Sunday Dinner: Bloom Where You Are Planted

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“To accomplish great things we must not only act,
but also dream;
not only plan, but also believe.
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Anatole France

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“Only those who attempt the absurd
can achieve the impossible.”
,
Albert Einstein

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“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion,
which is life,
by artificial means and hold it fixed
so that a hundred years later,
when a stranger looks at it,
it moves again since it is life.”
.
William Faulkner

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“People pretend not to like grapes
when the vines are too high
for them to reach.”
.
Marguerite de Navarre

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“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing
unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…
I have never in my life envied a human being
who led an easy life.
I have envied a great many people
who led difficult lives and led them well.”
.
Theodore Roosevelt

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“Not much happens without a dream.
And for something great to happen,
there must be a great dream.
Behind every great achievement
is a dreamer of great dreams.
Much more than a dreamer is required
to bring it to reality;
but the dream must be there first.”
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Robert K. Greenleaf

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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“One bulb at a time.
There was no other way to do it.
No shortcuts–simply loving the slow process of planting.
Loving the work as it unfolded.
Loving an achievement that grew slowly
and bloomed for only three weeks each year.”
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Jaroldeen Asplund Edwards

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Visit Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful.

Sunday Dinner: Souvenirs

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“We are all the pieces of what we remember.

We hold in ourselves the hopes and fears

of those who love us.

As long as there is love and memory,

there is no true loss.”

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Cassandra Clare

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“Memory believes

before knowing remembers.

Believes longer than recollects,

longer than knowing even wonders.”

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William Faulkner

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“Remember my friend,

that knowledge is stronger than memory,

and we should not trust the weaker”

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Bram Stoker

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“Every man’s memory

is his private literature.”

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Aldous Huxley

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“Different people remember things differently,

and you’ll not get any two people

to remember anything the same,

whether they were there or not.”

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Neil Gaiman

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“Your memory feels like home to me.

So whenever my mind wanders,

it always finds it’s way back to you.”

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Ranata Suzuki

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“Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind.

It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes,

glorifies, and vilifies also;

but in the end it creates its own reality,

its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events;

and no sane human being ever trusts

someone else’s version

more than his own.”

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Salman Rushdie

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“Ten long trips around the sun

since I last saw that smile,

but only joy and thankfulness

that on a tiny world in the vastness,

for a couple of moments in the immensity of time,

we were one.”

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Ann Druyan

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

. . .

“Forgetfulness is a form of freedom.”
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Kahlil Gibran

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Please visit my new website, Illuminations, for a daily photo from our garden.

 

 

 

Six On Saturday: When Wood Breaks Into Bloom

Redbud is the earliest tree in our garden to bloom, followed within another week or two by the dogwoods.

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When stark woody limbs suddenly burst open to liberate soft, fragrant flowers, we live, once again, the mystery play of spring.

We witness sudden and transformative change initiated by some small fluctuation in the status quo.  Days grow a few minutes longer; temperatures rise.  The Earth tilts a bit more in this direction or that, and the winds bring a new season as every branch, bulb, seed and root respond.

It is natural magic, and needs no assistance.  Every tree responds to its own cue of light and warmth while the gardener sits back with a cup of tea to appreciate the spectacle.

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Redbud flowers emerge directly from woody stems.  A member of the pea family, redbud, Cercis, trees store nitrogen on their roots, directly fertilizing the soil where they grow.  The nitrogen is filtered out of the air by their leaves, along with carbon.  Other plants can draw on this nitrogen in the soil for their own growth.

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I’m becoming more aware, with each passing season, of the silent cues leading me on my own journey as a gardener.  I’m looking for value when I invest in planting some new thing in the garden.  How many seasons will it grow?  How much return will it yield for my investment in planting?

A potted geranium will give six or eight months of interest, perhaps another season or two if you are both lucky and skilled.  A potted Camellia will outlive the gardener, assuming it survives its first seasons of hungry deer and unexpected drought.  The Camellia can produce hundreds of flowers in a single season, and more with each passing year.  A dogwood or Magnolia tree fills the garden with even more flowers, then feeds the birds months later as their seeds mature.

