Six on Saturday: Companions

Ferns grow with Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop,’ Vinca, Arum and Hellebores

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.

Read more at Our Forest Garden

My Final Plant Order

The second part of an order as it arrived on April 11, 2014. Michigan bulb did replace these plants when notified of their condition on arrival.

Back in the day, I loved finding a plant or seed catalog in the mail.  I studied each one carefully, marking up my wish list and then winnowing it down to something almost reasonable.  I read the descriptions on each shrub and perennial, compared tomato, bean and squash varieties, and stayed abreast of all the latest and greatest plant introductions.

Over the past thirty years (plus or minus) I have ordered everything from fruit trees to roses, ferns, geraniums, tomato seeds and Caladium bulbs.

I have received some fine, healthy plants that grew well, and I’ve received some duds.  Like you probably have over the years, too.  I used to collect heirloom roses and fruit trees.  There weren’t deer or rabbits in that garden, and I could grow vegetables and strawberries, too.  I grew at least six varieties of apples and three different peaches, all purchased through the mail.

I remember those days fondly.  The mail came every day, efficiently and without long delays.  Prices were fair and nursery companies were honorable and cared about their reputations.

July 2014

But things change over time, don’t they?  For the last few years, most of the nursery catalogs that make it to my mailbox go straight to the recycling can, just as soon as I can remove and shred my address label.  A quick glance shows me how ridiculously overpriced the most common perennial can be when ordered through the mail.  What I can buy locally for $5 suddenly becomes a $20 a plant before tacking on the postage.

It has been a long time since I have found a good deal on anything other than my favorite Caladium tubers.  A few years ago, I took a chance on ordering a rare, hard to locate Iris.  I ordered from a huge national company that advertises heavily, used a coupon code, and waited excitedly for my Iris to arrive.  The stock looked good on arrival and I potted up the several I had purchased.  They didn’t bloom the first year, and so I had an entire year to anticipate these inky, almost black, species Iris flowers. 

And then there were buds, and finally the buds opened…. blue.  What had been sold as an Iris chrysographes bloomed as a pale blue Japanese Iris.  It was a pretty enough Iris, but not what I had ordered.  And so instead of refunding my purchase, the company sent me a letter promising store credit on my next order.  That letter sat in my filing cabinet for a couple of years, because I truly wasn’t interested in buying anything else from them.

And then temptation struck me this past February.  February does strange things to an otherwise sensible gardener’s sensibility.  I found this fern I just had to have, and this company had it at a fair enough price.  And so one freezing February day I ordered the golden fern and a couple of Calla lily bulbs, and paid for it with my letter of credit, plus a few extra dollars to cover the difference.

We are fortunate to have Brent and Becky’s Bulbs close enough to shop with them in person.

Well, the fern arrived just fine in early March, but no bulbs.  They said the bulbs would be along shortly.  And so I waited patiently through the time frame they indicated, and still no Calla bulbs.  When I called customer service last week, the sweet lady apologized profusely while telling me that the next time frame for mailing them would be mid-May.  No thank you.

I cancelled the order, scolding myself the entire time, and requested a refund.  Well, I’m still waiting for that refund.  Are you surprised?

I tried a new company last February, too.  The Tennessee Wholesale Nursery has a professional looking website and carries a large selection of bare root ferns.  I was in fern bliss ordering species never found in stores.   The order arrived a few weeks later in March, and I was pleased with what I received.

Pleased enough that I had the botanical garden where I volunteer place an order for a project I was planting there.  We were a bit shocked to pay around $30 for postage for a few packages of bare root ferns, but there was no stated shipping policy on the website other than a statement that they would determine the shipping on each order.  Those ferns were shipped the same day they were ordered, and I was a very happy gardener to open that order, too.

The silvery underside of each frond is this fern’s distinguishing feature. I brought this fern home from Oregon in my luggage in 2019.

Perhaps I should have been satisfied and left it at that.  But no, I wanted a few more ferns for my spring projects, so I placed the third order with Tennessee Wholesale Nursery in mid-March.  The website indicated it would ship out in March, and my credit card was charged on March 20.

