Celebrating Spring Indoors: Mosses and Ferns

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Greeness re-emerges each March from February’s shades of brown and grey.  We notice exquisite shades of fresh green wherever there is new growth; even if only weeds emerging in the lawn, new grass, and buds breaking open on early shrubs.

Green is alive with possibility, giving us fresh energy and enthusiasm.  Green is the color by which energy from the sun is captured and transformed into the sort of chemical food energy that fuels us all.  Whether we access it directly from a kiwi or avocado, or allow the green to be munched first by a cow before it is transformed into milk or meat; we depend on green chlorophyll to produce every calorie of energy which fuels our lives.

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Green attracts like a powerful, life-affirming magnet, especially in the spring when we are ready to move on from winter’s rest.  And in these last chilly weeks of unpredictable weather, I enjoy making a green arrangement with ferns and mosses to enjoy indoors until spring is firmly established outside in the garden.

I have been experimenting with keeping moss inside for several years.  While all goes well for a while, the moss often ends up turning brown and sometimes disappearing entirely.  Moss is the simplest of plants, yet its nurture as a ‘houseplant’ proves fickle and complex.

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Moss pairs well with ferns, as their needs are nearly the same. Lichens may also be incorporated in the design.  2014

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For all of the vibrant green kokedama covered in moss I’ve seen in books and on other’s websites, I have not yet figured out how to reliably keep moss alive for long inside.  But I keep trying…..

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There is a bit of potting soil and sand beneath the moss to sustain the plants growing in the glass plate.  January 2015

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Japanese guides suggest taking one’s potted moss outside for some portion of each day to give it fresh air and bright light.  This sounds suspiciously like walking a pet dog to me, and I’m not yet prepared to treat my moss gardens like a barking or purring pet.

I’ve also learned that closing moss up into a terrarium can be the ‘kiss of death’ because it gets too wet in the high humidity, and doesn’t get the free exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen that it requires.

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February 2015

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Let’s recall that moss has no vascular system.  There are no water carrying tubes through ‘leaves’ or ‘stems’.  Moss is so simple, structurally, that every cell absorbs water.  That means that too much water for too long will kill the cell, because it isn’t going to move the excess water on, elsewhere.

We must find balance in tending moss: the balance between light and shade, moisture and dryness, heat and cold.

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January 2018

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That is why I have chosen a tall, clear vase for this arrangement, but one without a lid.  I’ve constructed this like a terrarium, but have not enclosed it.

And for the time it stays indoors I will do my best to faithfully mist it several times a week, but will resist the temptation to pour water into it.  And, if I notice the moss struggling, I’m prepared to remove it, ‘plant’ it back outside, and start again with some fresh moss.

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This is my favorite sort of moss, Thuidium delicatulum, which is called fern moss because it looks like fine, low growing fern fronds.  This perennial moss prefers a moist, acid soil, can stand a fair amount of light, and grows prolifically in several spots in our garden.

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This is fern moss, Thuidium delicatulum, which looks like it is made of tiny, low growing ferns.

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I’ve created a base in this vase with fine aquarium gravel mixed with some fine charcoal, recycled from a water filter.  I mixed a little more of the charcoal in with the coarse potting soil mix I used for the ferns.  This is soil I’ve used earlier this winter for starting tubers and bare root plants in the basement, and it was already perfectly moist when I scooped some into the pot.  Charcoal is often used in terrariums to help purify the soil and water, keeping the plants healthier.  Without any drainage, it helps prevent water in the soil from growing stagnant.

Moss doesn’t have roots, but needs firm, continuous contact with the soil.  After planting the two tiny ferns, I simply pressed sheets of moss, with its own soil from outside still attached, on top of the potting mix.

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The taller fern is a popular houseplant called a brake fern or ribbon fern, genus Pteris.  This one is tender, though it will grow very well outside from late April through November.  The shorter one is also a tender fern, probably one of the footed ferns.

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Then I misted it well, using the mister to also clean the inside of the glass.  The pot sits a few feet away from large windows and under a lamp.  It is a bright location, and I’ll hope that both ferns and mosses grow here happily.

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March, 2018

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Plants indoors are good for us in many ways.  Plants filter the air and fill it with fresh oxygen.  Plants calm us, and bring tremendous beauty into our homes.  Plants inside in early spring also inspire us and keep that promise of spring alive, even when the weather turns cold and wintery once again.

March is a fickle month, but the overall trajectory is towards more daylight and milder weather.  As the sun returns, our garden responds with fresh growth.

But we respond, as well.  And bringing a bit of that spring time magic indoors helps us celebrate the change of seasons… in comfort.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

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Fabulous Friday: Something Borrowed, Something New

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Until I’d struggled with this ‘new’ garden for a couple of years, watching my familiar favorite plants disappear from the garden to feed assorted voles, rabbits, squirrels and deer, I’d never given Hellebores more than a passing thought.  They simply weren’t on my radar in those days when I was busy growing roses and Hydrangeas, berries, beans, tomatoes and every Begonia I could find.

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And then a friend offered to dig a few Hellebores from her garden to share with me.  We had been consoling each other, probably over cups of coffee, as we both told our stories of plants loved and lost in this forested community.  Our houses are nearby, and each of us has a ravine and a pond beyond our back yards, favorite haunts of large herds of deer.

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She’s been here a year or so longer than we; long enough to learn a trick or two.  Long enough to learn to treasure her Hellebores.

