Spring Reminders for Pacific Northwest Gardens

It’s sunny.  No, it’s hailing; never mind.  Actually, it’s beautiful outside, gotta run out and start some seeds.  Crud, it’s raining again. OK, I’ll work on my Spring ToDo list.  Which means adding three things to the bottom of the list as I cross of each one from the top.    I totally didn’t want this post to get away from me, but honestly, it’s like, number 53 on a list three pages long, so I’ll be brief:

Pin for Later: http://pin.it/ZfcQ5id

Early Spring in the Ornamental Garden | #eTilth

Top three things to do in the Pacific Northwest Spring Garden

  1.  Prune.

Seriously, what can be more satisfying than whacking at things?  You get big dramatic changes, and let in a lot of light, lifting your mood.

My first advice is to sharpen your tools.  I have an old pair of loppers that I keep wickedly sharp (and never let my husband use), as well as a couple of sizes of Felco hand-pruners.  I probably don’t need that many, but it’s really nice to leave one in the car for making some semi-hardwood cuttings (I mean, sidewalk pruning.)  I actually keep a file with my hand-pruners and sharpen them before every use.  The only time I bother to disinfect my pruners with 10% bleach is before and after I’m cutting something obviously diseased.

My second advice is to take a pruning class.  I’ve totally loved each of the University of Washington Botanic Garden Pro-Hort Master Pruning classes at the Center for Urban Horticulture [PDF], co-hosted by Plant Amnesty.  You can watch these free videos on YouTube to get specific pruning information on a variety of trees and shrubs, and it’s totally worth becoming a member.

So, in early spring,

  • Finish pruning your fruit trees,
  • Prune your roses
  • Take hardwood cuttings (Hydrangea, Willow, Dogwood, Holly, Vines )
  • Coppice your dogwoods (cornus) and willows (salix)
  • Prune your hardy evergreen hedges (Boxwood, Ilex, Osmanthus
  • Cut back the ornamental grasses (Miscanthus, Calamagrostis, bamboo) and maybe even your lawn, assuming you didn’t plant crocuses in it.
  • Cut back your hardy perennials and over-wintered geraniums to remove old foliage and let the fresh spring growth start.

2.  Manage Seedlings

My seed starting inspiration comes from:

  • NW Edible Life for Vegetables – Always well researched and entertaining.
  • Floret Flower Farm for Annual Flowers – put on a kettle; you’ll be drowning in colorful photographs for a while; so necessary to keep the winter blahs away.
  • Seattle Tilth’s Maritime Northwest Garden Guide, newly updated by my friend Lisa Taylor.  Her local knowledge and hands-on experience is tremendous.  The variety recommendations alone are worth the book.

Don’t forget to prevent new seeds.  Keep on top of the weeding now, especially that Cardamine hirsuta.  Fairly tasty, I prefer to feed this bittercress to the chickens (also known as chickweed; see A Charlotte Garden for the botanical differences.)

3.  Build Stuff

This year, I want to build a bunny hutch, an English cold frame with recycled bricks, more tuteurs, and a lot of new paving for our permeable driveway.  Ambitious?  Truly.  At least I’m not repairing the chicken coop again, right?

What are you doing this spring?

Late Winter Reminders for Pacific Northwest Gardens

I get frustrated with gardening books.  There are so many books and websites that target the beginning gardener, and plenty of obscure titles that target gardeners who geek out over a single genus.  The ones for advanced readers seem to need a degree or two to understand, while basic ones mainly copy and regurgitate other references already out there.  The first half has pretty pictures but no new techniques, and the last half of the book is a big fat encyclopedia that duplicates the information in all the other books I have.  There aren’t good one-stop-shopping resources for that middle-gardener.  Of course a book like that would be several inches thick.  Or cover a table-top.

A Partial Garden Book Library | #eTilth (c) Lynne Harrison

[Here’s my mom’s partial garden book library.  My library is only a fraction of this size. Thank goodness I get to borrow from this, with generous check-out privileges!]

