Best and Worst of 2012: Trends, Colors, Books, Tools, and the Most Popular Articles

shovel-of-purpleness.jpg2012 was a great year for gardening in many ways – the sustainability movement made for some beautiful, fresh ideas (like the insect habitat art introduced by Flora Grubb) and the continuation of the less-lawn movement gave designers an excuse to go bold with the front yard, skipping the usual lawn-with-foundation-plantings in favor of water features, semi-enclosed patios, and wildlife-friendly plantings. Love it! Of course, there were some parts of the year I’d just as soon forget. Without further ado, here’s my take on the best and worst of 2012.

Garden trends:

Ceanothus California Lilac Native sweat bee IMG_4684 a wide shot of the urban planting.
  Best: I loved seeing the popularity of native plants, and how so many of my fellow designer pals this year were gushing over newly-discovered natives that work beautifully in the landscape. Usually we’re all about the weird new foliage aberrations, like all those silly Heucheras  Terra Nova keeps spitting out (do we not have enough funny-colored Heucheras yet? Really, we need more?). So it’s been such a refreshing change to be gossiping about our latest score at the native plant sale or the differences between our local native grasses. It just feels more real somehow, like as an industry we’re getting back to something deeply important that feeds our souls and gives back to the world. Breeders may enjoy the challenge of creating ever-weirder plants, but I’m glad to see designers giving that a collective eye-roll and getting back to the basics of good design, regional sensibilities, and a connection to our natural world. Those things never go out of style. Worst: More and more organic pesticides coming out. So, I’m torn on this one. I’m glad people are reaching towards a healthier way of life, and are thinking about the effects of pesticides, both for our own health and for the health of our gardens (earthworms, honeybees, soil microbes, and frogs are all integral parts of a healthy garden that are harmed by the most common pesticides). Yet the solution isn’t found in spraying something that is less harmful or derived from nature, much as that’s a good start. Pest problems in ornamental plants are caused by poor plant choices or underlying issues in the health of the landscape, so solving those issues is a much more direct way of dealing with pest problems than is spraying something. I think most gardeners “get” this, but it’s easy to use these products as a crutch. A philosophy of treating the symptom (with spray) rather than the cause (with compost or a new type of plant) is also a lot more profitable for manufacturers, so I doubt we’ll see an end to this trend anytime soon.


radius tool purple flower Dramm sprinkler purple garden tub
  Best: Purple! In every shade! On garden tools, in flowers and foliage, in décor items and cushions and everywhere, purple! I think I bought a lifetime supply of sheets, towels, garden tools, shirts, sweaters and even purple pants this year. While I don’t see a ton of purple on the horizon for 2013, it’s certainly not out of style. I think people are realizing that shades of purple can add a fun pop of color to nearly any style of landscape or home décor, and so unlike some trendy colors which are never seen again after their surge of popularity, purple seems like it may be sticking around for a while. Thank goodness. Worst: Tangerine Tango, 2012’s color of the year. I admit an initial rush of enthusiasm for a color that is so bright and vivid in the garden. But that particular shade is just a hair too obvious, too glaring. While I’ve seen it used successfully in very small doses (like on cushions, or décor accents), the color seems to scream out – “look at me!, look at me!” – it feels self-consciously gaudy wherever in the garden it’s placed. Give me a gentler shade of orange, one which plays well with its neighbors and will look perfectly in harmony for years to come. Tangerine Tango was such a strong statement that it felt almost instantly dated, and I’m glad to move on.


