Plantry transformation

Almost 10 years ago to the day I wrote about the little lopsided glassed-in entry porch that sold me on this house, and tentatively named it “the plantry.” I have filled it to the gills every fall since with tender plants and cuttings — and, of course, the name stuck.

Over the years Z improved it. He installed exterior doors that closed and an interior door with a view. He plumbed a spigot, hung a fan, and found a plug-in programmable thermostat that turns the space heater on automagically. And, over the last 10 years, he has wooed me with whispers about turning it into a “proper greenhouse.”

Other (less sexy) projects have taken precedence, such as replacing a furnace that coughed black smoke, putting a new roof on the rest of the house, reflooring the bathroom and kitchen, and installing a wood stove in the living room. (Super sexy, that one.) Being unhandy, I am the soul of patience — and gratitude. Obviously. 

This year the plantry roof, which we didn’t bother replacing back when the rest of the house was done, really started to look rough and Z got busy realizing my wildest greenhouse dreams. He started by cathedral-ing the ceiling, insulating the walls and spraying the interior bright white, all of which is a game changer light- and heat-wise. I contributed by thinning the herd of plants that needed to be moved in and out during the project, and by freeing up 2 more sets of IKEA metal shelves. (In library-speak, I “weeded” my gardening books. There’s probably another post in that.) The polycarbonate panels for the roof arrive at the end of the week — much later than originally anticipated and maybe too late to install before winter. That’s OK. The plantry is still and again my favorite room in the house, brighter and cozier than it ever was before. I’d be out there writing this right now if the living room stove wasn’t ablaze…

change is good

I know better than to apologize for not blahblahging for the better part of a year but I am sorry because it’s put me out of practice. And I have things I want to (remember how to) say.

For starters, this:

Somewhere close to 15 years ago I came back home to RI from the West Coast because I needed a change. While searching for gainful employment my mother’s best friend’s sister offered me a temporary part-time gardening job at Blithewold. Less than a month or so in I felt like I had won the life’s-work lottery and stopped looking for anything else.

I was lucky to land a career in public horticulture, and you know how much I loved it! But in the last couple of years I have felt a shift. I’m not above calling it a mid-life crisis. Even as I created a new garden at Mount Hope Farm from scratch, and helped renovate others there, I started to feel more wiped than excited. More nappish than ambitious. More -meh- than evangelical. And because I’m as tuned in as the average lapsed yogi I tried to pay attention to that.

It occurred to me that maybe horticulture chose me. That’s cool. I’m so glad it did! But because I still want to want to garden, here at Squeezins especially, I decided it was time to make my own career choice and fill my workadays with something different. Something non-plant-related.

Once again I have been lucky. I have always loved libraries as a place to go where no one will give you the hairy eyeball for sitting quietly and getting shit done. Or for wandering aimlessly, staring into the middle distance, and getting nothing done. Also all of the books! I don’t feel the need to read every single one but just being around so much information and different perspectives is reassuring. I could know things. Understand more. There’s an app a book for that. I used to dream of living in the stacks; I always figured working in them would be the next best thing.

clean pawI looked forward to every shift I worked at Rogers Free Library’s main circulation desk and I will miss that place, the staff and patrons madly. But I’m wicked excited to start full-time tomorrow as the circulation supervisor at the Middletown Public Library.

My fingernails are clean; dirt tattoos and thorn scars have faded. This blog (and its title) might need to change with the times. Or maybe as I start gardening for actual pleasure again I’ll dig in here again too. I want to want to. I think I will. (Pretty sure. Mostly. Maybe.) Thanks, as always — and more than ever — for reading.

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?

Desperately seeking spring

my witch hazel buried under an ever-deepening drift.
my witch hazel buried under an ever-deepening drift.

After what seemed like a slow start winter has gotten stuck in a Ground Hog’s Day loop of snow and bitter cold. Here, that is. Not everywhere. It might be hard for New Englanders to believe that this winter ranks among the warmest on record but elsewhere winter has been weirdly spring-like. A discomfiting circumstance for anyone living in such a place who worries about a last minute freeze frying the apple blossoms. But such a treat for visitors from the winterlands.

Normally (if there is such a thing as normal anymore, anywhere) the Northwest Flower and Garden Show is timed, as they all are, to enliven a raw, dark winter and raise hopes for a shining spring. For many years, back when I lived in Seattle, I relied on the show to keep from losing my will to live. I paid what felt like a ransom to soak in the smells and burn colors onto my retinas. I stroked green growing things when no one was looking. Although I was a wannabe gardener hungry for information, I never even bothered to attend the lectures because I couldn’t bear to sit still in a dark room when there was so much blooming in another one.

I timed my trip back this year (after way too long) to coincide with the show. And call me crazy, but I only spent a whirlwind morning taking it in (with Slow Flowers superstar Debra Prinzing as my guide!) because it was hard to enjoy spotlit dreamscapes, pretty as they were, when the real outdoors was bright and blooming. I neither gave a lecture nor attended one. I would kick myself now if I hadn’t been able to gather inspiration, information, and joie de vivre in mossy Ravenna Park, Pike Place Market, the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden at the Ballard Locks (where Z and I kept off the grass and forgot to feed the parking meter), the Volunteer Park Conservatory, along sidewalks of my favorite neighborhoods, and from my best friend’s front porch.

Have you sought out spring this winter or has winter been spring-ish all along? If you went away, where did you find it?

FYI: I’ll be heading to the Boston Flower and Garden Show to give a talk on Friday, March 13 at 1:30. If you’re in the neighborhood that lucky day, desperate for a dose of spring, and can stand to sit in a darkened room, I will be over the moon to see you there!

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?