Six on Saturday: Wildlife Friendly Perennials

Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta, grows in full to partial sun.  It spreads a bit more each year.  There are other species of Rudbeckia equally attractive to pollinators that also produce tasty seeds for the songbirds.  Deer rarely touch a leaf, unless there is a severe drought and they need moisture.

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So many of us want to attract birds, bees, butterflies and other pollinators to our gardens.  We want beautiful flowers and glowing, healthy foliage; but we don’t want to attract deer to feast in our yards.

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Monarda fistulosa loves full sun and spreads on many types of soil. Flower color varies from lavender to white.  Any species of Monarda, which is a perennial herb, feeds pollinators and is distasteful to deer.  Purple coneflower, Echinacea, is another native plant that blooms for much of the summer to attract butterflies, and delights goldfinches once it sets seed.  Once established, both are very drought tolerant.

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As I chat with fellow gardeners, I hear the same concerns over and again.  We want to be good stewards and support wildlife.  But we want to plant things the deer will leave alone!  No one wants to use expensive sprays and granules to protect their plants, and neither do we want to come out to admire it all and find it munched!

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Hellebores keep right on blooming through winter storms and freezing nights from January until May.  Every part of the plant is poisonous and grazers never touch them.  Pollinators find much needed pollen and nectar when little else is in bloom.

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As undeveloped lands shrink, all of the animals that once lived there look for new places to live and raise their young.  And that means that they learn to live among us in our neighborhoods and in the few remaining ‘wild’ places behind and between the developed parcels.

We have the added challenge in our neighborhood of backing up against protected wetlands and a National Park.  The deer and other wild things move freely from park to neighborhood, looking for a safe place to live where their needs can be met.

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Yellow flag Iris spreads in full to partial sun in moist soil.  It produces a lot of nectar, though it blooms for only a few weeks each spring.  All Iris support pollinators and are distasteful to grazers.  Plant a variety of different types of Iris to support pollinators over a longer period of time.

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I sometimes feel conflicted planting to attract some wildlife, while trying to exclude other species.  But as we all eventually learn, deer don’t share; they consume.   Deer will eat a plant to the point of killing it, then go looking for more.

I’ve spent many years searching for those particular bird and pollinator friendly plants that deer and other grazers won’t eat.  These are some of my favorites in our Zone 7b garden.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, just a few good picks that come to mind.

In general,  deer avoid herbs because of their essential oils, and avoid plants with tough, leathery leaves that feel unpleasant in their mouths.  Plants with poisonous leaves are a sure bet; and there are plenty that may be poisonous to eat, but perfectly safe for us to handle.

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A Silver Spotted Skipper enjoys Verbena bonariensis in our garden.  There are many species of  perennial Verbena, all of which attract pollinators and all of which are ignored by grazers. 

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These plants are easy to grow and easy to find, relatively inexpensive to buy, and forgiving of novice gardeners.  I hope they offer a bit of hope to those gardening, as we do, where the deer roam free and generations of rabbits raise their young in the side yard.

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Agastache, anise hyssop, is an herb related to mint.  Like other herbs, it has essential oils that make it distasteful to grazers.  Agastache often attracts even more pollinators than Lantana, which is saying a lot!  Its seeds feed birds once the flowers fade.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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

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Fabulous Friday: Time Marching On

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I am delighted with how many of last summer’s marginal perennials survived winter to bloom again this spring.  It satisfies my thrifty nature to enjoy another season’s blooms from a plant sold as an ‘annual.’  Actually, quite a few of our ‘annuals’ are perennial a zone or two to our south.

With a little thought and effort, and a bit of grace, we can shelter them over winter and enjoy them again.

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Last year’s Lantana blooms for another season in one of our patio pots, alongside a favorite Clematis vine.

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I leafed through a book on container gardening this week which offered the sage advice to empty all of one’s pots before the first frost, composting the contents and storing the pots indoors.  I’m sure many gardeners swear by a clean pot and fresh compost each spring, planted up with brand new plants from the nursery.  If I had nothing to do with my time and loose change but garden, I might enjoy that approach, too.

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Dianthus and Saxifraga thrive in their pots near the back door, growing larger and giving more flowers every year.

