Green Thumb Tip #24: Always Just Beginning….

Coleus leaves, trimmed from the bottom of a stem cutting, have rooted in their vase.

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There is a certain exuberance, a fresh burst of energy in beginnings.  Youth has glamour, vitality. 

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Most plants allow us to tap into that youthful energy as we ‘re-new’ them.

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Cutting back stems stimulates new growth.  Remove flower stems (on plants grown primarily for their foliage) as they develop to keep the plant youthful, compact and vigorous.

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As we approach mid-June, you might assume that spring’s fresh beginnings are behind us for another year.  Not so.  We are always just beginning in the garden.

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This Caladium leaf broke away from the tuber as I was transplanting it into a pot. Caladium leaves with even just a bit of the tuber still on the petiole will root in water.  A new leaf is already beginning to grow (underwater) and once planted into soil, this rooted leaf will soon grow into a beautiful new plant.  A flower is beginning to grow on the left, which I’ll remove before potting up the leaf.

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I am still planting up pots and still planting perennials and herbs out into the garden.

Garden centers still have a pretty good selection of herbs, annuals, perennials and shrubs.  As you might expect, many of the starts sitting in greenhouses and garden centers are getting overgrown and pot-bound.  They demand a bit of skillful handling to perform their best.

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I bought several pots of oregano a few weeks back.  They were already overgrown, leggy, and some already had flower buds forming.  I didn’t get to use them for my intended purpose at the time, and they’ve been sitting in the nursery.

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Do you see the new growth emerging from below the cuts on some of the stems?

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But I did cut a few stems from each plant, not quite two weeks ago, to share in an arrangement.  And where I trimmed them back, new growth is already bursting forth.  New growth has appeared lower on the remaining stems, and new growth has popped up from the roots.

Now, I expect that the cut stems may have sprouted a few roots in their vase, too.  They can be tucked into a pot of soil or a prepared bed and allowed to grow on.  Stems that have already formed flower buds may root more slowly or may not at all.  But oregano grows in the mint family.  All of the mints are immensely robust.

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If you have the chance to pick up a few late season plants at the nursery, then consider cutting back those leggy stems right away.  Root them if you wish, discard them if you must.  But understand that by cutting away the top growth, you stimulate the plant to immediately send out fresh new growth.

Cutting back, or pinching back, stimulates growth hormones at all of the leaf nodes below each cut.  The plant needs its leaves to produce food, and is anxious to replace those lost.

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In the garden, old growth is always falling away and returning to the soil even as new growth emerges. It is a continuing cycle of growth,  and the decay that fuels new growth.

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When you plant the start, notice if it is already ‘root-bound.’  If the roots have grown into the contours of the pot you know they have been crowded and stressed.

Water the plant well, and then take a moment to tease out the crossed roots on the bottom of the root ball.  Gently tug some of the roots along the sides loose so they can begin to grow out into the soil.  Without being rough,  understand that pulling the roots out a bit, even trimming off the bottom inch of the root ball if it is congested, will stimulate new root growth.

Just be careful to water the plant in well,  offer some nutrition,  protect it from fierce sun for a few days, and let it establish itself.

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Ready to grow on, this oregano has found a new home.

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I bought a beautiful but leggy coleus and immediately took cuttings last week.  It is wise to trim the bottom pair of leaves from the stem before rooting it in water, but the leaves were so beautiful I hated to throw them away.  So, I stuck them into a tiny jar of water to enjoy until they either rooted or faded.  I’ve had to refill the jar with drips from the sink twice a day as the leaves have proven thirsty.  But they rewarded me with roots!

I am often re-working established pots and don’t have room to dig a hole large enough for a big root ball.  Cuttings are a perfect solution.  A much smaller hole will embrace the smaller root system of a newly rooted cutting or recently rooted tuber.

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New Caladium roots; this leaf is ready to plant into a potted arrangement where I want a little color in the shade.

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You might also try dividing up a newly purchased plant.  As long as you can cut or pull apart rooted stems, those rooted stems will soon grow back into full plants.

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I pulled apart 4″ pots of Dichondra and Verbena into several divisions when planting up this basket.  Annual Verbena often grows new roots from any stem in contact with the soil and can be snipped away, its roots pulled out of the pot, and planted separately.  Each division will now take off and grow into a full sized plant.

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A stem cutting from an old plant, rooted, becomes a new plant.  A division of an old perennial, replanted, becomes a fresh new perennial.

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Larger potted perennials can often be split into divisions and planted in much smaller holes.

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Yes, it seems counter-intuitive, paradoxical, maniacal and cruel.  All of that cutting, pulling apart, breaking pieces away and gouging out the ‘eyes’ of tubers leads to a plant’s re-invigoration and renewal.

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Keep planting, keep coaxing your plants to grow to their full potential, and keep your own gardener’s eye and outlook fresh, too.  Try a new plant, or a new combination of old plants.

Try a new gardening skill.  Empty out some old pots and begin again with fresh soil and fresh ideas.

We keep our excitement alive when we are always just beginning.

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Can you spot the dragonfly?

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,

but in the expert’s there are few”
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Shunryu Suzuki

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Daucus carota subsp. sativus, flowers grown from a grocery store carrot ‘planted’ this spring.

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“Moment after moment,

everyone comes out from nothingness.

This is the true joy of life.”
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Shunryu Suzuki

 

Green Thumb Tip # 22: Do the Math

Green Thumb Tip # 21: The Mid-Summer Snack 

Green Thumb Tip # 23: From Small Beginnings

 

 

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Fun With Plants: Avocado Seeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2019

Green Thumb Tip #23: From Small Beginnings

Begonia, growing inside and waiting for a larger pot.

