Autumn’s Textures and Layers

Our Forest Garden is filled with growth this first week of September.

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Last Friday, I had the rare privilege of tagging along on a garden tour led by one of our region’s most beloved and respected horticulturalists, Brent Heath.  And he began the tour by reminding us that color in the garden is secondary to texture and form.  He reminded us that only about 10% of the vegetation in a good garden design should be flowers.  Considering that his business sells a rainbow of geophytes that bloom in every season of the year, this bit of advice seemed important to note.

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Late August at the Heath’s display gardens

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Although Brent and Becky’s catalogs may be filled with seas of golden daffodils and page after page of bright lilies, tulips, Iris, hyacinths and other garden delicacies; their display gardens around the bulb shop are more of an arboretum, filled with interesting woodies set in beautiful lawns.  And yes, within the vast green spaces grow beautiful beds of perennials.

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Brent and Becky Heath’s Gloucester display garden December 4, 2015

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In the spring we crave those crazy bright yellow daffodils and clear bright tulips, crocus, and hyacinths.  We revel in fluffy pink clouds of blooming fruit trees and early Magnolias.  But by late summer, I am cooled and soothed by layer upon layer of green.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea, Edgeworthia, Camellia, Rudbeckia, Solidago and the surrounding trees create many layers of texture in our garden this week.  How many different shades of green can you see?

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By early September, our garden approaches its maximum growth for the season.  It is filled with leaves of many shapes, sizes, and shades of green.  Tall stands of Solidago reach up for their bit of sunlight, their tops feathery and alive, shifting and shimmying in every breath of a breeze.  Likewise Cannas, Hibiscus and ginger lilies have grown taller than me, and moving through the garden feels like winding through a living, breathing maze.

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I feel sheltered and cocooned standing in the midst of it, marveling at how much has grown over the past few months.  The secret to this garden magic comes from planting in layers.  Literally, one might have several plants sharing the same square foot of real estate, that grow to different heights and that take center stage at different times of the year.  Herbaceous plants come and go with the seasons, while the woodies and evergreen ground covers remain.

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Obedient plant, Black-eyed Susans, goldenrod and other natives grow against shrubs in our front garden. This area is underplanted with spring bulbs and perennial ground covers like Vinca and Ajuga.

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But even beyond seasonal layering, we build more permanent layers with trees and shrubs of various statures, ground cover vines, evergreen ferns and perennials such as bearded Iris, and the architecture of pergolas and pots, walls, gates, paths and raised beds.  Everywhere the eye can rest offers a layer of structure.  Much of the structure is green, and every layer offers its own special texture to the mix.

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Perennial native mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum, grows at the base of Canna and Colocasia in this sunny spot.

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“Green’ describes a multitude of shades, multiplied further by the ever changing light and shadows.  This is, perhaps, a reason to favor perennials over annuals.  Perennials fill the garden with interesting texture and color, both before and after their much shorter season of bloom.

The annuals certainly charm us in March in April when we crave color.  But by late August and September, most have begun to wane.  They show the ravages of drought and time.  If we’ve not cut them back hard, the growth may be a bit old and rangy, perhaps dying off in spots.

 

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Annual Zinnias fill beds at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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But worse, annuals may not improve that much over the long coastal Virginia summer.  You lose the subtleties of change enjoyed as perennials grow, bud, bloom and fade.  I look at so many pots of summer annuals now and think, ‘Ick.’  Many looked tired out and nearly ready for the compost pile.

And good riddance, as we approach another ‘golden season’ of Rudbeckias, goldenrods, Chrysanthemums, Lycoris, ginger lilies and soon autumn’s golden leaves.

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The garden will revel in a final burst of gold and scarlet and orange before it finally settles and fades again to browns and grey; and before the first frosts of winter transform it, yet again.

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Scarlet Pineapple Sage has just begun to bloom in our garden this week, to the delight of hummingbirds and butterflies.

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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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Waiting

Milkweed pods crack open to release their seeds onto the wind.

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Our lives unfold to the cadence of waiting.  We wait for the milestones of maturity; birthday candles, privileges, grades passed.  We wait for friendship and love.  Sometimes we wait for a soured relationship’s messy end.

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Garlic chives go to seed all too quickly.

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We tick off the long awaited steps of our lives at first with eagerness; later with longing.  We wait for spring.  We wait for summer’s heat to break.

We wait for the trees to bud and for the roses to finally bloom in May.

