The ‘Fern Table,’ My Way

There is an inspiring feature about fern tables in the current Horticulture Magazine, written by Richie Steffen. Steffen is the Executive Director of the Elizabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, Washington and President of the Hardy Fern Foundation. I’ve read the article through a few times now and studied the illustrations for ideas. It is an excellent overview of fern tables and I highly recommend reading it if you love ferns and enjoy container gardening.

A fern table is a representation of the forest floor, built up from a flat surface. The arrangement typically includes small to medium sized ferns, mosses, shade loving woodland perennials, small shrubs, vines, bits of old wood and rocks. Fern tables may be built directly on a tabletop, on a concrete paver, or on a tray.

These fern tables are designed as permanent outdoor installations, built on concrete bases and measuring several feet square. They are very natural and rustic. They may be used indoors or on a porch or patio, as a centerpiece or runner on a table, or may be placed in the garden as a focal point.

This form takes elements from bonsai, from kokedama balls, and from container gardening to create something new and different. Built up from a solid but flat surface, these displays look a bit illogical and perhaps a bit dangerous. One must break a few gardening ‘rules’ to create them. But they are also whimsical and fun. I wanted to try to create arrangements in this style.

Before investing in concrete blocks and pavers and building something permanent in the garden as a gift for my squirrel friends, I decided to experiment on a smaller scale. So I found some simple Bonsai trays to use as a base. These are entirely portable and may be used indoors or out on our deck. My rectangular trays are 8″ x 10″ and have a shallow side, perhaps a half inch deep. Perhaps I should call my arrangements ‘Fern Trays’ rather than ‘Fern Tables.’

Read more about how to construct a Fern Table on Our Forest Garden

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WG

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.

 

Celebrating Spring Indoors: Mosses and Ferns

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Greeness re-emerges each March from February’s shades of brown and grey.  We notice exquisite shades of fresh green wherever there is new growth; even if only weeds emerging in the lawn, new grass, and buds breaking open on early shrubs.

Green is alive with possibility, giving us fresh energy and enthusiasm.  Green is the color by which energy from the sun is captured and transformed into the sort of chemical food energy that fuels us all.  Whether we access it directly from a kiwi or avocado, or allow the green to be munched first by a cow before it is transformed into milk or meat; we depend on green chlorophyll to produce every calorie of energy which fuels our lives.

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Green attracts like a powerful, life-affirming magnet, especially in the spring when we are ready to move on from winter’s rest.  And in these last chilly weeks of unpredictable weather, I enjoy making a green arrangement with ferns and mosses to enjoy indoors until spring is firmly established outside in the garden.

I have been experimenting with keeping moss inside for several years.  While all goes well for a while, the moss often ends up turning brown and sometimes disappearing entirely.  Moss is the simplest of plants, yet its nurture as a ‘houseplant’ proves fickle and complex.

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Moss pairs well with ferns, as their needs are nearly the same. Lichens may also be incorporated in the design.  2014

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For all of the vibrant green kokedama covered in moss I’ve seen in books and on other’s websites, I have not yet figured out how to reliably keep moss alive for long inside.  But I keep trying…..

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There is a bit of potting soil and sand beneath the moss to sustain the plants growing in the glass plate.  January 2015

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Japanese guides suggest taking one’s potted moss outside for some portion of each day to give it fresh air and bright light.  This sounds suspiciously like walking a pet dog to me, and I’m not yet prepared to treat my moss gardens like a barking or purring pet.

I’ve also learned that closing moss up into a terrarium can be the ‘kiss of death’ because it gets too wet in the high humidity, and doesn’t get the free exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen that it requires.

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February 2015

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Let’s recall that moss has no vascular system.  There are no water carrying tubes through ‘leaves’ or ‘stems’.  Moss is so simple, structurally, that every cell absorbs water.  That means that too much water for too long will kill the cell, because it isn’t going to move the excess water on, elsewhere.

We must find balance in tending moss: the balance between light and shade, moisture and dryness, heat and cold.

