Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!

~

Strange but true:  Gardening can become political, too.

This disturbing notion is reflected in our gardening styles.  Consider the traditional scheme of evergreen shrubs and lawn.  Maybe there is an urn filled with bright annuals, somewhere.

~

~

A ‘monoculture’ garden where the same plant, or small number of plants is repeated over and over, lacks diversity.  Most everything in the garden is green.

Now, where there is a limited palette of plants, there will also be a very limited number of insects, birds and small mammals supported.  What will they eat?  Where will they rest?  Other than a few robins pulling worms from the lawn, there will be a very small number of species observed.

~

~

This common scheme, repeated over and again in neighborhoods across the country, gives us a clue as to why native birds, butterflies, amphibians and other small animals have been in decline for some time.  We have transformed woods and prairie and farms and natural riparian communities into suburbs.  Suburbs of lawn and largely imported shrubs and trees.

Once we introduce a larger palette of plants, providing more ‘niches’ for both plants and animals, the diversity and interest increases exponentially.  And interestingly, our garden comes alive with synergistic abundance.

~

~

For example:  A single oak tree can support over 250 different species of insects.  It serves as a host for many common butterfly larvae, too.  The insects it harbors attract songbirds who will visit to eat, but will also use the tree for cover and nesting.  Every native tree and large shrub will provide food and shelter to wildlife, and will become a hub of life in the garden.

~

Native Live Oak in Colonial Williamsburg

~

Trees form the backbone of our garden and of our ecosystem.  They offer us shade.  They freshen the air, fix carbon, and may even bloom in the spring.

~

Dogwood was chosen as the Virginia Native Plant Society’s Wildflower of the Year for 2018.  Its spring blossoms support pollinators, and fall berries feed birds.  Many sorts of insects, including caterpillars, live in its canopy each summer

~

Native trees support more animal species than do exotic imports, but all trees have value.  Willow, Magnolias, poplars, sycamore, black cherry, beech and redbud all enrich the lives of wildlife and of gardeners!

~

March 2017, with the flowering Magnolia trees in our garden covered in blossoms.

~

Deciduous trees mark the passing months, providing different sorts of beauty in each season.  Evergreen trees anchor the landscape, serve as windbreaks, and give us bright green structure through winter.  Many, like hollies, also produce berries to feed wildlife when little else can be found.

~

American Holly

~

As we add various layers to the garden with ground covers, ferns, herbaceous perennials, shrubs, vines and trees; the number of wildlife species our garden can support increases exponentially.  But even more importantly, it comes alive as an interesting and intriguing habitat for us humans as well!

~

~

A dynamic cast of horticultural characters come and go with the seasons.  They grow and change, transforming the character of our outdoor space as well.  We bring color, fragrance, texture and maybe even delicious flavor to our garden as we diversify our planting scheme.

~

~

We can begin with what we have, converting turf into habitat a little at a time.  Plant ground covers under existing shrubs to form a living mulch; plant large shrubs to anchor new planting beds, or begin to cultivate wide borders beside walls or fences.  Early spring is the perfect time to plan and establish new plantings.

~

Brent and Becky Heath’s Gloucester display garden December 4, 2015

~

A tidy benefit of this approach comes with reducing the amount of turf we need to maintain each year.  Consider the savings when there is less grass to water, fertilizer, treat with chemicals and to mow.  Turf is the most expensive landscape plant, per square foot, of any commonly grown plant in North America.  It demands the most effort and gives the least return.

~

The Heath’s display gardens in Gloucester, October 2015.

~

It is our adventurous spirit which motivates us to try new plants each year.  As our gardens evolve, we evolve with them; building a wealth of experience and appreciation with our ever expanding community of plants and wildlife.  We add beauty to our home and to our neighborhood.

We help preserve species for future generations, sustaining the wildlife that sustain the web of our own existence on planet Earth.

~

~

Woodland Gnome 2018

~

~

Gardening for Wildlife

Butterfly Garden Plants

Bringing Nature Home by Dr. Douglas Tallamy

~

Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 2017

~

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

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

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

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.
Green Thumb Tip # 13: Breaching Your Zone
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
Green Thumb Tip # 15: Conquer the Weeds!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios
Advertisements

WPC: Names

january-7-2017-snow-015

~

We had more than 10″ of snow on the ground at first light this morning, and it has been snowing steadily all day.   It’s a good day for the simple joys of making soup, enjoying a book  and watching the snow fall.

Folks are only leaving home today if they have to, and the roads in our region are treacherous.  Schools and some offices will likely stay closed for a few days next week.

 

For the Daily Post’s

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Names

~

january-7-2017-snow-011

~

Oh, the joy of winter!

~

january-7-2017-snow-010

~

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017

Bringing Birds To the Garden

September through December proves the best time of year for planting new trees and shrubs in our area. Woodies planted now have the chance to develop strong root systems through the autumn and winter. They are more likely to survive when planted in fall than in the spring.

My ‘to do’ list for the next few weeks includes moving various shrubs and small trees out of their pots and into the ground. And I am always most interested in those woody plants which also attract and support birds in our garden.

This post contains a revised list of  more than 30 woody plants which attract and support a wide variety of birds.  These are native or naturalized in our region of the United States.  Adding a few of these beautiful trees and shrubs guarantees more birds visiting your garden, too.

Read on for specific tips to increase the number of  wildlife species, especially birds, which visit your garden throughout the year.

-WG

Forest Garden

July 11 2013 garden 011~

Do you feed the birds?  Most of us gardeners do.  Unless you are protecting a crop of blueberries or blackberries, you probably enjoy the energy and joy birds bring to the garden with their antics and songs.  Birds also vacuum up thousands of flying, crawling, and burrowing insects.  Even hummingbirds eat an enormous number of insects as they fly around from blossom to blossom seeking sweet nectar.  Birds are an important part of a balanced garden community.

