Iris, ‘Rosalie Figge’ and Friends

December 25, 2015 Christmas tree 019

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We have an Iris blooming in the garden today.  It stood up to heavy rain yesterday, and there are more buds to open over the next few days.

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December 25, 2015 Christmas tree 027~

Our Prostrate Rosemary bloomed for Christmas day, too.  It is the first time this plant has bloomed for us, and we love its soft blue blossoms.

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December 25, 2015 Christmas tree 022

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The Violas and ornamental cabbages are still vibrant,  loving these moist warm days.

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December 25, 2015 garden 018

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The Vinca must think it’s already spring.  Tiny blue flowers are opening all over the garden.

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And the first of the Hellebores buds have begun to appear.  These may be true winter flowers, but have debuted weeks earlier than last year.

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December 25, 2015 garden 019

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Things have slowed down slightly from the few bits of cool weather we’ve had in December, but our garden continues its unfolding.

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Arum italicum just beginning growth in a new bed.

Arum italicum just beginning growth in a new bed.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2015

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Figs

August 28 2013 garden 021Figs are on my mind.

This is the time of year when our fig trees ripen their fruit.

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Last summer our fig trees were loaded.  A friend and I picked repeatedly, and had a steady supply of fruit for over a month.

(There is a recipe for Fig Pickles at the end of the post.)

This year I’ve picked here and there since July, but haven’t gotten more than a handful at a time.

August 28 2013 garden 031Today I got lucky.

The variety growing here when we moved in stays green right up until the moment of ripeness, when the fruit swells and turns a yellowish green.

July 24 2013 garden photos 012The inside is pink to red, depending on ripeness.  This isn’t a super sweet fig, but is delicious broiled with a little shaving of salty cheese on top. I favor a Tuscano cheese, but anything in the Parmesan family of cheeses is delicious.

This fig came home in a 1 gallon pot last summer.

This fig came home in a 1 gallon pot last summer.  Its figs are brown.  It started the season with small green figs, but lost them along the way.

I’ve read that figs which stay green when ripe have an added protection from hungry animals who might take them as they ripen.   Birds only peck at the figs I’ve left on the bush way too long so they split open.  BUT, the deer have been molesting the fig trees this year, grazing leaves and ripping stems and branches.

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This fig tree grew so much in spring that its branches toppled over, changing the shape of the entire plant. New branches have sprouted along the now horizontal fallen branches. It grew quickly with the abundant rain, and was knocked over by the windstorms in June.

I gave pieces of one of these broken branches to some gardening friends, who rooted them successfully, and now have small trees.

The tall, heavy branches, fallen over in early summer, are sprouting new vertical growth.  This beautiful tree just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

The tall, heavy branches, fallen over in early summer, are sprouting new vertical growth. This beautiful tree just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

Visiting a fig loving friend yesterday evening, I commented on her ripe figs.  We looked more closely.  Her small bush, covered in ripening figs only days ago, had only two little figs still attached.  We found the gaps where squirrels had gotten in through her netting.

A well protected fig in my friends garden, still was robbed by a squirrel who found an opening in the netting.

A well protected fig in my friends garden, still was robbed by a squirrel who found an opening in the netting.

We both feel  that our gardening efforts this year are chiefly for the benefit of hungry squirrels and deer.  What a disappointment after an entire season of protecting and nurturing her new fig, planted only last fall, to find the fruit stolen.  I’ve begun to wonder whether netting simply draws the squirrels attention, and signals something really good must be kept inside the enclosure…

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We have just received two new “SIlver Lyre” fig trees from Plant Delights.  This is a newly offered variety of Afghan Fig.  I like the beautiful, lacy silver-toned leaves.  These are advertised to grow quickly to a 20′ shrub, and I plan to plant them in the newly sunny area of our forest where the oak trees fell this spring.

An Afghan Fig, newly arrived in the mail, ready to pot up.

An Afghan Fig, newly arrived in the mail, ready to pot up.

They will quickly provide a bit of privacy from the street, but will never grow tall enough to create a hazard.  In fact, they are supposed to be very sturdy in wind.  I hope to one day harvest a few figs from them… If I can manage to keep the squirrels away.

Rick Austin, in his book, Secret Garden of Survival, describes a method of planting a “guild” of plants around a new fruit tree.  Some of the plants bring up nutrients from the soil, some are good companion plants for the tree, and some plants protect the newly planted tree from critters.  Not brave enough to plant an apple or persimmon, which I KNOW our squirrels would strip, I plan to try his method when planting these figs later in the fall.

Garlic Chives

Garlic Chives

I’ll surround the new figs with daffodil bulbs to create a wall of poisonous bulbs and roots against the voles, garlic or garlic chives to slow down the deer, and perhaps some Comfrey to enrich the soil and create that extra wall of distraction for the deer.  They never touch my Comfrey or garlic chives, both of which attract bees and butterflies.

Comfrey, a perennial herb with tremendous healing properties, is an excellent herb for improving the soil.  Its long tap root brings up nutrients from deep in the Earth.  Its leaves are an excellent addition to compost to build fertility.

Comfrey, a perennial herb with tremendous healing properties, is an excellent herb for improving the soil. Its long tap root brings up nutrients from deep in the Earth. Its leaves are an excellent addition to compost to build fertility.

