My Viburnum carlesii ‘Compactum’, a cultivar introduced right here in little Rhody by my great grandfather’s buds, the Hoogendoorns, started opening right on time today. Sorry you can’t scratch’n'sniff the picture.
All 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.
Labrador 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.
… not snow, to herald spring
(Originally published March 20, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)
I don’t think of myself as a plant snob. I love plants, probably almost enough to qualify as a true geek, but I’m not very particular. Plants like sweet allysum and lavender make my heart pound as much as the most complicated orchid or hellebore. I tend to shy away from becoming overly attached to plants like primroses, dahlias, and hostas that have their own societies of enthusiasts who hold monthly meetings. I’m too much of a loner to be that much of a joiner. But I realized recently, after staring at close-ups in a magazine for much longer than normal, that I might be a latent galanthophile.
Snowdrops have never wowed me before. Their tiny white egg-shaped flowers dangle only inches off the ground surrounded by a clump of grassy green blades. They hang for ages from a nobby ovary before opening three segments—they’re called tepals when the petals are indistinguishable from the sepals that form the outer bud jacket—to reveal (if you’re willing to get down on your belly for a look) an inner layer of three, or a multiple of three, more segments. I appreciate their appearance so early in the year (some have been blooming around here since early February) but have always used them to justify finger tapping impatiently for gaudier early birds like crocus, Siberian squill, trout lily, and daffodils. I generally prefer colorful flowers to white ones.
But just because they’re white doesn’t necessarily mean they’re colorless. According to “additive” color theory, white is the blending of all colors of light. As a painting student the “subtractive” theory, wherein white is the absence of color and black is the blend, made much more sense to me. Even though every time I mixed all the colors on my palette I got a purplish-brown mess. Now that I’m a plant lover suddenly attracted to snowdrops, I’m inclined to resubscribe to the former theory.
Besides, snowdrops are more colorful than I ever gave them credit for. Even the plainest are fancifully decorated or just barely tinged, mostly on the inner tepals, with spring green. Which happens to be one of my very favorite colors especially in flowers. (Go figure.)
Out of the twenty or so species in the genus, Galanthus nivalis is the most commonly grown and variably tweaked by breeders and galanthophiles. It naturalizes freely by producing bulb offsets and by self-sowing, and what isn’t obvious from magazine centerfolds is that the flowers smell like honey on warm days. I’m suddenly desperate for the collectable cultivar ‘Magnet’, which dangles from extra long and gracefully curved stems and is well blotched with green on its inner segments. And there’s no way I can go through another March without the fully double (on the inside), ‘Flore Pleno’. But ‘Viridapice’ will probably end up being my favorite because even the outer segments blush green. For curiosity’s sake I might plant the yellow-tinged ‘Sandersii’ but in pictures they look anemic to me.
Giant snowdrop (G. elwesii) is also on my must-have list because its flowers, while not being at all colossal, are larger than the others and I should hope, more easily enjoyed from a distance. My plan, hatched this very minute, is to plant snowdrop drifts in a corner of my backyard border already home to budded hellebores and a few other later-spring bulbs. Not only do I like the idea of a “spring border” but I’ll be able to see them from my desk. That’s crucial whenever it’s blustery outside and cozy inside.
I wish I could buy the bulbs right now for instant gratification, but fall is the time to plant them, and summer the time for placing orders. In the meantime I’m stuck with pretty pictures. My consolation is that I know this craving too shall pass—probably just as soon as the snowdrops fade and the daffodils and trout lily bloom. Any day now.
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.
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!
I have heard of gardeners who compost in place – who chop up debris as they go and leave it in the garden beds rather than carting it all off to cook in the compost pile – but I’ve never tried it. Until today. I was desperate to get outside (more on that when my next column is published) and tidy winter’s mess out of the garden, but since I haven’t yet eradicated the bittersweet from my compost area (refresh your memory about my compost-fail here) it was either bag up crashed winter stems and twigs to take them to the dump or leave it where it lies in the garden.
I am lazy by nature (don’t tell them at work), and thrifty, so the extra effort to shove everything into those stupid brown bags and trash perfectly good compostables didn’t appeal. So I tried the other. I thought that chopping everything up would be tedious but the old stems are so brittle I barely even unholstered my Felcos (they need sharpening and were fairly useless anyhow) and crushed most everything into bits with my new-gloved paws. It was so brilliantly easy (read, lazy) that I honestly can’t believe I’ve never used this method before.
