…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

 

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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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Fabulous Friday: Appreciating Small Successes

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Every smitten gardener learns these two life lessons:  patience and appreciation.  Patience  helps one bide one’s time while nature’s processes unfold.  Sometimes the greatest skill in gardening is to simply wait and see what will happen.

I’ve been writing about the Alocasia plants that I saved over winter in the basement.  I didn’t have space to overwinter these huge plants indoors, and so allowed them to die back to just their tuber and roots in a paper grocery bag in our frost free basement.

When I brought them back outdoors and repotted them in May, it took quite a while for them to show new growth.  But, they finally  both awakened from winter dormancy and are back in gorgeous leaf again.

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Alocasia ‘Regal Shields’ grew beside our front porch last summer, and moved into this pretty new pot a few weeks ago. The little one beside it was also slow to return this summer, even though it overwintered in its pot in the garage. I was ready to dump out the contents and re-plant its pot with something new, when I noticed the Alocasia leaves beginning to emerge in mid-June.  Alocasia are jungle plants and need summer’s heat and humidity to thrive.

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I had potted them, this spring,  in black plastic nursery pots.  And then I found a great deal on a beautiful blue ceramic pot a few weeks back, and potted up the slower, smaller of the two plants in the pot and brought it out where we would enjoy it and it would be encouraged to take off.  Now it’s growing so fast, we can notice daily changes as it enjoys our Virginia summer heat and humidity.

I left the larger, more developed Alocasia in its nursery pot, tucked back into a stand of Canna lilies.  And my patience paid off on Saturday when I discovered the ‘scratch and dent’ pots at one of my favorite Richmond area nurseries.  The perfect blue pot sat there waiting for me, shining in the sunlight, with only a little chip out of its rim.

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Checking the fit, to make sure Alocasia ‘Regal Shields’ root ball will fit into its new pot.

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It is a good thing that I finally found the right pot and took care of re-potting our larger Alocasia, as its roots were already growing out of the drainage holes of its nursery pot.  Funny how quickly they grow, once they get started and have moisture and heat!

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I always like to line my pots before planting them up.  I’ll use anything from coffee filters to paper towels, plastic mesh, fine wire screens, or burlap.  Lining the pot keeps fresh soil from washing out of the drainage holes before the roots can fill in to hold it.

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A scrap of burlap lines the pot to prevent loose soil from washing out of the drainage holes before the roots can grow in.

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The lining also serves as a barrier against the small creatures who might want to crawl up into the pot and make their home among the roots.  How often have you unpotted a plant and found the soil rife with pill bugs, ants, or even earthworms?  All sorts of creatures can find shelter in a pot, given the chance.

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The soil in the bottom of the pot is important. I like to mix some gravel or perlite into the bottom inch or so for drainage, and mix fertilizer into all of the extra soil added to the pot around the root ball, to empower new growth.

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Burlap lasts longer than paper. And it also absorbs excess water, holding it, and then releasing it back into the soil as the soil begins to dry.  It is especially useful in a pot that doesn’t have drainage, as it helps to keep the whole pot evenly hydrated.  I’ll often cover the burlap with a shallow layer of perlite or gravel, to make a little reservoir in the bottom of a solid bottomed container.

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Remember to finish a pot with a mulch of pea gravel.  This helps keep the plant clean on rainy days, reflects the sunlight up into the plant and holds moisture in the soil.  I transplanted cuttings of Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ to add a little graceful ‘spiller’ around the edges of the pot.

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Eventually, even the burlap will break down.  Use the plastic mesh or metal screen to hold roots in and creatures out on a more lasting basis.  This is a good way to recycle those mesh bags our bulbs come packaged in each fall.

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Patience nearly always pays off in the garden.  We watch and wait as our plants grow and the creatures come and go among them.  And that is where we also learn appreciation.  I’ve come to notice that the more we slow down, the more appreciation we can savor.

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I was ready for the butterflies and hummingbirds this morning, camera in hand, and stood waiting in the front garden near the Lantana patch to see who might visit.

I noticed a friendly little Silver Spotted Skipper watching me from the highest point of the Lantana, and she let me take her photo.

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We played for a while, with her flying around a bit before coming back to rest on the Lantana, a little closer each time.  She paused while I snapped, and then took to the air once again.

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I heard the buzzing beside me even before turning my head to see the female hummingbird hovering near my shoulder, watching us.  She was very interested in our play, and waited until I began to turn my camera her way, before looping up and away, back to the comfort of a large Rose of Sharon.

Again, no photo of a hummingbird!