These little trees will go into pots tomorrow to let them grow a bit beefier before I plant them out in the garden, after the first frost, probably in December.  The growers at Plant Delights had tremendous growth in their first year with “Silver Lyre”, and I will hope for the same results so these new trees fill out quickly.  They will grow quite wide, as figs do, so the guilds will extend several feet out from their trunks.  This will be an interesting process to watch unfold in the forest garden.August 21, 2013 close up garden 010

All photos by Woodland Gnome

Here is my favorite “Pickled Fig” recipe developed last autumn.  I made several batches, tweaking the recipe each time.  I’m hoping there is a large enough harvest to make them again in a few weeks!

Pickled Figs

6 c. sugar

1 cup boiling water

¾ c. white Sangria

½ c. red wine vinegar

1 TB ground cinnamon

1 TB ground allspice

1 Tsp. ground cloves

4 medium lemons, washed

6-8 chili peppers, green or red

20-30 ripe figs

(Boil a kettle of water for preparing the figs.  Have on hand about 3/4 c. of baking soda to sprinkle on the figs before they are cooked.)

1.  Measure the sugar into a dutch oven,  add 1 c. of water, and turn on medium heat.

2.  Wash and trim the figs. Place in a large ceramic bowl.  Sprinkle them with baking soda, and cover with boiling water.  Allow to soak for 10-12 minutes.

3.  Wash and thinly slice the lemons. Halve or quarter the slices, catching the juice.  Julienne the end pieces, which are mostly peel.   Add fruit and juice to the sugar mixture, along with the spices, Sangria, vinegar, and washed peppers.

4.  Rinse the figs in cool water, peel off any discolored skin, and slice the figs in halves or quarters as they are added to the sugar, lemon, and spice mix.

5.  Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes; allowing the syrup to thicken and the lemons to become translucent.

6.  Allow the mixture to sit, covered, for 12 to 24 hours.

7.  Reheat to boiling and can in glass jars.

More information on figs:

http://www.treesofjoy.com/fig-varieties-collection

http://www.spadespatula.com/2012/04/10/fig-varieties-common-fig-sounds-boring-but-isnt/

http://www.foodrepublic.com/2012/08/27/6-types-figs-try-right-now

Permaculture on Forest Garden

Six on Saturday: Taking Some Heat!

Lantana thrives in full sun to partial shade and blooms from late May until frost, attracting butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators.  This tough woody shrub tolerates many types of soil and is drought tolerant once established.  You may need to prune to control size on vigorous plants.  Choose from many colors and forms.  I use a trailing purple or white Lantana in hanging baskets, too.  Newer cultivars are winter hardy in Zone 7.

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The dash thermometer clicked up from 90 to 91F as we entered the shade of our neighborhood, returning home from some quick errands.  It was only 10:30 in the morning.

Our overnight low was in the 80s, with a high dew point and humidity.  Not surprisingly, many plants suffer in the heat, even when growing in the shade, just as much as our pets and ourselves.

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Rudbeckia species grow exuberantly in our summer heat and bloom from July through October, continuously producing new flower buds.  Grow in average soil in full sun to partial shade.  These natives will reseed and spread annually.  This is Rudbeckia hirta, black-eyed Susan, growing with Salvia.  Most Salvias also shrug off heat and humidity to bloom throughout the summer.  Choose carefully, as some prefer a drier climate and won’t like wet soil.

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When you read a plant tag, you’ll notice a range of zones where a plant will thrive.  It is smart to select plants that will still grow in a zone or two higher than where you garden. (I live in Zone 7b, so I want a plant rated at least to Zone 8, if not to Zone 9.)

Yes, summer heat can kill a plant just as surely as winter’s chill.  Even if the heat doesn’t kill a plant, it can weaken it to the point where disease, especially bacterial blights that thrive on humidity and wet plant tissue, will quickly finish it off.

This is the third summer in a row where an otherwise healthy looking potted Hellebore suddenly turned brown and expired.  I just moved the pot into deeper shade and crossed my fingers that the roots might survive, even as the leaves shrivel.   I believe that long stretches of intense heat and humidity may be too much for some Hellebore cultivars, especially when left in a pot through the summer.

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Agastache ‘Rosey Posey’ is one of many cultivars of this ornamental herb that thrive in humidity and heat, blooming continuously all summer.  Many bright colors are available in shades of blue, purple, white, pink and orange.  Grow in full sun to partial shade.  Keep your camera handy to capture the many butterflies drawn to Agastache.

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A gardener’s challenge is always to choose the right plant for the right place.  Just as we consider which plants will overwinter in our garden, it is smart to also notice which plants thrive in July and August.

Just because we ‘think’ a plant will survive all summer; just because a particular plant has done well in previous summers, doesn’t mean that we can expect great performance as our climate warms.  It is smart to choose varieties which aren’t susceptible to mildews and rots, whose foliage can withstand plenty of heat and humidity, and that can weather wet summer storms.

Those living closer to the coast may also need to consider salt tolerance, as storm surge, flooding and windblown sea spray bring more salt into our gardens.

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Native Hibiscus or naturalized tree hibiscus provide bright pops of color in July and August.  Tree hibiscus blooms for months, but herbaceous Hibiscus may bloom for only a few weeks.  Tropical Hibiscus grown in pots and brought in during the winter will also provide lots of summer color in sun to partial shade.

