Moss: Let It Grow

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I love plush, moist green moss.  And I am always interested in reading about how other gardeners grow their moss.  Imagine my delight to come across a beautifully photographed feature on Dale Sievert’s gorgeous Wisconsin moss garden in the Fall 2018 Country Gardens magazine.  If you love moss, please treat yourself to this issue.

“The color green engenders a great sense of tranquility,

peace and serenity.” 

Dale Sievert

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I am always looking for simple and effective ways to get moss to grow both in shady spots in the garden and also in pots.  The keys to good moss growth remain steady moisture and reliable shade.   Wonderfully, moss spores are often carried on the wind, ready to grow when they land in a place that offers the moisture and shade that allow them to grow.

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A moss garden I constructed in February of 2012 using stones picked up on the beach in Oregon.

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The first stage of moss growth looks more like algae than like typical moss.  It is low, smooth and moist looking.  From this, the buds and rhizoids will form, soon growing into recognizable moss plants.

If you live in a wet area, you likely see this early growth of moss on brick and stone and clay pots quite often.  If you love mosses as I do, you might also be looking for ways to assist this process to get moss established exactly where you want it to grow.

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And I think I just discovered a new way to encourage moss growth that doesn’t involve organic milkshakes made with beer, buttermilk or yogurt.  Some writers swear by the efficacy of whirring up moss with one of these in a blender and painting it onto stones and walls.  Others say they’ve only ended up with a smelly mess.  I’ve put that experiment off to another day!

But I noticed recently, that the perlite topping off the soil mix of some newly potted up little trees, has turned green.

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I potted up these rooted Acer cuttings within the last month, and moved them out to a shady spot on the deck to grow on.  You can imagine my delight at seeing a fresh green sheen on the perlite!  Is this an early growth of moss from airborne spores?

Think of perlite as ‘popcorn rock.’  It is volcanic rock that has been super heated to more than 1500F, where it puffs up and expands, now riddled with airways.   Perlite is light, soft and fine grained, making a valuable addition to improve texture and drainage in potting soil.

It is also very good for rooting cuttings because it holds moisture so well, while also allowing air to permeate the soil.  This helps to prevent rot in the stem and new roots of the cutting.

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So it makes sense that moist perlite is a great medium for growing moss.  It isn’t a smooth base, like so many gardeners recommend for getting transplanted mosses established.  But it is a wonderful material for the moss rhizoids (not roots) to anchor onto as the plant develops.

Remember that mosses don’t have any roots.  They absorb moisture directly through their cell walls into the structure of the plant.

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That is why rain, fog and mist encourage moss to grow.  If you are trying to encourage moss to grow, remember to keep the plants and their growing medium misted and moist.

I’ve been wanting to grow a sheet of moss for a while now, and picked up a terra cotta tray recently for that purpose.  Once I saw Dale’s gorgeous moss covered stones in the CG article, I’ve been thinking about how I can replicate the effect for my own pots.  Once I saw the moss growing on perlite last week, an idea began to form to make it happen.

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A layer of perlite covers a thin layer of peat based potting soil in this terracotta tray. Terracotta also helps to hold moisture.

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I’ve poured a thin layer of regular potting soil into the terra cotta tray, and topped off the soil with a layer of perlite.  I moistened the medium well, and then went out into the garden hunting for a few clumps of moss.  Some moss gardeners recommend breaking found moss up into tiny bits to sow into a new medium.

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You don’t have to worry about having roots as you would with a vascular perennial.  Moss just wants to grow!  So I broke my hunks up into very small bits, and pushed them firmly down into the perlite before watering it all in.  I’ve set some stones among the bits of moss, hoping that by keeping it all damp I can encourage moss to grow on these small rocks.  I’d count that as a major victory in my moss growing efforts!

It is still damp and rainy today as the remnants of Hurricane Florence bring us a bit more rain even as they blow northwards and out to sea.  It is a good day for moss, and our garden is still very damp from days and days of rain.

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I have this terra cotta tray set in the shade on the deck this afternoon.  When the weather turns dry again, I may tuck it into a plastic bag or cover it with a clear plastic box while the moss establishes.  But the moss in the Acer pots didn’t get any special treatment; this may not need covering, either, as our weather cools.

I want moss to grow on these stones so I can use them as decorative accents in our winter pots.  I haven’t decided whether to simply keep the tray of moss growing for its own sake, or whether to use sheets of the moss in pots.  Either way, I’ll show you what this experiment does in the weeks ahead.

If you love moss as I do, then you may want to try this simple method for growing it, too.

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Woodland Gnome

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The Mossy Creek Pottery Garden, Lincoln City, Oregon

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“There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks
poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents.
This is what has been called the “dialect of moss on stone –
an interface of immensity and minuteness, of past and present,
softness and hardness, stillness and vibrancy, yin and yan.”
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Robin Wall Kimmerer
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Sunday Dinner: Imagination

Caladium ‘Peppermint’

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“Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.”
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Jonathan Swift

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Begonia

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“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.
That myth is more potent than history.
That dreams are more powerful than facts.
That hope always triumphs over experience.
That laughter is the only cure for grief.
And I believe that love is stronger than death.”
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Robert Fulghum

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Begonias with Caladium ‘Moonlight’

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“Imagination does not become great
until human beings, given the courage and the strength,
use it to create.”
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Maria Montessori

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Caladium ‘Berries and Burgundy’

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“Logic will get you from A to Z;
imagination will get you everywhere.”
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Albert Einstein

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Begonia ‘Flamingo’

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“Consciousness, unprovable by scientific standards,
is forever, then, the impossible phantom
in the predictable biologic machine,
and your every thought a genuine supernatural event.
Your every thought is a ghost, dancing.”
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Alan Moore

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Caladium ‘Sangria’

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018  
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“Everything you can imagine is real.”
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Pablo Picasso

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“An idea is salvation by imagination”
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Frank Lloyd Wright

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Caladium ‘Summer Breeze’

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“When I start a new seminar
I tell my students that I will undoubtedly contradict myself,
and that I will mean both things.
But an acceptance of contradiction is no excuse for fuzzy thinking.
We do have to use our minds as far as they will take us,
yet acknowledge that they cannot take us
all the way.”
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Madeleine L’Engle

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Begonia

 

Pot Shots: Bird’s Nest Fern

A young bird’s nest fern, Asplenium nidus, in a vase by potter Denis Orton.

