Pot Shots: Rescue Plants

Hosta ‘Halcyon’

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Maybe your soft spot is homeless dogs at the Humane Society.  My soft spot is clearance shelf rescue plants.  It is hard for me to walk past that clearance shelf without pausing to assess what is on offer.

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I went to Lowes in late August for gravel, potting soil and landscaping blocks, and happened upon hundreds of struggling plants loaded on rack after rolling rack out in the full sun.  Oh, the indignity of once beautiful plants ending up in such straits after just a few short weeks in a big-box store.

I couldn’t avert my eyes.  I couldn’t just walk past.  I had to scan the shelves to see what I might salvage.  That is where I turned up two Fortune’s holly ferns that I planted to help control erosion, a flat of mixed Sedums, and this poor little Hosta.  Marked down to only a dollar, how could I not give it another chance at life?

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The Hosta has grow several new leaves over the past three weeks. It could be divided next spring.

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The day it came home with me, it had exactly three leaves left, and those were scalded from sitting in full sun with dried up soil.  That’s not a promising start.  But I knew that if those three leaves were alive, then the roots were alive.  And you buy a perennial for its roots.

Before adopting a dog or a plant, there are a few questions one must address:  Does it have fleas, or other insect infestation?  Any signs of disease?  Will it fit in with the family?  Can it be saved?

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Two Athyrium ‘Bradford’s Rambler’ that I picked up on an August clearance in 2018 yielded several plants, after division.

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With a plant, my next question is its expected life-span.  Only the perennials are worth the effort, to me.  An annual is only expected to live a few months, anyway.  Late in the season, it usually isn’t worth it to purchase and rescue an annual plant.

Now, a marginally hardy perennial might be an exception.  I recently bought a couple of flats of stressed Salvia coccinea, a native perennial to our south.  This red hummingbird Salvia is hardy at least to Zone 8, and might make it here with a good mulch.  The plants were still in 1″ cell packs, root bound, and stunted.  I took a chance.

I freed each one’s roots, loosened the root balls, and planted them into rich potting mix in larger pots.  After a good feeding and watering, I set them into a protected spot in partial sun to recover and begin to grow.  After giving away more than half of those I bought, I still had a few Salvia plants left to use in a bed, and others left for pots.

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Salvia coccinea, Hummingbird Salvia, have prospered now that they have room to grow and reasonable care.

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The key to reviving a rescue plant is to meet its needs and give it space and time to recover.  Rescue plants have sat in a shop for too long.  They may have gotten too much or too little light, been allowed to dry out, and they are almost certainly root bound.  Most have lost a lot of their leaves and may have stopped growing due to extreme stress.

So the first thing I do with a plant, after looking it over carefully for any sign of hitch-hiking insects or disease, is to water the root ball.  First thing, before I even go in the house.  I may even water the plant before I leave the nursery, if I have some water in the car.  Water is life for a plant, and it can’t carry out any of its life functions if it doesn’t have moisture.

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I enjoy miniature Hostas, but they can be pricey. All of mine came as gifts or as clearance plants. I found this one in late July, with its own culture of moss, and simply repotted and fed it.

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Next, I usually cut away and throw away any broken or dead stems and leaves.  Pruning stimulates new growth, and the plant needs healthy new tissue to begin producing sugars and cellulose again so it can recover.

If a plant has grown way too much top growth, for the size of its roots, you might cut it back by a third to a half to stimulate new growth.  It is possible that the stems you cut away will root, given a chance, to give you even more new plants.

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After several weeks of care, it is producing new leaves and may fill the pot before frost.

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If a plant is severely root bound, with roots showing on top of the rootball and hanging out of the pot, it needs repotting or planting as soon as possible.  Gently tease out the roots, trim away any that look damaged or dried up, and give the plant a new, larger pot.  I usually pot up all rescue plants and leave them in shade to partial sun, away from other plants, until they show signs of growth.  This allows the plants a rest, a chance to convalesce, before I expect them to perform.  While they all need light, placing them in a little more shade than they would normally grow in gives them a chance to recover without the stress of full sun exposure.

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This little Alocasia was a rescue plant last summer. It has many beautiful leaves, but is still much shorter than most cultivars of this species.

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Finally, I give a good foliar feed with fish emulsion, such as Neptune’s Harvest.  Drench the plant’s remaining leaves and root ball with this gentle, mineral rich fertilizer.  Do it once every week or so, and watch the life return to the plant as it sends up new leaves.

