Monday, November 28, 2005

House Calls

I could never be a real garden designer or a landscape architect. I’m not that organized. I can’t think big. Trees that won’t mature for twenty years? Retaining walls? Gazebos? I can’t picture it. I’m one of those one-plant-at-a-time gardeners. I fall in love with a plant, I buy it, I put it in the ground. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.

So I’m not a real garden professional, but I play one in my newspaper column. And sometimes people call me and ask me to come look at their garden. Try it; it works. If you live nearby, I’ll actually come over to your house and tell you about some plants I love that you might love too. I guess you could say that I’m more of a horticultural matchmaker. It’s not a bad gig. I even get a column out of it.

Diana Renner Noyes got in touch with me and asked me to come look at her garden in Eureka. Noyes, a chaplain for Hospice of Humboldt County, lives in a gorgeous renovated Victorian that is just calling out for a lively, charming, old-fashioned garden that complements the house’s new paint job. She bought the house from Eureka CPA Sid Noyes, although at that time she did not share his last name. The two found themselves in love and in escrow at the same time; before long, Sid was once again living in the house he had just renovated and sold.

It’s been a few years since they settled into the house and made it their own together. A crisp new paint job—an earthy green, cream, and brick red—made it all the more obvious that it was time to pull out some grass and plant a garden. The house has the same landscaping challenges that any old Eureka house does: an oddly shaped lot with damp, shady spots on one side and dry, windy, bare spots on the other; a few lovely old trees and shrubs that you couldn’t possibly rip out even if they don’t fit with your plans; and poor soil that supports nothing but oxalis and blackberry brambles.

The first challenge was to figure out what colors would look good next to the house. Diana had saved some garden magazine photos; it was clear that she wanted something cheerful and abundant, with climbing roses and sweet peas, but the warm, earthy colors of the house didn’t lend themselves to lots of pastel flowers. There was one small princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana) against the house; that gave us our first clue. The flowers are purple, and the foliage is quite striking with its dark green leaves and reddish veins. Even the blossoms themselves have traces of red in them. They’d be bright and cheerful, but in keeping with the house’s natural colors. They could be planted close to the house, but they’d be easy to prune so they wouldn’t damage the trim.

Diana wanted to plant something in the narrow front yard, which sits above the sidewalk thanks to a low retaining wall, so we walked around the neighborhood to see what other people had done. We thought that a garden down the street with heathers in the front looked good; I remembered that Maria Krenek at Glenmar Heather Nursery in Eureka had assured me that heathers come in a wide range of colors, and that some even offer red, orange, and yellow foliage. You can get an assortment with different blooming times so that something’s flowering all year long. There’s also something old-fashioned about heathers that seemed to fit with the house. (Call 707 268-5560 to get in touch with the nursery, and check out the extensive heather garden at Fortuna River Lodge if you’re not convinced.)

It was trickier to figure out what to do in the back. They have a fabulous little space between the house and the garage that would be perfect for a seating area, but what to plant around it? I couldn’t get that brick red color in the trim out of my head, so I suggested adding more Japanese maples to the one Diana had already planted. (Here’s a hint about Japanese maples, by the way: the reason the leaves scorch in summer and the colors aren’t as vibrant in fall is that they are getting too much nitrogen. Give them a fertilizer made just for them—Fox Farm just rolled out a Japanese maple fertilizer—and you’ll see the color return.)

She already had one cherry tree; I suggested putting in a couple more. The red leaves and pink blossoms would be perfect and the simple act of repeating a plant over and over in a garden could make anything look like good design.

What else did we come up with? The velvety red Saliva confertiflora; the crazy red-and-orange striped canna ‘Tropicana’; any of a number of pretty little heucheras in red, orange, and green for groundcovers; perhaps some euphorbia with their showy chartreuse flowers; and some grasses and shrubs with silvery blue foliage.

I suggested a freestanding trellis against a wall so she could plant the sweet peas she wanted, and she had already picked out a great spot to put a fountain and surround it with roses. Go to Fickle Hill Old Rose Nursery in Arcata, I suggested, and let Cindy Graebner hook you up with the right roses. (You can check out Fickle Hill online or call Cindy at 707 826-0708.)

