Sunday Dinner: Color My World

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“Let me,
O let me bathe my soul in colours;
let me swallow the sunset
and drink the rainbow.”
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Khalil Gibran

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“The world is exploding in emerald, sage, and lusty chartreuse
– neon green with so much yellow in it.
It is an explosive green that,
if one could watch it
moment by moment throughout the day,
would grow in every dimension.”
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Amy Seidl

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“Why do two colors,
put one next to the other, sing?
Can one really explain this? no.
Just as one can never
learn how to paint.”
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Pablo Picasso

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“Red was ruby,
green was fluorescent,
yellow was simply incandescent.
Color was life. Color was everything.
Color, you see, was the universal sign of magic.”
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Tahereh Mafi

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“Each day has a color, a smell.”
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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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“Color directly influences the soul.
Color is the keyboard,
the eyes are the hammers,
the soul is the piano with many strings.
The artist is the hand that plays,
touching one key or another purposefully,
to cause vibrations in the soul.”
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Wassily Kandinsky

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“Love was a feeling completely bound up with color,
like thousands of rainbows
superimposed one on top of the other.”
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Paulo Coelho
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“Life is a sea of vibrant color.
Jump in.”
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A.D. Posey

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019
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Fabulous Friday: Timing is Everything

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A common topic of conversation among gardeners this time of year resolves to timing.   We try to gauge where we are in the annual rite of spring, and guess what the weather might still do in the weeks ahead.  Of course, we’re eager to get a jump on the new season.  We want to clean up the beds and begin planting.  We want to get the season off to a good start and enjoy the fruits of our efforts as early as possible.

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Yet, we have all experienced the disappointments that come with beginning too early…

Many favorite plants won’t grow until the soil has warmed enough, and until night time temperatures remain reasonably warm, too.  It’s not just the rare late freeze that worries us, either.

A long list of plants, from tomatoes to Caladiums want night time temperatures above 50F.   Begin too early, and a plant’s growth may be stunted for the entire season.

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I just shake my head when I see tomatoes shivering on grocery and big-box store plant racks in March or early April.  The soil is still too cold here, for summer vegetables, and we can still have a freeze or late snow deep into April.

And every year unfolds differently.  We ride a metaphorical meteorological roller coaster through this most changeable of seasons.  Today, we had warm southwest winds ahead of a line of thunderstorms and it was nearly 80F by 2 PM.

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Edgeworthia chrysantha blooms abundantly in late winter, filling the garden with sweet fragrance.

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We have several nights of freezing temperatures forecast for the coming week.  There was mention of the ‘S’ word for Tuesday, and I am hoping that is rubbed from the forecast before frosty flakes can touch our Magnolia blossoms.

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We were just amazed to notice our neighbor’s tulip Magnolia tree in full, glorious bloom yesterday afternoon.  When did that happen? It only takes a few hours of warmth to wake up the garden, when the dormant time is nearly done.

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I believe that most of us are as interested in phenology as we are in the actual weather forecast.  Especially in this time when our climate patterns seem to be shifting, we need  a better compass to navigate the seasons.

Phenology, literally, is the study of appearance.  In other words, studying when things in the natural world appear or disappear; when various things happen in relation to other things.  Phenology is the study of how biological changes in plants and animals correspond with changes in climate and seasons.

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Magnolia stellata buds are opening this week, in our garden.

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“You may delay,
but time will not.”
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Benjamin Franklin

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This is very old wisdom, dating to long before most folks had computers, watches, or even reliable calendars.  How do you know when to plant corn?  When oak leaves are as big as a mouse’s ears.

Noticing the arrival of the first robins is a sign of spring.  Watching geese gather and fly overhead in large flocks is a sign of approaching winter.

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As our climate warms, spring continues to arrive a bit earlier, and fall lingers a bit later each year.  But we still look for indicators of these changes in real time, and try to adjust our gardening schedules to make the most of the growing season.

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An approaching storm darkened our skies, even as temperatures soared here this afternoon.

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I’m feeling pretty confident about spring, finally.  Confident enough to do a bit of shopping for perennials yesterday.  Our friends at The Homestead Garden Center got in their annual shipment of 2″ perennials this week, and we went for a visit to celebrate the opening of another spring season with them.  Sweetness filled the air from rows of blooming bulbs, shelves of primroses, , flats of bright pansies and an impromptu alle’ of Camellia shrubs covered in huge pink flowers.

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I went straight for the shelves of plump green perennials, fresh out of their greenhouse, to match up my wish-list with the bounty of the offerings.

It may be a little premature to plant them… After a conversation with a Master Gardener friend, yesterday morning, about whether or not the soil has warmed enough to plant; I disciplined my urge to plant yesterday afternoon.  It certainly was warm enough to enjoy every moment out of doors.

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N. ‘Katie Heath,’ one of Brent Heath’s most beautiful introductions, and named for his mother.

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But I recalled the forecast for next week, and left the little perennials snug in their flat, in the shade and shelter of a hedge.  Better to bring them indoors should cold come calling once again, than to let them get frost kissed outside.  Oh, I chafe against the indecision of it all!

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But I did buy carrots today.  No, not for roasting or soup… for flowers It has become an annual tradition to seek out the most beautiful organic carrots I can find to plant in the garden.

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I experimented with planting carrots for the first time in late winter of 2017.  We enjoyed them so much, that I planted carrots again last spring.  For only pennies per plant, we enjoy months of flowers.  More importantly, Daucus carota, or common carrot, proves a useful host plant for our Black Swallowtail butterflies.

