My Final Plant Order

The second part of an order as it arrived on April 11, 2014. Michigan bulb did replace these plants when notified of their condition on arrival.

Back in the day, I loved finding a plant or seed catalog in the mail.  I studied each one carefully, marking up my wish list and then winnowing it down to something almost reasonable.  I read the descriptions on each shrub and perennial, compared tomato, bean and squash varieties, and stayed abreast of all the latest and greatest plant introductions.

Over the past thirty years (plus or minus) I have ordered everything from fruit trees to roses, ferns, geraniums, tomato seeds and Caladium bulbs.

I have received some fine, healthy plants that grew well, and I’ve received some duds.  Like you probably have over the years, too.  I used to collect heirloom roses and fruit trees.  There weren’t deer or rabbits in that garden, and I could grow vegetables and strawberries, too.  I grew at least six varieties of apples and three different peaches, all purchased through the mail.

I remember those days fondly.  The mail came every day, efficiently and without long delays.  Prices were fair and nursery companies were honorable and cared about their reputations.

July 2014

But things change over time, don’t they?  For the last few years, most of the nursery catalogs that make it to my mailbox go straight to the recycling can, just as soon as I can remove and shred my address label.  A quick glance shows me how ridiculously overpriced the most common perennial can be when ordered through the mail.  What I can buy locally for $5 suddenly becomes a $20 a plant before tacking on the postage.

It has been a long time since I have found a good deal on anything other than my favorite Caladium tubers.  A few years ago, I took a chance on ordering a rare, hard to locate Iris.  I ordered from a huge national company that advertises heavily, used a coupon code, and waited excitedly for my Iris to arrive.  The stock looked good on arrival and I potted up the several I had purchased.  They didn’t bloom the first year, and so I had an entire year to anticipate these inky, almost black, species Iris flowers. 

And then there were buds, and finally the buds opened…. blue.  What had been sold as an Iris chrysographes bloomed as a pale blue Japanese Iris.  It was a pretty enough Iris, but not what I had ordered.  And so instead of refunding my purchase, the company sent me a letter promising store credit on my next order.  That letter sat in my filing cabinet for a couple of years, because I truly wasn’t interested in buying anything else from them.

And then temptation struck me this past February.  February does strange things to an otherwise sensible gardener’s sensibility.  I found this fern I just had to have, and this company had it at a fair enough price.  And so one freezing February day I ordered the golden fern and a couple of Calla lily bulbs, and paid for it with my letter of credit, plus a few extra dollars to cover the difference.

We are fortunate to have Brent and Becky’s Bulbs close enough to shop with them in person.

Well, the fern arrived just fine in early March, but no bulbs.  They said the bulbs would be along shortly.  And so I waited patiently through the time frame they indicated, and still no Calla bulbs.  When I called customer service last week, the sweet lady apologized profusely while telling me that the next time frame for mailing them would be mid-May.  No thank you.

I cancelled the order, scolding myself the entire time, and requested a refund.  Well, I’m still waiting for that refund.  Are you surprised?

I tried a new company last February, too.  The Tennessee Wholesale Nursery has a professional looking website and carries a large selection of bare root ferns.  I was in fern bliss ordering species never found in stores.   The order arrived a few weeks later in March, and I was pleased with what I received.

Pleased enough that I had the botanical garden where I volunteer place an order for a project I was planting there.  We were a bit shocked to pay around $30 for postage for a few packages of bare root ferns, but there was no stated shipping policy on the website other than a statement that they would determine the shipping on each order.  Those ferns were shipped the same day they were ordered, and I was a very happy gardener to open that order, too.

The silvery underside of each frond is this fern’s distinguishing feature. I brought this fern home from Oregon in my luggage in 2019.

Perhaps I should have been satisfied and left it at that.  But no, I wanted a few more ferns for my spring projects, so I placed the third order with Tennessee Wholesale Nursery in mid-March.  The website indicated it would ship out in March, and my credit card was charged on March 20.

And I’m still waiting for that order a month later in mid-April, while getting nothing helpful or encouraging from their customer service agent.  When they told me last Monday that they wouldn’t be able to dig my ferns for several more weeks, I asked that the order be cancelled if they couldn’t ship by today. Numerous attempts to call the available numbers led only through the phone tree to full voice mailboxes.

Well, the order wasn’t prepared last week, and so on Friday, I requested that it be cancelled, and my payment refunded. No acknowledgement, just an apology.  It is getting too late in the season here for me to want to start off with bare root plants.  Our cool spring is history, and it is stressful for plants to have to grow new roots in our heat.

I requested again today that the order be cancelled.  And I followed up with an email to the owner.  Still, no acknowledgment that it has been cancelled, or that my refund is in process, even after writing to the owner.   Instead of happily planting my ferns, I am left pondering next steps . . .

2013, An Afghan Fig, newly arrived in the mail, ready to plant. It is still thriving in our garden today.

I have one more plant order ‘out there’ that is supposed to ship this week from Plant Delights in North Carolina.  This will be my first order with them in several years.  Once their shipping costs went above $30 for even a single plant, it cooled my plant lust considerably.  All it took was a few moments of ‘doing the math’ to figure out the actual cost of the plant to convince me that I didn’t need it that badly.

But I was given a gift of cash and asked to get something I had been wanting for a while.  And after several days of thinking about it, I decided to support the work that Plant Delights does for the horticultural community with a purchase/donation.  I say donation because the prices are so high.  But they are quite honest and let you know that your purchase helps support their botanical garden where the plants are trialed and cultivated.  Fair enough.

These three Colocasia plants were all purchased through the mail. The tall Colocasia “Black Runner” arrived from Plant Delights Nursery on April 2, 2014, in perfect condition. The tiny Colocasia, “Pink China” plants arrived from another company in poor condition. You get what you pay for!

I am waiting to hear that the order has shipped.  Plant Delights has a good track record of customer service.  If you don’t mind paying $20-$30 a plant for a little something in a 3.5” pot, you can source plants from them unavailable from anyone else.  And, the plants are healthy and correctly labeled.

Buying new plants should be joyous.  We all want to be treated fairly and to receive good value for our expenditure.  The plants we receive should be healthy, arrive at the correct time, and we should be able to communicate with the nursery staff if problems arise.

Many of the old names in the mail-order nursery business have gone under in recent years.  Others have consolidated.  This past year has presented special challenges for every sort of business, including mail-order nurseries.  I appreciate the work they do and the opportunity to purchase unusual plants few others carry.

This past week I unsubscribed from the emails of all but two nursery companies.  Why read the emails and see the sales when I’ve decided to stop ordering from them?  I am still allowing emails from Plant Delights, because I enjoy seeing their new introductions.  And I am still impressed with the quality, service and selection at Classic Caladiums, in Avon Park, Florida.

Beyond that, I have placed my final plant order.  I will shop locally or find happiness with whatever wildflower or sapling pops up in my yard.  Because peace of mind is priceless.

Native dogwood is our state flower, and the Virginia Native Wildflower of the Year for 2018. Best of all, it seeds itself around our garden for free.

Building a Fern Bed to Reduce Erosion

Rainy weather and frequent storms over the past few years have presented a particular challenge.  We are situated on a sloping bit of land on the side of a ravine.  A creek runs through the ravine below us and empties into a small lake.

