Six on Saturday: The Greening of the World

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“I can breathe where there is green.

Green grows hope.

It keeps my heart beating

and helps me remember

who I am.”
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Courtney M. Privett

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The first daffodils of spring opened in our forest garden yesterday.

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Watching the greening of the world each spring never fails to fill me with appreciation to live in such a beautiful place.  How many people live in cities or arid lands that remain clothed in shades of grey and brown throughout the year?

Without winter, I’m not sure that I would appreciate the living greens of February so much.  At the moment, every emerging leaf and stem excites me.

I want to photograph them and watch their daily progress as new growth emerges from woody stems and muddy earth.

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Green is the color of life, of growth, of change.  The simple chemistry of transforming sunlight into living bio-energy happens only in the green.  The alchemy of transforming polluted air into pure; the creation of oxygen to fill our every breath requires green leaves to filter every inhalation of breath we take.  Green sustains our lives even as it soothes our spirit.

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This is the season when the first tentative bits of green re-appear from the warming Earth.  Perennials re-awaken and stretch folded leaves and lengthening stems, reaching for sunlight and warmth.  Moss plumps and spreads,  tiny weeds and blades of grass sprout from patient seeds.

I am glad to find them all, encouraged at the stubbornness and determination of greening life to prevail over the forces of darkness.  The old and rotting will be swept away to return to the compost pile of history, releasing its remaining energy to fuel what is vital and new.

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“Pursue some path,

however narrow and crooked,

in which you can walk with love and reverence.”
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Henry David Thoreau

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Green is the soul of Spring.

Summer may be dappled with yellow,

Autumn with orange and Winter with white

but Spring is drenched with the colour green.”
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Paul Kortepeter

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Unum de multis: Multiplying Succulents

Newly planted jade plant cutting, removed from an older plant after it rooted into the air.

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Succulent plants serve as living sculpture with their emphatic forms, slow growth, and unusual colors.  Most gardeners either adore them or avoid them.  They feel a little alien to most of us Virginia gardeners, as there are very few native succulents in our landscapes.

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Some gardeners find succulents a bit too prickly and spiny for comfort.  And the majority of succulents aren’t hardy through our winters.  We have to treat them as annuals or bring them indoors for months of the year.

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These succulents are hardy, and are beginning their spring growth outside in the Table Bed at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden

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Succulents want loose, sandy and rocky soil and bright light.  Some need full sun, others bright but indirect light and warmth.  Their needs are simple, and I’ve killed more succulents with too much water than by any stretch of neglect.

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This succulent planting grew happily on our front porch in the summer of 2013.  A gravel mulch helps keep these moisture-sensitive plants happy.

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That said, I absolutely pour over photos of succulent planting schemes in sunny California gardens.  Many gardeners in dry regions use succulents in every size from tiny to epic in their landscapes as focal points, ground covers, thrillers, fillers and spillers.  Their compositions are bright and colorful, and they absolutely intrigue me.  Once succulent plants mature, they produce oddly beautiful flowers.

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Plants that may be inexpensive and readily available in the western states are harder to find and pricier here in Virginia garden centers.  You can mail order wonderful succulents from suppliers like Plant Delights near Raleigh, NC; but please have that credit card handy.

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I just bought this little collection of succulents on the houseplant sale last weekend at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond, specifically to break them apart for propagation.

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I have a project in mind for this coming summer to create a hanging basket covered in succulents.  Planting up the interior of the basket with succulents won’t be difficult.  I plan to use an assortment of hardy Sedums already on hand, with some red ‘hens and chicks’ and a single spiky Agave or Aloe for the ‘thriller.’

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Use hardy succulents as ground cover around spring bulbs. Enjoy this display at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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I want to cover the outside of the coco liner in succulents, too.  That will take a lot of individual plants.  To effectively plant the outside of the basket, it will be easier to slip each plant in through a slit in the liner if each plant has a very small root system: in other words, if I use rooted cuttings.

Some designers will suggest using succulent stem cuttings and allowing them to root in place.  This would work, but I want to give the plants a little head start and I don’t have enough stem cuttings for the project.

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Potted plants have too much root mass to slip through a slit in a coco basket liner, without damaging the roots.

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I’ve been playing around with potted arrangements of succulents for years- with mixed success.  They all look pretty good for a while.  We often get so much rain at once that it saturates the soil, even with specially mixed soil that contains lots of sand and gravel.  I try to remember to set succulent pots back under the eaves when a lot of rain is forecast.  Succulents sometimes struggle in our humidity and rainy summer weather.

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Collection of succulents, August 2014

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Without a heated greenhouse, I doubt I’ll ever achieve the horticultural succulent splendor possible for Southern California and Arizona gardeners.  Our climate will never allow for me to let our succulent arrangements live and grow outside year round long enough to really fill in and mature.  That takes years….

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Succulents with thick, waxy leaves release very little water into the air. They are built for hot, dry conditions and may rot if their soil remains saturated for too long.  This Echeveria has produced chicks that I want to grow on to mature, independent plants.

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Lately, I’ve been inspired to study succulent propagation again.  A good, practical resource is Debra Lee Baldwin’s book, Succulent Container Gardens. 