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Daucus carota subsp. sativus attracts many beneficial insects to the garden.

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I sorted through the bag of colorful carrots from Trader Joe’s today to find the best ones for planting.  I was looking for a reasonable length of healthy root with the promise of fresh leaves from an intact crown.  I have those resting on the counter in a shallow pan of water, and will plant them out in the coming days.

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Our little Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar was growing fast, happily munching on the Daucus carota last summer.

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It is simple:  open the earth with a spade and slip the carrot, vertically, into the opening.  Leave the crown just at ground level, and mulch lightly.

I know we lost a fair amount of the carrots I planted last year, probably to rabbits or voles.  I plan to give these a good squirt with Repels All before I plant them, just as I protected some of our bulbs last fall,  as a bit of insurance.  I expect that it is warm enough now that these carrots will send out new feeder roots in short order, and we’ll see new growth by mid-April.

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The garden is moist and ready for planting….

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Have you started any seeds yet?  It’s that time of year. 

Puzzling out the best time for each step towards our summer garden takes a bit of planning, a fair bit of remembering past years, and also a bit of trust that our efforts will flourish.

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 Woodland Gnome 2019

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“It’s being here now that’s important.
There’s no past and there’s no future.
Time is a very misleading thing.
All there is ever, is the now.
We can gain experience from the past,
but we can’t relive it;
and we can hope for the future,
but we don’t know if there is one.”

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George Harrison

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Fabulous Friday:
Happiness is Contagious; Let’s Infect One Another!

Narcissus: Variations

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A Narcissus is among the simplest of flowers, yet the genus is populated with thousands of cultivars and hybrids.  There are even a few ‘species’ available for gardeners to buy and grow, for those of us who enjoy seeing the purity of what nature gave us before a human hand got creative with it!

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Narcissus ‘Cragford,’ a pre-1930 heirloom Narcissus.

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Amazing creativity has allowed all of these fascinating variations, once we figured out how to go about hybridizing new varieties from old.  This was a very passionate topic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Enthusiasts wanted to apply the new understanding of plant genetics to create beautiful and useful new plants.  Others believed that it is wrong to tamper in this way with the natural world.  In the end, there was enough of a market for all of the new varieties of grains, fruit, vegetables and flowers that hobbyists breeding new plants realized there was a great deal of money to make from plant breeding.

Most of the plant breeding was done in small, family businesses or on estates.  The market for these new and unusual plants drove the industry to keep providing new plants for enthusiastic gardeners and collectors.

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Double Van Scion, or Guernsey Double Daffodil c. 1620 England

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Today, The American Daffodil Society has divided the genus into 13 divisions, based on the shape of each part of the blossom, and its heritage. 

If this interests you, please find a copy of Noel Kingsbury’s beautiful book, Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower.  You will learn about the fascinating history of daffodils, their collection, breeding, mythology and the many beautiful variations in their flowers.

I am particularly fond of daffodils from Division 11- Split Corona.  The corona, or cup, in the center of the flower is split into sections, often frilly, and curved back against the flower’s petals.

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Mary Gay Lirette, a Heath hybrid.

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The corona is often a contrasting color from the petals, and the stamens are yet another shade.  This makes for a flower that looks double, though it truly isn’t, and shows a beautiful, open face to the world.

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Many of the split corona daffodils come along a little later in the spring.  The first daffodils to open in our garden are generally the ‘normal’ looking ones, with a long, tubular corona, or trumpet,  and six simple petals:  Division 1- Trumpet.

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These are followed closely by some of our miniatures of similar form.  Miniature may be classed in various divisions, but are called miniatures because they are only about 6″ tall.

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Tete-a-Tete

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We buy nearly all of our daffodils now from Brent and Becky Heath.  The Heath’s are internationally famous for their beautiful daffodils and sell many of their own hybrids.  I am endlessly fascinated with growing daffodils, and love seeing how the slight variations of color and form recombine in so many beautiful ways.

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Right: Ice Follies, a popular 1953 hybrid that multiplies extremely well.  Division 2-Large Cup.  This is their second spring in our garden.

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Daffodils, grown from bulbs, are true perennials.  These are tough and persistent plants that increase each year.

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Each bulb sets off new bulblets each spring, so a single daffodil bulb becomes a sturdy clump of daffodils within just a few years.  Many of these flowers also set seed.  If you don’t deadhead the flowers, the seeds will ripen and spread in early summer.  New plants will grow from these seeds, and crop up in unexpected places.  This is how areas around old homes often come to be carpeted in stands of daffodils each spring.

The daffodils you plant will very likely outlive the gardener, bringing spring time beauty to many, many others in the years ahead.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Celebrating Spring Indoors: Mosses and Ferns

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Greeness re-emerges each March from February’s shades of brown and grey.  We notice exquisite shades of fresh green wherever there is new growth; even if only weeds emerging in the lawn, new grass, and buds breaking open on early shrubs.

Green is alive with possibility, giving us fresh energy and enthusiasm.  Green is the color by which energy from the sun is captured and transformed into the sort of chemical food energy that fuels us all.  Whether we access it directly from a kiwi or avocado, or allow the green to be munched first by a cow before it is transformed into milk or meat; we depend on green chlorophyll to produce every calorie of energy which fuels our lives.

