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? 

Under the weather

front gate pile of plow poop

The garden probably isn’t as sick (literally) of winter as I am. Everything must be happy enough tucked under a nice insulating layer (or two) of snow. Except maybe the lavenders. But they have recovered from previous snow splits and if they don’t this year, it’ll just mean it’s time to replace them with the one everyone is pushing pushing pushing. Lavandula × intermedia ‘Phenomenal’ is supposed to be ultra-hardy (to Zone 4) and tolerant of every kind of abuse from humid summers to crushing winter snows. Gotta try it, obviously, either way.

I promised to give the enormous miscanthus at my entry gate to a friend and am grateful right now for the reminder to never, ever plant anything more precious or fragile right there. Exactly where my neighbor’s plow person dumps their driveway snow. Grass was a good choice for that spot – it could stand to be flattened and unlike the rest of my garden, it was never full of wildlife that might frighten off our mail carrier. So perhaps I’ll trade it for another that doesn’t grow quite so hey-yuge quite so fast.

If only we hadn’t had a run of frigid temps without snowy insulation I wouldn’t be worried about my marginals. Salvia guaranitica was just barely holding on as it was – struggling perhaps because of my lousy soil or the over-crowded conditions. Fingers crossed. Last I saw the yellow-speckled leaves of Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’ they looked pretty wretched and I can only hope that even in that sorry state they helped insulate the crown. I’ll be sorry to lose that one if I do. If I’m very, very lucky though, temps will have dipped low enough to slow down my rice paper plant. I would much prefer Tetrapanax paperifer ‘Rex’ to stay under 15′ tall in this tiny garden. Being knocked back to the ground every year would suit me fine.

Are you worried about anything under the weather in your garden?

Down to earth – How to be happy in January

(Originally published January 8, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life) 

I recently overheard a friend of mine describe January as thirty-one Mondays. That’s harsh, I thought, but kind of true. Even though I regularly remind myself how much I enjoy winter, in actuality I drudge through most of it pining for spring like it’s the next long weekend. I’m sure that’s natural for us gardeners. There’s little to do outside beyond keeping the bird feeders filled, and being stuck indoors can really feel like being stuck. That is, unless we make a concerted effort to enjoy the break and the quiet of snow days. Whether it’s snowy out or not. (As I write this, it is very snowy.)

Bitter cold January snow day

This year’s World Happiness Report names Denmark as the happiest country on Earth. There are a number of factors that contribute to a country’s collective happiness such as a terrific education system, decent politics, access to healthcare, and equitable wages. For Denmark though, a country with long, dark winters, a particular cultural practice must have pushed them to the top of the list. Hygge (pronounced hyoo´geh, more or less) doesn’t translate directly to English but can be generally—and inadequately—explained as coziness. Things like hot beverages (spiked or not; chocolate or not), wrapping up in blankets and reading on the couch with a dog on your feet, candlelight, rich, delicious food, and good company would all be described as hyggelig and would all be considered essential not just for getting through the dark days of winter but for thoroughly enjoying them.

It would also seem that the Danes don’t feel exiled indoors over the winter. They bundle up, get on their bikes (according to Denmark’s official website, 50% of Copenhagen’s residents commute by bike on over 400km of bike lanes), take dirty weather on the chin, and soak up every mid-day sunbeam. You probably already know I’m not one for making—or keeping—New Year’s resolutions and it’s highly unlikely that I’ll get on my bike again before spring, take up skiing, or visit Denmark anytime soon, but I’m inspired to practice hygge here and now, outside and in.

I wasn’t even thinking about hygge a few weeks ago when I took a hyggelig walk with friends around The Arnold Arboretum in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. There were no leaves left on the trees, the wind whipped over the hills, the low sun was blinding, and I was never so enchanted with a place. Even though spring and fall must be their busiest, most colorful seasons, winter is the perfect time to go. The Arnold happens to be the oldest public arboretum in the country and the age of some of the trees in their collection is especially evident as their gnarled trunks and branches are on naked display. And I could only imagine—it was easy to do—how magical their conifer collection would be under a layer of snow. Like Narnia. To plan your visit, go to

looking down into Logee's long houseAnd get thee to a greenhouse. Any place filled to the gills with green growing things will be full of hygge too. Some of my favorite local retail greenhouses close for a winter’s nap after the New Year so I use that excuse to make an annual pilgrimage to Logee’s out in Danielson, CT. Their oldest greenhouses and biggest biggest-lemon tree (Ponderosa lemons weigh up to 5lbs each) are well over 100 years old. The dirt-floor aisles are narrow as a jungle and the benches are a tropical vacation of tiny rooted cuttings. I have thoroughly enjoyed rainy day visits—the “long house” is always toasty—but a sunny day will warm you to the core. Just try to leave without a handful of paradise for your windowsills. And feel how much happier you are when you inject some cozy weekend-like moments into this month of Mondays.

What do you do to enjoy January – and/or polar vortices? 

Picture this January

black and white and flamingoI used to enter art competitions occasionally. I never had any particular ambition when it came to my paintings but got a little thrill out of showing them – whenever the work was accepted. (More often than not, it got the big R – but when you paint tiny, quiet things you get used to them not catching the juror’s eye.) I think I must have a little more ambition when it comes to writing – or for whatever reason, I’d rather write if I think someone somewhere might read it. (Thanks, you guys!) But I’ve resisted entering the various interweb and garden blogger competitions because 1. I don’t think it’s appropriate to compete from my work blog (in a very sideways way I get paid for doing that blog) and 2. here at home, I generally just don’t care enough.

Until now. I’m entering my ‘black and white and flamingo’ picture (already shown in my last post) in Gardening Gone Wild’s Picture This photo contest. Not because I care about winning but because I think it fits their winter-y criteria so perfectly I’d be a stupid-head not to try. And secretly, I get a little thrill out of showing it off again.

— This is not my garden. I took it on a dog walk at Juniper Hill Cemetery. Just to the right of the shot were graves incongruously decorated with flags (else they would have been included).

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?