Unum de multis: Multiplying Succulents

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

~

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.

~

~

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.

~

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

~

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.

~

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

~

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.

~

~

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.

~

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.

~

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.’

~

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

~

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.

~

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

~

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.

~

Collection of succulents, August 2014

~

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….

~

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.

~

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.

~

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

~

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.

~

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

~

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.

~

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

~

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…

~

~

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.

~

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.

~

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.

~

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.

~

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.

~

~

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.

~

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.

~

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.’

~

~

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.

~
~
Woodland Gnome 2019

 

Advertisements

Caladiums Year to Year

Caladium ‘Florida Sweetheart’ grown from a single bulb we dug last fall and overwintered.

~

Caladiums are tender perennials, growing bigger and better each year in warm climates where they may be left undisturbed.  The catch is that they are tropical by nature, and want to stay warm, even when dormant.

The general rule of thumb tells us to store them at 60F or warmer, even when the tuber is dormant.  Certainly, one would want to bring them indoors in any climate where the soil temperature dips below 60F, right?  Not necessarily…

~

~

Admiring my friend’s Caladium bed last week, she told me that they had overwintered in place.  She’d never gotten around to digging them, and just piled some leaves on their bed at the base of a small tree.  Voila!  They emerged this spring, bigger and better than they had been in 2016.

Now, understand that my friend is a gifted gardener.  She always amazes me with what she grows and how she does it so artfully.  She is the friend who inspired me with a rooted Caladium leaf sprouting new leaves while growing in a glass of water on her kitchen windowsill.

~

Inspired by my friend, I successfully rooted this Caladium leaf last month.  I pulled it accidentally when weeding a bed at my parents’ home, and placed it in water right away.  If the Caladium’s petiole has a bit of the tuber attached, then it has the potential to root, regrow a new tuber, and produce additional leaves.  Once the roots were several inches long, I planted this rooted leaf in moist peat and sand.

~

This same friend showed me Caladiums growing in a half whiskey barrel last summer, which she explained had overwintered in place.  She had thrown some mulch in the barrel in fall. The Caladiums surprised her when they emerged the following May.  This encourages me to re-think the art of keeping Caladiums going year to year.

My friend and I both garden in a suburb of Williasmburg, Virginia, on the cusp between USDA Zone 7b and 8.  We generally get at least a week or two of very cold weather, with night time temperatures in the teens, or lower.  We get quite a few nights in the 20s over a period of at least four months.

Our climate allows frost from mid-October through until late April.  We definitely get winter, and we are by no means tropical here; though I would argue that we have tropical heat and humidity for several months in the summer.

~

Caladium ‘White Christmas’ and C. ‘Florida Sweetheart’ share the pot. 

~

Most gardeners in our area grow Caladiums as annuals.  We don’t really expect to keep them year to year.  This is good business for the growers and garden centers who sell us gorgeous Caladiums in 6″ pots each summer.  But it also causes some to shy away from investing in these sometimes pricey foliage plants.  They would rather buy annual packs each spring, or invest in hardy perennials.

Yet Caladiums are surprisingly easy to keep from year to year.  The benefit is not only the savings, but also the superior tubers developed by an older plant.  You see, the underground tuber, from which the individual leaves grow, gets a bit bigger and beefier each year.  More eyes develop, allowing more points of growth for leaves to emerge.  This beautiful Caladium ‘Florida Sweetheart’ grew from a single tuber dug last autumn, kept overwinter, and re-planted in April.

~

~

When you order Caladium tubers, the grower often offers anything from a tiny dime sized ‘starter’ tuber, up to a ‘jumbo’ or even ‘colossal’ tuber.  Once the tubers sprout, you’ll see the difference in how many leaves each tuber can produce.

Each leaf’s height is determined largely by the characteristics of the variety.  But the number of leaves produced, and the density of the plant, is determined by the size of the tuber.

~

Caladium tubers as they arrive from the grower, ready to plant.  An eye has already sprouted on the tuber on the right.  This is the point from which new leaves will grow.

~

This is why growing a tuber for several years allows it to grow larger, and more spectacular, with each year’s additional growth.  You can order a ‘jumbo’ tuber from the grower, or you can eventually grow it yourself from a small starter.

~

Expect each Caladium leaf to last for many months. New leaves continue to emerge when the plant is well watered and well fed.  A perennial Begonia shares the  pot with this Caladium.

~

There are several tricks to growing beautiful Caladiums.  They prefer consistently moist soil, they appreciate a steady supply of nutrition, and they want space to expand.  I often grow them in mixed planters, but a Caladium develops more of its potential if it isn’t competing too much with other plants.

Older Caladium varieties wanted shade.  The newer cultivars are bred to grow in brighter light, with some even tolerating full sun.  The leaves develop with slightly different coloration depending on the light, and the ready availability of water and minerals in the soil.  Caladiums grown in bright light will remain a little more compact.  Grown in shade, the leaves will grow a bit taller and lankier.

~

Most Caladiums perform well in hanging baskets.  This is C. ‘Postman Joyner.’  Postman F. M. Joyner bred many varieties of Caladiums in the late 1930s and early 40s.  He lived and worked in Tampa, Florida, and named this one for himself.

~

When the nights grow cool in autumn, it is time to plan for each Caladium’s winter vacation.  You might have success with simply mulching the bed, as did my friend.  But if you want to save a special Caladium, try the grower’s approach:

  1.  Dig each Caladium tuber, being careful not to damage it.  Rinse the soil off the tuber and roots, and remove the remaining leaves.  ( I often put the best leaves in a vase of water indoors.)  Sort the tubers by variety if that matters to you.
  2. Allow the tubers to air dry for several weeks in a fairly warm spot.  I lay them in paper lined flats in our garage.  Turn them occasionally so that all surfaces dry.
  3. Growers often dust the tubers with an anti-fungal powder, especially if there are broken or exposed places on the tuber.
  4. Remove any remaining bits of root or stem, and pack the dried tubers loosely into a mesh bag or cardboard box with rice hulls, wood shavings, or dry peat.  I pile my mesh bags of tubers into a paper grocery bag, and store the bag in a closet.  Indoors, the tubers stay above 65F all winter.

~

I moved this cluster of Caladiums from a very shallow pot to this basket in mid-August. C. ‘White Delight’ is bred for full sun, which it receives in this location.  Notice that in bright light the plant has stayed very compact.  Leaves vary from soft green in deep shade to bright white in sun.  The tubers were tiny in April,  just dime-sized bits that had fallen off larger tubers in transit.

~

I’ve also had good success bringing potted Caladiums indoors.  Although they may lose their leaves over winter, the tubers sprout the following spring and grow on.  They perform best kept in our living room, near large windows, where they may sprout new leaves in late January or February.

But I also have fair luck with potted Caladiums kept overwinter in our frost-free attached garage.  I keep potted Colocasia and Alocasia tubers overwinter in the basement, and believe I could do the same with potted Caladiums.

~

C. “Carolyn Wharton” grew from a tuber we overwintered for my parents, and replanted this spring.  This variety can grow exceptionally large leaves on long stems.  This variety is old enough that it isn’t patented, and so new plants may be produced from leaf cuttings or division.

~

I’ve learned that Caladiums perform better if given fresh, enriched soil each spring.  Although they will keep growing in soil left from the previous season, their growth is less spectacular.

I mix some Espoma organic fertilizer with the fresh potting soil, pot up the sprouted tubers, and then top dress with time release Osmocote.  I’ll also add some fish emulsion, or other water soluble fertilizer, once a month or so when I water them.  Caladiums are heavy feeders and produce more leaves when well-fed.

