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?

Down to earth – Where are the butterflies?

(Originally published September 19, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

From where I’m sitting, if I turn my head 90° to the right I have a view of a butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii ‘Ellen’s Blue’) planted under my window. I can clearly see, even through the screen, the tiny orange anthers inside hundreds of deep purple-blue flowers clustering every twig end, and my nose is filled with its honey scent whether I’m looking at it or not. But what I cannot see are all the butterflies that give it its common name.

Over the course of the summer I haven’t seen many Black Swallowtails, though I have spotted their caterpillars munching my bronze fennel and dill. Last year every anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum and cvs.) was visited by dozens of Painted Ladies. This year, not a one. I haven’t seen any Red Admirals either. And the most iconic of all, the butterfly whose inconceivable migration to and from a pin on the map of central Mexico has captivated us all since childhood, is conspicuously absent.

I can count on one, maybe two fingers how many Monarch butterflies I have seen so far this year, and they weren’t even in my garden. I’m not alone. My in-laws, who spend their August vacation way up in the nosebleed section of Ontario, Canada enjoy watching whole flocks bask on Lake Huron’s rocky outcrops. The butterflies were a no-show this year and other friends, closer to home, are reporting similar news. It’s not OK. The Monarch’s absence has been especially distressing to me because I allowed the milkweed in my front yard garden to proliferate madly.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) seedpods along my fenceI’ll admit that wasn’t entirely intentional. Every fall I scatter seeds stolen from butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a sturdy two-footer with clusters of bright orange lunar lander flowers. This past spring, when I saw the telltale pointed leaves rise on milk-sapped stalks, I thought this is it! They’ve taken. Alas, when the plants rose another foot or two and opened clusters of Pepto-pink and creamy-white flowers instead, I had to concede defeat. But all was not lost because swamp milkweed (Asclepias elegans) and its white cultivar ‘Ice Ballet’ are just as garden worthy and evidently perfectly happy to spread in my stony soil. Plus, they too are an essential food source for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. So I let broad swaths crowd less important plants out.

If only the Monarchs were here right now to appreciate my generosity. But according to counts conducted annually in the Oyamel fir forests of Mexico, their population declined 59% from just last year. Since 1996-97 their winter range has dwindled from nearly 45 acres of forest to just under 3 acres. That is shocking. Deforestation within their refuge in Mexico is partly to blame as is the unseasonable weather during migration caused by climate change. But habitat loss on this side of the border has been particularly detrimental.

It is perfectly appropriate to heap blame on Midwestern farmers who spray weedkiller over their fields of genetically modified Roundup Ready® crops. But even though the corn belt is an important egg laying point for butterfly generations en route north, we are also to blame. In many yards and gardens milkweed is still considered a weed—as are many of the host plants for other species of Lepidoptera.

Insect populations typically cycle through highs and lows and so far biologists are not sounding the Monarch’s extinction alarm. But I hear a wake-up call. Everything on this earth is connected and the ripples from a drop fan out. The very least we can do is to remember that our gardens are a vital part of a struggling ecosystem.

It is so easy to attract butterflies to the garden. Winged adults feed on nectar and only require a smorgasbord of flowers. Most of us, we gardeners anyway, are more than happy to oblige. But to keep butterflies in our gardens, and to ensure generations of survivors, we absolutely must provide their eggs and caterpillars with the proper host species and—this should go without saying—a safe, pesticide-free habitat too. If you plant it, they will make a comeback.

Have you seen (m)any Monarchs this season?

Down to earth – on plant marketing

Originally published on February 4, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life under the headline “Avoid marketing shtick when plant-shopping”

In between staring out of windows dreaming about my garden and scraping scale off my houseplants, I have spent time lately reading catalogs cover to cover. Seed catalogs, plant catalogs, tool catalogs … If it’s about the garden and they’re selling stuff, I want to know all about it and I might even order something. Sight unseen if necessary because some of the catalogs, Chiltern Seeds for one, don’t even have pictures. What they have are great descriptions written in a way that makes me want everything.

That got me thinking about plant shopping. I know I’m not alone in ordering from catalogs. It’s one of the most gratifying ways for gardeners to spend an ugly winter day indoors. And as much as I’d rather spend money locally and probably you do too, there are plants available elsewhere that sound pretty great. And like you, I’m perfectly willing to take my chances on a plant destined to arrive on my doorstep either half dormant or still in its seed. But everything changes when we visit nurseries in the spring. Faced with tangible choices we’re much more likely to buy something in bloom than something that’s not. I’ve been seduced and so have you. It’s OK to admit it because those plants have been forced into bloom, unseasonably sometimes, on purpose. But it’s a marketing tactic aimed more for non-gardeners than you and me.

