A New Vocabulary for Gardening: The Natural Habitat Garden

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“…enlarge Earth’s diminished domain by growing native plant gardens modeled on nature’s original communities.”

Ken Druse, from The Natural Habitat Garden 1994

Are you as conflicted as I sometimes feel, when choosing new plants for your garden? Do you also spend winter hours dreaming over nursery catalogs? Maybe we share a tendency to fall for certain beautiful and interesting plants,  while not considering the ‘bigger picture.’

What bigger picture is that, you wonder?

Why, our planet and its diminishing species, of course. While I’ve never been an ardent native plant enthusiast, living and working in this forest garden continues nudging me in that direction.51JXBNCTQ7L._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_

I’m reading Ken Druse and Margaret Roach’s beautiful book, now more than a dozen years old, called The Natural Habitat Garden.   Building on his earlier The Natural Garden and The Natural Shade Garden, Druse invites us to not only create a beautiful garden for ourselves, but also to restore the appropriate plant community for our site by taking into consideration what would grow here naturally were it still undisturbed.

By restoring the natural habitat in at least some part of our garden, we ‘welcome the entire food chain’ and help to offset the alarming loss of habit, across the planet, destroyed by population growth and development.

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Naturalist and garden writer Ken Druse’s vision for creating gardens is so much more comprehensive than most of us stop to consider. We are deciding what color of Petunia to plant in our baskets this spring. He is hoping to enlist back yard gardeners to help save the planet through the ecosystems they construct.

In the first few pages he advises, “Enlarge Earth’s diminished domain by growing native plant gardens modeled on nature’s original communities.” Then goes on to observe, “Assembling plants from all corners of the world does not create a self-sufficient ecologically appropriate community.”

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Berries have formed on 'The Devil's Walking Stick,' Aralia spinosa

Berries have formed on ‘The Devil’s Walking Stick,’ Aralia spinosa, which is multiplying now in our garden.

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His concern extends not only to native plants and the many species of animals they support, but also to the resources required to support plants in our garden. As water for irrigation becomes more scarce, Druse reminds us that indigenous vegetation won’t require supplemental watering.

When a plant grows in its native soil, the nutrients it needs are already present. He reminds us that most of the fertilizers and insecticides many gardeners use are based in petro-chemicals. They poison our gardens, and the very fragile life of our planet as they accumulate in soil, water, and biomass.

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The cardinals love sitting in this hazelnut tree.

The cardinals love sitting in this hazelnut tree, which grows prolifically with no special care.

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I have no argument with Druse’s reasoning. And the gorgeous photos which illustrate the habitat gardens he visits certainly demonstrate the profound beauty possible in such settings. Sections of the book explore various habitats including woodlands, wetlands, grass lands, and ‘drylands.’ His photographs feature hundreds of native plant species.

A new vocabulary shapes this wider perception of gardening. Traditional perennial beds and non-native trees and shrubs are ‘Plant Collections’ and ‘Collector Plants’. We are reminded that most of these are relatively sterile and do little to attract, shelter, or feed wildlife.

Habitat gardens are ‘Re-wilded spots,’ “ essential to the planet’s future.” He encourages us to surround our properties with a “Biohedge” of mixed native species.

I like that term, and will remember to throw it into conversations with my gardening friends and neighbors! We already have a dense ‘biohedge’ around all sides of our garden. The birds love it, too.

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We have a mix of native and non-native shrubs in our 'bio-hedges.' Here, Asian Camellias grow alongside native Dogwood.

We have a mix of native and non-native shrubs in our ‘bio-hedges.’ Here, Asian Camellias grow alongside native Dogwood.  Native hardwood trees form the canopy of the garden.

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Druse makes clear that many of the plants we may find already growing near our home aren’t natives. Invasive species, like  autumn olive, kudzu and mimosa  were brought here at some point in the past. And because they aren’t native flora, they edge out other species and take over. After making an inventory of the plants already in the garden, he advises cutting out and digging out invasive ‘thugs.’

Sometimes the best gardening happens when we remove inappropriate plants, and keep plant communities in balance through mowing, pruning, dividing, and in some cases, even burning.

The last few pages of the book are devoted to the idea of  ‘conservation through propagation.’   He asks that we remain mindful of volunteer seedlings of native plants as we move through our gardens.  We are encouraged to propagate desirable native plants to increase their numbers.

Collecting and propagating seed, buying from native plant sales, and even taking cuttings of native plants help preserve these precious native species and increase their presence in our gardens.

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Native Wax Myrtle self-seeds easily in our garden.

Native Wax Myrtle self-seeds easily in our garden.

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“Don’t fight the site,” is another principle Druse emphasizes again and again. Our approach from the beginning, with this garden, has largely been in harmony with this principle. Fighting this site proves both expensive and frustrating.

One of the things we love most about our very wild forest garden is the wildlife. A spring fed pond lies at the bottom of our hill.  Its clean water attracts many species of ducks, geese, hawks, owls, turtles, frogs, toads, probably snakes, small mammals, and of course many many different song birds. We have such a diverse collection of berries and seeds growing in the yard that there is plenty of food for birds to forage year round.

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That doesn’t mean I’ve lost interest in my English roses, Begonias, herbs,  Caladiums and other non-native plants. Only that I’ve felt the paradigm shift in my own awareness of what plants we should grow here, and what we should not purchase and plant.