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January 2018

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That is why I have chosen a tall, clear vase for this arrangement, but one without a lid.  I’ve constructed this like a terrarium, but have not enclosed it.

And for the time it stays indoors I will do my best to faithfully mist it several times a week, but will resist the temptation to pour water into it.  And, if I notice the moss struggling, I’m prepared to remove it, ‘plant’ it back outside, and start again with some fresh moss.

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This is my favorite sort of moss, Thuidium delicatulum, which is called fern moss because it looks like fine, low growing fern fronds.  This perennial moss prefers a moist, acid soil, can stand a fair amount of light, and grows prolifically in several spots in our garden.

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This is fern moss, Thuidium delicatulum, which looks like it is made of tiny, low growing ferns.

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I’ve created a base in this vase with fine aquarium gravel mixed with some fine charcoal, recycled from a water filter.  I mixed a little more of the charcoal in with the coarse potting soil mix I used for the ferns.  This is soil I’ve used earlier this winter for starting tubers and bare root plants in the basement, and it was already perfectly moist when I scooped some into the pot.  Charcoal is often used in terrariums to help purify the soil and water, keeping the plants healthier.  Without any drainage, it helps prevent water in the soil from growing stagnant.

Moss doesn’t have roots, but needs firm, continuous contact with the soil.  After planting the two tiny ferns, I simply pressed sheets of moss, with its own soil from outside still attached, on top of the potting mix.

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The taller fern is a popular houseplant called a brake fern or ribbon fern, genus Pteris.  This one is tender, though it will grow very well outside from late April through November.  The shorter one is also a tender fern, probably one of the footed ferns.

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Then I misted it well, using the mister to also clean the inside of the glass.  The pot sits a few feet away from large windows and under a lamp.  It is a bright location, and I’ll hope that both ferns and mosses grow here happily.

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March, 2018

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Plants indoors are good for us in many ways.  Plants filter the air and fill it with fresh oxygen.  Plants calm us, and bring tremendous beauty into our homes.  Plants inside in early spring also inspire us and keep that promise of spring alive, even when the weather turns cold and wintery once again.

March is a fickle month, but the overall trajectory is towards more daylight and milder weather.  As the sun returns, our garden responds with fresh growth.

But we respond, as well.  And bringing a bit of that spring time magic indoors helps us celebrate the change of seasons… in comfort.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

Pot Shots: Early Spring Bulbs

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Planting up pots with spring blooming bulbs has become an autumn ritual for me.   I consider how the bloom will unfold around the perennials, ferns and woodies included in the design.   I plant with a sense of anticipation and caution.  I am excited by the potential while also mindful of the many pitfalls that can damage bulbs between autumn and spring.

I’ve lost bulbs in recent years to hungry squirrels, bacterial infection on some of the bulbs planted, extreme cold and dry soil.

Some variables we can anticipate and plant to avoid. 

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Newly planted on September 25, 2018

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I’ve learned to order and pick my bulbs up as early as possible, before they can get old or contaminated in the the shop.  This year, I learned to spray the bulbs with a repellent, like Repels All, just before I plant them to discourage rodents.  I use the largest pots possible and try to shelter them against the worst weather.

Now, I make a point to water bulb filled pots throughout the winter when the ground isn’t frozen, and to mulch each pot with rocks or moss to minimize damage and bulb loss.

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November 6, 2018 Autumn blooming Colchicum was the first bulb to bloom in this fall planted pot. Cyclamen leaves have already emerged, and moss has begun to establish. 

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This four season pot’s main occupant is a native Oakleaf Hydrangea, which doesn’t look like much at the moment in its dormancy.  The pot is filled with an assortment of bulbs, roots, corms and tubers to unfold gradually over the long months between late autumn and early summer.

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We are currently enjoying Tommies, better known as Crocus Tommasinianus, known to rarely attract rodents.  This Crocus species simply smells differently from most species and cultivars, which can actually attract squirrels and mice because they smell nut-like.  Tommies are some of the earliest Crocus to bloom each spring, multiply well and can thrive in partial shade.

