Growing Hardy Cyclamen

Naturalized Cyclamen hederifolium at the Connie Hansen Garden in Lincoln City, OR are already in bloom in mid-October.

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Cyclamen are just one of those delicate, special plants that we delight in growing.  Their intricately patterned leaves and sculpted, sometimes fragrant, flowers are some of the most novel and beautiful among common potted florist plants.  I generally buy a florist Cyclamen in early December and enjoy it on my kitchen window sill through late spring, when it begins to die back for its summer period of dormancy.

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Discarded from the kitchen windowsill in June, this Cyclamen re-bloomed  out on the deck in the fall of 2013.

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As much as we enjoy the tender florist’s Cyclamen, Cyclamen persicum, I have been seeking out other, more hardy species, too

Cyclamen persicum is native to the Middle East, parts of North Africa, and some Mediterranean Islands.  Although it is frost tender, it still prefers cool growing conditions and thrives when kept in medium, indirect light in a spot where night time temperatures drop down into the 50s F.  It wants to go dormant once night time temperatures rise into the upper 60s and 70sF.  I grow it in a windowsill to give it the coolness it needs to keep blooming.

I first began growing Cyclamen hederifolium, which blooms in late autumn into early winter, and Cyclamen coum, which blooms in late winter to early spring, a few years ago.   I was inspired by the Cyclamen I found growing at the Connie Hansen Garden along the Oregon Coast, and then discovered that they are readily available from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, and other bulb dealers.

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Hardy Cyclamen and bulb foliage shine through the leaf litter of a perennial bed at the Heath’s display garden in Gloucester, Virginia in February, 2018.

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Cyclamen grow from tubers.  Like other geophytes, they go dormant each year and will live on in a dry state with neither roots nor leaves.  If you want to buy Cyclamen , you may purchase seeds, tubers or living plants.  While seeds are relatively inexpensive, it will take a few years to grow your plants on to a good size.  There are more flowers with each passing year as the tubers grow larger.

Many experts recommend buying your hardy Cyclamen plants in leaf, so that you can see the color pattern on the leaves and the color of the flowers.  Others just say they have experienced more success in getting plants established in that way.

Once you have a plant or two, they will produce viable seed.  You can collect and sow the seed, or trust insects to spread it around for you.  New Cyclamen plants will emerge  in following years from seed, even as the original plants continue to grow and expand.

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I order tubers for hardy Cyclamen , which is also an easy way to start a patch of your own.  I have planted directly into the ground in years past, and I’ve planted tubers into our large ceramic pots outdoors, as part of my autumn planted winter arrangements.

Although I’ve had some success, I’ve had disappointments, too.  These are very small plants, and can easily get lost under leaves and under other, larger plants.  They tend to show up best when planted among the exposed roots of mature trees.  I didn’t know that when I planted the first batch out into the garden.  The area where I first planted them has since filled in, and so our patch is less than spectacular.

I’ve sited later plantings in better spots.  But again, one needs to clear away fallen leaves and other, faded plants to really see and enjoy Cyclamen planted in the ground.  The Connie Hansen garden has their patch under a pine tree, in the middle of a concrete bordered traffic island in their parking lot, where little else grows.

Many successful gardeners suggest planting hardy Cyclamen among the roots of established trees because they thrive in the lean soil,  they prefer drier soil in summer, and they are shown off to good advantage.  There is room for seedlings to sprout and the effect in autumn and early spring can be spectacular.

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Last year, I planted most of the precious tubers I bought in large pots outdoors.  To make a sad story shorter, there was obvious digging in the pots in the week after planting, and I never did see any Cyclamen emerge.    I’ve since read advice to lay a sheet of 1/2″ chicken wire over the soil in pots, and cover it with some mulch to protect Cyclamen and other tempting tubers and bulbs.

So this year, I am trying a different approach.  I’ve bought a bag of both C. hederifolium and C. Coum.  C. hederifolium generally gives its best showing in its second and subsequent years from a tuber, because the season of bloom begins in autumn.  But I am planting five of each, just to see what I can do with them.

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Plant the tubers concave side up. If you can’t tell, plant the tuber on its side and let the plant sort itself out as stems and roots begin to grow.

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And rather than planting them where I want them to grow, I’m going to try to foil the squirrels by planting them in little plastic nursery pots, indoors, and keep them inside until they have roots and leaves.  Then, I’ll transplant to where I want them.

The challenge in planting tubers is that they want to be planted very shallow; with only an inch or so of soil and mulch above the surface of the tuber.   That is a screaming invitation for rodents to grab a snack, especially if they’ve watched you plant or see the disturbed earth!  Once the tuber is rooted and attached, they have a fighting chance to survive!

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Fill small pots to within an inch or so of the rim with new, commercial potting soil.  Dust the soil with a little Bulb Tone or bone meal to get the Cyclamen off to a good start.  Cyclamen don’t require a lot of fertilizer.

