Cats on Monday

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It was a foodie weekend for many celebrating Father’s Day with cookouts, picnics and fine dining.

It’s been a ‘foodie weekend’ for many creatures in our garden, too.  From deer munching a favorite blooming Hydrangea and goldfinches grabbing a few ripening Basil seeds, to finding rabbits had eaten some vines out of pots at the Botanical Garden; I’ve been coming across many signs of hungry animals picnicking in the garden.

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I found several very well-fed rabbits picnicking in the Williamsburg Botanical Garden yesterday.

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Our fennel is hosting these beautiful black swallowtail cats this week.  It won’t be long before they retire to their chrysalides, only to emerge later in July as beautiful butterflies.  We can hope to host three generations of swallowtails a year here in coastal Virginia.

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I think of the butterflies, birds, and other creatures as our garden ‘guests,’ and plant the garden with a thought to their comfort and feeding.  I’m so delighted to spot a hummingbird on a blossom, hear the bees in the shrubs, watch a dragonfly sparkling in the sunshine, or hear the birds call to one another in the trees.

Ours is a wildlife garden, which is what it needs to be here in our wooded neighborhood.

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One of our cats noshing the fennel on Friday evening.  He certainly has grown over the weekend!

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We are glad to provide host plants, nectar plants, water and shelter for the many creatures that share the garden with us.  The fennel and parsley will soon grow new leaves to replace those grazed by the cats.

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Our butterfly species are dwindling. We can all lend a hand to help protect them and increase their chances of survival, so that our children and grandchildren will still enjoy the magic of watching them in their own future gardens, too.

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There are many butterflies and moths native to Virginia and all of them are currently in decline. We have a network of dedicated butterfly enthusiasts in our area who rescue and raise cats, releasing the butterflies into the wild as they emerge. By protecting the butterfly larvae, they help insure that more individuals make it to the adult butterfly stage, mate, and increase the population.  This black swallowtail was released in our garden by a friend in mid-April. We hope to host many, many generations of its young.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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International Day of Forests and Trees

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March 21 marks the International Day of Forests and Trees.

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We celebrate trees every day of the year in our Forest Garden.  They shelter and shade us, filter the air, block out noise, feed the soil, produce flowers, fruits, nuts and harbor mistletoe!  Our trees attract and shelter songbirds and squirrels and fill the garden with beauty.  We love their unique forms and colors.

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We live in an area where there are many trees still standing along the roads and in neighborhoods.  Our climate allows us to grow many different species of trees and they form the ‘climax community’ in our ecosystem.  In other words, without intervention, every wild space would soon grow up in trees.

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Sadly, this isn’t true across much of the planet.  Trees are the lungs of our planet.  Even as they clean our air and produce oxygen, they also fix carbon, and other elements, in their wood and leaves.  Trees filtering carbon and other greenhouse gasses out of the air helps mitigate global warming.  More trees will help regulate our planet’s temperature.  Fewer trees allow the warming to accelerate.

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In one of the great insanities of bureaucracy,  our state’s transportation department is widening a long stretch of Interstate 64 that goes through our area, to allow ever more cars to use the highway.  In order to do this, they are cutting down, this week, thousands and thousands of mature trees that have stood in the median between the lanes for decades.

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Dogwood is our Virginia state tree, and many beautiful dogwoods grew in the areas recently clear cut between the lanes of I64 through Williamsburg.

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Fewer trees, more exhaust, more pavement, more cars, more noise,  poorer air quality, and more rapid warming of our climate will result.  It is hard to believe how governments can operate with such total disregard for the quality of life for the people they are supposed to serve, or the environmental impact of their actions.

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Bald Cypress trees grow along the Chickahominy River.

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We’ve been watching the destruction of this narrow, but important strip of forest.  It makes us heartsick to see the waste and the ugliness, and to think about how this once attractive stretch of road will have lost its grace and its character forever.

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Powhatan Creek

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But this is a common story in our area, as it likely is in yours as well.  Trees are cut so more roads, shopping centers and homes can be built.  What can any of us do?

