Down to earth — winter weary

Originally published March 29, 2017 in EastBayRI newspapers.

Patience is a virtue, Virtue is a grace. Grace is a little girl, Who would not wash her face.

–Dick King-Smith

We gardeners are generally credited for being patient, but March puts us to the test and causes snark and crankiness. We growl and say we cannot WAIT for spring, though of course there’s no alternative aside from hopping the next plane to find it elsewhere. A friend with no travel plans recently lamented to me that he’s starved for color, sick to death of winter’s grey. Me too. So today I made it my mission to identify a few ways we can maintain serenity at least until daffodils trumpet and trees start leafing out.

First, don’t wait for the world outside to burst into bloom. If there’s ever a time to indulge in the luxury of floral arrangements, it’s March. Ask your neighborhood florist for locally grown tulips and ranunculus and then fill every vase and jelly jar in the house. If local flowers can’t be had yet a bunch of Columbian alstroemeria is the next best (and longest lasting) thing. A mixed bouquet might not promise the same vase life but will give you the chance to practice your skills, rearranging stems over again as blooms fade and shatter. Just don’t stick your nose in imported flowers, and remember to wash your paws after handling them. Go rogue and supplement your arrangements with forced branches and budded daffodils from the yard. Forsythia will open within a weekend and daffodils only want a slight bend in the neck and a tinge of color to bloom in a vase.

I rely heavily on houseplants for color therapy. Another winter-weary friend recently gave me a walking iris (Neomarica gracilis) pup that had already put out a flower bud. I thought the plantlet might sacrifice the bud to put extra energy into root production, but I came home the other day to a most exquisite and precious display. The flowers, indigo blue standards over white falls with a tiger-print signal, are only open for a day and are delicately fragrant. (Full disclosure: when I owned this plant in a previous life, I missed its display so often I evicted it out of frustration. The spent flowers are disappointment itself.) As houseplants go, walking iris is easy. Water it when — or just before — the soil goes dry and give it a smidge of sun.

Neomarica gracilis
walking iris

Clivia miniata flowers are not so subtle or ephemeral. This South African amaryllis relative spends most of its life with me in a state of wretched neglect, relegated to shady garden corners in the summer, and all but forgotten and unwatered under a crowded bench in my plantry for the winter. That is, until I remember to check for clusters of buds forming between its wide strappy leaves. Last week I watered it and brought it into the living room in time to enjoy a super-sized stem-full of yellow-throated oversaturated orange “fire lilies”. If they don’t give me a pre-season color fix, nothing will. Clivia, pronounced with a long or short I depending on who’s speaking, (cleye’-vee-ah honors its namesake, Lady Clive, and to me, sounds less anatomical than clih’-vee-ah) is a tough as nails houseplant that rewards the most indifferent gardeners by blooming only after a period of cool (can be near freezing) nights and winter drought. Forget to bring this one inside until almost too late next fall, and you’re golden — or your spring will be. Its only liability is mealybug, which loves to feast tucked between the straps, and sometimes spider mite.

Clivia miniata

It was 50-something degrees and sunny on the official first day of spring. I saw black-crowned night heron returning to the pond in my neighborhood; honeybees worked crocus; and my neighbor used his leaf blower for the first time this year. We won’t have long to wait now. A major color fix is coming. Patience.

Since writing the above, it snowed. On April Fool’s Day. And today was gloriously spring-like. The pendulum swings. Are you making it through the transition? How?

Down to earth – time to get a move on


Spring's at the plantry door
Spring’s at the plantry door

One recent sunny Saturday I awoke to a garden that suddenly looked less like a debris field and more like a place where green things might grow. Perennials are poking out from beneath the mulch made of winter’s stems and twigs. My tulips are up and opening, and the honesty (Lunaria annua) has budded early, or so it seems with winter being such a fresh memory. Patches of starry sky-colored Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) that have increased since last year share blue pollen with the neighborhood honeybees, who have apparently fared a little better than they did last year. Scents of hyacinth, winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), and my poor sleet-scorched star magnolia entertain my nose, while blooming street trees and evergreens make it sneeze. The grass is green, and according to my neighbors, in need of a mow already. It’s spring. There can be no doubt about it now.

Walking around my garden that morning I knew it was high time to get a move on, and I spent the whole day doing just that. My first task was to identify the living and the dead, which will never be easy for those of us with a wonky memory. I can’t always recall exactly where I planted anything, and the new foliage sometimes throws me. Last year I must have misidentified a fall-planted orange yarrow (Achillea millifolium ‘Terracotta’) — new to my garden and therefore precious — and gave it away with clumps of extra meadowsweet (Filipendula vulgaris). Mea culpa. The emerging leaves are similarly soft and ferny but certainly not identical. Or maybe it just didn’t make it through the winter.

