Berry strange indeed

A few months back, in a fit of unaccustomed energy, I painted our bedroom, got new gauzy white curtains, and rearranged the furniture in there. My husband says he sleeps better with the new arrangement; maybe there’s something to feng shui. But though we have a lot of spare art in the house, some of it good (inherited, not bought), we didn’t have anything that seemed suitable to hang in the wide-open space above the bed. So ever since, I’ve sort of been keeping my eyes open, looking online and in stores for something that would suit the spareness and the clean white-and-pale-blue color scheme. No luck.

Today, while I was vacuuming my husband’s office (in another fit of unaccustomed energy), I spotted something rather large and in a frame, stuck way under the piano behind three tons of his musician equipment, so far back that I can’t even get in there to dust properly. “Huh,” I said to myself. “I wonder what that is.” All I could see of it was a sort of brown rainbow arch and what looked like little elves or something scattered around it. It didn’t look promising. So I went on vacuuming, but then I got to wondering some more: What was that there under the piano? So I clawed my way through the piles of sheet music and old tax forms and other crapola (it looks like that TV show about hoarders in there, and I actually wrote “This room = fire hazard” on the blackboard, but then erased it because I really need him to do his taxes this weekend (not that he’d have cleaned in there anyway), and pulled out a painting. Or a print. I’m not sure. It’s of a blue wooden chest and a basket filled with branches of bittersweet–well, what I call bittersweet, anyway. Looking it up online, I discovered it’s actually Celastrus orbiculatus, a.k.a. Asian staff vine (that’s it in the photo above), and, incidentally, a pernicious pest. What I’d spotted was the arch of a branch and the berries alongside it. It … was kind of attractive. And the colors were eerily right for the spot above the bed. The weird thing, though, is that I have absolutely no recollection of where it came from or why we have it. I surely didn’t buy it; it’s not my type of art. My husband would never have bought it. My dad would have, but why do I not remember him giving it to us? Very strange indeed.

I dusted it off and washed the glass (Plexiglas, even better) and polished up the frame a bit, and stood it in the bedroom atop the radiator. It looked good. I left it there and went to visit it a few times throughout the day. It still looked good, and I still hadn’t got the foggiest idea how it got behind our piano. But tonight I hung it, and I really, really like the way the dark frame complements the mahogany dresser, and the shadow picks up the blue of the walls. So: art problem solved! Now if only I could figure out where the damned thing came from!

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

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Um, why is a rose is a rose?

I know; that title’s not strictly grammatical. But the befuddled syntax is relevant. Because I stopped going to school before I started gardening, I’ve always wondered: Why are roses roses? Why are buttercups also in the rose family, and strawberries, and geums, and apples, but not larkspur or lavender—or primroses? Why are sweet peas and lupines and clover all in the bean family? Alas, I still don’t know for certain. But because of a chance encounter in the dictionary today, I have a slightly better idea. I was looking up a word–I don’t even remember what—when I stumbled upon another word: “inflorescence.” I knew what it meant, I thought–a flowering, a blossoming. But there was a little chart in my dictionary under the word, and it was fascinating. I’m not clever enough to reproduce it, but I found something like it on the Web:

“Inflorescence” in botany has to do with how flowers are borne on a plant, and it’s a classifying characteristic, or can be. There are lots of other types of inflorescences besides those shown above, and they have cool names like “corymb” and “capitulum” and “cyme.” So now that I’m looking at the types, I can think of flowers that grow in almost all of them. Pussy willows are definitely catkins; daisies are composite; coral bells are panicles; Queen Anne’s lace is an umbel; nicotiana is raceme. I’d think that “whorl” is made up, but when I was in Scotland, I saw primroses (like the Primula bulleyana in the photo at top) that grew this way, in separate layers–very cool.

So now I have another way to look at plants. Oh, it’s not like I never noticed that the flowers had different shapes before, but I never thought much about what those shapes meant about connections—about plant families. I’m going to do a little more poking around into how flower shapes unite those families, and how they came to be in terms of evolution.

They say you learn something new every day. Well, some days you actually do!

Photo by Eric in SF licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Snatch the credit card from my hand

Oh, Grasshopper. You see what sorts of trouble this blog gets me into? Yesterday I was thinking about composing a post about why I hate artificial flowers. This got me thinking that while I do hate artificial flowers, I’m rather fond of dried flowers, which got me thinking: Why don’t I have any sort of decoration on my front door? The woman across the street from me has a really lovely all-seasons wreath with preserved lemons and lotus pods on it. I admire it every time I park my car. And yet there stands my door, unadorned except at Christmas, when I hang what the kids call “that scary Santa” on it. (It’s a sort of Scandinavian-looking carved wooden Santa, with a long stringy beard, and he is sort of spooky, but you’d think the kids would be used to him by now.)

