Six on Saturday: With Patience and Flexibility….

Turneric in bloom with elephant ears

It’s finally raining. Cool, soft rain has been falling for several hours now with more on the way. It is such a relief, because I’ve been pulling hoses and carrying full buckets of water nearly every day for the past several weeks to keep the pots and certain parts of the gardens watered. It has been hot and muggy, which has encouraged all of the flowers and elephant ears to push out new flowers and growth and stay beautiful longer than usual; so long as they can stay hydrated. Otherwise, we have drooping stems and crispy leaves.

I’ve been doing July chores in October.  And even as we admire the lushness, my thoughts have already turned to changing out plants for the winter, planting bulbs and cutting back. 

I dug out the first Caladiums and Callas this week, laying the bulbs in a cardboard flat to dry.  I replaced the Caladiums with soft pink snapdragons to bloom on into the winter and again in earliest spring.  Trays of ferns and herbs are marshalled, ready to begin new lives in pots as soon as I lift out the summer tenants.

And here into the second week of October I’m still waiting to find that particular variety of Panola that blends pink and burgundy and softest yellow in each ruffled blossom.   My planting visions are filled with this warm palette of color to brighten winter pots. 

Climate confusion affects us all.  Butterflies linger a bit longer.  Trees remain green well into ‘autumn.’ It is still too warm to plant most of the winter ornamentals that usually fill nurseries and garden centers in October.  Gardening trains us in patience and flexibility.  And appreciation for even the smallest bit of beauty.

Read more and see four more photos on my newer website, Our Forest Garden

Four Season Container Gardens

This ‘Four-Season’ container garden grows at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden. It is lush with ferns and Caladiums in late September 2021.

Do you have pots that stand empty for weeks out of the year?  In northern climates, gardeners often empty and clean their pots in winter.  Since unglazed ceramic pots absorb water and sometimes crack in freezing temperatures, this makes sense.  But how empty things must look once summer’s beautiful pots go into storage.

Fourth Dimensional Gardening

Gardeners work in four dimensions. Of course we consider how tall a plant will grow and how deep its roots will go. Every plant grows to a certain width and depth to fill the space around it. But we also work in a fourth dimension: time. Each plant appears, grows, and fades according to its own schedule. We can use this to our advantage, planning for various plants to appear in their season, dovetailing to create a series of beautiful compositions during each gardening year.

Our coastal Virginia remains mild enough to enjoy our pots throughout the year.  With a little planning, a gardener can have a beautiful display, and maybe even something in bloom, every week of the year.  Once you have the right sort of pot positioned in a sheltered spot, your horticultural imagination is free to experiment with a range of beautiful plants.

Read more of this post on Our Forest Garden, which is my new website. Please follow me there to see all new posts.

Six on Saturday: Gifts

These windmill palms made it from California to Virginia in perfect shape, thanks to Tony Tomeo.

Gifts are always fun.  Gardening gifts are the best, and gifts of plants always warm my heart.  A living plant is a gift from the heart, and it creates a special bond between giver and receiver as the plant grows on and develops into its potential.

That said, sometimes those gifted plant can get too enthusiastic and create work down the road.  But when that happens, I try to dig up those I can’t use and share them with someone else.  I love trying new plants I’ve not grown before.   Most gardeners I know love expanding their gardening experience by growing out new types of plants.

When California Horticulturalist, Tony Tomeo, who I’ve been corresponding with for the last several years through our respective blogs, offered to send me some windmill palms, Trachycarpus fortunei, I immediately accepted his kind offer.  He told me these were babies, and he assured me that they should grow OK here in coastal Virginia. 

I’ve not grown palms before.  What a wonderful opportunity to learn something new!  I know that they will do well on my sheltered front patio.  Since these are slow growing, I can keep them in pots on the patio for the time being, to watch them grow.  Once they settle in and grow more roots, I expect to transplant two of these beautiful palms into large pots on either side of my front porch.

Read more on Our Forest Garden

Six on Saturday: Early Autumn Beauty

Dark form female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly nectars on butterfly bush

… While the calendar may promise cooling temperatures, we continue baking in the late summer heat and high humidity here in coastal Virginia.   The plants are tired.  We find freshly fallen leaves each day now, and the dogwood trees have already begun to turn towards their scarlet finale.    Spiderwebs shimmer across pathways and openings as the zipper spiders grow fat and shiny.  There are plenty of smaller prey for them to feast on, still.

So many leaves on trees and perennials grow ratty in September as insects eat holes in them and dry days leave them with crispy edges.  Perhaps that is why the elephant ears stand out so beautifully in these closing weeks of the growing season…

See today’s photos and read more on Our Forest Garden, which is a continuation of A Forest Garden. I hope you will follow the new site so you don’t miss any new posts.