This is an ‘eye candy’ book that surveys the major genera of succulents appropriate to grow in various containers.  I like this book because it covers all of the important topics like soils and pot selection, design, plant care, and also succulent plant propagation.

The most common error in trying to root succulent cuttings is trying to rush the process.  Leaf cuttings and stem cuttings need a few days to air dry and ‘scab’ over, before any attempt to root them.  Many succulents will strike roots directly into humid air, even generating tiny new plants, without the cut end of the stem in either soil or water.

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This Jade plant spontaneously grew roots, indicating to me that this stem wants a fresh start in its own pot.

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This is counter-intuitive for many of us.  We want to stick that cut end into something moist so the plant can suck up water and survive.

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Do you see the roots that have started to grow from the stem?

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I won’t admit how many times I’ve found a dropped succulent leaf and dropped it, cut side down, into a pot hoping it would root.  Before roots can grow, a damp succulent stem will more likely rot.  Even with the pups off of an Echeveria, the stems want a few days to scab over before you secure them in some sandy soil to root and grow on.

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I took this stem cutting from the jade plant three days ago, and you can see that the stem has dried and calloused over.

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After researching several different rooting methods for succulent leaf cuttings, I have prepared a large clear plastic storage box by first cleaning it with disinfectant, and then lining the bottom of the box with a single layer of paper towel to wick any moisture evenly through the medium.  I covered that with a 1″ layer of clean horticultural sand.  That’s it…

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I bought a selection of small succulent plants on a special sale last weekend for this project, and have twisted most of the leaves off of each plant.  Twist, don’t cut, because each leaf needs a tiny bit of stem tissue still attached.  If the petiole breaks ahead of the stem, the leaf may not strike roots.

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See how the leaf cutting on the right already have begun to root and grow new plants? This had happened while the leaves were still attached to the mother plant.

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I’ve cut the top off of each plant, leaving 1/4″-1/2″ of stem attached.  I’ve kept the rooted plants in their original pots, watered them, and have set them aside in a bright place to regenerate themselves.  I expect small ‘pups’ to begin to grow along the stems where leaves were removed.  This will likely take 6 weeks to two months before the pups may be large enough to remove and grow on.

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I expect these rooted stems to also generate new plants at the leaf nodes. All of the nodes are stimulated when I removed the top of the stem.  One of the plants didn’t have enough stem to take a cutting, but it will continue to grow.

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At the moment, all of the new stem cuttings are just sitting on top of the sand, in bright but indirect light, while they callous over.  I’ll probably wait until Friday before adding just enough water to the edges of the box to slightly moisten the paper towels and the sand.  No wet sand!  Just a little moisture in the mix before I cover the box with clear plastic.  A dry cleaner bag or clear leaf bag will work for this, and I’ll leave a little vent for air exchange to discourage mold.  I expect the leaves to remain hydrated from the moisture in the air, and tiny roots to grow into the air to absorb that moisture.

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If all goes well, I should have a good selection of tiny succulent plants with sufficient root growth to construct that succulent basket in late April.  If all the leaf cuttings root and produce new plants, I’ll have plenty left for additional succulent projects this spring.

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There is a layer of fine gravel in this pot, topped by special succulent potting mix. I added additional sand to the mix, dampened it, and then planted the rooted jade plant.  The cutting will probably grow in this pot for a year or more before it needs repotting.

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The succulent pots I’ve overwintered in past years have all grown ‘leggy’ growing inside with insufficient light over winter.  Now, I understand better how to work with those leggy  plants to cut them back and stimulate growth, using the cuttings to generate fresh plants.

When our local garden centers begin to fill with plants next month I will look at the succulents on offer with a different eye.  Rather than choosing a plant to use immediately in some planting scheme, I think I’ll be more likely to look at some less desirable plants for their ‘parts.’

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Out of one, many….. 

Once you understand how plants grow and regenerate, it becomes easier to work with their natural proclivities to generate as many individuals as you need.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

Sunday Dinner: Spirit

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“Walk with the dreamers, the believers, the courageous,
the cheerful, the planners, the doers,
the successful people with their heads in the clouds
and their feet on the ground.
Let their spirit ignite a fire within you
to leave this world better
than when you found it…”
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Wilferd Peterson

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“Human spirit is the ability to face
the uncertainty of the future with curiosity and optimism.
It is the belief that problems can be solved,
differences resolved. It is a type of confidence.
And it is fragile.
It can be blackened by fear, and superstition.”
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Bernard Beckett

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“My religion consists of a humble admiration
of the illimitable superior spirit
who reveals himself in the slight details
we are able to perceive
with our frail and feeble mind.”
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Albert Einstein

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“It does not matter how long you are spending on the earth,
how much money you have gathered
or how much attention you have received.
It is the amount of positive vibration
you have radiated in life that matters,”
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Amit Ray

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“Age has no reality except in the physical world.
The essence of a human being is resistant to the passage of time.
Our inner lives are eternal,
which is to say that our spirits remain
as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom.
Think of love as a state of grace,
not the means to anything,
but the alpha and omega.
An end in itself.”
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Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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“Great spirits have always encountered
violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
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Albert Einstein

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“The first peace, which is the most important,
is that which comes within the souls of people
when they realize their relationship,
their oneness with the universe and all its powers,
and when they realize at the center of the universe
dwells the Great Spirit,
and that its center is really everywhere,
it is within each of us.”
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Black Elk

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Sometimes that
which we fear
strengthens our
spirit and gives
us a splash
of hope.”
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Harley King

Six (or more?) Surprises on Saturday

Scilla

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This past week has been filled with surprises.  We swept right out of the fringe and frigid edges of the so-called ‘Polar Vortex’ into a few days of balmy spring weather.  The last three days have been as near to perfect weather as one could possibly hope for in February in Virginia.