My garden is maybe not quite as tidy-looking as it could be, with bare exposed soil around every still-dormant plant clump, but I don’t like the look of exposed soil anyway — even in spring. Mostly because I know that any vacancy will fill with chickweed by tomorrow. And the garden certainly doesn’t look any worse than it did when the stems were leaning and crashed. Actually, I think it looks a damn-sight better. And I’m willing to imagine that covering the soil with stuff now will cut down (slightly) on weed germination. Not to mention that any seeds I scatter from annual and perennial reseeders will stay put and not drop along the path to the compost. Come to think of it, I might miss the volunteers that pop up in those random places… As for the weeds I pulled, it will be interesting to see if they reroot where I left them. (At least none, not even the chickweed, were in flower yet.)
Do you ever compost “in place”? Why or why not?
Originally published on February 4, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life under the headline “Avoid marketing shtick when plant-shopping”
In between staring out of windows dreaming about my garden and scraping scale off my houseplants, I have spent time lately reading catalogs cover to cover. Seed catalogs, plant catalogs, tool catalogs … If it’s about the garden and they’re selling stuff, I want to know all about it and I might even order something. Sight unseen if necessary because some of the catalogs, Chiltern Seeds for one, don’t even have pictures. What they have are great descriptions written in a way that makes me want everything.
That got me thinking about plant shopping. I know I’m not alone in ordering from catalogs. It’s one of the most gratifying ways for gardeners to spend an ugly winter day indoors. And as much as I’d rather spend money locally and probably you do too, there are plants available elsewhere that sound pretty great. And like you, I’m perfectly willing to take my chances on a plant destined to arrive on my doorstep either half dormant or still in its seed. But everything changes when we visit nurseries in the spring. Faced with tangible choices we’re much more likely to buy something in bloom than something that’s not. I’ve been seduced and so have you. It’s OK to admit it because those plants have been forced into bloom, unseasonably sometimes, on purpose. But it’s a marketing tactic aimed more for non-gardeners than you and me.
I learned recently, in a PowerPoint lecture full of pie charts given by a marketing executive from “The No. 1 Plant Brand,” that I am not their target customer and neither are you. She (they know she’s a she because their research says so) has a new favorite color every year. So far we’re the same. She is busy. Yup, me too. She wants a beautiful garden. Ditto. But she doesn’t want to actually garden in her garden. Say again? She wants a no-maintenance garden. Where’s the fun in that and does such a thing exist? (No.) She’s also afraid of botanical nomenclature and thinks we’re snooty smarty-pants for ever using Latin for clarity’s sake.
But I don’t think she’s a lost cause. She simply doesn’t yet know that gardening is a great way to work up a sweat on Saturday mornings or decompress for an hour after work. She doesn’t know that plants aren’t furniture, and that insects aren’t fascinating. She still marks time by a calendar, rather than by snowdrops, bees, pussy willow, daisies, daylilies, Joe-Pye weed and frost. Clearly, she needs us.
I like to think that the marketing executives hope that she will be bitten by the gardening bug and become as plant-geeky and into it as you and me. But evidently it’s more lucrative to validate and cater to her lack of interest because every year more plants are introduced that “bloom all summer!” and are “no-maintenance!”
The problem is, I’m as taken in by catchy trademark names and promises as she is. A sweet alyssum (Lobularia) called “Snow Princess” that blooms non-stop? Bring it. And it’s true — that alyssum is sterile and pushes out flowers through heat and well past frost. But it lacks the delicacy of the seed catalog varieties. (Those might burn out mid-summer, but you can expect their self-sown seeds to germinate and pick up the show as soon as environmentally possible.) The same goes for “Knock Out” roses: They bloom all summer without deadheading! But they’re ungraceful plants and the flowers have no fragrance. Sometimes a rose is not much of a rose.
I figure it’s up to us to show this gal the alternatives and turn the industry on its ear. To persist in buying plants that aren’t in bloom yet but will be when the time is right. To put at least as many Rhody Natives on our cart as Proven Winners. To show everyone that a healthy garden buzzes, hums, lives and dies and is more gorgeous for its process and our hand in it. And that winter days are better spent reading about and ordering rarities and oddities from catalogs than not.
