Providing Habitat for Native Bees

The original Pollinator Palace at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden has been renovated this month. Read more here

Did you know the majority of bees that pollinate our food crops and wildflowers do not live in hives and do not produce honey? 

Hive-dwelling honey-producing bees did not even exist in North America until they were brought here by European immigrants in the early 1600’s.  That means the honeybee, which has become important to commercial agriculture and has captured press attention due to hive collapse, is not a native insect species.   

There are roughly 4,000 species of native bees and they are all in grave peril because all of them are in population decline. 

Informed  gardeners know and love native bumble bees, carpenter bees, mason bees, leaf cutter bees and sweat bees, to name only a few.  This branch of entomology is still expanding as scientists are now beginning to understand just how important native bee are to healthy ecosystems.  Many native bee species haven’t yet been thoroughly studied.

There are things that gardeners and enthusiasts can easily do to support our native bees.  A gardener’s  most important role in protecting and supporting bees (and other pollinators) is to grow plenty of flowers to provide them with nectar and pollen.  Bees come out earlier in the springtime now than in previous years, and so it is helpful to provide early blooms to feed them.

 Flowers vary in the quality and nutritional value of their pollen.  Native plants provide the highest quality food for native bees.

Any gardener who supports wildlife simply must not use pesticides or other chemicals in the garden that will poison them.  Pesticides and herbicides get into the ecosystem of the garden and have a profound impact on pollinators, birds and small mammals, in addition to the problem insects they target.

Bumble bees are probably the largest and most recognizable of our native bees because they are large and easily observed.  They are ‘generalists’ and will visit almost any blooming flower.  While other bee species will only forage from one type of plant at a time and may prefer certain flower species or flower forms, bumblebees will freely visit most flowers in bloom.   Bumblebees often live in communities underground with a queen and her daughters managing the hive and caring for the young.

While some native bees prefer to live in the ground, many other species are solitary, and make nests to lay their eggs in wood or the dried stems of plants.  When we thoroughly clean up our gardens each fall, cutting the drying, dying stems of perennials, picking up all the sticks and raking all the leaves, we also dispose of many larval bees and other important insects.

Read more at Our Forest Garden

Six On Saturday: Happy Pots in January

January and February might be months gardeners choose to take off.  After all, it is hard to get too enthusiastic with a northwest wind blowing and temperatures dropping, even if the sun shines for a few hours of the day.  Plant choices dwindle as temperatures drop, and frozen soil makes it even more challenging to keep potted plants hydrated.  Leaves may get crispy edges when roots can’t absorb enough water to replace moisture left to cold, drying winds.  Frozen soil is almost as limiting to plant growth as dry soil.

That’s why I pay attention and take note of potted plants that still shine with vigor and health by late January.  I get excited by every winter flower, green leaf, and promise of continued growth.  Granted, our winters here in Williamsburg may be milder than most.  And our coldest, frostiest weather often waits for February or early March, just as we’re primed for spring.  But I’ll tell you that last night was in the 20s here, and it had only warmed up into the 30s when I took these photos.  These are a few plants that have proven themselves sturdy through colder nights and icier days in winters passed. Read More on Our Forest Garden

 

Have you visited my new website, Our Forest Garden?

This is a continuation of A Forest Garden, with additional storage space for fresh photos. You’ll also find a library of directories that make it easy for you to find information published here over the past 7 years.

Directories to previous posts on the site include:

On Gardening

Trees and Shrubs

Ferns and Mosses

Green Thumb Tips

Choosing Native Plants

Good Garden Books

Begonias

Caladiums and other Aroids

Herbs

The new site is still a work in progress, and I hope you will visit and have a look at the new format. Please bookmark or follow Our Forest Garden to continue to receive notice of new posts as they are published.

-WG January 2021

Six on Saturday: Winter Flowers

Edgeworthia chrysantha in late March 2019

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Here in coastal Virginia, it is possible to have flowers blooming in the garden every day of the year.  It takes a bit of planning and preparation now, before winter settles around us.  But it is within reach for most of us with a little outdoor space to plant.

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Planning a garden is a lot like working a very large jigsaw puzzle.  Consider one of the 1200 piece puzzles you buy to work with family or close friends, where you spend hours and hours just sorting pieces and making the frame before ever beginning to fill in the body of the puzzle.  Maybe you work in small sections, completing a bit here and there, then fitting those vignettes into their proper place in the whole at the right time.

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Planning for winter color, and more specifically for winter flowers, is just one of those chunks to fit into the bigger picture.

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Hellebores blooming in mid-February

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As you begin to think about winter flowers, it is helpful to think about winter blooming shrubs, winter blooming geophytes, winter blooming perennials, and finally winter blooming ‘annuals.’  Each have their own niche in the whole picture, and their own level of expense and commitment.

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This weekend I’ve visited three garden centers and have been delighted to find plants on my own ‘winter wish list’ at all three.  In all cases, the plants I wanted were marked down on clearance.  Even looking a bit rough and scraggly, giving them the right care now guarantees flowers in a few months, when we’ll need them.