Its been warm, dry, and sometimes a little sunny these past few days.  Signs of spring are literally bursting out of ground, buds on trees are swelling and those of us already itching to get busy for spring have heeded the call to come out of the cozy house and outdoors to make use of these unexpected days.

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The first of our red Camellia japonica bloomed this week.

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I’ve spent many happy hours outside these past several days flitting like some crazed butterfly from one part of the garden to the next, looking for growth even as I got on with the business of pruning and clearing beds.   We actually spotted a butterfly on Wednesday afternoon.

We don’t know whether it awoke from its chrysalis too soon, or migrated too far north too early.  Its orange and brown wings caught our eye as it fluttered around some old cedar trees, an unusual color to find in the garden in February.  It may have been a Fritillary; we didn’t get close enough to do more than determine it wasn’t an early Monarch.  We were both very surprised to see it, and wish it well and safe shelter as we return to more seasonable temperatures this weekend.

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Our first Iris reticulata of the season. This cultivar is ‘Pauline.’ Squirrels have been digging around this patch of bulbs and I’ve repaired their damage several times. I’m happily surprised to discover these blooming.

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The butterfly turned up a day after we found a honeybee feeding on the Mahonia, and the same day we found a colony of ground bees awake and foraging near the ravine.  I was glad to notice the ground bees buzzing around as I headed their way with a cart full of pruned branches…. before they noticed me!  I didn’t stumble into them and they didn’t feel a need to warn me off.

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The first leaves of daffodils remind us where we’ve planted in years gone by, and entice us with the promise of flowers on their way.

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We saw our first blooming daffodils of the year, blooming beside the fence at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.  We discovered the first blooming Iris histrioides of the year, the first dandelion of the season shining golden in our ‘lawn,’ and the first ruby red Camellia japonica flowers on the shrubs near the street.

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Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’ planted out several years ago, after devastating damage from caterpillars one summer.  It has been very slow to recover and slow to grow.  Its beautiful leaves make it worth the effort.

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The most interesting surprise came yesterday afternoon when I placed a cutting of our Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’, that has been growing in our garden for the last several years, into a one of the little shrubs I believed to be a variegated English holly.

We bought these shrubs as English holly in November of 2017 at a chain home improvement store and sporting a big name plant tag.  I never questioned the label and have written about them as English holly over the past few years.

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Can you spot the cutting taken from our Osmanthus growing in the upper garden?

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But them California horticulturalist Tony Tomeo called me out.  He commented on the post about taking stem cuttings, saw the little holly cuttings with the eyes of experience, and told me that what I was calling variegated English holly was, in fact, variegated false holly, Osmanthus ‘Goshiki.’

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Now you see it… an exact match …

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It took me a day to process what was so plain to him.  I photographed my shrubs, took a cutting from an older Osmanthus and set it seamlessly into the holly in a pot by our kitchen door.  Their leaves were identical.  Tony was correct and I had missed it in my own garden.

This is actually very good news.  At maturity, the Osmanthus will grow to only half the size of an English holly.  It has softer leaves and tolerates full shade.  An English holly wants full sun, which is hard to find in our garden.  Correctly identifying the shrub has proven a happy surprise for us.

Today we settle back into winter clothes and winter routines, but my heart is awake to the energy of spring.  I’m motivated to continue the clean-up and pruning; polishing the garden stage for the next act waiting in the wings: spring.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

Many thanks to The Propagator for hosting Six on Saturday each week.

The Temptations of Early Spring…

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Last week we were swept up in the edges of the ‘Polar Vortex’ and had some of our coldest temperatures of the season.  It felt like winter.  We ate soup and stayed indoors.  But a winter storm swept through on Friday and took the cold out to sea, leaving us with balmy spring-time weather in its wake.

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We were still frozen at mid-day on Sunday, but the sun was out and warmth was returning.

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It was warmer this morning than all day yesterday, and by afternoon we were looking for projects to take us outside.  The air was soft and the sun was warm.  I could smell the sweetness of our opening Edgeworthia flowers for the first time this season.

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A honey bee was out foraging on the Mahonia flowers, and birds called to one another throughout the day.  A group of owls had a loud conversation in the ravine, and a nest has appeared in a shrub by the garage.

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It feels like instant spring, and I was inspired to all sorts of little tasks like taking cuttings, giving our living room fern a trim out on the deck, and potting up some of our rooting Begonia stems.

I groomed the pots on the patio; fingers crossed.  We had geraniums still green until this last cold spell and ‘annual’ Verbena still green and growing.  The ‘Goodwin Creek’ lavender is usually fried and frozen by February; but so far, so good with ours in big pots by the front porch.

