Fresh Start 2021: Carbon Garden

October blooming Camellia sasanqua

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Only recently have I come across the term ‘Carbon Garden’ in the current issue of Horticulture Magazine.  You may be ahead of me on this one, but the picture that came to mind when I first saw the term wasn’t very pretty.  The reality of it is much more attractive, and this garden style proves easier to maintain than many other garden styles.

Like other elements, carbon is an atom that can manifest as a solid, in a liquid, or as a gas.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) remain in the news because they contribute so much to our warming environment.  Gasses like carbon dioxide and methane (CH4) trap heat from the sun near the surface of the earth, causing warmer weather and heavier rainfalls.  Conversations around reversing the current warming trends usually focus on reducing carbon emissions and finding ways to scrub carbon out of the air.

Magically, we have living tools for removing carbon from the air right outside our windows.  You see, every green plant cell uses carbon dioxide in its daily efforts to feed itself and sustain the entire plant.  In the presence of sunlight, carbon dioxide and water transform into glucose, used to power plant growth, and the waste product oxygen, which of course we need in every breath.

When you contemplate a leafy tree, imagine each leaf inhaling polluted air and transforming that air into pure food and oxygen.

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Japanese Maple

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Glucose is further transformed into cellulose, which structures the cell wall of every plant cell.  Now, imagine a tree’s roots growing deeper and wider into the earth with each passing year.  What are those roots made from?  Cellulose:  largely, carbon.

A tree, and most any other plant, can stash carbon deep underground where it will remain for many years in solid form.  Many plants also store nitrogen, filtered out of the air, on their roots.  In fact, any plant in the pea family stores little nodules of solid nitrogen along their roots.  Knowing that nitrogen is a major component of fertilizers, you understand how this stored nitrogen increases the fertility of the soil in the area where these plants grow.

Plant leaves are also made primarily of carbon.  When the leaves fall each autumn, they hold stored, solid carbon.  If returned to the soil as compost or mulch, the carbon remains stored, or sequestered, in solid form in the soil.  This is how ordinary garden soil may be transformed into a ‘carbon sink.’

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Turkey tail mushrooms help decompose the stump of a fallen peach tree. Leaving the stump in place and allowing vegetation to cover it conserves its carbon in the soil.

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A log is made largely of stored carbon.  When you burn it in the fireplace, those chemical bonds break down, and much of the carbon rises back into the air as smoke.  If the same log is made into a cutting board or other wooden object, then the carbon remains in sold form.

Just as burning can break chemical bonds to release carbon back into the air, so will decomposition.  We’ve come to understand that bare dirt, including tilled fields and gardens, releases carbon back into the air.  But ground covered by mulch or living plants doesn’t allow that carbon to move back into the air.

All of this helps explain the science behind the principles of Carbon Gardening, whose goal is to scrub as much carbon as possible out of the air and sequester it in the earth.  Forests have done this very efficiently for untold ages.

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Only in recent times, with so much natural forest cleared and land exposed, has our planet begun its dramatic warming.  Think of all the carbon stored over the centuries as coal, petroleum, peat, and held close under a forest canopy that has been released into our atmosphere over the past century.

So, the point of Carbon Gardening is to use one’s own garden to sequester as much carbon as possible, using gardening methods that hold the carbon in the soil, without burning or releasing any more carbon than possible in the process.

Every breath we exhale contains carbon dioxide.  Our cells produce it as they produce energy.  We live in harmony with the plants we grow, taking in the oxygen they exhale while giving them back our own carbon rich breath.  That said, please don’t try to hold your breath as you make your Carbon Garden.

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Camellia sasanqua

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Here are a few principles of Carbon Gardening that may help point you in the right direction. 

The Audubon Society has a series of articles that go into far more detail.

  1. Plant intensely in layers:  The more plants in growth the more carbon will be scrubbed from the air each day.  Trees are most efficient because they support a huge volume of leaves.  Include evergreen trees that continue respiration through the winter months, and plant a shrub layer, perennial layer, and ground covers under the trees to maximize the amount of carbon absorbed by your garden.  Evergreen perennials and ground covers continue absorbing and storing carbon through the winter months.

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  1. Feed carbon (and nitrogen) back into your soil with plant materials. Use wood chips, bark, and shredded leaves as mulch to minimize bare ground.  Remember that roots sequester a large amount of carbon and nitrogen, so leave those roots in the ground.  Cut weeds or spent annuals at ground level instead of pulling them up.  Compost trimmings and leaves, kitchen waste, and unneeded cardboard, newsprint or brown paper.

