Polystichum munitum (Western Sword Fern): an Early Plant Crush

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The first plants I loved, were native plants. I say this without some of you knowing, I’ve never lived anywhere except in the Pacific Northwest in the Portland area. I love where I grew up and early on, many of my closest friends were the the ducks and crawdads that lived in the creek that flowed behind the family home in Milwaukie. We lived on an acre just outside of the city and I spent the majority of my time outdoors.

I believe I’ve written before about the native dogwood tree that we lost during an ice storm when I was a girl. I cried for the loss of its life. I’ve never said much about the cedar tree I build a little fort under, or spoken of the many ferns that were also on the property. They were the carpet of my childhood. (We had lawn too but my mom will tell you I disliked it from the start.)

Beside our property were two large vacant plots. During my entire childhood, I built trails on them, and as I routinely clipped back the blackberries, I slowly learned which plants were native and which were not. It’s funny to think about now. I’m not even sure how I learned except from books and from asking people. I learned the common names first, and then sometimes the Latin, but for the most part, I would sit in the woods and watch, and listen. I was a naturalist back then and didn’t even know it. No one ever encouraged me to do these things. If anything, I was discouraged and made fun of for it, but I instinctively lived much of my childhood in the dirt, grubbing around, largely outside of my Mom’s acre, but not entirely.

Sword ferns were always there. They were in the vacant lots, in Mom’s garden, they were near the rivers and streams, they’d be in gardens I saw (mixed in with more exotic plants), and each time I saw them, I knew them. The were the omnipresent plant of my childhood, but I never took them for granted. Their form, they just fit the place where I live.

Well, my first childhood job was to trim off the old fronds on my mom’s sword ferns in her garden. I used to know how many there were, but I can’t recall now. She paid me by the fern instead of hourly. (I’m just going to say that she complained I worked too slowly. She made fun of me for this, but guess who’s laughing now. She missed my horticultural inclination completely.)

It was paying me to do this that first opened my eyes to the thin line between nature/garden. It was just the realization that manipulating the plants changed their purpose. Yes, as a kid it felt strange to cut off all of the old fronds just to make them appear to “look better” when the new foliage grew out. I get it now. Now each year when I do it in my own garden (if I remember to do it) I think of mom and I laugh. Much of gardening is this total control that we wield and it lets folks think it’s somehow easy or “natural”. Yes, I guess it’s all about the illusion of our magic trick. To my mind, the best gardens use this trick to their advantage.

Today Evan sent me the pic above with myself and the giant Polystichum munitum we found just outside of Aberdeen, WA, so it reminded me to post the picture I took of him with another giant we found in the Fern Canyon in California. The maximum size of these plants is around 6 feet and these two are two of the largest that either of us have ever seen.

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Ulmus parvifolia ‘Seiju'(Seiju Dwarf Chinese Elm)

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A few years back I house/dog/garden sat for journalist Ketzel Levine at her Portland home. During that summer, I fell in love with her stubborn and elderly dog, learned from her established garden, and I met my first Ulmus parvifolia ‘Seiju’.

In the garden I could see what had and had not worked for her, I asked her questions about the plants when I saw her, but mostly, I spent warm summer evenings thinking about what might still be possible for me. That was a period of recovery. I was having a botanical growth spurt. I could ID many of the plants in her garden, but this unusual slow-growing shrub (or small tree) was new to me.
IMG_3229Honestly, so much has happened since that summer—when I first fell in love with the Ulmus parvifolia ‘Seiju’—I’d kind of forgotten about the crush I’d developed on it while I’d been there. Most evenings I’d spend time reading or writing in different seating areas she’d set up in the garden. I enjoyed taking in different views, studying her plantings, and “feeling” them. I loved many view there, but my gaze always returned to this plant. I was captivated by it. The garden had many charms though, many.

Recently, I was reminded again of her garden while I was at work. I was bundled up, it was wet and windy, and we were preparing for winter weather. I was walking through the middle of the nursery rows, and then I fell upon the Ulmus parvifolia ‘Seiju’ plants. Seeing their outlines in winter made me smile and I was suddenly filled with intense warm memories. I knew then that I had to write this post. Kneeling down quickly, tipping over a bit as I leaned too far to the right, laughing a little about how stupid I must look taking some of the photos that I do, I started writing this post about the Ulmus in my head right then and there. IMG_3225

The featured image at the top of this post is of the Ulmus parvifolia ‘Seiju’ Ketzel had at her place. It was quite large and the cork-like bark was pleasing to look at. It is often described as not getting large, but it definitely can become quite a large shrub or small tree.

