Green Thumb Tip #24: Always Just Beginning….

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


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



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


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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


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.



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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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


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.



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.


Can you spot the dragonfly?


Woodland Gnome 2019



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

but in the expert’s there are few”

Shunryu Suzuki


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


“Moment after moment,

everyone comes out from nothingness.

This is the true joy of life.”

Shunryu Suzuki


Green Thumb Tip # 22: Do the Math

Green Thumb Tip # 21: The Mid-Summer Snack 

Green Thumb Tip # 23: From Small Beginnings



Artistry of Herbs


So much of our garden was slack and wilting yesterday evening, before the rain began.  The ground has grown drier each day, available moisture retreating deeper, away from the multitude of thirsty roots.  This time of year devolves into a contest of will between me with my trusty garden hoses, and July’s relentless heat and extended dry spells.


Bronze fennel glows in the late afternoon paired Verbena bonareinsis and Joe Pye weed.


Plants react differently to the many challenges that befall them in the course of the year.  Watching how plants respond to stress can guide us in the choices we make in planting.

No one enjoys a garden filled with drooping, brown tipped leaves.  And most of us don’t have the unlimited time or resources to water enough to compensate when the weather turns hot and dry for days or weeks at a time.  That is why it is smart to plant a good percentage of deep rooted, sturdy, drought tolerant plants to stand tall through July and August.


Loose foliage of Siberian Iris and Crinum lily function like ornamental grasses through summer, setting off other flowering plants nearby.


Herbs top my list of sturdy, dependable choices for summer structure.  Fennel, lavender, Salvias, dill, thyme, Santolina, rosemary, Germander, Artemesia, and Pelargoniums stand up and look smart with a minimum of supplemental water.  Iris, considered an herb by many, are a part of this dependably sturdy cohort.


Rose scented Pelargonium


And, these plants are all beautiful.  Many are fragrant, and some bloom for weeks right through the summer. Their leaves are fleshy and thick, some waxy and prepared to stand up to the relentless Mediterranean sun.  Their subtle colors and designs fascinating.


Spanish Lavender


As an added bonus, most can be found for a very small investment each spring.  Many herbs are offered at local big box stores and grocery stores from March through June or early July for just a few dollars a pot.


Newly planted Rosemary ‘Tuscan Blue’ grows with tough Sedum ‘Angelina.’  This Rosemary can eventually grow into a good sized shrub.


Perennials generally survive challenging weather better than annuals, anyway, because they have grown deeper, larger roots. Perennial herbs prove some of the most dependable.

They may need more coddling through their first few months, but once established they will hang on until conditions improve.  Like trees and shrubs, their roots can seek out moisture out of reach of many other plants.


Keep newly planted perennials well watered while their roots grow out into the surrounding soil. Once new growth begins, you know the plants are settling in. The Monarda and Verbena hastata were planted in mid-July, a terrible time for planting!  The Pineapple sage (top right) is now well established and can handle summer weather.


We are all discovering ways to adapt to the challenges our changing weather patterns bring.  We see all sorts of records broken month after month, and know that more change is likely ahead.

Our gardens can adapt, beautifully, and with tremendous artistry.  We just need to keep an open mind as we plant.  A willingness to experiment with new plants, ones we may not have previously considered for the perennial garden, and different ways of cultivating it opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities.



Woodland Gnome 2018


“In a world of change,

the learners shall inherit the earth,

while the learned shall find themselves

perfectly suited

for a world that no longer exists.”

Eric Hoffer


In a Vase on Monday: Good Enough to Eat….

August 29, 2016 vase 005


August feels like a very ‘green’ month; especially here in coastal Virginia where we are totally surrounded by green trees, vines, lush green lawns, billowing green Crepe Myrtles and other rampant growth.

From Lamas in early August, to Labor Day weekend in early September, our world remains vibrant and green!


Sunset, yesterday, from the Colonial Parkway.

Early evening, yesterday, from the Colonial Parkway.


You can watch some plants literally grow hour to hour and day to day, given enough water.   If you ever wondered what it would feel like to live in a hot-house or conservatory, welcome to a Virginia August!   This is the time of year when we seek the cool, green shade of large trees and vine covered trellises to help us through the relentless heat.


Herbs in our August garden.

Herbs in our August garden.  Our swallowtail butterflies love the chive flowers.  This clump remains one of their favorite stops to feed.


And so it feels appropriate to cut cool green stems from the garden today.  I’ve cut an assortment of herbs for their fragrant leaves.  The burgundy basil flowers and white garlic chives serve only as grace notes to the beautifully shaped, textured and frosted leaves.

