Down to earth — got bulbs?

Most of this was originally published in EastBayRI newspapers September 14, 2016.

This was a tough summer. Too stupidly hot, humid, and rainless to maintain momentum after work. I avoided my own garden, only ducking outside periodically to water containers and catch night breezes from the deck. I wish I could say I spent my time in front of the fan wisely. I haven’t been blah-blahging and I didn’t place a bulb order. Lucky for me, it’s not too late.

It’s disconcerting to page through a bulb catalog in the middle of a hot summer. Spring is too delicate for such bruising weather. Crocus would be flattened; tulips would shatter. Daffodils and snowdrops strike me as a little tougher than most but I have no faith fritillaria would hold up. It’s hard to remember that the heat is temporary and spring, knock wood, is rarely so summer-like.

For the last dozen or so years in late July I have been able to suspend disbelief and work on bulb orders for my employers’ gardens but have never — not once — despite my best intentions, placed an order for my own garden. Last year though I got lucky in the bulb department. A friend who had just joined the team at John Scheepers (www.johnscheepers.com), offered to send me a box of bulbs at no charge. A grab bag assortment based on a loose wish list (something along the lines of, “I’d sing the blues, and it’s not easy being green”) arrived like Christmas one October day. My box included Tulip ‘Green Star’, green-cupped Narcissus ‘Sinopel’, and was full of “the blues” too. Chionodoxa, brodiaea, and Allium azureum. I was never happier to make room for those gifts or more grateful to see them bloom last spring.

The memory of that gift reminds me, in a way much better than my work experience ever has, of the benefit in following through. Now that September is doling out stormy excuses for indoor activity and some of the sunny days are more crisply spring-like, I will endeavor to think spring and put an order together rather than procrastinate until local nurseries have sold out of the most interesting choices.

My wish list is still heavy on the blues and greens. I must have more chionodoxa. They naturalize beautifully but I want more, more, more, sooner. For the view from my window to look as if a dusky sky has fallen. I enjoyed the June-blooming knee-high amethyst blue spikes of Camassia quamash in another friend’s garden so much she shared them with me but I’m greedy for more of those too. Fingers crossed they’re as happy in my garden’s lean and mean soil as they are in my friend’s rich cake mix.

Until the neighborhood deer population discovers my garden I will add more viridiflora tulips to bolster dwindling supplies. (Hybrid tulips lose vigor after 2 or 3 years.) Not only is Tulip ‘Night Rider’ new this year (and thus extra covetable and possibly sold out by now) it boasts the best of both worlds: blue-ish (purple) petals with green flames. ‘Artist’ displays my other favorite color, orange — blue’s complement, go figure — behind green flames. A must have for a spectacular spring.

As I write this I’m stuck inside while a storm swirls around outside. The John Scheepers catalog is open on the desk next to me. One of my browser tabs is displaying a link to the array of tulip choices and there’s a credit card burning a hole in my wallet. All I need to do to get my order in is make a few clicks and hit send. Might just follow through this time but if I don’t, believe me, I’ll wish I had.

As I post this, I’m stuck inside because I’m still avoiding my garden. Its neglectful state overwhelms me. And I still haven’t placed a damn bulb order. Have you?

Down to earth – sem(pl)antics

Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers July 6, 2016.

I had a friendly debate the other day (weeks ago now) with a fellow professional gardener that might have devolved into a heated argument if I hadn’t capitulated. We were talking about one of my favorite plants, African blue basil, which she described as an annual. I call it tender perennial. To-may-to, To-mah-to? It comes down to semantics.

What is an annual? The definition I use was written by botanists who base it on a plant’s life cycle. An annual is the sort of plant that grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies all in one growing season. My friend’s definition swings a bit wider to include anything that won’t survive winter in our gardens. I yielded the point because she’s not alone. You won’t find African blue basil in the perennial section at any nearby nursery.

bluebasil
African blue basil growing in the Mount Hope Farm cutting garden with nicotiana, feverfew, and snaps

But this is where it gets tricky and why I’m having trouble letting go: I bought mine a whole growing season or two ago. Life-cycle-wise, African blue basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum ×basilicum) takes after its perennial parent. In its East African home climate, O. kilimandscharicum doesn’t die after flowering and setting seed. (Never mind that the hybrid child is sterile. That tiny detail is beside the point.) It grows on.

