Monday, October 31, 2011


            Last week was a busy and pleasurable one for Fitzgeralds Gardening. We’re in the midst of changing out summer containers for the cold season, which means buying and installing lots and lots of winter color. A big part of the fun is driving to Wilmington once a week or so to pick up 20-some flats at a whack from our grower extraordinaire, Christine. We often come home with something rare or unusual for ourselves—papaya seedlings (Carica papaya) one time; the dead-on-descriptive ribbon plant or tapeworm fern (Homalocladium platycladum) another; a succulenty Plectranthus ‘Cerveza ‘n’ Lime’ (a.k.a. Cuban oregano); a silvery-leaved, allegedly perennial geranium (species unknown: we’ll see about the perennial part); an annual clutch of Cyclamen coum (florists’ cyclamen) that end up drowned with depressing regularity; a Tibouchina grandifolia that I’m going to attempt to overwinter inside.

            Which brings us to the topic of the day—the annual ritual of bringing in the plants.

            The weather’s turned unexpectedly nippy recently. Outdoor showering ended early this year, as an ambient temperature of at least 70°F is required before I’ll strip down and get wet. The mercury (figuratively speaking: my thermometer's digital) fell to 37° on Saturday morning, albeit unaccompanied by precipitation, frozen or otherwise. Hence the weekend’s task: moving my vulnerable darlings to warmer environs.

            We bought a set of wire shelves to set up in the bedroom’s east-facing window, reliably the brightest in the house. Until yesterday afternoon, it reposed unmolested in its box in the back of our “dress truck.” (We own two pickups: a well-used 1993 Chevy S-10 standard called “the work truck”; and its heir-apparent, a shiny silver 2007 Toyota Tacoma automatic—with crank windows!—in which we cruise incognito.) When nighttime temperatures plummeted, however, the clever half of the Fitzgeralds sprang into action, assembling the shelves and wrestling them into position.

Old truck
New truck
            In the meantime, the less-handy Fitz (me) wandered the yard with a clipboard, making notes about who would be sharing winter quarters with us, pertinent dimensions, and probable placement. Emboldened by last year’s successes—ten out of 16 survived!—the current list of potential victims is longer. This year, 28 will endure the gantlet (not “gauntlet,” a knight’s glove, if you suffer from lexico-purism, as I do).

             The Big Existential Question is, how many will come out alive in April?

            No time for philosophy on Sunday, though. A burst of optimism led me to dig up and pot three little Leonotis leonurus (lion's tail) and five Ricinus communis (castor bean) striplings that sprouted, then languished since I planted the seeds back in June. If I can keep them alive through the winter, I’ll have a jump on the flowering season come spring (she says, cheerily).

            Also potted up the sole surviving Cyclamen coum from last year’s sacrificial bunch and two Dorotheanthus bellidiformis ‘Mezoo Trailing Red’ cuttings (both of which together are not as big as their names typed out).  And finally—about three months later than required—moved my Tibouchina urvilleana (princess flower) from its dinky eight-inch pot to a spacious 14-incher.

         Then the exodus from out to in began. It took all afternoon, what with wiping dirt-spatter, dust-bunnies, cobwebs and spider egg-cases off pots and saucers, and inspecting for and removing insectile fellow-travelers. The house gradually took on a jungly look, which I’ll enjoy until leaf-drop starts.

             In the kitchen, both Tibouchina—T. grandifolia and T. urvilleana—share a corner with that tough, multi-season campaigner, Solanum pseudocapsicum ‘Variegata.’

The kitchen collection (l to r, T. urvilleana, T. grandifolia, S. pseudocapsicum)

       The living room welcomed (I hope) the tapeworm fern (Homalocladium platycladum); the magnificently monikered Madagascar dragon tree, which is really a dracena and not a Cordyline as a cursory glance at the tag led me to believe (Dracaena marginata ‘CORDYLENA Ruby’); and the actual, bona fide Cordyline terminalis ‘Sunset,’ another multi-season overwintering veteran.

Dracaena marginata (top) and the tapeworm fern
Cordyline terminalis
               Tim’s studio plays host to the papaya (Carica papaya). This is the larger of the two we brought in last winter: I gave the second one away just last week, as there really wasn’t anywhere left to put it inside, as you might guess from the adjacent picture.