Working with the continual erosion has remained a constant theme of our gardening here.  Our challenge is to slow the flow of water to increase opportunities for rain to soak into the soil for later use, while reducing the amount of flowing water that erodes the soil and runs off into the ravine.

Read more about the construction of this new series of raised beds, and see photos of some of the ferns we’ve chosen at my new site, Our Forest Garden.

If you enjoy these posts. please follow my new site, Our Forest Garden, so you remain up to date with all of the activity in our garden.

-WG 2021

Fresh Start 2021: Carbon Garden

October blooming Camellia sasanqua

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Only recently have I come across the term ‘Carbon Garden’ in the current issue of Horticulture Magazine.  You may be ahead of me on this one, but the picture that came to mind when I first saw the term wasn’t very pretty.  The reality of it is much more attractive, and this garden style proves easier to maintain than many other garden styles.

Like other elements, carbon is an atom that can manifest as a solid, in a liquid, or as a gas.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) remain in the news because they contribute so much to our warming environment.  Gasses like carbon dioxide and methane (CH4) trap heat from the sun near the surface of the earth, causing warmer weather and heavier rainfalls.  Conversations around reversing the current warming trends usually focus on reducing carbon emissions and finding ways to scrub carbon out of the air.

Magically, we have living tools for removing carbon from the air right outside our windows.  You see, every green plant cell uses carbon dioxide in its daily efforts to feed itself and sustain the entire plant.  In the presence of sunlight, carbon dioxide and water transform into glucose, used to power plant growth, and the waste product oxygen, which of course we need in every breath.

When you contemplate a leafy tree, imagine each leaf inhaling polluted air and transforming that air into pure food and oxygen.

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Japanese Maple

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Glucose is further transformed into cellulose, which structures the cell wall of every plant cell.  Now, imagine a tree’s roots growing deeper and wider into the earth with each passing year.  What are those roots made from?  Cellulose:  largely, carbon.

A tree, and most any other plant, can stash carbon deep underground where it will remain for many years in solid form.  Many plants also store nitrogen, filtered out of the air, on their roots.  In fact, any plant in the pea family stores little nodules of solid nitrogen along their roots.  Knowing that nitrogen is a major component of fertilizers, you understand how this stored nitrogen increases the fertility of the soil in the area where these plants grow.

Plant leaves are also made primarily of carbon.  When the leaves fall each autumn, they hold stored, solid carbon.  If returned to the soil as compost or mulch, the carbon remains stored, or sequestered, in solid form in the soil.  This is how ordinary garden soil may be transformed into a ‘carbon sink.’

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Turkey tail mushrooms help decompose the stump of a fallen peach tree. Leaving the stump in place and allowing vegetation to cover it conserves its carbon in the soil.

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A log is made largely of stored carbon.  When you burn it in the fireplace, those chemical bonds break down, and much of the carbon rises back into the air as smoke.  If the same log is made into a cutting board or other wooden object, then the carbon remains in sold form.

Just as burning can break chemical bonds to release carbon back into the air, so will decomposition.  We’ve come to understand that bare dirt, including tilled fields and gardens, releases carbon back into the air.  But ground covered by mulch or living plants doesn’t allow that carbon to move back into the air.

All of this helps explain the science behind the principles of Carbon Gardening, whose goal is to scrub as much carbon as possible out of the air and sequester it in the earth.  Forests have done this very efficiently for untold ages.

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Only in recent times, with so much natural forest cleared and land exposed, has our planet begun its dramatic warming.  Think of all the carbon stored over the centuries as coal, petroleum, peat, and held close under a forest canopy that has been released into our atmosphere over the past century.

So, the point of Carbon Gardening is to use one’s own garden to sequester as much carbon as possible, using gardening methods that hold the carbon in the soil, without burning or releasing any more carbon than possible in the process.

Every breath we exhale contains carbon dioxide.  Our cells produce it as they produce energy.  We live in harmony with the plants we grow, taking in the oxygen they exhale while giving them back our own carbon rich breath.  That said, please don’t try to hold your breath as you make your Carbon Garden.

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Camellia sasanqua

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Here are a few principles of Carbon Gardening that may help point you in the right direction. 

The Audubon Society has a series of articles that go into far more detail.

  1. Plant intensely in layers:  The more plants in growth the more carbon will be scrubbed from the air each day.  Trees are most efficient because they support a huge volume of leaves.  Include evergreen trees that continue respiration through the winter months, and plant a shrub layer, perennial layer, and ground covers under the trees to maximize the amount of carbon absorbed by your garden.  Evergreen perennials and ground covers continue absorbing and storing carbon through the winter months.

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  1. Feed carbon (and nitrogen) back into your soil with plant materials. Use wood chips, bark, and shredded leaves as mulch to minimize bare ground.  Remember that roots sequester a large amount of carbon and nitrogen, so leave those roots in the ground.  Cut weeds or spent annuals at ground level instead of pulling them up.  Compost trimmings and leaves, kitchen waste, and unneeded cardboard, newsprint or brown paper.

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This is a very thin layer of compost covering collected branches, bark and leaves from our fallen tree.  We added additional layers of organic material to build the new planting bed.

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  1. Instead of tilling soil and exposing stored carbon, sheet compost in the winter to prepare for spring planting. Cover the garden area with cardboard or paper to protect the soil and smother any weeds.  Build up layers of composable materials, or even bagged municipal compost, and allow it to decompose in place so that planting seeds or transplants in the spring is possible without tilling or excessive digging.  Coffee grounds, tea bags, rinsed eggshells and other kitchen scraps can be ‘buried’ in the layers of a sheet compost pile, but be careful not to discard of seeds in this way unless you want them to sprout in the spring.

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Paper grocery bags covered with several inches of compost smother weeds and soften the ground for this new planting bed, eliminating the need to dig the area up first.  Pea gravel helps hold this area, which is on a slope.

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  1. Remain mindful of garden ‘inputs’ that burn carbon. This includes garden equipment that burns gas, commercial fertilizers, and maybe even those fun trips to the garden center….?

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This bin of new Caladium bulbs was ready to be planted out in mid-May.  Ordering bare root perennials, bulbs, tubers and seeds and starting them at home reduces the carbon footprint of a garden.  The red leaf is C. ‘Burning Heart,’ a 2015 introduction from Classic Caladiums in Avon Park, FL.

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  1. If you normally buy flats of annual plants each spring for pots or borders, consider how to plant those areas more sustainably. Consider all of the carbon releasing ‘inputs’ required to produce those plants, including the plastic containers they are grown in, the transportation to move them, and the chemical fertilizers and peat based potting soil used in growing them.  While all plants sequester carbon from the air, commercial nursery production of short-lived plants releases carbon into the atmosphere throughout the process and should be considered by conscientious gardeners.  What can you raise from seeds, cuttings or divisions, or obtain through trade with gardening friends?

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Saxifraga stolonifera is an evergreen ground cover that is easy to divide and share.  It grows here with Ajuga ‘Black Scallop,’ Hellebores and ferns.

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  1. Choose native perennials or ones that will naturalize in your climate, so your plants spread and reproduce, reducing the number of plants you need to buy each year to fill your garden. Design a sustainable garden that grows lushly with minimal ‘inputs’ and intervention from the gardener.  Native and naturalizing perennials won’t need much watering during dry spells, will make do with nutrients in the soil, and will expand and self-seed.

