About Plant Some Joy

Spread joy with fun and easy ways to add plants to your life.

On the wild side

 When my husband and I bought our one-acre property 21 years ago, it was a sunbaked hilltop devoid of vegetation except for an ill-placed dogwood, an ancient smokebush, a couple boring big-box-store shrubs and a sea of scrubby lawn. Inside, we were amazed at the amount of dust and cat hair on our furniture now apparent in the bright house.

I approached the blank-slate property with its rich soil and abundant light as my canvas and it has become my laboratory where I test plants and watch what they do each season. Sometimes I move plants around or split them to share with gardening friends. Some, I dig out and throw away. I have a manila folder titled, ‘Plants That Croaked’ that is bulging with the tags of dead plants. The winners remain in the garden and are included in my plant lists for clients.

As a by-product of all this planting, our property is now an oasis for us as well as wildlife we never encountered when the landscape was barren. We love nothing better than spending an evening on the shady patio watching birds flit among the trees and shrubs, scrappy hummingbirds fighting over the feeder and rabbits nibbling and leaping.

The increase in birds is the most noticeable change. Their songs fill the air and they raise families in the dense foliage. I find their abandoned nests each autumn after the leaves fall. There is an astonishing array of bird species too. Not only the usual suburban wrens, sparrows, chickadees, jays, crows and cardinals, but bluebirds too, and cedar waxwings who descend en masse like bandits in their dark masks to gobble ripe fruits from the serviceberry, holly and dogwood trees. Red-tailed hawks cruise low and fast past the bird feeder, and often ride the thermals high above the open land of the lower yard. Sometimes a puff of rabbit fur tells the tale of a meal found. And climate change has pushed the range of the annoying mockingbird our way.

An eastern box turtle makes an appearance in the vegetable garden every June. I can tell it’s the same one because it has aErnie distinctive ‘E’ marking on its shell so I’ve named it Ernie. This year Ernie brought a friend, a smaller box turtle I saw just once nestled between the rows of garlic. I’m not sure if the scent of ripe strawberries draws Ernie from the woods several hundred feet away, but he always samples the bounty and I don’t mind sharing. Ernie hung around longer this year. From the vegetable garden, he relocated to the shelter of the fig and was last seen burrowed under the towering lovage in the herb garden. After all these years, I have never seen Ernie on the move (although my husband nearly ran him over with the lawn tractor once) and he seems to resent human contact. He slowly withdraws into his shell if I approach, and just our appearance is enough to make him disappear for days. Nonetheless, I feel I have been bestowed with a great blessing when he makes an appearance.

We have seen fox trotting along the woods line and one chilly Thanksgiving morning, I watched a beady-eyed mangy one catch a chipmunk outside the kitchen door and chomp it down in three bites. After its meal, the wretched thing ambled out to the back garden and curled up in the leaves to nap in the sunshine.

The other day I upended in my hand a small plastic pot containing a pepper plant and laughed when I spied a tiny toad butt. I turned the unpotted plant in my hand, and one sleepy eye of the toad stared back at me, looking somewhat annoyed at the disturbance. I gently set the plant and soil into the hole that I had dug and carefully patted soil around it. I hope the toad went back to sleep in its more spacious home.

There has been, to my dismay, the occasional snake. Many years ago on a hot afternoon, a long dark snake slithered my way across the lawn as I watered plants on the patio. I resisted the urge to drop the watering wand and run; instead, I trained the stream of water onto its back, which it seemed to appreciate. After a few minutes, I turned off the water, carefully set down the wand, scooped up the cat, who was staring goggle-eyed, and headed indoors. From the door, I watched the snake curl up in one of the pots I had just watered. A few minutes later it was gone and thankfully I never saw it after that. My husband dispatched a small garter snake who slithered into the garage on a hot day, seeking shade and the cool cement. Recently, my neighbor’s nine-year-old grandson saw a rat snake crawl up her chimney and into her house, no doubt to eat the starling chicks that were nesting in her siding. An hour later we saw the awful thing retreating under the hollies outside our kitchen door. I checked on a robin nest nearby and the lone turquois egg was gone that had been there the day before. I then realized there were far fewer chipmunks making holes in the garden this year and virtually no baby bunnies. Clearly, the snake was enjoying the smorgasbord around here. I know snakes are good and eat a lot of varmints, but I don’t want one nearby, especially one that climbs so well. So I spray a cinnamon oil concoction, which is reported to repel snakes, and keep a long bamboo pole handy to rustle and poke the shrubbery as I mutter “Go away, Mr. Snake.”