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I’ve planted ours in regular potting soil under about 1/2″ of soil and another 1/4″ or so of perlite.  I ran out of perlite and finished off the last few pots with vermiculite, which works equally as well.  You’ll notice that some of the C. Coum tubers already show evidence of the first few flower stems emerging from the crown. I hope that these will plump up and continue to grow as the tuber re-hydrates over the coming days.

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C. Coum tubers came packed in wood shavings.

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This was even more pronounced on the tubers I bought last year, as I didn’t get them until early December.  I made a point of arranging to pick up my tubers this year within just a couple of weeks of when they came in to the warehouse to get the freshest tubers possible, and get them growing as early in the season as possible.

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Our new tubers are resting tonight in my basement work area.  I’ll keep an eye on them, and move them up to a protected spot on the deck as soon as new growth appears.

Once the plants are growing well, and some of our summer plants have died back, I’ll plant them out where they can grow on through the winter.  This year I expect success with all 10 of our new little Cyclamen plants.

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Water the pots well after planting, and then let them rest. They won’t need light until they begin to grow. Keep the plants evenly moist when they are in growth, but never let them sit in water.

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To maintain your plants, dust with a little bone meal in the fall, and keep them evenly moist when growing.  Once they die back and go dormant, they prefer to spend the summer on the dry side.  Growth is triggered in autumn when temperatures drop and the weather turns a bit wetter.

It is such a pleasing surprise to see their first flowers and leaves emerge each year.  Hardy Cyclamen are a simple and inexpensive pleasure and well worth the small effort to grow them.  If you’ve not tried them before, this is the time to order a few tubers and try something new.

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Our hardy Cyclamen were a welcome sight last February.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Green Thumb Tip #21: The Mid-Summer Snack

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A snack makes us all feel a little better, doesn’t it?  If you want the plants you tend to have that ‘Wow!’ factor as summer relentlessly wears on, give them a tasty pick-me-up.  There are several good choices, and it’s easy enough to add care and feeding into your routine.

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Although plants ‘make their own food’ from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water on a daily basis, they also need an assortment of other elements and minerals for optimal growth.  Plants rooted in the Earth likely find most of what they need dissolved in the soil.  When we grow a plant in a pot or basket, anchored in potting mix, we need to provide those important minerals and extra elements to support their growth.

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Nitrogen is the most important element to support lush growth.  Phosphorous and potassium (K) support blooming, fruit formation, and healthy tissue development.  You’ll find the percentage of these elements listed on any fertilizer you might buy, in the formulation of N-P-K.  A fertilizer labeled 10-10-10 is a balanced fertilizer.   Since only 30% of the product is labeled as one of the key elements, you know that 70% of the product is filler, which may contain other necessary elements and minerals.

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Still waiting for the first blooms to appear on this new Begonia….

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But your plants might need a ‘pick me up’ that has more of one element than another.  You will find lots of specialty organic and inorganic fertilizers formulated for different uses.  Savvy gardeners would never  apply a standard lawn fertilizer to a flowering potted plant, for example.  Read the labels on the products at your favorite nursery or big box store to find the right product for the right plant.

When you potted up your plants in the spring, you likely added a little Espoma Plant Tone or Osmocote to the mix.  Or maybe you used a potting soil advertised to have fertilizer already mixed into it.  That is fine, but most of the pre-mixed potting soils feed for roughly 90 days.  That means that they’re beginning to lose the umph right as we hit the heat and dry spells that summer always brings.

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Many products are water soluble and can be mixed into a watering can and applied as a soil drench or foliar feed.  These give the quickest ‘pick me up’ results.  I learned about Neptune’s Harvest from a trusted nurseryman many years ago, and have used it ever since.  This is my ‘go to’ product for most pots and baskets out of doors, and I use it at least a couple of times a month in June through September.

The numbers on this fertilizer are relatively low (2-3-1), in part because it is an organic fertilizer made from seaweed and fish emulsion.  Yes, it smells terrible.  But because it is made from these organic materials, Neptune’s Harvest also delivers many trace minerals for stronger, healthier growth.

Plants can access the nutrition very quickly and show results very quickly.  Plants show better leaf color, put on stronger new growth and set more blooms after a dilute application of this mix.

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For plants indoors, and those plants I’m growing mainly for their flowers, I prefer to use Orchid Plus plant food (20-14-13) from time to time.  This is a reliable way to induce the plants to set buds and produce flowers.

This is one of those ‘light blue’ chemical fertilizers, and I mix it up much weaker than the package suggests.  If you feed too frequently, a mineral residue will build up on the pot, or even the potting soil.  Use this when watering only about once every two to three weeks.

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Plants are under a lot of stress in our area right now.  Rain has been scarce in our neighborhood, and temperatures regularly reach well above normal.  The garden looks a little tired and wilted.  The first line of defense is hydration.

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Plants are mostly water, and water pumps through their tissue from the roots, up through every cell until water is released as vapor through the leaves.  When a plant wilts, it means that its cells are collapsing for lack of enough water.  Some plants can perk back up once water is available  again; others won’t.

Water helps in the short term, and in this sort of weather, small pots or baskets may need hydration every morning and evening.