I thought I had better photos of it, but I cannot find them now. Suffice it to say, it’s a plant that stuck with me. I’ve only seen it offered two times since then, once at Garden Fever, and then again where I work in Canby—Secret Garden Growers. It’s a plant I have not yet brought home, but as I shuffled around the nursery, thinking about writing this here, thinking about plants that I value and want to include in my open garden in 2020, I knew immediately that this hardy plant is one of them.

After losing an elderly family member this week, I was feeling out-of-it as I worked and I knew my post this Sunday should just be about a plant that I’d like to share more about, and this Seiju Dwarf Chinese Elm is one that makes you slow down, and meditate upon its loveliness. Some shrubs fill basic needs, other plants give us shocking or striking beauty. Still others—such as this—grow slowly, often allowing us to sit beneath them, following their unusual lines with our eyes, and if we want to become lost in them, in a kind of prayer or meditation, we can, and that possibility is wide open to us. If rushing past them, we can quickly marvel on their complicated lines, but there is a comfort in returning to them.

Once my house/dog/garden sitting gig ended, I missed this plant. It’s like that though. Once again, we don’t know what we have until it’s gone.

Feeling kind of blue this past week—and kind of quiet inside—I wanted to lose myself in the memory of a happier time, and so I traced the shapes and lines that nature gave us to mediate upon.

Ulmus parvifolia ‘Seiju’ is a slow-growing dwarf cultivar. It eventually reaches 6-10′ and about 4′ wide. It’s hardy to USDA zone 5 so it’s a great container plant for my area. Often used as a bonsai, I’d like to see it grown more often in the ground. It does well in the rock garden and it is highly resistant to Dutch elm disease.

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Let the Propagator Cook You Up Something Special…

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Hey there! Welcome back!

It’s exciting to be blogging again. Folks have told me to be bold and honest so here I am after a somewhat cold and wet day at work out in Canby at Secret Garden Growers. I’m drinking my Five Farms Irish Cream Liqueur (County Cork), thinking about y’all and why I love to do the crazy propagating that I do, and I’m wondering who will now be irritated by my speaking my mind and acting in my foolhardy and rather reckless and random ways.

I suppose if I irritated you in the past, you’re likely not reading this, so please don’t complain about my unorthodox ways. It’s been done before, and yes, you can talk about yourself while writing about plants.

I’m a horticulturist now more than ever, and I’m still an amateur botanist and seed grower. This means I can talk unorthodoxly with even more knowledge and I may respond with even more obnoxious responses, but I swear, I’m a good woman with a green heart of gold.  I promise to have posts where I actually explain something, or rearrange my garden, but it will mostly continue to be random thoughts and plants. I’m doing a lot and my interests will remain all over the plant map.

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Me at the bench with some tools and plants. It feels a lot like standing at the kitchen counter. Neither scene is pretty and I’m not going to lie about that. There is no fantasy to behold here (or there). All I can say is that crafting plants and food requires a lot of hard work, consistency, practice, skill, and instinct.

These new posts of mine will be blunt in 2020. I’m not going to be selling you on concepts of beauty, or marketing things you don’t need to buy. I don’t want to influence you, but as always—that is if we already know one another—I might want to play a bit and roil, throw some mud, or on the contrary, make some mud into a mudpie. (I am the most optimistic cynic you’ll ever meet. It’s either charming or repulsive but I’ll leave that up to you.)

Generally—or rather speaking broadly, or let’s just say overall—I just want to get the circulation flowing in you, and me. This is primarily an exercise I’m doing for myself. While I press myself to write here, I’m writing on a project elsewhere.

Garden writing/literature in English has always been a bit boring to me. I think I always found the repetition and homages to this and that a bit pedantic. Where are the rapscallions? I feel like they’ve been papered over and committed to the role of the garden gnome and that too is a tired cliché, is it not? I’ll let you gnaw on that one. To keep myself amused I continue to read garden literature in Italian and French but it is slow-going. I do not have the time to read. I work and read what I can when I can and then I chew on the words while I work at Cistus Nursery and in Canby too. I very much enjoy my time to think.

Life can be difficult. I come to the garden to be alive and to concentrate. It’s a kind of meditation to me. I come not to judge or be judged. I come here to grow. I came into the horticulture industry to grow—and I have grown into a kind of horticulturist. I suppose it’s the feral kind, but I’m a Spaghetti Westerner and I very much enjoy my freedom.

As a propagator, I have a lot of time to myself. Have I said that enough yet? I’ve thought a lot, written very little other than lists, listened constantly, and heard much. Propagators—from what I know—are organized folks. We’re loners. We seem to have an innate sense of the seasons. Or maybe what I mean by that, our seasons. My gardening calendar is much different than many others. I live by a production calendar.

