Hanging Basket Hacks: Hydration

A two year old planting, ready for rejuvenation

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Considering I’d originally planted the basket a couple of years ago, and that the ‘annual’ Verbena survived two Williamsburg winters to return and bloom the following spring,  I can’t complain.

Add to that poor soil (compost I found on-site at the garden) and those daffodil bulbs I planted in there for spring interest.  By early summer 2020, the basket was struggling.   It hung in full sun at the botanical garden where it got irregular, but loving attention.  The Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia, had grown in lushly.  But the basket was no longer beautiful, and the Verbena was fading.  We just couldn’t keep the plants properly watered in July’s unrelenting heat.

Do you have a hanging basket that is struggling in summer’s heat?  Do you have plants under-performing because you can’t keep their container sufficiently watered?

The ongoing challenge with any container planting, especially baskets and window boxes, is to keep the plants supplied with nutrients and enough water that they don’t frequently wilt.  Some climates make container gardening easier than others.  Many municipal plantings get daily, professional attention from a team of horticulturalists.  Some plants adapt better to growing crowded into baskets with just a few inches of soil, than others.

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When you think about it, a hanging basket is a pretty extreme environment for many plants.  That said, there are some reasonably simple and inexpensive hacks that anyone can use to make that basket more comfortable for living, blooming plants.

It is smart to begin with the largest basket your space, and the support it will hang from, can accommodate.  Larger baskets mean more soil to hold moisture, and more space for roots to grow.  A 14″-16″ basket is a good size to work with.  If you are working with a window box rather than a basket, look for ones at minimum 6″ deep.

Next, use good, fresh potting soil.  You might add additional perlite to equal a quarter of the total soil volume, which improves drainage and makes the finished basket much lighter.  Mix this in well, along with some slow release fertilizer like Epsoma’s Plant Tone or Osmocote.  To keep plants actively growing and blooming, they need nutrients.  Most potting mixes are sterile, without the nutrients commonly found in garden soil (which is too dense and heavy for a hanging basket or container).  Adding slow release fertilizer helps bring out the best performance in your chosen plants.

Mix up enough amended soil to fill the basket in a separate container, and then use a scoop to transfer a little at a time to fill in around each plant as you place it.

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This wire basket has a fresh coir liner and an inner liner of a plastic bag. A sponge cut into small bits will help conserve water.

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I generally prefer wire baskets with a coco or coir liner.   Baskets will dry out exceptionally fast when the heat index is over 100F and there isn’t a cloud in the sky for hour after hour on a summer day.  Even baskets watered generously before 8 AM may be dry again by mid-afternoon.  Coir makes a better liner than the traditional sphagnum moss, but is still exceptionally porous.

My first hack is to line the basket with an additional plastic liner to aid water retention.  You might use a large plastic shopping bag, a dry cleaner bag, or similar light-weight sheet of plastic.  If there aren’t holes in the plastic already, use the point of your scissors to poke a few holes so the basket will drain in heavy rain.   I used a shopping bag disqualified from cat-litter duty due to a few large holes already poked in the bottom.  The bag probably won’t fit into your basket perfectly, and you’ll likely need to cut some vertical darts to allow it to open wide enough to lie smoothly against the sides of your liner.

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My second hack involves a cellulose kitchen sponge.  I have a bag of new, dehydrated and pressed Trader Joe’s brand sponges and am giving this brainstorm a trial to see how well it works.  If you don’t have dried pressed sponges available, try any cellulose sponge that doesn’t have any chemical or soap products pre-loaded on it.  Just cut the sponge up into small pieces.  Use most of them in the bottom of the basket between the plastic liner and the soil.  I partially filled the liner with soil, and then added a few more fragments of sponge around the outside edge of the basket.

The sponges will serves as little reservoirs to soak up excess water when it is available and release it later to the soil and roots when it is needed.  I placed several sponge fragments around those holes in the bag to soak up water before it drains out.

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Use fresh potting mix amended with slow release fertilizer like Osmocote (here). If the mix is dense, add additional perlite, up to a quarter of the total volume.  Here additional pieces of sponge are added around the edges of the basket.  These will plump up once the basket is watered for the first time.

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Fill your container about 1/2 full of fresh potting soil and then begin placing plants, and filling back around each one with prepared potting soil.

I placed the entire soil ball from my old basket planting in a plastic box before using my hori hori knife to begin prying the various plants apart.  I saved and re-used all of the pieces of the Verbena that I could find and the rooted bits of Dichondra,which had filled the basket last summer.  Only a few bits of it survived the winter and have been competing with the Lysimachia for resources.

A lot of cleaning up may be needed to remove old, withered leaves and stems.  A pair of sharp scissors is my favorite gardening tool.

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Break apart the individual plants into smaller hunks, discarding most of the old soil.  Clean out old and withered stems and leaves as you re-plant each division.

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I settled the divisions with Verbena in the center and added a few chunks of Lysimachia around the edges.  Creeping Jenny grows quickly and will fill in within a few weeks.  I want the Dichondra to have a chance here to re-establish itself.  I’ll reserve the remaining parts of the old planting, including those dormant bulbs, for another use.

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Settle the divisions you want to re-use into fresh soil

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Finally, I still had a few rooted cuttings of Portulaca on hand.  I brought home a generous portion of cuttings from my favorite grower a few weeks ago and have had them rooting on the deck in a box of vermiculite and potting soil.  I’ve been planting them out in various places for the last few weeks,  but had enough still on hand to add seven or eight rooted stems to empty spots in this new planting.

Rooted cuttings can be worked in to established basket arrangements to refresh and update them.  They are easier to work in than nursery plants since they have a smaller root ball.  Keep well watered as they grow in.

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Rooted Portulaca cuttings ready to transplant

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Using very drought tolerant plants is the next hack for planting drought tolerant basket arrangements.  Succulents, like Portulaca or Sedums, have the ability to absorb and store water when it is available and then go for long periods of time without additional watering.  They have a waxy coating on the epidermis of each leaf and stem to reduce evaporation.  They can remain plump and vital when other plants are crisping up in the sun.

