Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme….

Culinary Sage

Culinary  Purple Sage, Salvia officinalis purpurascens

A familiar refrain all of us knew, back in the day, when we sang folk songs together and strummed our guitars.  I’m not sure any of us quite got what the song was about, beyond love found, love lost, and love fondly remembered.  It was so pretty to play and sing, especially when friends sang in harmony and remembered most of the words.

Tri-color Sage

Tri-color Sage

A traditional folk song from the north of England and Scotland, most of us learned Scarborough Fair from Simon and Garfunkle’s album in the mid-60s.  It is one of those songs which plays as background music in the psyche, never quite fading away; its longing and simple beauty a reminder of what stays the same generation to generation, century to century.

Pineapple Sage, an herbaceous perennial, dies back to the ground each winter.  Its sweet leaves taste like pineapple and can be used for cooking.  It blooms in late summer and is much loved by hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.

Pineapple Sage, an herbaceous perennial, dies back to the ground each winter. Its sweet leaves taste like pineapple and can be used for cooking. It blooms in late summer and is much loved by hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.

And so it is as fresh today as it was back when. Its lyrics offer a bit of insight into how much we continue to rely on the companionship of our simple herbs, even through the changes and frustrations of our life circumstance and relationships.

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme:  our companions as we tend our gardens and as we cook our meals.  They are beautiful, promote good health, and are hardy and easy to grow.  These are the herbs you can still snip outside on a wintery day and bring in for the soup pot, whether you are making soup for your love, your extended family, or just for yourself.

Rosemary can grow into a nice sized evergreen shrub over several years.

Rosemary can grow into a nice sized evergreen shrub over several years.

All they really need to be happy is Earth for their roots, full sun for their leaves, and a bit of water to keep them going.  They grow deep roots to sustain themselves and demand little from the gardener.

Parsley is the only biennial in the group; growing this year, blooming next, setting seed, and then dying back.  It must be renewed with fresh plants each year, but will sow its own seeds far and wide to produce them.

Sage is perennial in my garden.  Some forms are herbaceous perennials; others make small, woody shrubs.  When planted in a spot it likes, it spreads and thrives.  If it’s not happy, it fails to thrive and dies out after a season or two.  It doesn’t like too much water or dampness, and loves the sun.

Rosemary growing with an ornamental sage.

Rosemary growing with an ornamental sage.

Sage has been used by our indigenous people for centuries as a “smudge”.  It is dried in bundles, kindled, and its smoke used to clear, clean, and heal.  It also makes a lovely tea and helps sore throats, especially with honey dissolved in the tea.  Its leaves are delicious fried in a little butter or olive oil as used as a garnish.

Rosemary forms a beautiful shrub, blooming in winter with clear blue flowers.  It is evergreen and grows more lush each year.  It responds well to trimming back, has many medicinal uses, and has strong anti-bacterial properties.  It is the herb of remembrance, and so is a good plant to grow near the main path of our comings and goings from our home.  It is delicious baked into bread; or with potatoes, carrots, and onions.  It can be used as a skewer on the grill and to flavor a marinade.

A Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly rests on a parsley plant already grazed by caterpillars.

A Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly rests on a parsley plant already grazed by caterpillars.

Thyme is the smallest, lowest growing of these herbs.  It makes a wonderful ground cover, and can be grown on the edges of paths, in rock gardens, pots, and as edging for garden beds.  It comes in many different colors and fragrances, and blooms beautifully in early summer.  I like Lemon Thyme the best.  Thyme is drought tolerant, and can tolerate partial shade better than other herbs.  It responds well to cutting back, and needs to be cut back at least once a year to keep it growing fresh leaves.

Rosemary blooms with tiny blooms much loved by bees.

Rosemary blooms with tiny blooms much loved by bees.

Thyme can be enjoyed raw minced into green salads or vinaigrette salad dressings.  It is also good mixed into cream cheese and/or goat cheese, with some garlic, chives, freshly ground pepper and a little sea salt for a savory cheese spread on toast or crackers.  Thyme is a delicious addition to marinades.  Mix into lemon juice and olive oil with garlic, freshly ground pepper, sea salt, and a little Rosemary.  Toss with hunks of potato, carrot, onion, and mushrooms before roasting the vegetables.  This marinade can be used similarly for vegetable kabobs and grilled chicken.

If you have never grown herbs, these are the four with which to begin.  They grow happily in a pot beside your door, as long as that pot sits in the sun and gets water.  When you have a bit of sunny land, plant these reliable friends and clip them often for your cooking.

Parsley growing with Violas.

Parsley growing with Violas.

Sage and Rosemary help to deter deer, and so make good companions for plants which need protection.  Parsley is a wonderful host plant for butterflies, so plant enough to freely share.  It looks beautiful planted among Violas and will stay green all winter in Zone 7B and warmer.

Golden Sage in April growing with violas.

Golden Sage in April growing with violas.

Bees love to visit all of these herbs for nectar.  They can all be dried and kept in jars, if you must.  They can be infused into olive oil or wine vinegar for cooking and salads.  Add Sage and Rosemary to your Christmas wreath or swag, plant thyme in pots over your spring bulbs.  The possibilities go on and on.

Growing herbs links us to a very long tradition of gardeners.  These plants have changed little, if at all, from the herbs our distant ancestors grew.  We join a timeless community of gardeners and cooks when we make them a part of our everyday lives.

Thyme plants form a shaggy border for this bed.

Thyme plants form a shaggy border for this bed.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

Bringing Some of the Beauty Home

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I’m always inspired by the rich diversity of botanical wonders casually growing from every crevice and bit of soil along the Oregon coast.  After a week of wandering around admiring moss covered trees, richly colored flowers, towering conifers, intricately textured ferns, and thick berry brambles, I’m left (almost) speechless at the sheer beauty and abundance of gardening pleasures for anyone inclined to cultivate a spot in this rain-forested beach town.

