Down to earth — for the fun of it

(Originally published January 27, 2016 in East Bay RI newspapers. I think I might have missed posting a piece or two — it’s been longer than I thought. Happy New Year/Ground Hog’s Day!)

I read an article last week (a few weeks ago now) by Valerie Easton, avid gardener and Seattle Times columnist, whose New Year’s resolution was to plant less. What a notion! That goes against almost everything I stand for. And yet.

Ms. Easton has a garden that must resemble mine somewhat. She describes plunking spring’s impulse purchases into vacancies that occasionally turn out to be occupied by something that hasn’t emerged from dormancy yet. (Me too.) And she crowds extra plants into containers. (Yes.) I can only imagine her garden as a happy riot of liveliness and abundance but she saw something else: an overcrowded, dissonant, and thirsty hoard. Which also sounds a little — OK, a lot — like my garden.

I can see Easton’s point about not wanting to spend all of her time watering, particularly during any kind of drought. I have tried very hard not to include plants in my garden that demand supplemental water after becoming established. (By “trying hard” I mean that I have allowed some things to die and felt guilty about watering the rest.) But containers are another story. I am willing to water once a day, but never twice, which means following through on what should be an annual resolution to use my smallest containers for toad shelters instead of plants.

I also wish my garden had more textural contrasts between one plant and the next, and at the same time, cohesion in its overall design. One way to achieve that might be to tuck fewer things in the ground this spring. OR to plant as much as my heart desires but to limit my choices. Adding anything to the garden, whether one variety or two dozen, does require more space than is ever available after a previous summer’s rampant growth. I never intend to plant over the top of another and would rather my plants have room to do their thing without being pushed over by more robust neighbors, so edits and eviction notices go out every spring regardless. The trick this year will be to narrow down my wish list. That will be a challenge for sure. You already know I’m on the hunt for at least one plant I have no room for and, just as predicted, my favorite seed catalogs arrived last week.

Select Seeds’ large selection of breadseed poppies (Papaver somniferum, also known as opium poppy by anyone unafraid of criminal investigation) is irresistible. The plants are slim enough to fit in the narrowest slots, so why not buy every color? Seeds are best scattered sometime before you change your mind and the end of winter. They’ll never need a drop of water from the hose, pollinators of all stripes visit the flowers, and a little later on, goldfinch will perch and peck away at the pretty seedpods.

Second generation Nicotiana ‘Tinkerbell’ gone green (love!)

I can’t deny myself the pleasure of sweet peas, which take up very little room on my fence and are kaput by mid-July anyway. Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana) on the other hand, go and go, even in partial shade, until the hardest frost flips their switch (which finally occurred a few days ago), and their large basal leaves offer a contrast with almost every other plant in my garden. Although they’re champion self-sowers, cross-pollination varies their progeny — to the better and muddier, both. Freshening the gene pool with new packets of first generation favorites like ‘Cranberry Isles’ and ‘Lime Green’ really shouldn’t count against my list.

I feel my resolve to keep it simple and plant less weakening already. I think what Ms. Easton and I are really recommending is a resolution to have the most fun ever in your 2016 garden. If dragging the hose around the deck and/or garden on a hot day is your idea of hell on earth, plan accordingly. If you think there’s nothing better than watching goldfinch peel poppy seedpods like bananas, scatter those seeds ASAP. If you like to tweak your garden’s design as it grows, plan to edit constantly and plant anything that makes your fingers curl. Whatever a blissed out growing season looks like to you, it’s in your power to make it so, starting now.

I haven’t scattered those seeds yet. Any day now… How about you? Do you have any resolutions in the works for more garden fun?

The Philadelphia Flower Show

Pic of Mum's pic

I didn’t take nearly enough pictures. Or any decent ones. But chalk it up to distraction since my day was bookended by appearances on the Gardener’s Studio stage (once for a container garden challenge and then later in the day for a Plantiful Propagation demonstration). And because the show itself is overwhelming and I know myself to crash and burn with much less external stimulation, I flew around trying to take it all in without taking it all IN.

The highlights for me were the cup winning Stoney Bank Nursery exhibit of a wild spring woodland with forced fothergilla, azalea, fringe tree, ferns, etc around a hollowed out tree whose branches hung from cables from the ceiling; a wildflower/tall grass meadow in winter by Scape Design; pressed flower paintings and Calder-esque mobiles; Twig terrariums in the marketplace; and of course the PHS Hamilton Horticourt. I had heard that Mrs. Hamilton was no longer competing — a friend suggested she too might have been shamed by Downton Abbey’s cousin Isobel into giving others the chance to win — but was so excited to see her perfect plants all together on display with her ribbons.