The ‘Fern Table,’ My Way

There is an inspiring feature about fern tables in the current Horticulture Magazine, written by Richie Steffen. Steffen is the Executive Director of the Elizabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, Washington and President of the Hardy Fern Foundation. I’ve read the article through a few times now and studied the illustrations for ideas. It is an excellent overview of fern tables and I highly recommend reading it if you love ferns and enjoy container gardening.

A fern table is a representation of the forest floor, built up from a flat surface. The arrangement typically includes small to medium sized ferns, mosses, shade loving woodland perennials, small shrubs, vines, bits of old wood and rocks. Fern tables may be built directly on a tabletop, on a concrete paver, or on a tray.

These fern tables are designed as permanent outdoor installations, built on concrete bases and measuring several feet square. They are very natural and rustic. They may be used indoors or on a porch or patio, as a centerpiece or runner on a table, or may be placed in the garden as a focal point.

This form takes elements from bonsai, from kokedama balls, and from container gardening to create something new and different. Built up from a solid but flat surface, these displays look a bit illogical and perhaps a bit dangerous. One must break a few gardening ‘rules’ to create them. But they are also whimsical and fun. I wanted to try to create arrangements in this style.

Before investing in concrete blocks and pavers and building something permanent in the garden as a gift for my squirrel friends, I decided to experiment on a smaller scale. So I found some simple Bonsai trays to use as a base. These are entirely portable and may be used indoors or out on our deck. My rectangular trays are 8″ x 10″ and have a shallow side, perhaps a half inch deep. Perhaps I should call my arrangements ‘Fern Trays’ rather than ‘Fern Tables.’

Read more about how to construct a Fern Table on Our Forest Garden

Have you followed my new website? All new posts are now on Our Forest Garden. Please click over and follow today.

WG

Six on Saturday: Making Whole

Moss Garden

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We had our first frost of the season this week, and I’ve been occupied with bringing in those pots of tender plants that we will keep through the winter, and settling those that can remain outdoors into protected spots.  My partner was helping me (encouraging me, prodding me, motivating me to keep going, quite honestly) when he went to move our little potted Japanese Maple.  We heard the cracking and crunch as the pot fell apart in his hands. Oh well, terra-cotta pots don’t last forever, do they?  And this one has spent a few winters outdoors on our deck, holding this little tree as it grows.

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I love Japanese maples, and love the aesthetic of potted ones on the deck mixed among our ferns and flowering summer plants.  They can remain outdoors year round, and allow one to appreciate the seasons from budding to leaf drop up close. The tree is fine.

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The pot is a bit mangled, but I had been looking for a pot to create a winter moss garden, anyway.  I left the whole thing alone in a plastic disk for a few days, until I remembered an identical pot that I’d just emptied days ago.  The Colocasia came indoors in a plastic dish for the winter, and so there was a pot open and available to receive the maple tree.

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It was a sorry looking mess after the pot broke, but the tree was fine for a few days while I decided what to do.

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If you’ve been shopping for pots recently, you know that pickings are very slim in November.  I’ve been looking for a pot for my moss garden for a while.  I couldn’t find what I wanted at a reasonable price.  I even ordered a blue Fiestaware bowl to plant up, and then decided to keep the bowl in the kitchen once it arrived.  It was too pretty, if that is possible…. it was a new shade of blue that we didn’t yet have. So this little broken terra-cotta bowl was clearly a gift from the universe showing me how to proceed.

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The garden at Mossy Creek Pottery in Lincoln City, Oregon.

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As you probably know, moss doesn’t have any roots.  It has little structures that anchor it to the ground, but they don’t absorb water from the soil as roots do for vascular plants.  Each cell of the moss plant is on its own for hydration.  But moisture can travel from cell to cell.  That is why moss loves humidity, standing water and lots of rain.

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We’ve had such a wet year that moss is growing in places in the garden it hasn’t in the past.  Which is fine, because I really love moss.

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To establish a moss garden, you don’t need very good soil.  As you may have noticed, moss can grow on rocks, bricks, gravel, bark, ceramics, concrete and so many other surfaces that aren’t soil.  So you don’t need good soil or deep soil to establish a moss garden.  But because I have other plants in this one, I am recycling some pretty good soil left over as I broke down some of last summer’s plantings.

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It is important to pack the soil down fairly firmly, though, and then to press the moss firmly onto the soil.  If laying moss outdoors into an area of the garden, some gardeners walk over the moss a few times to help it adhere to its new spot.  So press down firmly so the moss is in good contact with the soil. But I’m ahead of myself, here.

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I had a few little bulbs left over from other projects, and a clump of dwarf Mondo grass to add to this planting.  The bulbs go in first, to a depth equal to three times their height.  If you can’t tell which end is which, plant them on their side.  The bulb’s roots will grow downwards and right the bulb as the stem begins to grow upward in the spring.  Firm the soil over the bulbs before covering it with freshly lifted moss.

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I was able to divide my plug of Mondo grass into several divisions.  I replanted half of the plug into a nursery pot to grow on, and used these tiny divisions for the moss garden.  Have a blade nearby when dividing Mondo grass, as there comes a point where you often have to cut the sections.  As long as each section has roots, they will continue to grow on.