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We also have another snowdrop blooming and the first bloom of our Cyclamen coum, which will open in another day.  I planted a mix of fall blooming Cyclamen hederifolium and C. coum for a longer season of delicate blooms.

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It isn’t cheating to begin adding plants in early spring.  Pots are stages, and the players come and go to keep the show lively.  I added the panola last week, to fill a small hole left by a curious squirrel.

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I love bulbs in pots precisely because I’m curious, too.  I want to watch spring unfold in miniature, up close; in a choreographed microcosm of what is writ large around us.

Moss mulch elevates the entire experience for me because it provides that splash of vivid, living green on even the coldest, dullest winter days.  It protects and insulates the bulbs while also protecting whatever is in growth from splashing soil during rains.  And, quite honestly, I’m curious to watch every tiny plant that sprouts from the moss.

Left untended, the grass would grow in little clumps through the moss until unplanned plants (read: weeds) overwhelmed the planting.  But no:  We have little snips to keep everything tidied up.  That is a lesson learned from hard experience, too.

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You never got around to planting bulbs this year?  No worries. 

You can still create a beautiful pot of blooming bulbs now.  I’ve found bulbs in growth at nurseries and the grocery store for the past few weeks.

Grab a pot or basket and fresh potting mix, plan your arrangement, and just take those bulbs already in growth and slip them out of their nursery pot as you tuck them into your arrangement.  Add a pansy or primrose, if it makes you happy.  There is no shortage of moss after all the rain these past few weeks.

All sorts of interesting things have begun to turn up at local nurseries, and your creative ideas will lead you to just the right components for your own spring pot.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience.

Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.”
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Hal Borland

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February 15, 2019

 

 

Moss: Let It Grow

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

“The color green engenders a great sense of tranquility,

peace and serenity.” 

Dale Sievert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome

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The Mossy Creek Pottery Garden, Lincoln City, Oregon

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

An Infinite Variety of Ferns

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Mosses and ferns populated the Earth long before any flower bloomed or fish swam through the vast oceans of our earliest years.  Soothing green mosses still fascinate and entertain many of us obsessive gardeners.

I lift mine from spots where they grow in our garden, and also do my bit to help them spread a bit more each year.  Non-vascular, they have no roots, true stems or true leaves.  Moisture simply seeps from cell to cell as they welcome the rain.

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Ferns rose up from the moist and mossy surface of the Earth as the first plants to develop true roots, stems and leaves.  Tiny tubes that carry water from root to leaf allowed these novel plants to reach ever higher to catch the sunlight.

From that humble beginning, eons ago, ferns have carried on their simple lives and developed into countless different shapes, forms and sizes.

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These ancient plants still reproduce themselves with spores, as the mosses do.  Never will you find a flower or seed from a fern.

Their spores must fall and grow on the moist Earth before first forming a gametophyte, which most of us never even notice.  Eventually that simple structure will grow into a new fern.  Their ways of reproducing are mysterious and hidden from the casual observer.

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The small dots that grow on the back of some mature fern leaves hold the spores.  They will be released as a fine powder when the spores are ripe.  Blown on the wind, some eventually some will settle where they can grow. This frond is the evergreen hardy fern Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Autumn Brilliance’ .

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Although ferns often look delicate and fragile, they are tougher than you might expect.  So long as their basic needs are met, they thrive.  They don’t need as much light as flowering plants, and so often grow under the canopy of trees, in dense and shady places.

Like mosses, they enjoy humidity and regular rain.  Some ferns begin to get a little brown ‘burned’ edge on their leaves if the air grows too dry.

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The Victorians collected interesting ferns from around the world.  They traveled far and wide to discover new species of ferns, often in the tropics.  They developed the glass house, fern cabinet, and terrarium as ways to keep their ferns warm and humid on board ship and through cold British winters.

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Gardeners today have uncounted choices of interesting ferns to grow.  We have a wide array of species ferns, plus many, many cultivars.  Hardy ferns grow on every continent.

Our garden features many varieties of hardy evergreen and deciduous ferns.  Some, like our Christmas ferns and favorite Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Autumn Brilliance,’ remain green through the winter.  Others, like our many Japanese painted ferns, drop their leaves as days grow shorter in autumn, and remain dormant until early spring.

