Down to earth — there will be a quiz

Originally published in East Bay RI newspapers January 31, 2018. 

I worry sometimes I’ll forget everything I ever learned if I don’t practice every day. Like losing muscle after a prolonged stint on the couch with a dog on my feet. (Happens to me every winter.) In my new role working at a public library, practice makes perfect. Policies and procedures will become ingrained with heavy use. I need to know the rules like I know the path to my shed. But I can’t help worrying that learning those things will displace everything I know about gardening.

Back when I lived in Seattle I worked at a large bookstore and knew about 300 people by name. I’m not good with names. They fly right out of my ear if I’m the least bit distracted. I used to quiz myself whenever I visited different departments, ate lunch in the break room, or passed a coworker on the street. Name to face, name to face, name to face. Distributing paychecks (one of the best jobs ever) without having to ask for a name was a point of pride. After I moved home to Rhode Island and started gardening the shelves in my brain that held those names were almost instantly repopulated with plants. — Which makes visits to my old stomping grounds extremely awkward. I recognize faces, most, but their names are buried in the garden.

Now that I’m not using them every day will my plants’ names become buried too? Not if I can help it. But I’ve noticed a worrisome lag. That I’ll look at familiar foliage or flowers and get the spinning pinwheel while my brain database is searched. I’ll have to build more shelves or move them closer to the light. I’ll have to keep quizzing myself. That’s the trick. Every day, every glance out the kitchen window, every drive down the road and walk around the neighborhood I’ll have to put name to face, name to foliage, name to flower (this time of year, name to twig and bark) and greet them like friends.

At least plant names offer clues for retrieval from the vault, much easier than trying to associate a person to the name Mary and distinguish her from a Barbara with the same haircut. Plant names were chosen specifically (no pun intended) to describe their owner. Thanks to Carl Linnaeus, Botanical Latin follows a binomial system similar to ours, but last name first. Genus is a general grouping of common genetics, and species identifies individuals usually with a descriptor of a particular characteristic or origin. Salix (Latin for willow) rosmarinifolia has foliage that resembles rosemary. Itea (the Greek name for willow, a lookalike) virginica is native to Virginia (and the Eastern U.S.). Rosa (we know this one) rugosa has rough and wrinkled leaves. Associations come easily with familiarity, the use of a good dictionary like “The Hamlyn Guide to Plant Names” by Allen J. Coombes, and constant quizzing.

love-in-a-mistLatin names are universal (though taxonomists like to change things up as they learn more about genetics) whereas common names are variable by country, language, region, and person. Honesty, also known as money plant, also known as silver dollar is Lunaria (like the moon) annua all over the world. But even the geek in me will acknowledge common names are sometimes easier to recall, certainly easier to pronounce. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) flowers look exactly like a Gothic novel. Love-in-a-puff (Cardiospermum halicacabum) has black seeds marked with a white heart tucked inside balloon pods. Their identity is obvious.

Seed and plant catalogs have been arriving for weeks and I’ve been reading them cover to cover for mental calisthenics as well as shop-therapy. As for remembering how to garden, I probably shouldn’t worry. Muscle memory needs little cultivation to get things growing again.

I appreciate the crutch of name tags (for people too) but prefer to sort through an untidy record of purchases than look out at a graveyard of labels. How about you?

My mess

The only thing better than a weekend in the garden is a long weekend in the garden. Especially if it’s spring (or in this case the unofficial start of summer) and the weather is sunny and mild and serendipitously showery. These last three days were the best for plant shopping and plant planting. The best for rearranging the furniture—and by that I mean transplanting (it’s not too late) and moving indoor plants out (it’s not too early although the nights are still on the cool side). All the stuff I love to do in the spring. Pretty sure my Z thinks I’m nuts because I’m always pasted at end of it even though I usually break for a nap in the middle of it.

