…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

 

Green Thumb Tip #15: Conquer the Weeds

Asclepias, milkweed,  July 2017

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What is a weed, anyway?

The gardener’s answer observes that any plant growing where you don’t want it to grow, is a weed.

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Dandelion, Taraxacum

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Some ‘weeds’ came to North America as invited guests, because they were beloved and useful to earlier immigrants.  Although many of us cringe at dandelions cropping up in our lawn or veggie plot; dandelions, Taraxacum species,  were originally planted in the veggie plot for their nutritious leaves, and have been used through much of human history as a medicinal herb.

Since most of us don’t use dandelions anymore, and they crop up where we least want to see them; we consider them a weed.

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Vinca minor, periwinkle, was brought to North America with European settlers.  It is now considered invasive, though many gardeners still buy and plant it.

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Other ‘weeds’ are actually native plants.  If you notice purple violets in your lawn, will you admire them or destroy them?  You can buy pricey violets, Viola odorata, from many native plant nurseries, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have them already popping up here and there on their own.  Other common native ‘weeds’ in our garden include pokeberry, Phytolacca americana; ground ivy, Glechoma hederacea; and wild strawberry, Fragaria virginiana.

Plants may be ‘wildflowers’ to some, ‘weeds’ to others.  Maybe it depends on whether they grow on a roadside, or in your own garden.  Native plant enthusiasts are sometimes accused of planting ‘weeds’ in their yard when they cultivate Asclepias or wild Ageratum.

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Aralia spinosa is a native tree with thorns on its trunk and branches. Because it spreads its seeds and sends up shoots from its roots, many consider it a weed to be eradicated from the garden.  Here it grows with native pokeweed.

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The same tufts of grass I’m digging out of my garden paths may be planted and coddled in my neighbor’s yard.  The seedling Rose of Sharon shrubs I’m digging out of my flowerbeds, may be valuable when transplanted into another spot in the garden.

Some ‘weeds’ now considered ‘invasive’ started out as desirable imported plants.  But, without the competition or predators that keep them in check in their native lands, they run amok here.  When birds carry their seeds around, or they propagate clonally; these once desirable plants colonize real estate and out-compete the natives.  This has happened with autumn olive shrubs, Elaeaganus umbellata; perennial Lantana, and  even the beautiful Bradford pear.

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Perennial Ageratum, Conoclinium coelestinum

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Periwinkle, or Vinca minor, came to the United States with European colonists in the Eighteenth Century.  An effective evergreen groundcover, it blooms in spring with beautiful lavender or white flowers.  But it spreads aggressively!  I often find myself yanking it out by the handful when it creeps into my borders.  Its roots form thick mats, and can choke out other perennials.

So what to do about weeds?

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Three natives growing together in our front garden: Rudbeckia hirta; mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum, and Obedient plant, Physostegia virginiana.  Each of these can spread itself to become invasive, and may need to be ‘weeded’ out in early summer.

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‘Weeds gone wild’ can disrupt our garden plans.  They may shade out or choke out more desirable plants that we bought and planted.  They may compete for water and nutrients against our edible crops.  They might spread aggressively, colonizing large area with thick mats of roots and vegetation.

Well, before reaching for a handy toxic herbicide, take a moment to consider your adversary.  It helps to understand the plant you hope to annihilate!

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Morning Glory, or ‘bindweed’ sprouts each summer from seed, and grows through our bed of Lantana and roses.

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Is it a perennial?  Does it prefer sun or shade?  Does it root easily when chopped into pieces?  Does it have rhizomes or stolons?

Understanding its needs, and how it reproduces, helps you plan an attack.  Knowing how long it may live, and whether it will easily re-seed, tells you the scope of your problem.

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Self-seeding beauty berry crops up in our shrub borders, and out competes many other plants. It will grow several feet in a single season.

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Seeds may lie dormant for a long time before conditions are right for them to sprout.  Whenever you disturb the soil, you may be bringing long dormant seeds to the surface, giving them the conditions they need to grow.  That is why breaking ground to till or otherwise dig up new garden areas may bring ‘weed’ seeds to the surface.

Many weeds can be smothered, or prevented from germinating, or growing further, with mulch.

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While shredded bark mulch will suppress weeds, it may allow others to germinate as it decomposes.  The rogue Magnolia tree behind this bed is a volunteer, growing from the mulch.  Is there room for it to mature here, or must it be cut out?

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A relatively easy way to kill grass and weeds, without chemicals, when you want to start a new garden bed, is to simply cover them.   Use your choice of cardboard sheets, layers of newspaper (black and white only if you plan to grow food crops), paper grocery bags, burlap or landscape fabric.  Completely cover the area you plan to cultivate, and then layer compost, garden soil, shredded leaves, seaweed and even shredded bark mulch on top.  If you won’t be planting for several months,  add  ‘compostable’ materials like rinsed egg shells, fruit and vegetable peels, teabags and coffee grounds in your layers.  Some gardeners use straw as mulch, adding layers every year.  In my experience, there are always seeds which sprout, creating more weeds.

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Paper grocery bags covered with several inches of compost killed the grass and weeds under this new bed.  Pea gravel holds down the paper edges and serves as an initial border to the bed.  A loose layer of gravel on top serves as a light mulch to hold the compost in place as the plants take hold.

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If you are starting a new shrub border, you might add black plastic around the new shrubs, and cover this with mulch.  Black plastic may also be laid out over an area of grass and weeds you wish to kill, pegged down and left for several weeks.   The plants under the plastic are both smothered and cooked, leaving an area ready to cultivate when the plastic is removed.

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Colocasia ‘Pink China’ spread aggressively.  Now that they are established, I dig up plants each spring to share with friends to try to control how far they spread in the garden.