And I’m still waiting for that order a month later in mid-April, while getting nothing helpful or encouraging from their customer service agent.  When they told me last Monday that they wouldn’t be able to dig my ferns for several more weeks, I asked that the order be cancelled if they couldn’t ship by today. Numerous attempts to call the available numbers led only through the phone tree to full voice mailboxes.

Well, the order wasn’t prepared last week, and so on Friday, I requested that it be cancelled, and my payment refunded. No acknowledgement, just an apology.  It is getting too late in the season here for me to want to start off with bare root plants.  Our cool spring is history, and it is stressful for plants to have to grow new roots in our heat.

I requested again today that the order be cancelled.  And I followed up with an email to the owner.  Still, no acknowledgment that it has been cancelled, or that my refund is in process, even after writing to the owner.   Instead of happily planting my ferns, I am left pondering next steps . . .

2013, An Afghan Fig, newly arrived in the mail, ready to plant. It is still thriving in our garden today.

I have one more plant order ‘out there’ that is supposed to ship this week from Plant Delights in North Carolina.  This will be my first order with them in several years.  Once their shipping costs went above $30 for even a single plant, it cooled my plant lust considerably.  All it took was a few moments of ‘doing the math’ to figure out the actual cost of the plant to convince me that I didn’t need it that badly.

But I was given a gift of cash and asked to get something I had been wanting for a while.  And after several days of thinking about it, I decided to support the work that Plant Delights does for the horticultural community with a purchase/donation.  I say donation because the prices are so high.  But they are quite honest and let you know that your purchase helps support their botanical garden where the plants are trialed and cultivated.  Fair enough.

These three Colocasia plants were all purchased through the mail. The tall Colocasia “Black Runner” arrived from Plant Delights Nursery on April 2, 2014, in perfect condition. The tiny Colocasia, “Pink China” plants arrived from another company in poor condition. You get what you pay for!

I am waiting to hear that the order has shipped.  Plant Delights has a good track record of customer service.  If you don’t mind paying $20-$30 a plant for a little something in a 3.5” pot, you can source plants from them unavailable from anyone else.  And, the plants are healthy and correctly labeled.

Buying new plants should be joyous.  We all want to be treated fairly and to receive good value for our expenditure.  The plants we receive should be healthy, arrive at the correct time, and we should be able to communicate with the nursery staff if problems arise.

Many of the old names in the mail-order nursery business have gone under in recent years.  Others have consolidated.  This past year has presented special challenges for every sort of business, including mail-order nurseries.  I appreciate the work they do and the opportunity to purchase unusual plants few others carry.

This past week I unsubscribed from the emails of all but two nursery companies.  Why read the emails and see the sales when I’ve decided to stop ordering from them?  I am still allowing emails from Plant Delights, because I enjoy seeing their new introductions.  And I am still impressed with the quality, service and selection at Classic Caladiums, in Avon Park, Florida.

Beyond that, I have placed my final plant order.  I will shop locally or find happiness with whatever wildflower or sapling pops up in my yard.  Because peace of mind is priceless.

Native dogwood is our state flower, and the Virginia Native Wildflower of the Year for 2018. Best of all, it seeds itself around our garden for free.

Building a Fern Bed to Reduce Erosion

Rainy weather and frequent storms over the past few years have presented a particular challenge.  We are situated on a sloping bit of land on the side of a ravine.  A creek runs through the ravine below us and empties into a small lake.

Working with the continual erosion has remained a constant theme of our gardening here.  Our challenge is to slow the flow of water to increase opportunities for rain to soak into the soil for later use, while reducing the amount of flowing water that erodes the soil and runs off into the ravine.

Read more about the construction of this new series of raised beds, and see photos of some of the ferns we’ve chosen at my new site, Our Forest Garden.

If you enjoy these posts. please follow my new site, Our Forest Garden, so you remain up to date with all of the activity in our garden.

-WG 2021

Providing Habitat for Native Bees

The original Pollinator Palace at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden has been renovated this month. Read more here

Did you know the majority of bees that pollinate our food crops and wildflowers do not live in hives and do not produce honey? 

