Wednesday, December 29, 2010

An easy resolution; don't do what I did.....

Resolutions are like chocolates; they’re gone before you know it. Somehow you start off full of good intentions but between lack of willpower, ‘senior moments’ and poor judgment they just disappear.

Sweet woodruff  carpeting the ground under a doublefile Viburnum

So rather than give you a list of my New Years resolutions, I’m going to share with you some of my ‘things I should never have planted’ disasters, with the idea that you can at least pat yourself on the back that you won’t make the same blunders that I did.

Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata).  Ah yes, the sweet fragrance wafting from those delicate white flowers fills the air in spring, lifting the spirits with their promise of warmer days ahead. Unfortunately this unassuming groundcover is also on a mission to take over the world. It spreads rapidly by underground stems and before you know it is mingling where it shouldn’t. I had to pull it out by the bucketful every year………and then move house.
The not-so-sweet violet

Sweet violet (Viola odorata). Yes I succumbed to fragrance once again although I’ll blame my neighbor for this one. You see in my native England, these little beauties aren’t so much of a problem (there again nor is ivy), so I chose to ignore the warning signs. My neighbor saw me admiring the clumps of delicate violas in her garden and generously dug up a clump for me. And so they ‘jumped the fence’ into my garden where they found a new home at the edge of my pond – and stream – and path – and patio. You get the drift.

Kenilworth ivy is best edging containers
Kenilworth ivy (Cymbalaria muralis). Another pretty little groundcover that I grew from seed. You know, you would think that the very name groundcover would alert me to the fact that it will cover the ground wouldn’t you? Well cover it did, regardless of whether that ground was lawn or garden border. Once again we moved house. Actually this time we moved country.

Jupiter's beard is pretty but self seeds everywhere
Jupiter’s beard, syn. Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber) is a common roadside perennial in England, brightening the highways with fluffy rosy-red flowers all summer. The fact that it grows in such inhospitable conditions says a lot about how ‘robust’ it is. Some would say this plant is more vigorous than truly invasive and I would probably agree. However it is more vigorous than I am when it comes to weeding out the many unwanted offspring.

I know from several emails I have received that I am not alone in my sins. Autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) is a vine which easily escapes to swallow anything in its path, Ladybells (Adenophora confusa) resembles Campanulas in its appearance but mint in its tenacity, lily of the valley (Convallaria) forms such a dense mat of roots that nothing else can be planted (a serious problem for plant junkies) and Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria) which makes a wonderful cut flower – for the entire neighborhood, have all been mentioned as thugs.

Now I must point out that I am not against plants which self seed or spread, providing I can edit them without assistance from a bulldozer. Tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis) is an example that here in WA usually self seeds becoming a fairly reliable perennial. Seedlings are easy to yank out however so I don’t mind them, although I appreciate that in other parts of the country they are considered invasive. The point is I ought to read the label and heed the advice of other local gardeners before I am seduced. There again if they’re cute, colorful and/or fragrant I may need to find myself some chocolate as a distraction.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Monrovia highlights for 2011 - Part 2

When Monrovia, the countries top plant propagator describes their plants as ‘new’ it means that they now have the opportunity to grow it themselves in sufficient quantities to sell it to folks like you and me! Other growers may sell the same plant BUT the excellent soil mixes, growing conditions and quality control often means that the Monrovia product is bigger, better and healthier. If I have the choice between a Monrovia plant and an unknown grower I will choose Monrovia every time for their dependability. (Having said that for the non-USA readers, ask your local nurseries if they have these plant varieties grown by reputable growers. Since they are not exclusive to Monrovia, you should be able to find some or all of them where you live. Hilliers Garden Centers and John Woods Nurseries in the UK are two possibilities).

As promised, here are a few of my favorite new plants for 2011, focusing on the less well known varieties. Start making notes!

