Three Northwest Garden tours, thousands of plants, four favorites: Peruvian Lily, a red-hot poker, horned champion, and Embothrium coccineum

Three tours, more than a dozen gardens, thousands of plants: That’s been my life for the past month. And it didn’t once rain. I’m a bit overstimulated, but in the best of ways. So many plants are dancing in my head, I’ve been making a list. On top are four from Phil Thornburg’s garden. Phil owns Winterbloom design firm (503-598-0219, www.winterbloominc.com) and is, obviously, a collector. It took me two seconds — just long enough to glance into the garden and see Embothrium coccineum  in full, fiery bloom — to know that. It was a mouth-gaping experience.

Read the rest of the article HERE

Creating an outdoor room

An outdoor room does not require a lot of space. It simply needs to seem like a special place. Here are eight ways to create that sensation:

  1. Different levels: A higher and lower area either in a deck or in the ground, defines two rooms. A different level on a deck, for instance, can separate a smaller more intimate area for a hot tub, away from the larger part of the deck used for group entertaining. Raised beds or terraces with walls also create separations between spaces.
  2. Shrubs set in patterns: Any shrubs or collection of tall perennials and grasses can create a wall and/or privacy between spaces. Sheared neatly trimmed linear hedges create a more formal feeling for a space. Lightly trimmed softer spreading hedges or simply plants in a row which are not sheared make a room feel more informal.
  3. Fencing materials: Solid fencing creates more privacy. Open fencing or short fencing, defines a space or room without completely enclosing it.
  4. Small structures: Benches, arbors and paths all can define a space. For instance, a path leading to a bench tucked into a flowerbed creates a small but private space. A simple arbor can define an entry to a whole new room.
  5. Large structures: A gazebo is an instant room in itself. Decks and patios can provide multiple spaces or rooms for cooking, entertaining, or relaxing. It is most often practical to keep structures, near or against the house. This makes it feel like an outdoor room of the house. On the other hand, separating defined spaces begins creating a whole new experience.
  6. Outdoor ceilings: pergolas or awnings provide a protected space to relax and sit for a while. A tree provides the same feeling.
  7. Corners: By creating corners in a path or around the side of the house, new rooms unfold. By adding a spot to linger you can suddenly add a new view to an existing room or create a whole new room.
  8. Color, fragrance, plant or plant composition as focal point, music, art: By adding some, or all, of these elements you can add to a room’s décor, furnish it, or possibly create a new portion to the room itself. These will add the unique or finishing touches to your room. Try not to overdo art or focal points. One piece of art might be wonderful but a row of them, (dwarves for instance) might send you straight to a children’s amusement park.

Mulch, Schmultz

Recently I walked with two clients while discussing their harshly sterile, bare, sloping, side yard; where soil was eroding down onto the public sidewalk. It was slippery and muddy and very unattractive.

One of them brought up the idea of a nice boulder retaining wall set next to the sidewalk, which would help to hold back the soil.

The other remarked “But that would cost a lot of money and we are not ready to spend that right now, even though it might solve a lot of the problem with our sloping, ugly, side yard and would look good to the neighbors.”

The slope was not so steep that it would not be walkable, and they could have installed a lawn to hold the soil back from washing onto the sidewalk. However, they did not want to plant grass. The idea of mowing a sloping side lawn, which they would not use, did not appeal to them. I suggested a much less expensive option of placing a two to three-inch layer of bark mulch on the bare soil.

They wondered what I meant by mulch.

Mulch is any material placed on the ground which, when spread around in a fairly uniform layer, will insulate, protect or enrich the soil. Examples of mulch are: leaves, tree bark, compost, shredded paper, wood chips, wood shavings, shredded cardboard or nut hulls/shells.

Here are some examples:

Compost mulch will enrich the soil by feeding its resident population of micro flora and fauna; preventing the bare soil from eroding; helping to retain moisture in the dry periods; and suffocating weeds. It is a temporary fix however, because most good compost will be quickly broken down and eaten by the micro flora and fauna. Its nutritional benefits will then be available to the roots of the plants underground, but the erosion protection, the retention of moisture and particularly the positive effect of the weed suffocation will be gone very quickly. It is a common mulch used around plants with a final layer of bark mulch placed on top.

