Stop! Don’t Prune That Grass (How to Prune Ornamental Grasses Right)

How-to-prune-ornamental-grasses.jpg(Article originally appeared in Fine Gardening Magazine) Most of us know what to do with our big grasses that go dormant each winter: Grab a bungee cord, tie the grass up, and use an electric hedge trimmer to buzz the column of foliage to the ground. But what about those tricky grasses that are evergreen or ones that have a ground-hugging habit? When and how do you prune those garden staples that don’t fit neatly into the “large and goes dormant” category? If you are hesitant to treat your sedge the same as your maiden grass, it’s for good reason. Unconventional grassy plants can’t be trimmed using generalized pruning rules. They require special timing and techniques on your part to look their best. Start by figuring out which category your grasses fall under: evergreen or goes dormant, large or small. This allows you to select the best pruning method, even if you are not sure of the exact varieties you have. [Read more...]

New Hellebore Flowers Hold Their Heads High

Helleborus-Cinnamon-Snow-from-Skagit-Gardens.jpgI’m a big fan of hellebores, since in my rainy climate so many flowers are dashed to the ground at the first rough rain shower. Plus, some types of flower and color just don’t stand out boldly enough to be visible from a window. Hellebores are tough as nails and shine brightly in the winter landscape. But the problem with so many hellebore varieties is that you almost have to get up underneath them to appreciate the full extent of their beauty. It’s like they’re doing some kind of downward dog yoga thing to hold their zen through the lousy weather. See what I mean? Kinda droopy: downward facing hellebore helleborus orientalis Don’t get me wrong, that’s still a lot of cheer for winter and early spring, and I actually think these older varieties are quite lovely. There’s a delicate woodland grace to flowers that look downwards. But sometimes you want just a little more oomph in your plantings, and most of the new Gold Collection of hellebores have more upward-facing flowers, so you don’t need to plant them at the tall end of a slope to get the full effect of their blooms. Check it: ‘Jacob': Hellebore Jacob from Skagit ‘Cinnamon Snow': Helleborus Cinnamon Snow from Skagit ‘Pink Frost': Hellebore Pink Frost from Skagit ‘Spring Party': HELLEBORUSGoldCollectionSpringParty17 I’ve been planting some of these new varieties anyway just because their foliage is so gorgeous, but now that they are beginning to bloom for the first time and I am seeing what a strong shot of color they’re bringing with those upright flowers, I am doubly excited to plant more this year. Another nice thing is they’re being bred for a longer array of bloom times. According to Skagit Gardens, a wholesale plant grower in Washington and B.C., if you choose your varieties wisely you can have color from November through April – a notoriously tough time for blooms. Here’s the run-down of what starts to bloom when (they usually last about three months): November: Gold Collection Joel, Jonas or Jacob (pictured above), all of which have crisp white blooms with a yellow center. December: Cinnamon Snow (pictured), Josef Lemper and Rosemary, which are, respectively, marbled pinky white, pure white with a yellow center, and a bright pink bubblegum color with a hint of peachy warmth. January: Mahogany Snow, Champion and Pink Frost (pictured), which are dusky rose, whitish-green, and pale pink with vivid pink outer petals. February: Spring Party (pictured) and Merlin, which can bloom through April. Spring Party has marbled foliage and white blooms which age to pinkish beige, while Merlin has pink blooms and very dark green foliage. There’s an awesome bloom-time chart here for the Gold Collection and other new Hellebores (PDF). Hat tip to Yvonne over at Miller Farms Nursery (I recently raved on them over at the Proven Winners site) who gave me the heads-up, so to speak, on these new varieties. All photos courtesy Skagit Gardens.

