Wildlife Wednesday: Eastern Black Swallowtail

Novembr 27, 2018, I spotted two tough little Eastern Black Swallowtail cats munching on a lone fennel plant, left in a cleared out bed at the Williamsburg Botanical garden.

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Eastern Black swallowtails lay their eggs and their larvae feed on parsley and fennel. This bed was filled with Lantana, Salvia, and with fennel all summer, and hosted many butterflies from May until November.

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Butterflies covered this planting of Lantana at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden in August.

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When I told my friend Judith about the caterpillars, she came and rescued them the afternoon before a hard freeze, at the very end of November.

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Judith cared for the caterpillars until each formed its chrysalis, feeding them organic parsley in little habitats indoors; then she added them to her collection of living chrysalides. She cared for the sleeping caterpillars all winter and brought them over to our garden yesterday morning,  just as they were ready to leave their chrysalides as butterflies.

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She named the two caterpillars rescued from the fennel at the botanical garden ‘Rough’ and ‘Tough’. They spent the winter pinned to this Styrofoam in her butterfly habitat.

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A total of three Black Swallowtail butterflies emerged during her visit yesterday morning. She generously set all three free in our garden. There were two males and a female. The amount of blue on the hindwings is the main way to distinguish gender in these swallowtail butterflies.

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Here Judith is releasing the first of the butterflies, a female. Then she invited us to help release the other two butterflies into the garden.

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The butterflies need some time for their wings to fully stretch, dry and toughen before they are ready to fly. We were able to hold and observe them as they prepared for their first flight.

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Would you like to attract butterflies to your garden?

The first step is to plant a variety of both nectar plants and host plants.  Nectar plants attract butterflies, and host plants allow them to lay their eggs and will feed the larvae as they grow.

If you attract butterflies and host their larvae, it is important to commit to not using insecticides in your garden.  Yes, the larvae will eat some leaves on their chosen host plant.  The plants will survive.

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Fennel and parsley host several types of swallowtail caterpillars.  Other easy to grow host plants include oak trees; spicebush, Lindera benzoin;  paw paw trees, Dutchman’s pipevine, Aristolochia macrophylla; passionfruit vine, Passiflora lutea; and even common wood violets.

Most butterflies prefer very specific host plants and may only use one or two.  For example, Monarch butterflies want Asclepias, or milkweed.  There are several different species of Asclepias available, and most all of them will support Monarchs.

It is useful to do a little research on common butterflies that live in your own region, and then plant their host plants, if you don’t have them growing on your property already.

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This was the last of the three butterflies to emerge from chrysalis, and the last to be released. He wasn’t ready to fly, and so we gently placed him on this red bud tree, where he rested while his wings hardened. Finally, he also flew away into the garden.

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Butterflies need safe places to shelter out of the wind at night and during storms.  Trees and dense shrubs serve them well.  They also need places where they can ‘puddle,’ landing on the ground to drink water from mudpuddles, moist earth, or even shallow saucers filled with gravel and water.  Butterflies need the minerals they absorb this way.

Butterflies will feed from a variety of nectar plants, including trees, vines, and flowering plants you may plant in baskets, pots or beds.  Lantana is an absolute favorite source of nectar.  Agastache, anise hyssop, attracts even more butterflies than Lantana!  All Verbenas attract butterflies and are very easy to grow.  The more flowers your garden offers, at a variety of heights, the more butterflies will likely stop by to visit your garden.

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We have seen a variety of butterflies in our garden already this spring, including Black Swallowtails. In fact, an hour or so after the release, we saw another Black Swallowtail laying eggs on an emerging fennel plant in the upper garden. This is one of the butterflies we released, resting before its first flight,

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There are many butterflies and moths native in Virginia and all of them are currently in decline. We have a network of dedicated butterfly enthusiasts in our area who rescue and raise cats, releasing the butterflies into the wild as they emerge. By protecting the butterfly larvae, they help insure that more individuals make it to the adult butterfly stage, mate, and increase the population.

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One of the greatest problems faced by butterflies is loss of habitat.  The native plants they depend on to raise their next generation are often the ones removed for development, but not replanted by landscapers.

