Fresh Start 2021: Carbon Garden

October blooming Camellia sasanqua

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Only recently have I come across the term ‘Carbon Garden’ in the current issue of Horticulture Magazine.  You may be ahead of me on this one, but the picture that came to mind when I first saw the term wasn’t very pretty.  The reality of it is much more attractive, and this garden style proves easier to maintain than many other garden styles.

Like other elements, carbon is an atom that can manifest as a solid, in a liquid, or as a gas.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) remain in the news because they contribute so much to our warming environment.  Gasses like carbon dioxide and methane (CH4) trap heat from the sun near the surface of the earth, causing warmer weather and heavier rainfalls.  Conversations around reversing the current warming trends usually focus on reducing carbon emissions and finding ways to scrub carbon out of the air.

Magically, we have living tools for removing carbon from the air right outside our windows.  You see, every green plant cell uses carbon dioxide in its daily efforts to feed itself and sustain the entire plant.  In the presence of sunlight, carbon dioxide and water transform into glucose, used to power plant growth, and the waste product oxygen, which of course we need in every breath.

When you contemplate a leafy tree, imagine each leaf inhaling polluted air and transforming that air into pure food and oxygen.

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Japanese Maple

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Glucose is further transformed into cellulose, which structures the cell wall of every plant cell.  Now, imagine a tree’s roots growing deeper and wider into the earth with each passing year.  What are those roots made from?  Cellulose:  largely, carbon.

A tree, and most any other plant, can stash carbon deep underground where it will remain for many years in solid form.  Many plants also store nitrogen, filtered out of the air, on their roots.  In fact, any plant in the pea family stores little nodules of solid nitrogen along their roots.  Knowing that nitrogen is a major component of fertilizers, you understand how this stored nitrogen increases the fertility of the soil in the area where these plants grow.

Plant leaves are also made primarily of carbon.  When the leaves fall each autumn, they hold stored, solid carbon.  If returned to the soil as compost or mulch, the carbon remains stored, or sequestered, in solid form in the soil.  This is how ordinary garden soil may be transformed into a ‘carbon sink.’

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Turkey tail mushrooms help decompose the stump of a fallen peach tree. Leaving the stump in place and allowing vegetation to cover it conserves its carbon in the soil.

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A log is made largely of stored carbon.  When you burn it in the fireplace, those chemical bonds break down, and much of the carbon rises back into the air as smoke.  If the same log is made into a cutting board or other wooden object, then the carbon remains in sold form.

Just as burning can break chemical bonds to release carbon back into the air, so will decomposition.  We’ve come to understand that bare dirt, including tilled fields and gardens, releases carbon back into the air.  But ground covered by mulch or living plants doesn’t allow that carbon to move back into the air.

All of this helps explain the science behind the principles of Carbon Gardening, whose goal is to scrub as much carbon as possible out of the air and sequester it in the earth.  Forests have done this very efficiently for untold ages.

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Only in recent times, with so much natural forest cleared and land exposed, has our planet begun its dramatic warming.  Think of all the carbon stored over the centuries as coal, petroleum, peat, and held close under a forest canopy that has been released into our atmosphere over the past century.

So, the point of Carbon Gardening is to use one’s own garden to sequester as much carbon as possible, using gardening methods that hold the carbon in the soil, without burning or releasing any more carbon than possible in the process.

Every breath we exhale contains carbon dioxide.  Our cells produce it as they produce energy.  We live in harmony with the plants we grow, taking in the oxygen they exhale while giving them back our own carbon rich breath.  That said, please don’t try to hold your breath as you make your Carbon Garden.

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Camellia sasanqua

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Here are a few principles of Carbon Gardening that may help point you in the right direction. 

The Audubon Society has a series of articles that go into far more detail.

  1. Plant intensely in layers:  The more plants in growth the more carbon will be scrubbed from the air each day.  Trees are most efficient because they support a huge volume of leaves.  Include evergreen trees that continue respiration through the winter months, and plant a shrub layer, perennial layer, and ground covers under the trees to maximize the amount of carbon absorbed by your garden.  Evergreen perennials and ground covers continue absorbing and storing carbon through the winter months.

