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?

The Philadelphia Flower Show

Pic of Mum's pic

I didn’t take nearly enough pictures. Or any decent ones. But chalk it up to distraction since my day was bookended by appearances on the Gardener’s Studio stage (once for a container garden challenge and then later in the day for a Plantiful Propagation demonstration). And because the show itself is overwhelming and I know myself to crash and burn with much less external stimulation, I flew around trying to take it all in without taking it all IN.

The highlights for me were the cup winning Stoney Bank Nursery exhibit of a wild spring woodland with forced fothergilla, azalea, fringe tree, ferns, etc around a hollowed out tree whose branches hung from cables from the ceiling; a wildflower/tall grass meadow in winter by Scape Design; pressed flower paintings and Calder-esque mobiles; Twig terrariums in the marketplace; and of course the PHS Hamilton Horticourt. I had heard that Mrs. Hamilton was no longer competing — a friend suggested she too might have been shamed by Downton Abbey’s cousin Isobel into giving others the chance to win — but was so excited to see her perfect plants all together on display with her ribbons.

Stoney Bank Nursery exhibitBlue ribbon winnerMrs. Hamilton's plantsmore of Mrs. Hamilton's plants

I also thought it was kind of brilliant of PHS to offer a couple of places on the show floor for people to hang out, catch their breath, and learn something new. I had a great time up on the Gardener’s Studio stage despite public speaking heebie-jeebs and for that I have to thank my awesome audience. And thanks to my mom too for taking pictures that show I was having a ball.

on the Gardener's Studio stage

Did you go to the Phila Flower Show or any other this year? What stuck with you?

Pansies are powerful

Crack pansy happinessAll is not well with the world (what the hell is it coming to?) but pansies might just help make it better. Spotted these crack pansies today in Providence and smiled. Coincidentally, also today, a friend told me about The Pansy Project. And last April I wrote this column about them, published April 11, 2012 and titled, Spring pansies save the day for gardeners. It should be noted that this year spring is not demoralizing — quite the contrary. But recent violent events are. 

They say money can’t buy happiness but it can buy a flat of pansies and I need an attitude adjustment right about now. Of all the seasons, spring has the most potential to demoralize gardeners. Consider: This year drought looms. Magnolia blooms were toasted. The grass started growing in March. Instead of blooming their hearts out, my daffodils are having a “rest” year. All of the perennials but one need dividing and transplanting. Weeds are taking over where I might have winter-sowed poppy and columbine seeds and everywhere else too. What keeps me from becoming grumpy? I have pansies to thank for that.

I never feel as rich as when I’m standing at the checkout with a flat or two of pansies balanced on my forearms. And they, more than any other spring flower make me grin. Their monkey faces are even funnier to me than Daffy Duck drawn (by Bugs) as a flower-faced, four-legged screwball. And the pansies laugh along: spring’s wacky weather doesn’t bother them a bit. Summer is the only thing that slows them down.

Their freebie cousins have started to bloom too. Some people think violets are weeds because they seem to prefer growing in a lawn than a cultivated garden bed. No matter where they grow, they’re too sweet and too beneficial to compost: they’re butterfly and insect (bird food) host plants. Dooryard violet (Viola sororia) is the most common around here. It has heart-shaped leaves and a range of flower colors from blue-purple to greyish-white with a delicate blue veins in the center. A cultivar called ‘Freckles’ is spotted purple on white: so adorable. Almost as adorable as the dollhouse-sized violet I noticed when I was planting pansies the other day. It’s possible I’ll be the only one to enjoy its front yard display of pale Johnny jump-up faces no bigger than a baby’s toenail.

Viola labradoricaLabrador violet (V. labradorica) with its gothic black leaves and deep-purple petal flutters might be my very favorite. It spreads by rhizomes and isn’t averse to being transplanted to all of the shady places in my garden. (Though I don’t have many.) It prefers moist soil but has come back willingly in a bone dry spot. Viola ‘Etain’ is another favorite. It has big round butter yellow petals rimmed in French blue and is the most elegantly cheerful perennial violet of them all.

Most violas will be happy to throw a few seeds around the garden. Literally. They’re forcibly ejected when ripe. But pollination is tricky. Insects don’t always notice the flowers despite their fancy faces, and the ones that do need to be able to grab the pollen from down a narrow passage. I read recently about someone who resorted to hand pollinating his favorite pansy with a chin hair. But in case chin hairs or that level of commitment are in short supply, most violets also produce self-pollinating petal-less flowers later in the summer. That’s not common in the plant world. In fact, most plants have mechanisms to prevent inbreeding because a lack of genetic variation severely limits healthy adaptability. But a viola’s got to do what a viola’s got to do to survive.

Maybe if my chef hadn’t observed that pansies taste like wax lips I’d request them on every salad. (All violas are edible.) But I think I would actually prefer to leave their jolly faces in the garden and in a container by my door to serve as reminders to lighten up. T.S. Eliot must have been mistaken. April isn’t the cruelest month after all. Not when there are pansies.

