The Williamsburg Botanical Garden

The Butterfly Garden at The Williamsburg Botanical Garden is beautiful, if still dormant, in early February.

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The Williamsburg Botanical Garden is a great destination for picking up ideas and observing many different sorts of plants growing here in James City County, Virginia.

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Whether you go for a quiet walk, or to participate in a class, there is always more to learn, experience and enjoy.

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The garden is a true community effort.  It brings together volunteers from many different organizations, including the Williamsburg Master Gardeners Association.

The garden is subdivided into  specialty gardens planned and maintained by different groups, and serving different purposes.  In addition to the butterfly garden, there are areas devoted to heirloom plants, native plants, wetland and woodland plants, perennials and flowering shrubs, a fernery, and an area of raised beds for therapeutic gardening.

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The Pollinator Palace

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Best practices are modeled, and new gardeners are both trained and inspired in this special space.  Even though the Williamsburg Botanical Garden is fenced to exclude deer; songbirds, pollinators and other small wildlife are welcomed and fed.

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The first stirrings of spring were evident today under bright skies.  It was only a few degrees above freezing when some gardening friends and I ventured out, tools in hand, for a pruning workshop.

Despite numb fingers and toes, we discussed proper pruning for several species of flowering woody shrubs.  Experts demonstrated the proper use of a variety of nifty pruning tools, too.

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A few of the earliest shrubs, like Spirea, showed tiny bits of green. Its buds are just tentatively opening this week.  But most of the herbs, perennials, and deciduous woodies were still slumbering through their last few weeks of dormancy.

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Daffodils have just begun to emerge, their bright blooms now only days away.

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Today served as a call to action to get out and get after the woodies in our own Forest Garden, before the season gets ahead of me this year.  I was a bit slack last year on the pruning. This year, there is a great deal of cutting and thinning and just plain lopping back waiting for us.  But it won’t wait for long; warmer, longer days will coax those buds to open all too soon.

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It is too early in the season to prune wood from early spring bloomers like Spirea and Viburnum.  However, one may always prune out wood that is Dead, Diseased, Deformed, or Damaged.

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Some gardeners grow a bit confused about what pruning to do, and when.  In general, February is a great month for pruning roses, crape myrtle, butterfly bush, rose of Sharon, and other trees and shrubs which won’t bloom before June.  If a shrub blooms on new growth only, it is safe to prune it back now.

If your shrub blooms on old wood from last year’s growth, and already has its flower buds ready to go now, then “wait to prune until after bloom.”  

All of our favorite spring shrubs like Rhododendrons, Camellias, Forsythias, and Spireas have flower buds set and ready to open on schedule, over the next several weeks.   Any pruning done now will reduce our spring blooms.

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There are great Botanical gardens all over the country, and we are very fortunate to have such a nice one here in Williamsburg.  One can’t help but feel either inspired or overwhelmed after an hour’s walk among such a beautiful collection of plants.  This is a great destination for a walking tour, even on a frosty February morning.

Once I had a cup of coffee and could feel my fingertips again, I was ready to head over to Lowes.   I wanted to have a look at some of the new nifty gadgets for pruning that I’d seen demonstrated today, while my enthusiasm was still warm.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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For The Daily Post’s
Weekly Photo Challenge:  Tour Guide

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In Bud

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Dogwood and peach buds

The tightly closed buds on trees and shrubs have begun to loosen a little during these few days of  warmth.

A pear tree in bud

A pear tree in bud

The growth of new scarlet twigs has accelerated, and one day soon our shrubs and early trees will finally allow their blossoms and tiny leaves to open.

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The yellow  Forsythia began opening up overnight.

This is the perfect time to cut branches for indoor arrangements.  Forsythia, flowering quince, witch hazel, apple, peach, and cherry trees will all accelerate their opening when cut and brought into the warmth of the house.

Inside, in a vase, it is easier to appreciate the beauty of their blossoms up close.  And, when the next blast of winter comes later in the week, we will still have a bit of spring inside to enjoy until the storms pass.

This is the simplest of arrangements to make.  Choose branches with slightly swollen flower buds, and using sharp pruners,  make an angular cut just above a bud.

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I cut our branches yesterday while doing a little pruning in the garden.  Follow all of the regular rules of thumb for pruning fruit trees when cutting these branches to force, so the tree is shaped and aided in its growth, not damaged.

I cut a variety of three different branches for this arrangement.  I used branches of pear, peach, and Forsythia.  Some might work in stems of daffodil or fern, but we’re happy with the sculptural simplicity of this cluster of branches just as it is.

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Use a large vase for branches 3′-4′ long.  Trimmings from these branches can be used in smaller vases.  Branches can  be cut, placed in water and kept in a garage or laundry room until they open a little more, or in a cold basement to hold off their opening for several additional days if needed.

I use warm water in the vase mixed with a little floral preservative.  The warm water speeds the opening.  These woody stems might have trouble taking up water.  Always re-cut the branches as you assemble the arrangement.