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Our first patch of Hellebores, given to us by a friend,  as they were in April of 2012. These perennials look good in every season, thrive in dry shade, and bloom for several months in late winter and early spring.

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Her broad front yard is carpeted with beautiful Hellebores.  Through the warmer months, Hellebores cover the ground, especially in shady spots, with a beautiful, textured deep emerald green.  And then sometime between November and January they begin to bloom.  And they keep producing flowers until things heat up again in April or May.

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Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’.

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Hellebore flowers come in shades of white, cream, light green, pinks, purples, and reds.  Heavily hybridized, there is a huge variety of size and form available through nurseries and catalogs.

Which is fun for collectors, but almost doesn’t matter anymore once you have a plant or three.  Because Hellebores easily set seed, and those seeds easily germinate.  And a few Hellebores easily becomes an ever widening patch of them, all a bit different since they have hybridized with one another.

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I’m reminded of generosity and friendship every spring as we admire our Hellebores.  Those few early plants did so well for us, some even in full sun, that I dig and re-plant seedlings in more areas of the yard each spring.  Hellebores are just the trick to solve several of the challenges we face.

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Hellebores touched with frost

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Because they are highly poisonous, the local wild things leave Hellebores strictly alone.  This makes them valuable for planting around newly planted trees, shrubs, ferns and perennials that need a bit of protection from hungry voles.  The voles avoid the Hellebore roots and so avoid the tasties you need to protect, as well.

Simply plant a circle of seedlings, spaced every 8″-10″, around the new plant.  Those roots very soon grow into a solid mass of protection, and the Hellebores will thrive in dry shade as the shrubs grow.

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Hellebores and Narcissus protect the roots of this Camellia sasanqua, blooming for several months after the Camellia flowers have faded.

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Deer don’t much like to walk through Hellebores, and certainly never nibble them.  Plant them in a mass along property lines, or disrupt deer runs through the garden with a living barrier of Hellebores.

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Hellebore seedlings bloom for the first time on this slope, where I planted them last spring.  This area gets a lot of erosion and several other plants have failed here.  The daffodils and Hellebores may prove the solution to hold the bank.

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Hellebores also serve as a beautiful ground cover on slopes and other areas where you don’t want grass.  They hold the soil against erosion and suppress weeds.  They can take drought and need very little care, other than removing old and damaged leaves in late winter.

I like to mix Hellebores with ferns and spring bulbs, like daffodils or early summer bloomers like Iris.  They make great companions.

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Seedlings blooming in their first year.

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And finally, I still want a few large pots of Hellebores each winter.  I pick out new cultivars at the nursery, looking for interesting leaves as well as striking flowers.  Maybe one day I’ll just dig a few seedlings for the pots.  But I find the new cultivars interesting enough to seek out special ones with variegated foliage or double flowers.

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I was very inspired by a planting featured in a recent issue of Gardens Illustrated.  A very large round stone planter was filled with the earlier blooming Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, interplanted with Galanthus and Cyclamen hederifolium and C. coum. The whole confection was white flowers against beautiful green and silver foliage.   It was elegantly simple and absolutely aglow on the dull day it was photographed.

Hellebores make wonderful companion plants for spring bulbs in winter pots, and the whole thing can be transplanted into the garden in April, when you want to re-plant the pot for summer.  You know the arrangement will come back even bigger and better next winter.

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Which brings me to the main reason I’m celebrating our Hellebores on this Fabulous Friday:  they give abundant winter flowers.  Whether cut for a vase, floated in a bowl, or simply admired while walking through the garden; Hellebores defy winter with flowers of vibrant color and delicate beauty.

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We have enough seedling Hellebores appearing each spring that I’m always happy to share with other gardeners.  Especially gardeners making the hard adjustment to gardening in our challenging area, who are just looking for something, anything, they can grow without having to spray it with deer repellents every time it rains.

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Something borrowed, something new… a gardener’s happiness always grows when friends share their botanical treasures, and when success finally blooms from challenge.

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Woodland Gnome 2019
Fabulous Friday:
Happiness is Contagious; Let’s Infect One Another!

Pot Shots: Early Spring Bulbs

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Planting up pots with spring blooming bulbs has become an autumn ritual for me.   I consider how the bloom will unfold around the perennials, ferns and woodies included in the design.   I plant with a sense of anticipation and caution.  I am excited by the potential while also mindful of the many pitfalls that can damage bulbs between autumn and spring.

I’ve lost bulbs in recent years to hungry squirrels, bacterial infection on some of the bulbs planted, extreme cold and dry soil.

Some variables we can anticipate and plant to avoid. 

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Newly planted on September 25, 2018

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I’ve learned to order and pick my bulbs up as early as possible, before they can get old or contaminated in the the shop.  This year, I learned to spray the bulbs with a repellent, like Repels All, just before I plant them to discourage rodents.  I use the largest pots possible and try to shelter them against the worst weather.

Now, I make a point to water bulb filled pots throughout the winter when the ground isn’t frozen, and to mulch each pot with rocks or moss to minimize damage and bulb loss.

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November 6, 2018 Autumn blooming Colchicum was the first bulb to bloom in this fall planted pot. Cyclamen leaves have already emerged, and moss has begun to establish. 

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This four season pot’s main occupant is a native Oakleaf Hydrangea, which doesn’t look like much at the moment in its dormancy.  The pot is filled with an assortment of bulbs, roots, corms and tubers to unfold gradually over the long months between late autumn and early summer.