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I planted the Mondo grass along the lower, broken edge of the pot, to help stabilize the soil in the planting.  After planting the grass, mulch around it with moss.  Then I built terraces into the sloping potting soil with pieces of the broken pot, and used different varieties of moss in the different sections to give some interesting texture.

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Kept shaded and moist, moss can grow indefinitely in a planting like this.  Best of all is when the moss produces spores and those spores colonize the planting themselves, even growing on the pot.  That happens if the moss is very happy in the spot you select for it.

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The main enemies of a potted moss garden are those creatures who’d like to have some of the moss for themselves.  Sometimes birds pinch a bit for their nests, or squirrels toss it aside in their attempts to bury or retrieve nuts, or worse, dig your tasty bulbs.  I used those little early Crocus known as ‘Tommies,’ which aren’t tasty to squirrels.  With most bulbs, it is smart to spray them with a bit of animal repellent before you plant them.  A squirt to the whole pot once finished is good insurance, too.

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Here is our little Japanese Maple snugly tucked into a new pot. I had some scraps of moss left over, and so added them as mulch under the tree.  I’ll find some fine gravel to finish dressing the soil.

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This little planting really costs nothing out of hand.  I recycled a broken pot, re-purposed used potting soil, used up the last few bulbs left from a pack, and lifted the moss from my own garden.  It should remain a lovely spot of green out in the garden, all winter long, with minimal care.  It probably won’t even need watering.  Only if we have a stretch of warm, dry weather will I need to do anything for it, at all.

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If I had been fortunate enough to find a little evergreen fern in the yard, like an Ebony Spleenwort, it would have gone in the pot, too, growing up through the moss.  Moss makes a lovely background for spring bulbs, too. A rock or two, or a quartz crystal, finishes off the arrangement. It is always satisfying to take broken bits and leftover bits and find interesting ways to use them.  Now, as we change the seasons, is a good time for clearing away the old and making room for something fresh and new.  Like a breath of fresh air, it keeps us going.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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This moss garden will live and grow in the rock garden at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden. Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

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

 

Six on Saturday: Going and Coming

Camellia sasanqua opened its first flowers this week.

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The wind swung around to blow from the north overnight as the rain finally moved off the coast. The cold front came on a wave of rain that moved in before my eyes opened at 5 Friday morning and hung around deep into the evening.

Today dawned clear and bright, crisp and chill. How rare to have a night in the 40s here, so early in October. But all that cleansing rain left a deep, sapphire sky to greet the sunrise.

The cold front caught me distracted this time. I didn’t plan ahead enough to start moving plants indoors last week. And so every Caladium and Begonia and Alocasia was left out in the soggy cold night to manage as best as possible.

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Caladium ‘A Touch of Wine’ has been particularly cold tolerant this autumn.

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Trying to make amends this morning, I began gathering our Caladiums, starting in the coolest part of the garden on the downhill slope behind the house. Pulling Caladium tubers out of heavy, waterlogged soil presents its own challenges. The only thing worse is leaving them in the cold wet soil to rot.

Timing out when to lift Caldiums can be as puzzling as when to plant them out in the spring. Some varieties signaled weeks ago that they were finishing for the season, by letting their stems go limp with their leaves fall to the ground. When that happens, you need to dig the tubers while the leaves remain to mark the spot. I’ve lost more than a few tubers by waiting too long to dig them, and forgetting where they were buried.

At the same time, other plants still look quite perky with new leaves coming on. It feels wrong to end their growth too soon, with those lovely leaves wilting in the crate. This is a time to prioritize which need immediate attention and which can grow on a while, yet. After tonight, we expect another warm spell, so I have an excuse.

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Arum italicum remains dormant all summer, emerging again sometime in October.

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Everywhere in our garden we see new plants coming out and blooming even as summer’s stars fade. If it weren’t for fall blooming Camellias, Arums, emerging bulbs and late blooming perennials, I couldn’t be so content in October. But in our garden there are always comings and goings, so I try to take autumn in stride.

The pot I planted last fall with Cyclamen hederifolium, Arum, and spring flowering bulbs has burst into new growth. Retrieving the few Caladiums I plopped in there in June was a bit of a challenge. I didn’t do too much damage, I hope, in pulling them up from between the Cyclamen that now are in full leaf. Cyclamen tubers are fun because they just grow broader and broader year to year, spreading into larger and larger patches of beautifully marked leaves and delicate flowers.

I’m finding seedpods on our Camellia shrubs even as the first fall flowers bloom. I’m working with Camellia seeds for the first time this year, after receiving a gift of Camellia sinensis seeds, the tea Camellia, from a gardening friend. Now that I know what to look for, I’m saving seeds from my own shrubs, too.

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Pineapple Sage opened its first flowers this week beside a patch of goldenrod.

