Green Thumb Tip #14: Right Place, Right Plant

Japanese Maple shades a Hosta, “Empress Wu” in the Wubbel’s garden at Forest Lane Botanicals in neighboring York County.

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The first of the new year’s plant catalogs landed in our mailbox earlier this week.  After resisting it for a day, I finally poured a fresh cup of coffee and sat down to savor its promises of  fresh gardening adventures.  My attention was grabbed by a new Hosta introduction, H. ‘Waterslide’ on page 2.  Oh, such a pretty grey-blue Hosta, with long, wavy leaves.

I felt the first tickling sensation of plant lust inflaming my gardener’s imagination.  Before I hardly knew what was happening, I was back on the computer searching for vendors and deals on this new Hosta cultivar.  Then, barely pausing for breath, I was admiring all of the many Hosta cultivars offered by the Avents at Plant Delights Nursery, including their own new introductions this season.  Did you know that some of their Hosta will grow to nearly 4′ tall and wide?  Can you imagine?

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Hosta growing in our garden, with Autumn Brilliance fern, in  2012. The fern survived and thrives. The Hosta was grazed a few too many times, and hasn’t returned in recent years.

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That is how it begins each winter.  With little left to do outdoors, I’m planting imaginary gardens in my mind filled with roses, Hosta, ferns, fruit trees, herbs and lots of vibrant petunias.  I can spend many happy hours reading plant catalogs and gardening books, sketching out new beds and making long wish lists of new acquisitions.  I am always keenly interested in the year’s new introductions across many genera, and spend time assessing the year’s newest Proven Winners.

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Autumn Brilliance ferns, Mahonia and Edgeworthia chrysantha maintain a beautiful presence through the worst winter weather in our garden.  December 2016.

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Now, during the first few years on a new property, one might excuse such extravagance.  But I’m experienced enough to know better, by now, and have determined to impose even more self-discipline this year than ever before.

That, and I literally just planted the last of our spring flowering bulbs, acquired on December 15 on the clearance sale at Brent and Becky’s Bulb Shop.  What was I thinking?   What rational gardener loads up on an additional five dozen bulbs in mid-December, even if they are 75% off?

I used our last warmish day to find spots for every last one of them, including the last of the 50 miniature Iris bulbs ordered earlier this fall.  I rationalized ‘Christmas presents,’ at the time.  And in honesty, a few of my close gardening friends did get a dozen or so of the little guys.  But that still left me with a lot of little Iris bulbs to place.  Where to put them all?

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Winter blooming miniature Iris, February 2017.

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And that, of course, is the point.  I am a naturally curious plant collector.  I want to try growing one or two (or two dozen)  of everything! They all grow beautifully in my imagination.

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June 2017 in our front garden. The tall flowers are grown from grocery store carrots, planted in late winter.  It is nearly time to plant carrots again.  These bloomed for several months last summer.

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But reality sets in as I wander around the garden, pot and trowel in hand thinking, ‘Where can I plant this?’  And that approach regularly gets me into trouble.

Like people and pets, plants have needs.  If you meet their individual needs, they will thrive.  If you don’t plant them in the right place where their needs are met, they mope along looking ratty.

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Or worse, your investment dies.  But that’s not the end of it.  No, sometimes it is even worse when you successfully meet a plant’s needs, and it takes off and shows you its thuggish nature as it takes over all of the surrounding real-estate its hungry little roots can reach!

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Rudbeckia laciniata, a native that feeds wildlife, and an unapologetic thug that has taken over our ‘butterfly garden.’  Yes, there is work to do here before spring….

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Within a season or two, those plants near such an over-achiever get crowded or shaded out.  Without a vigilant gardener ready to prune, divide, dig out and generally keep the horticultural peace, the balance (and a season or two’s previous plantings) are lost.

So I remind myself, as we come into the 2018 gardening catalog season, of what I used to frequently remind my students:  “PPPPP.”  (or, Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance)  With a bit of creativity, maybe we can work a ‘Planting’ into that maxim…

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Our stump garden has finally taken off from bare mulch, four summers ago.  This photo from spring of 2017 shows how lush it has become over just a few years.

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As our garden fills up, there are fewer and fewer places left to plant anything new.  As little starts and rooted cuttings mature and grow on and spread, there is almost no ‘good’ place left to even consider installing a new bed or planting area in this garden.

Beyond even that practical consideration, this remains a hostile environment for so many beloved garden plants that most gardeners consider ‘normal,’ or even ‘easy.’  Like Hosta.  And daylillies.  And roses and oh, so many other fruiting and flowering plants I would love to grow!

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I can certainly order and plant that beautiful $20+ newest and grooviest Hosta.  If nowhere else, I’ll stick it in a pot and grow it under a shady tree.  But NO!  Just as soon as it begins to really fill out and look great in its new spot, some hungry Bambi will squirm into our garden on a day after the rain has washed our repellents away. The next time I go out to admire and water said Hosta, it will be gnawed off at the soil.

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Native Mountain Laurel blooms here  for several weeks in May.  This small tree remains evergreen all year, with interesting bark and slender trunks.  Poisonous, deer and squirrels leave it strictly alone.

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Thus, we return to, “Right place, right plant.”  You see, I’ve been working sorta backwards all of my gardening life.  (and yes, I’ve enjoyed it, and No, I don’t regret all of those poor planting choices.  I get lucky sometimes.)

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The stump garden, with newly planted Iris, Violas, chives, and Geranium cuttings in October of 2013;  four months after several trees came down here in a summer thunderstorm.

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First, we choose the place to plant.  Then, we analyze what will grow well there, and what we want those new plants to do for us.  Do we need something flowering?  Something evergreen?  Something edible?  A visual screen for something?  Does it fit into a larger planting scheme?

I envy those highly regarded English garden designers, who are commissioned to fill many acres at a time of some posh, historical site.  They have space, and budgets, and walls to hold off the deer.  And, they have deep soil and a perfect climate to fill their garden with roses….

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Late April, 2017, and our Iris fill the front garden.

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But I’m gardening in my imagination again, which is maybe OK this last week of the year.

