My mess

The only thing better than a weekend in the garden is a long weekend in the garden. Especially if it’s spring (or in this case the unofficial start of summer) and the weather is sunny and mild and serendipitously showery. These last three days were the best for plant shopping and plant planting. The best for rearranging the furniture—and by that I mean transplanting (it’s not too late) and moving indoor plants out (it’s not too early although the nights are still on the cool side). All the stuff I love to do in the spring. Pretty sure my Z thinks I’m nuts because I’m always pasted at end of it even though I usually break for a nap in the middle of it.

And just like clockwork, I have fallen in love with my garden all over again. By anyone else’s standards it’s a mess. But it’s my mess. I think it’s beautiful and, also, I’m on it. a view of my mess

Strawberries and violets acting weedyOne thing I’ve noticed is that some of my favorite thugs have grown out of scale. I don’t mind plants that act like weeds (I want the strawberries to fill the patio cracks) but looking weedy isn’t so OK. They and the violets in my garage/rain garden are burlier than the perennials and even the shrubs at this stage. So even though violets are butterfly hosts, I have evicted the extra-annoying clumps and placed a few container plants that, until the rest of the garden grows, might provide enough weighty bulk to make the remaining blobs of violet and strawberry leaves look more delicate and garden worthy. And I’ll enjoy working on a list of plants to add to that bed that will offer better contrast this early in the season.

I was a little bummed by today’s showers but the trunkful of plants I brought home from the nursery Saturday got extra watering in; a shiny new rain barrel (replacing a funky, stopped up and mosquito-infested fish barrel) was tested; and it gave me the chance to CLEAN the plantry. Plantry cleaning (to own the truth, any cleaning) is a chore that usually sits at the very bottom of the weekend to-do list but maybe it will rise higher from now on with the incentive of creating an inviting, rainy-day, garden-side haven in what is essentially a screened porchlet. (I’d be writing this out there right now if it wasn’t such a chilly evening.)

Plantry / summer studio

Did you spend a long weekend in the garden? Do you think your garden is a mess too? Are you in love?

The shad must be running

Amelanchier budsEvery time my serviceberry (a.k.a shadbush, a.k.a Amelanchier × ‘Autumn Brilliance’) comes into bloom I wonder why it isn’t a more commonly planted tree. Why did everyone plant those dreadful Bradford pears instead? Is it because serviceberry grows slowly? (That would be a point in its favor if instant gratification weren’t so highly valued by landscrapers and non-gardeners.) Is it because it’s a native and native used to equal boring? (I’m so glad it doesn’t anymore. Don’t we all like to feel at home in our gardens and connected to nature’s cycles?) Is it because its racemes of small creamy-white flowers, blushed with the barest touch of pink in bud, make such a delicate cloud compared to the razzmatazz of bazooka pink cherries, and are gone again too quickly? (True, they shatter within a couple of weeks but not before the bees have had their fill.) Is it because the tasty little berries that follow are gone—stolen by every neighborhood robin—almost before they ripen in July?

Or is it because the damn tree is so susceptible to cedar apple rust? By mid summer the foliage and fruit on mine develops a dusty orange glow and cankerous thickenings along some of its twigs. Uncool. But at least the scourge is only disfiguring, not fatal, and doesn’t seem to put off the marauding birds. Some springs, right around now after a rainstorm, I have spotted the source—bright orange, disgusting, globular fungi on the branches of my backyard junipers and lopped them off before they had a chance to blow spores all over the neighborhood. I like to think my vigilance has helped because I adore my serviceberry and want everyone who sees it to desperately want to plant one too.

What’s your favorite spring-blooming tree?

The Philadelphia Flower Show

Pic of Mum's pic

I didn’t take nearly enough pictures. Or any decent ones. But chalk it up to distraction since my day was bookended by appearances on the Gardener’s Studio stage (once for a container garden challenge and then later in the day for a Plantiful Propagation demonstration). And because the show itself is overwhelming and I know myself to crash and burn with much less external stimulation, I flew around trying to take it all in without taking it all IN.

The highlights for me were the cup winning Stoney Bank Nursery exhibit of a wild spring woodland with forced fothergilla, azalea, fringe tree, ferns, etc around a hollowed out tree whose branches hung from cables from the ceiling; a wildflower/tall grass meadow in winter by Scape Design; pressed flower paintings and Calder-esque mobiles; Twig terrariums in the marketplace; and of course the PHS Hamilton Horticourt. I had heard that Mrs. Hamilton was no longer competing — a friend suggested she too might have been shamed by Downton Abbey’s cousin Isobel into giving others the chance to win — but was so excited to see her perfect plants all together on display with her ribbons.