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But I am hooked on the ‘Four Season Pot’ approach, and try to keep something interesting growing in most of my pots year round.  Some may be growing in the garage, but quite a few weather the season outside with small trees or shrubs, bulbs, violets, perennials, and herbs.

I change out some of the upper layer of compost in some a few times a year, fertilize generously, and re-do the entire pot rarely.  Our climate is mild enough that the plants generally live through the winter, and the pots don’t crack in the cold!

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‘Annual’ Verbena returns this spring from its roots, quickly filling its pot before I’ve had time to even plant most of my new starts from the nursery.

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And as we near the middle of May new plants are blooming even as earlier beauties fade.  Our heat this week has taken the Iris sooner than I’d hoped.  In fact, the heat has put a serious crimp in my plans to move pots back outside, and to re-plant many of our pots with summer herbs and perennials!

It has been too hot and the sun too intense to spend much time outside in the middle of the day.  I’ve had to ration my morning and afternoon hours among several different ‘to-do’ lists.

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But time marches on, as native perennials grow at lightening speed, demanding a firm hand on the clippers or string trimmer to cut them back.  Irises need trimming as their flowers fade, perennials need pinching back to make them bush out, and I have rows of sprouting Caladiums wanting to sink their roots into a permanent home.

Having a few marginal perennials return and fill their pots once again pleases me so much, as those pots burst into flower with little from me beyond an approving smile.

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The first Lantana bloomed this week, and all of our Clematis have covered themselves in flowers.  What more could I reasonably hope for?  Watching perennials emerge and bloom feels like greeting old friends after a while apart.  I’m surprised all over again by their beauty and character.

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It will be June before we know it; solstice lurks on the horizon.  I appreciate the longer evenings to wander in the garden, water a bit, and do a few more gardening tasks.

The sweet fragrance of blooming Ligustrum thickens the evening breeze, even as bats fly low over the garden catching their dinner.  There are huge buds on the Magnolia trees, ready to open one day soon, releasing their nostalgic perfume.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea blooms with the foxglove.

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Time seems to evaporate when I’m engaged with the garden; and yet time governs its unfolding, the rise and fall of every creature and leaf.

Timelessness permeates the relentless waves of change, eternity lives in root and rhizome.  Each flower opens in its own unique color and form, synchronized to the deeper rhythms that govern us all.

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Yellow flag Iris pseudacorus blooms this week.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is contagious; let’s infect one another!

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“Time doesn’t seem to pass here:
it just is.”
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J.R.R. Tolkien

Dry Shade Solutions

Epimedium blooms in late April and May.  These leaves often persist through winter.

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How do you turn the dry, shady areas beneath trees and large shrubs into beautiful garden spots lush with color and texture?  That is one of the toughest challenges for many gardeners.  Most ornamental plants want plenty of sunlight and moisture to thrive.  What to do when the thirsty roots of large woodies soak up the moisture from the soil, and their dense canopy cuts off the sun?

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Athyrium niponicum grows with Saxifraga stolonifera in dry shade under a hedge of large shrubs, just a few inches from our driveway.

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Many of us gardening in established neighborhoods face this challenge.  Our shady spots may be under trees, near foundations, in the shade of a neighbor’s home, or around overgrown shrubs.  If we try to maintain a lawn, it’s thin and patchy.  Weeds invade where grass is slow to grow.

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Gravel makes for a very good mulch over newly planted areas, especially on sloping ground.

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If we give up and do nothing, then we’re left with these ugly, bare spots in our yard that may even begin to erode after heavy rains.   There are ways to work with these areas to transform them from bare to beautiful.

Luckily, there are some reliable perennials that will grow well in dry shade if we give them just a little encouragement.  A useful garden mantra, ‘Right plant, right place!’ is the first key to success in dry shade.  We can also make the spot a little more accommodating and dress it up a bit with some simple infrastructure.

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Have you ever noticed how the ground under a rock is cool and moist?  Rocks, bricks, pavers and gravel all help hold moisture in the soil.  Using these to border and build your planting area will help conserve moisture and provide cool, moist places for the roots of your shade perennials.

Simply laying a single layer of landscaping bricks around the area you plan to cultivate begins the garden making process.  You can also use large rocks,  cinder blocks, wood, or even shallow pots.  If you use cinder blocks or pots, fill the openings with compost or potting soil and plant them up, too!

