Fabulous Friday: Floods of Rain

Native sweetbay Magnolia virginiana, in bloom this week at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden, fills the garden entrance with its musky perfume.

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This Friday dawned humid and grey, and I set out as soon as we finished a quick breakfast to meet a friend at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.  While I am all about the plants, she is all about the cats and butterflies.  Today, she was hunting for a few special cats to use in her upcoming program  at our local library  about protecting butterflies and providing habitat for their next generations.

We checked all of the usual host plants: Asclepias,, spicebush, Wisteria, fennel, Passiflora vines, and parsley.  We weren’t equipped to check out the canopies of the garden’s host trees, like the paw paw or the oaks, but we were left empty-handed. There were no caterpillars that we could find today.

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A Zebra Swallowtail butterfly enjoys the Verbena bonariensis at the WBG last week.  Its host plant is the native paw paw tree.

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In this peaceful nectar and host plant rich environment, where are the butterflies and their young?  We both happily snapped photos of interesting views and blooms as we searched, took care of a few chores together, and then she was off.

By then the first Master Naturalist gardeners had arrived.  All of us had one eye to the sky and another on our ‘to-do’ lists.

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Native Asclepias tuberosa is one of the Asclepias varieties that Monarch butterflies seek out as a host plant to lay their eggs.

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I have great admiration and affection for the Master Naturalists who work at the WBG, and I appreciate the opportunity to ask questions when they are around.  I hope to join their ranks one year soon.  The course is rigorous and the standards high, and the volunteer work they do throughout our area is invaluable.

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This is our native Carolina wild petunia, Ruellia caroliniensis, that blooms near the gate at the WBG. 

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One of the Master Naturalists was also working on an inventory of butterflies in the garden today.   He checked out all of the tempting nectar plants from Verbena to Lantana, the Asclepias to his blooming herbs, the pollinator beds of native flowers, the various Salvias and Agastache.  Where were the butterflies today?

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Native spiderwort, Tradescantia ohiensis, also grows near the garden’s gate.

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I had the constant company of bees buzzing around my knees and ankles as I climbed into a border to weed and deadhead.

But no Zebra Swallowtails danced among the Verbena.  Not a single butterfly fed on the Salvias where I was working.  A Monarch showed itself briefly and promptly disappeared.  We observed the heavy, humid air and decided they must be sheltering against the coming rain.

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Native Iris virginica blooming last week at the WBG.

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But as the storm grew closer, there wasn’t much time for sociability today.  We could hear the thunder rumbling off in the distance as we weeded, cut enthusiastic plants back, potted and chatted with garden visitors.

My partner kept an eye on the radar maps at home and phoned in updates.  When he gave the final ‘five minute warning!’ it was nearly noon, and the rain began as I headed back to my car.  It was a good morning’s work and I left with the ‘to do’ list completed.

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Seedpods ripen on the sweetbay Magnolia

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But the rain has been a constant presence this afternoon, falling loudly and insistently all around us.  There are flood warnings, the ground is saturated, and I am wondering how high the water might rise on local roads and along the banks of the James and its feeder creeks.  It has been a wet year for many.

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The James River last week, before this last heavy rain brought it even higher.

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There was a timely message from the James River Association in my inbox.  The river is brown with run-off, and has been for a while now.  They are encouraging folks to address run-off issues on their properties.  The best advice there is, “Plant more plants!”  But of course, the right plants in the right places!  Successful plants help manage stormwater; dying ones, not so much.

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I use both rock and hardwood mulch in our garden at home to help protect the soil during heavy rains. This is a native oakleaf Hydrangea in bloom.

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Rain gardens are encouraged to catch the run-off and allow it to slowly percolate into the earth instead of running off so quickly.  There are programs available that help plan and fund new rain gardens to protect local water  quality.

Where there is no good spot for a rain garden, then terraces help on slopes like ours, and solid plantings of shrubs and perennials help to slow the flow of water downhill towards the creeks.