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Hibiscus coccineus

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But she and her partner have been hovering nearby most of the day.  They came to play in the spray of my hose this morning, and have been making the rounds of our garden’s Hibiscus offerings.  She paused to sip from the Salvia while I was working nearby.  Perhaps she and her partner can feel how much I delight in seeing them nearby.

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Our hummingbirds visit these blue Salvia flowers regularly. Conventional wisdom tells us that hummingbirds prefer red flowers, but that isn’t always the case.

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Why else would we expend such effort to tend a garden, if not for an August morning such as this, to stand in the midst of it all and appreciate its beauty?  We can savor the fragrances of herb and flowers, listen for the birds and watch the progress of each plant’s unfolding.

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It is when we slow down to appreciate such rare beauty, that we may notice the  creatures who share it observing us, in return.  The skinks skitter away as we approach, watching us from beneath and behind their shelter.  Later, we may notice them peering in through the glass doors to the deck.

The birds follow us around from shrub to tree to see what tasty bit we may dig up and leave behind for them.  And now even the butterflies want to play, posing for the camera, and waiting patiently for us to see them.

Woodland Gnome 2018

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Fabulous Friday: 
Happiness is Contagious; Let’s Infect One Another!
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Blossom XLIV: Brilliant Hibiscus

Hibiscus coccineus

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Brilliant Hibiscus, Hibiscus coccineus, blooms in our August garden.  Its first blossoms unfold weeks after the Hibsicus moscheutos and Hibiscus syriacus begin their annual display. 

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Last evening’s bud opened early this morning.

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Also known as scarlet rosemallow, this beautiful Hibiscus is native to our coastal plain, here in the Southeast.  We live along its northern most range, and it is found more commonly south to Florida, and west across the Gulf Coast to Louisiana.

Hardy to Zone 6, brilliant Hibiscus grows in full to partial sun in moist soils.  This is a great choice for rain gardens, along streams or ponds, and places where the soil takes a while to drain.

Though a white flowered form is available, we have only the scarlet in our garden.

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This beautiful native welcomes hummingbirds, butterflies, moths and bees.  As you can see from its outrageous anatomy, it offers hospitality like few other summer flowers.

It’s a large plant, growing to 6′ or more tall where its needs are met.  The flowers are large and are carried near the top of the plant.  It eventually forms a small clump, and like other Hibiscus, will spread its own seeds around in late summer.

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Unlike our Rose of Sharon tree Hibiscus plants, these woody Hibiscus will die back to the ground each fall, and should be cut back before spring.  New stems emerge from the ground in mid to late spring each year and quickly grow, eventually forming buds by early August.

The buds will open, one or two at a time, and then brown as their seeds ripen.  Seeds are a favorite autumn treat for many birds.  The stems may be left in place through winter, or cut and used to construct shelters for many bees, small wasps and other insects through the winter months.

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Hibiscus coccineus is a dramatic and beautiful plant through all of its stages of annual growth.  I’ve never found it grazed by deer or rabbits.  It takes little care from the gardener, aside from keeping it watered in dry spells.

You’ll find many hybrid Hibiscus bred with this native as one of the parents.  It is prized for its unusual leaves as well as for its flowers.  Look for hybrid cultivars with burgundy or purple leaves and plants that remain a bit shorter over the season.

Untroubled by heat, humidity, intense sun or torrential rains, this is a stalwart and dependable native for gardeners in the Southeastern United States.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Blossom XLIII: Verbena
Blossom XLII: Carrots in Bloom

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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Wild Thing Wednesday

A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly feeds on Lantana.

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The beautiful Eastern Tiger Swallowtail shares our garden through much of the year.  It is frequently the first butterfly we spot each spring and can be seen deep into autumn, enjoying our warm and sunny Indian summer days while seeking every last drop of nectar our flowers can produce.

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This is the first butterfly recorded by an English explorer on this coast of North America.  John White drew an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail in 1587, while he was exploring Virginia with Sir Walter Raleigh’s third expedition.  John White called his drawing “Mamankanois,” which is believed to be the native word for ‘butterfly.’  This beautiful butterfly received its official Latin name, Papillio glaucus, from Carl Linnaeus in 1758.

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You’ll find this butterfly across the eastern half of North America.  The species once included butterflies in Eastern Canada, too.  But Eastern Tiger Swallowtails living in Canada were given their own species designation in 1991: ‘Papilio glaucus canadensis.’

An adult female may lay two or three broods of eggs over the summer.  Host plants include wild black cherry, sweetbay Magnolia, tulip poplar, cottonwood, common lilac and willow.  You may notice that these are all common trees or shrubs.

You can easily spot the females by the beautiful blue markings on their wings.  Females may have mostly yellow wings or mostly black wings; but they always have blue markings on their hindwings .

