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Not-Very-Green Acre: I Confess

WHILE LITTLEBIRD “Stephanie Gardens,” a/k/a/ Stephanie Cavanaugh, relaxes (I hope) with The Prince in Raleigh, North Carolina, I thought I might share a somewhat different view of gardening. As in, I’d hire a gardener if I could.

Though I’m hardly a rookie (at anything, it seems), my determination to make rookie mistakes seems fierce.

Lantana was such a brilliant idea on a sun-drenched DC patio. / MyLittleBird photo.

Take lantana, for instance. I adore this showy, billowy plant, especially when the clusters of blossoms are a cacophony of conflicting color, yellows and oranges and pinks all muddled together, each color sparking off the next. Over the years I’ve had many a big basket of these lively beauties on a big zinc table on the back patio. That townhouse patio is in the rear-view mirror now, and the zinc table inhabits the foyer of my city apartment. But my glassed-in balcony faces due east and therefore is flooded with as much light as the former patio, so why not have a big bushy lantana out there?

Here’s why: Because when it’s lounging about outdoors, the lantana disguises the fact that it’s a filthy plant, constantly shedding its blooms and stems and leaves and other unidentifiable (by me) detritus, all of which is happily carried off by the odd breeze. On a balcony, even with one of the giant windows flung open, all that stuff just . . . drops . . . and collects, on the plant stand, on the floor, on the indoor-outdoor rug. You get the filthy picture.

One thing my two lantana experiences have in common: Whether outdoors or in a glaringly bright sunroom, the lantana drinks almost as much as some of my friends. Which is to say, quite a lot.

Not so proud now, are we? This city lantana gets all the sun it needs and then some, and plenty to drink. But it’s a litterbug on steroids. You can’t see the mess at the base of that pot. Nonetheless, it does bloom gloriously, and when it does, all is almost forgiven. / MyLittleBird photo.

The ranunculus showed such promise earlier in the spring. Sigh. / MyLittleBird photo.

Next failure: ranunculus. There are few flowers more lovely than these little beauties, also called Persian buttercups (how quaint-sounding is that?). They want full sun but cool temps; not sure how to achieve that. One way not to achieve it is to plant the tiny corms in a full east-facing sunroom. Before I learned to leave one of the windows open all the time, I discovered there is indeed such a thing as too much sun. Or maybe it was too much heat. Whichever was the culprit, the result (below) wasn’t pretty. I documented it fast before I could change my mind.

One brave little ranunculus sprang up but got fried for its trouble. / MyLittleBird photo.


I’d read enough to know that spindly is the default in a newly shipped rose. Soon enough there were several arching canes, each carrying its own Princesse Charlene de Monaco blossom. This is an ongoing drama. (Don’t be disturbed by the angry-looking character staring at the plant. It’s a statue of the Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland,” based on the drawings of Sir John Tenniel.) / MyLittleBird photos.

On to the rose. I ordered a Princesse Charlene de Monaco tea rose because . . . well, because I must’ve read about it. It arrived in early spring, bare-root with a couple of canes. I expected the bare roots; I didn’t know they’d be so stiff. I found a pot that was, I hoped, deep enough and wide enough that I could spread the roots out enough to let them breathe. Greenery showed up soon enough, and then buds—one bud at the tip of each arching cane. One by one the flowers appeared, very lovely, very delicate-looking, then one by one they faded and went away. This rose is supposed to be extravagantly scented, and I would say that’s overselling it by a bit, but there was a delicate fragrance to be had. The Princesse Charlene is said to bloom repeatedly and, sure enough, this morning I noticed green shoots at the base of the plant, so there may be more royal activity to come in this corner of the sunroom.

Eureka! Tall and spindly and now yellowing and ugly, the three cherry tomato plants have nonetheless kept the faith. / MyLittleBird photos.

I once had a backyard, I had a patio. So why didn’t I ever grow “patio tomatoes,” as some call cherry tomatoes? I always meant to, then used the excuse that I’m not that wild about tomatoes anyway so why bother. For some reason, this year I bothered. (I could credit the coronavirus pandemic with this change of heart, but my trip to the little garden center in Harlem predated the full lockdown.)

In this case I did everything wrong. I had only two pots for the three little plants I bought (they came as a threesome), and neither pot was really large enough. I gambled, stuck two plants in the larger of the two pots, one in the other, and started watering. And kept watering. The things shot up like crazy, which reminded me why God invented tomato-plant cages (and why God also invented sisters who happened to have bought a couple of cages that very week—thanks again, Pat!). Soon enough—how soon? no idea; I was too busy masking up and social-distancing to pay much attention beyond the watering—the plants were as tall as I am. Now, a few weeks later, they’re even taller.

The plants have produced a couple dozen tomatoes so far, and I continue to find tiny green globes that grow and turn a tempting orange. They grow in little clusters but don’t mature at the same time, so there’s always a few ready for the evening’s salad and a few on the horizon for the next day’s. Win, win!

I have noticed that the most productive of the plants is the one that has a pot all to itself, so there may be a rookie lesson in that. Having said that, I’m looking over at the trio of plants, now truly spindly and reaching up toward the ceiling of the sunroom. The two sharing a pot are kinda yellowish and not so good-looking, but I also see a few newbies emerging from them.

So, a minor triumph or two among the horticultural disasters. One thing is for certain: LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” has nothing to fear from me when it comes to writing a Green Acre column!

—Nancy McKeon

At one time this spring, tomato plants and ranunculus co-existed happily in this enclosed balcony overlooking New York’s East River.


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One thought on “Not-Very-Green Acre: I Confess

  1. Maggie Hall says:

    But Nancy, when you have a view of the East River in Manhattan who needs flowers!

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