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We are currently enjoying Tommies, better known as Crocus Tommasinianus, known to rarely attract rodents.  This Crocus species simply smells differently from most species and cultivars, which can actually attract squirrels and mice because they smell nut-like.  Tommies are some of the earliest Crocus to bloom each spring, multiply well and can thrive in partial shade.

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We also have another snowdrop blooming and the first bloom of our Cyclamen coum, which will open in another day.  I planted a mix of fall blooming Cyclamen hederifolium and C. coum for a longer season of delicate blooms.

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It isn’t cheating to begin adding plants in early spring.  Pots are stages, and the players come and go to keep the show lively.  I added the panola last week, to fill a small hole left by a curious squirrel.

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I love bulbs in pots precisely because I’m curious, too.  I want to watch spring unfold in miniature, up close; in a choreographed microcosm of what is writ large around us.

Moss mulch elevates the entire experience for me because it provides that splash of vivid, living green on even the coldest, dullest winter days.  It protects and insulates the bulbs while also protecting whatever is in growth from splashing soil during rains.  And, quite honestly, I’m curious to watch every tiny plant that sprouts from the moss.

Left untended, the grass would grow in little clumps through the moss until unplanned plants (read: weeds) overwhelmed the planting.  But no:  We have little snips to keep everything tidied up.  That is a lesson learned from hard experience, too.

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You never got around to planting bulbs this year?  No worries. 

You can still create a beautiful pot of blooming bulbs now.  I’ve found bulbs in growth at nurseries and the grocery store for the past few weeks.

Grab a pot or basket and fresh potting mix, plan your arrangement, and just take those bulbs already in growth and slip them out of their nursery pot as you tuck them into your arrangement.  Add a pansy or primrose, if it makes you happy.  There is no shortage of moss after all the rain these past few weeks.

All sorts of interesting things have begun to turn up at local nurseries, and your creative ideas will lead you to just the right components for your own spring pot.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience.

Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.”
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Hal Borland

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February 15, 2019

 

 

Unum de multis: Multiplying Succulents

Newly planted jade plant cutting, removed from an older plant after it rooted into the air.

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Succulent plants serve as living sculpture with their emphatic forms, slow growth, and unusual colors.  Most gardeners either adore them or avoid them.  They feel a little alien to most of us Virginia gardeners, as there are very few native succulents in our landscapes.

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Some gardeners find succulents a bit too prickly and spiny for comfort.  And the majority of succulents aren’t hardy through our winters.  We have to treat them as annuals or bring them indoors for months of the year.

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These succulents are hardy, and are beginning their spring growth outside in the Table Bed at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden

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Succulents want loose, sandy and rocky soil and bright light.  Some need full sun, others bright but indirect light and warmth.  Their needs are simple, and I’ve killed more succulents with too much water than by any stretch of neglect.

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This succulent planting grew happily on our front porch in the summer of 2013.  A gravel mulch helps keep these moisture-sensitive plants happy.

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That said, I absolutely pour over photos of succulent planting schemes in sunny California gardens.  Many gardeners in dry regions use succulents in every size from tiny to epic in their landscapes as focal points, ground covers, thrillers, fillers and spillers.  Their compositions are bright and colorful, and they absolutely intrigue me.  Once succulent plants mature, they produce oddly beautiful flowers.

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Plants that may be inexpensive and readily available in the western states are harder to find and pricier here in Virginia garden centers.  You can mail order wonderful succulents from suppliers like Plant Delights near Raleigh, NC; but please have that credit card handy.

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I just bought this little collection of succulents on the houseplant sale last weekend at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond, specifically to break them apart for propagation.

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I have a project in mind for this coming summer to create a hanging basket covered in succulents.  Planting up the interior of the basket with succulents won’t be difficult.  I plan to use an assortment of hardy Sedums already on hand, with some red ‘hens and chicks’ and a single spiky Agave or Aloe for the ‘thriller.’

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Use hardy succulents as ground cover around spring bulbs. Enjoy this display at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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I want to cover the outside of the coco liner in succulents, too.  That will take a lot of individual plants.  To effectively plant the outside of the basket, it will be easier to slip each plant in through a slit in the liner if each plant has a very small root system: in other words, if I use rooted cuttings.

Some designers will suggest using succulent stem cuttings and allowing them to root in place.  This would work, but I want to give the plants a little head start and I don’t have enough stem cuttings for the project.

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Potted plants have too much root mass to slip through a slit in a coco basket liner, without damaging the roots.

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I’ve been playing around with potted arrangements of succulents for years- with mixed success.  They all look pretty good for a while.  We often get so much rain at once that it saturates the soil, even with specially mixed soil that contains lots of sand and gravel.  I try to remember to set succulent pots back under the eaves when a lot of rain is forecast.  Succulents sometimes struggle in our humidity and rainy summer weather.

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Collection of succulents, August 2014

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Without a heated greenhouse, I doubt I’ll ever achieve the horticultural succulent splendor possible for Southern California and Arizona gardeners.  Our climate will never allow for me to let our succulent arrangements live and grow outside year round long enough to really fill in and mature.  That takes years….

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Succulents with thick, waxy leaves release very little water into the air. They are built for hot, dry conditions and may rot if their soil remains saturated for too long.  This Echeveria has produced chicks that I want to grow on to mature, independent plants.

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Lately, I’ve been inspired to study succulent propagation again.  A good, practical resource is Debra Lee Baldwin’s book, Succulent Container Gardens. 

