Make way for sweet peas

There’s not a lot of room out in the plantry. I try very hard to keep the entrances onto the porch and into the house clear of plants and tools but inevitably the backyard door will only open so far, impinged by a reluctantly coiled hose and a tubtrug full of debris. The rest of the space, all 6×6 -or so- feet of it, is filled to the gills with frost-tender plants on various levels of floor, tables, and shelves. Normally, after I puzzle out light requirements and try not to hide anything thirsty from the hose, I leave them be for the duration of their winter internment. But this year, my first without access to a greenhouse and orphaned seedlings, I had to make way for sweet peas. I pitched some things that looked like they’d never recover from being dead, moved my jasmine into the living room, relocated a blooming orchid that wanted water and admiration, and somehow managed to clear a spot for a flat.

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Starting North Shore, April in Paris, and Zinfandel sweet peas

I was very restrained and only bought 3 varieties of sweet peas (my greatest pleasure and challenge in previous employment was narrowing my favorites down to a baker’s dozen), and filled a tray of 18 pots with two seeds per pot. Which, if they all germinate will give me plenty to share. And there are plenty of leftover seeds to try direct sowing too if I remember to be on the ball around St. Patrick’s Day.

Some gardeners nick the seed coat to promote germination. Others soak the seeds in warm water. I did what I learned to do at work: stuff them a half a fingernail down in a pot of regular (coarse) potting mix, water in, and wait. Two weeks should do the trick. Being a cool season crop, they should be fine on the plantry (where temperatures range from 40F at night to 70 something during the day) until planting them out late April.

Have you made way for sweet peas — or anything else?

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?

Down to earth — bulbs worth the backache

Originally published November 4, 2015 in East Bay Life newspapers. 

A little over a month ago I received an email from a Master Gardener on Cape Cod who mentioned at the end of the note an intention to go right out and plant Eremurus bulbs. She said foxtail lilies had done well in her garden and she was determined to add a few more. I haven’t heard from her since.

The two times I planted foxtail lilies (in others’ gardens) I thought they might be the end of me. I’m no fan of the backache associated with time spent on hands and knees troweling deep holes, but tulips and daffodils are a walk in the park comparatively. Eremurus may be ordered from any bulb company for fall planting but they’ll bear little resemblance to anything else in the shipment; they’re not actually bulbs. The perennials arrive as fragile octopi of tuberous roots the size of your grandfather’s hands or bigger, and come with explicit instructions: drape their fingers over a mound of well-draining soil, and resist the temptation to plant them too closely together. Two-to three-feet apart, say all of the catalogs and they mean it. My only memories are of following contradictory instructions to wedge them in cheek by jowl between tightly packed shrubs and perennials. I hoped, as my employers surely did, for the best.

Eremurus ‘Cleopatra’ from John Scheepers Bulbs

According to all sources, foxtail lily roots are prone to rot under crowded conditions. They require excellent drainage but have a reputation for resenting drought. Each in itself a good reason why I’m reluctant to gamble with them in my garden. Seeing is believing though. I’m as powerless as anyone to resist chest-to head-height spikes of densely packed flowers, particularly orange ‘Cleopatra’, that add serious spice to an otherwise sugary late-spring garden. One of these falls, I’ll take my chances on jamming a few in here at Chez Squeezins.

Narcissus ‘Sinopel’ from John Scheepers Bulbs

The upside is my garden wouldn’t need many for a decent show. Five might even be overkill whereas other bulbs must go in by the dozen or hundred to look like anything was planted at all. I’m not sure which is worse, engineering five large holes between the roots of other things or stabbing one hundred tiny ones. This year my bulb order, a promotional gift (a rare and exciting perk for blogging) chosen by a friend at my favorite bulb company, will include one hundred Allium azureum, Chionodoxa forbesii, and Brodiaea bulbs — to give my garden the blues, as well as a few green-streaked tulips and green-cupped daffodils. (Because I love green flowers. Go figure.)

Instructions for true bulbs like the ones I planted the other day are more straightforward. The rule of thumb is to dig a hole two and a half times as deep as the bulb is wide, which works out to about a trowel-length for most tulips and daffodils, and a knuckle or two down for the tiny ones. That said, the diminutive chionodoxa on my list want to be planted deeply, about four inches down. And unless the squirrels interfere with your efforts (a little cayenne pepper sprinkled over the planting area might help prevent mischief), most bulbs will forgive your mistakes and make adjustments as needed. Plant them upside-down and they’ll right themselves; too deeply or shallowly and they’ll bloom their pants off anyway come spring. And if they don’t, you can always blame the squirrels, whether you actively discouraged them or not.

I’m worried about the Cape Cod gardener last seen in my mind’s eye carefully placing giant eremurus roots in her borders and dropping down onto her kneeler. All attempts on my part to be back in touch have failed thus far. I can only hope she’ll respond, healthy as a horse, in plenty of time to invite me to witness a late-spring spectacle in her garden.

Did you survive planting bulbs this fall? What did you put in? — Any eremurus?

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 — 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?