Down to earth — F***ing Farch

Originally published in East Bay Life newspapers February 28, 2018. — I sort of forgot about posting this one and wouldn’t bother now except it looks like Farch might just turn into Marpril. (I edited it rawther heavily for relevance.)

Back in February everyone I talked to was antsy to dig in the garden as if it was time. It wasn’t. It was too soggy to plant. Too early to divide. Too soon for most of us (without a greenhouse) to start seeds indoors (unless we’re talking sweet peas and cardoon). We knew it but (almost) every year we’re tempted by spring-like thaws; the sweet and sour smell of earth and skunk, birds singing, squirrels cavorting, and witch hazels, hellebores, and fancy pink and black pussy willows blooming.

February/March weather can’t be trusted. Might be in the 60s one day (it was a beauty…) and snowing the next (yup). We might have one major truck-toppling, power-outing gale of a Nor’easter followed by 3 more (yes, indeed). That’s how this season rolls. But we shouldn’t let Farch stop us from gardening.

The days are longer and the sun (when it’s out) is warmer and we’re not the only ones to notice. Houseplants are going through a growth spurt, and they’re hungry. Potting soil has very little nutritional value, particularly if you haven’t repotted in a while. (I haven’t.) You could do that now. (I might.) And you should throw some fertilizer into the watering can before your next rounds. I would use Neptune’s Harvest organic fertilizer if I didn’t mind my house smelling like the beach on a red tide day. I do mind. Instead, from now on every few weeks, my indoor plants will (promises, promises) get a drink spiked with a small scoop of JR Peters Jack’s Classic (20-20-20), which resembles Scott’s Miracle Gro in everything but that company’s affiliation with the evil Monsanto corporation.

If you haven’t completed your winter pruning chores, get to it. I’ve been procrastinating pear tree pruning because I’m on the fence about keeping it. It’s a pretty-ish shape when I prune it right but its crop of pears (when I prune it right) are woody and flavorless. Even the squirrels turn up their noses. I’d cut it down and plant something they and I prefer if I could figure out what that might be.

I cut my serviceberry (Amelanchier candensis) down a few weeks ago because I knew if I let the buds swell, I’d lose my resolve. It’s a sweet native — a favorite — and was one of the first trees I planted here. But I stuck the poor thing in scant soil in an overly sunny and hot spot along my driveway, and although it grew, it was never robust. Besides myself, I blame drought stress and annual Cedar Apple Rust infections born on spring winds from my infected backyard junipers. Last summer the fruit failed to mature and attract flocks of birds in June, and most of its leaves dropped well before fall. Broke my heart. Now it’s a birdbath.

Planning-wise I am as behind schedule as I always am and could use a few more indoor days to catch up with my reading, research, imagining, and planning. I want to make pro/con lists of possible pear-alternative backyard tree choices, and a new plan for my driveway bed to make up for the loss of the amelanchier. I should decide now what perennials and shrubs to evict to make room for all the seed annuals I ordered while hungry for summer. I also need to make a propagation plan for said seeds and room for them in the plantry. Clearly, I’ve got some serious gardening to do. So, come on, Farch, lay it on me. One more snow day should do the trick. She said back in February, not ever imagining March could be QUITE such a bitch. Did I follow through on all these intentions? Nope. I think I still might have some time though.

Did you get any gardening done in Farch? Is it spring yet wherever you are?

Down to earth — there will be a quiz

Originally published in East Bay RI newspapers January 31, 2018. 

I worry sometimes I’ll forget everything I ever learned if I don’t practice every day. Like losing muscle after a prolonged stint on the couch with a dog on my feet. (Happens to me every winter.) In my new role working at a public library, practice makes perfect. Policies and procedures will become ingrained with heavy use. I need to know the rules like I know the path to my shed. But I can’t help worrying that learning those things will displace everything I know about gardening.

