Diary of a mad gardener

I’ll be the first to admit it—I’m not super-organized. I try to keep a lid on all the different things going on in my life, but most days, I’m barely holding it together. I’m especially bad at any sort of follow-through when it comes to my garden. I’m always so delighted to see stuff coming up there that I don’t bother to check back, most times, to see what I actually planted, what didn’t come up, and what, therefore, I shouldn’t be ordering again.

Being a trial gardener for the Proven Winners company for the past few years has made me better at keeping track of what they send me to try out. But that organizational success only comes at the cost of the rest of what I plant. There are just limits to how much I can hold in my head! And while I should be taking notes, well, yeah, I should also be getting more exercise, and eating less red meat, and being nicer to my husband and kids. So get off my case. I do what I can.

Today, though, uncharacteristically, I decided to try to find the list of what spring bulbs I ordered last fall, from the John Scheepers company. I knew I’d seen the list not all that long ago, though of course I hadn’t put it anywhere logical, like in the kitchen drawer where I keep empty seed packets from years past. (That may sound organized, but since I’ve kept them from many years past, and haven’t really labeled them, it’s not.) There are some spring bulbs coming up in my garden beds, true. But it seemed to me I’d ordered A WHOLE LOT of tulip bulbs last autumn, and there don’t seem to be A WHOLE LOT of tulips coming up. Which is a pity, because one of my dreams in life is to be able to afford to plant enough tulip bulbs in fall to be able to pick bouquets all spring (sort of like in the photo above). And I’d thought, back in November, that this time I might actually be able to bring myself to cut some tulips and bring them inside without making too much of a dent in my outdoor display.

It took a lot of rooting (hee!) around, but I finally located my list. And sure enough, I don’t think my bulbs are doing so great, percentage-wise. I planted 95 (!) tulip bulbs last November. And I can see maybe 60 coming up at the moment. That’s less than two-thirds.

Could be mice. Could be moles. Could be voles. Can’t be deer, because the area’s way too densely populated for deer. Could be that it was a very wet, cold winter, followed by a wet, cold spring. Good gardeners make notes on things like this, so they can learn from past mistakes and make their gardens better. When–if–my measly tulips bloom, I swear to God I’m going to write down what types did well and what types didn’t, and have the list tattooed on my calf.

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


Bird brained

I really love the birds who visit my garden. I love the quiet little chickadees, the fluttery purple finches, the sweet, shy sparrows. I love the bridge-no-nonsense cardinals, and the squawking jays, and I love the hummingbirds most of all. Except for the hummingbirds, which come because of the trumpet vine, and the goldfinches, which are here for the sunflowers, the rest of the birds come because I put seed out, even in the summer. I stand at the back door and watch the interaction at the feeder, the come and go, the petite dramas of a nuthatch standing up to a rowdy grackle, or a whole flock of finches descending on the perches en masse.

There are, however, times when I’m not so appreciative of my feathered friends. And this is one of those times, because I’ve got a whole lot of seed scattered out on my garden beds, and I’d like for it to stay there long enough to sprout. It must perplex the hell out of the doves who love to forage in the backyard when one day, all of a sudden, instead of clucking at them lovingly, I’m rapping on the window and hissing: “Hey! Hey you, get the hell out of there!”

Luckily, they never take me too seriously. And despite my worst fears, they never manage to consume so much newly planted seed that I suffer crop failure. It’s one of the lessons of gardening I should take more to heart: There’s enough for everybody. Still, if I see any birds rooting around where I planted my sweet peas, there’s going to be hell to pay.

Photo of bushtits (tee-hee!) by Scott Catron licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Lonesome dove

I got up later than the husband yesterday—hey, it was Saturday—and when I did, found he’d left for work, and also left the door leading into the (detached) garage AND one of the garage windows wide open. I figured he must have been trying to air it out in the wake of our possum occupation. (I had noticed, when it was so hot last weekend, that the garage was a little ripe.) Then I noticed, sitting in the window, looking sadly out of the closed, top half, a single, solitary mourning dove. And let me tell you, this dove was really mourning. You’ve never seen a bird with a more woebegone expression on its face.

