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

Pot Shots: Caladiums at Last

Caladiums ‘Chinook’ and ‘Highlighter’ blend together well.

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All of the Caladiums are up and growing.  It took a while this year because of our crazy cool spring.

In fact, I still have a tray of C. ‘Moonlight’ on my deck, waiting for me to commit to where I’d most enjoy them this summer.  There are only 10 left, and so many places I’ve considered planting them.

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C. ‘Moonlight,’ overwintered from last summer’s garden.  These pure white leaves appreciate bright shade.

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Back in the day, one just assumed that Caladiums required a shady spot.  With the new hybrids, many can take full sun.  That means I am constantly checking back with the grower’s site to make sure I’m getting ‘right plant, right spot’ and not giving too much, or too little sun.

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Caladium ‘Burning Heart’ can take full sun, so long as you keep it hydrated. This pot is finally growing into its potential!

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I fantasized about this combo of C. ‘Highlighter’ and C. ‘Chinook for better than a year; finally it is growing and looking great in the upper garden.  C “Highlighter” seems to be out of production, which is a disappointment.

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Caladium ‘Highlighter’ with C. ‘Chinook’

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A little strange for some tastes, but it has become one of my favorites.  I am forever grateful to the wonderful folks at Classic Caladiums for sending me a bag of beautiful C. ‘Highlighter’ with my order this year, even though it wasn’t a catalog listing.  I was happy to be able to plant a few and also share a few with friends.

C. ‘Chinook’ looks much better in person than in the catalog photos, in my opinion.  I’ve been happy with it and have mixed it with several other pink Caladiums in various pots.  It is a strong grower and generous in producing new leaves.

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A mystery Caladium on the left. We have several growing, and I’ve no idea its name. But I like it!   C. ‘Peppermint’ grows in the pot with it, on the right.

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There are lots of new and interesting Caladiums in our garden this year growing alongside old favorites.  I try to find time to get around the garden to check on their progress at some point each day.

And every day, they just keep getting better.

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C. Fannie Munson with Dryopteris x australis

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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A quick and easy wildlife gardening tip:

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Fill a shallow saucer with a bit of sand and some pea gravel, place it in your garden, and keep it moist through the summer. 
You’ve just created a place for butterflies, other insects, and small reptiles to find life-giving water on hot summer days.
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Growing Herbs for the Beauty of It

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

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

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Rose scented Pelargonium grows near emerging Colocasia.

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

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

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

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

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The first fennel flowers of the season opend this week.

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

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

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Basil

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

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Chocolate mint

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

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

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Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 2017

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

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

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

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Pineapple mint with lavender

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

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

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

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

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Basil with pineapple mint, Lime Queen Zinnia and roses.

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

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

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

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

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Rosemary in bloom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Comphrey with Artemesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Artemesia with lavender and Iris

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

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The Alliums are just beginning to bloom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Breakfast at the Agastache… summer 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Sunday Dinner: Knowledge

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“The beginning of knowledge

is the discovery of something

we do not understand.”

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Frank Herbert

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“Proper teaching is recognized with ease.

You can know it without fail

because it awakens within you that sensation

which tells you this is something

you have always known.”

.

Frank Herbert

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“A process cannot be understood by stopping it.

Understanding must move with the flow of the process,

must join it and flow with it.”

.

Frank Herbert

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“Without change something sleeps inside us,

and seldom awakens.

The sleeper must awaken.”

.

Frank Herber

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“The future remains uncertain and so it should,

for it is the canvas upon which we paint our desires.

Thus always the human condition

faces a beautifully empty canvas.

We possess only this moment

in which to dedicate ourselves continuously

to the sacred presence

which we share and create.”

.
Frank Herbert

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

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“If you need something to worship, then worship life –

all life, every last crawling bit of it!

We’re all in this beauty together!”

.

