February Garden Maintenance for the Pacific Northwest

Blackbird in Crocus photo by Neil Phillips on Flickr February feels like the eye of the storm for us gardeners – there’s just enough time between the winter pruning rush and the flurry of spring to take a deep breath, and begin thinking back on what worked especially well last year and what projects we might like to tackle this year. Most of my February days are spent indoors, planning, but there’re still some outdoor things to do if you’re feeling resistant to frostbite! Which brings me to:

What’s goin’ on in the garden for February?

Planning and design

It’s too dashed cold out to enjoy much work outside, and all the best plants will be arriving soon in the nurseries, so why not take a bit of time to plan out what veggies you’ll grow this year, or think on that difficult patch which hasn’t quite shown its potential?Landscape Design I find it easiest to plan when I’ve drawn up a quick measured sketch on graph paper – I can look at how big plants are supposed to get and make sure to give each one enough room. They always look so dinky in their pots, and it’s easier to have willpower and space them properly if I’ve drawn it out beforehand. Sometimes I’ll make an inspiration board by printing out pictures of plants from the internet and collage-ing them over a photo of my space to get a feel for how things will look. You can do that without wasting paper, too, by opening up a bunch of photos on your computer screen, making each window smaller, then moving them around to see what foliage and flower combos work best. [Read more...]

In Other Words: Winter Pruning Guides from Around the Web

pruningathunderheadpine.jpgPruning a Thunderhead Pine I’ve found some wonderful tutorials on pruning in the last few weeks, with easy-to-understand photos and step by step advice. Pruning can be intimidating for beginners, but these guides break it down and have an encouraging tone – they don’t make things more complicated than they have to be. Here are the articles I’ve liked the best: Pruning, Pared Way Down: Margaret Roach was the garden editor of Martha Stewart Living for some time, and she presents some clear tips for minimalist pruners. She makes the point that even if we don’t do a perfect job of pruning, starting with just these few things would make such a difference! [Read more...]

Stupid Thorns, Tasty Berries: How To Prune Raspberries (It’s Easy)

raspberriesphotobybienstephensononflickr.jpgSo every time I open up my pruning book to the raspberry page, I get deep unhappy furrows in my brow. Raspberries are a simple plant. Why do they have to make it so complicated? There’s the summer-fruiting kind (with a short fruiting season), which fruit best on one year old wood. Ideally with these, you should prune out the canes that have fruited right after they finish (late summer/early fall) and leave the current year’s canes (the brand new fleshy green ones) to fruit the following year. Then there are autumn-fruiting raspberries (with a longer fruiting season) , which fruit on the current season’s growth. You aren’t supposed to prune out the fruited canes right away like with the summer-fruiting ones. Instead you cut every cane down in late winter when the plants are fully dormant, and allow all new canes to come up in spring.

The problem is, most people have no clue which type they have.

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Braving the Thorns Part 2: Pruning Your Dormant Rose

Rose pruning is such a satisfying task – you go from a tangled icky mass with thorns everywhere to a lovely clean set of sturdy stems – yet too many people are intimidated by their roses. There’s no need to be shy! The worst thing you can do is not tackle them at all, since without pruning, the stems become too spindly to hold up roses, and the plant harbors more disease than one that is cleaned up once a year. This quick BBC slideshow gives the basics of pruning roses.

Ready to see those concepts at work?

Check out this charming Rosarian, Muriel Humenick, in action! I agree, Muriel – down with the anvil pruners!

Climbing roses are even simpler than the Hybrid Tea roses in the video:

First take out any dead wood (it’s obvious because it is a crusty dark brown, very different from the live stems with a hint of green to them). [Read more...]

