The ‘Fern Table,’ My Way

There is an inspiring feature about fern tables in the current Horticulture Magazine, written by Richie Steffen. Steffen is the Executive Director of the Elizabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, Washington and President of the Hardy Fern Foundation. I’ve read the article through a few times now and studied the illustrations for ideas. It is an excellent overview of fern tables and I highly recommend reading it if you love ferns and enjoy container gardening.

A fern table is a representation of the forest floor, built up from a flat surface. The arrangement typically includes small to medium sized ferns, mosses, shade loving woodland perennials, small shrubs, vines, bits of old wood and rocks. Fern tables may be built directly on a tabletop, on a concrete paver, or on a tray.

These fern tables are designed as permanent outdoor installations, built on concrete bases and measuring several feet square. They are very natural and rustic. They may be used indoors or on a porch or patio, as a centerpiece or runner on a table, or may be placed in the garden as a focal point.

This form takes elements from bonsai, from kokedama balls, and from container gardening to create something new and different. Built up from a solid but flat surface, these displays look a bit illogical and perhaps a bit dangerous. One must break a few gardening ‘rules’ to create them. But they are also whimsical and fun. I wanted to try to create arrangements in this style.

Before investing in concrete blocks and pavers and building something permanent in the garden as a gift for my squirrel friends, I decided to experiment on a smaller scale. So I found some simple Bonsai trays to use as a base. These are entirely portable and may be used indoors or out on our deck. My rectangular trays are 8″ x 10″ and have a shallow side, perhaps a half inch deep. Perhaps I should call my arrangements ‘Fern Trays’ rather than ‘Fern Tables.’

Read more about how to construct a Fern Table on Our Forest Garden

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WG

Six on Saturday: Companions

Ferns grow with Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop,’ Vinca, Arum and Hellebores

Have you ever noticed how some gardeners want to show off their mulch? Every plant or species group is carefully set far enough apart from the next to grow neatly, like little islands, in a sea of brown mulch. These curated clumps of vegetation may be arranged into an arc or grid or another clever scheme.

If shrubs, they are neatly sheared often enough to keep them in their intended shape. And the whole scene is surrounded by a sharp bordered sea of fresh mulch to demarcate the planting space.

I see these neatly manicured beds at the entrances to shopping centers and upscale neighborhoods, always anchored by a few rounded, evergreen shrubs.  The color plants usually get switched out seasonally, with a few dozen little Begonias planted in April or May, replacing the ornamental cabbages and pansies planted last October.  Once the cabbages flower, they look weedy, and are goners. 

Of course, one must weed to keep it in shape.   Seeds blow in from everywhere, so one must weed by hand, or spray periodically with an herbicide, to keep things neat. And often the answer is simply piling on more shredded bark mulch over the old, hiding what has faded. Mulch piles creep up the trunks of any larger trees like little brown mountains, beneath their leafy canopies.

This Aristotelian garden style asks us to make a lot of choices.  First, and most importantly, what is a desirable plant, and what is a weed?  What makes one plant desirable, and another not?  The gardener always gets to choose.

Read more at Our Forest Garden

Six On Saturday: More Winter Flowers for Pollinators

Mahonia aquifolium January 19, 2020

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Have you noticed bees and other insects feeding later than usual this year?  And did you notice how many were out feeding on warm days last winter?  Our roller coaster weather in recent years has affected insects, birds and other animals so that they may be out and about on warmish days in months when we don’t expect to see them.  And, of course they are hungry!

Increased activity translates into an increased need for calories.  Providing winter forage for pollinators and birds presents gardeners with an interesting challenge.  This also brings us round again to that ongoing discussion of ‘native’ vs. imported plants.  As a former forensics coach as well as a smitten gardener, I could argue either side of this issue, and have.

But consider that few of our ‘native’ plants actually bloom between November and February in this climate.  Most of our winter blooming flowers are actually native to areas of Europe, the Mediterranean region, South Africa, or Asia.  Even though the plants may have originated on another continent, they fill an important ecological niche by offering nectar and pollen, sustaining insects who might otherwise starve when they venture out on warming winter days.

Now a native plant advocate could offer the counter argument that many imported plants have adapted so well to our climate, and naturalized so freely, that they sometimes crowd out our indigenous native species.  I could list off a half-dozen woody species that bloom in winter or early spring and have done just that.  The most interesting conversations continue that way.  And while we sit with our tea or toddy and argue the fine points of the question, developers are out with their heavy equipment clear cutting our local forests to widen the roads and plant new neighborhoods and shopping strips.

So let’s not argue, but rather agree to plant consciously and with purpose to sustain the wildlife we have left, absorb as much carbon as possible from the warming air, and to create spots of beauty to cheer and inspire us.

