JOURNAL: Back Porch, Feb. 24, 2013

outside inside 2:23:13

Outside, the frozen pond. Inside, green house guests.

Nearly a foot of snow from Thursday’s storm. Unbroken white, the world looks clean.

On the back porch, a Phantom petunia plant, several Pelargoniums, a two-foot, three-year-old “Hill’s Hardy” rosemary (to be planted out permanently in Spring*), a yellow lantana and the Napoleon pepper–hauled from the ground and cramped into a plastic pot after second frost–are all in bloom. Napoleon, presumably porch-pollinated by brown recluse spiders and airborne cat hair, has set three tiny, green fruits since December–miniscule and exalted salad garnishes.

Petunia "Phantom" blooming in February on the back porch.

Petunia “Phantom” blooming in February on the back porch.

Cuttings taken in October–Greek oregano, catmint, pineapple and culinary sages, columnar basil, Verbena bonariensis, red Lantana, copper sweet potato, Sedum “Voodoo,” Rosa “New Dawn” and an unidentified firethorn (Pyracantha)–have struck and thrive. Plumbago auriculata, a potted tropical I gladly coddle from year to year in the service of nostalgia, is setting buds for more sky-blue flowers. Outside on the frozen patio, under crusted drifts of snow, only the Galanthus are blooming.

On the front porch, a few boxes of winter-sown seeds: rue, Rudbeckias maxima and triloba (large amounts for a meadow project), Patrinia scabiosifolia, Echinacea pallida (another large amount), and 50 seeds of Kiss-Me-Over-The-Garden-Gate, a Victorian favorite getting a lot of Internet chatter lately.

Plenty of sun on the back porch–a bank of large windows facing south and west. I’ll hang the fluorescents next week, standard 4′ shop lights, less than $20 including tubes. The fluorescents compensate as the winter sun rises, a pretty good seed-starting situation. So much life indoors with Winter outside, wind hard at the windows.

I’ve said it a thousand times: I don’t like plants in the house. Outside is where well-placed plants are happy. Though I shy from the houseplant concept, I can’t deny the selfish pleasure of puttering among my seasonal house-guests, potting up and grooming, misting and dreaming of April. I’m the innkeeper at a vegetable B&B. When snow is on the ground, a roomful of sun and living greenery is encouraging and its nice to still have a few fresh herbs for the kitchen.

Back porch, Feb. 2013.

Back porch, Feb. 2013.

Here in Kansas, gardeners are forced indoors each winter. Coming here from California, where gardens require year-round attention, I appreciate that seasonal pause. After seven months of fighting hard clay (mud in spring, terra cotta in summer), incessant winds, blistering heat, ferocious storms, voracious wildlife and what seems to be every angry bug on the planet, a body needs rest. Winter is a time for assessment and planning, for research and  diagrams, for tending the garden in your mind.

This winter, like every winter, I spend many pleasant hours with plant catalogs, tripling the size of my wish list to what now must equal an inventory of the Huntington. I covet every zone-possible conifer in stock at Forestfarm and two burly Pittosporum “Tobira” on the side; quince, serviceberries, Aronia and elderberries from Raintree; every Allium, Crocosmia, Ipheon and Tritelia at Brent & Becky’s Bulbs; seriously, the entire seed inventory of J.L. Hudson; one-third of the offerings at Chamblee Roses; and every sharp, bolt-resistant green available from Seeds from Italy; for starters.

When unbridled desire and the information overload get too ridiculous, I head for the back porch and pull a few dead leaves off the potted geraniums, look at the ice on the pond and remember that this house sits on barely an acre of land and Nature rules most of it. That puts things back in perspective. What I really need is more parsley.

Back yard facing west, Feb. 2013.

Back yard facing west, Feb. 2013.

An additional advantage of the winter pause? Shoveling snow, another form of landscaping. Apart from the fun of creating fleeting pathways and miniature Himalayas etched with Yeti trails–seeing a familiar landscape in a different way–I use snow as mulch in planting areas.

One inch of rainwater equals about 10-16 inches of snow, depending on your source, so I shovel an extra foot or two of every snowfall around (not on) the Viburnum and wildflowers in the gravel by the road, and the roses and boxwood hedge half-sheltered by the porch overhang. Their roots seem to appreciate the extra snow-melt; they leap when the weather warms. Plants grow better with water from the sky than water from the tap.

The best thing about shoveling snow is that it doesn’t weigh as much as soil. Another storm forecast for Monday, another inch or two. Bring on the snow! Plump up thirsty roots and feed our impoverished aquifers. Spring will be here soon enough–with luck, a wet one.

*Concerning rosemary in Kansas: I learned the hard way that three-inch nursery pots of rosemaries billed as hardiest (“Arp,” “Hill’s Hardy), even when planted in warm, late-spring soil, have a less than 50 percent chance of getting through their first winter. Potting the rosemary up and bringing it in for the first two winters, kept damp and well-misted in the sunniest spot, increases the odds of survival to about 80 percent and above, depending on micro-climate.

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