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Make a fresh cut, as you assemble the branches into your arrangement, at a much steeper angle than the pruning cut. I often make a second cut, parallel to the stem, to open up a deeper channel for the stem to absorb water.

Cut a very steep angle to expose more of the interior of the stem.  This steep angle would be too steep for the initial cut which severs the branch from the tree, exposing too much living wood to disease.  Some people crush the stem with a hammer to expose more wood and aid the taking in of water.

I have had success with just making a steep cut before plunging the branch into warm water.  Be careful to remove side branches and buds which will be below the water line in  the vase.  These smaller side branches can then be tucked into tiny vases of water.  Nothing need be wasted.

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Place the arrangement where you will pass it frequently throughout the day.  You will find this dynamic arrangement of living branches changes hour to hour as the flowers begin to open and the leaves unfurl.  It will do best where it can get natural light.  The branches are very much alive, and will continue to grow for several weeks.  I’ve even had Forsythia root in a spring arrangement, and have taken it from the vase to the garden to replant it.

Pear blossoms, newly brought inside.

Pear blossoms, newly brought inside.  Bowls by Beth Turbeville of Williamsburg.

You may want to change the water in your vase every week or so to keep it clean and fresh.  Using a floral preservative limits the growth of bacteria, and preserves the freshness a little longer.

Our garden is in bud.  Newness is bursting out from branch, pot, and Earth.  Celebrate this season of fresh beginnings by bringing in a few flowering  branches to open inside, where you and your loved ones can enjoy them up close.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

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Peach buds

After the Frost

November 16 2013 after the frost 001

The ginger lilies were hit by frost early Thursday morning, and will bloom no more this season. The Lavender will remain green and beautiful through much of the winter, blooming in early spring.

Our first heavy frost came Wednesday night into Thursday morning, with a low in the 20s overnight.  We were greeted with a sparkling white lawn on Thursday morning and obvious frost kill on the ginger lilies and Lantana.  The garden does, indeed, look like a very different place than it did early in the week.  In fact, there was a distinct “seedy” air to it when friends visited yesterday to adopt a half dozen Mahonia seedlings.

The garden looks a little "seedy" at the moment...

The garden looks a little “seedy” at the moment…

Looking around the garden one might wonder where to even begin with the clean up.

And I would ask, what needs to be cleaned up, and why?   Since the garden is a wild place, and is designed to shelter birds and other small creatures, we tend to look more to maintaining the balance of the garden than to pure aesthetics.

Lambs Ears will stay green through most of the winter.  Remove any dead foliage, and keep tree leaves from accumulating on top of the plant.

Lambs Ears will stay green through most of the winter. Remove any dead foliage, and keep tree leaves from accumulating on top of the plant.

Our goal is to let every bit be used, nothing thrown away, so much as we are able.  We try to allow one season’s growth to nurture the next.

With that in mind, here is an overview of what we will do, and not do, over the next three months.

Tender perennials

Ginger lilies are left alone to collapse and mulch their how roots until at least February.

Ginger lilies are left alone to collapse and mulch their own roots until at least February.

We push the limits of hardiness by growing ginger lilies and Lantana here as perennials.  Technically, they aren’t hardy to zone 7, and in an especially cold winter, might not be.  We have found that leaving the plants in place after frost kills back the foliage helps them survive winter.  Although not beautiful, the dying leaves and stems provide insulation to the roots and so increases the chances of them living through the winter.

The ginger lilies will collapse after another few cold nights, fall to the ground, and provide a thick mulch; along with the leaves falling from the trees.  I’ll move this around so the rose roots are also mulched and simply let it be until late January or early February.  On a warmish day I’ll cut and remove the stalks, exposing the growth tips of next summer’s lilies; dig the rhizomes growing forward into the roses, and vacuum out the accumulated leaves from the surrounding trees.  The roses will get pruned back and the entire bed will get a fresh cover of compost.  I’ve already vacuumed and shredded leaves from this bed once this week, but its hard to tell that now.

Lantana are left in place until at least March to protect their roots and provide food and shelter for songbirds.

Lantana are left in place until at least March to protect their roots and provide food and shelter for songbirds.

The Lantana have grown into large woody shrubs over the summer.  The largest are over 6′ tall now.  They were in full bloom when the frost came, and so are still covered in flowers and berries.  This is a favorite spot of our songbirds who appreciate the ready food supply and the dense shelter of the Lantana.  We’ll leave these in place, just as they are, until at least March.

No, the Lantana aren’t pretty anymore.  I suppose we could string white lights over them for the holidays, but we’ve never done that.  By patiently leaving them in place through winter and into early spring we’ll protect the roots and have a better chance of enjoying them again next summer.  When the time comes to trim them back, we’ll cut them to 6″-12″, depending on the plant, and remove all of the old leaves and branches from the bed.

I generally set Violas into this bed as I remove them from pots during spring planting.  They’ll live here for another few weeks, and then die off as the Lantana fills in again.  This bed will also get a thick covering of fresh compost, some Rose Tone, and general re-working in March.  Patience is required with Lantana because they normally don’t show new growth until late April or May.