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Green attracts like a powerful, life-affirming magnet, especially in the spring when we are ready to move on from winter’s rest.  And in these last chilly weeks of unpredictable weather, I enjoy making a green arrangement with ferns and mosses to enjoy indoors until spring is firmly established outside in the garden.

I have been experimenting with keeping moss inside for several years.  While all goes well for a while, the moss often ends up turning brown and sometimes disappearing entirely.  Moss is the simplest of plants, yet its nurture as a ‘houseplant’ proves fickle and complex.

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Moss pairs well with ferns, as their needs are nearly the same. Lichens may also be incorporated in the design.  2014

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For all of the vibrant green kokedama covered in moss I’ve seen in books and on other’s websites, I have not yet figured out how to reliably keep moss alive for long inside.  But I keep trying…..

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There is a bit of potting soil and sand beneath the moss to sustain the plants growing in the glass plate.  January 2015

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Japanese guides suggest taking one’s potted moss outside for some portion of each day to give it fresh air and bright light.  This sounds suspiciously like walking a pet dog to me, and I’m not yet prepared to treat my moss gardens like a barking or purring pet.

I’ve also learned that closing moss up into a terrarium can be the ‘kiss of death’ because it gets too wet in the high humidity, and doesn’t get the free exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen that it requires.

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February 2015

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Let’s recall that moss has no vascular system.  There are no water carrying tubes through ‘leaves’ or ‘stems’.  Moss is so simple, structurally, that every cell absorbs water.  That means that too much water for too long will kill the cell, because it isn’t going to move the excess water on, elsewhere.

We must find balance in tending moss: the balance between light and shade, moisture and dryness, heat and cold.

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January 2018

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That is why I have chosen a tall, clear vase for this arrangement, but one without a lid.  I’ve constructed this like a terrarium, but have not enclosed it.

And for the time it stays indoors I will do my best to faithfully mist it several times a week, but will resist the temptation to pour water into it.  And, if I notice the moss struggling, I’m prepared to remove it, ‘plant’ it back outside, and start again with some fresh moss.

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This is my favorite sort of moss, Thuidium delicatulum, which is called fern moss because it looks like fine, low growing fern fronds.  This perennial moss prefers a moist, acid soil, can stand a fair amount of light, and grows prolifically in several spots in our garden.

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This is fern moss, Thuidium delicatulum, which looks like it is made of tiny, low growing ferns.

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I’ve created a base in this vase with fine aquarium gravel mixed with some fine charcoal, recycled from a water filter.  I mixed a little more of the charcoal in with the coarse potting soil mix I used for the ferns.  This is soil I’ve used earlier this winter for starting tubers and bare root plants in the basement, and it was already perfectly moist when I scooped some into the pot.  Charcoal is often used in terrariums to help purify the soil and water, keeping the plants healthier.  Without any drainage, it helps prevent water in the soil from growing stagnant.

Moss doesn’t have roots, but needs firm, continuous contact with the soil.  After planting the two tiny ferns, I simply pressed sheets of moss, with its own soil from outside still attached, on top of the potting mix.

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The taller fern is a popular houseplant called a brake fern or ribbon fern, genus Pteris.  This one is tender, though it will grow very well outside from late April through November.  The shorter one is also a tender fern, probably one of the footed ferns.

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Then I misted it well, using the mister to also clean the inside of the glass.  The pot sits a few feet away from large windows and under a lamp.  It is a bright location, and I’ll hope that both ferns and mosses grow here happily.

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March, 2018

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Plants indoors are good for us in many ways.  Plants filter the air and fill it with fresh oxygen.  Plants calm us, and bring tremendous beauty into our homes.  Plants inside in early spring also inspire us and keep that promise of spring alive, even when the weather turns cold and wintery once again.

March is a fickle month, but the overall trajectory is towards more daylight and milder weather.  As the sun returns, our garden responds with fresh growth.

But we respond, as well.  And bringing a bit of that spring time magic indoors helps us celebrate the change of seasons… in comfort.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

Fabulous Friday: Something Borrowed, Something New

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Until I’d struggled with this ‘new’ garden for a couple of years, watching my familiar favorite plants disappear from the garden to feed assorted voles, rabbits, squirrels and deer, I’d never given Hellebores more than a passing thought.  They simply weren’t on my radar in those days when I was busy growing roses and Hydrangeas, berries, beans, tomatoes and every Begonia I could find.

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And then a friend offered to dig a few Hellebores from her garden to share with me.  We had been consoling each other, probably over cups of coffee, as we both told our stories of plants loved and lost in this forested community.  Our houses are nearby, and each of us has a ravine and a pond beyond our back yards, favorite haunts of large herds of deer.

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She’s been here a year or so longer than we; long enough to learn a trick or two.  Long enough to learn to treasure her Hellebores.

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Our first patch of Hellebores, given to us by a friend,  as they were in April of 2012. These perennials look good in every season, thrive in dry shade, and bloom for several months in late winter and early spring.

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Her broad front yard is carpeted with beautiful Hellebores.  Through the warmer months, Hellebores cover the ground, especially in shady spots, with a beautiful, textured deep emerald green.  And then sometime between November and January they begin to bloom.  And they keep producing flowers until things heat up again in April or May.

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Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’.

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Hellebore flowers come in shades of white, cream, light green, pinks, purples, and reds.  Heavily hybridized, there is a huge variety of size and form available through nurseries and catalogs.

Which is fun for collectors, but almost doesn’t matter anymore once you have a plant or three.  Because Hellebores easily set seed, and those seeds easily germinate.  And a few Hellebores easily becomes an ever widening patch of them, all a bit different since they have hybridized with one another.