We also noticed that a lemon tree that the couple had been given as a wedding present was covered in scale—icky, nasty, scale. Little hard-shelled bugs that attach themselves to the tree like ticks and suck the life out of it. While it’s perversely satisfying to scrape them off with your fingernail, you could spend the rest of your life doing that, so I told her to suffocate the little critters with horticultural oil, an organic remedy available at nurseries. The tree was given to them as a symbol of their love, she told me, so she had to save it.

See, that’s what I love about a garden. It’s intensely personal. It’s about your passions. You can make all the plans you want on graph paper, but when it comes down to it, you just meet a plant, fall in love with it, bring it home, and hope it thrives. In Diana and Sid’s case, I don’t think they’ll have any trouble with that approach.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Those Confounded Gloves

(A note from the author: You won't hear from me again for a few days. I have some decidedly un-gardening things to attend to. This little rant will have to suffice until then.)

If you’re not a gardener, you might think that gardening is mostly about the plants: what to plant, where to plant it, what to feed it, when to prune it. While it’s true that gardeners are deeply involved with the lives of their plants, let’s not overlook another critical—and often exasperating—aspect of a gardener’s life: the gear.

I won’t even get started on tools with wooden handles that break after a week, rakes whose tines get tangled in whatever you’re raking and fall off, and pruning shears with badly-designed grips that slip out of your hands. No, winter is on the way, and all I care about this time of year are boots and gloves.

If I were a gardening glove, I would not ever want to end up in my garden. I would cower and tremble on the sales rack, hoping against hope that I was the wrong color or the wrong size or too expensive or too cheap to be chosen. And if I did have the misfortune to actually be purchased and brought home, I would hide. Hide in the closet, behind the fertilizer and the pruning shears. Hide among the weeds and hope to get left outside. I’d take any desperate act my little gardening glove brain could conceive of.

Because I am horrible to gardening gloves. Cruel and merciless. The average gardening glove has a life span of about three months in my garden. I don’t know how to account for this—if I’m lucky, I might get to spend one day a week engaged in serious outdoor work involving gloves, and it’s not as if I’m out clearing acres of brush. I have an ordinary, not-very-challenging backyard with all the regular sorts of flowers and vegetables growing in it. Somehow, though, the gloves fall helplessly apart when faced with the task of coming between me and my garden. It starts with a split at the fingertips on the right hand, then the left hand, until dirt leaks in and the gloves offer less and less protection against water, mud, and thorns.

I’ve tried everything. I’ve bought pricey leather gloves, sporty-looking gloves that involve Velcro, Polartec, and nylon, and gloves made of all kinds of high-tech rubber and plastic products with names I can’t pronounce. Sleek, stylish, fabric gloves. Imported gloves from fancy English gardening catalogs Cheap drugstore gloves. Dishwashing gloves. Construction worker gloves. But they all meet the same fate.

I finally gave up on the idea that gloves should last a season and decided that I would spend no more than five dollars on each pair. That way, if they fell apart in a few months, I could toss them out with very little guilt. My first under-five-dollars purchase was a pair of $3.99 Atlas Nitrile Touch gloves. They’re trim, close-fitting gloves that leave me with enough dexterity to handle seeds and other small, delicate things. (I can even type in them. I just tried it. Amazing.) They’re made of stretchy, breathable nylon and the fingers and palm are coated in a thin layer of rubbery stuff—I guess that’s the nitrile—to ward off water and mud. Best of all, they come in my size, extra small, which is very hard to find.

And guess what? They are impossible to kill. They’ve lasted all year and show no signs of falling apart. Now that winter’s almost here, I might even spring for the fleece-lined version to keep me warm when I get around to the seriously muddy work of bareroot planting. Atlas also makes a completely waterproof pond glove and any number of heavy-duty tool gloves, all of which sell for just a few bucks apiece, and many of which are available online in boxes of a dozen. Even a box of twelve costs less than I used to spend on a single pair of those fancy, doomed, soon-to-be-fingerless gloves.

