Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mulch, Compost or Fertilizer?

The best fertilizer is the gardener's shadow.
~Author Unknown

A while back reader Christine asked me to write about compost. She wants to recycle waste from her kitchen and garden rather than send it to a landfill. Composting and mulching are great ways to make your waste work for you.

Mulch is material that is laid on top of the soil and left to decompose as a top layer. It can be leaves, wood chips, grass clippings etc, that decay and enrich the soil. Beauty bark is not recommended as it is said to contain salts, which can harm plants and soil organisms. Rocks and decorative stones are considered a more permanent form of mulch, but they won’t necessarily enrich the soil like decaying plant material. Mulch helps to smother seeds that will be future weeds and keeps the soil moist and cool in the summer. It is a natural and easy way to nourish your soil as it releases nutrients gradually, just like nature does. Take a walk in the forest and you’ll see the soil covered with fallen leaves and plant debris, leaving a loamy rich top layer. In her book No Work Garden Book, Ruth Stout writes she only mulched, never weeded, never messed with compost and stopped fertilizing. She was quite successful by simply covering her soil with hay. Since mulch keeps your soil cool from the sun’s rays you may want to remove it from vegetable beds in spring so the sun can warm the soil for better seed germination before spring planting. All my fall leaves go straight onto the garden beds just as soon as they are raked, like a blanket, so they are mulch, not composted. You can find more information and photos of my leaf mulching in September’s post titled “Fall Cleanup, More or Less”.

Compost is the result of a pile of mixed plant debris (grass clippings, leaves, stems, twigs, vegetative food wastes) that has heated up and decomposed into a fine, dark, crumbly material and is also nutrient rich. It is not considered fertilizer by some experts but Organic Gardening magazine says it is. In fact OG maintains that if you use compost, mulch and cover crops you may not need to use any fertilizer.
Commercial composting facilities create compost that has heated up enough to kill weed seeds and disease pathogens. You can buy it in bulk or bags or you can create your own by simply corralling and layering ‘green’ materials and ‘brown’ materials. Green materials are grass clippings, weeds, green leaves/stems, coffee grounds. Brown materials are dried stems, twigs, dried leaves, shredded paper. Thinly layering each, like lasagna, is the way to create your pile. Come spring there will be lots of dried, dead brown plant materials to remove from your garden beds and green grass clippings (the first few cuttings) high in nitrogen to mix together for your compost pile.

I compost most of my chopped up plant prunings, weeds, all of my organic vegetable kitchen waste, coffee grounds, teabags and egg shells (shells supply calcium to the soil). The finer the materials are chopped the quicker the breakdown. You can chop by hand or by running a mower over large leaves and stems or dumping the lot into a garbage can and plunging in a weed eater (string trimmer). The plant materials I exclude from my compost heap are large woody branches and rhododendron leaves, both of which take too long to decompose, also no trimmings that will contain seeds go in. My compost doesn’t get hot enough to kill seeds. If viable seeds remain in compost they will sprout and you’ll have to weed later. Nor do I include rose leaves (which often carry disease) and any leaf or plant material that appears or is known to have disease because home compost doesn’t often get hot enough to kill disease pathogens either. I live in the city where we have free recycling for yard waste. Any undesirable materials go in that bin, which is composted at a commercial level and does get hot enough to kill seeds and pathogens. If you live in the country and don’t have waste pick up, you can burn that which you don’t want in your compost.

Compost needs nitrogen to get it to heat up quickly. There are compost starters you can buy in a box but are expensive and I think more a gimmick than necessary. Early spring grass clippings are high in nitrogen and free if you have a lawn. Alfalfa meal is inexpensive and high in nitrogen if you don’t have grass. A few cups of that added to your pile will start the process and the balance of the bag is great fertilizer for your roses. Be sure to mix any organic fertilizer you buy into the soil so the microorganisms can break it down to release the nutrients. A pile with a good mix of ingredients will decompose and will smell earthy. The pile that just rots and is smelly has too much of one material.

There are 2 ways to make compost: aerobic and anaerobic.
Aerobic piles are turned about once or twice a week. Aerobic compost finishes faster, between 2-6 months given sufficient heat generation, water and volume. To get finished compost in 2 months the green/brown ratio is important and you turn it daily for the first week or so. Pile temperature should remain between 135 and 155 degrees for 3 days to kill seeds and most pathogens. If you don’t want to pay that much attention to it, it will simply take longer to break down. Mine usually takes more like 6 months. When I had a pile in four sided wire fencing, a hay fork was my tool of choice for turning the pile, with 5 skinny, long, curved prongs. A shovel or pitch fork can be used also but were awkward to me. You turn the hot core out and the cooler sides in creating a new pile each time, which gets more of the material to heat up. The more heat the quicker the decomposition. Moisture is important too. You need some but not too much. Most articles say as damp as a wrung out sponge. You can cover the pile in winter if you get a lot of rain, but in a dry summer you may need to hose it down now and again.
Anaerobic piles are never turned. You just keep adding materials in green and brown layers to the top. Finished compost is pulled out from the bottom of the pile. Plastic bins designed for this type of compost have a door at the base where you can shovel out finished compost. Anaerobic compost can take a year or so to finish the bottom layers.

Since winter keeps many of us out of our gardens, it is a good time to research compost bin designs, think about what kind of composting will work for you and where you might like to locate your pile. What ever style you choose it needs to allow a pile at least 3 feet tall by 3 feet wide. This size or bigger heats up best. The better the heat and aeration the quicker the decomposition and the sooner you can spread it on your garden. Some people simply make a pile with no boundaries. Some choose to corral their pile by making a ‘bin’. Some use found wooden shipping pallets, stood upright and fastened into a square, some use concrete blocks stacked to make a 3 sided bin and some use a big circle of chicken wire. There are many commercial designs made of plastic. One is even made to tumble by simply kicking it around, eliminating the need to mix it by hand. Some municipalities offer wire or plastic bins at a discount to encourage composting which cuts down on land fill usage. What ever you do, if you choose to turn your pile, make sure your bin will allow you to get in there easily and often with your hay fork. Having two aerobic piles side by side is helpful, because at some point you need to stop adding to a pile to let it decompose. All the while you keep finding plant material in your garden to add, so a second pile is needed.

The ‘bin’ I have now I made from a 55 gallon pickle barrel. To use less garden space I adapted a ‘spin’ design I found on the internet (sorry but the site is no longer up or I’d include it). I made it to hang between 2 fence posts so I can spin it on an iron bar that I inserted through the barrel and both fence posts. I live near the now vacated Nalley's pickle factory. When the company closed I bought four food grade barrels for five dollars each and used one as a composter and three for rain barrels. Finding food grade barrels was important to me as I garden organically and wanted to know that no chemicals were ever stored in the barrels I was going to use.

Worms help decompose plant debris too. Normally they will come up into your pile from the soil underneath, but since my bin is a ‘closed’ system I toss in worms as I find them. They must thrive in there as they have multiplied by the time my compost is finished and ready to spread. When your compost is finished you can either spread it as a top dressing on your soil or dig it in. Some say you must dig it in for it to improve soil structure but that’s a lot of work. I just leave it as a top dressing and let the worms and soil organisms mix it all up over time. It seems to work.

I hope this has been a helpful overview and perhaps an incentive for you consider composting in the near future. Happy composting Christine!!