Most anything that covers the bare soil helps with erosion.  But deeply rooted plants help hold the soil while also soaking up the water and allowing it to evaporate back into the atmosphere through their leaves.

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Groundcover plants, like this golden creeping Jenny, also hold and protect the soil.  Our Crinum lily is ready to bloom.  This hardy Amaryllis relative gets a bit larger each year as its already huge bulb calves off pups.

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We’ve been watching flooding news roll in from all over the region this afternoon.  Streets and sidewalks underwater, cars floating away, and families chased indoors by the weather.  It looks like a wet stretch coming, too.

I’m glad have a new garden book, The Thoughtful Gardener by Jinny Blom waiting for me; the prose is as inspiring as the photographs.  I love seeing how other gardeners plant and how they think about their planting.  There is always more to learn.

Once these flooding rains subside and the soil drains a bit, I expect to be back outside and “Planting more plants!”

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Woodland Gnome 2019

Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is Contagious; Let’s infect one another!

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Echinacea, purple coneflower, delights pollinators and goldfinches  in our forest garden.

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Six on Saturday: Iris in Bloom

German Bearded Iris ‘Rosalie Figge’

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Iris perfectly blend color, fragrance, geometry and grace.

I’ve spent the last six months delving into the details of the genus and am delighting now in watching them unfold their perfect standards and falls.

The appearance of Iris each spring still feels like a bit of natural magic.  From a slender green stem, the intensely pure colors emerge as each flower unfolds.

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Iris tectorum, Japanese roof Iris, can be grown on traditional thatched roofs.  It was a status symbol in some Japanese communities to have a roof covered with blooming Iris.  This is a crested Iris, like our native Iris cristata.

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Watching an Iris bud open reminds me of how a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, ever so slowly stretching and unfolding its wings.  Both grow so large one wonders how they could have possibly fit into their sheath.  While a butterfly soon flies off in search of nectar and a mate, Iris blossoms remain anchored to their stems, hovering above the garden in motionless flight.

Our Iris continue to multiply in the garden.  I’ve been collecting them, dividing them, and have even received some as gifts.  Most bloom only once each year, and then for only a few weeks.  But what an amazing sight to anticipate through the long weeks of winter, knowing that spring will bring Iris blossoms once again.  Collecting different types of Iris extends the period of bloom, and planting re-blooming iris offers the tantalizing promise of an encore in autumn.

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Iris pallida, a European species Iris brought to Virginia by the colonists, is one of the species used in German bearded Iris hybrids.

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There is a fellowship of Iris lovers extending back through our recorded history.  We see Iris carved into bas reliefs in Egyptian temples, and Iris flowers were admired in ancient Greece.  The Babylonians grew them, and Iris grew wild across the hills of Turkey and meadows of Europe.  There are more than 150 species of Iris, and many of our garden Iris are hybrids of two or more species.

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Native Iris cristata

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Tough and persistent, Iris are easy to grow, once you understand what each variety needs.   It is easy to fall in love with Iris plants in bloom.  And that is the best way to buy them, so you know exactly what you are planting.  Since most are hybrids, gardeners rarely grow Iris from seeds.

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Some Iris grow from bulbs, most from rhizomes.  Some may come in the mail as bare-root plants.  You may have to wait a year or two for the first bloom when you buy divisions.

For immediate satisfaction, look for potted Iris plants in bloom.  You will know exactly what colors you are adding to your garden and know you have a healthy plant to start.

Then, just wait for the beauty to multiply with each passing year.

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Iris x hollandica ‘Silver Beauty’

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Woodland Gnome 2019
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Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator.

 

Wild Life Wednesday: All Calm Before the Storm

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It was gently raining when we awakened this morning, but the sun was breaking through along the horizon by the time we made it outside into the new day.

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An early morning bumbly enjoys the sweetness of Rudbeckia laciniata.

