Plants Want to Live

Native redbud, Cercis canadensis

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The snow fell so fast and wet, that it was already bending the branches of our large dogwood tree so low they nearly touched the deck.   By the time I realized what was happening, I could hear cracks and crashes where trees all around us were having branches ripped off under the weight of such a heavy snow, in mid-December, before the trees had a chance to harden up for winter.

I grabbed a coat, hat and broom and went to work, knocking globs of snow off the dogwood’s branches, allowing them to spring back to a more normal posture.  After knocking off all the snow I could reach from the deck, I headed out into the yard to do the same on trees and shrubs all around the garden.

I could hear sirens in the distance that afternoon, and took a call from a neighbor telling me our neighborhood entrance was blocked by fallen trees. We listened to the groans and snaps of trees into the night, and the following day, under the weight of that unusual snow.

We lost three trees that day and our tall bamboo was bent to the ground, where it froze in place and remained for more than a week.  Bamboo stalks fell across our fig tree and across the fern garden, like an icy roof.  It took a few weeks, after the thaw, to clean up enough to truly assess the damage.

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December 10, 2018, a few days after a heavy snow toppled both of our remaining peach trees. We couldn’t even get to them for several days because everything was frozen solid.

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Our great old redbud tree was bent even further by the weight of the snow-laden bamboo.  Already  leaning towards the sun, the tree leaned at a precipitous angle up hill, its roots nearly in the ravine at the bottom of the yard, and its major branches now resting in the fern garden.  Many branches broke, others needed drastic pruning.  But the roots held, and we cleaned up the tree as well as we could and determined to wait for spring to see how it responded.

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New growth emerges from our broken redbud tree.

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Well, plants want to live.  And this tree is determined to make the best of an awkward situation.  We have been amazed to see how much new growth the tree has produced since March.

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There is a rhythm to tending a garden.  We plant, we tend, we prune, and we stand in awe as our plants become established and take off to grow according to their own patterns.  Like watching a young adult child find their way in the world, our woodies and perennials often have a mind of their own as they claim their space in the garden, reproduce, and grow into their potential.

Sometimes that is a wonderful thing and we admire the maturing plant’s beauty.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea

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Sometimes that is a terrifying thing as we see a plant rapidly claim the garden’s real estate, shading and crowding out the many other (more?) desirable plants we want to grow.

Kindness can turn against us, sometimes, when we welcome a little gift plant from a well meaning friend, finding a spot for it in our garden and tending it through its first year or two.

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Rudbeckia laciniata, a native that feeds wildlife, and an unapologetic thug that has taken over our ‘butterfly garden.’  This came as an uninvited guest with a gift of Monarda from a gardening friend.

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Sometimes the plant gifts itself to us as a windblown or bird-sown seed.  It grows, and we give it a chance to show us what it can become.  And then, Wham!  Suddenly, it has become an outsized monster and we do battle with it to keep it in bounds, or sometimes eradicate it entirely.

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Mid-September 2018, and the Solidago, goldenrod, had just begun to bloom.

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I am way too kind when it comes to such plants.  My curiosity gets the better of my good sense.  I let that little plant grow out just to watch it, and then it has seeded all over the place and I’m spending time trying to get it back under control, and rescue plants about to be completely strangled and starved by this newcomer.

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The Devil’s Walking Stick, , Aralia spinosa, in full bloom and covered by bees in late summer.  This native tree will grow tall, with it trunk covered in sharp thorns.

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The first of the Solidago showed up two summers ago.  It was a novelty.  I had just joined the Virginia Native Plant Society and I was trying to reform my natural preference for pretty imported hybrids and welcome more natives to the garden.  I let it grow.

Then last summer, I was amazed at how many very tall goldenrods grew up.  But I was busy.  I didn’t have much time in my own garden, and I let them grow.

My partner grumbled as they topped 6′ high, but I felt smugly virtuous for giving space to these native plants and supporting the pollinators.  We enjoyed the butterflies and they were pretty once they bloomed golden and lush.  I cut them down in December, but not soon enough.  By then there were seeds, everywhere.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea, Edgeworthia, Camellia, Rudbeckia, Solidago and the surrounding trees create layers of texture in early September 2018.

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And just in the last two weeks, those little goldenrods have grown inches a day, it seems.  My partner came to me on Monday with that look of determination I know so well.  They were growing out into our ever narrowing paths.  A deer had gotten into the front garden, and we couldn’t even see where it was hiding for the lush growth.  I had to do something….

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The new stand of Solidago, cut back to allow black eyed Susans and other perennials space to grow….

