Sunday Dinner: Ever Turning

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“There’s magic, positive magic,
in such phrases as: “I may be wrong.
I frequently am. Let’s examine the facts.”
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Dale Carnegie

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“Everyone thinks of changing the world,
but no one thinks of changing himself.”
.
Leo Tolstoy

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“Once time is lost, it can never be earned by any means”
“Time never stops for anybody
and never shows kindness to anyone”
.
Sunday Adelaja

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“You couldn’t erase the past.
You couldn’t even change it.
But sometimes life offered you
the opportunity to put it right.”
.
Ann Brashares
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“There are times when the world is rearranging itself,
and at times like that,
the right words can change the world.”
.
Orson Scott Card
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“The strangeness of Time.
Not in its passing, which can seem infinite,
like a tunnel whose end you can’t see,
whose beginning you’ve forgotten,
but in the sudden realization that something finite,
has passed, and is irretrievable.”
.
Joyce Carol Oates

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

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“I change the world,
the world changes me.”
.
Libba Bray
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A Day for Contentment

The first blossom of Camellia ‘Yuletide’ opened Tuesday, right on schedule.

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“It isn’t what you have or who you are
or where you are or what you are doing
that makes you happy or unhappy.
It is what you think about it.”
.
Dale Carnegie

We are entering the season where everyone we know wishes us happiness, merriment, and good fortune.  Greetings fly as freely as golden leaves showering down from the Ginko trees on DoG Street in Colonial Williamsburg.

We send our own flurry of “Happy Thanksgiving” wishes to everyone we encounter.  It is the catch phrase of the week to the checker at the grocery store, the clerk who sells us coffee, and every neighbor we meet out walking.

But do those wishes for happiness actually penetrate into our heart?  Do we feel that glow of happiness from the inside out?

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The first year in several that this Camellia has bloomed for us, I was startled by its beauty yesterday afternoon. For once, its buds survived to open. This shrub is a favorite for browsing once a deer gets into our lower garden.

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“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more.
If you concentrate on what you don’t have,
you will never, ever have enough”
.
Oprah Winfrey

I know many who are feeling anxious this holiday season, and too many struggling with grief.

We are inundated with images from the California fires.  We are still haunted by the enormous losses neighbors across the country have suffered in recent years from storms, fires, floods and shootings.  We pray for those immigrants caught on our Southern border without shelter this Thanksgiving season right along with those camping in Southern California after losing their homes in the fires.

Five minutes spent scanning headlines or watching the news is enough to drain the happiness right out of anyone.  Our national narrative is like a J.K. Rowling dementor that sucks the warmth and happiness away.

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“I have learned that to be with those I like is enough”
.
Walt Whitman

We believe that we are living in unusual times; the troubles we face unique in history.  That is not the case.  We are swept up in the currents and eddies of a long river of human history, much of it far worse for everyday folks like us than anything we might experience, now.

Despite the bleak news around us, we are also surrounded by stories of kindness, hope, good fortune and great joy.  President Lincoln was deep in the weeds of his own Civil War between the states, struggling with the great purpose of keeping our states together as one nation, when he declared a day of Thanksgiving in 1863He asked all Americans to come together on one day in gratitude for teh many blessings and resources our country shares.  He asked his neighbors to shift their focus to a higher power, and a higher purpose for our country.

Abraham Lincoln understood the simple truth about mental focus.  We can change our lives by changing the focus of our thoughts, our mental energy.

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“A quiet secluded life in the country,
with the possibility of being useful to people
to whom it is easy to do good,
and who are not accustomed to have it done to them;
then work which one hopes may be of some use;
then rest, nature, books, music,
love for one’s neighbor —
such is my idea of happiness.”
.
Leo Tolstoy
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Oakleaf Hydrangea glows in scarlet, as the flower buds appear on our Edgeworthia behind it.

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Maybe that is why Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays.  It is a celebration of abundance in all its forms.   It is a day for reflection.  It is the quintessential ‘low stress’ holiday.

It is enough to have a quiet day to enjoy with loved ones.  There is a special meal.  One may see friends or relations one hasn’t seen for a while.  There are stories, there is laughter, there is expectation of the holiday season that debuts on this day.

The first holiday lights appear cities, in neighborhoods and along country roads.

There is a feeling of contentment and abundance and connection.  For a few golden hours, we can be content with ourselves, wherever we may find ourselves.

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“I am content; that is a blessing greater than riches;
and he to whom that is given need ask no more.”
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Henry Fielding

And so I wish you, too, a happy Thanksgiving.  I hope your thoughts linger on the many things that make you happy and enrich your life.

