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.

Sunday Dinner: Sweetness

Lycoris radiata

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“We love with all our heart
but we also keep our heart light and pliable.
It has space. It breathes.
It waits on life to give instructions.
It sings with sweetness when the winds are soft and warm.
It stands with calm patience when the storm is brewing.
It lets go when endings have left their irrefutable mark.
It moves. It heals.
It hopes.”
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Donna Goddard

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Begonia grandis

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“True happiness is to enjoy the present,
without anxious dependence upon the future,
not to amuse ourselves
with either hopes or fears
but to rest satisfied with what we have,
which is sufficient,
for he that is so wants nothing.
The greatest blessings of mankind
are within us and within our reach.
A wise man is content with his lot,
whatever it may be,
without wishing for what he has not.”
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Seneca

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“It is the tenderness that breaks our hearts.
The loveliness that leaves us stranded on the shore,
watching the boats sail away.
It is the sweetness that makes us want to reach out
and touch the soft skin of another person.
And it is the grace that comes to us,
undeserving though we may be.”
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Robert Goolrick

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“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,
I won’t look any further than my own back yard.
Because if it isn’t there,
I never really lost it to begin with.”
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Noel Langley

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“She hated the way roses smelled,
their sweetness too fragile.
She wanted a garden of evergreens.
A garden of stones. A garden of swords.”
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Keirsten White

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“Happiness is not a goal…
it’s a by-product of a life well lived.”
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Eleanor Roosevelt

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Magnolia liliflora reblooming to greet September.

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“Should I refuse the honey
because the bee stings?”
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Marty Rubin

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Yes, there is a Nirvanah;

it is leading your sheep to a green pasture,

and in putting your child to sleep,

and in writing the last line of your poem”
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Kahlil Gibran

Sunday Dinner: Exercise of Imagination

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“What I’ve always found interesting in gardens
is looking at what people choose to plant there.
What they put in. What they leave out.
One small choice and then another,
and soon there is a mood,
an atmosphere, a series of limitations,
a world.”

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Helen Humphreys

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“When tended the right way,
beauty multiplies.”
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Shannon Wiersbitzky,

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“Humility, and the most patient perseverance,
seem almost as necessary in gardening
as rain and sunshine,
and every failure must be used
as a stepping-stone
to something better.”

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Elizabeth von Arnim

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“It is only our limited time frame
that creates the whole “natives versus exotics” controversy.
Wind, animals, sea currents, and continental drift
have always dispersed species into new environments…
The planet has been awash in surging, swarming species movement
since life began.
The fact that it is not one great homogeneous tangled weed lot
is persuasive testimony to the fact
that intact ecosystems are very difficult to invade.”
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Toby Hemenway

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“I’d love to see a new form of social security …
everyone taught how to grow their own;
fruit and nut trees planted along every street,
parks planted out to edibles,
every high rise with a roof garden,
every school with at least one fruit tree
for every kid enrolled.”

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Jackie French

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“Dandelions, like all things in nature,
are beautiful
when you take the time
to pay attention to them.”
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June Stoyer

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“Gardening is like landscape painting to me.
The garden is the canvas.
Plants, containers and other garden features
are the colors. I paint on the garden of canvas
hoping to create a master piece with my colors.”

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Ama H.Vanniarachchy

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Half the interest of the garden
is the constant exercise of the imagination.”
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Mrs. C.W. Earle

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“A visitor to a garden sees the successes, usually.
The gardener remembers mistakes and losses,
some for a long time,
and imagines the garden in a year,
and in an unimaginable future.”
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W.S. Merwin

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Fabulous Friday: Hurricane Lilies

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August often proves to be awkward and uncomfortable here in coastal Virginia.  If it’s not the heat and humidity chasing us back inside, it’s the torrential rain.  Many mornings, when we first open the kitchen door to step outside, the air is so thick with humidity that we wish we had scuba gear.

Afternoon thunderstorms insure I won’t need to stand out in the mugginess with a hose to water, but they also keep the humidity and ‘ick’ factor high.

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Lycoris radiata, Hurricane lilies, appear after heavy rain some time in mid-to late August.

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The last morning I stood outside to water was Tuesday.  By the time I finished my ‘to do’ list, every stitch I wore, including my hat, was soaked with perspiration.  But I felt quite proud of myself for making the effort, as the forecast called for another hot and sunny day, with no rain until evening.

