New shiny

I have been feeling want-y lately. Plagued by a wolfish desire for anything new and different from the dusty, familiar stuff I look at and use every day. Something that will inspire a burst of energy or a sigh of contentment. I have lost hours scrolling through pretty pictures of other people’s gardens, workspaces, and art on pinterest. I have trolled the internet for real estate, gadgetry, art supplies, and banal household accessories like shower heads, duvet covers, and measuring cups, none of which I need, all of which promise to change my life somehow. I have cleared cutter and rearranged our furniture. I go through this every year.

Ivory Prince hellebore in bud
Ivory Prince hellebore in bud

I know that what I really want is my garden back from winter’s clutches. The garden always cures my free-range cravings because it changes constantly and I get to participate in its transformations. If I ever feel dissatisfied, all I have to do is move something, a plant or an object, and treat myself to a fresh view. I find inspiration there, endless bursts of energy and contentment, more often than not without spending a dime.

It won’t be long now. The snow is finally receding to reveal bits and pieces of ground again. I’m getting glimpses of new-shiny growth and the new-shiny changes I can’t wait to make.

Have you been feeling want-y too? Does your garden satisfy your cravings?

Down to earth – when spring drags its feet … force it.

(Originally published March 19, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

Forget what I said about savoring the last weeks of winter. I’m over it now and I know you are too. Spring can’t come fast enough. Sunshiny days in the 50s and 60s are just a wicked tease arriving as they still do between snow showers and polar vortices. We’re all ready for the tug of war to be over. Ready for the grass to green up and the daffodils to peak. Ready for spring to show in the trees the way it sounds in the birds’ songs. At least we can be pretty sure by now that winter’s muscles are weakening. And spring has the stamina gene. It will win out. Eventually.

Snowdrops are a very good sign that spring is on its way. They’ve been blooming for a few weeks already. Crocus is an even more gratifying sign and I did spot a few of the sweet little wild looking ones (Crocus tommasinianus) open on the last warm day. The honeybees were out that same day, working the witch hazel. And the skunk cabbage are up. It really can’t be long now. But any time the temperatures dip back down to (or below) freezing and snow shows up in the forecast, winter begins to feel interminable again. Until spring wins the tussle once and for all, I say we might as well force it.

I remember my mother displaying vases of bare sticks and twigs in our house when I was a kid. We’d chuckle and snort for weeks about how “pretty” her arrangements were (sarcasm runs in the family) until suddenly they actually were pretty—beautiful even—studded in spring flowers. Given my wonky sense of humor, my perennial disaffection for winter past February, and my vocation as a gardener, it’s no wonder that the practice of tricking tree and shrub branches into an early spring stuck with me. Also, it’s easy.

Simply cut a few budded branches, preferably those that needed pruning anyhow. Because pores close quickly, the stem ends will need a fresh cut, just like flowers do, right before putting them in a vase or bucket of warm—almost hot—water in a bright room. Woody stems need a little extra incentive to draw as much water as possible to the buds, so expose plenty of pith (the tissue under the bark) either by cutting on a sharp angle, or by using your pruners to split the stem an inch or two straight up the middle. Martha Stewart offers a third method involving a hammer. I’m all for finding ways to alleviate the maddening symptoms of spring fever, but the practice of stem smashing seems more likely to damage tissue than open its watery pathways. I could be wrong.

Magnolia stellata forced 3/9 -- 2 weeks to bloom
Magnolia stellata forced 3/9 — 2 weeks to bloom

Next, wait and watch. Change the water periodically and make fresh cuts whenever you feel especially impatient. Depending on the plant and the calendar, your vase of sticks should pop into flower in two weeks to a month or so.

Forsythia is the fastest to force and will be especially quick now that we’re only weeks away from its actual huzzah. It’s not my favorite spring blooming shrub out in the landscape mostly because it’s so common—if yellow is to be the official color of early spring, why not plant acres of fragrant lime-yellow winter hazel (Corylopsis glabrescens) and northeast native spice bush (Lindera benzoin) too? But my mom and I can tell you there’s almost nothing more hilariously cheerful in the living room than a giant vase of forsythia sticks in full bloom. Except maybe a vase of winter hazel, spice bush, crabapples, quince, or magnolia. So if spring can’t come fast enough for you, go ahead and force it.

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!