One of my favorite winter blooming shrubs remains the Mahonia aquifolium, which is a North American native shrub that has naturalized in Virginia.  There are several species, hybrids and cultivars of Mahonia, and all bloom extravagantly in December through February or early March each year, with plump, edible drupes forming by early summer.  Oregon Grape Holly offers shelter and food for birds, nectar for pollinating insects, and has such stiff, sharp leaves that deer and other herbivores don’t graze its leaves.  If you plant some of the finer leaf varieties, like ‘M. Soft Caress,’ be prepared for deer to find and sample it.  It is a lovely plant if you can protect it.

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Helleborus species and hybrids remain a mainstay of my garden both for their bright winter flowers and for their evergreen foliage that serves as a sturdy and effective ground cover year round.  Requiring very little maintenance beyond removing old and tattered leaves from time to time, these tough, long-lived plants reliably bloom and feed pollinators from December through late April or early May.  These beautiful flowers offer plenty of pollen as well as deep reservoirs of nectar.  Each flower may last several weeks, feeding insects over a long period, and then producing seeds.

Nothing grazes a Hellebore because all parts of the plant are poisonous.  But their large, glossy leaves remain attractive, often sporting variegation, toothed edges, and interesting form.  They filter the air and sequester carbon, provide cool, moist habitat for small animals, and hold our sloping garden.  The more Hellebores we grow the less we find tunnels made by voles or moles.  Hellebores prefer full to partial shade and mix well with ferns and vining ground covers like Vinca minor, another early spring bloomer.

For sunny areas, consider planting the common Mediterranean evergreen herbs Rosemary and Thyme in Zones 7 and south.  Rosemary often blooms with tiny blue or white flowers from November through April, and Thyme usually begins to bloom by March.  Both are highly attractive to bees and other pollinators.

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Helleborus orientalis, March 2019

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Many very early bulbs provide forage for pollinators.  Scilla siberica, a European bulb, often pops up and begins opening flowers in February.  Its stalk can be covered with many small flowers, opening a few at a time, over a period of weeks.  The leaves follow the flower stalk and fade away again by early summer.  The bulbs multiply over time.  Scilla bloom alongside early Iris histrioides and early Crocus bulbs, also appreciated by hungry pollinators in late winter.  Each bulb may send up multiple flower stalks and may be grown under established deciduous trees.

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Scilla emerging on February 19, 2019

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Very little blooms here in January, except for our reliable Hellebores and Violas.  The biochemistry of some plants allows them to generate enough heat to survive many hours below freezing, and to bounce back quickly after getting covered with ice and snow.  Native to mountainous areas of Europe, colorful little Viola cornuta have been cultivated and hybridized over decades and are easily available each fall in our area.  You may know some of them as ‘Johnny Jump-Ups.’  They may be grown from seeds or plugs, or bought full grown in 6″ pots for instant color in fall and winter arrangements.  Although Violas are perennials, they don’t survive our summer heat.

The larger Viola tricolor, or pansy, is also native to Europe and has been bred for flower size and color. Panolas are a fairly recent cross between various Viola species, and offer a medium sized flower with beautiful color and form.  The plants are lush and offer the impact of a pansy with the hardy habit of a Viola cornuta.  These also bloom in late fall and early spring, but may take a break during the coldest months.

Our native Viola labradorica, or American Dog Violet, blooms in mid-spring to early summer.  An important host plant for some butterfly species, it forms a beautiful ground cover and blooms in shades of white, purple and blue.  Sadly, many homeowners consider these ‘weeds’ when they come up in the lawn and eradicate them.  They make a beautiful ground cover, especially under trees, and re-seed themselves freely.

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Violas blooming on January 27, 2015

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Finally, many trees ‘bloom’ in the winter or very early spring.  Though their flowers may seem insignificant to us, they provide important food sources for pollinators.  Birds also benefit when they feed on insects attracted to arboreal flowers.

One of the best native shrubs for winter flowers is the Witchhazel, or Hamamelis virginiana.  It covers itself in small, sweet blossoms in mid to late winter.  Redbud trees also begin to bloom by February, becoming magnets for hungry insects.  Several species of Spirea and Viburnum produce early, showy nectar filled flowers.

Flowers on trees may be big and showy like those on Magnolias or tulip trees.  But just as often we barely notice them.  We may catch a sweet fragrance from an Ilex or Osmanthus, or notice an attractive blur of red or gold around a tree’s canopy before its leaves unfold.  But these flowers are very important to wildlife.

No one small, residential garden can support all plants for all purposes.  But with a bit of thought and planning, we can all provide some seasonal support for wildlife.  Many gardeners faithfully maintain bird feeders during winter months.  Fresh water in ponds or birdbaths is also very important for wildlife year-round.