~

~

If you enjoy growing an abundance of Caladiums, as we do, it certainly pays to make the small efforts required to keep them going year to year.   These are very versatile plants which may be used for hanging baskets, pots, bedding, mass displays, and mixed planters.  Shorter varieties are good ‘socks and shoes’ ground cover for larger plants.  They come in a wide range of colors and leaf patterns, and are one of the few plants to grow reliably in the shade.

Preserve your favorites from season to season, even as you sample a few new varieties each year.  You will be so happy to see your tubers grow and increase with each passing year.

~

‘Florida Moonlight’ Caladiums grow with perennial Begonia in this pot devoted, during the winter, to Hellebores.  The Hellebore is peeking out, along with a Columbine. Dormant daffodil and Muscari bulbs rest in the soil.

~

Woodland Gnome 2017
~

 

 

Nurturing Endangered Pitcher Plants

Sarracenia flava at one time grew wild around Jamestown, Virginia

~

There are several good reasons to grow our native North American pitcher plants.  Maybe you enjoy chic, sculptural foliage plants, and are curious to try growing something new.  Maybe you want a striking plant that you can grow in a very small, sunny spot on your deck.  Maybe you care about preserving endangered plant species.  Or maybe, you would just enjoy growing something that will help reduce the population of ants and mosquitoes in your garden.

~

~

If you think that you need to construct a special boggy bed to grow these beauties, you might be pleased to see that there is a clean and simple way to grow them.   You can create a mini-bog in a bowl, and grow your pitcher of choice for several years with little fuss or effort.

North American pitcher plants, Sarracenia, are endangered because so much of their natural habitat, along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, has been drained and developed.  There is precious little land left where they can naturally grow undisturbed.  Enthusiasts all over North America have risen to the challenge of preserving, and further hybridizing these unusual plants in private gardens.

~

~

There are a few basic conditions they need for survival, and these are conditions many of us can provide.

First, the soil:  Sarracenia naturally grow in acidic, peaty bogs.  Peat comes from decomposing mosses.  There is little nutrition in this soil, but there is a measure of sand.  Standard potting mixes aren’t a good choice, and pitcher plants won’t do well planted into clay or compost.   However peat is readily available in most places where other specialized potting mixes are sold.  Mix peat and sand together, and you have a good mix for growing your own pitcher plants.

Second, pitcher plants prefer full sun.  They will grow in partial sun, but their colors are better, and growth more vigorous, if you give them six or more hours of sun each day.

Pitcher plants want consistently moist soil.  Don’t let the soil dry out.  It should vary in moisture content, though, from fully hydrated to moist.  In other words, let the pitcher plants’ roots get some air from time to time so they don’t rot from constant standing water.  You also don’t want the water in their soil to sour.

Finally, all Sarracenia need a few months of winter dormancy each year.  In other words, don’t try to grow them as houseplants and keep them growing year round.  Allow them a few months of rest, even if you live in zones 9 or 10.

You can leave your Sarracenia outdoors in the winter, unless you live north of Zone 7.  Then, be guided by the natural zone of the species you are growing.  Some species can survive colder temperatures than others.  But you may be able to keep tender Sarracenia through the winter in a cold frame or cold greenhouse, even if you are living in Zone 5 or colder.

~

~

If you can provide moist, peaty soil and full sun, you can grow a pitcher plant.  Just remember that they are carnivorous, and the insects that wander into their tubular leaves provide all the nutrition they need, in addition to the sugars produced during photosynthesis.  Never add fertilizer to your pitcher plants.

You can create your own little container bog in a pot.  Choose a pot that will be large enough to hold your plant when it grows to maturity.  While some pitchers, like Sarracenia purpurea may grow to only a few inches tall, other species, like Sarracenia flava may grow to 40″ or more.   Taller pitchers will need more substantial pots, of course.

~

I ordered Sarracenia ‘Tarnok’ from Sarracenia Northwest about a month ago. It has been growing on in its nursery pot in my larger bog garden since. But now I’m ready to move it to a miniature bog garden on my deck.

~

If your pot has a drainage hole, then keep it in a shallow container with an inch or two of standing water.  If your pot doesn’t have a drain hole, then let the soil begin to dry out a little bit in the top few inches between waterings.  Many experts suggest watering with rainwater, spring or distilled water.  I have to admit that I often use tap water.

~

This is the first  pitcher plant I brought home some years ago. Planted in a mixture of peat and sand, the pot sat in a saucer filled with gravel and water.

~

Abundant moss often covers the natural bogs where pitcher plants grow in the wild.  Moss is the appropriate ground cover for a container bog, as well.   The pitcher plant you find at a local garden center, or that you order through the mail, may already have moss growing in its pot when you get it.  Just keep the soil moist, and that moss will keep on growing.

If your new pitcher doesn’t come with its own moss, you can transplant moss you collect onto the soil of your container bog.

I prefer to cover the bottom of my closed container with a few inches of sand to serve as a drainage area and reservoir.  Then, I fill the rest of the container with a moist blend of pure peat and coarse sand.  You can make your mix with up to half sand.  My mix is about 1/4 sand by volume.

~

~

Pack the peat mixture fairly tightly in the bottom and onto the sides of your pot, leaving a well about the same size as the pitcher’s nursery pot.  Carefully tip the nursery pot over, supporting the soil mass with one hand, leaves through your spread fingers, and tap the bottom and sides to loosen the root ball.

Gently invert the freed roots, original soil, and leaves as you slip the entire mass into the well you’ve created.  Gently pack additional moist peat mix into any open space around your plant’s roots.

Leave an inch or so of head space between the top of the finished soil and the rim of your pot, then gently water until there is a little standing water on top of the soil.

Finish your pot with bits of wild moss, if you choose, or with fine, clean gravel.   I often add a few bits of glass or stones on top of the soil, too.

~

Pitcher plant, Sarracenia leucophylla, native to the Southeastern United States, in its first season in our garden.  I eventually moved this growing plant into a larger pot and added it to our bog garden.

~

Site your new pitcher plant in any sunny spot outdoors where you can relax and enjoy it.  Even though your newly purchased plant may have tiny leaves when you get it, it will bulk up with time.  Soon, you will see it mature into its potential.

I usually move my potted bog gardens under shelter in heavy rain, since there is nowhere for overflow to drain.  While the plants won’t mind sitting in water for a day or two, let the excess water evaporate so the top few inches of soil are just moist before watering again.  Peat holds a lot of water, and you never want it to dry out entirely.

Just as in nature, let the moisture content of the soil vary.

~

Pitcher plants are found in abundance  at Forest Lane Botanicals in York County, where owner Alan Wubbels propagates several species.

~

I began with a single pitcher.  I was a little unsure whether I was really interested in pitcher plants, but soon grew fascinated with these strangely beautiful plants.  My collection continues to grow, and my ‘wish list’ for different species and cultivars grows as I learn more about them.

You will find many sources for native pitcher plants once you begin looking for them.  I bought an unnamed Sarracenia at the Great Big Greenhouse in the Richmond area this spring.  They had a fine display of various carnivorous plants, and I bought a Venus flytrap, which is native to coastal North Carolina, at the same time.

~

The Venus flytrap is another native carnivorous plant that has become endangered in recent years as its natural habitat has been developed. These are hardy and relatively easy to grow, if you provide the growing conditions they require.  The leaves close to digest insects that wander onto the leaf pads. 