Remember, with a perennial, you are buying the root system.  If there are some leaves or buds, that is just a bonus.  After working with bare root starts for a while, one comes to realize that the roots and crown are the main things required for a plant’s survival.  Most perennials die back to just their roots and crown during the winter, or their period of dormancy anyway.  A stressed plant may go dormant in the summer, too, and will reawaken with new growth when conditions become favorable once again.

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Late summer and early fall are prime time to find good rescue plants.  Discounts may range from 15% up to %75.  Sometimes I’m even given plants for free, where I have a relationship with the staff, especially if the plants are already destined for the compost pile.

This is a good way to acquire plants when you want to experiment with a new cultivar, when you need a large quantity of a specific plant, or when you’re on a budget.   A little TLC and a lot of patience make those horticultural dreams come true, as plants bounce back and grow in your care for many, many years to come.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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In a Pot: ‘Companion Plants’

Begonia boliviensis from a rooted cutting

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Tiny plants in tiny pots, expressing a particular season, sometimes displayed alongside a potted tree, are called ‘companion plants’ or ‘accent plants.’

I particularly enjoy growing these little treasures.  They allow us to appreciate a plant, in all of its intricate detail, as a work of art.

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First, these precious little pots fit easily on a windowsill, side table or plant stand.  They can be grown year-round indoors, or moved out into a protected space during warm weather.

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Maidenhair fern with Pilea glauca, creeping blue Pilea. A division of the Pilea grows alone in the previous photo.

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But more importantly to me, these little pots allow me to ‘grow on’ very small plants, or rooted cuttings.  Once they begin to outgrow the little companion pot, they can be re-potted or planted out; used in a larger display, or grown on as a specimen in a larger pot.  This is especially helpful during the winter and early spring when small plants may be grown on for use outdoors in summer.

I buy many of my Asian ceramic companion pots and 1″-2″ companion plants at The Great Big Greenhouse in south Richmond.  They keep a tremendous selection of pots of all sizes, and offer a large display of Asian pots for Bonsai and companion plants year-round.  The pots in these photos were found at The GBGH.

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Coleus with Dichondra, Cuban Oregano, Tradescantia pallida and Lantana.

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Small companion pots are equally good for starting cuttings to grow on into larger plants.  I had a pot where the fern died back in early spring.  I put it outside in a protected spot to see if it might re-grow from the roots; without success.  So I am going to recycle the pot and soil to root some Coleus.

Coleus (now Plectranthus) are members of the Lamiaceae family, most of which root very easily from stem cuttings.

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Take a cutting by cutting or pinching off a stem at a node, where new leaves may be beginning to grow.  Four nodes are visible in this photo.  While many gardeners pinch out Coleus flowers, I let them flower because pollinators love them.

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Prepare the cutting by removing the lowest set of leaves and pinching out the flowers at the top of the stem.  It is usually better to use a stem that hasn’t flowered, as they will often root more easily. Rooting hormone isn’t really necessary with Coleus cuttings.  Feel free to use it if you have it, as it may speed up the process a bit.

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The same stem is now ready for ‘sticking’ into the soil.  Roots will form along the lower stem wherever it is in contact with moist soil, or even plain water.

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I took three cuttings today so the pot looks full right away.  After sticking the cuttings, water lightly, and set the pot into a protected spot…. or not.  I sometimes just stick a cutting where I want the new plant to grow, and hope for the best.

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I struck this cutting several weeks ago and it is now growing on in a pot on my front porch. It gets full sun for several hours a day. If the soil is kept hydrated, the Coleus should root in less than ideal conditions….

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The parent Coleus plant is growing very well this summer. Taking cuttings helps keep the plant bushy, and there is always a spot to fill with a cutting, isn’t there?

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Arrangements in companion pots are temporary plantings.   All things change, right?  Especially in gardening, we expect things to come and go.

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Three cuttings, struck into moist soil, will root withing a week or so. This arrangement can ‘grow on’ through autumn. Cutting back the tops as it grows will extend the life of the planting.  Or, the rooted cuttings can be re-potted into larger containers and kept as houseplants through the winter.  Coleus is a tender perennial.

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An aspect of the beauty of companion plants is their transience.  Favorite subjects in Asia might be ferns, grasses, wildflowers, flowering bulbs and vines.  Some may only be at their peak for a week or two.

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This little Ficus tree has a ‘companion’ in the same pot. A little footed fern grows long rhizomes which ‘visit’ other pots nearby on the windowsill.