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This is a very thin layer of compost covering collected branches, bark and leaves from our fallen tree.  We added additional layers of organic material to build the new planting bed.

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  1. Instead of tilling soil and exposing stored carbon, sheet compost in the winter to prepare for spring planting. Cover the garden area with cardboard or paper to protect the soil and smother any weeds.  Build up layers of composable materials, or even bagged municipal compost, and allow it to decompose in place so that planting seeds or transplants in the spring is possible without tilling or excessive digging.  Coffee grounds, tea bags, rinsed eggshells and other kitchen scraps can be ‘buried’ in the layers of a sheet compost pile, but be careful not to discard of seeds in this way unless you want them to sprout in the spring.

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Paper grocery bags covered with several inches of compost smother weeds and soften the ground for this new planting bed, eliminating the need to dig the area up first.  Pea gravel helps hold this area, which is on a slope.

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  1. Remain mindful of garden ‘inputs’ that burn carbon. This includes garden equipment that burns gas, commercial fertilizers, and maybe even those fun trips to the garden center….?

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This bin of new Caladium bulbs was ready to be planted out in mid-May.  Ordering bare root perennials, bulbs, tubers and seeds and starting them at home reduces the carbon footprint of a garden.  The red leaf is C. ‘Burning Heart,’ a 2015 introduction from Classic Caladiums in Avon Park, FL.

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  1. If you normally buy flats of annual plants each spring for pots or borders, consider how to plant those areas more sustainably. Consider all of the carbon releasing ‘inputs’ required to produce those plants, including the plastic containers they are grown in, the transportation to move them, and the chemical fertilizers and peat based potting soil used in growing them.  While all plants sequester carbon from the air, commercial nursery production of short-lived plants releases carbon into the atmosphere throughout the process and should be considered by conscientious gardeners.  What can you raise from seeds, cuttings or divisions, or obtain through trade with gardening friends?

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Saxifraga stolonifera is an evergreen ground cover that is easy to divide and share.  It grows here with Ajuga ‘Black Scallop,’ Hellebores and ferns.

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  1. Choose native perennials or ones that will naturalize in your climate, so your plants spread and reproduce, reducing the number of plants you need to buy each year to fill your garden. Design a sustainable garden that grows lushly with minimal ‘inputs’ and intervention from the gardener.  Native and naturalizing perennials won’t need much watering during dry spells, will make do with nutrients in the soil, and will expand and self-seed.

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  1. Woody plants sequester carbon in their roots and branches and live for many years. These are the most efficient Carbon Garden plants.   A garden made mostly from trees, shrubs, perennial ferns and groundcovers, will work most efficiently.  Some more arid areas have great success with long-lived succulents.  Consider replacing turf grass with plants that don’t require such intense maintenance.

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Mountain Laurel blooms each May, is native to our region and forms dense clumps over time.

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  1. Use the I-Tree Tool to educate yourself about the power of trees in your landscape to sequester and store carbon, reduce run-off and scrub other pollutants out of the air. Use this tool when selecting new trees to plant in your own yard.

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From left: new leaves emerge red on this hybrid crape myrtle, small Acer palmatum leaves emerge red and hold their color into summer, red buckeye, Aesculus pavia is naturalized in our area and volunteers in unlikely places, blooming scarlet each spring. In the distance, dogwood blooms in clouds of white.

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‘Carbon Gardening’ can make a significant contribution to scrubbing carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the earth, and the total contribution multiplies as the plants grow and the garden develops year to year.  A fully grown native tree can removed fifty or more pounds of carbon from the air annually.  While the amount varies by tree species and size, every year of growth increases the tree’s effectiveness.

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Each gardener who adopts sustainable practices makes a sizeable contribution to off-set and mitigate carbon production in their area.  Planting more plants and allowing them to grow densely also helps manage rainfall so it is stored onsite, rather than running off so rapidly.  The plants sustain wildlife and build a richly integrated ecosystem.

We reduce our own annual costs for new plants, fertilizers, other chemicals and fuel, while also reducing our time invested in garden maintenance.  It is a good approach for any of us who enjoy watching nature weave her tapestry each year, sustainably, while knowing that our gardens are part of the solution to climate warming and climate change.

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Woodland Gnome 2021

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Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful and a positive thought.