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In fact, the garden is filled with seeds this week. I’ve harvested seeds from our red buckeye tree, acorns from the swamp chestnut oak, and Hibiscus seeds. I’m busily squirreling away the seeds in hopes many will germinate and grow into new plants that I can share.

Our birds are flocking in to enjoy the bright red dogwood seeds, along with beautyberry seeds and nuts from the beech tree. The drive is littered with beechnut husks and there are always birds and squirrels about. They are busy gathering all they can with birds swooping about the garden as I work. Even the tiny seeds I overlook, on the Buddleia shrubs and fading Black-eyed Susans entice the birds.

All the rapid changes feel dizzying sometimes. There is an excellent piece in today’s WaPo about the different autumn displays caused by climate change. Not only are species moving north and other new species moving in to replace them, but the very patterns of heat and cold and moisture are changing how the trees respond each fall. You may have noticed some trees whose leaves turned brown and fell weeks ago. Other trees still stand fully clothed in green.  Forests once golden with chestnut leaves now show more scarlet and purple because of new species replacing the chestnuts last century.

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Grapes ripen on the vines running through the dogwood tree. Color is slow to come this fall, with some trees dropping their leaves before they brighten.

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Our red buckeye tree is native further to the south. But it is naturalizing now in coastal Virginia, and is growing very happily in our yard. Trees are very particular about how much heat or cold they can take, and how many chilling days they require in winter to set the next season’s buds. Most also dislike saturated soils. Our abundant rainfall, these last few years, has sent some trees into decline when the roots can’t ‘breathe.’

Trees are coming and going, too, just on a much grander scale. For every tree that falls, dozens of seedlings emerge to compete for its space.

I’m planting seeds this fall, starting woody cuttings, and starting a few cold weather bulbs and tubers. I have flats of Cyclamen and Arum started, and spent some happy hours this week tucking tiny bulbs into the earth, dreaming of spring flowers.

Changing seasons takes a span of many weeks in our garden. The day will soon be here when I start carrying pots indoors for winter. Other pots stay outside, replanted with flowers and foliage to fill them winter into spring. I need to stay focused on all of the comings and going- not let myself get distracted with the beauty of it all.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Hibiscus seeds are ripe for sowing.

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Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

Visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

Pot Shots: Out By the Road

August 2020

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Anything we want to plant at the edges of our property, out by the road, has to be tough enough to thrive in challenging conditions.  It might be too much shade or too much sun, curious passers-by, grazing deer, air pollution, road salts, or any number of other factors.  Maybe it isn’t a spot that’s easy to water, or an exposed site with too much wind.

Whatever the hazards, we can still find interesting plants to grow in these special spots.  After all, this is our public face that our neighbors see each day.  It is worth a little effort.

This pot sits at the gate to the Williamburg Botanical Garden, along one of the main roads through Freedom Park.  Since it’s outside the gate, the resident deer check it out frequently.  If I plant something they find tasty, it disappears almost overnight.  This is an unforgiving spot and plant choice must be spot on, or the plant disappears.

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June 29, 2018

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Pots or beds on display 24/7/365 require a bit of planning to minimize those awkward times between seasons.  When I planted this pot the first time, in the summer of 2018, I used several Lantana, a tall Alocasia ‘Mayan Mask’, creeping Jenny, Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost,’ Artemesia ‘Powis Castle,’ oregano and a Heliotrope.   That  first planting was an experiment to see what would thrive and what would fade away in this partly sunny spot.

As summer wore on the Lantana, Euporbia, Artemesia and Alocasia performed very well.  The original creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia, still grows today.  This pot remained full and attractive through the entire season.

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September 20, 2018

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As fall approached, I dug out the Artemesia to use elsewhere in the garden, potted the Alocasia to keep at home overwinter, and removed the Lantanas to make room to plant bulbs.  The Lantana ‘Chapel Hill Gold’ and L. ‘ Chapel Hill Yellow’ are perennials in our climate, but I wanted their space for other plantings.

In the fall of 2018 I planted a variety of bulbs to give a long season of spring bloom.  Along with Muscari and daffodils, I also planted a few Arum italicum for winter color.  These Arum send up leaves in early fall and remain glossy green all winter, blooming in April or May and making colorful berries after their leaves disappear for the summer.

Along with the bulbs, I also added a holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum.  I mulched over the bare soil with moss lifted from the area and added a few Strawberry Begonia divisions, Saxifraga stolonifera, which make an evergreen ground cover and bloom in mid-spring.  The holly fern and Saxifraga have continued on since they were first planted and are part of the arrangement today.

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Late November, 2018 Arum have begun to emerge and will unfold into long lasting glossy green leaves.

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Many spring flowering bulbs have poisonous leaves or flowers and will survive grazing deer or rabbits.  Narcissus offer weeks of color, will bloom in winter sunshine even if the area becomes more shady when hardwood trees leaf out, and every part of a Narcissus is poisonous.  Muscari and Squill will also survive around grazing wildlife.

