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!

Nally’s Lime Dots

It’s hard to believe I haven’t already waxed on about Boltonia asteroides ‘Nally’s Lime Dots’ (or is it ‘Dot’ singular?) but a quick search of this blog found only two measly mentions. (I found several on Bwold’s blog along with a myriad of my own photos in google images, some totally unrelated. Weird.) Anyhoo, I love this plant and it loves me. By which I mean, it loves my garden.

I love it for its chartreuse petal-less polka-dots. I enjoy the way those buttons catch the long late-summer light in halos (it’s not fall yet) and how it’s the only thing, so far, in my garden that refuses to be overwhelmed by Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’. In fact, they’re a pretty pair, thick as thieves. And I’m gratified by its generosity. No matter how much I edit out, it rebounds to grace the neediest spaces. And as Kathy from Avant Gardens says, “it should be a nominee for best supporting actor…whether in the garden or in a vase”. I’m never inclined to bring flowers inside until old Nally’s dots bloom.

The only thing I don’t love is that the flowers are unattractive. I’ve never seen a bee, wasp, moth, or butterfly visit the buttons. There’s nothing for the hummingbirds there. Too bad it’s so boring! If not for its evident sterility, it might be a contender for my favorite plant ever.

FINE PRINT: perennial, zones 5-8. Full sun to maybe partial shade; average to crappy soil, and drought resistant. Grows 4-to 6-feet and leans like a drunk. May be given the Chelsea chop to encourage sturdiness but, in my experience, still becomes tall and tipsy. 

What’s catching the long light in your garden? Anything vase-worthy?

Down to earth — I heart footed ferns

Originally published January 21, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life. 

I read recently that, just as gardeners should learn the lay of the land for at least a year before starting a garden, a new homeowner should move in before repainting. Good advice I would have been much too impatient to heed back when my carpenter and I first took possession of a purple living room and a yard like a blank slate. But while I enjoy moving plants around and changing the garden with every better idea, repainting is a tedious chore. I’ve had to change the color of my living room walls twice now. I didn’t find the right color until I started growing a bear’s paw fern and watched how the afternoon light moved through it.

For a long time I lacked the confidence to grow ferns as houseplants. One after another—a maidenhair, mother fern, and table fern—succumbed to quick and demoralizing deaths. I assumed that my house must not be humid enough, despite the contrary evidence of perennially fogged windows. I thought that until I lived in a rainforest or a shaded greenhouse with drains in the floors, I’d never be able to meet their cultural requirements.

But I have a thing for ferns. The way new fronds uncurl like the primordial creatures they are…The shape of mature fronds in silhouette…The candy-button-like dots of spore-producing sori on the fertile fronds’ undersides…The memory of grade-school science lessons about one of the more fascinating ways plants reproduce…And I’m always game for a challenge. I kept bringing them home and I’m glad I did because it turns out footed ferns are the ferns for me.

Rabbit's foot fern (Davallia fejeensis)
Rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis)

Footed ferns are so called because the fronds emerge from an epiphytic criss-cross of fuzz covered rhizomes spilling over the soil’s surface, and the tips do resemble paws if you let your imagination run wild. Rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis) rhizomes might bring to mind the luridly dyed severed rabbit’s foot key chains we carried in our pockets for luck during the 1970s (what a disgusting fad that was). I prefer to creep myself out by imagining a nest of tarantulas instead. So cool. The fronds, by contrast, are elegantly lacy with deeply cut bronzy leaflets (called pinnae in botany-speak) that become deep green with maturity.

Naked rabbit’s foot fern (Polypodium formosanum) is also known as caterpillar fern, worm fern, grub fern, and E.T. fern because its finger-like sea-foam-green rhizomes have no hairy scales. But they do have creepy appendages that help anchor the plant to its host, or in the case of mine, hug an adjacent piece of souvenir driftwood and root into a neighboring begonia. Worm fern’s chartreuse rickrack fronds arch gracefully from all the oddity at its feet.

My bear's paw fern (Phlebodium aureum 'Blue Star') really ties the room together...
My bear’s paw fern (Phlebodium aureum ‘Blue Star’) really ties the room together…

The superstar in my household is a bear’s paw fern (Phlebodium aureum ‘Blue Star’) with wavy fronds so glaucous I was inspired to paint my living room pumpkin orange to bring out their blue. Its rhizomes are much thicker, more bear-like than the others, but are taking their time to lumber over the pot edges.

The best thing about footed ferns, aside from the coolness of their weirdness, is that they’re forgiving. They do require humidity—I keep a rabbit’s foot fern in the bathroom and the worm fern in an open terrarium—but they can tolerate much more winter dryness than, say, a maidenhair. They don’t seem to be as temperamental about watering either. The soil may go dry between drenchings and for that I use the shower once per week. And as long as they don’t get direct sunlight during the spring and summer, all is well. During the winter, east windows are prime real estate, as are shelves that catch a little afternoon sun, perhaps with a complementary color on the walls behind to bring out the best in their silhouette.

