Down to earth — F***ing Farch

Originally published in East Bay Life newspapers February 28, 2018. — I sort of forgot about posting this one and wouldn’t bother now except it looks like Farch might just turn into Marpril. (I edited it rawther heavily for relevance.)

Back in February everyone I talked to was antsy to dig in the garden as if it was time. It wasn’t. It was too soggy to plant. Too early to divide. Too soon for most of us (without a greenhouse) to start seeds indoors (unless we’re talking sweet peas and cardoon). We knew it but (almost) every year we’re tempted by spring-like thaws; the sweet and sour smell of earth and skunk, birds singing, squirrels cavorting, and witch hazels, hellebores, and fancy pink and black pussy willows blooming.

February/March weather can’t be trusted. Might be in the 60s one day (it was a beauty…) and snowing the next (yup). We might have one major truck-toppling, power-outing gale of a Nor’easter followed by 3 more (yes, indeed). That’s how this season rolls. But we shouldn’t let Farch stop us from gardening.

The days are longer and the sun (when it’s out) is warmer and we’re not the only ones to notice. Houseplants are going through a growth spurt, and they’re hungry. Potting soil has very little nutritional value, particularly if you haven’t repotted in a while. (I haven’t.) You could do that now. (I might.) And you should throw some fertilizer into the watering can before your next rounds. I would use Neptune’s Harvest organic fertilizer if I didn’t mind my house smelling like the beach on a red tide day. I do mind. Instead, from now on every few weeks, my indoor plants will (promises, promises) get a drink spiked with a small scoop of JR Peters Jack’s Classic (20-20-20), which resembles Scott’s Miracle Gro in everything but that company’s affiliation with the evil Monsanto corporation.

If you haven’t completed your winter pruning chores, get to it. I’ve been procrastinating pear tree pruning because I’m on the fence about keeping it. It’s a pretty-ish shape when I prune it right but its crop of pears (when I prune it right) are woody and flavorless. Even the squirrels turn up their noses. I’d cut it down and plant something they and I prefer if I could figure out what that might be.

I cut my serviceberry (Amelanchier candensis) down a few weeks ago because I knew if I let the buds swell, I’d lose my resolve. It’s a sweet native — a favorite — and was one of the first trees I planted here. But I stuck the poor thing in scant soil in an overly sunny and hot spot along my driveway, and although it grew, it was never robust. Besides myself, I blame drought stress and annual Cedar Apple Rust infections born on spring winds from my infected backyard junipers. Last summer the fruit failed to mature and attract flocks of birds in June, and most of its leaves dropped well before fall. Broke my heart. Now it’s a birdbath.

Planning-wise I am as behind schedule as I always am and could use a few more indoor days to catch up with my reading, research, imagining, and planning. I want to make pro/con lists of possible pear-alternative backyard tree choices, and a new plan for my driveway bed to make up for the loss of the amelanchier. I should decide now what perennials and shrubs to evict to make room for all the seed annuals I ordered while hungry for summer. I also need to make a propagation plan for said seeds and room for them in the plantry. Clearly, I’ve got some serious gardening to do. So, come on, Farch, lay it on me. One more snow day should do the trick. She said back in February, not ever imagining March could be QUITE such a bitch. Did I follow through on all these intentions? Nope. I think I still might have some time though.

Did you get any gardening done in Farch? Is it spring yet wherever you are?

Down to earth — got bulbs?

Most of this was originally published in EastBayRI newspapers September 14, 2016.

This was a tough summer. Too stupidly hot, humid, and rainless to maintain momentum after work. I avoided my own garden, only ducking outside periodically to water containers and catch night breezes from the deck. I wish I could say I spent my time in front of the fan wisely. I haven’t been blah-blahging and I didn’t place a bulb order. Lucky for me, it’s not too late.

It’s disconcerting to page through a bulb catalog in the middle of a hot summer. Spring is too delicate for such bruising weather. Crocus would be flattened; tulips would shatter. Daffodils and snowdrops strike me as a little tougher than most but I have no faith fritillaria would hold up. It’s hard to remember that the heat is temporary and spring, knock wood, is rarely so summer-like.