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The bird’s nest fern takes its name from it rosette structure, with new fronds arising from its center.  In its native African or Asian jungle homes, these ferns most commonly grow high up in the canopy, anchored to trees or onto other large plants.  They enjoy high humidity and diffused, indirect light.  They catch rainwater in their central basin, or nest.

Most varieties will grow a bit larger with each passing year, with each frond of a mature plant unrolling to 2′ or more long.  Bird’s nest ferns may be grown in pots or may be mounted on a wooden base, with their roots wrapped in moist sphagnum moss, as you would mount a staghorn fern.

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These ferns may fool you at first sight, and may not even be recognized as a fern.  Their fronds are usually undivided, wide and shiny, often with ripped edges.  Many beautiful varieties may be found where houseplants are sold.

Bird’s nest ferns thrive in the warm, low light conditions most homes offer.  They naturally grow in tropical jungles, and so require minimum temperatures over 50F.  They like humidity and evenly moist soil.  They can take occasionally dry soil, however, especially if the surrounding air is humid and if they get water accumulating in their center from time to time.

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This bird’s nest fern is several years old and has been re-potted at least once.

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Bird’s nest ferns  look like a living sculpture.  They  add a naturally beautiful touch to most any room that gets some natural light.  But they also help maintain cleaner, healthier indoor air for their gardener.  You won’t see it, but tiny holes in each leaf draw air in from their environment, purify it, and then exhale cleansed, oxygenated air.  Each frond can filter and trap many pollutants, making the air you breathe indoors much cleaner and fresher.  All houseplants serve this function, even as they release water vapor back into the air each day.

If you have a loved one in your life heading off to a dorm room or apartment this fall, a small potted bird’s nest fern makes a great housewarming gift.  Small potted ferns like this are also good office plants, making a work space healthier and more beautiful, while taking up little space.  You might give a tiny mister with the fern along with instructions to mist the fern a few times each day.

I honestly rarely pause long enough to mist a fern.  But I do check on them every day or so and offer small sips of water.

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Water collects in the well at the center of a bird’s nest fern.  All new fronds arise from this central point.

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A bird’s nest or staghorn fern will grow happily in a closed container, without drainage holes, so long as you keep the soil at a moist but not soggy ‘sweet spot.’  Growing in the jungle canopy, these ferns evolved to get sporadic watering in a very humid environment.  Their roots are fairly small relative to the size of their leaves, and in nature burrow into bark or organic matter caught in the branches of trees.

You can grow these ferns in a mix blended for orchids, or in a more traditional peat based potting mix with perlite mixed in to retain moister.  If you’re growing your fern in a closed container with no drainage hole, put an inch or so of perlite or aquarium gravel in the bottom of the container to serve as a water reservoir.  Excess water will drain down to the reservoir when you water.  Perlite will absorb and hold that water, slowly releasing it back into the soil as the soil begins to dry.

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This fern has fronds similar to a bird’s nest fern, but each frond arises from a furry rhizome which creeps along the surface of the soil. These can be grown with roots wrapped in sphagnum moss, mounted with fishing twine to a board or a piece of driftwood.  I like them best in a hanging basket, where the rhizomes grow along the outside of the basket.

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Perlite is a naturally occurring volcanic rock.  The perlite you buy at the hardware store or nursery has been superheated at over 1500F until it expands.  (Think about popcorn, and how it expands when heated.)  Once processed, it looks like little Styrofoam pellets, and can absorb a great deal of water.  Perlite is used in potting soil to improve drainage, to keep it from compacting and to absorb and release water as needed.

You may be able to find a good source for ferns in little 1″-2″ pots, where they are grown in nearly pure peat.  Simply take the root ball out of its nursery pot, and tuck it into a prepared container that is at least a little larger than the original pot.  Give a tiny drink of water to settle the plant and to hydrate the potting mix, and then mulch with fine gravel.

If you are potting up a little fern for a gift, you will probably find some fun but inexpensive containers at a thrift store.  Think about little Asian bowls or other little ceramic containers.  You can also pot into a plastic cup or bowl, and then tuck that into a pretty basket or other container made of wood.

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Vase with prismatic  glaze by Denis Orton

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I was inspired to use this pretty little vase, crafted by our potter friend Denis Orton.  Denis is a chemist who is always working to create beautiful new glazes.  His prismatic glazes on porcelain fascinate me, and I’m always keen to collect a new piece or two when he exhibits in our area.

You may need to pot up a fern like this to a larger pot every few years.  But since the fern’s roots remain small, any re-potting will probably be to keep the container in scale with the expanding leaves.

Fertilize the fern with half strength liquid fertilizer a few times between April and September.  This improves leaf color and keeps the plant growing steadily.  Too much fertilizer may cause brown spots on the fronds.  Direct sun may also cause browning of the fronds.  Keep a bird’s nest fern where it will get natural light, but not direct mid-day sunlight, through your window.  The more light it receives, the faster it will grow and the more water it will require.

Consider a little fern like this a ‘green pet.’  Give it a little daily attention, and it will grow happily in your home or office for many years.

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Woodland Gnome 2018


 

 

Fabulous Friday: Appreciating Small Successes

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Every smitten gardener learns these two life lessons:  patience and appreciation.  Patience  helps one bide one’s time while nature’s processes unfold.  Sometimes the greatest skill in gardening is to simply wait and see what will happen.

I’ve been writing about the Alocasia plants that I saved over winter in the basement.  I didn’t have space to overwinter these huge plants indoors, and so allowed them to die back to just their tuber and roots in a paper grocery bag in our frost free basement.