Gardening, like all transcendent pursuits, may be neatly reduced to mathematics when choices must be made.

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From left: new leaves emerge red on this hybrid crape myrtle; small Acer palmatum leaves emerge red and hold their color into summer; red buckeye, Aesculus pavia is naturalized in our area and volunteers in unlikely places, blooming scarlet each spring. In the distance, dogwood blooms in clouds of white.

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Yesterday afternoon I planted the Hydrangea paniculata I bought one Saturday afternoon almost two years ago, while taking my mother shopping.  A dozen potted shrubs were piled in front of her Wal-Mart store that late summer afternoon, reduced by half to move them.  They were clearing out the nursery area in preparation for holiday stock and impulsively, I grabbed a nice one and piled it in my cart.

“What are you going to do with that?”  she asked, cautiously, maybe wondering whether I intended to plant it in her yard somewhere.  She is housebound now, and can’t get out to garden as she once did.

“I don’t know yet,”  I responded, “but I’m sure I’ll find a spot for it at home.”  And the place I found was in a sheltered spot behind the house while I figured out where to plant it.  And it seemed quite content there, though it didn’t bloom last summer.  And it lived through two winters in its nursery pot while I dithered about where to plant it.

And finally, with a twinge of guilt for not letting its roots spread into good earth and its limbs reach into the sunlight, I chose a spot this week on our back slope, near other Hydrangeas, where we lost some lilac shrubs and their absence left an empty space to fill.  The Hydrangea will appreciate our acidic soil and the partial shade that has grown in there, where the lilac shrubs did not.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea also produces panicles of flowers in May, and the flowers persist into early winter. Many Hydrangeas bloom on new wood, while others set their buds in autumn. It pays to know your shrub.

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And as I plant, I can see its spindly little branches growing stout and long, reaching up and out for light and air.  Since it blooms on new wood, not old, every summer it will have the opportunity to stretch, and grow, and fill its corner of the garden with large pale panicles of flowers for months at a time.  Its roots will hold the bank against erosion and its woody body will welcome birds and support heavy flowers.  Each branch has the power to root and grow into a new shrub, even as each flower will support a cloud of humming insects on summer days.

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On March 1, 2017 our Magnolia liliflora trees were already in full bloom.

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There is tremendous potential in every woody plant.  They weave the fabric of the garden as days become weeks and weeks knit themselves into years.  Knowing them closely allows one to choose wisely, creating a flowering patchwork of trees and shrubs that shine each in their own season, and ornament the garden, each in its own way, every day of each passing year.

When leaves turn bright, then brown, and begin to swirl on autumn’s chilling winds, leaving stark woody skeletons where our soft green trees swayed so shortly ago; we watch with confidence that spring is but another breath away.

The only constant is change, as they say.  And knowing that, we know how to plan and plant to enjoy every moment.

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Mountain Laurel grows wild across much of Virginia on large shrubs, sometimes growing into small trees.  Its buds are already swelling to bloom by early May.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Fabulous Friday:  Flowers From Wood, Forest Garden, March 2017

Visit my new website, Illuminations, for a photo from our garden and a thought provoking quotation each day.

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

Six on Saturday: Silver Lining

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Sometimes it’s a real challenge to find the ‘silver lining’ in difficult events.  I was taught, growing up, to always look for the good in people, the opportunity within a challenge, and the silver lining in whatever events may come.  This sort of thinking helps us remain optimistic and resilient, and perhaps gives us a little more happiness and peace of mind along the way.

But the slow swirling menace of Hurricane Dorian’s approach over the last few weeks has cast its long shadow across those of us living near the Atlantic coast, as we’ve watched its destructive progress.  We saw the utter devastation it caused as it chewed its way across the islands in its path.

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We watched the updates to its track, strength and speed.  We wondered just how a mighty storm was supposed to make a 90 degree turn from moving west to moving northeastwards, as it pivoted off of the Florida coast.  But it did, just in time to ‘save’ certain luxury properties along the southern Florida coast.  We live in an amazing age, don’t we?

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We watched the eye of the storm slowly skirt along the coast, just offshore, as its long rain bands and dangerous winds reached inland to rake across Georgia, South and North Carolina, and finally reach into Virginia yesterday morning.