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Parts of the garden are looking a bit worn by mid-August. But I look past them to the beauties of our visitors.

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Well, by 11:30 that morning the skies opened and torrential rain caught us out on the roads, returning from the grocery store.  And every day since Tuesday we’ve been treated to the passing drama of rolling thunder, bright flashes of lightening, gusty winds and pelting rain.  We count ourselves lucky as the hail has mostly avoided our little bend in the river, but we know others nearby have endured hail and broken trees this week.

Sometimes, the storm passes quickly and allows the sun to burn through the clouds once again.  Curtains of steam rise from every paved surface and temperatures rise after the passing cool of the thunderstorm.

And then, yes, you guessed it:  another storm forms and passes over a few hours later.  We listen to thunder rolling in the distance during the night, and awaken to find the world wet from pre-dawn showers.

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Garlic chives and an emerald green fly.

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August proves a very wet month, most years.  It is a month of transition, preparing us for the first breath of autumn in September.

Along with the transition from summer to fall, we often have a hurricane or two blowing in from the Atlantic or up from the Gulf.  (Knock on wood) we have been very lucky thus far, this year.  May the blowing sands of the Sahara continue to keep things calm off the coast.

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For all of the inconveniences of August, there are also some treats and treasures.  I always look forward to our black-eyed Susans coming into bloom, filling our upper garden with their cheery golden faces.  I love watching the comings and goings of our butterflies and listening for the rare blessing of a visit from one of our hummingbirds.  And I especially love the unexpected surprise of seeing the bright red flowers of our Hurricane lilies, Lycoris radiata, when they suddenly pop into bloom.

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Lycoris burst into bloom after sudden, heavy rains; thus their moniker.  While spring bulbs are pretty predictable, these late summer bulbs time their bloom to the amount of heat and moisture in the soil.

One of those summer bulbs also known as ‘naked ladies,’ the bloom stalks appear suddenly, long before their leaves.  If you want to know more about Lycoris, you might enjoy this post about them from 2014.

I’ve never planted a whole bed of Lycoris, though I’m sure that would be stunning.  Rather, I plant a few here and there, just little accents and exclamation points to delight us and revive our spirits in August.  We only have the red, though they come in white, pink and yellow, too.

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I’m enjoying ours through the front windows, where a zipper spider has spun an enormous web, and on my occasional walks up the driveway.

The rain this week has ended up a blessing, as I’m still recovering from Lyme’s disease and wanting to stay indoors and away from the possibility of any more insect bites.  The rain and humidity have added another reason to stay in and do quiet things this week; and I’m grateful.

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But when I do wander outside, there are always new developments to enjoy.  There’s fresh growth to admire, new flowers blooming, a cutting that has struck roots, or a new spider web to examine.  The wonders unfold all on their own, a satisfying counterpoint to the inconveniences of August.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is contagious- Let’s infect one another.

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Six On Saturday: What Color!

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What do most people want from their summer plantings?  Color!

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Mophead Hydreangeas can produce differently colored flowers.  When the soil is more acidic, the flowers will be blue.  When the soil is sweeter, they will be pink.  Our Nikko Blue Hydrangeas are blooming prolifically in a rainbow of shades from deep blue to deep pink this week.  They look wonderfully confused.

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While many landscape designers focus on structure and texture, most of us living in the landscape crave color in our garden, however large or small that garden may grow.  But what colors?

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Every year designers choose a ‘color of the year’ as their theme. This year’s color  is a lovely peachy coral. This ‘Gallery Art Deco’ Dhalia is an intense shot of color, especially paired with a purple leafed sweet potato vine.

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We each have a very personal idea of what colors make us feel good, relax us, and excite us.  Color is all about emotion, and how those colors make us feel.

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Calla lilly

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One of the joys of gardening is that our colors change as the seasons evolve.  We don’t have to settle on just one color or color palette, as we do for our indoor spaces.

In our gardens we can experiment, we can celebrate, we can switch it up from month to month and year to year through our choices of plant materials.

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Rose of Sharon trees in our yard are opening their first flowers this week.

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Pastels?  Jewel tones?  Reach out and grab you reds?