Let’s also remember that by planting some winter blooming woody plants and herbaceous perennials, we can support the web of life in our community while enjoying the beauty and activity winter bloomers add to our own gardens.

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February 15, 2017 Edgeworthia chrysantha, an Asian shrub, and Mahonia aquifolium bloom all winter in our garden.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful and a thought provoking quotation.

 

 

Six on Saturday: Making Whole

Moss Garden

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We had our first frost of the season this week, and I’ve been occupied with bringing in those pots of tender plants that we will keep through the winter, and settling those that can remain outdoors into protected spots.  My partner was helping me (encouraging me, prodding me, motivating me to keep going, quite honestly) when he went to move our little potted Japanese Maple.  We heard the cracking and crunch as the pot fell apart in his hands. Oh well, terra-cotta pots don’t last forever, do they?  And this one has spent a few winters outdoors on our deck, holding this little tree as it grows.

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I love Japanese maples, and love the aesthetic of potted ones on the deck mixed among our ferns and flowering summer plants.  They can remain outdoors year round, and allow one to appreciate the seasons from budding to leaf drop up close. The tree is fine.

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The pot is a bit mangled, but I had been looking for a pot to create a winter moss garden, anyway.  I left the whole thing alone in a plastic disk for a few days, until I remembered an identical pot that I’d just emptied days ago.  The Colocasia came indoors in a plastic dish for the winter, and so there was a pot open and available to receive the maple tree.

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It was a sorry looking mess after the pot broke, but the tree was fine for a few days while I decided what to do.

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If you’ve been shopping for pots recently, you know that pickings are very slim in November.  I’ve been looking for a pot for my moss garden for a while.  I couldn’t find what I wanted at a reasonable price.  I even ordered a blue Fiestaware bowl to plant up, and then decided to keep the bowl in the kitchen once it arrived.  It was too pretty, if that is possible…. it was a new shade of blue that we didn’t yet have. So this little broken terra-cotta bowl was clearly a gift from the universe showing me how to proceed.

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The garden at Mossy Creek Pottery in Lincoln City, Oregon.

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As you probably know, moss doesn’t have any roots.  It has little structures that anchor it to the ground, but they don’t absorb water from the soil as roots do for vascular plants.  Each cell of the moss plant is on its own for hydration.  But moisture can travel from cell to cell.  That is why moss loves humidity, standing water and lots of rain.

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We’ve had such a wet year that moss is growing in places in the garden it hasn’t in the past.  Which is fine, because I really love moss.

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To establish a moss garden, you don’t need very good soil.  As you may have noticed, moss can grow on rocks, bricks, gravel, bark, ceramics, concrete and so many other surfaces that aren’t soil.  So you don’t need good soil or deep soil to establish a moss garden.  But because I have other plants in this one, I am recycling some pretty good soil left over as I broke down some of last summer’s plantings.

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It is important to pack the soil down fairly firmly, though, and then to press the moss firmly onto the soil.  If laying moss outdoors into an area of the garden, some gardeners walk over the moss a few times to help it adhere to its new spot.  So press down firmly so the moss is in good contact with the soil. But I’m ahead of myself, here.

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I had a few little bulbs left over from other projects, and a clump of dwarf Mondo grass to add to this planting.  The bulbs go in first, to a depth equal to three times their height.  If you can’t tell which end is which, plant them on their side.  The bulb’s roots will grow downwards and right the bulb as the stem begins to grow upward in the spring.  Firm the soil over the bulbs before covering it with freshly lifted moss.

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I was able to divide my plug of Mondo grass into several divisions.  I replanted half of the plug into a nursery pot to grow on, and used these tiny divisions for the moss garden.  Have a blade nearby when dividing Mondo grass, as there comes a point where you often have to cut the sections.  As long as each section has roots, they will continue to grow on.

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I planted the Mondo grass along the lower, broken edge of the pot, to help stabilize the soil in the planting.  After planting the grass, mulch around it with moss.  Then I built terraces into the sloping potting soil with pieces of the broken pot, and used different varieties of moss in the different sections to give some interesting texture.

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Kept shaded and moist, moss can grow indefinitely in a planting like this.  Best of all is when the moss produces spores and those spores colonize the planting themselves, even growing on the pot.  That happens if the moss is very happy in the spot you select for it.

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The main enemies of a potted moss garden are those creatures who’d like to have some of the moss for themselves.  Sometimes birds pinch a bit for their nests, or squirrels toss it aside in their attempts to bury or retrieve nuts, or worse, dig your tasty bulbs.  I used those little early Crocus known as ‘Tommies,’ which aren’t tasty to squirrels.  With most bulbs, it is smart to spray them with a bit of animal repellent before you plant them.  A squirt to the whole pot once finished is good insurance, too.