We know so many people living in its path, and so many of those places that it touched from happy summers spent on beautiful island beaches along the coast.  We’ve taken the ferry from Cape Hatteras to Ocracoke and driven through the National Park to spend happy days in Ocracoke village.  The hospitable people who live there spent yesterday watching the tide rise and overwash their island home as they moved up into attics and out onto roofs, waiting for rescue from the mainland to arrive.

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Hurricane Dorian made a brief landfall at Cape Hatteras, a tiny sliver of sand miles off the mainland coast, before turning further out to sea and away from our home along the James River.  It is still swirling along, a monster storm, bringing wind and rain to everyone within miles of the Atlantic coast, as it heads ever further northwards towards Canada.

We’ve watched the reports in fascination and horror, as weather journalists reported along the path of the storm.  Our hearts are touched by the resilience of people who weather these monster storms year after year, rebuilding their homes and their lives to live along the coast.

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The windswept beaches of our Atlantic coast feel timeless because they survive these devastating challenges time and again.  The landscape is forever changed by the passage of such storms, but the land and sea and sky remain, and return to calm within hours of the storm’s passing.  The people focus on what is saved and their relationships with one another, rather than focus on what they have lost.

By dinner time the winds had subsided, patches of blue sky appeared, and the remaining clouds took on soft, pastel sunset colors.  The air was cool, fall-like.  We heard birds and chirping insects before dusk, and the sounds of children finally let out to play in the street.

Another storm finally passed, and life is returning to its normal rhythms.  Perhaps ‘normal’ is the silver-lining we all hope for in the passing storms of life.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

Fabulous Friday: Continuous Effort

Our upper garden was bathed in sunlight this morning.

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Wouldn’t it be nice if gardening was all about sunbeams and rose petals, happy planting times and delicious harvests?

Let’s have a good laugh together, and then get real.  Gardening is really about making a continuous effort to fashion little improvements here and there and address challenges as they arise.

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More sunbeams and golden orbs encircle our happy Colocasia ‘Black Coral’

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If you need a bit of inspiration, please pick up the current issue of Horticulture Magazine, which is filled this month with timely advice, gorgeous photography, and wonderful suggestions for how to have fun with fall planted bulbs.

In case you’re wondering, those suggestions include a group of friends, good things to eat, and a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

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Narcissus ‘Art Design’  It’s that time of year to start thinking about planting spring bulbs….

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My gardening challenge this morning involved neither friends nor wine, but my partner was there to support and assist.

You see, there are well tended beautiful parts of our garden, and then there is this sad, steep slope from the side yard down into the ravine that suffers from erosion, vole tunnels, deer traffic, deep shade and benign neglect.  While we’ve both made efforts in this area over the years; they don’t seem to amount to much.

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This steep slope in our side yard has had erosion problems for many years. Every bit we do helps, but we’re still trying to improve it.

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A neighbor’s fallen oak wiped out many of the ornamental trees growing here when we came.  The remaining trees, and shrubs we’ve planted, have been regularly pruned by the deer.  Let’s just say the challenges have outnumbered the successes.

But excuses don’t matter a whit when it’s raining buckets and your slope is washing down into the ravine.  Which is why we decided that another ‘intervention’ is necessary this week, as we sit here on the cusp of Atlantic Hurricane Season.

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April 2017: Another area where we had an erosion problem has responded very well to these terraces and perennial plantings.

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We’ve had great success with the terraces we installed a few years ago, on the other side of the yard, to control erosion.   Even though the Rhodies didn’t take off as planned, the ferns and other perennials are filling in, and the erosion is handled.

In fact, I’ve learned that ferns are a terrific plant for controlling erosion in deep to part shade.  They set deep, thirsty roots to both hold the soil and control the amount of moisture retained in the soil.  Their dense foliage absorbs some of the impact of pounding rain.  As they grow, they create their own living mulch to keep their roots cool and moist.

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This is the planting at the top of that previously terraced slope, today.

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So it was that I loaded up my shopping cart on Wednesday with concrete landscaping blocks, pea gravel and as many holly ferns, Cyrtomium fortunei, as I could find. 