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Without sufficient water, their colors look dull, leaf edges may burn, and growth slows down.  New leaves and flowers may be small.  It’s not a very pretty sight!  If you have time to do nothing else, at minimum keep plants as hydrated as you can until it rains again.

Too much water causes its own set of problems, including root rot.  As in all things, we seek balance. 

Keep in mind that when there is a lot of rain and frequent watering, soluble fertilizers will wash right out of the soil.  This is another reason to give light supplemental fertilizers on a fairly regular basis, while plants are responding to summer’s bright light and warmth with active growth.

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You may have noticed that each day grows a little shorter, now that we’re nearly to August.  We’ve enjoyed a few cool nights, and the garden is preparing for its late summer show.

It’s a challenge to help our plants survive right through the season and have enough strength for a beautiful late summer and autumn display.  We have to keep them actively growing despite the challenges our weather may present.

Regular care and careful observation  are the secrets to success.  Hydration, feeding, deadheading and a little grooming ensure that our gardening investments pay generous dividends in beauty.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
Green Thumb Tip # 15: Conquer the Weeds!
Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!
Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time
Green Thumb Tip # 18: Edit!  
Green Thumb Tip #19: Focus on Foliage  
Green Thumb Tip #20: Go With The Flow

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Experiments With Gravel Mulch

Yucca filamentosa ‘Colorguard’ has appeared from under our newly installed gravel mulch.

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Most of the mulches we use are organic and improve the soil as they decay.  Shredded bark or leaves, pine straw, straw, newsprint or brown paper all have their uses.

When we consider inorganic mulches, there are definite benefits along with some obvious deficits.  Inorganic mulch won’t improve soil texture or fertility.  But neither will it harbor fungal disease, come pre-contaminated with weed seeds, provide a nesting site for ants or decay in just a few months.

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New terraces are planted to help control erosion, and mulched with pea gravel (spring 2017).

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I was first drawn to pea gravel mulch as we began to try to control erosion and cultivate the steep slopes of our back garden.    But I was also digging some gravel into the back-fill and planting hole when we installed new shrubs and perennials, to try to thwart the voles who would otherwise devour their tasty root balls.  Finishing the job with a nice mulch of gravel felt appropriate as a further deterrent to rodents.

Pea gravel definitely helps both with erosion control and rodent control.  But it also ‘disappeared’ into the soil on rainy days, after a while, and got covered with leaf litter and other organic matter over time.  I find myself renewing the pea gravel in spots after a while.

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“Soil security”

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Gravel mulch serves to help conserve soil moisture, just like every other sort of mulch.  It shades the soil, shelters root systems, absorbs the shock of falling rain and holds soil in place.

Additionally, gravel reflects sunlight and heat back up into the plants above it, helping to dry the plants more quickly after a rain and thereby deter fungal disease.  Gravel mulch also provides a dry barrier between moist soil and dry plant, preventing crown rot.

Soil doesn’t splash up onto lower leaves and branches, and the gravel perhaps makes it a little harder for invertebrates to travel up and back between soil and delicious plant above.

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Gravel mulch is used most commonly in rock gardens, where many drought tolerant and alpine plants are featured.  Some plants wouldn’t live long with a moist organic mulch, but manage just fine with gravel mulch that protects their crown.  Gravel is coming into vogue again as a fashionable and useful mulch for perennial gardens, too.  I have been reading about perennial and succulent  gardens grown under several inches of pea gravel in various garden magazines.

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Even a thin gravel mulch has helped conserve moisture around these newly planted perennials.

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I also recently enjoyed listening to a presentation by Joseph Tychonievich at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden where he presented his new book, Rock Gardening:  Reimagining a Classic Style.  Joseph inspired me to move ahead with my vision to incorporate more areas of gravel mulch in our sunny perennial beds in the upper garden.

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I use fine gravel as a mulch in potted arrangements, too.

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This area is gently sloping, and erosion isn’t as much of a pressing concern as in the lower gardens.  The entire area was left under several inches of freshly ground hardwood mulch in 2013, as the arborists who cleaned up our fallen trees ground up leaves and branches and simply left it all in place.

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Fresh compost piled on top of existing mulch allows me to plant in this area in 2013, right after the trees came down, without digging into the clay. A light covering of wood chips from the forest floor mulches the planting .

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As that has decomposed, I’ve renewed the mulch with bagged hardwood and Cypress mulch from the local hardware store.  It smells pleasant, and Cypress helps to repel insects.  It has an ecological downside, though as mature trees are cut for mulch.

The soil in much of this area still consists of thick, hard clay, despite my best efforts to dig in compost and improve its texture.  There may be a few inches of good compost on top of the clay, but the clay still holds heavy rainfall and keeps parts of the garden far too wet, especially in winter.

I am beginning to understand that a gravel mulch will promote better growth and vigor in most of the plants we are trying to establish, particularly the Iris and Mediterranean herbs.

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Recently,  I decided to experiment with a much larger gravel mulch in one of the beds that needed some TLC.  I lost several perennials here over winter, and so had quite a bit of bare ground.