Well, idiot husband, I thought, there you went and left the garage open, and now this poor sad lonely dove is stuck in there and can’t get out. Bad on you. Did I go into the garage and attempt to help the dove, you ask? No, I did not, because birds scare the hell out of me. I did feel sorry for it, though.

When idiot husband finally got home from work, I said curtly, “There’s a bird in the garage.” “I know!” he said. “I left the door and window open thinking he’d fly out, but now I see he’s still there.” Which made me feel a little rotten, since I’d presumed it was his fault the bird got in in the first place. “He’s been there all day,” I told the husband. “Doesn’t he look sad?”

“I guess I’ll have to go in and try and get him out,” husband sighed. Which he did, coming up behind it with a broom and sort of swishing it down and out. It looked much, much happier flying out than it had stuck in there. Then he closed the window and the door, and that was that, except we’re not really sure how the danged thing got in there.

Apropos of possums, for the past two days our local newspaper has run stories about some drunk guy in Western PA (where the husband’s from) who was arrested by police for trying to give mouth-to-mouth to a dead, rotting possum. The only thing stranger than this story, if you track it online, are the number of comments on it championing the drunk as a kind, charitable animal lover INSTEAD OF A TOTAL NUT-CASE WHO PUT HIS LIPS ON A POSSUM!!! Proving that those PETA people really are daft.

Photo courtesy of naturespicsonline.

Veni vidi vinca

There’s this plant–and I use the term generously–known as myrtle, or periwinkle, or vinca. I see it for sale in garden centers every spring, and whenever I do, I want to stick a big cautionary sign on the plants: DANGER! YOU WILL REGRET PLANTING THIS!!! I’ve never planted myrtle, yet I spend a good part of my spring and summer trying to free my garden from its grasp. It’s a low-growing thing that spreads via long, thin runners that reach out and insinuate themselves into the slightest teaspoonful of soil. They creep into masonry cracks, slip amongst the stones of your home’s foundation, and take root, deep deep root, in between slabs of pavement. They’re almost impossible to remove once they get started, if, like me, you don’t like to use chemicals in your yard.

The runners and stems are strong and tough, so I have to wear garden gloves when I attempt to rip it out, yet they always manage to break off just below the ground or the crack from which I’m trying to eradicate them. I can’t begin to tell you how many fingernails I’ve broken trying to rip myrtle out. If I had the person who first planted myrtle in my yard here right now, I would braid some myrtle runners together, make a noose, and hang that person—and you can be sure the myrtle would be strong enough to do it. You wanna know how tough vinca is? It’s recommended as a fire-resistant ground cover. That’s right. You can plant it and then let a wildfire rip right through your yard, because that myrtle is gonna come through unscathed.

Don’t be fooled by those sweet, demure-looking blue flowers. The ratio of flower to leaf in a vinca plant is 1/1,000,000,000,000,000. The genus name “vinca,” is derived from the Latin word vincire, meaning “to bind” or “to fetter.” It’s the same root as “vetch” in “crown vetch.” That should be enough to clue you in. If you see the plant pictured above, immediately run far away as fast as you can. That is all.

Photo by Kadari.

Old-fashioned hoop skirts

Of all the spring bulbs, my least favorite are daffodils. I know, I know–they’re cheery and bright and inexpensive and far more reliable than tulips in terms of coming up year after year. But there’s a sameness to them that I find off-putting. They’re either yellow, or they’re yellow and white, or they’re some misbegotten pale pink or orange color that daffodils shouldn’t be. Not fair, I suppose, to complain that they’re boring and then insult efforts to make them less so, but that’s how I feel.

I am a big fan of small daffodils, however–the old-fashioned jonquil types, or the ones like ‘Minnow’ that have flowers only as big as your thumb, or even the heirloom ruffly double versions, like ‘Sir Winston Churchill.’ And there are daffodils that still look like the ancient prototypes that still grow wild in Europe and Great Britain, like Narcissus bulbocodium, or the hoop-skirt daffodil, shown above. The corona in this species is wide, especially compared to the dinky little perianths, and shaped like an olden-days pettiskirt. They look a little “off” to a modern eye accustomed to blowsy King Alfred and its ilk, but I think they’re sweet and quaint. Another plus: smaller bulbs often cost much less than their bigger cousins.

