Monday, December 21, 2009

Solstice Reflections

On this the shortest day, even with today's dark clouds and rain making it seem as though the sun forgot to come up at all, I am somehow feeling happy! And it's probably because for the next 6 months the light will return more and more each day, and bring with it the abundant renewal of growth and color in the garden. The dark seems easier to enjoy with that perspective, especially in combination with the celebrations of family and friends that are more abundant during these last weeks of the year. I hope you are enjoying this season too.

Another December Deep Freeze
I’ve recently returned from a visit to cold and windy Northern Indiana, where prolonged deep freezes are expected and delivered each year. The weather here feels absolutely balmy to me in comparison! However, now that I’ve had the chance to walk through my garden to see what our own recent deep freeze left behind, all I can say is… sigh…

Much of the damage is reminiscent of last December’s weather adventure: evergreen shrubs with blackened leaf edges, winter-flowering plants with wilted buds, and perennials that have turned rather gooey. Yet once again, the "stalwarts" that sailed through last year’s ice and snow without a problem have done the same with this go-round. All the conifers look great and the Sarcococca shrubs are ready to burst into bloom. But if I was handing out blue ribbons, I'd have to give the group prize
to the native plants in my garden, for once again coming through the deep freeze with little or no damage. The flower buds on both the Low and Tall Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa and aquifolium) are firm and plump, as are the leaf buds on the Red-flowering Currant and Vine Maple. The glistening green leaves of the Wild Ginger, Salal, and Evergreen Huckleberry are just as beautiful as they were before the freeze.
My advice to other gardeners is the same as I give to myself:

1. Focus on what looks great in your garden.
2. Make a note of the plants you see in your garden and elsewhere that are flourishing despite last summer's drought and the recent freeze.

3. If you love your Daphne, Viburum tinus, and other plants that got hammered again by the freeze,
be patient with their recovery or decide you are ready for a change.
4. When you have the opportunity to replace or add new plants, remember the "stalwarts" to guide your choices.

Winter Feasting

One other major change I've noticed is the absence of many of the berries and seeds that adorned my garden shrubs throughout the fall.
There are only a few glistening purple gems left on the Beautyberry, all but one bunch has been eaten from the Red-twig Dogwood, and even the California Wax Myrtle and Japanese Barberry are nearly stripped bare. Only the Parneyi Cotoneaster and Snowberry still have their full clusters, because their berries do not ripen for a few more months. The birds who spend their winters here obviously needed extra food to stay warm during the cold snap, and I am glad they could find it in my garden. Despite the feeders I have stocked with black-oil sunflower seed and suet, the first choice for birds is always food that can be found on plants- whether seeds, berries, or insects. Northern Flickers and Yellow-rumped Warblers are two of the many birds attracted to the California Wax Myrtle seed clusters, tiny red Barberries are just the right size for Chickadees and Sparrows, and Robins make quick work of those iridescent Beautyberries. Ground-feeding birds such as Juncos and Sparrows have taken a liking to the Boxleaf Hebe seeds, and spend part of each day foraging in safety underneath this hardy evergreen shrub. Bewick's Wren and Spotted Towhee are gleaning for insects and their eggs amidst the fallen leaves, and helping themselves to the "leftovers" under the suet feeder after the Downey Woodpeckers and Bushtits have visited. So considering all that, I guess I don't really miss seeing the beautiful berries on my shrubs....

Winter Water

When our recent deep freeze hit, one of the first things my husband and I did was to set up our birdbath heater in our little fountain on the deck. This kept the water just above freezing, which provided our cast of "regulars" their usual drinks and baths. But it also caught the attention of dozens of robins, jays, warblers, nuthatches, and other less-frequent visitors, which created a lively scene that was fun to watch from the kitchen window. Water is essential for birds and other wildlife all year long, and prolonged freezes can ice up even the edges of streams and ponds, and add to their winter hardships. Providing fresh water during winter is
definitely well worth the effort considering the delightful reward for them and for us!