Gardeners can make a significant difference by providing a small bit of habitat in their own yard.  Like a patch in a quilt, our own bit of habitat may be small.  But, when many of us are all working together, we can provide safe places for butterflies to rest and refuel along their migration routes, and can provide safe and welcoming places for them to lay their eggs.

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Butterflies feed on Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’

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By working together, each of us providing a bit of habitat and safety for butterflies, we can help support the next generations of butterflies; making sure that our own grandchildren can enjoy these beautiful insects and share their magic with their own children, far into the future.

Will you join us?

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail feeding on Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’.

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Pot Shots: Early Spring Bulbs

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

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

Some variables we can anticipate and plant to avoid. 

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Newly planted on September 25, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience.

Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.”
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Hal Borland

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February 15, 2019

 

 

Wild Life Wednesday: Evening Pollinators

A moth drinks deeply from Comphrey flowers.

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Long past dinner time, as dusk settles over the garden, tiny flickering moths and fat bumblebees are still foraging for nectar.

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Two moths share these sweet Physostegia virginiana.

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We were just coming home, and camera in hand, I went to have a last look at the garden.  These little moths were fluttering so fast they weren’t much more than a blur to my eye.

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I was amazed to find them everywhere this evening, on so many different plants.  Their wings blurred like the fast beating wings of a hummingbird, or a hummingbird moth, and I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing in motion.  One might imagine them to be tiny fairies, playing from plant to plant.

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The garden still whirred and chirped with life this evening as darkness gathered.  Most of the paths are still closed off with tumbled perennials after our days of wind and rain.  I had to lift and push past and step carefully over to find my way around.  It needs a bit of tidying again, but the creatures don’t mind.  They probably prefer this wildness.

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But the sun shone brightly today.  The air, not quite crisp, was cooler and no longer oppressive with humidity.  With Florence well past, we are feeling lighter, brighter, and a bit more optimistic.  We left home by mid-morning, heading north to see what we could see.

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Cane Begonias have covered themselves with bright flowers, finally, now that the season draws to its close.  These flowers offer sweet nectar, too.

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I forget sometimes, how much wildlife calls our garden home.  This afternoon we found a golden turtle waiting for us by the garage door.  I wonder if he’d ventured out of his usual hiding places to sample some fallen grapes while we were away.

But there he was, waiting, as we got our of the car.  His neck was fully extended as he watched us approach, trusting that he was welcome there and safe.  We were glad to see him, and a bit surprised as well.  He usually stays well-hidden in the undergrowth lower in the garden.

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Bumblebees share the Rudbeckia, even into the night.

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From the tiniest skinks waiting on the windowsill, to the hummingbirds resting on a branch beside the kitchen window, we are surrounded by beautiful creatures here.

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This dragonfly stopped to watch me photographing flowers yesterday, and waited patiently as I captured his image, too.

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They are already up and foraging when the sun rises, and others still busily flying about into the night  Their comings and goings remain cloaked in mystery to us.  We see only tiny slices of their lives.

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We’ve seen hummingbirds still feeding on the ginger lilies late into the evening.

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And  we hear their music deep into the night.  Owls call, geese sing to us as they fly low over the ravine and over the roof.  There is a low melody of insects playing lullabies after sunset.  Then songbirds begin greeting the morning well before dawn.

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Hardy Begonia naturalizes in shady spots in the garden.

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These are the familiar sounds of summer drawing to a close, a celebration of life, even as the seasons change again.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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“There’s an exact moment for leaping into the lives of wild animals.
You have to feel their lives first, how they fit the world around them.
It’s like the beat of music.
Their eyes, the sounds they make, their head,
movements, their feet and their whole body,
the closeness of things around them –
all this and more make up
the way they perceive and adjust to their world.”
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Richard O’Barry

 

Wild Life Wednesday: All Calm Before the Storm

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It was gently raining when we awakened this morning, but the sun was breaking through along the horizon by the time we made it outside into the new day.

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An early morning bumbly enjoys the sweetness of Rudbeckia laciniata.

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We are all very conscious of the weather here in coastal Virginia this week as we watch the updates on the progress of Hurricane Florence.  We are on high ground and so flooding isn’t a concern.  But we live in a forest, and any amount of wind can change the landscape here; especially when the ground is saturated.

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The Solidago, goldenrod, has just begun to bloom.

