It’s finally raining. Cool, soft rain has been falling for several hours now with more on the way. It is such a relief, because I’ve been pulling hoses and carrying full buckets of water nearly every day for the past several weeks to keep the pots and certain parts of the gardens watered. It has been hot and muggy, which has encouraged all of the flowers and elephant ears to push out new flowers and growth and stay beautiful longer than usual; so long as they can stay hydrated. Otherwise, we have drooping stems and crispy leaves.
I’ve been doing July chores in October. And even as we admire the lushness, my thoughts have already turned to changing out plants for the winter, planting bulbs and cutting back.
I dug out the first Caladiums and Callas this week, laying the bulbs in a cardboard flat to dry. I replaced the Caladiums with soft pink snapdragons to bloom on into the winter and again in earliest spring. Trays of ferns and herbs are marshalled, ready to begin new lives in pots as soon as I lift out the summer tenants.
And here into the second week of October I’m still waiting to find that particular variety of Panola that blends pink and burgundy and softest yellow in each ruffled blossom. My planting visions are filled with this warm palette of color to brighten winter pots.
Climate confusion affects us all. Butterflies linger a bit longer. Trees remain green well into ‘autumn.’ It is still too warm to plant most of the winter ornamentals that usually fill nurseries and garden centers in October. Gardening trains us in patience and flexibility. And appreciation for even the smallest bit of beauty.
Do you have pots that stand empty for weeks out of the year? In northern climates, gardeners often empty and clean their pots in winter. Since unglazed ceramic pots absorb water and sometimes crack in freezing temperatures, this makes sense. But how empty things must look once summer’s beautiful pots go into storage.
Fourth Dimensional Gardening
Gardeners work in four dimensions. Of course we consider how tall a plant will grow and how deep its roots will go. Every plant grows to a certain width and depth to fill the space around it. But we also work in a fourth dimension: time. Each plant appears, grows, and fades according to its own schedule. We can use this to our advantage, planning for various plants to appear in their season, dovetailing to create a series of beautiful compositions during each gardening year.
Our coastal Virginia remains mild enough to enjoy our pots throughout the year. With a little planning, a gardener can have a beautiful display, and maybe even something in bloom, every week of the year. Once you have the right sort of pot positioned in a sheltered spot, your horticultural imagination is free to experiment with a range of beautiful plants.
Gifts are always fun. Gardening gifts are the best, and gifts of plants always warm my heart. A living plant is a gift from the heart, and it creates a special bond between giver and receiver as the plant grows on and develops into its potential.
That said, sometimes those gifted plant can get too enthusiastic and create work down the road. But when that happens, I try to dig up those I can’t use and share them with someone else. I love trying new plants I’ve not grown before. Most gardeners I know love expanding their gardening experience by growing out new types of plants.
When California Horticulturalist, Tony Tomeo, who I’ve been corresponding with for the last several years through our respective blogs, offered to send me some windmill palms, Trachycarpus fortunei, I immediately accepted his kind offer. He told me these were babies, and he assured me that they should grow OK here in coastal Virginia.
I’ve not grown palms before. What a wonderful opportunity to learn something new! I know that they will do well on my sheltered front patio. Since these are slow growing, I can keep them in pots on the patio for the time being, to watch them grow. Once they settle in and grow more roots, I expect to transplant two of these beautiful palms into large pots on either side of my front porch.
A cold front this week blessed us with cooler temperatures and lower humidity. The oppressive summer air was blown out to sea, and what followed feels crisp and clean. I can see a few scarlet leaves and scarlet dogwood berries in the trees near my window, a sure sign that the season has turned, and the equinox is behind us now.
Each day will be minutes shorter now. Mornings come later, but the cool comfortable hours for gardening last deep into the afternoon. I’m drawn out again and again to tweak this or that and to capture a few photos. Colors have grown bright and intense after days of rain and real relief from summer’s heat.
Even as the wheel of the year turns towards winter, we enjoy the culmination of a fruitful summer. Beautyberries glow purple, inviting the many birds filling our garden to feast on them and spread their seeds. Goldfinches fly up from stands of Rudbeckia to safer perches in the trees at our approach. We find partially eaten hickory nuts and exploded beech nut hulls on the driveway, dropped by birds and squirrels.
