Myrna Loy and MacGyver Make Over My Porch

And now, some gratuitous plant porn.

Do I have your attention? (Common writer’s trick: throw an inflammatory word like “porn” in your lead if inspiration deserts you.)  To be fair, the only one naked in this story is our porch. Container plants are a garden’s fashion accessories, the final, glittering “lookatme” touch.  Our porch has been naked as a jaybird since we moved to Seattle last May.

For a full year, our porch has looked so sad, all unadorned.  My husband likely disagrees, but I don’t count the gas grill as decor. The floorboards were unpainted.  The doormat once had a design but now has only rubber gray stubble.  No chile pepper string lights, chinese lanterns or hanging baskets were hung.  We didn’t even get TP’d for Halloween.  That might have been an improvement.

That situation could not stand.  Call them what you will –  Serendipity, feng shui, or Martha Stewart –  the forces of good taste and self-respecting pride of place took over.

Why I was forced to buy $ hominahomina* worth of annuals:

*”homina homina” – A Ralph Kramden-ism: if your life has been bereft of “The Honeymooners,” move directly to  youtube .

  • Our landlady had the floor painted!  The color is commonly called “park bench green” or “porch green” – darkest green with a hefty glop of blue in it – to match the door.  The house is pale gray – an odd choice when the sky is that color 297 days a year.  *Dear Landlady, If you can’t change the house color yet,  please paint the door red next, please  please.*
  • A new doormat flew into my arms at a yard sale. It was porch green with red and yellow flowers. I don’t need an engraved stone tablet; I know a message from the cosmos when I see one.
  • My generous mother-in-law handed me down four empty hanging baskets and took me shopping at Molbaks – which is the Seattle gardeners’ equivalent of FAO Schwartz.

There was no turning back. (I was already at the nursery cashier.)

The existing colors limited my palette choices considerably – the way I saw it, with all that porch green  I could go pale lemon yellow or reds and oranges. I wanted to announce the entry, shouting a welcome from our hilly perch, so I went with red. Yes, green and red, like a stop light or a Christmas card.

Far from subtle, but it’s got a 1940s-honey-I’m-home-ooh-is-that-pie? vibe that makes me smile. I should be answering the door dressed like Myrna Loy in an apron with red cherries on it.  Here’s my soul sister Myrna as Mrs. Blandings choosing colors. 

And just because it showcases her unique beauty, here’s Myrna’s sexy side pre-“Thin Man”

Anyway, back to the garden.

I usually go for multiple rainbow like combos of three – five colors (indecisive much?), but this time I went for an analogous look, sticking to one section of the color wheel.  I also loosely following Keeyla Meadows’ color strategy from her book:  “Fearless Color Gardens: The Creative Gardeners’ Guide to Jumping Off the Color Wheel “.

Meadows recommends picking one main hue as a starting point then going to either side of it for supporting colors, and picking one accent to a supporting color.  The farther away the accent and supporting color are from each other, the higher the ooomph factor.

Mixing in some black sweet potato vine and dark coleus  for spice, and some honey-scented white alyssum for leavening,  here are some of the container combos I came up with.  I found a Martha Washington geranium with excellent gray-green leaves edged  in cream, and some coral diascia, and I was off and running.

Geranium, red verbena, white alyssum

After choosing those two at the pricey nursery, I headed to the other side of the tracks for fillers.  As an anti-clash measure –  not because I’m a borderline OCD perfectionist – I brought samples of the geranium in a baggie for comparison.

"Mango" verbena, orange calibrachoa, & red "Wave" petunia

Scarlet was my main  color (red verbena),  gray-green was my accent color,   and coral my supporting color. Since blue-green is the complement to orange-red, so this was a near-complementary combo.  Stand back, you might get  blinded by the boldness!  (Thank you for taking me outside my color comfort zone, doormat – I’m liking it.)

