Fresh Start 2021: Carbon Garden

October blooming Camellia sasanqua

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Only recently have I come across the term ‘Carbon Garden’ in the current issue of Horticulture Magazine.  You may be ahead of me on this one, but the picture that came to mind when I first saw the term wasn’t very pretty.  The reality of it is much more attractive, and this garden style proves easier to maintain than many other garden styles.

Like other elements, carbon is an atom that can manifest as a solid, in a liquid, or as a gas.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) remain in the news because they contribute so much to our warming environment.  Gasses like carbon dioxide and methane (CH4) trap heat from the sun near the surface of the earth, causing warmer weather and heavier rainfalls.  Conversations around reversing the current warming trends usually focus on reducing carbon emissions and finding ways to scrub carbon out of the air.

Magically, we have living tools for removing carbon from the air right outside our windows.  You see, every green plant cell uses carbon dioxide in its daily efforts to feed itself and sustain the entire plant.  In the presence of sunlight, carbon dioxide and water transform into glucose, used to power plant growth, and the waste product oxygen, which of course we need in every breath.

When you contemplate a leafy tree, imagine each leaf inhaling polluted air and transforming that air into pure food and oxygen.

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Japanese Maple

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Glucose is further transformed into cellulose, which structures the cell wall of every plant cell.  Now, imagine a tree’s roots growing deeper and wider into the earth with each passing year.  What are those roots made from?  Cellulose:  largely, carbon.

A tree, and most any other plant, can stash carbon deep underground where it will remain for many years in solid form.  Many plants also store nitrogen, filtered out of the air, on their roots.  In fact, any plant in the pea family stores little nodules of solid nitrogen along their roots.  Knowing that nitrogen is a major component of fertilizers, you understand how this stored nitrogen increases the fertility of the soil in the area where these plants grow.

Plant leaves are also made primarily of carbon.  When the leaves fall each autumn, they hold stored, solid carbon.  If returned to the soil as compost or mulch, the carbon remains stored, or sequestered, in solid form in the soil.  This is how ordinary garden soil may be transformed into a ‘carbon sink.’

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Turkey tail mushrooms help decompose the stump of a fallen peach tree. Leaving the stump in place and allowing vegetation to cover it conserves its carbon in the soil.

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A log is made largely of stored carbon.  When you burn it in the fireplace, those chemical bonds break down, and much of the carbon rises back into the air as smoke.  If the same log is made into a cutting board or other wooden object, then the carbon remains in sold form.

Just as burning can break chemical bonds to release carbon back into the air, so will decomposition.  We’ve come to understand that bare dirt, including tilled fields and gardens, releases carbon back into the air.  But ground covered by mulch or living plants doesn’t allow that carbon to move back into the air.

All of this helps explain the science behind the principles of Carbon Gardening, whose goal is to scrub as much carbon as possible out of the air and sequester it in the earth.  Forests have done this very efficiently for untold ages.

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Only in recent times, with so much natural forest cleared and land exposed, has our planet begun its dramatic warming.  Think of all the carbon stored over the centuries as coal, petroleum, peat, and held close under a forest canopy that has been released into our atmosphere over the past century.

So, the point of Carbon Gardening is to use one’s own garden to sequester as much carbon as possible, using gardening methods that hold the carbon in the soil, without burning or releasing any more carbon than possible in the process.

Every breath we exhale contains carbon dioxide.  Our cells produce it as they produce energy.  We live in harmony with the plants we grow, taking in the oxygen they exhale while giving them back our own carbon rich breath.  That said, please don’t try to hold your breath as you make your Carbon Garden.

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Camellia sasanqua

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Here are a few principles of Carbon Gardening that may help point you in the right direction. 

The Audubon Society has a series of articles that go into far more detail.

  1. Plant intensely in layers:  The more plants in growth the more carbon will be scrubbed from the air each day.  Trees are most efficient because they support a huge volume of leaves.  Include evergreen trees that continue respiration through the winter months, and plant a shrub layer, perennial layer, and ground covers under the trees to maximize the amount of carbon absorbed by your garden.  Evergreen perennials and ground covers continue absorbing and storing carbon through the winter months.

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  1. Feed carbon (and nitrogen) back into your soil with plant materials. Use wood chips, bark, and shredded leaves as mulch to minimize bare ground.  Remember that roots sequester a large amount of carbon and nitrogen, so leave those roots in the ground.  Cut weeds or spent annuals at ground level instead of pulling them up.  Compost trimmings and leaves, kitchen waste, and unneeded cardboard, newsprint or brown paper.

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This is a very thin layer of compost covering collected branches, bark and leaves from our fallen tree.  We added additional layers of organic material to build the new planting bed.

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  1. Instead of tilling soil and exposing stored carbon, sheet compost in the winter to prepare for spring planting. Cover the garden area with cardboard or paper to protect the soil and smother any weeds.  Build up layers of composable materials, or even bagged municipal compost, and allow it to decompose in place so that planting seeds or transplants in the spring is possible without tilling or excessive digging.  Coffee grounds, tea bags, rinsed eggshells and other kitchen scraps can be ‘buried’ in the layers of a sheet compost pile, but be careful not to discard of seeds in this way unless you want them to sprout in the spring.

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Paper grocery bags covered with several inches of compost smother weeds and soften the ground for this new planting bed, eliminating the need to dig the area up first.  Pea gravel helps hold this area, which is on a slope.

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  1. Remain mindful of garden ‘inputs’ that burn carbon. This includes garden equipment that burns gas, commercial fertilizers, and maybe even those fun trips to the garden center….?

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This bin of new Caladium bulbs was ready to be planted out in mid-May.  Ordering bare root perennials, bulbs, tubers and seeds and starting them at home reduces the carbon footprint of a garden.  The red leaf is C. ‘Burning Heart,’ a 2015 introduction from Classic Caladiums in Avon Park, FL.