We’ve got a plant for that….

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Canna ‘Red Futurity’ blooms for the first time in our garden this week, and should bloom all summer in its pot by the butterfly garden. I love its purple leaves as much as its scarlet flowers.  A favorite with butterflies and hummingbirds, we expect lots of activity around these blooms!

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“The beauty and mystery of this world

only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion . . .

open your eyes wide

and actually see this world

by attending to its colors, details and irony.”
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Orhan Pamuk

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

 

Six on Saturday: Iris in Bloom

German Bearded Iris ‘Rosalie Figge’

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Iris perfectly blend color, fragrance, geometry and grace.

I’ve spent the last six months delving into the details of the genus and am delighting now in watching them unfold their perfect standards and falls.

The appearance of Iris each spring still feels like a bit of natural magic.  From a slender green stem, the intensely pure colors emerge as each flower unfolds.

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Iris tectorum, Japanese roof Iris, can be grown on traditional thatched roofs.  It was a status symbol in some Japanese communities to have a roof covered with blooming Iris.  This is a crested Iris, like our native Iris cristata.

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Watching an Iris bud open reminds me of how a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, ever so slowly stretching and unfolding its wings.  Both grow so large one wonders how they could have possibly fit into their sheath.  While a butterfly soon flies off in search of nectar and a mate, Iris blossoms remain anchored to their stems, hovering above the garden in motionless flight.

Our Iris continue to multiply in the garden.  I’ve been collecting them, dividing them, and have even received some as gifts.  Most bloom only once each year, and then for only a few weeks.  But what an amazing sight to anticipate through the long weeks of winter, knowing that spring will bring Iris blossoms once again.  Collecting different types of Iris extends the period of bloom, and planting re-blooming iris offers the tantalizing promise of an encore in autumn.

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Iris pallida, a European species Iris brought to Virginia by the colonists, is one of the species used in German bearded Iris hybrids.

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There is a fellowship of Iris lovers extending back through our recorded history.  We see Iris carved into bas reliefs in Egyptian temples, and Iris flowers were admired in ancient Greece.  The Babylonians grew them, and Iris grew wild across the hills of Turkey and meadows of Europe.  There are more than 150 species of Iris, and many of our garden Iris are hybrids of two or more species.

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Native Iris cristata

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Tough and persistent, Iris are easy to grow, once you understand what each variety needs.   It is easy to fall in love with Iris plants in bloom.  And that is the best way to buy them, so you know exactly what you are planting.  Since most are hybrids, gardeners rarely grow Iris from seeds.

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Some Iris grow from bulbs, most from rhizomes.  Some may come in the mail as bare-root plants.  You may have to wait a year or two for the first bloom when you buy divisions.

For immediate satisfaction, look for potted Iris plants in bloom.  You will know exactly what colors you are adding to your garden and know you have a healthy plant to start.

Then, just wait for the beauty to multiply with each passing year.

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Iris x hollandica ‘Silver Beauty’

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Woodland Gnome 2019
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Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator.

 

Sunday Dinner: Harmony

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“That is where my dearest

and brightest dreams have ranged —

to hear for the duration of a heartbeat

the universe and the totality of life

in its mysterious, innate harmony.”

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Hermann Hesse

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“Peace is more than the absence of war.

Peace is accord.

Harmony.”

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Laini Taylor

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“If there is righteousness in the heart,

there will be beauty in the character.
If there is beauty in the character,

there will be harmony in the home.
If there is harmony in the home,

there will be order in the nations.
When there is order in the nations,

there will peace in the world.”

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Confucius

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“Digressions are part of harmony, deviations too.”

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Dejan Stojanovic

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“Instead of railing against hate, we focus on love;

instead of judging the angry,

we offer them our peaceful presence;

instead of warning against a dystopian future,

we provide a hopeful vision.”

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Gudjon Bergmann

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“The happy man needs nothing and no one.

Not that he holds himself aloof,

for indeed he is in harmony

with everything and everyone;

everything is “in him”;

nothing can happen to him.

The same may also be said

for the contemplative person;

he needs himself alone; he lacks nothing.”

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Josef Pieper

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“Out of clutter, find simplicity.”

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Albert Einstein

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Through our eyes,

the universe is perceiving itself.