In bloom in my garden today: Daphne caucasica ‘Summer Ice’

Author’s photo

Monday, December 21, 2009

Garden Ornament

O, wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
~Percy Bysshe Shelley

In the absence of blooms, the winter garden can still be full of beauty, especially if you have added plants that color up from the cold like red twig dogwood, winter bloomers like Camillias and those that produce berries like pyracantha and hollies.

At this time of year I like to gather evergreen boughs that have been blown down by the winter winds to make arrangements, swags and wreaths. To these I can add from my garden red pyracantha berries (pyracantha koidzumii ‘Victory’), red rose hips, green Solanium crispin (potato vine) berries and various greenery or bare branches. Both the knobby twigs from my Katsura trees and the evergreen huckleberry’s (Vaccinium ovatum) leafy stems stay nice long after being cut and add height to an arrangement. The evergreen branches of sarcococca confusa (sweet box) have deep green leaves and interesting black berries right now. Even after our unusual week and a half of below freezing temperatures my daphne (Daphne caucasica ‘Summer Ice’) has begun blooming again, and both the evergreen Heleborus (soon to bloom) and the sword ferns have bounced back. In neighboring gardens I’ve seen Jasminum nudiflorum (winter jasmine) blooming its cheery yellow flowers.

At my front door I have attached to the outside wall, a green metal basket. Throughout the year I gather lovelies from the garden to make arrangements in it to ornament the porch. Today’s arrangement is made up of my evergreen huckleberry leafy stems, the silvery Russian sage (Perovskia ‘Little Spire’), the broad leaves of skimmia with its flower buds, and red rose hips. You may be surprised what beauty you can find in your gardens even now. 
It’s the Christmas season at our house, so to all of you my gardening friends around the globe, thank you for visiting my garden blog and may you have the gift of faith, the blessing of hope and the peace of His love at Christmas and always.

Merry Christmas

In bloom in my garden today: Daphne caucasica ‘Summer Ice’
Pyracantha berries photo courtesy of Pat Chissus

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bye Bye Birdie...not!

To me, the garden is a doorway to other worlds; one of them, of course, is the world of birds. The garden is their dinner table, bursting with bugs and worms and succulent berries.
-Anne Raver

Brrr! It’s December and it’s cold here in the Pacific Northwest. This week the sun is shining but the temperature is ranging between the 30s in the day and the teens (F) at night. I know there are colder places but this is plenty cold enough for me.

Our little feathered friends seem to winter over well enough, some smart enough to head south to warmer climes. Well I would too! To keep them coming back I offer a smorgasbord of their favorites. In addition to the plant seed heads I leave intact in the winter garden, I stock birdfeeders with seed, and hummingbird feeders with syrup year round. Feeding them not only provides a helping hand with their survival, it also brings more of them into my garden where they eat bugs, helping me keep down insect destruction. It’s definitely win-win.

Our region has a hummingbird species that stay all year, opting out of the trip south. For them, I make my own syrup of sugar/water, as the boxed stuff with red dye is not only unnecessary color but the dye is reportedly harmful to them. The feeder tube has enough red plastic to attract them. In a one cup measure I put ½ cup sugar and fill to the 1 cup mark with boiling water. Stir to dissolve and cool. Boiling the water first keeps the syrup from spoiling a little longer. They come to sip 365 day of the year. And since more than half their diet is comprised of bug eating, that’s a lot less bugs eating my plants. In this freezing weather, even the sugar water can freeze, but wrapping the bottle with bubble wrap helps keep it thawed longer. And have you ever noticed the chickadees steal a sip of syrup from the hummers feeder? They do! They must have a sweet tooth beak.

For the songbirds, I fill their feeders with black oil sunflower and nyger thistle seeds adding seed imbedded suet cakes in winter. Suet provides the fats they can use to stay warm and these cakes are very popular in my garden. Pictured here are the tiny bush tits (a most disagreeable name) which stay in flocks. It’s not unusual to see more than a dozen all sharing on one cake.

Also the downy woodpecker, flicker, junco, chickadee, nut hatch, starling and even squirrels come to it for a nibble. Ok, yes admittedly starlings and squirrels can be piggy, tearing the whole thing apart in no time but I don’t begrudge them. It’s worth it to get the others to come. You can make your own suet cakes using beef suet, available from the meat dept in your grocery store, melting it, stirring in seed and pouring it into a mold. There are lots of recipes but to me it’s an icky and time consuming job. At around a dollar each, I just buy them.

To keep the squirrels happy and off the suet, I put out ‘Sweet Corn SquirreLogs’, which are simply made of compressed ground corn. I used to put out the dried corn on the cob, but the squirrels would bury the kernels and I’d find corn stalks sprouting up all over the place. I just lay the SquirreLogs on the ground near the suet. It works pretty well and after rain softens the logs the birds eat off them too. You can find them next to the suet cakes at the store. I had a few mushy apples, put them out and the squirrels loved them too!

I like to keep bird houses up for spring nesting, and I often wonder if any birds utilize them during the cold winter weather. I bought a ‘roosting pocket’ once for winter roosting (shelter from the weather) but I never noticed any bird use it and it was made of grasses or reeds or something which didn’t fare well in our wet weather.

A most excellent resource for bird feeding and housing is Russell Link’s Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, published by University of Washington Press. While it was written for the PNW I think the information within can be utilized in most parts of the country and outside the USA as well. Page 112 has a suet recipe and there are several pages devoted to building bird houses with plans and dimension specifications. Did you know the size of the entrance hole on a bird house is really important for bird safety from predators and which bird species you want to attract? And by all means, if you have a store bought bird house, be sure to cut off that peg just below the entrance hole! Nesting birds don’t need it and it makes a great perch for nest robbers who are after the eggs or babies. The book also has plans for building mason bee ‘houses’, butterfly houses, bat houses and more. Bats are important because they consume bugs and moths which fly at night, while birds dine on the bugs that fly during the day. Did you know some bat species are insect eaters and some bats are nectar sippers and pollinators? This book contains a wealth of information about creating a habitat for critters in your gardens from woodlands to wetlands, pond construction and planting hedgerows. Apparently sometimes a messy garden is a wildlife friendly garden. He includes many pages of plants suited to wildlife that you could incorporate into your garden. I could go on and on, but if you’re interested in encouraging wildlife in your garden, this is a great book for your library.

Birds need access to not only food and shelter but also water. In temperatures like these, birdbaths and puddles never thaw. I keep a birdbath heater in my birdbath. It runs on a thermostat that turns off at temps 40 degrees F or higher so I can leave it plugged in all winter. It perches on the rim of the bowl with the heating coils sitting in the water. Be sure to watch the water level for evaporation. The birds are a little wary of the thing at first but necessity wins out and they are soon sipping again.

What are your winters like? What steps do you take to keep the birds coming back to your garden throughout the colder weather?

In bloom in my garden today: in these temps, everything is toast. Even the Borage gave up.

