Down to earth — every day is thanksgiving day

Originally published November 23, 2016 in EastBayRI newspapers.

I never liked being put on the spot at Thanksgiving. No matter how grateful I am for things like my health, a loving family, generous friends, and homemade cranberry sauce, someone else around the table will have already mentioned it. Can’t just say “ditto” on Thanksgiving. There’s too much else to list, if only one’s mind didn’t go completely blank. That must be why some smart people keep journals. Gratitude takes practice.

Right this minute, even as I type, I can’t take my eyes away from the garden window. (I am grateful to my high school typing teacher for being so strict about not peeking at the keys.) On this rainy November day, as the sun is setting much too early (thanks –no thanks!– to the time shift), the light has a golden cast. Is it the sunset soaking through the clouds or is the glow emanating from the blazing yellow foliage of threadleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrecktii) and bushclover (Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’) and a Rosa rugosa that looks lit from within?

Since writing the above, the light has gone lavender, tinted pinkish perhaps by the fire engine red of my sorry sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum). Sorry because it lost its health to too many run ins with the lawn mower as a sapling, and its top to a summer gale. I won’t cut the rest down until every last leaf has dropped one last time. With it gone I’m sure I will be glad to notice how the ‘Prairifire’ crabapple in my front yard displays a motley calico instead of committing to a single color.

In the summer garden a little red goes a long way. I am so leery of overusing it I can’t name a single red flower in my garden (though I wouldn’t turn down a small division of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ if any were on offer). But when the Fothergilla × intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’ turns every shade of red and the highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) go bing cherry, I can’t get enough of it. Did you know Penstemon digitalis stems turn red too or do you cut their seedheads down right after they bloom? Maybe don’t next year.

I’m not a huge fan of yellow in the summer garden either — I prefer the gaze of black-eyed Susans after they lose their school-bus-yellow lashes — but when plants compete with a low sun, I’m all for it even if it comes from everyday puddles of melted hosta or strands of expiring daylily. Probably goes without saying that a low sun shining through a bright orange sugar maple in someone else’s garden (a bright orange anything, any time of year) will stop me in my tracks for a heartfelt thank you. No matter how long you’ve lived in New England, gardener or not, it’s impossible to take fall for granted.

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Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ gone golden (with Bazil for contrast)

 

By the time you read this the days will be even shorter, the shadows longer, and most of the leaves will have fallen. Another reason to be thankful if you, like me, use that bounty as free mulch. Hardly any fall in my yard so I get mine by the bagful from those generous friends I mentioned being grateful for earlier.

If mindfulness is one of the keys to gratitude we gardeners have it easy. No matter how frustrating the weather might be, or how disappointing it is when the hydrangeas never bloom, when we’re paying attention – and we always are, about a million other things will surprise and delight us. Even though I never manage to write it all down, I should be able to recall one or two blessings from my seat at the Thanksgiving table this year.

You too?

Down to earth – sem(pl)antics

Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers July 6, 2016.

I had a friendly debate the other day (weeks ago now) with a fellow professional gardener that might have devolved into a heated argument if I hadn’t capitulated. We were talking about one of my favorite plants, African blue basil, which she described as an annual. I call it tender perennial. To-may-to, To-mah-to? It comes down to semantics.

What is an annual? The definition I use was written by botanists who base it on a plant’s life cycle. An annual is the sort of plant that grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies all in one growing season. My friend’s definition swings a bit wider to include anything that won’t survive winter in our gardens. I yielded the point because she’s not alone. You won’t find African blue basil in the perennial section at any nearby nursery.

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African blue basil growing in the Mount Hope Farm cutting garden with nicotiana, feverfew, and snaps

But this is where it gets tricky and why I’m having trouble letting go: I bought mine a whole growing season or two ago. Life-cycle-wise, African blue basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum ×basilicum) takes after its perennial parent. In its East African home climate, O. kilimandscharicum doesn’t die after flowering and setting seed. (Never mind that the hybrid child is sterile. That tiny detail is beside the point.) It grows on.

I use the term tender perennial where applicable because I rise to the challenge of keeping “annuals” alive inside over the winter and replanting them summer after summer.

