Shipping Now: The New Garden Design Magazine

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Design geeks among you may know that Garden Design magazine folded early last year. I had regretful yet mixed feelings about this, because the magazine’s focus on designing a garden, rather than on the minutiae of actually growing a garden, was unique and I immediately felt the lack. However, I confess that the old Garden Design magazine didn’t always live up to its potential for me, because their focus was so often on palatial estates covered in lawn and boxwood. [Read more...]

Review of The 20-30 Something Garden Guide by Dee Nash

Kalan-smelling-rosemary.jpgGardening marketers are always getting their pants in a bunch over whether enough new people are picking up the torch and continuing gardening, and initiatives aimed at getting young people to garden abound. Of course, from my own experience I can say that gardening as a hobby evolves over time. As we age, we shouldn’t be too eager to foist our own idea of a good time on people who are simply in a different time of their lives. If you don’t own your own home, have disposable income, or have much spare time during the day while the sun is still shining, then the type of gardening you do will naturally look a little different during this phase of life – and the advice you’ll be interested in will be different as well. [Read more...]

Succulents Simplified by Debra Lee Baldwin: Designer DIY With the Succulent Queen

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If you’ve been around the world of horticulture for any time, you’re probably familiar with Debra Lee Baldwin’s work with succulents. Her first two books, Designing with Succulents and Succulent Container Gardens, are still the most thoughtful, in-depth guides to those topics available. However, both of those books have so much information that you could say they are aimed more towards a deeply passionate hobbyist or a professional like myself, rather than the casual gardener.

In certain situations, I think it can be even more helpful to have a simpler reference which condenses the most actionable information available into one easy-to-use guide. That’s where Debra’s new book, Succulents Simplified, comes in.

[Read more...]

The Latest Gardening Apps for iPhone and Android

Sunset-Western-app-2.pngSince I joined the modern world in getting a smart phone last year, I’ve been on the lookout for great gardening apps that can help me explain landscape design ideas to clients, get plant ideas on the go, or just give me a productive way of killing time when I’m stuck in line at the post office. Unfortunately, my first forays into gardening apps turned up some shallow and disappointing picks – things that would be great for the weekend warrior crowd at Home Depot who want to know whether they should plant primroses or violas, but pretty useless for anyone who actually cares about gardening. Luckily that’s all been changing, as some real professionals have entered the market in recent months. Here are a few of the apps I’m enjoying right now, and those that I am looking forward to trying once they’re out for Android phones.

Plant Picks for Small Gardens, Android and iPhone, $2.99

plant picks appMy pal Susan Morrison is a landscape designer and garden writer in the San Francisco Bay Area, and she really knows her stuff. You might remember her as the author of Garden up! Smart Vertical Gardening for Small and Large Spaces, which was an Amazon Best Books of 2011 selection. The app is meant to provide foolproof plant ideas which will work in a variety of situations in the average residential garden. While I am usually pretty harsh on resources which try to provide planting information that would be good all across the country, this app actually does a fantastic job of walking the line and recommending plants that will tolerate a variety of different zones and garden conditions. Part of the reason the app is so successful is that Susan hired a variety of experts from around the country to give their feedback and help edit the information before releasing the app. Since we’re friends, Susan consulted me about the landscape maintenance aspects of her advice, and I read and gave feedback on the information prior to its release. What I love about this app is that when you’re at the nursery or out in the garden, it’s pretty easy to search the plants by their category, such as white flowers or groundcovers, and narrow down a few choices that you know will do well. Susan also includes some great generalized planting advice and garden maintenance advice in case you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the how-to aspects of getting your garden growing. Is this the most exhaustive app out there? Nope. There are only about 100 plants here, and Susan makes no bones about the fact that this isn’t meant to be your only landscaping resource. However, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of choosing some basic landscape plants that are going to perform well and look good under different circumstances, Susan’s picks are sturdy, attractive choices that will do well across the Pacific Northwest and around the rest of the country. Buy Plant Picks on Google Play or the iTunes Store.