I use the term tender perennial where applicable because I rise to the challenge of keeping “annuals” alive inside over the winter and replanting them summer after summer.

Self-sowers add to the confusion. Plenty of botanically true annuals return year after year more reliably than some perfectly hardy perennials. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) falls into that category along with shiso (Perilla frutescens), and California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). I always think of Verbena bonariensis as an annual because in my garden it grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies. Or does it? In fact, it’s a marginally hardy perennial (to Zone 7) and sometimes only dies back to the ground after frost, coming up fresh as a … well, not a daisy exactly, but as itself all over again the following summer. And whenever winter kills them, seedlings will pop up in the same spots and everywhere else besides.

I know another gardener who would give perennials that aren’t great at spreading from the roots, such as coneflower (Echinacea sp.), sea holly (Eryngium sp.) and heuchera, the qualifier “short-lived.” We might think twice about purchasing a plant with only three or so years to live. Then again, in general, only the sterile hybrid cultivars will poop out completely and need to be replaced (or not); given the chance, straight species self-sow their own succession.

When it comes to buying plants, most of us gardeners simply want to know exactly what to expect. But a lot of factors are involved in ultimate plant happiness and longevity; a certain amount of unpredictability is part of the challenge. If we didn’t enjoy that we wouldn’t bother bothering. I will always be happy to shell out for one-summer wonders because my garden wouldn’t be half as lively without annuals. And with any luck some might just turn out to be perennial.

Down to earth — madness

(Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers sometime in March. I have been remiss in reposting! But because it is currently snowing outside, I thought I might as well make up for misplaced intentions. What’s written below isn’t old news — although I really-really-really wish it was.)

I spent the entire Sunday of the time change outdoors soaking up the sun, holding sweet and earthy scents in my nose, listening to birds compete for attention, and gardening as if it’s spring. The very next day it sleeted. Dark gray days of rain followed, then sun again. As I write this, there’s snow forecast for the equinox. March, poor thing, suffers from wild mood swings.

I know that about March (and can relate) but I started cutting my garden back anyway weeks ago at the first hint of April. Suddenly I couldn’t stand to look at its tatters for one more minute. I hauled armloads of fallen stems and seedheads that no longer held any winter interest to the compost pile. When that back and forthing became too tedious, I broke the rest of the debris into bits and spread it as mulch around my perennials’ sprouting crowns. Tidiness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. (My mess is creative clutter.)

In the last couple weeks those perennials have put on another bit of growth while spring marched on. Redwing blackbirds came back at the beginning of the month (if not before); I heard choruses of spring peepers sound in my neighborhood on the evening of the10th. On the 12th I noticed black-crowned night herons and a pair of Canada geese had returned to the tiny Tanyard Brook reservoir on State Street in Bristol (my favorite place to bird and turtle watch through the chainlink). Crocuses vied with snowdrops on social media for most-liked, #spring. Pussy willows broke out of bud and the earliest daffodils began blaring tiny trumpets.

I’m a little nervous about jumping the gardening gun but my inclination, despite sleet, frosty nights, and humbugging snow is to trust the signs and follow their cues. So now I’m waiting, sort of impatiently if my inability to wait patiently is anything to go by, for the forsythia to bloom. Its yellow arches and mounds are the universal signal that the ground has warmed another notch, and it’s time to commence the next to-do on my list: rose pruning. But rose buds have already swelled and the other day I couldn’t keep my pruners pocketed. You try.

Most* of the roses we grow around here are so hardy and unperturbed by March’s moods that they won’t be overly injured by premature pruning. *I did once almost kill a marginally hardy rose by accidentally pruning it before a very hard and prolonged April freeze. Mea culpa. But if the rose I pruned last week suffers any dieback I’ll just prune it again shorter this time and be happy I did. Which says something because I’m in the habit of lopping my roses to within inches (12-to-18”) of the ground. There are invisible dormant buds up and down rose canes, even all along the old gnarly trunks, which respond to severe pruning (and a topdressing of compost) with gratifying vigor. It’s actually very hard to kill a rose. Even for me.

