Six on Saturday: Wildlife Friendly Perennials

Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta, grows in full to partial sun.  It spreads a bit more each year.  There are other species of Rudbeckia equally attractive to pollinators that also produce tasty seeds for the songbirds.  Deer rarely touch a leaf, unless there is a severe drought and they need moisture.

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So many of us want to attract birds, bees, butterflies and other pollinators to our gardens.  We want beautiful flowers and glowing, healthy foliage; but we don’t want to attract deer to feast in our yards.

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Monarda fistulosa loves full sun and spreads on many types of soil. Flower color varies from lavender to white.  Any species of Monarda, which is a perennial herb, feeds pollinators and is distasteful to deer.  Purple coneflower, Echinacea, is another native plant that blooms for much of the summer to attract butterflies, and delights goldfinches once it sets seed.  Once established, both are very drought tolerant.

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As I chat with fellow gardeners, I hear the same concerns over and again.  We want to be good stewards and support wildlife.  But we want to plant things the deer will leave alone!  No one wants to use expensive sprays and granules to protect their plants, and neither do we want to come out to admire it all and find it munched!

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Hellebores keep right on blooming through winter storms and freezing nights from January until May.  Every part of the plant is poisonous and grazers never touch them.  Pollinators find much needed pollen and nectar when little else is in bloom.

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As undeveloped lands shrink, all of the animals that once lived there look for new places to live and raise their young.  And that means that they learn to live among us in our neighborhoods and in the few remaining ‘wild’ places behind and between the developed parcels.

We have the added challenge in our neighborhood of backing up against protected wetlands and a National Park.  The deer and other wild things move freely from park to neighborhood, looking for a safe place to live where their needs can be met.

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Yellow flag Iris spreads in full to partial sun in moist soil.  It produces a lot of nectar, though it blooms for only a few weeks each spring.  All Iris support pollinators and are distasteful to grazers.  Plant a variety of different types of Iris to support pollinators over a longer period of time.

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I sometimes feel conflicted planting to attract some wildlife, while trying to exclude other species.  But as we all eventually learn, deer don’t share; they consume.   Deer will eat a plant to the point of killing it, then go looking for more.

I’ve spent many years searching for those particular bird and pollinator friendly plants that deer and other grazers won’t eat.  These are some of my favorites in our Zone 7b garden.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, just a few good picks that come to mind.

In general,  deer avoid herbs because of their essential oils, and avoid plants with tough, leathery leaves that feel unpleasant in their mouths.  Plants with poisonous leaves are a sure bet; and there are plenty that may be poisonous to eat, but perfectly safe for us to handle.

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A Silver Spotted Skipper enjoys Verbena bonariensis in our garden.  There are many species of  perennial Verbena, all of which attract pollinators and all of which are ignored by grazers. 

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These plants are easy to grow and easy to find, relatively inexpensive to buy, and forgiving of novice gardeners.  I hope they offer a bit of hope to those gardening, as we do, where the deer roam free and generations of rabbits raise their young in the side yard.

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Agastache, anise hyssop, is an herb related to mint.  Like other herbs, it has essential oils that make it distasteful to grazers.  Agastache often attracts even more pollinators than Lantana, which is saying a lot!  Its seeds feed birds once the flowers fade.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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

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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: Something Borrowed, Something New

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Until I’d struggled with this ‘new’ garden for a couple of years, watching my familiar favorite plants disappear from the garden to feed assorted voles, rabbits, squirrels and deer, I’d never given Hellebores more than a passing thought.  They simply weren’t on my radar in those days when I was busy growing roses and Hydrangeas, berries, beans, tomatoes and every Begonia I could find.

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And then a friend offered to dig a few Hellebores from her garden to share with me.  We had been consoling each other, probably over cups of coffee, as we both told our stories of plants loved and lost in this forested community.  Our houses are nearby, and each of us has a ravine and a pond beyond our back yards, favorite haunts of large herds of deer.

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She’s been here a year or so longer than we; long enough to learn a trick or two.  Long enough to learn to treasure her Hellebores.

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Our first patch of Hellebores, given to us by a friend,  as they were in April of 2012. These perennials look good in every season, thrive in dry shade, and bloom for several months in late winter and early spring.

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Her broad front yard is carpeted with beautiful Hellebores.  Through the warmer months, Hellebores cover the ground, especially in shady spots, with a beautiful, textured deep emerald green.  And then sometime between November and January they begin to bloom.  And they keep producing flowers until things heat up again in April or May.

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Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’.

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Hellebore flowers come in shades of white, cream, light green, pinks, purples, and reds.  Heavily hybridized, there is a huge variety of size and form available through nurseries and catalogs.

Which is fun for collectors, but almost doesn’t matter anymore once you have a plant or three.  Because Hellebores easily set seed, and those seeds easily germinate.  And a few Hellebores easily becomes an ever widening patch of them, all a bit different since they have hybridized with one another.