Bored of Your Winter View?

lenten-rose-for-winter-color.jpgPerk things up this winter by adding some winter-interest plants, attracting birds, and creating colorful containers out of cut stems and evergreen boughs. That’s my advice over at Landscaping Network, where I talk about some superstar plants and some non-intuitive ways of bringing birds to your winter garden. A special tip o’ the nib to Carole Brown, who graciously let me use her photos of birds enjoying her own wildlife garden to illustrate my post! Then, over at Proven Winners, it’s all about planting beautiful plants that bring the birds flocking to your garden. Even if you’re not going outside much this winter, bird-watching can add an extra bit of joy to your garden from the windows. Not in the Northwest? Check out my fellow Garden Gurus’ posts about winter interest in their regions: Southeast- Carolyn Binder Southwest – Jenny Peterson Northeast – Laura Mathews With more to come in the month ahead! Lastly, check out Steve Asbell’s post on finding winter color for Florida. Strangely enough, most of his winter annual picks are the same ones I’d pick for my region! These tough annual flowers are a good for a variety of climates.

Fall Garden Tasks in the Pacific Northwest

IMG_8003.jpgThis time of year, my landscape maintenance company is busy as anything, pruning and helping all the gardens recover from months of wild blooming abandon. While a lot of what we’re doing right now is pruning to keep things at the right size in relation to their surroundings (we don’t want the plants leaning boorishly on their neighbors all winter long), we’re also starting to cut back a few plants that are finishing their blooms or going into dormancy. While this isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, here are a few of the most important tasks we’re doing right now:

Planting winter veggies:

Now’s the time to set out starts of broccoli, cabbage, kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and other winter veggies. If you aren’t sure what grows well for winter, Peaceful Valley has a great online calculator which gives suggestions for planting what when. Their suggestions are based around planting seeds, so if you’re using starts from the nursery you can plant a bit later. winter harvestOr, you can pick up this book, which is a spiral-bound week-by-week guide to what to plant when based on your anticipated frost dates. This was recommended to me recently by a garden magazine editor as one of the best new edible books of the year, and I have to agree – my copy’s already muddy from use (that’s how you know it’s good, right?). Another great book for winter veggie gardening is The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman. All the people I know with envy-inducing crops in winter swear by this book.

Planting spring bulbs:

Yep, it’s that time again. Daffodils, crocus, hyacinth and grape hyacinth, Calochortus, Tulips (I’m partial to the lily-flowered ones), and more. Feeling impatient? You can force bulbs, or you can hurry up and plant my very favorite bulb ever, fall crocus. The glowing cornflower-purple ones make me so happy. If you have gophers but want to have bulbs in the ground, you can sink those flexible Smart Pots into the ground. While it’s possible the gophers will be smart enough to climb out of the ground and over the top of them to eat your delicious bulbs, the company has never heard of a gopher chewing through the pot, since it’s made of a synthetic polymer material that isn’t fun to eat. If the rain always knocks your tulips over, try planting them under eaves so they’ll have a chance to shine for you.

Planting shrubs, trees, and hardy perennials:

IMG_8673Yep, the nurseries are clearing out old stock and giving some great prices, just as the best time of the year to plant arrives. Fall planting is the best, even in gardens that use drip irrigation, because the dampness of the winter allows the plants to grow strong roots before trying to grow lots of foliage or bloom for you. And while drip irrigation is great for keeping plants alive, the fact that the tubing usually only soaks a small area around the plant means that it’s better for keeping established plants happy than for getting new plants going. The rain gets good coverage every time (well, except under the eaves). Here are some great things to plant this time of year: Golden conifers Winter interest ornamental grasses Unusual rhododendron varieties Heathers Winter annuals Perennials for winter

Aaaaaand… pruning. Lots and lots of fall pruning:

