Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cheapskate Gardening

Urban retail nurseries can and will charge you an arm and a leg for perennials, shrubs and trees. Yes, the quality is usually good, yes the convenience is there, and yes your husband will look at you with squinty eyes when you tell him you spent how much on a what? Here are some ways to avoid dirty looks:

Check out Home Depot and other cheap places first: Listen before you roll your eyes. Just like you can find some awesome designer jeans for cheap at vintage shops and discount stores, you can sometimes find some decent plants at these stores. For instance, if you just have a basic need for some basic plantings you can often find them. You won't find the latest two-headed daisy hybrid, but you might find some nice plain old dogwood trees, boxwood hedges, arbor vitae etc for a lot cheaper than Gert and Louie's very expensive local nursery.

Take a Saturday drive: The further you get out of town the cheaper the nursery stock often. You may even convince some nice wholesaler to sell you twenty hostas if you take the initiative-although don't be a pest about this. Some wholesalers have hard and fast rules. A lot of nurseries don't really market themselves but they have nice stock if you come to them. Plus, who doesn't like a nice drive in the country?

Think before you buy: Don't go the store without some idea of what you want to buy. Control yourself! I like to do "drivebys" before I purchase. Sometimes you find a lot of plants in Sunset magazine that aren't exactly available or what you were looking for once you get to the nursery. Save yourself some heartache and plan based on availabilty. If you have trouble making decisions this will limit your decision making process and therefore make it easier to choose.

Remember that your plant will grow: Not to assume that you don't know this, but ask yourself if you really need five daphnes. Save some money and realize that if you plant well and fertilize one or two plants will eventually cover the view of your neighbor's rusted out Camero.

Hunting for plants if fun-esp when you find a bargain-you'll feel like you've hit the jackpot!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Grow your own Herbal Tea Garden

One of my first gardening ventures included growing herbs-mostly the legal kind-back in the early nineties when Beavis and Butthead graced the airwaves and you couldn't turn a corner without seeing those hideous Mexican Baja hoodies on some guy with shoulder length hair playing hacky sack...

Probably the reason I started out growing herbs is because they're easy and they suffer neglect like a lovelorn middle school boy. Plus, they're just happy little plants that add delicate cheer and are mostly bug/disease resistant.

Select a sunny spot in the garden (mints can do part sun), amend the soil and get some little starts in. Of course you can grow from seed too if you're one of those patient people. You will want to keep any mints in a separate container-it does spread like crazy. Lemon balm can become a nuisance as well. Keep it from flowering and therefore seeding by snipping off the flowers. Here's what I like to grow for medicinal and tasty teas:

German Chamomile: Smells like teen spirit. Okay, no, it actually smells a little like apple and you can mix chamomile with just about anything. Make sure you get the German kind and not the wild chamomile that smells like an old dog. Chamomile is a great calming tea and it settles the stomach. Drink it first before you pop that Gas X.

Lavender: Lavender is good with chamomile and mint and a little bit of sugar. It's more versatile than people think and it looks and smells great as a dessert topper as well. We're talking about the flowers here, not the leaves.

Peppermint: Peppermint is probably the best for tea, but there a gazillion mints that just smell so yummy-chocolate mint, spearmint, etc. Get the ones you like but grow them in a container.

Lemon Verbena and Lemon Balm: Both are lemony-the verbena I think is a prettier plant and easier to control. Or do both. Great with mints.

Echinacea: Not the tastiest plant but it's so darn pretty and usually easy to grow. Make a tea from the leaves or the whole darn stem and flower when you feel a tickle in your throat.

Bergamot (Monarda Didyma): Pretty flowers that attract bees-you can toss the flowers or leaves in a salad or a make a tea with them. Make sure the leaves are young and tender-

Stevia: I haven't actually grown stevia myself since I like to sweeten things with honey. It tastes pretty good, (it ain't sugar) and if you're looking to cut down on your sugar I'd recommend this plant over those nasty sugar substitutes that taste like something that should be poured into your radiator.