Leaf mulch is as you may guess, a collection of fall leaves that will quite possibly last the winter and into early spring. They will provide erosion protection during the rainy season and if they last long enough into the early part of the dry season, provide moisture retention as well. However, leaf mulch is also generally temporary. Shredded fall leaves or thinly placed grass clippings are excellent as far as nutrition goes, but have an even shorter life span for the other functions wanted from mulch, as this product is the most delicious to micro flora and fauna.

Straw mulch/hay mulch is occasionally available as an option. It is moderately slow to break down, but it carries many, many seeds. Therefore, it might best be used in a large commercial setting where there is a large expanse of soil that needs to be protected from erosion, but the owner is not picky about every kind of meadow plant imaginable germinating everywhere. This is not a product ever recommended for suburban planting beds.

Bark mulch can be excellent on all accounts and comes in various colors, grind sizes and tree types.

  • The most common type is fresh Douglas fir. It is reddish in color and slow to break down. It is the least expensive of the bark products. The micro flora and fauna must work hard to break it down and, as they do, they extract nitrogen from the air and soil. That’s why, with this type of bark, you’ll need to use a fertilizer with nitrogen to keep your plant leaves from yellowing. Another negative aspect of Douglas fir bark is its tendency to be splintery. Dark fir bark has less splinters and is a dark blackish red. This is so because it is already partially broken down and not fresh. Therefore, it does not rob as much nitrogen from the soil, but of course it also does not last as long.
  • Bark nuggets are usually derived from pine bark and provide the same results as red Doug fir bark but do not offer any splinters. Some people like this look, but one must place it rather thickly to provide good moisture retention during the dry season; as there are usually no smaller parts to create a sealing blanket, just bigger chunks. It is more expensive in the Willamette Valley, than the other bark products, since it is normally trucked in from eastern Oregon.
  • Hemlock bark, either fresh or dark is another option. It has almost no splinters. As in all bark products it can be found as fresh or dark, and in either a fine, medium or coarse “grind.” That means the average size of the material itself. Fine has a very smooth look on the ground but can wash or blow away, as well as break down more easily than the medium or the coarse. Medium is the most common as it has a mix of fine, medium and some coarse. Coarse grind appears very chunky on the surface of the soil but is the slowest to break down. Again, fresh hemlock breaks down more slowly than dark hemlock bark. Winterbloom’s most commonly requested mulch is medium dark hemlock, as it seems to have the best of all qualities. It is also the most expensive of all the bark products.

Nut hulls such as filbert (Hazelnut) shells, may be used as a mulch. in the Willamette Valley this is most available from filbert orchards or nut drying operations. It is a product that breaks down very slowly and is often used for paths as an organic option to crushed gravel. It has a coarse texture. A more expensive, but very fragrant and tempting product, is cocoa bean hulls. It has been found however, to be attractive, to dogs. As it can damage their intestines, it is now being discouraged as a mulch for dog owners.

Chips are a not uncommon mulch. It is coarsely chopped debris derived from tree or shrub removal. How long it lasts depends on whether it has a higher concentration of wood or of leaves. I have found that it is very similar in effect, but not look, to fresh fir bark. It does not have the fine splinters of fir but it also does not have fir’s nice uniform effect; rather a wild tousled appearance with many textures and sizes. Winterbloom generally uses this only to mulch natural areas or for woodland paths. We do not generally use it in suburban planting beds.

Cedar or wood shavings from a wood or lumber mill is another option for a mulch. It breaks down very slowly and is quite soft in function and appearance. It is often used as a surface for play areas as it is not splintery or rough. It is not used as a mulch in suburban planting beds.

Garden mulch from a recycle yard is also a common mulch that is very reasonably priced for planting beds. It is the ground and partially composted debris from city and suburban yards. It is black in color, has more of an odor than the bark products, but breaks down a little faster than the medium dark hemlock.