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Here is our little Japanese Maple snugly tucked into a new pot. I had some scraps of moss left over, and so added them as mulch under the tree.  I’ll find some fine gravel to finish dressing the soil.

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This little planting really costs nothing out of hand.  I recycled a broken pot, re-purposed used potting soil, used up the last few bulbs left from a pack, and lifted the moss from my own garden.  It should remain a lovely spot of green out in the garden, all winter long, with minimal care.  It probably won’t even need watering.  Only if we have a stretch of warm, dry weather will I need to do anything for it, at all.

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If I had been fortunate enough to find a little evergreen fern in the yard, like an Ebony Spleenwort, it would have gone in the pot, too, growing up through the moss.  Moss makes a lovely background for spring bulbs, too. A rock or two, or a quartz crystal, finishes off the arrangement. It is always satisfying to take broken bits and leftover bits and find interesting ways to use them.  Now, as we change the seasons, is a good time for clearing away the old and making room for something fresh and new.  Like a breath of fresh air, it keeps us going.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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This moss garden will live and grow in the rock garden at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden. Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

 

Sunday Dinner: Miraculous

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“I have been finding treasures in places I did not want to search.

I have been hearing wisdom from tongues I did not want to listen.

I have been finding beauty where I did not want to look.

And I have learned so much from journeys I did not want to take.

I have learned that miracles are only called miracles

because they are often witnessed by only those

who can can see through all of life’s illusions.

I am ready to see what really exists on other side,

what exists behind the blinds,

and taste all the ugly fruit

instead of all that looks right, plump and ripe.”

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Suzy Kassem

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“To love someone

is to see a miracle invisible to others.”

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François Mauriac

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“A miracle is when the whole is greater

than the sum of its parts.

A miracle is when one plus one

equals a thousand.”

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Frederick Buechner

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“Miracles are not contrary to nature

but only contrary

to what we know about nature.”

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St. Augustine

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“To live at all is miracle enough.”

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Mervyn Peake

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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“There are days when I think I don’t believe anymore.

When I think I’ve grown too old for miracles.

And that’s right when another seems to happen.”

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Dana Reinhardt

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Please visit my site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

 

Six on Saturday: Fruits of the Season

Figs

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Gardens teach us many things.  Like any other education, you might want to believe you’ve learned everything there is to know; but the next week, the next semester, the next season, the next garden proves how much we still have to discover.  Gardening is a slow study; more than a lifetime can master.  And it can not be rushed.

One of the first lessons one grasps, an understanding that shades and colors all others, comes when one understands the nature of passing time.  Like a precisely choreographed dance routine, a garden unfolds and ripens within the context of time.

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Begonia grandis, perennial Begonia finally blooms by late summer.

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The wisdom of all the ancient schools is written within a season in the garden.  It is all there for those who will read it.  But only those who pause, and observe, and look for it will find it.  Like a ripening grape hidden under a leaf, knowledge grows in plain sight and yet also remains cloaked to a casual glance.

This is the season of fruition and ripening.  All of the promises and hopes that built through the winter and spring are maturing, now, into reality.

The hazelnut tree dances and shakes as squirrels scamper through its branches.  The ripening nuts satisfy with loud pops and crackles as a squirrel’s strong jaws crush them and the pieces rain down to the ground.  The nuts will be gone before they ripen, crushed into green fragments, snacks lying there waiting for other small animals to find.  A single huge buckeye pod swells in the upper garden.  all the others have been carried away already, or fallen, not quite mature.

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Muscadine grapes will soon turn dark purple as they ripen. These grow near the back door, in easy reach.

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Green figs ripen high in the branches of our fig tree and swelling fox grapes hang in curtains from their vines stretching across the canopy.  It is that time of year when golden Black-eyed Susans finally open and tight buds swell atop stalks of butterfly ginger lilies.  The perennial Begonias have finally bloomed, and branches of beautyberry are thick with tiny green fruits.  In another few weeks they will ripen to brilliant purple before they, too, disappear to feed the animals who make our garden their home.

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Butterfly Ginger Lily will begin its season of bloom this week.

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For as everything ripens, so it also will fade in time.   The first hints of autumn have already brought a scarlet tinge to the dogwood leaves.  Collapsed Hibiscus flowers lie crumpled on the ground.  moonflowers bloom for a night, filling the patio with radiant white flowers and their intoxicating perfume.  By noon of the following day they have finished.   Time measures the rhythm of each growing thing in the garden, just as time measures our rhythms, too.

