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?

Little green rose

If I hadn’t taken up the slow flowers challenge, and spent a few minutes on Thanksgiving searching my garden for a tiny bouquet for my bathroom windowsill, I might not have really registered that one of my roses is still in bloom. Ish. The flowers were a tiny bit melty (worse now — see photo below, right) but even during summer they seem a touch… off. Probably because they’re not really flowers. Rosa chinensis f. viridiflora produces no petals or sexual parts. Just an over abundance of alizarin-tinged sepals in a fully double flower-like bonanza. They’re lousy for attracting pollinators and have no scent whatsoever, but I love them for their oddity. And because I have a thing for green flowers. (Go figure.)

Green rose in JuneGreen rose today, a little worse for winter.

Weirdness aside, the plant has a sweet, low branching habit to about two- or three-feet tall and produces endless clusters of “flowers.” It has been quite happy living on the cusp of its cold hardiness zone (6) in my garden, rarely even bothering to die back to the ground, and the foliage seems remarkably disease resistant.

green rosesBetter still, with no petals to shatter in the cold, the “flowers,” even if a little nipped, turned out to be brilliant and long lasting in this tiny late-fall arrangement with Itea foliage, honesty (Lunaria annua) and love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) seedheads. And fun to paint to boot.

Do you value weirdness in the garden? Do you have a favorite oddity?

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?

Down to earth — my indoor garden grows

(Originally published October 15, 2014 in EastBayRI newspapers.)

What was it I said about bringing fewer plants back inside for the winter? I seem to have lost my resolve. Weeks ago, when I was on a tear to be tidy I did throw a couple of plants on the compost. They were real stragglers, too unattractively unhealthy to take up precious windowsill space and probably should have been pitched long ago. Nonetheless, I felt virtuous enough to justify deferring decisions about the rest. Now every plant on my deck is like Welcome Back Kotter’s Horshack, with one hand raised to the sky, shouting, “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” and I can’t help but want to pick them all.

I remember mentioning an intention to let go of an enormous angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia) that never bloomed. As if to prove me impatient and mean it’s bedecked with buds now. Not only will it be impossible for me to compost the plant but I’ll have to give it a prime spot on my entry porch—the plantry—instead of sending it straight down cellar into the dark where it belongs for the winter. But won’t I feel lucky in a few weeks when its big, dangling, pale-yellow flowers fill the evening with lemony sweetness?

Speaking of lemony, it’s high time to find windowsill real-estate for citrus plants too. I brought the Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia) inside weeks ago when the night temperatures started to fall into the 50s but I really should offer it to any gardener who turns the thermostat up in the winter instead of layering on sweaters, as I do. Key limes are tropical and would prefer temperatures that hover in the 60s if not 70s. Come to think of it, so would I.

This evening in the plantry
This evening in the plantry

Meyer lemon plants (Citrus ×meyeri) can tolerate more cold—into the 40s—but will do their best winter growing and flowering in the 60s at least. They also want plenty of sun. Unfortunately, the brightest place in my living room happens to be a west-facing corner flanked on one side by our official, but rarely used, front door. I’m on the fence about spending another winter with one out of only two entrances (exits) completely blocked by a spiny behemoth. If it hadn’t set fruit and if nurseries offered trade-ins, I’d have downsized already.

Gardenia and friend in the plantry
Gardenia and friend in the plantry

My gardenia and sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans) are also beginning to outgrow their welcome. I remember when the gardenia was just a rooted cutting at Logee’s that I added on impulse to a boxful of tiny begonias (now also huge). It was cutest thing. This winter it will entirely fill our only south-facing window. A small price to pay, I suppose, for dozens of bone-white swirly flowers that scented the backyard all summer long. The sweet olive, which these days stands as tall as a ten-year old, earns its floor space by blooming all winter and not demanding the sunniest window.

Both plants would be perfectly happy out in the plantry but I’m holding every inch of space out there not already taken by the brugmansia for my favorite tender perennial salvia, cuphea, plectranthus, and African blue basil plants. I’ll dig and pot them up just before the first hard frost because for now, they’re still busy blooming, feeding the bees, and calling to migrating hummingbirds. In the meantime, I took a bunch of cuttings so one way or another, every shelf and most of the floor, is spoken for. As long as I can get into (and out of) my indoor garden this winter, I guess I’m pretty OK with that.

What’s changed since I wrote the above: The sweet olive landed in the plantry after all and I’m enjoying how its scent greets us as we pass through. And the south-facing sunbeam in the living room that I earmarked for the gardenia is actually occupied by two cats and a dog. Maybe I won’t bring so many stock plants in after all. Have you moved any of your garden indoors yet? Can you still get through your doors and see out the windows?

Convert?

Unruly weed and veg patch
Unruly weed and veg patch

Just about everyone who knows me knows that I’m no vegetable gardener. I like to blame the woodchuck for my failure to grow Swiss chard, basil, lettuce, and cabbage but in truth, laziness is my excuse. Vegetables generally require more attention and input than I am inclined to give my garden. Since potted plants are the major exception to my laziness rule I have sometimes tried to grow tomatoes, basil, and lettuce in containers. Alas, despite regular watering, my attempts even at that have never resulted in a proud harvest.

This year I asked my cook and carpenter for a raised bed. I thought a dedicated space might help keep me focused. Can’t say it did. Borage and weeds overtook the basil and beets. I thought its height might thwart the woodchuck. Silly me. Chucks reach for what they want. The bok choi, Swiss chard, and cabbage disappeared the day they went in.

A plate of beautiful tomates
A plate of beautiful tomates

The only thing the raised bed has been great for (so far) was to grow the biggest, tastiest tomatoes I have ever harvested from my own patch. I can’t claim any of the credit. My mother-in-law, who always grows a beautiful and bountiful vegetable garden, gave me the starts. I planted them*, watered them once or twice and then laughed as the vines engulfed and capsized the puny cages I purchased to keep them upright. I never thought they’d bear fruit. When tomatoes started to form, I never thought they’d ripen.

They totally did and I happened to glance in their direction on exactly the right day. How happy am I?!

Pretty happy. But I’m not sure I’m a vegetable garden convert yet. Are you? What has been the best reward for your efforts this season?

*I filled the raised bed with my own (weedy) compost. That alone might earn me some of the credit for tomato vine fecundity.