Bright rose hips form when spent roses aren't deadheaded.  These are pretty during autumn, and provide food for birds who will eat them.

Bright rose hips form when spent roses aren’t deadheaded. These are pretty during autumn, and provide food for birds who will eat them.

Roses

Roses have not died back with the frost.  We still have both leaves and buds.  They may even bloom some more over the next few weeks.  Trimming roses always stimulates growth, and so it is important to wait until early spring to prune them.  Hard pruning now could kill the plant if tender new growth dies off in a hard freeze.  Deadheading spent blooms is even optional this time of year.  Of course, in our climate, roses will continue sending out new growth over the next few months with only a short break in late December and early January.  I’ll wait until February to prune them, and will begin giving Rose Tone and Epson salts by early March.

Hardy Perennials

Seeds from hardy Hibiscus pods provide food for many birds.

Seeds from hardy Hibiscus pods provide food for many birds.

Hardy perennials like Peonies, Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Iris, Hibiscus, and Chrysanthemum are often the first targets for fall garden clean up.  Browned foliage is simply cut off near the ground, tossed into a trash bag, and “Voila”, the garden looks much neater.

That is certainly one approach, but isn’t mine. 

Peony leaves are definitely unsightly now.  Since the flowers bloomed in May, they haven’t looked good for a while.   The frost finished them off, and the foliage definitely needs to get cut back before spring growth begins.

Peony foliage should be cut back in autumn, supports removed, and stored.

Peony foliage should be cut back in autumn, supports removed, and stored.

Peony crowns don’t need insulation from their own leaves, and leaving them in place can certainly encourage disease.  This is the first foliage I’ll cut on the next warm day.  I don’t bag such trimmings and add them to the trash pick up, but neither do I add it to a compost pile.  We’ll throw these trimmings  into the ravine, away from our perennial beds, along with other old foliage.

The Iris are still blooming, and their rhizomes will continue to grow all winter.  Dead leaves and finished stalks may be removed, but it is too late in the season to dig or divide the plants. 

Iris, "Rosalie Figgee" will continue to bloom into December.  She'll take a break, and bloom again in the spring.

Iris, “Rosalie Figgee” will continue to bloom into December. She’ll take a break, and bloom again in the spring.

Chrysanthemums are just finishing.  Spent flowers should be deadheaded, and in fact the plants can be cut back after the leaves are killed by frost.  If protected, new buds can still open in the weeks ahead.  Any new, potted chrysanthemums should be planted as soon as possible if you intend to keep them as perennials.  Otherwise, add them to the compost pile.

Echinacea seeds are enjoyed by many birds.  The dried cones also make nice additions to autumn wreathes and arrangements.

Echinacea seeds are enjoyed by many birds. The dried cones also make nice additions to autumn wreathes and arrangements.

Echinacea finished flowering weeks ago.  Their seeds are loved by goldfinches and other birds.  They can be left standing in the garden deep into winter.  They are sculptural, attractive to some, and definitely appreciated by the birds.

The  same is true of any Hibiscus or Rudbeckia seed pods still standing.  They can be left in place until March or April if you wish.  Collect seeds to broadcast in areas you would like new plants, or leave them to the birds.  You might even cut some Echinacea or Hibiscus to use in winter wreathes, pots, or arrangements.  It can be sprayed gold to add a little sparkle, if you wish.

Other perennials, like lambs ears, daisies, Rosemary, Sage, Lavender, and other herbs will stay green through most, or all of the winter.

This daisy should be dead headed, but the foliage left alone until new growth appears at the base in spring.

This daisy should be dead headed, but the foliage left alone until new growth appears at the base in spring.

I’ll deadhead the daisies, but leave the foliage standing until new growth appears in spring.  Herbs should have already been harvested and trimmed.  What is left can be lightly harvested all winter, or simply left alone.

Shrubs

Hydrangea needs to be deadheaded before spring.  Cut carefully above any buds so next season's flowers are left on the shrub.

Hydrangea needs to be deadheaded before spring. Cut carefully above any buds so next season’s flowers are left on the shrub.

Hydrangea blossoms dry easily.  You can collect them now for a fall arrangement.   Already dry blossoms can be sprayed gold or used as is in wreathes and winter arrangements.  There is no value to the plant in leaving them, and in fact they just look worse as the season progresses.  And, they don’t harbor any seeds for the birds.When you trim them, be careful to cut above where new buds are forming so you don’t prune off next year’s blossoms.

Wait to trim Rose of Sharon until the worst winter weather has passed.  Songbirds will enjoy their seeds through the winter.

Wait to trim Rose of Sharon until the worst winter weather has passed. Songbirds will enjoy their seeds through the winter.

Rose of Sharon is covered in little dry seed pods at present.  These can be left as an important food source for the birds as long as you wish.  I generally prune back Rose of Sharon in early spring.  Most need to be thinned and shaped before new growth begins.  Since this shrub blooms on new wood, pruning only increases the following season’s bloom.  Althea tend to be tender sometimes, and may die for no apparent reasons.  So I don’t cut them, leaving wounds exposed, until after the worst winter weather has passed.

