Fabulous Friday: Each Magical Moment

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The last of the daffodils have finally finished, and I’m feeling impatient for their foliage to fade.  The pansies are a bit overblown now and starting to flop in most of the pots.  I’m ready to move those out, too, in favor of summer treasures.

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The first roses of summer….

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We’re in that awkward transition when summer is ready to begin, but spring is still lingering here and there.  The heat hasn’t helped.  We suddenly find ourselves in ‘instant July’ with our daytime temperatures in the high 80s and nights staying humid and warm.

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Dutch Iris are in full bloom this week. Spanish lavender blooms behind them, mingling with the foliage of spent daffodils.

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I find myself the guardian of eight large boxes of sprouting Caladiums, and now all need the light.  I moved two more out onto the deck today and am trying to cluster the last three planted near an inside window.  There is only so much ‘bright shade’ available where they are also protected from the rain.

I moved nearly 20 Caladium plants into individual pots today and barely made a dent in a single box of sprouting bulbs.  I expect to be planting a lot of Caladiums over the next few weeks!

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But I finally got to work on the hanging baskets on our deck today.  I’ve been waiting to see whether any of the Lantana, Pelargoniums or Verbena from last summer survived the winter.  There is always hope, and a few plants in the pots on the front patio have growing survivors!

It may be a bit early to write off the Lantana, but I’m tired of looking at the sad remains of last summer’s beauty.  I didn’t plant up the baskets last fall with Violas, and the baskets have been looking a bit rough.

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I accomplished a gentle replanting, cleaning the baskets and removing only those remains I was sure had given up during the winter.  A few plants showed signs of life from their roots, and I left them to re-grow, tucking the roots of fresh Verbenas, Lantana and scented Pelargoniums around them.

I added some pineapple mint this year, some beautiful Dichondra, and a Cuban Oregano.  I believe in adding a few new touches, even while staying with tried and true plants for our full-sun hanging baskets.  The few that get some shade are planted in ferns, Begonia and a Caladium.

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Siberian Iris also began to bloom this week.  Our other perennials are growing so tall so fast!

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The sun is fierce these days, and once the heat builds it is hard to keep the hanging baskets hydrated and happy.  I toyed with the idea of planting only succulents this year.

Herbs do better than most plants.  In fact a gorgeous Spanish lavender that I planted last year grew all winter, bloomed last month and now fills its large basket in a beautiful display of deep purple flowers.  I couldn’t be more pleased with how it has performed.  Who would expect a sub-shrub like lavender to thrive in a hanging basket?

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Despite the heat today, I managed to accomplish a fair amount of my home ‘to-do’ list, and I’m satisfied we made good use of the day.  I moved another of our new Alocasias into its permanent pot and took time to admire (and dead-head) all of the beautiful Iris.  I try to guard against getting so busy in May that I don’t take time to simply enjoy the beautiful flowers and fragrances of the season.  It all happens so fast!

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Mountain Laurel is blooming in our garden this week.

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Even as spring draws to its inevitable close, summer sights and sounds fill the garden.  The Cannas are growing  inches each day and the hardy Colocasias appeared this week.  Birds begin their conversations before dawn and we listen to the mayflies whine whenever we step outside.

Daylight lingers deep into the evening.  I remind myself to breathe in the sweetness, relax a little, and enjoy each magical moment of our garden’s unfolding.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Lavendula stoechas ‘Otto Quast,’ planted last spring, survived our winter beautifully in its hanging basket.  Spanish lavender performs extremely well in our climate and is the first to bloom each spring.

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Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is contagious; let’s infect one another
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Playing Favorites: Saxifraga stolonifera

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Do you have favorite plants that work in many different situations in your garden?  (If you do, please share with the rest of us by mentioning them in the comments.)

There are certain tough, versatile plants that I appreciate more and more as I plant them in various situations.  Strawberry begonia, Saxifraga stolonifera, ranks in the top five.

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These dainty, fairy-wing flowers appear in late spring.

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I first met strawberry begonia as a houseplant in the mid-1970s.  We grew it in a hanging basket, just like spider plants and Philodendrons, in plastic pots fitted into home made macrame hangers.  I had a collection hanging in front of a large window, from hooks anchored into the ceiling.

We loved novel plants that would make ‘babies’ hanging from little stems dripping over the sides of the pot.  Strawberry begonia’s leaves are pretty enough to grow it just for its foliage.  I don’t remember whether it ever bloomed as a houseplant; it might have needed more light to bloom than my window provided.

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When I needed to replant this basket at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden, I brought in a few plants from home, including some divisions of Strawberry begonia, and ‘borrowed’ a dwarf Iris plant from our ‘Plants for Sale’ area. This arrangement had been potted for about two weeks when I photographed it in mid-April.  Daffodils planted in November are just beginning to emerge, though the original pansies didn’t make it through the winter.

