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

Sunday Dinner: What Light We Have

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“There are two ways to be fooled.

One is to believe what isn’t true;

the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”

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Soren Kierkegaard

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“Just because you don’t understand it

doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”

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Lemony Snicket

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“If you look for truth,

you may find comfort in the end;

if you look for comfort

you will not get neither comfort or truth

only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin,

and in the end, despair.”

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  C.S. Lewis

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“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts.

Facts can obscure truth.”

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Maya Angelou

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“The truth is not always beautiful,

nor beautiful words the truth.”

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  Lao Tzu

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“If someone is able to show me

that what I think or do is not right,

I will happily change, for I seek the truth,

by which no one was ever truly harmed.

It is the person who continues

in his self-deception and ignorance

who is harmed.”

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  Marcus Aurelius

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“A thinker sees his own actions

as experiments and questions-

-as attempts to find out something.

Success and failure are for him

answers above all.”

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  Friedrich Nietzsche

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“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is

than to persist in delusion,

however satisfying and reassuring.”

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  Carl Sagan

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true.

I am not bound to succeed,

but I am bound to live up to what light I have.”

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Abraham Lincoln


Six on Saturday: Rain Gardens

Both Caladiums and most ferns appreciate moist soil and can survive for quite a while in saturated soil. Ferns planted in wide strips as ground cover can slow down and absorb run-off from summer storms.

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It’s still raining here.  It has been raining off and on for days, but mostly on.  We’re under a multi-day flood watch and a flash flood advisory.   A tropical storm inundated us not long ago and another formed off of our coast yesterday, and even heading out to sea it pulls historic rains behind as it moves away.

The ground is already saturated and every little plastic saucer under a ceramic container overflows.  I smile at the thought of how long it will be before I’ll need to water the garden again.  August usually is a wet month, and welcome after hot, dry stretches in July.  But the tropical storm season forecast for 2020 is unlike anything we’ve ever known before.  (That is our new catch phrase for 2020, isn’t it?  Unlike anything we’ve ever known before?)

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Scarlet cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, is a classic rain garden plant. It thrives in moist soil but will survive short droughts, too.  This clump grows in the wetlands area of the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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We have a program in our county that helps homeowners install rain gardens.  A friend is known for her beautiful rain garden designs. When working with local government and the Master Gardeners, county residents can have significant portions of their costs reimbursed.

The idea is very simple and elegant:  Rain gardens are dug a few inches below grade to catch and hold run-off from heavy rains.  Water loving plants growing in the rain garden help soak up the run-off, even as it settles into the ground to replenish the water table, instead of running off into local waterways, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.  Unlike ponds, they don’t hold standing water indefinitely.  Most absorb and process the run-off soon after a rain.

Rain gardens help catch pollutants that wash off of lawns and streets so those nutrients and chemicals can be recycled and trapped by vegetation.  This helps reduce the amount of pollution flowing into creeks, the rivers, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.  They also provide habitat for small animals like turtles, toads, frogs, dragonflies and many types of birds.

Even when we don’t excavate and engineer a formal rain garden, there are things we can do to help slow the flow of water across our yards and capture a portion of that rain water before it flows into the local waterways.  We’ve built a number of terraces in the steepest part of our yard and planted them with plants to help slow the flow of rain water.  We also have several ‘borders’ of shrubs and other vegetation to break the flow of run-off and absorb it.

In fact, the slogan of our county Stormwater and Resource Protection Division is, “Plant More Plants.”   Plants buffer the falling rain, help protect the soil from erosion, slow run-off and absorb large quantities of water, returning it to the atmosphere.  Just planting trees, shrubs, ground covers and perennial borders helps to manage the abundant rain we are getting in recent years.

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Zantedeschia, or calla lily, thrives in moist soil.  Some species will grow in the edge of a pond, and these work very well in rain gardens or wet spots where run-off collects.

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But when the ground is as saturated as it is today, we worry that even some of our plants might drown!  You see, most plants’ roots want air pockets in the soil.  Saturated soil is a quick way to kill a houseplant, and it can cause damage to the roots of some trees, shrubs and perennials, too.

As our climate shifts and these rain soaked days grow more common, it helps to know which plants can take a few days of saturated soil, and maybe even benefit from the extra water in the soil.  Many of these plants process a great deal of water up through their roots and vascular systems to release it back into the air.

You have heard of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia?  Well, that blue haze comes from moisture released by the many trees and shrubs growing on the sides of the mountains.  Some trees thrive in constantly moist soil.  Try birches, willows, swamp dogwoods, white ash trees, and beautyberry bushes.

Plants release both water vapor and oxygen back into the air as a by-product of their life processes.  Some plants, like succulents, release very little water, and that mostly at night.  They will quickly die in saturated soil.  In our region they need to be planted higher than grade on ridges and mounds, or be grow in freely draining containers.

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Colocasia and some types of  Iris grow well in saturated soil or even standing water.   Abundant water allows for lush growth.