It is a season of abundance for all the wild creatures our garden supports. Nectar rich flowers open daily, pushing against one another in their expansive growth. It is hard to walk through the upper garden now. The paths have filled with fallen stems, and I rarely cut back some faded something to make the way easier for our passage.
… While the calendar may promise cooling temperatures, we continue baking in the late summer heat and high humidity here in coastal Virginia. The plants are tired. We find freshly fallen leaves each day now, and the dogwood trees have already begun to turn towards their scarlet finale. Spiderwebs shimmer across pathways and openings as the zipper spiders grow fat and shiny. There are plenty of smaller prey for them to feast on, still.
So many leaves on trees and perennials grow ratty in September as insects eat holes in them and dry days leave them with crispy edges. Perhaps that is why the elephant ears stand out so beautifully in these closing weeks of the growing season…
Fern reproduction remains a bit of a mystery to me. A mystery that borders on the ‘magical’ when tiny ferns appear growing out of the mosses along the paths of our back garden. This two-step sexual reproduction appeared on Earth untold millions of years ago, allowing the first plants to recombine their genetic materials to produce new generations of some algae, mosses, liverworts, and finally ferns, the earliest vascular plants.
Most of our familiar plants produce seeds after fertilization of their flowers or cones with pollen. The pollen may be carried from one plant to another by a pollinating insect or other animal, or by the wind. Ferns, and other simple plants, don’t produce seeds. The microscopic activities of their spores are all but invisible to our eye. So, I am curious, and am studying others’ successes with fern propagation so I might learn to propagate my favorite ferns, too.
Ferns have successfully propagated themselves in nature, with no human assistance, for millennia. So it shouldn’t be too complicated, right? These very knowledgeable writers describe strategies that lead to success, and also explain how inattention to detail can lead to failure.
My first successes in growing baby ferns from spore were entirely accidental. Spore from potted ferns on my deck fell onto potting soil that I sealed up in a zip-lock bag for the winter while I waited for some seeds I’d sown in that shallow container of potting soil to germinate. At first, I thought a nice crop of moss was growing on the soil. As I kept checking the container every few weeks this spring, I was amazed and delighted to recognize tiny ferns growing from the green structures on the soil I had thought would become mosses.
Read more here on my new website, Our Forest Garden, which is a continuation of A Forest Garden. I hope you will follow the new site so you don’t miss any new posts.
There is an inspiring feature about fern tables in the current Horticulture Magazine, written by Richie Steffen. Steffen is the Executive Director of the Elizabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, Washington and President of the Hardy Fern Foundation. I’ve read the article through a few times now and studied the illustrations for ideas. It is an excellent overview of fern tables and I highly recommend reading it if you love ferns and enjoy container gardening.
A fern table is a representation of the forest floor, built up from a flat surface. The arrangement typically includes small to medium sized ferns, mosses, shade loving woodland perennials, small shrubs, vines, bits of old wood and rocks. Fern tables may be built directly on a tabletop, on a concrete paver, or on a tray.
These fern tables are designed as permanent outdoor installations, built on concrete bases and measuring several feet square. They are very natural and rustic. They may be used indoors or on a porch or patio, as a centerpiece or runner on a table, or may be placed in the garden as a focal point.
This form takes elements from bonsai, from kokedama balls, and from container gardening to create something new and different. Built up from a solid but flat surface, these displays look a bit illogical and perhaps a bit dangerous. One must break a few gardening ‘rules’ to create them. But they are also whimsical and fun. I wanted to try to create arrangements in this style.
Before investing in concrete blocks and pavers and building something permanent in the garden as a gift for my squirrel friends, I decided to experiment on a smaller scale. So I found some simple Bonsai trays to use as a base. These are entirely portable and may be used indoors or out on our deck. My rectangular trays are 8″ x 10″ and have a shallow side, perhaps a half inch deep. Perhaps I should call my arrangements ‘Fern Trays’ rather than ‘Fern Tables.’
As a young gardener, I bought and cared for individual plants I liked. I still remember a beautiful, red-leafed Begonia in a hanging basket that I bought at a Richmond farmer’s market in the early 80’s. I happily brought it home to my little apartment and hung it on the screened in porch. It brought tremendous joy as it bloomed and stretched and succeeded in that humble little space.
Many of us may spend our entire gardening lives focusing on single plants. There are orchid enthusiasts, African violet enthusiasts, rose enthusiasts and Begonia enthusiasts; and we can remain quite happy with our special plants in special little pots doing their beautiful genus specific ‘thing.’
