Down to earth — May vagabond

(Originally published May 14, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.)

One of my favorite garden writers, the late great Janet Gillespie, Westport author and columnist for the New Bedford Standard Times, said of May, “in the garden seeds are coming up, weeds are proliferating, new plants arrive to be tended to and there are a hundred jobs to do. Don’t do them. Like Mole in Wind in the Willows, drop everything and go vagabonding.” She recommended taking walks in wild places, alone, at our own pace to explore the merry month of May .“Escape the demands of your household,” she wrote, “and get acquainted with yourself again.”

I’m all for a May vagabond (who wouldn’t be?) and I relish alone-time but find it as difficult to exit my garden gate in May as I do in September. Not because there’s so much to do (it can wait) but because there’s so much right here to watch unfold and change, and because the light has that sweet golden tinge. So my advice, based on Jan’s, is to put snips, spade and trowel away, and at least take some slow, restorative strolls through your own Mayscape. Pause often. Pack a picnic.

Vancouveria hexandra
Vancouveria hexandra

My walk takes me past some tiny clumps of fumewort (an unfortunate common name for Corydalis solida), which has smoky mauve flower spikelets and foggy blue-green foliage. Planted near it is a dainty spreading groundcover called white inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), with duck foot-shaped leaves on the most delicate wire stems, and flowers that I guess I already missed. (Are they really inside-out? Let that be a lesson to me to start vagabonding in April.) Both thrive underneath an alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), which, right now, has tiny pleated, red-edged leaves cupping mere nubbins of flower buds. Its foliage is as adorable in miniature as baby toes and as fuzzy as puppy ears. Aside from squee-inducing cuteness, fur on foliage provides protection from a scorching sun (its low angle this time of year can burn gardeners’ tender skin too) and untimely frosts (perish the thought).

full-grown flowering dogwood
full-grown flowering dogwood

Speaking of miniature, before taking possession of a property inhabited by a native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) I was never aware of how the knobby little buds on every twig end crack open into four-petaled “flowers” (they’re bracts, actually, surrounding the true flower) that start out the size of kitten noses and grow bigger, bigger, bigger by the day. Right now, the luminous creamy pale-green bracts, only the size of a cat’s paw, look like eyelet lace from a distance. But, almost as soon as you read this, every flowering dogwood in town will be a thick canvas of flowers, each about 2” across.

Fairy wings (also known as barrenwort — another terrible name — or Epimedium spp.) grow in the dry soil of my dogwood’s dapple. Talk about adorable. Last month I cut back old foliage (still greenish despite winter’s worst) just in time to see the eensiest fist-like buds break the soil’s surface. Since then, wiry stems elongated and thumbnail-sized flowers shaped like court jester caps began shivering in the barest breezes over heart-shaped leaves, some mottled burgundy, others edged with red, all batting eyelashes along the edges. Eyelashes! I have no idea what purpose those might serve but they sure are cute.

Tiger Eyes sumac is all about peach fuzz
Tiger Eyes sumac is all about peach fuzz

That’s the thing about spring. It’s darling. And soft. So shiny and new. (Some foliage emerges with a smooth polish instead of peach fuzz—reflectiveness probably offering a similar protection from sun scorch.) And gardeners otherwise harried by the season may find solace in solitary investigation and contemplation of its cuteness. So please do as Janet Gillespie “The Carefree Gardener” and I suggest: drop everything right now and enjoy it. 

I wrote this before a spell of summer-like temperatures and humidity made everything grow gangbusters. The dogwood is indeed flying its full canvas now. Trees are all leafed out (except my fringe tree and sourwood — natives are often fashionably late) and the weeds grew. Which means no more vagabonding for me. How about you?

Sow pretty — sow Plantiful!

Three cheers and a big huzzah for this beeeeeautiful poster from the team at Timber Press! They invite you to print it (and hang it up all over town! says me). Click to visit their blog, Timber Press Talks, and take the dime tour of my book too.Plantiful infographic by Timber Press

And then garden on!