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Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Autumn Brilliance’ remains green and beautiful year round.  Its new fronds emerge a beautiful shade of bronze.

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We also enjoy many ferns that aren’t hardy in our climate.  These must come indoors before frost, but will return to the garden in late April.

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I have been fascinated by ferns for many, many years now.  When I see a new one we don’t yet grow, I want it.

I won’t even try to explain; I’m too busy watering and potting up fern babies to grow on into good sized plants by late spring.

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When most of us think of fern fronds, we think of long fronds clothed on both sides of their stipe with small, fringed leaves known as pinna.  Sometimes these are very finely divided into tinier and tinier parts.  We watch for their unfurling fiddleheads in spring, and see them in our imagination waving in the breeze as they carpet a forest glade.

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But ferns take other forms, too.  While some are lacy, others grow like broad tongues of green, or even like the long branched horns of a deer.  Usually ferns send up leaves from a stem most often found at, or just below, the ground.

But some even grow tall, like trees, where each year new fronds grow from the uppermost crown, leaving a scaly brown ‘stem’ trunk beneath.

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The long hairy stem of a ‘footed fern’ creeps along the ground in nature.  On this one, tongue-like leaves appear at intervals along its length.

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The different forms, colors, and growth habits of these beautiful plants intrigue me.  I love to watch them grow, and I enjoy trying to grow them in different ways.

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It isn’t always easy to find a good source for ferns.  Some mail-order nurseries will charge huge amounts of money for a fairly simple fern.  Go to your local big-box store, and you may find only a couple of common varieties.

I always drool over the Plant Delights catalog, because they carry such a wide selection of different ferns, and offer ferns you won’t find anywhere else.  They travel the world to collect new species and varieties of beautiful ferns, and also carry new cultivars from breeders.

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Maidenhair fern growing in our fern garden last May.

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Most of their ferns are hardy in our Zone 7 climate.  If we can keep them hydrated through the hottest part of summer, they will perform for many years to come.

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Athyrium niponicum pictum ‘Apple Court’

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Yet, winter is a special time when I enjoy small potted ferns indoors.  And I’ve found an excellent source for ferns at The Great Big Greenhouse in the Richmond area.  They carry the widest selection of both hardy and tender ferns that I’ve found anywhere in our region.

It will be a few weeks yet before their spring shipment of hardy ferns arrives, but no matter.  Right now, they have a gargantuan selection of tropical ferns to tempt the most winter weary gardener.  They come in all sizes from tiny to huge, too.  February is a very special month at this favorite gardening haunt, because they have several events planned for gardeners devoted to growing plants indoors.

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I always explore their collection of tropical plants for terrariums and fairy gardens, which come in 1″ pots.  I have found so many wonderful ferns, like the fern growing on my windowsill in the photo above.  I bought this in a 1″ pot in the spring of 2016 and grew it outdoors on the porch that summer.  It came indoors that fall, and has grown in our windowsill ever since.

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Those tiny ferns in 1″ pots very quickly grow up into full size beauties that will fill a pot or basket.

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After spending the remaining winter months inside, I quickly move them out into larger containers as the weather allows.  This is an easy and economical way to have ferns ready for summer hanging baskets and pots.

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Ferns offer endless variations on a simple theme.  Elegant and easy to grow, we find something new and beautiful to do with ferns in each season of the year.

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Fiddlehead of Brilliance autumn fern in April

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

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For the Daily Post’s
Weekly Photo Challenge:  Variations on a Theme

Fourth Dimensional Winter Pots

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Gardeners work in the first three dimensions of height, depth and breadth with every shrub, herb, perennial or creeping ground cover that we plant.  When we plant bulbs (or tubers)  in one season to enjoy in the next,  we also work in the fourth dimension:  time. 

Planting spring flowering bulbs on a chilly, autumn day feels like an act of faith; faith in the future, and faith in the magical forces of nature which will transform these little brown lumps into something fragrant and beautiful.

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Daffodil bulbs, ready and waiting to be planted so they can awaken to new growth.