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The stump garden begun in 2015 with a pair of ferns has grown into this beautiful section of our fern garden, as it was in May of 2018. Once begun, gardens tend to expand.

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After you outline the new bed, spread a few inches of compost to improve the soil, hold moisture and provide a little more depth for planting the roots of new plants.  You can’t dig it in if you are planting over the roots of a tree or large shrub, but don’ worry.

Earthworms and other invertebrates in the soil will appreciate the compost and move it down into deeper layers of soil for you.  Adding an inch or so of fresh compost each spring will help improve the soil further with each passing year.  If there are weeds or grass in the area already, then lay some paper grocery bags or several layers of newsprint over the existing vegetation and then cover the paper in compost.

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Butterfly garden in March 2012, trimmed, weeded, and with a fresh topping of compost.

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Care must be taken to not bury the woody roots too deeply.  They don’t like that!  You also can’t pile compost or mulch up the woody trunk of a tree without harming it.  ‘Mulch volcanoes’ climbing tree trunks and burying roots invite disease and weaken a tree.    Keep your new layer of compost a few inches away from the root collar and trunk of any nearby trees or large shrubs.

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If you can only dig a few inches deep in an area where you want to place a well rooted plant, consider partially burying an attractive clay pot.  If you can enlarge the drainage holes without breaking the pot, do so and allow the plant’s roots room to escape and find their own way deeper into the soil.  Planting this way can also protect tasty plants from moles and voles.  I sometimes use this strategy for tender Hostas and Caladiums, that want to stay moist all of the time.

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This experimental raised bed under a dogwood tree is bordered with hypertufa planters and planted with a combination of hardy Begonia and ferns, with a few Caladiums planted each spring.

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The pot helps you create a soil ‘microclimate’ for these particular plants.  Those pots also help other plants near them.  Unglazed terra cotta can absorb and hold water, releasing it back to the soil and roots as needed.  Likewise, if you place decorative pavers, stones, planters, etc. within the bed, they will also help to hold moisture and roots can grow under them.

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“Soil security”

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If you are planting on a dry, shady slope, use this idea to create terraces.  Each terrace will hold some of the rain water that otherwise would simply run off.  Planting behind the pavers or timbers used to create each terrace offers a moist spot for roots.  I’ve also used pieces of broken pots to create planting niches on  a slope.  Once the roots grow in, after a season or two, you can often remove the broken pot to use elsewhere.

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The terraces help stop erosion, holding moisture behind the stones long enough that it sinks in rather than just runnimg off.

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Choose plants in small pots.  Given a choice between a 2″ pot and an 8″ pot, choose the smallest size available.  You may not be able to dig a very large hole, and the smaller root balls will be easier to plant.  Sometimes you can knock a new plant out of its pot and divide it, then plant the smaller sections, with their roots.  Check to make sure that each crown or stem has some roots attached before separating it from the parent plant.  This will work with many vines, with Hostas and with many ferns.   You can cover more ground initially with fewer new plants by dividing as you plant.

Use a sharp, narrow digging tool.  You might use a butcher knife, a hori hori, or a narrow trowel to dig out small areas between roots for new plants.

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

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Also choose a couple of plants that will quickly spread out as ground cover.  Some plants, like Lamium, or dead-nettles, will grow quickly and strike roots at the leaf nodes.  This is a good strategy for plants to survive in dry shade, because they have lots of roots supporting their stems, leaves and flowers.  Once you have this established, you can easily dig up divisions, with roots, to move around.  Vinca minor will also grow this way and bloom each spring.  These plants can become invasive, so plan to keep their growth contained so they don’t overwhelm other plants in your scheme.

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Ferns and Lamium grow in one of the shadiest areas of our garden, below a stand of hazel trees.  From this small beginning in 2014, the Lamium spread out to cover a very large area. It grows a bit further each year, carpeting a dry, shady area where its needs are met.

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Plants like Ajuga and Saxifraga spread by stolons.  Each rosette of leaves strikes its own roots, but several stolons, or runners, will radiate out from each plant, forming a new little plant at the end of each of these creeping ‘stems.’  A thick mat of plants will form within a few years.  You can dig up any rosette, once it has a few leaves, and transplant it to another area.