Much of this arrangement is edible.


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Except for the ivy vines, a little Artemesia and a stem of Coleus; you could brew some lovely herbal tea or garnish a plate from the rest of our vase today.  There are two different scented Pelargoniums here, including P. ‘Grey Lady Plymouth’,  and African Blue Basil.


August 29, 2016 Vase2 010


To make this arrangement feel even cooler, it sits in a cobalt blue vase from our local Shelton glass works on a sea-green glass tray.  A moonstone frog rests nearby.


The vase was made locally by John Shelton of Shelton Glass Works here in Williamsburg.

The vase was made locally by John Shelton of Shelton Glass Works here in Williamsburg.


Today’s vase is so fragrant that my partner commented as soon as the stems came into the room.  It is a spicy blend of rose scented Geraniums and sharp Basil, with an undertone of garlic from the chive flowers.  It makes puts me in the mood to mix up a little ‘Boursin Cheese’ with fresh herbs from the garden, and serve it garnished with a few chive blossoms!


August 29, 2016 Vase2 005


Appreciation, always, to Cathy of ‘Rambling In the Garden”  for hosting ‘In A Vase On Monday’ each week.  I admire the dedication of flower gardeners all over the world who faithfully clip, arrange, and photograph their garden’s bounty each Monday.  Cathy is in the pink again today, with some beautiful lilies she has grown this summer.

I hope you will click through to Cathy’s post and follow some of the links to enjoy today’s beautiful arrangements.


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 Woodland Gnome 2016


Near Yorktown on the Parkway, just before sunset last night; the inspiration for today's vase....

Near Yorktown on the Parkway, just before sunset last night; the inspiration for today’s vase….


Herbs in a Vase

August 3, 2013 vase 017


By early August our herbs have established, enjoyed the heat of July, and taken off with energetic growth.  Many are blooming.  Their leaves are large, soft and velvety.   Basil perfumes the garden and entices me to cut large handfuls to make fresh pesto.


August 2, 2015 garden 004 ~

We invited friends for dinner on Friday, and much of our Basil went into the pizzas.  I made pesto and added a large dollop to the crust as I was mixing it.  More pesto took the place of tomato sauce on a pizza made with artichoke hearts, black olives, sweet red peppers and thick slices of mozzarella cheese.

The rich spicy smell of Basil always transports me to summer.


August 2, 2015 garden 005


The flowers for the dinner table were of course the Basil’s flowers, mixed with a few of the early Black Eyed Susans.  They have held up remarkably well over the weekend.


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And that inspired me to make today’s vase entirely of edible herbs.  There is more Basil of course; but also blooming Pineapple Mint, Purple Sage, the golden flowers of Fennel, and the huge, soft leaves of a mint scented Geranium.


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Can you imagine how my kitchen smells after constructing this arrangement, snipping here and crushing a leaf there?


August 3, 2013 vase 009


Joining Cathy in her “In A Vase on Monday” meme has our home filling with vases at the moment.  The Hydrangeas dried in place, and now sit off to the side.  I will save these flower heads for holiday decorations.  The Coleus from several weeks ago waits on the sideboard for me to plant it out in pots .

And now there are these three more vases of Basil.    Is it possible to have too many beautiful flowers?


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I love how long these vases last.  Foliage often stays crisp and happy days longer than flowers will.  There is very little dropped over the life of the arrangement.  And there is always the option of cooking with these herbs, allowing them to root, or setting them aside to dry.


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I am coming to understand Cathy’s simple lesson about cutting flowers from the garden, and bringing them indoors to enjoy at close range.  I am often reluctant to cut beautiful flowers from the garden, believing they will last longer and bring more pleasure on the living plant.

But outside even the most elegant flower can get lost in the larger landscape.  Or perhaps those plants around it are no longer in their prime and detract from the beauty of the flower.  Cut, arranged, staged and curated that same flower takes on an added panache.

Combined with other carefully chosen flowers and leaves, suddenly the composition is far greater than the sum of its parts.


August 3, 2013 vase 007~

Have you cut flowers or foliage from your garden lately?  It can be as simple as plunking a single stem in a pretty vase and setting it where you can enjoy it.  There are no rules here, and you may do it to please yourself.

Let us celebrate summer while we can and savor each sweet and beautiful bit of it. 


August 3, 2013 vase 013~

Woodland Gnome 2015

Wordless Wednesday

July 1, 2015 garden at dusk 010~

“To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.”