Along with roses, it will be high time to prune butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii and cvs.), bush clover (Lespedeza spp.), blue beard (Caryopteris ×clandonensis), and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) to their lowest buds (anywhere from about 2 to 12” from the ground). Might as well shear the lavender then too but not nearly as hard—cutting back into the woody bits generally only gains you ugly stumps.

In the meantime, while the weather goes through its moody March madness, holding our horses gives us gardeners a good chance to reassess, dream, and plan. As perennials begin to flush out from dormancy so do the memories of the best intentions I formed last year and over the winter. I could—and should—stay busy making endless lists of all of the changes I want to make. And, after the pruning is done, the daffodils peak, the tulips begin to bloom, and the ground dries out a bit, all signs will point to digging in. By then spring won’t be denied and neither will we.

She says. But here it is, April 4 and there’s a good 4 or 5 inches of snow on the ground and counting. Last week or the week before it was in the balmy 60s. (Even my mood swings aren’t this violent.) Daffodils — in peak! –have faceplated; muscari and chionodoxa are buried; forsythia is trying to look tough; my magnolia is toast. Big sigh. Spring marches on? Remains to be seen here. How about in your garden? 

Down to earth — thaw’s hope

(Originally published February 10, 2016 in EastBayRI newspapers right after two snowstorms and before the negative digit descent into this abysmally cold weekend. I wrote it a week prior to all that, back when I had much higher hopes for winter.)

Is it possible this February won’t be like last February? Will we not have to spend weekend after weekend shoveling out, bundled up in wooly layers against polar vortices, rattled by bone deep shivers? Will we actually be able to go outside now and again without a puffy coat, smell the earth, and do some gardening? Last year’s thaw-less February and March nearly ruined my opinion of winter, so I can’t help hoping the weather stays this side of arctic. I might get my wish. Even if snow returns (a few inches are forecast as I write), it does seem as if the pendulum has swung to the mild side. (Knock wood, of course.) Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring and I took advantage of a preview.

My neighbors, whose gardening practices are generally more traditional, probably think I’m lazy for not putting the garden “to bed” in the fall. I’m the first to admit a preference for reading a good book on the couch with a dog on my feet over any kind of physical exertion, but that’s not my only reason for leaving stems and seedheads standing. I let the garden go because plants like nicotiana, tansy, borage, marigolds, dusty miller, and some salvias look decent and produce flowers right up until they’ve been buried in snow or zapped by a deep freeze. I also like to provide cover for insects and other wildlife. Some gardeners might balk at harboring “the enemy” but beneficial insects overwinter in hollow stems too. Bumblebees’ survival, and some butterflies’ too, depends upon the protection of leaf debris; and birds will hang out in a thicket and pick seedheads clean. And now that I’m itching to get moving, tidying gives me the excuse to go outside and the activity keeps me warm.

False indigo (Baptisia australis) was the first plant to land on the compost heap a few weeks ago. It saved me the trouble of snipping every stem by detaching as a unit from the crown, probably during a decent wind, and coming to rest in a tumbleweed tangle against my garden gate. Why the praying mantis always chooses to deposit her eggs on that plant is beyond me. Unless she knows I’ll tuck her babies’ branch back into the garden somewhere.

Nicotiana stalks were next. Their hideousness in death is in direct proportion to their beauty in life. I pulled most out but cut others back to nubs in case they re-sprout from the root. – Winter has been mild enough they just might. The garden looks better already.

Usually sometime in January the pretty wind-whipped waves of Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) and the seedy tufts of love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) begin to self-destruct and blow all over. That stuff wanted collecting and I snipped and snapped the remaining stems to reveal emerging foliage belonging to a few bulbs I planted nearby last fall or the one before. My clumps of catmint (Nepeta ×faassenii) had become flattened mats of brittle stems, gratifying to break into bits with my fingers. I scattered the debris back around the crowns to insulate new growth already sprouted. That probably doesn’t sound like an improvement in looks but, trust me, is.

