Six on Saturday: No Mercy

Not so long ago a seedling, and now a towering oak tree giving shade and sheltering wildlife

An oak takes a long time to grow from a sprout to a tree.  Or so we think.  This morning I’m standing below oak trees that I either planted, or spared, when they were just seedlings. 

We had been here a few years.  Oaks fell in a storm, taking understory trees with them, and leaving a wide, sunny patch in the upper garden.  The character of the garden had changed entirely, and eventually I took it in hand and planted the bones of what we have today. 

Two little ‘live oaks’ arrived from the Arbor Day Foundation, and I planted them across from one another on either side of the new, gaping hole of a full sun in what had been a shade garden.  Then the deer found them and grazed what little new growth they had.  I planted deterrent plants and supports around one of them, which has stretched to at least three times my height.  The other?  Well, It is in a shadier place, without as much protection, and the deer still find it from time to time.  It isn’t quite head high. 

Oh, and those two ‘live oaks’ apparently weren’t.  The still small one has the traditional strappy leaves of a Quercus virginiana.  Live oaks are notoriously slow to grow.  The other, now tall one?  I’m still trying to figure it out.  It is a semi-evergreen red oak, but not our Virginia live oak.

The sapling sprouted within the drip line of our remaining double trunked swamp chestnut oak, Quercus michauxii.  I was curious about it, and just thrilled to have it after losing so many other trees.  I procrastinated on moving it, left it be, and now it stretches to nearly 30 feet tall in not quite 10 years.  And curiously, it’s a different oak species altogether.  It must have blown in on the wind, or come with a squirrel or a blue jay to rest among the roots of the huge mother tree that now dominates that part of our yard.

Yellow Flag Iris overtaken by Akebia vines

Read the rest of this post, and view more photos on my new website, Our Forest Garden

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Mountain Laurel

Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia

I love finding mountain laurel growing in large, lovely masses in the wild.  Its creamy pink flowers glow softly in the forest.  Wild mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, sometimes covers the undeveloped banks of creeks and rivers in Eastern Virginia.  It grows as an understory shrub in our oak and pine forests. 

These evergreen, wild looking shrubs, almost small trees, simply blend into the fabric of the woods through much of the year before bursting into bloom in late April and early May, suddenly elegant and beautiful.  Wild mountain laurel usually has white or pink flowers.  Some cultivars in the nursery trade have been selected for darker flowers of purple, red or maroon.  Ours are probably wild ones, since most of the flowers are white.

Early American botanists first recorded mountain laurel, then called “Spoonwood,” in 1624.  Carl Linnaeus named the shrub for Peter Kalm, a Swede, who explored eastern North America in search of new and useful plants in 1747-51.  Mountain laurel, one of the most ornamental native plants growing along the east coast of North America, was collected by Kalm to export to gardeners in Europe. 

Mountain laurel grows from Maine to Florida in Zones 5-9.  It even grows east along the Gulf Coast from western Florida to eastern Louisiana. But it isn’t generally found near the coast south of Virginia.  It prefers the coolness of the mountains, and its southern range moves ever further west, at elevation, following the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains.

Mountain laurel, part of the Ericacea family of plants, is related more closely to blueberries than to bay laurel, which is native to Europe.  It prefers moist, acidic soil and requires at least partial shade.  Although the shrubs flower more abundantly in bright shade than deep, Kalmia don’t like growing in full sun where summers grow hot.  These plants are best mulched, and fertilized, with shredded leaves, pine straw or pine bark mulch.

Read More on Our Forest Garden

Mountain Laurel, April 2017

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore….

Lantana attracts butterflies and birds. Deer never touch it.

When I began gardening here in a forested community in the autumn of 2009, my earliest efforts resulted in unexpected frustration as deer, rabbits, moles and voles ate much of what I planted. I still remember planting a flat of perennial Phlox plants and finding them gone the following morning, nothing left but holes where they had been planted only hours before.