Paul Valéry


July 1, 2015 garden at dusk 008~

Woodland Gnome 2015


July 1, 2015 garden at dusk 012

Unusual Leaves: More Texture

'Silver Lyre' Afghan Fig

‘Silver Lyre’ Afghan Fig

Unusual leaves bring a wonderful texture, as well as interesting colors, to the garden.




The variety available to an adventurous gardener feels infinite… and probably is infinite when one considers how many interesting new cultivars of plants like Coleus,   Heuchera, Begonia, Hosta, fern, and Caladium come on the market each year.




In addition to these perennials, there are a few new introductions of trees and shrubs with interesting variegation or unusual leaf color each season.

‘Black Lace’  Eldeberry, Sambucus nigra; ‘Ruby Falls’ Redbud, Cerceis canadensis; and ‘Maculata’ Lacecap Hydrangea come to mind immediately.

‘Black Lace’ Elderberry is on my “wish list” at the moment.


A variegated Lacecap Hydrangea

A variegated Lacecap Hydrangea


Some of these perennials, trees, and shrubs also offer beautiful flowers.

But the flowers are just a little something “extra,” compared to their beautiful leaves.

And while the flowers may add interest in their season, the fabulous foliage brings beauty to the garden month after month.


Buddleia, "Harlequin" sports beautiful variegated foliage all season long.

Buddleia davidii, “Harlequin” sports beautiful variegated foliage all season long.


Do you experiment with unusual  foliage in your garden?

So many residential gardens rely on a few standard, well known plants commonly available in “big box” shops.

This Begonia, purchased from The Homestead Garden Center several seasons ago, is similar to Plant Delight's "Pewterware" Begonia, hardy to Zone 8B.

This Begonia, purchased from The Homestead Garden Center several seasons ago, is similar in appearance  to Plant Delight’s “Pewterware” Begonia, hardy to Zone 8B.


These commonly used plants are easy to find, and we have a pretty good idea of what to expect from them.

They bring their own beauty, but overuse can also dull our appreciation of them.  Like white paint on a wall, we hardly ever notice them after a while.


A Begonia Rex, with fern.

A Begonia Rex, with fern and other Begonias.


Searching out a variety of plants with interesting foliage adds novelty and a touch of the unexpected to our garden.


Scented Pelargonium

Scented Pelargonium graveolens


Most any gardening “need” can be filled, whether we are creating a drought tolerant garden nourished only by a few inches of rain each  year, or a Forest Garden, unappetizing to deer and rabbits!


Collection of succulents.

Collection of succulents.

Small local nurseries, web nurseries, and specialty nurseries offer the most interesting varieties.

( I’m writing this within just a day or so of receiving Plant Delights Nursery’s fall 2014 catalog!  Yes, I’ve been closely studying it!)



It is the thrill of the hunt, and the fun of curating a collection, which fuels my search for unusual foliage plants.


This interesting Sedum, which I've not noticed before this year, was purchased at The Homestead Garden Center.

This beautiful Sedum, which I’ve not noticed before this year, was purchased at The Homestead Garden Center.  It will grow much like an Autumn Sedum, but with more interesting leaf color.

Plants with unusual leaves often grow best in  shady gardens.

Heuchera, ferns, Hosta, and Hydrangeas generally perform best in partial shade.


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Newer cultivars can often withstand more direct sun than older varieties; but shade, especially during the heat of the day, is lit up by the outrageous foliage of these  flamboyant plants.


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Layering them creates interesting and complex compositions; dynamic living sculpture in the garden.


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But wonderful foliage plants grow in full sun, also.


Siberian Iris, a gift from a dear friend, in a sunny garden

Siberian Iris, a gift from a dear friend, grow in a sunny garden area with Lavender, Comfrey, variegated iris, Eucalyptus, Artemisia, and other herbs.  Planted this season, the area is still filling in.


All of the amazing varieties of succulents enjoy sun to partial shade.


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Variegated  Cannas, Hibiscus cultivars like ‘Kopper King” and nearly all of the herbs thrive in sunny beds.


Sage Officinallis, "Tricolor"

Sage Officinalis, “Tricolor”


Whether you search out the most interesting varieties of a particular group of plants, like Hostas or Ferns; or amass a collection of silver foliage plans, variegated plants, or purple leaved plants; you may discover that the more you work with foliage in your own garden, the more satisfied you feel with your efforts.

Gardening is a matter of your enthusiasm holding up until your back gets used to it.

Author Unknown


Staghorn Fern with Begonia

Staghorn Fern with Begonia


As for any artist, an expanded palette of plant possibilities inspires new ideas and presents novel solutions to site based problems.


Caladiums and other poisonous plants can grow mostly in peace in gardens plagued by deer.

