Down to earth — everybody’s gotta eat

Originally published October 7, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast life newspapers. 

When I was first bitten by the gardening bug, I hated them. Insects and creepy crawlies of all stripes gave me the heebies. (Butterflies excepted.) Gardening for me was about being outside under a warm sun surrounded by the fragrances and prettiness of flowers, and the shapes and textures of foliage, full stop. Almost completely disconnected from the ecosystem. Although for the sake of my own health (and wallet) I never purchased an arsenal of toxic chemistry, I became a soapy water sharpshooter, doing my best to destroy the spittle bugs that bent the stems of my lavender, and left beer traps for slugs. I had it out for the aphids on rosebuds, and saw every hole in every leaf as a mortal wound and tragedy.

No more. Now I see those holes as little victories of nature over nurture.

My change of heart came slowly as I learned to appreciate certain insects, like bees, spiders, and praying mantids, for being “beneficial” helpers, and was followed, years later, by a great now-I-get-it epiphany that changed the way—and the why—I garden. The credit for that goes to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, who argues for the use of native plant species. According to professor Tallamy, we need insects. Their job is to convert sunlight, by way of particular plants, into high protein food for those next up the food chain. In a nutshell, no insects, no birds. Everybody has to eat and our gardens should offer buffets.

I’m not alone in seeing the light through hole-y leaves. Back in September I attended a daylong program called “Your Backyard Matters”, offered by the Sogkonate Garden Club in Little Compton. During the morning session several members presented their experience and successes in gardening for particular wildlife. Some cultivate meadows that welcome nesting Bobolink. One couple propagates, sells, and donates dozens of species of trees, shrubs, and perennials that host native insects. Others have planted beds that attract pollinators and Monarch butterflies. And that afternoon, they each opened their gardens for inspection and inspiration.

The take-home message was to recognize your own garden’s wildlife potential and run with it. I don’t have the requisite space for a meadow full of Bobolink hatchlings but my .17 acre plot is big enough to invite other types of songbirds, plenty of insects to feed them and their young, butterflies, and more species of pollinators than I can count on both hands.

It’s easy to garden for pollinators: plant more flowers. Butterflies need host plants for their caterpillars as well—Monarch caterpillars can only digest milkweed species plants. By planting native trees and shrubs for insects, along with seed and berry-bearing plants, such as coneflower and winterberry, I can help keep my favorite local songbirds fed year round. And by leaving the garden standing instead of putting everything “to bed” now, I can give them and the next generation of insects, including a lot of pollinators, a safe place to overwinter too.

I probably say this every fall, but unless your garden is infested with voles (who may only ever be discouraged by bare ground that makes them visible to predators—everybody has to eat) there’s no reason not to be a procrastinator now. You might argue that a fading garden looks messy; I’ll say quit worrying about what your neighbors might think. Besides, there’s tremendous beauty in senescence. The trick is to make fall’s “mess” look intentional and tidy. I remove broken and fallen stems. I trim unruly foliage (Siberian iris) and prune anything to the ground that might harbor a fungal disease (peonies). Most of the rest I enjoy through the winter and put off cutting back until spring when I’m desperate to be outside under a warm sun doing something vigorous.

Meanwhile though, until a hard frost signals winter, and barring any damage from forecast storms, my garden is still alive and blooming. On warm days pollinators and other insects are as active as ever. I have high hopes migrating hummingbirds will stop on their way south to tank up, and songbirds have started shopping the seed stores. Nature is at home here. And so am I.

Does your garden provide a feast for critters? Intentionally or unintentionally?

Down to earth — change is good

Originally published on September 24, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers.

I wish I could put my hands on the New York Times article clipped for me by a friend in which the author, or maybe it was an interviewee, shared the reason behind his lifelong passion for gardening. The gist was, through all of life’s upheavals and shifts; through births, deaths, changes in status and financial situation, gardening was what kept him grounded. This friend knew it would strike a chord with me—as it must with most gardeners. My garden is where I go to process everything that happens in my life, good and bad. There’s something about pulling crabgrass and creeping Charlie that helps untangle the mind. And whenever life slides sideways, our own gardens offer the reassurance and satisfaction of complete (creative) control, or at least the illusion of it. But it also doesn’t make a lot of sense to feel grounded out there considering nothing changes as much as gardens do.

I knew my garden would grow during my weeklong vacation from it but it defied my predictions even so. I was sure the bush clover (Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’) would spend the week bursting into bloom but it held off to do more growing instead, stretching its branches like an octopus across a vast expanse of occupied territory. I had to get the loppers out to reintroduce its neighbors to the light of day, and have enjoyed the boon of vases filled with glorious overgrowth. I also didn’t realize until I came back just how much rudbeckia I had allowed to grow. Again. This happens every year, as do floral arrangements heavy on black-eyed Susans. And I had been kidding myself about the weeds. They were in there all along waiting for me to need a good think.

premature fall color on my alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)
premature fall color on my alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

I was braced for the Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis’) that we moved to make way for an outdoor shower, to keel over dead. It didn’t! But while it exhibits small signs of growth, the alternate-leaf dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) left just outside the shower enclosure, which should be enjoying the benefits of runoff, is beginning to look ungrateful. I thought it might have a fungal disease but prematurely turning leaves more likely indicate drought stress.—I guess the shower’s drainage is sharper than we thought.

My serviceberry (Amelancheir × grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’) is in similarly rough shape. Every day I wonder what I was thinking planting an understory tree in a thimbleful of dry soil in the full sun between my driveway and side entrance. Most summers it’s dusted and distorted by cedar apple rust. This year its leaves began turning fall colors back in July and it didn’t do much growing. With any luck—and plenty of supplemental water at least until nature kicks in her share again—my trees will survive interference with their health and happiness. Just in case they don’t, I’m running through mental lists of replacements the bees, birds, and I might enjoy as much.

Nothing changes in the garden without presenting gifts of purpose and beauty along with exciting possibilities, which illuminates the irony: it must be the garden’s very inconstancy that helps us gardeners navigate through life’s sometimes terrifying feelings of groundlessness. Not just by bringing us back down to earth but by teaching us how to be comfortable with—and even enjoy—uncertainty.

New shiny

I have been feeling want-y lately. Plagued by a wolfish desire for anything new and different from the dusty, familiar stuff I look at and use every day. Something that will inspire a burst of energy or a sigh of contentment. I have lost hours scrolling through pretty pictures of other people’s gardens, workspaces, and art on pinterest. I have trolled the internet for real estate, gadgetry, art supplies, and banal household accessories like shower heads, duvet covers, and measuring cups, none of which I need, all of which promise to change my life somehow. I have cleared cutter and rearranged our furniture. I go through this every year.

Ivory Prince hellebore in bud
Ivory Prince hellebore in bud

I know that what I really want is my garden back from winter’s clutches. The garden always cures my free-range cravings because it changes constantly and I get to participate in its transformations. If I ever feel dissatisfied, all I have to do is move something, a plant or an object, and treat myself to a fresh view. I find inspiration there, endless bursts of energy and contentment, more often than not without spending a dime.

It won’t be long now. The snow is finally receding to reveal bits and pieces of ground again. I’m getting glimpses of new-shiny growth and the new-shiny changes I can’t wait to make.

Have you been feeling want-y too? Does your garden satisfy your cravings?

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?

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?