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  1. Woody plants sequester carbon in their roots and branches and live for many years. These are the most efficient Carbon Garden plants.   A garden made mostly from trees, shrubs, perennial ferns and groundcovers, will work most efficiently.  Some more arid areas have great success with long-lived succulents.  Consider replacing turf grass with plants that don’t require such intense maintenance.

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Mountain Laurel blooms each May, is native to our region and forms dense clumps over time.

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  1. Use the I-Tree Tool to educate yourself about the power of trees in your landscape to sequester and store carbon, reduce run-off and scrub other pollutants out of the air. Use this tool when selecting new trees to plant in your own yard.

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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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‘Carbon Gardening’ can make a significant contribution to scrubbing carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the earth, and the total contribution multiplies as the plants grow and the garden develops year to year.  A fully grown native tree can removed fifty or more pounds of carbon from the air annually.  While the amount varies by tree species and size, every year of growth increases the tree’s effectiveness.

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Each gardener who adopts sustainable practices makes a sizeable contribution to off-set and mitigate carbon production in their area.  Planting more plants and allowing them to grow densely also helps manage rainfall so it is stored onsite, rather than running off so rapidly.  The plants sustain wildlife and build a richly integrated ecosystem.

We reduce our own annual costs for new plants, fertilizers, other chemicals and fuel, while also reducing our time invested in garden maintenance.  It is a good approach for any of us who enjoy watching nature weave her tapestry each year, sustainably, while knowing that our gardens are part of the solution to climate warming and climate change.

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Woodland Gnome 2021

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Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful and a positive thought.

Six on Saturday: Winter Flowers

Edgeworthia chrysantha in late March 2019

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Here in coastal Virginia, it is possible to have flowers blooming in the garden every day of the year.  It takes a bit of planning and preparation now, before winter settles around us.  But it is within reach for most of us with a little outdoor space to plant.

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Planning a garden is a lot like working a very large jigsaw puzzle.  Consider one of the 1200 piece puzzles you buy to work with family or close friends, where you spend hours and hours just sorting pieces and making the frame before ever beginning to fill in the body of the puzzle.  Maybe you work in small sections, completing a bit here and there, then fitting those vignettes into their proper place in the whole at the right time.

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Planning for winter color, and more specifically for winter flowers, is just one of those chunks to fit into the bigger picture.

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Hellebores blooming in mid-February

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As you begin to think about winter flowers, it is helpful to think about winter blooming shrubs, winter blooming geophytes, winter blooming perennials, and finally winter blooming ‘annuals.’  Each have their own niche in the whole picture, and their own level of expense and commitment.

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This weekend I’ve visited three garden centers and have been delighted to find plants on my own ‘winter wish list’ at all three.  In all cases, the plants I wanted were marked down on clearance.  Even looking a bit rough and scraggly, giving them the right care now guarantees flowers in a few months, when we’ll need them.

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Violas of all sorts our still widely available in our area and still sold at full price at most locations.  There are hundreds of varieties, and the hardest part about planting Violas is deciding which ones to grow.  Deadhead to keep the flowers coming.  Use Osmacote or another time-release fertilizer at planting time, and feed them again with a liquid feed in February or March for best bloom.  Cut them back with scissors to remove bad foliage or leggy stems, and they will reward you with lush growth until summer.

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This is the easiest, least expensive way to enjoy winter flowers, and carries the least commitment.  Violas thrive here until sometime in May, when it gets too hot for them.  I’m usually pulling them out of their spots by mid-May to replant for summer, anyway.  Gardeners in cooler climates can keep them going year to year, but here we treat them like annuals.  Pansies have the largest, brightest flowers.  There are both singles and doubles in a wide variety of colors and color combinations.

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Panolas are a nice compromise between Pansies and the tiny Violas like ‘Johnny Jump-Ups.’  Again, there is a variety of color combinations available, solid flowers, and both single and double blossoms.  Little Violas have flowers about the size of a penny or a nickle, but they are very sweet and saturated color.  Although the plants look tiny now, they grow and spread throughout the winter.  By spring, when they begin to bloom again in earnest, they are covered in many, many small, but bright flowers.  We have a grower near us who specializes in little Violas, and I always end up with a flat or two and put them in pots and baskets on our patio and deck.

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Since deer find these little guys very tasty (most of the flowers are edible for humans, too) I generally don’t plant out Violas in beds or borders.  But I have, and as long as they are kept sprayed with animal repellent, they grow beautifully.

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Hardy Cyclamen leaves with blue Vinca flowers and emerging Crocus in February.

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A notch up from the Violas are Snapdragons, Antirrhinum species.  These are perennials, though many people pull them out and replace them by mid-spring.  I have several plants still going strong planted more than a year ago.  They are short-lived perennials, but will bloom profusely well into early summer, and then sporadically during our hot season.  The secret to keeping these covered in flowers is to dead-head the spent blooms before they set seeds, keep them moist, and feed the plants every month or so to keep them healthy and productive.  Give snaps some shade in the summer, but they are happy in full sun through the winter months.  You will find Antirrhinum varieties in small, medium or tall plants, and in a range of beautiful colors from bold to soft pastels.

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An equally easy, but often overlooked winter blooming perennial is Dianthus chinensis.  Often sold in cell packs in early spring, Dianthus is a tough, dependable easy perennial in our area that isn’t ever grazed.  It blooms sporadically in winter and summer, but really shines in spring and fall on evergreen plants.   I often use it in potted arrangements because it is versatile, bright, and the flowers remain the size of quarters in shades of white, pink, purple or crimson.  Flowers may be solid or bi-color.  Cuttings root easily.  Deadhead this plant regularly to keep it looking neat, and to keep the flowers coming.

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Requiring a bit more time and commitment are the Hellebores.  I had never paid Hellebores any attention until I moved to Williamsburg, but they are very popular here.  Probably because they are very poisonous, and won’t be bothered by deer, rabbits, squirrels, moles, voles, or ground-hogs.  It take about three to four years from seedling to blooming plant, but blooming plants are readily available in gallon pots at our garden centers, for around $25.00 each.

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Preferring shade, some of my plants grow in full to partial sun and do fine, as long as I water them during dry spells.  Hellebores begin blooming between December and February, depending on the species and variety, and them bloom continuously for another 3 to 4 months.  They are evergreen, serve as background foliage during the warm months, and are very tough and easy plants to grow.

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I was given a few dozen seedling plants by a neighbor years ago, and they continue to bloom each year and multiply, naturally spreading to form a dense ground cover.  I also buy one or two new varieties each year.  I grow them in pots and in the ground, and delight in their beautiful flowers through the winter months when little else blooms.

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Violas and ivy make fora beautiful winter hanging basket in our climate. This photo from early January 2017.

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When most people think of winter flowers, they think about winter blooming bulbs.  Bulbs are easy and most are inexpensive.  This is prime time to find bulb sales from online dealers, who can be very good, and also to find reduced bags of bulbs at garden centers.

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Be wary, if buying bulbs locally, that the bulbs still look plump and healthy and have no discoloration.  If they look shriveled or have anything grey or green on them, pass them by.  They probably won’t bloom well, or they may not grow at all and infect your soil with bacterial rot.

