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?

Down to earth – the groundhog’s wakeup call

(Originally published February 20, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.)

Winter seems intent on proving the groundhog right. It’s not over yet by a long shot, and I suppose that’s probably as it should be. I remember the last time spring came early: it was so weird it was almost hard to enjoy it. Safe to say nothing is normal anymore and probably never was. But at least we can count on the groundhog to give us the wake-up call. By the time you read this, two of the predicted “six more weeks of winter” will have passed. Fast as that. And the next four will do the same. In fact, time flies so quickly, even when it feels like it drags, that I am making every effort to keep from hitting the snooze button. There’s way too much to do in the little down-time left before spring’s frenzy to stay tucked up in grumpy hibernation.

I still haven’t figured out what to do with the gaping gap in my entry garden where excavators removed half of the concrete walkway last spring to repair a broken water line. Should I remove the rest of the concrete and shell out for a prettier path to the (unused) front door? Patch the gap with a beach stone mosaic — at least until I win another lottery of second-hand flagstone? Buy more time to decide with another load of the town’s free mulch? Whatever I do, I should get busy forming a concrete (so to speak) intention and roughing out a plan with which to follow it through.

Last summer I decided that this would be the winter I would take out my remaining pear tree. It’s an ungainly little thing incapable of producing delicious fruit (its pears are best left to the squirrels who never take more than a bite either). It pokes us in the face on the way to the shed and is nearly impossible to mow under and around. But I have been feeling sentimental about it, especially now that winter’s end is fast approaching and I know that I will completely lose my resolve once its buds start swelling. So if it’s coming down, it better be now.

Pear to the left. Where will I hang my strawberry begonia and staghorn fern if it goes?

I recently mentioned my desire to start a vegetable garden. There’s no time like the present given the predictions about how California’s drought is likely to affect their crops, and subsequently, produce prices. Not that my chef buys much from California. Most of our veg comes from the local farmers market even in the winter. Nonetheless, I could use the practice and I’m up for the challenge. Aren’t I? That means I need to decide, very soon, where to have my carpenter build the raised bed(s) and how big they should be. No more than 4 feet wide for easy reaching and a good 8 feet long? That seems huge for this little garden, but two or three that size would probably keep us fed with a healthy variety of salad greens, tomatoes, peas, string beans, and root crops. I’ll continue to encourage squash to grow in my compost pile since that requires prodigious space to sprawl. I know I can stick to that part of the plan, at least.

In the meantime, while we wake up to decisions that finally need making, winter demands appreciation. It won’t be long before swollen buds open on shrubs and trees; before dormant perennials show a little life at their crown. Birds are already starting to get frisky and sing like spring. Time is short. As sick as I am of winter’s chill, disgusting slush, unwalkable sidewalks, and thwarted plans, it’s worth savoring the discomfort of this moment, as well as any ephemeral beauty, and banking some shivers for the hottest, most unpleasant heatwave-days of summer. No matter what the groundhog says and how it feels right now, they will be here in a blink.

Freekin’ woodchuck breathing down your neck too? 

Under the weather

front gate pile of plow poop

The garden probably isn’t as sick (literally) of winter as I am. Everything must be happy enough tucked under a nice insulating layer (or two) of snow. Except maybe the lavenders. But they have recovered from previous snow splits and if they don’t this year, it’ll just mean it’s time to replace them with the one everyone is pushing pushing pushing. Lavandula × intermedia ‘Phenomenal’ is supposed to be ultra-hardy (to Zone 4) and tolerant of every kind of abuse from humid summers to crushing winter snows. Gotta try it, obviously, either way.

I promised to give the enormous miscanthus at my entry gate to a friend and am grateful right now for the reminder to never, ever plant anything more precious or fragile right there. Exactly where my neighbor’s plow person dumps their driveway snow. Grass was a good choice for that spot – it could stand to be flattened and unlike the rest of my garden, it was never full of wildlife that might frighten off our mail carrier. So perhaps I’ll trade it for another that doesn’t grow quite so hey-yuge quite so fast.