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Spring invites us to treasure the small. 

Autumn frost and winter storms long since claimed late summer’s towering goldenrods and bushy pineapple sages.  The Cannas and gingers and huge elephant ear leaves were cut down months ago, and live on only in memory and photos and dormant tubers resting underground.

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After several months of bare ground, woody stems and largely open space, the smallest bits of new growth excite me with their promise of a new growing season awakening.

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Iris reticulata ‘Rhapsody’

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It is easiest to start again small.  Small flowers from very small bulbs, like grape sized Iris reticulata and I. histrioides.   Small roots on small cuttings, carefully planted into small pots to ‘grow-on’; and small starts in small pots that will move up into hanging baskets and potted arrangements once the weather warms.

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Cut pussy willow stems root easily in water.  I’ve cut the bottoms off of rooted stems to plant, and returned the larger stems to the vase.  From these small sticks, large shrubs may eventually grow.

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From small beginnings, beautiful plants will grow.  I tend to order bulbs and corms, tubers and rhizomes, seeds and roots, then plant them myself to watch them grow.  A box came in late February filled with a treasure trove of Iris roots.  They may not look very promising, straight out of the package, but the potential for beautiful, healthy growth is there if you handle them properly.

I ‘heeled them in’ in a bin of rich, moist potting soil in the basement, while their roots re-hydrated.  After several days, once the plants had re-awakened and were ready to grow,  I moved each plant into a larger pot, filled with amended potting soil to grow on for the next month or two.

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These are Iris siberica and Iris chrysographes.  They want moist soil with excellent drainage and benefit from some extra perlite and some Plant Tone mixed into good potting mix.

Hardy perennials, they want as much sun as they can have on these early spring days.  Potting them first, before planting them into the garden, gives them a chance to grow and develop a great root system in comfort and safety, away from curious squirrels and hungry voles.  Their leaves are tiny now, but will stretch to a couple of feet high by summer.

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I’ve been busy at my basement planting bench this week, potting up rooted cuttings and a few bags of Zantedeschia bulbs a gardening friend gifted to me last fall .  Next week, I’ll start our saved Caladium tubers.

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Oxalis grow patiently in the garage, among our summer pots, waiting their turn to grow out in the sunshine.  Start Oxalis from tubers any time of year.

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I’m waiting a little later in March to start them this year, mindful of how cold our spring was last year.  The Caladiums wanted space outside in the sun long before it was warm enough to plant them out.  Better to start slowly, in small steps towards summer’s leafy bounty.

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As spring creeps, hesitantly, into the garden, hard lessons learned in years past make me a little hesitant, too.  Last night dipped into the mid-20s, here.  The sun was out this afternoon when I walked the garden, noticing not only the new growth but also the work still needed to properly welcome spring.

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This special Hellebore disappears in the shade. It is only when I seek it out, and turn up its face, that I can appreciate its beauty.

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Perhaps it’s a good thing that I’ve waited this long to rake up winter-blown leaves and finish the pruning.  Once woodies begin to bud and bloom, cold nights like these can ruin tender petals and leaves.  I’ve learned its wise to not rush the season, but to wait and see what more winter weather may come our way.

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The earliest of our daffodils have begun to open.  They are tough, and bounce back from cold nights and late snow.

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Rather than rushing, this March I’m going to savor what comes into leaf or bloom each day.  Each small flower, every tiny bud swelling on a branch, every bit of emerging perennial pushing up through the muddy earth is beautiful.

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Acanthus ‘Whitewater’ is ready to grow.

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Perhaps it is better to savor spring slowly; to re-discover the treasures of awakening plant life  in miniature.

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The smallest parsley seed holds wonder and promises magic.  From small beginnings, beautiful gardens will surely grow.

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Begonia starts, waiting….

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Rejoice in small things

and they will continue to grow”
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Slaven Vujic

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“This is the only advice I offer you.

Pick the small thing, and carry it on.

Let it change your life.” .

Anna White

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“First achieve small things

and you will achieve great things ultimately…

and no one will forget.”
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Bidemi Mark-Mordi

Green Thumb Tip # 22: Do the Math

Green Thumb Tip # 21: The Mid-Summer Snack 

 

 

 

Green Thumb Tip #22: Do the Math

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plant more plants!

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Woodland Gnome 2018

“Green Thumb” Tips: 

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

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

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

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

 

Green Thumb Tip #21: The Mid-Summer Snack

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A snack makes us all feel a little better, doesn’t it?  If you want the plants you tend to have that ‘Wow!’ factor as summer relentlessly wears on, give them a tasty pick-me-up.  There are several good choices, and it’s easy enough to add care and feeding into your routine.

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Although plants ‘make their own food’ from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water on a daily basis, they also need an assortment of other elements and minerals for optimal growth.  Plants rooted in the Earth likely find most of what they need dissolved in the soil.  When we grow a plant in a pot or basket, anchored in potting mix, we need to provide those important minerals and extra elements to support their growth.

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Nitrogen is the most important element to support lush growth.  Phosphorous and potassium (K) support blooming, fruit formation, and healthy tissue development.  You’ll find the percentage of these elements listed on any fertilizer you might buy, in the formulation of N-P-K.  A fertilizer labeled 10-10-10 is a balanced fertilizer.   Since only 30% of the product is labeled as one of the key elements, you know that 70% of the product is filler, which may contain other necessary elements and minerals.