Armitage Perennials and Annuals, Android and iPhone, $4.99

Armitage garden appWhile Susan Morrison’s Plant Picks app aims to simplify the options available and make plant choices foolproof, Allan Armitage looks to inspire us with new ideas for those gardeners who crave a bit of extra flower and foliage color, and are willing to go the extra mile by spending a little more money at the nursery and a lot more time in the garden caring for these exciting plants. The app is published by the same company that did Susan’s Plant Picks app, so the method of searching for plants will be familiar for owners of both apps. For me, I click on the Menu button in the corner of my screen and then click on Categories, which pulls up a list of checkboxes for different plant attributes that I can search. I particularly love the “weird and wonderful” section which has panda ginger, waffle plant, eyeball plant, and some other exciting things that I’ve never grown just because they’re expensive and I’m not entirely sure whether I’ll be successful with them. But with Armitage’s blunt and humorous hints for success, I’ll be feeling a lot more adventurous in the annual section of my local nursery. The only small critique I have about the Armitage Perennials and Annuals app is that Armitage’s zone listing only goes from zones 3 to 8. While pretty much everything in the 7 to 8 range will do just fine in my zone 9 climate, the app would have felt more complete had the USDA zones gone up to 11. That said, this app is a lot of fun, and if it gives me the courage to try just one new plant each gardening season (and the info I need to grow it well!), the app will have been worth the price. Buy Armitage Perennials and Annuals on Google Play or the iTunes Store.

The Sunset Western Garden Book, iPhone, $19.99

Sunset Western app (3)You all know what a fan I am of the Sunset Western Garden Book for my coastal Pacific Northwest climate. That’s why I’m so disappointed that their new app format for the book is only available for iDevices thus far. Fortunately, I reached out to Sunset and they say that the app should be compatible with Android phones via the Inkling app by the end of the year. In any case, the Sunset book is one of the rare books where I try to keep a spare copy in my truck as a reference at all times. Since I’m always trying to go minimalist and digital where possible to save space, I can’t wait for the Sunset Western Garden Book to be available on my phone so that I can get rid of the muddy and well used copy in my truck. Unfortunately, early reviews indicate that there is a problem with how the app is set up. (Not, mind you, problems with the content.) Because the app is run via Inkling, many reviewers are pointing out that you need to create an account with this other company and actually go through the trouble of signing in each time you want to use the app. I personally would find that pretty irritating after spending $20 for the app. That said, Sunset is one of those companies that is always striving to do things in a better way, so I have a lot of faith that the company will reevaluate this approach and find a better way of presenting their always top-notch information. Buy the Sunset Western Garden Book on the iTunes Store.

Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder, iPhone, $14.99

dirr garden appWhile Michael Dirr is located on the east coast and is primarily an expert on woody plants for cold climates, he is such a thorough, good-natured, and well-respected guide that I keep his reference books handy at all times, even though some of the advice doesn’t suit my climate as well as it does the East Coast. There is nobody else that bothers to tell me the minute differences between a few Spireas that look identical, or delves into topics such as how to pollinate your Viburnums so that they’ll produce those stunning berries we all want come fall and winter. So Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder app is another that is on my to-buy list as soon as it comes out for Android. Timber Press doesn’t currently have any plans to release it on Google Play, but I would imagine that if it does well for iPhones, they would consider releasing future versions for us Android users. Though I haven’t tested this app, I have some idea of what to expect because years ago, I actually spent over $100 on a searchable DVD-rom from Dirr which looks like it was pretty similar to this app. You can search for a specific plant, or search by different attributes such as trees that will grow in zone nine and don’t get taller than 15 feet. I loved that DVD and used it often when brainstorming new ideas for my landscape plans so that I didn’t get stuck in a rut using the same old plants every single time. It was also great when I found an unusual variety of a shrub that I was already familiar with, and just wanted to know more about how was going to behave. The idea of having all of that information on my phone is very appealing. Buy Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder at the iTunes Store.