While so many of the gardening gloves I’ve tried have been short-lived, I’ve had astonishingly good luck with gardening shoes. The rubber Birkenstock garden clogs I bought six years ago are still going strong; while they’re ideal for dashing outside to dump something on the compost pile or cut some herbs, don’t try spending a day in them. The clogs become so full of dirt and twigs that you might as well be padding around in your socks.

For long days of hardcore gardening, nothing’s better than a pair of Sloggers boots or Muck Arctic Boot'>Muck Boots, both of which are available in nurseries and feed stores around town. Both come in a half-calf length; Muck Boots are also available in a taller size. They’re incredibly warm and waterproof, they hug your legs to keep grime and water out, and they’re comfortable enough to wear for a walk in the woods or on the beach in winter. They’re expensive—fifty to eighty bucks would buy you a lot of daffodil bulbs—but mine are well on their way to lasting a decade.

A friend in Oregon once told me that the trick to gardening in the Pacific Northwest is to ignore the rain. Don’t wait for it to stop, or you’ll never get anything done. Just throw on your rain gear and get outside. As I write this, the rain is pounding so hard on my roof that I can hardly hear myself think. My boots and gloves may be up to the task, but I’m not. The garden will be just fine without me until the rain stops. Until Atlas or Sloggers comes up with a full body suit, I’m staying inside. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Farmer's Market Squash

This is a little triptych painted on 5 x 7 boards. The challenge was to do the whole thing in one sitting--3 hours. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Lady Hillingdon

The photo...and... Posted by Picasa

Lady Hillingdon

The painting... Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The last roses of the season

Actually, maybe not. One of the advantages to living in this never-quite-warm-but-never-quite-cold climate is that every now and then, a rose will pop out in winter. It helps that I don't really prune them. I learned this from my friend Cindy at Fickle Hill Old Rose Nursery; she has this very loose, laid-back approach to her roses that involves just sort of letting them spread out among the other perennials, and every now and then lopping off anything that looks like it would rather be in the compost pile. She's my sort of gardener.

And this yellow rose turned out to be one of hers. It was already here when I bought the place (actually, that's true of all the roses--I am a rose owner, but not a rose buyer) and it's called Lady Hillingdon. Sweet buttery yellow blossoms and bugundy stems. Gorgeous. Seems like I painted it once--I'll look around for it and post it.

I'm not much of a rose gardener--I take care of the ones I inherit but that's about it--but I was won over by Jeff Cox's Landscape with Roses. It's a lovely book about working roses into a landscape, rather than simply lining them up in rows as if they are about to be shot. It's written for people like me who demand that our roses function as a hard-working member of the landscape, pulling their weight alongside the salvia and the penstemon. He identifies roses according to their behavior, explaining that Luther Burbank’s ‘Apple Blossom’ will grow well in a naturalistic garden like mine, reminding us that ‘Climbing Cécile Brünner’ will climb into an old fruit tree, and giving practical instructions for training a rose around a window, over a mailbox, or for pegging it down to the ground for a more mounding habit. Check it out.

Meanwhile: Winter. Cold. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Posted by Picasa

Friday, November 04, 2005

Pumpkins and Zinnias

The last glorious colors of fall at the Arcata farmer's market... Posted by Picasa

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Plant Tags

I used to share my garden, and my house, with a roommate. Rinsing out someone else’s dirty dishes and waiting in line for the bathroom on Saturday morning was not a big deal, but sharing a perennial border was. I’m just not good at gardening in groups. Gardening is a highly personal endeavor, and I often find the behavior of other gardeners perplexing or downright irritating. I'm not proud of this; it's just the way it is.

Take plant tags, for instance. I came home one day and my roommate was sitting next to a drought-tolerant border of salvia and penstemon, a shovel in one hand and a six-pack of pansies in the other. On the sidewalk was an entire flat of pansies—about sixty plants in all.

That’s OK, I thought. Pansies aren’t exactly my favorite flower, considering the fact that they are squat, frivolous little things that serve no real purpose in a garden, but who knows, maybe she’s not so crazy about salvia. Fair enough.