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Linaria purpurea grows from a hillside at the Bear Valley Nursery in Lincoln City, Oregon.

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I’m intrigued by everything.  Even in mid-October, as nights grow cold and days grow shorter, the landscape remains lush.

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The view from the patio behind my hotel room.

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There was frost on my windshield last Thursday morning.  I had to study the controls of my rented Chevy to clear the windows and mirrors before I could set off into the foggy, frost kissed morning to pick up my daughter for our morning breakfast.  By 10:00, when Bear Valley nursery opened, the frost was forgotten and sunshine gilded the day.

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My daughter has grown into her gardening heritage.  She proudly showed me the pumpkins she is growing for her family this fall, her beautiful Hubbard squash, vines dripping with beans and huge heads of elephant garlic.  She knows that our wanderings will take us to the beautiful family run nursery just up the road from where I love to stay while visiting her and her family, and that she will leave with a tray of plants to add to her garden.

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Bear Valley Nursery

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In past years,  I’ve bought plants for her, and then waited patiently for photos of them growing.  I just accepted that I couldn’t bring plants home cross-country.  Sure, I mail cuttings and bulbs to her from time to time, but I haven’t tried to bring horticultural finds home…. until this year!

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The Connie Hansen Garden Conservancy supports itself with donations and plant sales. Oh, such sweet temptation….

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I guess I was giddy by the time I impulsively bought a cute little fern, one I’ve never seen in a Virginia nursery, and an unnamed Iris.  I have a real weakness for interesting ferns and Iris, and I decided to give my best effort to getting them home again to our Virginia garden.

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Daughter cared for them until packing up day, Tuesday, when I was elbow deep into preparations for my flight home from Oregon.  As we waited for granddaughter’s school bus to deliver her back home, we worked together in the garden.  We split the pot of Iris (maybe a Siberian cultivar?) and I slipped part of the clump into a gallon zip-lock bag as daughter dug a hole in her rich, black soil and planted the other half of the clump.  Whose will bloom first, I wonder?

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My portion of the Iris, now safely home.

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I’d saved a take-away food container, and decided that it would bring my fern home safely.  After knocking the roots out of the nursery pot, I carefully laid the plant on its side, bent the fronds to fit the space, and snapped the lid back on securely.  But then daughter was at my elbow with her offering of plump elephant garlic cloves.  How could I resist?

I nestled a few around the fern, and slipped the rest into another plastic bag.

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My pile of horticultural treasures had been growing all week, actually.  One of the owners of Bear Valley Nursery very generously snipped a few seed stalks off of her beautiful Linaria purpurea, that I had been admiring.  They were cropping up throughout the display gardens, through her gravel mulch.

I’d already been admiring them at the Connie Hansen Garden Conservancy and wondering what to call them.  The common name, toadflax, somehow seems insufficient for their graceful beauty.

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Linaria growing at the Connie Hansen Garden Conservancy

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I had also been admiring the Crocosmia, which naturalize so easily both in gardens and on hillsides, and along roadsides throughout the area.  Any spot with a bit of sun seems a good place for a clump to take hold and expand.  I nicked a few seed covered stems one day while walking down the lane from my hotel to the beach below.

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They weren’t growing in anyone’s yard, mind you, just volunteering among the blackberry brambles, ferns, and grasses growing on the shoulder of the road.  I dropped the stems into my bag with sea stones and shells, hoping for similar stands a few years on.

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Crocosmia bloom beside a water feature at the Connie Hansen Garden in Lincoln City, Oregon.

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Both of these perennials are hardy in our Zone 7b climate.  A Master Gardener friend grows Crocosmia in her Williamsburg garden, and gave me a few bulbs.  My Crocosmia are far from these lush stands I’ve admired in Oregon, though.

I am not familiar with the Linaria, though see no reason it shouldn’t thrive in my garden at home.  Native to Italy, it should grow well among Mediterranean herbs like rosemary and lavender.

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I found Linaria growing in white, pink, purple and blue in various gardens around Lincoln City.  A clump grows beside a stream, mixed with Verbena bonariensis, ferns and grasses at the Connie Hansen garden.

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I packed all of these parcels into a heavy plastic shopping bag, and tucked them into my carry on bag.  Nothing on the airline’s website raised any alarms, and so I confidently put my bag on the conveyor at security on the way to my departure gate.   But when it comes to plants and planting, I’m sometimes a bit over-confident…

When my bag didn’t reappear among the plastic bins of my shoes, coat, and tablets, I knew there might be a question or two to answer.

And sure enough, my bag was opened and searched.  But once I explained what plants I was bringing home, and the friendly agent saw there was nothing dangerous involved, we repacked it all and I was on my way.

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Fern and garlic fresh from my carry-on bag.

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I’m happy to tell you that the seeds and plants all made it home in great shape.  As I was unpacking my bags in the wee early morning hours, I happily set my new Oregon plants in a safe spot until I could get to them today.

And so it is that I now have a fresh pot of Cheilanthes argentea, silver cloak fern, and a pot of Iris, species and cultivar yet a mystery. I am hoping that perhaps the Iris will turn out to be one of the beautiful Pacific coast native varieties.

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Silver Cloak fern, Cheilanthes argentea, is a new fern that I’ve not grown before. It is tucked into a new pot and topdressed with a little lime and some gravel.

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Learning that this particular fern loves to grow in the crevices of rocks, and prefers slightly alkaline soil, I’ve top dressed it with a bit of dolomitic lime and given it a gravel mulch.  It likes to grow on the dry side, unusual for a fern, and can take a bit of sun.  Since it is rated for Zones 5-7, I’m thinking that I should give it more shade than it might need if growing in the Pacific Northwest.

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The silvery underside of each frond is this fern’s distinguishing feature. It is a low grower, but spreads.