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Still waiting for the first blooms to appear on this new Begonia….

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But your plants might need a ‘pick me up’ that has more of one element than another.  You will find lots of specialty organic and inorganic fertilizers formulated for different uses.  Savvy gardeners would never  apply a standard lawn fertilizer to a flowering potted plant, for example.  Read the labels on the products at your favorite nursery or big box store to find the right product for the right plant.

When you potted up your plants in the spring, you likely added a little Espoma Plant Tone or Osmocote to the mix.  Or maybe you used a potting soil advertised to have fertilizer already mixed into it.  That is fine, but most of the pre-mixed potting soils feed for roughly 90 days.  That means that they’re beginning to lose the umph right as we hit the heat and dry spells that summer always brings.

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Many products are water soluble and can be mixed into a watering can and applied as a soil drench or foliar feed.  These give the quickest ‘pick me up’ results.  I learned about Neptune’s Harvest from a trusted nurseryman many years ago, and have used it ever since.  This is my ‘go to’ product for most pots and baskets out of doors, and I use it at least a couple of times a month in June through September.

The numbers on this fertilizer are relatively low (2-3-1), in part because it is an organic fertilizer made from seaweed and fish emulsion.  Yes, it smells terrible.  But because it is made from these organic materials, Neptune’s Harvest also delivers many trace minerals for stronger, healthier growth.

Plants can access the nutrition very quickly and show results very quickly.  Plants show better leaf color, put on stronger new growth and set more blooms after a dilute application of this mix.

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For plants indoors, and those plants I’m growing mainly for their flowers, I prefer to use Orchid Plus plant food (20-14-13) from time to time.  This is a reliable way to induce the plants to set buds and produce flowers.

This is one of those ‘light blue’ chemical fertilizers, and I mix it up much weaker than the package suggests.  If you feed too frequently, a mineral residue will build up on the pot, or even the potting soil.  Use this when watering only about once every two to three weeks.

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Plants are under a lot of stress in our area right now.  Rain has been scarce in our neighborhood, and temperatures regularly reach well above normal.  The garden looks a little tired and wilted.  The first line of defense is hydration.

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Plants are mostly water, and water pumps through their tissue from the roots, up through every cell until water is released as vapor through the leaves.  When a plant wilts, it means that its cells are collapsing for lack of enough water.  Some plants can perk back up once water is available  again; others won’t.

Water helps in the short term, and in this sort of weather, small pots or baskets may need hydration every morning and evening.

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Without sufficient water, their colors look dull, leaf edges may burn, and growth slows down.  New leaves and flowers may be small.  It’s not a very pretty sight!  If you have time to do nothing else, at minimum keep plants as hydrated as you can until it rains again.

Too much water causes its own set of problems, including root rot.  As in all things, we seek balance. 

Keep in mind that when there is a lot of rain and frequent watering, soluble fertilizers will wash right out of the soil.  This is another reason to give light supplemental fertilizers on a fairly regular basis, while plants are responding to summer’s bright light and warmth with active growth.

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You may have noticed that each day grows a little shorter, now that we’re nearly to August.  We’ve enjoyed a few cool nights, and the garden is preparing for its late summer show.

It’s a challenge to help our plants survive right through the season and have enough strength for a beautiful late summer and autumn display.  We have to keep them actively growing despite the challenges our weather may present.

Regular care and careful observation  are the secrets to success.  Hydration, feeding, deadheading and a little grooming ensure that our gardening investments pay generous dividends in beauty.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
Green Thumb Tip # 15: Conquer the Weeds!
Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!
Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time
Green Thumb Tip # 18: Edit!  
Green Thumb Tip #19: Focus on Foliage  
Green Thumb Tip #20: Go With The Flow

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Green Thumb Tip #20: Go With the Flow

Bronze fennel foliage, wet from an early morning watering, with Verbena bonariensis

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There is rhythm to life in the garden.  Much like waves of warm briny water crashing along a sandy beach; so too waves of life appear in the garden, peak, and then quietly disappear.  Part of a gardener’s education, when working in a new garden, is sensing and recognizing a garden’s ‘waves’ of life.

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Wisdom teaches us that much of our frustration and unhappiness is connected to our desires.  There are things we want that we can’t have in the moment.  There are things we love that we fear losing.  There are things we care about that we see passing away before our eyes.  All of these concerns can become causes of our suffering, to some degree, as we work with our gardens.

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Japanese beetles have found the Zantedeschia.

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But our feelings can shift when we take the broader view, acknowledge the rhythms and challenges, and plan ahead to address them.

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When we plant early spring bulbs we know that we’ll be left with their foliage for a few weeks after the flowers fade, and then even that will yellow and fall away.  What will grow up in their place?

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Daffodils and Arum italicum fade as Caladiums, hardy Begonia and ferns grow in their place.

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When we plant roses, we can expect a glorious flush of blooms in May, followed by much that needs to be pruned away.  What happens if blackspot or Japanese beetles attack the leaves?  Will our shrubs bloom again during the season?

We can plan to have other perennials or shrubs nearby to take attention away from resting rose shrubs.

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Crape myrtles have just begun to bloom in our area.

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And what happens when a tender perennial fails to appear in spring?  Is there a gap in the border, or do we have something waiting to grow in its place?

We understand the larger cycles of the seasons and how they affect the life in our garden.  First frost claims much of our garden’s growth, and the beds lie fallow through the winter.

