Associations

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

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

Just as we  structure our lives by our associations with friends, family, and business colleagues; so plants also form useful relationships with other plants.

Azaleas prefer to grow under deciduous trees.

Azaleas prefer to grow under deciduous trees.

Our human associations are based on things we have in common with others.  We may form friendships based on shared interests, or spend time with members of our biological family.

We may enjoy the company of others in our profession, or with those who share our passion for music, for tennis, or for gardening.

Coleus, creeping Jenny, and sedum love the hot sun they enjoy in this pot near the house.

Coleus, Creeping Jenny, and Sedum love the hot sun they enjoy in this pot near the house.

When planning pots, beds, borders, and landscapes, we generally plan in terms of groups, or associations, of plants.

Something like Lego blocks, or notes in a chord; certain plants go well together.

Artemesia and Vinca can tolerate the drypoor soil and bright sunshine on this slopinge beside the house.

Artemesia and Vinca can tolerate the dry, poor soil and bright sunshine on this slope beside the house.

These associations must first take into account shared needs for a certain amount of light and  moisture.

It is wise to also consider what sort of soil is best for a grouping of plants, and what temperatures they need for best growth.

A newly enlarged bed featuring English shrub roses also hosts herbs, bulbs, annuals, and perennial geranium.

A newly enlarged bed featuring English shrub roses also hosts herbs, bulbs, annual Ageratum,  sage, Rudbeckia, and perennial Geranium.  All enjoy partial to full sun, enriched soil,  and can tolerate heat.

Beyond these basic considerations for what plants have in common, we look towards how their differences may compliment one another.

Vining plants, like Clematis, which will grow up a trellis, may share a pot with a bushy or trailing plant to shade their roots.

Clematis, "Belle of Woking" grows on a trellis suspended above a large pot.  Caladiums were just planted in the pot, along with fern, to shade the roots of the Clematis.

Clematis, “Belle of Woking” grows on a trellis suspended above a large pot. Caladiums were just planted in the pot, along with fern, to shade the roots of the Clematis.

An indeterminate tomato plant filling a tomato cage benefits from shorter basil and marigold plants at its base which shade the soil and repel certain insects and predators.

Just as a composer relies on certain chords and phrases to compose a melody, so a gardener benefits from a repertoire of plant associations to construct a garden.

German Iris grow with Lavender, a shrub rose, bulbs, and other perennials.

German Iris grow with Lavender, a shrub rose, bulbs, and other perennials.

And these associations are peculiar to the gardener and the environment of a particular garden.

The associations depend on which plants a gardener enjoys, the style and mood of the garden, and the growing conditions with which a gardener must work.

German Iris in a different bed with roses.

German Iris in a different bed with roses.

Most of us gardeners are drawn to particular plants.   I visited with a woman a few weeks ago who loves boxwood shrubs.  A fellow blogger has a garden full of day lilies, which he hybridizes.

Azaleas and Hostas in my parents' garden.  They enjoy both of these plants and plant them in abundance.

Azaleas and Hostas in my parents’ garden. They enjoy both of these plants and plant them in abundance.

Some gardeners go to great lengths to grow tomatoes or squash each year, and others want a shady garden full of Hostas and ferns.

Hosta, Lady Fern, and Mahonia shrubs in my parents' garden

Hosta, Lady Fern, and Mahonia shrubs in my parents’ garden.  A newly planted Begonia semperflorens completes the association.

Personally, I love every species and color of Iris.

Iris germanica "Rock Star" reblooms in late summer

Iris germanica “Rock Star” reblooms in late summer

And I collect English roses, and always want a summer garden full of delicious herbs. And I absolutely want something in bloom in the garden each and every day of the year.

Living in a forest, these obsessions are not always compatible with reality.

Re[blooming Iris cultivars "Rosalie Figge" and "immortality"

Re-blooming Iris cultivars “Rosalie Figge” and “Immortality”

As I plan what will grow in borders, beds, and pots throughout the gardening year, I have learned to rely on certain plants, and combinations of plants, which I know from experience will grow together successfully.

Relying on perennials as much as possible, and on plants I can keep through the winter; simplifies the process of moving from one season into the next.

Perennials, once established, gradually spread to fill a bed reliably year after year.

Perennials, once established, gradually spread to fill a bed reliably year after year.  Because their season of bloom is short lived, different plants lend interest at different points throughout the season.

But there is still shopping to be done in spring and fall.  Knowing which associations of plants one wishes to recreate each year helps organize the process.

For example, German re-blooming Iris, Iris germanica,  thrive in the sunny areas of this garden.  They are drought tolerant, don’t mind our Virginia summers, and are not bothered by deer.

Perennial Columbine, which also seeds itself, growing here with a newly planted Coleus.

Perennial Columbine, which also seeds itself, growing here with a newly planted Coleus.

They are absolutely lovely for the few weeks each year of bloom.  Whether in bloom or not, German Iris are always a presence in the garden since their signature sword like leaves persist through most of the year.

I like growing Iris near roses.  They have similiar needs for light and feeding, and they look good together.

Iris grow here with Dusty Miller, culinary Sage, Allyssum, and

Iris grow here with Dusty Miller, culinary Sage, Basil, Alyssum, and onions.  the red onions are an experiment in keeping deer away from annuals planted in the bed.

Wandering through a garden in Warm Springs, Virginia, I found  a brilliant combination of Iris,day lily, and daffodils planted together.

The growing day lily and Iris foliage hid the daffodil’s leaves when the flowers were finished.  Iris bloom soon after the daffodils, and then day lily carries the planting on into the heat of summer.

I now grow Iris and daffodils together in some sunny areas of the garden.  And I add Columbine  to the  mix, along with sun tolerant ferns.

Iris coming into bloom in a bed where daffodils have recently faded.  Columbine will bloom next.  Various ferns grow in the shadow of a Dogwood tree behind the iris.

Iris “Stairway to Heaven”  coming into bloom in a bed where daffodils have recently faded. Columbine will bloom next. Various ferns grow in the shadow of a Dogwood tree behind the iris.

By early summer, the canopy of shrubs and trees has grown in enough to shade the ferns, and the daffodils and Iris have already enjoyed many weeks of strong sun when they most needed it.

Many country gardeners, especially in the Piedmont of Virginia, grow perennial low growing Phlox around their Iris bed.