Tulip and most Crocus bulbs smell delicious to squirrels, who may dig them up for a snack soon after you plant them.  Voles may also attack tulips planted into the ground.  You might spray these bulbs with a repellent like Repels All before planting and hope for the best.  Deer sometimes graze on tulips once they emerge.  A species of Crocus known as early Crocus or ‘Tommies,’ Crocus tommasinianus, are not so appealing and will be left alone.

It is still smart to spray a finished container planting with repellent to discourage exploration.  Squirrels have been known to keep a keen eye on gardeners in autumn, waiting for those gifts of tasty bulbs.  Mulching with pea gravel and planting deeply can also slow down the squirrels.

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April 4, 2019

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The planting looked a little sparse to me in February and early March, so I tucked a perennial Columbine into a back corner when they first came available at our local nursery.  These grow easily from seed, and I’ve found a few seedlings cropping up near the pot from time to time.

If you are designing a planting like this, remember that you might drop a few seeds into the pot in fall or early spring and expect them to germinate and begin to fill in by spring.  Alyssum is a great choice for a low, blooming ground cover from seed.

The next awkward time for container plantings comes as spring flowers fade and their leaves grow ratty.  Spring flowering bulbs need their leaves to soak up the sun for about six weeks after bloom to refuel the bulb for next year’s show.  A gardener can just work with the foliage for a few weeks, or dig out the bulbs to replant something else.  If you dig them, you can plant them elsewhere ‘in the green’ or pot in a plastic nursery pot while you let them finish their spring growth.

Again, removing the bulbs from a container allows room for the root ball of something else.  Besides, you might want to try new varieties of bulbs for the following year.

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April 12, 2019 Narcissus ‘Exotic Mystery’ bloom with blue Muscari

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When it was time to prepare this container garden for another summer, I tried to work around and leave as many of the bulbs in place as I could, adding new plants where space allowed.  Since bulbs are planted at three times their height, and frequently pull themselves even deeper into the pot, it is often easy to plant a transplant over a bulb you decide to keep, without disturbing it.

There is a new Salvia in the back corner, a new white Lantana along the front edge, a few small Columbines tucked along the back edge, and a Tradescantia pallida in the center.  I also planted a new Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost,’ which had done well the previous year.

But in 2018 the Euphorbia was in the back of the arrangement.  By planting it in the front corner I tempted fate, and the deer, who decided it is tasty.  It was grazed and replaced a time or two before I gave up on it.  By then, the Lantana had grow so much it no longer mattered, and the Tradescantia had become a showpiece.

Although I planted the Alocasia back, it never recovered its 2018 glory, and so I substituted another variety.  By now the holly fern and Saxifraga were well-established and showing active growth.

The pot filled out and looked nice throughout the summer.  In the autumn, when I cleaned the pot up around first frost, I planted a cream colored snapdragon in the front to bloom through the fall and again in early spring.

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June 9, 2019

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The snapdragon did extremely well and is still producing flowers this summer.  Through the winter we also enjoyed Arum italicum again, the Saxifraga, which bloomed beautifully in the spring with stalks of tiny white flowers filling the pot for several weeks, the holly fern, and of course soft, green moss.

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Saxifraga stolonifera, Strawberry Begonia, blooms with ferns.

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By the time the spring flowering bulbs died back in early summer, we were under ‘stay at home’ orders because of the virus.  I wasn’t working at the garden as much and many of the plantings were left to manage on their own for close to two months.

When I finally got back to a more normal schedule, I was thrilled to find this pot still looking good, with the Strawberry Begonia blooming and the Tradescantia returning to growth.  One always has to decide whether to leave perennials in place in a pot and trust they will return, or dig them up at the end of their season and pop something else into their place for the season ahead.

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Tradescantia also performs well in hanging baskets because it is very drought tolerant.

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Tradescantia is a great investment because it returns by late spring, grows with little care, propagates easily from stem cuttings and has delicate pink flowers in summer.  It will die back at first frost, so remember to take some cuttings in the fall to enjoy in a vase all winter, growing in water.  By spring you’ll have rooted cuttings to plant somewhere new.

The Columbine and fern returned this spring with a nice display of delicate Columbine flowers and fresh growth on the fern.  The Saxifraga had expanded so much, that I ended up removing some to another planting after their bloom.  Creeping Jenny may turn red or sometimes brown in winter’s cold, but pops back up with beautiful new growth each spring, expanding all season long to form a skirt of chartreuse vines draping gracefully over the edges of the pot.

I planted a new Lantana in May, since this has been a reliable star performer, and also added a sprouted Alocasia I’d kept over winter.  By the time I returned a few days later, no trace of the Alocasia was left.  A mystery….  I finally brought a little sprouted Caladium in June, and it has survived, if not yet grown into its potential.

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August 2020

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To keep a pot like this looking good over a long period of time, it is important to keep up the watering, grooming and fertilizing.  Especially around the change of seasons, things will die back and need to be cut out.  It is good to visit every few weeks with a critical eye and clippers in hand .  I also like to sprinkle in some time release fertilizer, like Osmocote, whenever I’m switching out plants.  In between, I try to drench the planting with an organic, liquid feed, like Neptune’s Harvest, at least once each month.

