Down to earth — bulbs worth the backache

Originally published November 4, 2015 in East Bay Life newspapers. 

A little over a month ago I received an email from a Master Gardener on Cape Cod who mentioned at the end of the note an intention to go right out and plant Eremurus bulbs. She said foxtail lilies had done well in her garden and she was determined to add a few more. I haven’t heard from her since.

The two times I planted foxtail lilies (in others’ gardens) I thought they might be the end of me. I’m no fan of the backache associated with time spent on hands and knees troweling deep holes, but tulips and daffodils are a walk in the park comparatively. Eremurus may be ordered from any bulb company for fall planting but they’ll bear little resemblance to anything else in the shipment; they’re not actually bulbs. The perennials arrive as fragile octopi of tuberous roots the size of your grandfather’s hands or bigger, and come with explicit instructions: drape their fingers over a mound of well-draining soil, and resist the temptation to plant them too closely together. Two-to three-feet apart, say all of the catalogs and they mean it. My only memories are of following contradictory instructions to wedge them in cheek by jowl between tightly packed shrubs and perennials. I hoped, as my employers surely did, for the best.

Eremurus ‘Cleopatra’ from John Scheepers Bulbs

According to all sources, foxtail lily roots are prone to rot under crowded conditions. They require excellent drainage but have a reputation for resenting drought. Each in itself a good reason why I’m reluctant to gamble with them in my garden. Seeing is believing though. I’m as powerless as anyone to resist chest-to head-height spikes of densely packed flowers, particularly orange ‘Cleopatra’, that add serious spice to an otherwise sugary late-spring garden. One of these falls, I’ll take my chances on jamming a few in here at Chez Squeezins.

Narcissus ‘Sinopel’ from John Scheepers Bulbs

The upside is my garden wouldn’t need many for a decent show. Five might even be overkill whereas other bulbs must go in by the dozen or hundred to look like anything was planted at all. I’m not sure which is worse, engineering five large holes between the roots of other things or stabbing one hundred tiny ones. This year my bulb order, a promotional gift (a rare and exciting perk for blogging) chosen by a friend at my favorite bulb company, will include one hundred Allium azureum, Chionodoxa forbesii, and Brodiaea bulbs — to give my garden the blues, as well as a few green-streaked tulips and green-cupped daffodils. (Because I love green flowers. Go figure.)

Instructions for true bulbs like the ones I planted the other day are more straightforward. The rule of thumb is to dig a hole two and a half times as deep as the bulb is wide, which works out to about a trowel-length for most tulips and daffodils, and a knuckle or two down for the tiny ones. That said, the diminutive chionodoxa on my list want to be planted deeply, about four inches down. And unless the squirrels interfere with your efforts (a little cayenne pepper sprinkled over the planting area might help prevent mischief), most bulbs will forgive your mistakes and make adjustments as needed. Plant them upside-down and they’ll right themselves; too deeply or shallowly and they’ll bloom their pants off anyway come spring. And if they don’t, you can always blame the squirrels, whether you actively discouraged them or not.

I’m worried about the Cape Cod gardener last seen in my mind’s eye carefully placing giant eremurus roots in her borders and dropping down onto her kneeler. All attempts on my part to be back in touch have failed thus far. I can only hope she’ll respond, healthy as a horse, in plenty of time to invite me to witness a late-spring spectacle in her garden.

Did you survive planting bulbs this fall? What did you put in? — Any eremurus?

In dying color

The garden makes senescence look like a party. Call me me a ghoul (you wouldn’t be the first) but I can’t help wishing that when my time comes, I might go out with a riotous blaze too.

Happy All Souls’ Day!

Down to earth — frost warning

(Originally published October 21, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers. Since writing it a light frost mostly-toasted the dahlias, the one African blue basil I left out for the bees, and my zinnias. The salvias didn’t blink.) 