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What a disappointment when we buy lots of pretty flowering plants in April and May, only to watch them waste away by mid-July.  No amount of optimism and TLC can counteract the realities of how the weather affects different plants.

So the smart gardener chooses resilient, heat tolerant plants from the beginning.  Here are a few that grow well for us.  Your list may be different depending on where you live.  But as we all experience warmer and wetter summers than we have had in past years, we may need to discover some new plants to keep our gardens healthy and beautiful.

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Verbena bonariensis is a South American species that performs extremely well in coastal Virginia.  There is also a tall native Verbena hastata, as well as trailing Verbenas for pots, hanging baskets and ground covers.  All produce flowers that attract pollinators and hold their intense color for a long time, regularly sending up new flowers until frost.

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Woodland Gnome 2019
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Caladium ‘Burning Heart’ in one of hundreds of varieties that thrive in heat and humidity.  Each leaf lasts for many weeks, and plants continue to produce new leaves until November.  Flowers are insignificant, but the leaves offer bright pops of color in partial shade.  Newer varieties will grow in full sun, some older ones want full shade.   All are heat lovers, rated for Zones 9-11, and want constant moisture and rich soil.  Dig tubers before frost to save for next summer.

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“Resilience is accepting your new reality,
even if it’s less good than the one you had before.
You can fight it,
you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost,
or you can accept that
and try to put together something that’s good.”
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Elizabeth Edwards

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Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator.

Sunday Dinner: Seeing What There Is to See

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“Philosophy [nature] is written in that great book
which ever is before our eyes –
– I mean the universe –
– but we cannot understand it
if we do not first learn the language
and grasp the symbols in which it is written.
The book is written in mathematical language,
and the symbols are triangles,
circles and other geometrical figures,
without whose help it is impossible to comprehend
a single word of it;
without which one wanders in vain
through a dark labyrinth.”
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Galileo Galilei

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“In the various arts,
and above all in that of writing,
the shortest distance between two points,
even if close to each other,
has never been and never will be,
nor is it now, what is known as a straight line,
never, never, to put it strongly
and emphatically in response to any doubts,
to silence them once and for all.”
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Jose Saramago

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“His way had therefore come full circle,
or rather had taken the form of an ellipse or a spiral,
following as ever no straight unbroken line,
for the rectilinear belongs only to Geometry
and not to Nature and Life.”
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Hermann Hesse,
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“The brain does not own any direct copies
of stuff in the world.
There is no library of forms and ideas
against which to compare the images of perception.
Information is stored in a plastic way,
allowing fantastic juxtapositions and leaps of imagination.
Some chaos exists out there,
and the brain seems to have more flexibility
than classical physics
in finding the order in it.”
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James Gleick

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“Give me a place to stand,
a lever long enough and a fulcrum.
and I can move the Earth”
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Archimedes

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“The pits and tangles are more
than blemishes distorting the classic shapes
of Euclidian geometry.
They are often the keys
to the essence of a thing”
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James Gleick

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“Maths is at only one remove from magic.”
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Neel Burton

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019
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“That’s the thing about magic;
you’ve got to know it’s still here,
all around us,
or it just stays invisible for you.”
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Charles de Lint

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Sunday Dinner: Early Summer’s Golden Rays

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“We went down into the silent garden.

Dawn is the time when nothing breathes,

the hour of silence.

Everything is transfixed, only the light moves.”

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Leonora Carrington

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“I had forgotten how much light

there is in the world,

till you gave it back to me.”

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Ursula K. Le Guin

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“The Warrior of the Light is a believer.

Because he believes in miracles,

miracles begin to happen.

Because he is sure that his thoughts can change his life,

his life begins to change.

Because he is certain that he will find love,

love appears.”

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Paulo Coelho

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“I am part of a light, and it is the music.

The Light fills my six senses: I see it, hear, feel,

smell, touch and think.

Thinking of it means my sixth sense.

Particles of Light are written notes.

One bolt of lightning can be an entire sonata.

A thousand balls of lightening is a concert.

For this concert I have created a Ball Lightning,

which can be heard on the icy peaks of the Himalayas.”

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Nikola Tesla

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“One does not become enlightened

by imagining figures of light,

but by making the darkness conscious.

The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable

and therefore not popular.”

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C.G. Jung

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“Whatever you are physically…male or female,

strong or weak, ill or healthy-

-all those things matter less

than what your heart contains.

If you have the soul of a warrior, you are a warrior.

All those other things, they are the glass

that contains the lamp,

but you are the light inside.”

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Cassandra Clare

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“Oh phosphorescence.

Now there’s a word to lift your hat to…

To find that phosphorescence, that light within —

is the genius behind poetry.”

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William Luce

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“It may be that you are not yourself luminous,

but that you are a conductor of light.

Some people without possessing genius

have a remarkable power of stimulating it.”

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“You have to be transparent
so you no longer cast a shadow
but instead let the light pass through you.”
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Kamand Kojouri

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Plants Want to Live

Native redbud, Cercis canadensis

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The snow fell so fast and wet, that it was already bending the branches of our large dogwood tree so low they nearly touched the deck.   By the time I realized what was happening, I could hear cracks and crashes where trees all around us were having branches ripped off under the weight of such a heavy snow, in mid-December, before the trees had a chance to harden up for winter.

I grabbed a coat, hat and broom and went to work, knocking globs of snow off the dogwood’s branches, allowing them to spring back to a more normal posture.  After knocking off all the snow I could reach from the deck, I headed out into the yard to do the same on trees and shrubs all around the garden.

