Plants Want to Live

Native redbud, Cercis canadensis

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The snow fell so fast and wet, that it was already bending the branches of our large dogwood tree so low they nearly touched the deck.   By the time I realized what was happening, I could hear cracks and crashes where trees all around us were having branches ripped off under the weight of such a heavy snow, in mid-December, before the trees had a chance to harden up for winter.

I grabbed a coat, hat and broom and went to work, knocking globs of snow off the dogwood’s branches, allowing them to spring back to a more normal posture.  After knocking off all the snow I could reach from the deck, I headed out into the yard to do the same on trees and shrubs all around the garden.

I could hear sirens in the distance that afternoon, and took a call from a neighbor telling me our neighborhood entrance was blocked by fallen trees. We listened to the groans and snaps of trees into the night, and the following day, under the weight of that unusual snow.

We lost three trees that day and our tall bamboo was bent to the ground, where it froze in place and remained for more than a week.  Bamboo stalks fell across our fig tree and across the fern garden, like an icy roof.  It took a few weeks, after the thaw, to clean up enough to truly assess the damage.

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December 10, 2018, a few days after a heavy snow toppled both of our remaining peach trees. We couldn’t even get to them for several days because everything was frozen solid.

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Our great old redbud tree was bent even further by the weight of the snow-laden bamboo.  Already  leaning towards the sun, the tree leaned at a precipitous angle up hill, its roots nearly in the ravine at the bottom of the yard, and its major branches now resting in the fern garden.  Many branches broke, others needed drastic pruning.  But the roots held, and we cleaned up the tree as well as we could and determined to wait for spring to see how it responded.

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New growth emerges from our broken redbud tree.

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Well, plants want to live.  And this tree is determined to make the best of an awkward situation.  We have been amazed to see how much new growth the tree has produced since March.

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There is a rhythm to tending a garden.  We plant, we tend, we prune, and we stand in awe as our plants become established and take off to grow according to their own patterns.  Like watching a young adult child find their way in the world, our woodies and perennials often have a mind of their own as they claim their space in the garden, reproduce, and grow into their potential.

Sometimes that is a wonderful thing and we admire the maturing plant’s beauty.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea

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Sometimes that is a terrifying thing as we see a plant rapidly claim the garden’s real estate, shading and crowding out the many other (more?) desirable plants we want to grow.

Kindness can turn against us, sometimes, when we welcome a little gift plant from a well meaning friend, finding a spot for it in our garden and tending it through its first year or two.

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Rudbeckia laciniata, a native that feeds wildlife, and an unapologetic thug that has taken over our ‘butterfly garden.’  This came as an uninvited guest with a gift of Monarda from a gardening friend.

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Sometimes the plant gifts itself to us as a windblown or bird-sown seed.  It grows, and we give it a chance to show us what it can become.  And then, Wham!  Suddenly, it has become an outsized monster and we do battle with it to keep it in bounds, or sometimes eradicate it entirely.

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Mid-September 2018, and the Solidago, goldenrod, had just begun to bloom.

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I am way too kind when it comes to such plants.  My curiosity gets the better of my good sense.  I let that little plant grow out just to watch it, and then it has seeded all over the place and I’m spending time trying to get it back under control, and rescue plants about to be completely strangled and starved by this newcomer.

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The Devil’s Walking Stick, , Aralia spinosa, in full bloom and covered by bees in late summer.  This native tree will grow tall, with it trunk covered in sharp thorns.

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The first of the Solidago showed up two summers ago.  It was a novelty.  I had just joined the Virginia Native Plant Society and I was trying to reform my natural preference for pretty imported hybrids and welcome more natives to the garden.  I let it grow.

Then last summer, I was amazed at how many very tall goldenrods grew up.  But I was busy.  I didn’t have much time in my own garden, and I let them grow.

My partner grumbled as they topped 6′ high, but I felt smugly virtuous for giving space to these native plants and supporting the pollinators.  We enjoyed the butterflies and they were pretty once they bloomed golden and lush.  I cut them down in December, but not soon enough.  By then there were seeds, everywhere.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea, Edgeworthia, Camellia, Rudbeckia, Solidago and the surrounding trees create layers of texture in early September 2018.