Food ready for the birds: Caryopteris seeds, Mountain Ash berries, Pyracantha berries, Echinacea seeds, Solanum crispum berries (squirrels love them)

Photos courtesy of Pat Chissus

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Energizer Bunny Borage

"There remaineth one necessary thing...
which in my Opinion makes as much for Ornament, as either flowers, or forme, or cleanness...which is Bees, well ordered."
~ William Lawson,
New Orchard and Garden 1618

I’ve mentioned in my profile that I am a beekeeper. I have one hive in my urban garden.  I love seeing honey bees buzzing around and pollinating my flowers, but mostly I have to walk a few houses down the street to find legions of my bees gathering nectar and pollen in my neighbor’s yard. I’m happy to share so I don’t intend to duplicate her garden in mine, but one day she mentioned my bees had been all over her Borage for weeks. Well, I knew nothing about Borage but I just had to get some of that!

So I looked it up. Borage (Borago officinalis) is an annual that grows to two feet tall. It comes to us from Corsica, N. Africa and Europe. It is speculated that the name borago came from the Latin burra meaning “a hairy garment”. Hmmm….I wonder what it means by that? It reportedly grows in sun or shade, wet or dry conditions, and tolerates poor soil. Sounds pretty fool proof to me. The leaves are supposedly slightly cucumber tasting and flowers can be used as edible garnish. Even better! I like to be able to eat what I grow.

So I ordered a seed packet from along with my vegetable seeds order. I planted 4 seeds in March indoors in 4 small pots. All four came up and three survived. I planted the seedlings outdoors, one in the sun, two in semi-shade. They grew quickly and began flowering, beautiful true blue single flowers. And sure enough the bumblebees and my honey bees found the flower’s sweet nectar in no time. The taller the plants got the more leggy they seemed, but the one in the full sun was better. Then they needed staking…I very much dislike staking, but did it anyway, for the sake of the bees of course. Then after a wind blew through a few of the stems broke down. More staking and trimming, grrr. And on and on it went till I gave up the tiresome staking and just let them break down. I figured I’d be ripping them out when I got around to it but the bees still came to the flowers, even the flowering branches lying on the ground. As I removed the damaged stems I noticed lots of fresh new shoots coming from just below any damaged area. The plants just kept going and going and going, rejuvenating themselves!

Since I just left them alone, they have become nice and full and still blooming even now in November. That’s one energized annual! I wonder when they’ll quit. The few hard frosts we’ve had haven’t fazed them at all. Last month I noticed a humming bird sipping from the flowers too.  And I gave up trying to save all the seeds this plant produces, so I’ll be hoeing seedlings for sure. It is a prolific self seeder!

Were you wondering still about that “a hairy garment” comment? Be forewarned, the leaves do taste cucumber-ish but are so furry, they are unpleasant to chew on. Every bit of the plant except the flowers are covered with soft spines.  The flowers are a true blue color, a rare find in garden plants. Mostly ‘blue’ plants are on the purpley side, and some gardeners search high and low to include true blue in their garden scheme. Give borage a try.

In bloom in my garden today: Kirengeshoma palmata, Borage, Daphne, Digitalis (foxglove), Salvia, Nepeta (cat mint), Solanum crispum (potato vine), Phygelius (cape fushia) Schizostylis (river lily), Alyssum

Food ready for the birds: Caryopteris seeds, Mountain Ash berries, Pyracantha berries, Echinacea seeds, Coreopsis seeds, Liatris seeds.

Photo's courtesy of Pat Chissus

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Day For Cannas

It takes a while to grasp that not all failures are self-imposed, the result of ignorance, carelessness or inexperience. It takes a while to grasp that a garden isn't a testing ground for character and to stop asking, what did I do wrong? Maybe nothing.
~Eleanor Perényi, Green Thoughts, 1981

I spend some of my time volunteering at my local municipal greenhouse. There they grow the plants for the city’s park gardens, conservatory and create the huge hanging baskets that line some of the main streets. At the greenhouse this was Canna week.

Cannas are native to the tropical and sub-tropical Americas and West Indies. South Americans reportedly used the rootstock for food. They are grown for their fantastic foliage and flowers and some species can grow to over 6 feet tall. Leaf color can be green, bronze, maroon, orangey, solid or striped.

Three to four weeks ago the cannas that jazzed our city parks were dug up to make way for fall plantings. They were then piled up outdoors and covered with permeable cloth at the greenhouse. We’ve had a few hard frosts here which blackened the leaves, so the time was right to prepare them for winter storage. They’ll be replanted in spring when the gardens are designed for summer color.

While others tended the poinsettias, my task was to cut off all the Canna’s foliage down to the rhizomes (tuberous rootstocks) and place them on wire racks to dry out for winter storage. It was pouring buckets that day, so I was a muddy mess pronto.

Around here, Cannas are normally hardy. Most people leave them in the ground or pots. Last year was my first year to plant Canna in my garden. I bought Canna indica from Their catalog reports it is a Canna from the Indies introduced to Europe 400 years ago. The leaves were reason enough to have it…bright green and looked just like a banana leaf, but the red flowers intrigued me more. Indica’s flowers look so delicate, unlike the typical Canna and are reportedly a hummingbird magnet. Planted in late April, it came up too late in the spring for the flowers to form but the leaves were fabulous! A must have for the leaves alone, I am hooked. What a statement they made in my garden which has mostly medium to small leafed perennials.

To get it safely though winter in the ground, after cutting down the leaf stalks, I filled a small garbage can with leaves and turned the whole lot upside down over the rhizome. It worked great, as in the spring I could easily find the firm, white rhizome. So I waited…and waited…till June and it never came up! I dug around and found a rotted brown mass of fiber where the rhizome had been. Somehow it had disappeared. Boo hoo! I was so looking forward to having it again and seeing the flowers this time.

So I bought another, this time Canna ‘Ermine’ pictured here.  It also has big stately green leaves but with a white flower and butter yellow throat. It was wonderful too. Last week I dug it up after frost blackened the leaves. This winter I’m storing the rhizome in the garage so it won’t freeze, but cold enough to become dormant and I will plant again in spring. I don’t know anyone around here who dig or lose their Cannas over the winter but I don’t want to lose mine again. It’s been a long time since I considered anything worth digging, storing and replanting, but I’d like Canna back again next year.

Do you grow Canna? Are your winter temps not optimal for its survival? Do you dig it to save it or plant new every year? If you’ve never tried one I encourage you to give it a go next spring. If you mail order you’ll want to get your orders in now for best selection.

In bloom in my garden today: Kirengeshoma palmata, Borage, Daphne, Digitalis (foxglove), Salvia, Nepeta (cat mint), Solanum crispum (potato vine), Phygelius (cape fushia) Schizostylis (river lily), Alyssum

Food ready for the birds: Caryopteris seeds, Mountain Ash berries, Pyracantha berries, Echinacea seeds, Coreopsis seeds, Liatris seeds.

Author’s photo

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Are You Latin-o-phobic?

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.
-- Cicero, 106-43 BC

Do your eyes glaze over when gardener-geeks use those mind numbing Latin sounding names for plants? Believe me, I know that look. I’ve received it many times. Do you prefer names like creeping jenny, candy tuft or love-in-a-mist (aka love-in-a-puff)? Ok, well I agree the common names may be easier, cute and even historically quaint, but they are not really all that helpful in a plant search since common names do not usually jump regional lines. Even within the USA, ‘star creeper’ can be the name for several different plants, depending on your locale. And when your friend in the UK just raves about the delightful Busy Lizzie in her shady garden borders “and you’ve just got to get some luv”, unless she can identify them by their botanical name you’ll be hard pressed to find American nursery staff who can lead you to the Impatiens. Busy Lizzie, Policeman’s Helmet and the like are just not helpful names if you are trying to find at the nursery exactly what your long-distance friends rave about in their gardens. More helpful is to use the scientific names which are recognized world wide, no matter what language you speak.

