For the Love of Iris

Iris ‘Stairway to Heaven’

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I fell in love with Iris as a child.  My parents accepted a gift of Iris rhizomes from a retired friend, who happened to hybridize and grow German bearded Iris.  Dad came home one summer evening with his trunk loaded with paper grocery bags, each containing the mud caked rhizomes his friend had dug and discarded from his working garden.  He needed to repurpose the  space for his new seedlings.

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I’ve been searching for those intensely colored and perfumed Iris cultivars I remember from childhood. This is one of the closest I’ve found.  Iris ‘Medici Prince’ available from Brecks.com

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My mother looked at the sheer volume of gifted plants. A conversation followed about what to do with them all.  And then, Dad started digging.  He dug long borders in our sunny Danville, Virginia back yard.  Full sun and good loam were just what those Iris needed.

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The first spring after that, we were all speechless at the absolute beauty of them.  And the fragrance!  I don’t know whether my parents’ friend was selecting for fragrance, but these were the most fragrant flowers my young nose had ever discovered.

The colors of these special Iris ranged from white to intense reds and nearly black shades of purple.  They bloomed orange and pink and many shades of blue.  I was smitten, and have loved Iris since the day these Iris first bloomed in our back yard.

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When we moved, a few years later, we labeled the Iris by color while they were in bloom so we could dig some of each variety.  Back into grocery bags, we carried this legacy to our new home.  The new place had a shadier yard, and yet we set to work digging a new Iris bed, even while still unpacking boxes and settling into the house.

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I. ‘Echo Location’

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That began a new ritual around our family’s moving.  Each time after, we would try to dig and move as many Iris as we could.  As each of us left home, and our parents aged, that became a little more challenging with each move.

Even though I dug divisions for each of my gardens over the years, we still lost many of the cultivars along the way.

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But I never lost my enthusiasm for growing Iris.  And when I learned about re-blooming German bearded Iris a few years back, I began collecting and digging new beds for Iris in sunny spots in our Forest Garden.  I bought several varieties from local breeder Mike Lockatelle, and have ordered others from online catalogs.  Now, it is as common for us to enjoy Iris in bloom in November or December as it is to enjoy them in May.

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‘Rosalie Figge’ remains my favorite of our re-blooming Iris.

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We now grow many types of Iris, ranging from the earliest winter blooming cultivars which grow only a few inches tall, to our beautiful Bearded Iris which may grow to 4′ if they are happy.  We plant a few more each year.  There is a shallow pool filled with bright yellow flag Iris in our front yard, inherited with the garden.

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A master gardener friend gave me divisions of an antique variety of bearded Iris grown in Colonial Williamsburg, and all over this area, from her own garden.  Other friends have also given us beautiful gifts of Iris over the years, and each remains special to me.  The blooming Iris remind me of friendships and loved ones; other times and places in my life.

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The ‘Williamsburg Iris’ is an antique variety found growing around Colonial Williamsburg, and in private gardens throughout our area.  Ours were a gift from a Williamsburg Master Gardener friend.

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Iris can be grown successfully and enjoyed even if you have deer grazing in your garden.  Deer will not bother them.  This is one of the reasons why we find Iris to be a good investment.  They grow quickly, and can be easily divided and spread around the garden.  They pay amazing dividends as they get better and better each year.

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Iris can be easy to grow, if you can give them hot, sunny space to spread. They are heavy feeders and perform best when grown in rich soil and are fed once or twice a year.  But without sun and space, many varieties will just fizzle out. Make sure bearded Iris get at least six hours of direct sun; more if possible.

Iris want soil that drains after a rain.  Most established Iris can tolerate fairly dry soil after they bloom, which makes them a good selection for hot climates, like ours.  Japanese Iris and Louisiana Iris species require moist soil year round, and are happy growing in standing water.

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Winter blooming Iris histrioides in January

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Sometimes, their foliage will die back; but the roots remain alive and ready to grow new leaves when conditions improve.  I was very pleasantly surprised to find these beautiful miniature Iris growing this spring.

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Iris cristata ‘Vein Mountain’ is available from Plantdelights.com. This is a North American native Crested Woodland Iris.

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I though we had lost them during last summer’s drought, when they disappeared.  I’m still waiting for our Iris pallida ‘Variegata’ to reappear, which struggled last summer, too.

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Dutch Iris, always fun to cut for a vase, grow each spring and then, like so many other bulbs, die back.  They come in an amazing array of colors and can be ordered for pennies a bulb.

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Dutch Iris can be planted alongside bearded Iris to extend the season.

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Showy Louisiana Iris don’t have a place in our garden.  They grow best with their roots always wet, usually at the edge of a pond.  I admire them, but don’t have the right conditions to grow them.  But I am always happy to grab a shovel and make a spot for more bearded Iris. 

I’ve been moving Iris around my parents’ garden, the last few years, to bring shaded plants out into the sun.  I hope to salvage and increase what is left of their collection. We are enjoying the fruits of that effort this week, as they have gorgeous Iris blooming here and there around their home.

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These yellow flag Iris grow wild along marshes and creeks in our area, as well as in our garden. They go on year after year with minimal care and maximum beauty.

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We discussed plans for a new Iris bed when I was there last weekend.  While I’m moving them, I plan to cull a few divisions for myself, too.  And, I will take them a few roots from our garden, too.

Sharing is one of the nicest things about growing Iris.  No matter how many roots you give away, more will grow.  Each division of rhizome needs at least one leaf and root.  Plant the division in amended soil, with the top of the rhizome visible.

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Siberian Iris

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Cover all roots well with good earth, and mulch lightly around the newly planted roots, without covering the exposed rhizome.  Water the plant in, and then keep the soil moist until new growth appears.  I feed our Iris Espoma Rose Tone each spring when I feed the roses.  A light application of dolomitic lime or Epsom salts makes for stronger, faster growth.

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This Iris, ‘Secret Rites,’ was new to the garden last year.

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Once each flower blooms and collapses, gently cut it away from the main stem.  A single stem may carry 5 or 6 buds, each opening at a slightly different time.

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I. ‘Immortality’

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Once all of the buds have finished, cut the stem back to its base.  Remove browned or withered leaves a few times each year, as needed.  With a minimal investment of effort, Iris give structure to the garden year round.

And when they bloom, oh, the fragrance and color they give…..

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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Worth the Wait

Helleborus

Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever”

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“It is said there are flowers that bloom

only once in a hundred years.

Why should there not be some

that bloom once in a thousand,

in ten thousand years?

Perhaps we never know about them

simply because this “once in a thousand years”

has come today.”

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Yevgeny Zamyatin

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The Helleborus ‘Snow Fever,’ which we planted earlier this winter, have come into bloom.  We’ve been watching their progress daily.  We’ve marveled at the delicate new growth emerging from the center of its lovely white splattered leaves, wondering at the flowers yet to emerge.