I’m not likely to make a significant dent into the Gardening 2.0 literature, but I sure wish I had a calendar that kicked me in the butt to do the tasks that I’ve been neglecting.  My biggest problem is thinking ahead several months … if I want Dahlias in summer, I’ld better pull last year’s out of storage now.  I have to throw out the ones that didn’t make it, order more, and start forcing them for cuttings.  Hanging baskets this year?  Better order and start the seeds.  Crud, the apple trees are starting to swell, do I prune, or did I miss the pruning-window again this year?

I always panic a bit knowing that I’ve forgotten some essential task in the garden that just screws me for the rest of the year.

So, inspired by my friend Erica at Northwest Edible Life, here’s my attempt to solve that problem. Pin for later:

Late Winter in the Ornamental Garden | #eTilth


Membership Renewals

I try to renew all of my garden-related memberships at the start of the new year; it keeps the business record-keeping simple.  I tend to procrastinate over the three or four “Renew Now” notices and panic a bit when I get my “Final Issue” … did I send the check and it just crossed paths in the mail?  Here are my top recommendations for memberships:

Oh crap, did I order that?

Of course, all the best gardeners placed their orders in late fall and are sitting smugly, gloating over those lovely seed packets.  Right?  Problem is, plant lust kicks in and I just have to have that hot new thing.  Or that old-but-new thing you just have to try.  Matt Mattus, I blame you.

Friday Tidy

This is the mantra in the summer perennial border.  Spending one day a week trimming back plants and sweeping edges will do wonders.  It’s a little impractical to pick a day by the calendar in the winter; for sure it will be raining.  Instead, take those few dry hours whenever they occur to clean up.

  • Clean out the gutters and unclog storm grates.
  • Clean out your greenhouse (or polytunnel, or cold frame, or garage, or windowsill) to get ready for the growing season.  Wipe down surfaces, clean out old pots.  Prepare new potting soil.
  • Wipe down winter containers, and if you haven’t already, lift them up on pot-risers to ensure drainage.
  • Prune dead wood from fruit trees and shrubs.  Large-flowering Clematis blooms on 2nd year vines; check pruning guides from the experts.
  • Prune fruit trees, and ornamental deciduous shrubs.  Join Plant Amnesty for more guidance.
  • Trim off Hellebore leaves and burn them (or tie off and dispose of in the trash, not municipal waste); they harbor the botrytis fungus which will splash onto the flowers.
  • Replace tired flowers in your winter containers with cyclamen, pansies, and primroses.  You can even sink those narcissus and tulip bulbs you forgot to plant deep into the pot for some late-spring color.
  • Apply mulch to your garden beds … chicken-n-chips and steer manure will kick-start spring growth in perennial beds.  Use arborist chips under trees and shrubs, and on pathways.

Like we actually need an excuse to go plant shopping?

You can force Paperwhites, Hyacinths or Amaryllis for a late-winter pick-me-up.  Go shopping for winter-fragrance shrubs like Daphne bholua (the longest blooming daphne from late October through January), Sarcococca, and Hamamelis so you can choose them in bloom.  Don’t forget to drop in a few Primulas for a pop of color!

Primroses in spring | #eTilth

Dunn Gardens in Spring

There is much to write about since last we met; suffice to say that more will be forthcoming. In summary, the front lawn is gone, a new fence is built, the path is ripped out, but must be replaced before the Seattle Tilth Chicken Coop Tour in July, both the vegetable and cutting gardens have been sown, and a costume has been sewn for the Dunn Gardens Edwardian Garden Party in August.

I have barely enough time to take photos, but escaped on a rainy Sunday to visit the Dunn Gardens in March. Here are just a few for the Gardening Gone Wild Picture This photo contest, with no time to annotate now.  I still am not satisfied by the color balance; it’s a borrowed Nikon and it was raining.