This is an ‘eye candy’ book that surveys the major genera of succulents appropriate to grow in various containers.  I like this book because it covers all of the important topics like soils and pot selection, design, plant care, and also succulent plant propagation.

The most common error in trying to root succulent cuttings is trying to rush the process.  Leaf cuttings and stem cuttings need a few days to air dry and ‘scab’ over, before any attempt to root them.  Many succulents will strike roots directly into humid air, even generating tiny new plants, without the cut end of the stem in either soil or water.

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This Jade plant spontaneously grew roots, indicating to me that this stem wants a fresh start in its own pot.

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This is counter-intuitive for many of us.  We want to stick that cut end into something moist so the plant can suck up water and survive.

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Do you see the roots that have started to grow from the stem?

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I won’t admit how many times I’ve found a dropped succulent leaf and dropped it, cut side down, into a pot hoping it would root.  Before roots can grow, a damp succulent stem will more likely rot.  Even with the pups off of an Echeveria, the stems want a few days to scab over before you secure them in some sandy soil to root and grow on.

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I took this stem cutting from the jade plant three days ago, and you can see that the stem has dried and calloused over.

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After researching several different rooting methods for succulent leaf cuttings, I have prepared a large clear plastic storage box by first cleaning it with disinfectant, and then lining the bottom of the box with a single layer of paper towel to wick any moisture evenly through the medium.  I covered that with a 1″ layer of clean horticultural sand.  That’s it…

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I bought a selection of small succulent plants on a special sale last weekend for this project, and have twisted most of the leaves off of each plant.  Twist, don’t cut, because each leaf needs a tiny bit of stem tissue still attached.  If the petiole breaks ahead of the stem, the leaf may not strike roots.

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See how the leaf cutting on the right already have begun to root and grow new plants? This had happened while the leaves were still attached to the mother plant.

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I’ve cut the top off of each plant, leaving 1/4″-1/2″ of stem attached.  I’ve kept the rooted plants in their original pots, watered them, and have set them aside in a bright place to regenerate themselves.  I expect small ‘pups’ to begin to grow along the stems where leaves were removed.  This will likely take 6 weeks to two months before the pups may be large enough to remove and grow on.

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I expect these rooted stems to also generate new plants at the leaf nodes. All of the nodes are stimulated when I removed the top of the stem.  One of the plants didn’t have enough stem to take a cutting, but it will continue to grow.

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At the moment, all of the new stem cuttings are just sitting on top of the sand, in bright but indirect light, while they callous over.  I’ll probably wait until Friday before adding just enough water to the edges of the box to slightly moisten the paper towels and the sand.  No wet sand!  Just a little moisture in the mix before I cover the box with clear plastic.  A dry cleaner bag or clear leaf bag will work for this, and I’ll leave a little vent for air exchange to discourage mold.  I expect the leaves to remain hydrated from the moisture in the air, and tiny roots to grow into the air to absorb that moisture.

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If all goes well, I should have a good selection of tiny succulent plants with sufficient root growth to construct that succulent basket in late April.  If all the leaf cuttings root and produce new plants, I’ll have plenty left for additional succulent projects this spring.

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There is a layer of fine gravel in this pot, topped by special succulent potting mix. I added additional sand to the mix, dampened it, and then planted the rooted jade plant.  The cutting will probably grow in this pot for a year or more before it needs repotting.

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The succulent pots I’ve overwintered in past years have all grown ‘leggy’ growing inside with insufficient light over winter.  Now, I understand better how to work with those leggy  plants to cut them back and stimulate growth, using the cuttings to generate fresh plants.

When our local garden centers begin to fill with plants next month I will look at the succulents on offer with a different eye.  Rather than choosing a plant to use immediately in some planting scheme, I think I’ll be more likely to look at some less desirable plants for their ‘parts.’

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Out of one, many….. 

Once you understand how plants grow and regenerate, it becomes easier to work with their natural proclivities to generate as many individuals as you need.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

Blossom XLVI: Snowdrops and Iris

Iris histrioides ‘George’ is blooming today, the first Iris of spring.

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“A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in-
-what more could he ask?
A few flowers at his feet
and above him the stars.”
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Victor Hugo

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Galanthus elwesii

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“Nobody sees a flower – really –
it is so small it takes time
– we haven’t time –
and to see takes time,
like to have a friend takes time.”

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Georgia O’Keeffe

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“If you want love to blossom in your heart,
just sit in the garden,
and watch the flowers grow.”
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Anthony T. Hincks

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“I must have flowers, always, and always.”
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Claude Monet

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Galanthus ‘Sam Arnott’ with Helleborus

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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All the flowers of all the tomorrows
are in the seeds of today”
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Robin Craig Clark

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“Love speaks in flowers.
Truth requires thorns.”
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Leigh Bardugo

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Mahonia aquifolium

 

 

The Temptations of Early Spring…

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Last week we were swept up in the edges of the ‘Polar Vortex’ and had some of our coldest temperatures of the season.  It felt like winter.  We ate soup and stayed indoors.  But a winter storm swept through on Friday and took the cold out to sea, leaving us with balmy spring-time weather in its wake.

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We were still frozen at mid-day on Sunday, but the sun was out and warmth was returning.

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It was warmer this morning than all day yesterday, and by afternoon we were looking for projects to take us outside.  The air was soft and the sun was warm.  I could smell the sweetness of our opening Edgeworthia flowers for the first time this season.

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A honey bee was out foraging on the Mahonia flowers, and birds called to one another throughout the day.  A group of owls had a loud conversation in the ravine, and a nest has appeared in a shrub by the garage.