On our shopping trip, my partner noticed this beautiful blue green rock quarried somewhere in Virginia.  We decided on the spot to give it a try, and I am very pleased with the results thus far.  Not only is this gravel not going to shift around on a rainy day, but I don’t believe it will sink down into the soil anytime soon, either.

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This three year old Siberian Iris bloomed for the first time this spring, and I hope the new gravel mulch will help it grow more vigorously in future.

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Now, please keep in mind that gravel is the heaviest mulch you can choose, and moving it around and spreading it takes both strength and commitment.  If I had the luxury of ordering up a truckload of it and hiring a crew to spread it for me, that would be a lovely thing.  But I don’t.

Rather, I’m buying it a couple of bags at a time and spreading it by hand.  It is going to take most of the summer to mulch this whole area working with just a few square feet each week.  But I am already seeing the benefit this mulch brings to our plants.

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This is a single bag of gravel spread around our new Monarda.  It will take a few more bags to finish this area….

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I bought three plugs of Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’ about four years ago, as we were first planting this bed.  I wanted them to make a large focal point to anchor the area and planted them in a broad triangle.  Well, let’s just say that I expected them to grow much faster and they have largely gotten lost between larger and floppier perennials.  In fact, one of the three was struggling so much that I dug it up in late winter and planted it into a pot in full sun, hoping to give it a better chance to grow.

Never mind that I kept digging it up every month or so, checking to see if there was any visible growth, and replanting it again with the confirmation of a fresh root or tiny shoot.  That is a sad tale, and I ended up filling the pot with first one plant, and then another, simply to have something to look at besides the empty pot.  I ticked this off as a failed plant and moved on.

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Maybe if I put a fresh gravel mulch in this pot, the Yucca would finally grow?

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But not so fast!  Something of that Yucca was left alive in the original bed.  And finally, a month after I mulched over the area with the new Virginia gravel, look at what has emerged!  Plants really really want to live, and sometimes we just need to improve conditions for them and get out of the way to give them a chance!

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This newly planted Lavender was struggling with our weather extremes, but has improved under the gravel mulch this month.

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Our friends at our local garden center have a running joke that we always buy gravel or compost, if nothing else, and are their best customers for pea gravel. Gravel has made gardening in this difficult site possible.

If you happen to be in the neighborhood, and want to visit with me and bring a little gift, a fresh bag of gravel is always in style.   I’ll be so happy to see you, will show you around the garden and offer you a few divisions of something nice to take away with you.

And I might even let you help spread the gravel while we’re at it!

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Sunday Dinner: Knowledge

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“The beginning of knowledge

is the discovery of something

we do not understand.”

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Frank Herbert

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“Proper teaching is recognized with ease.

You can know it without fail

because it awakens within you that sensation

which tells you this is something

you have always known.”

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Frank Herbert

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“A process cannot be understood by stopping it.

Understanding must move with the flow of the process,

must join it and flow with it.”

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Frank Herbert

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“Without change something sleeps inside us,

and seldom awakens.

The sleeper must awaken.”

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Frank Herber

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“The future remains uncertain and so it should,

for it is the canvas upon which we paint our desires.

Thus always the human condition

faces a beautifully empty canvas.

We possess only this moment

in which to dedicate ourselves continuously

to the sacred presence

which we share and create.”

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Frank Herbert

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

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“If you need something to worship, then worship life –

all life, every last crawling bit of it!

We’re all in this beauty together!”

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Frank Herbert

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“When a wise man does not understand, he says: “I do not understand.”
The fool and the uncultured are ashamed of their ignorance.
They remain silent
when a question could bring them wisdom.”
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Frank Herbert
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Blossom XL: Zantedeschia

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The first of our overwintered  Zantedeschia  opened its first blossom this morning.  I might have missed it, had I let the misting rain keep me indoors.  This cool, foggy morning coaxed me outside to do a little planting; a little moving of pots from their protective shade into their permanent summer spots.

Feet damp, and camera covered in raindrops, I was taking a quick turn around the upper garden when the pure white elegance of it caught my eye.

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Zantedeschia albomaculata is named for the white spots on its leaves.  Spotted leaf calla lilies want wetter soil than those without spots.  Both want full sun, and reward good care with elegant flowers.

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Zantedeschia looks so tropical.  And yet, they survive our winters, here in the northern reaches of their hardiness zone (Zones 7-10).  Their elegant leaves never fail to surprise me when they finally emerge each spring.  The leaves would be enough, some would say.  That is, until their blossoms begin to appear.

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Zantedeschia ‘Memories’ will have deep purple flowers when it blooms.

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Although we have Zantedeschia blooming in shades of purple, pink, rose, peach and white in the garden; the pure white flowers remain our favorites.

Many people call these flowers ‘calla lily,’ especially when ordering stems from the florist.  There is actually a North American Calla palustris, which grows in bogs, swamps and ponds.  A near relative, it looks very similar, but is not as refined.

The newest Zantedeschias  in our collection are called Z. aethiopica ‘White Giant,’ and may eventually grow to 5′ to 6′ tall in good soil and consistent moisture.