Cathedral Gem Sausage Vine; an evergreen shade loving climber

Cathedral Gem Sausage Vine (Holboellia coriacea). This was found growing on a wall in Winchester Cathedral, UK so it must be good! It is listed as being an easy to grow evergreen vine with clusters of white fragrant flowers in late winter/early spring. The flowers are followed by large lavender-pink sausage shaped fruit - sure to be a talking point and a chance for one-upmanship with your gardening neighbors! Growing to 25’ in part or full shade it is a good alternative to the more aggressive Akebia vine. Zone 6-10.

Yellow catkins on 'Sparkler' Stachyurus
‘Sparkler’ Willow-leaf Stachyurus (Stachyurus salicifolia). I definitely want to try and find a spot for this one. This arching shrub blooms in late winter, to be followed by a striking display of pendulous soft yellow catkins in March. The narrow, bamboo-like foliage is evergreen and forms a bush about 8’ tall and wide. Preferring light shade and well drained soils I think it would look beautiful at the edge of a woodland, perhaps with a dark green backdrop to really show off the catkins. Zone 7-10.

'Blue Dwarf' Alberta Spruce

 ‘Blue Dwarf’ Alberta Spruce (Picea glauca ‘Haal’). Alberta spruce are known for their tight conical shape and several great dwarf cultivars have been introduced. What I like about this one is its silvery-blue foliage which does not revert back to green. This would be so pretty in a pot by your doorway, decorated with white lights for the holidays! Prefers full sun but light shade OK. Slow growing to 5-7’ tall and just 2’ wide. Zone 2-8.

'Husky Mania' Rhododendron
Photo credit; Monrovia & University of Connecticut
 ‘Husky Mania’ Rhododendron. Oh boy I’m going to get a lot of flak for this one!! For those of you outside WA State, let me explain that the Husky’s are the athletic teams from the University of Washington (purple and gold colors), whilst Washington State University has the Cougars (denoted by the colors crimson and gray). Both our kids are Cougars……..oops. Well ignoring that detail, this Rhodie blooms with yummy violet-purple flowers with green speckles in mid June. A big boy, reaching 8’ tall x 10’ wide and preferring part shade this could make a great back drop for some shorter golden foliage such as the perennial Spiderwort  'Blue and Gold' (Tradescantia) or ‘Bowle's golden sedge’ (Carex elata 'Bowle's golden'), an evergreen grass which thrives in part shade. Zone 4-8.

Email your favorite nursery and tell them what you’re interested in for next year. Molbaks nursery in the greater Seattle area has an excellent selection of Monrovia plants in their ‘Monrovia boutique’. For other vendors check out the Monrovia website.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

'Twas the night before Christmas

A huge thank you to my good friend Marianne Binetti for allowing me to share this poem with you.

'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the yard
not a gift was given, not even a card.

The tools were all hung in the carport with care
with hopes that St. Nicholas soon would repair
the shovel with blade all rusty and cracked
the pitchfork still shiny but handle it lacked.

When out on my lawn, (its' brown and abused)
I could see poor old Santa looking confused.
No list had been left for Santa to see
no gardening gifts were under the tree.

But wait there's still time, it's not Christmas yet
and gardening gifts are the quickest to get

You can forget the silk tie, the fluffy new sweater
Give something to make the garden grow better.
Is she wants a gift shiny then don't be a fool;
its' not a dumb diamond, but a sparkling new tool!
If fragrance is listed you can forget French perfume.
It's a pile of manure that'll make gardeners swoon.

Give night crawlers, not nightgowns, the type of hose that gives water.
(Anything for the kitchen is not worth the bother).
Give a great gift that digs in the dirt,
it's better than any designer-brand shirt.

Now look quick at Santa, this guy's not so dumb.
Under his glove he hides a green thumb.
His knees are so dirty, his back how it aches
his boots stomp on slugs (he gives them no breaks).

The guy only works winter, you can surely see why,
the rest of the year it's a gardening high.
Elves plant in spring, pull weeds merrily all summer
in fall they all harvest but winter's a bummer.

