Six on Saturday: Winter Flowers

Edgeworthia chrysantha in late March 2019

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Here in coastal Virginia, it is possible to have flowers blooming in the garden every day of the year.  It takes a bit of planning and preparation now, before winter settles around us.  But it is within reach for most of us with a little outdoor space to plant.

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Planning a garden is a lot like working a very large jigsaw puzzle.  Consider one of the 1200 piece puzzles you buy to work with family or close friends, where you spend hours and hours just sorting pieces and making the frame before ever beginning to fill in the body of the puzzle.  Maybe you work in small sections, completing a bit here and there, then fitting those vignettes into their proper place in the whole at the right time.

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Planning for winter color, and more specifically for winter flowers, is just one of those chunks to fit into the bigger picture.

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Hellebores blooming in mid-February

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As you begin to think about winter flowers, it is helpful to think about winter blooming shrubs, winter blooming geophytes, winter blooming perennials, and finally winter blooming ‘annuals.’  Each have their own niche in the whole picture, and their own level of expense and commitment.

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This weekend I’ve visited three garden centers and have been delighted to find plants on my own ‘winter wish list’ at all three.  In all cases, the plants I wanted were marked down on clearance.  Even looking a bit rough and scraggly, giving them the right care now guarantees flowers in a few months, when we’ll need them.

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Violas of all sorts our still widely available in our area and still sold at full price at most locations.  There are hundreds of varieties, and the hardest part about planting Violas is deciding which ones to grow.  Deadhead to keep the flowers coming.  Use Osmacote or another time-release fertilizer at planting time, and feed them again with a liquid feed in February or March for best bloom.  Cut them back with scissors to remove bad foliage or leggy stems, and they will reward you with lush growth until summer.

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This is the easiest, least expensive way to enjoy winter flowers, and carries the least commitment.  Violas thrive here until sometime in May, when it gets too hot for them.  I’m usually pulling them out of their spots by mid-May to replant for summer, anyway.  Gardeners in cooler climates can keep them going year to year, but here we treat them like annuals.  Pansies have the largest, brightest flowers.  There are both singles and doubles in a wide variety of colors and color combinations.

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Panolas are a nice compromise between Pansies and the tiny Violas like ‘Johnny Jump-Ups.’  Again, there is a variety of color combinations available, solid flowers, and both single and double blossoms.  Little Violas have flowers about the size of a penny or a nickle, but they are very sweet and saturated color.  Although the plants look tiny now, they grow and spread throughout the winter.  By spring, when they begin to bloom again in earnest, they are covered in many, many small, but bright flowers.  We have a grower near us who specializes in little Violas, and I always end up with a flat or two and put them in pots and baskets on our patio and deck.

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Since deer find these little guys very tasty (most of the flowers are edible for humans, too) I generally don’t plant out Violas in beds or borders.  But I have, and as long as they are kept sprayed with animal repellent, they grow beautifully.

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Hardy Cyclamen leaves with blue Vinca flowers and emerging Crocus in February.

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A notch up from the Violas are Snapdragons, Antirrhinum species.  These are perennials, though many people pull them out and replace them by mid-spring.  I have several plants still going strong planted more than a year ago.  They are short-lived perennials, but will bloom profusely well into early summer, and then sporadically during our hot season.  The secret to keeping these covered in flowers is to dead-head the spent blooms before they set seeds, keep them moist, and feed the plants every month or so to keep them healthy and productive.  Give snaps some shade in the summer, but they are happy in full sun through the winter months.  You will find Antirrhinum varieties in small, medium or tall plants, and in a range of beautiful colors from bold to soft pastels.

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An equally easy, but often overlooked winter blooming perennial is Dianthus chinensis.  Often sold in cell packs in early spring, Dianthus is a tough, dependable easy perennial in our area that isn’t ever grazed.  It blooms sporadically in winter and summer, but really shines in spring and fall on evergreen plants.   I often use it in potted arrangements because it is versatile, bright, and the flowers remain the size of quarters in shades of white, pink, purple or crimson.  Flowers may be solid or bi-color.  Cuttings root easily.  Deadhead this plant regularly to keep it looking neat, and to keep the flowers coming.