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January in our forest garden

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But there are larger cycles still, as woodies grow and shade out nearby perennials, or a tree falls and changes the light in the garden, or plants fill in, creating dense mats of growth.

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Crinum lily comes into bloom amidst Iris, Thyme and Alliums.

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Gardening teaches us flexibility and resilience.  Resistance to the cycles and happenstance of nature tightens us up inside.  We might feel anger at the voles eating through the roots of a favorite shrub, or the Japanese beetles ruining the leaves of a favorite perennial.  How dare they!

But these things are always likely to happen.  We can’t fully prevent the damages that come along when we work with nature.

I found a small Hydrangea shrub, that I’ve been nurturing along from a rooted cutting, grazed back by deer last week.  No matter how protected it might be, or how often I’ve sprayed it with repellents, a doe came along after a rain, and chewed away most of its leaves.

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Successful gardeners learn how to ‘go with the flow.’  We do the best we can, follow best practices, and have a plan or two up our sleeves to work with the natural cycles of our space.  Even so, we learn the lessons of impermanence in the garden.

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Working to thwart the voles, I am experimenting with planting Caladiums into pots sunk into the bed. I’m also doing this in another bed with tender Hostas.

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Every plant isn’t going to survive.  But we keep planting anyway, trying new things to see what will thrive.

Some things we plant will grow too much, and we’ll have to cut them back or dig them up to keep them in bounds.  Weeds come and go.  Insects chew on leaves and voles chew on roots.

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We stand by, observing this incredible ebb and flow of life, and take our place among the waves.

Gardeners feel the ebbs and flows, too.  We may feel energized in spring and plant lots of new roots and shoots, seeds and plugs.  But then summer heats up, the grounds dries out a little, and we are left scrambling to keep it all watered and tended.

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Suddenly there is stilt grass sprouting up in our beds and pots.  The lawn is growing overnight, and the shrubs need pruning.

As our own energies come and go, we find a rhythm to keep up with maintaining our gardens while also maintaining ourselves.  We can’t stop the ebb and flow in our garden any more than we can stop the waves crashing on the beach.

But we can lighten up, enjoy the scenery, and take pleasure in the ride.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

What I’m reading this week:                            

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“Enjoying the simple beauty of plant against rocks, and cultivating the distinctive forms of alpine plants, is the heart of traditional rock gardening, ranging from gardeners who obsessively recreate the look of mountaintop, to those who carefully cultivate individual specimens of plants into breathtaking peaks of loom not to be matched by anything else in the plant world.”               

Joseph Tychonievich from Rock Gardening, Reimagining a Classic Style

(Thank you, Joseph, for your entertaining talk on Saturday morning!)

“Green Thumb” Tips: 

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

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

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

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about gardens and gardening.
Green Thumb Tip # 13: Breaching Your Zone
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
Green Thumb Tip # 15: Conquer the Weeds!
Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!
Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time
Green Thumb Tip # 18: Edit!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios

 

Green Thumb Tip #19: Focus on Foliage

New growth on Mahonia

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A garden built from woody trunks, stems, branches and beautiful leaves will last through the seasons.  Abundant foliage offers cool shade and privacy.  It screens the view, cleans the air, muffles outside sounds and protects the soil, all while offering a sense of enclosure.

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Crape Myrtle

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Flowers can be exciting, for a while.  But they fade or explode into a heap of petals all too quickly.  Their perfumes entice us, but flowers aren’t enough to create a lasting garden.

Better to focus on foliage plants for a garden’s flesh and bones, and appreciate ephemeral flowers as seasonal accents.

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Once one gets past wanting a garden filled with fragrant flowers, there is a beautiful palette of foliage waiting for the curious garden designer.  In fact, I’ve been reading an intriguing book on garden design by Karen Chapman and Christina Salwitz  called Gardening With Foliage First:  127 Dazzling Combinations That Pair the Beauty of Leaves With Flowers, Bark, Berries and More.

The authors have photographed and described associations of shrubs, perennials, vines, ferns and grasses that will grow well together for a variety of climate zones and locations.  The color combinations are striking, and the authors discuss how the association will change as the four seasons unfold.

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Colocasia ‘Mojito’ in August

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One of the nicest things about designing with foliage is the wide selection of colors and textures in the plant palette.  And with woodies and perennials, the plants grow larger and more complex with each passing year.

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A native redbud tree seedling has appeared by our drive. This tree can eventually grow to 20′ or more.

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We plan and plant our gardens in at least four dimensions.  We create out door ‘rooms’ by creating ‘walls’ with large shrubs and trees, or perhaps vines growing on a pergola or trellis.  Our carpet is a selection of low-growing plants and ground covers.   Some of us cultivate a simple carpet of moss.

The leafy canopy of trees offers us a bit of shelter and shade, enclosing our garden from above.   So we are planting foliage plants of varying heights to serve different purposes.

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Red Buckeye, Aesculus pavia, is a native, deciduous tree in coastal Virginia that will grow to about 25 feet.  It often grows as a multi-stemmed shrub, growing a bit broader with each passing year.

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Perennials tend to also spread, growing wider with each passing year.  A plant or two this year may propagate itself into two dozen plants within just a season or two.  Even within the short span of a single season, a small tropical plant purchased in a 3″ pot may grow to be 5′ tall and wide before frost.

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Our garden is also constantly changing over time, the fourth dimension.  Sculptural stems and branches cover themselves in buds, then ever expanding leaves.  The leaves grow and change colors as the season progresses, often developing intricate veins or spotted markings as they mature.