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Some of the pots are as tiny as egg cups, and so can only hold a very small root mass.  Many have no drainage holes, and so I begin with a layer of fine gravel in the bottom of the pot.

I use gravel mulch, but a moss mulch is more common, and very lovely.  The moss really needs to live outside to stay plush, however.

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Companion plants in little pots are an affordable luxury for those of us who love to work with plants.

Even without an outside garden space, a little garden may be cultivated in a pot and enjoyed on a windowsill at any time of the year.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Pot Shots: Caladiums and Lady Fern ‘Queen of Green’

Caladium ‘Starburst,’ with white veins, and Caladium ‘White Delight’ share this pot with a hybrid lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina ‘Victoriae.’  Both of these new hybrid Caladium varieties can take full sun.  The fern can take partial sun.  This is a shady spot for most of the day; bright shade, and I expect them all to be very happy here until at least the end of October.

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I have been looking for a good pot for an  A. ‘Victoriae’ lady fern and some Caladiums, still waiting for their permanent spot.

I was delighted to find this green pot, that had room for both a fern and several Caladiums, at The Great Big Greenhouse this weekend.  The Great Big Greenhouse is my favorite source for beautiful and interesting pots of all shapes and sizes.

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I started several hundred Caladiums this spring and still have some in nursery pots.  I ordered several new varieties, and also had great success saving Caladiums that grew last summer.

Part of the fun of trying new Caladium hybrids is to observe as each develops its full colors and patterns.  Each leaf is unique, but the leaves change as they emerge and grow, their colors becoming more intense with age.  I have grown C. ‘White Delight’ for the last few summers, appreciating its tough, beautiful leaves that last well into the fall.  I am trying C. ‘Starburst’ for the first time this year.

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Caladium ‘Starburst,’ a Caladium for full sun that was developed by Dr. Robert Hartman at Classic Caladiums.

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In addition to the pot, the GBGH also had a lovely Athyrium filix-femina ‘Victoriae’, also called ‘Queen of Green’ lady fern, which has divided tips on each frond.  I have been holding another A. ‘Victoriae’ in its original nursery pot since last fall, waiting for the right pot to transplant it out of its nursery pot into something more permanent.

I was very glad that I had picked up the additional ‘Queen of Green’ fern on Saturday, which fits this more shallow pot;  because the other’s roots were deeper than this little green pot allowed.

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This unusual lady fern is sometimes hard to find.  I first noticed it on Tony Avent’s Plant Delights site several years ago, ordered one, and lost it within its first year.  I am always happy to buy larger plants of interesting cultivars, locally.

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The larger A. ‘Victoriae,’ that I kept in a nursery pot over winter, ended up going into a pot where a Helleborus had been growing.

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I ended up switching the larger lady fern out with a Helleborus that can spend the rest of the summer in a plain plastic pot, while it rests and gets ready to bloom next winter. 

The lady ferns, hardy to Zone 4, can stay in their ceramic pots through the winter.  They are deciduous, and so will go dormant as winter approaches.  The Caladiums will need to go dormant too.  Hardy only to Zone 10, the Caladiums will spend the winter inside.

I can fill out their spaces in the pots with spring bulbs, pansies, Italian Arum, hardy Cyclamen, or even ivy.  These will be ‘four season pots’ with the lady ferns as anchor plants that remain in place year round.

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C. ‘White Delight’

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Even at the end of July, I am still planting out new arrangements and switching out plants in older ones.  We still have a good three months of good growing weather here in Williamsburg.

Spring planted pots may be looking a little tired by now.  After the intense heat earlier this month, most pots and baskets need a boost to see them through until fall.

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The displaced Hellebore will have a chance to recover for the next few months in deep shade. They really don’t like our summer heat…

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If your pots are looking a bit tired and shabby, please don’t give up in the face of August.  Sometimes a good pruning, a foliar feed of fish emulsion, and attention to hydration is all a potted plant needs to bounce back.

Other times, you know its time has come and gone.  Just dig it out and replace it with something fresh and interesting.  This is the time to find some excellent deals at your local garden center.

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Late July and early August are still great times to plant.  Just keep an eye on those pots during our remaining hot summer days, site them carefully, and enjoy the many pleasures these plant treasures will give.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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This is one of our Tiger Swallowtail butterflies feeding on a Zinnia at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.  Enjoy the Butterfly Festival at the Garden this coming Saturday and Sunday, 9-4.