Back when I lived in Seattle I worked at a large bookstore and knew about 300 people by name. I’m not good with names. They fly right out of my ear if I’m the least bit distracted. I used to quiz myself whenever I visited different departments, ate lunch in the break room, or passed a coworker on the street. Name to face, name to face, name to face. Distributing paychecks (one of the best jobs ever) without having to ask for a name was a point of pride. After I moved home to Rhode Island and started gardening the shelves in my brain that held those names were almost instantly repopulated with plants. — Which makes visits to my old stomping grounds extremely awkward. I recognize faces, most, but their names are buried in the garden.

Now that I’m not using them every day will my plants’ names become buried too? Not if I can help it. But I’ve noticed a worrisome lag. That I’ll look at familiar foliage or flowers and get the spinning pinwheel while my brain database is searched. I’ll have to build more shelves or move them closer to the light. I’ll have to keep quizzing myself. That’s the trick. Every day, every glance out the kitchen window, every drive down the road and walk around the neighborhood I’ll have to put name to face, name to foliage, name to flower (this time of year, name to twig and bark) and greet them like friends.

At least plant names offer clues for retrieval from the vault, much easier than trying to associate a person to the name Mary and distinguish her from a Barbara with the same haircut. Plant names were chosen specifically (no pun intended) to describe their owner. Thanks to Carl Linnaeus, Botanical Latin follows a binomial system similar to ours, but last name first. Genus is a general grouping of common genetics, and species identifies individuals usually with a descriptor of a particular characteristic or origin. Salix (Latin for willow) rosmarinifolia has foliage that resembles rosemary. Itea (the Greek name for willow, a lookalike) virginica is native to Virginia (and the Eastern U.S.). Rosa (we know this one) rugosa has rough and wrinkled leaves. Associations come easily with familiarity, the use of a good dictionary like “The Hamlyn Guide to Plant Names” by Allen J. Coombes, and constant quizzing.

love-in-a-mistLatin names are universal (though taxonomists like to change things up as they learn more about genetics) whereas common names are variable by country, language, region, and person. Honesty, also known as money plant, also known as silver dollar is Lunaria (like the moon) annua all over the world. But even the geek in me will acknowledge common names are sometimes easier to recall, certainly easier to pronounce. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) flowers look exactly like a Gothic novel. Love-in-a-puff (Cardiospermum halicacabum) has black seeds marked with a white heart tucked inside balloon pods. Their identity is obvious.

Seed and plant catalogs have been arriving for weeks and I’ve been reading them cover to cover for mental calisthenics as well as shop-therapy. As for remembering how to garden, I probably shouldn’t worry. Muscle memory needs little cultivation to get things growing again.

I appreciate the crutch of name tags (for people too) but prefer to sort through an untidy record of purchases than look out at a graveyard of labels. How about you?

change is good

I know better than to apologize for not blahblahging for the better part of a year but I am sorry because it’s put me out of practice. And I have things I want to (remember how to) say.

For starters, this:

Somewhere close to 15 years ago I came back home to RI from the West Coast because I needed a change. While searching for gainful employment my mother’s best friend’s sister offered me a temporary part-time gardening job at Blithewold. Less than a month or so in I felt like I had won the life’s-work lottery and stopped looking for anything else.

I was lucky to land a career in public horticulture, and you know how much I loved it! But in the last couple of years I have felt a shift. I’m not above calling it a mid-life crisis. Even as I created a new garden at Mount Hope Farm from scratch, and helped renovate others there, I started to feel more wiped than excited. More nappish than ambitious. More -meh- than evangelical. And because I’m as tuned in as the average lapsed yogi I tried to pay attention to that.

It occurred to me that maybe horticulture chose me. That’s cool. I’m so glad it did! But because I still want to want to garden, here at Squeezins especially, I decided it was time to make my own career choice and fill my workadays with something different. Something non-plant-related.

Once again I have been lucky. I have always loved libraries as a place to go where no one will give you the hairy eyeball for sitting quietly and getting shit done. Or for wandering aimlessly, staring into the middle distance, and getting nothing done. Also all of the books! I don’t feel the need to read every single one but just being around so much information and different perspectives is reassuring. I could know things. Understand more. There’s an app a book for that. I used to dream of living in the stacks; I always figured working in them would be the next best thing.

clean pawI looked forward to every shift I worked at Rogers Free Library’s main circulation desk and I will miss that place, the staff and patrons madly. But I’m wicked excited to start full-time tomorrow as the circulation supervisor at the Middletown Public Library.