I learned recently, in a PowerPoint lecture full of pie charts given by a marketing executive from “The No. 1 Plant Brand,” that I am not their target customer and neither are you. She (they know she’s a she because their research says so) has a new favorite color every year. So far we’re the same. She is busy. Yup, me too. She wants a beautiful garden. Ditto. But she doesn’t want to actually garden in her garden. Say again? She wants a no-maintenance garden. Where’s the fun in that and does such a thing exist? (No.) She’s also afraid of botanical nomenclature and thinks we’re snooty smarty-pants for ever using Latin for clarity’s sake.

But I don’t think she’s a lost cause. She simply doesn’t yet know that gardening is a great way to work up a sweat on Saturday mornings or decompress for an hour after work. She doesn’t know that plants aren’t furniture, and that insects aren’t fascinating. She still marks time by a calendar, rather than by snowdrops, bees, pussy willow, daisies, daylilies, Joe-Pye weed and frost. Clearly, she needs us.

I like to think that the marketing executives hope that she will be bitten by the gardening bug and become as plant-geeky and into it as you and me. But evidently it’s more lucrative to validate and cater to her lack of interest because every year more plants are introduced that “bloom all summer!” and are “no-maintenance!”

plain old sweet alyssum

The problem is, I’m as taken in by catchy trademark names and promises as she is. A sweet alyssum (Lobularia) called “Snow Princess” that blooms non-stop? Bring it. And it’s true — that alyssum is sterile and pushes out flowers through heat and well past frost. But it lacks the delicacy of the seed catalog varieties. (Those might burn out mid-summer, but you can expect their self-sown seeds to germinate and pick up the show as soon as environmentally possible.) The same goes for “Knock Out” roses: They bloom all summer without deadheading! But they’re ungraceful plants and the flowers have no fragrance. Sometimes a rose is not much of a rose.

I figure it’s up to us to show this gal the alternatives and turn the industry on its ear. To persist in buying plants that aren’t in bloom yet but will be when the time is right. To put at least as many Rhody Natives on our cart as Proven Winners. To show everyone that a healthy garden buzzes, hums, lives and dies and is more gorgeous for its process and our hand in it. And that winter days are better spent reading about and ordering rarities and oddities from catalogs than not.

What I didn’t mention in the column – but I will now – was how offensive the marketing exec was. His prime directive was evidently to convince an auditorium full of industry professionals to dumb it down and make it extra shiny. He suggested that nurseries and garden centers should be reconstituted as “Life-Style Centers,” and that plants should be displayed by color rather than alphabetical order because “she” doesn’t speak Latin. But I do and so do you and we open our wallets for plants too. I don’t pretend to know what the answer is. I see nurseries struggling and I know they need to keep reaching out to a broader market. But anywhere my choices are limited to what some marketing dude thinks “she” wants, I’m outie. 

Down to earth – Give your gardener inspiration for Christmas

This Christmas your family and friends might be wondering what to get the gardener who already has everything. Because, if you’re like me, you have already amassed a shed full of tools.

You’re probably all set for bird feeders — any more and they’ll eat you out of house and home. You’ve got a birdbath too, plugged in for the winter and no need for another, and your garden might be pleasingly saturated in objet d’art as it is. I’m pretty sure you’d prefer to pick out your own seeds, and in any case, are looking forward to spending the next month or two after the holidays poring over catalogs.

But what you can never have enough of is inspiration.

There’s certainly no such thing as too many gardening books. Sure, shelf space might get tight, but I can avow that they stack quite tidily on the floor when necessary. One of the latest titles released from Timber Press rates a place of honor on your coffee table anyhow. “The Layered Garden” by David Culp is probably the prettiest book published in at least the last year or two, about one of the prettiest private gardens in this country. Exquisite photographs by Rob Cardillo, taken over the course of two years in Culp’s Pennsylvania garden, show rich living tapestries in beds and borders — even tucked in stonewall corners — that celebrate all seasons in riots of color and texture.

But it’s not just a picture book. Subtitled “Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage,” it’s also full of practical advice on exactly how to achieve those divine Brandywine layers. Even if, like me, you don’t own acres of former farmland and woods. (Though, like me, you might rediscover a deep-seated desire for garden views unmarred by telephone wires, parked cars or your own house’s vile vinyl siding.)

What makes the information accessible, no matter how big or small, urban or rural your garden is, is Culp’s writing, which is as textured as his garden, and his approach, which is hands off only in terms of not making drastic and cost-prohibitive alterations to his landscape. Otherwise he’s as hands-on as any obsessed gardener and clearly willing to spend his vacation budget on plants (he is a self-confessed plant-aholic). But he expects them to survive and thrive with minimal to nil life support in the form of supplemental watering, fertilizers and pesticides. That’s the kind of gardening I can relate to. There are even whole pages dedicated to the gorgeous critters and creepy-crawlies that call his garden home. He’s definitely my kind of people.