So then I got to thinking Google, and I put in “dried flower wreaths,” and oh boy, the floodgates just opened right up. I saw a lot of really ugly wreaths, and a lot of really expensive (meaning–anything more than $20; I am the cheapest person on earth) wreaths, and that got me thinking: Why don’t I make my own wreath, out of dried flowers that I buy? (Yes, yes, it would be cheaper to grow the flowers myself and dry them, but it’s January here, people, and I can’t wait around until September to get something hanging on that front door.) So then I started poking around and looking at buying different colors of dried larkspur (which is really silly, since every year I grow so much freaking larkspur) and poppy pods (lust-worthy!) and statice (I love me some statice) and roses (well, why not, if we’re going all in?), and at this point I realized that even the really expensive wreaths were cheaper than anything I was going to make myself if I bought all that stuff. Luckily, just then I happened on a website out in California that was selling its wreaths at half-price, and had a really handsome (well, I think so) heart-shaped one, all genuine dried flowers, not artificial, and it was big enough for my door (17 inches wide) and only $17. So. There you go. Had to buy that. And. Also. The website had dried hydrangeas. HALF PRICE!!! So. Had to get some of those.

Ha. So I did. And then the website wanted to charge me $13.50 for shipping! But even with that, the total only came to $40. So I hit: SUBMIT. And I got an e-mail today that my wreath and hydrangeas are on their way to me. And when they arrive, a) I will be really, really happy; and b) my husband will think I’m on drugs, since it’s totally unlike me to buy anything as girly-girly as that heart wreath. But so what? I like it. And soon it will be mine!

A seed-starting schedule

The John Scheepers seed company–I buy a few packets from them every year—very kindly sent a handy schedule of when to start vegetable and flower seeds indoors. I’m not so big on starting seeds indoors–I tend to either knock the little pots onto the floor or else overwater, and besides, I keep my house so damned cold it’s hard for people to get started in here, much less seeds. But I was thinking of how nice it would be to plant exactly the, say, snapdragons I wanted, instead of the ones the garden center thinks I should want. Homer’s not around anymore to wag stuff off tables with his tail (he was a very tall dog). And with my son a senior in high school, he’s hardly ever around anymore. I need a new hobby! So I’m going to take a closer look at what’s on offer for spring even if it does require an early start. I’m not going to keep the house any warmer—I’m way too cheap for that—but maybe Mother Nature will cooperate and we’ll have an early spring. I do get terrific morning sun in my big yellow kitchen.

And what might I start? Well, Scheepers always has a nice selection of old-fashioned zinnias, the cactus-flowered ‘Bright Jewels,’ as well as the double snapdragon ‘Madame Butterfly.’ And because very retro flowering tobacco can be so hard to find in garden centers—especially the tall, fragrant types, like chaste, graceful Nicotiana sylvestris (pictured above)—so I might go for those. Which isn’t to say I might not change my mind completely between now and filling out the order form!

Here are those seed-starting schedule, courtesy of Scheepers. Note that, nonsensically, they go backward, starting from four weeks before frost and ending with 12.

Vegetable/Herb Seed Starting Timetable (Listed in weeks before the last frost)
Four Weeks: Melons, Bitter Melon and Cucuzzi Edible Gourds.
Six Weeks: Asparagus, Fennel, Onions, Rhubarb, Shallots, Tomatillos and Basil
Eight Weeks: Eggplant, Tomatoes, Chiles, Sweet Peppers, Chives, Sage, Stevia and Thyme
Nine Weeks: Broccoli, Cabbage and Kohlrabi (transplant out four weeks before the last frost date)
Ten Weeks: Celery, Celeriac, Jicama and Lemongrass
Eleven Weeks: Leeks, Artichokes and Cauliflower (transplant out four weeks before the last frost date)
Twelve Weeks: Cardoons and Brussels Sprouts
Sixteen Weeks: Strawberries (for first year crop) and Rosemary.

Flower Seed Starting Timetable (Listed in weeks before the last frost)
Six Weeks: Cutting Ageratum, China Asters, Celosia, Cleome, Coleus, Nepeta Catmint, Euphorbia, Forget-Me-Nots, Dahlia, Nicotiana, Scabiosa, Snapdragons and Thunbergia
Eight Weeks: Milkweed, Coreopsis, Gaillardia, Globe Amaranth, Helichrysum, Hibiscus, Hollyhock, Heuchera, Nigella, Platycodon and Statice
Ten Weeks: Dianthus, Digitalis, Lobelia and Heliotrope
Twelve Weeks: Datura, Salvia and Viola

Photo by Kor!An licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Sprout towers

When Final Child leaves home for college in the fall, I’m going to do a lot of things. I’m going to stop having to move huge, stinky pairs of sneakers out of the middle of the living room floor. I’m going to not find ice-cream cartons with one tablespoon of ice cream left in them, boxes of cookies with one cookie (or, more egregiously, half a cookie) in the cupboard (because, you know, it’s so much trouble to put the empty box on the recycling pile), or a microwave oven full of exploded burrito (because, again, it’s so much trouble to cover the plate). I think I’m going to enjoy life when Final Child departs. And not least because I’m going to be able to cook vegetables again.