And I’ve honed an awareness of what can be grown near the house, largely in pots; and what is best to plant in the wilder areas away from the house. I’m also looking more closely not only at what is native to North America, but also at what is indigenous to coastal Virginia.

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Native Mountain Laurel in our garden

Native Mountain Laurel in our garden, grows along the banks of rivers and creeks, and in  Virginia forests.

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Druse is correct in observing that plant selection should be based on more considerations than simply hardiness zones. Creating a beautiful garden is only one of a garden steward’s goals. We can also help to restore the ecosystem, providing safe haven for many species of both plants and animals.

Knowing that we are not alone in our efforts; that thousands of other gardeners have also awakened to this more enlightened style of gardening, allows us to join our efforts with theirs to have a meaningful impact on our community.

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Sarracenia flava, propagated by our local nursery.

Sarracenia flava, propagated by Forest Lane Botanicals in York County.

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This aesthetic of habitat creation and management through gardening spreads from person to person, garden to garden. Together, we can work to heal our beautiful planet, and in doing so perhaps also heal ourselves.

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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Tiny Gardens

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Tiny gardens, indoors and out, help solve any number of gardening challenges.  My earliest memory of creating a tiny garden involved a cleaned up peanut butter jar, some soil dug from the back yard, and a few grass seeds pinched from a bag my father kept in the furnace room.  The seeds sprouted and I had great fun watching them grow.  And I was hooked on gardening.

While tiny container gardeners help apartment and townhouse dwellers grow a few herbs or vegetables on a small porch or balcony, they are great fun for those of us with larger gardens around our homes, as well.  In fact, the winter months are my favorite time to build little gardens to fit on a table or a windowsill.

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Little windowsill gardens can bask in the warm sunshine by day, but have protection from bitter cold over night.  They allow one to keep one’s fingers in the dirt during the long months of winter.

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This tiny Alocasia was left over from another project.  It came potted in a tiny 1″ pot, from The Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond.  They offer a wonderful selection of little tropical plants in tiny pots for terrariums, bonsai, and containers.

After they potted up its twin and a tiny fern in a bonsai dish for me to take to a loved one in hospital; I brought this tiny pup home to grow on towards spring.  Still in its little nursery pot, it sits in this crystal wine glass filled with aquarium gravel.  What could be simpler?

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The same Alocasia cultivar, purchased last spring, continues to grow in another window in a shallow bonsai pot with a  Selaginella kraussianna.

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If you are interested in novel ideas for tiny potted gardens, you might enjoy a new book called Teeny Tiny Gardening by Emma Hardy.  51QXwRvUbZL._SX404_BO1,204,203,200_

This is a beautiful little book, filled with good color photographs of each of the thirty plus projects described. Emma gives detailed and easy to follow instructions for pulling each little garden together and good suggestions for how to display each.

Emma is British, and so has access to some plants and materials harder to find in my region of the US.   That isn’t an obstacle, however, as her ideas are very adaptable.  She demonstrates ingenious ways to re-cycle and put garage sale and charity shop finds to new uses.  Many of her projects can be displayed on a desk, narrow shelf, windowsill, or patio.

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A gardening friend and I built this, and several other fairy gardens, two summers ago.

A gardening friend and I built this, and several other fairy gardens, two summers ago.

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Emma builds many of  her gardens in containers without drainage, and demonstrates how to do so successfully.  But she also demonstrates hanging baskets, terrariums, gardens built in baskets and sturdy bags, and in other ingenious containers to use out of doors.

This is a good ‘idea’ book.  Even if you don’t build any of her projects, she will likely spark an idea for you to follow up with your own containers and plants.

She demonstrates how novel containers, shells, stones, and other little accessories can make tiny gardens very special and fun.  One of her designs, constructed as a play area for children, even includes plastic dinosaurs in a ‘swamp.’  Another demonstrates a simple way to construct a table top water garden.

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A tiny herb garden in a hypertufa pot

A tiny herb garden in a hypertufa pot

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Winter is my favorite time of year for reading  new gardening books and for keeping up with gardening magazines.  There is a good crop of newly published gardening books this year, too.

If you’ve found a good one you know others will enjoy, too, please leave a comment and tell us about it.

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Christmas centerpiece, 2013

Christmas centerpiece, 2013

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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A “Post Wild World”?

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Jamestown Island, July 2015

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Are we gardening in a ‘Post Wild World’? 

Friends invited me to a gathering of area gardeners today. We enjoyed hearing a presentation by landscape architect and newly published author Thomas Rainer,  who shared his philosophy of garden design while promoting his new bookPlanting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, published by Timber Press this past October.

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This is one of the many Crepe Myrtle trees growing around our garden.

This is one of the many Crepe Myrtle trees growing around our garden, with the native trees of our ‘forest’ all around it.

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Yes, urban and suburban development claims ever more of our planet each passing year, with devastating consequences for the environment.  This has been true through my entire life, and probably yours, too.

I jumped on this bandwagon back in the 1970’s, and read any number of excellent books about designing gardens based on nature and using native plants, published by Rodale Press back in the 1980’s.  I internalized these principles long ago.  And still, it pleased me to hear a young landscape architect presenting these well worn principles with a certain freshness and flair.

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Native Hibiscus fill our garden this week. Deer never touch them, and they bloom for more than a month each summer.

Native Hibiscus fill our garden each summer. Deer never touch them, and they bloom for more than a month.

