Dahlias, dahling

Dahlias are one of those flowers you either love or don’t love. People aren’t neutral about dahlias; they’re not that type of plant. A woman who once lived and gardened next door to me was wild about dahlias; she made them the backbone of her backyard every year. When she was moving to a smaller place, she gave me a bunch of dahlia tubers. I gave them away. (Don’t anybody tell her!) They always seemed overblown and garish to me. But I’m rethinking that these days. The reason, of course, is that dahlias are extremely frugal. So long as you dig them up over the winter and replant them in the spring, they’ll flower reliably year after year. That makes more sense to me the older (and stingier!) I get.

Besides, not all dahlias are the dinner-plate-size monstrosities my neighbor grew, so that they always seemed way out of scale in my small garden beds. The dahlias I like best, the “collarette” types, are actually quite petite and … well, no dahlias are really delicate, but at least they don’t scream at you. And there is something mesmerizing about the mathematical perfection of the bon-bon dahlias, like the one above, which is ‘Aurora’s Kiss.’ Generally, I’m a fan of the simpler, single dahlias, like ‘Appleblossom’ or ‘Bishop of Llandalf,’ but there’s no denying that this is a Kiss worth looking at. So: a belated New Year’s resolution–I’m going to try to cozy up to dahlias. This would seem to be the time to get serious about such an obliging plant.

Photo by Marktee 1 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

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Foxglove love

There are flowers that I’m just no damned good at growing. I’ve learned from hard experience, from having bought seeds or even plants year after year, carefully tending them, and winding up with nothing. I am, for example, a sucker for delphinium. Well, who isn’t? I can’t tell you how many delphiniums I’ve planted. None of them bloom. None of them even survive. It’s the same with all those “English cottage garden” flowers–lupine and foxglove and and lavender and stocks and anemones and hollyhocks. I should just face the facts. I’m American. I have an American garden. It gets blazingly hot in August, and right now it’s under two feet of snow. I should just stick to tough, sun-happy American stuff–zinnias, sunflowers, marigolds, petunias. They bloom their heads off for me.

But there’s just something perverse in a gardener’s soul. We want to trick Mother Nature; we want to fool her and plant sweet peas in Alabama. And plant developers encourage this; they work overtime coming up with marigolds that don’t require sunshine and impatiens that don’t need shade. Next thing you know, they’ll have us planting water lilies in the desert. Why, why, why, do we only want what we can’t have?

There’s a movement in the foodie world now to only eat food produced within 50 miles of your homestead. We ought to do the same for our flower gardens. It would save a lot of headaches (and money). But this is January, and this is when gardeners dream. You know, I just might give foxglove one last try …

Photo by Foolip.

Take this snow and shovel it

I just got us all dug out, for what seems like the fifth time in a week, and it’s started snowing again. While it is lovely to be outdoors and see and greet all my neighbors, I’m really tired of snow now. And it just started coming down again.

On the plus side, I consider myself immune from having to go to the gym today, as my arm muscles are aching from lifting all that heavy snow–the gray stuff that the plows ALWAYS plow to the same side, up against my car. Hey, snow plows! TURN THE FREAKING PLOW TO THE OTHER SIDE ONCE IN A WHILE!

Also? I was too tired to go down to the basement to get the usual crappy-ass metal folding chairs we put out to claim our spots, so I just grabbed one of the relatively nice green plastic ones from the backyard. Watch, just watch. Someone will steal it.

Marcia, if you read this, do you have any dried beans, perchance? I’m dying to make bean soup but don’t have any beans. And I didn’t see you shoveling.

Photo by Thunk.

Okay, all together now–think SPRING!

There can NOT be more snow in the forecast. There can NOT be a high as low as 10 degrees tomorrow. There can NOT be more cold lying ahead of us. Come on, people, let’s get cracking on this! If we all think SPRING very hard, all together, it’ll be like harmonic convergence and we can bring it about. Before you know it, daffodils will be peeping through the snow. Crocuses will be unfurling. Forsythia will be sprouting. Think, people, think!

No? Nothing happening? Oy. My hands are too cold to type. I have on 14 layers of clothes; I can barely move. I can’t afford to run the heater. I’d go out and sit in the car and warm that up, but I can’t afford the gas. Please, please, let this winter end already! I’ve had enough!!!

Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

I was driving my kid back to college yesterday, and the weather was bad. Really bad. Started out as an ice storm, followed by snow, then slush. But toward evening, the skies cleared, and the sun actually poked its head out from the gray clouds, and made one of those funnels of sunlight pouring down to earth. I was reminded that such a funnel is known as a “Jacob’s ladder” after the story in the Old Testament, in Genesis, in which Jacob describes seeing angels ascend and descend a staircase of light. And that reminded me that my mother used to grow Jacob’s ladder, a.k.a. Polemonium caeruleum, in her garden. Actually, she didn’t so much grow it as let it grow. It’s a wildflower that likes a damp spot with some sun, and it’s the same light, pretty pale blue as flax. It’s not a long-bloomer, but it’s faithful, and non-invasive, and it self-seeds, which are three pluses for a plant. I’m going to have to find me some Polemonium caeruleum seeds.

Turns out there’s a scientific name for those staircases of light: They’re known as crepuscular rays, which is a not very attractive term for such an awesome, all-natural special effect. I’m pretty excited to find out more about them; see the cool photo of the cathedral at the link. Sunlight harnessed to pierce the hearts of the masses! Those ancient masons were pretty damned smart.

Photo by Doronenko licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Darkness falls

So does snow. These are the worst days of winter. At least in February, you can think, “Well, only another few weeks before stuff starts to poke up through the ground!” But now, there’s nada ahead except at least another two months before signs of spring. (Unless you count the days getting longer–and I do count that. It really does make a difference when the sky’s not already fully dark at five p.m.)

Even the seed catalogs aren’t cheering me up much this year, not with snow in the forecast for later tonight (switching over–always a treat–to freezing rain). It may seriously be time to invest in some cut flowers. Wouldn’t a nice bouquet of gerberas or tulips make the time past faster? Time to look in the penny jar and see how much is there. Meantime, read this New York Times article on searching out tulips in the Netherlands, and dream that it’s spring, and you’re there. If that should cheer you, read this Sylvia Plath poem called “Tulips.” There goes the cheer.

Photo by Amanda77 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Open sesame

You know how you can be going along in life, tra-lee, tra-la, and all of a sudden you think of something and wonder why you never thought of it before? No? Too bad. I had one of those moments today. I was in the grocery store, looking to buy some hummus, and was examining my options there in the hummus case. The kind of hummus I really like is topped with spicy red peppers, and I found it, but next to it was a variety with something else sprinkled on top of it–something that looked like bugs. I looked closer and saw it was sesame seeds. And that’s when it struck me: sesame seeds! I know where the poppy seeds atop bagels come from, but what about sesame seeds?

So I looked them up. They’re the seeds of the pretty lil’ plant above, Sesamum indicum, the sesame plant, and in large stretches of the world, they’re a major foodstuff, grown for the oil-rich seeds, which play a part in mythology, cookery and medicine. (The “open sesame” phrase from The Arabian Nights refers to the way the seed pods burst open when they’re ripe, like balsam pods.) The seeds are rich in vitamins and minerals, and while we mostly just sprinkle them on hamburger rolls (hello, Whopper and Big Mac!), in other cultures they’re used to make tahini, candy, soup, benne cookies (“benne” being an African name for sesame, brought to the Southern U.S.), and halvah. I love halvah. Halvah is candy made from ground sesame seeds and sugar or honey, and it is rich and good. Ancient Babylonians believed that eating halvah promoted youth and beauty. It pretty much just promotes blubber on me, alas.  Wikipedia has an amazing page with photos of all the Halvahs of the World. Check out this photo of an Israeli halvah market:

I would like a pound or two of the pretty rainbow kind, please!

Sesame is an annual, and if it’s ubiquitous in so many cultures (it’s recently been adopted by Wiccans as a fertility aid), it can’t be that hard to grow. I grew poppy seeds last summer; maybe this year I’ll experiment with sesame!