Wrapping up the Season
I love plants of all kinds, and get a lot of joy out of helping them thrive in other people's gardens as well as my own. Yet I think the best way to have a garden with year-round beauty is to create one that attracts birds and other wildlife. Plants alone are great, but the addition of vibrant life right outside your windows, no matter what kind of weather Mother Nature brings, is something that plants alone can't bring.
And the winter months, when so many trees and shrubs are bare, are the easiest time of year to see how many of wild creatures are in your garden. Their survival depends greatly on the planting and maintenance choices we make, and there are benefits to both humans and wildlife when we keep them in mind. This is the reason I always recommend including plants that feed birds, butterflies, and other wildlife in my designs, no matter what other garden goals are on our wish list. And when clients agree, it makes my work even more joyful.

Thanks to all who have helped make this past year chock-full of good times, good work, and good memories!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Garden Open House!

It's time for a
Green Light Gardening
Open House!

You're invited to visit my garden on Saturday, September 12th

from 1:00-6:00pm

Refreshments will be served, and you are very welcome to bring children and friends!

It's been 2 years since my last garden open house, and there have been a lot of changes in the garden since then. Here are the highlights:

new flagstone path and back porch will greet you at the back garden entry, along with new plantings in the surrounding beds and containers.

Because last winter's fury caused a bit of unexpected "editing", the opportunity opened up to add more native plants in several areas of the front and back gardens.

Spring projects included a remodel of the front garden and both parking strips, with new berms and plantings in each.

new rain garden now absorbs the runoff from two downspouts in the side garden.

As always, the garden contains many wildlife-friendly and child-friendly features, but there are a few new sculptures and other garden art peeking out here and there from the plantings. The growth of the trees and shrubs planted over the last 10 years has created a more woodland-edge feel to the garden perimeters, though the central areas remain sunny perennial beds.

My interest in propagating plants
that attract and feed songbirds, bees, butterflies, and/or hummingbirds has also been rekindled, so there will be plants available for sale at both garden open houses. Plus, 10% of all proceeds will be donated to the Magnuson Children's Garden!

I hope you will have time to stop by for a visit! And if you have been kind enough to refer me to a friend or colleague who has hired me for design, consultation, or education over the past 2 years, please come and pick out a free plant from my home nursery as a thank you gift!

There is a Husky Football game that day, so I strongly suggest avoiding the Montlake bridge route! If you need my address and directions, just send an email request to

Hope to see you in the garden!

Great New Website and Garden Tots program

I am excited to inform you about a new website with a tremendous variety of helpful garden information, including a design guide that I have helped to write!

IPMopedia is a new website created and hosted by the Washington Toxics Coalition ( , a local non-profit that is dedicated to providing free, scientific research to the public about how to avoid being exposed to toxic products in our homes, workplaces, and environment. You have likely seen their Pesticide-Free Zone signs are seen in gardens all across the Puget Sound, including my own. Their exposure of toxic paint used in children's toys gained national attention recently and helped advance toy safety laws across the country. Their factsheets on safe alternatives to treated wood, weed and moss killer, and pesticides are a very valuable resource to landscapers and other horticulture professionals like myself.

IPMopedia is a wonderful new undertaking, intended to inform and educate home gardeners and professionals in the Pacific Northwest on all aspects of Integrated Pest management (IPM). The website contains pest and disease identification guides, making good plant choices, and upcoming classes and events. It also contains a Design Guide section with the pages I wrote on Sustainable Garden Design, Wildlife-Friendly Gardening, and Rain Gardens.

Check out this great new resource at!

The Kruckeberg Botanic Garden is a beautiful place to visit any time of year, and contains some of the most rare and special plant collections anywhere in the Northwest. Now there is another good reason to visit; their new Garden Tots program! Every Friday, you are invited to bring children ages 2-5 to the garden for fun and educational programs, with a different theme each week. As a member of the Kruckeberg Education Committee, I helped created some of the materials used during Garden Tots, and who knows, you may find me there when you visit! Check out for more information on what's planned for each week.

Watering Wisely

With the summer's heat and dry days coming early this year, many gardens (including mine) have needed extra watering to stay in good health and continue to recover from last winter's cold and wind.

Plants that have suffered cold injury are more susceptible to drought stress, and vice versa. So this year, the Puget Sound region is really getting a double whammy, which could result in additional plant problems if our watering methods are out of sync with our garden's needs.