That's some big papaya!
            Now we come to the pièce de résistance, the new shelves. Here is where the quiet drama of wintertime life and death will most likely play out. Here’s where the five uprooted castor beans and three lion's tails will struggle with transplant shock and the heating vent directly above them. Here’s where the rigors of too-dry air and too-wet soil test the mettle of sophomores Ledebouria cooperi, Cyclamen coum, last fall’s red dahlia from Lowe’s, and 2010’s miracle poinsettia. Here is where six succulents—Sedum reflexum ‘Blue Spruce; Sedum rubrotinctum (a.k.a. jelly-bean plant); two Plectranthus ‘Cerveza ‘n’ Lime’ (the Cuban oregano mentioned above); and two tiny Dorotheanthus cuttings—hope not to drown. Here’s where we learn if that allegedly perennial geranium (a Pelargonium of some kind) and an ornamental purple pepper (Capsicum annua ‘Purple Splash’) have the right stuff. 

Shelves of destiny
2010's miracle poinsettia
            By Monday morning, all that remained to be done was to order some fungus gnat control from Gardens Alive! Its active ingredient is a larvae-eating bacterium, Bt/H-14 (Bacillus thuringiensis), so it probably won’t compromise human or feline health in our tightly built little house. (It can’t be sold in New York or Washington state, though. Wonder why?)

               For the curious, as many of the plants mentioned in this article are not exactly run-of-the-mill, I'm assembling a pictorial post of the less-common individuals; in some cases, I'll include snaps of what they look like in bloom. It should be out fairly soon.  

            Okay. On to other things. Up next (barring unforeseen circumstances): environmental news briefs I’ve been collecting since August. Y’all come.


            I’d like to thank the folks who indicated they would miss GFTGU if it faded away, like ol’ egomaniacal Douglas MacArthur. I really appreciate you taking the time to let me know you think this journal is worth continuing. Fortunately, not enough of you responded to make whining a regular part of future posts, inertia notwithstanding.

            Thanks for dropping by.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


            “INERTIA: 1. Physics: the tendency of matter to remain at rest if at rest, or, if moving, to keep moving in the same direction, unless affected by some outside force. 2. A tendency to remain in a fixed condition without change; a disinclination to move or act.”
                                     Webster’s New World College Dictionary

...from a member-no-more
            The Garden Writers of America sends me a batch of news briefs every other week or so. Apparently they think I’m still a member, even though I haven’t paid dues since 2009. I quit because the organization’s newsletter, Quill and Trowel, showcases such dreadful writing. When I objected to Belgium’s city of Ghent being spelled “Gent”—five times in one paragraph—the editorial reply was that’s how it’s spelled in Flemish. I apologized for my lack of fluency in obscure European languages and resolved to never send GWA another farthing.

Anyway. The news briefs are heavy on social media updates, suggestions for boosting one’s income via Facebook and Twitter, the continuing flaps over copyrights vis-á-vis e-books and the death of conventional publishing, nifty software for those who don’t have the time or desire to learn how to write, and various bloggers’ takes on how to write more effectively.  More often than not, I scan the headlines then delete the whole thing. Once in a while, however, I read a whole piece.

A recent article about the saturation of the blogosphere and its attendant diminishing returns grabbed my attention. There are in excess of a million bloggers out there, it said, all screaming for somebody, anybody, to pay attention to them. Tim, for example, follows three or four painters’ blogs. Some mornings he spends more than an hour clicking the “Next blog” tab, which takes him to some awful places. Once he ended up on a site promoting an astoundingly self-involved “artiste” who would be staging the imminent birth of her child (the poor, poor thing) as an art installation at the same gallery where she re-enacted the loss of her virginity—as an art installation. (Who attends these things?) Having twice given birth myself, I can testify there’s nothing remotely artsy about it. It’s bloody, it hurts, it’s not the bit least dignified for the two principal participants, and is an intensely private matter allegedly focused on the safe delivery of a healthy child. Does that fit any sane person’s description of a work of "art"?