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Rainer summarized his concept as integrating ornamental horticulture with greater use of native North American plants.  He showed many examples of integrated plantings of grasses, perennials and woody plants contained within formal landscape frameworks, such as hardscape, hedges, lawns and permeable pathways.  So far, so good.

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Volunteer Black Eyed Susans have colonized the sunny edge of this clump of Colocasia.

Volunteer Black Eyed Susans have colonized the sunny edge of this clump of Colocasia.

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With skillful use of photos, Rainer demonstrated to us “The irrepressible spirit of plants.” 

Or, as all true gardeners know, wild plants (including what we label weeds) want to grow, with tenacious enthusiasm, everywhere there is a bare patch of Earth.  We examined diversity of species, layering, inter-cropping, and succession in various wild settings; including his neighbor’s ‘hellstrip’ between his unkempt yard and the street.

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Creeping Jenny, easy to divide and transplant, grows quickly into a densly matted ground cover.

Creeping Jenny, easy to divide and transplant, grows quickly into a densely matted ground cover; here with Sedum angelina.

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With much laughter, we also examined photos of various urban and suburban garden installations dotted with puny plants separated by feet of thick mulch.  The point being, that plants tend to grow better in dense communities, as opposed to widely spaced apart in poorly prepared and deeply mulched beds.

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Rainer discussed the relative amount of care required by these plantings, and made his point that much of the lushest growth in nature is actually self-sown and grown in what we would agree are stressful conditions.  Crowding, temperature extremes, dry climate and thin soil don’t deter plants growing in the environment to which they are adapted.

It is when we, as gardeners decide to create a generic planting bed, and plant without regard to a plant’s specific requirements, that the results are less than plush.

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Connie Hansen Garden, Lincoln City Oregon

The Connie Hansen Garden, Lincoln City Oregon, April 2015

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If you’ve been gardening for more than a few years, you’ve likely experienced these truths yourself; the hard way.

Rainer’s book is lovely and filled with inspiring photos.  You might want to add it to your library, particularly if you are a beginning gardener or one trying to break out of the suburban mold of,  “Wall to wall carpet lawn and meatball shrub foundation plantings.”  It is all in one’s aesthetic and level of ecological awareness, of course.

Many of our neighbors at today’s presentation live in communities with strict rules about which plants one may or may not plant in one’s garden.  Several of our more regulated neighborhoods in Williamsburg enforce the well groomed lawn and evergreen shrub scheme to achieve a look of refined uniformity.  I heard these ladies murmuring to one another from time to time…..

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Our front garden in mid-April

Our front garden in mid-April

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And Rainer’s advice on planning ‘layers’ of plants and covering the ground with living ‘green mulch’ to smother weeds was all sound.  He showed numerous examples of working with ground cover plants and colorful native perennials.  I wish he had also mentioned some of the marvelous native shrubs and small trees which add color and  life to the landscape.   These good ‘bones’ give the landscape character while providing food and habitat for the birds and pollinators who animate a native landscape.

Although he showed us a few of his suburban projects, most of Rainer’s work appears to have been designs for public spaces.  He showed us beautiful installations; in city median strips, parks, and around public buildings.  And so when he finished to genuinely enthusiastic applause and invited questions, the trouble began.

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There is no boundary between the Colonial Parkway, here, and our community.

There is no boundary between the Colonial Parkway, here, and our community.

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And the trouble began because he was speaking to an embattled group of Williamsburg gardeners who manage gardens amidst the realities of a ‘wild world’, which comes right up to our doorsteps.  We aren’t gardening in a safe and sanitized city.  We garden in the woods, backed up to National Park lands, marshes, rivers, creeks, and open fields full of real wild life.

And like so many newbie ‘experts,’ Rainer wasn’t prepared with the answers his audience needed to translate his theoretical ideas into practical reality.

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Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia, won't be nibbled by deer.... although they may have eaten some of its flowers last week....

Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia, won’t be nibbled by deer…. although they may have eaten some of its flowers last week….

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“We have a lot of deer.  Will the plants you’ve described survive deer?” ….. This question, followed by a beat of embarrassed silence, and a generality leaning towards, ‘probably not.’  Rainer sympathized by admitting he had lost a newly planted perennial bed to voles and rabbits colonizing his own Northern Virginia suburban garden.  But he wasn’t prepared to discuss the common plants impervious to deer. 

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May apples with Vinca cover the ground beneath native trees and shrubs.

May apples with ivy and  Vinca minor cover the ground beneath native trees and shrubs.

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“We have a lot of trees.  How do we plant these dense plantings of perennials and ground cover under mature trees?”  Rainer’s answer about purchasing plugs and small potted perennials was spot on.  But when he described boring holes with an auger for said plugs, he lost much of his audience.

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Native Echinacea attracts many pollinators.

Native Echinacea attracts many pollinators in bloom, and birds feast on the seed heads weeks later.

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He also said little about restoring the ecological balance and supporting birds and pollinator species through plant choices.  Perhaps this message was implied;  but not emphasized nearly enough.

There were lots of nice photos of nectar rich Echinacea, Salvia and Liatris throughout his slides; but not enough discussion of habitat creation and planting for a succession of nectar rich bloom.

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Herbs mixed with perennials help keep harmful insects, like chiggers and ticks, away from garden beds.

Herbs, mixed with perennials, help keep harmful insects, like chiggers and ticks, away from garden beds.

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Someone touched on this, but from the ‘dark side.’   Her question was about chiggers, those terrible tiny insects which attack one’s skin beginning here each May.  She wanted to know whether these densely planted, diverse natural plantings would harbor insects.  Well, of course they might.  Chiggers, and ticks, too.