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And that is how it came to be that I was taking the string trimmer to my perennial beds Monday evening, under observation, cutting down as many of those Solidago plants as I could until the battery gave out.  Our neighbors paused on the street, wondering if I’d lost my mind, cutting down every plant in sight.

We were back at it early Tuesday morning, and the day I’d planned to spend planting pots went to cutting, pulling, pruning, and generally editing our front garden to remove not only the Solidago, but also the small forest of devil’s walking stick trees growing up from a frighteningly wide network of roots.

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Another little Aralia, looking for space to grow…

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That was another volunteer that I let grow ‘to see what it would do.’  The summer flowers attract clouds of butterflies and bees.  The lovely purple berries are favorites of our song birds.  The huge, palm frond like leaves grow quickly as the tree shoots up, several feet per year.  Its trunk is covered in long, sharp spines.

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Aralia spinosa, a native volunteer in our garden, looked rather tropical as its first leaves emerged in April of 2017.

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This Virginia native is a great tree for wildlife.  But our neighbor warned me, when I offered him one, about its roots.  He told of having to hack it back each summer at his family home when he was a teen.  I listened politely, and let our Aralia spinosa grow on, a novelty in the front garden.

But it fell in our October hurricane and my partner took that opportunity, which I was away, to cut away the main tree entirely.  And I’ve been cutting out a dozen or more sprouts every week since mid-March.

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Yet another goldenrod or obedient plant, growing up under one of our Hydrangea shrubs.  It takes a sharp eye to spot them all, and a bit of balance and agility to reach them all!

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Some were hiding in the goldenrod forest, nestled between other shrubs and cozying up to our emerging Cannas.  What the weed eater couldn’t reach, I managed to cut with my secateurs.  Like a weird game of twister, I found footing among the Cannas and goldenrod stubble and cut those thorny stalks back as close to the ground as I could reach.

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A part of our fern garden, where ferns are filling in as a complete ground cover on a steep bank. 

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Plants just want to live.  Their business is to reproduce, grow, and make as many seeds as possible.  This is a basic principle that every gardener has to face.

The wilder the plant, usually the more determined it will be.  Like the Japanese stilt grass I pull out by the handfuls every year from April to December.  Like the bamboo that tries to march up the hill from the ravine every spring, and that we find growing feet in a day sometimes, until we discover it and break it back to the ground.  We’ve learned the squirrels love gnoshing on fresh bamboo shoots.

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The march of the bamboo up the hill back in early May of 2014.  We have to control the growth up towards the garden each spring.

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To make a garden is to offer a weird sort of universal hospitality.  Whatever you think you might want to grow, nature has its own ideas.   Weeds happen. 

I chuckle to myself at native plant sales to see plants I pulled as ‘weeds’ the first few years we lived here, sold as desirable ‘native plants’ at a respectable price.  There is wild Ageratum, and Indian strawberry, wax myrtle and golden ragwort.  Our front yard hosts a growing patch of fleabane, Erigeron annus, each spring.  It crowds out the ‘grass’ and blooms for a solid month, around the time the daffodils are fading.

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Native fleabane, probably Erigeron pulchellus, grow in our front lawn. A short lived perennial, this patch grows a bit larger each year. After it finishes flowering, we mow this part of the ‘lawn’ once again.

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Each of us has to make our own peace with the native plants our area supports.  Last year, I decided the pokeweed had to go.  I pulled and cut for months, but I prevented that from going to seed.  I’ve found one huge plant so far this year and a few small seedlings.  They will soon be eradicated, too.

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Pokeweed has overgrown the Salvia, Colocasia and Hibiscus that have grown here for the last several summers. They are just holding on beneath its shade in August 2017.  We lost the Salvia that year, but the Colocasias remain.

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I walk among the growing oaks that I ‘allowed’ to grow when they were only inches tall.  Every seedling demands a decision from the gardener.  Can it grow here?  How will this change the rest of the garden?

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Obedient plant and black eyed Susans are also native perennials, that quickly fill any open area with roots and the seeds they drop.  They are great for pollinators, last many weeks, and make nice cut flowers.  By cutting back the Solidago this week, I hope these will fill in this part of the garden once again.

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Those are the sorts of questions one must ask every month of every year, to keep a garden in balance.  Those are the questions to keep in mind when shopping at the nursery, or the plant sale, too.

Curiosity is a good thing.  But wisdom and a bit of self-discipline are even better.

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The ferns I planted in the hollow stump of this peach tree, lost to the December storm, are growing well.  And, the stump itself is sending up new growth. from its living roots.  Plants just want to live

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Woodland Gnome 2019
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Seedling redbud trees continue to grow at the base of the stump.