Be that as it may. There have to be tens of thousands of gardening blogs competing for readers. Some are quite popular, like Garden Rant, although, to my knowledge, none of those ladies have felt it necessary to air their most private linen so far. Gardening Gone Wild, a blog I actually follow, seems to be by garden writers for garden writers: unfortunately, the writing’s not that great. Most, I’ve found, want to sell you something, or to get a cut of anything you buy that you saw advertised on their sites. In general, the actual writing seems to be ancillary.

This distresses me. I’m toying with the idea of throwing in the blog-towel.

Sorry about the extended hiatus. I wrote the above for an October 10 post, immediately following which a serious bout of inertia settled in. In case you were wondering, that’s where I’ve been.

In the interim, I collected some interesting news about commercial compost to share.

Ever wonder what’s really in that bag of compost you picked up at Lowe’s or Home Depot? Not to worry—the U.S. Composting Council is on the case. Their Consumer Compost Use Program has designed “easily interpreted icons… reflect[ing] the compost’s use (or uses).” The catch is, only compost producers participating in the voluntary Seal of Testing Assurance program (STA) can incorporate the symbols reproduced below into their packaging and literature.

Consumer Compost Use STA labels

Still, I wonder: since compost adds organic matter to the soil, what difference does it make if you spread it around trees and shrubs, flower and vegetable gardens, or lawns? I guess the safest approach would be to seek out products labeled for all three. For people in my neighborhood, the Composting Council website’s locator map lists Seaside Mulch of Wilmington and Castle Hayne, NC, and Conway, SC, as the closest local source of STA-certified material.

Click on this link
for the dirt on
industrial sludge

Predictably, not all compost products are created equal. Recycled industrial sludge, like Milorganite, may contain unacceptable levels of heavy metals (although it’s better now than it used to be). Some manure products may come from animals fed genetically modified grains and shot full of antibiotics and growth hormones during their brief and nasty concentrated-animal-feedlot lives. Community composting operations can be contaminated by pesticides used on lawns and ornamentals. It’s enough to push you into making your own.

Exhibit A
Which brings us to the kerfuffle over DuPont’s latest entry in the herbicide market, Imprelis. A broadleaf post-emergent formulation labeled for use on turf grasses, Imprelis’ active ingredient kills plants by messing with their hormones, and belongs to a growth-regulating class of pesticides called pyridines. Because plants and animals have different hormones, the EPA rates them safe for ingestion by livestock.

Organic Gardening illustration
worth a thousand words 
That’s scary enough, but it gets worse. Pyridines persist for an extremely long time in the environment. An article by Dan Sullivan in 2011's October/November issue of Organic Gardening cites an Ohio State University study that found when grass treated with Imprelis was composted for 200 days, the chemical only degraded by 60%, “with plenty of the active ingredient remaining to do damage to susceptible [shallow-rooted] crop plants—including beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes.”

Countering with a move cementing their unshakeable belief in personal profit over ethics and the environment, DuPont and the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company announced plans to develop and market a combination lawn fertilizer/Imprelis-type herbicide to homeowners (pyridine-based products are only available to licensed pesticide applicators at present). So there.

In July, parties in Pennsylvania and Indiana filed a class-action lawsuit against the “Better Living Through Chemistry” company, charging negligence or recklessness in rushing its latest herbicide to market. The plaintiffs contend Imprelis-contaminated compost is killing trees, shrubs and perennials across the nation. According to the July 19, 2011 New York Times, DuPont responded by professing confidence “… that this purported class-action lawsuit is unfounded," and to "oppose it vigorously.”

 What evil lurks inside this
community compost pile?

By August, as reports of Imprelis-related dead and dying landscape plants multiplied geometrically, corporate bravado wavered. DuPont issued a voluntary recall of the herbicide to its distributors and turf managers. The notice expressed regret for the damages Imprelis “may” have caused and promised to “… promptly and fairly resolve problems associated with our product.”

Still, contaminated grass clippings and dead plants continue to enter the compost stream, raising red flags at agricultural agencies. Plus, there is no indication DuPont plans to stop marketing its four other pyridine-based products (Perspective, Plainview, Streamline and Viewpoint).

Dan Sullivan ends his Organic Gardening article on this note: “ ‘The industry’s rush to put products on the market before they are thoroughly tested has often resulted in unanticipated disaster,’ states Eric Vinje, founder of the gardening supply company PlanetNatural. ‘As with similar products, there are no “safe application” standards; no way to keep these products from moving beyond their point of application.’ Other than not using them in the first place.”