In springtime, you’ll see wide expanses of pink, white, and lavender Phlox blooming around island beds of Iris.  These plants thrive in full sun, and take very little care.

Iris with Lavender "Otto Quast"

Iris with Lavender “Otto Quast”

I also plant Lavandula stoechas “Otto Quast”  at the base of both roses and Iris.  This Spanish Lavender, with finely cut foliage, sports abundant large blooms at the same time the Iris bloom in late April to early May.  L. “Otto Quast” has a long season of bloom, over many weeks in late spring and early summer.

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It isn’t destroyed by rain and humidity as some other Lavenders are in our Virginia summers.  The brilliant purple blooms work well with the colors of the Iris blossoms and English roses.  This evergreen Lavender looks good at the front of a bed whether in bloom or not.

Another hardy association is Lamb’s Ears, Stachys byzantina, with roses, Dianthus, and Echinacea.  A drought tolerant full sun perennial, Lamb’s Ears are disliked by deer.

Lamb's Ears

Lamb’s Ears with Dianthus, Dusty Miller, and Violas under shrub roses.

They divide easily in spring and display stunning silvery foliage through most of the year.  Their purple blooms in early summer are quite beautiful and attract many nectar loving insects.  I’ve spread these throughout sunny areas of the garden.

One way to bring unity to a garden is to repeat plants and associations of plants from one area to the next.

Even with a tremendous variety of genus, species, and cultivars of plants throughout the garden, narrowing the selections to repeat colors and forms again and again weaves the many individuals into a patterned tapestry which feels harmonious.

Autumn Fern cover this hillside along with other ferns, Creeping Genny, Ivy and Hellebores.

Autumn Fern cover this hillside along with other ferns, Creeping Genny, Ivy and Hellebores.  Daffodil foliage is left behind from the recently faded flowers.

I have incorporated Iris into at least six different planting areas.  In all of those areas, they are paired with a silver foliage plant such as Lamb’s Ears, Lavender, Dusty Miller, or Artemesia.

In most of those areas, they are growing near an English rose shrub.   Silver foliage, with white or purple blooms nearby, also weave throughout the summer beds.

White Dianthus often grows with Dusty Miller, purple or tricolor sage,  and grey Winter Thyme.  These reliable plants look beautiful together, and help extend the season over many months.

Newly planted white Dianthus and Winter Thyme will grow into a silvery border for this bed, edged in slate.

Newly planted white Dianthus and Winter Thyme will grow into a silvery border for this bed, edged in slate.

Shade associations are built around various species of ferns, Hellebores, Heuchera, Begonias, Coleus, Caladiums, and Fuchsias.

The Fuchsias and Begonias must be grown in pots out of reach of the deer, or in hanging baskets.

Fuschia with Impatiens in a basket

Fuschia with Impatiens in a basket

After discovering that Impatiens, which I’ve always grown in abundance in shady areas, are simply deer candy; they are reserved for hanging baskets well away from where deer can reach.

June 21 Lanai 008

They always complement ferns, and grow well at the base of cane Begonias.

I also like to plant cane Begonias with Caladiums to hide their leggy stalks.

July 28 2013 third try caterpillars 008

This season I’ve added garlic cloves, chives,  and onion starts to many associations in the garden because their aroma repels deer.  There are green garlic plants growing out of potted arrangements on the front patio.

There are also a large number of scented geraniums in flowerbeds and pots for the same reason.

Scented geranium, culinary Sage, garlic

Scented Geranium, culinary Sage, garlic, Viola, and Coleus grow with the Brugmansia start. 

I’m experimenting with a mixture of scented geraniums, zonal geraniums, and ivy geraniums.  The scented geranium will the the fragrant “thriller” in the pot, growing the largest with striking foliage.

The zonal geraniums will give a punch of color as they fill out the middle of the pot.  The ivy geranium will spill down over the edges of the pot as the “spiller.”

When shopping for plants this spring, try to think about buying “associations” of plants rather than just choosing individuals for some quality which strikes you.

Coleus with Sedum

Coleus with Sedum and bulb foliage.

Remember to analyze a plant in terms of what it needs to perform well, what it will give you or do for you,  and how it will blend into the garden as a whole.

Remember to buy in multiples.  In most cases, it is better to buy several of the same plant, and then use the plant again and again to weave a sense of unity through a given space.

This past week I planted 16 Nicotania plants, in three colors, throughout three nearby beds beside the butterfly garden.

Newly planted annuals

Newly planted annuals:  Cayenne pepper, Marigold, Nicotania and Bronze Fennel grow against a back drop of Iris foliage.

A dozen Cayenne pepper plants went into the same beds, along with 16 white marigolds, a dozen cherry Zinnias, four Bronze Fennel, and three Dill plants.

This area is already planted with perennial Echinacea, Monarda, Salvias, Lavenders,  culinary Sage, Rosemary, and lots of Iris.

Geraniums

Three different types of Geraniums with Coleus, Garlic and Sedum.  Seeds for annual vines are planted at the back of the pot.

More Zinnias are sprouting and will be planted within the next few weeks, when I add multiple varieties of Basil.

These plants have similiar needs for full sun, drainage, and nutrients.  Most are distasteful to the deer, and so offer some protection to the shrub roses planted among them.

The variety works because the same plants are repeated again and again in associations throughout the space.

May 3 2014 afternoon garden 071

The last consideration when planning associations of plants is color.  Within a particular genus, and even species, there is frequently a choice of color in both flowers and foliage from which to select.

Although flower color is important, I am far more interested in the form and color of foliage when choosing plants.

Foliage is far more of a presence in the garden than flowers both for its relative mass, and for its longevity throughout the season.

Newly planted Canna "Australis" with burgundy foliage will grow behind Colocasia "China Pink" with bright red stems and light green foliage.

Newly planted Canna “Australis” with burgundy foliage will grow behind Colocasia “Pink China” with bright red stems and light green foliage.

Some plants, like Coleus, Heuchera, and Hosta are grown primarily for their foliage.  The flowers are incidental for most of the season, and may even be systematically removed .

These bright plants always draw attention to themselves and set the mood of an area in the  garden.

Perennial Ajuga serves as a ground cover around Iris, Heuchera, and at the base of a tea rose.

Perennial Ajuga serves as a ground cover around Iris and other perennials.