Will it make it all the way through to next summer?

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Italian Arum unfolding ever so slowly in a pot by the kitchen door.

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I am a little chagrined to realize how much the weather effects my ambition to get gardening things done.  The warmth and sunshine gave me a welcome rush of energy.  Even so, I know that winter hasn’t finished with us, yet.

There may be warmer days yet in the forecast for the week, but I know that more ice and snow will find us before May.  I’m still reluctant to do much pruning or other clean-up so early.

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Iris bulbs are up and growing in the Iris border at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden. We will have flowers before the end of February.

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I wanted to clean up the dead and dying branches of things in pots near the house, but not too soon, if they can still recover from their roots.

Cut too soon, the next hard freeze might kill them.

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I spotted little green buds on the Clematis and found Dianthus buds ready to open.  I’m still taking inventory of all the Hellebores with flower buds.   Oh, the havoc a false spring can create when a hard freeze follows a balmy breeze!  I’d rather the plants remain dormant, and not begin to grow too early.

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It was too nice a day to waste fretting over winter’s next act.  I went ahead and pruned our little variegated English holly to shape it a bit, and now have a pan with eight Ilex aquifolium cuttings that I hope will root.  The holly should be hardy enough to not mind the early pruning.

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Hellebores keep right on blooming through winter storms and freezing nights.

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Bulbs are popping up everywhere and buds are swelling on our Magnolia trees.  Yesterday morning, the ground was too frozen to re-plant Violas uprooted by the squirrels.

Today, the soil is soft and moist, full of promise and tempting me to press some bit of stem or seed or root into it for safe keeping, until spring settles in and our garden grows lush and green once again.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Date Seed Update:  I moved some of the seeds showing growth from the jar of water to a damp paper towel in a zip-lock.  I have the seeds under a lamp in a warm spot, and am checking them daily for growth. 

Of course, I could have planted these directly into pots of soil.  But it’s more interesting to keep them out where we can watch them grow a while longer!

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Sunday Dinner: The Art of Memory

February 2017 Powhatan Creek

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“When people look at my pictures
I want them to feel
the way they do
when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”
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Robert Frank

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March 2016

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“The Earth is Art,
The Photographer is only a Witness ”
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Yann Arthus-Bertrand

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April 2018

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“What I like about photographs
is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever,
impossible to reproduce.”
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Karl Lagerfeld

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May 2018

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“When words become unclear,
I shall focus with photographs.
When images become inadequate,
I shall be content with silence.”
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Ansel Adams

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June 2017

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“Taking pictures is savoring life intensely,
every hundredth of a second.”
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Marc Riboud

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July 2018

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“While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us
nothing more than what we see with our own eyes,
there is another in which it proves to us
how little our eyes permit us to see.”
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Dorothea Lange

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August 2018

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“To the complaint, ‘There are no people in these photographs,’
I respond, There are always two people:
the photographer and the viewer.”
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Ansel Adams

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September 2017

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014-2018

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October 2014

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“Photographers tend not to photograph what they can’t see,
which is the very reason one should try to attempt it.
Otherwise we’re going to go on forever
just photographing more faces and more rooms
and more places.
Photography has to transcend description.
It has to go beyond description to bring insight into the subject,
or reveal the subject, not as it looks,
but how does it feel?”
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Duane Michals

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October 2014

Sunday Dinner: Vision

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“While there is perhaps a province
in which the photograph can tell us nothing more
than what we see with our own eyes,
there is another in which it proves to us
how little our eyes permit us to see.”
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Dorothea Lange

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“How you look at it
is pretty much how you’ll see it”
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Rasheed Ogunlaru

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“The power to concentrate was the most important thing.
Living without this power
would be like opening one’s eyes
without seeing anything.”
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Haruki Murakami

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“The more boundless your vision,
the more real you are.”
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Deepak Chopra

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“If the doors of perception were cleansed,
everything would appear to man as it is –
infinite.”
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William Blake

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“Your heart is able to see things
that your eyes aren’t able to.”
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Kholoud Yasser

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“I await your sentence
with less fear than you pass it.
The time will come
when all will see what I see.”
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Giordano Bruno

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“At the moment of vision,
the eyes see nothing.”
.
William Golding 

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014-2019

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“You get what you focus on.”
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Chris Hutchinson

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“After all, … your eyes only see
what your mind lets you believe.”
.
Paul Jenkins

 

…and Fertilizer for Free

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over a foundation of bark, roots and branches will rot into good compost over time.

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I spent far too many hours of my youth watching Mark Knopfler  and Gordon Sumner sing, “I want my money for nothing, and my chicks for free!”.  MTV was brand new in those days, and I was utterly fascinated by the up-close view of the artists performing and the dreamy vignettes hyper-produced to sell their tunes.

Fun fact:  Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, co-wrote that tune with Knopfler.  A former teacher, Sumner’s music career was just taking off as I began my own classroom teaching years.  He inspired me….

These were the days when Ted Turner was still trying to prove his idea that the public would support 24/7 journalism as entertainment over at his new CNN cable channel, and I was still living in a tiny walk up city apartment with only a few potted plant to soothe my achy, throbbing thumbs.  The world was filled with delicious possibilities.

