Another Chance at ‘Spring’

A male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly enjoys nectar from garlic chives.

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Just in case you didn’t get to everything you had planned this spring, before the heat and humidity set in, we are stepping into a beautiful gardening window that I like to call, ‘second spring.’  This is perhaps the very best time of year for planting in our region.

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As days grow shorter we feel tremendous relief.  Daytime temperatures don’t go quite so high, and nights grow deliciously cooler again.  Our plants are showing signs of relief:  new growth and improved color.  Even trees around town indicate that autumn is near, as a few leaves here and there begin to fade out to yellow, orange and red.

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Now is a good time to plant because we’ll have many weeks of cooler, moist weather for new roots to establish before the first freeze arrives in November or December.  Yes, there will likely be a few hot days ahead.  But they will give way to cool evenings.  Our gardens, and our bodies, will have a break.

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This is a great time to take cuttings from perennials like Tradescantia. Break (or cut) the stem at a node, and set it an inch or two deep in moist soil to root.

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If you still want to take cuttings and grow a few plants on to either add clones to your garden, or start plants for spring 2020, now is the time.  Plants still want to grow and you’ll have time to get a good root system going before frost.  It is humid enough here that softwood cuttings simply stuck into a pot of moist earth will likely root with no special attention.

I’ve been doing a little pruning on woodies this week, and have just stuck some of those trimmed down stems into pots.  If I’m lucky, I’ll have a new plant.  If it doesn’t take, what have I lost?

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New woody growth, like on this rose of Sharon, will strike roots in moist soil. Remove all flowers and flower buds to send the cutting’s energy to root production.  Leave the leaves, as they are still powering the new plant.

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I’m going to dig a few hardy Colocasia later this afternoon to share with a friend.  They can be transplanted most any time from when growth begins until frost.  Even dug in November, they can live on in a pot through the winter in a basement.  Since these Colocasias spread each year, I’m always so appreciative of friends who will accept a few plants, so I can thin the elephant ears!

But this is a really good time to plant any perennials out into the garden.  If there is any question as to hardiness, a few handfuls of mulch over the roots should help those new roots survive the first winter.

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Colocasia, ‘Pink China’ have grow up around these Lycoris bulbs. The flowers continue to bloom despite the crowding.

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Garden centers want to clear out old stock to make way for their fall offerings.  I shopped two this morning, picking up tremendous deals at both.  Lowe’s had some plants marked down to $1.00 or $0.50, just to save them the trouble of throwing them away.  Now, you have to be reasonable, of course.  But a still living perennial, even a raggedy one, has its roots.  Remember, you are really buying the roots, which will shoot up new leaves and live for many years to come.

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Sedums I picked up on clearance today at a local big box store will establish before winter sets in and start growing again in earliest spring.

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I was searching for holly ferns today, to plant in some areas where erosion is still a problem.  Those ferns will strike deep roots and grow into emerald beauties by next summer.  The most I paid for any of them was $3.00.  I also scored a blue Hosta, a Jasmine vine, three blooming Salvias and a beautiful tray of Sedums that I’m donating to a special project.

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This is the time to start seeds for fall veggie crops.  Little plugs have begun to show up in some of our shops.  Planting collards, kale, or other veggies now gives them time to grow good roots.  We have time in Williamsburg to get another crop of any leafy green that will grow in 90 days, or less.

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Black Swallowtail cats enjoy the parsley.  Find end of season parsley on sale now. A biennial, it will return next spring.

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The only thing I won’t plant now is bulbs.  They’ll be turning up in shops soon, but it is too early to plant most bulbs in coastal Virginia.  It is better to wait until at least late October, so they don’t start growing too soon.  Our ground is much to warm still to plant spring blooming bulbs.  In fact, some of our grape hyacinths, planted in previous years, have begun to grow new leaves.

That said, go ahead and buy bulbs as you find them, then store them in a cool, dark place with good air circulation until time to plant.

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Hardy Begonia and fern will overwinter just fine and return next spring.  These have grown in pots since May, but I’ll plant them into the garden one day soon.

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We’ve learned that fall is the perfect time to plant new woodies.  In fact, they tend to grow faster planted in fall than spring, because their roots will grow into the surrounding soil all winter long, giving them a much better foundation for next summer’s weather.  While some nurseries are running sales and trying to clear out remaining trees and shrubs, some of the big box stores are stocking up.  They have figured out that there is a market this time of year for trees and are willing to take the risk that there may be stock left in December.

September and October feel like the best part of the summer to me.  There’s a sense of relief that July is past and August nearly over.  The air feels good again, fresh and encouraging.  Cooler days mean that I’m feeling more ambitious to pick up my shovel again.  I’ve kept a potted Hydrangea alive all summer, and will finally commit to a spot and plant it one day soon.

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The garden is filled with bees, birds and butterflies, with new butterflies emerging all the time from their chrysalides.  New flowers open each day, and flowers we’ve waited for all summer, like pineapple sage, will open their first blossoms any day now.

Spring is filled with optimism and hope.   So is September, our ‘second spring.’

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“That’s what is was to be young —
to be enthusiastic rather than envious
about the good work
other people could do.”
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Kurt Vonnegut

In a Pot: ‘Companion Plants’

Begonia boliviensis from a rooted cutting

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Tiny plants in tiny pots, expressing a particular season, sometimes displayed alongside a potted tree, are called ‘companion plants’ or ‘accent plants.’

I particularly enjoy growing these little treasures.  They allow us to appreciate a plant, in all of its intricate detail, as a work of art.

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First, these precious little pots fit easily on a windowsill, side table or plant stand.  They can be grown year-round indoors, or moved out into a protected space during warm weather.

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Maidenhair fern with Pilea glauca, creeping blue Pilea. A division of the Pilea grows alone in the previous photo.

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But more importantly to me, these little pots allow me to ‘grow on’ very small plants, or rooted cuttings.  Once they begin to outgrow the little companion pot, they can be re-potted or planted out; used in a larger display, or grown on as a specimen in a larger pot.  This is especially helpful during the winter and early spring when small plants may be grown on for use outdoors in summer.