Stoney Bank Nursery exhibitBlue ribbon winnerMrs. Hamilton's plantsmore of Mrs. Hamilton's plants

I also thought it was kind of brilliant of PHS to offer a couple of places on the show floor for people to hang out, catch their breath, and learn something new. I had a great time up on the Gardener’s Studio stage despite public speaking heebie-jeebs and for that I have to thank my awesome audience. And thanks to my mom too for taking pictures that show I was having a ball.

on the Gardener's Studio stage

Did you go to the Phila Flower Show or any other this year? What stuck with you?

Astrantia love

Astrantia majorI might have to start painting again. I need exactly that sort of excuse to spend hours studying this plant’s tiny knob of pin cushion flowers and the delicate veining of its bracts. I want to commit them to memory — not just because most years the plant, flowers and all, gets eaten to nubs by bunnies or the woodchuck, but because they’re so exquisite. I’m lucky this year. Not only did my one lonely plant not get eaten but it also didn’t get completely overtaken by everything planted right up next to it. (Actually, I might give credit to a neighboring self-sown teasel for fending off the critters and have left it standing guard.) The astrantia even seems to be growing and if I’m really lucky it will be big enough to divide in a year or two.

The credit for its survival against-all-odds and happiness, if it really is as happy as it looks, has to go to true partial shade (morning sun) and fairly consistently moist soil — it benefits from soaker-hose drippings from one of my rain barrels (and we have gotten a ton of rain lately). I understand astrantia don’t love hot nights and we have been cool as cucumbers so far, which might also account for its extra exuberant display. Whatever works.

The only thing I don’t love about this plant is its common name: masterwort. blech.

Down to earth – plan for snowdrops …

… not snow, to herald spring

(Originally published March 20, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

snowdrops and crocus blooming on High St.

I don’t think of myself as a plant snob. I love plants, probably almost enough to qualify as a true geek, but I’m not very particular. Plants like sweet allysum and lavender make my heart pound as much as the most complicated orchid or hellebore. I tend to shy away from becoming overly attached to plants like primroses, dahlias, and hostas that have their own societies of enthusiasts who hold monthly meetings. I’m too much of a loner to be that much of a joiner. But I realized recently, after staring at close-ups in a magazine for much longer than normal, that I might be a latent galanthophile.

Snowdrops have never wowed me before. Their tiny white egg-shaped flowers dangle only inches off the ground surrounded by a clump of grassy green blades. They hang for ages from a nobby ovary before opening three segments—they’re called tepals when the petals are indistinguishable from the sepals that form the outer bud jacket—to reveal (if you’re willing to get down on your belly for a look) an inner layer of three, or a multiple of three, more segments. I appreciate their appearance so early in the year (some have been blooming around here since early February) but have always used them to justify finger tapping impatiently for gaudier early birds like crocus, Siberian squill, trout lily, and daffodils. I generally prefer colorful flowers to white ones.

But just because they’re white doesn’t necessarily mean they’re colorless. According to “additive” color theory, white is the blending of all colors of light. As a painting student the “subtractive” theory, wherein white is the absence of color and black is the blend, made much more sense to me. Even though every time I mixed all the colors on my palette I got a purplish-brown mess. Now that I’m a plant lover suddenly attracted to snowdrops, I’m inclined to resubscribe to the former theory.
Besides, snowdrops are more colorful than I ever gave them credit for. Even the plainest are fancifully decorated or just barely tinged, mostly on the inner tepals, with spring green. Which happens to be one of my very favorite colors especially in flowers. (Go figure.)

Out of the twenty or so species in the genus, Galanthus nivalis is the most commonly grown and variably tweaked by breeders and galanthophiles. It naturalizes freely by producing bulb offsets and by self-sowing, and what isn’t obvious from magazine centerfolds is that the flowers smell like honey on warm days. I’m suddenly desperate for the collectable cultivar ‘Magnet’, which dangles from extra long and gracefully curved stems and is well blotched with green on its inner segments. And there’s no way I can go through another March without the fully double (on the inside), ‘Flore Pleno’. But ‘Viridapice’ will probably end up being my favorite because even the outer segments blush green. For curiosity’s sake I might plant the yellow-tinged ‘Sandersii’ but in pictures they look anemic to me.

Giant snowdrop (G. elwesii) is also on my must-have list because its flowers, while not being at all colossal, are larger than the others and I should hope, more easily enjoyed from a distance. My plan, hatched this very minute, is to plant snowdrop drifts in a corner of my backyard border already home to budded hellebores and a few other later-spring bulbs. Not only do I like the idea of a “spring border” but I’ll be able to see them from my desk. That’s crucial whenever it’s blustery outside and cozy inside.

I wish I could buy the bulbs right now for instant gratification, but fall is the time to plant them, and summer the time for placing orders. In the meantime I’m stuck with pretty pictures. My consolation is that I know this craving too shall pass—probably just as soon as the snowdrops fade and the daffodils and trout lily bloom. Any day now.