Interesting fact: Daffodils are poisonous. People regularly mistake them for onions and consume them and are sickened. So be careful out there!

Photo by Meneerk Bloem, used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version.

Getting better every day

I’m walking around my yard humming that Beatles song (“You’ve got to admit it’s getting better, it’s getting better every day”), because every morning when I go outside, more is happening in the garden. Hell, sometimes more is happening between my morning amble and my afternoon stroll. The garden itself seems to be frantic to get going; bulb stalks stretch up inches overnight; forsythia branches become speckled with gold; glory-0f-the-snow (a.k.a. Chionodoxa, a name I can never remember, and no wonder) bust open their starry blue flowers (as pictured above). Hydrangeas have leaves just barely poking out of their woody stems. Roses have ruby leaf-buds forming. My pretty little Iris reticulata are already spent, blown away by the too-warm (not that I’m complaining, mind you) weekend weather. But there’s no time to mourn them, really, because the species tulips and grape hyacinths are about to bust open, and the rosebushes have ruby-red leaf buds about to unfurl, and the hydrangea are awakening, green tips sprouting on the dull brown branches, and there is just so much to look forward to!

It’s hard for me to imagine that gardeners ever suffer from depression. I mean, I know there’s more to it, but for me, gardening is all about wondering: What will happen next? It’s forward-looking, rather than backward-aimed, more suited to hope than to brooding. And while there are always disasters–the tulips the dog steps on and snaps off, the tomatoes that get stem rot, the birds a stray cat catches and kills, leaving feathers all over the yard—still, overall, the very act of gardening seems to me to be a vote in favor of the future. Plus, there’s always so much work still to do!

Photo by mmparedes licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Just below the surface

This is the best time of year in the garden–before anything really comes up. It’s the time when I can imagine everything I plant growing to perfection: every seed sprouting (or, rather, seeds sprouting in perfect rows, with just the right amount of space between them), every rosebush swallowing itself in blossoms, every lily rising tall and proud, every hydrangea erupting in great balls of fluff. Thirty-two years of gardening should have taught me better, but I can’t help myself; I’m such an optimist. I never worry about crop failure; I only dream of the bounty to be.

And I buy plants. Yesterday I went to Home Depot to get a metal guard to put on our garage door, so we don’t have a repeat of our possum, who lived in there all winter (and occasionally tottered out to amuse us. Not so funny is the stinky mess he left in the garage. Darling husband trapped him in a have-a-heart cage and relocated him to a park nearby.). There wasn’t much in the garden center there besides pansies and azaleas, and I can walk right away from pansies and azaleas. Just as I was congratulating myself on my restraint, alas, I came upon a display of summer-blooming bulbs–not tulips or daffodils, but the kinds you can still plant in spring. And they had acidanthera, or Gladiolus callianthus, also known as peacock orchid, sword lily, Abyssinian gladiolus (I love that one; who the hell knows where Abyssinia is? Whoa, just looked it up: it’s Ethiopia), etc., etc. It’s a super-easy bulb to grow, and while the flowers are smallish–about three inches across–the bulbs are inexpensive, and easy to plant in masses, where they look clean and gorgeous and exotic. So I bought a bunch of bulbs. Their only drawback is that they need to be lifted in the fall and stored indoors over the winter, which I don’t always remember to do. I’ll try to be better about that this year!

Photo by Peter Forster licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Trash to treasure

The bee-you-tee-ful weekend weather had the whole neighborhood out in force. I finally got my early seeds planted–cornflowers, calendulas, six kinds of poppies, five kinds of sweet peas, and wallflowers!–and got all the brush cleared and the bushes trimmed and all of it bagged up in the borough’s biodegradable bags, which are so efficient that several of them started to biodegrade when I tried to open them.