I buy many of my Asian ceramic companion pots and 1″-2″ companion plants at The Great Big Greenhouse in south Richmond.  They keep a tremendous selection of pots of all sizes, and offer a large display of Asian pots for Bonsai and companion plants year-round.  The pots in these photos were found at The GBGH.

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Coleus with Dichondra, Cuban Oregano, Tradescantia pallida and Lantana.

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Small companion pots are equally good for starting cuttings to grow on into larger plants.  I had a pot where the fern died back in early spring.  I put it outside in a protected spot to see if it might re-grow from the roots; without success.  So I am going to recycle the pot and soil to root some Coleus.

Coleus (now Plectranthus) are members of the Lamiaceae family, most of which root very easily from stem cuttings.

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Take a cutting by cutting or pinching off a stem at a node, where new leaves may be beginning to grow.  Four nodes are visible in this photo.  While many gardeners pinch out Coleus flowers, I let them flower because pollinators love them.

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Prepare the cutting by removing the lowest set of leaves and pinching out the flowers at the top of the stem.  It is usually better to use a stem that hasn’t flowered, as they will often root more easily. Rooting hormone isn’t really necessary with Coleus cuttings.  Feel free to use it if you have it, as it may speed up the process a bit.

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The same stem is now ready for ‘sticking’ into the soil.  Roots will form along the lower stem wherever it is in contact with moist soil, or even plain water.

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I took three cuttings today so the pot looks full right away.  After sticking the cuttings, water lightly, and set the pot into a protected spot…. or not.  I sometimes just stick a cutting where I want the new plant to grow, and hope for the best.

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I struck this cutting several weeks ago and it is now growing on in a pot on my front porch. It gets full sun for several hours a day. If the soil is kept hydrated, the Coleus should root in less than ideal conditions….

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The parent Coleus plant is growing very well this summer. Taking cuttings helps keep the plant bushy, and there is always a spot to fill with a cutting, isn’t there?

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Arrangements in companion pots are temporary plantings.   All things change, right?  Especially in gardening, we expect things to come and go.

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Three cuttings, struck into moist soil, will root withing a week or so. This arrangement can ‘grow on’ through autumn. Cutting back the tops as it grows will extend the life of the planting.  Or, the rooted cuttings can be re-potted into larger containers and kept as houseplants through the winter.  Coleus is a tender perennial.

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An aspect of the beauty of companion plants is their transience.  Favorite subjects in Asia might be ferns, grasses, wildflowers, flowering bulbs and vines.  Some may only be at their peak for a week or two.

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This little Ficus tree has a ‘companion’ in the same pot. A little footed fern grows long rhizomes which ‘visit’ other pots nearby on the windowsill.

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Some of the pots are as tiny as egg cups, and so can only hold a very small root mass.  Many have no drainage holes, and so I begin with a layer of fine gravel in the bottom of the pot.

I use gravel mulch, but a moss mulch is more common, and very lovely.  The moss really needs to live outside to stay plush, however.

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Companion plants in little pots are an affordable luxury for those of us who love to work with plants.

Even without an outside garden space, a little garden may be cultivated in a pot and enjoyed on a windowsill at any time of the year.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Green Thumb Tip #24: Always Just Beginning….

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

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

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

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Cutting back stems stimulates new growth.  Remove flower stems (on plants grown primarily for their foliage) as they develop to keep the plant youthful, compact and vigorous.

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As we approach mid-June, you might assume that spring’s fresh beginnings are behind us for another year.  Not so.  We are always just beginning in the garden.

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This Caladium leaf broke away from the tuber as I was transplanting it into a pot. Caladium leaves with even just a bit of the tuber still on the petiole will root in water.  A new leaf is already beginning to grow (underwater) and once planted into soil, this rooted leaf will soon grow into a beautiful new plant.  A flower is beginning to grow on the left, which I’ll remove before potting up the leaf.

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I am still planting up pots and still planting perennials and herbs out into the garden.

Garden centers still have a pretty good selection of herbs, annuals, perennials and shrubs.  As you might expect, many of the starts sitting in greenhouses and garden centers are getting overgrown and pot-bound.  They demand a bit of skillful handling to perform their best.

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I bought several pots of oregano a few weeks back.  They were already overgrown, leggy, and some already had flower buds forming.  I didn’t get to use them for my intended purpose at the time, and they’ve been sitting in the nursery.

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

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But I did cut a few stems from each plant, not quite two weeks ago, to share in an arrangement.  And where I trimmed them back, new growth is already bursting forth.  New growth has appeared lower on the remaining stems, and new growth has popped up from the roots.

Now, I expect that the cut stems may have sprouted a few roots in their vase, too.  They can be tucked into a pot of soil or a prepared bed and allowed to grow on.  Stems that have already formed flower buds may root more slowly or may not at all.  But oregano grows in the mint family.  All of the mints are immensely robust.

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If you have the chance to pick up a few late season plants at the nursery, then consider cutting back those leggy stems right away.  Root them if you wish, discard them if you must.  But understand that by cutting away the top growth, you stimulate the plant to immediately send out fresh new growth.

Cutting back, or pinching back, stimulates growth hormones at all of the leaf nodes below each cut.  The plant needs its leaves to produce food, and is anxious to replace those lost.

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In the garden, old growth is always falling away and returning to the soil even as new growth emerges. It is a continuing cycle of growth,  and the decay that fuels new growth.

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When you plant the start, notice if it is already ‘root-bound.’  If the roots have grown into the contours of the pot you know they have been crowded and stressed.

Water the plant well, and then take a moment to tease out the crossed roots on the bottom of the root ball.  Gently tug some of the roots along the sides loose so they can begin to grow out into the soil.  Without being rough,  understand that pulling the roots out a bit, even trimming off the bottom inch of the root ball if it is congested, will stimulate new root growth.

Just be careful to water the plant in well,  offer some nutrition,  protect it from fierce sun for a few days, and let it establish itself.

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

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I bought a beautiful but leggy coleus and immediately took cuttings last week.  It is wise to trim the bottom pair of leaves from the stem before rooting it in water, but the leaves were so beautiful I hated to throw them away.  So, I stuck them into a tiny jar of water to enjoy until they either rooted or faded.  I’ve had to refill the jar with drips from the sink twice a day as the leaves have proven thirsty.  But they rewarded me with roots!

