Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fall Is The Time To Plant Spring Flowering Bulbs

If you are one of those people who dreads winter, try skipping past it in your mind and start thinking about spring. Imagine early blooming Crocusesfollowed by Daffodils Hyacinths and Tulips. Picture the fields of color that dazzle us every year during the Skagit Tulip Festival. Then get outside and plant some bulbs!

A field of daffodils blooms near  La Conner, Washington, at the
beginning of the annual. month-long Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.
Fall is an ideal time for planting in the Northwest. The weather is mild enough that working outdoors is comfortable. Plants have a chance to gradually settle in before spring. Fall and winter rains keep everything watered.

A frequently asked question is, "How deep should bulbs be planted?" The answer varies, depending on the size of the bulb and where your garden is. Here at sea level, I plant bulbs about twice as deep as they are tall. So a 2" tall daffodil bulb would sit with its bottom 4" into the ground. Tiny bulbs like crocus, I would plant about 3x as deep as the bulb is tall. In the foothills of our mountain ranges, I would plant bulbs deeper, to keep them from freezing. Give them at least another inch of soil on top.

Bulbs are easy care plants. About the only thing you need to do to keep them thriving is to add Bone Meal to the soil at planting time and as a top dressing after the flowers bloom.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Help! My Tree Is Dying!

It is normal for western red cedars
and other conifers to lose some
leaves in autumn.
I have received frantic calls from clients at this time of year because they fear they are losing their favorite evergreen trees. They look into the canopy of a pine, a Hinoki cypress, Douglas fir or western red cedar and see brown needles or leaves - sometimes a lot of them. And they are sure the tree is dying.

But nearly always, the tree is just fine. It is normal for conifers to shed old leaves and needles in the fall. A tree is called an "evergreen" because it has green foliage year around. People often take that to mean that the tree never sheds a leaf, which isn't the case. Older leaves on the inside of the plant, close to the trunk, turn brown and fall in autumn. The rest of the tree, of course, remains "green."

The time when brown foliage on a conifer is a sign of trouble is when the growing tip (the outer end of the branch) turns brown. If you have concerns about the health of your trees, consult with a certified arborist.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

3 Things You Should NOT Do in the Garden in Fall

If you are not overly fond of gardening chores, you may be relieved to know that there are things you simply shouldn't do right now. You're off the hook, at least for the time being. 

Here's what you should NOT be doing in fall:
1. Pruning. Pruning stimulates growth. If you prune trees and shrubs now, they will react by sending out new shoots. That new growth is very tender and susceptible to frost damage. If we have an early freeze, which has been the pattern the past two or three years, that new growth will be damaged. This weakens the plant and makes it less hardy overall. This goes for roses, too. They might look leggy and ragged right now, and you're tempted to go over there and clean them up, but wait until February. For more information, read this post on when to prune

2. Fertilizing. It's time for your garden to slow down and rest. Lawn and general purpose fertilizers stimulate growth, and this is not the season for that. If you are planting bulbs, a top dressing of bone meal is fine, but otherwise, fertilizing is like drinking an energy drink just before bedtime. 

3. Watering. OK, this seems obvious, especially since we've had some rain in the past couple of weeks. But some people with automatic sprinkling systems get so used to not having to think about watering (or not watering) that they forget to turn them off until late in the season. Established gardens need little or no supplemental watering after September 1. (New gardens, ones planted this year or last, may need more water if we haven't had rain.) If you water by hand, water less frequently as fall approaches. Dry conditions, along with cooler night temperatures and shorter days, are a signal to plants that it is time to start slowing down, hardening off and preparing for winter. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

5 Things To Do In The Garden In Fall

Fall color in the Arboretum at South Seattle
Community College
It is raining in Seattle today - a slow, soaking rain. After this kind of rain, the weeds are easier to pull and the wet leaves rake nicely into a pile that stays put until you get them into the compost or yard waste bin. 

I love gardening in the fall. The temperatures are cool so I don't get overheated when I work.  Fall is a long season in Seattle with three full months of color, and being outside, watching the landscape change is good for the soul. 

Here are 5 things to do in the garden now:

1 - Tidy up. Start by clearing away dead foliage on perennials. Rake leaves. You may have to do this a couple of times before fall is over because don't plants go dormant here all at once. Do a thorough weeding job - you will thank yourself next spring. 

2 - Mulch beds. Most horticulturalists will agree that mulching in fall is a good idea. But we don't all agree on the best way to do it. Some people rake piles of leaves into their planting borders and call it good. I prefer to use a composted product like Steerco  (available from Sawdust Supply in Georgetown). I've tried the leaf method and found that after a lot of rain, the leaves stick together, forming a solid mat that smothers ground covers. If the leaves aren't raked off of the crowns of perennials early enough in spring, the new shoots go off in strange directions and the plants fail to do well. Steerco, on the other hand, provides a blanket that protects plant roots from the cold while allowing air circulation. It also looks a lot better. 