When selecting plants for baskets, pay attention to their water needs and their resilience to drought.  As more beautiful succulents come to market, choosing appropriate succulent and drought tolerant plants for container arrangements becomes easier.

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Lysimachia, Creeping Jenny, is a drought tolerant vine that tolerates full sun. It roots at every node and can take over a planting. Here, I’ve used a few divisions and left the remainder for another use later.

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The final hack for hanging baskets involves applying a mulch.  Bare soil loses moisture much faster than does mulched soil.  The best mulch in our climate is fine gravel, like aquarium gravel.  Pea gravel is another choice.  Both choices do add some weight to the basket, but they reduce evaporation, keep the plants clean and healthy without soil splashing up on them, cool the soil, and provide some protection to roots and geophytes you may plant in the basket.  We have curious squirrels who sometimes dig in pots and baskets if not discouraged by a gravel mulch.  Other choices include larger stones, small seashells, flat glass beads, marbles or glass chips, moss, and vines that fill in as a ground cover, like the Lysimachia.

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I have used a few rocks, glass beads and shells to anchor rooted cuttings in this new arrangement and have sprinkled additional Osmocote on top of the planting.  use rocks or shells to hide the raw, trimmed edges of the plastic liner.  I still need to apply some fine, gravel mulch before this basket is ready to return to the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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Once the basket is planted, and potting soil worked in firmly around all of the roots, add your mulch, and then water the basket well.  I like to water the basket with plain water first to wet everything, and then come back a short time later with a foliar feed of fish and seaweed emulsion to help the plants adjust and to provide trace minerals to the soil.

In spring, you can get by with hanging that basket into its permanent place right away.  In summer, I like to give a day or two for the plants to settle in and adjust in the shade before moving the basket to its permanent spot.  A stretch of cloudy, wet weather is best for a new basket.  But when there is a lot of sun, I like to give the plants a head start on settling their roots into their new home in a shady spot before putting them under stress in full sun.

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A Portulaca cutting has been growing in the edge of this basket for a few weeks now. Once established, they grow quickly and bloom prolifically in full or partial sun.

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Each gardener has to understand their own micro climate and preferred plants to come up with solutions that work for them.  If I were gardening in the Pacific Northwest, I might not need to line my basket with plastic or add cut up sponges to the soil.  The more realistic we are about our own growing conditions, the better job we can do with our plantings for lasting beauty.

If your hanging baskets have been less than spectacular, you might try some of these hacks to see how they work for you.  Don’t be afraid to re-work an established basket with an eye to improving it.  Changing out some of the plants, removing some of the more agressive plants, fertilizing and refreshing the soil may make all the difference in how well your planting performs.

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The basket rests in a shady spot before being returned to its place at the garden.  The Portulaca and Verbena will fill in and begin to bloom again by the end of July.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Six on Saturday: Perennial Patience

This tough summer planting includes Coleus, Verbena, Lantana, Dichondra and Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost.’ It can take heat and sun and continue looking good through until fall.  These are all tender perennials and can overwinter in the garage, or some may make it through winter outdoors in this large pot.

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You may know that many of the bright little plants sold at nurseries each spring as ‘annuals’ actually are perennials.  An annual grows from a seed, blooms, sets seed and dies all between last frost of winter and first frost of autumn.  Only the seeds will last from one season to the next.

Perennials will live from year to year given the right degree of protection from winter’s chill.  Hardy perennials can over winter in pot or in the ground out of doors, with minimal protection.  Tender perennials need to come inside to live, whether they overwinter in the living room, garage, basement or cold frame.  We are on the cusp of Zone 8, here in Williamsburg, and some winters prove a bit warmer or colder than the norm.  That means that some of those tender ‘annual’ perennials I’ve left outside in pots, baskets or borders may just delight me by returning the following spring.

It is a contest of patience.  Most don’t rush to show themselves.  And keeping faith that survivors will return is a good reason to procrastinate on re-working our pots and baskets until early June.

Here we are near the end of the first week of June and I am still in the midst of transplanting Caladiums and planting out the few new plants I bought in mid-May.  Our cooler than usual spring dictated that the Caladiums tough it out in the garage several weeks longer than usual.  They’ve grown lank and leggy, but still hold promise.

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Caladium ‘Pink Beauty’ shares a pot with a Japanese painted fern. The Caladium just made its way to its summer pot this week.

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I dig and dry our Caladium tubers each November and store them in bags over winter in a spare room, then start them again by late March.  By May, they are showing new leaves and are ready to move back outside once again.  Only this year, it was too cool until just a couple of weeks ago.

By waiting so late, I’ve allowed time for Pelargoniums and Verbena, Tradescantia, Dichondra, Lantana, ferns and mints to show themselves alive and growing.  In many cases last year’s arrangements are returning for another season of growth.

But not all return.  At some point, one must clear out the leggy Violas and cut back the fading Dianthus, and carefully remove any faded remains of last year’s plants to give this summer’s plants time to establish and fill in before the season heats up too much.

For me, it’s like working a grand and complicated puzzle.  It helps to not over-think it, too, or else end up frustrated and frozen into indecision.  After all, mixing things up year to year and trying new plants and new combinations keeps things fresh.

I have my favorites.  Caladiums and Begonias fall near the top of my list of all time favorite summer plants for long lasting color.  Give them what they require and they will live on season after season.  Begonias must overwinter in the house or garage, unless they are one of the hardy varieties.   They might look a little rough by late May, but by late June they are covering themselves with brilliant new leaves and by late July the Begonias will be full of blooms again.  It is very easy to root Begonia stems to create entirely new plants and spread them around.  Overwinter as potted plants or as cuttings.

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Tradescantia returns reliably in our hanging baskets. It roots easily from a stem cutting and may be started in a new spot mid-season from a cutting.

