Down to earth — room for improvement

(Originally published on May 27, 2015 in East Bay / South Coast Life newspapers.)

My garden is as full of mistakes as it is of plants. When I’m feeling extra critical or envious of picture-perfect gardens in magazines I see all of the stupid ideas, misplaced plants, egregious wonkiness, and weeds. And then I pick at every error I’ve made through the years like a scab.

My first mistake was to start planting immediately. Every gardener (including me) will tell you to wait at least one year before adding anything or making major changes to a new property. We all agree it’s important to learn the lay of the land; where the sun shines as it arcs through the seasons, where the rain collects and doesn’t. Could I wait a single minute after signing the papers for this patch of earth? Nope. We gardeners are a patient bunch—we love to watch things grow—but I can’t imagine any of us being able to resist the urge to plant as soon as we have the chance. Because they also say it takes at least twelve years for a garden to come into its own. (“They” being those gardeners who have tended the same plot for twenty years or more.) Please. My garden is almost two-thirds of the way through its twelve year sentence and I still can’t wait that long.

But now, long since making the mistake of haste, I can see the virtue in thinking before digging. Not only do I wish I had spent more time planning my garden before filling it to the gills but sometimes I kick myself for not springing for a consultation with a professional designer. Someone with an eye for gracious spaces who might have preempted my inclinations for tall plants near entries, and narrow pathways.

Narrow sideyard path showing my favorite, gifted Lawson cypress before it died. (c. 2013)
Narrow sideyard path showing my favorite and gifted Lawson cypress before it died. (c. 2013)

Sticking to a plant list matching my garden’s specific cultural conditions and space considerations would have been a good idea too. My biggest challenge lies in falling in love with almost every plant that passes in front of my eyes or nose, and in being incapable of refusing friends’ generosity. Without a proper plan and list, it has been impossible not to break the cardinal rule of gardening: Plant the Right Plant in the Right Place. I have planted a lot of those gifts—right plants every one—in wrong places. Not a big deal when it comes to perennials that manage to survive long enough for me to replant them as appropriate spots become available, but more of a problem with trees and shrubs. Far too many of those have either outgrown their wrong place and clogged the path or failed to thrive in conditions not conducive to health and happiness.

As my garden grows, I’m getting better at saying, “No, thank you” to offers of plants I didn’t know I wanted. That said, every impulsively placed plant has taught me something new about my garden; every edit, transplant, eviction, and untimely death has shown me where there’s room for improvement. Mistakes are great that way. I pick at their scabs not because I want to beat myself up for being a lousy designer, but because it’s the mistakes, more than the successes, that make the garden interesting, and keep it changing and coming into its own, week to week and year by year.

Stay tuned. Z and I just removed a stupidly sited flowering raspberry (Rubus odorous — the leafy green bramble on the right in the above pic). Not only did it crowd the path and bug Z every time he tried to mow (Literally. He kept being stung by its bees.) but it occupied the perfect location for a gifted Hinoki cypress we need move to make way for a house project. Incidentally, I transplanted a few of the raspberry’s suckers into the back border where another gifted evergreen, a cryptomeria this time, suddenly recently failed to thrive. 

What do you learn from your mistakes? Or do you get it right the first time?

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 – bring out your dead

(Originally published May 28, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast life)

Looking around my May garden I’m reminded of the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which Eric Idle walks through a plague infested village collecting a cartful of corpses. “Bring out your dead!”, he shouts. I wouldn’t blame you for questioning my sanity and attitude but let me assure you that I’m not (very) crazy. Or (very) gloomy. It’s simply that that the world is showing sure signs of life now and it’s easy to see—and it’s time to tally—the garden’s dead. It helps to laugh a little.

Elderberry shoot borer
Elderberry shoot borer

My Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is the corpse that cries, “I’m not dead!” and I’m as tempted as the Dead Collector to knock it on the head and throw it on the heap anyway. Over the past couple of seasons I have noticed wilting leaves and should have investigated because I might have been able to cure its particular plague: an infestation of elderberry shoot borers. If only I had removed the damaged stems whenever I spotted them and been more disciplined about pruning out the oldest canes. (The little devils pupate in the oldest and dead canes). Within the last couple of weeks, despite showing signs of life in the beginning, all but one skinny trunk has given up the ghost. And that’s beginning to show signs of wilt too. I found the culprit (one of many I’m afraid) tunneling its way through some delicious new growth. Totally gross.

My husband just told me that his favorite tree is a bluer than blue 15’ tall, columnar Lawson cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Alumii’) that grew from a 12” tall cutting planted the year we were married.

Should I spray paint it blue again?
Should I spray paint it blue again?

The very tree that has turned browner than brown over the last few months. I would curse a wicked winter if the tree were less hardy, but since it’s listed as hardy to zone 5, I probably only have a droughty fall and myself to blame for not soaking its roots back in September. Mea culpa. It was my favorite tree too.

My Rosa ‘Mutabilis’, a beauty with clusters of single flowers that open cerise from orange buds and fade to pale pink, is what Miracle Max (from The Princess Bride) would call “mostly dead.” I dug it up on the first of April and replanted it to mark my dear dog’s grave. I pruned it hard that same day, along with a Buddleja davidii ‘Ellen’s Blue’ and Clematis ‘Roguchi’. Wielding loppers and pruners felt a little reckless so early in the spring but cathartic under the circumstances. If only I had remembered that the rose is marginally hardy to zone 6, I might have spared it my grief.

But while it is beginning to show the barest signs of life (thank you, Nino) the clematis and butterfly bush, both hardy to zones 4 and 5 respectively, are dead as doornails. The butterfly bush hasn’t looked super happy since the last time I moved it (for the fourth time in five years) but it had fresh, healthy looking buds when I whacked it back. It was too soon to see any new growth emerging at the base of the clematis. I can only surmise that removing the protection of their winter stems left both otherwise sturdy plants wounded and extra vulnerable to April’s freezes. Mea culpa.