Down to earth – plan for snowdrops …

… not snow, to herald spring

(Originally published March 20, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

snowdrops and crocus blooming on High St.

I don’t think of myself as a plant snob. I love plants, probably almost enough to qualify as a true geek, but I’m not very particular. Plants like sweet allysum and lavender make my heart pound as much as the most complicated orchid or hellebore. I tend to shy away from becoming overly attached to plants like primroses, dahlias, and hostas that have their own societies of enthusiasts who hold monthly meetings. I’m too much of a loner to be that much of a joiner. But I realized recently, after staring at close-ups in a magazine for much longer than normal, that I might be a latent galanthophile.

Snowdrops have never wowed me before. Their tiny white egg-shaped flowers dangle only inches off the ground surrounded by a clump of grassy green blades. They hang for ages from a nobby ovary before opening three segments—they’re called tepals when the petals are indistinguishable from the sepals that form the outer bud jacket—to reveal (if you’re willing to get down on your belly for a look) an inner layer of three, or a multiple of three, more segments. I appreciate their appearance so early in the year (some have been blooming around here since early February) but have always used them to justify finger tapping impatiently for gaudier early birds like crocus, Siberian squill, trout lily, and daffodils. I generally prefer colorful flowers to white ones.

But just because they’re white doesn’t necessarily mean they’re colorless. According to “additive” color theory, white is the blending of all colors of light. As a painting student the “subtractive” theory, wherein white is the absence of color and black is the blend, made much more sense to me. Even though every time I mixed all the colors on my palette I got a purplish-brown mess. Now that I’m a plant lover suddenly attracted to snowdrops, I’m inclined to resubscribe to the former theory.
Besides, snowdrops are more colorful than I ever gave them credit for. Even the plainest are fancifully decorated or just barely tinged, mostly on the inner tepals, with spring green. Which happens to be one of my very favorite colors especially in flowers. (Go figure.)

Out of the twenty or so species in the genus, Galanthus nivalis is the most commonly grown and variably tweaked by breeders and galanthophiles. It naturalizes freely by producing bulb offsets and by self-sowing, and what isn’t obvious from magazine centerfolds is that the flowers smell like honey on warm days. I’m suddenly desperate for the collectable cultivar ‘Magnet’, which dangles from extra long and gracefully curved stems and is well blotched with green on its inner segments. And there’s no way I can go through another March without the fully double (on the inside), ‘Flore Pleno’. But ‘Viridapice’ will probably end up being my favorite because even the outer segments blush green. For curiosity’s sake I might plant the yellow-tinged ‘Sandersii’ but in pictures they look anemic to me.

Giant snowdrop (G. elwesii) is also on my must-have list because its flowers, while not being at all colossal, are larger than the others and I should hope, more easily enjoyed from a distance. My plan, hatched this very minute, is to plant snowdrop drifts in a corner of my backyard border already home to budded hellebores and a few other later-spring bulbs. Not only do I like the idea of a “spring border” but I’ll be able to see them from my desk. That’s crucial whenever it’s blustery outside and cozy inside.

I wish I could buy the bulbs right now for instant gratification, but fall is the time to plant them, and summer the time for placing orders. In the meantime I’m stuck with pretty pictures. My consolation is that I know this craving too shall pass—probably just as soon as the snowdrops fade and the daffodils and trout lily bloom. Any day now.


The boiling hot Tuesday of my second week off in August I set foot in a garden. (Not mine. I set sprinklers as soon as I got home but avoided mine until sometime the beginning of September.) I have considered Layanee a good friend for the last 3 years at least but still hadn’t visited her garden – all the way over yonder in Foster, RI. By Rudeyelin standids, Layanee’s garden is days away from mine. In actual fact it took an hour and 15 to get there. Just in case though, I brought my mom because she likes road trips – and gardens – and getting “lost” on the gray roads.

Despite Layanee’s demurrals and apologies her garden was actually still lush and colorful – and full of puppy. It just doesn’t get more inspiring than that. I am disappointed in my pictures but I didn’t even really want to take any because it was such a treat to experience it for reals. Pictures don’t do it justice anyway. Even after seeing years’ worth of Layanee’s pictures from every angle in every season, I had no real conception about the lay of the land. – There’s simply no way to find your bearings in a photo unless you’ve actually been there. I realized – and I feel a little silly to say this because I should always be keenly aware of it – that feeling grounded and present is an enormous part of the pleasure of seeing a garden. Ledge and Gardens was both more intimate in parts and more spacious in parts than I imagined and the vignettes and combinations much more interesting and beautiful for being held within the whole.

I liked my own garden better after the roadtrip – I’m not really sure why since it’s cramped and wonky and young in any kind of direct comparison. Then again there is no comparison, and no competition in gardening. It’s apples and orangutans. There’s only infectious enthusiasm – even when we’re all hot and exhausted and kind of over it.