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Native in Asia, it is able to dry out, curling up its fronds, and then re-hydrate when water comes available again.  Once established, it will spread.  I will give it the pot this winter, and then perhaps plant it out into an appropriate spot in the garden next spring.

Tomorrow I expect to sow the seeds into flats and set them into a safe spot to overwinter, and hopefully sprout in the spring.

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We enjoyed this view during breakfast on the porch of the Wildflower Grill.

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Looking through my hundreds of photos reminds me of the beautiful plants and associations I enjoyed in Oregon.  I will share some with you over the next several days, and perhaps you’ll pick up a fresh gardening idea, or two, as well.

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The Connie Hansen Garden

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While I was away, we finally had abundant rain here in Williamsburg.  But we’ve also had wind and cold.  I can feel the turn of seasons in the breeze, and my thoughts are turning to digging up our Caladiums and moving plants indoors, even while planting out spring bulbs and winter Violas.

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My new Iris can grow on through winter in a pot in my sunny holding area.  I’ll look for lush new growth in spring.  I want to try to identify the Iris before planting it out into the garden.

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I’m happy to be home, back to our beloved Forest Garden.  Even as the seasons shift towards winter, there is beauty everywhere here, too.  My travels have me still buzzing with new ideas, associations to try, and fresh inspiration to carry me through the weeks ahead.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Pot Shots: Unity

Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’ began blooming this week.

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Repetition creates unity.  As one of the most basic principles of design, it’s one often overlooked by enthusiastic plant collectors like me!

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The dark purple leaves of the Ajuga are repeated in this Japanese painted fern.  this is one of several containers I made from hypertufa in 2014.

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I’m often tempted to grow the new and novel plant; something I’ve not grown out before.  We’re lucky to have space enough that I can indulge that interest while also repeating successful plants enough to create a sense of unity.

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Each Ajuga plant sends out multiple runners, with a new plant growing at the tip of each, often forming roots in the air. The plants are easy to break off and casually plant in a new spot. I often use Ajuga both for groundcover and in pots.  Here, Ajuga and Sedum angelina form a groundcover under a potted shrub.

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What should one repeat?  There are many design tricks based on repetition that are very subtle, but create a sense of harmony and peacefulness.

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I plant a lot of Muscari bulbs in pots each fall, waiting for just this effect the following spring. Muscari may be left in the pot or transplanted ‘in the green’ elsewhere in the garden when the pot is replanted for summer.

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The most obvious consideration is to use the same or similar plants again and again.  Repeating the same plant across several pots within a grouping creates unity.  Repeating the same plant again elsewhere in the garden ties that grouping of pots to other elements of the landscape.

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I like to choose a plant that grows well in the conditions of an area of the garden, and then use that plant in several different pots within a group.  Maybe I’ll plant a group of basil plants, or a group of lavender and rosemary, accented with sage or thyme.  Some years I plant a group of different geraniums.  The individual plants may be different cultivars with slightly different leaf or flower colors, but there are unifying elements to tie them together.

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Buying multiples of the same cultivar of Viola each autumn, and then planting them across several different pots creates a sense of unity.

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It’s helpful to use perennials that grow fairly quickly, that may be divided easily or that self-seed, and that are fairly easy to find and inexpensive to buy.  Once I find a plant that grows well in our conditions I like to repeat it again and again.

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I plant divisions of Ajuga, creeping Jenny and Sedum in various areas as ground cover.  They spread and cover more fully each year. Native strawberries occur here naturally, and quickly spread each spring.  I will eventually weed these out, even though they are good plants for wildlife.

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Because perennials often shine for a few weeks and then take a background role, or even go dormant for a few months, a gardener can eventually design a garden that changes every few weeks, but still has interest over a very long season, by using perennials thoughtfully.

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Japanese painted fern, Italian Arum and creeping Jenny repeat in this bed near the arrangement of pots.  The color scheme is basically the same (at the moment) in both this bed and the grouping of pots.

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Another way to create unity is to choose pots of the same or similar material, color and design.  Perhaps they are the same color, but varying sizes.

You may own thirty pots, but if they are all in the same limited color palette, there is unity.  Some designers will use a set of identical pots, evenly spaced, to create repetition along a porch, path, deck, or balcony.    This is a very formal approach, and would probably look best with the same rather formal planting in each pot.

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I favor blue glazed pots. This one held a lavender all winter, which is still a bit scraggly before its new growth comes on.  A native violet grows here instead of a hybrid Viola, but the color scheme remains the same.

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Combinations of colors also creates unity.  The plants themselves may be different, but if you use the same colors again and again whether in a group of pots, or throughout the garden as a whole, the eye perceives harmony and consistency:  unity.

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Annual Alyssum covers the soil beneath the Clematis.

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Whether we are making gardens, paintings, food, poetry or music, setting ourselves some parameters allows for creativity and expression within those self-imposed boundaries.  It may actually guide us into being more creative.

By removing some options prima facie, we are left to improvise with more focus among those choices we have left.  What we create will perhaps be more pleasing, more interesting, and perhaps even more beautiful than if we took a laissez-faire, scattershot approach to design.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Artistry of Herbs

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So much of our garden was slack and wilting yesterday evening, before the rain began.  The ground has grown drier each day, available moisture retreating deeper, away from the multitude of thirsty roots.  This time of year devolves into a contest of will between me with my trusty garden hoses, and July’s relentless heat and extended dry spells.

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Bronze fennel glows in the late afternoon paired Verbena bonareinsis and Joe Pye weed.

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Plants react differently to the many challenges that befall them in the course of the year.  Watching how plants respond to stress can guide us in the choices we make in planting.

No one enjoys a garden filled with drooping, brown tipped leaves.  And most of us don’t have the unlimited time or resources to water enough to compensate when the weather turns hot and dry for days or weeks at a time.  That is why it is smart to plant a good percentage of deep rooted, sturdy, drought tolerant plants to stand tall through July and August.

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Loose foliage of Siberian Iris and Crinum lily function like ornamental grasses through summer, setting off other flowering plants nearby.