 

A Cool Fern for Shady Spots: Athyrium niponicum var. pictum ‘Metallicum’

Anthyrium niponicum var. pictum ‘Metallicum’

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There’s a new Japanese painted fern available to light up a dark corner in your garden.  I read about it this spring, and was very pleased to find it at a local nursery.

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Metallicum’ in a mixed planting with Caladiums. This photo was taken just after planting.  I expect everything will fill in for a lush effect by later in the season.

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Athyrium niponicum var. pictum ‘Metallicum’ sports a pale green frond with silver highlights.  It is bi-pinnate, with the center of each pinnule light and silvery, fading to a more medium green along its edges.  Like many related cultivars, ‘Metallicum’ has a beautiful red rib down the middle of each deeply divided frond.  New fronds emerge in a rosette, and several of these small clumps may fill a pot.

Each clump will eventually grow to around 18″ tall, growing a bit wider and fuller each year.   Expect this fern to die back after frost, to return larger and stronger in mid-spring.

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‘Metallicum’ with Caladium.  Both are very small divisions yet, nowhere near their mature size.

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Hardy in zones 4-9, this very hardy fern may be left in a pot through the winter in our Zone 7 garden, with high confidence that it will return in spring.  It will benefit from shade and shelter on our sweltering summer afternoons.

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Athyrium niponicum var. pictum in a mixed planting

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Japanese painted ferns, Athyrium niponicum var. pictum,  are very hardy, deciduous perennials that clump and spread.   They can be grown in rich moist soil in a garden bed, below shrubs, or in pots and baskets.

They make a nice ground cover under small trees, and I especially like them under a Japanese Maple.  Grow them in deep shade if you need to, but they will take partial sun.  Native to Asia, they will hybridize with other lady fern species.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea shares a pot with Japanese painted fern. Vinca and Mayapples carpet the ground under Camellia shrubs and deciduous trees.

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In fact, a very similar fern is the hybrid Athyrium ‘Ghost,’ which is a cross between our North American native  Athyrium felix-femina and Athyrium niponicum var. pictumA. ‘Ghost‘ can grow to 30″ after it is established and is hardy in Zones 4-8b.  Lady ferns tend to spread over time, and so this will form an expanding clump in moist soil in partial shade.  Easy to grow, the main rule is to never let the roots dry out completely.

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This is ‘Ghost’ in its second year in this bed, growing with Ajuga, Lamium and an autumn fern.

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I like the pale silvery glow of A. ‘Ghost,’ and have planted several of them over the years.  I always look for this particular fern at end of season clearance sales, and was very happy to find two in a flat of mixed potted ferns at our friends’ Homestead Garden Center a few weeks ago.  They sat in my holding area for the better part of two weeks, which accounts for the slight browning on some of the fronds.  Nursery pots generally need daily watering, especially with ferns.

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Here I am dividing a new acquisition of ‘Ghost’ into two parts before planting the smaller division into this hypertufa pot.  Notice the stems of each frond are a lovely burgundy, which contrasts so well with the fronds.

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Now that I’m able to plant them out, I am dividing the clumps growing in each nursery pot and spreading them about in larger pots with mixed plantings.  As each clump grows, I’ll eventually re-pot it or plant it out in the garden.

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This newly divided little Athyrium ‘Ghost’ is ready to grow in an old, hypertufa pot with a division of Dichondra ‘Silver Falls.’

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The entire collection of Japanese painted fern cultivars, native to Asia, perform extremely well in our garden.  I have collected a variety of them over the years.  They differ a little in color and size.  They vary from perhaps 12″ tall to about 36″ tall.  Some have more burgundy coloration; there is one I’ve not grown, A. ‘Lemon Cream,’ that is almost a creamy yellow.  The color of each frond shifts and changes as it ages, but all have a slightly silvery sheen.

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Athyrium niponicum ‘Branford Beauty’

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I was very excited to find Athyrium naponicum var. pictum ‘Godzilla’ at a shop last summer.  As you might guess from its name, this is a large cultivar that  introduced by Plant Delights Nursery about 10 years ago.  Their catalog claims it spread into a clump 36″ tall and nearly 7′ wide.  I can only wonder how long growth of this vigor takes; it hasn’t yet happened in our garden.

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The difference in coloration and form between ‘Ghost’ on the right and ‘Metallicum’ on the left is subtle, but noticeable.  “Ghost’ will grow a bit taller (2′) than will ‘Metallicum’ (12″-18”).

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The most interesting differences among the various Japanese pained ferns come in how their fronds are shaped and further divided.  Some have forked tips to their fronds, and the axis of each frond may twist and curl.  Some cultivars spread a little more aggressively than others, but all of them send up new clumps from their rhizomes and will continue to multiply and renew themselves as the years go by.