The composts, chips, garden mulch and all the types of bark may be blown onto planting beds. This is an easier way to spread the mulch versus using wheelbarrows, rakes, forks and shovels. It is also more economical than paying a landscaper to do the same task. Also, if you use a reputable company to blow on the mulch, they will generally clean up well and only the smallest, most fragile plants may be damaged or killed. These should be temporarily protected with overturned pots by you, the homeowner or designer.

The Snow is Gone: Now What?

The days after snow and ice have damaged plants, it is good to assess the situation.

Here is how I recommend doing your assessment: Plant triage!

  • Obviously, if a tree has partially fallen or has completely crashed and damaged your house and or property, you need to have it taken care of immediately! Call your insurance agent first and next hire a licensed, insured and bonded arborist to take care of it.
  • If a tree has come down and is blocking your driveway and has not actually damaged anything, and you cannot get an arborist to take care of it, you should cut it out of the way, and chop it up, or give Winterbloom a call to do it for you.
  • If a bush is leaning over a path or the driveway so that you cannot get by, you may prune it, but be judicious about it. You can cut back inside farther on the thicker branches. Be more cautious with the smaller branches.
  • If bushes are leaning over, or hanging in different directions from the snow and ice damage, and are not in the way of anything, please refrain from pruning them and wait to see how they will bud out in the spring. This is especially important if it is a spring bloomer such as rhododendron or camellia. You will want to do some aesthetic and/or corrective pruning after it blooms. If you are uncomfortable in doing this, call Winterbloom and we can come out and help you.
  • If you see some smaller bushes or perennials which are questionable in health or are damaged due to the ice and snow, do not prune them yet, but wait to see how they bud out, and at that time determine how much you should cut them back. An example of this is the fuchsia. In mild winters, they can rebud up on the stem and you will have a large full plant. Leaving them taller and waiting to cut them back until they bud out, will help you to plan how big of a plant that you want in that space. In cold winters, fuchsias may often come up only from the base of the plant and then also emerge later than usual. If you cut it back too far in anticipation of this, you may inadvertently damage the buds at the bottom or on the stem or you might forget that it was there if you cut it too short and think it a weed in the spring when it does decide to emerge!
  • Many perennials that are dormant in the winter and look ugly anyway, should be cut down to two inches tall. This can be done anytime that you do not have snow on the ground, so that you can see what you are doing, and not stomp all over the adjacent plants while you are pruning. Only prune when there is snow on the ground if it is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, either wait till the snow is gone or wait till you see buds and know what you need to do.

Winter Pruning: It’s All About the Timing

Take a serious look out your windows at your back yard landscape. What do you see? Are the perennials all shriveled and black looking? Are some bushes falling over on top of others?

When you drive into your driveway, what does the front yard and entry-way look like? Is there dead and brown-looking foliage? Are there bushes trying to obscure your windows or push you off the front walkway or sidewalk?

If you imagine tackling all of this in one day, you may feel overwhelmed. However, nothing much is going to grow out there until around March and even then, just a few things will be pushing buds.

So, start with what you see when you drive in the driveway and tackle a section of that when you have a block of time. Then do the other half the next opportunity. When the front is completed, tackle the back yard. Do all of this pruning a section at a time until it is done. Lastly, take on all of those plants that may need attention that you don’t see out your windows. By the time that you do all of this, it will be March and you will have accomplished your tasks!

Here is how you can do this.

