law School

Crepe Myrtles on the lawn of the William and Mary Law School

All photos by Woodland Gnome taken in Williamsburg and James City Co. Virginia

Another view of the Crepe Myrtles at the Kingspoint Clubhouse, this time with orbs.

Another view of the Crepe Myrtles at the Kingspoint Clubhouse, this time with orbs.

For more information:

Wilson Bros. Nursery

Illustrated List of Crepe Myrtle Cultivars

My own white Crepe Myrtle remains small enough to dead head spent blossoms to encourage a second wave of bloom.

My own white Crepe Myrtle remains small enough to dead head spent blossoms to encourage a second wave of bloom.

More information on Fred Huette

Crepe Myrtle Plants locally

McDonald Garden Center

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International Day of Forests and Trees

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March 21 marks the International Day of Forests and Trees.

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We celebrate trees every day of the year in our Forest Garden.  They shelter and shade us, filter the air, block out noise, feed the soil, produce flowers, fruits, nuts and harbor mistletoe!  Our trees attract and shelter songbirds and squirrels and fill the garden with beauty.  We love their unique forms and colors.

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We live in an area where there are many trees still standing along the roads and in neighborhoods.  Our climate allows us to grow many different species of trees and they form the ‘climax community’ in our ecosystem.  In other words, without intervention, every wild space would soon grow up in trees.

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Sadly, this isn’t true across much of the planet.  Trees are the lungs of our planet.  Even as they clean our air and produce oxygen, they also fix carbon, and other elements, in their wood and leaves.  Trees filtering carbon and other greenhouse gasses out of the air helps mitigate global warming.  More trees will help regulate our planet’s temperature.  Fewer trees allow the warming to accelerate.

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In one of the great insanities of bureaucracy,  our state’s transportation department is widening a long stretch of Interstate 64 that goes through our area, to allow ever more cars to use the highway.  In order to do this, they are cutting down, this week, thousands and thousands of mature trees that have stood in the median between the lanes for decades.

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Dogwood is our Virginia state tree, and many beautiful dogwoods grew in the areas recently clear cut between the lanes of I64 through Williamsburg.

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Fewer trees, more exhaust, more pavement, more cars, more noise,  poorer air quality, and more rapid warming of our climate will result.  It is hard to believe how governments can operate with such total disregard for the quality of life for the people they are supposed to serve, or the environmental impact of their actions.

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Bald Cypress trees grow along the Chickahominy River.

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We’ve been watching the destruction of this narrow, but important strip of forest.  It makes us heartsick to see the waste and the ugliness, and to think about how this once attractive stretch of road will have lost its grace and its character forever.

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Powhatan Creek

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But this is a common story in our area, as it likely is in yours as well.  Trees are cut so more roads, shopping centers and homes can be built.  What can any of us do?

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Magnolia grandiflora growing along the Colonial Parkway near Jametown, VA.

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Plant as many trees as we are able, to make some effort to offset the damage done when trees are cleared.  Have you planted a tree lately?

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A row of Crepe Myrtles stands near College Creek.

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I actually bought two little maple trees earlier this week.  They are only about a foot tall now, but they will grow.  And so will the trees that you plant!

We don’t plant trees just for ourselves; we plant trees for the generations to come.

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Acer palmatum

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We can also speak for the trees, use our own voices to support conservation efforts, to support parks and wild spaces, and to support the local vendors who raise and sell trees and shrubs in our area.

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We have lost a great many trees across our region in recent years to storms and construction.  Our trees and forests are precious resources.

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Let’s each do what we can to protect the trees still standing, and replace those that are lost. 

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A native redbud tree seedling appeared by our drive. This tree can eventually grow to 20′ or more.  Sometimes protecting trees is as effortless as protecting seedlings and allowing them to grow.

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Our grandchildren’s lives depend on what we do today.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Gold is a luxury.

Trees are necessities.

Man can live and thrive without gold,

but we cannot survive without trees.”
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Paul Bamikole

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Sandy Bay, which frames one end of Jamestown Island, provides a home for many species of birds in its shallow waters. Bald cypress trees grow along its banks.

Green Thumb Tip #12: Grow More Of That

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What grows well in your garden?  Well, grow more of that.

There are hundreds of thousands of different plants available for the inspired gardener to seek out and grow.  You can choose everything from lilies to Aloe, boxwood to basil, Magnolia to daffodils.  There are uncounted genus and species and cultivars of every imaginable plant, in abundance.  How to choose?

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Tri-color sage, a culinary herb, can take heat and dry soil.

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I enjoy experimenting with plants.  I bring home many flats of this and that, some planned purchases and some adopted on a whim.  And yet as I walk around, hose in hand, during this July heatwave in coastal Virginia; I’m brought up short by which plants in our garden struggle and which thrive.

Let it be said that my beloved roses struggle at the moment.

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Through the vagaries of climate change, they never had a good start this year; and I’ve been too busy with other matters to give them the attention they require.

In fact, my instinct this morning was to rip out of most of the pathetic little shrubs and be done with them.  Perhaps heavy pruning and heavy rain could bring them back to beauty.

I might whistle a different tune by October.  But in this moment, they aren’t earning their garden space.

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Trailing purple Lantana fills several of our hanging baskets this year. It can take heat and drought and still give consistent color.

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Even the geraniums look rather ratty this week.  In fact, as I look around and survey recent purchases, it is clear that some have clearly not lived up to their potential here.

Most of our perennial geraniums were heavily grazed by our resident rabbits.  They’re supposed to be fool-proof, aren’t they?  The annual geraniums struggle in their pots against the unrelenting summer sun and oppressive heat.

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Last year’s potted Hydrangeas, nipped by late frosts, never took off in early summer.  Add a few grazing deer and…. well, you can imagine the nubs without a photo, can’t you?

But on the other hand, the Caladiums, Cannas and Colocasias look great.  The Basil is taking off, and our sage, Thyme, Santolina, Germander, mint and Rosemary still look fresh and strong.  The Crepe Myrtle trees are beginning to bloom and our garden remains filled with bright Hibiscus blossoms.

