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Meta-Gardening? How do Gardeners Evolve?

evolution-gardening-t-shirts-men-s-premium-t-shirtLet’s say for the sake of argument, that gardeners are the pinnacle of human evolution,  as this t-shirt says.

But what about degrees of evolution within gardeners? I know I have certainly changed.

The parade of seeing the garden’s moods change minute-to-minute is one of the reasons I garden now, and the better I get at seeing it, the more I get out of it.

Some plants are a dance unto themselves, beautifully morphing from leaf to flower and back again. Japanese maples and Physocarpus come to mind – they may be deciduous, but mesmerizing in the shifting colors of bark and leaf.


Credit Kat Westcott Flickr

I didn’t always see that parade. When I first started gardening (and I don’t think I’m alone in this) I was all about the flowers, which is kind of like saying, when I get dressed, I’m all about bling. My goal is to blind everyone who sees me with non-stop spangle.

What’s the horticultural answer to that? One would be a bed of annuals that flower non-stop until frost, like impatiens or geranium.  But in the 80s, that was considered cheating by the “serious” gardening world.

zinnias community garden EG

Dreaming in color is so easy with annuals, which are back in favor. This is at the Seattle Tilth Pea Patch (community garden). Erica Grivas

Annuals Need Not Apply

Perennial borders were the rage at that time, so botanical symphonies like Great Dixter in England were my inspiration. I consumed books by Gertrude Jekyll and made confetti out of the White Flower Farm and Bluestone Perennials catalogs.

Perennials need to save energy to grow roots that can live through winter, so they typically bloom three to six weeks. So to win at perennial gardening you need to plot successive blooms as surgically as if you are composing music for a live orchestra.

Except it turns out the plants dance to their own music, or more accurately, the music of timing and quality of light, weather and nutrients. (Not to mention regular assault by animals, and insects, and microbes.)

One summer day my father, a lawyer with the heart of a stage manager, was watching me go through reams of paper sketching potential combinations, suggested we build a rotating shelf system that would roll budding plants into view and passing plants out of sight. Thinking of all the time spent planning, deadheading, replanting failed plants, and dividing in those first years, his plan would have been a lot easier.

When I studied landscape design, I came to appreciate a bigger picture of a garden. Perennials are a) a lot of work, and b) offer little to no structure, especially when they leave the garden flat as a pancake in winter.  I learned the value of supporting perennials with shrubs and trees, long-lasting foliage, and hardscape – and the nearly effortless flower power of those formerly frowned-upon annuals.

As the seasons taught me more patience (read: Nature smacked me around), I began to take time to notice small changes in the landscape, like beautiful seedheads.

In addition to teaching you with tough love, Nature can turn your definition of beauty on its head. Take one of my favorite perennials: Echinacea (coneflower) which flower in neon sunset shades. I’m “trialing” a collection of Echinacea in my parking strip to see if they can withstand pollution, Moon-dust soil and being watered every other month.

In fall, Echinacea becomes a blackened husk with spiky cones and shriveled flower skirts – a skeleton. Newer gardeners, unless they have a Goth streak, run for their pruners. But leaving those ugly bones protects the drainage-loving plant from our soggy Northwest winters and the seed cones give sustenance to hungry birds.  I don’t see the ugly anymore. I’m sure many passersby see a Day of the Dead diorama.

(As a compromise, I plan to corral the wildness with an edging of evergreen dwarf Ilex or Euonymous, which will be neat and glossy year round. One of these days.)

Taking this long view has other benefits. Knowing what they can do for your soil can make you if not love, at least welcome, the smells of compost and liquid kelp fertilizer.

So I’m a little better at being a Meta-gardener these days. I imagine garden design enlightenment is a garden that speaks in pure shapes, using no color but green, with the possible addition of gravel as an accent. But I’m not there yet. I still need my gaudy echinacea.  What does your garden evolution timeline look like?

Echinacea Nov 2016 EG

Echinacea. Credit: Erica Grivas


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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 Christmas card. Or a stop light.

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.

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 followed 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 MacGyver Gardener – 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 cabbie 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 lacework, will be beautifying too.


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