Sadly, Rainer’s best answer was to keep the plantings beds some distance away from the house…..  He never mentioned using herbs to repel insects from our planting beds and from around our homes.  Doesn’t everyone keep a pot of scented Pelargoniums near their porch?

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This variegated geranium is also worth saving. It has bloomed all summer under tough conditions.

This variegated Pelargonium bloomed all summer under tough conditions.

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I left unsatisfied, and without an autographed copy of Rainer’s book under my arm.  I suspect I could find much of his message in those good old Rodale Press books I studied when I was young, and still turn to today.

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October in our garden and the butterflies cover our Lantana.

October in our garden, when the butterflies cover the Lantana.

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My gardening sister and I went for a coffee after the talk, and realized we had much the same impression of Rainer and his presentation.  She reminisced about the gardens her father planted full of strawberries and flowers, fruit trees and tomatoes.  But that was half a century and half a world away now….

Hers is a family of gardeners.  Her sister is currently installing Xeriscapes for clients in California and working with several schools to manage their teaching gardens.

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Voodoo lily and a division of Colocasia 'China Pink' grow in front of our Edgeworthia in part shade.

Voodoo lily and a division of Colocasia ‘China Pink’ grow in front of our Edgeworthia in partial shade.  Black Eyed Susans will bloom later in the summer.  Here, Creeping Jenny grows in to cover the mulch as foliage from spring bulbs dies back to the ground.  All of these plants are either poisonous or so distasteful, the deer ignore them.

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She and I commiserate regularly, sharing plants, problems and solutions as we discover them.  We’ve both come to a sort of peace with our own very wild gardens.   Having learned that squirrels are as greedy in stealing our tomatoes as the deer are in munching flower buds, we have found ways to foil both.

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But unlike Rainer, we’ve also learned that wildlife gardening doesn’t have to attract every wild animal in the neighborhood.  We’ve gotten smarter about what we plant and what we don’t.   We have learned to use poisonous plants to good effect, even to repel voles with Daffodils, Hellebores, and other plants with poisonous roots.  We mix all sorts of Alliums into our pots and beds to discourage inquiring rabbits and deer.

We’ve learned to build slightly raised beds over and around tree roots, and to welcome the many ‘native’ plants already encroaching on our gardens.

Through trial, research, flashes of inspiration and a lot of errors, we’ve been gardening and finding satisfaction in our wild forest gardens.  Nothing is ‘post wild’ here, and no augers on electric drills for us, thank you very much….

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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How Plants Work: A Fascinating Resource

Acer Palmatum 'volunteer' growing in our border. I've been working with this little tree over the past several years, ever since I recognized it as a useful seedling and not a week in 2011.

An Acer Palmatum ‘volunteer’ growing in our border. I’ve been working with this little tree ever since I recognized it as a useful seedling, and not a weed, a few summers ago.

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Have you ever wished that you knew more about why plants do the often strange and mysterious things they do?  Ever wondered about why a newly planted tree isn’t growing as you expected?  Or how some plants can live in salty soils?

Have you wondered whether you should pay a premium price for some artisinal compost tea?  Or wondered why some vines twist themselves around any available support while others can not?

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I am currently reading Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott’s newly released book, How Plants Work: The Science Behind the  Amazing Things Plants Do. index

Published this year by Timber Press, this is one of the most engrossing and useful books on gardening I’ve found in a very long time.

Linda not only teaches classes in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Washington, she is also an ISA-certified arborist and an extension urban horticulturist for Washington State University.

Linda specializes in helping ordinary gardeners, like us, enjoy more success by understanding the plants we want to grow.  You might have visited The Garden Professors blog which she and several colleagues host.

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Mayapples appeared through the leaf mulch this week in our garden.

Mayapples appeared through the leaf mulch this week in our garden.

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Linda begins with her own garden, and some of her own gardening mistakes, to help us solve our own gardening conundrums. After a quick refresher course in plant biology, enough for us to understand the explanations she offers in the remainder of the book; Linda moves on to an additional eight chapters which cover everything from soil management and pruning to how plants move, why their leaves turn various colors, plant associations, and seed production.  I’m finding new and useful information in each and every chapter.

She also offers ‘myth busting’ sidebars throughout, which explain why some traditional practices, such as staking trees, actually cause problems in the garden.  Do you dig a large hole and ammend the soil when planting a new shrub?  Linda explains why this might actually stunt the development of your shrub over several seasons.

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Overwintered planters with an ivy Geranium popped in. My color combinations this spring are a little shocking, perhaps....

Overwintered planters with an ivy Geranium popped in. My color combinations this spring are a little shocking, perhaps….

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How Plants Work extends the principles of botany to better inform our practices as gardeners.  It explains how plants use the common components of fertilizers and other substances and why they respond as they do to the care we give them.  So much ‘common knowledge’ about gardening practices just doesn’t hold up when examined in terms of a plant’s real needs.

Linda offers her advice and guidance in a very friendly, anecdotal style clearly written to help us enjoy more success with the plants we grow in our gardens.  I learned why potting soil with moisture retaining crystals can easily kill the plant it is supposed to support.  I learned how to bring light sensitive holiday plants, like Poinsettia and Christmas Cactus, into bloom.

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This red Buckeye, Aesculus pavia has come back strong after an oak tree fell on it in 2013.

