Dry Shade Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Soil security”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saxifraga spreads by stolons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Beginning a New ‘Stump Garden’

Tree damage in our area after the October 2018 hurricane swept through.

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This has been a very bad year for our trees.  Our community sustained major tree damage when a hurricane blew through in October, and even more damage when heavy wet snow fell very quickly in early December, before the trees were prepared for winter.

There appeared to be just as much, maybe more damage, from the December snow.  At least that was the case in our yard, where we lost two old peach trees.

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December 10, 2018, a few days after a heavy snow toppled both of our remaining peach trees. We couldn’t even work with them for several days because everything was frozen solid.

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We found trees and limbs down all over our area again today, after a severe line of thunderstorms pass over us around 3 this morning.  There were tornadoes in the area, and we were extremely fortunate.  We had a mess to clean up, but no major damage to our trees.

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I know many people whose beautiful trees have been reduced to stumps over the past several months.  Depending on how the tree breaks, you may have a neat platform, sawed off cleanly, or you may have a jagged stump left where the tree broke.

A stump is still another opportunity to respond to a challenge with resilience, seeing an opportunity instead of a tragedy.  There is nothing personal about a tree knocked over by gnarly weather and so there is no cause to sulk or lament.  Once the shock of it has passed, and the mess cleaned up, it’s time to formulate a plan.

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Our peaches in bloom in 2017

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Maybe easier said, than done.  I’ve pondered the jagged stumps left by our beautiful peach trees for the last four months.  The trees hadn’t given us peaches for many years, although they bloomed and produced fruits.

The squirrels always got them first, and the trees had some health issues.  Now we see that the stumps were hollow, which is probably why they splintered when they fell.  But we loved their spring time flowers and their summer shade.

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The jagged remains of a once beautiful peach tree, that once shaded our fern garden and anchored the bottom of a path.

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Now, not only do I have a stump at the bottom of our hillside path, but the main shade for our fern garden is gone.  I’m wondering how the ferns will do this summer and whether other nearby trees and the bamboo will provide enough shade.  A garden is always changing.  We just have to keep our balance as we surf the waves of change.

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Native ebony spleenwort transplanted successfully into this old stump.

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Stumps are a fact of life in this garden, and I’ve developed a few strategies to deal with them.  The underlying roots hold water, and they will eventually decay, releasing nutrients back into the soil.  I consider it an opportunity to build a raised bed, maybe to use the hollow stump as a natural ‘container,’ and certainly an anchor for a new planting area.

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I planted ‘Autumn Brilliance’ ferns in Leaf Grow Soil conditioner, packed around a small stump, for the beginnings of a new garden in the shade in 2015.  This area has grown to anchor a major part of our present fern garden.

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This particular new stump forms the corner of our fern garden, and I very much want trees here again.  And so I gathered up some found materials over the weekend and began reconstructing a new planting.  First, I found some year old seedlings from our redbud tree growing in nearby beds, just leafing out for spring.  I didn’t want the seedlings to grow on where they had sprouted, because they would shade areas planted for sun.

Tiny though these seedlings may be, redbuds grow fairly quickly.  I transplanted two little trees to grow together right beside the stump.  They will replace the fallen peach with springtime color, summer shade, and all year round structure.  Eventually, they will also form a new living ‘wall’ for the jagged opening of the stump.

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I planted two small redbud tree seedlings near the opening of the stump.

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I had two deciduous ferns, left from the A. ‘Branford Rambler’ ferns I divided last fall, and still in their pots.  I filled the bottom of the stump with a little fresh soil, and pushed both of these fern root balls into the opening of the stump, topping them off with some more potting soil, mixed with gravel, pilfered from one of last summer’s hanging baskets.

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This is a fairly fragile planting, still open to one side.  It will be several years before the redbuds grow large enough to close off the opening in the stump.  And so I pulled up some sheets of our indigenous fern moss and used those to both close off the opening, and also to ‘mulch’ the torn up area around the new tree seedlings.  Fern moss always grows in this spot.

But fern moss also grows on some shaded bricks in another bed.  It is like a little ‘moss nursery,’ and I can pull off sheets to use in various projects every few weeks.  It renews itself on the bricks relatively quickly, and so I transplanted fresh moss from the bricks to this new stump garden.

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After pushing the moss firmly into the soil, I wrapped some plastic mesh, cut from a bulb bag, over the opening in the stump, and tied it in place with twine.  I was hoping for a ‘kokedama’ effect, but the rough contours of the stump thwarted every effort at neatness.

I’ll leave the mesh in place for a few weeks, like a band-aid, until the moss grows in and naturally holds the soil around the roots of the fern.  Something is needed to protect the soil during our frequent, heavy rains.

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I will very likely add some more ferns or other ground cover perennials around the unplanted side of this stump over the next few weeks, just to cover the wound and turn this eye-sore into a beauty spot.

The ulterior motive is to make sure that foot traffic remains far enough away from the stump that no one gets hurt on the jagged edges.  Could I even them out with a saw?  Maybe-  The wood is very hard, still, and I’ve not been successful with hand tools thus far.  Better for now to cover them with fresh greenery from the ferns.

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The second peach stump stands waiting for care.  I noticed, in taking its photo, that it is still alive and throwing out new growth.  It is also in a semi-shaded area, and I plan to plant a fern in this stump, too.

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The stump garden begun in 2015 with a pair of ferns has grown into this beautiful section of our fern garden, as it looked in May of 2018. The tall ‘Autumn Beauty’ ferns in the center are the originals, shown in the previous photo.

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Quite often the stumps disappear entirely after such treatment.  The new perennials grow up as the old stump decays, enriching the soil and holding moisture to anchor the bed.  And of course all sorts of creatures find food and shelter in the decaying stump and around the new planting.

This is a gentle way of working with nature rather than fighting against it.  It calls on our creativity and patience, allows the garden to evolve, and offers opportunities to re-cycle plants and materials we might otherwise discard.  It allows us to transform chaos into beauty; loss into joy.

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Woodland Gnome  2019

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“Don’t grieve.
Anything you lose
comes round in another form.”
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Rumi
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The fern garden in late April, 2018

…and Fertilizer for Free

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over a foundation of bark, roots and branches will rot into good compost over time.