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It feels like instant spring, and I was inspired to all sorts of little tasks like taking cuttings, giving our living room fern a trim out on the deck, and potting up some of our rooting Begonia stems.

I groomed the pots on the patio; fingers crossed.  We had geraniums still green until this last cold spell and ‘annual’ Verbena still green and growing.  The ‘Goodwin Creek’ lavender is usually fried and frozen by February; but so far, so good with ours in big pots by the front porch.

Will it make it all the way through to next summer?

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Italian Arum unfolding ever so slowly in a pot by the kitchen door.

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I am a little chagrined to realize how much the weather effects my ambition to get gardening things done.  The warmth and sunshine gave me a welcome rush of energy.  Even so, I know that winter hasn’t finished with us, yet.

There may be warmer days yet in the forecast for the week, but I know that more ice and snow will find us before May.  I’m still reluctant to do much pruning or other clean-up so early.

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Iris bulbs are up and growing in the Iris border at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden. We will have flowers before the end of February.

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I wanted to clean up the dead and dying branches of things in pots near the house, but not too soon, if they can still recover from their roots.

Cut too soon, the next hard freeze might kill them.

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I spotted little green buds on the Clematis and found Dianthus buds ready to open.  I’m still taking inventory of all the Hellebores with flower buds.   Oh, the havoc a false spring can create when a hard freeze follows a balmy breeze!  I’d rather the plants remain dormant, and not begin to grow too early.

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It was too nice a day to waste fretting over winter’s next act.  I went ahead and pruned our little variegated English holly to shape it a bit, and now have a pan with eight Ilex aquifolium cuttings that I hope will root.  The holly should be hardy enough to not mind the early pruning.

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Hellebores keep right on blooming through winter storms and freezing nights.

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Bulbs are popping up everywhere and buds are swelling on our Magnolia trees.  Yesterday morning, the ground was too frozen to re-plant Violas uprooted by the squirrels.

Today, the soil is soft and moist, full of promise and tempting me to press some bit of stem or seed or root into it for safe keeping, until spring settles in and our garden grows lush and green once again.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Date Seed Update:  I moved some of the seeds showing growth from the jar of water to a damp paper towel in a zip-lock.  I have the seeds under a lamp in a warm spot, and am checking them daily for growth. 

Of course, I could have planted these directly into pots of soil.  But it’s more interesting to keep them out where we can watch them grow a while longer!

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Pot Shots: Winter Flowers

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We are glad to live in a climate that allows us to enjoy flowers in our garden all through the year.   Here in coastal Virginia, in Zone 7b, the Chesapeake Bay and nearby James River help us hold what warmth can be gathered from winter sunlight and warm ocean currents from the Gulf.

On mornings like this one, when the thermometer readings fall below 20F and the wind chill is 5F, flowers may seem an unlikely luxury.  And yet our hardiest winter blooming plants bloom on.  Our bursts of cold are brief, and more moderate weather will soon follow.

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Even as spring bulbs are already sending up their first leaves, we enjoy flowers from woody stems on our Camellias, Edgeworthia, Mahonias, Pieris japonica, Osmanthus x fortunei or Fortune’s tea olive, Hamamelis, and a few early swelling buds on the Forsythia.

All of these flowering shrubs may be grown in pots for a year or two, before they need repotting or a permanent spot in the garden.  When potting shrubs, choosing a shrub that is hardy to at least one zone north of where you plan to grow it may give it an extra edge of survival during unusual bouts of cold.  Temporarily covering the shrub when temps dip below its range may help, as well.

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But it is the pots of Violas and Hellebores that offer the most winter color.  The Violas have bloomed non-stop since we planted them in October.  But the Hellebores have just begun opening over the last few days.

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We planted this clump of Hellebores into a raised bed in 2014. They begin to bloom sometime each January, and bloom non-stop until early May.

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As I walk around the yard to check on those we have planted out in previous years, I find evidence of fresh emerging leaves and plump buds, beginning their annual show.

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These winter pots harbor assorted bulbs, some already poking the tips of green leaves up their their gravel mulch.  Soon enough, we’ll have snow drops, Crocus, tiny Iris, daffodils and Hyacinths blooming, too.  Bold Arum leaves also brave the January cold, with more to follow as we move into early spring.

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Planting winter flowering plants in pots invites you to notice them in detail.  Pots can be moved to where you will enjoy them the most, or where they will have a bit of shelter and warming sun on the coldest days.  These tiny flowers don’t get buried in the duff of winter blown leaves or trampled in haste.  They are protected from hungry voles and possibly from curious squirrels, as well.

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I learned a new trick this fall, listening to Brent Heath lecture about all things bulbs.  Brent suggests giving bulbs a quick spray with deer repellent before planting them to mask their delicious aroma from squirrels.  Have you ever planted new bulbs, only to find them missing a few days later, with freshly dug soil and an empty hole where you planted them?  Yes, the squirrels can smell them, and will go to any lengths to dig some of them up for dinner.

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These Iris bulbs all smell tasty to a hungry squirrel. They represent an investment, and can be protected with a quick squirt of liquid animal repellent, such as Repels All, before you plant them. You’ll find several good brands available. Covering their scent is key, and planting garlic cloves in the top of the pot can offer some protection, too.  Once the bulbs begin to grow and form roots, they are less likely to be dug up for dinner.

