Down to earth — frost warning

(Originally published October 21, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers. Since writing it a light frost mostly-toasted the dahlias, the one African blue basil I left out for the bees, and my zinnias. The salvias didn’t blink.) 

With below-freezing temperatures forecast for the weekend I should be spending every waking moment moving the rest of my container plants indoors. Digging and potting up as many tender perennials as I can wedge into the plantry and living room is on the list too. But I’m still enjoying this edge of fall and am more inclined to rhapsodize. I’m also not ready for my frost-tender salvias, cuphea, and African blue basil to quit working. They’re still feeding the bees — bumbles mostly but honeybees too on warm days, and offering a nutritious pit stop for any migrating hummingbirds that might catch their colors from a sky-high fly by. I’ll take my chances on leaving some outside to shrug off a light frost, if that’s all we get, and bloom on for a few more weeks. By the time you read this, you’ll know if I made a savvy or stupid choice. (Full disclosure: Of course I caved to frost-warning panic and filled the plantry to the gills. I left what I couldn’t fit outside to take their chances.) 

The late garden, so wild and wooly, tall and half gone by, is my favorite. (As always, I reserve the right to change my tune come April and over again May through September.) Seedpods of swamp milkweed (Aslepias incarnata) and butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) have split at the seams to release great clouds of silk capable of carrying their packages miles on a decent breeze. – I spotted some floating in Bristol harbor the last time I was out on the water. Harlequin glory bower’s (Clerodendrum trichotomum) lipstick-red bracts, which were so recently puckered around fragrant white flowers, have begun to display indigo-blue berries instead. I love the black eyes of black-eyed Susans much more now than when they were ringed in gold eyelashes.

Meanwhile, dahlias, Japanese anemone, asters, and chrysanthemums offer fresh-as-daisy counterpoints to the seedheads and tatters of almost everything else. I allowed a weedy little white aster to grow in my garden. I’m sure it blew in and don’t know its name (might be hairy white oldfield aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pilosum) but its thin stems and minuscule leaves and buds never annoyed me or got in the way, so I left it here and there, and I’m glad I did for the way its branches of fingernail-sized flowers hover like a lace veil over the garden’s shoulders.

My favorite chrysanthemum, Sheffield pink, is a perfectly hardy old-fashioned perennial completely unlike the potted muffins offered at every roadside stand and nursery. I’m tempted daily by those but they can’t hold a jack-o-lantern candle to Sheffield pink. Its dusty apricot-pink petals are as long and lax as the plant’s stems and the whole picture is as graceful as a loose-limbed ballet dancer. Alas, the patch I started with has been crowded out of my borders, and I’m forced to enjoy it in others’ gardens.

I also have to venture out to witness the spectacle of hardy begonia (Begonia grandis). Those of us who decorate our living rooms with rhizomatous begonias can’t help but be enchanted by a begonia (tuberous in this case) that can inhabit our garden without requiring winter shelf space. We just have to be willing to allow it room, in moist-ish shade or a dapple, to grow without overwhelming competition from neighbors (impossible conditions to provide in my burst-seams garden). By the time it makes its presence known in late summer, lopsided heart-shaped olive-green leaves reversed in burgundy, will catch fall’s low sun to reveal deep red veins. Bazooka-pink, or more rarely white, dangles of clamshell flowers through September and October would almost be beside the point if they didn’t add to the plant’s appeal. Better yet, they go to winged seed, ensuring, when happily situated, generations of fall extravagance.

Frost in the forecast is bittersweet. I’m not ready to let go of the season – it has gone too quickly as it always does. But I’m grateful for the warning to remind me to rhapsodize – and procrastinate – while I still have the chance.

Have you had a frost yet? What are your favorite fall flowers? 

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.

Freak of nature

The first time I saw a fasciated stem on an otherwise normal plant — a rose — I tried to propagate it. Given my soft spot for weirdos and misfits it’s no surprise I’d want an entire plant constructed of flattened and twisted (crested) stems dotted with midget leaves and topped by mutant flowers. But it didn’t root and I didn’t become a millionaire, alas. (I was pretty sure it would be a big seller.) This summer my bush clover, Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’, developed several fasciated stems and I’d be tempted to try again if it hadn’t already set flower buds and hardened past ripeness for rooting by the time I noticed.

