Friday, April 30, 2010

Hydrangeas for one and all

If I had my way every garden would have at least one hydrangea. What's not to love? They're easy, pest and disease resistant, have great foliage, and they add quiet, elegant charm to shady areas.

In case you're thinking "how boring" and "ugh" as images of giant blue mop heads come to mind, consider that there are lots of hydrangeas that don't fit the old stereotype. The delicate flowers of the lace cap hydrangeas, the upright, crisp white clusters of the pee gees that nod in the breeze, the sturdy oak leafs whose leaves fade to lovely reds and oranges in the fall. And don't forget climbing hydrangeas for that bare spot in the shade garden that you want to cover with handsome flat white lace cap flowers. Many actually do well in sun provided they get a little break from direct afternoon rays come summer...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Removing sod for new garden beds

One of the most daunting gardening tasks is turning an area of lawn into a new bed. Well, it doesn't have to be it you think in steps and approach your task methodically. Here are my suggestions:

Dig it out: This is how I've always done it. Get a sharp spade or a sharp shovel (dull tools=hell), cut out the shape of the bed (the fun part) and then dig it out. You may want to cut the sod into strips so that it comes up easier. Make sure the ground is nice and moist when you do this (if it's summer, soak it first) and make sure you get all the roots up. Early spring is a great time of year to do this. Have your teenage kid haul it away when your done or start a compost pile with it.

Till it: I would only recommend this if you're doing a large area. Also, don't bother with those little rinky dink tillers-they just aren't heavy enough to do the job-your shovel works better than they do. Again, water the area before your till it-esp if you have compact clay soil. Till until all the grass roots are destroyed. Rake as you go to remove clumps.

Smother the crap out of it: This seems popular with do-it-your-selfers, however most landscapers would not recommend this method-why? It takes too long. You're going to have to plan for next year's beds. Start in the summer by laying down cardboard or newspaper over the area of lawn you want out and then shovel some mulch, compost, grass clippings over the newpapers. Water it and keep it there for several months until the grass has died and the cardboard turns to mulch. I generally don't recommend this method because it's unsightly and not professional, but it does work if done right. Also, by smothering, you can kill not only grass but beneficial microbes in the soil. However, if you have a bad back, go for it.

Poison! Most lawn killers will do the trick quickly and effectively without turning your yard into a toxic waste dump. (Use boiling water or a vinegar/water solution if you want to stay away from harsher chemicals.) Follow the directions on the container, spray, wait a few days-dead lawn. Once the grass is dead and the herbicide has dried it's pretty much rendered harmless. You will need to still dig out the dead grass or till it, but it'll make your job easier once the grass is dead. Again, bad back people like this method. Hippies will roll their eyes in despair.

Whatever method you chose, do a thorough job. There's nothing worse than having grass coming up in four different areas of your new bed. Add lots of new compost to the newly dug area. Turn over the old soil of it's compacted with the new soil. Line your new bed with a plastic barrier if you wish, if not, that's fine. You're going to have to weed at some point anyway...there's no escaping that.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Caring for bulbs after they bloom

Back in my old landscaping days I had a few clients who demanded that their daffidols be tied up after they bloom. Fun stuff, rubber-banding 40 or more daffodils. Thankfully, this tradition seems to be fading out of style.

If you want to get a few good years out of your spring bulbs, let the foliage dry up naturally-don't cut if off until it has lost all green color and looks spent. The bulb seeks nutrients-via photosynthesis-through the leaves and they need to do this so that they can bloom for you again next year. If you don't like looking at a mess of foliage consider planting some annuals among them that will hide the fading leaves. Or consider just living with it. A yellow stem and a brown leaf here and there isn't going to kill anyone-hopefully.

You don't need to fertilize the bulbs after they bloom. They'll be preparing for dormancy and they do this just fine on their own. Don't forget where you plant your bulbs if you're going to be doing planting this year. Photograph them or mark them so that you remember. Or not, if you like mysteries...If you are really into bulbs and want to learn more about them and their care here's a link to the international bulb society:

Monday, April 26, 2010

Watering new plantings

You just planted a new magnolia tree over the weekend and a new herb garden. You watered everything in and you just checked the weather report for the week-windy, rainy, cold. So you don't have to water until it stops raining, right?