Whether you prefer peaceful, monochromatic gardens or bold dramatic ones, the size, form, and color of foliage sets the tone.

May 3 2014 afternoon garden 073

It is generally easy to select for color of both flowers and foliage within any given genus or species of plant.  Culinary sage alone may be had in golden, tricolor, purple, silver, or  green.

Popular flowering annuals like Petunias and Calabrachoas  come in an overwhelming number of stunning shades and patterns.  New hybrids of patterned leaf Heucheras and Coleus are introduced each season.

May 3 2014 afternoon garden 050

All of the many choices of plants for a temperate garden, such as we have in much of the United States, makes it both endlessly interesting and almost overwhelming to select and arrange plants for each season.

Planning for repeating associations of plants, and selecting plants based on specific criteria, helps bring structure and cohesion to the planning process.

May 3 2014 afternoon garden 055

I always approach the garden in the spirit of experimentation.  I want to know what works well,and what doesn’t.

Repeating associations which work well, season after season, still allows for changing things up with different cultivars of old favorites.

The more plants you come to know personally, through growing them, the more interesting and effective these associations of plants become.

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

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Winter Pruning

december 15 2013 Santas 008

When winter days turn warmish and dry in the afternoon, many of us like to get outside and do some small thing in the garden.

This is the perfect time to begin pruning hardwood trees and shrubs to shape them up for the coming season.  Why prune at all?

Pruned shrubs have put on new growth and buds by mid-May.

Pruned shrubs have put on new growth and buds by mid-May.

– Improve the plant’s shape and general appearance

-Control the plant’s size

-Improve the plant’s health

-Increase the plant’s vigor and bloom in the coming season

This little Crepe Myrtle put on a lot of growth after its June damage in a storm.  Now is the time to prune and shape the new growth.

This little Crepe Myrtle put on a lot of growth after its June damage in a storm. Now is the time to prune and shape the new growth.  Much of the new, twiggy growth needs to go so energy is channeled into growing a new structure for this tree.

Many small trees, like Crepe Myrtle and Rose of Sharon, produce lots of chaotic, twiggy growth during the summer season.  With the leaves gone, we can take a moment to examine each one and determine what to leave and what to prune.

Before pruning any flowering shrub, please make sure you know whether it blooms on old wood left from the previous season, or on new wood.  Shrubs like Forsythia, Azalea, Hydrangea, and Lilacs set buds for the coming spring blooms during the previous autumn.  Any late winter pruning removes the branches set to bloom in the coming spring.  A hard pruning will sacrifice that season’s bloom.

The same Crepe Myrtle, after pruning.

The same Crepe Myrtle, after pruning.

An unpruned shrub is a confusing mass of little twigs and larger branches.  Before making the first cut, take a few moments to study the plant.  Look for its structure; the  main skeleton which gives it shape and form.  If you are new to pruning, take photos of the plant and spend some time studying them on your computer before making any pruning cuts.  As you examine the plant you’ll begin to see what should be left behind to support the new season’s growth.

Here are the general things to consider before beginning to prune any woody plant:

Size:  Is this plant at its mature size?  If a plant is still growing into itself, you want to help it develop a strong structural skeleton of branches.  Consider whether you want one main trunk with side  branches, a main trunk which forks and bushes out into several main branches as it gets taller, or whether you want a clump of main stems which branch out into a large canopy of branches.

Roses respond to pruning with abundant bloom on new wood.  These English shrub roses don't require the same hard pruning a tea rose requires.

Roses respond to pruning with abundant bloom on new wood. These English shrub roses don’t require the same hard pruning a tea rose requires.

Any time you cut the tip off of a branch, you will activate the buds lower on the branch so they grow into new lateral branches.  If you cut the tip off of a main vertical stem, two, three, or more new man stems will grow from the buds below that cut in the coming year.  A “fork” will develop, multiplying your one main stem into several.  The canopy will grow broader.

Crepe Myrtle will "sucker" with new vertical growth around the main stem.  Remove this new growth to grow a single trunk.  Leave only a few strong stems to grow as a clump.

Crepe Myrtle will “sucker” with new vertical growth around the main stem. Remove this new growth to grow a single trunk. Leave only a few strong stems to grow as a clump.

If you want to keep a clumping shrub, like Crepe Myrtle, to a single trunk; remove the new smaller vertical growth coming from the base.  If you want a ‘ clump”, remove all but the strongest few vertical stems.

If grazing deer attack your garden, as they do mine, remember to “limb up” trees as they grow so the lowest limbs are too high for the deer to reach.
This is especially important if you have any fruit trees, so tasty leaves and fruits are out of reach.  If you don’t do it, deer are attracted to graze in your garden and will do the pruning for you…

Thin Rose of Sharon, and remove seed heads at the ends of branches any time now through early March.  These shrubs bloom on new wood, so light pruning increases the number of blooms.

Thin Rose of Sharon, and remove seed heads at the ends of branches any time now through early March. These shrubs bloom on new wood, so light pruning increases the number of blooms.

Density:  Most shrubs and small trees need light to penetrate through the canopy to the interior of the shrub.  Keeping the branch structure somewhat open will increase flowering and improve the plant’s health.  Air circulation allows the plant to dry faster after a rain, reducing fungal disease.  An open structure allows strong winds to pass right through, limiting damage in storms.

Remove branches growing towards the plant’s interior.  Keep all lateral branches growing outward towards the periphery.

Where branches cross, select one to keep and one to remove.  Don’t leave branches touching one another, or crossing in the interior of the shrub.

January 1 2014 Parkway 005

Very old, and damaged trees and shrubs might need heavy pruning. All damage and dead wood should be removed, then the remaining branches thinned. In extreme cases rejuvenate by cutting the tree down to a stump. New growth will come from the stump in most cases.

Where many tiny twiggy branches have grown, especially on a vertical stem, remove all but a few strong ones placed where you want new branches.  If the shrub is small, and these twiggy branches are close to the ground, you can safely remove them all.  Remove up to a third of the wood on most small trees and shrubs.

If a shrub must be pruned to keep it smaller than its natural size to fit its spot in the garden, keep in mind that every cut stimulates new growth.   Cut the main vertical stems shorter than you want the plant to be by mid-summer, since the pruning cut will stimulate new vertical growth.