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Oh the seeds…so many seeds. This is the easy part. The most difficult part is potting them all up as they grow and keeping them happy. This requires extra time, extra hands and help, and a keen eye to keep them happy and healthy as they continue to grow.

I like to say that as a propagator, I’m “back of the house” material, much like the kitchen staff in a restaurant. They produce food, we produce plants. I work in production at two nurseries. I do some retail, but my heart is in making more plants, and funny, it feels so often like cooking the same dishes over and over—year in and out, with a few fashionable changes from year to year. Like my production calendar, a kitchen is thinking months and months in advance too.

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A baked Timballo di Anelletti. I made this a few years ago for a dinner. Like a good crop of plants, it took time to plan and prepare. Cooking and propagation require an eye for detail and plenty of patience.

Growing plants from seed, division, and/or cuttings, also feels like making art supplies, or maybe, let’s call them the plant pigments for planting palettes, for amateur designers, students of garden design, and designers.

As a student of art history, I just want to add that an artist is one who knows their media nearly as well as they know themselves. The art and the crafting of those materials become part of who they are and it is ONLY when they can raise us up, make their art into something more, take us to another level, then, and only then, can it be considered art—and not craft.

It has only been through propagation that I’ve come to viscerally feel and know it to be true. Some gardens are truly art and I have spent time in only 2 or 3 that I would label as such. My art history professor once argued with me that it’s craft NO MATTER WHAT, but I definitely disagree. IF you want to claim your designs to be art, know your goddamn plants. Do NOT try to sell me on what you did with them, how they are spaced, what they look like in pics, or their calming arrangements. Extend those plants, their lives, how they grow, through what you do, and it can truly be art. I know, it’s a bit like asking you to play gawd but it’s nice to have #goals. I mean, #realgoals.

My hope here at my own home is always to play with plants scientifically aka horticulturally, artistically, and to hope to make something very special. I blend this with my personal taste, and also to match the architecture of my home, but some part of myself is always using this place as a canvas to play upon in the hopes of making a moment of art in time and space.

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A simple ingredient. How can we make this taste like even more than cauliflower? How can we lift up the simplest of simple things? Even with a plant, or two?

Returning to cooking, well, and art, let’s take a moment to consider the Master Chefs. Do they not take the humble ingredient and lift it to something more? Yes, yes they do. I’ve tasted the food of a handful of Master Chefs, and when I cook, and I have cooked many dinners for many people, I would never even call myself a humble chef. That is a title earned, and I am proud to be an accomplished home cook.

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Here I am exhausted a few years ago after cooking a five course meal two nights in a row for 10 guests each evening.

So Ann, what the hell is your point? My guess is that you’re already annoyed a bit by now. (I purposefully have never written in perfectly pretty prose packages either.)

My point is this. Just because we can call ourselves whatever we want to in the Information Age doesn’t mean we should. Don’t claim to be something other than what you are and embrace it. Many folks don’t know much. I sure don’t and I’m not going to claim to be an expert. Folks tell you to speak with authority. You know what, some folks who speak with authority should take a seat and eat some humble pie. I got tired of blogging and even reading online because there is a lot of nonsense out there. I didn’t want to contribute more schlock to the internet and I don’t want to encourage others to do so either. Please stop producing content to market your products unless it’s good content. It’s not helping us. Produce content because you have something of value to contribute. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard, “But I read it online…” about a plant and the information has not always been accurate or helpful. Dare I say it but fake news even exists in the Hollowed Halls of Horticulture where so many of us go to hide from current events.

Don’t believe everything you read online, and question it all. I feel so punk right now.

To write again, I needed to feel like I could produce valuable content and I have done my time. My posts won’t continue to be nearly this preachy but I AM trying to say—stop posting and re-posting what’s popular. I want to see and hear folks as online as individuals. I value that and I think right now a lot of gardeners are craving interesting reading content.

Be bold! (Former garden bloggers who need to post again, I’m writing to you!)

Getting back to my lovely beverage this evening, looking over their site for a tie-in, making sure that they’re not liars trying to sell me some Irish tall tale, I’m delighted to find this: “The cream is sourced entirely from five family-owned farms in County Cork, run by families that have a deep connection to the land and a passion for their craft.”

Hey folks! The best plants are crafted by true craftspeople and by their network of plant people. I’m one of those people and handcrafted plants are what I do, and are what I care about, and I hope that more people come to appreciate and understand this in the way that they care about their food. I want more folks to fall in love with horticulture, be able to start their own small businesses, and love their craft and labor. Big hort is out there, and I know that careers in horticulture seem like a life in the poorhouse, but we need to make this matter. It DOES matter. If it matters to you, support small and independent hort.