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Plants with very large leaves, like our Caladiums, Colocasias, Hibiscus, Alocasias, Calla lilies, Canna lilies, ginger lilies, and banana trees use large amounts of water and release water vapor from their leaves throughout the day.  Some types of Iris also perform very well in saturated soil.  They can live in drier soil, but do just fine planted in the edge of a pond or in a rain garden.  Ferns are always a classic choice for moist and shady areas of the garden.  Their fibrous roots help to hold the soil against erosion and perform well as ground cover on slopes.

Those of us living in coastal areas where flooding has become more frequent can use plants to help deal with the inches and inches of extra rain.  We can build ponds and rain gardens, or even French drains and rock lined dry gullies to channel the run-off away from our homes.

We are called on in these times to wake up, pay attention, and find creative and beautiful solutions to the challenges we face.  We are a resilient people, by taking every advantage, even in the choices of plants we make, we can adapt to our changing world.

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Iris ensata, Japanese Iris,  grow with Zantedeschia in the ‘wet’ end of the Iris border at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden. Clumps keep their foliage most of the year, blooming over a long season in late spring and early summer.  These are excellent rain garden and pond plants.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

 

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

 

Sunday Dinner: Looking Up!

Hibiscus moscheutos

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“In these times

you have to be an optimist

to open your eyes when you awake in the morning”

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  Carl Sandburg

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Salvia coccinea

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“There is no such thing as a problem

without a gift for you in its hands.

You seek problems

because you need their gifts.”

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Richard Bach

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“Every problem has a gift for you in its hands” (Richard Bach).

And if not every problem, then just about every one.

Even spectacular sunsets are not possible without cloudy skies.

Troubles bring a gift for those who choose to look.

And since I can’t avoid my problems,

why waste them? I should look for the gift.

My life will be far, far richer for finding it.”

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Steve Goodier

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Canna ‘Bengal Tiger’

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“Being an idealist is not being a simpleton;

without idealists there would be no optimism

and without optimism

there would be no courage to achieve advances

that so-called realists would have you believe

could never come to fruition.”

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  Alisa Dana Steinberg

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“Few things in the world are more powerful

than a positive push – a smile.

A word of optimism and hope,

a ‘you can do it!’

when things are tough”

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Richard M DeVos

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“Pessimism never won any battle.”

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  Dwight D. Eisenhower

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Solidago

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“A tiny change today

brings a dramatically different tomorrow.”

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  Richard Bach

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Senna marilandica

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“An easy life doesn’t teach us anything.

In the end it’s the learning that matters:

what we’ve learned

and how we’ve grown”

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  Richard Bach

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crape myrtle

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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“Nobody knows how things will turn out,

that’s why they go ahead and play the game…

You give it your all

and sometimes amazing things happen,

but it’s hardly ever what you expect.”
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  Gennifer Choldenko

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Cleome


Sunday Dinner: Trust In This

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“I promise you that the same stuff galaxies are made of, you are.

The same energy that swings planets around stars

makes electrons dance in your heart.

It is in you, outside you, you are it.

It is beautiful.

Trust in this.

And you, your life, will be grand.”

Kamal Ravikant

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“We are all connected;

To each other, biologically.

To the earth, chemically.

To the rest of the universe atomically.”

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  Neil DeGrasse Tyson

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“If you want to find the secrets of the universe,

think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”

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  Nikola Tesla

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“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.

The winds will blow their own freshness into you,

and the storms their energy,

while cares will drop away from you

like the leaves of Autumn.”

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  John Muir

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

Caladium bicolor ‘Splash of Wine’

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“The energy of the mind is the essence of life.”
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Aristotle

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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

Sunday Dinner: Considering Our Place

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“Consider your own place

in the universal oneness of which we are all a part,

from which we all arise,

and to which we all return.”

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David Fontana

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“The Destiny of Man is to unite,

not to divide.

If you keep on dividing

you end up as a collection of monkeys

throwing nuts at each other

out of separate trees.”

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T.H. White

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“This is my country,

that is your country;

these are the conceptions of narrow souls –

to the liberal minded

the whole world is a family.”

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Virchand Raghavji Gandhi

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“And in the case of superior things like stars,

we discover a kind of unity in separation.

The higher we rise on the scale of being,

the easier it is to discern a connection

even among things separated by vast distances.”

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Marcus Aurelius

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“A choir is made up of many voices,

including yours and mine.

If one by one all go silent

then all that will be left are the soloists.

Don’t let a loud few

determine the nature of the sound.

It makes for poor harmony

and diminishes the song.”

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Vera Nazarian

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“Each person you meet
is an aspect of yourself,
clamoring for love.”

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Eric Micha’el Leventhal

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“I say to you all, once again –

– in the light of Lord Voldemort’s return,

we are only as strong as we are united,

as weak as we are divided.

Lord Voldemort’s gift for spreading

discord and enmity is very great.

We can fight it only by showing

an equally strong bond of friendship and trust.

Differences of habit and language are nothing at all

if our aims are identical

and our hearts are open.”

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  J.K. Rowling

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“Pit race against race, religion against religion,

prejudice against prejudice.

Divide and conquer!

We must not let that happen here.”

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Eleanor Roosevelt

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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“I felt knowledge and the unity of the world

circulate in me

like my own blood.”
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Hermann Hesse

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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

 

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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