This Josee Lilac is still young and requires little or no pruning.  Its buds are set in autumn and should be pruned in early summer after its first bloom.  Removing spent blossoms will cause it to rebloom several times during the summer.

This Josee Lilac is still young and requires little or no pruning. Its buds are set in autumn and so it should be pruned in early summer after its first bloom. Removing spent blossoms will cause it to rebloom several times during the summer.

It is better to remove a branch all the way back to a main stem than it is to “head it back” part way, unless you intend to stimulate new lateral branches.  If you prune off the tip, all of the buds below the tip are activated to give new branches.

Appearance:  Remove any branch or stem which is obviously dead.  Cut back any broken or damaged branches to an inch or so below the damage.  Remove or head back any branch which ruins the silhouette of the plant, or conflicts with the general lines and shape you have established.

“Dead head” seed heads left from last year’s flowers.  Remember that when you cut back a branch, you stimulate growth of new wood, and therefore new spots where flowers will emerge.

Butterfly bush, Buddhleia, blooms on new wood.  Cut the plants hard, within a foot or two of the ground, to control the shrub's size and get abundant bloom.  This shrub will continue to bloom until frost if you cut the dead flowers away throughout the summer.

Butterfly bush, Buddleia, blooms on new wood.  Cut the plants hard, within a foot or two of the ground, to control the shrub’s size and get abundant bloom. This shrub will continue to bloom until frost if you cut the dead flowers away throughout the summer.

A fine point:  Examine a branch before making the pruning cut.  Notice the tiny buds along the branch.  Choose the bud you want to stimulate to grow and make the pruning cut just above it.

January 9 pruning 007

Notice three new stems are left in addition to the original trunk of this Crepe Myrtle tree, cut off when the tree was crushed in June. I could remove all of these, but left them to form a clump to eventually hide the damage. Notice how little wood is left after pruning. All of the plant’s energy will pour into these branches in spring, and the tree will grow by several feet in the coming season.

Notice the buds are positioned all around the circumference of the branch.  Some point inwards, others outwards.  Choose a bud growing in the direction you wish the dominant new branch to grow, and cut just above this bud.  Make a diagonal, angled cut just a millimeter or so above the chosen bud.

Your newly pruned plant will look very clean and open when you are finished.  Remember this is just the plant’s skeleton.  Spring will clothe these branches not only in leaves, but also in new wood.  The shrub will fill out very quickly through spring and early summer.  Vigorous new growth is a hormonal response to pruning.  A pruned plant will actually grow larger and more vigorous in the following season.

Exceptions to the rules:

Some shrubs, such as Butterfly Bush, want to be cut back nearly to the ground.  Use heavy pruners or a small saw to cut the entire plant back to only a foot or two tall.  This is called “coppicing,” and this form of pruning is used to rejuvenate many species of shrub and tree.  New growth from the remaining trunk will be fresh and vigorous.  Butterfly Bush often grows too large for its space, and flower production declines when it is left unpruned or is pruned too lightly.  Do this in late winter, but after the worst of the freezing weather is over.

Forsythia buds were set by late autumn.  Winter pruning removes the spring flowers.  If you must trim a Forsythia back in winter, save the branches to force blooms inside in a vase of water.

Forsythia buds were set by late autumn. Winter pruning removes the spring flowers. If you must trim a Forsythia back in winter, save the branches to force blooms inside in a vase of water.

Roses are often coppiced.  Tea roses respond well to hard winter pruning, giving more blossoms on the newly grown wood.  Climbing roses and
English shrub roses shouldn’t be pruned so hard.  Shaping, removing dead or damaged wood and crossed branches are all that is required.  An old, thick rose may be rejuvenated by pruning up to a third of the older stems back to just above the bud union.  Younger plants don’t require such drastic treatment.

Spring blooming shrubs, like Forsythia, should be pruned in late spring, after they bloom.  If you do tidy up a Forsythia with light pruning in late winter, bring the pruned branches inside in a vase of water and enjoy them indoors as cut flowers.  I’ve had these forced branches eventually form roots, and have planted them outside where they grew into new shrubs.  All woody spring blooming shrubs can be forced to bloom early indoors in this way.  If you have fruit trees to prune, you might want to bring some of the branches indoors, in a vase of water, to enjoy their early blossoms.

Beauty Berry responds well when it is pruned hard in winter with abundant summer growth and flowers, followed by autumn berries.

Beauty Berry responds well when it is pruned hard in winter with abundant summer growth and flowers, followed by autumn berries.

Tools:  There are many brands and styles of hand pruners on the market.  Choose pruners which feel comfortable in your hand, have a sharp blade, and are sturdy enough to trim the shrubs you need to prune.

Keep the pruners cleaned by disinfecting the blade from time to time, and keep them sharp.  Ragged or torn cuts allow disease to enter a stem.  Make sure your pruners make clean, sharp cuts.  Use loppers or a pruning saw for larger branches.

Gather your cut branches on a tarp on in a large bag and remove them from the garden.  There are many traditional uses for larger branches.  Some may be used to build trellises, small fences, stakes, or may be used in building a raised bed.

Grape Mahonia shrubs need no pruning at all.  Their winter flowers will open sometime in the next month.  These shrubs remain compact and neat.

Grape Mahonia shrubs need no pruning at all. Their winter flowers will open sometime in the next month. These shrubs remain compact and neat.

Use or dispose of all your trimmings.  Just leaving them lying about on the ground encourages disease and insects.

Pruning can be done a little at a time over the next two months in Zone 7b.  Further north, it pays to wait until February or March so plants aren’t stimulated to grow too soon.  Further south, pruning is an ongoing task in the garden.  Winter allows us to see the bones of our gardens, and the structure of our plants.  It is a good time to shape, refine, and lay the ground work for the garden we will enjoy this coming spring.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

Sumac berries are still an important food source for wildlife.  However, cut away the old to make way for new growth by early spring.

Sumac berries are still an important food source for wildlife. However, cut away the old to make way for new growth by early spring.

Preparing For the Cold

January 4 ice 079We are experiencing unusually cold weather here in the United States.  Although much of the country prepares for temperatures at or below zero each year, many of us living near the coasts rarely see temperatures fall into the teens, let alone anything colder than that.