My advice to you? Make your own compost from material you know the provenance of, or seek out STA products. Find out exactly what your lawn guy’s putting on your grass, and ask him to stop if it contains pyridine. Or ask him to stop applying chemicals, full stop. There are worse things in life than lawn weeds.

Thanks for your patience while I wallowed in inertia, and for dropping by now. See you in a week or so.


Thursday, October 6, 2011


 “Ken Burns’ Prohibition’ aired on PBS recently. Largely based on Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, it eerily echoes the push in our own time by passionate minorities to impose their narrow moralities on the rest of us. For those of us with ears to hear, it warns of the seismic effects of unintended consequences and slippery slopes.

            With the 2012 elections “only” 13 months off, the choice du jour is beyond dismal. On the Democratic side, we have a petulant self-proclaimed messiah who alternates between prolonged bouts of pouting and televised tantrums, timed so as not to preempt his rivals’ pre-packaged milquetoast ‘debates’ or delay football games. Over at the Republican camp, an endless parade of bombastic boobs produces a barrage of inane sound-bites in the quest to host the Ultimate Tea Party. In Bizarro World, millionaires whine about “class warfare” while the beleaguered middle class continues to contract.

            Meanwhile, young legatees of pervasive governmental dysfunction initiate a social-media-fueled ‘Arab Spring’ of their own from Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, igniting cyber-solidarity movements across the country.

              Op-ed pundits wring their hands and quote Yeats: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’ They never continue to the poet’s ominous punchline, ‘… what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?’

                What rough beast indeed?”

          The above is the text of a letter posted Wednesday morning to the Wilmington and Southport newspapers. Chances are fair-to-middling it will get published in one or both, not that it matters: ranting to readers counts mostly as preaching to the choir. More interesting is what set me off in the first place.

                A catalog arrived in Tuesday’s mail, its cover emblazoned with the promise of a “Free Gift!”

                That’s all it took to light the fuse.

            Listen: “free gift” is a redundancy. It ain’t a gift if it ain’t freely given. We’ve all received token donations from someone or other (Momma, in my case) with strings and conditions attached into perpetuity. Those aren’t gifts. Those are loans.

             Okaaaaay, you say, slowly backing away.

            No, wait—there’s more. How about the ubiquitous yet reprehensible adjective “proactive”? What the hell is proaction? Is its opposite negaction? What’s the matter with plain ol’ action? Is the “pro” part meant to be an ersatz intensifier? Is a proactive stance more vigorous than a merely active one? Or just more ignorant?

            It’s the little things that rile me most. The unthinking sloppiness of daily life—the pervasive petty rudenesses of people surgically attached to electronic devices, the sad state of spoken as well as written English (some academic nutcase recently published a volume of rap lyrics and called it poetry), the “no bad art” crowd, the disdain of good manners. Al Franken (someone I’m not in the habit of quoting) once said, “When anything goes, everything goes.” I heard in those words a tocsin knelling the death of things I hold dear.

            It gets worse, but at least some of us are talking about it. To join the conversation and meet a few of people calling themselves the 99 percenters, click on and

           Given, those who accumulate massive student-loan debt started out with bad directions, especially when all they have to show for it are degrees in Fine Art, Poli-Sci, English Lit or, like me, a B.A. in Modern European History. (Now there’s a useful major. I meant to teach, but I don’t play well with authority figures, and they’re the one thing the education establishment churns out in abundance.)

            But I don’t have debt, then or now. Debt aversion is a mantra for Tim and me. We have a solid idea of what “enough” is, take responsibility for ourselves and the choices we make, and are not “above” manual labor. In fact, manual labor is a solace. More people, especially—but not exclusively—kids, should give it a go.

               Still, puny savings and exorbitant BlueCross premiums (and going up, up, up until the Affordable-I-Don't-Think-So Health Care Act kicks in—or not—in 2014) make being 60-ish scary.

            For a view from the other side of the world, look at Kiwi blogger Lance Wiggs’ October 4th post. And do check out the 46th comment.