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Magnolia grandiflora growing along the Colonial Parkway near Jametown, VA.

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Plant as many trees as we are able, to make some effort to offset the damage done when trees are cleared.  Have you planted a tree lately?

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A row of Crepe Myrtles stands near College Creek.

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I actually bought two little maple trees earlier this week.  They are only about a foot tall now, but they will grow.  And so will the trees that you plant!

We don’t plant trees just for ourselves; we plant trees for the generations to come.

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Acer palmatum

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We can also speak for the trees, use our own voices to support conservation efforts, to support parks and wild spaces, and to support the local vendors who raise and sell trees and shrubs in our area.

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We have lost a great many trees across our region in recent years to storms and construction.  Our trees and forests are precious resources.

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Let’s each do what we can to protect the trees still standing, and replace those that are lost. 

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A native redbud tree seedling appeared by our drive. This tree can eventually grow to 20′ or more.  Sometimes protecting trees is as effortless as protecting seedlings and allowing them to grow.

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Our grandchildren’s lives depend on what we do today.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Gold is a luxury.

Trees are necessities.

Man can live and thrive without gold,

but we cannot survive without trees.”
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Paul Bamikole

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Sandy Bay, which frames one end of Jamestown Island, provides a home for many species of birds in its shallow waters. Bald cypress trees grow along its banks.

Wildlife Wednesday: Great Blue Heron

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“Here is your country.
Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources,
cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage,
for your children and your children’s children.
Do not let selfish men or greedy interests
skin your country of its beauty,
its riches or its romance.”
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Theodore Roosevelt
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“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”
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Gary Snyder
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“The wild is where you find it,
not in some distant world relegated to a nostalgic past
or an idealized future;
its presence is not black or white, bad or good,
corrupted or innocent…
We are of that nature, not apart from it.
We survive because of it, not instead of it.”
.
Renee Askins

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“The boundary between tame and wild
exists only in the imperfections
of the human mind.”
.
Aldo Leopold


…and Fertilizer for Free

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over a foundation of bark, roots and branches will rot into good compost over time.

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I spent far too many hours of my youth watching Mark Knopfler  and Gordon Sumner sing, “I want my money for nothing, and my chicks for free!”.  MTV was brand new in those days, and I was utterly fascinated by the up-close view of the artists performing and the dreamy vignettes hyper-produced to sell their tunes.

Fun fact:  Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, co-wrote that tune with Knopfler.  A former teacher, Sumner’s music career was just taking off as I began my own classroom teaching years.  He inspired me….

These were the days when Ted Turner was still trying to prove his idea that the public would support 24/7 journalism as entertainment over at his new CNN cable channel, and I was still living in a tiny walk up city apartment with only a few potted plant to soothe my achy, throbbing thumbs.  The world was filled with delicious possibilities.

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Well Knopfler and Sumner have aged, while I have not.  They still perform and I happily preside over our little Forest Garden.  They may have become unimaginably wealthy, but I have learned how to get fertilizer and plants for free!

I’ve left my classrooms behind, but will happily teach you how to perform the alchemy of soil for yourself, if you care to know the secret.  The world remains filled with delicious possiblities!

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It is all in how you look at things.  You probably understand that simple, but profound statement from your own experiences.  What seems free from one point of view, becomes costly from another.  What at first appears costly, ends up providing many more side benefits than expected.

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Let’s take fertilizer as an example.  Yes, I admit to the bags of Plant Tone, Rose Tone, Holly Tone, Bio-Tone Plant Starter With Mycorrhizae and a precious little jug of Neptune’s Harvest wintering in our garage.  Then there is the jar of Ozmocote, and the secret stash of crystallized orchid food hidden under the kitchen sink; a snack for when I want to coax the cohort of potted plants in our living space to bloom.  No, none of those were free.  In fact, if you added up what I spent on  all of them combined, they would likely buy a nice new pair of work boots….

And that was not the only ‘cost’ involved in these plastic bags and bottles of plant nourishing products.  They all came from factories.  Many of the ingredients were mined out of the earth.

