November 29, 2008

My Favorite Evergreen Shrub: Otto Luyken Laurel

Above is a picture of one of my favorite shrubs: Prunus laurocerasus 'Otto Luyken.'  In my zone 5 landscape with slightly alkaline soil, there are relatively few choices for broad-leaved evergreen shrubs. Rhododendrons, azaelas, pieris and other acid-loving shrubs look sickly here without extensive soil amendment and maintenance. Many others just can't handle the cold. Otto is hardier than other laurels, and it makes a nice choice for the evergreen backbone of a bed or for a low hedge.
Otto is a mid-sized shrub - about 3-4 feet tall by 5-6 feet wide at maturity. The flowers aren't especially pretty - clusters of tiny white flowers form white 'candles' on the shrub in spring and (less heavily) in fall. But I don't grow it for the flowers. In fact, I kind of wish it didn't flower. I am drawn to this shrub for the glossy, dark green leaves that give it a polished appearance all year long. I love elegant plants, and this one fits the bill.

Above you can see a laurel nestled into the landscape on the left.  Its dark leaves are a nice contrast to the lighter greens around it.  Other details on this plant: it's rated a 6 on the OPALS scale (an allergy scale with 10 as the worst). That's a so-so rating, considering that it's a shrub, not a tree.
Monrovia rates Otto as hardy for zones 6-9, but it's growing just fine all around my zone 5b neighborhood (click the link for more photos and info from Monrovia's site). After a particularly bad winter we might all be pruning some dead chunks out, but that's OK with me. One note for growing broad-leaved evergreens at the edge of their hardiness: these plants continue to lose water through their wide leaves even in the winter, but when the ground freezes the roots can't absorb water. Drying wind exacerbates the problem, so they'll do best in a protected site. Young plants that struggle in the winter while their rootball is small might do much better once the roots grow deeper, into the nonfrozen soil.
Added May 28, 2014 - After a couple of harsh winters, my laurels died almost to the ground and had to be pruned severely.  I noticed that the one I had purchased from Monrovia had very little browning compared to the less expensive shrubs I had bought at a big box store.  I dug up a couple of those other ones and replaced them with Monrovia versions.  Even though the tags say the same name, it appears the Monrovia really does use superior propagating stock.  I would not recommend this shrub to my neighbors unless they bought the Monrovia version. 
Otto hasn't had any insect problems for me, but I wonder if it would suffer from scale in milder climates.
When my shrubs get larger, I plan to use the foliage in flower arrangements.
I purchased my shrubs in 2007 from Home Depot at $5 for a 1 gallon-sized pot. They were tiny but affordable. I needed one more and couldn't find it at HD last summer, so I splurged and bought a 2-gallon size for $25 (a Monrovia version) at the local nursery. It's much larger and prettier.
Since I can't grow pittosporum and all the other broad-leaved evergreens I loved in California, I'm especially grateful for dear Otto. If you live in zone 5b to 9, you might consider this shrub for your yard as well.

Added May 28, 2014 - Other broad-leaved evergreen shrubs in my yard now include 'Green Tower,' 'Green Mountain,' 'Green Velvet,' and 'Wee Willie' boxwoods.  I also have 'Scallywag' and 'Little Rascal' hollies, which turn purple in winter and have lovely dark green leaves in summer.  The hollies are a little prickly, unfortunately.  I planted three 'Helsinki University' rhododendrons in the protected east part of my backyard and they were unfazed by our -5 degree winter last year.  Supposedly they are hardy down to zone 3, and I just mixed peat moss into the soil and use acidic fertilizer on them to keep them happy.

