Down to earth – sem(pl)antics

Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers July 6, 2016.

I had a friendly debate the other day (weeks ago now) with a fellow professional gardener that might have devolved into a heated argument if I hadn’t capitulated. We were talking about one of my favorite plants, African blue basil, which she described as an annual. I call it tender perennial. To-may-to, To-mah-to? It comes down to semantics.

What is an annual? The definition I use was written by botanists who base it on a plant’s life cycle. An annual is the sort of plant that grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies all in one growing season. My friend’s definition swings a bit wider to include anything that won’t survive winter in our gardens. I yielded the point because she’s not alone. You won’t find African blue basil in the perennial section at any nearby nursery.

African blue basil growing in the Mount Hope Farm cutting garden with nicotiana, feverfew, and snaps

But this is where it gets tricky and why I’m having trouble letting go: I bought mine a whole growing season or two ago. Life-cycle-wise, African blue basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum ×basilicum) takes after its perennial parent. In its East African home climate, O. kilimandscharicum doesn’t die after flowering and setting seed. (Never mind that the hybrid child is sterile. That tiny detail is beside the point.) It grows on.

I use the term tender perennial where applicable because I rise to the challenge of keeping “annuals” alive inside over the winter and replanting them summer after summer.

Self-sowers add to the confusion. Plenty of botanically true annuals return year after year more reliably than some perfectly hardy perennials. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) falls into that category along with shiso (Perilla frutescens), and California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). I always think of Verbena bonariensis as an annual because in my garden it grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies. Or does it? In fact, it’s a marginally hardy perennial (to Zone 7) and sometimes only dies back to the ground after frost, coming up fresh as a … well, not a daisy exactly, but as itself all over again the following summer. And whenever winter kills them, seedlings will pop up in the same spots and everywhere else besides.

I know another gardener who would give perennials that aren’t great at spreading from the roots, such as coneflower (Echinacea sp.), sea holly (Eryngium sp.) and heuchera, the qualifier “short-lived.” We might think twice about purchasing a plant with only three or so years to live. Then again, in general, only the sterile hybrid cultivars will poop out completely and need to be replaced (or not); given the chance, straight species self-sow their own succession.

When it comes to buying plants, most of us gardeners simply want to know exactly what to expect. But a lot of factors are involved in ultimate plant happiness and longevity; a certain amount of unpredictability is part of the challenge. If we didn’t enjoy that we wouldn’t bother bothering. I will always be happy to shell out for one-summer wonders because my garden wouldn’t be half as lively without annuals. And with any luck some might just turn out to be perennial.

An hour a day

just sitting in the garden with a smiling dog at my feetI was talking with someone today who says she spends about an hour a day weeding her garden after work. I admire her dedication and am a little envious of her free time on the weekends. No doubt even a half an hour a day in this garden would be enough to keep the weeds more or less away but suddenly I can think of alternative uses for my time out there. For instance, on any given weekday evening, I might rather perform tasks that involve consumption of snacks and bevvies and perhaps even a little dozing and drooling if I’m feeling truly ambitious.fizzie bevvie in the garden

There have been days lately, evenings really, after work, when I could feel my garden beckon but I just couldn’t face it. What the hell? What’s the point of having a garden of my own if I avoid spending time in it? I have an evil tendency – call it a Puritan work ethic if you’re feeling particularly generous, an annoying character flaw if not – and it only allows for relaxation when the work is done. People with this particular dis-ease know, of course, that the work is never done. But I decided tonight, in a tectonic attitude shift, that the important thing about “an hour a day” is just that I spend it – doing/not doing something – in the garden.a blurry doze in the garden (or what's a chaise lounge for?)

Do you spend an hour a day in your garden?

A small hope for the new year

Zeke and Nino in the snow gardenI’ve taken a lot of photos at work that I’m inordinately proud of but I’ve taken very few of my own garden that I like at all.  The only reason I’ve saved any of them is to, optimistically, use as “before”s.  There’s always some flaw in a wide angle shot that makes me cringe – things that can be overlooked except through a lens – a giant invasive weed, a plant in the wrong place, an expanse of lawn.  But during the snow storm on New Year’s eve, I took some pictures of Zeke and Nino cavorting in a corner of the garden, and not only do I love the pictures for the subject (pure joy), but I think they’re the best pictures I’ve ever taken of the garden itself.  (I admit to adjusting the exposure and levels slightly – ok, a lot.)

we all love snowI like that the bright whiteness of the shed doesn’t make it stick out like a thumb.  I like that the caryopteris is a graceful sculpture that doesn’t appear to be sitting on top of the lavenders or anything else in that bed.  There’s a hint that I like of permanence, structure and summer shade in the tree branches.  And I love that the lumpy, thistleful crab-grass lawn doesn’t exist at all.

My hope is – and I guess it’s a bit of a new year’s resolution (I had previously resolved to not be resolute) – that I will take another picture of that corner of the garden – or any other corner for that matter – that I like as well when it’s not obliterated by snow.  I’m saying it out loud and that means I’ve got to get busy.  To turn the garden from a cringe inducing embarrassment into something I’m proud to photograph will take paint (before the dogwood and lilac bloom and leaf out), planting – a lot of planting, editing and time.  But the snow has shown me the potential for proud and I resolve to do it.

full speed ahead

Have you made any new year’s resolutions – inadvertantly or otherwise?


Audrey in the Agave

There’s something happening inside my brain that’s manifesting outwardly in trips to Ikea and marathon feng shui-ing of my home, garden and new blog.  Is winter coming?  Is my nesting instinct and enthusiasm as much a sign of a difficult winter to come as the stripes on a woolly bear?  Whatever winter brings I feel ready to embrace it with a new place to sit in what I used to call my “studio” and spankin’ new $15 metal shelves all over the house.  Bring it (winter, I mean) on.

I still haven’t put the garden completely to bed but it also hasn’t completely frosted here yet.  I haven’t seen any bees (I haven’t been looking) but if I did they would be enjoying the last of the weedy nicotianas that have dominated my garden.  The Swiss chard is still lovely to look at and cook up.  And what would the aphids eat if I took out the cabbage?  I guess I’m not quite ready for full on hibernation – even if I am already in my pajamas.

Bright Lights swiss chard


the trench manicure

I’m not sure exactly what has inspired me to start a garden blog as the gardening season comes to a soggy end.  But here it is:  a new beginning here at Champignon, home of Nino, the Pigeon, Audrey and Z.  And I guess it’s home to me too and I’m the one with the trench manicure decorating my paws.

You might know me from another life – I work as a gardener and blogger for a public garden.  But this blog is meant to chronicle my own and will be uncensored.  Take that as fair warning for anyone with delicate sensibilities – I have a mouth when I want to use it and it can be as dirty as my fingernails.

I am often torn and a little tortured by letting myself “out” in my work blog.  I’d rather be tormented by letting too much of myself show in my own garden.  So here I am and will be – as exposed as I ever am when I’m working butt up in my own front garden.  You can slow down as you drive by and take a little sideways peek; you can stop for a chat and what the heck’s that?; or you can speed on with the radio blaring, oblivious.  I’m wicked shy but I hope to meet some of my (blogosphere) neighbors here on my own turf …