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Some weeds may be simply dug up.  If the weed is a desirable plant sprouted in the wrong place, you may dig it up and either transplant it or give it away.

Other weeds easily re-grow from any bit left behind.  Digging the plant today won’t destroy it; it will appear again in a few weeks.  In that case, cut the plant off at ground level and remove all of the stems.  This starves the plant.  You may need to cut it back several times before it gives up; but eventually, you will win.

Cutting weeds instead of pulling them up by their roots takes less of a gardener’s energy.  It also keeps the soil intact, giving no opportunity for new weed seeds to sprout.  You may cut weeds with a hoe at ground level, with a pair of scissors, or with secateurs.  It depends on the thickness of the stem you need to cut what tool you will choose.

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Plant densely, with many layers of plants, to suppress weeds.

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I like a Japanese Hori Hori digging tool for cutting weeds off at ground level, or for digging up plants to move.  It is a long, pointed blade with a serrated edge, which serves as both knife and narrow shovel.

Another approach is to simply mow an area several times during the summer to discourage perennial or woody weeds.  I often use a string trimmer a few times a year in our upper wooded garden, to cut back seedling trees and shrubs sprouting in an area where they can not grow.

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Plants just want to live and grow, like every other living thing.  And just because you begin a bed weed free doesn’t mean it will remain that way for long.  Seeds blow in on the wind and get deposited by birds.  Seed capsules explode and rhizomes creep.

As your organic mulch breaks down over time, it serves as a great medium for new seeds to germinate.  Any bare ground screams an invitation to colonize it with new plants.

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Evergreen ground cover, like perennial Hellebores, will shade out weeds so they can’t begin to grow.  However, Hellebores self-seed freely.  Large stands of Hellebores soon surround the original plants.

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Prevent new weeds by densely covering any planting area with desirable plants.  Cultivate the garden in layers, with plants of different heights, to make it nearly impossible for new weedy plants to get a start.  This would include some sort of perennial, maybe evergreen ground cover to protect your soil through winter.

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Rose of Sharon

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You might also consider using a gravel mulch.  Once a new bed is planted up, pile several inches of pea gravel over a layer of biodegradable material like paper or burlap, placed around the new plants.  The layer of paper or fabric stops perennial weeds from re-sprouting.  The gravel mulch doesn’t facilitate germination of seeds blown in to the bed.  You may need to employ some sort of border around the bed to hold the gravel in place, but this is a neat looking and effective approach.

Experiments with gravel mulch have demonstrated that shrubs and many perennials grow well through the gravel.  The soil remains cool and moist, and the pea gravel reflects sunshine back up onto the plant to reduce disease and increase photosynthesis.  This is an especially good way to conserve moisture in dry climates.

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Wild wood violets open in spring, carpeting parts of the garden in vivid color.  These perennial wildflowers may be considered weeds when they show up in a lawn.

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Some gardeners may still reach for an herbicide to zap the stray dandelion or wild onions in their lawn.  Few stop to realize the long term effects on their own health and well being, or on the ecosystem, from these toxic chemicals.  They penetrate into the ground and run off into creeks, ponds and rivers.   Many herbicides have proven links to debilitating and fatal diseases for anyone exposed to them.  Even if you wear gloves, you and those around you may still breathe in the fumes.  Is it worth the risk to your health, simply to kill a few weeds?

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With a bit of thought and a effort, weeds can be eliminated, and new ones prevented from growing, without doing any harm to yourself or to the environment.

After all, we are the gardeners.  Our goal remains to make the world a more beautiful and productive place.  We are happiest and most successful when we work with nature, and when we respect both ourselves, and the many life forms drawn to our gardens.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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More information about health dangers of herbicides:

Weed Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells- Scientific American
The Dangers of Glysophate Herbicide- Mother Earth News
New Studies Reveal the Effects of Glysophate – Mercola.com
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Ground ivy Glechoma hederacea

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

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

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

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #1:  Pinch!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #2:  Feed!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3 Deadhead!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #4 Get the Light Right!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #5: Keep Planting!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #6: Size Matters!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 7:  Experiment!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #8  Observe
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #9 Plan Ahead
Green Thumb Tip # 10 Understand the Rhythm
Green Thumb Tip # 11:  The Perennial Philosophy
Green Thumb Tip #12: Grow More of That! 
Green Thumb Tip # 13: Breaching Your Zone
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios

 

 

 

 

 

The Way of Things

March 25, 2016 Daffodils 002

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Things are always changing.  This is the touchstone for all of us past a certain age, I’ve learned.  Gardening brings one intimately close to an understanding of our lives in this material world.  Sometimes changes bring happiness.  Other times we feels frustration as we lose something we enjoy, something we expected to last.

Understanding the nature of change is a lifetime’s work.  Accepting, even embracing it, hones our spirits.

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March 25, 2016 Daffodils 003

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Our beautiful evergreen Star Jasmine vine covered the railings to our porch long before we ever came to this garden.  An ancient thing, with a large trunk, we enjoyed its greenness all winter and waited for its lovely fragrant flowers to open each spring.  Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds all came to sip from its flowers.  It was one of the most beautiful gifts of the garden.

But harsh cold in winter 2013 weakened it.  Some of its stems never sprouted fresh leaves and flowers that next summer, and flowers came late.  We worked with it all summer and hoped for the best.  But a second harsh winter in 2014, followed by the cold and late spring last year, finished it off.  Its leaves dropped for months.  We were saddened to loose this beautiful vine.  And we didn’t want to lose its bulk and intricate stems which had protected our porch for decades.  What to do?