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I’m reminded of generosity and friendship every spring as we admire our Hellebores.  Those few early plants did so well for us, some even in full sun, that I dig and re-plant seedlings in more areas of the yard each spring.  Hellebores are just the trick to solve several of the challenges we face.

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Hellebores touched with frost

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Because they are highly poisonous, the local wild things leave Hellebores strictly alone.  This makes them valuable for planting around newly planted trees, shrubs, ferns and perennials that need a bit of protection from hungry voles.  The voles avoid the Hellebore roots and so avoid the tasties you need to protect, as well.

Simply plant a circle of seedlings, spaced every 8″-10″, around the new plant.  Those roots very soon grow into a solid mass of protection, and the Hellebores will thrive in dry shade as the shrubs grow.

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Hellebores and Narcissus protect the roots of this Camellia sasanqua, blooming for several months after the Camellia flowers have faded.

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Deer don’t much like to walk through Hellebores, and certainly never nibble them.  Plant them in a mass along property lines, or disrupt deer runs through the garden with a living barrier of Hellebores.

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Hellebore seedlings bloom for the first time on this slope, where I planted them last spring.  This area gets a lot of erosion and several other plants have failed here.  The daffodils and Hellebores may prove the solution to hold the bank.

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Hellebores also serve as a beautiful ground cover on slopes and other areas where you don’t want grass.  They hold the soil against erosion and suppress weeds.  They can take drought and need very little care, other than removing old and damaged leaves in late winter.

I like to mix Hellebores with ferns and spring bulbs, like daffodils or early summer bloomers like Iris.  They make great companions.

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Seedlings blooming in their first year.

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And finally, I still want a few large pots of Hellebores each winter.  I pick out new cultivars at the nursery, looking for interesting leaves as well as striking flowers.  Maybe one day I’ll just dig a few seedlings for the pots.  But I find the new cultivars interesting enough to seek out special ones with variegated foliage or double flowers.

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I was very inspired by a planting featured in a recent issue of Gardens Illustrated.  A very large round stone planter was filled with the earlier blooming Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, interplanted with Galanthus and Cyclamen hederifolium and C. coum. The whole confection was white flowers against beautiful green and silver foliage.   It was elegantly simple and absolutely aglow on the dull day it was photographed.

Hellebores make wonderful companion plants for spring bulbs in winter pots, and the whole thing can be transplanted into the garden in April, when you want to re-plant the pot for summer.  You know the arrangement will come back even bigger and better next winter.

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Which brings me to the main reason I’m celebrating our Hellebores on this Fabulous Friday:  they give abundant winter flowers.  Whether cut for a vase, floated in a bowl, or simply admired while walking through the garden; Hellebores defy winter with flowers of vibrant color and delicate beauty.

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We have enough seedling Hellebores appearing each spring that I’m always happy to share with other gardeners.  Especially gardeners making the hard adjustment to gardening in our challenging area, who are just looking for something, anything, they can grow without having to spray it with deer repellents every time it rains.

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Something borrowed, something new… a gardener’s happiness always grows when friends share their botanical treasures, and when success finally blooms from challenge.

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Woodland Gnome 2019
Fabulous Friday:
Happiness is Contagious; Let’s Infect One Another!

Pot Shots: Winter Flowers

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We are glad to live in a climate that allows us to enjoy flowers in our garden all through the year.   Here in coastal Virginia, in Zone 7b, the Chesapeake Bay and nearby James River help us hold what warmth can be gathered from winter sunlight and warm ocean currents from the Gulf.

On mornings like this one, when the thermometer readings fall below 20F and the wind chill is 5F, flowers may seem an unlikely luxury.  And yet our hardiest winter blooming plants bloom on.  Our bursts of cold are brief, and more moderate weather will soon follow.

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Even as spring bulbs are already sending up their first leaves, we enjoy flowers from woody stems on our Camellias, Edgeworthia, Mahonias, Pieris japonica, Osmanthus x fortunei or Fortune’s tea olive, Hamamelis, and a few early swelling buds on the Forsythia.

All of these flowering shrubs may be grown in pots for a year or two, before they need repotting or a permanent spot in the garden.  When potting shrubs, choosing a shrub that is hardy to at least one zone north of where you plan to grow it may give it an extra edge of survival during unusual bouts of cold.  Temporarily covering the shrub when temps dip below its range may help, as well.

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But it is the pots of Violas and Hellebores that offer the most winter color.  The Violas have bloomed non-stop since we planted them in October.  But the Hellebores have just begun opening over the last few days.

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We planted this clump of Hellebores into a raised bed in 2014. They begin to bloom sometime each January, and bloom non-stop until early May.

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As I walk around the yard to check on those we have planted out in previous years, I find evidence of fresh emerging leaves and plump buds, beginning their annual show.

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These winter pots harbor assorted bulbs, some already poking the tips of green leaves up their their gravel mulch.  Soon enough, we’ll have snow drops, Crocus, tiny Iris, daffodils and Hyacinths blooming, too.  Bold Arum leaves also brave the January cold, with more to follow as we move into early spring.