When I ran low on supplies I poached from my in-ground perennials, taking emergency divisions from sprawly sedum and purple-leafed geranium “Victor Reiter.”  It wasn’t a “M*A*S*H-style tracheotomy with a pen, but it made me feel bold. I was a MacGyverGardener – although if the divisions croak, my efforts were more like Macgruber.

Sedum siebodii and diascia

See how the coral diascia picks up the cherry red edging on the sedum? As a muse, Myrna is genius!

No, I don’t know what’s with all the nostalgia and  old TV references.  Perhaps because we haven’t seen the sun in a week – after being spoiled by a great winter and a lovely spring.  I’ve gone all misty.

[Music up, roll credits]

Will I be able to stop? If not, what characters will I stoop to mentioning? Will Arnold the Pig or Eddie Munster show up?  Tune in next time to find out….


[Fade out]

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Look What Gardening Did to My Face!

Recently my husband and I were shopping at a nursery for vegetables.  In the middle of a discussion about the benefits of the little-known “Italian Heirloom” tomato versus the famous but longer-season “Brandywine,” which is a clear risk in Seattle’s iffy summers, he interrupts me.

“What’s that on your face?” he says, rubbing my forehead as if I were a toddler with paint on my face.  “Oh, it’s a worry line.

Wow…it’s just so deep it looks like it was drawn on.


Putting aside the rating I’d give that comment on the tact-ometer, I have to admit he was right.

Checking the car mirror, I saw a large vertical crease, at least 3/4 of an inch long, edging to the left.  Apparently the left side of my face, and by extension the right side of my brain – which handles creativity, visual learning and art appreciation – does all the heavy lifting, leaving the left, number-loving, logic-oriented side to nap poolside.   This will not come as a shock to many who know me, particularly my seventh grade algebra teacher.

What did I have to worry about? Well, there was the chance my husband could choose a non-approved (by me) tomato variety, and the fact that we had only 20 minuntes to shop, check out, and drive five miles in construction traffic to our neighborhood for school pick-up.  Note: remember to apologize to Mom for cutting her off like a New York City cab when she called right then.

Successfully retrieve full complement of kids (two) from school, then home to start digging and pulling.  A neglected bed, running the length of the house – about 25 feet worth – needed clearing; the weather service predicted the long-delayed spring rains were due to hit Seattle all week starting the next day.

Among the archeological finds uncovered were:

  • a tester-size vial of perfume (perhaps a former gardener worried she’d fall in the manure),
  • a double-pointed pencil, and
  • a plant tag proving that this easterly bed had been home to vegetables before, or at least one “Black Beauty” zucchini.

But my husband, planting tomatoes and peppers on the south side of the house, definitely found the coolest artifact: an old garden glove that had become so enmeshed with the earth it was conpletely covered in roots!  There’s a metaphor in there,  something about the hand of man being consumed by the jungle, but I am without latte, and cannot think of it.

Two hours later and fifteen minutes later, I had reaped bare soil, and planted lettuces, cabbages, three kinds of mint, dahlias, and alyssum seeds skirting the feet of the dahlias. My husband always goes crazy mint-buying; I like to change my craziness up; this year it was heirloom tomatoes and dahlias.  I never imagined I’d be a dahlia person, but I went to The Puget Sound Dahlia Association’s sale earlier this spring and caught the fee-vah, netting new seven dahlias for the garden.  As renters who have no excuse to be putting any money into the garden, and considering the space they take up, I’m pretty sure that qualifies as crazy.

Inside, scrubbing up in the bathroom to divest myself of the Pigpen-like aura of soil dust I’d acquired, I looked up in the mirror to check out the @#*&! worry line.  It was – gone!  The avenue between my eyebrows was as flat and smooth as fresh pumpkin pie.

Some digging and weeding al fresco took me from this:

to this:

Who knew gardening was better than Xanax?   So maybe I don’t need to spend scary amounts of money on skin-toners and wrinkle creams.  I just need to spend more time in the garden!  Plus there’s the added bonus of burning 600-plus calories in two hours, which is about the same burn rate I get on our basement ellipical exer-marcher, but I can only ever stand to slog through 25 minutes of that, even with a really snappy podcast queued up.