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Fabulous Friday: Something Borrowed, Something New

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Until I’d struggled with this ‘new’ garden for a couple of years, watching my familiar favorite plants disappear from the garden to feed assorted voles, rabbits, squirrels and deer, I’d never given Hellebores more than a passing thought.  They simply weren’t on my radar in those days when I was busy growing roses and Hydrangeas, berries, beans, tomatoes and every Begonia I could find.

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And then a friend offered to dig a few Hellebores from her garden to share with me.  We had been consoling each other, probably over cups of coffee, as we both told our stories of plants loved and lost in this forested community.  Our houses are nearby, and each of us has a ravine and a pond beyond our back yards, favorite haunts of large herds of deer.

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She’s been here a year or so longer than we; long enough to learn a trick or two.  Long enough to learn to treasure her Hellebores.

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Our first patch of Hellebores, given to us by a friend,  as they were in April of 2012. These perennials look good in every season, thrive in dry shade, and bloom for several months in late winter and early spring.

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Her broad front yard is carpeted with beautiful Hellebores.  Through the warmer months, Hellebores cover the ground, especially in shady spots, with a beautiful, textured deep emerald green.  And then sometime between November and January they begin to bloom.  And they keep producing flowers until things heat up again in April or May.

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Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’.

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Hellebore flowers come in shades of white, cream, light green, pinks, purples, and reds.  Heavily hybridized, there is a huge variety of size and form available through nurseries and catalogs.

Which is fun for collectors, but almost doesn’t matter anymore once you have a plant or three.  Because Hellebores easily set seed, and those seeds easily germinate.  And a few Hellebores easily becomes an ever widening patch of them, all a bit different since they have hybridized with one another.

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I’m reminded of generosity and friendship every spring as we admire our Hellebores.  Those few early plants did so well for us, some even in full sun, that I dig and re-plant seedlings in more areas of the yard each spring.  Hellebores are just the trick to solve several of the challenges we face.

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Hellebores touched with frost

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Because they are highly poisonous, the local wild things leave Hellebores strictly alone.  This makes them valuable for planting around newly planted trees, shrubs, ferns and perennials that need a bit of protection from hungry voles.  The voles avoid the Hellebore roots and so avoid the tasties you need to protect, as well.

Simply plant a circle of seedlings, spaced every 8″-10″, around the new plant.  Those roots very soon grow into a solid mass of protection, and the Hellebores will thrive in dry shade as the shrubs grow.

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Hellebores and Narcissus protect the roots of this Camellia sasanqua, blooming for several months after the Camellia flowers have faded.

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Deer don’t much like to walk through Hellebores, and certainly never nibble them.  Plant them in a mass along property lines, or disrupt deer runs through the garden with a living barrier of Hellebores.

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Hellebore seedlings bloom for the first time on this slope, where I planted them last spring.  This area gets a lot of erosion and several other plants have failed here.  The daffodils and Hellebores may prove the solution to hold the bank.

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Hellebores also serve as a beautiful ground cover on slopes and other areas where you don’t want grass.  They hold the soil against erosion and suppress weeds.  They can take drought and need very little care, other than removing old and damaged leaves in late winter.

I like to mix Hellebores with ferns and spring bulbs, like daffodils or early summer bloomers like Iris.  They make great companions.

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Seedlings blooming in their first year.

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And finally, I still want a few large pots of Hellebores each winter.  I pick out new cultivars at the nursery, looking for interesting leaves as well as striking flowers.  Maybe one day I’ll just dig a few seedlings for the pots.  But I find the new cultivars interesting enough to seek out special ones with variegated foliage or double flowers.

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I was very inspired by a planting featured in a recent issue of Gardens Illustrated.  A very large round stone planter was filled with the earlier blooming Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, interplanted with Galanthus and Cyclamen hederifolium and C. coum. The whole confection was white flowers against beautiful green and silver foliage.   It was elegantly simple and absolutely aglow on the dull day it was photographed.

Hellebores make wonderful companion plants for spring bulbs in winter pots, and the whole thing can be transplanted into the garden in April, when you want to re-plant the pot for summer.  You know the arrangement will come back even bigger and better next winter.

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Which brings me to the main reason I’m celebrating our Hellebores on this Fabulous Friday:  they give abundant winter flowers.  Whether cut for a vase, floated in a bowl, or simply admired while walking through the garden; Hellebores defy winter with flowers of vibrant color and delicate beauty.

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We have enough seedling Hellebores appearing each spring that I’m always happy to share with other gardeners.  Especially gardeners making the hard adjustment to gardening in our challenging area, who are just looking for something, anything, they can grow without having to spray it with deer repellents every time it rains.

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Something borrowed, something new… a gardener’s happiness always grows when friends share their botanical treasures, and when success finally blooms from challenge.