Honorable mentions

Recently, a fellow landscaper showed me two different apps on his phone, iScape and Hardscape. Both of these apps do similar things, where you take a photo of a home or landscaping space with your phone, and can quickly add bed lines, lawn, patios, flowering shrubs, and other elements which make it easier to visualize making a change to your landscape, or communicate your design ideas to someone else. While neither of these apps seems perfect (they both have average user ratings of 3 stars out of 5), if I had an iPhone I would certainly download the free versions of both and test them out. I was also excited to hear about the release of the Washington Wildflowers app this month, which photographer Mark Turner worked on. Though I don’t live in Washington, there’s a lot of overlap between plants in my far northern California/ Pacific Northwest climate, and the ones featured in his app. The photography is stunning, as expected, and it’s getting good reviews already even though it’s just come out. Available on Amazon for the Kindle Fire, Google Play, and the iTunes Store. Another type of app I’ve been interested in testing is something similar to this Landscape and Garden Calculators app. The idea of being able to quickly calculate materials while outside in the landscape is very appealing, and while my phone does have a normal calculator, I like how an app like this would make doing quick garden calculations, like how much potting soil or mulch I need, a lot easier. This particular app has mixed reviews, which make me hesitant to pay $7.99 for it. If anyone’s used something similar that they would recommend, please let me know.

Have you tried any garden apps? Let me know your experiences in the comments below.

Book Review of Lawn Gone: Attractive Alternatives to Lawn

Peni_Lawn-Gone_highrescover.jpgWhile I love having a minimalist patch of organic lawn in my backyard for the cats and chickens to run around on, as a landscape designer I am thoroughly “over” using lawn as the default option. It takes more maintenance, fertilizer, and water than just about anything else in the landscape, yet it gives nothing back to wildlife, has little character, and in many cases, is nothing more than a sad-looking expanse for neighborhood dogs to decorate. I’ve never walked past a lawn and been wowed. At best, lawn acts as a neutral space which helps to highlight the beauty of the landscaping around it. There’s really no competition as to which I’d rather see: a lawn or any style of landscaped bed. Even the most pedestrian combinations of hardscape with plantings still draw my eye, make me think, and increase my feeling of connection to my neighborhood and to the natural world. That’s why I’m so excited about my friend Pam Penick’s new book Lawn Gone: Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard. Pam’s a landscape designer in Texas who’s written a complete design guide full of inspiring ideas and practical how-to for reducing or eliminating lawn in your front or back yard. LAWN mixed species lawn after p 17_Rebecca Sweet She starts out by sharing a number of different possibilities for how you could re-landscape of garden area without using lawn. I mean, in most gardens lawn takes up a huge amount of space. What do you put there? Can you afford to make the change? Pam goes into the details of how to design with lawn alternatives such as no-mow grasses, groundcovers, and small perennials or shrubs, then delves into hardscaping such as patios and pathways. One of my favorite sections is the one on incorporating ponds, play spaces, and other fun features into your lawn-free landscape. LAWN Moss Garden image p 39The second section goes into the practical matter of how exactly to remove your lawn, prepare your beds, plant, and maintain your new space. Pam’s coming from an environmentally-friendly perspective, so while