If you have any dormant pruning to do – remedial shaping of trees and shrubs, removal of damaged branches, deadwood, and fruit trees’ water sprouts – now’s the time. But save spring bloomers until after their display, and wait for hydrangeas’ buds to show signs of life before whacking them back. Hold off pruning your roses and butterfly bushes until the forsythia blooms.

Might not be long now. Maple buds are fattening. Skunk cabbage has been blooming since December. Daffodil foliage is up; snowdrops are out, and crocus are on their way. I asked a gardener with a better memory than mine if spring was early the last time El Niño was at the controls. She thought it was. It’s too soon for winter to be over but hope might spring during the thaws.

Are you taking advantage of the thaws? Does it feel like spring’s around the corner or still weeks away from your garden?

Some thoughts that count

Originally published December 16, 2015 in East Bay Newspapers.

It has been my habit in the weeks before Christmas to offer garden-y gift suggestions pulled directly from my own wish list. I’m doing it again but with a twist. I haven’t made a list this year; I am well supplied with garden tools, my bookshelves are hemorrhaging, and my garden, as you know, is already plantiful. Besides, several years ago my family collectively declared that we had enough things and stuff, and decided to exchange charitable donations instead. We make thoughtful choices (no one would blithely send money to a bacon eaters alliance in honor of a vegan) and over the years it has become a sweet tradition that makes us all feel richer. So, if your favorite gardener’s tool shed is full, consider supporting an organization near and dear to his or her heart instead.

Most of us have a particular mission. For those whose gardens are habitats for wildlife, gifts of membership to Rhode Island Wild Plant Society (riwps.org) and New England Wildflower Society (newfs.org) would hit the mark. A donation to the Xerces Society (www.xerces.org) funds research and outreach to protect the bees, butterflies, beetles, worms, and countless other creepy crawlies that make our soil healthy and our gardens buzz, and feed the birds.

Speaking of birds, a gift to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (www.birds.cornell.edu) supports research, education, and conservation with the purpose “to understand birds and other wildlife, to involve the public in scientific discovery, and to use our knowledge to protect our planet.” They maintain the best bird identification website, host a bunch of “Citizen Science” projects, and will send fascinating newsletters to the bird lover on your list. If your gardener would prefer membership in a local organization, check out the Audubon Society of Rhode Island (www.asri.org), Mass Audubon (www.massaudubon.org), and the Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown, RI (normanbirdsanctuary.org). Memberships include free access to beautiful and bird-full wildlife refuges, discounted and free educational events, and the gratification of preserving local habitats.

The Garden Conservancy (www.gardenconservancy.org) does something similar only for gardens. Their mission is “to save and share outstanding American Gardens for the education and inspiration of the public,” and their membership includes “invitations to special events, free admission to select preservation project gardens, and discounted tickets to Open Days,” when the most beautiful private gardens’ gates are opened to the public. Of course public garden memberships offer endless inspiration and educational opportunities too. Join the American Horticulture Society (www.ahs.org), which publishes an excellent magazine, or a member garden such as Blithewold, and gain free admission to hundreds of public gardens all over the country. Such a deal.

Giving veggie gardeners membership to a non-profit like Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), which safeguards diversity in our food supply, may be deliciously self-serving as surplus heirloom tomatoes are likely to be shared. And despite claiming that plants are our favorite people, most of us gardeners have a soft spot for humans too. Community garden organizations such as Southside Community Land Trust in Providence (www.southsideclt.org) provide those with limited access to healthy food options with the education and space necessary to grow their own vegetables. SCLT membership comes with buckets of compost along with discounts and “first dibs” at their hugely popular plant sale in May.

Contributions to non-profits are generally tax-deductible, which is great incentive but not why my family exchanges them Christmas morning. We do it because these are gifts that make a difference and keep on giving. And because no matter what we put under the tree, it’s the thought that counts.