Pot Shots: Out By the Road

August 2020

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Anything we want to plant at the edges of our property, out by the road, has to be tough enough to thrive in challenging conditions.  It might be too much shade or too much sun, curious passers-by, grazing deer, air pollution, road salts, or any number of other factors.  Maybe it isn’t a spot that’s easy to water, or an exposed site with too much wind.

Whatever the hazards, we can still find interesting plants to grow in these special spots.  After all, this is our public face that our neighbors see each day.  It is worth a little effort.

This pot sits at the gate to the Williamburg Botanical Garden, along one of the main roads through Freedom Park.  Since it’s outside the gate, the resident deer check it out frequently.  If I plant something they find tasty, it disappears almost overnight.  This is an unforgiving spot and plant choice must be spot on, or the plant disappears.

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June 29, 2018

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Pots or beds on display 24/7/365 require a bit of planning to minimize those awkward times between seasons.  When I planted this pot the first time, in the summer of 2018, I used several Lantana, a tall Alocasia ‘Mayan Mask’, creeping Jenny, Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost,’ Artemesia ‘Powis Castle,’ oregano and a Heliotrope.   That  first planting was an experiment to see what would thrive and what would fade away in this partly sunny spot.

As summer wore on the Lantana, Euporbia, Artemesia and Alocasia performed very well.  The original creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia, still grows today.  This pot remained full and attractive through the entire season.

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September 20, 2018

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As fall approached, I dug out the Artemesia to use elsewhere in the garden, potted the Alocasia to keep at home overwinter, and removed the Lantanas to make room to plant bulbs.  The Lantana ‘Chapel Hill Gold’ and L. ‘ Chapel Hill Yellow’ are perennials in our climate, but I wanted their space for other plantings.

In the fall of 2018 I planted a variety of bulbs to give a long season of spring bloom.  Along with Muscari and daffodils, I also planted a few Arum italicum for winter color.  These Arum send up leaves in early fall and remain glossy green all winter, blooming in April or May and making colorful berries after their leaves disappear for the summer.

Along with the bulbs, I also added a holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum.  I mulched over the bare soil with moss lifted from the area and added a few Strawberry Begonia divisions, Saxifraga stolonifera, which make an evergreen ground cover and bloom in mid-spring.  The holly fern and Saxifraga have continued on since they were first planted and are part of the arrangement today.

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Late November, 2018 Arum have begun to emerge and will unfold into long lasting glossy green leaves.

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Many spring flowering bulbs have poisonous leaves or flowers and will survive grazing deer or rabbits.  Narcissus offer weeks of color, will bloom in winter sunshine even if the area becomes more shady when hardwood trees leaf out, and every part of a Narcissus is poisonous.  Muscari and Squill will also survive around grazing wildlife.

Tulip and most Crocus bulbs smell delicious to squirrels, who may dig them up for a snack soon after you plant them.  Voles may also attack tulips planted into the ground.  You might spray these bulbs with a repellent like Repels All before planting and hope for the best.  Deer sometimes graze on tulips once they emerge.  A species of Crocus known as early Crocus or ‘Tommies,’ Crocus tommasinianus, are not so appealing and will be left alone.

It is still smart to spray a finished container planting with repellent to discourage exploration.  Squirrels have been known to keep a keen eye on gardeners in autumn, waiting for those gifts of tasty bulbs.  Mulching with pea gravel and planting deeply can also slow down the squirrels.

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April 4, 2019

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The planting looked a little sparse to me in February and early March, so I tucked a perennial Columbine into a back corner when they first came available at our local nursery.  These grow easily from seed, and I’ve found a few seedlings cropping up near the pot from time to time.

If you are designing a planting like this, remember that you might drop a few seeds into the pot in fall or early spring and expect them to germinate and begin to fill in by spring.  Alyssum is a great choice for a low, blooming ground cover from seed.

The next awkward time for container plantings comes as spring flowers fade and their leaves grow ratty.  Spring flowering bulbs need their leaves to soak up the sun for about six weeks after bloom to refuel the bulb for next year’s show.  A gardener can just work with the foliage for a few weeks, or dig out the bulbs to replant something else.  If you dig them, you can plant them elsewhere ‘in the green’ or pot in a plastic nursery pot while you let them finish their spring growth.

Again, removing the bulbs from a container allows room for the root ball of something else.  Besides, you might want to try new varieties of bulbs for the following year.

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April 12, 2019 Narcissus ‘Exotic Mystery’ bloom with blue Muscari

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When it was time to prepare this container garden for another summer, I tried to work around and leave as many of the bulbs in place as I could, adding new plants where space allowed.  Since bulbs are planted at three times their height, and frequently pull themselves even deeper into the pot, it is often easy to plant a transplant over a bulb you decide to keep, without disturbing it.