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Well Knopfler and Sumner have aged, while I have not.  They still perform and I happily preside over our little Forest Garden.  They may have become unimaginably wealthy, but I have learned how to get fertilizer and plants for free!

I’ve left my classrooms behind, but will happily teach you how to perform the alchemy of soil for yourself, if you care to know the secret.  The world remains filled with delicious possiblities!

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It is all in how you look at things.  You probably understand that simple, but profound statement from your own experiences.  What seems free from one point of view, becomes costly from another.  What at first appears costly, ends up providing many more side benefits than expected.

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Let’s take fertilizer as an example.  Yes, I admit to the bags of Plant Tone, Rose Tone, Holly Tone, Bio-Tone Plant Starter With Mycorrhizae and a precious little jug of Neptune’s Harvest wintering in our garage.  Then there is the jar of Ozmocote, and the secret stash of crystallized orchid food hidden under the kitchen sink; a snack for when I want to coax the cohort of potted plants in our living space to bloom.  No, none of those were free.  In fact, if you added up what I spent on  all of them combined, they would likely buy a nice new pair of work boots….

And that was not the only ‘cost’ involved in these plastic bags and bottles of plant nourishing products.  They all came from factories.  Many of the ingredients were mined out of the earth.

Although these are ‘organic’ formulations, huge amounts of energy were invested in harvesting their components, creating the fertilizer, packaging it and transporting it to our local shops.  After the product is used up, there is some contaminated plastic packaging that won’t decay and must be put somewhere.  Those are costs we don’t see, and ones rolled into the price we pay.

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Gravel and Plant Tone ready to be mixed into the bottom of the planting hole.

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Now, if I use too much or time my application incorrectly, a lot of that product will simply wash away from my garden and into the creek.  Fertilizing our waterways increases algae growth and upsets the chemistry of the natural waterways.  Run-off of fertilizers has a profoundly negative effect on our lakes, rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, and even the oceans.

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Phosphorous, the P on your fertilizer bag, has an especially damaging effect when released into the waterways.  It initially stimulates the growth of algae and other plant life, which eventually shades out plants living on the bottom.  As this overabundance of plant life dies and sinks to the bottom and decays, it ties up oxygen needed by animal life, and destroys their food supplies.

Which is ironic.  Phosphorous is essential to plant growth, remains a key component of all commercial fertilizers, and is in limited supply.  Experts predict that our known supply of rock phosphorous that can be mined for industrial use will run out before 2200.

Phosphorous was ‘discovered’ in modern times by German alchemist Hennig Brand, in the late seventeenth century, from his experiments with human urine.    He eventually produced a white substance which glowed in the dark and burned brilliantly.  He called it ‘phosphorous mirabilis’, which means ‘miraculous bearer of light.’

Phosphorous is present in living tissue, and so may be found in urine and bone.  You may have heard about the ancient gardeners using human urine to fertilize their gardens.  This practice is discouraged today, of course.  But recall that animal waste products remain an essential ingredient in agriculture around the world.  Many of the ‘organic’ fertilizers contain rock phosphate or bone meal as essential parts of their formula.

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College Creek

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Phosphate in the soil isn’t always readily available to plant roots.  It must go through further biochemistry to make it available, and this happens best in living soil filled with microorganisms.   It happens best when the soil’s pH remains between 6.5 and 7.

Potassium, the K on your fertilizer package, is formed in supernova explosions.  It is both a metal and a salt.  In its pure elemental form, it reacts violently with both water and oxygen.  It is an extremely common element on earth, is found in all living things, and is an essential part of the biochemistry of all life.  Potassium in fertilizers appear as potassium chlorides, sulphates or nitrates.

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How is the average gardener to know whether or not their soil’s pH will even allow the plants access to any available phosphorous, nitrogen or potassium, and whether any additional nutrients are  needed?  That is why a soil test can give us invaluable information about our soil, and how to make it better.  Any local Extension office will gladly help with kits, instructions, processing and interpreting your soil test, and all states offer this service at a modest cost.

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Knowing what nutrients your soil may lack, to grow specific types of plants, allows a gardener to add only what is truly needed.  We can stop over-fertilizing, or adding fertilizer that never becomes available to our plants because of the complex chemistry of our soil.

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Fresh compost piled on top of existing mulch allows me to plant in this area without digging into the clay. A light covering of wood chips from the forest floor mulches the planting and makes the new bed visually “disappear.”

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Most experienced gardeners will tell a newbie:  “Feed your soil, not your plants.”  At first, this makes no sense.  But as you begin to understand the complexity of the soil as a living organism, it makes perfect sense.  Good soil is alive!

It is alive with microscopic bacteria, fungi, and tiny invertebrate animals that continually recycle Earth’s elements and make them available to fuel new growth.  Although some part of the soil is made up of tiny grains of mineral like sand, or granite, or clay; a large part of good soil is composed of decaying organic matter.

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Soil is alive, and improves as you add organic matter each year.

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These may be decaying roots or leaves, dead ants, or compost you’ve made from kitchen scraps.  It may be animal manure or even animal remains.  It may be a cover crop turned into the soil, bark mulch, hay or grass clippings.  Anything that once lived may eventually feed the soil.