When I brought them back outdoors and repotted them in May, it took quite a while for them to show new growth.  But, they finally  both awakened from winter dormancy and are back in gorgeous leaf again.

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Alocasia ‘Regal Shields’ grew beside our front porch last summer, and moved into this pretty new pot a few weeks ago. The little one beside it was also slow to return this summer, even though it overwintered in its pot in the garage. I was ready to dump out the contents and re-plant its pot with something new, when I noticed the Alocasia leaves beginning to emerge in mid-June.  Alocasia are jungle plants and need summer’s heat and humidity to thrive.

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I had potted them, this spring,  in black plastic nursery pots.  And then I found a great deal on a beautiful blue ceramic pot a few weeks back, and potted up the slower, smaller of the two plants in the pot and brought it out where we would enjoy it and it would be encouraged to take off.  Now it’s growing so fast, we can notice daily changes as it enjoys our Virginia summer heat and humidity.

I left the larger, more developed Alocasia in its nursery pot, tucked back into a stand of Canna lilies.  And my patience paid off on Saturday when I discovered the ‘scratch and dent’ pots at one of my favorite Richmond area nurseries.  The perfect blue pot sat there waiting for me, shining in the sunlight, with only a little chip out of its rim.

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Checking the fit, to make sure Alocasia ‘Regal Shields’ root ball will fit into its new pot.

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It is a good thing that I finally found the right pot and took care of re-potting our larger Alocasia, as its roots were already growing out of the drainage holes of its nursery pot.  Funny how quickly they grow, once they get started and have moisture and heat!

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I always like to line my pots before planting them up.  I’ll use anything from coffee filters to paper towels, plastic mesh, fine wire screens, or burlap.  Lining the pot keeps fresh soil from washing out of the drainage holes before the roots can fill in to hold it.

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A scrap of burlap lines the pot to prevent loose soil from washing out of the drainage holes before the roots can grow in.

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The lining also serves as a barrier against the small creatures who might want to crawl up into the pot and make their home among the roots.  How often have you unpotted a plant and found the soil rife with pill bugs, ants, or even earthworms?  All sorts of creatures can find shelter in a pot, given the chance.

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The soil in the bottom of the pot is important. I like to mix some gravel or perlite into the bottom inch or so for drainage, and mix fertilizer into all of the extra soil added to the pot around the root ball, to empower new growth.

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Burlap lasts longer than paper. And it also absorbs excess water, holding it, and then releasing it back into the soil as the soil begins to dry.  It is especially useful in a pot that doesn’t have drainage, as it helps to keep the whole pot evenly hydrated.  I’ll often cover the burlap with a shallow layer of perlite or gravel, to make a little reservoir in the bottom of a solid bottomed container.

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Remember to finish a pot with a mulch of pea gravel.  This helps keep the plant clean on rainy days, reflects the sunlight up into the plant and holds moisture in the soil.  I transplanted cuttings of Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ to add a little graceful ‘spiller’ around the edges of the pot.

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Eventually, even the burlap will break down.  Use the plastic mesh or metal screen to hold roots in and creatures out on a more lasting basis.  This is a good way to recycle those mesh bags our bulbs come packaged in each fall.

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Patience nearly always pays off in the garden.  We watch and wait as our plants grow and the creatures come and go among them.  And that is where we also learn appreciation.  I’ve come to notice that the more we slow down, the more appreciation we can savor.

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I was ready for the butterflies and hummingbirds this morning, camera in hand, and stood waiting in the front garden near the Lantana patch to see who might visit.

I noticed a friendly little Silver Spotted Skipper watching me from the highest point of the Lantana, and she let me take her photo.

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We played for a while, with her flying around a bit before coming back to rest on the Lantana, a little closer each time.  She paused while I snapped, and then took to the air once again.

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I heard the buzzing beside me even before turning my head to see the female hummingbird hovering near my shoulder, watching us.  She was very interested in our play, and waited until I began to turn my camera her way, before looping up and away, back to the comfort of a large Rose of Sharon.

Again, no photo of a hummingbird!

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Hibiscus coccineus

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But she and her partner have been hovering nearby most of the day.  They came to play in the spray of my hose this morning, and have been making the rounds of our garden’s Hibiscus offerings.  She paused to sip from the Salvia while I was working nearby.  Perhaps she and her partner can feel how much I delight in seeing them nearby.

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Our hummingbirds visit these blue Salvia flowers regularly. Conventional wisdom tells us that hummingbirds prefer red flowers, but that isn’t always the case.

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Why else would we expend such effort to tend a garden, if not for an August morning such as this, to stand in the midst of it all and appreciate its beauty?  We can savor the fragrances of herb and flowers, listen for the birds and watch the progress of each plant’s unfolding.

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It is when we slow down to appreciate such rare beauty, that we may notice the  creatures who share it observing us, in return.  The skinks skitter away as we approach, watching us from beneath and behind their shelter.  Later, we may notice them peering in through the glass doors to the deck.

The birds follow us around from shrub to tree to see what tasty bit we may dig up and leave behind for them.  And now even the butterflies want to play, posing for the camera, and waiting patiently for us to see them.

Woodland Gnome 2018

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Fabulous Friday: 
Happiness is Contagious; Let’s Infect One Another!
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Pot Shots: Alocasia

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Sometimes good intentions and a little informed effort pay big dividends.  Last fall, I wanted to save the two huge Alocasia plants that flanked our front porch through the summer.  But we’d planted them in very large pots; pots that hold their positions by the porch season after season.  I wanted to re-plant the pots with small variegated holly shrubs for winter, and didn’t have a plan in my back pocket for overwintering these 4’+ beauties indoors.

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Our Alocasia last November

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After a little research, I learned that they could be stored through the winter, root balls intact, in grocery bags kept in our frost-free basement.  All of their leaves had finally died back by early May, when I moved their root balls back outside, temporarily housed in large black plastic nursery pots.

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It’s alive! June 26

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It has taken several months for these Alocasias to wake up and grow again.  One responded weeks before the other, and it is easy to see the difference in their growth.   Their differing responses remain a mystery as the two plants have been treated much the same.  And so when I came across a huge bargain on a beautiful pot large enough to hold their roots, I was left to choose which plant to move into the roomy new pot.