There is a new Salvia in the back corner, a new white Lantana along the front edge, a few small Columbines tucked along the back edge, and a Tradescantia pallida in the center.  I also planted a new Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost,’ which had done well the previous year.

But in 2018 the Euphorbia was in the back of the arrangement.  By planting it in the front corner I tempted fate, and the deer, who decided it is tasty.  It was grazed and replaced a time or two before I gave up on it.  By then, the Lantana had grow so much it no longer mattered, and the Tradescantia had become a showpiece.

Although I planted the Alocasia back, it never recovered its 2018 glory, and so I substituted another variety.  By now the holly fern and Saxifraga were well-established and showing active growth.

The pot filled out and looked nice throughout the summer.  In the autumn, when I cleaned the pot up around first frost, I planted a cream colored snapdragon in the front to bloom through the fall and again in early spring.

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June 9, 2019

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The snapdragon did extremely well and is still producing flowers this summer.  Through the winter we also enjoyed Arum italicum again, the Saxifraga, which bloomed beautifully in the spring with stalks of tiny white flowers filling the pot for several weeks, the holly fern, and of course soft, green moss.

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Saxifraga stolonifera, Strawberry Begonia, blooms with ferns.

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By the time the spring flowering bulbs died back in early summer, we were under ‘stay at home’ orders because of the virus.  I wasn’t working at the garden as much and many of the plantings were left to manage on their own for close to two months.

When I finally got back to a more normal schedule, I was thrilled to find this pot still looking good, with the Strawberry Begonia blooming and the Tradescantia returning to growth.  One always has to decide whether to leave perennials in place in a pot and trust they will return, or dig them up at the end of their season and pop something else into their place for the season ahead.

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Tradescantia also performs well in hanging baskets because it is very drought tolerant.

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Tradescantia is a great investment because it returns by late spring, grows with little care, propagates easily from stem cuttings and has delicate pink flowers in summer.  It will die back at first frost, so remember to take some cuttings in the fall to enjoy in a vase all winter, growing in water.  By spring you’ll have rooted cuttings to plant somewhere new.

The Columbine and fern returned this spring with a nice display of delicate Columbine flowers and fresh growth on the fern.  The Saxifraga had expanded so much, that I ended up removing some to another planting after their bloom.  Creeping Jenny may turn red or sometimes brown in winter’s cold, but pops back up with beautiful new growth each spring, expanding all season long to form a skirt of chartreuse vines draping gracefully over the edges of the pot.

I planted a new Lantana in May, since this has been a reliable star performer, and also added a sprouted Alocasia I’d kept over winter.  By the time I returned a few days later, no trace of the Alocasia was left.  A mystery….  I finally brought a little sprouted Caladium in June, and it has survived, if not yet grown into its potential.

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August 2020

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To keep a pot like this looking good over a long period of time, it is important to keep up the watering, grooming and fertilizing.  Especially around the change of seasons, things will die back and need to be cut out.  It is good to visit every few weeks with a critical eye and clippers in hand .  I also like to sprinkle in some time release fertilizer, like Osmocote, whenever I’m switching out plants.  In between, I try to drench the planting with an organic, liquid feed, like Neptune’s Harvest, at least once each month.

You may notice that the color scheme in this pot is subdued, and the colors remain much the same from season to season.  This scheme is built around blues, purple, yellow, white and green.  The departure comes in spring when the Columbine’s red flowers emerge.  You may also notice that much of the interest is found in contrast and texture.   Letting the foliage do most of the work makes a container easy to maintain since leaves last much longer than flowers.  Frankly, as long as there is something alive and green in the pot, I think that is all that is truly required in a spot like this.

Working with tough reliable plants, planning ahead, and regular care will allow anyone to maintain a presentable container garden ‘out by the road.’  Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.  Be willing to experiment and replace any plant that doesn’t make it.  And most of all, have fun and enjoy the beauty of it all.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

 

Illuminations: Walking in Beauty Every Day

 

 

Sunday Dinner: Understanding

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“Life can only be understood backwards;

but it must be lived forwards.”

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Søren Kierkegaard

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“I have been and still am a seeker,

but I have ceased to question stars and books;

I have begun to listen to the teaching

my blood whispers to me.”

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Hermann Hesse

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“Deep in the human unconscious

is a pervasive need for a logical universe

that makes sense.

But the real universe

is always one step beyond logic.”