And when it does get cold here, it normally comes in short bursts.  After a day or so, we have sunshine and a thaw.  We began our day this morning with a gentle rain, overcast skies, and a high around 60 F.  January 4 ice 045

We don’t know exactly how cold it will be here by morning, but our schools have already cancelled classes out of concern for the children traveling in the expected unusually cold weather.

Many families living in coastal Virginia don’t have wardrobe for the cold, and don’t want to bundle up!  I vividly remember snowy winter days when I had 12 year olds show up for school wearing shorts and T shirts; without coats, hats, or even a hoodie to protect them as they changed classes from one portable classroom to the next.

Here you see our beautiful Ginger Lilies, reduced to mulch by winter freezes.  They are protecting both their own rhizomes, and the roots of roses and other perennials.

Here you see our beautiful Ginger Lilies, reduced to mulch by winter freezes. They are protecting both their own rhizomes, and the roots of roses and other perennials.

Now some of us have the same casual attitude towards winterizing our gardens.  So often our winters are mild here.   Although the USDA indicates that it can get down to 5 F in Zone 7b, we rarely experience that degree of cold.    We don’t routinely bundle up our tender plants in wire cages stuffed full of straw or leaves.  We don’t spread heavy mulches over perennial beds after a hard freeze because we know that encourages the mice and voles to nest among the perennial roots.

Our forecasters indicate we may set a record tomorrow for the lowest high temperature ever recorded for January 7.  Our previous record was 28 F, but we may not get that warm here tomorrow.  There isn’t a lot of agreement on what our low will be, but guestimates weigh in around 12F by early morning.

So what can we do to help our plants through a frigid spot like this?

If we have leaves or straw, we can still spread those over tender perennial and shrub roots.  Our tomato cages can come out of storage and shelter small shrubs, like hydrangeas, which might not be able to take the icy winds.  Drape the cages with heavy plastic, a tarp, or even shade cloth to break the wind and provide some insulation.  Just as we add layers when it is cold, we can do what we can to add layers of protection for our garden.

We will leave all Christmas lights burning until the temperatures warm above freezing again.  They small heat they generate will help the plants survive the cold.

We will leave all Christmas lights burning until the temperatures warm above freezing again. The small heat they generate will help the plants survive the cold.

All pots with marginal plants, like the olive and pomegranate trees, have come indoors.  I’ve moved the remaining  pots up against the walls of the house and out of the wind.  The house provides tremendous shelter.  I’ve lowered my remaining hanging baskets to a protected spot between the pots, and emptied all containers with standing water from the morning’s rain. Since water expands when it freezes, any standing water can damage pots, saucers, and masonry as it freezes.

We’ve covered our outdoor spigots with Styrofoam  spigot covers from the hardware store, and made sure all of the foundation vents are covered.  Finally, my partner has gone over everything outside numerous times, and has left lights burning in all of the areas around water pipes, and for the plants spending the winter  in the garage.   We are also leaving all of our outdoor Christmas lights on until the air warms back up in a few days.  The little bit of heat they give might make the difference for the plants near them.

I've brought this, and other pots of Violas up close to the house, out of the wind, to survive the extremely cold weather blowing in tonight.

I’ve brought this, and other pots of Violas up close to the house, out of the wind, to survive the extremely cold weather blowing in tonight.

The only thing left to do is move a few Begonias away from windows and out of the drafts they cause when it is very cold out.

And, most of all, for those of you fortunate enough to have larger acreage, don’t forget all of your equipment, such as lawn mowers, tillers, tractors, etc.  that you think will be fine; because they are made for “outdoor use.”

Just like cars and trucks, they need to be winterized and protected.  Check oil and coolant levels, provide what shelter from the wind you can, and start them to let them run before the temperatures drop below freezing.  Otherwise, as soon as it reaches the 20s again, start them and let them run for a few minutes.  It may seem like a lot of work, but it beats having to replace machinery when the block freezes or the battery cracks from the cold.

Pots sited against a wall enjoy heat stored up during the day and radiated at night.  They also have shelter from frigid winds.

Pots sited against a wall enjoy heat stored up during the day and radiated at night. They also have shelter from frigid winds.

Likewise, if we can protect a plant with a bit of shelter or insulation, it will save replacing it, or waiting for it to grow back from the roots.  Here in Zone 7b, we don’t have our routines established for dealing with extreme weather.  We just have to think through what we need to save and protect, and them improvise with the materials we have at hand.

Please stay warm, bundle up yourself and your loved ones, and stay healthy  this winter.   Protect the pipes and keep a fire in the hearth if you can.   Like every other challenge, we can manage a spot of cold when we think it through.

This, too, shall pass; and spring will return in a few short weeks.

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

January 4 ice 021

At low tide, the ice is left as a blanket across the now lower Creek.

Plants Through the Post (Forest Garden)

Wild Ice (Forest Garden)

Winter Pruning (Forest Garden)

Planning That Happy New (Gardening) Year

December 28, 2013 garden 032

Spring gardening catalogs started showing up in my mailbox this week.  In fact, I believe the first arrived on Christmas Eve.  The new Burpee catalog features a huge; I mean pumpkin sized, beefsteak tomato lovingly cradled in the gardener’s hands.

Our Lantana bed remains full of hungry birds much of the day.

Our Lantana bed remains full of hungry birds much of the day.

It is Saturday, and I’m itching to work on my garden, even if the temperature is still hovering in the low 40s out there.  Actually, my partner just changed to mucking shoes and headed out the door.

Here we sit firmly between Christmas and the New Year.  The tree is still up, but I’m definitely feeling the fresh breeze of welcoming in a new year, and a new gardening season.

The cane Begonias, and even some Caladiums, are quite happy with their spot inside.

The cane Begonias, and even some Caladiums, are quite happy with their spot inside.

Even as I gather the last of the wrappings and packaging for the recycling bin my eye is on that little stack of catalogs.  My mind is turning to what will soon fill the pots emptied by our frosts and freezes.

This morning we took time to water all of the plants living inside and gather up the fallen leaves.  We’re happy to see the Bouganvillea, which first dropped its rose pink flowers, and then dropped most of its leaves on the living room floor, breaking out with a new crop of leaves to carry it into the spring.  As they grow out its sharp spines look extra dangerous, and it commands tremendous respect.

Jewel orchid ready to burst into bloom

Jewel orchid ready to burst into bloom

There are at least three orchids throwing out flower buds.  The Jewel Orchid, with its burgundy, silver, and striped leaves will soon cover itself in long spikes covered in creamy white flowers.

