Down to earth — arachnophobia to philia

Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers October 12, 2016.

I just spent an hour scrolling through dozens of images of spiders — some of them much too close-up for comfort — to answer a question that must be at the front of your mind if it’s plaguing mine. Why are there so many spiders around in the fall? I hope you’ll spare yourself a nightmare-inducing internet search because I found the answer: there aren’t so many. Just the usual amount. Granted, some have matured to their full glory, more visible than invisible the bigger they get. spiderwebAnd dewy mornings are turning our gardens into galleries of exquisite web art.

I used to be terrified of spiders. As a child my arachnophobia was nurtured by a family member who pretended to catch daddy-longlegs between thumb and forefinger and chase me around the house. Hilarious and character-building? Maybe. One time, as an adult, I levitated across an impossible span of chairs to avoid touching the same floor traversed by a spider my peripheral vision insisted was the size of a puppy. (It wasn’t quite that big.) That night I became my own hero by relocating said spider, without assistance and while adrenaline gave me the shakes, and started down a cobwebby path to desensitization and appreciation.

We all know it’s bad luck to kill a spider. Contrary to popular nightmares, even the venomous ones mean us no harm. Spiders are voracious and indiscriminating insectivores and will only bite humans in near-death defense, not for supper. But anything that gets caught in their webs without breaking right through is fair game. Aphids, yellow jackets, mosquitoes, flies, you name it. The more bothersome the insect, the more gratifying it is to see it wrapped like a burrito. It’s much less enjoyable to witness the entanglement of honeybees, bumbles, and butterflies — some occasion rescue efforts — but that’s nature and nature is cruel. I mean cool. Nature is cool.

cross orbweaver and her prey

Of course, not all spiders spin webs. Some, like the bold jumper (that’s really its name) that lives in my mailbox, stalk their prey. I have also encountered what is either a broad-faced sac spider or woodlouse spider when I’ve been planting or weeding the garden. The former spends its days resting in leaf litter and hunts at night; both are a startling shade of red.

The seeming proliferation of spiders has prevented me from completing some of my garden chores. I’ve been meaning to bring container plants inside but I hate to disturb the webs. Most are classics spun by very fat and happy cross orbweavers. A few grass spiders have taken up residence within the vortices of funnel webs. Fascinating creatures. I’d rather they stay outside. They would too. — Most of us assume spiders will try to come inside right about now looking for warmth. That’s a myth; they’re “cold-blooded”, not heat seekers.

That said, there are spider species — all benign in this neck of the woods — that have adapted to indoor living and are unlikely to survive long outside particularly if relocated now. Frost is the end of the line for some garden spiders too but they will have been busy ensuring the next generation’s eggs are tucked up in a sac somewhere safe for the winter.

As careful as I try to be, my houseplants do sometimes arrive inside with hitchhikers. Last year a grass spider spent the winter under her sheet web in an aloe, a plant I rarely water. Poor thing was probably thirsty but managed to survive for a while on what must have been a limited diet of house spiders and the odd aphid or fungus gnat. You already know I have a lax attitude about housekeeping and am grateful to anyone who helps tidy up.

That’s a long way to come from the utter terror I used to feel. My first close-encounter with an enormous black and yellow garden spider nearly gave me a heart attack. Now I get a little adrenalized thrill when I spot her telltale zipper (a bird alert) in a web. I do prefer to appreciate spiders from a certain distance but the more I see in my garden the luckier I feel.

Truth be told it has been many years since I’ve seen a black and yellow garden spider in my garden or anyones else’s. Seen any in yours? — Do you have love or fear or both? 

Down to earth — got bulbs?

Most of this was originally published in EastBayRI newspapers September 14, 2016.

This was a tough summer. Too stupidly hot, humid, and rainless to maintain momentum after work. I avoided my own garden, only ducking outside periodically to water containers and catch night breezes from the deck. I wish I could say I spent my time in front of the fan wisely. I haven’t been blah-blahging and I didn’t place a bulb order. Lucky for me, it’s not too late.

