Down to earth – finding a method in spring’s madness

(Originally published on April 2, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.) 

Spring is finally working its way in (never mind last week’s snow). It has to be. The calendar says so. The redwing blackbirds have been back for weeks. The pussy willows are out and the maples have begun to look lightly dusted in fall colors. (It’s almost as if they’re reminding us not to get too attached.) Crocus and Iris reticulata have bloomed. Daffodils are…well, they’re up and budded and we can be fairly certain they’ll start blaring trumpets one of these days. Whenever the wind isn’t blowing a gale the sun feels as warm and comforting as a bath. I’m itching to be outside. I can’t wait to roughen my winter-soft hands, stretch my back muscles, and get the garden started.

Sweat bee dusted in Mt. Aso pussy willow (Salix chaenomeloides 'Mt. Aso') pollen
Sweat bee dusted in Mt. Aso pussy willow (Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt. Aso’) pollen

I just don’t want my excitement about spring to shift to panic. I need to remember that there’s plenty of time to get to it all. I am pretty sure that I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed if only I could be methodical about everything that needs doing now. If only I could stick to one task or one section of the garden at a time without spotting, all the way across my tiny property, something else that desperately needs doing and then trying to tackle that too. Distraction is inevitable — especially in a garden — but I feel certain that I’d be able to keep my wits about me if I didn’t also notice, on my way from here to there, by way of the shed, say for loppers, ten more plants that need the attention of my snips or spade. Requiring another trip back to the shed.

Lists help. Or would if I wrote them down. A game plan with a goal in mind might be even better. So, the goal I’m aiming for this spring — every spring — is to clear the clutter and open up some spaces in the garden for more late season color.

First things first. I’m probably the last gardener in the neighborhood to cut back old stems and seedheads. As soon as that’s done it will be high time to prune the roses and other summer blooming shrubs like butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), Spiraea japonica, bush clover (Lespedeza thunbergii) and summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) down to the ground or to within 12” or so. Those plants — along with most deciduous shrubs and trees that bloom on new wood — will rebound from dormant buds with multi-stemmed new growth, lush foliage, plenty of flowers, and a more compact shape.

My enormous Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Eva’) and ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) could stand a hard pruning too but I’m reluctant to lose all of their summer flowers (they both bloom on last year’s wood) so I’ll stick to my resolution to prune about a third back annually. I have to wait for my beautiful but rangy pussy willow (Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt. Aso’) and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) to finish blooming before cutting them all the way to the ground to encourage tidier clusters of stems.

Hellebores and a whacked-back ninebark in the background.
Hellebores and a whacked-back ninebark in the background.

Only after the garden is cut back and pruned will there be room to wield a spade, which is what I’m really itching to do. And with any luck, by the time I’m ready to do all the digging, dividing, editing, redistributing, and planting I have on my (mental) list the weather will be warm enough to set the garden off and running.

From the distance of this page, with the whole season stretching ahead, and knowing there can be a method to the madness, it all seems very doable. Like there’s no need to feel crazy and rushed. If spring can take its time working its magic on the garden, so can we.

Since writing this, I have cut the garden back and pruned the shrubs. Some as hard as I intended to. Others harder — the ninebark for one. You too?

Down to earth – plan for snowdrops …

… not snow, to herald spring

(Originally published March 20, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

snowdrops and crocus blooming on High St.

I don’t think of myself as a plant snob. I love plants, probably almost enough to qualify as a true geek, but I’m not very particular. Plants like sweet allysum and lavender make my heart pound as much as the most complicated orchid or hellebore. I tend to shy away from becoming overly attached to plants like primroses, dahlias, and hostas that have their own societies of enthusiasts who hold monthly meetings. I’m too much of a loner to be that much of a joiner. But I realized recently, after staring at close-ups in a magazine for much longer than normal, that I might be a latent galanthophile.

Snowdrops have never wowed me before. Their tiny white egg-shaped flowers dangle only inches off the ground surrounded by a clump of grassy green blades. They hang for ages from a nobby ovary before opening three segments—they’re called tepals when the petals are indistinguishable from the sepals that form the outer bud jacket—to reveal (if you’re willing to get down on your belly for a look) an inner layer of three, or a multiple of three, more segments. I appreciate their appearance so early in the year (some have been blooming around here since early February) but have always used them to justify finger tapping impatiently for gaudier early birds like crocus, Siberian squill, trout lily, and daffodils. I generally prefer colorful flowers to white ones.