Through our ears,

the universe is listening to its harmonies.

We are the witnesses

through which the universe

becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”

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Alan Wilson Watts

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Fabulous Friday: Awakening

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On our days off, when there’s no appointment to make or task to complete, it’s a pleasure to awaken slowly and gently.  With no urgency to stay on schedule, no insistent alarm, no pet or child in need of immediate attention, we can relax a bit more and gather our thoughts before starting the day’s routines.

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Cercis chinensis, Chinese redbud, blooming this week at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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This springtime feels like it is awakening slowly, without haste or urgency.  Cool temperatures have slowed down the natural progression of spring’s business this year.  Each blossom and bud is relaxing and taking its time to open, and once open, lasting a few more days than more warmth would allow.

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College Creek

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We’ve had yet another day of cool, soaking rain in our region.  Its rained steadily enough to keep me indoors and it has remained cool enough to slow down the buds on our dogwood trees.  They are still just uncurling, tentatively, and remain more green than white.

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A day like today encourages the fine art of procrastination.  There are a half dozen good reasons to delay most of the tasks on my ‘to-do’ list, especially those tasks that involve waking up more seeds, or tubers, or waking up more beds and borders by removing their blankets of leafy mulch.

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I’ve already delayed many spring time tasks, out of respect for cold nights, cool days and abundant rain.  It’s unwise to work in the soil when it remains so wet.  It’s even unwise to walk around too much on soggy ground, knowing that every step compacts it.

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Dogwood

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But there is balance, over the long view, and I suspect that warmer days are upon us soon.  I saw one of our lizards skitter under a pot when I opened the kitchen door unexpectedly yesterday, and the yard has filled with song birds.  We hear frogs singing now on warm evenings and bees come out whenever it warms in the afternoon sunlight.

They know its time to awaken for another year, and are doing their best to get on with life despite the weather.

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N. ‘Tahiti’

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It is good to rest when one can, storing up energy to spring into action when the time is ripe.  The garage is filled with plants needing to get back outside into the light, to cover themselves with fresh leaves and get on with their growth.  And I need their space for sprouting Caladiums and the small plants and tubers I plan to pick up in Gloucester next week from the Heaths.

There are Zantedeschias in the basement bravely reaching out their fresh leaves towards the windows, and I’m ready to divide and pot up our stored Colocasias and let them get a jump on summer.

And then there is the small matter of packs of seed whose time has come to awaken and grow…

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N. ‘Katie Heath’

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All these plants are waiting for their wake-up call.  I hope the relaxed and gentle start of their new season means they will bring renewed energy and enthusiasm to their growth when the weather is finally settled and warm.

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Japanese painted ferns re-appeared this week, and I have been weeding out early spring weeds wanting to compete with them.

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Until then, I’m enjoying watching the slow progress of spring.

There is time to savor the opening buds, emerging perennials, and slowly expanding vines as they stake their claims for the season.  There is time to relax and gather our thoughts.

There is time to listen to the chattering birds, and to appreciate the sweet gift of unscheduled time.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Alice’ wakes up for its first season in our garden.

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“Why had he assumed time was some sort of infinite resource?

Now the hourglass had busted open,

and what he’d always assumed was just a bunch of sand

turned out to be a million tiny diamonds.”
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Tommy Wallach

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“There is no Space or Time
Only intensity,
And tame things
Have no immensity”
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Mina Loy

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Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is Contagious; 

Let’s Infect One Another!

Cult Flowers: Narcissus

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‘Cult flowers’ appeal to us so persistently that we respond to them in ways that don’t quite make sense.  Their grip on our imagination, our affections, and yes, our resources defy reason.

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Is it possible to fall in love with a genus of plant?  Absolutely. 

Across horticultural history you’ll find characters who left home continents behind to collect them.  You’ll find those who quit their day jobs to breed and raise them full-time.  And, sadly, you’ll find those who ignored their spouse’s better judgement to collect them…. year after beautiful golden year.

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To gain a deeper understanding of the many ways in which daffodils have been ‘cult flowers’ for the last few centuries, treat yourself to Noel Kingsbury’s beautiful and very useful book Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower.  