~

I hope you will give these beautiful plants a try.  Maybe you, too, will discover their charm and beauty, and will dedicate a bit of your gardening space to preserving these amazing native carnivorous  plants.

Woodland Gnome 2017
~

Evolution Of A Container Garden

April 2, 2017

~

It is a rare gardener who doesn’t enjoy designing container gardens.  Whether filling a barrel or a basket, a simple clay pot or a beautiful glazed pot from Asia; we can try out ideas for plant combinations in a perfectly controlled environment.  Whether you are simply filling the pots by your front door, or creating an object of art for the season coming, container gardens give us months of enjoyment.

~

November 27, 2016 soon after planting H. ‘Snow Fever’ along with some Viola starts and Creeping Jenny Vine.

~

Container gardens made in autumn, for enjoyment during winter and early spring, present special challenges and special opportunities.  Finding plants which will grow and look good from December into March can be a challenge.  Ice, snow, and frigid, drying wind present challenges for most plants.

But the ability to spice up a potted arrangement with spring bulbs presents a challenging opportunity for the gardener to plan in four dimensions. We can look forward in time to how the bulbs will grow into their potential, interacting with the other plants in our arrangement, months into the future.

~

November 30, 2016

~

Autumn planted container gardens give me particular pleasure.  Planted in late October or November, once summer’s annuals have grown shabby, these arrangements will grow and enliven our comings and goings for the next six months.

~

Our beautiful geranium in June, which lasted well into fall and past the first few frosts.

~

It was already well into November of 2016 when I finally emptied this large white pot of its geranium.  We enjoyed this particular geranium all summer for its vivid, generous flowers.  After it survived the first frost or two, I moved it to a nursery pot in the garage to hold it over for spring, and re-did this pot which stands permanently on our driveway near the back door.

And I refilled the pot with a beautiful Helleborus cultivar that I spotted for the first time this fall, at a local garden center.  I was intrigued by its variegated leaves, and wanted to watch it grow and bloom close up, in this pot we pass daily.

~

Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’ shows intriguing new growth by January 4, 2017.  The Muscari have grown leaves through the moss mulch.

~

It was quite small when we purchased it, but its few leaves promised a beautiful display coming.  This cultivar is a Corsican Hellebore, Helleborus argutifolius, which is a bit more tender than the Helleborus orientalis we more commonly grow.  Corsican Hellebores generally have white, or green tinged flowers.  These were advertised as creamy white, outlined in rosy pink.

~

By late January, we could  see the beginnings of flowers and tender new leaves.

~

When I re-worked this pot in November, I removed most of the Creeping Jenny vine, leaving only a little to grow on through the winter.  Creeping Jenny can take a pot with its extensive root system.  I planted some of the little Viola starts I had on hand to provide a little additional interest while waiting for the Hellebore to bloom.

~

February 15, 2017

~

I had not yet purchased any Grape Hyacinth bulbs, but knew I wanted them in this arrangement, too.  It took me several weeks to finally buy the white Muscari, plant them, and finish the soil surface with moss.

~

February 23, 2017, on a rainy day, the flowers have begun to bloom.  Holly berries fall into the pot and need picking out from time to time.

~

It was already mid-December by the time the potted arrangement was completed.  The Hellebore, ‘Snow Fever,’ was beginning to show some growth.  In a partially sunny spot, warmed by the drive and the nearby garage, this potted arrangement has shelter from the wind on three sides.  Even so, it has weathered inches of snow, night time temperatures into single digits, ice, and wind.

~

By late March, a month later, the Creeping Jenny has grown in and the Muscari have emerged. Grass, embedded in the moss, has grown in, too.

~

I am very happy with how the whole arrangement has come together.  I’ve not only come to love this cultivar of Hellebore, but I’ve also learned that this combination of plants looks great together. ( In retrospect, I almost wish I had planted a white Viola rather than the red.  But the red certainly ‘pops!’ against the other colors!)

~

April 2, 2017

~

I will plan to plant more white  Muscari this fall  around Hellebores out  in the garden.  Moss makes a beautiful ground cover around Hellebores.  And for all of its vigor, Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia, works well in winter container gardens.

It began growing quite early and has filled out nicely this spring, in time to compliment the flowers.  Its chartreuse leaves work well with the pale Helleborus’s colors and with the Muscari.  Creeping Jenny remains evergreen when planted out in the garden, and forms an attractive ground cover around perennials and shrubs.

When planning your own container gardens, especially ones to enjoy through the winter, remember that foliage is as important, or maybe even more important, than flowers.

~

This H. ‘Snow Fever’ grows elsewhere in the garden, sheltered under tall shrubs. Its new leaves begin almost white, and green up as they grow.

~

The foliage in your arrangement will fill your pot for many weeks longer than the more transient flowers.  So try to include a  plant or two with showy, interesting leaves.  Besides Hellebores; Arum italicum, Ajuga, Lysimachia, Heuchera and evergreen ferns do well in our climate.

It is only early April.  This container garden will continue to grow and change until I reclaim the pot for another geranium.  When I do, everything growing here now will be planted out into the garden.  All are perennials, save the Viola, and will grow for years to come.

~

~

When constructing your own container gardens, follow a few simple tips to get the most from the plants you choose:

  1.  Choose a large enough container for all of the roots to grow.  Bulbs produce large root systems.  If you plant a lot of bulbs, the pot will get very congested unless you begin with a large pot.
  2. Choose plants with similar needs for light, moisture and soil PH. Plan for your plants to grow to different heights for an efficient use of space.  Soften the pot’s edges with a vine or other plant which will spill over the side.  Plan for a succession of interest falling on different plants as the season progresses.
  3. Don’t overstuff the pot.  Magazines and books on container gardens often feature mature plants packed in tightly.  If the pot looks ‘finished’ from day one, your plants aren’t left with much room to grow.  The strong will crowd out the weak, and none will grow to their full potential.  Leave room for growth in your designs.
  4. Begin with a good quality potting mix, and stir in additional fertilizer at planting time.  I often re-use at least some of the potting mix from the previous season.  But I stir in Espoma Plant Tone before adding new plants, finish with fresh potting soil, and generally top dress the finished container with a slow release product like Osmocote.
  5. Mulch the top of your finished planting with gravel, moss, or some other mulch.  It keeps the foliage cleaner in heavy rains and helps conserve moisture.
  6. Boost the plants from time to time with an organic liquid feed from a product like Neptune’s Harvest.  Fish and seaweed based products add important trace minerals and help the soil remain biologically active.
  7. Groom plants regularly to remove spent flowers, brown leaves, and any trash which has blown or fallen into the pot from other nearby plants.  Pull small weeds or grass as they sprout from a moss mulch.  If a plant is struggling or dying, don’t hesitate to pull it out.
  8. Place your pots where you will see them daily.  Enjoy their ever changing beauty as they brighten your days.

    ~

    Woodland Gnome 2017

    ~

Autumn Makeover

october-4-2016-pots-010

~

This is a good time to refresh our pots for the coming seasons.  In our climate, we have a good six months to enjoy cool-season arrangements.  I like to construct pots which will remain attractive from autumn through until early spring.  Sometimes, these same pots will make it through the following summer with minor adjustments.  This saves time, money, and makes decorating the patio or garden simple.

My favorite formula for a multi-season pot flows from the well know “thriller, filler, spiller” rule.  To construct a pot with staying power, combine evergreen woodies and perennials with cold-weather annuals, bulbs, evergreen vines and ‘accessories.’  Since this is a long-lived arrangement, plan for the inevitable growth and change these plants will experience over the months coming.