But just because they’re white doesn’t necessarily mean they’re colorless. According to “additive” color theory, white is the blending of all colors of light. As a painting student the “subtractive” theory, wherein white is the absence of color and black is the blend, made much more sense to me. Even though every time I mixed all the colors on my palette I got a purplish-brown mess. Now that I’m a plant lover suddenly attracted to snowdrops, I’m inclined to resubscribe to the former theory.
Besides, snowdrops are more colorful than I ever gave them credit for. Even the plainest are fancifully decorated or just barely tinged, mostly on the inner tepals, with spring green. Which happens to be one of my very favorite colors especially in flowers. (Go figure.)

Out of the twenty or so species in the genus, Galanthus nivalis is the most commonly grown and variably tweaked by breeders and galanthophiles. It naturalizes freely by producing bulb offsets and by self-sowing, and what isn’t obvious from magazine centerfolds is that the flowers smell like honey on warm days. I’m suddenly desperate for the collectable cultivar ‘Magnet’, which dangles from extra long and gracefully curved stems and is well blotched with green on its inner segments. And there’s no way I can go through another March without the fully double (on the inside), ‘Flore Pleno’. But ‘Viridapice’ will probably end up being my favorite because even the outer segments blush green. For curiosity’s sake I might plant the yellow-tinged ‘Sandersii’ but in pictures they look anemic to me.

Giant snowdrop (G. elwesii) is also on my must-have list because its flowers, while not being at all colossal, are larger than the others and I should hope, more easily enjoyed from a distance. My plan, hatched this very minute, is to plant snowdrop drifts in a corner of my backyard border already home to budded hellebores and a few other later-spring bulbs. Not only do I like the idea of a “spring border” but I’ll be able to see them from my desk. That’s crucial whenever it’s blustery outside and cozy inside.

I wish I could buy the bulbs right now for instant gratification, but fall is the time to plant them, and summer the time for placing orders. In the meantime I’m stuck with pretty pictures. My consolation is that I know this craving too shall pass—probably just as soon as the snowdrops fade and the daffodils and trout lily bloom. Any day now.

Down to earth – hope springs

Originally published in East Bay/South Coast Life on March 13, 2013, a good week and a half after my first day back in the garden. Not that I have gotten much done yet. If only it would stop snowing. Another freaking “wintery mix” is forecast for this week. I’ve done all the damage (i.e. spent all the money) I can possibly do inside. 

I am desperate to get back out in the garden. This time last year I lamented about not getting a proper winter break. This year, the opposite. Maybe gardeners are never content. But I’m pretty sure that nothing would make me happier right now than to spend one non-rainy, non-snowy, calm-wind weekend day outside. I can’t wait for the pleasure of composting fallen stems, digging out more lawn, laying flagstone paths, whacking the butterfly bush back down (almost) to the ground, and worrying over exactly how much to prune from my gangly Black Lace elderberry. If I can’t get out to do that stuff soon, I might go mad. Or to the mall, which in my book is a little bit the same thing.

I have tried very hard over the last few weeks to use my gotta-garden energy productively indoors. Reorganizing the kitchen cupboards felt something like weeding. Browsing pillows and picture frames was not unlike plant shopping (though less gratifying because once they’re planted on couches and walls they don’t grow anything but dusty.) And a drab room repainted a vivid shade of raspberry fills my eyes like a hot August dahlia up close.

So I’m very glad that it’s finally March because regardless of the vagaries of weekend weather, a New Year has (re)turned and I’m confident that it won’t be long now before I’ll be losing track of time in the garden again. Hope springs and everything starts this month. The birds at my feeder are already singing love songs. Are the redwing blackbirds back yet? If not, they will be soon, along with osprey, killdeer, and the robins (who have been here all along). And sometime, usually towards the end of the month, the spring peepers, tiny frogs about the size of a quarter, will come out of hibernation from under logs and behind loose tree bark along marshes and ponds to trill their little throats out from evening into night. Noting these signs of spring in a perpetual calendar or notebook—and competing with friends and family for first sighting/hearing every year—will keep you vigilant, if not patient.

arugula seedlings germinated in 4 days.And this month, whenever the weather forces us back inside, there is some actual indoor gardening to do. Usually I’m delighted enough by the thousands of seeds sown by some of my favorite volunteers in the Blithewold greenhouse that I don’t feel compelled to fill my own windowsills with starts. But this year I’m looking forward to watching my own plants, destined for my own garden, spring like hope itself from tiny packages of dormant DNA.