November 22, 2008

Good gardening books for a winter afternoon

I love a good book on a winter afternoon, as reading helps me forget that it's dreary and cold outside and all my plants are frozen. Here are a few of the garden-related books I've enjoyed.
First some nonfiction . . .
Northwest Top 10 Garden Guide
By Sunset Books
I recommend this book to friends who are just starting to get into gardening or who are newbies at working on their landscapes. It narrows down the overwhelming selection of plants to 10 choices for trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, bulbs, veggies, etc. The only problem is that our Spokane climate is different from Seattle, so some of the plants listed won't work here. But it's still a good start. Versions are available for California, Florida, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Tri State regions as well.
Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers
by Amy Stewart
This nonfiction book takes you on a world-wide tour of the floral business, from greenhouses in Ecuador to auctions in Amsterdam to airports in Florida. I found it fascinating.
The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms
by Amy Stewart

Another nonfiction book by Ms. Stewart. It gave me a much greater appreciation for the worms in my garden. I've been meaning to get to a nearby pasture to collect nightcrawlers to transplant to my garden.
The English Roses: Classic Favorites and New Selections
by David Austin
Of course this would be on my list! It's coming out in paperback soon at a lower price. I love to peruse the gorgeous pictures and vivid descriptions of Austin's english roses.
Allergy-free Gardening: The Revolutionary Guide to Healthy Landscaping
by Thomas Leo Ogren
I have bad allergies - March is pretty miserable for me - so I was very interested to read Professor Ogren's writings on allergy-causing plants. I've consulted it numerous times when deciding which plants to include in my landscape. Very useful book.
And now some fun flower-related fiction:
Julie and Romeo
by Jeanne Ray
I laughed out loud while reading this story about the owners of competing floral shops who fall in love, much to the chagrin of their families. Very upbeat and fun. I've read several others by Jeanne Ray and laughed over all of them, especially 'Eat Cake.'
All of these books are available at, or maybe in your local library.

November 19, 2008

Living on the Edge

A flower bed often benefits from being hemmed in by good edging plants. Fountain shapes or tidy mounds are my favorites. Here are a few plants that fit the bill.
Daylilies - you can see how nicely the yellow Stella d'Oro daylilies edge the front of the tiny bed below. This picture is from my tiny Santa Clara, CA garden. RIP - we moved in May 2007 and the next renter probably let it dwindle away to weeds. I had just 3 years there in mild-climate-heaven, and a very strict budget (um, more like NO budget). So my garden was created with starts from generous friends. Good thing the growing season was so long there - more than double our season here - so things grew a lot each year.
I prefer daylilies - like Stella - whose flowers are borne on scapes that are similar in height to the leaves. I really don't like the ones whose flowers tower above the leaves on huge stalks.

Liriope muscari (clump-forming liriope) - the following photo is of a small plant I ordered from Bluestone Perennials a couple of months ago. I'm keeping it in a pot on my kitchen window over the winter in hopes that it will grow to a decent-sized plant during the months that it would otherwise be sleeping outdoors. These plants are very sturdy (not troubled by pests, OK in sun or shade, drought-tolerant once established), though marginally hardy in my zone 5. They're evergreen in milder climates, so I'm not sure if it will just turn ugly yellow or die back to the ground here next winter. I won't find out this year, check back in spring 2010 to find out!

Thrift or Sea Pink - the following picture was taken in November after numerous frosts, but you can see how the plant is still trying to flower! There's just one plant here, but you can imagine how nice a row of these would look along the edge of a flower bed. These plants love sun and are evergreen in mild climates. I especially love the types that have hot pink flowers. They're fun to include in a small bouquet or nosegay.

Heuchera - here is a photo of Green Spice heuchera, also taken in November. All of my hostas are long gone, but the heuchera leaves stand up to the cold longer. Heucheras like to avoid intense sun and heat, and have tiny flowers on tall stalks in summer. I like to use heuchera leaves to surround a little nosegay of flowers, tied all together with raffia or floral tape. I also have heucheras with plum-purple leaves and true-green leaves. Love em all.