Here is the first of the opening blossoms.  Its new leaves, behind the buds, are creamy white with the most delicate edging of  red.  This unusually elegant Helleborus has been worth the wait.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017

My Current Crush: Arum Italicum

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Just as most garden perennials begin to die back and prepare themselves for a ‘long winter’s nap,’ Arum Italicum begins to grow.  Its fresh green leaves push up through the moist autumn soil and fallen leaves to begin their nearly nine months of gorgeousity.

Last winter’s experiment has grown into this autumn’s crush.  These beautiful plants performed so well, for so long, that I bought 50 more tubers in September to ensure masses of them for the coming season.  With such a royal horde of the beauties, I also shared about a dozen with friends, in hopes they will find them useful and beautiful in their own gardens.

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This Mediterranean and European native, hardy in zones 5-9, begins its annual growth in the fall with huge, gorgeously marked leaves.

Now please understand that these leaves will look just this pristine until they begin to die back next summer.  We saw absolutely no damage from frosty nights or icy blankets of snow.  And all of our Arum spent at least a few days under snow last winter.   Because they are thermogenic, the snow melted first around these plants, allowing them to emerge, undamaged.  New leaves kept emerging, from time to time, until mid-spring.

Like Colocasias, Alocasias, and Caladiums; Arum Italicum belongs to the family Araceae.  And like these other beautiful foliage plants, their flower is rather plain.  The tall, narrow spadix is partially enclosed in a modified cream colored  leaf called a spathe.  This elegant, but unremarkable bloom lasts for a few days in early May before the spathe fades away, leaving the spadix.

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The spadix will stand tall for the next couple of months as green berries swell and ripen along the top several inches.  They become far more interesting than was the flower, especially as they begin to turn bright crimson.  By late July or August, as the berries fully ripen, the leaves begin to wilt.  By mid-August the plant has faded away for its late summer dormancy.

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July 22, 2016 sunset 008

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Like other members of the Araceae family, Arums grow from a tuber.  These tubers grow and multiply each year, so that a single plant soon forms a small colony.  These colonies look especially nice growing under and around shrubs and small ornamental trees.  They form a bright, vibrant ground cover, and also work well in beds where spring bulbs will emerge in late winter.

After growing Arum italicum for nearly a year, I came across a warning that they can become invasive in some areas.  The National Park Service issued an invasive plant alert in 2012 because birds and animals disperse the plants seeds, and the tubers spread easily if you try to lift or remove a plant.  It is prolific….

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Brent and Becky Heath's Gloucester display garden December 4, 2015

Arum italicum grow beneath a blooming Mahonia in Brent and Becky Heath’s Gloucester display garden December 4, 2015

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I shared this bit with a Master Gardener friend as I was giving her a few tubers last month.  Her face brightened, and she said, “That’s wonderful!”  We’re neighbors, and share the same challenges with gardening in this forest filled with hungry deer.  This has proven to be a ‘bullet proof’ perennial in our garden, untouched by deer, rabbit, or squirrels.  Many members of the Aracea family, including this one, contain toxic calcium oxalate crystals.

If you are now interested in adding a few of these beautiful and tough plants to your garden, you will have to seek them out.  This isn’t a garden center favorite.  In fact, I’ve never seen these for sale already in leaf.

You will find them in some catalogs, but the price varies wildly from company to company.

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Brent and Becky's display garden features many blooming shrubs, including this lovely Camelia. The Heath's call Arum and 'shoes and socks' plant because it works so well around shrubs.

Brent and Becky’s display garden features many blooming shrubs, including this lovely Camellia. The Heath’s call Arum a ‘shoes and socks’ plant because it works so well as a ground cover around shrubs.

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We bought ours from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs last autumn, and I ordered my new bag of 50 from them in September.  They offer large, healthy tubers at an exceptionally good price.  But I’m glad I ordered early, because they have already sold out for the year.  They sold out early last year, too.

I’m mystified as to why this wonderful plant hasn’t entered the garden center trade in our area.  It is beautiful, easy to grow, tough, deer proof, and fills the winter niche in the garden.  These beauties should prove popular and profitable.

You will find its cousins, Anthurium, Dieffenbachia, and Philodendron on offer wherever ‘tropical’ houseplants are sold.  You’ll find Calla lily, another cousin, in most grocery store florists these days.  Why not the hardy perennial Arum?

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January 3, 2015 Arum with Violas in our garden

January 3, 2015 Arum with Violas and hardy Geranium foliage  in our garden

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If you’ve grown Arum italicum, I hope you’ll leave a comment with your experience of them.  If you’ve not yet tried them, they grow well in many different places.  They are perennial over much of the United States and tolerate many different types of soil.  They grow well in most anything from nearly full sun to nearly full shade, preferring partial shade at our latitude.

Because they will naturalize, you don’t need to be overly fussy with amending the soil, fertilizing, or mulching.  Doing these things will of course result in lusher, larger leaves… but they will survive on benign neglect.  I do water ours during a dry spell, especially during these last few weeks of unusually warm and dry weather.  I want to get them off to a good start as they emerge.

They grow as well in pots as in the ground.  I’ve added a few tubers to my autumn pot designs.  Thus far, my crush on our Arum has only grown stronger.  I can’t tell you a single annoying thing about them, yet.

I harvested last summer’s seeds and have them planted out, waiting to see how the seedlings emerge and grow.  But so far as I’m concerned, more is better; and I will happily spread them to every gardening friend interested in giving them a try.

Woodland Gnome 2016

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Milorganite Update: Remarkable Success!

An Hydrangea brought as a cutting from our last garden, has been grazed each year in this one... until this spring.

This Hydrangea, brought as a cutting from our last garden, has been grazed each year in this one… until this spring.  Might it finally bloom this summer?

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The early results of our experiment in using Milorganite as a deterrent for deer remain all positive.  A month on, we haven’t seen a single deer in our garden since applying Milorganite in early April.  We haven’t seen a deer, a hoof print, deer droppings, or any damage to the tastiest of our plants.

This is absolutely remarkable!  Spring has proven one of the busiest seasons for deer breaking through our fences and into the garden, right as tasty and tender new foliage emerges.  Damage done in these crucial first few weeks of the growing season has stunted growth and marred the beauty of plants for the entire season… in past years.

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Deer stripped this struggling little Camellia of all its leaves this past March. It happens once or twice each year, yet the Camellia hangs on. New leaves have begun to emerge from its naked stems.

Deer stripped this struggling little Camellia of all its leaves in March. It happens once or twice each year, yet the Camellia hangs on.  New leaves have finally begun to emerge from its naked stems. 

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Deer pressure in the garden increased during the last two weeks of March.  A tea rose was nibbled back to its canes the day after I pruned away the Lantana skeleton protecting it.  All those early leaves and tiny buds simply gone overnight.  That was what pushed us into accepting the counsel of other gardeners to at least experiment with Milorganite.

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This four year old R. 'Pope John Paul II' was grazed within a day when I cut back the Lantana in early March. Protected by Milorganite, it is recovering and has a few flower buds.