I am often re-working established pots and don’t have room to dig a hole large enough for a big root ball.  Cuttings are a perfect solution.  A much smaller hole will embrace the smaller root system of a newly rooted cutting or recently rooted tuber.

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

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You might also try dividing up a newly purchased plant.  As long as you can cut or pull apart rooted stems, those rooted stems will soon grow back into full plants.

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I pulled apart 4″ pots of Dichondra and Verbena into several divisions when planting up this basket.  Annual Verbena often grows new roots from any stem in contact with the soil and can be snipped away, its roots pulled out of the pot, and planted separately.  Each division will now take off and grow into a full sized plant.

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

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

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Yes, it seems counter-intuitive, paradoxical, maniacal and cruel.  All of that cutting, pulling apart, breaking pieces away and gouging out the ‘eyes’ of tubers leads to a plant’s re-invigoration and renewal.

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Keep planting, keep coaxing your plants to grow to their full potential, and keep your own gardener’s eye and outlook fresh, too.  Try a new plant, or a new combination of old plants.

Try a new gardening skill.  Empty out some old pots and begin again with fresh soil and fresh ideas.

We keep our excitement alive when we are always just beginning.

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Can you spot the dragonfly?

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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

but in the expert’s there are few”
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Shunryu Suzuki

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

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“Moment after moment,

everyone comes out from nothingness.

This is the true joy of life.”
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Shunryu Suzuki

 

Green Thumb Tip # 22: Do the Math

Green Thumb Tip # 21: The Mid-Summer Snack 

Green Thumb Tip # 23: From Small Beginnings

 

 

Pot Shots: Unity

Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’ began blooming this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Annual Alyssum covers the soil beneath the Clematis.

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

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

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Unum de multis: Multiplying Succulents

Newly planted jade plant cutting, removed from an older plant after it rooted into the air.

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Succulent plants serve as living sculpture with their emphatic forms, slow growth, and unusual colors.  Most gardeners either adore them or avoid them.  They feel a little alien to most of us Virginia gardeners, as there are very few native succulents in our landscapes.

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Some gardeners find succulents a bit too prickly and spiny for comfort.  And the majority of succulents aren’t hardy through our winters.  We have to treat them as annuals or bring them indoors for months of the year.

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These succulents are hardy, and are beginning their spring growth outside in the Table Bed at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden

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Succulents want loose, sandy and rocky soil and bright light.  Some need full sun, others bright but indirect light and warmth.  Their needs are simple, and I’ve killed more succulents with too much water than by any stretch of neglect.

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This succulent planting grew happily on our front porch in the summer of 2013.  A gravel mulch helps keep these moisture-sensitive plants happy.

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That said, I absolutely pour over photos of succulent planting schemes in sunny California gardens.  Many gardeners in dry regions use succulents in every size from tiny to epic in their landscapes as focal points, ground covers, thrillers, fillers and spillers.  Their compositions are bright and colorful, and they absolutely intrigue me.  Once succulent plants mature, they produce oddly beautiful flowers.

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Plants that may be inexpensive and readily available in the western states are harder to find and pricier here in Virginia garden centers.  You can mail order wonderful succulents from suppliers like Plant Delights near Raleigh, NC; but please have that credit card handy.

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I just bought this little collection of succulents on the houseplant sale last weekend at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond, specifically to break them apart for propagation.

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I have a project in mind for this coming summer to create a hanging basket covered in succulents.  Planting up the interior of the basket with succulents won’t be difficult.  I plan to use an assortment of hardy Sedums already on hand, with some red ‘hens and chicks’ and a single spiky Agave or Aloe for the ‘thriller.’

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Use hardy succulents as ground cover around spring bulbs. Enjoy this display at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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I want to cover the outside of the coco liner in succulents, too.  That will take a lot of individual plants.  To effectively plant the outside of the basket, it will be easier to slip each plant in through a slit in the liner if each plant has a very small root system: in other words, if I use rooted cuttings.

Some designers will suggest using succulent stem cuttings and allowing them to root in place.  This would work, but I want to give the plants a little head start and I don’t have enough stem cuttings for the project.

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Potted plants have too much root mass to slip through a slit in a coco basket liner, without damaging the roots.

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I’ve been playing around with potted arrangements of succulents for years- with mixed success.  They all look pretty good for a while.  We often get so much rain at once that it saturates the soil, even with specially mixed soil that contains lots of sand and gravel.  I try to remember to set succulent pots back under the eaves when a lot of rain is forecast.  Succulents sometimes struggle in our humidity and rainy summer weather.

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Collection of succulents, August 2014

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Without a heated greenhouse, I doubt I’ll ever achieve the horticultural succulent splendor possible for Southern California and Arizona gardeners.  Our climate will never allow for me to let our succulent arrangements live and grow outside year round long enough to really fill in and mature.  That takes years….

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Succulents with thick, waxy leaves release very little water into the air. They are built for hot, dry conditions and may rot if their soil remains saturated for too long.  This Echeveria has produced chicks that I want to grow on to mature, independent plants.

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Lately, I’ve been inspired to study succulent propagation again.  A good, practical resource is Debra Lee Baldwin’s book, Succulent Container Gardens. 

This is an ‘eye candy’ book that surveys the major genera of succulents appropriate to grow in various containers.  I like this book because it covers all of the important topics like soils and pot selection, design, plant care, and also succulent plant propagation.

The most common error in trying to root succulent cuttings is trying to rush the process.  Leaf cuttings and stem cuttings need a few days to air dry and ‘scab’ over, before any attempt to root them.  Many succulents will strike roots directly into humid air, even generating tiny new plants, without the cut end of the stem in either soil or water.

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This Jade plant spontaneously grew roots, indicating to me that this stem wants a fresh start in its own pot.

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This is counter-intuitive for many of us.  We want to stick that cut end into something moist so the plant can suck up water and survive.

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Do you see the roots that have started to grow from the stem?

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I won’t admit how many times I’ve found a dropped succulent leaf and dropped it, cut side down, into a pot hoping it would root.  Before roots can grow, a damp succulent stem will more likely rot.  Even with the pups off of an Echeveria, the stems want a few days to scab over before you secure them in some sandy soil to root and grow on.

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I took this stem cutting from the jade plant three days ago, and you can see that the stem has dried and calloused over.