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And just in the last two weeks, those little goldenrods have grown inches a day, it seems.  My partner came to me on Monday with that look of determination I know so well.  They were growing out into our ever narrowing paths.  A deer had gotten into the front garden, and we couldn’t even see where it was hiding for the lush growth.  I had to do something….

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The new stand of Solidago, cut back to allow black eyed Susans and other perennials space to grow….

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And that is how it came to be that I was taking the string trimmer to my perennial beds Monday evening, under observation, cutting down as many of those Solidago plants as I could until the battery gave out.  Our neighbors paused on the street, wondering if I’d lost my mind, cutting down every plant in sight.

We were back at it early Tuesday morning, and the day I’d planned to spend planting pots went to cutting, pulling, pruning, and generally editing our front garden to remove not only the Solidago, but also the small forest of devil’s walking stick trees growing up from a frighteningly wide network of roots.

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Another little Aralia, looking for space to grow…

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That was another volunteer that I let grow ‘to see what it would do.’  The summer flowers attract clouds of butterflies and bees.  The lovely purple berries are favorites of our song birds.  The huge, palm frond like leaves grow quickly as the tree shoots up, several feet per year.  Its trunk is covered in long, sharp spines.

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Aralia spinosa, a native volunteer in our garden, looked rather tropical as its first leaves emerged in April of 2017.

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This Virginia native is a great tree for wildlife.  But our neighbor warned me, when I offered him one, about its roots.  He told of having to hack it back each summer at his family home when he was a teen.  I listened politely, and let our Aralia spinosa grow on, a novelty in the front garden.

But it fell in our October hurricane and my partner took that opportunity, which I was away, to cut away the main tree entirely.  And I’ve been cutting out a dozen or more sprouts every week since mid-March.

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Yet another goldenrod or obedient plant, growing up under one of our Hydrangea shrubs.  It takes a sharp eye to spot them all, and a bit of balance and agility to reach them all!

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Some were hiding in the goldenrod forest, nestled between other shrubs and cozying up to our emerging Cannas.  What the weed eater couldn’t reach, I managed to cut with my secateurs.  Like a weird game of twister, I found footing among the Cannas and goldenrod stubble and cut those thorny stalks back as close to the ground as I could reach.

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A part of our fern garden, where ferns are filling in as a complete ground cover on a steep bank. 

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Plants just want to live.  Their business is to reproduce, grow, and make as many seeds as possible.  This is a basic principle that every gardener has to face.

The wilder the plant, usually the more determined it will be.  Like the Japanese stilt grass I pull out by the handfuls every year from April to December.  Like the bamboo that tries to march up the hill from the ravine every spring, and that we find growing feet in a day sometimes, until we discover it and break it back to the ground.  We’ve learned the squirrels love gnoshing on fresh bamboo shoots.

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The march of the bamboo up the hill back in early May of 2014.  We have to control the growth up towards the garden each spring.

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To make a garden is to offer a weird sort of universal hospitality.  Whatever you think you might want to grow, nature has its own ideas.   Weeds happen. 

I chuckle to myself at native plant sales to see plants I pulled as ‘weeds’ the first few years we lived here, sold as desirable ‘native plants’ at a respectable price.  There is wild Ageratum, and Indian strawberry, wax myrtle and golden ragwort.  Our front yard hosts a growing patch of fleabane, Erigeron annus, each spring.  It crowds out the ‘grass’ and blooms for a solid month, around the time the daffodils are fading.

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Native fleabane, probably Erigeron pulchellus, grow in our front lawn. A short lived perennial, this patch grows a bit larger each year. After it finishes flowering, we mow this part of the ‘lawn’ once again.

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Each of us has to make our own peace with the native plants our area supports.  Last year, I decided the pokeweed had to go.  I pulled and cut for months, but I prevented that from going to seed.  I’ve found one huge plant so far this year and a few small seedlings.  They will soon be eradicated, too.