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Snowdrops, Galanthus species, bloom in January or February most years.  Although they are very small and white or white and green, by the time they bloom, they are a welcome sign of spring.  Miniature Iris bloom from bulbs at just about the same time, but come in a broader range of colors with larger flowers.  Early daffodils begin to bloom most years in February, and Crocus can bloom very early, before there is much else color in the garden.  Muscari also bloom in very early spring.  All of these are called geophytes because they are bulbs, and can be stored dry during their dormant time each year.

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Other geophytes, or ‘Earth plants’ grow from corms, tubers, or rhizomes.   Some hardy Cyclamen tubers begin to bloom in autumn and bloom until early winter.  Their beautifully patterned leaves persist much longer than their delicate flowers in pinks or white.  Other Cyclamen species begin to bloom in the middle of winter, and bloom through mid-spring.  Buy tubers based on when they bloom, the color of their flowers or the color and pattern of their leaves.  Cyclamen may be grown from seeds, but it takes several years for their tubers to grow large enough to bloom.  Leave the tuber in place and it will keep growing larger, giving a wider area of bloom each year.

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Iris reticulata ‘Sunshine’ on March 2, 2019.

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Finally, shrubs can be a great source of winter flowers.  If you live in Zone 7 or warmer, you can grow Camellias.  Some Camellia varieties are hardier than others, and you may find species to grow in Zone 6 or cooler.  We grow both fall blooming and spring blooming Camellias, so we have them from October through until April, whenever the weather has a bit of a warm enough stretch to allow buds to bloom.

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Daphne can bloom very early, but is also a very difficult shrub to keep happy.  I’ve never had one for very long.

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Our favorite winter bloomer is Edgeworthia chrysantha, or Chinese paperbush.  It is already in bud, and those flower buds keep steadily swelling and growing larger until they finally open into blossoms. There are two or three different varieties, and flowers may be white with yellow centers, or all yellow. They have a very sweet and strong fragrance, so the garden is perfumed on warmish days.

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Now, if you want to grow this gorgeous shrub, you will make a bit of an investment.  I saw one today in a 3 gal. pot for nearly $80.  Shop around, and you will likely find a much better deal.  One of our local nurseries carries them at a more reasonable price, but they never order very many.  You have to seek this one out.

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A shining star through the winter months, the shrub is rather non-descript with medium green, deciduous leaved through the summer.  The leaves turn yellow in fall, as the flowers appear on the branches.  It is a very sculptural shrub once the leaves fall, and is a real focal point.

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Mahonia, a northwest native shrub, blooms in November- January.   Japanese Pieris will also begin to bloom as winter fades into spring.  Both of these shrubs have evergreen foliage and bees and other small pollinators love them.   They support native bees when there is little else available for forage.

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Native redbud trees, Cercis Canadensis, sprout tiny flowers that break out of their bark along twigs, limbs and sometimes even the trunk!  I’ve seen them bloom here as early as mid-February, when they cover themselves in a cloud of deep magenta pink.  Some of the cultivars available now offer other color choices, but most are shades of pink/purple/red and even white.  Each tree hosts hundreds (thousands on a mature tree) of tiny flowers to the delight of every hungry pollinator in the area.  Birds follow to feed on the insects, and so redbud trees become hubs of activity when in bloom.

Heart shaped leaves follow, which turn beautiful yellow in fall.  Seed pods look like snow peas, and are edible.  Our trees are covered in seed pods, still, and they feed a variety of wildlife in winter.  Cut branches may be forced inside in early spring, in a vase of water.  Designers may also cut branches covered in seed pods now to add drama to their arrangements.

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Some Magnolia trees, like Magnolia stellata and Magnolia lilliflora may break into bloom in February.  Deciduous Magnolia trees bloom earlier than the evergreens and generally stay much smaller.  These are easy to grow in sun to part shade, and come in a variety of flower forms and colors.

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Finally, Forsythia shrubs often begin blooming for us in February with golden yellow flowers.  They are one of the earliest blooming shrubs in late winter.  You can force branches to bloom indoors several weeks earlier than they bloom outside.   And Japanese quince blooms in bright scarlet or pink soon after.

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These are just the high points of winter blooming plants that we grow, and that easily come to mind.  You may have other favorites.  We have to consider climate, available sun or shade, and what will or won’t be grazed by the animals who visit our garden.

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Many gardeners are quite happy with evergreens, a few bright berries, and maybe some variegated ivy or a variegated shrub.  We all crave a bit of color in the winter time, and it is worth planning for and making a bit of an investment to keep the garden interesting during the darkest months of the year.

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February 2017 Magnolia stellata

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

Six on Saturday: ‘Garden Bathing’

Caladium ‘Berries and Burgundy’ grows enthusiastically in this shady spot.

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Maybe I’m too easily entertained.  Or maybe I’m just a sucker for a pretty leaf.  We’ve reached the time of the year when I can happily circumambulate the garden admiring the newest, brightest leaves appearing on our Caladiums and other ‘Elephant Ear’ plants and noting how many different flowers may be in bloom.

Now, let’s be honest here:  there isn’t a great deal of happiness in our public lives at the moment.  We watch every dystopian plot line play out in the daily news, even as we plan how to avoid viral contamination in the mundane acts of collecting our mail, picking up the groceries or taking a walk.  I find a good antidote to the general anxiety of our age in ‘garden bathing.

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Alocasia ‘Plumbea’ with orbs

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Maybe you’ve heard of ‘Forest Bathing,’ or shinrin-yoku?  This Japanese practice of spending time out of doors under the canopy of trees can be brought right home to our own gardens, as we soak in the atmosphere through all of our senses.  The Japanese scientists who study these things found greater happiness, well-being, and good health among those who devote some time to soaking in the sights, sounds, scents and sensations of nature.

I’m happy knowing that 40 years of research has proven what gardeners already know:  we feel better when we spend time outside in a garden.  Curiously, it doesn’t matter so much whether we are in our own garden or a friend’s; a public garden or a park.  Time spent under trees and surrounded by plants helps us feel better in measurable ways.

And not just plants, either.  Spotting a turtle or a dragonfly feels like a gift.  Watching butterflies feed or birds glide around the garden brings its own peaceful contentment.

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Alocasia with Caladiums

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Maybe that is why I awaken each morning with a gardening ‘to do’ list already percolating in my waking thoughts.  Whether my list includes tasks at home, at the local botanical garden, or both; I awake with purpose and the intent to invest some early morning time out of doors working in a garden.

Whether I’m pulling weeds, watering, or just monitoring how the plants are growing, I can blissfully disconnect from the day’s narrative of outrage and gloom.  Every opening flower and bit of new growth gets counted as a worthy accomplishment.

There are many ways to express compassion for others and ourselves.  There are many ways to assist others in experiencing happiness.  We each do what we can.  I read about an artist who painted a flower for every staff member of a distant hospital, over 1000 in all.  His paintings were framed and presented to each person as a ‘thank you’ gesture for their healing and sustaining work.

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There are those who cook and deliver meals or loaves of bread to those in need.  Others sew and deliver masks, or check on lonely neighbors.  There is a task waiting for every willing heart and hand.

What could be more life-affirming and joy inducing than planting and tending a garden?  We need beauty, tranquility and inspiration now in ways we may have not needed them before. They are an antidote to the darker feelings that bubble up in our thoughts each day.

So I reach out to all of my gardening friends and to everyone who nurtures a plot of growing things.  Let us continue the work and know that it is good, and purposeful and that our efforts make a positive difference in this crazy world.  Let’s sow beauty and reap happiness, for ourselves and for our communities.