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It looks as though the storm will make landfall far to our south, and the track no longer suggests it might travel northwards into Central Virginia.  Yet Florence remains a dangerous storm, and is absolutely huge.  We may start feeling its outer bands of rain and wind sometime tomorrow or Friday.

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Rose of Sharon

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Which made today all the sweeter.  Do you know the Japanese term, Wabi-Sabi?  The Japanese find beauty in the transience and ultimate imperfection of all phenomena.  The impermanence and changeability of the world around us heightens our appreciation of its beauty.  We can appreciate things while feeling a deep tenderness for their inherent imperfection.

I was pondering these things this morning as I wandered through our upper garden, wondering how it might appear in a day or so after wind and heavy rain have their way with it.  Already, our tall goldenrod and black-eyed Susans lean over into the paths, making them almost disappear in the abundance of growth.

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It is my first time wandering through the garden like this since I got a nasty insect bite last Friday afternoon.  It is still a mystery what bit me, as I was fully armored to work outdoors.  It was a small bite at first, but quickly blistered and swelled up to a massive angry red blotch that stretched several inches away from the original bite on my knee.  It has been a slow process of tending it, and I stayed indoors until yesterday, hoping to avoid another until this one was resolved.

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Ginger lily with orbs

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But today I was out in the early morning wetness, capturing the beauty of it, and trying to ignore the mosquitoes greeting me along the way.  I wanted to see everything and admire everything on the chance that the coming storm will shatter its early September magnificence.  It was the beautiful calm before the storm, and we have taken today to celebrate it.

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The rain was past and the day gilded with golden September sunshine when we set out along the Colonial Parkway to see the sky and watch the rising waters along the James and York Rivers.  If you’ve never seen the sky filled with enormous, rain shadowed clouds in the day or two before a hurricane approaches, you’ve missed one of the most beautiful spectacles of atmospheric art.

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Yorktown Beach, looking northwards towards Gloucester Point and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science

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The clouds are arrayed in regular, rhythmic patterns, punctuated here and there with towering, monstrous storm clouds.  The sky is blue and clear beyond them.  They float rapidly across the sky, these outer bands of the approaching storm.  These days of waiting are moody, morphing quickly from dull to golden and clear blue to stormy grey.

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One keeps an eye on the sky while pacing through the rituals of preparing.   There is an edge to the mood as highways fill with strangers moving northwards, inland, away from home and into an uncertain future.  We encountered one today at the next gas pump who needed to tell us he was traveling, just passing through, on his journey to somewhere safer than here.

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We found a nearby parking lot filled this morning with state police, huge generators, Klieg lights, and emergency response trailers.  The lot was filled at eight, but emptying out just a few hours later.  We’re still wondering where the equipment will ultimately end up.  We hope not here…

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Jones Mill Pond, near Yorktown on the Colonial Parkway

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I wondered whether the butterflies would move out ahead of the storm.  But we counted more than a dozen as we drove along the Parkway from Jamestown to Yorktown.   We saw mostly small ones, Sulphurs, but we were glad for their happy fluttering along the roadside.  We noticed the tide is already high along the way.  Jamestown Island is closed as preparations there continue.

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The rivers lap high up into the reeds, mostly covering the narrow, sandy river beaches.  The York River is already climbing the rip rap hardened banks constructed a few summers ago to protect the shoreline.  Small Coast Guard craft patrolled the river near Yorktown, but that didn’t deter a few families here and there, determined to enjoy this bright and sultry day at the beach.

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The York River, looking eastwards towards the Bay.

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The lizards were scampering around the drive and back steps when we returned home.  They’d been basking in the mid-day sun; our return disturbed their peace.

The squirrels had been at the grapes again, and we saw a pair of hummingbirds light in a Rose of Sharon tree nearby, watching us arrive.

It was too silent, though.  We didn’t hear the usual chatter of songbirds in the trees.  It was still, too.  Though the wind was blowing off the rivers, here the air hung heavy and still.

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Our Muscadine grapes are ripening over a long season.

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I believe in luck and omens, and perhaps that is why I planted a few little pots of Baptisia seeds this morning.  I’d knicked the seed pods from a plant I’ve watched growing all summer at the Botanical garden, and carried them in my pocket for weeks.