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I’m reminded of generosity and friendship every spring as we admire our Hellebores.  Those few early plants did so well for us, some even in full sun, that I dig and re-plant seedlings in more areas of the yard each spring.  Hellebores are just the trick to solve several of the challenges we face.

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Hellebores touched with frost

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Because they are highly poisonous, the local wild things leave Hellebores strictly alone.  This makes them valuable for planting around newly planted trees, shrubs, ferns and perennials that need a bit of protection from hungry voles.  The voles avoid the Hellebore roots and so avoid the tasties you need to protect, as well.

Simply plant a circle of seedlings, spaced every 8″-10″, around the new plant.  Those roots very soon grow into a solid mass of protection, and the Hellebores will thrive in dry shade as the shrubs grow.

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Hellebores and Narcissus protect the roots of this Camellia sasanqua, blooming for several months after the Camellia flowers have faded.

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Deer don’t much like to walk through Hellebores, and certainly never nibble them.  Plant them in a mass along property lines, or disrupt deer runs through the garden with a living barrier of Hellebores.

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Hellebore seedlings bloom for the first time on this slope, where I planted them last spring.  This area gets a lot of erosion and several other plants have failed here.  The daffodils and Hellebores may prove the solution to hold the bank.

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Hellebores also serve as a beautiful ground cover on slopes and other areas where you don’t want grass.  They hold the soil against erosion and suppress weeds.  They can take drought and need very little care, other than removing old and damaged leaves in late winter.

I like to mix Hellebores with ferns and spring bulbs, like daffodils or early summer bloomers like Iris.  They make great companions.

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Seedlings blooming in their first year.

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And finally, I still want a few large pots of Hellebores each winter.  I pick out new cultivars at the nursery, looking for interesting leaves as well as striking flowers.  Maybe one day I’ll just dig a few seedlings for the pots.  But I find the new cultivars interesting enough to seek out special ones with variegated foliage or double flowers.

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I was very inspired by a planting featured in a recent issue of Gardens Illustrated.  A very large round stone planter was filled with the earlier blooming Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, interplanted with Galanthus and Cyclamen hederifolium and C. coum. The whole confection was white flowers against beautiful green and silver foliage.   It was elegantly simple and absolutely aglow on the dull day it was photographed.

Hellebores make wonderful companion plants for spring bulbs in winter pots, and the whole thing can be transplanted into the garden in April, when you want to re-plant the pot for summer.  You know the arrangement will come back even bigger and better next winter.

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Which brings me to the main reason I’m celebrating our Hellebores on this Fabulous Friday:  they give abundant winter flowers.  Whether cut for a vase, floated in a bowl, or simply admired while walking through the garden; Hellebores defy winter with flowers of vibrant color and delicate beauty.

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We have enough seedling Hellebores appearing each spring that I’m always happy to share with other gardeners.  Especially gardeners making the hard adjustment to gardening in our challenging area, who are just looking for something, anything, they can grow without having to spray it with deer repellents every time it rains.

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Something borrowed, something new… a gardener’s happiness always grows when friends share their botanical treasures, and when success finally blooms from challenge.

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Woodland Gnome 2019
Fabulous Friday:
Happiness is Contagious; Let’s Infect One Another!

Green Thumb Tip #23: From Small Beginnings

Begonia, growing inside and waiting for a larger pot.

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Spring invites us to treasure the small. 

Autumn frost and winter storms long since claimed late summer’s towering goldenrods and bushy pineapple sages.  The Cannas and gingers and huge elephant ear leaves were cut down months ago, and live on only in memory and photos and dormant tubers resting underground.

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After several months of bare ground, woody stems and largely open space, the smallest bits of new growth excite me with their promise of a new growing season awakening.

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Iris reticulata ‘Rhapsody’

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It is easiest to start again small.  Small flowers from very small bulbs, like grape sized Iris reticulata and I. histrioides.   Small roots on small cuttings, carefully planted into small pots to ‘grow-on’; and small starts in small pots that will move up into hanging baskets and potted arrangements once the weather warms.

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Cut pussy willow stems root easily in water.  I’ve cut the bottoms off of rooted stems to plant, and returned the larger stems to the vase.  From these small sticks, large shrubs may eventually grow.

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From small beginnings, beautiful plants will grow.  I tend to order bulbs and corms, tubers and rhizomes, seeds and roots, then plant them myself to watch them grow.  A box came in late February filled with a treasure trove of Iris roots.  They may not look very promising, straight out of the package, but the potential for beautiful, healthy growth is there if you handle them properly.

I ‘heeled them in’ in a bin of rich, moist potting soil in the basement, while their roots re-hydrated.  After several days, once the plants had re-awakened and were ready to grow,  I moved each plant into a larger pot, filled with amended potting soil to grow on for the next month or two.

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These are Iris siberica and Iris chrysographes.  They want moist soil with excellent drainage and benefit from some extra perlite and some Plant Tone mixed into good potting mix.

Hardy perennials, they want as much sun as they can have on these early spring days.  Potting them first, before planting them into the garden, gives them a chance to grow and develop a great root system in comfort and safety, away from curious squirrels and hungry voles.  Their leaves are tiny now, but will stretch to a couple of feet high by summer.

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I’ve been busy at my basement planting bench this week, potting up rooted cuttings and a few bags of Zantedeschia bulbs a gardening friend gifted to me last fall .  Next week, I’ll start our saved Caladium tubers.