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Requiring a bit more time and commitment are the Hellebores.  I had never paid Hellebores any attention until I moved to Williamsburg, but they are very popular here.  Probably because they are very poisonous, and won’t be bothered by deer, rabbits, squirrels, moles, voles, or ground-hogs.  It take about three to four years from seedling to blooming plant, but blooming plants are readily available in gallon pots at our garden centers, for around $25.00 each.

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Preferring shade, some of my plants grow in full to partial sun and do fine, as long as I water them during dry spells.  Hellebores begin blooming between December and February, depending on the species and variety, and them bloom continuously for another 3 to 4 months.  They are evergreen, serve as background foliage during the warm months, and are very tough and easy plants to grow.

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I was given a few dozen seedling plants by a neighbor years ago, and they continue to bloom each year and multiply, naturally spreading to form a dense ground cover.  I also buy one or two new varieties each year.  I grow them in pots and in the ground, and delight in their beautiful flowers through the winter months when little else blooms.

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Violas and ivy make fora beautiful winter hanging basket in our climate. This photo from early January 2017.

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When most people think of winter flowers, they think about winter blooming bulbs.  Bulbs are easy and most are inexpensive.  This is prime time to find bulb sales from online dealers, who can be very good, and also to find reduced bags of bulbs at garden centers.

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Be wary, if buying bulbs locally, that the bulbs still look plump and healthy and have no discoloration.  If they look shriveled or have anything grey or green on them, pass them by.  They probably won’t bloom well, or they may not grow at all and infect your soil with bacterial rot.

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Snowdrops, Galanthus species, bloom in January or February most years.  Although they are very small and white or white and green, by the time they bloom, they are a welcome sign of spring.  Miniature Iris bloom from bulbs at just about the same time, but come in a broader range of colors with larger flowers.  Early daffodils begin to bloom most years in February, and Crocus can bloom very early, before there is much else color in the garden.  Muscari also bloom in very early spring.  All of these are called geophytes because they are bulbs, and can be stored dry during their dormant time each year.

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Other geophytes, or ‘Earth plants’ grow from corms, tubers, or rhizomes.   Some hardy Cyclamen tubers begin to bloom in autumn and bloom until early winter.  Their beautifully patterned leaves persist much longer than their delicate flowers in pinks or white.  Other Cyclamen species begin to bloom in the middle of winter, and bloom through mid-spring.  Buy tubers based on when they bloom, the color of their flowers or the color and pattern of their leaves.  Cyclamen may be grown from seeds, but it takes several years for their tubers to grow large enough to bloom.  Leave the tuber in place and it will keep growing larger, giving a wider area of bloom each year.

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Iris reticulata ‘Sunshine’ on March 2, 2019.

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Finally, shrubs can be a great source of winter flowers.  If you live in Zone 7 or warmer, you can grow Camellias.  Some Camellia varieties are hardier than others, and you may find species to grow in Zone 6 or cooler.  We grow both fall blooming and spring blooming Camellias, so we have them from October through until April, whenever the weather has a bit of a warm enough stretch to allow buds to bloom.

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Daphne can bloom very early, but is also a very difficult shrub to keep happy.  I’ve never had one for very long.

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Our favorite winter bloomer is Edgeworthia chrysantha, or Chinese paperbush.  It is already in bud, and those flower buds keep steadily swelling and growing larger until they finally open into blossoms. There are two or three different varieties, and flowers may be white with yellow centers, or all yellow. They have a very sweet and strong fragrance, so the garden is perfumed on warmish days.

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Now, if you want to grow this gorgeous shrub, you will make a bit of an investment.  I saw one today in a 3 gal. pot for nearly $80.  Shop around, and you will likely find a much better deal.  One of our local nurseries carries them at a more reasonable price, but they never order very many.  You have to seek this one out.

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A shining star through the winter months, the shrub is rather non-descript with medium green, deciduous leaved through the summer.  The leaves turn yellow in fall, as the flowers appear on the branches.  It is a very sculptural shrub once the leaves fall, and is a real focal point.

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Mahonia, a northwest native shrub, blooms in November- January.   Japanese Pieris will also begin to bloom as winter fades into spring.  Both of these shrubs have evergreen foliage and bees and other small pollinators love them.   They support native bees when there is little else available for forage.