Ornamental Grasses: How to Prune Miscanthus, Stipa, and More

thebeforephotoofmiscanthus.jpgNow’s the time for us mild-winter gardeners to prune back many of our ornamental grasses. But how do you know which to prune back all the way, which to deadhead, and which to leave be? Well, if your grass is an evergreen and is still looking great, then leave it be unless you want to clean it up a bit. But if it’s gone brown and dormant, it’s time to trim.
The 'Before' Photo of Miscanthus
The "before" picture of a shaggy Miscanthus
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January Garden Maintenance: The To-Do List

thewintergardenphotobyptc24onflickr.jpgThe Winter Garden photo by ptc24 on Flickr If December is all about putting things to bed – raking, weeding, mulching,  and cutting back perennials – January’s for dreaming big dreams of the coming year’s harvest and blooms – pruning, spraying, and planting for a productive year. You’d think while pruning a completely bare tree you’d feel wintry and rather desolate – but if you are like me, visions of next year’s homemade yellow plum liquor and fresh apple crumble keep you feeling cheerful and warm inside! Even the non-gardeners know it’s pruning time, and I’ll be sure and talk more about how and what to prune soon; but what else is going on in the garden right now? [Read more...]

Braving The Thorns: How to Select a Bare Root Rose

sallyholmesrosephotobysportsilliterateonflickr.jpgIf you want to buy a rose anytime this year, January’s the time to do it. They have just arrived in the nurseries and are cheap, transplant well right now, and the selection is fantastic. (Next month they’ll be even cheaper, of course, but do you want to risk your favorite being gone?)

Here’s how to select a strong, disease-resistant rose:

Sally Holmes Rose photo by sportsilliterate on Flickr
'Sally Holmes' Shrub Rose
Choose Non-Grafted or Own-Root Roses – This isn’t a necessity, but it helps – most roses are grafted onto a more vigorous set of roots, from a different variety of rose. The problem with this is that if you don’t keep your wits about you, that vigorous rootstock could rise up and overtake the delicate beauty you chose. I usually see this in gardens where the sweet caretaker grew too old to be able to keep up, and after a few years of neglect and weediness, a lot of the roses reverted to the rootstock variety, which rarely blooms and isn’t worth its thorns. I like to think of my gardens as gifts I give to the future, so choosing roses on their own roots is a bit of insurance. They’ll usually note it on the package if the rose is on its own roots; otherwise, assume it’s grafted. You can see for yourself, too – look for a knotty-looking bit at the base of the plant where they attached the variety you actually want onto a different root system. Plants grown on their own roots won’t have that knot. (I’d give you a list of own-root roses, but it varies depending on who grows them.) Look for Low Petal Count - As a rule of thumb for the Maritime Pacific Northwest, go for the lowest petal count you can find – that is, look on the packaging of your bare-root rose to see how many petals each flower has (it’s usually listed). The fewer the petals, the less moisture the flowers will hold and the longer each bloom will last in our climate. The ideal easy-care rose for our climate has less than 25 petals. If it has many more than that (40’s about the limit here), it will probably disappoint you by starting out with huge, gorgeous buds that turn a manky brown just as they should be opening into fragrant rosy perfection. David Austin Roses photo by Wolfiewolf on flickr David Austin Rose photo by rdoroshenko on FlickrThat’s just a general rule, however: If you are a fan of the ruffles, there are  some David Austin roses, bred in a similar climate in England, that do really well here. A client who visited England came back with a passion for them and I’ve been shocked at how well they do – at the first sight of all those frills I cringed, imagining the brown mess of disappointment they’d bring – but they’ve been ace – blooming so mightily that I am often gifted a bouquet in summer! Check out this article for Austin recommendations. They Should Tout Their Disease-Resistance - If a rose is willing to stick it out in a garden without a whole lot of spraying, chances are that’s an attribute they’re going to be talking about. Assume the worst of your roses, and veer away from all the fancypants new varieties unless they are specifically saying how they resist disease – seeing as even the resistant ones still have issues.

A few of my favorite, easy care roses?