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Violas of all sorts our still widely available in our area and still sold at full price at most locations.  There are hundreds of varieties, and the hardest part about planting Violas is deciding which ones to grow.  Deadhead to keep the flowers coming.  Use Osmacote or another time-release fertilizer at planting time, and feed them again with a liquid feed in February or March for best bloom.  Cut them back with scissors to remove bad foliage or leggy stems, and they will reward you with lush growth until summer.

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This is the easiest, least expensive way to enjoy winter flowers, and carries the least commitment.  Violas thrive here until sometime in May, when it gets too hot for them.  I’m usually pulling them out of their spots by mid-May to replant for summer, anyway.  Gardeners in cooler climates can keep them going year to year, but here we treat them like annuals.  Pansies have the largest, brightest flowers.  There are both singles and doubles in a wide variety of colors and color combinations.

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Panolas are a nice compromise between Pansies and the tiny Violas like ‘Johnny Jump-Ups.’  Again, there is a variety of color combinations available, solid flowers, and both single and double blossoms.  Little Violas have flowers about the size of a penny or a nickle, but they are very sweet and saturated color.  Although the plants look tiny now, they grow and spread throughout the winter.  By spring, when they begin to bloom again in earnest, they are covered in many, many small, but bright flowers.  We have a grower near us who specializes in little Violas, and I always end up with a flat or two and put them in pots and baskets on our patio and deck.

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Since deer find these little guys very tasty (most of the flowers are edible for humans, too) I generally don’t plant out Violas in beds or borders.  But I have, and as long as they are kept sprayed with animal repellent, they grow beautifully.

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Hardy Cyclamen leaves with blue Vinca flowers and emerging Crocus in February.

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A notch up from the Violas are Snapdragons, Antirrhinum species.  These are perennials, though many people pull them out and replace them by mid-spring.  I have several plants still going strong planted more than a year ago.  They are short-lived perennials, but will bloom profusely well into early summer, and then sporadically during our hot season.  The secret to keeping these covered in flowers is to dead-head the spent blooms before they set seeds, keep them moist, and feed the plants every month or so to keep them healthy and productive.  Give snaps some shade in the summer, but they are happy in full sun through the winter months.  You will find Antirrhinum varieties in small, medium or tall plants, and in a range of beautiful colors from bold to soft pastels.

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An equally easy, but often overlooked winter blooming perennial is Dianthus chinensis.  Often sold in cell packs in early spring, Dianthus is a tough, dependable easy perennial in our area that isn’t ever grazed.  It blooms sporadically in winter and summer, but really shines in spring and fall on evergreen plants.   I often use it in potted arrangements because it is versatile, bright, and the flowers remain the size of quarters in shades of white, pink, purple or crimson.  Flowers may be solid or bi-color.  Cuttings root easily.  Deadhead this plant regularly to keep it looking neat, and to keep the flowers coming.

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Requiring a bit more time and commitment are the Hellebores.  I had never paid Hellebores any attention until I moved to Williamsburg, but they are very popular here.  Probably because they are very poisonous, and won’t be bothered by deer, rabbits, squirrels, moles, voles, or ground-hogs.  It take about three to four years from seedling to blooming plant, but blooming plants are readily available in gallon pots at our garden centers, for around $25.00 each.

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Preferring shade, some of my plants grow in full to partial sun and do fine, as long as I water them during dry spells.  Hellebores begin blooming between December and February, depending on the species and variety, and them bloom continuously for another 3 to 4 months.  They are evergreen, serve as background foliage during the warm months, and are very tough and easy plants to grow.

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I was given a few dozen seedling plants by a neighbor years ago, and they continue to bloom each year and multiply, naturally spreading to form a dense ground cover.  I also buy one or two new varieties each year.  I grow them in pots and in the ground, and delight in their beautiful flowers through the winter months when little else blooms.

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Violas and ivy make fora beautiful winter hanging basket in our climate. This photo from early January 2017.

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When most people think of winter flowers, they think about winter blooming bulbs.  Bulbs are easy and most are inexpensive.  This is prime time to find bulb sales from online dealers, who can be very good, and also to find reduced bags of bulbs at garden centers.

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Be wary, if buying bulbs locally, that the bulbs still look plump and healthy and have no discoloration.  If they look shriveled or have anything grey or green on them, pass them by.  They probably won’t bloom well, or they may not grow at all and infect your soil with bacterial rot.

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Snowdrops, Galanthus species, bloom in January or February most years.  Although they are very small and white or white and green, by the time they bloom, they are a welcome sign of spring.  Miniature Iris bloom from bulbs at just about the same time, but come in a broader range of colors with larger flowers.  Early daffodils begin to bloom most years in February, and Crocus can bloom very early, before there is much else color in the garden.  Muscari also bloom in very early spring.  All of these are called geophytes because they are bulbs, and can be stored dry during their dormant time each year.

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Other geophytes, or ‘Earth plants’ grow from corms, tubers, or rhizomes.   Some hardy Cyclamen tubers begin to bloom in autumn and bloom until early winter.  Their beautifully patterned leaves persist much longer than their delicate flowers in pinks or white.  Other Cyclamen species begin to bloom in the middle of winter, and bloom through mid-spring.  Buy tubers based on when they bloom, the color of their flowers or the color and pattern of their leaves.  Cyclamen may be grown from seeds, but it takes several years for their tubers to grow large enough to bloom.  Leave the tuber in place and it will keep growing larger, giving a wider area of bloom each year.