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The Lamium spread to cover the entire area after just a few years.

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There are a surprisingly large number of flowering plants that will grow in ‘dry shade.’  Some will need moist soil for the first year or two as they establish, and then once their roots grow deep, they can survive on their own without a lot of extra water during dry spells.  Native gingers, hardy Cyclamens, ivies, Hellebores, Pachysandra, Liriope, Epimedium, perennial Geranium macrorrhizum, and some spring bulbs like Hycinthoides (Spanish bluebells) and Muscari will thrive.

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Saxifraga spreads by stolons

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Italian Arum thrives in dry shade from September through May, but will disappear during the summer.  You might balance it with Hostas , which will emerge just a few weeks before the Arum fades, or with Caladiums.  Mayapples, Podophyllum, will appear in March and disappear by July.  But their striking leaves add drama to a planting in the shade.  Highly poisonous, deer and rabbits won’t touch them.

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Mayapples and Vinca cover the ground in this narrow area under large Azalea shrubs.

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Hostas will grow well once established, thought they can’t stay dry for extended periods of time.  Heucheras and Tiarellas will also grow well in partial shade.  They will bloom better if they get some sun in the early spring.  If you have rabbits or deer browsing in your garden, you will need to protect the Hostas and Heucheras with animal deterrents.

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Although we may think of ferns as plants for moist areas, some will perform well in dry shade, too.  Native Christmas ferns, Polystichum acrostichoides, Japanese painted ferns, Athyrium niponicum, and autumn fern, ‘Brilliance’ are among those that do very well in dry shade.

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Plants growing in dry shade will most commonly bloom in late winter and early spring, before the leaves on deciduous trees grow back into a thick canopy.  During the rest of the year, the garden depends on foliage color and texture for its interest.

When designing for dry shade, consider the various leaf colors, textures, plant heights, and shapes to design a harmonious composition.  You might create a very restful, harmonious scene by repeating the same limited palette of plants over the entire area.  You can also create drama with dramatic foliage plants like Caladiums and Hosta.

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Many dry shade plants are evergreen, holding their places throughout the year.  But plan for winter when deciduous ferns die back, and also for the months after spring ephemerals disappear.  As in other parts of the garden, a little pre-planning allows the display of flowers and foliage to shift and change throughout the gardening year.

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As our climate shifts and summers grow hotter, shade gardening will become more important for maintaining our own health and comfort.  Large trees help shelter our homes and gardens from summer’s sun.  We may not be able to grow velvety lawns beneath the trees, but we can certainly create beautiful plantings in their shelter.

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As you find tough and beautiful plants that work well in your own microclimate, use them again and again to create a sense of unity throughout your garden.  If these are plants that you can easily propagate or divide, you soon realize that this is a thrifty way to create beauty in those challenging spots in your garden.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Pot Shots: Unity

Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’ began blooming this week.

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Repetition creates unity.  As one of the most basic principles of design, it’s one often overlooked by enthusiastic plant collectors like me!

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The dark purple leaves of the Ajuga are repeated in this Japanese painted fern.  this is one of several containers I made from hypertufa in 2014.

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I’m often tempted to grow the new and novel plant; something I’ve not grown out before.  We’re lucky to have space enough that I can indulge that interest while also repeating successful plants enough to create a sense of unity.

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Each Ajuga plant sends out multiple runners, with a new plant growing at the tip of each, often forming roots in the air. The plants are easy to break off and casually plant in a new spot. I often use Ajuga both for groundcover and in pots.  Here, Ajuga and Sedum angelina form a groundcover under a potted shrub.

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What should one repeat?  There are many design tricks based on repetition that are very subtle, but create a sense of harmony and peacefulness.

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I plant a lot of Muscari bulbs in pots each fall, waiting for just this effect the following spring. Muscari may be left in the pot or transplanted ‘in the green’ elsewhere in the garden when the pot is replanted for summer.

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The most obvious consideration is to use the same or similar plants again and again.  Repeating the same plant across several pots within a grouping creates unity.  Repeating the same plant again elsewhere in the garden ties that grouping of pots to other elements of the landscape.