Down to earth – Start a windowsill farm with microgreens

(Originally published January 22, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life. The article ran with a pretty picture of a productive windowsill microgreenery that people thought was mine. I wish. My windowsill farmlet is pictured below.)

Either winter makes me hungry for fresh vegetables or the seed catalogs do. Either way, every year around this time I decide this is the year I will grow vegetables in the garden. For real — not just what comes up in the compost pile. I’m forgetting that I did plant kale, cabbage, lettuce, and basil last year and the woodchuck ate it all down to nubs. Which is the same thing he/she did the year before that. And the year before that. And so on. Or else it was the bunnies.

Every year I think I (meaning my carpenter) should build a raised bed tall enough to keep critters out of the veg. And every year so far I have not decided before spring planting where to put it. Nor have I bothered to buy the lumber or stockpile enough soil to fill it.

I’m guessing that once I decide where it goes (in full sun somewhere near the kitchen door) it will need to stand a good 18” high. The other option I have is to surround my vegetables with fencing. Eight feet high is about right to keep deer out (it’s probably only a matter of time before they wander every Bristol street as freely as gulls do), but bunnies and woodchucks are tricksters. To deter them, a much shorter fence will do as long as it’s made of an unchewable metal mesh and is set deep in the ground. And if I really want to give those guys a challenge, the bottom of the fence should probably even curve outwards a little. I am a lazy McGregor, though, and that’s much more digging than I’m usually inclined to do. Are fresh homegrown vegetables worth it?

Probably. Everyone says so.

To find out, I’m going to start by growing microgreens. (I’ve said this before…) All of my favorite seed companies, like Renee’s Garden, John Scheepers Kitchen Garden, Botanical Interests, and Johnny’s, just to name a few, have done the hard work of combining seeds that sprout at the same time into blends with flavor profiles ranging from mild to spicy. Botanical Interest’s 17 green “Sassy Salad,” which includes arugula, nine lettuces, two mustards, Swiss chard, endive, spinach and bok choy, falls somewhere in the middle. Sounds delicious.

My microgreenery shares its windowsill with cuttings and a sorry begonia.

If I supply enough water to keep the seeds and starter soil moist but not boggy, and put them in a windowsill-full of daylight, I should have at least one meal’s worth of tiny bite-sized but intensely flavorful and nutrient-rich salad garnish within two weeks. Maybe two or three meals’ worth depending on the size of the container (ironically, a store-bought salad mix box would be perfect with a few holes punched in the bottom for drainage) and my dinner party. Set inside a cachepot, a mesclun mix might even look as handsome as a houseplant as soon as it gets going and before I eat it up. The seedlings only need to be grown as far as their first set or two of true leaves before becoming supper so the trick is to have several packs growing at once but staggered in an endless succession. (My last packet of old seeds went into that box. Making a mental note right now to order another batch.)

This will be a good test for me. I figure if I become a successful windowsill microgreen farmer, it will be a slippery slope to wanting some of the same vegetables to grow to maturity outside. Maybe it’s time I finally find a place for that raised bed.

What’s growing on your windowsills? 

Down to earth – How to be happy in January

(Originally published January 8, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life) 

I recently overheard a friend of mine describe January as thirty-one Mondays. That’s harsh, I thought, but kind of true. Even though I regularly remind myself how much I enjoy winter, in actuality I drudge through most of it pining for spring like it’s the next long weekend. I’m sure that’s natural for us gardeners. There’s little to do outside beyond keeping the bird feeders filled, and being stuck indoors can really feel like being stuck. That is, unless we make a concerted effort to enjoy the break and the quiet of snow days. Whether it’s snowy out or not. (As I write this, it is very snowy.)