For better or worse, the gardens we make enrich our lives and support bugs and birds, mammals and reptiles. And these creatures become part of the story of our garden too.

 

In like a lion

My garden stirs in late winter. I bundle up and venture out to witness the first faint pulses of change, looking for proof that spring is on the horizon. I quickly find the goods.

IMG_2022The air smells different now, no longer tinged with snow but with an earthiness brought forth from the tentative thaw. Hellebore flowers, from under their winter-battered leathery leaves, are dragging their fresh ruffled chartreuse blooms from the cold soil like tousle-headed teenagers trying to wake. Birds dart in and out of the viburnum hedge, noisily staking out their nesting territory. I round the corner and gasp, delighted as spring smacks me full force. Why am I surprised? It happens every year.

In all this hesitant spring business—the freezing and the thawing, the occasional teasingly bright warm day or half day—there it is: the black pussy willow, trumpeting spring and not pussy-footing around about it in the least. I stand marveling at its silhouette against the gray sky, a huge ugly hulking pile of sticks that are now dotted with inky tufts along their lengths. How long has it been in full bloom? It never says. But it might wonder why it took me so long to notice.

I admire these intrepid winter bloomers—the hellebore, the witchhazel, the pussy willow. What they lack in floral glitz they make up for in grit. Their sap stirs long before our sights are on spring and their curious flowers flex from within icy buds. These early risers seem impatient to get the business of flowering and pollination out of the way and, in the process, offer up life-saving nectar and pollen to woozy bees and other insects emerging on those first warm days.

I bought the black pussy willow (Salix melanostachys) as a mere twig in a four-inch pot decades ago from a long-defunct nursery. I remember seizing on it as a great prize, something unique. I planted the tiny stick in what seemed a huge area at the back corner of the garage where it would have room to grow and receive runoff from the downspout, since willows love water. I fretted when my husband ran over it with the lawn mower, twice. It must have enjoyed the abuse because it never looked back from that point, growing wider by the year. Its twiggy bulk now stretches above the roof gutters, trashing them with its slender leaves. My husband complains when he mows under it and the branches knock his hat off. Who’s getting the last laugh now?

For much of the year the black pussy willow is an unremarkable plant, save for its size. But as winter drags on and spring seems distant, I am always astonished when the glistening black catkins emerge amidst the unsettled throes of late winter. I clip a few of the red-tipped stems to bring inside so I can closely watch the black fuzzy flowers open further. Some are capped with shiny maroon bud scales that eventually litter the table, along with yellow pollen that dusts the tips of the shaggy flowers. Soon I will sweep up the mess and drop the spent twigs into the compost pile as the daffodils finally dare to bloom.

Take that, winter!

When this clivia flower cluster opened a couple weeks ago, it was like a sucker punch to winter. The orange-tipped buds emerged from deep within the emerald-green leaves, pointing upward like little round-nosed rockets, then opened as a chorus to expose their soft yIMG_2004ellow throats and delicate pistils.  Each flower stretched its petals wider until they formed one glorious globe of sherbet orange and yellow against thick strappy foliage. The show has gone on now for several weeks, delighting me no end.

My friend gave me the plant as a division several years ago, and it’s become one of my favorite houseplants, doubtless for those winter-blah-chasing flowers, but also because of its undemanding demeanor and dramatic fountain of dark foliage.

These South African natives need light to grow well, but do not tolerate direct sunlight. They actively grow in the spring and summer months, then enter a resting phase for about three months in late fall, then bloom in winter. Here’s how to give your clivia the conditions it needs to thrive and bloom.

Place the plant in a bright north-facing window, or an eastern or western window, provided the light is filtered by trees or curtains. Clivias do well summered outdoors in a shady but bright location. I move mine to the front porch after the weather has warmed and settled, and it stays there until fall night temperatures dip into the 40s.

Clivias don’t need much water. In the spring and summer, when they are growing, water only when the soil dries out, and fertilize regularly. In the fall, when they enter their resting phase, stop watering. Continue withholding water through winter, unless the plant wilts, in which case you can give it a small amount.

Clivias like to be crowded in the pot, and it can take a couple years for a plant to mature enough to flower. Then, to set flower buds, they need a chilling period of about 50 degrees for three months during the resting phase, which begins in late fall. At that point (and before a frost) I move my clivia to a north-facing sunroom that I keep between 40 and 50 degrees for the first half of winter. Come January, I move the clivia to a north-facing window in my warmer dining room and wait for the show to begin. Within a month, a flower stalk emerges from the center of the foliage, and for the next month I’m treated to a long-lasting winter show that makes the remaining days of winter a little more bearable.