Hive-dwelling honey-producing bees did not even exist in North America until they were brought here by European immigrants in the early 1600’s.  That means the honeybee, which has become important to commercial agriculture and has captured press attention due to hive collapse, is not a native insect species.   

There are roughly 4,000 species of native bees and they are all in grave peril because all of them are in population decline. 

Informed  gardeners know and love native bumble bees, carpenter bees, mason bees, leaf cutter bees and sweat bees, to name only a few.  This branch of entomology is still expanding as scientists are now beginning to understand just how important native bee are to healthy ecosystems.  Many native bee species haven’t yet been thoroughly studied.

There are things that gardeners and enthusiasts can easily do to support our native bees.  A gardener’s  most important role in protecting and supporting bees (and other pollinators) is to grow plenty of flowers to provide them with nectar and pollen.  Bees come out earlier in the springtime now than in previous years, and so it is helpful to provide early blooms to feed them.

 Flowers vary in the quality and nutritional value of their pollen.  Native plants provide the highest quality food for native bees.

Any gardener who supports wildlife simply must not use pesticides or other chemicals in the garden that will poison them.  Pesticides and herbicides get into the ecosystem of the garden and have a profound impact on pollinators, birds and small mammals, in addition to the problem insects they target.

Bumble bees are probably the largest and most recognizable of our native bees because they are large and easily observed.  They are ‘generalists’ and will visit almost any blooming flower.  While other bee species will only forage from one type of plant at a time and may prefer certain flower species or flower forms, bumblebees will freely visit most flowers in bloom.   Bumblebees often live in communities underground with a queen and her daughters managing the hive and caring for the young.

While some native bees prefer to live in the ground, many other species are solitary, and make nests to lay their eggs in wood or the dried stems of plants.  When we thoroughly clean up our gardens each fall, cutting the drying, dying stems of perennials, picking up all the sticks and raking all the leaves, we also dispose of many larval bees and other important insects.

Read more at Our Forest Garden

Six on Saturday: Spring in Our ‘Novel’ Garden

When we first moved to this garden nearly 12 years ago, we were delighted to find daffodils blooming our first spring, in a lush mass across a bank in the front yard.  We watched in wonder as their buds opened, revealing their varied forms and colors. 

Our next door neighbors, an English couple, also love daffies and plant a fresh lot of bulbs each fall to add to their springtime display.  Daffodils are heirloom plants, blooming for many decades after they are planted.  They divide each summer and sometimes their seeds are spread around, allowing for natural hybrids and unpredictable spread. Their bright yellows, whites and golds light up our woodlands before the first buds of Forsythia or wild deerberries begin their bloom.

Read more and see more garden photos

Have you visited my new website, Our Forest Garden?

This is a continuation of A Forest Garden, with additional storage space for fresh photos. You’ll also find a library of directories that make it easy for you to find information published here over the past 7 years.

Directories to previous posts on the site include:

On Gardening

Trees and Shrubs

Ferns and Mosses

Green Thumb Tips

Choosing Native Plants

Good Garden Books

Begonias

Caladiums and other Aroids

Herbs

The new site is still a work in progress, and I hope you will visit and have a look at the new format. Please bookmark or follow Our Forest Garden to continue to receive notice of new posts as they are published.

-WG March 2021

Six On Saturday: Happy Pots in January

January and February might be months gardeners choose to take off.  After all, it is hard to get too enthusiastic with a northwest wind blowing and temperatures dropping, even if the sun shines for a few hours of the day.  Plant choices dwindle as temperatures drop, and frozen soil makes it even more challenging to keep potted plants hydrated.  Leaves may get crispy edges when roots can’t absorb enough water to replace moisture left to cold, drying winds.  Frozen soil is almost as limiting to plant growth as dry soil.

That’s why I pay attention and take note of potted plants that still shine with vigor and health by late January.  I get excited by every winter flower, green leaf, and promise of continued growth.  Granted, our winters here in Williamsburg may be milder than most.  And our coldest, frostiest weather often waits for February or early March, just as we’re primed for spring.  But I’ll tell you that last night was in the 20s here, and it had only warmed up into the 30s when I took these photos.  These are a few plants that have proven themselves sturdy through colder nights and icier days in winters passed. Read More on Our Forest Garden

 

Have you visited my new website, Our Forest Garden?