‘Iceberg’, the best white rose for our climate. It’s often grown on its own roots, does well with minimal spraying, and has a really long season of crisp white roses. There are also Pink Icebergs, Climbing Icebergs, and the awesome Burgundy Iceberg (below) which all have the same good qualities as the original. Burgundy Iceberg Rose photo by mezuni on Flickr ‘Gourmet Popcorn’ is a fun miniature rose with a flurry of tiny white floofy flowers with yellow centers. They’ve proven disease resistant here on the foggy coast in both landscapes and containers. The stems aren’t long enough for cutting, but hey – they are adorable, bloom profusely all season, and I have never had to treat mine for pest problems. ‘Bonica’ is a sweet shell-pink bloomer with lovely dark green foliage. I love how the roses aren’t quite the traditional shape –they are a little looser and less formal. Good cut flowers and a pretty 5’ tall habit. ‘Sally Holmes’ is an old-fashioned pinky-white shrub rose which is super disease-resistant! In all these years, I have never once seen it with even the smallest bit of black spot. It grows to a strong 6’ tall and wide shrub, and if it weren’t for all of the deadheading of those big bloom clusters (this gal blooms almost constantly all summer even into November), I’d consider it a low-maintenance plant. It’s usually not grafted. ‘Sally’ starts off white but quickly turns a pretty pale pink as each flower ages. Again, not much of a cut flower – the petals go everywhere – but what a stunner for the garden! ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ is a pretty raspberry-pink thornless climber which tolerates tough conditions – lousy soil, a bit too much shade… It’s the only rose I like to plant on a heavily used arbor, because – hey, have you ever caught your face on a thorny branch while walking by? I have, and that’s why I like the non-thorny ‘Zephirine’! Her fragrance is fresh and fruity – not too heavy. The Flower Carpet line from Monrovia is also excellent – disease-resistant, does great in containers, and comes in a variety of colors. I can’t wait to try out the new Amber one (click through to Monrovia to see them all.) Pink Flower Carpet Rose Hope this gets you all inspired to check out the bare-root selection at your local nursery. If you are ordering online, may I recommend Regan Nursery? They have a lot of great varieties and obviously care deeply about roses and the people who love them.

The Military Flat-Top: How To Prune Your Astilbe (Video Tutorial)

flickrphotobyirishfireside.jpgFlickr photo by IrishFireside Feathery Astilbe plumes in spring are one of my favorite seasonal shows, and even though I’m a big proponent of year-round interest, I’ll forgive a species that goes dormant if it does so with either: A. Loads of fanfare and splashy color, or up-to-the-last-second blooms. B. Such profoundly fast dieback that one day you are enjoying its fetching foliage and the next, you can hardly recall what that mass of brown used to be, it’s so far gone. The Astilbe falls into that second category – and the pruning on it is simple: The ''After'' shot - neatly trimmed and ready for spring! Yes, really! A two-inch tall flat-top. Don’t cut below that or you risk damaging the buds that will sprout next year’s growth (or stepping on your poor invisible Astilbe as you putter about this winter). Watch me ready this Astilbe for winter below (as always, click through to YouTube and select “Watch in high quality” for a better view):