she does mention Roundup as a last-ditch alternative for people with terribly invasive varieties of lawn, the rest of the solutions are safe for pets and kids as soon as the power equipment shuts down. The third section is one of the most useful to me personally as a landscape designer, which is how to contend with skeptical neighbors, HOAs and city codes, and other issues surrounding the politics and safety of going lawnless. I’m lucky enough to serve on a design review board which is exceptionally encouraging about going lawn-free, using low-water plants, and choosing natives, but many homeowners have irresponsible HOAs or city codes which require the use of lawn or even outlaw native plants. Pam’s tips on how to work with any obstacles you may come across are realistic and helpful. The book finishes up with some plant recommendations for all of the different areas in the United States. Because planting advice is best when it’s regional, Pam enlisted the help of a number of professional designers around the country to give plant suggestions which truly work. I can vouch for both the California and the Pacific Northwest plant ideas. While each region only has about five plants suggested, they are practical picks and there’s enough detail given on how to actually use the plants that the section is helpful in getting started. You could take the list to your local nursery and use it as a starting point for discussion with your local professionals to give them an idea of what types of plants you’re looking for. Chapter 11Because Pam is a landscape designer, the strength of the book is truly in the design inspiration she provides. Every page has photos, and many of them are full-on landscape shots which actually give you an idea of how you might design your garden. The photos are from a number of regions and a number of designers, and show creative ways of using gravel, stone, and recycled materials such as urbanite (reused concrete) in harmony with plantings. Once again, if I were a homeowner wanting ideas for my garden, I’d use the suggestions given as a jumping off point to discover my tastes. After you see in the book’s photos that you like decomposed granite or urbanite, you could go on Pinterest or do a Google image search to find more ideas along those lines. Because I’m such a fan of both Pam and her new book, I’m excited to be able to take part in her online book launch party this week! The prizes vary from blog to blog, so you’ll want to visit everyone listed and enter to win each of the prizes. You’re not going to believe the prize I get to give away to you lucky people: a $50 gift certificate to Annie’s Annuals! I visited Annie’s in person last year, and the only thing that stopped me from breaking my bank account was the limited room in my carry-on luggage. Annie’s has a number of plants suitable for low-water and lawn-free landscaping. Check out her list of groundcovers here, and her drought-tolerant plants here. Want to win that shopping spree at Annie’s? Of course you do! Just leave a comment to enter and I’ll choose a winner at random at 11:59 PM on Sunday, March 10. US only. BIG CONGRATS TO CANDACE R! Candace, I have sent you an email. Don’t forget to check out Pam’s book at Amazon, and visit the rest of the blogs in this book launch party for your chance to win the rest of these cool prizes: Hoe & Shovel: Moss Rock, provided by Moss and Stone Gardens Danger Garden: $50 gift card provided by Plant Delights Gossip in the Garden: 5-lb. bag of Eco-Lawn seed, provided by Wildflower Farm Red Dirt Ramblings: Tool package provided by CobraHead The Deep Middle: 5-lb. bag of No Mow Lawn seed mix, provided by Prairie Nursery Digging: 13×13-inch “grass” pillow, provided by Potted Photos reprinted with permission from Lawn Gone! Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard by Pam Penick (Ten Speed Press, 2013).

Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?: The Book

Why-Grow-That-Cover-3D.png “Let’s face it: the garden is a popularity contest. High school is a metaphor for life, and gardening is no exception. Step into our gardens and we find the prom queen and the star quarterback, the cheerleader and the rebel who cut class. Popular plants rule today’s landscapes the same way popular kids rule the school. But just like kids, plants grow up, and 10 years or two growing seasons later, we wonder, “Why did my homecoming queen, that gorgeous hybrid tea rose I planted, grow into such a mess?” – Andrew Keys If there’s one thing professional landscapers get sick of seeing, it’s those over-planted, fussy-natured plants that never perform well, yet for some inexplicable reason are planted in every other landscape we see. The exact varieties vary from region to region, but one thing remains the same: just because a plant is everywhere, doesn’t mean you should invite it into your garden. [Read more...]

Cool Fall Reads: New Books, Old Faves, And Some Great Deals

Unexpected.jpgThe chilly air, fall wind, and damp everything have harshed my gardening mellow over the last few weeks. Luckily, the downturn in weather has coincided with a rush of new books and some great deals on old favorites, so I can enjoy a connection with the outdoors without actually having to, you know, go outside. One of the books I’m reading now is The Unexpected Houseplant by Tovah Martin. Since it seems to rain every time I want to go outside, gardening with houseplants is looking more and more appealing, and Martin’s suggestions for unusual plants to grow indoors are hitting the mark. UnexpectedInstead of telling us to search far and wide for rare varieties of houseplant, Martin takes a different tack: why not look at some plants that have traditionally been planted outdoors, but perform well and look great inside? This clever perspective means that most of the “houseplants” I have fallen in love with have been readily available at my local nursery. While this influx of exciting new ideas for houseplants hasn’t been easy on my pocketbook, I’m having a blast scouting the nurseries and poking around the house for innovative containers, plants and top dressing materials to dress up my office and home. weekend homesteaderAnother good “armchair gardening” title is The Weekend Homesteader: A 12 Month Guide to Self-Sufficiency by Anna Hess. While I think of most homesteading activities as occurring in the great outdoors, Hess looks at the entire lifestyle surrounding these kinds of activities and presents simple recipes, storage solutions for crops, thoughts about making a living while homesteading (hint: she’s not advising selling eggs), and generally how to “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”. While I’m not going to drop the comfortable perks of my modern lifestyle in exchange for a farm, the sensible techniques she espouses are a fantastic exercise in feeling independent, abundant, and filled with the joys of a simpler way of life. Is this the most exhaustive book on the topic of basic homesteading? Nope. For that, I’d recommend Urban Homesteading by Rachel Kaplan and K. Ruby Bloom. But The Weekend Homesteader has an approachable, light tone that’s making me feel motivated and excited about tackling just a few more projects. I’ve been having trouble tearing myself away from it, and I especially love how the photos are of real people and real situations that haven’t been prettied up for print. There’s something refreshing and reassuring in knowing that other people’s chicken coops won’t be on the cover of Sunset magazine either. roots of my obsessionThe last book that I’m currently reading is The Roots of My Obsession: 30 Great Gardeners Reveal Why They Garden, edited by Thomas Cooper. While I’m sitting indoors getting slightly twitchy and wanting to prune and transplant and weed, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to revel in that passion by reading about other people’s love affair with gardening. Tovah Martin starts her essay by saying, “To set the record straight, I don’t garden of my own free will. I am held hostage. Always have been.” From Margaret Roach: “It is no wonder so much of gardening is done on one’s knees: the practice of horticulture is a wildly humbling way to pass the days on earth. Even the root of the word “humility” comes from the Latin humus (for “earth” or “ground”). . . Humbled or no, “gardener” was the label imprinted on me when souls were handed out.” Then, Amy Stewart makes the point that gardening is a verb, not a noun. “A garden is not a thing you can buy or own or ever possibly finish. No, “garden” is something you do. It’s an active, fidgety sort of pastime, another way of jingling the loose change in your pocket, except that the pocket happens to be your backyard, and the change is a hellebore, or a cherry tree.” Good stuff, yes? Flower ConfidentialAnd speaking of Amy Stewart, the Kindle versions of two of her books, Flower Confidential and Wicked Bugs, are on a steep sale this month – only two bucks for Flower Confidential and $2.50 for Wicked Bugs. If you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend both. You don’t actually need a Kindle to read – an iPad, Android phone, or regular computer screen work a charm. Want to win some awesome winter reading for yourself? Timber Press is holding a “Garden Outside the Garden” giveaway for two of the books I mentioned above, plus three more, PLUS a cool tote bag and print. Go on over there for your chance to win!

Garrett Wade Professional Gardener’s Digging Tool

pro-gardeners-digging-tool.jpgI’ve written a lot in the past about soil knives, because, well, they’re awesome. If you’re still gardening with a trowel or a dandelion fork, for goodness’ sake stop reading this post right now and go buy a soil knife. (Oh, wait – don’t stop reading yet, this is actually kind of relevant.) Soil knives are great because they’re this lethal trowel-knife hybrid that makes weeding, digging and dividing so much easier. The thick edges and gentle curve of your trowel? Pah! I like my tools to have a hint of danger to them. I want to get things done! [Read more...]

The Clarington Forge Rubber Rake: The Coolest Tool You Never Knew You Needed

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Sometimes you come across a tool that solves so many problems you wonder how you went so long without hearing about it. The Clarington Forge rubber rake is one of those tools.

“A rubber rake?” I hear you asking incredulously. “Really? WTF?”

I’ll forgive you for asking, because if you remember our review of the rubber rake from last year, Amy Stewart had the exact same reaction on first glance.