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Abundant rain has made this a good growing season here in Coastal Virginia.  Leaves are large and lush.  Japanese stilt grass fills in any space not cultivated, mown or mulched with its exotic, bamboo like leaves.  I was wandering through the paths today and discovered a rare surprise:  nature sown ferns.  There in the path, arising from a clump of moss, was a perfect little fern I never planted.  What a gift; what a little miracle of chance and opportunity and exuberance.  Later, camera in hand, I found some more.  I wonder now how many more little ferns may be growing in hidden, moist places, growing in their own rhythms from spore to frond.

This week the garden has grown nearly to its peak of lushness.  Paths have closed as plants reach from one side to the other to touch one another, and perhaps to soak in a bit more sunlight.  Late summer flowers come into bloom, vines stretch themselves ever further, some sprouting new leaves to replace ones lost in July.  Cuttings root, buds form and shrubs expand.  Goldfinches harvest seeds from faded flowers even as fallen leaves litter the street.

Every ending balances a beginning.  Time’s pendulum swings in a never ending cadence, marking nature’s pulse.  After long years we finally feel it and harmonize to its beat, at long last learning to see each moment as fully perfect and perfectly ripe.

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Moonflowers, Ipomoea alba

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Beautyberry, Callicarpa hybrid

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Visit Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

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

Six on Saturday: The Dance

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We are well settled into August and enjoying these magical few weeks filled with luxuriant growth, vivid color, charming winged visitors and finally, the fruition of our hopes and plans for the year.   New growth is fast and intense.  New leaves and fat, nectar filled flowers appear as if by magic in that moment when you’ve lost focus and looked away.

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In August, the uninitiated might believe that gardening is effortless.  It seems that nature conspires towards rich abundance with little need for the human hand to encourage and guide its expression.  I push through my garden’s paths with flowers held at shoulder height, stems reaching out for my legs and bees singing their summer songs all around.  I hear the thrumming hum of a visitor sticking its long beak deep into a flower’s throat for the sweetness and nourishment it gives.

All this under the unrelenting summer sun, surrounded by near liquid air, and working in the intervals between showers.  The beat that guides our movement has quickened, and the booming base of distant thunder calls the figures of our efforts.

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Summer storms churn across the landscape coming from both land and sea.  Storms roll in from the west, from the south, down from the north , and sometimes even blow in from the sea to the east.  They electrify the air.  They pound in with inches of rain.  They blow over trees and break limbs and flatten those flower heavy herbaceous stems filling the garden.

A summer squall drops inches of rain today, and that fuels inches of growth in the days ahead.  The ground squishes, sponge like under my work boots even as I’m picking up fallen branches and cutting back weeds.  We’re dancing, now, to the beat of a capricious tune that compels us to plant and prune and harvest and mow and admire all at once.

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And yes, I’m still planting.  Does a smitten gardener ever really stop planting?  I’m still moving Caladiums out of nursery pots and into places they where they can stretch and grow out the rest of the season.  I’m planting vines for next year’s flowers.  I’m moving things from here to there and finding spots for rooted cuttings.  If there is an empty or unused container somewhere,  I’m filling it up with potting soil and planting something into it.  It is time to sow seeds for autumn’s garden, too.  We still have at least a dozen weeks of good growing weather left this year.

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And we also have another three and a half months of hurricane season left this year.  Knowing that more storms are on the way like waves on a restless sea lends some urgency to all we do.    I’m rising now before the sun to steal a few hours of cool in the garden before the heat of the day settles in; waiting for afternoon showers to water in the morning’s work.

There is more to do than any one day allows.  But the reward is rich and beautiful.  And as I gather my tools and trimmings to leave, the butterflies awaken and stretch their wings.  Birds surveil  my efforts from branch to hidden branch as bees drone on in their endless gatherings of the stuff of life.  It is August, and the infinite dance of beauty and growth goes on.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Please visit Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

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

 

Hanging Basket Hacks: Hydration

A two year old planting, ready for rejuvenation

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Considering I’d originally planted the basket a couple of years ago, and that the ‘annual’ Verbena survived two Williamsburg winters to return and bloom the following spring,  I can’t complain.

Add to that poor soil (compost I found on-site at the garden) and those daffodil bulbs I planted in there for spring interest.  By early summer 2020, the basket was struggling.   It hung in full sun at the botanical garden where it got irregular, but loving attention.  The Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia, had grown in lushly.  But the basket was no longer beautiful, and the Verbena was fading.  We just couldn’t keep the plants properly watered in July’s unrelenting heat.

Do you have a hanging basket that is struggling in summer’s heat?  Do you have plants under-performing because you can’t keep their container sufficiently watered?

The ongoing challenge with any container planting, especially baskets and window boxes, is to keep the plants supplied with nutrients and enough water that they don’t frequently wilt.  Some climates make container gardening easier than others.  Many municipal plantings get daily, professional attention from a team of horticulturalists.  Some plants adapt better to growing crowded into baskets with just a few inches of soil, than others.