Buddleia, butterfly bush, should also be left alone until early spring.  Not only is it covered in seeds, but it will have a greater chance of survival if left unpruned until early spring.  Cut back hard in February, almost to the ground, as it blooms each year on new growth.

This Camellia was grazed by deer sometime in the last day or so.  Although protected with Plant Skydd, after the rain it must have been palatable enough...

This Camellia was grazed by deer sometime in the last day or so. Although protected with Plant Skydd, after the rain it must have been palatable enough…

Camellias, as evergreens, are in their glory at the moment.  Many are either blooming now or preparing to bloom.  They enjoy a mulch of chopped leaves, so mulch freely as yard clean up progresses.  Their main need at the moment is protection from grazing deer.  Deer love the flower buds and will even eat their leaves.  I have sprayed mine with Plant Skydd multiple times, and will continue to do so.

Another concern is with damage done by bucks during “rutting season” in autumn.  They go a little crazy during their mating season, and rub their antlers against trees and shrubs.  The damage to this little magnolia happened last night.

Magnolia tree damaged overnight by a rutting buck.

Magnolia tree damaged overnight by a rutting buck.

  I have no idea why a buck chose to damage this particular tree, since it’s small, pliable, and not a favorite to eat.  But, he did.  Despite hours and hours spent this week reinforcing deer fences and protecting individual plants, somehow a buck  got in and stripped the bark down much of the Magnolia’s trunk.  I taped up one of the branches left hanging, and will hope for healing.  This Magnolia is special to us as our neighbor gave it to us.  Ironically, I sprayed Plant Skydd, even on this Magnolia, earlier this week.

Figs are also losing their leaves now.

Figs survivie our winters without special winter protection.  Remove fallen leaves and give the roots a little mulch.

Figs survivie our winters without special winter protection. Remove fallen leaves and give the roots a little mulch.

The plants are covered in buds for next season’s growth.  Although they need winter protection further north, the figs seem to overwinter very well here with no particular care.  Other than gathering their leaves, and possibly adding some compost or shredded leaf mulch around the roots, they will make it through winter just fine.

Hollies, Pyracantha, Cedar, Forsythia, Viburnum, and other shrubs won’t need any particular care over the next several moths.  All will appreciate shredded leaves mulched over their roots.  Forsythia still have their leaves, but I noticed a few yellow blossoms on some of our shrubs yesterday.  They normally bloom in February, so this November bloom is a mystery…

Annuals

Annual Ageratum should be clipped at the soil line and discarded.  It could be replaced with Violas for bloom through the winter.

Annual Ageratum should be clipped at the soil line and discarded. It could be replaced with Violas for bloom through the winter.

Annual flowers and herbs are past their season now.  Unless they are covered in ripe seeds, like the Basil, there is no reason to leave them any longer.  Clip at the soil line, leaving the roots  to enrich the soil.

Some annuals, like Cleome reseed freely and can become invasive.  These should definitely be removed.  Others, like this basil, will feed many hungry birds.

This basil is covered in ripe seeds.  I'll remove it, but throw the plant into the ravine where the birds will still enjoy its seeds.

This basil is covered in ripe seeds. I’ll remove it, but throw the plant into the ravine where the birds will still enjoy its seeds.

But it doesn’t have to be here.  This whole plant can be removed in the interest if tidiness and thrown into the ravine, where the birds will still enjoy the seeds.  Seeds should never be added to a compost pile, for obvious reasons.

Fallen Leaves

Living in a forest, we have leaves everywhere at the moment.  They are still falling.  Some of our neighbors are so concerned with the leaves that we hear their blowers running daily.  In fact, we shake our head in disbelief at neighbors out blowing leaves off their walk or driveway on a windy day, with leaves continuing to fall all around them.

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Hardy Hibiscus seed heads stand out against the leaf covered forest floor.

It must be a deeply held cultural fetish to manicure the lawn and remove every fallen leaf; a concern we don’t share.   And so we have made only small efforts so far to sweep the porches and steps, clear the driveway, and remove leaves from newly planted Violas.

When most of the leaves have fallen, we’ll use a combination of broom, lawn mower and our leaf blower/bagger to tidy up around the house.   We do our best to maintain the peace and quiet by using hand tools, like a rake, when possible.

Wet leaves underfoot are definitely a safety hazard, especially when they freeze.  And wet leaves on masonry do bad things to steps and porches.  Our reality, living among deciduous trees, is that leaves blow around from place to place all winter long.  We accept them and appreciate the good things they do for the garden.

Leaves around porches and walkways can be swept, and then shredded.

Leaves around porches and walkways can be swept, and then shredded.

Leaves are extremely important  for building good soil.  As they decompose they release many important nutrients to the soil, feed earthworms and other soil dwelling creatures, insulate the ground, and hold moisture.  We either shred the leaves with the lawn mower, allowing them to mix with the grass clippings for speedier decomposition,  or suck them up with our blower.  In both cases we catch them in the appliance’s bag, and pour them out around shrubs where the mulch is needed.  Leaves are far too valuable to an organic gardener to bag and throw away. Carbon and nitrogen, along with many minerals, accumulate in the leaves throughout the summer.  These are released and enrich the soil as the leaves decompose.  When earthworms feed on the leaves, even more of their nutrient content is made available to feed other plants.