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Begonia

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Eventually, we are enclosed in leaves and woody growth before winter sweeps the season’s tender growth away.  Leaves glow with autumn color, then fall.  Perennials die back to ground level, harboring the promise of next year’s growth in their roots and crowns.

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It is this foliage framework which demands a garden designer’s attention. This is where we make our main investment of time and treasure. 

When beginning a new garden, one selects and plants the trees first to give a head start on growth.  When renovating a garden, it is wise to replace tired shrubs, or rejuvenate them with heavy pruning before the season’s new growth begins.

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Once we have good woody ‘bones’ in place, then we fill in the ground covers and herbaceous plants to occupy the mid-level spaces .

Flowers are the ephemeral elements which can come- and go- with the seasons. Whether we choose blooming shrubs, perennials with a short season of bloom like Iris, or even if we plant annuals for several months of bloom;  the flowers themselves are very short-lived.

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Japanese painted fern emerges among the Arum italicum, and is interlaced with creeping Jenny.  Bulb foliage will die back soon.  You can just see the new leaf of a hardy Begonia catching sunlight like a stained glass window to the right.  They will grow to about 18″ tall before their tiny pink flowers emerge.

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Many traditional gardens rely on foliage for all of their seasonal interest.  This is easy to do with herbaceous perennial foliage plants like ferns, Heucheras and Colocasia.  But a ‘foliage only’ garden doesn’t mean a monochromatic garden.  Beautiful contrasts and color combinations may be painted with colorful leaves.

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And stunning beauty may be created with little more than variations of texture and form.  Leafy plants swaying in the breeze bring life and movement to the garden.

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Lamb’s Ears, Stachys Byzantina. is grown more for its velvety gray leaves than for its flowers. In fact, many gardeners remove the flower stalks before they can bloom. Bees love it, so I leave them.

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As you plan and plant your pots and garden borders, remember to focus first on the foliage framework.   This will last over many months or years and will grow better with time.

The flowers will come and go, but your garden’s leafy presence will make the lasting impression.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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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’ll update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about gardens and gardening.
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
Green Thumb Tip # 15: Conquer the Weeds!
Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!
Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time
Green Thumb Tip # 18: Edit!

 

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Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time

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We are just finishing a harsh winter, and find ourselves in the midst of a chilly, slow spring.  Most of our woodies and perennials are a little behind the times in showing new growth, according to our experience with them in recent years.  Understandable!

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The Camellias didn’t do well in our cold, windy winter weather.

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We had a few nights in January when the lows dipped a little below 0 degrees F, which is rare here.  We had winter temperatures more like Zone 6, found several hundred miles to the west.  Our woodies and perennials rated for Zones 7 or 8 suffered from the deep, prolonged cold.  And it shows.

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Normally evergreen shrubs, now show extensive leaf damage, with brown and curling leaves.  Bark on some trunks and branches split and some stand now with bare branches.   Those woody shrubs that can easily withstand winter in Zones 6a or colder generally look OK.  But those that normally grow to our south, that we coddle along here in the edge or warmer climates, took a hit.

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I needed to cut back far more dead wood from our roses than any year in memory.  It is a very sad sight to see established shrubs looking so bad here in the second week of April.  Our cool temperatures through March and early April, with a little snow recently, have slowed the whole process of new spring growth, too.

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Some gardeners may be struggling with a decision about whether to replace these badly damaged plants.  Now that the garden centers are finally allowing deliveries of fresh stock, it is certainly tempting to rip out the shabby and re-plant with a vigorous plant covered in fresh growth.

I will counsel patience, which is the advice I am also giving to myself this week!  We invest in woodies and perennials mainly because they are able to survive harsh winters.  While leaves and some branches may be lost, there is still life in the wood and in the roots.

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I was out doing the ‘scratch test’ on a completely bare lilac shrub this morning.  Its condition is still a troubling mystery to us, as several other lilacs, of the same cultivar, are leafing out and are covered in budding flowers.  But this one, on the end of the row, sits completely bare without a swelling bud to be seen.  I scratched a little with my fingernail one of the major branches, and found green just below its thin bark.  So long as there is green, there is life.

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This lilac survived our winter in a pot near the kitchen door. We are delighted to see it in bloom so early. I’ll plant this shrub out in the garden once the blooms are finished. It has been in this pot for several years, after arriving as a bare root twig in the mail in early 2015.

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I want to prune this one back pretty severely, mostly because it is becoming an eyesore.  But my Master Gardener friend strongly advises to give it more time.  She suggests waiting until early June to make life and death decisions on trees and shrubs, to give them time to recover.

I may prune the lilac a little, now that the freezing weather here is likely over for the year, and hope that stimulates some fresh growth.

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Japanese Maples have finally allowed their leaves to unfold this week.

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That is what we’ve done with the roses.  We pruned, hard, and we see new shoots coming from the roots on all of our roses now.

There are a few good reasons to nurse our winter damaged woodies back to health instead of replacing them now.  First, our tree or shrub is established and has a developed root system.  Even if all of its trunks and stems are dead, new ones will soon appear from the roots.  This seems to happen every single year with my Ficus afghanistanica ‘Silver Lyre’.  It keeps the shrub a manageable size, and the plant looks pretty good again by early summer.

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F. ‘Silver Lyre’s’ stems are visible beside the Iris leaves. Rated to Zone 7b, it always returns, sometime in May, from its roots.  A Sweetbay Magnolia waits behind it, in a nursery pot.  I want to see some sign of life before planting it.