It is easy enough to dig some holes and bury a few bulbs in the ground as one contemplates the holidays.

But there is artistry in composing a floral composition which will unfold gradually, over several weeks and months.

I learned about this more interesting approach from Brent Heath, master horticulturalist and owner of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, VA.

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Spring bulbs open over a very long season, in our climate, from February through May.  When you consider the ‘winter bloomers’ that may be paired with bulbs, like Violas, Cyclamen, Dianthus, Daphne, Hellebores and Galanthus; as well as evergreen foliage plants like certain ferns, ground covers, herbs,  Arum itallicum and moss; you have an impressive palette for planting a ‘fourth dimensional’ potted arrangement.

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Hardy Cyclamen species bloom over a long season from late autumn through mid-spring, Their beautiful leaves persist for months. Purchased and planted like bulbs, these little perennial plants thrive in shade to part sun.

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The recipe is simple:  begin with a large pot (with drainage holes) and a good quality potting mix.  Amend that potting mix with additional compost or a slow release fertilizer like Espoma’s Bulb Tone.  You will have much better results if you begin with a good quality, fortified potting mix.  Make sure that there is excellent drainage, as bulbs may rot if the soil is too wet.  You might add a bit of sand or perlite if your potting mix isn’t porous.

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Naturalized Cyclamen beginning their season of bloom at the Connie Hansen garden in Oregon.

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Lay a foundation in the pot with a shallow layer of  gravel or a length of burlap laid across the drainage holes.  This helps keep moisture even and blocks creatures who might try to climb up into your pot from the drainage holes.

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The fun, creative part comes from choosing what to plant in each pot.  Keep in mind that different types of bulbs bloom at different points during spring awakening.  I try to plan for something interesting in the pot from late fall through the winter months.  Violas or pansies, ivy, moss, Arum italicum, Cyclamen, Hellebores, snaps, evergreen ferns, Saxifraga, or even evergreen Vinca will give you  some winter green in your pot, and foliage ‘filler’ and ‘spiller’ once the bulbs bloom next spring.

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When I removed a Caladium last week, I tucked a Cyclamen tuber into this pot of ivy by our kitchen door. We keep something interesting growing in this pot year round.

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Next, choose bulbs which will bloom in late winter or early spring, some for mid-spring, and possibly even something that will extend the season into late spring.   As you choose, remember that even within a given genus, like Narcissus, you will find cultivars blooming at different times.  For example, plant a very early Narcissus like ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’ and a later Narcissus, like ‘Obdam,’ together in the same pot to extend the season of bloom.

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Also keep in mind that there are taller and shorter flowers growing from bulbs.  A Crocus or Muscari may grow to only 3″-6″ high.  Miniature Narcissus may top out at only 6″-8″.  But a large Narcissus or tulip may grow to 18″-20″ tall.  Plan your bulb arrangement with the flowers’ heights in mind.

Mixing many different bulbs in the same pot is possible because different bulbs are planted at different depths.  You can plant in layers, with the largest bulbs near the bottom of the pot.

Once you have all of your bulbs and plant material, put about 4″ of amended soil in the bottom of your pot, and arrange the first layer of bulbs nestled into the soil so there is at least an inch or two of soil below them for their roots to develop.  Cover these bulbs with more soil, and plant another layer of bulbs.  Keep in mind spacing, so that all of your layers will have room to emerge next spring.

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If your pot will contain a small tree, shrub or perennial, like a Hellebore or holly fern, place this (not directly over any bulbs, remember) and fill in soil around it.  Likewise, plant any small annuals, like Violas or snapdragons at the correct depth.  Finally, fill your pot with soil up to within an inch or so of the rim.  Make depressions with your finger for the smallest of bulbs that are planted only an inch or so deep.  This would include tubers for Arum, Cyclamen, winter Iris, etc.

Smooth the soil with your hand, and add a shallow layer of fine gravel or a covering with living moss.  When planting mosses, firm these into the soil and keep them moist.  Fill any crevices between pieces of moss with fine gravel.

