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.”
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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

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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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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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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

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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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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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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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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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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

 

 

Green Velvet Serenity: Moss Garden

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What can  grow on poor compacted soil, in sun or shade, with no fertilizer, has no problems with pest or disease; and still will look beautiful year round?

Why mosses and other bryophytes, of course….

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Bryophytes are hardy, ancient non-vascular plants.  They remain with us in abundance despite their long history covering the soil of planet Earth.  And their appearance often appears magical when they begin growing in the most impossible and most inhospitable spots.

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Soft expanses of moss exude serenity and calm.  They offer respite from an often chaotic world.  They allow us to simplify our gardening effort; providing sanctuary for the weary gardener while helping to heal our planet.

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Mosses utterly fascinate me.  These miniature plants simply appear, unplanned and unplanted; sown by nature’s hand.  Like a thick plush rug, they carpet the soil year round, remaining green even under a blanket of snow or glaze of ice.

And every moment they clean carbon  dioxide and pollutants from the air we breathe, returning these elements to Earth.

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But a moss carpet takes time to grow; many years in most cases.  Allowing nature to create the moss garden, unaided by the gardener’s hand, can be an uncertain proposition because those tiny bits of moss must compete with other larger, stronger, more weedy vascular plants.

My experiments with moss gardening in containers have been mixed.  While some have survived and colonized the pot, others have not.

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The moss turns brown. Birds raid the loose pieces for their nests.  Squirrels push the moss aside to dig for nutty treasures, leaving it to desiccate in the sun.

The longer we live in this garden, the more I value moss as a ground cover for paths, slopes and areas which remain in deep shade.  It is an affordable, practical option to ‘finish’ areas which otherwise would remain muddy for much of the year.

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When I saw Annie Martin’s The Magical World of Moss Gardening, published in early September of 2015 by Timber Press, I knew this lush ‘how to’ manual  could teach me the techniques I needed to cultivate mosses on a larger scale in our garden.  And it has proven to offer as much inspiration as it has instruction. moss gardening bookThe photos alone opened my eyes to possibilities for using mosses in the garden which I wouldn’t have imagined on my own.

‘Mossin Annie’ takes us on garden tours around the United States; from her own and others she has created near Asheville, NC on to Oregon and California;  as well as to the centuries old moss gardens of Japan.  In fact, one of the gardens Annie photographs grows in Chesterfield County, Virginia.  In showing us these gardens, Annie demonstrates the three main ways to establish gardens and design with mosses.

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The first, simplest way also takes the longest time.  Norie Burnet, a Chesterfield County teacher with a wooded suburban property and little budget for gardening, allowed nature to plant her moss garden for her.  She waited for airborne spores to take hold and colonize those areas she prepared for moss, then meticulously watered, weeded and groomed to give the moss every chance to thrive.

She has invested 25 years of careful tending and designing to help those mosses grow exactly where she wants them.  Now she enjoys an exquisite shaded garden, beautifully carpeted in many species of moss, which she can easily maintain herself.

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A second method for establishing mosses gives the gardener a more active hand in selecting and placing mosses to create beautiful designs with their textures and colors.  It also speeds the process considerably.  This is the method I’m experimenting with this year.

Rather than waiting for moss spores to colonize the garden, we speed things up a bit by transplanting moss where we want it to grow.  This works best in areas where moss can and will grow naturally, using native species of moss.  But moss from other parts of the world sometimes may be transplanted if their needs are met.

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Ordinary unamended, compacted garden soil works best here.  First clearing away every weedy vascular plant, we rough up the surface a little, then firmly press small bits of moss onto the prepared soil.  Annie recommends pieces the size of one’s hand, but smaller bits will work.  These are laid into a patchwork with spaces left between.  The transplanted moss will take hold and grow.  Eventually it will send its spore into the surrounding areas.

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The mosses need moisture and time to grow.  Daily watering is key to keeping them alive and growing during the crucial time when they are taking hold.  Firm pressure to give them a good bond with the soil is needed, too.  First, pressing them very firmly into place when planting. and later walking over them regularly to maintain that contact.

Here is where I had problems.  No matter how firmly I might push my little transplants down, some bird or squirrel will come behind me and flip it!  Some tasty morsel surely is under that moss!  And the birds appreciate my help in tearing the mosses for them to line their nests!