These are just some suggestions, there are lots of herbs you can grow for tea. Make the most of your money and get into the habit of snipping them and drying them. If you really want to hippie out, buy some little teabags, make your own dried tea blends and give them to your friends...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Incorporating native plants into your garden

The best thing about bringing native plants into your yard is what they bring in turn: birds and beneficial insects and easy to maintain, simple beauty. Most of us aren't creating an entire
native garden in our yard (if you are good for you) but we can incorporate them into our existing yard. For the most part you aren't going to go wrong with natives, but make sure you are aware of a few things before you go running to the nursery. That's right. Buy them at the nursery. Don't go digging up native columbine along the side of the road unless you want to get dirty looks from native Oregonians.

Get educated on how large your plants can grow and how wide they can get without pruning. A lot of natives like salal and others can grow into a thicket and while the birds might appreciate it your neighbors might not.

Practice delayed gratification. I would suggest picking a native that works best in your yard rather than selecting one that you have focused on for some insane reason. Use the right plant, right place mentality rather than "I have to have this plant and I have to have it now!"

Plant natives so that they make sense. You may not want to plant a native next to your formal hybrid tea garden surrounded by squared off boxwoods. Most natives have a less formal look and some are just downright rangy. I would recommended planting them near informal perennials and large rambling plants like roses and honeysuckle, or on their own in a neglected corner that you can now call your native garden!

Check out the link below and get a better idea of what it means to go native:

The Backyard Revolution - National Wildlife Federation

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Another annoying Californian invader

Every year a new monster emerges in the gardening world whether it's a new pest or a new invasive weed. This year: Drosophila Suzukii, aka, Asian fruit fly.

Before you Californians get your pansies in a bunch, I do realize you didn't concoct this berry destroyer in your lab. It is indeed from Asia even though it made its way up here last year from California. Don't know how it got here, but it's here and it doesn't look pretty for our cherished Oregon cherries, berries and peaches.

What makes this fruit fly different and more threatening is that it's attracted to ripe and ripening fruit rather than rotting fruit and your un-rinsed beer bottles. It likes to lay its heathen spawn eggs into a healthy ripening berry so that when they hatch they don't have to get up off from the couch and walk to the kitchen for a snack. Imagine, being born into your fridge, or better yet, the deep fryer at McDonald's.

Time to freak out? Only if you make a living selling fruit...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Why Divide?

Dividing your perennials is one of those gardening tasks that beginners often overlook-if the plant's already in the ground, why should I dig it up?

For a variety of reasons. After years of growing in the same spot, some perennials can get overcrowded, compacted, lose blooms, and suffer from a combination of ennui and restless leg syndrome. You would too if you couldn't move for ten years.

I admit, I'm a little lazy when it comes to dividing perennials, but they'll reward you more often than not with fuller, brighter foliage and blooms. It's also a good time to weed that grass out from your daisy patch and it's actually easier than you think.

Here's what you do: Dig up the clump with a shovel or fork (a fork will cause less damage, but I'm tall and I find them a little difficult to use). Get a knife or a hori hori (everyone should have a hori hori anyway) and cut the clump in half so that it's more manageable. From there, cut it into as many different clumps as you want. Shake the soil out, pull out any dead, pull out weeds.

Replant the divisions so that they are several inches apart. If you're going to give them away and not plant them immediately stick them in a pot with some soil and keep them watered. Or better yet, take some to your cute new neighbor next door as a welcoming gift. (Just be sure you aren't harboring any nasty weeds if you want to make a new friend).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Grow a Salad Bar

Salad Bar gardens are all the rage and rightly so-they're easy and fun.

Growing them from seed is cheap and pretty simple. First, decide on your greens.

