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?

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?

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 – seeking stillness

(Originally published July 20, 2104 in East Bay/Southcoast Life)

meditating BuddhaFew gardeners will share the same taste in garden ornaments. Only a handful of people I know would allow a gnome or plastic flamingo though the garden gate — even for irony’s sake. Some of us like utilitarian birdbaths that plug in to prevent the water from freezing during the winter; others prefer traditional concrete pedestals, shallow ceramic bowls, or giant leaf impressions cast in cement. Some of us like religious statuary, and others of us think rain barrels are beautiful as well as functional. But regardless of taste (I’ve been told mine’s all in my mouth) and highly personal preferences, most of us include a few solid objects of one sort or another in our garden. And even if we never gave a thought about why we were compelled to place them where we did, I can think of at least two excellent reasons.

I would think of my garden as ornamental with or without objets d’art. Even though I aim and claim to provide habitat for all manner of wildlife, almost every plant I grow has attributes I find aesthetically pleasing. Not only does swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) attract butterflies and bees but its clusters of white (‘Ice Ballet’) or bubblegum pink lunar-lander flowers are exquisite. I think the huge moleskin-soft pinwheel leaves of rice paper plant (Tetrapanax paperifer ‘Steroidal Giant’), the golden tresses of Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) and the soaring height, grey-green oak leaves and feathery plumes of plume poppy (Maclaeya cordata) are beyond beautiful. Even the vegetables I choose to cultivate are lovely to behold.

The trouble is, there’s so much to look at in my garden that my eyes crave hints as to direction: what should I look at first? Every garden wants focal points to draw us from one view to another. Some plants, like those with red flowers or enormous foliage are capable of serious pull. But a solid object will do the same, maybe more effectively. Because, whether it’s a chair, a planted container, a beach stone, or a building, it remains stationary as the bees buzz, butterflies flicker, birds zip, woodchucks trundle, and when the rain pours and wind blows (hurricanes notwithstanding).

In fact, I believe that places of stillness are integral to our enjoyment of the garden and exactly why solid objects work so well to draw our gaze. We’re desperate for calm in a world of perpetual motion. Or is it just me?

The house and its outbuildings are, of course, the garden’s largest solid objects and ornaments. I’m not crazy for the looks of my house but usually find myself gazing towards the prettier garage or shed instead anyway. I especially like the view of my garden against the backdrop of the garage, my carpenter’s shop, at twilight when golden inside lights are on and he’s concentrating on something at the bench. I am also one of those gardeners who give rain barrels pride of place and use containers, planted or not, as view finders and focal points.

the old ball and chain

My garden has been so kinetic lately that I found it necessary to add to my ornament collection, which I freely admit includes both a plastic flamingo and a gnome. I reintroduced a set of chairs, spray painted blue, to my backyard border view along with a gifted religious statue made of concrete that invokes Zen-like serenity. For my front yard garden I found a hollow metal sphere, slightly larger than a bowling ball, that in its previous life marked a mooring. Now, exactly when I need a moment of calm, my eyes know right where to linger before bouncing around to check everything else out.

Rain on the parade

rain on the front yard gardenYesterday, starting around 10 in the morning the sky opened over the longest running Fourth of July parade in the U.S. of A. It rained on miles of flag wavers, fire engines, Cub Scouts, Navy cadets, bagpipers, majorettes, trombone players, and drum corps. It poured on at least one politician running for governor, an ex-con running (again) for Providence mayor and all of the hands they shook and babies they kissed. It sogged picnics and postponed cookouts. It (temporarily) dampened everyone’s enthusiasm for illegal fireworks. And it soaked my dry-as-dust garden. Finally. This might sound unpatriotic coming from a resident of Bristol (admittedly, one of the few whose house is not draped in bunting) but after a long stretch of breezy, cloudless, and mostly crisp and perfect blue skies, for me it was the best day of summer so far.

raining on the back yard garden

Near as I can figure — why aren’t weather websites more forthcoming with historical statistics? — almost 3” fell here. (There was a good 5” at least in my tubtrug this morning. For accuracy’s sake, I really should invest in a proper rain gauge…) Even though a lot of it fell too fast-and-furious not to just run off into the bay, for a few hours at least, while I took advantage of its steadiness to spend blissfully lazy hours reading fiction on the couch and listening to distant drums with a dog on my feet, it soaked the soil and I swear today I could actually watch my garden start growing again. And not just the crabgrass either.

Is your garden getting the weather it needs? Are you thoroughly enjoying your holiday weekend too?