With below-freezing temperatures forecast for the weekend I should be spending every waking moment moving the rest of my container plants indoors. Digging and potting up as many tender perennials as I can wedge into the plantry and living room is on the list too. But I’m still enjoying this edge of fall and am more inclined to rhapsodize. I’m also not ready for my frost-tender salvias, cuphea, and African blue basil to quit working. They’re still feeding the bees — bumbles mostly but honeybees too on warm days, and offering a nutritious pit stop for any migrating hummingbirds that might catch their colors from a sky-high fly by. I’ll take my chances on leaving some outside to shrug off a light frost, if that’s all we get, and bloom on for a few more weeks. By the time you read this, you’ll know if I made a savvy or stupid choice. (Full disclosure: Of course I caved to frost-warning panic and filled the plantry to the gills. I left what I couldn’t fit outside to take their chances.) 

The late garden, so wild and wooly, tall and half gone by, is my favorite. (As always, I reserve the right to change my tune come April and over again May through September.) Seedpods of swamp milkweed (Aslepias incarnata) and butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) have split at the seams to release great clouds of silk capable of carrying their packages miles on a decent breeze. – I spotted some floating in Bristol harbor the last time I was out on the water. Harlequin glory bower’s (Clerodendrum trichotomum) lipstick-red bracts, which were so recently puckered around fragrant white flowers, have begun to display indigo-blue berries instead. I love the black eyes of black-eyed Susans much more now than when they were ringed in gold eyelashes.

Meanwhile, dahlias, Japanese anemone, asters, and chrysanthemums offer fresh-as-daisy counterpoints to the seedheads and tatters of almost everything else. I allowed a weedy little white aster to grow in my garden. I’m sure it blew in and don’t know its name (might be hairy white oldfield aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pilosum) but its thin stems and minuscule leaves and buds never annoyed me or got in the way, so I left it here and there, and I’m glad I did for the way its branches of fingernail-sized flowers hover like a lace veil over the garden’s shoulders.

My favorite chrysanthemum, Sheffield pink, is a perfectly hardy old-fashioned perennial completely unlike the potted muffins offered at every roadside stand and nursery. I’m tempted daily by those but they can’t hold a jack-o-lantern candle to Sheffield pink. Its dusty apricot-pink petals are as long and lax as the plant’s stems and the whole picture is as graceful as a loose-limbed ballet dancer. Alas, the patch I started with has been crowded out of my borders, and I’m forced to enjoy it in others’ gardens.

I also have to venture out to witness the spectacle of hardy begonia (Begonia grandis). Those of us who decorate our living rooms with rhizomatous begonias can’t help but be enchanted by a begonia (tuberous in this case) that can inhabit our garden without requiring winter shelf space. We just have to be willing to allow it room, in moist-ish shade or a dapple, to grow without overwhelming competition from neighbors (impossible conditions to provide in my burst-seams garden). By the time it makes its presence known in late summer, lopsided heart-shaped olive-green leaves reversed in burgundy, will catch fall’s low sun to reveal deep red veins. Bazooka-pink, or more rarely white, dangles of clamshell flowers through September and October would almost be beside the point if they didn’t add to the plant’s appeal. Better yet, they go to winged seed, ensuring, when happily situated, generations of fall extravagance.

Frost in the forecast is bittersweet. I’m not ready to let go of the season – it has gone too quickly as it always does. But I’m grateful for the warning to remind me to rhapsodize – and procrastinate – while I still have the chance.

Have you had a frost yet? What are your favorite fall flowers? 

Down to earth — everybody’s gotta eat

Originally published October 7, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast life newspapers. 

When I was first bitten by the gardening bug, I hated them. Insects and creepy crawlies of all stripes gave me the heebies. (Butterflies excepted.) Gardening for me was about being outside under a warm sun surrounded by the fragrances and prettiness of flowers, and the shapes and textures of foliage, full stop. Almost completely disconnected from the ecosystem. Although for the sake of my own health (and wallet) I never purchased an arsenal of toxic chemistry, I became a soapy water sharpshooter, doing my best to destroy the spittle bugs that bent the stems of my lavender, and left beer traps for slugs. I had it out for the aphids on rosebuds, and saw every hole in every leaf as a mortal wound and tragedy.

No more. Now I see those holes as little victories of nature over nurture.