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When you think about it, a hanging basket is a pretty extreme environment for many plants.  That said, there are some reasonably simple and inexpensive hacks that anyone can use to make that basket more comfortable for living, blooming plants.

It is smart to begin with the largest basket your space, and the support it will hang from, can accommodate.  Larger baskets mean more soil to hold moisture, and more space for roots to grow.  A 14″-16″ basket is a good size to work with.  If you are working with a window box rather than a basket, look for ones at minimum 6″ deep.

Next, use good, fresh potting soil.  You might add additional perlite to equal a quarter of the total soil volume, which improves drainage and makes the finished basket much lighter.  Mix this in well, along with some slow release fertilizer like Epsoma’s Plant Tone or Osmocote.  To keep plants actively growing and blooming, they need nutrients.  Most potting mixes are sterile, without the nutrients commonly found in garden soil (which is too dense and heavy for a hanging basket or container).  Adding slow release fertilizer helps bring out the best performance in your chosen plants.

Mix up enough amended soil to fill the basket in a separate container, and then use a scoop to transfer a little at a time to fill in around each plant as you place it.

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This wire basket has a fresh coir liner and an inner liner of a plastic bag. A sponge cut into small bits will help conserve water.

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I generally prefer wire baskets with a coco or coir liner.   Baskets will dry out exceptionally fast when the heat index is over 100F and there isn’t a cloud in the sky for hour after hour on a summer day.  Even baskets watered generously before 8 AM may be dry again by mid-afternoon.  Coir makes a better liner than the traditional sphagnum moss, but is still exceptionally porous.

My first hack is to line the basket with an additional plastic liner to aid water retention.  You might use a large plastic shopping bag, a dry cleaner bag, or similar light-weight sheet of plastic.  If there aren’t holes in the plastic already, use the point of your scissors to poke a few holes so the basket will drain in heavy rain.   I used a shopping bag disqualified from cat-litter duty due to a few large holes already poked in the bottom.  The bag probably won’t fit into your basket perfectly, and you’ll likely need to cut some vertical darts to allow it to open wide enough to lie smoothly against the sides of your liner.

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My second hack involves a cellulose kitchen sponge.  I have a bag of new, dehydrated and pressed Trader Joe’s brand sponges and am giving this brainstorm a trial to see how well it works.  If you don’t have dried pressed sponges available, try any cellulose sponge that doesn’t have any chemical or soap products pre-loaded on it.  Just cut the sponge up into small pieces.  Use most of them in the bottom of the basket between the plastic liner and the soil.  I partially filled the liner with soil, and then added a few more fragments of sponge around the outside edge of the basket.

The sponges will serves as little reservoirs to soak up excess water when it is available and release it later to the soil and roots when it is needed.  I placed several sponge fragments around those holes in the bag to soak up water before it drains out.

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Use fresh potting mix amended with slow release fertilizer like Osmocote (here). If the mix is dense, add additional perlite, up to a quarter of the total volume.  Here additional pieces of sponge are added around the edges of the basket.  These will plump up once the basket is watered for the first time.

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Fill your container about 1/2 full of fresh potting soil and then begin placing plants, and filling back around each one with prepared potting soil.

I placed the entire soil ball from my old basket planting in a plastic box before using my hori hori knife to begin prying the various plants apart.  I saved and re-used all of the pieces of the Verbena that I could find and the rooted bits of Dichondra,which had filled the basket last summer.  Only a few bits of it survived the winter and have been competing with the Lysimachia for resources.

A lot of cleaning up may be needed to remove old, withered leaves and stems.  A pair of sharp scissors is my favorite gardening tool.

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Break apart the individual plants into smaller hunks, discarding most of the old soil.  Clean out old and withered stems and leaves as you re-plant each division.

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I settled the divisions with Verbena in the center and added a few chunks of Lysimachia around the edges.  Creeping Jenny grows quickly and will fill in within a few weeks.  I want the Dichondra to have a chance here to re-establish itself.  I’ll reserve the remaining parts of the old planting, including those dormant bulbs, for another use.

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Settle the divisions you want to re-use into fresh soil

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Finally, I still had a few rooted cuttings of Portulaca on hand.  I brought home a generous portion of cuttings from my favorite grower a few weeks ago and have had them rooting on the deck in a box of vermiculite and potting soil.  I’ve been planting them out in various places for the last few weeks,  but had enough still on hand to add seven or eight rooted stems to empty spots in this new planting.

Rooted cuttings can be worked in to established basket arrangements to refresh and update them.  They are easier to work in than nursery plants since they have a smaller root ball.  Keep well watered as they grow in.