[Update 6/13/15 – Yay, I won a photo contest!  It’s an honor to be appreciated by successful photographers.  See below for the winning image.]

An unusual and elegant color combination by Glenn and Charles
An unusual and elegant color combination by Glenn and Charles
Framed Pithos | #eTilth
Pithos framed for Saxon
A closer look
A closer look

Yay! I won a contest!  The above image, Erythronium with a pot, won the Gardening Gone Wild Spring Photo Contest 2015!

Erythronium detail
Erythronium detail

Understanding Soil Tests – Part 1

Two small scoops of soil showing the color difference.

A few years ago, I was obsessing over getting backyard chickens. “For the eggs, honey” I said. Really I meant, “for the poop.” But you can’t quite convince a skeptical spouse with that reasoning. Now that I’ve kept chickens for several years, I have been curious to see the effect of using the composted deep litter on my vegetable garden and compare my actively managed soil with my native soil.

Soil is surprisingly complex, so this article covers the basics of soil texture, pH and organic matter.  The second article covers macronutrients (NPK), secondary nutrients (S, Ca, Mg), and micronutrients (Zn, Fe, Cu, Mn, B, Mo, Cl), and information on how to adjust their amounts.

Farm Tips for Homeowners

This year, I’m taking an Extension Farm Class, and had a fantastic opportunity to learn how to test my soil. Although each farm was only allotted one sample in class, I discovered that King County gives each homeowner FIVE(!) free soils tests. Dig around on your county’s Conservation District website to see how to take and submit soil samples.

Shovel of soil with ruler


Ideally, take several 1” cores, about 6-12” deep, until you have about 2 cups of soil. You can use one of these fancy soil-samplers, but a shovel works just fine.  I dug a narrow slice of lawn from three separate sites in the front yard, knocked off the edges to make a 2″ x 2″ x 6″ core. I discarded the grass, mixed everything in a bucket, and sieved it through a ½” hardware-cloth screen to remove the worms and stones. I repeated the process in my vegetable garden, taking care to keep the samples separate.  I put each sample in a pyrex pie plate and gently dried them in the oven for a couple of hours … just barely warmed to 150oF or so. [Edit: I should have just air-dried these; heat can be detrimental to getting an accurate reading.] There was an obvious color difference between the greyish lawn sample and the dark vegetable garden sample. Then I packaged them in zip-lock bags, labelled, and mailed them off to two different testing laboratories, A & L Western Agricultural Laboratories (King County), and Soil Test Farm Consultants (Snohomish County).

Delightfully, the results came by email within a few days.

And they made no sense. Now what?

Picking Apart the Report

Interpreting your soil test results can be as dry as … well, dirt. But, let’s start with the basics:

Soil Texture:

There are three kinds of soil particles organized by size: Clay (less than 0.002 mm), Silt (0.002-0.05mm), and Sand (0.05-2mm), and the percentage of each of these makes up your Soil Texture. Well, actually, you’ll also have gravel. And sticks and twigs. And worms. And endless numbers of big-ass stones.

Your soil test probably won’t calculate these values for you, but you can put some of your screened soil (no worms, please) in a straight-sided jar with some water, shake and let settle. Then get out your ruler and measure the thickness of each layer. Do a little math, and you can figure out your soil type. The ideal texture for crops is a medium loam, about 20% Clay, 40% Silt and 40% Sand (see where the lines intersect in the chart below).

Triangle shaped graphic showing percent of clay, silt and sand

Ph-iguring out pH:

The next important item to understand is pH, which is a measure of how acidic your soil is (pH stands for ‘Potential Hydrogen’). Plants grow best when nutrients (chemical elements) in the soil are available for their growth. Nutrients are bound to soils or wash away, if the soil is too acidic or basic. The optimal range for most crops is a pH between 6 and 7.5.