Not exactly. You'll still want to check on your new plantings. Unless you're getting regular heavy rainfall, the plants' roots will still need regular waterings in the spring. If you have plantings near or underneath large trees you'll want to water a little more since the tree roots are soaking up much of the water and nutrients. Also, the branches may be preventing the rain from really getting much moisture into the soil. If you have a thick layer of compost on the ground (good for you) the rain may only penetrate the first inch or two of soil leaving the roots dry.

I know you may feel silly at first standing out in the rain and running the hose, but you need to get them growing strong roots to withstand the hot, dry summer days. Two good soaks a week should do the trick-more if it's unually warm and dry. Remember, your plants are an investment. Keep them alive.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Finding fast privacy in the garden

Whether you're defending yourself from barbarian hordes or you just want a little privacy from Joe the neighbor, here are some ideas for privacy in the garden that won't take hundreds of years to build or grow.

Vines. It's easy to be creative with vines and if you find the right ones, they can grow fast and hide your white, white legs from your neighbors. They will need support-depending on your budget and taste. Trellises, arbors, posts with twine; you get the picture. You'll need to make sure that your structure is stable enough to support your vine when it's mature. Steer away from roses and wisteria and consider vines with great foliage-the thicker the leaves the better the privacy. Climbing hydrangeas are some of my favorite and while not the fastest, they're worth it when they mature. Some take full sun.

Screens. Buy a moveable screen and fill in a gap as your privacy plants mature. Make sure you do this artfully so it blends in and doesn't look like it fell from space.

Create a secret pocket. Grow an L-shaped stand of Nandina in a corner-or create a corner. They will grow to create enough privacy but they'll still let some air into your secret garden space.

Big containers. As you wait for the photinia hedge to mature consider planting some quick-growing bamboo or other fast growing grasses. When your hedge matures you can move the containers to a new spot. Make sure you educate yourself on bamboo if you decide to put it in the ground-you may end up with nothing but bamboo in a few years. I usually recommend keeping them under control by keeping them contained.

Go Japanese. Visit your local Japanese garden and study it with an eye for privacy elements, corners, quiet areas. Japanese gardening employs subtle ways of achieving a goal and these can translate quite nicely into your backyard if done well. You don't need to build a fifteen foot expensive wall when a few properly placed plants and some tall thin wood panels would do...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Don't get greenwashed

What is greenwashing you ask? Greenwashing is a way of marketing or advertising a product or service as "green" or environmentally sound. If you hear the words "sustainable" or "eco-friendly" or the phrase "good for the environment" as much as I do you're probably as annoyed as I am.

Greenwashing is a large part of the gardening industry and I face it almost every day. It makes me long for an era when people grew tomatoes in their back yard because they liked to eat tomatoes. Now it's often a political statement if you grow your own vegetables. And God help you if you don't buy organic starts or the right kinds of seeds else you be banished to the politically incorrect line. But that's a different rant for a different day.

Here's the thing. When you stand at the nursery and you're pouring over all those bottles and bags of stuff that advertise themselves as "safe" and "friendly" and "good for you," take a step back and look at the shelves. Is that poison that you're about to buy actually "friendly" or are you being suckered by a bunch of sassy marketers who profit from your lack of common sense? Is that snake oil I'm buying or miracle water from the fountain of youth? Is that candy bar really going to reduce global warming and save the lemurs of Madagascar? While you're probably not buying 2 gallons of DDT you are still buying a pre-packaged product wrapped in a lot of plastic that has been placed in a truck and shipped to you using gas and labor from some warehouse in Peoria. Your Prius by the way, is still a car, and it still requires a crap load of resources to make it, ship it, sell it, and maintain it.