I’ve made a firm New Year’s resolution to make more realistic plant purchases this coming year, and fewer of them.  I intend to train a new habit of having a spot chosen in advance before any new plant may be ordered or adopted on a whim.

No more vague, “I’ll find a spot for it, I’m sure.” 

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September 2013, and I took a friend’s good advice to try this Edgeworthia.  We sited it well, and it has delighted us with its flowers each winter since.

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This will make my partner very happy.  This is a Forest Garden, and I want to make sure we leave room for the trees, and the people, and for the plants that have already sunk their roots here, to grow.

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Our ‘deer resistant’ garden in February, 2017

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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Houseplant Hacks: Schlumbergera Propagation

Shlumbergera blooming  in our living room in February 2015.

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Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus plants may become another family heirloom.  Long lived and easy to care for, this is a quintessential ‘pass along plant’  you may be gifted with during the holidays.

Whether someone gives you one in full bloom in a little foil wrapped pot, or a well-meaning aunt insists on sending a cutting home with you, this is the season when many families enjoy a blooming cactus as a part of their holiday.

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A neighbor gave us this beautiful Christmas cactus covered in buds, last week.

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I can’t remember a time when my own mother didn’t have a Christmas cactus.  Her first one began as a gifted cutting from someone in the extended family.  At one time it had grown to a monstrous size, maybe 20″ or more around in a  large clay pot.  I never gave this ugly duckling house plant much consideration in those years, probably because hers didn’t often bloom.

Once you’ve enjoyed the vivid, decidedly odd blooms of a Schlumbergera on a wintery day, you may develop an appetite for these unusual plants just as I have.  Their extravagant flowers are meant to attract hummingbirds to pollinate them.  I love to have one in full bloom indoors when its snowing outside.

The ‘off’ bloom schedule of these beautiful tropical cacti may have something to do with their country and hemisphere of origin.  They were originally collected from the mountainous coastal forests of southeastern Brazil, where they grow in bright, humid shade.  They may be found growing high up in trees on moss covered branches, or in small pockets of soil in rocky areas at high altitudes.

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They were in cultivation in Europe by the early 19th Century, where breeders developed new cultivars for the market.  They were enjoyed both in homes and in fashionable heated greenhouses.

Although a cactus, these plants have no spines to stick you.   A succulent, they don’t require a great deal of care.  They offer a bulky green presence year round, bursting into abundant vivid bloom  between late October and late February each year.

Schlumbergera commonly turn up in grocery stores and garden centers blooming in shades of red, pink and purple.  Sometimes you may find one with white blooms touched with vivid rose.  More rarely, they can be found blooming  in shades of salmon, yellow or orange.

This is one reason it pays to know how to root a Christmas cactus.  Once you find one of the rarer colors, you might want to produce more to share, or for your own collection.

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Light pink Christmas cactus with a tiny white poinsettia on offer at a local garden center.

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Another reason is that the stems, which look like flat leaves, can sometimes be a bit fragile.  A section may break off while you are moving the plant or while you are moving around the plant.  When this happens, it feels nicer to root the broken piece than to discard it.

I’ve tried many different ways to root these odd green stems over the years.  The stems don’t really like to sit in water, though I’ve seen my mother root them this way.  They also don’t root reliably when simply stuck into some potting soil, though this sometimes works OK.  If the stars don’t align, or the temperature and humidity aren’t just right, then your efforts may be rewarded with a shriveled or mushy bit of stem with no roots to sustain it.

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I experimented with a new technique for rooting a Christmas cactus stem in extremely shallow water, on moist rocks.

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I was understandably excited when I saw a pin on Pinterest a few months ago, offering a novel way to root Schlumbergera.  The key to the wet rock method is to understand that Schlumbergera  naturally grow in a humid, coastal forest, high up in the mountains.  High humidity is the key, along with keeping the stem mostly dry, with only the growing tip in water.

Begin with a glass or small jar, and add a few inches of clean, attractive rocks.  Fill your glass with just enough fresh, cool water, to barely cover most of the rocks.  Then add your cuttings so that they rest on the rocks in very shallow water.  It works best to ‘twist’ the cutting from the parent plant rather than using scissors to remove it.

You will need at least 1 full stem section, though you may take a cutting a few inches long, like this one.  If the cutting already has flower buds, they will continue to grow as your cutting roots.

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Place your container and cuttings into a bright, cool window sill, where the cuttings will get bright light, but minimal direct sunlight.  Keep the water replenished every few days, and watch for those roots to grow.

Once the roots are at least 1/4″ long, you can pot up your rooted cutting in a peat based soil mix with a little grit.  The soil needs to drain easily.  Keep the soil just moist, but never really wet and never bone dry.

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This cutting is ready to pot up in good quality peat based potting mix.  Add a little fine grit to improve drainage.  If you plant into a container without drainage holes, be sure to begin with a few inches of gravel in the bottom of the container for drainage.

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I  feed my Christmas cactus monthly, during their season of bloom, with diluted orchid fertilizer; which keeps the buds coming.  Mine live near a large window where they get bright light during the daytime, but they also get natural darkness in late afternoon.  They like long nights and shorter days during their season of bloom.  The long nights help trigger bud formation. Shlumbergera also use more water when they are blooming, and of course thrive in a humid environment.

If your home has very dry air in winter, then try grouping them together, and consider setting the pots on trays of pebbles with a bit of standing water in the tray.

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This cutting rooted in the glass on moist rocks. After a few weeks, I planted it in its own little container to grow on until spring.

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In our climate, Christmas cactus thrive in bright shade on the deck all summer long.  I move them out in late April, once danger of frost has passed.  They love our humidity and grow lush with very little attention until time to bring them in ahead of the first fall frosts in late October.  By then, they have covered themselves in flower buds.

Keep your plants large and lush by adding rooted cuttings to your established pots of Christmas cactus.  They like a tight fit for their roots in the pot, but do pot them up every few years and give them some fresh, fertile soil.

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If your space allows, plant Christmas cactus in hanging planters, or set the pots up on plant stands where their drooping branches and long, pendulous flowers may be admired.   I’ve even seen a grouping of Christmas cactus pots arranged on a plant stand with layers of shelves, to give the illusion of a blooming Christmas tree.