You may notice that the color scheme in this pot is subdued, and the colors remain much the same from season to season.  This scheme is built around blues, purple, yellow, white and green.  The departure comes in spring when the Columbine’s red flowers emerge.  You may also notice that much of the interest is found in contrast and texture.   Letting the foliage do most of the work makes a container easy to maintain since leaves last much longer than flowers.  Frankly, as long as there is something alive and green in the pot, I think that is all that is truly required in a spot like this.

Working with tough reliable plants, planning ahead, and regular care will allow anyone to maintain a presentable container garden ‘out by the road.’  Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.  Be willing to experiment and replace any plant that doesn’t make it.  And most of all, have fun and enjoy the beauty of it all.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

 

Illuminations: Walking in Beauty Every Day

 

 

Six on Saturday: Rain Gardens

Both Caladiums and most ferns appreciate moist soil and can survive for quite a while in saturated soil. Ferns planted in wide strips as ground cover can slow down and absorb run-off from summer storms.

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It’s still raining here.  It has been raining off and on for days, but mostly on.  We’re under a multi-day flood watch and a flash flood advisory.   A tropical storm inundated us not long ago and another formed off of our coast yesterday, and even heading out to sea it pulls historic rains behind as it moves away.

The ground is already saturated and every little plastic saucer under a ceramic container overflows.  I smile at the thought of how long it will be before I’ll need to water the garden again.  August usually is a wet month, and welcome after hot, dry stretches in July.  But the tropical storm season forecast for 2020 is unlike anything we’ve ever known before.  (That is our new catch phrase for 2020, isn’t it?  Unlike anything we’ve ever known before?)

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Scarlet cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, is a classic rain garden plant. It thrives in moist soil but will survive short droughts, too.  This clump grows in the wetlands area of the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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We have a program in our county that helps homeowners install rain gardens.  A friend is known for her beautiful rain garden designs. When working with local government and the Master Gardeners, county residents can have significant portions of their costs reimbursed.

The idea is very simple and elegant:  Rain gardens are dug a few inches below grade to catch and hold run-off from heavy rains.  Water loving plants growing in the rain garden help soak up the run-off, even as it settles into the ground to replenish the water table, instead of running off into local waterways, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.  Unlike ponds, they don’t hold standing water indefinitely.  Most absorb and process the run-off soon after a rain.

Rain gardens help catch pollutants that wash off of lawns and streets so those nutrients and chemicals can be recycled and trapped by vegetation.  This helps reduce the amount of pollution flowing into creeks, the rivers, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.  They also provide habitat for small animals like turtles, toads, frogs, dragonflies and many types of birds.

Even when we don’t excavate and engineer a formal rain garden, there are things we can do to help slow the flow of water across our yards and capture a portion of that rain water before it flows into the local waterways.  We’ve built a number of terraces in the steepest part of our yard and planted them with plants to help slow the flow of rain water.  We also have several ‘borders’ of shrubs and other vegetation to break the flow of run-off and absorb it.

In fact, the slogan of our county Stormwater and Resource Protection Division is, “Plant More Plants.”   Plants buffer the falling rain, help protect the soil from erosion, slow run-off and absorb large quantities of water, returning it to the atmosphere.  Just planting trees, shrubs, ground covers and perennial borders helps to manage the abundant rain we are getting in recent years.

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Zantedeschia, or calla lily, thrives in moist soil.  Some species will grow in the edge of a pond, and these work very well in rain gardens or wet spots where run-off collects.

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But when the ground is as saturated as it is today, we worry that even some of our plants might drown!  You see, most plants’ roots want air pockets in the soil.  Saturated soil is a quick way to kill a houseplant, and it can cause damage to the roots of some trees, shrubs and perennials, too.

As our climate shifts and these rain soaked days grow more common, it helps to know which plants can take a few days of saturated soil, and maybe even benefit from the extra water in the soil.  Many of these plants process a great deal of water up through their roots and vascular systems to release it back into the air.

You have heard of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia?  Well, that blue haze comes from moisture released by the many trees and shrubs growing on the sides of the mountains.  Some trees thrive in constantly moist soil.  Try birches, willows, swamp dogwoods, white ash trees, and beautyberry bushes.

Plants release both water vapor and oxygen back into the air as a by-product of their life processes.  Some plants, like succulents, release very little water, and that mostly at night.  They will quickly die in saturated soil.  In our region they need to be planted higher than grade on ridges and mounds, or be grow in freely draining containers.

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Colocasia and some types of  Iris grow well in saturated soil or even standing water.   Abundant water allows for lush growth.