Now, I imagine some of you are thinking:  “Why don’t you just spread a good load of pine bark mulch here?”  or “Why don’t you just build a retaining wall?” 

We’ve learned that bark mulch makes moles very, very happy.  They love the stuff, and consider it great cover for their tunnels.  We use very little wood mulch, always a blend with Cypress, and I am transitioning to gravel mulch in nearly every part of the garden.  The voles hate gravel, and it is much longer lasting.

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This bluestone gravel is my current favorite to use in the upper garden.  A Yucca I thought had died reappeared a few weeks after I mulched this area.  I’m installing more of this, one bag at a time….

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A retaining wall wouldn’t work here because we use this area as a walkway between parts of the yard.  It is also so steep, that we would need major construction for it to be safe.   I don’t fancy bringing all of that heavy equipment into this part of the property.  Everything we use has to be carted in by hand.

It was my partner’s idea to space the landscape blocks a few inches apart this time.  We’ll reevaluate that decision after the next heavy rain!  But we filled in some of the divets, from collapsed vole tunnels, with the root balls of our new ferns.  Voles don’t do as much damage to fern roots as to some other perennials and woodies…. and then there is the small matter of the gravel….

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I planted five new ferns today and added two more bags of gravel to the 10 or so we’ve already spread here over the last several years.  Pea gravel gets worked down into the soil over time, and can even get washed further down the hill in a heavy rain.  The concrete blocks will stop the washing away.  Eventually, we may add a larger size of rock mulch in this entire area.

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These are two of the three holly ferns I found on sale racks Wednesday morning. With perennials, you are really buying the roots and crowns. I cleaned up the browned leaves and planted these with full confidence that they will grow into beautiful ferns.  New fiddleheads were already peaking out of the crowns.

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But this is our effort for today, and we are both satisfied.  I had two little ferns in our holding area, waiting for a permanent spot, that we added to the three new holly ferns.  I’m sure a few more will turn up over the next few weeks.

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I have already been planting a few ferns in this area over the last several years (top center). Now, I’ll also add some Helleborus transplants to the ferns, to further hold the ground and make this area more attractive in winter and early spring.  Hellebores make excellent ground cover year round and stop voles with their poisonous roots.

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Why holly ferns?  Cyrtomium fortunei, Fortune’s holly fern, is hardy at least to Zone 6.  Some sources say Zone 5.  It is evergreen, with large fronds of tough, waxy green pinnae.  The clump expands each year, and eventually, after a couple of year’s growth in a good spot, a single fern will cover an area a little more than 2′ across.  Once planted, little care is required.

Cut out brown fronds once a year, keep them watered the first year, and then just regularly admire them after that.  Disease and critter damage isn’t an issue.  This is a large, bold, shiny green plant that shrugs off ice and snow.  It is great for halting erosion in shady spots.

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Fortune’s holly fern planted in the 2017 terraces has grown very well.

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And so once the blocks were set, ferns planted and gravel spread, I was happy to go back up to the upper garden to hold a spraying hose while watching butterflies.

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Actually, I also had 3 new Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ to plant to entice more hummingbirds to the garden.  But that was quick and happy work, and only a minor distraction from admiring the butterflies.

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My partner and I agree that every summer day should be a lovely as today.  We enjoyed sunbeams and cool breezes here for most of the day.

And yes, did I mention all of the butterflies?

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Woodland Gnome 2019

Fabuous Friday:  Happiness is contagious; let’s infect one another!

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Dryopteris erythrosora’Brilliance’ is another of our favorite ferns. It is evergreen and easy to grow.

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“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge
to test our courage and willingness to change;
at such a moment, there is no point in pretending
that nothing has happened
or in saying that we are not yet ready.
The challenge will not wait.
Life does not look back.
A week is more than enough time for us to decide
whether or not to accept our destiny.”
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Paulo Coelho

 

In a Pot: ‘Companion Plants’

Begonia boliviensis from a rooted cutting

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Tiny plants in tiny pots, expressing a particular season, sometimes displayed alongside a potted tree, are called ‘companion plants’ or ‘accent plants.’

