Down to earth — room for improvement

(Originally published on May 27, 2015 in East Bay / South Coast Life newspapers.)

My garden is as full of mistakes as it is of plants. When I’m feeling extra critical or envious of picture-perfect gardens in magazines I see all of the stupid ideas, misplaced plants, egregious wonkiness, and weeds. And then I pick at every error I’ve made through the years like a scab.

My first mistake was to start planting immediately. Every gardener (including me) will tell you to wait at least one year before adding anything or making major changes to a new property. We all agree it’s important to learn the lay of the land; where the sun shines as it arcs through the seasons, where the rain collects and doesn’t. Could I wait a single minute after signing the papers for this patch of earth? Nope. We gardeners are a patient bunch—we love to watch things grow—but I can’t imagine any of us being able to resist the urge to plant as soon as we have the chance. Because they also say it takes at least twelve years for a garden to come into its own. (“They” being those gardeners who have tended the same plot for twenty years or more.) Please. My garden is almost two-thirds of the way through its twelve year sentence and I still can’t wait that long.

But now, long since making the mistake of haste, I can see the virtue in thinking before digging. Not only do I wish I had spent more time planning my garden before filling it to the gills but sometimes I kick myself for not springing for a consultation with a professional designer. Someone with an eye for gracious spaces who might have preempted my inclinations for tall plants near entries, and narrow pathways.

Narrow sideyard path showing my favorite, gifted Lawson cypress before it died. (c. 2013)
Narrow sideyard path showing my favorite and gifted Lawson cypress before it died. (c. 2013)

Sticking to a plant list matching my garden’s specific cultural conditions and space considerations would have been a good idea too. My biggest challenge lies in falling in love with almost every plant that passes in front of my eyes or nose, and in being incapable of refusing friends’ generosity. Without a proper plan and list, it has been impossible not to break the cardinal rule of gardening: Plant the Right Plant in the Right Place. I have planted a lot of those gifts—right plants every one—in wrong places. Not a big deal when it comes to perennials that manage to survive long enough for me to replant them as appropriate spots become available, but more of a problem with trees and shrubs. Far too many of those have either outgrown their wrong place and clogged the path or failed to thrive in conditions not conducive to health and happiness.

As my garden grows, I’m getting better at saying, “No, thank you” to offers of plants I didn’t know I wanted. That said, every impulsively placed plant has taught me something new about my garden; every edit, transplant, eviction, and untimely death has shown me where there’s room for improvement. Mistakes are great that way. I pick at their scabs not because I want to beat myself up for being a lousy designer, but because it’s the mistakes, more than the successes, that make the garden interesting, and keep it changing and coming into its own, week to week and year by year.

Stay tuned. Z and I just removed a stupidly sited flowering raspberry (Rubus odorous — the leafy green bramble on the right in the above pic). Not only did it crowd the path and bug Z every time he tried to mow (Literally. He kept being stung by its bees.) but it occupied the perfect location for a gifted Hinoki cypress we need move to make way for a house project. Incidentally, I transplanted a few of the raspberry’s suckers into the back border where another gifted evergreen, a cryptomeria this time, suddenly recently failed to thrive. 

What do you learn from your mistakes? Or do you get it right the first time?

Down to earth — keep the love alive

(Originally published May 13, 2015 in East Bay / South Coast Life newspapers.)

I try not to go out into the garden without my pruners. If I wasn’t vain about over-accessorizing, my holster would remain clipped to my front pocket from daybreak to sundown because, like most gardeners, I’m apt to bolt outside suddenly, mid-sentence and whenever they’re not on my hip I’ll want to remove a dead branch, give nepeta the Chelsea chop (it’s time), or pick a few tulips for the kitchen table. And even though every time I go outside I tell myself it’s “just for a look,” I wish I could also remember to grab an empty tubtrug in case I pull a giant pile of weeds. (Happens every time.) And right now I might never make it back inside to finish this sentence if only I pocketed a trowel too.