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hunks of flipped moss to the right got securely replanted and held with metal pins.

Hunks of flipped moss to the right got securely replanted and held with metal pins.

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The remedy is to pin each piece of moss into place with toothpicks, small broken sticks, or metal pins.  I used the same U shaped metal pins we keep for making evergreen wreathes.  These hold the mosses securely and allow them a chance to grab into the soil below.

This has been a major problem in my outdoor containers, too.   Agitation of the moss transplants from animals interferes with its growth. But also, the potting soil itself isn’t a good subsoil for moss.

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Potting soil is too light, and the perlite in most mixes makes it nearly impossible for moss rhizoids to grow into it.  While moss spores easily colonize moist potting soil, transplanting mature pieces remains a challenge.

The size of the hunks of moss, and the size of the spaces between are determined by how much moss you have to plant and how quickly you need the ground covered.  Which do you have in more abundance, time, moss or money?

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Volunteer moss in our garden ready for harvesting and replanting elsewhere

Volunteer moss in our garden ready for harvesting and replanting elsewhere

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The third method for establishing a moss garden is the fastest and gives the most immediate satisfaction.  After cleaning and preparing the site, one simply rolls out the already growing moss.  Annie owns a moss garden landscaping company and raises large sheets of moss already growing on landscaping fabric, which her crews will roll out on your bare soil, for a price, and anchor into place.  Voila!  Instant moss garden! 

She, and others around the world, also grow moss in nursery flats.  It is possible to buy many varieties of moss, mail ordered from a nursery, by the square foot.  These smaller mats are then torn into designs or laid whole to carpet the area.

All methods require careful attention for the first several months as they attach to the soil below.  They must be kept clean, with fallen leaves, sticks and other garden waste swept away so light can reach the moss.  Vascular weeds which take root in the moss must be plucked.  They compete by shading out the moss and absorbing the moisture it needs.  Tears in the moss must be mended; stray bits pushed back into place.

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Porous material, like this hypertufa pot, support moss very well. Glazed and plastic pots do not. In general, moss will grow on brick, some stone, concrete, bark and asphalt very well.

Porous material, like this hypertufa pot, support moss very well. Glazed and plastic pots do not. In general, moss will grow on brick, some stone, concrete, bark and asphalt very well.

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Perhaps you’ve heard stories of ‘Moss Milkshakes’ as a method for getting mosses to grow on rocks or clay pots.  I’ve not yet tried this method.  Annie discourages it and explains she has had little success.  One breaks up hunks of living moss into an old blender, and adds some combination of buttermilk, yogurt, or beer….. This whole mess is whirred into a thick slurry and painted on to a porous surface, kept moist and shaded, and at some time in the future moss begins to grow.  It should work.

Most mosses can regrow from any part of the plant.  Like the arm of the starfish, even the tiniest bit of leaf or rhizoid is enough for the whole moss to grow back in the right conditions.  And the gardener’s challenge becomes to provide those right conditions consistently enough and long enough for the moss to colonize and establish themselves on the new surface.

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This may be something I experiment with in the coming weeks.  Mossin Annie shares very detailed and useful information about moss gardening in her beautiful book.  But search as I may, nowhere can I find instructions for growing a flat of moss, or for growing one of her large sheets of landscape fabric based moss.  Those must be trade secrets!

And that is what I would like to learn.  I’d like a few beautiful homegrown flats of the mosses already native in our area, ready to lay on the ground,  to embellish our now growing moss gardens.  Because part of the art of designing moss gardens is the interplay of various textures and colors of mosses growing next to one another.  Flats of ready moss are the artist’s palette for a moss gardener; and like everything else in the garden, must be bought if not ‘home grown.’

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And it all takes time.  Annie makes clear that the moss gardener must think in months or years to see a vision grow into place.  Even buying her moss mats to carpet a shady corner of the garden, one must still wait for mosses to grow up over rocks or stumps, trees trunks and walls.

Like with all gardening, it unfolds in its own time.  We can perhaps speed the process a little with our efforts.  We can aid and encourage nature in her natural course.  But ultimately, we wait for the miracle; with enough patience to finally witness its unfolding.

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Woodland Gnome 2016

 

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