Fabulous Friday: Who’s Welcome to Dine?

White butterfly ginger lily produces abundant nectar loved by hummingbirds and other pollinators. It perfumes the garden, making it one of our favorites, too. Deer never touch it.

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When planning your garden and buying plants, is your first consideration who, or what, might eat them?

If you’re planting fruit trees, tomato vines, or salad greens you’re likely planning to share the fruits of your labor and investment with family and friends.  Some friends of mine garden in a community garden, where much of the produce raised is donated to our local FISH organization.

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Begonia ‘Gryphon’ sometimes gives up leaves to deer, or even squirrels. Begonia ‘Pewterware’ has holes on its leaves from nibbling insects . These are plants I grow for the beauty of their leaves, and I hope to enjoy them without wildlife feeding on them.

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But food crops aside, when planting ornamental plants, do you expect them to get nibbled down to next to nothing?

That is an interesting conundrum that many of my gardening friends grapple with each season.  We’re inconsistent in our views here, too.  I’m irritated with the deer who sneak into our garden and then nibble at our shrubs and flowers.  I’ve been struggling to keep rabbits away from ornamental sweet potato vines planted in some pots, spraying Repels All with determination on a regular basis so the vines might grow.

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And yet, many, many gardeners plant perennials and herbs specifically to feed the butterflies and their larvae.  We sold hundreds of pots of milkweed at the recent Butterfly Festival plant sale at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.  I can’t tell you how many gardeners happily bought plants and considered it a bonus to have a resident Monarch cat already munching away on their leaves.

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Monarch cats already munching on our milkweed plants, for sale.

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I checked in with a friend the following week.  “How is your milkweed doing?”  I asked.

“Not so well,” she replied, “All of its leaves are gone.”  She thought she had done something wrong in caring for her new plant, to make it lose its leaves.  I explained that the reason to grow milkweed is for it to feed and support Monarch larvae.  The cats had eaten her plant’s leaves, and the roots were still alive.  She should be patient and watch for new growth.

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Asclepias, milkweed left over from the Butterfly Festival plant sale at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden has been nibbled down to nubs. But the roots are alive, and new top growth will appear soon.  The fencing will help keep out bunnies, but Monarchs can still reach the plants to lay their eggs.

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How many of us are willing to buy plants, expecting their foliage to be eaten away by insects?

One of my butterfly loving friends visited yesterday afternoon, and as I was walking her back to her car, we detoured into the upper garden.  We were watching the hummers, bees and butterflies go about their always hungry business when she spotted a clearwing moth.  That was the first I’ve seen in that part of the garden in several weeks, and we were both happily watching it feed on the black-eyed Susans when I suddenly noticed a cat covered fennel plant beside us.

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Fennel plant covered in nearly two dozen cats.

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The fennel plants had been an afterthought.  I bought them on clearance in early June, and planted three or four in a sunny spot where I thought they would grow well, but not necessarily where I thought they would add much aesthetically to the garden scene.

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We could barely see the plant, most of its leaves already stripped away.  It was something like an odd-ball Christmas tree almost completely covered with crawling cats.  We counted nearly two dozen.

We were both excited to see so many Black Swallowtail larvae at once, and found more on a nearby plant.  This is my friend who released three emerging Black Swallowtail butterflies into our garden this spring, and she was clearly ready to adopt these cats.

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Black Swallowtail butterfly cats make short work of our fennel plants.

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Since the food source was nearly all gone, I was happy for her to take them.  I know she will patiently feed them parsley until they pupate, and then I know she’ll bring at least some of them back to release here, when they are ready to emerge from their chrysalis and fly. What a magical experience to watch a butterfly emerge from the husk of what was once a caterpillar!

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In mid-April, Judith released three emerging butterflies that she had collected as cats late last November; the day before a hard freeze.  She raised these on parsley for several weeks until they were ready to pupate.  I had originally spotted them at the WBG, and so she brought them to our garden when they emerged.

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We still have time this year for another generation of eggs to hatch and their larvae to mature and pupate.   Eastern Black Swallowtails don’t migrate like Monarchs, but a generation will overwinter here in their chrysalides, ready to emerge next spring.

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More and more, my plant choices aren’t so much about form and color to please myself, but rather plants to support various birds, butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, wasps, and other pollinators.  We love watching them feed and go about their life cycles.

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A male, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly feeds on Lantana. The flowers are long lived, continually producing fresh nectar over several days.

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I used to make the distinction that pollinators suck nectar, but leave the plant intact.  That is how I shaped my thinking to support pollinators, while trying to keep the deer away.  Rabbits are always welcome to graze our front lawn, eating whatever grass or other plants may grow there, but the voles who eat the roots of things, are not.  I confuse myself sometimes making these distinctions about who is welcome to dine, and who is not.

