“Spillers”

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Good garden design challenges us to think in many dimensions at once.  We plan for how the plants we use will fill the space, and for how those plants will change over time.  I am still intrigued by Jennifer Smith’s article in Horticulture Magazine, The Secret to Great Garden Design, in which she describes the design principles of ‘earth, man and sky.”

In that February article, she challenges gardeners to evaluate the layers of their landscape.  There should be interest at ground level, at the height of a man, and also at the ‘ceiling’ of the garden, creating a sense of enclosure.  Finding those layers harmoniously in scale with one another, even in the winter garden, constitutes the framework of a good design.

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July 20, 2014 hummingbird 006

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While this is a useful way to analyze each of the ‘rooms’ of our garden as a whole, I believe it can be applied to container plantings and container groupings as well.  Any time we choose to plant more than one plant in a container, we create a miniature landscape of sorts.  And remaining mindful of ‘earth, man and sky’ can guide us towards a more pleasing design.

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In this newly planted container, the Alocasia 'Stingray' will give several feet of height, representing 'sky.' The tuberous Begonias will grow to a medium height and constitute 'man.' Creeping Jenny and Ajuga will cover the soil and spill over the side, giving us 'Earth.'

In this newly planted container, the Alocasia ‘Stingray’ and Caladium will give several feet of height, representing ‘sky.’ The tuberous Begonias and Coleus will grow to a medium height and constitute ‘man.’ Creeping Jenny and Ajuga will cover the soil and spill over the side, giving us ‘Earth.’

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Some designers advise grouping ‘thrillers, fillers and spillers’ in a container garden design.  I’ve always found this a little confusing.  What if your thrillers also spill?  Why would I want to plant a plant which merely ‘fills’ space?  What if I want to plant a single plant in a pot:  should it simply fill, or must it thrill ?

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Another newly planted pot features Zantedeschia for 'sky,' Pelargonium and Heuchera for 'man,' and Dichondra for 'Earth.'

Another newly planted pot features Zantedeschia for ‘sky,’ Pelargonium and Heuchera for ‘man,’ and Dichondra for ‘Earth.’

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Maybe you, like me, often put one plant in a pot and happily let it grow.  Over the years, I’ve moved towards planting slightly larger pots, and combining several plants in a single pot for more interesting compositions. And in composing groups of plants, I’ve given ever more attention to ground cover plants and ‘spillers.’

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There are several good reasons to include a ground cover in a landscape, as well as in a container planting.  First, it presents a more ‘finished’ appearance.  Beyond that, it protects the soil in heavy rain or overhead watering so the soil isn’t compacted or splashed up onto the plant’s foliage.  A ground cover shields the soil from direct sunlight and slows evaporation.  It also can discourage squirrels tempted to dig in your finished bed or pot!

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This low pot includes both moss and Creeping Jenny as ground cover. Spring's bulbs are dying back. I've tucked a Pelargonium into the established pot for summer interest.

This low pot includes moss, Sedum, and Creeping Jenny as ground cover. Spring’s bulbs are dying back. I’ve tucked a Pelargonium into the established pot for summer interest.

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I nearly always finish off a newly planted basket or pot with a light covering of fine gravel.  Beyond that, I’ll also place larger decorative stones, marbles, minerals or glass in the pot.  Sometimes I’ll place these over the roots of newly planted cuttings to protect them and hold them in place as the plant begins to grow.

In recent years, I frequently establish a living ground cover, as well.  Whether moss, a low growing succulent, or a vining ‘spiller,’ this living ground cover adds color and interest to the planting.

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May 23, 2016 fairy house 001

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Repeatedly using a limited palette of color and plant material helps establish unity in a garden design.  Even a non-gardener can ‘read’ the design and understand it more easily when elements repeat.  Using a few ground covers and ‘spillers’ across many different containers helps to establish that unity.  It is economical, as well, since most of these plants root quickly and easily.  A small division will soon take off and grow into its new spot.

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Autumn fern harmonizes with Creeping Jenny and Ajuga. We planted this combo last fall while re-doing a bed beneath our Camellia, and have repeated it in other areas of the garden, including pots.

Autumn fern harmonizes with Creeping Jenny and Ajuga. We planted this combo last fall while re-doing a bed beneath our Camellia, and have repeated it in other areas of the garden, including pots.

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I’ve used golden Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia ‘aurea’, for several years now.  It grows so prolifically that I haven’t needed to purchase a plant since that first season.  This is a hardy perennial in our area, often turning red in cold weather.

