Only the lowly

Those of you who read my column in the actual paper or who possess the secret key for reading it online (here — but it’s not there yet) whenever I don’t repost it, know I got on a soapbox last week about the hideousness of lawn chemicals and the beauty of the weeds those chemicals kill. And just this week at a Plantiful talk in Seekonk, MA I got a baited question from an attendee. She asked with a little glint in her eye, “How do you feel about dandelions?”

You already know the answer: I love them! I occasionally evict dandelions from the garden but I love them-love them-love them in the lawn. And actually, even though in theory I hate my lawn and wish it would be magically transformed into garden by elves in the night, I appreciate how it frames my garden. But only because it’s a colorful frame. Bring on the dandelions, violas, and creeping Charlie. (Yes, even that.) If the grass were devoid of these lowly “weeds” as some lawns are, I would more actively despise and eradicate it.

IMG_5433I honestly don’t know why dandelions still get such a bad rap. We all know now how they provide the earliest and most consistent source of nutrition for honeybees and other pollinators. We like that they’re native (to almost everywhere in the world). And their young greens are packed full of vitamins and on every foodie’s menu.

Violas are edible too and although they’re not much visited by pollinators, their foliage hosts fritillary butterflies (the caterpillar stage). Wouldn’t we all love seeing more of them flying around? Viola sororia, the blue straight-species and variant gray “Confederate violet” are Rhode Island’s state flower. Poisoning them (and yourself, children, pets, and nearby wildlife) with chemicals is decidedly un-patriotic.

Creeping Charlie (a.k.a. ground ivy or Glechoma hederacea) has very few redeeming qualities. It’s edible but not particularly delicious. It isn’t native here, supports no wildlife that I know of, and it spreads altogether too promiscuously into the garden. But I can’t help loving its  purple stains in the grass and how it and the clover remain healthy during summer droughts.

I’m lucky that Z seems to lack the (dude-specific?) gene that controls lawn care and mandates Fenway greenness, which of course, isn’t “green” at all. I’m also lucky that he doesn’t mind mowing periodically to sharpen our garden’s colorful frame.

How do you feel about dandelions?

Agree to disagree

We can always count on Mother Nature to give us gardeners something safe(r) to talk about when the news is bleak and full of polarizing politics. Temperatures in the 50s and low 60s for the last couple of weeks have made the weather a hot enough topic to justify changing the subject whenever things get uncomfortable. I’ve had the windows wide open on the warmest days. Night temperatures have gone down into the low 30s now and again but it’s the middle of December and we haven’t had a real killing frost yet. And some plants, like trumpet honeysuckle, borage, and daphne are still putting a surprising amount of effort into flowering.

And other plants are jumping the gun. A few weeks ago I noticed rhododendron buds opening. My holly, in full berry, was blooming last week. A local friend recently posted a picture on facebook of a snowdrop in bloom. People have also mentioned seeing cracks in magnolia buds and Lenten rose hellebores in bloom. (Or are they confusing Helleborus orientalis with the Christmas rose, H. niger?) It’s almost impossible not to see all of this as a sign of the apocalypse but it also feels really familiar to me. I freely admit that my memory is terrible but I can barely recall the last time we had a white Christmas. The forsythia always blooms in fall at least a little bit and so do the autumn-blooming cherry trees. I remember the year kniphofia and nicotiana were still spiking in December and the crabapples bloomed.

I know there’s cause for worry. Open magnolia buds will be torched by the cold that’s bound to come along at some point, and any cherry trees blooming prematurely won’t be able to put on much of a show in the spring. But I also am inclined to put worries aside and enjoy the mild weather and all of the weirdness resulting from it. Because if this winter is anything like last winter, the mercury will do a nosedive eventually and then it will be the cold that seems interminable, apocalyptic, and weird. And I’ll probably be glad for the excuse to change the subject.

Have you been talking about the weather? What’s blooming?

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.

Move it or lose it

One of the trees I was given and impulsively planted in the wrong spot was a Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis’); a super sweet tree with deep green plumage and limbs spread like it’s stuck doing an interpretive dance. At the time it was given to us, by EB who happens to be the arborist in the family, it seemed like the best idea ever to plant it next to the house (quite close) on the back garden side. A few years later I planted a tiny alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) on the lawn side of it because there was no other vacancy in the yard, and besides, I wanted to watch the dogwood’s birds from my bathroom window (à la Doug Tallamy). In the intervening years both plants grew. The dogwood far outpaced my expectations and the Hinoki has been no slouch growth-wise either (both are 10′ tall). Even though the Hinoki ended up half hidden by the dogwood, I could have kept living with those stoopid decisions for a while if Z and I hadn’t started talking again about putting in an outdoor shower. The Hinoki, we decided, had to go. But I didn’t want to lose it.

After consulting EB, who prudently suggested we wait until fall to move the tree, we prepped instead for a more immediate move by watering the tree for a couple of weeks, praying for rain (we got about an inch last week), identifying a new spot on the north side of the house, evicting what lived there (my beloved Rubus odoratus), and digging a hole.

The move this weekend took about 2 hours start to finish, which seemed quick to me but then I didn’t have to do much of the heavy lifting or cramped-quarters digging. Big thanks to EB and Z for all that. And so far, although both trees lost significant root mass, so good. I’ll baby both of them with mulch, plenty of water (the dogwood will eventually reap the benefits of shower run-off), and have promised to loosely tether the Hinoki to keep it from tipping over in the wind. I’m beyond grateful to EB for his expertise, hard labor after a heavy Sunday breakfast, and reassurances that all will be well.

Have you ever planted a tree in the wrong spot? How long did you wait before moving/losing it? Did it survive transplant and thrive?

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?