March 31, 2009

What to Do With My Blasted Stones

Apparently our neighborhood was part of a very successful stone farm in the days before the developer divided up the lots and built houses. Even though the builder spread several inches of sandy loam before seeding the grass, we find that the land is still producing stones of all shapes and sizes. Hubby has harvested countless stones with his pick axe while digging holes for trees and rose bushes.

We recycle old plastic pots to gather the stones from the flower beds. More of them turn up each time I disturb the soil to plant or transplant. While planting all the trees last fall, we completely filled up the kids' red wagon with stones. Then we had to think of a place to put the bounteous harvest.

Some of them were shoved under the front porch, but it's getting harder to fit them in as the edges of the porch fill up. A few were hidden behind the air conditioner unit, where nothing but weeds grows anyway.
Our best idea was to spread stones at the bottom of our window wells. Hopefully the layer of stones will keep the weeds from sprouting, and I think they look nice. But we can't put many more stones down there and still have the wells function as fire escapes, if needed.

I have stones on the brain because I spent all of March dealing with kidney stones. I finally had to go to the hospital to have an especially large one broken up with shock waves. I'm still waiting for all the pieces to make their painful exit. Then I can stop taking pain meds and start doing my spring gardening chores.
All of this has given me a great idea: I should perform a shock wave procedure on my soil and blast all of the stones into nice little sandy-sized pieces. Then I'd dump some compost on top and have excellent soil - maybe we could even throw the pick axe away! But that isn't going to happen, so I'll keep scratching my head as we try to figure out what to do with our regular stone harvest. Any ideas?

March 26, 2009

Arboricide Exposed! My Dirty Little Tree-Planting Secrets

What horrors lurk beneath that mulch?

I used to work at a nursery that specialized in selling trees. People came from all over the state for the large selection - nine acres with thousands upon thousands of trees of all types and sizes.
How to properly plant all those trees was a common customer question. I'd tell them it was a bit of a balancing act. If they didn't remove the burlap and wire, the tree's roots would strangle it in a few years. If they removed the coverings but let the rootball fall apart, the tree would die right away. The key was to remove as much covering as possible while keeping the rootball intact. Containerized trees, on the other hand, needed their roots loosened up a bit after the pot came off.
So when hubby and I purchased and planted fourteen trees in our yard last fall, I figured that I knew what I was doing. I often buy plants from big box stores, but I ordered my trees from the local nursery so I could get the best quality. It was a big investment, though the nursery gave me a volume discount and free delivery. Six 'Spring Snow' crabapples, five 'Shademaster' honey locusts and three 'Kwanzan' (or Kanzan, as you prefer) flowering cherries were ordered and delivered to our driveway in late September. They were all growing in 15-gallon-sized pots, as that was what the nursery had been able to find for me from their wholesalers.

Is this honey locust tree doomed?

Dear hubby - dear, dear, hubby - cheerfully set about digging the holes for the large rootballs. We discovered that a pick axe was the tool of choice for digging in our incredibly rocky soil, once we got beneath the thin layer of 'sandy loam' that the builder spread before seeding the grass. After hubby finished digging the first hole - the same depth as the rootball and 3 times as wide - he used a hammer to loosen the pot from one of the cherries and pull it off the rootball. He pulled the rootball out and exposed not soil, but ROOTS! Circling roots! A few inches of potting medium showed at the top, but the rest of the rootball looked like a thickly woven wooden basket.
Oh, dear, I thought. That's not a good sight. When I went to the nursery to inspect the trees before delivery, the nursery guy told me not to disturb the roots very much when planting. But I knew that circling roots have a hard time changing direction to grow out into the soil, and they can eventually strangle the tree as both roots and trunk increase in girth and crush each other. So I used my Felcos to cut the roots - from top to bottom - at three places around edge of the rootball. Then I used the tip of the clippers to loosen the roots all the way around and on the bottom.
The three cherries and the five honey locusts had extremely pot-bound roots, so they all got the same treatment. The crabapples were a bit smaller and the roots weren't as bad, but they were still cut and loosened before planting.

Will this crabapple survive despite flawed roots?

