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 — frost warning

(Originally published October 21, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers. Since writing it a light frost mostly-toasted the dahlias, the one African blue basil I left out for the bees, and my zinnias. The salvias didn’t blink.) 

With below-freezing temperatures forecast for the weekend I should be spending every waking moment moving the rest of my container plants indoors. Digging and potting up as many tender perennials as I can wedge into the plantry and living room is on the list too. But I’m still enjoying this edge of fall and am more inclined to rhapsodize. I’m also not ready for my frost-tender salvias, cuphea, and African blue basil to quit working. They’re still feeding the bees — bumbles mostly but honeybees too on warm days, and offering a nutritious pit stop for any migrating hummingbirds that might catch their colors from a sky-high fly by. I’ll take my chances on leaving some outside to shrug off a light frost, if that’s all we get, and bloom on for a few more weeks. By the time you read this, you’ll know if I made a savvy or stupid choice. (Full disclosure: Of course I caved to frost-warning panic and filled the plantry to the gills. I left what I couldn’t fit outside to take their chances.) 

The late garden, so wild and wooly, tall and half gone by, is my favorite. (As always, I reserve the right to change my tune come April and over again May through September.) Seedpods of swamp milkweed (Aslepias incarnata) and butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) have split at the seams to release great clouds of silk capable of carrying their packages miles on a decent breeze. – I spotted some floating in Bristol harbor the last time I was out on the water. Harlequin glory bower’s (Clerodendrum trichotomum) lipstick-red bracts, which were so recently puckered around fragrant white flowers, have begun to display indigo-blue berries instead. I love the black eyes of black-eyed Susans much more now than when they were ringed in gold eyelashes.

Meanwhile, dahlias, Japanese anemone, asters, and chrysanthemums offer fresh-as-daisy counterpoints to the seedheads and tatters of almost everything else. I allowed a weedy little white aster to grow in my garden. I’m sure it blew in and don’t know its name (might be hairy white oldfield aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pilosum) but its thin stems and minuscule leaves and buds never annoyed me or got in the way, so I left it here and there, and I’m glad I did for the way its branches of fingernail-sized flowers hover like a lace veil over the garden’s shoulders.

My favorite chrysanthemum, Sheffield pink, is a perfectly hardy old-fashioned perennial completely unlike the potted muffins offered at every roadside stand and nursery. I’m tempted daily by those but they can’t hold a jack-o-lantern candle to Sheffield pink. Its dusty apricot-pink petals are as long and lax as the plant’s stems and the whole picture is as graceful as a loose-limbed ballet dancer. Alas, the patch I started with has been crowded out of my borders, and I’m forced to enjoy it in others’ gardens.

I also have to venture out to witness the spectacle of hardy begonia (Begonia grandis). Those of us who decorate our living rooms with rhizomatous begonias can’t help but be enchanted by a begonia (tuberous in this case) that can inhabit our garden without requiring winter shelf space. We just have to be willing to allow it room, in moist-ish shade or a dapple, to grow without overwhelming competition from neighbors (impossible conditions to provide in my burst-seams garden). By the time it makes its presence known in late summer, lopsided heart-shaped olive-green leaves reversed in burgundy, will catch fall’s low sun to reveal deep red veins. Bazooka-pink, or more rarely white, dangles of clamshell flowers through September and October would almost be beside the point if they didn’t add to the plant’s appeal. Better yet, they go to winged seed, ensuring, when happily situated, generations of fall extravagance.

Frost in the forecast is bittersweet. I’m not ready to let go of the season – it has gone too quickly as it always does. But I’m grateful for the warning to remind me to rhapsodize – and procrastinate – while I still have the chance.

Have you had a frost yet? What are your favorite fall flowers? 

Nally’s Lime Dots

It’s hard to believe I haven’t already waxed on about Boltonia asteroides ‘Nally’s Lime Dots’ (or is it ‘Dot’ singular?) but a quick search of this blog found only two measly mentions. (I found several on Bwold’s blog along with a myriad of my own photos in google images, some totally unrelated. Weird.) Anyhoo, I love this plant and it loves me. By which I mean, it loves my garden.

I love it for its chartreuse petal-less polka-dots. I enjoy the way those buttons catch the long late-summer light in halos (it’s not fall yet) and how it’s the only thing, so far, in my garden that refuses to be overwhelmed by Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’. In fact, they’re a pretty pair, thick as thieves. And I’m gratified by its generosity. No matter how much I edit out, it rebounds to grace the neediest spaces. And as Kathy from Avant Gardens says, “it should be a nominee for best supporting actor…whether in the garden or in a vase”. I’m never inclined to bring flowers inside until old Nally’s dots bloom.

The only thing I don’t love is that the flowers are unattractive. I’ve never seen a bee, wasp, moth, or butterfly visit the buttons. There’s nothing for the hummingbirds there. Too bad it’s so boring! If not for its evident sterility, it might be a contender for my favorite plant ever.