sunset privacy kiss my aster soils
  Best: The Sunset Western Garden Book – need I say more? With most encyclopedias and reference books, I figure I don’t need to get every single updated version, since the differences will be minimal. However, if you’re gardening in the West, The Sunset book is THE book, and this latest edition has a major upgrade in the form of actual photographs of the plants covered (finally!) as well as expanded plant lists that cover some of the modern movements like using edibles in the ornamental garden or attracting beneficial insects. And their “how to garden” sections in the back have some seriously inspiring shots of succulents, native plants, and herbs used within the landscape. Definitely worth the upgrade. Runners-up for best book include Niki Jabbour’s The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener, Marty Wingate’s Landscaping for Privacy, and Jessi Bloom’s Free-Range Chicken Gardens. Picks for new gardeners include Amanda Thomsen’s crazy-cool choose-your-own-adventure gardening book Kiss My Aster – fully illustrated, wickedly funny, and gives clear design and how-to advice for gardeners wanting to get started. Katie Elzer-Peters’ book The Beginner’s Illustrated Guide to Gardening is the more straightforward version of the same, with super-clear photos and text that you’ll refer back to for years. A geekier pick is Phil Nauta’s excellent book Building Soils Naturally, which has everything you will ever wonder or need to know about building a healthy organic soil with the perfect balance of nutrients for growing any type of plant. It’s not for everyone (how many people do you know who want to read an entire inch-thick book on soils?), but if you’re interested in the topic, Phil’s your man. A friendly, depthy read for organic gardeners. California Native Gardening by Helen Popper is another geeky fave. It’s a gentle read taking you through all of the cycles and seasons in a native plant garden. I was initially disappointed in this peaceful little volume, since I was expecting a quick reference manual, but as I read I became enchanted with the author’s understanding of the natural cycles of our native plants in the garden, and have picked it up just for fun on numerous occasions. Worst: Instead of picking on any one book, I’ll just say that 2012 has been a disappointing year in garden publishing for me. Though there have been some real gems as evidenced above, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend among the masses: The photos have stunk. While it’s shameful to admit this as a writer, for me the initial draw when picking up any gardening book is the photos. I see an innovative idea portrayed in a picture, and I feel drawn to read the author’s text explaining how that concept can be used to its best advantage. Even better is when there is a sense of continuity in the photos, which happens when a single photographer works with the author to create photos just for the book, or in rarer cases when the author is involved and insightful enough to select photos that all have a similar feel. Some excellent examples of successful books in this regard are Jessi Bloom’s Free-Range Chicken Gardens and Fern Richardson’s Small-Space Container Gardens. However, shrinking budgets seem to be taking their toll on garden book publishing, and most of the books I’ve gotten this year have had a terrible hodge-podge of poorly-cropped plant close-ups that merely decorate the book, rather than properly illustrating its concepts. And on most of the books, the photos haven’t held together as a unified whole. Instead, the photos have felt like a mixed-up assortment of whatever the harried author could beg from friends or bloggers on a severely limited budget. I think if we look at our shelves of classic, well-beloved gardening books, we’ll see a common thread that those books that stand the test of time all have effective photography. I sincerely hope 2013 will see an end to this disrespectful treatment of garden photography, because there’s nothing I love better than to spend copious quantities of money snapping up books that are as beautifully-photographed as they are carefully-written.


purple shovel saw soil knife Green Top Hori Hori
  Best: Oh man, where to start? First, I gotta give a shout-out to Radius Garden for making purple (PURPLE) gardening tools. All of their amazing spades, shovels, digging forks, etc. come in purple now! I am collecting a whole set and letting my employees use my (still perfectly attractive and wonderfully ergonomic) lime-colored ones. Next, this 12.5” Professional Pruning Saw with the optional-but-much-beloved leather scabbard made my other half into a pruning enthusiast. It’s perfectly balanced, has a curved blade that cuts into wood with little effort, and both of us, with our respective small and extra-large hands, felt as though the handle was made just for us. If you have any tree-pruning ahead of you this winter, definitely consider a saw upgrade. This sucker even cut through dense, dead juniper wood with ease. Saving the best for last, the Professional Gardener’s Digging Tool from Garrett Wade is my new favorite hori-hori. The rounded handle is much more comfy than the rectangular handles of the Japanese kinds, and the offset blade gives you a boost in leverage that makes getting the job done that much easier. After lending it out to my landscaping foreman to get his thoughts, I was only able to get it back after promising to buy new ones for the crew (the first one was mine, dammit!). It’s $60, but if you’re a pro or you just garden a lot, you’ll find it’s definitely worth the cash. Worst: GrowTech hori hori. This cheap wannabe soil knife masquerades as a fine, stainless steel hori hori. Yet in less than a year, the three I purchased for my employees all rusted, and one actually broke. I have never broken the metal blade on a hori hori before, and my employee said that he wasn’t even doing anything weird with it, just going after a deep taproot. Cheap, cheap, cheap. Though these are sold by a few different companies, you can tell it’s the shoddy GrowTech one because of the way the metal is bent into the handle – it even looks poorly-made. If you like this style of hori hori, go for the Joshua Roth or Nisaku stainless steel one (Joshua Roth and Nisaku are identical except for the name stamped on the blade). They never rust and last forever.