I could hear sirens in the distance that afternoon, and took a call from a neighbor telling me our neighborhood entrance was blocked by fallen trees. We listened to the groans and snaps of trees into the night, and the following day, under the weight of that unusual snow.

We lost three trees that day and our tall bamboo was bent to the ground, where it froze in place and remained for more than a week.  Bamboo stalks fell across our fig tree and across the fern garden, like an icy roof.  It took a few weeks, after the thaw, to clean up enough to truly assess the damage.

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December 10, 2018, a few days after a heavy snow toppled both of our remaining peach trees. We couldn’t even get to them for several days because everything was frozen solid.

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Our great old redbud tree was bent even further by the weight of the snow-laden bamboo.  Already  leaning towards the sun, the tree leaned at a precipitous angle up hill, its roots nearly in the ravine at the bottom of the yard, and its major branches now resting in the fern garden.  Many branches broke, others needed drastic pruning.  But the roots held, and we cleaned up the tree as well as we could and determined to wait for spring to see how it responded.

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New growth emerges from our broken redbud tree.

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Well, plants want to live.  And this tree is determined to make the best of an awkward situation.  We have been amazed to see how much new growth the tree has produced since March.

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There is a rhythm to tending a garden.  We plant, we tend, we prune, and we stand in awe as our plants become established and take off to grow according to their own patterns.  Like watching a young adult child find their way in the world, our woodies and perennials often have a mind of their own as they claim their space in the garden, reproduce, and grow into their potential.

Sometimes that is a wonderful thing and we admire the maturing plant’s beauty.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea

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Sometimes that is a terrifying thing as we see a plant rapidly claim the garden’s real estate, shading and crowding out the many other (more?) desirable plants we want to grow.

Kindness can turn against us, sometimes, when we welcome a little gift plant from a well meaning friend, finding a spot for it in our garden and tending it through its first year or two.

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Rudbeckia laciniata, a native that feeds wildlife, and an unapologetic thug that has taken over our ‘butterfly garden.’  This came as an uninvited guest with a gift of Monarda from a gardening friend.

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Sometimes the plant gifts itself to us as a windblown or bird-sown seed.  It grows, and we give it a chance to show us what it can become.  And then, Wham!  Suddenly, it has become an outsized monster and we do battle with it to keep it in bounds, or sometimes eradicate it entirely.

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Mid-September 2018, and the Solidago, goldenrod, had just begun to bloom.

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I am way too kind when it comes to such plants.  My curiosity gets the better of my good sense.  I let that little plant grow out just to watch it, and then it has seeded all over the place and I’m spending time trying to get it back under control, and rescue plants about to be completely strangled and starved by this newcomer.

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The Devil’s Walking Stick, , Aralia spinosa, in full bloom and covered by bees in late summer.  This native tree will grow tall, with it trunk covered in sharp thorns.

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The first of the Solidago showed up two summers ago.  It was a novelty.  I had just joined the Virginia Native Plant Society and I was trying to reform my natural preference for pretty imported hybrids and welcome more natives to the garden.  I let it grow.

Then last summer, I was amazed at how many very tall goldenrods grew up.  But I was busy.  I didn’t have much time in my own garden, and I let them grow.

My partner grumbled as they topped 6′ high, but I felt smugly virtuous for giving space to these native plants and supporting the pollinators.  We enjoyed the butterflies and they were pretty once they bloomed golden and lush.  I cut them down in December, but not soon enough.  By then there were seeds, everywhere.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea, Edgeworthia, Camellia, Rudbeckia, Solidago and the surrounding trees create layers of texture in early September 2018.

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And just in the last two weeks, those little goldenrods have grown inches a day, it seems.  My partner came to me on Monday with that look of determination I know so well.  They were growing out into our ever narrowing paths.  A deer had gotten into the front garden, and we couldn’t even see where it was hiding for the lush growth.  I had to do something….

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The new stand of Solidago, cut back to allow black eyed Susans and other perennials space to grow….

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And that is how it came to be that I was taking the string trimmer to my perennial beds Monday evening, under observation, cutting down as many of those Solidago plants as I could until the battery gave out.  Our neighbors paused on the street, wondering if I’d lost my mind, cutting down every plant in sight.

We were back at it early Tuesday morning, and the day I’d planned to spend planting pots went to cutting, pulling, pruning, and generally editing our front garden to remove not only the Solidago, but also the small forest of devil’s walking stick trees growing up from a frighteningly wide network of roots.

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Another little Aralia, looking for space to grow…

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That was another volunteer that I let grow ‘to see what it would do.’  The summer flowers attract clouds of butterflies and bees.  The lovely purple berries are favorites of our song birds.  The huge, palm frond like leaves grow quickly as the tree shoots up, several feet per year.  Its trunk is covered in long, sharp spines.

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Aralia spinosa, a native volunteer in our garden, looked rather tropical as its first leaves emerged in April of 2017.

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This Virginia native is a great tree for wildlife.  But our neighbor warned me, when I offered him one, about its roots.  He told of having to hack it back each summer at his family home when he was a teen.  I listened politely, and let our Aralia spinosa grow on, a novelty in the front garden.

But it fell in our October hurricane and my partner took that opportunity, which I was away, to cut away the main tree entirely.  And I’ve been cutting out a dozen or more sprouts every week since mid-March.

