Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Long Division

SCMG Plant Sale’s a-comin’! Therefore, every chance I get, I am out in the garden dividing perennials, ferns and grasses.  The first “potting party” was March 10 this year and we had a big time. There were about 20 MGs there and we potted, labeled and organized approximately 800 plants in 4 hours.

We also had hot and cold drinks, snacks and lunch provided to sustain us and a nice, warm room to sit and enjoy them. It is so  much fun to work wIMG_0007ith such a positive, enthusiastic, hard working group of people. We learn so much from one another and from the process. It is a productive day on so many levels! I delivered 170 plants to be potted up that day-I’ve got a long way to go yet! Last year I donated about 700 plants total.

I start preparing plants for next year shortly after the Plant Sale is over. I garden intensively because I like the look and because it deters weeds. I go through the garden each season moving, rearranging, and dividing plants. I love to play with color and texture and to create seasonal vignettes for fall, winter and early spring. The easiest time to do that is when the plants you are considering are at their best. As I dig them up to move them, they usually get divided.

I am blessed with a woodland at the far end of mMarch 010y property, three levels down from my back yard. It makes a lovely nursery for my divisions to put down roots until it is time to pot them up for next year’s Sale. I thought I might share a few thoughts about dividing perennials; it is not as daunting as it might seem.

How do you tell if a plant may be divided? Usually, you will want to divide only herbaceous plants. These are commonly considered to be plants that die back to the ground in winter. However, a more accurate description would be a plant lacking a permanent woody stem. There are evergreen herbaceous perennials, such as Cardamine trifolia that stay beautiful all winter, but still are easily divided. Woody plants include trees, shrubs, vines-such as clematis, subshrubs-such as Lavandula, and woody perennials-such as Iberis sempervirens. These may be propagated, but the usual methods are by seed, tip cuttings, layering, root cuttings-but not division.

When is the best time to divide an herbaceous perennial? The short answer is “not when it is blooming.” Therefore, divide spring blooming perennials in the fall and fall blooming perennials in the spring. In actual practice, you can divide perennials any time you like as long as the conditions are favorable. This is why dead of winter and height of summer are not optimal. The divisions need to put out some good root growth before being subjected to freezing or drought.

Division may become necessary for the health of the plant. Some perennials will begin to die out in the center after several seasons of expanding. To keep the plants vigorous, you divide them and discard the center-with the added benefit of creating more plants.  You don’t have to wait for center die out; any plant that has grown larger than the place you have it planted may be divided.

If this has piqued your interest, but you aren’t sure about the mechanics of division, keep your eyes peeled for my next post. I’ll cover the basics of multiplying by division.

Monday, March 29, 2010

March Madness

March has been an interesting month. The weather for Seattle has brought above normal temperatures, sunshine, and drier skies after a very warm, partly cloudy, and rainy February. The average daily high is running over 2 degrees above normal; the warmest day has been March 24 when the temperature reached 68 degrees breaking the record set in 1960.

It seems as if everything is ahead of schedule, especially compared to spring 2008 when we had average temperatures for the month that were 3 degrees below normal and close to a foot of snow mid-April. Most of the perennials have broken ground and the woodies are leafing out.

I’ve got a lot of blue going on out there; Scilla and IpheionIpheion 'Rolf Fiedler' are still blooming like mad and the blue Chionodoxa have opened. I have dark blue hyacinth returning for year 5. Who knew they were such good perennializers? The pulmonaria has been blooming for a month and still looks great. Another favorite blue is Brunnera macrophylla, commonly called perennial forget me not, because of the flowers. However, the foliage is as big an asset; I have B. ‘Hadspen Cream’; B. ‘Jack Frost’ and B. ‘Looking Glass’ are also lovely. The foliage looks good from March to October, lighting up the shade, and is persistant through winter. Omphalodes cappadocica 'Parisian Skies' is a tiny plant with breathtaking blue blooms. Corydalis flexuosa has ferny foliage and weirdly pretty flowers. Veronica peduncularis ‘Georgia Blue’ is a wonderful groundcover with persistant foliage and blue blossoms for months.Pieris Valley Valentine

Some of the broadleaf evergreens are in bloom. The Camellia japonica 'Kumasaka' is smothered in medium pink blooms. Pieris ‘Valley Valentine’ has unique  dark red flowers. Rhododendrons ‘Songbird’, ‘Rock Rose’ and ‘Taurus’ are in full bloom.

