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…

Down to earth — F***ing Farch

Originally published in East Bay Life newspapers February 28, 2018. — I sort of forgot about posting this one and wouldn’t bother now except it looks like Farch might just turn into Marpril. (I edited it rawther heavily for relevance.)

Back in February everyone I talked to was antsy to dig in the garden as if it was time. It wasn’t. It was too soggy to plant. Too early to divide. Too soon for most of us (without a greenhouse) to start seeds indoors (unless we’re talking sweet peas and cardoon). We knew it but (almost) every year we’re tempted by spring-like thaws; the sweet and sour smell of earth and skunk, birds singing, squirrels cavorting, and witch hazels, hellebores, and fancy pink and black pussy willows blooming.

February/March weather can’t be trusted. Might be in the 60s one day (it was a beauty…) and snowing the next (yup). We might have one major truck-toppling, power-outing gale of a Nor’easter followed by 3 more (yes, indeed). That’s how this season rolls. But we shouldn’t let Farch stop us from gardening.

The days are longer and the sun (when it’s out) is warmer and we’re not the only ones to notice. Houseplants are going through a growth spurt, and they’re hungry. Potting soil has very little nutritional value, particularly if you haven’t repotted in a while. (I haven’t.) You could do that now. (I might.) And you should throw some fertilizer into the watering can before your next rounds. I would use Neptune’s Harvest organic fertilizer if I didn’t mind my house smelling like the beach on a red tide day. I do mind. Instead, from now on every few weeks, my indoor plants will (promises, promises) get a drink spiked with a small scoop of JR Peters Jack’s Classic (20-20-20), which resembles Scott’s Miracle Gro in everything but that company’s affiliation with the evil Monsanto corporation.

If you haven’t completed your winter pruning chores, get to it. I’ve been procrastinating pear tree pruning because I’m on the fence about keeping it. It’s a pretty-ish shape when I prune it right but its crop of pears (when I prune it right) are woody and flavorless. Even the squirrels turn up their noses. I’d cut it down and plant something they and I prefer if I could figure out what that might be.

I cut my serviceberry (Amelanchier candensis) down a few weeks ago because I knew if I let the buds swell, I’d lose my resolve. It’s a sweet native — a favorite — and was one of the first trees I planted here. But I stuck the poor thing in scant soil in an overly sunny and hot spot along my driveway, and although it grew, it was never robust. Besides myself, I blame drought stress and annual Cedar Apple Rust infections born on spring winds from my infected backyard junipers. Last summer the fruit failed to mature and attract flocks of birds in June, and most of its leaves dropped well before fall. Broke my heart. Now it’s a birdbath.

Planning-wise I am as behind schedule as I always am and could use a few more indoor days to catch up with my reading, research, imagining, and planning. I want to make pro/con lists of possible pear-alternative backyard tree choices, and a new plan for my driveway bed to make up for the loss of the amelanchier. I should decide now what perennials and shrubs to evict to make room for all the seed annuals I ordered while hungry for summer. I also need to make a propagation plan for said seeds and room for them in the plantry. Clearly, I’ve got some serious gardening to do. So, come on, Farch, lay it on me. One more snow day should do the trick. She said back in February, not ever imagining March could be QUITE such a bitch. Did I follow through on all these intentions? Nope. I think I still might have some time though.

Did you get any gardening done in Farch? Is it spring yet wherever you are?

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.

bluebasil
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?