Down to earth — early spring wish list

(Originally published April 15, 2015 in East Bay / South Coast Life newspapers.)

I have a lot of plants in my garden. (One might even describe it as “Plantiful.”) In fact, I have so many plants that on any given May through October day when the lion’s share are blooming or being otherwise interesting I don’t really miss all of the species that I’m lacking. At least not until I visit a nursery or someone else’s garden. Right now though it’s painfully obvious; I’m low on spring bulbs.

I always mean to plant some but by the time the catalogs arrive in July, I’m overwhelmed by the fecundity of my garden and can’t imagine ever being able to squeeze another thing in. And then in November, when I realize that I’ve blown it again and race out to the nearest nursery, they have inevitably sold out of anything I might want to see blooming right this minute.

Such as Iris reticulata. These iris, which only stand knee-high to a grasshopper, are among the earliest spring bulbs to bloom and some of the bluest, with upright petals, known as standards, in a range of indigos, and falls (the lower three petals) stitched with gold and white landing strips that help winter-weary bees find their way in. ‘Pixie’ is the blue-purple of a night sky, while ‘Cantab’ matches my favorite pair of faded jeans. Cousin I. histriodes ‘Katherine Hodgkins’ is so pale it’s practically threadbare but has wider, showier falls and landing strips than the others. Reticulate iris are happy in full spring sun to partial shade and well-drained soil. They only bloom for a week—or two at the most—if temperatures stay cool, the rain is gentle, and the wind never blows. But for that short time it’s as if shards of sky fell on the garden.

Crocus don’t stick around for long either but anyone who has some knows that there’s no such thing as too many. A few years ago I had the forethought to plant a dozen or two in my lawn and driveway garden. They’ve increased ranks since then and might one day become as dense as the clusters I admire along sidewalks around town. Until then, I need more, more, more and so do the bees. Lucky for me (and you) they’re a bargain. Mail order from sources like John Scheepers or Brent and Becky’s, a little over thirty dollars buys a hundred Crocus vernus ‘King of the Striped’. With prices like that there’s no excuse not to plant more, more, more.

Hey look -- I have a pink daffodil! (and no memory of planting it.) Might be Narcissus 'Sentinel'
Hey look — I have a pink daffodil! (and no memory of planting it.) Might be Narcissus ‘Sentinel’

Don’t tell my employer but I’ve never been wild about daffodils. As soon as I’ve seen one large, yellow ‘King Alfred’ I feel like I’ve seen them all. However, this year (every year?) I’m desperate for the daffodils’ blare, and besides, there’s nothing like standing in the middle of tens of thousands of them trumpeting in concert. And, when one pays attention, one notices crazy variety within the horn section. What I’d really like for my own garden are a few clusters with orange, pink, and green trumpets. The weirder the better. For starters, I’ll be adding green-cupped Narcissus ‘Sinopel’, orange-cupped ‘Barrett Browning’, pink seductress ‘Salome’, and split-personality ‘Rainbow of Colors’ to my wish list.

You are my witness to this list and I’ll be yours. Look around in the next few weeks and make note of what’s missing. Sock away part of your garden budget for spring bulbs. And no matter how saturated you are by the season, or how “plantiful” your garden is come July when the catalogs start to arrive, don’t even think of second guessing or shortening your wish list.

What’s on your early spring wish list?

down to earth – April is for narcissists

Printed in the home & garden extra of the April 13-15 East Bay/South Coast Life section of some local rags…

If it weren’t for daffodils we might never register that winter’s well and truly over before summer hits. They are nature’s way of sending a message that’s about as subtle as a smiley face or caution tape. “Pay attention!” shout the daffodils. “It’s Spring!”

Never mind that they are out with the forsythia and too much yellow can lead to madness. In this case yellow is the color of happiness and crayon sunshine and there’s nothing in this world like standing in the midst of thousands of daffodils in bloom. William Wordsworth said it best. “A poet could not but be gay, in such jocund company.” Besides, gardeners know that not all daffodils are ‘King Alfred’ and true enthusiasts (the American Daffodil Society) proclaim that along with other colors like white, green, pink(ish), orange and red, there are a baker’s dozen different divisions of type of Narcissus; and according to the literature, they don’t all bloom in spring. (What a notion.)

Triandrus daffs in Division 5 nod demurely rather than shout about spring while Cylamineus look as if they’re yelling into the wind. Jonquilla, which have grassy foliage and generally more than one small fragrant flower per stem, are the source of a great semantic debate: All jonquils are daffodils, but not all daffodils are jonquils.

Trumpet daffodils need nevermore be confused with the “large-cupped”. “Small-cupped” are obviously more perianth than corolla (the perianth being the outer petals and the corolla the central cup that makes daffodils daffodils and not amaryllis – although those are in the same family.) “Doubles” don’t look much like daffs at all and in any case aren’t the same as the similarly different “split cups” of Division 11.

Tazettas are the paperwhites that either perfume or stink our living rooms to high heaven around Christmas time. They’re not hardy here but you have nothing to lose by planting them along your sunniest south-facing wall because they can’t be forced to bloom again indoors.

Twist my arm and I’ll reveal that Poeticus are my favorite. Round white petals surround flattened green-centered scented cups outlined with a whisper of red. Beat that, Mr. Wordsworth. But I also love Bulbocodium daffodils because their “hoop skirt” cups and insignificant petals make them look exactly like E.T.

Daffodils are just about the easiest, tough-as-nails plant to grow – evidenced by the fact that even most non-gardeners have a few in the yard or popping up through pavement cracks. Truly, if the bulbs are left undisturbed (a challenge for us gardeners) in the right place (not in a swamp or under deep evergreen shade), they’ll increase ranks and outlive us all. We also have to restrain ourselves from removing deflated foliage before it has yellowed – at least give it a good 6-8 weeks to feed next year’s flowers.

According to legend, my Uncle Fuss came perilously close to poisoning his family by slicing up my aunt’s daffodil bulbs for a salad. They don’t smell like onions…  The good news is, the same poisonous alkaloids that might have snuffed my cousins protect the plants from deer graze and squirrel mischief. – But squirrels will occasionally chuck bulbs over their shoulders in search of the tasty fertilizer some of us insist on dusting in the planting hole.

In my own garden, daffodils are among the few plants that preceded me. The one that grows up through a sliver of earth between my driveway and a stonewall makes me laugh out loud. The others were planted out of sight along the north-side foundation. Although I hate to deprive my neighbors of the best view of my garden they’ll have all year, I bring most of those flowers inside. Because, like A.A. Milne once said in an essay on the subject, “a house with daffodils in it is a house lit up, whether or no the sun be shining outside. Daffodils in a green bowl – and let it snow if it will.”


Spring is happening so quickly now – all of a sudden in the middle of a downpour – that I’m afraid if I blink I’ll miss it.  On Friday the grass was still brownish.  By Sunday, emerald green.  I meant to post these pictures last week and procrastinated, thinking, “There’s time… spring hasn’t really sproinged yet… I’ll do it tomorrow.”  And tomorrow. And tomorrow…  So without further ado and before more spring has made its jail break, here’s old news:  The first open daffs in Bristol – blooming in captivity.abandoned daffs bloom first

A suburban snake out of hiding for a sunbask on our wall.

I know where you live

Epimediums getting dressed for the party.

embryonic epimediums

I think part of what I love about spring is that it comes out against all odds.  It seems so delicate yet it’ll bust right through pavement.

I think I prefer unintentional accidental to carefully planned.

Is spring busting out all of a sudden in your garden too – or have I missed it?