Frank Herbert

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“When a wise man does not understand, he says: “I do not understand.”
The fool and the uncultured are ashamed of their ignorance.
They remain silent
when a question could bring them wisdom.”
.
Frank Herbert
*

 

Blossom XL: Zantedeschia

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The first of our overwintered  Zantedeschia  opened its first blossom this morning.  I might have missed it, had I let the misting rain keep me indoors.  This cool, foggy morning coaxed me outside to do a little planting; a little moving of pots from their protective shade into their permanent summer spots.

Feet damp, and camera covered in raindrops, I was taking a quick turn around the upper garden when the pure white elegance of it caught my eye.

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Zantedeschia albomaculata is named for the white spots on its leaves.  Spotted leaf calla lilies want wetter soil than those without spots.  Both want full sun, and reward good care with elegant flowers.

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Zantedeschia looks so tropical.  And yet, they survive our winters, here in the northern reaches of their hardiness zone (Zones 7-10).  Their elegant leaves never fail to surprise me when they finally emerge each spring.  The leaves would be enough, some would say.  That is, until their blossoms begin to appear.

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Zantedeschia ‘Memories’ will have deep purple flowers when it blooms.

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Although we have Zantedeschia blooming in shades of purple, pink, rose, peach and white in the garden; the pure white flowers remain our favorites.

Many people call these flowers ‘calla lily,’ especially when ordering stems from the florist.  There is actually a North American Calla palustris, which grows in bogs, swamps and ponds.  A near relative, it looks very similar, but is not as refined.

The newest Zantedeschias  in our collection are called Z. aethiopica ‘White Giant,’ and may eventually grow to 5′ to 6′ tall in good soil and consistent moisture.

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Z. ‘White Giant’ is still a very young plant in our garden. We expect the leaves to grow larger as the weeks go by, and hope it will bloom this first year. Here, it grows with Caladium ‘Burning Heart.’

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Like this beautiful blossom in form and color, they will grow more like the tremendous clumps of white Zantedeschia aethiopica I’ve admired in front gardens in coastal Oregon, where the hardy clumps expand a bit each year.  Mature clumps grow 3′-4′ tall there, already blooming by early April.

We have our new Z. ‘White Giant’ all in pots at the moment, but I plan to plant most of them from their pots into the garden this fall, and expect them to grow a bit better each year..

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Like other Aroids, Zantedeschia is a good plant choice in areas grazed by deer.  They have tiny calcium oxalate crystals in their leaves which will irritate the mouth and upset the stomach of any who try to eat its leaves.   Zantedeschia belong to the same family and subfamily, Aroideae, as Caladiums, Colocasia, and our beautiful Arum italicum. 

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Do you see the family resemblance to this Arum italicum, which is preparing to go dormant for the summer?  As the leaves die back, the green berries will grow bright reddish orange, when ripe.  Its flower is also the simple spadix and spathe form, in a creamy green.

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Their leaves are large and beautiful.  Their flowers are the simple ‘spathe and spadix’ form, which in many genera turn into green, berry covered stalks after fertilization.  Other than calla lilies, most of the plants in this family are grown for their leaves or for their edible tubers.

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This Caladium flower isn’t nearly as sturdy or long lasting as a calla flower. Most gardeners cut Caladium flowers away so all the plant’s energy goes into leaf production.

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Natives of southern Africa, these elegant callas enjoy full sun and consistently moist soil.  Buy them as dry tubers in the early spring, or as potted plants at many nurseries and grocery stores.  Plant tubers near the soil’s surface in good potting mix, and keep just moist until growth begins.

If growing callas in pots, make sure to add fertilizer to the soil to keep them at their best.

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I’m not sure where these peachy orange calla lilies came from…. I was expecting them to be purple when I planted their tubers earlier this spring….  Is this Z. ‘Mango’?  At any rate, we will enjoy them and appreciate their generous blooms.

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Zantedeschia are often grown commercially for their flowers, much loved by florists world-wide.  Calla stems are long-lasting in a vase, perhaps for several weeks if one changes the water and re-cuts the stem every few days.