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Creeping Jenny now surrounds our water feature. This photo from the end of April shows its growth in the stony pond.

Creeping Jenny now surrounds our water feature. This photo from the end of April shows its growth in the shallow, stony pond.

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It overwinters easily in pots or growing on the ground.  New roots grow at every leaf junction.  It will scamper up and over obstacles, and forms a thick mat, dripping down the sides of pots in golden beauty.

Another easy perennial favorite in our climate is Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina.’ 

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S. ‘Angelina’ pokes up through Ajuga in this pot. Ajuga holds its good looks all year round, blooming in mid-spring.

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Any little piece of this plant which breaks off can quickly root on moist soil.  It holds its golden color throughout the year.  It also forms a thick mat and cascades over the sides of pots.  Drought tolerant and happy in full sun, it ‘volunteers’ and grows happily on in unlikely spaces.

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S. 'Angelina' has escaped its pot and fills the poor soil beside our street. Here it grows with Ajuga, and Ivy.

S. ‘Angelina’ has escaped its pot and fills the poor soil beside our street. Here it grows with Ajuga, Germander, Senecio cineraria and Ivy.

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I noticed a beautiful silvery grey ‘spiller’ flowing from hanging baskets in Gloucester Court House last summer.  Shimmery curtains of silver hung down  several feet below the edges of their bright summer baskets along the main street of town.  From a distance, it looked almost like Spanish Moss.  But Spanish Moss is rare in our area and isn’t used in hanging baskets!

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Dichondra spills from this pot, only a few weeks after planting.

Dichondra argentea spills from this pot, only a few weeks after planting.

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I learned the designer had planted Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’ around the edges of those beautiful baskets.  And oh, how cool and elegant the baskets looked hanging from the light polls along the street of this historic village!

Dichondra is grown as an annual in our Zone 7 region.  Native to the southwestern United States, it grows in full sun to part shade, and is reasonably drought tolerant.  Further south, Dichondra repens, a green leafed relative native to Australia and New Zealand,  is used as a lawn substitute ground cover.  It is a perennial in zones 10 and south.

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I’ve bought several small pots of Dichondra argentea this spring.  Each clump is easily divided into four or five smaller clumps, which may be planted around the perimeter of a pot or basket.

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These have grown very quickly for us, filling in on top of the soil, as well as draping gracefully over the container’s edge.  I intend to keep this plant in our repertoire for future years.

Other good ground covers for pots include the many Ajuga cultivars; and for shade, ivy, moss, and Leptinella.   Each of these plants gives a finished look and added elegance to an otherwise ordinary container planting.  Most will happily fill the container all winter.

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Lept

Leptinella grows in the foreground, with mosses and ferns.  It will eventually form a thick mat and can be used as a ground cover in place of grass.

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A beautifully glazed pot brimming with golden Lysimachia or purple Ajuga remains lovely through our mild winter months.  In fact, the only caveat for using these ground cover plants remains their hardy exuberance.  At some point, you either give them the pot, or empty it and start over with fresh potting soil.

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S. 'Angelina' in March grows as ground cover for a Clematis vine and early bulbs.

S. ‘Angelina’ in March grows as ground cover for a Clematis vine and early bulbs.

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I’ve had to empty several pots this spring, clogged with roots from the ground cover plant.  I divide the ground cover and either add little bits back in to begin growing again around my new ‘thriller’ plant, or find places to plant it out in the garden as a permanent ground cover.

Either way it is a ‘win-win’ as these beautiful plants continue to expand and fill their niche of covering the Earth.

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June 14, 2016 pots 001

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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Vinca grows prolifically in our garden, blooming in early spring with the Daffodils.  We let it run through much of the garden.  Here, a few volunteer Colocasia plants have begun to grow.  Could this be C. 'Blue Hawaii,' back after our mild winter?

Vinca grows prolifically in our garden, blooming in early spring with the Daffodils. We let it run in many areas, where it eventually grows thick and dense. Here, a few volunteer Colocasia plants have begun to grow. Could this be C. ‘Blue Hawaii,’ back after our mild winter?

 

 

 

Color Your World: Perseverance

The Star Magnolia wants to break into bloom in the depths of our Virginia winter. February 11 Grey

The Star Magnolia wants to break into bloom in the depths of our Virginia winter. February 11 Grey

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“Begin doing what you want to do now.

We are not living in eternity.