Other plants that would be good for edging include: campanula 'Blue Clips', small hostas, violets or annual alyssum. Sorry I don't have pictures of those to post.
Note to self - I need more & better pictures to post! I'm asking Santa Claus for a digital SLR camera for Christmas, then maybe I'll request a macro lens for Mother's Day (though I was going to ask for a dogwood tree instead . . . hmm). So next year I'll be sure to take lots of pictures, hopefully better ones than I can capture with my point-and-shoot camera now. Of course, June 2009 will make just 2 years since we bought this home, at which time nothing worth keeping was growing in the flower beds (exceptions - 1 dogwood and 2 lavender bushes - everything else got trashed or will be trashed soon). So my yard as a whole won't be gorgeous for some years ahead. But individual plants should start looking good. My mantra - patience is still a virtue!

November 18, 2008

David Austin Groupie

My favorite catalog arrived recently - the David Austin Handbook of Roses. My hubbie laughs that no one else gets so obsessed over a catalog, but I've read other blogs and I know they DO! Copies of past editions are dog-eared and cut apart. Some of the pictures have ended up framed on my basement wall.

The image above is 'Lady Emma Hamilton', who graces the cover of my 2009 edition. I'm generally not a fan of orange in my garden, but the picture is so lovely that I'm tempted. Actually, not too tempted. After hours of study - both researching the best roses and figuring out where I can squeeze them into my yard - I finally narrowed down my list.
Qualities that I'm looking for in a rose are: shrubby, rounded growth (stick-like hybrid teas are NOT allowed in my yard), good health (I had to shovel-prune an Abraham Darby rose who disappeared under a cloud of orange rust spores in my Cal. garden), good for cutting (unfortunately, some English roses, like 'The Countryman', shatter soon after being picked), good hardiness (I'll mulch a few roses each winter, but most of them need to stand up to my zone 5 cold). Ordered for next spring are:
Claire Austin - supposed to be the best white in Austin's collection, though it's not pure white - a slight touch of lemon, it says

Queen of Sweden - won't this look great with Claire in arrangements?

Francine Austin - again, I'm excited to use the tiny flowers in arrangments

Sister Elizabeth - a sweet little shrub

William Shakespeare 2000 - also touted as good for cutting

LD Braithwaite

And since my hole-digging-superman hubbie suggested that a yellow rose might be nice in the garden, I picked up a Teasing Georgia from the local nursery last month:

I already have a few of Austin's roses in my yard.
The quickly-shattering 'The Countryman' - delicious fragrance while it lasts, though

Crocus Rose - the perfect cream to match my dining room decor - love this one on my table in a vase - lasts well in the vase, plus a great shape for the shrub

Lichfield Angel - another cream one to cut for my dining table vases, though I find I prefer the shape of Crocus Rose to this one. If you're choosing a cream rose, I'd just go with Crocus Rose.

Eglantyne - I have 4 of these in the front, great for cutting, love the soft pink color and button-eye, nice fragrance. A very nice rose.

Charles Rennie Macintosh - this one was a feast for the earwigs last summer, but the blooms are a sweet, cool lilac-pink. Maybe some systemic insecticide will be in order for next summer.

I'm only ordering one of each of these, so I can evaluate them before committing to large groups of them in my final plan. Currently my backyard beds are all test gardens. I'll pick my favorites, divide out the best perennials and order more of the best roses. The others will be given away or kept in a corner.
Note - all the above pictures are from the David Austin website,, where you can order your own free catalog!