Most popular articles here at North Coast Gardening:

chickens-are-helpingThis was the year of the rant – my top three articles of the year all involved some level of snark. I am relieved to find that my natural state of cheerful sarcasm does not go under-appreciated on this blog. Without further ado, the most popular articles of the year: Don’t Do This: Horrible Landscaping Blunders Gen X and Y Gardeners: Can We Stop Worrying About This? Please? Why I Hate Landscaping Fabric: An Unfair and Unbalanced Look At Weed Cloth Wildlife Design Tip: Use Less Lawn! And you guys don’t seem to share my fickle feelings towards Tangerine Tango, as my post showing some seriously Bright! Orange! Flowery-business! for deer-resistant gardens was among the top five: The Color of the Year, Adapted for Deer: Tangerine Tango in the Landscape Lastly, with some level of humor I present my look at 2012’s Garden Trends, which was also among the top contenders. I wasn’t actually that far off on most of them – I definitely called the Pinterest trend. Coming up next – my take on 2013’s trends – both the up-and-coming and the so-over-it lists.

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


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.

The Roo Weeding and Harvesting Apron

Roo-Gardening-Apron-19-Copy.jpgWhile I’m usually kind of a minimalist when it comes to new tools, I have to admit that my previous strategy for harvesting eggs, berries, squash, and apples wasn’t really working. For eggs, I would stick as many as I could into my pockets and my hands and try very hard not to smash or drop them on the way to the kitchen. This worked great if I was wearing a loose skirt with pockets and a hoodie with additional pockets. However, the day that I smashed two eggs on the inside of my skirt pocket and smashed an additional egg on my doorknob (oh woe!) was the day I realized I needed to make a change. Roo Gardening Apron (9)Harvesting apples wasn’t going all that great either. When harvesting, you want to use both of your hands, so it’s tough to hold a bucket at the same time. What I usually ended up doing was picking apples with both hands and chucking them into the bucket, which I set on the ground. This works fine if you’re going to use the apples right away. But sometimes I got tired of making applesauce halfway through and left some apples for the next day. The bruises these poor apples sustained, being tossed from hand to bucket, didn’t make for long-lasting fruit. That’s why when Pantry Paratus offered to send me their Roo gardening apron, I took it as a sign (I mean, they come in purple!), and accepted with great relief. While I don’t usually bother with aprons to keep myself clean, the Roo gardening apron is more about gaining yourself some extra hands then it is about staying tidy. It’s like having a giant kangaroo pocket in front of you, and just like a kangaroo pocket it stays flat and out of the way when not in use, but expands to giant size as soon as you start filling it with stuff. My first test with the Roo was a simple one: collect enough apples to fill a bucket so I could make some fresh juice. As you can see from the photos, it went just fine. In fact if I’d wanted to, I probably could’ve collected a few oversized spiders and a slightly plump kitten as well.
Roo Gardening Apron (13) Roo Gardening Apron (14)
Roo Gardening Apron (15) Roo Gardening Apron (16)
Roo Gardening Apron (18) Roo Gardening Apron (19)
Roo Gardening Apron (20) Roo Gardening Apron (21)
Roo Gardening Apron (22)But you know me, I get extremely antsy having single-use tools around the house. This is why I love things like my hori hori, or my TubTrugs gardening bucket – I can use them for everything. Where the Roo gardening apron really shines is in its multi use potential. Tired of weeding into a bucket? Just pull on the Roo and weed directly into it. Once you have a full load, just empty the Roo right into your compost bin or trash bag. It’s a lot more efficient than the weed and toss, weed and toss maneuver that you usually have to do. The Roo is made of washable canvas and comes in three colors: charcoal (gray is the new black, right?), a pleasant aqua green, and of course purple. There’s room for your cell phone in the top pocket, and if you’re harvesting delicate things like berries (or eggs), you can slip a little round bucket into the Roo to make sure these things don’t get crushed. It’s also highly adjustable for people of different sizes. The strap adjusts up to an XL size, and there’s an additional strap available for purchase if you suspect you might be larger than an XL. I’ve got mine tightened down to where there’s about two extra feet of strap available, so I think this would fit most people. The only thing I would change about the Roo is that the clip and knot fastener that holds the pocket closed is a little awkward to maneuver. I would prefer a different way of holding the apron pocket closed – something that I could unclip with one hand. Beyond that, I’m really impressed with how well-designed it is. The longer I’ve had it, the more I’ve gravitated towards using it. And, you know, it comes in purple. That makes pretty much anything perfect.

