Six on Saturday: ‘Garden Bathing’

Caladium ‘Berries and Burgundy’ grows enthusiastically in this shady spot.

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Maybe I’m too easily entertained.  Or maybe I’m just a sucker for a pretty leaf.  We’ve reached the time of the year when I can happily circumambulate the garden admiring the newest, brightest leaves appearing on our Caladiums and other ‘Elephant Ear’ plants and noting how many different flowers may be in bloom.

Now, let’s be honest here:  there isn’t a great deal of happiness in our public lives at the moment.  We watch every dystopian plot line play out in the daily news, even as we plan how to avoid viral contamination in the mundane acts of collecting our mail, picking up the groceries or taking a walk.  I find a good antidote to the general anxiety of our age in ‘garden bathing.

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Alocasia ‘Plumbea’ with orbs

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Maybe you’ve heard of ‘Forest Bathing,’ or shinrin-yoku?  This Japanese practice of spending time out of doors under the canopy of trees can be brought right home to our own gardens, as we soak in the atmosphere through all of our senses.  The Japanese scientists who study these things found greater happiness, well-being, and good health among those who devote some time to soaking in the sights, sounds, scents and sensations of nature.

I’m happy knowing that 40 years of research has proven what gardeners already know:  we feel better when we spend time outside in a garden.  Curiously, it doesn’t matter so much whether we are in our own garden or a friend’s; a public garden or a park.  Time spent under trees and surrounded by plants helps us feel better in measurable ways.

And not just plants, either.  Spotting a turtle or a dragonfly feels like a gift.  Watching butterflies feed or birds glide around the garden brings its own peaceful contentment.

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Alocasia with Caladiums

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Maybe that is why I awaken each morning with a gardening ‘to do’ list already percolating in my waking thoughts.  Whether my list includes tasks at home, at the local botanical garden, or both; I awake with purpose and the intent to invest some early morning time out of doors working in a garden.

Whether I’m pulling weeds, watering, or just monitoring how the plants are growing, I can blissfully disconnect from the day’s narrative of outrage and gloom.  Every opening flower and bit of new growth gets counted as a worthy accomplishment.

There are many ways to express compassion for others and ourselves.  There are many ways to assist others in experiencing happiness.  We each do what we can.  I read about an artist who painted a flower for every staff member of a distant hospital, over 1000 in all.  His paintings were framed and presented to each person as a ‘thank you’ gesture for their healing and sustaining work.

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There are those who cook and deliver meals or loaves of bread to those in need.  Others sew and deliver masks, or check on lonely neighbors.  There is a task waiting for every willing heart and hand.

What could be more life-affirming and joy inducing than planting and tending a garden?  We need beauty, tranquility and inspiration now in ways we may have not needed them before. They are an antidote to the darker feelings that bubble up in our thoughts each day.

So I reach out to all of my gardening friends and to everyone who nurtures a plot of growing things.  Let us continue the work and know that it is good, and purposeful and that our efforts make a positive difference in this crazy world.  Let’s sow beauty and reap happiness, for ourselves and for our communities.

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Caladium ‘Splash of Wine’ is new in our garden this year. This is the first leaf opened from the tuber.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Caladium ‘Debutante’

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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: Summer’s Spell

Hibiscus ‘Kopper King’ opened its first flower of the summer on Thursday morning.

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By mid-July, finally, the garden unfolds its best treasures.  All of the daffodils and tulips, Iris and Clematis served as prologue; while time, heat, rain and sunlight worked their annual magic to bring the summer garden to fruition.  And right on schedule, our garden has filled once again with butterflies and hummingbirds.

July feels like the garden’s natural state.  All of the weeks leading from winter to high summer are only preparation for this magical time. Lantana shrubs have covered themselves in nectar filled flowers, tiny magnets for every pollinator who happens by.  Huge panicles of Buddleia tower over our heads and golden yellow black-eyed Susans open around our knees.  But the best and the biggest, the most enticing to our hummers and butterflies, the Hibiscus, open their wide flowers for the first time only in the humid heat of a July morning.

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Native Vitis vultina, the frost grape, winds and stretches out new growth every day, as our Rose of Sharon trees fill with flowers.

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Now, the Hibiscus syriacus, the woody Rose of Sharon trees, began to bloom in mid-June, right as I was finally pulling out the last if the Violas and Gardenias perfumed the air.   They signal that hot weather has settled in and spring has faded into summer.  Bumble bees fill their flowers, almost white sometimes from all of the pollen they collect while sipping nectar deep inside the safety of their huge petals.  Hummingbirds dart from flower to flower, hovering by each open blossom before diving in for a sip.

But the larger Hibiscus moscheutos, with flowers as large as dessert plates, are still growing in June.  Each herbaceous stem is still extending towards the sun, topped with a cluster of tight green buds.  The Hibiscus stems grow taller and taller each day.  Their leaves grow larger than my hand.  The anticipation builds.