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Woodland Gnome 2019
Fabulous Friday:
Happiness is Contagious; Let’s Infect One Another!

Sunday Dinner: Frosted

 

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“Be still
Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity”
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Lao Tzu

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“Space and silence
are two aspects of the same thing.
The same no-thing.
They are externalization of inner space and inner silence,
which is stillness:
the infinitely creative womb of all existence.”
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Eckhart Tolle

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“Being still
does not mean don’t move.
It means move in peace.”
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E’yen A. Gardner

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“Whenever there is stillness
there is the still small voice,
God’s speaking from the whirlwind,
nature’s old song, and dance…”
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Annie Dillard

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“The inner is foundation of the outer
The still is master of the restless
The Sage travels all day
yet never leaves his inner treasure”
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Lao Tzu

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“Life’s most precious moments
are not all loud or uproarious.
Silence and stillness has its own virtues.”
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Kilroy J. Oldster

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“Your duty is to be and not to be this or that.
‘I am that I am’ sums up the whole truth.
The method is summed up in the words ‘Be still’.
What does stillness mean?  It means destroy yourself.
Because any form or shape is the cause for trouble.
Give up the notion that ‘I am so and so’.
All that is required to realize the Self is to be still.
What can be easier than that?”
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Ramana Maharshi

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Stillness is the most powerful virtue
against all odds in life.”
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Aditya Ajmera

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“Do something nice for yourself today.
Find some quiet, sit in stillness, breathe.
Put your problems on pause.
You deserve a break.”
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Akiroq Brost

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“Life is never sterile, never static.
Even when the air seems perfectly still
great changes are taking place.”
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Marty Rubin

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Six on Saturday: The Greening of the World

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“I can breathe where there is green.

Green grows hope.

It keeps my heart beating

and helps me remember

who I am.”
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Courtney M. Privett

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The first daffodils of spring opened in our forest garden yesterday.

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Watching the greening of the world each spring never fails to fill me with appreciation to live in such a beautiful place.  How many people live in cities or arid lands that remain clothed in shades of grey and brown throughout the year?

Without winter, I’m not sure that I would appreciate the living greens of February so much.  At the moment, every emerging leaf and stem excites me.

I want to photograph them and watch their daily progress as new growth emerges from woody stems and muddy earth.

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Green is the color of life, of growth, of change.  The simple chemistry of transforming sunlight into living bio-energy happens only in the green.  The alchemy of transforming polluted air into pure; the creation of oxygen to fill our every breath requires green leaves to filter every inhalation of breath we take.  Green sustains our lives even as it soothes our spirit.

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This is the season when the first tentative bits of green re-appear from the warming Earth.  Perennials re-awaken and stretch folded leaves and lengthening stems, reaching for sunlight and warmth.  Moss plumps and spreads,  tiny weeds and blades of grass sprout from patient seeds.

I am glad to find them all, encouraged at the stubbornness and determination of greening life to prevail over the forces of darkness.  The old and rotting will be swept away to return to the compost pile of history, releasing its remaining energy to fuel what is vital and new.

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“Pursue some path,

however narrow and crooked,

in which you can walk with love and reverence.”
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Henry David Thoreau

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Green is the soul of Spring.

Summer may be dappled with yellow,

Autumn with orange and Winter with white

but Spring is drenched with the colour green.”
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Paul Kortepeter

Six (or more?) Surprises on Saturday

Scilla

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This past week has been filled with surprises.  We swept right out of the fringe and frigid edges of the so-called ‘Polar Vortex’ into a few days of balmy spring weather.  The last three days have been as near to perfect weather as one could possibly hope for in February in Virginia.

Its been warm, dry, and sometimes a little sunny these past few days.  Signs of spring are literally bursting out of ground, buds on trees are swelling and those of us already itching to get busy for spring have heeded the call to come out of the cozy house and outdoors to make use of these unexpected days.

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The first of our red Camellia japonica bloomed this week.

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I’ve spent many happy hours outside these past several days flitting like some crazed butterfly from one part of the garden to the next, looking for growth even as I got on with the business of pruning and clearing beds.   We actually spotted a butterfly on Wednesday afternoon.

We don’t know whether it awoke from its chrysalis too soon, or migrated too far north too early.  Its orange and brown wings caught our eye as it fluttered around some old cedar trees, an unusual color to find in the garden in February.  It may have been a Fritillary; we didn’t get close enough to do more than determine it wasn’t an early Monarch.  We were both very surprised to see it, and wish it well and safe shelter as we return to more seasonable temperatures this weekend.

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Our first Iris reticulata of the season. This cultivar is ‘Pauline.’ Squirrels have been digging around this patch of bulbs and I’ve repaired their damage several times. I’m happily surprised to discover these blooming.