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We are all very conscious of the weather here in coastal Virginia this week as we watch the updates on the progress of Hurricane Florence.  We are on high ground and so flooding isn’t a concern.  But we live in a forest, and any amount of wind can change the landscape here; especially when the ground is saturated.

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The Solidago, goldenrod, has just begun to bloom.

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It looks as though the storm will make landfall far to our south, and the track no longer suggests it might travel northwards into Central Virginia.  Yet Florence remains a dangerous storm, and is absolutely huge.  We may start feeling its outer bands of rain and wind sometime tomorrow or Friday.

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Rose of Sharon

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Which made today all the sweeter.  Do you know the Japanese term, Wabi-Sabi?  The Japanese find beauty in the transience and ultimate imperfection of all phenomena.  The impermanence and changeability of the world around us heightens our appreciation of its beauty.  We can appreciate things while feeling a deep tenderness for their inherent imperfection.

I was pondering these things this morning as I wandered through our upper garden, wondering how it might appear in a day or so after wind and heavy rain have their way with it.  Already, our tall goldenrod and black-eyed Susans lean over into the paths, making them almost disappear in the abundance of growth.

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It is my first time wandering through the garden like this since I got a nasty insect bite last Friday afternoon.  It is still a mystery what bit me, as I was fully armored to work outdoors.  It was a small bite at first, but quickly blistered and swelled up to a massive angry red blotch that stretched several inches away from the original bite on my knee.  It has been a slow process of tending it, and I stayed indoors until yesterday, hoping to avoid another until this one was resolved.

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Ginger lily with orbs

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But today I was out in the early morning wetness, capturing the beauty of it, and trying to ignore the mosquitoes greeting me along the way.  I wanted to see everything and admire everything on the chance that the coming storm will shatter its early September magnificence.  It was the beautiful calm before the storm, and we have taken today to celebrate it.

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The rain was past and the day gilded with golden September sunshine when we set out along the Colonial Parkway to see the sky and watch the rising waters along the James and York Rivers.  If you’ve never seen the sky filled with enormous, rain shadowed clouds in the day or two before a hurricane approaches, you’ve missed one of the most beautiful spectacles of atmospheric art.

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Yorktown Beach, looking northwards towards Gloucester Point and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science

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The clouds are arrayed in regular, rhythmic patterns, punctuated here and there with towering, monstrous storm clouds.  The sky is blue and clear beyond them.  They float rapidly across the sky, these outer bands of the approaching storm.  These days of waiting are moody, morphing quickly from dull to golden and clear blue to stormy grey.

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One keeps an eye on the sky while pacing through the rituals of preparing.   There is an edge to the mood as highways fill with strangers moving northwards, inland, away from home and into an uncertain future.  We encountered one today at the next gas pump who needed to tell us he was traveling, just passing through, on his journey to somewhere safer than here.

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We found a nearby parking lot filled this morning with state police, huge generators, Klieg lights, and emergency response trailers.  The lot was filled at eight, but emptying out just a few hours later.  We’re still wondering where the equipment will ultimately end up.  We hope not here…

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Jones Mill Pond, near Yorktown on the Colonial Parkway

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I wondered whether the butterflies would move out ahead of the storm.  But we counted more than a dozen as we drove along the Parkway from Jamestown to Yorktown.   We saw mostly small ones, Sulphurs, but we were glad for their happy fluttering along the roadside.  We noticed the tide is already high along the way.  Jamestown Island is closed as preparations there continue.

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The rivers lap high up into the reeds, mostly covering the narrow, sandy river beaches.  The York River is already climbing the rip rap hardened banks constructed a few summers ago to protect the shoreline.  Small Coast Guard craft patrolled the river near Yorktown, but that didn’t deter a few families here and there, determined to enjoy this bright and sultry day at the beach.

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The York River, looking eastwards towards the Bay.

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The lizards were scampering around the drive and back steps when we returned home.  They’d been basking in the mid-day sun; our return disturbed their peace.