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Yet another goldenrod or obedient plant, growing up under one of our Hydrangea shrubs.  It takes a sharp eye to spot them all, and a bit of balance and agility to reach them all!

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Some were hiding in the goldenrod forest, nestled between other shrubs and cozying up to our emerging Cannas.  What the weed eater couldn’t reach, I managed to cut with my secateurs.  Like a weird game of twister, I found footing among the Cannas and goldenrod stubble and cut those thorny stalks back as close to the ground as I could reach.

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A part of our fern garden, where ferns are filling in as a complete ground cover on a steep bank. 

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Plants just want to live.  Their business is to reproduce, grow, and make as many seeds as possible.  This is a basic principle that every gardener has to face.

The wilder the plant, usually the more determined it will be.  Like the Japanese stilt grass I pull out by the handfuls every year from April to December.  Like the bamboo that tries to march up the hill from the ravine every spring, and that we find growing feet in a day sometimes, until we discover it and break it back to the ground.  We’ve learned the squirrels love gnoshing on fresh bamboo shoots.

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The march of the bamboo up the hill back in early May of 2014.  We have to control the growth up towards the garden each spring.

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To make a garden is to offer a weird sort of universal hospitality.  Whatever you think you might want to grow, nature has its own ideas.   Weeds happen. 

I chuckle to myself at native plant sales to see plants I pulled as ‘weeds’ the first few years we lived here, sold as desirable ‘native plants’ at a respectable price.  There is wild Ageratum, and Indian strawberry, wax myrtle and golden ragwort.  Our front yard hosts a growing patch of fleabane, Erigeron annus, each spring.  It crowds out the ‘grass’ and blooms for a solid month, around the time the daffodils are fading.

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Native fleabane, probably Erigeron pulchellus, grow in our front lawn. A short lived perennial, this patch grows a bit larger each year. After it finishes flowering, we mow this part of the ‘lawn’ once again.

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Each of us has to make our own peace with the native plants our area supports.  Last year, I decided the pokeweed had to go.  I pulled and cut for months, but I prevented that from going to seed.  I’ve found one huge plant so far this year and a few small seedlings.  They will soon be eradicated, too.

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Pokeweed has overgrown the Salvia, Colocasia and Hibiscus that have grown here for the last several summers. They are just holding on beneath its shade in August 2017.  We lost the Salvia that year, but the Colocasias remain.

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I walk among the growing oaks that I ‘allowed’ to grow when they were only inches tall.  Every seedling demands a decision from the gardener.  Can it grow here?  How will this change the rest of the garden?

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Obedient plant and black eyed Susans are also native perennials, that quickly fill any open area with roots and the seeds they drop.  They are great for pollinators, last many weeks, and make nice cut flowers.  By cutting back the Solidago this week, I hope these will fill in this part of the garden once again.

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Those are the sorts of questions one must ask every month of every year, to keep a garden in balance.  Those are the questions to keep in mind when shopping at the nursery, or the plant sale, too.

Curiosity is a good thing.  But wisdom and a bit of self-discipline are even better.

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The ferns I planted in the hollow stump of this peach tree, lost to the December storm, are growing well.  And, the stump itself is sending up new growth. from its living roots.  Plants just want to live

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Woodland Gnome 2019
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Seedling redbud trees continue to grow at the base of the stump.

Six on Saturday: Iris in Bloom

German Bearded Iris ‘Rosalie Figge’

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Iris perfectly blend color, fragrance, geometry and grace.

I’ve spent the last six months delving into the details of the genus and am delighting now in watching them unfold their perfect standards and falls.

The appearance of Iris each spring still feels like a bit of natural magic.  From a slender green stem, the intensely pure colors emerge as each flower unfolds.

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Iris tectorum, Japanese roof Iris, can be grown on traditional thatched roofs.  It was a status symbol in some Japanese communities to have a roof covered with blooming Iris.  This is a crested Iris, like our native Iris cristata.

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Watching an Iris bud open reminds me of how a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, ever so slowly stretching and unfolding its wings.  Both grow so large one wonders how they could have possibly fit into their sheath.  While a butterfly soon flies off in search of nectar and a mate, Iris blossoms remain anchored to their stems, hovering above the garden in motionless flight.

Our Iris continue to multiply in the garden.  I’ve been collecting them, dividing them, and have even received some as gifts.  Most bloom only once each year, and then for only a few weeks.  But what an amazing sight to anticipate through the long weeks of winter, knowing that spring will bring Iris blossoms once again.  Collecting different types of Iris extends the period of bloom, and planting re-blooming iris offers the tantalizing promise of an encore in autumn.

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Iris pallida, a European species Iris brought to Virginia by the colonists, is one of the species used in German bearded Iris hybrids.

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There is a fellowship of Iris lovers extending back through our recorded history.  We see Iris carved into bas reliefs in Egyptian temples, and Iris flowers were admired in ancient Greece.  The Babylonians grew them, and Iris grew wild across the hills of Turkey and meadows of Europe.  There are more than 150 species of Iris, and many of our garden Iris are hybrids of two or more species.

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Native Iris cristata

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Tough and persistent, Iris are easy to grow, once you understand what each variety needs.   It is easy to fall in love with Iris plants in bloom.  And that is the best way to buy them, so you know exactly what you are planting.  Since most are hybrids, gardeners rarely grow Iris from seeds.