And so Christmas gives Santa a part-time employment
'Till spring when the blooms are his real enjoyment.
So ask the big guy for garden gifts this year -
seeds, plants and tools, Santa holds them all dear.

You see malls may be crowded, vendors hawking their ware,
but visit a nursery, stress-free shopping is there.
Now Santa's flown off, to the nursery he goes,
and his voice fills the night with loud Hoe! Hoe! Hoes!

Wooden ornaments painted by yours truly
on a day when it was too wet to
play in the garden...

Merry Christmas everyone!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The blue lagoon

The journey begins
At the end of my last post I encouraged you to consider how to create an enchanted place for children in your own garden since we don’t all have the room or budget for a stone tower or moat! Here is a truly magical garden designed by my good friend Alyson Ross-Markley of Redmond, WA which combines artistry with adventure to great effect. Tucked into a tiny side garden Alyson has managed to create a child-sized tropical jungle for her four young grandchildren.

The tropical bird grants entry into the magical jungle

Maple trees and Ligularia 'Rocket'
tower over Lilly (age 3)
Children (and adventurous grown-ups) begin their journey into the ‘Blue Lagoon’ along a wave shaped gravel pathway. A goofy tropical bird greets visitors who are expected to pay him homage by pulling on his cord. Permission to enter is granted by a bob of his funky head and the clang of bamboo wind chimes dangling below his perch. Stone walls dripping with moss set the scene while bold leaved tropical looking plants provide the understory to the canopy of vine maple trees. Blue pots set along the pathway are at the perfect height for children to discover soft mosses and the oversized snail-like leaf of the ‘Escargot’ rex begonia. The whole effect is of a mysterious, lush jungle – especially when you are only 3’ tall.

A childs world

At the end of the journey the children stop to thank the grumpy old Tiki man by paying a toll (a pea sized pebble). Sometimes little Lilly (pictured here) gives him several to make sure he is extra happy…..

Remember to thank the Tiki man!
Only the sound of chattering monkeys is missing from this enchanted tropical forest but the shrieks of laughter from the pint sized visitors more than makes up for that!

Tropical looking foliage for shady gardens

Rex begonias (annuals in WA)
Calla lily (Zantedeschia)
Coral bells (Heuchera)
Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica)
Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’)
Umbrella plant (Darmera)
Japanese butterbur (Petasites)

Photo credits; Alyson Ross-Markley

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Watch out for the dragons.....

Curious windows and doors in the hobbit house
Hidden amongst the grand, sophisticated estates in Preston Hollow, Dallas is a garden of pure fantasy. Walk across the drawbridge to cross a moat and pass through handmade ornate gates to a Tolkien-inspired world of fairy glens, hidden passageways and hobbit sized doors.

You are being watched....
Winding paths carve mysterious trails through the woods to the magical stone hobbit house where gargoyles peer down to see that no dragons sneak up on Bilbo Baggins and his friends.

Few flowers adorn these lushly planted gardens which rely on privet and other hardy trees and shrubs, chosen for their ability to screen this world from the outside. A murky pond provides the perfect hiding place for Gollum while woodcarvings remind us to watch and listen for the ents in Tolkien’s classic tale.

Overgrown vines and trees add a sense of mystery to the pond
Trees or ents? 
Explore if you dare
To walk these mossy paths in the wooded silence is to embark on a magical journey. Landscape architect Rosa Finsley fulfilled her client’s fantasy of creating this imaginative garden for their grandchildren and in doing so allowed 'grown ups' to remember how to play make-believe.

I had the opportunity to explore this whimsical garden on a recent tour with the Garden Writers Association. You can read more about the creation of this masterpiece here
Perhaps this will awaken the creative spirit within you to design an enchanted garden where your children and grandchildren can chase dragons away and good always triumphs over evil.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Monrovia's hot new plants - Part 1

Monrovia is one of the leading growers and suppliers of high quality plants in North America. Famed global plant explorer Dan Hinkley teamed up with Monrovia several years ago to select rare and unusual varieties to be propagated, tested and made widely available to the plant-hungry gardeners nationwide!