Self-sowers add to the confusion. Plenty of botanically true annuals return year after year more reliably than some perfectly hardy perennials. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) falls into that category along with shiso (Perilla frutescens), and California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). I always think of Verbena bonariensis as an annual because in my garden it grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies. Or does it? In fact, it’s a marginally hardy perennial (to Zone 7) and sometimes only dies back to the ground after frost, coming up fresh as a … well, not a daisy exactly, but as itself all over again the following summer. And whenever winter kills them, seedlings will pop up in the same spots and everywhere else besides.

I know another gardener who would give perennials that aren’t great at spreading from the roots, such as coneflower (Echinacea sp.), sea holly (Eryngium sp.) and heuchera, the qualifier “short-lived.” We might think twice about purchasing a plant with only three or so years to live. Then again, in general, only the sterile hybrid cultivars will poop out completely and need to be replaced (or not); given the chance, straight species self-sow their own succession.

When it comes to buying plants, most of us gardeners simply want to know exactly what to expect. But a lot of factors are involved in ultimate plant happiness and longevity; a certain amount of unpredictability is part of the challenge. If we didn’t enjoy that we wouldn’t bother bothering. I will always be happy to shell out for one-summer wonders because my garden wouldn’t be half as lively without annuals. And with any luck some might just turn out to be perennial.

Only the lowly

Those of you who read my column in the actual paper or who possess the secret key for reading it online (here — but it’s not there yet) whenever I don’t repost it, know I got on a soapbox last week about the hideousness of lawn chemicals and the beauty of the weeds those chemicals kill. And just this week at a Plantiful talk in Seekonk, MA I got a baited question from an attendee. She asked with a little glint in her eye, “How do you feel about dandelions?”

You already know the answer: I love them! I occasionally evict dandelions from the garden but I love them-love them-love them in the lawn. And actually, even though in theory I hate my lawn and wish it would be magically transformed into garden by elves in the night, I appreciate how it frames my garden. But only because it’s a colorful frame. Bring on the dandelions, violas, and creeping Charlie. (Yes, even that.) If the grass were devoid of these lowly “weeds” as some lawns are, I would more actively despise and eradicate it.

IMG_5433I honestly don’t know why dandelions still get such a bad rap. We all know now how they provide the earliest and most consistent source of nutrition for honeybees and other pollinators. We like that they’re native (to almost everywhere in the world). And their young greens are packed full of vitamins and on every foodie’s menu.

Violas are edible too and although they’re not much visited by pollinators, their foliage hosts fritillary butterflies (the caterpillar stage). Wouldn’t we all love seeing more of them flying around? Viola sororia, the blue straight-species and variant gray “Confederate violet” are Rhode Island’s state flower. Poisoning them (and yourself, children, pets, and nearby wildlife) with chemicals is decidedly un-patriotic.

Creeping Charlie (a.k.a. ground ivy or Glechoma hederacea) has very few redeeming qualities. It’s edible but not particularly delicious. It isn’t native here, supports no wildlife that I know of, and it spreads altogether too promiscuously into the garden. But I can’t help loving its  purple stains in the grass and how it and the clover remain healthy during summer droughts.

I’m lucky that Z seems to lack the (dude-specific?) gene that controls lawn care and mandates Fenway greenness, which of course, isn’t “green” at all. I’m also lucky that he doesn’t mind mowing periodically to sharpen our garden’s colorful frame.

How do you feel about dandelions?

Down to earth — frost warning

(Originally published October 21, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers. Since writing it a light frost mostly-toasted the dahlias, the one African blue basil I left out for the bees, and my zinnias. The salvias didn’t blink.) 

With below-freezing temperatures forecast for the weekend I should be spending every waking moment moving the rest of my container plants indoors. Digging and potting up as many tender perennials as I can wedge into the plantry and living room is on the list too. But I’m still enjoying this edge of fall and am more inclined to rhapsodize. I’m also not ready for my frost-tender salvias, cuphea, and African blue basil to quit working. They’re still feeding the bees — bumbles mostly but honeybees too on warm days, and offering a nutritious pit stop for any migrating hummingbirds that might catch their colors from a sky-high fly by. I’ll take my chances on leaving some outside to shrug off a light frost, if that’s all we get, and bloom on for a few more weeks. By the time you read this, you’ll know if I made a savvy or stupid choice. (Full disclosure: Of course I caved to frost-warning panic and filled the plantry to the gills. I left what I couldn’t fit outside to take their chances.) 