For the last dozen or so years in late July I have been able to suspend disbelief and work on bulb orders for my employers’ gardens but have never — not once — despite my best intentions, placed an order for my own garden. Last year though I got lucky in the bulb department. A friend who had just joined the team at John Scheepers (, offered to send me a box of bulbs at no charge. A grab bag assortment based on a loose wish list (something along the lines of, “I’d sing the blues, and it’s not easy being green”) arrived like Christmas one October day. My box included Tulip ‘Green Star’, green-cupped Narcissus ‘Sinopel’, and was full of “the blues” too. Chionodoxa, brodiaea, and Allium azureum. I was never happier to make room for those gifts or more grateful to see them bloom last spring.

The memory of that gift reminds me, in a way much better than my work experience ever has, of the benefit in following through. Now that September is doling out stormy excuses for indoor activity and some of the sunny days are more crisply spring-like, I will endeavor to think spring and put an order together rather than procrastinate until local nurseries have sold out of the most interesting choices.

My wish list is still heavy on the blues and greens. I must have more chionodoxa. They naturalize beautifully but I want more, more, more, sooner. For the view from my window to look as if a dusky sky has fallen. I enjoyed the June-blooming knee-high amethyst blue spikes of Camassia quamash in another friend’s garden so much she shared them with me but I’m greedy for more of those too. Fingers crossed they’re as happy in my garden’s lean and mean soil as they are in my friend’s rich cake mix.

Until the neighborhood deer population discovers my garden I will add more viridiflora tulips to bolster dwindling supplies. (Hybrid tulips lose vigor after 2 or 3 years.) Not only is Tulip ‘Night Rider’ new this year (and thus extra covetable and possibly sold out by now) it boasts the best of both worlds: blue-ish (purple) petals with green flames. ‘Artist’ displays my other favorite color, orange — blue’s complement, go figure — behind green flames. A must have for a spectacular spring.

As I write this I’m stuck inside while a storm swirls around outside. The John Scheepers catalog is open on the desk next to me. One of my browser tabs is displaying a link to the array of tulip choices and there’s a credit card burning a hole in my wallet. All I need to do to get my order in is make a few clicks and hit send. Might just follow through this time but if I don’t, believe me, I’ll wish I had.

As I post this, I’m stuck inside because I’m still avoiding my garden. Its neglectful state overwhelms me. And I still haven’t placed a damn bulb order. Have you?

Down to earth — madness

(Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers sometime in March. I have been remiss in reposting! But because it is currently snowing outside, I thought I might as well make up for misplaced intentions. What’s written below isn’t old news — although I really-really-really wish it was.)

I spent the entire Sunday of the time change outdoors soaking up the sun, holding sweet and earthy scents in my nose, listening to birds compete for attention, and gardening as if it’s spring. The very next day it sleeted. Dark gray days of rain followed, then sun again. As I write this, there’s snow forecast for the equinox. March, poor thing, suffers from wild mood swings.

I know that about March (and can relate) but I started cutting my garden back anyway weeks ago at the first hint of April. Suddenly I couldn’t stand to look at its tatters for one more minute. I hauled armloads of fallen stems and seedheads that no longer held any winter interest to the compost pile. When that back and forthing became too tedious, I broke the rest of the debris into bits and spread it as mulch around my perennials’ sprouting crowns. Tidiness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. (My mess is creative clutter.)

In the last couple weeks those perennials have put on another bit of growth while spring marched on. Redwing blackbirds came back at the beginning of the month (if not before); I heard choruses of spring peepers sound in my neighborhood on the evening of the10th. On the 12th I noticed black-crowned night herons and a pair of Canada geese had returned to the tiny Tanyard Brook reservoir on State Street in Bristol (my favorite place to bird and turtle watch through the chainlink). Crocuses vied with snowdrops on social media for most-liked, #spring. Pussy willows broke out of bud and the earliest daffodils began blaring tiny trumpets.

I’m a little nervous about jumping the gardening gun but my inclination, despite sleet, frosty nights, and humbugging snow is to trust the signs and follow their cues. So now I’m waiting, sort of impatiently if my inability to wait patiently is anything to go by, for the forsythia to bloom. Its yellow arches and mounds are the universal signal that the ground has warmed another notch, and it’s time to commence the next to-do on my list: rose pruning. But rose buds have already swelled and the other day I couldn’t keep my pruners pocketed. You try.