If you are grieving, I hope you remember the good times with your loved ones and feel deep gratitude for those times you shared.  If you are away from loved ones, I hope you can touch with them today.  If your life circumstances have shifted, I hope you find the beauty around you, wherever you might be.

Our happiness comes from within, not from without.  This is the life lesson we discover as the decades roll past.

And this is what we rediscover each autumn, as the leaves fall and the world grows cold.  The most abiding warmth emanates from a loving and grateful heart.

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“We are not rich by what we possess
but by what we can do without.”
.
Immanuel
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Sunday Dinner: Illumined

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“The sun rises each morning to shed light
on the things we may have overlooked
the day before.”
.
Tyler J. Hebert

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“Grace is darkness and light,
peacefully co-existing, as illumination.”
.
Jaeda DeWalt

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Even plants know to lean toward the light.”
.
Meredith Zelman Narissi

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“…the basic stuff of the universe, at its core,
is looking like a kind of pure energy
that is malleable to human intention and expectation
in a way that defies our old mechanistic model of the universe-
-as though our expectation itself causes our energy to flow
out into the world and affect other energy systems.”
.
James Redfield

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“One passionate heart can brighten the world.
From person to person the chain reaction burns through us —
setting heart to heart ablaze,
and lighting the way for us all!”
.
Bryant McGill

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“Here’s to the bridge-builders, the hand-holders,
the light-bringers, those extraordinary souls
wrapped in ordinary lives who quietly weave
threads of humanity into an inhumane world.
They are the unsung heroes in a world at war with itself.
They are the whisperers of hope that peace is possible.
Look for them in this present darkness.
Light your candle with their flame. And then go.
Build bridges. Hold hands. Bring light to a dark and desperate world.
Be the hero you are looking for.
Peace is possible. It begins with us.”
.
L.R. Knost

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

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Fabulous Friday: Under the Storm

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The cloud shield of Hurricane Florence crept across our area in the night, blotting out the sun and bringing sporadic showers so that by the time we first looked out on Thursday morning, the world was damp and grey.

But quiet.  Very quiet, with barely a breath of wind.

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We watched the storm’s progress throughout the day as it slowly ground towards the coastal islands of North Carolina.  I’ve loved those broad, sandy beaches and beach towns since childhood and know them well.  I’ve seen many storms come and go there, and watched the tough, resilient folks of these communities re-build their beach cottages and their communities time after time.   They love the ocean in all of its moods and seasons.

Life along the coast is a gamble.  Only this monster storm has skewed the odds towards devastation.

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All was calm along the coast of Yorktown on Wednesday afternoon, before the storm moved in.

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I remember one childhood Sunday afternoon lunch at our favorite Topsail Island sound side restaurant.  Our family calmly ate hush puppies at a big, round table by the windows, as waterspouts whipped up on the Inland Waterway, spinning bright and beautiful against the black and purple storm clouds behind the trees.  The restaurant was packed; the staff calm and friendly as ever, the food delicious.  By dinner time we were back out walking along the beach, picking up shells, and admiring the sunset’s golden rays stretching towards us through the line of cottages.

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The ferry approaches the dock of Ocracoke Island, autumn 2007.  Ocracoke has been especially hard hit this time with overwash and torrential rains.

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We saw Topsail cottages dismantled by the storm surge’s waves on CNN last night.  Another reporter stood in the middle of the deserted road through nearby Hampstead, buffeted by the wind and rain as the hurricane’s eye paced slowly towards the coast a few miles further south.  When the eye of the Hurricane finally came ashore near Wrightsville Beach early this morning, it was so huge that the geography of landfall almost didn’t matter.

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Except it wasn’t here.  And for that we are enormously grateful today.  Tropical force winds haven’t quite made it far enough up the rivers to reach us, here in Williamsburg, and the rainfall has been relatively light.  The power’s on, the roads are clear, and our forest stands intact.

We keep in mind and heart everyone along the coast, and all those living on farms and in small towns whose lives are upended by the wind and rain.  We remember the thousands of workers even now rescuing families from flooded homes, patrolling the roads, running shelters and putting themselves in harm’s way to tell the story to the rest of us comfortably watching it unfold from home.

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Our appreciation to Lesley, Don and the gang at Classic Caladiums for their good luck wishes ahead of the storm.  This is our favorite Caladium this season, ‘Peppermint’, well grown now from a single tuber.

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The rain squalls come and go and the wind whips up from time to time.  The day is cool and fresh.  When I walked up the drive this morning a cloud of goldfinches startled from their morning meal in the Rudbeckia, flying in all directions to safer perches in the trees.  They chirped and chatted at the interruption, and I was so happy to see them still here.