We have everything from owls and red tailed hawks to hummingbirds visiting our garden, and we enjoy the occasional brood of chicks raised in shrubs near the house. There is an extended family of red “Guard-inals” who keep a vigilant watch on our coming and goings and all of the activities of the garden.  There are tufted titmice who pull apart the coco liners in the hanging baskets to build their…

View original post 3,029 more words

Winter Sun

December  11, 2014 cold 061

.

Winter sun:

Blue returned to frosty sky,

.

December  11, 2014 cold 011

.

Glinting off garden’s evergreens,

Warmth pouring through the windows

Taunting us outside.

.

December  11, 2014 cold 023.

 

The birds reappeared at sunrise,

Gliding tree to tree,

Breaking their fast on fat frozen berries.

.

December  11, 2014 cold 021.

Calling and chattering they praised the fine day,

Glad to have stayed here awhile,

Glad for sun warming feet and feathers.

 

.

December  11, 2014 cold 032.

 

 

Winter’s wind still blows so cold

Despite sun’s optimistic shininess.

 

.

December  11, 2014 cold 041

.

We raced the sun today;

Its trek from horizon to horizon so low and quick.

Its golden light so brief before night settled once again.

We savored each hour like good chocolate.

.

December  11, 2014 cold 024.

Setting again by only mid-afternoon.

Gilding the trees in gold,

.

December  11, 2014 cold 068

.

Transforming the forest to a tapestry of bright and shadow.

.

December  11, 2014 cold 048

.

Glinting off water,

.

December  11, 2014 cold 070

.

Dyeing the sky bright yellow, pink, and orange.

.

December  11, 2014 cold 088

.

Briefly blazing before bowing down again

Below the rim of the world;

.

December  11, 2014 cold 057

.

Leaving gathering purple darkness in its wake;

Moon still not risen,

Stars glimmering like ice crystals in a frozen sky,

Cold blows in from the river.

.

December  11, 2014 cold 096

.

 

A damp blanket of darkness descends into the garden.

Light and warmth retreat inside.

We twist on electric candle flames in each window,

Tiny golden lights against the night.

.

December  11, 2014 cold 101

.

 

Words and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

 

 

 

Lovely Lady Holly

November 4, 2014 parkway 008

 

This venerable holly stands in a median on the Colonial Parkway where one turns to visit the Jamestown Settlement exhibits.  Not the archeological site, this is near the museum where Jamestown history is interpreted and where school groups eat their picnic lunches.

This gorgeous tree grabbed my attention during a drive down the  Colonial Parkway earlier this week, because it is one of the first we’ve seen covered in bright red berries.

 

November 4, 2014 parkway 009

 

Here is the first sentinel of nature showing us that the winter holidays are on their way.

Holly and ivy remain iconic native plants for the winter holidays, partly because they remain green all winter long.

 

November 30 Parkway 008

The red berries produced by the female holly tree reminded our ancestors of the sun, fire, warmth, and renewal.  They still shine brightly  on grey wintery days, even  from underneath a blanket of snow;  reminding us that the sun, and summer, will return.

 

These berries growing on a holly right beside our home are still in the process of turning from green to red.

These berries growing on a holly right beside our home are still in the process of turning from green to red.

 

Our Virginia woods hold many native holly trees.  The birds help spread their seeds each year as they eat their berries, excreting the seeds far and wide.

We rarely notice the holly trees until late November when most of our deciduous trees stand bare.  Then, we can see through the forest to the small army of holly  shining in winter’s sunshine.

 

November 4, 2014 parkway 035

 

Many of these trees remain stunted.  Growing at the base of oaks, maples, poplars, and pines, they rarely have a chance to fully develop.

Holly prefers full sun, which rarely reaches those growing in the forest.

Holly trees grow along the Colonial Parkway near Jamestown Island.

Holly trees grow along the Colonial Parkway near Jamestown Island.

 

We see these beautiful trees’ full potential when they grow on the edge of the woods, or remain, growing alone, like the venerable  lady in the median.

Holly, one of the trees counted as “holy” by the Celtic druids, grows as either a male or a female throughout its life.

 

November 30 Parkway 012

Only the female holly trees cover themselves in berries each year.  And  even the female trees don’t produce berries until several years into their lives.

 

November 8, 2014 holly 004

We protect a small grove of seedling holly trees in our woods.   They were only a few inches high when we came to this forest garden.

 

November 8, 2014 holly 012

 

We watch them add height each year, looking forward to when the females among them bear their first berries.

A small holly also grew at the corner of our house, peaking out from behind a Hydrangea when we first arrived.  It has grown now to a small tree, and we are happy to find it is a female covered in bright berries this year.

 

November 8, 2014 holly 002

 

This is its first year to cover itself in bright fruit; a tremendous source of pleasure as we come and go each day.

The “grand dames” of holly trees may be found along the Colonial Parkway, mostly near Jamestown Island.

Protected at least since the road was completed as a part of the National Park in the late 1950’s, these holly trees look to be much older even than that.

Those growing near the road enjoy full sun year round, and remain one of the first of nature’s messengers  that the winter holidays are close at hand.

 

November 24 2013 trees 031

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013- 2014

 

 

December 13 2013 poinsettias 003

  Holiday Wreath Challenge

Fantasy and Reality

This old Rosemary has fully recovered now from last winter's cold.  It grows here with volunteer Black Eyed Susans.

This old Rosemary has fully recovered now from last winter’s cold. It grows in the front border with volunteer Black Eyed Susans.

 

Autumn is a time to come to terms with both the fantasy and the reality of gardening.