What I didn’t mention in the column – but I will now – was how offensive the marketing exec was. His prime directive was evidently to convince an auditorium full of industry professionals to dumb it down and make it extra shiny. He suggested that nurseries and garden centers should be reconstituted as “Life-Style Centers,” and that plants should be displayed by color rather than alphabetical order because “she” doesn’t speak Latin. But I do and so do you and we open our wallets for plants too. I don’t pretend to know what the answer is. I see nurseries struggling and I know they need to keep reaching out to a broader market. But anywhere my choices are limited to what some marketing dude thinks “she” wants, I’m outie.
Originally published on January 23, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life
I know it’s too soon to be wishing for spring but when our first snowfall parked on my garden like a Mack truck and flattened everything standing, I suddenly lost patience with winter. Most of the seedheads that might have poked prettily out of the snow topped with hungry birds, crashed to the ground. Others are leaning like drunks. Now that the icy snow has melted off the golden tresses of the Miscanthus and Stipa grasses that I grow mainly for their winter looks, they remind me of a bad hair day after a really rough night. I guess I understand now why some people cut everything back in the fall. Why not if it isn’t going to be interesting over the winter after all?
I don’t really mean that. I’m just a little bitter. My garden, disheveled though it is, is still a bird magnet with plenty for them to eat. And if I squint, it’s winter-interesting enough. Certainly as much as a garden with naturalistic pretenses should be. It might look like it’s molting, but the light still stretches all the way across it to cast abstract-painting shadows. Frost still glitters like the holidays on stems, twigs and sideways seedheads. And it still pulls me outside when the weather isn’t awful [to smell the witch hazel if nothing else], which is a good thing because I need reminding that I have some serious dreaming to do before spring.
This is truly the only chance all year that we gardeners get to think long and hard about what we want to do differently in the garden without the danger of rashly trying to tackle those projects. And to do the kind of hard-core imagining that’s necessary, we need a great quantity of quality time to sit staring out of windows at a mind’s eye ideal vision of the garden, with books and magazines on our laps and a notebook by our sides. And we need to let loose. This is the time to dream big, as if money, labor and time weren’t obstacles. Reality comes later.
Every year I dream again about growing my own vegetables. This year feels a little different, though, because my chef is giving me cooking lessons and I have finally and fully embraced the awesomeness of kale. (The trick is to squeeze a tasty oily dressing into the raw leaves like wringing out a dishrag — no cooking involved. If it’s “massaging,” it’s the Swedish kind.) So I’m picturing a raised bed, slightly out of reach of the groundhog (who has previously killed my enthusiasm by eating my brassicas to nubs), planted with all my favorite veggies: leafy greens, Swiss chard, carrots and beets. I can picture a hoop frame over it covered in chicken wire to thwart the critters, and then what the British call “fleece” (we call it remay, which sounds less cozy) to keep mid-winter harvests from freezing.
I have gleaned other ideas (besides a more romantic vocabulary) from the pages of Gardens Illustrated. It’s a monthly British publication and by far the prettiest magazine in my lap stack. According to their wide-angle shots, wildly loose and thickly planted gardens like mine, which are not so rare in Europe, seem to benefit from a little crispness for contrast. And since I’m unlikely to faithfully maintain clipped topiary (a dream for another winter), I see my garden beds tidily edged against the lawn in flat stone wide enough (a good 18 to 24 inches would do) so that the plants can flop without getting under the wheels of the lawn mower. As luck would have it I’ve been allowed to lay claim to otherwise unwanted patio slates, which can potentially keep my garden from bleeding onto whatever’s left of the lawn — if I don’t use them up creating a gracious entry landing instead.
For the time being, while my garden is at its unloveliest, I’ll allow myself the luxury of imagining both and the raised vegetable bed, too. As long as the weather is too muddy, frigid, or foul for work, we gardeners should use the time wisely to ponder over our wish list instead and enjoy the thought that at least one of our garden dreams might rise to reality come spring.
Orange might be the color of the 1970s, Halloween, and the demise of summer but to me it’s the color of happiness. Stunning ‘Jelena’ is little early this year I think, but you won’t hear me complaining.