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Other favorites include Coleus, another tender perennial, which can overwinter in the garage and starts easily from cuttings.   One can also buy a single new plant and take as many cuttings as one wants for additional plants.  Root them in a glass of water, or simply stick them in a pot where you want them to grow and keep them well-watered while they root.

Both ‘annual’ Verbena and Lantana return for us.  These are both excellent choices to stand up to our hot, muggy summers, too.  They can tough it out in hanging baskets or pots when the soil gets dry, and will wait for me to remember to bring them some water, if it doesn’t rain.  They attract hummingbirds, butterflies and lots of other little pollinators for endless entertainment.

Tradescantia looks tropical, but once well established, it will return year after year.  It is related to our native spiderwort. You have to wait for it, however, as you might not see it until late May.  It has little pink flowers, but I grow it for its gorgeous purple leaves and strong constitution.  Full sun, dry soil and long summer days don’t bother it, and deer will leave it strictly alone.  I plant Tradescantia and Lantana in the large pot outside of the Botanical garden’s gate, knowing they are safe from hungry deer.

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This tough Verbena is starting its third year in its basket. Pineapple mint, Lantana and a scented geranium have also returned here this spring.

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Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ is grown as a perennial ground cover further south.  I love it in pots and baskets because it grows into long, shimmering ‘curtains’ of foliage that get better as summer wears on.  Frost knocks back the foliage, but if one is patient and waits, it will often return from its roots by late May.  Dichondra roots easily from stems and is simple to divide from the nursery pot into smaller clumps, or simply layer to spread it around the outer edge of a hanging basket.  It is a wonderful bonus when it returns for another year.

Another plant I wait for each year is scented Pelargonium.  It is always a bonus when one survives and returns with fresh leaves in May.  I wonder sometimes whether I give up waiting too soon, and dig out plants that might eventually sprout.  When in doubt, it is easy enough to pot up the roots and wait to see.

Drenching pots of overwintered perennials with organic fertilizer, such as Neptune’s Harvest, when watering them helps them come into growth, especially if their survival is iffy during a difficult spring.

Tender Pelargoniums can be grown indoors over winter and cuttings root easily, if you have a special variety and don’t want to take a chance on leaving them out of doors all winter.

There are a few hardy perennials  I grow in pots year to year as well.  Heuchera, coral bells, will often keep color and leaves throughout our winter, but wakes up and produces new leaves and flower stalks by mid-spring.  These grow larger and better each year, and may live in a large pot indefinitely.

I prefer to grow Hostas in pots, too.  They will grow larger when planted out in a bed, but then their roots are vulnerable to voles.  Hostas can be knocked out of a pot and divided easily in spring, spread around, and will add color and texture wherever you need them in part to deep shade.

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Heuchera will easily fill a pot. It may be divided in early spring to spread a favorite variety around.  This is a fairly new variety called ‘Midnight Rose.’

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Deciduous ferns will also live on in pots year after year.  Japanese painted ferns and lady ferns, Athyriums, are my favorites for this treatment.  Pair them with Violas over winter to fill the pot, and then drop in a Caladium or two in spring to add interest through the summer. Watching for the first fiddleheads to appear is a sure sign of spring.

All of these plants have proven good investments in this climate.  They give many months of beauty, and generally return year after year.  They thrive in our conditions and most stand up to the wildlife.  (A spritz of deer repellent on the Hostas and Heucheras is helpful to avoid unpleasant surprises, however.)

Our garden centers are filled with enough choices to make one dizzy.  It is tempting to load one’s cart with one or two of everything and hope for the best.  While it is always interesting to try new plants, I am contented to plant what works.  I have had one too many lush baskets bake by late July, pathetic little petunia stems desiccated and dying.  Now, I reach for these hardy companions that will go the distance through a Virginia summer.

And given a little patience, I can extend their lives year to year.

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Pelargonium, a rose scented geranium that made it through winter and returned in April, is now larger than the new ones I picked up at the nursery in May.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Visit Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful.

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

 

Six On Saturday: Meeting the Challenge

Cuttings taken this spring from a saucer Magnolia branch, and from my potted Ginko tree root on our deck.

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As much as I love to shop for plants, and as much as I love the family who runs our local garden center,  I’m staying at home this spring.

Oh, it is so tempting to run out for a few trays of springtime happiness in the form of little geraniums and herbs, a few pots of perennials and a bag of fresh potting soil, or two.  In Virginia, garden centers and hardware stores are considered essential, and so they are open every day welcoming customers.

But every time I’m tempted to pick up those car keys and go, I think about all of the people I love and the very good reasons to stay at home and stay well , making sure that I don’t become a link in that chain of virus transmission.

But it’s April, and my fingers are itching to play in the dirt and grow something beautiful.  I’m sure you understand.

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An oak seedling emerges from an acorn I picked up in December.

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And so I’m challenging myself to work with what I have and keep purchases to a minimum.  And as I wander around our garden, I am filled with gratitude for each emerging perennial and fern, every seedling and living, growing cutting.

My neighbor shared a bag of Lycoris bulbs she had dug from her own garden.  I planted those today.  Another neighbor brought me packs of vegetable seeds, and I shared several tree seedlings I’d dug from ours.

I’ve been taking cuttings from some tender perennials we overwintered in the garage.  I’m rooting slips of scented geranium, Begonias and some coleus.  Last year’s plants may look a little tired, but the rooted cuttings will perform like new ones from the garden center.

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This hanging basket springs back to life as last year’s herbs and ‘annuals’ re-emerge for another season.

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We had a mild winter, and so I’ve been finding little plants emerging in pots and baskets on the porch and patio.  Thus far we have Verbena, Lantana, geraniums, scented Pelargoniums, some pineapple mint, Dichondra and lots of ferns!  I plan to divide some, and to take more cuttings from these, too.  I’m challenging myself to have a garden just as full and beautiful as ever, without needing to buy so much this spring.