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Can you spot the goldfinch in the center of the Rudbeckia? I caught his photo the instant before he flew away.  He was the bravest of his small flock, to linger this long as I approached.

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The flowers have taken on that intense hue that comes when they are well watered and the nights turn cool.  Gold and purples, scarlet, pink and purest white pop against fading leaves.  But also brown, as petals drop and seeds ripen in the undergrowth.

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Rudbeckia with basil. The goldfinches love ripened seeds from both of these.

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We’re happy to see that the routine continues in our Forest Garden.  Huge bumblies make their way slowly from flower to flower.  Birds peck at the muddy ground.  Clouds of mosquitoes wait for a chance to land and drink on unprotected flesh.  Hummingbirds dart from flower to flower.  But where are the butterflies?  Have they taken shelter, or taken wing?

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Native mist flower, Conoclinium coelestinum

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Even as beautyberries ripen from green to purple, and the mistflower bursts into bloom, we anticipate our garden’s closing extravaganza of beauty.  Summer is passed, and Indian Summer is upon us.  Cooler, wetter, milder; this season is a celebration of the fullness of our garden’s annual growth.  It stretches from mid-September until first frost.  Some might say it is the best part of the year, when acorns drop and leaves turn gold and scarlet against the clear, blue sky.

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Mist flower grows among obedient plant, black-eyed Susans and goldenrod.  All are native to our region.

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Even as we sit and wait out this monstrous storm, we notice the subtle signs of change.  Dogwood berries turn scarlet as next year’s buds emerge behind them.  The first Muscari leaves emerge in pots, and the Italian Arum begin to appear in the shadows.  I’m looking forward to a trip to Gloucester next week to pick up some Cyclamen for our winter garden

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Oakleaf Hydrangea heads persist all summer, mellowing into shades of cream and brown towards fall.

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All things change to their own pace and rhythms.  Flowers bloom, berries ripen, families grow, and leaves turn and fall.  Storms grow and subside.   Sandbar islands move along the coast.  Communities suffer loss and rebuild.  And life grows richer and more beautiful with each passing year.   It is the way of things. 

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Fabulous Friday: 

Happiness is contagious;  let’s infect one another.

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Hedychium coronarium, butterfly ginger lily

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“There are times when the world is rearranging itself,
and at times like that,
the right words can change the world.”
.
Orson Scott Card
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The first ever flower blooms on a volunteer seedling Hibiscus.

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“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change,
that is the dominant factor in society today.
No sensible decision can be made any longer
without taking into account not only the world as it is,
but the world as it will be…
This, in turn, means that our statesmen, our businessmen, our everyman
must take on a science fictional way of thinking.”
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Isaac Asimov
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Sunday Dinner: Imagination

Caladium ‘Peppermint’

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“Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.”
.
Jonathan Swift

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Begonia

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“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.
That myth is more potent than history.
That dreams are more powerful than facts.
That hope always triumphs over experience.
That laughter is the only cure for grief.
And I believe that love is stronger than death.”
.
Robert Fulghum

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Begonias with Caladium ‘Moonlight’

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“Imagination does not become great
until human beings, given the courage and the strength,
use it to create.”
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Maria Montessori

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Caladium ‘Berries and Burgundy’

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“Logic will get you from A to Z;
imagination will get you everywhere.”
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Albert Einstein

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Begonia ‘Flamingo’

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“Consciousness, unprovable by scientific standards,
is forever, then, the impossible phantom
in the predictable biologic machine,
and your every thought a genuine supernatural event.
Your every thought is a ghost, dancing.”
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Alan Moore

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Caladium ‘Sangria’

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018  
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“Everything you can imagine is real.”
.
Pablo Picasso

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“An idea is salvation by imagination”
.
Frank Lloyd Wright

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Caladium ‘Summer Breeze’

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“When I start a new seminar
I tell my students that I will undoubtedly contradict myself,
and that I will mean both things.
But an acceptance of contradiction is no excuse for fuzzy thinking.
We do have to use our minds as far as they will take us,
yet acknowledge that they cannot take us
all the way.”
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Madeleine L’Engle

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Begonia

 

Sunday Dinner: From Your Point of View

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“The cosmos is within us.
We are made of star-stuff.
We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
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Carl Sagan

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“When you have once
seen the glow of happiness
on the face of a beloved person,
you know that a man can have no vocation
but to awaken that light
on the faces surrounding him.
In the depth of winter,
I finally learned that within me
there lay an invincible summer.”
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Albert Camus

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“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.”
.
Tim Burton

