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!

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?

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?

Down to earth — late-summer spring cleaning

(Originally published on September 17, 2014 in East Bay RI/South Coast Life.)

I think I have it a bit backwards. Isn’t spring supposed to be the time for cleaning and clearing the clutter? I’m on a tear to create some space now. Within reason, of course. I have no intention of tidying up my desk, and I’m certainly not ready to put the garden “to bed.” There are miles of summer and fall left to go and I prefer to leave seedheads standing through the winter anyway. But right now my garden is at its fullest. It’s tall and it’s buzzingly busy with activity. It’s so full, in fact, that the wildlife and I can afford to let a few plants go here and there. This is a great time to think about changes to make next year and try them on for size.

Pennisetum orientale 'Karley Rose' about to eat a daphne
Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’ about to eat a daphne

Against my better judgment, last year I plunked a fountain grass, Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’ into one of my foundation beds alongside a tiny hydrangea cutting and a precious little daphne. This spring I threw a few dahlias and nicotiana into the mix. Even at her best, Karley Rose has a late-summer habit that Great Dixter’s Christopher Lloyd might describe as sleazy. She grew at a prodigious rate, especially considering the lousy soil I planted her in, and has lately taken to lounging around, plumes and foliage flopped all over her more interesting bedfellows. Before I evict this plant for good (anyone have just the spot?) I’m going to whack it back by at least half to give those other plants some breathing room again and make extra-sure I’ll prefer the bed without it.

Late entries -- brachyscome and orange zinnias
Late entries — brachyscome and orange zinnias

There are still swallowtail butterflies in the garden thanks to a healthy crop of fennel (plants in the parsley family are swallowtail caterpillar hosts) growing in the bed closest to my driveway, but I wanted to see what life might be like if we could actually walk down the path to the plantry door, and edited out a good two-thirds. It’s as if that bed’s edges have been sharpened. And the holes I created were just right for tucking in some last-minute color: bright orange zinnias and a companionable blue brachyscome daisy. I know without even looking that I want more of those colors in my garden next year.

I’m in love with the rice paper plant (Tetrapanax paperifer ‘Steroidal Giant’) planted in my backyard border. Its 18-inch wide matte-green pinwheel leaves change the scale of the garden and make me smile. But they also provide a little too much shade for all of the regular-sized plants tucked in nearby. This season, the rice paper plant’s third in my garden, it finally sent out a few suckers that filled some gaps along the back of the border and grew to shade out a bit more of the front. The other day I removed a couple of offshoots to let the daylight back into the bed (they’re shallow-rooted and easy to pull) and just like when my handsome husband finally shaved off his hilarious mustache, I wished them back again as soon as they were out. But I’m learning to enjoy the look of my garden’s upper lip without them.

I’ll start on container plants next. The more I consign to the compost now (such as the enormous angel’s trumpet that never bloomed), the fewer will crowd my plantry, living room and cellar this winter. She says.
I’m itching to move some shrubs around, if not out, and a few perennials too. But we’d all be wise to wait for a good soaking rain before rearranging the furniture. In the meantime we can do some spring cleaning to clear the clutter and create some space to play with ideas for next year’s garden.

What kinds of changes are you thinking of making? Are you trying them on for size now too?


Over a lifetime of summer vacations spent lakeside in the great state of New Hampshire I can’t recall ever wanting to pick up sticks and live there year-round. After one week on the Damariscotta river in Maine I can’t stop thinking about leaving little Rhody and living the rest of my life as a Mainer. (Mainiac? Downeaster?) I am aware that the winters are long and cold and I became acquainted with deer flies and ridonculous Vacationland traffic. But I loved the smells. Part pine forest air freshener, part salty shell-fishiness, part mud. And I loved listening to the shoreline forest’s sounds that included (but wasn’t limited to) an invisible (and so far unidentifiable) bird in the treetops that sounded exactly like a squeaky swing set or unmusical-me playing a penny whistle, others with a pterodactyl scrawk, easily identified as great blue herons, and whole colonies of terns pipping and screeching. I loved the quiet around those sounds. I loved the pull of the tide and letting Bazil run free on long dirt road and forest walks to chase and never catch tiny red squirrels.

View from Pirate's PointBazil's walk

And I loved abandoning my reading (and listening and gazing) perch on the screened porch to visit quaint and intensely touristy harbor towns and one very cool garden. Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has only been open since 2007 but looks and feels full grown (aside from a few slender trees) and fully established. And it was hopping. Not since visiting the Highline years ago on a sunny summer Saturday have I known a garden to be such a popular destination for gardeners and non-gardeners alike. My pictures don’t do the place justice — it was a brighter day than forecast — so I’ll spare you the full roll and vow to go back. Perhaps in the fall when this hillside (below, top) of thread leaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), Tiger Eye sumac, and bowman’s root (Porteranthus/Gillenia trifoliata) blazes.

CMBG Haney Hillside Garden
CMBG Haney Hillside Garden
CMBG Lerner Garden of the Five Senses
CMBG Lerner Garden of the Five Senses
CMBG Vayo Meditation Garden
CMBG Vayo Meditation Garden

Have you taken a summer vacation? Where to? Did you want to stay forever too?