Lest you think me a plant snob and immediately jump to another blog, please understand I’m not calling for an end to common names. I’ve read many an article defending their use and historical significance. I’d simply like to see them used in tandem with their scientific universal counterparts. In my opinion, any gardening magazine and catalog worth its salt will identify plants with both the botanical name and the common name together.

Scientific botanical names are referred to as “Latin” but really are mostly comprised of Greek and Latin, with some from other languages and some personal names of those who ‘discovered’ the plant or hybridized it. Greek and Latin, in the 16th and 17th centuries were the languages of the educated and intellectuals of Europe, so it was the language of choice when the universal classification and naming of plants became serious business. You don’t have to become fluent in Latin, just understanding how the system works is a step in the right direction. The scientific botanical nomenclature is simply a system of various levels of classification. Not so simple is understanding it in its entirety, but here’s the basic idea.

Each plant, based on structural characteristics is assigned to a family. For example the Lily family is Liliaceae. You don’t see the family name very often so don’t be too concerned about it.

Within the Liliaceae family are further divisions called genus, narrowing down the similarities even more. The genus is the first Latin name of the plant that you usually see on a plant’s tag or in a magazine. It is always capitalized and is treated as a noun. In the Liliaceae family we find the genus Hosta, Muscari (Grape Hyacinth), Convallaria (Lily of the Valley) and many others. All three of these plants belong to the Lily family, but they are so different from each other, you can see why they have been separated into their own genus.

The genus is followed by a second word, the species name. It is not capitalized and is in the form of an adjective to describe the noun or explain a property of the plant. Species names may tell us where the plant originated, or what the leaf or flower looks like, or which conditions it likes to grow in, or the shape the plant will grow into and more. For instance lancifolia means lance shaped leaf (long, narrow and pointy). So my Hosta lancifolia (lance-i-fo-lee-a) is a hosta with lance shaped leaves, not ovoid leaves. Or the second word can be the name of the person who created it through hybridization, or ‘discovered’ the plant in it’s native habitat and brought home it’s seeds, divisions or cuttings. For example Viburnum carlesii (karlz-ee-eye) is a Viburnum that was discovered and developed by plantsman W. R. Carles.

Sometimes there is a third name denoting a subspecies or variety, further describing a property of the plant. And finally a fourth name would be a cultivar name. A cultivar name will be in quote marks, is capitalized and is a variety that has been cultured or produced by human hybridization. For example, the shrub Ceanothus gloriosus exaltatus ‘Emily Brown’ is a Ceanothus that is superb (gloriosus), grows very tall (exaltatus), and is the cultivar Emily Brown. Ceanothus horizontalis is a low growing species. The Ceanothus dentatus  has toothed leaves.

Isn’t that cool? See how descriptive the species names are? Once you get used to seeing and deciphering them, they can be really informative. And for us English speakers, much of our language has its roots in Latin and Greek so many of these words are not too hard to figure out. What do you suppose tardiflora means? Late flowering!

Gardener’s Latin, A Lexicon by Bill Neal and Barbara Damrosch is a book that has taken much of the confusion out of trying to make sense of botanical Latin for me. Like a dictionary, it is an alphabetical list defining many of the species names you’ll see on plant tags, and is also full of humorous and interesting botanical facts and folk lore. Sadly for gardeners everywhere this book is now out of print but used copies are available. I found mine at or your local bookseller may be able to find a copy for you.

Dictionary of Plant Names by Allen J. Coombes is another gotta have book that lists the Latin family, genus and species names, their meaning and pronunciation. I think both are indispensable.

To audibly hear pronunciation you can go to and find their link there.

I hope this has taken the intimidation factor out of botanical Latin for you. There is truly a wealth of information in it. Give it a try!

In bloom in my garden today: Kirengeshoma palmata, Borage, Daphne, Coreopsis, Digitalis (foxglove), Salvia, Nepeta (cat mint), Solanum crispum (potato vine), Phygelius (cape fushia) Schizostylis (river lily), Alyssum
 Food ready for the birds: Caryopteris seeds, Mountain Ash berries, Pyracantha berries, Echinacea seeds, Coreopsis seeds, Liatris seeds.

Author’s photos

Thursday, November 12, 2009

World Wide Gardening

It’s important to take care of your little patch of earth no matter where you are.
-Jamie Durie

“The Victory Garden”

I have great news! My garden has gone global!

I have many visitors to my garden blog from USA’s coast to coast, which is so cool in and of its self. My visitors garden in cities in New York, California, Colorado, Michigan and Washington State to name some, and recently from Shiraz, Iran! I can’t tell you how exciting it is to have all of you as my gardening friends. It feels like all of our gardens combined create one extended global garden.

Having a visitor from Iran started me thinking about gardens around the world and I wondered how far Shiraz is from the site of the Garden of Eden. So off to my atlas I went and found that Shiraz seems to be close to the vicinity, at least from my perspective which is oceans away. What a spectacular garden Eden must have been. Genesis documents its location to an area encompassing a river that branches off to feed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This would put it in modern day Iraq, near the Persian Gulf. What is gardening like where you are in Shiraz? Do you have moist, tropical conditions like Hawaii and other Pacific islands? Or do you have dry conditions where Palms, Agaves, Cactus and Salvias thrive like our southern states and Mexico and Central America? Does Bougainvillea cover your walls in glorious color? Do you have Jasmine fragrance wafting in your breezes? Is it too dry there for native orchids? Perhaps you have an abundance of aromatic herbs and grasses. What kinds of vegetables do you grow in your family gardens?

Many of the plants we enjoy in North American gardens have come from the Middle Eastern region. For instance, Tulipa turkestanica is a native of Turkey (note the second word, ‘descriptive’ name), likewise the ‘fall crocus’ Colchicum autumnalis, pictured above in my garden, come to us from the Greek and Turkish regions.
Many of our drought resistant herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme and lavender come from the dry, sandy Mediterranean Sea coastlines. I read articles relating how these shrubby herbs are prolific on rocky cliffs and sandy shores.

I also am reminded of the many botanical explorers and plant collectors, past and present who travel the globe for intriguing plant species compatible to their own regions. They make the world a little smaller, allowing us to enjoy flowers and plants in our gardens that come from far away places. You may have met some of these plant collectors at the nurseries when reading the tags of the plants you pick up. For instance, if you picked up a pot of Camellia williamsii, you held in your hand not just any Camellia, but an effort and passion of the plantsman Williams. Many of us know a Camellia, but here the second word is the name of the person who either ‘discovered’ the plant in its native habitat and brought home seeds or cuttings, or it’s the name of the person who created it through hybridization. This particular Camillia was created by a plantsman named Mr. Williams who crossed Camellia japonica (‘japonica’ = originally found in Japan) with Camellia saluenensis. That word ‘williamsii’ (pronounced william-see-eye) is like his signature on his piece of art. I’ll write more explaining Latin botanical names in a future post because once studied it becomes really informative.