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We wait for storms to come and to pass; for children to grow independent; for dream vacations; for retirement.

Which is sweeter, the wait, or the fulfillment?

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Beautyberry ripens over a long season, to the delight of our many birds.

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“We never live;
we are always in the expectation of living.”
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Voltaire

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I await the much loved succession of our garden each year:  emergence, growth, bud, bloom, fruits and seeds.

By September, many of the season’s flowers have already gone to seeds; others are still just coming into bloom.

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Obedient plant blooms with Rudbeckia hirta, black-eyed Susans.

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Hibiscus, Echinacea and Basil seeds bring a small cadre of bright goldfinches darting about the garden.  They have waited long months for their delicious ripening.

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Hibiscus pods split open in autumn to offer their feast of seeds to hungry birds.

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And sometimes, after the longest of winter waits, those dropped and forgotten seeds fulfill their destiny, sprouting and growing into the fullness of maturity.  Self-sown plants, appearing as if by magic, are a special gift of nature in our garden.

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Self-sown Basil going to seed again.

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No, I’m not speaking of the crabgrass or wild Oxalis sprouting in the paths and in the pots.  I’m speaking of the small army of Basil plants which appeared, right where I wanted them, this spring.   I’m speaking of the bright yellow Lantana growing now in the path, and the profusion of bright golden Rudbeckia in our front garden.

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A Black Swallowtail butterfly feeds on perennial Lantana.

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And, I’m speaking of the magnificent Aralia spinosa blooming for the first time this summer.  It’s gigantic head of ripening purple berries reminds me of why we tolerate its thorny trunk.

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Aralia spinosa’s creamy flowers have faded, leaving bright berries in their wake.

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Gardeners soon learn the art of waiting.  We wait for tiny rooted slips of life to grow into flowering plants, for bulbs to sprout, for seeds to germinate, for little spindly sticks to grow and finally bear fruit. We wait for the tomatoes to ripen and the pecans to fall.

We wait for hummingbirds to fly north each spring; for butterflies to find our nectar filled floral banquet.

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We wait year upon year for our soil to finally get ‘right.’  We wait for rains to come, and for the soggy earth to dry out enough to work in the spring.

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We are waiting for the Solidago, Goldenrod, to bloom any day now, drawing even more pollinators to the garden.

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And we wait for ourselves, sometimes, too.  We wait for our fingers to grow green enough that we can tend our garden properly, coaxing beauty from the Earth.

So much to learn, so much to do, so much to love…..

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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“Patience is power.
Patience is not an absence of action;
rather it is “timing”
it waits on the right time to act,
for the right principles
and in the right way.”
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Fulton J. Sheen

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For the Daily Post’s
Weekly Photo Challenge:  Waiting

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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

 

 

 

Blossom XXIX: Buddleia

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Buddleia davidii, or butterfly bush, hosts many hungry pollinators on its abundant, nectar filled blossoms each summer.    I enjoy the beautiful creatures it attracts as much as I enjoy its brilliant blossoms.

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Hummingbird moths are especially drawn to Buddleia.

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These deciduous shrubs tend to be short lived.  They want plenty of sun and prefer rich, moist soil.  We lost several over the last few years, and had only one remaining last fall.

Buddleia want to be frequently pruned.  The bloom on new growth, and produce abundant blooms until frost if you faithfully dead head their spent blossoms.

They also need to be cut back very hard each winter.  If left to grow unpruned, they can soon grow too tall and gangling, falling this way and that from their own weight.  That said, I’ve never had one grazed by deer.

When I pruned our butterfly bush  in the late fall, I was inspired to stick lengths of the pruned stems into a large pot, around a winter blooming Helleborus.  I wasn’t confident that these woody stem cuttings would root, but decided to take the chance.  By early spring, we noticed new buds and leaves appearing and we could tell roots had formed.

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I transplanted most of the rooted cuttings out into the front garden when I refreshed the pot in late spring.  But we left the largest and strongest in place to grow on this summer in the pot.

All of the rooted cuttings have put on abundant growth this summer and are now well-established and blooming.  A seedling Rudbeckia has also appeared in the pot along with a Caladium  I tucked in this May, some Verbena cuttings I planted in June, and a division of Dichondra argentea. 

If this sounds like shamefully haphazard planting, well…. what can I say?

The Hellebore took a long time to die back, as did the foliage of the daffodil bulbs still nestled deep in the pot.  Spreading Colocasia plants have sprung up all around, hugging the pot with their huge leaves.  It may look a bit wild and woolly, but I can promise you that the many hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and this lovely hummingbird moth are happy with the abundance.

