Fresh Start 2021: Carbon Garden

October blooming Camellia sasanqua

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Only recently have I come across the term ‘Carbon Garden’ in the current issue of Horticulture Magazine.  You may be ahead of me on this one, but the picture that came to mind when I first saw the term wasn’t very pretty.  The reality of it is much more attractive, and this garden style proves easier to maintain than many other garden styles.

Like other elements, carbon is an atom that can manifest as a solid, in a liquid, or as a gas.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) remain in the news because they contribute so much to our warming environment.  Gasses like carbon dioxide and methane (CH4) trap heat from the sun near the surface of the earth, causing warmer weather and heavier rainfalls.  Conversations around reversing the current warming trends usually focus on reducing carbon emissions and finding ways to scrub carbon out of the air.

Magically, we have living tools for removing carbon from the air right outside our windows.  You see, every green plant cell uses carbon dioxide in its daily efforts to feed itself and sustain the entire plant.  In the presence of sunlight, carbon dioxide and water transform into glucose, used to power plant growth, and the waste product oxygen, which of course we need in every breath.

When you contemplate a leafy tree, imagine each leaf inhaling polluted air and transforming that air into pure food and oxygen.

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Japanese Maple

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Glucose is further transformed into cellulose, which structures the cell wall of every plant cell.  Now, imagine a tree’s roots growing deeper and wider into the earth with each passing year.  What are those roots made from?  Cellulose:  largely, carbon.

A tree, and most any other plant, can stash carbon deep underground where it will remain for many years in solid form.  Many plants also store nitrogen, filtered out of the air, on their roots.  In fact, any plant in the pea family stores little nodules of solid nitrogen along their roots.  Knowing that nitrogen is a major component of fertilizers, you understand how this stored nitrogen increases the fertility of the soil in the area where these plants grow.

Plant leaves are also made primarily of carbon.  When the leaves fall each autumn, they hold stored, solid carbon.  If returned to the soil as compost or mulch, the carbon remains stored, or sequestered, in solid form in the soil.  This is how ordinary garden soil may be transformed into a ‘carbon sink.’

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Turkey tail mushrooms help decompose the stump of a fallen peach tree. Leaving the stump in place and allowing vegetation to cover it conserves its carbon in the soil.

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A log is made largely of stored carbon.  When you burn it in the fireplace, those chemical bonds break down, and much of the carbon rises back into the air as smoke.  If the same log is made into a cutting board or other wooden object, then the carbon remains in sold form.

Just as burning can break chemical bonds to release carbon back into the air, so will decomposition.  We’ve come to understand that bare dirt, including tilled fields and gardens, releases carbon back into the air.  But ground covered by mulch or living plants doesn’t allow that carbon to move back into the air.

All of this helps explain the science behind the principles of Carbon Gardening, whose goal is to scrub as much carbon as possible out of the air and sequester it in the earth.  Forests have done this very efficiently for untold ages.

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Only in recent times, with so much natural forest cleared and land exposed, has our planet begun its dramatic warming.  Think of all the carbon stored over the centuries as coal, petroleum, peat, and held close under a forest canopy that has been released into our atmosphere over the past century.

So, the point of Carbon Gardening is to use one’s own garden to sequester as much carbon as possible, using gardening methods that hold the carbon in the soil, without burning or releasing any more carbon than possible in the process.

Every breath we exhale contains carbon dioxide.  Our cells produce it as they produce energy.  We live in harmony with the plants we grow, taking in the oxygen they exhale while giving them back our own carbon rich breath.  That said, please don’t try to hold your breath as you make your Carbon Garden.

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Camellia sasanqua

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Here are a few principles of Carbon Gardening that may help point you in the right direction. 

The Audubon Society has a series of articles that go into far more detail.

