Monday, March 29, 2010

I see Foliage...

What makes Asian gardens so pleasing to the eye is not a garish color display (you know, those gardens that look like they were designed by an aging myopic clown), but subtle, healthy displays of foliage that range in color and texture. Most great designs consider foliage just as or more important than flower.

Nothing against bright fancy blooms, but here's the thing. When you design with only flowers in mind you may end up with a rag tag, bug eaten, scraggly mess. For instance, if you want only roses, what happens when you get black spot? All your roses get it. Ugh. Bare rose stems are not the prettiest part of the plant.

Check out a Japanese garden, take a walk and observe. What do you see? Form, texture, shape most likely. A little bloom here and there, but it's subtle and delicate like a piece of sushi topped with a tiny garnish.

Here are the basics: Use plants that have nice form and healthy foliage. Keep the leaves healthy if you can by getting hardy plants. Dwarf conifers are not only evergreen, but easy to grow. Mix them with rhodies, azaleas and lace-cap hydrangeas. Sound boring? It's not if you get good ones and keep them healthy and vibrant. Throw in a small patio tree with interesting bark or great structure like stewardia, or vine maples.

Does your garden look like a bomb went off in winter? Is it because all your plants are daisies, iris, and dahlias? Mix in some evergreens or shrubs with winter interest so you have something to look at other than your spigots and bird feeders come winter. Gardening is not just about April showers and May flowers.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Man eating plants!

Well, it may not eat a man but it might slowly dissolve one of your fingers if you happened to drop it into the "mouth" of Nepenthes attenboroughii, a pitcher plant discovered several years ago in the Phillipines and named after everybody's favorite naturalist Sir David Attenborough. Attenboroughii is said to be one of the largest pitcher plants ever discovered.

Also discovered on the 2007 expedition were unidentified blue mushrooms and never before seen pink ferns. Hmm, rat eating plants, blue fungi and pink ferns. Maybe these botanists took a long strange trip and never actually left their laboratory.

So does it really eat meat? Yes. Mostly insects-however last year it was found to-perhaps incidentally-trap, drown and "eat" animals as large as frogs and mice if they happen to slip into the dreaded pool of slime from which it can't escape. Perhaps rat infested cities like New York might want to invest in a few million pitcher plants peppered around the city...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bulb Senility

Bulbs often mystify gardeners. Where did my daffidols go? I know there were some tulips here somewhere...I saw them last spring, didn't I? Maybe I am getting senile. Can I blame my memory loss on global warming as well?

I admit I forget about bulbs once their foliage dies off and the holidays are well on their way-esp when I've been digging away in a client's yard. Oops. That's where he planted his beloved snowdrops...oh delicate harbinger of spring...

Here's an incredibly easy way to remember where you planted your bulbs. Take photos of them. And here's the really easy part. Take photos of them while they are blooming! Make sure you have some perspective and some points of reference so that you can easily recognize the area of your yard. File your pictures and date them. And if you're the kind of bulb maniac that digs up your bulbs and plants new ones every year good for you. I'm too lazy. Besides, bulbs are expensive, hey?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Spotting that elusive prey: the perfect client

I happened to briefly take in a conversation (if you can call it that) today on my midday jog that made me cringe. A homeowner standing in her yard "talking" to a garden designer while several children screamed, phones rang, dog's peed willfully on anything green and growing. To make matters worse, the woman was just totally a loud know it all-you know what. I was overjoyed that I could continue to run away from her even though my heart went out to that poor garden designer. I was once her.

Donald Trump might disagree with me (but that is why he is rich and I am not). I simply don't take obnoxious troublemaking clients anymore and I can spot them the second I pull up. Some people you just don't click with, but these people make everyone's life a living hell (and if you feel sorry for their contractors how about their spouses?)

The perfect client is the opposite of this woman. The perfect client is not necessarily a perfect person, but a person who listens to you and realizes that you actually know more than her-because that is why you were hired, right? Pretty simple. Thankfully, they flourish in abundance around Portland. There will always be weeds that need to be yanked no matter how lovely the garden...