And because all of these things contain the elemental building blocks of life, as they decay, their chemical components are released for re-use.  In addition to the big three of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, plants need many other elements and trace minerals naturally found in good, active soil.

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Mayapples appeared through the leaf mulch

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We can re-charge our soil with the nutrients necessary for plant growth in several ways, without having to purchase plastic bags filled with commercial fertilizers.

1. Grow and compost plants with deep roots.  Certain plants grow especially deep roots, which means they can access and absorb minerals deep into the soil, far below the area we cultivate.  As they grow, these minerals are stored in their plant cells.  Harvesting and then composting these plants enriches our soil.

Consider growing plants such as alfalfa, comphrey, parsnips and other root vegetables, purple coneflowers, and dandelions.  Trees with deep taproots also absorb minerals, which are stored in their wood and leaves.

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Comphrey’s roots extend for several feet into the soil, mining minerals that are stored in leaves and stems.  Comphrey attracts pollinators, is a medicinal herb and a great addition to compost.  Also use it as mulch around plants that need a boost.

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2.  Encourage earthworms.  Earthworms eat and digest organic material, and their droppings enrich the soil.  This greatly speeds the decomposition process and makes nutrients available to plant roots much faster.

Worm casting also contain beneficial microbes that work with plants.  Worms also loosen the soil and aerate it as they move around.  Worms will come to the surface to eat, but will also tunnel to a significant depth as they go about their lives.

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Organic matter left on top of the soil attracts earthworms.  Worms will feed at the surface, so long as it is deeply shaded, but live below ground.

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3.  Sheet compost over areas you plan to cultivate.  Sheet composting simply means laying organic materials directly on the soil where you want them to decay.  This organic material attracts earthworms and other decomposers to live and eat in this area, enriching it.

All organic mulch, whether straw, grass clippings, chipped leaves, bark, seaweed, coffee grounds, tea leaves, kitchen scraps, egg shells, sticks and branches or alfalfa pellets may be considered components in sheet composting.  I like to lay brown paper or black and white newsprint over the area first, establish the borders, and then pile materials in a ‘sheet’ over an area I intend to use later for growing new plants.

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4.  Grow plants that fix nitrogen in the soil.  All plants breathe.  Plants inhale through tiny holes in their leaves and use elements in the air, such as carbon and nitrogen for their growth.  When they exhale, they release oxygen and water vapor back into the environment.

Once plants have inhaled carbon, it is fixed into the walls of each cell.  But some plants are able to store nitrogen on their roots.  All members of the pea or legume family, Fabaceae, fix nitrogen, the N on the fertilizer bag, on their roots.  This nitrogen enriches the soil, and often may be used by plants growing nearby.   Fungi living in the soil assist with the transfer of soil nutrients and water between plants.

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Native Wax Myrtle fixes nitrogen from the air on its roots, making the area around each shrub more fertile with each passing year. Plants growing nearby can use this nitrogen, thanks to fungi in the soil which help transfer nutrients and water between plants. Fallen leaves also further enrich the soil.

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Members of this family include crops such as peas and beans, peanuts and lentils.  But it also includes flowers like lupines, and several shrubs and trees like black locust, acacia and mimosa.  I recently learned that the wax myrtle also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil.

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Our native redbud, Cercis canadensis, also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil for plants growing nearby.  It is a member of the Fabaceae family, and its seed pods may be eaten.   This seedling can eventually grow into a small tree.

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Planting, or allowing, plants to grow that ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil enriches the soil with that most necessary element for good plant growth- Nitrogen (N)- for free!  Nitrogen, always present in the atmosphere, can be captured and packaged by plants in our garden, and kept at root level, available to all that need it and naturally enriching our garden’s soil.

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Clover growing in the lawn is also fertilizing it.  In addition to feeding pollinators and small mammals, clover fixes nitrogen along its roots.

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Here is a partial list of plants that perform this little miracle:  all clovers, sweet peas, vetch, bush clover, Wisteria, golden chain tree, Judas tree, honey locust tree, Kentucky coffee tree, alder, some roses and many members of the gourd family, such as squash and pumpkins.

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Native Wisteria frutescens growing at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden fixes nitrogen in the soil along all of its roots.

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If you can plant food or flower bearing plants, which also fix nitrogen to improve the soil, you have multiplied this natural wealth for your own use.

Nature’s gifts surround us.  The more we understand about the living ecosystem we inhabit, the more we can work cooperatively with our environment to cultivate and enrich the web of life.  The more we learn, the more we can disengage with costly commercial suppliers, and find ways to accomplish our goals in harmony with nature.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

The Shape of Things

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You may find winter’s landscape a bit stark.  Some might observe we are down to the ‘bones’ of the garden: trunks, branches, hardscape and often frozen ground.

Much of that is colored dull brown or grey, brightened here and there by our evergreens, holly berries, Nandina clusters, and rosy swelling buds.

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There’s little left that looks or feels soft.  The ground may still be littered with crumbling leaves blowing about.

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Skeletons of last May’s Hydrangeas linger here and there; an ethereal bit of Solidago shivers in the wind.  Sharp edges everywhere: sticks, thorns, spines on holly leaves and brittle branches.