And please, don’t be an ass and complain about the price of your plants this season. Many of your plants—especially the large ones that you request so often because you can’t wait—require A LOT of care and resources in containers. This often includes hard labor and that costs $$. I see this attitude shifting more and it’s wonderful to meet grateful customers who really do appreciate all of the little things required to help plants live and thrive.

Know the process and support local small growers, small nurseries, and the plants that we develop and preserve. Buy handcrafted seed-grown plants, heirloom varieties, unique native plants from your region, and support small businesses in your area. Support Hort! 

I am lucky to live in Oregon—and by extension the PNW—where we have many great independent growers and small boutique nurseries. Sometimes I worry that future generations won’t have what we do, and it’s important to get involved at the local level, and to reach out and get to know the land and place where you live. We need folks to get involved to preserve these traditions, both for native plantings and otherwise, or else I fear many of our plants, and where we live, could be lost.

Plants really do matter.

All plants matter.

Plant matter.

See you next week!

 

 

Weekly Posts Coming in 2020

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Many working hours have passed since I regularly posted here on my blog. Folks sometimes ask about it, and while garden blogging has faded a bit, I’m not giving up. As a middle-aged woman who’s turned to horticulture later in life, in the years since I started this blog, I’ve become a professional horticulturist and I enjoy my career very much. It’s time for me to begin to regularly share some of the experiences that I’ve had with both the plants and people who mean a lot to me.

In the last year I’ve dealt with walking pneumonia, complications from walking pneumonia, entering into my third consecutive year of physical therapy for neuropathy, spinal, and hip issues from two falls, and the onset of additional autoimmune issues. I need to cut loose and have some fun online again. 🙂

My hope is to continue to inspire, entertain, and enlighten readers. No one in their right mind would be working in horticulture in my condition. It’s my passion though. It’s what I love—and folks are still willing to pay me to do what I do and to purchase what I grow. I entered into this world when I could barely move, let alone stand, and all I had was a new garden, a laptop, and some time to spare. It’s time to contribute more and give back. I think my employers also consider this “downtime” and they’d like me to do more of it.

So, expect weekly posts each Sunday in 2020!

And there will be houseplants… We know how much many of you love them too now. I know I sure do.

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Begonia dichroa in my collection.

 

July—in the Blink of an Eye (2018)

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Garden life was a bit scattered last summer. By the time everything was blooming it was kind of obvious that I hadn’t exactly planned anything. This has been the way things have been around here due to owning and growing so many things. I just decided to embrace all of the color and to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Last summer my Pelargonium peltatum ‘Crocodile’ bloomed, Dahlia ‘Pooh’ reigned loud and proud in the driveway, and I discovered the bulky, fragrant, never-ending joy of Nicotiana langdorffii in full sun.

For the 4th of July, I took nurseryman and author Paul Bonine to the coast with our mutual friend Evan Bean (The Practical Plant Geek). We decided to do the peninsula tour in Washington State along with our professional gardener friends Skyler (Tangly Cottage Gardening) and her husband Allan.

Skyler is also a prolific blogger and has been reading, growing, and writing about plants for many years. Her knowledge is vast from her experience and because she knows her climate well. If you know Paul, you know that this made for great conversation. We discussed the existing plants in the area, took notes of potential new ones, and generally had fun with other gardeners.

On that first day though, it was fun seeing Paul and Skyler in her garden, standing in front of this Eryngium pandanifolium var. lesseauxii grown by Paul’s business, Xera Plants.

The visit and tour was only for a few days. We packed as much as we could in and topped it off with the exciting experience of watching fireworks for hours and hours. We dined at the restaurant at the Shelburne Hotel where we were able to see the work that Skyler has been doing in the garden there. She worked on the garden years ago but then work was suspended for a few years. Now she’s back and she’s redoing the colorful cottage look. Many of the plants included were grown from seeds she’d purchased like the sunset runner bean seen above.

The next day was the 4th and we toured more gardens near Oysterville and along the peninsula and we ended up being invited to an impromptu dinner by two talented gardeners at their home on the Willapa Bay. img_6382

Back at home my neighbor and I spent quite a bit of time enjoying the color of this Phacelia viscida I’d purchased for her meadow. A wildflower, we’re really hoping it will return this year and that it successfully reseeded heavily. We’ll have to wait and see. Stay tuned!

As the heat crept up, the cats became flatter and flatter, often hiding in the house near the A/C.

