Make way for sweet peas

There’s not a lot of room out in the plantry. I try very hard to keep the entrances onto the porch and into the house clear of plants and tools but inevitably the backyard door will only open so far, impinged by a reluctantly coiled hose and a tubtrug full of debris. The rest of the space, all 6×6 -or so- feet of it, is filled to the gills with frost-tender plants on various levels of floor, tables, and shelves. Normally, after I puzzle out light requirements and try not to hide anything thirsty from the hose, I leave them be for the duration of their winter internment. But this year, my first without access to a greenhouse and orphaned seedlings, I had to make way for sweet peas. I pitched some things that looked like they’d never recover from being dead, moved my jasmine into the living room, relocated a blooming orchid that wanted water and admiration, and somehow managed to clear a spot for a flat.

IMG_5114
Starting North Shore, April in Paris, and Zinfandel sweet peas

I was very restrained and only bought 3 varieties of sweet peas (my greatest pleasure and challenge in previous employment was narrowing my favorites down to a baker’s dozen), and filled a tray of 18 pots with two seeds per pot. Which, if they all germinate will give me plenty to share. And there are plenty of leftover seeds to try direct sowing too if I remember to be on the ball around St. Patrick’s Day.

Some gardeners nick the seed coat to promote germination. Others soak the seeds in warm water. I did what I learned to do at work: stuff them a half a fingernail down in a pot of regular (coarse) potting mix, water in, and wait. Two weeks should do the trick. Being a cool season crop, they should be fine on the plantry (where temperatures range from 40F at night to 70 something during the day) until planting them out late April.

Have you made way for sweet peas — or anything else?

Down to earth — thaw’s hope

(Originally published February 10, 2016 in EastBayRI newspapers right after two snowstorms and before the negative digit descent into this abysmally cold weekend. I wrote it a week prior to all that, back when I had much higher hopes for winter.)

Is it possible this February won’t be like last February? Will we not have to spend weekend after weekend shoveling out, bundled up in wooly layers against polar vortices, rattled by bone deep shivers? Will we actually be able to go outside now and again without a puffy coat, smell the earth, and do some gardening? Last year’s thaw-less February and March nearly ruined my opinion of winter, so I can’t help hoping the weather stays this side of arctic. I might get my wish. Even if snow returns (a few inches are forecast as I write), it does seem as if the pendulum has swung to the mild side. (Knock wood, of course.) Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring and I took advantage of a preview.

My neighbors, whose gardening practices are generally more traditional, probably think I’m lazy for not putting the garden “to bed” in the fall. I’m the first to admit a preference for reading a good book on the couch with a dog on my feet over any kind of physical exertion, but that’s not my only reason for leaving stems and seedheads standing. I let the garden go because plants like nicotiana, tansy, borage, marigolds, dusty miller, and some salvias look decent and produce flowers right up until they’ve been buried in snow or zapped by a deep freeze. I also like to provide cover for insects and other wildlife. Some gardeners might balk at harboring “the enemy” but beneficial insects overwinter in hollow stems too. Bumblebees’ survival, and some butterflies’ too, depends upon the protection of leaf debris; and birds will hang out in a thicket and pick seedheads clean. And now that I’m itching to get moving, tidying gives me the excuse to go outside and the activity keeps me warm.

False indigo (Baptisia australis) was the first plant to land on the compost heap a few weeks ago. It saved me the trouble of snipping every stem by detaching as a unit from the crown, probably during a decent wind, and coming to rest in a tumbleweed tangle against my garden gate. Why the praying mantis always chooses to deposit her eggs on that plant is beyond me. Unless she knows I’ll tuck her babies’ branch back into the garden somewhere.

Nicotiana stalks were next. Their hideousness in death is in direct proportion to their beauty in life. I pulled most out but cut others back to nubs in case they re-sprout from the root. – Winter has been mild enough they just might. The garden looks better already.

Usually sometime in January the pretty wind-whipped waves of Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) and the seedy tufts of love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) begin to self-destruct and blow all over. That stuff wanted collecting and I snipped and snapped the remaining stems to reveal emerging foliage belonging to a few bulbs I planted nearby last fall or the one before. My clumps of catmint (Nepeta ×faassenii) had become flattened mats of brittle stems, gratifying to break into bits with my fingers. I scattered the debris back around the crowns to insulate new growth already sprouted. That probably doesn’t sound like an improvement in looks but, trust me, is.

If you have any dormant pruning to do – remedial shaping of trees and shrubs, removal of damaged branches, deadwood, and fruit trees’ water sprouts – now’s the time. But save spring bloomers until after their display, and wait for hydrangeas’ buds to show signs of life before whacking them back. Hold off pruning your roses and butterfly bushes until the forsythia blooms.

Might not be long now. Maple buds are fattening. Skunk cabbage has been blooming since December. Daffodil foliage is up; snowdrops are out, and crocus are on their way. I asked a gardener with a better memory than mine if spring was early the last time El Niño was at the controls. She thought it was. It’s too soon for winter to be over but hope might spring during the thaws.