I did succumb to plant lust and ordered some lotus seeds, Nelumbo nucifera, the sacred tropical lotus grown throughout Asia, to grow in pots on my patio this summer.  I’ve been reading a bit about how to grow these beautiful plants and studying the posts of lotus in pots and water gardens in Pinterest.

When my seeds arrived, they were already prepared to germinate.  They came with their shells already pierced so the warm water I soaked them in could penetrate.  I kept them in a jelly jar on the stove, changing their water a few times a day, as they began to grow.

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Lotus seeds begin to grow as first stems emerge and stretch for the light.  Keep the seeds and plants in several inches of warm water as they grow.

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Caring for baby emerging lotus plants is a lot like looking after little tadpoles, if you did that as a kid.  They grow so quickly!

After the first week, as their stems elongated, I moved them up into a deeper clear dish and let them grow on near a window.  Finally, I ‘potted’ up most of them into 24 oz clear plastic tumblers to give each lengthening stem more room to stretch and grow.  Most of them have a second stem emerging now, and soon they will put down roots into the soil and gravel at the bottom of each tumbler.  I expect to grow the lotus on in the tumblers for a few more weeks, at least until it warms up here enough to put them outside!

I actually ordered seed from two different vendors, hedging my bets, and every seed but one germinated.  So now I have quite a few lotus plants to tend…   another challenge.

Some of my gardening friends are finding a casual offer to share a lotus embedded in my email messages of late.  I am hoping to find adoptive homes for most of these lotus, and I hope they will prove as entertaining and happiness inspiring for friends as they’ve been for me.

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Our tall Iris began blooming this week.  This is a species Iris pallida brought to Virginia from Europe during Colonial times .

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We are enjoying a beautiful spring here in Virginia.  The dogwoods and Azaleas are blooming and the Wisteria drapes from tree to tree like lavender swag draperies.  Our first tall Iris of the season are opening and buds swell on the roses.  Late Narcissus stand tall and bright in the upper garden as trees clothe themselves in ever expanding leaves.

We are finding plenty to do here at home.  I expect that it will be our best garden yet, as we focus on gratitude for what we have.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Visit my new website, Illuminations, for a photo of something beautiful and a thought provoking quotation each day.

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

In a Pot: ‘Companion Plants’

Begonia boliviensis from a rooted cutting

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Tiny plants in tiny pots, expressing a particular season, sometimes displayed alongside a potted tree, are called ‘companion plants’ or ‘accent plants.’

I particularly enjoy growing these little treasures.  They allow us to appreciate a plant, in all of its intricate detail, as a work of art.

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First, these precious little pots fit easily on a windowsill, side table or plant stand.  They can be grown year-round indoors, or moved out into a protected space during warm weather.

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Maidenhair fern with Pilea glauca, creeping blue Pilea. A division of the Pilea grows alone in the previous photo.

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But more importantly to me, these little pots allow me to ‘grow on’ very small plants, or rooted cuttings.  Once they begin to outgrow the little companion pot, they can be re-potted or planted out; used in a larger display, or grown on as a specimen in a larger pot.  This is especially helpful during the winter and early spring when small plants may be grown on for use outdoors in summer.

I buy many of my Asian ceramic companion pots and 1″-2″ companion plants at The Great Big Greenhouse in south Richmond.  They keep a tremendous selection of pots of all sizes, and offer a large display of Asian pots for Bonsai and companion plants year-round.  The pots in these photos were found at The GBGH.

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Coleus with Dichondra, Cuban Oregano, Tradescantia pallida and Lantana.

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Small companion pots are equally good for starting cuttings to grow on into larger plants.  I had a pot where the fern died back in early spring.  I put it outside in a protected spot to see if it might re-grow from the roots; without success.  So I am going to recycle the pot and soil to root some Coleus.

Coleus (now Plectranthus) are members of the Lamiaceae family, most of which root very easily from stem cuttings.

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Take a cutting by cutting or pinching off a stem at a node, where new leaves may be beginning to grow.  Four nodes are visible in this photo.  While many gardeners pinch out Coleus flowers, I let them flower because pollinators love them.

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Prepare the cutting by removing the lowest set of leaves and pinching out the flowers at the top of the stem.  It is usually better to use a stem that hasn’t flowered, as they will often root more easily. Rooting hormone isn’t really necessary with Coleus cuttings.  Feel free to use it if you have it, as it may speed up the process a bit.

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The same stem is now ready for ‘sticking’ into the soil.  Roots will form along the lower stem wherever it is in contact with moist soil, or even plain water.

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I took three cuttings today so the pot looks full right away.  After sticking the cuttings, water lightly, and set the pot into a protected spot…. or not.  I sometimes just stick a cutting where I want the new plant to grow, and hope for the best.

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I struck this cutting several weeks ago and it is now growing on in a pot on my front porch. It gets full sun for several hours a day. If the soil is kept hydrated, the Coleus should root in less than ideal conditions….

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The parent Coleus plant is growing very well this summer. Taking cuttings helps keep the plant bushy, and there is always a spot to fill with a cutting, isn’t there?

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Arrangements in companion pots are temporary plantings.   All things change, right?  Especially in gardening, we expect things to come and go.

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Three cuttings, struck into moist soil, will root withing a week or so. This arrangement can ‘grow on’ through autumn. Cutting back the tops as it grows will extend the life of the planting.  Or, the rooted cuttings can be re-potted into larger containers and kept as houseplants through the winter.  Coleus is a tender perennial.

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An aspect of the beauty of companion plants is their transience.  Favorite subjects in Asia might be ferns, grasses, wildflowers, flowering bulbs and vines.  Some may only be at their peak for a week or two.

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This little Ficus tree has a ‘companion’ in the same pot. A little footed fern grows long rhizomes which ‘visit’ other pots nearby on the windowsill.