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With the seeds tucked into little pots out on the deck, I’m already thinking of the sprouts that will soon emerge.  Life goes on.  I believe that is the wisdom of wabi-sabi.

No matter the current circumstance, change is constant.  We can’t outrun it, or stop it.  Wisdom invites us to embrace it, observe its power, and find the ever-present beauty, come what may.

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This beautiful cluster of lichens was waiting for me beneath a shrub this morning.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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“To Taoism that which is absolutely still or absolutely perfect
is absolutely dead,
for without the possibility of growth and change there can be no Tao.
In reality there is nothing in the universe
which is completely perfect or completely still;
it is only in the minds of men that such concepts exist.”
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Alan Watts

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“But when does something’s destiny finally come to fruition?
Is the plant complete when it flowers?
When it goes to seed? When the seeds sprout?
When everything turns into compost?”
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Leonard Koren

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Begonia

 

Butterfly’s Choice: Aralia spinosa

Aralia blooms mingle with wild Clematis along the Colonial Parkway near Jamestown.

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We stopped to admire the Clematis.  It was only once we pulled in to the parking area that we noticed the butterfly.

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Aralia spinosa.

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And what a beautiful Eastern Tiger Swallowtail he was, contentedly feeding on the Aralia flowers.

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Aralia spinosa is one of those wild trees we notice growing along the roadsides that appear, to our eye, rather weedy.  They grow tall and thin, eventually forming dense thickets, and sport wicked sharp thorns along their trunks and branches.  A native in our area, most sane folk would never allow them to take root in their garden.

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But their thorns can be overlooked in late summer, when the Aralia produce huge, thick clusters of tiny flowers.  The flowers bloom, and after the blossoms drop dense purple berries take their place.  Butterflies love their flowers and all sorts of song birds love the berries.  These small trees produce abundant food for wild life each summer, before their leaves drop in late autumn.

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“The Devil’s Walking Stick”, Aralia spinosa, with berries forming.  This stand grows along the Colonial Parkway near Jamestown Island.

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We got to know Aralia when our neighbor’s fell over under its own weight one year, and leaned its huge flowery head into our back garden.  Perhaps it was merely reaching for the sun; I was intrigued.  Within another few years, we had one sprouting in the upper garden.  I decided to give it a chance and let it grow.

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Aralia spinosa, a native volunteer in our garden, looks rather tropical as its first leaves emerge each spring.

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It lost its top in a storm in early spring this year, and just as I hoped, more branches and flower heads sprouted lower along its trunk.  Where last year we had one large flower cluster at the very top, this year we have several.  We often find our Tiger Swallowtails winging their way up to enjoy its nectar.

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But here along the Colonial Parkway on Sunday afternoon, I was still surprised to see the swallowtail feasting only on the Aralia, and completely ignoring the Clematis.  To my eye, the Clematis flowers are far more appealing.  They fairly shimmer in the sunlight, and they are a bit larger and perhaps easier to access.

But butterflies perceive the garden differently than do we.  Something about the Aralia intrigued this butterfly and kept it satisfied.  The Aralia is a Virginia native, and this particular Clematis is a naturalized variety from Asia.

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Clematis terniflora was introduced from Asia, and has naturalized in many parts of the country, including here along the Colonial Parkway.  Its fragrance is strong and sweet.  This variety is on the invasive list in several states.

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As we garden, we have to come to terms with our purposes.   What do we intend to accomplish by planting and tending our garden?  Who is the consumer?  Who is to be pleased by it?  Are we growing food for ourselves, enjoying the latest brightest flowers, creating a peaceful green sanctuary of shrubs and trees, or are we gardening to nurture wildlife?

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We can find compromises, but we can’t do it all.

What appeals to wildlife may not be our idea of horticultural beauty.  Maintaining a garden that is immaculately beautiful won’t serve the needs of the butterflies, birds, toads and other creatures we may hope to attract.

Wildlife will impact any food crop we cultivate, for good or ill, and we need to come to terms early on with whether we will use the many chemicals that promise garden perfection.

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Native Asclepias incarnata grows wild in a marsh on Jamestown Island.

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It helps to know what wildlife need and prefer if we want to contribute to conservation efforts to protect them.  But that doesn’t mean we want all of those plants surrounding our home.  Many have a short season of beauty, or are rampant, or simply prefer to grow in wide open spaces.