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After researching several different rooting methods for succulent leaf cuttings, I have prepared a large clear plastic storage box by first cleaning it with disinfectant, and then lining the bottom of the box with a single layer of paper towel to wick any moisture evenly through the medium.  I covered that with a 1″ layer of clean horticultural sand.  That’s it…

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I bought a selection of small succulent plants on a special sale last weekend for this project, and have twisted most of the leaves off of each plant.  Twist, don’t cut, because each leaf needs a tiny bit of stem tissue still attached.  If the petiole breaks ahead of the stem, the leaf may not strike roots.

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See how the leaf cutting on the right already have begun to root and grow new plants? This had happened while the leaves were still attached to the mother plant.

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I’ve cut the top off of each plant, leaving 1/4″-1/2″ of stem attached.  I’ve kept the rooted plants in their original pots, watered them, and have set them aside in a bright place to regenerate themselves.  I expect small ‘pups’ to begin to grow along the stems where leaves were removed.  This will likely take 6 weeks to two months before the pups may be large enough to remove and grow on.

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I expect these rooted stems to also generate new plants at the leaf nodes. All of the nodes are stimulated when I removed the top of the stem.  One of the plants didn’t have enough stem to take a cutting, but it will continue to grow.

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At the moment, all of the new stem cuttings are just sitting on top of the sand, in bright but indirect light, while they callous over.  I’ll probably wait until Friday before adding just enough water to the edges of the box to slightly moisten the paper towels and the sand.  No wet sand!  Just a little moisture in the mix before I cover the box with clear plastic.  A dry cleaner bag or clear leaf bag will work for this, and I’ll leave a little vent for air exchange to discourage mold.  I expect the leaves to remain hydrated from the moisture in the air, and tiny roots to grow into the air to absorb that moisture.

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If all goes well, I should have a good selection of tiny succulent plants with sufficient root growth to construct that succulent basket in late April.  If all the leaf cuttings root and produce new plants, I’ll have plenty left for additional succulent projects this spring.

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There is a layer of fine gravel in this pot, topped by special succulent potting mix. I added additional sand to the mix, dampened it, and then planted the rooted jade plant.  The cutting will probably grow in this pot for a year or more before it needs repotting.

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The succulent pots I’ve overwintered in past years have all grown ‘leggy’ growing inside with insufficient light over winter.  Now, I understand better how to work with those leggy  plants to cut them back and stimulate growth, using the cuttings to generate fresh plants.

When our local garden centers begin to fill with plants next month I will look at the succulents on offer with a different eye.  Rather than choosing a plant to use immediately in some planting scheme, I think I’ll be more likely to look at some less desirable plants for their ‘parts.’

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Out of one, many….. 

Once you understand how plants grow and regenerate, it becomes easier to work with their natural proclivities to generate as many individuals as you need.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

Unum de multis: Horticultural Multiplication

Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’

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Unum de multis:  Out of one, many…

That is one of the wonders of the plant kingdom!

It took several trips and quite a few hours of shopping to finally source a few little variegated English holly shrubs in the fall of 2017.  Although these were clearly labeled as Ilex aquifoliumn, as it turns out, they are actually Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’.

I accepted the plants at face value, believing the big name label on the shrubs that identified them as English holly.  It was a very knowledgeable reader of Forest Garden, California Horticulturalist Tony Tomeo, who pointed out the error and set me on the path to a correct identification of the shrubs.

Sometimes known as ‘false holly’, Osmanthus is a beautiful and useful evergreen shrub from Asia.  This particular shrub is called ‘Goshiki’ because the leaf exhibits five different colors during its development:  pink, cream, yellow, orange and white, in addition to green.  It is a beautiful plant in growth, with the new growth showing the most color.

I’ve grown this plant over the past several years and have it elsewhere in the garden.  It goes to show how quickly we will believe and accept how things are labeled, that I didn’t recognize the error in labeling right away.  It took Tony’s nudge for me to compare the two leaves side by side.

Out of the several plants finally located, two survived that very cold winter and finicky spring to live on into 2019.

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Our shrub newly planted in 2017

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My several attempts to locate  small English holly shrubs for planting projects this fall proved unsuccessful, and I ended up substituting other plants late into the season.  It goes with the territory that available plants change season to season and year to year.  A gardener can never take for granted that a particular plant will be available when needed.

That is why it pays to learn how to propagate your own plants, so that once you have one of some special something, you can generate more as needed.

Now, it isn’t technically difficult to propagate most plants.  But depending on what you are trying to grow, and the time of year, some special equipment may be necessary.  Without a greenhouse, propagation box, heat mat, lights or misters, it can be challenging to achieve the results that commercial growers can produce.

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Yet it is amazing what you can do at home, with little equipment, once you understand some basic principles.  A great resource for all types of propagation, including sowing seeds, is Making More Plants by Ken Druse.  This is a clearly written, beautifully illustrated guide that teaches me some new trick each time I re-read it.

There are several types of stem cuttings one can make, and their advantage is that a rooted stem eventually grows into a clone of the parent plant.  Stem cuttings are generally low-tech, easy and quick.  And I have learned a few little tricks that increase my chances of success without a greenhouse or fancy set-up.

Simply put, the challenge of a stem cutting is to have the stem strike roots while the leaves continue to live, and before the stem begins to rot.  That means that plants with large leaves need enough water flow through the stem to support the leaves, even before roots begin to grow.  And, the rooting has to occur in a way that doesn’t allow the stem to clog up, or begin to decay, before the roots can grow.

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This method of rooting stem cuttings is nearly 100% successful for Christmas cactus cuttings.

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Most commercial growers place stem cuttings into a damp, soil-less medium to root.  They then put the stems into a heated, lit, enclosed space for a few weeks while roots form.  Enclosing the stems increases humidity, which benefits the leaves.  Bottom heat speeds the process, and adequate light is required for photosynthesis.

Getting an herbaceous stem to root in a water is a bit easier.  Water is more easily available and so the leaves are well-supplied.  But, water grown roots are structurally different from soil-grown roots.  The plant will need to quickly re-grow new roots once it is planted in soil.

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These coleus cuttings had been rooting in water for not quite two weeks.

