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.

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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?

Malacology is cool

File this one under learn-something-new-every-day.

It’s not often that a book rocks my little world. Which is saying something considering I’ve been a book addict ever since the code was revealed, and now that I work part-time in a library, I cross paths with life-altering literature at least twice a week. But a few weeks ago a friend pushed book I’d never seen before across her kitchen table saying, “You might enjoy this.”

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http://www.elisabethtovabailey.net

She was right. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey is a deceptively diminutive book about one of the world’s most ubiquitous and tiny creatures: a common forest snail. But I didn’t just enjoy the book. I loved it. I loved it because it’s beautifully written; straightforward and without superfluous adjectivery, yet rhapsodic. And because I learned more than I ever knew I wanted to know about gastropods.

Bailey, a Mainer and gardener rendered horizontal and practically paralyzed by a mysterious illness most likely contracted during a European vacation, was given a peculiar gift: a terrestrial snail harbored in a potted violet. Over the course of a bedridden year when she could do nothing more strenuous than watch time slip away, Bailey observed the snail go about its own life in slippery minutiae and delved into the its fascinating life history and cycle, and its impact on her life. She eventually gave it a home (in a terrarium) so welcoming it produced 118 offspring. In the years that followed the snails’ release back into the woods, as Bailey’s health allowed and improved, she researched mollusks and wrote a book that deserves a place on every gardener’s shelf. (Says a gardener with a copy she doesn’t want to give back.)

Have you read it? Do you have a newfound admiration for snails now too?

Down to earth — madness

(Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers sometime in March. I have been remiss in reposting! But because it is currently snowing outside, I thought I might as well make up for misplaced intentions. What’s written below isn’t old news — although I really-really-really wish it was.)

I spent the entire Sunday of the time change outdoors soaking up the sun, holding sweet and earthy scents in my nose, listening to birds compete for attention, and gardening as if it’s spring. The very next day it sleeted. Dark gray days of rain followed, then sun again. As I write this, there’s snow forecast for the equinox. March, poor thing, suffers from wild mood swings.

I know that about March (and can relate) but I started cutting my garden back anyway weeks ago at the first hint of April. Suddenly I couldn’t stand to look at its tatters for one more minute. I hauled armloads of fallen stems and seedheads that no longer held any winter interest to the compost pile. When that back and forthing became too tedious, I broke the rest of the debris into bits and spread it as mulch around my perennials’ sprouting crowns. Tidiness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. (My mess is creative clutter.)

In the last couple weeks those perennials have put on another bit of growth while spring marched on. Redwing blackbirds came back at the beginning of the month (if not before); I heard choruses of spring peepers sound in my neighborhood on the evening of the10th. On the 12th I noticed black-crowned night herons and a pair of Canada geese had returned to the tiny Tanyard Brook reservoir on State Street in Bristol (my favorite place to bird and turtle watch through the chainlink). Crocuses vied with snowdrops on social media for most-liked, #spring. Pussy willows broke out of bud and the earliest daffodils began blaring tiny trumpets.

I’m a little nervous about jumping the gardening gun but my inclination, despite sleet, frosty nights, and humbugging snow is to trust the signs and follow their cues. So now I’m waiting, sort of impatiently if my inability to wait patiently is anything to go by, for the forsythia to bloom. Its yellow arches and mounds are the universal signal that the ground has warmed another notch, and it’s time to commence the next to-do on my list: rose pruning. But rose buds have already swelled and the other day I couldn’t keep my pruners pocketed. You try.

Most* of the roses we grow around here are so hardy and unperturbed by March’s moods that they won’t be overly injured by premature pruning. *I did once almost kill a marginally hardy rose by accidentally pruning it before a very hard and prolonged April freeze. Mea culpa. But if the rose I pruned last week suffers any dieback I’ll just prune it again shorter this time and be happy I did. Which says something because I’m in the habit of lopping my roses to within inches (12-to-18”) of the ground. There are invisible dormant buds up and down rose canes, even all along the old gnarly trunks, which respond to severe pruning (and a topdressing of compost) with gratifying vigor. It’s actually very hard to kill a rose. Even for me.

Along with roses, it will be high time to prune butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii and cvs.), bush clover (Lespedeza spp.), blue beard (Caryopteris ×clandonensis), and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) to their lowest buds (anywhere from about 2 to 12” from the ground). Might as well shear the lavender then too but not nearly as hard—cutting back into the woody bits generally only gains you ugly stumps.

In the meantime, while the weather goes through its moody March madness, holding our horses gives us gardeners a good chance to reassess, dream, and plan. As perennials begin to flush out from dormancy so do the memories of the best intentions I formed last year and over the winter. I could—and should—stay busy making endless lists of all of the changes I want to make. And, after the pruning is done, the daffodils peak, the tulips begin to bloom, and the ground dries out a bit, all signs will point to digging in. By then spring won’t be denied and neither will we.

She says. But here it is, April 4 and there’s a good 4 or 5 inches of snow on the ground and counting. Last week or the week before it was in the balmy 60s. (Even my mood swings aren’t this violent.) Daffodils — in peak! –have faceplated; muscari and chionodoxa are buried; forsythia is trying to look tough; my magnolia is toast. Big sigh. Spring marches on? Remains to be seen here. How about in your garden?