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  1. If you normally buy flats of annual plants each spring for pots or borders, consider how to plant those areas more sustainably. Consider all of the carbon releasing ‘inputs’ required to produce those plants, including the plastic containers they are grown in, the transportation to move them, and the chemical fertilizers and peat based potting soil used in growing them.  While all plants sequester carbon from the air, commercial nursery production of short-lived plants releases carbon into the atmosphere throughout the process and should be considered by conscientious gardeners.  What can you raise from seeds, cuttings or divisions, or obtain through trade with gardening friends?

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Saxifraga stolonifera is an evergreen ground cover that is easy to divide and share.  It grows here with Ajuga ‘Black Scallop,’ Hellebores and ferns.

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  1. Choose native perennials or ones that will naturalize in your climate, so your plants spread and reproduce, reducing the number of plants you need to buy each year to fill your garden. Design a sustainable garden that grows lushly with minimal ‘inputs’ and intervention from the gardener.  Native and naturalizing perennials won’t need much watering during dry spells, will make do with nutrients in the soil, and will expand and self-seed.

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  1. Woody plants sequester carbon in their roots and branches and live for many years. These are the most efficient Carbon Garden plants.   A garden made mostly from trees, shrubs, perennial ferns and groundcovers, will work most efficiently.  Some more arid areas have great success with long-lived succulents.  Consider replacing turf grass with plants that don’t require such intense maintenance.

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Mountain Laurel blooms each May, is native to our region and forms dense clumps over time.

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  1. Use the I-Tree Tool to educate yourself about the power of trees in your landscape to sequester and store carbon, reduce run-off and scrub other pollutants out of the air. Use this tool when selecting new trees to plant in your own yard.

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From left: new leaves emerge red on this hybrid crape myrtle, small Acer palmatum leaves emerge red and hold their color into summer, red buckeye, Aesculus pavia is naturalized in our area and volunteers in unlikely places, blooming scarlet each spring. In the distance, dogwood blooms in clouds of white.

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‘Carbon Gardening’ can make a significant contribution to scrubbing carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the earth, and the total contribution multiplies as the plants grow and the garden develops year to year.  A fully grown native tree can removed fifty or more pounds of carbon from the air annually.  While the amount varies by tree species and size, every year of growth increases the tree’s effectiveness.

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Each gardener who adopts sustainable practices makes a sizeable contribution to off-set and mitigate carbon production in their area.  Planting more plants and allowing them to grow densely also helps manage rainfall so it is stored onsite, rather than running off so rapidly.  The plants sustain wildlife and build a richly integrated ecosystem.

We reduce our own annual costs for new plants, fertilizers, other chemicals and fuel, while also reducing our time invested in garden maintenance.  It is a good approach for any of us who enjoy watching nature weave her tapestry each year, sustainably, while knowing that our gardens are part of the solution to climate warming and climate change.

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Woodland Gnome 2021

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Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful and a positive thought.

Six On Saturday: More Winter Flowers for Pollinators

Mahonia aquifolium January 19, 2020

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Have you noticed bees and other insects feeding later than usual this year?  And did you notice how many were out feeding on warm days last winter?  Our roller coaster weather in recent years has affected insects, birds and other animals so that they may be out and about on warmish days in months when we don’t expect to see them.  And, of course they are hungry!

Increased activity translates into an increased need for calories.  Providing winter forage for pollinators and birds presents gardeners with an interesting challenge.  This also brings us round again to that ongoing discussion of ‘native’ vs. imported plants.  As a former forensics coach as well as a smitten gardener, I could argue either side of this issue, and have.

But consider that few of our ‘native’ plants actually bloom between November and February in this climate.  Most of our winter blooming flowers are actually native to areas of Europe, the Mediterranean region, South Africa, or Asia.  Even though the plants may have originated on another continent, they fill an important ecological niche by offering nectar and pollen, sustaining insects who might otherwise starve when they venture out on warming winter days.

Now a native plant advocate could offer the counter argument that many imported plants have adapted so well to our climate, and naturalized so freely, that they sometimes crowd out our indigenous native species.  I could list off a half-dozen woody species that bloom in winter or early spring and have done just that.  The most interesting conversations continue that way.  And while we sit with our tea or toddy and argue the fine points of the question, developers are out with their heavy equipment clear cutting our local forests to widen the roads and plant new neighborhoods and shopping strips.

So let’s not argue, but rather agree to plant consciously and with purpose to sustain the wildlife we have left, absorb as much carbon as possible from the warming air, and to create spots of beauty to cheer and inspire us.

One of my favorite winter blooming shrubs remains the Mahonia aquifolium, which is a North American native shrub that has naturalized in Virginia.  There are several species, hybrids and cultivars of Mahonia, and all bloom extravagantly in December through February or early March each year, with plump, edible drupes forming by early summer.  Oregon Grape Holly offers shelter and food for birds, nectar for pollinating insects, and has such stiff, sharp leaves that deer and other herbivores don’t graze its leaves.  If you plant some of the finer leaf varieties, like ‘M. Soft Caress,’ be prepared for deer to find and sample it.  It is a lovely plant if you can protect it.

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Helleborus species and hybrids remain a mainstay of my garden both for their bright winter flowers and for their evergreen foliage that serves as a sturdy and effective ground cover year round.  Requiring very little maintenance beyond removing old and tattered leaves from time to time, these tough, long-lived plants reliably bloom and feed pollinators from December through late April or early May.  These beautiful flowers offer plenty of pollen as well as deep reservoirs of nectar.  Each flower may last several weeks, feeding insects over a long period, and then producing seeds.

