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
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?

Move it or lose it

One of the trees I was given and impulsively planted in the wrong spot was a Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis’); a super sweet tree with deep green plumage and limbs spread like it’s stuck doing an interpretive dance. At the time it was given to us, by EB who happens to be the arborist in the family, it seemed like the best idea ever to plant it next to the house (quite close) on the back garden side. A few years later I planted a tiny alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) on the lawn side of it because there was no other vacancy in the yard, and besides, I wanted to watch the dogwood’s birds from my bathroom window (à la Doug Tallamy). In the intervening years both plants grew. The dogwood far outpaced my expectations and the Hinoki has been no slouch growth-wise either (both are 10′ tall). Even though the Hinoki ended up half hidden by the dogwood, I could have kept living with those stoopid decisions for a while if Z and I hadn’t started talking again about putting in an outdoor shower. The Hinoki, we decided, had to go. But I didn’t want to lose it.

After consulting EB, who prudently suggested we wait until fall to move the tree, we prepped instead for a more immediate move by watering the tree for a couple of weeks, praying for rain (we got about an inch last week), identifying a new spot on the north side of the house, evicting what lived there (my beloved Rubus odoratus), and digging a hole.

The move this weekend took about 2 hours start to finish, which seemed quick to me but then I didn’t have to do much of the heavy lifting or cramped-quarters digging. Big thanks to EB and Z for all that. And so far, although both trees lost significant root mass, so good. I’ll baby both of them with mulch, plenty of water (the dogwood will eventually reap the benefits of shower run-off), and have promised to loosely tether the Hinoki to keep it from tipping over in the wind. I’m beyond grateful to EB for his expertise, hard labor after a heavy Sunday breakfast, and reassurances that all will be well.

Have you ever planted a tree in the wrong spot? How long did you wait before moving/losing it? Did it survive transplant and thrive?

Down to earth — room for improvement

(Originally published on May 27, 2015 in East Bay / South Coast Life newspapers.)

My garden is as full of mistakes as it is of plants. When I’m feeling extra critical or envious of picture-perfect gardens in magazines I see all of the stupid ideas, misplaced plants, egregious wonkiness, and weeds. And then I pick at every error I’ve made through the years like a scab.

My first mistake was to start planting immediately. Every gardener (including me) will tell you to wait at least one year before adding anything or making major changes to a new property. We all agree it’s important to learn the lay of the land; where the sun shines as it arcs through the seasons, where the rain collects and doesn’t. Could I wait a single minute after signing the papers for this patch of earth? Nope. We gardeners are a patient bunch—we love to watch things grow—but I can’t imagine any of us being able to resist the urge to plant as soon as we have the chance. Because they also say it takes at least twelve years for a garden to come into its own. (“They” being those gardeners who have tended the same plot for twenty years or more.) Please. My garden is almost two-thirds of the way through its twelve year sentence and I still can’t wait that long.

But now, long since making the mistake of haste, I can see the virtue in thinking before digging. Not only do I wish I had spent more time planning my garden before filling it to the gills but sometimes I kick myself for not springing for a consultation with a professional designer. Someone with an eye for gracious spaces who might have preempted my inclinations for tall plants near entries, and narrow pathways.

Narrow sideyard path showing my favorite, gifted Lawson cypress before it died. (c. 2013)
Narrow sideyard path showing my favorite and gifted Lawson cypress before it died. (c. 2013)

Sticking to a plant list matching my garden’s specific cultural conditions and space considerations would have been a good idea too. My biggest challenge lies in falling in love with almost every plant that passes in front of my eyes or nose, and in being incapable of refusing friends’ generosity. Without a proper plan and list, it has been impossible not to break the cardinal rule of gardening: Plant the Right Plant in the Right Place. I have planted a lot of those gifts—right plants every one—in wrong places. Not a big deal when it comes to perennials that manage to survive long enough for me to replant them as appropriate spots become available, but more of a problem with trees and shrubs. Far too many of those have either outgrown their wrong place and clogged the path or failed to thrive in conditions not conducive to health and happiness.

As my garden grows, I’m getting better at saying, “No, thank you” to offers of plants I didn’t know I wanted. That said, every impulsively placed plant has taught me something new about my garden; every edit, transplant, eviction, and untimely death has shown me where there’s room for improvement. Mistakes are great that way. I pick at their scabs not because I want to beat myself up for being a lousy designer, but because it’s the mistakes, more than the successes, that make the garden interesting, and keep it changing and coming into its own, week to week and year by year.

Stay tuned. Z and I just removed a stupidly sited flowering raspberry (Rubus odorous — the leafy green bramble on the right in the above pic). Not only did it crowd the path and bug Z every time he tried to mow (Literally. He kept being stung by its bees.) but it occupied the perfect location for a gifted Hinoki cypress we need move to make way for a house project. Incidentally, I transplanted a few of the raspberry’s suckers into the back border where another gifted evergreen, a cryptomeria this time, suddenly recently failed to thrive. 