~

January 25, 2016 snow 008

~

Begin with a generous sized pot.  Remember the growing roots of all those plants you include!  Bulbs, especially, produce huge root systems.  You also want the plants to remain in scale with the pot as they grow.  A large pot allows you to leave the arrangement in place for a longer time before you need to re-pot or plant out the shrub.

~

February 23, 2014 spring bulbs 007

~

Glazed pots work well in our climate.  But if your winters grow very cold, you might consider a pot made of materials which won’t crack when  the potting soil freezes and thaws repeatedly.

Choose a good ‘thriller’ plant first.  Most garden centers offer great little evergreen shrubs this time of year.  I chose a dwarf Alberta Spruce in a quart pot.  Whatever shrub you choose, try to fill no more than half your pot’s volume with the shrub’s roots.  Osmanthus , Ilex, Camellia,  Thuja, Mahonia, Arborvitae, Buxus  and Leyland Cypress make beautiful pots, too.

If you are satisfied with woody structure during the winter, you might consider planting a deciduous shrub or small tree that blooms in early spring.  Cercis, Witch-hazel, red twig Dogwood, or fruit trees all work well.

~

Miniature daffodils grow to only 6"-8" tall and work well in spring pots. Plant the entire bulb and foliage out into a permanent spot in the garden when switching out plantings for summer.

~

For a smaller composition, choose a good evergreen perennial instead of a shrub or tree.  I often begin with a Hellebore, which gives great structure and may grow to nearly 2′ high when in bloom.  Arum itallicum is another good choice for a shady location.  Evergreen ferns, Iris, and Heuchera also work well in our Zone 7 winters.

I always plant in a good quality potting soil, amended with fertilizer.  Whether you use slow release Osmocote, Epsoma, or some combination, remember to feed these plants for the best show.  Some gardeners recommend adding good compost or worm castings to the pot when planting shrubs and trees.

~

Potted Mahonia blooming on the patio.

~

Once you’ve chosen your ‘thriller’ plant, consider adding the surprise element of spring blooming bulbs.  Although the flowers may last for only a few weeks, they pack a punch when little else is blooming.  And, their foliage lasts much longer and helps fill in the pot.

You might choose one type of bulb or several, depending on how much space is left.  And bulbs can be ‘stacked’ according to their required planting depth.  Begin by nestling some Daffodil or tulip bulbs around the bottom of the shrub’s roots.  They should be planted at a depth about 3x their size.  Most large bulbs will go about 6-8″ below the soil level.  You might also choose big showy Fritillarias or Alliums, which will bloom a little later.  Cover the large bulbs with a few inches of potting soil, and then lay a layer of Muscari, Crocus, or even Galanthus for earlier flowers.

~

Violas jnder a potted redbud tree grow here with Heuchera and daffodils.

~

Next, fill in around the shrub with cold weather annuals like Violas or Snapdragons, or possibly plant a few seeds for cool weather annuals. These are ‘fillers’ to add interest to your arrangment, and are the plants most likely to get switched out frequently.  Perennial Heuchera, Dianthus, or even herbs like Thyme or Rosemary work well as fillers.

If you like grasses, try an evergreen Carex, Mondo grass, or  Liriope.  These tough evergreens will look great no matter the weather and grow more dense as time goes on.  I’ve transplanted Ajuga ‘Black Scallop’ from elsewhere in the garden for this pot.  Ajuga blooms in the spring.

~

october-4-2016-pots-012~

Finally add some plugs of trailing Ivy or Vinca as ‘spillers’ for your pot.  While I like Ivy, many gardeners avoid it as it can become invasive.  There are many attractive Vincas which will also bloom in the spring, as well as Creeping Jenny and some evergreen varieties of Sedum, like ‘Angelina’ which will continue growing all winter.  I like to finish pots like this with sheets of moss lifted from the garden.

~

Violas

~

You might use moss, pebbles, aquarium gravel, or even cones or mulch to finish the pot.  This layer looks neat, adds interest, and can help insulate the soil during a freeze.

~

January 15, 2015 ice garden 028

~

The beauty of a potted arrangement like this only increases with time.  When you first plant, water in well with compost tea or a product like Neptune’s Harvest to get everything off to a good start.  You might give a liquid feed again in early spring as the perennials begin to grow again.

~

october-4-2016-pots-007

~

This is a dynamic arrangement which will continually change as the plants grow and fade.  You might enjoy placing it where you can watch it through the winter from a window, or where you will pass it daily as you come and go.  This pot now crowns our ‘stump garden,’ beside the driveway, where we will see it daily.  But it will also remain visible from the street during the winter.

~

February 11 2014 snowdrop 001

~

In early summer you can switch out the annuals and let the pot keep going, or, you can dig a hole large enough to simply set the whole thing into the garden like a plug.   This is a good way to start out small, affordable shrubs or trees and grow them on until they are  large enough to move into the garden.

The first frost doesn’t need to end our gardening adventures.  With a little planning, most of us can enjoy beautiful pots year round.

~

october-4-2016-pots-008

~

Woodland Gnome 2016

Amaryllis Centerpiece

November 19, 2015 Amaryllis 007

~

You know the weather has shifted when I’m inspired to make a living centerpiece for our dining room.

We enjoyed watching our Amaryllis grow so much last winter, that I decided to start one early enough to enjoy over the holidays this year.

~

February 12, 2015 Amaryllis 006

~

The Great Big Greenhouse, near Richmond, carried some of the largest Amaryllis bulbs that I’ve ever seen .  They also have the largest selection of varieties I’ve found, anywhere.  Some of the ‘specialty’ varieties normally only found in catalogs, with exorbitant price tags, were right there in their bulb display at grocery store prices.

And so I selected a huge Amaryllis bulb last weekend, and four tiny ferns, for this arrangement.  A bulb this large would be expected to give several stalks of flowers.

~

November 19, 2015 Amaryllis 002

~

The ceramic bowl has no drainage.  It is much deeper and wider than the Amaryllis needs, which leaves room for a couple of  inches of aggregate in the bottom to afford drainage for the roots.  I’ve used a fairly coarse pea gravel to leave pockets for air or water.  Use only new, good quality potting soil for a project like this.  I’m using a lightweight mix of mostly peat and perlite.

Amaryllis need only their roots in soil.  The ‘collar’ of the bulb, where its leaves emerge, should be visible above the soil line.  In addition to the four tropical ferns, I’ve planted a tiny Strawberry Begonia and a tiny tender fern division, both rescued from an outside pot.  The soil is covered with sheets of moss lifted from an oak’s roots in the upper garden.

Maybe it is an odd idiosyncrasy, but I don’t like looking at potting soil in a living arrangement.  Who wants to look at a dish filled with dirt in the middle of their dining table, anyway? 

~

November 19, 2015 Amaryllis 001

~

Rarely do I leave a potted plant ‘unfinished,’ without at least a mulch of fine gravel over the soil anymore.  It is easier to water neatly, the plant needs less water, the plant stays cleaner outside in the rain, and it just looks better to me.

Since moss has no roots, it won’t grow down into the potting soil.  It will continue to grow only in the thin film of soil where it is already anchored. Press it firmly into the surface of the potting soil as you place patch beside patch.  I drop fine stones around the edges to help meld these pieces together, and to help retain moisture around the patches of moss.