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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 in August 2017.  We lost the Salvia that year, but the Colocasias remain.

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I walk among the growing oaks that I ‘allowed’ to grow when they were only inches tall.  Every seedling demands a decision from the gardener.  Can it grow here?  How will this change the rest of the garden?

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Obedient plant and black eyed Susans are also native perennials, that quickly fill any open area with roots and the seeds they drop.  They are great for pollinators, last many weeks, and make nice cut flowers.  By cutting back the Solidago this week, I hope these will fill in this part of the garden once again.

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Those are the sorts of questions one must ask every month of every year, to keep a garden in balance.  Those are the questions to keep in mind when shopping at the nursery, or the plant sale, too.

Curiosity is a good thing.  But wisdom and a bit of self-discipline are even better.

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The ferns I planted in the hollow stump of this peach tree, lost to the December storm, are growing well.  And, the stump itself is sending up new growth. from its living roots.  Plants just want to live

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Woodland Gnome 2019
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Seedling redbud trees continue to grow at the base of the stump.

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Sunday Dinner: Accomplishments

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The resolve to accomplish your goals is what counts.

If you earnestly put your mind to something,

your brain, your body, your environment-

-everything-

-will start working toward achieving that end. 

Daisaku Ikeda

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“I am only one, but I am one.

I cannot do everything, but I can do something.

And because I cannot do everything,

I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

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Edward Everett Hale

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“There is no limit to the amount of good you can do

if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

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Ronald Reagan

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“Do the best you can in every task,

no matter how unimportant it may seem at the time.

No one learns more about a problem

than the person at the bottom.”

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Sandra Day O’Connor

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“It’s no use saying, “We are doing our best.”

You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

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Winston S. Churchill

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“To accomplish great things,

we must dream as well as act.”

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Anatole France

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

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“If you can’t do great things, Mother Teresa used to say,

do little things with great love.

If you can’t do them with great love,

do them with a little love.

If you can’t do them with a little love,

do them anyway.

Love grows when people serve.”

.

John Ortberg

Fabulous Friday: Hibiscus in Bloom

Hibiscus moscheutos opens its first blooms of the season today.

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We always celebrate when the Hibiscus moscheutos bloom.  These easy native perennials largely care for themselves.  Although they die back to the ground each autumn, they grow quickly once their stems finally appear again in late spring.

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Native Hibiscus prove very accommodating and will grow in a variety of conditions.   Seen most commonly in the wild near water, they appreciate a little irrigation when the weather turns hot and dry.  They grow in a variety of soils from partial shade to full sun.  Happy, well irrigated plants grow to between four and five feet tall.

We let them seed themselves around and grow where they will, always delighted when their colorful blooms quite suddenly appear in mid-summer.  Each stem may produce a half dozen or more buds.  Once the flowers fade, interesting seed capsules ripen and persist into winter.  Many of our songbirds enjoy pecking ripe seeds from the open capsules until we finally cut their dried stems down.

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Hybrid Hibiscus ‘Kopper King’ is much showier than our native Hibiscus with somewhat larger flowers. Its foliage is also more attractive… until the Japanese beetles have their way with the leaves.  This cultivar was introduced by the Fleming Brothers of Lincoln, Nebraska, who have produced several Hibiscus hybrids based on crosses of H. moscheutos and H. coccineus.

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While many cultivars of H. moscheutos are available on the market, I believe that most of ours are the species.  We planted H. ‘Kopper King’ about four years ago and it has grown into a large and vigorous plant. Various Hibiscus volunteers in our garden bloom deep pink, light pink or white.  We see them, too, in the marshes along the James River and creeks that feed it.

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Hardy Hibiscus coccineus will start blooming by early August.

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Native Hibiscus prove a reliable, hardy and very beautiful perennial in our garden.  We have more native Hibiscus species yet to bloom; and the Asian Hibiscus syriacus, or woody Rose of Sharon, is in the midst of its much longer season of bloom.