Friday, March 19, 2010

Good Garden, Bad Smell

I had a client several years ago with a really pretty little back yard and patio area. She was a really nice woman, and I really enjoyed working in her yard except for one minor issue-it stank. It smelled like a combination of dead squirrels and rotting stilton cheese-esp in late summer and fall. The odor was distinct, but elusive. It would reach my nose and I would remain steadfast and alert in an effort to sniff it out-but to no avail. No matter how many times I tried to discreetly follow the scent on my hands and knees as I weeded, the smell would elude me. I could not for the life of me, pinpoint it. Good God, woman! What are you burying under your mock orange and your vinca minor? Your neighbors limbs? I never had the heart to ask her why her yard smelled like shit and the issue hardly ever came up. Maybe, she had grown accustomed to it. Then, I became paranoid. Maybe I was the only one who smelled it...

Eventually, we went our separate ways but the smell returned back into my life two years ago on my jogging route. Not again, I thought the first time it hit my nose. What cruel fate is this? Since the area in question was next to a busy avenue, I was forced to wait for the light and therefore take in the noxious odor as I jogged in placed and waited anxiously for the light to change.

Some days I just ignored the smell, other days it was as pungent as I remembered and I would march around the area in question demanding answers from silent shrubs and skittering birds. Damn you stench! Reveal yourself! It may or may not be true that at one time I turned to the roar of traffic, waved my arms and exclaimed, "They call me mad while they are all mad themselves!" Then again, on reflection, I think I just quietly made a face and trotted home taking in the scent of freshly cut lawn to counteract the evil emanation.

Call it an act of god or a simple firing of neurons, but one day, last fall, upon jogging to the site in question, I had an epiphany. What, I asked, does this area have in common with the nice lady's yard? And then, perspiring and breathing heavily, it dawned on me. The tree. The persimmon tree. The fruit! The stinking rotting fruit! Ah Ha! It was in front of my nose the whole time, just standing there quietly laughing to itself as it would drop stink bomb after stink bomb. Dumb human. Silly, bipedal beast. What took you so long?

Though this be madness, yet there is method in't...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I am Slug, hear me munch

I seem to be a little fixated on slugs at the moment. Perhaps, having just planted a bed of lettuce greens and spinach, I am a little paranoid. They haven't yet germinated and already I have compulsive visions of stripped and ravaged young plantlets.

I've been using Sluggo (Iron Phosphate pellets, yes they are safe) now for years, and I'm pretty happy with the results. You do, however, have to replenish the bait and you do have to look at those little white pellets which look kind gross of after they start to sprout spores and mildew.
But it works-great. And it's easy. It is not, however, particularly cheap.

Try and use preventative measures to keep slugs under control. Keep the garden tidy and clean, and keep mulches away from the base of targeted plants. There are other prevention methods, like barriers: copper tape, eggshells, wood shavings if you aren't inclined to use bait. Some insane people actually hunt slugs at night with a flashlight and claim that it works but I say let them have a little nibble-I'd rather not have my husband send me to the psyche ward in the morning.

Not all slugs are bad, mind you. Our native Oregon banana slug is a good guy. He eats decomposed material, leaves and animal droppings and returns it to the soil. Don't kill this guy (and gal-they're hermaphrodites) if you trip over it in the forest.

The slug that feasts in our gardens is an import from Europe-Britain, in particular. A smaller, voracious thing that also likes techno music, has bad teeth and launches into incomprehensible tirades about how Americans put ice in their water and drive giant, gas guzzling pick-up trucks...sorry folks, but it looks like they're here to stay.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Growing a Meyer Lemon tree indoors

A friend of mine just gifted me a fragrant and pretty improved Meyer Lemon tree. I'm not much of a houseplant kind of gal, but I'm excited about this plant because it might provide some tasty little lemons for me-that is, if I can get it right.

