Fun With Plants: Avocado Seeds

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Plants and their growth patterns entertain and fascinate.  You may find this nearly as ‘geeky’ as Sheldon Cooper’s ‘Fun With Flags’ on the hit TV series, “The Big Bang Theory.”  Feel free to have a good laugh and then try these methods for seed sprouting yourself!

Once upon a time, the accepted method for sprouting avocado seeds involved a jar of water, three or four wooden toothpicks, and a fresh avocado pit.  The method occasionally worked, but I lost my fair share of seeds to rot and forgetfulness.  If the seed didn’t rot where it was pierced by the toothpicks, then chances were I’d forget to top off the water and it would dry out.

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One can rarely raise an avocado tree, Persea americana, to actually generate avocado fruits in our climate.  The trees, and yes you need at least two to increase the chance that its flowers can be fertilized, must have winter protection.  Trees normally don’t flower or produce fruit until they are close to five years old, and may take longer than that.

A few hybrids have been developed that grow in Florida, and can withstand temperatures down to around 20F in winter.  But most varieties of avocado don’t respond well to any frost.  These subtropical trees will eventually grow to nearly 60′, which makes it a bit challenging to bring them in for our winter months.

Yet the young trees are very attractive, and some homes with large windows and high ceilings can accommodate at least a young tree.  Native to Mexico and Central America, Persea americana technically produces berries, not fruits.  Each avocado ‘berry’ has a single seed.  Flowers are produced in a panicle, like blackberry flowers, and so a whole group of avocados develop together from a central stem.

Commercially, avocado trees are grown from cuttings grafted onto various rootstocks because the hybrid parent won’t produce seeds true to itself.  It is still worthwhile to grow an avocado tree from a seed at home, for the fun of it, and to enjoy the tree as a winter houseplant and summer time potted patio plant.

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We ate a lot of avocados in late winter and early spring.  What can I say?  Avocado on toast, topped with a slice of tomato, sustained us through our cold, wet spring.  And those seeds were just too good to throw away.   I decided to try out a few different ways to sprout them.

I’ve been starting cuttings, especially broken pieces from our Christmas cactus plants, in wine glasses partially filled with fine aquarium gravel for a while.  One day, I decided to plop a particularly fine looking avocado pit into one of those glasses to see what would happen.

When starting an avocado seed partially suspended in water, the idea is to have the water cover only the bottom third to half of the seed.  The pointed end of the seed is its top, where a stem will eventually emerge.  The rounded end is the bottom, which should be kept wet to stimulate root growth.  It made perfect sense to me to simply set the seed on the gravel, partially fill the glass with water, and see whether a root would emerge.

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This root comes out of the very bottom of the seed, directly into the aquarium gravel, and isn’t visible through the glass.

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Avocado pits are clunky things, and the initial root is thick and sturdy.  The pit must first crack before the root will emerge from the center of the seed.   It’s also from the crack in the seed that a stem will eventually emerge, weeks later, as the new plant begins to grow.  Perhaps the long duration of this initial germination is what invites rot when the seed is pierced by toothpicks and then suspended over a jar of water.  I changed out the water in the glasses frequently to  keep everything fresh.

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While I was waiting for these seeds to germinate (and my counter space was filling with wine glasses) I was inspired to try the same method I’d used earlier for date seeds, to see whether avocado seeds would respond.

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This seed has been wrapped and bagged for more than a month now, and is beginning to show a root. I’ll pot it up in another week or two.

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After cleaning up the seed of any clinging avocado fruit, I simply wrapped up the seed in a damp paper towel, sealed it into a zip lock sandwich bag, and popped it into a cupboard.  Yes, into a cupboard.  I used a cupboard over the stove, where I knew the seeds would stay warm as they germinated.  Check on them as you think about it.  Sealed into the bag, the seeds will stay moist enough to begin to germinate without rotting in standing water.  After a month or more, you will see a root begin to emerge.

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Once the seed’s root has emerged, pot up the seed in good potting soil, and keep it just damp while waiting for the stem.  I potted up a group of seeds and left them in my basement work area until their stems emerged, which is why the stem is pink and not green!  Now, I’ll bring it out into the light as it continues to grow.

Please notice that the seed should be planted at the soil surface, not completely buried in the soil.  You can get some interesting effects by planting the seed very shallowly, leaving most of the seed visible as the tree begins to grow.

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The one green stem has been growing up in the garage, where it gets some light. I’ll move all of these pots out onto the deck by the weekend.  Only partially bury the seed in soil when you initially pot it up.

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If your seeds germinate in spring, you can grow them outside, in a protected location, for their first season.  Remember to bring them inside before frost, giving them as much light as you can.  If your seeds germinate before outside temperatures remain at least in the 50s, then keep the growing trees indoors until the weather is settled.

Give the tree good potting soil, feed with a time released fertilizer like Osmacote or use a product like Neptune’s Harvest every few weeks during the growing season.  Re-pot the trees as their roots fill the pot, or trim the roots and prune the canopy to dwarf the plant.