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Hibiscus syriacus, Rose of Sharon

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The woody shrub form of Asian Hibiscus also seeds itself around the garden, growing quickly from seedling to blooming tree in just a few years.  Although new cultivars are introduced each year, we have four or five different flower colors and forms which keep us quite happy.  A non-native, it also feeds many creatures with its nectar, pollen, leaves and seeds.

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Rose of Sharon, or tree Hibiscus

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It is fabulous to enjoy a plethora of gorgeous showy flowers with very little effort on our part during this muggiest part of summer.  It is also fabulous to watch the beautiful and varied bees, butterflies and hummingbirds that visit to enjoy their abundant pollen and sweet nectar each day.

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Rose of Sharon in our shrub border bloom prolifically from mid-June until early September.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is contagious;

let’s infect one another!

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“Seize the moments of happiness,

love and be loved!

That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly.

It is the one thing we are interested in here.”

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Leo Tolstoy

 

Blossom XLI: Tradescantia

Tradescantia, spiderwort

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“Everyday I discover more and more beautiful things.

It’s enough to drive one mad.

I have such a desire to do everything,

my head is bursting with it.”

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Claude Monet

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“It’s on the strength of observation and reflection

that one finds a way.

So we must dig and delve unceasingly.”

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Claude Monet

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The Williamsburg Botanical Garden keeps many native plants in its collection. This area is for pollinators.

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“It was such a pleasure to sink one’s hands

into the warm earth, to feel at one’s fingertips

the possibilities of the new season.”

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Kate Morton

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“The master of the garden is the one who waters it,

trims the branches, plants the seeds, and pulls the weeds.

If you merely stroll through the garden,

you are but an acolyte.”

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Vera Nazarian

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Photos by Woodland Gnome

all photos from the Williamsburg Botanical Garden
May 2018

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“If you wish to make anything grow, you must understand it,

and understand it in a very real sense.

‘Green fingers’ are a fact,

and a mystery only to the unpracticed.

But green fingers are the extensions

of a verdant heart.”

.

Russell Page

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WPC: Twisted Wisteria

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If you have ever wondered whether plants are aware and know what they are doing, just study a Wisteria vine for a while.  Plants are wiser than you may want to believe.

This formidable vine grows across an arbor at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden in Freedom Park.  Believe it or not, this vine hasn’t been growing here more than a dozen years.  It already looks quite venerable and sage, doesn’t it?

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It has enthusiastically taken over the arbor, like a toddler with a new play set!

Never mind the climbing Hydrangea petiolaris desperately trying to grow up the opposite side, or the always feisty Virginia creeper that has snuck its way through the dense network of twining branches.

These three neighbors fight it out, now, for the best real estate on the arbor to catch the summer rays.

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This is our native North American Wisteria frutescens, which grows from Virginia west to Texas, and south into Florida.  A deciduous woody vine, W. frutescens will grow to only about 15 meters long, which is only two thirds of the mature height of Asian Wisterias.

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Wisteria grows best is moist soil with full, or at least partial sun.  It normally uses a strong  nearby tree for support, but also grows on fences, trellises, or pergolas.  It makes a lovely ‘ceiling’ for a pergola over a  porch or deck.

Our native Wisteria may also be trained into a standard tree form, but requires a lot of tending along the way and regular trims to keep it in bounds.

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A member of the pea family, Wisteria captures nitrogen from the air and fixes it in the soil along its roots, helping to ‘fertilize’ other plants growing nearby.  But please don’t taste its pea-like pods!  Wisteria is a poisonous plant if eaten, which helps protect it from hungry rabbits and deer.

Wisteria also absorbs carbon from the air, cleaning and purifying the air around it while fixing excess carbon in its woody stems and roots.

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Our native Wisteria’s flowers are smaller than its Asian cousins’, too; and so it is often favored by gardeners who want a more contained Wisteria for a small garden.

Our native Wisteria is also a larval host for several types of butterflies and moths, including skippers.

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This particular vine has embraced its arbor in a crushing grip.  It is as though the vine itself has become a living, twisted, arbor that will stand the test of time even if the man-made frame eventually comes apart.

