Friday, May 28, 2010

Lady's Mantle in every garden

Lady's mantle or alchemilla is one of my favorite garden perennials. It's one of those plants that can be paired with just about anything like a good table wine-it looks great in a flower bed, on its own, or in front of something a little taller and more dramatic since it doesn't get too large. I really like it planted at the base of a pretty patio tree like witch hazel, a vine maple, or a star magnolia. The simple chartreuse spring flowers look lovely against almost anything. And that way you get to see one of its best assets-dew that collects on the gorgeous scalloped leaves. On a cool spring day the droplets will stick around all day providing a great backdrop for pixies and other playful miniature garden sprites.

Lady's mantle likes to stay moist and it's best suited to bright areas of the garden while avoiding noon sun and heat. Plant it in a place that gets lots of morning sun and dappled shade in the heat of summer.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bloody sap suckers

Scale sucks. Literally. These nasty parasites steal your plant's vital essence and leave your plants malnourished, notched, and vulnerable to attack from ants and other opportunists. Scale can be difficult to diagnose at first glance, but take a close look. Do you see a small, waxy, flat looking thing that doesn't seem to be part of the plant? Look closer. Do you see tiny little bugs lined up in a row not far from the waxy flat thing? Those are the babies and that flat larger thing is the female mothership. She doesn't move but her babies aka "crawlers" do and they like to eat.

What to do? Kill. Parasites are a real enemy apart from being disgusting creatures that are disfiguring your lovely trees and perennials. Because scale protects itself by exuding a thin secretion over its body they can be difficult to eradicate with ordinary pesticides. Isolate the plant, scrape off the motherships and the babies with a butter knife, then dip it in a kill solution of your choice so that you don't infect the rest of the garden (vinegar, ammonia etc). Spray the entire plant with Neem oil. Go ahead and don't be shy. Spray the undersides of all leaves, the stems and any new foliage. Agricultural oils will suffocate any remaining hold outs on your plant.

Check your plant regularly and spray regularly until you feel confident that your plant is safe from nature's little Dracula.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Shrinking violets and other shy shade beauties

Shade gardens often get overlooked as their loud, colorful full sun siblings get all the attention. But subtle, quiet lush beauty can occur in the shade instead of just using the area for rusty bike storage.

If you have a shady area, first determine how much shade it actually gets. Watch it and document it over the course of a sunny day-remember the light will change come summer so keep that in mind. Is your shade dappled, or is it full shade? The trickiest shade to deal with is the often confusing "part shade." It doesn't have to be. Just make sure you know when and where hot sun hits. You'll want to know which areas get hot afternoon sun because this is the exposure that could potentially burn the leaves of shade plants esp in the summer.

Next, buy a good shade plant book for your region. There are a gazillion. Better yet, go to a trusted nursery that has a good shade plant selection. Don't forget shade loving natives.

Think about what you would like out of your shady spot and design from there. Do you want a cool seating area? If so, build around that. Do you want a serene moss and fern garden where you can pray for thinner hips? Get the moss going now since it takes some time to establish and keep it nice and moist. How about a secret garden where you can hide from the tax collectors? Or a mysterious woodland garden with a winding path. If so, get the larger shrubs going like japanese acuba, fatsia japonica, or a shade loving hydrangea.

Something else to think about while planting in the shade-if you want a little burst of light, consider plants with light green foliage, variegated foliage, or light-colored flowers. Some shade perennials I like are native columbine, brunnera, astilbe, lily of the valley, sweet woodruff, maidenhair ferns (and others), bleeding heart, lady's mantle, ajuga, and foxglove.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Growing Blueberries

I haven't grown blueberries much myself (my cherished sunny spots are usually reserved for flowering perennials) even though I grew up surrounded by fields of blueberries in western Michigan many moons ago. I do know that they are pretty easy if given the correct acidicy and exposure-make sure you do a little research before you purchase and if possible, buy from a nursery that is knowledgeable. For instance, there are several varieties that prefer colder climates and others that tolerate our hot, dry summers here in Portland. There are some dwarf varieties that you may want to consider if you do a lot of container gardening.

Here's a link to a great family owned nursery that specializes in blueberries-they even offer classes on growing these beloved little Cheerio toppers:

Monday, May 17, 2010

Design your own potting soil

Potting soil can add up if you're doing a lot with containers in your garden-why not cut down on the cost and improvise?

Poor man's potting soil: When you really don't have the money to spend on soil, overturn your pots from last year, break up the soil with your new hori hori and return it to the pot. Add a little new soil if you have any and you're ready to plant. Yes, you will have to fertilize more but a little bit of fertilizer can go a long way.

Make your own: Go to any bulk gardening supply store (if you live in Portland, Concentrates Inc is a good place to purchase soil amendments) and buy several large bags of peat moss and perlite. These are the basic components to any store bought potting soil. In a large (clean) garbage can mix the two together-one part peat to 1/2 or more perlite depending on your needs. Use a shovel and mix until it looks evenly blended. Add bark mulch, your own compost, fertilizer, mycorrhizae or moisture absorbing polymers if you're so inclined. Make your own soil mix instead of using peat if you stay up at night worrying about exhausting peat bogs. Just make sure you use sand, perlite or some other ingredient that works to prevent compaction.

