Saturday, February 27, 2016

LIFE ON THE EDGE - A guest post by Brigitte Hartke

Today we welcome a wonderful post by Brigitte Hartke, a passionate conservationist, native plant enthusiast  and a very business garden club member - enjoy! - t

 As you might imagine, life on the edge is an interesting and bustling place. Biologically speaking, edges -- also known as ecotones -- are the transitional areas of vegetation between two different plant communities.  They are rich, productive, and full of wildlife ~ there’s a lot going on there.

Most of us have edges in our own gardens, where the woods end and the garden begins. The influence of the two bordering communities on each other is known as the edge effect. These edges consisting of native plants provide some of the richest habitat for birds, insects and other species. It is understood that far more birds live in these edges than in the middle of a forest.

 In fact, the ecotone areas often have a higher density of organisms of one species and also a great number of species than are found in the communities living on either side of them.

 Many bird species, for example, prefer to nest at the edge of the woods that faces an open area.

In a forested edge you will have all the vertical layers of a forest, but you will also have more sunlight; plants growing in the sunlight will provide nitrogen to the plants in the edge, and so those areas are often the most nutritious, and generate more food which is taken advantage of by birds and other species.

Some good choices for edge planting are redbud (Cercis), shadbush (Amelanchier) and spicebush (Lindera).
Redbud (Cersis canadensis)

Professor Douglas W. Tallamy says that Cercis is a good fit because “it is a great plant for early spring pollinators.  It blooms right when the first species of bees are coming out.”

Also important to think about when starting or redoing your garden edges is establishing a sequence of blooming plants so that something is coming to fruition or bloom from spring until fall. “Native bees depend on a constant source of nectar and pollen, not just one week of bloom.”

Look at your garden from week to week to be sure that there’s something blooming throughout the growing season.

black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) among Dicentra near Waterford VA

The edges are also ideal places for opportunistic invasive or ‘exotic’ plant species to spring up. Poison ivy can be found growing everywhere along roadside borders, but not nearly as much farther into the forest.

Luminiscent at night, these fungi can be found at the base of rotted oak roots

You may also notice invasive kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose growing along the edges.  When possible these should be removed and replaced with a native plant; the native honeysuckle may be ideal.

Brigitte Hartke is a writer, gardener, photographer, amateur genealogist
and a very active member of Five Hills Garden Club in Vienna, Virginia.  

Brigitte Hartke surrounded by native bluebells at Riverbend
She enjoys learning and writing about the scientific concepts relating to environment and conservation, and the interconnectedness, evolving over long evolutionary periods, of all the many species coexisting within a healthy biome.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Rose of Winter - A Guest Post by Garden Club Member Christine Wegman

Once upon a time there were pure white winter flowers that turned pink as they aged, looked like single roses and bloomed around Christmas time.  They were called Christmas roses (Helleborus niger, as they were known botanically).  During Lent, in March or April, very similar flowers bloomed in shades of pink and cream and they were called Lenten roses (Helleborus orientalis).  Then, a few decades ago, plant breeders began developing exciting new hybrids, many of them crosses between and among different hellebore species, of which there are many more than these two.  Taxonomists (those academic gnomes who give plants their Latin botanical names) got involved, giving names to the new crosses, and eventually deciding that all Lenten roses were probably natural or intentional hybrids anyway, whereupon a new name, ‘Helleborus x hybridus’, was given to the Lenten rose.  And all was confusion, a sort of horticultural Tower of Babel.  The good news is that we now have so many exquisite new hellebores that the confused nomenclature doesn’t really matter; the bad news is that you can’t tell a Christmas rose from a Lenten rose anymore without expert help.

Hellebores are native to the Balkans and other parts of Eurasia. Their evergreen foliage looks good all year and the flowers can last for months.  They are easy to grow, combining especially well with ferns and colorful heuchera to make a year round, deer-resistant and trouble free shade garden.  If you are not plagued with deer, add some light-leaved hosta for a lovely effect.  Many new hybrids have marbled foliage that draws the eye, even when not in bloom.  They are slow to get started, but once established look good either massed or as single specimens.

