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?

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?

Falling back

The beginning of Standard Time was marked this year in my garden with a biting rain that changed into a sideways fat-flaked snow. For most of the day bitter weather forced me to rest on the couch with a dog on my feet, a good book in my lap, and my hands wrapped around a cup of tea. Not the worst thing but I fretted a little about plants I should have moved inside already and that all the fall color and last flowers would be blown away. I shouldn’t have worried. The snow didn’t stick and didn’t destroy the nicotianas, and the wind didn’t separate the wine-red sourwood foliage from its branches. The salvias took it all on the chin too and when it comes right down to it, I don’t mind waiting to dig one or two of those plus the dahlias some nicer day.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)Salvia guaranitica and Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah'Red velvet sage (Salvia confertiflora)Nicotiana 'Perfume Deep Purple' turned a bilious shade

And even though I shivered and complained I’m grateful for the fall back to winter and a snowy teaser. I want to enjoy the down season or at least take it as it comes. Says Louise Dickinson Rich in We Took to the Woods,

“In civilization we try to combat winter. We try to modify it so that we can continue to live the same sort of life that we live in summer. We plow the sidewalks so we can wear low shoes, and the roads so we can use cars. We heat every enclosed space and then, inadequately clad, dash quickly from one little pocket of hot air through a no-man’s land of cold to another. We fool around with sunlamps, trying to convince our skins it is really August, and we eat travel-worn spinach in an attempt to sell the same idea to our stomachs. Naturally, it doesn’t work very well. You can neither remodel nor ignore a thing as big as winter.”

Guess I’ll quit trying.

How did you spend the fall-back? Are you looking forward to winter? Do you usually bundle up and enjoy it or wish it were summer again?

Down to earth – fashionably late

(Originally published September 4, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.)

Since the first witch hazel flower unfurled and crocus poked out of the ground last winter I haven’t for one minute been bored with my garden. I’ve been frustrated by it, challenged, thwarted, and enthralled by turns. It has given me plenty to fuss over, weed out, wish for, and has taught me endless lessons about my own preferences. And as a bonus, it’s coming into its own now, fashionably late and bursting at the seams with my favorite colors and activity.

Caryopteris (right) echoing the cerulean of my wire chairs.I wanted to see more blue and for awhile, when the balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflora) was blooming, I did. Unfortunately, its flowers looked more purple than blue against the cerulean of the chairs I spray-painted to fill the void. Now though, bluebeard, Caryopteris × clanodensis ‘Summer Sorbet’, is beginning to bloom an exact match in clusters up and down stems of variegated chartreuse and green foliage.

Caryopteris is a true-blue, late-blooming, bee-friendly shrub in the mint family that doesn’t run like a mint, though it sometimes self-sows, and prefers full sun and the holy grail of well-drained, moist soil. In my garden it seems to tolerate drought just fine, and in any garden, benefits from a hard whacking back in early spring to its lowest sets of leaf buds.

After last winter’s cold I despaired of seeing marginally-hardy hummingbird sage (Salvia guaranitica) rise from the dead, but it came back with vigor and is, at long last, putting heart and soul into flaunting skinny cobalt studded spires. In a recent New York Times article, Anne Raver sang its praises for attracting hummingbirds like a magnet and being a complementary dance partner. Everything looks great with blue.

Clematis heracleifolia and Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'Clematis heracleifolia, a spreading non-climber with palm-sized leaves and indigo-blue banana peel flowers in whorled intervals along its stems deserves applause right now too. It would be a little gangly looking on its own but in my garden it dances like Fred Astaire with Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’).

Except for about six months in the third grade, purple was never my favorite color. As I write this though, my bush clover, Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’, transplanted from a too-tight spot and about to erupt in hot-pinky-purple flounces of tiny pea-flowers, will make me change my mind entirely. Bush clover wants plenty of space to twirl its skirts: a good six or eight feet around will do. Being a legume-family nitrogen fixer, it’s not particular about soil fertility but wants a little moisture, please, and full sun too. Like the bluebeard, be sure to prune its stems to the ground, or very close to, in early spring or you’ll have a monster in your garden.

I probably should have whacked back my towering clumps of ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) in spring too, as they were beginning to shoot skyward. No matter. Their tall stems are sturdy and upright for the most part, and their height, particularly when their electric purple flower clusters are topped by a hungry swallowtail butterfly, looks great against the backdrop of my carpenter’s shop wall. Because this gorgeous native wants moist soil, and isn’t too picky about drainage, I planted it where it receives the soaker hose drippings from one of my rain barrels. Periodic downpours this summer seem to have been great for the ironweed. And everything else.

I wish I had time and space to rhapsodize about all of the other late bloomers in my garden such as bright yellow Helianthemum ‘Lemon Queen’, the exotic-dancer (native) spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata), and legions of tender perennials. Stay tuned. Summer may be coming to end for some but this garden is just getting its groove on.

Yours too?


Unruly weed and veg patch
Unruly weed and veg patch

Just about everyone who knows me knows that I’m no vegetable gardener. I like to blame the woodchuck for my failure to grow Swiss chard, basil, lettuce, and cabbage but in truth, laziness is my excuse. Vegetables generally require more attention and input than I am inclined to give my garden. Since potted plants are the major exception to my laziness rule I have sometimes tried to grow tomatoes, basil, and lettuce in containers. Alas, despite regular watering, my attempts even at that have never resulted in a proud harvest.

This year I asked my cook and carpenter for a raised bed. I thought a dedicated space might help keep me focused. Can’t say it did. Borage and weeds overtook the basil and beets. I thought its height might thwart the woodchuck. Silly me. Chucks reach for what they want. The bok choi, Swiss chard, and cabbage disappeared the day they went in.

A plate of beautiful tomates
A plate of beautiful tomates

The only thing the raised bed has been great for (so far) was to grow the biggest, tastiest tomatoes I have ever harvested from my own patch. I can’t claim any of the credit. My mother-in-law, who always grows a beautiful and bountiful vegetable garden, gave me the starts. I planted them*, watered them once or twice and then laughed as the vines engulfed and capsized the puny cages I purchased to keep them upright. I never thought they’d bear fruit. When tomatoes started to form, I never thought they’d ripen.

They totally did and I happened to glance in their direction on exactly the right day. How happy am I?!

Pretty happy. But I’m not sure I’m a vegetable garden convert yet. Are you? What has been the best reward for your efforts this season?

*I filled the raised bed with my own (weedy) compost. That alone might earn me some of the credit for tomato vine fecundity.