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Echinacea can hold its own in July, attracts wildlife, and holds its color for several weeks.  It grows easily from seed, and may self-sow.

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It came clear to me earlier today, as I was watering our new shade bed, that while the ferns looked fresh and healthy, most of our newest Rhododendrons, right beside them, look terrible.

I’ll be very surprised if any of them survive.  I was calculating the dollars I spent on them and remembering my great confidence in their coming years of beauty….

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The first Rhododendron we planted this spring to stabilize a gorge caused by erosion over a vole tunnel. It doesn’t look this perky anymore….

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Let’s acknowledge, first of all, that we are in the midst of rapid climate change.  What ‘always worked’ before has become irrelevant in this year’s garden.  Every month is a record breaker as our climate warms.  Neighboring communities flood while our garden bakes and the soil hardens.

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Mahonia is one tough shrub. It looks great year round, blooms in winter, produces berries for wildlife, and require very little from its gardener.

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Weather aside, we all still face our own particular challenges based on our soil and where our garden is situated.  We deal with a virtual zoo of insects, rodents, and other creatures who dine in our garden.  Like generations of gardeners before us, we can either adapt or stop trying to garden.

I vote, ‘adapt.’ 

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Ajuga and creeping Jenny make a dependable ground cover throughout the year.

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Adapting means adjusting to what is rather than working harder to create some fantasy of what used to be so.  For us, that means finding better ways to care for our plants.  And it also means growing more of the tough plants that thrive in the conditions we can provide.

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This native perennial ageratum spreads itself around the garden. I used to ‘weed it out’ in spring, but have grown to appreciate its tough beauty.

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Mid-July is a good time to take a hard, honest look at one’s own garden.  What looks good?  What has already died this season?  Which plants are barely hanging on?

Whatever is doing well, then plant more of that!

We have a few self-seeding perennials we have learned to enjoy.  Black eyed Susans, Rudbeckia hirta, is a beautiful native perennial that conquers more of our garden real estate each season.  I allow them, while also digging up lots of spring seedlings to share with neighbors.

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This is our largest patch of black eyed Susans, bordered with a few Zantedeschia and other perennials..

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Another self-seeding native perennial, Conoclinium coelestinum, is a hardy Ageratum or mist flower.  While I used to buy flats of annual Ageratum in years passed, now I just allow the native form to grow undisturbed. Echinacea and Monarda return and spread each summer.

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I also allow our hardy Colocasia, Hibiscus and Canna to spread a little more each year; and invest part of our spring gardening budget in hardy ferns instead of flats of tender annuals which won’t make it through the hottest part of summer.

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Begonias hold up well in heat and humidity, so long as they have shade from the mid-day sun and consistently moist soil.

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Gone are my hanging baskets once filled with Petunias and ivy geraniums.  Instead, I planted some trailing Lantana, ivy and scented Pelargoniums that can take intense heat and dry soil.  Because Begonias hold up to our heat and humidity, if sheltered in some shade, I keep rooting cuttings and planting more of those, too.

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This ‘volunteer’ Crepe Myrtle tree is taking its place in the border. After several years of TLC, it has grown to about 10′ tall and is covered in blooms this July.

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Planting more of what has proven successful, instead of planting once loved plants which no longer thrive, gives us a fuller and more vibrant garden.  The butterflies and hummingbirds still visit.  Goldfinches appear once the Basil begins to go to seed, and hang around for the autumn ripening Rudbeckia and Hibiscus  seeds.

And, for the budget conscious, propagating more of those plants which grow well sure beats sowing or buying a lot of new plants each year, which might fail!

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Rose of Sharon, tree Hibiscus, attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. Dozens of seedlings pop up in unexpected spots in the garden each spring.

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Each passing season in this garden teaches me to ‘allow’ more and plant less.  Native and naturalized plants are winning out over showy annuals or the latest new perennial.

I’ve come to see that the garden hones the gardener, just as much as the gardener shapes the garden.  Struggle melts into harmony, and work becomes play.

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Phytolacca americana, common poke weed, fills a corner of our garden with spectacular berries during these ‘Dog Days’ of summer.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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“Green Thumb” Tips: 

Many visitors to Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help grow the garden of their dreams.

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.

If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what YOU KNOW from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I will update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #1:  Pinch!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #2:  Feed!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3 Deadhead!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #4 Get the Light Right!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #5: Keep Planting!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #6: Size Matters!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 7:  Experiment!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #8  Observe

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #9 Plan Ahead

Green Thumb Tip # 10 Understand the Rhythm

Green Thumb Tip # 11:  The Perennial Philosophy

‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios

 

 

Fabulous Friday: What is Beauty?

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We live surrounded by beauty.  But how do you define it?  Everyone has their own idea of what is beautiful, and what is not.

This is a conversation that has been going on for a very, very long time.  We know that people living many thousands of years ago discussed this a lot, and had their own, very definite ideas.

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Anything in any way beautiful
derives its beauty from itself
and asks nothing beyond itself.
Praise is no part of it,
for nothing is made worse or better by praise.
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Marcus Aurelius
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We gardeners generally intend to cultivate beauty through our efforts.  That isn’t to say our gardens are always beautiful, though.   Beauty happens, but there is a lot of cleaning up of the ‘not so beautiful’ too.

And that is the space which interests me: when there might be disagreement as to whether or not something is beautiful.

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Do you find this Eucomis beautiful?  Would you grow it?

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“Everything has beauty,
but not everyone sees it.”
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Confucius
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Most of us find flowers beautiful.

But what about the perfect insects which drink their nectar?  What about the beetles eating their petals?  Can you see their beauty, too?

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Perhaps my perception of beauty is a little skewed, but I find the insects, in their geometric grace and perfection, beautiful.

There is beauty in every leaf, every petal, every stem.  The longer you gaze, the more beauty one absorbs.

