Down to earth — stop and smell the roses

(Originally published June 24, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers.)

There’s so much going on in the June garden my choice of topics is overwhelming. I could share my latest list of impulse purchases, which includes ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) number three, a moundy-roundy purple-flowered mint-scented tender perennial I’d never heard of (Hesperozygis), and enough packs of amethyst flower (Browallia americana) to fulfill the promise I suddenly remembered making last June to give my garden the blues. I would also love to commiserate on the aches, bone-deep fatigue, and gratification of getting everything in the ground before the heat hits or the rain pours. Except I’m not nearly done yet. And every time I start to land on a thought worthy of sharing, the scent of roses completely fills my idea box.

I am no fan of Rosa multiflora. It is an invasive scourge capable of climbing, crowding, and killing otherwise healthy trees, shrubs, and perennials. Even whacked back to the ground (nice try), it can resprout from its roots (most roses can) and all of the birds that find its tiny hips delicious drop the undigested seeds in a packet of manure (roses love the stuff) all over the neighborhood and woods. But boy, does it ever smell good.

Rosa rugosa
Rosa rugosa

It’s almost as deliciously spicy as our beloved beach rose (Rosa rugosa), which isn’t ours at all but another invasive exotic from Japan. I hate the thought that beach rose has crowded out beautiful and ecologically important shoreline native bird feeders like beach plum (Prunus maritima), bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), and goodness knows what else might have lined the dunes before it was introduced, but full disclosure: I moved back home to Rhode Island from a Zone 8 garden in the Pacific Northwest because I missed the scent of Rosa rugosa on a salty June breeze.

I can’t in good conscience recommend planting it, particularly if you live on the water, but beach rose, in the classic cerise or more elegant white, is readily available for purchase and is one of the most disease resistant, drought and lousy soil tolerant roses on the planet. I planted one in my garden and have allowed its extra-thorny stems to spread hedge-like along a six-foot section of front fence. (It’s deeply rooted and a bear to edit.) Its hips should be too big for the birds to redistribute and are an excellent source of vitamin C for anyone with friends ambitious enough to put up jelly.

Of course there are hundreds of varieties of roses unlikely to colonize and commandeer the local ecosystem. Instead, most roses have a reputation for being high maintenance, disease and insect prone headaches and mid-summer eyesores that require an arsenal of toxic chemistry just to keep alive. Perish the thought. They may require slightly more care and attention, in the way of regular water and rich soil, than your average shrub but the bad rap isn’t entirely deserved and chemistry is certainly unnecessary. For one thing, breeders have been on a mission to develop disease-resistant cultivars — and are working hard to breed the heavenly scents back in too. And for another, any gardener who plants a garden-full of distractions for the bees, butterflies, and birds to enjoy as their roses’ blooms come and go is less likely to notice or care a whit about a smidgen of foliar imperfection here and there.

nameless once-blooming apricot rose...
nameless once-blooming apricot rose…

One of the other roses in my full-to-the-gills front border grew from a cutting off an antique shrub, possibly a climber, whose apple-scented, peach sorbet ruffles will only be open for a week or two. For the rest of the season it displays bright red prickles (roses don’t have thorns) and grass-green leaves that I would only notice if the rest of the garden died. (Perish the thought!)

Right now that un-named rose’s scent — and the rugosa’s — pulls me deep into the garden, through the prickles (the rugosa’s are particularly deadly; I bear my scars proudly) and past the bees. It distracts me from planting the dahlias, and scrambles every thought in my head except the one that sighs, “boy, do roses smell good…”

Are you distracted too?

Down to earth – growing like a weed

(Originally published June 12, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.)

I’m pretty sure it was Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter who, in one of his many books or articles, dared us to keep our gardens blooming into summer and fall. “Spring is easy,” I think he said. I agree! Or thought I did.

On the one hand, of all the seasons, the one we’re in seems the most likely to make gardeners and non-gardeners alike feel like green-thumbed hotshots. My garden grows and blooms like crazy with or without, and despite my interference. Even the undead rose and elderberry are budded. The peonies are bonkers. Siberian iris, euphorbia, Atlantic poppy, and false indigo (Baptisia australis) are flying their colors and the filipendula, yarrow, nepeta, and penstemon are about to join the hurrah. And I’m up for the challenge to keep it going for the next five or six months. In fact, planning and planting for late season color was what I set out to write about today. Right up until I noticed that the other hand was grasping a proliferation of weeds and flinging them over my shoulder in disgust. Suddenly spring — let’s call it early summer now that lifeguards are on duty — doesn’t seem so easy after all and I don’t feel like much of a hotshot.