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Native Pickerel weed, Pontederia cordata, may be used in water features in our garden.  Here is grows in one of the marshes on Jamestown Island, along with Phragmites.

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Maybe our homeowners association has strict standards for how our yards must be maintained.  Growing vigorous native plants may be discouraged, in favor of more traditional landscaping.

There is a tension, sometimes, in how we resolve these apparent conflicts of purpose, intent and personal needs.  But there can be creative, and beautiful compromises possible, when we stop and observe closely enough, and plan with clarity and wisdom.

Our love of the wild and beautiful world around us helps us discover those compromises, and find joy in the result.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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A wildlife friendly border, with mixed natives and exotics, in our upper garden.

Sunday Dinner: Accomplishments

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The resolve to accomplish your goals is what counts.

If you earnestly put your mind to something,

your brain, your body, your environment-

-everything-

-will start working toward achieving that end. 

Daisaku Ikeda

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“I am only one, but I am one.

I cannot do everything, but I can do something.

And because I cannot do everything,

I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

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Edward Everett Hale

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“There is no limit to the amount of good you can do

if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

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Ronald Reagan

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“Do the best you can in every task,

no matter how unimportant it may seem at the time.

No one learns more about a problem

than the person at the bottom.”

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Sandra Day O’Connor

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“It’s no use saying, “We are doing our best.”

You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

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Winston S. Churchill

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“To accomplish great things,

we must dream as well as act.”

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Anatole France

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

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“If you can’t do great things, Mother Teresa used to say,

do little things with great love.

If you can’t do them with great love,

do them with a little love.

If you can’t do them with a little love,

do them anyway.

Love grows when people serve.”

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John Ortberg

Sunday Dinner: Uncertainty

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“Embrace relational uncertainty. It’s called romance.
Embrace spiritual uncertainty. It’s called mystery.
Embrace occupational uncertainty. It’s called destiny.
Embrace emotional uncertainty. It’s called joy.
Embrace intellectual uncertainty. It’s called revelation.”
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Mark Batterson
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“Let go of certainty.
The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness,
curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox,
rather than choose up sides.
The ultimate challenge is to accept
ourselves exactly as we are,
but never stop trying to learn and grow.”
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Tony Schwartz
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“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality,
they are not certain;
and as far as they are certain,
they do not refer to reality.”
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Albert Einstein
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“Have patience with everything
that remains unsolved in your heart.
…live in the question.”
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Rainer Maria Rilke
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“You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
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Max Ehrmann
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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018
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“Everything you’ve learned in school as “obvious”
becomes less and less obvious
as you begin to study the universe.
For example, there are no solids in the universe.
There’s not even a suggestion of a solid.
There are no absolute continuums.
There are no surfaces.
There are no straight lines.”
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R. Buckminster Fuller

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“There are souls in this world
which have the gift of finding joy everywhere
and of leaving it behind them when they go.”
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Frederick William Faber
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How many insects can you count on the Joe Pye Weed today?

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“So what do we do? Anything. Something.
So long as we just don’t sit there.
If we screw it up, start over.
Try something else.
If we wait until we’ve satisfied all the uncertainties,
it may be too late.”
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Lee Iacocca
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Sunday Dinner: From Your Point of View

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“The cosmos is within us.
We are made of star-stuff.
We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
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Carl Sagan

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“When you have once
seen the glow of happiness
on the face of a beloved person,
you know that a man can have no vocation
but to awaken that light
on the faces surrounding him.
In the depth of winter,
I finally learned that within me
there lay an invincible summer.”
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Albert Camus

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“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.”
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Tim Burton

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“What we do see
depends mainly on what we look for.
… In the same field the farmer will notice the crop,
the geologists the fossils,
botanists the flowers, a
rtists the colouring,
sportmen the cover for the game.
Though we may all look at the same things,
it does not all follow that we should see them.”
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John Lubbock

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“Nothing is really work
unless you would rather be doing something else.”
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J.M. Barrie

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“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then
to hang a question mark
on the things you have long taken for granted.”
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Bertrand Russell

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

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“It is a narrow mind
which cannot look at a subject
from various points of view.”
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George Eliot

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“If we are always arriving and departing,
it is also true that we are eternally anchored.
One’s destination is never a place
but rather a new way of looking at things.”
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Henry Miller
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Garden Gold

Fennel flowers allow for easy access to their nectar.

