Down to earth — arachnophobia to philia

Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers October 12, 2016.

I just spent an hour scrolling through dozens of images of spiders — some of them much too close-up for comfort — to answer a question that must be at the front of your mind if it’s plaguing mine. Why are there so many spiders around in the fall? I hope you’ll spare yourself a nightmare-inducing internet search because I found the answer: there aren’t so many. Just the usual amount. Granted, some have matured to their full glory, more visible than invisible the bigger they get. spiderwebAnd dewy mornings are turning our gardens into galleries of exquisite web art.

I used to be terrified of spiders. As a child my arachnophobia was nurtured by a family member who pretended to catch daddy-longlegs between thumb and forefinger and chase me around the house. Hilarious and character-building? Maybe. One time, as an adult, I levitated across an impossible span of chairs to avoid touching the same floor traversed by a spider my peripheral vision insisted was the size of a puppy. (It wasn’t quite that big.) That night I became my own hero by relocating said spider, without assistance and while adrenaline gave me the shakes, and started down a cobwebby path to desensitization and appreciation.

We all know it’s bad luck to kill a spider. Contrary to popular nightmares, even the venomous ones mean us no harm. Spiders are voracious and indiscriminating insectivores and will only bite humans in near-death defense, not for supper. But anything that gets caught in their webs without breaking right through is fair game. Aphids, yellow jackets, mosquitoes, flies, you name it. The more bothersome the insect, the more gratifying it is to see it wrapped like a burrito. It’s much less enjoyable to witness the entanglement of honeybees, bumbles, and butterflies — some occasion rescue efforts — but that’s nature and nature is cruel. I mean cool. Nature is cool.

orbcrossweaver
cross orbweaver and her prey

Of course, not all spiders spin webs. Some, like the bold jumper (that’s really its name) that lives in my mailbox, stalk their prey. I have also encountered what is either a broad-faced sac spider or woodlouse spider when I’ve been planting or weeding the garden. The former spends its days resting in leaf litter and hunts at night; both are a startling shade of red.

The seeming proliferation of spiders has prevented me from completing some of my garden chores. I’ve been meaning to bring container plants inside but I hate to disturb the webs. Most are classics spun by very fat and happy cross orbweavers. A few grass spiders have taken up residence within the vortices of funnel webs. Fascinating creatures. I’d rather they stay outside. They would too. — Most of us assume spiders will try to come inside right about now looking for warmth. That’s a myth; they’re “cold-blooded”, not heat seekers.

That said, there are spider species — all benign in this neck of the woods — that have adapted to indoor living and are unlikely to survive long outside particularly if relocated now. Frost is the end of the line for some garden spiders too but they will have been busy ensuring the next generation’s eggs are tucked up in a sac somewhere safe for the winter.

As careful as I try to be, my houseplants do sometimes arrive inside with hitchhikers. Last year a grass spider spent the winter under her sheet web in an aloe, a plant I rarely water. Poor thing was probably thirsty but managed to survive for a while on what must have been a limited diet of house spiders and the odd aphid or fungus gnat. You already know I have a lax attitude about housekeeping and am grateful to anyone who helps tidy up.

That’s a long way to come from the utter terror I used to feel. My first close-encounter with an enormous black and yellow garden spider nearly gave me a heart attack. Now I get a little adrenalized thrill when I spot her telltale zipper (a bird alert) in a web. I do prefer to appreciate spiders from a certain distance but the more I see in my garden the luckier I feel.

Truth be told it has been many years since I’ve seen a black and yellow garden spider in my garden or anyones else’s. Seen any in yours? — Do you have love or fear or both? 

Down to earth — begonias think spring

Originally published March 18, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers. 

I hope by the time you read this we can see our gardens again. I’m dying to get to work outside. If this were a normal March the hellebores would be blooming and I can see from my window that the witch hazel has unfurled its flowers again. But as I write this the snow bank that swallowed it is no less than knee high and I still look like Frankenstein tromping out to the bird feeder. I don’t trust that winter is over yet despite some thawing and a calendar that declared spring last Friday. (It snowed that day.) I was punished for my haste last year. Never again. (She says.) I’m sure I should at least wait until I can walk through my garden with a normal amount of poise and grace before I take loppers to the roses. So, like all of you, I’m going stir crazy. Thank goodness my begonias are in bloom.