November 17, 2008

Landscape Design Process - Backyard

This is in honor of Abby's backyard - here's the general process you take when planning a landscape.
1. Create a Base Map - House plans or a property survey are a good start. Measure the dimensions of your home and yard and plot them on graph paper (1 square = 1 ft.). Plot existing patios/decks, sidewalks and vegetation you want to keep. Indicate windows and doors. Also indicate overhead or underground utilities. We called a utility hotline to have all our underground utility lines marked. Make several copies to use in later steps.
2. Site Considerations - On a copy of the base map, indicate site conditions that will influence the design, ie zoning ordinances, topography, drainage, views to enhance (ie curb appeal) or block for privacy. Where will you need walls or walkways?
3. Functions - As in all design, you should think about function first, then form. In your backyard, will you be grilling, dining, lounging, swimming, sunbathing, playing on a playtoy or playhouse, growing fruit trees, growing veggies in a plot, growing flowers to cut, showcasing a collection of plants, creating views from your home windows, framing lovely views that extend off your property, screening ugly views, creating privacy, blocking hot sun or cold wind, watching birds or butterflies, playing catch or flag football or frisbee? When you have your list of desired functions, indicate with freehand bubbles what functions different areas will have. Play around a bit with different ideas. Don't worry about specific shapes or plants yet. Also draw where foot traffic will flow through the yard.
4. Borders - After figuring out where you want different functions (like outdoor rooms), create the borders of the different areas of your yard by using a general theme: square or rectangle shapes, circles, or smooth curves. Curves should be bold - avoid squiggles. Avoid narrow angles between converging lines. You might sketch several design ideas, using a ruler and compass or even bowls or cups to get the outlines you want.
5. Height - Build on your border design by considering the third dimension - height. Ensure adequate drainage by making sure the ground slopes slightly down from the house. Crease a sense of privacy and enclosure around gathering places with walls and/or ceilings made of shrubs, trees, vines or building materials. Direct traffic without blocking views with borders of low shrubs.
6. Materials - Select non-plant materials for terraces, walls, edging. These should complement the materials with which your home is built. Avoid using too many different materials. Consider maintenance costs when comparing prices.
7. Plants - First decide the size and general type. For example, you might want a row of shrubs about 8'T by 6'W along one side, a 20' tall flowering tree in a corner, a low groundcover in one area, and a perennial bed to fill another spot. Start with the largest and move to the smallest plants. Plan space for the mature size of the plant!!!! It's hard to believe that a tiny baby tree will someday grow to be 50 feet tall and wide, but it happens.
Of course you'll go back and forth between the steps a bit to make adjustments, but this is the general process.

November 13, 2008

Garden Plan

I've been thinking of a design for the garden bed that I see as I sit at my dining table. The bed isn't there yet, we have to reconfigure the sprinkler system, rip out grass and improve the soil first. But it's fun to think of what I'll plant there in a few years.
My inspiration comes from a crimson rose bush planted next to a lavender bush that I pass on my walks around our neighborhood. Both plants are kind of ratty-looking, but the color combo always makes me sigh with delight. Deep cherry red next to cool blue-violet. Delicious.
Note - all these pictures are from catalogs, so I'll note the website and call it free advertising.
The bed will be edged with 'Big Blue' liriope (14" tall x 12" wide), available from I love to put a fountain-shaped plant at the front edge of a flower bed, and I LOVE blue-violet flowers against the crimson roses that I'll plant behind. These bloom early to late summer.

Just behind the liriope will be big groups of stargazer lilies (about 3' tall), available from These will bloom when the roses aren't blooming as heavily, in mid-summer. And if there are any crimson roses blooming, the crimson-pink-white lilies will blend beautifully. Plus they smell delicious.

Behind the lilies will be staggered 'LD Braithwaite' english rose bushes (4.5' tall x 4' wide), available from I convinced a friend to order some of these last year, then fell in love with the flowers when I saw them in her yard. These should bloom mostly heavily in early summer and early fall.

In the spaces between the staggered roses, I'll put dark blue-violet 'Pagan Purples' delphiniums (4-6' tall x 2-3' wide), available from They'll bloom with the roses in early summer, and if I cut them back they'll bloom again with the roses in the fall.

I'll punctuate the planting with groups of 'Worth the Wait' siberian iris (about 3' tall), available from The upright, spiky clumps should be a nice contrast to the other plant forms in the bed. These might bloom with the roses or earlier, but either way I'll like the leaves for the rest of the season.

So that will make a beautiful view from my dining table. And all of these flowers put together would make a lovely, fragrant cut-flower arrangement ON the table as well. Add a bench, an arch, some clematis growing over the top . . . and I'll have a place to enjoy it from the middle of the bed, too.