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Some of the pots are as tiny as egg cups, and so can only hold a very small root mass.  Many have no drainage holes, and so I begin with a layer of fine gravel in the bottom of the pot.

I use gravel mulch, but a moss mulch is more common, and very lovely.  The moss really needs to live outside to stay plush, however.

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Companion plants in little pots are an affordable luxury for those of us who love to work with plants.

Even without an outside garden space, a little garden may be cultivated in a pot and enjoyed on a windowsill at any time of the year.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Fabulous Friday: Each Magical Moment

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The last of the daffodils have finally finished, and I’m feeling impatient for their foliage to fade.  The pansies are a bit overblown now and starting to flop in most of the pots.  I’m ready to move those out, too, in favor of summer treasures.

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The first roses of summer….

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We’re in that awkward transition when summer is ready to begin, but spring is still lingering here and there.  The heat hasn’t helped.  We suddenly find ourselves in ‘instant July’ with our daytime temperatures in the high 80s and nights staying humid and warm.

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Dutch Iris are in full bloom this week. Spanish lavender blooms behind them, mingling with the foliage of spent daffodils.

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I find myself the guardian of eight large boxes of sprouting Caladiums, and now all need the light.  I moved two more out onto the deck today and am trying to cluster the last three planted near an inside window.  There is only so much ‘bright shade’ available where they are also protected from the rain.

I moved nearly 20 Caladium plants into individual pots today and barely made a dent in a single box of sprouting bulbs.  I expect to be planting a lot of Caladiums over the next few weeks!

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But I finally got to work on the hanging baskets on our deck today.  I’ve been waiting to see whether any of the Lantana, Pelargoniums or Verbena from last summer survived the winter.  There is always hope, and a few plants in the pots on the front patio have growing survivors!

It may be a bit early to write off the Lantana, but I’m tired of looking at the sad remains of last summer’s beauty.  I didn’t plant up the baskets last fall with Violas, and the baskets have been looking a bit rough.

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I accomplished a gentle replanting, cleaning the baskets and removing only those remains I was sure had given up during the winter.  A few plants showed signs of life from their roots, and I left them to re-grow, tucking the roots of fresh Verbenas, Lantana and scented Pelargoniums around them.

I added some pineapple mint this year, some beautiful Dichondra, and a Cuban Oregano.  I believe in adding a few new touches, even while staying with tried and true plants for our full-sun hanging baskets.  The few that get some shade are planted in ferns, Begonia and a Caladium.

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Siberian Iris also began to bloom this week.  Our other perennials are growing so tall so fast!

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The sun is fierce these days, and once the heat builds it is hard to keep the hanging baskets hydrated and happy.  I toyed with the idea of planting only succulents this year.

Herbs do better than most plants.  In fact a gorgeous Spanish lavender that I planted last year grew all winter, bloomed last month and now fills its large basket in a beautiful display of deep purple flowers.  I couldn’t be more pleased with how it has performed.  Who would expect a sub-shrub like lavender to thrive in a hanging basket?

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Despite the heat today, I managed to accomplish a fair amount of my home ‘to-do’ list, and I’m satisfied we made good use of the day.  I moved another of our new Alocasias into its permanent pot and took time to admire (and dead-head) all of the beautiful Iris.  I try to guard against getting so busy in May that I don’t take time to simply enjoy the beautiful flowers and fragrances of the season.  It all happens so fast!

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Mountain Laurel is blooming in our garden this week.

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Even as spring draws to its inevitable close, summer sights and sounds fill the garden.  The Cannas are growing  inches each day and the hardy Colocasias appeared this week.  Birds begin their conversations before dawn and we listen to the mayflies whine whenever we step outside.

Daylight lingers deep into the evening.  I remind myself to breathe in the sweetness, relax a little, and enjoy each magical moment of our garden’s unfolding.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Lavendula stoechas ‘Otto Quast,’ planted last spring, survived our winter beautifully in its hanging basket.  Spanish lavender performs extremely well in our climate and is the first to bloom each spring.

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Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is contagious; let’s infect one another

Playing Favorites: Saxifraga stolonifera

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Do you have favorite plants that work in many different situations in your garden?  (If you do, please share with the rest of us by mentioning them in the comments.)

There are certain tough, versatile plants that I appreciate more and more as I plant them in various situations.  Strawberry begonia, Saxifraga stolonifera, ranks in the top five.

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These dainty, fairy-wing flowers appear in late spring.

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I first met strawberry begonia as a houseplant in the mid-1970s.  We grew it in a hanging basket, just like spider plants and Philodendrons, in plastic pots fitted into home made macrame hangers.  I had a collection hanging in front of a large window, from hooks anchored into the ceiling.

We loved novel plants that would make ‘babies’ hanging from little stems dripping over the sides of the pot.  Strawberry begonia’s leaves are pretty enough to grow it just for its foliage.  I don’t remember whether it ever bloomed as a houseplant; it might have needed more light to bloom than my window provided.

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When I needed to replant this basket at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden, I brought in a few plants from home, including some divisions of Strawberry begonia, and ‘borrowed’ a dwarf Iris plant from our ‘Plants for Sale’ area. This arrangement had been potted for about two weeks when I photographed it in mid-April.  Daffodils planted in November are just beginning to emerge, though the original pansies didn’t make it through the winter.

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And then I fell in love with real Begonias and with ferns, and I forgot all about the strawberry begonias of my former hanging garden.  That is, until I encountered the plant again a few years ago sold in tiny 1.5″ pots at The Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond.

I vaguely remembered liking the plant and bought one or two for winter pots inside.  They grow well in shallow dishes with mosses and ferns, and when spring came and the arrangements came apart, I moved the little plants outside as ground cover in a larger pot.

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January 2015, I began experimenting with Saxifragas in indoor pots.  This arrangement includes an Amaryllis bulb.