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I like to choose a plant that grows well in the conditions of an area of the garden, and then use that plant in several different pots within a group.  Maybe I’ll plant a group of basil plants, or a group of lavender and rosemary, accented with sage or thyme.  Some years I plant a group of different geraniums.  The individual plants may be different cultivars with slightly different leaf or flower colors, but there are unifying elements to tie them together.

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Buying multiples of the same cultivar of Viola each autumn, and then planting them across several different pots creates a sense of unity.

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It’s helpful to use perennials that grow fairly quickly, that may be divided easily or that self-seed, and that are fairly easy to find and inexpensive to buy.  Once I find a plant that grows well in our conditions I like to repeat it again and again.

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I plant divisions of Ajuga, creeping Jenny and Sedum in various areas as ground cover.  They spread and cover more fully each year. Native strawberries occur here naturally, and quickly spread each spring.  I will eventually weed these out, even though they are good plants for wildlife.

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Because perennials often shine for a few weeks and then take a background role, or even go dormant for a few months, a gardener can eventually design a garden that changes every few weeks, but still has interest over a very long season, by using perennials thoughtfully.

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Japanese painted fern, Italian Arum and creeping Jenny repeat in this bed near the arrangement of pots.  The color scheme is basically the same (at the moment) in both this bed and the grouping of pots.

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Another way to create unity is to choose pots of the same or similar material, color and design.  Perhaps they are the same color, but varying sizes.

You may own thirty pots, but if they are all in the same limited color palette, there is unity.  Some designers will use a set of identical pots, evenly spaced, to create repetition along a porch, path, deck, or balcony.    This is a very formal approach, and would probably look best with the same rather formal planting in each pot.

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I favor blue glazed pots. This one held a lavender all winter, which is still a bit scraggly before its new growth comes on.  A native violet grows here instead of a hybrid Viola, but the color scheme remains the same.

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Combinations of colors also creates unity.  The plants themselves may be different, but if you use the same colors again and again whether in a group of pots, or throughout the garden as a whole, the eye perceives harmony and consistency:  unity.

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Annual Alyssum covers the soil beneath the Clematis.

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Whether we are making gardens, paintings, food, poetry or music, setting ourselves some parameters allows for creativity and expression within those self-imposed boundaries.  It may actually guide us into being more creative.

By removing some options prima facie, we are left to improvise with more focus among those choices we have left.  What we create will perhaps be more pleasing, more interesting, and perhaps even more beautiful than if we took a laissez-faire, scattershot approach to design.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Growing Hardy Cyclamen

Naturalized Cyclamen hederifolium at the Connie Hansen Garden in Lincoln City, OR are already in bloom in mid-October.

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Cyclamen are just one of those delicate, special plants that we delight in growing.  Their intricately patterned leaves and sculpted, sometimes fragrant, flowers are some of the most novel and beautiful among common potted florist plants.  I generally buy a florist Cyclamen in early December and enjoy it on my kitchen window sill through late spring, when it begins to die back for its summer period of dormancy.

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Discarded from the kitchen windowsill in June, this Cyclamen re-bloomed  out on the deck in the fall of 2013.

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As much as we enjoy the tender florist’s Cyclamen, Cyclamen persicum, I have been seeking out other, more hardy species, too

Cyclamen persicum is native to the Middle East, parts of North Africa, and some Mediterranean Islands.  Although it is frost tender, it still prefers cool growing conditions and thrives when kept in medium, indirect light in a spot where night time temperatures drop down into the 50s F.  It wants to go dormant once night time temperatures rise into the upper 60s and 70sF.  I grow it in a windowsill to give it the coolness it needs to keep blooming.

I first began growing Cyclamen hederifolium, which blooms in late autumn into early winter, and Cyclamen coum, which blooms in late winter to early spring, a few years ago.   I was inspired by the Cyclamen I found growing at the Connie Hansen Garden along the Oregon Coast, and then discovered that they are readily available from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, and other bulb dealers.

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Hardy Cyclamen and bulb foliage shine through the leaf litter of a perennial bed at the Heath’s display garden in Gloucester, Virginia in February, 2018.

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Cyclamen grow from tubers.  Like other geophytes, they go dormant each year and will live on in a dry state with neither roots nor leaves.  If you want to buy Cyclamen , you may purchase seeds, tubers or living plants.  While seeds are relatively inexpensive, it will take a few years to grow your plants on to a good size.  There are more flowers with each passing year as the tubers grow larger.

