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?

Down to earth – winter wish list

(Originally published in East Bay/South Coast life on February 7, 2015, right after our first blizzard.)

When I spoke before about being underwhelmed by winter, I probably should have knocked wood. Not that I feel powerful enough to conjure a blizzard, and not that I minded. As storms go, this one (are we calling it Juno?) struck a sublime balance between excitement and compulsory coziness. I wasn’t the least bit inconvenienced by being forced to spend an entire day on the couch with a dog on my feet, and a cup of tea in my paw. And I’m grateful that the blizzard didn’t interfere with any important travel plans. Unless you count the window-rattling gusts that kept waking me from the tour I took of my garden — and everyone else’s — while I lounged on the couch.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena' -- before the snow.
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ — before the snow.

A week or two ago, when I was still under the impression that winter would prove uneventful, I noticed my witch hazel (Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Jelena’) beginning to bloom and went out to stick my nose into its tiny twist-tie petals. I didn’t expect much. It was a cold day and the petals were still pretty tightly furled. Now that the shrub is half buried in a snow drift, they’re even less likely to release a scent. That’s okay. The promise alone gave me the focus I needed to start working on this year’s wish list.

For starters, I’d like to shoehorn at least one more witch hazel into my garden. Because what could be better than mid-winter flowers that bloom despite blizzards and, come a February thaw will throw a sweet scent across the garden? Never mind that they grow 10-feet tall (or more) with branches like outstretched arms, and there’s no more room at the inn. According to several catalog descriptions, my ‘Jelena’ is unscented. I beg to differ but even so, I’ll keep my eyes out for an H. mollis ‘Boskoop’, which has a reputation for being “intensely fragrant” and decorates itself in bright yellow flowers that thumb their noses at winter’s dull palette even more than Jelena’s orange ones do.

Jelena still blooming under a drift.
Jelena still blooming under a drift.

Speaking of fragrant, and speaking of plants in the witch hazel family (Hamamelidaceae) that bloom before the garden gets going, I almost forgot that winter hazel (Corylopsis glabrescens) has been on my must-have list for years. Ever since I first watched ruffled chains of pale greenish-yellow flowers emerge like handkerchiefs out of a magician’s sleeve from the buds of cultivar ‘Longwood Chimes’ in Blithewold’s Water Garden. I could sit under that shrub for hours just breathing in. (It’s a wonder I ever get any work done at all.)

Never mind, again, that my garden can’t accommodate a 10-15 foot tall shrub with a similar wingspan. Perhaps instead I’ll keep my eye out for the slightly smaller (6 by 8 foot) Corylopsis ‘Winterthur’, a cross between C. pauciflora, which is on the delicate side, and C. spicata, which is supposed to be awesome in every way. Both winter hazels will bloom towards the end of March. They, and the witch hazel, want a spot in partial shade with decent well-drained soil.

Such a wish list — and of course this is only the start — requires a list of another sort. Given that I can’t afford to buy an adjoining piece of property and there isn’t much lawn left to rip out, in order to make room for every new tenant I’ll have to start handing out eviction notices. But that was exactly my plan when I filled this garden with plants that spread with wanton abandon and/or self-sow madly. They have been placeholders. Easy come, easy go. She says. What I need is another day — doesn’t have to be a snow day if that would be inconvenient for any of you — to take a couch-bound tour of the garden again with my hands wrapped around a steaming teacup and a dog on my feet.

By now we’ve had no end of snow days (not that I was here for all of them — more on that later) but I still don’t have a clue how I’m going to shoehorn my wish list in. Do you have room for all of the plants on your list? 

Down to earth — I heart footed ferns

Originally published January 21, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life. 

I read recently that, just as gardeners should learn the lay of the land for at least a year before starting a garden, a new homeowner should move in before repainting. Good advice I would have been much too impatient to heed back when my carpenter and I first took possession of a purple living room and a yard like a blank slate. But while I enjoy moving plants around and changing the garden with every better idea, repainting is a tedious chore. I’ve had to change the color of my living room walls twice now. I didn’t find the right color until I started growing a bear’s paw fern and watched how the afternoon light moved through it.

For a long time I lacked the confidence to grow ferns as houseplants. One after another—a maidenhair, mother fern, and table fern—succumbed to quick and demoralizing deaths. I assumed that my house must not be humid enough, despite the contrary evidence of perennially fogged windows. I thought that until I lived in a rainforest or a shaded greenhouse with drains in the floors, I’d never be able to meet their cultural requirements.

But I have a thing for ferns. The way new fronds uncurl like the primordial creatures they are…The shape of mature fronds in silhouette…The candy-button-like dots of spore-producing sori on the fertile fronds’ undersides…The memory of grade-school science lessons about one of the more fascinating ways plants reproduce…And I’m always game for a challenge. I kept bringing them home and I’m glad I did because it turns out footed ferns are the ferns for me.

Rabbit's foot fern (Davallia fejeensis)
Rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis)

Footed ferns are so called because the fronds emerge from an epiphytic criss-cross of fuzz covered rhizomes spilling over the soil’s surface, and the tips do resemble paws if you let your imagination run wild. Rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis) rhizomes might bring to mind the luridly dyed severed rabbit’s foot key chains we carried in our pockets for luck during the 1970s (what a disgusting fad that was). I prefer to creep myself out by imagining a nest of tarantulas instead. So cool. The fronds, by contrast, are elegantly lacy with deeply cut bronzy leaflets (called pinnae in botany-speak) that become deep green with maturity.