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And that is when they just took off and showed me their potential as great companion plants in potted arrangements outdoors.  Well, maybe overbearing companions, because these enthusiastic growers fairly quickly filled the pot with a thick mat of leaves, and babies hanging over the sides.

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May 2018: This is Colocasia ‘Black Coral’ planted in to an established planting of Saxifraga

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By this time, I’d done a little reading and learned that these ‘houseplants’ are actually hardy to Zone 6, grow well on various soils and in various light conditions.  The literature says ‘shade to partial sun.’  Well, given enough water when things get dry, this Saxifraga will tolerate afternoon sun as long as it gets intermittent shade throughout the day.  It takes heat, it takes cold, and it keeps on growing.

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Now the Saxifraga planting has expanded to groundcover below the pot, which is waiting for me to replant a Colocasia any time now.

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Saxifraga is a very large genus with over 400 species.  Its name, translated from the Latin, means ‘rock breaker.’  There is some debate whether this describes how it grows, or describes a use in herbal medicine.  The members of this genus are low growing rosettes with roundish leaves that spread by producing stolons, just like a strawberry plant, where new plants grow from the ends of the stolon.  Flowers appear in late spring at the top of long, wand-like stalks.

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June 2018:  I planted Saxifraga with Caladiums one summer, and discovered it persisted all winter and into the following year.  Now, I have to thin the Saxifraga each spring to replant the Caladiums.  This is C. ‘Moonlight’.

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Various species appear in the temperate zones or in the mountains in the northern hemisphere.  Members of this genus are very popular in rock gardens, and will grow in the cracks between rocks with very little soil.  Imagine how well they do in good garden soil!

There are many different common names for these little plants, including ‘strawberry geranium,’ ‘rockfoil,’ and ‘mother of thousands.’  The leaf is perhaps more like a geranium leaf than a Begonia leaf, but the common name I learned first, stuck….

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This pot of strawberry begonia needs to be divided again as it has gotten very crowded. Notice the runners crowding each other under the pot!  Can you tell these pots are under a large holly shrub?

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With an abundance of plants filling my pot, I began spreading these fragile looking little plants around.  Wherever I wanted a dainty but tough ground cover in a pot or bed, I began to establish a few pioneer individuals, learning that it doesn’t take very long for them to bulk up and multiply.

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May 2016:  Are they fairies dancing at dusk? No, the strawberry begonias, Saxifraga stolonifera, have finally bloomed.

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Strawberry Begonia has shallow roots, and so it is easy to simply ‘lift’ a clump, break it apart, and replant the individuals.  You can do this entirely by hand if you are planting into potting soil or loose earth.  Water in the new plants and leave them to work their magic.

The first winter that I left strawberry Begonias outside through the winter, I was delighted that they looked fresh and withstood the cold.  Like our Italian Arum, they can survive snow and ice without damage to their leaf tissue.  Unlike Arum, our Saxifraga persist all year, showing a burst of fresh growth as they bloom each spring, but growing all year round.

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May 2018:  Saxifraga stolonifera, Strawberry begonia in bloom with ferns, the first spring after planting the previous summer in the fern garden.

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Plant Saxifraga stolonifera as the ‘spiller’ in pots and hanging baskets, and as a groundcover under tall plants.  Use it under potted trees or tall tropical plants like Colocasias, Cannas, or Alocasias.  Plant it under large ferns, or under shrubs where you want a year-round living ground cover.  Plants like this form a living mulch and eliminate the need to buy fresh mulch each year.

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April 25, 2019, and the strawberry begonia has filled in and is sending down runners. The runners will emerge through the cocoa liner of a hanging basket.  I’ll trade out the Iris for a Caladium in this basket next week.  WBG

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Pair Saxifraga with other contrasting ground cover plants, like Ajuga, ivy, Vinca minor, or Lysimachia, and let them ‘fight it out.’  You will end up with some beautiful combinations as the plants claim their own real-estate.  If you have rock work or a rock garden, this is a perfect plant to grow in small crevices.

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A neighbor visited recently to bring me a gift of peonies from his garden.  I countered with an offer of some of this magical and versatile plant.  He left with a clump in the palm of his hand and a promise to return in a few weeks for more.  I hope he does, as I now have plenty to share, as I thin out those pots this spring.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Enthusiasm spells the difference

between mediocrity and accomplishment.”
.

Norman Vincent Peale

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“Love springs from the inside.

It is the immortal surge of passion,

excitement, energy, power, strength,

prosperity, recognition, respect, desire, determination,

enthusiasm, confidence, courage, and vitality,

that nourishes, extends and protects.

It possesses an external objective

– life.”
.

Ogwo David Emenike

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Pot Shots: Unity

Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’ began blooming this week.

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Repetition creates unity.  As one of the most basic principles of design, it’s one often overlooked by enthusiastic plant collectors like me!

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The dark purple leaves of the Ajuga are repeated in this Japanese painted fern.  this is one of several containers I made from hypertufa in 2014.

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I’m often tempted to grow the new and novel plant; something I’ve not grown out before.  We’re lucky to have space enough that I can indulge that interest while also repeating successful plants enough to create a sense of unity.

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Each Ajuga plant sends out multiple runners, with a new plant growing at the tip of each, often forming roots in the air. The plants are easy to break off and casually plant in a new spot. I often use Ajuga both for groundcover and in pots.  Here, Ajuga and Sedum angelina form a groundcover under a potted shrub.

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What should one repeat?  There are many design tricks based on repetition that are very subtle, but create a sense of harmony and peacefulness.

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I plant a lot of Muscari bulbs in pots each fall, waiting for just this effect the following spring. Muscari may be left in the pot or transplanted ‘in the green’ elsewhere in the garden when the pot is replanted for summer.

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The most obvious consideration is to use the same or similar plants again and again.  Repeating the same plant across several pots within a grouping creates unity.  Repeating the same plant again elsewhere in the garden ties that grouping of pots to other elements of the landscape.