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Plants basically want to live.  The magic of simple propagation, whether from stem cuttings, division or saved seeds; is their will to survive against all odds.

The next time you find yourself pruning, consider whether you have space or desire for more of the plant you’re trimming back.  Green stems generally root well in water.  Woody stems will root in soil or a soil-less medium like vermiculite or sand.

There are finer points to it, depending on the time of year you take your cuttings.  But why not take a chance and give those pruning an opportunity to root?  Look at the beauty you have to gain! This is an easy and inexpensive way to give yourself impressive small shrubs for your large pots, too.

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Propagate your way into a full, lush garden filled with plants that you like, and that grow well in your conditions.  Doesn’t it seem a bit magical that a blossom this beautiful will grow from a pruned stem, that would otherwise have been tossed away?

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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A blossom from the mother plant, still growing strong and covered in flowers.

 

Blossom XXV: Elegance
Blossom XXVI: Angel Wing Begonia
Blossom XXVII: Life 
Blossom XXVIII: Fennel 

 

Invincible

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”  The flower, though loved, fades;

   While weeds, though not loved, thrive.”

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Unknown

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“But what attracted me to weeds

was not their beauty, but their resilience.

I mean, despite being so widely despised,

so unloved, killed with every chance we get,

they are so pervasive,

so seemingly invincible.”

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Carol Vorvain

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“Use the water of encouragement

on someone else’s flowers –

especially the flowers that are wilted,

trampled on, and taken for granted.

But don’t nourish the weeds.”

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Hannah Garrison

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017

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“The strongest and most mysterious weeds

often have things to teach us.”

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F.T. McKinstry

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“When life is not coming up roses
Look to the weeds
and find the beauty

hidden within them.”

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L.F.Young

 

For the Love of Iris

Iris ‘Stairway to Heaven’

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I fell in love with Iris as a child.  My parents accepted a gift of Iris rhizomes from a retired friend, who happened to hybridize and grow German bearded Iris.  Dad came home one summer evening with his trunk loaded with paper grocery bags, each containing the mud caked rhizomes his friend had dug and discarded from his working garden.  He needed to repurpose the  space for his new seedlings.

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I’ve been searching for those intensely colored and perfumed Iris cultivars I remember from childhood. This is one of the closest I’ve found.  Iris ‘Medici Prince’ available from Brecks.com

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My mother looked at the sheer volume of gifted plants. A conversation followed about what to do with them all.  And then, Dad started digging.  He dug long borders in our sunny Danville, Virginia back yard.  Full sun and good loam were just what those Iris needed.

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The first spring after that, we were all speechless at the absolute beauty of them.  And the fragrance!  I don’t know whether my parents’ friend was selecting for fragrance, but these were the most fragrant flowers my young nose had ever discovered.

The colors of these special Iris ranged from white to intense reds and nearly black shades of purple.  They bloomed orange and pink and many shades of blue.  I was smitten, and have loved Iris since the day these Iris first bloomed in our back yard.

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When we moved, a few years later, we labeled the Iris by color while they were in bloom so we could dig some of each variety.  Back into grocery bags, we carried this legacy to our new home.  The new place had a shadier yard, and yet we set to work digging a new Iris bed, even while still unpacking boxes and settling into the house.

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I. ‘Echo Location’

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That began a new ritual around our family’s moving.  Each time after, we would try to dig and move as many Iris as we could.  As each of us left home, and our parents aged, that became a little more challenging with each move.

Even though I dug divisions for each of my gardens over the years, we still lost many of the cultivars along the way.

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But I never lost my enthusiasm for growing Iris.  And when I learned about re-blooming German bearded Iris a few years back, I began collecting and digging new beds for Iris in sunny spots in our Forest Garden.  I bought several varieties from local breeder Mike Lockatelle, and have ordered others from online catalogs.  Now, it is as common for us to enjoy Iris in bloom in November or December as it is to enjoy them in May.

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‘Rosalie Figge’ remains my favorite of our re-blooming Iris.

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We now grow many types of Iris, ranging from the earliest winter blooming cultivars which grow only a few inches tall, to our beautiful Bearded Iris which may grow to 4′ if they are happy.  We plant a few more each year.  There is a shallow pool filled with bright yellow flag Iris in our front yard, inherited with the garden.

