Vacationland

Over a lifetime of summer vacations spent lakeside in the great state of New Hampshire I can’t recall ever wanting to pick up sticks and live there year-round. After one week on the Damariscotta river in Maine I can’t stop thinking about leaving little Rhody and living the rest of my life as a Mainer. (Mainiac? Downeaster?) I am aware that the winters are long and cold and I became acquainted with deer flies and ridonculous Vacationland traffic. But I loved the smells. Part pine forest air freshener, part salty shell-fishiness, part mud. And I loved listening to the shoreline forest’s sounds that included (but wasn’t limited to) an invisible (and so far unidentifiable) bird in the treetops that sounded exactly like a squeaky swing set or unmusical-me playing a penny whistle, others with a pterodactyl scrawk, easily identified as great blue herons, and whole colonies of terns pipping and screeching. I loved the quiet around those sounds. I loved the pull of the tide and letting Bazil run free on long dirt road and forest walks to chase and never catch tiny red squirrels.

View from Pirate's PointBazil's walk

And I loved abandoning my reading (and listening and gazing) perch on the screened porch to visit quaint and intensely touristy harbor towns and one very cool garden. Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has only been open since 2007 but looks and feels full grown (aside from a few slender trees) and fully established. And it was hopping. Not since visiting the Highline years ago on a sunny summer Saturday have I known a garden to be such a popular destination for gardeners and non-gardeners alike. My pictures don’t do the place justice — it was a brighter day than forecast — so I’ll spare you the full roll and vow to go back. Perhaps in the fall when this hillside (below, top) of thread leaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), Tiger Eye sumac, and bowman’s root (Porteranthus/Gillenia trifoliata) blazes.

CMBG Haney Hillside Garden
CMBG Haney Hillside Garden
CMBG Lerner Garden of the Five Senses
CMBG Lerner Garden of the Five Senses
CMBG Vayo Meditation Garden
CMBG Vayo Meditation Garden

Have you taken a summer vacation? Where to? Did you want to stay forever too?

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.

down to earth – on gardening with a dog

This was already published here on 2-10-11 but I thought it might be better avec photos of The Noodle.

Dogs put us outside, not the other way around

I read somewhere once that it’s impossible to have a garden if you share the land with a dog. Baloney. Such anti-canine sentiment smacks of pro-feline propaganda and although cats are picturesque, they have extremely smelly poo, are murderous of wildlife, and just as knuckleheaded about sampling poison as any dog – or child for that matter. Not that I have anything against cats. In fact, I believe that keeping pets, no matter what species, is a natural extension of our gardening way-of-life, the same way eating locally grown food is.

I have three fur-covered “kids”. A couple of LOLcats manage my indoor garden and have a truly ingenious way of alerting me when houseplants need repotting. Our mutt on the other hand is perennially unfazed by the cats’ horticultural enthusiasm and seems to prefer accompanying me on garden tours around town to tending his own patch. Not incidentally, a dog at the end of your leash is the best camouflage there ever was for stopping to study other gardeners’ most interesting plant combinations.

To their discredit dogs are best known for digging, chasing, eating disgusting things, peeing and pooping and unfortunately none of those talents is welcome in most gardens. But dogs also have an adorable knack for napping belly-up in a sunbeam. I am a firm believer that a tired dog is a good dog and after Nino’s and my twice-daily hour-long walks neither of us is capable of doing much damage in the garden.

I don’t put the dog out in the yard to just to pee or leave him in the garden for a whole day unsupervised – and never tied up. That’s just asking for holes dug to China along with aggressive anti-social behavior according to most animal behaviorists. Instead he and I hang out together and work as a sort of team. Nino has let me know that if I allow reseeders and weeds to block his entry to a cool under-deck hideout, he will create a new path by uprooting something far more precious. Good to know.

He obligingly chases the woodchuck away from my cabbage patch and although he won’t yank my shoulder out of its socket in pursuit of squirrels while we’re walking, he has an implicit understanding that they’re fair game in the garden. Nino also marks the perimeter and I hope that the neighborhood raccoons and cats might eventually take the hint and scram.

So far Nino’s favorite forage has been uncut lawn grass and if he had the digestion of a goat, I’d hire him to shear it. But the scamp also grazed a pretty little Hakonechloa macra (Japanese forest grass) to nubs. After I moved what was left of that plant though, he stopped eating it. I’ve known other dogs with cravings for things like tomatoes, broccoli, compost and hosta, and plenty of gardeners who chose to plant in raised beds. One of my favorite gardens ever was a tiny one filled with big English sheepdogs and a grid of chair-height planting boxes, which now that I think about it probably had more to do with keeping the ladies from reclining on the annuals and perennials than eating them.

Despite, or perhaps because of the challenges, most of the gardeners I know have dogs. Famously, there’s Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter who had his dachshunds’ portraits drawn in an ironically large mosaic for a terrace floor; Martha Stewart – enough said; and if it wasn’t for Tasha Tudor who stated the obvious when she said that corgis make good garden ornaments I might still be exclusively pro-kitteh.

In winter, Nino spends more quality time in the garden than I do. He bounds like a deer to monitor wildlife activity, and eats snow while I stamp my feet impatiently. It could probably be said that one of the best reasons for sharing the garden with a dog is because they put us out in it, all year round.

Interference

One morning a couple of weeks ago, while Nino waited patiently, I spent about 10 predawn minutes herding and urging a salamander along a sidewalk crack to a pile of leaves on the other side. This afternoon I tried – and failed – to relocate a downed dragonfly that clung desperately to the footfall middle of another sidewalk. A few days ago I brought a chilly praying mantis into the relative warmth of the plantry, and I started to feed the birds again. I can’t stop wondering if my interference is a help or a hindrance.

As a gardener I’m a meddler by nature – meddling with nature. Can’t be helped. But the more I ponder the why of gardening, the more I hope my help is a help. When I first started to garden – more than 20 years ago now, I honestly don’t remember considering the wildlife – or nature for that matter. (Nature was what I hiked through with boots on and a backpack full of m&ms.) In the garden I was heebied by bugs and slugs, terrified of spiders and wasps, and only vaguely amused by birds and critters. I wanted plants galore and a yard that looked and smelled good – to me. Lately I’ve started to interfere more on nature’s behalf – in fact, I want wildlife almost more than plants. (Lucky for me, plants are the key.) I’m hesitant to call my interference “stewardship” and in any case I’m not a very good caretaker of the earth because goodness knows I’ve done my share to wreck it. But I hope to be less of a hindrance at the very least.

The last warm day, I left the plantry door open for her and haven’t seen Ms. Mantis since.