MUSINGS OF A PLANT ADDICT 

Keeping the dream alive

January is an impossible month for me--there's not enough color. It forces me to bring home bundles of bright, cut flowers to fill every room. If nothing else, this dreary month is good for planning spring gardens. Any month could be used to hatch new plans and revise old ones if they aren't roaring with activity (which they are). January, on the other hand, is quiet. It's a time to think and plan. Besides, winter keeps most gardeners indoors like caged birds--agitated and captive. Except, of course, for those hard-core gardeners covered in fleece and wool who wield Pulaskis (firefighting tools with an ax on one side of a heavy head and a sharp, small hoe on the other side). The handle is short and stout like a pickax, and it works wonders on breaking through the frozen top three inches of ground.

Creating a landscape plan using colored pencils and flower pictures cut from old garden catalogs is a dreamy way to armchair garden during winter. Perusing garden catalogs is easy on the eyes but scary on the pocketbook. It's amazing the amount of plants on each page that you just have to have. My list of "must haves" always translated to hundreds of dollars, causing me to rip up my order blank in disgust. It's hard to restrain yourself when purchasing plants if you're a plant addict. Plant junkies can't help but buy more plants, whether they have room for them or not. You can tell if you're one of the afflicted simply by looking outside. If there are plants from last year sitting in pots still waiting to be planted, yet you crave more, then you can count yourself among the botanically deranged.

Hello. My name is Suzann, and I am a plant addict. I fell headfirst into the ranks of the vegetatively challenged long, long ago. I'm among those you see methodically walking the rows of vegetation at local nurseries in summer--back and forth, back and forth--searching and muttering to myself. For those who suffer this need to surround themselves with live beauty and color, a greenhouse or nursery is our candy store.

Perhaps all gardeners start out as starry eyed, pie-in-the-sky plant ninnies; I really don't know. But we could definitely use a 12-step program to bring us back to reality. Unfortunately, there isn't a cure yet for the plant dependent, so you're on your own. To rein in my addiction, I resorted to using a series of stringent, mental questions before making a plant purchase. I ask myself: 1) Do I already have this plant? 2) Do I need another one? 3) Will this plant grow easily in my garden? 4) Can I fit this in my car? 5) Who do I know with a pickup?

To further test my progress, I attend at least one huge flower show a year with the goal of coming home with more clothes than plants in my suitcase. Over the years, I am happy to report that I've successfully reduced the amount of plants carried home and no longer have to ship my clothes in a box. The revelation that I don't have to buy one of everything came after watching hundreds of dollars fly out the window each year following the death of yet another $50 orchid or moisture-loving heather. Gardeners learn from their plant failures. It's what makes veteran gardeners so good at their craft.

Me? I excel at it. I received my M.F.A. (Master of Failures in Agriculture), but with it came wisdom.

No longer do I allow myself to be strapped with houseplants that need pampering--anything that requires frequent misting or watering isn't for me. Nor will I take on an outside plant that demands drastic soil amending and moist, shady conditions. After all, who am I kidding? This isn't British Columbia, and my yard isn't Butchart Gardens. I live on a sand dune at the base of the foothills, for Pete's sake. Because of that, I've come to love the plants that live in spite of me, and my sandy soil likes iris, lilac and lavender. Sure, I could add a greenhouse to my list of future acquisitions and grow orchids or whatever else I desired, but it would only add to the madness that I'm trying to tame.

Today I'm going to take a slow walk through my gardens. You might do the same if you're bored. Meander among the drooping foliage and see which leaves are still alive and well. Pluck a pebbly leaf from the culinary sage to smell. Wonder at the seedy, crimson balls that make up rose hips. Break one open and taste the outer skin. (Rose hips are edible and a good source of vitamin C.) Run a finger over the smooth, blood-red stems of the redosier dogwood or marvel at the fiery red beads that necklace the cotoneaster branches. The snow-covered, blue bottlebrush branches of Colorado blue spruce are magical in winter. (Did you know that the blue of the needles is caused by a thick layer of wax?) Enjoy the persistent, fruited crabs covered with tiny apple ornaments for the birds. Listen to the bleached, ornamental grasses rattle and shimmy in the wind.

Start seeing what's really out there in the dead of winter. Perhaps these durable plants that give our garden a fourth season of beauty are all we really need right now.

--Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send gardening questions to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or e-mail: sbell@uidaho.edu.

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