Caladiums and other poisonous plants can grow mostly in peace in gardens plagued by deer.


It helps me to remember that,  “Gardening is the slowest art form.”

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Wonderful effects can be created in the garden using just foliage; and they just keep getting better and more fully developed over time.


I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way — things I had no words for.

Georgia O’Keeffe


Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

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Oakleaf Hydrangea shares a pot with Japanese painted fern.  Vinca and Mayapples carpet the ground under Camellia shrubs and Deciduous trees.

Oakleaf Hydrangea shares a pot with Japanese painted fern. Vinca, English ivy, and Mayapples carpet the ground under Camellia shrubs and deciduous trees.

Just as we  structure our lives by our associations with friends, family, and business colleagues; so plants also form useful relationships with other plants.

Azaleas prefer to grow under deciduous trees.

Azaleas prefer to grow under deciduous trees.

Our human associations are based on things we have in common with others.  We may form friendships based on shared interests, or spend time with members of our biological family.

We may enjoy the company of others in our profession, or with those who share our passion for music, for tennis, or for gardening.

Coleus, creeping Jenny, and sedum love the hot sun they enjoy in this pot near the house.

Coleus, Creeping Jenny, and Sedum love the hot sun they enjoy in this pot near the house.

When planning pots, beds, borders, and landscapes, we generally plan in terms of groups, or associations, of plants.

Something like Lego blocks, or notes in a chord; certain plants go well together.

Artemesia and Vinca can tolerate the drypoor soil and bright sunshine on this slopinge beside the house.

Artemesia and Vinca can tolerate the dry, poor soil and bright sunshine on this slope beside the house.

These associations must first take into account shared needs for a certain amount of light and  moisture.

It is wise to also consider what sort of soil is best for a grouping of plants, and what temperatures they need for best growth.

A newly enlarged bed featuring English shrub roses also hosts herbs, bulbs, annuals, and perennial geranium.

A newly enlarged bed featuring English shrub roses also hosts herbs, bulbs, annual Ageratum,  sage, Rudbeckia, and perennial Geranium.  All enjoy partial to full sun, enriched soil,  and can tolerate heat.

Beyond these basic considerations for what plants have in common, we look towards how their differences may compliment one another.

Vining plants, like Clematis, which will grow up a trellis, may share a pot with a bushy or trailing plant to shade their roots.

Clematis, "Belle of Woking" grows on a trellis suspended above a large pot.  Caladiums were just planted in the pot, along with fern, to shade the roots of the Clematis.

Clematis, “Belle of Woking” grows on a trellis suspended above a large pot. Caladiums were just planted in the pot, along with fern, to shade the roots of the Clematis.

An indeterminate tomato plant filling a tomato cage benefits from shorter basil and marigold plants at its base which shade the soil and repel certain insects and predators.

Just as a composer relies on certain chords and phrases to compose a melody, so a gardener benefits from a repertoire of plant associations to construct a garden.

German Iris grow with Lavender, a shrub rose, bulbs, and other perennials.

German Iris grow with Lavender, a shrub rose, bulbs, and other perennials.

And these associations are peculiar to the gardener and the environment of a particular garden.

The associations depend on which plants a gardener enjoys, the style and mood of the garden, and the growing conditions with which a gardener must work.

German Iris in a different bed with roses.

German Iris in a different bed with roses.

Most of us gardeners are drawn to particular plants.   I visited with a woman a few weeks ago who loves boxwood shrubs.  A fellow blogger has a garden full of day lilies, which he hybridizes.

Azaleas and Hostas in my parents' garden.  They enjoy both of these plants and plant them in abundance.

Azaleas and Hostas in my parents’ garden. They enjoy both of these plants and plant them in abundance.

Some gardeners go to great lengths to grow tomatoes or squash each year, and others want a shady garden full of Hostas and ferns.

Hosta, Lady Fern, and Mahonia shrubs in my parents' garden

Hosta, Lady Fern, and Mahonia shrubs in my parents’ garden.  A newly planted Begonia semperflorens completes the association.

Personally, I love every species and color of Iris.

Iris germanica "Rock Star" reblooms in late summer

Iris germanica “Rock Star” reblooms in late summer

And I collect English roses, and always want a summer garden full of delicious herbs. And I absolutely want something in bloom in the garden each and every day of the year.

Living in a forest, these obsessions are not always compatible with reality.

Re[blooming Iris cultivars "Rosalie Figge" and "immortality"

Re-blooming Iris cultivars “Rosalie Figge” and “Immortality”

As I plan what will grow in borders, beds, and pots throughout the gardening year, I have learned to rely on certain plants, and combinations of plants, which I know from experience will grow together successfully.