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  1. Feed carbon (and nitrogen) back into your soil with plant materials. Use wood chips, bark, and shredded leaves as mulch to minimize bare ground.  Remember that roots sequester a large amount of carbon and nitrogen, so leave those roots in the ground.  Cut weeds or spent annuals at ground level instead of pulling them up.  Compost trimmings and leaves, kitchen waste, and unneeded cardboard, newsprint or brown paper.

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This is a very thin layer of compost covering collected branches, bark and leaves from our fallen tree.  We added additional layers of organic material to build the new planting bed.

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  1. Instead of tilling soil and exposing stored carbon, sheet compost in the winter to prepare for spring planting. Cover the garden area with cardboard or paper to protect the soil and smother any weeds.  Build up layers of composable materials, or even bagged municipal compost, and allow it to decompose in place so that planting seeds or transplants in the spring is possible without tilling or excessive digging.  Coffee grounds, tea bags, rinsed eggshells and other kitchen scraps can be ‘buried’ in the layers of a sheet compost pile, but be careful not to discard of seeds in this way unless you want them to sprout in the spring.

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Paper grocery bags covered with several inches of compost smother weeds and soften the ground for this new planting bed, eliminating the need to dig the area up first.  Pea gravel helps hold this area, which is on a slope.

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  1. Remain mindful of garden ‘inputs’ that burn carbon. This includes garden equipment that burns gas, commercial fertilizers, and maybe even those fun trips to the garden center….?

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This bin of new Caladium bulbs was ready to be planted out in mid-May.  Ordering bare root perennials, bulbs, tubers and seeds and starting them at home reduces the carbon footprint of a garden.  The red leaf is C. ‘Burning Heart,’ a 2015 introduction from Classic Caladiums in Avon Park, FL.

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  1. If you normally buy flats of annual plants each spring for pots or borders, consider how to plant those areas more sustainably. Consider all of the carbon releasing ‘inputs’ required to produce those plants, including the plastic containers they are grown in, the transportation to move them, and the chemical fertilizers and peat based potting soil used in growing them.  While all plants sequester carbon from the air, commercial nursery production of short-lived plants releases carbon into the atmosphere throughout the process and should be considered by conscientious gardeners.  What can you raise from seeds, cuttings or divisions, or obtain through trade with gardening friends?

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Saxifraga stolonifera is an evergreen ground cover that is easy to divide and share.  It grows here with Ajuga ‘Black Scallop,’ Hellebores and ferns.

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  1. Choose native perennials or ones that will naturalize in your climate, so your plants spread and reproduce, reducing the number of plants you need to buy each year to fill your garden. Design a sustainable garden that grows lushly with minimal ‘inputs’ and intervention from the gardener.  Native and naturalizing perennials won’t need much watering during dry spells, will make do with nutrients in the soil, and will expand and self-seed.

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  1. Woody plants sequester carbon in their roots and branches and live for many years. These are the most efficient Carbon Garden plants.   A garden made mostly from trees, shrubs, perennial ferns and groundcovers, will work most efficiently.  Some more arid areas have great success with long-lived succulents.  Consider replacing turf grass with plants that don’t require such intense maintenance.

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Mountain Laurel blooms each May, is native to our region and forms dense clumps over time.

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  1. Use the I-Tree Tool to educate yourself about the power of trees in your landscape to sequester and store carbon, reduce run-off and scrub other pollutants out of the air. Use this tool when selecting new trees to plant in your own yard.

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From left: new leaves emerge red on this hybrid crape myrtle, small Acer palmatum leaves emerge red and hold their color into summer, red buckeye, Aesculus pavia is naturalized in our area and volunteers in unlikely places, blooming scarlet each spring. In the distance, dogwood blooms in clouds of white.

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‘Carbon Gardening’ can make a significant contribution to scrubbing carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the earth, and the total contribution multiplies as the plants grow and the garden develops year to year.  A fully grown native tree can removed fifty or more pounds of carbon from the air annually.  While the amount varies by tree species and size, every year of growth increases the tree’s effectiveness.