My friend has begun working on a new hugelkultur bed and will fill this area with shredded leaves, fallen branches, and other organic materials to prepare for spring planting.

My friend has begun working on a new hugelkultur bed and will fill this area with shredded leaves, fallen branches, and other organic materials to prepare for spring planting.

Shredded leaves are an important ingredient for new hugelkultur beds and for  compost piles.

Any spot where you plan to plant in spring can be covered in a layer of shredded  leaves now.  First lay down cardboard, grocery bags, or sheets of newspaper in new areas to kill off any grass or weeds over the winter, pour on the shredded leaves, and then water the pile to keep the leaves from blowing away.  This method is called “sheet composting”.   Throughout winter add coffee grounds, tea bags, vegetable scraps, rinsed egg shells, and used potting soil under the leaves.  Top this mound off with a few inches of topsoil or finished compost in spring, and plant directly into this new bed.

Shredded leaves used as mulch around shrubs enrich the soil, conserve moisture, encourage earthworms, and prevent erosion.

Shredded leaves used as mulch around shrubs enrich the soil, conserve moisture, encourage earthworms, and prevent erosion.

So work done in the garden, now that we’ve had our first frost, will focus on conserving our resources and preparing for the coming season.  As we clean up what remains from this year’s growth, we will provide protection from winter’s cold, allow food and shelter for our birds to remain in place, build the soil, and prepare our beds for the coming season.  Recycling nature’s gifts enriches the garden, and makes it more beautiful and abundant with each passing year.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.

Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people. ”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

After the frost, the garden is still beautiful.

After the frost, the garden is still beautiful.

August 1

August first, and the dogwood trees are full of berries, their leaves showing the first hint of autumn color.

August first, and the dogwood trees are full of berries, their leaves showing the first hint of autumn color.

The first day of August is one of the important turning points of the year.  Traditionally known as the day of First Harvest, Lammas, or Lughnasa or Lughnasadh; August 1 is a day for celebrating the first fruits of the harvest

In medieval Europe, peasants were expected to present the first wheat harvest to their lords on this day.  In Ireland, and other Celtic nations, bread was baked from newly harvested wheat and either presented at church; blessed, broken, and placed around the barn to protect the harvest; or carried up a mountain or hill and offered to the traditional gods and goddesses who cared for these lands before the Christians came, then buried in the Earth as a sacrifice.

Squash vine blooming on the first rainy morning of August.

Squash vine blooming on the first rainy morning of August.

Today is a day for celebrating the harvest of summer and preparing for the shorter, cooler days of autumn which are just ahead.  Lammas is the first of the three traditional harvest festivals in traditional Celtic communities.  Autumn Equinox falls near the end of September, and then Samhain on October 31.  Just as Thanksgiving Day celebrates the ending of the harvest in the United States, so Lammas, August 1, celebrates the beginning of the harvest throughout much of the northern Hemisphere.

Leaves are already turning red on this seedling oak tree.

Leaves are already turning red on this seedling oak tree.

 

This is a good time to gather for family reunions, to throw a party for close friends, to bake bread, gather the last of the berries, and observe the turning of the season.  Days are noticeably shorter now.  The dogwood leaves are beginning to show tinges of red here in Williamsburg, Va.  We’ve had our first cool nights in a good long time, and cool damp mornings with a fresh breeze from the northeast for a change.

In August our thoughts turn to preparations for the school year ahead in many families.  It is time to begin gathering school supplies, taking off for those last family excursions, and buying new shoes and school clothes.  Teachers are plotting the year ahead, revising lesson plans, and savoring the last few days of summer break.  College freshmen will leave home in the next few weeks to begin life on their own in their first dorm room.  It is a time of nervousness and excitement as room mates make plans and parents prepare to see their children move on.

Yes, August is for savoring.  As we feel the long hot days slipping away, we appreciate each summer day a little more.  We hang on to the goodness and pleasures of the season.July 31 2013 002

I’ve been watching hummingbirds in the garden the last few days, and the ever increasing crowd of butterflies feasting on everything with flowers.  Their enthusiasm is contagious.  It is no wonder that so many traditional religious faiths imagine “heaven” to be in a garden. 

Berries have formed now on the Bay Myrtle shrubs.  Over the next few weeks they'll turn dusty blue before the song birds devour them.

For those of us who are the gardeners, August is an important month of transition, and there are some key tasks wanting our attention:

My garden has another three to four months of life in it before I will even think of frost.  With such a long growing season, there are definite transitions in what is coming and what is going.

This is a good time to wander around the camera and take photos.  A garden always looks different in photos than it does in person.  The camera brings focus to particular views; it frames and edits what we see. This is a good time to take photos of all parts of the garden- the parts you like, and the parts which need tweaking.  Work with the photos as you make plans for the coming seasons. 