What do you learn from your mistakes? Or do you get it right the first time?

Down to earth — keep the love alive

(Originally published May 13, 2015 in East Bay / South Coast Life newspapers.)

I try not to go out into the garden without my pruners. If I wasn’t vain about over-accessorizing, my holster would remain clipped to my front pocket from daybreak to sundown because, like most gardeners, I’m apt to bolt outside suddenly, mid-sentence and whenever they’re not on my hip I’ll want to remove a dead branch, give nepeta the Chelsea chop (it’s time), or pick a few tulips for the kitchen table. And even though every time I go outside I tell myself it’s “just for a look,” I wish I could also remember to grab an empty tubtrug in case I pull a giant pile of weeds. (Happens every time.) And right now I might never make it back inside to finish this sentence if only I pocketed a trowel too.

I never know how much honesty (a.k.a. money plant; Lunaria annua) I want in my back border until I see it blooming. This spring, like every spring, I have too much of a good thing. A flash mob of purple flowers held on spires above gray-green heart shaped leaves fill the bed, completely surrounded by silvery seedlings that will flower next year. Even though yanking a healthy and/or beautifully blooming plant out of the earth rubs every gardener’s moral fiber the wrong way, a little editing is essential, not only to keep the garden from feeling overwhelmed by certain plants but also to preserve our affection for them. As soon as any plant is allowed to “take over” we’ll diss it as a weed and some of us go so far as to tar benign old favorites with the “invasive” label. (Truly invasive plants warrant streams of invective and banishment by whatever means are necessary.) I never want to feel that way honesty; some of it has to go.

Honesty and equanimity in the back border.
Honesty and equanimity in the back border.

It’s too late to transplant the blooming clumps—that would be psychically so much easier than composting them—but it’s not too late to move next year’s tiny seedlings. This week a few trowel scoops will make the move to my front garden, and I’ll look forward to editing out the blooming extras in those beds this time next year.

Honesty isn’t the only self-sower in my garden willing to fill the lot but most of the others aren’t blooming yet, which makes them much easier to transplant. Feverfew (Tanecetum parthenium) likes to put itself at the sunniest front edges of beds, which would be fine if its insect-repelling June clouds of white daisies didn’t obscure every shorter thing behind them. I tucked most back in mid-border and chucked a few to make way for plants the pollinators are willing to visit. Tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis) seedlings crowd the front row too but I’ll let some stay there because they’ll grow up to make a pretty see-through screen topped with butterfly landing pads.

Clumps of sherbet-orange Atlantic poppy (Papaver atlanticum) are budded all over my garden, front, back, and in between. I’m inclined to leave a few where they landed instead of moving them around because they’re tap-rooted and don’t love being transplanted. I also have more black and brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta and R. triloba) in my garden than anyone without several acres should boast. If the memories of their black seedheads poking prettily out of snow banks weren’t still so fresh, I might be tempted to evict them all. Instead, I’ll keep a couple here and there to please me and the goldfinch next winter, pass a few along to friends who claim to not have any yet, and pitch the rest.

I can’t imagine resenting nature’s generosity though I know a lot of gardeners do. I say, “easy come, easy go.” Self-sown seedlings, along with divisions of any perennials that have overgrown their allotted spaces, give me the chance to hone my design skills and change things up—for the better—every year.

What are your favorite self-sowers? Do you keep the love alive by editing and transplanting them?

New shiny

I have been feeling want-y lately. Plagued by a wolfish desire for anything new and different from the dusty, familiar stuff I look at and use every day. Something that will inspire a burst of energy or a sigh of contentment. I have lost hours scrolling through pretty pictures of other people’s gardens, workspaces, and art on pinterest. I have trolled the internet for real estate, gadgetry, art supplies, and banal household accessories like shower heads, duvet covers, and measuring cups, none of which I need, all of which promise to change my life somehow. I have cleared cutter and rearranged our furniture. I go through this every year.

Ivory Prince hellebore in bud
Ivory Prince hellebore in bud

I know that what I really want is my garden back from winter’s clutches. The garden always cures my free-range cravings because it changes constantly and I get to participate in its transformations. If I ever feel dissatisfied, all I have to do is move something, a plant or an object, and treat myself to a fresh view. I find inspiration there, endless bursts of energy and contentment, more often than not without spending a dime.

It won’t be long now. The snow is finally receding to reveal bits and pieces of ground again. I’m getting glimpses of new-shiny growth and the new-shiny changes I can’t wait to make.

Have you been feeling want-y too? Does your garden satisfy your cravings?