Green Thumb Tip #19: Focus on Foliage

New growth on Mahonia

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A garden built from woody trunks, stems, branches and beautiful leaves will last through the seasons.  Abundant foliage offers cool shade and privacy.  It screens the view, cleans the air, muffles outside sounds and protects the soil, all while offering a sense of enclosure.

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Crape Myrtle

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Flowers can be exciting, for a while.  But they fade or explode into a heap of petals all too quickly.  Their perfumes entice us, but flowers aren’t enough to create a lasting garden.

Better to focus on foliage plants for a garden’s flesh and bones, and appreciate ephemeral flowers as seasonal accents.

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Once one gets past wanting a garden filled with fragrant flowers, there is a beautiful palette of foliage waiting for the curious garden designer.  In fact, I’ve been reading an intriguing book on garden design by Karen Chapman and Christina Salwitz  called Gardening With Foliage First:  127 Dazzling Combinations That Pair the Beauty of Leaves With Flowers, Bark, Berries and More.

The authors have photographed and described associations of shrubs, perennials, vines, ferns and grasses that will grow well together for a variety of climate zones and locations.  The color combinations are striking, and the authors discuss how the association will change as the four seasons unfold.

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Colocasia ‘Mojito’ in August

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One of the nicest things about designing with foliage is the wide selection of colors and textures in the plant palette.  And with woodies and perennials, the plants grow larger and more complex with each passing year.

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A native redbud tree seedling has appeared by our drive. This tree can eventually grow to 20′ or more.

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We plan and plant our gardens in at least four dimensions.  We create out door ‘rooms’ by creating ‘walls’ with large shrubs and trees, or perhaps vines growing on a pergola or trellis.  Our carpet is a selection of low-growing plants and ground covers.   Some of us cultivate a simple carpet of moss.

The leafy canopy of trees offers us a bit of shelter and shade, enclosing our garden from above.   So we are planting foliage plants of varying heights to serve different purposes.

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Red Buckeye, Aesculus pavia, is a native, deciduous tree in coastal Virginia that will grow to about 25 feet.  It often grows as a multi-stemmed shrub, growing a bit broader with each passing year.

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Perennials tend to also spread, growing wider with each passing year.  A plant or two this year may propagate itself into two dozen plants within just a season or two.  Even within the short span of a single season, a small tropical plant purchased in a 3″ pot may grow to be 5′ tall and wide before frost.

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Our garden is also constantly changing over time, the fourth dimension.  Sculptural stems and branches cover themselves in buds, then ever expanding leaves.  The leaves grow and change colors as the season progresses, often developing intricate veins or spotted markings as they mature.

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Begonia

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Eventually, we are enclosed in leaves and woody growth before winter sweeps the season’s tender growth away.  Leaves glow with autumn color, then fall.  Perennials die back to ground level, harboring the promise of next year’s growth in their roots and crowns.

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It is this foliage framework which demands a garden designer’s attention. This is where we make our main investment of time and treasure. 

When beginning a new garden, one selects and plants the trees first to give a head start on growth.  When renovating a garden, it is wise to replace tired shrubs, or rejuvenate them with heavy pruning before the season’s new growth begins.

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Once we have good woody ‘bones’ in place, then we fill in the ground covers and herbaceous plants to occupy the mid-level spaces .

Flowers are the ephemeral elements which can come- and go- with the seasons. Whether we choose blooming shrubs, perennials with a short season of bloom like Iris, or even if we plant annuals for several months of bloom;  the flowers themselves are very short-lived.

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Japanese painted fern emerges among the Arum italicum, and is interlaced with creeping Jenny.  Bulb foliage will die back soon.  You can just see the new leaf of a hardy Begonia catching sunlight like a stained glass window to the right.  They will grow to about 18″ tall before their tiny pink flowers emerge.

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Many traditional gardens rely on foliage for all of their seasonal interest.  This is easy to do with herbaceous perennial foliage plants like ferns, Heucheras and Colocasia.  But a ‘foliage only’ garden doesn’t mean a monochromatic garden.  Beautiful contrasts and color combinations may be painted with colorful leaves.