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I spent far too many hours of my youth watching Mark Knopfler  and Gordon Sumner sing, “I want my money for nothing, and my chicks for free!”.  MTV was brand new in those days, and I was utterly fascinated by the up-close view of the artists performing and the dreamy vignettes hyper-produced to sell their tunes.

Fun fact:  Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, co-wrote that tune with Knopfler.  A former teacher, Sumner’s music career was just taking off as I began my own classroom teaching years.  He inspired me….

These were the days when Ted Turner was still trying to prove his idea that the public would support 24/7 journalism as entertainment over at his new CNN cable channel, and I was still living in a tiny walk up city apartment with only a few potted plant to soothe my achy, throbbing thumbs.  The world was filled with delicious possibilities.

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Well Knopfler and Sumner have aged, while I have not.  They still perform and I happily preside over our little Forest Garden.  They may have become unimaginably wealthy, but I have learned how to get fertilizer and plants for free!

I’ve left my classrooms behind, but will happily teach you how to perform the alchemy of soil for yourself, if you care to know the secret.  The world remains filled with delicious possiblities!

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It is all in how you look at things.  You probably understand that simple, but profound statement from your own experiences.  What seems free from one point of view, becomes costly from another.  What at first appears costly, ends up providing many more side benefits than expected.

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Let’s take fertilizer as an example.  Yes, I admit to the bags of Plant Tone, Rose Tone, Holly Tone, Bio-Tone Plant Starter With Mycorrhizae and a precious little jug of Neptune’s Harvest wintering in our garage.  Then there is the jar of Ozmocote, and the secret stash of crystallized orchid food hidden under the kitchen sink; a snack for when I want to coax the cohort of potted plants in our living space to bloom.  No, none of those were free.  In fact, if you added up what I spent on  all of them combined, they would likely buy a nice new pair of work boots….

And that was not the only ‘cost’ involved in these plastic bags and bottles of plant nourishing products.  They all came from factories.  Many of the ingredients were mined out of the earth.

Although these are ‘organic’ formulations, huge amounts of energy were invested in harvesting their components, creating the fertilizer, packaging it and transporting it to our local shops.  After the product is used up, there is some contaminated plastic packaging that won’t decay and must be put somewhere.  Those are costs we don’t see, and ones rolled into the price we pay.

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Gravel and Plant Tone ready to be mixed into the bottom of the planting hole.

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Now, if I use too much or time my application incorrectly, a lot of that product will simply wash away from my garden and into the creek.  Fertilizing our waterways increases algae growth and upsets the chemistry of the natural waterways.  Run-off of fertilizers has a profoundly negative effect on our lakes, rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, and even the oceans.

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Phosphorous, the P on your fertilizer bag, has an especially damaging effect when released into the waterways.  It initially stimulates the growth of algae and other plant life, which eventually shades out plants living on the bottom.  As this overabundance of plant life dies and sinks to the bottom and decays, it ties up oxygen needed by animal life, and destroys their food supplies.

Which is ironic.  Phosphorous is essential to plant growth, remains a key component of all commercial fertilizers, and is in limited supply.  Experts predict that our known supply of rock phosphorous that can be mined for industrial use will run out before 2200.

Phosphorous was ‘discovered’ in modern times by German alchemist Hennig Brand, in the late seventeenth century, from his experiments with human urine.    He eventually produced a white substance which glowed in the dark and burned brilliantly.  He called it ‘phosphorous mirabilis’, which means ‘miraculous bearer of light.’

Phosphorous is present in living tissue, and so may be found in urine and bone.  You may have heard about the ancient gardeners using human urine to fertilize their gardens.  This practice is discouraged today, of course.  But recall that animal waste products remain an essential ingredient in agriculture around the world.  Many of the ‘organic’ fertilizers contain rock phosphate or bone meal as essential parts of their formula.

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College Creek

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Phosphate in the soil isn’t always readily available to plant roots.  It must go through further biochemistry to make it available, and this happens best in living soil filled with microorganisms.   It happens best when the soil’s pH remains between 6.5 and 7.

Potassium, the K on your fertilizer package, is formed in supernova explosions.  It is both a metal and a salt.  In its pure elemental form, it reacts violently with both water and oxygen.  It is an extremely common element on earth, is found in all living things, and is an essential part of the biochemistry of all life.  Potassium in fertilizers appear as potassium chlorides, sulphates or nitrates.

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How is the average gardener to know whether or not their soil’s pH will even allow the plants access to any available phosphorous, nitrogen or potassium, and whether any additional nutrients are  needed?  That is why a soil test can give us invaluable information about our soil, and how to make it better.  Any local Extension office will gladly help with kits, instructions, processing and interpreting your soil test, and all states offer this service at a modest cost.

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Knowing what nutrients your soil may lack, to grow specific types of plants, allows a gardener to add only what is truly needed.  We can stop over-fertilizing, or adding fertilizer that never becomes available to our plants because of the complex chemistry of our soil.

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Fresh compost piled on top of existing mulch allows me to plant in this area without digging into the clay. A light covering of wood chips from the forest floor mulches the planting and makes the new bed visually “disappear.”

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Most experienced gardeners will tell a newbie:  “Feed your soil, not your plants.”  At first, this makes no sense.  But as you begin to understand the complexity of the soil as a living organism, it makes perfect sense.  Good soil is alive!

It is alive with microscopic bacteria, fungi, and tiny invertebrate animals that continually recycle Earth’s elements and make them available to fuel new growth.  Although some part of the soil is made up of tiny grains of mineral like sand, or granite, or clay; a large part of good soil is composed of decaying organic matter.

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Soil is alive, and improves as you add organic matter each year.

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These may be decaying roots or leaves, dead ants, or compost you’ve made from kitchen scraps.  It may be animal manure or even animal remains.  It may be a cover crop turned into the soil, bark mulch, hay or grass clippings.  Anything that once lived may eventually feed the soil.

And because all of these things contain the elemental building blocks of life, as they decay, their chemical components are released for re-use.  In addition to the big three of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, plants need many other elements and trace minerals naturally found in good, active soil.

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Mayapples appeared through the leaf mulch

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We can re-charge our soil with the nutrients necessary for plant growth in several ways, without having to purchase plastic bags filled with commercial fertilizers.

1. Grow and compost plants with deep roots.  Certain plants grow especially deep roots, which means they can access and absorb minerals deep into the soil, far below the area we cultivate.  As they grow, these minerals are stored in their plant cells.  Harvesting and then composting these plants enriches our soil.