As soon as I recognized old friends, I started moving them around. This is the perfect time to dig and divide perennials, particularly any that bloom after Memorial Day (best to divide earlier bloomers in the fall) and relocate seedlings of perennials and biennials such as forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica) and foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). Watered in by us and spring showers, even the tap-rooted seedlings like Atlantic poppy (Papaver atlanticum), will take to new ground as if that’s where they grew all along.

Rose campion on the move
Rose campion on the move

My Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum × superbum ‘Becky’) needs annual editing — to another bed, the compost heap, or a friend — to prevent the ever-increasing clump from Godzilla-stomping adjacent plants. Check. And after two years in one corner of my garden I finally have a healthy supply of deceptively elegant gray-green rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) seedlings — enough to dot throughout for a gaudy cerise spectacle in July. I can hardly wait. It’s also not to late to move shrubs and small trees, if necessary. I transplanted a struggling Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pointer’ from the front yard, where it had been smushed between a beebalm, an agastache, and a rose, to a smidgen of what looks right now like open ground in the back. I shifted my fancy pussy willow (Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt. Aso’) six inches to the left. No easy task, that, but it’s done and done for good. At least until I change my mind again about exactly where it should be.

By now, and this happens every spring, I have blown out the knees of my favorite jeans. My fingernails are embedded with soil and no amount of lotion can soothe or smooth my crusty knuckles. Calluses have formed across the top of each palm. My back aches; my eyelids droop. I’m suddenly, constantly, ravenously hungry, yet am losing weight. Clearly I am enjoying a combination of conditions that can only mean one thing: spring and I are finally getting a move on. 

Down to earth — why my houseplants hate me

(Originally published on April 16, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life under the headline “Don’t abandon indoor plants”)

It’s not often that I imagine my plants quoting dead poets. Or living ones for that matter. But I can almost hear my indoor collection sigh, “April is the cruellest month.” Suddenly, right when they need me the most, I have abandoned them and gone outside to garden. It’s not as if I can help it. None of us could. We’ve been waiting so impatiently for spring to arrive that as soon as the sun came out, the peepers peeped, and the ice-cream trucks started making their rounds, didn’t we all bolt out of the house like a shot, not to return until supper? Trouble is, like everything outside, our houseplants are going through a growth spurt too, which must be every bit as painful as T.S. Eliot suggests.

All winter long I was able to keep a once-a-week watering schedule. Doing the rounds every Saturday morning worked out perfectly. Plants like begonias and citrus that needed to go a little bit dry between watering did, and the ferns and ficus that needed more consistent soil moisture somehow managed to never quite dry out. The half-dormant plants out in my chilly “plantry” required watering even less frequently. Every other Saturday seemed to suit them fine.

That has all changed now. Longer days and a sun that keeps rising higher, hotter, and brighter are universal cues to get growing even for plants that spent the winter relatively warm behind or under glass. And as they begin to photosynthesize in earnest again, they take up more water from the soil and more nutrients too. Come to think of it, this is the time to begin fertilizing. If only I wasn’t so distracted by the garden outside.

Alocasia R.I.P.
Alocasia R.I.P.

Some of my houseplants have reacted to my distraction by handing out ultimatums. For many of them, wilting is a red flag signaling, “pay attention to me right this minute or I will die.” For others it’s an incommutable death sentence. The stress of abandonment and temperature fluctuations between sun-warmed days and winter-chilly nights, together with succulent new growth has also suddenly attracted infestations of aphid and scale. Since I hadn’t noticed sap-sucking populations in residence over the winter, I have to guess that they spontaneously generated out of thin air and opportunity. “April is the cruellest month.”

I’m not sure how they got word but the fully dormant plants stored down cellar in the dark seem to know it’s spring too. Perhaps warmer ambient temperatures can be credited for spurring some anemic looking new growth that begs for the light of day. In any case, it’s time to give fuchsias, salvias, tuberous begonias, fig, and brugmansia a transition and a head start on the season. They should come upstairs and in this particular household, the only way to make room for more plants is to move others out.

April nights are cold but as long as the long range forecast doesn’t mention any temperature too near or below freezing, plants like New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), camellia, and geranium (Pelargonium spp.) that hail from temperate (rather than tropical) climes can begin to join us outside in the garden. And just like us as we venture out, they could use some protection — in their case, shade for a couple of weeks at least — to keep them from burning.

Meanwhile, all of the plants still stuck inside need attending to. They need watering much more frequently. Fertilizing. Insect patrol and grooming. Time that I’m sure we’d all much rather spend outdoors. But to lose, this close to summer, any of the plants that helped keep us sane over the winter, would be truly painful. So let’s not forget about them in April. 