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Another reason to rejuvenate an established shrub, rather than plant a new one, is economic.  Finding a good sized shrub to replace the old one is a bit of an investment.  Weather and higher fuel prices are definitely reflected in shrub prices this spring.  I’ve felt a little bit of ‘sticker shock’ when looking at prices at area nurseries.

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These Viburnums show cold damage, even while still at a local nursery.

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And even if you buy a new shrub, it is likely to sustain damage during its adjustment time, if you live in deer country.  Shrubs fresh from the grower have been heavily fertilized to induce quick growth.  This extra nitrogen in the plant’s tissue tastes a little ‘salty’ to grazing deer, and makes the shrub that much more delicious and attractive to them.  It takes a year or so of growth before the tastiness of new shrubs seems to decline, and they are ignored by grazing deer.

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I’ve just watched a major investment in new holly trees get nibbled down nearly to the branches by deer in our area.  It is very discouraging, especially if your new shrub is replacing one damaged by winter’s weather!

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This Eucalyptus sometimes sprouts new leaves from its existing trunks in spring. Last winter it was killed back to its roots, but then grew about 6′ during the season.  I expect it to send up new growth from its roots by early May.

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All things considered, I am planning to give our woodies another six to eight weeks, and every possible chance, before declaring them and cutting them out.  It is the humane and sensible approach.  Even though the selection at garden centers this month is tempting, I will wait.

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The view this week at the top of our garden. Still looks rather wintery, doesn’t it?  The southern wax myrtles which normally screen our view, were hit hard by the cold, and a new flush of leaves have not yet opened.

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In this climate, it is generally better to plant in fall, anyway.  Fall planted shrubs get a good start in cooler weather, so their roots can grow and establish the plant in the surrounding soil before summer’s heat sets in.  The selection may be a little more sparse by October or November, but the prices are often better, as nurseries try to clear their stock before winter.

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This English holly, purchased last November, lived in a container over winter, and may be too far gone to save. I planted it out in the garden last month in hope it may recover….

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And of course, you might try propagating replacement shrubs yourself, from cuttings.  I have pretty good luck rooting hardwood cuttings over winter, or greenwood cuttings in spring and summer.  It isn’t hard to do, if you are willing to wait a few years for the shrub to grow to maturity.

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As with so many thing in the garden, it takes time and patience to achieve our goals.  They say that ‘time heals all things.’

That may not be true 100% of the time, but patience allows us to achieve many things that others may believe impossible!

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Our red buckeye tree was knocked back to the ground in a summer 2013 storm.  It lived and has grown to about 5′ high in the years since.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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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’ll update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about gardens and gardening.
Green Thumb Tip # 13: Breaching Your Zone
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
Green Thumb Tip # 15: Conquer the Weeds!
Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios

 

 

Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!

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Strange but true:  Gardening can become political, too.

This disturbing notion is reflected in our gardening styles.  Consider the traditional scheme of evergreen shrubs and lawn.  Maybe there is an urn filled with bright annuals, somewhere.

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A ‘monoculture’ garden where the same plant, or small number of plants is repeated over and over, lacks diversity.  Most everything in the garden is green.

Now, where there is a limited palette of plants, there will also be a very limited number of insects, birds and small mammals supported.  What will they eat?  Where will they rest?  Other than a few robins pulling worms from the lawn, there will be a very small number of species observed.

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This common scheme, repeated over and again in neighborhoods across the country, gives us a clue as to why native birds, butterflies, amphibians and other small animals have been in decline for some time.  We have transformed woods and prairie and farms and natural riparian communities into suburbs.  Suburbs of lawn and largely imported shrubs and trees.

Once we introduce a larger palette of plants, providing more ‘niches’ for both plants and animals, the diversity and interest increases exponentially.  And interestingly, our garden comes alive with synergistic abundance.

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For example:  A single oak tree can support over 250 different species of insects.  It serves as a host for many common butterfly larvae, too.  The insects it harbors attract songbirds who will visit to eat, but will also use the tree for cover and nesting.  Every native tree and large shrub will provide food and shelter to wildlife, and will become a hub of life in the garden.

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Native Live Oak in Colonial Williamsburg

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Trees form the backbone of our garden and of our ecosystem.  They offer us shade.  They freshen the air, fix carbon, and may even bloom in the spring.

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Dogwood was chosen as the Virginia Native Plant Society’s Wildflower of the Year for 2018.  Its spring blossoms support pollinators, and fall berries feed birds.  Many sorts of insects, including caterpillars, live in its canopy each summer

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Native trees support more animal species than do exotic imports, but all trees have value.  Willow, Magnolias, poplars, sycamore, black cherry, beech and redbud all enrich the lives of wildlife and of gardeners!

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March 2017, with the flowering Magnolia trees in our garden covered in blossoms.

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Deciduous trees mark the passing months, providing different sorts of beauty in each season.  Evergreen trees anchor the landscape, serve as windbreaks, and give us bright green structure through winter.  Many, like hollies, also produce berries to feed wildlife when little else can be found.

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American Holly

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As we add various layers to the garden with ground covers, ferns, herbaceous perennials, shrubs, vines and trees; the number of wildlife species our garden can support increases exponentially.  But even more importantly, it comes alive as an interesting and intriguing habitat for us humans as well!

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A dynamic cast of horticultural characters come and go with the seasons.  They grow and change, transforming the character of our outdoor space as well.  We bring color, fragrance, texture and maybe even delicious flavor to our garden as we diversify our planting scheme.