This is a continuation of A Forest Garden, with additional storage space for fresh photos. You’ll also find a library of directories that make it easy for you to find information published here over the past 7 years.

Directories to previous posts on the site include:

On Gardening

Trees and Shrubs

Ferns and Mosses

Green Thumb Tips

Choosing Native Plants

Good Garden Books

Begonias

Caladiums and other Aroids

Herbs

The new site is still a work in progress, and I hope you will visit and have a look at the new format. Please bookmark or follow Our Forest Garden to continue to receive notice of new posts as they are published.

-WG January 2021

Our Forest Garden

Moss garden with Canadian Hemlock and holly seedlings

The time has cometo continue the journey that we began in June of 2013, with A Forest Garden, on a new site.

After over 1700 posts, it seems I’ve filled up all of the space allowed for new photos. If you are a regular visitor, you might have noticed fewer new posts over the past several months as I approached the limit time and again. I deleted some old material, recycled a few old photos, and tried to make it to January 2021 to organize a new website.

Now, in the quiet months, I have the time to assemble a new and improved “Our Forest Garden” site for gardening friends old and new.

If you have been a follower for awhile, I hope you will follow this new site today, so you will still receive notifications when new content is posted. If you are a new follower, you will be able to still access any old content of interest to you on A Forest Garden. I am building links between the sites for your convenience.

In fact, you may find it easier to find content by using the new directory pages I’m setting up to try to organize seven and a half years of posts. You’ll find these pages of links on the menu.  There are several of these directory pages already constructed and I have plans to continue adding new pages for a while.

Over the years, the most popular posts on A Forest Garden have been the ‘how to’ posts. The posts most heavily viewed have generally been those about trees, Begonias and Caladiums. With lots of media space open, I plan to offer some new posts on these popular topics.

My interests have expanded over the years, and my gardening community has grown. Even as our garden space has filled up with plants, my curiosity to grow new genera and to garden in new ways has also increased. I’m more curious now about working with nature in ever more subtle ways to support our rich ecosystem.

I am a ‘dirty hands’ gardener and am always happy with my hands in the soil, helping something to grow. My camera is always close at hand and I try to capture as much of the action as possible to document the passing of the seasons, the growth of favorite plants, and the presence of butterflies, birds, turtles, rabbits, and the other creatures who visit us.

There is so much left to grow and left to learn. I invite you to remain with me on the journey.

The Woodland Gnome January 2021

To receive notifications of all new posts, please visit and follow:

Our Forest Garden launched January 2021

Illuminations- Walking in Beauty Each Day launched April 2020

Fresh Start 2021: Carbon Garden

October blooming Camellia sasanqua

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Only recently have I come across the term ‘Carbon Garden’ in the current issue of Horticulture Magazine.  You may be ahead of me on this one, but the picture that came to mind when I first saw the term wasn’t very pretty.  The reality of it is much more attractive, and this garden style proves easier to maintain than many other garden styles.

Like other elements, carbon is an atom that can manifest as a solid, in a liquid, or as a gas.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) remain in the news because they contribute so much to our warming environment.  Gasses like carbon dioxide and methane (CH4) trap heat from the sun near the surface of the earth, causing warmer weather and heavier rainfalls.  Conversations around reversing the current warming trends usually focus on reducing carbon emissions and finding ways to scrub carbon out of the air.

Magically, we have living tools for removing carbon from the air right outside our windows.  You see, every green plant cell uses carbon dioxide in its daily efforts to feed itself and sustain the entire plant.  In the presence of sunlight, carbon dioxide and water transform into glucose, used to power plant growth, and the waste product oxygen, which of course we need in every breath.

When you contemplate a leafy tree, imagine each leaf inhaling polluted air and transforming that air into pure food and oxygen.

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Japanese Maple

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Glucose is further transformed into cellulose, which structures the cell wall of every plant cell.  Now, imagine a tree’s roots growing deeper and wider into the earth with each passing year.  What are those roots made from?  Cellulose:  largely, carbon.