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Iris reticulata ‘Sunshine’ on March 2, 2019.

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Finally, shrubs can be a great source of winter flowers.  If you live in Zone 7 or warmer, you can grow Camellias.  Some Camellia varieties are hardier than others, and you may find species to grow in Zone 6 or cooler.  We grow both fall blooming and spring blooming Camellias, so we have them from October through until April, whenever the weather has a bit of a warm enough stretch to allow buds to bloom.

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Daphne can bloom very early, but is also a very difficult shrub to keep happy.  I’ve never had one for very long.

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Our favorite winter bloomer is Edgeworthia chrysantha, or Chinese paperbush.  It is already in bud, and those flower buds keep steadily swelling and growing larger until they finally open into blossoms. There are two or three different varieties, and flowers may be white with yellow centers, or all yellow. They have a very sweet and strong fragrance, so the garden is perfumed on warmish days.

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Now, if you want to grow this gorgeous shrub, you will make a bit of an investment.  I saw one today in a 3 gal. pot for nearly $80.  Shop around, and you will likely find a much better deal.  One of our local nurseries carries them at a more reasonable price, but they never order very many.  You have to seek this one out.

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A shining star through the winter months, the shrub is rather non-descript with medium green, deciduous leaved through the summer.  The leaves turn yellow in fall, as the flowers appear on the branches.  It is a very sculptural shrub once the leaves fall, and is a real focal point.

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Mahonia, a northwest native shrub, blooms in November- January.   Japanese Pieris will also begin to bloom as winter fades into spring.  Both of these shrubs have evergreen foliage and bees and other small pollinators love them.   They support native bees when there is little else available for forage.

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Native redbud trees, Cercis Canadensis, sprout tiny flowers that break out of their bark along twigs, limbs and sometimes even the trunk!  I’ve seen them bloom here as early as mid-February, when they cover themselves in a cloud of deep magenta pink.  Some of the cultivars available now offer other color choices, but most are shades of pink/purple/red and even white.  Each tree hosts hundreds (thousands on a mature tree) of tiny flowers to the delight of every hungry pollinator in the area.  Birds follow to feed on the insects, and so redbud trees become hubs of activity when in bloom.

Heart shaped leaves follow, which turn beautiful yellow in fall.  Seed pods look like snow peas, and are edible.  Our trees are covered in seed pods, still, and they feed a variety of wildlife in winter.  Cut branches may be forced inside in early spring, in a vase of water.  Designers may also cut branches covered in seed pods now to add drama to their arrangements.

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Some Magnolia trees, like Magnolia stellata and Magnolia lilliflora may break into bloom in February.  Deciduous Magnolia trees bloom earlier than the evergreens and generally stay much smaller.  These are easy to grow in sun to part shade, and come in a variety of flower forms and colors.

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Finally, Forsythia shrubs often begin blooming for us in February with golden yellow flowers.  They are one of the earliest blooming shrubs in late winter.  You can force branches to bloom indoors several weeks earlier than they bloom outside.   And Japanese quince blooms in bright scarlet or pink soon after.

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These are just the high points of winter blooming plants that we grow, and that easily come to mind.  You may have other favorites.  We have to consider climate, available sun or shade, and what will or won’t be grazed by the animals who visit our garden.

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Many gardeners are quite happy with evergreens, a few bright berries, and maybe some variegated ivy or a variegated shrub.  We all crave a bit of color in the winter time, and it is worth planning for and making a bit of an investment to keep the garden interesting during the darkest months of the year.

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February 2017 Magnolia stellata

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

Six on Saturday: Making Whole

Moss Garden

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We had our first frost of the season this week, and I’ve been occupied with bringing in those pots of tender plants that we will keep through the winter, and settling those that can remain outdoors into protected spots.  My partner was helping me (encouraging me, prodding me, motivating me to keep going, quite honestly) when he went to move our little potted Japanese Maple.  We heard the cracking and crunch as the pot fell apart in his hands. Oh well, terra-cotta pots don’t last forever, do they?  And this one has spent a few winters outdoors on our deck, holding this little tree as it grows.

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I love Japanese maples, and love the aesthetic of potted ones on the deck mixed among our ferns and flowering summer plants.  They can remain outdoors year round, and allow one to appreciate the seasons from budding to leaf drop up close. The tree is fine.

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The pot is a bit mangled, but I had been looking for a pot to create a winter moss garden, anyway.  I left the whole thing alone in a plastic disk for a few days, until I remembered an identical pot that I’d just emptied days ago.  The Colocasia came indoors in a plastic dish for the winter, and so there was a pot open and available to receive the maple tree.

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It was a sorry looking mess after the pot broke, but the tree was fine for a few days while I decided what to do.

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If you’ve been shopping for pots recently, you know that pickings are very slim in November.  I’ve been looking for a pot for my moss garden for a while.  I couldn’t find what I wanted at a reasonable price.  I even ordered a blue Fiestaware bowl to plant up, and then decided to keep the bowl in the kitchen once it arrived.  It was too pretty, if that is possible…. it was a new shade of blue that we didn’t yet have. So this little broken terra-cotta bowl was clearly a gift from the universe showing me how to proceed.