Felix clearly grew tired of my laptop, Oliver hid in the cat cave on the cat tree, and LuLu, the brave pretty girl, often sat on the cool pavement in the shade out in the garden with me.img_6406I continued to rearrange furniture too in the hope that it would inspire me to keep tossing and/or selling items I didn’t need. This mirror was something I picked up at a Goodwill in California years ago and it’s been kind of a nice addition to my office/tv room. Hopefully sometime soon I’ll be able to finish painting in here.

At work so many things were happening. The strange Babcokia platylepis I’d sown finally bloomed. Hmmmmm. It looked like a fancy baroque dandelion, ok. I took home a Rhambus frangula ‘Asplenifolia’ to plant. The Aristolochia fimbriata I’d planted the year before finally were filled out. (They should be available at Cistus next year.) I fell madly and wildly in love with Pelargonium ‘Bird Dancer’— so much so that I expect that I’ll have a lot of them in the garden this summer. I watched the Colletia bloom along the driveway, and best of all, a threatened conifer endemic to California located in a border suddenly set a lot of seeds. Yes, that funny striped fruit contained a Torreya californica seed!

The natural world is simply amazing.

There was so much more though! I love summer, don’t you love it too?

I spent the rest of July soaking up the beauty of these three plants. They all held my interest well into fall. The Brugmansia ‘Charles Grimaldi’ had been a gifted cutting, but the Petunia integrifolia and Didiscus were grown from seed by myself. All three were so impressive and easy that I definitely will grow them again. img_6922At the end of the month I learned that my elderly neighbor and gardening friend was going to move back across the US. For years, many of the seeds I’ve sold in my shop Milton’s Garden Menagerie had been grown at her place.

On the day she told me of her plans, I was very sad, and had been eyeballing her incredible Ipomopsis aggregata. I actually took photos of it to remind me of that moment. It was a rough transition for both of us and I knew I had to buck up.

I took a deep breath and started to help her. img_6990While it was hot, hot, hot, I moved many of her gardening treasures to my home. She gifted me with so many things she’d gathered from friends and various places. I grabbed extra rocks, a pair of large terra-cotta planters, as well as all of her houseplants.

For the last few months I’ve been treating, feeding, dividing, repotting, and selling many of them. I didn’t both to count how many plants I took care of but it was a lot and now I have small babies of them all.

I’ve propagated many for folks who’ve purchased them locally, and I have a collection to ship to her when she’s ready to receive them. While it’s been really hard for me to lose her, and I miss her a lot, it created an opportunity to learn about a lot of amazing plants all at once. I am grateful for that—but I still do miss her.

Venezia on Foot (from April 2016)

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(While going through my unfinished blog posts recently I discovered this one from my last trip to Italy back in 2016.)

Wish I could find a little pot holder just like this one.

It has been over two years since I was on this trip, yet seeing these photos quickly brings it all back to me. The devil really is in the details. The colors, curves, light, shadows, and the many kind people I met while there for two weeks warm my heart. I didn’t want to love Venezia, but I carry it with me now. It seems cliche to this cynical American, and yet, the place inspires! It’s a magical place and I wish I could have known it long ago…img_1345This was our front door for two weeks. We had the large apartment located on the top floor of this building.

Many times I walked past this shop nearby and admired these ceramics. I still think about these ceramics. While there I bought this book to practice my reading comprehension. I’m always amazed at how little I use my Italian and yet am still able to do ok with it when I need to read it. These are likely window boxes filled with Sedum palmeri. It felt like the entire place had all shared the same plant. While visiting there the first time, I’d admired this color on another building. It’s called Venetian salmon and seems fitting. After the second trip I loved the color even more. (This is Hotel Iris.)During this second trip I also learned quite a bit more about the gardens of Venice and the history of many of the plants there. (It helps to be included in a group of Italian Instagramers who know a great deal about Italian Garden History.)With so many tourists, it’s nice to hide the garbage cans with art. Many shops sell items for Carnevale. This shop caught my eye with its modern masks. On this trip I walked to see some art, but not as much as I’d hoped to see. I rested and read quite a bit. Traveling is still hard on me and this wasn’t really long after I’d had my back surgery and I was in the midst of terrible nerve pain from my old injuries. Being there made the pain better. It was even better when I saw plants. It’s a place where you always want to peek over walls. I spent a few days like this but was relieved when the tour took place on the last day there. Being invited into homes and gardens is always a wonderful treat. It seems possible to me that I loved this walk so much I could do it all over again in my mind. Then there was a cookbook store. Oh how I wish I’d spent more time lingering there!The best was saved for last. I stopped several times on my way back to the apartment to pick up this incredible sarde in saor from a vendor who served theirs on polenta. The two creamed together like this still makes my mouth water.