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We can begin with what we have, converting turf into habitat a little at a time.  Plant ground covers under existing shrubs to form a living mulch; plant large shrubs to anchor new planting beds, or begin to cultivate wide borders beside walls or fences.  Early spring is the perfect time to plan and establish new plantings.

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Brent and Becky Heath’s Gloucester display garden December 4, 2015

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A tidy benefit of this approach comes with reducing the amount of turf we need to maintain each year.  Consider the savings when there is less grass to water, fertilizer, treat with chemicals and to mow.  Turf is the most expensive landscape plant, per square foot, of any commonly grown plant in North America.  It demands the most effort and gives the least return.

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The Heath’s display gardens in Gloucester, October 2015.

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It is our adventurous spirit which motivates us to try new plants each year.  As our gardens evolve, we evolve with them; building a wealth of experience and appreciation with our ever expanding community of plants and wildlife.  We add beauty to our home and to our neighborhood.

We help preserve species for future generations, sustaining the wildlife that sustain the web of our own existence on planet Earth.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Gardening for Wildlife

Butterfly Garden Plants

Bringing Nature Home by Dr. Douglas Tallamy

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Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 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 # 13: Breaching Your Zone
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
Green Thumb Tip # 15: Conquer the Weeds!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios

Green Thumb Tip #15: Conquer the Weeds

Asclepias, milkweed,  July 2017

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What is a weed, anyway?

The gardener’s answer observes that any plant growing where you don’t want it to grow, is a weed.

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Dandelion, Taraxacum

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Some ‘weeds’ came to North America as invited guests, because they were beloved and useful to earlier immigrants.  Although many of us cringe at dandelions cropping up in our lawn or veggie plot; dandelions, Taraxacum species,  were originally planted in the veggie plot for their nutritious leaves, and have been used through much of human history as a medicinal herb.

Since most of us don’t use dandelions anymore, and they crop up where we least want to see them; we consider them a weed.

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Vinca minor, periwinkle, was brought to North America with European settlers.  It is now considered invasive, though many gardeners still buy and plant it.

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Other ‘weeds’ are actually native plants.  If you notice purple violets in your lawn, will you admire them or destroy them?  You can buy pricey violets, Viola odorata, from many native plant nurseries, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have them already popping up here and there on their own.  Other common native ‘weeds’ in our garden include pokeberry, Phytolacca americana; ground ivy, Glechoma hederacea; and wild strawberry, Fragaria virginiana.

Plants may be ‘wildflowers’ to some, ‘weeds’ to others.  Maybe it depends on whether they grow on a roadside, or in your own garden.  Native plant enthusiasts are sometimes accused of planting ‘weeds’ in their yard when they cultivate Asclepias or wild Ageratum.

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Aralia spinosa is a native tree with thorns on its trunk and branches. Because it spreads its seeds and sends up shoots from its roots, many consider it a weed to be eradicated from the garden.  Here it grows with native pokeweed.

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The same tufts of grass I’m digging out of my garden paths may be planted and coddled in my neighbor’s yard.  The seedling Rose of Sharon shrubs I’m digging out of my flowerbeds, may be valuable when transplanted into another spot in the garden.

Some ‘weeds’ now considered ‘invasive’ started out as desirable imported plants.  But, without the competition or predators that keep them in check in their native lands, they run amok here.  When birds carry their seeds around, or they propagate clonally; these once desirable plants colonize real estate and out-compete the natives.  This has happened with autumn olive shrubs, Elaeaganus umbellata; perennial Lantana, and  even the beautiful Bradford pear.

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Perennial Ageratum, Conoclinium coelestinum

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Periwinkle, or Vinca minor, came to the United States with European colonists in the Eighteenth Century.  An effective evergreen groundcover, it blooms in spring with beautiful lavender or white flowers.  But it spreads aggressively!  I often find myself yanking it out by the handful when it creeps into my borders.  Its roots form thick mats, and can choke out other perennials.

So what to do about weeds?

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Three natives growing together in our front garden: Rudbeckia hirta; mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum, and Obedient plant, Physostegia virginiana.  Each of these can spread itself to become invasive, and may need to be ‘weeded’ out in early summer.

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‘Weeds gone wild’ can disrupt our garden plans.  They may shade out or choke out more desirable plants that we bought and planted.  They may compete for water and nutrients against our edible crops.  They might spread aggressively, colonizing large area with thick mats of roots and vegetation.

Well, before reaching for a handy toxic herbicide, take a moment to consider your adversary.  It helps to understand the plant you hope to annihilate!

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Morning Glory, or ‘bindweed’ sprouts each summer from seed, and grows through our bed of Lantana and roses.

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Is it a perennial?  Does it prefer sun or shade?  Does it root easily when chopped into pieces?  Does it have rhizomes or stolons?

Understanding its needs, and how it reproduces, helps you plan an attack.  Knowing how long it may live, and whether it will easily re-seed, tells you the scope of your problem.

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Self-seeding beauty berry crops up in our shrub borders, and out competes many other plants. It will grow several feet in a single season.

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Seeds may lie dormant for a long time before conditions are right for them to sprout.  Whenever you disturb the soil, you may be bringing long dormant seeds to the surface, giving them the conditions they need to grow.  That is why breaking ground to till or otherwise dig up new garden areas may bring ‘weed’ seeds to the surface.

Many weeds can be smothered, or prevented from germinating, or growing further, with mulch.