But at some point, some of us experiment with putting several different types of plants, together, into a single pot or basket. You may have seen ‘how-to’ articles in gardening magazines that offer recipes for container gardens of 3, 5, 7, maybe 9 or more plants. When plants are grown together in a community like this, we call it an ‘association.’
It takes a little more understanding of the chosen plants to create a successful association. In addition to considerations of the various colors of the flowers and leaves, we also consider each plant’s form. What will grow tall? What will droop or drape down the pot? What will grow thick and dense? What will reach out of the arrangement for the sun, or what will creep across the soil as a groundcover? When will the flowers bloom, and for how long?
To create a good association, we also need to know what is happening in the soil. How deep do each plants roots want to grow? Do any have taproots? Will there be bulbs dividing and expanding? Rhizomes creeping?
And of course, we need to consider the amount of sun each plant needs to thrive, and which plants might die back with too much or too little light. Does the plant want the soil to dry between waterings, or should the soil remain moist? Or ever waterlogged? Most of us learn these things through our mistakes as much as through our study.
It may be simpler to use a recipe from a magazine, but experienced gardeners develop their own ideas of favorite associations that suit their own microclimate. A simple potted arrangement also allows us to learn about new plants, watching them carefully through a season or two to learn more about how they perform. We can decide whether to grow more, or move on to something else.
A good association of plants can carry a pot or basket with something of interest every month of the year. Winter blooming annuals, bulbs that begin their growth during the cold weeks of winter, and good strong foliage plants can bridge the awkward times when nothing else much may bloom. Annuals may be popped in and out of a grouping anchored by a shrub or an evergreen perennial.
Pots are a great way to try out new associations of plants. Some will work beautifully, and maybe others, not so much. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Pots are portable, allowing a gardener to easily move the grouping into different light, and to control the water more reliably.
Those of us blessed with a bit of ground where we can dig, and plant, will eventually create associations in our garden beds and borders. That is how great designs develop, as we get a good feel for which plants make good neighbors and stunning displays together.
Baby plants have a particular charm for me. I spent a happy half hour this afternoon browsing the display of tiny ‘terrarium’ plants in 1” pots at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond. and came home with more than a half dozen tiny starts of Begonias and ferns. What fun! I have a couple of future projects taking shape in imagination, and I gathered some of the plants and staging I will need for them today.
The charm of baby plants is their mystery and their promise. What will it look like as it grows? How beautiful will it be as it blooms? How will it fit into my garden?
I have purchased countless baby plants over the years that ‘seemed like a great idea at the time.’ And then there were gifts of little divisions that came from friends in grocery bags and old nursery pots. Gifts of love and kindness, all. Especially when our upper garden was largely an empty, mulch carpeted blank slate, gardening friends expressed their compassion and well-wishes with gifts from their own gardens. Plus, they know I’m a sucker for a new plant, right?
The promise inherent in most of these sweet little starts is that they will be happy in our garden, will feel comfortably at home, and will grow.
Here lies the irony experienced gardeners know in their bones: some cute little baby plants grow up to become out of control real estate tycoons. Sound like a familiar story?
Have you ever noticed how some gardeners want to show off their mulch? Every plant or species group is carefully set far enough apart from the next to grow neatly, like little islands, in a sea of brown mulch. These curated clumps of vegetation may be arranged into an arc or grid or another clever scheme.
If shrubs, they are neatly sheared often enough to keep them in their intended shape. And the whole scene is surrounded by a sharp bordered sea of fresh mulch to demarcate the planting space.
I see these neatly manicured beds at the entrances to shopping centers and upscale neighborhoods, always anchored by a few rounded, evergreen shrubs. The color plants usually get switched out seasonally, with a few dozen little Begonias planted in April or May, replacing the ornamental cabbages and pansies planted last October. Once the cabbages flower, they look weedy, and are goners.
Of course, one must weed to keep it in shape. Seeds blow in from everywhere, so one must weed by hand, or spray periodically with an herbicide, to keep things neat. And often the answer is simply piling on more shredded bark mulch over the old, hiding what has faded. Mulch piles creep up the trunks of any larger trees like little brown mountains, beneath their leafy canopies.
This Aristotelian garden style asks us to make a lot of choices. First, and most importantly, what is a desirable plant, and what is a weed? What makes one plant desirable, and another not? The gardener always gets to choose.