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I was so pleased, when I walked through the garden this afternoon, to find these beautiful wasps enjoying our Allium blossoms.  There must have been 20 or more of them, each enjoying the sweet nectar at their feet.  They were peacefully sharing the bounty with bees and other pollinators.

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There are people in my life who would have squealed and backed away at the sight of these busy insects.  But I was too fascinated to fear them, and instead took great joy in making their portraits.  They are interesting visitors, and we rarely see such large, colorful wasps.

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Our garden’s bounty this week includes golden parsley flowers and creamy white carrot flowers, in addition to the Alliums.  There are Echinaceas now, lavender, Coreopsis, Salvias, crepe myrtle, Basil, and more.  All these tiny nectar filled flowers attract plenty of attention from hungry pollinators!

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It’s a feast for our eyes, too.  Sometimes, it is hard to imagine the abundance of our June garden until it returns.

We’re celebrating the solstice this week, and we are surrounded by such beauty here, that it is a true and heartfelt celebration

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I’ve always valued beauty.  To me, beauty can cause happiness, just as food expresses love.  There is beauty in truth, though you can argue that beauty may often be based in illusion.

We could discuss this all evening, couldn’t we? 

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“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful,
we must carry it with us, or we find it not.”
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Ralph Waldo Emerson
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Rather than ‘over-think’ it, which may be the antithesis of beauty, let’s just enjoy it.

Let’s simply celebrate this Fabulous Friday, this Beautiful high summer day; and like the bees, drink in as much sweet nectar as our eyes and hearts will hold.

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Caladium ‘Highlighter,’ a new introduction this year. Do you find it beautiful?

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Woodland Gnome 2017

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth
find reserves of strength that will endure
as long as life lasts.”
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Rachel Carson
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Clematis ‘Violet Elizabeth’

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Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is Contagious, Let’s infect one another!

First of June

Bumbly on Verbena bonariensis

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The first Crepe Myrtle blossoms have opened on median strip trees near our home.  It surprised me to see their pink fluffiness in the upper reaches of these trees which so recently sported only bare branches.

It still feels like witnessing a miracle to watch the annual progression of leaf and blossom, a miracle which still thrills me.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea, showing the first tint of pink in its blossoms.

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I was chasing two does out of our garden this afternoon, when I noticed a new soft blueness from the corner of my eye.  Looking more closely, freshly opened mop-head Hydrangea flowers came into focus in the depths of our shrub border.  These were well hidden, out of reach of hungry mouths scavenging for any greenery not lately coated in Repels-All.

The nearby buds of a  R. ‘John Paul II’ were gone.  We’ve had days of rain lately, so no use worrying too much over what’s been nabbed.  We’ve done our best.

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Our flowering carrots have proven very satisfying.

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But my day’s ‘to-do’ list is still not done.  I’ll head back out to the garden at dusk to spread what’s left of our bag of MilorganiteMaybe that will discourage further trespass.

It’s impossible to remain grumpy for long, when in the garden.  For every hoof print or buzzing bitey, there are a dozen newly opened flowers to enjoy.

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We stopped to enjoy this Zebra Swallowtail feeding on milkweed while in Gloucester yesterday.

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It is fabulous to watch our summer garden finally unfold.  The first Canna flowers opened today, too, and the first vibrant spikes of Liatris are showing color.  Everywhere I look, there is something new to discover and to enjoy.

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First Liatris flower from the bulbs we planted this spring.  Pollinators enjoy these, too.  The feast is spread; where are our butterflies?

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We celebrated this turning towards summer yesterday with a day trip to  Gloucester.  It is a beautiful drive, first of all, along the Colonial Parkway and over the Coleman Bridge.  The York River was alive with small craft.  There’s an active Osprey nest nestled into the bridge’s structure above the control booth, and I always watch for a glimpse of mother or chicks.

We visited at the Bulb Shop and spent a while meditating on the new season’s growth in the Heath’s display gardens.  I’m always studying how they assemble groupings of plants, looking for fresh ideas.

But I was distracted at the Heron Pond, photographing their newly opened water lily blossoms.  There is so much to see, so much to learn, and so much to enjoy.

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Now that their summer stock is marked down by half, I took advantage of the opportunity to try a few new perennials.  I’ll be planting our first ever Kniphofia.  I don’t know how to pronounce it, so we’ll just call them ‘Red Hot Pokers’ and you’ll know what I mean.  This is another perennial I admire growing in huge clumps near the Pacific beaches in Oregon.  Pollinators and butterflies love them , and so I plan to plant a clump in our front garden to see how we like them.

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Daucus carota

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Other than moving the remaining Caladiums out to the garden, our spring planting is about finished.  Now comes the joy of it all, as we sit back and enjoy watching everything grow; and enjoy, even more, sharing it with friends who stop by for a leisurely summer-time visit.

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Calla lily, or Zantedeschia, with Black eyed Susans nearly ready to bloom and starts of Obedient plant given to us by a friend. 

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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“Bees do have a smell, you know,
and if they don’t they should,
for their feet are dusted
with spices from a million flowers.”

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Ray Bradbury
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Allium

What to Grow For A Rainy Day?

Colocasia ‘Pink China’

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Have you ever found a list of plants to grow for a rainy day?  Surely there must be such a catalog, somewhere.  There are lists of plants for sun and shade, lists for arid gardens, for rock gardens and for water gardens.  There are lists of plants for attracting butterflies and for repelling deer.  Why not a list of rainy day plants, too?

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Colocasia ‘Tea Cups’

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Their leaves must be thick and waxy; their stems strong enough to take a pounding.  And, of course, they should hold raindrops and show them off like fine jewels.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea

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Rainy day plants need a bit of glow about them.  They should sparkle and shine on the dullest of days.

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Colocasia ‘Tea Cups’

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And they can’t ever turn to a soggy mush when rainy days stretch into rainy weeks.  We are blessed with our share of rainy days in coastal Virginia.