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The hotter it gets, the more gold in the garden glitters and shines.  As the mercury goes up, yellow and gold feel almost cooling.

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An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly feeds on Lantana ‘Chapel Hill Yellow,’ a fairly new perennial Lantana introduction. WBG

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I don’t understand the alchemy of that, but I do understand the clear attraction of gold for all of our nectar seeking pollinators.

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Gold flowers may just taste sweeter.  They certainly draw in the bees, wasps and butterflies who draw sustenance from their sugary depths.

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Lantana ‘Chapel Hill Gold’ is also a perennial in Zone 7. WBG

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All the while, these prolific flowers are also ripening seeds to delight goldfinches and other small birds who will feast on their ripe seeds well into the barren months of winter.

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Flocks of goldfinches took wing from the wildflowers where they were feeding, as I walked through the Williamburg Botanical Garden yesterday afternoon.

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Golden and yellow flowers often prove among the easiest for a gardener to grow.  Turn to dill, fennel and parsley for their distinctive round umbel inflorescence, all flat and easy to access;  Rudbeckias and Helianthus for their many petaled sunburst flowers.

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The first black eyed Susans, our native Rudbecki hirta, have begun to open in our garden.

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Coreopsis, Lantana, marigolds and Zinnias all bloom in shades of yellow, orange and gold.

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The season ends on a wild and native note as Solidagos burst into bloom in September and October, towering over the black eyed Susans in our garden like great feathery plumes of living gold.

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Solidago blooms alongside Rudbeckia in our garden, October 2017.

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If the entire garden were nothing but green and gold, animated with swallowtail butterflies and goldfinches, what a beautiful display we would still enjoy.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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“Any patch of sunlight in a wood

will show you something about the sun

which you could never get

from reading books on astronomy.

These pure and spontaneous pleasures

are ‘patches of Godlight’

in the woods of our experience.”


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C.S. Lewis

Experiments With Gravel Mulch

Yucca filamentosa ‘Colorguard’ has appeared from under our newly installed gravel mulch.

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Most of the mulches we use are organic and improve the soil as they decay.  Shredded bark or leaves, pine straw, straw, newsprint or brown paper all have their uses.

When we consider inorganic mulches, there are definite benefits along with some obvious deficits.  Inorganic mulch won’t improve soil texture or fertility.  But neither will it harbor fungal disease, come pre-contaminated with weed seeds, provide a nesting site for ants or decay in just a few months.

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New terraces are planted to help control erosion, and mulched with pea gravel (spring 2017).

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I was first drawn to pea gravel mulch as we began to try to control erosion and cultivate the steep slopes of our back garden.    But I was also digging some gravel into the back-fill and planting hole when we installed new shrubs and perennials, to try to thwart the voles who would otherwise devour their tasty root balls.  Finishing the job with a nice mulch of gravel felt appropriate as a further deterrent to rodents.

Pea gravel definitely helps both with erosion control and rodent control.  But it also ‘disappeared’ into the soil on rainy days, after a while, and got covered with leaf litter and other organic matter over time.  I find myself renewing the pea gravel in spots after a while.

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“Soil security”

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Gravel mulch serves to help conserve soil moisture, just like every other sort of mulch.  It shades the soil, shelters root systems, absorbs the shock of falling rain and holds soil in place.

Additionally, gravel reflects sunlight and heat back up into the plants above it, helping to dry the plants more quickly after a rain and thereby deter fungal disease.  Gravel mulch also provides a dry barrier between moist soil and dry plant, preventing crown rot.

Soil doesn’t splash up onto lower leaves and branches, and the gravel perhaps makes it a little harder for invertebrates to travel up and back between soil and delicious plant above.

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Gravel mulch is used most commonly in rock gardens, where many drought tolerant and alpine plants are featured.  Some plants wouldn’t live long with a moist organic mulch, but manage just fine with gravel mulch that protects their crown.  Gravel is coming into vogue again as a fashionable and useful mulch for perennial gardens, too.  I have been reading about perennial and succulent  gardens grown under several inches of pea gravel in various garden magazines.