My spring ephemerals are blooming and slowly spreading. This is the only time of year I can see them! Jeffersonia diphylla, called twinleaf, was named for Thomas Jefferson. This native wildflower Jeffersonia diphylla has lovely white blooms, but they are held beneath the foliage. Saguinaria canadensis, or blood root, has very similar pure white flowers that are held above the foliage. There is a spectacular double flowered variety: S. c. ‘Multiplex.’ Anemone nemerosa ‘Robinsoniana’ is a woodlander native to UK that is blooming now. Lathyrus vernus is a fabulous sweet pea relative that is reliably perennial and has incredible magenta/purple/blue flowers. My hepatica has broken ground but still refuses to bloom.

I have Darwin hybrid tulips returning for year number nine, that’s what I’m talkin about! T. ‘Golden Apeldoorn’ is a brilliant clear yellow; T. ‘Pink Impression’ is shining pink.

There are many wonderful Viburnums; V. carlessii ‘Compacta’ is in bloom right now and wonderfully fragrant. They call it Korean spice viburnum for obvious reasons. Spirea thunbergii ‘Ogon’ (aka ‘Mellow Yellow’) is a Great Plant Pick with airy willow-like foliage in chartreuse blooming now with small white flowers.

Daphnes are in a class by themselves with glossy, semi-evergreen foliage-sometimes variegated-and heavily fragrant blooms. D. odora marginata and D. transatlantic ‘Eternal Fragrance’ are blooming now much to my enjoyment. D. t. ‘Eternal Fragrance’ has at least a few blooms on it almost year round and reliably persistant foliage. It is, perhaps, my favorite Daphne of all.

I can hardly wait to see what April brings-besides showers.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Remarkable Rhododendrons

I know that Rhododendrons can be overdone, especially here in the beautiful Pacific NW. I remember when I first planned to move here from Texas, Neil Sperry, friend of the family and plantsman extraordinaire, regaled me with stories of shrubs the size of dining rooms and blooms the size of basketballs. (Remember, we’re talking Texans here.) Now, in the Seattle area, I meet people who will say, “I love plants, but don’t put any rhododendrons in. Those I don’t like.” GASP! What infamy!

Yet who can argue that certain varieties are used over and over so that it seems all rhodies look alike. Too many rhodies are planted in the wrong place, burned by the sun, dying of thirst in the summer, starved by bark mulch into sere, yellowed, puny specimens. A group of these look like the three witches of MacBeth, frozen in time. Who would want something like that in their yard? (Let’s not go there.)

I want to dispel those images with a few remarkable rhodies that I have come to love. I’ve already introduced you to the earliest blooming duo. Rhododendron mucronulatum blooms in February on bare wood. The blooms are small but plentiful and a good, clear pink. The next bloomer up to bat is the Rhododendron racemosum ‘Rock Rose.’ I love the maroon stems and Photo0176 upright habit of this early bloomer. This is one of the few rhodies I prune, to keep it compact and encourage more colorful stems. Right next to this in my garden is Rhododendron ‘Songbird’ with eye popping blue-violet blooms. This compact evergreen-to 3’ in 10 years-tends to bloom in spring AND fall. I am not kidding. The spring bloom is much more floriferous, but still…

Just as ‘Songbird’ reaches its vernal finale, R. ‘Taurus’ is bursting into bloom. This is the closest I have to the ubiquitous giant rhodies of the PNW. ‘Taurus’ eventually reaches 6’, with dark red buds in winter that continue to grow to improbable size. In late March or early April, depending on the weather pattern, those buds break into enormous glowing scarlet red blooms, up to 16 per spherical truss. It appreciates afternoon shade.

From the biggest to one of the smallest; R. ‘Patty Bee’ may reach 12” high by 24” wide in 10 years and is sun and heat tolerant. The blooms, in April, are a lovely butter yellow and large for the size of the plant. The foliage is evergreen, but may turn a bronze/plum in winter. I have it planted next to R. ‘Nelson’s Purple’ which blooms concurrently with small dark purple blossoms and can also take the sun.