We fantasize about the beautiful garden we can create.  We intend to grow delicious fruits and healthy vegetables.  We see visions of beauty in areas of bareness, and imagine the great shrub which can grow from our tiny potted start.

I’ve come to understand that gardeners, like me, are buoyed on season to season and year to year by our fantasies of beauty.

Surprise lilies poke up through the fading foliage of peonies and St. John's Wort.

Surprise lilies poke up through the fading foliage of peonies and St. John’s Wort.

 

I spend many hours pouring through plant catalogs and gardening books; especially in February.

And I spend days, sometimes, making lists of plants to acquire, shopping for them, and making sketches of where they will grow.

As far as fantasies go, I suppose that dreaming up gardens rates as a fairly harmless one.  Expensive sometimes, but harmless in the grand scheme of things.

 

One of our few remaining  Coleus plants not yet destroyed by the squirrels, growing here with perennial Ageratum.

One of our few remaining Coleus plants not yet destroyed by the squirrels, growing here with perennial Ageratum and Lantana.

 

But there are times for planning and imagining; and there are times for dealing with the realities a growing garden presents.

I spent time bumping up against the realities, this morning, as I worked around the property; preparing for the cold front blowing in from the west.

 

Lantana, the toughest of the tough in our garden, grows more intense as nights grow colder.  This one is not about 7' high.

Lantana, the toughest of the tough in our garden, grows more intense as nights grow colder. This one is now about 7′ high.

 

I spent the first hour walking around with a pack of Double Mint chewing gum dealing with the vole tunnels.  This is our new favorite way to limit the damage the ever-present voles can do.

Recent rain left the ground soft.  My partner spent several hours and three packs of gum feeding the little fellas on Tuesday.  So the damage I found today was much reduced, and I only used a pack and a  half.  Much of the tunneling was in the lawns, but I also found it around some of the roses.

 

Colocasia have grown wonderfully this season.  This one has sent out many runners and new plants.  I need to dig some of these soon to bring them in, since they aren't rooted deeply like the adults.

Colocasia have grown wonderfully this season. This one has sent out many runners and new plants. I need to dig some of these soon to bring them in, since they aren’t rooted deeply like the adults.

 

Another hour was invested in deadheading, cutting away insect damage on the Cannas, pulling grasses out of beds and digging up weeds.

I wandered about noticing which plants have grown extremely well this year, and which never really fulfilled my expectations.

As well as our Colocasias and Cannas have done, the little “Silver Lyre”  figs planted a year ago remain a disappointment.

 

Ficus, "Silver Lyre" has grown barely taller than the neighboring Sage.  Maybe it will take off next year....

Ficus, “Silver Lyre” has grown barely taller than the neighboring Sage. Maybe it will take off next year….

 

Sold as a fast growing variety, these barely reach my knees.   Between heavy clay soil which obviously needed more amendment and effort on my part at planting, and our very cold winter; they have gotten off to a very slow start.

I hope that they will catch up next year and eventually fulfill their potential as large, beautiful shrubs.

 

October 1, 2014 garden 011

I admired the beautiful Caladiums, and procrastinated yet again on digging them to bring them inside.  Maybe tomorrow….

Even knowing the weather forecast, I don’t want to accept that cold weather is so close at hand.  I am reluctant to disturb plantings which are still beautiful.

Begonia, "Sophie" came in today, and will likely stay inside now.  Started from a small cutting, this lovely plant has grown all in one season.

Begonia, “Sophie” came in today, and will likely stay inside now. Started from a small cutting, this lovely plant has grown all in one season.

 

I did begin bringing in Begonias today.  And, I’m starting to make decisions about which plants can’t be brought inside.

Space is limited, and my collection of tender plants expands each year.

 

Another of the re-blooming iris decided to give us a last stalk of flowers this week.

Another of the re-blooming Iris decided to give us a last stalk of flowers this week.  Their fragrance is simply intoxicating.

 

Each season brings its own challenges.  There are the difficult conditions brought by heat and cold, too much rain and drought.

Then there are the challenges brought on by the rhythms of our lives.

 

September 27, 2014 garden 016

 

I’ve been away from the garden a great deal this spring and summer.  And when I’ve been home, I’ve often been too tired to do the tasks which have other years become routine.

 

This series of borders has gotten "hit or miss" attention this summer.  These sturdy daisies have kept going in spite of my neglect.

This series of borders has gotten “hit or miss” attention this summer. These sturdy daisies have kept going in spite of my neglect.

 

What I was doing with loved ones was far more important than trimming, weeding and fertilizing in the garden.

And my partner has helped a great deal with the watering this year.  But the neglect shows. 

I am surveying the reality of which plants were strong and soldiered on without much coddling; and which didn’t make it.

I pulled the dead skeletons of some of them today.

 

Pineapple Sage reliably fills the garden with beauty at the end of the season.  Here it is just coming into bloom as we greet October.

Pineapple Sage reliably fills the garden with beauty at the end of the season. Here it is just coming into bloom as we greet October.

 

This is a garden which forces one to face the facts of life… and death.  It is probably a good garden for me to work during this decade of my life.

At times effort brings its own rewards.  Other times, effort gets rewarded with naked stems and the stubble of chewed leaves.

 

October 1, 2014 garden 031

It forces one to push past the fantasies which can’t make room for disappointment and difficulties; for evolution and hard-won success.

 

Beauty berry grows like the native (weed?) it is.  These self-seed around the garden, and never suffer from hungry deer.  Our birds take great delight in the berries as they ripen.

Beauty berry grows like the native (weed?) it is. These self-seed around the garden, and never suffer from hungry deer. Our birds take great delight in the berries as they ripen.