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A master gardener friend gave me divisions of an antique variety of bearded Iris grown in Colonial Williamsburg, and all over this area, from her own garden.  Other friends have also given us beautiful gifts of Iris over the years, and each remains special to me.  The blooming Iris remind me of friendships and loved ones; other times and places in my life.

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The ‘Williamsburg Iris’ is an antique variety found growing around Colonial Williamsburg, and in private gardens throughout our area.  Ours were a gift from a Williamsburg Master Gardener friend.

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Iris can be grown successfully and enjoyed even if you have deer grazing in your garden.  Deer will not bother them.  This is one of the reasons why we find Iris to be a good investment.  They grow quickly, and can be easily divided and spread around the garden.  They pay amazing dividends as they get better and better each year.

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Iris can be easy to grow, if you can give them hot, sunny space to spread. They are heavy feeders and perform best when grown in rich soil and are fed once or twice a year.  But without sun and space, many varieties will just fizzle out. Make sure bearded Iris get at least six hours of direct sun; more if possible.

Iris want soil that drains after a rain.  Most established Iris can tolerate fairly dry soil after they bloom, which makes them a good selection for hot climates, like ours.  Japanese Iris and Louisiana Iris species require moist soil year round, and are happy growing in standing water.

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Winter blooming Iris histrioides in January

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Sometimes, their foliage will die back; but the roots remain alive and ready to grow new leaves when conditions improve.  I was very pleasantly surprised to find these beautiful miniature Iris growing this spring.

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Iris cristata ‘Vein Mountain’ is available from Plantdelights.com. This is a North American native Crested Woodland Iris.

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I though we had lost them during last summer’s drought, when they disappeared.  I’m still waiting for our Iris pallida ‘Variegata’ to reappear, which struggled last summer, too.

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Dutch Iris, always fun to cut for a vase, grow each spring and then, like so many other bulbs, die back.  They come in an amazing array of colors and can be ordered for pennies a bulb.

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Dutch Iris can be planted alongside bearded Iris to extend the season.

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Showy Louisiana Iris don’t have a place in our garden.  They grow best with their roots always wet, usually at the edge of a pond.  I admire them, but don’t have the right conditions to grow them.  But I am always happy to grab a shovel and make a spot for more bearded Iris. 

I’ve been moving Iris around my parents’ garden, the last few years, to bring shaded plants out into the sun.  I hope to salvage and increase what is left of their collection. We are enjoying the fruits of that effort this week, as they have gorgeous Iris blooming here and there around their home.

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These yellow flag Iris grow wild along marshes and creeks in our area, as well as in our garden. They go on year after year with minimal care and maximum beauty.

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We discussed plans for a new Iris bed when I was there last weekend.  While I’m moving them, I plan to cull a few divisions for myself, too.  And, I will take them a few roots from our garden, too.

Sharing is one of the nicest things about growing Iris.  No matter how many roots you give away, more will grow.  Each division of rhizome needs at least one leaf and root.  Plant the division in amended soil, with the top of the rhizome visible.

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Siberian Iris

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Cover all roots well with good earth, and mulch lightly around the newly planted roots, without covering the exposed rhizome.  Water the plant in, and then keep the soil moist until new growth appears.  I feed our Iris Espoma Rose Tone each spring when I feed the roses.  A light application of dolomitic lime or Epsom salts makes for stronger, faster growth.

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This Iris, ‘Secret Rites,’ was new to the garden last year.

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Once each flower blooms and collapses, gently cut it away from the main stem.  A single stem may carry 5 or 6 buds, each opening at a slightly different time.

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I. ‘Immortality’

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Once all of the buds have finished, cut the stem back to its base.  Remove browned or withered leaves a few times each year, as needed.  With a minimal investment of effort, Iris give structure to the garden year round.

And when they bloom, oh, the fragrance and color they give…..

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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Soil Security

Saxifraga stolonifera, Strawberry Begonia

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Gardens offer endless surprises and seemingly endless challenges.  One hopes to discover most of the challenges in the first year or two.  Better to address them right off and be done with it, right?  But that’s not how this business works…. things change….

Ours is a very steep property.  Our bit of James City County spreads across ridges and ravines.  We happen to live and garden on the slope of a ravine.  Water drains down across the yard to a creek running through the ravine, which flows to a pond and then out to College Creek.   Managing all of that water during a heavy rain remains a challenge for us.