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And then I fell in love with real Begonias and with ferns, and I forgot all about the strawberry begonias of my former hanging garden.  That is, until I encountered the plant again a few years ago sold in tiny 1.5″ pots at The Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond.

I vaguely remembered liking the plant and bought one or two for winter pots inside.  They grow well in shallow dishes with mosses and ferns, and when spring came and the arrangements came apart, I moved the little plants outside as ground cover in a larger pot.

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January 2015, I began experimenting with Saxifragas in indoor pots.  This arrangement includes an Amaryllis bulb.

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And that is when they just took off and showed me their potential as great companion plants in potted arrangements outdoors.  Well, maybe overbearing companions, because these enthusiastic growers fairly quickly filled the pot with a thick mat of leaves, and babies hanging over the sides.

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May 2018: This is Colocasia ‘Black Coral’ planted in to an established planting of Saxifraga

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By this time, I’d done a little reading and learned that these ‘houseplants’ are actually hardy to Zone 6, grow well on various soils and in various light conditions.  The literature says ‘shade to partial sun.’  Well, given enough water when things get dry, this Saxifraga will tolerate afternoon sun as long as it gets intermittent shade throughout the day.  It takes heat, it takes cold, and it keeps on growing.

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Now the Saxifraga planting has expanded to groundcover below the pot, which is waiting for me to replant a Colocasia any time now.

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Saxifraga is a very large genus with over 400 species.  Its name, translated from the Latin, means ‘rock breaker.’  There is some debate whether this describes how it grows, or describes a use in herbal medicine.  The members of this genus are low growing rosettes with roundish leaves that spread by producing stolons, just like a strawberry plant, where new plants grow from the ends of the stolon.  Flowers appear in late spring at the top of long, wand-like stalks.

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June 2018:  I planted Saxifraga with Caladiums one summer, and discovered it persisted all winter and into the following year.  Now, I have to thin the Saxifraga each spring to replant the Caladiums.  This is C. ‘Moonlight’.

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Various species appear in the temperate zones or in the mountains in the northern hemisphere.  Members of this genus are very popular in rock gardens, and will grow in the cracks between rocks with very little soil.  Imagine how well they do in good garden soil!

There are many different common names for these little plants, including ‘strawberry geranium,’ ‘rockfoil,’ and ‘mother of thousands.’  The leaf is perhaps more like a geranium leaf than a Begonia leaf, but the common name I learned first, stuck….

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This pot of strawberry begonia needs to be divided again as it has gotten very crowded. Notice the runners crowding each other under the pot!  Can you tell these pots are under a large holly shrub?

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With an abundance of plants filling my pot, I began spreading these fragile looking little plants around.  Wherever I wanted a dainty but tough ground cover in a pot or bed, I began to establish a few pioneer individuals, learning that it doesn’t take very long for them to bulk up and multiply.

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May 2016:  Are they fairies dancing at dusk? No, the strawberry begonias, Saxifraga stolonifera, have finally bloomed.

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Strawberry Begonia has shallow roots, and so it is easy to simply ‘lift’ a clump, break it apart, and replant the individuals.  You can do this entirely by hand if you are planting into potting soil or loose earth.  Water in the new plants and leave them to work their magic.

The first winter that I left strawberry Begonias outside through the winter, I was delighted that they looked fresh and withstood the cold.  Like our Italian Arum, they can survive snow and ice without damage to their leaf tissue.  Unlike Arum, our Saxifraga persist all year, showing a burst of fresh growth as they bloom each spring, but growing all year round.

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May 2018:  Saxifraga stolonifera, Strawberry begonia in bloom with ferns, the first spring after planting the previous summer in the fern garden.

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Plant Saxifraga stolonifera as the ‘spiller’ in pots and hanging baskets, and as a groundcover under tall plants.  Use it under potted trees or tall tropical plants like Colocasias, Cannas, or Alocasias.  Plant it under large ferns, or under shrubs where you want a year-round living ground cover.  Plants like this form a living mulch and eliminate the need to buy fresh mulch each year.

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April 25, 2019, and the strawberry begonia has filled in and is sending down runners. The runners will emerge through the cocoa liner of a hanging basket.  I’ll trade out the Iris for a Caladium in this basket next week.  WBG

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Pair Saxifraga with other contrasting ground cover plants, like Ajuga, ivy, Vinca minor, or Lysimachia, and let them ‘fight it out.’  You will end up with some beautiful combinations as the plants claim their own real-estate.  If you have rock work or a rock garden, this is a perfect plant to grow in small crevices.

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A neighbor visited recently to bring me a gift of peonies from his garden.  I countered with an offer of some of this magical and versatile plant.  He left with a clump in the palm of his hand and a promise to return in a few weeks for more.  I hope he does, as I now have plenty to share, as I thin out those pots this spring.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Enthusiasm spells the difference

between mediocrity and accomplishment.”
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Norman Vincent Peale

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“Love springs from the inside.