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This is the faster growing Alocasia on July 10.

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Which would you have chosen? 

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The second pot is also showing growth on July 10, but is coming along more slowly. A Zantedeschia shares the pot  These are all pups… notice there is no sign of new growth from last year’s stem.

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I chose to give the advantage to the plant which is lagging a bit behind its mate, in hopes of inspiring it to catch up and grow into its potential this year.

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The larger plant now rests between a stand of Canna lilies and a mass of Lantana in partial sun.  Its nursery pot is less noticeable, tucked among these larger plants, and its leaves are stretching up for their share of the sunlight.  A nursery pot isn’t beautiful, but it serves the purpose and the plant is happily growing.

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This pot of Alocasia usually rests among the plants in the background, but is pulled forward here to observe its growth.  It is doing very well and growing quickly, now that it is finally awake for the summer!

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The plant I repotted (out in the pouring rain, mind you) this morning  is showing growth around the neck of last year’s growth, but not yet from the neck.  I suppose that means that the original plant didn’t fare as well in storage, but is valiantly trying to survive through its pups.

As a bonus, there is a Zantedeschia from last summer’s pot that remained embedded in the Alocasia’s roots over winter.  It is awake and growing again, too.

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The new pot is resting, for the moment, at the base of our white crape myrtle tree near a grouping of Begonias and Caladiums.  I expect that we’ll move the pot to the upper garden next week when things dry out a bit.  It’s too heavy to move around on a whim, so I’ll want to make a good decision on where the plants will show to best advantage, and make the move once.  Partial sun, with some afternoon shade seems to work best for this Alocasia.

Who knows, maybe this spot will work out for the remainder of the season?

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These Colocasias also overwintered in a bag in the basement, and are growing well again. C. ‘Coffee Cups’ divides itself prolifically and sends out runners all season.  A. ‘Stingray’ is the only one of these plants I’ve not found growing again this year.

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A lot of gardening friends shy away from growing Caladiums, Alocasias and Colocasias because most of these plants aren’t hardy in our area.  Overwintering them is more of a challenge than they want to take on each autumn, and the alternative of losing them to the frost isn’t acceptable.  I can understand their caution.

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This is a single bulb of Caladium. ‘Florida Moonlight’ saved from last year’s garden.  It certainly is putting on a beautiful show in an 8″ ceramic pot.

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On the upside, these aroids are all easy to grow, require minimal care during the season, and aren’t grazed by rabbits or deer.  They divide themselves generously and are very adaptable to varying amounts of light.  Overwintering is a fairly easy thing to do and takes very little space.

I think it is a good investment of time and effort that pays a tremendous benefit in stunningly beautiful plants that grow better each year.

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A new Zantedeschia leaf emerges from a clump of Caladiums in the large pot by our front porch. Too bad it was already filled with these beauties when the Alocasia came up from the basement this spring….

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We were at Trader Joe’s last week when I spied another gorgeous Alocasia in a little quart sized pot, all wrapped up in pretty paper.  A good friend had just had her birthday, and I couldn’t resist bringing the sweet little Alocasia to her as a gift.  I’ve warned her, mind you, that like a little greyhound puppy, her ‘sweet little Alocasia‘ won’t stay small for long.  She is a gifted green handed gardener and I can’t wait to see how the Alocasia grows in her care!

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C. ‘Sweet Carolina’ must be stealing all the rays from C. ‘Desert Sunset,’ growing below it. This pot sits in a shady corner of the patio.  C. ‘Sweet Carolina’ is in its third season in our garden.

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If you want to grow an absolutely stunning potted arrangement that holds its beauty all season, you won’t go wrong by choosing any of these gorgeous aroids.  They may look exotic and difficult, but they are quite easy once you understand their needs for steady moisture, nutrition, filtered sun and frequent admiration.

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Caladium ‘Burning Heart’ is growing into a spectacular display alongside Zantedeschia. This photo was taken in early July, and all of the plants continue to sprout new leaves weekly.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

Green Thumb Tip #21: The Mid-Summer Snack

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A snack makes us all feel a little better, doesn’t it?  If you want the plants you tend to have that ‘Wow!’ factor as summer relentlessly wears on, give them a tasty pick-me-up.  There are several good choices, and it’s easy enough to add care and feeding into your routine.

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Although plants ‘make their own food’ from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water on a daily basis, they also need an assortment of other elements and minerals for optimal growth.  Plants rooted in the Earth likely find most of what they need dissolved in the soil.  When we grow a plant in a pot or basket, anchored in potting mix, we need to provide those important minerals and extra elements to support their growth.

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Nitrogen is the most important element to support lush growth.  Phosphorous and potassium (K) support blooming, fruit formation, and healthy tissue development.  You’ll find the percentage of these elements listed on any fertilizer you might buy, in the formulation of N-P-K.  A fertilizer labeled 10-10-10 is a balanced fertilizer.   Since only 30% of the product is labeled as one of the key elements, you know that 70% of the product is filler, which may contain other necessary elements and minerals.

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Still waiting for the first blooms to appear on this new Begonia….

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But your plants might need a ‘pick me up’ that has more of one element than another.  You will find lots of specialty organic and inorganic fertilizers formulated for different uses.  Savvy gardeners would never  apply a standard lawn fertilizer to a flowering potted plant, for example.  Read the labels on the products at your favorite nursery or big box store to find the right product for the right plant.

When you potted up your plants in the spring, you likely added a little Espoma Plant Tone or Osmocote to the mix.  Or maybe you used a potting soil advertised to have fertilizer already mixed into it.  That is fine, but most of the pre-mixed potting soils feed for roughly 90 days.  That means that they’re beginning to lose the umph right as we hit the heat and dry spells that summer always brings.