 

The wise tell us that all of the suffering in our lives results from our attachments.

That may be true.  And yet, I find joy even in this autumnal mood of putting the garden to bed for the season.

Autumn "Brilliance" fern remains throughout the winter.  Tough and dependable, they fill areas where little else can survive.

Autumn “Brilliance” fern remains throughout the winter. Tough and dependable, they fill areas where little else can survive.

 

Even as I plan for the coming frost, and accept that plants blooming today soon will wither in the cold; I find joy in the beauty which still fills the garden.

I am deeply contented with how I have grown in understanding and skill, while gardening here,  even as my garden has grown in leaf and stalk.

 

October 1, 2014 garden 012

And I am filled with anticipation for how the garden will grow and evolve in the year to come.

It is a work in progress, as are we all. 

 

Fuchsia "Marinka"

Fuchsia “Marinka”

 

While fantasies may lead us onwards and motivate us to make fresh efforts each day; so reality is a true teacher and guide.

Our challenge remains to see things just as they are.  To be honest with ourselves, learn from our experience, and find strength to make fresh beginnings as often as necessary as we cultivate the garden of our lives.

 

October 1, 2014 garden 025

 

Words and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

 

October 1, 2014 garden 001

 

 

Winter Rainbow

January 1 2014 Parkway 019

Part of a “sun dog” rainbow in the afternoon sky over College Creek on New Year’s Day.

Winter’s palette turns to shades of grey, blue, green, brown and white; a much quieter, more restful world of color than what surrounds us the rest of the year.

The view from our deck this morning.  The temperature was up to about 15 F by the time we ventured out of doors.

The view from our deck this morning. The temperature was up to about 15 degrees by the time we ventured out of doors.

When the sun is shining from a brilliantly clear winter sky, everything is touched with gold and silver sparkles of light.  It is almost blinding reflected from ice and water.

Our Violas are solidly frozen this morning but will bounce back once they thaw out sometime tomorrow.

Our Violas are solidly frozen this morning, but will bounce back once they thaw out sometime tomorrow.

Although some areas remain blanketed in snow for much of winter, we never see it for more than a few days here and there- if at all.  “Snow day” is still synonymous with “holiday” in my mind, as it  has meant an unexpected day off to enjoy as I pleased for much of my life.

We wait for it, hope for it, and celebrate the snow if it comes.  Many winters we never see anything more than flurries.   And so color remains with us throughout winter.   Beauty is everywhere.

Birds, berries, and the occasional Camellia blossom add pops of red in our winter gardens.

The Swiss chard looked good enough to eat on New Year's Eve.

The Swiss chard looked good enough to eat on New Year’s Eve.

Violas, Mahonia, Helleborus, and Crocus offer blossoms in purples, oranges, yellows, pinks, white and red through the coldest winter days.  We can enjoy something blooming in the garden every single day of the year.

What delicious luxury.  We only have to look for it, and we are still surrounded by all of the colors of the rainbow.  The shades, tints, and hues have shifted subtly, winter paints in a different palette, but color never leaves us entirely.

American holly berries glow red in the winter sunshine. They will all be enjoyed by hungry birds and squirrels over the next few weeks.

American holly berries glow red in the winter sunshine. They will all be enjoyed by hungry birds and squirrels over the next few weeks.

So here is our winter rainbow from Williamsburg, Virginia.  I’ve stretched the rules a bit for Tuesday Snapshots today.  One photo was taken inside to capture the beautiful red of a bowl, and a few photos are a little more than a week old now, though they would look nearly the same if taken today.

I hope you are warm, and well, and able to enjoy this beautiful day.  It looks like a fine day to finish off the fruitcake left from Christmas, if there is any, and to settle in with a wonderful new novel penned by a friend.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

ROY G. BIV (Forestgarden)

Tuesday Snapshots:

What’s There to Eat?

The morning dawned bright and frosty.  Our temperatures had plummeted into the 20s by sunset on Christmas Day.

The morning dawned bright and frosty. Our temperatures had plummeted into the 20s by sunset on Christmas Day.

The morning’s sunrise revealed a frost covered garden.  Our cardinals’ clicking and chirping drew me to the window.  The fat, scarlet, Papa cardinal was searching through a pot on the patio for something to eat.  His mate rooted through the leaves down on the slates looking for a morsel of breakfast.  Our birds came out with the sun, scouring the warmer sheltered patio for their morning meal.  I took pity on them, and braved the morning chill in pajamas to carry a scoop of bird feed round and sprinkle it on the patio where I could watch them feast.

I offered the birds a little birdseed on the patio early this morning.

I offered the birds a little seed on the patio early this morning.

We rarely put seed out for the birds.  Instead, we make sure there is abundant wild food in the garden to carry them through the winter.  We wait until a hard freeze and then feed the finches and cardinals from a sack of Niger seed.  But I haven’t hung one yet this year, and the cardinals chose to discuss the matter with me this morning.

A few Nandina berries remain in the front border.

A few Nandina berries remain in the front border.

As we’ve watched various families of birds come and go from the patio all day, it set me wondering what food is still available for them in the garden.  It was nearly 80 here only a few days ago, and we saw little flying gnats now and again.  Surely other insects come out on warmer days as a special winter treat for the birds.

When the temperature plummets, and the ground is frozen hard, it is harder for the wild birds to find their meal.  But the meal is still there, waiting for their exploration!

The round bed of Lantana, though frozen, is still the most popular daytime hang out for the birds.

Seed pods from summer's morning glories remain to feed winter's birds.

Seed pods from summer’s morning glories remain to feed winter’s birds.

Its dense thicket of branches provides plenty of cover for them as they hop about in search of seeds.  Today I found an abundance of seed pods left behind by the morning glory vines along with dried berries left from the summer’s Lantana.  Many different species fly in and out of this fast food establishment each day.