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Caladium ‘Splash of Wine’ is new in our garden this year. This is the first leaf opened from the tuber.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Caladium ‘Debutante’

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Visit Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

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

Hanging Basket Hacks: Hydration

A two year old planting, ready for rejuvenation

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Considering I’d originally planted the basket a couple of years ago, and that the ‘annual’ Verbena survived two Williamsburg winters to return and bloom the following spring,  I can’t complain.

Add to that poor soil (compost I found on-site at the garden) and those daffodil bulbs I planted in there for spring interest.  By early summer 2020, the basket was struggling.   It hung in full sun at the botanical garden where it got irregular, but loving attention.  The Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia, had grown in lushly.  But the basket was no longer beautiful, and the Verbena was fading.  We just couldn’t keep the plants properly watered in July’s unrelenting heat.

Do you have a hanging basket that is struggling in summer’s heat?  Do you have plants under-performing because you can’t keep their container sufficiently watered?

The ongoing challenge with any container planting, especially baskets and window boxes, is to keep the plants supplied with nutrients and enough water that they don’t frequently wilt.  Some climates make container gardening easier than others.  Many municipal plantings get daily, professional attention from a team of horticulturalists.  Some plants adapt better to growing crowded into baskets with just a few inches of soil, than others.

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When you think about it, a hanging basket is a pretty extreme environment for many plants.  That said, there are some reasonably simple and inexpensive hacks that anyone can use to make that basket more comfortable for living, blooming plants.

It is smart to begin with the largest basket your space, and the support it will hang from, can accommodate.  Larger baskets mean more soil to hold moisture, and more space for roots to grow.  A 14″-16″ basket is a good size to work with.  If you are working with a window box rather than a basket, look for ones at minimum 6″ deep.

Next, use good, fresh potting soil.  You might add additional perlite to equal a quarter of the total soil volume, which improves drainage and makes the finished basket much lighter.  Mix this in well, along with some slow release fertilizer like Epsoma’s Plant Tone or Osmocote.  To keep plants actively growing and blooming, they need nutrients.  Most potting mixes are sterile, without the nutrients commonly found in garden soil (which is too dense and heavy for a hanging basket or container).  Adding slow release fertilizer helps bring out the best performance in your chosen plants.

Mix up enough amended soil to fill the basket in a separate container, and then use a scoop to transfer a little at a time to fill in around each plant as you place it.

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This wire basket has a fresh coir liner and an inner liner of a plastic bag. A sponge cut into small bits will help conserve water.

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I generally prefer wire baskets with a coco or coir liner.   Baskets will dry out exceptionally fast when the heat index is over 100F and there isn’t a cloud in the sky for hour after hour on a summer day.  Even baskets watered generously before 8 AM may be dry again by mid-afternoon.  Coir makes a better liner than the traditional sphagnum moss, but is still exceptionally porous.

My first hack is to line the basket with an additional plastic liner to aid water retention.  You might use a large plastic shopping bag, a dry cleaner bag, or similar light-weight sheet of plastic.  If there aren’t holes in the plastic already, use the point of your scissors to poke a few holes so the basket will drain in heavy rain.   I used a shopping bag disqualified from cat-litter duty due to a few large holes already poked in the bottom.  The bag probably won’t fit into your basket perfectly, and you’ll likely need to cut some vertical darts to allow it to open wide enough to lie smoothly against the sides of your liner.

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My second hack involves a cellulose kitchen sponge.  I have a bag of new, dehydrated and pressed Trader Joe’s brand sponges and am giving this brainstorm a trial to see how well it works.  If you don’t have dried pressed sponges available, try any cellulose sponge that doesn’t have any chemical or soap products pre-loaded on it.  Just cut the sponge up into small pieces.  Use most of them in the bottom of the basket between the plastic liner and the soil.  I partially filled the liner with soil, and then added a few more fragments of sponge around the outside edge of the basket.

The sponges will serves as little reservoirs to soak up excess water when it is available and release it later to the soil and roots when it is needed.  I placed several sponge fragments around those holes in the bag to soak up water before it drains out.

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Use fresh potting mix amended with slow release fertilizer like Osmocote (here). If the mix is dense, add additional perlite, up to a quarter of the total volume.  Here additional pieces of sponge are added around the edges of the basket.  These will plump up once the basket is watered for the first time.

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Fill your container about 1/2 full of fresh potting soil and then begin placing plants, and filling back around each one with prepared potting soil.

I placed the entire soil ball from my old basket planting in a plastic box before using my hori hori knife to begin prying the various plants apart.  I saved and re-used all of the pieces of the Verbena that I could find and the rooted bits of Dichondra,which had filled the basket last summer.  Only a few bits of it survived the winter and have been competing with the Lysimachia for resources.

A lot of cleaning up may be needed to remove old, withered leaves and stems.  A pair of sharp scissors is my favorite gardening tool.

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Break apart the individual plants into smaller hunks, discarding most of the old soil.  Clean out old and withered stems and leaves as you re-plant each division.

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I settled the divisions with Verbena in the center and added a few chunks of Lysimachia around the edges.  Creeping Jenny grows quickly and will fill in within a few weeks.  I want the Dichondra to have a chance here to re-establish itself.  I’ll reserve the remaining parts of the old planting, including those dormant bulbs, for another use.

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Settle the divisions you want to re-use into fresh soil

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Finally, I still had a few rooted cuttings of Portulaca on hand.  I brought home a generous portion of cuttings from my favorite grower a few weeks ago and have had them rooting on the deck in a box of vermiculite and potting soil.  I’ve been planting them out in various places for the last few weeks,  but had enough still on hand to add seven or eight rooted stems to empty spots in this new planting.

Rooted cuttings can be worked in to established basket arrangements to refresh and update them.  They are easier to work in than nursery plants since they have a smaller root ball.  Keep well watered as they grow in.

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Rooted Portulaca cuttings ready to transplant

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Using very drought tolerant plants is the next hack for planting drought tolerant basket arrangements.  Succulents, like Portulaca or Sedums, have the ability to absorb and store water when it is available and then go for long periods of time without additional watering.  They have a waxy coating on the epidermis of each leaf and stem to reduce evaporation.  They can remain plump and vital when other plants are crisping up in the sun.

When selecting plants for baskets, pay attention to their water needs and their resilience to drought.  As more beautiful succulents come to market, choosing appropriate succulent and drought tolerant plants for container arrangements becomes easier.

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Lysimachia, Creeping Jenny, is a drought tolerant vine that tolerates full sun. It roots at every node and can take over a planting. Here, I’ve used a few divisions and left the remainder for another use later.

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The final hack for hanging baskets involves applying a mulch.  Bare soil loses moisture much faster than does mulched soil.  The best mulch in our climate is fine gravel, like aquarium gravel.  Pea gravel is another choice.  Both choices do add some weight to the basket, but they reduce evaporation, keep the plants clean and healthy without soil splashing up on them, cool the soil, and provide some protection to roots and geophytes you may plant in the basket.  We have curious squirrels who sometimes dig in pots and baskets if not discouraged by a gravel mulch.  Other choices include larger stones, small seashells, flat glass beads, marbles or glass chips, moss, and vines that fill in as a ground cover, like the Lysimachia.