Are you taking advantage of the thaws? Does it feel like spring’s around the corner or still weeks away from your garden?

Down to earth — bulbs worth the backache

Originally published November 4, 2015 in East Bay Life newspapers. 

A little over a month ago I received an email from a Master Gardener on Cape Cod who mentioned at the end of the note an intention to go right out and plant Eremurus bulbs. She said foxtail lilies had done well in her garden and she was determined to add a few more. I haven’t heard from her since.

The two times I planted foxtail lilies (in others’ gardens) I thought they might be the end of me. I’m no fan of the backache associated with time spent on hands and knees troweling deep holes, but tulips and daffodils are a walk in the park comparatively. Eremurus may be ordered from any bulb company for fall planting but they’ll bear little resemblance to anything else in the shipment; they’re not actually bulbs. The perennials arrive as fragile octopi of tuberous roots the size of your grandfather’s hands or bigger, and come with explicit instructions: drape their fingers over a mound of well-draining soil, and resist the temptation to plant them too closely together. Two-to three-feet apart, say all of the catalogs and they mean it. My only memories are of following contradictory instructions to wedge them in cheek by jowl between tightly packed shrubs and perennials. I hoped, as my employers surely did, for the best.

Eremurus ‘Cleopatra’ from John Scheepers Bulbs

According to all sources, foxtail lily roots are prone to rot under crowded conditions. They require excellent drainage but have a reputation for resenting drought. Each in itself a good reason why I’m reluctant to gamble with them in my garden. Seeing is believing though. I’m as powerless as anyone to resist chest-to head-height spikes of densely packed flowers, particularly orange ‘Cleopatra’, that add serious spice to an otherwise sugary late-spring garden. One of these falls, I’ll take my chances on jamming a few in here at Chez Squeezins.

Narcissus ‘Sinopel’ from John Scheepers Bulbs

The upside is my garden wouldn’t need many for a decent show. Five might even be overkill whereas other bulbs must go in by the dozen or hundred to look like anything was planted at all. I’m not sure which is worse, engineering five large holes between the roots of other things or stabbing one hundred tiny ones. This year my bulb order, a promotional gift (a rare and exciting perk for blogging) chosen by a friend at my favorite bulb company, will include one hundred Allium azureum, Chionodoxa forbesii, and Brodiaea bulbs — to give my garden the blues, as well as a few green-streaked tulips and green-cupped daffodils. (Because I love green flowers. Go figure.)

Instructions for true bulbs like the ones I planted the other day are more straightforward. The rule of thumb is to dig a hole two and a half times as deep as the bulb is wide, which works out to about a trowel-length for most tulips and daffodils, and a knuckle or two down for the tiny ones. That said, the diminutive chionodoxa on my list want to be planted deeply, about four inches down. And unless the squirrels interfere with your efforts (a little cayenne pepper sprinkled over the planting area might help prevent mischief), most bulbs will forgive your mistakes and make adjustments as needed. Plant them upside-down and they’ll right themselves; too deeply or shallowly and they’ll bloom their pants off anyway come spring. And if they don’t, you can always blame the squirrels, whether you actively discouraged them or not.

I’m worried about the Cape Cod gardener last seen in my mind’s eye carefully placing giant eremurus roots in her borders and dropping down onto her kneeler. All attempts on my part to be back in touch have failed thus far. I can only hope she’ll respond, healthy as a horse, in plenty of time to invite me to witness a late-spring spectacle in her garden.

Did you survive planting bulbs this fall? What did you put in? — Any eremurus?

Down to earth — keep the love alive

(Originally published May 13, 2015 in East Bay / South Coast Life newspapers.)

I try not to go out into the garden without my pruners. If I wasn’t vain about over-accessorizing, my holster would remain clipped to my front pocket from daybreak to sundown because, like most gardeners, I’m apt to bolt outside suddenly, mid-sentence and whenever they’re not on my hip I’ll want to remove a dead branch, give nepeta the Chelsea chop (it’s time), or pick a few tulips for the kitchen table. And even though every time I go outside I tell myself it’s “just for a look,” I wish I could also remember to grab an empty tubtrug in case I pull a giant pile of weeds. (Happens every time.) And right now I might never make it back inside to finish this sentence if only I pocketed a trowel too.

I never know how much honesty (a.k.a. money plant; Lunaria annua) I want in my back border until I see it blooming. This spring, like every spring, I have too much of a good thing. A flash mob of purple flowers held on spires above gray-green heart shaped leaves fill the bed, completely surrounded by silvery seedlings that will flower next year. Even though yanking a healthy and/or beautifully blooming plant out of the earth rubs every gardener’s moral fiber the wrong way, a little editing is essential, not only to keep the garden from feeling overwhelmed by certain plants but also to preserve our affection for them. As soon as any plant is allowed to “take over” we’ll diss it as a weed and some of us go so far as to tar benign old favorites with the “invasive” label. (Truly invasive plants warrant streams of invective and banishment by whatever means are necessary.) I never want to feel that way honesty; some of it has to go.

Honesty and equanimity in the back border.
Honesty and equanimity in the back border.

