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.

Only the lowly

Those of you who read my column in the actual paper or who possess the secret key for reading it online (here — but it’s not there yet) whenever I don’t repost it, know I got on a soapbox last week about the hideousness of lawn chemicals and the beauty of the weeds those chemicals kill. And just this week at a Plantiful talk in Seekonk, MA I got a baited question from an attendee. She asked with a little glint in her eye, “How do you feel about dandelions?”

You already know the answer: I love them! I occasionally evict dandelions from the garden but I love them-love them-love them in the lawn. And actually, even though in theory I hate my lawn and wish it would be magically transformed into garden by elves in the night, I appreciate how it frames my garden. But only because it’s a colorful frame. Bring on the dandelions, violas, and creeping Charlie. (Yes, even that.) If the grass were devoid of these lowly “weeds” as some lawns are, I would more actively despise and eradicate it.

IMG_5433I honestly don’t know why dandelions still get such a bad rap. We all know now how they provide the earliest and most consistent source of nutrition for honeybees and other pollinators. We like that they’re native (to almost everywhere in the world). And their young greens are packed full of vitamins and on every foodie’s menu.

Violas are edible too and although they’re not much visited by pollinators, their foliage hosts fritillary butterflies (the caterpillar stage). Wouldn’t we all love seeing more of them flying around? Viola sororia, the blue straight-species and variant gray “Confederate violet” are Rhode Island’s state flower. Poisoning them (and yourself, children, pets, and nearby wildlife) with chemicals is decidedly un-patriotic.

Creeping Charlie (a.k.a. ground ivy or Glechoma hederacea) has very few redeeming qualities. It’s edible but not particularly delicious. It isn’t native here, supports no wildlife that I know of, and it spreads altogether too promiscuously into the garden. But I can’t help loving its  purple stains in the grass and how it and the clover remain healthy during summer droughts.

I’m lucky that Z seems to lack the (dude-specific?) gene that controls lawn care and mandates Fenway greenness, which of course, isn’t “green” at all. I’m also lucky that he doesn’t mind mowing periodically to sharpen our garden’s colorful frame.

How do you feel about dandelions?

Malacology is cool

File this one under learn-something-new-every-day.

It’s not often that a book rocks my little world. Which is saying something considering I’ve been a book addict ever since the code was revealed, and now that I work part-time in a library, I cross paths with life-altering literature at least twice a week. But a few weeks ago a friend pushed book I’d never seen before across her kitchen table saying, “You might enjoy this.”

wildsnailcover-209x300
http://www.elisabethtovabailey.net

She was right. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey is a deceptively diminutive book about one of the world’s most ubiquitous and tiny creatures: a common forest snail. But I didn’t just enjoy the book. I loved it. I loved it because it’s beautifully written; straightforward and without superfluous adjectivery, yet rhapsodic. And because I learned more than I ever knew I wanted to know about gastropods.

Bailey, a Mainer and gardener rendered horizontal and practically paralyzed by a mysterious illness most likely contracted during a European vacation, was given a peculiar gift: a terrestrial snail harbored in a potted violet. Over the course of a bedridden year when she could do nothing more strenuous than watch time slip away, Bailey observed the snail go about its own life in slippery minutiae and delved into the its fascinating life history and cycle, and its impact on her life. She eventually gave it a home (in a terrarium) so welcoming it produced 118 offspring. In the years that followed the snails’ release back into the woods, as Bailey’s health allowed and improved, she researched mollusks and wrote a book that deserves a place on every gardener’s shelf. (Says a gardener with a copy she doesn’t want to give back.)

Have you read it? Do you have a newfound admiration for snails now too?

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.

Invasive is a 4-letter word

Because Garden Rant’s Susan Harris posted this excellent rant about the word “invasive,” and because my book, which just released(!) happens to be two-thirds full of plants that self-sow and spread with certain amount of abandon and highlights the benefits of taking advantage of nature’s generosity, I feel compelled to throw my two cents in with hers.

I believe the word “invasive” is overused. I also believe that the more arbitrarily the word is used, the faster it loses its meaning. “Invasive” should be reserved exclusively for those species that pose an actual threat to ecosystems. Plant species capable of outcompeting the native flora necessary for supporting native insects and wildlife and providing essential services like water filtration and erosion control. Invasives are scary and we as gardeners bear a responsibility, especially if we live near sensitive wild ecosystems, to remove—or at the very least refrain from planting—anything truly, actually, and potentially invasive. By overusing the word to describe any plant that spreads from the roots or self-sows, we risk losing sight of that. 

Plume poppy rambles among the shrubs in my side yard.
Plume poppy rambles among the shrubs in my side yard.

And it makes it so much harder than it needs to be to determine what to avoid planting. The sad thing, especially for new gardeners who might be relying heavily on the interwebs as their guide, is that a whole lot of awesome plants are apparently off limits.

It shouldn’t be that hard to restrict our usage of the word. Many states, university extensions, and Master Gardener programs have compiled lists of specific local devils and don’t we all know them well? My Z, catching the title of this post, remarked that the bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) sending its tell-tale orange roots into our yard, its tentacles to the tops of our junipers, and its seeds far and wide from the neighbor’s untended lot, warrants a string of 4-letter words. You don’t need to be a gardener to be familiar with the most un-wanted on your region’s invasive species lists.

And like Susan said, it’s important to remember that what’s invasive in my neighborhood, might not survive the summer or winter in yours. Just because gardens from California to Cape Cod tend to look a lot alike doesn’t mean that plants exhibit the same vigor everywhere they’re grown. I recently saw crocosmia described as invasive. All but ‘Lucifer’ barely survive here. And just because a plant self-sows or spreads from the roots doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a monster. Not if we are capable of editing and managing its overgrowth. It might simply be rambunctious. Enthusiastic. Generous. I believe those are much better words for a whole range of plants too pretty and/or useful to be dismissed and disparaged as “invasive.” And if you can’t say something nice, “aggressive thug” paints a good enough picture.

My two cents. What’s yours?