  1. Plant intensely in layers:  The more plants in growth the more carbon will be scrubbed from the air each day.  Trees are most efficient because they support a huge volume of leaves.  Include evergreen trees that continue respiration through the winter months, and plant a shrub layer, perennial layer, and ground covers under the trees to maximize the amount of carbon absorbed by your garden.  Evergreen perennials and ground covers continue absorbing and storing carbon through the winter months.

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  1. Feed carbon (and nitrogen) back into your soil with plant materials. Use wood chips, bark, and shredded leaves as mulch to minimize bare ground.  Remember that roots sequester a large amount of carbon and nitrogen, so leave those roots in the ground.  Cut weeds or spent annuals at ground level instead of pulling them up.  Compost trimmings and leaves, kitchen waste, and unneeded cardboard, newsprint or brown paper.

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This is a very thin layer of compost covering collected branches, bark and leaves from our fallen tree.  We added additional layers of organic material to build the new planting bed.

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  1. Instead of tilling soil and exposing stored carbon, sheet compost in the winter to prepare for spring planting. Cover the garden area with cardboard or paper to protect the soil and smother any weeds.  Build up layers of composable materials, or even bagged municipal compost, and allow it to decompose in place so that planting seeds or transplants in the spring is possible without tilling or excessive digging.  Coffee grounds, tea bags, rinsed eggshells and other kitchen scraps can be ‘buried’ in the layers of a sheet compost pile, but be careful not to discard of seeds in this way unless you want them to sprout in the spring.

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Paper grocery bags covered with several inches of compost smother weeds and soften the ground for this new planting bed, eliminating the need to dig the area up first.  Pea gravel helps hold this area, which is on a slope.

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  1. Remain mindful of garden ‘inputs’ that burn carbon. This includes garden equipment that burns gas, commercial fertilizers, and maybe even those fun trips to the garden center….?

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This bin of new Caladium bulbs was ready to be planted out in mid-May.  Ordering bare root perennials, bulbs, tubers and seeds and starting them at home reduces the carbon footprint of a garden.  The red leaf is C. ‘Burning Heart,’ a 2015 introduction from Classic Caladiums in Avon Park, FL.

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  1. If you normally buy flats of annual plants each spring for pots or borders, consider how to plant those areas more sustainably. Consider all of the carbon releasing ‘inputs’ required to produce those plants, including the plastic containers they are grown in, the transportation to move them, and the chemical fertilizers and peat based potting soil used in growing them.  While all plants sequester carbon from the air, commercial nursery production of short-lived plants releases carbon into the atmosphere throughout the process and should be considered by conscientious gardeners.  What can you raise from seeds, cuttings or divisions, or obtain through trade with gardening friends?

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Saxifraga stolonifera is an evergreen ground cover that is easy to divide and share.  It grows here with Ajuga ‘Black Scallop,’ Hellebores and ferns.

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  1. Choose native perennials or ones that will naturalize in your climate, so your plants spread and reproduce, reducing the number of plants you need to buy each year to fill your garden. Design a sustainable garden that grows lushly with minimal ‘inputs’ and intervention from the gardener.  Native and naturalizing perennials won’t need much watering during dry spells, will make do with nutrients in the soil, and will expand and self-seed.

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  1. Woody plants sequester carbon in their roots and branches and live for many years. These are the most efficient Carbon Garden plants.   A garden made mostly from trees, shrubs, perennial ferns and groundcovers, will work most efficiently.  Some more arid areas have great success with long-lived succulents.  Consider replacing turf grass with plants that don’t require such intense maintenance.

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Mountain Laurel blooms each May, is native to our region and forms dense clumps over time.

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  1. Use the I-Tree Tool to educate yourself about the power of trees in your landscape to sequester and store carbon, reduce run-off and scrub other pollutants out of the air. Use this tool when selecting new trees to plant in your own yard.

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

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‘Carbon Gardening’ can make a significant contribution to scrubbing carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the earth, and the total contribution multiplies as the plants grow and the garden develops year to year.  A fully grown native tree can removed fifty or more pounds of carbon from the air annually.  While the amount varies by tree species and size, every year of growth increases the tree’s effectiveness.