And then finally, one hot, muggy morning the first one of the season opens, and you know that summer has settled in for a few magical weeks of astounding beauty.

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Native Hibiscus moscheutos blooms beside Caladium ‘Burning Heart.’  Holes in their leaves prove that both are feeding our garden insects.

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I saw the first one open on Thursday.  I was just home from an early morning errand.   It caught my eye as soon as I pulled into the drive, and I was astounded, (as I am every year) at its size and brilliance.  Hibiscus open early in the morning and close again each night.  Some flowers may last only a day, some may last a few days, depending on the weather.  But they always appear suddenly, expanding and opening as if by some natural magic that the human eye can’t see.

Later in the morning, while watering in other parts of the garden, I found a second and a third clump of Hibiscus that have finally come into bloom.  These are native plants and spread their own seeds around the garden each year.  I own one hybrid clump, bought some years ago from a dealer at the farmer’s market.  The rest of our Hibiscus planted themselves and tend themselves.  I only make sure they have water when it’s time to set buds and bloom, and then cut their woody stalks back to the ground sometime in winter.

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This is the fourth stalk of blossoms our Crinum lily has put up so far this year. It takes these Amaryllis relatives a few seasons to settle in and grow productive, in full sun.  These are growing at the northern end of their range here in Zone 7.

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The flamboyant Hibiscus coccineus aren’t quite ready to bloom.  I watch their progress each day, give them a good watering to encourage them, and wait.  It won’t be long until their first huge, red blossoms open amid the tall red flowers of the Canna lilies.  The Cannas wait for July to bloom, too.  First one, and soon a clique of scarlet flowers tower over the perennials around them.  They also attract hummingbirds and butterflies to their flower covered stems.

What has been a mass of green erupts in gold, red, pink, purple and white:  Hibiscus, Rudbeckia, Eupatorium, Hedychium, Solidago, Crinum, Physostegia, Conoclinium, Salvia, Verbena and Alliums.  It is our garden’s own summer fireworks show of nectar laden flowers.  A visual feast for us, and a perpetual feast of nectar and seeds for our winged neighbors who float and fly and buzz through it from sunrise until deep into the evening.  For as long as high summer lasts, that is. 

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Ironically, this is the least likely time of the year that we will just wander out to enjoy it all.  Mid-July always brings stretches of scorching heat and oppressive humidity in coastal Virginia.  The day is best enjoyed in early morning or late evening.  And time spent in the garden includes watering the pots and deadheading flowers as they fade, to encourage new ones to take their places.  It is the busiest time of our gardening year, and the most rewarding.

A hummingbird buzzed close to my ear this morning as I photographed a bee sipping Lantana nectar.  He was considering whether to come in for a sip when I straightened up to admire him.  Shy as always, he turned and flew up through the trees and into the upper garden.   Perhaps I’ll catch his portrait another morning.  And if not his, there will be no shortage of winged neighbors so long as summer’s spell lingers in our garden.

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Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly feeds on our Lantana.

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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

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

 

Six on Saturday: A Gracious Plenty

Perennial hardy Begonias spread a bit more each year by seed, rhizomes, and little bulblets that form where each leaf meets the stem. These drop in the fall and grow as  new plants the following spring.  Begonias mix here with ferns and Caladiums.

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Some plants have generosity baked into their DNA.  Generosity, or an energetic compulsion to survive and multiply.  As I often tell gardening friends, “Plants just want to live.”

Whether you are just naturally thrifty, or have a large space to paint with plants, or like a coordinated design with large expanses of the same plant; it helps to know which plants are easy to propagate and spread around, and which are likely to simply sit in their spot and wait for you to feed and water them.

Are there extroverts in the plant kingdom?  ‘Super-spreader’ plants just assume you appreciate their company and welcome more of their kind.  Maybe you do, and maybe you don’t.  Gardeners tend to share those ‘extras’ freely with one another.

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Silver marked Lamium grows along the edges of this mixed planting. Native ageratum, Conoclinium coelestinum, spreads itself around by dropping seeds each summer to crop up in unexpected places the following year.

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Please don’t be naive about it, either.  If I’m offering you a pot or a bag of something and urging you to take it, maybe it is because I’ve had to thin (read: rip) some out of my garden space and would rather give it to you than toss it on the compost.  I have ‘received’ a few of these gifts that went on to boldly colonize huge spaces in our garden.

I just found several baby Canna lily plants growing out into a path.  I say ‘baby’ because they were only a few inches tall.  These beauties will be taller than me in another month.  I had to dig them or give up that little path forever.  The first of their kind made to my garden seven years ago in a friend’s grocery bag; a generous and much appreciated gift.

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Canna lillies die back to the ground each winter, to re-emerge by early summer, spreading a bit further each season. They attract hummingbirds and other pollinators. Native Hibiscus grows behind this Canna.