And now my mind and heart have opened to include the caterpillars happily munching away on herbs and other host plants.  They are welcome, and I happily plan for their sustenance, too.

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Fennel and parsley support many Swallowtail butterflies. Monarchs need Asclepias. Many native trees, vines and shrubs also support particular butterfly larvae as host plants.  The darker caterpillar here is younger than its mates, but is the same species.

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I’ve spent a happy Friday observing caterpillars and asking those smarter than me to teach me about them.

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None of us have yet been able to identify these cats covering a hybrid Angelonia. There are more than a dozen on this plant, growing at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.  It is unusual to find native butterfly larvae on non-native plants, and so we wonder whether this may be some sort of moth…?

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I’ve taken pleasure in the flight of hummingbirds and butterflies.  This afternoon, I thought I saw a yellow leaf, gently falling to the ground.  Only the leaf landed on the Lantana and fluttered there, revealing itself to be a beautiful male Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, in the midst of his feeding rounds around the garden.

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I read yesterday that researchers have determined that quietly listening to birds singing is more relaxing than most medications people take to cope with the stresses and disappointments of modern life.  I would add watching butterflies feed, and listening for hummers, as simple pleasures that bring us great happiness and contentment.

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Our upper garden, looking a little bedraggled after storms and heavy rains last night, still supports many different species of pollinators and birds, rabbits, turtles, lizards, squirrels, and who knows what else?

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As with so many other things we might do, when we open our hearts to generously provide for others beyond ourselves; I would suggest that planting a wildlife garden is a good antidote to the stresses and sorrows of life.

Perhaps we can offset some of our other environmental transgressions a bit, by creating a safe space to nurture wildlife.  A safe and beautiful place, to find joy and peace of mind for ourselves, too.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Walk in kindness toward the Earth and every living being.
Without kindness and compassion for all of Mother Nature’s creatures,
there can be no true joy; no internal peace, no happiness.
Happiness flows from caring for all sentient beings
as if they were your own family,
because in essence they are.
We are all connected to each other and to the Earth.”
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Sylvia Dolson

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Newly emerged Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly dries its wings in our garden late last summer.

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Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is Contagious; Let’s Infect One Another

Let’s Join in The Song for the Butterflies

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”  “If the forest is gone, people will also end,” says Ajareaty Waiapi, a female chief and grandmother working to preserve her community — and the planet’s lungs.

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“And in spite of the ongoing threats from the outside world, she teaches them to celebrate, to sing and to dance.

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“At a festive party one afternoon, she rallies the women of her village to gather in a line, holding hands, teaching them a song that has been passed on for generations.

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”  “We are singing for the butterfly,” Nazaré said.

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“According to Waiapi legend, butterflies are constantly flying around tying invisible strings that hold the planet in place.

“If we don’t take care of the butterflies and their home,” she says, “they will not be happy and will stop working, causing the earth to fall.”

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Teresa Tomassoni from:  The Amazon’s best hope? A female indigenous chief is on a mission to save Brazil’s forests”  (NBC News 8.25.2019)

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“We are all butterflies
Earth is our chrysalis.”
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LeeAnn Taylor

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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…and Fertilizer for Free

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over a foundation of bark, roots and branches will rot into good compost over time.

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I spent far too many hours of my youth watching Mark Knopfler  and Gordon Sumner sing, “I want my money for nothing, and my chicks for free!”.  MTV was brand new in those days, and I was utterly fascinated by the up-close view of the artists performing and the dreamy vignettes hyper-produced to sell their tunes.

Fun fact:  Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, co-wrote that tune with Knopfler.  A former teacher, Sumner’s music career was just taking off as I began my own classroom teaching years.  He inspired me….

These were the days when Ted Turner was still trying to prove his idea that the public would support 24/7 journalism as entertainment over at his new CNN cable channel, and I was still living in a tiny walk up city apartment with only a few potted plant to soothe my achy, throbbing thumbs.  The world was filled with delicious possibilities.

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Well Knopfler and Sumner have aged, while I have not.  They still perform and I happily preside over our little Forest Garden.  They may have become unimaginably wealthy, but I have learned how to get fertilizer and plants for free!

I’ve left my classrooms behind, but will happily teach you how to perform the alchemy of soil for yourself, if you care to know the secret.  The world remains filled with delicious possiblities!

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It is all in how you look at things.  You probably understand that simple, but profound statement from your own experiences.  What seems free from one point of view, becomes costly from another.  What at first appears costly, ends up providing many more side benefits than expected.