Even plants that I expected to be ‘deer proof,’ like a new hedge of hybrid blue holly shrubs, died within months from the stress or repeated grazing. That frustration set me on a path to re-learn how to garden in such a ‘wildlife friendly’ environment.

Narcissus ‘Thalia’ is an heirloom Narcissus, dating to at least 1916. It grows here with lambs ears and Siberian squill, all unattractive to deer and rabbits.

Over a decade later, I’m still learning. But I’ve discovered a growing list of plants that the deer in our area leave strictly alone; plants that can be planted with confidence that they’ll be left alone for the gardener to enjoy. But ‘deer proof’ isn’t the only quality I’m looking for in plants. I also want beautiful plants that are reasonably easy to grow, persistent and that will support other wildlife. I want functional plants that serve a variety of purposes within the novel ecosystem of our community.

I began writing about these special plants for a local garden newsletter in May of 2021. The original set of nine articles has been republished here, with articles about additional plants on my ‘deer proof’ planting list added from time to time. I hope these articles will prove helpful to others who are trying to enjoy a garden where deer roam freely.

Gardening should be fun and bring joy to our lives.  That is why I am always happy to discover a new group of plants that thrive in our climate, grow beautifully without a lot of fuss, and that don’t attract the attention hungry deer looking for the salad bar.  Allow me to share another of my favorites….

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Mountain Laurel May 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Scarlet Buckeye April 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore:  Narcissus March 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Ajuga February 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Mahonia January 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Hellebores December 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Italian Arum November 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Evergreen Ferns October 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Rosemary September 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Scented Geraniums August 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Verbena July 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Agastache June 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Calla Lily May 2021

Crossing the Line: When Plants Become Invasive

Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’ grows with English ivy. Ivy is considered a highly invasive plant.

There is a long history of botanists and horticulturalists traveling around the world in search of new, beautiful and useful species of plants.  It is an essential part of our nation’s history to both send native American species to Europe, and to seek out and grow imported species here. 

You’ll hear wonderful stories of early colonists risking their lives and freedom to bring back some rice, or a tea shrub, or some other potentially productive and lucrative plant encountered on their travels, to put into production here in the ‘New World.’  Tony Avent of Plant Delights near Raleigh is one of many contemporary horticulturalists still importing new plants from elsewhere.

One of the trees imported from Asia was the white mulberry tree, Morus alba.  They were supposed to form the beginnings of a silk industry here in Virginia.  Sadly, the silkworm industry never took off in Virginia.  Worse, the white mulberry became an invasive species, even hybridizing with our native red mulberry.  But who knew that would happen in the Eighteenth Century?

Another Asian tree imported during the Colonial era, to potentially support silkworms, is the paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera, formerly known as Morus papyrifera.  You may have noticed these odd-looking trees lining Francis Street near the Colonial Capitol building.  They are not considered invasive, but the silkworms didn’t care for them.  In China, they were used in the production of early paper products.

It may take only a few decades for a wonderful new plant introduction to cause enough problems in its new environment to find itself reclassified as an invasive nuisance plant. The very qualities that make a new introduction exciting and marketable may also make it harmful to its new ecosystem.

Read more and see more photos of Virginia’s invasive plants on Our Forest Garden. All new posts now go to the new website. Have you followed it, yet?

See Virginia’s Invasive Plant List

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.

Six on Saturday: Companions

Ferns grow with Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop,’ Vinca, Arum and Hellebores

Have you ever noticed how some gardeners want to show off their mulch? Every plant or species group is carefully set far enough apart from the next to grow neatly, like little islands, in a sea of brown mulch. These curated clumps of vegetation may be arranged into an arc or grid or another clever scheme.

If shrubs, they are neatly sheared often enough to keep them in their intended shape. And the whole scene is surrounded by a sharp bordered sea of fresh mulch to demarcate the planting space.

I see these neatly manicured beds at the entrances to shopping centers and upscale neighborhoods, always anchored by a few rounded, evergreen shrubs.  The color plants usually get switched out seasonally, with a few dozen little Begonias planted in April or May, replacing the ornamental cabbages and pansies planted last October.  Once the cabbages flower, they look weedy, and are goners. 