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Rooted Portulaca cuttings ready to transplant

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Using very drought tolerant plants is the next hack for planting drought tolerant basket arrangements.  Succulents, like Portulaca or Sedums, have the ability to absorb and store water when it is available and then go for long periods of time without additional watering.  They have a waxy coating on the epidermis of each leaf and stem to reduce evaporation.  They can remain plump and vital when other plants are crisping up in the sun.

When selecting plants for baskets, pay attention to their water needs and their resilience to drought.  As more beautiful succulents come to market, choosing appropriate succulent and drought tolerant plants for container arrangements becomes easier.

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Lysimachia, Creeping Jenny, is a drought tolerant vine that tolerates full sun. It roots at every node and can take over a planting. Here, I’ve used a few divisions and left the remainder for another use later.

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The final hack for hanging baskets involves applying a mulch.  Bare soil loses moisture much faster than does mulched soil.  The best mulch in our climate is fine gravel, like aquarium gravel.  Pea gravel is another choice.  Both choices do add some weight to the basket, but they reduce evaporation, keep the plants clean and healthy without soil splashing up on them, cool the soil, and provide some protection to roots and geophytes you may plant in the basket.  We have curious squirrels who sometimes dig in pots and baskets if not discouraged by a gravel mulch.  Other choices include larger stones, small seashells, flat glass beads, marbles or glass chips, moss, and vines that fill in as a ground cover, like the Lysimachia.

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I have used a few rocks, glass beads and shells to anchor rooted cuttings in this new arrangement and have sprinkled additional Osmocote on top of the planting.  use rocks or shells to hide the raw, trimmed edges of the plastic liner.  I still need to apply some fine, gravel mulch before this basket is ready to return to the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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Once the basket is planted, and potting soil worked in firmly around all of the roots, add your mulch, and then water the basket well.  I like to water the basket with plain water first to wet everything, and then come back a short time later with a foliar feed of fish and seaweed emulsion to help the plants adjust and to provide trace minerals to the soil.

In spring, you can get by with hanging that basket into its permanent place right away.  In summer, I like to give a day or two for the plants to settle in and adjust in the shade before moving the basket to its permanent spot.  A stretch of cloudy, wet weather is best for a new basket.  But when there is a lot of sun, I like to give the plants a head start on settling their roots into their new home in a shady spot before putting them under stress in full sun.

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A Portulaca cutting has been growing in the edge of this basket for a few weeks now. Once established, they grow quickly and bloom prolifically in full or partial sun.

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Each gardener has to understand their own micro climate and preferred plants to come up with solutions that work for them.  If I were gardening in the Pacific Northwest, I might not need to line my basket with plastic or add cut up sponges to the soil.  The more realistic we are about our own growing conditions, the better job we can do with our plantings for lasting beauty.

If your hanging baskets have been less than spectacular, you might try some of these hacks to see how they work for you.  Don’t be afraid to re-work an established basket with an eye to improving it.  Changing out some of the plants, removing some of the more agressive plants, fertilizing and refreshing the soil may make all the difference in how well your planting performs.

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The basket rests in a shady spot before being returned to its place at the garden.  The Portulaca and Verbena will fill in and begin to bloom again by the end of July.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Six on Saturday: Our Forest Garden

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Most times when you hear someone talk about creating a ‘forest garden,’ they are designing a complex environment to generate fresh, healthy food for as many weeks of the year as their growing season permits.  Forest gardens are built around trees, of course, and the food producing plants come in many different layers from tree-tops to ground covers.

I began working with this idea in the 1990’s on another, suburban property where I grew a great deal of food.  In fact, most summer evenings I’d wander around our yard, basket and clippers in hand, and gather a basketful of produce to cook for our evening meal.  There were beans and squash, tomatoes, okra, various leafy greens, potatoes, apples, peaches, berries, various herbs and more.  I experimented a great deal with mixing edibles with flowering plants so the garden was both productive and beautiful.

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Vitis vulpina, a native grape, cascades through the tree tops on the sunny edges of our garden.  Can you see the ripening grapes?

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I wanted to take that to the next level on this property, where I had more space and had several species of fruit trees established when we arrived.  We all have dreams, don’t we? 

It took only a few years to understand that my best attempts would yield more frustration than success…. or dinner.  My old neighborhood had major roads all around and not a single deer for miles.  We had squirrels and the occasional raccoon.  This community is home to herds of roaming deer, a warren of rabbits lives and breeds nearby, and there are squirrels everywhere.  I’ve come to love the wildlife, especially the many species of birds who live with us, but have mostly given up my plans of growing produce at home.

Actually, I pivoted somewhere  along the way from trying every edible plant I could to cultivating as many poisonous plants as I can.  They last longer….