Moss will live indoors so long as it remains hydrated.  You can mist it, or pour a little water over it every few days.  Keeping the mix evenly moist keeps the moss and ferns happy.   Watering occasionally with diluted tea (no cream or sugar, please) makes the moss happy, too, as it appreciates soil on the acidic side.

When I eventually break this arrangement up, in a few months, the moss should be transplanted back outside.  It can also be ground up and used to start new colonies of moss, even if it appears dead at that point.

This is a simple project which gives weeks of pleasure.  It would make a nice hostess gift over the holidays.

~

November 19, 2015 Amaryllis 003

~

If you’re ever tempted to order the glitzy Amaryllis gifts from your favorite catalog, consider making your own instead for a fraction of the cost.  Even a non-gardener can enjoy an Amaryllis bowl such as this one.

Simply add a little water, and enjoy!

Woodland Gnome 2015

~

November 19, 2015 001

~

“If nature has made you for a giver,

your hands are born open,

and so is your heart;

and though there may be times when your hands are empty,

your heart is always full, and you can give things out of that-

-warm things, kind things, sweet things-

-help and comfort and laughter-

-and sometimes gay, kind laughter is the best help of all.”

 .

 

Frances Hodgson Burnet

 

NaBloPoMo_1115_298x255_badges

Japanese Maple

March 25, 2015 Acer 014

~

Japanese Maples are such graceful, lovely trees.  I’ve admired them for a long time, but have not, until now, purchased one.

Although Bonsai culture remains beyond my reach, when the opportunity to purchase two little Acer palmatum ‘Peaches and Cream’ arose yesterday, I decided on the spot to grow them.

~

March 25, 2015 Acer 017

~

These are very young grafted trees, purchased in 3″ pots from a local garden center’s seasonal grand opening sale.

Synchronistically, some might say, I had just spent an hour exploring several interlinked sites on growing Bonsai earlier this week. 

~

March 26, 2014 acer 001

~

I’m now following Ben at Scratch Bonsai and Adam’s Art and Bonsai Blog.  I love studying these trees growing in pots or simply on slabs of stone.  Their will to live and determination to carry on in difficult circumstances inspires me.

And so when it came time to pot up my two little Acer trees yesterday, I had read enough to know to add a large amount of perlite to my good quality potting soil mix, and to add a little extra fertilizer.  There are stones in the bottom of the two pots, and I planted the trees at precisely the same level they were already growing.

~

March 25, 2015 Acer 015

~

And that was it…. nothing fancy here- just a standard ‘potting up.’  I am going to just let these guys grow this season, in partial shade. to see what they will do on their own.

I don’t know Acer palmatum personally yet.  I need to watch them for a while, and learn a whole lot more about Bonsai before offering them more than water, light and air.  (Ben just sent me this link to Bonsai4Me, and I’m looking forward to exploring this site for useful tips and information.)

Are you growing anything new this season?  Have you been tempted by the glossy winter garden catalogs to branch out  into any new gardening projects?

Winter remains a time of rest and renewal; a fertile time to make plans for the growing season ahead.  Now that it is officially spring, and March has nearly passed, the time has come to muddy one’s hands and brings those plans to life.

~

March 25, 2015 Acer 013

~

Woodland Gnome 2015

 

The Gift

January 4, 2015 gift 016

*

Friends gave us an Amaryllis bulb for the holidays.  A perfect gift (for me at least) as I love them, and never purchased one this fall.

Amaryllis bulbs often come in neat kits, with instructions, pot and peat included.

*

The perfect gift for the holidays, from much loved friends and neighbors.

The perfect gift for the holidays  from much loved friends and neighbors.

*

If you buy your own kit, take a look at the bulb to make sure it is alive.  Do you see how some of the roots are hydrated, and a bud pokes up from the bulb’s neck?  This is a good bulb.

You’ll find the “soil” at the bottom of the pot.  Every bit of moisture has been dried out of this peat, compressed into a thin disc.

After soaking in warm water for several hours the peat expands and will fill the pot.   But I’ll leave that bit of fun for another day….

 

This healthy bulb shows the critical signs of growth:  a few plump roots and tips of new growth.  This bud will open into many gorgeous flowers in a few weeks.

This healthy bulb shows the critical signs of growth: a few plump roots and tips of new growth. This bud will open into many gorgeous flowers in a few weeks.

*

I love Amaryllis mixed into larger plantings.     When in bloom, Amaryllis can be breathtakingly beautiful.

They make a huge floral splash for a few weeks as the buds open.  The flowers are long-lived, but like every other flower, eventually they fade.

And then what do you do? 

Their leaves, often two feet long or more, live on for quite a while re-fueling the bulb to bloom again next year.

Some folks probably chuck the bulb once the bloom is finished… but you know I’m not going to do that!

And so I like to grow the bulb as an element of an arrangement rather than as a single bulb in a pot.

*

January 4, 2015 gift 017

*

There is something interesting to look at as the bulb begins to grow, and there is something interesting to look at as the bulb’s foliage finishes.

I incorporated this lovely bulb into another riff on my mossy garden theme.

The container has been sitting in the basement since I purchased it off a clearance shelf for a dollar or two several years ago.  It is pretty shallow for a large bulb, but that is OK because Amaryllis don’t need to be planted deeply.

*

This bowl has no drainage.  I'm using dried spaghum moss to absorb  and then release moisture as needed.  A small bed of pebbles will hold the bulb.

This bowl has no drainage. I’m using dried sphagnum moss to absorb and then release moisture as needed. A small bed of pebbles will hold the bulb.

*

A bed of dried sphagnum moss in the bottom will wick up water, releasing it back slowly as needed.  A small bed of stones lifts the base of the bulb a little above the bottom of the container to give the roots a head start.  They will grow horizontally into the potting soil as they develop.

*

The fern's pot is also deeper than this bowl.  I gently pulled the roots of the fern out to the side to make it fit.  This fern spreads with underground rhizomes.  Pulling it apart  in this way encourages it to spread more quickly.

The fern’s pot is also deeper than this bowl. I gently pulled the roots of the fern out to the side to make it fit. This fern spreads with underground rhizomes. Pulling it apart in this way encourages it to spread more quickly.

*

A lady fern ( adopted yesterday from  Home Depot)  gives some mass, presently towering over the bulb.  The Amaryllis will quickly catch up, towering over the fern before it blooms.

*

Offsets are already forming from rhizomes off of the main fern clump.

Offsets are already forming from rhizomes off of the main fern clump.  This potting soil has slow release fertilizer and perlite mixed in for drainage.  It will support all of the plants better than the pure peat which came with the kit.

*

I hope the fern will fill in quickly to balance the height of the bloom scape.

And finally, I went digging in a pot out in the garden where some strawberry begonia, Saxifraga stolonifera,  and spikemoss, Selaginella, still survive.

*

January 4, 2014 garden 059*

I dug up more little divisions to bring inside.

*

Spikemoss spills over the side of the container.  Moss and lichens cover the potting soil.

Spikemoss spills over the side of the container. Moss and lichens cover the potting soil.  Tiny pebbles fill in cracks and seems.

*

These are both hardy to Zone 7, but  the deep freeze coming this week  won’t make them happy.   I was glad to rescue them for a garden inside where it’s warm.

The ground cover is all mosses and lichens dug from the garden.  These add such interesting texture and color to the design.  There are endless combinations of mosses and lichens growing together, and all are wonderful viewed close up.

*

January 4, 2015 gift 014

*

An Amaryllis becomes very top heavy as it grows.  Many people stake them once they reach 12″-14″ tall.  I plan to try a different approach.