Nothing grazes a Hellebore because all parts of the plant are poisonous.  But their large, glossy leaves remain attractive, often sporting variegation, toothed edges, and interesting form.  They filter the air and sequester carbon, provide cool, moist habitat for small animals, and hold our sloping garden.  The more Hellebores we grow the less we find tunnels made by voles or moles.  Hellebores prefer full to partial shade and mix well with ferns and vining ground covers like Vinca minor, another early spring bloomer.

For sunny areas, consider planting the common Mediterranean evergreen herbs Rosemary and Thyme in Zones 7 and south.  Rosemary often blooms with tiny blue or white flowers from November through April, and Thyme usually begins to bloom by March.  Both are highly attractive to bees and other pollinators.

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Helleborus orientalis, March 2019

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Many very early bulbs provide forage for pollinators.  Scilla siberica, a European bulb, often pops up and begins opening flowers in February.  Its stalk can be covered with many small flowers, opening a few at a time, over a period of weeks.  The leaves follow the flower stalk and fade away again by early summer.  The bulbs multiply over time.  Scilla bloom alongside early Iris histrioides and early Crocus bulbs, also appreciated by hungry pollinators in late winter.  Each bulb may send up multiple flower stalks and may be grown under established deciduous trees.

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Scilla emerging on February 19, 2019

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Very little blooms here in January, except for our reliable Hellebores and Violas.  The biochemistry of some plants allows them to generate enough heat to survive many hours below freezing, and to bounce back quickly after getting covered with ice and snow.  Native to mountainous areas of Europe, colorful little Viola cornuta have been cultivated and hybridized over decades and are easily available each fall in our area.  You may know some of them as ‘Johnny Jump-Ups.’  They may be grown from seeds or plugs, or bought full grown in 6″ pots for instant color in fall and winter arrangements.  Although Violas are perennials, they don’t survive our summer heat.

The larger Viola tricolor, or pansy, is also native to Europe and has been bred for flower size and color. Panolas are a fairly recent cross between various Viola species, and offer a medium sized flower with beautiful color and form.  The plants are lush and offer the impact of a pansy with the hardy habit of a Viola cornuta.  These also bloom in late fall and early spring, but may take a break during the coldest months.

Our native Viola labradorica, or American Dog Violet, blooms in mid-spring to early summer.  An important host plant for some butterfly species, it forms a beautiful ground cover and blooms in shades of white, purple and blue.  Sadly, many homeowners consider these ‘weeds’ when they come up in the lawn and eradicate them.  They make a beautiful ground cover, especially under trees, and re-seed themselves freely.

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Violas blooming on January 27, 2015

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Finally, many trees ‘bloom’ in the winter or very early spring.  Though their flowers may seem insignificant to us, they provide important food sources for pollinators.  Birds also benefit when they feed on insects attracted to arboreal flowers.

One of the best native shrubs for winter flowers is the Witchhazel, or Hamamelis virginiana.  It covers itself in small, sweet blossoms in mid to late winter.  Redbud trees also begin to bloom by February, becoming magnets for hungry insects.  Several species of Spirea and Viburnum produce early, showy nectar filled flowers.

Flowers on trees may be big and showy like those on Magnolias or tulip trees.  But just as often we barely notice them.  We may catch a sweet fragrance from an Ilex or Osmanthus, or notice an attractive blur of red or gold around a tree’s canopy before its leaves unfold.  But these flowers are very important to wildlife.

No one small, residential garden can support all plants for all purposes.  But with a bit of thought and planning, we can all provide some seasonal support for wildlife.  Many gardeners faithfully maintain bird feeders during winter months.  Fresh water in ponds or birdbaths is also very important for wildlife year-round.

Let’s also remember that by planting some winter blooming woody plants and herbaceous perennials, we can support the web of life in our community while enjoying the beauty and activity winter bloomers add to our own gardens.

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February 15, 2017 Edgeworthia chrysantha, an Asian shrub, and Mahonia aquifolium bloom all winter in our garden.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful and a thought provoking quotation.

 

 

Sunday Dinner: Join the Dance

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“The only way to make sense out of change

is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
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Alan Wilson Watts

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“Nothing in the world is permanent,

and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last,

but surely we’re still more foolish

not to take delight in it while we have it.”
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  W. Somerset Maugham

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“Consider the sunlight.

You may see it is near,

yet if you follow it from world to world

you will never catch it in your hands.

Then you may describe it as far away and, lo,

you will see it just before your eyes.

Follow it and, behold, it escapes you;

run from it and it follows you close.

You can neither possess it nor have done with it.

From this example you can understand

how it is with the true Nature of all things and,

henceforth, there will be no need to grieve

or to worry about such things.”
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  Huang Po

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“For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever,

it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting,

the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock.

Generations do not cease to be born,

and we are responsible to them

because we are the only witnesses they have.”
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  James Baldwin

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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“Of what is the body made?

It is made of emptiness and rhythm.

At the ultimate heart of the body, at the heart of the world,

there is no solidity… there is only the dance.”

George Leonard

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Six on Saturday: Winter Flowers

Edgeworthia chrysantha in late March 2019

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Here in coastal Virginia, it is possible to have flowers blooming in the garden every day of the year.  It takes a bit of planning and preparation now, before winter settles around us.  But it is within reach for most of us with a little outdoor space to plant.

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Planning a garden is a lot like working a very large jigsaw puzzle.  Consider one of the 1200 piece puzzles you buy to work with family or close friends, where you spend hours and hours just sorting pieces and making the frame before ever beginning to fill in the body of the puzzle.  Maybe you work in small sections, completing a bit here and there, then fitting those vignettes into their proper place in the whole at the right time.

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Planning for winter color, and more specifically for winter flowers, is just one of those chunks to fit into the bigger picture.