Diagram showing pH ScaleMy soil tests came back with a pH of 4.6 in the lawn (acidic) and a pH of 6.4 (optimal) in the veg garden. Typically, if your soil is high in clay (small particles which hold onto many hydrogen atoms), or in a rainy climate (which washes away most of the other cations like Calcium and Magnesium), then your soil will be acidic. Since I live in the Pacific Northwest, this was no surprise.

Diagram of pH values in reportYou may also get a value for buffer pH, which is a laboratory-defined value based on how much the pH of the sample changed when they add a standard amount of lime to it.  Buffer pH may also be labelled SMP, named after the people who developed the test – Shoemaker, MacLean and Pratt.  This means that my lawn, with a buffer pH of 6.1, holds onto acidic particles much more strongly than my vegetable garden, with a buffer pH of 6.3.  It will take more lime, therefore, to change the pH of my lawn. Based on your soil type and the types of crops you want to grow, follow the recommended amounts in your lab report [See the OSU Soil Test Interpretation Guide].

table 10 from soil test interpretation guide showing how much lime to add per 1000 square feet

My lab, A & L, suggested that I add 180 lbs of Dolomitic Lime ( CaMg(CO3)2) per 1000 square feet to the front lawn. You could also add Agricultural Lime (CaCO3) which comes from chalky deposits high in calcium, but doesn’t contain as much magnesium. The ideal time to add lime is in the early Fall, but lime takes time to be incorporated so don’t add it all at once. Conveniently, my front lawn is exactly 1000 square feet; I’ll add 50 lbs next October, and the same again for two more years, testing each year to ensure I don’t over-apply it.

Note: if your soil is basic, you can add elemental sulfur to bring the pH down to neutral.  Clay-rich soils require more sulfur (40-50 lbs/1000 square feet) than sandy soils (10-20 lbs/1000 square feet)

Organic Matter:

The next part of the soil test report you should look at is percent organic matter. Typically, you should expect a Soil Organic Matter (SOM) percentage between 3-5%, but 2.5% is fine in sandy soils, and 10% is common in clay soils in cool, rainy climates. Organic matter provides a good reservoir of nutrients and increases the water-holding capacity of your soil. I got an okay reading of 5.1% for my lawn and a whopping 17.1% in the veg garden! Way to go, chickens!

Diagram comparing percent organic matterI should add, however, that it is okay for me to add organic matter to my vegetable garden because I am actively growing crops on this soil, and by definition, removing organic matter every time I harvest a head of lettuce. However, 17% is way too high for landscapes. A better way to manage my front yard is to top-dress permanent plantings (trees and shrubs) with wood-chip mulches which will decay nicely over time. You can read more about this topic by Linda Chalker-Scott on her Horticultural Myths, page, in the Soil Amendments section.

In the next article, you’ll learn about how to understand your macro- and micro-nutrient amounts and how to adjust them.  Until then, you can read how plants get nutrients out of the soils on my Hobby Farms Article.

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day – July 2014

Hi there, remember me?

Yeah, me neither.

Raised brick planter in the shadeI’ve been busy.  In a short span of two weeks I interviewed and got offered a job, and then spent the last two weeks of July commuting to a new job.  Had to find child care and find carpooling for previously paid-for summer camps at the last minute.

And then my camera broke.

So it’s been a while since I’ve been out taking pictures, playing in the garden, or doing anything resembling my previous routine.  But I’ve a few minutes to back-date some posts highlighting my garden, for once.

Usually, it’s a wreck.  I finally got enough courage to remove a lovely, but dying Daphne, and amend this sad, dry-shade bed with chicken-coop litter and add some drip irrigation.  And then I went shopping.  I’ve tried to choose things that, once established, will handle the excessive dry and the total western shade, but I’m afraid that these will all need some supplemental water.