The neighborhood kids were out in force as well. My son has been taking the compost out to the compost for me (not voluntarily, mind you), and he tends to leave strips of pineapple skin and honeydew rind poking out of the top of it. A couple of girls, maybe age 10, were visiting the family next door and observed this, and asked me, “Is there fruit in there?” “You bet,” I said cheerily, opening the top to show them all the melon rinds and apple cores and pineapple skins and mango seeds accumulated inside. (Very colorful, I must say!) “I put fruit and vegetable rinds and peels in the top,” I explained to the girls, “and it turns into dirt.”

They looked at me suspiciously. “Dirt?” one of them echoed.

“Dirt!” I reiterated, lifting the door in the front and taking my shovel and pulling out a lovely shovelful of rich brown compost.

The girls backed away from me slowly, clearly utterly unfamiliar with the composting process and suspecting me of witchcraft. Hey, that’s okay. It ought to keep them out of my yard!

Photo by Normanack licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Not-so-wild tulips

So, ever since we moved in 17 years ago, every spring there’s been a patch of smallish yellow tulips that comes up right under my forsythia bush. They’re so lovely, and perfectly proportioned: about 10 or 12 inches tall, with slender foliage and a slender stem and a slender nodding single blossom that opens into a forsythia-yellow star. I dearly love my wild yellow tulips, and have always wondered how they got there, since the folks who owned our house before we did weren’t gardeners. In fact, that forsythia used to sit in a patch of grass; I dug the grass out and made a garden bed that first spring. But I never planted any yellow tulips way at the back of the bed, under a bush. Why would I do that?

My wild tulip patch seems to be doing especially well this spring, with more than a dozen on the way, and as I was writing about them here last night, I thought I’d Google and see if I could find a picture of something resembling them. Without very high hopes, I Googled “wild yellow tulip” in images, and to my surprise, up popped A LOT of photos that weren’t sort of like my wild yellow tulips. They were EXACTLY like my wild yellow tulips, which turn out to be called Tulipa sylvestris. I mean. Who knew?? For some reason, I had it in my muddled head that my wild yellow tulips had to be rogues–that is, they’d somehow reverted to a wild type from a hybrid form. I guess I wasn’t paying very close attention in biology class? It never once occurred to me that they would be a species all their own.

So on the one hand, I’m delighted to be able to assign a name to my tulips, and to find out more about them: They grow wild in North America in a wide band from Ontario down through Delaware. They’re lightly fragrant, and good for cutting. (Gotta try that!) It’s also known as Woodland Tulip, and was brought here from England, where it was first found growing in a monastery vineyard, tangled in the roots of grapevines that had been brought in from elsewhere. Which is very cool, since mine appear to be entangled with the roots of a forsythia brought here from elsewhere, though not by me.

On the other hand, I must confess I’m a bit disappointed that “my” tulips are actually quite well-known to the world! And here I thought they belonged only to me. 😦

Painting by Carl Axel Magnus Lindman, 1856-1928.

In labor

It was 70 degrees out today, and I couldn’t put it off any longer–time to do some cleanup in the garden, so I can get those seeds planted. (I know, I know, I’m late, but I had to go into the city for work two days this week!) So many bulbs are coming up that I really wanted to clear out the old stuff I leave on to provide cover for the birds. So I got my garden gloves and went at it. The following are the Top 10 Thoughts I had while hard at work:

1. Why, every year, do I forget that cleome stalks have those freaking thorns on them?

2. How do sunflower stalks get so big and dense in just the space of a year?

3. How do the kids next door ever have anything to play with, since every ball they own always ends up in my yard?

4. If you wanted a material that couldn’t be cut, crushed, broken or otherwise destroyed, you could do worse than to use chrysanthemum stalks.

5. Rosebushes = ouch.

6. What in the world did I plant in front of the forsythia that’s coming up with such intriguing purplish leaves?

7. Who knew that a romaine lettuce plant could overwinter?

8. Sure wish I’d put those tomato cages away last fall.

9. Looks like a bumper crop of my favorite wild yellow tulips!

And my Top 10 Thought of the day:

10. I have really got to do something about the possum living in the garage.

Photo of Tulipa sylvestris by Javier Martin.

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