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I like to choose a plant that grows well in the conditions of an area of the garden, and then use that plant in several different pots within a group.  Maybe I’ll plant a group of basil plants, or a group of lavender and rosemary, accented with sage or thyme.  Some years I plant a group of different geraniums.  The individual plants may be different cultivars with slightly different leaf or flower colors, but there are unifying elements to tie them together.

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Buying multiples of the same cultivar of Viola each autumn, and then planting them across several different pots creates a sense of unity.

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It’s helpful to use perennials that grow fairly quickly, that may be divided easily or that self-seed, and that are fairly easy to find and inexpensive to buy.  Once I find a plant that grows well in our conditions I like to repeat it again and again.

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I plant divisions of Ajuga, creeping Jenny and Sedum in various areas as ground cover.  They spread and cover more fully each year. Native strawberries occur here naturally, and quickly spread each spring.  I will eventually weed these out, even though they are good plants for wildlife.

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Because perennials often shine for a few weeks and then take a background role, or even go dormant for a few months, a gardener can eventually design a garden that changes every few weeks, but still has interest over a very long season, by using perennials thoughtfully.

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Japanese painted fern, Italian Arum and creeping Jenny repeat in this bed near the arrangement of pots.  The color scheme is basically the same (at the moment) in both this bed and the grouping of pots.

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Another way to create unity is to choose pots of the same or similar material, color and design.  Perhaps they are the same color, but varying sizes.

You may own thirty pots, but if they are all in the same limited color palette, there is unity.  Some designers will use a set of identical pots, evenly spaced, to create repetition along a porch, path, deck, or balcony.    This is a very formal approach, and would probably look best with the same rather formal planting in each pot.

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I favor blue glazed pots. This one held a lavender all winter, which is still a bit scraggly before its new growth comes on.  A native violet grows here instead of a hybrid Viola, but the color scheme remains the same.

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Combinations of colors also creates unity.  The plants themselves may be different, but if you use the same colors again and again whether in a group of pots, or throughout the garden as a whole, the eye perceives harmony and consistency:  unity.

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Annual Alyssum covers the soil beneath the Clematis.

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Whether we are making gardens, paintings, food, poetry or music, setting ourselves some parameters allows for creativity and expression within those self-imposed boundaries.  It may actually guide us into being more creative.

By removing some options prima facie, we are left to improvise with more focus among those choices we have left.  What we create will perhaps be more pleasing, more interesting, and perhaps even more beautiful than if we took a laissez-faire, scattershot approach to design.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Pot Shots: Begonia Love

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Begonias captured my heart years ago, when I tended my first Begonia semperflorens with variegated leaves in a hanging basket by my bedroom window.  I was still a teen, but had already assembled a garden of potted plants in my bedroom, and that lovely Begonia was one of my favorites.

The charm of Begonia semperflorens, known as ‘wax leaf’ Begonias for their beautiful, shiny leaves, is that they are always flowering.  New leaves and flower buds tend to emerge simultaneously on these generous, and easy to grow plants.  These Begonias propagate easily from stem cuttings in a glass of water.  If a branch breaks off, root it!  With their extensive fibrous root systems, most of these Begonias remain rounded in form and of manageable size.  No five foot canes reaching for the sky with these beauties!

Garden centers are full of wax leaf Begonias in May.  But most have either solid apple green leaves, or dark bronze leaves.  I am always charmed to find them with variegated leaves, as I did earlier this week at a favorite local garden center.  I have tucked this one into a cobalt blue pot already filled with a fading Viola, spring bulbs and a creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia. 

Out came the Viola and half of the creeping Jenny, (which now grows elsewhere….) and in went the Begonia.  The Muscari leaves will die down soon enough, and the bright chartreuse creeping Jenny will illuminate this shady spot, along with the Begonia from now until frost.   Sadly, the bright leaves of the native Mayapples will fade by late June; but aren’t they fun, now?

This little scene in a sheltered, shady spot by our drive makes me smile when I see it.  All it will need for the next several months will be water and love to keep it going strong.  ( It got a shower of Osmacote fertilizer as I planted, and I’ll water with a bit of dilute seaweed/fish emulsion every few weeks to feed the soil.)

The Begonia and creeping Jenny will provide a bit of nearly care-free horticultural sunshine for the rest of the season, and can come indoors in autumn to continue blooming and growing through the winter months, as well.  These Begonias will also over winter as rooted cuttings.  Alternatively, root cuttings and keep them in small pots through late winter, ready to plant out once the danger of frost has passed next spring.  Wax Begonias are generous plants, indeed.

Woodland Gnome 2018

Sunday Dinner: Winter Blossoms

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“The mind can go in a thousand directions,
but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.
With each step, the wind blows.
With each step, a flower blooms.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
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“Beauty is no quality in things themselves:
It exists merely in the mind
which contemplates them;
and each mind perceives a different beauty.”
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David Hume
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“Live quietly in the moment
and see the beauty of all before you.
The future will take care of itself……”
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Paramahansa Yogananda
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“All the diversity,
all the charm,
and all the beauty of life
are made up of light and shade.”
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Leo Tolstoy
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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018
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Schlumbergera- first blossom  grown from a rooted cutting gifted to me last December.

 

Evolution Of A Container Garden

April 2, 2017

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It is a rare gardener who doesn’t enjoy designing container gardens.  Whether filling a barrel or a basket, a simple clay pot or a beautiful glazed pot from Asia; we can try out ideas for plant combinations in a perfectly controlled environment.  Whether you are simply filling the pots by your front door, or creating an object of art for the season coming, container gardens give us months of enjoyment.

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November 27, 2016 soon after planting H. ‘Snow Fever’ along with some Viola starts and Creeping Jenny Vine.

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Container gardens made in autumn, for enjoyment during winter and early spring, present special challenges and special opportunities.  Finding plants which will grow and look good from December into March can be a challenge.  Ice, snow, and frigid, drying wind present challenges for most plants.