But... how to tell how much water is enough but not too much? The biggest part of the answer is in knowing your native soil.

Most watering guides say to water deeply and not very often, in order to promote long plant roots that can thrive despite the dry summers that are typical in the Pacific Northwest. This is sage advice, but.... you definitely need to know your native soil in order to understand how this watering advice relates to your own garden conditions.

Also, don't assume that every part of your garden has the same type of soil. Because of the construction techniques used during most home-building in the 20th century, your native soil may be intact in some areas, and either replaced by fill dirt or flipped topsy-turvy in others. This is why I check the soil in several areas of your garden during my first time consultation, and sometimes take 2-3 samples home to test for its components. If you're unsure about your soil's components and have received a garden report from me over the past few years, you can check the Soil and Drainage section for my findings and customized advice. You can also follow the instructions at

Amending your native soil with compost is a vital component to watering wisely, because compost helps sandy soils retain more water for longer periods of time, and helps heavy clay soils drain better while still retaining water well.

Another big factor in your watering decisions is what you are growing in your garden. Your goal is to have adequate water available to plants in the level of soil where their primary roots are growing. The roots of well-established trees and shrubs can grow 12-30 inches or more into the soil, and typically need much less water than relatively new plantings. Some need no supplemental water at all. New plantings of trees, shrubs, or perennials will only have roots in the top 6-12 inches of soil, gradually growing deeper as the years go by, especially when you water wisely. Vegetable garden plants will always be in the top 4-12 inches of soil, so typically need more water than any other part of a garden.

No matter what your garden contains, you also need to pay attention to how high the temperatures are and how low the humidity is, because that has a huge effect on how quickly the plants in your garden use up the water that you put in the soil.

Here are some soil and watering examples from the ornamental beds in my home garden:
  • My back garden is on a terraced slope, with planting beds on each of the 4 levels. The soil throughout the back garden contains a large percentage of clay, which is the smallest of all soil particles. This means that it holds water well and disperses it horizontally when watered. But its fine texture also means that it accepts water slowly, so if I have the sprinkler or irrigation system set too high, the water will pool on the surface or create runoff, which doesn't do my plants much good. Also, the trees, shrubs, and perennials in my back garden have well established root systems. Therefore I water my back garden at very low pressure, for a longer period of time, and less often than my front garden, which has a high sand content. In a typical summer, I water the upper ornamental beds (which drain fastest) approx. once every 10-14 days, depending on the weather. The ornamental beds in the middle and lower terraces usually only need water every 14-21 days, and some areas are only watered once or twice during the whole summer. I never water the mature Conifers, Smoke Tree, or Wax Myrtle.
  • My front garden is also terraced, with only two levels. Though all the soil has been amended with a lot of organic matter (and some of my back garden soil), it is still primarily sand. Because sand is the largest soil particle, this soil accepts water at a fairly fast rate, but holds it for a much shorter time than the back garden. Also, the water tends to travel straight down through the soil without dispersing much. If I watered the front garden as long as I watered the back, I would be wasting most of the water well below the reach of all my plants. For these reasons, my front garden watering needs to be done with more thorough coverage, in shorter bursts, and more often. Most of the plants in the front garden are also well established, so in those areas, depending on the weather, I water approx. every 10-14 days in the upper level and every 21-30 days in the lower level. I never water the mature Barberry, Camellia, or Lilac. However.... during this past spring, I added all-new ornamental plantings in 3 different areas of the front garden, including 2 hot and sunny parking strips, thinking that Mother Nature would supply most all the water until July. (Boy, was I wrong about that) So in those areas, my watering has to be much more often; approx. every 4-7 days, depending on the weather, and still in short busts with thorough coverage.
Besides having a shallower root system, food garden plants typically need more water than ornamental beds in order to keep their roots, leaves, or fruits, etc. well-hydrated and sweet for us to enjoy eating. (however, birds and chipmunks will still eat wrinkly Oregon Grape berries) My p-patch food garden is in full sun from dawn to dark, and I have been watering it 2-3 times a week over the past month in order to keep my lettuce leaves tasty and my squash growing plump.