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This is a sober and thoughtful turn of the seasons.  I find myself studying a crape myrtle tree as I unload groceries from the car.  Which branches need pruning next month?

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My eye wanders over to the hedge of rose of Sharon shrubs leaning at an unlikely angle towards the butterfly garden.  They’ve grown too tall and top heavy for their spot.  I’m making a mental list of things to do while the garden is sleeping.

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With the garden stripped bare and most of it slumbering, I can see the shape of things.  I can see things I like, and things that must be fixed.  I can wade into beds once filled with Canna and Hedychium, grasses and flowering stems.  Now I see the roots exposed on this leaning Camellia, and the brazen honeysuckle vines climbing up through the center of a venerable old Azalea shrub.

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I can see branches that may be damaged, diseased, already dead, or dangerous in some way.  With the leaves gone, I can finally see problems that may have been hidden before.

This is the time to fix it all.  This is the time to prune woodies, while they are dormant.  This is a good time to find and eliminate invasive vines or shrubs.  This is the time to remake the borders of the beds, study the layout, figure out where new shrubs might go and which old ones need to go.

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I learned an interesting fact this week:  Most home landscapes are only expected to grow for 20-25 years before the main shrubs must be replaced.  I’m so used to hearing about planned obsolescence in everything from cars to toasters, that the shock at hearing that statistic is mild.

You see, I happen to know that some of the Azaleas growing along our foundation were planted before 1970.  We won’t do the math there, OK? 

But a case can be made for shrubs and trees having a life span, just as a pet or any other living thing grows, ages, and eventually will die.  I look around and see a lot of things that have maybe grown too big, or grown here too long.

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Some older shrubs may be ‘fixed’ with rejuvenation pruning.  By cutting out older branches, new ones may grow.   We do this with roses, with Hydrangeas and with some holly shrubs.  I cut the beautyberry and butterfly bush back to just a couple of feet each spring, knowing it will reward me with fresh new branches.  When flowers grow from new wood, this will work.

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Other shrubs, that set their flowers in the autumn, won’t bloom if you cut their buds away by pruning now.  Azaleas, Hydrangea, Forsythia and Camellia have their buds set and ready to open once the weather warms.  After bloom, we can cut out the older, taller canes from those that send up new shoots each year.  We can head back branches grown too long, shape, direct, and guide future growth.

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This is the time to walk around with a notepad and a critical eye, making decisions about what plants may stay, which need a bit of pruning, and which must go before another spring distracts us.

I’ve been reading about ‘tidying up’ in our homes, according to Marie Kondo’s KonMari method.  I’m not yet piling all my clothes or books in the floor to sort them, but the idea of making peaceful living spaces by identifying what gives us joy- and what does not- has value.

I wonder if she has a similar method for tidying up one’s garden?

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I wonder if we wander around our own yard in January noticing what ‘brings us joy’, and what leaves us feeling anxious or annoyed, if we might be inspired to make some changes?

How often do you begin a new project to solve an old problem?  How often do you wait for a calamity to edit the structure of your garden?

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January is a good time to embrace change.  We have a fresh start by the calendar and by the wheel of the natural year, too.

Now that the garden has undressed itself and settled in for a good long rest, we can take a breath and ‘see’ what is and isn’t there.

We can see the shape of things, and dream it into any shape we choose for the many seasons yet to come.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Pot Shots: Winter Flowers

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We are glad to live in a climate that allows us to enjoy flowers in our garden all through the year.   Here in coastal Virginia, in Zone 7b, the Chesapeake Bay and nearby James River help us hold what warmth can be gathered from winter sunlight and warm ocean currents from the Gulf.

On mornings like this one, when the thermometer readings fall below 20F and the wind chill is 5F, flowers may seem an unlikely luxury.  And yet our hardiest winter blooming plants bloom on.  Our bursts of cold are brief, and more moderate weather will soon follow.

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Even as spring bulbs are already sending up their first leaves, we enjoy flowers from woody stems on our Camellias, Edgeworthia, Mahonias, Pieris japonica, Osmanthus x fortunei or Fortune’s tea olive, Hamamelis, and a few early swelling buds on the Forsythia.

All of these flowering shrubs may be grown in pots for a year or two, before they need repotting or a permanent spot in the garden.  When potting shrubs, choosing a shrub that is hardy to at least one zone north of where you plan to grow it may give it an extra edge of survival during unusual bouts of cold.  Temporarily covering the shrub when temps dip below its range may help, as well.

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But it is the pots of Violas and Hellebores that offer the most winter color.  The Violas have bloomed non-stop since we planted them in October.  But the Hellebores have just begun opening over the last few days.

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We planted this clump of Hellebores into a raised bed in 2014. They begin to bloom sometime each January, and bloom non-stop until early May.

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As I walk around the yard to check on those we have planted out in previous years, I find evidence of fresh emerging leaves and plump buds, beginning their annual show.

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These winter pots harbor assorted bulbs, some already poking the tips of green leaves up their their gravel mulch.  Soon enough, we’ll have snow drops, Crocus, tiny Iris, daffodils and Hyacinths blooming, too.  Bold Arum leaves also brave the January cold, with more to follow as we move into early spring.