This four year old R. ‘Pope John Paul II’ was grazed within a day, in early March, when I cut back the Lantana growing around it. Protected by Milorganite, it is recovering now and even has a few flower buds.

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Milorganite, or Milwaukee Organic Nitrogen, is the heated and pelletized remains from the city of Milwaukee’s sewage treatment plant.  See why I was reluctant to try it?  But it was much easier and more pleasant to use than the various deer repellent sprays I’ve tried over our years in this garden.  I wanted to simply hold my breath while using most of the sprays we’ve tried!

Milorganite is a clean looking, grey material made of tiny dry pellets; much like Osmacote or pelletized lime.  There is no dust or obvious odor to my human nose.

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Wearing gardening gloves, I simply scooped it and broadcast spread it using a discarded plastic food container.  I made a 4′ perimeter along the inside of our fence line, and added an extra stripe of it in the plantings along our street and along our drive.

I also spread it around specific shrubs which need protecting, as added insurance, and in areas we’ve seen deer moving through the garden in past years.

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We spread a double stripe of Milorganite on both the streetside, and the garden side of our deer fences nearest the street.

We spread a double stripe of Milorganite on both the street side, and the garden side of our deer fences nearest the street.  We have Azaleas, native blueberries  and Oak Leaf Hydrangeas to protect in this area.

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I used the entire 36 lb. bag, which is advertised to cover around 2500 square feet.  This was a huge bargain:  We bought the bag at Lowes for under $13.00.  If you’ve paid top dollar for animal repellent sprays then you know a single bottle can cost twice that amount!

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Our Hostas have emerged beautifully this spring. I simply abandoned this part of the garden last season due to pressure from deer crossing through the fence and grazing heavily here.

Our Hostas have emerged beautifully this spring. I simply abandoned this part of the garden last season due to pressure from deer crossing through the fence and grazing heavily here.

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Now, we wondered whether the Milorganite would repel other mammalian visitors to our garden.  Since spreading it, we’ve continued to see rabbits munching on the front lawn and squirrels running about.  But the squirrels already had nests high up in our garden’s trees.  The rabbits were grazing in areas where I hadn’t broadcast the repellent.  We haven’t found any plants damaged by their grazing.

The number of vole tunnels we’ve found this spring has dropped dramatically, too.  Several factors have helped control the voles, particularly the many Daffodils and Hellebores we’ve planted throughout the garden in recent years.  But we’ll assume that perhaps they are avoiding ground treated with Milorganite, too.

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This little Oakleaf Hydrangea, with ferns and bulbs, gets grazed once or twice a year. So far the Milorganite has protected it this spring.

This little Oakleaf Hydrangea, with ferns and bulbs, gets grazed once or twice a year.  The Milorganite has protected it this spring.

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And we’ve been delighted to see new growth on the rose which pushed us over the edge.  It has covered itself in foliage and formed new buds over the last month.  Other roses, heavily grazed in past years, are growing happily this spring.  Covered in buds, they have actually bulked up a little!

Little Azalea shrubs, planted by previous owners of our garden, show signs of recovery, too.  Grazed to their stems over the past few years, they have been barely holding on.  But new growth is bursting forth this spring, and many of them bloomed.

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Hydrangea, Azaleas and Rhododendrons grow in the open Connie Hansen Garden in Lincoln City, OR. Deer have free run of this garden.

Hydrangea, Azaleas and Rhododendrons grow in the open Connie Hansen Garden in Lincoln City, OR.  Deer have free run of this garden.

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We realize that deer, and their fawns, form habits in early spring for where to go each day to graze.  We believe that keeping them out of our garden in these first few months of spring will help them learn to avoid visiting us during the remainder of the year.

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I surround roses and other tasty treats with fragrant herbs, which generally protect them. This baby rose grows protected by chocolate mint.

I surround roses, and other tasty treats, with fragrant herbs, which give some protection from grazing deer. This baby rose grows protected by chocolate mint.

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Deer are actually quite intelligent and resourceful.  And so we opted to re-apply another bag of Milorganite this past week.  Even though we expect an application to last between 6 and 8 weeks based on our reading, we decided to go over the perimeter and the critical areas once again after only 4 weeks.

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The wider view shows Violas also untouched this spring.

The wider view shows Violas also untouched this spring.

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We’ve had a lot of rain, and we didn’t want to take any chance that the scent would weaken and a few deer might slip in.  We probably won’t apply it again until late June or early July.

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The first rose we planted here in 2010, this shrub rose has been grazed repeatedly. In rare years we actually see it bloom. This year it hasn't been touched by grazing and so is bulking up.

The first rose we planted here in 2010, this English shrub rose has been grazed repeatedly. In rare years we actually see it bloom. This year it hasn’t been touched by grazing and so is finally growing a bit.

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But we will continue our integrated approach to discouraging deer in the garden.  Not only will we monitor our perimeter deer fences, but I still plan to plant fragrant herbs throughout the garden.  I picked up a selection of scented Pelargoniums this weekend to plant near our smaller roses, along with Basil and Lavender.

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Pelargonium 'Skeleton Rose' has lovely scent and foliage. Rarely hardy for us, I search it out again each spring.

Pelargonium ‘Skeleton Rose’ has lovely scent and foliage. Rarely hardy for us, I search it out again each spring.

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And we continue adding plants with poisonous leaves and stems, which deer won’t graze anyway.  As awful as that might sound, many of our favorite ornamental plants, like Caladiums, Daffodils and Hellebores are poisonous from leaf to root.

Other favorites have leaves deer don’t care to eat.  Lamb’s Ears, or  Stachys byzantina, most ferns, Lantana, Comphrey, Geraniums, Iris and other garden favorites have leaves with objectionable textures and scents which deer leave strictly alone.  Many ornamentals can be planted in safety no matter how many deer visit one’s garden.

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Ferns and Hellebores won't be bothered by deer.... ever.

Ferns and Hellebores won’t be bothered by deer…. ever.  Here, transplanted seedlings of Hellebore surround a newly planted Maidenhair fern.

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I walked around the garden last week admiring this spring’s growth.  All of our Hostas have emerged and are growing undamaged.  Roses and Azaleas grow ungrazed.  Our beautiful Oak Leaf Hydrangeas are bulking up undamaged, for the first time ever.  Perennials continue waking from their winter’s rest, wildflowers bloom and even the low-hanging branches and fruit on our pear tree have gone untouched.  (Deep contented sigh….)

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Daylily emerges in this bed each spring, but rarely has the chance to bloom. So far the new leaves remain untouched.

Daylily emerges in this bed each spring, but rarely has the chance to bloom. So far the new leaves remain untouched.  Apple mint runs among the Columbines, Iris, Daffodils, ferns and Vinca minor.

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I overheard some of the volunteer gardeners discussing deer damage to new plantings at the Connie Hansen Garden, when I was in Oregon last month.  I didn’t admit to eavesdropping by breaking into their conversation; I’m shy that way most times.  Deer roam freely in their neighborhood, and the split rail fences around the garden present no obstacle to the deer at all.  They were discussing what a particularly damaging spring it has been for their garden.  But I wanted to interject, “Have you tried Milorganite?” 