Kiwi Sheen Fuchsia
I have just spent an hour poring over their latest catalog marking all the plants I wanted to highlight for you. In fact there are so many, I am going to break this down into two parts! This post is just about a few of those plants which are exclusive to Monrovia. You can see the full list on their website.

Kiwi Sheen Fuchsia. Zone 8-12. Selected by Dan Hinkley for its rosy red metallic foliage, this superb tree fuchsia is from New Zealand. In dappled shade it will grow 10’ x 10’. Wow.

Fuchsia 'Windcliff Flurry'

Windcliff Flurry Fuchsia. Zone 7-9. Exceptional display of purple and red flowers on this 6’ tall and wide shrub. This winter hardy variety prefers sun or part shade and will attract hummingbirds for many months due to its long flowering cycle.
Angel Red Pomegranate

Angel Red Pomegranate. Zone 7-11. A new variety with lots to offer. Ripens earlier and has more anti-oxidant juice than other varieties and the seeds have a soft texture so can be eaten along with the pulp. 15’ tall.

Yellow Doodle Dandy Itoh Peony

Yellow Doodle Dandy Itoh Peony. Gardeners are clamoring for Itoh peonies; a cross between a tree peony and an herbaceous peony. Monrovia has four exclusive varieties of which Yellow Doodle Dandy is one. The fragrant blooms span 7-8” and are held high on strong stems over foliage which lasts well into fall. 3’ tall and wide. Deer resistant too.

Personally when I read that something is ‘high quality’ I immediately equate that with ‘high price’. I was therefore particularly impressed to read that Monrovia is offering more of their plants in a quart and one gallon size. That means we don’t have to compromise on quality or quantity to stay on budget, we just need to have a little patience!

Top nurseries carry Monrovia products. For those of you in the Seattle area, Molbaks has an exclusive Monrovia display to help you find these beauties easily. Write up your wish list then email your nursery telling them what you want next spring! Any yes you can blame it on me……….

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Don't tell me about bog gardens!

If you have been following along with my garden adventures you will have noticed that I have referred a few times to our water woes on this 5 acre parcel of land, only half jokingly called The Swamp. I can appreciate that many of you will have dismissed my mutterings as being an over-reaction. “Why don’t you just plant water loving plants” I hear you say. “Embrace the land – make a feature out of it” or even “How romantic – your own stream”. Bah humbug is my reply.
Kayaking anyone?

Water  POURING out from beneath the house

The problem you see lies in the definition of ‘too much’. The resident frogs and I have agreed that the wetland meadow is theirs and we have even re-opened an original watercourse so that we do indeed have a seasonal stream in one area. The problems remain though that   
  1. We need to kayak to the barn in winter.
  2. I have the only swim-thru greenhouse in the Pacific Northwest.
  3. The sump pump goes 24/7 (for those if you in drier regions I should explain that sump pumps are used to remove water from underneath houses built in damp areas), and
  4. We have more mosquitoes in spring than the tropical swamps of Africa. 
Get the drift? Then there’s the small detail that I am determined to create a showcase mixed border in an area close to the house which was underwater for most of last winter and I do NOT want a 100’ x 50’ bog garden!