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Z. ‘White Giant’ is still a very young plant in our garden. We expect the leaves to grow larger as the weeks go by, and hope it will bloom this first year. Here, it grows with Caladium ‘Burning Heart.’

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Like this beautiful blossom in form and color, they will grow more like the tremendous clumps of white Zantedeschia aethiopica I’ve admired in front gardens in coastal Oregon, where the hardy clumps expand a bit each year.  Mature clumps grow 3′-4′ tall there, already blooming by early April.

We have our new Z. ‘White Giant’ all in pots at the moment, but I plan to plant most of them from their pots into the garden this fall, and expect them to grow a bit better each year..

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Like other Aroids, Zantedeschia is a good plant choice in areas grazed by deer.  They have tiny calcium oxalate crystals in their leaves which will irritate the mouth and upset the stomach of any who try to eat its leaves.   Zantedeschia belong to the same family and subfamily, Aroideae, as Caladiums, Colocasia, and our beautiful Arum italicum. 

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Do you see the family resemblance to this Arum italicum, which is preparing to go dormant for the summer?  As the leaves die back, the green berries will grow bright reddish orange, when ripe.  Its flower is also the simple spadix and spathe form, in a creamy green.

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Their leaves are large and beautiful.  Their flowers are the simple ‘spathe and spadix’ form, which in many genera turn into green, berry covered stalks after fertilization.  Other than calla lilies, most of the plants in this family are grown for their leaves or for their edible tubers.

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This Caladium flower isn’t nearly as sturdy or long lasting as a calla flower. Most gardeners cut Caladium flowers away so all the plant’s energy goes into leaf production.

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Natives of southern Africa, these elegant callas enjoy full sun and consistently moist soil.  Buy them as dry tubers in the early spring, or as potted plants at many nurseries and grocery stores.  Plant tubers near the soil’s surface in good potting mix, and keep just moist until growth begins.

If growing callas in pots, make sure to add fertilizer to the soil to keep them at their best.

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I’m not sure where these peachy orange calla lilies came from…. I was expecting them to be purple when I planted their tubers earlier this spring….  Is this Z. ‘Mango’?  At any rate, we will enjoy them and appreciate their generous blooms.

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Zantedeschia are often grown commercially for their flowers, much loved by florists world-wide.  Calla stems are long-lasting in a vase, perhaps for several weeks if one changes the water and re-cuts the stem every few days.

If you love their flowers, why not grow them yourself, and enjoy the beauty of the entire plant?  This is an easy plant if you give it the sun and moisture it craves.  Whether you grow it in a pot or in a bed, it will reward your efforts with many years of gorgeous foliage and elegant blossoms.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Sunday Dinner: Winter Blossoms

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“The mind can go in a thousand directions,
but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.
With each step, the wind blows.
With each step, a flower blooms.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
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“Beauty is no quality in things themselves:
It exists merely in the mind
which contemplates them;
and each mind perceives a different beauty.”
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David Hume
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“Live quietly in the moment
and see the beauty of all before you.
The future will take care of itself……”
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Paramahansa Yogananda
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“All the diversity,
all the charm,
and all the beauty of life
are made up of light and shade.”
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Leo Tolstoy
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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018
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Schlumbergera- first blossom  grown from a rooted cutting gifted to me last December.

 

Knowing Winter

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“One can follow the sun, of course,
but I have always thought that it is best
to know some winter, too,
so that the summer, when it arrives,
is the more gratefully received.”
Beatriz Williams

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Much of North America lies frozen this week beneath a layer of icy whiteness.  Weather maps on TV are clothed in shades of blue, purple and white.  It is a respite from this year’s heat, perhaps, and a novelty for those who enjoy winter.

Here in Williamsburg, in coastal Virginia, we see temperatures drop below the mid-twenties only occasionally, and not every year.  But we are also in the midst of this Arctic cold snap at the moment.  There is a chance for snow tomorrow evening.

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The garden, and the larger world are frozen tight and hard this week.  Those winter faring plants I potted up so carefully last month sit brittle, a bit limp and desiccated in their pots today despite the brilliant sun shining on them.  I gave each pot a bit of tap water yesterday afternoon, hoping to thaw the soil long enough for roots to draw a bit of moisture in to the thirsty plants.

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We’ve wrapped our olive trees in clear plastic bags and set them in the warmest corner of our front patio, where they capture the mid-day sun.  They’ve grown too large now to bring indoors each winter.  We hope they make it through to warmer days ahead.

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But there is only so much anyone can do when such bitter cold blows in to one’s neighborhood.  The lowest temperature we’ve seen here since Christmas was 12F.  It feels a bit odd to cheer on the mercury to climb through the 20s, hoping it might actually make it up to 32F before the evening chill returns.

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But such is our life at the moment, and so we have decided to enjoy the novelty of it.  It is the season to trot out one’s heavy sweaters and gloves, and possibly even a jacket.  I had forgotten which drawer our gloves got put away in last spring, and needed a reminder.  A pair now live in my bag, ready to pull on whenever I step outside into this frosty world.