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Let’s take fertilizer as an example.  Yes, I admit to the bags of Plant Tone, Rose Tone, Holly Tone, Bio-Tone Plant Starter With Mycorrhizae and a precious little jug of Neptune’s Harvest wintering in our garage.  Then there is the jar of Ozmocote, and the secret stash of crystallized orchid food hidden under the kitchen sink; a snack for when I want to coax the cohort of potted plants in our living space to bloom.  No, none of those were free.  In fact, if you added up what I spent on  all of them combined, they would likely buy a nice new pair of work boots….

And that was not the only ‘cost’ involved in these plastic bags and bottles of plant nourishing products.  They all came from factories.  Many of the ingredients were mined out of the earth.

Although these are ‘organic’ formulations, huge amounts of energy were invested in harvesting their components, creating the fertilizer, packaging it and transporting it to our local shops.  After the product is used up, there is some contaminated plastic packaging that won’t decay and must be put somewhere.  Those are costs we don’t see, and ones rolled into the price we pay.

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Gravel and Plant Tone ready to be mixed into the bottom of the planting hole.

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Now, if I use too much or time my application incorrectly, a lot of that product will simply wash away from my garden and into the creek.  Fertilizing our waterways increases algae growth and upsets the chemistry of the natural waterways.  Run-off of fertilizers has a profoundly negative effect on our lakes, rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, and even the oceans.

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Phosphorous, the P on your fertilizer bag, has an especially damaging effect when released into the waterways.  It initially stimulates the growth of algae and other plant life, which eventually shades out plants living on the bottom.  As this overabundance of plant life dies and sinks to the bottom and decays, it ties up oxygen needed by animal life, and destroys their food supplies.

Which is ironic.  Phosphorous is essential to plant growth, remains a key component of all commercial fertilizers, and is in limited supply.  Experts predict that our known supply of rock phosphorous that can be mined for industrial use will run out before 2200.

Phosphorous was ‘discovered’ in modern times by German alchemist Hennig Brand, in the late seventeenth century, from his experiments with human urine.    He eventually produced a white substance which glowed in the dark and burned brilliantly.  He called it ‘phosphorous mirabilis’, which means ‘miraculous bearer of light.’

Phosphorous is present in living tissue, and so may be found in urine and bone.  You may have heard about the ancient gardeners using human urine to fertilize their gardens.  This practice is discouraged today, of course.  But recall that animal waste products remain an essential ingredient in agriculture around the world.  Many of the ‘organic’ fertilizers contain rock phosphate or bone meal as essential parts of their formula.

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College Creek

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Phosphate in the soil isn’t always readily available to plant roots.  It must go through further biochemistry to make it available, and this happens best in living soil filled with microorganisms.   It happens best when the soil’s pH remains between 6.5 and 7.

Potassium, the K on your fertilizer package, is formed in supernova explosions.  It is both a metal and a salt.  In its pure elemental form, it reacts violently with both water and oxygen.  It is an extremely common element on earth, is found in all living things, and is an essential part of the biochemistry of all life.  Potassium in fertilizers appear as potassium chlorides, sulphates or nitrates.

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How is the average gardener to know whether or not their soil’s pH will even allow the plants access to any available phosphorous, nitrogen or potassium, and whether any additional nutrients are  needed?  That is why a soil test can give us invaluable information about our soil, and how to make it better.  Any local Extension office will gladly help with kits, instructions, processing and interpreting your soil test, and all states offer this service at a modest cost.

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Knowing what nutrients your soil may lack, to grow specific types of plants, allows a gardener to add only what is truly needed.  We can stop over-fertilizing, or adding fertilizer that never becomes available to our plants because of the complex chemistry of our soil.

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Fresh compost piled on top of existing mulch allows me to plant in this area without digging into the clay. A light covering of wood chips from the forest floor mulches the planting and makes the new bed visually “disappear.”

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Most experienced gardeners will tell a newbie:  “Feed your soil, not your plants.”  At first, this makes no sense.  But as you begin to understand the complexity of the soil as a living organism, it makes perfect sense.  Good soil is alive!

It is alive with microscopic bacteria, fungi, and tiny invertebrate animals that continually recycle Earth’s elements and make them available to fuel new growth.  Although some part of the soil is made up of tiny grains of mineral like sand, or granite, or clay; a large part of good soil is composed of decaying organic matter.

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Soil is alive, and improves as you add organic matter each year.

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These may be decaying roots or leaves, dead ants, or compost you’ve made from kitchen scraps.  It may be animal manure or even animal remains.  It may be a cover crop turned into the soil, bark mulch, hay or grass clippings.  Anything that once lived may eventually feed the soil.