A tree, and most any other plant, can stash carbon deep underground where it will remain for many years in solid form.  Many plants also store nitrogen, filtered out of the air, on their roots.  In fact, any plant in the pea family stores little nodules of solid nitrogen along their roots.  Knowing that nitrogen is a major component of fertilizers, you understand how this stored nitrogen increases the fertility of the soil in the area where these plants grow.

Plant leaves are also made primarily of carbon.  When the leaves fall each autumn, they hold stored, solid carbon.  If returned to the soil as compost or mulch, the carbon remains stored, or sequestered, in solid form in the soil.  This is how ordinary garden soil may be transformed into a ‘carbon sink.’

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Turkey tail mushrooms help decompose the stump of a fallen peach tree. Leaving the stump in place and allowing vegetation to cover it conserves its carbon in the soil.

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A log is made largely of stored carbon.  When you burn it in the fireplace, those chemical bonds break down, and much of the carbon rises back into the air as smoke.  If the same log is made into a cutting board or other wooden object, then the carbon remains in sold form.

Just as burning can break chemical bonds to release carbon back into the air, so will decomposition.  We’ve come to understand that bare dirt, including tilled fields and gardens, releases carbon back into the air.  But ground covered by mulch or living plants doesn’t allow that carbon to move back into the air.

All of this helps explain the science behind the principles of Carbon Gardening, whose goal is to scrub as much carbon as possible out of the air and sequester it in the earth.  Forests have done this very efficiently for untold ages.

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Only in recent times, with so much natural forest cleared and land exposed, has our planet begun its dramatic warming.  Think of all the carbon stored over the centuries as coal, petroleum, peat, and held close under a forest canopy that has been released into our atmosphere over the past century.

So, the point of Carbon Gardening is to use one’s own garden to sequester as much carbon as possible, using gardening methods that hold the carbon in the soil, without burning or releasing any more carbon than possible in the process.

Every breath we exhale contains carbon dioxide.  Our cells produce it as they produce energy.  We live in harmony with the plants we grow, taking in the oxygen they exhale while giving them back our own carbon rich breath.  That said, please don’t try to hold your breath as you make your Carbon Garden.

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Camellia sasanqua

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Here are a few principles of Carbon Gardening that may help point you in the right direction. 

The Audubon Society has a series of articles that go into far more detail.

  1. Plant intensely in layers:  The more plants in growth the more carbon will be scrubbed from the air each day.  Trees are most efficient because they support a huge volume of leaves.  Include evergreen trees that continue respiration through the winter months, and plant a shrub layer, perennial layer, and ground covers under the trees to maximize the amount of carbon absorbed by your garden.  Evergreen perennials and ground covers continue absorbing and storing carbon through the winter months.

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  1. Feed carbon (and nitrogen) back into your soil with plant materials. Use wood chips, bark, and shredded leaves as mulch to minimize bare ground.  Remember that roots sequester a large amount of carbon and nitrogen, so leave those roots in the ground.  Cut weeds or spent annuals at ground level instead of pulling them up.  Compost trimmings and leaves, kitchen waste, and unneeded cardboard, newsprint or brown paper.

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This is a very thin layer of compost covering collected branches, bark and leaves from our fallen tree.  We added additional layers of organic material to build the new planting bed.

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  1. Instead of tilling soil and exposing stored carbon, sheet compost in the winter to prepare for spring planting. Cover the garden area with cardboard or paper to protect the soil and smother any weeds.  Build up layers of composable materials, or even bagged municipal compost, and allow it to decompose in place so that planting seeds or transplants in the spring is possible without tilling or excessive digging.  Coffee grounds, tea bags, rinsed eggshells and other kitchen scraps can be ‘buried’ in the layers of a sheet compost pile, but be careful not to discard of seeds in this way unless you want them to sprout in the spring.

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Paper grocery bags covered with several inches of compost smother weeds and soften the ground for this new planting bed, eliminating the need to dig the area up first.  Pea gravel helps hold this area, which is on a slope.

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  1. Remain mindful of garden ‘inputs’ that burn carbon. This includes garden equipment that burns gas, commercial fertilizers, and maybe even those fun trips to the garden center….?