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Caladium

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Some predict that climate change will bring us ever more rain, as warmer air absorbs and carries more moisture from the sea.   That has proven true these past few years, as coastal storms have brought us inches at a time.

Our soil holds it, too, like a soggy sponge.  And we need plants whose roots can luxuriate in this wet abundance.

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Muscadine grapes

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And mostly, we gardeners need some beautiful thing to admire on wet days.  Don’t you agree?

It’s good to walk out into one’s soggy garden and find it all looking fine.   To discover new layers of beauty when a plant is raindrop-clad brings us a little extra happiness.

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Daucus carota, a carrot flower

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Let’s make our own list of Rainy Day Plants.  Let’s consider what stands up well in our extreme summer weather, whatever that might be in our own garden.

For us it’s heat, humidity and rain.  Perhaps your own conditions are a bit different.  Do you have wind?  Drought?  Hail storms?  Floods?

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Crepe Myrtle

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Let’s be open to change.  Let’s plant our gardens to succeed in our current circumstance, whatever that might be.

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We can move beyond that tired old list of what we’ve always done before, and make new choices.

Let’s fill our gardens with beauty and abundance, no matter which way the wind blows, and no matter how many rainy days come our way.

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rose scented geranium, Pelargonium

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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“Live in moments that consume your heart and mind,

but be distracted by the music from the leaves,

birds, wind, rain, sun and people”

.

Val Uchendu

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StrawberryBegonia

 

 

“Will Deer Eat It?”

Polka Dot plant takes center stage in this fairy garden. It comes in white, pink and red.

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The lady checking out in front of me at McDonald’s Garden Center on Jamestown Road had two cute little pots of ‘Polka Dot Plant,’ Hypoestes phyllostachya, and she had a single question for the clerk: “Will deer eat it?”  For those of us living among free-roaming herds of deer, that is always the question!

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Hydrangea macrophylla attract deer, who eat both leaves and flowers.

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Do deer graze in your garden?  It seems that ever growing herds of deer continue moving into more and more areas across the United States.  Even suburbs and small town now have a problem with deer.  So many are born each year, and they have no natural predator.  There is no longer enough hunting to keep their population in check, and so they have learned to live among us.

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Maybe you, like some of our neighbors, enjoy seeing ‘The Bambis.’  But maybe you, like many of our friends, want to grow a garden around your home to please you and your family- not to offer a free dinner to the local herd.

It is a constant struggle here, in our forested community.  Each doe can have up to five fawns a year.  Triplets aren’t uncommon.  Each buck may have a harem of six or more does in his family group.  We saw a group of more than 20 running across our neighbor’s yard one day in late January.

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Plants with poisonous leaves, like these Colocasia, won’t be grazed by deer.

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Even if you are content to let nature take its course in your yard, and you aren’t an avid gardener; you may be concerned about deer ticks and the diseases they carry.  Ticks lurk in places frequented by deer.  They wait on grasses, shrubs, anywhere they can until a warm blooded comes near enough for them to jump on and catch a ride and a meal.

The last time we were at the doctor getting an antibiotic script for a tick bite, the doctor offered up some comforting news.  She told us that the tick must be attached for 24 hours to transmit Lyme’s disease.  That is reason enough to thoroughly check for ticks after a day of gardening!

We have so many neighbors who have contracted Lyme’s disease, and we have had so many tick bites, that we do everything in our power to keep deer out of our garden.

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Ticks linger in overgrown grasses and on shrubs and trees, waiting for a ride and a meal.

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And that is not an easy thing.  Unless you are ready to construct a 10′ high chain link fence around the perimeter of your yard, maybe adding a little razor wire on top, they will likely find a way in from time to time.  And so we do everything in our power to discourage the deer from coming in to start with.  And if they do sneak in, we dispatch them and encourage them to stay in the ravine in future!

Which brings us back to buying ‘deer resistant’ plants.  The McDonald’s clerk didn’t know whether annual Polka Dot Plant was deer resistant or not.  But she looked it up somehow in her system, and told her customer that she believed it was.  She was right.  Hypoestes is considered deer resistant.

But that is a very loose term.  When hungry enough, deer will try grazing many things they shouldn’t.

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Rose scented Pelargonium with Pineapple Sage and Rose.  Herbs with a strong fragrance can offer some protection to tasty shrubs, like this rose.

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We’ve had to learn a lot about what deer won’t eat in order to garden in our community.  My last garden was enclosed with a 7′ fence in a suburb which had no deer.  My azaleas were 8′ high and I could grow anything I wanted without a second thought.  But the past is the past, and we live in the present, right?

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Azaleas once grew abundantly in our forest garden, before the deer population skyrocketed. Ours are now badly grazed and misshapen.  Some barely hang on from year to year.

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So unless you have an eidetic memory, it might be easier to remember some basic principles of what plants deer avoid than trying to memorize a list!  I’ve read lots of lists over the years and listened to a few experts speak on the topic.  No one is 100% accurate. in part because deer develop different preferences.

But here are a few guidelines which might prove useful as you plan your garden this spring:

  1.  Deer don’t like strongly scented or strongly flavored foliage.  This means that almost any herb is ‘safe’ and won’t be grazed.  This includes plants you might not think of as herbs, including annual geraniums, scented geraniums, Artemisias, and some perennials related to the mint family.  All Alliums, including garlic, scallions and onions, repel deer.
  2. Deer don’t like thick, tough and textured leaves.  Your Yucca is safe, as is prickly pear cactus, Iris and Lantana.  I’ve never seen lamb’s ears, Stachys byzantina,  grazed, either.
  3. Many plants are naturally poisonous, and others have oxalic acid crystals in their leaves which irritate deer mouths.  Caladiums and their relatives are ‘safe’ due to the irritating crystals in their leaves.  That said, two friends told me their Caladiums were grazed during a summer drought last year.  We lose a leaf from time to time, but never a whole plant.  Colocasia and Alocasia, Arum italicum, and Zantedeschia all fall into this group.  If a plant is known as poisonous, like Helleborus and daffodils,  you can plant it with confidence.
  4. Deer avoid eating ferns.
  5. Deer avoid grey foliage.