I’m determined to grow more vegetables, so the first seeds I’ll sow will be artichokes. Some gardeners are surprised to see them producing outside of California, but the only requirement that sets these tender perennials apart from other veg is two or more weeks of chill temperatures (40s-50s) after germination to trick them into thinking they’ve overwintered. (Like biennials, they usually wait to bloom until their second year. And of course, the bloom—in bud—is the delicacy.)  But check the seed package: some promise to flower the first year without cold-temperature trickery.

Along with artichokes I intend to sow packs of lettuces, arugula, beets, kale, and radishes because they’re cool season crops and delicious as seedlings. The name “microgreens” doesn’t do them justice… By the time they germinate and I pluck them for a dinner salad, it will be high time (mid-April-ish) to sow seeds for plants that will actually make it into the ground. But of course by then we should all be spending whole glorious, soft, and sunshiny days outside in the garden. Hope springs. Happy New Year!

Down to earth – On artful, art-full gardens

Originally published on November 28, 2012 in East Bay/South Coast Life

My garden art is showing again. I must have forgotten how many ornaments I have stashed around because I was pleasantly surprised to see birdhouses reappear between the branches and my concrete goose poke its beak back out from behind some melted annuals.

I don’t mind that they, and a few other things, have suddenly resurfaced because they’ll add to the winter view in a way they never would have succeeded in doing over the summer when flowers and foliage were all the ornament I needed.

I also don’t mind that they were mostly hidden for the summer — all but our ironic pink flamingo named Floyd who hangs out by the mailbox — because I’m a little bit worried that one day tchotchkes will take over the garden the way they have the house. Then perfect strangers might see me for the loony collector of bits and bobs that I am. As it is, perfect strangers and fellow gardeners alike probably read my garden as an obsessive collection of plants, albeit strangely lacking in statuary.

This past summer I visited Bedrock Gardens, a private garden occasionally open to the public in Lee, N.H. that blurs or even crosses the line into being a sculpture garden. The property is owned by sculptor Jill Nooney and her artistic husband, Bob Munger, who together have created acres of gardens that are more like earthworks.

Among other delights, there is a 200-foot waterway called The Wiggle Waggle, a grassacre not of lawn but of blocks of native flowering grasses that reads as an abstract painting from the vantage of their barn, and a collection of 50-plus conifers in a stand called Conetown. And, the entire sculpted property is peppered in sculpture, both Nooney’s found-object welds and Munger’s structures, as well as a vast collection of art by friends. Most (all?) of it for sale. Somehow, rather than overwhelming the garden and stealing attention from their fabulous collections of plants, their art embellishes the garden and tells a fascinating story of its owners. Which is exactly what art in the garden is meant to do.

A few years ago I trespassed another very different but entirely art-full garden in Buffalo, N.Y. that came pretty close to crossing the line into miniature golf course-ness: An abandoned mill towered over and shaded a tiny, intensively planted backyard absolutely filled to the gills with statuary. Concrete Venus de Milos and Davids shared the shrubbery with saints, Asian lanterns and gnomes.

But it worked, not just for the owner who clearly loved his all-inclusive sanctuary, but for this perfect stranger as well. And that right there is why. His garden and Bedrock Gardens are loved unabashedly. They are intensely personal spaces created by unselfconscious gardeners who probably don’t give a damn what I think, which made it hard not to love and be inspired by them.

I recently heard a lecture on “infusing the garden with personality” by gardener and author Tovah Martin who, decades ago, wrote about one of the most fiercely idiosyncratic and self-possessed gardeners ever in “Tasha Tudor’s Garden.” Tovah offered a reminder that I’d like to have engraved on my hori-hori: Your garden is yours. Stop caring what other people might think.

If you do what you love, whether it’s to create a haven for wildlife, amass a collection of every species of viburnum or daylily, and/or display a gallery of knick-knackery, there will be beauty — maybe not in the eye of every beholder, but in yours. And, in any case, if you love your garden madly deeply, chances are others will be inspired to as well.

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.”