Kingsbury, a beloved British landscape designer and horticulturalist, takes us on a journey of all things daffodil that actually begins in pharonic Egypt.  Yes, the Egyptian royals were talented gardeners, collecting many of the same plants that we do today:  Narcissus, Iris, lilies, Alliums, and many sorts of fruit bearing trees.  Kingsbury tells us that Ramses II’s  mummy was found with a Narcissus bulb covering each eye.  Now that goes a bit beyond what even we moderns do to enjoy our spring daffodils!

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Because Narcissi return so reliably as winter transforms into spring, they’ve earned a mythic association with time and eternal life. They’re often planted around cemeteries in areas where they perennialize, where they return year after year in ever greater numbers.

Extremely poisonous, Narcissi have a narcotic quality when used medicinally.  They were used, in measured, carefully prepared potions, to sedate and treat pain.   Never mistake a Narcissus bulb for an onion; this has been done from time to time with disastrous results.

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I appreciate the poisonous qualities of daffodils and plant them with confidence where deer shred non-lethal flowers and shrubs.  And I plant a ring of daffodil bulbs around newly planted shrubs and trees, to protect their roots from voles.  In fact, we’ve learned to stop vole traffic to parts of our garden by planting rows of daffodils across their former paths.  Unlike chemicals that must be reapplied every few weeks, the daffodil solution proves permanent, growing denser and more effective with each passing year.

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Kingsbury gave me a good, basic understanding of the various species daffodils known and loved since at least the dark ages.  He quotes medieval manuscripts which describe the daffodils growing in certain royal or monastic gardens, often with small paintings to illustrate the flowers.  He then builds on that knowledge of the species, their characteristics and countries of origin to help explain the work of modern day daffodil breeders.

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There were already nearly 80 distinct types of daffodils recorded in British horticultural records by 1607, when British colonization began here in Virginia.  And yes, those early settlers brought their daffodil bubs with them, sometimes sewn into the clothing they wore on the voyage.

Daffodils were planted early on all over coastal Virginia, and they thrived here.  As European/American settlers moved ever further west, they took their daffodils with them.  So much so, that Kingsbury describes how Native Americans carried daffodil bulbs with them along the Trail of Tears.

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By the early 19th Century, there were 150 distinct types of daffodils cultivated in England.  A Yorkshire vicar dissected all 150 varieties to develop a classification system and discovered that many of the flowers were sterile.  This was in the early days of enthusiasts and scientists understanding the principles of hybridization, and at this time all of the known daffodils were species or natural hybrids.

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Daffodils had perennialized across Virginia’s Gloucester Peninsula when Brent Heath’s grandfather, Charles, visited in search of the farmer who grew a terrific cantaloupe.  It seems his grandfather wanted to arrange personal deliveries of the especially tasty melon.  He found the farmer, and  he also found fields of daffodils, ripe for the picking.  Residents in those days picked the wild daffodils to sell as cut flowers in cities up and down the coast.  As late as the 1980s, daffodils were sold on street corners in Richmond by vendors who purchased daffodils from Gloucester, as soon as they bloomed each spring.

Charles Heath ended up buying the family’s current properties in Gloucester where Brent and Becky’s Bulbs still does business today, and went into the cut flower business.

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That is how the Heath family first entered the wonderful world of growing daffodils.  Charles Heath had connections in Europe, and soon introduced many new European varieties of daffodils to his Gloucester fields, where the flowers were picked, bundled, shipped and sold each spring to ports along our East Coast.  His son, George, continued in the business and had one of the largest collections of Narcissi varieties in North America when his son, Brent was born.

Brent tells stories of how he was instructed at a very early age in how to properly pick and bundle daffodils for sale, and he earned his pocket money by picking daffodils each spring; and later by raising bulbs from small divisions on the family farm, and selling his bulbs.

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Eventually, Brent Heath decided that he wanted to also develop new hybrids.  He was mentored by skilled breeders, and had the knowledge, patience, and attention to detail to develop and bring to market many beautiful new hybrids.  The Heaths are known and respected internationally for their tremendous selection of daffodil and other bulbs, and for the health and vigor of the bulbs they sell.

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Narcissus ‘Katie Heath’ named for Brent Heath’s mother.

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Some might wonder why certain people passionately devote their lives to breeding new varieties of a single type of plant.  Once there are already many thousands of named and recognized varieties, why would the world want more?