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Plants with very large leaves, like our Caladiums, Colocasias, Hibiscus, Alocasias, Calla lilies, Canna lilies, ginger lilies, and banana trees use large amounts of water and release water vapor from their leaves throughout the day.  Some types of Iris also perform very well in saturated soil.  They can live in drier soil, but do just fine planted in the edge of a pond or in a rain garden.  Ferns are always a classic choice for moist and shady areas of the garden.  Their fibrous roots help to hold the soil against erosion and perform well as ground cover on slopes.

Those of us living in coastal areas where flooding has become more frequent can use plants to help deal with the inches and inches of extra rain.  We can build ponds and rain gardens, or even French drains and rock lined dry gullies to channel the run-off away from our homes.

We are called on in these times to wake up, pay attention, and find creative and beautiful solutions to the challenges we face.  We are a resilient people, by taking every advantage, even in the choices of plants we make, we can adapt to our changing world.

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Iris ensata, Japanese Iris,  grow with Zantedeschia in the ‘wet’ end of the Iris border at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden. Clumps keep their foliage most of the year, blooming over a long season in late spring and early summer.  These are excellent rain garden and pond plants.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

 

Visit Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

Hanging Basket Hacks: Hydration

A two year old planting, ready for rejuvenation

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Considering I’d originally planted the basket a couple of years ago, and that the ‘annual’ Verbena survived two Williamsburg winters to return and bloom the following spring,  I can’t complain.

Add to that poor soil (compost I found on-site at the garden) and those daffodil bulbs I planted in there for spring interest.  By early summer 2020, the basket was struggling.   It hung in full sun at the botanical garden where it got irregular, but loving attention.  The Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia, had grown in lushly.  But the basket was no longer beautiful, and the Verbena was fading.  We just couldn’t keep the plants properly watered in July’s unrelenting heat.

Do you have a hanging basket that is struggling in summer’s heat?  Do you have plants under-performing because you can’t keep their container sufficiently watered?

The ongoing challenge with any container planting, especially baskets and window boxes, is to keep the plants supplied with nutrients and enough water that they don’t frequently wilt.  Some climates make container gardening easier than others.  Many municipal plantings get daily, professional attention from a team of horticulturalists.  Some plants adapt better to growing crowded into baskets with just a few inches of soil, than others.

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When you think about it, a hanging basket is a pretty extreme environment for many plants.  That said, there are some reasonably simple and inexpensive hacks that anyone can use to make that basket more comfortable for living, blooming plants.

It is smart to begin with the largest basket your space, and the support it will hang from, can accommodate.  Larger baskets mean more soil to hold moisture, and more space for roots to grow.  A 14″-16″ basket is a good size to work with.  If you are working with a window box rather than a basket, look for ones at minimum 6″ deep.

Next, use good, fresh potting soil.  You might add additional perlite to equal a quarter of the total soil volume, which improves drainage and makes the finished basket much lighter.  Mix this in well, along with some slow release fertilizer like Epsoma’s Plant Tone or Osmocote.  To keep plants actively growing and blooming, they need nutrients.  Most potting mixes are sterile, without the nutrients commonly found in garden soil (which is too dense and heavy for a hanging basket or container).  Adding slow release fertilizer helps bring out the best performance in your chosen plants.

Mix up enough amended soil to fill the basket in a separate container, and then use a scoop to transfer a little at a time to fill in around each plant as you place it.

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This wire basket has a fresh coir liner and an inner liner of a plastic bag. A sponge cut into small bits will help conserve water.

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I generally prefer wire baskets with a coco or coir liner.   Baskets will dry out exceptionally fast when the heat index is over 100F and there isn’t a cloud in the sky for hour after hour on a summer day.  Even baskets watered generously before 8 AM may be dry again by mid-afternoon.  Coir makes a better liner than the traditional sphagnum moss, but is still exceptionally porous.

My first hack is to line the basket with an additional plastic liner to aid water retention.  You might use a large plastic shopping bag, a dry cleaner bag, or similar light-weight sheet of plastic.  If there aren’t holes in the plastic already, use the point of your scissors to poke a few holes so the basket will drain in heavy rain.   I used a shopping bag disqualified from cat-litter duty due to a few large holes already poked in the bottom.  The bag probably won’t fit into your basket perfectly, and you’ll likely need to cut some vertical darts to allow it to open wide enough to lie smoothly against the sides of your liner.

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My second hack involves a cellulose kitchen sponge.  I have a bag of new, dehydrated and pressed Trader Joe’s brand sponges and am giving this brainstorm a trial to see how well it works.  If you don’t have dried pressed sponges available, try any cellulose sponge that doesn’t have any chemical or soap products pre-loaded on it.  Just cut the sponge up into small pieces.  Use most of them in the bottom of the basket between the plastic liner and the soil.  I partially filled the liner with soil, and then added a few more fragments of sponge around the outside edge of the basket.

The sponges will serves as little reservoirs to soak up excess water when it is available and release it later to the soil and roots when it is needed.  I placed several sponge fragments around those holes in the bag to soak up water before it drains out.