If only we hadn’t had a run of frigid temps without snowy insulation I wouldn’t be worried about my marginals. Salvia guaranitica was just barely holding on as it was – struggling perhaps because of my lousy soil or the over-crowded conditions. Fingers crossed. Last I saw the yellow-speckled leaves of Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’ they looked pretty wretched and I can only hope that even in that sorry state they helped insulate the crown. I’ll be sorry to lose that one if I do. If I’m very, very lucky though, temps will have dipped low enough to slow down my rice paper plant. I would much prefer Tetrapanax paperifer ‘Rex’ to stay under 15′ tall in this tiny garden. Being knocked back to the ground every year would suit me fine.

Are you worried about anything under the weather in your garden?

Down to earth – the sun needs catchers

(Originally published October 16, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

Thank goodness for dahlias. I planted them late, sometime in July, just before their tubers gave up trying to grow in the dark. I tucked them into random gaps in the front and back yards and then didn’t give them another thought. Or much water, poor things. Good thing it was a rainy summer because now most are blooming, catching the long fall light like stained glass. Mid-morning light is gorgeous this time of year. Blinding if not for the brim of a hat but warm and entirely without glare. Even so, I can’t help wondering if I would have even noticed it if I didn’t work daily in a still-blooming garden. The sun needs catchers. Sadly my own garden isn’t situated quite right to catch the morning sun and I’m rarely home then to appreciate it anyway. Good thing afternoon light is nice too and even sweeter for being golden. sun caught in the gaura, Boltonia 'Nally's Lime Dots' and a weedy asterBut apart from dahlias, wand flower (Gaura lindheimeri) spreading itself throughout my front border, a few blue anise sage (Salvia guaranitica), random patches of flowering tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) and a fallen sideways Agastache ‘Heatwave’, my garden is not the shimmering, shifting kaleidoscope of color it could be right now.

Every fall I remember that I don’t have enough ornamental grasses. Most gardeners rave about how grasses toss about gracefully in the slightest breeze but I want them for the way the light slides along their blades and gets caught in their flowers. I do have two enormous maiden grasses (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio’) and I enjoy their wands of luminous pink and cream inflorescence but wish that the recently divided clumps, round as sea urchins, weren’t already the size of Volkswagens again. Proper scale is something I struggle with.

My clumps of switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’) are more appropriately sized for my garden but ironically, not quite big enough to divide and redistribute wherever the blood red tips of their 4-foot tall upright blades and delicate sprays of seedheads will be backlit. My other fall flowering grass, purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis), is too low to the ground to do much sun catching in my tall garden but makes up for that by wearing dew like diamonds. Always good to have a little bling in the garden here and there.

Even though next fall is a whole season away, we can be on it. I know looking out at my garden what I want it to look like when the sun shines slantwise and will start making those changes now. To begin with, I need to make some room. Gaps in which to plant more late blooming tender perennials like raspberry red Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’, velvety purple S. leucantha ‘Cislano’, and pineapple sage. Places for 5-foot tall July-sown zinnias, a fat clump or two of annual feathertop grass (Pennisetum villosum) and maybe even a patch of love-lies-bleeding. (Proper scale be damned.) I could always use more dahlias.

This is the ideal time to make some room because, I don’t know about you but I’m feeling much less sentimental about my plants today than I will in spring when they’re full of potential. Now I’m over them. Out with moldy summer phlox. Out with more purple coneflower and black-eyed Susans than one tiny garden should ever boast. Out with some of the milkweed—carefully checked for Monarch butterfly caterpillars first.

I’m also writing notes to read in spring that will remind me to divide; to drastically reduce the size of overgrown clumps of Shasta daisy, beebalm, and those ridiculous maiden grasses. That will be easier to do in spring when I’m craving the exercise and the garden, which all cut back and tidied won’t poke me in the nose as I dig. After following through on those intentions there will be plenty of room again in my garden, and I will only need to remember, as spring flowers tempt me, that I have plans for a fall kaleidoscope.

What’s catching the light in your garden?