We have only this moment,

sparkling like a star in our hand-

-and melting like a snowflake…”

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Francis Bacon

We woke this morning to the unexpected beauty of our garden covered in snow.  An inch fell sometime between midnight and morning.  The clouds were long gone by the time I wandered to the window to look out on this new day; a day bathed in warm golden sunshine, reflecting off that brilliant and sparkling snow.

We are in those depths of a Virginia winter when one must expect the unexpected.  We’ve more snow on the way, and we are preparing for night time temperatures to grow ridiculously cold by Saturday night.  These are the days and nights a gardener dreads, when those tiny bits of life one tries to nurture through till spring finally might succumb to winter’s frigid touch.

Knowing this, we moved the olive trees into the garage at sunset yesterday.  Now nearly 4 feet tall, they have made it through three winters in their very portable pots.  Hardy to Zone 8, I have left them out longer this winter than ever before.  But now they are situated in the garage to survive these next few frosty nights.

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Sedum rupestre 'Angelina' shrugs off the cold without a single leaf withering. They may turn a bit rosy in the cold, but always recover. February 13 'Yellow Green' and February 7 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown.'

Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ shrugs off the cold without a single leaf withering. They may turn a bit rosy in the cold, but always recover. February 13 ‘Green Yellow’ and February 7 ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown.’

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“You never know what’s around the corner.

It could be everything.

Or it could be nothing.

You keep putting one foot in front of the other,

and then one day you look back

and you’ve climbed a mountain.”

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Tom Hiddleston

I’m always a bit restless in February.  I want to keep on gardening, but most of the garden has gone dormant.  I wander around looking for signs of change and growth.  Perhaps I’m looking for reassurance that things are still alive.

While it is fine to have a rest from weeding and watering, I miss the dynamic change of watching plants grow and develop into the fullness of their beauty.

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Selaginella with a new Amaryllis

Selaginella and Strawberry Begonia with a new Amaryllis bulb. February 10 ‘Granny Smith Apple Green.’

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This time of year challenges our spirit of perseverance.  

We plan, we order, we clean, we prune, and we wait.   I fiddle endlessly with those plants wintering indoors, too; taking cuttings, watering, and admiring those in bloom.

I planted up the last of our autumn Amaryllis bulbs today with some beautiful Selaginella adopted from The Great Big Greenhouse last week.   Understanding how February affects us all, they compassionately have a full month of special events to promote tropical houseplants.  I made it for the last day of their sale on ferns, but  will miss the Orchid presentation next Saturday….

The little Strawberry Begonia has been growing outside in a pot since last summer.  Today I finally rescued it,  and brought it inside for this arrangement.  Maybe it will respond to the warmth by sending out runners and ‘baby’ plants some week soon.

There are rarely immediate results from those tasks we tackle in winter.  We have to bide out time and wait for our efforts to bear fruit sometime further along in the season.   We wait and watch for those first tiny signs of spring’s awakening, ready to celebrate each unfolding.

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The first tiny green tips of awakening bulbs break ground in this pot by the back door. February 8, 'Gold.'

The first tiny green tips of awakening bulbs break ground in this pot by the back door. February 8, ‘Gold.’

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I am happy, this February, to participate in Jennifer Nichole Wells’s new “Color My World: One Hundred Days of Crayola” photo challenge.  Jenny is working from the Crayola Crayon chart of colors, and offers a new color challenge each day for 120 days, beginning January 1.   I’ll aim for one post each week, sharing photos of as many of that week’s colors as I’m able.

This week’s colors include:  Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown, Gold, Goldenrod, Granny Smith Green, Grey, Green, and Green Yellow.  These colors were easy to find in the garden today, even in a February garden.  There are abundant signs of life in our Forest Garden, and we appreciate finding each and every one.

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Goldenrod yellow shines in the face of this tiny Viola. February 9, "Goldenrod."

Autumn’s ‘Goldenrod’ yellow shines in the face of this tiny Viola. February 9, “Goldenrod.”

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“God has, in fact, written two books, not just one.

Of course, we are all familiar with the first book

he wrote, namely Scripture.

But he has written a second book

called creation.”

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Francis Bacon 

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Our Forsythia continues slowly breaking bud in the garden. We didn't enjoy Forsythia until mid-March in 2015. Here it blooms by the drive.

Our Forsythia continues slowly breaking bud in the garden. We didn’t enjoy Forsythia until mid-March in 2015. Here it blooms by the drive.

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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Our pond at sunset last Saturday. February 12, 'Green"

Our pond at sunset last Saturday. February 12, ‘Green”

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“Even in the mud and scum of things,

something always, always sings.”

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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