Many experts recommend buying your hardy Cyclamen plants in leaf, so that you can see the color pattern on the leaves and the color of the flowers.  Others just say they have experienced more success in getting plants established in that way.

Once you have a plant or two, they will produce viable seed.  You can collect and sow the seed, or trust insects to spread it around for you.  New Cyclamen plants will emerge  in following years from seed, even as the original plants continue to grow and expand.

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I order tubers for hardy Cyclamen , which is also an easy way to start a patch of your own.  I have planted directly into the ground in years past, and I’ve planted tubers into our large ceramic pots outdoors, as part of my autumn planted winter arrangements.

Although I’ve had some success, I’ve had disappointments, too.  These are very small plants, and can easily get lost under leaves and under other, larger plants.  They tend to show up best when planted among the exposed roots of mature trees.  I didn’t know that when I planted the first batch out into the garden.  The area where I first planted them has since filled in, and so our patch is less than spectacular.

I’ve sited later plantings in better spots.  But again, one needs to clear away fallen leaves and other, faded plants to really see and enjoy Cyclamen planted in the ground.  The Connie Hansen garden has their patch under a pine tree, in the middle of a concrete bordered traffic island in their parking lot, where little else grows.

Many successful gardeners suggest planting hardy Cyclamen among the roots of established trees because they thrive in the lean soil,  they prefer drier soil in summer, and they are shown off to good advantage.  There is room for seedlings to sprout and the effect in autumn and early spring can be spectacular.

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Last year, I planted most of the precious tubers I bought in large pots outdoors.  To make a sad story shorter, there was obvious digging in the pots in the week after planting, and I never did see any Cyclamen emerge.    I’ve since read advice to lay a sheet of 1/2″ chicken wire over the soil in pots, and cover it with some mulch to protect Cyclamen and other tempting tubers and bulbs.

So this year, I am trying a different approach.  I’ve bought a bag of both C. hederifolium and C. Coum.  C. hederifolium generally gives its best showing in its second and subsequent years from a tuber, because the season of bloom begins in autumn.  But I am planting five of each, just to see what I can do with them.

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Plant the tubers concave side up. If you can’t tell, plant the tuber on its side and let the plant sort itself out as stems and roots begin to grow.

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And rather than planting them where I want them to grow, I’m going to try to foil the squirrels by planting them in little plastic nursery pots, indoors, and keep them inside until they have roots and leaves.  Then, I’ll transplant to where I want them.

The challenge in planting tubers is that they want to be planted very shallow; with only an inch or so of soil and mulch above the surface of the tuber.   That is a screaming invitation for rodents to grab a snack, especially if they’ve watched you plant or see the disturbed earth!  Once the tuber is rooted and attached, they have a fighting chance to survive!

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Fill small pots to within an inch or so of the rim with new, commercial potting soil.  Dust the soil with a little Bulb Tone or bone meal to get the Cyclamen off to a good start.  Cyclamen don’t require a lot of fertilizer.

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I’ve planted ours in regular potting soil under about 1/2″ of soil and another 1/4″ or so of perlite.  I ran out of perlite and finished off the last few pots with vermiculite, which works equally as well.  You’ll notice that some of the C. Coum tubers already show evidence of the first few flower stems emerging from the crown. I hope that these will plump up and continue to grow as the tuber re-hydrates over the coming days.

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C. Coum tubers came packed in wood shavings.

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This was even more pronounced on the tubers I bought last year, as I didn’t get them until early December.  I made a point of arranging to pick up my tubers this year within just a couple of weeks of when they came in to the warehouse to get the freshest tubers possible, and get them growing as early in the season as possible.

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Our new tubers are resting tonight in my basement work area.  I’ll keep an eye on them, and move them up to a protected spot on the deck as soon as new growth appears.

Once the plants are growing well, and some of our summer plants have died back, I’ll plant them out where they can grow on through the winter.  This year I expect success with all 10 of our new little Cyclamen plants.

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Water the pots well after planting, and then let them rest. They won’t need light until they begin to grow. Keep the plants evenly moist when they are in growth, but never let them sit in water.