Let this be a caution to you if you ever choose to plant one near your home.  I did that once, and realized that wood and nails and staples are no match for this prodigious vine, no matter how sturdy the construction may appear!

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Wisteria twists clockwise around its support, weaving itself into a living sculpture.

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While other vines may have tendrils that twine or sticky pads that stick to surfaces like masonry, Wisteria is the twisting, twirling boa constrictor vine of the plant kingdom.

It gives shade to us weary gardeners, and it generously shelters birds and bugs, lizards and toads.  It is teeming with life, reaching wildly with its newest branches in search of something to support its restless sprawl.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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For the Daily Post’s
Weekly Photo Challenge:  Twisted

Where In the World?

Virginia native Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia

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Lesley Buck, in her beautiful new book, Cutting Back, describes her apprenticeship as a gardener in the gardens of Kyoto.  After studying the art of pruning and Bonsai for more than 7 years near her home in California, she took a leap of faith and moved to Japan in hopes of finding an apprenticeship.  Her memoir not only reflects on her experiences, but also shares some of her understanding of gardening with native plants.

Early in the book, Buck observes that Japanese gardens are composed almost entirely of native plants, many of them centuries old within the garden.  The gardener’s goal is to make the garden’s landscape look and feel as natural as possible.

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Her advice to gardeners in America interested in creating a Japanese garden?  Use plants native to the natural environment where you live, and use Japanese design principles in composing and caring for this garden of your own particular native plants.

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North American native Wisteria frutescens, growing at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden

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I was surprised, and yet not surprised, to read this advice.  The ‘Japanese’ gardens I grew up visiting featured Japanese plants:  Azaleas, Rhododendrons, Iris, Japanese pines and of course, Japanese Maple trees.  Many of us favor Japanese or Chinese flowering woody plants for our gardens whether we style our gardens after Japanese principles, or not.  These are beautiful plants and we enjoy them.

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Acer palmatum

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And yet, how often have you noticed, when traveling from city to city, the same relatively small palette of plants used time and again in public and residential landscapes?  The nursery trade in our country traditionally has focused on certain popular and easy to grow and transport plants.

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English shrub roses, hybridized and cultivated over several centuries, make me feel at home. I plant them in every garden I make.

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Walk into any garden center in the eastern half of the United States right now, and you will find flat after flat of neon bright petunias and geraniums, won’t you?  There will be Knock-Out roses, a nice selection of box and at least a few pots of mophead Hydrangea.

And of course we’ll find the ubiquitous azaleas, Rhododendrons and Japanese maple trees.  We like what we like, don’t we?

When we rely on nursery stock to landscape our private and public spaces, we may create a familiar sense of beauty; or perhaps even a boring predictability from one area to another.   Do we want to encounter the same plants again and again as we travel, or do we want to find something unique to our destination?

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In this section of our fern garden an interesting mix of native ferns, hybrids and imported Hellebores grow elbow to elbow.

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Only recently have more and more nurseries chosen to propagate and sell a larger percentage of native plants.  And in recent years, a growing cohort of us have taken an interest in learning about, and  appreciating our native plants in our own home gardens.  It is these natives which give us our sense of place, which help us identify ‘home.’  Our native plants attract and support the birds, butterflies and small mammals of our native environment, too.

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Broad beech fern, Phegopteris hexagonoptera, is native in woodsy areas of coastal Virginia.  It grows here at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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We enjoy a wide choice of very beautiful native plants in coastal Virginia.  Our landscapes are filled with majestic trees , vigorous vines, wild fruits and interesting flowers.  Surrounding ourselves with familiar plants helps us feel more ‘at home,’ and gives us a sense of place that feels very personal.

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A native muscadine grape vine grows near our home. We expect to be picking grapes by mid-summer.

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Yet,  because we have over 400 years of history here, there are many other plants, brought to Virginia by the early colonists, which may feel like natives, because they have become a part of our culture and our historic heritage:  boxwood, tulips, peonies, roses, azaleas and bearded Iris come to mind.

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Peonies, much loved in our Virginia gardens, came to our country with the early colonists.