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Herbs top my list of sturdy, dependable choices for summer structure.  Fennel, lavender, Salvias, dill, thyme, Santolina, rosemary, Germander, Artemesia, and Pelargoniums stand up and look smart with a minimum of supplemental water.  Iris, considered an herb by many, are a part of this dependably sturdy cohort.

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Rose scented Pelargonium

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And, these plants are all beautiful.  Many are fragrant, and some bloom for weeks right through the summer. Their leaves are fleshy and thick, some waxy and prepared to stand up to the relentless Mediterranean sun.  Their subtle colors and designs fascinating.

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Spanish Lavender

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As an added bonus, most can be found for a very small investment each spring.  Many herbs are offered at local big box stores and grocery stores from March through June or early July for just a few dollars a pot.

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Newly planted Rosemary ‘Tuscan Blue’ grows with tough Sedum ‘Angelina.’  This Rosemary can eventually grow into a good sized shrub.

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Perennials generally survive challenging weather better than annuals, anyway, because they have grown deeper, larger roots. Perennial herbs prove some of the most dependable.

They may need more coddling through their first few months, but once established they will hang on until conditions improve.  Like trees and shrubs, their roots can seek out moisture out of reach of many other plants.

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Keep newly planted perennials well watered while their roots grow out into the surrounding soil. Once new growth begins, you know the plants are settling in. The Monarda and Verbena hastata were planted in mid-July, a terrible time for planting!  The Pineapple sage (top right) is now well established and can handle summer weather.

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We are all discovering ways to adapt to the challenges our changing weather patterns bring.  We see all sorts of records broken month after month, and know that more change is likely ahead.

Our gardens can adapt, beautifully, and with tremendous artistry.  We just need to keep an open mind as we plant.  A willingness to experiment with new plants, ones we may not have previously considered for the perennial garden, and different ways of cultivating it opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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“In a world of change,

the learners shall inherit the earth,

while the learned shall find themselves

perfectly suited

for a world that no longer exists.”
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Eric Hoffer

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Growing Herbs for the Beauty of It

Culinary tri-color sage grows alongside perennial Geranium and fennel.

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I grow herbs mostly for their beauty.  That, and their toughness as season-long dependable plants in our pots, beds and baskets.

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Rose scented Pelargonium grows near emerging Colocasia.

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I haven’t built them their own little parterre, and I don’t grow them in cute little matching terra cotta pots, either.  I treat them like any other plant and let them earn their spot in my heart and in our garden.

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A newly planted Spanish lavender will soon fill this pot.  It is surrounded with wild violets and wild strawberries.

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Herbs may be some of the oldest plants cultivated and passed on generation to generation and from one culture to the next.  They are celebrated in story and song.  They can heal us, feed us, soothe us and delight us.  Herbs are intensely fragrant; a living, growing perfume.

But I would grow them even without their rich mythological and pharmacological mystique.  Why?  Because I can depend on them.

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The first fennel flowers of the season opend this week.

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The strong fragrance and coarse texture of many herbs makes them distasteful to the deer I want to foil.  I learned in the early years of this garden that I could plant herbs in the spring, and expect them to still be merrily growing in our garden, sans critter damage, the following October.  I like to believe that planting lots of fragrant herbs can also protect more desirable plants growing nearby.

They are a good investment.  They bring me peace of mind.

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Basil

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But the more I tried different cultivars of favorite herbs, the more I delighted in them for their own sake.  They are entertaining plants to grow.  Let me explain.

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Chocolate mint

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Most herbs draw in pollinators.  That means that on a sunny day, I’ll find bees, wasps, butterflies, and all sorts of bright little insects that I can’t name without a field guide hovering around them and blissing out on their sweet nectar.

As I observe and photograph the visitors, I can crush and sniff their wonderfully fragrant leaves.

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Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 2017

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Many herbs, like the mints and scented geraniums, produce compounds in their leaves that repel biting insects.

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Mountain mint, Pycnanthemum muticum, is a versatile herb with strongly fragrant leaves.  The Garden Club of America  has named it their 2018 native plant of the year.

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If a buzzy or bitey is getting too up close and personal with me, I can pinch a stem and rub the fragrant leaves on whatever skin might be exposed.

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Pineapple mint with lavender

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Mountain mint, though not so beautiful, is an especially effective insect repellent with no toxicity to harm my family or me.

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Rose scented ‘Skeleton Rose’ Pelargonium repels insects with its fragrance. Growing here in a basket with Lantana, this basket makes a tough combination for full sun.

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That same fragrance makes herbs appealing as cut flowers, too.  Stems worked in with other flowers make interesting, long lasting arrangements.

My favorite herbs for the vase are Basil, Pelargoniums, Artemesia, and Salvias. The interesting colors, shapes and textures of herbal foliage pumps up any vase.  Oftentimes, a stem will root in the vase and can be planted out to grow on when the arrangement is disassembled.

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Basil with pineapple mint, Lime Queen Zinnia and roses.

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Just as herbs create interesting contrasts with flowers in a vase, so they also pump up pots, baskets and perennial beds.

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White Monarda came to our garden as a gift from a gardening friend.  It is edible, can be used for tea, and looks lovely in a vase.  Also known as bee balm or Oswego tea, this plant is a useful North American native herb.

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Although herbs bloom, most have relatively small and insignificant flowers.  With a few exceptions, like some basils, dill, borage and fennel; herbs are grown more for their leaves than for their flowers.

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Now rosemary is a delight all unto itself.  Sometimes evergreen if the winter is mild, usually perennial, it delights us with its blue, winter flowers.

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Rosemary in bloom

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Rosemary often comes into bloom in late autumn, and many years I can include blooming sprigs of rosemary in our holiday wreathes in December.

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A newly planted rosemary ‘Tuscan Blue’ will triple in size by fall. Sedum ‘Angelina’ shares the pot.