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This area suffers serious erosion in heavy rain, and is frequented by voles.  It is hard to get anything much to grow here.  We have just added the stones to offer some protection and planted a dozen seedling Hellebores to help hold the bank.

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Our county’s division of  storm water management staff advise:  “Plant more plants!”  I take that advice to heart, regularly, and have struck up a working relationship with one of the staffers.  They work with the local Master Gardeners to help homeowners design rain gardens to catch some of the run-off after a heavy rain, and offer grants for those who install them.

I like that proactive, cooperative approach.  This spring, I’ve done a bit of reading about how to construct a rain garden.  And one of the first things I realized is that steeply sloping land isn’t a very good place to site one, unless you are prepared for a major project of earth moving and engineering to construct a berm on the down slope side.

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This was our steep, eroding slope before our work began this spring.

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As I thought about rain gardens, and walked our property looking for a place to catch run off and use it in a new planting bed, my partner pointed out a new erosion problem on the very shaded and inaccessible slope beside and below our driveway.

This is an area we’ve largely neglected over the years.  Towering, mature Ligustrum shrubs cast deep shade across this slope.  Their leaves drop here year round, and the ground has been covered in a tangle of Vinca vines and wild growth.  Where there is bare earth, it has been covered with fallen leaves. I planted  some Mahonia and Hydrangea in this area when we first took over the garden, and they have expanded, but never bloomed.

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Daffodils have replaced Caladiums here at the base of our driveway, where a great deal of water runs off when it rains.  An Autumn fern has thrived here for five years or more, and I decided to expand the planting last summer.

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But last summer, I began clearing some of this strip, nearer to the drive, and planted it in Caladiums, Zantedeschia, Ajuga, Oxalis, some transplanted Liriope and a few ferns.  We enjoyed it enough that when we dug the Caladiums in October I planted Daffodils and Arum in their place.

Below this planted area, we noticed a new area of erosion a few weeks ago.  Storm water had found its way into a vole tunnel, and a whole piece of the bank had collapsed.  There was a gorge, partially filled with leaves and other debris.  Finding that bit of erosion sealed the deal that we would invest our time, energy, and gardening dollars in fixing this neglected, and now crumbling, bit of the garden.

Too steep for a single ‘rain garden,’ we decided to create several terraces to catch and slow the flow of water down the slope, directing the run-off from one planted area to another.  We found several Rhododendron shrubs to anchor each terrace, and planted the first right into that nasty gorge to stabilize it.  We found some sturdy trapezoidal concrete blocks for building the terraces.  They fit together snugly to make a secure wall.  We installed the first ones below that Rhododendron to hold it in place.

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The first Rhododendron we planted to stabilize a gorge caused by erosion over a vole tunnel. We planted in the hole and stabilized the area with two concrete blocks.

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We trimmed up the lowest Ligustrum branches to let in light and make the area more accessible and raked back the leaves and debris.  Then, we studied the area for several days to decide where to place our blocks to form natural terraces.

After building the terraces, and planting three more of the shrubs, I began filling each terrace with plants.   I selected a variety of perennials which will thrive in shade, tolerate a lot of moisture, hold and cover the soil by spreading, put down extensive root systems, and stop voles with their poisonous roots. Oh, and did I mention they also must repel deer?

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The terraces before today’s torrential rain.

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Remember our mantra:  “Plant more plants!”  It was going to take a lot of plants to fill these spaces.  Luckily, we have a pretty steady supply now of a few perennials which fill these criteria.  They are ours to dig, divide, and transplant as needed.

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Divisions of Strawberry Begonia transplanted from another part of our garden. Each division will send out numerous stems, with a tiny plant growing at the tip of each.  They will form a thick mat over time. 

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I was able to transplant Hellebore seedlings, Ajuga and Saxifraga stolonifera in nearly unlimited quantities from other parts of the garden.  The Hellebores have  poisonous roots, and so I planted them around each of the Rhododendrons to protect their roots from curious voles.  I also planted them below the lowest row of blocks to form an additional vegetative barrier for any run-off.

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This Rhododendron is ringed with seedling Hellebores.

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I purchased holly ferns, Japanese painted ferns and Autumn Brilliance fern.  Although the Japanese painted ferns aren’t evergreen, they spread wonderfully and give about 7 months of presence here.  I also purchased some little 2″ Columbine and Heuchera and a couple of quart sized Tiarella .

I prefer to buy the smallest pots of perennials I can find to  minimize the size of the holes we must dig.  Living on a slope, we dig as little as possible.