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And stunning beauty may be created with little more than variations of texture and form.  Leafy plants swaying in the breeze bring life and movement to the garden.

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Lamb’s Ears, Stachys Byzantina. is grown more for its velvety gray leaves than for its flowers. In fact, many gardeners remove the flower stalks before they can bloom. Bees love it, so I leave them.

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As you plan and plant your pots and garden borders, remember to focus first on the foliage framework.   This will last over many months or years and will grow better with time.

The flowers will come and go, but your garden’s leafy presence will make the lasting impression.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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“Green Thumb” Tips: 

Many visitors to Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help grow the garden of their dreams.

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.

If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what you know from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I’ll update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about gardens and gardening.
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
Green Thumb Tip # 15: Conquer the Weeds!
Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!
Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time
Green Thumb Tip # 18: Edit!

 

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Pot Shots: First Caladiums

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We are just beginning to have weather warm enough for the Caladiums to come outside and get some sun!  The ones basking in the warmth of our spare room have grown long and leggy, reaching for the light.  And so I’ve brought the other tubs and bins outside to our deck, up against the house and under cover of the eaves where they have enjoyed the warmth of our late spring and gotten a lot more light.

I’ve kept my eye on the new ones with their first leaves beginning to unfurl.  The first to open is C. ‘Burning Heart,‘ a 2015 introduction from Classic Caladiums This is one of the new hybrids from Dr. Robert Hartman that can take full sun.  It is a new color for Caladiums, and I am looking forward to growing it this summer.

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Once I found that I had four of this special variety in leaf, I lifted them this morning from their bin, and brought them into the garden to the pot I have planned for them.

Already growing are two Zantedeschia ‘White Giant’.  These Zantedeschia want consistently moist soil and full sun.  This area of the garden has a high canopy of oaks, but gets a fair amount of sun during the day.  I think that it will be enough sun for them, and not too much for the Caladiums to both do very well.

Completing the pot is one of my favorite ‘spillers,’ Dichondra ‘Silver Falls.’  This silvery gray vine will spill over the sides of the pot, eventually filling in to form a nearly continuous curtain of fine foliage gradually enveloping the pot and its pedestal.  If you buy a pot of Dichondra, you will notice lots of little vines all massed together in the nursery pot.  These pull apart very easily.

A single 3″-4″ pot from the garden center could easily give you a half dozen clumps, each with its own roots.  This vine roots easily from each leaf node and may be divided again and again as you spread it around.  Although a perennial, it will only overwinter here in a very mild winter.

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When we found this huge pot in February, on deep discount at one of our favorite nurseries, I hesitated over its color.  I favor blue pots.

This screaming chartreuse, in February no less, was almost too much.  It sat upside down in our nursery for several weeks while I contemplated what to do with it.  A gardening friend came by and admired it enough that she took straight off to go buy the last one like it!

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Once we actually moved it up into the garden a few weeks ago, we soon realized that the green blends right in and doesn’t look brash at all…. at least not until we added the red Caladiums today!

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I am working this week to plant out as many of our Caladiums, Colocasias and Alocasias as I can.  This is slow going, but will reward us with beautiful foliage plants in the garden over the next six to seven months .

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This is Colocasia ‘Black Coral’ planted into an established planting of Saxifraga stolonifera.  Although just an old nursery pot, it is large enough to support the Colocasia as it grows to its 4′-5′ potential.  This Colocasia likes moist soil and shade.

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We’re bringing the pots out gradually, and re-working the pots which held other plants through the winter to accept their summer tenants.   Now that the weather has settled, I want to get the plants we saved last fall out of storage as quickly as we can, so they can all begin a new season of growth.

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Colocasia ‘Tea Cups’ is finally back outside in its blue pot. It overwintered in the garage. The soil is just warm enough to plant out these white Caladiums today. No more cold snaps, please!