It is the immortal surge of passion,

excitement, energy, power, strength,

prosperity, recognition, respect, desire, determination,

enthusiasm, confidence, courage, and vitality,

that nourishes, extends and protects.

It possesses an external objective

– life.”
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Ogwo David Emenike

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Pot Shots: Unity

Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’ began blooming this week.

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Repetition creates unity.  As one of the most basic principles of design, it’s one often overlooked by enthusiastic plant collectors like me!

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The dark purple leaves of the Ajuga are repeated in this Japanese painted fern.  this is one of several containers I made from hypertufa in 2014.

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I’m often tempted to grow the new and novel plant; something I’ve not grown out before.  We’re lucky to have space enough that I can indulge that interest while also repeating successful plants enough to create a sense of unity.

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Each Ajuga plant sends out multiple runners, with a new plant growing at the tip of each, often forming roots in the air. The plants are easy to break off and casually plant in a new spot. I often use Ajuga both for groundcover and in pots.  Here, Ajuga and Sedum angelina form a groundcover under a potted shrub.

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What should one repeat?  There are many design tricks based on repetition that are very subtle, but create a sense of harmony and peacefulness.

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I plant a lot of Muscari bulbs in pots each fall, waiting for just this effect the following spring. Muscari may be left in the pot or transplanted ‘in the green’ elsewhere in the garden when the pot is replanted for summer.

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The most obvious consideration is to use the same or similar plants again and again.  Repeating the same plant across several pots within a grouping creates unity.  Repeating the same plant again elsewhere in the garden ties that grouping of pots to other elements of the landscape.

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I like to choose a plant that grows well in the conditions of an area of the garden, and then use that plant in several different pots within a group.  Maybe I’ll plant a group of basil plants, or a group of lavender and rosemary, accented with sage or thyme.  Some years I plant a group of different geraniums.  The individual plants may be different cultivars with slightly different leaf or flower colors, but there are unifying elements to tie them together.

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Buying multiples of the same cultivar of Viola each autumn, and then planting them across several different pots creates a sense of unity.

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It’s helpful to use perennials that grow fairly quickly, that may be divided easily or that self-seed, and that are fairly easy to find and inexpensive to buy.  Once I find a plant that grows well in our conditions I like to repeat it again and again.

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I plant divisions of Ajuga, creeping Jenny and Sedum in various areas as ground cover.  They spread and cover more fully each year. Native strawberries occur here naturally, and quickly spread each spring.  I will eventually weed these out, even though they are good plants for wildlife.

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Because perennials often shine for a few weeks and then take a background role, or even go dormant for a few months, a gardener can eventually design a garden that changes every few weeks, but still has interest over a very long season, by using perennials thoughtfully.

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Japanese painted fern, Italian Arum and creeping Jenny repeat in this bed near the arrangement of pots.  The color scheme is basically the same (at the moment) in both this bed and the grouping of pots.

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Another way to create unity is to choose pots of the same or similar material, color and design.  Perhaps they are the same color, but varying sizes.

You may own thirty pots, but if they are all in the same limited color palette, there is unity.  Some designers will use a set of identical pots, evenly spaced, to create repetition along a porch, path, deck, or balcony.    This is a very formal approach, and would probably look best with the same rather formal planting in each pot.

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I favor blue glazed pots. This one held a lavender all winter, which is still a bit scraggly before its new growth comes on.  A native violet grows here instead of a hybrid Viola, but the color scheme remains the same.

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Combinations of colors also creates unity.  The plants themselves may be different, but if you use the same colors again and again whether in a group of pots, or throughout the garden as a whole, the eye perceives harmony and consistency:  unity.

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Annual Alyssum covers the soil beneath the Clematis.

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Whether we are making gardens, paintings, food, poetry or music, setting ourselves some parameters allows for creativity and expression within those self-imposed boundaries.  It may actually guide us into being more creative.

By removing some options prima facie, we are left to improvise with more focus among those choices we have left.  What we create will perhaps be more pleasing, more interesting, and perhaps even more beautiful than if we took a laissez-faire, scattershot approach to design.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Pot Shots: Japanese Maple

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Spring dawns with tremendous excitement for folks like me who love to watch things grow, and love to see the garden center shelves filling up again with fresh plants after months of slim winter pickings.  Our  Williamsburg satellite store of my favorite McDonald’s Garden Center opened just a little more than a week ago, and they often start the season with a generous sale on trees and shrubs.

A friend manages the location nearest us, and so I’ve stopped in a number of times to chat and have a look around.  The last time they had just received their first shipment of miniature and dwarf trees, which included a cohort of little foot high Japanese maple trees.