            The land of the free and the home of the brave has morphed into the land of it’s-all-about-me and the home of the (wage)slave. “Our rulers live in a different country,” remarked a character on one of my favorite BBC cozies. How sadly true that is. How sadly true that we allow it.

Carolina sphinx moth
            Well, therapy for me is as close as the screened porch’s door. Hornworms invaded the tomatoes, and I let them because I like sphinx moths and wasn’t getting much fruit anyway. I got out my Joyce Chens and reduced the plants to compost-friendly six-inch-long stem units. I balanced that destructive activity by ordering a pound of red clover seed to sow as a leguminous cover crop from Johnny’s Select Seeds. Death and life, all very cosmically and psychically satisfying.

Mammoth red clover, Trifolium pratense
The weather out back sparkled, relieved of the onerous heat of high summer. October is always one of my favorite months no matter where on the planet I find myself when it rolls around. The windows are open ‘round the clock, fresh air replacing climate control. October makes all things seem possible, even to depressive old curmudgeons such as myself.

Thanks for dropping by. Oh, and have a nice day.


Sunday, October 2, 2011


          We value most what can’t be kept— babies, one's own youth, non-existent trust funds, and, in my case at least, some very special plants. They came into my life for a season or two, then flitted away, leaving only warm memories and something like regret.

            Oh, the halcyon days of calling my friend Pam Baggett’s mail-order nursery, Singing Springs, for replacements for the tender treasures I’d killed by attempting to over-winter them in the kitchen. And the ones I drowned. And the ones that succumbed to hypothermia. Those wonderful years ended abruptly when Pam up and decided her health was more important than cosseting fragile darlings in greenhouses heated with ruinously expensive propane through Piedmont winters only to doom them to the oafish care of oatmeal-for-brains customers from March through June.

            I understood, really. I don’t know why anyone goes into growing, so many things can go horribly wrong, from aphids to power failures to whitefly outbreaks. Nonetheless, just like I understand that my sister Karen didn’t ask to be born when I was four, a faint frisson of resentment remains. (No one ever said joyful self-sacrifice is a defining characteristic of my personality.)  

            Today, as the first brisk days of autumnal weather blow across southeastern North Carolina and remind me it’s almost time to bring in this year’s keepers (knock wood), I pause to remember the great plants of the past, the ones I loved and lost. (Remember, you can click on the pictures to make them bigger.)

Anisodontea x hypomadara
            First, there was Anisodontea x hypomadara (ah-knee-sew-don-TEE-uh high-poe-mah-DAR-uh, African mallow). This standard came from White Flower Farms in Litchfield, Connecticut, as an anniversary present. It cost the once-inconceivable-amount-to-spend-on-a-single-plant of $90, including tax and shipping. It was love at first sight. I moved it from a one- to a three-gallon pot, and stuck it in a beautiful but drain-holeless cache pot, on top of two inches of gravel. Alas, 2003 was one of the wettest early springs on record in these parts. I failed to bail out the cache pot quite often enough. My beautiful, one-of-a-kind Anisodontea drowned. I’m still kicking myself.

Colocasia gigantea,  Thailand strain  

            I’m not a huge fan of elephant ears in general, partly because I garden in a small space, partly because if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Then Tim and I attended one of Plant Delights’ fall open houses. As we wandered the nursery’s Juniper Level Botanic Garden, the sight of the oh-so-appropriately named Colocasia gigantea, Thailand strain, put a halt to our perambulations. The individual leaves were—no joke—six to eight feet long. After winching our jaws off the ground, we scurried back to the greenhouses to ask where the babies were hidden. Turns out some bad-mannered visitor had pinched the seed pods earlier in the season—can you imagine!—so propagation was delayed. Damn!

            It took two years, but I finally got my hands on three of the beasts. The two we planted for some clients failed to survive their first winter in the ground (whaddya expect for a species from Thailand?); my own darling did well in its pot on our sheltered south side, but… Where in the world would something of that scale fit in our little yard? I dithered and dithered until the hard facts sank in, and finally gave it away to our irrigation guy, who owns a property large enough to showcase this enormous plant.

            All the rest of my lamented lovelies came from the deeply mourned Singing Springs.

            Pam specialized in tropicals, so I knew from the outset the plants would need a modicum of attention to make through our Zone 8/9 winters. Sadly, sometimes unbridled optimism can be fatal.