These odd houseplants are extremely easy and rewarding to grow, once you know a few hacks to make your efforts more successful.

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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Leaf VI: Perpetuation

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The garden starts looking a bit tired, by late August; and I’m certainly feeling a bit tired, too.  After all, we’ve been at this now since February when our gardening season began a bit prematurely, with a string of days in the 80s.  And we have a few more good months of gardening still ahead this year. 

The garden is getting a good, deep drink today.  It began raining here sometime after midnight, and I was awakened several times in the night, listening to the heavy rain pounding on our roof and on the trees.  And we needed this rain to soften and re-hydrate our summered out soil.

A storm is moving up the coast.  The forecast keeps shifting, of course, but we’ll harvest a few inches of rain before this low moves away from us and out into the Atlantic.

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This is the time when some might give up for the year.  After all, things look a bit overgrown and shabby after weeks of heat and too little moisture.  A lot of plants in the garden have pretty much finished up for the season, or are taking an untidy nap.

Things might have gotten a little out of hand while we were traveling this summer, or while it was too hot to reasonably work outside.

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Joe Pye Weed takes center stage in the morning sunlight last week.

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September, almost upon us, offers a reprieve and a fresh opportunity for us all.  Students get a new semester.  Adults return from vacation, refreshed.  And gardeners get a beautiful autumn in the garden.

Autumn may be the best gardening season of the year.  Many perennials have matured into their full potential for size.  The garden’s silhouette may be more full and lush than at any other time of the year.  Colors in both flowers and foliage are rich and intense.

The air is cooler, the sky bluer, and the sun less intense.  This is the best season to give new shrubs and perennials a chance to establish and grow their roots out into the surrounding soil during the cool of the year.

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Pokeweed has overgrown the Salvia, Colocasia and Hibiscus that have grown here for the last several summers. They are just holding on beneath its shade.

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I’ve been refreshing our garden, preparing for the change of seasons. I’ve been cutting back browned leaves and stems, lifting mats of grass growing into my beds, deadheading, and replacing dying annuals with something fresh.

It is a good time to visit your local garden center again, with an eye towards investment in your garden’s future.  Many are cutting prices on summer stock to make way for their fall chrysanthemums and other seasonal items.  I have scored some wonderful deals recently on clearance herbs, perennials, ferns and a few salvageable annuals.  I’ve also invested in several bags of my favorite ‘Leaf Grow’ compost.  I plan to buy a few bags of hardwood mulch later this week.

Most nurseries will mark down their summer stock by 30%- 60%, depending on the plant’s desirability and how late it is in the season.   A nursery I visited on Saturday was actually giving plants away for free, with a purchase.

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Persian Shield grows as an annual in our climate. I found this one on clearance last weekend, and have  taken cuttings from it to spruce up late summer pots.

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As you cut back spent perennials, or remove fried annuals, replenish the soil with some fresh compost and plant something that will look good for another few months.  I’ve planted small pots of bronze fennel, Echinacea, and Lantana ‘Bandana’ in full bloom, over the past week.  Earlier in the month, I planted a half dozen Mexican bush sage, Salvia leucantha, all of which are growing well.  I expect the Lantana and Salvia to grow enough to fill in empty spots with bright flowers until frost.

I also purchased a huge, overgrown Persian Shield, Strobilanthes dyerianus, for about $2.00.   I love the bright purple foliage of this striking plant.  It is sturdy, drought tolerant, and can tolerate sun.  After cutting it back, I re-potted it to replace an expiring annual.

But all of those branches I removed will root in a glass of water!  As each cutting roots, I’ll plant it into a potted arrangement that needs a bit of freshening.  You can perform this bit of garden magic with many of the blooming and foliage plants available now on clearance.

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Our cane Begonias are covered in blooms this week. Canes root easily in water.

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Although it is still way too early to plant winter annuals, you might find some good evergreen perennials or ferns mixed into the clearance at the garden center.  I have just planted two ‘Epimediums,’ saved from a jumble of pots marked down by half.  These usually pricey perennials have tough, leathery evergreen leaves.  Their early spring flowers look like sprays of tiny fairies dancing on the breeze.  I’ve planted them where I know Daffodils will emerge next February.

Perennial ferns were mixed into the same clearance sale.  Crowded, I was able to cut the clump of fern into several pieces, planting them a foot or so apart to spread the ferny joy in a shaded bed.

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My new ferns went into this shady bed where daffodils will emerge next spring.  Potted up are Alocasia ‘Stingray’ and Begonia ‘Gryphon.’  They will return next summer, after a long winter snoozing in the garage.

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Fall is a good time to divide growing clumps of perennials you already have growing in pots.  Knock the plant out of its pot, gently pull a few sections away, and pack the now empty spots with fresh soil.  Water well, and let your mother plant keep on growing.  You can pot up or plant each division elsewhere, and let it grow on.  You may want to shelter the new potted division in a shady spot for a few days to let it establish, before moving it on to its destined spot.

Use this same trick with perennials, like Colocasia, spreading by runners.  Moving offsets now will give them a few months to establish before the leaves are killed by frost.

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Colocasia ‘Mojito’ produces many offsets, which can be pulled off of the mother plant and potted up to grow quickly into mature plants like this one.

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I learned a new trick, last week, too.  Admiring a friend’s kitchen windowsill garden, I noticed her Caladium leaf had grown both roots and new leaves in a glass of water.  Her leaf had fallen over in a storm.  When she pulled it, it came with a bit of the tuber attached at the base of the petiole.  From that tiny beginning, a new plant was forming.  When she pots up the rooted leaf, a tiny tuber will grow from these new roots.

This is one way to increase your Caladium collection; though one shouldn’t do it with any new patented Caladium variety.

All sorts of bits of plants, trimmed away in a late summer clean-up, may be rooted.  My kitchen windowsill, and the bright space around my sink, is full of  cuttings rooting in bottles of water this week.  I plant these out into small pots of soil as their roots form.

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Pruning away spent flower clusters from many perennials and woodies will likely earn you fresh flowers before frost.  Keep those butterfly bushes, crape myrtles, Salvias, Dahlias, roses, and even Joe Pye weed dead-headed, and the new flower buds will keep forming.  You can extend your season of bloom for many more weeks with this attention to detail.