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Each gardener who adopts sustainable practices makes a sizeable contribution to off-set and mitigate carbon production in their area.  Planting more plants and allowing them to grow densely also helps manage rainfall so it is stored onsite, rather than running off so rapidly.  The plants sustain wildlife and build a richly integrated ecosystem.

We reduce our own annual costs for new plants, fertilizers, other chemicals and fuel, while also reducing our time invested in garden maintenance.  It is a good approach for any of us who enjoy watching nature weave her tapestry each year, sustainably, while knowing that our gardens are part of the solution to climate warming and climate change.

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Woodland Gnome 2021

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

Six on Saturday: Color Winter Beautiful

Columbine emerges through a winter ground cover of Arum italicum in early March.

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Autumn colors our world with vivid hues of scarlet, orange, yellow and purple for a few short weeks as deep green summer fades into the browns and greys of late autumn and winter.  We distract ourselves for a while with bright and colorful holiday decorations.  But once past Boxing Day in late December, we wake up to the bare bones of our winter gardens.

Of all the year, this may be the stretch when we most keenly wish we had planned ahead for some color and interest in the garden.  Once the trees stand as skeletons against wintery skies, we look with fresh appreciation at every evergreen shrub and colorful berry left behind.

Many of our lawns lose their luster after first frost.  Most herbaceous plants die back and weather to shades of duff and brown, if they haven’t already turned to mush as Cannas and Hedychium so quickly do.

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Autumn Brilliance ferns, Mahonia and Edgeworthia chrysantha maintain a beautiful presence through the worst winter weather in our garden.  This photo was taken in late December 2016.

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Winter beauty relies on a subtler, more sophisticated sense of color and form.  We are called on to appreciate the wabi-sabi aesthetic of well-worn objects past their prime, like the weathered stalks and seed pods of perennials left standing in the borders and twigs etched against a cloudy sky.

Even woody vines add interest snaking through the trees or over rocks with delicately curled tendrils, or a few stalwarts, like our native honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, still blooming late into January.  Native Carolina jessamine keeps its green leaves as it scrambles through roadside trees and over fences.

When planning for a beautiful winter garden, woody plants give us that consistent structure to bridge the seasons.  Interesting bark, beautiful form and early buds and bloom can turn an ordinary summer shrub into something spectacular and entertaining in a winter garden.

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Hellebores bloom reliably throughout winter. Here buds are already visible in early January of 2018.

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Evergreen shrubs like Camellias will bloom profusely both late into the season, and again in earliest early spring.  Camellia sasanqua bloom into January in our area, while Camellia japonicas will begin blooming in late February or March.   Mahonia offers yellow flowers for hungry bees in late autumn and  winter, and then plump purple berries for the birds in late spring.

Other early bloomers, like Forsythia and some Magnolias take our breath away before most other woody plants awaken.  Trees like alder and hazel ornament themselves with catkins that grow longer and more dramatic from October, before the leaves even fall, through until March.

There are also cold-loving herbaceous perennials and geophytes.  Arum italicum is already sending up its first beautiful leaves in our garden.  It will continue sending up new leaves throughout the winter filling otherwise empty borders with fresh and vibrant green.  These aroids produce their own chemical heat, melting any snow and ice that fall on them without turning crisp or brown.  They will bloom in April and May, then fade away again by June for a summer-time rest.

Hellebores are already sending up new leaves, too.  Their first flower buds will appear in December, and they will bloom prolifically until May.  Epimediums, sometimes called fairy wings, prove evergreen in our garden, with their often holly or heart shaped leaves.   Then they  burst into growth with new leaves and delicate flowers in earliest spring.

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Galanthus, snowdrops. often bloom through mid-winter snows.