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They have spread themselves about ever since, which I’ve allowed because I like them and the hummingbirds they feed.  But there was nowhere left to move these stragglers, and so I began trying to give them away.   And two weeks later, I’m content in knowing their roots are happily sunk into good rich earth in a garden nearby.

Cannas, like many Iris and some ferns, grow underground stems called ‘rhizomes,’ to spread themselves around.  A new leaf and stalk will just grow along the way as the rhizome keeps on creeping further and further afield.  Roots grow from the bottom and sides of the rhizome.  Separate a hunk that has a few roots attached and at least one ‘eye’ for new leaf growth, and you have an independent plant ready to go out into the world.

Other creepers that just keep expanding into new space include many Colocasia, which have both rhizomes and runners; many grasses; the beautiful groundcover Lamium, also known as deadnettle; all of the many mints and many native wildflowers like obedient plant and goldenrod.  If you want a large, luxurious expanse of this plant, go ahead and invite it home to your garden.  It will reward you by multiplying in short order.

Other beautiful perennials beget seedlings in abundance.  Rudbeckia are famous for this, but aren’t the only ones.  Hibiscus seed freely, and I find new little Rose of Sharon trees popping up every spring.  Some of the newer, named varieties may be sterile, as some newer crape myrtle varieties are sterile.  But every flower will likely produce dozens of seeds, and the math of their propagation is beyond my attention span.

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‘Annual’ Verbena creeps and fills pots and baskets nicely. The stems root easily in soil or water. Verbena flowers from mid-spring through frost.  Coleus (behind) and Dichondra (left) also root easily from nodes along their stems.

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Many stems easily root in either soil or water.  Knowing this, you can clone as many plants as you want just like your original.  Specialized cells at each node where leaf joins stems, called meristematic tissue, can differentiate to grow into new stems, leaves or roots as needed.

When I buy pots of ‘annual’ Verbena, I always examine the stems, where they touch the soil, to look for roots.  If there are little roots already, I snip that stem close to the crown and gently tug the little tangle of new roots away from the root ball.  This rooted stem we call a ‘division.’  Now, if there aren’t any rooted stems, you can easily get a stem to root by pegging it down to the soil with a small stone or a bit of wire.    Once some roots have grown, cut the stem away and gently lift its little roots.  Plant it back into the same pot nearby, or spread the plant to another spot.

Many plants root from their stems.  Most will root if you just cut them away at a node and plop them into moist soil.  Give a little shade from the mid-day sun while those new roots grow, keep the soil watered, and you’ll soon notice new growth.

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Colocasia and Iris; both grow from underground rhizomes and spread more each year. They are very easy to separate and any piece of rhizome with roots and an eye will grow into a new plant.  Grow these in containers to limit their spread.

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Other plants grow in circles, with expanding ‘crowns.’  The crown is where new leaves arise each spring and is normally right at, or right below soil level.  Hostas and Heucheras grow this way.  Lift them and divide them into pieces in the spring, cutting apart ‘sections’ that have both roots and new clumps of emerging leaves.  One Hosta may become several after this simple surgery, each section ready to replant and continue to grow.

With a little patience and planning, you can also have ‘a gracious plenty’ of favorite plants in your garden without buying out the garden center every spring.  Once you grow a little bit infatuated with a plant, you’ll likely want more just like it.  Learn its ways and offer a little encouragement.  Soon it will reward you with enthusiastic growth.

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Hostas may be knocked out of their pot and divided so that each clump of leaves has roots attached. Replant each clump and it will continue to grow and expand.

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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

Six on Saturday: Texture and Form

Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’

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A bright flash of darting yellow caught our eye this morning as we were backing out of the drive.  The first two goldfinches of the season, startled by our movement, took off and flew across the garden to a low branch, where they could observe us in safety.

Color excites.  It attracts our attention and directs our eye from one colorful thing to the next.  We were delighted to notice the goldfinches, and my eye lingered on the royal purple panicles of Buddleia just opened and white calla lily blossoms shining in the morning sunlight.

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Zantedeschia began to bloom this week in a sea of native perennials.

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But too much color, especially if the color mix is random and uncoordinated, sometimes makes us feel a little anxious.   We might feel annoyed or turn away if it doesn’t feel harmonious.  We might need to buffer bright flowers within a frame of green to appreciate them.

And sometimes, I enjoy the restful and calming beauty wrought more of texture than of color.  There are uncounted shades of green.  Especially if one includes the blends of grey-green, silver, chartreuse green, blue-green, and green tinged white.

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When one begins to notice the intricate shapes of green leaves, their posture on a stem, and their degree of matte or shiny finish; wonderful compositions grow together from these living brush strokes.  Ferns of all sizes, textures and shades serve as both composition and frame.

I have been seeking out beautiful leaves lately.  I found a new Artemesia ‘Sea Salt’ this week, and am trying it in both a hanging basket and in a rock garden.  Artemesia likes it hot and dry, thrives in full sun and needs little attention.  This one is low growing, and I hope it won’t get washed out in our summer rain.  Its leaves are silvery white.