Consider growing plants such as alfalfa, comphrey, parsnips and other root vegetables, purple coneflowers, and dandelions.  Trees with deep taproots also absorb minerals, which are stored in their wood and leaves.

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Comphrey’s roots extend for several feet into the soil, mining minerals that are stored in leaves and stems.  Comphrey attracts pollinators, is a medicinal herb and a great addition to compost.  Also use it as mulch around plants that need a boost.

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2.  Encourage earthworms.  Earthworms eat and digest organic material, and their droppings enrich the soil.  This greatly speeds the decomposition process and makes nutrients available to plant roots much faster.

Worm casting also contain beneficial microbes that work with plants.  Worms also loosen the soil and aerate it as they move around.  Worms will come to the surface to eat, but will also tunnel to a significant depth as they go about their lives.

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Organic matter left on top of the soil attracts earthworms.  Worms will feed at the surface, so long as it is deeply shaded, but live below ground.

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3.  Sheet compost over areas you plan to cultivate.  Sheet composting simply means laying organic materials directly on the soil where you want them to decay.  This organic material attracts earthworms and other decomposers to live and eat in this area, enriching it.

All organic mulch, whether straw, grass clippings, chipped leaves, bark, seaweed, coffee grounds, tea leaves, kitchen scraps, egg shells, sticks and branches or alfalfa pellets may be considered components in sheet composting.  I like to lay brown paper or black and white newsprint over the area first, establish the borders, and then pile materials in a ‘sheet’ over an area I intend to use later for growing new plants.

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4.  Grow plants that fix nitrogen in the soil.  All plants breathe.  Plants inhale through tiny holes in their leaves and use elements in the air, such as carbon and nitrogen for their growth.  When they exhale, they release oxygen and water vapor back into the environment.

Once plants have inhaled carbon, it is fixed into the walls of each cell.  But some plants are able to store nitrogen on their roots.  All members of the pea or legume family, Fabaceae, fix nitrogen, the N on the fertilizer bag, on their roots.  This nitrogen enriches the soil, and often may be used by plants growing nearby.   Fungi living in the soil assist with the transfer of soil nutrients and water between plants.

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Native Wax Myrtle fixes nitrogen from the air on its roots, making the area around each shrub more fertile with each passing year. Plants growing nearby can use this nitrogen, thanks to fungi in the soil which help transfer nutrients and water between plants. Fallen leaves also further enrich the soil.

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Members of this family include crops such as peas and beans, peanuts and lentils.  But it also includes flowers like lupines, and several shrubs and trees like black locust, acacia and mimosa.  I recently learned that the wax myrtle also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil.

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Our native redbud, Cercis canadensis, also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil for plants growing nearby.  It is a member of the Fabaceae family, and its seed pods may be eaten.   This seedling can eventually grow into a small tree.

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Planting, or allowing, plants to grow that ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil enriches the soil with that most necessary element for good plant growth- Nitrogen (N)- for free!  Nitrogen, always present in the atmosphere, can be captured and packaged by plants in our garden, and kept at root level, available to all that need it and naturally enriching our garden’s soil.

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Clover growing in the lawn is also fertilizing it.  In addition to feeding pollinators and small mammals, clover fixes nitrogen along its roots.

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Here is a partial list of plants that perform this little miracle:  all clovers, sweet peas, vetch, bush clover, Wisteria, golden chain tree, Judas tree, honey locust tree, Kentucky coffee tree, alder, some roses and many members of the gourd family, such as squash and pumpkins.

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Native Wisteria frutescens growing at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden fixes nitrogen in the soil along all of its roots.

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If you can plant food or flower bearing plants, which also fix nitrogen to improve the soil, you have multiplied this natural wealth for your own use.

Nature’s gifts surround us.  The more we understand about the living ecosystem we inhabit, the more we can work cooperatively with our environment to cultivate and enrich the web of life.  The more we learn, the more we can disengage with costly commercial suppliers, and find ways to accomplish our goals in harmony with nature.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

Green Thumb Tip #21: The Mid-Summer Snack

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A snack makes us all feel a little better, doesn’t it?  If you want the plants you tend to have that ‘Wow!’ factor as summer relentlessly wears on, give them a tasty pick-me-up.  There are several good choices, and it’s easy enough to add care and feeding into your routine.

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Although plants ‘make their own food’ from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water on a daily basis, they also need an assortment of other elements and minerals for optimal growth.  Plants rooted in the Earth likely find most of what they need dissolved in the soil.  When we grow a plant in a pot or basket, anchored in potting mix, we need to provide those important minerals and extra elements to support their growth.

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Nitrogen is the most important element to support lush growth.  Phosphorous and potassium (K) support blooming, fruit formation, and healthy tissue development.  You’ll find the percentage of these elements listed on any fertilizer you might buy, in the formulation of N-P-K.  A fertilizer labeled 10-10-10 is a balanced fertilizer.   Since only 30% of the product is labeled as one of the key elements, you know that 70% of the product is filler, which may contain other necessary elements and minerals.

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Still waiting for the first blooms to appear on this new Begonia….

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But your plants might need a ‘pick me up’ that has more of one element than another.  You will find lots of specialty organic and inorganic fertilizers formulated for different uses.  Savvy gardeners would never  apply a standard lawn fertilizer to a flowering potted plant, for example.  Read the labels on the products at your favorite nursery or big box store to find the right product for the right plant.

When you potted up your plants in the spring, you likely added a little Espoma Plant Tone or Osmocote to the mix.  Or maybe you used a potting soil advertised to have fertilizer already mixed into it.  That is fine, but most of the pre-mixed potting soils feed for roughly 90 days.  That means that they’re beginning to lose the umph right as we hit the heat and dry spells that summer always brings.

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Many products are water soluble and can be mixed into a watering can and applied as a soil drench or foliar feed.  These give the quickest ‘pick me up’ results.  I learned about Neptune’s Harvest from a trusted nurseryman many years ago, and have used it ever since.  This is my ‘go to’ product for most pots and baskets out of doors, and I use it at least a couple of times a month in June through September.

The numbers on this fertilizer are relatively low (2-3-1), in part because it is an organic fertilizer made from seaweed and fish emulsion.  Yes, it smells terrible.  But because it is made from these organic materials, Neptune’s Harvest also delivers many trace minerals for stronger, healthier growth.