But clad in hat and gloves, wool and pashmina and jeans, I set off to capture photos of ice today.  My partner kept the car warm and idling while I scampered about on the banks of Mill Creek and the James River in search of ice sculptures.

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The wind was almost quiet, and the sun blazing bright and glinting off the frozen marshes.  It was nearly 24F as I captured these photos today.

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We were delighted to find eagles flying in lazy circles above us and large congregations of geese gathered along the roadsides.  I could hear waterfowl splashing into the creek in search of lunch as I picked my way down the frozen trail to the water’s edge.

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A heron clung to a branch along the bank, watching as gulls dove into the creek and ducks cavorted along its glassy surface.

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Halves of minnows, cut up by some intrepid fisher-person for bait, lay scattered about on the sandy beach.  Frozen hard, they held no appeal for the foraging birds around us.

I marvel at the sight of spray cloaked grasses and ice glazed stones.  The river and creeks here are tidal, and the rising and falling water and windblown spray make for ever-changing textures along their banks.

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Sheets of ice get pushed up in the marshes on the incoming tide, and slushy brackish water takes on odd hues in the wintery light.

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Our oddly frozen world dreams this week in weirdly grotesque forms.  Frozen soil pushes up in the garden, heaving fragile root balls not properly mulched and insulated against the cold.  Ice crystals sprout from stems and leaves in the first light of morning.

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Only the birds appear impervious to the cold.  Small flocks of blackbirds gather on the frozen grass.  Songbirds hop about in the trees as we pass.  I wonder at the mysteries of nature which allow them to survive such frigid weather.

Whether sitting on the ground, swimming in the frozen creeks or gliding on a current of air, they appear almost comfortable.  This is a great gift they enjoy, and that we do not.

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We are mostly watching through the window panes to see how the rest of this month unfolds.  Our cat spends long hours dozing, curled up in a blanket on the couch.  He shows no interest in exploration beyond his food bowl at the moment.

Surely the world will soon be slick and white if the forecast is to be believed, and our garden will slumber on under a bit more insulation as we dream of spring.

Yet, in this moment, we know winter; and see its beauties all around us.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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“There is an instinctive withdrawal for the sake of preservation,
a closure that assumes the order of completion.
Winter is a season unto itself.”
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Haruki Murakami

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Houseplant Hacks: Schlumbergera Propagation

Shlumbergera blooming  in our living room in February 2015.

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Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus plants may become another family heirloom.  Long lived and easy to care for, this is a quintessential ‘pass along plant’  you may be gifted with during the holidays.

Whether someone gives you one in full bloom in a little foil wrapped pot, or a well-meaning aunt insists on sending a cutting home with you, this is the season when many families enjoy a blooming cactus as a part of their holiday.

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A neighbor gave us this beautiful Christmas cactus covered in buds, last week.

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I can’t remember a time when my own mother didn’t have a Christmas cactus.  Her first one began as a gifted cutting from someone in the extended family.  At one time it had grown to a monstrous size, maybe 20″ or more around in a  large clay pot.  I never gave this ugly duckling house plant much consideration in those years, probably because hers didn’t often bloom.

Once you’ve enjoyed the vivid, decidedly odd blooms of a Schlumbergera on a wintery day, you may develop an appetite for these unusual plants just as I have.  Their extravagant flowers are meant to attract hummingbirds to pollinate them.  I love to have one in full bloom indoors when its snowing outside.

The ‘off’ bloom schedule of these beautiful tropical cacti may have something to do with their country and hemisphere of origin.  They were originally collected from the mountainous coastal forests of southeastern Brazil, where they grow in bright, humid shade.  They may be found growing high up in trees on moss covered branches, or in small pockets of soil in rocky areas at high altitudes.

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They were in cultivation in Europe by the early 19th Century, where breeders developed new cultivars for the market.  They were enjoyed both in homes and in fashionable heated greenhouses.

Although a cactus, these plants have no spines to stick you.   A succulent, they don’t require a great deal of care.  They offer a bulky green presence year round, bursting into abundant vivid bloom  between late October and late February each year.

Schlumbergera commonly turn up in grocery stores and garden centers blooming in shades of red, pink and purple.  Sometimes you may find one with white blooms touched with vivid rose.  More rarely, they can be found blooming  in shades of salmon, yellow or orange.

This is one reason it pays to know how to root a Christmas cactus.  Once you find one of the rarer colors, you might want to produce more to share, or for your own collection.

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Light pink Christmas cactus with a tiny white poinsettia on offer at a local garden center.

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Another reason is that the stems, which look like flat leaves, can sometimes be a bit fragile.  A section may break off while you are moving the plant or while you are moving around the plant.  When this happens, it feels nicer to root the broken piece than to discard it.

I’ve tried many different ways to root these odd green stems over the years.  The stems don’t really like to sit in water, though I’ve seen my mother root them this way.  They also don’t root reliably when simply stuck into some potting soil, though this sometimes works OK.  If the stars don’t align, or the temperature and humidity aren’t just right, then your efforts may be rewarded with a shriveled or mushy bit of stem with no roots to sustain it.

