Down to earth — for the fun of it

(Originally published January 27, 2016 in East Bay RI newspapers. I think I might have missed posting a piece or two — it’s been longer than I thought. Happy New Year/Ground Hog’s Day!)

I read an article last week (a few weeks ago now) by Valerie Easton, avid gardener and Seattle Times columnist, whose New Year’s resolution was to plant less. What a notion! That goes against almost everything I stand for. And yet.

Ms. Easton has a garden that must resemble mine somewhat. She describes plunking spring’s impulse purchases into vacancies that occasionally turn out to be occupied by something that hasn’t emerged from dormancy yet. (Me too.) And she crowds extra plants into containers. (Yes.) I can only imagine her garden as a happy riot of liveliness and abundance but she saw something else: an overcrowded, dissonant, and thirsty hoard. Which also sounds a little — OK, a lot — like my garden.

I can see Easton’s point about not wanting to spend all of her time watering, particularly during any kind of drought. I have tried very hard not to include plants in my garden that demand supplemental water after becoming established. (By “trying hard” I mean that I have allowed some things to die and felt guilty about watering the rest.) But containers are another story. I am willing to water once a day, but never twice, which means following through on what should be an annual resolution to use my smallest containers for toad shelters instead of plants.

I also wish my garden had more textural contrasts between one plant and the next, and at the same time, cohesion in its overall design. One way to achieve that might be to tuck fewer things in the ground this spring. OR to plant as much as my heart desires but to limit my choices. Adding anything to the garden, whether one variety or two dozen, does require more space than is ever available after a previous summer’s rampant growth. I never intend to plant over the top of another and would rather my plants have room to do their thing without being pushed over by more robust neighbors, so edits and eviction notices go out every spring regardless. The trick this year will be to narrow down my wish list. That will be a challenge for sure. You already know I’m on the hunt for at least one plant I have no room for and, just as predicted, my favorite seed catalogs arrived last week.

Select Seeds’ large selection of breadseed poppies (Papaver somniferum, also known as opium poppy by anyone unafraid of criminal investigation) is irresistible. The plants are slim enough to fit in the narrowest slots, so why not buy every color? Seeds are best scattered sometime before you change your mind and the end of winter. They’ll never need a drop of water from the hose, pollinators of all stripes visit the flowers, and a little later on, goldfinch will perch and peck away at the pretty seedpods.

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Second generation Nicotiana ‘Tinkerbell’ gone green (love!)

I can’t deny myself the pleasure of sweet peas, which take up very little room on my fence and are kaput by mid-July anyway. Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana) on the other hand, go and go, even in partial shade, until the hardest frost flips their switch (which finally occurred a few days ago), and their large basal leaves offer a contrast with almost every other plant in my garden. Although they’re champion self-sowers, cross-pollination varies their progeny — to the better and muddier, both. Freshening the gene pool with new packets of first generation favorites like ‘Cranberry Isles’ and ‘Lime Green’ really shouldn’t count against my list.

I feel my resolve to keep it simple and plant less weakening already. I think what Ms. Easton and I are really recommending is a resolution to have the most fun ever in your 2016 garden. If dragging the hose around the deck and/or garden on a hot day is your idea of hell on earth, plan accordingly. If you think there’s nothing better than watching goldfinch peel poppy seedpods like bananas, scatter those seeds ASAP. If you like to tweak your garden’s design as it grows, plan to edit constantly and plant anything that makes your fingers curl. Whatever a blissed out growing season looks like to you, it’s in your power to make it so, starting now.

I haven’t scattered those seeds yet. Any day now… How about you? Do you have any resolutions in the works for more garden fun?

Some thoughts that count

Originally published December 16, 2015 in East Bay Newspapers.

It has been my habit in the weeks before Christmas to offer garden-y gift suggestions pulled directly from my own wish list. I’m doing it again but with a twist. I haven’t made a list this year; I am well supplied with garden tools, my bookshelves are hemorrhaging, and my garden, as you know, is already plantiful. Besides, several years ago my family collectively declared that we had enough things and stuff, and decided to exchange charitable donations instead. We make thoughtful choices (no one would blithely send money to a bacon eaters alliance in honor of a vegan) and over the years it has become a sweet tradition that makes us all feel richer. So, if your favorite gardener’s tool shed is full, consider supporting an organization near and dear to his or her heart instead.

Most of us have a particular mission. For those whose gardens are habitats for wildlife, gifts of membership to Rhode Island Wild Plant Society (riwps.org) and New England Wildflower Society (newfs.org) would hit the mark. A donation to the Xerces Society (www.xerces.org) funds research and outreach to protect the bees, butterflies, beetles, worms, and countless other creepy crawlies that make our soil healthy and our gardens buzz, and feed the birds.

Speaking of birds, a gift to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (www.birds.cornell.edu) supports research, education, and conservation with the purpose “to understand birds and other wildlife, to involve the public in scientific discovery, and to use our knowledge to protect our planet.” They maintain the best bird identification website, host a bunch of “Citizen Science” projects, and will send fascinating newsletters to the bird lover on your list. If your gardener would prefer membership in a local organization, check out the Audubon Society of Rhode Island (www.asri.org), Mass Audubon (www.massaudubon.org), and the Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown, RI (normanbirdsanctuary.org). Memberships include free access to beautiful and bird-full wildlife refuges, discounted and free educational events, and the gratification of preserving local habitats.