In reading this blog we all have an opportunity to share our gardens with each other around the globe. So let’s grow this garden blog into one vast global place of beauty. Visit me often, write to me your thoughts, tell your friends about it. The world may not be at peace, but we can create peace in our own world through our gardens. By planting in our individual outdoor spaces, or volunteering at our local botanical gardens, we can create places of serene beauty for ourselves and those who visit. Are you with me?

In bloom in my garden today: Abyssinian Gladiola, Borage, Eupatorium ‘chocolate’, Daphne, Coreopsis, Rose, Digitalis (foxglove), Salvia, Nepeta (cat mint), Solanum crispum, Gauara, Fushia, Phygelius (cape fushia) Schizostylis, Alyssum.

Food ready for the birds: Mountain Ash berries, Pyracantha berries, Echinacea seeds, Coreopsis seeds, Liatris seeds.

Author’s photo

Monday, October 19, 2009

Winter Vegetable Gardens

Plant carrots in January and you'll never have to eat carrots.
~Author Unknown

Living in the Pacific Northwest you can get used to the rain, in fact expect rain. But yesterday even for here, there was a whole lotta rain. We set a rain record for that day in history. It was a good rain to water the garden, which endured a very dry summer, and a good rain to bring down many more leaves for raking and spreading over the soil for winter mulch. By the afternoon the sun shone again and I ventured into the vegetable garden to see what remained that I could use for dinner. I was going to make veggie quesadillas, so I brought in a leek to add to the spicy sauté and 3 cucumbers to “cool” off the jalapenos. It was quite a tasty paring and especially nice to be able to bring in something from the veggie patch even now in mid-October. There are still a few green beans I need to pick, I’ll get about a handful, and the kale and winter lettuce is growing nicely. Kale is a cool /cold weather vegetable and I should be able to harvest leaves most of the winter through spring. Mine is the Tuscan variety, aka Black or Dino kale. The leaves are not the big ruffled type but long, dark and a little bumpy in texture. It’s wonderful chopped (be sure to remove and compost the tough central ribs) and sautéed in olive oil with fresh chopped garlic and salt and pepper and a little freshly ground fenugreek. On reader Shari's blog I follow, there's a recipe for baked 'kale chips'. If you like to eat healthy, keep fit and love a good belly laugh you'll love this blog. I made some kale chips from her blog and they are yummy. To find the recipe and instructions go to You can also go to for many more posts or click the link found to the right of this page.
As for the winter lettuce, I will cover it to protect it from the bitter cold winter months. Around here protected winter lettuce goes dormant over the winter. The growth slows down to barely a crawl but if you protect it from freezing it will begin to grow again in the late-late winter months. Last year we had a record breaking cold winter, but I was able to pick enough lettuce leaves from a few plants to make a small side salad for two on Valentine’s Day.
Lettuce varieties planted for the winter months are not necessarily the same varieties planted for the summer months. Be sure to read catalog and package descriptions and instructions carefully for better success. In the spring, seed racks should contain summer varieties of veggies and in the fall they should change over to those better suited for fall and winter temperatures.
It’s easy to make a shelter using PVC pipes and corners and T’s. Cut the pipes to the lengths you want with a hack saw, make it tall enough off the ground so as not to smash your plants and be sure to angle it for rain run-off. Otherwise it will sag and collapse onto the plants inside.

Over the frame work I drape a large sheet of bubble wrap and over that I drape 2 layers of thick 5 mil plastic sheeting cut to size. These 3 layers of plastic are then held in place with ‘garden clips’ that I mail ordered from Territorial Seed Company. Find them at or call 800-626-0866. To describe these clips and how they work is difficult but if any of you are old enough to remember the old style clips that cupped over your hair curlers to hold them in place (long before hot rollers)...yep that’s how they work. Ingenious little things and they last a looooong time. I’ve had mine for many years, use them every winter but never had one break. They come in different sizes depending on the diameter of the PVC pipe you use. I have two sizes as the bubble wrap adds thickness.

In so doing you are making a coldframe. The bubble wrap is especially important. A little trick I learned from the English via their fabulous gardening magazines. They use bubble wrap to insulate the glass in their green houses so I thought I’d try it with my coldframes. Equally important is that the bubble wrap goes UNDER the smooth plastic. Otherwise it will get water-logged with rain or melting snow and sag. Believe me you don’t want to be out there in the blowing snow re-working the thing…like I did. Since I began doing the bubble wrap trick I’ve never lost lettuce due to freezing. But remember I am in zone USDA 7-8. Previously it was hit and miss. I can’t guarantee this for the mid-west or eastern states where your freezing goes deep into the soil, but here it has worked like a charm for me. Unfortunately large bubble wrap sheeting is hard to find. I think I saved mine from some shipment or something. On those warm, sunny spring days don’t forget to lift a corner of your coldframe, or pull it away from the wall an inch or so if your’s is like mine shown above, to let some of the heat escape. They can get too warm, just like a greenhouse, you’ll want to vent out some of the hot air.

Last year for the first time I also tried to protect a lettuce plant from freezing with a “Wall-O-Water”. It worked! It even got snowed on, but the water didn’t seem to freeze and the lettuce plant began to grow again in late winter. I think we ate that lettuce in April. You can get a Wall-O-Water 3 pack at most hardware stores with a garden center. They are like a teepee with vertical channels you fill with water. They are placed around the plant and the warmth of the day is stored in the water and released back in the cold of the night. They are typically sold to use for young tomato plants in spring.

By the way, these are not paid for endorsements…just info on what has worked for me that I want to pass on.

Lettuce and kale are the only vegetables I’ll be over wintering this year. I’ve tried Brussels sprouts twice but the aphids are such a nuisance and burrow deep into the sprouts, I gave up. Too bad because I love oven roasted Brussels sprouts with potatoes and carrots tossed in olive oil, garlic, basil, rosemary and onion. Carrots can be grown in summer and kept in the soil well into the winter months too. It’s wonderful to go out on a stormy day and pull up a few carrots for a wonderful hot soup simmering on your stove.

There are many more winter vegetables that do well in the cold. Quality mail order seed companies will have spring and winter editions of their catalogs, changing seed available depending on which will tolerate cold or heat. Your local mail order seed companies have catalogs full of options. Read them carefully, there’s a lot of education to be had in them. Local may not mean your immediate city but chances are there are small and family owned seed company businesses that cater to your local climate needs. These companies offer seed that have been tested to perform in your zone. Some of the big companies are not so selective. They simply offer what sells best nationwide and you have a better chance of failing. The smaller local companies have your growing success as their best interest. The two I rely on most around here are Territorial Seed Company (link above) and Nichols Garden Nursery ( both located in Oregon.

Do you have a vegetable garden? Do you grow any winter veggies? I’d love to hear from you, what you’ve grown, how it worked or if you are inspired to try next year. Just click on ‘comment’ below and let me know your thoughts. It may be too late to start growing now but it’s never too late to plan for next year.

In bloom in my garden today: Eupatorium ‘chocolate’ (joe pye weed), blue fall Crocus speciosus, Skimmia, hardy geranium ‘Mavis Simpson’, Kirengeshoma palmata, Ajuga, Cyclamen coum, Hosta lancifolia, Caryopteris, Digitalis (foxglove), Echinacea, Salvia, Daphne, Roses, Coreopsis, Nepeta (cat mint), Solanum crispum, Gauara, Fushia, Phygelius (cape fushia) Schizostylis, Borage, Alpine strawberries, bulb Fennel.