So many of our foliage plants like ferns and Hosta, Caladiums and Heuchera want shade, that it is good to find interesting foliage plants for full sun.  Calla lily leaves like the sun, and won’t end up chewed by caterpillars the way our Cannas often do.  Stachys is another great silvery grey leaf that thrives in bright parts of the garden.

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Gardenia shrubs bloom in full to part sun.

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I planted a basket this week for a shady spot, with just an emerald green shield fern in the center, and silvery Dichondra around the edges.  I expect it to be stunning as the Dichondra fills in and drapes over the basket’s sides.  I have some little Begonia semperflorens stems rooting in water, and I’m debating whether to add them around the fern, or just leave the basket in shades of green.  The flowers are a soft pink and the leaves variegated chartreuse and light green.  Too much?

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A little bright color cheers us up.  But all things in moderation, right?  This summer I am enjoying the calmer corners of our garden, those bits that invite close observation to fully appreciate their beauty.

The flowers will come and go, as they  always do.  But the tapestry woven by these interesting leaves will last all season.

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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

 

Six on Saturday: Perennial Patience

This tough summer planting includes Coleus, Verbena, Lantana, Dichondra and Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost.’ It can take heat and sun and continue looking good through until fall.  These are all tender perennials and can overwinter in the garage, or some may make it through winter outdoors in this large pot.

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You may know that many of the bright little plants sold at nurseries each spring as ‘annuals’ actually are perennials.  An annual grows from a seed, blooms, sets seed and dies all between last frost of winter and first frost of autumn.  Only the seeds will last from one season to the next.

Perennials will live from year to year given the right degree of protection from winter’s chill.  Hardy perennials can over winter in pot or in the ground out of doors, with minimal protection.  Tender perennials need to come inside to live, whether they overwinter in the living room, garage, basement or cold frame.  We are on the cusp of Zone 8, here in Williamsburg, and some winters prove a bit warmer or colder than the norm.  That means that some of those tender ‘annual’ perennials I’ve left outside in pots, baskets or borders may just delight me by returning the following spring.

It is a contest of patience.  Most don’t rush to show themselves.  And keeping faith that survivors will return is a good reason to procrastinate on re-working our pots and baskets until early June.

Here we are near the end of the first week of June and I am still in the midst of transplanting Caladiums and planting out the few new plants I bought in mid-May.  Our cooler than usual spring dictated that the Caladiums tough it out in the garage several weeks longer than usual.  They’ve grown lank and leggy, but still hold promise.

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Caladium ‘Pink Beauty’ shares a pot with a Japanese painted fern. The Caladium just made its way to its summer pot this week.

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I dig and dry our Caladium tubers each November and store them in bags over winter in a spare room, then start them again by late March.  By May, they are showing new leaves and are ready to move back outside once again.  Only this year, it was too cool until just a couple of weeks ago.

By waiting so late, I’ve allowed time for Pelargoniums and Verbena, Tradescantia, Dichondra, Lantana, ferns and mints to show themselves alive and growing.  In many cases last year’s arrangements are returning for another season of growth.

But not all return.  At some point, one must clear out the leggy Violas and cut back the fading Dianthus, and carefully remove any faded remains of last year’s plants to give this summer’s plants time to establish and fill in before the season heats up too much.

For me, it’s like working a grand and complicated puzzle.  It helps to not over-think it, too, or else end up frustrated and frozen into indecision.  After all, mixing things up year to year and trying new plants and new combinations keeps things fresh.

I have my favorites.  Caladiums and Begonias fall near the top of my list of all time favorite summer plants for long lasting color.  Give them what they require and they will live on season after season.  Begonias must overwinter in the house or garage, unless they are one of the hardy varieties.   They might look a little rough by late May, but by late June they are covering themselves with brilliant new leaves and by late July the Begonias will be full of blooms again.  It is very easy to root Begonia stems to create entirely new plants and spread them around.  Overwinter as potted plants or as cuttings.

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Tradescantia returns reliably in our hanging baskets. It roots easily from a stem cutting and may be started in a new spot mid-season from a cutting.

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Other favorites include Coleus, another tender perennial, which can overwinter in the garage and starts easily from cuttings.   One can also buy a single new plant and take as many cuttings as one wants for additional plants.  Root them in a glass of water, or simply stick them in a pot where you want them to grow and keep them well-watered while they root.

Both ‘annual’ Verbena and Lantana return for us.  These are both excellent choices to stand up to our hot, muggy summers, too.  They can tough it out in hanging baskets or pots when the soil gets dry, and will wait for me to remember to bring them some water, if it doesn’t rain.  They attract hummingbirds, butterflies and lots of other little pollinators for endless entertainment.