Picture 001
The last of my favorites to bloom include a new acquisition, R. ‘Nancy Evans’. This beautiful selection is a Great Plant Pick;  it matures at about 3’ by 3’. The spectacular blooms start out as dark orange buds that open to amber yellow flowers with orange margins. Yellow rhodies require especially good drainage because most are bred from a species  susceptible to root rot.

I am a sucker for ‘blue’ rhododendrons, so I must mention two old but valuable varieties. Picture 030R. impeditum is a species rhodie discovered in China in 1911. This little guy only gets 2’ tall and wide-maybe-with tiny but abundant vivid violet blooms.  R. ‘Ramapo’ is a  widely available variety which was hybridized in the 1940’s by New Jersey plantsman Guy Nearing. In April-May, it is covered with profuse mauve to purple blooms. Its size is variable: 1-3’ tall by 2-4’ wide. Both of these tiny Titans can take full sun in the PNW and have silver to gray blue foliage which is aromatic when bruised.

Obviously, rhododendrons are generally sturdy plants plus they are extremely well suited to the Pacific NW. In fact, the native “coast Rhododendron” was selected as the state “floral emblem” in 1893. This was made official in 1949 by the state legislature and in a 1959 amendment, the R. macrophylum was specifically named the state flower. Rhododendron Park, near Coupeville on Whidbey Island, offers 140 acres laced with trails through wild rhododendron.

So, how hard can it be to make rhodies happy here? Really-they tolerate shade, poor climate and city pollution. They are easy to grow and do not require annual pruning. They do have shallow roots, so they require a humus-rich soil and sufficient moisture. They don’t like to dry out, so protect them with a generous layer of compost mulch. Rhododendrons require acidic soil. Most rhododendrons prefer some afternoon shade, but too much shade may inhibit bloom.

Rhodies are one of the plants that I actually do fertilize, in addition to my regular compost mulch. I use a rhododendron specific fertilizer that includes iron and apply a small amount several times during the summer as the shrubs are setting bloom for the following year. Be judicious; excess nutrients may promote larger than normal pest populations. Apply a very light scattering around the edge of the root zone. Never apply more than a few tablespoons at any one time; excess fertilizer can easily burn the delicate roots since they are so close to the soil surface.

So, do your homework. Check out proven, exceptional varieties selected for our area by the American Rhododendron Society . Find out the cultural conditions for your specific choices, prepare the site and then put the right plant in the right place! Your rhodies will be reliable and undemanding performers in your garden.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Miller Botannical Garden

Snohomish County Master Gardener Foundation presents an annual speaker series highlighting Northwest garden personalities. It’s called “The Winter Series” and features such PNW pundits as Ed Hume, Marianne Binetti, Ciscoe Morris and Mary Robson. I had the opportunity to hear Richie Steffen speak on “Ferns and Foliage.” Richie is the Coordinator of Horticulture at the Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, WA.

The garden is a legacy of Elisabeth Miller. The Millers purchased five acres of high bluff land overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains in 1948. On this property, Betty Miller created a world-class garden surrounded by native conifer woodland. Ahead of her time, she prized texture and form over flowers, providing a strong structure with year-round interest. The Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden Trust was established in 1994 to preserve and continue this remarkable garden.

I decided I had to see this horticultural treasure. The tours are very limited as part of the agreement with the exclusive, gated community in which the garden is located. Reservations are taken beginning February 1 and all slots for the year are filled within days. Groups of no more than 12 are guided by a Miller Garden staff member. Greg Graves, Head Gardener, was our tour guide. Greg’s vast knowledge and obvious delight in the plants and in the garden made the tour fun and memorable.

The garden is built on a MGalpineshill and we started out on a small terrace behind the house near  the parking area. The stone landing is loaded with fascinating pots and troughs of woodland ephemerals and alpines. Turning back toward the house, we climbed stone steps through a hillside rife with Mediterranean plants. Artemesias,  Hebes, alliums, sedums, Parahebe perfoliata, Eryngium agavifolium and sturdy dwarf conifers form a tapestry of colors and textures.

We walked back towards the front of the property, between the road and the house. Taking our time, we meandered through a fabulous replica of a PNW forest. The Highlands community in which the garden is located was originally designed by John C. Olmstead. His philosophy was to work with the natural topography and native vegetation and this is evident in the front section of the Miller Garden. It is easy to believe that you are hiking through a forest on the Olympic peninsula.