Although these are ‘organic’ formulations, huge amounts of energy were invested in harvesting their components, creating the fertilizer, packaging it and transporting it to our local shops.  After the product is used up, there is some contaminated plastic packaging that won’t decay and must be put somewhere.  Those are costs we don’t see, and ones rolled into the price we pay.

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Gravel and Plant Tone ready to be mixed into the bottom of the planting hole.

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Now, if I use too much or time my application incorrectly, a lot of that product will simply wash away from my garden and into the creek.  Fertilizing our waterways increases algae growth and upsets the chemistry of the natural waterways.  Run-off of fertilizers has a profoundly negative effect on our lakes, rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, and even the oceans.

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Phosphorous, the P on your fertilizer bag, has an especially damaging effect when released into the waterways.  It initially stimulates the growth of algae and other plant life, which eventually shades out plants living on the bottom.  As this overabundance of plant life dies and sinks to the bottom and decays, it ties up oxygen needed by animal life, and destroys their food supplies.

Which is ironic.  Phosphorous is essential to plant growth, remains a key component of all commercial fertilizers, and is in limited supply.  Experts predict that our known supply of rock phosphorous that can be mined for industrial use will run out before 2200.

Phosphorous was ‘discovered’ in modern times by German alchemist Hennig Brand, in the late seventeenth century, from his experiments with human urine.    He eventually produced a white substance which glowed in the dark and burned brilliantly.  He called it ‘phosphorous mirabilis’, which means ‘miraculous bearer of light.’

Phosphorous is present in living tissue, and so may be found in urine and bone.  You may have heard about the ancient gardeners using human urine to fertilize their gardens.  This practice is discouraged today, of course.  But recall that animal waste products remain an essential ingredient in agriculture around the world.  Many of the ‘organic’ fertilizers contain rock phosphate or bone meal as essential parts of their formula.

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College Creek

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Phosphate in the soil isn’t always readily available to plant roots.  It must go through further biochemistry to make it available, and this happens best in living soil filled with microorganisms.   It happens best when the soil’s pH remains between 6.5 and 7.

Potassium, the K on your fertilizer package, is formed in supernova explosions.  It is both a metal and a salt.  In its pure elemental form, it reacts violently with both water and oxygen.  It is an extremely common element on earth, is found in all living things, and is an essential part of the biochemistry of all life.  Potassium in fertilizers appear as potassium chlorides, sulphates or nitrates.

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How is the average gardener to know whether or not their soil’s pH will even allow the plants access to any available phosphorous, nitrogen or potassium, and whether any additional nutrients are  needed?  That is why a soil test can give us invaluable information about our soil, and how to make it better.  Any local Extension office will gladly help with kits, instructions, processing and interpreting your soil test, and all states offer this service at a modest cost.

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Knowing what nutrients your soil may lack, to grow specific types of plants, allows a gardener to add only what is truly needed.  We can stop over-fertilizing, or adding fertilizer that never becomes available to our plants because of the complex chemistry of our soil.

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Fresh compost piled on top of existing mulch allows me to plant in this area without digging into the clay. A light covering of wood chips from the forest floor mulches the planting and makes the new bed visually “disappear.”

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Most experienced gardeners will tell a newbie:  “Feed your soil, not your plants.”  At first, this makes no sense.  But as you begin to understand the complexity of the soil as a living organism, it makes perfect sense.  Good soil is alive!

It is alive with microscopic bacteria, fungi, and tiny invertebrate animals that continually recycle Earth’s elements and make them available to fuel new growth.  Although some part of the soil is made up of tiny grains of mineral like sand, or granite, or clay; a large part of good soil is composed of decaying organic matter.

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Soil is alive, and improves as you add organic matter each year.

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These may be decaying roots or leaves, dead ants, or compost you’ve made from kitchen scraps.  It may be animal manure or even animal remains.  It may be a cover crop turned into the soil, bark mulch, hay or grass clippings.  Anything that once lived may eventually feed the soil.

And because all of these things contain the elemental building blocks of life, as they decay, their chemical components are released for re-use.  In addition to the big three of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, plants need many other elements and trace minerals naturally found in good, active soil.