Bulb catalogs are out now, and we have a window for ordering the bulbs we’ll need to plant by mid-November.

This is also the time to make our final purchases for the year of compost, mulch, potting soil, tools, and pots.   Many garden centers and hardware stores in are process of moving out their gardening equipment and bringing in Halloween and Christmas merchandise.  (Yes, it is WAY too early to see Christmas decorations in the stores, but we all know they show up earlier each year.)  Most everything is on clearance prices at the garden centers now. This is a last opportunity to stock up on things we’ll need for the next several months.  Have you ever tried to buy potting soil in February?

Beautyberry shrubs are full of tiny berries.  They will turn bright purple by early September.

Beautyberry shrubs are full of tiny berries. They will turn bright purple by early September.

Lavender and Basil benefit from cutting back now, and will keep producing for the next several weeks.  Keep up with the weeding so plants don't get over gown with grass.

Lavender and Basil benefit from cutting back now, and will keep producing for the next several weeks. Keep up with the weeding so plants don’t get over gown with grass.

Fall is the best time for planting trees and shrubs in my area.  As an added bonus, they are on sale right now.  Planting in early fall gives them a chance to adjust and grow new roots into the surrounding soil before the ground freezes.

A new hydrangea has been growing in a pot on the deck.  New shrubs do best when planted out into the garden in autumn.

A new Hydrangea has been growing in a pot on the deck. New shrubs do best when planted out into the garden in autumn.

August is also the time to cut back.  Many perennials have finished blooming and look ratty at the moment.  Unless you are waiting for seeds to form, daylily stalks need removing; brown leaves of Iris need cutting; verbenas, Echinacea, and some annuals will benefit from a hard cutting back.  Harvest fresh flowers of Zinnia, Echinacea, rose, and many others plants to stimulate more flower production.  Cut off fading flowers promptly, before seed is set, to stimulate more flowers.  This is especially important on flowering shrubs, like Buddleia, which will just shut down if the flowers are left to set seed.

Cut back spent flowers before they can set seed to keep new flowers opening for several more weeks.

Cut back spent flowers before they can set seed to keep new flowers opening for several more weeks.

Harvest herbs regularly.  Oregano, Basil, Marjoram, and mints will keep producing for many weeks to come, if the flowers are cut back regularly.  Harvest generously and the plants will reward you with renewed growth.  Herbs can be dried, infused in oil or vinegar for cooking, made into pesto and frozen, or used fresh for cooking.  Some lavender plants will send up another flush of flower stalks if the spent flowers are removed, and the branches trimmed back slightly.

July 24 2013 garden photos 022Roses give another strong burst of bloom in October in our area, so it is important to keep up with the pruning.  Cut off any spent blossoms by cutting the whole stem back to just above a leaf with five small parts.  Any diseased or brown leaves should be removed and thrown away.  There is time to feed rose bushes once more with Espona Rose Tone and Epson salts to stimulate those autumn blossoms.  If there is evidence of black spot, give another spray with an organic fungicide like neem oil.

Blackberry and raspberry canes which bore fruit this year need cutting back to the ground when the harvest is over.  New canes should be tied into the supports.  New fruiting shrubs should be planted now.July 31 2013 004

Fall vegetables should be planted in August.  It is a good time to start kale, collards, and spinach; carrots, snap beans, onions, radishes, and lettuce from seed.  Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts transplants can be set in place.  Autumn is the time to plant garlic for harvest next summer.  Many of our tomato, cucumber, and squash plants have given up for the year.  We need to clean them away, add some compost to the beds, and plant our fall vegetables. 

If our tomatoes, squash, peppers, and melons are still healthy and producing, we can clean up any damaged leaves and give them a shot of Neptune’s Harvest to keep them going into fall.  I often harvest my last tomatoes around the first of November.  Even though the days are shorter, surviving plants seem to get a fresh start when the temperatures cool down.  Keep producing plants well watered and pick the fruits as soon as they ripen.

Figs are beginning to ripen, and can be harvested over the next several weeks.

Figs are beginning to ripen, and can be harvested over the next several weeks.

Potatoes are ready to dig as soon as the tops yellow and die back.  Sweet potatoes still have another month or so to grow before they are ready.

Strawberry runners can be rooted in pots and then cut away from the mother plant, or can be pinned down to the garden soil and allowed to grow in place.  Runners rooted now should bear next spring.

Figs are beginning to ripen.  Check the trees over day or so for ripe figs.  They will continue to ripen here over a long season into October.

One of the toughest jobs in August, especially when August is hot and bright, is the weeding.  Grass and weeds can overtake a bed so quickly.  It is important to use cool and damp mornings to stay after the weeds so our crops and flowers aren’t crowded out.  If certain grasses and weeds get started, their underground stems and roots will just keep sending up new plants forever.  Weeds allowed to set seed will plague our beds for years to come. 

Black eyed Susans, the first of the autumn flowers, are just beginning to bloom.

Black eyed Susans, the first of the autumn flowers, are just beginning to bloom.