3 - Winterize sprinkler systems. It seems obvious that sprinklers should be shut off in the fall, so I am surprised by how many people overlook this necessary chore. Sprinkler lines are shallow and often burst in cold weather. This creates a big problem, and not just for the homeowner, as this mudslide story on the West Seattle Blog from last December shows. 

4 - Plant trees and shrubs. This gives plants a head start on next year. Root systems will start getting established well before the busy growth season in spring. As an added plus, local nurseries have terrific plant sales going on right now.

5 - Plant spring blooming bulbs. If you want daffodils, crocus, tulips and hyacinths next year, you have to plant them now. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Fertilizer Facts

When you visit your local hardware or garden supply store, you will find lots of fertilizer products. How do you choose the one(s) that are right for you? Here's some basic information to help you decide.

The main nutrients contained in most fertilizers are Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium (chemically speaking: N, P and K). On the front of the package, you will see three numbers, usually in large print, that tell you the percentage of each nutrient contained in that product.
A 20-20-20 fertilizer, for example, is one that contains 20% of each major nutrient; a 30-10-10 contains 30% nitrogen, 10% phosphorous and 10% potassium.
To decide which fertilizer you need, you first need to know what each of these nutrients do for a plant.

  • Nitrogen promotes leafy, vegetative growth
  • Phosphorous promotes flowering, and therefore fruit production, and stimulates root growth
  • Potassium promotes root growth and benefits the general health of the plant, making it more resistant to disease.
In general, evergreens and lawns need fertilizers with a higher percentage of nitrogen. Blooming plants need more phosphorus and potassium. Good nutrient ratios to look for are: 3-1-2 for lawns and 1-2-2 for flowering plants.
NOTE: Fertilizers with a high percentage of nitrogen will suppress blooming, so don't use lawn fertilizer in your perennial beds!
It isn't necessary to buy different fertilizers for every kind of plant, so don't be taken in by the myriad of products on the shelf. You don't need rose food and tomato food and bloom "boosters." A single, all-purpose fertilizer will take care of all your vegetables and blooming plants. Besides that, you will need a separate formulation for your lawn. (Choose a lawn fertilizer that has less than 30% nitrogen or you will spend most of your time mowing grass.)

There are a few specialty nutrients you should know about. Some evergreens, most notably rhododendrons, suffer from an iron deficiency that causes their leaves to turn yellow. This is quite common and can be corrected by using a chelated (pronounced KEY-lated) iron product or a fertilizer formulated for acid loving evergreens.
Bulbs are heavy users of calcium (bone meal) and like a top-dressing of it after blooming and a bit of it worked into the soil when they are planted. 
Roses and tomatoes need extra magnesium -- check the package when you buy all purpose fertilizer to be sure magnesium is included as a trace element.

There are several forms a fertilizer can take: granular, liquid, spikes. Which form is best?

  • The granular types that you mix with water and pour around the base of the plant are quickly and easily taken up by the roots. (They are a good choice for treating those yellow rhododendrons.) The disadvantage is that the nutrients can leach through the soil quickly in a rainy spell, moving them deeper into the soil profile and out of the reach of your plant's root system. 
  • Foliar sprays are also quickly taken up by plants, but their effects are not long lasting. (And the spray apparatus can drive you crazy -- they clog too easily.)
  • Dry, granular products that you sprinkle on the soil do a good job of slowly releasing nutrients. They are especially useful in wet weather. If you apply them in dry weather, water them in or they can burn your plants.
  • Time-release fertilizers, such as Osmocote, come in round pellets (they look like white or green caviar). These fertilizers are expensive, but do a good job of slowly releasing nutrients over several months. This type of fertilizer is often used in the nursery trade for their container stock. 
  • Avoid using fertilizer spikes. As water dissolves them, they create a concentrated pool of fertilizer which will burn the roots adjacent to the spikes while providing little or no benefit to other areas of the root system. Stick with the dry fertilizers and liquid mixes that you can spread evenly over the surface of the soil. 
Think you have over-fertilized? Water, water, water. This will dilute the fertilizer and wash it down below the root zone.

How Much Mulch?

Ever wonder how many bags of mulch, soil, compost or gravel to buy? Would it make more sense to have a yard of material delivered? Or will you need that much? End the guesswork.  Measure your space and use this table to calculate how much to buy.