Author’s photos

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Fall Cleanup, more or less

"In these golden October days no work is more fascinating than this getting ready for spring. The sun is no longer a burning enemy, but a friend, illuminating all the open space, and warming the mellow soil."
Charles Dudley Warner, 1829-1900, My Summer in a Garden

It’s October and the trees are beginning to give up their leaves.

When it comes to fall clean-up, there seems to be two schools of thought. One says do it, the other says don’t. I mostly follow the don’t group with a bit from the do group, but I’ll try to explain both.

For purists, fall clean-up consists of removing all decaying plant debris including fallen or yellowing leaves, spent flower stems and seed heads, cutting down to the ground any perennials that will or are dying back, raking the ground of any debris…generally tidying up and making the garden look ‘neat’. In doing so you remove hiding places and shelter for slugs, snails and bugs that will over winter as well as disease pathogens that remain in leaf matter on the ground (ie: rose black spot), all of which will come back in spring to torment you for another year. That doesn’t sound too bad does it?

However, all that raking and trimming can also leave the ground bare to sprout a whole new crop of weed seeds that will germinate and grow during fall and winter when you least want to get out and pull them. If you leave the weeds for a more convenient time to tackle them you will have a mess of weeds already dropping more seeds by the time you do get out there. I’ve read seeds can lie dormant in the soil for over 7 years. A little disturbance of the dirt exposes them to the light and up they sprout. Weed control for me means pulling or hoeing the little blighters whenever I see one and in fall I cover the ground with a blanket of gathered tree leaves that drop from my 2 vine maples, 1 Mountain Ash, 3 Katsuras, 2 Japanese maples and 2 Winter Hazels (Corylopsis). I look forward to fall when I can begin raking and putting this blanket over my garden’s soil. Not only do I get great exercise raking the leaves that fall on the lawn (no lazy leaf blower for me), the leaf blanket over the garden looks nice, and the weed seeds that blow around can’t find the dirt. Some leaves will blow around a bit in winter winds, but they are easily swept back into the garden on those sunny winter days when you have cabin fever. Over the course of the winter and following spring the leaves will decompose into mulch returning nutrients to your soil and improving its tilth.
All of the trees mentioned above have small leaves, so no mowing over them to chop is needed. Any leaves you spread should be small in size. Easiest if you plant trees with small leaves to begin with, but if you only have big leaves it is best to chop them up somehow. Some people mow over a leaf pile with a lawn mower, while others will drop leaves into a garbage can and plunge into it with a trimmer or weed-whacker. Either way, if they are too big they will just mat and rot into a slick mess and not allow air and water to penetrate down to the soil.
The leaves you don’t want to leave in your garden are rose leaves and any other leaves that appear to be diseased. Rose leaves can harbor black spot spores only to perpetuate the problem the following year.

If you want to plant some trees to produce your own fall blanket, look into Katsura. Hopefully they’ll grow in your region. The new leaves in the spring are plum color, they turn a beautiful green for summer, small and round, pretty as breezes rustle them. In the fall they turn golden to orange and best of all the FRAGRANCE! As they dry on the tree and fall to the ground they fill the air with an aroma very much like baked brown sugar! I adore fragrance in the garden!

Getting back to fall clean up…or not.
Removing seed heads from your spent perennials can remove natural food for the birds. It is so much fun to watch the chickadees dine on the Echinacea, Liatris and Caryopteris seed heads that remain swaying in the breezes in January when snow covers the ground. That said, I am selective about which seed heads I allow to remain. If the plant is a prolific self seeder I do cut seed heads off before they can make a mess for me to have to weed in spring. But I wouldn’t mind if the Echinacea popped up in a few more places and the caryopteris has never been a problem either, the birds seem to get every last morsel. Many hybrid plants may produce seed but it is often sterile, it’ll never sprout so there’s no problem leaving them on for the birds.
Some seeds are so decorative. Look at this fluffy seed of Clematis. A shame to cut it off, and I’ve never had them create a weedy problem.

Leaving the twiggy structure of the plant or shrub also provides some protection from freezing. As snow falls in and around the ‘skeleton’ of your plant, it creates a teepee of snow that insulates the trunk and root zone from freezing temperatures.
I do prune the tall stems down on roses but only about half way, leaving a strong, firm structure but reducing potential damage by tall stems being whipped and torn by winter winds or broken by heavy snow. Breakage like that opens stems to rot, decay or bug harboring. Further pruning is better done in spring, just before new growth comes on.
I also leave an inch or so of stems from bulbs help to identify where they are so I don’t accidentally spear them next spring when digging. Some claim this brings rain water and bugs down to the bulb causing rot or decay, but if that is the case I haven’t noticed any problems.

To me, fall cleanup is spreading compost from my own pile (I never have enough), spreading raked leaves, cutting down corn stalks, tomato and green bean vines, tenting the young winter lettuce so it will over-winter to feed us in February or March, minimal perennial trimming and generally enjoying the changing season with the earthy aromas only fall can bring. The majority of my trimming comes in spring when the new growth quickly covers that which I cut away. I have a problem with snails and slugs under that leaf blanket? Definitely yes, but then I live in the rainy Pacific Northwest where they are a problem anyway. I think the benefit outweighs the cost.

In bloom in my garden today: kirengeshoma palmata, ajuga, cyclamen hederifolium, colchicum, cicimifuga, hosta lancifolia, caryopteris, Echinacea, salvia, daphne, roses, coreopsis, hardy geranium, nepeta, solanum crispum, gauara, fushia, canna, schizostylis, green beans, borage, alpine strawberries, bulb fennel.

Photos by the author
Clematis photo courtesy of Pat Chissus

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A "Fixer-Upper" Garden

What a man needs in gardening is a cast-iron back, with a hinge in it.
~Charles Dudley Warner, My Summer in a Garden, 1871

A little while ago a reader asked if I’d post some photos of my garden. What a great idea! As it is the beginning of fall here, I thought I may have to dig for some old snaps, that the garden today was mostly too tired looking, but I grabbed the camera anyway and snapped a few. The results are not too bad, there are still several plants blooming, so here they are. Just to give you an idea of what can be done with time, a not-so-cast-iron-back and a passion, I’ll include three photos of the garden way back 23 years ago when the ideas and transformation began.

A badly neglected yard. I can’t call it a garden at this point…it’s all grass and weeds with a few overgrown shrubs. It is spring of 1986.

After some major clean-up, you can see it is a small urban size lot with a house and detached garage.

It is fall of 2009. The neighbors call it an urban oasis.

These last two are of the same location: one current and the other with ‘Miss’ was taken in spring when the wood hyacinths (Hyacinthoides hispanica) are at their peak.
So there is a good portion of my garden, where I’ve had some of my most relaxing, enjoyable moments as the reward of the transformative effort.