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The butterfly turned up a day after we found a honeybee feeding on the Mahonia, and the same day we found a colony of ground bees awake and foraging near the ravine.  I was glad to notice the ground bees buzzing around as I headed their way with a cart full of pruned branches…. before they noticed me!  I didn’t stumble into them and they didn’t feel a need to warn me off.

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The first leaves of daffodils remind us where we’ve planted in years gone by, and entice us with the promise of flowers on their way.

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We saw our first blooming daffodils of the year, blooming beside the fence at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.  We discovered the first blooming Iris histrioides of the year, the first dandelion of the season shining golden in our ‘lawn,’ and the first ruby red Camellia japonica flowers on the shrubs near the street.

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Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’ planted out several years ago, after devastating damage from caterpillars one summer.  It has been very slow to recover and slow to grow.  Its beautiful leaves make it worth the effort.

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The most interesting surprise came yesterday afternoon when I placed a cutting of our Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’, that has been growing in our garden for the last several years, into a one of the little shrubs I believed to be a variegated English holly.

We bought these shrubs as English holly in November of 2017 at a chain home improvement store and sporting a big name plant tag.  I never questioned the label and have written about them as English holly over the past few years.

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Can you spot the cutting taken from our Osmanthus growing in the upper garden?

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But them California horticulturalist Tony Tomeo called me out.  He commented on the post about taking stem cuttings, saw the little holly cuttings with the eyes of experience, and told me that what I was calling variegated English holly was, in fact, variegated false holly, Osmanthus ‘Goshiki.’

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Now you see it… an exact match …

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It took me a day to process what was so plain to him.  I photographed my shrubs, took a cutting from an older Osmanthus and set it seamlessly into the holly in a pot by our kitchen door.  Their leaves were identical.  Tony was correct and I had missed it in my own garden.

This is actually very good news.  At maturity, the Osmanthus will grow to only half the size of an English holly.  It has softer leaves and tolerates full shade.  An English holly wants full sun, which is hard to find in our garden.  Correctly identifying the shrub has proven a happy surprise for us.

Today we settle back into winter clothes and winter routines, but my heart is awake to the energy of spring.  I’m motivated to continue the clean-up and pruning; polishing the garden stage for the next act waiting in the wings: spring.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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

Blossom XLVI: Snowdrops and Iris

Iris histrioides ‘George’ is blooming today, the first Iris of spring.

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“A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in-
-what more could he ask?
A few flowers at his feet
and above him the stars.”
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Victor Hugo

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Galanthus elwesii

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“Nobody sees a flower – really –
it is so small it takes time
– we haven’t time –
and to see takes time,
like to have a friend takes time.”

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Georgia O’Keeffe

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“If you want love to blossom in your heart,
just sit in the garden,
and watch the flowers grow.”
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Anthony T. Hincks

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“I must have flowers, always, and always.”
.
Claude Monet

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Galanthus ‘Sam Arnott’ with Helleborus

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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All the flowers of all the tomorrows
are in the seeds of today”
.
Robin Craig Clark

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“Love speaks in flowers.
Truth requires thorns.”
.
Leigh Bardugo

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Mahonia aquifolium

 

 

The Temptations of Early Spring…

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Last week we were swept up in the edges of the ‘Polar Vortex’ and had some of our coldest temperatures of the season.  It felt like winter.  We ate soup and stayed indoors.  But a winter storm swept through on Friday and took the cold out to sea, leaving us with balmy spring-time weather in its wake.

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We were still frozen at mid-day on Sunday, but the sun was out and warmth was returning.

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It was warmer this morning than all day yesterday, and by afternoon we were looking for projects to take us outside.  The air was soft and the sun was warm.  I could smell the sweetness of our opening Edgeworthia flowers for the first time this season.

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A honey bee was out foraging on the Mahonia flowers, and birds called to one another throughout the day.  A group of owls had a loud conversation in the ravine, and a nest has appeared in a shrub by the garage.

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It feels like instant spring, and I was inspired to all sorts of little tasks like taking cuttings, giving our living room fern a trim out on the deck, and potting up some of our rooting Begonia stems.

I groomed the pots on the patio; fingers crossed.  We had geraniums still green until this last cold spell and ‘annual’ Verbena still green and growing.  The ‘Goodwin Creek’ lavender is usually fried and frozen by February; but so far, so good with ours in big pots by the front porch.

Will it make it all the way through to next summer?

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Italian Arum unfolding ever so slowly in a pot by the kitchen door.

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I am a little chagrined to realize how much the weather effects my ambition to get gardening things done.  The warmth and sunshine gave me a welcome rush of energy.  Even so, I know that winter hasn’t finished with us, yet.