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Woodland Gnome 2018

On the Eve of May

The first rays of morning sun fuel our garden this last day of April.

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May is already upon us.  The garden has filled with flowers, and there are more waiting each morning as we walk outside, to see what has changed overnight.

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Iris ‘Echo Location’

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This is Iris season, and Columbine season, and the grass is filled with wildflowers season.

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

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It all grows unbelievably fast in late April and early May, and I am busily trying to work with the season.

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Erigeron is a native wildflower in our area.  Too pretty to cut back, we have let it have its real estate in the front yard.

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That said, it was only 41F when I followed the sun out of bed this morning.  Neighbors in nearby towns had temperatures near freezing over night, and so I don’t yet trust the weather with so many of our tender, tropical plants.  I am crossing my fingers and toes, and planting out as much as I dare, just as quickly as I can.

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I was a bit surprised to notice the trellis filled with blooming Clematis this morning.

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Spring rolls over us like a wave, before cresting into full on summer.  And I am working to ride that wave as the garden awakens.

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This is the time to set things right; to establish what will grow where, and how, for the next six months.

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Columbine

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But everywhere I look, I see something new.  I see opening leaves, emerging perennials, and unfolding buds.

May’s magic lives in our garden, and I hope it lives in yours, as well.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

After experimenting for the past several days with my new Canon Power Shot Elph 180, I am back to my Nikon Coolpix S3500.  Trying to focus in on the fleabane flowers proved the utility of my little Nikon, which lives in the inside pocket of my gardening vest.  It has crossed the country with me a couple of times now, and is officially obsolete in the world of pocket cameras.  But it still takes a great photo and leaves me satisfied.

 

 

Arbor Day: Planting a Beautiful Future

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If you want to create a lasting legacy of beauty, plant a tree.  If you want to heal the planet and counteract climate change, plant a tree.  If you want to improve the quality of life for yourself, your family and your immediate neighbors, plant a tree.

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Trees change the world.  They create shade, sequester carbon,  produce oxygen, humidify the air, hold and feed the soil, create habitat for wildlife, support the entire ecosystem, and give a place character.  And in their spare time, they sway in the wind; helping forecast the weather and making musical, soothing sounds.

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Trees inspire awe and wonder.  Some survive to extreme old age; experiencing centuries of life and service.  Trees feed us, shelter us, and mark the passing of the seasons with their annual changes.

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Today is Arbor Day.  First celebrated in the United States in Nebraska, when a million trees were planted in 1872, this remarkable day is observed all over the United States and around the world.  Some call it ‘Tree Planting Day.”  It is a day to reflect on the importance of trees, and to add a tree or two to our environment.

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Other than loving and teaching a child, planting and protecting trees is one of the most satisfying pursuits of a lifetime. Both require faith that our simple acts today will resonate far into the future, creating positive change, and shaping how our community transforms itself for good.

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A potted Ginko tree that I adoped in early spring, represents one of the earliest trees on the planet, still growing today.  Fossils of this tree’s leaves date to 270 million years ago. Its leaves turn vibrant golden yellow in late autumn.

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So please celebrate Arbor Day this weekend in a way that feels fitting to you.  Commit an “Act of Green” to somehow enrich your life and community.

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I have been planting Japanese Maple trees this spring.  You might say I’m collecting them at the moment. Japanese Maple trees, with their exquisite leaves, add a bit of elegance to our wild garden.

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The first two I came across were small enough to plant into interesting pots to keep on our deck this summer.  The third, as tall as I am, came to me last weekend at a community plant sale.  I have tucked its roots into a moist and sheltered spot beside the Butterfly Garden.  And so I have committed my “Act of Green” this Arbor Day, and I trust you have, as well.

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If you’ve not had a chance, there is plenty of time this weekend to get outside, visit a park or garden center, plant up a pot of something, and find your own special way to make our planet a big healthier, a bit greener, and a lot more beautiful.