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Some Iris grow from bulbs, most from rhizomes.  Some may come in the mail as bare-root plants.  You may have to wait a year or two for the first bloom when you buy divisions.

For immediate satisfaction, look for potted Iris plants in bloom.  You will know exactly what colors you are adding to your garden and know you have a healthy plant to start.

Then, just wait for the beauty to multiply with each passing year.

~

Iris x hollandica ‘Silver Beauty’

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Woodland Gnome 2019
*

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator.

 

Playing Favorites: Saxifraga stolonifera

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Do you have favorite plants that work in many different situations in your garden?  (If you do, please share with the rest of us by mentioning them in the comments.)

There are certain tough, versatile plants that I appreciate more and more as I plant them in various situations.  Strawberry begonia, Saxifraga stolonifera, ranks in the top five.

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These dainty, fairy-wing flowers appear in late spring.

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I first met strawberry begonia as a houseplant in the mid-1970s.  We grew it in a hanging basket, just like spider plants and Philodendrons, in plastic pots fitted into home made macrame hangers.  I had a collection hanging in front of a large window, from hooks anchored into the ceiling.

We loved novel plants that would make ‘babies’ hanging from little stems dripping over the sides of the pot.  Strawberry begonia’s leaves are pretty enough to grow it just for its foliage.  I don’t remember whether it ever bloomed as a houseplant; it might have needed more light to bloom than my window provided.

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When I needed to replant this basket at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden, I brought in a few plants from home, including some divisions of Strawberry begonia, and ‘borrowed’ a dwarf Iris plant from our ‘Plants for Sale’ area. This arrangement had been potted for about two weeks when I photographed it in mid-April.  Daffodils planted in November are just beginning to emerge, though the original pansies didn’t make it through the winter.

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And then I fell in love with real Begonias and with ferns, and I forgot all about the strawberry begonias of my former hanging garden.  That is, until I encountered the plant again a few years ago sold in tiny 1.5″ pots at The Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond.

I vaguely remembered liking the plant and bought one or two for winter pots inside.  They grow well in shallow dishes with mosses and ferns, and when spring came and the arrangements came apart, I moved the little plants outside as ground cover in a larger pot.

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January 2015, I began experimenting with Saxifragas in indoor pots.  This arrangement includes an Amaryllis bulb.

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And that is when they just took off and showed me their potential as great companion plants in potted arrangements outdoors.  Well, maybe overbearing companions, because these enthusiastic growers fairly quickly filled the pot with a thick mat of leaves, and babies hanging over the sides.

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May 2018: This is Colocasia ‘Black Coral’ planted in to an established planting of Saxifraga

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By this time, I’d done a little reading and learned that these ‘houseplants’ are actually hardy to Zone 6, grow well on various soils and in various light conditions.  The literature says ‘shade to partial sun.’  Well, given enough water when things get dry, this Saxifraga will tolerate afternoon sun as long as it gets intermittent shade throughout the day.  It takes heat, it takes cold, and it keeps on growing.

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Now the Saxifraga planting has expanded to groundcover below the pot, which is waiting for me to replant a Colocasia any time now.

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Saxifraga is a very large genus with over 400 species.  Its name, translated from the Latin, means ‘rock breaker.’  There is some debate whether this describes how it grows, or describes a use in herbal medicine.  The members of this genus are low growing rosettes with roundish leaves that spread by producing stolons, just like a strawberry plant, where new plants grow from the ends of the stolon.  Flowers appear in late spring at the top of long, wand-like stalks.

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June 2018:  I planted Saxifraga with Caladiums one summer, and discovered it persisted all winter and into the following year.  Now, I have to thin the Saxifraga each spring to replant the Caladiums.  This is C. ‘Moonlight’.

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Various species appear in the temperate zones or in the mountains in the northern hemisphere.  Members of this genus are very popular in rock gardens, and will grow in the cracks between rocks with very little soil.  Imagine how well they do in good garden soil!

There are many different common names for these little plants, including ‘strawberry geranium,’ ‘rockfoil,’ and ‘mother of thousands.’  The leaf is perhaps more like a geranium leaf than a Begonia leaf, but the common name I learned first, stuck….

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This pot of strawberry begonia needs to be divided again as it has gotten very crowded. Notice the runners crowding each other under the pot!  Can you tell these pots are under a large holly shrub?

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With an abundance of plants filling my pot, I began spreading these fragile looking little plants around.  Wherever I wanted a dainty but tough ground cover in a pot or bed, I began to establish a few pioneer individuals, learning that it doesn’t take very long for them to bulk up and multiply.

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May 2016:  Are they fairies dancing at dusk? No, the strawberry begonias, Saxifraga stolonifera, have finally bloomed.

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Strawberry Begonia has shallow roots, and so it is easy to simply ‘lift’ a clump, break it apart, and replant the individuals.  You can do this entirely by hand if you are planting into potting soil or loose earth.  Water in the new plants and leave them to work their magic.

The first winter that I left strawberry Begonias outside through the winter, I was delighted that they looked fresh and withstood the cold.  Like our Italian Arum, they can survive snow and ice without damage to their leaf tissue.  Unlike Arum, our Saxifraga persist all year, showing a burst of fresh growth as they bloom each spring, but growing all year round.