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Hellebores blooming in mid-February

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As you begin to think about winter flowers, it is helpful to think about winter blooming shrubs, winter blooming geophytes, winter blooming perennials, and finally winter blooming ‘annuals.’  Each have their own niche in the whole picture, and their own level of expense and commitment.

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This weekend I’ve visited three garden centers and have been delighted to find plants on my own ‘winter wish list’ at all three.  In all cases, the plants I wanted were marked down on clearance.  Even looking a bit rough and scraggly, giving them the right care now guarantees flowers in a few months, when we’ll need them.

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Violas of all sorts our still widely available in our area and still sold at full price at most locations.  There are hundreds of varieties, and the hardest part about planting Violas is deciding which ones to grow.  Deadhead to keep the flowers coming.  Use Osmacote or another time-release fertilizer at planting time, and feed them again with a liquid feed in February or March for best bloom.  Cut them back with scissors to remove bad foliage or leggy stems, and they will reward you with lush growth until summer.

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This is the easiest, least expensive way to enjoy winter flowers, and carries the least commitment.  Violas thrive here until sometime in May, when it gets too hot for them.  I’m usually pulling them out of their spots by mid-May to replant for summer, anyway.  Gardeners in cooler climates can keep them going year to year, but here we treat them like annuals.  Pansies have the largest, brightest flowers.  There are both singles and doubles in a wide variety of colors and color combinations.

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Panolas are a nice compromise between Pansies and the tiny Violas like ‘Johnny Jump-Ups.’  Again, there is a variety of color combinations available, solid flowers, and both single and double blossoms.  Little Violas have flowers about the size of a penny or a nickle, but they are very sweet and saturated color.  Although the plants look tiny now, they grow and spread throughout the winter.  By spring, when they begin to bloom again in earnest, they are covered in many, many small, but bright flowers.  We have a grower near us who specializes in little Violas, and I always end up with a flat or two and put them in pots and baskets on our patio and deck.

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Since deer find these little guys very tasty (most of the flowers are edible for humans, too) I generally don’t plant out Violas in beds or borders.  But I have, and as long as they are kept sprayed with animal repellent, they grow beautifully.

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Hardy Cyclamen leaves with blue Vinca flowers and emerging Crocus in February.

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A notch up from the Violas are Snapdragons, Antirrhinum species.  These are perennials, though many people pull them out and replace them by mid-spring.  I have several plants still going strong planted more than a year ago.  They are short-lived perennials, but will bloom profusely well into early summer, and then sporadically during our hot season.  The secret to keeping these covered in flowers is to dead-head the spent blooms before they set seeds, keep them moist, and feed the plants every month or so to keep them healthy and productive.  Give snaps some shade in the summer, but they are happy in full sun through the winter months.  You will find Antirrhinum varieties in small, medium or tall plants, and in a range of beautiful colors from bold to soft pastels.

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An equally easy, but often overlooked winter blooming perennial is Dianthus chinensis.  Often sold in cell packs in early spring, Dianthus is a tough, dependable easy perennial in our area that isn’t ever grazed.  It blooms sporadically in winter and summer, but really shines in spring and fall on evergreen plants.   I often use it in potted arrangements because it is versatile, bright, and the flowers remain the size of quarters in shades of white, pink, purple or crimson.  Flowers may be solid or bi-color.  Cuttings root easily.  Deadhead this plant regularly to keep it looking neat, and to keep the flowers coming.

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Requiring a bit more time and commitment are the Hellebores.  I had never paid Hellebores any attention until I moved to Williamsburg, but they are very popular here.  Probably because they are very poisonous, and won’t be bothered by deer, rabbits, squirrels, moles, voles, or ground-hogs.  It take about three to four years from seedling to blooming plant, but blooming plants are readily available in gallon pots at our garden centers, for around $25.00 each.

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Preferring shade, some of my plants grow in full to partial sun and do fine, as long as I water them during dry spells.  Hellebores begin blooming between December and February, depending on the species and variety, and them bloom continuously for another 3 to 4 months.  They are evergreen, serve as background foliage during the warm months, and are very tough and easy plants to grow.

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I was given a few dozen seedling plants by a neighbor years ago, and they continue to bloom each year and multiply, naturally spreading to form a dense ground cover.  I also buy one or two new varieties each year.  I grow them in pots and in the ground, and delight in their beautiful flowers through the winter months when little else blooms.

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Violas and ivy make fora beautiful winter hanging basket in our climate. This photo from early January 2017.

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When most people think of winter flowers, they think about winter blooming bulbs.  Bulbs are easy and most are inexpensive.  This is prime time to find bulb sales from online dealers, who can be very good, and also to find reduced bags of bulbs at garden centers.

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Be wary, if buying bulbs locally, that the bulbs still look plump and healthy and have no discoloration.  If they look shriveled or have anything grey or green on them, pass them by.  They probably won’t bloom well, or they may not grow at all and infect your soil with bacterial rot.

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Snowdrops, Galanthus species, bloom in January or February most years.  Although they are very small and white or white and green, by the time they bloom, they are a welcome sign of spring.  Miniature Iris bloom from bulbs at just about the same time, but come in a broader range of colors with larger flowers.  Early daffodils begin to bloom most years in February, and Crocus can bloom very early, before there is much else color in the garden.  Muscari also bloom in very early spring.  All of these are called geophytes because they are bulbs, and can be stored dry during their dormant time each year.

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Other geophytes, or ‘Earth plants’ grow from corms, tubers, or rhizomes.   Some hardy Cyclamen tubers begin to bloom in autumn and bloom until early winter.  Their beautifully patterned leaves persist much longer than their delicate flowers in pinks or white.  Other Cyclamen species begin to bloom in the middle of winter, and bloom through mid-spring.  Buy tubers based on when they bloom, the color of their flowers or the color and pattern of their leaves.  Cyclamen may be grown from seeds, but it takes several years for their tubers to grow large enough to bloom.  Leave the tuber in place and it will keep growing larger, giving a wider area of bloom each year.