There may be warmer days yet in the forecast for the week, but I know that more ice and snow will find us before May.  I’m still reluctant to do much pruning or other clean-up so early.

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Iris bulbs are up and growing in the Iris border at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden. We will have flowers before the end of February.

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I wanted to clean up the dead and dying branches of things in pots near the house, but not too soon, if they can still recover from their roots.

Cut too soon, the next hard freeze might kill them.

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I spotted little green buds on the Clematis and found Dianthus buds ready to open.  I’m still taking inventory of all the Hellebores with flower buds.   Oh, the havoc a false spring can create when a hard freeze follows a balmy breeze!  I’d rather the plants remain dormant, and not begin to grow too early.

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It was too nice a day to waste fretting over winter’s next act.  I went ahead and pruned our little variegated English holly to shape it a bit, and now have a pan with eight Ilex aquifolium cuttings that I hope will root.  The holly should be hardy enough to not mind the early pruning.

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Hellebores keep right on blooming through winter storms and freezing nights.

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Bulbs are popping up everywhere and buds are swelling on our Magnolia trees.  Yesterday morning, the ground was too frozen to re-plant Violas uprooted by the squirrels.

Today, the soil is soft and moist, full of promise and tempting me to press some bit of stem or seed or root into it for safe keeping, until spring settles in and our garden grows lush and green once again.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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

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

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Blossom XLV: First Snowdrops

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“In the oddity or maybe the miracle of life,
the roots of something new
frequently lie in the decaying husks
of something old.”
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Craig D. Lounsbrough

Once the rain finally stopped, the clouds blew out to sea, and the sun shone golden as it dropped towards the west, I finally felt moved to head out of doors to putter a little in the garden.  How could I not?  It was a rare warmish afternoon and the sun was shining.

It was only after planting out some potted Cyclamen, and a few odd things  that had been languishing in a corner of the garage, that I wandered up to the top of the garden to see what there was to see.  There is always something to see, even if it is nothing more than a swelling bud or a few more green leaves shyly poking up through winter’s mud.

And so it was that I braved the squishy paths and found myself wondering at the bit of fresh whiteness at my feet.  Snowdrops!  The first blooming bulbs of the season!

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What a quiet, special moment that creeps up so unexpectedly, to see the first flower of  a new spring while still  in the midst of winter.   It is like a sigil  for what is yet to come.

The old year has passed away, but the remains of those former days remain.  And out of the decaying leaves and soggy ground something pristine and fresh and bright emerges, as if by some old magic.  Snowdrops are simple things, tiny and meek.  They shyly nod just inches above the soil, ephemeral and fragile.  And still they exhibit the sheer life force to survive and carry on irregardless of the forces of winter.

Who would not be inspired and encouraged by such a sight?  Even though we have several weeks of freezing cold and winter storms ahead, spring began to stir in our garden today.  In our garden, and in this gardener’s heart.

Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Perhaps that is where our choice lies –
– in determining how we will meet the inevitable end of things,
and how we will greet each new beginning.”
.
Elana K. Arnold

The Shape of Things

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You may find winter’s landscape a bit stark.  Some might observe we are down to the ‘bones’ of the garden: trunks, branches, hardscape and often frozen ground.

Much of that is colored dull brown or grey, brightened here and there by our evergreens, holly berries, Nandina clusters, and rosy swelling buds.

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There’s little left that looks or feels soft.  The ground may still be littered with crumbling leaves blowing about.

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Skeletons of last May’s Hydrangeas linger here and there; an ethereal bit of Solidago shivers in the wind.  Sharp edges everywhere: sticks, thorns, spines on holly leaves and brittle branches.

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This is a sober and thoughtful turn of the seasons.  I find myself studying a crape myrtle tree as I unload groceries from the car.  Which branches need pruning next month?

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My eye wanders over to the hedge of rose of Sharon shrubs leaning at an unlikely angle towards the butterfly garden.  They’ve grown too tall and top heavy for their spot.  I’m making a mental list of things to do while the garden is sleeping.

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With the garden stripped bare and most of it slumbering, I can see the shape of things.  I can see things I like, and things that must be fixed.  I can wade into beds once filled with Canna and Hedychium, grasses and flowering stems.  Now I see the roots exposed on this leaning Camellia, and the brazen honeysuckle vines climbing up through the center of a venerable old Azalea shrub.

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I can see branches that may be damaged, diseased, already dead, or dangerous in some way.  With the leaves gone, I can finally see problems that may have been hidden before.

This is the time to fix it all.  This is the time to prune woodies, while they are dormant.  This is a good time to find and eliminate invasive vines or shrubs.  This is the time to remake the borders of the beds, study the layout, figure out where new shrubs might go and which old ones need to go.