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    Lavender has both a strong fragrance and tough, thick leaves. Deer never touch them and they are helpful as screening plants around tasty plants you want to protect.

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Now, here is what they do enjoy eating:

  1.  Any new shrub from the nursery, which has been grown with lots of fertilizer, looks delicious!  Even a shrub they wouldn’t think of grazing when it is mature will be tasty when young.  Nitrogen, a salt, makes the foliage taste good.  Think salt on french fries….. Give those newly planted shrubs and trees a bit of extra protection until they are at least 2 years old.
  2. Any plant you might eat, especially in your vegetable garden, will attract deer.  We’ve had fruit trees grazed, tomatoes devastated, bean vines harvested, and lettuce made to disappear in the blink of an eye.
  3. Any tender, soft, succulent, beautiful leaf, like a Hosta, Heuchera, Coleus, or Hydrangea, will interest a deer.  They also like flowers, otherwise known as ‘deer candy.’  You wouldn’t think deer would graze roses, but they do.  They adore eating any lily, especially daylily leaves and flowers.

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Grow tasty annuals, like sweet potato vine, in pots or baskets out of reach of deer.  Grown where they can get to it, expect it to be grazed from time to time.

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What can you do?  Like the lady with the Polka Dot plant, consider whether or not a new plant will attract deer before you bring it home to your garden.  Let the majority of your new plants be those the deer won’t graze.  I’ve learned how to create an interesting garden by growing lots of herbs and poisonous plants!

But I grow my favorites, too.  We gave up on a veggie garden, but we still have roses, a few Hosta, and Hydrangeas.  I defiantly grow a few tasty annuals in pots and baskets out of the reach of deer, or in pots right up against the house.  You would be amazed how brazen hungry deer can be!  And yes, I’ve had sweet potato vines and Coleus plants eaten off my front patio.

That is why the perimeter of our property is mostly planted with shrubs and trees that deer won’t graze.  We have wax myrtle, crepe myrtle, bamboo, red cedar, Ligustrum and Yucca along  the outer edges, somewhat hiding the more delicious plants in the center of our garden.

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Echinacea, or Purple Coneflower, is a favorite of nectar loving insects. A perennial, it is rarely touched by deer and grows more vigorous each year.

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I generally surround tender tasty plants with highly scented ones the deer will avoid.  We grow garlic, chives and onions in random places to protect certain plants.  Highly scented herbs can often give some protection, too, if planted around a shrub you want to protect.  I throw garlic cloves in pots of annuals.

We also regularly spread Milorganite around the perimeter of our property and around shrubs, like azaleas, we want to protect from deer.  You need at least a 4′ swath of this smelly fertilizer to fend off deer.  An interesting benefit is the drastic reduction in ticks we’ve found since we began using Milorganite last spring.

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Scented Pelargoniums and Zantedeschia prove a winning, and deer proof, combination.

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I keep a spray bottle of ‘Repels-All’ and spray the Hosta and Heuchera as they emerge; the roses and Hydrangeas as they leaf out.  Rain washes this product away, eventually, and so one needs to use it every few weeks.  Plants are more vulnerable in spring than in late summer, so you don’t have to make a life-time commitment to spraying this stuff.

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Hibiscus prove deer resistant.

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No one of us can solve the deer problem alone.  We’ve recently heard of some research in New York with contraceptive injections good for 22 months for an adult doe.  But this program is very expensive and labor intensive.  Hunting remains very controversial.  There are few ideas out there for a humane solution to this growing problem.

As undeveloped habitat disappears deer move in to our neighborhoods, sharing the land with us. And so it is up to us, as the brainier species, to adapt.  One way to co-exist with these gentle creatures is to design our gardens with plants they won’t eat.

Let them eat elsewhere!” becomes our motto, and  constant vigilance our practice.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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Our ‘deer resistant’ garden, filled with poisonous plants and herbs,  in early spring

Fabulous Friday: Flowers From Wood

Native Dogwood, Cornus florida

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There is something totally magical about flowers blooming on woody stems.  Flowers, so fragile and soft, breaking out of weathered bark as winter draws to a cold and windy close will always fascinate me.

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Since I was a child, these natural wonders have held my attention.  Now, living in a Forest Garden, we have surrounded ourselves with flowering shrubs and trees.  They are sturdy yet beautiful, easy to maintain, and remain a lasting presence from year to year.  Their early flowers feed hungry pollinators when there is little else available.

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“Double Take Scarlet” Japanese Quince, Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Scarlet Storm’ in its second year in our garden. It has proven hardy and deer resistant, so I am watching the local garden centers for more of these shrubs to appear.  I would like to plant at least one more.

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After a cold and wintery week, we are happy to greet the sun and its warmth today.  We have uncovered the Hydrangeas again, lifted sheltering pots off of our new perennials, assessed the damage wrought by nearly a week of nights in the 20s, and done a little more pruning. 
But mostly, we have admired the many flowers opening now in the garden on this Fabulous Friday.
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The peach blossoms weathered the cold without damage.

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Although the Magnolia blossoms and Camellia blossoms turned brown in the cold this week, there are still buds left to open.  The damaged flowers will drop away soon enough.  And the fruit trees are just getting started! 

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Redbud flowers erupt directly from the trunk and branches of the tree. This is the species, Cercis canadensis, which grows wild here. Newer cultivars offer flowers in several shades of pink and lavender or white. Some also offer variegated or burgundy foliage.