FINE PRINT: perennial, zones 5-8. Full sun to maybe partial shade; average to crappy soil, and drought resistant. Grows 4-to 6-feet and leans like a drunk. May be given the Chelsea chop to encourage sturdiness but, in my experience, still becomes tall and tipsy. 

What’s catching the long light in your garden? Anything vase-worthy?

Freak of nature

The first time I saw a fasciated stem on an otherwise normal plant — a rose — I tried to propagate it. Given my soft spot for weirdos and misfits it’s no surprise I’d want an entire plant constructed of flattened and twisted (crested) stems dotted with midget leaves and topped by mutant flowers. But it didn’t root and I didn’t become a millionaire, alas. (I was pretty sure it would be a big seller.) This summer my bush clover, Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’, developed several fasciated stems and I’d be tempted to try again if it hadn’t already set flower buds and hardened past ripeness for rooting by the time I noticed.

I can only hope cresting will happen again next year. According to everything I’ve read (for a small sampling of more information, see below), fasciation is a random occurrence of meristem cell orneriness, not reliably repeated unless genetics are involved. — Cockscomb/Celosia cristata’s brain-ish strangeness is passed on by seed, but most plants grown for the trait are clones. It can be blamed on infection, insects (generally as carriers of whatever disease throws the cells for a loop), physical damage, or simply mutation for mutation’s sake. Whatever causes it, however on earth it happens, fasciation is pretty freaking fascinating.

Have you found anything fasciating in your garden? Have you propagated it? (Did it make you a millionaire?)

Plant of the week 2-22-08, University of AK extension;  WI Master Gardener Assoc. “Fascinating Fasciation”

Down to earth — stop and smell the roses

(Originally published June 24, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers.)

There’s so much going on in the June garden my choice of topics is overwhelming. I could share my latest list of impulse purchases, which includes ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) number three, a moundy-roundy purple-flowered mint-scented tender perennial I’d never heard of (Hesperozygis), and enough packs of amethyst flower (Browallia americana) to fulfill the promise I suddenly remembered making last June to give my garden the blues. I would also love to commiserate on the aches, bone-deep fatigue, and gratification of getting everything in the ground before the heat hits or the rain pours. Except I’m not nearly done yet. And every time I start to land on a thought worthy of sharing, the scent of roses completely fills my idea box.

I am no fan of Rosa multiflora. It is an invasive scourge capable of climbing, crowding, and killing otherwise healthy trees, shrubs, and perennials. Even whacked back to the ground (nice try), it can resprout from its roots (most roses can) and all of the birds that find its tiny hips delicious drop the undigested seeds in a packet of manure (roses love the stuff) all over the neighborhood and woods. But boy, does it ever smell good.

Rosa rugosa
Rosa rugosa

It’s almost as deliciously spicy as our beloved beach rose (Rosa rugosa), which isn’t ours at all but another invasive exotic from Japan. I hate the thought that beach rose has crowded out beautiful and ecologically important shoreline native bird feeders like beach plum (Prunus maritima), bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), and goodness knows what else might have lined the dunes before it was introduced, but full disclosure: I moved back home to Rhode Island from a Zone 8 garden in the Pacific Northwest because I missed the scent of Rosa rugosa on a salty June breeze.

I can’t in good conscience recommend planting it, particularly if you live on the water, but beach rose, in the classic cerise or more elegant white, is readily available for purchase and is one of the most disease resistant, drought and lousy soil tolerant roses on the planet. I planted one in my garden and have allowed its extra-thorny stems to spread hedge-like along a six-foot section of front fence. (It’s deeply rooted and a bear to edit.) Its hips should be too big for the birds to redistribute and are an excellent source of vitamin C for anyone with friends ambitious enough to put up jelly.

Of course there are hundreds of varieties of roses unlikely to colonize and commandeer the local ecosystem. Instead, most roses have a reputation for being high maintenance, disease and insect prone headaches and mid-summer eyesores that require an arsenal of toxic chemistry just to keep alive. Perish the thought. They may require slightly more care and attention, in the way of regular water and rich soil, than your average shrub but the bad rap isn’t entirely deserved and chemistry is certainly unnecessary. For one thing, breeders have been on a mission to develop disease-resistant cultivars — and are working hard to breed the heavenly scents back in too. And for another, any gardener who plants a garden-full of distractions for the bees, butterflies, and birds to enjoy as their roses’ blooms come and go is less likely to notice or care a whit about a smidgen of foliar imperfection here and there.

nameless once-blooming apricot rose...
nameless once-blooming apricot rose…

One of the other roses in my full-to-the-gills front border grew from a cutting off an antique shrub, possibly a climber, whose apple-scented, peach sorbet ruffles will only be open for a week or two. For the rest of the season it displays bright red prickles (roses don’t have thorns) and grass-green leaves that I would only notice if the rest of the garden died. (Perish the thought!)

Right now that un-named rose’s scent — and the rugosa’s — pulls me deep into the garden, through the prickles (the rugosa’s are particularly deadly; I bear my scars proudly) and past the bees. It distracts me from planting the dahlias, and scrambles every thought in my head except the one that sighs, “boy, do roses smell good…”

Are you distracted too?