Doofus-Proof Watering: Adjustable Sprinkler and Timer from Dramm

Dramm-sprinkler.jpgThe initial plan for my home garden was to set up an automated drip irrigation system, but as my garden evolved, I realized how difficult it would be to make that type of setup work for me. Drip systems work best on gardens that have lots of individual shrubs and plants, and I have the sort of garden that might kindly be called “chaotic”, given that I test new plants each year, do odd experiments, and have a fondness for those charming-but-never-in-the-same-place-twice biennials. It’s not the type of garden that I’d design for a client, but as my fellow designers pointed out recently, our home gardens are often more like testing grounds than finished landscapes. So yeah, while drip systems are lovely, it’s really tough to water a gardener’s garden with one, because of how often things change. That’s where sprinklers like the Dramm ColorStorm Turret Sprinkler come in. I turn it on for half an hour, everything gets a good soaking, and it doesn’t matter that I don’t recall where I sowed the poppy seeds. They come up and do their thing regardless. [Read more...]

Bogs Gardening Shoes: Waterproof and Stink-Free

Bogs-gardening-boots.jpgI don’t do many clothing reviews here on North Coast Gardening because most clothes made specifically for gardening are either not my style (I only like floral when it’s thorny and goth), or the manufacturers are so busy thinking about the stereotype of a Lady Gardener that they completely miss out on creating a product that actually functions, you know, in the dirt. When you’re gardening. So when I got the email from Bogs asking if they could send me a pair of their gardening shoes to test out, I looked at their site with suspicion, even though I’d heard good things about their brand. Was this another veiled attempt to cover me in pink-and-yellow flowers and get photographic evidence of such? [Read more...]

Fiskars UpRoot Weeder: Armed and Dangerous (to Dandelions)

off-into-the-sunset.jpgTools have all kinds of personalities. There are the delightfully snooty British ones which make me feel like I ought to bring my good china out into the garden and wear a floral hat while digging. And the sturdy Japanese ones which transport me to ancient times and make me feel like a noble samurai-type person nipping away at my bonsai. The Fiskars Uproot Weeder? It’s like the assault rifle of the gardening world. The lock-and-load sound it makes when you eject the weed and get ready for another round of battle is wicked awesome. I’m too wussy for a tattoo and piercings, so this weeder’s the closest I’m going to get to being a badass. Want to see it in action? Amy Stewart and I made these videos last year when we first tested them out: Mine’s still rockin’ out, pulling up dandelions with ease. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I object to dandelions in a general sense, it’s just I like them better in my salad than in my lawn, and the UpRoot Weeder gets even the longest taproots out with shocking ease. Have a surly teenager in the house who needs some fresh air? Send them out with this thing. They’ll still act grouchy about it, but you’ll know they’re secretly enjoying themselves out there. Want to try one? Fiskars has been kind enough to offer up an UpRoot to one lucky reader! Just leave a comment for your chance to win, and I’ll pull a winner at random on May 9th. US only. UPDATE: Travis has won! Congrats, Travis! And for a second chance to win, head on over to Garden Rant where Amy is giving one away as well.