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March 25, 2016 Daffodils 005~

Although we did some cleaning up and trimming back, we left the vine in place;  and decided to use it as a framework for growing other vines.  The handful of Muscadine grape seeds I’d casually planted below the Jasmine in 2013 were growing happily, undamaged by the cold.  So we spent last summer training those new vines up and over the framework left by the Jasmine.  I planted a Clematis in a pot at the base of the old trunk, and began training it up into the Jasmine as well.

And now, our bare framework of vines is greening.  The grapevines sprouted tiny green leaves this week, which grow larger each day.  The Clematis has sprouted new leaves as well, with new growth stretching further each day.  We’ll help anchor it along the front face of the old vines above the trunk.

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March 25, 2016 Daffodils 009

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Change is happening to our framework of vines.  It will glow green and fruitful once again this summer in its fresh clothing of grape leaves and Clematis flowers.

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March 25, 2016 Daffodils 001

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Change remains the dynamic force of creation.  We can harness its principles to create great beauty around us.  We can work with it when it comes unbidden.  But we cannot arrest its eternal power. 

The tale of change is written all around us in the incredible transformations which have swept over our beautiful planet.  The story unfolds within each of us, and in the faces of our loved ones.

It is the way of things. 

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March 25, 2016 Daffodils 004~

Woodland Gnome 2016

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March 25, 2016 Daffodils 022

Sunday Dinner: First Snow

January 17, 2016 snow 039

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“My religion consists of a humble admiration

of the illimitable superior spirit

who reveals himself in the slight details

we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.”

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Albert Einstein

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January 17, 2016 snow 020

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“Age has no reality except in the physical world.

The essence of a human being

is resistant to the passage of time.

Our inner lives are eternal,

which is to say that our spirits

remain as youthful and vigorous

as when we were in full bloom.

Think of love as a state of grace,

not the means to anything,

but the alpha and omega.

An end in itself.”

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Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

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January 17, 2016 snow2 019

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“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression,

it must come completely undone.

The shell cracks, its insides come out

and everything changes.

To someone who doesn’t understand growth,

it would look like complete destruction.”

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Cynthia Occelli

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January 17, 2016 snow 036~

 

“You do not need to go

to any temple or church to worship God.

The whole existence is God’s temple.

Your own body is the temple of God.

Your own heart is the shrine.

You do not need to subscribe

to any religion to experience God.

The only religion you need

to experience God is love,

kindness and respect to all beings.”

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Banani Ray

 

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January 17, 2016 snow2 016

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This is our first snow of the winter.  First forecast as rain, then as ‘a dusting,’ the  weather forecast is changing yet again.

As the storm intensifies and the temperature drops, now we are hearing that we may get a few inches of snow.  Nearly an inch has gathered in the grass now; and puddles on the patio, from our early morning rain, have begun to freeze over as snow landing there lingers in the slush.

Winter has finally blanketed our garden in penetrating cold.  It is the way of things, and a necessary passage of rest and dormancy before the coming of spring.

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January 17, 2016 snow 041

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My dad and I attended an opening at a local gallery in mid-December, and were interested in an eclectic collection of bird feeders made from re-purposed glassware.  We purchased a few as gifts.  And since then it has remained my intent to construct a few myself.

A trip last week to the Re-Store, with a good friend, yielded the odd bud vases and hollow ware needed.  And so on Friday, I constructed a few glass feeders by gluing the pieces together with a special glue made to hold glass and ceramics. 

I also made a batch of “Ron’s Suet Cakes” from the recipe the artist sent along to re-fill his glass ‘sculptural’ bird feeders.  This easy recipe is laced with Cayenne pepper to keep squirrels, and other rodents, away from the feeders.

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Here is one of the feeders I constructed on Friday.

Here is one of the feeders I constructed on Friday.

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Like many, we prefer to ‘feed the birds’ naturally through a garden planted with those berry and seed producing trees, shrubs, and perennials they prefer.  Knowing that song birds need a diet rich in insects, we expect this rich habitat provides them with an abundance of tasty insects, too.

But we also provide additional food to sustain our birds during winter storms.

And so this enriched ‘suet cake’ project has proven timely. 

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january 17, 2016 feeders 004

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I’ll share Ron’s recipe so you can make a batch of this special winter bird feed yourself, if you are interested.  I was pleased with how quickly it set up.

After filling the three feeders I made on Friday, there was enough left to fill two small plastic cups to use as ‘re-fills’  for one of the original feeders my parents kept.  Thirty seconds in the microwave was enough to let me pour the mix easily from the plastic cup into their glass feeder yesterday.  I swished a little fresh birdseed in the plastic cup to clean it thoroughly, then piled that seed on top as an extra offering to their garden birds.

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This feeder, made on Friday, will be shared with a friend.

This feeder, made on Friday, will be shared with a friend.  The vase sits over a dowel or a spike of some sort to hold it steady in the garden.  Additional seeds can be added to the saucer. 

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This recipe yields about 4-5 cups:

1.5 cups of lard

Several good shakes of Cayenne pepper and an additional shake or two of red pepper flakes, if you have them

1 cup crunchy peanut butter

1 cup plain cornmeal

1 cup rolled oats

1 cup birdseed mix

Any ‘extras’ you want to add, such as shelled sunflower seeds, dried insect larvae, Niger seed, etc.  I added about 1/2 cup of shelled sunflower seeds.

Instructions: 

Melt the lard in a small pan on the stove over a medium heat.  Add the pepper as the lard melts so that it is well flavored.  Squirrels hate hot pepper and won’t eat seeds treated with Cayenne.

Turn off the heat, and add the peanut butter to the melted lard.  Stir as the peanut butter melts.  Finally, stir in the cornmeal, oats, and seeds.

Pour the mixture, before it sets up, into any glass, metal or plastic mold.  You can also use this mix to coat pine cones.  Attach a wire for hanging to the cone before coating it.