There are so many details that vie for your attention, it is hard to keep up. MGSpideyWe passed a rock outcropping that rose maybe 15 feet above the path. The staff had designed a "cataract" of Hakonechloa  grass that "flows" down through the rocks. (By the way, Betty Miller was the first to import the grass to the US.)Although this beautiful grass is chartreuse-an unlikely color for a waterfall-it is really quite evocative.  Near the bottom, by the path, there is an unusual plant that had all of us stumped. I thought the spidery pink flowers were actually new leaves-as on pieris-but they were indeed blooms. This lovely creature is Rhododendron stenopetalum 'Linearfolium'. I had never seen it before, but weeks later I found it at Emery's Garden in Lynnwood. Score!

The original house is being renovated for use by the Trust. It includes a covered courtyard and terraces where Impatiens omeiana and Daphne ‘Briggs Moonlight’ light up the shade. There are more than a dozen specimens of Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’ on the property. It was one of Betty’s favorite plants.

As you move down the hill toward the greenhouse area, there are more delights. A large spicebush, Calycanthus x raulstonii 'Hartlage Wine' carries luscious burgundy blooms. Eventually you come to a large deck overlooking the water. There is a huge pot containing Metasequoia glyptostroboides, the so called dawn redwood.

The variety of plants is mind boggling. There is a Live Plant Inventory on the Miller Garden website and it is 112 pages long. There are over 40 varieties of Galanthus; I am not making this up. There are plants on the list I’ve never heard of and others I would not have believed would grow here. It truly is an amazing place worth visiting, at least every couple of years if you can snag a tour.

Our visit was unhurried and Greg was gracious to answer never-ending questions from a group of avid gardeners. I learned an incredible amount in just a couple of hours. If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Miller Garden-don’t miss it!

If you would like more information about Snohomish County Master Gardeners, check out the website.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Beautiful Bulbs

Every spring the Skagit Valley of Washington state bursts into breathtaking beauty. Nothing outside of the Netherlands can top the vast sweeps of color, as far as the clip_image002eye can see. That illustrates one of the challenges with tulips. No one can gainsay their beauty, but their impact is greatest in large color blocks. Interplanting mixed colors can detract from the show as can planting too few together. The other problem is that many of the exquisite hybrids are not reliably perennial in the home garden.

But who can resist them? I can’t! I buy some almost every year, usually at Costco, and they provide an inspiring display the following spring. If you are willing to treat them as annuals, you will never be disappointed.

However, if you are only interested in large tulips that will return for another season, the variety that is most likely to accommodate you is the Darwin hybrid. In fact, the tulip with which I have the most success is a Darwin hybrid ‘Pink Impression.’ These are hybrids of the vigorous T. fosteriana species tulip crossed with the Darwin tulip. The Darwins were 19th century selections of the so-called ‘cottage tulips.’ They were first offered commercially in 1899 by a Messrs. Krelage and Son, of Haarlem in The Netherlands. These strains were probably survivors from the earliest Tulip mania in Europe, descended from T. gesneriana. So, this is a tough tulip. No need to tiptoe through these brawny blossoms.

Tulips should be planted once the weather has turned consistently cool and before the ground has frozen. Tulips prefer part-day, full sunlight or filtered sunlight for longest bloom time and best color. In the Pacific NW, that probably translates to full sun. All of our sunlight is somewhat ‘filtered’ by cloud layer. Bulbs will not grow in an area with poor water drainage; don’t even try it. They hate "wet feet".

Place the bulbs firmly in the soil with the pointed end up at a depth of 6-8”. Different bulbs require different planting depths; the general rule of thumb is to cover the top of each bulb with 3" to 4" of top soil. My tulips get a compost mulch and little else in the way of fertilizer. If you prefer, you may fertilize the bulbs three times a year: at planting time in the fall; when the sprouts first push through the soil in the spring and when the foliage dies in the summer. Don’t mix fertilizer into each hole; if you must fertilize, broadcast it over the surface of the bed and water it in. Water your tulips after planting if the soil is dry; they need to establish a strong root system before the ground freezes.