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“What we do see
depends mainly on what we look for.
… In the same field the farmer will notice the crop,
the geologists the fossils,
botanists the flowers, a
rtists the colouring,
sportmen the cover for the game.
Though we may all look at the same things,
it does not all follow that we should see them.”
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John Lubbock

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“Nothing is really work
unless you would rather be doing something else.”
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J.M. Barrie

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“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then
to hang a question mark
on the things you have long taken for granted.”
.
Bertrand Russell

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

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“It is a narrow mind
which cannot look at a subject
from various points of view.”
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George Eliot

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“If we are always arriving and departing,
it is also true that we are eternally anchored.
One’s destination is never a place
but rather a new way of looking at things.”
.
Henry Miller
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Experiments With Gravel Mulch

Yucca filamentosa ‘Colorguard’ has appeared from under our newly installed gravel mulch.

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Most of the mulches we use are organic and improve the soil as they decay.  Shredded bark or leaves, pine straw, straw, newsprint or brown paper all have their uses.

When we consider inorganic mulches, there are definite benefits along with some obvious deficits.  Inorganic mulch won’t improve soil texture or fertility.  But neither will it harbor fungal disease, come pre-contaminated with weed seeds, provide a nesting site for ants or decay in just a few months.

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New terraces are planted to help control erosion, and mulched with pea gravel (spring 2017).

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I was first drawn to pea gravel mulch as we began to try to control erosion and cultivate the steep slopes of our back garden.    But I was also digging some gravel into the back-fill and planting hole when we installed new shrubs and perennials, to try to thwart the voles who would otherwise devour their tasty root balls.  Finishing the job with a nice mulch of gravel felt appropriate as a further deterrent to rodents.

Pea gravel definitely helps both with erosion control and rodent control.  But it also ‘disappeared’ into the soil on rainy days, after a while, and got covered with leaf litter and other organic matter over time.  I find myself renewing the pea gravel in spots after a while.

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“Soil security”

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Gravel mulch serves to help conserve soil moisture, just like every other sort of mulch.  It shades the soil, shelters root systems, absorbs the shock of falling rain and holds soil in place.

Additionally, gravel reflects sunlight and heat back up into the plants above it, helping to dry the plants more quickly after a rain and thereby deter fungal disease.  Gravel mulch also provides a dry barrier between moist soil and dry plant, preventing crown rot.

Soil doesn’t splash up onto lower leaves and branches, and the gravel perhaps makes it a little harder for invertebrates to travel up and back between soil and delicious plant above.

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Gravel mulch is used most commonly in rock gardens, where many drought tolerant and alpine plants are featured.  Some plants wouldn’t live long with a moist organic mulch, but manage just fine with gravel mulch that protects their crown.  Gravel is coming into vogue again as a fashionable and useful mulch for perennial gardens, too.  I have been reading about perennial and succulent  gardens grown under several inches of pea gravel in various garden magazines.

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Even a thin gravel mulch has helped conserve moisture around these newly planted perennials.

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I also recently enjoyed listening to a presentation by Joseph Tychonievich at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden where he presented his new book, Rock Gardening:  Reimagining a Classic Style.  Joseph inspired me to move ahead with my vision to incorporate more areas of gravel mulch in our sunny perennial beds in the upper garden.

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I use fine gravel as a mulch in potted arrangements, too.

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This area is gently sloping, and erosion isn’t as much of a pressing concern as in the lower gardens.  The entire area was left under several inches of freshly ground hardwood mulch in 2013, as the arborists who cleaned up our fallen trees ground up leaves and branches and simply left it all in place.

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Fresh compost piled on top of existing mulch allows me to plant in this area in 2013, right after the trees came down, without digging into the clay. A light covering of wood chips from the forest floor mulches the planting .

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As that has decomposed, I’ve renewed the mulch with bagged hardwood and Cypress mulch from the local hardware store.  It smells pleasant, and Cypress helps to repel insects.  It has an ecological downside, though as mature trees are cut for mulch.

The soil in much of this area still consists of thick, hard clay, despite my best efforts to dig in compost and improve its texture.  There may be a few inches of good compost on top of the clay, but the clay still holds heavy rainfall and keeps parts of the garden far too wet, especially in winter.

I am beginning to understand that a gravel mulch will promote better growth and vigor in most of the plants we are trying to establish, particularly the Iris and Mediterranean herbs.

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Recently,  I decided to experiment with a much larger gravel mulch in one of the beds that needed some TLC.  I lost several perennials here over winter, and so had quite a bit of bare ground.

On our shopping trip, my partner noticed this beautiful blue green rock quarried somewhere in Virginia.  We decided on the spot to give it a try, and I am very pleased with the results thus far.  Not only is this gravel not going to shift around on a rainy day, but I don’t believe it will sink down into the soil anytime soon, either.