Several of moth orchids have buds swelling and will give us many weeks of their delicate lavender and pink flowers in late winter.

Moth orchid

Moth orchid

Many of our cane Begonias are in full bloom.  We are fortunate to get light from many directions, and so keep the plants happy most of the time.  Caladiums are in leaf, ferns throwing out new fronds, and the Philodendrons all have new leaves emerging.  So far so good on keeping everyone alive through the winter!

But, winter it is.  And will be, here, for many weeks to come.  Our local garden centers are enjoying a long break now, and have only the barest bit of leftover stock.  We can look forward to freezing nights for at least another 15 weeks.

Our very happy Christmas cactus, and an olive tree surviving its first winter.

Our very happy Christmas cactus, and an olive tree surviving its first winter.

So, what is a gardener to do while waiting for spring?

Here is a bit of a beginning of a list.  It isn’t all inclusive.  My mind is still in recovery from the holidays.  But here are a few reminders to carry us through January, at the least.

1.  Keep the houseplants groomed and watered.  Wipe off leaves when they get dusty and remove those old ragged looking leaves.  New ones will soon follow to replace them. Deadhead faithfully after flowering to encourage new blooms.  Give those which will bloom all winter a drink of dilute fertilizer every other week, and turn the pots from time to time to encourage even growth.

This poor geranium won't come back after our hard freezes.  It is time to cut it back, along with all other frost damaged foliage.

This poor geranium won’t come back after our hard freezes. It is time to cut it back, along with all other frost damaged foliage.

2.  Cut back and remove the remains of any frozen herbs and annuals.  It’s time now to tidy up.  Perennials destroyed by frost can be left a few more weeks to give food and shelter to the garden birds and to protect the plants’ roots.

3.  Take a good look around and plan changes to the garden.  Now that you can really see the bones, plan any new spring projects.  Will there be new raised beds?  Any changes in the lines of existing beds?  Will there be new pathways, arbors, walls, ponds, or patios to build?  January is a good time to take photos, make sketches, read gardening books, read articles online, and plan out purchases for the necessary materials.

This cane Begonia lives happily inside, just a few feet from where it summered on the deck.

This cane Begonia lives happily inside, just a few feet from where it summered on the deck.

4.  At the same time, plan what you want to grow in the year ahead.  Will you focus on vegetables, fruit, flowers, herbs, or shrubs?  Do you want to add any trees to the garden?  Will you repeat your 2013 garden, or try some new crops?  Are you growing enough of your own food?  Do you want to attract more wild life?  Do you need more areas of shrubs and perennials which look after themselves?

Now  we get to enjoy the catalogs.  There is a lot to learn about new introductions, cultivars of old favorites, and cultural requirements of unusual plants in the nursery catalogs.  I always learn useful things by reading them carefully.  I’m also inspired to try new combinations of plants, and perhaps shift to new colors in the new season.

5.  Develop shopping lists for new purchases.  This is where self-discipline is required.  I have spent dozens of winters reading gardening catalogs, making lists of what I want to grow.  This can be a very expensive hobby, and I’ve learned to let those lists sit for days, if not weeks, before ever making an order.

I waited months between wanting an Edgeworthia and finally planting this one.  After several trees fell in summer storms, I had the right spot to plant it.

I waited months between wanting an Edgeworthia and finally planting this one. After several trees fell in summer storms, we  finally had the right spot to plant it.

Truth is, there just isn’t the right spot for a lot of the plants on my “want” list.  Especially after working with a garden for a few years, there isn’t room for many new plants.  One also learns what not to plant in a particular garden because the conditions aren’t suitable.

So the wish list made in January needs serious editing before purchases are made closer to spring.  Another reason to love January, when everything seems possible.

6.  Build and improve the soil.

Although Camellias grow well in our garden, it is a constant struggle to protect new plantings from the deer.  Daffodils have begun to peak out of the soil at the base of this little shrub, and it is ready for a topdressing of fresh compost..

Although Camellias grow well in our garden, it is a constant struggle to protect new plantings from the deer. Daffodils have begun to peak out of the soil at the base of this little shrub, and it is ready for a topdressing of fresh compost.

If you’ve been gardening more than a season you know good soil makes the difference in the vitality of your plants.  Plant in poor or compacted soil and your plant will struggle and eventually die.  Plant in a well prepared bed, and the same plant will grow huge and productive.

Good gardeners feed their soil.  Spread all of those coffee grounds and tea leaves on your garden beds.  Dilute left over brewed coffee or tea and use it to water, or pour over frozen beds.  Rinse and crush egg shells to use as mulch where slugs are a problem, or where more calcium is needed.  Continue to chop up fallen leaves and spread them under shrubs or on perennial beds.  Save cardboard and newspaper to spread on the ground where you plan to create new beds this spring.  Not only will they kill the grass underneath, but they will attract earthworms, and enrich the soil as they decompose.

This crepe myrtle, which sent out lots of new growth after getting flattened by our fallen oaks, needs pruning now.  We will remove most of these new branches, sending the plant's energy into a few strong leaders which will form the new structure of the tree.

This crepe myrtle, which sent out lots of new growth after getting flattened by our fallen oaks, needs pruning now. We will remove most of these new branches, sending the plant’s energy into a few strong leaders which will form the new structure of the tree.

7.  Prune hardwood shrubs and trees.  Now that you can see the plant’s structure, remove extra branches.  Limb the plant up to reveal its trunk.  Head back laterals to encourage branching, especially on fruit bearing trees.  Remove any crossed limbs, and prune deciduous shrubs to control their size.  I’ll be working on my Rose of Sharon and Crepe Myrtle shrubs soon.  It is still a little early to work the roses, as they will try to send out new growth during warm spells; but I’ll tackle them by early February.

A final word of caution: If you are a gardening addict, as am I; the growing pile of glossy garden catalogs is heady temptation.  The photos are just exquisite, the plants so healthy and alluring.  I want to grow them all.

A favorite Begonia, which bloomed all summer, continues on into the winter indoors.  Fertilize to keep winter blooms coming.

A favorite Begonia, which bloomed all summer, continues on into the winter indoors. Fertilize to keep winter blooms coming.