After your bulbs bloom, be sure to leave the foliage and stems to die back naturally, but you can "dead head" the flowers as soon as they have faded. The foliage manufactures energy and stores it in the bulb. If there is any hope of bloom the following year, the foliage should not be removed until it has withered completely. Bulbs are best left to regenerate in the ground. Of course, if you are treating your tulips as annuals, you can remove all of the foliage when you remove the faded blooms.

There are several ways of dealing with the yellowing foliage. You can plant the bulbs in gallon pots and sink them in the garden. Be sure to cover during our rainy winter with fern fronds and fir branches to prevent “wet feet.” (This works well with Dahlias, too.) Then after you enjoy the bloom in the spring, remove the pot to another location where the foliage can be allowed to “ripen.”

tulipsI prefer to interplant my bulbs with perennials that emerge a bit later but put on enough growth to cover the dying bulb foliage. Some candidates might be Geranium, Leucanthemum, Peonies, Echinacea, Nepeta, Brunnera, Hemerocallis, Aster fritarkii, and Hosta. Anything with broad or vase shaped foliage that is winter dormant then comes on strong after May will work well.

Set your expectations according to their limitations and you won’t be disappointed. These bulbs are too beautiful to eschew, so enjoy their extravagant display.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Get your plants here!

The Snohomish County Master Gardener Foundation partners with the WSU Extension program in providing Master Gardener services for Snohomish County. Our Foundation provides part of the funding for MG training, community diagnostic clinics, demonstration gardens, and other programs and events such as the popular Winter Lecture Series, the SCMG Garden Tours, and the annual SCMG Plant Sale each May.

The primary fund raiser for the Snohomish  2008 ps shoppingCounty Master Gardener Foundation is our annual plant sale.  This year, the sale will be held on Saturday, May 1, 2010 from 9am - 2pm at McCollum Park. The park is located at 600 128th Street SE in south Everett.

We offer an extensive selection of perennials and  ornamental grasses, shrubs, trees, and edibles for sale to the public.  Our sale is famous for its impressive selection of tomato varieties including old favorites, new varieties and heirlooms. This year, we will have 5000 tomato plants in over 100 different varieties.   We are responding to the increased interest in vegetable gardening this year with 3,000 herb and vegetable starts for your kitchen garden.

In addition to plants grown by Master Gardeners, we host an interesting assortment of specialty nursery, gift and garden art vendors during the sale.  This year, the vendors at the sale include:

Bouquet Banque Nursery

Wild Song Nursery

Oudean’s Willow Creek Nursery 

Mt Forest Farm/Robyn's Nest

Keeping it Green

Namaste Gardens

White Picket Gardens 

Sydney Acres

On the day of the sale, maps are available to show the location of plants, vendors, holding area, vegetable, herb, tomato areas and cashiers. Banner signs designate the various areas: perennials, which are laid out alphabetically; trees, shrubs, roses and natives; hardy fuchsias and geraniums; shade plants; and tomatoes, vegetables and herbs.

There will also be a clinic table set up and manned all day by MGs to answer your questions-just like the community clinics that we have all season in various locations around the County. There is also a team of roving “Ask Me” MGs to assist customers.

The Plant Sale is pulled together over months by an amazing team of MGs. Early in the year, the Grow team starts tomatoes and vegetables in several greenhouse locations. Before the sale, all of these plants mustIMG_0003 be nurtured, repotted and transported to the park.  About mid March, MGs begin delivering donated plants to McCollum. The potting shed team, assisted by groups of other MGs, begins to pot up the donated plants. Cashiers and Ask Me team members are trained.

The week before the sale, McCollum resembles a bee hive as MGs work in shifts to sort and identify plants, keep the plants healthy and organize the plants for the sale. The pricing team researches comparable plants and prices the donations.

The Thursday before the sale, we begin preparing the layout. The set up team begins to move  and set up tables, plants, tents and whatever else is needed. Vendors receive assistance setting up. Once the sale is over, there is a team that tears down and returns McCollum Park to its original condition.

All of this is planned and coordinated by the incredibly talented Plant Sale chairs: Michele Duncan, Janice Tallman, Sharon Thayer and Mary Lou Hart. The SCMG Plant Sale is a much anticipated annual horticultural extravaganza. Don’t miss it!