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Many products are water soluble and can be mixed into a watering can and applied as a soil drench or foliar feed.  These give the quickest ‘pick me up’ results.  I learned about Neptune’s Harvest from a trusted nurseryman many years ago, and have used it ever since.  This is my ‘go to’ product for most pots and baskets out of doors, and I use it at least a couple of times a month in June through September.

The numbers on this fertilizer are relatively low (2-3-1), in part because it is an organic fertilizer made from seaweed and fish emulsion.  Yes, it smells terrible.  But because it is made from these organic materials, Neptune’s Harvest also delivers many trace minerals for stronger, healthier growth.

Plants can access the nutrition very quickly and show results very quickly.  Plants show better leaf color, put on stronger new growth and set more blooms after a dilute application of this mix.

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For plants indoors, and those plants I’m growing mainly for their flowers, I prefer to use Orchid Plus plant food (20-14-13) from time to time.  This is a reliable way to induce the plants to set buds and produce flowers.

This is one of those ‘light blue’ chemical fertilizers, and I mix it up much weaker than the package suggests.  If you feed too frequently, a mineral residue will build up on the pot, or even the potting soil.  Use this when watering only about once every two to three weeks.

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Plants are under a lot of stress in our area right now.  Rain has been scarce in our neighborhood, and temperatures regularly reach well above normal.  The garden looks a little tired and wilted.  The first line of defense is hydration.

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Plants are mostly water, and water pumps through their tissue from the roots, up through every cell until water is released as vapor through the leaves.  When a plant wilts, it means that its cells are collapsing for lack of enough water.  Some plants can perk back up once water is available  again; others won’t.

Water helps in the short term, and in this sort of weather, small pots or baskets may need hydration every morning and evening.

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Without sufficient water, their colors look dull, leaf edges may burn, and growth slows down.  New leaves and flowers may be small.  It’s not a very pretty sight!  If you have time to do nothing else, at minimum keep plants as hydrated as you can until it rains again.

Too much water causes its own set of problems, including root rot.  As in all things, we seek balance. 

Keep in mind that when there is a lot of rain and frequent watering, soluble fertilizers will wash right out of the soil.  This is another reason to give light supplemental fertilizers on a fairly regular basis, while plants are responding to summer’s bright light and warmth with active growth.

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You may have noticed that each day grows a little shorter, now that we’re nearly to August.  We’ve enjoyed a few cool nights, and the garden is preparing for its late summer show.

It’s a challenge to help our plants survive right through the season and have enough strength for a beautiful late summer and autumn display.  We have to keep them actively growing despite the challenges our weather may present.

Regular care and careful observation  are the secrets to success.  Hydration, feeding, deadheading and a little grooming ensure that our gardening investments pay generous dividends in beauty.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
Green Thumb Tip # 15: Conquer the Weeds!
Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!
Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time
Green Thumb Tip # 18: Edit!  
Green Thumb Tip #19: Focus on Foliage  
Green Thumb Tip #20: Go With The Flow

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Experiments With Gravel Mulch

Yucca filamentosa ‘Colorguard’ has appeared from under our newly installed gravel mulch.

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Most of the mulches we use are organic and improve the soil as they decay.  Shredded bark or leaves, pine straw, straw, newsprint or brown paper all have their uses.

When we consider inorganic mulches, there are definite benefits along with some obvious deficits.  Inorganic mulch won’t improve soil texture or fertility.  But neither will it harbor fungal disease, come pre-contaminated with weed seeds, provide a nesting site for ants or decay in just a few months.

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New terraces are planted to help control erosion, and mulched with pea gravel (spring 2017).

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I was first drawn to pea gravel mulch as we began to try to control erosion and cultivate the steep slopes of our back garden.    But I was also digging some gravel into the back-fill and planting hole when we installed new shrubs and perennials, to try to thwart the voles who would otherwise devour their tasty root balls.  Finishing the job with a nice mulch of gravel felt appropriate as a further deterrent to rodents.

Pea gravel definitely helps both with erosion control and rodent control.  But it also ‘disappeared’ into the soil on rainy days, after a while, and got covered with leaf litter and other organic matter over time.  I find myself renewing the pea gravel in spots after a while.

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“Soil security”

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Gravel mulch serves to help conserve soil moisture, just like every other sort of mulch.  It shades the soil, shelters root systems, absorbs the shock of falling rain and holds soil in place.

Additionally, gravel reflects sunlight and heat back up into the plants above it, helping to dry the plants more quickly after a rain and thereby deter fungal disease.  Gravel mulch also provides a dry barrier between moist soil and dry plant, preventing crown rot.

Soil doesn’t splash up onto lower leaves and branches, and the gravel perhaps makes it a little harder for invertebrates to travel up and back between soil and delicious plant above.

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Gravel mulch is used most commonly in rock gardens, where many drought tolerant and alpine plants are featured.  Some plants wouldn’t live long with a moist organic mulch, but manage just fine with gravel mulch that protects their crown.  Gravel is coming into vogue again as a fashionable and useful mulch for perennial gardens, too.  I have been reading about perennial and succulent  gardens grown under several inches of pea gravel in various garden magazines.

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Even a thin gravel mulch has helped conserve moisture around these newly planted perennials.

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I also recently enjoyed listening to a presentation by Joseph Tychonievich at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden where he presented his new book, Rock Gardening:  Reimagining a Classic Style.  Joseph inspired me to move ahead with my vision to incorporate more areas of gravel mulch in our sunny perennial beds in the upper garden.

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I use fine gravel as a mulch in potted arrangements, too.

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This area is gently sloping, and erosion isn’t as much of a pressing concern as in the lower gardens.  The entire area was left under several inches of freshly ground hardwood mulch in 2013, as the arborists who cleaned up our fallen trees ground up leaves and branches and simply left it all in place.

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Fresh compost piled on top of existing mulch allows me to plant in this area in 2013, right after the trees came down, without digging into the clay. A light covering of wood chips from the forest floor mulches the planting .

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As that has decomposed, I’ve renewed the mulch with bagged hardwood and Cypress mulch from the local hardware store.  It smells pleasant, and Cypress helps to repel insects.  It has an ecological downside, though as mature trees are cut for mulch.