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Brent suggested a quick spray of repellent on the tastiest of them just before planting, and I added that extra step as I planted this fall.  Now Narcissus bulbs are poisonous, and squirrels leave them alone.  And Brent also shared that the Crocus tommasinianus, will be left alone too, as they have a different aroma from most other Crocus.  If you plant any of the other Crocus species, you might give them a spray to protect them.

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I also mulch freshly planted bulbs with pea gravel.  It looks clean and tidy, protects newly emerged foliage from splashing soil on rainy days, and I like to think it slows the squirrels down in their digging.  Sometimes yes, sometimes no….. 

This year I made the extra effort to spray the newly planted and mulched containers with Repels All when I finished planting, and I’ve come around with an squirt or two again on those planted with Violas, to protect their tasty flowers and leaves from any curious deer.  The extra effort has made a positive difference and we’ve had no grazing or pulling out of new plants.

Adding a few larger attractive stones dresses up the pot a bit, adds interest before the plants grow in, and may further discourage digging.

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Viola with Ajuga reptans

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As you’re planning your winter pots, consider adding winter hardy ground covers like Sedum ‘Angelina’, Lysimachia nummularia: creeping Jenny, Ajuga or Saxifraga stolonifera. These will remain alive and fairly fresh through the coldest weather, but will spring back into active growth early on and fill the pot with fresh foliage to offset the early bulbs.

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Viola with Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ and emerging Muscari leaves.

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Alternatively, I like to carpet the soil in winter pots with freshly dug moss.  The moss remains green and bright through our winter weather, so long as there is enough moisture to quench its thirst.  Once established, it may even begin to grow and spread in the pot to offer a more natural look.

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Winter pot newly replanted at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden features Japanese Holly fern, Arum italicum, Saxifraga stolonifera, creeping Jenny vines and moss mulch.  Many varieties of spring blooming bulbs are planted under the moss.  This pot sits right outside the gate, where it might tempt passing deer.  Only reliably ‘deer proof’ plants make the cut for this space.

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Evergreen ferns like Dryopteris erythrosora: Autumn ‘Brilliance’ fern, Polystichum acrostichoides: Christmas fern, or Cyrtomium falcatum: Japanese Holly fern also brighten pots, add structure and help set off delicate flowers.  These may not remain in active growth through the winter, but their leaves persist, and they reward the thoughtful gardener with wonderful fresh fiddleheads uncurling through the arrangement in the spring.

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Cyrtomiuum falcatum, Japanese Holly fern, remains green and fresh through our winters.  It thrives in Zones 7-10.

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A final touch to add a bit of height and structure to pots might be branches cut from interesting shrubs in the autumn.  Many branches will root, when cut and set into moist soil in the late autumn.  (This is called taking hardwood cuttings.)

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Some trees and shrubs sport attractive winter bark.  Pruned branches may be stuck into pots for structure. Choosing varieties with early blooms, like these cherry trees growing at the Stryker Center in Williamsburg, may also provide an extra pop of winter color.  (It goes without saying that we should only source such branches in our own garden, or from a florist…. not from public plantings….)

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Whether you want to propagate some shrubs, or simply let their attractive form and colorful bark offset your arrangement, cut branches prove a useful and striking addition to a winter pot.  If you choose an early bloomer, like Forsythia or redbud, you might create an especially colorful spectacle come February or early March.

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Autumn blooming Colchicum was the first bulb to bloom in this fall planted pot. Cyclamen leaves have already emerged, and moss has begun to establish. In the months ahead, many different flowering bulbs will bloom until the show is finished in early May.

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We enjoy our Virginia home where gardening may continue year-round.  Gardening in pots helps us extend the season by adding a little flexibility, especially during the coldest weeks of winter.  Pots may be covered or brought indoors for a day or two.  Soil remains workable sometimes even when the ground is frozen solid, and pots may bloom on the patio and porch, where we may enjoy their beauty without leaving the cozy warmth of indoors.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’ continues blooming as flowers from bulbs emerge in late March.  The creeping Jenny is actively growing once again, and the Viola bravely flowers on into its six month of bloom.  Winter pots are wonderful!

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“I must have flowers, always, and always.”
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Claude Monet

 

Sunday Dinner: Observant

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“To acquire knowledge, one must study;
but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.”
.
Marilyn vos Savant

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“Have you noticed how nobody ever looks up?
Nobody looks at chimneys, or trees against the sky,
or the tops of buildings.
Everybody just looks down at the pavement or their shoes.
The whole world could pass them by
and most people wouldn’t notice.”
.
Julie Andrews Edwards

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“If you want to really know something
you have to observe or experience it in person;
if you claim to know something on the basis of hearsay,
or on happening to see it in a book,
you’ll be a laughingstock
to those who really know.”
.
Jonathan D. Spence

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For in the sciences
the authority of thousands of opinions
is not worth as much as one tiny spark of reason in an individual man.
Besides, the modern observations
deprive all former writers of any authority,
since if they had seen what we see,
they would have judged as we judge.”
.
Galileo Galilei

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“Look around you…Feel the wind, smell the air.
Listen to the birds and watch the sky.
Tell me what’s happening in the wide world.”
.
Nancy Farmer

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“Reason, Observation and Experience —
the Holy Trinity of Science —
have taught us that happiness is the only good;
that the time to be happy is now,
and the way to be happy is to make others so.
This is enough for us. In this belief
we are content to live and die. ”
.
Robert Green Ingersoll

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“A journey of observation
must leave as much as possible to chance.
Random movement is the best plan for maximum observation”

.
Tahir Shah

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“To see
is to forget the name
of the thing one sees.”
.
Paul Valéry

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New Caladium Plants From Older Leaves

A Caladium leaf, rooted earlier in the summer, grows on in a small pot.  Each new leaf the plant produces is a bit larger and more colorful.

