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?

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?