I’ve brought up a tall, clear glass hurricane globe, which I’ll place into this little garden as the bulb begins to grow.  It will make its own little “terrarium” like environment and will also support the Amaryllis, corralling both leaves and bloom scape.

The globe is so tall that it looked a little strange when I fitted it in earlier today.  But once the Amaryllis starts its stretch, I think it will work just fine.

The dish garden sits on a mirrored buffet in the dining room.  It gets bright light from several directions for most of the day.  We will enjoy watching this little garden grow.

*

January 4, 2015 gift 019

A dynamic mix, it will change every few days. 

When the weather settles enough to move the Amaryllis outside later in the spring, I’ll move all of the other plants back out into the garden to enjoy another growing season in the sun, wind and rain.  But until then, we’ll enjoy a close up view of their progress.

Any garden of moss needs high humidity and frequent misting and watering.

Please remember that moss plants are so primitive they have no roots or vascular system.  Each cell must absorb the water it needs from its environment.  That is why moss thrives in  rain! 

*

The mossy groundcover is a patchwork of small pieces.  Pebbles placed along their edges not only hides the seams and fills spaces, they also help conserve moisture so the moss stays moist, longer.

The mossy groundcover is a patchwork of small pieces. Pebbles placed along their edges not only hide the seams and fills spaces, they also help conserve moisture so the moss stays moist, longer.

*

Ferns are thirsty, too, as is the Amaryllis.  This little planting will need water every couple of days.

Moss thrive in acidic conditions.  Diluted brewed tea (no sugar or cream, please) feeds the plants and keeps their environment acidic.  I dilute whatever tea is left in the pot before washing it, and share this cold brew among different plants each day.  Any planting with ferns or moss will appreciate “a cuppa” from time to time.

Amaryllis kits remain popular gifts.  Maybe you received one, too.  These beautiful flowers charm us year after year with their bright winter blooms.

And like all bulbs, they grow as if by magic.  Just anchor them in medium, add water, and prepare to be amazed with their beauty!

*

January 4, 2015 gift 002

*

Woodland Gnome 2015

*

January 4, 2014 garden 063

Planting Pots

Pot constructed by the Pattons and offered for sale at their Homestead Garden Center in James City County, Virginia.

Pot constructed by the Pattons and offered for sale at their Homestead Garden Center in James City County, Virginia.  Please notice the contrasting colors and shapes of these sun loving plants.

Pots are the easiest way to garden.

If you have only one  square foot of sunlight where something might grow, you can grow your garden in a pot.

Gardening in a pot allows you to be spontaneously creative…  and outrageously unconventional in your plant choices and design.

Situated in full sun at the street, this newest, unprotected pot must tolerate heat, drought, and stand up to our herd of deer.

Situated in full sun at the street, this newest, unprotected pot must tolerate heat, drought, and stand up to our herd of deer.  It is planted with Zonal Geraniums, Caladium, Lamium, Ivy, Coleus, and Cane Begonia.

 

Pots are  the “trial and error” notebook of a gardener’s education.

 

My first ever pot of Pitcher Plant.  Once I learn how to grow it, I can use it in combination with other bog plants.

My first ever pot of Pitcher Plant. Once I learn how to grow it successfully, I can use it in combination with other bog plants.

 

A friend was telling me yesterday that she’d love to find a class to teach her about designing potted plantings.

This brilliant and creative friend, an artist by profession,  could definitely teach such a class !

I asked her to please let me know if she found one, because I would come with her…

These aquatic or bog arrangement is also at Homestead Garden Center for sale today.

This aquatic,  or bog arrangement, is also at Homestead Garden Center for sale today.

But I’ve never taken a class on making pots.  I have studied thousands of photographs of others’  pots in gardening books and magazines.  And I’ve grown plants in pots since I was a child.

Maybe a local garden center offered such a class, once upon a time, and I just missed it.  Hard to say…

An experiment:  Do you see the vase "neck" embedded in this hypertufa pot?  It is an opening to the soil, and ivy grow out of the neck.

An experiment: Do you see the vase “neck” embedded in this hypertufa pot? It is an opening to the soil, and ivy grows out of the neck.  A friend generously gave me the pieces of her broken vase to use in this pot.

 

But here is what I’ve already learned about growing potted plants, by long years of trial and error;  and  what I can share with you:

1.  Choose the largest pot your space and budget allows.  From a design perspective, big pots have impact.

A few big pots make a much better statement than two dozen tiny ones; unless they all match and are grouped artistically  together somehow.

This large hypertufa pot is home made.  It still needs water daily to support the rapidly growing plants.

This large hypertufa pot is home made. It still needs water daily to support the rapidly growing plants.

 

Big pots allow plants to grow lush and healthy.  There is more room for the roots to grow and it is easier to keep the planting mix hydrated in a large pot.  A larger mass of pot and soil helps moderate soil temperature  in extreme weather, too.

2.  Feed the soil with compost; organic amendments like Plant Tone and Osmocote; coffee grounds (high in nitrogen), and organic liquid feeds like Neptune’s Harvest.  Most potting mixes are nutritionally sterile, so the plants must be fed to perform well.

 

This large pot of Geraniums also supports Moonflower vines on a trellis.  This pot hasnt' moved in the four years since we placed it here.

This large pot of Geraniums also supports Moonflower vines on a trellis. This pot hasn’t moved in the four years since we placed it here.

3.  Site the pot, then choose the plants.  Know first of all where your new pot will go in your home or landscape; then select plants which will grow with the level of light and exposure to the weather that location offers.

You may have the same pot in the same spot for many years, but the plantings will switch in and out seasonally.

4.  Select a ” community of plants” which will grow together harmoniously for each pot.

Sometimes it works to have several of the same plant growing together in a pot.  Here, several cultivars of Caladium share the space.

Sometimes it works to have several of the same plant growing together in a pot.  Here, several cultivars of Caladium share the space.

Choose plants which share similiar needs for light and water, but  will “fill” different spaces so they weave together into a pleasing composition.

5  Select plants for contrast.  Choose plants whose differences create an interesting composition.

Dahlia and Purple Heart, Tradescantia pallida, grow near purple basil and a Jasmine vine.

Dahlia and Purple Heart, Tradescantia pallida, grow near purple basil and a Jasmine vine.  This planting was inspired by Becca Given‘s comment on the “Eggplant” post about her sister in law’s eggplant and turquoise kitchen  color scheme.

 

Contrast color of foliage and bloom to create an interesting, and maybe a dramatic, visual statement.

 

Geraniums and Fennel.  Fennel, Dill, and Asparagus fern all give a large, airy cloud of foliage to a pot.

Geraniums and Fennel. Fennel, Dill, and Asparagus fern all give a large, airy cloud of foliage to a pot.  Variegated, textured  foliage also creates contrast and interest.

Contrast foliage texture and shape, and choose plants which will grow to different heights and proportions so there is a balance of tall, trailing, airy, flat, round, and spiky.

6.  Study nature for inspiration.  Analyze how plants blend into communities in the wild.    Notice what you like, and what you don’t. 

June 3, 2014 Parkway 010

Do you enjoy wide expanses of a single species growing to a fairly uniform size?  Do you like  grasses mixed in among the flowers?

Do you like lush vines covering structure?  Do you want a classically symmetrical static look, or an asymmetrical spontaneously evolving look?

These differences matter, and you can achieve them all in pots.