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To maintain your plants, dust with a little bone meal in the fall, and keep them evenly moist when growing.  Once they die back and go dormant, they prefer to spend the summer on the dry side.  Growth is triggered in autumn when temperatures drop and the weather turns a bit wetter.

It is such a pleasing surprise to see their first flowers and leaves emerge each year.  Hardy Cyclamen are a simple and inexpensive pleasure and well worth the small effort to grow them.  If you’ve not tried them before, this is the time to order a few tubers and try something new.

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Our hardy Cyclamen were a welcome sight last February.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Autumn’s Textures and Layers

Our Forest Garden is filled with growth this first week of September.

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Last Friday, I had the rare privilege of tagging along on a garden tour led by one of our region’s most beloved and respected horticulturalists, Brent Heath.  And he began the tour by reminding us that color in the garden is secondary to texture and form.  He reminded us that only about 10% of the vegetation in a good garden design should be flowers.  Considering that his business sells a rainbow of geophytes that bloom in every season of the year, this bit of advice seemed important to note.

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Late August at the Heath’s display gardens

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Although Brent and Becky’s catalogs may be filled with seas of golden daffodils and page after page of bright lilies, tulips, Iris, hyacinths and other garden delicacies; their display gardens around the bulb shop are more of an arboretum, filled with interesting woodies set in beautiful lawns.  And yes, within the vast green spaces grow beautiful beds of perennials.

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

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In the spring we crave those crazy bright yellow daffodils and clear bright tulips, crocus, and hyacinths.  We revel in fluffy pink clouds of blooming fruit trees and early Magnolias.  But by late summer, I am cooled and soothed by layer upon layer of green.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea, Edgeworthia, Camellia, Rudbeckia, Solidago and the surrounding trees create many layers of texture in our garden this week.  How many different shades of green can you see?

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By early September, our garden approaches its maximum growth for the season.  It is filled with leaves of many shapes, sizes, and shades of green.  Tall stands of Solidago reach up for their bit of sunlight, their tops feathery and alive, shifting and shimmying in every breath of a breeze.  Likewise Cannas, Hibiscus and ginger lilies have grown taller than me, and moving through the garden feels like winding through a living, breathing maze.

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I feel sheltered and cocooned standing in the midst of it, marveling at how much has grown over the past few months.  The secret to this garden magic comes from planting in layers.  Literally, one might have several plants sharing the same square foot of real estate, that grow to different heights and that take center stage at different times of the year.  Herbaceous plants come and go with the seasons, while the woodies and evergreen ground covers remain.

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Obedient plant, Black-eyed Susans, goldenrod and other natives grow against shrubs in our front garden. This area is underplanted with spring bulbs and perennial ground covers like Vinca and Ajuga.

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But even beyond seasonal layering, we build more permanent layers with trees and shrubs of various statures, ground cover vines, evergreen ferns and perennials such as bearded Iris, and the architecture of pergolas and pots, walls, gates, paths and raised beds.  Everywhere the eye can rest offers a layer of structure.  Much of the structure is green, and every layer offers its own special texture to the mix.

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Perennial native mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum, grows at the base of Canna and Colocasia in this sunny spot.

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“Green’ describes a multitude of shades, multiplied further by the ever changing light and shadows.  This is, perhaps, a reason to favor perennials over annuals.  Perennials fill the garden with interesting texture and color, both before and after their much shorter season of bloom.

The annuals certainly charm us in March in April when we crave color.  But by late August and September, most have begun to wane.  They show the ravages of drought and time.  If we’ve not cut them back hard, the growth may be a bit old and rangy, perhaps dying off in spots.

 

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Annual Zinnias fill beds at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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But worse, annuals may not improve that much over the long coastal Virginia summer.  You lose the subtleties of change enjoyed as perennials grow, bud, bloom and fade.  I look at so many pots of summer annuals now and think, ‘Ick.’  Many looked tired out and nearly ready for the compost pile.

And good riddance, as we approach another ‘golden season’ of Rudbeckias, goldenrods, Chrysanthemums, Lycoris, ginger lilies and soon autumn’s golden leaves.

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The garden will revel in a final burst of gold and scarlet and orange before it finally settles and fades again to browns and grey; and before the first frosts of winter transform it, yet again.