I never know how much honesty (a.k.a. money plant; Lunaria annua) I want in my back border until I see it blooming. This spring, like every spring, I have too much of a good thing. A flash mob of purple flowers held on spires above gray-green heart shaped leaves fill the bed, completely surrounded by silvery seedlings that will flower next year. Even though yanking a healthy and/or beautifully blooming plant out of the earth rubs every gardener’s moral fiber the wrong way, a little editing is essential, not only to keep the garden from feeling overwhelmed by certain plants but also to preserve our affection for them. As soon as any plant is allowed to “take over” we’ll diss it as a weed and some of us go so far as to tar benign old favorites with the “invasive” label. (Truly invasive plants warrant streams of invective and banishment by whatever means are necessary.) I never want to feel that way honesty; some of it has to go.

Honesty and equanimity in the back border.
Honesty and equanimity in the back border.

It’s too late to transplant the blooming clumps—that would be psychically so much easier than composting them—but it’s not too late to move next year’s tiny seedlings. This week a few trowel scoops will make the move to my front garden, and I’ll look forward to editing out the blooming extras in those beds this time next year.

Honesty isn’t the only self-sower in my garden willing to fill the lot but most of the others aren’t blooming yet, which makes them much easier to transplant. Feverfew (Tanecetum parthenium) likes to put itself at the sunniest front edges of beds, which would be fine if its insect-repelling June clouds of white daisies didn’t obscure every shorter thing behind them. I tucked most back in mid-border and chucked a few to make way for plants the pollinators are willing to visit. Tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis) seedlings crowd the front row too but I’ll let some stay there because they’ll grow up to make a pretty see-through screen topped with butterfly landing pads.

Clumps of sherbet-orange Atlantic poppy (Papaver atlanticum) are budded all over my garden, front, back, and in between. I’m inclined to leave a few where they landed instead of moving them around because they’re tap-rooted and don’t love being transplanted. I also have more black and brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta and R. triloba) in my garden than anyone without several acres should boast. If the memories of their black seedheads poking prettily out of snow banks weren’t still so fresh, I might be tempted to evict them all. Instead, I’ll keep a couple here and there to please me and the goldfinch next winter, pass a few along to friends who claim to not have any yet, and pitch the rest.

I can’t imagine resenting nature’s generosity though I know a lot of gardeners do. I say, “easy come, easy go.” Self-sown seedlings, along with divisions of any perennials that have overgrown their allotted spaces, give me the chance to hone my design skills and change things up—for the better—every year.

What are your favorite self-sowers? Do you keep the love alive by editing and transplanting them?

Down to earth — doing the rain dance

(Originally published October 1, 2014 in EastBayRI newspapers.) 

I lived in blissful denial for most of the summer, thinking that our periodic rain showers, always overnight or when I needed to go back inside and clean the kitchen, were making a dent. They were not, though the amalgam of plants that constitute my lawn stayed green through August. We are nowhere near as stricken as poor California, but we need more rain than we have had. My garden tells me so.

Butterbur looking better than it should during a drought.
Butterbur looking better than it should during a drought.

The first to wilt were the plants I put in this past spring. I should have been watering them all along — and I did but only now and again — rain or not, to help their transplant-damaged roots recover and connect to the earth. Next to go limp were the enormous leaves of my rice paper plant (Tetrapanax paperifer), which have a large surface area to support. The even bigger butterbur (Petasites japonicus) leaves might have wilted too but those benefit from extra soaking from my rain barrels. It’s amazing how much collects off the roof even during the briefest of showers. By now, under the trees, where only the heaviest rain reaches the ground, even the weeds have wilted.

I am not inclined to provide supplemental water to my garden, and would never, ever, share such a precious resource with my lawn. I enjoy the break from mowing and would rather fill my garden with plants that thrive in this yo-yo climate of ours. That said, I learned my lesson last year when I lost one of my favorite evergreens to drought stress followed by a bitterly cold winter. This time around I have set the sprinkler on my youngest trees and shrubs to help prevent the bummer of losing something I spent great gobs of money on and/or watched grow from a cutting. As for the rest of my garden, I’m prepared to mourn the passing of anything that can’t tough out a dry spell, and replace it with something sturdier.

Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet' beginning to color up.
Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ beginning to color up.

Generally speaking, Northeast natives are bound to be good bets. Even though I had to transplant my bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) last spring, and haven’t been very kind to it water-wise, it hasn’t missed a beat. And although some of my ground covering bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Massachusetts’), planted in the leanest, meanest soil my garden has to offer, looked like goners after last winter, they too bounced back with new growth and are beginning to sport their fall colors. Sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’) would prefer moist soil but even it hasn’t (yet) shown any sign of unhappiness in my bone-dry garden.

Boltonia 'Nally's Lime Dots' slouching over the shoulders of Goose
Boltonia ‘Nally’s Lime Dots’ slouching over the shoulders of Goose

Of course, sedum, sempervivum, and herbs like catmint, sage, and lavender are made for rainless summers but a lot of my other favorite perennials are looking as if they don’t mind the deprivation either. Right now Boltonia ‘Nally’s Lime Dots’ is a bubbly froth of petal-less green flowers on 5-foot stems. (They’d have grown even taller if I didn’t give stems the Chelsea chop back in late spring.) Burnet (Sanguisorba tenuifolia) looks great too even though the six-foot spikes have begun lean like drunks and their late-summer burgundy flowers are beginning to fade. The foliage of false indigo (Baptisia australis) is a lush blue-green, and the green-green thread leaves of eastern bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) are making promises to turn bright yellow right on schedule by the end of October.

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, we’re in for another long, cold winter. Big sigh. In the meantime, before the snow starts, my fingers are crossed for a decent amount of rain. As I write this, the forecast looks good but just in case hopes are dashed, I recommend that you soak your favorites now if you haven’t already. And start making wish lists to try again, if necessary, with tougher stuff come spring.

Since writing this, it has rained about two inches and we’re due for more tonight/tomorrow. Huzzah! Has your garden gotten the rain it needs? 

Down to earth – bring out your dead

(Originally published May 28, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast life)

Looking around my May garden I’m reminded of the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which Eric Idle walks through a plague infested village collecting a cartful of corpses. “Bring out your dead!”, he shouts. I wouldn’t blame you for questioning my sanity and attitude but let me assure you that I’m not (very) crazy. Or (very) gloomy. It’s simply that that the world is showing sure signs of life now and it’s easy to see—and it’s time to tally—the garden’s dead. It helps to laugh a little.

Elderberry shoot borer
Elderberry shoot borer

My Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is the corpse that cries, “I’m not dead!” and I’m as tempted as the Dead Collector to knock it on the head and throw it on the heap anyway. Over the past couple of seasons I have noticed wilting leaves and should have investigated because I might have been able to cure its particular plague: an infestation of elderberry shoot borers. If only I had removed the damaged stems whenever I spotted them and been more disciplined about pruning out the oldest canes. (The little devils pupate in the oldest and dead canes). Within the last couple of weeks, despite showing signs of life in the beginning, all but one skinny trunk has given up the ghost. And that’s beginning to show signs of wilt too. I found the culprit (one of many I’m afraid) tunneling its way through some delicious new growth. Totally gross.

My husband just told me that his favorite tree is a bluer than blue 15’ tall, columnar Lawson cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Alumii’) that grew from a 12” tall cutting planted the year we were married.

Should I spray paint it blue again?
Should I spray paint it blue again?

The very tree that has turned browner than brown over the last few months. I would curse a wicked winter if the tree were less hardy, but since it’s listed as hardy to zone 5, I probably only have a droughty fall and myself to blame for not soaking its roots back in September. Mea culpa. It was my favorite tree too.

My Rosa ‘Mutabilis’, a beauty with clusters of single flowers that open cerise from orange buds and fade to pale pink, is what Miracle Max (from The Princess Bride) would call “mostly dead.” I dug it up on the first of April and replanted it to mark my dear dog’s grave. I pruned it hard that same day, along with a Buddleja davidii ‘Ellen’s Blue’ and Clematis ‘Roguchi’. Wielding loppers and pruners felt a little reckless so early in the spring but cathartic under the circumstances. If only I had remembered that the rose is marginally hardy to zone 6, I might have spared it my grief.