I’ll explain the advantages for the uninitiated:

Neighborly relations. Have you ever had a neighbor who wakes up the entire-freaking-neighborhood at 6AM on Sunday morning because they cannot wait to get out the rake and be industrious about the leaves coating their sidewalk? SCREEE! SCREEEE! I mean, all that activity comes from a nice place in their heart, but if anyone in the neighborhood has a hangover, or worse, a baby that has just gotten to sleep, that poor hardworking soul is in mortal danger of being impaled upon the very tool they are using to bring order to their world. If you are that person, I beg you, get yourself a rubber rake and you can enjoy raking at whisper-soft volume any time of day or night.

Decks and patios. What do you do if you have a beautifully-stained deck, or a flagstone patio with a clear coating on it to keep the color looking bright? Even plastic leaf rakes will scratch the stain off a deck when used with vigor. A rubber rake, by contrast, rakes just what it’s supposed to and leaves your hardscape alone.

Gen cleaning out a Blue Oat Grass with the rubber rakeOrnamental grasses. You know all those icky dead leaves that start to clog blue oat grass and others, and keep them from looking their best? You could spend for-freaking-ever running your hands through each individual grass to pull out all the dead blades, but some of us have Project Runway episodes to watch. I’d rather run the rubber rake over the grasses and get back to stalking Christian Siriano on Twitter that much faster.

Groundcovers. Whether they’re herbaceous or woody, groundcovers can be a challenge to rake. Every time I run a traditional rake over them, the tines catch on the stems and I end up ripping or displacing my plants. Yet if you’ve ever picked clumps of leaves off your groundcovers by hand, you know what an arduous task that is. Necessary so your groundcovers don’t smother, yes, but if I’m going to spend time outdoors in that fall chill, I’d rather be planting bulbs or harvesting apples or something. The rubber rake once again shines at removing the leaves quickly without hurting your plants.

Raking on mulch. The rubber rake is also good for more pedestrian raking tasks. Ever tried to rake trimmings or leaves off an area that’s got wood mulch on top? It’s kind of challenging to rake up all the detritus without raking up all your lovely mulch as well. The rubber rake’s a lot easier to control than the usual stiff leaf rakes, and makes cleanup a snap. It’s also extra-grippy on things like pine needles which like to stick to pavement.

wizard rubber rake  (21)No more whomping yourself on the ears. Have you ever pulled a smooth move in the garden by stepping on your rake when it’s sitting face-up and having it whack you in the head?

Every new employee likes to try this maneuver a few times in their first weeks, and it’s embarrassing for all involved. I mean, it really hurts. But it’s also really funny, and it’s very hard not to laugh when it happens, which creates poor relations between crew members. Save yourself the worry and stock your toolbox with a rubber rake. I personally tested this by jumping up and down on my rubber rake and was unable to make it hit me in the face. Score!

But don’t the tines wear out all the time?

The one concern I had when I first saw the rubber rake was the tines. I saw a great big cha-ching tattooed on those rubber tines and figured I’d be buying replacement tines every other month. Strangely, that hasn’t happened. My landscaping crew’s been using the rake for a full year now, and even with regular professional use (it’s really nice because we don’t disturb our clients when we clean up), the tines are holding up great. They still have quite a bit of life left in them, and I imagine for the average homeowner, the tines would last 5-10 years. (Need a tutorial on changing the tines? I created one here.)

The rubber rake from Clarington Forge comes in two sizes: the Wizard for raking large spaces, and the Merlin for raking in between shrubs. If you’re an urban gardener, you’ll probably want the Merlin, but if you have a large area, the Wizard’s ace for making cleanup fast.

Want one of your own? Enter here! Clarington Forge has offered up a choice of the Wizard (big) or Merlin (small) rake to one lucky reader. To enter, just leave a comment saying which one you want, and I’ll pick one lucky reader on October 24th. US only.

And for a second chance, head on over to Garden Rant, where Amy Stewart’s giving away another rubber rake. If you were lucky enough to win both, I guess you could give one to your noisiest neighbor and hope they get the hint. Good luck!

EDIT: Crystal S. is the winner! Congrats, Crystal, and enjoy your new rake!

Disclosure: Clarington Forge sent me some free stunt rakes so I could jump up and down on them and attempt to wear out the tines.  All opinions are my own.