This red Buckeye, Aesculus pavia, has come back strong after an oak tree fell on it in 2013.  This part of the garden is mulched with wood chips made from the oak’s branches.

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And I learned why it is always better to mulch with chipped wood than with landscaping fabric or paper products.  Did you know that roots must have oxygen? Every chapter thus far has been packed with new understandings about plant growth and  the sort of helpful tips one can  put to use immediately.

Linda’s discussion of whether or not native plants are a good choice for suburban gardens offered a fresh perspective on this contentious issue.  And I agree with her. 

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New growth on an Oregon Grape Holly in our front garden. Notice the scarlet leaves? Linda explains why these leaves may turn scarlet to survive a particularly cold winter.

New growth on an Oregon Grape Holly in our front garden. Notice the scarlet leaves? Linda explains why these leaves may turn scarlet to survive a particularly cold winter.

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I’ve been waiting for this book for more than a year, and was delighted to find it in the mail this week.  Timber Press contacted me last April to request the rights to use one of my photos from Forest Garden in the book.  I was happy to agree, and asked for a copy of the completed book as partial payment for the photo.  The anticipation of reading Linda’s completed book has percolated in the back of my mind ever since.

And this book is in every way beautiful.  Filled with interesting, sound and helpful information, it is also beautifully illustrated with color photographs throughout.  These photos illustrate some of the most interesting phenomena of the plant world. The photo I contributed was of an Oregon Grape Holly whose leaves had turned scarlet in our extreme cold last winter.

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Azaleas, dogwoods, and redbud in bloom together. Who could hope for more in a forest garden?

Azaleas, dogwoods, and redbud in bloom together. Who could hope for more in a forest garden?

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If you are a serious gardener, if you love working with the amazing beings of the Plant Kingdom; then you will enjoy reading How Plants Work.  It will become one of your ‘go to’ reference books when you need to solve a problem in the garden.   And when you get your copy, check out page 124… you just might remember that photo from one of my posts last winter.

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Woodland Gnome 2015

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A Perennial Food Forest Garden

Garlic chives

Garlic chives

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Do you grow any food in your garden?

We have had difficulty with growing food crops in this garden.  Between poor soil, shade, and a forest full of hungry critters, many of our efforts have not left us with much to eat.  Even efforts at growing tomatoes and other vegetables in pots on our deck, out of reach of the deer, have not produced the harvest we expected.  This community’s squirrels must be some of the cleverest in the state!  Most of the produce ends up in their little paws days before it is ready for us to harvest.

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June 6, 2013, and the tomato crop is gone.

June 6, 2013, and the tomato crop is gone.  False strawberry plants grow along the border to the left of the photo, untouched.  Tomatoes are perennial crops in warmer climates.

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But I remain interested in finding new and productive ways to grow food in a ‘forest garden.’  In fact, “food forests” are a whole genre of garden in themselves, and there are many dedicated gardeners out there experimenting with various crops and novel strategies for  organizing and camouflaging those crops in order to supplement at least part of their diet from their own land.

Which is what we would like to do, too.  I realized after the first year or so that planting raised beds in the sunny areas of our back garden simply invited more critters to find their way in through our deer fencing.  I won’t even tell you how many tomato plants and cucumber vines simply disappeared in the night.

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Our first raised bed garden in our new garden, mixing herbs, shrubs, and perennials.

Our first raised bed  in our new garden, mixing herbs, shrubs, and perennials.

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Among the things we liked about this property, when we first saw it, were the fruit trees, fig trees, rosemary and tomato plants already here.  The variety of fig selected by the previous owner stays green, even while ripe, fooling the birds and squirrels.  We have had some good fig harvests, although the harvest fluctuates year to year.  This past year we got a few pears.  But the peaches have never made it through the summer to harvest, nor have the hazelnuts.

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But I don’t give up easily, and keep searching for new ideas.  Which led me to Martin Crawford’s book, How to Grow Perennial Vegetables:  Low-Maintenance, Low-Impact Vegetable Gardening.9781900322843_p0_v1_s260x420

Now Martin gardens in the UK, in East Devon,  which means some of the crops available to him are harder to come by here in the United States.  And his climate is a bit warmer than ours here in Virginia.  But he also offers very practical suggestions for overwintering many of these crops in cooler climates.

I’ve learned a great deal from this book, and recommend it to anyone interested in ‘forest gardening,’ which is Martin’s own approach.  He focuses in this book on vegetables, and only includes herbs which might be used in quantity in salads.  He also leaves fruit trees, vines and shrubs off of his plant list unless the leaves may be harvested and eaten as a vegetable.

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Milk Vetch is a legume and produces edible seeds. It also adds nitrogen to the soil as it grows.

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And that brings us to the most illuminating thing I’ve learned from this book.  There are many plants we grow for one purpose which may be eaten in another way.  For example, I grow pots of strawberries on our deck, a gift from a friend, and harvest a few handfuls each spring.  Did you know that strawberry leaves may also be eaten?  All of those leaves can be added to salads, stir fried, layered in casseroles, or used to wrap small packages of food before it is cooked.  Who knew?  I’ll include a list of plants whose leaves may be eaten at the bottom of this post.

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Some of those weeds are edible...

Some of those weeds are edible…

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A bonus of many perennial vegetables, and their leaves especially, is the concentrated nutrition and minerals they contain.  Since perennials tend to be very deeply rooted, they have access to deeper layers of soil than many annual crops.  They absorb more nutrients from the soil, storing these nutrients in the roots, tubers, bulbs, and leaves which we can consume.