Campanula punctata 'Pink Chimes' and Atlantic poppy grow like weeds in June
Campanula punctata ‘Pink Chimes’ and Atlantic poppy grow like weeds in June

Chickweed (Stellaria media) has been in bloom since March, first in the most anemic looking ground-hugging tufts and now stretching robustly skyward, the elastic in its stems defying all but the most determined efforts to pull out its roots. Creeping Charlie a.k.a. ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) has snaked in from the lawn (where I don’t mind its pretty purple flowers and deep green scalloped leaves) into the beds and woven through, up, and around the crowns of every perennial and into the shrubs. Every leaf node that touches soil roots in. I find unzipping whole strips intensely gratifying — until the zipper breaks.

Artemesia vulgaris 'Variegata' tangled up in the chives
Artemesia vulgaris ‘Variegata’ tangled up in the chives

Mugwort or chrysanthemum weed (Artemisia vulgaris) wormed its way via rhizomes into and all over my front garden. I’m not sure where it came from because according to my dog-eared copy of “Weeds of the Northeast”, “few viable seeds are produced in temperate North America.” No matter how it arrived (most likely in the roots of another plant) the colony is entrenched. Here, evidently to stay, as is the pretty variegated form I planted in the back garden.

I know goutweed (Aegopodium podograria) made inroads in a corner of my garden by way of a gifted perennial. Originally introduced as an ornamental ground cover with pretty lace-like flower umbels, it wants nothing more than to cover every square inch of shaded ground, and will unless I never let it go to seed, and chase down all traces of its bright white rhizomes. Even broken bits will re-sprout and should never be tossed in the compost. Don’t bother with Roundup. Goutweed is glyphosate resistant.

Climbing nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) and Asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) have already wound tentacles around tree and shrub branches. I keep pulling new shoots out, and bird-sown seeds keep sprouting. Both vines plus Chinese wisteria are included in the invasive amalgam of honeysuckle, Japanese barberry, and multiflora rose that makes up more than half of the hedge between my garden and the neighbors’ so I am resigned to their murderous presence in my garden forever. I also noticed a carpet of smartweed (Persicaria maculosa) seedlings where a carpet of tall verbena seedlings should be and crabgrass, like the next blockbuster, is coming soon.

I need to reclaim my garden. And as soon as I do I’ll congratulate myself on a glorious season and get busy filling those fresh vacancies with all of the late blooming annuals and tender perennials that will help me feel like a hotshot again.

Since writing the above, I have done just enough “reclaiming” to get the dahlias and a couple of salvias planted. And I’m deferring feeling like any kind of hotshot until those plants outgrow their neighboring weeds and beat them with blooms. Is your garden growing like a weed right now too?

Invasive is a 4-letter word

Because Garden Rant’s Susan Harris posted this excellent rant about the word “invasive,” and because my book, which just released(!) happens to be two-thirds full of plants that self-sow and spread with certain amount of abandon and highlights the benefits of taking advantage of nature’s generosity, I feel compelled to throw my two cents in with hers.

I believe the word “invasive” is overused. I also believe that the more arbitrarily the word is used, the faster it loses its meaning. “Invasive” should be reserved exclusively for those species that pose an actual threat to ecosystems. Plant species capable of outcompeting the native flora necessary for supporting native insects and wildlife and providing essential services like water filtration and erosion control. Invasives are scary and we as gardeners bear a responsibility, especially if we live near sensitive wild ecosystems, to remove—or at the very least refrain from planting—anything truly, actually, and potentially invasive. By overusing the word to describe any plant that spreads from the roots or self-sows, we risk losing sight of that. 

Plume poppy rambles among the shrubs in my side yard.
Plume poppy rambles among the shrubs in my side yard.

And it makes it so much harder than it needs to be to determine what to avoid planting. The sad thing, especially for new gardeners who might be relying heavily on the interwebs as their guide, is that a whole lot of awesome plants are apparently off limits.

It shouldn’t be that hard to restrict our usage of the word. Many states, university extensions, and Master Gardener programs have compiled lists of specific local devils and don’t we all know them well? My Z, catching the title of this post, remarked that the bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) sending its tell-tale orange roots into our yard, its tentacles to the tops of our junipers, and its seeds far and wide from the neighbor’s untended lot, warrants a string of 4-letter words. You don’t need to be a gardener to be familiar with the most un-wanted on your region’s invasive species lists.

And like Susan said, it’s important to remember that what’s invasive in my neighborhood, might not survive the summer or winter in yours. Just because gardens from California to Cape Cod tend to look a lot alike doesn’t mean that plants exhibit the same vigor everywhere they’re grown. I recently saw crocosmia described as invasive. All but ‘Lucifer’ barely survive here. And just because a plant self-sows or spreads from the roots doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a monster. Not if we are capable of editing and managing its overgrowth. It might simply be rambunctious. Enthusiastic. Generous. I believe those are much better words for a whole range of plants too pretty and/or useful to be dismissed and disparaged as “invasive.” And if you can’t say something nice, “aggressive thug” paints a good enough picture.