Tradescantia looks tropical, but once well established, it will return year after year.  It is related to our native spiderwort. You have to wait for it, however, as you might not see it until late May.  It has little pink flowers, but I grow it for its gorgeous purple leaves and strong constitution.  Full sun, dry soil and long summer days don’t bother it, and deer will leave it strictly alone.  I plant Tradescantia and Lantana in the large pot outside of the Botanical garden’s gate, knowing they are safe from hungry deer.

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This tough Verbena is starting its third year in its basket. Pineapple mint, Lantana and a scented geranium have also returned here this spring.

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Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ is grown as a perennial ground cover further south.  I love it in pots and baskets because it grows into long, shimmering ‘curtains’ of foliage that get better as summer wears on.  Frost knocks back the foliage, but if one is patient and waits, it will often return from its roots by late May.  Dichondra roots easily from stems and is simple to divide from the nursery pot into smaller clumps, or simply layer to spread it around the outer edge of a hanging basket.  It is a wonderful bonus when it returns for another year.

Another plant I wait for each year is scented Pelargonium.  It is always a bonus when one survives and returns with fresh leaves in May.  I wonder sometimes whether I give up waiting too soon, and dig out plants that might eventually sprout.  When in doubt, it is easy enough to pot up the roots and wait to see.

Drenching pots of overwintered perennials with organic fertilizer, such as Neptune’s Harvest, when watering them helps them come into growth, especially if their survival is iffy during a difficult spring.

Tender Pelargoniums can be grown indoors over winter and cuttings root easily, if you have a special variety and don’t want to take a chance on leaving them out of doors all winter.

There are a few hardy perennials  I grow in pots year to year as well.  Heuchera, coral bells, will often keep color and leaves throughout our winter, but wakes up and produces new leaves and flower stalks by mid-spring.  These grow larger and better each year, and may live in a large pot indefinitely.

I prefer to grow Hostas in pots, too.  They will grow larger when planted out in a bed, but then their roots are vulnerable to voles.  Hostas can be knocked out of a pot and divided easily in spring, spread around, and will add color and texture wherever you need them in part to deep shade.

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Heuchera will easily fill a pot. It may be divided in early spring to spread a favorite variety around.  This is a fairly new variety called ‘Midnight Rose.’

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Deciduous ferns will also live on in pots year after year.  Japanese painted ferns and lady ferns, Athyriums, are my favorites for this treatment.  Pair them with Violas over winter to fill the pot, and then drop in a Caladium or two in spring to add interest through the summer. Watching for the first fiddleheads to appear is a sure sign of spring.

All of these plants have proven good investments in this climate.  They give many months of beauty, and generally return year after year.  They thrive in our conditions and most stand up to the wildlife.  (A spritz of deer repellent on the Hostas and Heucheras is helpful to avoid unpleasant surprises, however.)

Our garden centers are filled with enough choices to make one dizzy.  It is tempting to load one’s cart with one or two of everything and hope for the best.  While it is always interesting to try new plants, I am contented to plant what works.  I have had one too many lush baskets bake by late July, pathetic little petunia stems desiccated and dying.  Now, I reach for these hardy companions that will go the distance through a Virginia summer.

And given a little patience, I can extend their lives year to year.

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Pelargonium, a rose scented geranium that made it through winter and returned in April, is now larger than the new ones I picked up at the nursery in May.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Visit Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful.

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

 

Six on Saturday: Always Another Surprise

This old redbud tree fell over in a storm last year, yet is covered in new growth this spring. Its roots are strongly planted in the earth even as its trunk lies nearly horizontal along the slope of the garden.

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We weren’t expecting to get between 3 and 5 inches of rain yesterday afternoon.  Sure, we knew it might rain; there might even be a little thunder.  It’s nearly June, the start of Hurricane Season.  Storms come and go in coastal Virginia, and we’ve had a lot of that wet traffic lately.

But the storms seemed to be going around us for much of the day.  And even when the wispy little edge of a system brushed over us on radar, we expected only a passing shower.  But no.  It lingered, grew, intensified, roiled around a while.  It filled the ditch by our street and turned the creek in the ravine into a rushing river of run-off as a flash-flood warning pinged on my phone.  We began to hear about local roads flooding as heavy rain pounded on the roof and patio, our trees bending and swaying under such an unexpected watery attack.

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Some parts of the garden love the rain.

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Does it make sense to say that you’re surprised, while not being really surprised at all?  We’ve had so many fast, unexpected storms roll over our area in recent years that nothing from the sky should surprise us anymore.  And yet when they sneak up in mid-afternoon, without proper warning from the weather-guessers, and then leave a changed landscape behind, it does leave a scuff-mark on one’s psyche.

Of course we are in these already surreal and surprising months of 2020, so nothing should surprise us too much at this point.  Weather seems the least of it, honestly.

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Athyrium ‘Ghost’

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But when I went out early this morning, camera in hand, to spy on the rabbits munching the front ‘lawn’ and to see what I could see in the garden, I was greeted with more little surprises in the garden.

