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The Development of my First Dish Garden

Last summer I moved my smallest garden treasures, which had gotten lost among bigger plants, into a pot to display on my front steps.

Sedum dasyphyllum grows only one or two inches tall, with dense mounds of teeny, pebble-like leaves, an eighth to a quarter-inch each, in grayed blue-green, sometimes with a hint of pinkish gray. Flowers in summer are white with a little pink in them, but I'm endlessly fascinated by the visual texture of those masses of tiny leaves.

Next to it was three varieties of hens-and-chicks. Two I'm not sure of; one was Sempervivum arachnoideum: gray-green leaves with a bit of red in them, and white filaments crisscrossing them like cobwebs; rosettes no larger than an inch across. The other sempervivums turn red in winter, and green in summer; one also has a slight fuzz of white cilia on leaf egdes.

This plant hypnotizes me. Each variety starts with a slightly different shape, a slightly different fractal pattern in the rosette. Then as the "hens" make "chicks" around themselves, the patterns grow more complex, echoing each other in swirling patterns of living energy like the sky in Van Gogh's painting "Starry Night."

I put them in a wide, shallow ceramic pot, in light potting soil (these plants can't stand wet feet), and watered them carefully to get them established; after a month I let the rain take over.

They thrived, filling the bowl so tightly that when a little yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta) sprouted among them, I couldn't get my fingers in, to uproot the weed, without breaking the brittle succulents. Oh, well: I grew to enjoy how the oxalis fit into the composition — right in scale, with interesting contrast between its paper-thin herbaceous leaves and the thick, fleshy ones of the succulents.

When frost got serious, to keep the pot from breaking from freezing with wet soil in it, I brought the dish garden indoors, to a sunny window in an unheated room.

I figured the weed would be a good indicator of when to water: it would surely wilt before the succulents got too dry. However after two months, the woodsorrel is as perky as ever, but the lower leaves of the sempervivums have started to dry up. That makes more space between them now, and I could try again to get rid of the oxalis. I don't think I will.

© Copyright 2003 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 19 December 2003

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The first photo was taken in June; the other two in December. The oxalis is at about 9:30. The sempervivums don't have any of their winter red yet; more still showed in June.