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This is a great activity to do with any botanically inclined young person in your life.   It allows for a close-up examination, in very slow motion, of the germination process and the initial growth of roots and stems.

Allow young people to experiment with the germination process,  draw the seed in various stages of growth, photograph the growing plant, and write about their sprouting tree.  Home school parents can bring in lots of interesting history, geography, food preparation and math to add depth to the botany.

Or, one can simply start the seeds for the sheer joy of it, and have a bit of fun with avocado plants!

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Nature is messy. Don’t worry so much about always getting it ‘right.’   Have fun and watch the process unfold….

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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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

 

 

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

 

Unum de multis: Horticultural Multiplication

Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’

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Unum de multis:  Out of one, many…

That is one of the wonders of the plant kingdom!

It took several trips and quite a few hours of shopping to finally source a few little variegated English holly shrubs in the fall of 2017.  Although these were clearly labeled as Ilex aquifoliumn, as it turns out, they are actually Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’.

I accepted the plants at face value, believing the big name label on the shrubs that identified them as English holly.  It was a very knowledgeable reader of Forest Garden, California Horticulturalist Tony Tomeo, who pointed out the error and set me on the path to a correct identification of the shrubs.

Sometimes known as ‘false holly’, Osmanthus is a beautiful and useful evergreen shrub from Asia.  This particular shrub is called ‘Goshiki’ because the leaf exhibits five different colors during its development:  pink, cream, yellow, orange and white, in addition to green.  It is a beautiful plant in growth, with the new growth showing the most color.

I’ve grown this plant over the past several years and have it elsewhere in the garden.  It goes to show how quickly we will believe and accept how things are labeled, that I didn’t recognize the error in labeling right away.  It took Tony’s nudge for me to compare the two leaves side by side.

Out of the several plants finally located, two survived that very cold winter and finicky spring to live on into 2019.

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Our shrub newly planted in 2017

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My several attempts to locate  small English holly shrubs for planting projects this fall proved unsuccessful, and I ended up substituting other plants late into the season.  It goes with the territory that available plants change season to season and year to year.  A gardener can never take for granted that a particular plant will be available when needed.

That is why it pays to learn how to propagate your own plants, so that once you have one of some special something, you can generate more as needed.

Now, it isn’t technically difficult to propagate most plants.  But depending on what you are trying to grow, and the time of year, some special equipment may be necessary.  Without a greenhouse, propagation box, heat mat, lights or misters, it can be challenging to achieve the results that commercial growers can produce.

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Yet it is amazing what you can do at home, with little equipment, once you understand some basic principles.  A great resource for all types of propagation, including sowing seeds, is Making More Plants by Ken Druse.  This is a clearly written, beautifully illustrated guide that teaches me some new trick each time I re-read it.

There are several types of stem cuttings one can make, and their advantage is that a rooted stem eventually grows into a clone of the parent plant.  Stem cuttings are generally low-tech, easy and quick.  And I have learned a few little tricks that increase my chances of success without a greenhouse or fancy set-up.

Simply put, the challenge of a stem cutting is to have the stem strike roots while the leaves continue to live, and before the stem begins to rot.  That means that plants with large leaves need enough water flow through the stem to support the leaves, even before roots begin to grow.  And, the rooting has to occur in a way that doesn’t allow the stem to clog up, or begin to decay, before the roots can grow.

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This method of rooting stem cuttings is nearly 100% successful for Christmas cactus cuttings.

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Most commercial growers place stem cuttings into a damp, soil-less medium to root.  They then put the stems into a heated, lit, enclosed space for a few weeks while roots form.  Enclosing the stems increases humidity, which benefits the leaves.  Bottom heat speeds the process, and adequate light is required for photosynthesis.

Getting an herbaceous stem to root in a water is a bit easier.  Water is more easily available and so the leaves are well-supplied.  But, water grown roots are structurally different from soil-grown roots.  The plant will need to quickly re-grow new roots once it is planted in soil.

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These coleus cuttings had been rooting in water for not quite two weeks.

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I am using a hybrid method to get my little holly cuttings to root.  The container is a recycled aluminum loaf pan without any drainage holes.  There is a half-inch of clean, fine aquarium gravel in the bottom of the pan, topped with some clean peat based potting soil, and then topped off with fresh vermiculite.  I watered this well to wet all of the soil and also create a shallow reservoir in the bottom of the pan.

After pruning the shrub I want to clone, I trimmed the cuttings to only a couple of inches long and set then into a shallow cup of water.  A smaller cutting can be more successful because there is less plant tissue to support while it grows roots.  Remove the bottom couple of pairs of leaves from the cutting, dip the cut end into powdered rooting hormone,  and stick the cutting into the pan so that the exposed leaf nodes are in the soil.

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A clear dome holds humidity so the cuttings won’t wilt while they root. Make sure to vent the dome each day to allow fresh air inside.