And just like clockwork, I have fallen in love with my garden all over again. By anyone else’s standards it’s a mess. But it’s my mess. I think it’s beautiful and, also, I’m on it. a view of my mess

Strawberries and violets acting weedyOne thing I’ve noticed is that some of my favorite thugs have grown out of scale. I don’t mind plants that act like weeds (I want the strawberries to fill the patio cracks) but looking weedy isn’t so OK. They and the violets in my garage/rain garden are burlier than the perennials and even the shrubs at this stage. So even though violets are butterfly hosts, I have evicted the extra-annoying clumps and placed a few container plants that, until the rest of the garden grows, might provide enough weighty bulk to make the remaining blobs of violet and strawberry leaves look more delicate and garden worthy. And I’ll enjoy working on a list of plants to add to that bed that will offer better contrast this early in the season.

I was a little bummed by today’s showers but the trunkful of plants I brought home from the nursery Saturday got extra watering in; a shiny new rain barrel (replacing a funky, stopped up and mosquito-infested fish barrel) was tested; and it gave me the chance to CLEAN the plantry. Plantry cleaning (to own the truth, any cleaning) is a chore that usually sits at the very bottom of the weekend to-do list but maybe it will rise higher from now on with the incentive of creating an inviting, rainy-day, garden-side haven in what is essentially a screened porchlet. (I’d be writing this out there right now if it wasn’t such a chilly evening.)

Plantry / summer studio

Did you spend a long weekend in the garden? Do you think your garden is a mess too? Are you in love?

Down to earth — May vagabond

(Originally published May 14, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.)

One of my favorite garden writers, the late great Janet Gillespie, Westport author and columnist for the New Bedford Standard Times, said of May, “in the garden seeds are coming up, weeds are proliferating, new plants arrive to be tended to and there are a hundred jobs to do. Don’t do them. Like Mole in Wind in the Willows, drop everything and go vagabonding.” She recommended taking walks in wild places, alone, at our own pace to explore the merry month of May .“Escape the demands of your household,” she wrote, “and get acquainted with yourself again.”

I’m all for a May vagabond (who wouldn’t be?) and I relish alone-time but find it as difficult to exit my garden gate in May as I do in September. Not because there’s so much to do (it can wait) but because there’s so much right here to watch unfold and change, and because the light has that sweet golden tinge. So my advice, based on Jan’s, is to put snips, spade and trowel away, and at least take some slow, restorative strolls through your own Mayscape. Pause often. Pack a picnic.

Vancouveria hexandra
Vancouveria hexandra

My walk takes me past some tiny clumps of fumewort (an unfortunate common name for Corydalis solida), which has smoky mauve flower spikelets and foggy blue-green foliage. Planted near it is a dainty spreading groundcover called white inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), with duck foot-shaped leaves on the most delicate wire stems, and flowers that I guess I already missed. (Are they really inside-out? Let that be a lesson to me to start vagabonding in April.) Both thrive underneath an alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), which, right now, has tiny pleated, red-edged leaves cupping mere nubbins of flower buds. Its foliage is as adorable in miniature as baby toes and as fuzzy as puppy ears. Aside from squee-inducing cuteness, fur on foliage provides protection from a scorching sun (its low angle this time of year can burn gardeners’ tender skin too) and untimely frosts (perish the thought).

full-grown flowering dogwood
full-grown flowering dogwood

Speaking of miniature, before taking possession of a property inhabited by a native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) I was never aware of how the knobby little buds on every twig end crack open into four-petaled “flowers” (they’re bracts, actually, surrounding the true flower) that start out the size of kitten noses and grow bigger, bigger, bigger by the day. Right now, the luminous creamy pale-green bracts, only the size of a cat’s paw, look like eyelet lace from a distance. But, almost as soon as you read this, every flowering dogwood in town will be a thick canvas of flowers, each about 2” across.

Fairy wings (also known as barrenwort — another terrible name — or Epimedium spp.) grow in the dry soil of my dogwood’s dapple. Talk about adorable. Last month I cut back old foliage (still greenish despite winter’s worst) just in time to see the eensiest fist-like buds break the soil’s surface. Since then, wiry stems elongated and thumbnail-sized flowers shaped like court jester caps began shivering in the barest breezes over heart-shaped leaves, some mottled burgundy, others edged with red, all batting eyelashes along the edges. Eyelashes! I have no idea what purpose those might serve but they sure are cute.