My two cents. What’s yours?

Down to earth – On artful, art-full gardens

Originally published on November 28, 2012 in East Bay/South Coast Life

My garden art is showing again. I must have forgotten how many ornaments I have stashed around because I was pleasantly surprised to see birdhouses reappear between the branches and my concrete goose poke its beak back out from behind some melted annuals.

I don’t mind that they, and a few other things, have suddenly resurfaced because they’ll add to the winter view in a way they never would have succeeded in doing over the summer when flowers and foliage were all the ornament I needed.

I also don’t mind that they were mostly hidden for the summer — all but our ironic pink flamingo named Floyd who hangs out by the mailbox — because I’m a little bit worried that one day tchotchkes will take over the garden the way they have the house. Then perfect strangers might see me for the loony collector of bits and bobs that I am. As it is, perfect strangers and fellow gardeners alike probably read my garden as an obsessive collection of plants, albeit strangely lacking in statuary.

This past summer I visited Bedrock Gardens, a private garden occasionally open to the public in Lee, N.H. that blurs or even crosses the line into being a sculpture garden. The property is owned by sculptor Jill Nooney and her artistic husband, Bob Munger, who together have created acres of gardens that are more like earthworks.

Among other delights, there is a 200-foot waterway called The Wiggle Waggle, a grassacre not of lawn but of blocks of native flowering grasses that reads as an abstract painting from the vantage of their barn, and a collection of 50-plus conifers in a stand called Conetown. And, the entire sculpted property is peppered in sculpture, both Nooney’s found-object welds and Munger’s structures, as well as a vast collection of art by friends. Most (all?) of it for sale. Somehow, rather than overwhelming the garden and stealing attention from their fabulous collections of plants, their art embellishes the garden and tells a fascinating story of its owners. Which is exactly what art in the garden is meant to do.

A few years ago I trespassed another very different but entirely art-full garden in Buffalo, N.Y. that came pretty close to crossing the line into miniature golf course-ness: An abandoned mill towered over and shaded a tiny, intensively planted backyard absolutely filled to the gills with statuary. Concrete Venus de Milos and Davids shared the shrubbery with saints, Asian lanterns and gnomes.

But it worked, not just for the owner who clearly loved his all-inclusive sanctuary, but for this perfect stranger as well. And that right there is why. His garden and Bedrock Gardens are loved unabashedly. They are intensely personal spaces created by unselfconscious gardeners who probably don’t give a damn what I think, which made it hard not to love and be inspired by them.

I recently heard a lecture on “infusing the garden with personality” by gardener and author Tovah Martin who, decades ago, wrote about one of the most fiercely idiosyncratic and self-possessed gardeners ever in “Tasha Tudor’s Garden.” Tovah offered a reminder that I’d like to have engraved on my hori-hori: Your garden is yours. Stop caring what other people might think.

If you do what you love, whether it’s to create a haven for wildlife, amass a collection of every species of viburnum or daylily, and/or display a gallery of knick-knackery, there will be beauty — maybe not in the eye of every beholder, but in yours. And, in any case, if you love your garden madly deeply, chances are others will be inspired to as well.

Grounds for dismissal

I have to fire my compost. Today, during an unusual burst of energy, I decided to spread my finished compost on as much of the garden as I could and begin to transfer the enormous pile of fresh stuff to a newly emptied bin (I use the 3 pile method: one for adding, one for cooking, one for done). But as I started to scoop supposed black gold out of the done section, which had been covered all summer in a sheet of black plastic, I discovered an infestation of Chinese bittersweet roots. No sprouts because of the plastic, but more roots per square inch than Republicans. Or Democrats—put together—for that matter.

Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), if you’re not already acquainted, is one of those dastardly bastard invasive vines that sprout from the merest hint of the idea of a tell-tale orange root and then throttle entire neighborhoods. So I’ve come to the unhappy conclusion that my compost area as it is, is finished. Not usable. Done. Kaput. I have a hard enough job as it is managing bittersweet in the garden without introducing a fresh crop from root cuttings.

The only good news to come out of it is that Z has offered to help me make an impenetrable compost area. We’ll strip the contents out, bagging the otherwise usable compost in hope that the devil roots will die over the winter severed from their life support (no doubt a vine in the neighbor’s derelict woodlot), level the playing field to a root-free depth, and lay a concrete foundation with cinderblock walls at least to shin height. And rather than using airy old shipping pallets, there will be walls. It will be a compost fortress. No bittersweet, English ivy, or even pretty old pokeweed will be allowed inside.

Have you ever had weeds or invasives in your compost? How do you manage it to keep them out?