Container gardens are also typically in need of more frequent watering, due to their well-drained potting soil mix, and the use of more water by plant roots exposed to higher soil temperatures. Containers placed in the hot sun may need watering every day.

No matter what you are growing in your garden, nothing beats the built-in "watering sensor" that each of us carries with us- your finger! It is your best tool for watering wisely. So before turning on the hose or the irrigation system, get that digit (or a narrow hand trowel) down in the soil at least 2-6 inches and then look and feel what's underneath. Many times, the surface layer of the soil surface is bone dry but underneath it is still dark and wet. If so, delay watering until the soil is dry underneath, and instead spend some time in your hammock!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Making Plant Choices that are Child-Friendly and Fun

Now that the delightfully warm weather has arrived, your family is likely spending lots of time outdoors. If you're looking to add some beautiful plants to your landscape, here are some ideas that will be fun for everyone, and especially for children!

1. Line the edges of your open play areas with “sensory plant” beds, for a pleasant surprise when children are chasing an errant ball. In a sunny area, an herb border of Lavender, Rosemary, and Bee Balm (Monarda) with a groundcover of Chamomile and Wooly Thyme releases waves of fragrance when touched, and creates a wonderful opportunity for a daily “scratch and sniff’ tour. Soft-leafed plants such as Hair Grass (Stipa tennuissima) are fun to touch or simply watch the wind blow through, and Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina) are one of the softest plants around!

2. Add edible ornamentals to your existing landscape beds. Blueberry shrubs are always a hit with kids, and have gorgeous orange and red fall leaf color. Dwarf fruit trees can also be added to ornamental borders, and stay small enough for children to help pick. There are even columnar Apple varieties that can be container grown!

3. Add bird-friendly plants. Watching songbirds dart in and out of your garden while serenading you is a delight for the whole family. The added benefit of having them help with garden maintenance by eating pest insects and weed seeds means more play or hammock time for you too! Native plants are a great way to attract birds, and many are quite beautiful too. Some of my favorites are Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) and Serviceberry (Amelachier alnifolia) which produce some of the tastiest berries you’ll ever eat… that is, if you get to them before the birds do!

4. Many flowering plants also attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to your garden. Ladybugs, lacewings, and black beetles will also lower your maintenance time by eating pest insects. It can be fascinating to watch bees gather nectar and pollen, and also provides a way for children to understand the value of pollinators to our food supply. Here’s some hints on how to “bee safe”:
a. Don’t get between a bee and its lunch!
b. Don’t wear dark colors or you might look like a bear!
c. If a bee hovers in front of you, stand still or back up slowly while it figures out that you are not a flower!

5. Add a treasure trove filled with one of nature’s most lovable creatures... who will also turn your food scraps to "black gold" for your garden....of course I am talking about a worm bin! For more info on one of my personal favorite topics, read my entry at

Link6. Send your child to a Jr. Nature Explorer camp to experience days of fun in a wonderful child-friendly environment at Magnuson Park! At the end of each day when they share what they’ve learned and seen with you, watch closely to see what makes their eyes light up the most. Then add those plants or features to your own garden. The camps are filling up fast but most still have a few spots available. For the full schedule and registration details, visit

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Plant Choices that are Safe for Children and Pets

Before deciding which plants to add to your garden, it’s important to consider whether they hold any safety concerns for your children and pets. There is a lot of online and printed info available, but I have found that much of it is complicated, confusing, and sometimes contradictory. This month’s blog is about the types of plants I recommend that you avoid, and why. Next month’s will have a list of fun and safe plant suggestions!

1. Avoid adding thorny plants around play areas. When children and pets are chasing a ball, playing tag, or other scampering, it’s easy for them to run or fall into shrubs. Thorny branches or leaves can cause an injury much worse than a scraped knee. Barberry, Roses, Raspberries, Pyracantha, and Flowering Quince are beautiful to look at, but should not be planted at the periphery of a lawn or other play area. Hawthorn and Holly are prickly trees that you would not want children to climb, and their tendency for sprouting dozens of seedlings underneath them creates an additional problem for the tender feet of children and pets.