If you have questions about the plant sale or about the Master Gardener program, call the WSU Extension office at (425) 357-6010.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Master Gardeners

The WSU Extension Master Gardener Program trains volunteers to be community educators who provide science-based information on horticulture and environmentally sound gardening practices.

We have about 300 Master Gardeners in Snohomish County; each year a new class receives extensive training from the WSU faculty and experts from the Extension program. Returning MGs are required to complete continuing education every year to maintain certification.

In return for the intensive training, we provide diagnosis of plant problems, training in IPM, plant selection, soil imJune 014provement, water quality and organic techniques through the Extension office and hotline, community clinics and demonstration gardens. 

We are not trained to know all the answers; we are trained to find answers to the questions you ask.

The Washington State Master Gardener Program grew from the need for county agents to respond to the growing interest in home gardening. The WSU Extension originated the idea and trained the first Master Gardener volunteers 30 years ago. Now the program is replicated in every state and several provinces in Canada.

WSU extension offices are organized by county. Originally, the county agent was given the task of assisting the horticulture industry: orchards, farms and nurseries, for example. The horticulture faculty that was assigned to each office focused mostly on crop production.

In 1971, the extension offices began to experience public demand for information about plant problems that overwhelmed the resources. The solution that seemed most feasible was to recruit and train volunteers to serve the urban audience.

The viability of the concept was tested with a trial clinic; it was covered in Sunset Magazine with the caption, “Wanted: Expert Gardeners to Become Master Gardeners.” 600 applied; each applicant was interviewed and 300 were accepted. Ed Hume was an honorary trainee in the first class.

Sharon Collman, who had been working as program assistant on the project, became the King County Extension Agent.  She promoted and expanded the program and built a solid foundation. Sharon continued managing the program for several years and is now the Snohomish County Extension Agent.

If you’d like more information on Master  Gardeners including location and description of demo gardens an2008 ps setting upd community clinics, Speakers List, information on the Telephone clinic and location of the Extension office, visit the website. More information is available on the SCMG Foundation website including dates for the Winter Series lectures and the SCMG Plant Sale.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Improving drainage

Poor drainage is not an uncommon problem for the home gardener. If, during rainy weather, the water stands on the surface or drains very slowly, you may have to deal with the issue of soil porosity. Wet sites may be caused by poor soil, an unfortunate topography, or compaction. Whatever the cause, they result in an unhealthy soil ecosystem and may encourage fungal root diseases.

Poor drainage sometimes begins when topsoil is removed during construction, leaving only subsoil. At the same time, the soil is compacted by heavy equipment which reduces air space. Poor drainage can also be due to location of the site at the base of a slope; a failure to properly direct runoff water from roofs and downspouts, or improper grading of the site, leading to water standing in low areas.

If drainage is poor it might be worth it to do a percolation test. Check several locations in the landscape. If you decide action is necessary, several options are available to improve drainage.

I have nice soil, but it is a little too rich and moisture retentive for certain choice plants I like to grow. When I plant a Lewisia, for example, I dig the hole twice as deep as I need and fill with a gravel/soil mix. This seems to allow the area around the roots of this particular plant to drain faster. This is sort of a mini-dry well: a procedure that is used on a larger scale to plant trees in wet soils.

To handle a more pervasive drainage Picture 016 problem, you might create raised beds. Elevate the site by adding 10-12 inches of compost and topsoil and work it fully into the bed. A modified version of this will even work on the lawn. Because we had a problem with standing water on areas of our lawn, last summer we bermed the yard up about 8”, tapering off at each side to the previous ground level. This winter, we have had no standing water.

It is not recommended to add an organic amendment to an individual planting hole. If the structure and texture of the soil in the hole is different from that of the soil surrounding it, the roots tend to stay within the confines of the hole and do not penetrate into the native soil. Instead, the compost should be incorporated uniformly throughout the topsoil in the projected root zone. If you add 3 inches of compost to the soil surface and work it in to a 12-inch depth you would have a 25 percent increase in organic matter. Avoid using more than 50 percent organic matter, because plant problems may result from humic acids and other organic compounds (Yeah, we talked about that already…)

If you prefer an engineering approach, you can lay French drains. To totally over simplify: you determine an appropriate place for the water to drain and dig a trench to this area from the garden. The trench should be deep P5070012enough to lay perforated drain pipe below the frost line. Line the trench with several inches of gravel and rake smooth.  Place the pipe on the gravel; add enough gravel to cover the pipe, then fill up to grade with topsoil. You may want to camouflage the end of the pipe, but don’t seal it.