Showy Trees for Winter Interest in the Pacific Northwest

byhart-curt.jpgIt’s getting pret-ty darn chilly outside, and I don’t know about you, but most of my gardening activity in the last couple weeks has been planning, dreaming, and viewing my garden from indoors, thank you very much. Even my chickens are resting in their toasty coop a good portion of the day, and they have a built-in down jacket! I’m noticing how much the larger elements of our gardens stand out from indoors, and the things that so many of us obsess over – like coordinating bloom time and perennial colors – are simply not in the picture now. The standouts are the trees and large shrubs – even the totally dormant ones – and the interplay of foliage and form between the biggest denizens of our gardens. What better time, then, to talk about a few of the trees that are looking their best right now? Whether through gorgeous foliage, bright variegation, or cheerfully colored stems; these are the trees I’m most enjoying resting my eyes on right now. by hart_curtMagnolia grandiflora, the Southern Magnolia: While many of you will  be familiar with this plant, I still can’t give it enough love. Those glossy, leathery leaves have such a pretty deep green/ olive tone to them, and the fuzzy cinnamon-colored undersides stand out beautifully. The fragrant cup-shaped white blooms are really just a bonus. There are varieties for small gardens, like ‘Little Gem’, which grows very slowly to 20’ and can easily be kept smaller, to huge majestic specimens that could define the tone for an entire garden. Rhododendron 'Teddy Bear'The one thing to remember is that they do drop those thick leaves  throughout the year, so Magnolias are best in an area of the garden where that’s OK. I hate them over a lawn because the mower doesn’t chew up the leaves very well, but they are great within a garden bed where there are other plants and mulch, and you don’t need to worry about the leaf drop. Try Evergreen Magnolias with purple-leaved plants or cream variegation. I think it’s fun to echo the foliage theme with Rhododendron ‘Teddy Bear’, a dwarf Rhodie with similar cinnamon-y undersides. Rhamnus alaternus 'Variegata' Rhamnus alaternus ‘Variegata’, the Variegated Italian Buckthorn: This little dear falls into the “shrubs that you can train into a small tree” category, getting only 8’ tall in ten years. It has a graceful and open habit, and those evergreen leaves and reddish-brown stems show off gorgeously against any number of foliages. It’s not just a foliage plant in winter, though; there are lovely bright red berries, too! Italian Buckthorns are awesome for resisting wind and can even take a bit of seacoast wind (don’t put it right on the front lines, but it’s tougher than you think). The foliage lasts great in a vase, too. Arbutus unedo fruitArbutus unedo, or Arbutus ‘Marina’, the Strawberry Tree: The  Strawberry   Trees in my gardens are just letting go of their non-edible “strawberries” and putting on clusters of lovely pink flowers. While I love the orangey-red color of the fruit, and the birds they bring, and the pinkish white bell- shaped flowers, the real reason I love Arbutus are the stems and bark. Arbutus unedo barkThe bark is exfoliating, which means it peels away in interesting layers and  provides a gorgeous multi-colored look, and the new stems are a vivid red. It’s evergreen, too, so there’s never a time when this plant isn’t being interesting for you. They get about 20-25’ tall, and remember about that fruit – this isn’t one for planting over your spacious driveway – it’s another that’s better within a garden bed. Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku'Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’ or Coral Bark Maple: This is another  you may have seen before – if you have, you’ll certainly remember it! The lush golden-green foliage of summer gives way to a glowing yellow fall color, then the leaves drop to reveal bright orangey-red stems. ‘Sango Kaku’ gets 15-20’ tall in time, and is best in partial shade – it takes full sun here on the coast, but the foliage looks a little ratty by autumn – in full shade, the color isn’t very good. I love to use these with yellow-twig and red-twig dogwoods throughout the garden to have that variety of bright stems popping up in between your leafy shrubs in winter. They’re also fun with green plants with rich purple flowers, like Princess Flower or Tibouchina urvilleana, or Mexican Bush sage/ Salvia leucantha. by daphneannGarrya elliptica or Silk Tassel: Our native Silk Tassel can be pruned to a  small tree or sprawling shrub, getting 10-15’ tall in ten years. I love the bright whitish-grey catkins that form around December and linger into summer, and the red stems of the new growth. The foliage, for me, requires just the right backdrop to show off well. It’s kind of a greyish blueish green, and can appear dull if you’re not careful. Set it against richly green evergreens like Redwoods or Cypress, or try it with purple-toned plants like Loropetalum chinense ‘Razzleberri’ or ‘Sizzling Pink’ to bring out the richness of the leaf color and contrast with those silvery leaf undersides. I’ve had great luck with naturalizing these guys in woodland settings, where they get full sun but just a bit of shade at either end of the day. To naturalize, plant them in fall so they catch the winter rains, mulch very well to hold in moisture, and water deeply once or twice a week during the first few summers to get them going. By the time they’re 5-6’ tall, they should be fine on their own. I hope this gives you some fun ideas for getting some bold color and interest that you can enjoy from indoors throughout the winter! Check out the rest of my Fall Planting Series here, and stay warm as you enjoy your garden planning!