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A male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail feeds on Lantana at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden in mid-July.

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Males have yellow wings with the distinctive black striping that earns them the name, ‘Tiger Swallowtail.’

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies remain fairly solitary, and are often found high up in the canopy of host trees.  They live mostly on nectar, though they may be seen ‘puddling’ on damp ground to drink water.

These are common butterflies that have adapted to a wide range of habitats, nectar sources and host plants.  They aren’t officially considered endangered, though shrinking habitats and use of insecticides has certainly affected their populations, too.

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The quickest, easiest way to attract swallowtail butterflies to your garden is to plant Lantana.  Butterflies love Lantana, though its not a native plant in our area.  They don’t care.  It must have lots of sweet nectar, because it is common to see several species of butterfly gathering around the Lantana in our garden.

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You’ll see swallowtail butterflies on other flowering plants, too.  They especially enjoy clusters of many small flowers, where they can stand and drink at their leisure.  Purple coneflowers, Rudbeckias, Monarda, Verbena, dill and fennel flowers also attract their attention.

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If you love watching butterflies, you’ll love the Butterfly Festival at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden this weekend.  Come into the tents and enjoy hand-feeding these lovely creatures and observing them up close.  There will be several species of butterfly on display, including Monarchs, several different swallowtails and painted ladies.

There is no charge to enjoy the garden or the butterflies, and there will be lots of fellow butterfly enthusiasts on hand to share the excitement.  Butterfly host and nectar plants will be available for sale, and there are crafts for the little ones.

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Native butterflies are an important part of our history and our heritage.   As we watch them float around the garden, we are simply the latest generation in an unbroken chain of naturalists, smitten by their beauty.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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“Butterflies are nature’s tragic heroes.
They live most of their lives being completely ordinary.
And then, one day, the unexpected happens.
They burst from their cocoons in a blaze of colors
and become utterly extraordinary.
It is the shortest phase of their lives,
but it holds the greatest importance.
It shows us how empowering change can be.”
.
Kelseyleigh Reber

~

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.  Here, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoys its nectar.  2017

 

 

Strange Magics In the Garden

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I kept hearing the refrain to a favorite ELO tune running through my brain as I moved through the garden this morning.  I was watering, trimming, pulling weeds, and very occasionally pausing to pull off my glove and snap a photo, but everywhere I saw wonder and beauty; ‘Strange magics.’

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There was the large green insect that popped up out of the stilt grass I was pulling, the same color as the weeds and with enormously long legs.  He casually hopped away in search of a better place to hide.

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There was the huge black butterfly returning again and again to an enormous panicle of deep purple Buddliea.  I was intently watering a clump of drooping perennials and so missed the shot, but still hold tightly to the memory of such fleeting beauty.

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Our garden is indeed a magical place in July.  Inches of growth happens overnight.  New plants crop up in unexpected places, and we are surrounded by an ever changing cast of lizards and bugs, swooping birds and invisible songsters.

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The sad and bedraggled Begonias we pulled out of the garage in mid-May have sprung back to life, re-clothed in fresh vibrant leaves and new flowers.  Their resurrection always delights as these fragile looking plants prove their strength and resilience.

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I move slowly during these extended watering sessions, pot to pot, plant to plant.  I’m always observing, tweaking, and nudging things along as the season unfolds.

One must be as ready to subtract and divide as one is to multiply or add something new.  How else does one keep order in such a wild kingdom?

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And then there is the choice surprise, the beauty one has waited to enjoy for an entire year, since it last appeared.

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Perhaps there is the low burrr of a hummingbird’s wings, its movement barely seen on the periphery before it swoops up and over and away.

There is a new blossom just opening, or the flash of a goldfinch flying across the garden, or a blue lizard’s tail disappearing under vines or behind a pot.

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One must concentrate with quiet attention to see even a fraction of the action.

“… I get a strange magic
Oh, what a strange magic
Oh, it’s a strange magic
Got a strange magic
Got a strange magic … ” 
.
Jeff Lynne

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It is the jaded eye that we must open wide, to fully appreciate all that is happening in the garden.  “Seek and you will find.” 

But without the search, the knocking that opens doors of discovery, the ask for something unique and special from our time in the garden; we might miss the magic and lose the ripe opportunities this moment offers.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
*
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes
the whole world around you
because the greatest secrets are always hidden
in the most unlikely places.
Those who don’t believe in magic
will never find it.”
.
Roald Dahl

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Garden Gold

Fennel flowers allow for easy access to their nectar.

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The hotter it gets, the more gold in the garden glitters and shines.  As the mercury goes up, yellow and gold feel almost cooling.