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This bin of new Caladium bulbs was ready to be planted out in mid-May.  Ordering bare root perennials, bulbs, tubers and seeds and starting them at home reduces the carbon footprint of a garden.  The red leaf is C. ‘Burning Heart,’ a 2015 introduction from Classic Caladiums in Avon Park, FL.

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  1. If you normally buy flats of annual plants each spring for pots or borders, consider how to plant those areas more sustainably. Consider all of the carbon releasing ‘inputs’ required to produce those plants, including the plastic containers they are grown in, the transportation to move them, and the chemical fertilizers and peat based potting soil used in growing them.  While all plants sequester carbon from the air, commercial nursery production of short-lived plants releases carbon into the atmosphere throughout the process and should be considered by conscientious gardeners.  What can you raise from seeds, cuttings or divisions, or obtain through trade with gardening friends?

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Saxifraga stolonifera is an evergreen ground cover that is easy to divide and share.  It grows here with Ajuga ‘Black Scallop,’ Hellebores and ferns.

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  1. Choose native perennials or ones that will naturalize in your climate, so your plants spread and reproduce, reducing the number of plants you need to buy each year to fill your garden. Design a sustainable garden that grows lushly with minimal ‘inputs’ and intervention from the gardener.  Native and naturalizing perennials won’t need much watering during dry spells, will make do with nutrients in the soil, and will expand and self-seed.

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  1. Woody plants sequester carbon in their roots and branches and live for many years. These are the most efficient Carbon Garden plants.   A garden made mostly from trees, shrubs, perennial ferns and groundcovers, will work most efficiently.  Some more arid areas have great success with long-lived succulents.  Consider replacing turf grass with plants that don’t require such intense maintenance.

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Mountain Laurel blooms each May, is native to our region and forms dense clumps over time.

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  1. Use the I-Tree Tool to educate yourself about the power of trees in your landscape to sequester and store carbon, reduce run-off and scrub other pollutants out of the air. Use this tool when selecting new trees to plant in your own yard.

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From left: new leaves emerge red on this hybrid crape myrtle, small Acer palmatum leaves emerge red and hold their color into summer, red buckeye, Aesculus pavia is naturalized in our area and volunteers in unlikely places, blooming scarlet each spring. In the distance, dogwood blooms in clouds of white.

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‘Carbon Gardening’ can make a significant contribution to scrubbing carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the earth, and the total contribution multiplies as the plants grow and the garden develops year to year.  A fully grown native tree can removed fifty or more pounds of carbon from the air annually.  While the amount varies by tree species and size, every year of growth increases the tree’s effectiveness.

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Each gardener who adopts sustainable practices makes a sizeable contribution to off-set and mitigate carbon production in their area.  Planting more plants and allowing them to grow densely also helps manage rainfall so it is stored onsite, rather than running off so rapidly.  The plants sustain wildlife and build a richly integrated ecosystem.

We reduce our own annual costs for new plants, fertilizers, other chemicals and fuel, while also reducing our time invested in garden maintenance.  It is a good approach for any of us who enjoy watching nature weave her tapestry each year, sustainably, while knowing that our gardens are part of the solution to climate warming and climate change.

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Woodland Gnome 2021

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Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful and a positive thought.

Six On Saturday: More Winter Flowers for Pollinators

Mahonia aquifolium January 19, 2020

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Have you noticed bees and other insects feeding later than usual this year?  And did you notice how many were out feeding on warm days last winter?  Our roller coaster weather in recent years has affected insects, birds and other animals so that they may be out and about on warmish days in months when we don’t expect to see them.  And, of course they are hungry!

Increased activity translates into an increased need for calories.  Providing winter forage for pollinators and birds presents gardeners with an interesting challenge.  This also brings us round again to that ongoing discussion of ‘native’ vs. imported plants.  As a former forensics coach as well as a smitten gardener, I could argue either side of this issue, and have.

But consider that few of our ‘native’ plants actually bloom between November and February in this climate.  Most of our winter blooming flowers are actually native to areas of Europe, the Mediterranean region, South Africa, or Asia.  Even though the plants may have originated on another continent, they fill an important ecological niche by offering nectar and pollen, sustaining insects who might otherwise starve when they venture out on warming winter days.