It’s disconcerting to page through a bulb catalog in the middle of a hot summer. Spring is too delicate for such bruising weather. Crocus would be flattened; tulips would shatter. Daffodils and snowdrops strike me as a little tougher than most but I have no faith fritillaria would hold up. It’s hard to remember that the heat is temporary and spring, knock wood, is rarely so summer-like.

For the last dozen or so years in late July I have been able to suspend disbelief and work on bulb orders for my employers’ gardens but have never — not once — despite my best intentions, placed an order for my own garden. Last year though I got lucky in the bulb department. A friend who had just joined the team at John Scheepers (, offered to send me a box of bulbs at no charge. A grab bag assortment based on a loose wish list (something along the lines of, “I’d sing the blues, and it’s not easy being green”) arrived like Christmas one October day. My box included Tulip ‘Green Star’, green-cupped Narcissus ‘Sinopel’, and was full of “the blues” too. Chionodoxa, brodiaea, and Allium azureum. I was never happier to make room for those gifts or more grateful to see them bloom last spring.

The memory of that gift reminds me, in a way much better than my work experience ever has, of the benefit in following through. Now that September is doling out stormy excuses for indoor activity and some of the sunny days are more crisply spring-like, I will endeavor to think spring and put an order together rather than procrastinate until local nurseries have sold out of the most interesting choices.

My wish list is still heavy on the blues and greens. I must have more chionodoxa. They naturalize beautifully but I want more, more, more, sooner. For the view from my window to look as if a dusky sky has fallen. I enjoyed the June-blooming knee-high amethyst blue spikes of Camassia quamash in another friend’s garden so much she shared them with me but I’m greedy for more of those too. Fingers crossed they’re as happy in my garden’s lean and mean soil as they are in my friend’s rich cake mix.

Until the neighborhood deer population discovers my garden I will add more viridiflora tulips to bolster dwindling supplies. (Hybrid tulips lose vigor after 2 or 3 years.) Not only is Tulip ‘Night Rider’ new this year (and thus extra covetable and possibly sold out by now) it boasts the best of both worlds: blue-ish (purple) petals with green flames. ‘Artist’ displays my other favorite color, orange — blue’s complement, go figure — behind green flames. A must have for a spectacular spring.

As I write this I’m stuck inside while a storm swirls around outside. The John Scheepers catalog is open on the desk next to me. One of my browser tabs is displaying a link to the array of tulip choices and there’s a credit card burning a hole in my wallet. All I need to do to get my order in is make a few clicks and hit send. Might just follow through this time but if I don’t, believe me, I’ll wish I had.

As I post this, I’m stuck inside because I’m still avoiding my garden. Its neglectful state overwhelms me. And I still haven’t placed a damn bulb order. Have you?

Down to earth – sem(pl)antics

Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers July 6, 2016.

I had a friendly debate the other day (weeks ago now) with a fellow professional gardener that might have devolved into a heated argument if I hadn’t capitulated. We were talking about one of my favorite plants, African blue basil, which she described as an annual. I call it tender perennial. To-may-to, To-mah-to? It comes down to semantics.

What is an annual? The definition I use was written by botanists who base it on a plant’s life cycle. An annual is the sort of plant that grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies all in one growing season. My friend’s definition swings a bit wider to include anything that won’t survive winter in our gardens. I yielded the point because she’s not alone. You won’t find African blue basil in the perennial section at any nearby nursery.

African blue basil growing in the Mount Hope Farm cutting garden with nicotiana, feverfew, and snaps

But this is where it gets tricky and why I’m having trouble letting go: I bought mine a whole growing season or two ago. Life-cycle-wise, African blue basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum ×basilicum) takes after its perennial parent. In its East African home climate, O. kilimandscharicum doesn’t die after flowering and setting seed. (Never mind that the hybrid child is sterile. That tiny detail is beside the point.) It grows on.

I use the term tender perennial where applicable because I rise to the challenge of keeping “annuals” alive inside over the winter and replanting them summer after summer.

Self-sowers add to the confusion. Plenty of botanically true annuals return year after year more reliably than some perfectly hardy perennials. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) falls into that category along with shiso (Perilla frutescens), and California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). I always think of Verbena bonariensis as an annual because in my garden it grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies. Or does it? In fact, it’s a marginally hardy perennial (to Zone 7) and sometimes only dies back to the ground after frost, coming up fresh as a … well, not a daisy exactly, but as itself all over again the following summer. And whenever winter kills them, seedlings will pop up in the same spots and everywhere else besides.