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Oxalis grow patiently in the garage, among our summer pots, waiting their turn to grow out in the sunshine.  Start Oxalis from tubers any time of year.

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I’m waiting a little later in March to start them this year, mindful of how cold our spring was last year.  The Caladiums wanted space outside in the sun long before it was warm enough to plant them out.  Better to start slowly, in small steps towards summer’s leafy bounty.

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As spring creeps, hesitantly, into the garden, hard lessons learned in years past make me a little hesitant, too.  Last night dipped into the mid-20s, here.  The sun was out this afternoon when I walked the garden, noticing not only the new growth but also the work still needed to properly welcome spring.

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This special Hellebore disappears in the shade. It is only when I seek it out, and turn up its face, that I can appreciate its beauty.

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Perhaps it’s a good thing that I’ve waited this long to rake up winter-blown leaves and finish the pruning.  Once woodies begin to bud and bloom, cold nights like these can ruin tender petals and leaves.  I’ve learned its wise to not rush the season, but to wait and see what more winter weather may come our way.

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The earliest of our daffodils have begun to open.  They are tough, and bounce back from cold nights and late snow.

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Rather than rushing, this March I’m going to savor what comes into leaf or bloom each day.  Each small flower, every tiny bud swelling on a branch, every bit of emerging perennial pushing up through the muddy earth is beautiful.

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Acanthus ‘Whitewater’ is ready to grow.

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Perhaps it is better to savor spring slowly; to re-discover the treasures of awakening plant life  in miniature.

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The smallest parsley seed holds wonder and promises magic.  From small beginnings, beautiful gardens will surely grow.

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Begonia starts, waiting….

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Rejoice in small things

and they will continue to grow”
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Slaven Vujic

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“This is the only advice I offer you.

Pick the small thing, and carry it on.

Let it change your life.” .

Anna White

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“First achieve small things

and you will achieve great things ultimately…

and no one will forget.”
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Bidemi Mark-Mordi

Green Thumb Tip # 22: Do the Math

Green Thumb Tip # 21: The Mid-Summer Snack 

 

 

 

Six on Saturday: The Greening of the World

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“I can breathe where there is green.

Green grows hope.

It keeps my heart beating

and helps me remember

who I am.”
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Courtney M. Privett

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The first daffodils of spring opened in our forest garden yesterday.

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Watching the greening of the world each spring never fails to fill me with appreciation to live in such a beautiful place.  How many people live in cities or arid lands that remain clothed in shades of grey and brown throughout the year?

Without winter, I’m not sure that I would appreciate the living greens of February so much.  At the moment, every emerging leaf and stem excites me.

I want to photograph them and watch their daily progress as new growth emerges from woody stems and muddy earth.

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Green is the color of life, of growth, of change.  The simple chemistry of transforming sunlight into living bio-energy happens only in the green.  The alchemy of transforming polluted air into pure; the creation of oxygen to fill our every breath requires green leaves to filter every inhalation of breath we take.  Green sustains our lives even as it soothes our spirit.

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This is the season when the first tentative bits of green re-appear from the warming Earth.  Perennials re-awaken and stretch folded leaves and lengthening stems, reaching for sunlight and warmth.  Moss plumps and spreads,  tiny weeds and blades of grass sprout from patient seeds.

I am glad to find them all, encouraged at the stubbornness and determination of greening life to prevail over the forces of darkness.  The old and rotting will be swept away to return to the compost pile of history, releasing its remaining energy to fuel what is vital and new.

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“Pursue some path,

however narrow and crooked,

in which you can walk with love and reverence.”
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Henry David Thoreau

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Green is the soul of Spring.

Summer may be dappled with yellow,

Autumn with orange and Winter with white

but Spring is drenched with the colour green.”
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Paul Kortepeter

Unum de multis: Multiplying Succulents

Newly planted jade plant cutting, removed from an older plant after it rooted into the air.

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Succulent plants serve as living sculpture with their emphatic forms, slow growth, and unusual colors.  Most gardeners either adore them or avoid them.  They feel a little alien to most of us Virginia gardeners, as there are very few native succulents in our landscapes.

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Some gardeners find succulents a bit too prickly and spiny for comfort.  And the majority of succulents aren’t hardy through our winters.  We have to treat them as annuals or bring them indoors for months of the year.

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These succulents are hardy, and are beginning their spring growth outside in the Table Bed at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden

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Succulents want loose, sandy and rocky soil and bright light.  Some need full sun, others bright but indirect light and warmth.  Their needs are simple, and I’ve killed more succulents with too much water than by any stretch of neglect.

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This succulent planting grew happily on our front porch in the summer of 2013.  A gravel mulch helps keep these moisture-sensitive plants happy.

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That said, I absolutely pour over photos of succulent planting schemes in sunny California gardens.  Many gardeners in dry regions use succulents in every size from tiny to epic in their landscapes as focal points, ground covers, thrillers, fillers and spillers.  Their compositions are bright and colorful, and they absolutely intrigue me.  Once succulent plants mature, they produce oddly beautiful flowers.

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Plants that may be inexpensive and readily available in the western states are harder to find and pricier here in Virginia garden centers.  You can mail order wonderful succulents from suppliers like Plant Delights near Raleigh, NC; but please have that credit card handy.

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I just bought this little collection of succulents on the houseplant sale last weekend at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond, specifically to break them apart for propagation.