I particularly enjoy growing these little treasures.  They allow us to appreciate a plant, in all of its intricate detail, as a work of art.

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First, these precious little pots fit easily on a windowsill, side table or plant stand.  They can be grown year-round indoors, or moved out into a protected space during warm weather.

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Maidenhair fern with Pilea glauca, creeping blue Pilea. A division of the Pilea grows alone in the previous photo.

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But more importantly to me, these little pots allow me to ‘grow on’ very small plants, or rooted cuttings.  Once they begin to outgrow the little companion pot, they can be re-potted or planted out; used in a larger display, or grown on as a specimen in a larger pot.  This is especially helpful during the winter and early spring when small plants may be grown on for use outdoors in summer.

I buy many of my Asian ceramic companion pots and 1″-2″ companion plants at The Great Big Greenhouse in south Richmond.  They keep a tremendous selection of pots of all sizes, and offer a large display of Asian pots for Bonsai and companion plants year-round.  The pots in these photos were found at The GBGH.

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Coleus with Dichondra, Cuban Oregano, Tradescantia pallida and Lantana.

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Small companion pots are equally good for starting cuttings to grow on into larger plants.  I had a pot where the fern died back in early spring.  I put it outside in a protected spot to see if it might re-grow from the roots; without success.  So I am going to recycle the pot and soil to root some Coleus.

Coleus (now Plectranthus) are members of the Lamiaceae family, most of which root very easily from stem cuttings.

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Take a cutting by cutting or pinching off a stem at a node, where new leaves may be beginning to grow.  Four nodes are visible in this photo.  While many gardeners pinch out Coleus flowers, I let them flower because pollinators love them.

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Prepare the cutting by removing the lowest set of leaves and pinching out the flowers at the top of the stem.  It is usually better to use a stem that hasn’t flowered, as they will often root more easily. Rooting hormone isn’t really necessary with Coleus cuttings.  Feel free to use it if you have it, as it may speed up the process a bit.

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The same stem is now ready for ‘sticking’ into the soil.  Roots will form along the lower stem wherever it is in contact with moist soil, or even plain water.

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I took three cuttings today so the pot looks full right away.  After sticking the cuttings, water lightly, and set the pot into a protected spot…. or not.  I sometimes just stick a cutting where I want the new plant to grow, and hope for the best.

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I struck this cutting several weeks ago and it is now growing on in a pot on my front porch. It gets full sun for several hours a day. If the soil is kept hydrated, the Coleus should root in less than ideal conditions….

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The parent Coleus plant is growing very well this summer. Taking cuttings helps keep the plant bushy, and there is always a spot to fill with a cutting, isn’t there?

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Arrangements in companion pots are temporary plantings.   All things change, right?  Especially in gardening, we expect things to come and go.

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Three cuttings, struck into moist soil, will root withing a week or so. This arrangement can ‘grow on’ through autumn. Cutting back the tops as it grows will extend the life of the planting.  Or, the rooted cuttings can be re-potted into larger containers and kept as houseplants through the winter.  Coleus is a tender perennial.

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An aspect of the beauty of companion plants is their transience.  Favorite subjects in Asia might be ferns, grasses, wildflowers, flowering bulbs and vines.  Some may only be at their peak for a week or two.

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This little Ficus tree has a ‘companion’ in the same pot. A little footed fern grows long rhizomes which ‘visit’ other pots nearby on the windowsill.

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Some of the pots are as tiny as egg cups, and so can only hold a very small root mass.  Many have no drainage holes, and so I begin with a layer of fine gravel in the bottom of the pot.

I use gravel mulch, but a moss mulch is more common, and very lovely.  The moss really needs to live outside to stay plush, however.

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Companion plants in little pots are an affordable luxury for those of us who love to work with plants.

Even without an outside garden space, a little garden may be cultivated in a pot and enjoyed on a windowsill at any time of the year.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Sunday Dinner: In the Shadows

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“There is strong shadow

where there is much light.”

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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“To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow.

For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly

as when one longs to taste it,

and when is the taste refracted

into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth,

and when do our senses know any thing so utterly

as when we lack it?

And here again is a foreshadowing –

– the world will be made whole.

