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?

New shiny

I have been feeling want-y lately. Plagued by a wolfish desire for anything new and different from the dusty, familiar stuff I look at and use every day. Something that will inspire a burst of energy or a sigh of contentment. I have lost hours scrolling through pretty pictures of other people’s gardens, workspaces, and art on pinterest. I have trolled the internet for real estate, gadgetry, art supplies, and banal household accessories like shower heads, duvet covers, and measuring cups, none of which I need, all of which promise to change my life somehow. I have cleared cutter and rearranged our furniture. I go through this every year.

Ivory Prince hellebore in bud
Ivory Prince hellebore in bud

I know that what I really want is my garden back from winter’s clutches. The garden always cures my free-range cravings because it changes constantly and I get to participate in its transformations. If I ever feel dissatisfied, all I have to do is move something, a plant or an object, and treat myself to a fresh view. I find inspiration there, endless bursts of energy and contentment, more often than not without spending a dime.

It won’t be long now. The snow is finally receding to reveal bits and pieces of ground again. I’m getting glimpses of new-shiny growth and the new-shiny changes I can’t wait to make.

Have you been feeling want-y too? Does your garden satisfy your cravings?

Desperately seeking spring

my witch hazel buried under an ever-deepening drift.
my witch hazel buried under an ever-deepening drift.

After what seemed like a slow start winter has gotten stuck in a Ground Hog’s Day loop of snow and bitter cold. Here, that is. Not everywhere. It might be hard for New Englanders to believe that this winter ranks among the warmest on record but elsewhere winter has been weirdly spring-like. A discomfiting circumstance for anyone living in such a place who worries about a last minute freeze frying the apple blossoms. But such a treat for visitors from the winterlands.

Normally (if there is such a thing as normal anymore, anywhere) the Northwest Flower and Garden Show is timed, as they all are, to enliven a raw, dark winter and raise hopes for a shining spring. For many years, back when I lived in Seattle, I relied on the show to keep from losing my will to live. I paid what felt like a ransom to soak in the smells and burn colors onto my retinas. I stroked green growing things when no one was looking. Although I was a wannabe gardener hungry for information, I never even bothered to attend the lectures because I couldn’t bear to sit still in a dark room when there was so much blooming in another one.

I timed my trip back this year (after way too long) to coincide with the show. And call me crazy, but I only spent a whirlwind morning taking it in (with Slow Flowers superstar Debra Prinzing as my guide!) because it was hard to enjoy spotlit dreamscapes, pretty as they were, when the real outdoors was bright and blooming. I neither gave a lecture nor attended one. I would kick myself now if I hadn’t been able to gather inspiration, information, and joie de vivre in mossy Ravenna Park, Pike Place Market, the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden at the Ballard Locks (where Z and I kept off the grass and forgot to feed the parking meter), the Volunteer Park Conservatory, along sidewalks of my favorite neighborhoods, and from my best friend’s front porch.

Have you sought out spring this winter or has winter been spring-ish all along? If you went away, where did you find it?

FYI: I’ll be heading to the Boston Flower and Garden Show to give a talk on Friday, March 13 at 1:30. If you’re in the neighborhood that lucky day, desperate for a dose of spring, and can stand to sit in a darkened room, I will be over the moon to see you there!

Down to earth – winter wish list

(Originally published in East Bay/South Coast life on February 7, 2015, right after our first blizzard.)

When I spoke before about being underwhelmed by winter, I probably should have knocked wood. Not that I feel powerful enough to conjure a blizzard, and not that I minded. As storms go, this one (are we calling it Juno?) struck a sublime balance between excitement and compulsory coziness. I wasn’t the least bit inconvenienced by being forced to spend an entire day on the couch with a dog on my feet, and a cup of tea in my paw. And I’m grateful that the blizzard didn’t interfere with any important travel plans. Unless you count the window-rattling gusts that kept waking me from the tour I took of my garden — and everyone else’s — while I lounged on the couch.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena' -- before the snow.
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ — before the snow.

A week or two ago, when I was still under the impression that winter would prove uneventful, I noticed my witch hazel (Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Jelena’) beginning to bloom and went out to stick my nose into its tiny twist-tie petals. I didn’t expect much. It was a cold day and the petals were still pretty tightly furled. Now that the shrub is half buried in a snow drift, they’re even less likely to release a scent. That’s okay. The promise alone gave me the focus I needed to start working on this year’s wish list.

For starters, I’d like to shoehorn at least one more witch hazel into my garden. Because what could be better than mid-winter flowers that bloom despite blizzards and, come a February thaw will throw a sweet scent across the garden? Never mind that they grow 10-feet tall (or more) with branches like outstretched arms, and there’s no more room at the inn. According to several catalog descriptions, my ‘Jelena’ is unscented. I beg to differ but even so, I’ll keep my eyes out for an H. mollis ‘Boskoop’, which has a reputation for being “intensely fragrant” and decorates itself in bright yellow flowers that thumb their noses at winter’s dull palette even more than Jelena’s orange ones do.