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Mayapples appeared through the leaf mulch

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We can re-charge our soil with the nutrients necessary for plant growth in several ways, without having to purchase plastic bags filled with commercial fertilizers.

1. Grow and compost plants with deep roots.  Certain plants grow especially deep roots, which means they can access and absorb minerals deep into the soil, far below the area we cultivate.  As they grow, these minerals are stored in their plant cells.  Harvesting and then composting these plants enriches our soil.

Consider growing plants such as alfalfa, comphrey, parsnips and other root vegetables, purple coneflowers, and dandelions.  Trees with deep taproots also absorb minerals, which are stored in their wood and leaves.

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Comphrey’s roots extend for several feet into the soil, mining minerals that are stored in leaves and stems.  Comphrey attracts pollinators, is a medicinal herb and a great addition to compost.  Also use it as mulch around plants that need a boost.

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2.  Encourage earthworms.  Earthworms eat and digest organic material, and their droppings enrich the soil.  This greatly speeds the decomposition process and makes nutrients available to plant roots much faster.

Worm casting also contain beneficial microbes that work with plants.  Worms also loosen the soil and aerate it as they move around.  Worms will come to the surface to eat, but will also tunnel to a significant depth as they go about their lives.

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Organic matter left on top of the soil attracts earthworms.  Worms will feed at the surface, so long as it is deeply shaded, but live below ground.

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3.  Sheet compost over areas you plan to cultivate.  Sheet composting simply means laying organic materials directly on the soil where you want them to decay.  This organic material attracts earthworms and other decomposers to live and eat in this area, enriching it.

All organic mulch, whether straw, grass clippings, chipped leaves, bark, seaweed, coffee grounds, tea leaves, kitchen scraps, egg shells, sticks and branches or alfalfa pellets may be considered components in sheet composting.  I like to lay brown paper or black and white newsprint over the area first, establish the borders, and then pile materials in a ‘sheet’ over an area I intend to use later for growing new plants.

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4.  Grow plants that fix nitrogen in the soil.  All plants breathe.  Plants inhale through tiny holes in their leaves and use elements in the air, such as carbon and nitrogen for their growth.  When they exhale, they release oxygen and water vapor back into the environment.

Once plants have inhaled carbon, it is fixed into the walls of each cell.  But some plants are able to store nitrogen on their roots.  All members of the pea or legume family, Fabaceae, fix nitrogen, the N on the fertilizer bag, on their roots.  This nitrogen enriches the soil, and often may be used by plants growing nearby.   Fungi living in the soil assist with the transfer of soil nutrients and water between plants.

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Native Wax Myrtle fixes nitrogen from the air on its roots, making the area around each shrub more fertile with each passing year. Plants growing nearby can use this nitrogen, thanks to fungi in the soil which help transfer nutrients and water between plants. Fallen leaves also further enrich the soil.

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Members of this family include crops such as peas and beans, peanuts and lentils.  But it also includes flowers like lupines, and several shrubs and trees like black locust, acacia and mimosa.  I recently learned that the wax myrtle also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil.

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Our native redbud, Cercis canadensis, also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil for plants growing nearby.  It is a member of the Fabaceae family, and its seed pods may be eaten.   This seedling can eventually grow into a small tree.

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Planting, or allowing, plants to grow that ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil enriches the soil with that most necessary element for good plant growth- Nitrogen (N)- for free!  Nitrogen, always present in the atmosphere, can be captured and packaged by plants in our garden, and kept at root level, available to all that need it and naturally enriching our garden’s soil.

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Clover growing in the lawn is also fertilizing it.  In addition to feeding pollinators and small mammals, clover fixes nitrogen along its roots.

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Here is a partial list of plants that perform this little miracle:  all clovers, sweet peas, vetch, bush clover, Wisteria, golden chain tree, Judas tree, honey locust tree, Kentucky coffee tree, alder, some roses and many members of the gourd family, such as squash and pumpkins.

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Native Wisteria frutescens growing at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden fixes nitrogen in the soil along all of its roots.