 

Herb trio brightens my windowsill

HERB PLANTERMy sister-in-law gave me this sweet set of Rae Dunn pots for Christmas. They sat empty for weeks as I recovered from ankle surgery, and I pondered what to fill them with once I was up and about again.

Succulents? Always a good idea. Orchids? Probably not, the pots don’t have big enough drainage holes for orchids. African violets? Get real—I’m lucky to keep alive the one I have (knock wood). Grocery store primroses… I love them! They would look cute in white pots. But I like to put primroses on the dining room table. These pots are oblong with lettering on one side, not the best setup for a centerpiece.

I continued to consider my options. Then while writing an article about herbs de provence, I started thinking about photos to accompany the article. I would need to take pictures of potted herbs. Bingo! Herbs would look great in the pots!

Finding fresh potted herbs is a challenge in February. Sometimes grocery stores have them, but it’s hit or miss. They don’t usually carry a wide array of herbs either. I remembered visiting Chapons Greenhouses in the dead of winter a couple years ago, and they carried a nice selection they had grown on the premises.

So off I went. Turns out Chapons had lots of terrific-looking herbs and I enjoyed looking around at all the plants in the greenhouse too. I chose three herbs that are in herbes de provence blends—basil, rosemary and parsley. I brought the herbs home and they fit perfectly into the new pots.

I took the photos and sent in my article, and now I have this sweet trio of useful herbs on my windowsill just an arm’s length from the chopping board. I love tossing roughly chopped parsley into green salads, where it adds a pungent depth to the greens. I’ll snip the rosemary to roast with root vegetables like carrots, potatoes and parsnips. I used a lot of the basil in a vegetable soup I made for a soup exchange (think cookie exchange except with soup).

If you want fresh herbs for your kitchen windowsill, find a few decorative pots you like (make sure they have drainage holes). Then visit a local garden center that carries fresh potted herbs. Choose those you enjoy and that have similar light requirements (most herbs like a sunny spot). Pay attention to watering requirements too. In my trio, the basil and parsley need a bit more water than the rosemary.

Fresh herbs in fun pots make great gifts too!

Plant a succulent container

I’ve been playing around with decorative containers planted with succulents lately. Succulents are fun because they are easy to care for, plus they look really cool. They’re pretty fool-proof if you think you have a brown thumb. Here’s what you need to know to make your own:

Materials you will need:

  • A shallow container that has a drainage hole. You can buy one or use your creativity to come up with something clever. For example, you can use an old colander or sieve, or drill some holes in an old cake pan or vintage wooden box. Visit the thrift store or hit garage sales and see what you can find.
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I planted these succulents in a piece of an old log I found in the woods. Use your imagination while scouting for trays for your succulents!

  • Dampened sandy potting mix. You can buy bagged cactus mix or mix your own using two parts potting soil to 1 part regular sand from the home improvement store. Dampen it before using.
  • Piece of window screen large enough to fit over the hole in the container, so the soil doesn’t run out.
  • Plants. Most garden centers carry a selection of succulents in a variety of shapes, colors and patterns to choose from. If you want to place your container outdoors, make sure the plants are hardy for your area or you’ll need to bring them in for the winter. A few plants go a long way, plus they will continue to grow in the container, so you don’t need too many. It’s a good idea to plant in odd numbers—3 generally suit a small container, and 5 or 7 may fit a large container.
  • Ornaments such as stones, driftwood, marbles, etc.
  • Top dressing of gravel, pebbles, sand, or moss.

Here’s how to put your container together:

  • Use your creativity! Think about a style to enhance your décor. Succulent trays can be little vignettes that transport you to a different time and place. They can be inspired by an Asian vibe, the desert, a lake or a river, or you can go with a contemporary feel. Check Pinterest for loads of ideas.
  • Place the piece of screen in the bottom of the container.
  • Fill it about half full of soil, then smooth it out with a spoon or other small utensil. You can sculpt the soil if you want to include hills and valleys.
  • Remove each plant from its pot, shake off the soil, and trim any roots that seem excessively long. Scoop a hole in the soil, add the plant, then gently backfill the soil. Repeat until you have planted all the succulents you want to include.
  • Smooth and sculpt the soil. You may need to add or remove some.
  • Dress the soil surface with gravel, pebbles, sand, or moss for a finished look.
  • Clean any debris from the plants and edges of the container with a small, soft paintbrush.

Aftercare:

  • Place the tray in a sunny spot or somewhere that has bright light.
  • You don’t need to water your succulent tray very often, maybe once a month.