Another approach is to adapt to your site rather than try to change it. Standing water may reveal the perfect area for a pond-or you can opt for a bog garden instead. You can select plants that are not deterred by soggy ground. There are species of trees, shrubs and perennials that will be happy to claim your “wetland” as their home.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Naturalizing Bulbs

I’d like to make a pitch for the lesser spring bulbs. These lovely plants not only return year after year but will multiply. This is called naturalizing and it is what makes these bulbs the most bang you can get for your buck. I’ll list them chronologically by bloom time; the actual month of bloom may vary by geographic area or due to changing weather patterns.

The first blooms to appear are the snowdrops (Galanthus); snowdrops these dainty blossoms usually appear mid-January. They prefer to be planted “in the green” so look for plants that are up and growing at the nursery. Right on their heels are the bright yellow aconite (Eranthis).

Bulbous Iris bloom in early February. Iris danfordiae is brilliant yellow, like a tiny daffodil. Iris reticulata and Iris histrioides have lovely blue or purple flowers.  There are several well known hybrids with intricately etched blooms in pale silvery blue or purple. Before the irises are done, the early crocuses are coming on strong. By choosing varieties with different bloom times, you may have crocus blooming for monCrocusths. Crocus tommasinianus starts the show as early as late February, followed by C. chrysanthus; C. flavus and  C. vernus bloom last, in April.

By early March the dark blue Scilla are making a statement. If they happily colonize, they look like a sapphire pool while blooming. Try them under the lovely butter yellow blooms of Corylopsis pauciflora. In March the Chionodoxa bloom in shades of pale blue or pink. Ipheion begins to bloom in March and continues into April. They are sweetly scented and periwinkle blue, lovely with daffodils. Surprisingly, hyacinths perennialize; they seem like they would be divas, but I have a group that has returned for four years.  Their scent is delicious but powerful; plant them along a walkway or by a door, but think twice about taking them inside!

In April, the daffodils finally bloom, although their strappy leaves have been up for months. You can extend your daffodil display by planting groups with different bloom times. An early variety is Narcissus cyclamineus with reflexed petals. N. c. ‘Tete a Tete’ is a miniature. The classic Trumpet daffodil is a mid-season bloomer as is the Triandrus daffodil.  N. t. ‘Thalia’ is my personal favorite of all the daffodils. Late bloomers include the doubles, N. ‘Cheerfulness’ and N. ‘Winston Churchill.’

If you are going to grow tulips, I enthusiastically recommend species tulips. They usually go by their Latin names: Tulipa acuminata, T. humilis, T. linifolia, T. saxatilis. Originally from the Mediterranean, Asia Minor and the Caucasus, these lovely little gems offer flowers in dazzling colors. They perennialize better than hybrid tulips and are wonderful for naturalized drifts and rock gardens where they will not be overwhelmed by early emerging perennials. Many are quite small; their height is usually less than 8” although some grow larger. 

Generally, all of these bulbs appreciate a position that is sunny during the growing season. Remember that many deciduous trees and shrubs are bare or sparsely leafed out January through April and bulbs will happily naturalize beneath them.  Well drained soil is non-negotiable-they abhor wet feet.  If you are unsure about your site, it is worth it to perform a percolation test. Dig a hole 2 feet deep, any width. Fill the hole with water and let it drain completely. Refill hole with water. Place a measuring stick in the hole, or mark soil on the side of the hole with a nail or twig. Measure the drop in water level after 30 minutes and again in one hour and calculate the average drop in level/hour.  If, on average, the water level drops less than ½” per hour, the soil drains poorly; if ½”-1”, the soil is moderately well drained. If the water drops more than an inch per hour, the soil is well drained and suitable for bulbs.

Plant them in early fall so they have time to make their roots while the soil is still relatively warm. They should be planted at a depth twice the height of the bulb and 2” apart. Remember that in order to return and bloom again, the foliage must be allowed to die back undisturbed. The foliage creates the energy that is stored in the bulb for next year. Plant bulbs with perennial companions that will shoot up to cover their ripening foliage.  Good choices include Geranium, Nepeta, Brunnera, Hemerocallis, Campanula and Hosta. Deciduous grasses, such as Hakonechloa work well.