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Frank Herbert

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“Any fool can know.

The point is to understand.”

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Albert Einstein

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“Just because you don’t understand

it doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”

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Lemony Snicket

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“To learn is not to know;

there are the learners and the learned.

Memory makes the one,

philosophy the others.”

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Alexandre Dumas

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“It’s always about timing.

If it’s too soon, no one understands.

If it’s too late, everyone’s forgotten.”

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Anna Wintour

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Because it’s no longer enough to be a decent person.

It’s no longer enough to shake our heads

and make concerned grimaces at the news.

True enlightened activism

is the only thing

that can save humanity from itself.”

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Joss Whedon

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Sunday Dinner: Trees’ Ancient Law of Life

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“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.

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“In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.

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“When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

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“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

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“A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

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“A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

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“When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts.

“Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother.

“Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

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“A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning.

“It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home.

“Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

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“So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours.

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“They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.

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“Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree.

“He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”

Herman Hesse

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

from the Oregon coast: Siletz Bay, The Connie Hansen Garden Conservancy, Mossy Creek Pottery, Bear Valley Nursery

Sunday Dinner: Exercise of Imagination

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“What I’ve always found interesting in gardens
is looking at what people choose to plant there.
What they put in. What they leave out.
One small choice and then another,
and soon there is a mood,
an atmosphere, a series of limitations,
a world.”

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Helen Humphreys

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“When tended the right way,
beauty multiplies.”
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Shannon Wiersbitzky,

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“Humility, and the most patient perseverance,
seem almost as necessary in gardening
as rain and sunshine,
and every failure must be used
as a stepping-stone
to something better.”

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Elizabeth von Arnim

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“It is only our limited time frame
that creates the whole “natives versus exotics” controversy.
Wind, animals, sea currents, and continental drift
have always dispersed species into new environments…
The planet has been awash in surging, swarming species movement
since life began.
The fact that it is not one great homogeneous tangled weed lot
is persuasive testimony to the fact
that intact ecosystems are very difficult to invade.”
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Toby Hemenway

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“I’d love to see a new form of social security …
everyone taught how to grow their own;
fruit and nut trees planted along every street,
parks planted out to edibles,
every high rise with a roof garden,
every school with at least one fruit tree
for every kid enrolled.”

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Jackie French

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“Dandelions, like all things in nature,
are beautiful
when you take the time
to pay attention to them.”
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June Stoyer

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“Gardening is like landscape painting to me.
The garden is the canvas.
Plants, containers and other garden features
are the colors. I paint on the garden of canvas
hoping to create a master piece with my colors.”

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Ama H.Vanniarachchy

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Half the interest of the garden
is the constant exercise of the imagination.”
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Mrs. C.W. Earle

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“A visitor to a garden sees the successes, usually.
The gardener remembers mistakes and losses,
some for a long time,
and imagines the garden in a year,
and in an unimaginable future.”
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W.S. Merwin

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Plants Want to Live

Native redbud, Cercis canadensis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New growth emerges from our broken redbud tree.

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

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

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

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Oakleaf Hydrangea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another little Aralia, looking for space to grow…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pokeweed has overgrown the Salvia, Colocasia and Hibiscus that have grown here for the last several summers. They are just holding on beneath its shade in August 2017.  We lost the Salvia that year, but the Colocasias remain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dry Shade Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Soil security”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saxifraga spreads by stolons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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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.

 

…and Fertilizer for Free

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over a foundation of bark, roots and branches will rot into good compost over time.

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I spent far too many hours of my youth watching Mark Knopfler  and Gordon Sumner sing, “I want my money for nothing, and my chicks for free!”.  MTV was brand new in those days, and I was utterly fascinated by the up-close view of the artists performing and the dreamy vignettes hyper-produced to sell their tunes.

Fun fact:  Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, co-wrote that tune with Knopfler.  A former teacher, Sumner’s music career was just taking off as I began my own classroom teaching years.  He inspired me….

These were the days when Ted Turner was still trying to prove his idea that the public would support 24/7 journalism as entertainment over at his new CNN cable channel, and I was still living in a tiny walk up city apartment with only a few potted plant to soothe my achy, throbbing thumbs.  The world was filled with delicious possibilities.

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Well Knopfler and Sumner have aged, while I have not.  They still perform and I happily preside over our little Forest Garden.  They may have become unimaginably wealthy, but I have learned how to get fertilizer and plants for free!