Any casualties in your household lately? 

Spring cure

Driving home today with a flat of blue and orange pansies in the wayback I thought about how dependent I have become on their funny monkey faces to cure my spring blues. (Is it just me or do you feel overwhelmed to the point of inertia by the potential of spring?) Almost as soon as the nurseries put pansies out I’m there. This year it feels like very early days but evidently I couldn’t wait. I even tried to resist the urge and then, right before the nearest nursery closed today I invented excuses to go. I suddenly needed to replace a gardening hat I lost over a year ago. I had to buy a pruner holster because I just put mine … somewhere… (It was an expensive flat this year.) potted pansies and stipa 4-13-14My garden is still in its not-pretty-yet stage and the cheerful pots of pansies by my plantry door are totally lipstick-on-a-pig but since I’m not quite ready to tackle all of the dividing and transplanting that my garden requires in spring (it’s Plantiful, doncha know) it felt like the perfect way to ease back into the groove of growing again. And I think I’m a titch happier for it. Money well spent.

It occurred to me to post an old down to earth column on the subject of spring blues and the pansy cure but then I discovered that I already had. Last year. Here.

Do you get the spring blues too? What’s your cure?

Pansies are powerful

Crack pansy happinessAll is not well with the world (what the hell is it coming to?) but pansies might just help make it better. Spotted these crack pansies today in Providence and smiled. Coincidentally, also today, a friend told me about The Pansy Project. And last April I wrote this column about them, published April 11, 2012 and titled, Spring pansies save the day for gardeners. It should be noted that this year spring is not demoralizing — quite the contrary. But recent violent events are. 

They say money can’t buy happiness but it can buy a flat of pansies and I need an attitude adjustment right about now. Of all the seasons, spring has the most potential to demoralize gardeners. Consider: This year drought looms. Magnolia blooms were toasted. The grass started growing in March. Instead of blooming their hearts out, my daffodils are having a “rest” year. All of the perennials but one need dividing and transplanting. Weeds are taking over where I might have winter-sowed poppy and columbine seeds and everywhere else too. What keeps me from becoming grumpy? I have pansies to thank for that.

I never feel as rich as when I’m standing at the checkout with a flat or two of pansies balanced on my forearms. And they, more than any other spring flower make me grin. Their monkey faces are even funnier to me than Daffy Duck drawn (by Bugs) as a flower-faced, four-legged screwball. And the pansies laugh along: spring’s wacky weather doesn’t bother them a bit. Summer is the only thing that slows them down.

Their freebie cousins have started to bloom too. Some people think violets are weeds because they seem to prefer growing in a lawn than a cultivated garden bed. No matter where they grow, they’re too sweet and too beneficial to compost: they’re butterfly and insect (bird food) host plants. Dooryard violet (Viola sororia) is the most common around here. It has heart-shaped leaves and a range of flower colors from blue-purple to greyish-white with a delicate blue veins in the center. A cultivar called ‘Freckles’ is spotted purple on white: so adorable. Almost as adorable as the dollhouse-sized violet I noticed when I was planting pansies the other day. It’s possible I’ll be the only one to enjoy its front yard display of pale Johnny jump-up faces no bigger than a baby’s toenail.

Viola labradoricaLabrador violet (V. labradorica) with its gothic black leaves and deep-purple petal flutters might be my very favorite. It spreads by rhizomes and isn’t averse to being transplanted to all of the shady places in my garden. (Though I don’t have many.) It prefers moist soil but has come back willingly in a bone dry spot. Viola ‘Etain’ is another favorite. It has big round butter yellow petals rimmed in French blue and is the most elegantly cheerful perennial violet of them all.

Most violas will be happy to throw a few seeds around the garden. Literally. They’re forcibly ejected when ripe. But pollination is tricky. Insects don’t always notice the flowers despite their fancy faces, and the ones that do need to be able to grab the pollen from down a narrow passage. I read recently about someone who resorted to hand pollinating his favorite pansy with a chin hair. But in case chin hairs or that level of commitment are in short supply, most violets also produce self-pollinating petal-less flowers later in the summer. That’s not common in the plant world. In fact, most plants have mechanisms to prevent inbreeding because a lack of genetic variation severely limits healthy adaptability. But a viola’s got to do what a viola’s got to do to survive.

Maybe if my chef hadn’t observed that pansies taste like wax lips I’d request them on every salad. (All violas are edible.) But I think I would actually prefer to leave their jolly faces in the garden and in a container by my door to serve as reminders to lighten up. T.S. Eliot must have been mistaken. April isn’t the cruelest month after all. Not when there are pansies.