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Scarlet Pineapple Sage has just begun to bloom in our garden this week, to the delight of hummingbirds and butterflies.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Native Monarda punctata

Monarda punctata in a ceramic vase by local potter Bob Leek.

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If you’re looking for an elegant and unusual native perennial for a sunny spot in your garden, you might enjoy growing Monarda punctata.  Known as horsemint, or spotted bee balm, this very unusual floral display relies on large bracts and tiny, spotted flowers to advertise its nectar.

There are nine different varieties of this very architectural Monarda, having slight variations in color of the bracts and tiny flowers.  Unlike most Monardas, the ‘flowers’ grow in stacks, one group atop the next, surrounded by elegant bracts.  Each long branch, cloaked in narrow, opposite leaves. branches out near the top.  Each branch terminates in its own stack of flower clusters.

Bees of all sorts and hummingbirds are attracted to feed on the plant’s nectar.

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Hardy in Zones 3-8, Monarda punctata is native over most of the Eastern United States from Vermont to Texas.  A member of the mint family, clumps will expand over time.  Start new plants from seed or stem cuttings taken in summer.

I found my plant at the Sassafras Farm booth at the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market, and just planted it out into a permanent spot in the garden a few days ago.  I cut it back a bit this morning , hoping to encourage a new round of fresh flowers.  Who knows, maybe these little cuttings in the vase will throw out some new roots over the week ahead, and I can grow out a few more plants of this beauty.

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I am encouraged to grow more of this Monarda because other Monarda species have done very well for us,  can tolerate some days of dry soil, once established, and they grow in full sun to partial shade.  This is a native herb, and can get along on its own quite nicely without a lot of fuss from a gardener.

I like that, as there are lots of other plants in our garden which need attention, and there are always a few weeds I need to pull as well!

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Monarda’s texture and aroma make it unattractive to deer; another reason I’m happy to grow it!  We cut back our other Monardas after they bloom, and new blooming stems often appear along the main stems to extend the season.  Monarda will die back in autumn, and will disappear entirely over winter.  But it comes back the following spring, larger and with more flowers each passing year.

And we are always happy to welcome Monarda in early summer, knowing we will have a long season of enjoying its fragrance, beauty, and its ability to attract interesting pollinators to our garden.

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Echinacea and Monarda fistulosa prove beautiful native perennials in our area.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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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

 

Floral Explosions

Daucus carota with perennial Geranium in our garden

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Independence Day fireworks may still be a few weeks away, but we have beautiful floral fireworks opening in the garden this week.

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Monarda is just beginning to bloom at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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These ‘explosive’ flowers are actually clusters of many separate tiny blooms and hold special appeal for hummers and pollinating insects.

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Asclepias tuberosa is covered in pollinators at the WBG this week .

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Stand and watch the nectar loving creatures enjoy sip after sip of sweet nutrition, without having to exert too much energy of flight in between.  “One stop sipping” holds great appeal, and these flowers held in a ‘fireworks formation’ are important to include in any wildlife garden.

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Aside from their wildlife value, I love these intricate, expansive flowers, too.

They last a long time in the garden, and their developing seed heads hold their own beauty if left to mature on the plant.  Although a flower’s color may be important in your design, often it is the texture and way a plant holds its flowers that matter even more.

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Asclepias verticillata

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As the mid-summer garden explodes with perennial flowers, we especially enjoy these flowers which each look like a bursting fireworks display nearly frozen in time.

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Hydrangea quercifolia is beginning to change its color now in our garden.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Salvia

Hellebores: Winter’s Flowers

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Even before the first snowdrop emerges, we enjoy abundant winter flowers in our garden.  Perennial Hellebores fill our pots, beds and borders with their sturdy evergreen leaves year round.

Buds emerge in late December or early January, and their flowers begin to open during that long stretch of cold when little else can bloom.  Often called “Christmas rose” or “Lenten rose,”  these tough, beautiful flowers continue blooming through late spring.

I’ve just re-edited my 2014 post, Hidden Jewels: Hellebores, with additional information and updated photos.  I hope you will enjoy it!

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H. argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’ February 9, 2017

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Woodland Gnome  2018
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Hidden Jewels: Hellebores
The Beauty of Hellebores
Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’
Why I Love Those Plants of Ill Repute
Plan Now For Winter Flowers

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