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The garden at Mossy Creek Pottery in Lincoln City, Oregon.

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As you probably know, moss doesn’t have any roots.  It has little structures that anchor it to the ground, but they don’t absorb water from the soil as roots do for vascular plants.  Each cell of the moss plant is on its own for hydration.  But moisture can travel from cell to cell.  That is why moss loves humidity, standing water and lots of rain.

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We’ve had such a wet year that moss is growing in places in the garden it hasn’t in the past.  Which is fine, because I really love moss.

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To establish a moss garden, you don’t need very good soil.  As you may have noticed, moss can grow on rocks, bricks, gravel, bark, ceramics, concrete and so many other surfaces that aren’t soil.  So you don’t need good soil or deep soil to establish a moss garden.  But because I have other plants in this one, I am recycling some pretty good soil left over as I broke down some of last summer’s plantings.

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It is important to pack the soil down fairly firmly, though, and then to press the moss firmly onto the soil.  If laying moss outdoors into an area of the garden, some gardeners walk over the moss a few times to help it adhere to its new spot.  So press down firmly so the moss is in good contact with the soil. But I’m ahead of myself, here.

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I had a few little bulbs left over from other projects, and a clump of dwarf Mondo grass to add to this planting.  The bulbs go in first, to a depth equal to three times their height.  If you can’t tell which end is which, plant them on their side.  The bulb’s roots will grow downwards and right the bulb as the stem begins to grow upward in the spring.  Firm the soil over the bulbs before covering it with freshly lifted moss.

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I was able to divide my plug of Mondo grass into several divisions.  I replanted half of the plug into a nursery pot to grow on, and used these tiny divisions for the moss garden.  Have a blade nearby when dividing Mondo grass, as there comes a point where you often have to cut the sections.  As long as each section has roots, they will continue to grow on.

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I planted the Mondo grass along the lower, broken edge of the pot, to help stabilize the soil in the planting.  After planting the grass, mulch around it with moss.  Then I built terraces into the sloping potting soil with pieces of the broken pot, and used different varieties of moss in the different sections to give some interesting texture.

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Kept shaded and moist, moss can grow indefinitely in a planting like this.  Best of all is when the moss produces spores and those spores colonize the planting themselves, even growing on the pot.  That happens if the moss is very happy in the spot you select for it.

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The main enemies of a potted moss garden are those creatures who’d like to have some of the moss for themselves.  Sometimes birds pinch a bit for their nests, or squirrels toss it aside in their attempts to bury or retrieve nuts, or worse, dig your tasty bulbs.  I used those little early Crocus known as ‘Tommies,’ which aren’t tasty to squirrels.  With most bulbs, it is smart to spray them with a bit of animal repellent before you plant them.  A squirt to the whole pot once finished is good insurance, too.

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Here is our little Japanese Maple snugly tucked into a new pot. I had some scraps of moss left over, and so added them as mulch under the tree.  I’ll find some fine gravel to finish dressing the soil.

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This little planting really costs nothing out of hand.  I recycled a broken pot, re-purposed used potting soil, used up the last few bulbs left from a pack, and lifted the moss from my own garden.  It should remain a lovely spot of green out in the garden, all winter long, with minimal care.  It probably won’t even need watering.  Only if we have a stretch of warm, dry weather will I need to do anything for it, at all.

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If I had been fortunate enough to find a little evergreen fern in the yard, like an Ebony Spleenwort, it would have gone in the pot, too, growing up through the moss.  Moss makes a lovely background for spring bulbs, too. A rock or two, or a quartz crystal, finishes off the arrangement. It is always satisfying to take broken bits and leftover bits and find interesting ways to use them.  Now, as we change the seasons, is a good time for clearing away the old and making room for something fresh and new.  Like a breath of fresh air, it keeps us going.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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This moss garden will live and grow in the rock garden at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden. Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

 

Sunday Dinner: Sabi

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“Wabi sabi is an intuitive response to beauty

that reflects the true nature of life.

Wabi sabi is an acceptance and appreciation

of the impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete

nature of everything.”

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Beth Kempton

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“But when does something’s destiny finally come to fruition?

Is the plant complete when it flowers?

When it goes to seed? When the seeds sprout?

When everything turns into compost?”

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Leonard Koren

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“Wabi is about finding beauty in simplicity,

and a spiritual richness and serenity

in detaching from the material world.

Sabi is more concerned with the passage of time,

with the way that all things grow and decay

and how ageing alters the visual nature of those things.

It’s less about what we see,

and more about how we see.”

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Beth Kempton

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“…in repairing the object

you really ended up loving it more,

because you now knew its eagerness to be reassembled,

and in running a fingertip over its surface

you alone could feel its many cracks –

a bond stronger than mere possession.”

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Nicholson Baker

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“Should we look at the spring blossoms

only in full flower,

or the moon only when cloudless and clear?”

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Beth Kempton

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“Things wabi-sabi have no need

for the reassurance of status or the validation of market culture.

They have no need for documentation of provenance.