Maybe what I really love most about gardening is the novelty of tending a living system and all of the surprises, both pleasant and not, which greet one each day.  What’s changed?  What’s in bloom?  What’s grown?  What’s been eaten overnight by the deer?  What young tree has just fallen over after the voles ate its roots?  You get my drift….

The very back of our garden is sheltered by a small ‘bamboo forest’ which shields it from the ravine.  Now, you likely know that bamboo, even when it’s 40′ tall and as big around as a large grapefruit, is a grass.  And grass grows from underground rhizomes, which spread as far as they possibly can.  We love the bamboo and the cool privacy it gives us.

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That said, every May we must police its new shoots daily to keep it in bounds.  You see, it really, really would like to claim more of the garden and so marches right up the hill towards our home every spring.  It sends up new shoots hourly over several weeks, and then it gives up until next year.  Sometimes the shoots are chopstick thin and actually look like a respectable grass.  They’re rather artistic and I’d be tempted to leave them, emerging in the midst of a flower border or my fernery, if I didn’t know their intent.

Other shoots come up thick and strong, like fast growing baseball bats claiming their right to seek the sun above the garden.  It’s a good thing that the squirrels love fresh bamboo shoots so much, because they quickly clean up the stray shoots we must knock over each day.

Well, when I wandered into the back garden this morning, I was greeted with unexpectedly prodigious new bamboo shoots thrusting up through shrubs, ferns, perennials and grass.  How can they grow that fast?  I wasn’t in my boots yet, so I made their portraits and left them to grow another few hours until my partner could deal with them.

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The ground was soft and squishy, still completely saturated from another early morning rain.  Fig branches were bent and touching the ground.  The lamb’s ears flower stalks I’d been allowing to grow for the bees lay flat in the mulch.  Only the ferns looked truly happy this morning.  The ferns, pushing out abundant new fronds, and a lone Japanese Iris that just bloomed for the first time in our garden.

A fresh Iris blossom always elicits a smile from me.  Like a deep breath of fresh spring air, it fills me with unreasonable happiness.  What is this magic some flowers work in our gnarly, jaded hearts?  I can turn away from two score bamboo shoots invading the garden to admire a single Iris blossom, and let that beautiful surprise buoy me back inside to pour my morning coffee.

Yes, we garden as much for the surprises as for the known rhythms of our gardening year.  There’s always something new to enjoy and always some new chore to do.  What more could one hope for?

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Iris ensata, ‘Temple Bells,’ blooming for the first time in our garden this morning.  It was a gift from a friend last summer.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Please visit my new website, Illuminations, for a daily photo from our garden.

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

Six on Saturday: Flowers for Mother’s Day

Rosa ‘Crown Princess Margareta’

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Many years ago now, when my daughter was still at home, I was asked one May what I would like for Mother’s Day.  My wish that year was for a rose bush to plant beside the front porch.  I knew that a rose bush would give me roses each and every year in May; the Mother’s Day gift that returns year after year.  We went together as a family to my favorite garden center and I came home with a beautiful rose covered with  large, red flowers.

And my Mother’s Day rose grew into a beautiful, tall shrub that bloomed extravagantly every year after.   It was a climber, and I got these special, soft little metal attachers that I could hammer into the mortar between the bricks to permanently anchor it to the front of the house.

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I left that garden and that Mother’s Day rose behind more than a decade ago, to move to this Forest Garden.  But our first year here, once again  I was seeking out roses.  I love roses.  I particularly love heirloom roses, climbing roses, and deliciously scented roses.  The English Shrub Roses bred by David Austin’s team are among my all-time favorites.

Roses have been a real challenge to grow in this garden, between the weather, the surrounding forest and the deer.  I’ve lost more than I’ve kept alive, which makes every blossom on every surviving rose shrub that much more special to me.

Rosa ‘Crown Princess Margareta’ is a climber bred by the Austin family.  Its rich apricot color and warm fruity fragrance remind me every spring why I love roses so much.  This one has grown up through a rose of Sharon shrub and it has blessed me this Mother’s Day weekend with more than two dozen blossoms.

The climbers are able to scramble up tall enough that the deer can’t munch the blossoms and prune all of the new growth.  Those that stay smaller have little chance to survive, but one I thought was a gonner last summer has come back from its roots and has already given us several flowers.  Every spring I read the new David Austin catalog wistfully, admiring the new introductions and old friends I’ve grown in the past.

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An heirloom peony planted by an earlier gardener in this space.

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I don’t give much time to such nostalgia, though.  And I certainly won’t even try to establish any new rose shrubs in this very wild garden.  This garden has ‘allowed’ me to expand my gardening tastes to include beautiful plants the deer will leave alone.  Some, like our Iris, are long-time favorites I’ve grown everywhere I’ve lived.  But I’ve learned to appreciate lots of other plants that I might not have tried, if necessity hadn’t inspired me to try new species.

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Iris pseudacorus, the yellow flag Iris, also left here by a previous gardener.  Deer leave our Iris alone.