And because all of these things contain the elemental building blocks of life, as they decay, their chemical components are released for re-use.  In addition to the big three of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, plants need many other elements and trace minerals naturally found in good, active soil.

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Mayapples appeared through the leaf mulch

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We can re-charge our soil with the nutrients necessary for plant growth in several ways, without having to purchase plastic bags filled with commercial fertilizers.

1. Grow and compost plants with deep roots.  Certain plants grow especially deep roots, which means they can access and absorb minerals deep into the soil, far below the area we cultivate.  As they grow, these minerals are stored in their plant cells.  Harvesting and then composting these plants enriches our soil.

Consider growing plants such as alfalfa, comphrey, parsnips and other root vegetables, purple coneflowers, and dandelions.  Trees with deep taproots also absorb minerals, which are stored in their wood and leaves.

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Comphrey’s roots extend for several feet into the soil, mining minerals that are stored in leaves and stems.  Comphrey attracts pollinators, is a medicinal herb and a great addition to compost.  Also use it as mulch around plants that need a boost.

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2.  Encourage earthworms.  Earthworms eat and digest organic material, and their droppings enrich the soil.  This greatly speeds the decomposition process and makes nutrients available to plant roots much faster.

Worm casting also contain beneficial microbes that work with plants.  Worms also loosen the soil and aerate it as they move around.  Worms will come to the surface to eat, but will also tunnel to a significant depth as they go about their lives.

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Organic matter left on top of the soil attracts earthworms.  Worms will feed at the surface, so long as it is deeply shaded, but live below ground.

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3.  Sheet compost over areas you plan to cultivate.  Sheet composting simply means laying organic materials directly on the soil where you want them to decay.  This organic material attracts earthworms and other decomposers to live and eat in this area, enriching it.

All organic mulch, whether straw, grass clippings, chipped leaves, bark, seaweed, coffee grounds, tea leaves, kitchen scraps, egg shells, sticks and branches or alfalfa pellets may be considered components in sheet composting.  I like to lay brown paper or black and white newsprint over the area first, establish the borders, and then pile materials in a ‘sheet’ over an area I intend to use later for growing new plants.

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4.  Grow plants that fix nitrogen in the soil.  All plants breathe.  Plants inhale through tiny holes in their leaves and use elements in the air, such as carbon and nitrogen for their growth.  When they exhale, they release oxygen and water vapor back into the environment.

Once plants have inhaled carbon, it is fixed into the walls of each cell.  But some plants are able to store nitrogen on their roots.  All members of the pea or legume family, Fabaceae, fix nitrogen, the N on the fertilizer bag, on their roots.  This nitrogen enriches the soil, and often may be used by plants growing nearby.   Fungi living in the soil assist with the transfer of soil nutrients and water between plants.

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Native Wax Myrtle fixes nitrogen from the air on its roots, making the area around each shrub more fertile with each passing year. Plants growing nearby can use this nitrogen, thanks to fungi in the soil which help transfer nutrients and water between plants. Fallen leaves also further enrich the soil.

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Members of this family include crops such as peas and beans, peanuts and lentils.  But it also includes flowers like lupines, and several shrubs and trees like black locust, acacia and mimosa.  I recently learned that the wax myrtle also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil.

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Our native redbud, Cercis canadensis, also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil for plants growing nearby.  It is a member of the Fabaceae family, and its seed pods may be eaten.   This seedling can eventually grow into a small tree.

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Planting, or allowing, plants to grow that ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil enriches the soil with that most necessary element for good plant growth- Nitrogen (N)- for free!  Nitrogen, always present in the atmosphere, can be captured and packaged by plants in our garden, and kept at root level, available to all that need it and naturally enriching our garden’s soil.

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Clover growing in the lawn is also fertilizing it.  In addition to feeding pollinators and small mammals, clover fixes nitrogen along its roots.

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Here is a partial list of plants that perform this little miracle:  all clovers, sweet peas, vetch, bush clover, Wisteria, golden chain tree, Judas tree, honey locust tree, Kentucky coffee tree, alder, some roses and many members of the gourd family, such as squash and pumpkins.

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Native Wisteria frutescens growing at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden fixes nitrogen in the soil along all of its roots.

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If you can plant food or flower bearing plants, which also fix nitrogen to improve the soil, you have multiplied this natural wealth for your own use.

Nature’s gifts surround us.  The more we understand about the living ecosystem we inhabit, the more we can work cooperatively with our environment to cultivate and enrich the web of life.  The more we learn, the more we can disengage with costly commercial suppliers, and find ways to accomplish our goals in harmony with nature.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

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.”
.
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.”
.
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.”

.

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.”

.

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.”

.

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.”

.

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.”

.

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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