I’ve bought and potted a new Japanese maple or two over the past several springs.  This spring, I found a truly dwarf cultivar, Acer palmatum ‘Kuro Hime’ which grows to only 4′-5′.  It is a good specimen to grow in a pot, is hardy to Zone 6, and has beautiful red leaves in both spring and fall.  The maturing leaves turn green during the summer, but have a beautiful, lacy form.

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Trees grown in pots want excellent drainage.  I didn’t purchase true ‘bonsai’ style soil for potting this tree, but did buy a barky orchid planting medium, which I mixed with a good quality potting soil, a big handful of fresh perlite, and a bit of Espoma Plant Tone.

I covered the bottom of the pot, which has two generously sized drain holes, with some plastic mesh and then a 1/2″ layer of fine aquarium gravel.  This should hold the soil in the pot while still allowing for excellent drainage.

The pot is a gift from a loved one, celebrating a special day coming up soon.  I always enjoy blue pots and especially favor this shade of turquoise, which sets off the tree nicely.

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The roots of this little tree hadn’t quite filled up its small nursery pot.  The rootball fit nicely into the permanent pot without disrupting the tree’s roots at all.  I top dressed the soil with more aquarium gravel and a little fresh moss.  A division of Saxifraga stolonifera is planted to the side, and I hope its tiny root takes hold and grows into a fine plant.

Trees should remain outside as much as possible.  Even with our still marginally freezing nights, I’m leaving this tree outside in a sheltered and shaded place as it adjusts to life outside and to its new pot.

Deer find Japanese maple trees very tasty.  We have a few planted out in the garden now, but I protect them regularly with Milorganite and Repels-All spray.

This little treasure will live on our deck, well protected from hungry rabbits and deer.  Miniature trees are best enjoyed on stands, shelves, or on a table where they can be appreciated up close.

Most Japanese maples are happy with morning sun and afternoon shade, or a partially shaded situation throughout the day.  Potted trees can dry out very quickly and need frequent watering.  During summer heat, they may need water twice a day.  Mulch helps, but the leaves constantly draw water out of the soil.

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I’ve never had the privilege of studying with an expert in the art of Bonsai.  I’m fascinated by what artists do with miniature trees and companion plants, and enjoy reading about the art.  This little tree has an odd branch structure, has already been pruned before I bought it, and probably should be wired.  I’m not sure how best to do that and will appreciate any advice  those who know might be kind enough to share in the comments.

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Acer palmatum April 2018

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Spring and fall are the best times of year for planting trees and shrubs.  If you don’t have space outside where you can plant a new woody this year, please consider growing one in a pot.  Even a porch, deck, patio or balcony can usually allow for a beautiful potted miniature shrub, where you can enjoy watching the seasons transform your plant.

Leaves and flowers emerge and fall, branches grow, and the annual cycle of the seasons plays out for your personal enjoyment, in miniature.

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Woodland Gnome 2019
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“The Buddha achieved enlightenment while meditating under a tree.
To what extent did the tree’s being
contribute to the Buddha’s shift of consciousness?”
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Melina Sempill Watts
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Pot Shots I: Viola and Fern

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This glazed ceramic pot sits by our drive and transitions through the seasons with an ever changing array of players.

The mainstay is the Japanese painted fern, which grows a bit bigger each year.  A deciduous perennial, it emerges in early April but disappears by Halloween.  I plant the Violas in early October as the fern is fading, but they will fry in early summer’s heat.  Muscari, from fall planted bulbs, join the arrangement for a brief appearance.

The pot is surrounded by Vinca minor, English ivy and Mayapples, all here of their own accord.  I’ll pop a Caladium into the pot by mid-May to carry us through the summer.

Conditions:  partial shade, enriched potting soil, gravel mulch

Woodland Gnome 2018

An Infinite Variety of Ferns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maidenhair fern growing in our fern garden last May.

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

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Athyrium niponicum pictum ‘Apple Court’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fiddlehead of Brilliance autumn fern in April

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

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

Fourth Dimensional Winter Pots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Crocus with ferns and Ajuga

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2017

 

 

Wednesday Vignette: Growth

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“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically.
We grow sometimes in one dimension,
and not in another; unevenly.
We grow partially.  We are relative.
We are mature in one realm, childish in another.
The past, present, and future mingle
and pull us backward, forward,
or fix us in the present.
We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”
.
Anaïs Nin

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“A single day is enough
to make us a little larger
or, another time, a little smaller.”
.
Paul Klee

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“We are not trapped or locked up in these bones.
No, no. We are free to change.
And love changes us.
And if we can love one another,
we can break open the sky.”
.
Walter Mosley

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“Patience is not the ability to wait.
Patience is to be calm no matter what happens,
constantly take action to turn it
to positive growth opportunities,
and have faith to believe
that it will all work out in the end
while you are waiting.”
.
Roy T. Bennett

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017
*
“Do you not see how necessary
a world of pains and troubles is
to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”
.
John Keats
*
Small Pots

Small pots free us to experiment with plants and planting styles we might never try in the larger garden.  Sometimes called ‘Bonsai accent pots,’ these tiny gardens allow us to create detailed little worlds in a small, shallow container.  All of the plants in a composition should share requirements for light, moisture and nutrition. 