I'd recommend getting a fair amount of leaf lettuce and then adding some of those bitter, peppery fellows like mustard greens, watercress, arugula, endive. Try your luck with some spinach if you like and also some parsley, chives, cilantro and basil a little later in the season when it warms up. I love having a nice, big parsley plant-it's so easy and you can use it almost every day.

It might be easier to control slugs and snails if you grow your tender greens in containers or in a raised box but you can put them in the ground. Make sure the soil has good drainage. Don't go nuts with the fertilizer-if you use any.

You can start thinning (and eating) your salad greens after they grow a few inches. Let them grow between 4 and 6 inches before you truly start harvesting them and then cut them down again to about an inch and let them grow again. You can harvest them a few more times but you can also sow some more seeds at this point to ensure a nice, new tasty harvest. If your leaves start to taste bitter the plant is getting too mature. Have fun!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Avoiding gardens that look insane...

I encourage first time gardeners to just get out and start fussing around in the yard. The problem with this approach is that if you don't have a "master plan" for your garden, you can end up having a weird looking hodge podge of a yard that looks like it was designed by someone with a mental disorder.

Here is where I feel I should make something clear. This is your yard and I think that if you're okay with a half-built water feature in the middle of your yard that looks like it just landed from space then fine. But why not work from a plan?

Sit down with a designer and create a plan that can be implemented over a few years. For instance, phase one might include the removal of all things nasty and annoying and the planting of trees and shrubs--get those in first since they'll take a longer time to get established. Phase two might include getting that retaining wall, or patio built. Phase three may contain the rest of the perennials. This way your gardening is still staggered, but at least your working towards a common goal where at the end of phase 3 things are coming together and making sense. It will look as if a sane person designed your yard.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Rainy day gardening

Yes, it's raining. It's Portland, it's spring and it's raining. Get over it.

There are plenty of rainy day gardening activities if you are too much of a chicken to go outside and cluck around your yard.

Like what? People tell me that they can't weed or plant when it's raining out. Well, if every gardener waited for perfect weather they'd have to move into a bio-dome.

Here's what I think. (And guess what? You don't have to agree with me.) Go ahead and plant and weed in the rain-here's a novel idea. Use common sense. If it's pouring out and the ground is soaking wet and your knees are half way to China, probably not such a good idea to plant. But if it's a regular rainy day in Oregon, go ahead. Make sure you still amend the soil. You almost always want to amend the heavy clay soil we have in the Portland area. And dig big, wide holes-especially for larger shrubs and trees. (Yes, leave the burlap on the tree. Loosen it if it makes you feel better). The people who tell you not to plant in the rain are largely people not from the Pacific Northwest and people who have pyschological problems. (Yes, that's a joke-its Friday, okay? I'm feeling punchy). It's not that they're dumb, it's just that planting in the rain in Wisconsin or Missouri makes less sense because usually when it rains there it pours and it can displace or drown your new plantings or get you electrocuted. Again, use common sense. If the ground is mushy and slick and you can barely stand, wait a day or two for the soil to dry up a bit. Falling on one's ass is funny when your landscaping boss does it, less so than when you do it.

Here's what not to plant when the soil is really wet. Seeds, seedlings, new veggie starts. Heavy wet soil can become compacted and act like cement so that it's difficult for the new roots to expand and get air. If you just have no other time in your busy, busy life, than plant in the dead of night. (Just kidding, but it'd be fun to see). Go ahead and plant, but try not plod around like Frankenstein. Find a two-by-four and get your weight on that. At least try and use the same foot path away from the planting area.

And don't forget to don that impossibly silly yellow fisherman's hat so that you are more likely to be seen by your spouse when they return home and find nothing but your head sticking up next to a freshly planted row of begonias...Corny, yes. What of it!

Here are some things you can do while it's pouring out. Prune your little heart out. You'll get wet, true, it won't kill you. Prune that rhodie and that camelia in the front that are about to eat your porch. Hang out under the eaves when it starts to hail. It'll pass, you don't have to go running for the bomb shelter.