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Each gardener who adopts sustainable practices makes a sizeable contribution to off-set and mitigate carbon production in their area.  Planting more plants and allowing them to grow densely also helps manage rainfall so it is stored onsite, rather than running off so rapidly.  The plants sustain wildlife and build a richly integrated ecosystem.

We reduce our own annual costs for new plants, fertilizers, other chemicals and fuel, while also reducing our time invested in garden maintenance.  It is a good approach for any of us who enjoy watching nature weave her tapestry each year, sustainably, while knowing that our gardens are part of the solution to climate warming and climate change.

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Woodland Gnome 2021

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Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful and a positive thought.

Sunday Dinner: Finding Peace

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“We wander through our lives

not sure of what we’re searching for.

“What is my calling?” we might speak to ourselves again and again.

It’s a redundant question;

we might even shout out loud, with no return response.

The answer to our question is peacefulness.

Once we find as much as possible,

we can begin to enjoy simple pleasures, and passions,

without interruption.

Nothing will fall in line without a soft place to land.”

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  Ron Baratono

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“Silence is not absence of words.

Silence is the space where words arise and dissolve.

Without silence, words have no meaning”

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Rashmit Kalra

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“The one who has found inner silence,

stops pondering over the meaning of life

and starts living it.

That’s the journey from “going with the flow”

to “being the flow.”

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  Rashmit Kalra

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“Until he extends the circle of his compassion

to all living things,

man will not himself find peace.”

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  Albert Schweitzer

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“I have within me all that I need;

I am love and life in action.”

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  Jodi Livon

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“World peace must develop from inner peace.

Peace is not just mere absence of violence.

Peace is, I think, the manifestation of human compassion.”


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The 14th Dali Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

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“To be wise means to know when to stay silent.”
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  Kamand Kojouri

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

Sunday Dinner: The Known

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“Do you know that even when you look at a tree and say,

`That is an oak tree’, or `that is a banyan tree’,

the naming of the tree, which is botanical knowledge,

has so conditioned your mind

that the word comes between you and actually seeing the tree?

To come in contact with the tree

you have to put your hand on it

and the word will not help you to touch it.”

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Jiddu Krishnamurti

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“Their life is mysterious,

it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity,

it can be comprehended, described,

but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow,

the density blinds one.

Within there is no form, only prodigious detail

that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight,

foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap,

insects, silence, flowers. And all of this, dependent, closely woven,

all of it is deceiving.

There are really two kinds of life.

There is, as Viri says, the one people believe you are living,

and there is the other.

It is this other which causes the trouble,

this other we long to see.”

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James Salter

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“I’m planting a tree

to teach me to gather strength

from my deepest roots.”

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Andrea Koehle Jones

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“In a forest of a hundred thousand trees, no two leaves are alike.

And no two journeys along the same path are alike.”
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  Paulo Coelho

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Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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“Trees, for example, carry the memory of rainfall.

In their rings we read ancient weather—

storms, sunlight, and temperatures,

the growing seasons of centuries.

A forest shares a history, which each tree remembers

even after it has been felled.”


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Anne Michaels

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Sunday Dinner: What Light We Have

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“There are two ways to be fooled.

One is to believe what isn’t true;

the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”

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Soren Kierkegaard

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“Just because you don’t understand it

doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”

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Lemony Snicket

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“If you look for truth,

you may find comfort in the end;

if you look for comfort

you will not get neither comfort or truth

only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin,

and in the end, despair.”

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  C.S. Lewis

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“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts.

Facts can obscure truth.”

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Maya Angelou

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“The truth is not always beautiful,

nor beautiful words the truth.”

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  Lao Tzu

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“If someone is able to show me

that what I think or do is not right,

I will happily change, for I seek the truth,

by which no one was ever truly harmed.

It is the person who continues

in his self-deception and ignorance

who is harmed.”

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  Marcus Aurelius

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“A thinker sees his own actions

as experiments and questions-

-as attempts to find out something.

Success and failure are for him

answers above all.”