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Athyrium niponicum “Apple Court”

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Not only do the painted ferns grow well for us, but they can grow and prosper without getting grazed by rabbits and deer.  Ferns are generally safe from grazing, though I miss a frond of other varieties from time to time when deer have gotten into our garden.  But not from our Japanese painted fern cultivars.  They just keep growing and getting better throughout the season and better from year to year.  It may take a year or two for them to begin to bulk up and establish, but once they do, they are very persistent.

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I am looking forward to growing ‘Metallicum’ and seeing how it performs compared to our other varieties.  I am in a bit of a gardening lull at the moment as I wait for a recently discovered case of Lyme’s disease to clear up.  It took a few weeks from bite to rash before I realized that the slow to heal bite was causing my health concerns, and slowing down my progress on the usual early summer gardening tasks.  Our early and intense summer heat played their part too.

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I appreciate the doc who prescribed aggressively for me and expect to be back up to speed sometime soon.   But until then, I find myself giving plants away, or simply planting them into larger pots, until I can return to normal gardening.  I’m sure these hardy ferns will soon be growing in glowing good health and give a long season of enjoyment.

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Japanese painted ferns are a good choice for gardeners who want to enjoy their plants year after year without having to fuss with them.  Mulch them, water them, and let them grow…. 

I am sure that this newest cultivar in the collection, ‘Metallicum,’ will prove a beautiful highlight in our forest garden.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Here is another division of ‘Metallicum,’ ready to grow on in the shade of the larger autumn fern.

 

Dry Shade Solutions

Epimedium blooms in late April and May.  These leaves often persist through winter.

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How do you turn the dry, shady areas beneath trees and large shrubs into beautiful garden spots lush with color and texture?  That is one of the toughest challenges for many gardeners.  Most ornamental plants want plenty of sunlight and moisture to thrive.  What to do when the thirsty roots of large woodies soak up the moisture from the soil, and their dense canopy cuts off the sun?

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Athyrium niponicum grows with Saxifraga stolonifera in dry shade under a hedge of large shrubs, just a few inches from our driveway.

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Many of us gardening in established neighborhoods face this challenge.  Our shady spots may be under trees, near foundations, in the shade of a neighbor’s home, or around overgrown shrubs.  If we try to maintain a lawn, it’s thin and patchy.  Weeds invade where grass is slow to grow.

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Gravel makes for a very good mulch over newly planted areas, especially on sloping ground.

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If we give up and do nothing, then we’re left with these ugly, bare spots in our yard that may even begin to erode after heavy rains.   There are ways to work with these areas to transform them from bare to beautiful.

Luckily, there are some reliable perennials that will grow well in dry shade if we give them just a little encouragement.  A useful garden mantra, ‘Right plant, right place!’ is the first key to success in dry shade.  We can also make the spot a little more accommodating and dress it up a bit with some simple infrastructure.

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Have you ever noticed how the ground under a rock is cool and moist?  Rocks, bricks, pavers and gravel all help hold moisture in the soil.  Using these to border and build your planting area will help conserve moisture and provide cool, moist places for the roots of your shade perennials.

Simply laying a single layer of landscaping bricks around the area you plan to cultivate begins the garden making process.  You can also use large rocks,  cinder blocks, wood, or even shallow pots.  If you use cinder blocks or pots, fill the openings with compost or potting soil and plant them up, too!

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The stump garden begun in 2015 with a pair of ferns has grown into this beautiful section of our fern garden, as it was in May of 2018. Once begun, gardens tend to expand.

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After you outline the new bed, spread a few inches of compost to improve the soil, hold moisture and provide a little more depth for planting the roots of new plants.  You can’t dig it in if you are planting over the roots of a tree or large shrub, but don’ worry.

Earthworms and other invertebrates in the soil will appreciate the compost and move it down into deeper layers of soil for you.  Adding an inch or so of fresh compost each spring will help improve the soil further with each passing year.  If there are weeds or grass in the area already, then lay some paper grocery bags or several layers of newsprint over the existing vegetation and then cover the paper in compost.

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Butterfly garden in March 2012, trimmed, weeded, and with a fresh topping of compost.

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Care must be taken to not bury the woody roots too deeply.  They don’t like that!  You also can’t pile compost or mulch up the woody trunk of a tree without harming it.  ‘Mulch volcanoes’ climbing tree trunks and burying roots invite disease and weaken a tree.    Keep your new layer of compost a few inches away from the root collar and trunk of any nearby trees or large shrubs.