But, I’ve learned, that what comes in the mail once you’ve ordered bears little resemblance to the photo.   Although some companies now send living starts, plugs as they’re called, many others still send “bare root” plants, bulbs, seeds, or tubers.

If you are patient, and skilled, you can eventually grow this pitiful beginning into a lovely plant.

Ajuga, commonly offered in winter plant catalogs, is always sold at garden centers in spring.  By waiting, you'll get a healthy clump of living plants ready to grow and bloom, at a similiar, or lower, price.

Ajuga, commonly offered in winter plant catalogs, is always sold at garden centers in spring. By waiting, you’ll get a healthy clump of living plants ready to grow and bloom, at a similiar, or lower, price.

Please notice the “if.”  I’ve done it, you may have done it.  But why go through the effort if you can buy a healthy, similarly priced plant at your local garden center later into the spring?

In fact, I’ve found better, bigger plants of the same variety, at a lower price, at the correct time for planting; by waiting to shop my garden center.

Which brings us to my last suggestion for winter gardening:

Violas are a specialty of the Homestead Garden Center here in Williamsburg.  They grow thousands of plants each autumn.

Violas are a specialty of the Homestead Garden Center here in Williamsburg. They grow thousands of plants each autumn.

8.  Shop your local garden center.  I’m not talking “big box store” here.  The locally owned, family run garden centers aren’t getting much business between Christmas and Easter.  It is a slim time for them, and your business means a lot.  Even if you just stock up on some fertilizer, a few new tools, maybe some fresh pots or baskets; buy something.

It is also a great time to shop for deals and establish a relationship.  If you take the time to chat with the folks who run your local garden center you will learn a great deal.  They are experts at gardening in your area.  Then, later, when you want to ask whether or not they will carry that particular variety you’re shopping for, you will know who to ask.  And chances are good that they know you, and will do their best to order it.

Ivy shines on winter days.  Remember to walk around and enjoy the winter garden.

Ivy shines on winter days. Remember to walk around and enjoy the winter garden.

So please pour another glass of Eggnog, if you enjoy it; or a more inspiring beverage if you don’t.  Settle into that warm and cozy chair with a stack of gardening books and catalogs as the sun sets in late afternoon for a few more frozen weeks.

It’s time to dream that New Year’s garden into reality.

December 28, 2013 garden 029My green thumb came only as a result of the mistakes I made while learning to see things from the plant’s point of view.  H. Fred Dale

In every gardener there is a child who believes in The Seed Fairy.  Robert Brault

Gardens are a form of autobiography.  Sydney Eddison, Horticulture magazine, August/September 1993

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

December 28, 2013 garden 021

August 1

August first, and the dogwood trees are full of berries, their leaves showing the first hint of autumn color.

August first, and the dogwood trees are full of berries, their leaves showing the first hint of autumn color.

The first day of August is one of the important turning points of the year.  Traditionally known as the day of First Harvest, Lammas, or Lughnasa or Lughnasadh; August 1 is a day for celebrating the first fruits of the harvest

In medieval Europe, peasants were expected to present the first wheat harvest to their lords on this day.  In Ireland, and other Celtic nations, bread was baked from newly harvested wheat and either presented at church; blessed, broken, and placed around the barn to protect the harvest; or carried up a mountain or hill and offered to the traditional gods and goddesses who cared for these lands before the Christians came, then buried in the Earth as a sacrifice.

Squash vine blooming on the first rainy morning of August.

Squash vine blooming on the first rainy morning of August.

Today is a day for celebrating the harvest of summer and preparing for the shorter, cooler days of autumn which are just ahead.  Lammas is the first of the three traditional harvest festivals in traditional Celtic communities.  Autumn Equinox falls near the end of September, and then Samhain on October 31.  Just as Thanksgiving Day celebrates the ending of the harvest in the United States, so Lammas, August 1, celebrates the beginning of the harvest throughout much of the northern Hemisphere.

Leaves are already turning red on this seedling oak tree.

Leaves are already turning red on this seedling oak tree.

 

This is a good time to gather for family reunions, to throw a party for close friends, to bake bread, gather the last of the berries, and observe the turning of the season.  Days are noticeably shorter now.  The dogwood leaves are beginning to show tinges of red here in Williamsburg, Va.  We’ve had our first cool nights in a good long time, and cool damp mornings with a fresh breeze from the northeast for a change.

In August our thoughts turn to preparations for the school year ahead in many families.  It is time to begin gathering school supplies, taking off for those last family excursions, and buying new shoes and school clothes.  Teachers are plotting the year ahead, revising lesson plans, and savoring the last few days of summer break.  College freshmen will leave home in the next few weeks to begin life on their own in their first dorm room.  It is a time of nervousness and excitement as room mates make plans and parents prepare to see their children move on.

Yes, August is for savoring.  As we feel the long hot days slipping away, we appreciate each summer day a little more.  We hang on to the goodness and pleasures of the season.July 31 2013 002

I’ve been watching hummingbirds in the garden the last few days, and the ever increasing crowd of butterflies feasting on everything with flowers.  Their enthusiasm is contagious.  It is no wonder that so many traditional religious faiths imagine “heaven” to be in a garden. 

Berries have formed now on the Bay Myrtle shrubs.  Over the next few weeks they'll turn dusty blue before the song birds devour them.

For those of us who are the gardeners, August is an important month of transition, and there are some key tasks wanting our attention:

My garden has another three to four months of life in it before I will even think of frost.  With such a long growing season, there are definite transitions in what is coming and what is going.

This is a good time to wander around the camera and take photos.  A garden always looks different in photos than it does in person.  The camera brings focus to particular views; it frames and edits what we see. This is a good time to take photos of all parts of the garden- the parts you like, and the parts which need tweaking.  Work with the photos as you make plans for the coming seasons. 

Bulb catalogs are out now, and we have a window for ordering the bulbs we’ll need to plant by mid-November.

This is also the time to make our final purchases for the year of compost, mulch, potting soil, tools, and pots.   Many garden centers and hardware stores in are process of moving out their gardening equipment and bringing in Halloween and Christmas merchandise.  (Yes, it is WAY too early to see Christmas decorations in the stores, but we all know they show up earlier each year.)  Most everything is on clearance prices at the garden centers now. This is a last opportunity to stock up on things we’ll need for the next several months.  Have you ever tried to buy potting soil in February?

Beautyberry shrubs are full of tiny berries.  They will turn bright purple by early September.