An excellent web resource for photographs of all of these bulbs is John Scheepers. Give these hardworking beauties a try and see if they don’t “grow on you.”

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Epic Battle

It is time. Arm yourselves and prepare to defend your property. An invasion is imminent; even now the advance scouts can be seen. You must be ruthless; this is no time for namby-pamby bleeding hearts!

Okay, so our invaders are mollusks and most are pretty tiny. But slugs are the number one complaint we hear from home gardeners. And no wonder, because they are hard to control and their damage can deface a garden overnight. If we faithfully defend our plants now, we will at least stem the tide.  The best course of action, in my opinion, is multi-level.

First, I recommend baiting with an iron phosphate product. The reason I prefer this is because the other widely available active ingredient in slug bait, Metaldehyde, is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a 'slightly' toxic compound that may be fatal to dogs or other pets if eaten.  The severity is related to size of the animal, so birds are at high risk. Check out this website for more specifics on the danger.

Iron phosphate, on the other hand, is a substance that is sometimes included in fertilizers. You can find the EPA report online. The active ingredient is coated with “bait”-such as wheat gluten-that is highly attractive to slugs. Cereal-based baits attract and kill more slugs than non-cereal-based baits, such as liquid slug baits.  It is most effective spread just before plants are breaking ground in the spring, when the “salad bar” is sparse. Apply bait after rain showers, as slugs like to come out and feed then.

At the Miller Garden in Seattle, iron phosphate is applied once in the spring and once in the fall. Autumn is a good time to bait, because you can kill the reprobates before they lay eggs. As the rains return in the fall and mornings are damp, the slugs will come out of their underground hiding places. Since 90% of the slugs are underground at any one time, even with best practices you can’t kill them all, but you can make a big dent. It seems that, in my yard, the bait becomes less effective when it is always available. So, the twice a year protocol works best for me.

Secondly, go after individual perpetrators. Handpicking is a time honored method to do this, preferably after dark with a flashlight and a bucket of soapy water to finish them off. I’m not a fan. Instead, I fill a spray bottle with 1/3 ammonia and 2/3 water and go on slug safari in the cool of early summer mornings. It is worth is to pay the extra money for a sturdy bottle; I can hit a 4” slug at 20 paces.

Remember, every slug you dispatch had the potential to produce about 40,000 offspring. And yes, I mean EVERY slug because they are hermaphrodite-having both male and female organs-so every individual can lay eggs.  There are three stages in the life cycle: eggs, immature stage and adults. They can overwinter in any stage, mature in less than one year and may live two or more years-unless you intervene.

My last weapon is my least favorite, but I sometimes resort to it in desperation. The keg party is a nearly fool-proof method for snagging those slimy topes. Use a small plastic container, such as a 6 oz drinking glass, yogurt or margarine tub. Half bury in the soil and fill with the cheapest beer you can find. They apparently are not connoisseurs, unlike Washington state bears.   You will need to empty it within a few days-the longer you wait, the nastier it will be. But with this method you will even catch the little bitty guys that you’ll never find when you are shooting from the hip.

It is also worth the time to eliminate slug hostels from your yard. Slugs love dark, moist areas and you will find them congregating under boards, stones, debris, ground covers and the like. This can work to your advantage if you regularly cleaclip_image001r out these dens of iniquity by handpicking (good luck with that.)  We have built a fabulous slug condo made of stone-ah in our garden-an unintended result of our retaining walls. I can’t dismantle it get to the buggers, but I can bait nearby and check the walls regularly with my trusty ammonia launcher in hand.

Here’s a solution I haven’t tried yet: recently, USDA scientists have shown that caffeine is an effective slug deterrent. Caffeine is not currently registered as a pesticide in the U.S., so there are no caffeine-based slug control products available. However, so many people use coffee grounds as nutrient-rich mulch around garden plants that many Starbucks bag up their grounds and offer them to interested customers.  I’m going try this one around my Ligularia, which is completely irresistible to and pretty indefensible from slugs. If it works, it will be a breakthrough for me!