I know what you’re thinking, but no, honey, housework will not do my face any good.  If you want to see the forehead you married again, take up the vacuum cleaner and pass me the trowel. Too bad garden shopping was apparently so stressful, but I have a hunch that knitting, as long as I stay away from lace, will be beautifying too.

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For Gaudiness

Too Much of a Good Thing Can Be Wonderful - Mae West

Maybe all my post titles should be taken from anti-bot software  – i.e., the warped-looking letters you have to copy when registering on many sites to prove you are “human” (my faves use actual words).  “For gaudiness” was my ticket into blotanical.com – a gardening blog review site, but I liked the concept, so here we are.

gaudy: Gaudy or Gaudie (from the Latin, “gaudium”, meaning “enjoyment” or “merry-making”)

stridently colored … tastelessly showy….tacky.

Surprising that Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi has nothing to do with it – his no-holds-barred use of color and form fits all of the above.  I like to think he enjoyed the aural association, and that he tended toward the “merry-making” rather than “tacky” end of the spectrum.  Naturally, loaded words like “strident” and “tasteless” are going to muddy the waters of our discussion.  What pains you to look at, especially after a night of too much liquid gaudiness, might be just the jolt I need to wake up in the morning, or vice versa.   If we can evade the Pit of Judgement, and focus on the colorful excess, that may help.

What’s Your Gaudy Number?

We each have our own gaudy-meter, the line you fear to cross.   I met a woman from Texas at the nursery this weekend, and I asked if the grey licorice plant in my hand would look crazy cool in a pot covered in grey beach stones (as my inner Martha hoped)  or boring (as my inner Little & Lewis  feared).  No contest for her. “I go for punch,” she said, punching the word like she was pitching Suds-O.

Do you have the guts to put crimson and cerise together? Primroses at Roozengaarde bulb farm, Mt. Vernon, WA.

Sometimes gaudy is in the context, as I saw moments later when I brought a magenta-edged purple Martha Washington geranium too close to a chartreuse Lysimachea aurea – a full-tilt complementary combo.  “STEP AWAY FROM THE LIME,” the geranium intoned to me, in an oddly mechanical voice.  “TRY A PEACH VERBENA.”  I understood; I was not ready for it.  Only experienced color-riders should attempt to drive this course.

Sometimes gaudy is just built-in – the phrase “Velvet Elvis” comes to mind – and like art that skirts the fringes of propriety, many plants have been feted and successively frowned upon thanks to that showiness.   Dahlias, coleus, cannas, and hydrangeas have each hit the horticultural skids at various times,  scorned for  being somehow “too much”.  (The large-flowered Hydrangea macrophylla probably got its nickname during one of those periods – “mophead” is hardly a name for a popular plant.

Does this make your heart sing? Or give it palpitations? "Mophead" hydrangea bustin' out.

With some its size that matters – it’s difficult, as a flower, to aim for the demure look when your blooms are 10″ across.  Like the well-endowed girl in the sixth-grade class, there is no bushel under which that light can hide.

pink cactus dahlia

Dahlias: "Don't hate us because we're beautiful"

Others, like coleus and cannas with dramatically painted or variegated foliage, are the plaid chintz of the garden – they pack pizazz, but add one pattern too many and you uncork visual chaos.

The Victorians, known for quite a bit of restraint interpersonally,  went a little nuts on exteriors  – in fashion, architecture, and gardens.   No need to poke Dr. Freud on Facebook to figure that one out.  (The 1995 movie  “Angels and Insects” , based upon the A.S. Byatt novel, illustrates this syndrome with fearsome  clarity.)  Bedding schemes recreated intricate Bokhara carpets, weaving with coleus and pansies instead of wool.  It was the golden age of the plant-hunter.  Conservatories brimmed with the biggest, weirdest, smelliest exotic discoveries that explorers like E.O.Wilson  could import.