I’ve left my classrooms behind, but will happily teach you how to perform the alchemy of soil for yourself, if you care to know the secret.  The world remains filled with delicious possiblities!

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It is all in how you look at things.  You probably understand that simple, but profound statement from your own experiences.  What seems free from one point of view, becomes costly from another.  What at first appears costly, ends up providing many more side benefits than expected.

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Let’s take fertilizer as an example.  Yes, I admit to the bags of Plant Tone, Rose Tone, Holly Tone, Bio-Tone Plant Starter With Mycorrhizae and a precious little jug of Neptune’s Harvest wintering in our garage.  Then there is the jar of Ozmocote, and the secret stash of crystallized orchid food hidden under the kitchen sink; a snack for when I want to coax the cohort of potted plants in our living space to bloom.  No, none of those were free.  In fact, if you added up what I spent on  all of them combined, they would likely buy a nice new pair of work boots….

And that was not the only ‘cost’ involved in these plastic bags and bottles of plant nourishing products.  They all came from factories.  Many of the ingredients were mined out of the earth.

Although these are ‘organic’ formulations, huge amounts of energy were invested in harvesting their components, creating the fertilizer, packaging it and transporting it to our local shops.  After the product is used up, there is some contaminated plastic packaging that won’t decay and must be put somewhere.  Those are costs we don’t see, and ones rolled into the price we pay.

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Gravel and Plant Tone ready to be mixed into the bottom of the planting hole.

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Now, if I use too much or time my application incorrectly, a lot of that product will simply wash away from my garden and into the creek.  Fertilizing our waterways increases algae growth and upsets the chemistry of the natural waterways.  Run-off of fertilizers has a profoundly negative effect on our lakes, rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, and even the oceans.

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Phosphorous, the P on your fertilizer bag, has an especially damaging effect when released into the waterways.  It initially stimulates the growth of algae and other plant life, which eventually shades out plants living on the bottom.  As this overabundance of plant life dies and sinks to the bottom and decays, it ties up oxygen needed by animal life, and destroys their food supplies.

Which is ironic.  Phosphorous is essential to plant growth, remains a key component of all commercial fertilizers, and is in limited supply.  Experts predict that our known supply of rock phosphorous that can be mined for industrial use will run out before 2200.

Phosphorous was ‘discovered’ in modern times by German alchemist Hennig Brand, in the late seventeenth century, from his experiments with human urine.    He eventually produced a white substance which glowed in the dark and burned brilliantly.  He called it ‘phosphorous mirabilis’, which means ‘miraculous bearer of light.’

Phosphorous is present in living tissue, and so may be found in urine and bone.  You may have heard about the ancient gardeners using human urine to fertilize their gardens.  This practice is discouraged today, of course.  But recall that animal waste products remain an essential ingredient in agriculture around the world.  Many of the ‘organic’ fertilizers contain rock phosphate or bone meal as essential parts of their formula.

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College Creek

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Phosphate in the soil isn’t always readily available to plant roots.  It must go through further biochemistry to make it available, and this happens best in living soil filled with microorganisms.   It happens best when the soil’s pH remains between 6.5 and 7.

Potassium, the K on your fertilizer package, is formed in supernova explosions.  It is both a metal and a salt.  In its pure elemental form, it reacts violently with both water and oxygen.  It is an extremely common element on earth, is found in all living things, and is an essential part of the biochemistry of all life.  Potassium in fertilizers appear as potassium chlorides, sulphates or nitrates.

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How is the average gardener to know whether or not their soil’s pH will even allow the plants access to any available phosphorous, nitrogen or potassium, and whether any additional nutrients are  needed?  That is why a soil test can give us invaluable information about our soil, and how to make it better.  Any local Extension office will gladly help with kits, instructions, processing and interpreting your soil test, and all states offer this service at a modest cost.

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Knowing what nutrients your soil may lack, to grow specific types of plants, allows a gardener to add only what is truly needed.  We can stop over-fertilizing, or adding fertilizer that never becomes available to our plants because of the complex chemistry of our soil.

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Fresh compost piled on top of existing mulch allows me to plant in this area without digging into the clay. A light covering of wood chips from the forest floor mulches the planting and makes the new bed visually “disappear.”

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Most experienced gardeners will tell a newbie:  “Feed your soil, not your plants.”  At first, this makes no sense.  But as you begin to understand the complexity of the soil as a living organism, it makes perfect sense.  Good soil is alive!