In my life pre-child, I cooked wonderful vegetables–eggplants, zucchini, parsnips, spinach, mushrooms. Once I had children, I cooked one vegetable: broccoli. (They do, under duress, eat salads.) I know, I know; I should count myself lucky they eat broccoli. But there are so many wonderful vegetables waiting to be eaten out there! Just today, I was editing a story about a restaurant that offers roasted brussels sprouts. My husband and I adore brussels sprouts (known formally as Brassica oleracea gemmifera). Perhaps, when Final Child departs, we’ll eat them every day: roasted on Monday, shaved in a cream sauce with nutmeg on Tuesday, whole and glistening in just a bit of butter and lemon juice on Wednesday … We’ll be healthy as oxen, to boot.

Once, in a vain attempt to get Final Child to eat brussels sprouts, I showed him a really cool photo of the way they grow. I ask you, how could any young person enamored of the Harry Potter books not adore a vegetable so clearly magical? They look like alien palm trees, for God’s sake. But no. He wouldn’t bite.

When Final Child goes away to college, I’m going to plow the whole backyard up and plant it in brussels sprouts.  And I’ll roast them in olive oil and kosher salt for his first visit back at Thanksgiving … right after I pick up his sneakers from the living room floor.

Itchy fingers

Looking at seed and plant catalogs is great fun … for a while. But let’s face it: We’re not gardeners because we like to read. We’re gardeners because we like doing things. And one of the toughest parts of the long, gray, dreary days of winter, like this one, is that you really can’t work in the garden. There’s so much mud, and it’s so cold, and even simple tasks like clearing the old nasturtium vines away from under the rosebushes seems so unappealing.

So what do itchy fingers do when they can’t garden? Well, I actually did some shopping. I’m not much of a shopper, but I felt I needed exercise, and I didn’t want to go to the gym (there’s a novel feeling), so I figured at least walking around stores would get me out and about. I didn’t need anything (except for coffee at the grocery store), so I was free to go into a store if I felt like it, and not go in if I didn’t. I ended up taking my time strolling through a number of different stores, and wound up buying a really pretty moss-green slubbed cotton fabric, which I brought home and used to re-cover the cushions on a rocking chair in my living room and a bunch of pillows as well. I find sewing satisfying in the same way as gardening. It’s very tactile; I love the feel of fabric as it travels under the foot of my cheap little sewing machine. And I spent most of the Vikings/Saints playoff game doing the hand finishing for my projects. Just sitting still for a three-hour (more like four-hour in this instance) football game feels sinful to me. But sitting and stitching and watching a football game—that’s being productive.

The fabric only cost me about $10. I did get my exercise. And the chair and pillows look terrific. But now I’m out of things to reupholster, and I can tell I’m going to be itchy again tomorrow. I suppose I could clean the house … nah. Not really an option. Cleaning out the basement … Lord, that really does need to be done. And one of those services that picks up old clothes left a flier saying it will come by next Tuesday. And there are my taxes waiting to be started, and the financial forms for college for the kids …

Man, it’s lucky I took time out to go shopping today, because the rest of the week looks like I’ll be busy with dreadful tasks!

Seed money

I saw the first one of the season today.

It was in my supermarket. And even though I’ve already spent hours looking at pretty much the exact same kinds of seeds in catalogs, I was unable to resist the seed kiosk and its pretty packages.

I don’t think there’s anything in the world as exciting as a packet of seeds and the potential it holds for the future. Maybe that’s why I can’t keep myself from buying packets when they’re right there in front of me. Every year, I spend hours compiling my catalog seed order, fighting like hell not to blow the household budget … and every year, I wind up buying loose packets anyway. I just can’t say no! And the stuff I wind up buying is just silly. Like morning glories. I have to literally rip yards and yards of morning glories out of my garden every single summer because they self-seed like crazy. But does that stop me from buying at least one packet of morning glory seeds ever year … just in case???

Ah, I’m hopeless. But how am I supposed to resist a packet or two, or six, or 10, when they only cost two or three dollars apiece? What a minuscule price to pay for the dreams of a glorious future they bring me. Some women buy shoes. Some women buy handbags. Me, I buy seed packets. It’s a cheap hobby, isn’t it? (Even when–as sometimes happens–I wind up with so many seeds that I never get around to planting all of them!)

