Thanks to a confluence of weird and wonderful scheduling issues -- an already-planned vacation with some friends combined with a couple things my publisher wanted me to do -- I have ended up in Manhattan for three glorious weeks. I'm here by myself for the first week, and with my publisher-related duties out of the way I have absolutely nothing to do. There's no point in rushing around to see the sights or visit exhibitions -- that can wait until my friends show up next week -- which leaves me free to just live here.
I've always wanted to be a writer in New York, as long as I could be the kind who was somehow free of soul-crushing day jobs and able to just pursue my passions -- and now here I am. It's weird to get the thing you've always wanted. Reminds me of my cat stalking one of my chickens. "What are you going to do with her when you catch her?" I ask the cat. He doesn't know. He's too busy wanting it to think about what would happen if he got it.
So I wake up on the first morning enraptured and a little overwhelmed by all the possibilities. I could walk up Fifth Avenue to the library, pat the great stone lions on their noses and spend the day in one of those glorious reading rooms, doing research. I could take the laptop to a café and start a novel. I could go to Central Park with a Moleskin in my pocket and write sonnets.
And then I remember. Before I left, I promised Hank I'd send him a garden column from New York.
Well, that's not so bad. In fact, just think of how very Carrie Bradshaw it would be to wander around the East Village, pondering some great horticultural truth, and then to come back to my unrealistically large apartment, throw on some overpriced but trashy couture, pour myself a girly pink cocktail and then type my pithy little question into my laptop. Something like:
Are we all turning into shrinking violets? Or:
Is the bloom coming off the rose? Or:
Is coleus the new geranium?
And in fact, it is this last question I would like to address. Because there is no such thing as a backyard in New York, because rooftops and terraces and even fire escapes come at a premium, because most ordinary apartments, like the one I'm renting, have only one or two windows, and those windows face the brick wall of the building next door, growing even a single plant in the city is kind of a big deal. Imagine buying a bag of potting soil in Manhattan, hauling it home on the subway, and carrying it up three flights of narrow stairs to your apartment. Once you pot up your little darlings, what next? There's no space in your 300-square-foot apartment for a half-used bag of potting soil. Much less a box of bone meal, a bottle of insecticidal soap, a pair of gardening gloves or pruning shears. And you do all this for a flower that's going to wilt in the grimy heat on the fire escape all summer and turn to mush when the first ice storm hits in winter.
So what that means is that every plant has to count. They are so much damn trouble to keep alive that they really must be extraordinary.
Which explains the coleus.
I know there's been this coleus revival going on for a few years now, but I've resisted it the way you resist the return of ’70s fashion: It didn't look good on me then and it's not going to look good on me now. I didn't want to go back to those days. But as I walk around New York and see the new coleus varieties spilling out of window boxes, I'm won over.
The new cultivars come in screamingly bold colors: fuchsia, chartreuse, tangerine, black. The edges of the leaves are as frilly as lingerie, the growth habit luxurious and trailing and excessive. And they're newly indiscriminate about light: They'll do sun, shade, whatever. Forget the coleus of the ’70s, those rusty-orange do-nothing plants you'd stick under a tree because you couldn't think of anything more interesting to put there. These new coleus are gorgeous and luxurious and totally worth devoting even limited urban gardening space to.
Which makes me realize: when you have as much land as we do in Humboldt County -- even my small backyard is larger than most New York apartments -- you tend to forget about plants as luxury goods. If I had room for only one flower pot, I'd put something amazing in it. Maybe an orchid. Maybe a fuchsia coleus and a purple Thai basil. Something mind-blowing and improbable. But with an entire yard to fill, that fabulousness gets watered down. You choose workhorses, like an evergreen shrub or an ornamental grass, that might not take your breath away but that fill a space and do a job. You pick something that blooms in the fall and put it next to something that blooms in the spring and neither one of them are incredibly striking, but together they put on their own modest little show across a couple of seasons. You put something affordable in your flower pots, like pansies or -- well, I'm nodding off just thinking about it.
The point is that for most of us non-New Yorkers, it's more about functionality and practicality and long-term investments and year-round something-or-other. Already, after only a day in the city, I'm losing my grip on the mundane reality of maintaining a landscape all year long.
So here's the message from Manhattan, as I channel my inner Carrie Bradshaw: Go plant something ridiculous. The horticultural equivalent of the feather boa. The Mr. Big of the plant world. A fragrant plumeria, perhaps, or a kaffir lime, the zest of which you will use to flavor your Madagascar rums. They will be high-maintenance and extravagant and might break your heart more than once. But darling, you're worth it. Cheers.