The bulbs will easily emerge through the moss, which will remain green all winter so long as you keep it moist.

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Water your finished pot with a dilute solution of fish emulsion.  Brent Heath suggests allowing the pot to drain, and then watering again another time or two so that all of your soil is well moistened.  The fish emulsion ( I use Neptune’s Harvest) has a dual purpose.  It helps establish the plants with immediate nutrition, but it also helps protect this pot from marauding squirrels or deer.  The fish smell will deter them.

If your pot is likely to be investigated by wildlife, try throwing a few cloves of raw garlic in among the gravel.  Garlic is another useful deterrent, and eventually may root in your pot.

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Violas in late March with Heuchera, Daffodils, and Dianthus.

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I planted five of these bulb filled pots on Friday, and added Cyclamen or Arum tubers to several already established pots where I had just removed Caladiums to save them over winter.  I am giving several of these newly planted pots as Christmas gifts, and so have simply set them out of the way in a protected spot outdoors.

Once watered, you can largely forget about these pots for a month or so.  They only need light if you’ve included plants already in leaf, or moss, in your design.

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When the bulbs begin to emerge in late winter, move your pots to a sunny location.  Keep the pots moist once the bulbs begin to show green above the soil, and plan to water daily once the flowers are in bud and bloom.  Bulbs grow extensive roots.  You will be amazed how much they grow, and will want to provide plenty of water to keep them going once the weather warms next spring.

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Crocus with ferns and Ajuga

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If you have planted up bulbs with perennials, hardy ferns, or a shrub with winter interest, then by all means put them out now, where you will enjoy them.  Then you can simply watch and wait as the show unfolds.

Time is the magical ingredient for these intriguing ‘fourth dimensional’ winter pots.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

 

 

Sunday Dinner: Allowing Peace

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“You are a valuable instrument
in the orchestration of your own world,
and the overall harmony of the universe.
Always be in command of your music.
Only you can control and shape its tone.
If life throws you a few bad notes or vibrations,
don’t let them interrupt or alter your song.”
.
Suzy Kassem
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“Cultivate blessing.
Bless yourself.
Bless the whole world.
Let it be full with love,
peace, joy and happiness.”
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Amit Ray
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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017
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Water-Wise Pots

february-23-2017-potting-027

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Keeping potting soil well hydrated presents a challenge when the mercury rises and the gardener gets busy.

I’m always open to new ideas which allow me to use less water and keep my potted gardens happy.  I hate to water deeply, only to find a growing puddle seeping out of the pot.  Water is a precious resource, and grows more so each year.

I’ve used water globes in some pots and hanging baskets for a few years now, especially when the pots are indoors.    They deliver just the amount of water needed over several days, reducing both evaporation and the inevitable mess watering can make.  The large one I use to keep our Norfolk Island Pine happy through the winter is a two piece contraption.

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Yes, I realize the spike should be deeper into the soil. The tree's roots are so thick this was the best I could do! And it still works....

Yes, I realize the spike should be deeper into the soil. The tree’s roots are so thick this was the best I could do! And it still works….

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A terra cotta spike, about an inch in diameter, stays embedded in the potting soil.  The stained glass globe reservoir lifts out for filling.  You invert the filled globe into the spike (very carefully) and then allow the water to wick through the terra cotta spike, into the potting mix, as the plant needs it.  The tree grows happily, and I fill the globe about twice a week.

This is a neat system, and got me to wondering whether I could construct something similar for the large pots I keep out on our patio and deck all summer.

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My favorite, clean, pea gravel, with a lot of fine grit.

My favorite, clean, pea gravel, comes with a lot of fine grit.

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I’m not keen on buying more globes for the outdoor pots.  For one thing, the kit runs around $20.  For another, our squirrels might just knock the globe out and  shatter it while they explore the pots.

But tiny terra cotta pots are fairly cheap at the big box stores.

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Burlap over the drainage hole keeps potting soil from seeping out of the pot's drainage hole.

Burlap over the drainage hole keeps potting soil from seeping out of the pot.