But the ability to spice up a potted arrangement with spring bulbs presents a challenging opportunity for the gardener to plan in four dimensions. We can look forward in time to how the bulbs will grow into their potential, interacting with the other plants in our arrangement, months into the future.

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November 30, 2016

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Autumn planted container gardens give me particular pleasure.  Planted in late October or November, once summer’s annuals have grown shabby, these arrangements will grow and enliven our comings and goings for the next six months.

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Our beautiful geranium in June, which lasted well into fall and past the first few frosts.

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It was already well into November of 2016 when I finally emptied this large white pot of its geranium.  We enjoyed this particular geranium all summer for its vivid, generous flowers.  After it survived the first frost or two, I moved it to a nursery pot in the garage to hold it over for spring, and re-did this pot which stands permanently on our driveway near the back door.

And I refilled the pot with a beautiful Helleborus cultivar that I spotted for the first time this fall, at a local garden center.  I was intrigued by its variegated leaves, and wanted to watch it grow and bloom close up, in this pot we pass daily.

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Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’ shows intriguing new growth by January 4, 2017.  The Muscari have grown leaves through the moss mulch.

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It was quite small when we purchased it, but its few leaves promised a beautiful display coming.  This cultivar is a Corsican Hellebore, Helleborus argutifolius, which is a bit more tender than the Helleborus orientalis we more commonly grow.  Corsican Hellebores generally have white, or green tinged flowers.  These were advertised as creamy white, outlined in rosy pink.

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By late January, we could  see the beginnings of flowers and tender new leaves.

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When I re-worked this pot in November, I removed most of the Creeping Jenny vine, leaving only a little to grow on through the winter.  Creeping Jenny can take a pot with its extensive root system.  I planted some of the little Viola starts I had on hand to provide a little additional interest while waiting for the Hellebore to bloom.

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February 15, 2017

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I had not yet purchased any Grape Hyacinth bulbs, but knew I wanted them in this arrangement, too.  It took me several weeks to finally buy the white Muscari, plant them, and finish the soil surface with moss.

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February 23, 2017, on a rainy day, the flowers have begun to bloom.  Holly berries fall into the pot and need picking out from time to time.

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It was already mid-December by the time the potted arrangement was completed.  The Hellebore, ‘Snow Fever,’ was beginning to show some growth.  In a partially sunny spot, warmed by the drive and the nearby garage, this potted arrangement has shelter from the wind on three sides.  Even so, it has weathered inches of snow, night time temperatures into single digits, ice, and wind.

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By late March, a month later, the Creeping Jenny has grown in and the Muscari have emerged. Grass, embedded in the moss, has grown in, too.

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I am very happy with how the whole arrangement has come together.  I’ve not only come to love this cultivar of Hellebore, but I’ve also learned that this combination of plants looks great together. ( In retrospect, I almost wish I had planted a white Viola rather than the red.  But the red certainly ‘pops!’ against the other colors!)

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April 2, 2017

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I will plan to plant more white  Muscari this fall  around Hellebores out  in the garden.  Moss makes a beautiful ground cover around Hellebores.  And for all of its vigor, Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia, works well in winter container gardens.

It began growing quite early and has filled out nicely this spring, in time to compliment the flowers.  Its chartreuse leaves work well with the pale Helleborus’s colors and with the Muscari.  Creeping Jenny remains evergreen when planted out in the garden, and forms an attractive ground cover around perennials and shrubs.

When planning your own container gardens, especially ones to enjoy through the winter, remember that foliage is as important, or maybe even more important, than flowers.

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This H. ‘Snow Fever’ grows elsewhere in the garden, sheltered under tall shrubs. Its new leaves begin almost white, and green up as they grow.

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The foliage in your arrangement will fill your pot for many weeks longer than the more transient flowers.  So try to include a  plant or two with showy, interesting leaves.  Besides Hellebores; Arum italicum, Ajuga, Lysimachia, Heuchera and evergreen ferns do well in our climate.

It is only early April.  This container garden will continue to grow and change until I reclaim the pot for another geranium.  When I do, everything growing here now will be planted out into the garden.  All are perennials, save the Viola, and will grow for years to come.

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When constructing your own container gardens, follow a few simple tips to get the most from the plants you choose:

  1.  Choose a large enough container for all of the roots to grow.  Bulbs produce large root systems.  If you plant a lot of bulbs, the pot will get very congested unless you begin with a large pot.
  2. Choose plants with similar needs for light, moisture and soil PH. Plan for your plants to grow to different heights for an efficient use of space.  Soften the pot’s edges with a vine or other plant which will spill over the side.  Plan for a succession of interest falling on different plants as the season progresses.
  3. Don’t overstuff the pot.  Magazines and books on container gardens often feature mature plants packed in tightly.  If the pot looks ‘finished’ from day one, your plants aren’t left with much room to grow.  The strong will crowd out the weak, and none will grow to their full potential.  Leave room for growth in your designs.
  4. Begin with a good quality potting mix, and stir in additional fertilizer at planting time.  I often re-use at least some of the potting mix from the previous season.  But I stir in Espoma Plant Tone before adding new plants, finish with fresh potting soil, and generally top dress the finished container with a slow release product like Osmocote.
  5. Mulch the top of your finished planting with gravel, moss, or some other mulch.  It keeps the foliage cleaner in heavy rains and helps conserve moisture.
  6. Boost the plants from time to time with an organic liquid feed from a product like Neptune’s Harvest.  Fish and seaweed based products add important trace minerals and help the soil remain biologically active.
  7. Groom plants regularly to remove spent flowers, brown leaves, and any trash which has blown or fallen into the pot from other nearby plants.  Pull small weeds or grass as they sprout from a moss mulch.  If a plant is struggling or dying, don’t hesitate to pull it out.
  8. Place your pots where you will see them daily.  Enjoy their ever changing beauty as they brighten your days.

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    Woodland Gnome 2017

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