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If you can only dig a few inches deep in an area where you want to place a well rooted plant, consider partially burying an attractive clay pot.  If you can enlarge the drainage holes without breaking the pot, do so and allow the plant’s roots room to escape and find their own way deeper into the soil.  Planting this way can also protect tasty plants from moles and voles.  I sometimes use this strategy for tender Hostas and Caladiums, that want to stay moist all of the time.

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This experimental raised bed under a dogwood tree is bordered with hypertufa planters and planted with a combination of hardy Begonia and ferns, with a few Caladiums planted each spring.

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The pot helps you create a soil ‘microclimate’ for these particular plants.  Those pots also help other plants near them.  Unglazed terra cotta can absorb and hold water, releasing it back to the soil and roots as needed.  Likewise, if you place decorative pavers, stones, planters, etc. within the bed, they will also help to hold moisture and roots can grow under them.

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“Soil security”

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If you are planting on a dry, shady slope, use this idea to create terraces.  Each terrace will hold some of the rain water that otherwise would simply run off.  Planting behind the pavers or timbers used to create each terrace offers a moist spot for roots.  I’ve also used pieces of broken pots to create planting niches on  a slope.  Once the roots grow in, after a season or two, you can often remove the broken pot to use elsewhere.

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The terraces help stop erosion, holding moisture behind the stones long enough that it sinks in rather than just runnimg off.

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Choose plants in small pots.  Given a choice between a 2″ pot and an 8″ pot, choose the smallest size available.  You may not be able to dig a very large hole, and the smaller root balls will be easier to plant.  Sometimes you can knock a new plant out of its pot and divide it, then plant the smaller sections, with their roots.  Check to make sure that each crown or stem has some roots attached before separating it from the parent plant.  This will work with many vines, with Hostas and with many ferns.   You can cover more ground initially with fewer new plants by dividing as you plant.

Use a sharp, narrow digging tool.  You might use a butcher knife, a hori hori, or a narrow trowel to dig out small areas between roots for new plants.

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Larger potted perennials can often be split into divisions and planted in much smaller holes.

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Also choose a couple of plants that will quickly spread out as ground cover.  Some plants, like Lamium, or dead-nettles, will grow quickly and strike roots at the leaf nodes.  This is a good strategy for plants to survive in dry shade, because they have lots of roots supporting their stems, leaves and flowers.  Once you have this established, you can easily dig up divisions, with roots, to move around.  Vinca minor will also grow this way and bloom each spring.  These plants can become invasive, so plan to keep their growth contained so they don’t overwhelm other plants in your scheme.

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Ferns and Lamium grow in one of the shadiest areas of our garden, below a stand of hazel trees.  From this small beginning in 2014, the Lamium spread out to cover a very large area. It grows a bit further each year, carpeting a dry, shady area where its needs are met.

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Plants like Ajuga and Saxifraga spread by stolons.  Each rosette of leaves strikes its own roots, but several stolons, or runners, will radiate out from each plant, forming a new little plant at the end of each of these creeping ‘stems.’  A thick mat of plants will form within a few years.  You can dig up any rosette, once it has a few leaves, and transplant it to another area.

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The Lamium spread to cover the entire area after just a few years.

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There are a surprisingly large number of flowering plants that will grow in ‘dry shade.’  Some will need moist soil for the first year or two as they establish, and then once their roots grow deep, they can survive on their own without a lot of extra water during dry spells.  Native gingers, hardy Cyclamens, ivies, Hellebores, Pachysandra, Liriope, Epimedium, perennial Geranium macrorrhizum, and some spring bulbs like Hycinthoides (Spanish bluebells) and Muscari will thrive.

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Saxifraga spreads by stolons

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Italian Arum thrives in dry shade from September through May, but will disappear during the summer.  You might balance it with Hostas , which will emerge just a few weeks before the Arum fades, or with Caladiums.  Mayapples, Podophyllum, will appear in March and disappear by July.  But their striking leaves add drama to a planting in the shade.  Highly poisonous, deer and rabbits won’t touch them.

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Mayapples and Vinca cover the ground in this narrow area under large Azalea shrubs.

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Hostas will grow well once established, thought they can’t stay dry for extended periods of time.  Heucheras and Tiarellas will also grow well in partial shade.  They will bloom better if they get some sun in the early spring.  If you have rabbits or deer browsing in your garden, you will need to protect the Hostas and Heucheras with animal deterrents.