The squirrels had been at the grapes again, and we saw a pair of hummingbirds light in a Rose of Sharon tree nearby, watching us arrive.

It was too silent, though.  We didn’t hear the usual chatter of songbirds in the trees.  It was still, too.  Though the wind was blowing off the rivers, here the air hung heavy and still.

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Our Muscadine grapes are ripening over a long season.

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I believe in luck and omens, and perhaps that is why I planted a few little pots of Baptisia seeds this morning.  I’d knicked the seed pods from a plant I’ve watched growing all summer at the Botanical garden, and carried them in my pocket for weeks.

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With the seeds tucked into little pots out on the deck, I’m already thinking of the sprouts that will soon emerge.  Life goes on.  I believe that is the wisdom of wabi-sabi.

No matter the current circumstance, change is constant.  We can’t outrun it, or stop it.  Wisdom invites us to embrace it, observe its power, and find the ever-present beauty, come what may.

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This beautiful cluster of lichens was waiting for me beneath a shrub this morning.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
*  *  *
“To Taoism that which is absolutely still or absolutely perfect
is absolutely dead,
for without the possibility of growth and change there can be no Tao.
In reality there is nothing in the universe
which is completely perfect or completely still;
it is only in the minds of men that such concepts exist.”
.
Alan Watts

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“But when does something’s destiny finally come to fruition?
Is the plant complete when it flowers?
When it goes to seed? When the seeds sprout?
When everything turns into compost?”
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Leonard Koren

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Begonia

 

Fabulous Friday: Our Garden Is Full

Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta

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It was just a little goldfinch.  Yet I was so delighted to notice it gracefully balanced on a yellow black-eyed Susan flower near the drive, when we returned from our morning errands.  He concentrated his full attention on pecking at the flower’s center.  Though the seeds aren’t yet ripe, he was clearly hoping for a morsel to eat.

Once I took a step too close, he lifted into the air on outstretched wings, disappearing behind a stand of goldenrod.

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‘Green Envy’ Echinacea mixes with basil and more Rudbeckia, a feast for goldfinches and butterflies.

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Goldfinches and cardinals catch our eye with their bright feathers, but there are all of the other grey and brown and occasionally blue birds flitting from grass to shrub and flowering mass from before dawn until their final songs long past dusk.  And then we listen for the owls’ conversations through the night.

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I heard a wonderful speaker yesterday morning, who pulled back the curtain a bit on the world of insects in our gardens.  He is a former student of Dr. Douglas Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home , and is now an assistant professor of Biology at nearby Hampton University.  Dr. Shawn Dash is a gifted teacher, keeping us all laughing and learning as he shared his insights into the importance of the insects of the planet in maintaining the web of life.

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Joe Pye Weed attracts more insects than any other flower in the garden this month.

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I am a total novice in this mysterious world of insects.  But I will say that I am learning to look at them with admiration and respect… so long as they remain out of doors in the garden!

Joe Pye Weed is the best wildlife attractor blooming in our garden at the moment.  It is simply covered with every sort of wasp and bee and butterfly and moth and sci-fi ready insect you can imagine.  The ‘buzz’ around it mesmerizes.

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Our garden hums and buzzes and clicks with life as July finally melts into August.  Dr. Dash talked about the musical chorus of insects as one of the wonderful benefits of a full garden; a diverse garden that includes some percentage of native plants to support them.

Creating a layered garden with an abundance of plant life from the hardwood canopy all the way down through smaller trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, vines and ground cover offers many niches to harbor a huge array of insects.  All of those juicy insects attract song birds and small mammals, turtles, frogs, lizards and yes, maybe also a snake or two.

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A fairly sterile suburban lawn may be transformed into a wild life oasis, a rich ecosystem filled with color, movement and song.  And the whole process begins with planting more native trees and shrubs to offer food and shelter to scores of species.

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But even more fundamentally, the process begins when we value the entire web of life in our particular ecosystem and allow it to unfold.