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Native redbud trees, Cercis Canadensis, sprout tiny flowers that break out of their bark along twigs, limbs and sometimes even the trunk!  I’ve seen them bloom here as early as mid-February, when they cover themselves in a cloud of deep magenta pink.  Some of the cultivars available now offer other color choices, but most are shades of pink/purple/red and even white.  Each tree hosts hundreds (thousands on a mature tree) of tiny flowers to the delight of every hungry pollinator in the area.  Birds follow to feed on the insects, and so redbud trees become hubs of activity when in bloom.

Heart shaped leaves follow, which turn beautiful yellow in fall.  Seed pods look like snow peas, and are edible.  Our trees are covered in seed pods, still, and they feed a variety of wildlife in winter.  Cut branches may be forced inside in early spring, in a vase of water.  Designers may also cut branches covered in seed pods now to add drama to their arrangements.

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Some Magnolia trees, like Magnolia stellata and Magnolia lilliflora may break into bloom in February.  Deciduous Magnolia trees bloom earlier than the evergreens and generally stay much smaller.  These are easy to grow in sun to part shade, and come in a variety of flower forms and colors.

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Finally, Forsythia shrubs often begin blooming for us in February with golden yellow flowers.  They are one of the earliest blooming shrubs in late winter.  You can force branches to bloom indoors several weeks earlier than they bloom outside.   And Japanese quince blooms in bright scarlet or pink soon after.

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These are just the high points of winter blooming plants that we grow, and that easily come to mind.  You may have other favorites.  We have to consider climate, available sun or shade, and what will or won’t be grazed by the animals who visit our garden.

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Many gardeners are quite happy with evergreens, a few bright berries, and maybe some variegated ivy or a variegated shrub.  We all crave a bit of color in the winter time, and it is worth planning for and making a bit of an investment to keep the garden interesting during the darkest months of the year.

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February 2017 Magnolia stellata

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

Wednesday Vignette: Beginnings

Arum italicum seedlings

Arum italicum seedlings

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“New month, new intentions,

new goals, new love, new light,

and new beginnings.”

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April Mae Monterrosa

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Transplanted...

Transplanted seedling…

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“Letting there be room for not knowing

is the most important thing of all.

When there’s a big disappointment,

we don’t know if that’s the end of the story.

It may just be the beginning

of a great adventure. Life is like that.

We don’t know anything.

We call something bad; we call it good.

But really we just don’t know.”

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Pema Chödrön

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“The key to a better life

isn’t always a change of scenery.

Sometimes it simply requires opening your eyes.”

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Richelle E. Goodrich

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New growth beginning to unfold on a Helleborus

New growth beginning to unfold on a Helleborus

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017

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december-7-2016-birds-064-2

Another Weird, Wonderful and Poisonous Plant

Sauromatum venosum, just planted last night.

Sauromatum venosum, just planted last night.

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Yes, we’ve brought home another weird, wonderful and poisonous plant.

Its name says it all:  Sauromatum venosum.  Get it?  Venosum?

It is also called “Voodoo Lily” because it begins to grow, as if by some strange magic, without water or soil.

That is how we found it, actually.  It wasn’t on my shopping list per se…

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A second of the several tubers we purchased, planted about 18" away from the first.

A second of the several tubers we purchased, planted about 18″ away from the first.

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But as we were browsing the summer flowering bulbs offered in Brent and Becky Heath’s bulb shop yesterday, there they were:  the already growing flowers of Voodoo Lily reaching out of their bin for our ankles.

They put me in mind of cats reaching through the bars of their little cages at the animal shelter, vying for attention and maybe a new home….

How could I ignore them?  Some of these flowers were already more than 18″ long, poking out of the holes in their little red mesh bags.  Phototropic, they were reaching for the light.  They were ALIVE!

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This was the only barely growing tuber of the lot... which is how I missed planting it last night.  It went into the lower fern garden this morning.

This was the only barely growing tuber of the lot… which is how I missed planting it last night.   It went into the lower fern garden this morning.

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Actually, some weird plantophiles (much like yours truly) will buy these Voodoo Lily tubers and simply set them, dry, on a shelf to watch them grow.  They will grow happily for weeks on the energy stored in their tuber.  Eventually, one must plant them up, of course.  Which is what I did with these poor little guys last night.

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See?  Not a hint of a root...

See? Not a hint of a root…  Like a Caladium, this is a tuber, not a true bulb.