I like this recipe for winter feeding because of the fat content, which will help the birds survive the cold weather coming.  This is a neat alternative to feeders filled with dry seed, which often gets wet and mouldy after a hard rain.  It will also keep rodents away from the feeders, if that is a problem in your garden.

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Our first snow of the season came quietly, almost without warning, and has left the garden transformed.  So beautiful and cleansing, snow invites us to stop and take notice.  We break out of the routine to simply sit and watch it accumulate.  A magical winter light fills the garden, bouncing off each icy flake. 

Listening carefully, we can hear it falling, piling up softly but steadily on every leaf and branch. 

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Winter finally has arrived in our Forest Garden.

Woodland Gnome 2016

 

 

 

“Leave It Be”

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“Leave it be.”  Words I heard with some frequency growing up….

And this simple bit of advice is often just the wisdom needed whether baking, navigating relationships, or preparing the garden for winter.

“Leave it be” insists that we quiet our strong urge to interfere with the already unfolding process.  It asks us to step back and observe; to allow for a a solution other than our own.

 

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My mother’s pound cake recipe includes the instruction to leave the oven door closed for the first 75 minutes of baking.  Opening the door too early changes the texture and rise of the cake.  Once in the oven, you must leave the cake be until the very last few minutes of its total cooking time.  You have to trust the process, and resist the urge to constantly check on it or admire it.

First time mothers soon learn the value of this wisdom, too.  When a baby is sleeping, you leave them alone to rest while you enjoy those few minutes of peace.  When a toddler is happily (and safely) playing, it is best to observe without interrupting the flow of play.

And so it is with a garden at the onset of winter. 

The urge is strong for some to tidy up the leaves as they fall, to cut back perennials as soon as they fade, to pull out the annuals as soon as they freeze, and maybe even prune back shrubby trees as soon as their leaves are gone.

And while some neighbors and neighborhoods might expect this level of neatness, it isn’t Nature’s Way. 

 

Autumn fern remains green all winter in our garden.

Autumn fern remains green all winter in our garden.

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Letting our gardens take their time to die back and settle into winter allows nature to recycle and re-purpose in interesting ways.

Leaving organic materials in place also helps insulate our marginal plants to give them a better chance to survive the winter ahead.

It isn’t so much that you avoid the fall clean up chores, just that you strategically tweak the timing of when you do them….

Here are some of those things we intend to “Leave be” for the time being, and why:

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HIbiscus seeds.  I'll finally cut these back to the ground once the seeds are gone.

HIbiscus seeds pods. I’ll finally cut these back to the ground once the seeds are gone.  These look especially pretty coated in snow.

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Seed Heads provide important food for birds and other wild things.

What remains of the African Blue Basil will feed our birds for many weeks.  This patch also provides shelter for the birds.

What remains of the African Blue Basil will feed our birds for many weeks. This patch also provides shelter for the birds.

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Basil and Echinacea seeds always attract goldfinches.  None of those seeds will be wasted when left in the garden.  So I delay pulling out frozen Basil plants as long as possible into late winter.

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Echinacea, Purple Coneflower

Echinacea, Purple Coneflower

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I won’t cut back any of the seed bearing perennial stems until I’m fairly satisfied they’ve been picked clean.  When I do finally clear up, the plant skeletons will get tossed into the ravine where they can decompose, enriching the soil.

Fallen leaves serve many useful purposes.  Blown into piles at the bases of shrubs they serve as insulation from the cold.  They help conserve moisture as a natural mulch.  As they decompose they add nitrogen and many other nutrients back into the soil.  How often have you seen someone bag their leaves for the trash, then buy bags of mulch and fertilizer for their garden?

Chopped or shredded leaves offer one of the best ammendments to improve the health and texture of the soil.  Leaf mulch attracts earthworms.  Earthworms enrich the soil wherever they burrow.

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Oregon Grape Holly appreciates winter mulch of shredded leaves.  I also sprinkle spent coffee grounds around the base from time to time.

Oregon Grape Holly appreciates winter mulch of shredded leaves. I also sprinkle spent coffee grounds around the base from time to time.  These new fallen leaves will get shredded one day soon.

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Leaf mulch also encourages the growth of mycelium,.  Mycelium, which is the permanent part of a fungus,  decompose organic matter in the soil, thus  freeing up the nutrients for use by plants.

They improve the texture of soil, and help nearby plants absorb water and nutrients more efficiently.  You might have noticed white threadlike structures growing in soil, or under a pile of leaves.  These are mycellium, and are always a good sign of healthy soil.

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We rake our leaves only enough to make them accessible for the lawn mower or leaf vacuum.   Once shredded, we pour them onto the ground wherever we need some winter insulation or want to improve the soil.  I always pour shredded leaves around our Mountain Laurels, Azaleas,  and around newly planted shrubs.

Marginal tropicals, like Canna and ginger lily, and our Colocasias,  react very quickly to freezing temperatures.  All of the above ground herbaceous stems and leave immediately die back.  What a mess!

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What remains of the Cannas

What remains of the Cannas

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But the tubers are still alive underground.  Cutting the stem now leaves a gaping wound where cold and moisture can enter, potentially killing the tubers before spring.

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Elephant ears, Colocasia, can't survive freezing weather.  But the tubers remain hardy in Zone 7, particularly when protected and mulched.

Elephant ears, Colocasia, can’t survive freezing weather. But the tubers remain hardy in Zone 7, particularly when protected and mulched.

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Allowing the plants to remain uncut, eventually falling back to the ground, provides insulation for the tubers and protects them from ice and cold rain.

The frozen stalks must be cleaned up by the time new growth begins, but I believe leaving them in place over the winter helps protect the plants.