Always remember:  plants want to grow! It requires just a little effort on our part to assist them.

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Dead head spent flowers from woody shrubs, like this crape myrtle, to keep new flowers coming. Joe Pye Weed will also continue to produce flower buds if regularly trimmed of its old flowers.  Newly planted yellow Lantana and  bronze fennel now fill the empty spaces in the bed at left, where I’ve also added a bit of compost. The white flowers are self-seeding garlic chives.

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Once the rain has finished, I’ll head back out to the garden to top-dress many of our beds with an extra inch of compost.  And I’ll follow that with an inch or so of fresh mulch over the next week.  This will offer a little nutrition to the soil, and help lock in the moisture we’re receiving from this storm.  Our cadre of earthworms will appreciate the effort.

Gardeners learn many tricks to perpetuate the beauty of their garden year to year, and through the changing seasons.  We learn to multiply and nurture what we already have, and minimize what we might need to purchase season to season.

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Late planted Caladiums have struggled with heat and drought this summer. (photographed last Thursday, when I was keeping them watered by hand.)  Now that we’ve had significant rain, they will surely shine through the next few months.

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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“Many of life’s failures
are people who did not realize
how close they were to success
when they gave up.”
.
Thomas A. Edison
*
“A wise man
will make more opportunities
than he finds.”
.
Sir Francis Bacon

 

 

 

Green Thumb Tip #12: Grow More Of That

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What grows well in your garden?  Well, grow more of that.

There are hundreds of thousands of different plants available for the inspired gardener to seek out and grow.  You can choose everything from lilies to Aloe, boxwood to basil, Magnolia to daffodils.  There are uncounted genus and species and cultivars of every imaginable plant, in abundance.  How to choose?

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Tri-color sage, a culinary herb, can take heat and dry soil.

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I enjoy experimenting with plants.  I bring home many flats of this and that, some planned purchases and some adopted on a whim.  And yet as I walk around, hose in hand, during this July heatwave in coastal Virginia; I’m brought up short by which plants in our garden struggle and which thrive.

Let it be said that my beloved roses struggle at the moment.

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Through the vagaries of climate change, they never had a good start this year; and I’ve been too busy with other matters to give them the attention they require.

In fact, my instinct this morning was to rip out of most of the pathetic little shrubs and be done with them.  Perhaps heavy pruning and heavy rain could bring them back to beauty.

I might whistle a different tune by October.  But in this moment, they aren’t earning their garden space.

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Trailing purple Lantana fills several of our hanging baskets this year. It can take heat and drought and still give consistent color.

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Even the geraniums look rather ratty this week.  In fact, as I look around and survey recent purchases, it is clear that some have clearly not lived up to their potential here.

Most of our perennial geraniums were heavily grazed by our resident rabbits.  They’re supposed to be fool-proof, aren’t they?  The annual geraniums struggle in their pots against the unrelenting summer sun and oppressive heat.

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Last year’s potted Hydrangeas, nipped by late frosts, never took off in early summer.  Add a few grazing deer and…. well, you can imagine the nubs without a photo, can’t you?

But on the other hand, the Caladiums, Cannas and Colocasias look great.  The Basil is taking off, and our sage, Thyme, Santolina, Germander, mint and Rosemary still look fresh and strong.  The Crepe Myrtle trees are beginning to bloom and our garden remains filled with bright Hibiscus blossoms.

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Echinacea can hold its own in July, attracts wildlife, and holds its color for several weeks.  It grows easily from seed, and may self-sow.

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It came clear to me earlier today, as I was watering our new shade bed, that while the ferns looked fresh and healthy, most of our newest Rhododendrons, right beside them, look terrible.

I’ll be very surprised if any of them survive.  I was calculating the dollars I spent on them and remembering my great confidence in their coming years of beauty….

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The first Rhododendron we planted this spring to stabilize a gorge caused by erosion over a vole tunnel. It doesn’t look this perky anymore….

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Let’s acknowledge, first of all, that we are in the midst of rapid climate change.  What ‘always worked’ before has become irrelevant in this year’s garden.  Every month is a record breaker as our climate warms.  Neighboring communities flood while our garden bakes and the soil hardens.

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Mahonia is one tough shrub. It looks great year round, blooms in winter, produces berries for wildlife, and require very little from its gardener.

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Weather aside, we all still face our own particular challenges based on our soil and where our garden is situated.  We deal with a virtual zoo of insects, rodents, and other creatures who dine in our garden.  Like generations of gardeners before us, we can either adapt or stop trying to garden.

I vote, ‘adapt.’ 

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Ajuga and creeping Jenny make a dependable ground cover throughout the year.

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Adapting means adjusting to what is rather than working harder to create some fantasy of what used to be so.  For us, that means finding better ways to care for our plants.  And it also means growing more of the tough plants that thrive in the conditions we can provide.

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This native perennial ageratum spreads itself around the garden. I used to ‘weed it out’ in spring, but have grown to appreciate its tough beauty.

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Mid-July is a good time to take a hard, honest look at one’s own garden.  What looks good?  What has already died this season?  Which plants are barely hanging on?

Whatever is doing well, then plant more of that!

We have a few self-seeding perennials we have learned to enjoy.  Black eyed Susans, Rudbeckia hirta, is a beautiful native perennial that conquers more of our garden real estate each season.  I allow them, while also digging up lots of spring seedlings to share with neighbors.

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This is our largest patch of black eyed Susans, bordered with a few Zantedeschia and other perennials..

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Another self-seeding native perennial, Conoclinium coelestinum, is a hardy Ageratum or mist flower.  While I used to buy flats of annual Ageratum in years passed, now I just allow the native form to grow undisturbed. Echinacea and Monarda return and spread each summer.

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I also allow our hardy Colocasia, Hibiscus and Canna to spread a little more each year; and invest part of our spring gardening budget in hardy ferns instead of flats of tender annuals which won’t make it through the hottest part of summer.

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Begonias hold up well in heat and humidity, so long as they have shade from the mid-day sun and consistently moist soil.