Hibiscus seed pods are open, and seeds ripe for the munching.

Hibiscus seed pods are open, and seeds ripe for the munching.

Hibiscus and Rose of Sharon seedpods, now dried and fully opened, still harbor many delicious seeds.  There is enough to feed our birds for many weeks to come on the many shrubs around the garden.

Nandina and holly berries glow brightly red in the borders.  For a while I thought the squirrels might steal all of these, but berries remain.

Holly berries

Holly berries

All of the red Dogwood berries went weeks ago, leaving only the buds for spring flowers on the naked branches.  The holly is evergreen, however, and the prickly leaves are a little harder for the squirrels to negotiate.  Plenty are left for winter’s hungry birds.

The Cedars have not put out as many blue berries as I’ve found other years.  I noticed when cutting greens for wreathes that just as the oaks have taken a break from producing their usually abundant acorns, so the cedar and juniper berries are more scarce this year.

Staghorn Sumac berries are a favorite for many species of wildlife.

Staghorn Sumac berries are a favorite for many species of wildlife.

Wild vines and grasses are still full of seed.  We found beautiful airy seed heads on the Autumn Clematis, ready for birds tiny enough to perch and feast on them.  The clematis on the patio still has its ripened puffy seed heads as well.  Perhaps this is what the cardinals found this morning?

Clematis seed heads, growing in the pots on our patio.

Clematis seed heads, growing in the pots on our patio.

Staghorn Sumac is rich with seeds as well.  Still colorful, their mahogany colored seeds cluster tightly at the tip of each branch, swaying in the winter wind.

Looking up, there are cones of all sizes and descriptions.  Our beautiful native white pines bear cones loaded with small, tasty seeds. Gumballs, open now, cling like tiny Christmas ornaments to every twig of the gum trees.

Trees, like this white pine, remain full of cones and pods, rich with seeds.

Trees, like this white pine, remain full of cones and pods, rich with seeds.

Food is literally everywhere!  And the garden is alive with the flutter of winged comings and goings from before dawn until after dusk.  They are all welcome here, and have plenty of spots to find shelter and build their nests.

Acorns on the beach near the Scotland Ferry dock.

Acorns on the beach near the Scotland Ferry dock.

Perhaps this winter I’ll start a bird list.  Not just a mental, conversational list; but a bona fide official list as hard core birders keep one.  Already today I’ve seen cardinals and tufted titmice; wrens, nuthatches, Canadian geese, a cormorant, a Bald Eagle, and a Great Blue Heron.  Others remained anonymous, just out of focus in the shrubs shadowing me as I walked around the garden.

Trumpet Vine produces large seed pods, full of seeds once its orange flowers fade in autumn.

Trumpet vine produces large seed pods, full of seeds once its orange flowers fade in autumn.

Food is even more important than usual in winter.  Having just feasted with family yesterday, and completed a solid month of baking for special occasions, I’m feeling rather food obsessed at the moment.  Cakes sit wrapped and ready for drop in guests during the week ahead.  Beautiful cheeses wait on the shelves of the fridge; beside a whole tub of Cinnamon and cardamon laced dough, waiting to be formed into loaves or sweet rolls and baked this week.

As soon as my mother unwrapped a wreath made entirely of  bird feed yesterday, she sent my sister out to hang it from a hook on the shed where she could watch the birds enjoy it from her kitchen window.  Our gifts of food, whether to man or bird, are welcome ones; especially in winter.  The wreath was literally covered with colorful little finches, wrens, titmice, and nuthatches all afternoon.

Black Eyed Susans, left standing in the border have gone to seed.  I'll cut them back in late winter.

Black Eyed Susans, left standing in the border have gone to seed. I’ll cut them back in late winter.

They are fun to watch, and I love drawing songbirds close to the windows in winter where we can appreciate their beauty.  I never want them to depend upon such charity for survival, however; and so limit when and how much these little gifts of seed are offered. 

Much better, I believe, to fill the garden with trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials whose seed will provide a steady supply of food all season long, and which will also attract and support the insects birds need in their diets throughout the year. 

And there are plenty here, in our forest garden.

December 26 2013 Christmas 062

I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.

Joseph Addison, The Spectator, 1712

Feathers in the high tide line on the beach at Jamestown.

Feathers in the high tide line on the beach at Jamestown.

All Photos By Woodland Gnome 2013

The Real Santa(s)

december 15 2013 Santas 038

*

There are many layers of myth and meaning attached to Christmas. 

It feels like the winter solstice is the most emotionally and mythically charged period of the year, for many of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, at least.  Its roots run deep in our history, deep in our religious practices, and deep in our psyches.

.december 15 2013 Santas 032

 

.

How often have you been admonished to remember the “real” meaning of Christmas?

The Roman Church, and its Protestant offshoots, have tried to limit our understanding of Christmas to their religious interpretation as the Feast of the Nativity.

Students of history know that the roots and meaning  of Christmas are millennia older, and run far deeper than the Christian Gospels dictate.

Keep in mind that the church didn’t designate a date to celebrate the birth of Jesus for over 300 years.  The first known references to such a celebration were recorded after 300 CE.

The date chosen, 25 December,  had served as the birthday celebration for Mithra, associated with the “Unconquerable Sun,” in the contemporary and very popular Roman mystery religion known as Mithraism.  This cult had its roots in ancient Persia, and worshiped the Sun as the source of life and all goodness.

.

december 15 2013 Santas 014.

December 25, a few days past the long, dark night of winter solstice, has been celebrated as “birthday of the sun” for as many years as we have histories to remember.  Our celebrations of this winter festival run deep into human history, and also include traditions from parts of Europe north and west of Rome.

