THE GUILTY GARDENER
by Peter Gribble
(click on images to enlarge)
“Chronic procrastinators,” says Joseph R. Ferrari, a psychologist at DePaul University, “make up only about 20 percent of the population, and the only way to help them is therapy.”
Or arguably, gardening.
Guilt is a known counteragent against procrastination. So you don’t feel like getting dressed and walking your dog, but when Trixie bounces up to you with her leash and soulful eyes saying, ‘Only you can make this happen …’
Unable to bounce up, carry leashes or whine, plants resort to other signals. Dropped flowers, withered stems, dead leaves littering the under-watered pot – and/or – tiny flies buzzing around an over-saturated swamp, the unmistakable smell of long soggy compost …
We live in a rainforest ecosystem despite our new wildfire season devastating it. Better go with the flow for as long as it lasts. It may seem odd to consider the most common rain forest plants: mosses, lichens, liverworts, horsetails and ferns, but they’ve been around for hundreds of millions of years and don’t have to be taken for walks.
Mosses ... Since last month, I’ve created a new version of Haiku gardens (see the August, 2018 column): ‘moss meadows’ without rocks nestled in Bonsai pots. The results are little, lush, patchwork green-spreads and need only a daily misting. Mosses are everywhere in different colours and forms. Some thrive happily on asphalt; others prefer concrete and aggregate stone. Specific trees and shrubs are moss and lichen magnets. Mosses tend to grow on north sides of trees not so much to avoid the sun but because north sides are the last to lose their moisture.
Lichens ... In garden therapy, lichens might be diagnosed as the schizophrenics of the plant world, but this symbiont of algae and fungus has happily co-existed as a pair for hundreds of millions of years. The fungus part forms the lichen body, called a thallus (the main plant ‘body’ not differentiated into stem or leaf) and absorbs water and nutrients from the substrate (the surface it’s growing on.) Just below the thallus surface resides the layer of algae cells photosynthesizing carbohydrates for both itself and the fungus. Lichen nomenclature is based on the fungal component of the relationship and thus lichens were placed, somewhat uneasily, in the Fungi Kingdom. They comprise around 20,000 known species world wide. An interesting aside about lichens, their absence or die-off in an area (not all lichens are equally sensitive) has long been a reliable indicator of air pollution.
Tricky to identify, the seven growing forms lichen assumes assists identification: Dust, Crust, Scale, Leaf, Club, Shrub and Hair. Some nomenclaturists include two more: Gelatinous and Structureless. A botanical scandal was recently uncovered where it was discovered lichens, thought to come in cohabiting pairs, were in fact frolicking about in a symbiotic ménage à trois – there are two different fungi consorting with the algae! Textbook definitions now have to be revised … and – God help us – nomenclature!
Lichen Latin names are mouthfuls but their common names are original. Xanthoparmelia cumberlandia is called ‘Questionable rock-frog.’ Peltigera brittanica is known as ‘Freckled Pelt’. Nephroma resupinatum is ‘Pimpled Kidney’. ‘Punctured Rocktripe’, ‘Peppered Moon’, ‘Sea Tar’ … the list goes on. Drag queens couldn’t come up with names like these.
While trying to determine the name of a pretty little lichen lacing a dead twig with fine, branching threads growing out of lower scallops, I realized these were two different lichens. Three excellent guide books helped to narrow the classification to Cladonia uncialis, which frequently grows alongside species of Cladina. The books are: "Mosses Lichens & Ferns of Northwest North America" by Mitt, Marsh and Bovey (Lone Pine Publishing, 1988); "Some Common Mosses of British Columbia" by Scofield (Royal British Columbia Museum, 1992) and "Plants of Coastal British Columbia" edited by Pojar & Mackinnon (Lone Pine Publishing, 1994.)