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I found stacks of little pots today for about 40 cents each at WalMart.  So I’ve dreamed up a little gadget which should work reasonably well to help keep a pot hydrated in summer.  I am going to try it out this spring and see whether it works.

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february-23-2017-potting-012

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My idea is to construct a hollow, terra cotta column towards the middle of the pot, that will hold a reservoir of water.  The water will then wick back out into the soil as it is needed.   Unglazed clay, like these little pots, absorbs and holds water easily.  Although solid, they work much like a sponge.

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I've positioned the terra cotta pot a little off center, on about 2" of potting mix. There is a little scrap of burlap in the bottom, covered with a very shallow layer of pea gravel in the bottom pot.

I’ve positioned the first terra cotta pot a little off center, on about 2″ of potting mix.

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That is the main reason I generally avoid unglazed pots for planting anything except succulents:  water evaporates from the clay pot pretty quickly.  They need constant monitoring in summer’s heat.  But that porous clay, which allows water molecules to pass quickly and easily through the pot’s walls is exactly what makes terra cotta  good for watering devices.

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I put a few inches of potting mix into the bottom of the pot, and then began the tower.  There is a little square of burlap in the bottom pot to slow water from simply pouring through its little drainage hole.

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I've added some slow release plant food in the next to the top little pot, and also sprinkled some into the potting mix.

I’ve added some slow release plant food in the next to the top little pot, and also sprinkled some into the potting mix.

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A thin layer of pea gravel in the bottom of each pot in the stack helps space the pots apart and again, slow the movement of water.

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february-23-2017-potting-016

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I filled in with potting mix, as I built the tower, to hold it steady.  This pot is planted up with Lily of the Valley roots, Convallaria majalis, found bare root in one of the little packs you find everywhere each spring.  Lily of the Valley grows and spreads from rhizomes, and so should be planted shallowly.  The package said to plant them an inch deep.

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The pot is topped off with potting mix, covering the newly planted roots about 1" deep.

The pot is topped off with potting mix, covering the newly planted roots about an inch deep.

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After topping off the pot with soil, I added a few little Strawberry Begonia divisions and a few Arum italicum seedlings.  These have small root systems still, and so planting didn’t interfere with the Convallaria roots just beneath the surface.

It is still a little early here for planting up pots.  Our last frost date, in April, is weeks away.  Whatever goes  into this practice pot has to be hardy!

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Strawberry Begonia divisions and Arum itallicum seedlings can be tucked into the pot without disturbing the Convallaria roots below.

Strawberry Begonia divisions and Arum itallicum seedlings can be tucked into the pot without disturbing the Convallaria roots below.

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All three of these plants may be transplanted out into the garden in a few months when I want the pot for something else…. or not.

Maybe I will like this perennial arrangement enough to just leave it to grow through until next spring!

The very top little terra cotta pot is filled up with gravel.  Although I watered the whole pot in thoroughly to settle the plants and wet the potting mix, I paid special attention to filling the little terra cotta reservoir.

In retrospect, I wish I had thought to soak the terra cotta pots before using them.  Next time, right?

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Finally, I laid a layer of moss over all of the exposed soil to further slow evaporation.  Mulching pots gives a nice finished look even as it reduces the need to water.  The potting mix won’t splash around when it rains.

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In full sun, I would have mulched with gravel.  But since these plants prefer partial shade, the moss will work just fine.

You might notice a few decorative stones in the finished pot.  I often put stones beside little transplants to protect them.  The stones give a little obstacle to curious birds and squirrels and protect the plant’s tender roots as they establish.  Stones also tend to keep the soil beneath cool and moist.

I like how this pot came together.  As all the plants grow, the terra cotta reservoir should disappear behind their foliage.  But it will still be easy enough to find when I’m watering.

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In summer, or when I’m traveling,  I could remove most of the gravel from the top terra cotta pot to make enough room to upend a plastic water bottle into the reservoir.  While not pretty, the bottle would feed water, as it is needed, to keep the pot going when I’m not here to water! There are lots of possibilities here.

What do you think?  You are probably clever enough to already see ways to improve this scheme.