Our modern Christmas is such a mix of secular and sacred, “pagan” and “Christian.”  It is confusing to explain often times, and tricky to tease the tangled threads of meaning one from another.

Much of our popular Christmas mythology and iconography originated in Northern Europe and Asia; at a time when shamans guided and healed their tribal people, in the centuries before Christianity spread to these areas.

.december 15 2013 Santas 037

.

This is where we find the origins of our much loved “Santa Claus.”  Tribes living within the Arctic Circle respected their shamans as leaders and guides on many levels.  They healed, counseled, mediated, and taught the mythology and history of the tribe.  These shamans regularly used hallucinogenic mushrooms to facilitate their vision quests.  They also shared these mushrooms, regarded as sacred, with other members of the village.

.

The hallucinogenic mushrooms, called Aminita Muscaria, have a red cap with white flecks on it, and a white stem.  These special mushrooms grow exclusively under certain trees, like pines, firs, cedar and spruce.    Growing in a special relationship with the roots, they are considered “gifts of the tree.”

Aminita muscaria still grow throughout much of the northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere, and have been spread to many areas of the Southern Hemisphere.  Considered poisonous when eaten fresh, skilled shamans prepare them and give them to their followers under the proper conditions to facilitate a spiritual journey, or trip.  The mushroom gives one the sensation of flying, and helps one find the answers to questions about the nature of life and living.

.

december 15 2013 Santas 043

.

When mushroom hunting in autumn, the ancient shamans often wore a coat of reddish or brown fur, and tall black leather boots.  They carried bags to hold the mushrooms.  Once gathered, the mushrooms were dried and aged either by hanging them from the branches of conifer trees, or by stringing them and hanging them over the hearth in the shaman’s home.

In those days, the people envisioned their world as situated in the middle portion of the “World Tree,” or Yggdrasil.  The roots of the tree reached down into the Earth, and its branches reached up into the heavenly realms around the North Star.  The Shaman had the ability to travel up the World Tree into the heavenly realms to confer with the heavenly beings after ingesting the magic sacred mushrooms.  The shaman could also travel down Yggdrasil, to the underworld, on his or her quests.

.

december 15 2013 Santas 024.

In far northern Europe these tribal people often lived in round Yurt like structures.  They had a hole in the middle of the ceiling for smoke to escape.  After the snows fell, the smoke hole became the winter door to the home.  Either a pole or a ladder extended through the hole to the roof.  When the Shaman came to bring gifts of the dried mushrooms, he came in through the smoke hole, entering through the chimney, with the mushrooms in his bag.

.

December 22, 2014 Christmas tree 032

.

The memory of this shamanic gift giver, visiting the family dressed in fur, entering through the chimney; echoes down to us today in our mythology about Santa Claus.  In fact, modern day shamans of these far northern European tribes continue to wear the traditional red fur coats trimmed in white, today.

.

December 22, 2014 closeups 004.

The native deer of far Northern Europe, called reindeer, also love to eat A. muscaria.  The chemical compounds in this special mushroom given vision and enormous physical strength.  Reindeer, eating the mushrooms, run faster and jump higher than normal.  The reindeer love these mushrooms and seek them out.

On a more mundane level, reindeer who have eaten Aminita muscaria pass the psychoactive compounds in their urine, refining them, and making those compounds less toxic.  Drinking the urine of reindeer is another way to ingest the mushrooms.

.december 15 2013 Santas 052

.

The mushroom’s distinctive red and white colors have also come down to us as the colors of Christmas, along with the green of eternal life.  Santa Claus’s iconic costume is nearly always red, trimmed in white, like the mushrooms.

.

November 28 2013 016.

You may have noticed that many European Christmas decorations feature these beautiful red and white mushrooms. Have you ever wondered why?  Have you noticed them in Walt Disney movies, and in illustrations of elemental nature spirits such as elves and fairies?

Use of hallucinogenic mushrooms is one of those rarely discussed bits of cultural history which has come down to us from our ancestors. Those who have taken them describe how differently the world looks.

Nature “comes alive” in ways we normally can’t perceive.  The energies of nature take form and can communicate, in the guise of these elemental beings.  That is why Christmas stories so often include elves, fairies, and other magical beings, like our Santa Claus who can travel around the entire planet in a single night.

.december 15 2013 Santas 045.

Many mushroom themed Christmas ornaments come to us from Germany, and Eastern Europe, where these shamanic traditions were strong.  Another element of our modern Santa Claus from that culture is the tradition of the great god Woden, or Odin.

The great father god of the ancient Norse people, Odin, is pictured as an older man with white hair, a flowing white beard, who is missing one eye.  Odin traveled on an eight legged horse during his flights around the world at mid-winter.  Loved as a bringer of both gifts and wisdom during the Yule celebration, his image evolved into “Father Christmas.”

.

december 15 2013 Santas 042

.

A more modern strand of our Santa Claus comes to us from the historical Saint Nicholas.  A Christian Bishop in Myra, now Turkey; he was imprisoned by the Romans for his faith, then later released, and died on December 6, 345 CE.  December 6 was celebrated as his feast day throughout much of Europe throughout the middle ages, as it still is today.

St. Nicholas was known for his kindness, generosity, and the help and protection he extended to children in need.  Stories about him spread across Europe.  The Dutch made his feast into a day to give presents to children, who left out their shoes for St. Nicholas, or “Sinterklaas” to fill.

.

Saint Nicholasm Bishop of Myrna

Saint Nicholasm Bishop of Myra

.

The example of St. Nicholas inspired the custom of lavishing gifts and attention on children at Christmas time.  The tradition came with Dutch immigrants to the colonies, where St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, or “Santa Claus,” became an icon of giving to children by the early 1800s.