Most* of the roses we grow around here are so hardy and unperturbed by March’s moods that they won’t be overly injured by premature pruning. *I did once almost kill a marginally hardy rose by accidentally pruning it before a very hard and prolonged April freeze. Mea culpa. But if the rose I pruned last week suffers any dieback I’ll just prune it again shorter this time and be happy I did. Which says something because I’m in the habit of lopping my roses to within inches (12-to-18”) of the ground. There are invisible dormant buds up and down rose canes, even all along the old gnarly trunks, which respond to severe pruning (and a topdressing of compost) with gratifying vigor. It’s actually very hard to kill a rose. Even for me.

Along with roses, it will be high time to prune butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii and cvs.), bush clover (Lespedeza spp.), blue beard (Caryopteris ×clandonensis), and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) to their lowest buds (anywhere from about 2 to 12” from the ground). Might as well shear the lavender then too but not nearly as hard—cutting back into the woody bits generally only gains you ugly stumps.

In the meantime, while the weather goes through its moody March madness, holding our horses gives us gardeners a good chance to reassess, dream, and plan. As perennials begin to flush out from dormancy so do the memories of the best intentions I formed last year and over the winter. I could—and should—stay busy making endless lists of all of the changes I want to make. And, after the pruning is done, the daffodils peak, the tulips begin to bloom, and the ground dries out a bit, all signs will point to digging in. By then spring won’t be denied and neither will we.

She says. But here it is, April 4 and there’s a good 4 or 5 inches of snow on the ground and counting. Last week or the week before it was in the balmy 60s. (Even my mood swings aren’t this violent.) Daffodils — in peak! –have faceplated; muscari and chionodoxa are buried; forsythia is trying to look tough; my magnolia is toast. Big sigh. Spring marches on? Remains to be seen here. How about in your garden? 

Down to earth — the mid-summer blues

(Originally published July 9, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.)

As soon as summer’s heat hits, I spend more time critiquing my garden than tending it. If only I were better about making notes, I might have remembered that every year right around now, I become bothered by what’s missing, particularly from the backyard border I can see from my desk.

College level color theory didn’t adequately prepare me to choose from the smorgasbord available at every nursery and offered by friends. I want it all and can’t imagine excluding any one color from my garden. I might be able to live without pink but crave the scent of cerise-pink beach roses (Rosa rugosa), the gaudiness of rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) and the whimsy of pink peony poppies. I think a little red goes a long way but want to honor the hummingbirds’ addiction to plants like Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’ and Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline’. Yellow was never once, even in my fickle youth, a favorite but I’m willing to tolerate black and brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) because goldfinch (whenever I spot one I change my mind about yellow) love their seedheads. But rather than wince at the clash I try to include a couple of colors that, to my eye, help sew the garden’s crazy quilt together.

The 1970s almost ruined orange forever but for the past few years it has ranked high on my list of must haves in the garden (and out of it). The ultimate clasher bounces so cheerfully off of every other color it actually manages to enhance otherwise wonky combinations. I think everyone needs a few clumps of bright-orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) to feed monarch butterfly caterpillars (though, truth be told, they prefer swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), which has either creamy-white or baby-pink flowers). If you have to work up to orange, the hummingbird magnet, Agastache ‘Acapulco Orange’ is a more of a soft apricot.

Agastache 'Golden Jubilee'
Agastache ‘Golden Jubilee’

To really work its magic, orange needs its opposite: blue. I’ll take anything from cerulean sky, indigo, French-purplish, and cobalt, to midnight. In fact, I believe there’s no such thing as too much blue no matter where it falls on the spectrum. Not only does it calm the crazy, cool the hot, and recede to add depth to small spaces (I remember a few things from color theory class) blue flowers also tend to be especially nectar-rich and attractive to bees.

Surprising then that blue is woefully underrepresented in my garden right now. You’re probably missing it too if your hydrangeas look anything like mine — winter nipped and nearly bloom-free. By the time you read this though, sea holly (Eryngium planum) stems and thimble flowers should be suffused in cobalt and buzzed by every pollinator in the neighborhood. I need more. And just as the catmint (Nepeta spp.) fades, lavender should take over the show. Both are more purple than blue but do the trick anyway. I’m sure I should have countless spires of anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) because it self-sows generously, but then so does the cultivar ‘Golden Jubilee’ that I bought instead for its chartreuse foliage.