Please share your ideas, and we’ll tinker around to make an effective, affordable, water wise system to make summer a little easier on us all.  I’d love to see photos of your pots if you try out this idea.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

Moss, Ferns, and a Fairy House

May 23, 2016 fairy house 006

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This certainly has been a wonderful spring for working with mosses and ferns!   Abundant rain, muted light, humidity and cool days provide the perfect conditions for our ferns to grow and mosses to thrive.  Sometimes it feels like Oregon’s climate followed me home to Virginia!

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The various ‘moss gardens’ I started this spring continue to grow, but not as rapidly as the wild mosses taking over in more areas of the garden than ever before!   We continue to find new little ferns popping up in unexpected places even as all those we’ve planted take off in our moist, cool May.

This hypertufa trough held succulents in full sun, until a couple of weeks ago, when I re-purposed it for our newest moss garden.

We refreshed the trough with fresh potting soil, over a layer of gravel for drainage, planted out some tiny fern starts found at The Great Big Greenhouse, and moved the container to shade.

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May 23, 2016 fairy house 004~

An extensive collection of tiny 1″ plants for terrariums and Bonsai always excite me at this favorite Richmond area greenhouse, and I end up ‘collecting’ a few more with each visit.  They are fun to use indoors all winter and grow quickly to standard sizes.   We had a few brake ferns, and what are likely bird’s nest ferns, which needed more room to grow for summer.  The trough seemed the perfect container for them.

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May 23, 2016 fern garden 004~

There are also a few starts of Leptinella pusilla, Purple Brass Buttons, which look like tiny purplish ferns.  If you’ve seen a display of ‘Steppables’ at your local nursery, you have likely seen this plant for sale.  I first used it when a friend and I constructed fairy gardens in 2014.

It is a tough but beautiful ground cover for shade which spreads with horizontal stems.  I took the clump out of its nursery pot, pulled a few rooted stems loose from the mass, and tucked them in among the moss of this newest garden.  The rest of the clump went into a shallow pot of its own ready to divide again and use elsewhere…..

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May 23, 2016 fairy house 005~

And of course the soil is carpeted with several varieties of lush, beautiful moss lifted from the yard.  Although it takes a few weeks to establish, it will soon begin growing again here in the shade of our grape vines.

But what really inspired me to construct this newest little trough garden was a wonderful ‘fairy house’ made by local potter Betsy Minney.  We were thrilled to find her at a local artist’s show on Mother’s Day, with several new items added to her offerings.  Betsy’s work is always uniquely textured, whimsical, and beautifully glazed.

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We wanted to enjoy Betsy’s little fairy house in a properly ‘wild’ setting, and that meant outside amidst mosses and ferns. Knowing how our birds love to peck at moss, we now wire it in place while it establishes.  Since the fairy house now lives outside on our porch, we also want to protect it from getting knocked over by a curious bird or squirrel!  It is supported here on broken chopsticks and held in place, like the clumps of moss, with bent floral wire.

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May 23, 2016 fairy house 001

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These ferns aren’t hardy in our winters, so the entire garden, and especially the fairy house, will come inside in late autumn.  But we’ll have a good six months of enjoyment of this woodland garden by our kitchen door before the weather shifts.

You could make a similar garden using hardy ferns, especially some of the small deciduous cultivars of Athyrium niponicum and native harts tongue ferns, or Asplenium scolopendrium.

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One of our newer Ary 'Joy Ride.'

One of our newer Athyrium niponicums in another part of our garden.

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I’ve not cut flowers for a vase today.  Most of our roses and Iris have suffered from heavy rains these last few days.  But I will share this little potted garden with you, and still link to Cathy’s In A Vase on Monday post at her Rambling In The Garden.

I hope you will visit to enjoy her beautiful vase of white flowers, and follow the links she posts to other gardeners around the world, to see what is blooming in their gardens today.  There is always so much beauty to enjoy from these dedicated florists and gardeners!

Woodland Gnome 2016

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May 23, 2016 fern garden 003

 

 

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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A new site allows me to continue posting new content since after more than 1700 posts there is no more room on this site.  -WG

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