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This three year old Siberian Iris bloomed for the first time this spring, and I hope the new gravel mulch will help it grow more vigorously in future.

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Now, please keep in mind that gravel is the heaviest mulch you can choose, and moving it around and spreading it takes both strength and commitment.  If I had the luxury of ordering up a truckload of it and hiring a crew to spread it for me, that would be a lovely thing.  But I don’t.

Rather, I’m buying it a couple of bags at a time and spreading it by hand.  It is going to take most of the summer to mulch this whole area working with just a few square feet each week.  But I am already seeing the benefit this mulch brings to our plants.

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This is a single bag of gravel spread around our new Monarda.  It will take a few more bags to finish this area….

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I bought three plugs of Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’ about four years ago, as we were first planting this bed.  I wanted them to make a large focal point to anchor the area and planted them in a broad triangle.  Well, let’s just say that I expected them to grow much faster and they have largely gotten lost between larger and floppier perennials.  In fact, one of the three was struggling so much that I dug it up in late winter and planted it into a pot in full sun, hoping to give it a better chance to grow.

Never mind that I kept digging it up every month or so, checking to see if there was any visible growth, and replanting it again with the confirmation of a fresh root or tiny shoot.  That is a sad tale, and I ended up filling the pot with first one plant, and then another, simply to have something to look at besides the empty pot.  I ticked this off as a failed plant and moved on.

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Maybe if I put a fresh gravel mulch in this pot, the Yucca would finally grow?

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But not so fast!  Something of that Yucca was left alive in the original bed.  And finally, a month after I mulched over the area with the new Virginia gravel, look at what has emerged!  Plants really really want to live, and sometimes we just need to improve conditions for them and get out of the way to give them a chance!

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This newly planted Lavender was struggling with our weather extremes, but has improved under the gravel mulch this month.

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Our friends at our local garden center have a running joke that we always buy gravel or compost, if nothing else, and are their best customers for pea gravel. Gravel has made gardening in this difficult site possible.

If you happen to be in the neighborhood, and want to visit with me and bring a little gift, a fresh bag of gravel is always in style.   I’ll be so happy to see you, will show you around the garden and offer you a few divisions of something nice to take away with you.

And I might even let you help spread the gravel while we’re at it!

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Blossom XLIII: Verbena

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A winning combination:  Dependable, easy to grow,  attracts butterflies and other pollinators, grows well with others.  Verbena bonariensis endears itself to my gardener’s heart a little more with each passing summer.

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I bought my first few on a whim as little plugs from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs several years ago.  I had admired this Verbena growing in their display garden both for the clear lovely color of the flower, and for its obvious popularity with the winged nectar loving set.  I didn’t know quite what to expect, but I planted the plugs into slightly raised, full sun beds with confidence that something interesting would grow.

I had grown other Verbenas, of course, before trying this very tall, perennial variety.  I still pick up a few annual Verbenas for my pots and baskets each year.  They produce non-stop flowers all summer, take full sun, shrug off July and August heat, and keep on blooming up until frost.  All they ask is that you don’t let them dry out completely, and perhaps offer a snack when you water from time to time.

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Annual Verbena grows in a sunny pot with Lantana.

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I’ve also grown Verbena canadensis ‘Homestead Purple,’ which makes a beautiful ground cover and often returns the following year.  It prefers somewhat dry soil, and though hardy to Zone 6, may not make it through a particularly wet or late winter.

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Verbena ‘Homestead Purple’

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It was introduced in the 1990s, and is very commonly available throughout our region, alongside the many colorful annual Verbenas each spring.  The flowers are a very intense purple, and the foliage a rich dark green.

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Eastern Swallowtail butterfly on Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’ at the Heath family’s garden in Gloucester.

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All of the Verbena flowers prolifically attract butterflies and other pollinators.

Verbena bonariensis, native in South America, mixes lightly among other perennials in the garden.  Its long airy stems, sparse foliage and small flowers allow it to appear to float in mid-air, like some magical oasis for pollinators.

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It can grow to 5′ or more tall, in full sun and steady moisture.  It forms expanding clumps, and also spreads its seeds around easily.  It isn’t considered invasive in Virginia, and though it will send up nearby seedlings, they are almost always welcome.  Any falling in a path can be easily moved or shared.

And now I’m adding still another native Verbena to our garden:  Verbena hastata, which is a North American native perennial.  I’ve admired it at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden, but found it potted and offered for sale on Saturday at the Sassafras Farm display at our local Farmer’s Market.