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  Friedrich Nietzsche

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“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is

than to persist in delusion,

however satisfying and reassuring.”

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  Carl Sagan

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true.

I am not bound to succeed,

but I am bound to live up to what light I have.”

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Abraham Lincoln


Six on Saturday: Always Another Surprise

This old redbud tree fell over in a storm last year, yet is covered in new growth this spring. Its roots are strongly planted in the earth even as its trunk lies nearly horizontal along the slope of the garden.

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We weren’t expecting to get between 3 and 5 inches of rain yesterday afternoon.  Sure, we knew it might rain; there might even be a little thunder.  It’s nearly June, the start of Hurricane Season.  Storms come and go in coastal Virginia, and we’ve had a lot of that wet traffic lately.

But the storms seemed to be going around us for much of the day.  And even when the wispy little edge of a system brushed over us on radar, we expected only a passing shower.  But no.  It lingered, grew, intensified, roiled around a while.  It filled the ditch by our street and turned the creek in the ravine into a rushing river of run-off as a flash-flood warning pinged on my phone.  We began to hear about local roads flooding as heavy rain pounded on the roof and patio, our trees bending and swaying under such an unexpected watery attack.

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Some parts of the garden love the rain.

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Does it make sense to say that you’re surprised, while not being really surprised at all?  We’ve had so many fast, unexpected storms roll over our area in recent years that nothing from the sky should surprise us anymore.  And yet when they sneak up in mid-afternoon, without proper warning from the weather-guessers, and then leave a changed landscape behind, it does leave a scuff-mark on one’s psyche.

Of course we are in these already surreal and surprising months of 2020, so nothing should surprise us too much at this point.  Weather seems the least of it, honestly.

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Athyrium ‘Ghost’

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But when I went out early this morning, camera in hand, to spy on the rabbits munching the front ‘lawn’ and to see what I could see in the garden, I was greeted with more little surprises in the garden.

Maybe what I really love most about gardening is the novelty of tending a living system and all of the surprises, both pleasant and not, which greet one each day.  What’s changed?  What’s in bloom?  What’s grown?  What’s been eaten overnight by the deer?  What young tree has just fallen over after the voles ate its roots?  You get my drift….

The very back of our garden is sheltered by a small ‘bamboo forest’ which shields it from the ravine.  Now, you likely know that bamboo, even when it’s 40′ tall and as big around as a large grapefruit, is a grass.  And grass grows from underground rhizomes, which spread as far as they possibly can.  We love the bamboo and the cool privacy it gives us.

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That said, every May we must police its new shoots daily to keep it in bounds.  You see, it really, really would like to claim more of the garden and so marches right up the hill towards our home every spring.  It sends up new shoots hourly over several weeks, and then it gives up until next year.  Sometimes the shoots are chopstick thin and actually look like a respectable grass.  They’re rather artistic and I’d be tempted to leave them, emerging in the midst of a flower border or my fernery, if I didn’t know their intent.

Other shoots come up thick and strong, like fast growing baseball bats claiming their right to seek the sun above the garden.  It’s a good thing that the squirrels love fresh bamboo shoots so much, because they quickly clean up the stray shoots we must knock over each day.

Well, when I wandered into the back garden this morning, I was greeted with unexpectedly prodigious new bamboo shoots thrusting up through shrubs, ferns, perennials and grass.  How can they grow that fast?  I wasn’t in my boots yet, so I made their portraits and left them to grow another few hours until my partner could deal with them.

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The ground was soft and squishy, still completely saturated from another early morning rain.  Fig branches were bent and touching the ground.  The lamb’s ears flower stalks I’d been allowing to grow for the bees lay flat in the mulch.  Only the ferns looked truly happy this morning.  The ferns, pushing out abundant new fronds, and a lone Japanese Iris that just bloomed for the first time in our garden.

A fresh Iris blossom always elicits a smile from me.  Like a deep breath of fresh spring air, it fills me with unreasonable happiness.  What is this magic some flowers work in our gnarly, jaded hearts?  I can turn away from two score bamboo shoots invading the garden to admire a single Iris blossom, and let that beautiful surprise buoy me back inside to pour my morning coffee.