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I have used a few rocks, glass beads and shells to anchor rooted cuttings in this new arrangement and have sprinkled additional Osmocote on top of the planting.  use rocks or shells to hide the raw, trimmed edges of the plastic liner.  I still need to apply some fine, gravel mulch before this basket is ready to return to the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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Once the basket is planted, and potting soil worked in firmly around all of the roots, add your mulch, and then water the basket well.  I like to water the basket with plain water first to wet everything, and then come back a short time later with a foliar feed of fish and seaweed emulsion to help the plants adjust and to provide trace minerals to the soil.

In spring, you can get by with hanging that basket into its permanent place right away.  In summer, I like to give a day or two for the plants to settle in and adjust in the shade before moving the basket to its permanent spot.  A stretch of cloudy, wet weather is best for a new basket.  But when there is a lot of sun, I like to give the plants a head start on settling their roots into their new home in a shady spot before putting them under stress in full sun.

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A Portulaca cutting has been growing in the edge of this basket for a few weeks now. Once established, they grow quickly and bloom prolifically in full or partial sun.

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Each gardener has to understand their own micro climate and preferred plants to come up with solutions that work for them.  If I were gardening in the Pacific Northwest, I might not need to line my basket with plastic or add cut up sponges to the soil.  The more realistic we are about our own growing conditions, the better job we can do with our plantings for lasting beauty.

If your hanging baskets have been less than spectacular, you might try some of these hacks to see how they work for you.  Don’t be afraid to re-work an established basket with an eye to improving it.  Changing out some of the plants, removing some of the more agressive plants, fertilizing and refreshing the soil may make all the difference in how well your planting performs.

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The basket rests in a shady spot before being returned to its place at the garden.  The Portulaca and Verbena will fill in and begin to bloom again by the end of July.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Six on Saturday: Perennial Patience

This tough summer planting includes Coleus, Verbena, Lantana, Dichondra and Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost.’ It can take heat and sun and continue looking good through until fall.  These are all tender perennials and can overwinter in the garage, or some may make it through winter outdoors in this large pot.

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You may know that many of the bright little plants sold at nurseries each spring as ‘annuals’ actually are perennials.  An annual grows from a seed, blooms, sets seed and dies all between last frost of winter and first frost of autumn.  Only the seeds will last from one season to the next.

Perennials will live from year to year given the right degree of protection from winter’s chill.  Hardy perennials can over winter in pot or in the ground out of doors, with minimal protection.  Tender perennials need to come inside to live, whether they overwinter in the living room, garage, basement or cold frame.  We are on the cusp of Zone 8, here in Williamsburg, and some winters prove a bit warmer or colder than the norm.  That means that some of those tender ‘annual’ perennials I’ve left outside in pots, baskets or borders may just delight me by returning the following spring.

It is a contest of patience.  Most don’t rush to show themselves.  And keeping faith that survivors will return is a good reason to procrastinate on re-working our pots and baskets until early June.

Here we are near the end of the first week of June and I am still in the midst of transplanting Caladiums and planting out the few new plants I bought in mid-May.  Our cooler than usual spring dictated that the Caladiums tough it out in the garage several weeks longer than usual.  They’ve grown lank and leggy, but still hold promise.

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Caladium ‘Pink Beauty’ shares a pot with a Japanese painted fern. The Caladium just made its way to its summer pot this week.

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I dig and dry our Caladium tubers each November and store them in bags over winter in a spare room, then start them again by late March.  By May, they are showing new leaves and are ready to move back outside once again.  Only this year, it was too cool until just a couple of weeks ago.

By waiting so late, I’ve allowed time for Pelargoniums and Verbena, Tradescantia, Dichondra, Lantana, ferns and mints to show themselves alive and growing.  In many cases last year’s arrangements are returning for another season of growth.

But not all return.  At some point, one must clear out the leggy Violas and cut back the fading Dianthus, and carefully remove any faded remains of last year’s plants to give this summer’s plants time to establish and fill in before the season heats up too much.

For me, it’s like working a grand and complicated puzzle.  It helps to not over-think it, too, or else end up frustrated and frozen into indecision.  After all, mixing things up year to year and trying new plants and new combinations keeps things fresh.

I have my favorites.  Caladiums and Begonias fall near the top of my list of all time favorite summer plants for long lasting color.  Give them what they require and they will live on season after season.  Begonias must overwinter in the house or garage, unless they are one of the hardy varieties.   They might look a little rough by late May, but by late June they are covering themselves with brilliant new leaves and by late July the Begonias will be full of blooms again.  It is very easy to root Begonia stems to create entirely new plants and spread them around.  Overwinter as potted plants or as cuttings.

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Tradescantia returns reliably in our hanging baskets. It roots easily from a stem cutting and may be started in a new spot mid-season from a cutting.

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Other favorites include Coleus, another tender perennial, which can overwinter in the garage and starts easily from cuttings.   One can also buy a single new plant and take as many cuttings as one wants for additional plants.  Root them in a glass of water, or simply stick them in a pot where you want them to grow and keep them well-watered while they root.

Both ‘annual’ Verbena and Lantana return for us.  These are both excellent choices to stand up to our hot, muggy summers, too.  They can tough it out in hanging baskets or pots when the soil gets dry, and will wait for me to remember to bring them some water, if it doesn’t rain.  They attract hummingbirds, butterflies and lots of other little pollinators for endless entertainment.

Tradescantia looks tropical, but once well established, it will return year after year.  It is related to our native spiderwort. You have to wait for it, however, as you might not see it until late May.  It has little pink flowers, but I grow it for its gorgeous purple leaves and strong constitution.  Full sun, dry soil and long summer days don’t bother it, and deer will leave it strictly alone.  I plant Tradescantia and Lantana in the large pot outside of the Botanical garden’s gate, knowing they are safe from hungry deer.

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This tough Verbena is starting its third year in its basket. Pineapple mint, Lantana and a scented geranium have also returned here this spring.

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Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ is grown as a perennial ground cover further south.  I love it in pots and baskets because it grows into long, shimmering ‘curtains’ of foliage that get better as summer wears on.  Frost knocks back the foliage, but if one is patient and waits, it will often return from its roots by late May.  Dichondra roots easily from stems and is simple to divide from the nursery pot into smaller clumps, or simply layer to spread it around the outer edge of a hanging basket.  It is a wonderful bonus when it returns for another year.

Another plant I wait for each year is scented Pelargonium.  It is always a bonus when one survives and returns with fresh leaves in May.  I wonder sometimes whether I give up waiting too soon, and dig out plants that might eventually sprout.  When in doubt, it is easy enough to pot up the roots and wait to see.

Drenching pots of overwintered perennials with organic fertilizer, such as Neptune’s Harvest, when watering them helps them come into growth, especially if their survival is iffy during a difficult spring.

Tender Pelargoniums can be grown indoors over winter and cuttings root easily, if you have a special variety and don’t want to take a chance on leaving them out of doors all winter.

There are a few hardy perennials  I grow in pots year to year as well.  Heuchera, coral bells, will often keep color and leaves throughout our winter, but wakes up and produces new leaves and flower stalks by mid-spring.  These grow larger and better each year, and may live in a large pot indefinitely.

I prefer to grow Hostas in pots, too.  They will grow larger when planted out in a bed, but then their roots are vulnerable to voles.  Hostas can be knocked out of a pot and divided easily in spring, spread around, and will add color and texture wherever you need them in part to deep shade.