It’s too late to transplant the blooming clumps—that would be psychically so much easier than composting them—but it’s not too late to move next year’s tiny seedlings. This week a few trowel scoops will make the move to my front garden, and I’ll look forward to editing out the blooming extras in those beds this time next year.

Honesty isn’t the only self-sower in my garden willing to fill the lot but most of the others aren’t blooming yet, which makes them much easier to transplant. Feverfew (Tanecetum parthenium) likes to put itself at the sunniest front edges of beds, which would be fine if its insect-repelling June clouds of white daisies didn’t obscure every shorter thing behind them. I tucked most back in mid-border and chucked a few to make way for plants the pollinators are willing to visit. Tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis) seedlings crowd the front row too but I’ll let some stay there because they’ll grow up to make a pretty see-through screen topped with butterfly landing pads.

Clumps of sherbet-orange Atlantic poppy (Papaver atlanticum) are budded all over my garden, front, back, and in between. I’m inclined to leave a few where they landed instead of moving them around because they’re tap-rooted and don’t love being transplanted. I also have more black and brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta and R. triloba) in my garden than anyone without several acres should boast. If the memories of their black seedheads poking prettily out of snow banks weren’t still so fresh, I might be tempted to evict them all. Instead, I’ll keep a couple here and there to please me and the goldfinch next winter, pass a few along to friends who claim to not have any yet, and pitch the rest.

I can’t imagine resenting nature’s generosity though I know a lot of gardeners do. I say, “easy come, easy go.” Self-sown seedlings, along with divisions of any perennials that have overgrown their allotted spaces, give me the chance to hone my design skills and change things up—for the better—every year.

What are your favorite self-sowers? Do you keep the love alive by editing and transplanting them?

Down to earth — early spring wish list

(Originally published April 15, 2015 in East Bay / South Coast Life newspapers.)

I have a lot of plants in my garden. (One might even describe it as “Plantiful.”) In fact, I have so many plants that on any given May through October day when the lion’s share are blooming or being otherwise interesting I don’t really miss all of the species that I’m lacking. At least not until I visit a nursery or someone else’s garden. Right now though it’s painfully obvious; I’m low on spring bulbs.

I always mean to plant some but by the time the catalogs arrive in July, I’m overwhelmed by the fecundity of my garden and can’t imagine ever being able to squeeze another thing in. And then in November, when I realize that I’ve blown it again and race out to the nearest nursery, they have inevitably sold out of anything I might want to see blooming right this minute.

Such as Iris reticulata. These iris, which only stand knee-high to a grasshopper, are among the earliest spring bulbs to bloom and some of the bluest, with upright petals, known as standards, in a range of indigos, and falls (the lower three petals) stitched with gold and white landing strips that help winter-weary bees find their way in. ‘Pixie’ is the blue-purple of a night sky, while ‘Cantab’ matches my favorite pair of faded jeans. Cousin I. histriodes ‘Katherine Hodgkins’ is so pale it’s practically threadbare but has wider, showier falls and landing strips than the others. Reticulate iris are happy in full spring sun to partial shade and well-drained soil. They only bloom for a week—or two at the most—if temperatures stay cool, the rain is gentle, and the wind never blows. But for that short time it’s as if shards of sky fell on the garden.

Crocus don’t stick around for long either but anyone who has some knows that there’s no such thing as too many. A few years ago I had the forethought to plant a dozen or two in my lawn and driveway garden. They’ve increased ranks since then and might one day become as dense as the clusters I admire along sidewalks around town. Until then, I need more, more, more and so do the bees. Lucky for me (and you) they’re a bargain. Mail order from sources like John Scheepers or Brent and Becky’s, a little over thirty dollars buys a hundred Crocus vernus ‘King of the Striped’. With prices like that there’s no excuse not to plant more, more, more.

Hey look -- I have a pink daffodil! (and no memory of planting it.) Might be Narcissus 'Sentinel'
Hey look — I have a pink daffodil! (and no memory of planting it.) Might be Narcissus ‘Sentinel’

Don’t tell my employer but I’ve never been wild about daffodils. As soon as I’ve seen one large, yellow ‘King Alfred’ I feel like I’ve seen them all. However, this year (every year?) I’m desperate for the daffodils’ blare, and besides, there’s nothing like standing in the middle of tens of thousands of them trumpeting in concert. And, when one pays attention, one notices crazy variety within the horn section. What I’d really like for my own garden are a few clusters with orange, pink, and green trumpets. The weirder the better. For starters, I’ll be adding green-cupped Narcissus ‘Sinopel’, orange-cupped ‘Barrett Browning’, pink seductress ‘Salome’, and split-personality ‘Rainbow of Colors’ to my wish list.

You are my witness to this list and I’ll be yours. Look around in the next few weeks and make note of what’s missing. Sock away part of your garden budget for spring bulbs. And no matter how saturated you are by the season, or how “plantiful” your garden is come July when the catalogs start to arrive, don’t even think of second guessing or shortening your wish list.

What’s on your early spring wish list?