A ‘small pot’ shares much in common with a terrarium; save it is open to the air.  The pot may or may not have a drainage hole, and can be a shallow tray or a few inches deep.  The soil may be finished in mosses, or with fine gravel, small stones, or low, vining plants.

Many of the plants in a small pot may eventually need re-potting to a larger container.  Other plants may remain small and can be grown on in the same pot for several years.  The plants begin as rooted cuttings, small divisions, or perhaps a small bulb, rhizome, seedling tree or tuber.  When kept outside, windblown seeds often germinate and grow.  The gardener may choose to allow the volunteer plant, or pluck it.

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Begonia, nearly ready to bloom for its first time.

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‘Small pots’ need regular watering and grooming, and most want light shade.  They may need daily misting if kept indoors.  They can dry out very quickly if forgotten. 

Tending these small pots allows us to cultivate mindfulness as we construct and care for them, and as we watch them grow and evolve over time.

These ferns, and the Begonia, all came from The Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond, where they are sold in 1″ pots for terrariums, bonsai, and fairy gardens.

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Nurturing Endangered Pitcher Plants

Sarracenia flava at one time grew wild around Jamestown, Virginia

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There are several good reasons to grow our native North American pitcher plants.  Maybe you enjoy chic, sculptural foliage plants, and are curious to try growing something new.  Maybe you want a striking plant that you can grow in a very small, sunny spot on your deck.  Maybe you care about preserving endangered plant species.  Or maybe, you would just enjoy growing something that will help reduce the population of ants and mosquitoes in your garden.

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If you think that you need to construct a special boggy bed to grow these beauties, you might be pleased to see that there is a clean and simple way to grow them.   You can create a mini-bog in a bowl, and grow your pitcher of choice for several years with little fuss or effort.

North American pitcher plants, Sarracenia, are endangered because so much of their natural habitat, along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, has been drained and developed.  There is precious little land left where they can naturally grow undisturbed.  Enthusiasts all over North America have risen to the challenge of preserving, and further hybridizing these unusual plants in private gardens.

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There are a few basic conditions they need for survival, and these are conditions many of us can provide.

First, the soil:  Sarracenia naturally grow in acidic, peaty bogs.  Peat comes from decomposing mosses.  There is little nutrition in this soil, but there is a measure of sand.  Standard potting mixes aren’t a good choice, and pitcher plants won’t do well planted into clay or compost.   However peat is readily available in most places where other specialized potting mixes are sold.  Mix peat and sand together, and you have a good mix for growing your own pitcher plants.

Second, pitcher plants prefer full sun.  They will grow in partial sun, but their colors are better, and growth more vigorous, if you give them six or more hours of sun each day.

Pitcher plants want consistently moist soil.  Don’t let the soil dry out.  It should vary in moisture content, though, from fully hydrated to moist.  In other words, let the pitcher plants’ roots get some air from time to time so they don’t rot from constant standing water.  You also don’t want the water in their soil to sour.

Finally, all Sarracenia need a few months of winter dormancy each year.  In other words, don’t try to grow them as houseplants and keep them growing year round.  Allow them a few months of rest, even if you live in zones 9 or 10.

You can leave your Sarracenia outdoors in the winter, unless you live north of Zone 7.  Then, be guided by the natural zone of the species you are growing.  Some species can survive colder temperatures than others.  But you may be able to keep tender Sarracenia through the winter in a cold frame or cold greenhouse, even if you are living in Zone 5 or colder.

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If you can provide moist, peaty soil and full sun, you can grow a pitcher plant.  Just remember that they are carnivorous, and the insects that wander into their tubular leaves provide all the nutrition they need, in addition to the sugars produced during photosynthesis.  Never add fertilizer to your pitcher plants.

You can create your own little container bog in a pot.  Choose a pot that will be large enough to hold your plant when it grows to maturity.  While some pitchers, like Sarracenia purpurea may grow to only a few inches tall, other species, like Sarracenia flava may grow to 40″ or more.   Taller pitchers will need more substantial pots, of course.

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I ordered Sarracenia ‘Tarnok’ from Sarracenia Northwest about a month ago. It has been growing on in its nursery pot in my larger bog garden since. But now I’m ready to move it to a miniature bog garden on my deck.

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If your pot has a drainage hole, then keep it in a shallow container with an inch or two of standing water.  If your pot doesn’t have a drain hole, then let the soil begin to dry out a little bit in the top few inches between waterings.  Many experts suggest watering with rainwater, spring or distilled water.  I have to admit that I often use tap water.