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Epimedium grows this spring in one of our 'stump gardens.'

Epimedium grows this spring  with Salvia and Hellebore in one of our ‘stump gardens.’

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With the zeal of a recent convert, I’d like to share our success with everyone plagued by deer in their gardens.  Finally, at long last, we seem to have found a product which effectively repels deer; excludes them, actually, long term.  It is working thus far for us, and I hope others with deer problems will soon try it, too.  Please leave a comment if you have experience with Milorganite, or another product which protects your garden from grazing deer.

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Because beyond the obvious benefits to our plants, the most exciting benefit has been for the gardeners:  We haven’t found a single tick since our first Milorganite application in early April.  In fact, I’ve had only one tick bite this entire year, and that was in mid-March.  My partner hasn’t had any, despite the many hours we’ve both spent outside in recent weeks.

Keeping deer out of our garden has kept ticks out of the garden, too.

May our good fortune continue….

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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A “Post Wild World”?

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Jamestown Island, July 2015

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Are we gardening in a ‘Post Wild World’? 

Friends invited me to a gathering of area gardeners today. We enjoyed hearing a presentation by landscape architect and newly published author Thomas Rainer,  who shared his philosophy of garden design while promoting his new bookPlanting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, published by Timber Press this past October.

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This is one of the many Crepe Myrtle trees growing around our garden.

This is one of the many Crepe Myrtle trees growing around our garden, with the native trees of our ‘forest’ all around it.

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Yes, urban and suburban development claims ever more of our planet each passing year, with devastating consequences for the environment.  This has been true through my entire life, and probably yours, too.

I jumped on this bandwagon back in the 1970’s, and read any number of excellent books about designing gardens based on nature and using native plants, published by Rodale Press back in the 1980’s.  I internalized these principles long ago.  And still, it pleased me to hear a young landscape architect presenting these well worn principles with a certain freshness and flair.

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Native Hibiscus fill our garden this week. Deer never touch them, and they bloom for more than a month each summer.

Native Hibiscus fill our garden each summer. Deer never touch them, and they bloom for more than a month.

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Rainer summarized his concept as integrating ornamental horticulture with greater use of native North American plants.  He showed many examples of integrated plantings of grasses, perennials and woody plants contained within formal landscape frameworks, such as hardscape, hedges, lawns and permeable pathways.  So far, so good.

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Volunteer Black Eyed Susans have colonized the sunny edge of this clump of Colocasia.

Volunteer Black Eyed Susans have colonized the sunny edge of this clump of Colocasia.

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With skillful use of photos, Rainer demonstrated to us “The irrepressible spirit of plants.” 

Or, as all true gardeners know, wild plants (including what we label weeds) want to grow, with tenacious enthusiasm, everywhere there is a bare patch of Earth.  We examined diversity of species, layering, inter-cropping, and succession in various wild settings; including his neighbor’s ‘hellstrip’ between his unkempt yard and the street.

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Creeping Jenny, easy to divide and transplant, grows quickly into a densly matted ground cover.

Creeping Jenny, easy to divide and transplant, grows quickly into a densely matted ground cover; here with Sedum angelina.

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With much laughter, we also examined photos of various urban and suburban garden installations dotted with puny plants separated by feet of thick mulch.  The point being, that plants tend to grow better in dense communities, as opposed to widely spaced apart in poorly prepared and deeply mulched beds.

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Rainer discussed the relative amount of care required by these plantings, and made his point that much of the lushest growth in nature is actually self-sown and grown in what we would agree are stressful conditions.  Crowding, temperature extremes, dry climate and thin soil don’t deter plants growing in the environment to which they are adapted.

It is when we, as gardeners decide to create a generic planting bed, and plant without regard to a plant’s specific requirements, that the results are less than plush.

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Connie Hansen Garden, Lincoln City Oregon

The Connie Hansen Garden, Lincoln City Oregon, April 2015

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If you’ve been gardening for more than a few years, you’ve likely experienced these truths yourself; the hard way.

Rainer’s book is lovely and filled with inspiring photos.  You might want to add it to your library, particularly if you are a beginning gardener or one trying to break out of the suburban mold of,  “Wall to wall carpet lawn and meatball shrub foundation plantings.”  It is all in one’s aesthetic and level of ecological awareness, of course.

Many of our neighbors at today’s presentation live in communities with strict rules about which plants one may or may not plant in one’s garden.  Several of our more regulated neighborhoods in Williamsburg enforce the well groomed lawn and evergreen shrub scheme to achieve a look of refined uniformity.  I heard these ladies murmuring to one another from time to time…..

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Our front garden in mid-April

Our front garden in mid-April

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And Rainer’s advice on planning ‘layers’ of plants and covering the ground with living ‘green mulch’ to smother weeds was all sound.  He showed numerous examples of working with ground cover plants and colorful native perennials.  I wish he had also mentioned some of the marvelous native shrubs and small trees which add color and  life to the landscape.   These good ‘bones’ give the landscape character while providing food and habitat for the birds and pollinators who animate a native landscape.

Although he showed us a few of his suburban projects, most of Rainer’s work appears to have been designs for public spaces.  He showed us beautiful installations; in city median strips, parks, and around public buildings.  And so when he finished to genuinely enthusiastic applause and invited questions, the trouble began.

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There is no boundary between the Colonial Parkway, here, and our community.

There is no boundary between the Colonial Parkway, here, and our community.

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And the trouble began because he was speaking to an embattled group of Williamsburg gardeners who manage gardens amidst the realities of a ‘wild world’, which comes right up to our doorsteps.  We aren’t gardening in a safe and sanitized city.  We garden in the woods, backed up to National Park lands, marshes, rivers, creeks, and open fields full of real wild life.

And like so many newbie ‘experts,’ Rainer wasn’t prepared with the answers his audience needed to translate his theoretical ideas into practical reality.

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Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia, won't be nibbled by deer.... although they may have eaten some of its flowers last week....

Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia, won’t be nibbled by deer…. although they may have eaten some of its flowers last week….

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“We have a lot of deer.  Will the plants you’ve described survive deer?” ….. This question, followed by a beat of embarrassed silence, and a generality leaning towards, ‘probably not.’  Rainer sympathized by admitting he had lost a newly planted perennial bed to voles and rabbits colonizing his own Northern Virginia suburban garden.  But he wasn’t prepared to discuss the common plants impervious to deer. 

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May apples with Vinca cover the ground beneath native trees and shrubs.

May apples with ivy and  Vinca minor cover the ground beneath native trees and shrubs.

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“We have a lot of trees.  How do we plant these dense plantings of perennials and ground cover under mature trees?”  Rainer’s answer about purchasing plugs and small potted perennials was spot on.  But when he described boring holes with an auger for said plugs, he lost much of his audience.

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Native Echinacea attracts many pollinators.