Yes, we garden as much for the surprises as for the known rhythms of our gardening year.  There’s always something new to enjoy and always some new chore to do.  What more could one hope for?

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Iris ensata, ‘Temple Bells,’ blooming for the first time in our garden this morning.  It was a gift from a friend last summer.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

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Please visit my new website, Illuminations, for a daily photo from our garden.

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

Sunday Dinner: Never Assume….

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“Advances are made by answering questions.
Discoveries are made by questioning answers.
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Bernard Haisch

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“Your assumptions are your windows on the world.
Scrub them off every once in a while,
or the light won’t come in.”
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Isaac Asimov

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“It is useless to attempt
to reason a man out of a thing
he was never reasoned into.”
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Jonathan Swift

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“Assumptions are maintained by the hug of history.
Yet, history does not guarantee their validity,
nor does it ever reassess their validity.”
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Michael Michalko

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“You think you know this story.
You do not.”
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Jane Yolen

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“Don’t build roadblocks out of assumptions.”
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Lorii Myers

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“The surface of the earth is soft
and impressible by the feet of men;
and so with the paths which the mind travels.
How worn and dusty, then,
must be the highways of the world,
how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!
I did not wish to take a cabin passage,
but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world,
for there I could best see the moonlight
amid the mountains.”
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Henry David Thoreau

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“There was no Jedi so wise
that he could not be undone
by his own assumptions.”
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Claudia Gray

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020

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“Assumptions close doors.
Intrigue opens them.”
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Sam Owen

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“You find the magic of the world in the margin for error.”
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Heart of Dixie

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Sunday Dinner: Understanding

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“Life can only be understood backwards;

but it must be lived forwards.”

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Søren Kierkegaard

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“I have been and still am a seeker,

but I have ceased to question stars and books;

I have begun to listen to the teaching

my blood whispers to me.”

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Hermann Hesse

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“Deep in the human unconscious

is a pervasive need for a logical universe

that makes sense.

But the real universe

is always one step beyond logic.”

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Frank Herbert

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“Any fool can know.

The point is to understand.”

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Albert Einstein

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“Just because you don’t understand

it doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”

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Lemony Snicket

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“To learn is not to know;

there are the learners and the learned.

Memory makes the one,

philosophy the others.”

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Alexandre Dumas

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“It’s always about timing.

If it’s too soon, no one understands.

If it’s too late, everyone’s forgotten.”

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Anna Wintour

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Because it’s no longer enough to be a decent person.

It’s no longer enough to shake our heads

and make concerned grimaces at the news.

True enlightened activism

is the only thing

that can save humanity from itself.”

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Joss Whedon

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Sunday Dinner: Cycles

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“Every good thing comes to some kind of end,
and then the really good things
come to a beginning again.”
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Cory Doctorow

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“Time has a way of eternally looping us
in the same configurations.
Like fruit flies, we are unable to register the patterns.
Just because we are the crest of the wave
does not mean the ocean does not exist.
What has been before will be again.”
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Tanya Tagaq

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“It’s all a series of serendipities
with no beginnings and no ends.
Such infinitesimal possibilities
Through which love transcends.”
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Ana Claudia Antunes

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“What was scattered
gathers.
What was gathered
blows away.”
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Heraclitus

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“I think that to one in sympathy with nature,
each season, in turn,
seems the loveliest.”
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Mark Twain

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“People can’t live with change
if there’s not a changeless core
inside them.”
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Stephen R. Covey

 

Sunday Dinner: Time and Time Again

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“There are those of us who learn to live completely in the moment.
For such people the Past vanishes and the future loses meaning.
There is only the Present…
And then there are those of us who are trapped in yesterdays,
in the memory of a lost love, or a childhood home,
or a dreadful crime.
And some people live only for a better tomorrow;
for them the past ceases to exist”
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Salaman Rushdie

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“You never know beforehand what people are capable of,
you have to wait, give it time,
it’s time that rules, time is our gambling partner
on the other side of the table
and it holds all the cards of the deck in its hand,
we have to guess the winning cards of life, our lives.”
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José Saramago