Liverworts ... If you’re a regular plant buyer, at some point you may have brought home a hitchhiker, the invasive nuisance in greenhouse and garden centres alike: Marchanti polymorpha or Lung Liverwort. Its green thallus is smooth, waxy-looking and flat except when miniature green parasols rise in preparation to release or welcome sperms. The Liverwort Family is large (6,000 species) and many are mistaken for mosses. For the enthusiast, guidebooks and a magnifying glass are a must, but a liverwort count will slow any brisk walk through Stanley Park to something approaching immobility.
If your tolerance for immobility is high you might want to stage a liverwort race to quicken your pulse. While the Lung Liverwort covers the track faster – the entire track – put your money on Conocephalum conicum or Snake Liverwort, which travels a straighter course towards the finish line. Odds favour Snake over Lung 2 to 1. Depending where you draw the finish line, a winner might not be announced until after New Years.
Racing liverworts notwithstanding, they will spread everywhere. A deliberate planting in a Bonsai pot will frame and contain them and suggests respectability … but only just … and only temporarily.
Horsetails ... Another invasive plant found all over the world (except Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica) is the ‘living fossil,’ common horsetail or Equisetum arvense. At its peak, 345 million years ago, massive forests of Equisetum grew upwards 100 feet (30 meters) during the early Carboniferous period. More modest these days, their living descendants are incredibly tough and the bane of gardeners everywhere. Landscapers occasionally plant Black-barred horsetail (Equisetum japonica) in concrete containers for their tall, exotic appearance.
Successfully weeding Equisetum is well nigh impossible. They are high in silicon dioxide – stems break at first yank, every dig of the trowel doubles the population of rambunctious rhizomes who then out-gallop everything except possibly Convolvulus arvensis (often misnamed, ‘Morning-glory’.) Don’t ever think of racing these two. You’ll regret it. Lady Bracknell-type gardeners seeing you growing horsetail, will proclaim, ‘To allow liverworts into the garden is a social misfortune but to admit horsetail seems like carelessness.’
The Solution ... Then how do we garden with confidence, without guilt, without procrastination?
Enter the Paleo garden. Not Paleolithic – the period when humanity was fashioning stone tools 3.3 million years ago to 11,650 BP (before present) – but Paleozoic: the era of ancient life starting 541 million years ago and ending with the largest extinction event on earth 251 million years ago, the Permian-Triassic Extinction. Those who survived it are our mosses, lichens, liverworts, horsetails and ferns. A future column will be dedicated to ferns.
The simple, low maintenance, guilt-free components of the Paleozoic garden are fossils! No watering, sunlight or fertilizer needed. They are tolerant across all USDA growing zones and AHS (American Horticultural Society) heat-zones and unaffected by passing seasons … and geologic epochs.
Tourist shops in the West End frequently have fossils for sale, but prices reflect the ebb and flow of tourists rather than the steady presence of locals. A great store specializing in gemstones, rocks and fossils is Geomania at 1250 Robson Street. It has items from semi-precious stones and polished petrified wood to fossilized trilobites, ammonites, ferns, shark’s teeth, bivalves, brachiopods and – one I couldn’t resist – the supremely ancient, warm, shallow sea-dwelling stromatolites (3.7 billion years old at last assessment.) The place is a veritable antique store of ages and eons.
On your balcony, add a Trilobite or two in your tabletop water feature to impress the neighbours. Entice someone over with your new pickup line, ‘Wanna come up and see my Trilobites?’ Starfish and ammonites are other possible marine additions. Though if your fossil looks like sandstone or feels grainy, don’t put it in water as it may soften and crumble.
Submit your Paleo garden to the template of Bonsai moss meadows. Nestling your fossil collection amid moss and lichen enhances the autumnal pleasure in bringing survivors of ancient extinctions together with remnants of those that didn’t.
Though if you still doubt your ability to mist moss and lichen on a daily basis, skip living plants altogether. Do away with procrastination and guilt forever! Layer a bed of sand into a Bonsai pot, stand your pieces of petrified wood up in it and declare a manifesto of the always popular philosophy of nihilism, “This is what happens when I garden!”