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Mother’s Day is a moment to pause and remember the long line of strong women who have loved us and made our lives possible.  Some of these women might be special aunts and grandmothers, others family friends, teachers, neighbors, and others who have helped us along the way.  This year many of us are connecting with our mothers through phone calls and video chats.  Our greeting cards may be digital and our gifts delayed.

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Siberian Iris, a gift from a friend.

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But it is the remembering and expressions of love that matter, not the form they take.

Just as a rose shrub will give us a special Mother’s Day gift year after year, into an uncertain and often transformed future; so a garden helps us put down our own roots and grow into something new.  Each of us is growing and transforming, too.  Let us grow stronger each year; more generous and more appreciative of all life gives us.

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Iris ‘Rosalie Figge’

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Happy Mother’s Day to all of those who mother others

 

Please visit my new website, Illuminations, for a photo from our garden and a thought provoking quotation each day.

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

Six on Saturday: Textured Tapestry

Siberian Iris just began to bloom here this week.

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We’ve had a wet week here in coastal Virginia.  It always rains on the Irises here.  I keep waiting to be proven wrong on that maxim, but I can’t remember a year when my beautiful tall German Iris haven’t been beaten down under heavy rain and wind.  Brave and hardy as Iris prove in our garden, those 4′ tall stalks covered in buds and bloom can only take so much before they crumple in the rain.  I’ve been cutting away those soggy, crumpled blooms between showers, and propping up fallen stems.

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Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia is native to our region

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I believe most all of us gardeners still feel excitement when our favorite flowers bloom.  Some years that excitement lasts a nice long while.  Other times the weather grows erratic and the blooms are cut short by too much heat or cold, rain or drought.  Flowers come in so many novel shapes and sizes that we might never grow them all.  But for me, it is the intense pop of color that I crave most.

It is hard to pick a favorite as most every color becomes my favorite in its own place and season.  When the flowers fade and drop (and they always do,) we’re left with the rest of the plant: stems and leaves.  And so that had better be somehow attractive, too.

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Purple Violas bloom with a lady fern. Wild strawberries and Vinca hide their pot and  fill the bed around fading daffodil leaves.

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At some point in our garden planning each of us turns our attention from the bright excitement of flowers to the textured tapestry of beautiful foliage.  And I don’t mean the ‘restful’ monotony of solid green meatball shrubs growing out of a grassy green carpet.  I’m thinking more of the extravagant textures and intricate color patterns found on many leaves.  Leaves are long-lived.  Most will grow on for many months before fading away.

Some plants we grow for their leaves alone, never expecting or wanting their flowers.  There are thousands of ferns that never bloom.  Shade gardeners also love Hosta, and generally have strong opinions on whether to allow them to bloom or not.  Other easy choices include Heuchera, coleus, Begonias, Caladiums, the many beautiful ornamental grasses, and Liriope.

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Autumn fern ‘Brilliance’ grows larger and better each year. Strawberry Begonia fills the pots surrounding this bed of ferns and Hellebores.

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For pure texture, without much variegation or shading, I love herbs.  But oh, the wonderful colors in the herbal palette!  There are so many silvery, shimmery greys, deep green rosemary, purple basil leaves and every color of green mint.  Most herbs are easy to grow with very little thought or care.  They can take heat and drought and are ignored by pests and pesky grazers.  Too much rain and humidity are the only things that stop their performance.

And honestly, I’m developing a new appreciation of those wild volunteer plants commonly called ‘weeds.’  Some indigenous to this garden I’ve since realized are native wildflowers.  Others were once cultivated but now run wild.  When you just look at them for their texture, shape and color, many have their own beauty.  They may be thugs and crowd out something you planted, and may need pulling and thinning at times.  But that remains true of many perennials we plant, too.

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The humble strawberry begonia, that I cultivated as a hanging houseplant in the 70’s, is actually a hardy perennial here in Williamsburg.  I started a few years ago with just a few small pots.  And as they multiplied (one of the plants known as ‘mother of thousands,’ by the way) I have used them in more pots and beds.  What was innocently planted last year as an accent plant will soon enough take over the entire pot or bed.  But what a beautiful groundcover!  And now, in May, when they bloom with stalks of tiny white fairy shaped flowers, I am glad that I’ve let it run.

These are aren’t members of the ‘Begonia’ genus.  They are a Saxifraga and perform especially well in rock gardens and pots.  But the leaf is silvery and bright like some Begonias, and it runs like a strawberry with new plants growing at the ends of long stolons.  Saxifraga stolonifera is hardy in Zones 6-9 and remains evergreen if left outside here over winter.

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Native muscadine grape produce good edible grapes, when allowed to bloom. Many gardeners clear these away as they quickly grow huge if left unpruned.