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This is the first  pitcher plant I brought home some years ago. Planted in a mixture of peat and sand, the pot sat in a saucer filled with gravel and water.

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Abundant moss often covers the natural bogs where pitcher plants grow in the wild.  Moss is the appropriate ground cover for a container bog, as well.   The pitcher plant you find at a local garden center, or that you order through the mail, may already have moss growing in its pot when you get it.  Just keep the soil moist, and that moss will keep on growing.

If your new pitcher doesn’t come with its own moss, you can transplant moss you collect onto the soil of your container bog.

I prefer to cover the bottom of my closed container with a few inches of sand to serve as a drainage area and reservoir.  Then, I fill the rest of the container with a moist blend of pure peat and coarse sand.  You can make your mix with up to half sand.  My mix is about 1/4 sand by volume.

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Pack the peat mixture fairly tightly in the bottom and onto the sides of your pot, leaving a well about the same size as the pitcher’s nursery pot.  Carefully tip the nursery pot over, supporting the soil mass with one hand, leaves through your spread fingers, and tap the bottom and sides to loosen the root ball.

Gently invert the freed roots, original soil, and leaves as you slip the entire mass into the well you’ve created.  Gently pack additional moist peat mix into any open space around your plant’s roots.

Leave an inch or so of head space between the top of the finished soil and the rim of your pot, then gently water until there is a little standing water on top of the soil.

Finish your pot with bits of wild moss, if you choose, or with fine, clean gravel.   I often add a few bits of glass or stones on top of the soil, too.

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Pitcher plant, Sarracenia leucophylla, native to the Southeastern United States, in its first season in our garden.  I eventually moved this growing plant into a larger pot and added it to our bog garden.

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Site your new pitcher plant in any sunny spot outdoors where you can relax and enjoy it.  Even though your newly purchased plant may have tiny leaves when you get it, it will bulk up with time.  Soon, you will see it mature into its potential.

I usually move my potted bog gardens under shelter in heavy rain, since there is nowhere for overflow to drain.  While the plants won’t mind sitting in water for a day or two, let the excess water evaporate so the top few inches of soil are just moist before watering again.  Peat holds a lot of water, and you never want it to dry out entirely.

Just as in nature, let the moisture content of the soil vary.

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Pitcher plants are found in abundance  at Forest Lane Botanicals in York County, where owner Alan Wubbels propagates several species.

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I began with a single pitcher.  I was a little unsure whether I was really interested in pitcher plants, but soon grew fascinated with these strangely beautiful plants.  My collection continues to grow, and my ‘wish list’ for different species and cultivars grows as I learn more about them.

You will find many sources for native pitcher plants once you begin looking for them.  I bought an unnamed Sarracenia at the Great Big Greenhouse in the Richmond area this spring.  They had a fine display of various carnivorous plants, and I bought a Venus flytrap, which is native to coastal North Carolina, at the same time.

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The Venus flytrap is another native carnivorous plant that has become endangered in recent years as its natural habitat has been developed. These are hardy and relatively easy to grow, if you provide the growing conditions they require.  The leaves close to digest insects that wander onto the leaf pads. 

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I hope you will give these beautiful plants a try.  Maybe you, too, will discover their charm and beauty, and will dedicate a bit of your gardening space to preserving these amazing native carnivorous  plants.

Woodland Gnome 2017
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Slow to Grow: Elephant Ears

Colocasia esculenta

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It has been agonizingly slow this spring, watching and waiting for our elephant ears to grow.  I blame the weather.  Wouldn’t you?

After all, we enjoyed 80F days in February, and then retreated back to wintery grey days through most of March.  We’ve been on a climatic roller-coaster since.

Gardeners, and our plants, appreciate a smooth transition from one season to another.  Let it be cold in winter, then warm gradually through early, mid and late spring until we enjoy a few weeks of perfect summer in late May and early June.  We know to expect heat in June, July and August, with moderating temperatures and humidity by mid-September.

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I started working on this new bed in March, bringing the still potted Colocasias in doors and back out with the weather. Although I planted them weeks ago, they are still sulking a bit in our cool, rainy weather this month.

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But lately, our seasons feel rather muddled.  That smooth crescendo from season to season has gone all rag-time on us.  We’ve already lost a potted Hydrangea Macrophylla teased into leaf too early, and then frozen a time too many.  Those early leaves dissolved in mush, but new growth started again from the crown.

I’ve watched the poor shrub try at least 3 times to grow this spring, and now it sits, bare, in its pot while I hold out hope for either a horticultural miracle, or a clone on sale; whichever comes first.

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Colocasia ‘Pink China’ loves our climate and spreads a bit each year. Its pink spot and pink stem inspired its name. This is the Colocasia I happily dig up to share with gardening friends. These will be a little more than 5′ tall by late summer.