2. Avoid plants with poisonous parts that are also likely to be ingested. Many of our most common landscape plants contain some part that is poisonous. So it’s important to know exactly which part, how likely it is to be ingested, and how poisonous. North Carolina State Univ. has a great website on this topic at

For instance, every part of a Rhododendron, Azalea, Daphne, or Foxglove (Digitalis) are poisonous if eaten. Since none of these plant parts are tasty, a child taking a bite of one of their leaves or flowers would likely spit it out in disgust… but…..if you have a dog that chews on your shrubs, or if you use a cut branch from one of these plants to play catch with them, your dog could ingest enough toxins to become very ill. Of these plants, Foxglove is by far the most dangerous because it self sows hundreds of tiny brown seeds around itself, which instantly become invisible on the soil surface. The highly poisonous seeds may be eaten accidentally while dogs, cats, or kids are digging in the soil around these plants, then licking their paws or putting fingers in their mouth. This is why I seldom suggest removing existing Rhododendrons from your garden, but would never include Foxglove in any planting plan.

Here are some other examples of shrubs I recommend that you avoid:
• Skimmia japonica shrubs are commonly available in local nurseries because they have very ornamental (and poisonous) berries, produced only by the female plants. However, even though the berries are not at all tasty and usually only a danger if eaten in a large quantity, they look just like bright red gumballs, so could be very enticing to young children.
• All parts of a Poinsettia, like every member of the Euphorbia family, are mildly poisonous if ingested. But the real issue is the milky white, sticky sap inside all Euphorbia stems, which oozes out when a stem is crushed or cut. Some people have absolutely no reaction to touching this substance, but many children and adults have an allergic dermatitis reaction that is very painful, and would become serious to anyone who also rubbed their eyes after touching the sap.

All this goes to show that it really pays to know the details about a plant’s toxicity and other dangers before deciding to add or remove it from your landscape! Because designing child-friendly gardens are one of my specialties, I will always recommend plants that are appropriate for your family as well as your landscape conditions. And feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns about your plants.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Winter Blast: Which Plants are Coming Through Fine……and which are not

Well, it’s been a few weeks since the worst of our winter blast, but the weather has continued to be cold enough to keep our gardens slumbering. Sigh… it appears that we’ll have to be patient while many plants go through a bit of a “recovery period” before they are as beautiful as in years past. Thank goodness we can count on spring to arrive soon, and even if our gardens aren’t as bountiful as we’d like, they will be lush again in time. And in the meantime we can learn a lot from what has happened. I guess this is kind of an analogy for our current economic times too…

Here’s a bit of what I’ve seen and learned so far:
1) It goes without saying that Tropical and half-hardy plants that overwinter here just fine most years have suffered the most damage or death. (see Agapanthus photo above, which hopefully has roots that managed to survive)

2) A main factor in the amount of damage that a plant has suffered is its exposure to the NE wind, which came blowing in along with the coldest days and nights. I’ve seen a huge variance in identical plant species between ones that are sheltered from that wind and ones that are growing in exposed locations.

3) Many container plants, especially if in an unprotected spot, sustained damage. In severe cases, root death may have occurred. This photo shows my deck containers grouped in the most sheltered corner and surrounded with the "chicken wire-bedsheet" protection method.

4) The warmer-than-average fall, which kept many plants in the active growth stage well into December, is a big factor also. The bitter cold that suddenly arrived was hard on many plants that are typically hardy to low temps, simply because they didn’t have time to acclimate to a gradual cool-down before the big blast.

5) Plants that were already in stress from another source have suffered the most from the cold temperatures, wind, and snow, regardless of their species.
These two Viburnum tinus are planted within 10 ft of one another- the stressed one is hideous while the other still has plenty of normal foliage and flower buds.

6) Hardy broadleaf evergreens didn’t suffer as much from the cold as they did from the heaviness of the snow load, which built up enough on leaf surfaces to break some branches.

7) Deciduous plants fared much better overall, but some have sustained damage to leaf buds or flower buds from the sudden cold, and the degree of damage may not be fully evident until spring growth begins.

8) Most native evergreen plants came through completely unscathed, from Western Red Cedar and Mt. Hemlock, to Salal and Mahonia, to Wild Ginger groundcovers. Even the bent over Sword Ferns, Deer Fern, and others will put on all new fronds after being given a “do-over haircut” in late February, and by mid-spring will look as beautiful as ever.