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The pungent fragrance of rosemary exudes from a lovely little shrubby plant.  With rosemary, as with other Mediterranean herbs, the hotter the better in summer.  Growing to 4′ tall or more, a rosemary hedge by a fence or wall is possible in Zones 7b or 8 and warmer.

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An upright shrubby rosemary grows here with prostrate, creeping  rosemary.  Most of our rosemary plants died in our cold winter, and so I’ve had to replace them with new this spring.

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Many people grow herbs primarily for use in the kitchen.  And most, but not all, are edible.  Herbs generally respond well to the continual pruning that frequent use entails.

There are whole encyclopedias of information on using herbs for cooking, crafts, healing and housewifery.  I’ll leave you to read them if you want to learn more.

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Creeping Rosemary makes a good groundcover, or a good ‘spiller’ in a pot in full sun.

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I get busy and forget to cut and use them, I’ll admit to you.  My plants might be bushier if I used them more.

But I love watching my Pelargoniums grow huge and fill the gigantic pots I grow them in.  I love watching butterfly larvae growing plump as they harvest my parsley and fennel for me.  And yes, quite often the plants regenerate themselves within a few weeks once the larvae crawl off for their transformative naps.

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And so it is that I end up growing herbs much like any other garden plant; no special fuss required.

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Comphrey with Artemesia

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That said, keep in mind that herbs such as lavenders, culinary sages, thymes, rosemaries, oregano, germanders, Artemesias, Santolinas, and a few others originated in hot, mountainous areas where the soil may be a bit rocky and the rain scarce.  They aren’t used to coddling, and they don’t much appreciate our muggy damp summers in Virginia.

Our soil may be a bit too acidic and heavy with clay.  Our nights too damp and warm, our rain too intense.  There may be some rot or mildew.  Their roots may not thrive.

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There are a few simple things to do to make these Mediterranean herbs a bit more comfortable.  I tend to grow many of them in pots more successfully than in our heavy clay soil.

But culture in the soil is possible.  I like to dig some dolomitic lime and a little pea gravel into the planting hole before I plant a new transplant.  I set the crown a little high, mounding up the back-fill around the top-most roots, but not up the stem.  Then, I mulch with gravel out a few inches around the plant.  I’m told that chicken grit or broken up oyster shells work well for mulching herbs, too.

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Roots of these Mediterranean herbs want good drainage.  They can rot easily if left sitting in wet soil for very long.  That is why it is smart to amend the soil and plant them high.  If your soil is too heavy with clay, also dig in some compost before you plant, to loosen and improve it a bit.

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If planting in a pot, I mix some lime into the top few inches of the potting soil, set the plants a little high, and mulch the pot with pea gravel.

The gravel reflects sun and heat up into the plant on fine days, holds a little extra moisture during drought, and prevents soil from splashing up onto the lower leaves when it rains.  The gravel mulch helps protect those lower leaves from any disease harbored in the wet soil.

When growing an herb plant with woody stems or grey to blue leaves, take these precautions if your soil and weather is like ours.

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Artemesia with lavender and Iris

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Basil, dill and cilantro are annuals.  Parsley a biennial.  Chives and other Alliums are perennials, even when they are harvested annually for their bulbs.   All are soft stemmed and want a bit gentler treatment.  They appreciate more water and richer soil… but not too rich.  Herbs grown without much fertilizer have better flavor and aroma and grow more compactly.

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The Alliums are just beginning to bloom.

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Grow all of these in full sun, or the most sun you can manage.  The more sun, the more growth in most cases.

Also, give them space to grow.  Your little transplant fresh from its 4″ pot may look a bit small, and your new planting a bit sparse at first.  But please remember that most herbs grow quickly.  Mind the mature height and spread and allow space for your herbs to grow into their potential.

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Pineapple sage in its fall glory, still sending out new buds in late September 2017.

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Crowding, in our weather, makes it more likely for mold or rot to get a start where the branches stay too wet, and where air can’t easily circulate around their leaves.

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Thyme needs a good trim now and again. The stems get too long, with new growth only towards the tips.

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I wait each spring to see which of our perennial herbs made it through the winter, and which were finished off by the cold and damp soil.  Ironically, most will make it through until early spring.  It is those last few weeks and those last few frosts that may prove too much.

That is why I wait until I see new growth sprouting from their branches, before I cut them back.  Once they are growing and the weather is milder, I can cut with confidence.  Cut too soon, and a late freeze may be too much of a shock.  I killed a beautiful Agastache this spring by pruning it too early.

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Breakfast at the Agastache… summer 2017.

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Cut back any obviously dead wood, and trim most of the branches by at least a third to stimulate new, healthy growth.  But don’t throw all of those trimming away!  Many herbs, like Artemesia will root from these stem cuttings taken in late winter or early spring.  What will you lose by trying? 

And there is nothing complicated in my technique.  I open up a hole in the earth with my blade, insert a stem a few inches deep, and close the hole.  It roots and begins growing within a few weeks.  That is how I’ve spread Artemesia all around my garden over the years.

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Pineapple sage has beautiful leaves, but won’t bloom until late September.  It is hardy in our garden.

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Most herbs will root from stem cuttings.  You might cut several stems of basil, use most of the leaves, and root the stems in a glass of water to generate new plants over the summer.  Herbs like thyme are easy to divide.  Just take a stem on the outside of the plant, with some roots already growing, cut it off and plant it where its needed.  Do this with most Salvias, too.

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Apple mint roots easily in water. But easier still, pull a stem with some roots attached and planted it up elsewhere.

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If you’ve shied away from planting herbs in the past, I hope you’ll try a few this year.  You don’t need to be an expert gardener to succeed.  Most are very easy, and forgiving.

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An heirloom Pelargonium that I managed to root from a gifted stem cutting is now out in a basket for the summer.  This cultivar was brought to Williamsburg by the early colonists and grown here in the Colonial era.