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I hedged my bets last fall with the elephant ears.  I left some in situ in the garden, some in their pots, but pulled up close to the house on the patio, and I brought a few pots of Alocasia and Colocasia into our basement or garage.

I dug most of our Caladiums and dried them for several weeks in the garage, and then boxed and bagged them with rice hulls before storing them in a closet through the winter.  I left a few special ones in their pots and kept the pots in our sunny garage.

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Caladium ‘Florida Sweetheart’ overwintered for us  dried and stored in a box with rice hulls. I planted the tuber again in early April.

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And I waited until April before trying to rouse any of them.  But by early April, while I was organizing a Caladium order for 2017, I also planted all of those stored Caladium tubers in fresh potting soil and set them in our guest room to grow.  Eventually, after our last frost date in mid-April, I also retrieved the pots from the basement and brought them out to the warmth of our patio.  They all got a drink of Neptune’s Harvest and a chance to awaken for summer.

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Caladium ‘Desert Sunset,’ didn’t survive winter in our garage. (This photo from summer 2016)  I left them in their pot, but it must have gotten too cold for them.  Happily, I ordered new tubers this spring.

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Around this time I gingerly began to feel around in those Caladium pots kept in the garage, for signs of life.  I thought I’d divide and replant the tubers and get them going again.  But, to my great disappointment, not a single tuber survived.   The Caladiums succumbed to the chill of our garage sometime during the winter, and I had three generous sized, empty pots to recycle with fresh plantings.

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C. ‘Desert Sunset’ didn’t make it through the winter, so I’ve recycled the pot for other plants. Calla lily has a form similar to some Alocasia, and is more tolerant of cold weather. These are hardy in Zone 7.

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By the time our new Caladium order arrived in mid- April, the tubers I’d dried, stored, and replanted were in growth.  I moved them to the garage to get more light and actually planted the first batch of Caladiums outside by the first week of May.

I planted most of the new Caladiums into potting soil filled boxes and sent them off to the guest room to awaken, but chanced planting a few bare tubers into pots outside.  Mistake.

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These saved Caladiums, started indoors in April, moved outside to their permanent bed in early May. Still a little slow to grow, they have weathered a few cool  nights this month.

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Because for all the promising balmy days we’ve had this spring, we’ve had our share of dreary cool ones, too.  We even had a few nights in the 40s earlier this month!  It’s generally safe here to plant out tomatoes, Basil and Caladiums by mid-May.  Sadly, this year, these heat lovers have been left stunted by the late cool weather.

The new Caladium tubers planted indoors are still mostly sulking, too, with little to show for themselves.  The ones I planted directly outside in pots remain invisible.  I just hope they didn’t rot in our cool, rainy weather.

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Colocasia ‘Black Coral,’ started in a greenhouse this spring, has been growing outdoors for nearly a month now. This one can get to more than 4′ tall in full sun to part shade.

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Of the saved Colocasias and Alocasias, C. ‘Mohito’ has done the best.   I brought a large pot of them into the basement last fall, and knocked the plant out of its pot when I brought it back outdoors in April.   I divided the tubers and ended up with several plants.  They are all growing nicely, though they are still rather small.

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Colocasia ‘Mojito’ has been in the family a few years now. It overwinters, dormant in its pot, in our basement. This is one of 5 divisions I made at re-potting time this spring.

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I dug up our large C. ‘Tea Cups’ in October and brought it indoors in a pot, leaving behind its runners.  The main plant began vigorous growth again by late April, but none of the runners seem to have made it through the winter outdoors.

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Colocasia ‘Tea Cups’ also overwintered in the basement.  New last year, this plant has really taken off in the last few weeks and is many times larger than our new C. ‘Tea Cups’ plants.  It catches rain in its concave leaves, thus its name.

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I brought one of our Alocasia ‘Stingray’ into the garage in its pot, where it continued to grow until after Christmas.  By then the last leaf withered, and it remained dormant until we brought it back out in April.  It has made tiny new leaves ever so slowly, and those new leaves remain less than 6″ tall.

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Alocasia ‘Sting Ray’ spent winter in our garage.  It has been very slow to grow this spring, but already has many more leaves than last year.  It will eventually grow to about 6′.  Zone 8-11

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But that is better than the potted A. ‘Stingray‘ that overwintered on the patio.  We’ve been watching and waiting all spring, and I finally gave up and dug through the potting soil last week looking for any sign of the tuber.  I found nothing.

But, fearing the worst, we already bought two new A. ‘Stingray’ from the bulb shop in Gloucester in early May, and those are growing vigorously.   They enjoyed the greenhouse treatment through our sulky spring, of course.