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Heuchera will easily fill a pot. It may be divided in early spring to spread a favorite variety around.  This is a fairly new variety called ‘Midnight Rose.’

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Deciduous ferns will also live on in pots year after year.  Japanese painted ferns and lady ferns, Athyriums, are my favorites for this treatment.  Pair them with Violas over winter to fill the pot, and then drop in a Caladium or two in spring to add interest through the summer. Watching for the first fiddleheads to appear is a sure sign of spring.

All of these plants have proven good investments in this climate.  They give many months of beauty, and generally return year after year.  They thrive in our conditions and most stand up to the wildlife.  (A spritz of deer repellent on the Hostas and Heucheras is helpful to avoid unpleasant surprises, however.)

Our garden centers are filled with enough choices to make one dizzy.  It is tempting to load one’s cart with one or two of everything and hope for the best.  While it is always interesting to try new plants, I am contented to plant what works.  I have had one too many lush baskets bake by late July, pathetic little petunia stems desiccated and dying.  Now, I reach for these hardy companions that will go the distance through a Virginia summer.

And given a little patience, I can extend their lives year to year.

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Pelargonium, a rose scented geranium that made it through winter and returned in April, is now larger than the new ones I picked up at the nursery in May.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Visit Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful.

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

 

Six on Saturday: Textured Tapestry

Siberian Iris just began to bloom here this week.

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We’ve had a wet week here in coastal Virginia.  It always rains on the Irises here.  I keep waiting to be proven wrong on that maxim, but I can’t remember a year when my beautiful tall German Iris haven’t been beaten down under heavy rain and wind.  Brave and hardy as Iris prove in our garden, those 4′ tall stalks covered in buds and bloom can only take so much before they crumple in the rain.  I’ve been cutting away those soggy, crumpled blooms between showers, and propping up fallen stems.

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Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia is native to our region

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I believe most all of us gardeners still feel excitement when our favorite flowers bloom.  Some years that excitement lasts a nice long while.  Other times the weather grows erratic and the blooms are cut short by too much heat or cold, rain or drought.  Flowers come in so many novel shapes and sizes that we might never grow them all.  But for me, it is the intense pop of color that I crave most.

It is hard to pick a favorite as most every color becomes my favorite in its own place and season.  When the flowers fade and drop (and they always do,) we’re left with the rest of the plant: stems and leaves.  And so that had better be somehow attractive, too.

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Purple Violas bloom with a lady fern. Wild strawberries and Vinca hide their pot and  fill the bed around fading daffodil leaves.

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At some point in our garden planning each of us turns our attention from the bright excitement of flowers to the textured tapestry of beautiful foliage.  And I don’t mean the ‘restful’ monotony of solid green meatball shrubs growing out of a grassy green carpet.  I’m thinking more of the extravagant textures and intricate color patterns found on many leaves.  Leaves are long-lived.  Most will grow on for many months before fading away.

Some plants we grow for their leaves alone, never expecting or wanting their flowers.  There are thousands of ferns that never bloom.  Shade gardeners also love Hosta, and generally have strong opinions on whether to allow them to bloom or not.  Other easy choices include Heuchera, coleus, Begonias, Caladiums, the many beautiful ornamental grasses, and Liriope.

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Autumn fern ‘Brilliance’ grows larger and better each year. Strawberry Begonia fills the pots surrounding this bed of ferns and Hellebores.

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For pure texture, without much variegation or shading, I love herbs.  But oh, the wonderful colors in the herbal palette!  There are so many silvery, shimmery greys, deep green rosemary, purple basil leaves and every color of green mint.  Most herbs are easy to grow with very little thought or care.  They can take heat and drought and are ignored by pests and pesky grazers.  Too much rain and humidity are the only things that stop their performance.

And honestly, I’m developing a new appreciation of those wild volunteer plants commonly called ‘weeds.’  Some indigenous to this garden I’ve since realized are native wildflowers.  Others were once cultivated but now run wild.  When you just look at them for their texture, shape and color, many have their own beauty.  They may be thugs and crowd out something you planted, and may need pulling and thinning at times.  But that remains true of many perennials we plant, too.

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The humble strawberry begonia, that I cultivated as a hanging houseplant in the 70’s, is actually a hardy perennial here in Williamsburg.  I started a few years ago with just a few small pots.  And as they multiplied (one of the plants known as ‘mother of thousands,’ by the way) I have used them in more pots and beds.  What was innocently planted last year as an accent plant will soon enough take over the entire pot or bed.  But what a beautiful groundcover!  And now, in May, when they bloom with stalks of tiny white fairy shaped flowers, I am glad that I’ve let it run.

These are aren’t members of the ‘Begonia’ genus.  They are a Saxifraga and perform especially well in rock gardens and pots.  But the leaf is silvery and bright like some Begonias, and it runs like a strawberry with new plants growing at the ends of long stolons.  Saxifraga stolonifera is hardy in Zones 6-9 and remains evergreen if left outside here over winter.

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Native muscadine grape produce good edible grapes, when allowed to bloom. Many gardeners clear these away as they quickly grow huge if left unpruned.

 

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Once we find ourselves in May, and perennials grow again and woody’s leaves unfold, the many interesting textures of our garden weave themselves together in beautiful and novel ways.  It is a little different every year.  Once I can get past the novelty of bright flowers blooming again, I settle in to enjoy the every changing tapestry of stems and leaves that reliably furnish the garden from now until first frost.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Please visit my new website, Illuminations, for a garden photo and a thought provoking quotation each day.

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

Six on Saturday: Endless Summer

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It’s never a good thing when odd weather makes the news.  The news here this week has noted both our high, mid-summer like temperatures and the deepening drought.  It has felt like July or early August instead of our usual gentle cooling slide into October.  I read this morning that parts of the Southeastern United States not only broke every record for daily high temperatures this past week, but some broke their record high for the entire year, over the past three days.

Clear skies and relentless heat through most of September has left our gardens, fields and roadsides crisp and thirsty.  Even some trees and shrubs look a bit limp, with leaves turning brown and falling early.  Rich autumn colors have been parched out of much of our foliage; an anti-climatic ending to this remarkable year.

But every day I still study the forecast, expecting our slim chance for rain to materialize into a sweet, moist, life-giving inundation.

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A Painted Lady butterfly feeds on Lantana in our front garden.

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Until that happens, the only life-giving water comes from a watering can or hose, and I’ve spent many hours this week delivering water to hard, parched dirt in hopes of sustaining thirsty plants through another searing day of heat.

It chased me back indoors on Wednesday.  After a relatively cool morning, where I was able to enjoy making my watering rounds at the Botanical Garden, the morning blazed into mid-day heat.  I could feel the sun burning through my hat and shirt like a cosmic broiler, as I dutifully watered the last few pots on the patio here at home.  I’ve never felt the sun so strongly in October, or felt chased back indoors so urgently to cool off and re-hydrate myself.  I sat under the ceiling fan, water in hand, and considered how this new weather reality will demand changes in how I plant in years to come.

But even as the leaves crisp and our black-eyed Susans bloom on blackened stems, bright purple berries shine on beautyberry branches, buds swell and bloom on our Camellias, pineapple sage opens its first flowers of the season and butterflies float around the garden

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The first Camellias bloomed in our garden last week.