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Keep in mind they’ve been growing in a bin of bulbs on the floor.  One mustn’t expect too much yet in terms in statuesque form.  The flowers will grow several feet high, open, release a putrescently musky scent for a few days, and then die back.  The scent is to attract the right insects for pollination, of course.

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This flower stalk is only just getting started. It will grow to several feet high before dying back to the ground. Leaves will follow in early summer.

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Once the flowers have died back, one or more leaf stalks emerge and add a lovely tropical note to the garden for the remainder of the season.  Native to Africa, Sauromatum venosum remain hardy from Zone 7 south.  They will spread by tuber and by seed indefinitely.  Phototropic, they will reach for the light if grown in too much shade.

I hope that as these little guys get established and sink some roots into our garden soil, the flower stalks will lift themselves and continue growing towards the sun.  Plants will do amazing things, given the opportunity.

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Plant the tuber 2" to 3" in good, moist soil in bright partial shade.  Keep moist.  I've heard these guys stay hungry, and grow better with occasional meals of compost.

Plant the tuber 2″ to 3″ in good, moist soil in bright partial shade. Keep moist. I’ve heard these guys stay hungry, and grow better with occasional meals of compost.

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Whether the flowers right themselves or not, the leaves will still emerge properly by early summer and offer some interesting foliage in the garden for several months.  They will die back with the fall frost, but the tuber can remain in the garden, mulched, over winter.

So we’ve covered ‘weird’ and we’ve covered ‘wonderful.’  Why poisonous?

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Yes, another stump garden.  I've been planting around the stump of a peach tree we lost in 2010.  That is a Hellebore to the right, also poisonous.  A deciduous fern will emerge soon, and the 'Voodoo Lily' will complete the set.  I'll add compost and extend this garden outwards bit by bit as the plants fill in.

Yes, another stump garden. I’ve been planting around the stump of a peach tree we lost in 2010. That is a Hellebore to the right, also poisonous. A deciduous fern will emerge soon, and the ‘Voodoo Lily’ will complete the set. I’ll add compost and extend this garden outwards bit by bit as the plants fill in.  The decaying stump retains moisture and feeds the plants as it and the tree’s roots decompose.

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Poisonous plants don’t get eaten by miscreant deer who sneak into our garden for dinner. 

I’m becoming something of an aficionado on poisonous plants.  For more on this, you might enjoy an earlier post titled, Pick Your Poison.

After losing our early investments in Phlox and lilies, roses, impatiens, holly shrubs, tomatoes and Camellias; we realized that tasty plants disappear in the night.  Poisonous plants manage to grow all season.

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These N. "Katie Heath,' growing in our garden, were hybridized by Brent Heath and named for his mother.  These have been growing in our garden for several years.

These N. “Katie Heath’  were hybridized by Brent Heath and named for his mother. These have been growing in our garden for several years now.  We continue to plant lots of new daffodils each year to protect other plants, as every part of a daffodil is poisonous.

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So now it is a bonus when I find beautiful plants for the garden which also happen to be poisonous.  Like Hellebores and daffodils, all parts of the Voodoo lily are very poisonous.  Not only will they not get eaten to a nub; their roots offer protection from tunneling voles to nearby plants.

So there you have my take on the very weird, wonderful and poisonous Voodoo Lilies we brought home yesterday from our shopping excursion in Brent and Becky’s Bulb Shop at their farm in Gloucester.

I’ll show you follow up photos of these lilies as they grow.

A pair are planted at the top of the garden, visible from the street.  If you’re in the neighborhood, you can keep a watch on them as they come along.  And if you smell something like rotting meat when you pass our garden, you’ll know they have come into full bloom.

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It's Alive!

It’s Alive!

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Woodland Gnome 2015

A Perennial Food Forest Garden

Garlic chives

Garlic chives

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Do you grow any food in your garden?

We have had difficulty with growing food crops in this garden.  Between poor soil, shade, and a forest full of hungry critters, many of our efforts have not left us with much to eat.  Even efforts at growing tomatoes and other vegetables in pots on our deck, out of reach of the deer, have not produced the harvest we expected.  This community’s squirrels must be some of the cleverest in the state!  Most of the produce ends up in their little paws days before it is ready for us to harvest.

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June 6, 2013, and the tomato crop is gone.