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If I were asked for advice by someone just starting in their garden, I would steer them towards flowering woodies. 
The shrubs, or trees, themselves provide great garden structure year round.  They provide a permanent presence over decades, with little input from the gardener once they are established.  
And when they bloom, Wow!  What amazing ‘bang for your buck’ when a flowering tree covers itself with thousands of perfect blossoms.  It may last for a few weeks only, but what ‘gorgeosity’ in the garden when they bloom! 
Even when the blooms are finished, there is still much to enjoy from their beautiful bark, leaves, fruits and berries.  Many flowering trees return with gorgeous fall color to end the season.

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March 1, when the flowering Magnolia trees were covered in blossoms.

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There are great flowering woodies to enjoy in a mid-zone garden (6-9) through  the entire year.  When you might expect a short break in late January through mid-February, while even our hardy Camellias stop blooming, the Mahonia, Forsythia and Edgeworthia fill the garden with fragrance and color.
Now that the annual show has begun, we await the Azaleas and Rhododendrons; Lilacs; several species of Hydrangeas; Mountain Laurel; Rose of Sharon; Roses;  Crepe Myrtles, which easily bloom here for 100 days; until we finally return to our fall Camellias.

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From Left: Mahonia aquifolium, Edgeworthia chrysantha, and Magnolia stellata blooming in late February in our front garden.

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This garden was already planted, by the original gardeners, with wonderful flowering trees and shrubs which we continue to enjoy. We have added many more, and continue to plant more flowering trees and shrubs each year.  I just received a new Sweet Bay Magnolia from the Arbor Day Foundation, and have potted it up to grow in a protected place for its first year or two.
Most flowering shrubs perform well in partial sun to shade and can tolerate many types of soil and moisture conditions;  which makes them good candidates for forested and shaded gardens. 
Flowering woodies remain truly fabulous in our garden!

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Magnolia stellata, March 1 of this year

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I am setting an intention to find some wonderful, beautiful, and happiness inducing thing to write about each Friday. 

Now that the Weekly Photo Challenge has moved to Wednesdays, I am starting  “Fabulous Friday” on Forest Garden. 

If you’re moved to find something Fabulous to share on Fridays as well, please tag your post “Fabulous Friday” and link your post back to mine. 

Happiness is contagious!  Let’s infect one another!

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017

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Magnolia stellata

 

Native Virginia Trees

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Early spring, as the buds swell and glow red or orange or softest green around the crown of every tree on the horizon; directs our attention back towards our majestic, elegant hardwood trees which fill the landscape here in coastal Virginia.  We’ve largely ignored them since autumn, when their bright leaves blew away in November’s storms. 

The many native trees discovered by our early colonists still grow wild here.  They form the backdrop to our everyday lives.  Some of us love them and choose to live in forested communities.  Others fear them.  Perhaps for good reason, after seeing these gentle giants toppled by the storms which blow through our area several times a year. 

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Yet, the great North American trees define our landscape and our lifestyle.  They shade us and offer relief from our summer heat and humidity.  Their flowers announce spring and make early summer sweetly fragrant. 

The ready supply of good strong trees for lumber allowed early settlers to build homes and churches and businesses in the wilderness.  Although it is unusual to find a fully grown, mature hardwood tree anymore, we still can find them in parks and on preserved estates.

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Cypress Trees grow large here along the Colonial Parkway at the mouth of Powhatan Creek.

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I love trees.  And I love to plant trees. I count and visit the Dogwoods, Oaks, Redbuds, Crepe Myrtles and Poplars on our property pretty regularly to monitor their growth.  In fact, I spent an hour today with a shipment of bare root trees we just received from the Arbor Day Foundation.

I get angry when neighbors cut healthy trees, changing the landscape for our entire community.  And I really hate to see stands of trees cut for new development ,  mourning the ever increasing loss of the naturally forested acres left in our area. 

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We often fail to consider how much oxygen each tree produces each year, or how many pollutants each can filter from the air we breathe.  Trees absorb greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide in their respiration, locking that carbon into their woody flesh. 

They help moderate the temperature through all of our seasons, and fertilize the Earth and build new soil with their fallen leaves.  Each tree supports and houses countless animals, feeding and sheltering birds, small insects, butterflies and their larvae, and  small mammals.

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Native Redbud, Cercis canadensis, blooms in April.

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Since trees are on my mind today, I am republishing an essay I wrote in August, 2013, about how prized our American trees became to the Europeans who financed and supported colonization in North America.  I hope you find some useful bit here you didn’t know before.   And I also hope that perhaps this essay invites you to pay a bit more attention to the trees in your landscape and your life.

-Woodland Gnome

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View towards Jamestown Island from the Colonial Parkway.

View towards Jamestown Island from the Colonial Parkway.

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Did you know there was a time, not too long ago, when the most prized plants growing on regal British estates were trees imported from, “The Colonies”?  I had no idea how much 17th and 18th Century British gardeners coveted North American plants- particularly our trees.

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American Sycamore growing along the Colonial Parkway on the bank of the James River.

American Sycamore growing along the Colonial Parkway on the bank of the James River.

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Isn’t it interesting how things are forgotten over the years, and we assume that how things are in our own experience is how things have always been?

I grew up on the East coast of North America, making annual trips to view the colorful forests cloaking the Blue Ridge Mountains each autumn.  I’ve always had brilliant autumn foliage to enjoy in my own yard, and lining the streets of whatever town I happened to visit.

We in Virginia accept these things as part of the normal progression of the seasons.  We savor them, but don’t take notice of what a rare treat we enjoy.

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An oak tree growing beside the James River near Jamestown.

An oak tree growing beside the James River near Jamestown.

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It was the book, Brother Gardeners:  Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession, by Andrea Wulf, which opened my eyes and my mind to the treasures growing here, as weeds in the woods.

Prior to the 17th century, European, and specifically British gardens, had a limited palette of plants.  The formal geometric schemes of lawn, hedge, topiary evergreen shrubs, roses, and very few summer flowers were the norm.  Green and brown were the main colors found in the garden for most of the year.  Hardscape paths, stairs, fountains, arbors, and structures were the relief from all of this green lawn and green hedge.  Gardeners overcame and reshaped nature when creating a garden.