For to wish for a hand on one’s hair

is all but to feel it.

So whatever we may lose,

very craving gives it back to us again.”

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Marilynne Robinson

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“One realized all sorts of things.

The value of an illusion, for instance,

and that the shadow

can be more important than the substance.

All sorts of things.”

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Jean Rhys

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“A garden should make you feel

you’ve entered privileged space –

– a place not just set apart but reverberant –

– and it seems to me that, to achieve this,

the gardener must put some kind of twist

on the existing landscape,

turn its prose into something nearer poetry.”

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Michael Pollan

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“It was such a pleasure

to sink one’s hands into the warm earth,

to feel at one’s fingertips

the possibilities of the new season.”

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Kate Morton

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“If you wish to make anything grow,

you must understand it,

and understand it in a very real sense.

‘Green fingers’ are a fact,

and a mystery only to the unpracticed.

But green fingers

are the extensions of a verdant heart.”

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Russell Page

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“The green thumb is equable

in the face of nature’s uncertainties;

he moves among her mysteries

without feeling the need for control

or explanations or once-and-for-all solutions.

To garden well is to be happy

amid the babble of the objective world,

untroubled by its refusal to be reduced

by our ideas of it,

its indomitable rankness.”

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Michael Pollan

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“To love a swamp, however,

is to love what is muted and marginal,

what exists in the shadows,

what shoulders its way out of mud

and scurries along the damp edges

of what is most commonly praised.

And sometimes its invisibility is a blessing.

Swamps and bogs are places of transition and wild growth,

breeding grounds,

experimental labs where organisms and ideas

have the luxury of being out of the spotlight,

where the imagination can mutate and mate,

send tendrils into and out of the water.”

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Barbara Hurd

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“It is not hard to start a small garden,

all you need is a sapling, a planting pot,

a small bag of soil,

and regular watering.

There you go,

you helped cooling the earth down by one plant.”
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Noora Ahmed Alsuwaidi

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Sunday Dinner: Relaxed

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“I want to put the ever-rushing world on pause
Slow it down, so that I can breathe.
These bones are aching to tell me something
But I cannot hear them.”

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Lucy H. Pearce

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“Just breathing can be such a luxury sometimes.”

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Walter Kirn

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“The secret of relaxation is in these three words:

‘Let it go”!”

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Dada J. P. Vaswani

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“The attitude of Tao is of cooperation, not conflict.

The attitude of Tao is not to be against nature

but to be with it, to allow nature,

to let it have its way, to cooperate with it,

to go with it.

The attitude of Tao is of great relaxation.”

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Osho

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“Your calm mind

is the ultimate weapon

against your challenges.

So relax.”

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Bryant McGill

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“Now this relaxation of the mind from work

consists on playful words or deeds.

Therefore it becomes a wise and virtuous man

to have recourse to such things at times.”

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Thomas Aquinas

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“Man is so made that

he can only find relaxation from one kind of labor

by taking up another. ”

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Anatole France

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“I wish you water.”

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Wallace J. Nichols 

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.”
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John Lennon

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Sunday Dinner: Fleeting

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“Exquisite beauty
is often hidden
in life’s fragile,
fleeting moments.”

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John Mark Green

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“If a beautiful thing were to remain beautiful

for all eternity, I’d be glad,

but all the same I’d look at it

with a colder eye.

I’d say to myself: You can look at it any time,

it doesn’t have to be today.”

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Hermann Hesse

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“Everything changes. The leaves, the weather,

the colour of your hair, the texture of your skin.

The feelings you have today –

whether they kill you or enthrall you –

won’t be the same tomorrow, so let go.

Celebrate. Enjoy. Nothing lasts,

except your decision to celebrate everything,

everyone, for the beauty that is there

within each moment, each smile,

each impermanent flicker of infinity.”

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Vironika Tugaleva

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“That which is impermanent

attracts compassion.

That which is not provides wisdom.”

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Stephen Levine

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“Nostalgia is an illness
for those who haven’t realized
that today
is tomorrow’s nostalgia.”

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Zeena Schreck

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“Nothing endures but change.”

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Heraclitus

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Dry Shade Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Soil security”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saxifraga spreads by stolons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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