Native Echinacea attracts many pollinators in bloom, and birds feast on the seed heads weeks later.

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He also said little about restoring the ecological balance and supporting birds and pollinator species through plant choices.  Perhaps this message was implied;  but not emphasized nearly enough.

There were lots of nice photos of nectar rich Echinacea, Salvia and Liatris throughout his slides; but not enough discussion of habitat creation and planting for a succession of nectar rich bloom.

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Herbs mixed with perennials help keep harmful insects, like chiggers and ticks, away from garden beds.

Herbs, mixed with perennials, help keep harmful insects, like chiggers and ticks, away from garden beds.

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Someone touched on this, but from the ‘dark side.’   Her question was about chiggers, those terrible tiny insects which attack one’s skin beginning here each May.  She wanted to know whether these densely planted, diverse natural plantings would harbor insects.  Well, of course they might.  Chiggers, and ticks, too.

Sadly, Rainer’s best answer was to keep the plantings beds some distance away from the house…..  He never mentioned using herbs to repel insects from our planting beds and from around our homes.  Doesn’t everyone keep a pot of scented Pelargoniums near their porch?

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This variegated geranium is also worth saving. It has bloomed all summer under tough conditions.

This variegated Pelargonium bloomed all summer under tough conditions.

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I left unsatisfied, and without an autographed copy of Rainer’s book under my arm.  I suspect I could find much of his message in those good old Rodale Press books I studied when I was young, and still turn to today.

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October in our garden and the butterflies cover our Lantana.

October in our garden, when the butterflies cover the Lantana.

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My gardening sister and I went for a coffee after the talk, and realized we had much the same impression of Rainer and his presentation.  She reminisced about the gardens her father planted full of strawberries and flowers, fruit trees and tomatoes.  But that was half a century and half a world away now….

Hers is a family of gardeners.  Her sister is currently installing Xeriscapes for clients in California and working with several schools to manage their teaching gardens.

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Voodoo lily and a division of Colocasia 'China Pink' grow in front of our Edgeworthia in part shade.

Voodoo lily and a division of Colocasia ‘China Pink’ grow in front of our Edgeworthia in partial shade.  Black Eyed Susans will bloom later in the summer.  Here, Creeping Jenny grows in to cover the mulch as foliage from spring bulbs dies back to the ground.  All of these plants are either poisonous or so distasteful, the deer ignore them.

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She and I commiserate regularly, sharing plants, problems and solutions as we discover them.  We’ve both come to a sort of peace with our own very wild gardens.   Having learned that squirrels are as greedy in stealing our tomatoes as the deer are in munching flower buds, we have found ways to foil both.

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March 20 2015 fresh 003

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But unlike Rainer, we’ve also learned that wildlife gardening doesn’t have to attract every wild animal in the neighborhood.  We’ve gotten smarter about what we plant and what we don’t.   We have learned to use poisonous plants to good effect, even to repel voles with Daffodils, Hellebores, and other plants with poisonous roots.  We mix all sorts of Alliums into our pots and beds to discourage inquiring rabbits and deer.

We’ve learned to build slightly raised beds over and around tree roots, and to welcome the many ‘native’ plants already encroaching on our gardens.

Through trial, research, flashes of inspiration and a lot of errors, we’ve been gardening and finding satisfaction in our wild forest gardens.  Nothing is ‘post wild’ here, and no augers on electric drills for us, thank you very much….

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April 9, 2015 planting 001

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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Arum Unfolding

November 14, 2015 planting 009

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Arum italicum is a new winter foliage plant for us.  We bought tubers and planted them in small pots last month.  Now, the first leaves have begun to unfold.

A native of the Mediterranean and parts of Europe, Arum thrives in partial shade in any average, moist soil in Zones 5-9.  It has naturalized in other areas, including parts of North and South America. Also known as ‘Italian Lords and Ladies,’ it eventually grow to about 18″ tall and wide.

Beautifully marked winter leaves will fuel creamy white spring flowers.

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November 14, 2015 planting 011

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But then showy red seeds will develop by late summer, which last for an extended period.  Evergreen south of Zone 6, this perennial will have an attractive presence through all four seasons in our garden.

The seeds are fertile and tasty to wild things.  They often sprout in other areas of the garden to increase the display.

Since I’ve not yet grown this Arum out, there aren’t many photos for you.  We have it in a pot and two separate beds so far, so we’ll see how it does for us.  This is supposed to be a deer resistant and somewhat poisonous plant.

Have you grown Arum italicum?  Do you have any words of advice for how to grow it to best advantage?

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Arum here with hardy Geranium, Lycoris foliage, Viola, and our first Colchicum 'Waterlily' to bloom.

Arum here with hardy Geranium leaves, Vinca minor, Lycoris foliage, Viola, and our first Colchicum ‘Waterlily’ to bloom.

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Woodland Gnome 2015

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NaBloPoMo_1115_298x255_badges

Chocolate Vine

April 16, 2015 flowers 002

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Do you plant vines in your garden?

I planted this chocolate vine, Akebia quinata, on a whim about four years ago.  It was one of those unusual plants in the winter catalogs which caught my eye, and so I ordered one.  It is one of the many flowers blooming in our garden this week.

Native to Japan, Korea, and China, this useful vine was smuggled out of China in 1845 by Scotsman Robert Fortune, who brought it to Britain.  Akebia quinata, so named because each leaf has five sections, was brought on to the United States some time after that.

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April 16, 2015 flowers 003

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Does Fortune’s name sound familiar?  He is famous for smuggling plants out of China and back to Britain.  He brought the first tea plants, and knowledge of how to cultivate them, out of China and to India in 1848, on behalf of the British East India Company.    He was responsible for the tea industry in India, where tea had not previously grown.

The Akebia quinata vine has been planted enough now in the United States that it has naturalized along the East coast and as far west as Oregon.

Each vine, which may grow to 40 feet, bears both male and female flowers. The female flowers will often form sweet fruits in autumn.  I say ‘often’ because our vine hasn’t yet borne fruit.  Not only are the fruits a sweet treat, but the woody vine may be used medicinally.  The leaves of this vine are sometimes used as a tea substitute, and the new tender growth of the vines may be eaten.

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The larger flowers are female, and may eventually form fruits in late September and October.  The smaller flowers contain the pollen.  Some catalogs specify that two vines are needed for fruit production, and we have only one.

The larger flowers are female, and may eventually form fruits in late September and October. The smaller flowers contain the pollen. Some catalogs specify that two vines are needed for fruit production, and we have only one.

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Some smell a chocolate fragrance in the vine’s flowers.  Others identify the fragrance as more like allspice, or lilac.  It may also be called a ‘chocolate vine’ because the flowers are such a dark and dusky purple color in some cultivars.  The fruit, which is also purpley brown, may be eaten raw or cooked.

The husk of the fruit may be stuffed and fried.  The fruit is high in both protein and Vitamin C.  The seeds are about a third oil, and the oil is rendered in Asia for making soap and for cooking.  The vines may be woven into baskets.