Relying on perennials as much as possible, and on plants I can keep through the winter; simplifies the process of moving from one season into the next.

Perennials, once established, gradually spread to fill a bed reliably year after year.

Perennials, once established, gradually spread to fill a bed reliably year after year.  Because their season of bloom is short lived, different plants lend interest at different points throughout the season.

But there is still shopping to be done in spring and fall.  Knowing which associations of plants one wishes to recreate each year helps organize the process.

For example, German re-blooming Iris, Iris germanica,  thrive in the sunny areas of this garden.  They are drought tolerant, don’t mind our Virginia summers, and are not bothered by deer.

Perennial Columbine, which also seeds itself, growing here with a newly planted Coleus.

Perennial Columbine, which also seeds itself, growing here with a newly planted Coleus.

They are absolutely lovely for the few weeks each year of bloom.  Whether in bloom or not, German Iris are always a presence in the garden since their signature sword like leaves persist through most of the year.

I like growing Iris near roses.  They have similiar needs for light and feeding, and they look good together.

Iris grow here with Dusty Miller, culinary Sage, Allyssum, and

Iris grow here with Dusty Miller, culinary Sage, Basil, Alyssum, and onions.  the red onions are an experiment in keeping deer away from annuals planted in the bed.

Wandering through a garden in Warm Springs, Virginia, I found  a brilliant combination of Iris,day lily, and daffodils planted together.

The growing day lily and Iris foliage hid the daffodil’s leaves when the flowers were finished.  Iris bloom soon after the daffodils, and then day lily carries the planting on into the heat of summer.

I now grow Iris and daffodils together in some sunny areas of the garden.  And I add Columbine  to the  mix, along with sun tolerant ferns.

Iris coming into bloom in a bed where daffodils have recently faded.  Columbine will bloom next.  Various ferns grow in the shadow of a Dogwood tree behind the iris.

Iris “Stairway to Heaven”  coming into bloom in a bed where daffodils have recently faded. Columbine will bloom next. Various ferns grow in the shadow of a Dogwood tree behind the iris.

By early summer, the canopy of shrubs and trees has grown in enough to shade the ferns, and the daffodils and Iris have already enjoyed many weeks of strong sun when they most needed it.

Many country gardeners, especially in the Piedmont of Virginia, grow perennial low growing Phlox around their Iris bed.

In springtime, you’ll see wide expanses of pink, white, and lavender Phlox blooming around island beds of Iris.  These plants thrive in full sun, and take very little care.

Iris with Lavender "Otto Quast"

Iris with Lavender “Otto Quast”

I also plant Lavandula stoechas “Otto Quast”  at the base of both roses and Iris.  This Spanish Lavender, with finely cut foliage, sports abundant large blooms at the same time the Iris bloom in late April to early May.  L. “Otto Quast” has a long season of bloom, over many weeks in late spring and early summer.

May 3 2014 afternoon garden 010

It isn’t destroyed by rain and humidity as some other Lavenders are in our Virginia summers.  The brilliant purple blooms work well with the colors of the Iris blossoms and English roses.  This evergreen Lavender looks good at the front of a bed whether in bloom or not.

Another hardy association is Lamb’s Ears, Stachys byzantina, with roses, Dianthus, and Echinacea.  A drought tolerant full sun perennial, Lamb’s Ears are disliked by deer.

Lamb's Ears

Lamb’s Ears with Dianthus, Dusty Miller, and Violas under shrub roses.

They divide easily in spring and display stunning silvery foliage through most of the year.  Their purple blooms in early summer are quite beautiful and attract many nectar loving insects.  I’ve spread these throughout sunny areas of the garden.

One way to bring unity to a garden is to repeat plants and associations of plants from one area to the next.

Even with a tremendous variety of genus, species, and cultivars of plants throughout the garden, narrowing the selections to repeat colors and forms again and again weaves the many individuals into a patterned tapestry which feels harmonious.

Autumn Fern cover this hillside along with other ferns, Creeping Genny, Ivy and Hellebores.

Autumn Fern cover this hillside along with other ferns, Creeping Genny, Ivy and Hellebores.  Daffodil foliage is left behind from the recently faded flowers.

I have incorporated Iris into at least six different planting areas.  In all of those areas, they are paired with a silver foliage plant such as Lamb’s Ears, Lavender, Dusty Miller, or Artemesia.

In most of those areas, they are growing near an English rose shrub.   Silver foliage, with white or purple blooms nearby, also weave throughout the summer beds.