Do you grow ferns as houseplants? Which ones? Have they inspired any interior design changes?

Little green rose

If I hadn’t taken up the slow flowers challenge, and spent a few minutes on Thanksgiving searching my garden for a tiny bouquet for my bathroom windowsill, I might not have really registered that one of my roses is still in bloom. Ish. The flowers were a tiny bit melty (worse now — see photo below, right) but even during summer they seem a touch… off. Probably because they’re not really flowers. Rosa chinensis f. viridiflora produces no petals or sexual parts. Just an over abundance of alizarin-tinged sepals in a fully double flower-like bonanza. They’re lousy for attracting pollinators and have no scent whatsoever, but I love them for their oddity. And because I have a thing for green flowers. (Go figure.)

Green rose in JuneGreen rose today, a little worse for winter.

Weirdness aside, the plant has a sweet, low branching habit to about two- or three-feet tall and produces endless clusters of “flowers.” It has been quite happy living on the cusp of its cold hardiness zone (6) in my garden, rarely even bothering to die back to the ground, and the foliage seems remarkably disease resistant.

green rosesBetter still, with no petals to shatter in the cold, the “flowers,” even if a little nipped, turned out to be brilliant and long lasting in this tiny late-fall arrangement with Itea foliage, honesty (Lunaria annua) and love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) seedheads. And fun to paint to boot.

Do you value weirdness in the garden? Do you have a favorite oddity?

Down to earth — late-summer spring cleaning

(Originally published on September 17, 2014 in East Bay RI/South Coast Life.)

I think I have it a bit backwards. Isn’t spring supposed to be the time for cleaning and clearing the clutter? I’m on a tear to create some space now. Within reason, of course. I have no intention of tidying up my desk, and I’m certainly not ready to put the garden “to bed.” There are miles of summer and fall left to go and I prefer to leave seedheads standing through the winter anyway. But right now my garden is at its fullest. It’s tall and it’s buzzingly busy with activity. It’s so full, in fact, that the wildlife and I can afford to let a few plants go here and there. This is a great time to think about changes to make next year and try them on for size.

Pennisetum orientale 'Karley Rose' about to eat a daphne
Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’ about to eat a daphne

Against my better judgment, last year I plunked a fountain grass, Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’ into one of my foundation beds alongside a tiny hydrangea cutting and a precious little daphne. This spring I threw a few dahlias and nicotiana into the mix. Even at her best, Karley Rose has a late-summer habit that Great Dixter’s Christopher Lloyd might describe as sleazy. She grew at a prodigious rate, especially considering the lousy soil I planted her in, and has lately taken to lounging around, plumes and foliage flopped all over her more interesting bedfellows. Before I evict this plant for good (anyone have just the spot?) I’m going to whack it back by at least half to give those other plants some breathing room again and make extra-sure I’ll prefer the bed without it.

Late entries -- brachyscome and orange zinnias
Late entries — brachyscome and orange zinnias

There are still swallowtail butterflies in the garden thanks to a healthy crop of fennel (plants in the parsley family are swallowtail caterpillar hosts) growing in the bed closest to my driveway, but I wanted to see what life might be like if we could actually walk down the path to the plantry door, and edited out a good two-thirds. It’s as if that bed’s edges have been sharpened. And the holes I created were just right for tucking in some last-minute color: bright orange zinnias and a companionable blue brachyscome daisy. I know without even looking that I want more of those colors in my garden next year.

I’m in love with the rice paper plant (Tetrapanax paperifer ‘Steroidal Giant’) planted in my backyard border. Its 18-inch wide matte-green pinwheel leaves change the scale of the garden and make me smile. But they also provide a little too much shade for all of the regular-sized plants tucked in nearby. This season, the rice paper plant’s third in my garden, it finally sent out a few suckers that filled some gaps along the back of the border and grew to shade out a bit more of the front. The other day I removed a couple of offshoots to let the daylight back into the bed (they’re shallow-rooted and easy to pull) and just like when my handsome husband finally shaved off his hilarious mustache, I wished them back again as soon as they were out. But I’m learning to enjoy the look of my garden’s upper lip without them.

I’ll start on container plants next. The more I consign to the compost now (such as the enormous angel’s trumpet that never bloomed), the fewer will crowd my plantry, living room and cellar this winter. She says.
I’m itching to move some shrubs around, if not out, and a few perennials too. But we’d all be wise to wait for a good soaking rain before rearranging the furniture. In the meantime we can do some spring cleaning to clear the clutter and create some space to play with ideas for next year’s garden.

What kinds of changes are you thinking of making? Are you trying them on for size now too?