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Tiarella is a shade loving native perennial which runs and spreads over time. It blooms each spring, feeding hungry pollinators early in the season. It resembles Heuchera, but proves more deer resistant.

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Heuchera is the only perennial in our palette for this new bed which may be grazed from time to time.  I am willing to take the chance for its beautiful foliage.  The rest of these plants have already proven themselves in our garden and I have confidence in using them here.  They are tough and thrive in our climate and soil.

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Heuchera ‘Melting Fire’ and Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ anchor the end of this terrace. I will add Caladiums next month when the weather is settled.

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And this was surprisingly good soil!  While we have clay in other parts of the garden, this was good, rich dirt.  Although I had stocked up on compost, I was able to build these beds without adding a great deal.

The key to planting on sloping ground is a good gravel mulch.  We’ve learned over the years to minimize digging, top dress and even out the ground with compost, and then mulch heavily with gravel. Finally, we pack this all down firmly with hands and feet.

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Columbine and Tiarella anchor this terrace. Two tiny lady ferns, grown from bare root starts, will one day flourish in this moist bed.

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We discovered that the first gardener on this property often used a large stone or hunk of concrete or brick to anchor shrubs he planted on slopes.  I’ve followed his lead and often anchor a newly planted shrub or perennial with something heavy to hold it in place until it establishes.

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Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ will eventually grow to three feet. This evergreen fern has interesting spring color on new growth. We have anchored it with stones as it sits at the top of the slope.

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We’ve been working on this new area over the past week or so.  We have been trying to fix the erosion ahead of the heavy weather forecast for this week.  The rains have shown us the weak spots, and where more work was required.  We had to go back and re-pack the area around the first Rhodie’s roots, for example.  And we also placed some stones above it to divert the flow of water around it from the slope above.

A front came through mid-day today, with torrential rain, about an hour after I finished the last of the planting and gravel mulch.  We were pleased that the terraces held.

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Additional erosion after today’s rain left roots exposed. It showed us additional engineering was needed where water pours off of the driveway.  The terra cotta pots helped anchor plastic bags to protect the Hydrangea on the right during freezing weather in March.  It is slowly recovering and finally pushing out new leaves.

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There were only a few spots of erosion, and only one Hellebore partially washed out on a terrace this time.  But the path along this slope was badly eroded.  Ligustrum roots were exposed where the path was washing away.

We studied the path the water took from driveway to ravine, noted where the gravel had washed out, and re-engineered parts of the project.  Translation: Back to Lowes for more concrete blocks, a few more bags of gravel and a bag of topsoil.

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Additional engineering should slow the run-off flowing into the path from heavy rain.  My partner placed the blocks to divert the water’s flow.  We’ve added topsoil and gravel over the Ligustrum’s exposed roots in the path.  Sadly, some daffies may be sacrificed in the process….

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We aren’t quite sure why the erosion on this bank suddenly got worse in the last year.  We must have made some small change in how the water flows, without even realizing it, when I planted the Caladiums last summer.  But whatever the cause, the problem was getting worse with each heavy rain.

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“Soil security”

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When you live on a slope, stable soil is a measure of security as heavy weather blows through.

We’ve created terraced beds throughout the garden, planted lots of shrubs and perennials, and dumped hundreds of bags of pea gravel on this property over the years.   We rarely visit our favorite garden center without adding a bag or two of gravel or compost to our order. It is an investment in holding the soil in place and keeping our home’s foundation stable.

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We trust that these new terraced beds, and the reinforced path we’ve created for water to flow down our sloping garden, will meet the challenge of heavy rain and the run-off it generates.  But more than that, we trust they will grow into beautiful additions which bring us many years of enjoyment.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

 

Note: I don’t often like to show parts of our garden that aren’t ‘beautiful.’   We have a lot of rough edges here in our Forest Garden.  It is a work in progress. I hope the techniques we use to hold the slope and garden on uneven land will help others trying to garden in similar circumstances.

I’ll show you this bed again as the plants grow in.  We trust that it will soon be one of our most beautiful areas, filled with photo-worthy foliage and flowers.  We expect it will attract the attention of our turtles, lizards and toads as the season progresses, too.  

For the Daily Post’s

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Security

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Columbine

 

 

Dense And Durable

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Dense planting not only looks nice, it protects our garden’s most precious resource, our soil.

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Vinca minor forms a dense ground cover in this mixed border beneath shrubs, spring bulbs, Violas and emerging perennials.