June 6, 2013, and the tomato crop is gone.  False strawberry plants grow along the border to the left of the photo, untouched.  Tomatoes are perennial crops in warmer climates.

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But I remain interested in finding new and productive ways to grow food in a ‘forest garden.’  In fact, “food forests” are a whole genre of garden in themselves, and there are many dedicated gardeners out there experimenting with various crops and novel strategies for  organizing and camouflaging those crops in order to supplement at least part of their diet from their own land.

Which is what we would like to do, too.  I realized after the first year or so that planting raised beds in the sunny areas of our back garden simply invited more critters to find their way in through our deer fencing.  I won’t even tell you how many tomato plants and cucumber vines simply disappeared in the night.

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Our first raised bed garden in our new garden, mixing herbs, shrubs, and perennials.

Our first raised bed  in our new garden, mixing herbs, shrubs, and perennials.

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Among the things we liked about this property, when we first saw it, were the fruit trees, fig trees, rosemary and tomato plants already here.  The variety of fig selected by the previous owner stays green, even while ripe, fooling the birds and squirrels.  We have had some good fig harvests, although the harvest fluctuates year to year.  This past year we got a few pears.  But the peaches have never made it through the summer to harvest, nor have the hazelnuts.

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June 12 garden at dusk 011

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But I don’t give up easily, and keep searching for new ideas.  Which led me to Martin Crawford’s book, How to Grow Perennial Vegetables:  Low-Maintenance, Low-Impact Vegetable Gardening.9781900322843_p0_v1_s260x420

Now Martin gardens in the UK, in East Devon,  which means some of the crops available to him are harder to come by here in the United States.  And his climate is a bit warmer than ours here in Virginia.  But he also offers very practical suggestions for overwintering many of these crops in cooler climates.

I’ve learned a great deal from this book, and recommend it to anyone interested in ‘forest gardening,’ which is Martin’s own approach.  He focuses in this book on vegetables, and only includes herbs which might be used in quantity in salads.  He also leaves fruit trees, vines and shrubs off of his plant list unless the leaves may be harvested and eaten as a vegetable.

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Milk Vetch is a legume and produces edible seeds. It also adds nitrogen to the soil as it grows.

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And that brings us to the most illuminating thing I’ve learned from this book.  There are many plants we grow for one purpose which may be eaten in another way.  For example, I grow pots of strawberries on our deck, a gift from a friend, and harvest a few handfuls each spring.  Did you know that strawberry leaves may also be eaten?  All of those leaves can be added to salads, stir fried, layered in casseroles, or used to wrap small packages of food before it is cooked.  Who knew?  I’ll include a list of plants whose leaves may be eaten at the bottom of this post.

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Some of those weeds are edible...

Some of those weeds are edible…

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A bonus of many perennial vegetables, and their leaves especially, is the concentrated nutrition and minerals they contain.  Since perennials tend to be very deeply rooted, they have access to deeper layers of soil than many annual crops.  They absorb more nutrients from the soil, storing these nutrients in the roots, tubers, bulbs, and leaves which we can consume.

Perennials also require less effort to grow.  Planted once, enjoyed for years to come.  Many take care of themselves once established, or need a minimum investment of time and labor.  Most need little or no fertilizer and can be grown with organic (chemical free) methods.

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Our figs remain green, even when ripe, fooling the squirrels and birds most of the time.

Our figs remain green, even when ripe, fooling the squirrels and birds most of the time.  Although the fruits are delicious, these leave aren’t edible.

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And perennials are a good investment, anyway.  Once purchased, you have them for many years.  Whether you divide them, save seeds, or take cuttings; your volume of plants will increase each year through annual growth, suckering, and clumping.  Food producing perennials, shrubs and trees are always a good investment for the frugal gardener.

My eyes were opened to the many many plants already growing here successfully which we could eat, if we chose to.  The wild ‘false strawberry,’ Duchesnea indica,  which I yank out of my beds by the bushel each year as a weed, is edible.  Martin suggests eating both the leaves and tiny fruits in salads.  The many new shoots of bamboo encroaching on areas we prefer to keep clear, which we’ve been cutting back each spring, could be harvested and eaten rather than tossed into the ravine.

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Harvest bamboo shoots in spring when they are less than 12" for the most tender vegetable.