These vines may be grown on a trellis, up into a tree, or allowed to scamper as an attractive ground cover.

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April 16, 2015 flowers 005

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This plant was unknown to me when I ordered it, but I enjoy it in the garden.  It grows as a hardy woody perennial, hardy in zones 4-8, and keeps a few of its leaves each winter.  It has gotten scant attention beyond a little training and a dusting of Rose Tone each year.  It shares its trellis with roses, and so benefits whenever I feed them.

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April 17, 2015 garden 010

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I enjoy it for its spring flowers, its beautiful vines, and for the spectacle it has made in this part of the garden.  It has long since left its trellis to scamper up into nearby trees.  Now it is also branching out at the base and scrambling over the ground, which is fine.  It has never been grazed by deer or rabbits in our garden. Although it can grow in full sun, it prefers partial shade and moist soil.

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April 16, 2015 flowers 007

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Some areas consider this beautiful and useful Akebia quinata an invasive plant.  It isn’t considered invasive in Virginia, and in fact, I don’t recall ever seeing it growing here wild.  If you have been looking at it in the winter catalogs, and considering whether to buy it, it might be worth the money.  As with many plants which can grow quite large, you need either the space to let it have its way, or you need to stay after it with the pruners.

It is still cultivated in Asia as a food crop, for its fruits, seeds, and tender new growth.   When a plant is beautiful, edible, hardy and easy to grow; it gets high marks from me.

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April 16, 2015 flowers 001~

Woodland Gnome 2015

 

Another Weird, Wonderful and Poisonous Plant

Sauromatum venosum, just planted last night.

Sauromatum venosum, just planted last night.

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Yes, we’ve brought home another weird, wonderful and poisonous plant.

Its name says it all:  Sauromatum venosum.  Get it?  Venosum?

It is also called “Voodoo Lily” because it begins to grow, as if by some strange magic, without water or soil.

That is how we found it, actually.  It wasn’t on my shopping list per se…

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A second of the several tubers we purchased, planted about 18" away from the first.

A second of the several tubers we purchased, planted about 18″ away from the first.

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But as we were browsing the summer flowering bulbs offered in Brent and Becky Heath’s bulb shop yesterday, there they were:  the already growing flowers of Voodoo Lily reaching out of their bin for our ankles.

They put me in mind of cats reaching through the bars of their little cages at the animal shelter, vying for attention and maybe a new home….

How could I ignore them?  Some of these flowers were already more than 18″ long, poking out of the holes in their little red mesh bags.  Phototropic, they were reaching for the light.  They were ALIVE!

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This was the only barely growing tuber of the lot... which is how I missed planting it last night.  It went into the lower fern garden this morning.

This was the only barely growing tuber of the lot… which is how I missed planting it last night.   It went into the lower fern garden this morning.

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Actually, some weird plantophiles (much like yours truly) will buy these Voodoo Lily tubers and simply set them, dry, on a shelf to watch them grow.  They will grow happily for weeks on the energy stored in their tuber.  Eventually, one must plant them up, of course.  Which is what I did with these poor little guys last night.

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See?  Not a hint of a root...

See? Not a hint of a root…  Like a Caladium, this is a tuber, not a true bulb.

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Keep in mind they’ve been growing in a bin of bulbs on the floor.  One mustn’t expect too much yet in terms in statuesque form.  The flowers will grow several feet high, open, release a putrescently musky scent for a few days, and then die back.  The scent is to attract the right insects for pollination, of course.

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April 9, 2015 planting 018

This flower stalk is only just getting started. It will grow to several feet high before dying back to the ground. Leaves will follow in early summer.

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Once the flowers have died back, one or more leaf stalks emerge and add a lovely tropical note to the garden for the remainder of the season.  Native to Africa, Sauromatum venosum remain hardy from Zone 7 south.  They will spread by tuber and by seed indefinitely.  Phototropic, they will reach for the light if grown in too much shade.

I hope that as these little guys get established and sink some roots into our garden soil, the flower stalks will lift themselves and continue growing towards the sun.  Plants will do amazing things, given the opportunity.

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Plant the tuber 2" to 3" in good, moist soil in bright partial shade.  Keep moist.  I've heard these guys stay hungry, and grow better with occasional meals of compost.

Plant the tuber 2″ to 3″ in good, moist soil in bright partial shade. Keep moist. I’ve heard these guys stay hungry, and grow better with occasional meals of compost.

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Whether the flowers right themselves or not, the leaves will still emerge properly by early summer and offer some interesting foliage in the garden for several months.  They will die back with the fall frost, but the tuber can remain in the garden, mulched, over winter.

So we’ve covered ‘weird’ and we’ve covered ‘wonderful.’  Why poisonous?

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Yes, another stump garden.  I've been planting around the stump of a peach tree we lost in 2010.  That is a Hellebore to the right, also poisonous.  A deciduous fern will emerge soon, and the 'Voodoo Lily' will complete the set.  I'll add compost and extend this garden outwards bit by bit as the plants fill in.

Yes, another stump garden. I’ve been planting around the stump of a peach tree we lost in 2010. That is a Hellebore to the right, also poisonous. A deciduous fern will emerge soon, and the ‘Voodoo Lily’ will complete the set. I’ll add compost and extend this garden outwards bit by bit as the plants fill in.  The decaying stump retains moisture and feeds the plants as it and the tree’s roots decompose.

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Poisonous plants don’t get eaten by miscreant deer who sneak into our garden for dinner. 

I’m becoming something of an aficionado on poisonous plants.  For more on this, you might enjoy an earlier post titled, Pick Your Poison.

After losing our early investments in Phlox and lilies, roses, impatiens, holly shrubs, tomatoes and Camellias; we realized that tasty plants disappear in the night.  Poisonous plants manage to grow all season.

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These N. "Katie Heath,' growing in our garden, were hybridized by Brent Heath and named for his mother.  These have been growing in our garden for several years.

These N. “Katie Heath’  were hybridized by Brent Heath and named for his mother. These have been growing in our garden for several years now.  We continue to plant lots of new daffodils each year to protect other plants, as every part of a daffodil is poisonous.

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So now it is a bonus when I find beautiful plants for the garden which also happen to be poisonous.  Like Hellebores and daffodils, all parts of the Voodoo lily are very poisonous.  Not only will they not get eaten to a nub; their roots offer protection from tunneling voles to nearby plants.

So there you have my take on the very weird, wonderful and poisonous Voodoo Lilies we brought home yesterday from our shopping excursion in Brent and Becky’s Bulb Shop at their farm in Gloucester.

I’ll show you follow up photos of these lilies as they grow.

A pair are planted at the top of the garden, visible from the street.  If you’re in the neighborhood, you can keep a watch on them as they come along.  And if you smell something like rotting meat when you pass our garden, you’ll know they have come into full bloom.

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It's Alive!

It’s Alive!