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Wandering the historic gardens in our area, one realizes that the colonists created beautiful formal, European style gardens in this new land of Virginia to make it feel like home to them.  Even as they send seeds and cuttings of Virginia’s trees back to Europe, they imported the herbs, flowers and shrubs they were accustomed to finding in their gardens ‘back home’.

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The fronds of native ferns emerge through the leaves of a daffodil.  Daffodils were highly valued in Colonial times and were among the beautiful European plants colonists brought with them to Virginia.

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The annual rhythm of growth and bloom, fruiting, seed and leaf fall bring us a sense of comfort and familiarity.  The familiar colors of the landscape help set the mood in daily life.

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Native dogwood is our state flower, and the Virginia Native Wildflower of the Year for 2018.

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These beautiful plants are like the well worn and much loved kitchen table in our childhood home.  They help create our sense of our own place in the world.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Native Hydrangea quercifolia

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For the Daily Post’s
Weekly Photo Challenge:  A Place In the World

Oakleaf Hydrangea

Hydrangea quercifolia

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When you think of Hydrangeas, do you think of the blue or pink poofy flowers growing in your grandmother’s garden?  Those mop-head Hydrangeas are still popular with many, and we have a few left by a previous owner.  But there are many other sorts of Hydrangeas available that offer a bit more character and a longer season of interest.

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The oakleaf Hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, is native to the Southeastern United States.   It is a tall, woody deciduous shrub; hardy, drought tolerant, and somewhat deer resistant.  I say ‘somewhat’ because we have had newly planted ones grazed in our garden.  But there are other, more tasty shrubs the deer prefer!  Once established, these Hydrangeas will only rarely be touched by deer.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea in early June

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The oakleaf Hydrangea was first noted by Pennsylvania botanist William Bartram as he explored the area now known as the Carolinas, south to Florida, in the 1770s.  It is one of the plants he collected and exported back to England for the nursery trade.

This is a tall, understory shrub with coarse foliage.  The flowers are white, sometimes fading to cream or pink as they age.  The flowers are good in a vase fresh or dried.

I like the oakleaf Hydrangea because once its huge, cone shaped flowers emerge in early May, they remain beautiful for many months.

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Even into winter, the flowers dry on the shrub and add interest.  Once the leaves finally fall, the remains of the flowers cling to the woody frame of the plant.

The oakleaf Hydrangea’s large, interesting leaves turn vivid scarlet and remain vibrant for many weeks before they eventually fall.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea in October

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There are several interesting cultivars of the native species, and we grow H. ‘Ruby Slippers,’ which is a dwarf variety with pinkish flowers, and H. ‘Snow Queen.’  Most Hydrangeas are relatively easy to propagate from cuttings, by digging up a new shoot with roots attached, or by layering.  Oakleaf Hydrangea looks good as a specimen, a hedge, or even as an alle’e, on a large property.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea December 2017

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There are a number of beautiful species and cultivars within the Hydrangea genus, and all have great character.  I’ve grown many of them over the years, including the H. macrophylla that bloom in pretty pinks and blues and purples.  Some are quite fussy and challenging to grow, requiring plenty of moisture and shade to thrive.

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But the oakleaf Hydrangea is as tough and sturdy as its name implies.  Hardy to Zone 5, it can adapt to a variety of soils and light.  Happiest in partial shade, growing under the canopy of mature trees, it can manage with full sun, too.  You can even grow a new shrub in a pot for a year or two before moving it out into the garden, as it grows larger.

If you’ve not yet grown Hydrangea quercifolia, you might consider adding this elegant, hardy shrub to your garden.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

Re-Weaving the Web

Viola papilionacea

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Our ‘lawn’ hosts many wildflowers, including the always beautiful violet, Viola papilionacea.  I’m happy to see these lovely wildflowers bloom each spring.  They are so common, and so elegant.  And I’ve always assumed that their nectar is a welcome source of nourishment for bees and other pollinators in early spring.