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Hardy blue mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum, grows wild in our garden.  I stopped weeding it out after a few plants survived deep enough into the summer to bloom with these gorgeous blue flowers.

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I quickly learned that I don’t really need to go out and buy a lot of native plants.  I only have to allow them to grow when they sprout from the seeds already in our soil.  I have to allow the seeds that wildlife drop in our garden to have a bit of real-estate to take hold.  And nature magically fills the space.

We guide, nurture, and yes edit.  But as soon as we allow it and offer the least encouragement, nature becomes our partner and our guide.

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The goldenrod want to claim this entire area as their own… time to give some to friends!

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If you’ve already read Bringing Nature Home, let me invite you to also read, The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, co-authored by Dr. Tallamy and landscape designer and photographer, Rick Darke.

The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden by [Darke, Rick, Tallamy, Douglas W.]

This translates the science into the practical planning of an ecologically balanced home landscape, and is richly illustrated and laced with wonderful stories.  It inspires one to go plant something and make one’s garden even more diverse.

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Our little Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar is growing fast, happily munching on the Daucus carota.

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Our garden is filled to overflowing, this Fabulous Friday.  It is filled with flowers and foliage, birds, squirrels, butterflies and scampering lizards.  Our garden is filled with tweets and twitters of the natural kind, the sounds of wind blowing through the trees and rain dripping on the pavement.

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fennel

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Our world is wet this week, as storm after storm trains up the East Coast.  I’m grateful for the rain even as I’m swatting at the mosquitoes biting any exposed bit of skin, while I focus my camera on the butterflies.

I hope that your summer is unfolding rich in happiness and beautiful experiences.  I hope you are getting enough rain, but not too much; that your garden is doing well and that you are, too.

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Fabulous Friday: 

Happiness is Contagious; Let’s Infect One Another!

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Sunday Dinner: Uncertainty

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“Embrace relational uncertainty. It’s called romance.
Embrace spiritual uncertainty. It’s called mystery.
Embrace occupational uncertainty. It’s called destiny.
Embrace emotional uncertainty. It’s called joy.
Embrace intellectual uncertainty. It’s called revelation.”
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Mark Batterson
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“Let go of certainty.
The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness,
curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox,
rather than choose up sides.
The ultimate challenge is to accept
ourselves exactly as we are,
but never stop trying to learn and grow.”
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Tony Schwartz
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“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality,
they are not certain;
and as far as they are certain,
they do not refer to reality.”
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Albert Einstein
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“Have patience with everything
that remains unsolved in your heart.
…live in the question.”
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Rainer Maria Rilke
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“You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
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Max Ehrmann
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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018
*  *  *
“Everything you’ve learned in school as “obvious”
becomes less and less obvious
as you begin to study the universe.
For example, there are no solids in the universe.
There’s not even a suggestion of a solid.
There are no absolute continuums.
There are no surfaces.
There are no straight lines.”
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R. Buckminster Fuller

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“There are souls in this world
which have the gift of finding joy everywhere
and of leaving it behind them when they go.”
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Frederick William Faber
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How many insects can you count on the Joe Pye Weed today?

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“So what do we do? Anything. Something.
So long as we just don’t sit there.
If we screw it up, start over.
Try something else.
If we wait until we’ve satisfied all the uncertainties,
it may be too late.”
.
Lee Iacocca
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Crazy (For) Ferns

Athyrium niponicum var. pictum  ‘Applecourt’

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Who would dare find ferns boring?  Ferns are some of the craziest and most bodacious plants you’ll ever grow!  You just need an idea of which ones to choose.

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Native maidenhair fern, Adiantum x mairisii

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I enjoy all ferns, to be perfectly honest.  Even the relatively ‘plain Jane’ native Christmas ferns grow with a certain peaceful confidence that I admire.

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Polystichum acrostichoides, our native Christmas fern, earned its name because it remains green and beautiful past Christmas and into the winter months. This is a very hardy (zones 3-9), dependable fern that can tolerate a fair amount of sun, once established, and will survive a our hot, dry summers.