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Take care that the cuttings don’t touch one another and that their leaves don’t touch the soil.  This helps limit any molding or transmission of disease.

Once all the cuttings were trimmed and stuck, I put the pan into a re-cycled bakery cake container that has a clear, domed lid.  I set the container on a low table beside a window that gets strong morning light. There is also a fluorescent bulb burning in a nearby lamp.  There is no bottom heat provided, but the room is warm and the sun provides additional warmth.

I expect these cuttings to strike roots sometime this month.  The best way to tell that roots have developed is when new growth appears.  One can also tug lightly on the cutting, expecting to feel a little resistance once roots form.  Tugging too soon might damage newly forming roots, so it really isn’t smart to try this too soon.

Once the cuttings have an inch or so of new roots, each can be potted up into a 3″ or 4″ nursery pot and set outside in sheltered, shady spot.  It is important to keep the new shrubs well watered through their first few years so they never completely dry out.

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Another method, for herbaceous or very soft woody stems, involves a wine glass and a little bit of gravel.  Again, using relatively small cuttings, rest the cut end of the stems in the spaces in the gravel and add only enough water to cover the bottom portion of the stem.  Maintaining shallow water allows roots to form without exposing much of the stem to potential rot.  The wine glass itself helps enclose the stems, increasing humidity for the leaves.

Again, work with short tip cuttings of stems, trim the bottom leaves from the stem, and dip each cutting into rooting hormone before placing it in the glass.  Make sure the water stays fresh and at a fairly constant level.  If ever the water looks cloudy, rinse out the glass, rinse off the stems and replace the water with fresh.

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This glass of Spanish lavender cuttings sits near a sheltered window where the cuttings will get indirect light all day.  I expect roots to form so these can be potted up by early March.  The mother plant is one I search out each year and only sometimes can find.  It is a hardy perennial and one of the earliest lavenders to flower each spring.  Once these stems root, I expect to start another batch of this particular lavender.

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This is Spanish lavender, L. stoechas ‘Otto Quast,’ with its ‘rabbit ears’ atop the flower.

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Once you get the knack of stem cuttings, you can beg a cutting from a gardening friend and ‘grow your own.’  You can create multiples of the plants you enjoy most in your garden, or produce clones to pass on to others.  A neighbor populated her yard with beautiful Azalea shrubs she started herself from cuttings decades ago.

There is tremendous satisfaction in knowing how to create several new plants from a single original.   It empowers the gardener, saves a great deal of cash, and allows us to have more of those plants we most enjoy.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

More on planting pots with shrubs, bulbs and perennials for winter

 

Moss: Let It Grow

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I love plush, moist green moss.  And I am always interested in reading about how other gardeners grow their moss.  Imagine my delight to come across a beautifully photographed feature on Dale Sievert’s gorgeous Wisconsin moss garden in the Fall 2018 Country Gardens magazine.  If you love moss, please treat yourself to this issue.

“The color green engenders a great sense of tranquility,

peace and serenity.” 

Dale Sievert

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I am always looking for simple and effective ways to get moss to grow both in shady spots in the garden and also in pots.  The keys to good moss growth remain steady moisture and reliable shade.   Wonderfully, moss spores are often carried on the wind, ready to grow when they land in a place that offers the moisture and shade that allow them to grow.

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A moss garden I constructed in February of 2012 using stones picked up on the beach in Oregon.

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The first stage of moss growth looks more like algae than like typical moss.  It is low, smooth and moist looking.  From this, the buds and rhizoids will form, soon growing into recognizable moss plants.

If you live in a wet area, you likely see this early growth of moss on brick and stone and clay pots quite often.  If you love mosses as I do, you might also be looking for ways to assist this process to get moss established exactly where you want it to grow.

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And I think I just discovered a new way to encourage moss growth that doesn’t involve organic milkshakes made with beer, buttermilk or yogurt.  Some writers swear by the efficacy of whirring up moss with one of these in a blender and painting it onto stones and walls.  Others say they’ve only ended up with a smelly mess.  I’ve put that experiment off to another day!

But I noticed recently, that the perlite topping off the soil mix of some newly potted up little trees, has turned green.

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I potted up these rooted Acer cuttings within the last month, and moved them out to a shady spot on the deck to grow on.  You can imagine my delight at seeing a fresh green sheen on the perlite!  Is this an early growth of moss from airborne spores?

Think of perlite as ‘popcorn rock.’  It is volcanic rock that has been super heated to more than 1500F, where it puffs up and expands, now riddled with airways.   Perlite is light, soft and fine grained, making a valuable addition to improve texture and drainage in potting soil.

It is also very good for rooting cuttings because it holds moisture so well, while also allowing air to permeate the soil.  This helps to prevent rot in the stem and new roots of the cutting.

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So it makes sense that moist perlite is a great medium for growing moss.  It isn’t a smooth base, like so many gardeners recommend for getting transplanted mosses established.  But it is a wonderful material for the moss rhizoids (not roots) to anchor onto as the plant develops.