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Planting winter flowering plants in pots invites you to notice them in detail.  Pots can be moved to where you will enjoy them the most, or where they will have a bit of shelter and warming sun on the coldest days.  These tiny flowers don’t get buried in the duff of winter blown leaves or trampled in haste.  They are protected from hungry voles and possibly from curious squirrels, as well.

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I learned a new trick this fall, listening to Brent Heath lecture about all things bulbs.  Brent suggests giving bulbs a quick spray with deer repellent before planting them to mask their delicious aroma from squirrels.  Have you ever planted new bulbs, only to find them missing a few days later, with freshly dug soil and an empty hole where you planted them?  Yes, the squirrels can smell them, and will go to any lengths to dig some of them up for dinner.

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These Iris bulbs all smell tasty to a hungry squirrel. They represent an investment, and can be protected with a quick squirt of liquid animal repellent, such as Repels All, before you plant them. You’ll find several good brands available. Covering their scent is key, and planting garlic cloves in the top of the pot can offer some protection, too.  Once the bulbs begin to grow and form roots, they are less likely to be dug up for dinner.

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Brent suggested a quick spray of repellent on the tastiest of them just before planting, and I added that extra step as I planted this fall.  Now Narcissus bulbs are poisonous, and squirrels leave them alone.  And Brent also shared that the Crocus tommasinianus, will be left alone too, as they have a different aroma from most other Crocus.  If you plant any of the other Crocus species, you might give them a spray to protect them.

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I also mulch freshly planted bulbs with pea gravel.  It looks clean and tidy, protects newly emerged foliage from splashing soil on rainy days, and I like to think it slows the squirrels down in their digging.  Sometimes yes, sometimes no….. 

This year I made the extra effort to spray the newly planted and mulched containers with Repels All when I finished planting, and I’ve come around with an squirt or two again on those planted with Violas, to protect their tasty flowers and leaves from any curious deer.  The extra effort has made a positive difference and we’ve had no grazing or pulling out of new plants.

Adding a few larger attractive stones dresses up the pot a bit, adds interest before the plants grow in, and may further discourage digging.

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Viola with Ajuga reptans

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As you’re planning your winter pots, consider adding winter hardy ground covers like Sedum ‘Angelina’, Lysimachia nummularia: creeping Jenny, Ajuga or Saxifraga stolonifera. These will remain alive and fairly fresh through the coldest weather, but will spring back into active growth early on and fill the pot with fresh foliage to offset the early bulbs.

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Viola with Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ and emerging Muscari leaves.

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Alternatively, I like to carpet the soil in winter pots with freshly dug moss.  The moss remains green and bright through our winter weather, so long as there is enough moisture to quench its thirst.  Once established, it may even begin to grow and spread in the pot to offer a more natural look.

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Winter pot newly replanted at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden features Japanese Holly fern, Arum italicum, Saxifraga stolonifera, creeping Jenny vines and moss mulch.  Many varieties of spring blooming bulbs are planted under the moss.  This pot sits right outside the gate, where it might tempt passing deer.  Only reliably ‘deer proof’ plants make the cut for this space.

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Evergreen ferns like Dryopteris erythrosora: Autumn ‘Brilliance’ fern, Polystichum acrostichoides: Christmas fern, or Cyrtomium falcatum: Japanese Holly fern also brighten pots, add structure and help set off delicate flowers.  These may not remain in active growth through the winter, but their leaves persist, and they reward the thoughtful gardener with wonderful fresh fiddleheads uncurling through the arrangement in the spring.

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Cyrtomiuum falcatum, Japanese Holly fern, remains green and fresh through our winters.  It thrives in Zones 7-10.

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A final touch to add a bit of height and structure to pots might be branches cut from interesting shrubs in the autumn.  Many branches will root, when cut and set into moist soil in the late autumn.  (This is called taking hardwood cuttings.)

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Some trees and shrubs sport attractive winter bark.  Pruned branches may be stuck into pots for structure. Choosing varieties with early blooms, like these cherry trees growing at the Stryker Center in Williamsburg, may also provide an extra pop of winter color.  (It goes without saying that we should only source such branches in our own garden, or from a florist…. not from public plantings….)

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Whether you want to propagate some shrubs, or simply let their attractive form and colorful bark offset your arrangement, cut branches prove a useful and striking addition to a winter pot.  If you choose an early bloomer, like Forsythia or redbud, you might create an especially colorful spectacle come February or early March.

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Autumn blooming Colchicum was the first bulb to bloom in this fall planted pot. Cyclamen leaves have already emerged, and moss has begun to establish. In the months ahead, many different flowering bulbs will bloom until the show is finished in early May.

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We enjoy our Virginia home where gardening may continue year-round.  Gardening in pots helps us extend the season by adding a little flexibility, especially during the coldest weeks of winter.  Pots may be covered or brought indoors for a day or two.  Soil remains workable sometimes even when the ground is frozen solid, and pots may bloom on the patio and porch, where we may enjoy their beauty without leaving the cozy warmth of indoors.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’ continues blooming as flowers from bulbs emerge in late March.  The creeping Jenny is actively growing once again, and the Viola bravely flowers on into its six month of bloom.  Winter pots are wonderful!

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“I must have flowers, always, and always.”
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Claude Monet

 

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