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I am using a hybrid method to get my little holly cuttings to root.  The container is a recycled aluminum loaf pan without any drainage holes.  There is a half-inch of clean, fine aquarium gravel in the bottom of the pan, topped with some clean peat based potting soil, and then topped off with fresh vermiculite.  I watered this well to wet all of the soil and also create a shallow reservoir in the bottom of the pan.

After pruning the shrub I want to clone, I trimmed the cuttings to only a couple of inches long and set then into a shallow cup of water.  A smaller cutting can be more successful because there is less plant tissue to support while it grows roots.  Remove the bottom couple of pairs of leaves from the cutting, dip the cut end into powdered rooting hormone,  and stick the cutting into the pan so that the exposed leaf nodes are in the soil.

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A clear dome holds humidity so the cuttings won’t wilt while they root. Make sure to vent the dome each day to allow fresh air inside.

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Take care that the cuttings don’t touch one another and that their leaves don’t touch the soil.  This helps limit any molding or transmission of disease.

Once all the cuttings were trimmed and stuck, I put the pan into a re-cycled bakery cake container that has a clear, domed lid.  I set the container on a low table beside a window that gets strong morning light. There is also a fluorescent bulb burning in a nearby lamp.  There is no bottom heat provided, but the room is warm and the sun provides additional warmth.

I expect these cuttings to strike roots sometime this month.  The best way to tell that roots have developed is when new growth appears.  One can also tug lightly on the cutting, expecting to feel a little resistance once roots form.  Tugging too soon might damage newly forming roots, so it really isn’t smart to try this too soon.

Once the cuttings have an inch or so of new roots, each can be potted up into a 3″ or 4″ nursery pot and set outside in sheltered, shady spot.  It is important to keep the new shrubs well watered through their first few years so they never completely dry out.

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Another method, for herbaceous or very soft woody stems, involves a wine glass and a little bit of gravel.  Again, using relatively small cuttings, rest the cut end of the stems in the spaces in the gravel and add only enough water to cover the bottom portion of the stem.  Maintaining shallow water allows roots to form without exposing much of the stem to potential rot.  The wine glass itself helps enclose the stems, increasing humidity for the leaves.

Again, work with short tip cuttings of stems, trim the bottom leaves from the stem, and dip each cutting into rooting hormone before placing it in the glass.  Make sure the water stays fresh and at a fairly constant level.  If ever the water looks cloudy, rinse out the glass, rinse off the stems and replace the water with fresh.

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This glass of Spanish lavender cuttings sits near a sheltered window where the cuttings will get indirect light all day.  I expect roots to form so these can be potted up by early March.  The mother plant is one I search out each year and only sometimes can find.  It is a hardy perennial and one of the earliest lavenders to flower each spring.  Once these stems root, I expect to start another batch of this particular lavender.

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This is Spanish lavender, L. stoechas ‘Otto Quast,’ with its ‘rabbit ears’ atop the flower.

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Once you get the knack of stem cuttings, you can beg a cutting from a gardening friend and ‘grow your own.’  You can create multiples of the plants you enjoy most in your garden, or produce clones to pass on to others.  A neighbor populated her yard with beautiful Azalea shrubs she started herself from cuttings decades ago.

There is tremendous satisfaction in knowing how to create several new plants from a single original.   It empowers the gardener, saves a great deal of cash, and allows us to have more of those plants we most enjoy.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

More on planting pots with shrubs, bulbs and perennials for winter

 

Six on Saturday: Camping Out Indoors

This is one of our favorite Alocasias, often called African Mask. It spends winter in the living room and summer in a shady part of the garden.

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We love big and colorful leaves in our summer garden, and we end up growing a pretty good collection of tropical plants each year that can’t make it through our coldest winter nights outdoors.  By the end of October, we are deciding which plants will get to camp out inside for the winter, and where (and how) they will overwinter.

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This Alocasia, originally from Trader Joe’s, wasn’t labeled. It reminds me of A. ‘Regal Shields,’ but grows a bit larger.  It died back to its tuber in the basement last winter.  This winter it is still in growth in our sunny garage.

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Some plants get to grow on in their pots in our sunny living spaces.  They will stay comfortably warm from November through April or May.  Aside from living with a little less light than they’d like, they have a good winter of continued growth and minimal disruption.  I continue to fertilize many of these plants to encourage winter blooms.

Others come into the garage.  It is a good deal chillier, and they get even less light.  But they remain active, with very little new growth, and most manage to survive the winter.  I water these only as needed to keep their soil barely moist, and don’t apply any fertilizer until the weeks before they move back outdoors.

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Begonias live in our garage and living room through the winter.  Some may lose their leaves, but often return from their rhizomes in the spring.  this one is growing well this winter and is still producing new leaves.

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A few sturdier plants, Alocasias, Zantedeschias and Colocasias, are re-potted into much smaller quarters and overwinter in the basement near a window.  Most of those that get this treatment have a dormant period built into their annual life cycle and are at least marginally hardy here in Zone 7.

I spare them a real period of freezing temperatures and make sure that they stay barely moist through winter.  They lose most, or all of their leaves and may survive as a tuber with a few active roots.  The Zantedeschias we are overwintering this way have continued to throw out sturdy new leaves, reaching for the feeble winter light from our basement windows.

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Begonias with Caladium ‘Moonlight’. Cane Begonias can be overwintered in vases of water as cuttings. Once the stem has roots, it can be potted up in a much smaller pot, indoors, until time to plant it outside in late April.  Cuttings of this Begonia rest on my kitchen counter, waiting for spring.

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Finally, most of the Caladiums and some Zantedeschias go fully dormant in November, with all leaves and roots dying back.  Once their tubers have dried out, I pack them away in rice hulls, in bags, and put them in an out of the way spot indoors for the winter.

They slumber through winter without any moisture or light, and must be re-awakened each spring by planting them in moist soil.  They send out all new growth each spring and are ready to back out doors in May or June.

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Caladium ‘Burning Heart’ was a newcomer to our garden this summer.  Its tubers are resting, waiting for me to wake them up next month.

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The alternative to going to all of this trouble would be to treat our beautiful summer tropical plants like annuals, allowing the frost to kill them each fall and starting over with new plants each spring.  Some gardeners may go this route, especially if you don’t have the space indoors to let the plants camp out in comfort for a few months.