After all of this root-cutting, I felt somewhat unsettled. Had I done too much damage? Would the trees survive next summer or shrivel in the heat? This worry has been lurking in the back of my mind for months.
And then, during my gardening-book-reading-bonanza this month, I read a book called The Informed Gardener, by Linda Chalker-Scott. The author is a professor at the University of Washington who writes occasional myth-busting articles for master gardeners, some of which are gathered into this book. The section on tree planting nearly gave me an ulcer. Professor Chalker-Scott writes, "Containerized plants are notorious for concealing fatal root flaws." That statement exactly described my poor trees! She recommends removing ALL of the potting soil at planting time to fully expose the roots, which can then be correctively pruned and planted properly (I'm assuming this method works best when the tree is dormant). In a moment, the pendulum swung wide and my worries about disturbing the roots too much changed to worries about all the fatal root flaws I had surely missed!

What kind of lifespan can this cherry tree expect?

I get enormous satisfaction from taming tangled branches into an orderly composition with my pruners. The idea of neatly trimmed roots, growing outward in a perfect starburst, is very appealing to me. I have this urge to dig my trees up, some of them at least, and check to see just how misshapen the roots are. In a few decades, will my trees swoon and die from hidden defects? Hubby raised an eyebrow at the redigging idea, though, and I'm not that good with a pick axe. And needless to say, digging up plants to inspect their roots is generally detrimental to their health.
So now I'm living with fourteen dirty secrets buried beneath several inches of mulch. I'm supposed to know how to plant trees, but might have botched the job in my own backyard. I actually feel unsure about the best way to plant. Would barerooting a tree work in harsher climates than Chalker-Scott's Seattle area? At what point is a tree too rootbound to ever recover? As for my trees, I'll just keep watching, hoping for the best, and reporting about their success or failure on this blog.
You can read Professor Chalker-Scott's myth-busting articles at her website. Here's the link to one tree planting article. You might be surprised at her findings on such topics as soil amendments, bonemeal, compost tea and drought-tolerant plants. Let me know if you learn something new - I certainly updated many of my ideas after reading her articles.

March 18, 2009

Big Dreams for My Piece of Earth

Last week I posted on inspiration gleaned from a book. Who knew that even better inspiration would come in the form of a comment from a fellow garden blogger/landscape designer, Susan of Garden Chick's Design Tips? Susan suggested removing the railing from my cramped front porch and building stairs all along the front to create a veranda effect.

"Yeah, I really like that," I stated.
"Me too," replied hubby.
"Add it to the project list," we agreed.

That new idea triggered a return to the endlessly updated drawings of my big dreams for our yard. I drew the new front steps, the hardscaping in front of them and the way the beds would have to be adjusted. I went out in the backyard and measured where the trees were actually planted last fall so I could correctly plot them on the drawing (of course they didn't end up exactly where I had previously drawn them). I included our current ideas for what to do with the back patio - add a pergola overhead - and where I want the stone path to circle around the backyard. Here's the current drawing with trees and borders, but no plants drawn in. Click on the picture to see a bigger - and slightly easier to decipher - version.

I have plenty of ideas on which plants will go where, but I'm not ready to commit. The front yard is going toward a lavender-pink-apricot color scheme with plants that can handle the hot sun there on the southern exposure of our home. Pictured below are probable inclusions in the front.

The backyard will necessarily have plenty of shaded beds under the small forest of trees we planted. But the main sunny english-roses-and-perennials bed, with a color scheme of white, dark purple, lavender, crimson, deep pink and light pink, will be just above and to the left of the central lawn. It will be the focal point from the sitting area in our living room. Some likely plant choices are pictured below, though I couldn't find a good dark blue-violet picture to include.