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I experimented with a new technique for rooting a Christmas cactus stem in extremely shallow water, on moist rocks.

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I was understandably excited when I saw a pin on Pinterest a few months ago, offering a novel way to root Schlumbergera.  The key to the wet rock method is to understand that Schlumbergera  naturally grow in a humid, coastal forest, high up in the mountains.  High humidity is the key, along with keeping the stem mostly dry, with only the growing tip in water.

Begin with a glass or small jar, and add a few inches of clean, attractive rocks.  Fill your glass with just enough fresh, cool water, to barely cover most of the rocks.  Then add your cuttings so that they rest on the rocks in very shallow water.  It works best to ‘twist’ the cutting from the parent plant rather than using scissors to remove it.

You will need at least 1 full stem section, though you may take a cutting a few inches long, like this one.  If the cutting already has flower buds, they will continue to grow as your cutting roots.

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Place your container and cuttings into a bright, cool window sill, where the cuttings will get bright light, but minimal direct sunlight.  Keep the water replenished every few days, and watch for those roots to grow.

Once the roots are at least 1/4″ long, you can pot up your rooted cutting in a peat based soil mix with a little grit.  The soil needs to drain easily.  Keep the soil just moist, but never really wet and never bone dry.

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This cutting is ready to pot up in good quality peat based potting mix.  Add a little fine grit to improve drainage.  If you plant into a container without drainage holes, be sure to begin with a few inches of gravel in the bottom of the container for drainage.

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I  feed my Christmas cactus monthly, during their season of bloom, with diluted orchid fertilizer; which keeps the buds coming.  Mine live near a large window where they get bright light during the daytime, but they also get natural darkness in late afternoon.  They like long nights and shorter days during their season of bloom.  The long nights help trigger bud formation. Shlumbergera also use more water when they are blooming, and of course thrive in a humid environment.

If your home has very dry air in winter, then try grouping them together, and consider setting the pots on trays of pebbles with a bit of standing water in the tray.

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This cutting rooted in the glass on moist rocks. After a few weeks, I planted it in its own little container to grow on until spring.

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In our climate, Christmas cactus thrive in bright shade on the deck all summer long.  I move them out in late April, once danger of frost has passed.  They love our humidity and grow lush with very little attention until time to bring them in ahead of the first fall frosts in late October.  By then, they have covered themselves in flower buds.

Keep your plants large and lush by adding rooted cuttings to your established pots of Christmas cactus.  They like a tight fit for their roots in the pot, but do pot them up every few years and give them some fresh, fertile soil.

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If your space allows, plant Christmas cactus in hanging planters, or set the pots up on plant stands where their drooping branches and long, pendulous flowers may be admired.   I’ve even seen a grouping of Christmas cactus pots arranged on a plant stand with layers of shelves, to give the illusion of a blooming Christmas tree.

These odd houseplants are extremely easy and rewarding to grow, once you know a few hacks to make your efforts more successful.

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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Winter Storm

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A winter storm blankets the East Coast of the United States today from the Gulf to New England.  After a mostly balmy fall, we are a bit surprised by this early snow.

Thus far, we’ve been to the east of the rain snow line, which means we woke up this morning to a light slush gathered on the porch furniture and on our cars; but otherwise, cold rain.   Friends and family living west of us woke up to ice and inches of snow, with more still falling today.

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It is a good day to remain indoors, keeping an eye on the birds and the garden from the windows.  All of this wet will freeze this evening as temperatures dip below freezing.

I brought in a few of the last hold-outs of potted plants before dusk yesterday.  I found a few more inches here and there for pots, and dug up a couple of little hold-out Begonias.  I finally simply tugged a still blooming geranium out of its pot by the kitchen door.  It came with enough roots that I tucked it into a pot with a little soil, wished it well, and wedged  it in with other potted geraniums in our garage.

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Still blooming by the kitchen door yesterday…

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There is nothing like impending ice and snow to force those last decisions about which plants can come indoors to survive the winter.

But as the weather turns outdoors, a friend and I are finishing up our collaboration on ‘fairy tree’ vignettes.  While I have sculpted and mounted the trees, she has been sculpting and placing a fascinating collection of miniatures to bring our vignettes to life.

She has already created a flock of cardinals and parliament of owls.  Male and female, she has sculpted and painted them.

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In addition to the birds, she has also sculpted a sleeping cat, ice skates, boots, rabbits, gnomes, mushrooms and assorted gardening tools.  It is quite amazing to see how the little vignettes come to life under her meticulous care and vibrant imagination.  I spent a happy afternoon with her this week exploring the finished vignettes, and collaborating on those still in progress.

I expect to photograph all of the finished vignettes on Monday afternoon, as we place them as centerpieces for a luncheon coming this week.

This gnarly weather simply must turn mild again for the early part of the week, so that we can enjoy this long anticipated gathering of friends!