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I learned an interesting fact this week:  Most home landscapes are only expected to grow for 20-25 years before the main shrubs must be replaced.  I’m so used to hearing about planned obsolescence in everything from cars to toasters, that the shock at hearing that statistic is mild.

You see, I happen to know that some of the Azaleas growing along our foundation were planted before 1970.  We won’t do the math there, OK? 

But a case can be made for shrubs and trees having a life span, just as a pet or any other living thing grows, ages, and eventually will die.  I look around and see a lot of things that have maybe grown too big, or grown here too long.

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Some older shrubs may be ‘fixed’ with rejuvenation pruning.  By cutting out older branches, new ones may grow.   We do this with roses, with Hydrangeas and with some holly shrubs.  I cut the beautyberry and butterfly bush back to just a couple of feet each spring, knowing it will reward me with fresh new branches.  When flowers grow from new wood, this will work.

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Other shrubs, that set their flowers in the autumn, won’t bloom if you cut their buds away by pruning now.  Azaleas, Hydrangea, Forsythia and Camellia have their buds set and ready to open once the weather warms.  After bloom, we can cut out the older, taller canes from those that send up new shoots each year.  We can head back branches grown too long, shape, direct, and guide future growth.

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This is the time to walk around with a notepad and a critical eye, making decisions about what plants may stay, which need a bit of pruning, and which must go before another spring distracts us.

I’ve been reading about ‘tidying up’ in our homes, according to Marie Kondo’s KonMari method.  I’m not yet piling all my clothes or books in the floor to sort them, but the idea of making peaceful living spaces by identifying what gives us joy- and what does not- has value.

I wonder if she has a similar method for tidying up one’s garden?

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I wonder if we wander around our own yard in January noticing what ‘brings us joy’, and what leaves us feeling anxious or annoyed, if we might be inspired to make some changes?

How often do you begin a new project to solve an old problem?  How often do you wait for a calamity to edit the structure of your garden?

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January is a good time to embrace change.  We have a fresh start by the calendar and by the wheel of the natural year, too.

Now that the garden has undressed itself and settled in for a good long rest, we can take a breath and ‘see’ what is and isn’t there.

We can see the shape of things, and dream it into any shape we choose for the many seasons yet to come.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Pot Shots: Winter Flowers

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We are glad to live in a climate that allows us to enjoy flowers in our garden all through the year.   Here in coastal Virginia, in Zone 7b, the Chesapeake Bay and nearby James River help us hold what warmth can be gathered from winter sunlight and warm ocean currents from the Gulf.

On mornings like this one, when the thermometer readings fall below 20F and the wind chill is 5F, flowers may seem an unlikely luxury.  And yet our hardiest winter blooming plants bloom on.  Our bursts of cold are brief, and more moderate weather will soon follow.

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Even as spring bulbs are already sending up their first leaves, we enjoy flowers from woody stems on our Camellias, Edgeworthia, Mahonias, Pieris japonica, Osmanthus x fortunei or Fortune’s tea olive, Hamamelis, and a few early swelling buds on the Forsythia.

All of these flowering shrubs may be grown in pots for a year or two, before they need repotting or a permanent spot in the garden.  When potting shrubs, choosing a shrub that is hardy to at least one zone north of where you plan to grow it may give it an extra edge of survival during unusual bouts of cold.  Temporarily covering the shrub when temps dip below its range may help, as well.

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But it is the pots of Violas and Hellebores that offer the most winter color.  The Violas have bloomed non-stop since we planted them in October.  But the Hellebores have just begun opening over the last few days.

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We planted this clump of Hellebores into a raised bed in 2014. They begin to bloom sometime each January, and bloom non-stop until early May.

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As I walk around the yard to check on those we have planted out in previous years, I find evidence of fresh emerging leaves and plump buds, beginning their annual show.

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These winter pots harbor assorted bulbs, some already poking the tips of green leaves up their their gravel mulch.  Soon enough, we’ll have snow drops, Crocus, tiny Iris, daffodils and Hyacinths blooming, too.  Bold Arum leaves also brave the January cold, with more to follow as we move into early spring.

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Planting winter flowering plants in pots invites you to notice them in detail.  Pots can be moved to where you will enjoy them the most, or where they will have a bit of shelter and warming sun on the coldest days.  These tiny flowers don’t get buried in the duff of winter blown leaves or trampled in haste.  They are protected from hungry voles and possibly from curious squirrels, as well.

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I learned a new trick this fall, listening to Brent Heath lecture about all things bulbs.  Brent suggests giving bulbs a quick spray with deer repellent before planting them to mask their delicious aroma from squirrels.  Have you ever planted new bulbs, only to find them missing a few days later, with freshly dug soil and an empty hole where you planted them?  Yes, the squirrels can smell them, and will go to any lengths to dig some of them up for dinner.