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By February, the early Crocus, Galanthus and early dwarf Iris will break ground with delicate leaves and vivid flowers.  Plant Crocus tommasinianus, or Tommies, for earliest bloom.  The bulbs of this Crocus species have a taste unpleasant to rodents, and so won’t be dug up as squirrel or vole snacks.  It is always smart to spray new bulbs with an animal repellent as you plant them, anyway, and maybe to spray the bed or pot after planting, too, to discourage squirrels from digging.

Iris reticulata or Iris histrioides sometimes emerge in late January to bloom in February through March.  Plant them in a pot in a sunny spot on the patio for earliest bloom.  You might also plant clumps in a border for winter interest, and they thrive in a rock garden.  Like many other spring blooming geophytes, dwarf Iris bulbs appreciate hot dry conditions through the summer months. They usually bloom with the early snowdrops, Galanthus, and as the leaves of early Cyclamen coum emerge.  Plant them against a back drop of Cyclamen, Arum or Hellebore to make them pop.

Hardy Cyclamen form a beautiful and spreading groundcover during the winter months.  C. hederifolium emerge in October and persist past frost.  C. Coum emerge in February and persist until May.  They are very small, but their finely marked evergreen leaves and tiny pink or white flowers are exquisite.   Plant them in patio pots or under trees and shrubs.  Placement below trees is especially good as the ground will stay drier there during their summer dormancy.

Evergreen ferns, like the Christmas fern, autumn ferns and holly fern give winter color, too.  They may get a bit beaten down after a heavy snow, but their texture remains beautiful throughout the winter months.  When their new fronds appear in early spring, they add interest and drama when little else is going on in the garden.  Cut back older fronds as the new ones emerge.

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Evergreen mistletoe lives anchored to the branches of the trees, adding color to our garden once the leaves fall each autumn.

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Finally, even a tree’s bark becomes a thing of beauty in the winter landscape.  Exfoliating barks like those of crape myrtles and birch trees provide interesting texture as well as color.  Many Cornus species boast bright red or yellow winter stems, especially on new growth.  Red maples have red stems when young.  Some gum trees boast ‘wings’ in their smaller branches and twigs, and poplar and sycamore trees both have beautiful, light colored often mottled bark that shines on a bright winter day.  Oakleaf Hydrangeas hold onto their flowers and scarlet leaves, on beautifully shaped woody stems with peeling bark, until new buds emerge.

When we notice these small details, we find beauty in unlikely places.  The sparseness and subtlety of a winter landscape balances the exuberance of summer.  We go back to bare bones.  There is much less competition for our attention and much less to do in the garden.  We can breathe.  We can enjoy a few months of peace and quiet before we greet another spring.

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Camellia sasanqua blooms from November through January in our garden.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

 

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

Sunday Dinner: Paradox

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“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.

Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

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  Marcus Aurelius

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“Art is the lie that

enables us to realize the truth.”

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  Pablo Picasso

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“But you can’t make people listen.

They have to come round in their own time,

wondering what happened

and why the world blew up around them.

It can’t last.”

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  Ray Bradbury

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“The opposite of a correct statement

is a false statement.

But the opposite of a profound truth

may well be another profound truth.”


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Niels Bohr

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“You may choose to look the other way

but you can never say again

that you did not know.”

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William Wilberforce

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“I do not know what I may appear to the world,

but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy

playing on the sea-shore,

and diverting myself

in now and then finding a smoother pebble

or a prettier shell than ordinary,

whilst the great ocean of truth

lay all undiscovered before me.”


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Isaac Newton

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“Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth,

and if a man does not know what a thing is,

it is at least an increase in knowledge

if he knows what it is not. ”

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Carl G. Jung

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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“Cherish those who seek the truth

but beware of those who find it.”
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  Voltaire

Sunday Dinner: What Light We Have

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“There are two ways to be fooled.