Atlantic poppy and its color complement
Atlantic poppy and its color complement

When the forget-me-nots and woodland phlox go by, my partially-shady backyard border becomes a blue-free zone all the way until August or September when plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginiodes) finally blooms. I planted a few Geranium ‘Rozanne’ some years ago to help fill the void but they have all but disappeared.

I thought I was done planting but the more I stare at the backyard clash the more determined I become to try the geranium again or look for some last minute flats of blue lobelia and browallia, each of which can take some shade. And maybe, as a stopgap and reminder for next year in case I forget to read this note, I’ll spray paint the birdbath blue too.

Confession: I didn’t paint the birdbath blue. I painted my awesome wire bucket chairs instead. 

Do your eyes need to see orange and blue in the garden too?

Down to earth – growing like a weed

(Originally published June 12, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.)

I’m pretty sure it was Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter who, in one of his many books or articles, dared us to keep our gardens blooming into summer and fall. “Spring is easy,” I think he said. I agree! Or thought I did.

On the one hand, of all the seasons, the one we’re in seems the most likely to make gardeners and non-gardeners alike feel like green-thumbed hotshots. My garden grows and blooms like crazy with or without, and despite my interference. Even the undead rose and elderberry are budded. The peonies are bonkers. Siberian iris, euphorbia, Atlantic poppy, and false indigo (Baptisia australis) are flying their colors and the filipendula, yarrow, nepeta, and penstemon are about to join the hurrah. And I’m up for the challenge to keep it going for the next five or six months. In fact, planning and planting for late season color was what I set out to write about today. Right up until I noticed that the other hand was grasping a proliferation of weeds and flinging them over my shoulder in disgust. Suddenly spring — let’s call it early summer now that lifeguards are on duty — doesn’t seem so easy after all and I don’t feel like much of a hotshot.

Campanula punctata 'Pink Chimes' and Atlantic poppy grow like weeds in June
Campanula punctata ‘Pink Chimes’ and Atlantic poppy grow like weeds in June

Chickweed (Stellaria media) has been in bloom since March, first in the most anemic looking ground-hugging tufts and now stretching robustly skyward, the elastic in its stems defying all but the most determined efforts to pull out its roots. Creeping Charlie a.k.a. ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) has snaked in from the lawn (where I don’t mind its pretty purple flowers and deep green scalloped leaves) into the beds and woven through, up, and around the crowns of every perennial and into the shrubs. Every leaf node that touches soil roots in. I find unzipping whole strips intensely gratifying — until the zipper breaks.

Artemesia vulgaris 'Variegata' tangled up in the chives
Artemesia vulgaris ‘Variegata’ tangled up in the chives

Mugwort or chrysanthemum weed (Artemisia vulgaris) wormed its way via rhizomes into and all over my front garden. I’m not sure where it came from because according to my dog-eared copy of “Weeds of the Northeast”, “few viable seeds are produced in temperate North America.” No matter how it arrived (most likely in the roots of another plant) the colony is entrenched. Here, evidently to stay, as is the pretty variegated form I planted in the back garden.

I know goutweed (Aegopodium podograria) made inroads in a corner of my garden by way of a gifted perennial. Originally introduced as an ornamental ground cover with pretty lace-like flower umbels, it wants nothing more than to cover every square inch of shaded ground, and will unless I never let it go to seed, and chase down all traces of its bright white rhizomes. Even broken bits will re-sprout and should never be tossed in the compost. Don’t bother with Roundup. Goutweed is glyphosate resistant.

Climbing nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) and Asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) have already wound tentacles around tree and shrub branches. I keep pulling new shoots out, and bird-sown seeds keep sprouting. Both vines plus Chinese wisteria are included in the invasive amalgam of honeysuckle, Japanese barberry, and multiflora rose that makes up more than half of the hedge between my garden and the neighbors’ so I am resigned to their murderous presence in my garden forever. I also noticed a carpet of smartweed (Persicaria maculosa) seedlings where a carpet of tall verbena seedlings should be and crabgrass, like the next blockbuster, is coming soon.

I need to reclaim my garden. And as soon as I do I’ll congratulate myself on a glorious season and get busy filling those fresh vacancies with all of the late blooming annuals and tender perennials that will help me feel like a hotshot again.

Since writing the above, I have done just enough “reclaiming” to get the dahlias and a couple of salvias planted. And I’m deferring feeling like any kind of hotshot until those plants outgrow their neighboring weeds and beat them with blooms. Is your garden growing like a weed right now too?