Wabi-sabi-ness in no way depends

on knowledge of the creator’s background or personality.

In fact, it is best if the creator is of no distinction, invisible, or anonymous.”

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Leonard Koren

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“And therein lies a crucial observation:

Japanese beauty is discovered in the experiencing,

not just the seeing.”

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Beth Kempton

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age,

when the life of the object and its impermanence

are evidenced in its patina and wear,

or in any visible repairs.

After centuries of incorporating artistic

and Buddhist influences from China,

wabi-sabi eventually evolved into a distinctly Japanese ideal.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi

 

Visit Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

Pot Shots: Out By the Road

August 2020

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Anything we want to plant at the edges of our property, out by the road, has to be tough enough to thrive in challenging conditions.  It might be too much shade or too much sun, curious passers-by, grazing deer, air pollution, road salts, or any number of other factors.  Maybe it isn’t a spot that’s easy to water, or an exposed site with too much wind.

Whatever the hazards, we can still find interesting plants to grow in these special spots.  After all, this is our public face that our neighbors see each day.  It is worth a little effort.

This pot sits at the gate to the Williamburg Botanical Garden, along one of the main roads through Freedom Park.  Since it’s outside the gate, the resident deer check it out frequently.  If I plant something they find tasty, it disappears almost overnight.  This is an unforgiving spot and plant choice must be spot on, or the plant disappears.

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June 29, 2018

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Pots or beds on display 24/7/365 require a bit of planning to minimize those awkward times between seasons.  When I planted this pot the first time, in the summer of 2018, I used several Lantana, a tall Alocasia ‘Mayan Mask’, creeping Jenny, Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost,’ Artemesia ‘Powis Castle,’ oregano and a Heliotrope.   That  first planting was an experiment to see what would thrive and what would fade away in this partly sunny spot.

As summer wore on the Lantana, Euporbia, Artemesia and Alocasia performed very well.  The original creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia, still grows today.  This pot remained full and attractive through the entire season.

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September 20, 2018

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As fall approached, I dug out the Artemesia to use elsewhere in the garden, potted the Alocasia to keep at home overwinter, and removed the Lantanas to make room to plant bulbs.  The Lantana ‘Chapel Hill Gold’ and L. ‘ Chapel Hill Yellow’ are perennials in our climate, but I wanted their space for other plantings.

In the fall of 2018 I planted a variety of bulbs to give a long season of spring bloom.  Along with Muscari and daffodils, I also planted a few Arum italicum for winter color.  These Arum send up leaves in early fall and remain glossy green all winter, blooming in April or May and making colorful berries after their leaves disappear for the summer.

Along with the bulbs, I also added a holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum.  I mulched over the bare soil with moss lifted from the area and added a few Strawberry Begonia divisions, Saxifraga stolonifera, which make an evergreen ground cover and bloom in mid-spring.  The holly fern and Saxifraga have continued on since they were first planted and are part of the arrangement today.

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Late November, 2018 Arum have begun to emerge and will unfold into long lasting glossy green leaves.

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Many spring flowering bulbs have poisonous leaves or flowers and will survive grazing deer or rabbits.  Narcissus offer weeks of color, will bloom in winter sunshine even if the area becomes more shady when hardwood trees leaf out, and every part of a Narcissus is poisonous.  Muscari and Squill will also survive around grazing wildlife.

Tulip and most Crocus bulbs smell delicious to squirrels, who may dig them up for a snack soon after you plant them.  Voles may also attack tulips planted into the ground.  You might spray these bulbs with a repellent like Repels All before planting and hope for the best.  Deer sometimes graze on tulips once they emerge.  A species of Crocus known as early Crocus or ‘Tommies,’ Crocus tommasinianus, are not so appealing and will be left alone.

It is still smart to spray a finished container planting with repellent to discourage exploration.  Squirrels have been known to keep a keen eye on gardeners in autumn, waiting for those gifts of tasty bulbs.  Mulching with pea gravel and planting deeply can also slow down the squirrels.

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April 4, 2019

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The planting looked a little sparse to me in February and early March, so I tucked a perennial Columbine into a back corner when they first came available at our local nursery.  These grow easily from seed, and I’ve found a few seedlings cropping up near the pot from time to time.

If you are designing a planting like this, remember that you might drop a few seeds into the pot in fall or early spring and expect them to germinate and begin to fill in by spring.  Alyssum is a great choice for a low, blooming ground cover from seed.

The next awkward time for container plantings comes as spring flowers fade and their leaves grow ratty.  Spring flowering bulbs need their leaves to soak up the sun for about six weeks after bloom to refuel the bulb for next year’s show.  A gardener can just work with the foliage for a few weeks, or dig out the bulbs to replant something else.  If you dig them, you can plant them elsewhere ‘in the green’ or pot in a plastic nursery pot while you let them finish their spring growth.

Again, removing the bulbs from a container allows room for the root ball of something else.  Besides, you might want to try new varieties of bulbs for the following year.

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April 12, 2019 Narcissus ‘Exotic Mystery’ bloom with blue Muscari

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When it was time to prepare this container garden for another summer, I tried to work around and leave as many of the bulbs in place as I could, adding new plants where space allowed.  Since bulbs are planted at three times their height, and frequently pull themselves even deeper into the pot, it is often easy to plant a transplant over a bulb you decide to keep, without disturbing it.

