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?

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?

Down to earth — every day is thanksgiving day

Originally published November 23, 2016 in EastBayRI newspapers.

I never liked being put on the spot at Thanksgiving. No matter how grateful I am for things like my health, a loving family, generous friends, and homemade cranberry sauce, someone else around the table will have already mentioned it. Can’t just say “ditto” on Thanksgiving. There’s too much else to list, if only one’s mind didn’t go completely blank. That must be why some smart people keep journals. Gratitude takes practice.

Right this minute, even as I type, I can’t take my eyes away from the garden window. (I am grateful to my high school typing teacher for being so strict about not peeking at the keys.) On this rainy November day, as the sun is setting much too early (thanks –no thanks!– to the time shift), the light has a golden cast. Is it the sunset soaking through the clouds or is the glow emanating from the blazing yellow foliage of threadleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrecktii) and bushclover (Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’) and a Rosa rugosa that looks lit from within?

Since writing the above, the light has gone lavender, tinted pinkish perhaps by the fire engine red of my sorry sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum). Sorry because it lost its health to too many run ins with the lawn mower as a sapling, and its top to a summer gale. I won’t cut the rest down until every last leaf has dropped one last time. With it gone I’m sure I will be glad to notice how the ‘Prairifire’ crabapple in my front yard displays a motley calico instead of committing to a single color.

In the summer garden a little red goes a long way. I am so leery of overusing it I can’t name a single red flower in my garden (though I wouldn’t turn down a small division of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ if any were on offer). But when the Fothergilla × intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’ turns every shade of red and the highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) go bing cherry, I can’t get enough of it. Did you know Penstemon digitalis stems turn red too or do you cut their seedheads down right after they bloom? Maybe don’t next year.

I’m not a huge fan of yellow in the summer garden either — I prefer the gaze of black-eyed Susans after they lose their school-bus-yellow lashes — but when plants compete with a low sun, I’m all for it even if it comes from everyday puddles of melted hosta or strands of expiring daylily. Probably goes without saying that a low sun shining through a bright orange sugar maple in someone else’s garden (a bright orange anything, any time of year) will stop me in my tracks for a heartfelt thank you. No matter how long you’ve lived in New England, gardener or not, it’s impossible to take fall for granted.

Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ gone golden (with Bazil for contrast)


By the time you read this the days will be even shorter, the shadows longer, and most of the leaves will have fallen. Another reason to be thankful if you, like me, use that bounty as free mulch. Hardly any fall in my yard so I get mine by the bagful from those generous friends I mentioned being grateful for earlier.

If mindfulness is one of the keys to gratitude we gardeners have it easy. No matter how frustrating the weather might be, or how disappointing it is when the hydrangeas never bloom, when we’re paying attention – and we always are, about a million other things will surprise and delight us. Even though I never manage to write it all down, I should be able to recall one or two blessings from my seat at the Thanksgiving table this year.

You too?

Down to earth — arachnophobia to philia

Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers October 12, 2016.

I just spent an hour scrolling through dozens of images of spiders — some of them much too close-up for comfort — to answer a question that must be at the front of your mind if it’s plaguing mine. Why are there so many spiders around in the fall? I hope you’ll spare yourself a nightmare-inducing internet search because I found the answer: there aren’t so many. Just the usual amount. Granted, some have matured to their full glory, more visible than invisible the bigger they get. spiderwebAnd dewy mornings are turning our gardens into galleries of exquisite web art.

I used to be terrified of spiders. As a child my arachnophobia was nurtured by a family member who pretended to catch daddy-longlegs between thumb and forefinger and chase me around the house. Hilarious and character-building? Maybe. One time, as an adult, I levitated across an impossible span of chairs to avoid touching the same floor traversed by a spider my peripheral vision insisted was the size of a puppy. (It wasn’t quite that big.) That night I became my own hero by relocating said spider, without assistance and while adrenaline gave me the shakes, and started down a cobwebby path to desensitization and appreciation.

We all know it’s bad luck to kill a spider. Contrary to popular nightmares, even the venomous ones mean us no harm. Spiders are voracious and indiscriminating insectivores and will only bite humans in near-death defense, not for supper. But anything that gets caught in their webs without breaking right through is fair game. Aphids, yellow jackets, mosquitoes, flies, you name it. The more bothersome the insect, the more gratifying it is to see it wrapped like a burrito. It’s much less enjoyable to witness the entanglement of honeybees, bumbles, and butterflies — some occasion rescue efforts — but that’s nature and nature is cruel. I mean cool. Nature is cool.

cross orbweaver and her prey

Of course, not all spiders spin webs. Some, like the bold jumper (that’s really its name) that lives in my mailbox, stalk their prey. I have also encountered what is either a broad-faced sac spider or woodlouse spider when I’ve been planting or weeding the garden. The former spends its days resting in leaf litter and hunts at night; both are a startling shade of red.

The seeming proliferation of spiders has prevented me from completing some of my garden chores. I’ve been meaning to bring container plants inside but I hate to disturb the webs. Most are classics spun by very fat and happy cross orbweavers. A few grass spiders have taken up residence within the vortices of funnel webs. Fascinating creatures. I’d rather they stay outside. They would too. — Most of us assume spiders will try to come inside right about now looking for warmth. That’s a myth; they’re “cold-blooded”, not heat seekers.

That said, there are spider species — all benign in this neck of the woods — that have adapted to indoor living and are unlikely to survive long outside particularly if relocated now. Frost is the end of the line for some garden spiders too but they will have been busy ensuring the next generation’s eggs are tucked up in a sac somewhere safe for the winter.

As careful as I try to be, my houseplants do sometimes arrive inside with hitchhikers. Last year a grass spider spent the winter under her sheet web in an aloe, a plant I rarely water. Poor thing was probably thirsty but managed to survive for a while on what must have been a limited diet of house spiders and the odd aphid or fungus gnat. You already know I have a lax attitude about housekeeping and am grateful to anyone who helps tidy up.

That’s a long way to come from the utter terror I used to feel. My first close-encounter with an enormous black and yellow garden spider nearly gave me a heart attack. Now I get a little adrenalized thrill when I spot her telltale zipper (a bird alert) in a web. I do prefer to appreciate spiders from a certain distance but the more I see in my garden the luckier I feel.

Truth be told it has been many years since I’ve seen a black and yellow garden spider in my garden or anyones else’s. Seen any in yours? — Do you have love or fear or both?