Finally, August is a good time to start new stem cuttings.  When growth gets too rampant on Basil, Coleus, Begonias, Plectranthus, Impatiens, and other leggy plants, we can often root the bits we cut back.  Most will root in a glass of water.  Some wonderful plants, like cane Begonias and purple heart can just be stuck into moist soil, and they will root in place.  Annual plants and tender perennials started in fall from stem cuttings can be overwintered and saved for next season.  This not only saves money, it insures that the variety you like best is available. 

August is a month of transition.  We complete what we began in spring, close out, clean up, and savor the harvest of our efforts, even as we make preparations for the new beginnings autumn brings.  It is a time for family and fellowship, for celebration, and for sowing the seeds of our next harvest.

All photos by Woodland Gnome

Pomegranate ripening

Pomegranate ripening

 A bread recipe to celebrate Lammas

Measure 3c. self-rising flour into a large mixing bowl.

Add 1 tsp. sea salt,  1 TB olive oil, 2 TB honey, and 1 tsp. active dry yeast

Also add some dried onion flakes, snipped herbs,  finely chopped chilies, and  grated sharp cheddar cheese if you want a heartier loaf.  (the extra yeast helps the bread rise if cheese and other heavy ingredients are added)

Stir ingredients lightly with a spatula, and form a well in the center of the mixture.  Pour in a 12oz bottle of a favorite beer.  Mix until the mixture is thick and all ingredients are moistened.  Run a little water into the bottle to rinse and add to the mixture if more liquid is needed.

Turn out this wet dough into a prepared bread pan.  Pat the top of the loaf with a little additional flour, cover with waxed paper, and let rise in a warm spot for an hour.

When the bread has risen to fill the pan, preheat the oven to 400 F.  Brush or spray some water onto the loaf, and sprinkle with sea salt and sesame seeds.

Bake about a half hour until the loaf is fragrant and browned.

Allow finished loaf to cool on a rack until it an be handled, and enjoy with friends and loved one.

Pruning

oak

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Pruning is hard for me.  I am always reluctant to cut away bits of a living plant.  And yet I’ve learned that the cutting away nearly always catalyzes new growth; usually more vigorous and productive than what was removed.

Biologically, when a stem or branch is cut back, the plant releases hormones which activate all of the growth nodes further back down the plant so they begin to send out new shoots.  When you cut a stem of basil, two new branches will grow back from just below the cut, but new branches will also begin to grow where none were before along the rest of the stem.  Soon the plant has filled out with lush new growth.

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Basil

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When you remove spent flowers, the plant is mobilized to produce more buds and blossoms to replace them in the hopes of eventually setting seeds.  All flower gardeners know to “deadhead” the spent flowers every few days to keep their gardens full of blossoms.  Harvesting flowers to bring in and arrange and share keeps the garden productive through the season.

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The forest

The Forest before the storm…

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And still, I’m horrified to watch my friends who own the Homestead Garden Center deal with their leggy stock. They take perfectly beautiful blooming plants, those who have sat on the shelves a few weeks too long, and sheer them back; ruthlessly cutting off blooms and branches.  Then they plop them into the next size of pot with fresh soil, douse the whole thing with some Neptune’s Harvest, and move them back into the tunnel for a while.

Miraculously, those plants not only recover, but soon are covered in fresh, vibrant new leaves and buds.  What an amazing  process to watch unfold.  When I buy a plant, they often admonish me to cut it back hard when I transplant it; advice I too seldom take.

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We’ve loved our “forest” in the front yard since the day we first saw our house.  We loved the shade and the privacy it gave us.  We loved the huge old oaks, and all of the small dogwoods, hollies, and wild blueberries growing under them.  We loved the mushrooms growing among their knobby roots after a heavy rain, and the many birds they brought to the garden.  Although we didn’t much care for the families of squirrels digging holes and hiding acorns in the flower pots all autumn, they were also a part of the life of the forest.

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A neighbor's oak tree fell across our back garden in Hurricane Irene.

A neighbor’s oak tree fell across our back garden in Hurricane Irene, 2010.

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As much as we love old trees, and especially old oaks, I must admit that listening to the wind whipping through the great old branches heavily laden with leaves and nuts is a terrifying sound in the night.  A neighbor’s huge oak fell across the back yard in Irene, and gave us a clear visual of how long their reach can be when they fall.  Although it destroyed most of our orchard, and made a terrific mess of the yard, the house was spared.

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A freak June thunderstorm spawned waterspouts from the Creek which took out three oak trees from our forest.

A freak June thunderstorm spawned waterspouts from the Creek which took out three oak trees from our forest.

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Now, not even two years later, a freak June thunderstorm spun up waterspouts off the Creek and into our yard, felling three oaks from our forest.  They fell away from the house and into the street.  We were spared yet again, and the message was clear.

Time to prune in the forest.   Our trees had grown lopsided reaching for the sun.  Some were leaning, and all had a few dead or dying branches ready to fall in the next heavy wind.

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Arborists grinding pruned branches to return them to the forest as a thick mulch.

Arborists grinding pruned branches to return them to the forest as a thick mulch.

