Creative clutter

Sorbaria sorbifolia 'Sem' says it's time for spring already.
Sorbaria sorbifolia ‘Sem’ says it’s time for spring already.

I started preparing my garden for spring today. The urge to banish winter and get busy outside comes over me every year around this time — if not earlier — and feels just like all of the times I have suddenly become desperate for a haircut right-this-minute. I can’t stand to look at its mess any more. And just like the time, years ago, that I couldn’t schedule a hair appointment within the hour and begged an unskilled boyfriend to get the scissors out, it was a hack job. I made a mess of my mess. But it’s my mess and I’ve decided to think of it as creative clutter. (I had no such euphemism for the bizarro hairstyle that schooled me once and for all in the virtues of patience and hiring professionals.)

My aim today was to go through as much of the garden as I could, downing stems and seedheads and uncovering bulb foliage before chilly fingers and a forecasted rain sent me back inside. I made it most of the way through the front garden, snapping and cracking stems and seedheads and littering them all in my wake. Winter interest became a debris field. Intentionally. Last year, after watching this video of Chicago’s Lurie Garden being mowed in early spring, and because I hate making endless trips to an already overfull compost pile, I decided that mulching in place was the best idea ever.

The only downside is that it still looks a mess. But like I said, it’s my mess and the clutter is good — creative even — for the soil in the short and long run because it will help retain moisture at least until the plants grow to cover any otherwise bare earth, and will eventually work its way into the soil as organic matter. If I were at work where we endeavor to keep up appearances, or hadn’t been in a rush to get back inside to relax on the couch with a warm dog on my feet, I would at least rake the bits off the lawn and make the edges nice and neat again before calling it a day. But that’s what tomorrow is for, and with any luck spring’s gales might help with the tidying.

Are you getting your garden ready for spring? What do you do with winter’s debris?

Down to earth — begonias think spring

Originally published March 18, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers. 

I hope by the time you read this we can see our gardens again. I’m dying to get to work outside. If this were a normal March the hellebores would be blooming and I can see from my window that the witch hazel has unfurled its flowers again. But as I write this the snow bank that swallowed it is no less than knee high and I still look like Frankenstein tromping out to the bird feeder. I don’t trust that winter is over yet despite some thawing and a calendar that declared spring last Friday. (It snowed that day.) I was punished for my haste last year. Never again. (She says.) I’m sure I should at least wait until I can walk through my garden with a normal amount of poise and grace before I take loppers to the roses. So, like all of you, I’m going stir crazy. Thank goodness my begonias are in bloom.

Of over 1500 species of begonia in the world (mostly from the tropics) only a fraction of a fraction are cultivated for our gardens and windowsills. I have far fewer than that and even fewer than I used to. For a long time my living room was dominated by a gangly silver polka-dotted angel wing begonia (B. maculata var. wightii). Angel wing or cane begonias have sturdy stems between pointed asymmetrical leaves and seem to want to be twelve-feet tall. Supposedly they can be pinched back to encourage compactness but mine was never satisfied unless it was reaching for the ceiling and arching like a vulture over the couch. I loved its patterning and profusion of white flowers but when it finally toppled to the floor I said my goodbyes.

Begonia 'Midnight Twist'
Begonia ‘Midnight Twist’

Most of my remaining begonias are rhizomatous types that grow in low mounds from a gnarly tangle of ground covering stems and bloom with winter-blues-busting exuberance. ‘Midnight Twist’ is a Gothic beauty with ruffled leaves as close to black as burgundy can get and sprays of bubblegum pink clamshell buds that fade to nearly white after opening. My other favorite has tiny green leaves with red freckles and eyelashes all along their edges, white flowers the size of baby fingernails, and grows with the kind of generosity that keeps me at my potting bench.