Garrett Wade’s Professional Pruning Saws and Loppers

garrett-wade-saw-and-lopper-3.jpgAre pruning saws mostly the same from brand to brand? I certainly thought so. They cut things (some better than others), and some fold or have a pole attached, but otherwise, pretty similar in how well they function, right? Nope! After trying at least 10 brands of saw over the 16 years I’ve run a landscape maintenance business, I’ve finally found a brand that blows the rest away – the Professional Pruning Saw from Garrett Wade. It’s well-made and has the simple elegance of a tool that’s built to last. [Read more...]

The Tuff-Guard Hose is Lightweight and Doesn’t Kink

the-Tuff-Guard-hose.jpgOne of my most dreaded tasks is when clients have a hose that hasn’t been rolled up properly, so it’s bent and folded and won’t go back into place. Being the responsible horticultural professional I am, if I touch something, I have to leave it perfect. However, rolling up a heavy, kinked hose is a recipe for profuse “dammits”. And a kinked hose happens to the best of us! I have invested in Gilmour Flexogen hoses for years, thinking them the best anti-kink hose, and they are pretty good if you roll them up religiously after every use. But over the years I’ve forgotten once or twice, and I now have a persistent kink which vexes me every time I water. Ugh! So when Tuff-Guard offered to send me one of their kink-free hoses, I was so on it. Their website shows photos of these hoses all tortured into knots yet still unkinked. When I got it I saw why – this thing is downright bouncy! It’s got a springy feel to it and an outer spiraled wrap which keeps it from forming a “memory”. Of course, I took the “no-kink” claim as a challenge and immediately took it upon myself to try to mess my new hose up. I stood on it, jumped on it, tied it into knots, and tried every way I could think of to kink it, to no avail. When they say it is kink-free, they mean it. colors But the other thing I love about this hose is how lightweight it is! You don’t realize how heavy a hose is until you’re trying to carry a big coil of it to the far end of the garden, or you’re pulling on it to wrap it up again. But this one is easily the lightest hose I have ever felt by a large margin. I bent down to pick it up the proper way so that I wouldn’t hurt my back, and immediately felt silly as it weighed nothing. Yet the materials seem so well-engineered that I have faith it’s going to last. It’s made in the USA, after all. Of course if you buy the Tuff-Guard hose, you may wish to invest in a hose reel. It’s so delightfully springy and lightweight that it zooms into a hose reel with little effort, and I put mine into a hose pot in about five seconds – it just wanted to cooperate with me. But the springy nature of it means that it sits much tidier in some kind of hose holder than on its own.

Workin’ Like a Pro: Gardening Tools I Adore Right Now

Radius-Garden-PRO-Shovel.jpgYou all know I’m a bit of a tool evangelist. After having countless employees bust up inferior tools during our 40-hour workweeks in the garden, I do get a bit swoony about the tools that last. But of course, merely surviving the garden isn’t good enough for pros. We do so much pruning, digging and planting that our tools need to be ergonomic and fun to use as well. I just wrote my first column for about my top five tools of the moment. If you’re looking for great Christmas gifts for the gardener on your list (yes, people, Christmas is coming), or just needing to replace that old non-fun shovel you’ve been struggling with, go on over and check out my picks! P.S. That shovel? It comes in PURPLE, too!