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Gone are my hanging baskets once filled with Petunias and ivy geraniums.  Instead, I planted some trailing Lantana, ivy and scented Pelargoniums that can take intense heat and dry soil.  Because Begonias hold up to our heat and humidity, if sheltered in some shade, I keep rooting cuttings and planting more of those, too.

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This ‘volunteer’ Crepe Myrtle tree is taking its place in the border. After several years of TLC, it has grown to about 10′ tall and is covered in blooms this July.

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Planting more of what has proven successful, instead of planting once loved plants which no longer thrive, gives us a fuller and more vibrant garden.  The butterflies and hummingbirds still visit.  Goldfinches appear once the Basil begins to go to seed, and hang around for the autumn ripening Rudbeckia and Hibiscus  seeds.

And, for the budget conscious, propagating more of those plants which grow well sure beats sowing or buying a lot of new plants each year, which might fail!

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Rose of Sharon, tree Hibiscus, attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. Dozens of seedlings pop up in unexpected spots in the garden each spring.

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Each passing season in this garden teaches me to ‘allow’ more and plant less.  Native and naturalized plants are winning out over showy annuals or the latest new perennial.

I’ve come to see that the garden hones the gardener, just as much as the gardener shapes the garden.  Struggle melts into harmony, and work becomes play.

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Phytolacca americana, common poke weed, fills a corner of our garden with spectacular berries during these ‘Dog Days’ of summer.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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“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 will 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 plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #1:  Pinch!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #2:  Feed!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3 Deadhead!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #4 Get the Light Right!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #5: Keep Planting!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #6: Size Matters!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 7:  Experiment!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #8  Observe

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #9 Plan Ahead

Green Thumb Tip # 10 Understand the Rhythm

Green Thumb Tip # 11:  The Perennial Philosophy

‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios

 

 

Shade Haven

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As June fades towards July, we appreciate every speck of shade our garden offers.  Summer days in Virginia routinely heat up to over 90F.  And it’s a moist heat, here near the coast.  Some days we have nearly 100% humidity.

When I was growing up in Virginia, we somehow survived it, often without any air conditioning.  The first few schools where I taught didn’t have air conditioning, either.  Maybe that is why I love the shade and know the value of a cool breeze on a summer day.

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Japanese painted fern’s silvery fronds make it especially cooling on a sultry summer day.

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The lowest slope at the back of our garden enjoys a lot of shade.  It is steep, and erosion remains a concern.  This is one of the first areas where we began planting ferns in our first year of tending this garden.  A dense stand of bamboo grows just beyond, where our garden falls off into the ravine.

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Ferns emerging on our sloped fern garden in early April

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I add a few more ferns and shade-loving plants to this area each year.  I began a new planting bed around the stump of a newly fallen tree, at the base of the slope, several years ago.  It began with a transplanted Hellebore seedling and some  little autumn ferns, planted into a mound of compost poured in and around the stump.  Well, they  survived into the next year, and so I made the circle of compost a little wider and added a few more plants.

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Autumn Brilliance ferns planted are  in Leaf Grow Soil conditioner packed around a small stump, for the beginnings of a new garden in the shade.   June 2013

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I’ve added a few more plants each year, including some Sauromatum venosum, or  Voodoo Lily tubers, in 2015.

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I thought I might have ruined this ‘Voodoo Lily’ tuber when my spade hit it early this spring. Rather, it is better. Instead of one or two stems, it has sent up many, producing a much better plant.  July 2016

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We finally decided this spring to extend this whole area and give it a proper border.  This was very early on when I was studying rain gardens, and thinking about places on our property where we needed to do more to catch and use run-off from storms.

This shady slope has fairly good soil, but is ridden with roots.  So I simply outlined the new dimensions of the bed, laid an outline of landscaping bricks, and set to work eliminating the existing  weedy growth.

Some of the weeds, near existing perennials, needed pulling.  Some areas where moss was well established, I wanted to simply leave alone.  But much of the new garden could be covered with brown paper grocery bags, and topped off with a few inches of compost.  This is the best method I’ve found for creating new planting beds in this garden.

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I chose a selection of ferns and shade loving perennials to harmonize with the ferns, Hellebores, and voodoo lily already growing here.  Although I’ve planted mostly hardy ferns, there are a few more tender ferns that I potted up last fall, and returned to this bed after danger of frost.  Others are planted into containers and  displayed in this area.

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Bamboo leaves drift down on every breeze.  I clear them, occasionally, off of the larger plants in this bed.  One day, when I’ve nothing else to do, I plan to grab our leaf blower and blow all of the bamboo leaves away from the garden and back towards the ravine.  I’m sure the moss establishing here would be better for it, and so would my character.  How I admire fastidious gardeners!  Perhaps one day I’ll join their ranks….

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Ken Druse has written a delightful book entirely about gardening in shade.

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His The New Shade Garden is one of those beautiful books I lusted after for more than a year, before I finally ordered it this past winter.  The luscious photos and useful information and encouragement on every page left me wondering why I waited so long to read it.  This book is a treasure, and I highly recommend it to you if you share my affinity for finding cool haven in the shade.  You’ll find whole chapters devoted to shade loving trees, shrubs, perennials and ferns; along with useful lists and recommendations for plants for particular situations.

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All we need now, to complete this beautiful shade haven in our back garden, is a little patio and a place to sit.  That may still be a few years off, though.  Somehow I’m always more interested in plants than hardscape, and rarely find time to just sit in the garden.

There is always more to do…. something waiting for me to plant….

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Woodland Gnome 2017

Green Thumb Tip #11: The Perennial Philosophy

Peonies emerging from the warming earth.

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Newbie gardeners so often fall for the trays of brightly flowering annuals each spring.  I know this, because I once did, too.  Who can resist the bright, harlequin colors of striped petunias, glowing marigolds, red New Guinea impatiens and perky geraniums?

In fact, we’re just home from Lowes.  It took all my will power to admire the tables laden with annual flats and keep right on going, without adopting a single one!

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Redbud, a small native tree which fills the garden with flowers in earliest spring.

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And I promise you, I will end buying a few annuals for pots and baskets before the last week of April.  But there is a better way to build a garden than bedding annual plants.