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You see squirrels eat peaches, pears and apples before they ripen.  Deer eat tomato plants and snack on squash and beans.  Even the container garden I tried on the deck fed our acrobatic squirrels before we could harvest the tomatoes.  We never harvest a single nut, even though there is a huge hazelnut patch right beside our deck.  Now we have a few hickory trees maturing, and I’ll be curious to see whether any nuts are left for us.

A forest garden is built around a few carefully selected fruit or nut bearing trees.   Vegetable plants are planted between and under the trees, depending on how much sun each plant requires.  Fruiting shrubs, like blueberries and brambles grow along the perimeter, and one finds room for a few elderberries, gooseberries, figs, currants, and grapes.  This is a sustainable garden, and so one tries to plant perennial crops like asparagus, sun chokes, perennial herbs and the woodies.  It is very elegant and productive when it is well planned on a fertile site.

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Figs are growing on this fig tree that I planted from a cutting of another tree in our garden.  When a branch broke off in a storm, I cut it into pieces and ‘planted’ them where I wanted new trees to grow.  Figs are great ‘forest garden’ plants.

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We’ve had some small successes.  I can grow herbs here and expect to harvest them myself.  The critters don’t bother our rosemary, thyme, sage, basil, or mints.  In fact, fragrant herbs also help deter herbivores from other delicious plants. We’ve grown rhubarb, which has poisonous leaves that the deer won’t graze.  Rhubarb prefers a cooler climate, and isn’t long-lived in our garden.

We have an Italian fig variety that doesn’t darken as it ripens.  They remain light green, and swell until they burst.  We’ve enjoyed some fine fig harvests over the years.  And grapes love our garden.  I grow a delicious Muscadine that bears well, if ‘we’ don’t prune it too hard while it is in flower.

I started our Muscadines from seed after a particularly good purchase at the farmer’s market.  But we have wild grapes, too.   Not that we ever taste them, but large clusters of other native grapes hang down from the canopy through the summer months, until birds decide they are ready to harvest.

We have Vitis aestivalis, the summer grape or pigeon grape with its beautiful trident shaped leaf; and Vitis vulpina, the wild grape or fox grape.   V. vulpina is bitter until very late into the season, and by then the wild things have claimed them.  These vines crop up as volunteers, as they do throughout most of Virginia.  They scamper up and over trees and shrubs and every gardener must decide whether to allow them or to ignore them.  By the time I decided that our forest garden is at heart a wildlife garden, I welcomed the grape vines.

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Fennel may be used fresh, the flowers are edible, and the seeds may be harvested for cooking.

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There is actually quite a lot here one could eat if one were hungry.  We could harvest the bamboo shoots in spring, but we throw them to the squirrels.  We could use many of our native flowers and other herbs for teas.  We have the full cast of edible herbs, beech nuts, acorns, figs and fiddleheads.

I could try harder.  If Trader Joe’s weren’t so conveniently close, I surely could grow potatoes, at least.  Maybe one year I’ll plant some of the seed potatoes I always save.

But quite honestly, foraging for one’s food in the garden takes planning and commitment.   It is a wonderfully interesting undertaking, and very good for both the wallet and the planet.  But it also takes really good fences and barriers.  After all, the wild things have nothing else to do all day except find their food.  Who am I to stop them?

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Monarda provides excellent forage for pollinators. Its leaves may be dried and used to flavor tea.  Its flowers are edible.  This is the distinctive flavor in Earl Gray tea.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Visit Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful.

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

 

Sunday Dinner: Bloom Where You Are Planted

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“To accomplish great things we must not only act,
but also dream;
not only plan, but also believe.
.
Anatole France

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“Only those who attempt the absurd
can achieve the impossible.”
,
Albert Einstein

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“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion,
which is life,
by artificial means and hold it fixed
so that a hundred years later,
when a stranger looks at it,
it moves again since it is life.”
.
William Faulkner

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“People pretend not to like grapes
when the vines are too high
for them to reach.”
.
Marguerite de Navarre

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“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing
unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…
I have never in my life envied a human being
who led an easy life.
I have envied a great many people
who led difficult lives and led them well.”
.
Theodore Roosevelt

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“Not much happens without a dream.
And for something great to happen,
there must be a great dream.
Behind every great achievement
is a dreamer of great dreams.
Much more than a dreamer is required
to bring it to reality;
but the dream must be there first.”
.
Robert K. Greenleaf

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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“One bulb at a time.
There was no other way to do it.
No shortcuts–simply loving the slow process of planting.
Loving the work as it unfolded.
Loving an achievement that grew slowly
and bloomed for only three weeks each year.”
.
Jaroldeen Asplund Edwards

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Visit Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful.

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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A new site allows me to continue posting new content since after more than 1700 posts there is no more room on this site.  -WG

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