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Woodland Gnome 2015

“Miss Huff” Perennial Lantana

Perennial Lantana, 'Miss Huff'

Perennial Lantana, ‘Miss Huff’

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One morning last week my neighbor called to ask about the plants blooming along the street at the very front of the garden.  My neighbor is an artist and a gardener.  He and his wife have filled their bit of forest with Daffodils, Rhododendron, Azaleas, Magnolias, and lovely tall trees.

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September 8 2013 lantana 002

“Miss Huff” growing below Wax Myrtle, Myrica cerifera.  The Wax Myrtle branches are covered in berries, nearly ripe for the birds.

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He had noticed our bright orange and yellow flowers, and wanted to inquire about them since they were untouched by our shared herd of deer.

As you might imagine, few things make me happier than someone inquiring about beautiful plants.  I was happy to tell him all about our “Miss Huff” Lantana, and invite him to stroll about the garden to see the rest of our Lantana shrubs.

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"Miss Huff", growing along the street beneath the Japanese Box and Wax Myrtle are mostly left to take care of themselves. The walkers in our neighborhood enjoy watching the butterflies visiting the Lantana.

“Miss Huff”, growing along the street beneath the Japanese Box and Wax Myrtle are mostly left to take care of themselves. The walkers in our neighborhood enjoy watching the butterflies visiting the Lantana.

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We ended up going to Homestead Garden Center the next day and filling the car with nearly a dozen gallon pots of blooming Lantana for his garden.  The Pattons had all of their Lantana on the “end of season sale”, and so for a small investment my neighbor bought all the Lantana camara he could plant.  I’m looking forward to next summer when the beautiful golden orange flowers extend across the front of both of our properties.

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Bandana White Lantana.

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Most Lantana plants are treated like tender perennials in Virginia, and the tags generally say they are hardy in Zones 9-12.  “Miss Huff” is a cultivar reliably hardy here in Zone 7B.

Now, Lantana would be well worth the price and effort if they were only annuals.  They form dense, woody shrubs absolutely covered in flowers from mid-summer late into the fall.  They are the hubs of activity in our garden, attracting a constant stream of butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, bees, and song birds.  The birds find secure cover inside them and love the little berries which form once the flowers fade.

Even better, Lantana thrive in full, hot sun.  They require very little water, even in their first year.  Once established, their roots grow very deep into the Earth, keeping them well-supplied, even in drought.

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September 8 2013 lantana 004

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Nothing seems to faze them.  I’ve never seen one with any fungus or disease.  It is rare to even see a tiny hole in a leaf.  In fact, the leaves are toxic to most animals.  This has created a problem in tropical areas where Lantana camara has naturalized, as livestock who graze on them frequently grow ill and die.  South Americans have found ways to use the leaves medicinally to treat ulcers, and extracts made from the leaves are antibacterial and are used to treat other conditions as well.

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Bandana "Cherry Sunrise" Lantana

Bandana “Cherry Sunrise” Lantana

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I learned about Lantana many years ago when I first planted them in my Virginia Beach garden, on a bank at the front of the yard in full sun.  Once the leaves finally fall off in early winter, the woody skeleton of the plant is left. The birds dart in and out of the branches and peck at the remaining seeds throughout the winter. That first winter I didn’t know what to expect from them, but left them in place.  I trimmed them back to a few inches when the daffodils bloomed, planted some sort of other annual around their stumps, and didn’t give them much thought…. Until, one day I realized there was new growth coming from the stump and branches.

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Several years old now, these "Bandana" series Lantana grew to over 6' last summer. They definitely exceed the 24" of growth promised on their label. This mound is covered in butterflies from sunrise until after sunset.

Several years old now, these “Bandana” series Lantana grew to over 6′ last summer. They definitely exceed the 24″ of growth promised on their label. This mound is covered in butterflies from sunrise until after sunset.

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Within a few weeks the stumps had disappeared beneath vigorous new branches, and by mid-June they were blooming again.  Lantana are actually grown as shrubs further south, and grow larger and more vigorous each year.  In some tropical areas of the world, Lantana camara are considered an invasive species.  Their seeds are spread far and wide by the birds who feast on them.  This has not become a problem in the United States, although they have naturalized along the Southeast and Gulf coasts.

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Lantana in the butterfly garden get regular trimming back, and still fill the path.

Lantana in the butterfly garden get regular trimming back, and still fill the path.

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Moving to Williamsburg, one USDA Zone colder than Virginia Beach, I was concerned that I’d lost the joy of perennial Lantana.  When I talked to Andrew Patton out at Homestead, he assured me that “Miss Huff” had proven reliably hardy here in Williamsburg.

The front edge of our property is a very tough spot to garden.  The dirt is hard packed and poor.  The deer graze freely.  There is only a narrow patch of dirt between the road and a thick hedge of Japanese Boxwood and Wax Myrtle, Myrica cerifera, with established roots which soak up what water and nutrients nature might provide.  It is a long hike with a watering can, and too far for the hose.  Whatever grows in this strip must be mostly self-reliant.

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Lantana, "Confetti"

Lantana, “Confetti”

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So I bought enough “Miss Huff” plants, in little 4” pots, to plant in all of the open spaces between the shrubs along the street.  It was more an attempt to protect the little Camellia bushes I’d planted the year before from the deer’s grazing than a serious effort at flower gardening.  It took quite a bit of digging to break up the soil enough to even plant them, but I did, gave them a little mulch of compost, watered them, and waited to see what would happen.

That first year, the answer is, “Honestly, not much.”  They did bloom, but didn’t put on much growth.  Every year since, the “Miss Huff” Lantana have gotten bigger and more colorful.  All they get from me is a little topdressing of compost from time to time, a sprinkle of Osmocote or Plant Tone in the spring, and a little water in drought.  I cut them back hard when the daffodils come up and then wait for the show.

Our first spring in this garden, I ordered starts of Lantana from The Garden Harvest Supply Company for our new butterfly garden and the main flowerbed in the front yard.  I ordered for color and size, not for hardiness, and frankly I expected them to die over the winter.  I just wanted something drought tolerant that would fill the bed, attract some butterflies and require very little care during the season.  That first year I ordered some of the Carolina Series and some of the Bandana series plants.  At a little less than $3 per plant, they were a huge bargain.

The following spring, I tried to “pull out” some of the dead looking plants in the front bed to replace them.  Well, that was a huge problem.  You see, in just one summer, the roots had gone deep and wide.  It was like trying to dig up a tree with a trowel.  I got one or two out, then gave up.  In just a few weeks… You guessed it… there was new growth on the remaining plants.  They weren’t supposed to survive here, but they did.

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This Lantana, planted in June, has made good growth for its first year.

This Lantana, planted in June, has made good growth for its first year.

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Lantana leaf out relatively late in the season.  Patience is required.  The woody stumps aren’t beautiful in a springtime garden.  I’ve learned to plant bulbs around them, and to fill in with Violas, snapdragons, and other spring flowers and with perennial herbs like sage or thyme.  About the time it gets too hot for the spring flowers, the Lantana will green up and begin to take off.  Eventually you realize they have taken over the bed.  I tried to establish lavender in the bed with the Lantana, but have consistently lost the lavender by late summer because they can’t compete with the Lantana for light and air.