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Iris reticulata ‘Sunshine’ on March 2, 2019.

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Finally, shrubs can be a great source of winter flowers.  If you live in Zone 7 or warmer, you can grow Camellias.  Some Camellia varieties are hardier than others, and you may find species to grow in Zone 6 or cooler.  We grow both fall blooming and spring blooming Camellias, so we have them from October through until April, whenever the weather has a bit of a warm enough stretch to allow buds to bloom.

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Daphne can bloom very early, but is also a very difficult shrub to keep happy.  I’ve never had one for very long.

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Our favorite winter bloomer is Edgeworthia chrysantha, or Chinese paperbush.  It is already in bud, and those flower buds keep steadily swelling and growing larger until they finally open into blossoms. There are two or three different varieties, and flowers may be white with yellow centers, or all yellow. They have a very sweet and strong fragrance, so the garden is perfumed on warmish days.

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Now, if you want to grow this gorgeous shrub, you will make a bit of an investment.  I saw one today in a 3 gal. pot for nearly $80.  Shop around, and you will likely find a much better deal.  One of our local nurseries carries them at a more reasonable price, but they never order very many.  You have to seek this one out.

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A shining star through the winter months, the shrub is rather non-descript with medium green, deciduous leaved through the summer.  The leaves turn yellow in fall, as the flowers appear on the branches.  It is a very sculptural shrub once the leaves fall, and is a real focal point.

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Mahonia, a northwest native shrub, blooms in November- January.   Japanese Pieris will also begin to bloom as winter fades into spring.  Both of these shrubs have evergreen foliage and bees and other small pollinators love them.   They support native bees when there is little else available for forage.

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Native redbud trees, Cercis Canadensis, sprout tiny flowers that break out of their bark along twigs, limbs and sometimes even the trunk!  I’ve seen them bloom here as early as mid-February, when they cover themselves in a cloud of deep magenta pink.  Some of the cultivars available now offer other color choices, but most are shades of pink/purple/red and even white.  Each tree hosts hundreds (thousands on a mature tree) of tiny flowers to the delight of every hungry pollinator in the area.  Birds follow to feed on the insects, and so redbud trees become hubs of activity when in bloom.

Heart shaped leaves follow, which turn beautiful yellow in fall.  Seed pods look like snow peas, and are edible.  Our trees are covered in seed pods, still, and they feed a variety of wildlife in winter.  Cut branches may be forced inside in early spring, in a vase of water.  Designers may also cut branches covered in seed pods now to add drama to their arrangements.

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Some Magnolia trees, like Magnolia stellata and Magnolia lilliflora may break into bloom in February.  Deciduous Magnolia trees bloom earlier than the evergreens and generally stay much smaller.  These are easy to grow in sun to part shade, and come in a variety of flower forms and colors.

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Finally, Forsythia shrubs often begin blooming for us in February with golden yellow flowers.  They are one of the earliest blooming shrubs in late winter.  You can force branches to bloom indoors several weeks earlier than they bloom outside.   And Japanese quince blooms in bright scarlet or pink soon after.

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These are just the high points of winter blooming plants that we grow, and that easily come to mind.  You may have other favorites.  We have to consider climate, available sun or shade, and what will or won’t be grazed by the animals who visit our garden.

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Many gardeners are quite happy with evergreens, a few bright berries, and maybe some variegated ivy or a variegated shrub.  We all crave a bit of color in the winter time, and it is worth planning for and making a bit of an investment to keep the garden interesting during the darkest months of the year.

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February 2017 Magnolia stellata

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

Secrets of Appreciation

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“Remember to give thanks

for unknown blessings

already on their way”

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Valentina Giambanco

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Camellia sasanqua and autumn leaves

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“Living in thanksgiving daily is a habit;

we must open our hearts to love more,

we must open our arms to hug more,

we must open our eyes to see more and finally,

we must live our lives to serve more.”

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Farshad Asl

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Camellia sasanqua

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“Gratitude is the seed of gladness.”

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Lailah Gifty Akita

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“Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action.”

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W.J. Cameron

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Japanese Maple

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May the beauty of this day find you,

May joy bubble up in your heart,

May you know everyone near you as family,

May you feel the love  which surrounds you,

and may you enjoy the blessings of peace,

always.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Oakleaf Hydrangea

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Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

 

Six on Saturday: Making Whole

Moss Garden

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We had our first frost of the season this week, and I’ve been occupied with bringing in those pots of tender plants that we will keep through the winter, and settling those that can remain outdoors into protected spots.  My partner was helping me (encouraging me, prodding me, motivating me to keep going, quite honestly) when he went to move our little potted Japanese Maple.  We heard the cracking and crunch as the pot fell apart in his hands. Oh well, terra-cotta pots don’t last forever, do they?  And this one has spent a few winters outdoors on our deck, holding this little tree as it grows.

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I love Japanese maples, and love the aesthetic of potted ones on the deck mixed among our ferns and flowering summer plants.  They can remain outdoors year round, and allow one to appreciate the seasons from budding to leaf drop up close. The tree is fine.

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The pot is a bit mangled, but I had been looking for a pot to create a winter moss garden, anyway.  I left the whole thing alone in a plastic disk for a few days, until I remembered an identical pot that I’d just emptied days ago.  The Colocasia came indoors in a plastic dish for the winter, and so there was a pot open and available to receive the maple tree.

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It was a sorry looking mess after the pot broke, but the tree was fine for a few days while I decided what to do.