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Planting winter flowering plants in pots invites you to notice them in detail.  Pots can be moved to where you will enjoy them the most, or where they will have a bit of shelter and warming sun on the coldest days.  These tiny flowers don’t get buried in the duff of winter blown leaves or trampled in haste.  They are protected from hungry voles and possibly from curious squirrels, as well.

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I learned a new trick this fall, listening to Brent Heath lecture about all things bulbs.  Brent suggests giving bulbs a quick spray with deer repellent before planting them to mask their delicious aroma from squirrels.  Have you ever planted new bulbs, only to find them missing a few days later, with freshly dug soil and an empty hole where you planted them?  Yes, the squirrels can smell them, and will go to any lengths to dig some of them up for dinner.

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These Iris bulbs all smell tasty to a hungry squirrel. They represent an investment, and can be protected with a quick squirt of liquid animal repellent, such as Repels All, before you plant them. You’ll find several good brands available. Covering their scent is key, and planting garlic cloves in the top of the pot can offer some protection, too.  Once the bulbs begin to grow and form roots, they are less likely to be dug up for dinner.

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Brent suggested a quick spray of repellent on the tastiest of them just before planting, and I added that extra step as I planted this fall.  Now Narcissus bulbs are poisonous, and squirrels leave them alone.  And Brent also shared that the Crocus tommasinianus, will be left alone too, as they have a different aroma from most other Crocus.  If you plant any of the other Crocus species, you might give them a spray to protect them.

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I also mulch freshly planted bulbs with pea gravel.  It looks clean and tidy, protects newly emerged foliage from splashing soil on rainy days, and I like to think it slows the squirrels down in their digging.  Sometimes yes, sometimes no….. 

This year I made the extra effort to spray the newly planted and mulched containers with Repels All when I finished planting, and I’ve come around with an squirt or two again on those planted with Violas, to protect their tasty flowers and leaves from any curious deer.  The extra effort has made a positive difference and we’ve had no grazing or pulling out of new plants.

Adding a few larger attractive stones dresses up the pot a bit, adds interest before the plants grow in, and may further discourage digging.

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Viola with Ajuga reptans

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As you’re planning your winter pots, consider adding winter hardy ground covers like Sedum ‘Angelina’, Lysimachia nummularia: creeping Jenny, Ajuga or Saxifraga stolonifera. These will remain alive and fairly fresh through the coldest weather, but will spring back into active growth early on and fill the pot with fresh foliage to offset the early bulbs.

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Viola with Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ and emerging Muscari leaves.

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Alternatively, I like to carpet the soil in winter pots with freshly dug moss.  The moss remains green and bright through our winter weather, so long as there is enough moisture to quench its thirst.  Once established, it may even begin to grow and spread in the pot to offer a more natural look.

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Winter pot newly replanted at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden features Japanese Holly fern, Arum italicum, Saxifraga stolonifera, creeping Jenny vines and moss mulch.  Many varieties of spring blooming bulbs are planted under the moss.  This pot sits right outside the gate, where it might tempt passing deer.  Only reliably ‘deer proof’ plants make the cut for this space.

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Evergreen ferns like Dryopteris erythrosora: Autumn ‘Brilliance’ fern, Polystichum acrostichoides: Christmas fern, or Cyrtomium falcatum: Japanese Holly fern also brighten pots, add structure and help set off delicate flowers.  These may not remain in active growth through the winter, but their leaves persist, and they reward the thoughtful gardener with wonderful fresh fiddleheads uncurling through the arrangement in the spring.

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Cyrtomiuum falcatum, Japanese Holly fern, remains green and fresh through our winters.  It thrives in Zones 7-10.

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A final touch to add a bit of height and structure to pots might be branches cut from interesting shrubs in the autumn.  Many branches will root, when cut and set into moist soil in the late autumn.  (This is called taking hardwood cuttings.)

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Some trees and shrubs sport attractive winter bark.  Pruned branches may be stuck into pots for structure. Choosing varieties with early blooms, like these cherry trees growing at the Stryker Center in Williamsburg, may also provide an extra pop of winter color.  (It goes without saying that we should only source such branches in our own garden, or from a florist…. not from public plantings….)

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Whether you want to propagate some shrubs, or simply let their attractive form and colorful bark offset your arrangement, cut branches prove a useful and striking addition to a winter pot.  If you choose an early bloomer, like Forsythia or redbud, you might create an especially colorful spectacle come February or early March.

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Autumn blooming Colchicum was the first bulb to bloom in this fall planted pot. Cyclamen leaves have already emerged, and moss has begun to establish. In the months ahead, many different flowering bulbs will bloom until the show is finished in early May.

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We enjoy our Virginia home where gardening may continue year-round.  Gardening in pots helps us extend the season by adding a little flexibility, especially during the coldest weeks of winter.  Pots may be covered or brought indoors for a day or two.  Soil remains workable sometimes even when the ground is frozen solid, and pots may bloom on the patio and porch, where we may enjoy their beauty without leaving the cozy warmth of indoors.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’ continues blooming as flowers from bulbs emerge in late March.  The creeping Jenny is actively growing once again, and the Viola bravely flowers on into its six month of bloom.  Winter pots are wonderful!