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A tiny investment today can yield a lifetime of satisfaction and beauty.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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“The planting of a tree,
especially one of the long-living hardwood trees,
is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost
and with almost no trouble,
and if the tree takes root
it will far outlive the visible effect
of any of your other actions,
good or evil.”

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George Orwell
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A Profusion of Flowers: Dogwood

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There is nothing quite like a flowering tree to fill the garden with a profusion of flowers.  Our native dogwood, Corunus florida, which explodes with flowers each April, remains my favorite.

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Chosen by the Virginia Native Plant Society as their Wildflower of the Year for 2018, flowering dogwood is an easy to grow understory tree which adapts to sun or partial shade.

Native across most of the Eastern half of the United States, from Florida to New Hampshire and west to Texas in zones 5-9, dogwood adapts to many soils and climates.  They prefer neutral to slightly acidic, moist soil and afternoon shade.

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Dogwoods are found growing along the edges of deciduous forests, but are also popular trees for parks and neighborhoods.  Their clouds of white or pink flowers, when in bloom, show up through shady woods or down winding neighborhood streets.  They grow to only about 30′, which makes dogwood a good landscape choice close to one’s home.

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Dogwoods are one of our most wildlife friendly native trees.  They offer nectar to pollinators early in the season, and their canopy supports over 100 species of butterfly and moth larvae in summer.  Many other insects find shelter in their branches, which makes them a prime feeding spot for song birds all summer long.  Birds find shelter and nesting spots in their branches, and in autumn  their plump scarlet fruits ripen; a feast for dozens of species of birds and small mammals.

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The beautiful white ‘petals’ which surround a dogwood’s flowers are actually bracts.  The flowers are small, almost unnoticeable and yellow green, in the center of four bracts.  A cluster of drupes emerges by September, rosy red and beautiful against a dogwood’s scarlet autumn leaves.

Birds distribute dogwood seeds over a wide area, and they grow easily from seed in the garden or the wild.  Young trees grow relatively quickly and are seldom grazed by deer.

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I am always happy to notice a dogwood seedling crop up in our garden and astounded at how quickly they develop.  A seedling dogwood will most likely bloom by its fourth or fifth spring.

Dogwood trees may also be started from cuttings, especially if more trees of a particular form or color are needed.  Their seeds may be gathered and planted outside in a prepared bed in autumn.  They need cold stratification to germinate, and so an outdoor seedbed is a reliable method to grow new trees from gathered seeds.

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There are many dogwood cultivars and trees found with white, pink or red bracts.  There are also several other native and Asian species in the Cornus genus, some with beautiful variegated foliage or colorful stems.

All are relatively pest free and graceful plants.  The Anthracnose virus is a problem for dogwood trees in some areas.  Good hygiene, removing and destroying any affected plant tissue, is important in controlling this fungal disease.  Keeping the tree in good health, especially irrigating during drought, helps to prevent disease problems.

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The last time I counted, we had at least 15 native dogwood trees around our garden, filling it, this month, with billowing clouds of flowers.  It nearly takes my breath away when the sun is shining and we see them against a colorful backdrop of budding trees and clear blue sky.

There is such prolific beauty in April, how can one person take it all in?

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Woodland Gnome 2018
For the Daily Post’s
Weekly Photo Challenge:  Prolific

Blossom XXXIV: First Iris

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“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful,
full or wonder and excitement.
It is our misfortune that for most of us
that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct
for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring,
is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.
If I had influence with the good fairy
who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children,
I should ask that her gift to each child in the world
be a sense of wonder so indestructible
that it would last throughout life,
as an unfailing antidote
against the boredom and disenchantment of later year…
the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
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Rachel Carson

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“It is a wholesome and necessary thing
for us to turn again to the earth
and in the contemplation of her beauties
to know the sense of wonder and humility. ”
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Rachel Carson

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Dwarf Iris riticulata open the season for Iris blooming in our garden.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

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“In nature nothing exists alone.”