I know another gardener who would give perennials that aren’t great at spreading from the roots, such as coneflower (Echinacea sp.), sea holly (Eryngium sp.) and heuchera, the qualifier “short-lived.” We might think twice about purchasing a plant with only three or so years to live. Then again, in general, only the sterile hybrid cultivars will poop out completely and need to be replaced (or not); given the chance, straight species self-sow their own succession.

When it comes to buying plants, most of us gardeners simply want to know exactly what to expect. But a lot of factors are involved in ultimate plant happiness and longevity; a certain amount of unpredictability is part of the challenge. If we didn’t enjoy that we wouldn’t bother bothering. I will always be happy to shell out for one-summer wonders because my garden wouldn’t be half as lively without annuals. And with any luck some might just turn out to be perennial.

Buy local

2016_RIWPS.Best Native Plant Sale in RI. JuneMy tastes range too far-and-widely and I have too little impulse control when I’m plant shopping to ever be called a native plant fanatic. But I am a big fan. (You know I beat their drum every chance.) I have always valued natives for their common sense usefulness: for being likely to survive and thrive the climate and soil profile in my garden with little to no supplemental encouragement. But it wasn’t until I read Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home that the other common sense reasons to plant natives hit… well… home. Now that I understand how essential they are for providing ecosystem services; for feeding the bugs that feed the birds, I have made a point of adding New England and Rhody native plants to my shopping list every year — and sticking to it.

It’s SO much easier to stick to the list when there are no exotic temptations to be had and that’s why I’m bummed to miss the sale this year. If I didn’t have to work I’d pick up a Little Compton-grown Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) to replace the one I lost to root-disturbing home improvements. (Big sigh. It was just the best bee and bird feeder in the garden.) And I wouldn’t bother to deny myself a wagon-load of impulse purchases too.

Can you make it to the RIWPS sale, or your own native plant society’s sale? What’s on your list?

Only the lowly

Those of you who read my column in the actual paper or who possess the secret key for reading it online (here — but it’s not there yet) whenever I don’t repost it, know I got on a soapbox last week about the hideousness of lawn chemicals and the beauty of the weeds those chemicals kill. And just this week at a Plantiful talk in Seekonk, MA I got a baited question from an attendee. She asked with a little glint in her eye, “How do you feel about dandelions?”

You already know the answer: I love them! I occasionally evict dandelions from the garden but I love them-love them-love them in the lawn. And actually, even though in theory I hate my lawn and wish it would be magically transformed into garden by elves in the night, I appreciate how it frames my garden. But only because it’s a colorful frame. Bring on the dandelions, violas, and creeping Charlie. (Yes, even that.) If the grass were devoid of these lowly “weeds” as some lawns are, I would more actively despise and eradicate it.

IMG_5433I honestly don’t know why dandelions still get such a bad rap. We all know now how they provide the earliest and most consistent source of nutrition for honeybees and other pollinators. We like that they’re native (to almost everywhere in the world). And their young greens are packed full of vitamins and on every foodie’s menu.

Violas are edible too and although they’re not much visited by pollinators, their foliage hosts fritillary butterflies (the caterpillar stage). Wouldn’t we all love seeing more of them flying around? Viola sororia, the blue straight-species and variant gray “Confederate violet” are Rhode Island’s state flower. Poisoning them (and yourself, children, pets, and nearby wildlife) with chemicals is decidedly un-patriotic.

Creeping Charlie (a.k.a. ground ivy or Glechoma hederacea) has very few redeeming qualities. It’s edible but not particularly delicious. It isn’t native here, supports no wildlife that I know of, and it spreads altogether too promiscuously into the garden. But I can’t help loving its  purple stains in the grass and how it and the clover remain healthy during summer droughts.

I’m lucky that Z seems to lack the (dude-specific?) gene that controls lawn care and mandates Fenway greenness, which of course, isn’t “green” at all. I’m also lucky that he doesn’t mind mowing periodically to sharpen our garden’s colorful frame.

How do you feel about dandelions?