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Lantana, 'Sunny Side Up' is a new hybrid expected to be as hardy as 'Miss Huff,' one of its parents.

Lantana, ‘Sunny Side Up’ is a new hybrid expected to be as hardy as ‘Miss Huff,’ one of its parents.

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Since then I’ve planted Lantana of different varieties all over the garden.  Anywhere there is full sun, and I need something big and bright, in goes another Lantana.  I’ve stopped even reading the tag for hardiness.

There is a trailing lavender Lantana good for hanging baskets or ground cover that is especially pretty.  It is more reliable in the ground than overwintering in a basket.  There is also a lovely creamy white Lantana I like in pots.  I’ve even discarded a seemingly dead white Lantana from its pot, only to find it blooming a few weeks later where the root ball was “planted” to fill a whole in the yard somewhere.  That plant has come back consistently for two years now.

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"Carolina Cream" Lantana in a large pot with Persian Shield, petunias, and Plectranths.

“Carolina Cream” Lantana in a large pot with Persian Shield, petunias, and Plectranths.

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If you decide to plant Lantana, just keep in mind that you might not get a huge amount of growth the first year.  The tags predict growth of about 18-24”, with usually more spread than height.  You need to water regularly until the roots have a chance to grow; and fertilize, whether with compost, Osmocote, Plant Tone, or Neptune’s Harvest.  Plenty of food and water in the first year gives you the best display of flowers.

If your Lantana over winters, its roots have established and it will be much more drought tolerant in the second and subsequent years.  Cut back hard and feed in spring.  Lantana bloom on new growth, so it is fine to cut them back to 6-10” and then let them grow new branches.  Give the plants a few inches of fresh compost, and maybe a sprinkle of Plant Tone or Rose Tone.  After that, they’re on their own.  If you need to prune them during the season to give a nearby plant a chance at survival, you won’t hurt the Lantana.

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September 4, 2015 garden 015~

Last August we marveled at how high our Lantana grew in the front.  We could stand beside the bed with Lantana branches towering over our heads.  We are both tall, so the Lantana grew to more than 6’ in one season.  Our blissed out butterflies don’t even mind when we come close to enjoy them.  The hummingbirds gather to share the feast throughout the day, but fly off if we approach.  Lantana brings so much life to the garden, I’m happy to introduce them to my friends.

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August 20, 2015 butterflies 011~

All photos by Woodland Gnome

Pass Along Plants, Ginger Lily

Ginger Lily

White Butterfly Ginger Lily, Hedychium coronarium

 

Soon after we moved to this home, we met a wonderful neighbor who had surrounded her home with flowers.  She has giant azaleas grown from cuttings, a sea of bulbs in spring, and near her back porch, a patch of ginger lilies.

 

August 19,2013 roots 008

 

When she decided the time had come to move, she offered me the opportunity to come and dig some of her lilies.  Now, never one to turn away from the opportunity to grow a new type of plant, I happily accepted her invitation, even though I was clueless as to what a “ginger lily” might be.

These "pineapple" shaped buds will begin to open any day.

These “pineapple” shaped buds will begin to open any day.

 

Our friend offered a few bits of information:  the deer leave it alone, it blooms with sweet smelling flowers, and it is a very tough, hardy plant.  Enough said.  I grabbed a trowel, a container, and followed her across the street.

This was in the early spring, before these beautiful monsters had sent up their stalks.  I got the impression it might be similar to a Canna lily from the remains of the previous season’s plants and the large rhizomes as we began to dig.  She was very generous, and gave me quite a few roots.  Her only advice was to plant where they can get sun.

Ginger lilies in the second week of June.

Ginger lilies in the second week of June.

 

What an amazing gift these lilies have proven to be.  Ginger lilies aren’t true lilies at all, which is wonderful, since in my neighborhood true lilies are simply deer candy.  A member of the ginger family, these plants are native to Asia.  The particular variety she gave me, Hedychium coronarium, are also called, “White Butterfly Lily”, as the 2” flowers look a bit like a butterfly.

They are great favorites of butterflies and hummingbirds and smell particularly sweet.  I’ve even had a butterfly land and feed on the very flower I was sniffing!

 

August 19,2013 roots 006

Ginger lilies get a late start in spring, breaking dormancy with new growth in May, here in Zone 7b.  They grow throughout the summer, getting taller and taller every week, until by mid-August they are between 5’and 6’ tall.  Their first flower of the summer opened this week.  The lilies will continue to bloom into October at least, depending on the weather, and will die back to the ground after a few hard frosts.  I generally leave the brown stalks and foliage in place, as mulch, through the winter.  A more fastidious gardener would probably go and cut it all away in December or January, but I leave it as an extra layer of insulation for the roots in case the winter is colder than usual.

After cutting back the remains of last year’s stalks in mid-spring, and clearing away the last of the leaves blown in over the winter, I spread an inch or two of compost over the whole bed.  The ginger lilies are an excellent “back of the border” plant, and I have roses, Lavender, Rudbeckia, Salvia, and some low annuals growing in front of them.

In mid-August, the lilies are between 5'and 6' tall.

In mid-August, the lilies are between 5′ and 6′ tall.

Ginger lilies spread as their underground rhizomes and root system expands each season.  They eventually form huge clumps, and should be spaced, originally, at least 18”-24” apart.  Some varieties grow aggressively, and my beautiful “White Butterfly Lily” is considered invasive in Brazil and Hawaii.  It is the national flower of Cuba, where it is called, “White Moth Flower”.

There are numerous species and cultivars of ginger lily hardy in zones 7-10.   Most have yellow or orange flowers, and many cultivars have a much larger head of flowers atop the stems.  Some begin flowering much earlier in the summer.  For a good list of cultivars and photos, please visit Plant Delights Nursery, based near Raleigh NC.  This is an excellent mail order nursery and offers very personal customer service.  Their website is especially helpful in finding plants to fit into specific situations, like plants that won’t be devoured by your local herd of deer.

August 17 2013 ginger lilies 003

Ginger lilies will grow in a variety of soils, but of course do better in rich, well drained soil.  They prefer moist soil, especially the first year or so as the tubers establish, and should be watered when there isn’t regular rain.  Ginger lilies need full sun, or at the least very light shade, and they need plenty of room to spread.  These are large, bold plants and most cultivars will cover a large area in just a few years.

 

August 17 2013 ginger lilies 004

Our  patch of lilies has grown to the point that I should thin and divide them this spring, especially as they creep into the roses.  Little did I realize, when I was blessed with such a generous gift of rhizomes, how very “dear” these little gems are on the market.  Most retail for around $20 per plant, plus postage.  I hope that friends will remember my intention to divide when spring rolls around again, and will remind me to pass along and share what was so generously shared with me.

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

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