Plants can access the nutrition very quickly and show results very quickly.  Plants show better leaf color, put on stronger new growth and set more blooms after a dilute application of this mix.

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For plants indoors, and those plants I’m growing mainly for their flowers, I prefer to use Orchid Plus plant food (20-14-13) from time to time.  This is a reliable way to induce the plants to set buds and produce flowers.

This is one of those ‘light blue’ chemical fertilizers, and I mix it up much weaker than the package suggests.  If you feed too frequently, a mineral residue will build up on the pot, or even the potting soil.  Use this when watering only about once every two to three weeks.

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Plants are under a lot of stress in our area right now.  Rain has been scarce in our neighborhood, and temperatures regularly reach well above normal.  The garden looks a little tired and wilted.  The first line of defense is hydration.

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Plants are mostly water, and water pumps through their tissue from the roots, up through every cell until water is released as vapor through the leaves.  When a plant wilts, it means that its cells are collapsing for lack of enough water.  Some plants can perk back up once water is available  again; others won’t.

Water helps in the short term, and in this sort of weather, small pots or baskets may need hydration every morning and evening.

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Without sufficient water, their colors look dull, leaf edges may burn, and growth slows down.  New leaves and flowers may be small.  It’s not a very pretty sight!  If you have time to do nothing else, at minimum keep plants as hydrated as you can until it rains again.

Too much water causes its own set of problems, including root rot.  As in all things, we seek balance. 

Keep in mind that when there is a lot of rain and frequent watering, soluble fertilizers will wash right out of the soil.  This is another reason to give light supplemental fertilizers on a fairly regular basis, while plants are responding to summer’s bright light and warmth with active growth.

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You may have noticed that each day grows a little shorter, now that we’re nearly to August.  We’ve enjoyed a few cool nights, and the garden is preparing for its late summer show.

It’s a challenge to help our plants survive right through the season and have enough strength for a beautiful late summer and autumn display.  We have to keep them actively growing despite the challenges our weather may present.

Regular care and careful observation  are the secrets to success.  Hydration, feeding, deadheading and a little grooming ensure that our gardening investments pay generous dividends in beauty.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
*
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
Green Thumb Tip # 15: Conquer the Weeds!
Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!
Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time
Green Thumb Tip # 18: Edit!  
Green Thumb Tip #19: Focus on Foliage  
Green Thumb Tip #20: Go With The Flow

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Growing Herbs for the Beauty of It

Culinary tri-color sage grows alongside perennial Geranium and fennel.

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I grow herbs mostly for their beauty.  That, and their toughness as season-long dependable plants in our pots, beds and baskets.

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Rose scented Pelargonium grows near emerging Colocasia.

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I haven’t built them their own little parterre, and I don’t grow them in cute little matching terra cotta pots, either.  I treat them like any other plant and let them earn their spot in my heart and in our garden.

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A newly planted Spanish lavender will soon fill this pot.  It is surrounded with wild violets and wild strawberries.

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Herbs may be some of the oldest plants cultivated and passed on generation to generation and from one culture to the next.  They are celebrated in story and song.  They can heal us, feed us, soothe us and delight us.  Herbs are intensely fragrant; a living, growing perfume.

But I would grow them even without their rich mythological and pharmacological mystique.  Why?  Because I can depend on them.

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The first fennel flowers of the season opend this week.

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The strong fragrance and coarse texture of many herbs makes them distasteful to the deer I want to foil.  I learned in the early years of this garden that I could plant herbs in the spring, and expect them to still be merrily growing in our garden, sans critter damage, the following October.  I like to believe that planting lots of fragrant herbs can also protect more desirable plants growing nearby.

They are a good investment.  They bring me peace of mind.

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Basil

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But the more I tried different cultivars of favorite herbs, the more I delighted in them for their own sake.  They are entertaining plants to grow.  Let me explain.

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Chocolate mint

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Most herbs draw in pollinators.  That means that on a sunny day, I’ll find bees, wasps, butterflies, and all sorts of bright little insects that I can’t name without a field guide hovering around them and blissing out on their sweet nectar.

As I observe and photograph the visitors, I can crush and sniff their wonderfully fragrant leaves.

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Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 2017

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Many herbs, like the mints and scented geraniums, produce compounds in their leaves that repel biting insects.

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Mountain mint, Pycnanthemum muticum, is a versatile herb with strongly fragrant leaves.  The Garden Club of America  has named it their 2018 native plant of the year.

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If a buzzy or bitey is getting too up close and personal with me, I can pinch a stem and rub the fragrant leaves on whatever skin might be exposed.

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Pineapple mint with lavender

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Mountain mint, though not so beautiful, is an especially effective insect repellent with no toxicity to harm my family or me.

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Rose scented ‘Skeleton Rose’ Pelargonium repels insects with its fragrance. Growing here in a basket with Lantana, this basket makes a tough combination for full sun.

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That same fragrance makes herbs appealing as cut flowers, too.  Stems worked in with other flowers make interesting, long lasting arrangements.

My favorite herbs for the vase are Basil, Pelargoniums, Artemesia, and Salvias. The interesting colors, shapes and textures of herbal foliage pumps up any vase.  Oftentimes, a stem will root in the vase and can be planted out to grow on when the arrangement is disassembled.

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Basil with pineapple mint, Lime Queen Zinnia and roses.

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Just as herbs create interesting contrasts with flowers in a vase, so they also pump up pots, baskets and perennial beds.

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White Monarda came to our garden as a gift from a gardening friend.  It is edible, can be used for tea, and looks lovely in a vase.  Also known as bee balm or Oswego tea, this plant is a useful North American native herb.

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Although herbs bloom, most have relatively small and insignificant flowers.  With a few exceptions, like some basils, dill, borage and fennel; herbs are grown more for their leaves than for their flowers.

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Now rosemary is a delight all unto itself.  Sometimes evergreen if the winter is mild, usually perennial, it delights us with its blue, winter flowers.

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Rosemary in bloom

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Rosemary often comes into bloom in late autumn, and many years I can include blooming sprigs of rosemary in our holiday wreathes in December.

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A newly planted rosemary ‘Tuscan Blue’ will triple in size by fall. Sedum ‘Angelina’ shares the pot.