St. Nicholas is pictured as a tall, stately elderly man with long flowing white hair and white beard, dressed in the red and white clothing of a Catholic Bishop.  He carries a golden crooked staff.

.

december 15 2013 Santas 018.

Our popular image of Santa Claus, in the United States, was cemented in the 19th century by a cartoonist and a poet.  Clement Clark Moore published, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823.

His vivid images of Saint Nicholas created our popular expectation of a rotund, jolly, red suited “elf” bringing gifts to children by coming down the chimney.  Filling stockings, and traveling in a sleigh drawn by “eight tiny reindeer” are all depicted in the poem we now know as, “The Night Before Christmas.

.

december 15 2013 Santas 019.

Thomas Nast, the well known illustrator and cartoonist, drew the first modern portraits of Santa Claus in the mid 19th century.  His portraits of Santa Claus appeared in Harper’s Weekly from the first Christmas cartoon around 1863 until his last in 1886.

.

December 22, 2014 Christmas tree 030.

He published a whole book of drawings about Christmas in 1890 titled, Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings for the Human Race.  Nast is credited for describing Santa’s home as the North Pole in modern literature.

.

The moons and starts are the garb worn by ancient astronomer priests, or magi.

The moons and stars remind us of the  ancient astronomer priests, or magi.

.

A generation later, the Coca Cola Company adopted Santa Claus as part of their winter advertising campaign.  Haddon Sundblom’s iconic portraits of Santa Claus first appeared in Coca Cola’s advertising in 1931.  Based on the images in Clement Clark Moore’s poem, Sundblom painted portraits of Santa for the next 33 years.  He used friends, family, and even himself as the models for his paintings.

Santa Claus was adopted by organizations such as The Salvation Army around this same time, who used the image to inspire a nation to give generously to those in need.

.

december 15 2013 Santas 060.

Beginning in 1890, unemployed men were dressed in Santa suits and sent into the city streets to beg for money to finance the Salvation Army’s outreach to the poor.  By dressing their bell ringers as “Santa,” they try to appeal to the better nature of each of us to give generously in the spirit of Christmas.

So there really is no separating the secular from the spiritual in our Christmas traditions.  When gifts are given on Twelfth Night, January 6, it is done in commemoration of “Three Kings Day” when the three kings or Magi of the east, gave their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus.  Gifts are given on January 6 in Spain and Latin America.  The Eastern Orthodox Christian churches celebrate the Feast of the Nativity on January 6.

.december 15 2013 Santas 035

In Great Britain gifts are given most often on Boxing Day, December 26.  This custom dates back to the Roman Saturnalia, when gifts were given to servants and children, and the alms boxes were opened and distributed to the poor.  It has been customary for employers to give gift boxes to servants, employees, and tradesmen in appreciation for good service throughout the year.  Today it is a major shopping day in many countries.

Our Christmas is a very rich and diverse holiday, with many layers of meaning. 

When have we seen such agreement among so many different nations, as we see in the matter of celebrating the winter solstice?  Whatever we may call it; we mark it with gifts and gatherings, remembrance, spiritual renewal, and great joy.  It is a festival of light, and keeping it well illuminates the rest of the year with love and good feeling.

 

december 15 2013 Santas 071

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

december 15 2013 Santas 056

For more information:

Hallucinogenic Mushrooms and Santa Claus

Santa and the ‘Shrooms:  The Real Story Behind the “Design” of Christmas

What Hangs On Your Tree? (Forest Garden)

Siberian Shamanism

Who Is Saint Nicholas?

St. Nicholas

Mithraism

The Real Santa in Richmond, VA

Fresh (and Dried) From the Garden

An herb garden on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg

An herb garden on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg

Once upon a time most of the makings for a merry Christmas came from the garden.  Although most of us today might begin at a big box retailer or the grocery store, up until the last generation, Christmas was mostly home-grown.   Even so, much of what we purchase today still comes from someone’s garden or farm.

Artichokes growing now will bloom in the spring.

Artichokes growing now will bloom in the spring.

Pomegranate growing near the Bruton Parish garden.

Pomegranate growing near the Bruton Parish garden.

Even as the agricultural year is at its lowest ebb, and snow covers much of the country this weekend, there is a great deal to be gathered outside.  Solstice celebrations have honored trees since earliest times.  The Egyptians  brought palm fronds indoors in late December to honor the rebirth of Ra.  Trees have been a potent symbol of life and longevity for time out of memory.

Trees in the garden at Colonial Williamsburg

Trees in the garden at Colonial Williamsburg

Evergreen trees hold a special place in solstice celebrations all over the world and symbolize everlasting life and promise the return of the sun.  Evergreens with red berries, like holly and Nandina are especially popular winter decorations since the berries are symbolic of the returning sun.  So branches of trees and shrubs, cut from one’s own garden  or purchased from a nursery, are first on our list merry-makings from the garden.

We include mistletoe among the evergreens.  Growing on trees, though not a tree itself, it is an evergreen plant full of myth and meaning.  It is an important part of our decorations.

Even bare branches make beautiful decorations.  I love white twinkle lights laced through the bare branches of crepe myrtle.  Once I decorated an entire spiral staircase with dead branches pruned from mountain laurel shrubs, wrapped in white lights.  It was perfectly beautiful and I kept it lit each evening until spring.

We also gather every sort of cone and seed.  Whether used as is, or painted white or gold; cones are beautiful in wreathes, swags, sprays, centerpieces and hung on the Christmas tree.

Wreath in Colonial Williamsburg

Wreath in Colonial Williamsburg with cones, artichokes, apples, dried fruit, and seed pods on an evergreen base.