So what do I do? Clearly we are well beyond the ‘right plant, right place’ philosophy and need to tackle drainage problems caused by solid clay over glacial till and a number of underground springs, which in one area appear to be just 4’ below ground. Here’s what we’re doing.
  • The first problem was that the downspouts were just pouring water onto the ground rather than into a drain system and the sump pump while removing water from underneath the house was fighting a losing battle since the water was just recycling back down again. These problems were relatively easy to address by digging trenches and installing drainage pipe set in gravel which connect up to the downspouts and sump pump outlet. The sump pump is much happier now and our electricity bill is lower! Since these trenches didn’t have to be very deep they could be dug by (my husbands) hand. 
  • The areas near the barn and greenhouse are both low lying so a lot of the problems there are due to the fact that water can’t run off and percolation is painfully slow due to the clay. More french drains and rock filled channels have improved things by the barn using gravity to divert the water away. 
  • The greenhouse is going to be raised up on cinder blocks, and a deep layer of gravel used in the interior to provide a dry platform. 
  • The major project is where I want to create a garden.  John Silvernale, landscape architect with Berg’s Landscaping designed a drainage system which involved bringing in the big boys; an excavator, hundreds of feet of pipe and 30 yards of gravel.
They dug a 4’ deep x 2’ wide channel from the top end of the border and linked it into the newly re-opened stream at the lower end, using a laser to get a suitable grade. Into that main pipe they have installed drainage ‘fingers’ every 10’ or so where secondary pipes connect at 90’. The channels were back-filled with gravel then the loosened soil. We are watching it over the winter to see if any adjustments need to be made but things are looking good. Water is draining out of the pipe into the stream but it is also seeping out of the gravel itself, which is acting like a dry well. Next spring we will bring in some good topsoil and start to plant our garden!

So how does this help you apart from making you smile? Assess the severity of any drainage problems you may  encounter. A little sogginess here and there definitely gives you the opportunity to grow water loving plants such as Astilbe and Japanese primroses. However if you feel like Noah looking out for dry land it may be time to get some help. Plus there aren’t many doves in Seattle…..

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Feed the birds

The English robin heralds the Christmas season

One of the first things we bought after moving here in 1996 was a bird identification book. We were fascinated by the many small songbirds but only recognized a few. I remember watching this large brown bird with a red chest strutting its stuff on the grass then laughing when I read that it was just an American Robin! (The English robin is small, cute and fluffy; trust the Americans to have to do everything bigger and better…).

The big brother! (American robin)

Birds bring life to a garden as they flit amongst the bushes and I always design gardens to include sources of food and shelter for them, especially during the winter. Bird feeders are wonderful and suet blocks can be used to attract woodpeckers which would otherwise only be seen on trees drilling for insects. However bird seed can also attract unwelcome visitors such as squirrels, rats and even bears (one local home owners association has banned bird feeders for this very reason) so I prefer to think of these as supplemental to providing natural foods.

We are all familiar with the idea of leaving the seed heads of ornamental grasses and perennials such as black-eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia sp) for the birds to enjoy, but in a small garden these can quickly become unsightly so may not be ideal. Here are a few ideas which can be adapted to our winter gardens ranging from containers to the larger, wilder landscape.

Barberries 'Helmond's pillar' & 'orange nugget' together with blue star juniper
form a great backbone for these containers year round  (my design)

Barberries – these thorny, mostly deciduous shrubs are available in shades of green, orange and gold as well as the more familiar purple. From 18” mounds to 5’ fountains you are sure to find a variety which works for and enhances your color scheme yet fits the space available. The thicket of branches provides good shelter and nesting habitat while robins, waxwings and juncos enjoy the small, shiny red berries.

Parney cotoneaster
There are many varieties of Cotoneaster from upright evergreen shrubs to deciduous groundcovers, but all have an abundance of red berries which last well into winter. Rock cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis) looks striking with its distinct herringbone branches splayed against a stone wall or boulder while the evergreen Parney cotoneaster (Cotoneaster lacteus) forms a 6’ loose fountain, laden with flowers in summer and clusters of red berries in winter. Finches, towhees and other fruit eating birds enjoy the berries, with robins considering those on the latter variety as pure caviar!

In larger, wilder landscapes the Pacific Northwest native Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor) is a useful shrub to transition from more cultivated areas to the woods beyond. It blooms profusely in summer with frothy white flowers and the twiggy growth provides songbirds with good cover. In winter insectivorous birds such as chickadees and the gymnastic bushtits forage for insects.