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The pungent fragrance of rosemary exudes from a lovely little shrubby plant.  With rosemary, as with other Mediterranean herbs, the hotter the better in summer.  Growing to 4′ tall or more, a rosemary hedge by a fence or wall is possible in Zones 7b or 8 and warmer.

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An upright shrubby rosemary grows here with prostrate, creeping  rosemary.  Most of our rosemary plants died in our cold winter, and so I’ve had to replace them with new this spring.

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Many people grow herbs primarily for use in the kitchen.  And most, but not all, are edible.  Herbs generally respond well to the continual pruning that frequent use entails.

There are whole encyclopedias of information on using herbs for cooking, crafts, healing and housewifery.  I’ll leave you to read them if you want to learn more.

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Creeping Rosemary makes a good groundcover, or a good ‘spiller’ in a pot in full sun.

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I get busy and forget to cut and use them, I’ll admit to you.  My plants might be bushier if I used them more.

But I love watching my Pelargoniums grow huge and fill the gigantic pots I grow them in.  I love watching butterfly larvae growing plump as they harvest my parsley and fennel for me.  And yes, quite often the plants regenerate themselves within a few weeks once the larvae crawl off for their transformative naps.

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And so it is that I end up growing herbs much like any other garden plant; no special fuss required.

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Comphrey with Artemesia

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That said, keep in mind that herbs such as lavenders, culinary sages, thymes, rosemaries, oregano, germanders, Artemesias, Santolinas, and a few others originated in hot, mountainous areas where the soil may be a bit rocky and the rain scarce.  They aren’t used to coddling, and they don’t much appreciate our muggy damp summers in Virginia.

Our soil may be a bit too acidic and heavy with clay.  Our nights too damp and warm, our rain too intense.  There may be some rot or mildew.  Their roots may not thrive.

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There are a few simple things to do to make these Mediterranean herbs a bit more comfortable.  I tend to grow many of them in pots more successfully than in our heavy clay soil.

But culture in the soil is possible.  I like to dig some dolomitic lime and a little pea gravel into the planting hole before I plant a new transplant.  I set the crown a little high, mounding up the back-fill around the top-most roots, but not up the stem.  Then, I mulch with gravel out a few inches around the plant.  I’m told that chicken grit or broken up oyster shells work well for mulching herbs, too.

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Roots of these Mediterranean herbs want good drainage.  They can rot easily if left sitting in wet soil for very long.  That is why it is smart to amend the soil and plant them high.  If your soil is too heavy with clay, also dig in some compost before you plant, to loosen and improve it a bit.

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If planting in a pot, I mix some lime into the top few inches of the potting soil, set the plants a little high, and mulch the pot with pea gravel.

The gravel reflects sun and heat up into the plant on fine days, holds a little extra moisture during drought, and prevents soil from splashing up onto the lower leaves when it rains.  The gravel mulch helps protect those lower leaves from any disease harbored in the wet soil.

When growing an herb plant with woody stems or grey to blue leaves, take these precautions if your soil and weather is like ours.

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Artemesia with lavender and Iris

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Basil, dill and cilantro are annuals.  Parsley a biennial.  Chives and other Alliums are perennials, even when they are harvested annually for their bulbs.   All are soft stemmed and want a bit gentler treatment.  They appreciate more water and richer soil… but not too rich.  Herbs grown without much fertilizer have better flavor and aroma and grow more compactly.

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The Alliums are just beginning to bloom.

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Grow all of these in full sun, or the most sun you can manage.  The more sun, the more growth in most cases.

Also, give them space to grow.  Your little transplant fresh from its 4″ pot may look a bit small, and your new planting a bit sparse at first.  But please remember that most herbs grow quickly.  Mind the mature height and spread and allow space for your herbs to grow into their potential.

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Pineapple sage in its fall glory, still sending out new buds in late September 2017.

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Crowding, in our weather, makes it more likely for mold or rot to get a start where the branches stay too wet, and where air can’t easily circulate around their leaves.

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Thyme needs a good trim now and again. The stems get too long, with new growth only towards the tips.

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I wait each spring to see which of our perennial herbs made it through the winter, and which were finished off by the cold and damp soil.  Ironically, most will make it through until early spring.  It is those last few weeks and those last few frosts that may prove too much.

That is why I wait until I see new growth sprouting from their branches, before I cut them back.  Once they are growing and the weather is milder, I can cut with confidence.  Cut too soon, and a late freeze may be too much of a shock.  I killed a beautiful Agastache this spring by pruning it too early.

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Breakfast at the Agastache… summer 2017.

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Cut back any obviously dead wood, and trim most of the branches by at least a third to stimulate new, healthy growth.  But don’t throw all of those trimming away!  Many herbs, like Artemesia will root from these stem cuttings taken in late winter or early spring.  What will you lose by trying? 

And there is nothing complicated in my technique.  I open up a hole in the earth with my blade, insert a stem a few inches deep, and close the hole.  It roots and begins growing within a few weeks.  That is how I’ve spread Artemesia all around my garden over the years.

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Pineapple sage has beautiful leaves, but won’t bloom until late September.  It is hardy in our garden.

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Most herbs will root from stem cuttings.  You might cut several stems of basil, use most of the leaves, and root the stems in a glass of water to generate new plants over the summer.  Herbs like thyme are easy to divide.  Just take a stem on the outside of the plant, with some roots already growing, cut it off and plant it where its needed.  Do this with most Salvias, too.

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Apple mint roots easily in water. But easier still, pull a stem with some roots attached and planted it up elsewhere.

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If you’ve shied away from planting herbs in the past, I hope you’ll try a few this year.  You don’t need to be an expert gardener to succeed.  Most are very easy, and forgiving.

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An heirloom Pelargonium that I managed to root from a gifted stem cutting is now out in a basket for the summer.  This cultivar was brought to Williamsburg by the early colonists and grown here in the Colonial era.

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And this is the perfect time to begin, now that we are into the second week of June.  Garden centers in our area have just begun to mark down their herbs by 20-30%.  There are great bargains available this month as plant shops clear out their stock.

Unlike more tender plants, herbs will establish just fine in summer’s heat, so long as you don’t let them completely dry out as they grow new roots into the surrounding soil.

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Deadhead lavender, and other herbs, to keep the flowers coming all season. This is Spanish lavender, with its ‘rabbit ears’ atop the flower.