Perennials also require less effort to grow.  Planted once, enjoyed for years to come.  Many take care of themselves once established, or need a minimum investment of time and labor.  Most need little or no fertilizer and can be grown with organic (chemical free) methods.

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Our figs remain green, even when ripe, fooling the squirrels and birds most of the time.

Our figs remain green, even when ripe, fooling the squirrels and birds most of the time.  Although the fruits are delicious, these leave aren’t edible.

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And perennials are a good investment, anyway.  Once purchased, you have them for many years.  Whether you divide them, save seeds, or take cuttings; your volume of plants will increase each year through annual growth, suckering, and clumping.  Food producing perennials, shrubs and trees are always a good investment for the frugal gardener.

My eyes were opened to the many many plants already growing here successfully which we could eat, if we chose to.  The wild ‘false strawberry,’ Duchesnea indica,  which I yank out of my beds by the bushel each year as a weed, is edible.  Martin suggests eating both the leaves and tiny fruits in salads.  The many new shoots of bamboo encroaching on areas we prefer to keep clear, which we’ve been cutting back each spring, could be harvested and eaten rather than tossed into the ravine.

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Harvest bamboo shoots in spring when they are less than 12" for the most tender vegetable.

Harvest bamboo shoots in spring when they are less than 12″ for the most tender vegetable.

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In fact, the perennial vegetables Martin describes are harvested throughout the year.  Some crops are enjoyed in spring, others in late autumn or over winter.  Most can be eaten all summer, and many can be eaten in different ways at different points in the growing season.  For example, many of the Alliums may be eaten throughout the season by cutting back their leaves even though the bulbs aren’t harvested until late autumn.  Some of the Alliums produce bulbils or offsets which may be harvested before the main bulb is ready to dig.  For each plant described, Martin indicates whether you may eat the roots, stems, leaves, shoots, offsets, fruits, seeds, or some combination of these.

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Wood Mallow

Wood Mallow

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I recently read an essay by Euell Gibbons, reprinted in the current issue of Organic Gardening magazine, about gathering a meal of wild foods in Central Park to feed himself and a skeptical journalist interviewing him.  Originally printed in August of 1968, Gibbons “Survival in the Wilds of Central Park” demonstrates how many edible food plants grow wild with little or no effort on our part at all.  It may require some adjustments to our taste and cravings to choose to use them, but they are still available to us if we can only recognize them and understand how to harvest and prepare them.

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Apple mint, with its relatively mild flavor, is one of the herbs listed for use as a leafy vegetable good for salads.

Apple mint, with its relatively mild flavor, is one of the herbs listed for use as a leafy vegetable good for salads.  Viola flowers may also be eaten in salad or used as a garnish.

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Martin Crawford’s book goes into detail about how each part of each plant should be prepared for eating, as well as giving enough cultural information to allow one to grow the plant successfully.  There is even a section on growing a number of aquatic perennial vegetables, including our native arrowheads, water chestnuts, water lotus, and watercress.  Detailed instructions are offered for growing these crops in a child’s wading pool for those not blessed with a pond on their property.

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The tubers of Arrowheads, Sagittaria species, are very nutritious and will grow in a foot of water.

The tubers of Arrowheads, Sagittaria species, are very nutritious and will grow in a foot of water in sun or partial shade.

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And reading this book, now for the second time, has made me far more optimistic and open-minded about our potential for growing food in our forest garden.

I have a far better understanding now, than I did five years ago, of what plants we can grow successfully.  I know what the deer will leave alone and what they will fight their way through or over our fences to eat.  (In fact, a beloved neighbor recently suggested, as a group of us were discussing our gardening, that we should all plant those things which would feed our beautiful deer.  She is a confirmed animal lover, and I understand her concern for the well being of all creatures.  She just didn’t understand that in planting crops for them, they would overgraze and kill the plants very quickly to the great frustration and expense of everyone.)

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Our beech tree produces edible nuts and leaves.

Our beech tree produces edible nuts and leaves.

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Now I know that plants with very fragrant or coarse textured leaves will be left alone by deer.  That means that most herbs will grow here in peace.  It also means we could grow artichoke, cardoon, all Alliums, and hops.  Did you know you can eat the new shoots of hops vines each year?

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Food crops may also be grown in unconventional ways, in polycultures with other plants, so they are effectively hidden.  Mixing the tasty with the pungent is one way.  Growing crops like potatoes, which bear poisonous leaves but tasty tubers is another.

Whether you are gardening in a forest, on an average suburban plot, or even on a balcony or rooftop; you’ll find this book about growing perennial vegetable crops useful and very interesting.  There are many reasons to grow some part of our food; and great value in knowing how to gather and eat “wild foods” when needed even when we normally shop for our groceries.

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Battered and friend Hosta shoots, anyone?

Battered and friend Hosta shoots, anyone?

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I’ve developed a new appreciation for the richness and delicious diversity of our own garden, and generated a good list of plants to add this season.  The Gogi berry shrub, Lycium barbarum, which I’ve considered for the last several years, is now ordered.  And there are several other crops I’ll hope to order over the coming months.  There is a good list of sources at the back of the book, some US suppliers, where I’ll hope to find some of the more interesting “walking” onion varieties.