Death in the garden is sometimes humbling but if we were demoralized by every loss we wouldn’t still be gardeners. The excuse to think about and find replacements is great consolation. I’m going to keep my eyes peeled for another slender blue-needled evergreen for the sake of marital bliss. But the birds and I have been wanting an arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) for a while now and I might have just the place for one finally.

Any new “opportunities” in your garden?

Down to earth — May vagabond

(Originally published May 14, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.)

One of my favorite garden writers, the late great Janet Gillespie, Westport author and columnist for the New Bedford Standard Times, said of May, “in the garden seeds are coming up, weeds are proliferating, new plants arrive to be tended to and there are a hundred jobs to do. Don’t do them. Like Mole in Wind in the Willows, drop everything and go vagabonding.” She recommended taking walks in wild places, alone, at our own pace to explore the merry month of May .“Escape the demands of your household,” she wrote, “and get acquainted with yourself again.”

I’m all for a May vagabond (who wouldn’t be?) and I relish alone-time but find it as difficult to exit my garden gate in May as I do in September. Not because there’s so much to do (it can wait) but because there’s so much right here to watch unfold and change, and because the light has that sweet golden tinge. So my advice, based on Jan’s, is to put snips, spade and trowel away, and at least take some slow, restorative strolls through your own Mayscape. Pause often. Pack a picnic.

Vancouveria hexandra
Vancouveria hexandra

My walk takes me past some tiny clumps of fumewort (an unfortunate common name for Corydalis solida), which has smoky mauve flower spikelets and foggy blue-green foliage. Planted near it is a dainty spreading groundcover called white inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), with duck foot-shaped leaves on the most delicate wire stems, and flowers that I guess I already missed. (Are they really inside-out? Let that be a lesson to me to start vagabonding in April.) Both thrive underneath an alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), which, right now, has tiny pleated, red-edged leaves cupping mere nubbins of flower buds. Its foliage is as adorable in miniature as baby toes and as fuzzy as puppy ears. Aside from squee-inducing cuteness, fur on foliage provides protection from a scorching sun (its low angle this time of year can burn gardeners’ tender skin too) and untimely frosts (perish the thought).

full-grown flowering dogwood
full-grown flowering dogwood

Speaking of miniature, before taking possession of a property inhabited by a native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) I was never aware of how the knobby little buds on every twig end crack open into four-petaled “flowers” (they’re bracts, actually, surrounding the true flower) that start out the size of kitten noses and grow bigger, bigger, bigger by the day. Right now, the luminous creamy pale-green bracts, only the size of a cat’s paw, look like eyelet lace from a distance. But, almost as soon as you read this, every flowering dogwood in town will be a thick canvas of flowers, each about 2” across.

Fairy wings (also known as barrenwort — another terrible name — or Epimedium spp.) grow in the dry soil of my dogwood’s dapple. Talk about adorable. Last month I cut back old foliage (still greenish despite winter’s worst) just in time to see the eensiest fist-like buds break the soil’s surface. Since then, wiry stems elongated and thumbnail-sized flowers shaped like court jester caps began shivering in the barest breezes over heart-shaped leaves, some mottled burgundy, others edged with red, all batting eyelashes along the edges. Eyelashes! I have no idea what purpose those might serve but they sure are cute.

Tiger Eyes sumac is all about peach fuzz
Tiger Eyes sumac is all about peach fuzz

That’s the thing about spring. It’s darling. And soft. So shiny and new. (Some foliage emerges with a smooth polish instead of peach fuzz—reflectiveness probably offering a similar protection from sun scorch.) And gardeners otherwise harried by the season may find solace in solitary investigation and contemplation of its cuteness. So please do as Janet Gillespie “The Carefree Gardener” and I suggest: drop everything right now and enjoy it. 

I wrote this before a spell of summer-like temperatures and humidity made everything grow gangbusters. The dogwood is indeed flying its full canvas now. Trees are all leafed out (except my fringe tree and sourwood — natives are often fashionably late) and the weeds grew. Which means no more vagabonding for me. How about you?

The shad must be running

Amelanchier budsEvery time my serviceberry (a.k.a shadbush, a.k.a Amelanchier × ‘Autumn Brilliance’) comes into bloom I wonder why it isn’t a more commonly planted tree. Why did everyone plant those dreadful Bradford pears instead? Is it because serviceberry grows slowly? (That would be a point in its favor if instant gratification weren’t so highly valued by landscrapers and non-gardeners.) Is it because it’s a native and native used to equal boring? (I’m so glad it doesn’t anymore. Don’t we all like to feel at home in our gardens and connected to nature’s cycles?) Is it because its racemes of small creamy-white flowers, blushed with the barest touch of pink in bud, make such a delicate cloud compared to the razzmatazz of bazooka pink cherries, and are gone again too quickly? (True, they shatter within a couple of weeks but not before the bees have had their fill.) Is it because the tasty little berries that follow are gone—stolen by every neighborhood robin—almost before they ripen in July?

Or is it because the damn tree is so susceptible to cedar apple rust? By mid summer the foliage and fruit on mine develops a dusty orange glow and cankerous thickenings along some of its twigs. Uncool. But at least the scourge is only disfiguring, not fatal, and doesn’t seem to put off the marauding birds. Some springs, right around now after a rainstorm, I have spotted the source—bright orange, disgusting, globular fungi on the branches of my backyard junipers and lopped them off before they had a chance to blow spores all over the neighborhood. I like to think my vigilance has helped because I adore my serviceberry and want everyone who sees it to desperately want to plant one too.

What’s your favorite spring-blooming tree?