I have one Rex begonia. Sort of. It’s barely surviving with half of a leaf and the start of another. Rex begonias have rhizomatous parentage on one side but have been bred for who-needs-flowers? sort of foliage with Tim Burton-esque curlicues and/or silver, pink, red, burgundy, and green zones, splashes, and/or peach fuzz. They are extra persnickety and wear their hearts on their sleeves. For example, my Rex’s disappointment about low indoor humidity has been displayed for months in necrotic brown spots, leaf drop, and death throes.

As a rule begonias want indirect light and to be watered only after the soil has had a chance to dry out and just before they start to wilt. Heaven forfend you ever leave them sitting in the overflow. Even though a few of my eyelash begonias thrive in terrariums it never occurred to me until I did the research for this that begonias need a lot more moisture in the air than they can tolerate at their feet. With any luck, my woe-begotten Rex will make a dramatic comeback now that it sits above a pan filled with water that will raise humidity levels as it evaporates, and enough pebbles to keep the pot high and dry.

I have all but forgotten about the tuberous begonias in my collection. They do their blooming in the summer and spend the winter completely dormant in the dark down cellar. But they too, in their own way, will help pull me through the last stretch of winter because I should start checking now for new shoots that will want the light of day and a drenching to get growing again. This year they might know it’s spring before the rest of us do.

I’m happy to report that in the time since I wrote this, the snow has melted from most of the garden. I can get to the feeder without lurching and the witch hazel is only ankle deep in the stuff now. Huzzah!

What is helping you through the (lack of) transition to spring?

Desperately seeking spring

my witch hazel buried under an ever-deepening drift.
my witch hazel buried under an ever-deepening drift.

After what seemed like a slow start winter has gotten stuck in a Ground Hog’s Day loop of snow and bitter cold. Here, that is. Not everywhere. It might be hard for New Englanders to believe that this winter ranks among the warmest on record but elsewhere winter has been weirdly spring-like. A discomfiting circumstance for anyone living in such a place who worries about a last minute freeze frying the apple blossoms. But such a treat for visitors from the winterlands.

Normally (if there is such a thing as normal anymore, anywhere) the Northwest Flower and Garden Show is timed, as they all are, to enliven a raw, dark winter and raise hopes for a shining spring. For many years, back when I lived in Seattle, I relied on the show to keep from losing my will to live. I paid what felt like a ransom to soak in the smells and burn colors onto my retinas. I stroked green growing things when no one was looking. Although I was a wannabe gardener hungry for information, I never even bothered to attend the lectures because I couldn’t bear to sit still in a dark room when there was so much blooming in another one.

I timed my trip back this year (after way too long) to coincide with the show. And call me crazy, but I only spent a whirlwind morning taking it in (with Slow Flowers superstar Debra Prinzing as my guide!) because it was hard to enjoy spotlit dreamscapes, pretty as they were, when the real outdoors was bright and blooming. I neither gave a lecture nor attended one. I would kick myself now if I hadn’t been able to gather inspiration, information, and joie de vivre in mossy Ravenna Park, Pike Place Market, the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden at the Ballard Locks (where Z and I kept off the grass and forgot to feed the parking meter), the Volunteer Park Conservatory, along sidewalks of my favorite neighborhoods, and from my best friend’s front porch.

Have you sought out spring this winter or has winter been spring-ish all along? If you went away, where did you find it?

FYI: I’ll be heading to the Boston Flower and Garden Show to give a talk on Friday, March 13 at 1:30. If you’re in the neighborhood that lucky day, desperate for a dose of spring, and can stand to sit in a darkened room, I will be over the moon to see you there!

Too much of a good thing

Honesty through the back borderI loved money plant (a.k.a honesty, a.k.a Lunaria annua) as a kid because it brought out the big spender in thrifty little me. But because it always planted itself (with my help?) underneath the foundation shrubberies, I grew up thinking of it as a weed. So ingrained was that prejudice that I came perilously close to eradicating it from Squeezins. I’m glad I realized, before the last of them flowered, that I still actually love this generous plant. The last flowers went to seed in the fall of 2012. The seeds germinated last spring and finally, because I was careful not to weed those seedlings out last summer (it’s a biennial), I have an abundance of flowers again. An over-abundance as it turns out. Too much of a good thing.