Photographs taken by and property of the author

Monday, September 14, 2009

Charming Abyssinian Glads

I know that if odour were visible, as colour is, I'd see the summer garden in rainbow clouds.
~Robert Bridges, "Testament of Beauty"

 The Abyssinian Glad is blooming now. Is it a glad or not? Formerly Acidanthera now re-named as Gladiolus callianthus, you’ll find both names still used in catalogs adn package labeling. Old House Gardens says of it’s history, “ collected from the mts of Ethiopia in 1844, it was featured as brand new in Garden and Forest in 1888.
I’m not particularly fond of the standard garden glads….too stiff like soldiers only to flop to one side with the weight of the flowers. They always seemed to need staking, which I don’t like to do, so I got rid of mine long ago.
Then last year I came across the Abyssinian Glad in the Old House Gardens catalog. They look nothing like the regular glads. I couldn’t resist the promise of fragrance and the promise they never need staking.

Fragrant? YES! It is wonderful. So much so that the Old House Gardens newsletter had a “name that fragrance” write-in last year. Submitters used words like…
"Perfumey," Alexa said, "Like lilac, with a touch of . . . ?"
"Honeysuckle," Renee suggested, "lilac and honeysuckle . . . and maybe forsythia?"
"Forsythia? What does forsythia smell like?" everyone asked.
"I love this scent," Jessica said, "but I can't describe it."
"I can't even smell it," Scott lamented.
“A delicate jasmine”
“They smell only like Abyssinian glads! I know of no other fragrance quite like theirs. All I need do is step out of my front door and their scent reaches me from 50 feet away.”
“Definitely an angel-trumpet-type fragrance (Datura), perhaps tending a bit toward its relative, Brugmansia. “
“...smell like Easter lilies."

Enough said to convince you to try them? I am at a loss as to a comparison…perhaps wisteria? Nontheless…they are wonderful. If you want fragrance to greet you in your garden (I’m not sure about 50 feet away though) you simply must try them. Put them on your bulb buying list for next spring, when they hit the stores. My first ones were mail order but sadly didn’t survive last winter which was especially cold here. I’ve also seen them at the Pacific Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle, as well as Fred Meyer (aka Krogers) when their spring bulbs come in. They bloom in late summer, are hardy to USDA zone 7 so may or may not winter-over where you are. I’ll buy them as annuals if necessary, they are that wonderful.

In bloom in my garden today: cyclamen coum, colchicum, lycoris, cicimifuga, hosta lancifolia, caryopteris, Echinacea, salvia, daphne, roses, coreopsis, hardy geranium, nepeta, solanum crispum, gauara, fushia, canna, schizostylis, green beans, zucchini, borage, alpine strawberries.

Photo courtsey of Pat Chissus

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tulips and Other Spring Bulbs

If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
And of thy meager store
Two loaves alone to thee are left,
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.
--Saadi, Persian Sufi poet, in Gulistan (The Rose Garden), 1258

I know tulips should be a spring subject but now is the time for you to choose and plant your bulbs that will bloom in spring. Tulips are known for not being long living bulbs. Unlike the daffodil, tulips will often peter out after a few years. It’s not your ineptitude as a gardener; it’s usually just the nature of the bulb. If you want your spring bulbs coming back year after year, most garden writers suggest daffodils rather than tulips. That said however, I have had daffs bloom beautifully for 2 springs only to have them totally disappear after that. Experts will say I must have voles, moles or squirrels who are the culprits. Well, squirrels will dig them up from the surface, which is easy to spot…so that’s not my problem. I’ve never seen mole hills in my yard and I have no idea about voles but I suspect not them either. I do know daffodil flowering decreases as the clumps grow and get crowded. That’s not my problem here either as crowded clumps would have a mass of leaves. In that case dig them up after the foliage has died completely back, divide the clump and replant, spreading the joy in more areas of the garden. Garden experts WANT to give you an answer (too wet, too warm, too cold, too deep, too shallow or critters), but sometimes I think the answer is simply “that’s just the way it goes with some bulbs”. Simply move on, buy more and don’t get the same one next time. Well of course I did try the same again…and lost them too. Several years ago I was enamored with the white petal, greenish cup daffs. I bought several varieties, all of which were delightful the first year only to disappear forevermore. (sigh) Happily though, the super fragrant Erlicheer daffodil has come back spring after spring. The mildly fragrant Thalia continues thus far and Tete-a-Tete has been a faithful miniature returning too. I love poeticus, the short deep colored cupped narcissus with white petals, notably the Narcissus poeticus “Pheasant’s Eye”. Alas, after 2 years they have left me as well.

But I am undaunted! I have turned my attention to other spring blooming bulbs like Muscari (Grape hyacinth), Hyacinthoides (Spanish bluebells) both of which “self seed, spreading rapidly”. Ooh, bad news in my garden so I deadhead them, foiling their “irrational exuberance”. I’ve also planted Fritillaria meleagris (checkered or snakehead lily -I like the purple ones), Fritillaria michailovskyi (pictured here), Crocus, Hyacinths (which also slink away as the years wan), Galanthus nivalis (snowdrop), Erythronium ‘Pagota’ (trout lily), and Tulips.

So getting back to tulips, abit more than 7 years ago throughout the garden I planted 100 Tulipa “Gavota”. It is a beautiful long pointed burgundy tulip with yellow edging. As of now I have maybe a dozen left as they slowly disappear. Originally I bought a bag at Costco. Now I can only find them on-line at just a few sites, at a much higher price of course. I would love to plant another 100 Gavota. It’s amazing how put together a garden looks when color or texture is repeated throughout. Seven years and counting of longevity doesn’t seem too bad…does it?

I recently discovered another email newsletter adding it to my list of favorites. It’s by Ken Druse, entitled Real Dirt and in his latest edition he writes, “…That said; one bulb in the garden hasn't failed me yet. It is a late-season heirloom tulip I bought from Old House Gardens [] called 'Insulinde'. The petals or tepals are striped or flamed purple on white. In 2009, the blossoms lasted - from bud to tepal drop -- an astonishing four weeks! And this is a perennial plant returning every spring as large and strong as the previous year.”

I almost forgot to mention the species tulips. Much smaller, some don’t even look like tulips but I have Tulipa turkestanica, they are so sweet. Tiny in size by comparison to today’s standard tulips, they close up at night and open by day also, but they don’t abandon the garden over time. There are several varieties to choose from. Mine came from McClure and Zimmerman ( I think.

Now about those dying bulb leaves. Yes, you must leave them intact to wither even though the flower has dropped off. It is through the leaves that the bulb is fed and strengthened for next spring’s flowers. If you remove them before they have withered you are starving the bulb. For 8 weeks or more after the flowers are finished, the leaves will continue to grow and produce food for the bulb. If you tie them in a knot, band them or braid them they will not only look silly, you are also reducing the amount of leaf surface the sun and air can access. Also, be sure to deadhead after the flowers fade so the energy can go into the bulb, not seed head production. If you simply cannot leave bulb leaves to die naturally in your garden, perhaps you shouldn’t include bulbs in your plantings.

Speaking of critters… if you ever see your crocus petals just laying on the ground…that is squirrels! I’ve watched them, with their front ‘paws’ pick off the petals, turn them over, nibble something delectable from the base, drop the remainder 0f the petal to the ground and proceed likewise through the whole patch! Apparently my buttery yellow crocus taste better than my purple ones. Sheesh!

So it’s September!! The spring blooming bulbs are in the stores, nurseries and catalogs now just waiting to be snuggled down into your dirt for the winter!