The late garden, so wild and wooly, tall and half gone by, is my favorite. (As always, I reserve the right to change my tune come April and over again May through September.) Seedpods of swamp milkweed (Aslepias incarnata) and butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) have split at the seams to release great clouds of silk capable of carrying their packages miles on a decent breeze. – I spotted some floating in Bristol harbor the last time I was out on the water. Harlequin glory bower’s (Clerodendrum trichotomum) lipstick-red bracts, which were so recently puckered around fragrant white flowers, have begun to display indigo-blue berries instead. I love the black eyes of black-eyed Susans much more now than when they were ringed in gold eyelashes.

Meanwhile, dahlias, Japanese anemone, asters, and chrysanthemums offer fresh-as-daisy counterpoints to the seedheads and tatters of almost everything else. I allowed a weedy little white aster to grow in my garden. I’m sure it blew in and don’t know its name (might be hairy white oldfield aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pilosum) but its thin stems and minuscule leaves and buds never annoyed me or got in the way, so I left it here and there, and I’m glad I did for the way its branches of fingernail-sized flowers hover like a lace veil over the garden’s shoulders.

My favorite chrysanthemum, Sheffield pink, is a perfectly hardy old-fashioned perennial completely unlike the potted muffins offered at every roadside stand and nursery. I’m tempted daily by those but they can’t hold a jack-o-lantern candle to Sheffield pink. Its dusty apricot-pink petals are as long and lax as the plant’s stems and the whole picture is as graceful as a loose-limbed ballet dancer. Alas, the patch I started with has been crowded out of my borders, and I’m forced to enjoy it in others’ gardens.

I also have to venture out to witness the spectacle of hardy begonia (Begonia grandis). Those of us who decorate our living rooms with rhizomatous begonias can’t help but be enchanted by a begonia (tuberous in this case) that can inhabit our garden without requiring winter shelf space. We just have to be willing to allow it room, in moist-ish shade or a dapple, to grow without overwhelming competition from neighbors (impossible conditions to provide in my burst-seams garden). By the time it makes its presence known in late summer, lopsided heart-shaped olive-green leaves reversed in burgundy, will catch fall’s low sun to reveal deep red veins. Bazooka-pink, or more rarely white, dangles of clamshell flowers through September and October would almost be beside the point if they didn’t add to the plant’s appeal. Better yet, they go to winged seed, ensuring, when happily situated, generations of fall extravagance.

Frost in the forecast is bittersweet. I’m not ready to let go of the season – it has gone too quickly as it always does. But I’m grateful for the warning to remind me to rhapsodize – and procrastinate – while I still have the chance.

Have you had a frost yet? What are your favorite fall flowers? 

Nally’s Lime Dots

It’s hard to believe I haven’t already waxed on about Boltonia asteroides ‘Nally’s Lime Dots’ (or is it ‘Dot’ singular?) but a quick search of this blog found only two measly mentions. (I found several on Bwold’s blog along with a myriad of my own photos in google images, some totally unrelated. Weird.) Anyhoo, I love this plant and it loves me. By which I mean, it loves my garden.

I love it for its chartreuse petal-less polka-dots. I enjoy the way those buttons catch the long late-summer light in halos (it’s not fall yet) and how it’s the only thing, so far, in my garden that refuses to be overwhelmed by Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’. In fact, they’re a pretty pair, thick as thieves. And I’m gratified by its generosity. No matter how much I edit out, it rebounds to grace the neediest spaces. And as Kathy from Avant Gardens says, “it should be a nominee for best supporting actor…whether in the garden or in a vase”. I’m never inclined to bring flowers inside until old Nally’s dots bloom.

The only thing I don’t love is that the flowers are unattractive. I’ve never seen a bee, wasp, moth, or butterfly visit the buttons. There’s nothing for the hummingbirds there. Too bad it’s so boring! If not for its evident sterility, it might be a contender for my favorite plant ever.

FINE PRINT: perennial, zones 5-8. Full sun to maybe partial shade; average to crappy soil, and drought resistant. Grows 4-to 6-feet and leans like a drunk. May be given the Chelsea chop to encourage sturdiness but, in my experience, still becomes tall and tipsy. 

What’s catching the long light in your garden? Anything vase-worthy?