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There is always more to learn, there is always more to try, and there are always more beautiful and interesting plants to introduce in our gardens.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Pot Shots: A Pop of Color

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A grouping of simple hypertufa troughs have rested here, forming the edges of a raised bed, since 2014.  I made the troughs for this purpose, and planted them that first year almost entirely in Caladiums.  A dogwood tree grows from the center of this very shady bed planted mostly with ferns and Hellebores.

Wanting year round interest with a minimum of effort, I’ve added hardy Begonia grandis, evergreen Saxifraga stolonifera, additional seedling Hellebores and various ferns in and around the pots over the seasons since.  Vinca minor and ivy volunteered themselves as groundcovers.  I have tried establishing moss around the pots, but haven’t met as much success with that as I would like.

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There isn’t much space left to add summer Caladiums anymore, especially as the ferns have filled out and the Saxifraga and Begonias continue to spread themselves around.  But I still tuck in a Caladium tuber or two each spring.  This is easiest to do as the Caladium just begins to grow, before its roots grow too large for the hole I can dig in these shallow pots.

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This is one of my favorite spots in the garden year round, now, and we will enjoy the intense pop of color the Caladium ‘Burning Heart’ offers with its intense red leaves.  I like how it plays off of the new Begonia leaves and the stipes of these ferns.

When growing over a period of years in shallow pots, it is important to feed the soil and keep it hydrated for best plant performance.  I top off these pots with some compost with the changing seasons, sprinkle in some Osmocote ever few months, and water occasionally with fish and seaweed emulsion in the mix.

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These pots on May 3, before I groomed and topped them off for the season, and before it was warm enough to plant out any Caladiums.  Dogwood petals fell like snow after several days of wind and rain.

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This composition of leafy plants holds my interest without a lot of bright flowers.  That said, we enjoy the Hellebores from January through May.

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Saxifraga stolonifera blooms this week in another shady fern bed. These perennials send out runners, and a new plant grows at the tip of each runner. The plants root when they touch moist earth. They can fill in a large area fairly quickly and bloom by their second year.

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The Saxifraga is blooming this month, and tiny pink Begonia flowers will emerge by midsummer.

The flowers here may be subtle, but the foliage in this bed really pops!

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Weathered: A Forest Garden

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You may wonder why we leave this old, weathered, decaying stump as a centerpiece in our garden.

It was a living tree as recently as June 2013, when it was broken a dozen feet above the ground in a thunderstorm.   A double oak tree, growing nearby, was hit with a gust of wind and blew over completely, taking this tree and a companion dogwood tree with it on its way down.

What a mess it all made! 

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A freak June thunderstorm spawned waterspouts from the creek, which felled three great oak trees from our forest.

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Many more trees and established shrubs were also broken and crushed by the sheer weight of the trees.  This was such a sudden blow to our woodland garden, that it took us a while to get over the shock of it all.

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As we cleaned up over the next week, we decided to keep a portion of the stump of this beloved old oak as a reminder of the tree.  We asked our tree guys to cut what was left of the tree several feet above the ground, leaving a taller than usual stump.

I covered the exposed cut in hypertufa and tried to transform it into a bit of folk art as well as a useful pedestal for potted plants.

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A forest garden must continually recycle itself.  The trees’ leaves and branches were mulched and left in place on the newly exposed forest floor.  The roots and trunk of the double oak were buried in place.  We kept as much of the trees as we reasonably could to nurture the garden.

We collected all of the odd bits of branch and bark left behind by our tree guys, and used them to build a Hugelkulture bed around this stump.  We called it ‘the stump garden’ and began all of our gardening efforts to re-plant this entire area from this one bed.

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That was nearly five years ago, now.  While our vision of this remaining stump might have been as a bit of garden art, the creatures here saw it differently.  It didn’t take long for the stump to become a wildlife condo.

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We’ve seen skinks skittering around beneath the remaining bark in summer’s heat.  Squirrels explore it, pushing back on the loose bark, and beetles and other insects find shelter here.  Birds visit this spot to search for insects, and there is cool shade for toads.

At first, most of the bark was left intact.  There was a scar on the side that I patched with hypertufa.  With each passing year the remaining bark pulls away a little more and falls to the bed below.  Virginia Creeper climbs the stump each summer, though I prune it back from the pot.

Finally, this autumn, I’ve planted our large blue pot atop the stump with a vigorous English ivy.  I’ll let it grow on and eventually re-clothe the stump.

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Yes, it is weathered now, and ragged.  You might glance askance and think to yourself, ‘What an eyesore…’ 

I”m sure you wouldn’t say such a thing, but you might wonder why we leave the stump in its disheveled state.

There is beauty of form, and their is beauty of function.  Sometimes, the two can be as one.  We see the stump as useful and as beneficial to the web of life in our forest garden.  It may not please the eye anymore, but it is still a thing of beauty.

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Woodland gardeners are wise to leave fallen trees and branches, fallen cones and pine tags, and all of the other accumulated detrius of a forest in place, as much as possible.  These by products of trees form an important component of woodland soil.

As they slowly decay, they feed billions of microorganisms which keep the soil fertile.  They shelter insects, which feed birds, which keep the woodland animated and fill it with song.  They prevent erosion, cool the roots of growing plants and balance the PH of the soil.

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An ancient mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, renews itself  in our garden.  I dump our chopped up leaves around these shrubs during spring clean up to feed the soil and keep their roots cool.

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Mosses and fungi grow on decaying wood.  Small animals find shelter around stumps and branches.

Now, we don’t leave every fallen branch where it lands.  We gather them and use them elsewhere on the property.  We didn’t leave the fallen oaks where they landed, either.  But we re-used what we could of their canopy, ground up and spread as thick mulch.

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We have been rewarded for this effort with a lush re-growth on the forest floor.  The raw wood chips created an environment where seeds for new trees could sprout.  We have at least 15 new native holly trees growing now that are more than a foot high, with many more seedlings coming along.

Can we let them all grow?  Maybe, maybe not.  We have to decide for each seedling, as these little hollies can eventually grow into prodigious, full sized trees.

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Native holly, dogwood, magnolia, cedar, buckeye and blueberry have sprung up from seeds lying dormant on the forest floor.