Then I looked closer and realized that she’d added something else to the garden. Standing proudly next to every sixth pansy was a plastic plant tag. Every one of them was facing the same way, as if they were ready to go marching off to war.

Why do people do this, dear readers? Really, I’d like to know. Write to me with your ideas, please. We don’t leave the tags on our clothes, so why would we leave them on our plants? Are people worried that they will forget that the pink and purple flowers they’ve stuck in the ground are, in fact, pansies and not—oh, I don’t know—onions or apple trees? Do they intend to refer to the information on the tag later? (“Use in beds, pots. Plant in sun, part sun. Water.”) Or do they think that the presence of plant tags makes the garden seem more like a real garden, more professional, more orderly? And if they lost the plant tag, what exactly would they do differently? Would they rip out the plant and replace it with one whose label was still intact?

I was about to find out. There was no way those plant tags were going to survive a winter in my garden. I waited a decent interval and began, one by one, to remove the tags. I left some scattered around the garden in hopes that the wind, or the cat, could be blamed. My roommate never said a word about it, but she did move out the following year. I wish her well. I hope her garden is a sea of plastic plant tags, all lined up in alphabetical order.

Granted, it is not always easy to live without plant tags. My garden is filled with plants whose names I can’t remember. This is mildly embarrassing when somebody comes to visit and asks the name of a particularly lovely specimen, but otherwise it really doesn’t bother me. I don’t need to know which cultivar of agastache I’m growing, or whether the lilies are Oriental or Asiatic. As long as they keep blooming, I’m satisfied.

Garden catalogs sell lovely engraved plant labels made of stone or copper. “Basil,” they read. “Mint.” “Chives.” To whom, I’ve always wondered, are these tags addressed? Surely not to the owners of the plants. If you’re growing mint in your garden, you know it, because it has taken over your backyard. Basil is not likely to be overlooked (hint: it smells like pesto), and if you can’t find the chives, use an onion instead.

But there are reasons to label plants from time to time. If you’re going to open your grounds for a garden tour, you’d better set out some tags or you’ll spend the entire day saying, “Good morning. Cecile Brunner. Nice of you to come. Cecile Brunner. Good to see you. The climbing rose? Let me think…Oh, maybe that’s Cecile Brunner.”

And I must admit that I have been the beneficiary of other people’s plant tag mania. Just last weekend, I was able to correctly identify 95 percent of the plants around the house my brother just bought, thanks to the presence of dozens of little plastic tags left there by the previous owner. “Oh, that’s a ‘Mystery’ gardenia,” I said, knocking the dirt off the tag with my toe. “Grows to six to eight feet. Full sun or part shade. Preferred by florists.” It’s nice to be the gardening expert in the family.

But let’s face it, the tags are a crutch. They’re going to fall apart in a season or two anyway, so here is my plea to plant taggers everywhere: either memorize the name of the plant or forget about it. If you must keep the tags, promise me that you will do something creative like organize them in a card file or glue them into a scrapbook. Make a sketch of the garden and jot down what you’ve planted where. Take a photo of the plant and tape the label to the back of it. Anything, just don’t put those little plastic markers in the dirt. They won’t make you a better gardener. And your life will not be improved if, six months from now, you can look at a dirty scrap of plastic and realize that you once planted six dozen ‘Crystal Bowl’ pansies in the perennial border.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A Belated Halloween Post of My Own

In response to Takoma Gardener...I remembered that I'd snapped this picture of the only orange thing I could think to put on my porch, having neglected to get (or grow) a pumpkin.

Calendula blooms all year here, and they are practically weeds. Did I put them on my list of favorite plants? If not, I should have. They are so cheerful in the gloom that is winter in Humboldt County. The petals are edible. They attract beneficial insects. They have a surprisingly long vase life if you feed them, and since they bloom in winter here, they are a real lifesaver at the holidays, when there is nothing else but berries and branches to bring indoors. I bought a traditional style of Dutch vase in Holland last year that is perfect for them...I'll post a photo next time I use it. Posted by Picasa

You Know It's Fall...

when there's a hyacinth vase on my desk. Posted by Picasa