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If you can plant food or flower bearing plants, which also fix nitrogen to improve the soil, you have multiplied this natural wealth for your own use.

Nature’s gifts surround us.  The more we understand about the living ecosystem we inhabit, the more we can work cooperatively with our environment to cultivate and enrich the web of life.  The more we learn, the more we can disengage with costly commercial suppliers, and find ways to accomplish our goals in harmony with nature.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

Summer Solstice Wishes

Butterfly bush prepares to welcome a hungry bee.

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Today is the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year.  It is a good day to celebrate our wishes, especially those wishes that have finally manifested for us. 

I first wrote and published ‘A Dirty Hands Garden Club’ in the summer of 2014, and would like to share it with you, again.  I hope that you have found your own community of gardeners, naturalists, conservationists, teachers, artists, and plant nerds, as I have so happily found mine.

WG June 2018

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Asclepias incarnata

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I would love to join  a “Dirty Hands” Garden Club;
One whose members know more about fertilizers
Than they do about wines…

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I’d want our meetings spent wandering through nurseries,
Learning from  expert gardeners,
Or building community gardens…

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Echinacea and Monarda prove beautiful native perennials in our area.

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Not frittered away in chit chat over drinks and hors d’oeuvres .

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Hibiscus syriacus and bumbly

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And all of us would be at least a little expert in something, and
Glad to share what we’ve learned;

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Native ebony spleenwort transplanted successfully into this old stump.

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And we all would love putting our hands in the dirt
To help something grow.

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Lavender is still recovering from the winter.

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My club would collect species, not dues;
Re-build ecosystems rather than plant ivy and  box.

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Caladium ‘Fannie Munson’ with Bergenia and ferns.

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We “dirty hands” gardeners can band together
In spirit, if not in four walls.

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We can share plants and insights,
Instigate, propagate, and appreciate;

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Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’

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Perhaps we can even help rehabilitate 
Some sterile lawn somewhere
Into something which nurtures beauty
And feeds souls….

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Magnolia liliiflora is giving us a second flush of bloom in early summer.

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Others can judge flowers,
Decorate homes at Christmas
And organize tours.
These things are needed, too.

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Hibiscus syriacus, Rose of Sharon, opens its first blooms of the year.

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(But I would rather be out in the garden;
Where cardinals preside over the morning meeting,
And  hummingbirds are our special guests for the day.
The daily agenda ranges from watering to transplanting;
From pruning to watching for turtles and dragonflies.)

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We  wear our muddy shoes and well worn gloves with pride,
Our spades and pruners always close at hand.

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We converse with Nature,
And re-build the web strand by strand,
Plant by plant.

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Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’ with Basil

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If this invitation speaks to you,
Perhaps we can work together
From wherever we might find ourselves
Around the globe.
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Colocasia ‘Mojito’ in front with C. ‘Pink China’ behind

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We can each put our hands in the dirt
and create a garden,

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Nurture Beauty,
And restore health and vitality to our Earth,
our communities, and ourselves, together.

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Native Oakleaf Hydrangea glows in the morning Solstice sun.

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Poem by Woodland Gnome 2014
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“The Holy Land is everywhere”
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Black Elk

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

Wildlife Wednesday

July 13, 2016 garden close ups 032

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“Mindfulness is not the path of chasing.

It is the path of beautification.

When flowers blossom, the fragrance spreads,

and the bees come.”

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Amit Ray

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July 13, 2016 garden close ups 030

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“We need to return to harmony with Nature

and with each other,

to become what humans were destined to be,

builders of gardens and Shires,

hobbits (if you will),

not Masters over creatures great and small.”

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Steve Bivans

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July 13, 2016 garden close ups 024

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2016

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July 13, 2016 garden close ups 027

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“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful!’

and sitting in the shade.”

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Rudyard Kipling

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July 13, 2016 garden close ups 004

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“It is not reasonable that art should win

the place of honor over our great and powerful

mother Nature. We have so overloaded

the beauty and richness of her works

by our inventions that we have quite smothered her.”

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Michel de Montaigne

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July 13, 2016 garden close ups 002

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