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The Lantana is gone for another season after several nights in the 20s.  Birds take shelter here all winter, scavenging for seeds and bugs.

The Lantana is gone for another season after several nights in the 20s.   Birds take shelter here all winter, scavenging for seeds and bugs.

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Another marginal perennial, Lantana, isn’t reliably hardy in our Zone 7 climate.  Further south, these plants grow into large shrubs.  Most Virginia gardeners treat them like annuals.

We’ve learned that left alone, Lantana regularly survive winter in our garden.  Cutting back their woody branches too early allows cold to penetrate to the roots, killing the plant.

Leaving these woody plants standing after the flowers and leave are killed by frost gives the roots an opportunity to survive.  The roots grow very deep, and generally will survive if the plant was able to establish during the previous summer.

Although we cut back Lantana in late March or early April, new growth often won’t appear until the first week of May.

Even perennial herbs, like lavender and rosemary survive winter with less damage when left alone.

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Rosemary with Black Eyed Susan seed heads.

Rosemary with Black Eyed Susan seed heads.

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Prune lavender now and it will probably be dead by April.  Leave it be now, prune  lightly in March, and the plant will throw out abundant new growth.

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Crepe Myrtle seeds feed many species of birds through the winter.  Prune in mid-spring, before the leaves break in April.

Crepe Myrtle seeds feed many species of birds through the winter. Prune in mid-spring, before the leaves break in April.

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Trees and shrubs which need pruning will potentially suffer more winter “die back” when pruned too early.  For one thing, pruning stimulates growth.

 

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Deadheading a spent flower a week or so ago stimulated this new growth, which likely will die back before spring.  Roses will lose a few leaves over winter, but generally survive in our garden without much damage.

Deadheading a spent flower a week or so ago stimulated this new growth, which likely will die back before spring. Roses will lose a few leaves over winter, but generally survive in our garden without much damage.

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Roses pruned hard in fall will likely start growing again too soon, and that new growth is tender and likely to freeze.

Pruning flowering shrubs like Buddleia and Rose of Sharon in early winter leaves wounds, which will be affected by the cold more easily than a hardened stem.

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Rose of Sharon shrubs, covered in seeds.  These need thinning and shaping, but wait until spring.

Rose of Sharon shrubs, covered in seeds. These need thinning and shaping, but wait until spring.

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Leave pruning chores, even on fruit trees and other woody trees or shrubs until after the first of the year.  Allow the plant to go fully dormant before removing wood.  I prefer to leave pruning until February.

Our gardens depend on a rich web of relationships between bacteria, fungus, insects, worms, and decaying organic matter in the soil for their vitality.   Plants grow best in soil which supports a vibrant ecosystem of microbes and invertebrates.

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The butterfly garden this morning revealed ice "growing" out of our Pineapple Sage stems.  The temperature dropped so rapidly into the 20s last night that water in the stem froze, exploding the wood.

The butterfly garden this morning revealed ice “growing” out of our Pineapple Sage stems. The temperature dropped so rapidly into the 20s last night that water in the stem froze, exploding the wood.

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I believe that “leaving the soil be” is one of the smartest things a gardener can do.  Pile on the organic matter, but resist the urge to dig and turn the soil.  Spread mulch, but disturb the structure of the soil only when absolutely necessary to plant.

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Here are a few tasks, for those who want to get out and work in the garden, which you can enjoy this time of year:

1.  Shred and spread the leaves which fall near the house.  We have to sweep  copious piles of leaves which gather on our deck and patio and catch in the gutters.  Sweeping and shredding these a few times each season provides lots of free mulch.

2.  Cut the grass a final time after the leaves are falling.  The green grass clippings mix nicely with the brown leaves to speed along composting.  We catch the trimmings in a bag and spread it where needed.

3.  Plant bulbs until the ground is frozen.  Bulbs have gone on sale in many shops and can be had for a fraction of their September price.    Plant a wide variety for many weeks of spring flowers.

4.  Remodel those pots which will stay outside all winter. 

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November 12, 2014 golden day 168

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Pull out the annuals as they freeze and either plant hardy plants in their place, or make arrangements with branches, pine cones, and moss to keep those pots pretty.

5.  Pick up nuts, acorns, pine cones and fallen branches for winter arrangements and wreathes.  Cut overgrown grape or honeysuckle vines and weave them into wreath bases.    Cut and condition evergreen branches for use on wreathes and in arrangements.

6.  Sow seeds which need winter’s cold to germinate.  Broadcast the seeds where you intend for them to grow, or sow in flats which remain outside all winter.  Columbine and many other wildflowers require this winter stratification to germinate well.

7.  Take photos of the garden.  Photograph everything, and then review the photos over the winter as you make plans for spring purchases, plantings, and renovations.

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8.  Prepare new garden beds with “sheet composting.”  Mark where a new vegetable, flower, or shrub bed  will be planted next spring, and cover the entire area with sheets of newspaper or brown paper bags to kill any grass and weeds there now.

Pile shredded leaves, grass clippings, twigs and wood chips, coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, banana peels, and shredded shredded newspaper on the area all winter long.  These materials will slowly decompose.  Cover the whole area with a few inches of good compost or top soil a few weeks before you plan to plant.

Add edging around the bed, and it is ready for spring planting.  The materials in your “sheet compost” will continue decomposing over the next year or so, feeding your new garden bed.

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Working with nature always proves easier than working at cross purposes with her. 

She can make our chores lighter and our gardens more abundant when we understand her ways.

When you understand the wisdom of, ‘Let it be,” you will find that nature does much of the heavy work for you, if just given enough time and space.