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And this is the perfect time to begin, now that we are into the second week of June.  Garden centers in our area have just begun to mark down their herbs by 20-30%.  There are great bargains available this month as plant shops clear out their stock.

Unlike more tender plants, herbs will establish just fine in summer’s heat, so long as you don’t let them completely dry out as they grow new roots into the surrounding soil.

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Deadhead lavender, and other herbs, to keep the flowers coming all season. This is Spanish lavender, with its ‘rabbit ears’ atop the flower.

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There is always more to learn, there is always more to try, and there are always more beautiful and interesting plants to introduce in our gardens.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Re-Inventing A Wreath

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Making a wreath for the door is always fun.  Coming up with ideas, gathering the materials, pulling it all together, and finally hanging the finished wreath is one way I celebrate the change of seasons.  And not just at Christmas; I make wreathes throughout the year.

I remember many cold December days, when I wandered around the garden with clippers and a large bucket of water, pruning the evergreens in preparation for making Christmas wreathes.  I usually attach bundles of mixed greens to straw wreath forms with U shaped wire pins.  And oh, my hands get so cold and sticky and scratched in the process, though the evergreen branches smell wonderful!

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Holly

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Today has been sun-drenched and passably warm, after the morning’s frost burned off.  As the day wore on, I decided it was a pretty good day for the annual cutting of the greens, and went in search of my supplies.

A spur of the moment decision to make our wreathes ended up demanding yet another trip to the craft store.  I need two wreathes for our front porch, and could only find a single straw form.  This of course drew comment from my partner about the dozen or so retired wreathes hanging in the garage.

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A finished wreath from 2013

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But we headed out to the store anyway, and I searched aisle after aisle for the forms I had in mind.  Finally, in the back corner of the place I found three sizes of straw wreath:  huge, small, and tiny.  None matched the medium wreath form waiting at home.  What to do? 

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A wreath in progress…. 2013

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We walked around the store for another 10 minutes or so with two large straw wreath forms in the cart.  And all the while I was weighing the effort it would take to rehabilitate some not-so-gently-used retired grapevine wreathes resting in the basement, against the too many dollars it would require to buy these jumbo straw hoops.

A look at the long line waiting for check-out clinched the deal.  We left the new wreath forms for someone else, and headed home to see what could be done with what we had.

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Now, the grapevine wreathes waiting for us in the basement  were lovely when they were new.  And I have remade them at least once since.

But the hot glue which once held them together was pulling loose, the bright green reindeer moss had faded to grey, and they were a sad lot, to be kind.  I pulled the remaining shells away and cleaned them up a bit, before taking them out to a patch of sunshine in the front yard.  It was barely warm enough to gild them, but gild them we did.

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2014

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Gold paint makes most things a bit better, or at least a bit more interesting.   I left the wreathes to dry in the sunlight, while I set off with the clippers for a bit of green.

My first stop was the Eucalyptus.  It froze back to the ground last winter, but has come out strong again this year.  Knowing that it might be ruined again by cold weather, I didn’t hesitate to cut quite a bit of the newest growth.

Next, I pruned the lowest branches from a rogue seedling of Virginia red cedar.  The tree is about 6′ tall now and a bit of limbing up did it no harm.

Finally, I gave the large old Rosemary in our front garden a good trim.  The cold will darken this summer’s leaves soon enough.  I cut a generous portion for our wreathes.

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That was plenty of greenery for the design I had in mind, which would allow some of the grapevine and original decorations to show as well.

That said, I quickly realized that the pins I’d gotten last month for the wreathes were going to be a challenge to use on the grapevine frame.  Basically, there is nothing to grip them.  But a bit of tweaking with needle nosed pliers soon bent the ends around the strands of vine, at least enough to hold my bundles of greenery in place.

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If you are making this sort of wreath, simply combine 6 or 7 sprigs into a bundle, wrap it with a bit of wire, and secure it to the form.  Each bundle should be about 5″-7″ long, depending on the circumference of your frame.   I used the same three plants in each bundle, in the same order, for a fairly uniform appearance.  But you might also alternate the bundles for a different effect.

I covered about two-thirds of the form with greenery, leaving the original wreath to show in the open space.  I re-attached some of the gilded moss and woody flowers, and also glued the shells back to the wreath before finishing with a fresh sparkly gold ribbon bow.

I’m rather pleased with how they turned out, and even more pleased that I recycled, rather than retailed, for this project.

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Have you made your holiday wreathes yet?  If not, I hope that you draw some inspiration from this little effort, and craft your own this year.

I ended up buying our front door wreathes last year.  They were beautiful, but I also missed the DIY Christmas I’ve grown to love.

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Making a wreath is simple and satisfying.  I challenge you to DIY this year, and create something uniquely yours.   Once you’ve made your holiday wreathes, please photograph them and share their beauty with the rest of us.  Please post photos on your site, and leave a link in the comments so I can enjoy them too!

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My second wreath today

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We will enjoy a walk through Colonial Williamsburg one day soon to enjoy their beautiful seasonal wreathes.  When we do, I’ll take lots of photos to share with you again this year.  I am always delighted by the fresh takes on using fruit and greens, nuts, cones, shells and other natural (and manufactured) items in the wreathes in the historic district of Williamsburg.

Whether you love glitz and glam at the holidays, or prefer something handcrafted or inspired by nature, there are a million ways to express your holiday spirit.

I hope you will join the holiday wreath challenge this year!

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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: Growing Herbs

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One of the nicest things about summer is the garden filled with fresh herbs.  Most herbs prove very easy to grow.  They enjoy full sun, can stand a little dry weather, naturally repel pests, and smell delicious.

Herbs have such beautiful and interesting foliage, that I enjoy using them in containers and in the perennial garden. They also add an interesting touch in a vase.

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Rose scented Pelargonium grows with parsley and fennel.