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An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly feeds on Lantana ‘Chapel Hill Yellow,’ a fairly new perennial Lantana introduction. WBG

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I don’t understand the alchemy of that, but I do understand the clear attraction of gold for all of our nectar seeking pollinators.

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Gold flowers may just taste sweeter.  They certainly draw in the bees, wasps and butterflies who draw sustenance from their sugary depths.

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Lantana ‘Chapel Hill Gold’ is also a perennial in Zone 7. WBG

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All the while, these prolific flowers are also ripening seeds to delight goldfinches and other small birds who will feast on their ripe seeds well into the barren months of winter.

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Flocks of goldfinches took wing from the wildflowers where they were feeding, as I walked through the Williamburg Botanical Garden yesterday afternoon.

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Golden and yellow flowers often prove among the easiest for a gardener to grow.  Turn to dill, fennel and parsley for their distinctive round umbel inflorescence, all flat and easy to access;  Rudbeckias and Helianthus for their many petaled sunburst flowers.

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The first black eyed Susans, our native Rudbecki hirta, have begun to open in our garden.

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Coreopsis, Lantana, marigolds and Zinnias all bloom in shades of yellow, orange and gold.

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The season ends on a wild and native note as Solidagos burst into bloom in September and October, towering over the black eyed Susans in our garden like great feathery plumes of living gold.

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Solidago blooms alongside Rudbeckia in our garden, October 2017.

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If the entire garden were nothing but green and gold, animated with swallowtail butterflies and goldfinches, what a beautiful display we would still enjoy.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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“Any patch of sunlight in a wood

will show you something about the sun

which you could never get

from reading books on astronomy.

These pure and spontaneous pleasures

are ‘patches of Godlight’

in the woods of our experience.”


.

C.S. Lewis

Native Monarda punctata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Fabulous Friday: Hibiscus in Bloom

Hibiscus moscheutos opens its first blooms of the season today.

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We always celebrate when the Hibiscus moscheutos bloom.  These easy native perennials largely care for themselves.  Although they die back to the ground each autumn, they grow quickly once their stems finally appear again in late spring.

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Native Hibiscus prove very accommodating and will grow in a variety of conditions.   Seen most commonly in the wild near water, they appreciate a little irrigation when the weather turns hot and dry.  They grow in a variety of soils from partial shade to full sun.  Happy, well irrigated plants grow to between four and five feet tall.

We let them seed themselves around and grow where they will, always delighted when their colorful blooms quite suddenly appear in mid-summer.  Each stem may produce a half dozen or more buds.  Once the flowers fade, interesting seed capsules ripen and persist into winter.  Many of our songbirds enjoy pecking ripe seeds from the open capsules until we finally cut their dried stems down.

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Hybrid Hibiscus ‘Kopper King’ is much showier than our native Hibiscus with somewhat larger flowers. Its foliage is also more attractive… until the Japanese beetles have their way with the leaves.  This cultivar was introduced by the Fleming Brothers of Lincoln, Nebraska, who have produced several Hibiscus hybrids based on crosses of H. moscheutos and H. coccineus.

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While many cultivars of H. moscheutos are available on the market, I believe that most of ours are the species.  We planted H. ‘Kopper King’ about four years ago and it has grown into a large and vigorous plant. Various Hibiscus volunteers in our garden bloom deep pink, light pink or white.  We see them, too, in the marshes along the James River and creeks that feed it.

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Hardy Hibiscus coccineus will start blooming by early August.

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Native Hibiscus prove a reliable, hardy and very beautiful perennial in our garden.  We have more native Hibiscus species yet to bloom; and the Asian Hibiscus syriacus, or woody Rose of Sharon, is in the midst of its much longer season of bloom.

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Hibiscus syriacus, Rose of Sharon

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The woody shrub form of Asian Hibiscus also seeds itself around the garden, growing quickly from seedling to blooming tree in just a few years.  Although new cultivars are introduced each year, we have four or five different flower colors and forms which keep us quite happy.  A non-native, it also feeds many creatures with its nectar, pollen, leaves and seeds.

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Rose of Sharon, or tree Hibiscus

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It is fabulous to enjoy a plethora of gorgeous showy flowers with very little effort on our part during this muggiest part of summer.  It is also fabulous to watch the beautiful and varied bees, butterflies and hummingbirds that visit to enjoy their abundant pollen and sweet nectar each day.

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Rose of Sharon in our shrub border bloom prolifically from mid-June until early September.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is contagious;

let’s infect one another!

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“Seize the moments of happiness,

love and be loved!

That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly.

It is the one thing we are interested in here.”

.

Leo Tolstoy

 

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