Jelena still blooming under a drift.
Jelena still blooming under a drift.

Speaking of fragrant, and speaking of plants in the witch hazel family (Hamamelidaceae) that bloom before the garden gets going, I almost forgot that winter hazel (Corylopsis glabrescens) has been on my must-have list for years. Ever since I first watched ruffled chains of pale greenish-yellow flowers emerge like handkerchiefs out of a magician’s sleeve from the buds of cultivar ‘Longwood Chimes’ in Blithewold’s Water Garden. I could sit under that shrub for hours just breathing in. (It’s a wonder I ever get any work done at all.)

Never mind, again, that my garden can’t accommodate a 10-15 foot tall shrub with a similar wingspan. Perhaps instead I’ll keep my eye out for the slightly smaller (6 by 8 foot) Corylopsis ‘Winterthur’, a cross between C. pauciflora, which is on the delicate side, and C. spicata, which is supposed to be awesome in every way. Both winter hazels will bloom towards the end of March. They, and the witch hazel, want a spot in partial shade with decent well-drained soil.

Such a wish list — and of course this is only the start — requires a list of another sort. Given that I can’t afford to buy an adjoining piece of property and there isn’t much lawn left to rip out, in order to make room for every new tenant I’ll have to start handing out eviction notices. But that was exactly my plan when I filled this garden with plants that spread with wanton abandon and/or self-sow madly. They have been placeholders. Easy come, easy go. She says. What I need is another day — doesn’t have to be a snow day if that would be inconvenient for any of you — to take a couch-bound tour of the garden again with my hands wrapped around a steaming teacup and a dog on my feet.

By now we’ve had no end of snow days (not that I was here for all of them — more on that later) but I still don’t have a clue how I’m going to shoehorn my wish list in. Do you have room for all of the plants on your list? 

Down to earth — memory lapses

Originally published January 7, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers.

I can hardly believe it’s a new year already. It feels like mere days rather than twelve months since I waxed rhapsodic about visiting greenhouses and using candlelight to cozy winter’s dark nights. And I remember bemoaning the lateness of spring as if summer never happened. Time seems to stretch in winter like a rubber band cocked at spring. And then doesn’t it go flying? Come spring we can hardly help but be in a mad rush to enjoy every last second. Right up until the band hits the wall of the holidays with a resounding thwack and flops to the floor.

Which is why writing notes about the garden and taking a few pictures through the season is as necessary as planting and weeding. Taking the time to mark the best—and worst—moments puts the stretch in the elastic of time. And looking back at those records now helps me recall that not only did summer happen, it was long and glorious (so was fall), and has plenty to teach about the coming year.

Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra 'Eva') For instance, reading my notes from May, I am reminded that just because something looks dead doesn’t always mean it is. The roses I thought were goners after cutting them back before April’s deep freeze (winter truly was interminable last year) bloomed into November. I also expected to lose what was left of my Black Lace elderberry but evidently its disgusting infestation of borers went to the dump along with the deadest branches. The remaining trunk might be oddly lopsided but its wonkiness was hardly noticeable under a healthy arch of deep purple foliage and berries.

My Clematis ‘Roguchi’, on the other hand, never made a comeback. And, as far as I can tell from photographs, its replacement didn’t live past July. Since losing, two years ago, a C. tibetana that had bedazzled my arbor for a couple of Octobers with sprays of citrus peel flowers, it’s beginning to sink in that clematis might only come to my garden to die. I’m sure it’s nothing personal. I’ll chalk it up to acidic soil (they prefer it sweeter), close quarters (their roots want cooling shade but also some room to spread out), improper siting (wet feet through the winter is deadly) and neglect (I should have watered during drought). Lucky for me and my garden, the non-vining C. heracleifolia, which has lovely indigo-blue fairy cap flowers in September hasn’t proved nearly as picky or needy, spreading instead with a moderate amount of enthusiasm.Clematis heracleifolia

I’m glad for the reminder that my garden wanted more blue, a little earlier in the season, after the forget-me-nots and before the clematis. The only hiccup is the distinct memory, which I never even wrote down, of a visiting friend’s suggestion that there might be such a thing as “too many plants.” A criticism she knew I’d disregard with a guffaw. And you should too if anyone has dared call the plantiful-ness of your garden into question. Diversity is key to sustainability and amusement.

I plan to take advantage of the opportunities presented by death to fill some of those vacancies with blue-flowering perennials. I’d be tempted to try delphinium if I were up to the challenge. I’m not and it’s nothing personal. Just that I learned more about them this summer and made note that my garden bears little resemblance to Siberia. Turns out, contrary to popular belief, delphinium are extremely cold hardy; it’s our hot, humid summers and comparatively mild winters that do them in. On the other hand, the butterfly magnetic blue spikes of native North American hyssop cultivars such as Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ and ‘Black Adder’ should be better suited to my garden’s climate and conditions.

The upside of a faulty memory is how easy it is to picture the changes I want to make. Because it seems for all the world like the garden was in full bloom just the other day.

How’s your memory of the past year in the garden? What were the high and low lights?