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And I am sure that there are those fern lovers who prefer these for their neat, regular, evenly green fronds.

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Sensitive fern. Onoclea sensibilis, peeks out from around a clump of native Mayapples.  This deciduous fern is very sensitive to cold weather, and dies back each autumn with the first frost.  Not to worry, because each year it spreads and gets a bit better in the garden.

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And that is all fine, but I am partial to ferns with interesting colors and forms.  I enjoy ferns that are a bit variable from frond to frond and plant to plant; full of surprises, you might say!

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Athyrium niponicum var. pictum

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The Japanese painted ferns fill the bill on both counts.  A hybrid of the ‘Lady Ferns,’ it interbreeds with other ferns fairly easily to produce some very interesting color patterns and beautifully ruffled and crested fronds.

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Athyrium filix-femina ‘Lady in Red’

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Growing from just a few inches to more than several feet tall, these wonderfully surprising ferns can fill many different garden niches.

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There are lots of crazy ferns on the market these days.  There are ruffled ferns, footed ferns, staghorn ferns, hart’s tongue ferns, and even a hybrid named A. ‘Godzilla.’

I found and planted A. ‘Godzilla’ last summer, and I’m keeping a close eye on it.   It has not yet grown into its gargantuan potential.  It’s still sinking its roots and trying to feel at home in the garden.

But believe, me, when it does begin to grow crazy-big, I’ll post a photo for you.

Woodland Gnome 2018
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Re-Weaving the Web

Viola papilionacea

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

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

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

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

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Spiders often weave large webs in our autumn garden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Asclepias incarnata, July 2017

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

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

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

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

~

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

~

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

~

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

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

~

~

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

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

~

Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 2017

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

~

~

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

~

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

~

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

Hummingbird moth on a hybrid butterfly bush growing among native Rudbeckia. 

Green Thumb Tip #15: Conquer the Weeds

Asclepias, milkweed,  July 2017

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What is a weed, anyway?

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

~

Dandelion, Taraxacum

~

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

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

~

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

~

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

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

~

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

~

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

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

~

Perennial Ageratum, Conoclinium coelestinum

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

So what to do about weeds?

~

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

~

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

~

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

~

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

~

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

~

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

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

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

~

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

~

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

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

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

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

~

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

~

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

~

Rose of Sharon

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

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

~

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

~

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

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

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

~

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Woodland Gnome 2018
~
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More information about health dangers of herbicides:

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

Ground ivy Glechoma hederacea

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

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

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

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #1:  Pinch!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #2:  Feed!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3 Deadhead!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #4 Get the Light Right!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #5: Keep Planting!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #6: Size Matters!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 7:  Experiment!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #8  Observe
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #9 Plan Ahead
Green Thumb Tip # 10 Understand the Rhythm
Green Thumb Tip # 11:  The Perennial Philosophy
Green Thumb Tip #12: Grow More of That! 
Green Thumb Tip # 13: Breaching Your Zone
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios

 

 

 

 

 

New

~

“If you want something new,
you have to stop doing something old”
.
Peter F. Drucker
~
~
“The secret to so many artists living so long
is that every painting is a new adventure.
So, you see, they’re always looking ahead
to something new and exciting.
The secret is not to look back.”
.
Norman Rockwell

~

~

“Change is the end of something you know
and the beginning of something else
that you don’t know.
Something new that holds opportunities.”
.
Kholoud Yasser

~

~

“It is only when we are ready
to give up on some things in our lives
that we could receive new things.”
.
Sunday Adelaja

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~

“So may the New Year be a happy one to you,
happy to many more
whose happiness depends on you!”
.
Charles Dickens
~
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Photos by Woodland Gnome
January 1, 2018
~

What I am reading this week:  Garden Revolution by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher

Weaner and Christopher captivated my interest on the first page.  Theirs is a practical philosophy of gardening, which guides our doings and our not-doings.  They garden to guide a thriving eco-system in the proud tradition of  Doug Tallamy and Rachel Carson.