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We also have newly sprouted dogwoods to replace those lost, and some self-sown Magnolia seedlings coming along.  There is Eastern red cedar, and a huge crop of volunteer native blueberry shrubs that have grown in as a wildlife friendly ground cover.  I didn’t purchase or plant any of these.  There are always little oak seedlings coming along, and choices must be made whether to let them grow or to prune them out.

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Our land wants to be a forest.  When our trees fell, allowing the sunshine back in, it hastened new growth of seeds which may have lain dormant in the soil for many years.  Now, all of those little plants are racing with one another, and with those we’ve planted, to see who gets the sun.

We can prune and pull and plant and try to sort it all out somehow, but that is only a temporary aberration from the garden’s eventual course.

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We found many stumps, when we first came to the garden, from where a previous gardener cut some of the greatest trees.  He wanted light for his fruit trees, and safety for the house.  Some of those stumps are decaying now back into the earth, but a few re-sprouted with new limbs.

He is long gone, as one day we will be, too. Other gardeners will come here and will either disturb the land for their own schemes, or will let the forest continue to fill the garden.

A forest weathers over time, but that time is long; longer than the awareness of any one human.  And we are wise to find the beauty and the wisdom of its ways, and to work in harmony with the land.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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“Sentinels of trees
breathe life into bodies of earthly flesh
As their mighty arms reach to the stars
we join in their quest for Helios’s mighty power
Like sentinels, we seek our place
in the forest of nature’s gentle breath”
.
Ramon Ravenswood

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For the Daily Post’s:

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Weathered

For more about allowing  forests to regenerate and managing a woodland garden, please read:

Shade Haven

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As June fades towards July, we appreciate every speck of shade our garden offers.  Summer days in Virginia routinely heat up to over 90F.  And it’s a moist heat, here near the coast.  Some days we have nearly 100% humidity.

When I was growing up in Virginia, we somehow survived it, often without any air conditioning.  The first few schools where I taught didn’t have air conditioning, either.  Maybe that is why I love the shade and know the value of a cool breeze on a summer day.

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Japanese painted fern’s silvery fronds make it especially cooling on a sultry summer day.

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The lowest slope at the back of our garden enjoys a lot of shade.  It is steep, and erosion remains a concern.  This is one of the first areas where we began planting ferns in our first year of tending this garden.  A dense stand of bamboo grows just beyond, where our garden falls off into the ravine.

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Ferns emerging on our sloped fern garden in early April

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I add a few more ferns and shade-loving plants to this area each year.  I began a new planting bed around the stump of a newly fallen tree, at the base of the slope, several years ago.  It began with a transplanted Hellebore seedling and some  little autumn ferns, planted into a mound of compost poured in and around the stump.  Well, they  survived into the next year, and so I made the circle of compost a little wider and added a few more plants.

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Autumn Brilliance ferns planted are  in Leaf Grow Soil conditioner packed around a small stump, for the beginnings of a new garden in the shade.   June 2013

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I’ve added a few more plants each year, including some Sauromatum venosum, or  Voodoo Lily tubers, in 2015.

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I thought I might have ruined this ‘Voodoo Lily’ tuber when my spade hit it early this spring. Rather, it is better. Instead of one or two stems, it has sent up many, producing a much better plant.  July 2016

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We finally decided this spring to extend this whole area and give it a proper border.  This was very early on when I was studying rain gardens, and thinking about places on our property where we needed to do more to catch and use run-off from storms.

This shady slope has fairly good soil, but is ridden with roots.  So I simply outlined the new dimensions of the bed, laid an outline of landscaping bricks, and set to work eliminating the existing  weedy growth.

Some of the weeds, near existing perennials, needed pulling.  Some areas where moss was well established, I wanted to simply leave alone.  But much of the new garden could be covered with brown paper grocery bags, and topped off with a few inches of compost.  This is the best method I’ve found for creating new planting beds in this garden.

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I chose a selection of ferns and shade loving perennials to harmonize with the ferns, Hellebores, and voodoo lily already growing here.  Although I’ve planted mostly hardy ferns, there are a few more tender ferns that I potted up last fall, and returned to this bed after danger of frost.  Others are planted into containers and  displayed in this area.

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Bamboo leaves drift down on every breeze.  I clear them, occasionally, off of the larger plants in this bed.  One day, when I’ve nothing else to do, I plan to grab our leaf blower and blow all of the bamboo leaves away from the garden and back towards the ravine.  I’m sure the moss establishing here would be better for it, and so would my character.  How I admire fastidious gardeners!  Perhaps one day I’ll join their ranks….

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Ken Druse has written a delightful book entirely about gardening in shade.

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His The New Shade Garden is one of those beautiful books I lusted after for more than a year, before I finally ordered it this past winter.  The luscious photos and useful information and encouragement on every page left me wondering why I waited so long to read it.  This book is a treasure, and I highly recommend it to you if you share my affinity for finding cool haven in the shade.  You’ll find whole chapters devoted to shade loving trees, shrubs, perennials and ferns; along with useful lists and recommendations for plants for particular situations.

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All we need now, to complete this beautiful shade haven in our back garden, is a little patio and a place to sit.  That may still be a few years off, though.  Somehow I’m always more interested in plants than hardscape, and rarely find time to just sit in the garden.

There is always more to do…. something waiting for me to plant….

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Woodland Gnome 2017

Bog Garden: Early Summer

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Maybe you don’t have a pond or spring in your yard, and would still like to grow a few special plants who like their roots wet.  We’re not talking a full-fledged water garden here, filled with Lotus and water lilies.  That requires an excavation or above ground water-tight construction. which will hold a foot or two of water; maybe with a stream or a waterfall with a pump and filter worked in.

A ‘bog’ garden tolerates variable amounts of water, from several inches to slightly moist.  These plants enjoy moist soil, but don’t want to remain submerged all the time.  Our bog garden has evolved in a mysterious old rock and cement construction in our back garden.  Maybe, at one time, it was water tight.  But it’s not water tight anymore.  Its uneven bottom of cemented gravel and large rocks allows for water to collect in several little pools before slowly draining away.

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I cleaned out the old leaves and accumulated silt a few years ago, and began massing pots of moisture loving plants in this mostly sunny spot to create a potted bog garden.  That is also when I began adding to our collection of a Southeastern North American native carnivorous plant, the Sarracenia, or Pitcher Plant.