Stoney Bank Nursery exhibitBlue ribbon winnerMrs. Hamilton's plantsmore of Mrs. Hamilton's plants

I also thought it was kind of brilliant of PHS to offer a couple of places on the show floor for people to hang out, catch their breath, and learn something new. I had a great time up on the Gardener’s Studio stage despite public speaking heebie-jeebs and for that I have to thank my awesome audience. And thanks to my mom too for taking pictures that show I was having a ball.

on the Gardener's Studio stage

Did you go to the Phila Flower Show or any other this year? What stuck with you?

Indoor flowers for winter happiness

Camellia 'Minato-No-Akebono'Lately every time I open a door to the plantry — whenever I come and go from the house — I am hit with a light clove-y (or is it cinnamon-y?) pink fragrance that makes me dim my eyes and suck in deeply through both nostrils. I’d use every pore if I could. Especially whenever it’s too cold to smell much of anything outside or on those rare days the neighborhood is damply downwind of the town’s biosolids compost facility. (It’s great stuff but super stinky.) The source of the perfume is a little camellia I picked up at Logee’s a few years ago and it is blooming more heavily this year than ever before. Its tag is long gone and it doesn’t appear to be in their catalog anymore but I did a quick internet search: although this rings no bells at all, it looks like a Camella lutchuensis ‘Minato-No-Akebono’. During the summer it hangs out with everything else in the partial shade of my deck and right now it’s seeming to enjoy the chilly temperature fluctuations out in the plantry (from the 60s during the day down into the 30s on very cold nights). Last year I brought it into the living room (which has a more consistent temperature around 60F) for its bloom period and it didn’t put on anywhere near the same endless show.

purple shamrock - Oxalis triangularisWhich isn’t to say that my living room is flower-free right now. Oxalis triangularis is going nuts blooming though it hardly needs to. Its largish burgundy leaves that fold closed like upside-down butterfly wings are plenty entertaining enough. Not to mention tangy and delicious. From what I understand, this plant wants to go dormant though it has never indicated such a desire to me. I hope, since dormancy might only last 4-6 weeks, that it won’t particularly miss it. Or perhaps these flowers are its last hurrah.

Do you grow either of these plants? Do they make you as happy as they do me?

Pangs of guilt

There’s something about cutting down – deliberately lopping and sawing to death – a healthy living plant, that doesn’t sit well with me.  I’m sure every gardener on the planet understands the torment that’s born of killing a plant that someone somewhere might value.  But I’m also sure that every gardener on the planet understands the euphoria that comes with making a significant change involving new planting opportunities.

Before.  The Noodle surveys streetside.Yesterday I continued what I started two years ago and took out more of the foundation plantings that were here when we bought the place.  It’s quite likely that they’ve been here since the house was built in the late 50’s. These venerable shrubberies include(d) several of some kind of chamaecyparis that had formerly been bubble shape sheared, 2 hollies, a male and female – also formerly sheared, and some token hydrangeas – which are, incidentally, very popular amongst the Azorean population of Bristol.  I kind of love them for that.  Z hates them for bad associations involving digging and saving some for persnickity clients. – Being a carpenter, not gardener, this was regarded as a ridonculous request.  In any case, they are all outie and I, so far, have not tried to dig any up to passalong to someone else.  Part of the reason for that is that the roots of each are now miles beneath a thick layer of rock mulch, shredded landscape cloth and disintegrated bark mulch.  No mulch of which has had the muscle in near years to thwart the bittersweet (and chickweed) which would inevitably be donated along with any good deed.After. But to be continued.

I object to the foundation plantings on the grounds of … they’re not Me.  When I drive up to the house I want to see my own stuff and make way for changes even if we can’t get to them yet.  We see a porch with a generous stoop on that side of the house and imagine watching the sunset from out there, drinking tea or martinis with our feet up on a bit of rail.  With the shrubberies gone, we’ll have more bare-naked incentive to get a move on.  And meanwhile, there are plenty of giant temporary tender perennials I could plunk in that I’d rather look at than cringe inducing shrubbery.  And it will feel more like Me even if (or maybe especially if) it’s kind of a mess.

I’m trying to justify the wanton killing.  I tried to remember to thank the shubberies for their valiant attempts to hide the concrete and anchor the house to the yard but by the time I got to the first holly I just hacked with abandon.  I’ve still got a ways to go but it already feels so much better – even though it looks like sh*#.  I’m all for making my own mistakes now.

Have you deliberately killed any healthy plants just because they weren’t You? Do the guilty feelings linger?