Last-Minute Gifts for Gardeners

horihoristainlesssteelversion-thumb.jpgI don’t know about you, but the actual getting-gifts-for-people part of Christmas kind of crept up on me, and I’m scurrying to find or make just the right thing for everyone I love. Gardeners can be hard to shop for, because so many people give us gifts that look pretty, but aren’t really that useful or inspiring to real, down-in-the-dirt gardeners. Trust me on this, most gardeners have their own set of inexpensive hand tools and general-interest gardening books. So what to get for that beloved gardener on your list? Flower Spirits Calendar I was delighted to get this classy, gorgeous calendar a few days ago.  Photographer and Radiologist Stephen Meyers uses x-ray photography to capture these translucent images of flowers, which are then hand-colored. Usually garden calendars have pictures of actual gardens, so if the photos are cottage gardens and we’re more the wild-foliage-combos type, it can be easy to get a really pretty gift that we won’t actually like. But I can’t imagine the gardener that wouldn’t love this. There are also ghostly, uncolored notecards. The Speedy Sharp is one of those rare gardening tools that nobody knows about, but everyone who sees mine in action wants one. If you’ve used a hand file to sharpen your pruning tools, you know it’s kind of a pain and takes forever to get a good blade edge going. The Speedy Sharp is only $10, fits in your pocket easily, and is great for keeping the shears sharp through the pruning season. Check out my review and video tutorial on how to sharpen your pruners using a Speedy Sharp. Knee BenzKneeling pads are a bit like gloves; we know we should be using them to  protect ourselves, but it’s hard to find a pair that are unobtrusive enough to keep gardening fun. Enter the Knee Benz. These things are made with awesome foam padding – it’s like kneeling on a pillow! – and the neoprene straps are stretchy enough that you can strap them on tight. They stay on with minimal shifting, and don’t cut off circulation. And they’re machine-washable. These aren’t the longest-lasting knee pads ever (try Kneelons for that!), but they’ll get your gardening friends started protecting their knees, and later they can seek out heftier options if they use them a lot. Hori Hori, Stainless Steel versionBy now everyone’s heard about the Hori-Hori, or “diggy-diggy” in Japanese.  It’s basically a sturdy knife meant for digging in soil, and if your favorite gardener’s been using a trowel, this will be a happy education for them. The blade is straight and flat, not cupped like the trowel, and has a sharply bladed side for slicing through soil, and a serrated side for cutting landscape fabric or bound roots while planting. My preferred Hori-Hori? The shiny Green Top Stainless Steel one shown above. It’s sharper, lighter-weight, prettier, and slightly longer than the standard version. I’ve had mine for three years and it’s still serving me well. Hori Hori, Carbon Steel versionMost nurseries are still selling the standard Carbon Steel version (shown at right), which has a black  blade and is rather heavy. I don’t like this one as well because my wrists get tired using it, and mud clings to the porous metal and wood surfaces more than with the sleek stainless version. It’s worth ordering online to get the good one. Books are a great choice, if they are meaty enough for a real enthusiast. I try to get books that have just come out to be sure that my gift-ee doesn’t own them yet! My two recommendations? PlanthropologyPlanthropology: The Myths, Mysteries, and Miracles of My Garden Favorites by Ken Druse – all of Ken’s books are dog-eared and sorry after only a few months with me – I just love his writing style. In this latest (November ‘08), he tells us our plants’ secrets – from stories of the explorers who collected them, to unraveling the mysteries of our plants’ interactions with bees and other pollinators. Fantastic rainy-day reading. Pacific Northwest GardeningTimber Press Guide To Gardening in the Pacific Northwest by Carol and  Norman Hall – after the Sunset Western Garden book, which everyone already has, this is the best reference for gardening in our climate. It came out in September, so it’s a fair bet that few people own it, and it’s exhaustive enough that even a snoot-in-the-air know-it-all like me shut up and read it for many days straight. Garden writer Amy Stewart wrote an excellent review here. I hope this gives you some last-minute gift ideas for the gardeners you love (or some idea on how to spend those gift certificates you get in your own stocking!). What are you all hoping to receive this year?