We will also plant a patch of Jerusalem artichokes this year, which have grown easily in other gardens.  One huge advantage of many of these crops is how well they support bees and other beneficial and beautiful insects.  These are so prolific, once established, that there will be plenty of tubers to dig in autumn even if the tops do get grazed a bit during the season.  They likely won’t though, as their foliage is coarse.

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Garlic chives with Muscadine grape leaves and thyme.

Garlic chives with Muscadine grape leaves and thyme.

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I’ve made a good list of perennial food crops we already have growing, along with that list of plants we would still like to acquire.  Have you ever considered harvesting the leaves of the lovely flowering Columbine, Aquilegia, for a salad?  Well, neither had I….

Here is a short list of plants recommended by Martin Crawford for their delicious leaves or leafy shoots.  Some might surprise you, as they surprised me.  But if you’re a bit adventurous, you might want to try a few of them over the season ahead.  Just make sure to check out his book, or another trusted resource,  for complete instructions on how to best harvest and prepare them.

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Columbine in a friend's garden. Grown for its flowers, both flowers and leaves can be eaten.

Columbine in a friend’s garden. Grown for its flowers, both flowers and leaves can be eaten.

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Perennials with edible leaves:

Alliums, Basswood tree, Beech tree, Cardoon, Chard, Chives, Columbine,  Dandelion, Daylily, Elephant Garlic, False Strawberry, Gogi Berry, Grape, Fennel, Hollyhock (Mallow), Hops,  Horseradish, Hosta shoots, Lemon Balm, Linden tree, Mints, Mulberry tree, Ostrich Fern (shoots only) Plantain, Pokeweed, Rosemary, Sage, Strawberry, Sweet Potato, Solomon’s Seal (shoots),  Thyme, Violets

Woodland Gnome 2015

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August 15, 2014 014

 

 

Building a Terrarium

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Do you like miniature gardens and “little worlds”?  I downloaded samples of several books about miniature gardens, fairy gardens, and terrariums on Saturday looking for inspiration and fresh ideas.

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Terrariums and fairy gardens first caught my imagination in childhood.  I love that terrariums are largely closed ecological systems, mimicking the water cycle of our planet where water evaporates, condenses, and then returns to the soil.  Once constructed, a balanced terrarium can live indefinitely; or at least until the plants outgrow their vessel.

These are great little gardens for those with little space, or for those who want to bring a bit of nature into their professional environment.  There isn’t any anxiety over keeping them properly watered or making a mess, with a little garden in a bottle.

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Divisions used in this little garden include a golden creeping Sedum and a division of peacock spikemoss.

Divisions used in this little garden include a golden creeping Sedum and a division of peacock spikemoss.  I broke these off of pots I’m overwintering in the garage.

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My point in building this little terrarium, beyond the fun and beauty of it, is to demonstrate a few of the “tips and tricks” which make it an easy project.  Yes, so easy that you can pull it together in an afternoon, and then spend the evening admiring it with friends over a glass of wine

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An olive oil bottle from Trader Joes. Needs a bit more scrubbing to get the rest of that glue off!

This  olive oil bottle came from Trader Joe’s.   It needs a bit more scrubbing to get the rest of that glue off!

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My bottle came full of olive oil from Trader Joes.  The olive oil was delicious, by the way, and I just saved the bottle in the pantry because it was too pretty to throw away.

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Agates from Oregon beaches have a new home now in the terrarium. They're prettiest when wet, anyway. The scarf is one I just finished for a friend.

Agates from Oregon beaches have a new home now in the terrarium. They’re prettiest when wet, anyway.  The scarf is one I just finished for a friend.

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The stones are mostly agates picked up off beaches in Oregon.  There is a layer of reindeer moss from the craft store, left over from my moss-covered wreathes, and then another layer of glass shards from a bag of assorted glass purchased at the crafts store for other projects.

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New potting soil and bits of plant materials from the garden complete the project.  My only new investment here was a bit of time on Sunday afternoon.

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All terrariums need an inch or so of loose stones as their base layer.  Not only are they pretty and interesting to view from the glass, but they form the drainage system of the environment.  Any water you add to the terrarium, which isn’t absorbed, drains down into the stones so the soil isn’t waterlogged.

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Many builders add a little bit of aquarium charcoal to this layer of stones to help filter the water and keep it “sweet.”

The layer of moss between the stones and the soil serves as a barrier to the soil to keep it from running down into the stones.  It is purely aesthetic.  I added bits of “beach glass” around this moss layer to add to that barrier, as well as for the color.

Now, there are easier ways to do most anything.  Hold the bottle at an angle when adding the stones and glass, to direct where they fall.  I added a few stones to the center of my pile to take up space, allowing more of the agates to be visible against the glass.  Tilt the bottle when dropping in bits of beach glass to direct where you want the glass to land, then nudge it into place with a long, narrow tool.

Use whatever you have on hand to work inside the terrarium.  Many builders suggest chopsticks.  The cheap ones which come with your meal are the best.  I also like bamboo food skewers, and always have a pack lying around.  Even a pencil works just fine to nudge things into place through the narrow opening of the jar.

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The depth of soil needed depends entirely on plant choice.  Ferns and sedums need a little soil.  Moss needs very little.  I’ve used just over an inch of soil.  The roots will also grow down through the reindeer moss and into the stones below to reach the water there, eventually.

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A piece of paper, rolled into a funnel, is all you need to get soil or sand into your terrarium neatly.  Just spoon it through the opening, and nudge it into place with your long skinny tool.