  • Cut back the perennials that are brown and ugly and leave about one inch of stem. I simply chop the foliage into two inch pieces and leave them lying on the ground, but you may want to haul them off to the recycle bin.
  • Prune and thin the late season shrubs like Hydrangea and Crape Myrtle.
  • Avoid early spring bloomers like Flowering Quince, Lilac, Forsythia and Daphne, as you will be cutting off their bloom buds, which you are looking forward to seeing! Wait to prune them until right after they bloom and then you will be fitting into their life cycle.
  • Remember to wait on roses till February around President’s Day. If the roses are tall right now and the wind is catching them, cut them back about a 1/3, but in general, roses need to be as dormant as possible for serious pruning.
  • Do not shear any of your plants unless they have tiny leaves and you want a hedge type of look. (Shears are like big scissors). Normally one will prune everything with hand clippers or loppers.
  • If you have big overgrown plants which need rejuvenating, this is the time of the year to do that. (Rejuvenating means cutting back hard with a saw or loppers, so that new growth can occur in the spring). Please note that:
  • If you do it now, you will be looking at the brown stumps till spring, so you may want to take care of this project in March.
  • If you find that you need to regularly cut a plant back this hard, it is probably not located in the right place and should be removed. A new plant or plants should be chosen to take its place, which would be more suitable and manageable.

Approaching your pruning in this fashion at the beginning of January about guarantees that it will all be done by March!

How to Take the Stress Out of Maintaining Your Yard

We’re deep into the holiday season and no one seems to have the time to cut back the perennials, grasses or overgrown bushes while neatening up the beds. Of course, the heavy rains we’ve been having also contribute to our disinclination!

Our front yard, which is visible to us as we drive in, as well as to all our guests, needs to look trimmed and tidy for the Holiday season. That is a given. However, we have learned a trick to get through this time of year: We don’t stress about the entire rest of the yard, which cannot really be seen from inside, if at all.

After the first of the year, I take a hard look at the rest of the yard space. I imagine how many weekends I have ahead of me in order to tackle the work before February 15th. That magical date is the beginning of landscapers’ spring in western Oregon; when many sleepy tender perennials and bulbs are just tentatively extending buds out into the world. It is paramount that we trim and clean before they begin their quest. This gives us about 6 weekends!

I divide the yard up into these weekend chunks, tackling a section/weekend until it has all been completed. Doing it this way, I can usually get what needs to be done in a four-hour block of time each weekend, leaving the rest for other activities.

There is always an emotional letdown after the holidays and this task fills a portion of each weekend, allowing me to retrench and to reload emotionally. It is exercise for which I do not have to pay, without holiday advertisements or digital overloads. it is out in the fresh air and rain. All of these are excellent for my state of mind as I launch into the New Year!

It’s Fall: Gardeners, Get Out Your Pruners!

Let’s talk about pruning, which is accomplished with two main methods:

  • Shearing with a pair of shears. This is normally used with plants that need to be shaped on the outside to some form like a hedge or a topiary. It is best done with plants that have small leaves or tiny foliage to really look good.  Pruning in this fashion causes a plant to thicken up and have many points of growth. Lavender, heather, boxwood and sometimes evergreen azaleas are common examples of plants that respond well to this method of pruning.  Used indiscriminately, however, this can create the lollipop and gumdrop look that some people like and most people hate.
  • Trimming, or selectively or thinning. This type of pruning is accomplished with clippers for smaller branches, loppers for thicker branches or a saw for the biggest branches.  Trimming’s main function is to select out a branch or a twig and remove it to create more internal space. The best miniature example would be a Bonsai plant.  Others that can really look good with this kind of pruning are upright Japanese maples, rhododendron (but not until it is finished blooming in the spring), or a vine maple. Trimming is pruning from the inside out. Most plants would look their best using this method. Don’t let your enthusiasm get the better of you, however, and avoid pruning spring blooming plants, such as Rhodies or azaleas during the fall. If you cut off the buds now, you won’t have any glorious blooms come next spring.

In late fall, your pruning efforts should be spent on perennials that have just finished blooming, and certain types of shrubs, such as mop head hydrangeas. Clear away the brown foliage and any seed pods (think, Echinacea, or cone flowers), if the birds haven’t already done that for you.

Here’s how I shear my lavender this time of year:

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I’m Just Wild About Saffron…Crocus sativus, That Is

saffron-flowerThe Saffron Crocus, or Crocus sativus, is a fall-blooming lavender colored crocus, whose bloom contains a three-pronged red filamentous (thread-like) pistil. It is this red pistil that is used as an herb in so many great dishes. Probably the most famous use is in the Spanish dish, Paella.