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I have a project in mind for this coming summer to create a hanging basket covered in succulents.  Planting up the interior of the basket with succulents won’t be difficult.  I plan to use an assortment of hardy Sedums already on hand, with some red ‘hens and chicks’ and a single spiky Agave or Aloe for the ‘thriller.’

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Use hardy succulents as ground cover around spring bulbs. Enjoy this display at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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I want to cover the outside of the coco liner in succulents, too.  That will take a lot of individual plants.  To effectively plant the outside of the basket, it will be easier to slip each plant in through a slit in the liner if each plant has a very small root system: in other words, if I use rooted cuttings.

Some designers will suggest using succulent stem cuttings and allowing them to root in place.  This would work, but I want to give the plants a little head start and I don’t have enough stem cuttings for the project.

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Potted plants have too much root mass to slip through a slit in a coco basket liner, without damaging the roots.

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I’ve been playing around with potted arrangements of succulents for years- with mixed success.  They all look pretty good for a while.  We often get so much rain at once that it saturates the soil, even with specially mixed soil that contains lots of sand and gravel.  I try to remember to set succulent pots back under the eaves when a lot of rain is forecast.  Succulents sometimes struggle in our humidity and rainy summer weather.

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Collection of succulents, August 2014

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Without a heated greenhouse, I doubt I’ll ever achieve the horticultural succulent splendor possible for Southern California and Arizona gardeners.  Our climate will never allow for me to let our succulent arrangements live and grow outside year round long enough to really fill in and mature.  That takes years….

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Succulents with thick, waxy leaves release very little water into the air. They are built for hot, dry conditions and may rot if their soil remains saturated for too long.  This Echeveria has produced chicks that I want to grow on to mature, independent plants.

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Lately, I’ve been inspired to study succulent propagation again.  A good, practical resource is Debra Lee Baldwin’s book, Succulent Container Gardens. 

This is an ‘eye candy’ book that surveys the major genera of succulents appropriate to grow in various containers.  I like this book because it covers all of the important topics like soils and pot selection, design, plant care, and also succulent plant propagation.

The most common error in trying to root succulent cuttings is trying to rush the process.  Leaf cuttings and stem cuttings need a few days to air dry and ‘scab’ over, before any attempt to root them.  Many succulents will strike roots directly into humid air, even generating tiny new plants, without the cut end of the stem in either soil or water.

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This Jade plant spontaneously grew roots, indicating to me that this stem wants a fresh start in its own pot.

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This is counter-intuitive for many of us.  We want to stick that cut end into something moist so the plant can suck up water and survive.

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Do you see the roots that have started to grow from the stem?

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I won’t admit how many times I’ve found a dropped succulent leaf and dropped it, cut side down, into a pot hoping it would root.  Before roots can grow, a damp succulent stem will more likely rot.  Even with the pups off of an Echeveria, the stems want a few days to scab over before you secure them in some sandy soil to root and grow on.

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I took this stem cutting from the jade plant three days ago, and you can see that the stem has dried and calloused over.

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After researching several different rooting methods for succulent leaf cuttings, I have prepared a large clear plastic storage box by first cleaning it with disinfectant, and then lining the bottom of the box with a single layer of paper towel to wick any moisture evenly through the medium.  I covered that with a 1″ layer of clean horticultural sand.  That’s it…

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I bought a selection of small succulent plants on a special sale last weekend for this project, and have twisted most of the leaves off of each plant.  Twist, don’t cut, because each leaf needs a tiny bit of stem tissue still attached.  If the petiole breaks ahead of the stem, the leaf may not strike roots.

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See how the leaf cutting on the right already have begun to root and grow new plants? This had happened while the leaves were still attached to the mother plant.

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I’ve cut the top off of each plant, leaving 1/4″-1/2″ of stem attached.  I’ve kept the rooted plants in their original pots, watered them, and have set them aside in a bright place to regenerate themselves.  I expect small ‘pups’ to begin to grow along the stems where leaves were removed.  This will likely take 6 weeks to two months before the pups may be large enough to remove and grow on.

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I expect these rooted stems to also generate new plants at the leaf nodes. All of the nodes are stimulated when I removed the top of the stem.  One of the plants didn’t have enough stem to take a cutting, but it will continue to grow.

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At the moment, all of the new stem cuttings are just sitting on top of the sand, in bright but indirect light, while they callous over.  I’ll probably wait until Friday before adding just enough water to the edges of the box to slightly moisten the paper towels and the sand.  No wet sand!  Just a little moisture in the mix before I cover the box with clear plastic.  A dry cleaner bag or clear leaf bag will work for this, and I’ll leave a little vent for air exchange to discourage mold.  I expect the leaves to remain hydrated from the moisture in the air, and tiny roots to grow into the air to absorb that moisture.

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If all goes well, I should have a good selection of tiny succulent plants with sufficient root growth to construct that succulent basket in late April.  If all the leaf cuttings root and produce new plants, I’ll have plenty left for additional succulent projects this spring.

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There is a layer of fine gravel in this pot, topped by special succulent potting mix. I added additional sand to the mix, dampened it, and then planted the rooted jade plant.  The cutting will probably grow in this pot for a year or more before it needs repotting.

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The succulent pots I’ve overwintered in past years have all grown ‘leggy’ growing inside with insufficient light over winter.  Now, I understand better how to work with those leggy  plants to cut them back and stimulate growth, using the cuttings to generate fresh plants.