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Evergreen perennial herbs, like rosemary, often maintain a presence through the winter.  Even when frost damaged, most will begin to recover and grow again by early spring. Although many Mediterranean herbs are marginally hardy in our climate, we’ve had enough success overwintering them that it is well worth making the effort.

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Overwintered Lavender and Artemesia. Artemesia propagates easily from stem cuttings in early spring.

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Parsley, Rosemary, Thyme, Artemesia, culinary sage, Santolina, germander, oregano, chocolate mint and many varieties of Lavender remain evergreen in our garden.  Other herbs, like comphrey, dill and fennel, return with fresh growth once the weather warms.

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Comphrey is one of our earliest herbs to bloom each spring.

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We’ve had mixed experience in overwintering one of my favorite herbs, scented Pelargoniums.   I’m always thrilled to see tiny leaves emerge in early spring where one has survived the winter.  Perennials, they aren’t fond of winter indoors, unless you have a spot to keep them in bright light.

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Thyme provides lots of early nectar for pollinators. It grows into an attractive edging for perennial beds and borders.

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Scented Pelargoniums rank high on my spring shopping list, as I scout out choice varieties wherever herbs are sold.  P. ‘Citronella,’ sold to ward off mosquitoes, can be found in many garden centers and big box plant departments.  But I am always watching for the rose scented varieties and an especially pretty plant called P. ‘Chocolate Mint.’ 

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Pelargonium ‘Lady Plymouth’ has the scent of roses

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Basil grows particularly well for us here in coastal Virginia.  It really takes off quickly in our late spring and summer heat.  Sometimes I begin with seeds, but most often watch for my favorite varieties at herb sales.  Some varieties, like African Blue Basil, are hybrids and can’t be grown true from seeds.

African Blue and Thai Basil quickly grow into small, fragrant shrubs.   I let them flower, and then enjoy the many pollinators they attract all summer.  Their seeds attract goldfinches and usually stand in my garden until after the holidays, when I finally pull the plants once the seeds are gone.

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Basil gone to seed, delighted our goldfinches and other small birds last September.

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Our garden is filling up again with growing herbs, now that we are into mid-May.  Taking some time to enjoy our herbs makes this rainy Friday fabulous.  The perennial herbs are into active growth now, and I’m finding and planting choice varieties of Basil, Salvia and Pelargonium.

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Newly planted Santolina and purple Basil will grow in quickly.

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We experimented with a relatively new Lavender cultivar last year:  L. ‘Phenomenal.’  This very hardy (Zones 5-9) and disease resistant cultivar was introduced by Peace Tree Farms in 2012. Hybrid ‘Phenomenal’ can take our muggy summers, so long as it has reasonably good drainage, and doesn’t die back during the winter.  It will eventually grow to a little more than 2 feet high and wide.  I was curious to see how it would grow for us, and bought a few plugs through Brent and Becky’s Bulbs last spring.

I was so pleased with how fresh they looked all winter, that I ordered new plugs this spring.   The plugs are still growing on in pots, but I look forward to planting them out before the end of May.

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Culinary purple sage grows well with German Iris and other perennials.

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If you have faced challenges in past years overwintering your Lavender, or losing them during a muggy summer; you might want to give L. ‘Phenomenal’ a try.  These will work nicely in a good sized pot if your space is limited.  Add a little lime to the potting mix or garden soil, and try mulching around newly planted Lavender plants with light colored gravel to reflect the heat and protect the foliage from splattered soil.

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Spanish Lavender also proves very hardy and overwinters in our garden.  This is my favorite Lavendula stoechas ‘Otto Quast.’

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Herbs prove such useful plants.  They nourish, they heal, they repel pests, and they thrive in challenging garden conditions.  Their unique leaves and healing scents add beauty to our lives.

Do you rely on herbs in your garden?  Wild at heart, they simply want a place to grow.  Why not try one this summer you’ve not grown before?

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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August herbs in a vase

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Happiness is contagious!  Let’s infect one another!

Changes

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We treasure these fragrant autumn roses, still opening in our garden.   Our ‘Indian Summer’ has begun its inevitable shift towards winter.  The trees here grow more vibrant with each passing day; scarlet, orange, gold and clear yellow leaves dance in the wind and ornament our windshields and drive.  Finally, autumn.

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We’re engaged in the long, slow minuet of change, sped along by storms and cold fronts sweeping across us from elsewhere.  It hit 80 here yesterday as I worked in our garden.  I planted the last of our stash of spring bulbs, and moved an Hydrangea shrub from its pot into good garden soil.  The sun shone brightly as butterflies danced among the Pineapple Sage and flower laden Lantana in the upper garden.

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We had a good, soaking rain over night, waking up to winds from the north and temperatures a good 25 degrees lower than yesterday’s high.  From here on, our nights will dip back into the 40’s again, and I worry about our tender plants.  When  to bring them in?

Last year I carried pots in, and then back out of the garage, for weeks as the temperatures danced up and down.  This year, I”m trying to have a bit more faith and patience, leaving those precious Begonias and ferns in place as long as possible.

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Most of our Caladiums are inside now, but not all.  I’ve left a few out in pots, and am amazed to see new leaves still opening.  Warm sunshine and fresh breezes day after day seem a reward well worth the slight risk of a sudden freeze.

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This is how ‘climate change’ looks in our garden.

We were well into December before our first freeze last year.  It was balmy on Christmas, way too warm to wear holiday sweaters.  One felt more like  having a Margarita  than hot cocoa.  But why complain when the roads are clear and the heat’s not running?

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And I expect more of the same in the weeks ahead.  Our  great ‘pot’ migration from garden to house is delayed a few weeks, with the Begonias and Bougainvillea blooming their hearts out in the garden, still.    The autumn Iris keep throwing up new flower stalks, the Lantana have grown to epic proportions, and the Basil and Rosemary remain covered in flowers.