Pots, of course, dry out more quickly-You will need to water every day and fertilize regularly depending on what you've got going. Make your watering a habit-do it at the same time every day while you'll sipping your coffee and dreading going to work. Make watering easy and fun-and for goodness sakes, get a good watering can and buy a new hose. There's nothing worse than those old crusty hoses that curl up and kink every time you sneeze. It's the simple things that make daily life good.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Snowballs in spring

I love viburnums. They are easy to grow and their foliage almost always looks crisp, clean and healthy throughout the growing season being pest and disease resistant. This spring I've really taken a liking to viburnum plicatum, or Japanese snowball shrub. They're in full bloom here in Portland and they seem to be everywhere now that they're stuck in my head.

If you have a neglected space that needs to be filled, you may want to consider the snowball. They can get quite large (up to 15' high and wide) especially if they're planted in full sun, so make sure you have the space unless you're a compulsive pruner. While they can do partial shade, don't allow them to have too much shade or you'll have a scrawny, underdeveloped guy with top heavy blooms reaching for the closest available light. Think popeye-thick head on tiny legs.

Come fall they'll turn varying shades of red (until they drop, they are deciduous) and offer the local birds some berries as a snack. But best of all, in early May you'll have a giant display of big, fat, perfect white blossoms to show off.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Go buy a pick up

Tired of vaccuming out potting soil from the back seat of your Lexus after you've spent two hundred dollars at the nursery? Me too.

Really, I jest. I drive an old beater Toyota and for good reason. I can throw anything I want into the bed and drive off on my merry way. I've saved a lot of money buying soil in bulk by putting it in my truck. It's a fun trip to the soil and mulch yards and your kids will love it. You can go to the giant rocks yards, hand pick the rocks for your new retaining wall or kitchen herb garden, and toss them into the truck. You save a lot of money buying in bulk and you can swing by Home Depot on the way home and toss those four by fours in the back as well.

If you buy an old beater like mine, you don't have to spend that much and you won't worry about the dings and dents you'll get at the rock yard when that bulldozer backs into you.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ladybug, my ladybug

Having been my oldest enemy, I can almost say that the aphid's consistency and persistence throughout the years has gained a certain level of well, almost respect. There you are again, you squishy green colonizer. Haven't I told you to get lost? Have you no self-esteem?

Okay, no apparently they don't. In finer moods, I give them a little shake and a spray of water. In darker moods they get the wipe and the pinch. Total aphid obliteration. It seems to do the trick while I'm waiting for the ladybugs to hatch on the south side of my building. Yes, they've been wintering over in our building for the last three years at least and while I'm not sure what kind of damage they're actually dolling out inside the walls, I do know that when they hatch (or mature, rather) they devour all the aphids on my balcony and on my plantings in the courtyard below. I couldn't have planned it better myself.

Pictured above is a ladybug in its mid-larval stage so if you see one of these strange little alligator bugs don't kill it! It's about to become one of your best assets in the garden. If you don't have any unsolicited tenants go to the nursery and buy a bag. (Keep them cold when you release them if you want them to stay put and eat in a certain area or on a certain plant. They'll be sluggish and chilled for awhile and hang out in your yard until they've had their fill).

Monday, May 10, 2010

Do you want low maintenance or no maintenance?

Words and phrases get kicked around in the gardening world as casually as spilled dirt. One of those phrases is "low maintenance" gardening. But actually when someone tells you they want a low maintenance garden what they're really saying is "I'm lazy and I don't want to work in my yard. At all. I want it to look like a photo out of Sunset Magazine but I don't want to lift a finger."

When a client in the past approached me with this dreaded phrase I used to smile and nod and attempt to accommodate them. Well, no more. Even a desert gets rain once in awhile. First, I explain that there really is no such thing as a "low maintenance garden." Really, there isn't. If you want your yard to look great you will have to work at it or you will have to hire someone to make it look good. Second, after the look of hope and excitement has been replaced with confusion and sometimes despair, I explain to them that gardeners are not miracle workers. They cannot instantly make your garden look fantastic unless they use plastic plants and it will not continue to look fabulous with little to no attention. Thirdly, I throw a bone-a little wishbone, that is. Yes, I can make your garden require less pruning, yes, I can choose plants that can suffer some neglect. And that's about it.

Anyone trying to sell you a "low maintenance" or "easy native garden" that is drought tolerant is selling you snake oil and what will eventually be a crappy looking garden filled with weeds. Gardening is work, and a great garden is hard work. So what's your excuse?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Hori Hori

If you've never used or heard of a Hori Hori, now you have. It's the best all around hand tool for gardening. Of Japanese design, they were originally used for working around and with bonsai. You'll never use a regular old trowel again and because they have a serrated edge you can use it to slice through thick roots buried in the soil.

Make sure you find yourself spending about fifty bucks on one-there are some knockoffs out there that are a sorry copy. It should feel heavy and sturdy in your hand-the blade should be thick and made of carbon steel. If you're buying one online for twenty dollars don't expect it to last more than two seasons...Trust me, it's a good investment.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Gardening with Jerry Baker

Jerry Baker is my kind of gardener. Instead of ranting and raving about how the environment is slowly being destroyed by evil corporations, he's quietly concocting homemade herbicides and pesticides in his kitchen using any number of combinations of ammonia, laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid, tobacco dust, dried bloodmeal, mouthwash, cola, etc. and dishing out good old tried and true gardening advice. Visting his website or blog is like taking a trip up state to grandpa's farm. He reminds me of what gardening should be-fun, relaxing, inspiring, life-affirming-an escape from the annoyances and hardships of daily life. Don't talk about politics or global warming, or your fibromyalgia in my garden or I'll chase you out with my pruners and my shuffle hoe! Happy weeding.