 

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Once we find ourselves in May, and perennials grow again and woody’s leaves unfold, the many interesting textures of our garden weave themselves together in beautiful and novel ways.  It is a little different every year.  Once I can get past the novelty of bright flowers blooming again, I settle in to enjoy the every changing tapestry of stems and leaves that reliably furnish the garden from now until first frost.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Please visit my new website, Illuminations, for a garden photo and a thought provoking quotation each day.

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

Six On Saturday: When Wood Breaks Into Bloom

Redbud is the earliest tree in our garden to bloom, followed within another week or two by the dogwoods.

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When stark woody limbs suddenly burst open to liberate soft, fragrant flowers, we live, once again, the mystery play of spring.

We witness sudden and transformative change initiated by some small fluctuation in the status quo.  Days grow a few minutes longer; temperatures rise.  The Earth tilts a bit more in this direction or that, and the winds bring a new season as every branch, bulb, seed and root respond.

It is natural magic, and needs no assistance.  Every tree responds to its own cue of light and warmth while the gardener sits back with a cup of tea to appreciate the spectacle.

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Redbud flowers emerge directly from woody stems.  A member of the pea family, redbud, Cercis, trees store nitrogen on their roots, directly fertilizing the soil where they grow.  The nitrogen is filtered out of the air by their leaves, along with carbon.  Other plants can draw on this nitrogen in the soil for their own growth.

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I’m becoming more aware, with each passing season, of the silent cues leading me on my own journey as a gardener.  I’m looking for value when I invest in planting some new thing in the garden.  How many seasons will it grow?  How much return will it yield for my investment in planting?

A potted geranium will give six or eight months of interest, perhaps another season or two if you are both lucky and skilled.  A potted Camellia will outlive the gardener, assuming it survives its first seasons of hungry deer and unexpected drought.  The Camellia can produce hundreds of flowers in a single season, and more with each passing year.  A dogwood or Magnolia tree fills the garden with even more flowers, then feeds the birds months later as their seeds mature.

Gardening, like all transcendent pursuits, may be neatly reduced to mathematics when choices must be made.

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From left: new leaves emerge red on this hybrid crape myrtle; small Acer palmatum leaves emerge red and hold their color into summer; red buckeye, Aesculus pavia is naturalized in our area and volunteers in unlikely places, blooming scarlet each spring. In the distance, dogwood blooms in clouds of white.

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Yesterday afternoon I planted the Hydrangea paniculata I bought one Saturday afternoon almost two years ago, while taking my mother shopping.  A dozen potted shrubs were piled in front of her Wal-Mart store that late summer afternoon, reduced by half to move them.  They were clearing out the nursery area in preparation for holiday stock and impulsively, I grabbed a nice one and piled it in my cart.

“What are you going to do with that?”  she asked, cautiously, maybe wondering whether I intended to plant it in her yard somewhere.  She is housebound now, and can’t get out to garden as she once did.

“I don’t know yet,”  I responded, “but I’m sure I’ll find a spot for it at home.”  And the place I found was in a sheltered spot behind the house while I figured out where to plant it.  And it seemed quite content there, though it didn’t bloom last summer.  And it lived through two winters in its nursery pot while I dithered about where to plant it.

And finally, with a twinge of guilt for not letting its roots spread into good earth and its limbs reach into the sunlight, I chose a spot this week on our back slope, near other Hydrangeas, where we lost some lilac shrubs and their absence left an empty space to fill.  The Hydrangea will appreciate our acidic soil and the partial shade that has grown in there, where the lilac shrubs did not.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea also produces panicles of flowers in May, and the flowers persist into early winter. Many Hydrangeas bloom on new wood, while others set their buds in autumn. It pays to know your shrub.

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And as I plant, I can see its spindly little branches growing stout and long, reaching up and out for light and air.  Since it blooms on new wood, not old, every summer it will have the opportunity to stretch, and grow, and fill its corner of the garden with large pale panicles of flowers for months at a time.  Its roots will hold the bank against erosion and its woody body will welcome birds and support heavy flowers.  Each branch has the power to root and grow into a new shrub, even as each flower will support a cloud of humming insects on summer days.

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On March 1, 2017 our Magnolia liliflora trees were already in full bloom.

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There is tremendous potential in every woody plant.  They weave the fabric of the garden as days become weeks and weeks knit themselves into years.  Knowing them closely allows one to choose wisely, creating a flowering patchwork of trees and shrubs that shine each in their own season, and ornament the garden, each in its own way, every day of each passing year.

When leaves turn bright, then brown, and begin to swirl on autumn’s chilling winds, leaving stark woody skeletons where our soft green trees swayed so shortly ago; we watch with confidence that spring is but another breath away.

The only constant is change, as they say.  And knowing that, we know how to plan and plant to enjoy every moment.

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Mountain Laurel grows wild across much of Virginia on large shrubs, sometimes growing into small trees.  Its buds are already swelling to bloom by early May.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Fabulous Friday:  Flowers From Wood, Forest Garden, March 2017

Visit my new website, Illuminations, for a photo from our garden and a thought provoking quotation each day.

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

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