Beginning in the 1980s, a number of hybridizers focused on these lovely plants and produced a glorious profusion of different colors and forms.  Dozens of new hybrids have been introduced with richer colors, double flowers and up-facing blooms.  Many new hybrids sport colorful edges, some are bi-colored with beautiful veining, some are shades of creamy yellow, some are purple and lavender, many are beautiful shades of red and pink, others are pristine white.  Grow the darker colors near a path where they can be viewed up close.  Whites, yellows and light pinks or lavenders will show at a distance.  Hellebore flowers are quite subtle and are often hidden by the large leaves.  To make sure you can see them, remove the old leaves on stemless types (the ones where the flowers come straight out of the ground) in late winter or early spring as the flower buds emerge.  The plants will quickly put out fresh, new leaves after flowering.

Many gardeners, myself included, love another species of hellebore, the Corsican hellebore (H.  argutifolius), whose flowers bloom in early spring atop long stems.  Although not as colorful as the Lenten roses, the Corsican hellebore is well worth growing for its larger size, beautiful saw-toothed foliage and showy, light green-to-white flowers.  It looks beautiful blooming with blue grape hyacinths or any other early spring bulb.  Some cultivars, such as ‘Snow Fever’ and ‘Pacific Frost’, have lovely marbled foliage and remain showy all year.  To prune this stemmed hellebore, cut the stems all the way back to the ground after flowering.

Hellebores like rich, well-drained soil.  They have deep roots, so make sure the hole is deep enough that they do not become water logged and don’t mulch heavily.  They are slow to get started, but eventually make beautiful clumps that do not need to be divided, although they can be if desired.  They like shade, but will grow in sun as long as they are kept moist.  They are quite tolerant of neglect, but will give their best with a little care and fertilizer.  Many will self seed in a few years, and you might want to move the seedling away from the mother plant because it probably won’t have the same blooms and may detract from its appearance.  

A word about cost:  if you have purchased hellebores you know that they are expensive.  This is because they are hard to propagate.  Many will seed readily, but they do not often come true to the form of the parent plant.  Each plant is a bit different.  To get plants that bloom as promised, growers rely on division (which takes a lot of time for these slow starters) and tissue culture, both of which are expensive.  If you purchase a plant that is not in flower, make sure that it comes from a reliable nursery and grower so that you will not be disappointed.

Hellebores are poisonous, but it is mostly the roots that can cause a problem.  The leaves are coarse and fibrous, highly unlikely to be eaten by pets or children.  One final caution:  hellebores are addictive.  Once you begin to enjoy having roses in winter, you will want more and more.  When you see that new double lavender hybrid in a nursery catalog, it will be really hard to resist ordering it.

Christine Wegman is a Rock Spring Garden Club member in National Capital Area Garden Clubs' District III.  She is one of the go-to 'hort' experts in her club. Christine and her husband, Charlie Flicker, are avid and generous gardeners and have cultivated a delightful garden (for any season) in Arlington, Virginia. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Footprints In Winter - A Photo Essay by Judy Janowski

After being snowbound and having to shovel our way back into civilization, we find it easy to forget the beauty of winter, the silence within a heavy fall of snow, and the permission a snow storm gives us to tuck in with a good book, garden catalogues and warm drinks. Gardener and photographer, Judy Janowski, shares with us winter surprises captured through her photography.

The last time we saw grass, it was kissed by hoarfrost

Plump snowflakes glow with a power of their own, before sinking into the greater blanket of white 

Evergreen foliage disguised by the weight of a wet winter snow

You notice a trail with no beginning. Perhaps with no end

The trail might even diverge.

After the storm, the birds make themselves known. Others, too. Life is on the move, leaving it's mark without disturbing the peace blanket that surrounds us.

Now, imagine what's going on underneath the snow.

photographs by Judy Janowski

Judy Janowski is a gardener, poet, author, artist and blogger. She lives in upstate New York. Visit her blog at to see more of her garden photography. Her latest book is Life Is a Garden Party Volume II.   Screen down to read Judy's previous post  (July 2015) about photographing your garden.