With the outdoor gardening season on hold for the winter and the holidays behind me, my evenings and weekends feel like they’ve been blown wide open. And although I’m tempted to fill the time by curling up on the couch to read a good book with a dog on my feet, I’m feeling slightly more ambitious than that. I have no excuse — like needing to spend every waking moment in the garden — not to learn something new. Professionally it works out that most of the industry conferences and trade shows are held over the winter when we’re all a little less busy. I can look forward to spending at least two work days this winter wandering a trade show floor ogling tools and listening to lectures on gardening and plants. I never leave a conference without a few new ideas, which is exactly why it’s important to go.
The equivalent for non-professionals is a flower show. Although I’ve been disappointed lately in the number of tool vendors, the lectures are usually stellar and the display gardens well worth the price of admission. But we have to wait until the end of February for the Rhode Island Flower Show and all the way into March for Boston’s.
Around this time a few years ago I studied to become certified as a Rhode Island horticulturist through the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association (RINLA). The best part of the training was the winter tree identification class I took at the University of Rhode Island (URI). Every Tuesday and Thursday for a month I came home with endless twigs, pages of notes and a burning desire to be able to name every tree I walked under. Which is very nearly possible after committing a few characteristics to memory such as the shapes of leaf scars, buds, and bark. In fact, the timing of the class is brilliant because by learning to recognize trees when their clothes are off, you’ll be able name them year round. This winter RINLA is offering the same class to the interested public and you won’t have to take a test afterward. Even though some of the identifying characteristics have stuck in my brain, I’m giving half a thought to enrolling in “track two” for a refresher. Check it out here: http://www.rinla.org/certification/rich-training.
Or, I might go to bee school. Even though I can’t quite imagine where in my tiny garden I could site a hive without constantly walking through the bees’ flight path, even though my husband just bought me a whole gallon of local honey, and even before making candles this Christmas from a friend’s unfiltered beeswax, I’ve been curious about keeping bees.
The R.I. Beekeepers Association is offering classes at URI and Rhode Island College that cover every topic from the honeybee life cycle to choosing an apiary, and from catching swarms to over-wintering. The fee is surprisingly low — barely more than the cost of a movie ticket per class — and includes a beginner beekeeper textbook and a one-year membership in the association. Check out http://www.ribeekeeper.org/beeschools.php for more information. Who’s with me?
If I was very ambitious, I’d make the trek to the Boston area for classes offered at Arnold Arboretum (http://arboretum.harvard.edu/education) and through the New England Wildflower Society (NEWFS). The NEWFS certificate in native plant horticulture and design is especially intriguing even though — or maybe because — it would be like going back to school. Some classes are required, others elective, but they all sound fascinating enough to justify both the financial commitment and the drive. See what I mean here: http://www.newenglandwild.org/learn.
In the meantime, while I hem and haw and inevitably talk myself back onto the couch, they’re offering one of their electives, “Native Plants for Four-Season Gardening,” in this very neighborhood, at Blithewold on Feb. 4. There’s no excuse not to learn something new that night at least.
Update: I did actually sign up for bee school! (Who’s with me?!)
I don’t like to do the whole New Year’s resolution thing. Every time I’ve resolved to learn French or go back to yoga regularly I’ve failed to follow through. So I resolve to remain unresolved this year in order to avoid inevitable disappointment and self-loathing. But I do feel the need to mark the passage of time somehow. A look back at the accomplishments (and disappointments) of the past year on a lazy winter day seems like just what to do.
I spent so much time at my desk this past year and comparatively little time keeping the garden coifed that it rarely looked up to snuff photo-op-wise. But it had some moments. A few vignettes now and then that I kind of liked. And some plants that held their own in a sea of disarray, weeds, and seldom-mown lawn.
I have higher hopes for my garden this year. I should have plenty of time to devote to it again and I have a truckload or two of free patio slates to play with so at the very least there should be less lawn to mow eventually. But we’re also considering residing the house (which will have to be completed in stages as time and finances allow) and it looks like a sizable chunk of the front garden might get smashed, trampled and dug up to repair an underground water leak. So who knows. Maybe I’ll keep the backyard extra tidy and let my neighbors wonder what the heck is up in front.
What’s in the works for your garden this year? Do you think you’ll get to spend more time in it or less?