Remember that mosses don’t have any roots.  They absorb moisture directly through their cell walls into the structure of the plant.

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That is why rain, fog and mist encourage moss to grow.  If you are trying to encourage moss to grow, remember to keep the plants and their growing medium misted and moist.

I’ve been wanting to grow a sheet of moss for a while now, and picked up a terra cotta tray recently for that purpose.  Once I saw Dale’s gorgeous moss covered stones in the CG article, I’ve been thinking about how I can replicate the effect for my own pots.  Once I saw the moss growing on perlite last week, an idea began to form to make it happen.

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A layer of perlite covers a thin layer of peat based potting soil in this terracotta tray. Terracotta also helps to hold moisture.

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I’ve poured a thin layer of regular potting soil into the terra cotta tray, and topped off the soil with a layer of perlite.  I moistened the medium well, and then went out into the garden hunting for a few clumps of moss.  Some moss gardeners recommend breaking found moss up into tiny bits to sow into a new medium.

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You don’t have to worry about having roots as you would with a vascular perennial.  Moss just wants to grow!  So I broke my hunks up into very small bits, and pushed them firmly down into the perlite before watering it all in.  I’ve set some stones among the bits of moss, hoping that by keeping it all damp I can encourage moss to grow on these small rocks.  I’d count that as a major victory in my moss growing efforts!

It is still damp and rainy today as the remnants of Hurricane Florence bring us a bit more rain even as they blow northwards and out to sea.  It is a good day for moss, and our garden is still very damp from days and days of rain.

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I have this terra cotta tray set in the shade on the deck this afternoon.  When the weather turns dry again, I may tuck it into a plastic bag or cover it with a clear plastic box while the moss establishes.  But the moss in the Acer pots didn’t get any special treatment; this may not need covering, either, as our weather cools.

I want moss to grow on these stones so I can use them as decorative accents in our winter pots.  I haven’t decided whether to simply keep the tray of moss growing for its own sake, or whether to use sheets of the moss in pots.  Either way, I’ll show you what this experiment does in the weeks ahead.

If you love moss as I do, then you may want to try this simple method for growing it, too.

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Woodland Gnome

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The Mossy Creek Pottery Garden, Lincoln City, Oregon

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“There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks
poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents.
This is what has been called the “dialect of moss on stone –
an interface of immensity and minuteness, of past and present,
softness and hardness, stillness and vibrancy, yin and yan.”
.
Robin Wall Kimmerer

Green Thumb Tip #22: Do the Math

Two Athyrium ‘Branford Rambler’ that I picked up on an August clearance sale on Saturday are ready for division.

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Every garden center offers deals in August to move out the last of their summer stock so there is room for all of those fall pansies and chrysanthemums already on their way.  You will find a very good selection of all of the major genera at most good nurseries, but now marked down 20-40%.

They may be pot bound and perhaps a little sun scorched; no worries.  With a little effort and skill you can increase that small investment many fold.  With a perennial, it is always the roots, crowns, rhizomes, tubers, or stolons that matter.  These are the parts that survive and increase year to year.  The flowers and foliage come and go with the seasons.

This late in the season, the bargain perennial you score on discount has likely had many weeks to grow and increase in its nursery pot.  That means that you can divide it into several pieces, re-pot them and grow them on so that you end up with several beautiful plants before fall really takes hold.  We still have a good eight weeks of summer growing weather, here in coastal Virginia, before we even think about a first frost.

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These will grow into dense ferns, as this Japanese painted fern hybrid spreads itself around.  I like the red stems.  Because this is a deciduous hardy fern, it will fade away over the winter.  But come spring, it will reemerge with red fiddle heads.

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I found two Athyrium ‘Branford Rambler’ ferns this weekend on clearance at 20% off their original price.  This is a  lady fern hybrid produced from a cross with a Japanese Painted fern.  The central stem of each frond is deep red, and I expect the fiddle heads next spring to be deep red, too.  These ferns like moist acidic soil and full to partial shade.  This fern is known for spreading rapidly, and will grow to about 24″ high and wide.

I bought these ferns because I’m planning to design some winter perennial and bulb pots in October, and think that fern fronds emerging through the daffodils will look terrific!  I want some small divisions of a Japanese painted fern hybrid to plant among the bulbs, for their red fiddleheads, and I’ll finish the pots with Violas or Heuchera divisions.

When deciding which perennials to buy this time of year, compare all of the available pots of whatever plant you are considering.  Look for ones that have multiple crowns or divisions which can be pulled apart.

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You will need several clean, empty pots that are deep enough to accommodate roots of your divisions, some fresh potting soil, a clean knife or hori-hori and space to work comfortably.  I also have something to line the pots to hold the soil, like a coffee filter or paper toweling.  Your new plants will only live in these pots for a few weeks, so this is a temporary pot and can be a little rough.