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A newly planted bed, whose perennials and ground covers haven’t yet grown in, looks rather naked and unfinished.  But all of that exposed soil provides a receptive spot for weed seeds to germinate with abandon.  It takes a great deal of time and effort to keep the weeds pulled.

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Ivy

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Naked soil also runs off in heavy rain, dries out quickly, and can get compacted.  Mulch helps, but living mulch in the form of ground cover and dense planting holds the soil and looks far more interesting.

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That is why most experienced gardeners will recommend dense, close planting in beds and pots.  And most experienced gardeners also plan for a low growing ground cover plants as the ‘shoes and socks’ of their designs.

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Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’ fills this pot planted with bulbs. Bits of Sedum Angelina poke through the dense mat of Ajuga.  A Zantedeschia will soon emerge, if it survived winter in this pot.

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In a pot, some ground covers will eventually take over, given the chance.  Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia, will eventually fill a pot with its own roots.  But it is a beautiful plant in its own right.

Gardeners willing to dig and divide the plant seasonally, and re-plant the design, find it very useful.

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Creeping Jenny spills from the white pot, planted in November beneath the Helleborus “Snow Fever.’ Moss (center) also makes a good, dense ground cover in pots and doesn’t compete with other plants in the container.

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Vinca minor also grows aggressively, striking new roots from its leaf nodes as it creeps along the ground.  It loves our garden. 

I frequently find myself weeding out clumps of it in newly established beds where I want other plants to establish.  And yet, I must admit that it looks beautiful growing beneath spring bulbs and around shrubs.

When it blooms each spring, its flowers contrast beautifully with daffodils.  But its evergreen leaves also give the garden color and structure throughout the year.

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Ajuga reptans, another low growing, flowering perennial, remains one of my favorite ground cover plants.  It forms dense mats of beautiful, colorful leaves which look good throughout the winter months.

And then it blooms with gorgeous flowers for a few weeks in the spring.  I would grow it for its flowers, even if it weren’t such a wonderful ground cover plant.  Is use it in pots, beds, and for edging.

Its dense mat of leaves protects the soil from erosion in heavy rain and cools the soil in summer’s heat.  It helps retain moisture, a living mulch, around shrubs.

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Perennials like Ajuga, which spread with runners, eventually form dense, ever growing clumps.  When planted, it is wise to space them a bit apart, knowing they will soon grow together.

Once you have plants like Ajuga, Vinca, Ivy, Lysimachia, and many Sedums established in your garden, you can easily divide them and spread them around.  Many of these root easily in water or damp soil.  Their interesting colors provide interest and contrast when paired with other plants.

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Another beautiful ground cover vine, Lamium also forms a dense mat in partial shade, protecting the soil, and  blooms in the spring.

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So go dense when planting.  Protect the soil, conserve water, and create a rich tapestry of form and color in your garden.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017

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for the Daily Post’s

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Dense

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Water-Wise Pots

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Keeping potting soil well hydrated presents a challenge when the mercury rises and the gardener gets busy.

I’m always open to new ideas which allow me to use less water and keep my potted gardens happy.  I hate to water deeply, only to find a growing puddle seeping out of the pot.  Water is a precious resource, and grows more so each year.

I’ve used water globes in some pots and hanging baskets for a few years now, especially when the pots are indoors.    They deliver just the amount of water needed over several days, reducing both evaporation and the inevitable mess watering can make.  The large one I use to keep our Norfolk Island Pine happy through the winter is a two piece contraption.

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Yes, I realize the spike should be deeper into the soil. The tree's roots are so thick this was the best I could do! And it still works....

Yes, I realize the spike should be deeper into the soil. The tree’s roots are so thick this was the best I could do! And it still works….

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A terra cotta spike, about an inch in diameter, stays embedded in the potting soil.  The stained glass globe reservoir lifts out for filling.  You invert the filled globe into the spike (very carefully) and then allow the water to wick through the terra cotta spike, into the potting mix, as the plant needs it.  The tree grows happily, and I fill the globe about twice a week.

This is a neat system, and got me to wondering whether I could construct something similar for the large pots I keep out on our patio and deck all summer.

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My favorite, clean, pea gravel, with a lot of fine grit.

My favorite, clean, pea gravel, comes with a lot of fine grit.

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I’m not keen on buying more globes for the outdoor pots.  For one thing, the kit runs around $20.  For another, our squirrels might just knock the globe out and  shatter it while they explore the pots.