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“I must have flowers, always, and always.”
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Claude Monet

 

Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time

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We are just finishing a harsh winter, and find ourselves in the midst of a chilly, slow spring.  Most of our woodies and perennials are a little behind the times in showing new growth, according to our experience with them in recent years.  Understandable!

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The Camellias didn’t do well in our cold, windy winter weather.

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We had a few nights in January when the lows dipped a little below 0 degrees F, which is rare here.  We had winter temperatures more like Zone 6, found several hundred miles to the west.  Our woodies and perennials rated for Zones 7 or 8 suffered from the deep, prolonged cold.  And it shows.

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Normally evergreen shrubs, now show extensive leaf damage, with brown and curling leaves.  Bark on some trunks and branches split and some stand now with bare branches.   Those woody shrubs that can easily withstand winter in Zones 6a or colder generally look OK.  But those that normally grow to our south, that we coddle along here in the edge or warmer climates, took a hit.

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I needed to cut back far more dead wood from our roses than any year in memory.  It is a very sad sight to see established shrubs looking so bad here in the second week of April.  Our cool temperatures through March and early April, with a little snow recently, have slowed the whole process of new spring growth, too.

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Some gardeners may be struggling with a decision about whether to replace these badly damaged plants.  Now that the garden centers are finally allowing deliveries of fresh stock, it is certainly tempting to rip out the shabby and re-plant with a vigorous plant covered in fresh growth.

I will counsel patience, which is the advice I am also giving to myself this week!  We invest in woodies and perennials mainly because they are able to survive harsh winters.  While leaves and some branches may be lost, there is still life in the wood and in the roots.

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I was out doing the ‘scratch test’ on a completely bare lilac shrub this morning.  Its condition is still a troubling mystery to us, as several other lilacs, of the same cultivar, are leafing out and are covered in budding flowers.  But this one, on the end of the row, sits completely bare without a swelling bud to be seen.  I scratched a little with my fingernail one of the major branches, and found green just below its thin bark.  So long as there is green, there is life.

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This lilac survived our winter in a pot near the kitchen door. We are delighted to see it in bloom so early. I’ll plant this shrub out in the garden once the blooms are finished. It has been in this pot for several years, after arriving as a bare root twig in the mail in early 2015.

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I want to prune this one back pretty severely, mostly because it is becoming an eyesore.  But my Master Gardener friend strongly advises to give it more time.  She suggests waiting until early June to make life and death decisions on trees and shrubs, to give them time to recover.

I may prune the lilac a little, now that the freezing weather here is likely over for the year, and hope that stimulates some fresh growth.

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Japanese Maples have finally allowed their leaves to unfold this week.

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That is what we’ve done with the roses.  We pruned, hard, and we see new shoots coming from the roots on all of our roses now.

There are a few good reasons to nurse our winter damaged woodies back to health instead of replacing them now.  First, our tree or shrub is established and has a developed root system.  Even if all of its trunks and stems are dead, new ones will soon appear from the roots.  This seems to happen every single year with my Ficus afghanistanica ‘Silver Lyre’.  It keeps the shrub a manageable size, and the plant looks pretty good again by early summer.

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F. ‘Silver Lyre’s’ stems are visible beside the Iris leaves. Rated to Zone 7b, it always returns, sometime in May, from its roots.  A Sweetbay Magnolia waits behind it, in a nursery pot.  I want to see some sign of life before planting it.

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Another reason to rejuvenate an established shrub, rather than plant a new one, is economic.  Finding a good sized shrub to replace the old one is a bit of an investment.  Weather and higher fuel prices are definitely reflected in shrub prices this spring.  I’ve felt a little bit of ‘sticker shock’ when looking at prices at area nurseries.

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These Viburnums show cold damage, even while still at a local nursery.

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And even if you buy a new shrub, it is likely to sustain damage during its adjustment time, if you live in deer country.  Shrubs fresh from the grower have been heavily fertilized to induce quick growth.  This extra nitrogen in the plant’s tissue tastes a little ‘salty’ to grazing deer, and makes the shrub that much more delicious and attractive to them.  It takes a year or so of growth before the tastiness of new shrubs seems to decline, and they are ignored by grazing deer.

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I’ve just watched a major investment in new holly trees get nibbled down nearly to the branches by deer in our area.  It is very discouraging, especially if your new shrub is replacing one damaged by winter’s weather!

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This Eucalyptus sometimes sprouts new leaves from its existing trunks in spring. Last winter it was killed back to its roots, but then grew about 6′ during the season.  I expect it to send up new growth from its roots by early May.

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All things considered, I am planning to give our woodies another six to eight weeks, and every possible chance, before declaring them and cutting them out.  It is the humane and sensible approach.  Even though the selection at garden centers this month is tempting, I will wait.

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The view this week at the top of our garden. Still looks rather wintery, doesn’t it?  The southern wax myrtles which normally screen our view, were hit hard by the cold, and a new flush of leaves have not yet opened.