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Today I’m showing you the last in this series of trees, finished earlier this week.  Imagine it as it is now with bright red cardinals feeding on the ground, and the boss cardinal keeping watch over them from his perch in the tree.

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I hope our friends will enjoy seeing these fairy trees surrounded with ‘wildlife’;  and that you will, too, when I post the photos next week.

As our garden slips into its winter slumber, the mediums of metal, stone and clay feel appropriate for capturing the illusion of an enchanted forest, so we can enjoy it in comfort-  indoors.

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The stones used to mount the fairy trees have a special meaning for me. My daughter and I picked them up while walking together along the beaches of her coastal Oregon town, back in October.   I brought them home with this project in mind.   She kept the rest of our collection to use in her own garden.   The crystals are specially treated quartz.   The trees are made from a variety of wires of different gauges and metal content.

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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Fabulous Friday: Winterizing Pots

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Variegated foliage really pops in the winter landscape.  On a dull chilly day, anything that reflects light catches my eye and brightens my mood!  I seek out pretty plants with variegated foliage as I re-plant our pots for the winter months.

Last year I discovered Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever and fell in love with its beautiful leaves, creamy flowers, and deep pink edges on both new leaves and flowers.  I used this beautiful perennial in several pots and we thoroughly enjoyed watching it grow between November and April.

I found a few new plants at the Great Big Greenhouse in Chesterfield, VA earlier this month, on sale no less, and have them planted in pots flanking our front door.  Its shiny, dark green leaves look like they are covered in creamy lace.

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H. ‘Snow Fever’ newly planted, and ready for the coming winter season.

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This year I’ve had my eye out for a variegated holly to fill additional pots on our patio.  I won’t bore you with how many shops I’ve checked.  I finally spotted Osmanthus, ‘Goshiki,’ (also called ‘false holly) in a 4″ pot last weekend.  When I saw the double digit price for a tiny plant, I reluctantly left it behind and continued the search.

The December issue of the UK’s Gardens Illustrated only made my longing for a lovely variegated holly more intense.  Their article, 26 Hollies For Year Round Interest, details many beautiful holly cultivars, most of which aren’t available anywhere around Williamsburg, VA.  I’ve read and re-read the article several times, trying to absorb the names and descriptions should I ever be lucky enough to come across one.

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Ilex aquifolium ‘Argenteo Marginata’ is safely tucked in to its new pot on our patio.

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And then we made a trip to Lowes yesterday to pick up something for my partner.  And of course, I just had to take a turn through the garden department while we were there.  And, to my delight, there sat three lovely little pots of variegated holly.  I scooped them into my cart before you could utter the syllables, “Ilex aquifolium” three times fast.

So I happily brought home three beautiful Ilex aquifolium “Argenteo marginata” for our winter pots.  Those pots so recently emptied when I brought plants in ahead of our first frost, have lovely tenants again.   Underplanted with ivy, miniature daffodils and grape hyacinths,  and mulched with fresh moss and gravel, they are properly dressed ahead of the holidays.

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These beautiful little variegated holly shrubs will happily grow in a pot for a season or two.  They grow fairly slowly, so given a large enough pot and sufficient water, you can keep them growing year round with a little afternoon shade.

For a while…. most of these ‘little hollies’ will eventually grow into good sized trees.  I use them in winter pots, with the understanding that they will need a spot in the garden before long.

The largest pot, beside our walk, had already sprouted beautiful variegated leaves of Arum italicum.  I had planted tiny starts from seeds last autumn, and let them grow on until they faded away in mid-summer.  I was happy to see them emerge this year bigger and better than ever.

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Arum has proven its worth as a stalwart winter companion in beds, borders and pots in our garden.  It stays bright and shiny through all sorts of winter weather, and the deer never dare touch it.  I’ve planted quite a few tubers in pots this fall, to fill the pot with beautiful leaves while we wait for the spring bulbs to emerge and bloom.

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Arum with Violas and Galanthus last March.

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This is the season for ‘winterizing’ our favorite pots.  Summer’s annuals are done, and any perennials we’re saving have already been moved to beds or inside for the winter.  I enjoy puttering around with bulbs, pretty little shrubs, Violas, ivy starts, moss and winter blooming perennials in this lull before the holidays are upon us.

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Newly planted pots might still look a little rough now, but the plants will take off and fill them soon enough.  If using moss for mulch, remember to keep it well watered as it establishes itself on the soil.

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To make this Friday even more Fabulous, we drove off into the sunshine to admire the changing trees, and somehow ended up in Gloucester at Brent and Becky’s Bulb Shop.  We came away with a few little packs of white Muscari bulbs to add a little more sparkle to our winter pots.  A tiny investment, they look magical when they emerge in early spring.

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Muscari armeniacum ‘Venus,’ blooming last March.

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Real winter remains a few weeks away from Williamsburg, yet this is the time to prepare for the coming season.

I sincerely hope that you are enjoying your ‘winterizing’ preparations, and that you are creating something beautiful to enjoy while you wait for spring.

Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is Contagious, Let’s infect one another!

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Woodland Gnome 2017

 

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