Flower photo by J.M. Garg and halvah photo by derar_avi licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Pucker up

I’m not the world’s biggest hosta fan, but my next-door neighbor is. She spends every weekend through the summer downtheShore, as we say hereabouts, and I think she’s filled her backyard with hosta because they’re pretty much carefree, though she complicates that by insisting on cutting down the flowering stalks the minute they bloom, for some old-wives-tale reason whose origins are lost in the sands of time. Oddly, what she likes about hosta is what I dislike about it: As a plant, it’s easy. Anybody can grow it. You can see ancient hostas on old, abandoned properties that look exactly the same as painstakingly cultivated hosta. I don’t want plants that ignore and defy me. I want plants that need me. There’s no challenge, no pride, in growing hosta well.

I also find their old common name, funkia, a real turn-off, but that’s just me.

But, eh. I’m getting older. Ease is growing more appealing. So are hostas, by the way. The big, blobby pale-green-and-white hostas of my childhood are being supplanted by cultivars with double flowers, like ‘Venus,’ or fragrant flowers, like ‘Guacamole,’ or pretty, puckery blue-green leaves, like ‘Drinking Gourd,’ shown above. I could warm up to hostas like that. What’s more, in Japan, people eat hostas; they’re called “urui,” and depending on the variety, the leaves, shoots or flowers are consumed. In this day and age, it’s always good to have edible plants in the garden, just in case Armageddon comes. (Shh! Don’t tell my neighbor, and we can eat her hostas, too!)

Photo by Paul Henjum.

The comfort zone

My garden, like any garden, is a balance between tried-and-true and brand-new. I supply the tried-and-true; Proven Winners, the company I test-garden for, provides the brand-new. I have a terrible tendency to only order what has worked for me in the past–what I know will grow. That’s why my seed list inevitably contains cornflowers, nasturtiums, calendula, sweet peas, larkspur and poppies. If I’m going to spend $50 on seeds, I want them to come up, dammit—and with as little labor on my part as possible.

The downside to this is that there are a ton of plants out there I’ll probably never get to grow, unless Proven Winners reads my thoughts. My thoughts this year are tending toward a gaillardia called ‘Oranges and Lemons.’ I love the name—from the old song we sang in Girl Scouts about the different church bells in London. (“Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clemens; I owe you five farthings say the bells of St. Martins …”) And I love the pictures I’ve seen of it, all bright and cheery, with lovely clear colors and not a hint of muddy brown. But I’ve never grown gaillardia, so even though the catalogs all promise it’s easy easy easy, I’m reluctant to step outside my plant comfort zone and drop $3 on a packet of seeds.

I know what’s going to happen. I’m not going to shell out for the seeds—but come May, I’ll see a pot of ‘Oranges and Lemons’ on sale at some nursery and pay $8.95 for it because I can’t resist. I’ll just end up spending more money for fewer plants. What is the matter with me?!?!

Photo courtesy of White Flower Farm.

Stuck on stocks

The catalogs continue to pour in, full of teases (new varieties on offer) and reminders (didn’t I mean to order sea holly this year?) and those lovely if occasionally deceptive photos. I understand that plant and seed sellers want their goods to show their best side. But honestly, I know in my soul that those dahlias are never going to get that big for me.

Still, I page through them all, with relish. Gardening is as much aspirational as actual. That’s what makes this time of year so much fun. I can still imagine that my back garden this summer will feature delphiniums that dazzling, lupine so luscious, and coneflowers that spread out in a lush carpet, instead of only having half a dozen blossoms at a time.

Just now, I’m dithering  about stocks, a.k.a. Matthiola incana. “Create the storybook cottage garden of your dreams,” the Burpee catalog whispers seductively. I rarely see stocks growing in gardens, but I get them in bouquets sometimes, and they are so lovely, with their bright clove scent. “A summerlong display of color and fragrance,” Burpee promises, all for just $4.95 for a packet of seeds.

So I dig a little deeper and find out what I can about growing them. Turns out they can’t stand the heat, which my garden gets plenty of come July and August, which means they probably won’t be growing all summer long. BUT–and this is a big but–I stayed away from planting sweet peas for years because I’d heard they were finicky and didn’t like hot summers. Now I grow tons of them, and they flower for me from June through August, so long as I keep the seed pods picked.

So, what’s $4.95 for a packet of seeds, right? How am I supposed to resist flowers like those shown above, even if I can’t smell a picture?

Photo by Wildfeuer licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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