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Verbena hastata at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden

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Verbena hastata, commonly called Blue Vervain, is native to our region and feeds both pollinators and birds.  It grows in moist, disturbed soil in full sun to partial shade and is frequently found near swamps, ditches, and ponds.  It is a larval host for the Verbena moth and the Buckeye butterfly.

I was first attracted by the wonderful violet color of its unusual flowers.  Like V. bonariensis, this is another very tall, airy plant, which blends well into a meadow planting or mixed border.  The plant itself is nearly invisible allowing its flowers to attract all of one’s attention.

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Verbena has a coarse, somewhat bitter foliage that is unappealing to deer.  While rabbits have been known to nibble at Verbena hastata, especially new and tender growth, the plant survives.

I am always interested to learn by growing out a new plant.  One can read multiple descriptions and still not really know a plant, unless it has lived in one’s own garden for a season.  I want to watch it grow and see how it responds to the challenges of the passing seasons and the wandering herbivores, before I feel any confidence in recommending it to others.  But the next best thing to growing a plant myself is to watch it in a public garden, or listen to another gardener describe their experience growing it.

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After talking with Sassafras Farm owner Denise Greene on Saturday, I left with pots of three new perennials to trial here in our Forest Garden.  In addition to Verbena hastata, I also came away with Eryngium yuccifolium and horsemint, our native Monarda punctata.  I’ve been looking for this Monarda for a few seasons now, and it caught my attention first with its huge, delicately tinted very architectural flowers.

I parked all three pots near the hose when we got home from the market on Saturday, watered them, and headed back out on more errands.  Yesterday I was away, and when I checked the new pots in the early evening, I was delighted to find a cloud of bees surrounding the still potted Monarda!  I’m still plotting where each of these interesting new perennials will grow in our garden.  But know that once they are settled in, photos will follow!

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Monarda grows well in the conditions of our garden, even in partial shade. Here, Monarda fistulosa grows with purple coneflowers.

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Most of us want to invest in plants we believe will grow well for us.  Who wants to invest, only to watch a plant decline and fail; or worse, feed some vagrant deer?

My search for deer resistant, tough, drought tolerant and beautiful perennial plants continues.  If you are considering additions to your garden, I hope you will take a closer look at the native American Verbenas.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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And, another one: 
Have you grown Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum muticum?
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Mountain mint is another tough, native perennial for pollinators, that deer will leave strictly alone.

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Blossom XLII: Carrots in Bloom
Blossom XLI: Tradescantia

 

 

Sunday Dinner: Building A Community

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“The world is so empty
if one thinks only of mountains, rivers & cities;
but to know someone who thinks & feels with us,
& who, though distant, is close to us in spirit,
this makes the earth for us
an inhabited garden.”
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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
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“The single greatest lesson the garden teaches
is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum,
and that as long as the sun still shines
and people still can plan and plant, think and do,
we can, if we bother to try,
find ways to provide for ourselves
without diminishing the world. ”
.
Michael Pollan
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“I know there is strength
in the differences between us.
I know there is comfort,
where we overlap.”
.
Ani DiFranco
~
~
“Community is a sign that love is possible
in a materialistic world
where people so often either ignore or fight each other.
It is a sign that we don’t need
a lot of money to be happy-
-in fact, the opposite.”
.
Jean Vanie
~
~
“If man is to survive,
he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences
between men and between cultures.
He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes
are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety,
not something to fear.”
.
Gene Roddenberry
~
~
Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018
*
“Every human activity
can be put at the service of the divine and of love.
We should all exercise our gift
to build community.”
.
Jean Vanie
~

Growing Herbs for the Beauty of It

Culinary tri-color sage grows alongside perennial Geranium and fennel.

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I grow herbs mostly for their beauty.  That, and their toughness as season-long dependable plants in our pots, beds and baskets.

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Rose scented Pelargonium grows near emerging Colocasia.

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I haven’t built them their own little parterre, and I don’t grow them in cute little matching terra cotta pots, either.  I treat them like any other plant and let them earn their spot in my heart and in our garden.

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A newly planted Spanish lavender will soon fill this pot.  It is surrounded with wild violets and wild strawberries.

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Herbs may be some of the oldest plants cultivated and passed on generation to generation and from one culture to the next.  They are celebrated in story and song.  They can heal us, feed us, soothe us and delight us.  Herbs are intensely fragrant; a living, growing perfume.

But I would grow them even without their rich mythological and pharmacological mystique.  Why?  Because I can depend on them.

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The first fennel flowers of the season opend this week.

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The strong fragrance and coarse texture of many herbs makes them distasteful to the deer I want to foil.  I learned in the early years of this garden that I could plant herbs in the spring, and expect them to still be merrily growing in our garden, sans critter damage, the following October.  I like to believe that planting lots of fragrant herbs can also protect more desirable plants growing nearby.