Saffron Crocus grows well here in the northwest, and you can buy it as a dry bulb in most quality nurseries in the fall. If planted immediately, it may produce its first crop of flowers and provide you with saffron to eat in two to three weeks!

Saffron bulbs must be planted in well-drained soil where they can receive sunshine most of the day. In other words, they can grow in ugly gravelly soil, so long as they can bake on a hot day. What they don’t like is any form of shade. Their foliage will appear in the fall around the time of the blooms; stay evergreen all winter, and then turn brown and shrivel when it gets warm in the spring.

When they appear, carefully pull the three bright red pistils out of the flower and immediately place them in a small open container. Nimble fingers work best for this procedure.

Once you have finished harvesting the pistils, keep them in a dry warm place until they have completely shriveled to very fine threads. Then the red threads may be transferred into a dry sealed container such as a small Tupperware piece.

The bulbs produce many flowers. Rain or slugs can quickly damage or destroy the pistils in the field, so harvest them daily!

Click here for a Saffron Rice recipe:

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/24376/saffron-rice/?internalSource=staff%20pick&referringId=1151&referringContentType=recipe%20hub&clickId=cardslot%203

 

Let’s Talk Compost

I take compost very seriously. It’s a vital part of a sustainable landscape and in the larger picture of our world. Here are some questions I am often asked on the subject:

What is compost?

Compost is aged and broken down organic matter, which in general contains the major macronutrients and the micronutrients needed for healthy plants to grow.

What is the difference between fertilizer and compost?

Compost acts as a fertilizer but it is much more. Most people think of petrochemical products as fertilizer. Fresh manure is another type of fertilizer which has not been composted. It would burn the plants if used freshly laid.

Why is compost a good thing for my garden?

Compost acts chemically to feed the micro-flora and micro-fauna found in the soil naturally, which in turn feed the roots of your plants. The compost acts physically as a bit of a blanket against erosion and increases the ability for the soil to retain moisture, sort of like a sponge.

How do I make good compost?

There are many compost makers that can be purchased.  Generally, broken down plant parts and food parts compost better if oxygen is incorporated into the process. This is why many composters have the ability to turn or move. In our case we simply layer the different kinds of compostable materials and occasionally thrust in a pitch fork to oxygenate the composting process.

Here is a picture of Winterbloom’s composter:

compost bins

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do you have three bins for your compost?

The bin covered with the blue tarp is the bin that was filled last year. The tarp keeps it protected from the rain in the winter and the sun in the summer. The middle bin is the one that we are filling with compostable materials, such as garden clippings. The far right bin is the last year’s finished compost. That’s what we’re using right now for new plantings or to spread on our garden.

Biochar: A Hotel for Fertilizer and Moisture

7-22-2013 Phil in Biochar veggie garden 007Although it looks like powder to the human eye, Biochar is really extremely tiny honeycombed charcoal briquettes.  It is made from waste wood and agricultural products and is used as a soil amendment.

Its value for the home gardener is that it retains moisture and fertilizer in the soil. I mix it in at the same time as I am working in fertilizer. The Biochar “hosts” these vital nutrients until my plants are ready to use them. It has a neutral pH and I can store bags of it easily.

The larger picture is that Biochar, also called “dark earth,” “soil carbon,” or “terra preta,” is considered by some as another potential tool to help combat climate change. It is made by burning organic crop, wood, and yard wastes, or manures, at very high temperatures and allowing it to decompose in the absence of oxygen, a process known as pyrolysis.

This ancient soil-building method creates humus-rich soil that stores large amounts of carbon that might otherwise be released into the atmosphere. It’s also good for your garden!

If you’re interested in learning a lot more about Biochar, I refer you to the book, Terra Preta: How the World’s Most Fertile Soil Can Help Reverse Climate Change and Reduce World Hunger, Ute Scheub and her co-authors are among those who believe that increasing the humus content of soils worldwide by 10 percent within the next 50 years could reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to pre-industrial levels.