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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Wednesday Vignette: Growth

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“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically.
We grow sometimes in one dimension,
and not in another; unevenly.
We grow partially.  We are relative.
We are mature in one realm, childish in another.
The past, present, and future mingle
and pull us backward, forward,
or fix us in the present.
We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”
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Anaïs Nin

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“A single day is enough
to make us a little larger
or, another time, a little smaller.”
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Paul Klee

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“We are not trapped or locked up in these bones.
No, no. We are free to change.
And love changes us.
And if we can love one another,
we can break open the sky.”
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Walter Mosley

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“Patience is not the ability to wait.
Patience is to be calm no matter what happens,
constantly take action to turn it
to positive growth opportunities,
and have faith to believe
that it will all work out in the end
while you are waiting.”
.
Roy T. Bennett

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017
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“Do you not see how necessary
a world of pains and troubles is
to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”
.
John Keats
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Small Pots

Small pots free us to experiment with plants and planting styles we might never try in the larger garden.  Sometimes called ‘Bonsai accent pots,’ these tiny gardens allow us to create detailed little worlds in a small, shallow container.  All of the plants in a composition should share requirements for light, moisture and nutrition. 

A ‘small pot’ shares much in common with a terrarium; save it is open to the air.  The pot may or may not have a drainage hole, and can be a shallow tray or a few inches deep.  The soil may be finished in mosses, or with fine gravel, small stones, or low, vining plants.

Many of the plants in a small pot may eventually need re-potting to a larger container.  Other plants may remain small and can be grown on in the same pot for several years.  The plants begin as rooted cuttings, small divisions, or perhaps a small bulb, rhizome, seedling tree or tuber.  When kept outside, windblown seeds often germinate and grow.  The gardener may choose to allow the volunteer plant, or pluck it.

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Begonia, nearly ready to bloom for its first time.

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‘Small pots’ need regular watering and grooming, and most want light shade.  They may need daily misting if kept indoors.  They can dry out very quickly if forgotten. 

Tending these small pots allows us to cultivate mindfulness as we construct and care for them, and as we watch them grow and evolve over time.

These ferns, and the Begonia, all came from The Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond, where they are sold in 1″ pots for terrariums, bonsai, and fairy gardens.

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