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Our new A. ‘Stingray’ grows in the blue pot in front of where another A. ‘Stingray’ grew last year. I left the black pot out on the patio over winter, and the Alocasia hasn’t returned. I finally planted some of our new Caladiums in the empty pot last week.

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I have two more pots of Alocasia in que:  A. ‘Plumbea’ has shown two tiny leaves thus far, so I know it is alive.  A. ‘Sarian’ has slept in the sun for weeks now, its tuber still visible and firm.  Finally, just over this weekend, the first tiny leaf has appeared.  I expect it to grow into an even more  beautiful plant than last summer since.  It came to us in a tiny 4″ pot, and ended summer at around 5′ tall.  I can’t wait to see how large it grows by August!

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Alocasia ‘Plumbea’ isn’t’ available for order from Brent and Becky’s bulbs this year. I am very happy this one survived winter, because it is a beautiful plant.  Hardy in zones 3-10, this will grow to 5′.

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But the pot of Colocasia ‘Blue Hawaii,’ that overwintered on the patio, has shown nothing so far, either.  Hardy to Zone 8, I hoped the shelter of our patio might allow this two year old plant to survive.  Now, I’m about ready to refresh the soil and fill that pot with some of the Caladiums still growing in our garage.

C. ‘Blue Hawaii’ is marginal here.  A few have survived past winters planted in the ground; but thus far, I’m not recognizing any coming back in the garden this year.

I’ve planted a few C. ‘Mojito’ in the ground this spring, and plan to leave them in the fall to see whether they return next year.  But I will also hedge my bet and bring a potted C. ‘Mojito’ inside again so I’ll have plants to begin with next spring.

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C. ‘Mojito’ in our bog garden will soon get potted up to a larger container.  I planted a few of the smaller divisions of this plant directly into the ground to see if they will survive the winter coming. (Zone 8)

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Every year I learn a little more about growing elephant ears.  I know now that Colocasia ‘China Pink’ is vigorous and dependable in our garden.  There is no worry about them making it through winter, and I dig and spread those a bit each year.

The huge Colocasia esculenta I planted a few years ago with our Cannas dependably return.  These are the species, not a fancy cultivar.  But they seem to manage fine with nothing more than some fallen leaves for mulch.

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These gorgeous tropical elephant ears put on a great show for four to six months each year in our zone.  Deer and rabbits don’t touch them, and they rarely have any problem with insects or disease.   Our muggy, hot summers suit them fine.  They love, and need, heat to thrive.

Any temperate zone gardener who wants to grow them, needs to also plan for their winter dormancy.  And each plant’s needs are unique.  Some Colocasia might be hardy north to Zone 6.  A few Alocasia cultivars are hardy to zone 7b or 8, but most require zone 9 to remain outdoors in the winter.  Caladiums want a lot more warmth, and prefer Zone 10.  Caladiums can rot in wet soil below 60F.

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Hardy Begonias are naturalizing in this lively bed transitioning to summer.  I planted the Caladiums about a month ago, and they have slowly begun to grow.  See also fading daffodil leaves, Japanese painted ferns, Arum Italicum, and creeping Jenny.

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If you don’t have space to store elephant ears over winter, you can still grow them as annuals, of course.    That requires a bit of an investment if you like them a lot, and want to fill your garden!

My favorite source for Colocasia and Alocasia elephant ears, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs,  has put all of their summer bulbs, including Caladium tubers,  on clearance now through Monday, June 5.   This is a good time to try something new, if you’re curious about how these beautiful plants would perform in your own garden, because all these plants are half off their usual price.  The Colocasia and Alocasia plants they’re selling now come straight to you from their greenhouses.

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Alocasia ‘Sarian’ emerged over the weekend. This is a very welcome sight!

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I order our Caladiums direct from the grower at Classic Caladiums in Avon Park, Florida (see below).  There is still plenty of time for you to grow these from tubers this summer, as long as your summer nights will be mostly above 60F for a couple of months.  Potted Caladiums make nice houseplants, too, when autumn chills return.  (Brent and Becky’s Bulbs buy their Caladiums from Classic Caladiums, too.  You will find a much larger selection when you buy direct from the grower.  Classic Caladiums sells to both wholesale and retail customers.)

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Slow to grow, this year, but so worth the wait.  We are always fascinated while watching our elephant ears grow each year, filling our garden with their huge, luscious leaves.  Once they get growing, they grow so fast you can see the difference sometimes from morning to afternoon!

Our summer officially begins today.  Now we can settle in to watch the annual spectacle unfold.

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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Is your region too cool for tropical Elephant Ears? Get a similar effect with rhubarb. This rhubarb ‘Victoria,’ in its second year, emerges in early spring. Leaves have the same basic size and shape as Alocasia leaves without the shiny texture. There are a number of ornamental rhubarbs available, some of them quite large.  These are easy to grow,  perennial north into Canada, and grow into a beautiful focal point in the garden.

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