Gertrude Jekyll, octogenarian queen of the mixed-border,  exploded the Victorian stranglehold on garden design. She favored naturalistic drifts of plants in micro-engineered color sequences.  Unlike the sports-franchise contrasts popular with the Victorians, Jekyll’s borders were soothing lullabies made up of bass notes of grays and blues with high notes of pinks, whites, and purples.

Much like my mother’s fun orange  leather club chair had no place in the dusty mauve and slate blue world of the 1980s, eventually the loud bedding plants, palms and outsized cannas came to look brash and bizarre amid the pastel schemes of Jekyll.

But today tropicalissmo has taken hold, thanks to pioneering designers like Richard Hartlage , Marco Polo Stufano and Piet Oudolf, and prominent gardeners like Thomas Hobbs and Linda Cochran. Bold is the new black. Actually, in gardening, black is the new blue, but that’s a post  for another day.

Dahlias and canna cultivars are increasing like very happy rabbits; compact dahlias, called “border dahlias,” are even allowed to play reindeer games with the daylilies and bee balm.   Coleus, once sold as nameless mixes in the shade section of the nursery, have leapfrogged into botanical garden borders, and sport actual names.    The memory of the stigma lingers, however: Stainedglassworks.com, retailer, writes: “The handful of plantsmen still pretending to disdain COLEUS simply have not caught up with the Victorian gardeners!” Some plant publicist is trying to prove these are not the fussy plants of the Victorian era; the names definitely depict life on the wrong side of the tracks, for example: “Hit and Run,” “Private Dancer,” “Rising Temperatures,” “Devil’s Seed,” and “Satanic Embers.”  I say, be not afraid of the names or the colors – check out the wattage on these varieties:

These flamboyant baubles can add just the right sparkle to containers – as designers have discovered.   A bit of red blood grass (Imperata cvs.), purple-leaf canna,  or lime sweet potato vine (Ipomea batatas) will add pop and instant street cred to your geraniums.

Gaudy may be in the eye – and maybe the inner recesses of the beholder’s psyche – but, like wearing spandex, pulling it off is all about attitude!  Show your joy, your gaudium, and the world can’t help by smile – even if  for some it’s only the inside.

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Stealing Beauty Everday

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

William Morris


Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.

-Georgia O’Keefe

I still remember the revelation of college (no, not beer pong) when the art history professor showed slides of Buckminster Fuller roadsters alongside art deco toasters to illustrate 20th century humans’ views of nature and industry.  Even a lowly toaster, with integrity of meaning and lines, can speak to our souls.

My first gardening article, for the Op-Ed page of a local Bronx paper, was inspired by the Japanese observance of Cherry tree blossoming, called Hanami.  In years past, families moved the futon under the backyard cherry tree and camp out together watching the tree transform above them from budbreak until spring winds  showered silky blossoms on their faces.  What a way to wake up!

Today’s modern Hanami festival involves colossal picnics in public orchards, spots for which are brokered like World Series box seats by prominent corporations to impress clients.  More consumer-friendly, more mass-market, I’m sure the young turks use the time to scope out the hotties, but still.  In the days of the New Busy Global Village, so much time set aside to look at flowers.

Some of my most contented moments are the ones absorbed by looking, feeling, and touching the moment with five, six senses on a good day.  Could be weeding in the garden, having to touch every blade to see if I’m pulling crabgrass or drumstick allium, feeling a decadent yarn slip through my fingers, or enjoying the the warm weight of my 6-year-old son curled in my lap.   (My 8-year-old son only cuddles these days when he’s lost in a  fever.)

These all are fleeting moments, as irretrievable as a missed bus, but as wonderful when savored as warming feet by the fire or an ego-melting kiss.  But it’s up to us to steal them from obscurity.


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