They are a good investment.  They bring me peace of mind.

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Basil

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But the more I tried different cultivars of favorite herbs, the more I delighted in them for their own sake.  They are entertaining plants to grow.  Let me explain.

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Chocolate mint

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Most herbs draw in pollinators.  That means that on a sunny day, I’ll find bees, wasps, butterflies, and all sorts of bright little insects that I can’t name without a field guide hovering around them and blissing out on their sweet nectar.

As I observe and photograph the visitors, I can crush and sniff their wonderfully fragrant leaves.

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Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 2017

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Many herbs, like the mints and scented geraniums, produce compounds in their leaves that repel biting insects.

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Mountain mint, Pycnanthemum muticum, is a versatile herb with strongly fragrant leaves.  The Garden Club of America  has named it their 2018 native plant of the year.

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If a buzzy or bitey is getting too up close and personal with me, I can pinch a stem and rub the fragrant leaves on whatever skin might be exposed.

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Pineapple mint with lavender

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Mountain mint, though not so beautiful, is an especially effective insect repellent with no toxicity to harm my family or me.

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Rose scented ‘Skeleton Rose’ Pelargonium repels insects with its fragrance. Growing here in a basket with Lantana, this basket makes a tough combination for full sun.

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That same fragrance makes herbs appealing as cut flowers, too.  Stems worked in with other flowers make interesting, long lasting arrangements.

My favorite herbs for the vase are Basil, Pelargoniums, Artemesia, and Salvias. The interesting colors, shapes and textures of herbal foliage pumps up any vase.  Oftentimes, a stem will root in the vase and can be planted out to grow on when the arrangement is disassembled.

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Basil with pineapple mint, Lime Queen Zinnia and roses.

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Just as herbs create interesting contrasts with flowers in a vase, so they also pump up pots, baskets and perennial beds.

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White Monarda came to our garden as a gift from a gardening friend.  It is edible, can be used for tea, and looks lovely in a vase.  Also known as bee balm or Oswego tea, this plant is a useful North American native herb.

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Although herbs bloom, most have relatively small and insignificant flowers.  With a few exceptions, like some basils, dill, borage and fennel; herbs are grown more for their leaves than for their flowers.

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Now rosemary is a delight all unto itself.  Sometimes evergreen if the winter is mild, usually perennial, it delights us with its blue, winter flowers.

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Rosemary in bloom

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Rosemary often comes into bloom in late autumn, and many years I can include blooming sprigs of rosemary in our holiday wreathes in December.

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A newly planted rosemary ‘Tuscan Blue’ will triple in size by fall. Sedum ‘Angelina’ shares the pot.

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The pungent fragrance of rosemary exudes from a lovely little shrubby plant.  With rosemary, as with other Mediterranean herbs, the hotter the better in summer.  Growing to 4′ tall or more, a rosemary hedge by a fence or wall is possible in Zones 7b or 8 and warmer.

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An upright shrubby rosemary grows here with prostrate, creeping  rosemary.  Most of our rosemary plants died in our cold winter, and so I’ve had to replace them with new this spring.

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Many people grow herbs primarily for use in the kitchen.  And most, but not all, are edible.  Herbs generally respond well to the continual pruning that frequent use entails.

There are whole encyclopedias of information on using herbs for cooking, crafts, healing and housewifery.  I’ll leave you to read them if you want to learn more.

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Creeping Rosemary makes a good groundcover, or a good ‘spiller’ in a pot in full sun.

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I get busy and forget to cut and use them, I’ll admit to you.  My plants might be bushier if I used them more.

But I love watching my Pelargoniums grow huge and fill the gigantic pots I grow them in.  I love watching butterfly larvae growing plump as they harvest my parsley and fennel for me.  And yes, quite often the plants regenerate themselves within a few weeks once the larvae crawl off for their transformative naps.

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And so it is that I end up growing herbs much like any other garden plant; no special fuss required.

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Comphrey with Artemesia

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That said, keep in mind that herbs such as lavenders, culinary sages, thymes, rosemaries, oregano, germanders, Artemesias, Santolinas, and a few others originated in hot, mountainous areas where the soil may be a bit rocky and the rain scarce.  They aren’t used to coddling, and they don’t much appreciate our muggy damp summers in Virginia.

Our soil may be a bit too acidic and heavy with clay.  Our nights too damp and warm, our rain too intense.  There may be some rot or mildew.  Their roots may not thrive.

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There are a few simple things to do to make these Mediterranean herbs a bit more comfortable.  I tend to grow many of them in pots more successfully than in our heavy clay soil.