My change of heart came slowly as I learned to appreciate certain insects, like bees, spiders, and praying mantids, for being “beneficial” helpers, and was followed, years later, by a great now-I-get-it epiphany that changed the way—and the why—I garden. The credit for that goes to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, who argues for the use of native plant species. According to professor Tallamy, we need insects. Their job is to convert sunlight, by way of particular plants, into high protein food for those next up the food chain. In a nutshell, no insects, no birds. Everybody has to eat and our gardens should offer buffets.

I’m not alone in seeing the light through hole-y leaves. Back in September I attended a daylong program called “Your Backyard Matters”, offered by the Sogkonate Garden Club in Little Compton. During the morning session several members presented their experience and successes in gardening for particular wildlife. Some cultivate meadows that welcome nesting Bobolink. One couple propagates, sells, and donates dozens of species of trees, shrubs, and perennials that host native insects. Others have planted beds that attract pollinators and Monarch butterflies. And that afternoon, they each opened their gardens for inspection and inspiration.

The take-home message was to recognize your own garden’s wildlife potential and run with it. I don’t have the requisite space for a meadow full of Bobolink hatchlings but my .17 acre plot is big enough to invite other types of songbirds, plenty of insects to feed them and their young, butterflies, and more species of pollinators than I can count on both hands.

It’s easy to garden for pollinators: plant more flowers. Butterflies need host plants for their caterpillars as well—Monarch caterpillars can only digest milkweed species plants. By planting native trees and shrubs for insects, along with seed and berry-bearing plants, such as coneflower and winterberry, I can help keep my favorite local songbirds fed year round. And by leaving the garden standing instead of putting everything “to bed” now, I can give them and the next generation of insects, including a lot of pollinators, a safe place to overwinter too.

I probably say this every fall, but unless your garden is infested with voles (who may only ever be discouraged by bare ground that makes them visible to predators—everybody has to eat) there’s no reason not to be a procrastinator now. You might argue that a fading garden looks messy; I’ll say quit worrying about what your neighbors might think. Besides, there’s tremendous beauty in senescence. The trick is to make fall’s “mess” look intentional and tidy. I remove broken and fallen stems. I trim unruly foliage (Siberian iris) and prune anything to the ground that might harbor a fungal disease (peonies). Most of the rest I enjoy through the winter and put off cutting back until spring when I’m desperate to be outside under a warm sun doing something vigorous.

Meanwhile though, until a hard frost signals winter, and barring any damage from forecast storms, my garden is still alive and blooming. On warm days pollinators and other insects are as active as ever. I have high hopes migrating hummingbirds will stop on their way south to tank up, and songbirds have started shopping the seed stores. Nature is at home here. And so am I.

Does your garden provide a feast for critters? Intentionally or unintentionally?

Unstuck in time — at Mt. Hope Farm

Ever since my daily schedule became …unstructured… I have been unstuck in time. Or rather, stuck on a date in August as if this has been one long week of staycation. No complaints because staycations are always blissfully productive but it’s a little strange given that August became September and the other day I had to flip the calendar page to October. It’s also strange to feel so confused given how much time I still spend outside with my eyes and feelers on every changing thing.

I have been doing fall things in the garden (taking cuttings, saving seeds, making room in the plantry), which must mean I’m not completely in denial, but I’m more inclined to credit my walks with Bazil for beginning to reset my internal calendar. Every morning is a little darker; every afternoon a little more apple-crisp.

We take most of our walks around town but Mt. Hope Farm has become our favorite place to find the season (and chase squirrels). We go there a couple times a week, sometimes meeting up with another human, sometimes not.

It’s a special place, mostly wild and wooded, and history rich. Mt. Hope was the seat of the Wampanoag sachem Metacomet (also known as King Philip), and the site of his assassination during King Philip’s War. The land was home, at least briefly according to one of my walking companions (not Bazil), to a Native American-themed waterfront amusement park. Now it’s a working farm (again), B&B, special-event venue, host to a year-round farmers market, and has miles of road and trails open every day to the public and their dogs, free of charge.

On the last day of September, right after the first rainstorm in too long, Bazil and I found October.

Where do you go to find the season?