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May 2018:  Saxifraga stolonifera, Strawberry begonia in bloom with ferns, the first spring after planting the previous summer in the fern garden.

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Plant Saxifraga stolonifera as the ‘spiller’ in pots and hanging baskets, and as a groundcover under tall plants.  Use it under potted trees or tall tropical plants like Colocasias, Cannas, or Alocasias.  Plant it under large ferns, or under shrubs where you want a year-round living ground cover.  Plants like this form a living mulch and eliminate the need to buy fresh mulch each year.

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April 25, 2019, and the strawberry begonia has filled in and is sending down runners. The runners will emerge through the cocoa liner of a hanging basket.  I’ll trade out the Iris for a Caladium in this basket next week.  WBG

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Pair Saxifraga with other contrasting ground cover plants, like Ajuga, ivy, Vinca minor, or Lysimachia, and let them ‘fight it out.’  You will end up with some beautiful combinations as the plants claim their own real-estate.  If you have rock work or a rock garden, this is a perfect plant to grow in small crevices.

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A neighbor visited recently to bring me a gift of peonies from his garden.  I countered with an offer of some of this magical and versatile plant.  He left with a clump in the palm of his hand and a promise to return in a few weeks for more.  I hope he does, as I now have plenty to share, as I thin out those pots this spring.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

*

“Enthusiasm spells the difference

between mediocrity and accomplishment.”
.

Norman Vincent Peale

~

~

“Love springs from the inside.

It is the immortal surge of passion,

excitement, energy, power, strength,

prosperity, recognition, respect, desire, determination,

enthusiasm, confidence, courage, and vitality,

that nourishes, extends and protects.

It possesses an external objective

– life.”
.

Ogwo David Emenike

*

Beginning a New ‘Stump Garden’

Tree damage in our area after the October 2018 hurricane swept through.

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This has been a very bad year for our trees.  Our community sustained major tree damage when a hurricane blew through in October, and even more damage when heavy wet snow fell very quickly in early December, before the trees were prepared for winter.

There appeared to be just as much, maybe more damage, from the December snow.  At least that was the case in our yard, where we lost two old peach trees.

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December 10, 2018, a few days after a heavy snow toppled both of our remaining peach trees. We couldn’t even work with them for several days because everything was frozen solid.

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We found trees and limbs down all over our area again today, after a severe line of thunderstorms pass over us around 3 this morning.  There were tornadoes in the area, and we were extremely fortunate.  We had a mess to clean up, but no major damage to our trees.

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I know many people whose beautiful trees have been reduced to stumps over the past several months.  Depending on how the tree breaks, you may have a neat platform, sawed off cleanly, or you may have a jagged stump left where the tree broke.

A stump is still another opportunity to respond to a challenge with resilience, seeing an opportunity instead of a tragedy.  There is nothing personal about a tree knocked over by gnarly weather and so there is no cause to sulk or lament.  Once the shock of it has passed, and the mess cleaned up, it’s time to formulate a plan.

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Our peaches in bloom in 2017

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Maybe easier said, than done.  I’ve pondered the jagged stumps left by our beautiful peach trees for the last four months.  The trees hadn’t given us peaches for many years, although they bloomed and produced fruits.

The squirrels always got them first, and the trees had some health issues.  Now we see that the stumps were hollow, which is probably why they splintered when they fell.  But we loved their spring time flowers and their summer shade.

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The jagged remains of a once beautiful peach tree, that once shaded our fern garden and anchored the bottom of a path.

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Now, not only do I have a stump at the bottom of our hillside path, but the main shade for our fern garden is gone.  I’m wondering how the ferns will do this summer and whether other nearby trees and the bamboo will provide enough shade.  A garden is always changing.  We just have to keep our balance as we surf the waves of change.

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Native ebony spleenwort transplanted successfully into this old stump.

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Stumps are a fact of life in this garden, and I’ve developed a few strategies to deal with them.  The underlying roots hold water, and they will eventually decay, releasing nutrients back into the soil.  I consider it an opportunity to build a raised bed, maybe to use the hollow stump as a natural ‘container,’ and certainly an anchor for a new planting area.

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I planted ‘Autumn Brilliance’ ferns in Leaf Grow Soil conditioner, packed around a small stump, for the beginnings of a new garden in the shade in 2015.  This area has grown to anchor a major part of our present fern garden.

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This particular new stump forms the corner of our fern garden, and I very much want trees here again.  And so I gathered up some found materials over the weekend and began reconstructing a new planting.  First, I found some year old seedlings from our redbud tree growing in nearby beds, just leafing out for spring.  I didn’t want the seedlings to grow on where they had sprouted, because they would shade areas planted for sun.

Tiny though these seedlings may be, redbuds grow fairly quickly.  I transplanted two little trees to grow together right beside the stump.  They will replace the fallen peach with springtime color, summer shade, and all year round structure.  Eventually, they will also form a new living ‘wall’ for the jagged opening of the stump.

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I planted two small redbud tree seedlings near the opening of the stump.

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I had two deciduous ferns, left from the A. ‘Branford Rambler’ ferns I divided last fall, and still in their pots.  I filled the bottom of the stump with a little fresh soil, and pushed both of these fern root balls into the opening of the stump, topping them off with some more potting soil, mixed with gravel, pilfered from one of last summer’s hanging baskets.