I begin by guessing how many divisions are possible from the plant, and then prepare a pot for each by lining it with paper and filling it about 1/4 full of fresh potting soil.  Next, I massage the nursery pot with the mother plant to loosen up the roots, and then gently slide the root ball out of the pot.  Always work with a well-moistened root ball.  If the plant comes home dry, water it well first thing, and give it a few hours before beginning any division.

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As soon as you study the roots and plant structure you will likely see where you can divide the plant so that each new division has both leaves and roots.   If the plant has rhizomes, tubers or stolons, make sure that each division has a section attached to both leaves and roots.

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Some plants, like my ferns, can be gently pulled and teased apart by hand.  Other plants may need to be cut into divisions.  Make sure that your blade is clean before you begin work on each plant by wiping it with a Lysol or other disinfectant wipe, washing it in hot soapy water, or even spraying it with a spray disinfectant.  This will control the spread of any bacteria or fungi  that may be on your tools.

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Notice where there are spaces between sections where you can begin to pull the plant apart.

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I like to work as quickly as I can so the roots don’t dry out, and usually pot up each division as I cut it free.  Position the roots in the new nursery pot so that the plant’s crown will be about an inch below the rim of the pot, and gently fill around the root ball with fresh potting soil.  Firm the soil as you go so that the division will stand up and not flop over and the soil is firm around the roots.

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Water each newly planted division after you pot it, keeping in mind that your fresh potting soil may not be holding much water.  It is good to do this on a rainy day and let the divisions sit out in a gentle rain.  Always take care to keep newly divided perennials in a shady place for at least a day as they recover and settle in their roots.

I wouldn’t put even full sun perennials back into full sun for at least a week, to give them a chance to adjust.  Since I’m working with ferns, I’ll put them in full shade for the first week or so, and then move them to brighter, partial shade.  It is very important to keep the soil moist, but not wet, as plants begin to grow their new root systems.

I like to water newly divided plants with Neptune’s Harvest seaweed and fish emulsion right after they are divided, and then every couple of weeks as they grow on.  You might also sprinkle the soil with Osmocote time release fertilizer to help the plants recover and begin growing again.

The plan is to stimulate growth over these last few weeks of summer, and then plant the divisions into garden beds or pots several weeks before the first frost.  You want to allow a few weeks for any newly planted perennial to grow roots beyond the planting hole, out into the surrounding soil, before the ground freezes.  This helps reduce heaving when the ground freezes hard, because the plant is anchored by its roots.

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I bought two plants, and ended up with nine divisions.   This is why I always save plastic nursery flats and nursery pots that come home with me on my plant hunting trips.  There are so many ways to reuse these very useful tools!  All nine of my new divisions are nestled into sturdy flats, where they will be easy to move and manage as I grow them on through September.

Unless you have unlimited funds for gardening, do the math.  Shop the seasonal bargains, and then use those bargain plants to make many more.  Whether you divide them, take cuttings to root from leggy plants, or gather their seeds- many plants on sale now offer abundant material that a thoughtful gardener can use to increase her collection and fill her garden with more texture and color.

Plant more plants!

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Woodland Gnome 2018

“Green Thumb” Tips: 

Many visitors to Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help grow the garden of their dreams.

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.

If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what you know from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I’ll update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about gardens and gardening.
Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!
Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time
Green Thumb Tip # 18: Edit!
Green Thumb Tip #19:  Focus on Foliage
Green Thumb Tip #20:  Go With the Flow
Green Thumb Tip #21:  The Mid-Summer Snack

 

Fabulous Friday: Appreciating Small Successes

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Every smitten gardener learns these two life lessons:  patience and appreciation.  Patience  helps one bide one’s time while nature’s processes unfold.  Sometimes the greatest skill in gardening is to simply wait and see what will happen.

I’ve been writing about the Alocasia plants that I saved over winter in the basement.  I didn’t have space to overwinter these huge plants indoors, and so allowed them to die back to just their tuber and roots in a paper grocery bag in our frost free basement.

When I brought them back outdoors and repotted them in May, it took quite a while for them to show new growth.  But, they finally  both awakened from winter dormancy and are back in gorgeous leaf again.

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Alocasia ‘Regal Shields’ grew beside our front porch last summer, and moved into this pretty new pot a few weeks ago. The little one beside it was also slow to return this summer, even though it overwintered in its pot in the garage. I was ready to dump out the contents and re-plant its pot with something new, when I noticed the Alocasia leaves beginning to emerge in mid-June.  Alocasia are jungle plants and need summer’s heat and humidity to thrive.

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I had potted them, this spring,  in black plastic nursery pots.  And then I found a great deal on a beautiful blue ceramic pot a few weeks back, and potted up the slower, smaller of the two plants in the pot and brought it out where we would enjoy it and it would be encouraged to take off.  Now it’s growing so fast, we can notice daily changes as it enjoys our Virginia summer heat and humidity.

