Make way for sweet peas

There’s not a lot of room out in the plantry. I try very hard to keep the entrances onto the porch and into the house clear of plants and tools but inevitably the backyard door will only open so far, impinged by a reluctantly coiled hose and a tubtrug full of debris. The rest of the space, all 6×6 -or so- feet of it, is filled to the gills with frost-tender plants on various levels of floor, tables, and shelves. Normally, after I puzzle out light requirements and try not to hide anything thirsty from the hose, I leave them be for the duration of their winter internment. But this year, my first without access to a greenhouse and orphaned seedlings, I had to make way for sweet peas. I pitched some things that looked like they’d never recover from being dead, moved my jasmine into the living room, relocated a blooming orchid that wanted water and admiration, and somehow managed to clear a spot for a flat.

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Starting North Shore, April in Paris, and Zinfandel sweet peas

I was very restrained and only bought 3 varieties of sweet peas (my greatest pleasure and challenge in previous employment was narrowing my favorites down to a baker’s dozen), and filled a tray of 18 pots with two seeds per pot. Which, if they all germinate will give me plenty to share. And there are plenty of leftover seeds to try direct sowing too if I remember to be on the ball around St. Patrick’s Day.

Some gardeners nick the seed coat to promote germination. Others soak the seeds in warm water. I did what I learned to do at work: stuff them a half a fingernail down in a pot of regular (coarse) potting mix, water in, and wait. Two weeks should do the trick. Being a cool season crop, they should be fine on the plantry (where temperatures range from 40F at night to 70 something during the day) until planting them out late April.

Have you made way for sweet peas — or anything else?

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?

Agree to disagree

We can always count on Mother Nature to give us gardeners something safe(r) to talk about when the news is bleak and full of polarizing politics. Temperatures in the 50s and low 60s for the last couple of weeks have made the weather a hot enough topic to justify changing the subject whenever things get uncomfortable. I’ve had the windows wide open on the warmest days. Night temperatures have gone down into the low 30s now and again but it’s the middle of December and we haven’t had a real killing frost yet. And some plants, like trumpet honeysuckle, borage, and daphne are still putting a surprising amount of effort into flowering.

And other plants are jumping the gun. A few weeks ago I noticed rhododendron buds opening. My holly, in full berry, was blooming last week. A local friend recently posted a picture on facebook of a snowdrop in bloom. People have also mentioned seeing cracks in magnolia buds and Lenten rose hellebores in bloom. (Or are they confusing Helleborus orientalis with the Christmas rose, H. niger?) It’s almost impossible not to see all of this as a sign of the apocalypse but it also feels really familiar to me. I freely admit that my memory is terrible but I can barely recall the last time we had a white Christmas. The forsythia always blooms in fall at least a little bit and so do the autumn-blooming cherry trees. I remember the year kniphofia and nicotiana were still spiking in December and the crabapples bloomed.

I know there’s cause for worry. Open magnolia buds will be torched by the cold that’s bound to come along at some point, and any cherry trees blooming prematurely won’t be able to put on much of a show in the spring. But I also am inclined to put worries aside and enjoy the mild weather and all of the weirdness resulting from it. Because if this winter is anything like last winter, the mercury will do a nosedive eventually and then it will be the cold that seems interminable, apocalyptic, and weird. And I’ll probably be glad for the excuse to change the subject.

Have you been talking about the weather? What’s blooming?

Down to earth — I like lichen

Originally published December 2, 2015 in East Bay Newspapers.

Lest we become completely overwhelmed and demoralized by horrendous events happening around the world, the news media have also been reporting, as they usually do around the holidays, on the benefits of gratitude. According to one article I read, recent studies show that expressing gratitude will improve heart health and help us live longer. Or was that coffee? Either way I’m all for it. I read another article suggesting to those of us without the glass-is-half-full gene, which is a “mutation,” according to the author, that we might start our journey along the path to happiness with baby steps. Be grateful for the little things.

Like lichen. I hardly ever notice lichen in the dry summer months when it’s dormant and obscured by foliage. Now that we’ve had some rain, and more light is reaching stems and trunks and rock walls, the lichen is waking up and promising to offer a few extra colors to embellish winter’s monochrome. Some of what grows on stone is orange and yellow, while most of the tree-dwelling lichen is a dull grey green that glows a brighter sea foam or deepens to moss on dark and damp days. It takes the form of lacy speckles, flat rounded patches that flake like lead paint, and fuzzy tufts of reindeer moss that litter the sidewalks after a good wind.

Despite appearances to the contrary, lichen does no harm. It’s a passenger, not a parasitic devourer of tree flesh. And “it” is actually two things, a fungus and an alga, a dynamic duo, in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus provides support by hitching a ride on bark, rocks, and anything else that stays put long enough for it to grow at a snail’s pace, and collects moisture and minerals from the air. The alga uses the moisture and nutrients in its work to convert sunlight into food it subsequently passes back to its partner. And together, aside from being beautiful in the eye of this beholder, they provide sustenance for insects and animals, nesting material for birds, and when it sloughs off, nitrogen for the soil. Because pollution restricts lichen’s growth, it is an excellent gauge of decent air quality too.

The presence of lacy lichen undergarments on your trees and shrubs is an indicator of slow growth: plants that hold onto their bark for a while before shedding it offer lichen an opportunity not unlike rent control. Most trees grow more slowly as they age, and others are naturally slow even in their youth; lichen on their limbs is no cause for alarm. On the other hand, an abundance of lichen on an otherwise fast growing species can signal compromised health, such as root stress perhaps due to soil compaction or flooding. We gardeners should be grateful for the message even if some of us aren’t inclined to appreciate the messenger.

I am. My paths towards happiness — the one around my garden, and the one I take over the river and through the woods — are festooned in lichen. It will be a sight for my winter-sore and color-starved eyes, and serves as a reminder to breathe deeply. It’s one of the little things I’m going to remember to feel grateful for.

Do you like lichen? Do you keep a gratitude list? What’s on it?

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?