'Charity' Oregon grape
The evergreen Oregon grape ‘Charity’ (Mahonia x media) provides bold structure to the garden with glossy holly-like leaves and fragrant, bright yellow, shuttlecock shaped flowers in winter which the hummingbirds love. These are followed by rich purple berries in summer, providing food for robins, waxwings and towhees with juncos and sparrows enjoying those fruit which fall to the ground. This shrub adapts well to container culture, can be grown as a barrier or hedge or used as a specimen shrub, perhaps underplanted with a carpet of the yellow flowering winter aconite (Eranthis). These bulbs quickly naturalize and bring a welcome splash of color in January.

Many conifers provide seeds and fruit for evening grosbeak, nuthatches, pine siskin as well as shelter. Junipers are particularly favored and there are many species and varieties available from the low growing, richly hued ‘blue star’ (Juniperus squamata) to the columnar ‘blue arrow’ (J. virginiana) and vibrant ‘sea of gold’ (J. x pfitzeriana 'MonSan') which grows 3’ tall and 4’ wide. Blue star is especially effective in containers and looks wonderful when combined with purple and orange (see photo above) or burgundy and white.

To get more ideas on how to select and maintain plants that fulfill wildlife needs I recommend the book ‘Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest by Russell Link which discusses everything from stewardship for wildlife habitat, to attracting butterflies and creating hedgerows.

Get out your binoculars and enjoy your winter companions.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Holiday containers

Just a few accents make all the difference

Whoever wrote "Deck the halls with boughs of holly.." must have overlooked the fact that there are also gifts to buy, truckloads of cookies to bake and a never ending stream of visitors at this time of year! As much as we all love the holiday season this extensive 'to do' list can seem a little overwhelming. However, in just a few minutes you can create a simple seasonal container to welcome your guests in style; and you probably have everything you need already at home.
Euphorbia 'Glacier Blue' looks festive with
berries and curly willow branches

Keep things simple. Just one or two key evergreen plants may be all that you need; after that you can cheat! A beautiful variegated holly can stay in a large container all year long and be dressed up according to the season. I simply add cut boughs of evergreens from around the garden such as arborvitae, laurel, box honeysuckle, leucothoe, boxwood and threadleaf false cypress in varying shade of green, supplemented by pine and juniper branches purchased at a local nursery. Push the stems into the soil, water well, and the cut branches will look fabulous for weeks.

Dwarf conifers, Euphorbias (spurge) and variegated Pieris (andromeda) can also serve as the focal point with curly willow or colorful dogwood twigs adding temporary height if needed. The aim is to create a lush look overflowing with assorted evergreens in a variety of colors and textures.

Accents in red and silver tied into the clients
interior holiday decorating colors.

Accent the arrangement with pine cones and decorative berried branches. Even artificial berries can be used but don’t do what I did; I used plastic coated berries in an exposed container which received direct rain. The next morning there was a trail of red sludge winding its way down my path. The coloring had washed off and it looked as though I had murdered the plants! Keep ‘indoor’ berries for protected porches!

For the finishing touch, I like to nestle large glass baubles into the foliage in colors which complement any nearby holiday decorations such as door wreaths. Wired ribbon bows, tiny bells, and other seasonal accents can also be added, according to your container location.

Cyclamen need to be in a protected area.
If you prefer a simple, monochromatic look try a silver and white color scheme highlighting the beautiful bold foliage of cyclamen. These will give a stunning display in sheltered areas until the first hard frost. If you ‘plant’ the cyclamen still in their pots, they can be quickly removed and replaced with something else when they finish blooming.

So celebrate the holidays and welcome your guests with simple, well designed containers which still leave you plenty of time to enjoy the season.

(This article has been adapted from one which I originally wrote for the Washington State Nursery and Landscape association in 2009)