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“Measuring time isn’t as simple
as adding or subtracting minutes from a clock…
You must find your own measuring stick.”
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Lindsay Eagar

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The Williamsburg Botanical Garden

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“Brass shines with constant usage,
a beautiful dress needs wearing,
Leave a house empty, it rots.”
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Ovid

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“Spend one more day
in pursuit of art that only you can produce,
and somewhere, someone
is envying your courage to do just that.”
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Teresa R. Funke

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Everything passes,
but nothing entirely goes away.”
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Jenny Diski

 

Six On Saturday: Time for a Change

Geraniums bloom in the midst of scented Pelargoniums and other herbs, Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ and ivy.

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Color touches and excites us.  Of all the reasons for cultivating a garden, enjoying beautiful color throughout the year inspires me more than most.

Color ebbs and flows in waves through the seasons, with beautiful oranges, reds and golds reaching an autumn crescendo some time in October, most years, with colors steadily fading to browns and greys in November .

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Camellia ‘Yuletide’ bloomed this week, a bit earlier than usual.

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Cooler weather brings us renewed, intense color in late season flowers and bright autumn leaves.   Autumn’s flowers celebrate  gentler, wetter weather with a vibrancy they’ve not shown since spring.

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Oakleaf hydrangea holds its colorful leaves deep into winter.  Behind it, the Camellias bloom and flower buds have formed on the Edgeworthia.

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We noticed the first changing leaves in late August.  Maples and sycamores began to turn in late summer, followed in September by the first hits of red on the dogwoods.  Holly berries began to fade from green to orange in early October, and still aren’t fully red.

Our long, warm autumn has held off the usual brilliant autumn foliage of hardwood trees deep into the season, and many trees have dropped their leaves already, lost to wind and drought.  Those that have hung onto their branches long enough to shine, brilliant for a while before falling, are enjoyed all the more this year.

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Purple beautyberries shine against the shrub’s changing leaves.  This isn’t the native, and I don’t recall this particular shrub’s provenance.  But I like its smaller leaves.   ‘African Blue’ and ‘Thai’ basil still bloom prolifically and will continue through the first heavy frost.

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Goldenrod fills our upper garden beds.   A Virginia native, its golden yellow flowers feed the late pollinators and offer a last wash of soft color among stands of brown seedheads and withering perennials.  Our garden remains alive with every sort of little bee, a few Sulphur butterflies and a late Monarch or two.

We came home after dark this week to the rare and magical sight of a lone hummingbird feeding on the ginger lilies.  A hummingbird glows in the wash of headlights, reflecting a bright pin-point of light from its little eye and sparkling in its movement from flower to flower.  One might mistake it for a little fairy moving among the flowers after dusk.

We had thought the hummingbirds had already flown south, and sat for a long time at the top of the drive just watching its progress from flower to flower.

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Butterfly ginger lily is a favorite late nectar source for hummingbirds.

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And so we celebrate the colors of the season, even as the garden fades for another year.  This week I’ve dug Caladiums and replaced them with spring flowering bulbs, Violas, snaps and sprouting Arum lily tubers.

I’m taking up our collection of Alocasias and Colocasias, re-potting them and bringing them inside before our colder nights bite them, too.  We now have low temperatures in the 30s predicted for the next few nights, and they won’t like that.  It’s time to bring in the Begonias, as well, and I’m not looking forward to all the heavy lifting this day will require.

From an afternoon high near 80F on Thursday, we’re suddenly expecting winter-time temperatures at night.  Change is in the air this week.

But even as we turn back our clocks this weekend, so we dial back the garden, too.  Winter is a simpler, starker season, but still beautiful.  And as leaves fall and perennials die back, the Camellias shine.  Every sort of berry brightens to tempt the hungry birds, and we notice the color and texture of all of the different barks on our woodies.

A little planning and thoughtful planting now will insure color in the garden through until spring.  A gardener always has something to enjoy, and something interesting to do while enjoying the beauty surrounding us.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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A new site allows me to continue posting new content since after more than 1700 posts there is no more room on this site.  -WG

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