White Dianthus often grows with Dusty Miller, purple or tricolor sage,  and grey Winter Thyme.  These reliable plants look beautiful together, and help extend the season over many months.

Newly planted white Dianthus and Winter Thyme will grow into a silvery border for this bed, edged in slate.

Newly planted white Dianthus and Winter Thyme will grow into a silvery border for this bed, edged in slate.

Shade associations are built around various species of ferns, Hellebores, Heuchera, Begonias, Coleus, Caladiums, and Fuchsias.

The Fuchsias and Begonias must be grown in pots out of reach of the deer, or in hanging baskets.

Fuschia with Impatiens in a basket

Fuschia with Impatiens in a basket

After discovering that Impatiens, which I’ve always grown in abundance in shady areas, are simply deer candy; they are reserved for hanging baskets well away from where deer can reach.

June 21 Lanai 008

They always complement ferns, and grow well at the base of cane Begonias.

I also like to plant cane Begonias with Caladiums to hide their leggy stalks.

July 28 2013 third try caterpillars 008

This season I’ve added garlic cloves, chives,  and onion starts to many associations in the garden because their aroma repels deer.  There are green garlic plants growing out of potted arrangements on the front patio.

There are also a large number of scented geraniums in flowerbeds and pots for the same reason.

Scented geranium, culinary Sage, garlic

Scented Geranium, culinary Sage, garlic, Viola, and Coleus grow with the Brugmansia start. 

I’m experimenting with a mixture of scented geraniums, zonal geraniums, and ivy geraniums.  The scented geranium will the the fragrant “thriller” in the pot, growing the largest with striking foliage.

The zonal geraniums will give a punch of color as they fill out the middle of the pot.  The ivy geranium will spill down over the edges of the pot as the “spiller.”

When shopping for plants this spring, try to think about buying “associations” of plants rather than just choosing individuals for some quality which strikes you.

Coleus with Sedum

Coleus with Sedum and bulb foliage.

Remember to analyze a plant in terms of what it needs to perform well, what it will give you or do for you,  and how it will blend into the garden as a whole.

Remember to buy in multiples.  In most cases, it is better to buy several of the same plant, and then use the plant again and again to weave a sense of unity through a given space.

This past week I planted 16 Nicotania plants, in three colors, throughout three nearby beds beside the butterfly garden.

Newly planted annuals

Newly planted annuals:  Cayenne pepper, Marigold, Nicotania and Bronze Fennel grow against a back drop of Iris foliage.

A dozen Cayenne pepper plants went into the same beds, along with 16 white marigolds, a dozen cherry Zinnias, four Bronze Fennel, and three Dill plants.

This area is already planted with perennial Echinacea, Monarda, Salvias, Lavenders,  culinary Sage, Rosemary, and lots of Iris.


Three different types of Geraniums with Coleus, Garlic and Sedum.  Seeds for annual vines are planted at the back of the pot.

More Zinnias are sprouting and will be planted within the next few weeks, when I add multiple varieties of Basil.

These plants have similiar needs for full sun, drainage, and nutrients.  Most are distasteful to the deer, and so offer some protection to the shrub roses planted among them.

The variety works because the same plants are repeated again and again in associations throughout the space.

May 3 2014 afternoon garden 071

The last consideration when planning associations of plants is color.  Within a particular genus, and even species, there is frequently a choice of color in both flowers and foliage from which to select.

Although flower color is important, I am far more interested in the form and color of foliage when choosing plants.

Foliage is far more of a presence in the garden than flowers both for its relative mass, and for its longevity throughout the season.

Newly planted Canna "Australis" with burgundy foliage will grow behind Colocasia "China Pink" with bright red stems and light green foliage.

Newly planted Canna “Australis” with burgundy foliage will grow behind Colocasia “Pink China” with bright red stems and light green foliage.

Some plants, like Coleus, Heuchera, and Hosta are grown primarily for their foliage.  The flowers are incidental for most of the season, and may even be systematically removed .

These bright plants always draw attention to themselves and set the mood of an area in the  garden.

Perennial Ajuga serves as a ground cover around Iris, Heuchera, and at the base of a tea rose.

Perennial Ajuga serves as a ground cover around Iris and other perennials.

Whether you prefer peaceful, monochromatic gardens or bold dramatic ones, the size, form, and color of foliage sets the tone.

May 3 2014 afternoon garden 073

It is generally easy to select for color of both flowers and foliage within any given genus or species of plant.  Culinary sage alone may be had in golden, tricolor, purple, silver, or  green.