Of over 1500 species of begonia in the world (mostly from the tropics) only a fraction of a fraction are cultivated for our gardens and windowsills. I have far fewer than that and even fewer than I used to. For a long time my living room was dominated by a gangly silver polka-dotted angel wing begonia (B. maculata var. wightii). Angel wing or cane begonias have sturdy stems between pointed asymmetrical leaves and seem to want to be twelve-feet tall. Supposedly they can be pinched back to encourage compactness but mine was never satisfied unless it was reaching for the ceiling and arching like a vulture over the couch. I loved its patterning and profusion of white flowers but when it finally toppled to the floor I said my goodbyes.

Begonia 'Midnight Twist'
Begonia ‘Midnight Twist’

Most of my remaining begonias are rhizomatous types that grow in low mounds from a gnarly tangle of ground covering stems and bloom with winter-blues-busting exuberance. ‘Midnight Twist’ is a Gothic beauty with ruffled leaves as close to black as burgundy can get and sprays of bubblegum pink clamshell buds that fade to nearly white after opening. My other favorite has tiny green leaves with red freckles and eyelashes all along their edges, white flowers the size of baby fingernails, and grows with the kind of generosity that keeps me at my potting bench.

I have one Rex begonia. Sort of. It’s barely surviving with half of a leaf and the start of another. Rex begonias have rhizomatous parentage on one side but have been bred for who-needs-flowers? sort of foliage with Tim Burton-esque curlicues and/or silver, pink, red, burgundy, and green zones, splashes, and/or peach fuzz. They are extra persnickety and wear their hearts on their sleeves. For example, my Rex’s disappointment about low indoor humidity has been displayed for months in necrotic brown spots, leaf drop, and death throes.

As a rule begonias want indirect light and to be watered only after the soil has had a chance to dry out and just before they start to wilt. Heaven forfend you ever leave them sitting in the overflow. Even though a few of my eyelash begonias thrive in terrariums it never occurred to me until I did the research for this that begonias need a lot more moisture in the air than they can tolerate at their feet. With any luck, my woe-begotten Rex will make a dramatic comeback now that it sits above a pan filled with water that will raise humidity levels as it evaporates, and enough pebbles to keep the pot high and dry.

I have all but forgotten about the tuberous begonias in my collection. They do their blooming in the summer and spend the winter completely dormant in the dark down cellar. But they too, in their own way, will help pull me through the last stretch of winter because I should start checking now for new shoots that will want the light of day and a drenching to get growing again. This year they might know it’s spring before the rest of us do.

I’m happy to report that in the time since I wrote this, the snow has melted from most of the garden. I can get to the feeder without lurching and the witch hazel is only ankle deep in the stuff now. Huzzah!

What is helping you through the (lack of) transition to spring?

Down to earth — I heart footed ferns

Originally published January 21, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life. 

I read recently that, just as gardeners should learn the lay of the land for at least a year before starting a garden, a new homeowner should move in before repainting. Good advice I would have been much too impatient to heed back when my carpenter and I first took possession of a purple living room and a yard like a blank slate. But while I enjoy moving plants around and changing the garden with every better idea, repainting is a tedious chore. I’ve had to change the color of my living room walls twice now. I didn’t find the right color until I started growing a bear’s paw fern and watched how the afternoon light moved through it.

For a long time I lacked the confidence to grow ferns as houseplants. One after another—a maidenhair, mother fern, and table fern—succumbed to quick and demoralizing deaths. I assumed that my house must not be humid enough, despite the contrary evidence of perennially fogged windows. I thought that until I lived in a rainforest or a shaded greenhouse with drains in the floors, I’d never be able to meet their cultural requirements.

But I have a thing for ferns. The way new fronds uncurl like the primordial creatures they are…The shape of mature fronds in silhouette…The candy-button-like dots of spore-producing sori on the fertile fronds’ undersides…The memory of grade-school science lessons about one of the more fascinating ways plants reproduce…And I’m always game for a challenge. I kept bringing them home and I’m glad I did because it turns out footed ferns are the ferns for me.