Consider that it may take a Narcissus seedling up to five years to flower, and once selected, it may take another 10 to build up a large enough stock of bulbs to market commercially.

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Mary Gay Lirette, a Heath hybrid.

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Only someone passionately devoted to their art would persist so long in the pursuit of offering a new variety of daffodil to the world.  But there are many breeders willing to make the commitment, and who have the resources to generate new hybrids.

On the one hand, there is a desire to perfect the plant, generating stronger stems, more disease resistance, hardiness, and a willingness to grow well and perennialize under a wide variety of growing conditions.  On the other hand, there is the desire to produce certain combinations of form and color.

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Miniature daffodils appeal to many hobbyists with limited growing space, and many breeders are working now to develop ever more combinations of flower form and color on a miniature plant.

Kingsbury opens his chapter on daffodil breeders with a photo of a delicate white miniature daffodil, with a tiny green cup and recurved petals, which stole my heart.  I skimmed ahead for its name so I might order it.

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Sadly, it was an ‘unnamed seedling’ produced by California breeder Harold Koopowitz, and not yet on the market when Daffodil was published in 2013.  The ability to create such variety within the relatively limited scope of the Narcissi characteristics defines both the breeders’ passion and the collector’s lust for new plants.

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Most of us think about the classic yellow trumpet daffodil as our ideal.  It is sunshiny yellow, has six nearly identical petals surrounding a long, wide trumpet, or corona, of the same color.  It stand about 16″ tall on a soft hollow green stem, and has narrow green leaves surrounding it.

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Pure white N. ‘Thalia,’ two flowers per stem, blooms beside double N. ‘Cheerfullness’

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Now, imagine this same flower in white, and you have N. ‘Mount Hood.’ Daffodils may have white, yellow, yellow-green, golden, peach, or pink petals.  The corona may be long or very short, wide or narrow, frilly, doubled, or split into sections, and splayed back against the petals. It may appear in white, green, orange, gold, red, peach, yellow or pink.  Some doubles look like Camellias, their coronas are so full.

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N. ‘Obdam, a sport of N. ‘Ice Follies’

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The petals themselves may be wide or narrow, rounded or pointed, twisted, long or very, very short.  Flowers may be scented or not, one to a stem or many, and the stems themselves may be anywhere from 4″ to 24″ tall.

Finding the variations and interesting new combinations makes the work endlessly fascinating.

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N. ‘Erlicheer’, 1934

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Daffodils bloom over a long season here in coastal Virginia, some as early as late December and some as late as May.  They arise from the wintery earth to grow and bloom when little else is in season, and then once the leaves have re-fueled the bulbs for another year, they die back and disappear.  If naturalized in grass, the grass can be mown again a little more than a month after the flowers finish.

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Many of us enjoy growing daffodils around shrubs and under trees.  They make their spectacular spring show, and then are gone as the trees begin to fill in the canopy of their summer leaves.  We don’t have them around for long enough to grow tired of them.  In our garden, by mid-spring, a new variety or two opens each week.  As the first ones fade, the late daffodils are just blooming.

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N. ‘Delnashaugh’

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I’ve ordered lots of 250 or 300 bulbs of the same daffodil variety from the Heaths each summer for the last several years.  Gardening friends and I divide up the order, each of us growing some number of the same variety in our own yards.  This is a great way to purchase enough bulbs to make a good patch of a variety, without breaking the budget.  Generally, the larger the quantity you can order, the better the price per bulb.

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This year, I’m undecided which variety to order.  I’ve asked some friends for their opinions on my short list of ten varieties, heavily weighted towards the Heath’s own introductions.  I happen to like the more unusual flower forms, like the doubles and split coronas.

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N. ‘Madison’

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I also like those with white petals and color in their corona.  I believe we are leaning towards a beauty called N. ‘Gentle Giant,’ which has white petals and a frilly, bright orange cup.  Whichever one we choose, we will be happy growing it.

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Daffodils are happiness inducing flowers, greeting us each spring with cheerful faces and easy demeanor.

No wonder they have remained ‘cult flowers’ over many centuries of human history, growing perhaps more popular with each passing year.  A gardener knows that the bulbs planted this fall will bloom again and again, long past the time when another gardener has taken over the work.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Fabulous Friday: Savoring Spring

A newly planted Japanese Pieris blooms in our garden.