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Although we may think of ferns as plants for moist areas, some will perform well in dry shade, too.  Native Christmas ferns, Polystichum acrostichoides, Japanese painted ferns, Athyrium niponicum, and autumn fern, ‘Brilliance’ are among those that do very well in dry shade.

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Plants growing in dry shade will most commonly bloom in late winter and early spring, before the leaves on deciduous trees grow back into a thick canopy.  During the rest of the year, the garden depends on foliage color and texture for its interest.

When designing for dry shade, consider the various leaf colors, textures, plant heights, and shapes to design a harmonious composition.  You might create a very restful, harmonious scene by repeating the same limited palette of plants over the entire area.  You can also create drama with dramatic foliage plants like Caladiums and Hosta.

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Many dry shade plants are evergreen, holding their places throughout the year.  But plan for winter when deciduous ferns die back, and also for the months after spring ephemerals disappear.  As in other parts of the garden, a little pre-planning allows the display of flowers and foliage to shift and change throughout the gardening year.

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As our climate shifts and summers grow hotter, shade gardening will become more important for maintaining our own health and comfort.  Large trees help shelter our homes and gardens from summer’s sun.  We may not be able to grow velvety lawns beneath the trees, but we can certainly create beautiful plantings in their shelter.

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As you find tough and beautiful plants that work well in your own microclimate, use them again and again to create a sense of unity throughout your garden.  If these are plants that you can easily propagate or divide, you soon realize that this is a thrifty way to create beauty in those challenging spots in your garden.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Pot Shots: Unity

Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’ began blooming this week.

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Repetition creates unity.  As one of the most basic principles of design, it’s one often overlooked by enthusiastic plant collectors like me!

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The dark purple leaves of the Ajuga are repeated in this Japanese painted fern.  this is one of several containers I made from hypertufa in 2014.

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I’m often tempted to grow the new and novel plant; something I’ve not grown out before.  We’re lucky to have space enough that I can indulge that interest while also repeating successful plants enough to create a sense of unity.

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Each Ajuga plant sends out multiple runners, with a new plant growing at the tip of each, often forming roots in the air. The plants are easy to break off and casually plant in a new spot. I often use Ajuga both for groundcover and in pots.  Here, Ajuga and Sedum angelina form a groundcover under a potted shrub.

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What should one repeat?  There are many design tricks based on repetition that are very subtle, but create a sense of harmony and peacefulness.

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I plant a lot of Muscari bulbs in pots each fall, waiting for just this effect the following spring. Muscari may be left in the pot or transplanted ‘in the green’ elsewhere in the garden when the pot is replanted for summer.

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The most obvious consideration is to use the same or similar plants again and again.  Repeating the same plant across several pots within a grouping creates unity.  Repeating the same plant again elsewhere in the garden ties that grouping of pots to other elements of the landscape.

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I like to choose a plant that grows well in the conditions of an area of the garden, and then use that plant in several different pots within a group.  Maybe I’ll plant a group of basil plants, or a group of lavender and rosemary, accented with sage or thyme.  Some years I plant a group of different geraniums.  The individual plants may be different cultivars with slightly different leaf or flower colors, but there are unifying elements to tie them together.

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Buying multiples of the same cultivar of Viola each autumn, and then planting them across several different pots creates a sense of unity.

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It’s helpful to use perennials that grow fairly quickly, that may be divided easily or that self-seed, and that are fairly easy to find and inexpensive to buy.  Once I find a plant that grows well in our conditions I like to repeat it again and again.

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I plant divisions of Ajuga, creeping Jenny and Sedum in various areas as ground cover.  They spread and cover more fully each year. Native strawberries occur here naturally, and quickly spread each spring.  I will eventually weed these out, even though they are good plants for wildlife.

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Because perennials often shine for a few weeks and then take a background role, or even go dormant for a few months, a gardener can eventually design a garden that changes every few weeks, but still has interest over a very long season, by using perennials thoughtfully.

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Japanese painted fern, Italian Arum and creeping Jenny repeat in this bed near the arrangement of pots.  The color scheme is basically the same (at the moment) in both this bed and the grouping of pots.

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Another way to create unity is to choose pots of the same or similar material, color and design.  Perhaps they are the same color, but varying sizes.

You may own thirty pots, but if they are all in the same limited color palette, there is unity.  Some designers will use a set of identical pots, evenly spaced, to create repetition along a porch, path, deck, or balcony.    This is a very formal approach, and would probably look best with the same rather formal planting in each pot.