Of course, one must weed to keep it in shape.   Seeds blow in from everywhere, so one must weed by hand, or spray periodically with an herbicide, to keep things neat. And often the answer is simply piling on more shredded bark mulch over the old, hiding what has faded. Mulch piles creep up the trunks of any larger trees like little brown mountains, beneath their leafy canopies.

This Aristotelian garden style asks us to make a lot of choices.  First, and most importantly, what is a desirable plant, and what is a weed?  What makes one plant desirable, and another not?  The gardener always gets to choose.

Read more at Our Forest Garden

Building a Fern Bed to Reduce Erosion

Rainy weather and frequent storms over the past few years have presented a particular challenge.  We are situated on a sloping bit of land on the side of a ravine.  A creek runs through the ravine below us and empties into a small lake.

Working with the continual erosion has remained a constant theme of our gardening here.  Our challenge is to slow the flow of water to increase opportunities for rain to soak into the soil for later use, while reducing the amount of flowing water that erodes the soil and runs off into the ravine.

Read more about the construction of this new series of raised beds, and see photos of some of the ferns we’ve chosen at my new site, Our Forest Garden.

If you enjoy these posts. please follow my new site, Our Forest Garden, so you remain up to date with all of the activity in our garden.

-WG 2021

Sunday Dinner: The Known


“Do you know that even when you look at a tree and say,

`That is an oak tree’, or `that is a banyan tree’,

the naming of the tree, which is botanical knowledge,

has so conditioned your mind

that the word comes between you and actually seeing the tree?

To come in contact with the tree

you have to put your hand on it

and the word will not help you to touch it.”


Jiddu Krishnamurti



“Their life is mysterious,

it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity,

it can be comprehended, described,

but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow,

the density blinds one.

Within there is no form, only prodigious detail

that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight,

foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap,

insects, silence, flowers. And all of this, dependent, closely woven,

all of it is deceiving.

There are really two kinds of life.

There is, as Viri says, the one people believe you are living,

and there is the other.

It is this other which causes the trouble,

this other we long to see.”


James Salter



“I’m planting a tree

to teach me to gather strength

from my deepest roots.”


Andrea Koehle Jones



“In a forest of a hundred thousand trees, no two leaves are alike.

And no two journeys along the same path are alike.”

  Paulo Coelho


Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida


Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020



“Trees, for example, carry the memory of rainfall.

In their rings we read ancient weather—

storms, sunlight, and temperatures,

the growing seasons of centuries.

A forest shares a history, which each tree remembers

even after it has been felled.”


Anne Michaels




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.


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?)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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

Sunday Dinner: Understanding


“Life can only be understood backwards;

but it must be lived forwards.”


Søren Kierkegaard



“I have been and still am a seeker,

but I have ceased to question stars and books;

I have begun to listen to the teaching

my blood whispers to me.”


Hermann Hesse



“Deep in the human unconscious

is a pervasive need for a logical universe

that makes sense.

But the real universe

is always one step beyond logic.”


Frank Herbert



“Any fool can know.

The point is to understand.”


Albert Einstein



“Just because you don’t understand

it doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”


Lemony Snicket



“To learn is not to know;

there are the learners and the learned.

Memory makes the one,

philosophy the others.”


Alexandre Dumas



“It’s always about timing.

If it’s too soon, no one understands.

If it’s too late, everyone’s forgotten.”


Anna Wintour



Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019



“Because it’s no longer enough to be a decent person.

It’s no longer enough to shake our heads

and make concerned grimaces at the news.

True enlightened activism

is the only thing

that can save humanity from itself.”


Joss Whedon


Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

Please visit and follow Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues to see all new posts since January 8, 2021.

A new site allows me to continue posting new content since after more than 1700 posts there is no more room on this site.  -WG

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 780 other subscribers
Follow Forest Garden on

Topics of Interest