But I was surprised to learn, when browsing recently on the National Wildlife Federation’s website, that the common, native violet is a larval host to 30 different species of moth and butterfly.   By simply allowing these pretty spring wildflowers, rather than stopping their growth with a ‘broadleaf weed’ herbicide, I’ve been helping to support moths and butterflies.

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Monarch butterfly on hybrid Lantana, an excellent source of nectar.

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Once we begin to understand our own lawns and gardens as part of an intricate web of life; the daily decisions we make, and the actions we do, or don’t take assume an entirely new and more meaningful context.

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Spiders often weave large webs in our autumn garden.

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I certified our garden as a wildlife habitat some years ago.  Ever since, I get regular mailings and emails from the National Wildlife Federation offering me things if I’ll only send a bit more money to them.  I respect their work and detest the constant fundraising.  But an email last week somehow caught my attention, and in a spare moment I began clicking through to find a personalized list of native plants that thrive in our zip code and also support wildlife.

Imagine that!  A personalized plant list just for me and my neighbors to assist us in preserving habitat!

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Our native redbud tree, Cercis canadensis, supports 25 species of butterfly and moth larvae.  Our dogwood tree supports 110 larval species.

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Also on my list: Fragaria, Solidago, Aster, Geranium, Hibiscus, Rudbeckia, Achillea and good old Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium.  It’s the first plant on this list, Fragaria, that nudges that guilty sense that maybe I’m not as good as I want to be.

Common (weedy) ground strawberries, Fragaria virginiana, thrive in our garden.  They thrive and spread themselves over and around every bed I start and every other thing I plant.  Along with the ubiquitous Vinca minor vines, Fragaria are the plants I find myself pulling up and throwing away the most.  And to think that this common and enthusiastic plant; which feeds pollinators, songbirds, small mammals and reptiles; also supports 73 different species of larval moths and butterflies.  How did I ever miss that?

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Wild strawberries, Fragaria, mix with other wildflowers as ground cover at the base of this stand of Narcissus. Brent and Becky Heath’s display gardens, Gloucester VA.

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You may have read Dr. Doug Tallamy’s revolutionary manual, Bringing Nature Home.   Dr. Tallamy makes a clear argument for why including native plants in our home landscape matters, and offers simple advise about how to do this in the most practical and easy to understand terms possible.

The National Wildlife Federation has based their Native Plant Finder on his work, and will give anyone an individualized list of native plants that form the basis of the ecosystem in their particular area, down to their zip code.

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The American Sycamore tree, Platanus occidentalis, supports 43 species of larvae, including the beautiful Luna moth..

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The change in my sensibility came when I realized that I don’t really have to do anything special to grow a garden of native plants.  Rather, I need to allow it to happen, by understanding and respecting the natural processes already at work in our garden.

We modern American gardeners are often conditioned to feel like we need to go and buy something in order to be gardening.  Dr. Tallamy helps us to understand that going to our local garden center or nursery may not be the best way to heal our local ecosystem.

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How many of us already have an oak tree (or two or three) growing in our garden?  They are handsome shade trees, and I’ve always admired oaks.  Did you know that in addition to producing acorns, oak leaves support over 500 species of larval butterflies and moths?  A birch tree supports over 320 species.  That is a lot of mileage from a single tree, when it comes to supporting the insect world!

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Virginia Creeper, a native vine which crops up in many areas of our garden, provides nectar, berries, and it also supports 29 species of butterfly and moth larvae.

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Keep in mind that this is only a counting of butterflies and moths, and doesn’t even consider the hundreds of other insect species which live on our native trees.  Even a pine tree supports over 200 species, and the simple mistletoe already growing in several trees around our yard will support 3 species of moth larvae.

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 Zebra Swallowtail feeding on Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’ at Brent and Becky Heath’s display gardens in Gloucester .

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I keep returning to this conundrum about native vs. ‘exotic’ plants. I listen closely when experts, like the erudite speakers at our local chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society, speak on this matter.  I have also been doing a bit of reading about the balance between natives and non-native plants in our home gardens.

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Hibiscus syriacus is not our native Hibiscus… but our bees and butterflies love it anyway.  It has naturalized in our area.