Now a native plant advocate could offer the counter argument that many imported plants have adapted so well to our climate, and naturalized so freely, that they sometimes crowd out our indigenous native species.  I could list off a half-dozen woody species that bloom in winter or early spring and have done just that.  The most interesting conversations continue that way.  And while we sit with our tea or toddy and argue the fine points of the question, developers are out with their heavy equipment clear cutting our local forests to widen the roads and plant new neighborhoods and shopping strips.

So let’s not argue, but rather agree to plant consciously and with purpose to sustain the wildlife we have left, absorb as much carbon as possible from the warming air, and to create spots of beauty to cheer and inspire us.

One of my favorite winter blooming shrubs remains the Mahonia aquifolium, which is a North American native shrub that has naturalized in Virginia.  There are several species, hybrids and cultivars of Mahonia, and all bloom extravagantly in December through February or early March each year, with plump, edible drupes forming by early summer.  Oregon Grape Holly offers shelter and food for birds, nectar for pollinating insects, and has such stiff, sharp leaves that deer and other herbivores don’t graze its leaves.  If you plant some of the finer leaf varieties, like ‘M. Soft Caress,’ be prepared for deer to find and sample it.  It is a lovely plant if you can protect it.

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Helleborus species and hybrids remain a mainstay of my garden both for their bright winter flowers and for their evergreen foliage that serves as a sturdy and effective ground cover year round.  Requiring very little maintenance beyond removing old and tattered leaves from time to time, these tough, long-lived plants reliably bloom and feed pollinators from December through late April or early May.  These beautiful flowers offer plenty of pollen as well as deep reservoirs of nectar.  Each flower may last several weeks, feeding insects over a long period, and then producing seeds.

Nothing grazes a Hellebore because all parts of the plant are poisonous.  But their large, glossy leaves remain attractive, often sporting variegation, toothed edges, and interesting form.  They filter the air and sequester carbon, provide cool, moist habitat for small animals, and hold our sloping garden.  The more Hellebores we grow the less we find tunnels made by voles or moles.  Hellebores prefer full to partial shade and mix well with ferns and vining ground covers like Vinca minor, another early spring bloomer.

For sunny areas, consider planting the common Mediterranean evergreen herbs Rosemary and Thyme in Zones 7 and south.  Rosemary often blooms with tiny blue or white flowers from November through April, and Thyme usually begins to bloom by March.  Both are highly attractive to bees and other pollinators.

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Helleborus orientalis, March 2019

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Many very early bulbs provide forage for pollinators.  Scilla siberica, a European bulb, often pops up and begins opening flowers in February.  Its stalk can be covered with many small flowers, opening a few at a time, over a period of weeks.  The leaves follow the flower stalk and fade away again by early summer.  The bulbs multiply over time.  Scilla bloom alongside early Iris histrioides and early Crocus bulbs, also appreciated by hungry pollinators in late winter.  Each bulb may send up multiple flower stalks and may be grown under established deciduous trees.

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Scilla emerging on February 19, 2019

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Very little blooms here in January, except for our reliable Hellebores and Violas.  The biochemistry of some plants allows them to generate enough heat to survive many hours below freezing, and to bounce back quickly after getting covered with ice and snow.  Native to mountainous areas of Europe, colorful little Viola cornuta have been cultivated and hybridized over decades and are easily available each fall in our area.  You may know some of them as ‘Johnny Jump-Ups.’  They may be grown from seeds or plugs, or bought full grown in 6″ pots for instant color in fall and winter arrangements.  Although Violas are perennials, they don’t survive our summer heat.

The larger Viola tricolor, or pansy, is also native to Europe and has been bred for flower size and color. Panolas are a fairly recent cross between various Viola species, and offer a medium sized flower with beautiful color and form.  The plants are lush and offer the impact of a pansy with the hardy habit of a Viola cornuta.  These also bloom in late fall and early spring, but may take a break during the coldest months.