Nuts and nut shells can be used in the same way to make decorations.  Nuts are also gathered for wonderful Christmas foods like cakes, cookies, fudge, puddings, and breads.  Walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, and almonds grow over much of the United States.  It’s always wonderful to have a nut tree in one’s own garden or the garden of a friend.  Peanuts, although not from a tree, are an important food at Christmas all over the southern United States and can be grown at home.

December 5 2013 DOG St 039

A different wreath, using much of the same fruits, cones, and vegetables for decoration.

We also enjoy every sort of fruit and berry at Christmas.  Except for persimmons, pomegranates and the occasional late fig, most of us have to use dried fruit or preserves.   Local apples are still available in Virginia, but they were picked and stored weeks ago.  We import oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes from Florida and California.  Whether used in wreathes; stuck with cloves and set out in bowls; sliced into mulled wine or Wassail; or peeled and eaten out of hand, citrus is an important part of our Christmas celebration.

Many crops still wait to be harvested in the CW garden.

Many crops still wait to be harvested in the CW garden.

Cranberries don’t grow well in Virginia, but they fill whole shelves of the produce section at the local groceries.  We eat them from Thanksgiving through the new year baked into cakes muffins and breads.  We grind them with oranges to make cranberry relish and cook them with sugar and other fruits to make preserves.  Those that don’t get eaten are strung onto garlands or stuck into wreathes.

Virginia had a lively trade with islands in the Caribbean during Colonial times and has maintained those ties.  Pineapples are an important symbol of hospitality in Virginia.  Pineapples, imported from the islands, were available for Virginia Christmas celebrations.

Wreathes for sale in the Colonial Williamsburg garden on Duke of Gloucester St. use pineapples, feathers, oyster shells, apples, English holly, and dried flowers in their designs.

Wreathes for sale in the Colonial Williamsburg garden on Duke of Gloucester St. use pineapples, pine cones, feathers, oyster shells, apples, English holly, and dried flowers in their designs.

And of course grapes are enjoyed on party trays with cheeses, or savored as wine.  We bake raisins into cakes, cookies, and puddings. We use grapevines as the base for wreathes and garlands.

We even have greens and produce in the garden.  Our holiday meals are built around potatoes, carrots, celery, kohlrabi, collards, cabbages, kale, salad greens, broccoli, and brussel sprouts.  Many of these are still out in the garden with a little winter protection, or have just come in for winter storage.

Some might count eggs, since many keep their own chickens or buy eggs locally.  Eggs are used in such huge quantities as we bake our way towards Christmas day.  Likewise honey, an important part of the holiday, and a gift from our gardens.

Flowers, like lavender, Achillea, roses, hydrangea, baby’s breath, and cockscomb; dried last summer,  come out to play their part in our decorations. Whether worked into our wreathes, or tucked into the branches of the Christmas tree, they remind us of fragrant summers past.

December 5 2013 DOG St 031Herbs can still be cut here in Williamsburg, for both cooking and for decorations.  We still have sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley, germander, and some fragrant geraniums living in the garden.  Many more dried herbs and spices shine at Christmas.  How could we bake without cinnamon?    Cinnamon sticks. star anise, and cloves work their way into our decorations with dried citrus and herbs.  Sprigs of herbs tied into a bow make a Christmas gift fragrant.  Herbs and essential oils melted with beeswax and Shea butter or mixed with salt or sugar make special indulgent gifts for loved ones.

The garden at Colonial Williamsburg was bustling with activity when we visited on Thursday afternoon.  In fact, it was the busiest place we visited.  So many beautiful vegetables are still growing in the garden.  The shop is full of tempting wreathes, arrangements, dried materials, tools, and books.  As garlands and wreathes continue popping up all over town, we see the wintery landscape transform into a beautiful botanical paradise.

A centerpiece in the garden shop at CW will make a local table very festive this month.

A centerpiece in the garden shop at CW will make a local table very festive this month.

Everything we need is at hand to make our Christmas merry and bright, waiting for us in someone’s garden.

Here is a recipe to make your Christmas a little more flavorful.  Mulled wine and mulled cider are traditional at Virginia Christmas parties, as they are in England.  Mulled wine, or Gluehwein, is served at Christmas markets all over Germany, Switzerland, and Austria today.   I’ll be  making this tomorrow afternoon for our neighborhood cookie exchange party.  December 5 2013 DOG St 017After helping to construct nearly 2 dozen little houses from graham crackers and royal icing, I’ll be more than ready to sit back and sip a cup while watching the children decorate the houses with candy.

Mulled Wine or Gluehwein

Combine 1 1/2 c. of water and/or orange juice and 1 1/2 c. sugar in a large pot and simmer on medium heat as the sugar dissolves.  Wash, and cut 2 oranges, a large lemon, and an apple into narrow wedges or slices.  Stick whole cloves into the sliced fruit to use between 12 and 20 cloves.  Add the fruit to the simple syrup along with a 2 tsp. of cinnamon or a cinnamon stick.  Allow the syrup and fruit to simmer on a very low heat for at least 20 minutes before adding two bottles of red wine.  I like to use a Shiraz or Syrah as they are bold, fruity wines.  Once the wine is heated through (do not boil) transfer the mixture to a crock pot to keep warm, or serve directly from the cooking pot for informal events.

For a non-alcoholic treat, use apple juice or cider, or a combination of apple and cranberry juice in place of the wine.  Skip the water, and mull the fruit and spices in the fruit juices.  Add a little rum to individual servings as needed.

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

December 5 2013 DOG St 026

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

Join 667 other followers

Follow Forest Garden on WordPress.com
Order Classic Caladiums

This Month’s Posts

Topics of Interest