If you're a delicate creature, stay inside and sow some seeds in your new little seed kit that you just bought at Freddie's. Go to home depot and buy some wood and construct a little house for bumblebees. Or better yet, clean out that mysteriously filled Tupperware in the back of your fridge...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Out damn weed

This is the time of year when my family's garden looks the cleanest-right after a complete spring weeding and pruning session and topped off with a nice fresh layer of compost. If only it would last...

Underneath this pleasant exterior lurks a devilish invader-bindweed. I can't remember a time when this weed was not plaguing the garden with its tricky vines and deep roots.

I've decided that we're pretty much stuck with it, but I do manage to control it by pulling it out wherever I see it. Unless you want to dig up your entire bed, you better get used to it like an annoying neighbor you'd love to see pack up and move the heck away.

There's lots of advice out there, but there is no magic cure. The best and most realistic way to deal with invasive species is to control them and limit their damage. I use my hori hori or a garden fork and just pull it out when I see it. I know that this can break it up and start new baby demon sprouts but it also can weaken the entire plant and slow its growth.

Some gardeners simply snip it down the ground (in an effort to weaken the plant) whenever you see it pushing out of the ground. I've tried this and it works as long as you can do this practically constantly. You can spray it with Round up but you have to wait until it's flowering and I just can't let it sit around that long, taunting and teasing me with its tendrils.

The good news is that after about eight years of ripping it out it does seem to have slowed (or at least it has in my imagination). At the very least, it's not gotten worse-which in my world-I consider a success!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bad Kitty

There are a lot of products on the market for getting cats out of your yard-or at least for repelling them. I'm not sure how many of them work so I would suggest saving your money and using things around the house first.

Know your beast: Is this your cat or your neighbor's old crusty tom. You may not want to use certain items unless you know the cat. For instance, my ultra-high maintenance cat has asthma and is sensitive to the volatile oils in citrus or lemon products and peels that can trigger an attack. I'd be pretty pissed if I caught my neighbor chasing him around with vinegar spray and lemons. (He's indoors now in his dotage anyway, but he was quite the goldfinch killer in his heyday).

I haven't used scent deterrents much, but it's cheap and it might work it you keep updating the scent on a weekly basis. But in Portland, the rain might just wash it away constantly.

I have had success with mulches like cocoa mulch for certain areas. The kitty's fussy paws don't like the feel of the sharp edges underfoot (nor do slugs). Some say dogs are attracted to this and will eat it but I say that's one pretty dumb dog. Never hurts to try out a small area before you buy a truck load of it. And yes, it does smell like chocolate while it's fresh.

The main problem I encounter with cats is that they seem to know how to find your favorite perennial grass and chew the tender young shoots before the plant can really get going. A client with China Love Grass found that the grass was mysteriously chewed at every morning. I finally got smart after finding that spraying soap on the grass did nothing. I spent a few dollars at the store buying bamboo stakes and some plastic mesh (usually used for birds and squirrels) and I created a square shaped barrier so that the cat couldn't get at most of the plant. It worked and it was not an eyesore either. After the grass grew to a certain stage I removed the barrier and let the cat chew here and there-it was full enough that it wouldn't cause damage. Just a few telltale chew marks. My kitty loves chives. I will set out tender wheat grass for him and he will go straight for the chives unless I put them up out of his reach. But he has sophisticated tastes.

Water spray is good for strange cats that lurk amongst your roses. Just keep a hose or squirt gun handy when you're out in your yard-usually the cat will get the hint or at least come around less frequently.

But what about when cats use your shade garden for more discreet matters. This can be tricky. Try scent deterrents, mulch, and water spray. If you don't mind the cat using one small area, make a litter box area for it so that it uses only one spot of the garden. Dig a hole and sink a litter box and fill it with sand. Ah, the things we do for our little four-legged beasts.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Take cover!