Harvest bamboo shoots in spring when they are less than 12″ for the most tender vegetable.

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In fact, the perennial vegetables Martin describes are harvested throughout the year.  Some crops are enjoyed in spring, others in late autumn or over winter.  Most can be eaten all summer, and many can be eaten in different ways at different points in the growing season.  For example, many of the Alliums may be eaten throughout the season by cutting back their leaves even though the bulbs aren’t harvested until late autumn.  Some of the Alliums produce bulbils or offsets which may be harvested before the main bulb is ready to dig.  For each plant described, Martin indicates whether you may eat the roots, stems, leaves, shoots, offsets, fruits, seeds, or some combination of these.

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Wood Mallow

Wood Mallow

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I recently read an essay by Euell Gibbons, reprinted in the current issue of Organic Gardening magazine, about gathering a meal of wild foods in Central Park to feed himself and a skeptical journalist interviewing him.  Originally printed in August of 1968, Gibbons “Survival in the Wilds of Central Park” demonstrates how many edible food plants grow wild with little or no effort on our part at all.  It may require some adjustments to our taste and cravings to choose to use them, but they are still available to us if we can only recognize them and understand how to harvest and prepare them.

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Apple mint, with its relatively mild flavor, is one of the herbs listed for use as a leafy vegetable good for salads.

Apple mint, with its relatively mild flavor, is one of the herbs listed for use as a leafy vegetable good for salads.  Viola flowers may also be eaten in salad or used as a garnish.

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Martin Crawford’s book goes into detail about how each part of each plant should be prepared for eating, as well as giving enough cultural information to allow one to grow the plant successfully.  There is even a section on growing a number of aquatic perennial vegetables, including our native arrowheads, water chestnuts, water lotus, and watercress.  Detailed instructions are offered for growing these crops in a child’s wading pool for those not blessed with a pond on their property.

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The tubers of Arrowheads, Sagittaria species, are very nutritious and will grow in a foot of water.

The tubers of Arrowheads, Sagittaria species, are very nutritious and will grow in a foot of water in sun or partial shade.

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And reading this book, now for the second time, has made me far more optimistic and open-minded about our potential for growing food in our forest garden.

I have a far better understanding now, than I did five years ago, of what plants we can grow successfully.  I know what the deer will leave alone and what they will fight their way through or over our fences to eat.  (In fact, a beloved neighbor recently suggested, as a group of us were discussing our gardening, that we should all plant those things which would feed our beautiful deer.  She is a confirmed animal lover, and I understand her concern for the well being of all creatures.  She just didn’t understand that in planting crops for them, they would overgraze and kill the plants very quickly to the great frustration and expense of everyone.)

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Our beech tree produces edible nuts and leaves.

Our beech tree produces edible nuts and leaves.

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Now I know that plants with very fragrant or coarse textured leaves will be left alone by deer.  That means that most herbs will grow here in peace.  It also means we could grow artichoke, cardoon, all Alliums, and hops.  Did you know you can eat the new shoots of hops vines each year?

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Food crops may also be grown in unconventional ways, in polycultures with other plants, so they are effectively hidden.  Mixing the tasty with the pungent is one way.  Growing crops like potatoes, which bear poisonous leaves but tasty tubers is another.

Whether you are gardening in a forest, on an average suburban plot, or even on a balcony or rooftop; you’ll find this book about growing perennial vegetable crops useful and very interesting.  There are many reasons to grow some part of our food; and great value in knowing how to gather and eat “wild foods” when needed even when we normally shop for our groceries.

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Battered and friend Hosta shoots, anyone?

Battered and friend Hosta shoots, anyone?

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I’ve developed a new appreciation for the richness and delicious diversity of our own garden, and generated a good list of plants to add this season.  The Gogi berry shrub, Lycium barbarum, which I’ve considered for the last several years, is now ordered.  And there are several other crops I’ll hope to order over the coming months.  There is a good list of sources at the back of the book, some US suppliers, where I’ll hope to find some of the more interesting “walking” onion varieties.

We will also plant a patch of Jerusalem artichokes this year, which have grown easily in other gardens.  One huge advantage of many of these crops is how well they support bees and other beneficial and beautiful insects.  These are so prolific, once established, that there will be plenty of tubers to dig in autumn even if the tops do get grazed a bit during the season.  They likely won’t though, as their foliage is coarse.