1" depth
2" depth*
3" depth
4" depth
Bag Volume: 2.7 cubic feet --- 10 bags = 1 cubic yard
*Recommended depth for most effective mulching

Thursday, September 8, 2011

How Do You Say Yucca?

When I was studying landscape design, most of my fellow students regarded Yucca plants (Yucca filamentosa) with contempt. YUCK-a, they would say.
And with good reason. The foliage can look pretty ratty and grooming is difficult because the leaves are sharp and tough. If you decide that you want to remove the plant altogether, you have your work cut out for you. If you don't get all of the fibrous root out of the ground, it will sprout "babies," and you'll have to go at it again. I suspect that one reason we see so many unkempt clumps of Yucca plants is that people get tired of trying to dig them out, so they give up and let them continue to multiply. Thus adding to the YUCK factor.
But on the plus side, just look at these flowers! Borne on stalks that can reach 10 feet high, they are a striking addition to the landscape. In addition, yuccas are tough plants that can handle drought and salt spray.

Y. filamentosa, or Adam's Needle, is the cultivar seen in Seattle gardens. There are many other varieties, including Y. brevifolia or Joshua Tree, all of which require warmer climates than we have here.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Canna lilies

Canna 'Tropicana' foliage
Cannas (members of the Cannaceae family) are not actually lilies, but for some reason unknown to me, that's what people call them. I just call them beautiful. Their big, colorful leaves remind me of banana trees and their exotic flowers make me think of the tropics.

Even if Cannas never flowered, their variegated foliage would make them worth growing. Look for the green-yellow variegation of 'Pretoria', as you see above, or the red-yellow-pink-green leaves of 'Tropicana' at top. Others like 'Red King Humbert' and 'Wyoming' have mahogany leaves.

Dwarf varieties get 18" to 3 feet tall. Standard varieties reach 4 - 6 feet tall.

Canna flowers may be yellow, orange or red.

In Seattle, cannas are most often grown as annuals. They will over-winter in mild years, but the past few have been too cold for many to survive. Cannas do well in containers and as focal points in mixed borders. When they are blooming, they're a sure sign of summer in Seattle.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Attracting Hummingbird "Tweets"

Long before there was the social media phenomenon called "Twitter," there were avian wonders called hummingbirds, who chase each other through the air, happily "tweeting" at each other. If you would like to "follow" the antics of these charming little creatures, you don't need a computer, a smart phone or a Twitter account. You just have to offer them a few good reasons to visit your neighborhood.

You could set up hummingbird feeders, of course. But it is much more fun to add plants to the garden that will attract the "hummers."

Here are a few suggestions:
Hummingbirds like tube-shaped flowers and apparently are partial to the color red. So this cape fuschia (Phygelius sp.) is a popular choice for hummingbird gardens. Don't confuse this sun-loving plant with hardy and annual fuschias (see below) which are rather more shade-tolerant and belong to a different family, botanically speaking.
Here are the blooms of a hardy fuschia (Fuschia magellanica).

Alstroemeria, also called Peruvian lily, is another favorite.

As is Crocosmia 'Lucifer.'

I don't want to give you the impression that only red flowers attract hummingbirds. They are curious little creatures and seem (at least from what I've observed) willing to visit anything colorful. Then, quick as a flash, they streak across the sky and "tweet" about what they've discovered.

Here are a few more of the long list of plants that will attract hummingbirds: honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.), trumpet vine (Campesis radicans), strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo), Ceanothus, Penstemons, lupines, coral bells (Heuchera sp.), elderberry (Sambucus sp.) and many others. The Sunset Western Garden Book has a detailed listing of plants for hummingbird gardens in its Guide to Plant Selection at the front of the book.

To learn more about attracting wildlife to your garden, I recommend Russell Link's book, "Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest."Link is a wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who also happens to have experience in landscape architecture. Although his book is specific to the Pacific Northwest, the general principles he offers can be applied in other regions, too.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

More Smoke Trees

One of the most popular posts on this blog has been the article on purple smoke trees (Cotinus coggygria, vars. 'Purple Robe,' 'Royal Purple,' and others). These trees are in bloom, covered in puffs of "smoke," right now all over Seattle. But did you know that smoke trees come in colors other than purple?

I recently had the good fortune of discovering a golden version of the smoke tree growing next to a purple one. I do not know the specific name of this cultivar, but 'Golden Spirit' (C. coggygria 'Ancot') is one seen often in the trade.

Here is a close-up of its stunning gold foliage, with a few small puffs of smoky bloom beginning to show. The chartreuse leaves have dark green veination, adding to the visual interest. This is a good plant to keep in mind when you are wanting to use foliage color as a design element.