It would be an outrageous expense for us, and there isn’t a guarantee that you will even find the plants in spring to replace those lost.  We lost our Alocasia ‘Stingray’ last winter, and then didn’t find it in any catalogs for spring.  We were delighted to find A. ‘Stingray’ in Brent and Becky Heath’s spring catalog, and have several on order.

So every fall we bring as many as we can indoors, care for them through the winter, and then begin moving them all back outside again in April.  They may look a bit worse for the winter in doors, but all soon grow new foliage and perk up in the sunshine to enjoy another summer of beauty and growth.

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Zantedeschia, calla lily, blooming last June.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

Many thanks to The Propagator for hosting Six on Saturday each week.

 

 

Grow a Palm From a Date

Date pits soaking in water, with their guardian frogs, in preparation for planting.

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I blame Pinterest, and one of those odd “You might like these new pins” emails I received earlier this week.

You see one of those pins they shared with me showed gorgeous baby green leaves growing out of a little pot of soil- holding a date pit.

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Fresh dates

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Do you eat dates?  The people in my life either passionately love them or despise them with equal vehemence.

The true candy of the fruit world, they contain about  75% sugar, which makes them a great sugar substitute in baked goods, energy bars and bites, and smoothies.  With their sweetness comes a great deal of fiber and other nutrients.

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I bought a box of fresh dates just before Thanksgiving for my first adventure in baking a vegan, ‘plant based’ birthday cake to my brother’s specs.   It was good, well received, and the process opened my eyes to cooking with these luscious fresh dates!

Never wanting to throw useful things away, especially when I learn that they might grow, I am following the instructions I discovered on Pintrest to bring these date pits, or seeds, into growth.

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With a fresh box of dates from Trader Joes in hand, I sliced open a little more than half the dates in the box and dropped their seeds into a small jar of water yesterday afternoon.  I didn’t wash or scrub the seeds in any way, and learned this morning that some of the fruit remaining on the seeds had soaked off overnight.

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This morning, I gently shook the jar a few times before pouring off most of the cloudy water and replacing it with fresh, slightly warm water.  I’ll change the water daily for a few more days as the seeds wake up and prepare to grow.

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Every seed contains an embryo plant.  Some seeds are able to completely dry out and wait for the conditions when a new plant may grow.  Other seeds need to remain moist.  Some seeds need a period of cold stratification before they will germinate, others will germinate immediately after they ripen.

I sometimes find seeds in my grapefruits already germinating, with tiny sprouts beginning to grow within the fruit.  I will find a little pot and some soil and allow these to grow on, hating to throw them away when already in growth.

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But I’d never given much thought to date seeds before this week.  These are another grocery store treasure, from the produce department, that one can grow into a new, productive plant!

Most fruit bearing date palms are hardy from Zone 9 south.  That means that I won’t be able to leave any trees that grow from these seeds outside during a Virginia winter.  They will always grow in pots and won’t reach maturity here.

Date palms are true trees, growing to about 75″ tall.  Although palms are grown here as houseplants, they require a good deal of sun and so a sunny spot is required to keep them happy through winter.

But I’m always interested in learning how things grow, and so I’m going to give these little seeds a try.  Like our holly trees, date palms are dioecious.  Each tree has its own gender, and a male tree is required nearby to fertilize the fruit-bearing female trees.  Growers who produce dates commercially must have a mix of male and female trees.

Since there is no way to determine a tree’s gender until it produces its first flowers, it is wise to start a group of seeds and grow them on to maturity, if one wants to eventually enjoy fresh, home-grown dates.

It may take nearly 10 years from seed to maturity, so growing dates requires a bit of commitment if this project is to come to ‘fruition’.  Commercial growers tend to propagate new trees from divisions of particularly heavy producing trees already in their care.  I won’t be starting up any fruit production in this area, so I’ll grow these as long as I can, as a beautiful novelty.

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There isn’t a great deal of agreement among those who have written about growing dates, about how long to soak the seeds or how to care for them as they germinate.  Some instruct one to soak the seeds for two days, others for as much as two weeks.  I’m sure that the length of time needed is directly related to how fresh the seeds may be.

My seeds were exceedingly fresh and I can see some of the embryos beginning to stretch beyond the seed coast today, after soaking for a little more than 12 hours.

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These seeds soaked overnight before I removed them from the jar just long enough to photograph them. see how the embryo has begun to extend beyond the seed coat?

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One point all agree on is that the seeds need warmth and moisture to germinate and grow.  One writer suggests moving the seeds into damp paper towel, sealed in a zip-lock bag, kept in a warm spot after soaking.  This would be an intermediate step to encourage the embryo to further develop in optimal conditions before setting it into a pot of soil.   Other writers move the sprouting seeds directly from their jar of water into soil, planted very shallowly, and covered with damp sand.

This is a great little activity to do with kids (and the young at heart) this winter.  The large seeds allow children to see the stages of a sprouting seed clearly.  All sorts of questions will arise, and many teachable moments will come as you watch the miracle of a sprouting seed together.

When I move my seeds out of the water and into a bag or pots, I’ll try to remember to snap a few photos to share.    I believe I’ll try a few both ways, since I have about a dozen seeds already soaking.  We’ll see which way leads us to green leaves faster!

In the meantime, you may wonder what I did with those gorgeous date fruits after I harvested their seeds yesterday.  I’ll share the recipe, which is another fun thing to do with any kids in your life.

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Yes, one is missing. I’m sure you know what may have happened to it…

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Save these little treasures for yourself or share them with friends over a cup of coffee or tea.  I’ll warn you they are rich and satisfying, and at the same time might qualify as a ‘healthy snack’ if those things matter to you.  They certainly are making this wintery day a bit brighter for me!

These measures are guesses, and this recipe doesn’t require exact measures. Relax and enjoy the process…

Date-Nut Energy Bites

A dozen or so fresh dates, pits removed

A cup of dried, unsweetened flake coconut

A cup of ground almonds (I used Trader Joe’s ‘almond flour,’ which contains nothing but finely ground almonds.