Andrew Keys is also my kind of people and I’m not just saying that because he’s a friend. His first book, “Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?: 255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants,” was also just released by Timber Press and is the perfect the potting bench companion to every pretty coffee-table book we already own. The plants listed are actually eye-openers to the world of choices open to us, local and exotic.

But it’s his descriptions of the “problem” plants (some are invasive, others just high maintenance or boring) that make for wicked-entertaining reading. For instance, Henry Lauder’s walking stick, which we would plant for its sculpturally twisted branches, is, “at summer’s end … like a plant that just rolled out of bed, his leaves all shabby and rumpled.” Too true! Why not plant a contorted flowering quince instead?

What makes this book truly useful as well as inspiring is Key’s own nuts-and-bolts advice on how to choose the best plants for our gardens based on the kind of conditions (soil, light, climate) our garden has on offer. After all, the most inspiring gardens are full of carefully curated and edited plants that thrive under nature’s care.

If you already have all the weeding tools and birdbaths you need, try leaving this page open on the counter where your chef chops veggies or in the bathroom magazine basket. With any luck, this Christmas you’ll get some great ideas instead.

Head over to Andrew’s blog, Garden Smackdown in the next couple of days for a chance to win a copy!

down to earth – April is for narcissists

Printed in the home & garden extra of the April 13-15 East Bay/South Coast Life section of some local rags…

If it weren’t for daffodils we might never register that winter’s well and truly over before summer hits. They are nature’s way of sending a message that’s about as subtle as a smiley face or caution tape. “Pay attention!” shout the daffodils. “It’s Spring!”

Never mind that they are out with the forsythia and too much yellow can lead to madness. In this case yellow is the color of happiness and crayon sunshine and there’s nothing in this world like standing in the midst of thousands of daffodils in bloom. William Wordsworth said it best. “A poet could not but be gay, in such jocund company.” Besides, gardeners know that not all daffodils are ‘King Alfred’ and true enthusiasts (the American Daffodil Society) proclaim that along with other colors like white, green, pink(ish), orange and red, there are a baker’s dozen different divisions of type of Narcissus; and according to the literature, they don’t all bloom in spring. (What a notion.)

Triandrus daffs in Division 5 nod demurely rather than shout about spring while Cylamineus look as if they’re yelling into the wind. Jonquilla, which have grassy foliage and generally more than one small fragrant flower per stem, are the source of a great semantic debate: All jonquils are daffodils, but not all daffodils are jonquils.

Trumpet daffodils need nevermore be confused with the “large-cupped”. “Small-cupped” are obviously more perianth than corolla (the perianth being the outer petals and the corolla the central cup that makes daffodils daffodils and not amaryllis – although those are in the same family.) “Doubles” don’t look much like daffs at all and in any case aren’t the same as the similarly different “split cups” of Division 11.

Tazettas are the paperwhites that either perfume or stink our living rooms to high heaven around Christmas time. They’re not hardy here but you have nothing to lose by planting them along your sunniest south-facing wall because they can’t be forced to bloom again indoors.

Twist my arm and I’ll reveal that Poeticus are my favorite. Round white petals surround flattened green-centered scented cups outlined with a whisper of red. Beat that, Mr. Wordsworth. But I also love Bulbocodium daffodils because their “hoop skirt” cups and insignificant petals make them look exactly like E.T.

Daffodils are just about the easiest, tough-as-nails plant to grow – evidenced by the fact that even most non-gardeners have a few in the yard or popping up through pavement cracks. Truly, if the bulbs are left undisturbed (a challenge for us gardeners) in the right place (not in a swamp or under deep evergreen shade), they’ll increase ranks and outlive us all. We also have to restrain ourselves from removing deflated foliage before it has yellowed – at least give it a good 6-8 weeks to feed next year’s flowers.

According to legend, my Uncle Fuss came perilously close to poisoning his family by slicing up my aunt’s daffodil bulbs for a salad. They don’t smell like onions…  The good news is, the same poisonous alkaloids that might have snuffed my cousins protect the plants from deer graze and squirrel mischief. – But squirrels will occasionally chuck bulbs over their shoulders in search of the tasty fertilizer some of us insist on dusting in the planting hole.

In my own garden, daffodils are among the few plants that preceded me. The one that grows up through a sliver of earth between my driveway and a stonewall makes me laugh out loud. The others were planted out of sight along the north-side foundation. Although I hate to deprive my neighbors of the best view of my garden they’ll have all year, I bring most of those flowers inside. Because, like A.A. Milne once said in an essay on the subject, “a house with daffodils in it is a house lit up, whether or no the sun be shining outside. Daffodils in a green bowl – and let it snow if it will.”