This is a green form of Cotinus, possibly a variety called 'Pink Champagne.' The pink puffs are interesting, though this plant is certainly not as dramatic as the purple or gold versions.

All Cotinus varieties are drought tolerant and do best in poor, even rocky, soils. They are noted for their fall color, brilliant yellows through red-orange.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Himalayan Honeysuckle

Himalayan honeysuckles (Leycesteria formosa) are in bloom right now in Seattle. You can't miss them, with these stunning flowers.
The actual flowers are these little white bells that you see above. The showy purple bracts that surround them are what catch your eye. These flowers will give way to berries (you can see a little red berry starting to form in the photo above) that are popular with birds. The berries start out green, turn red and then finally, black.
Himalayan honeysuckles are shrubs not vines, as are typical honeysuckles (Lonicera sp.) They grow quickly to fill a space 6' x 6'. In particularly cold winters, you may see significant die back on these plants. But don't give up on them right away. Cut away the dead branches and wait a bit. They are vigorous plants and often come right back when the weather starts to warm and the days are longer.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hooked on Heuchera

Heuchera (pronounced HOO-ker-ah), also called coral bells, is a popular perennial in Seattle gardens. Each year, it seems, there are several new introductions to the collection available at nurseries, adding an ever wider selection of color and texture.
Some of the most familiar forms of this plant have purple leaves, as does this one above. Tiny, bell-shaped flowers are borne on tall slender stalks above the foliage in early summer. But it is the foliage that is the true star of the show, adding mounds of color nearly year around. In the purple range, look for varieties such as: 'Chocolate Ruffles,' 'Chocolate Veil,' and 'Garnet.'
Some varieties of Heuchera are noted for their veination patterns. I believe the variety shown above is called 'Pewter Moon.' Look also for 'Ruby Veil,' and 'Ring of Fire' to see other variations on the theme.
In recent years, Heuchera varieties with golden leaves have become very popular. Look for varieties such as 'Southern Comfort,' 'Peach Flambe,' and 'Caramel.'

Heuchera are easy to care for. Cut back ratty foliage in late winter, very early spring and a new flush of colorful growth will soon emerge. Because of the range of leaf colors and textures, these are good plants to keep in mind when you are designing a garden. Repeat the same plant 3 to 5 times throughout the garden, to draw the eye through the landscape, and to complement other colors in the garden. In Seattle, you often see Heuchera planted in mixed borders, containers and rockeries.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Commercial Landscapes: Safeway's "Green" Gas Station

When you think of gas stations, what comes to mind? Leafy maple trees? Blue oat grass billowing in the breeze? Perhaps a rugosa rose or two? Odds are that the answer is "no," unless you happen to be thinking about Safeway's gas station in the Admiral district in West Seattle.
Take a look. The sign is clearly visible, but except for that and the canopy above the pumps, all the rest is green.
Here's the view for pedestrians walking along the sidewalk in front of the station. Maple trees are planted on both sides of the walkway. On the left, you see a 4.5-foot hedge of Euonymous alata 'Compacta' (burning bush) that runs the length of the property, providing a lush green screen in summer and fiery red leaf color in the fall. Between the trees in the planting strip next to the street, you'll see blue oat and fescue grasses, yellow-flowering potentilla and white rugosa roses. Beach strawberry is used as a ground cover. 

This healthy abundance of green provides a pleasing focal point for motorists and pedestrians. It's also a treat for people pumping gas. Wouldn't you rather be gazing into a beautiful tree than staring at an oil slick on the pavement while you're waiting for your tank to get full? Congratulations to Safeway for taking a potential eyesore and making it into an attractive addition to the business district. 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Garden Consultations

Clematis 'The President'
Have you ever wanted to invite a gardening professional to your home to help you solve your landscape problems? Well, now you can. I am available to do gardening consultations in the Seattle area. I've been doing these "horticultural house calls," formally and informally, for 20 years and enjoy sharing my knowledge with others.

A garden consultation usually takes 1 to 1-1/2 hours and, depending on your needs, topics might include:

  • Garden restoration
  • Pruning- when and how
  • Plant identification
  • Lawn care
  • Compost & soil amendments
  • Fertilizing- when, how and with what
  • How to deal with pest and disease problems
  • Basic space planning and design questions
  • How to select the right plants for your gardening situation
In the years I've worked in the landscape industry, I've seen how many people spend too much money on trial and error. They buy tools they don't need, chemicals that aren't necessary and plants that aren't suited to their gardens. Let me help you avoid all of that. 
Cost: $60/hour, within the greater Seattle area

Plus a $15/hour charge for travel time for consultations outside West Seattle
Please Email me to schedule an appointment.
Thank you!