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But the garden, flower filled as it may be, grows through a growing blanket of fallen leaves.  Heavy dew bejewels each petal and leaf at dawn.  Squirrels gather and chase and chatter as they prepare their nests for the cold coming.

And the roses….

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Their flowers concentrate the last bits of color and fragrance into every precious petal.  They’ve grown sweeter and darker as the nights grow more chilled.

I”m loathe to trim them, this late in the season, and so hips have begun to swell and soon will glow orange, a reminder both of what has passed, and what is yet to come…

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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Autumn Makeover

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This is a good time to refresh our pots for the coming seasons.  In our climate, we have a good six months to enjoy cool-season arrangements.  I like to construct pots which will remain attractive from autumn through until early spring.  Sometimes, these same pots will make it through the following summer with minor adjustments.  This saves time, money, and makes decorating the patio or garden simple.

My favorite formula for a multi-season pot flows from the well know “thriller, filler, spiller” rule.  To construct a pot with staying power, combine evergreen woodies and perennials with cold-weather annuals, bulbs, evergreen vines and ‘accessories.’  Since this is a long-lived arrangement, plan for the inevitable growth and change these plants will experience over the months coming.

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Begin with a generous sized pot.  Remember the growing roots of all those plants you include!  Bulbs, especially, produce huge root systems.  You also want the plants to remain in scale with the pot as they grow.  A large pot allows you to leave the arrangement in place for a longer time before you need to re-pot or plant out the shrub.

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February 23, 2014 spring bulbs 007

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Glazed pots work well in our climate.  But if your winters grow very cold, you might consider a pot made of materials which won’t crack when  the potting soil freezes and thaws repeatedly.

Choose a good ‘thriller’ plant first.  Most garden centers offer great little evergreen shrubs this time of year.  I chose a dwarf Alberta Spruce in a quart pot.  Whatever shrub you choose, try to fill no more than half your pot’s volume with the shrub’s roots.  Osmanthus , Ilex, Camellia,  Thuja, Mahonia, Arborvitae, Buxus  and Leyland Cypress make beautiful pots, too.

If you are satisfied with woody structure during the winter, you might consider planting a deciduous shrub or small tree that blooms in early spring.  Cercis, Witch-hazel, red twig Dogwood, or fruit trees all work well.

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Miniature daffodils grow to only 6"-8" tall and work well in spring pots. Plant the entire bulb and foliage out into a permanent spot in the garden when switching out plantings for summer.

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For a smaller composition, choose a good evergreen perennial instead of a shrub or tree.  I often begin with a Hellebore, which gives great structure and may grow to nearly 2′ high when in bloom.  Arum itallicum is another good choice for a shady location.  Evergreen ferns, Iris, and Heuchera also work well in our Zone 7 winters.

I always plant in a good quality potting soil, amended with fertilizer.  Whether you use slow release Osmocote, Epsoma, or some combination, remember to feed these plants for the best show.  Some gardeners recommend adding good compost or worm castings to the pot when planting shrubs and trees.

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Potted Mahonia blooming on the patio.

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Once you’ve chosen your ‘thriller’ plant, consider adding the surprise element of spring blooming bulbs.  Although the flowers may last for only a few weeks, they pack a punch when little else is blooming.  And, their foliage lasts much longer and helps fill in the pot.

You might choose one type of bulb or several, depending on how much space is left.  And bulbs can be ‘stacked’ according to their required planting depth.  Begin by nestling some Daffodil or tulip bulbs around the bottom of the shrub’s roots.  They should be planted at a depth about 3x their size.  Most large bulbs will go about 6-8″ below the soil level.  You might also choose big showy Fritillarias or Alliums, which will bloom a little later.  Cover the large bulbs with a few inches of potting soil, and then lay a layer of Muscari, Crocus, or even Galanthus for earlier flowers.

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Violas jnder a potted redbud tree grow here with Heuchera and daffodils.

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Next, fill in around the shrub with cold weather annuals like Violas or Snapdragons, or possibly plant a few seeds for cool weather annuals. These are ‘fillers’ to add interest to your arrangment, and are the plants most likely to get switched out frequently.  Perennial Heuchera, Dianthus, or even herbs like Thyme or Rosemary work well as fillers.

If you like grasses, try an evergreen Carex, Mondo grass, or  Liriope.  These tough evergreens will look great no matter the weather and grow more dense as time goes on.  I’ve transplanted Ajuga ‘Black Scallop’ from elsewhere in the garden for this pot.  Ajuga blooms in the spring.

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Finally add some plugs of trailing Ivy or Vinca as ‘spillers’ for your pot.  While I like Ivy, many gardeners avoid it as it can become invasive.  There are many attractive Vincas which will also bloom in the spring, as well as Creeping Jenny and some evergreen varieties of Sedum, like ‘Angelina’ which will continue growing all winter.  I like to finish pots like this with sheets of moss lifted from the garden.

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Violas

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You might use moss, pebbles, aquarium gravel, or even cones or mulch to finish the pot.  This layer looks neat, adds interest, and can help insulate the soil during a freeze.

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The beauty of a potted arrangement like this only increases with time.  When you first plant, water in well with compost tea or a product like Neptune’s Harvest to get everything off to a good start.  You might give a liquid feed again in early spring as the perennials begin to grow again.

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This is a dynamic arrangement which will continually change as the plants grow and fade.  You might enjoy placing it where you can watch it through the winter from a window, or where you will pass it daily as you come and go.  This pot now crowns our ‘stump garden,’ beside the driveway, where we will see it daily.  But it will also remain visible from the street during the winter.

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In early summer you can switch out the annuals and let the pot keep going, or, you can dig a hole large enough to simply set the whole thing into the garden like a plug.   This is a good way to start out small, affordable shrubs or trees and grow them on until they are  large enough to move into the garden.

The first frost doesn’t need to end our gardening adventures.  With a little planning, most of us can enjoy beautiful pots year round.

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october-4-2016-pots-008

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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