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I favor blue glazed pots. This one held a lavender all winter, which is still a bit scraggly before its new growth comes on.  A native violet grows here instead of a hybrid Viola, but the color scheme remains the same.

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Combinations of colors also creates unity.  The plants themselves may be different, but if you use the same colors again and again whether in a group of pots, or throughout the garden as a whole, the eye perceives harmony and consistency:  unity.

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Annual Alyssum covers the soil beneath the Clematis.

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Whether we are making gardens, paintings, food, poetry or music, setting ourselves some parameters allows for creativity and expression within those self-imposed boundaries.  It may actually guide us into being more creative.

By removing some options prima facie, we are left to improvise with more focus among those choices we have left.  What we create will perhaps be more pleasing, more interesting, and perhaps even more beautiful than if we took a laissez-faire, scattershot approach to design.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Pot Shots: Japanese Maple

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Spring dawns with tremendous excitement for folks like me who love to watch things grow, and love to see the garden center shelves filling up again with fresh plants after months of slim winter pickings.  Our  Williamsburg satellite store of my favorite McDonald’s Garden Center opened just a little more than a week ago, and they often start the season with a generous sale on trees and shrubs.

A friend manages the location nearest us, and so I’ve stopped in a number of times to chat and have a look around.  The last time they had just received their first shipment of miniature and dwarf trees, which included a cohort of little foot high Japanese maple trees.

I’ve bought and potted a new Japanese maple or two over the past several springs.  This spring, I found a truly dwarf cultivar, Acer palmatum ‘Kuro Hime’ which grows to only 4′-5′.  It is a good specimen to grow in a pot, is hardy to Zone 6, and has beautiful red leaves in both spring and fall.  The maturing leaves turn green during the summer, but have a beautiful, lacy form.

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Trees grown in pots want excellent drainage.  I didn’t purchase true ‘bonsai’ style soil for potting this tree, but did buy a barky orchid planting medium, which I mixed with a good quality potting soil, a big handful of fresh perlite, and a bit of Espoma Plant Tone.

I covered the bottom of the pot, which has two generously sized drain holes, with some plastic mesh and then a 1/2″ layer of fine aquarium gravel.  This should hold the soil in the pot while still allowing for excellent drainage.

The pot is a gift from a loved one, celebrating a special day coming up soon.  I always enjoy blue pots and especially favor this shade of turquoise, which sets off the tree nicely.

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The roots of this little tree hadn’t quite filled up its small nursery pot.  The rootball fit nicely into the permanent pot without disrupting the tree’s roots at all.  I top dressed the soil with more aquarium gravel and a little fresh moss.  A division of Saxifraga stolonifera is planted to the side, and I hope its tiny root takes hold and grows into a fine plant.

Trees should remain outside as much as possible.  Even with our still marginally freezing nights, I’m leaving this tree outside in a sheltered and shaded place as it adjusts to life outside and to its new pot.

Deer find Japanese maple trees very tasty.  We have a few planted out in the garden now, but I protect them regularly with Milorganite and Repels-All spray.

This little treasure will live on our deck, well protected from hungry rabbits and deer.  Miniature trees are best enjoyed on stands, shelves, or on a table where they can be appreciated up close.

Most Japanese maples are happy with morning sun and afternoon shade, or a partially shaded situation throughout the day.  Potted trees can dry out very quickly and need frequent watering.  During summer heat, they may need water twice a day.  Mulch helps, but the leaves constantly draw water out of the soil.

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I’ve never had the privilege of studying with an expert in the art of Bonsai.  I’m fascinated by what artists do with miniature trees and companion plants, and enjoy reading about the art.  This little tree has an odd branch structure, has already been pruned before I bought it, and probably should be wired.  I’m not sure how best to do that and will appreciate any advice  those who know might be kind enough to share in the comments.

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Acer palmatum April 2018

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Spring and fall are the best times of year for planting trees and shrubs.  If you don’t have space outside where you can plant a new woody this year, please consider growing one in a pot.  Even a porch, deck, patio or balcony can usually allow for a beautiful potted miniature shrub, where you can enjoy watching the seasons transform your plant.

Leaves and flowers emerge and fall, branches grow, and the annual cycle of the seasons plays out for your personal enjoyment, in miniature.

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Woodland Gnome 2019
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“The Buddha achieved enlightenment while meditating under a tree.
To what extent did the tree’s being
contribute to the Buddha’s shift of consciousness?”
.
Melina Sempill Watts
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