Naked rabbit’s foot fern (Polypodium formosanum) is also known as caterpillar fern, worm fern, grub fern, and E.T. fern because its finger-like sea-foam-green rhizomes have no hairy scales. But they do have creepy appendages that help anchor the plant to its host, or in the case of mine, hug an adjacent piece of souvenir driftwood and root into a neighboring begonia. Worm fern’s chartreuse rickrack fronds arch gracefully from all the oddity at its feet.

My bear's paw fern (Phlebodium aureum 'Blue Star') really ties the room together...
My bear’s paw fern (Phlebodium aureum ‘Blue Star’) really ties the room together…

The superstar in my household is a bear’s paw fern (Phlebodium aureum ‘Blue Star’) with wavy fronds so glaucous I was inspired to paint my living room pumpkin orange to bring out their blue. Its rhizomes are much thicker, more bear-like than the others, but are taking their time to lumber over the pot edges.

The best thing about footed ferns, aside from the coolness of their weirdness, is that they’re forgiving. They do require humidity—I keep a rabbit’s foot fern in the bathroom and the worm fern in an open terrarium—but they can tolerate much more winter dryness than, say, a maidenhair. They don’t seem to be as temperamental about watering either. The soil may go dry between drenchings and for that I use the shower once per week. And as long as they don’t get direct sunlight during the spring and summer, all is well. During the winter, east windows are prime real estate, as are shelves that catch a little afternoon sun, perhaps with a complementary color on the walls behind to bring out the best in their silhouette.

Do you grow ferns as houseplants? Which ones? Have they inspired any interior design changes?

Anatomy of a bouquet — late fall

Frida decorated and used as a bar on ThanksgivingBecause I am still intending to follow through on Debra Prinzing’s slow flower challenge and had a Thanksgiving table to decorate (Frida moonlighted as a bar), I asked the florist at our nearest independent supermarket for local flowers. She assured me that during the growing season she always buys from sources close to home. Huzzah! But now, presumably ever since a hard frost fell on the region, she has nothing. Even her flowering kale came from Israel or Holland. (She wasn’t sure.) I asked about American-grown flowers and she pointed to buckets full of lilies and delphinium from California. Alas, the scent of lilies would overwhelm this tiny house and delphinium struck me as much too July for November, so I opted to forage entirely from the garden and plantry instead. I thought it was slim pickings but I loved the bouquet it made. Here’s the list of what I used:

  •  Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ — hadn’t dropped its semi-prosh gems yet.
  • Spiraea japonica — the leaves that are left are still golden/orange.
  • Hellebore. I can’t remember which Lenten rose I have but its leaves will eventually need to be cut back anyway. Might as well enjoy them.
  • Carex muskingumensis — palm sedge. Right on the edge of becoming sludge.
  • Hypericum × moserianum ‘Tricolor’ — looks like it’s still growing.
  • Calamagrostis brachytricha — Korean feather reed grass seedheads.
  • Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’ — wild bergamot seedheads.
  • Rudbeckia triloba — brown-eyed Susan seedheads.
  • African blue basil flowers from a plant overwintering in the plantry.
  • Cuphea ‘David Verity’ flowers also from plantry resident.

Thanksgiving bouquet detailHypericum x moserianum 'Tricolor'

Monarda fistulosa 'Claire Grace'Rudbeckia triloba

Despite Pigeon’s taste tests and my laziness about changing the water, everything has lasted four days now except the cuphea, which wilted after three.

Pigeon ups the ante on the slow  flowers challenge

Were you grateful for local flowers and/or your garden this Thanksgiving?

Slow flowers

I’m giving some serious thought to becoming the kind of person who has fresh flower arrangements in the house. I’ve wanted to be that lady for a long time but have never been much good at keeping flat surfaces free of paper, books, and other random bits of stuff that make the addition of a vase full of flowers, which will sooner or later drop their own trash on the table, feel overwhelmingly chaotic. I also have cats. One’s favorite sport is Smack Things Off and the other has Rocket Butt, which is a super fun and contagious affliction that manifests in lightspeed skids from one flat surface to another three rooms away.Mums, lacy carrot, and spiraea

But last week I was lucky enough to hang out with Debra Prinzing, founder of the Slow Flower Movement (and website) and author of Slow Flowers and The 50 Mile Bouquet, and she, being a fresh-flowers-in-the-house sort of person — and a real beauty to boot, made the idea very appealing.
When Debra mentioned the commitment she made when she was working on those books to create a flower arrangement every week for a year using locally sourced and sustainably grown stems, I found myself biting the hook. (For more information on why we should care about where our flowers come from, here’s an excellent rant.)

Aside from clearing surfaces and discouraging kitteh mayhem, this week’s arrangement was too easy. I didn’t have to buy anything. There were plenty of pickings (I snagged a bunch of Robin Hollow Farm mums) left over from Debra’s Eco-Floral Design workshop and we haven’t had a frost yet so I grabbed plectranthus and spiraea foliage from the backyard and ended up with three little bouquets. Perfect subject matter, as it happens, for my return to painting. (Will I up the ante and pledge to make paintings of each arrangement? Maybe.) Next week, after our first polar vortex melts the annuals and strips branches, I’ll get to really sink my teeth into the challenge of finding/buying locally grown stems.

mums, asters, hypericum and spiraeamums, etc in oil

Do you bring flowers into the house? Do you pick from your own garden? Do you support your local flower farmers? Are you up for the challenge?