1/2 cup of raw pecans

3 TB ground flax seeds

A few grinds of sea salt

1.5 TB. powdered dark cocoa (I used Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder)

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tsp. almond extract

Combine the first five ingredients in the bowl of a food processor.  Process in short pulses until the dates are cut into fine pieces.  Continue to process for another 30 seconds or so as the material begins to come together in the bowl.

Scrape the sides of the bowl and add the salt, cocoa powder and extracts.  Continue processing for another few seconds, and scrape the bowl again.

The mixture is ready to form into balls when it begins to hold together as a chunky paste.  The extract provides enough liquid the help the mix hold together.  You could probably use water or fruit juice to replace the extracts, if you wish.

Form the paste-like mixture into balls.  I used a 1 TB measuring spoon to scoop the mix, pressing it lightly into the spoon, and then knocking it out of the spoon into my hand to round it slightly.

Place the finished date balls on waxed paper in a lidded container in a single layer.  Cover and chill for at least an hour while the mixture sets up.

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Expect about 24-30 Date-Nut Bites from this recipe, depending on how large you make each one. These were better on the second day, once the flavors had melded and the fruit and nuts had set up together.

Enjoy!

Woodland Gnome 2019
Update 1: February 4, 2019

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I moved some of the seeds showing growth from the jar of water to a damp paper towel in a zip-lock.  I have the seeds under a lamp in a warm spot, and am checking them daily for growth. 

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Of course, I could have planted these directly into pots of soil.  But it’s more interesting to keep them out where we can watch them grow a while longer!

 

 

Green Thumb Tip #22: Do the Math

Two Athyrium ‘Branford Rambler’ that I picked up on an August clearance sale on Saturday are ready for division.

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Every garden center offers deals in August to move out the last of their summer stock so there is room for all of those fall pansies and chrysanthemums already on their way.  You will find a very good selection of all of the major genera at most good nurseries, but now marked down 20-40%.

They may be pot bound and perhaps a little sun scorched; no worries.  With a little effort and skill you can increase that small investment many fold.  With a perennial, it is always the roots, crowns, rhizomes, tubers, or stolons that matter.  These are the parts that survive and increase year to year.  The flowers and foliage come and go with the seasons.

This late in the season, the bargain perennial you score on discount has likely had many weeks to grow and increase in its nursery pot.  That means that you can divide it into several pieces, re-pot them and grow them on so that you end up with several beautiful plants before fall really takes hold.  We still have a good eight weeks of summer growing weather, here in coastal Virginia, before we even think about a first frost.

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These will grow into dense ferns, as this Japanese painted fern hybrid spreads itself around.  I like the red stems.  Because this is a deciduous hardy fern, it will fade away over the winter.  But come spring, it will reemerge with red fiddle heads.

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I found two Athyrium ‘Branford Rambler’ ferns this weekend on clearance at 20% off their original price.  This is a  lady fern hybrid produced from a cross with a Japanese Painted fern.  The central stem of each frond is deep red, and I expect the fiddle heads next spring to be deep red, too.  These ferns like moist acidic soil and full to partial shade.  This fern is known for spreading rapidly, and will grow to about 24″ high and wide.

I bought these ferns because I’m planning to design some winter perennial and bulb pots in October, and think that fern fronds emerging through the daffodils will look terrific!  I want some small divisions of a Japanese painted fern hybrid to plant among the bulbs, for their red fiddleheads, and I’ll finish the pots with Violas or Heuchera divisions.

When deciding which perennials to buy this time of year, compare all of the available pots of whatever plant you are considering.  Look for ones that have multiple crowns or divisions which can be pulled apart.

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You will need several clean, empty pots that are deep enough to accommodate roots of your divisions, some fresh potting soil, a clean knife or hori-hori and space to work comfortably.  I also have something to line the pots to hold the soil, like a coffee filter or paper toweling.  Your new plants will only live in these pots for a few weeks, so this is a temporary pot and can be a little rough.

I begin by guessing how many divisions are possible from the plant, and then prepare a pot for each by lining it with paper and filling it about 1/4 full of fresh potting soil.  Next, I massage the nursery pot with the mother plant to loosen up the roots, and then gently slide the root ball out of the pot.  Always work with a well-moistened root ball.  If the plant comes home dry, water it well first thing, and give it a few hours before beginning any division.

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As soon as you study the roots and plant structure you will likely see where you can divide the plant so that each new division has both leaves and roots.   If the plant has rhizomes, tubers or stolons, make sure that each division has a section attached to both leaves and roots.

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Some plants, like my ferns, can be gently pulled and teased apart by hand.  Other plants may need to be cut into divisions.  Make sure that your blade is clean before you begin work on each plant by wiping it with a Lysol or other disinfectant wipe, washing it in hot soapy water, or even spraying it with a spray disinfectant.  This will control the spread of any bacteria or fungi  that may be on your tools.

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Notice where there are spaces between sections where you can begin to pull the plant apart.

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I like to work as quickly as I can so the roots don’t dry out, and usually pot up each division as I cut it free.  Position the roots in the new nursery pot so that the plant’s crown will be about an inch below the rim of the pot, and gently fill around the root ball with fresh potting soil.  Firm the soil as you go so that the division will stand up and not flop over and the soil is firm around the roots.

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Water each newly planted division after you pot it, keeping in mind that your fresh potting soil may not be holding much water.  It is good to do this on a rainy day and let the divisions sit out in a gentle rain.  Always take care to keep newly divided perennials in a shady place for at least a day as they recover and settle in their roots.

I wouldn’t put even full sun perennials back into full sun for at least a week, to give them a chance to adjust.  Since I’m working with ferns, I’ll put them in full shade for the first week or so, and then move them to brighter, partial shade.  It is very important to keep the soil moist, but not wet, as plants begin to grow their new root systems.

I like to water newly divided plants with Neptune’s Harvest seaweed and fish emulsion right after they are divided, and then every couple of weeks as they grow on.  You might also sprinkle the soil with Osmocote time release fertilizer to help the plants recover and begin growing again.

The plan is to stimulate growth over these last few weeks of summer, and then plant the divisions into garden beds or pots several weeks before the first frost.  You want to allow a few weeks for any newly planted perennial to grow roots beyond the planting hole, out into the surrounding soil, before the ground freezes.  This helps reduce heaving when the ground freezes hard, because the plant is anchored by its roots.