The soil in much of this area still consists of thick, hard clay, despite my best efforts to dig in compost and improve its texture.  There may be a few inches of good compost on top of the clay, but the clay still holds heavy rainfall and keeps parts of the garden far too wet, especially in winter.

I am beginning to understand that a gravel mulch will promote better growth and vigor in most of the plants we are trying to establish, particularly the Iris and Mediterranean herbs.

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Recently,  I decided to experiment with a much larger gravel mulch in one of the beds that needed some TLC.  I lost several perennials here over winter, and so had quite a bit of bare ground.

On our shopping trip, my partner noticed this beautiful blue green rock quarried somewhere in Virginia.  We decided on the spot to give it a try, and I am very pleased with the results thus far.  Not only is this gravel not going to shift around on a rainy day, but I don’t believe it will sink down into the soil anytime soon, either.

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This three year old Siberian Iris bloomed for the first time this spring, and I hope the new gravel mulch will help it grow more vigorously in future.

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Now, please keep in mind that gravel is the heaviest mulch you can choose, and moving it around and spreading it takes both strength and commitment.  If I had the luxury of ordering up a truckload of it and hiring a crew to spread it for me, that would be a lovely thing.  But I don’t.

Rather, I’m buying it a couple of bags at a time and spreading it by hand.  It is going to take most of the summer to mulch this whole area working with just a few square feet each week.  But I am already seeing the benefit this mulch brings to our plants.

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This is a single bag of gravel spread around our new Monarda.  It will take a few more bags to finish this area….

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I bought three plugs of Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’ about four years ago, as we were first planting this bed.  I wanted them to make a large focal point to anchor the area and planted them in a broad triangle.  Well, let’s just say that I expected them to grow much faster and they have largely gotten lost between larger and floppier perennials.  In fact, one of the three was struggling so much that I dug it up in late winter and planted it into a pot in full sun, hoping to give it a better chance to grow.

Never mind that I kept digging it up every month or so, checking to see if there was any visible growth, and replanting it again with the confirmation of a fresh root or tiny shoot.  That is a sad tale, and I ended up filling the pot with first one plant, and then another, simply to have something to look at besides the empty pot.  I ticked this off as a failed plant and moved on.

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Maybe if I put a fresh gravel mulch in this pot, the Yucca would finally grow?

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But not so fast!  Something of that Yucca was left alive in the original bed.  And finally, a month after I mulched over the area with the new Virginia gravel, look at what has emerged!  Plants really really want to live, and sometimes we just need to improve conditions for them and get out of the way to give them a chance!

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This newly planted Lavender was struggling with our weather extremes, but has improved under the gravel mulch this month.

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Our friends at our local garden center have a running joke that we always buy gravel or compost, if nothing else, and are their best customers for pea gravel. Gravel has made gardening in this difficult site possible.

If you happen to be in the neighborhood, and want to visit with me and bring a little gift, a fresh bag of gravel is always in style.   I’ll be so happy to see you, will show you around the garden and offer you a few divisions of something nice to take away with you.

And I might even let you help spread the gravel while we’re at it!

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Pot Shots: Breaking Dormancy

 

These tiny Alocasias grow from tubers stored in the basement over winter. Could they be A. ‘Stingray?

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It was with a fair amount of faith and a tad of skepticism that I pulled up some of my Colocasias and Alocasias last fall and stored them in the basement in paper grocery bags for the winter.  Some had been growing in the ground, and others in pots that I wanted to reuse with other plants, for winter.

All were likely to die if frost hit them.  So I did the best I could to save them.

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How many plants? I didn’t count…. But here are four grocery bags filled with Aroids to sleep through winter in the basement.

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 Some of the Colocasias, like C. ‘Pink China’ are reliably hardy in our climate.  I just leave them be when frost comes, knowing, now, that I can count on their return the following summer.

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Colocasia ‘Pink China’ return each summer here in Zone 7.

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But most are native in Zones 8, 9, 10 or 11 and so must be moved indoors before the first frost.  I searched online for advice on how to overwinter these very tender perennials.  Surprisingly, a number of writers suggested simply pulling the entire plant up, roots and soil still intact, and putting the entire root ball in a paper bag, to be stored in a basement or partially heated garage.

I found the two largest Alocasias in little pots at Trader Joes, in February of 2017 By October they had grown huge.  Each went into its own Trader Joe’s paper bag for the trip to our basement.

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This Alocasia, originally from Trader Joe’s, wasn’t labeled when I bought it last winter. It reminds me of A. ‘Regal Shields,’ but grows a bit larger.  I pulled the entire root ball from the pot, and stored it in the basement over winter.

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I am happy to report that both of them made it through winter stored in the rough, and have begun to show new growth.  I didn’t water them at all from November until moving them back outside in early May.   I potted them into plastic nursery pots, watered them well and set them aside to see whether they would live.  And now I am thrilled to see evidence of new growth on both plants.

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It’s alive!

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Aroids grow from tubers, and so can go completely dormant for some part of each year.  The size and shape of the tuber differs between the Caladium, Colocasia, Alocasia and Zantedeschia.  But all of these plants may be completely dried out and stored for some months, and then re-animated when good conditions for their growth return.

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From left: Caladium Burning Heart,’ Alocasia, and Zantedesichia ‘Memories’

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I have experimented with various ways of storing all of these tubers.  There is a balance to maintain; dormant tubers may rot if kept wet and cool.  I brought one of my Alocasias into the living room over winter.  It remained in active growth indoors, and I just moved it back outside in early June.

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This Alocasia ‘plumbea’ spent the winter indoors, with us and the cat.  It is large enough to need some support.  C. ‘Moonlight’ overwintered in the same pot.

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The Caladiums planted in the same pot went dormant over the winter, but are now in active growth again outside.  I watered this plant every week or so and gave it warmth and light.

A third Alocasia went into a dark spot in the garage.  I only watered it once or twice during its storage time, and it kept its leaves the entire winter.  When I moved it back outside, it didn’t miss a beat and immediately began sprouting new leaves.