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If you’ve been shopping for pots recently, you know that pickings are very slim in November.  I’ve been looking for a pot for my moss garden for a while.  I couldn’t find what I wanted at a reasonable price.  I even ordered a blue Fiestaware bowl to plant up, and then decided to keep the bowl in the kitchen once it arrived.  It was too pretty, if that is possible…. it was a new shade of blue that we didn’t yet have. So this little broken terra-cotta bowl was clearly a gift from the universe showing me how to proceed.

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The garden at Mossy Creek Pottery in Lincoln City, Oregon.

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As you probably know, moss doesn’t have any roots.  It has little structures that anchor it to the ground, but they don’t absorb water from the soil as roots do for vascular plants.  Each cell of the moss plant is on its own for hydration.  But moisture can travel from cell to cell.  That is why moss loves humidity, standing water and lots of rain.

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We’ve had such a wet year that moss is growing in places in the garden it hasn’t in the past.  Which is fine, because I really love moss.

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To establish a moss garden, you don’t need very good soil.  As you may have noticed, moss can grow on rocks, bricks, gravel, bark, ceramics, concrete and so many other surfaces that aren’t soil.  So you don’t need good soil or deep soil to establish a moss garden.  But because I have other plants in this one, I am recycling some pretty good soil left over as I broke down some of last summer’s plantings.

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It is important to pack the soil down fairly firmly, though, and then to press the moss firmly onto the soil.  If laying moss outdoors into an area of the garden, some gardeners walk over the moss a few times to help it adhere to its new spot.  So press down firmly so the moss is in good contact with the soil. But I’m ahead of myself, here.

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I had a few little bulbs left over from other projects, and a clump of dwarf Mondo grass to add to this planting.  The bulbs go in first, to a depth equal to three times their height.  If you can’t tell which end is which, plant them on their side.  The bulb’s roots will grow downwards and right the bulb as the stem begins to grow upward in the spring.  Firm the soil over the bulbs before covering it with freshly lifted moss.

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I was able to divide my plug of Mondo grass into several divisions.  I replanted half of the plug into a nursery pot to grow on, and used these tiny divisions for the moss garden.  Have a blade nearby when dividing Mondo grass, as there comes a point where you often have to cut the sections.  As long as each section has roots, they will continue to grow on.

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I planted the Mondo grass along the lower, broken edge of the pot, to help stabilize the soil in the planting.  After planting the grass, mulch around it with moss.  Then I built terraces into the sloping potting soil with pieces of the broken pot, and used different varieties of moss in the different sections to give some interesting texture.

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Kept shaded and moist, moss can grow indefinitely in a planting like this.  Best of all is when the moss produces spores and those spores colonize the planting themselves, even growing on the pot.  That happens if the moss is very happy in the spot you select for it.

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The main enemies of a potted moss garden are those creatures who’d like to have some of the moss for themselves.  Sometimes birds pinch a bit for their nests, or squirrels toss it aside in their attempts to bury or retrieve nuts, or worse, dig your tasty bulbs.  I used those little early Crocus known as ‘Tommies,’ which aren’t tasty to squirrels.  With most bulbs, it is smart to spray them with a bit of animal repellent before you plant them.  A squirt to the whole pot once finished is good insurance, too.

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Here is our little Japanese Maple snugly tucked into a new pot. I had some scraps of moss left over, and so added them as mulch under the tree.  I’ll find some fine gravel to finish dressing the soil.

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This little planting really costs nothing out of hand.  I recycled a broken pot, re-purposed used potting soil, used up the last few bulbs left from a pack, and lifted the moss from my own garden.  It should remain a lovely spot of green out in the garden, all winter long, with minimal care.  It probably won’t even need watering.  Only if we have a stretch of warm, dry weather will I need to do anything for it, at all.

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If I had been fortunate enough to find a little evergreen fern in the yard, like an Ebony Spleenwort, it would have gone in the pot, too, growing up through the moss.  Moss makes a lovely background for spring bulbs, too. A rock or two, or a quartz crystal, finishes off the arrangement. It is always satisfying to take broken bits and leftover bits and find interesting ways to use them.  Now, as we change the seasons, is a good time for clearing away the old and making room for something fresh and new.  Like a breath of fresh air, it keeps us going.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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This moss garden will live and grow in the rock garden at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden. Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

 

Six on Saturday: Fall Color

Oakleaf Hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, in early November

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Do you crave rich, warm color as autumn days grow cooler and shorter?  The trees have held onto their greenness longer this fall than anytime in memory.  We’ve been looking at one another and wondering, “When will the leaves finally change?  Will they change this year, or simply blow off and away?”  It seems that fall leaf color has shifted by three to four weeks over the past 30 years in our area. Many trees have simply dropped their leaves, or faded from green, to yellowish and quickly on to brown. 

Personally, I love a good rich scarlet tree in October.  We have abundant oranges and golds in our area, too, but the scarlet ones make my pulse quicken a beat.

Do you consider autumn color when you select a new tree or shrub?  That is usually lower on my list of considerations after whether they bloom and how large they’ll grow.  Lately, I’ve planted some Japanese maples that have tint in their leaves through the summer, and a crape myrtle that starts with deep burgundy leaves in the spring.  But since fall color lasts just as long as many spring flowers, like dogwood blossoms, it makes sense to consider November pleasures as much as April ones.

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Dogwood turns rich scarlet earlier than most other trees turn each autumn.  Their drupes feed many species of song birds.

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Here are a few of my personal favorites: Oakleaf Hydrangea ‘Snow Queen’ goes scarlet early in the season and holds onto those gorgeous leaves long past the time when most of our trees have gone bare.  This is a large shrub, with an open habit, large leaves and huge flower panicles.  It will take a space at least 8′-10′ wide and deep in your garden if you want to show it to best advantage.  But this gorgeous shrub has no ‘off’ season.  By the time the leaves finally blow away, new leaves and flower buds have begun to grow.  Its exfoliating bark adds interest through the winter.  But for big, bold scarlet leaves that last and last, it doesn’t get better than this.