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Words and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

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November 21, 2014 calendar 014

Order “A Forest Garden 2015” calendar

WPC: Container I

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Some people believe that agriculture allowed the Genesis of human civilization millennia ago.  I beg to differ…

Actually, it was containers.

Once we humans have a place to put something, and a way to move it from here to there, we begin to collect; and to accumulate.  And civilization as we know it is born…

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So containers are the basic building blocks of our modern, civilized lives.  Think about it-

What is a home, a car, a pantry, or even a shoe… but a specialized container?

I have a special affinity for containers. 

Maybe it’s because my mother spent several years as a Tupperware dealer when she needed a flexible schedule for a while.   She always loved Tupperware, and selling it gave her the opportunity to add to her collection and set aside a kitchen full of Tupperware for each of us kids to have one day.

I still keep my flour in an ancient Tupperware container inherited from my grandmother.

And the sugar keeps forever in the 70’s era avocado green Tupperware my mother set aside for me all those years ago.

Still, I drive my partner nuts by saving many of the “disposable” containers which pass through our lives.

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These frozen yogurt containers have a thousand alternative uses…

Like catching the tiny blue tailed lizard who somehow got into our home earlier today.  He was skittering across the living room floor when I spotted him this afternoon.

Fortunately for him, our cat was sunning himself out on the deck.

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After several tries, this little guy trusted me enough to cooperate in the delicate task of catching him, lifting him from the floor, and taking him back outside where he can catch his dinner.

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Once outside, he was kind enough to allow a photo-op before disappearing behind the pots of our container garden on the patio.

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Where would we be without our containers? 

 

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Container

WPC: Container II

WPC: Container III

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And Then It Got Complicated….

 

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An inspiration, when it first flits into one’s mind, is beautifully simple.  In its purist form, the idea is more powerful than the forces which will conspire to prevent its materialization.

At least in my experience….

A vivid imagination is both gift and curse; tool and trap.

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A gardener’s winter dreams of pots and beds and borders sometimes get translated into actuality; sometimes not.  Rarely do they grow as first imagined.

There is the small matter of reality standing between the vision and its accomplishment.

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My original idea was quite simple:  I saw a raised bed growing at the base of a young Dogwood tree.

The tree, badly damaged when our trees fell last summer, would become the center point of a cool and shady four season garden in the edge of our forest near the street.

Populated with Cinnamon Fern and Helebores, this perennial bed would be impervious to deer, low maintenance, and provide winter blooms.

Simple, right?

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When imagining what to use  to build the raised bed, I decided to use Hypertufa troughs.  A gorgeous cardboard box shipped from Plant Delights became the mold for long window box shaped planters.

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The first two un-molded perfectly and went to the drying shelves.  Then the third cracked as I turned it out of the box.

Heavy, and not quite dry enough, I realized I had rushed it; and made a patch.  After another week in the mold, I gingerly turned it out, and the patch held.

A second very large trough also cracked.  I must not have had the mix quite right that day.

 

This large and heavy trough also cracked when I lifted it from its mold, but it was a clean enough break to patch.  Can you spot the patch on the pot's rim?

This large and heavy trough also cracked when I lifted it from its mold, but it was a clean enough break to patch. Can you spot the patch on the pot’s rim?  A chunk of another broken trough, which couldn’t be repaired, rests nearby.

I wasn’t as lucky with that attempt to “fix it,” and it ended up in a dozen jagged pieces tucked into a shadowy corner of the basement.  It gets complicated…

That temporarily halted work on the new raised bed.  With only two of the four planned troughs ready to use, I wasn’t ready to move forward.

Caladiums fill the hypertufa troughs used to border this raised bed.

Caladiums fill the hypertufa troughs used to border this raised bed.  The apparently empty pot is filled with perennial hardy Begonia, which will emerge by early June.

And I didn’t have time by then to start the fourth trough.

But, I already had three potted Helebores and three Lady Ferns languishing in holding areas, ready to sink their roots into a permanent spot in the garden.

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Lady Ferns, you ask?  Wasn’t the original idea to grow large, stately Cinnamon Ferns in this bed?  Well, it got complicated…

On one shopping expedition after another this spring, my search for Cinnamon Ferns was in vain.

Yes, Plant Delights had them, but I wanted to purchase them locally.  I’ve learned my lesson waiting for bare root ferns from the big box stores to sprout, and I was hoping to score them in the tiny pots Homestead Garden Center offered all last season.  But, no tiny pots appeared…

A few badly grazed Azaleas fall along the peremiter of this new raised bed.  Broken pot pieces help form a low "wall" to hold soil behind them.

A few badly grazed Azaleas fall along the perimeter of this new raised bed. Broken pot pieces help form a low “wall” to hold soil behind them.

It gets complicated. 

Our long, cold spring made things very difficult for the growers this year, and many items came late, in short supply, or not at all.

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So during my tour of Forest Lane Botanicals, I purchased three beautiful Lady Ferns to use in the garden… just before that third trough broke.  And they’ve been sitting ever since….

With the art festival completed over the weekend, it was decided that today I would work with the universe to bring this new raised bed into reality.

One way or another, something would be built today.

An experimental "stepping stone" holds back the soil behind a second Azalea shrub, forming more border for the garden.

An experimental “stepping stone” holds back the soil behind a second Azalea shrub, forming more border for the garden.

Armed with three potted Helebores, three Lady Ferns, two Autumn Brilliance Ferns, four bags of compost, more Caladiums than I care to admit to having, an almost murdered Begonia which got too dry last week and lost its leaves, a tray full of broken Hypertufa trough pieces, some old plastic pots, and some 6″ clay pots left from the weekend- I set to work.

Some might call this a scrounger’s garden.  I see it as a fortuitous opportunity for some serious recycling.

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With three now completed troughs, already planted in Caladiums,   the outline of the new raised bed was already sketched in.