A bird? A plane? Golf balls from space?

Hail's a bitch. It's difficult to predict and it can screw up your tenders in a matter of seconds.
Last year it seemed to hail on a weekly basis in April. The gods are angry and they're taking it out on your tulips.

What to do? How to prepare?

Keep heavy plastic, tarps, containers, buckets handy. Cover your most prized possessions before you go to work if hail is in the forecast. Or not.

Now, I'm of the mind where I don't want to be a slave to the garden. I don't think you should have to pop a Xanex just because there a chance of hail. You'd be surprised how much a daffodil can actually take. So your primroses have some bruises. You don't throw the baby out with the bathwater do you?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Dog gone dog!

Having a dog in the city often means having a dog in your garden. Pretty soon you notice patches in the lawn, holes in the flower beds and a new little path running from the back door to the front that wasn't included in the design plans.

Before you send Rover back to the pound with a dead gladiola wrapped around its neck, think about ways to prioritize your yard. Is there an area you just absolutely don't want your little meatball messing around in? If so, focus on really protecting this area with a fence. You can spend as little or as much money on a fence as you like.

Plant your delicates and tenders in containers or hanging baskets. Plant up and away from the dog. Buy garden pouches and attach them to a nice sunny wall or that fence you just built.

Delineate an area for the dog where it is okay to dig and make a mess. Train the dog to use this spot and not others by making it a nice space for the animal to relax-a shady spot, a grassy spot, a nice place to dig. There's nothing wrong with giving animals boundaries-in fact, they like it.

It's difficult to keep a lawn looking nice when you have a big dog. Consider taking some of the lawn out and building a stone patio.

Train it! Or call a trainer who can come to your yard and give you hands on/site specific advice.

Spend some money on training and you could save money in the future replacing dead plants and redoing landscaping.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Easy Rose Pruning

When I first started pruning I approached roses as if they were fragile glass creatures. They are not. Look at the plant. It's stiff and it's thorny and it's hard to kill. Pruning them incorrectly will not be the end of them-usually.

Hybrid tea roses can be pruned hard and way down (unless you like a softer, taller look). The most important thing, I think, is to use sharp pruners (so that you make nice clean cuts) and get any diseased, old, damaged canes cut and removed. These canes can carry diseases. Clean up the area so that the base of the rose had plenty of air circulation. Keeping roses well-groomed keeps them healthier.

So, where to cut?
I still try and make the cut above any outward facing bud. I make the cut at an angle so that the high part of the cut is just about the bud. If you like short stubby plants you can prune the plant low so that you have a flush of new growth at about the same height. I like hybrid teas to look a little tall so that the flowers bow a little in the wind (I think they look more romantic this way) so I prune them higher sometimes. Again, it's what you like. I like to fuss and prune so I never do hatchet jobs on most of my plants. I like to give them haircuts throughout the season but I'm a fuss budget and a control freak. If you don't have the time to fuss it's entirely okay to do a hatchet job as long as you know the plant can take it. (More modern roses can. The old shrub roses might resent you-they're old fashioned you know).

More on other roses later...

Thursday, March 4, 2010

March gardening tips

It's early March and it's been a pretty mild winter in Portland. I'm thinking the slugs are going to rampage this year. But that's a pretty negative way to begin this post now isn't it? I tend not to get too caught up with pests unless they're really going nuts on your business. But that's for later.

What to do in early March?

Finish any rose pruning. Cut back the dead, brown stuff. Now rake up that debris that's been sitting around your plants all winter and throw it in your yard debris bin. This debris can harbor insects and diseases. I like to make sure any diseased rose leaves are taken out of the yard-don't put them in the compost. They can carry fungal nasties like black spot.

Do a thorough spring weeding before the weeds really start to grow. A really good fall weeding and a good spring weeding go a long way.