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This is a fairly fragile planting, still open to one side.  It will be several years before the redbuds grow large enough to close off the opening in the stump.  And so I pulled up some sheets of our indigenous fern moss and used those to both close off the opening, and also to ‘mulch’ the torn up area around the new tree seedlings.  Fern moss always grows in this spot.

But fern moss also grows on some shaded bricks in another bed.  It is like a little ‘moss nursery,’ and I can pull off sheets to use in various projects every few weeks.  It renews itself on the bricks relatively quickly, and so I transplanted fresh moss from the bricks to this new stump garden.

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After pushing the moss firmly into the soil, I wrapped some plastic mesh, cut from a bulb bag, over the opening in the stump, and tied it in place with twine.  I was hoping for a ‘kokedama’ effect, but the rough contours of the stump thwarted every effort at neatness.

I’ll leave the mesh in place for a few weeks, like a band-aid, until the moss grows in and naturally holds the soil around the roots of the fern.  Something is needed to protect the soil during our frequent, heavy rains.

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I will very likely add some more ferns or other ground cover perennials around the unplanted side of this stump over the next few weeks, just to cover the wound and turn this eye-sore into a beauty spot.

The ulterior motive is to make sure that foot traffic remains far enough away from the stump that no one gets hurt on the jagged edges.  Could I even them out with a saw?  Maybe-  The wood is very hard, still, and I’ve not been successful with hand tools thus far.  Better for now to cover them with fresh greenery from the ferns.

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The second peach stump stands waiting for care.  I noticed, in taking its photo, that it is still alive and throwing out new growth.  It is also in a semi-shaded area, and I plan to plant a fern in this stump, too.

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The stump garden begun in 2015 with a pair of ferns has grown into this beautiful section of our fern garden, as it looked in May of 2018. The tall ‘Autumn Beauty’ ferns in the center are the originals, shown in the previous photo.

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Quite often the stumps disappear entirely after such treatment.  The new perennials grow up as the old stump decays, enriching the soil and holding moisture to anchor the bed.  And of course all sorts of creatures find food and shelter in the decaying stump and around the new planting.

This is a gentle way of working with nature rather than fighting against it.  It calls on our creativity and patience, allows the garden to evolve, and offers opportunities to re-cycle plants and materials we might otherwise discard.  It allows us to transform chaos into beauty; loss into joy.

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Woodland Gnome  2019

*

“Don’t grieve.
Anything you lose
comes round in another form.”
.
Rumi
~

The fern garden in late April, 2018

Six on Saturday: Embracing Spring

Dwarf German bearded Iris ‘Sailboat Bay’ surprised me on Wednesday with the first bearded Iris bloom of spring.

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Embracing spring invites us to embrace change.  Mid-April finds the landscape stuck on ‘fast-forward’ as changes unfold around us every hour of every day.  There is always something new emerging to delight, even as flowers finish and petals drop in the wind and rain.

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Columbine prepares to bloom even as the daffodils finish.

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There are seasons within seasons, and springtime certainly embraces many stages of phenological change.  From the earliest snowdrops and Crocus we have progressed now to dogwoods, Iris, columbine, and the swelling buds on peonies. We saw Wisteria explode this week in cascades of lilac and white flowers in trees, on homes and fences and growing wild in the woods.  It is one of the most beautiful sights of spring here, and promises only warmer days to come.

Nearly all the trees have tender expanding leaves now, and every box store and nursery offers bright flowers and little veggie starts.  Temptation waits everywhere for a gardener like me!

I bought our first basil on Thursday, with full confidence that it will thrive from here on through summer, after a Master Gardener friend gave me one of her plants that morning.  I trust her judgement that the season is now ripe for growing basil and other summer herbs.

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Iris cristata, one of our native Iris species in this area, expands to bloom more abundantly each spring. This is a miniature Iris with crests on each fall instead of beards.

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Looking ahead, our forecast promises warming nights and abundant rain.  I’ve been blowing leaves away and mulching beds all week, adding compost and planting out the plants I’ve been squirreling away for this moment.  We picked up our new Dahlias and Cannas, Alocasias and other bulbs from the bulb shop in Gloucester last week.  I’ve even been telling gardening friends that our Caladium plants can come out soon.  I believe the tubers will be safe now, unless late April holds an unforeseen surprise!

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Ajuga blooms among emerging ferns.  This is Athyrium niponicum ‘Applecourt,’ a deciduous Japanese painted fern.

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Embracing spring means celebrating the changes to our warming Earth.  Life returns to woody branches and the ground erupts in wildflowers and green.  Perennials reappear like children playing ‘hide and seek.’

We see nature starring in her annual mystery play, a script written millennia ago; and re-enacted each year.

Every blooming Iris and diligent bee reassures us that the players all know their parts and will follow their cues.   And we are each a part of this never-ending story.  Whether we simply sit back and observe, or take an active part with secateurs, shovel and rake; we are each embraced by the rich beauties and sweetness of spring.

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A young dogwood blooms against our fallen redbud tree, still leaning after our December snowstorm. I am sure the trees will figure out how to coexist.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

.

“Everything is connected.

The wing of the corn beetle affects the direction of the wind,

the way the sand drifts,

the way the light reflects into the eye of man beholding his reality.

All is part of totality,

and in this totality man finds his hozro,

his way of walking in harmony,

with beauty all around him.”
.

Tony Hillerman

~

~

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator.

 

 

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