Photo by Forest and Kim Starr licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Novelty acts

In general, I’m pretty much a purist when it comes to my garden. I want roses that are recognizable as roses, lilacs that smell like lilacs, sunflowers that are six feet tall instead of weird-looking full-size flower heads atop stunted stalks. (Burpee sells a particularly egregious example of this travesty.) I think the quest for a pure-white marigold is … well, kind of stupid. There are plenty of other white flowers; why press unnatural demands on poor marigolds? I’m also highly suspicious of vegetal mashups, like green cauliflower. (I mean, really. Why not just eat broccoli instead?)

But there’s one form of novelty that always stops me in my tracks. I’m such a sucker for ruffles. It doesn’t matter whether they’re at the center of a ‘Collarette’ dahlia, or decorating a double impatiens, or highlighting a hollyhock (like ‘Crème de Cassis,’ a gorgeously frilly multi-toned semi-double that Burpee aptly describes as ‘blackberries-and-cream”). And I’m sort of salivating over a new double coneflower, ‘Meringue,’ that’s as pretty and plump as a green pincushion.

So. For years, there’s this plant I’ve been half admiring, half repulsed by. It’s a clematis, a plant I love but don’t have much luck with. I’ve tried at least five times to successfully grow the pristinely single white ‘Henryii’ without success. But I keep getting distracted by ‘Multi Blue,’ a clematis so unlike clematis that it might as well be another flower altogether. That’s it above. Is it lovely, or … embarrassingly over the top? I don’t dare buy it until I decide.

Photo by Siddharth Patil made available under the Creative Commons CC0 waiver.

The violence of violets

The prospect of an end to winter–far-off though it may be–gets me thinking of springtime, and the inevitable tasks that will await me once the snow melts and the ground warms up. And this, of course, gets me thinking of violets. You know the term “shrinking violet”? I would love to know where the hell that term came from, because in 53 years of life, I’ve yet to meet a violet plant that could in any way be described as “shrinking.” What violets are: tenacious, relentless, sprawling, bullying, reproducing in an unbelievable array of ways: via seeds, via underground runners, by, so far as I can tell by my experience, spontaneous rebirth. Every spring, I spend hours ripping great, far-reaching stretches of violet … what are they, exactly? Rhizomes? … out of my garden. I have nothing against violet flowers, but man, I sure do have something against the foliage and roots. And you know what? My mom’s garden at the house where I grew up suffered from the same overabundance of violets. In fact, that’s probably where the violets in my current garden came from, accidental visitors brought in with a transplanted iris or Dutchman’s breeches.

I’ve seen violets heave chunks of concrete up out of the ground. I’ve witnessed violets strangling any plant that dares invade their (ever-increasing) turf. I yank violets out of my garden by the foot, by the yard, by the cubit. So how, exactly, is it that term “shrinking violet” came to be? I can only think it must be a reference to a character in some long-forgotten popular play or novel–i.e., “shrinking Violet”–and not the over-enthusiastic plants that bedevil me so. Google isn’t helping me out here–anybody have a better theory?

Photo by Petr Filippov licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Non-white coral bells …

There’s an old song, a round, that we used to sing in Girl Scouts:

White coral bells upon a slender stalk/Lilies of the valley deck my garden walk …

I think of that song when the new gardening catalogs come out, because breeders have gone absolutely insane with coral bells, a.k.a. heuchera. Not with the flowers, but with the leaves, which now are available in, in addition to good old-fashioned green, shades of black, purple, gray, red, and even peachy-orange. Proven Winners, the company for which I test-grow, has gotten in on the fun, and every spring sends me one or two small coral bell plants with foliage in some outré shade, named something like ‘Peach Melba’ or ‘Black Currant’ or ‘Key Lime Pie.’ (The photo above is of those varieties and more.)

I plant them. They never do well for me. I think they like more moisture than I have in my main bed, and maybe more shade. Plus they’re compact little plants (they’re supposedly perennials), and tend to get swallowed up among the more vigorous larkspur, sunflowers, petunias and poppies that sprawl in my beds. I wish I could tell you about their flowers, but none of them have survived, let alone flowered for me, yet.

My mom used to have long-lived coral bell plants in her garden. They were plain old garden-variety coral bells, with deep green foliage and pretty, petite pink flowers held above the foliage on long stems. Maybe the leaves weren’t chartreuse green veined with pink, like the new ‘Alabama Sunrise’ variety, or purple and silver, like ‘Plum Royale.’ But Mom’s bloomed their hearts out every spring, faithful as can be, and never burnt out or withered away like the newer varieties seem to. Granted, coral bell flowers never were very showy, so I guess it makes sense to try and do something with the leaves. But so far, I haven’t seen a single new and improved hybrid that really seems new and improved. Gee, I sound like an old fuddy-duddy, don’t I, longing for the good old days? 🙂

Photo courtesy of Proven Winners® http://www.provenwinners.com.

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