It is alive with microscopic bacteria, fungi, and tiny invertebrate animals that continually recycle Earth’s elements and make them available to fuel new growth.  Although some part of the soil is made up of tiny grains of mineral like sand, or granite, or clay; a large part of good soil is composed of decaying organic matter.

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Soil is alive, and improves as you add organic matter each year.

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These may be decaying roots or leaves, dead ants, or compost you’ve made from kitchen scraps.  It may be animal manure or even animal remains.  It may be a cover crop turned into the soil, bark mulch, hay or grass clippings.  Anything that once lived may eventually feed the soil.

And because all of these things contain the elemental building blocks of life, as they decay, their chemical components are released for re-use.  In addition to the big three of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, plants need many other elements and trace minerals naturally found in good, active soil.

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Mayapples appeared through the leaf mulch

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We can re-charge our soil with the nutrients necessary for plant growth in several ways, without having to purchase plastic bags filled with commercial fertilizers.

1. Grow and compost plants with deep roots.  Certain plants grow especially deep roots, which means they can access and absorb minerals deep into the soil, far below the area we cultivate.  As they grow, these minerals are stored in their plant cells.  Harvesting and then composting these plants enriches our soil.

Consider growing plants such as alfalfa, comphrey, parsnips and other root vegetables, purple coneflowers, and dandelions.  Trees with deep taproots also absorb minerals, which are stored in their wood and leaves.

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Comphrey’s roots extend for several feet into the soil, mining minerals that are stored in leaves and stems.  Comphrey attracts pollinators, is a medicinal herb and a great addition to compost.  Also use it as mulch around plants that need a boost.

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2.  Encourage earthworms.  Earthworms eat and digest organic material, and their droppings enrich the soil.  This greatly speeds the decomposition process and makes nutrients available to plant roots much faster.

Worm casting also contain beneficial microbes that work with plants.  Worms also loosen the soil and aerate it as they move around.  Worms will come to the surface to eat, but will also tunnel to a significant depth as they go about their lives.

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Organic matter left on top of the soil attracts earthworms.  Worms will feed at the surface, so long as it is deeply shaded, but live below ground.

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3.  Sheet compost over areas you plan to cultivate.  Sheet composting simply means laying organic materials directly on the soil where you want them to decay.  This organic material attracts earthworms and other decomposers to live and eat in this area, enriching it.

All organic mulch, whether straw, grass clippings, chipped leaves, bark, seaweed, coffee grounds, tea leaves, kitchen scraps, egg shells, sticks and branches or alfalfa pellets may be considered components in sheet composting.  I like to lay brown paper or black and white newsprint over the area first, establish the borders, and then pile materials in a ‘sheet’ over an area I intend to use later for growing new plants.

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4.  Grow plants that fix nitrogen in the soil.  All plants breathe.  Plants inhale through tiny holes in their leaves and use elements in the air, such as carbon and nitrogen for their growth.  When they exhale, they release oxygen and water vapor back into the environment.

Once plants have inhaled carbon, it is fixed into the walls of each cell.  But some plants are able to store nitrogen on their roots.  All members of the pea or legume family, Fabaceae, fix nitrogen, the N on the fertilizer bag, on their roots.  This nitrogen enriches the soil, and often may be used by plants growing nearby.   Fungi living in the soil assist with the transfer of soil nutrients and water between plants.

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Native Wax Myrtle fixes nitrogen from the air on its roots, making the area around each shrub more fertile with each passing year. Plants growing nearby can use this nitrogen, thanks to fungi in the soil which help transfer nutrients and water between plants. Fallen leaves also further enrich the soil.

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Members of this family include crops such as peas and beans, peanuts and lentils.  But it also includes flowers like lupines, and several shrubs and trees like black locust, acacia and mimosa.  I recently learned that the wax myrtle also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil.

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Our native redbud, Cercis canadensis, also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil for plants growing nearby.  It is a member of the Fabaceae family, and its seed pods may be eaten.   This seedling can eventually grow into a small tree.

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Planting, or allowing, plants to grow that ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil enriches the soil with that most necessary element for good plant growth- Nitrogen (N)- for free!  Nitrogen, always present in the atmosphere, can be captured and packaged by plants in our garden, and kept at root level, available to all that need it and naturally enriching our garden’s soil.

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Clover growing in the lawn is also fertilizing it.  In addition to feeding pollinators and small mammals, clover fixes nitrogen along its roots.

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Here is a partial list of plants that perform this little miracle:  all clovers, sweet peas, vetch, bush clover, Wisteria, golden chain tree, Judas tree, honey locust tree, Kentucky coffee tree, alder, some roses and many members of the gourd family, such as squash and pumpkins.