My fingernails are clean; dirt tattoos and thorn scars have faded. This blog (and its title) might need to change with the times. Or maybe as I start gardening for actual pleasure again I’ll dig in here again too. I want to want to. I think I will. (Pretty sure. Mostly. Maybe.) Thanks, as always — and more than ever — for reading.

Down to earth — winter weary

Originally published March 29, 2017 in EastBayRI newspapers.

Patience is a virtue, Virtue is a grace. Grace is a little girl, Who would not wash her face.

–Dick King-Smith

We gardeners are generally credited for being patient, but March puts us to the test and causes snark and crankiness. We growl and say we cannot WAIT for spring, though of course there’s no alternative aside from hopping the next plane to find it elsewhere. A friend with no travel plans recently lamented to me that he’s starved for color, sick to death of winter’s grey. Me too. So today I made it my mission to identify a few ways we can maintain serenity at least until daffodils trumpet and trees start leafing out.

First, don’t wait for the world outside to burst into bloom. If there’s ever a time to indulge in the luxury of floral arrangements, it’s March. Ask your neighborhood florist for locally grown tulips and ranunculus and then fill every vase and jelly jar in the house. If local flowers can’t be had yet a bunch of Columbian alstroemeria is the next best (and longest lasting) thing. A mixed bouquet might not promise the same vase life but will give you the chance to practice your skills, rearranging stems over again as blooms fade and shatter. Just don’t stick your nose in imported flowers, and remember to wash your paws after handling them. Go rogue and supplement your arrangements with forced branches and budded daffodils from the yard. Forsythia will open within a weekend and daffodils only want a slight bend in the neck and a tinge of color to bloom in a vase.

I rely heavily on houseplants for color therapy. Another winter-weary friend recently gave me a walking iris (Neomarica gracilis) pup that had already put out a flower bud. I thought the plantlet might sacrifice the bud to put extra energy into root production, but I came home the other day to a most exquisite and precious display. The flowers, indigo blue standards over white falls with a tiger-print signal, are only open for a day and are delicately fragrant. (Full disclosure: when I owned this plant in a previous life, I missed its display so often I evicted it out of frustration. The spent flowers are disappointment itself.) As houseplants go, walking iris is easy. Water it when — or just before — the soil goes dry and give it a smidge of sun.

Neomarica gracilis
walking iris

Clivia miniata flowers are not so subtle or ephemeral. This South African amaryllis relative spends most of its life with me in a state of wretched neglect, relegated to shady garden corners in the summer, and all but forgotten and unwatered under a crowded bench in my plantry for the winter. That is, until I remember to check for clusters of buds forming between its wide strappy leaves. Last week I watered it and brought it into the living room in time to enjoy a super-sized stem-full of yellow-throated oversaturated orange “fire lilies”. If they don’t give me a pre-season color fix, nothing will. Clivia, pronounced with a long or short I depending on who’s speaking, (cleye’-vee-ah honors its namesake, Lady Clive, and to me, sounds less anatomical than clih’-vee-ah) is a tough as nails houseplant that rewards the most indifferent gardeners by blooming only after a period of cool (can be near freezing) nights and winter drought. Forget to bring this one inside until almost too late next fall, and you’re golden — or your spring will be. Its only liability is mealybug, which loves to feast tucked between the straps, and sometimes spider mite.

Clivia miniata

It was 50-something degrees and sunny on the official first day of spring. I saw black-crowned night heron returning to the pond in my neighborhood; honeybees worked crocus; and my neighbor used his leaf blower for the first time this year. We won’t have long to wait now. A major color fix is coming. Patience.

Since writing the above, it snowed. On April Fool’s Day. And today was gloriously spring-like. The pendulum swings. Are you making it through the transition? How?