There is a new Salvia in the back corner, a new white Lantana along the front edge, a few small Columbines tucked along the back edge, and a Tradescantia pallida in the center.  I also planted a new Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost,’ which had done well the previous year.

But in 2018 the Euphorbia was in the back of the arrangement.  By planting it in the front corner I tempted fate, and the deer, who decided it is tasty.  It was grazed and replaced a time or two before I gave up on it.  By then, the Lantana had grow so much it no longer mattered, and the Tradescantia had become a showpiece.

Although I planted the Alocasia back, it never recovered its 2018 glory, and so I substituted another variety.  By now the holly fern and Saxifraga were well-established and showing active growth.

The pot filled out and looked nice throughout the summer.  In the autumn, when I cleaned the pot up around first frost, I planted a cream colored snapdragon in the front to bloom through the fall and again in early spring.

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June 9, 2019

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The snapdragon did extremely well and is still producing flowers this summer.  Through the winter we also enjoyed Arum italicum again, the Saxifraga, which bloomed beautifully in the spring with stalks of tiny white flowers filling the pot for several weeks, the holly fern, and of course soft, green moss.

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Saxifraga stolonifera, Strawberry Begonia, blooms with ferns.

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By the time the spring flowering bulbs died back in early summer, we were under ‘stay at home’ orders because of the virus.  I wasn’t working at the garden as much and many of the plantings were left to manage on their own for close to two months.

When I finally got back to a more normal schedule, I was thrilled to find this pot still looking good, with the Strawberry Begonia blooming and the Tradescantia returning to growth.  One always has to decide whether to leave perennials in place in a pot and trust they will return, or dig them up at the end of their season and pop something else into their place for the season ahead.

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Tradescantia also performs well in hanging baskets because it is very drought tolerant.

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Tradescantia is a great investment because it returns by late spring, grows with little care, propagates easily from stem cuttings and has delicate pink flowers in summer.  It will die back at first frost, so remember to take some cuttings in the fall to enjoy in a vase all winter, growing in water.  By spring you’ll have rooted cuttings to plant somewhere new.

The Columbine and fern returned this spring with a nice display of delicate Columbine flowers and fresh growth on the fern.  The Saxifraga had expanded so much, that I ended up removing some to another planting after their bloom.  Creeping Jenny may turn red or sometimes brown in winter’s cold, but pops back up with beautiful new growth each spring, expanding all season long to form a skirt of chartreuse vines draping gracefully over the edges of the pot.

I planted a new Lantana in May, since this has been a reliable star performer, and also added a sprouted Alocasia I’d kept over winter.  By the time I returned a few days later, no trace of the Alocasia was left.  A mystery….  I finally brought a little sprouted Caladium in June, and it has survived, if not yet grown into its potential.

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August 2020

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To keep a pot like this looking good over a long period of time, it is important to keep up the watering, grooming and fertilizing.  Especially around the change of seasons, things will die back and need to be cut out.  It is good to visit every few weeks with a critical eye and clippers in hand .  I also like to sprinkle in some time release fertilizer, like Osmocote, whenever I’m switching out plants.  In between, I try to drench the planting with an organic, liquid feed, like Neptune’s Harvest, at least once each month.

You may notice that the color scheme in this pot is subdued, and the colors remain much the same from season to season.  This scheme is built around blues, purple, yellow, white and green.  The departure comes in spring when the Columbine’s red flowers emerge.  You may also notice that much of the interest is found in contrast and texture.   Letting the foliage do most of the work makes a container easy to maintain since leaves last much longer than flowers.  Frankly, as long as there is something alive and green in the pot, I think that is all that is truly required in a spot like this.

Working with tough reliable plants, planning ahead, and regular care will allow anyone to maintain a presentable container garden ‘out by the road.’  Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.  Be willing to experiment and replace any plant that doesn’t make it.  And most of all, have fun and enjoy the beauty of it all.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

 

Illuminations: Walking in Beauty Every Day

 

 

Sunday Dinner: What Light We Have

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“There are two ways to be fooled.

One is to believe what isn’t true;

the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”

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Soren Kierkegaard

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“Just because you don’t understand it

doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”

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Lemony Snicket

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“If you look for truth,

you may find comfort in the end;

if you look for comfort

you will not get neither comfort or truth

only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin,

and in the end, despair.”

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  C.S. Lewis

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“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts.

Facts can obscure truth.”

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Maya Angelou

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“The truth is not always beautiful,

nor beautiful words the truth.”

.

  Lao Tzu

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“If someone is able to show me

that what I think or do is not right,

I will happily change, for I seek the truth,

by which no one was ever truly harmed.

It is the person who continues

in his self-deception and ignorance

who is harmed.”

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  Marcus Aurelius

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“A thinker sees his own actions

as experiments and questions-

-as attempts to find out something.

Success and failure are for him

answers above all.”

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  Friedrich Nietzsche

~

~

“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is

than to persist in delusion,

however satisfying and reassuring.”

.

  Carl Sagan

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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~

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true.