But tiny terra cotta pots are fairly cheap at the big box stores.

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Burlap over the drainage hole keeps potting soil from seeping out of the pot's drainage hole.

Burlap over the drainage hole keeps potting soil from seeping out of the pot.

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I found stacks of little pots today for about 40 cents each at WalMart.  So I’ve dreamed up a little gadget which should work reasonably well to help keep a pot hydrated in summer.  I am going to try it out this spring and see whether it works.

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My idea is to construct a hollow, terra cotta column towards the middle of the pot, that will hold a reservoir of water.  The water will then wick back out into the soil as it is needed.   Unglazed clay, like these little pots, absorbs and holds water easily.  Although solid, they work much like a sponge.

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I've positioned the terra cotta pot a little off center, on about 2" of potting mix. There is a little scrap of burlap in the bottom, covered with a very shallow layer of pea gravel in the bottom pot.

I’ve positioned the first terra cotta pot a little off center, on about 2″ of potting mix.

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That is the main reason I generally avoid unglazed pots for planting anything except succulents:  water evaporates from the clay pot pretty quickly.  They need constant monitoring in summer’s heat.  But that porous clay, which allows water molecules to pass quickly and easily through the pot’s walls is exactly what makes terra cotta  good for watering devices.

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I put a few inches of potting mix into the bottom of the pot, and then began the tower.  There is a little square of burlap in the bottom pot to slow water from simply pouring through its little drainage hole.

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I've added some slow release plant food in the next to the top little pot, and also sprinkled some into the potting mix.

I’ve added some slow release plant food in the next to the top little pot, and also sprinkled some into the potting mix.

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A thin layer of pea gravel in the bottom of each pot in the stack helps space the pots apart and again, slow the movement of water.

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february-23-2017-potting-016

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I filled in with potting mix, as I built the tower, to hold it steady.  This pot is planted up with Lily of the Valley roots, Convallaria majalis, found bare root in one of the little packs you find everywhere each spring.  Lily of the Valley grows and spreads from rhizomes, and so should be planted shallowly.  The package said to plant them an inch deep.

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The pot is topped off with potting mix, covering the newly planted roots about 1" deep.

The pot is topped off with potting mix, covering the newly planted roots about an inch deep.

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After topping off the pot with soil, I added a few little Strawberry Begonia divisions and a few Arum italicum seedlings.  These have small root systems still, and so planting didn’t interfere with the Convallaria roots just beneath the surface.

It is still a little early here for planting up pots.  Our last frost date, in April, is weeks away.  Whatever goes  into this practice pot has to be hardy!

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Strawberry Begonia divisions and Arum itallicum seedlings can be tucked into the pot without disturbing the Convallaria roots below.

Strawberry Begonia divisions and Arum itallicum seedlings can be tucked into the pot without disturbing the Convallaria roots below.

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All three of these plants may be transplanted out into the garden in a few months when I want the pot for something else…. or not.

Maybe I will like this perennial arrangement enough to just leave it to grow through until next spring!

The very top little terra cotta pot is filled up with gravel.  Although I watered the whole pot in thoroughly to settle the plants and wet the potting mix, I paid special attention to filling the little terra cotta reservoir.

In retrospect, I wish I had thought to soak the terra cotta pots before using them.  Next time, right?

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Finally, I laid a layer of moss over all of the exposed soil to further slow evaporation.  Mulching pots gives a nice finished look even as it reduces the need to water.  The potting mix won’t splash around when it rains.

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In full sun, I would have mulched with gravel.  But since these plants prefer partial shade, the moss will work just fine.

You might notice a few decorative stones in the finished pot.  I often put stones beside little transplants to protect them.  The stones give a little obstacle to curious birds and squirrels and protect the plant’s tender roots as they establish.  Stones also tend to keep the soil beneath cool and moist.

I like how this pot came together.  As all the plants grow, the terra cotta reservoir should disappear behind their foliage.  But it will still be easy enough to find when I’m watering.

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In summer, or when I’m traveling,  I could remove most of the gravel from the top terra cotta pot to make enough room to upend a plastic water bottle into the reservoir.  While not pretty, the bottle would feed water, as it is needed, to keep the pot going when I’m not here to water! There are lots of possibilities here.

What do you think?  You are probably clever enough to already see ways to improve this scheme.

Please share your ideas, and we’ll tinker around to make an effective, affordable, water wise system to make summer a little easier on us all.  I’d love to see photos of your pots if you try out this idea.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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