If you love their flowers, why not grow them yourself, and enjoy the beauty of the entire plant?  This is an easy plant if you give it the sun and moisture it craves.  Whether you grow it in a pot or in a bed, it will reward your efforts with many years of gorgeous foliage and elegant blossoms.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Fabulous Friday: Colossal Caladiums

Caladium ‘Carolyn Whorton’

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Meet Carolyn.  Carolyn has apparently become a FOTF, because this is her third or fourth summer hanging out on our deck.  Properly introduced as Ms. Carolyn Whorton, she is reliably gorgeous and fun to be around from early May through at least November, when we let her have a bit of a rest until the following spring.

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It is simply fabulous to watch our favorite Caladiums awaken and throw out their astounding leaves for another season.  Yes, thanks to Don Patterson at Classic Caladiums, we have figured out a reliable system to save our Caladiums year to year.

Some might wonder whether an older bulb makes a bigger plant.  The answer is yes, and no.  According to the Caladium gurus,  an individual Caladium’s mature height, coloration and the size of its leaves are determined by its genetics.

Some varieties grow taller, others remain much lower growing.  The leaf shape and size is also a function of genetics.  But within that genetic potential, how you grow a Caladium also determines whether it grows to its maximum size, or not.

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C. “Carolyn Whorton” grew from a tuber we overwintered. This variety can grow exceptionally large leaves on 24″ stems. Here, in September 2017

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Of course good soil, steady moisture and a bit of organic fertilizer are good for growth.  But beyond that, shade loving Caladiums tend to grow larger in the shade, and remain more compact in bright light.   All of our saved bulbs began their re-awakening in large plastic tubs in our guest room.

I planted in early March, and they were sitting up on the bed, near a window and a lamp, by the third week of March.  And that is where they stayed…. perhaps a little too long…. because April here was too cold for them to go outside into the sunshine.

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The stem in the middle holds this Caladium’s first flower. Like other aroids, the Caladium flower isn’t showy. Leaving it can drain off energy from leaf production, so many of us simply remove them.

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And so they s..t..r..e..t..c..h..e..d…, trying to catch all they light they could, and also grew enormous leaves!  I remembered Carolyn from last summer, and so gave her her own pot and root room to grow early on in the transplanting process.  She has been out on the deck, in much better light, for most of May.

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Some of her companions were still camping out in their plastic bin until early this week.  But they all have a place to grow now either in a garden bed or in a pot.

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This bin of new Caladiums is ready to be planted out this week. The red leaf is C. ‘Burning Heart,’ a 2015 introduction from Classic Caladiums.  The white is C. ‘Florida Moonlight.’

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Not so for all of our newly purchased Caladium tubers.  I planted most of them into bins, but potted up a few into individual peat pots when they arrived from Florida in late March.  I potted up a few individually for a friend, and decided to experiment with this alternative way to get a jump on the season with about a dozen or so of our new bulbs, too.

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The results are clear:  our Caladiums in the bins are doing much better than those in individual pots.  I can think of at least three reasons why this is the case.

First, it is easier to maintain an even moisture content in the soil for the bulbs in bins.  I line the bin in paper toweling before adding soil, and that layer of paper wicks the moisture evenly throughout the bin.  The peat pots get a little dry, then when I water a little too moist, and back and forth as I remember to check on them, or not.

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More of our new Caladiums are in process… the material on the soil is rice hulls, the packing material that comes with the bulbs.

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The potted Caladiums also don’t have the advantage of soil mass to keep them warm.  Their temperatures vary, and maybe get a little cool, much more often than those growing in the bins.

And finally, I amended the potting soil used in the bins with a bit of Espoma Bulb tone before planting the Caladiums.  The pots have straight up potting soil.

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C. ‘Highlighter’ and C. ‘Chinook’ were among the first of our new Caladiums ready to plant out this spring.

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Now, it is clear to me, watching the new bulbs leaf out, that each variety takes its own time to come into leaf.  Caladiums planted the same day, into the same soil, and receiving identical treatment, take very different numbers of days to show their first leaf.