I am not bound to succeed,

but I am bound to live up to what light I have.”

.

Abraham Lincoln


Hanging Basket Hacks: Hydration

A two year old planting, ready for rejuvenation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rooted Portulaca cuttings ready to transplant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Six on Saturday: Return of the Caladiums

Caladium ‘Pink Beauty’

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Some things are worth the wait.  The stars have to align and summer has to heat up to its steamy, sultry best before that familiar, happy satisfaction fills my heart as I walk around our garden admiring the Caladiums.

I love Caladiums.  I love their pure colors, their intricate patterns, their tough beauty, their easy way of popping out leaf after gorgeous leaf from early summer until deep into fall.  I love them enough to care for them through the coldest months of winter and early spring, all to watch them live to grow another year.

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Caladium ‘Carolyn Wharton’

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When I dug and dried our Caladiums late last year, as nights grew chilly and days grew short,  I was a little overwhelmed with our harvest.  I had crate after crate of plants drying out in the basement.  By the time they were dried and I was ready to pack them up for the winter, it was time to prepare for the holidays.

But no, I was more interested in putting the Caladiums properly to bed.  Each bulb needs its own TLC to clean it up and pack it gently away.  I pack mesh bags with bulbs graded by size and cushioned with packing material, stack them together in a paper grocery bag, and then store that bag in a warm dry spot in the house to rest for the next several moths.

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Caladium ‘Peppermint’

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By early March, I’m dreaming about our Caladiums again, itching to bring them out of storage and plant them in flats to sprout.  And we had so many bulbs packed away that I didn’t order any new ones, for the first year in several.

I waited, this year, about two weeks later than usual to start our Caladiums, and they were eager to grow.  We knew we had a cool, late spring coming, and so I waited until late March.  Most already had little sprouts when I brought them out of storage.

I planted the tubers in large plastic boxes, watered them in, put the lids back on, and then stacked the boxes indoors until the Caldiums rooted and began to grow..  This year I had 8 big storage boxes planted densely with Caladiums.

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Caladium ‘Berries ‘N Burgundy’

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It was so cool in April, that I tried to keep them indoors in their boxes even later than usual.  One day I glanced at my stack of plastic boxes and saw some leaves reaching out, lifting the lids, in their bid to escape and find the light.  What strong leaves!  I almost waited too long.

It was time to open up the boxes to give them space to grow, ready or not.  Our nights were still in the 40s, which is much too cool for Caladiums.  So I began moving the boxes out to our sunny garage in hopes I could keep them growing, but protected for a few more weeks, out there.

It was Mother’s Day before it was warm enough to move our Caladiums outside, and I moved the boxes out into some sheltered shade.  By then many of the first leaves had stretched tall and lanky.  But after a day or two outside, their colors developed and I happily greeted many favorite varieties from years gone by.  They were growing too large for their boxes, and so I spent several days lifting them and potting them individually to grow on.

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This Caladium ‘Burning Heart’ has grown some of the largest leaves I’ve ever seen on a Caladium!

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I’ve spent June potting and planting Caladiums throughout the yard in all of our shady or partly shady beds.  I’ve sorted them more by color than by variety, sometimes guessing from a first little leaf or two what the plant might be.  Often the first leaf or two to open isn’t true to the mature coloration of a variety.  It takes a bit of time, and heat, and light for the leaves to grow into the fullness of their potential.

Older Caladium bicolor varieties were strictly shade plants.  Many of the newer hybrids can stand full or partial sun.  Finding the right spot for each variety is a little like working a very complicated puzzle.  This year, I’ve planted mostly in pots to make the autumn operation a little easier.  I lost track of some last fall that lost their leaves before I got around to digging them up.  These tropical beauties can’t take our winters out of doors.

But bringing the whole pot in has its advantages, too.  I was surprised and delighted to find Caladiums sprouting in several of the pots that I overwintered in our garage, with other tender plants, like ferns and Begonias.  When I bring potted Caladiums into the living areas of our house, they will often begin to grow again by January or February, and we enjoy them indoors as houseplants.  Those left undisturbed are growing lush, and full again now.

Finally, this first week of July, our Caladiums are all growing vigorously and filling in with their spectacular leaves.  The hours invested in their care have given a rich return in beauty.

You might think that I’d be growing tired of the Caladiums by now, and my attention would turn to other things.  But no… an email from Classic Caladiums broke my resolve to grow only our saved tubers this year.

There was this newly introduced variety that caught my eye, and they are all marked down for the end of season clearance.  I just had to try something new, and so ordered a bag.  When the tubers arrived just a few days later, I eagerly planted them into pots wherever I thought they would grow.  We’ll soon see what new beauty they bring.

Caladiums will brighten our garden through the hottest, most humid days of summer, until the seasons turn yet again. Each leaf is a bit different, endlessly fascinating and lovely.

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Caladium ‘Moonlight’ grows best in deep shade, lighting it like a beacon well into a long, summer evening.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Visit Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful.

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

Six on Saturday: A Gracious Plenty

Perennial hardy Begonias spread a bit more each year by seed, rhizomes, and little bulblets that form where each leaf meets the stem. These drop in the fall and grow as  new plants the following spring.  Begonias mix here with ferns and Caladiums.