Photos: Fritillaria michailovskyi, Tulipa “Gavota” - courtesy Pat Chissus

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Schizostylis

No two gardens are the same.
No two days are the same in one garden.
~Hugh Johnson

The Schizostylis coccinea aka Kaffir Lily or River Lily is blooming in my garden now. It has been renamed Hesperantha coccinea but I think I just like saying Schizostylis better. All names are apparently used depending on the grower, so if you look for it take all four names with you to the nursery. Confusing I know but often plants do get reclassified so patience is helpful. It is native to South Africa and has lovely delicate flowers that come in various shades of reds, pinks or a white. The flowers close up at night and open wide for the daylight. It spreads by rhizomes, fairly shallow so it is easy to dig, divide or thin. I read that thinning is suggested every 3 years for the plant to flourish.
It loves full sun, reaches for it in partial shade and craves moisture. I’ve seen it growing at the side of a pond at the Highline Botanical Gardens. I have one that gets ample water but slightly shaded and one (a division of the same plant) in a dryer but sunnier place. The former grows bigger and blooms earlier than the latter. Maybe that difficult sunny spot by the downspout? It has a fairly long bloom time as multiple buds open in progression up the stem. The leaves are long, slender, sword shaped that form basal clumps. Divide them in the spring.

I found mine at a local farmer’s market. The variety I have is named ‘Watermelon’ and the color is just like the inside of a watermelon (the photo of mine above makes it look more red than in person). I see Kaffir Lily now and then in the larger independent nursery. Best to buy them when in bloom so you can get the color you like best, so now is a good time to check your nurseries. Hardy in zones 5-9 (USDA).

Oh by the way, did I mention the hummingbirds love it? Indeed they do.

In bloom in my garden today: schizostylis, daphne, roses, star jasmine, alpine strawberry, artichoke, borage, phygelius, fushia, greenbeans, tomato, cucumber, tigridia, canna, coreopsis, Echinacea, salvia, catmint, solanum, gauara, liatris, oregano, loosestrife, lavender, Russian sage, hardy geranium, verbascum.

Photo by Pat Chissus

Sunday, August 23, 2009

What I Read

“By the time one is eighty, it is said, there is no longer a tug of war in the garden with the May flowers hauling like mad against the claims of the other months. All is at last in balance and all is serene. The gardener is usually dead, of course.”
Henry Mitchell, The Essential Earthman, 1981

Over the years my favorite gardening magazines have been English Gardening, BBC’s Gardeners World, Organic Gardening and Northwest Garden News (the last is available free at most nurseries). I have found the English garden magazines to be the most useful to me for my maritime zone 7-8 (USDA) garden. We can enjoy most if not all of the plants the English do whereby making use of the entire magazine, whereas American gardening magazines write for a variety of zones. For example, Sunset magazine features garden advice for the whole West Coast, so I can only use about 30% of the magazines offerings. Fine Gardening writes for zones across the entire US, giving me even less useful information. I can use all of the British magazine’s articles, even though the magazine is nearly double the cost, it is more cost effective to me and so fun to see the similarities of our regions.

Usually in January, when I can’t do much in the garden, I checkout all the Organic Gardening magazines I can find at the public library. OG is a wealth of info on vegetable gardens and soil health. Northwest Garden News is by local garden authors for the Washington and Oregon area.

Gardening authors who have taught or simply entertained me include Margorie Fish (English), the late Christopher Lloyd (a British treasure), Henry Mitchell (humor), the late Ruth Stout (American humor/practicality) the late Louise Beebe Wilder (fragrance), Ann Lovejoy (garden design and plant care), Steve Solomon (vegetables), Tracy DiSabato-Aust (perennials/pruning). There are so many more, too many to remember or list.

One of the most fun books for me has been Gardeners Latin: A Lexicon by Bill Neal. Don’t let your eyes glaze over yet…it simply explains the Latin botanical name structure and how to make sense of it all. When you buy a plant the label should have its Latin name. We tend to prefer the common name for its ease of use but across the country or world there are too many ‘Bluebells’ - you may not get the right one you saw in your friends garden. The common name bluebells can refer to the spring blooming Hyacinthoides bulb but they also refer to Campanula that bloom in summer, and in Texas they refer to Lisianthus (Eustoma grandiflora). Additionally, the English bluebell is different from the Spanish bluebell, one is stout, the other graceful and each with their own botanical name. Having the Latin will ensure the correct purchase. The book also contains numerous little known historical botanical facts. I refer to it a lot. Unfortunately it’s out of print, but available for purchase on-line at used book sales sites. I was excited to find a copy in ‘new’ condition on Amazon.

On the web I refer to often for plant info. You can search by common name or Latin there. Many nurseries and catalog companies have wonderful and informative monthly newsletters. Some of my favorites are Old House Gardens (MI) and Christianson’s Nursery and Greenhouse (WA), both have websites you can sign up on.

When you simply must speak to an expert, locally we have a garden hotline at 206-633-0224. If they don’t have an answer they’ll look it up and call you back!

Lastly, for murderous fiction, author Audry Stallsmith has created Regan Culver. An herbalist and nursery owner who always solves the mystery! A three part series: Rosemary For Remembrance, Marigolds For Mourning and Roses For Regret. Her books are full of herbal lore. Sadly these too are out of print, but used copies are out there. Audry Stallsmith has a great website too,

Happy reading!

Friday, August 21, 2009

I'm In The Garden Today

“My green thumb came only as a result of the mistakes I made while learning to see things from the plant's point of view.” ~H. Fred Ale

I thought I’d start a blog on gardening because I love talking about gardening and sharing with people about their gardens. If you say “I have to do yard-work today” then this blog is probably not for you. If on the other hand you say “I get to garden today” then we are of a kindred spirit.

I live in the Puget Sound region, zone 7 – 8 with a maritime climate influence. This mild climate allows us to garden nearly year-round, winter over some sub-tropical perennials and enjoy hardy Mediterranean herbs. Believe it or not, we are considered a Mediterranean climate.

I am an urban gardener with an average city sized lot. I didn’t take botany or horticulture in college (I was an art student) and am not a Master Gardener, although I’d consider taking the course if they supported and taught organic practices instead of traditional chemical methods. I have been a gardener for more than 24 years. I have worked in a nursery and currently volunteer some of my time at the municipal greenhouses. Therefore any info I give in this blog is of my opinion or experience, or given second-hand based on reading or talking with professionals.

I garden organically, which simply means I garden without the use of petro-chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. This is the healthiest alternative for people, animals, soil health and earth in my opinion. That is not to say I never use them…there are times when I will use a chemical herbicide only because a natural method isn’t available or known to me. The key is lessening the use; it is rare that I resort to them.

I do not expect perfection from my garden inhabitants. Weeds are inevitable as is disease on roses, both of which can be controlled by various actions, which may be the subject of future posts.

I also keep honey bees. It seemed like the most natural progression for any gardener. I have been a an organic beekeeper for 2 years and have 1 hive. I wanted the pollination for my vegetable garden but have become enamored with them and their amazing habits. Even though I find more of them in my neighbor’s gardens than mine (sigh), they are a delight. My dad is responsible for introducing me to the world of bees and is still my mentor.

I won’t write every day, but on those days I can get into my garden. In the winter months I may write less but will write. I hope my writing and successes and failures are helpful to your gardening efforts. Together maybe we can make beauty happen in our part of the world.

Welcome to my garden,