A larger free-form  hypertufa trough, again broken in unmolding but patched, joined the group two weeks ago when I decided not to offer the  patched pot for sale.  It also holds Caladiums.

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With the fourth trough a minimum of two weeks away, if I cast it today; I decided to border the bed with other materials- if only temporarily.

So a pile of new 6″ terra cotta pots, scored at the Re-store for a children’s art project, got filled with soil, planted with Begonia semperflorens, and pressed into service as a border.

A few old plastic pots, filled and planted up, helped plug the gaps.

Sedum planted into a pocket made from a piece of the broken pot.

Sedum planted into a pocket made from a piece of the broken pot.

Large pieces of the broken hypertufa and a few experimental stepping stones work to camouflage this motley mix of bordering materials.

Borders in place, compost poured in and smoothed, it was finally time to plant.

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The bed is far from completed.  That fourth trough will materialize over the next few weeks to complete the outline.

I don’t have much faith in small terra cotta pots on our hottest summer days.  They dry too quickly.

The third hypertufa trough, which cracked, now holds Caladiums.

The third hypertufa trough, which cracked, now holds Caladiums.

So I’ll replace as many of the small pots as I can with hypertufa planters, which keep roots cool, moist, and happy even in the heat of summer.

I found a 4″ Cinnamon Fern this afternoon, finally, and planted it among the Lady Ferns.

Over the next few days I’ll transplant some Hellebores seedlings from other beds, add a few more Caladiums, and possibly even plant some Spikemoss, a new favorite, as a frilly ground cover.

May 19, 2014 new raised bed fern garden 002

Time, the essential ingredient in gardening, will transform this motley conglomeration of bits and pieces into a beautiful garden within a few weeks.

Once the plants settle in and begin weaving themselves together, it will take on a life and vision of its own.

Gardens, like people, evolve in their own time from one form to the next.

Rooted Begonia cuttings join sprouting Caladiums in this newly planted recycled plastic pot.

Rooted Begonia cuttings join sprouting Caladiums in this newly planted recycled plastic pot.

We might plant a seed, push a cutting into the soil, or tuck a transplant into a new bed.  But that is only a gesture.  It is the concrete expression of a wish.

Magic happens after we water in our intention and wander away. 

As the roots take hold, and the plant unfolds itself in new growth, something entirely new evolves.

Newly planted in 2013, this perennial bed has grown into a vibrant community of plants.

Newly planted in 2013, this perennial bed has grown into a vibrant community of plants.

A community comes together as roots intertwine in the soil.

Vines stretch, branches form.  Flowers open.  Our wish takes on a life of its own.

It gets very complicated, but also very beautiful.

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Words and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Clematis

Clematis

 

Hypertufa Pot: Ready For Action

April 13 hypertufa pot 011

I began working with hypertufa to cast pots and stepping stones about a month ago.

Hypertufa is a mix of Portland Cement with other ingredients more commonly used in potting soil, to create a light but durable material with which one can cast pots, birdbaths, stepping stones, troughs and other items for the garden.

This will be a trough, probably planted with succulents since it is shallow.  It is large enough that I set the plastic bucket inside to support the long walls as they dry.

This will be a trough, probably planted with succulents since it is shallow. It is large enough that I set the plastic bucket inside to support the long walls as they dry.

Over these past few weeks I’ve experimented with different ways to cast  and embellish garden accoutrement.  The same much loved friend who went with me to purchase the bulk of the materials has returned to help mix and shape some of the batches.

Each piece sets up for 36 to 48 hours before it is turned out of its mold.  Then the pieces continue to dry and cure for several more weeks before coming into service in the garden.

A sand cast hypertufa pot, inlaid with glass scallop shells.  The corks in the bottom are to hold the drainage holes open while the cement hardens.

A sand cast hypertufa pot, inlaid with glass scallop shells. The corks in the bottom are to hold the drainage holes open while the cement hardens.

This beautiful trough is from the very first batch I mixed up in March.  It is hard, lightweight, and many shades lighter in color than the dark graphite grey of the wet hypertufa mix from which it is formed.  Cast on March 24, this piece has had a little more than three weeks of time to cure.

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The drainage holes were made with wine corks.   The glass shells were pressed into the wet  hypertufa when it was cast.  There are bits of blue and green glass pressed into the sides which don’t show as much as I had hoped.  I’ve since learned to cast pieces like this in sand so that the glass is visible.

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I made this very shallow trough to hold succulents.  I took cuttings from my succulents in October to decorate pumpkins, and had several cuttings left over which have overwintered in the garage.  I made this to hold them, along with freshly taken cuttings from other  overwintered succulents, which need cutting back.

These are such large drainage holes that I covered them with mesh fabric, and then with handfuls of pea gravel.  Then I filled the container with a good quality potting mix.  Since this container is very shallow, I didn’t mix sand into the soil.  I want it to to be a little moisture retentive while  this trough gets baked in our summer heat.

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Next the cuttings were set into the soil , keeping in mind they all will grow much larger.  It always amazes me how bits of succulent will survive for months out of soil, often drawing moisture directly out of the air.  Many of these pieces simply sat in a plastic bowl for more than 5 months, before I re-planted them today.

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So here is our first hypertufa trough, planted up with cuttings, and ready for action in the garden this season.  

A light mulch of pea gravel keeps the plants clean, reflects light to help them dry faster after a rain, and protects their roots.

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I’m still making a few batches each week.  In fact, I mixed up two batches of the hypertufa mix this morning and cast three large planters from them.

Some pieces will find homes in our garden, but others are made for sale at an event next month.  I’ll be planting most with a mixture of Caladiums and hardy ferns to live in partial shade.  Some will be planted with edible herbs to live in the sun.