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Some landscape designers suggest planting exotic plants near our house and native plants towards the edges of our property.  This assumes, I think, that the native plants may not be beautiful enough or refined enough to plant along our daily paths.  Somehow, I know there must be a better way….

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Purists try to demonstrate to us that ‘native’ means the plants that have grown in our particular location for centuries, maybe even millennia.  It is the particularly adapted sub-species that have grown in symbiotic relationships with the local fauna and geo-forms which matter most.  They are adapted to our soil, climate and may not be truly ‘native’ 30 miles down the road.

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Asclepias incarnata, July 2017

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The problem with this analysis comes from understanding that there was a lot of movement of people and spreading of plants in North America before the earliest recorded European inhabitants.  It doesn’t matter whether you take that back to the Vikings, Sir Henry Sinclair, The Templar fleets or Captain Chris; the truth is that many different groups of native Americans carried plants around from place to place and established agriculture long before there was a European around to observe and record their activities.

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Muscadines are a native North American grape.  Vitis species support 69 larval species, and were cultivated long before the European migration to our continent.

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Many of us mail order an Asclepias or two and know we have done a good thing for the Monarchs.  But Asclepias only supports twelve larval species, while the Rudbeckia systematically colonizing our entire front garden support 20!

But Rudbeckia don’t feed Monarch larvae.  And neither do many of the Asclepias I’ve planted in recent years.  Their leaves remain pristine.  It is not just what we plant, but many factors in the environment that determine whether or not a butterfly will choose a particular plant to lay their eggs.

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I am happiest when I realize that the plants I want to grow anyway also qualify as ‘native’ and benefit wildlife.

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Native Hibiscus moscheutos grows in our garden, and has naturalized in many wetlands in our area.  Sadly, non-native Japanese Beetles feasted on its leaves.  Hibiscus supports 29 species of butterfly and moth larvae.

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I am content when the ‘exotic’ plants I want growing in our garden also offer some benefit to wildlife, whether it is their nectar or their seeds.  And I still stubbornly assert my rights as The Gardener, when I commandeer real-estate for those non-natives that I passionately want to grow, like our beloved Caladiums. 

As long as I find hummingbirds buzzing around our canna lilies and ginger lilies each summer, and find the garden filled with song birds and butterflies, I feel like we are doing our small part to support wildlife.

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Many of us enjoy watching pollinators gather nectar and pollen from the flowers in our garden.  We enjoy a variety of birds attracted to seeds, berries, and insect life in our gardens, too.  But how many of us relish watching caterpillars nibble the leaves of our garden plants?

We see nibbled leaves as damaged leaves, without taking into consideration that before we have butterflies flitting from flower to flower, we must shelter and support their larvae.

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Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 2017

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Assuming that you have read Doug Tallamy’s work, let me invite you to take the next step by reading Larry Weaner’s thought provoking new book,    Garden Revolution:  How Our Landscapes Can Be A Source of Environmental Change.  Where Doug Tallamy writes about plant choice, Larry Weaner is all about ecological landscape design.  He teaches how to begin with a tract of land and restore an ecosystem.  Weaner teaches us how to work with the processes of nature to have plants present their best selves, with minimum inputs from us.

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Restoring our environment, preserving our ecosystem, are holistic, systemic endeavors worthy of our energy and attention.  As we develop a deeper understanding and sympathy for these matters, our aesthetic, and our understanding of our own role in the garden’s evolution, also evolve.

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The Devil’s Walkingstick, Aralia spinosa provides nectar when in bloom, and thousands of tasty berries in the autumn.  It also supports 7 larval species. A volunteer in our garden, it is one of the most spectacular trees we grow.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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“The wild is where you find it,
not in some distant world
relegated to a nostalgic past or an idealized future;
its presence is not black or white,
bad or good, corrupted or innocent…
We are of that nature, not apart from it.
We survive because of it,
not instead of it.”
.
Renee Askins
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Hummingbird moth on a hybrid butterfly bush growing among native Rudbeckia. 

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