Our native Viola labradorica, or American Dog Violet, blooms in mid-spring to early summer.  An important host plant for some butterfly species, it forms a beautiful ground cover and blooms in shades of white, purple and blue.  Sadly, many homeowners consider these ‘weeds’ when they come up in the lawn and eradicate them.  They make a beautiful ground cover, especially under trees, and re-seed themselves freely.

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Violas blooming on January 27, 2015

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Finally, many trees ‘bloom’ in the winter or very early spring.  Though their flowers may seem insignificant to us, they provide important food sources for pollinators.  Birds also benefit when they feed on insects attracted to arboreal flowers.

One of the best native shrubs for winter flowers is the Witchhazel, or Hamamelis virginiana.  It covers itself in small, sweet blossoms in mid to late winter.  Redbud trees also begin to bloom by February, becoming magnets for hungry insects.  Several species of Spirea and Viburnum produce early, showy nectar filled flowers.

Flowers on trees may be big and showy like those on Magnolias or tulip trees.  But just as often we barely notice them.  We may catch a sweet fragrance from an Ilex or Osmanthus, or notice an attractive blur of red or gold around a tree’s canopy before its leaves unfold.  But these flowers are very important to wildlife.

No one small, residential garden can support all plants for all purposes.  But with a bit of thought and planning, we can all provide some seasonal support for wildlife.  Many gardeners faithfully maintain bird feeders during winter months.  Fresh water in ponds or birdbaths is also very important for wildlife year-round.

Let’s also remember that by planting some winter blooming woody plants and herbaceous perennials, we can support the web of life in our community while enjoying the beauty and activity winter bloomers add to our own gardens.

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February 15, 2017 Edgeworthia chrysantha, an Asian shrub, and Mahonia aquifolium bloom all winter in our garden.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful and a thought provoking quotation.

 

 

Sunday Dinner: Nostalgia II

Colonial Williamsburg 2016

~

“How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof,
thinking of home.”
.
  William C. Faulkner

~

Colonial Williamsburg, 2016

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“It is strange how we hold on
to the pieces of the past
while we wait for our futures.”
.
  Ally Condie

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Colonial Williamsburg 2016

~

“The Greek word for “return” is nostos.
Algos means “suffering.”
So nostalgia is the suffering caused
by an unappeased yearning to return.”
.
Milan Kundera

~

Colonial Williamsburg 2016

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“Memory believes
before knowing remembers.
.
  William Faulkner

~

Colonial Williamsburg December 2015

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“Remembrance of things past
is not necessarily the remembrance of things
as they were.”
.
Marcel Prous

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Colonial Williamsburg 2015

~

 

“There are a few moments in your life
when you are truly and completely happy,
and you remember to give thanks.
Even as it happens you are nostalgic for the moment,
you are tucking it away in your scrapbook.”
.
David Benioff

~

December 2016

~

“For children, childhood is timeless.
It is always the present.
Everything is in the present tense.
Of course, they have memories. Of course, time shifts a little for them
and Christmas comes round in the end.
But they don’t feel it. Today is what they feel,
and when they say ‘When I grow up,’
there is always an edge of disbelief—
how could they ever be other than what they are?”
.
Ian McEwan

~

December 2016 Powhatan Creek

~

“The ‘what should be’ never did exist,
but people keep trying to live up to it.
There is no ‘what should be,’
there is only what is.”
.
Lenny Bruce

~

Rose window, Bruton Parish, Williamsburg VA December 2017

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We each find ourselves in uncharted territory this December as we struggle to adapt to the changes swirling around us.  We are haunted by memories, sweet and sad; even as we look ahead with hope.  Let us focus on the eternal ‘Now,’ finding peace and happiness in this present moment.  One day we will look back with nostalgia at this unique time, as rich in opportunities as in limitations. 
As we approach Winter Solstice and a fresh new year, let us mine the sweetness of this moment, share the love always bubbling up in our hearts, and spread the light of understanding, one to another.

~

Colonial Williamsburg, December 2016

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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December 2020

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Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful and a positive thought.

 

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

Please visit and follow Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues to see all new posts since January 8, 2021.

A new site allows me to continue posting new content since after more than 1700 posts there is no more room on this site.  -WG

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