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When transplanting newly sprouted Caladium tubers from the boxes where I started them, into their permanent spots, a few leaves broke away.  Back in May, I showed you how these leaves, still with a bit of the tuber attached, rooted in water.  I was able to pot these rooted leaves, and they have continued growing all summer as independent Caladium plants.

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This leaf has been living in water for better than six weeks. I finally noticed a root growing from the stem early last week.

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As the summer has gone on, I’ve tried rooting a few more leaves that broke away.  Some have rooted and others have not.  Rooting definitely depends on having a few cells from the tuber at the bottom of the petiole.   I wondered, too, what effect the age of the leaf might have on its ability to strike roots.

I’ve had this particular leaf in a small jar of water on my kitchen windowsill for better than six weeks.  I’ve seriously considered composting it several times over the last month because I wasn’t seeing progress and the leaf grew increasingly dull.

But where there is life there is hope.  It took up no more space in my window than a quarter, and I left it alone, only changing out the water from time to time to keep it fresh.

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It was early last week when I noticed the first tiny root tip protruding from the stem.  Oddly, it wasn’t growing from the base of the stem.  It was growing out of the stem itself, where it grows concave and folded over on itself near the base.

It has been a busy week and I’ve not had time to do more than simply watch it.  But yesterday afternoon, I took a closer look.  And imagine my absolute delight to find not only roots, but an entire new little plant growing from the stem!

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When I examined it again this morning, I saw that fragile root is actually a couple of inches long now and branched.  There is a tiny new leaf fully formed, and the beginnings of more.  It was clearly time to pot this up in soil and give it room to grow.

This particular leaf was a month or two old before it broke away.  It wasn’t a newly sprouted leaf like those I rooted so successfully this spring.  That means that leaves of various ages may be rooted, so long as one has the entire petiole, right down to where it grows out of its tuber.  Having a bit of root attached already makes the propagation even more successful, and certainly faster.

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I’m not sure what the implications of this might be for the home gardener.  Already, we increase our stock of tubers as we dig and save the plants in fall.  What was planted as a single tuber in spring has grown over the season, and often it has divided itself into several new pieces.

When we dry these and keep them over winter, we have more tubers to plant the following spring.  Even tiny tubers the size of a blueberry will sprout and grow on, producing leaves and increasing through the season.

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Remember to mulch the soil with perlite, vermiculate or fine pea gravel to conserve moisture and reduce soil borne disease. I like to keep small, newly rooted plants like this in a reservoir for the first few weeks. You don’t have to leave the plant in standing water. But this plant was growing in water before it was potted up. Never allow the pot to completely dry out.

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It might be worth the effort to try rooting Caladium leaves in autumn, as we dig our tubers.  I often dig plants that are still in full beautiful leaf.  Sometimes I cut the leaves and enjoy them in a vase for several more weeks.  The alternative is to let them wither and fade, finally pulling them off and composting them when we gather our dried tubers for storage.

If you decide to try rooting a leaf or two this fall, remember to keep each leaf in its own small container of water, and keep that water clean so bacteria doesn’t grow.  I use the syrup bottles from a popular chain restaurant with great success.

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Caladium ‘Chinook’ and C. ‘Highlighter’ have put on a beautiful, ever changing display, all summer.  Soon, I’ll dig the tubers out of this pot to dry them and store them for next year.

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The Caladium always needs warmth and bright, filtered light.  Windowsill propagation works during the spring and summer because the windowsill maintains a comfortable temperature.

I’m not sure how the Caladium might do once nights drop below freezing, and the windowsill temperatures dip lower, too.  But for a gardener who has a light set up to propagate seeds in late winter and spring, it might be worth the effort to root leaves in the autumn and grow these on indoors as potted plants through the winter.

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Caladium ‘Moonlight’ is planted in the pot with a large cane Begonia. It has grown happily here, peeping out of the pot.

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Please keep in mind that these plants could only be used in one’s own garden.  Many, but not all Caladium cultivars are patented.  But there are many situations where a rooted leaf may be included in potted arrangements, where a tuber and full-sized plant may not fit.  Rooted leaves are especially nice in small, decorative ceramic pots and in hanging baskets.

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Here C. ‘Moonlight’ grows in its own pot, without competition. This is a single medium sized (#2) tuber after a summer’s growth.

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As you grow and enjoy Caladiums, please keep in mind the other  ‘elephant ear’ plants.  These plants share the virtues of large, colorful leaves and simple needs.

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Colocasia ‘Black Magic’ shares a pot with Begonia ‘Flamingo.’  Black Magic is known for producing many runners and spreading itself out generously.  It needs shade, evenly moist soil, and can’t freeze.

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They are low maintenance plants.  Their leaves all contain compounds which make them unpleasant to eat for the browsers in the neighborhood.  They cause burning in the mouth and upset stomach.  Even if you loose a leaf or two, rogue deer will quickly learn to leave your elephant ears alone.

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Here, a runner is pegged into a new pot to root.

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Colocasias have the added benefit of spreading themselves around by runners.  These special stems creep around the ground for a ways, and then strike roots and grow new leaves.  When you see runners form, you can peg them down where you want an additional plant, or you can set a prepared pot under the runner and allow it to root into the pot.