I can only hope cresting will happen again next year. According to everything I’ve read (for a small sampling of more information, see below), fasciation is a random occurrence of meristem cell orneriness, not reliably repeated unless genetics are involved. — Cockscomb/Celosia cristata’s brain-ish strangeness is passed on by seed, but most plants grown for the trait are clones. It can be blamed on infection, insects (generally as carriers of whatever disease throws the cells for a loop), physical damage, or simply mutation for mutation’s sake. Whatever causes it, however on earth it happens, fasciation is pretty freaking fascinating.

Have you found anything fasciating in your garden? Have you propagated it? (Did it make you a millionaire?)

Plant of the week 2-22-08, University of AK extension;  WI Master Gardener Assoc. “Fascinating Fasciation”

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 – winter wish list

(Originally published in East Bay/South Coast life on February 7, 2015, right after our first blizzard.)

When I spoke before about being underwhelmed by winter, I probably should have knocked wood. Not that I feel powerful enough to conjure a blizzard, and not that I minded. As storms go, this one (are we calling it Juno?) struck a sublime balance between excitement and compulsory coziness. I wasn’t the least bit inconvenienced by being forced to spend an entire day on the couch with a dog on my feet, and a cup of tea in my paw. And I’m grateful that the blizzard didn’t interfere with any important travel plans. Unless you count the window-rattling gusts that kept waking me from the tour I took of my garden — and everyone else’s — while I lounged on the couch.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena' -- before the snow.
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ — before the snow.

A week or two ago, when I was still under the impression that winter would prove uneventful, I noticed my witch hazel (Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Jelena’) beginning to bloom and went out to stick my nose into its tiny twist-tie petals. I didn’t expect much. It was a cold day and the petals were still pretty tightly furled. Now that the shrub is half buried in a snow drift, they’re even less likely to release a scent. That’s okay. The promise alone gave me the focus I needed to start working on this year’s wish list.

For starters, I’d like to shoehorn at least one more witch hazel into my garden. Because what could be better than mid-winter flowers that bloom despite blizzards and, come a February thaw will throw a sweet scent across the garden? Never mind that they grow 10-feet tall (or more) with branches like outstretched arms, and there’s no more room at the inn. According to several catalog descriptions, my ‘Jelena’ is unscented. I beg to differ but even so, I’ll keep my eyes out for an H. mollis ‘Boskoop’, which has a reputation for being “intensely fragrant” and decorates itself in bright yellow flowers that thumb their noses at winter’s dull palette even more than Jelena’s orange ones do.

Jelena still blooming under a drift.
Jelena still blooming under a drift.

Speaking of fragrant, and speaking of plants in the witch hazel family (Hamamelidaceae) that bloom before the garden gets going, I almost forgot that winter hazel (Corylopsis glabrescens) has been on my must-have list for years. Ever since I first watched ruffled chains of pale greenish-yellow flowers emerge like handkerchiefs out of a magician’s sleeve from the buds of cultivar ‘Longwood Chimes’ in Blithewold’s Water Garden. I could sit under that shrub for hours just breathing in. (It’s a wonder I ever get any work done at all.)

Never mind, again, that my garden can’t accommodate a 10-15 foot tall shrub with a similar wingspan. Perhaps instead I’ll keep my eye out for the slightly smaller (6 by 8 foot) Corylopsis ‘Winterthur’, a cross between C. pauciflora, which is on the delicate side, and C. spicata, which is supposed to be awesome in every way. Both winter hazels will bloom towards the end of March. They, and the witch hazel, want a spot in partial shade with decent well-drained soil.

Such a wish list — and of course this is only the start — requires a list of another sort. Given that I can’t afford to buy an adjoining piece of property and there isn’t much lawn left to rip out, in order to make room for every new tenant I’ll have to start handing out eviction notices. But that was exactly my plan when I filled this garden with plants that spread with wanton abandon and/or self-sow madly. They have been placeholders. Easy come, easy go. She says. What I need is another day — doesn’t have to be a snow day if that would be inconvenient for any of you — to take a couch-bound tour of the garden again with my hands wrapped around a steaming teacup and a dog on my feet.

By now we’ve had no end of snow days (not that I was here for all of them — more on that later) but I still don’t have a clue how I’m going to shoehorn my wish list in. Do you have room for all of the plants on your list?