But culture in the soil is possible.  I like to dig some dolomitic lime and a little pea gravel into the planting hole before I plant a new transplant.  I set the crown a little high, mounding up the back-fill around the top-most roots, but not up the stem.  Then, I mulch with gravel out a few inches around the plant.  I’m told that chicken grit or broken up oyster shells work well for mulching herbs, too.

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Roots of these Mediterranean herbs want good drainage.  They can rot easily if left sitting in wet soil for very long.  That is why it is smart to amend the soil and plant them high.  If your soil is too heavy with clay, also dig in some compost before you plant, to loosen and improve it a bit.

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If planting in a pot, I mix some lime into the top few inches of the potting soil, set the plants a little high, and mulch the pot with pea gravel.

The gravel reflects sun and heat up into the plant on fine days, holds a little extra moisture during drought, and prevents soil from splashing up onto the lower leaves when it rains.  The gravel mulch helps protect those lower leaves from any disease harbored in the wet soil.

When growing an herb plant with woody stems or grey to blue leaves, take these precautions if your soil and weather is like ours.

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Artemesia with lavender and Iris

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Basil, dill and cilantro are annuals.  Parsley a biennial.  Chives and other Alliums are perennials, even when they are harvested annually for their bulbs.   All are soft stemmed and want a bit gentler treatment.  They appreciate more water and richer soil… but not too rich.  Herbs grown without much fertilizer have better flavor and aroma and grow more compactly.

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The Alliums are just beginning to bloom.

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Grow all of these in full sun, or the most sun you can manage.  The more sun, the more growth in most cases.

Also, give them space to grow.  Your little transplant fresh from its 4″ pot may look a bit small, and your new planting a bit sparse at first.  But please remember that most herbs grow quickly.  Mind the mature height and spread and allow space for your herbs to grow into their potential.

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Pineapple sage in its fall glory, still sending out new buds in late September 2017.

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Crowding, in our weather, makes it more likely for mold or rot to get a start where the branches stay too wet, and where air can’t easily circulate around their leaves.

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Thyme needs a good trim now and again. The stems get too long, with new growth only towards the tips.

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I wait each spring to see which of our perennial herbs made it through the winter, and which were finished off by the cold and damp soil.  Ironically, most will make it through until early spring.  It is those last few weeks and those last few frosts that may prove too much.

That is why I wait until I see new growth sprouting from their branches, before I cut them back.  Once they are growing and the weather is milder, I can cut with confidence.  Cut too soon, and a late freeze may be too much of a shock.  I killed a beautiful Agastache this spring by pruning it too early.

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Breakfast at the Agastache… summer 2017.

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Cut back any obviously dead wood, and trim most of the branches by at least a third to stimulate new, healthy growth.  But don’t throw all of those trimming away!  Many herbs, like Artemesia will root from these stem cuttings taken in late winter or early spring.  What will you lose by trying? 

And there is nothing complicated in my technique.  I open up a hole in the earth with my blade, insert a stem a few inches deep, and close the hole.  It roots and begins growing within a few weeks.  That is how I’ve spread Artemesia all around my garden over the years.

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Pineapple sage has beautiful leaves, but won’t bloom until late September.  It is hardy in our garden.

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Most herbs will root from stem cuttings.  You might cut several stems of basil, use most of the leaves, and root the stems in a glass of water to generate new plants over the summer.  Herbs like thyme are easy to divide.  Just take a stem on the outside of the plant, with some roots already growing, cut it off and plant it where its needed.  Do this with most Salvias, too.

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Apple mint roots easily in water. But easier still, pull a stem with some roots attached and planted it up elsewhere.

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If you’ve shied away from planting herbs in the past, I hope you’ll try a few this year.  You don’t need to be an expert gardener to succeed.  Most are very easy, and forgiving.

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An heirloom Pelargonium that I managed to root from a gifted stem cutting is now out in a basket for the summer.  This cultivar was brought to Williamsburg by the early colonists and grown here in the Colonial era.

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And this is the perfect time to begin, now that we are into the second week of June.  Garden centers in our area have just begun to mark down their herbs by 20-30%.  There are great bargains available this month as plant shops clear out their stock.

Unlike more tender plants, herbs will establish just fine in summer’s heat, so long as you don’t let them completely dry out as they grow new roots into the surrounding soil.

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Deadhead lavender, and other herbs, to keep the flowers coming all season. This is Spanish lavender, with its ‘rabbit ears’ atop the flower.

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There is always more to learn, there is always more to try, and there are always more beautiful and interesting plants to introduce in our gardens.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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