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Dogwood tree in early November

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The notion of working with nature was born in the colonies, and exported back to England in some measure toward the second half of the 18th century.

As European ships sailed abroad to explore and claim the world, they took as treasure not only gold and silver, but also botanical treasures from all of the lands explored.

Very little of the plant material collected actually made it back alive to a gardener in Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, or the Netherlands.  When a voyage lasts many months, things happen.  Things like hungry mice and storms; gnawing insects, pirates, salt spray; and unmitigated heat and cold on the deck of a sailing ship.

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But whatever seeds, bulbs, cuttings, roots, and even live plants did miraculously make it home and into the hands of a skilled gardener, were loving tended and coaxed into growing in specially built hot houses and garden plots.

Plants were grown out for seed, sold, traded, and propagated in great botanical gardens across Europe.  Botanists befriended ships’ captains and crews in hopes of bribing them to bring home new specimens.  And, as colonies were established, relationships sprang up between the colonists and avid collectors “back home” in Europe.

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Red Cedar growing in Colonial Williamsburg.

Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana growing in Colonial Williamsburg.

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The fledgling scientists of the Enlightenment realized that every new species of plant contains tremendous gifts.  Aside from their beauty and use in an ornamental garden, plants contain useful chemical compounds to heal, create new products, nourish, and enlighten.  Some of this research continues today in the Amazon Rain Forest of Brazil and other inaccessible and remote corners of the world

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Catalpa, or Monkey Cigar tree, on the Palace Green at Colonial Williamsburg. The lawn is lined with Catalpa trees of various ages, and they are absolutely stunning when in bloom.

Catalpa, or Monkey Cigar tree, on the Palace Green at Colonial Williamsburg. The lawn is lined with Catalpa trees of various ages, and they are absolutely stunning when in bloom.  Enlarge the photo and you’ll see the long seed pods growing in early August.

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The colonial era was an exciting time for discovering countless new species of plants. The gardens of Great Britain and Europe reflected the explosion of diversity by welcoming previously unknown flowers, trees, shrubs, herbs, and vegetables into their evolving and increasingly naturalistic garden schemes.

Remember, the great forests of Britain were decimated long before this era.  When Maple, Tulip Poplar, Pine, Sycamore, Cedar, Dogwood, Sassafras, Magnolia and other colorful tress and shrubs from America grew in the first garden plots of importers, they were a novelty.  The aristocracy quickly fell in love with these new plants, and clamored for a seed or a cutting to grow on their home estates.

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Oak and pine grow in abundance on Jamestown Island.

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Benjamin Franklin helped build the relationships that enabled this trade between his amateur botanist friends in the American colonies and his contacts in Britain.  The story told in Andrea Wulf’s book unfolds with the drama and personality of a good novel, and I recommend it to every like minded gardener, no matter which side of the pond you call your present home.

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Native holly

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For the purposes of this post, I will  mention a few of the trees growing wild right here around Jamestown, which were collected in the Colonial era and sent back to England.  These trees, common to us, opened up a whole new way to design and enjoy gardens for those still in Europe.  They were grown for their beautiful form, fall color, interesting bark, and some for their flowers.

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An old oak tree’s exposed roots. This tree holds the bank of the James River along the Parkway.

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Eventually, gardening became a passionate pursuit not only of the aristocracy, but for many Britons.  As we admire their beautifully tended gardens of trees, shrubs, and flowers today, so they admired the wild and beautiful plants we sent back to them from, “The Colonies”.

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Magnolia grandiflora growing along the Colonial Parkway near Jametown, VA.

Magnolia grandiflora growing along the Colonial Parkway near Jametown, VA.

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Here is a partial list of trees and shrubs introduced to Britain from the American colonies:

Acer saccharum, Sugar Maple, 1725

Aesculus pavia, Red Buckeye, 1711

Colorful fall leaves were almost unknown in Britain before American species of trees were introduced n the 17th and 18th centuries.

Betula nigra, River Birch, 1736

Callicarpa americana, Beauty Berry, 1724

Catalpa bignonioides, Southern Catalpa, 1722

Chamaecyparis thyoides, White Cedar, 1736

Chionanthus virginicus, Fringe Tree, 1736

Cornus florida, Flowering Dogwood, 1722

Diospyros virginiana, Persimmon, 1629

Euonymus atropurpurea, Burning Bush, 1744-6

Fraxinus americana, White Ash, 1724

Hydrangea arborescens, Wild Hydrangea, 1736

Juglans nigra, Black Walnut, 1629

Juniperus virginiana, Red Cedar, 1664

Kalmia latifolia, Mountain Laurel, 1734

Liriodendron tulipifera, Tulip Poplar, 1638

Magnolia grandiflora, Southern Magnolia, 1734

Dogwood, our Virginia state tree, blooms in April.

Magnolia virginiana, Sweet Bay, 1688

Pinus strobus, White Pine, 1705

Platanus occidentalis, American Sycamore, 1638

Sassafras albidum, Sassafrass, 1630

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Dogwood, Cornus florida

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All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2017

The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession

Brother Gardeners at Barnes and Nobles

Brother Gardeners at Amazon

Winter Gardening

January 9, when we had more than 10 inches of snow in our garden.

January 9, when we had more than 10 inches of snow in our garden.

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Yes, it’s January, but there is still plenty to do in the garden.  When we get a fairly nice day, like today, you might feel the itch to get outside and get gardening again.  Even when the weather isn’t fine, there are still preps for the season ahead that can be done indoors, while the pace remains decidedly unhurried.

The most important winter gardening work can be accomplished from an armchair:  planning ahead.  Every year we tweak and revise; opening new ground, moving plants, refining the design.  This is a good time of year to photograph every part of the garden with an eye to its bones.  Study those photos for inspiration and instruction.  Look with fresh eyes to see new possibilities in your familiar turf.