I've done some research and it looks pretty basic. I'll need to re-pot it with some slightly acid all purpose potting mix, keep the room temperature between 70 and 55 degrees, keep the soil evenly moist, mist the leaves, and place it in a sunny spot in the house.

Okay, fine, easy. But wait, because this is an indoor plant I'm told that I'll have to pollinate it myself with a Q-tip or other some such implement. Okay, I'll take the challenge, but my cheeks are already a little red...

Friday, March 12, 2010

There will be Bugs

I'm by no means an expert on garden pests. The main reason for this is that I faint easily at the sight of all things disgusting and most insects, esp the wormy ones, freak me out.
Basically, I just don't like to think about them, so therefore I remain fairly ignorant.

However, it is my duty to at least be familiar with the common ones. Slugs, snails, cutworms, rootweevils, spidermites etc. Imagine if you were only two feet tall and immobilized by a complex root system as some befanged, multiple-legged monstrous vermin approached you in the night and doomed you to a death by a thousand tiny bites...

I've always encouraged my clients to be philosophical about bug damage. There will always be bug damage. Even after Armageddon there will be bug damage.

Select your battles wisely: If you buy the same plant year after year and you (mystically!) are beset by the same bug eating that same plant, might I suggest a different plant for no other reason than for the sake of my sanity! If the cutworms are eating your petunias than buy some lantana, or some verbena. If you have to have those same petunias year after year you may be in a rut anyhow. Get to the nursery right as they get the first flush of annuals so that you have a variety to chose from and let yourself be a little more creative...

Deal with a few missing blooms: Are you going to kill yourself because you wake up with a pimple? Gardens don't need to look a Sunset catalog. You don't need to be perfect and neither does your garden. Besides, I, the consummate perfectionist, have studied these so called perfect gardens and I have found plenty of weeds and scraggly looking perennials in many of their photos.

Go all out if you choose to fight the battle: Just spraying some pesticide here no there? (whether "organic" or "toxic") Do it right. Finish your antibiotics, as they say. Spray and keep spraying so that you actually kill the beasts and get some satisfaction out of dousing your plant with chemicals. Non-toxic products contain chemicals too you know. Ever get Neem oil in your eye? They aren't made out of pixie dust and angel's tears.

Select tried and true hardy plants:
Every now and then I get really attached to a high drama, needy plant that requires constant attention. (Although I have to admit, I usually reach a critical breaking point with these Primadonnas after they piss me off one to many times). After a while, dragging that bougainvilla and that datura into the garage every winter or picking diseased leaves off your hybrid tea one by one as it snags and punctures you, you start to really appreciate those hardy, easy, loyal friends that take a winter beating, a little neglect and then some. Beginning gardeners often fall victim to a pretty face in the nursery and then wonder why it stabs you in the back after you take it home. Go for the nice, cute guy with glasses sitting in the corner girls...

Oh, right, I was supposed to talk about bugs. How easily I digress. Try and figure out what kind of bug you have before you assault them. One bug may know Jujitsu, another may be swinging a baseball bat. Lift up dead leaves and watch the earwigs scatter. Follow the slime trail to the slugs resting spot. A great book for pest/disease id is the Sunset Gardening's book of Problem Solver. It has really good, gross photos and detailed information on what your problem is and how to solve it if you can bear the grisly pictures...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Introducing the Carnivorous Ghost Slug

Yes, carnivorous. A recently discovered slug in Wales, it hunts worms at night. There have been several sightings throughout Wales and it is believed to have been a stowaway on potted plants imported into Wales-its origins may be, according to National Geographic, deep caves in Turkey and surrounding regions.

The ghost slug has blade-like teeth that sucks down worms and other prey like a noodle. One end of the worm may still be alive as it consumes and then slices through the other end. Yum! Nature is a relentless mistress.