This is what most of our time is taken up by. Deadheading, shaping, small-ifying and making presentable all those sprawling beauties that have so lavishly decorated our summer gardens.
Hydrangealookforswollenbudsatleafbase_thumb Hydrangeafinishedcutabovebuds_thumb
  Here are tutorials, some with video, on what to prune now: Heaths and heathers How to deadhead Hydrangeas Alstroemeria Hardy cranesbills/ geraniums Mexican bush sage/ Salvia leucantha Summer-pruning exuberant Miscanthus Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ Cane berries and raspberries Astilbe And, here’s a list of frost-tender beauties that I take care NOT to prune right now! Phew! Well, I’m tuckered just thinking about all of that. In between all of that good gardening activity, be sure to take the time to enjoy the bounty of peaches, and kick back with a drink in the last days of summer. And in case you’re looking to cut a few corners in your garden maintenance, here is some food for thought on which fall garden tasks you might safely skip. What are you guys tackling now that fall is near? Let me know in the comments below.

Golden Conifers Brighten Up Winter

Ceanothus-and-Cryptomeria.jpgWith the winter doldrums in full force, I went to my local rhododendron nursery the other day to pick up spring color for a few jobs. Usually, I’m blown away by the blooming rhodies or the summer-flowering heathers. But this visit, what really struck me was the conifers. Specifically, the golden conifers. They just looked so cheerful against the cloudy sky, and all the browns and greens happening this time of year. I know some people think golden plants look sickly, but I think it’s all about placement. If you put them next to something that is just bursting with lush, healthy growth, and repeat their golden color throughout the garden, they look intentional and can add a real element of brightness and good cheer to the garden. Golden conifers in the garden (8)

Here are some of the conifers that won me over:

Ceanothus with Cryptomeria at Singing Tree Gardens Nursery Golden Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Aurea’, has a loose, cone-shaped habit. I love the weeping leaf-tips. In the photo at the top, you can see what a fun contrast it makes with the upwardly-reaching branches of Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’. The foliage has a soft appearance, but it’s a pretty tough plant; it will even take wind and salt air. It reaches about 10′ height in as many years, but it can get quite big in time, so don’t plant it under your eaves! Hardy in zones 6-9. [Read more...]

Hellebore Pruning: How-To and A Cautionary Tale

how-to-prune-hellebore.jpgThere are two schools of thought on pruning Lenten rose, or Helleborus orientalis. One side says to prune off the old foliage to the very base just as the Hellebore is starting to flower. The bloom spikes start coming up in the center of the plant, and the old foliage lays down obediently: Hellebore - time to prune If you prune it at this time, your new flowers will unfurl with the naked, innocent look of a woodland bulb – all stem and bloom: pruning hellebore hellebore pruned And if your Hellebores are really plump and happy, you might not even miss the foliage: helleborus orientalis pruned Of course, some people don’t like the minimalist look on their Hellebores, and prefer to leave the foliage as long as possible: Hellebores at the SF Botanical Garden If that’s you,  just keep an eye on things and prune out the old foliage when new leaves start to come out, about two months after bloom starts. If you miss the boat and let the new foliage emerge among the old foliage and the flowers, you get a mess, and it is hard to prune out the old stuff without harming the new: IMG_9108 Hellebores are lovely, easy-care plants that rarely get a disease, but they do not like being crowded. Plants that look like the photo above often suffer snail damage, sooty mold, and whitefly, none of which will kill the plant, but sure isn’t attractive. The winter cold can kill off these pests, so if you do prune off the old foliage right away as the flowers are emerging, it takes away the hiding place of any garden snails and kills off any whiteflies or mold that may be hanging about, ready to get a foothold. Whichever way you choose to prune, you should take off your Hellebore’s old foliage between January and April, and also prune out the dead flowerheads when the flower color becomes dull and the seed pods in the center of the bloom begin to enlarge. Hellebore flowers make a lovely display in a vase, even when they’re fading, so if you’re having trouble taking the plunge, just cut them and enjoy the last couple weeks inside. They spread at an almost alarming rate via seed, coating the ground quickly with shiny baby Hellebore sprouts that are a terrible pain to remove. Unfortunately, it takes a really long time for Hellebores to do anything from seed – many years, in my experience, and the seedlings are random colors, so they may not be just what you were hoping for. That’s why I usually deadhead mine and just buy new Hellebores when I want them, so I can choose which colors and styles I actually want. Want to read more about pruning Hellebores? Frances at FaireGarden prunes hers every year and shares the process with us. More pruning tutorials here.