Beautyberry shrubs are full of tiny berries. They will turn bright purple by early September.

Lavender and Basil benefit from cutting back now, and will keep producing for the next several weeks.  Keep up with the weeding so plants don't get over gown with grass.

Lavender and Basil benefit from cutting back now, and will keep producing for the next several weeks. Keep up with the weeding so plants don’t get over gown with grass.

Fall is the best time for planting trees and shrubs in my area.  As an added bonus, they are on sale right now.  Planting in early fall gives them a chance to adjust and grow new roots into the surrounding soil before the ground freezes.

A new hydrangea has been growing in a pot on the deck.  New shrubs do best when planted out into the garden in autumn.

A new Hydrangea has been growing in a pot on the deck. New shrubs do best when planted out into the garden in autumn.

August is also the time to cut back.  Many perennials have finished blooming and look ratty at the moment.  Unless you are waiting for seeds to form, daylily stalks need removing; brown leaves of Iris need cutting; verbenas, Echinacea, and some annuals will benefit from a hard cutting back.  Harvest fresh flowers of Zinnia, Echinacea, rose, and many others plants to stimulate more flower production.  Cut off fading flowers promptly, before seed is set, to stimulate more flowers.  This is especially important on flowering shrubs, like Buddleia, which will just shut down if the flowers are left to set seed.

Cut back spent flowers before they can set seed to keep new flowers opening for several more weeks.

Cut back spent flowers before they can set seed to keep new flowers opening for several more weeks.

Harvest herbs regularly.  Oregano, Basil, Marjoram, and mints will keep producing for many weeks to come, if the flowers are cut back regularly.  Harvest generously and the plants will reward you with renewed growth.  Herbs can be dried, infused in oil or vinegar for cooking, made into pesto and frozen, or used fresh for cooking.  Some lavender plants will send up another flush of flower stalks if the spent flowers are removed, and the branches trimmed back slightly.

July 24 2013 garden photos 022Roses give another strong burst of bloom in October in our area, so it is important to keep up with the pruning.  Cut off any spent blossoms by cutting the whole stem back to just above a leaf with five small parts.  Any diseased or brown leaves should be removed and thrown away.  There is time to feed rose bushes once more with Espona Rose Tone and Epson salts to stimulate those autumn blossoms.  If there is evidence of black spot, give another spray with an organic fungicide like neem oil.

Blackberry and raspberry canes which bore fruit this year need cutting back to the ground when the harvest is over.  New canes should be tied into the supports.  New fruiting shrubs should be planted now.July 31 2013 004

Fall vegetables should be planted in August.  It is a good time to start kale, collards, and spinach; carrots, snap beans, onions, radishes, and lettuce from seed.  Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts transplants can be set in place.  Autumn is the time to plant garlic for harvest next summer.  Many of our tomato, cucumber, and squash plants have given up for the year.  We need to clean them away, add some compost to the beds, and plant our fall vegetables. 

If our tomatoes, squash, peppers, and melons are still healthy and producing, we can clean up any damaged leaves and give them a shot of Neptune’s Harvest to keep them going into fall.  I often harvest my last tomatoes around the first of November.  Even though the days are shorter, surviving plants seem to get a fresh start when the temperatures cool down.  Keep producing plants well watered and pick the fruits as soon as they ripen.

Figs are beginning to ripen, and can be harvested over the next several weeks.

Figs are beginning to ripen, and can be harvested over the next several weeks.

Potatoes are ready to dig as soon as the tops yellow and die back.  Sweet potatoes still have another month or so to grow before they are ready.

Strawberry runners can be rooted in pots and then cut away from the mother plant, or can be pinned down to the garden soil and allowed to grow in place.  Runners rooted now should bear next spring.

Figs are beginning to ripen.  Check the trees over day or so for ripe figs.  They will continue to ripen here over a long season into October.

One of the toughest jobs in August, especially when August is hot and bright, is the weeding.  Grass and weeds can overtake a bed so quickly.  It is important to use cool and damp mornings to stay after the weeds so our crops and flowers aren’t crowded out.  If certain grasses and weeds get started, their underground stems and roots will just keep sending up new plants forever.  Weeds allowed to set seed will plague our beds for years to come. 

Black eyed Susans, the first of the autumn flowers, are just beginning to bloom.

Black eyed Susans, the first of the autumn flowers, are just beginning to bloom.

Finally, August is a good time to start new stem cuttings.  When growth gets too rampant on Basil, Coleus, Begonias, Plectranthus, Impatiens, and other leggy plants, we can often root the bits we cut back.  Most will root in a glass of water.  Some wonderful plants, like cane Begonias and purple heart can just be stuck into moist soil, and they will root in place.  Annual plants and tender perennials started in fall from stem cuttings can be overwintered and saved for next season.  This not only saves money, it insures that the variety you like best is available. 

August is a month of transition.  We complete what we began in spring, close out, clean up, and savor the harvest of our efforts, even as we make preparations for the new beginnings autumn brings.  It is a time for family and fellowship, for celebration, and for sowing the seeds of our next harvest.

All photos by Woodland Gnome

Pomegranate ripening

Pomegranate ripening

 A bread recipe to celebrate Lammas

Measure 3c. self-rising flour into a large mixing bowl.

Add 1 tsp. sea salt,  1 TB olive oil, 2 TB honey, and 1 tsp. active dry yeast

Also add some dried onion flakes, snipped herbs,  finely chopped chilies, and  grated sharp cheddar cheese if you want a heartier loaf.  (the extra yeast helps the bread rise if cheese and other heavy ingredients are added)

Stir ingredients lightly with a spatula, and form a well in the center of the mixture.  Pour in a 12oz bottle of a favorite beer.  Mix until the mixture is thick and all ingredients are moistened.  Run a little water into the bottle to rinse and add to the mixture if more liquid is needed.

Turn out this wet dough into a prepared bread pan.  Pat the top of the loaf with a little additional flour, cover with waxed paper, and let rise in a warm spot for an hour.

When the bread has risen to fill the pan, preheat the oven to 400 F.  Brush or spray some water onto the loaf, and sprinkle with sea salt and sesame seeds.

Bake about a half hour until the loaf is fragrant and browned.

Allow finished loaf to cool on a rack until it an be handled, and enjoy with friends and loved one.

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