Popular flowering annuals like Petunias and Calabrachoas  come in an overwhelming number of stunning shades and patterns.  New hybrids of patterned leaf Heucheras and Coleus are introduced each season.

May 3 2014 afternoon garden 050

All of the many choices of plants for a temperate garden, such as we have in much of the United States, makes it both endlessly interesting and almost overwhelming to select and arrange plants for each season.

Planning for repeating associations of plants, and selecting plants based on specific criteria, helps bring structure and cohesion to the planning process.

May 3 2014 afternoon garden 055

I always approach the garden in the spirit of experimentation.  I want to know what works well,and what doesn’t.

Repeating associations which work well, season after season, still allows for changing things up with different cultivars of old favorites.

The more plants you come to know personally, through growing them, the more interesting and effective these associations of plants become.

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

May 3 2014 afternoon garden 041






Herbs: Scented Geraniums

April 7 2014 006


This morning Linda Lucas, a Williamsburg Master Gardener, talked to our neighborhood  garden club about herbs.  We all discussed what a terribly rough winter it has been here for herbs.  Rosemary and Lavender plants which have weathered several recent winters died out during this one.  Our Bay trees have taken a hard hit, and many need to be replaced.

I am taking a very slow and patient approach to everything  in the garden this spring.  I still believe we may have at least one more bout of extremely cold weather before warm weather settles in for good.


Bronze fennel overwintered in our garden, and has begun good strong growth this spring. Not only is this a delicious herb, it is a host plant for swallowtail butterflies.

Bronze fennel overwintered in our garden, and has begun good strong growth this spring.   Not only is this a delicious herb, it is a host plant for swallowtail butterflies.


Many of my beds still have a light covering of leaves.  The Ginger Lily stalks still lie where they fell, mulching their tubers.  And, I haven’t cut back a single Rosemary or Lavender this season.

Cutting back herbs is an important part of their care.  Long lived herbs like Lavender live longer, and look better with two or three annual shearings, where at least a third of the plant is removed.

But, I’ve learned the hard way that cutting back too early, before the last freezing weather, can kill a plant which has survived the winter.


Iris ‘Immortality’ with Comphrey.


And so I’m waiting.  And watching to see  signs of new growth on woody stems, what is poking up out of the ground.

Inspired by the conversations this morning, I headed out to the Homestead Garden Center this afternoon to look over their herbs one more time.  They have had an excellent selection this spring, and I’ve already  bought out their first shipment of a certain cultivar of scented geranium last week.


Lemon balm purchased at Homestead as a birthday gift for a friend.

Cat nip purchased at Homestead Garden Center as a birthday gift for a friend.


With a friend’s birthday later in the week, which I promised to honor with some herb plants, I had some shopping to do!

While many of the warm season annual herbs, like Basil, aren’t widely available yet; hardy herbs, like Parsley, Rosemary, Germander, Savory, and Thyme have shown up at garden centers and big-box stores.

In honor of spring, I will write a few posts featuring some of my favorite herbs.

We all grow herbs for a variety of reasons.  Most of us cook with herbs, and some use them for healing.  Many of us enjoy the fragrance living herbs bring to the garden.


This cat mint overwintered out in the garden. It was one of the earliest perennials to awaken this spring. With gorgeous blue flowers, this plant will grow to 3' or more if planted in the ground.

This cat mint overwintered out in the garden.   It was one of the earliest perennials to awaken this spring. With gorgeous blue flowers, this plant will grow to 3′ or more if planted in the ground.


Although most herbs need at least six hours of direct sun a day, I’ve found them a valuable part of our Forest Garden.   I don’t just grow herbs I’ll use in cooking. We also grow a variety of other herbs for their beautiful leaves, flowers, and form.

Most herbs aren’t very fussy about soil, don’t require a great deal of fertilizer to grow well, and can withstand some degree of drought and heat.  In fact the so called “Mediterranean herbs” like Rosemary, Thyme, Lavender, Germander, Marjoram, and Savory prefer poor, somewhat dry, alkaline soil.  They thrive in full sun, and too much water will drown their roots.

Perhaps the most pressing reason we have planted more herbs than anything else lately has to do with critter control.  You see, deer not only avoid nibbling on herbs, but the herbs’ strong fragrance often serves as a deterrent to prevent deer from grazing  other plants growing nearby.


Purple culinary sage is one of the easiest herbs to grow. It will grow to about 18" tall and wide within a season.

Purple culinary sage is one of the easiest herbs to grow. It will grow to about 18″ tall and wide within a season.


The Lavenders and Rosemaries I planted around new roses last summer didn’t keep the deer completely away from them, but I believe it gave some measure of protection to reduce the grazing.