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Narcissus “Thalia” form clumps as their bulbs multiply each year.

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Back when, in another century, the fashion might have been to plant vast expanses of bright annuals in geometric figures in a large bed backed by a sedate hedge.  That works when you have a small army of gardeners on staff, a greenhouse of your own to raise those annuals, and plenty of time to work out the annual schemes.

It helps if your property is well fenced so that rogue rabbits and deer never find your tasty annual treats, too.

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Hellebores bloom each winter, filling the garden with flowers for three or four months when little else is in bloom.  Deer and rabbits won’t bother them.  This is a young plant, and will eventually grow to 18″-24″ wide.

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But we live, and garden, in a different world, don’t we?

Our reality includes limitations on our time, our energy, our purse, and maybe even on how much water we can invest in our garden during the hottest, driest months of summer.  Experienced gardeners learn to use plants which will return year after year, and largely take care of themselves.

It helps that most perennials not only grow larger each year, they also spread by some means or another.

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Lamium roots at the leaf nodes, and makes a beautiful ground cover. It will bloom in a few weeks and provides a beautiful foliage back drop almost year round.

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Perennials prove a wise investment of gardening dollars.  Purchased as small divisions or even bare root, most cost less than many annuals.  Some perennials even come as tiny starts in cell packs of 4, 6, or 8 in spring.  Once established, they can be divided again and again so your garden grows more lush and full each year.

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Lilac shrubs fill the garden with fragrance when they bloom each spring. Some newer Lilacs will re-bloom sporadically during the summer.

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Perennials include herbaceous plants, which may die back to the ground each winter; but they also include bulbs, tubers, ferns, herbs and flower producing shrubs. I take great joy in watching for favorite perennials to emerge from the earth each spring.  It is reassuring to see them return again and again; better each year.

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Perennial Columbine will begin to bloom any day now. Its foliage will fill this spot all summer long.

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I have heard from more than a few aging gardeners that they invest more in interesting trees or shrubs, and less in herbaceous perennials, with each passing year.  The upkeep year to year is easier.  You get more ‘bang’ for your ‘buck’ with a shrub producing hundreds of flowers each season.

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Iris ‘Immortality’ with Comphrey. This is a re-blooming Iris, which often blooms again in August or September.

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Some gardeners may be timid to plant perennials, because it is a little more complicated to plan for a full season of blooms.  Some perennials, like bearded Iris, may bloom only for a few weeks each year.  Once the Iris finish, what next?

I’ve actually seen charts showing the staggered bloom times of twenty or so perennials planted together in a bed.  Keeping track of color, size, habit and bloom time can seem overwhelming to a newbie gardener just getting acquainted with the world of perennials.

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Siberian Iris bloom with Artemesia and Comphrey, both perennial herbs. 

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It takes time to grow a good gardener.  We learn a little bit more with each passing season.   Our repertoire of plants increases through trial and error.  And our tastes evolve.

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Azaleas fill our garden in April.

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At some point, we realize that foliage is more important than flowers; and that the best gardens envelope us.  While annuals grow just a few inches tall, our trees, flowering shrubs and established perennials grow feet high, giving the garden a bit of drama and a lot of interesting structure.

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Many perennials, like Canna lily and Ginger lily, will grow to six or seven feet tall in just a few weeks.

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So go ahead a buy a few geraniums this spring to fill a pot by the front door.

But remember the perennial philosophy:  Buy it once, and then enjoy it for many years to come.

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Echinacea, or Purple Coneflower, is a favorite of nectar loving insects. A perennial, it is rarely touched by deer and grows more vigorous each year.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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“Green Thumb” Tips:  Many of you who visit 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 you grow the garden of your 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 will 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 plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #1:  Pinch!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #2:  Feed!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3 Deadhead!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #4 Get the Light Right!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #5: Keep Planting!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #6: Size Matters!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 7:  Experiment!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #8  Observe

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #9 Plan Ahead

Green Thumb Tip # 10 Understand the Rhythm

‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios

 

 

Water-Wise Pots

february-23-2017-potting-027

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Keeping potting soil well hydrated presents a challenge when the mercury rises and the gardener gets busy.

I’m always open to new ideas which allow me to use less water and keep my potted gardens happy.  I hate to water deeply, only to find a growing puddle seeping out of the pot.  Water is a precious resource, and grows more so each year.

I’ve used water globes in some pots and hanging baskets for a few years now, especially when the pots are indoors.    They deliver just the amount of water needed over several days, reducing both evaporation and the inevitable mess watering can make.  The large one I use to keep our Norfolk Island Pine happy through the winter is a two piece contraption.

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Yes, I realize the spike should be deeper into the soil. The tree's roots are so thick this was the best I could do! And it still works....

Yes, I realize the spike should be deeper into the soil. The tree’s roots are so thick this was the best I could do! And it still works….

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A terra cotta spike, about an inch in diameter, stays embedded in the potting soil.  The stained glass globe reservoir lifts out for filling.  You invert the filled globe into the spike (very carefully) and then allow the water to wick through the terra cotta spike, into the potting mix, as the plant needs it.  The tree grows happily, and I fill the globe about twice a week.

This is a neat system, and got me to wondering whether I could construct something similar for the large pots I keep out on our patio and deck all summer.

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My favorite, clean, pea gravel, with a lot of fine grit.

My favorite, clean, pea gravel, comes with a lot of fine grit.

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I’m not keen on buying more globes for the outdoor pots.  For one thing, the kit runs around $20.  For another, our squirrels might just knock the globe out and  shatter it while they explore the pots.

But tiny terra cotta pots are fairly cheap at the big box stores.

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Burlap over the drainage hole keeps potting soil from seeping out of the pot's drainage hole.

Burlap over the drainage hole keeps potting soil from seeping out of the pot.

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I found stacks of little pots today for about 40 cents each at WalMart.  So I’ve dreamed up a little gadget which should work reasonably well to help keep a pot hydrated in summer.  I am going to try it out this spring and see whether it works.