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In this climate, it is generally better to plant in fall, anyway.  Fall planted shrubs get a good start in cooler weather, so their roots can grow and establish the plant in the surrounding soil before summer’s heat sets in.  The selection may be a little more sparse by October or November, but the prices are often better, as nurseries try to clear their stock before winter.

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This English holly, purchased last November, lived in a container over winter, and may be too far gone to save. I planted it out in the garden last month in hope it may recover….

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And of course, you might try propagating replacement shrubs yourself, from cuttings.  I have pretty good luck rooting hardwood cuttings over winter, or greenwood cuttings in spring and summer.  It isn’t hard to do, if you are willing to wait a few years for the shrub to grow to maturity.

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As with so many thing in the garden, it takes time and patience to achieve our goals.  They say that ‘time heals all things.’

That may not be true 100% of the time, but patience allows us to achieve many things that others may believe impossible!

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Our red buckeye tree was knocked back to the ground in a summer 2013 storm.  It lived and has grown to about 5′ high in the years since.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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“Green Thumb” Tips: 

Many visitors to Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help grow the garden of their dreams.

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.

If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what you know from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I’ll update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about gardens and gardening.
Green Thumb Tip # 13: Breaching Your Zone
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
Green Thumb Tip # 15: Conquer the Weeds!
Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios

 

 

Blossom XXXVIII: Akebia quinata

Akebia quinata

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Chocolate vine, Akebia, grows joyfully in a corner of our garden.  It springs back to life early in the season, when many of our other woodies are still resting.  First, the delicate spring green leaves emerge, clothing the long and twisting stem with fresh growth.  Compound leaves emerge in groups of five leaflets, which is how it earned its species name, ‘quintata‘.  And then its beautiful rosy flower buds appear, opening over a long season of several weeks.

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I mail-ordered this ‘chocolate vine’ several years ago to clothe a new arbor we were installing.  I’d never grown it before, and never admired it growing in another’s garden.  But I’m always interested in trying new things; especially unusual fruits.    This vine is supposed to produce an edible pod that tastes like chocolate.

And I only ordered one, not the two necessary for pollination, to first determine whether it would grow well for us.  Does it like our climate?  Will the deer eat it?

Yes, and no.  And from that first bare root twig, it has taken off and begun to take over this corner of the yard!  Yes, I could prune it into better manners.  But I rather like its wild sprawl through the neighboring trees.

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But as much as the vine extends itself, it doesn’t appear to pollinate itself.  We’ve not yet found any edible pods to taste.  I could plant another vine to see if I can make them produce fruit, but that would be unwise. 

Akebia grows so robustly that it can smother out other nearby plants.  It is considered invasive in the mid-Atlantic region and has made the list of regulated invasive species in Kentucky, South Carolina and Georgia.

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We enjoy this vine for its flowers.  It is simply stunning in bloom, filling its real estate with bright flowers.  There are plenty of little dangling stems to cut to add to flower arrangements.

I’ve never noticed this vine growing in the wild in Virginia, and have not heard of it being a problem in native habitats in our area.  It is something of a novelty to us.

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In its native Asia, where both the pulp and the husk of the fruit are enjoyed in cooking, the vines are cut and woven into baskets.  The vines wrap themselves in neat spirals around their supports, laying themselves in parallel layers like a living sculpture.  Akebia was first imported to the United States as an ornamental vine around 1845.

Akebia is a beautiful plant, and you can find it from several good mail order nurseries in the United States and the UK. You will even find named cultivars.   It tolerates shade, is drought tolerant, and grows in a variety of soils.  This deciduous, woody vine is hardy in Zones 4-10.  The color of its flowers blends well with other springtime flowers in our garden.

Ironically, the more resilient and adaptable a plant, the more likely it will eventually make it on to a list of ‘invasive’ plants.   Although this spreads and roots at the nodes, I feel confident that the birds won’t spread it elsewhere, since our vine isn’t producing fruits and seeds.

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I would plant Akebia again, given the opportunity.  It is a useful  vine to cover a trellis, pergola, fence or wall.  But use it with caution, and do keep the secateurs handy.

I’ll need to give ours a trim this spring, when the flowers have faded, to keep it in bounds.  That said, some of those trimmings will be rooted and shared with gardening friends.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Blossom XXXVII: Daffodils, Variations On A Theme

Blossom XXXVI: Crocus

Blossom XXXV: In The Forest

The Arum Affair

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My new-found friends at the Native Plant Society might not approve, but I’m still falling in love with this beautiful Italian Arum.   After six days under the snow, with temperatures falling near zero at night, it still looks this fresh and crisp as the snow melts around it!

Arum leaves hold their vibrant green throughout the winter, as though unaffected by the ice and freezing cold.  The beautiful geometric patterns traced on their leaves in softest cream remain elegant from autumn through to early summer.  They remind me a little of a cold hardy Alocasia.