Ornamental Pepper with Creeping Jenny and a cutting of a scented Geranium.  The cutting will eventually grow quite large over the summer.

Ornamental Pepper with Creeping Jenny and a cutting of a scented Geranium.  The cutting will eventually grow quite large and fill out this pot  over the summer.

7.  Develop a mental image of what you hope to create in the pot before going to the garden center to purchase the plants.

Have an idea of what you hope to create, and which plants you want to use.

Lantana always attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.  Drought tolerant, it grows into a small shrub and blooms until frost in full sun.

Lantana always attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. Drought tolerant, it grows into a small shrub and blooms until frost in full sun.

I often take a list with me.  Others take photos.  With a smart phone, you might even bookmark some photos online which are similiar to what you hope to purchase.

Now, it is a rare treat when the garden center actually has in stock everything on my list.

But, if you know your parameters for light, moisture, size, color and price; you can often make brilliant substitutions.

 

This pot, in full hot sun, is designed around a fig cutting which rooted over the winter.  It will grow with other heat loving and drought tolerant plants, including Rosemary, Sedum, and Graptopetalum.

This pot, in full hot sun, is designed around a fig cutting which rooted over the winter. It will grow with other heat loving and drought tolerant plants, including Rosemary, Sedum, and Graptopetalum.

 

8.  Be realistic about what you can grow.  Apologies here for the downer… but realism at the beginning saves later disappointment.

Know, in advance, what you can sustain.

This simple, neat basket features a Fuschia, just coming into bloom, and impatiens.

This simple basket features a Fuschia, just coming into bloom, and impatiens.   We grow Fuschia to draw the hummingbirds close to our windows.  The only safe place to grow these plants is on our deck, where the deer can’t reach them.

I know I can’t grow certain plants where deer or squirrels can reach them.  I learned that I can plant tomatoes all I want, but no net or screen will prevent squirrels from stealing them as they ripen, even on the deck.  I know that certain plants, like impatiens, left in reach of deer will be grazed.

Sedum, heat and drought tolerant, requires little care.  I was surprised to find it grazed by deer last summer, as it is supposed to be "deer resistant." This one grows on the patio,, right against the house.

Sedum, heat and drought tolerant, requires little care. I was surprised to find it grazed by deer last summer, as it is supposed to be “deer resistant.” This one grows on the patio,, right against the house.

Maybe you can’t water hanging baskets of Petunias every day in summer, or you don’t have enough light to keep them in bloom where you have space to hang baskets.

Once you learn and accept the parameters of your current gardening situation,  it allows you to find beautiful  alternatives.

Starting pots with cuttings and small starts is economical.  Plants grow rapidly during summer, and pots fill in very quickly.

Starting pots with cuttings and small starts is economical. Plants grow rapidly during summer, and pots fill in very quickly.

 

9.  Let time be your ally.  Plant slowly and carefully, leaving sufficient room for each plant to grow.

Remember to use some combination of rooted cuttings, seeds, tubers, bulbs, and actively growing plants.

Unless you’re planting for an immediate show or competition, plan for the arrangement to evolve during the season as the plants grow, peak, and fade.

 

This basket of Petunias requires daily water.  Someone who travels during the summer might not be able to keep the basket alive.  Like a pet, it requires daily care.

This basket of Petunias requires daily water. Someone who travels  a lot during the summer might not be able to keep the basket alive. Like a pet, it requires daily care.

 

Different plants will take over as “stars of the pot” at different times during the season.

Plants will grow at different rates, and some will try to muscle out others.  You will have to referee with your pruners from time to time.  That is OK, and makes it more interesting.

10.  Treat your potted plants like pets.   K now their names, know their needs, and give consistent loving care.  Expect to learn continuously when you garden.    There is always more to know; and the more you know about each plant you grow, the better care you can take of it.

The green Brugmansia in the center grows to 5' tall.  It came as a rooted cutting weeks ago.  Gradually, it will grow to  dominate this pot before it blooms in late summer.

The green Brugmansia in the center grows to 5′ tall. It came as a rooted cutting weeks ago. Gradually, it will grow to dominate this pot before it blooms in late summer.

Plants need to be appreciated to grow well.  Visit each regularly, and take care of its needs.  Whether it needs water, pinching, training on a support, turning, or simply a kind word; remember that is a responsive living being.

And, a bonus:

Our plants love for us to share with them.  You give your dog toys, don’t you?  Plants respond to our love just as animals will.

June 15, 2014 Father's Day 048

What can you share with a plant?  I dilute leftover tea and coffee, and use it to water potted plants.  Tea and coffee are high in nitrogen and other phyto-chemicals.  (The same pot doesn’t always get the tea, and there are plenty of “plain water” waterings so the soil doesn’t get too acid.)   I use finished coffee grounds and rinsed egg shells  as mulch in large pots around fruits or vegetables.

When making a pea gravel mulch, I often include something beautiful such as a shell, agate, glass marble, or crystal resting on top of the soil.

A friend scatters trimmed hair around her plants, which also helps keep deer away.

June 20 Between 061

As you work with each of the plants in your potted garden, you will learn to know what it needs, and to provide for those needs.  You also learn which plants grow well together, and which will not.

The real difference between someone with a “brown thumb” and someone with a “green thumb” comes down to how much attention the gardener pays to providing what each plant needs to fulfill its potential for beauty and productivity.

Each pot, each season, teaches us something new.  

We continue to grow, just as our plants do.

 

A hanging basket of various Begonias.  Richmondensis, in the foreground, is a tough Begonia which grows vigorously in baskets.

A hanging basket of various Begonias. Richmondensis, in the foreground, is a tough Begonia which grows vigorously in baskets.

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

 

Making the Bed

 

A tiny raised bed near my friends' front porch with new starts for the season ahead.

A tiny raised bed near my friends’ front porch with new starts for the season ahead.

When you’ve been gardening for more than a week you realize that the vigor and beauty of your plants, and the success of your planting schemes, relies entirely on the quality of your soil.

The Rodale Press gardening books I poured over as a novice in the ’80s always had chapters devoted to soil preparation.  Double digging was recommended “back in the day.”

Tilling was the common practice then, especially for vegetable gardeners.  It was years on that biologists and botanists came to realize that mechanical tilling, and even double digging, totally wrecks the ecosystem of the soil.

Countless small worms and insects are ravaged.  Long dormant weed seeds are brought to the surface and given a chance to sprout.  Delicate colonies of fungi and bacteria are disrupted.

Tilling is no longer recommended for the long term well-being of the soil; even in traditional vegetable garden culture.

Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur bed near the bottom of the ravine in my friends’ back garden.  This two year old bed grows potatoes, herbs, and an Oakleaf Hydrangea on the far right.

Double digging, done once when land is first dedicated to a garden, might be useful in some cases.

If the double digging includes the addition of lots of organic matter, and possibly some minerals such as greensand, gypsum, or super-phosphate; it can be a useful way to break up clay soils before initial planting.  Once the bed is established, annual double digging is terrifically disruptive to the soil’s ecology.

More recent practices eschew the digging entirely and focus on constructing raised beds of various materials.

My friend has been working on this large Hugelkultur vegetable garden for several years now.  It is already planted with peas, spinach, and many types of herbs.

My friend has been working on this large Hugelkultur vegetable garden for several years now. It is already planted with peas, spinach, and many types of herbs.

There is no one right way to make your garden bed.  So much depends on variables; like your soil, your climate, and what you plan to grow in a given area.

This lovely bed, made with stones, is at Forest Lane Botanicals near Williamsburg, Va.