One is to believe what isn’t true;

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

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Soren Kierkegaard

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“Just because you don’t understand it

doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”

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Lemony Snicket

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“If you look for truth,

you may find comfort in the end;

if you look for comfort

you will not get neither comfort or truth

only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin,

and in the end, despair.”

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  C.S. Lewis

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

Facts can obscure truth.”

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Maya Angelou

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“The truth is not always beautiful,

nor beautiful words the truth.”

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  Lao Tzu

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“If someone is able to show me

that what I think or do is not right,

I will happily change, for I seek the truth,

by which no one was ever truly harmed.

It is the person who continues

in his self-deception and ignorance

who is harmed.”

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  Marcus Aurelius

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“A thinker sees his own actions

as experiments and questions-

-as attempts to find out something.

Success and failure are for him

answers above all.”

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  Friedrich Nietzsche

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

than to persist in delusion,

however satisfying and reassuring.”

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  Carl Sagan

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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

I am not bound to succeed,

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

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Abraham Lincoln


Six on Saturday: Rain Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2020

 

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

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

Six on Saturday: The Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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

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

 

Sunday Dinner: Ever Widening Circles

Monarda fistulosa

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“I live my life in widening circles

that reach out across the world.”
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Rainer Maria Rilke

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Daucus carota with Cyrtomium falcatum

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“I beg you, to have patience with everything

unresolved in your heart

and to try to love the questions themselves

as if they were locked rooms

or books written in a very foreign language.

Don’t search for the answers,

which could not be given to you now,

because you would not be able to live them.

And the point is to live everything.

Live the questions now.

Perhaps then, someday far in the future,

you will gradually, without even noticing it,

live your way into the answer.”
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Rainer Maria Rilke

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“To love is good, too: love being difficult.

For one human being to love another:

that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks,

the ultimate, the last test and proof,

the work for which all other work

is but preparation.”
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Rainer Maria Rilke

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“We need, in love, to practice only this:

letting each other go.

For holding on comes easily;

we do not need to learn it.”

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Rainer Maria Rilke

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Zantedeschia albomaculata

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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Heuchera ‘Midnight Rose’

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“Do not assume that he who seeks to comfort you now,

lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words

that sometimes do you good.

His life may also have much sadness and difficulty,

that remains far beyond yours.

Were it otherwise,

he would never have been able to find these words.”
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Rainer Maria Rilke

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Clematis

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“It is spring again.

The earth is like a child

that knows poems by heart.”
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Rainer Maria Rilke

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Six on Saturday: Always Another Surprise

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

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

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

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Some parts of the garden love the rain.

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

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

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Athyrium ‘Ghost’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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

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

Six On Saturday: When Wood Breaks Into Bloom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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

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

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

Sunday Dinner: Never Assume….

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“Advances are made by answering questions.
Discoveries are made by questioning answers.
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Bernard Haisch

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“Your assumptions are your windows on the world.
Scrub them off every once in a while,
or the light won’t come in.”
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Isaac Asimov

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“It is useless to attempt
to reason a man out of a thing
he was never reasoned into.”
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Jonathan Swift

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“Assumptions are maintained by the hug of history.
Yet, history does not guarantee their validity,
nor does it ever reassess their validity.”
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Michael Michalko

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“You think you know this story.
You do not.”
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Jane Yolen

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“Don’t build roadblocks out of assumptions.”
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Lorii Myers

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“The surface of the earth is soft
and impressible by the feet of men;
and so with the paths which the mind travels.
How worn and dusty, then,
must be the highways of the world,
how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!
I did not wish to take a cabin passage,
but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world,
for there I could best see the moonlight
amid the mountains.”
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Henry David Thoreau

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“There was no Jedi so wise
that he could not be undone
by his own assumptions.”
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Claudia Gray

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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“Assumptions close doors.
Intrigue opens them.”
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Sam Owen

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“You find the magic of the world in the margin for error.”
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Heart of Dixie

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Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

Please visit and follow Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues to see all new posts since January 8, 2021.

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

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