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Colocasia ‘Black Magic’ came into the garage, dormant, with its Begonia companion. This plant has overwintered outside in 2015 and 2016.  I dug this one up and grew it on in the pot last summer.  I’ve already transplanted two starts from this pot to other spots in the garden.

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I moved six pots of Colocasias into the basement, near a window, and watered them occasionally.    Their leaves died back gradually, but many had begun to sprout new ones before I brought the pots back outside last month.  All are back in active growth once again.

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Colocasia ‘Coffee Cups’ spent winter in the rough in the basement.

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Of all the storage methods, I prefer keeping the plants in the house at normal room temperature and in growth.  But there is only so much room available for these very large plants.

Bringing the largest pots into the house is impractical.  The most radical method, paper bag dry storage, also requires the most recovery time for the plant to send up new growth again.  But it works to keep the plant alive.  I kept the root balls intact over winter.  If I do this again, I may try drying out the Colocasia or Alocasia tuber and storing it dry,  just as I do for the Caladiums and Zantedeschias.

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Colocasia ‘Mojito’ remained in its pot in the basement, keeping some of its leaves until early spring.  A Zantedeschia shares the pot.

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Of course, the wild card with all of these methods is the timing.  When do you replant and reanimate the tubers?

I started our stored Caladiums in March, but with a cool spring, had to hold them indoors for several weeks longer than I would like.   I started the Zantedeschias at about the same time, but they aren’t as tender and could go back outside much earlier.  Many of our Zantedeschias stay outside in the garden year round, growing larger and lusher each year.

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Zantedeschia ‘Memories’ came in the mail as a tuber in early April.

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I bought a dormant Alocasia tuber this spring, potted it indoors, and am happy to show you that it is growing beautifully and bulking up.  It was completely dry, rootless, and fit in the palm of my hand in March.

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Alocasia grown from a tuber from The Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond … I just don’t remember the cultivar name…

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Colocasia ‘Black Coral’  came to the garden as a tiny tissue culture plant from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs.  Every new leaf grows on a longer petiole than the one before.

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Once they are outside in the heat, tropical Aroids grow very quickly.  C. ‘Black Coral’ is rated hardy in Zone 7, so I could probably rely on it surviving our winter outdoors.

The Alocasias that haven’t yet reappeared are the ‘Stingray.’  I am still waiting for them to emerge. . . or for me to identify them again from the still emerging Aroids.

And we will happily welcome them to the summer garden once they finally turn up.

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Alocasia ‘Stingray’ thrive in heat and humidity. These tropical plants help filter the air and trap carbon with their huge leaves.  Here in September 2017

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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C. ‘Black Magic’ was transplanted yesterday into its summer pot with Sedum ‘Angelina’.

 

 

Variegation Variations, Another Plant Nerd Mystery….

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When the first red Caladium leaf with white veins and a green and red border opened, I was puzzled.  It didn’t resemble any of the 14 different varieties of Caladiums I had ordered this spring.

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And so I assumed that maybe I’d received a serendipitous bonus; a rogue bulb of a different variety had made it into one of my bags.  I headed back to the Classic Caladiums website in search of the variety to learn its name.  I searched the site every way I knew how, and yet still came up empty handed.

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Caladium ‘Peppermint’

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By then another leaf had opened, and another, all from different bulbs.  I knew that it was indeed a mystery, but not a mistake.

When I heard from Lesley, in internet sales, on another matter,  I sent her a photo of my mystery Caladium.  She indicated that it might be C. ‘Peppermint,’ but promised to check with their CEO, Dr. Robert Hartman, and get back to me.

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I went back to the information on C. ‘Peppermint,‘ which I remembered as a mostly white leaf with a little green and touches of rosy pink.  This is a 2011 Caladium I’ve admired for a while, but ordered this year for the first time.  Sure enough, the photo resembled the mostly white leaves I remembered. (In re-checking the page tonight, at the very bottom of the webpage I see a photo of C. ‘Peppermint’ with the mostly rosy leaves I’ve observed.)

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All the while, our Caladiums kept growing and pumping out new leaves.  By the second week of June, I found a plant with both forms of the variegation on different leaves from the same tuber.  Now how odd is that?

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C. Carolyn Wharton in late May

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The older, traditional Caladium varieties are pretty dependable.  There will be some slight variations in the variegation on a plant like C. ‘Carolyn Wharton’ or C. ‘Miss Muffet,’ but not so much that you wouldn’t recognize them as clearly the same cultivar.  The leaves are more like each other and different from all other Caladium varieties.

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C. ‘Sweet Carolina’ in September 2016 shows a lot of variation in its variegation, too.

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But I’ve noticed a wider range of variations on leaves within a cultivar from Dr. Hartman’s new Caladium introductions.  I noticed it first on C. ‘Sweet Carolina.’ 

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C. ‘Sweet Carolina’

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Depending on the amount of light, moisture and nutrition a plant received, it may vary drastically in both basic leaf color, and also the pattern and amount of variegation.  I find this very entertaining, and I learned to really appreciate this decidedly odd and very large full-sun tolerant Caladium.

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Caladium ‘Highlighter’ June 2017

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When I grew out C. ‘Highlighter’ the first year, I didn’t recognize the plants for a few weeks because the color of the leaves was so variable.  I assumed that some were C. ‘White Delight.’  Some leaves were nearly white and creamy with few markings.  Others were richly colored with many strokes of pink.  But I could trace those variations to culture, because the plants were grown in different locations in the garden.

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Caladiums Chinook and Highlighter blend together well June 2018

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On the same plant, growing in the same conditions, the leaves were similar to one another.

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The first leaf to open on a newly sprouted C. “Desert Sunset’ in late May appears as the reverse image of the C. ‘Peppermint’ leaf….?

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And then came C. ‘Peppermint.’  I was doubly puzzled because the variegation on the mostly rosy leaves was like a mirror image of some of the early leaves on C. ‘Desert Sunset,’ when grown in deeper shade.  How could this be?