Manihot esculenta 'Variegata'
            Consider the case of the variegated tapioca, Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’ (MAN-ee-hoe ess-kew-LEN-tuh, variegated tapioca). The first one I just left outside in its pot. Why? Because I’m a) lazy; and b) obviously none too bright. The second one I brought into the Fitzgerald Kitchen-of-Death in late October, where the expected happened—but, heartbreakingly, not until March, when the last leaf and the last little shoot turned black and crumpled. The third one never materialized because that was the year Pam threw in the towel. Every February, I scour the Internet looking for a source: every February, I don’t find any from a climate remotely like mine.

            Pam introduced me to many delightful Acalypha (ack-uh-LIE-fah) and Euphorbia (you-FOR-be-uh), plants whose foliage can take fanciful forms. I blew through three or four each of Acalypha wilkesiana ‘Cypress Elf,’ Acalypha ‘Twisted Pencil’ (the large-leaved plant in the photo is a Plectranthus) and Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ (a.k.a. pencil cactus), never suspecting for a second my source would dry up.

Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire'
Acalypha wilkesiana 'Cypress Elf'

Acalypha 'Twisted Pencil'

Euphorbia cotinifolia


            Toward the end of what would be her final season, Tim and I visited Pam at the nursery. As she led us on a tour through the greenhouses, the pile of plants she pressed on me grew and grew. Of all that largess, the longest lasting was her stock plant for Euphorbia cotinifolia (ko-tie-nuh-FOE-lee-uh), Caribbean copper leaf. It survived three winters in the kitchen, totally defoliating by spring, but rebounding eagerly once placed back outside. By the fourth year, though, it had grown to be six feet high with an equal spread. Space in the house is even more limited than in the yard: the copper leaf had to spend the winter on the back porch.

Solanum pyracanthum
             It froze.
         Another group of plants I knew nothing about until dealing with Singing Springs is the wonderful wacky world of Solanum. The family Solanaceae encompasses ho-hum potatoes (S. tuberosum) and eggplant (S. melongena), but—‘way more interestingly—includes a clutch of super-cool punk-thorny species. Solanum pyracanthum is as prickly as its specific namesake, pyracantha. It defensively sports wicked orange (orange!) thorns on its stalks and its leaves. My specimen stayed lanky, but I didn’t care. The blue potato-like flowers produced some viable seed: the plant propagated itself for about two years before fading away.

Solanum quitoense foliage
            My all-time favorite Solanum, no question, is the Peruvian potato, or naranjilla, botanical name S. quitoense. This hulking plant gets big, even growing in a pot. Its stems are clothed with stiff hairs, not exactly prickly, but moving in that direction. The white flowers produce edible fuzzy orange berries, which our resident squirrels loved. But the pièce de résistance has to be those crazy purple spikes studding the also-fuzzy hand-sized leaves. 

Solanum quitoense fruit
            Solanum quitoense (key-toe-EN-see) reproduced itself too, for a few years, and we had another few pop up where squirrels buried fruits and forgot them. But the last seedling arrived in 2008: since then, nothing.

            The last lost love is a variegated flowering maple—also called a parlor maple—Abutilon ‘Souvenir de Bonn’ (uh-BYOO-tih-lon). This one overwintered on the back porch for three seasons: when I cut it back for its fourth go-round on the deck, I added a little A. megapotamicum (meg-uh-poe-tah-MEE-kum) to the pot. The following year, the A. megapotamicum out-competed poor ol’ ‘Souvenir de Bonn,’ who disappeared without a trace. 
Abutilon 'Souvenir de Bonn'
            This season, A. megapotamicum has been elbowed out of the same pot by a volunteer groundsel (Baccharis halimifolia—bac-KARE-iss hah-lee-mee-FOE-lee-uh), a native fall-blooming shrub hereabouts. A seed must have blown in from somewhere. I take this turn of events to mean there is, in fact, a certain balance in the universe.

            So there you have it, my most-missed plants. Maybe I’ll be inspired to look harder for sources. Or maybe I’ll remember there are still about a quintillion genera I’d like to try, and go rack up even more lost loves.

            Hoping you find balance in your universe, I thank you for dropping by.