I left the larger, more developed Alocasia in its nursery pot, tucked back into a stand of Canna lilies.  And my patience paid off on Saturday when I discovered the ‘scratch and dent’ pots at one of my favorite Richmond area nurseries.  The perfect blue pot sat there waiting for me, shining in the sunlight, with only a little chip out of its rim.

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Checking the fit, to make sure Alocasia ‘Regal Shields’ root ball will fit into its new pot.

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It is a good thing that I finally found the right pot and took care of re-potting our larger Alocasia, as its roots were already growing out of the drainage holes of its nursery pot.  Funny how quickly they grow, once they get started and have moisture and heat!

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I always like to line my pots before planting them up.  I’ll use anything from coffee filters to paper towels, plastic mesh, fine wire screens, or burlap.  Lining the pot keeps fresh soil from washing out of the drainage holes before the roots can fill in to hold it.

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A scrap of burlap lines the pot to prevent loose soil from washing out of the drainage holes before the roots can grow in.

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The lining also serves as a barrier against the small creatures who might want to crawl up into the pot and make their home among the roots.  How often have you unpotted a plant and found the soil rife with pill bugs, ants, or even earthworms?  All sorts of creatures can find shelter in a pot, given the chance.

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The soil in the bottom of the pot is important. I like to mix some gravel or perlite into the bottom inch or so for drainage, and mix fertilizer into all of the extra soil added to the pot around the root ball, to empower new growth.

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Burlap lasts longer than paper. And it also absorbs excess water, holding it, and then releasing it back into the soil as the soil begins to dry.  It is especially useful in a pot that doesn’t have drainage, as it helps to keep the whole pot evenly hydrated.  I’ll often cover the burlap with a shallow layer of perlite or gravel, to make a little reservoir in the bottom of a solid bottomed container.

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Remember to finish a pot with a mulch of pea gravel.  This helps keep the plant clean on rainy days, reflects the sunlight up into the plant and holds moisture in the soil.  I transplanted cuttings of Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ to add a little graceful ‘spiller’ around the edges of the pot.

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Eventually, even the burlap will break down.  Use the plastic mesh or metal screen to hold roots in and creatures out on a more lasting basis.  This is a good way to recycle those mesh bags our bulbs come packaged in each fall.

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Patience nearly always pays off in the garden.  We watch and wait as our plants grow and the creatures come and go among them.  And that is where we also learn appreciation.  I’ve come to notice that the more we slow down, the more appreciation we can savor.

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I was ready for the butterflies and hummingbirds this morning, camera in hand, and stood waiting in the front garden near the Lantana patch to see who might visit.

I noticed a friendly little Silver Spotted Skipper watching me from the highest point of the Lantana, and she let me take her photo.

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We played for a while, with her flying around a bit before coming back to rest on the Lantana, a little closer each time.  She paused while I snapped, and then took to the air once again.

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I heard the buzzing beside me even before turning my head to see the female hummingbird hovering near my shoulder, watching us.  She was very interested in our play, and waited until I began to turn my camera her way, before looping up and away, back to the comfort of a large Rose of Sharon.

Again, no photo of a hummingbird!

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Hibiscus coccineus

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But she and her partner have been hovering nearby most of the day.  They came to play in the spray of my hose this morning, and have been making the rounds of our garden’s Hibiscus offerings.  She paused to sip from the Salvia while I was working nearby.  Perhaps she and her partner can feel how much I delight in seeing them nearby.

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Our hummingbirds visit these blue Salvia flowers regularly. Conventional wisdom tells us that hummingbirds prefer red flowers, but that isn’t always the case.

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Why else would we expend such effort to tend a garden, if not for an August morning such as this, to stand in the midst of it all and appreciate its beauty?  We can savor the fragrances of herb and flowers, listen for the birds and watch the progress of each plant’s unfolding.

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It is when we slow down to appreciate such rare beauty, that we may notice the  creatures who share it observing us, in return.  The skinks skitter away as we approach, watching us from beneath and behind their shelter.  Later, we may notice them peering in through the glass doors to the deck.

The birds follow us around from shrub to tree to see what tasty bit we may dig up and leave behind for them.  And now even the butterflies want to play, posing for the camera, and waiting patiently for us to see them.

Woodland Gnome 2018

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Fabulous Friday: 
Happiness is Contagious; Let’s Infect One Another!
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Experiments With Gravel Mulch

Yucca filamentosa ‘Colorguard’ has appeared from under our newly installed gravel mulch.

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Most of the mulches we use are organic and improve the soil as they decay.  Shredded bark or leaves, pine straw, straw, newsprint or brown paper all have their uses.

When we consider inorganic mulches, there are definite benefits along with some obvious deficits.  Inorganic mulch won’t improve soil texture or fertility.  But neither will it harbor fungal disease, come pre-contaminated with weed seeds, provide a nesting site for ants or decay in just a few months.

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New terraces are planted to help control erosion, and mulched with pea gravel (spring 2017).