  • Hosta sp.
  • Hakonechloa aureomarginata
  • Campanula
  • Heuchera ‘Obsidian’
  • Epimedium perralchicum ‘Frohnleiten’
  • Brunnera ‘Sea Heart’
  • Corydalis ochroleuca
  • Galium oderatum
  • Polygonatum geminiflorum
  • Asarum maximum ‘Ling Ling’
  • Epimedium sp. possibly sulphureum
  • Corydalis lutea
  • Acanthus mollis
  • Polygonatum curvistylum
  • Helleborus sp.
  • Epimedium ogisul
  • Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’

So, for today, I give you Asarum ‘Ling Ling’ a funny little ginger pollinated by ground beetles.  See where the flower is?

Black and white flower at ground level under broad glossy green leaf
Asarum ‘Ling Ling’


Foliage Follow-up

Oh, and I’m just not going to get to another post, so here’s the July Foliage Photo showing all of my dry-shade treasures.

mixed leaves


Baja Seattle

I look forward every year to the Hardy Plant Study Weekend, a total orgy of seminars, garden tours, and plant conversations.  This year it was held in Bellevue, WA with trips into Seattle and Whidbey Island, and I think I visited every garden, taking over 800 photos (oops!).  As I curate my images, I’ll give you all a brief tour of the gardens I visited.

Baja Warmth

The Old-Town Bellevue garden of Susie Marglin is jam-packed with things to see.  The influence of many trips to Baja, Mexico, is apparent with the warm stucco details, and exotic planting.  Despite the exotics like date-palms, and bananas, plants are well chosen to survive in our climate.  We were greeted with this wonderful stucco wall, draped with grape and clematis.

purple-tinged grape leaves against buff stucco wall
Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’

As always, we were greeted with details of lizards and geckos,

Narrow leaved 4- and 6-petaled clematis with white stamens
Clematis Niobe (?) with Lizard

Inside the wall, lushly painted, the courtyard had hot corners for the exotics, and cool flagstone path. It was just as much fun photographing photographers, nearly all of them using camera-phones and iPads.

Date Palm and Banana with Hakonechloa
Date Palm and Banana with Hakonechloa
two ladies taking photos of plants
Garden Visitors

Tropical Details

Everywhere, the stucco structures, seating areas and attention to detail evoke a sense of tropical Mexico warmth.  Notice the painted pillows that match the real ones.

Fountain with stucco seating
Fountain with stucco seating
Mexican tiles inset into stair risers with sedum
Tile Detail
Sedums trail from stone pillars
Sedums trail from stone pillars
Tillisandia spilling from a pocket in the post
Tillisandia spilling from a pocket in the post
spiky plants and bamboo posts in a jar with a stone lizard
Exotics spilling from the lizard jar

Cool Corners

Every hot garden needs some place to rest the eye.  I loved the cooling blues, both inside and out.

Blue Tile Fountain
Blue Tile Fountain
Stucco wall painted in shades of teal, purple and chartreuse, next to weathered wooden fence
Shadows on a painted wall
Dierama, possibly D. argyreum
Dierama, possibly D. argyreum
Dierama, possibly D. argyreum
Dierama, possibly D. argyreum
blue grass with purple lavender
Elymus magellanicus with Lavender

I’m a crappy gardener

Really.  You’ll see several posts on this theme.

Which is why I like Pam Pennick’s Foliage Followup, because sometimes, just sometimes, I do something right and plant green leaves next to other green leaves.

And, as if I meant to do it, they both are tinged with chartreuse.

crinkly leaved Alchemilla against smooth hosta leaves
Hosta ‘June’ with Alchemilla mollis




Homage to Christo – Bloom Day, June 2014

I can’t decide whether this goes into the Hall of Shame or if my neighbor is inadvertently channeling Christopher Lloyd, of Great Dixter. I pass this garden twice daily and think it is a garish, ill-designed mish-mash of color and concrete.  What a funny border of pots on a gravel walk just inside the wall.

flowers in pots all lined up inside a wall
Does this pot placement make sense to you?