I will be offering about a dozen of these hypertufa planters for sale in mid-May.

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As these beautiful pieces come out of the basement and into use I’ll show them to you from time to time.  My partner has been infinitely patient with the huge mess I’ve made, the hours spent “playing in the mud,” and my very achy back, sore from all of the lifting; but it has been a very rewarding experiment.  We’re both pleased with the resulting containers and stepping stones.

And yes, my friend already has a stepping stone we made together in her beautiful garden.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

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The Trees in the Forest

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Those of us who garden in forests fall in love with our trees.

Our shaded, sheltered gardens grow beneath the protective canopy of their branches, and among the strong and sculptural uprights of their trunks. Ferns and mosses, Hellebores, Heucheras and Hostas thrive in cool shade under their leaf covered branches.

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Trees are full of life.  Beyond their own twigs, leaves, and flowers; they feed and shelter small birds, squirrels, chipmunks, thousands of insects, and an occasional raccoon.

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Our gardens are animated by the swish of wings as birds move from branch to branch, by the call of one hidden bird to another, and the quick swoop of bird or squirrel to the ground in search of food. The whole garden vibrates with living energy among the trees.

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Some trees we own because we own the plot of land from which they grow.  Some were already growing when we came to our garden, others we’ve purchased and planted.   We invest in trees to populate our gardens the way others might buy sculptures; selecting for size and form, color, flower, nut, and fruit.

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Some of our trees we own by sight only.  They grow in another’s yard, and yet they still form the fabric of our landscape.

They filter the air we breathe and frame our view of the sky.  They shade our street, their leaves blow to our yard in early winter, and they are inextricably woven into our lives by their presence and proximity.

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Trees are the guardians of the garden.  Their canopies offer protection from the summer sun.  Air beneath their branches remains moist and cool on the hottest days.

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Trees offer privacy to those who live behind them, muffling sound and screening views.

They catch the pounding rain of thunderstorms on summer leaves, channeling it more gently towards the ground; and they renew the soil around their roots with a fresh cover of decaying leaves each winter.

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The wind passing through their branches is the melody against which the birds call and sing.  It alerts us to coming storms, and soothes us as we relax in the evenings.

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As they conceal and enclose when covered in leaves all summer, so our trees reveal and open up the landscape in winter; welcoming the winter sun to melt the snow and coax daffodils from the cold mud of our frost cloaked garden.

They frame our views, and structure our enclosures.

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Their twiggy branches trace patterns on the ever changing winter sky, etching elaborate, animated sketches against snow cloud and sunset; clear blue skies and fog.  They change hour to hour, and day to day as twigs finally redden, buds swell, and one warm day burst into soft flowers and tiny leaves.

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We watch the progress of the seasons by looking up into our trees. From bud break to leaf fall, each season waxes and wanes in their branches.

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We watch the progress of each day as the sun’s light, and the moon’s light, traces its path through the tree tops.

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We watch the dappled sunlight move, hour to hour, across the forest floor and through our windows, as light passes through the branches that surround our garden; a living sundial.

Trees may also mark the passage of our lives.  We plant trees to mark births and marriages.

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We watch time pass as our trees grow and mature, transforming sunny meadow to shaded sanctuary. Like a child, the sapling we plant this year will, in its time, bear sweet fruit.

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And as our own lives are pruned along the way, so our trees must allow for pruning, also.  Whether we limb up to reveal an elegant trunk on a maturing shrub, or whether we thin a canopy so our tree will stand against the wind; we hope our pruning enhances the overall life of the tree.

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We prune and shape our fruit bearing trees to make them more fruitful.  We prune old wood so a tree renews itself with new.  We cut away wood which is broken, or infected with disease.

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Our trees, like Tolkien’s Ents, remain the heart and soul of our forest gardens.  Not only the biotechnology which keeps our garden, and us, alive; they are our companions, and our benefactors.

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

Art and the Gardener: Fine Painting as Inspiration for Garden Design

“In the intimate and humanized landscape, trees become the greatest single element linking us visually and emotionally with our surroundings.  We can allow a tree to become a part of us.  It’s no wonder that when we first think of a garden we think of a tree.”

Thomas Church, landscape architect

For information on garden design with trees, please treat yourself to Gordon Hayward’s  Art and the Gardener:  Fine Painting as Inspiration for Garden Design.   Church quotation taken from the book.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Beginning

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A beginning is something of a mystery, for every beginning is born from something already there.  Beginnings can be counted back in an endless web of connections and interconnections to… what?  If we trace back far enough, what do we find?  What is the spark, the point of transition, of energy into matter at the beginning?   Which came first, the darkness, or the light?

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And what is the spark which energizes each new beginning, moment to moment, in our lives?

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“New Year,”  “New Garden,” “New relationship;” at what point does the remains of the old transition into the Genesis of the new? 

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The points we choose, so often, are arbitrary; allowing us to compartmentalize our experience into neat piles.  We close one calendar and open another.  We open a packet and plant a seed.  We shake a hand and say, ” Hello.”

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Taking a snapshot in time and labeling it, “The Beginning” asks us to disregard all that came before.  We are all deeply enmeshed in this recycled, recycling web of being.  

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We gardeners, whose hands are never far from the Earth, exploit the neatness of the system as we grow alongside our gardens. 

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We treasure the compost of our lives as the brilliant, energetic chaos which allows birth and sustenance of the new.

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We watch seeds ripen from the faded flower; pull tiny bulbils from the base of  last year’s bulb; cut a branch, root it, and watch it grow into its own maturity.

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We look into our children’s faces and see our own grandparents.

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We see all life and living as ripples and waves;  light shining on an endless sea of possibility.

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Weekly Photo Challenge

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