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december-25-2016-christmas-foggy-morning-026~

I also spend quite a bit of time studying plant catalogs as they come in.  I read about newly introduced cultivars of familiar plants.   I consider what perennials or shrubs I might want to add, and  plan designs for our  pots and baskets.

I try to keep notes and drawings from these winter musings.  Ideally, a binder proves helpful over time to track the evolution of one’s garden.  Include photos, receipts, tags, a site plan and notes of what is planted, and when.

January through early March prove the best months for pruning woody plants here in Williamsburg.  There is less shock when a tree is dormant, and spring growth, when it breaks, will prove more vigorous.

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Crepe Myrtles appreciate careful pruning each winter to thin and shape the tree.

Crepe Myrtles appreciate careful pruning each winter to thin and shape the tree.

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Some shrubs, like Beautyberry, Callipcarpa,  respond well to very hard pruning.  Cut these back by 30% or more and they will reward you with abundant growth and heavy fruiting the following year.    I make the rounds of our Rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus; Crepe Myrtle, Lagerstroemia; Buddleia, roses, fruit trees and small ornamental trees like Japanese Maples in winter when it is easiest to see their structure.  All of these bloom on new wood.

Remove crossed or crowded branches.  Thin and direct growth.  Remove suckers growing straight up from a mostly horizontal branch, and cut back long branches to encourage bushier growth.  Thinning, to allow sunlight and air to circulate through the plant both controls diseases before they can take hold, but also produces a stronger plant.

Wait to prune shrubs like Hydrangea and Lilac, which bloom on old wood, until after they bloom each summer.  If you remove old Hydrangea blossoms before spring, carefully cut above the first dormant bud.

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Trim spent Hydrangea flowers carefully to avoid damaging the dormant buds of next spring's growth.

Trim spent Hydrangea flowers carefully to avoid damaging the dormant buds of next spring’s growth.  Any serious pruning can remove next season’s flowers.

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Remove any perennial stems still standing in the garden before new growth begins in early spring.  Emerging growth, especially spring  bulbs, looks neater after last year’s perennial remains have been cut and composted.

Some of us leave our Hibiscus, Rudbeckia, Lantana and other late flowering seed heads to feed the birds over winter.  These will be mostly picked clean by early February and their time has passed.  Remove old leaves from Hellebores as new ones emerge to rejuvenate the plant.

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January 15, 2015 ice garden 115

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Building the soil can be done year round.  Adding organic matter, especially when working with heavy clay, brings the soil, and the garden, to life.   Whether you keep a compost pile, add mulch,  or simply sheet compost fallen and shredded leaves; do something each season to improve the soil in some part of the garden.  We save our coffee grounds and spread them on beds or around shrubs every few weeks.   Feeding the soil pays dividends much longer than does spreading any chemical fertilizer.

If you are starting a new planting area, consider building a raised bed with cardboard, brown paper, newspaper, or even fallen wood as a base.  “Sheet compost” the area over the winter months by adding coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, shredded leaves, and fruit and vegetable trimmings as they come available.  Keep adding layers of materials, topping the bed with straw or even bagged compost or topsoil from the garden center.  There are many, many ways to do this.

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March 31, 2015 shamrock 015

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Earthworms, drawn to the organic matter on the soil, begin to work their way through the pile, speeding the process and enriching the ground with their castings.

Everything doesn’t have to be perfectly crumbled into humus before you plant in spring.  If necessary, pile a few inches of bagged soil on top of your pile and plant directly into this finished soil, confident that the composting layers will break down in the weeks ahead.

This is a better way to begin a new bed than tilling or digging because it leaves the organisms already living in the soil intact.  The roots of your newly planted garden will stretch and grow, loosening the soil as they expand.  Earthworms and other soil dwelling creatures will also loosen its structure over time.

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Chipped up wood and leaves spread over the foundation of wood will rot into good compost over time.

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over a foundation of broken limbs will rot into good compost over time.  We built this raised Hugelkulture bed in July of 2013, and it has been productive ever since.

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Winter is also a good time for building new garden structures.  Whether you are adding walls, steps, raised beds, pergolas, paths or a patio, consider beginning in late winter before the trees leaf out.  You can see the structure of things better, and your construction mess won’t detract from the beauty of your spring or summer garden.

Finally, begin planting for the coming season.  Although autumn is the best time for planting new trees and perennials in our area so they can establish during the cool and wet winter months; we find our best selection at local garden centers in the spring.  The selection of shrubs, fruiting vines, annuals, perennials trees and summer bulbs at local garden centers can feel dizzying by late March.  Ride the crest of this wave, seeking out small perennial starts and bare root nursery stock in late February or March.

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Begonia Rex divisions started in late winter will grow into nice plants by may.

Begonia Rex divisions started in late winter will grow into nice plants by May.

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Many garden centers will offer popular perennials in 2″-3″ pots at very low prices in early spring.  These will establish and grow to full sized plants by summer.  Planting early on will give your new plants a chance to establish and expand their root system before summer’s heat and drought.

If you’ve ordered bulbs, tubers, or bare root stock from catalogs, you can plant these up in nursery pots and keep them in a garage or basement for a few weeks until it is warm enough to set them out.   For example, many tropical tubers,  ordered in early spring, can be gotten at much lower prices than you’ll find for the leafed out plants in early summer.  Order Caladiums, Colocasia, Canna, Alocasia, Dahlias and many other beautiful plants early for the best selection of cultivars.  You can easily pot these up yourself in soil and have them ready to plant out when it warms enough for them in May.

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Caladium

Caladium

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Seedling trees from mail order nurseries may also be potted up and allowed to grow in a protected area of your garden for the summer, and then planted into their permanent spot in the garden next autumn.

As our summers grow hotter each year, I’ve come to appreciate the winter months even more.   A lot can be accomplished in relative comfort, without the distraction of biting insects or broiling sun, on warmish winter days.  It feels good to get out of doors and work in the garden.

Whether you are cleaning up, building up, planting up, or pruning; enjoy the time you spend preparing for spring’s beauty to unfold.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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