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Garlic chives with Muscadine grape leaves and thyme.

Garlic chives with Muscadine grape leaves and thyme.

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I’ve made a good list of perennial food crops we already have growing, along with that list of plants we would still like to acquire.  Have you ever considered harvesting the leaves of the lovely flowering Columbine, Aquilegia, for a salad?  Well, neither had I….

Here is a short list of plants recommended by Martin Crawford for their delicious leaves or leafy shoots.  Some might surprise you, as they surprised me.  But if you’re a bit adventurous, you might want to try a few of them over the season ahead.  Just make sure to check out his book, or another trusted resource,  for complete instructions on how to best harvest and prepare them.

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Columbine in a friend's garden. Grown for its flowers, both flowers and leaves can be eaten.

Columbine in a friend’s garden. Grown for its flowers, both flowers and leaves can be eaten.

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Perennials with edible leaves:

Alliums, Basswood tree, Beech tree, Cardoon, Chard, Chives, Columbine,  Dandelion, Daylily, Elephant Garlic, False Strawberry, Gogi Berry, Grape, Fennel, Hollyhock (Mallow), Hops,  Horseradish, Hosta shoots, Lemon Balm, Linden tree, Mints, Mulberry tree, Ostrich Fern (shoots only) Plantain, Pokeweed, Rosemary, Sage, Strawberry, Sweet Potato, Solomon’s Seal (shoots),  Thyme, Violets

Woodland Gnome 2015

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August 15, 2014 014

 

 

“Leave It Be”

November 22, 2014 frost 002

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Autumn fern remains green all winter in our garden.

Autumn fern remains green all winter in our garden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Echinacea, Purple Coneflower

Echinacea, Purple Coneflower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 22, 2014 frost 021

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

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

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What remains of the Cannas

What remains of the Cannas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rosemary with Black Eyed Susan seed heads.

Rosemary with Black Eyed Susan seed heads.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 12, 2014 golden day 168

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 22, 2014 frost 008

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

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

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

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Words and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

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November 21, 2014 calendar 014

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Elephant Ears: Always More to Learn

Colocasia Esculenta, purchased as a tuber from Easy To Grow Bulbs this March.

Colocasia Esculenta, purchased as a tuber from Easy To Grow Bulbs this March.  This plant will grow to 5′ tall.  Canna “Australia,” also purchased from Easy To Grow Bulbs,  (with burgundy leaves) and Cannas from a friends garden, behind.

It seemed simple enough at the time:

I added three Colocasia esculenta tubers to my spring order at Easy To Grow Bulbs.  I was also ordering tubers for Canna Lilies and Gloriosa Lilies.

Easy To Grow Bulbs is one of my favorite online vendors.  Their stock is of high quality, their prices fair, their selection intriguing, and their customer service excellent.

Black  Purchased from Plant Delights Nursery

C. “Black  Runner”Purchased from Plant Delights Nursery

A bargain at around $7.00 each, these huge tubers arrived healthy and ready to grow.

I filled plastic boxes with fresh potting soil and planted the entire order the day it arrived, carefully following the  enclosed instructions.   The instructions suggested planting about 8″ deep, so I used a deep Rubbermaid container.

I watered at planting time to moisten the mix, but then kept the lid on waiting for the plants to grow.

The boxes of dormant tubers were fine down in the workroom, where I could keep an eye on them.  I checked the soil several times, found it slightly moist, and so just gave them time.

After a few weeks, the Cannas were growing well;  so we moved them up to the garage where they could get some light.  It was still a little too cool to plant them out in the garden.

C. China ordered from The Michigan Bulb Co.  This is one of the replacement plants they sent.

C. “Pink China,” ordered from The Michigan Bulb Co. This is one of the replacement plants they sent.

I could see root growth in the box with the Colocasia, known as Elephant Ears, but no top growth yet.

Finally our cool spring warmed up enough to plant the Canna Lilies out.  I had ordered Colocasia from several different sources, and also had one plant which grew in a pot all winter in the garage.

The others had arrived already in leaf, and so I moved them out to the garden a few at a time throughout May.

C. "Blue Hawaii," wintered over in the garage.

C. “Blue Hawaii,” wintered over in the garage.

Finally, a beautiful, strong leaf emerged on the Colocasia esculenta  grown from a tuber.  I moved the box up to the brighter garage, and waited for the other two tubers to leaf out.

