Growing Herbs for the Beauty of It

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

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

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Rose scented Pelargonium grows near emerging Colocasia.

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

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

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

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

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The first fennel flowers of the season opend this week.

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

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

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Basil

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

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Chocolate mint

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

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

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Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 2017

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

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

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

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Pineapple mint with lavender

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

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

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

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

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Basil with pineapple mint, Lime Queen Zinnia and roses.

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

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

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

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

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Rosemary in bloom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Comphrey with Artemesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Artemesia with lavender and Iris

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

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The Alliums are just beginning to bloom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Breakfast at the Agastache… summer 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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In A Vase On Monday: Good Enough to Eat….

August 29, 2016 vase 005

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August feels like a very ‘green’ month; especially here in coastal Virginia where we are totally surrounded by green trees, vines, lush green lawns, billowing green Crepe Myrtles and other rampant growth.

From Lamas in early August, to Labor Day weekend in early September, our world remains vibrant and green!

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Sunset, yesterday, from the Colonial Parkway.

Early evening, yesterday, from the Colonial Parkway.

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You can watch some plants literally grow hour to hour and day to day, given enough water.   If you ever wondered what it would feel like to live in a hot-house or conservatory, welcome to a Virginia August!   This is the time of year when we seek the cool, green shade of large trees and vine covered trellises to help us through the relentless heat.

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Herbs in our August garden.

Herbs in our August garden.  Our swallowtail butterflies love the chive flowers.  This clump remains one of their favorite stops to feed.

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And so it feels appropriate to cut cool green stems from the garden today.  I’ve cut an assortment of herbs for their fragrant leaves.  The burgundy basil flowers and white garlic chives serve only as grace notes to the beautifully shaped, textured and frosted leaves.

Much of this arrangement is edible.

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August 29, 2016 vase 002

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Except for the ivy vines, a little Artemesia and a stem of Coleus; you could brew some lovely herbal tea or garnish a plate from the rest of our vase today.  There are two different scented Pelargoniums here, including P. ‘Grey Lady Plymouth’,  and African Blue Basil.

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August 29, 2016 Vase2 010

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To make this arrangement feel even cooler, it sits in a cobalt blue vase from our local Shelton glass works on a sea-green glass tray.  A moonstone frog rests nearby.

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The vase was made locally by John Shelton of Shelton Glass Works here in Williamsburg.

The vase was made locally by John Shelton of Shelton Glass Works here in Williamsburg.

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Today’s vase is so fragrant that my partner commented as soon as the stems came into the room.  It is a spicy blend of rose scented Geraniums and sharp Basil, with an undertone of garlic from the chive flowers.  It makes puts me in the mood to mix up a little ‘Boursin Cheese’ with fresh herbs from the garden, and serve it garnished with a few chive blossoms!

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August 29, 2016 Vase2 005

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Appreciation, always, to Cathy of ‘Rambling In the Garden”  for hosting ‘In A Vase On Monday’ each week.  I admire the dedication of flower gardeners all over the world who faithfully clip, arrange, and photograph their garden’s bounty each Monday.  Cathy is in the pink again today, with some beautiful lilies she has grown this summer.

I hope you will click through to Cathy’s post and follow some of the links to enjoy today’s beautiful arrangements.

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August 29, 2016 Vase2 014

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 Woodland Gnome 2016

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Near Yorktown on the Parkway, just before sunset last night; the inspiration for today's vase....

Near Yorktown on the Parkway, just before sunset last night; the inspiration for today’s vase….

 

WPC: Narrow

July 27, 2016 morning garden 075

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“It is usual that little streams put their mouths into big rivers.
Most rivers can also be traced to the big sea.
The fact that you start with a small choice
does not mean you will be on that narrow road forever.”
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Israelmore Ayivor
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Artemesia

Artemesia

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For the Daily Post’s

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Narrow

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Canna

Canna

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2016

In A Vase On Monday

April 13, 2015 spring flowers 007

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The vase today reflects what is happening in the garden:  an abundance of fresh, colorful flowers set against the somewhat ragged remainders of last year’s garden.  Winter’s remnants form the backdrop to all of our blooming trees, budding shrubs, vibrant daffodils and Hellebores, and the emerging perennials.

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April 13, 2015 spring flowers 009

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The Hellebore in today’s vase is a special favorite of mine with its dark and dusty double flowers.  It lives at the very bottom of the garden, in deep shade.  Its abundant blooms don’t show very well where it grows, and so I was happy to cut two stems for today’s vase.

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April 13, 2015 spring flowers 003

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More white daffodils, larger ones from a different patch, offer the stark contrast found in the changing seasons.

Spent, spore covered fronds of D. ‘Brilliance’ autumn fern, rescued from where they were lying around the crown of emerging fronds, form the backdrop and help support the soaring branches of blooming redbud, Cercis canadensis.

Also supporting today’s arrangement is a bare, lichen covered branch from an Azalea and two branches of lacy Artemisia.  The Artemisia overwintered, and has just begun to send out fresh leaves.

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April 13, 2015 spring flowers 010

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This post comes late in the day.  I’ve spent the entire day working out in the garden, stopping only when the sun grew low in the sky and my energy was spent.  Many more pots came out of storage in the garage today, and most of the hanging baskets have moved out of the shade and into their permanent locations.

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See the little guy who hitchhiked indoors on the flowers?

See the little guy who hitchhiked indoors on the flowers?

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I’ve been watching for unfurling fern fronds and photographing them, planting new perennial plugs, cutting back winter damage on the Rosemary, and doing an awful lot of sweeping and raking.

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Leaves have just begun to appear on the redbud trees.  This little branch looked so elegant with its tiny leaves, I had to include it.

Leaves have just begun to appear on the redbud trees. This little branch looked so elegant with its tiny  heart shaped leaves, I had to include it.

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There was lots of company outside today.  Bumblebees, doves, our cardinals, and our cat were all nearby.  My partner appeared from time to time to offer encouragement, open the doors, and lend a hand.

There is just a lot of heavy lifting involved in opening the season in the garden.  I know you know, and are probably in the midst of your own spring chores.

And what happy work to clear the way for a new season of beauty and wonder.  The first bud has appeared on a Fuchsia we’ve carried into its fourth spring.  Japanese painted fern fronds uncurl from another basket beside the tiny maroon leaves of an awakening Oxalis triangularis.

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Trimmings from the Artimesia look so nice against the dusky purple Hellebores.  Do you think they might root in the vase?

Trimmings from the Artemisia look so nice against the dusky purple Hellebores. Do you think they might root in the vase?

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I took a short break after lunch to pull together this little arrangement today, and photograph it, before returning to the work at hand.  The vase was an antique when I bought it thirty odd years ago.  It held Begonia cuttings all winter long.  Now they are planted out in pots, and the vase is free again for flowers.

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April 13, 2015 spring flowers 018

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The first series of photographs, outside, are in front of our Hydrangea border.  We’ve left the grass to grow as it is full of bulbs and wildflowers.  It will likely get its first trim while I’m away next week.

I added an amethyst cluster and a blown glass plate when the vase came inside.  The amethyst matches the Hellebores so nicely.

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April 13, 2015 spring flowers 016

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Appreciation, as always, to Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, who generously sponsors A Vase on Monday.  You’ll find links to many wonderful arrangements of spring flowers in her comments.   I find it fascinating to see what is in bloom in other gardener’s gardens across the country and across the sea.

I hope you will find joy in the beauty of your own garden this week, and perhaps clip a few stems to enjoy inside, with a cool drink and your feet up!

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April 13, 2015 spring flowers 005~

Woodland Gnome 2015

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