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Arum growing with our daffodils last February

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Native to Southern Europe and North Africa, Arum originated in a much warmer climate.  But it has a superpower: Arum italicum is thermogenic, capable of producing heat from its leaves and from its unusual flower.  The mitochondria in each cell produce excess heat, which gives the plant some protection from the cold.

A member of the Araceae family, it also has calcium oxalate crystals in its leaves.  These crystals are very irritating to skin and soft tissue… like the tender mouths of hungry deer.   All parts of the Arum are poisonous, including the corm from which it grows; which is the other reason I love these beautiful foliage plants.

Deer, squirrels, voles and rabbits won’t touch them.

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Columbine emerges through a winter ground cover of Arum italicum last March.

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These are a useful ground cover species in our woodland garden.  They grow best in shade and though drought tolerant, grow more prolifically in moist and fertile soil.

While I am thrilled to see these beautiful plants spread through our garden by seed and division, their prolific growth and nearly indestructible nature make them problematic in other regions of the United States.  Areas like the Pacific Northwest consider them invasive and ask home gardeners not to plant them.

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But Arum remain my cold-weather guilty pleasure.  I ordered over 200 of them this fall from Brent and Becky Heath, sharing a little more than half with my gardening friends.

I’ve planted them in beds and pots, beneath shrubs and amongst spring bulbs.  Interplant them with Hosta to keep a beautiful foliage presence in your Hosta beds year round.  Pair them with either hardy or deciduous ferns for delicious spring time associations.

I use them in parts of the garden where we grow Caladiums in the summer.  As we lift the Caladiums in fall, the Arum emerge from their summer dormant period.  Arum die back in early summer as the Caladiums fill in.

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Exotic as they may be, Arum still fill a niche in a North American woodland garden.  They hold and protect the ground against erosion.  They produce both nectar and pollen for pollinators each spring.  Birds eat their seeds in mid-summer.  And, their beautiful leaves make this gardener very happy. 

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Brent and Becky Heath’s display gardens in Gloucester, VA,  feature many blooming shrubs, including this lovely Camellia. The Heath’s call Arum italicum a ‘shoes and socks’ plant because it works so well as a ground cover beneath shrubs.

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I’m still wavering up and down the native plant/exotic imported plant continuum.  I’m hanging out more these days with the native plant enthusiasts and reading the literature.  I understand the nativist point of view, and yet I still believe that there is space in our garden for a population of exotic ‘come here’ plants, too.

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How would I garden without our Camellias and Rhododendrons, Alocasias, Narcissus, Caladiums and Mediterranean herbs?

Basically, if it will grow here and not end up as breakfast for a deer, I’m willing to entertain most any plant for at least a season or two.  And when it makes me happy, I just might explore a more lasting relationship.  Which perhaps explains the Arum affair….

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Arum italicum blooming in our garden last April

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Green Thumb Tip #14: Right Place, Right Plant

Japanese Maple shades a Hosta, “Empress Wu” in the Wubbel’s garden at Forest Lane Botanicals in neighboring York County.

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The first of the new year’s plant catalogs landed in our mailbox earlier this week.  After resisting it for a day, I finally poured a fresh cup of coffee and sat down to savor its promises of  fresh gardening adventures.  My attention was grabbed by a new Hosta introduction, H. ‘Waterslide’ on page 2.  Oh, such a pretty grey-blue Hosta, with long, wavy leaves.

I felt the first tickling sensation of plant lust inflaming my gardener’s imagination.  Before I hardly knew what was happening, I was back on the computer searching for vendors and deals on this new Hosta cultivar.  Then, barely pausing for breath, I was admiring all of the many Hosta cultivars offered by the Avents at Plant Delights Nursery, including their own new introductions this season.  Did you know that some of their Hosta will grow to nearly 4′ tall and wide?  Can you imagine?

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Hosta growing in our garden, with Autumn Brilliance fern, in  2012. The fern survived and thrives. The Hosta was grazed a few too many times, and hasn’t returned in recent years.

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That is how it begins each winter.  With little left to do outdoors, I’m planting imaginary gardens in my mind filled with roses, Hosta, ferns, fruit trees, herbs and lots of vibrant petunias.  I can spend many happy hours reading plant catalogs and gardening books, sketching out new beds and making long wish lists of new acquisitions.  I am always keenly interested in the year’s new introductions across many genera, and spend time assessing the year’s newest Proven Winners.

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Autumn Brilliance ferns, Mahonia and Edgeworthia chrysantha maintain a beautiful presence through the worst winter weather in our garden.  December 2016.

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Now, during the first few years on a new property, one might excuse such extravagance.  But I’m experienced enough to know better, by now, and have determined to impose even more self-discipline this year than ever before.

That, and I literally just planted the last of our spring flowering bulbs, acquired on December 15 on the clearance sale at Brent and Becky’s Bulb Shop.  What was I thinking?   What rational gardener loads up on an additional five dozen bulbs in mid-December, even if they are 75% off?