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We stood together near a display of Japanese Pieris this afternoon, at the Homestead Garden Center, listening to to the melodies of spring as huge bumblebees feasted on their banquet of plump, sweet flowers.  There were perhaps a half dozen shrubs there in five gallon pots, each laden with ivory flowers and surrounded with happily humming bees.  There were more bees than we could count, zipping from flower to flower, shrub to shrub; each nearly the size of a young hummingbird.

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Tulips bloom in the morning sunlight at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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Moments  of such pure beauty reassure us of better times ahead.

We savor the sounds and colors of spring, deeply inhale the sweet fragrance around us, and enjoy the renewed warmth seeping back into our lives.

We treasure this transition, even as we will treasure the transition to cooler, crisper days a half-year on.  But happiness comes from staying in the moment, and this beautiful, golden Friday has been a string of such moments infused with spring’s promises.

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My hands pushed and prodded and planted in fragrant moist earth for much of the day.  I tend to wake up with a list of garden chores pushing and shoving one another for their place in line as I plan the day ahead.  I worked out in the sunshine, losing all sense of time, until my layers became too steamy and I realized it was well past time for lunch.

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But I’d also visited with old friends and new by then, watched a Tiger Swallowtail butterfly float past, taken a few dozen photos, watered in my work and tidied up.

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I found Homestead’s email as I was fixing our lunch, and their promises of early annuals, herbs, shrubs and a growing inventory of perennials proved irresistible.

A friend gave me three fat Hymenocallis bulbs this week.  These beautiful white spider lilies, or Peruvian daffodils, have always intrigued me.  But it is a summer bulb I’ve not yet grown.   The bulbs sit on a table in our sitting room taunting me, challenging me to do something interesting with them in a pot.

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I like growing new plants first in pots where I can control their growing conditions, moving them, giving more or less water as I learn their ways.  Pots set special plants apart, elevate them literally and figuratively and help me not lose track of them as the garden fills in!

So I’ve been reading about how to grow these huge bulbs, big as Amaryllis and just as special, and also exploring what might grow well in a pot with them.  And when I read that Homestead has their first Verbena plants in stock, my plans fell into place.

Verbena grows vigorously here, blooms until Christmas, makes a sturdy ground cover and spills beautifully from a pot.  It attracts hummingbirds and butterflies like a magnet.  I’ll pot up the white spider lily bulbs with a soft peachy Verbena, and observe them as they grow.

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Verbena with Caladium, 2017

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Do you work jigsaw puzzles?  I enjoyed them once upon a time on family vacations.

There is that  moment when you turn the pieces out of the box, and begin to sort them by their color and their shape.  Little bits of the puzzle start to come together as you find pieces that match, and at some point those bits fit together, and then you have the frame complete.    The rest may come swiftly or slowly,  but your sense of teamwork and accomplishment grows along with the completed parts of the puzzle until the last piece goes in, and you’re finally done.

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That is a good metaphor for spring in the garden.  At first, there are bags of bulbs, flats of plants, and perhaps a potted shrub or two all waiting for me to fit them together into their pots and beds and borders.  A few more things get started or potted or planted each day, each making their way outside as the weather warms enough to sustain them.

And the weather is no steady, settled thing!

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White Camellia japonica blooms in our garden today.

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We see much of the country still dealing with snow and ice, flood and cold.  And a day like today makes us a bit smug, maybe; but certainly very grateful, too!  But it won’t last…

We know that wintery cold and winter storms return here by Sunday evening.  And knowing that, every moment of warmth and sunshine today felt that much sweeter.  We wanted each moment to count, used to its fullest and deeply savored.

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Forsythia still blazes golden yellow in our garden and around town.  It has been cool enough this March that we’ve had a very long season to enjoy it.

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This March has roared quite a bit.  We’ve had wind and rain, storms and cold.  It came in that way, and it looks as though April will dawn stormy, too.  But today we enjoyed the gentle aspect of March;  garden filled with flowers, and leaves appearing as a colorful haze around most of the trees and woodies.

This spring has proven a slow tease.  And when its unfolding is this beautiful, what’s the rush?

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Woodland Gnome 2019
Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is Contagious,
Let’s Infect One Another!
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Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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