Plants can be dropped through the opening, or gently rolled up into a piece of paper and then slid through the opening, before being nudged into place.

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These tiny plants have tiny roots.  It is fairly easy to work soil around the roots , pushing everything into place with your chopstick or pencil.

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I finished off by covering the soil with bits of garden moss.  Everything was frozen solid here on Saturday.  These bits were actually pried out of a pot on the deck, where I’ve been holding them since November.

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The secret to making an interesting miniature garden lies in beginning with tiny starts of things, and then allowing time for them to grow.

For example, you might plant a seed or a bulb, so long as the plant itself will fit in the space the terrarium allows.  Can you see a tiny crocus growing inside this bottle, from a bulb planted in the fall?  It would be a very temporary display, but very cool.

I’ve used another tiny division of peacock spikemoss, Selaginella uncinata, which can grow quite large, on one side of the bottle; and a tiny baby strawberry begonia, Saxifraga stolonifera, still attached to its umbilical stem, right in the middle.  My strawberry begonia plants, growing inside this winter, are making new baby plants every week!  I simply lowered this one, by its stem, into place where I want it to grow.  Its roots will take hold now in the soil, and quickly anchor it into place.

Once planted, add little stones, crystals, shells, marbles, bits of glass, or other ornaments to suit your vision.  Add tiny furniture for a fairy garden.  Lay stone paths or patios.  Add a statue if you wish.  This is your garden and you can do as you please!

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The final step of construction is watering.  I prefer to use bottled spring water so no chemicals are introduced, which might affect the growth of the plants.  And one must water very sparingly.  Little drops at a time are used to rinse away any specks of soil on the glass and to settle the roots into their new soil.

I left this bottle open for the first 36 hours to allow for some evaporation.  An opening this small could be left open all of the time.  But by replacing the stopper, this little garden won’t need additional water for months.  If the glass fogs up, I can remove the stopper for a few hours to allow the water to clear.  If the soil begins to look dry, a few drops of added water will solve the problem.

That is really all you need to know to now build your own terrarium. 

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Place your finished terrarium in bright light, but not right against a window. This one sits opposite the doors to our deck.

Place your finished terrarium in bright light, but not right against a window. This one sits opposite the doors to our deck.

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When choosing plants, select those which enjoy high humidity and which can grow without overwhelming the interior space of your garden.

Terrariums can be built to accommodate succulents.  These need openings for air circulation, and should be started off with even less water.  Air plants, which don’t require soil, make excellent terrarium specimens.  But these should be placed on wood or gravel, since contact with potting soil may lead them to rot.  The possibilities are limited mainly by your imagination and the depth of your purse!

Following are the books I reviewed this weekend.

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Woodland Gnome 2015

 

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Conscious Seeing

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A friend invited me to an event for gardeners and artists today held at our College of William and Mary, and sponsored by the Williamsburg Garden Club.  Mr. Gordon Hayward spoke on “Fine Painting as Inspiration for Garden Design.”

You may know Mr. Hayward’s work from his many articles over the years  in Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Organic Gardening, and other publications.  The author of many books on garden design, he is well known as the designer of many lovely gardens here in the United States and in Europe.

Several friends and I had the privilege of  spending some time this afternoon hearing his thoughts on the principles of good design in the garden.

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It was the perfect time for us to hear him speak, here in the depths of January. We are clearing out the last of the old in our gardens while making plans for what we will change, and what we will grow in the new year.

The suggestions offered today are quite simple and straightforward, and yet the effects of applying them make a profound difference in the appearance and “feel” of the garden.

We examined paintings by Renoir, O’Keeffe, Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet, and many other artists to see what principles can then be applied to design, plant selection, and even pruning in our gardens.  Mr. Hayward illustrated these principles with side by side slides of  paintings paired with  photos of gardens, including many he designed.

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If this interests you, I recommend that you read Mr. Hayward’s gorgeous book, dedicated to his wife, Mary; Art and the Gardener:  Fine Paintings as Inspiration for Garden Design.Art and the Gardener: Fine Painting as Inspiration for Garden Design

The starting point of today’s talk was Rene Magritte’s “The Eye,” and a conversation about “conscious seeing.”

We Americans, perennially in a hurry as we tend to be, rarely take time to simply observe, over an extended period of time.

We see superficially, but rarely allow ourselves the unstructured time to see deeply; to visually explore something in any depth.

As there is a “slow food” movement today, so there is also “slow art,” where we take significant time to view and converse with someone else about the art we’re viewing.  We may also choose to engage in “slow gardening.”

Mr. Hayward described gardening as the slowest of the performing arts.  He urged us to take our time  in appreciating the garden as a whole, as well as the individual plants in the garden; and also to allow time for a garden to evolve.

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A good garden has an aura of timelessness, and in one you may lose track of time as you become absorbed in the beauty and mood of the space.

And so I would offer you the opportunity to begin, here and now, with the photos in this post, to slow down and “see” consciously.  To spend more than a few seconds with each.

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Go beyond the superficial recognition and naming of what you see, to an appreciation of its color, its form, the geometric shapes you might recognize, and awareness of both positive and negative space.  How do you feel while looking at each of the photos?

By seeing beyond the obvious, we uncover layer after layer of beauty and meaning in the world around us. 

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As we slow down, we deepen our experience.  We enrich our appreciation, and in the process, we feel a little bit better ourselves.  Our energy increases, our happiness expands, and we are filled with the peace that a lovely garden offers.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Marcel Proust

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
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