Throw some compost down in your beds. Buy some bags of planting compost and scatter it. Even better, get some compost in bulk. You can go pick it up yourself if you have a truck-this is the cheapest way to get it. Around Portland, one yard of compost is about $30 to $40 bucks. (One yard will fill the bed of a small pick up like mine). If you have it delivered it'll cost about twice that. Is is worth is? Yes. Good soil is a great investment. Besides, if you just buy bags all year it adds up quickly. 10$ for 3 cubic feet of soil is expensive and it's not that much.

Start seeds indoors if you're so inclined. Even if you aren't, this is a lot cheaper and more fun than being lazy and grabbing some expensive starts at the grocery store. Don't go nuts buying seeds! It can be tempting to buy a bunch of seed packages, but really do you need ten different varieties of tomatoes? Be selective. Invest in some grow light if you so desire.

Later this month you can start sowing veggies directly into the ground. It's still a bit cold now, so hold off I'd say until the end of the month. We're still getting pretty cold nights. Late March is a good time to plant root crops like onions and potatoes.

This should keep you busy for a couple of weeks. Remember working in the garden is a good time to think about the garden.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Manage your garden by organizing your mind

Hello gardener! It's barely March-a great time to start planting here in the Portland area. But before you rush to the nursery and allow yourself to become seduced by the smooth and glossy foliage of young plants take a few moments in your yard and think about what you would like to focus on for the year. Here are some general ideas that can help get you started.

Be realistic: How long do you think you'll be in your house? Do you rent or own? If you're thinking about moving next year then don't spend a lot of money in your garden. You can always plant in a container and then take that with you when you leave. You can always be growing something, somewhere. Even that dusty, dejected jade plant next to your X-box is a living, indoor garden. Don't cry because you can't afford a million dollar instant installation. Where's the fun in that anyway?

Prioritize: Spend a week or two thinking about the garden. You can actually do this at any time of year because you can get started at any time of year-however winter and early spring are ideal. Even fifteen minutes a day standing out in the yard will be a big help. But give yourself some time before you buy anything or call a professional because your ideas may change. Maybe when you wake up the next morning your three story chicken coop isn't such a great idea after all. Think about what you like and then figure out how to do this in a way that is realistic.

Start out small and be a cheapskate: Even the most experienced gardener can be overwhelmed by a new or neglected yard. Indoor starts from seed are cheap and fun. Even if you screw up you won't have lost that much money or time.

Use what is already going on in your garden. Focus on one area of the garden. Get it weeded properly and then amend the soil with planting compost. Then transplant that rhodie that is getting too much sun in its current location.

Trade plants with friends. (Just make sure you don't transplant nasty weeds into your garden. Shake out the roots and pull the suspects out. Don't be afraid. I think it's better if the transplants don't make the transistion than to allow a destructive invasive like blackberry, holly or bindweed into your garden). Work parties are fun and a great way to get your friends out of the bar and busy working in your yard!

Come up with a plan of attack: Decide what is important to you and what your style is. Are you more interested in aesthetics or are you more pragmatic? If you're more interested in having a garden that really looks good and suits your needs you'll need a more thoughtful plan than a gardener that is okay with a compost heap in front of their daisies and a giant pile of pulled weeds next to the stone squirrel menagerie.

Are you a do-it-yourselfer or do you need someone to do it for you? Again, be realistic. If you don't know what you're doing but you don't want to see piles of dirt and debris sitting around you may want to consider calling a designer or a consultant to at least get you going in the right direction. Spending a few hundred dollars for smart, site-specific advice and concepts can go a long way and save you hundreds more in the future. Plants aren't cheap-you want to keep them alive and thriving to get the most out of your investment. Books help, the internet helps, but nothing is going to be as helpful and talking with a real live person in your very own yard.

Chill out: Gardening isn't rocket science. Hopefully nothing is going to blow up if you screw up. Gardening is a process-nothing is static. You will learn as you go. Experiment and have fun.