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Use fresh potting mix amended with slow release fertilizer like Osmocote (here). If the mix is dense, add additional perlite, up to a quarter of the total volume.  Here additional pieces of sponge are added around the edges of the basket.  These will plump up once the basket is watered for the first time.

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Fill your container about 1/2 full of fresh potting soil and then begin placing plants, and filling back around each one with prepared potting soil.

I placed the entire soil ball from my old basket planting in a plastic box before using my hori hori knife to begin prying the various plants apart.  I saved and re-used all of the pieces of the Verbena that I could find and the rooted bits of Dichondra,which had filled the basket last summer.  Only a few bits of it survived the winter and have been competing with the Lysimachia for resources.

A lot of cleaning up may be needed to remove old, withered leaves and stems.  A pair of sharp scissors is my favorite gardening tool.

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Break apart the individual plants into smaller hunks, discarding most of the old soil.  Clean out old and withered stems and leaves as you re-plant each division.

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I settled the divisions with Verbena in the center and added a few chunks of Lysimachia around the edges.  Creeping Jenny grows quickly and will fill in within a few weeks.  I want the Dichondra to have a chance here to re-establish itself.  I’ll reserve the remaining parts of the old planting, including those dormant bulbs, for another use.

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Settle the divisions you want to re-use into fresh soil

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Finally, I still had a few rooted cuttings of Portulaca on hand.  I brought home a generous portion of cuttings from my favorite grower a few weeks ago and have had them rooting on the deck in a box of vermiculite and potting soil.  I’ve been planting them out in various places for the last few weeks,  but had enough still on hand to add seven or eight rooted stems to empty spots in this new planting.

Rooted cuttings can be worked in to established basket arrangements to refresh and update them.  They are easier to work in than nursery plants since they have a smaller root ball.  Keep well watered as they grow in.

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Rooted Portulaca cuttings ready to transplant

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Using very drought tolerant plants is the next hack for planting drought tolerant basket arrangements.  Succulents, like Portulaca or Sedums, have the ability to absorb and store water when it is available and then go for long periods of time without additional watering.  They have a waxy coating on the epidermis of each leaf and stem to reduce evaporation.  They can remain plump and vital when other plants are crisping up in the sun.

When selecting plants for baskets, pay attention to their water needs and their resilience to drought.  As more beautiful succulents come to market, choosing appropriate succulent and drought tolerant plants for container arrangements becomes easier.

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Lysimachia, Creeping Jenny, is a drought tolerant vine that tolerates full sun. It roots at every node and can take over a planting. Here, I’ve used a few divisions and left the remainder for another use later.

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The final hack for hanging baskets involves applying a mulch.  Bare soil loses moisture much faster than does mulched soil.  The best mulch in our climate is fine gravel, like aquarium gravel.  Pea gravel is another choice.  Both choices do add some weight to the basket, but they reduce evaporation, keep the plants clean and healthy without soil splashing up on them, cool the soil, and provide some protection to roots and geophytes you may plant in the basket.  We have curious squirrels who sometimes dig in pots and baskets if not discouraged by a gravel mulch.  Other choices include larger stones, small seashells, flat glass beads, marbles or glass chips, moss, and vines that fill in as a ground cover, like the Lysimachia.

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I have used a few rocks, glass beads and shells to anchor rooted cuttings in this new arrangement and have sprinkled additional Osmocote on top of the planting.  use rocks or shells to hide the raw, trimmed edges of the plastic liner.  I still need to apply some fine, gravel mulch before this basket is ready to return to the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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Once the basket is planted, and potting soil worked in firmly around all of the roots, add your mulch, and then water the basket well.  I like to water the basket with plain water first to wet everything, and then come back a short time later with a foliar feed of fish and seaweed emulsion to help the plants adjust and to provide trace minerals to the soil.

In spring, you can get by with hanging that basket into its permanent place right away.  In summer, I like to give a day or two for the plants to settle in and adjust in the shade before moving the basket to its permanent spot.  A stretch of cloudy, wet weather is best for a new basket.  But when there is a lot of sun, I like to give the plants a head start on settling their roots into their new home in a shady spot before putting them under stress in full sun.

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A Portulaca cutting has been growing in the edge of this basket for a few weeks now. Once established, they grow quickly and bloom prolifically in full or partial sun.

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Each gardener has to understand their own micro climate and preferred plants to come up with solutions that work for them.  If I were gardening in the Pacific Northwest, I might not need to line my basket with plastic or add cut up sponges to the soil.  The more realistic we are about our own growing conditions, the better job we can do with our plantings for lasting beauty.

If your hanging baskets have been less than spectacular, you might try some of these hacks to see how they work for you.  Don’t be afraid to re-work an established basket with an eye to improving it.  Changing out some of the plants, removing some of the more agressive plants, fertilizing and refreshing the soil may make all the difference in how well your planting performs.

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The basket rests in a shady spot before being returned to its place at the garden.  The Portulaca and Verbena will fill in and begin to bloom again by the end of July.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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