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Rachel Carson
Blossom XXXIII:  October Blues

 

Fabulous Friday: Evergreen

Hardy Cyclamen and bulb foliage shine through the leaf litter of a perennial bed at the Heath’s display garden in Gloucester, Virginia.

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I’m appreciative today for every little scrap of green shining in our winter garden.  So much of the world is brown or grey or beige here this week.

Although I’ve spotted a few early snow drops, Galanthus, in public gardens; we haven’t seen more than the first tentative tips of green leaves from our own spring bulbs.  And yet they are utterly fascinating as they push up through the wet, nearly frozen Earth; and we celebrate every tiny tip of green.

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Early February comes, some years, gilded with early Forsythia, the first golden Crocus, and a few brave daffodils splashed across the landscape.

Other years, winter still reigns supreme. Tiny Forsythia buds shiver along the branches, swollen but wisely closed.  Bulbs wait for the sun’s warm embrace to trigger their unfolding.

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Italian Arum keeps sending up leaves despite the frosty weather.  Our first daffodils have begun to show themselves in recent days.

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This winter feels unusually determined and harsh.  It has been so cold that many of our evergreen shrubs, like the wax myrtle and Camellias, have cold-burned leaves.  Worse, many of their leaves have fallen this year, lying browned and forlorn beneath the shrubs’ bare twigs.

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Every bit of evergreen moss and leaf and blade and needle catches my grateful eye with its promise of better gardening days ahead.  I feel glad for all of those winter hardy Cyclamen and Arum blithely shining against the leaf litter and mud below them.  The effort of finding them and planting them feels like a very wise investment in horticultural happiness today.

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Ilex aquifolium argentea marginata grows in several pots in our winter garden. Generally cold hardy, even this English holly has shown damage from our frigid nights in January.

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Garden designers always admonish us to plan for all seasons in the garden.  But one season isn’t like the last, and this year isn’t like the next.  We gardeners are always improvising and experimenting, our planting often extemporaneous; the results surprisingly serendipitous.  It is through these odd cracks of chance that magic happens in our gardens.

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Hellebore leaves and hardy ferns fill the bed beneath a fall blooming Camellia shrub.

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I know it has been a harsh winter when deer even strip the Hellebore leaves and nibble the flowers from a thorny Mahonia shrub.  I caught a large herd of 20 or more gazing longingly into our garden, through the fence, from our neighbor’s yard this afternoon.  Individuals find their way in from time to time.  Hoof prints in the moist soil tell their never-sorry tale.

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Deer have even nibbled leaves from new English ivy plants in our garden this winter.

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What’s left behind and living feels all the more precious today.  I’m glad for the stray Vinca vine shining through the leaf litter.  The stray wild strawberry plant looks oddly elegant air planted in a rotting stump.  I feel that every evergreen shrub was planted as insurance against a frigid February like this one.

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Mountain Laurel will resume growth and bloom by mid-May.

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I’m happy to pause today to celebrate every ever-green and growing thing I see in the garden.

We’ll ignore the usual labels of ‘weed’ or ‘native,’ ‘exotic’ or ‘invasive.’  We’ll pay no mind to how large or unusual its eventual blooms might  be, or even consider whether or not we will still want to befriend it in June.

We’ll just let it warm our gardener’s hearts on this cold and windy February day, and follow its brave example of endurance through challenging times.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is contagious, let’s infect one another!

 

Sunday Dinner: Promise

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“Know who you are,
what your potential is
and press towards it with all
that you have within you”
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Sunday Adelaja

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“There is that gnawing feeling
that we are far more than what we believe ourselves to be.
Maybe it’s time to believe the gnawing.”
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Craig D. Lounsbrough

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“A potential is a hidden greatness.
It is the success to be realized.
It is an accomplishment yet to be uncovered.”
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Israelmore Ayivor

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“The unlike is joined together,
and from differences
results the most beautiful harmony.”