This lovely bed, made with stones, is at Forest Lane Botanicals near Williamsburg, Va.

I learned very quickly that our new garden had terribly compacted hard clay soil over much of the property.  Nearly all of my early attempts to plant anything in this new garden left me somewhere between underwhelmed and downright depressed.

It wasn’t until I began building raised beds, and bringing home bagfuls of compost, that we began to make progress on this property.

My Hugelkultur stump garden this spring, with its border of slate roofing tiles found at the Re-Store here in Williamsburg.

My Hugelkultur stump garden this spring, with its border of slate roofing tiles found at the Re-Store here in Williamsburg.

There are so many beautiful and creative ways to create raised beds.  Budget isn’t so much an issue as is imagination.

Notice the variety of matierials my friends used to form the border for this one bed.

Notice the variety of materials my friends used to form the border for this shallow bed around her Crepe Myrtle tree.

I’ve made raised beds from many different materials over the years.  I started out when railway ties, landscape timbers, and even 2×10 boards were at the cutting edge.

Soon enough someone figured out that the chemicals in all of that treated wood leached into the soil and then got into the food grown in the bed.    Building a bed of untreated wood meant a very short-lived border on the bed.

A very innovative friend introduced me to Hugelkultur.  This practice originated in Europe and incorporates downed trees, limbs, compostable materials of all sorts, and topsoil  to build very thick raised beds.

April 26, 2014 azaleas 065

Sometimes built into a trench, sometimes mounded high above the ground, these raised beds retain water, produce heat, and slowly release nutrients into the soil as the materials break down.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis. This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis. This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

My friend is going into her third growing season with Hugelkultur beds.  Her garden is on a steep slope at the edge of the forest.  There is an abundance of  downfall wood and stumps on her property.  She is using them all very creatively.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis.  This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

A mix of vegetables, flowers, and herbs grows in this Hugelkultur bed.  My friends use netting to keep deer out.  The plants in the foreground are Astilbe.

I have also experimented with Hugelkultur, building around a stump over its root system, with a base of wood left from our downed trees last summer.  My bed is not quite a year old yet, but already I’m pleased with its progress.

The basic requirements for a good planting bed are adequate drainage, abundant organic materials, rich microbial life, and an adequate balance of minerals.   The most effective way to feed plants is to feed the soil.  Chemical fertilizers, such as “Miracle Grow” and other non-organic commercial products not only burn plants in high concentrations, but may also kill the microbial and invertebrate life required for  healthy soil.

Good soil has the loose, soft texture which only comes from plenty of organic material incorporated into the mineral content.

Another bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.

Another bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.

Finding earthworms living in soil is always an excellent sign.  Their digestive process helps release nutrients plants need, even as the movement of worms through the soil opens it up and creates the loose texture roots need for growth.

One way to achieve good beds, without all of the heavy lifting of building Hugelkultur beds, is simple sheet composting.

To begin a new planting bed, cover the entire area with brown paper grocery bags, plain white or brown wrapping paper,  torn cardboard from boxes, or several thicknesses of newspaper.  This initial layer smothers grass and weeds to form a barrier for those first crucial weeks, and then it decomposes into the soil.

Pile a variety of organic material onto the paper or cardboard base.  These layers can include grass clippings, coffee grounds, tea bags, chopped leaves, shredded paper,  straw, rinsed egg shells, fruit and vegetable peels, and sea weed.

April 26, 2014 azaleas 058

If the straw is mixed with rabbit or chicken droppings, all the better.  Bags of topsoil or pre-made compost can be piled on top of the organic materials the first year to speed the process.  Although the organic materials need to be dampened,  they do not need to be turned and mixed in sheet composting.

The frame of this bed can be made from many different materials, depending on what you have at hand.  This can even be made as a rounded, raised row without a border.

One popular technique uses bales of hay as the borders or walls of the bed.  I’ve done this.  It isn’t pretty, and there are the sprouting hayseeds in the bales to contend with all season.  Eventually the hay will mold and begin to fall apart.

You eventually get good soil, and vegetables will grow well in such a bed if you keep the whole bed and hay bale wall moist.  Some organic gardening resources even offer instructions for planting into the hollowed out and soil filled bales….

A container is still the easiest way to control the soil plants grow in.  This is my newest hypertufa trough, planted up with a Eucalyptus tree and geraniums.

A container is still the easiest way to control the soil plants grow in. This is my newest hypertufa trough, planted up with a Eucalyptus tree and geraniums.

Over time, these “sheet composted” beds decompose into the original soil beneath them.  The organic materials attract earthworms, which begin to mix the soil during their travels.

The moisture in the raised bed softens the soil below, and after a season or two you have a fine bed for planting, without the digging.  Continuing to add organic mulch to the bed once or twice a year keeps these beds “cooking” and rich in nutrients over many years.

Hostas here are planted in their own nursery pots, and then the pots are sunk into this bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.  This is a useful technique to control the specific soil a plant grows in, protect the root ball from insects and voles, and to provide a slightly moister environment for the plant.  This is a much easier, and less expensive way to create a bed than trying to adequately ammend the soil in a large area.

Hostas here are planted in their own nursery pots, and then the pots are sunk into this bed at Forest Lane Botanicals. This is a useful technique to control the specific soil a plant grows in, protect the root ball from insects and voles, and to provide a slightly moister environment for the plant. This is a much easier, and less expensive way to create a bed, than trying to adequately ammend the soil in a large area.  Notice the use of cinder blocks for these miniature Hostas.  Cinder blocks used as the border for a raised vegetable bed may be similarly planted with herbs, Nasturtiums, garlic, etc.

I’ve learned on my property that digging into the soil is extremely difficult.  And plants put directly into the ground may be at risk of vole attack.   I still do it, though, and did it this past week.

When I dig to plant a shrub directly into the ground, I make a far bigger hole than the root ball requires, and add copious quantities of compost. And gravel.  And I try to surround it with poisonous daffodil bulbs for good measure.

This littleAlysia virgata, or Sweet Almond Tree Verbena, is planted directly into the soil.  It will grow to 8' tall with sweetly fragrant white blossoms.  I dig out a very large hole, mixed in lots of compost, and added some Espoma plant tone.  I'm hoping it will grow well here.  I will most likely build a raised bed around this site.

This little Aloysia virgata, or Sweet Almond Tree Verbena, is planted directly into the soil. It will grow to 8′ tall with sweetly fragrant white blossoms. I dug out a very large hole, mixed in lots of compost, and added some Espoma Plant Tone. I’m hoping it will grow well here. I will most likely build a raised bed around this site.

I was able to feel the improvement in a bed begun four years ago, when I dug into it to add some little rose bushes this week.

The texture of the soil has completely changed, thanks to regular additions of compost and pea gravel.   I found earthworms.  I dug out space for the root balls easily, added yet more compost, and planted the little potted roses, blessedly growing on their own roots.

Then I added a border of slate roofing tiles to the sides of the bed, and piled more compost into the bed as fresh mulch.

However you make your planting beds, you’ll find that plants grown in raised beds grow bigger, healthier, and more productive than beds planted directly into  the ground.

Even a bed just 4″-6″ high, made with loose organic matter, give plants a huge advantage, because the roots are able to develop more fully and find nutrients more easily.

April 26, 2014 azaleas 073

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

 

 

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

Join 667 other followers

Follow Forest Garden on WordPress.com
Order Classic Caladiums

This Month’s Posts

Topics of Interest