When our local garden centers begin to fill with plants next month I will look at the succulents on offer with a different eye.  Rather than choosing a plant to use immediately in some planting scheme, I think I’ll be more likely to look at some less desirable plants for their ‘parts.’

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Out of one, many….. 

Once you understand how plants grow and regenerate, it becomes easier to work with their natural proclivities to generate as many individuals as you need.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

Six (or more?) Surprises on Saturday

Scilla

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This past week has been filled with surprises.  We swept right out of the fringe and frigid edges of the so-called ‘Polar Vortex’ into a few days of balmy spring weather.  The last three days have been as near to perfect weather as one could possibly hope for in February in Virginia.

Its been warm, dry, and sometimes a little sunny these past few days.  Signs of spring are literally bursting out of ground, buds on trees are swelling and those of us already itching to get busy for spring have heeded the call to come out of the cozy house and outdoors to make use of these unexpected days.

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The first of our red Camellia japonica bloomed this week.

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I’ve spent many happy hours outside these past several days flitting like some crazed butterfly from one part of the garden to the next, looking for growth even as I got on with the business of pruning and clearing beds.   We actually spotted a butterfly on Wednesday afternoon.

We don’t know whether it awoke from its chrysalis too soon, or migrated too far north too early.  Its orange and brown wings caught our eye as it fluttered around some old cedar trees, an unusual color to find in the garden in February.  It may have been a Fritillary; we didn’t get close enough to do more than determine it wasn’t an early Monarch.  We were both very surprised to see it, and wish it well and safe shelter as we return to more seasonable temperatures this weekend.

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Our first Iris reticulata of the season. This cultivar is ‘Pauline.’ Squirrels have been digging around this patch of bulbs and I’ve repaired their damage several times. I’m happily surprised to discover these blooming.

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The butterfly turned up a day after we found a honeybee feeding on the Mahonia, and the same day we found a colony of ground bees awake and foraging near the ravine.  I was glad to notice the ground bees buzzing around as I headed their way with a cart full of pruned branches…. before they noticed me!  I didn’t stumble into them and they didn’t feel a need to warn me off.

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The first leaves of daffodils remind us where we’ve planted in years gone by, and entice us with the promise of flowers on their way.

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We saw our first blooming daffodils of the year, blooming beside the fence at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.  We discovered the first blooming Iris histrioides of the year, the first dandelion of the season shining golden in our ‘lawn,’ and the first ruby red Camellia japonica flowers on the shrubs near the street.

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Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’ planted out several years ago, after devastating damage from caterpillars one summer.  It has been very slow to recover and slow to grow.  Its beautiful leaves make it worth the effort.

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The most interesting surprise came yesterday afternoon when I placed a cutting of our Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’, that has been growing in our garden for the last several years, into a one of the little shrubs I believed to be a variegated English holly.

We bought these shrubs as English holly in November of 2017 at a chain home improvement store and sporting a big name plant tag.  I never questioned the label and have written about them as English holly over the past few years.

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Can you spot the cutting taken from our Osmanthus growing in the upper garden?

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But them California horticulturalist Tony Tomeo called me out.  He commented on the post about taking stem cuttings, saw the little holly cuttings with the eyes of experience, and told me that what I was calling variegated English holly was, in fact, variegated false holly, Osmanthus ‘Goshiki.’

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Now you see it… an exact match …

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It took me a day to process what was so plain to him.  I photographed my shrubs, took a cutting from an older Osmanthus and set it seamlessly into the holly in a pot by our kitchen door.  Their leaves were identical.  Tony was correct and I had missed it in my own garden.

This is actually very good news.  At maturity, the Osmanthus will grow to only half the size of an English holly.  It has softer leaves and tolerates full shade.  An English holly wants full sun, which is hard to find in our garden.  Correctly identifying the shrub has proven a happy surprise for us.

Today we settle back into winter clothes and winter routines, but my heart is awake to the energy of spring.  I’m motivated to continue the clean-up and pruning; polishing the garden stage for the next act waiting in the wings: spring.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

Many thanks to The Propagator for hosting Six on Saturday each week.

Unum de multis: Horticultural Multiplication

Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’

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Unum de multis:  Out of one, many…

That is one of the wonders of the plant kingdom!

It took several trips and quite a few hours of shopping to finally source a few little variegated English holly shrubs in the fall of 2017.  Although these were clearly labeled as Ilex aquifoliumn, as it turns out, they are actually Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’.

I accepted the plants at face value, believing the big name label on the shrubs that identified them as English holly.  It was a very knowledgeable reader of Forest Garden, California Horticulturalist Tony Tomeo, who pointed out the error and set me on the path to a correct identification of the shrubs.

Sometimes known as ‘false holly’, Osmanthus is a beautiful and useful evergreen shrub from Asia.  This particular shrub is called ‘Goshiki’ because the leaf exhibits five different colors during its development:  pink, cream, yellow, orange and white, in addition to green.  It is a beautiful plant in growth, with the new growth showing the most color.

I’ve grown this plant over the past several years and have it elsewhere in the garden.  It goes to show how quickly we will believe and accept how things are labeled, that I didn’t recognize the error in labeling right away.  It took Tony’s nudge for me to compare the two leaves side by side.

Out of the several plants finally located, two survived that very cold winter and finicky spring to live on into 2019.

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Our shrub newly planted in 2017

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My several attempts to locate  small English holly shrubs for planting projects this fall proved unsuccessful, and I ended up substituting other plants late into the season.  It goes with the territory that available plants change season to season and year to year.  A gardener can never take for granted that a particular plant will be available when needed.