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I was first drawn to pea gravel mulch as we began to try to control erosion and cultivate the steep slopes of our back garden.    But I was also digging some gravel into the back-fill and planting hole when we installed new shrubs and perennials, to try to thwart the voles who would otherwise devour their tasty root balls.  Finishing the job with a nice mulch of gravel felt appropriate as a further deterrent to rodents.

Pea gravel definitely helps both with erosion control and rodent control.  But it also ‘disappeared’ into the soil on rainy days, after a while, and got covered with leaf litter and other organic matter over time.  I find myself renewing the pea gravel in spots after a while.

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“Soil security”

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Gravel mulch serves to help conserve soil moisture, just like every other sort of mulch.  It shades the soil, shelters root systems, absorbs the shock of falling rain and holds soil in place.

Additionally, gravel reflects sunlight and heat back up into the plants above it, helping to dry the plants more quickly after a rain and thereby deter fungal disease.  Gravel mulch also provides a dry barrier between moist soil and dry plant, preventing crown rot.

Soil doesn’t splash up onto lower leaves and branches, and the gravel perhaps makes it a little harder for invertebrates to travel up and back between soil and delicious plant above.

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Gravel mulch is used most commonly in rock gardens, where many drought tolerant and alpine plants are featured.  Some plants wouldn’t live long with a moist organic mulch, but manage just fine with gravel mulch that protects their crown.  Gravel is coming into vogue again as a fashionable and useful mulch for perennial gardens, too.  I have been reading about perennial and succulent  gardens grown under several inches of pea gravel in various garden magazines.

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Even a thin gravel mulch has helped conserve moisture around these newly planted perennials.

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I also recently enjoyed listening to a presentation by Joseph Tychonievich at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden where he presented his new book, Rock Gardening:  Reimagining a Classic Style.  Joseph inspired me to move ahead with my vision to incorporate more areas of gravel mulch in our sunny perennial beds in the upper garden.

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I use fine gravel as a mulch in potted arrangements, too.

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This area is gently sloping, and erosion isn’t as much of a pressing concern as in the lower gardens.  The entire area was left under several inches of freshly ground hardwood mulch in 2013, as the arborists who cleaned up our fallen trees ground up leaves and branches and simply left it all in place.

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Fresh compost piled on top of existing mulch allows me to plant in this area in 2013, right after the trees came down, without digging into the clay. A light covering of wood chips from the forest floor mulches the planting .

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As that has decomposed, I’ve renewed the mulch with bagged hardwood and Cypress mulch from the local hardware store.  It smells pleasant, and Cypress helps to repel insects.  It has an ecological downside, though as mature trees are cut for mulch.

The soil in much of this area still consists of thick, hard clay, despite my best efforts to dig in compost and improve its texture.  There may be a few inches of good compost on top of the clay, but the clay still holds heavy rainfall and keeps parts of the garden far too wet, especially in winter.

I am beginning to understand that a gravel mulch will promote better growth and vigor in most of the plants we are trying to establish, particularly the Iris and Mediterranean herbs.

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Recently,  I decided to experiment with a much larger gravel mulch in one of the beds that needed some TLC.  I lost several perennials here over winter, and so had quite a bit of bare ground.

On our shopping trip, my partner noticed this beautiful blue green rock quarried somewhere in Virginia.  We decided on the spot to give it a try, and I am very pleased with the results thus far.  Not only is this gravel not going to shift around on a rainy day, but I don’t believe it will sink down into the soil anytime soon, either.

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This three year old Siberian Iris bloomed for the first time this spring, and I hope the new gravel mulch will help it grow more vigorously in future.

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Now, please keep in mind that gravel is the heaviest mulch you can choose, and moving it around and spreading it takes both strength and commitment.  If I had the luxury of ordering up a truckload of it and hiring a crew to spread it for me, that would be a lovely thing.  But I don’t.

Rather, I’m buying it a couple of bags at a time and spreading it by hand.  It is going to take most of the summer to mulch this whole area working with just a few square feet each week.  But I am already seeing the benefit this mulch brings to our plants.

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This is a single bag of gravel spread around our new Monarda.  It will take a few more bags to finish this area….

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I bought three plugs of Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’ about four years ago, as we were first planting this bed.  I wanted them to make a large focal point to anchor the area and planted them in a broad triangle.  Well, let’s just say that I expected them to grow much faster and they have largely gotten lost between larger and floppier perennials.  In fact, one of the three was struggling so much that I dug it up in late winter and planted it into a pot in full sun, hoping to give it a better chance to grow.

Never mind that I kept digging it up every month or so, checking to see if there was any visible growth, and replanting it again with the confirmation of a fresh root or tiny shoot.  That is a sad tale, and I ended up filling the pot with first one plant, and then another, simply to have something to look at besides the empty pot.  I ticked this off as a failed plant and moved on.

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Maybe if I put a fresh gravel mulch in this pot, the Yucca would finally grow?