Many thanks to my dear friend who gifted me with a fresh copy of Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home last week, inspiring me to remind myself of its important guidance.

I am reading these books now to focus on the bigger picture of why I garden,  ahead of beginning my Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener training class next week.

These authors remind us that often less is more; that cooperation with nature always adds value to our efforts, and sparks hope for our ecosystem and the continued viability of life on our planet.

January is my favorite time of year to study gardening books and catalogs.  If you use these frosty days and long winter nights for study, too; I invite you to take a look at these inspiring volumes.

Determined to Live: Ebony Spleenwort

~
“Perfection is born of imperfection.”
.
Richie Norton

We were surprised today to find tiny ferns growing in the cracks of an old brick wall encircling Bruton Parish church in Colonial Williamsburg.   Near the end of our walk to photograph this year’s wreathes, we were headed back to the car when tiny bits of green growing from the mortar between old bricks caught our attention.

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“Being strong is not just about your physical strength, no,
it is about your capacity to handle
difficult problem with ease.”
.
Nurudeen Ushawu

We noticed patches of moss, which is not so unusual, growing near these very persistent an determined ferns.  This part of the wall is shaded by an ancient live oak tree.   The wall itself dates to the mid-eighteenth century, and has stood through good times and dangerous times in the colonial district of Williamsburg, Virgninia.

~

The Bruton Parish chuchyard, where prominent Virginians have been buried since the late 17th Century.  We found ferns growing on the outside of this wall.

~
“Continuous effort –
not strength or intelligence –
is the key to unlocking our potential.”
.
Winston S. Churchill

The ferns are native to Virginia.  Commonly known as ebony spleenwort, these small ferns grow in little clusters in moist locations throughout our region.

They can be found in many shady places.  But they particularly enjoy growing on calcareous rocks and between old bricks.  Growing on a vertical wall doesn’t phase them, and they can also sometimes be found on rock walls, rotting wood and old fences.

~
~
“Dripping water hollows out stone,
not through force but through persistence.”
.
Ovid

I admire the perseverance of such determined little plants.  Their airborne spores landed in a crack in this centuries old mortar, in a moist crevice where they began to grow.  Despite  past summers’ droughts, the tiny plants have found enough moisture to keep growing.

No gardener waters them or grooms them.  These tiny plants look out for themselves season after season.

These are evergreen ferns, and will cling to their crevice and to life no matter what weather this winter coming brings.

~
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“Most of the important things in the world
have been accomplished by people
who have kept on trying
when there seemed to be no hope at all.”
.
Dale Carnegie

If you love ferns growing in your garden, you might consider growing ebony spleenwort.  Please don’t collect from the wild.  The fern you dig or rip out will leave much of its roots behind.  You may or may not be able to replicate its habitat.

No, please buy a nursery grown fern and establish it in a moist, shady spot in your garden.  These ferns like lime-rich rocky soil, and you may be able to get them to establish in a rocky area, or even on a wall in your own garden.

I actually found a pair of these little ferns growing in some mulch carelessly left on top of some Juniper fronds over the summer.  They had rooted into the moist mulch, and I could easily lift them and re-plant them in soil in a shady spot nearby.  Once established, they will produce spores each year, and these spores will spread and allow for new ferns to grow nearby.

Ferns sometimes pop up as if ‘by magic’ in our area.  And natural magic it is, this miraculous journey from a tiny spore into a growing fern.  But that is another story best left for another post.

~

Asplenium platyneuron, ebony spleenwort, is named for the ebony colored stipe and petiole of each frond.  This fern was once thought to have medicinal properties for curing diseases of the spleen. 

~
Woodland Gnome 2017
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
.
Seneca
Many thanks to Helen Hamilton for her field guide, Ferns and Mosses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain

 

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