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These Iris bulbs all smell tasty to a hungry squirrel. They represent an investment, and can be protected with a quick squirt of liquid animal repellent, such as Repels All, before you plant them. You’ll find several good brands available. Covering their scent is key, and planting garlic cloves in the top of the pot can offer some protection, too.  Once the bulbs begin to grow and form roots, they are less likely to be dug up for dinner.

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Brent suggested a quick spray of repellent on the tastiest of them just before planting, and I added that extra step as I planted this fall.  Now Narcissus bulbs are poisonous, and squirrels leave them alone.  And Brent also shared that the Crocus tommasinianus, will be left alone too, as they have a different aroma from most other Crocus.  If you plant any of the other Crocus species, you might give them a spray to protect them.

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I also mulch freshly planted bulbs with pea gravel.  It looks clean and tidy, protects newly emerged foliage from splashing soil on rainy days, and I like to think it slows the squirrels down in their digging.  Sometimes yes, sometimes no….. 

This year I made the extra effort to spray the newly planted and mulched containers with Repels All when I finished planting, and I’ve come around with an squirt or two again on those planted with Violas, to protect their tasty flowers and leaves from any curious deer.  The extra effort has made a positive difference and we’ve had no grazing or pulling out of new plants.

Adding a few larger attractive stones dresses up the pot a bit, adds interest before the plants grow in, and may further discourage digging.

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Viola with Ajuga reptans

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As you’re planning your winter pots, consider adding winter hardy ground covers like Sedum ‘Angelina’, Lysimachia nummularia: creeping Jenny, Ajuga or Saxifraga stolonifera. These will remain alive and fairly fresh through the coldest weather, but will spring back into active growth early on and fill the pot with fresh foliage to offset the early bulbs.

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Viola with Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ and emerging Muscari leaves.

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Alternatively, I like to carpet the soil in winter pots with freshly dug moss.  The moss remains green and bright through our winter weather, so long as there is enough moisture to quench its thirst.  Once established, it may even begin to grow and spread in the pot to offer a more natural look.

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Winter pot newly replanted at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden features Japanese Holly fern, Arum italicum, Saxifraga stolonifera, creeping Jenny vines and moss mulch.  Many varieties of spring blooming bulbs are planted under the moss.  This pot sits right outside the gate, where it might tempt passing deer.  Only reliably ‘deer proof’ plants make the cut for this space.

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Evergreen ferns like Dryopteris erythrosora: Autumn ‘Brilliance’ fern, Polystichum acrostichoides: Christmas fern, or Cyrtomium falcatum: Japanese Holly fern also brighten pots, add structure and help set off delicate flowers.  These may not remain in active growth through the winter, but their leaves persist, and they reward the thoughtful gardener with wonderful fresh fiddleheads uncurling through the arrangement in the spring.

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Cyrtomiuum falcatum, Japanese Holly fern, remains green and fresh through our winters.  It thrives in Zones 7-10.

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A final touch to add a bit of height and structure to pots might be branches cut from interesting shrubs in the autumn.  Many branches will root, when cut and set into moist soil in the late autumn.  (This is called taking hardwood cuttings.)

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Some trees and shrubs sport attractive winter bark.  Pruned branches may be stuck into pots for structure. Choosing varieties with early blooms, like these cherry trees growing at the Stryker Center in Williamsburg, may also provide an extra pop of winter color.  (It goes without saying that we should only source such branches in our own garden, or from a florist…. not from public plantings….)

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Whether you want to propagate some shrubs, or simply let their attractive form and colorful bark offset your arrangement, cut branches prove a useful and striking addition to a winter pot.  If you choose an early bloomer, like Forsythia or redbud, you might create an especially colorful spectacle come February or early March.

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Autumn blooming Colchicum was the first bulb to bloom in this fall planted pot. Cyclamen leaves have already emerged, and moss has begun to establish. In the months ahead, many different flowering bulbs will bloom until the show is finished in early May.

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We enjoy our Virginia home where gardening may continue year-round.  Gardening in pots helps us extend the season by adding a little flexibility, especially during the coldest weeks of winter.  Pots may be covered or brought indoors for a day or two.  Soil remains workable sometimes even when the ground is frozen solid, and pots may bloom on the patio and porch, where we may enjoy their beauty without leaving the cozy warmth of indoors.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’ continues blooming as flowers from bulbs emerge in late March.  The creeping Jenny is actively growing once again, and the Viola bravely flowers on into its six month of bloom.  Winter pots are wonderful!

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“I must have flowers, always, and always.”
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Claude Monet

 

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