The Garden Conservancy (www.gardenconservancy.org) does something similar only for gardens. Their mission is “to save and share outstanding American Gardens for the education and inspiration of the public,” and their membership includes “invitations to special events, free admission to select preservation project gardens, and discounted tickets to Open Days,” when the most beautiful private gardens’ gates are opened to the public. Of course public garden memberships offer endless inspiration and educational opportunities too. Join the American Horticulture Society (www.ahs.org), which publishes an excellent magazine, or a member garden such as Blithewold, and gain free admission to hundreds of public gardens all over the country. Such a deal.

Giving veggie gardeners membership to a non-profit like Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), which safeguards diversity in our food supply, may be deliciously self-serving as surplus heirloom tomatoes are likely to be shared. And despite claiming that plants are our favorite people, most of us gardeners have a soft spot for humans too. Community garden organizations such as Southside Community Land Trust in Providence (www.southsideclt.org) provide those with limited access to healthy food options with the education and space necessary to grow their own vegetables. SCLT membership comes with buckets of compost along with discounts and “first dibs” at their hugely popular plant sale in May.

Contributions to non-profits are generally tax-deductible, which is great incentive but not why my family exchanges them Christmas morning. We do it because these are gifts that make a difference and keep on giving. And because no matter what we put under the tree, it’s the thought that counts.

Agree to disagree

We can always count on Mother Nature to give us gardeners something safe(r) to talk about when the news is bleak and full of polarizing politics. Temperatures in the 50s and low 60s for the last couple of weeks have made the weather a hot enough topic to justify changing the subject whenever things get uncomfortable. I’ve had the windows wide open on the warmest days. Night temperatures have gone down into the low 30s now and again but it’s the middle of December and we haven’t had a real killing frost yet. And some plants, like trumpet honeysuckle, borage, and daphne are still putting a surprising amount of effort into flowering.

And other plants are jumping the gun. A few weeks ago I noticed rhododendron buds opening. My holly, in full berry, was blooming last week. A local friend recently posted a picture on facebook of a snowdrop in bloom. People have also mentioned seeing cracks in magnolia buds and Lenten rose hellebores in bloom. (Or are they confusing Helleborus orientalis with the Christmas rose, H. niger?) It’s almost impossible not to see all of this as a sign of the apocalypse but it also feels really familiar to me. I freely admit that my memory is terrible but I can barely recall the last time we had a white Christmas. The forsythia always blooms in fall at least a little bit and so do the autumn-blooming cherry trees. I remember the year kniphofia and nicotiana were still spiking in December and the crabapples bloomed.

I know there’s cause for worry. Open magnolia buds will be torched by the cold that’s bound to come along at some point, and any cherry trees blooming prematurely won’t be able to put on much of a show in the spring. But I also am inclined to put worries aside and enjoy the mild weather and all of the weirdness resulting from it. Because if this winter is anything like last winter, the mercury will do a nosedive eventually and then it will be the cold that seems interminable, apocalyptic, and weird. And I’ll probably be glad for the excuse to change the subject.

Have you been talking about the weather? What’s blooming?

Down to earth — I like lichen

Originally published December 2, 2015 in East Bay Newspapers.

Lest we become completely overwhelmed and demoralized by horrendous events happening around the world, the news media have also been reporting, as they usually do around the holidays, on the benefits of gratitude. According to one article I read, recent studies show that expressing gratitude will improve heart health and help us live longer. Or was that coffee? Either way I’m all for it. I read another article suggesting to those of us without the glass-is-half-full gene, which is a “mutation,” according to the author, that we might start our journey along the path to happiness with baby steps. Be grateful for the little things.

Like lichen. I hardly ever notice lichen in the dry summer months when it’s dormant and obscured by foliage. Now that we’ve had some rain, and more light is reaching stems and trunks and rock walls, the lichen is waking up and promising to offer a few extra colors to embellish winter’s monochrome. Some of what grows on stone is orange and yellow, while most of the tree-dwelling lichen is a dull grey green that glows a brighter sea foam or deepens to moss on dark and damp days. It takes the form of lacy speckles, flat rounded patches that flake like lead paint, and fuzzy tufts of reindeer moss that litter the sidewalks after a good wind.

Despite appearances to the contrary, lichen does no harm. It’s a passenger, not a parasitic devourer of tree flesh. And “it” is actually two things, a fungus and an alga, a dynamic duo, in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus provides support by hitching a ride on bark, rocks, and anything else that stays put long enough for it to grow at a snail’s pace, and collects moisture and minerals from the air. The alga uses the moisture and nutrients in its work to convert sunlight into food it subsequently passes back to its partner. And together, aside from being beautiful in the eye of this beholder, they provide sustenance for insects and animals, nesting material for birds, and when it sloughs off, nitrogen for the soil. Because pollution restricts lichen’s growth, it is an excellent gauge of decent air quality too.

The presence of lacy lichen undergarments on your trees and shrubs is an indicator of slow growth: plants that hold onto their bark for a while before shedding it offer lichen an opportunity not unlike rent control. Most trees grow more slowly as they age, and others are naturally slow even in their youth; lichen on their limbs is no cause for alarm. On the other hand, an abundance of lichen on an otherwise fast growing species can signal compromised health, such as root stress perhaps due to soil compaction or flooding. We gardeners should be grateful for the message even if some of us aren’t inclined to appreciate the messenger.

I am. My paths towards happiness — the one around my garden, and the one I take over the river and through the woods — are festooned in lichen. It will be a sight for my winter-sore and color-starved eyes, and serves as a reminder to breathe deeply. It’s one of the little things I’m going to remember to feel grateful for.

Do you like lichen? Do you keep a gratitude list? What’s on it?

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?