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The crew who cleaned up our trees in June returned this week with their chainsaws and climbing equipment.  After two long days of pruning, my beautiful trees look like strangers.  The floor of the forest is covered in bits of their wood and leaves, where many of the branches were ground up for mulch.  My forest garden is open to the full sun beating down in areas which have known only shade for decades.  I am still in shock, just observing, still trying to accept and appreciate the opportunity for change and transformation.

My good friend sat for a moment in silence when she first saw it last night.

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forest

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We had just spent the afternoon together walking around her garden.  She and her husband removed an oak in their front yard last year, and in its place built a new raised bed now full of flowers and vegetables.  Their tomatoes, rooted in the new soil and compost are now over 10’ tall.  Their Zinnias, full of butterflies, are head high.  We share the same struggles with gardening in this neighborhood, and try to share ideas that work and plants that grow well here.

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Zinnias and Monarch butterfly.

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She and her husband also showed me the oaks they saved by having them pruned.  Their majestic healthy oaks, all close to the house, are clothed this summer in a bright leaves and new growth. The wind moves through them easily now, and the scars of pruning are hidden, at least in high summer, by healthy new branches.

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I know our trees will recover in time, and by next summer will be covered again in beautiful green leaves.  I know that within a few years they will grow enough to once more give shade to the front garden.  I know the mulch the arborists left will protect and enrich the soil and allow for new understory growth.  I know that the shrubs still standing will benefit from the extra sunlight and grow like they’ve never grown before. And, I know that I can plant new things this fall in the open spaces.  The garden will evolve and will be beautiful once again.

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forest~

But in this moment, my eyes see the stubby remains of our once beautiful trees, naked and wounded, the ground around them covered in fresh wood chips and shredded leaves.

Nothing remains the same for very long in the garden.  This is the joy of gardening, and also the pain of it.  We gardeners are filled with joy to see buds swelling in February, opening into early spring flowers and baby leaves.  We are always disappointed when the garden is finally killed by frost.  We prune our dormant shrubs and fruit trees in late winter, knowing full well that new growth will follow in a few weeks.  Many plants flower on new wood, and so are constantly renewed by pruning.

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Our Forest Garden, July 2018.

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But just as in all parts of our lives, change is relentless Growth, fruition, and decay follow each other with blinding speed.  And too much growth creates its own problems.  Plants can smother themselves and each other, allow fungus to get a foothold turning leaves yellow and buds black.  Vines can grow too thickly and tear down their supports.  Shrubs will grow up over our windows, and trees can grow too tall and thick and come down in heavy winds.

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April, 2018. The bed with the blue globe marks the spot where our beautiful double oak once stood, its root ball entombed below.  Before the trees fell, we  would have never had enough sun to grow Iris and other perennials in this part of the garden.

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Once we accept the inevitability of change, and work with it, we become much better gardeners.  We know when to plant, when to prune, when to repot, when to fertilize, when to weed, and when to spray.  We are able to understand how our action, or inaction, today will dictate how our garden develops in the next month or the next years.

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Destroyed in the storm, the tiny trunk of this Wax Myrtle is already sprouting new growth a month later.

Destroyed in the storm, the tiny trunk of this Wax Myrtle is already sprouting new growth a month later.

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When I was a child my family moved every few years.  My father’s work took him from one town to the next.  We left the rest of our family firmly situated in their homes and lives, but we were always leaving one community and trying to get a fresh start in another.   It was very hard making friends and then leaving them behind so often.  It was hard adjusting to new homes and new schools, only to move on again before the dust had time to settle.  My parents always focused on the many opportunities such a life opens up.

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When transplanting, always inspect the roots. Grown too long in a small pot, the roots begin to grow in circles and will strangle the plant.  Remove the outer layer of roots if the plant is root bound. This one is fine, so I simply loosened the roots with the tip of my knife.

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Looking back, I realize that my childhood was a process of “root pruning”.  As soon as I timidly began to grow some roots in a place, my life was uprooted and transplanted somewhere else.  Like a Bonsai, I had to get tough to grow and sustain life in a very small pot.  There is an elegance and sparseness to such a life.  One quickly understands that nothing stays the same for long, and learns to embrace change as the only constant.

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New growth always holds promse. Here, ferns revived by the rain try to re-sprout from their roots.

New growth always holds promise. Here, ferns revived by the rain try to re-sprout from their roots.

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But my parents were ultimately correct.  Every move brought new people and new opportunities into our lives.  We never became bored or boring, because we were always growing into our new situation.  We had a certain freedom to reinvent ourselves and to explore new ideas and ways of being that simply aren’t possible to those who don’t welcome change and never give themselves a fresh start somewhere new.

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Native ebony spleenwort transplanted successfully into this old stump.

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And so pruning is a good thing.  Whether we prune plants in our garden; or prune our lives through moves, job changes, divorce, or watching our children grow and move into lives of their own;  pruning activates growth.  Pruning allows new wood to grow and blossom, and ultimately renews us and keeps us strong.

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All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2018

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April 2014, beauty returns to our Forest Garden.

(Forest Garden)

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