Rabbit's foot fern (Davallia fejeensis)
Rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis)

Footed ferns are so called because the fronds emerge from an epiphytic criss-cross of fuzz covered rhizomes spilling over the soil’s surface, and the tips do resemble paws if you let your imagination run wild. Rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis) rhizomes might bring to mind the luridly dyed severed rabbit’s foot key chains we carried in our pockets for luck during the 1970s (what a disgusting fad that was). I prefer to creep myself out by imagining a nest of tarantulas instead. So cool. The fronds, by contrast, are elegantly lacy with deeply cut bronzy leaflets (called pinnae in botany-speak) that become deep green with maturity.

Naked rabbit’s foot fern (Polypodium formosanum) is also known as caterpillar fern, worm fern, grub fern, and E.T. fern because its finger-like sea-foam-green rhizomes have no hairy scales. But they do have creepy appendages that help anchor the plant to its host, or in the case of mine, hug an adjacent piece of souvenir driftwood and root into a neighboring begonia. Worm fern’s chartreuse rickrack fronds arch gracefully from all the oddity at its feet.

My bear's paw fern (Phlebodium aureum 'Blue Star') really ties the room together...
My bear’s paw fern (Phlebodium aureum ‘Blue Star’) really ties the room together…

The superstar in my household is a bear’s paw fern (Phlebodium aureum ‘Blue Star’) with wavy fronds so glaucous I was inspired to paint my living room pumpkin orange to bring out their blue. Its rhizomes are much thicker, more bear-like than the others, but are taking their time to lumber over the pot edges.

The best thing about footed ferns, aside from the coolness of their weirdness, is that they’re forgiving. They do require humidity—I keep a rabbit’s foot fern in the bathroom and the worm fern in an open terrarium—but they can tolerate much more winter dryness than, say, a maidenhair. They don’t seem to be as temperamental about watering either. The soil may go dry between drenchings and for that I use the shower once per week. And as long as they don’t get direct sunlight during the spring and summer, all is well. During the winter, east windows are prime real estate, as are shelves that catch a little afternoon sun, perhaps with a complementary color on the walls behind to bring out the best in their silhouette.

Do you grow ferns as houseplants? Which ones? Have they inspired any interior design changes?

Down to earth — my indoor garden grows

(Originally published October 15, 2014 in EastBayRI newspapers.)

What was it I said about bringing fewer plants back inside for the winter? I seem to have lost my resolve. Weeks ago, when I was on a tear to be tidy I did throw a couple of plants on the compost. They were real stragglers, too unattractively unhealthy to take up precious windowsill space and probably should have been pitched long ago. Nonetheless, I felt virtuous enough to justify deferring decisions about the rest. Now every plant on my deck is like Welcome Back Kotter’s Horshack, with one hand raised to the sky, shouting, “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” and I can’t help but want to pick them all.

I remember mentioning an intention to let go of an enormous angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia) that never bloomed. As if to prove me impatient and mean it’s bedecked with buds now. Not only will it be impossible for me to compost the plant but I’ll have to give it a prime spot on my entry porch—the plantry—instead of sending it straight down cellar into the dark where it belongs for the winter. But won’t I feel lucky in a few weeks when its big, dangling, pale-yellow flowers fill the evening with lemony sweetness?

Speaking of lemony, it’s high time to find windowsill real-estate for citrus plants too. I brought the Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia) inside weeks ago when the night temperatures started to fall into the 50s but I really should offer it to any gardener who turns the thermostat up in the winter instead of layering on sweaters, as I do. Key limes are tropical and would prefer temperatures that hover in the 60s if not 70s. Come to think of it, so would I.

This evening in the plantry
This evening in the plantry

Meyer lemon plants (Citrus ×meyeri) can tolerate more cold—into the 40s—but will do their best winter growing and flowering in the 60s at least. They also want plenty of sun. Unfortunately, the brightest place in my living room happens to be a west-facing corner flanked on one side by our official, but rarely used, front door. I’m on the fence about spending another winter with one out of only two entrances (exits) completely blocked by a spiny behemoth. If it hadn’t set fruit and if nurseries offered trade-ins, I’d have downsized already.