This weekend I culled the herd, editing out a good couple-dozen plants that blocked my view of other beauties. I left more than enough to go to seed (and will probably do another round or two of edits as the summer unfolds), and made a big fragrant Mother’s Day bouquet from the extras to boot.

pile of honesty editsHonesty bouquet

I might have been doomed to an every-other-year display if a friend hadn’t given me a fistful of seedheads last fall. Rather than use the stems for a pretty winter arrangement, I laid them down strategically throughout the garden and crossed my fingers that Mother Nature would take the hint. Boy did she. The biennial cycle is complete. As long as I don’t weed too many of the seedlings out over the course of the summer, there will be too much of a good thing all over again next spring.

Do you sometimes have trouble distinguishing between weeds and your favorite extra-generous plants too?

Down to earth – time to get a move on

 

Spring's at the plantry door
Spring’s at the plantry door

One recent sunny Saturday I awoke to a garden that suddenly looked less like a debris field and more like a place where green things might grow. Perennials are poking out from beneath the mulch made of winter’s stems and twigs. My tulips are up and opening, and the honesty (Lunaria annua) has budded early, or so it seems with winter being such a fresh memory. Patches of starry sky-colored Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) that have increased since last year share blue pollen with the neighborhood honeybees, who have apparently fared a little better than they did last year. Scents of hyacinth, winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), and my poor sleet-scorched star magnolia entertain my nose, while blooming street trees and evergreens make it sneeze. The grass is green, and according to my neighbors, in need of a mow already. It’s spring. There can be no doubt about it now.

Walking around my garden that morning I knew it was high time to get a move on, and I spent the whole day doing just that. My first task was to identify the living and the dead, which will never be easy for those of us with a wonky memory. I can’t always recall exactly where I planted anything, and the new foliage sometimes throws me. Last year I must have misidentified a fall-planted orange yarrow (Achillea millifolium ‘Terracotta’) — new to my garden and therefore precious — and gave it away with clumps of extra meadowsweet (Filipendula vulgaris). Mea culpa. The emerging leaves are similarly soft and ferny but certainly not identical. Or maybe it just didn’t make it through the winter.

As soon as I recognized old friends, I started moving them around. This is the perfect time to dig and divide perennials, particularly any that bloom after Memorial Day (best to divide earlier bloomers in the fall) and relocate seedlings of perennials and biennials such as forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica) and foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). Watered in by us and spring showers, even the tap-rooted seedlings like Atlantic poppy (Papaver atlanticum), will take to new ground as if that’s where they grew all along.

Rose campion on the move
Rose campion on the move

My Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum × superbum ‘Becky’) needs annual editing — to another bed, the compost heap, or a friend — to prevent the ever-increasing clump from Godzilla-stomping adjacent plants. Check. And after two years in one corner of my garden I finally have a healthy supply of deceptively elegant gray-green rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) seedlings — enough to dot throughout for a gaudy cerise spectacle in July. I can hardly wait. It’s also not to late to move shrubs and small trees, if necessary. I transplanted a struggling Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pointer’ from the front yard, where it had been smushed between a beebalm, an agastache, and a rose, to a smidgen of what looks right now like open ground in the back. I shifted my fancy pussy willow (Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt. Aso’) six inches to the left. No easy task, that, but it’s done and done for good. At least until I change my mind again about exactly where it should be.

By now, and this happens every spring, I have blown out the knees of my favorite jeans. My fingernails are embedded with soil and no amount of lotion can soothe or smooth my crusty knuckles. Calluses have formed across the top of each palm. My back aches; my eyelids droop. I’m suddenly, constantly, ravenously hungry, yet am losing weight. Clearly I am enjoying a combination of conditions that can only mean one thing: spring and I are finally getting a move on.