But nothing happened.

Believing they probably needed more warmth, I took the box out to the garden one warm day in late May.  These were the last of the Elephant Ears planted in our new sunny border.

Still following directions, I dug three deep holes and amended them with compost.   I planted the leafed out plant first.

 

Camma. "Tropicana" in the foreground, from Easy to Grow Bulbs.  C. "Esculenta, and the tiny little C. "China Pink" from Michigan Bulb Co.  At least it has survived.

Canna. “Tropicana”  and C. “Australia” in the foreground,  from Easy to Grow Bulbs.                Colocasia  esculenta, and the tiny little C. “China Pink,” from Michigan Bulb Co., beside the Canna.    At least it has survived.

It had a huge healthy root system, and I tried to plant it at about the same level it had been growing in the box.

But here is where the mystery begins:  the other two tubers showed no evidence of growth.  I planted them anyway, believing they would begin to grow at any time given the warmth of early summer.

The tubers were all the same variety, and looked nearly identical when they arrived.  One would think that given exactly the same conditions, they would respond the same…. Wouldn’t you?

So I’ve faithfully watered my newly planted Cannas, Colocasias, Sages, and Hibiscus several times a week, when it hasn’t rained, to get them properly established.

 

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And of course I’ve watered the spots where the tubers were planted- just to help them along.  After all, we all know that Colocasias like moist soil and need plentiful water to support their huge leaves.

So when no growth appeared by late last week, I was truly puzzled.  In fact, I was very naughty and gently dug into one of the planting areas to see what was going on.

On hands and knees, I dug around gingerly, expecting to hit a green shoot at any moment.  Until I hit a pocket of greenish beige slime….

The tuber had rotted.

How is that possible?  I did everything right, didn’t I?

Colocasia, "Black Magic,"  shipped from the Michigan Bulb Co. earlier this month.

Colocasia, “Black Magic,” finally shipped from the Michigan Bulb Co. earlier this month.  

This morning I called Easy To Grow Bulbs to talk with them about the problem with the Elephant Ears.  And I was delighted to meet a very knowledgeable gardener, and “bulb whisperer,” named Kathleen.  After listening patiently, and asking a few questions, Kathleen launched into teaching/ coaching mode and taught me something new.

She explained that although all of the tubers may look identical, they are all individuals, have their own genetic blueprint, and so will break dormancy on their own schedule.

Some may be a little earlier, some a little later.  It is actually a survival mechanism so that if an early frost comes, the later individuals will survive.

It isn’t unusual for some tubers to begin growing, while others wait another few days or weeks to break their dormancy and begin growing.

The time when they break dormancy is the tuber’s most vulnerable time, when a small factor can make the difference between growth and rot.

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Like Caladiums, Colocasia enjoy moist soil when actively growing.  But, soil that is too moist, before their leaves have grown in , can easily kill them.

Kathleen reminded me that just as we humans must exhale, so tubers must be able to relieve themselves of too much moisture.

Plants exhale through their leaves.  Both Oxygen and water vapor exit the plant through the stomata in the cells of their leaves.  Giving too much water in the soil, before the leaves have formed, is deadly.

And that is where I went wrong.  When I planted the still dormant tubers out into the garden before they were growing, they were both wet and warm, and so rotted.

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I should have planted out the one actively growing plant, but left the two dormant tubers in the original planting box until they showed top growth.  Each plant must be treated as an individual.   Lesson learned.

Kathleen was very understanding and patient, and put two replacement Colocasia tubers in the mail to me today.

And she gave me precise instructions on how to care for them until they break dormancy and are ready for their places in the garden.

I feel like I made a new friend today; and will absolutely turn to Easy To Grow Bulbs again, as I have so often in the past, for bulbs, roots, and tubers of all sorts.

I’ll save Kathleen’s instructions for another post when the tubers arrive, so you can see them.

You probably know that the tubers of Colocasia are a delectable staple of the Pacific Island diet.  Have you ever eaten Poi?  If so, you have eaten Colocasia.  The leaves are poisonous, but the tuber can be cooked, mashed, and eaten.

I would much rather grow them than eat them, and am looking forward to watching these enormous and beautiful plants grow.

 

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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