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I hope to have the opportunity to discuss this high weirdness with Dr. Hartman some time.  He is the guru of Caladium breeding, and I am positive he has some wonderful stories to tell about new Caladiums he is breeding and the odd variations that he has observed.

I am wondering why two leaves from the same tuber would end up so different from one another.

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Calaldium, ‘Desert Sunset’

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I’m also wondering why the earliest leaves were rosy with white veins, but later leaves emerged mostly white, with some green and rosy pink markings.  What is going on in the plant?   Do growing conditions tip the tuber to produce one sort of leaf over the other?

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C. ‘Peppermint’

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There are many, many mysteries in the plant kingdom; I am only beginning to scratch the surface of the wonders of horticulture.  As with a child, what part of a plant’s growth is nurture, and what part is wild and crazy nature taking a leap to manifest as something entirely new?

I am endlessly fascinated by the work of hybridizers who delight in introducing new colors and forms of beloved plants, and new strains that are stronger, healthier and more versatile than older varieties.  They work with nature and natural processes to give us the great gift of a new and useful plant.

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I love the new Caladiums that can take several hours of sun each day because there are more ways to use them in the garden.

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And I am thoroughly enjoying watching all of my Caldiums grow into their potential this summer.  An ‘outed’ plant nerd extraordinaire, I just can’t get enough of observing the wonderful variations of their lovely variegation.

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Caladium ‘Peppermint’ left, and C. ‘Berries and Burgundy’ right

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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C. ‘Desert Sunset’ is one of the most beautiful Caladiums we have grown… what color!

 

 

Fabulous Friday: Rain and Lizards

Hosta in (soggy) bloom

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Our garden is thoroughly watered, I’m happy to share!  And it’s unlikely that any of my gardening friends will be spending chunks of their weekend with a hose in their hand watering after the several inches of rain that we’ve had this week.

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Zantedeschia ‘Memories’

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In fact, the sound of pouring rain roused me well before sunrise this morning.  Downpours have come and gone today, interspersed with glimpses of blue sky and brilliant sunshine.

I appreciate the rain, of course; but am well aware of the flash flooding many have to deal with this week.  It has snarled the local airport with delays as the runway and access roads flooded early this morning.  Local roads flooded out again, and the chocolate milk brown James River is churning very high against its banks.  It is a good day to stay at home!

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Colocasia ‘Coffee Cups’ after this morning’s rain

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Plants hate too much rain, and may perish from their roots up when the soil stays saturated for very long.  I’ve emptied saucers under a few of our pots twice already today, and know I should do the tour and check them all again this evening.

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Artemisia prefers dry conditions. I have potted this one up from its nursery pot into a small ceramic pot just until I can prepare its new place in the garden. 

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All of the small creatures must cope with too much rain, as well.  While there is plenty of fresh water to drink, there is also the small matter of flooding in the nooks and crannies where they generally hide.

We came home mid-day to find our resident lizards enjoying their privacy, sunning themselves on our side porch.  One after another scampered away for cover as we approached.  They know us, and that we bring them no harm.  The boldest held her place on the step making eye contact as I greeted her.  She didn’t scamper into the vines until my shoe touched her step.

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These small lizards are known as skinks.

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Lizards crave warmth and laze about on all of the hardscapes around the house and garden.  Since they gladly eat up insects, spiders, slugs and worms wherever they can find them, I am quite happy to see them hanging around our potted plants.  We have an understanding, as these little guys are quite harmless.  Our cat is in on the bargain and watches them closely, but leaves the lizzies strictly alone.

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It is challenging to plant for the weather and our ever variable ‘climate.’  Those of us who planted drought tolerant perennials, like lavenders, Yucca, and other succulents are watching them try to cope with the saturated soil.  Sometimes herbs will get moldy or turn to mush in our steamy wet spells in summer.

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Spanish lavender wants great drainage and bright sun to thrive.

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That is why it is smart to consider drainage when planting them in the first place.  Plant a bit high, on a bit of a mound, and incorporate sharp sand or small gravel into the surrounding soil to improve drainage.  Mulch with grit, crushed oyster shells or gravel to keep soil and pathogens from splashing up onto their lower leaves in heavy rain.

Sun reflecting off of the gravel mulch will also help dry the plant’s inner foliage more quickly.

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A tiny dragonfly happily hovered around the pots on the patio during a break in the rain this afternoon.

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On the other hand, we have plenty of plants just loving the reliably moist soil.  The Caladiums and Colocasias like even moisture, though even they may rot if the soil stays too wet too long.  When the weather turns dry, these want watering most days to keep them growing happily.

They have a system:  Their large leaves, covered with tiny openings called stomata, allow water transported up from their roots to evaporate into the surrounding air.  So long as their leaves are growing and working in the sunlight, their roots can pump large amounts of water out of the soil and into the air.  Trees do this on an industrial scale!

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Caladium ‘Carolyn Wharton’ and Colocasia ‘Coffee Cups’ both enjoy moist soil.

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The smaller or more protected a plant’s leaves, the less water they will release from soil to atmosphere, and the better they tolerate drought.

It is smart to learn about a plant’s tolerance for wet soil and humidity just as we learn about its needs for sunlight, warmth, PH, and trace minerals in the surrounding soil.  That way, we can give them the conditions they need and keep them growing.

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Succulents with thick, waxy leaves release very little water into the air. They are built for hot, dry conditions and may rot of their soil remains saturated for too long.

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A plant with particular needs, or one that doesn’t thrive in local conditions may still be grown well in a pot.  And of course, pots can be set back under the eaves when the skies open and a downpour comes.

And believe me, our little lizards and toads find lodging in the pots sometimes.  Somehow, it seems to work out pretty well, no matter what strangeness the summer brings.

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“Breathe deep…
The rain falls but a moment,
and in a moment, gives life to another day.”
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Laurence Overmire

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is Contagious. 
Let’s infect one another!

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Caladium ‘Peppermint’ left, and C. ‘Berries and Burgundy’ above and right

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