Like all invasive species, it may take time to see if the ghost slug is a threat to native worms and other native critters. Maybe I should incite a protest downtown. Ghost slugs! Not in my backyard!
I'd hate to lose a pinky...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Naked gardening vs clothed

Peppers. Tomatoes in March? Because it's cold out I want to think hot. Growing peppers and tomatoes in the Portland area is certainly possible though not ideal. Why? Our cool nights. I've mainly grown hot peppers and a few varieties of sweet peppers in containers so that the soil stays a little warmer than it does in the ground. You can also move them as you chase the sun in August and September. I've had a lot of success with tomatoes even with as little as seven hours of sun. They weren't the most productive but they were tasty and better than a slap on the forehead.

I run into a problem of aesthetics when growing vegetables and using growth aids like wall o water and plastic mulch tarps. I know wall o water works but I just don't want to look at a plastic tomato plant in my garden. I'm willing to settle for less yield and a shorter growing season because I am so vain. Would you rather be ugly and live to a hundred or beautiful and live to 80?

Okay, you don't have to answer that question. But answer these. Are you a canner? Do you want a truck-load of salsa that you can eat all winter? Than use wall o water. You'll get more yield. Do you enjoy the beauty of a tomato or pepper plant but don't need a mess of fruit that might just go to waste? Then garden naked, the old-fashioned way.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Missing winter blooms

A client of mine was disappointed that her witch hazel didn't bloom. Isn't that the whole point of having winter interest? So what happened?

We decided that a cold snap nipped those pretty little yellow blooms in the bud. Do I know for sure? No, of course not. But using the powers of deduction, we decided that the missing blooms were weather based. The shrub looks healthy, the new leaf buds look healthy. The interesting thing is that there were a few blooms that actually opened-perhaps before the cold snap froze the rest of them.

If you really want to prevent having your winter pretties made ugly, you can protect them by wrapping them with landscape fabric or plastic that has some air flow. But then you have to look at a plant wrapped in a sack all winter. Your choice!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Demystifying Clematis

I think every gardener comes across a plant species that they simply can't grow. For me, it's clematis. Its been carrying a grudge against me for years. That is until I stopped trying so hard.

I was intimidated by clematis during my early years as a landscape grunt. Don't break the stems while you plant it! Plant it deep but not too deep! Make sure the roots stay cool! Don't prune it the wrong way or it won't bloom!

I planted clematis armandii several years ago (you know, the evergreen one with white flowers) against my porch at the time so that it would drape over the top of the porch. Well, it didn't do anything. It looked okay, but it never grew. Year after year--it grew only a few inches. I moved and drove by it last month and it still looked the same.

I planted many clematis for my former employer and they did the same thing. They looked okay but they didn't grow! I know what you're thinking, I didn't plant it right. Too much clay soil, blah blah. I did plant it properly. It just doesn't like me.

My garden designer friend Patrick has a similar story. His nemesis is rock rose or cistus. Rock rose, you say? Easy stuff, it grows like a weed and it doesn't require or even like care. Now this is a guy that's designed most of the McMenamins gardens (and many more) so let's say he knows what he's doing and his gardens are awesome. But according to Patrick he can't get his cistus to thrive or even stay alive. Go figure, maybe he pissed off the rock rose spirits at some point in his reckless youth.

So my point? Do I have one? Yes. Some mysteries can't or even don't need to be solved. If you don't have success with certain plants move on! Don't be a drama queen about your inability to grow your favorite flower. I think you're lying anyway if you say you have a favorite flower. How could you possibly choose just one? There are a gazillion plants to choose from and you'll never get to all of them.

Oh, by the way. I picked up a discount clematis last spring. It looked depressed and lonely and since I'm a sucker for a sad sack and a sob story I plucked it off the table and tooled home with it in my truck. What the heck, I thought as I carelessly potted it and shoved it onto the corner of my balconey. I watered it-that's about all-and guess what? It grew, it bloomed, and now-a year later-it's growing like crazy. Haven't done a darn thing to it and it's growing in a small pot in old soil.

Oh, don't get all weepy on me. The curse still lives on--I lost the tag and I can't for the life of me remember the name of the bloody plant.