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Native Wisteria frutescens growing at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden fixes nitrogen in the soil along all of its roots.

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If you can plant food or flower bearing plants, which also fix nitrogen to improve the soil, you have multiplied this natural wealth for your own use.

Nature’s gifts surround us.  The more we understand about the living ecosystem we inhabit, the more we can work cooperatively with our environment to cultivate and enrich the web of life.  The more we learn, the more we can disengage with costly commercial suppliers, and find ways to accomplish our goals in harmony with nature.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

The Shape of Things

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You may find winter’s landscape a bit stark.  Some might observe we are down to the ‘bones’ of the garden: trunks, branches, hardscape and often frozen ground.

Much of that is colored dull brown or grey, brightened here and there by our evergreens, holly berries, Nandina clusters, and rosy swelling buds.

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There’s little left that looks or feels soft.  The ground may still be littered with crumbling leaves blowing about.

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Skeletons of last May’s Hydrangeas linger here and there; an ethereal bit of Solidago shivers in the wind.  Sharp edges everywhere: sticks, thorns, spines on holly leaves and brittle branches.

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This is a sober and thoughtful turn of the seasons.  I find myself studying a crape myrtle tree as I unload groceries from the car.  Which branches need pruning next month?

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My eye wanders over to the hedge of rose of Sharon shrubs leaning at an unlikely angle towards the butterfly garden.  They’ve grown too tall and top heavy for their spot.  I’m making a mental list of things to do while the garden is sleeping.

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With the garden stripped bare and most of it slumbering, I can see the shape of things.  I can see things I like, and things that must be fixed.  I can wade into beds once filled with Canna and Hedychium, grasses and flowering stems.  Now I see the roots exposed on this leaning Camellia, and the brazen honeysuckle vines climbing up through the center of a venerable old Azalea shrub.

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I can see branches that may be damaged, diseased, already dead, or dangerous in some way.  With the leaves gone, I can finally see problems that may have been hidden before.

This is the time to fix it all.  This is the time to prune woodies, while they are dormant.  This is a good time to find and eliminate invasive vines or shrubs.  This is the time to remake the borders of the beds, study the layout, figure out where new shrubs might go and which old ones need to go.

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I learned an interesting fact this week:  Most home landscapes are only expected to grow for 20-25 years before the main shrubs must be replaced.  I’m so used to hearing about planned obsolescence in everything from cars to toasters, that the shock at hearing that statistic is mild.

You see, I happen to know that some of the Azaleas growing along our foundation were planted before 1970.  We won’t do the math there, OK? 

But a case can be made for shrubs and trees having a life span, just as a pet or any other living thing grows, ages, and eventually will die.  I look around and see a lot of things that have maybe grown too big, or grown here too long.

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Some older shrubs may be ‘fixed’ with rejuvenation pruning.  By cutting out older branches, new ones may grow.   We do this with roses, with Hydrangeas and with some holly shrubs.  I cut the beautyberry and butterfly bush back to just a couple of feet each spring, knowing it will reward me with fresh new branches.  When flowers grow from new wood, this will work.

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Other shrubs, that set their flowers in the autumn, won’t bloom if you cut their buds away by pruning now.  Azaleas, Hydrangea, Forsythia and Camellia have their buds set and ready to open once the weather warms.  After bloom, we can cut out the older, taller canes from those that send up new shoots each year.  We can head back branches grown too long, shape, direct, and guide future growth.

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This is the time to walk around with a notepad and a critical eye, making decisions about what plants may stay, which need a bit of pruning, and which must go before another spring distracts us.

I’ve been reading about ‘tidying up’ in our homes, according to Marie Kondo’s KonMari method.  I’m not yet piling all my clothes or books in the floor to sort them, but the idea of making peaceful living spaces by identifying what gives us joy- and what does not- has value.

I wonder if she has a similar method for tidying up one’s garden?

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I wonder if we wander around our own yard in January noticing what ‘brings us joy’, and what leaves us feeling anxious or annoyed, if we might be inspired to make some changes?

How often do you begin a new project to solve an old problem?  How often do you wait for a calamity to edit the structure of your garden?

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January is a good time to embrace change.  We have a fresh start by the calendar and by the wheel of the natural year, too.

Now that the garden has undressed itself and settled in for a good long rest, we can take a breath and ‘see’ what is and isn’t there.

We can see the shape of things, and dream it into any shape we choose for the many seasons yet to come.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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