But while it is beginning to show the barest signs of life (thank you, Nino) the clematis and butterfly bush, both hardy to zones 4 and 5 respectively, are dead as doornails. The butterfly bush hasn’t looked super happy since the last time I moved it (for the fourth time in five years) but it had fresh, healthy looking buds when I whacked it back. It was too soon to see any new growth emerging at the base of the clematis. I can only surmise that removing the protection of their winter stems left both otherwise sturdy plants wounded and extra vulnerable to April’s freezes. Mea culpa.

Death in the garden is sometimes humbling but if we were demoralized by every loss we wouldn’t still be gardeners. The excuse to think about and find replacements is great consolation. I’m going to keep my eyes peeled for another slender blue-needled evergreen for the sake of marital bliss. But the birds and I have been wanting an arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) for a while now and I might have just the place for one finally.

Any new “opportunities” in your garden?

Down to earth — why my houseplants hate me

(Originally published on April 16, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life under the headline “Don’t abandon indoor plants”)

It’s not often that I imagine my plants quoting dead poets. Or living ones for that matter. But I can almost hear my indoor collection sigh, “April is the cruellest month.” Suddenly, right when they need me the most, I have abandoned them and gone outside to garden. It’s not as if I can help it. None of us could. We’ve been waiting so impatiently for spring to arrive that as soon as the sun came out, the peepers peeped, and the ice-cream trucks started making their rounds, didn’t we all bolt out of the house like a shot, not to return until supper? Trouble is, like everything outside, our houseplants are going through a growth spurt too, which must be every bit as painful as T.S. Eliot suggests.

All winter long I was able to keep a once-a-week watering schedule. Doing the rounds every Saturday morning worked out perfectly. Plants like begonias and citrus that needed to go a little bit dry between watering did, and the ferns and ficus that needed more consistent soil moisture somehow managed to never quite dry out. The half-dormant plants out in my chilly “plantry” required watering even less frequently. Every other Saturday seemed to suit them fine.

That has all changed now. Longer days and a sun that keeps rising higher, hotter, and brighter are universal cues to get growing even for plants that spent the winter relatively warm behind or under glass. And as they begin to photosynthesize in earnest again, they take up more water from the soil and more nutrients too. Come to think of it, this is the time to begin fertilizing. If only I wasn’t so distracted by the garden outside.

Alocasia R.I.P.
Alocasia R.I.P.

Some of my houseplants have reacted to my distraction by handing out ultimatums. For many of them, wilting is a red flag signaling, “pay attention to me right this minute or I will die.” For others it’s an incommutable death sentence. The stress of abandonment and temperature fluctuations between sun-warmed days and winter-chilly nights, together with succulent new growth has also suddenly attracted infestations of aphid and scale. Since I hadn’t noticed sap-sucking populations in residence over the winter, I have to guess that they spontaneously generated out of thin air and opportunity. “April is the cruellest month.”

I’m not sure how they got word but the fully dormant plants stored down cellar in the dark seem to know it’s spring too. Perhaps warmer ambient temperatures can be credited for spurring some anemic looking new growth that begs for the light of day. In any case, it’s time to give fuchsias, salvias, tuberous begonias, fig, and brugmansia a transition and a head start on the season. They should come upstairs and in this particular household, the only way to make room for more plants is to move others out.

April nights are cold but as long as the long range forecast doesn’t mention any temperature too near or below freezing, plants like New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), camellia, and geranium (Pelargonium spp.) that hail from temperate (rather than tropical) climes can begin to join us outside in the garden. And just like us as we venture out, they could use some protection — in their case, shade for a couple of weeks at least — to keep them from burning.

Meanwhile, all of the plants still stuck inside need attending to. They need watering much more frequently. Fertilizing. Insect patrol and grooming. Time that I’m sure we’d all much rather spend outdoors. But to lose, this close to summer, any of the plants that helped keep us sane over the winter, would be truly painful. So let’s not forget about them in April. 

Any casualties in your household lately?