Bitter cold January snow day

This year’s World Happiness Report names Denmark as the happiest country on Earth. There are a number of factors that contribute to a country’s collective happiness such as a terrific education system, decent politics, access to healthcare, and equitable wages. For Denmark though, a country with long, dark winters, a particular cultural practice must have pushed them to the top of the list. Hygge (pronounced hyoo´geh, more or less) doesn’t translate directly to English but can be generally—and inadequately—explained as coziness. Things like hot beverages (spiked or not; chocolate or not), wrapping up in blankets and reading on the couch with a dog on your feet, candlelight, rich, delicious food, and good company would all be described as hyggelig and would all be considered essential not just for getting through the dark days of winter but for thoroughly enjoying them.

It would also seem that the Danes don’t feel exiled indoors over the winter. They bundle up, get on their bikes (according to Denmark’s official website, 50% of Copenhagen’s residents commute by bike on over 400km of bike lanes), take dirty weather on the chin, and soak up every mid-day sunbeam. You probably already know I’m not one for making—or keeping—New Year’s resolutions and it’s highly unlikely that I’ll get on my bike again before spring, take up skiing, or visit Denmark anytime soon, but I’m inspired to practice hygge here and now, outside and in.

I wasn’t even thinking about hygge a few weeks ago when I took a hyggelig walk with friends around The Arnold Arboretum in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. There were no leaves left on the trees, the wind whipped over the hills, the low sun was blinding, and I was never so enchanted with a place. Even though spring and fall must be their busiest, most colorful seasons, winter is the perfect time to go. The Arnold happens to be the oldest public arboretum in the country and the age of some of the trees in their collection is especially evident as their gnarled trunks and branches are on naked display. And I could only imagine—it was easy to do—how magical their conifer collection would be under a layer of snow. Like Narnia. To plan your visit, go to http://www.arboretum.harvard.edu.

looking down into Logee's long houseAnd get thee to a greenhouse. Any place filled to the gills with green growing things will be full of hygge too. Some of my favorite local retail greenhouses close for a winter’s nap after the New Year so I use that excuse to make an annual pilgrimage to Logee’s out in Danielson, CT. Their oldest greenhouses and biggest biggest-lemon tree (Ponderosa lemons weigh up to 5lbs each) are well over 100 years old. The dirt-floor aisles are narrow as a jungle and the benches are a tropical vacation of tiny rooted cuttings. I have thoroughly enjoyed rainy day visits—the “long house” is always toasty—but a sunny day will warm you to the core. Just try to leave without a handful of paradise for your windowsills. And feel how much happier you are when you inject some cozy weekend-like moments into this month of Mondays.

What do you do to enjoy January – and/or polar vortices? 

The pursuit of imperfection

I subscribe to gardening magazines. I have shelves full of gardening books intended for coffee table display. I occasionally troll Pinterest for hours at a time. (Freaking infinite scroll – I can’t stop.) I have watched countless slideshow presentations. I sometimes attend garden tours and the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days. And I happen to work at a public garden that is held to a high standard of beauty and maintenance. Through these sources I discover all kinds of inspiration for my own garden but I also find discouragement and dissatisfaction.

wild disarray in the back border

My garden is not like any of those. It is not picture perfect. It’s not garden-tour-worthy. Compared to a magazine spread, it’s a wonky, weedy, wildly over-grown mess. If not for the constant (mostly self-inflicted) barrage of sublime, supertidy beauty, I wouldn’t care because I really do love it just as it is. And the bees, spiders, grasshoppers, hummingbirds (they’re still here!), woodchucks, bunnies, husbands, and dogs seem to think it’s pretty cool too.

Happy dog in the garden (photo by Z)

But I can’t help wishing that perfection didn’t have to enter into how we judge a garden’s beauty. After all, nature is wild. Unkempt. Imperfect. And so very gorgeous. I fully understand and usually succumb to the impulse to hide the weeds, mow the lawn, and rake the debris before taking a picture of the garden but what if we just took pictures of the garden we love, wonkiness and all? We could post them on blogs and Pinterest and submit them for magazine articles about whatever makes our garden especially awesome. Let’s engage in a gardening revolution: the pursuit of imperfection. Who’s (already) with me?