Dogwood, Cornus florida, is a common native tree in our area that crops up randomly where birds drop the seeds.  There are beautiful hybrids out there, but we just grow the species, and love it year round.  In the spring, the trees cover themselves with white flowers.  These relatively small trees have a beautiful, graceful form.  By late summer, the drupes begin to turn scarlet and attract songbirds, and the dogwood’s leaves are one of the first trees to begin to turn each year.  They grow to a deep, rich scarlet before they fall by late November.  Even in winter, the trees are like living sculptures, covered in plump buds, awaiting warmer weather to begin blossoming all over again.

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Sumac sports scarlet leaves and burgundy berries.  Here, it is just beginning to turn in mid-October of 2014.

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Sumac trees, Rhus species, might be considered weedy by some, and I’m one of those apostates for much of the summer.  They have coarse foliage and an undisciplined habit.  They spread themselves around unashamedly and one tree quickly becomes a thicket.  But oh, once autumn arrives, those huge compound leaves turn a lovely shade of red and the clusters of drupes take on a warm, coffee brown color.  They are quite eye-catching when growing in groves on the side of the road. 

Grow these along the edge of a wooded area or in a meadow, or just take a drive in the country in late October or early November and admire them.  Sumacs are wonderful native plants for supporting wildlife.  They offer nectar in early summer and food for birds through fall and winter.  They sequester carbon, hold the soil against erosion, and provide great perches for birds.  I’ve learned to appreciate them, but wouldn’t choose them for a more formal garden area.

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Maple

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The Ginko tree, Ginko biloba, the oldest species of deciduous broad-leaf tree known anywhere in the world, is also one of the most stunning trees each autumn.  Each small, delicate leaf turns a clear, bright unblemished golden yellow and the tree stands tall and proud like a fiery torch for days or weeks, before a good wind comes along and sweeps that golden bling from branches to ground.  The leaves, which resemble the individual leaflets on a maidenhair fern frond, don’t travel far, and so the tree sports a golden ‘skirt’ for a while before the show is over. 

Ginko isn’t native to North America, but it is lovely.  Just please, make sure you get a male tree.  The female trees produce a fruit which is messy and odoriferous.  The ancient Chinese learned to use parts of the tree in their traditional medicine and as food, and the supplement remains popular. 

I have a Ginko in a pot on our deck that I’ll need to move into the garden after its leaves fall this year.  It makes a great pot tree for its first several years, but eventually grows into a full size tree, if you don’t train it as a bonsai.  Of course, why limit the size of such a gorgeous tree?  Ginko makes a stunning and long-lived street tree, or a lovely focal point in your garden design.

Maples of all sorts are lovely in the autumn, as well.  There are so many species available, each with its unique leaf shape and autumn color.  Maples are so widespread that there are varieties suited to most areas of the country.  Red maples are native here in coastal Virginia, and are always eye-catching when their leaves turn each fall.

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Ginko

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These are just a few of my favorite trees in autumn.  Scarlet oak trees turn a beautiful shade of clear red, and sweet gum trees sometimes have purple leaves for a brief time.  Sourwood trees turn gold and then scarlet, and Aralia spinosa may turn yellow, scarlet, or even purple.  So many factors determine the colors of leaves in fall.  It is a little bit genetics, a lot reflects the growing season just ending, and of course the temperature, as days grow shorter, determines the intensity and duration of color, as well.

The colorful weeks of autumn feel like a fitting celebration to carry us from the verdant greens of summer into the barren winter.  Only, winter doesn’t have to seem so barren with a little planning and a few evergreen trees, shrubs and perennials scattered about. Green is a glorious color, too, and we get more mileage from our garden space when we celebrate greens in all of their shades, hues, and finishes as well.  What is lovelier than a deep green holly tree dripping in scarlet berries on a December day? Every season offers its own beauties and pleasures.  We just need to plan to squeeze the most enjoyment from them all.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

 

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

 

Sunday Dinner: Miraculous

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“I have been finding treasures in places I did not want to search.

I have been hearing wisdom from tongues I did not want to listen.

I have been finding beauty where I did not want to look.

And I have learned so much from journeys I did not want to take.

I have learned that miracles are only called miracles

because they are often witnessed by only those

who can can see through all of life’s illusions.

I am ready to see what really exists on other side,

what exists behind the blinds,

and taste all the ugly fruit

instead of all that looks right, plump and ripe.”

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Suzy Kassem

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“To love someone

is to see a miracle invisible to others.”

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François Mauriac

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“A miracle is when the whole is greater

than the sum of its parts.

A miracle is when one plus one

equals a thousand.”

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Frederick Buechner

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“Miracles are not contrary to nature

but only contrary

to what we know about nature.”

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St. Augustine

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“To live at all is miracle enough.”

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Mervyn Peake

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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“There are days when I think I don’t believe anymore.

When I think I’ve grown too old for miracles.

And that’s right when another seems to happen.”

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Dana Reinhardt

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Please visit my site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

 

Six on Saturday: Going and Coming

Camellia sasanqua opened its first flowers this week.

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The wind swung around to blow from the north overnight as the rain finally moved off the coast. The cold front came on a wave of rain that moved in before my eyes opened at 5 Friday morning and hung around deep into the evening.

Today dawned clear and bright, crisp and chill. How rare to have a night in the 40s here, so early in October. But all that cleansing rain left a deep, sapphire sky to greet the sunrise.

The cold front caught me distracted this time. I didn’t plan ahead enough to start moving plants indoors last week. And so every Caladium and Begonia and Alocasia was left out in the soggy cold night to manage as best as possible.