I used our last warmish day to find spots for every last one of them, including the last of the 50 miniature Iris bulbs ordered earlier this fall.  I rationalized ‘Christmas presents,’ at the time.  And in honesty, a few of my close gardening friends did get a dozen or so of the little guys.  But that still left me with a lot of little Iris bulbs to place.  Where to put them all?

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Winter blooming miniature Iris, February 2017.

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And that, of course, is the point.  I am a naturally curious plant collector.  I want to try growing one or two (or two dozen)  of everything! They all grow beautifully in my imagination.

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June 2017 in our front garden. The tall flowers are grown from grocery store carrots, planted in late winter.  It is nearly time to plant carrots again.  These bloomed for several months last summer.

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But reality sets in as I wander around the garden, pot and trowel in hand thinking, ‘Where can I plant this?’  And that approach regularly gets me into trouble.

Like people and pets, plants have needs.  If you meet their individual needs, they will thrive.  If you don’t plant them in the right place where their needs are met, they mope along looking ratty.

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Or worse, your investment dies.  But that’s not the end of it.  No, sometimes it is even worse when you successfully meet a plant’s needs, and it takes off and shows you its thuggish nature as it takes over all of the surrounding real-estate its hungry little roots can reach!

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Rudbeckia laciniata, a native that feeds wildlife, and an unapologetic thug that has taken over our ‘butterfly garden.’  Yes, there is work to do here before spring….

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Within a season or two, those plants near such an over-achiever get crowded or shaded out.  Without a vigilant gardener ready to prune, divide, dig out and generally keep the horticultural peace, the balance (and a season or two’s previous plantings) are lost.

So I remind myself, as we come into the 2018 gardening catalog season, of what I used to frequently remind my students:  “PPPPP.”  (or, Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance)  With a bit of creativity, maybe we can work a ‘Planting’ into that maxim…

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Our stump garden has finally taken off from bare mulch, four summers ago.  This photo from spring of 2017 shows how lush it has become over just a few years.

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As our garden fills up, there are fewer and fewer places left to plant anything new.  As little starts and rooted cuttings mature and grow on and spread, there is almost no ‘good’ place left to even consider installing a new bed or planting area in this garden.

Beyond even that practical consideration, this remains a hostile environment for so many beloved garden plants that most gardeners consider ‘normal,’ or even ‘easy.’  Like Hosta.  And daylillies.  And roses and oh, so many other fruiting and flowering plants I would love to grow!

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I can certainly order and plant that beautiful $20+ newest and grooviest Hosta.  If nowhere else, I’ll stick it in a pot and grow it under a shady tree.  But NO!  Just as soon as it begins to really fill out and look great in its new spot, some hungry Bambi will squirm into our garden on a day after the rain has washed our repellents away. The next time I go out to admire and water said Hosta, it will be gnawed off at the soil.

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Native Mountain Laurel blooms here  for several weeks in May.  This small tree remains evergreen all year, with interesting bark and slender trunks.  Poisonous, deer and squirrels leave it strictly alone.

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Thus, we return to, “Right place, right plant.”  You see, I’ve been working sorta backwards all of my gardening life.  (and yes, I’ve enjoyed it, and No, I don’t regret all of those poor planting choices.  I get lucky sometimes.)

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The stump garden, with newly planted Iris, Violas, chives, and Geranium cuttings in October of 2013;  four months after several trees came down here in a summer thunderstorm.

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First, we choose the place to plant.  Then, we analyze what will grow well there, and what we want those new plants to do for us.  Do we need something flowering?  Something evergreen?  Something edible?  A visual screen for something?  Does it fit into a larger planting scheme?

I envy those highly regarded English garden designers, who are commissioned to fill many acres at a time of some posh, historical site.  They have space, and budgets, and walls to hold off the deer.  And, they have deep soil and a perfect climate to fill their garden with roses….

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Late April, 2017, and our Iris fill the front garden.

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But I’m gardening in my imagination again, which is maybe OK this last week of the year.

I’ve made a firm New Year’s resolution to make more realistic plant purchases this coming year, and fewer of them.  I intend to train a new habit of having a spot chosen in advance before any new plant may be ordered or adopted on a whim.

No more vague, “I’ll find a spot for it, I’m sure.” 

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September 2013, and I took a friend’s good advice to try this Edgeworthia.  We sited it well, and it has delighted us with its flowers each winter since.

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This will make my partner very happy.  This is a Forest Garden, and I want to make sure we leave room for the trees, and the people, and for the plants that have already sunk their roots here, to grow.

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Our ‘deer resistant’ garden in February, 2017

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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Wreathed in Smiles

Colonial Williamsburg, December 2017

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We had to laugh and smile when we saw these deer themed Christmas decorations along Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg yesterday.  The cheeky population of deer over-running the neighborhoods is a frustration shared by so many of us living around this area.

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Herds of them rampage through the ravine behind our garden.   Drivers stay on their guard, knowing a deer could run out into the street at most any time, especially at dusk.  We find hoof prints and deer scat in the garden, a calling card for the  lonely doe or fawn who snuck in for a snack.