Sarracenia produce tubular, brightly colored leaves all summer long, starting about now.   Each leaf holds a pool of digestive solution, just waiting for a curious insect to fall into the brightly colored hollow opening.  Their ‘Dr. Seuss’ flowers emerge early, in bright reds and yellows, looking like the sort of flower a child might draw.   These are very unusual looking plants which naturally grow in the sort of wet, insect filled swamp most of us tend to avoid.

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Our first pitcher plant, in late May of 2014

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But they prove easy to grow in a pot, so long as you use their preferred potting mix and keep them moist.  Sarracenia want moist soil, but not water-logged soil.  Their roots need some oxygen and don’t like the sour/stagnant soil often found in water gardens.  Dr. Larry Mellichamp, in his book, Native Plants of the Southeast, recommends a 50:50 mix of pure peat moss and clean quartz sand for pitcher plants.

I began collecting pitcher plants four years ago.  My first one spent the summer with its pot set in a ceramic bowl, about 2″ deep, which I filled with the hose when I watered that part of the garden.  It was gorgeous all summer long, and a conversation piece for every visitor.  That first pitcher plant inspired me to set up a bog garden, the following summer, with space for a community of more pitcher plants mixed with other plants that like wet soil.

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Pitcher Plants growing in the swamps around Jamestown were collected by John Tradescant the Younger around 1638. It was difficult for English gardeners to keep them alive until they learned to grow them in pots of moss standing in water. These are displayed at Forest Lane Botanicals in York County, Virginia.

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Pitcher plants, like other perennials, grow in clumps and may be divided every few years.  The plants we’ve collected were still growing in modest sized pots.  But I wanted to change the look of our bog garden this year, and so tracked down a huge, shallow pot to hold divisions from several of our Sarracenia cultivars.

Following Dr. Mellichamp’s instructions for potting mix has brought us success.  The one plant I purchased, and didn’t re-pot myself, didn’t make it through the winter of 2015.  It was in a compost based potting mix and failed to thrive.  But the grower made it good, and I’ve relied on the peat/sand mixture for my own re-potting.

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Mix and re-hydrate the peat at least a day before you plan to use it.  It is important to have very moist soil when you re-pot pitcher plants.  I knocked three of our Sarracenias out of their pots, pulled out or trimmed back the old, brown leaves, and then gently pulled the clumps apart.  I potted some of the smaller clumps into this new, large pot; and re-potted the largest of each division back into its original pot. Pack the peat mixture into the pot fairly tightly, and then water it in to settle the soil and rinse off the pot.

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You never fertilize Sarracenia.  That is one reason it doesn’t work to use compost or a standard potting mix which would work perfectly well with most potted plants.  Sarracenia take their nutrition from the insects that fall into their leaves.  And they thrive in acidic conditions, which the peat provides.

In addition to pitcher plants, I’ve grown Colocasia, Canna, Asclepias, Hibiscus, Coleus and Zantedeschia  in this bog garden.  All of these have at least a few cultivars that enjoy full sun and wet soil.  This year, I’ve added Colocasia ‘Tea Cups’ to the Colocasia ‘Mojito’ we’ve had in years passed.  Colocasia ‘China Pink’ grows around the outside.  This year I’ve potted up a few divisions from our yellow flag Iris to add to the mix.

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Colocasia ‘Tea Cups,’ saved from last summer’s garden, spent the winter in our basement. We’re happy to have it growing again. This Colocasia loves damp soil and could even grow submerged in a pond.

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A bog garden like this one, where there is usually at least some water, provides important resources for wildlife.  Birds, frogs, turtles and many insects come here to eat, drink and find shelter.  Once the plants grow in, there is cool, moist shade on even the hottest summer days.

Rain provides sufficient wetness for the bog garden during much of the year here in coastal Virginia.  But during dry spells, I try to visit this garden several times a week with the hose, filling it and watering the various pots.  Creeping Jenny, originally planted around the border as a ground cover, has colonized the interior of the garden, too.  I was a little surprised to learn that it, too, tolerates growing in shallow water.

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Tadpoles and other tiny creatures can often be found in the bog garden.  This photo is from its first summer, 2015.

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If you don’t already have a wet spot in your own garden, you might consider building something similar to this with stone and concrete.  If that is too much trouble, you might follow Dr. Mellichamp’s advice and begin with a child’s wading pool.  You can put a small drainage hole or two, if it doesn’t have a crack or hole already, and either excavate and sink the liner in the ground, or build up some landscaping blocks around it to make it more attractive.

Line the bottom with some gravel and sand, and then fill your new bog garden with the peat/sand mix, or just set ceramic pots into it as I’ve done.  Dr. Mellichamp shows a beautiful bog garden he built, in his chapter on bog plants.  His is filled with peat and sand, with the plants growing as they would in a natural bog.  The peat is overgrown with moss and the effect is stunning.

If you don’t have Sarracenia at a garden center near you, you can order a wide variety of pitcher plants, and other water loving plants, from Plant Delights nursery in North Carolina.  Sarracenia Northwest, a grower based in Oregon, offers a wide selection of pitcher plants, and other interesting carnivorous plants.  Their service is excellent.  The plants I ordered arrived in excellent condition.

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Pitcher plants are easy to forget during winter.  Most are hardy in zones 5-9.   They stay outdoors, dormant, and need no special care.  It is only when those psychedelic flowers suddenly appear in late spring, and the first new leaves emerge that you take notice.

That is when I’m moved to clean them up, and begin assembling a beautiful collection of plants for our summer enjoyment in this quiet spot in our back garden.

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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Wednesday Vignette: Iris

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“Hope is a rainbow of thought.”

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Harley King

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“To find the rainbow and life’s incredible beauties,

learn to play with adversity.”

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Debasish Mridha

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“Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.”

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Maya Angelou

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“If it rains during sunshine,

don’t worry; you’ll see your rainbow.”

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Vikrmn

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“Pointing to another world

will never stop vice among us;

shedding light over this world can alone help us.”

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Walt Whitman

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“Love, I’m pretty sure, is light.”

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Jan Zwicky

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017

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“Iris was the personification of the rainbow in Greek mythology, as well as messenger of the gods along with Hermes. She was also known as the goddess of the sea and the sky.  It was said that she traveled on the rainbow while carrying divine messages to the mortals.”

from Greekmythology.com

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