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Peg the runner into an empty spot in the parent’s pot to create a fuller display.

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Cut the runner once the new plant has a few leaves and is well rooted.  Once you have a plant going, you can continue producing new plants indefinitely, and create your own tropical plant filled paradise each summer.

Caladiums, Colocasias and Alocasias are all easy to grow and easy to propagate.  If you enjoy playing with your plants, and not just admiring them, see what you can easily do yourself to increase your collection.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Fabulous Friday: Changes in the Air

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Do you remember stories from your childhood about ‘Jack Frost’ turning the leaves bright colors ?  I remember stories and poems about Jack Frost, and making Crayola drawings with a wild assortment of brightly colored leaves on my brown stick trees.  It seems a ‘given’ that leaves change their colors when the nights begin to turn cool.

But neither our nights nor our days have cooled substantially, and yet the community is definitely taking on autumn’s hues.

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We noticed it as we drove across College Creek today, admiring the first hints of yellow and gold in the trees along the opposite bank.  But we also see it in our own garden, as scarlet creeps across some dogwood leaves and the crape myrtle leaves begin to turn, even as the trees still bloom.

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The Williamsburg Botanical Garden shows its autumn colors.

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We are running 12 to 13 degrees above our ‘normal’ temperatures most days lately, and it is a rare night that has dropped even into the 60s.  And yet the plants are responding to the change of season.   Perhaps they sense the days growing shorter; perhaps they are just getting tired.

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I. ‘Rosalie Figge’ has just come back into bloom in our garden.

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Our ‘re-blooming’ Iris have sent up their first autumn stalks.  We’ve been blessed with plenty of rain, recently, and so the Iris will have a good second season.  Some of our neighbors have Encore Azaleas covered in flowers

I was dumbfounded to see how gigantic some of the Colocasias, Alocasias and Caladiums grew in the catalog garden at the Bulb Shop in Gloucester.  I can’t remember ever seeing these plants grow so huge in Virginia.

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The catalog garden at Brent and Becky’s Bulb Shop is filled with some of the largest Colocasias I’ve ever seen. Do you recognize C. ‘Tea Cups’?

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But with good soil and near constant moisture, these amazing tropicals have shown us their potential for growth when they get all the warmth and moisture and nutrition they could possibly want.  I spoke with some of the staff there about how popular tropical ‘elephant ears’ have become in recent years, as coastal Virginia becomes ever more hospitable to them.

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We ventured up to Gloucester this week to pick up our order of fall bulbs.  It is admittedly too warm, still, to plant most spring bulbs.  But I retrieved our order, shared with friends, and now will simply hold most of the bulbs for another few weeks until the nights finally cool.

There are a few bulbs that need to get in the ground right away, like dog tooth violets and our Italian Arum.  Both are actually tubers, and shouldn’t be allowed to dry out.  Our Muscari, left in pots over the summer, are already in leaf.

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I’ve planted the first of my autumn four season pots filled with bulbs and mulched with moss.  This one will begin with autumn Crocus and Cyclamen in a few weeks, and then begin the early spring with snowdrops, Crocus, Muscari and dog tooth violet.  Finally, it will finish the season with late daffodils. The pot is anchored with an oak leaf Hydrangea and a deciduous lady fern. 

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If the daffodils and tulips get planted too early, they might grow too much before the really cold weather finds us.  We can continue planting spring bulbs here into late December, maybe even early January.  I’d much rather do it in October though, wouldn’t you?

As the weather cools down a bit, I’m wanting to get back out in the garden to do a bit of tidying up before the fall planting begins.

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Pineapple Sage is already blooming in our garden. I have several still in 4″ pots I need to plant one day soon.

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I’ve got a backlog of plants sheltering in pots, just waiting for their chance to grow.  I visited a friend today who was weeding and digging her Caladiums to store for next summer.   Some of our Caladiums are beginning to die back a little, so she was probably wise to dig them while she can see a few leaves and find their roots.

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This is one of our favorite Alocasias, often called African Mask. It spends winter in the living room, and summer in a shady part of the garden.

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Bright orange wreathes are showing up on neighbor’s doors, and by Monday, the calendar will say ‘October.’  I suppose it is time to get on with it and embrace the changing seasons.

While I believe we will have another month, or two, of ‘Indian Summer’ before our first frost; I suppose we all just assume it is time for pumpkin lattes and chrysanthemums.  Some of my friends are already setting out huge mums and pulling their annuals.

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Hardy Begonias are at their peak, blooming and so beautiful this week.

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I’m not there, yet.  I’m still admiring our many ‘elephant ears’ and Begonias and watching for butterflies.  In fact, I came home from Gloucester with a sweet little Alocasia ‘Zebrina,‘ that  I’ve had my eye on all season.  They had just two left, and then they had one….

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Alocasia grown huge at the catalog garden

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The display plant, growing out in the catalog garden, was a bit taller than me.  Its leaves were absolutely huge!

I don’t know that my pot grown aroids will ever get quite that impressive, especially when they are forced to nap all winter in the basement.  But we enjoy them in their season, and their season will soon close.

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We found both Monarchs and a few chrysalis at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden this week.

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I have been admiring our garden today, and celebrating the successes we’ve enjoyed this year.  I am intentionally procrastinating on any chores that hasten our passage into autumn.

That said, the pumpkin bagels that showed up at Trader Joes this week are truly delicious.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
Fabulous Friday:
Happiness is Contagious; Let’s Infect One Another!

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