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While shredded bark mulch will suppress weeds, it may allow others to germinate as it decomposes.  The rogue Magnolia tree behind this bed is a volunteer, growing from the mulch.  Is there room for it to mature here, or must it be cut out?

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A relatively easy way to kill grass and weeds, without chemicals, when you want to start a new garden bed, is to simply cover them.   Use your choice of cardboard sheets, layers of newspaper (black and white only if you plan to grow food crops), paper grocery bags, burlap or landscape fabric.  Completely cover the area you plan to cultivate, and then layer compost, garden soil, shredded leaves, seaweed and even shredded bark mulch on top.  If you won’t be planting for several months,  add  ‘compostable’ materials like rinsed egg shells, fruit and vegetable peels, teabags and coffee grounds in your layers.  Some gardeners use straw as mulch, adding layers every year.  In my experience, there are always seeds which sprout, creating more weeds.

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Paper grocery bags covered with several inches of compost killed the grass and weeds under this new bed.  Pea gravel holds down the paper edges and serves as an initial border to the bed.  A loose layer of gravel on top serves as a light mulch to hold the compost in place as the plants take hold.

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If you are starting a new shrub border, you might add black plastic around the new shrubs, and cover this with mulch.  Black plastic may also be laid out over an area of grass and weeds you wish to kill, pegged down and left for several weeks.   The plants under the plastic are both smothered and cooked, leaving an area ready to cultivate when the plastic is removed.

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Colocasia ‘Pink China’ spread aggressively.  Now that they are established, I dig up plants each spring to share with friends to try to control how far they spread in the garden.

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Some weeds may be simply dug up.  If the weed is a desirable plant sprouted in the wrong place, you may dig it up and either transplant it or give it away.

Other weeds easily re-grow from any bit left behind.  Digging the plant today won’t destroy it; it will appear again in a few weeks.  In that case, cut the plant off at ground level and remove all of the stems.  This starves the plant.  You may need to cut it back several times before it gives up; but eventually, you will win.

Cutting weeds instead of pulling them up by their roots takes less of a gardener’s energy.  It also keeps the soil intact, giving no opportunity for new weed seeds to sprout.  You may cut weeds with a hoe at ground level, with a pair of scissors, or with secateurs.  It depends on the thickness of the stem you need to cut what tool you will choose.

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Plant densely, with many layers of plants, to suppress weeds.

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I like a Japanese Hori Hori digging tool for cutting weeds off at ground level, or for digging up plants to move.  It is a long, pointed blade with a serrated edge, which serves as both knife and narrow shovel.

Another approach is to simply mow an area several times during the summer to discourage perennial or woody weeds.  I often use a string trimmer a few times a year in our upper wooded garden, to cut back seedling trees and shrubs sprouting in an area where they can not grow.

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Plants just want to live and grow, like every other living thing.  And just because you begin a bed weed free doesn’t mean it will remain that way for long.  Seeds blow in on the wind and get deposited by birds.  Seed capsules explode and rhizomes creep.

As your organic mulch breaks down over time, it serves as a great medium for new seeds to germinate.  Any bare ground screams an invitation to colonize it with new plants.

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Evergreen ground cover, like perennial Hellebores, will shade out weeds so they can’t begin to grow.  However, Hellebores self-seed freely.  Large stands of Hellebores soon surround the original plants.

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Prevent new weeds by densely covering any planting area with desirable plants.  Cultivate the garden in layers, with plants of different heights, to make it nearly impossible for new weedy plants to get a start.  This would include some sort of perennial, maybe evergreen ground cover to protect your soil through winter.

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Rose of Sharon

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You might also consider using a gravel mulch.  Once a new bed is planted up, pile several inches of pea gravel over a layer of biodegradable material like paper or burlap, placed around the new plants.  The layer of paper or fabric stops perennial weeds from re-sprouting.  The gravel mulch doesn’t facilitate germination of seeds blown in to the bed.  You may need to employ some sort of border around the bed to hold the gravel in place, but this is a neat looking and effective approach.

Experiments with gravel mulch have demonstrated that shrubs and many perennials grow well through the gravel.  The soil remains cool and moist, and the pea gravel reflects sunshine back up onto the plant to reduce disease and increase photosynthesis.  This is an especially good way to conserve moisture in dry climates.

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Wild wood violets open in spring, carpeting parts of the garden in vivid color.  These perennial wildflowers may be considered weeds when they show up in a lawn.

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Some gardeners may still reach for an herbicide to zap the stray dandelion or wild onions in their lawn.  Few stop to realize the long term effects on their own health and well being, or on the ecosystem, from these toxic chemicals.  They penetrate into the ground and run off into creeks, ponds and rivers.   Many herbicides have proven links to debilitating and fatal diseases for anyone exposed to them.  Even if you wear gloves, you and those around you may still breathe in the fumes.  Is it worth the risk to your health, simply to kill a few weeds?

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With a bit of thought and a effort, weeds can be eliminated, and new ones prevented from growing, without doing any harm to yourself or to the environment.

After all, we are the gardeners.  Our goal remains to make the world a more beautiful and productive place.  We are happiest and most successful when we work with nature, and when we respect both ourselves, and the many life forms drawn to our gardens.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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More information about health dangers of herbicides:

Weed Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells- Scientific American
The Dangers of Glysophate Herbicide- Mother Earth News
New Studies Reveal the Effects of Glysophate – Mercola.com
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Ground ivy Glechoma hederacea

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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 #12: Grow More of That! 
Green Thumb Tip # 13: Breaching Your Zone
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios

 

 

 

 

 

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