Gardenia and friend in the plantry
Gardenia and friend in the plantry

My gardenia and sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans) are also beginning to outgrow their welcome. I remember when the gardenia was just a rooted cutting at Logee’s that I added on impulse to a boxful of tiny begonias (now also huge). It was cutest thing. This winter it will entirely fill our only south-facing window. A small price to pay, I suppose, for dozens of bone-white swirly flowers that scented the backyard all summer long. The sweet olive, which these days stands as tall as a ten-year old, earns its floor space by blooming all winter and not demanding the sunniest window.

Both plants would be perfectly happy out in the plantry but I’m holding every inch of space out there not already taken by the brugmansia for my favorite tender perennial salvia, cuphea, plectranthus, and African blue basil plants. I’ll dig and pot them up just before the first hard frost because for now, they’re still busy blooming, feeding the bees, and calling to migrating hummingbirds. In the meantime, I took a bunch of cuttings so one way or another, every shelf and most of the floor, is spoken for. As long as I can get into (and out of) my indoor garden this winter, I guess I’m pretty OK with that.

What’s changed since I wrote the above: The sweet olive landed in the plantry after all and I’m enjoying how its scent greets us as we pass through. And the south-facing sunbeam in the living room that I earmarked for the gardenia is actually occupied by two cats and a dog. Maybe I won’t bring so many stock plants in after all. Have you moved any of your garden indoors yet? Can you still get through your doors and see out the windows?

Down to earth — why my houseplants hate me

(Originally published on April 16, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life under the headline “Don’t abandon indoor plants”)

It’s not often that I imagine my plants quoting dead poets. Or living ones for that matter. But I can almost hear my indoor collection sigh, “April is the cruellest month.” Suddenly, right when they need me the most, I have abandoned them and gone outside to garden. It’s not as if I can help it. None of us could. We’ve been waiting so impatiently for spring to arrive that as soon as the sun came out, the peepers peeped, and the ice-cream trucks started making their rounds, didn’t we all bolt out of the house like a shot, not to return until supper? Trouble is, like everything outside, our houseplants are going through a growth spurt too, which must be every bit as painful as T.S. Eliot suggests.

All winter long I was able to keep a once-a-week watering schedule. Doing the rounds every Saturday morning worked out perfectly. Plants like begonias and citrus that needed to go a little bit dry between watering did, and the ferns and ficus that needed more consistent soil moisture somehow managed to never quite dry out. The half-dormant plants out in my chilly “plantry” required watering even less frequently. Every other Saturday seemed to suit them fine.

That has all changed now. Longer days and a sun that keeps rising higher, hotter, and brighter are universal cues to get growing even for plants that spent the winter relatively warm behind or under glass. And as they begin to photosynthesize in earnest again, they take up more water from the soil and more nutrients too. Come to think of it, this is the time to begin fertilizing. If only I wasn’t so distracted by the garden outside.

Alocasia R.I.P.
Alocasia R.I.P.

Some of my houseplants have reacted to my distraction by handing out ultimatums. For many of them, wilting is a red flag signaling, “pay attention to me right this minute or I will die.” For others it’s an incommutable death sentence. The stress of abandonment and temperature fluctuations between sun-warmed days and winter-chilly nights, together with succulent new growth has also suddenly attracted infestations of aphid and scale. Since I hadn’t noticed sap-sucking populations in residence over the winter, I have to guess that they spontaneously generated out of thin air and opportunity. “April is the cruellest month.”

I’m not sure how they got word but the fully dormant plants stored down cellar in the dark seem to know it’s spring too. Perhaps warmer ambient temperatures can be credited for spurring some anemic looking new growth that begs for the light of day. In any case, it’s time to give fuchsias, salvias, tuberous begonias, fig, and brugmansia a transition and a head start on the season. They should come upstairs and in this particular household, the only way to make room for more plants is to move others out.

April nights are cold but as long as the long range forecast doesn’t mention any temperature too near or below freezing, plants like New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), camellia, and geranium (Pelargonium spp.) that hail from temperate (rather than tropical) climes can begin to join us outside in the garden. And just like us as we venture out, they could use some protection — in their case, shade for a couple of weeks at least — to keep them from burning.

Meanwhile, all of the plants still stuck inside need attending to. They need watering much more frequently. Fertilizing. Insect patrol and grooming. Time that I’m sure we’d all much rather spend outdoors. But to lose, this close to summer, any of the plants that helped keep us sane over the winter, would be truly painful. So let’s not forget about them in April. 

Any casualties in your household lately?