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Caladium ‘A Touch of Wine’ has been particularly cold tolerant this autumn.

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Trying to make amends this morning, I began gathering our Caladiums, starting in the coolest part of the garden on the downhill slope behind the house. Pulling Caladium tubers out of heavy, waterlogged soil presents its own challenges. The only thing worse is leaving them in the cold wet soil to rot.

Timing out when to lift Caldiums can be as puzzling as when to plant them out in the spring. Some varieties signaled weeks ago that they were finishing for the season, by letting their stems go limp with their leaves fall to the ground. When that happens, you need to dig the tubers while the leaves remain to mark the spot. I’ve lost more than a few tubers by waiting too long to dig them, and forgetting where they were buried.

At the same time, other plants still look quite perky with new leaves coming on. It feels wrong to end their growth too soon, with those lovely leaves wilting in the crate. This is a time to prioritize which need immediate attention and which can grow on a while, yet. After tonight, we expect another warm spell, so I have an excuse.

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Arum italicum remains dormant all summer, emerging again sometime in October.

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Everywhere in our garden we see new plants coming out and blooming even as summer’s stars fade. If it weren’t for fall blooming Camellias, Arums, emerging bulbs and late blooming perennials, I couldn’t be so content in October. But in our garden there are always comings and goings, so I try to take autumn in stride.

The pot I planted last fall with Cyclamen hederifolium, Arum, and spring flowering bulbs has burst into new growth. Retrieving the few Caladiums I plopped in there in June was a bit of a challenge. I didn’t do too much damage, I hope, in pulling them up from between the Cyclamen that now are in full leaf. Cyclamen tubers are fun because they just grow broader and broader year to year, spreading into larger and larger patches of beautifully marked leaves and delicate flowers.

I’m finding seedpods on our Camellia shrubs even as the first fall flowers bloom. I’m working with Camellia seeds for the first time this year, after receiving a gift of Camellia sinensis seeds, the tea Camellia, from a gardening friend. Now that I know what to look for, I’m saving seeds from my own shrubs, too.

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Pineapple Sage opened its first flowers this week beside a patch of goldenrod.

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In fact, the garden is filled with seeds this week. I’ve harvested seeds from our red buckeye tree, acorns from the swamp chestnut oak, and Hibiscus seeds. I’m busily squirreling away the seeds in hopes many will germinate and grow into new plants that I can share.

Our birds are flocking in to enjoy the bright red dogwood seeds, along with beautyberry seeds and nuts from the beech tree. The drive is littered with beechnut husks and there are always birds and squirrels about. They are busy gathering all they can with birds swooping about the garden as I work. Even the tiny seeds I overlook, on the Buddleia shrubs and fading Black-eyed Susans entice the birds.

All the rapid changes feel dizzying sometimes. There is an excellent piece in today’s WaPo about the different autumn displays caused by climate change. Not only are species moving north and other new species moving in to replace them, but the very patterns of heat and cold and moisture are changing how the trees respond each fall. You may have noticed some trees whose leaves turned brown and fell weeks ago. Other trees still stand fully clothed in green.  Forests once golden with chestnut leaves now show more scarlet and purple because of new species replacing the chestnuts last century.

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Grapes ripen on the vines running through the dogwood tree. Color is slow to come this fall, with some trees dropping their leaves before they brighten.

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Our red buckeye tree is native further to the south. But it is naturalizing now in coastal Virginia, and is growing very happily in our yard. Trees are very particular about how much heat or cold they can take, and how many chilling days they require in winter to set the next season’s buds. Most also dislike saturated soils. Our abundant rainfall, these last few years, has sent some trees into decline when the roots can’t ‘breathe.’

Trees are coming and going, too, just on a much grander scale. For every tree that falls, dozens of seedlings emerge to compete for its space.

I’m planting seeds this fall, starting woody cuttings, and starting a few cold weather bulbs and tubers. I have flats of Cyclamen and Arum started, and spent some happy hours this week tucking tiny bulbs into the earth, dreaming of spring flowers.

Changing seasons takes a span of many weeks in our garden. The day will soon be here when I start carrying pots indoors for winter. Other pots stay outside, replanted with flowers and foliage to fill them winter into spring. I need to stay focused on all of the comings and going- not let myself get distracted with the beauty of it all.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Hibiscus seeds are ripe for sowing.

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Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

Visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

Sunday Dinner: The Known

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“Do you know that even when you look at a tree and say,

`That is an oak tree’, or `that is a banyan tree’,

the naming of the tree, which is botanical knowledge,

has so conditioned your mind

that the word comes between you and actually seeing the tree?

To come in contact with the tree

you have to put your hand on it

and the word will not help you to touch it.”

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Jiddu Krishnamurti

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“Their life is mysterious,

it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity,

it can be comprehended, described,

but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow,

the density blinds one.

Within there is no form, only prodigious detail

that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight,

foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap,

insects, silence, flowers. And all of this, dependent, closely woven,

all of it is deceiving.

There are really two kinds of life.

There is, as Viri says, the one people believe you are living,

and there is the other.

It is this other which causes the trouble,

this other we long to see.”

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James Salter

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“I’m planting a tree

to teach me to gather strength

from my deepest roots.”

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Andrea Koehle Jones

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“In a forest of a hundred thousand trees, no two leaves are alike.

And no two journeys along the same path are alike.”
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  Paulo Coelho

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Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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“Trees, for example, carry the memory of rainfall.

In their rings we read ancient weather—

storms, sunlight, and temperatures,

the growing seasons of centuries.

A forest shares a history, which each tree remembers

even after it has been felled.”


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Anne Michaels

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Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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A new site allows me to continue posting new content since after more than 1700 posts there is no more room on this site.  -WG

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