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Even a thin gravel mulch has helped conserve moisture around these newly planted perennials.

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I also recently enjoyed listening to a presentation by Joseph Tychonievich at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden where he presented his new book, Rock Gardening:  Reimagining a Classic Style.  Joseph inspired me to move ahead with my vision to incorporate more areas of gravel mulch in our sunny perennial beds in the upper garden.

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I use fine gravel as a mulch in potted arrangements, too.

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This area is gently sloping, and erosion isn’t as much of a pressing concern as in the lower gardens.  The entire area was left under several inches of freshly ground hardwood mulch in 2013, as the arborists who cleaned up our fallen trees ground up leaves and branches and simply left it all in place.

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Fresh compost piled on top of existing mulch allows me to plant in this area in 2013, right after the trees came down, without digging into the clay. A light covering of wood chips from the forest floor mulches the planting .

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As that has decomposed, I’ve renewed the mulch with bagged hardwood and Cypress mulch from the local hardware store.  It smells pleasant, and Cypress helps to repel insects.  It has an ecological downside, though as mature trees are cut for mulch.

The soil in much of this area still consists of thick, hard clay, despite my best efforts to dig in compost and improve its texture.  There may be a few inches of good compost on top of the clay, but the clay still holds heavy rainfall and keeps parts of the garden far too wet, especially in winter.

I am beginning to understand that a gravel mulch will promote better growth and vigor in most of the plants we are trying to establish, particularly the Iris and Mediterranean herbs.

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Recently,  I decided to experiment with a much larger gravel mulch in one of the beds that needed some TLC.  I lost several perennials here over winter, and so had quite a bit of bare ground.

On our shopping trip, my partner noticed this beautiful blue green rock quarried somewhere in Virginia.  We decided on the spot to give it a try, and I am very pleased with the results thus far.  Not only is this gravel not going to shift around on a rainy day, but I don’t believe it will sink down into the soil anytime soon, either.

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This three year old Siberian Iris bloomed for the first time this spring, and I hope the new gravel mulch will help it grow more vigorously in future.

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Now, please keep in mind that gravel is the heaviest mulch you can choose, and moving it around and spreading it takes both strength and commitment.  If I had the luxury of ordering up a truckload of it and hiring a crew to spread it for me, that would be a lovely thing.  But I don’t.

Rather, I’m buying it a couple of bags at a time and spreading it by hand.  It is going to take most of the summer to mulch this whole area working with just a few square feet each week.  But I am already seeing the benefit this mulch brings to our plants.

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This is a single bag of gravel spread around our new Monarda.  It will take a few more bags to finish this area….

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I bought three plugs of Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’ about four years ago, as we were first planting this bed.  I wanted them to make a large focal point to anchor the area and planted them in a broad triangle.  Well, let’s just say that I expected them to grow much faster and they have largely gotten lost between larger and floppier perennials.  In fact, one of the three was struggling so much that I dug it up in late winter and planted it into a pot in full sun, hoping to give it a better chance to grow.

Never mind that I kept digging it up every month or so, checking to see if there was any visible growth, and replanting it again with the confirmation of a fresh root or tiny shoot.  That is a sad tale, and I ended up filling the pot with first one plant, and then another, simply to have something to look at besides the empty pot.  I ticked this off as a failed plant and moved on.

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Maybe if I put a fresh gravel mulch in this pot, the Yucca would finally grow?

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But not so fast!  Something of that Yucca was left alive in the original bed.  And finally, a month after I mulched over the area with the new Virginia gravel, look at what has emerged!  Plants really really want to live, and sometimes we just need to improve conditions for them and get out of the way to give them a chance!

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This newly planted Lavender was struggling with our weather extremes, but has improved under the gravel mulch this month.

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Our friends at our local garden center have a running joke that we always buy gravel or compost, if nothing else, and are their best customers for pea gravel. Gravel has made gardening in this difficult site possible.

If you happen to be in the neighborhood, and want to visit with me and bring a little gift, a fresh bag of gravel is always in style.   I’ll be so happy to see you, will show you around the garden and offer you a few divisions of something nice to take away with you.

And I might even let you help spread the gravel while we’re at it!

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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