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february-23-2017-potting-012

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My idea is to construct a hollow, terra cotta column towards the middle of the pot, that will hold a reservoir of water.  The water will then wick back out into the soil as it is needed.   Unglazed clay, like these little pots, absorbs and holds water easily.  Although solid, they work much like a sponge.

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I've positioned the terra cotta pot a little off center, on about 2" of potting mix. There is a little scrap of burlap in the bottom, covered with a very shallow layer of pea gravel in the bottom pot.

I’ve positioned the first terra cotta pot a little off center, on about 2″ of potting mix.

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That is the main reason I generally avoid unglazed pots for planting anything except succulents:  water evaporates from the clay pot pretty quickly.  They need constant monitoring in summer’s heat.  But that porous clay, which allows water molecules to pass quickly and easily through the pot’s walls is exactly what makes terra cotta  good for watering devices.

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february-23-2017-potting-014

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I put a few inches of potting mix into the bottom of the pot, and then began the tower.  There is a little square of burlap in the bottom pot to slow water from simply pouring through its little drainage hole.

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I've added some slow release plant food in the next to the top little pot, and also sprinkled some into the potting mix.

I’ve added some slow release plant food in the next to the top little pot, and also sprinkled some into the potting mix.

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A thin layer of pea gravel in the bottom of each pot in the stack helps space the pots apart and again, slow the movement of water.

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february-23-2017-potting-016

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I filled in with potting mix, as I built the tower, to hold it steady.  This pot is planted up with Lily of the Valley roots, Convallaria majalis, found bare root in one of the little packs you find everywhere each spring.  Lily of the Valley grows and spreads from rhizomes, and so should be planted shallowly.  The package said to plant them an inch deep.

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The pot is topped off with potting mix, covering the newly planted roots about 1" deep.

The pot is topped off with potting mix, covering the newly planted roots about an inch deep.

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After topping off the pot with soil, I added a few little Strawberry Begonia divisions and a few Arum italicum seedlings.  These have small root systems still, and so planting didn’t interfere with the Convallaria roots just beneath the surface.

It is still a little early here for planting up pots.  Our last frost date, in April, is weeks away.  Whatever goes  into this practice pot has to be hardy!

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Strawberry Begonia divisions and Arum itallicum seedlings can be tucked into the pot without disturbing the Convallaria roots below.

Strawberry Begonia divisions and Arum itallicum seedlings can be tucked into the pot without disturbing the Convallaria roots below.

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All three of these plants may be transplanted out into the garden in a few months when I want the pot for something else…. or not.

Maybe I will like this perennial arrangement enough to just leave it to grow through until next spring!

The very top little terra cotta pot is filled up with gravel.  Although I watered the whole pot in thoroughly to settle the plants and wet the potting mix, I paid special attention to filling the little terra cotta reservoir.

In retrospect, I wish I had thought to soak the terra cotta pots before using them.  Next time, right?

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february-23-2017-potting-024

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Finally, I laid a layer of moss over all of the exposed soil to further slow evaporation.  Mulching pots gives a nice finished look even as it reduces the need to water.  The potting mix won’t splash around when it rains.

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In full sun, I would have mulched with gravel.  But since these plants prefer partial shade, the moss will work just fine.

You might notice a few decorative stones in the finished pot.  I often put stones beside little transplants to protect them.  The stones give a little obstacle to curious birds and squirrels and protect the plant’s tender roots as they establish.  Stones also tend to keep the soil beneath cool and moist.

I like how this pot came together.  As all the plants grow, the terra cotta reservoir should disappear behind their foliage.  But it will still be easy enough to find when I’m watering.

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february-23-2017-potting-028

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In summer, or when I’m traveling,  I could remove most of the gravel from the top terra cotta pot to make enough room to upend a plastic water bottle into the reservoir.  While not pretty, the bottle would feed water, as it is needed, to keep the pot going when I’m not here to water! There are lots of possibilities here.

What do you think?  You are probably clever enough to already see ways to improve this scheme.

Please share your ideas, and we’ll tinker around to make an effective, affordable, water wise system to make summer a little easier on us all.  I’d love to see photos of your pots if you try out this idea.

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february-23-2017-potting-029

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Woodland Gnome 2017

Pruning

oak

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Pruning is hard for me.  I am always reluctant to cut away bits of a living plant.  And yet I’ve learned that the cutting away nearly always catalyzes new growth; usually more vigorous and productive than what was removed.

Biologically, when a stem or branch is cut back, the plant releases hormones which activate all of the growth nodes further back down the plant so they begin to send out new shoots.  When you cut a stem of basil, two new branches will grow back from just below the cut, but new branches will also begin to grow where none were before along the rest of the stem.  Soon the plant has filled out with lush new growth.

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Basil

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When you remove spent flowers, the plant is mobilized to produce more buds and blossoms to replace them in the hopes of eventually setting seeds.  All flower gardeners know to “deadhead” the spent flowers every few days to keep their gardens full of blossoms.  Harvesting flowers to bring in and arrange and share keeps the garden productive through the season.

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The forest

The Forest before the storm…

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And still, I’m horrified to watch my friends who own the Homestead Garden Center deal with their leggy stock. They take perfectly beautiful blooming plants, those who have sat on the shelves a few weeks too long, and sheer them back; ruthlessly cutting off blooms and branches.  Then they plop them into the next size of pot with fresh soil, douse the whole thing with some Neptune’s Harvest, and move them back into the tunnel for a while.

Miraculously, those plants not only recover, but soon are covered in fresh, vibrant new leaves and buds.  What an amazing  process to watch unfold.  When I buy a plant, they often admonish me to cut it back hard when I transplant it; advice I too seldom take.

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We’ve loved our “forest” in the front yard since the day we first saw our house.  We loved the shade and the privacy it gave us.  We loved the huge old oaks, and all of the small dogwoods, hollies, and wild blueberries growing under them.  We loved the mushrooms growing among their knobby roots after a heavy rain, and the many birds they brought to the garden.  Although we didn’t much care for the families of squirrels digging holes and hiding acorns in the flower pots all autumn, they were also a part of the life of the forest.

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A neighbor's oak tree fell across our back garden in Hurricane Irene.

A neighbor’s oak tree fell across our back garden in Hurricane Irene, 2010.