I learned this autumn that scented geraniums do an excellent job of keeping deer from grazing plants they protect, and over the winter I’ve had nearly 100% success with using garlic cloves in pots of flowers to keep deer from nibbling at our Violas.

As the days grow longer and warmer, you are probably browsing the garden center herb displays as avidly as am I.  So I’ll begin this series of posts on herbs with a bit of information about my current favorite, scented geraniums.


Pelargonium odoratissimum


Scented Geraniums

Technically known as Pelargonium species, there are over 200 cultivars of scented geraniums.   Although grown primarily for their beautiful and fragrant leaves, most have small, but delicate and lovely flowers.  Fragrances commonly available include Citronella, the most common which has a lemony smell; rose, mint, apple, ginger, nutmeg, cedar, strawberry, coconut, orange and lime.

I tend to grow mostly rose scented geraniums, and there are several different cultivars with different leaves available which smell like roses.


Rose scented geraniums often have variegated leaves. I particularly like this large cultivar with burgundy markings.

Rose scented geraniums often have variegated leaves.  I particularly like this large cultivar with burgundy markings.


Although you purchase a little 3″ or 4″ pot in early spring, these plants can grow quite large in a single season.  Depending on the cultivar, your plant may be 4” tall and wide by September.  In our Zone 7B, and even in Zone 8, plants left outside over the winter will die back to the ground.  Plants can be overwintered in bright or medium light inside.  I have been delighted to discover those geraniums left out of doors coming back from the roots for the last several springs.

I grow scented geraniums both in pots and in garden beds.  They weave beautifully around other plants, and are especially nice grown around roses.  Work a little compost into the planting hole if planting into the ground.  Use a good quality potting mix if planting in pots.  I top dress the soil with some Osmocote, and then a mulch of gravel whether planting into a pot or into the garden.  I also feed every few weeks with a dilute solution of Neptune’s Harvest.

This summer I plan to plant up some arrangements with scented geraniums, annual zonal geraniums, and ivy geraniums all in the same pot.  This should give a beautiful mix of color, scent, and interesting foliage in a really big, but easy to maintain potted garden.


Scented Geraniums, Pelargonium, are tender perennials. They sometimes survive the winter here in Zone 7, reappearing in mid-May or later. Cuttings will root in water or moist soil.


Pelargoniums are enormously easy to root.  Cut off the tip of a branch, at a leaf node, and dip it into rooting hormone powder.  Then stick this little cutting into any good, moist potting mix, and wait for new roots to grow.

It isn’t necessary to cover the cutting, apply bottom heat, or do anything fussy and meticulous.  These are hardy plants which want to live.

I haven’t had great success rooting Pelargoniums in water.  The stems often rot before roots grow.  I’ve learned to root them in potting soil, although a mixture rich in sand or vermiculite might work even better.


Rooting cuttings

Rooting cuttings


I love cutting stems of Pelargoniums to use in summer flower arrangements.  They make wonderful filler both because they are beautiful, but they also make the bouquet more fragrant.  When they are in bloom, they are an especially nice addition to an arrangement.

The leaves can be harvested, washed, dried and used in tea and other cooking projects.  Dried leaves can be layered in an air tight container with sugar.  After a few weeks, the sugar is nicely flavored.


Pelargonium ‘Lady Plymouth’


Use their flowers to decorate cakes.  Slice the washed leaves into small slivers to add to stir fries, rice, puddings, cakes,  or add to lemonade or cocktails.

Dried leaves make an excellent base for potpourri because the leaves lose very little volume when they dry.  Dried leaves can be stacked between linens or used in bureau drawers to scent cleaned laundry.  The volatile oils are very strong in most varieties.  While they freshen, they offer protection from moths.


Rose scented Pelargonium with Pineapple Sage and Rose


The volatile oils of scented geraniums make them a good insect repellent.  When going out into the garden, pick a leaf or two of citrus scented varieties and rub on your exposed skin as a non -toxic repellent.  Then tuck the crushed leaf into your pocket or hat for even more lasting protection.

Scented geraniums are the first herb I’ve planted this year, after parsley.  I’ve scattered them generously, especially in areas I want to protect from deer.  I’ve taken cuttings from two which overwintered in the garage, and I’ll keep my eye out for new growth coming up from the roots of scented geraniums which remained outside over the winter.

We had  long stretches of very cold days and nights, but these are tough plants, and I hope to see them return from the roots, for another year in our forest garden.


Rose scented Pelargonium likes room for its roots to breathe.


Woodland Gnome 2014
updated 2021





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