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: Early Spring Bulbs

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

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

Some variables we can anticipate and plant to avoid. 

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Newly planted on September 25, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience.

Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.”
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Hal Borland

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February 15, 2019

 

 

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

 

 

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