That is why it pays to learn how to propagate your own plants, so that once you have one of some special something, you can generate more as needed.

Now, it isn’t technically difficult to propagate most plants.  But depending on what you are trying to grow, and the time of year, some special equipment may be necessary.  Without a greenhouse, propagation box, heat mat, lights or misters, it can be challenging to achieve the results that commercial growers can produce.

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Yet it is amazing what you can do at home, with little equipment, once you understand some basic principles.  A great resource for all types of propagation, including sowing seeds, is Making More Plants by Ken Druse.  This is a clearly written, beautifully illustrated guide that teaches me some new trick each time I re-read it.

There are several types of stem cuttings one can make, and their advantage is that a rooted stem eventually grows into a clone of the parent plant.  Stem cuttings are generally low-tech, easy and quick.  And I have learned a few little tricks that increase my chances of success without a greenhouse or fancy set-up.

Simply put, the challenge of a stem cutting is to have the stem strike roots while the leaves continue to live, and before the stem begins to rot.  That means that plants with large leaves need enough water flow through the stem to support the leaves, even before roots begin to grow.  And, the rooting has to occur in a way that doesn’t allow the stem to clog up, or begin to decay, before the roots can grow.

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This method of rooting stem cuttings is nearly 100% successful for Christmas cactus cuttings.

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Most commercial growers place stem cuttings into a damp, soil-less medium to root.  They then put the stems into a heated, lit, enclosed space for a few weeks while roots form.  Enclosing the stems increases humidity, which benefits the leaves.  Bottom heat speeds the process, and adequate light is required for photosynthesis.

Getting an herbaceous stem to root in a water is a bit easier.  Water is more easily available and so the leaves are well-supplied.  But, water grown roots are structurally different from soil-grown roots.  The plant will need to quickly re-grow new roots once it is planted in soil.

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These coleus cuttings had been rooting in water for not quite two weeks.

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I am using a hybrid method to get my little holly cuttings to root.  The container is a recycled aluminum loaf pan without any drainage holes.  There is a half-inch of clean, fine aquarium gravel in the bottom of the pan, topped with some clean peat based potting soil, and then topped off with fresh vermiculite.  I watered this well to wet all of the soil and also create a shallow reservoir in the bottom of the pan.

After pruning the shrub I want to clone, I trimmed the cuttings to only a couple of inches long and set then into a shallow cup of water.  A smaller cutting can be more successful because there is less plant tissue to support while it grows roots.  Remove the bottom couple of pairs of leaves from the cutting, dip the cut end into powdered rooting hormone,  and stick the cutting into the pan so that the exposed leaf nodes are in the soil.

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A clear dome holds humidity so the cuttings won’t wilt while they root. Make sure to vent the dome each day to allow fresh air inside.

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Take care that the cuttings don’t touch one another and that their leaves don’t touch the soil.  This helps limit any molding or transmission of disease.

Once all the cuttings were trimmed and stuck, I put the pan into a re-cycled bakery cake container that has a clear, domed lid.  I set the container on a low table beside a window that gets strong morning light. There is also a fluorescent bulb burning in a nearby lamp.  There is no bottom heat provided, but the room is warm and the sun provides additional warmth.

I expect these cuttings to strike roots sometime this month.  The best way to tell that roots have developed is when new growth appears.  One can also tug lightly on the cutting, expecting to feel a little resistance once roots form.  Tugging too soon might damage newly forming roots, so it really isn’t smart to try this too soon.

Once the cuttings have an inch or so of new roots, each can be potted up into a 3″ or 4″ nursery pot and set outside in sheltered, shady spot.  It is important to keep the new shrubs well watered through their first few years so they never completely dry out.

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Another method, for herbaceous or very soft woody stems, involves a wine glass and a little bit of gravel.  Again, using relatively small cuttings, rest the cut end of the stems in the spaces in the gravel and add only enough water to cover the bottom portion of the stem.  Maintaining shallow water allows roots to form without exposing much of the stem to potential rot.  The wine glass itself helps enclose the stems, increasing humidity for the leaves.

Again, work with short tip cuttings of stems, trim the bottom leaves from the stem, and dip each cutting into rooting hormone before placing it in the glass.  Make sure the water stays fresh and at a fairly constant level.  If ever the water looks cloudy, rinse out the glass, rinse off the stems and replace the water with fresh.

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This glass of Spanish lavender cuttings sits near a sheltered window where the cuttings will get indirect light all day.  I expect roots to form so these can be potted up by early March.  The mother plant is one I search out each year and only sometimes can find.  It is a hardy perennial and one of the earliest lavenders to flower each spring.  Once these stems root, I expect to start another batch of this particular lavender.

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This is Spanish lavender, L. stoechas ‘Otto Quast,’ with its ‘rabbit ears’ atop the flower.

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Once you get the knack of stem cuttings, you can beg a cutting from a gardening friend and ‘grow your own.’  You can create multiples of the plants you enjoy most in your garden, or produce clones to pass on to others.  A neighbor populated her yard with beautiful Azalea shrubs she started herself from cuttings decades ago.

There is tremendous satisfaction in knowing how to create several new plants from a single original.   It empowers the gardener, saves a great deal of cash, and allows us to have more of those plants we most enjoy.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

More on planting pots with shrubs, bulbs and perennials for winter

 

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