Tiger Eyes sumac is all about peach fuzz
Tiger Eyes sumac is all about peach fuzz

That’s the thing about spring. It’s darling. And soft. So shiny and new. (Some foliage emerges with a smooth polish instead of peach fuzz—reflectiveness probably offering a similar protection from sun scorch.) And gardeners otherwise harried by the season may find solace in solitary investigation and contemplation of its cuteness. So please do as Janet Gillespie “The Carefree Gardener” and I suggest: drop everything right now and enjoy it. 

I wrote this before a spell of summer-like temperatures and humidity made everything grow gangbusters. The dogwood is indeed flying its full canvas now. Trees are all leafed out (except my fringe tree and sourwood — natives are often fashionably late) and the weeds grew. Which means no more vagabonding for me. How about you?

down to earth – on gardening with a dog

This was already published here on 2-10-11 but I thought it might be better avec photos of The Noodle.

Dogs put us outside, not the other way around

I read somewhere once that it’s impossible to have a garden if you share the land with a dog. Baloney. Such anti-canine sentiment smacks of pro-feline propaganda and although cats are picturesque, they have extremely smelly poo, are murderous of wildlife, and just as knuckleheaded about sampling poison as any dog – or child for that matter. Not that I have anything against cats. In fact, I believe that keeping pets, no matter what species, is a natural extension of our gardening way-of-life, the same way eating locally grown food is.

I have three fur-covered “kids”. A couple of LOLcats manage my indoor garden and have a truly ingenious way of alerting me when houseplants need repotting. Our mutt on the other hand is perennially unfazed by the cats’ horticultural enthusiasm and seems to prefer accompanying me on garden tours around town to tending his own patch. Not incidentally, a dog at the end of your leash is the best camouflage there ever was for stopping to study other gardeners’ most interesting plant combinations.

To their discredit dogs are best known for digging, chasing, eating disgusting things, peeing and pooping and unfortunately none of those talents is welcome in most gardens. But dogs also have an adorable knack for napping belly-up in a sunbeam. I am a firm believer that a tired dog is a good dog and after Nino’s and my twice-daily hour-long walks neither of us is capable of doing much damage in the garden.

I don’t put the dog out in the yard to just to pee or leave him in the garden for a whole day unsupervised – and never tied up. That’s just asking for holes dug to China along with aggressive anti-social behavior according to most animal behaviorists. Instead he and I hang out together and work as a sort of team. Nino has let me know that if I allow reseeders and weeds to block his entry to a cool under-deck hideout, he will create a new path by uprooting something far more precious. Good to know.

He obligingly chases the woodchuck away from my cabbage patch and although he won’t yank my shoulder out of its socket in pursuit of squirrels while we’re walking, he has an implicit understanding that they’re fair game in the garden. Nino also marks the perimeter and I hope that the neighborhood raccoons and cats might eventually take the hint and scram.

So far Nino’s favorite forage has been uncut lawn grass and if he had the digestion of a goat, I’d hire him to shear it. But the scamp also grazed a pretty little Hakonechloa macra (Japanese forest grass) to nubs. After I moved what was left of that plant though, he stopped eating it. I’ve known other dogs with cravings for things like tomatoes, broccoli, compost and hosta, and plenty of gardeners who chose to plant in raised beds. One of my favorite gardens ever was a tiny one filled with big English sheepdogs and a grid of chair-height planting boxes, which now that I think about it probably had more to do with keeping the ladies from reclining on the annuals and perennials than eating them.

Despite, or perhaps because of the challenges, most of the gardeners I know have dogs. Famously, there’s Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter who had his dachshunds’ portraits drawn in an ironically large mosaic for a terrace floor; Martha Stewart – enough said; and if it wasn’t for Tasha Tudor who stated the obvious when she said that corgis make good garden ornaments I might still be exclusively pro-kitteh.

In winter, Nino spends more quality time in the garden than I do. He bounds like a deer to monitor wildlife activity, and eats snow while I stamp my feet impatiently. It could probably be said that one of the best reasons for sharing the garden with a dog is because they put us out in it, all year round.