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The floral designers at CW showed a mischievous sense of humor in their designs this year.  Beyond the staid circles of pine needles ornamented with apples or pomegranate, there were a few energetic and amusing creations that caught our attention.

We know that whoever created these deer themed pieces must live nearby and have their own deer tales to tell.

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Ironically, more deer live in James City and York Counties now than in the Colonial era.  These beautiful animals were prized by the Native Americans who once claimed this rich region of coastal Virginia.  Every part of the deer was useful to them, and so the deer were freely hunted.  Colonists valued the deer as well for their meat and fur.

With no natural predators, the deer population in Virginia is held in check these days only by recreational hunters.   Although development continues to carve slices out of their habitat, the cunning deer have adapted to live quite well in our neighborhoods.

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A troupe of costumed minstrels played and sang as they rode through the streets of Colonial Williamsburg in an ox drawn cart yesterday afternoon.

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We rarely see deer wandering the streets of old Williamsburg, but we did see quite a few horses, and even a team of oxen yesterday.   There are always lots of dogs to admire, even one with this troupe of interpreters entertaining us yesterday.

Often, we’ll find small herds of sheep or even bulls grazing in the CW pastures.

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The workshops of Colonial Williamsburg aim to keep the old everyday arts of artisanal manufacture alive.

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Many of the wreathes serve double duty as advertisements, cleverly luring curious customers into the shops.

Someone asked me the other day, “Do they re-use the wreathes at CW year to year, or are there new designs each year?”

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That is an interesting question.  While much stays the same in terms of style and materials, there is a fresh interpretation and presentation every year.  The wreathes are freshly made from scratch each November, and hung in time for the Grand Illumination, which boomed and thundered the holiday season into our community last Sunday evening.

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We have thus far photographed only a fraction of this year’s offerings.  We started near Merchant’s Square and explored only as far as the Governor’s Palace.  We intend to return throughout December, and I will share the best of them with you, as we also enjoy the wreathes of Colonial Williamsburg  this month.

 

Woodland Gnome 2017
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This deer themed ‘chandelier’ is hanging on a Colonial Williamsburg porch, near the deer themed wreathes. Male deer lose and re-grow their antlers each year. Discarded antlers are sometimes found on walks in the woods.

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For the Daily Post’s
Weekly Photo Challenge:  Cheeky

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Will you join this year’s Holiday Wreath Challenge?

 

Blossom XXX: Garlic Chives

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Do you fill your garden with beautiful plants, or with useful plants?  Garlic chives, Allium tuberosum, offers late summer beauty while also filling a useful niche in our very wild garden.

It has been blooming for a couple of weeks and will continue well into September; a favorite among our pollinators.  It blooms long after our other Alliums have finished for the year.

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It grows in ever expanding clumps in sun, partial sun, and even partial shade.  I bought the first few pots, years ago, in hopes its garlicky fragrance might help shield more tasty plants from grazing deer.  It was a good idea to try, and it certainly discourages them.  It offers more protection in a potted arrangement than in the open garden.

We quickly learned that this Allium reseeds prolifically.  Now, it grows in many places we never thought to plant it.  It even makes a place for itself in tiny cracks and crevices in the hardscape. Hardy to Zone 3, it easily thrives through our winters, and surprises you with its sudden and unexpected appearance each spring.

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Garlic chives spread themselves around the garden, blooming in unexpected places in late summer.

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It remains evergreen here through most of the year, only succumbing to frost for deepest winter.  Once the weather warms in spring, its leaves shoot up to greet the sun.  Which means, that if you enjoy it as a culinary herb, you have a steady supply of leaves to use fresh or dried.

This is a favorite in many Asian cuisines, and both leaves and flower buds may be enjoyed fresh or sauteed.  This Allium is native to Asia, but has traveled all around the world now and naturalized in many areas.  In fact, in some areas, particularly in Australia, it is now considered invasive.

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“Invasive” to some perhaps, but “reliable and hardy” to us.  These beautiful blossoms are what I’ve come to love most about our garlic chives.  Purely white, long lasting, and perky; these certainly brighten up our garden when it needs it most.

Now that they have had several years to spread, they create a beautiful unity and rhythm as clumps emerge randomly in many different areas.  They accent whatever grows nearby.

The clumps may be dug and divided after flowering, if you want to spread them through your garden even faster than they will spread themselves.  The dried seed heads prove interesting once the flowers have finished.  When the seeds have ripened and dried, you may break them from their stem, and simply shake them over areas where you would like garlic chives in coming years.

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And yes, you can enjoy these blossoms inside in a vase for several days.  They combine well with interesting foliage; other flowering herbs, like Basil; and with more common garden flowers.

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There is a certain satisfaction in growing edible and medicinal plants which blend in to the perennial garden.  Even better when they prove perennial, tough, and still very, very beautiful.

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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For the Daily Post’s
Weekly Photo Challenge:  Structure
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Blossom XXV: Elegance
Blossom XXVI: Angel Wing Begonia
Blossom XXVII: Life 
Blossom XXVIII: Fennel 
Blossom XXIV:  Buddleia

 

 

 

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