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Heraclitus

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“Dreams become regrets when left in the mind,
never planted in the soil of action.”
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Auliq-Ice

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“To be ordinary is a choice,
for everyone has it in them
to become extraordinary.”
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Lauren Lola

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“This is the miracle of all miracles—
when life sacrifices itself to become something greater.
When it awakens to its potential
and rises in power.
That is true magic.”
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Seth Adam Smith
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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

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“Never become impatient with the process,
bored with the pace, frustrated at the meager results,
just keep trying.”
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Auliq-Ice

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“All of those things – rock and men and river – resisted change,
resisted the coming as they did the going.
(Mt.) Hood warmed and rose slowly,
breaking open the plain, and cooled slowly
over the plain it buried.
The nature of things is resistance to change,
while the nature of process is resistance to stasis,
yet things and process are one,
and the line from inorganic to organic and back
is uninterrupted and unbroken.”
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William Least Heat-Moon

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“Everything is an experiment.”
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Tibor Kalman

 

2017 Favorites

Japanese Maple, found in our front border in 2010 when it was a seedling, and nurtured ever since.  April 2017

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November finds me sifting through the year’s photos in search of our favorites for the coming year’s calendar.

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Out of the thousands of photos I capture each year, sixty-one may come to be selected, re-cropped, and published in our limited edition ‘A Forest Garden’ calendar.

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We set parameters.  First, I use only photos taken here in our own Forest Garden.  All of those photos taken while visiting and traveling never have a chance to make it to the calendar.

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Next, I decide on certain types of photos each year.  One year, I wanted a photo of a bird for every month.

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I always want to use photos of butterflies, bees, dragonflies, and the other interesting creatures who have visited our garden during the year.  We love watching them, and plant to attract and feed them.

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Our 2018 calendar’s theme is ‘Flowers Every Day of the Year.’  I focused more on photos of flowers,  and a little less on  beautiful foliage.  Selecting the year’s favorite photos requires a major investment of time and thinking.

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It is instructive, as it illustrates the garden’s annual progression of growth.  I watch the colors of our garden shift from month to month and season to season.

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I learn so much about our garden by reviewing the year’s photos. This discipline of studying the photos also helps spark fresh ideas, and clearly shows where a little extra effort may be required!

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Now that my holiday efforts are complete, there is time to look one more time through the photo file I compiled while working on our 2018 calendar.

I hope you enjoy this retrospective of the past year in our Forest Garden.

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If you would like to have a copy of our 2018 “A Forest Garden” calendar, they are available through The Nurtury in Gloucester Courthouse, Virginia.  As in past years, this is a working gardener’s calendar.  Moons, solstices, equinoxes, and first and last frost dates in Zones 5-9 are noted.  Each month features gardening tips and reminders.

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This week between Christmas and New Year, this longest night of the year, remains one of my favorite weeks of the year.  It is a time for looking back at fond memories, and also for looking ahead to those plans and projects on our personal horizon.

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It is a time for favorite friends, favorite activities, favorite keepsakes, and favorite memories.

 

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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April 3, 2017, and our Magnolias have put out both leaves and new blossoms after a late frost in March.

 

 

For the Daily Post’s

Weekly Photo Challenge:  2017 Favorites

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“A Forest Garden 2018” calendar is available,
should you wish to have one,
at The Nurtury, 6619 Main Street, in Gloucester Court House, Virginia. 
Reach The Nurtury at 804.695.4417 for more information. 
The Nurtury ships merchandise around the world.

Solstice Sunset

Powhatan Creek at sunset on Winter Solstice.

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Today we celebrate the Winter Solstice, that time of year when days are short and nights are long.  Our day in Williamsburg, Virginia, began at 7:17 AM with sunrise, and ended at 4:53 PM as the sun set.  Our day was nine hours and 36 minutes long today.

But, as I look at a table of sunrise and sunset times, I notice that yesterday, and everyday since last Sunday, has been exactly the same length.  The difference is that the sunrise was a minute or two later, but so was the sunset!  In fact,  our earliest sunset of the year, at 4:49 PM, occurred on December 2 this year.  The sun has been setting a minute or two later each day since the 12th, when sunset occurred at 4:50 PM.