Color Combinations

A charming eccentric gentleman, Mr. Lloyd was known for his passion for color and enthusiasm for gardening; he was not one to settle for a completed border and bravely ripped out established gardens to redesign and play with new combinations.  He wrote, in The Guardian,

I am associated with bright, harsh colours because I do not mind using them when the situation suggests they are needed.

But I don’t think this exposed, but shady corner of the garden warrants such excitement.  It surely makes the church-ladies swoon as they pass by.  ‘What will the neighbors think?’

Cat on wall in front of orange and yellow lilies and magenta peonies
Garden, with cat

To give her credit, everything is growing well and is lush and healthy. And, to compare, are the colors in this arrangement of pots by Mr. Lloyd really any different?


Finally, I leave you with this combination of lily and peony,

Dark yellow lily with orange speckles and deep magenta peony in the background

which reminds me of Mr. Lloyd and his sweaters.

Christopher Lloyd in red sweater vest with purple shirt
Christopher Lloyd


Then I turn around and cringe at my overgrown lawn with sickly 1950’s era foundation rhododendrons, in boring shades of pink and pink.

Who should talk, now?


[Link love back to May Dreams Gardens for the Garden Bloggers Bloom Day meme.]

On Business and Busyness

The past two months have been remarkably busy, but not necessarily productive.  I’ve been trying to keep the big picture in mind, but I have so many unfinished projects that it’s hard to make progress on any one thing.  It doesn’t help that the Big Picture is still a bit fuzzy.

We have a modest 1950s ranch house, that we’ve updated completely over the past 8 years – new roof, gutters, furnace (oil to natural-gas conversion), hot water (to an on-demand system), electrical (new panels and now a grid-tied solar system), new insulation, flooring, paint, bathroom, kitchen.  Some work we’ve hired out, some I’ve learned how to do.  Johan Le and David Horsley reworked their Portland bungalow over many years, saying,

House done, life over.

I don’t need the house to be “done” but I would like to turn my attention to more interesting things than constant construction.  I’m tired of playing ‘bedroom-Tetris’ as I remove poorly-chosen light-colored carpets and replace them with pet-proof wood.  Yet, an untimely knee injury has delayed the project by a month, and I’m getting frustrated by not being able to put things in their rightful places.

Poki helping to re-floor the bedroom
Poki helping to re-floor the bedroom

It seems that complaining about how busy you are is a national past-time.  “Busyness has acquired social status,” reporter Brigid Schulte noted.  I know you’re spending too much time on Facebook posting the minutia of your day, the meals you cook, the little-league games you attend.  Don’t get me wrong, those things are important, but we don’t need to document and share everything, unless you’re Samuel Pepys.

What should I be doing instead?  I’ve half-a-dozen ideas for books to write, articles to pursue, infographics I’m working on.  None of which particularly get me further on the path of a paying career.  At present, I’m daydreaming, inspired by Debra Prinzing’s Slow Flower movement, imagining starting a cut-flower farmlette business.  The tower of Market Gardening and Cut Flower Farming books teeters at my bedside, the minutia of how to grow, process, and price cut-flowers and planning succession crops with shrubs, bulbs, annuals and perennials fills my waking hours (especially those hours stuck in traffic driving both kids to school).

My to-do list now exceeds one page. I know now that I need to cross off anything extraneous, anything that doesn’t specifically color in one part of our Big Picture.  We’re too busy being swept along to school events (two different schools, sigh), to grocery stores (two different stores.  Seriously?  WTF?)  It’s time to be more Mustachian, to live more deliberately, to move the family purposefully down our chosen path, not be swept along by events scheduled by other people, or weighed down by self-imposed busy-work.  I’m sure our Big Picture will become more clear without the physical and mental clutter.  A dear friend of mine shed many possessions and moved her and her family to Belize for a year, to live more simply.  She explained, as does KJ Dell’Antonia,

I Refuse to Be Busy

Enough moping.  It’s time to get moving.  But only on tasks that matter.