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I bought two plants, and ended up with nine divisions.   This is why I always save plastic nursery flats and nursery pots that come home with me on my plant hunting trips.  There are so many ways to reuse these very useful tools!  All nine of my new divisions are nestled into sturdy flats, where they will be easy to move and manage as I grow them on through September.

Unless you have unlimited funds for gardening, do the math.  Shop the seasonal bargains, and then use those bargain plants to make many more.  Whether you divide them, take cuttings to root from leggy plants, or gather their seeds- many plants on sale now offer abundant material that a thoughtful gardener can use to increase her collection and fill her garden with more texture and color.

Plant more plants!

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Woodland Gnome 2018

“Green Thumb” Tips: 

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

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

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

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about gardens and gardening.
Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!
Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time
Green Thumb Tip # 18: Edit!
Green Thumb Tip #19:  Focus on Foliage
Green Thumb Tip #20:  Go With the Flow
Green Thumb Tip #21:  The Mid-Summer Snack

 

Growing Sweet Potato Vines For Beauty and Dinner

A newly planted sweet potato vine grows with a scented geranium in this full-sun hanging basket.

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Do you ever buy ornamental sweet potato vines for your hanging baskets or pots?  These have become more popular in recent years, and several beautiful varieties with variegated or purple leaves have come on the market.   I  planted a few in our large planters on the front patio a few years ago.  They looked gorgeous… until the deer snuck into the garden and had one for a midnight snack!

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A variegated sweet potato vine grows in a mixed container with summer annuals (2015).

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But no worries, these are prolific growers.  The vine grew back in just a few weeks.  That’s not to say that it didn’t get grazed again from time to time!  As it turns out, sweet potato vines are both delicious and highly nutritious!  We know that sweet potato tubers are packed with vitamins and minerals.  Turns out, their leaves are, as well!  The deer were onto something!

But the real surprise came in the fall, when I lifted the summer annuals out of their pots to re-plant hardy ornamentals for winter.  My ‘ornamental’ sweet potato vines had quietly gone about their business of making huge, lovely tubers!  Their tuberous roots are edible, no matter how fancy the leaves might be.

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July 2015

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I never bought any sweet potato vines at the garden center this spring.  But I noticed a sweet potato in our pantry sprouting vines a few weeks ago.  I moved it into a shallow tray of potting soil, in the light, and let those vines continue to grow.

Like you, I’ve wrestled a sweet potato suspended in a Mason jar of water a time or two.  They are very entertaining for the little ones, who love to watch how fast they grow.  This works great for a while, until the potato inevitably begins to rot.  But placing a potato in a pot of moist sand or soil is a more reliable way to encourage it to sprout.   The long, sinuous vines quickly fill a window sill with beautiful heart shaped leaves.

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If you’ve contemplated their leaves, you probably noticed how much the leaves and vines remind you of morning glory vines.  Turns out, the plants are related!  A sweet potato’s botanical name is Ipomoea batatas.  Most of the morning glory, moonflower, or bindweed species belong to the genus Ipomoea.  If your ornamental sweet potato vines have bloomed, you probably noticed that their flower is very like a morning glory.  There are over 500 species in the Ipomoea genus!

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Moonflower, Ipomoea alba

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I decided to let my sprouting potato grow in order to transplant those beautiful vines into hanging baskets on our deck.  It is probably a little late in the season to plant with potatoes in mind, but I knew we could enjoy the vines.

I waited for a wet and cloudy day, and then simply twisted and pulled each stem away from the potato, and planted it into a little drill made into the wet soil in the basket.   What could be easier than poking one’s finger into the dirt, planting the vine, and firming it up?  That is all there is to it!

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Sweet potato vines serve as a host plants and nectar plants for some species of butterflies and moths.

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If you don’t have a wet and cloudy day in the forecast, some gardeners twist the vines from the potato and then leave the vines in a glass of water for a week while roots begin to grow, before transplanting the vine into a pot, bed or basket.

This is the way all vegetable gardeners start off their sweet potato patch each spring!  Some may mail-order their slips, or starter vines, to procure a particular variety of sweet potato.  If you’re not choosy, then buy your starter potato at the grocery store and start your own slips.

Sweet potatoes, also known as ‘yams,’ want a light, sandy, quick draining soil in the garden; if you’re growing them for a fall harvest of sweet potatoes.   If your main interest is their beautiful vines, you’ll plant into any good potting soil already in your containers.

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To make a long story longer, I bought a few fresh sweet potatoes at the farmer’s market a couple of weeks ago.  I’d left them in their plastic bag on the kitchen counter.  I hadn’t gotten around to cooking them, when I noticed their little purple leafy stems pushing against the bag.  It doesn’t take long this time of year for things to get growing, does it?

Since I have plenty of vines myself now, I’m sending these newbies to my daughter.  It was humid enough in the plastic bag that these vines have even started sprouting roots along the base of their shoots!

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I’ve wrapped the bits of potato I trimmed away, still supporting their shoots, in a moist towel and sealed them into a zip-lock to prepare them for their journey through the US Mail.  She can twist each stem loose and plant it in a pot.   And, I finally cooked those potatoes today!

If you live in an area where you don’t have the 4-6 months of warm weather required to raise sweet potatoes in your garden, you might consider growing them in pots for their leaves.

The leaves can be steamed or sauteed.  I bet they would be good dipped in a tempura batter and fried, too!

This is a prolific ‘cut and come again’ veggie treat.  It is an edible that can be grown in a very small space, even on a windowsill or balcony, by someone who wants a steady supply of fresh greens.

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For the cost of a single potato, you can fill several pots or baskets with beauty and a delicious crop that will produce indefinitely.  The sweet potato is a tender perennial, and so will continue to grow so long as you protect it from frost.

The vining stems will sprout roots at every leaf node, and so stem cuttings will root easily in water or moist soil.  Plant vines into window boxes, tubs, or large pots to grow a crop of sweet potatoes on your porch or in your sunroom.

We get so accustomed by buying our veggies at the market that we sometimes forget how easily and affordably we can grow our own food.   It’s always comforting to have a trick or two tucked up our sleeves, and a ready source of food we grow for ourselves at home.

What could be easier than starting a sweet potato vine?

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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