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Some plants have generosity baked into their DNA.  Generosity, or an energetic compulsion to survive and multiply.  As I often tell gardening friends, “Plants just want to live.”

Whether you are just naturally thrifty, or have a large space to paint with plants, or like a coordinated design with large expanses of the same plant; it helps to know which plants are easy to propagate and spread around, and which are likely to simply sit in their spot and wait for you to feed and water them.

Are there extroverts in the plant kingdom?  ‘Super-spreader’ plants just assume you appreciate their company and welcome more of their kind.  Maybe you do, and maybe you don’t.  Gardeners tend to share those ‘extras’ freely with one another.

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Silver marked Lamium grows along the edges of this mixed planting. Native ageratum, Conoclinium coelestinum, spreads itself around by dropping seeds each summer to crop up in unexpected places the following year.

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Please don’t be naive about it, either.  If I’m offering you a pot or a bag of something and urging you to take it, maybe it is because I’ve had to thin (read: rip) some out of my garden space and would rather give it to you than toss it on the compost.  I have ‘received’ a few of these gifts that went on to boldly colonize huge spaces in our garden.

I just found several baby Canna lily plants growing out into a path.  I say ‘baby’ because they were only a few inches tall.  These beauties will be taller than me in another month.  I had to dig them or give up that little path forever.  The first of their kind made to my garden seven years ago in a friend’s grocery bag; a generous and much appreciated gift.

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Canna lillies die back to the ground each winter, to re-emerge by early summer, spreading a bit further each season. They attract hummingbirds and other pollinators. Native Hibiscus grows behind this Canna.

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They have spread themselves about ever since, which I’ve allowed because I like them and the hummingbirds they feed.  But there was nowhere left to move these stragglers, and so I began trying to give them away.   And two weeks later, I’m content in knowing their roots are happily sunk into good rich earth in a garden nearby.

Cannas, like many Iris and some ferns, grow underground stems called ‘rhizomes,’ to spread themselves around.  A new leaf and stalk will just grow along the way as the rhizome keeps on creeping further and further afield.  Roots grow from the bottom and sides of the rhizome.  Separate a hunk that has a few roots attached and at least one ‘eye’ for new leaf growth, and you have an independent plant ready to go out into the world.

Other creepers that just keep expanding into new space include many Colocasia, which have both rhizomes and runners; many grasses; the beautiful groundcover Lamium, also known as deadnettle; all of the many mints and many native wildflowers like obedient plant and goldenrod.  If you want a large, luxurious expanse of this plant, go ahead and invite it home to your garden.  It will reward you by multiplying in short order.

Other beautiful perennials beget seedlings in abundance.  Rudbeckia are famous for this, but aren’t the only ones.  Hibiscus seed freely, and I find new little Rose of Sharon trees popping up every spring.  Some of the newer, named varieties may be sterile, as some newer crape myrtle varieties are sterile.  But every flower will likely produce dozens of seeds, and the math of their propagation is beyond my attention span.

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‘Annual’ Verbena creeps and fills pots and baskets nicely. The stems root easily in soil or water. Verbena flowers from mid-spring through frost.  Coleus (behind) and Dichondra (left) also root easily from nodes along their stems.

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Many stems easily root in either soil or water.  Knowing this, you can clone as many plants as you want just like your original.  Specialized cells at each node where leaf joins stems, called meristematic tissue, can differentiate to grow into new stems, leaves or roots as needed.

When I buy pots of ‘annual’ Verbena, I always examine the stems, where they touch the soil, to look for roots.  If there are little roots already, I snip that stem close to the crown and gently tug the little tangle of new roots away from the root ball.  This rooted stem we call a ‘division.’  Now, if there aren’t any rooted stems, you can easily get a stem to root by pegging it down to the soil with a small stone or a bit of wire.    Once some roots have grown, cut the stem away and gently lift its little roots.  Plant it back into the same pot nearby, or spread the plant to another spot.

Many plants root from their stems.  Most will root if you just cut them away at a node and plop them into moist soil.  Give a little shade from the mid-day sun while those new roots grow, keep the soil watered, and you’ll soon notice new growth.

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Colocasia and Iris; both grow from underground rhizomes and spread more each year. They are very easy to separate and any piece of rhizome with roots and an eye will grow into a new plant.  Grow these in containers to limit their spread.

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Other plants grow in circles, with expanding ‘crowns.’  The crown is where new leaves arise each spring and is normally right at, or right below soil level.  Hostas and Heucheras grow this way.  Lift them and divide them into pieces in the spring, cutting apart ‘sections’ that have both roots and new clumps of emerging leaves.  One Hosta may become several after this simple surgery, each section ready to replant and continue to grow.

With a little patience and planning, you can also have ‘a gracious plenty’ of favorite plants in your garden without buying out the garden center every spring.  Once you grow a little bit infatuated with a plant, you’ll likely want more just like it.  Learn its ways and offer a little encouragement.  Soon it will reward you with enthusiastic growth.

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Hostas may be knocked out of their pot and divided so that each clump of leaves has roots attached. Replant each clump and it will continue to grow and expand.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Visit Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful.

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

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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