You can still support the economy while not being suckered or greenwashed. Buy local (I know that's an annoyingly overused term too but it actually is a good thing), use your own products when you can-(bleach, ammonia, vinegar, baking soda can go a long way), buy things in bulk, and avoid impulse purchases. You probably need that insect spray as much as you need yet another brand of shampoo promising ravishing, frizz free hair.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The eggs have hatched!

Our red-tailed hawk hatched three hawklings last week-check out the raptor cam and watch her groom and feed the little ones from her carcass stash...

Monday, April 19, 2010

On Avoiding Gardening Fads and Trends

Some trends will just never return. While it's more or less impossible to avoid gardening trends almost as much as it's difficult to avoid fashion trends it may be something you want to be aware of. Remember the terraced mounds of juniper shrubs in the seventies? The weeping, red Japanese maples, grasses and variegated red twig dogwood of the nineties? While I happen to like the current trends of black against lime green and dark pink these colors will eventually be doomed to the back of the closet. So now what?

First, decide what is trendy. Look at several different houses or apartment buildings of varying ages. You will start to notice similarities. Did you find a house with very large and mature rhodies, azaleas, pieris? Most likely they were planted before the sixties. The recession of the 70's launched a landscaping trend rife with "drought tolerant" conifers and sprawling evergreen ground covers that trap odors like cat urine and provide a stunning platform for spiderwebs and litter come August. Remember the color salmon and sea foam green and the obsession with beach culture in the eighties? Big-haired plants like yucca, palm, and pampas grass took hold in the west as if to pay homage to Miami Vice. Now they stand out like overgrown mullets at a golf tournament.

Next, decide whether or not you care to date yourself. Maybe you're proud of your dated hairstyle. Maybe you like waddling to the store in your discount Clarks. If that's you, than stand proud.

If you don't want to be a fashion victim, consider ways to avoid trends:
*Don't pair trendy plants together. Tuck them into the design where they won't stand out but they will blend in.

*Avoid pruning trends. Ever wonder why those street trees are pruned to look like lollypops in front of Grandpa's house? For the same reason Grandpa still has his buzz cut-it's easy, it doesn't create a mess, and it gives him something to do on the weekends.

*Choose solid colors. Avoid new hybrids with double blooms and multiple colors. Unless, of course, you like it. Select larger perennials, shrubs and patio trees that have a more natural, classical look-green leaves, brown bark. Mix your "crazy" stuff in amongst these larger foundation plantings so that you can remove them if need be. It's much easier to dig up an orange moppy-headed dahlia than it is a mature miscanthus giganteus.

*Select a theme and make sure it goes with your architecture and that it makes sense. This doesn't mean that you can't have fun and experiment-if you like different styles, create different nooks within your yard that are consistent within themselves. An Asian garden in the back, an English garden in the front and a woodland path to bridge the gap.

*If you really like wierd plants show them off in a specimen garden that's set apart from the rest of the garden. That way you can plant your thorny cleome next to your staghorn fern and your red-hot pokers and not get any funny looks from your neighbors.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Grow your own Beer!

Hops are easy to grow here in the Willamette Valley and the Portland area. All you need is lots of sun and some support. Here are the basics:

Sun and lots of it. As much as you can offer. If you want a little shady sitting area over your hammock this summer but you don't want something high maintenence like roses or heavy and obnoxious like wisteria, consider hops. They grow fast after their first year and they're easy.

Support: You will need something for the vines to cling to-just one thing to consider. If you're actually going to harvest your hops you'll want a more "professional" setup so that you can access the hops without having to dig through a mess of vines. However, if you just want to grow them for their beauty and ease, you can run them up almost anything as long as they get plenty of sun. An archway that leads to the backyard or another section of your garden, a free standing (tall) hunk of anything-maybe you want an excuse to cover up that ugly "garden art" that your friend welded you for your birthday. An old tree with a thick trunk, a trellis against a sunny wall, an old grape arbor than isn't in use.