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Sunrise continues to come a bit later each day.  Today the sun rose at 7:17, but by Saturday it will rise at 7:18, and on Christmas Monday it  won’t appear until 7:19 AM.  The sun will continue rising a bit later each morning until December 31,  when it rises at 7:21 AM.

It isn’t until the 13th of January that the rising sun reverses itself and comes up a minute earlier, at 7:20.  By January 13, the day will have grown to nine hours and 50 minutes, as the sun is setting at 4:50 once again.

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Each day between now, and December 27, will continue on at exactly nine hours and 36 minutes.  That means that we will have a run of 11 days of ‘the shortest day of the year,’ of only nine hours and 36 minutes of daylight.  As the sun sets a minute later, so the sun also rises a minute later, in perfect choreography, until December 28, when the day grows by a minute to nine hours and 37 minutes at last.  On New Year’s Day, our daylight will have grown to nine hours and 38 minutes, with sunrise at seven 21 and sunset at 4:59.

Perhaps this very long run of short days and worsening weather is why we need the brightness of the  holidays to cheer our souls and help us through this extended period of darkness.  I feel grateful for every light display I see along the way, as darkness gathers in late afternoon, and the wind bites with cold.

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I relish these early evenings, too.  Watching the sky turn bright with sunset color, and seeing our beautiful trees silhouetted against the deepening sky is a breathtakingly beautiful way to end our day.  Except it isn’t the end of the day, is it?

The early sunset may send us indoors, but we enjoy the long, quiet winter evenings together.  We may hear the owls calling to one another in the ravine.  I make tea, fix snacks, and work on holiday chores.   I paint and sculpt, read and crochet.  It may be long past midnight before I give up the day for sleep, knowing that morning will dawn quite late on the morrow!

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We are in the darkest part of the year: Yule.  And that has been amplified this week with the new moon on Monday.  Settling comfortably into darkness, we gather with friends and loved ones, forming our intentions and making our wishes in anticipation of the year’s turning and return of longer days of sunlight.

Some light a Yule log and keep it burning until the days grow longer once again.  Some light candles to warm winter’s long nights, or light lamps.  Here, we string Christmas lights and enjoy their nightly glow.  We keep them up and burning deep into January, when we can feel the year has turned and days have grown longer once again.

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Tonight, we went out to watch the Solstice sunset.  We left soon after four, camera in hand, and enjoyed a beautiful late afternoon drive on the Colonial Parkway.  We were driving west towards Jamestown, and the sun was brightly blazing even as it dipped towards the horizon before us.  I had to wear my shades and still shield my eyes against its intensity.

We may have made a detour…. there may have been mint ice cream involved…

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Suffice it to say, we were running a bit close when we headed back to the Parkway to photograph the setting sun.  Seconds count, and that fiery orb had already dipped below the James River before we were in position.  But the sky was still ablaze, and the new moon hanging in a pristine sky, growing brighter with each passing minute.

Winter Solstice is one of my favorite days of the year.  We have celebrated this day since my own little one was tiny, with special food, and gifts, and music and merry-making.  It marks the passage from weeks of preparation to conscious celebration of the waning of one year and fresh beginnings of the next.  I envy friends born on this special day, and always keep it as the beginning of our Christmas celebrations.

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My mind turns to The Holly King of legend, who shines brightly in our barren, wintery woods.  Aglow in bright red berries, hollies shine through mist and snow and gloomy winter days.  Winter is their prime time, when the oaks and other hardwoods have gone dormant and dropped their leaves.

I wish you a happy Solstice and a Merry Yule.

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These are special days, and I hope you keep them well.  With love shining brightly in our hearts, we journey through these last days of 2017 and find our way into a new solar year.  May peace and happiness journey with you, and may 2018 offer you fresh possibilities, new opportunities and abundant joy.

Woodland Gnome 2017

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The James River

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