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As much as we love old trees, and especially old oaks, I must admit that listening to the wind whipping through the great old branches heavily laden with leaves and nuts is a terrifying sound in the night.  A neighbor’s huge oak fell across the back yard in Irene, and gave us a clear visual of how long their reach can be when they fall.  Although it destroyed most of our orchard, and made a terrific mess of the yard, the house was spared.

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A freak June thunderstorm spawned waterspouts from the Creek which took out three oak trees from our forest.

A freak June thunderstorm spawned waterspouts from the Creek which took out three oak trees from our forest.

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Now, not even two years later, a freak June thunderstorm spun up waterspouts off the Creek and into our yard, felling three oaks from our forest.  They fell away from the house and into the street.  We were spared yet again, and the message was clear.

Time to prune in the forest.   Our trees had grown lopsided reaching for the sun.  Some were leaning, and all had a few dead or dying branches ready to fall in the next heavy wind.

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Arborists grinding pruned branches to return them to the forest as a thick mulch.

Arborists grinding pruned branches to return them to the forest as a thick mulch.

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The crew who cleaned up our trees in June returned this week with their chainsaws and climbing equipment.  After two long days of pruning, my beautiful trees look like strangers.  The floor of the forest is covered in bits of their wood and leaves, where many of the branches were ground up for mulch.  My forest garden is open to the full sun beating down in areas which have known only shade for decades.  I am still in shock, just observing, still trying to accept and appreciate the opportunity for change and transformation.

My good friend sat for a moment in silence when she first saw it last night.

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forest

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We had just spent the afternoon together walking around her garden.  She and her husband removed an oak in their front yard last year, and in its place built a new raised bed now full of flowers and vegetables.  Their tomatoes, rooted in the new soil and compost are now over 10’ tall.  Their Zinnias, full of butterflies, are head high.  We share the same struggles with gardening in this neighborhood, and try to share ideas that work and plants that grow well here.

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Zinnias and Monarch butterfly.

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She and her husband also showed me the oaks they saved by having them pruned.  Their majestic healthy oaks, all close to the house, are clothed this summer in a bright leaves and new growth. The wind moves through them easily now, and the scars of pruning are hidden, at least in high summer, by healthy new branches.

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I know our trees will recover in time, and by next summer will be covered again in beautiful green leaves.  I know that within a few years they will grow enough to once more give shade to the front garden.  I know the mulch the arborists left will protect and enrich the soil and allow for new understory growth.  I know that the shrubs still standing will benefit from the extra sunlight and grow like they’ve never grown before. And, I know that I can plant new things this fall in the open spaces.  The garden will evolve and will be beautiful once again.

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forest~

But in this moment, my eyes see the stubby remains of our once beautiful trees, naked and wounded, the ground around them covered in fresh wood chips and shredded leaves.

Nothing remains the same for very long in the garden.  This is the joy of gardening, and also the pain of it.  We gardeners are filled with joy to see buds swelling in February, opening into early spring flowers and baby leaves.  We are always disappointed when the garden is finally killed by frost.  We prune our dormant shrubs and fruit trees in late winter, knowing full well that new growth will follow in a few weeks.  Many plants flower on new wood, and so are constantly renewed by pruning.

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Our Forest Garden, July 2018.

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But just as in all parts of our lives, change is relentless Growth, fruition, and decay follow each other with blinding speed.  And too much growth creates its own problems.  Plants can smother themselves and each other, allow fungus to get a foothold turning leaves yellow and buds black.  Vines can grow too thickly and tear down their supports.  Shrubs will grow up over our windows, and trees can grow too tall and thick and come down in heavy winds.

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April, 2018. The bed with the blue globe marks the spot where our beautiful double oak once stood, its root ball entombed below.  Before the trees fell, we  would have never had enough sun to grow Iris and other perennials in this part of the garden.

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Once we accept the inevitability of change, and work with it, we become much better gardeners.  We know when to plant, when to prune, when to repot, when to fertilize, when to weed, and when to spray.  We are able to understand how our action, or inaction, today will dictate how our garden develops in the next month or the next years.

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Destroyed in the storm, the tiny trunk of this Wax Myrtle is already sprouting new growth a month later.

Destroyed in the storm, the tiny trunk of this Wax Myrtle is already sprouting new growth a month later.

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When I was a child my family moved every few years.  My father’s work took him from one town to the next.  We left the rest of our family firmly situated in their homes and lives, but we were always leaving one community and trying to get a fresh start in another.   It was very hard making friends and then leaving them behind so often.  It was hard adjusting to new homes and new schools, only to move on again before the dust had time to settle.  My parents always focused on the many opportunities such a life opens up.

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When transplanting, always inspect the roots. Grown too long in a small pot, the roots begin to grow in circles and will strangle the plant.  Remove the outer layer of roots if the plant is root bound. This one is fine, so I simply loosened the roots with the tip of my knife.

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Looking back, I realize that my childhood was a process of “root pruning”.  As soon as I timidly began to grow some roots in a place, my life was uprooted and transplanted somewhere else.  Like a Bonsai, I had to get tough to grow and sustain life in a very small pot.  There is an elegance and sparseness to such a life.  One quickly understands that nothing stays the same for long, and learns to embrace change as the only constant.

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New growth always holds promse. Here, ferns revived by the rain try to re-sprout from their roots.

New growth always holds promise. Here, ferns revived by the rain try to re-sprout from their roots.

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But my parents were ultimately correct.  Every move brought new people and new opportunities into our lives.  We never became bored or boring, because we were always growing into our new situation.  We had a certain freedom to reinvent ourselves and to explore new ideas and ways of being that simply aren’t possible to those who don’t welcome change and never give themselves a fresh start somewhere new.

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Native ebony spleenwort transplanted successfully into this old stump.

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And so pruning is a good thing.  Whether we prune plants in our garden; or prune our lives through moves, job changes, divorce, or watching our children grow and move into lives of their own;  pruning activates growth.  Pruning allows new wood to grow and blossom, and ultimately renews us and keeps us strong.

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All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2018

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April 2014, beauty returns to our Forest Garden.

(Forest Garden)

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