9) Winter-blooming plants are very late in opening their flower buds, but most look like they’ll have normal blooms. In my garden for instance, Sarcococca have opened almost 3 weeks late, and Hellebores and Mahonia nervosa are still weeks away from their winter glory. Early-blooming bulbs also seem delayed, as I haven’t seen many Crocus and Snowdrop leaves poking out of the ground yet.

10) As I mentioned in a previous blog on this subject (see “Assessing Winter Damage to Plants”), don’t be hasty in trying to correct any winter damage you see. By all means, prune broken branches to nice clean cuts just above the branch collar or strong lateral, but hold off on cutting back tip dieback from broadleaf evergreens. We could still see some cold temps in the next few weeks, and the existing dieback will protect what’s underneath it from any further damage.

Last but not least, remember that most plants are very resilient. This Viburnum bodnantense (Pink Dawn) that was in full bloom when the blast hit, has now put on a new flush of fragrant blooms to cheer me up! And things are starting to stir in all of our gardens, whether evident or not. We’re already starting to see some sunny days accompanied by warmer temperatures, so within a few weeks the first buds will begin to unfold and start to bring spring back into our gardens, along with a spring in our steps!!!

As always, I’ll be happy to assist you in assessing your garden plants, and deciding how/when to take corrective action. February and March are excellent months to do your assessment and planning. And if any of your plants didn’t survive the winter blast, these are good months to choose replacements while local nurseries are having their early spring sales.

If you haven’t yet read my “Season’s Greetings” blog, do check it out for info on my 2009 rates (unchanged) and appointments days, and a special gift for 2007-08 clients!

Hardest Hit Plants:
Phormium (New Zealand Flax)- browning leaves or wholesale dieback from cold, though most roots will survive.
Bananas and other tropicals- top growth turned to mush from cold, though some roots and trunks will survive.
Eucalyptus- broken branches from snow load, some very severe.

Damage Depends on Exposure:
Magnolia grandiflora (Evergreen Magnolia) and Myrica californica (California Wax Myrtle)- some have broken branches from snow load
Bamboo- some leaf tip dieback, some canes didn’t straighten up again after the snow.
Viburnum Tinus and other evergreen Viburnum species- flower bud dieback from cold, some leaf drop in severe cases.
Evergreen Hebes- leaf and twig dieback (see “undaunted” list below for a big exception)
Nandina leaf tip and stem dieback, some broken branches.
Choisya ternata (Mexican Orange)- some leaf tip dieback from cold, leaf drop in some
Daphne odora- leaf tip dieback, but most flower buds are fine.
Evergreen Rhododendron and Azalea- some discoloration of leaf tips and flower buds from wind, a few with leaf drop
Cistus (Rockrose) some leaf tip dieback from cold
Evergreen Euonymus- leaf dip dieback
Evergreen Clematis vines- some leaf and flower bud browning from cold
Trachelospermum jasminoides (Star Jasmine)- some leaf drop
Lavender and Rosemary- older specimens especially suffered broken branches from snow

With a “renewal pruning”, will be as good as new:
Sword Ferns and other evergreen fern species- cut all fronds to ground before new fiddleheads unfold.
Evergreen grasses such as Blue Oat Grass, Pheasant Tail Grass, Carex, etc.- cut browned leaves to the ground or run your gloved fingers through to gently pull them out with a “hand haircut”

A Few of the Undaunted!
Native evergreen species such as Oregon Grape, Salal, Rushes, Wild Ginger, etc.
Most conifer trees and shrubs- their flexible branches and needles usually sloughed off snow load well.
Most deciduous trees, shrubs, grasses, perennials, and vines that were otherwise healthy.
Most spring blooming bulbs.

Cotoneaster lacteus (Parneyi) and other evergreen Cotoneasters.
Osmanthus delavayi

Hebe buxifolia (Boxleaf Hebe)- truly the hardiest member of the Hebe Family- I have yet to see one that looks damaged.
Pachysandra- looked a bit sad in the worst weather, but snapped right back to perky.