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But not so fast!  Something of that Yucca was left alive in the original bed.  And finally, a month after I mulched over the area with the new Virginia gravel, look at what has emerged!  Plants really really want to live, and sometimes we just need to improve conditions for them and get out of the way to give them a chance!

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This newly planted Lavender was struggling with our weather extremes, but has improved under the gravel mulch this month.

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Our friends at our local garden center have a running joke that we always buy gravel or compost, if nothing else, and are their best customers for pea gravel. Gravel has made gardening in this difficult site possible.

If you happen to be in the neighborhood, and want to visit with me and bring a little gift, a fresh bag of gravel is always in style.   I’ll be so happy to see you, will show you around the garden and offer you a few divisions of something nice to take away with you.

And I might even let you help spread the gravel while we’re at it!

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Rooting Caladium Leaves

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“Oops!  I didn’t mean to do that!”

Sometimes when I am transplanting a Caladium, a leaf will break off in the process.  No matter how careful I’m trying to be with moving the plant from where it has been growing to where it will be growing, a piece will sometimes break away.

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And with such a lovely leaf, why would anyone simply throw it away?  And that is how I discovered a little discussed secret about Caladiums. 

A green-handed gardening friend had a rooted Caladium leaf on her kitchen windowsill when I visited with her last summer, and I learned that it is possible to root a Caladium leaf from her.

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A Caladium leaf grows on a petiole that is connected, below ground, to the Caladium’s tuber.  The tuber is a fleshy storage organ which helps the plant survive while it is dormant, without active leaves or roots.

It is from the tuber that new roots and stems emerge when there is sufficient warmth and moisture to support growth.  New leaves emerge from the tuber at a growth point called a ‘bud,’ which is rich in growth hormones.

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Late October 2017, tubers were still in active growth when I dug them up to store over winter.  Tubers tend to grow in segments.  Larger tubers may be broken apart into smaller sections, especially when digging them in the fall.  This is another way to propagate more plants.

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When a Caladium leaf, and its petiole, break off with a bit of the brown tuber still attached, there is potential for this ‘division’ to grow new roots.

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These leaves have been rooting for only a few days. On a rainy humid day like today, there is a good chance that these rooted leaves will establish quickly in a pot in a shady spot.

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Once the roots form, the leaf is likely to survive.  The leaf has to be able to absorb enough water to prevent it from wilting, as water evaporates from its surface.   A new tuber begins to grow at the point where the roots are growing from the petiole.

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Once this new tuber is actively growing, new leaves will begin to emerge.  The more leaves in active growth, the more photosynthesis will occur.  The sugars produced during photosynthesis will be sent to the new tuber for storage.

Depending on how many weeks the new plant can grow before it goes back into dormancy, the tuber may bulk up enough to survive until spring.  If it doesn’t, you will still have enjoyed the rooted Caladium leaf for that season.

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I transplanted the newly rooted leaf into this shady spot on the deck where it can continue growth. If it needs more space in a few weeks, it will be easy enough to transplant it to a pot of its own.

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One must be careful about respecting plant patents in any home-grown propagation efforts.  That said, I have been carefully saving any leaves that break away while I am transplanting Caladiums this spring, and placing them in clean bottles filled with fresh water.

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Small bottles tend to work well, and I change out the water every few days to minimize any bacterial growth that would stop the process before the leaf can grow new roots.

Keep this technique in mind if you are designing pots or making floral arrangements and don’t have room for a fully established Caladium plant.  Maybe you do have room for a rooted leaf to make your arrangement sparkle with that special flair a Caladium leaf always brings.

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 September 2017, a successfully rooted leaf grows on. I hope it will emerge again this spring.

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I successfully established this rooted leaf last summer, and stored its tiny tuber in its pot over winter.  I’m still waiting to see whether it survived, and will leaf out again this year.

“Fingers crossed…”

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Reducing Damage From Moles and Voles

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Are moles or voles tunneling through your lawn?  Are your newly planted perennials disappearing into a vole tunnel?

We have been doing quite a bit of stomping on tunnels and filling of holes this spring.  In fact, a pesky little vole ate half the roots of a newly planted Columbine earlier this week, before I saw the damage and rescued it to a pot!  I planted a lovely Hellebore seedling in its place, only to find the opening of the tunnel widened the next morning, the rejected Hellebore lying beside it.

You know why the vole didn’t want the Hellebore, don’t you?  It is poisonous!  Planting poisonous bulbs and perennials seems to be our “go to strategy” in this wild garden, to foil the wildlife.  But there are a few other tricks that work as well.

Our spring time battle with the voles inspired me to update one of my first 2013 posts to Forest Garden, about our battles with the voles and moles we found here.  If you missed it then, let me invite you to take a dive into the Forest Garden archives and read it now.  You may find a useful idea that works for you, too.

When Your Garden Looks Like Swiss Cheese:  Living With Moles and Voles
Woodland Gnome 2018

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