Food and Water: Once established (the second year), hops will require a lot of fertilizer. Make sure you spread some rich compost (aged cow manure works) or a good quality bagged compost at the base of the plant in the spring and when you plant it. Add some liquid fertilizer throughout the growing season. Water as you would any new planting-keep it moist by watering about twice a week once established. It will drink more in the summer.

Pests and Disease: Aphids can be a problem-squirt them vigorously with the hose. Sick some ladybugs on them. Buy the ladybugs and keep them refrigerated until you're ready to use them-they're more likey to stay in place when they're cold instead of flying over to your neighbor's yard at once. Powdery mildew can be a problem-once the plant is established strip the first two feet of leaves at the base so that the mildew will have less of a chance to travel up the vine.

Drink up!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

English Garden design photos

I designed this garden for a lover of English Gardens who also wanted a little winter interest via evergreens and small trees...a little light on the flowers and a little more focus on foliage and texture.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Gardening without a Garden

Sometimes living in the city means you have to be a little creative and a little pushy about growing a garden. Just because you don't have a big yard or a yard at all doesn't mean you can't grow your favorite strawberries-somewhere else. Here's a few ways around this urban plight:

Muscle your way into your friend's yard. This works well esp if your friend doesn't have a green thumb and is a workaholic-he/she will be more than happy to have some vegetable beds miraculously appearing overnight. Make sure, however, that you are going to follow through with your gardening if you don't want to alienate your friend. If you dig a big hole in their yard and then disappear for months on end you may have lost a garden and a friend. Same goes with family...

Community gardening. Being more of a lone wolf and a micro-manager, I've not actually done the whole community garden thing. There are a ton of them around Portland and they often have a long waiting list to get a plot; however, it can be a great way to grow vegetables if you don't have good sun in your yard or if you don't have a yard at all. That is if you don't mind being subjected to vegetable and fruit thievery and unsolicited conversations with the local crazy lady who cultivates a mono crop of wintering kale in the summertime.

Courtyard gardening. If you live in a condo or an apartment building see if you can throw your weight around, fire the mow and blow team and take up the maintenance yourself. If you choose to do this realize that you share this space and keep the planting in harmony with the style and age of the building. Hire a designer if you don't feel comfortable with choosing the right plants and see if the board or the landlord will pay for it. Start a gardening committee and make someone else dig the holes for you.

Tiny space gardening. Do container gardening and hanging plants if all you have is a balcony or a porch with steps. Use your window sills. Bonsai-style gardening works too if you like spending time pruning. Grow vines against a wall or train an espalier.

And save up your money for that lush country house you keep dreaming about...

Friday, April 9, 2010

Think before you plant natives

Yes, even gardening nowadays has become politicized. What was once a simple lawn has now become a symbol for decadence and imperialism and a waste of dwindling resources. But should you feel guilt every time you go to the park and play Frisbee on the greens? I don't think so.

While I'm not a lawn advocate by any means, I also don't think that better behaved non-native species should be totally demonized and removed. Non-native lawns here in Portland for instance can require very little resources if a person is so inclined. I encourage my clients to fertilize their lawns by letting the grass clippings add nitrogen back into the soil and to let the lawn go dormant in the summer in an effort to save water. In my mind, this a responsible way to manage lawns, and come on, lawns are great for laying in the sun and playing ball with your toddler.

When it comes to planting natives for the benefit of local fauna I say go ahead. But just because you buy a plant labeled "native" doesn't mean that it's going to naturally thrive in your yard. If you purchase, say, a plant that has naturalized to an alpine environment it may not do so well in your hot, fenced back yard.

Just because a plant is native to your region doesn't mean that it won't be an invader in your front yard. Salal and Mahonia for instance can go a little crazy if left unchecked and they can be difficult or at least annoying to remove. Use your brain and do some research on a native plant just as you would any other plant. Know what kind of soil it likes and what kind of exposure it can take.