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Our masses of Lantana support countless small butterflies, all feeding and hovering about their bulk.  I get a rush of pleasure from walking near and seeing the cloud of butterflies rise and resettle at my approach.  A Monarch fed placidly yesterday until I had it in focus.  An instant before I clicked the shutter it rose, looped around a time or two and disappeared across the crest of our roof.

Judith brought over her hamper of chrysalides on Tuesday afternoon.  About 20 butterflies were still growing inside, awaiting their day to break free, stretch their wings, and fly away.  Some of these were the same ones she rescued a few weeks ago from our fennel plants.  After handfeeding them organic parsley as they grow, she protects their chrysalides in mesh cages while they pupate.  Finally, they break out of their protective sheaths to stretch and harden their wings.

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The first Black Swallowtail to emerge from the hamper Judith loaned us was a female.  Here, she allows her wings to stretch and harden before her first flight.  She is resting directly above her now empty chrysalis.

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As we release each adult butterfly from the hamper, I wonder, ‘How do they learn to fly?’

A female flew out of the cage and rested lightly on the Lantana yesterday morning, and then floated up onto a low branch of a nearby dogwood, considering her new world.  Do butterflies remember their caterpillar lives?  Do they recognize the garden from such a different viewpoint?

Butterflies emerge from the chrysalis totally prepared for the next stage of their lives, and float off, effortlessly, to get on with the important business of sucking nectar and finding a mate.  Maybe we aren’t so different, when you really think about it.

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This long tailed skipper, Urbanus proteus, is more commonly found in South and Central America, but it has been sighted as far north as New York. It feeds on bean, Wisteria and pea leaves, so its larvae is often considered a pest.  As an adult, it is very unusual land beautiful.  Here, it feeds on Buddleia and Verbena.

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And this generation emerging from their chrysalis this week will likely mate and lay their eggs in the garden before we see frost.  Winter seems far away this week and summer, endless.

The gardening ‘to-do’ list seems longer now than it did in August, since it’s nearly time to put the garden to bed, plant a few daffodil bulbs, pull out the annuals and fill our pots with pansies.

But that will have to wait a bit while I play with the butterflies, water, and take time to appreciate the beauty of our late summer garden.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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

 

Pot Shots: Rescue Plants

Hosta ‘Halcyon’

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Maybe your soft spot is homeless dogs at the Humane Society.  My soft spot is clearance shelf rescue plants.  It is hard for me to walk past that clearance shelf without pausing to assess what is on offer.

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I went to Lowes in late August for gravel, potting soil and landscaping blocks, and happened upon hundreds of struggling plants loaded on rack after rolling rack out in the full sun.  Oh, the indignity of once beautiful plants ending up in such straits after just a few short weeks in a big-box store.

I couldn’t avert my eyes.  I couldn’t just walk past.  I had to scan the shelves to see what I might salvage.  That is where I turned up two Fortune’s holly ferns that I planted to help control erosion, a flat of mixed Sedums, and this poor little Hosta.  Marked down to only a dollar, how could I not give it another chance at life?

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The Hosta has grow several new leaves over the past three weeks. It could be divided next spring.

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The day it came home with me, it had exactly three leaves left, and those were scalded from sitting in full sun with dried up soil.  That’s not a promising start.  But I knew that if those three leaves were alive, then the roots were alive.  And you buy a perennial for its roots.

Before adopting a dog or a plant, there are a few questions one must address:  Does it have fleas, or other insect infestation?  Any signs of disease?  Will it fit in with the family?  Can it be saved?

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Two Athyrium ‘Bradford’s Rambler’ that I picked up on an August clearance in 2018 yielded several plants, after division.

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With a plant, my next question is its expected life-span.  Only the perennials are worth the effort, to me.  An annual is only expected to live a few months, anyway.  Late in the season, it usually isn’t worth it to purchase and rescue an annual plant.

Now, a marginally hardy perennial might be an exception.  I recently bought a couple of flats of stressed Salvia coccinea, a native perennial to our south.  This red hummingbird Salvia is hardy at least to Zone 8, and might make it here with a good mulch.  The plants were still in 1″ cell packs, root bound, and stunted.  I took a chance.

I freed each one’s roots, loosened the root balls, and planted them into rich potting mix in larger pots.  After a good feeding and watering, I set them into a protected spot in partial sun to recover and begin to grow.  After giving away more than half of those I bought, I still had a few Salvia plants left to use in a bed, and others left for pots.

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Salvia coccinea, Hummingbird Salvia, have prospered now that they have room to grow and reasonable care.

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The key to reviving a rescue plant is to meet its needs and give it space and time to recover.  Rescue plants have sat in a shop for too long.  They may have gotten too much or too little light, been allowed to dry out, and they are almost certainly root bound.  Most have lost a lot of their leaves and may have stopped growing due to extreme stress.

So the first thing I do with a plant, after looking it over carefully for any sign of hitch-hiking insects or disease, is to water the root ball.  First thing, before I even go in the house.  I may even water the plant before I leave the nursery, if I have some water in the car.  Water is life for a plant, and it can’t carry out any of its life functions if it doesn’t have moisture.

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I enjoy miniature Hostas, but they can be pricey. All of mine came as gifts or as clearance plants. I found this one in late July, with its own culture of moss, and simply repotted and fed it.

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Next, I usually cut away and throw away any broken or dead stems and leaves.  Pruning stimulates new growth, and the plant needs healthy new tissue to begin producing sugars and cellulose again so it can recover.

If a plant has grown way too much top growth, for the size of its roots, you might cut it back by a third to a half to stimulate new growth.  It is possible that the stems you cut away will root, given a chance, to give you even more new plants.

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After several weeks of care, it is producing new leaves and may fill the pot before frost.

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If a plant is severely root bound, with roots showing on top of the rootball and hanging out of the pot, it needs repotting or planting as soon as possible.  Gently tease out the roots, trim away any that look damaged or dried up, and give the plant a new, larger pot.  I usually pot up all rescue plants and leave them in shade to partial sun, away from other plants, until they show signs of growth.  This allows the plants a rest, a chance to convalesce, before I expect them to perform.  While they all need light, placing them in a little more shade than they would normally grow in gives them a chance to recover without the stress of full sun exposure.

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This little Alocasia was a rescue plant last summer. It has many beautiful leaves, but is still much shorter than most cultivars of this species.

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Finally, I give a good foliar feed with fish emulsion, such as Neptune’s Harvest.  Drench the plant’s remaining leaves and root ball with this gentle, mineral rich fertilizer.  Do it once every week or so, and watch the life return to the plant as it sends up new leaves.

Remember, with a perennial, you are buying the root system.  If there are some leaves or buds, that is just a bonus.  After working with bare root starts for a while, one comes to realize that the roots and crown are the main things required for a plant’s survival.  Most perennials die back to just their roots and crown during the winter, or their period of dormancy anyway.  A stressed plant may go dormant in the summer, too, and will reawaken with new growth when conditions become favorable once again.

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Late summer and early fall are prime time to find good rescue plants.  Discounts may range from 15% up to %75.  Sometimes I’m even given plants for free, where I have a relationship with the staff, especially if the plants are already destined for the compost pile.

This is a good way to acquire plants when you want to experiment with a new cultivar, when you need a large quantity of a specific plant, or when you’re on a budget.   A little TLC and a lot of patience make those horticultural dreams come true, as plants bounce back and grow in your care for many, many years to come.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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