Staying Warm While Winter Gardening

Toasti-Toes.jpgIt’s gettin’ cold out there, yet in my coastal climate, we garden all year round. After getting frostbitten toes one particularly nasty winter, I did some research to figure out how I could work outside even when it is C-H-I-L-L-Y out there! I share my tips in this video: Things mentioned in the video: Toasti ToesToasti-Toes Foot Warmers (An older client told me about these – she got them for her husband when he was ill and stuck in bed, and it helped his circulation and kept his fingers and toes comfortable.) Cooking with ginger, turmeric, cardamom, spicy peppers and cinnamon. Do you have any tips for staying warm while gardening? Let me know in the comments below!

Pruning Miscanthus Grass: How to Cut Back Big Ornamental Grasses

DormantMiscanthusornamentalgrassabouttobepruned.jpgReady to prune your Miscanthus Grass? This is the time of year to do it! Ornamental grasses start shedding little grass bits everywhere in January, and with every windy storm they become increasingly messy until in early March you have a bunch of grass sticks still upright and grass leaves piled up everywhere in your garden BUT on your plant! You also want to prune now because if you wait too long, the new growth will begin to emerge from the base and when you whack the old growth, you’ll also trim the new shoots, which is no good. I’ve written before about how to prune ornamental grasses – which ones you ought to whack and how, and which you ought to leave be. The Miscanthus grasses are pretty much all in the “whack” category, except for M. transmorrisonensis, the Evergreen Miscanthus that still looks green and fresh in winter. You needn’t prune that one! Here’s a quick tutorial on how I prune Miscanthus Grass in winter: [Read more...]

Brrr! What NOT to Prune in Winter

Brugmansiatootendertopruneinwinter.jpgRight now it’s major big time pruning season here in Northern Cali. I’m cutting back hardy perennials, roses, fruit and other dormant trees and ornamental grasses. But there are a few things I’m leaving alone for the time being. A lot of my favorite plants are frost-tender and can be killed by a stern frost this time of year. For some of these plants, the old, dead foliage and stems are providing just an extra degree or two of protection for the tender new buds and shoots coming along for next year.
Dormant Mexican Bush Sage - Salvia leucantha
Dormant Mexican Bush Sage or Salvia leucantha
New growth on Mexican Bush Sage Salvia leucantha
See the tender new shoots inside? The old stems help protect them from frost damage.

If you can hold off, don’t prune these frost-tender plants until after last frost, which here in Humboldt County is around mid-May:

[Read more...]

The Winter-Interest Secret Most Gardeners Forget: or How to Attract Birds

Winter interest is the Holy Grail for us gardeners, and we spend an inordinate amount of time planning out which cool foliage plant or winter bloomer we’ll tuck in. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for that year-round interest too – but there is another source of excitement during the darker months – birds! During the growing season, much of the birds’ liveliness is obscured by leaves – we hear rustles and chirrups but can’t quite see what they’re up to. Winter’s bare branches and dormant perennials give us a fantastic view of them scratching at the soil for bugs and seeds, and playing in the shrubbery. Female Goldfinch photo by KevinCole on Flickr

So how do we attract birds in the winter?

Bird feeders:

The winter cold makes the birds need more calories, just at the time of year when there’s less food available. You can set a feeder under the eaves, or get a weather dome so the seeds don’t mold in the rain. Try to match your feed to the birds you see in the neighborhood, because bags of mixed seed usually come with filler seed like red millet, oats, milo, or wheat, which nobody really likes (except the raccoons!). Specialty stores have premium mixes with just the good stuff in. [Read more...]