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That is a little frustrating to me, as some of our Caladiums purchased this season haven’t even shown themselves, yet.  The first ones in leaf have gotten the choice locations around the garden, and I’ll have to figure out what to do with the latecomers, when they finally grow.

And my good friend who trusted me to start her Caladiums for her is still waiting to fill her pots.  At least half of her bulbs have poked a tip above the soil to show me they are alive…

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But back to the question of bigger bulbs and bigger plants.  I planted Caladium bulbs this year the size of a potato, and I planted bulbs the size of a grape.

The main difference in the size plant they produce will be seen in how many leaves each can produce at a time.

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C. ‘Florida Sweetheart’ at Halloween, just before I brought her in for the winter.

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But as you can see, ‘Carolyn’ has only two leaves.  Why doesn’t a grand dame like herself have at least a half dozen?

The answer lies in the idea of ‘dominance.’  The first eye to develop is the dominant bud.  It can chemically signal ‘wait’ to the other buds.

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Caladium tubers ready for spring planting, with some buds already showing growth.  Remove the dominant bud, and a greater number of buds begin to grow.

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Had I performed a big of surgery on the dominant ‘eye’ before planting the Caladium tuber, I could have stimulated more eyes to produce leaves right off the bat.  Maybe one year I’ll get around to playing with that….

But in this moment, we are happily enjoying the start of Caladium season.  It has been a slow grow this spring, but I am steadily putting a few more plants out into our garden each week.

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Finally, a Caladium has replaced the fading Violas with this Japanese Painted fern.

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As our Caladiums, Colocasias, Alocasias and Zantedeschias leaf out and bulk up, our garden looks a little more tropical with each passing day.  I am still learning about the magic ‘alarm clock’ combination of warmth, light and moisture that helps each genus break dormancy and awaken to a new season of growth.

But awakening they are, on their own schedules, and to our great delight.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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

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Pot Shots: A Pop of Color

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A grouping of simple hypertufa troughs have rested here, forming the edges of a raised bed, since 2014.  I made the troughs for this purpose, and planted them that first year almost entirely in Caladiums.  A dogwood tree grows from the center of this very shady bed planted mostly with ferns and Hellebores.

Wanting year round interest with a minimum of effort, I’ve added hardy Begonia grandis, evergreen Saxifraga stolonifera, additional seedling Hellebores and various ferns in and around the pots over the seasons since.  Vinca minor and ivy volunteered themselves as groundcovers.  I have tried establishing moss around the pots, but haven’t met as much success with that as I would like.

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There isn’t much space left to add summer Caladiums anymore, especially as the ferns have filled out and the Saxifraga and Begonias continue to spread themselves around.  But I still tuck in a Caladium tuber or two each spring.  This is easiest to do as the Caladium just begins to grow, before its roots grow too large for the hole I can dig in these shallow pots.

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This is one of my favorite spots in the garden year round, now, and we will enjoy the intense pop of color the Caladium ‘Burning Heart’ offers with its intense red leaves.  I like how it plays off of the new Begonia leaves and the stipes of these ferns.

When growing over a period of years in shallow pots, it is important to feed the soil and keep it hydrated for best plant performance.  I top off these pots with some compost with the changing seasons, sprinkle in some Osmocote ever few months, and water occasionally with fish and seaweed emulsion in the mix.

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These pots on May 3, before I groomed and topped them off for the season, and before it was warm enough to plant out any Caladiums.  Dogwood petals fell like snow after several days of wind and rain.

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This composition of leafy plants holds my interest without a lot of bright flowers.  That said, we enjoy the Hellebores from January through May.

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Saxifraga stolonifera blooms this week in another shady fern bed. These perennials send out runners, and a new plant grows at the tip of each runner. The plants root when they touch moist earth. They can fill in a large area fairly quickly and bloom by their second year.

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The Saxifraga is blooming this month, and tiny pink Begonia flowers will emerge by midsummer.

The flowers here may be subtle, but the foliage in this bed really pops!

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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