If you're really into "going native" make a plan. Do some research on what your neighborhood looked like before the Plaid Pantrys and the Burger Kings went in. Was it a woodland environment? Wetland? Grassy plain? If you do it right you could potentially attract birds and other wildlife that haven't visited your neighborhood since the Civil War and who knows, you might become the next Lady Bird Johnson...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

How to Rejuvenate Rhododendrons

It's been my experience that many older rhodies that have been looking sad for awhile are sitting in some really compact soil. Maybe the soil needs to acidify, maybe the roots dry out in the summertime, maybe the rhodie is iron, nitrogen deficient. Here's what I've done to get those beasts in order:

Prune. Prune after bloom. Cut out the dead, the weak and the weird. Pruning rhodies can be fun if they have a good shape. Make sure, of course, you use sharp shears and make clean cuts.

Fertilize. The soil in early spring should already be pretty soaked, but if it's not make sure you soak the roots. Use a rhodie/camelia fertilizer that will help acidify the soil. If you're an "all organics or bust" type A personality, fine, use organic, but you'll need to use more and more often. If you want to use chemical, fine too, just don't over feed. I don't usually recommend those fertilizer spikes but for older, compacted, larger, neglected shrubs like rhodies they can really help add minerals throughout the growing season. Stick them a little further away from the rhodie than the box recommends. Rhodies have shallow root systems and it's generally best to be conservative with chemical fertilizers. If you notice burning on the leaves that wasn't a problem in the past it may be getting too much.

Bust the soil up a little if it's rock hard. Don't do this too close to the trunk. In general, the lateral leaf growth will tell you where the roots end. Don't go crazy, just hoe it a little so the fertilizer can reach the roots.

Don't let your rhodie dry out. The roots are close to the soil, keep them moist but not wet.

Transplant if possible or necessary. Don't do this if they're too big. Maybe it's getting too much hot afternoon sun. Maybe it's just sick of being in the same place for ten years. Sometimes people forget that transplanting is a possibility. If it doesn't take, then fine. Go out and get a new one. You gave it a try.

Some people treat their plants like they're tender alien beings. I don't. If I'm sick of looking at some scraggly old thing I'm going to either go at it for a season and whip it into shape or rip it out and send it over the cliff. Life's too short to be forced into staring at some ratty, mildewy skimmia. Do it a favor and put it out of its misery if need be.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Introducing the Grandpa Weeder

No, I'm not using grandpa as a weeding tool. But I did notice an elderly fellow weeding dandelions the other day on my jogging route. He had something similar to this tool, known as the "grandpa weeder." Not only was gramps comfortably standing and not bending over or crawling across the yard but the tool he was using actually worked very well. The long handle kept his back straight and the weight of his body allowed him to easily sink the business end of the tool into the ground, press the lever with his foot, and then extract the dandelion without breaking off the taproot. It actually made weeding look fun. Grandpa, you still got it!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

How to Manage your Spaghetti Tree

Now and then I get a lot of questions about how to make a spaghetti tree really thrive. Here's what I like to do:

1) Set up your stereo speakers near a window and blast Louis Prima and Frank Sinatra for a week. Turn the music down at night so as not to annoy the neighbors.

2) Most spaghetti trees are Catholic so set up a way in which they can express their religiosity. Since they can't move, build a small table out near the tree so that you can set up a proper shrine. Mexican groceries sell those Virgin Mary candles for pretty cheap. Buy about ten, grab a cross and you've got your spaghetti tree set up for worship.

3) Don't plant too many in one spot. Spaghetti trees should be limited to one or two per yard. They tend to like to conspire and take over. Pretty soon they'll be intimidating your neighbor's apple trees and charging "fees" for apple picking.

4) Fertilize, fertilize, fertilize. I use Parmigiano-Reggiano. DO NOT use mozzarella. It gets clumpy and it doesn't absorb properly into the tomato sauce.

5) Water only with wine. A good, woody chianti, a well-rounded cab. Avoid whites and blushes. Spaghetti trees are snobs and for God Sakes do not water with those three dollar Trader Joe wines! Are you trying to kill your spaghetti tree or what?

Happy Planting.