The front yard project list includes building the aforementioned front steps and hardscaping, plus adjusting the sprinkler system, reshaping the beds and planting two more trees. Hubby is tenatively scheduled this weekend to rip out the stand of quaking aspens (not shown on the drawing, but they are on the right of the driveway). They're just too aggressive for our yard and will probably be replaced with a flowering cherry.
The backyard project list includes replacing the aluminum awning with a white vinyl pergola, adjusting the patio shape, removing LOTS of grass, adjusting the sprinkler system, and installing the stone path (my favorite part of the dream - the kids will love running around it, and I'll love sauntering through my gardens).
The soil needs to be amended everywhere, and I'll probably end up edging all the lawn areas with more concrete curbing. Yeah, I know some people think it's horridly ugly. It's not my favorite, but some of the new styles aren't so bad and it does keep the lawn in its place (not completely, but it helps).
And here's where patience is a virtue. It will probably take a decade for all of these projects to receive funding and be completed. But someday, it will be gorgeous. I'm envisioning a lovely garden wedding reception, or a place on the local garden tour (is that presumptious?). Here's to big dreams and the joy of the journey.

March 10, 2009

And Inspiration Struck

I have had extra time to enjoy some garden-related reading lately. This is partly because NOTHING is happening in my still-frozen garden, and partly because I've been passing kidney stones and feeling too lousy to do much else. Housework has been procrastinated and children mildly neglected (why don't you make your own PB&J sandwich, dear, as I've only got 10 pages left in this chapter). Here are reviews and some take-home messages gathered from the books. They're all available from (click on the book cover to get there), though I just borrowed them from my local library.

Design in the Plant Collector's Garden by Roger Turner
After reading Turner's philosophical first chapter on plant enthusiasts, I had the sneaking suspicion that he had read my mind. He beautifully captures the way I feel about plants and my garden. He also describes the pitfalls that come when plant enthusiasts try to mold their collections into gardens. His best piece of advice: look up from the plants and see the garden! With numerous practical ideas for creating a lovely garden-as-a-whole instead of just a plant museum, this book will be helpful to any gardener with plant-collecting tendencies.

Paths of Desire by Dominique Browning
My husband would not have enjoyed this book, but I did. Browning writes in a wistful tone about the bittersweet experiences of life and gardening on her suburban plot. Her narrative definitely appealed to my feminine sensibilities. Sometimes life is sad, sometimes the garden goes awry, but we press forward and find joy where we can. This is a good read for a grey day, preferably with a crackling fire nearby and a cozy blanket over top.

Beautiful Madness by James Dodson
I sped through this book like I do through a suspenseful novel. Dodson chronicles his year of horticultural exploration and discovery in an enjoyable way that kept me wondering where his adventure would lead next. He convinced me that I definitely need to visit the Philadelphia Flower Show but I definitely don't need to travel to South Africa to search out new plant species. Mostly, I came away feeling relieved that there are plenty of more garden-crazy people out there, so my level of obsession is perfectly acceptable.

The Welcoming Garden by Gordon Hayward
And this was where inspiration struck. Hayward teaches how to create inviting gardens at the front of the home. I was innocently enjoying the pretty pictures and agreeing with his helpful ideas when he suggested that we should walk among our plants and not past them on the way to the front door. Aha! The entry to my home, pictured below (note - the picture was taken just before we moved in, and many of the plants and junk have been replaced since then), is just sad. The giant concrete driveway funnels into a short concrete sidewalk, edged on one side by the garage. I realized that I wanted to walk among my plants instead of past them, so I should rip out my existing sidewalk and swing it out to the left to make bed space on both sides of the walkway. Hubby was mildly supportive of the project, it wouldn't be too awfully expensive, and we should do it before the plants get much larger and harder to transplant. So it might actually get done this fall. We'll move the steps and remove the railing, but will it be too strange if the door isn't directly at the top of the steps? Moving the door would require moving the window and would make a big project, but maybe someday it will happen.

March 3, 2009

Temptation at the Big Box

Piles of snow still dot the Spokane landscape, but Big Box retailers like Lowe's, Home Depot, WalMart and Costco have set out their bareroot and summer-blooming bulb displays. The brightly colored packages are all too tempting while my garden features just two colors: brownish-grey and greyish-brown.
Last year a couple of friends and I purchased quite a selection from the bareroot/bulb section, with mixed results. Here are a few of the lessons we learned:
1. SAVE YOUR RECEIPT. It's a risky business to pull tender roots out of the soil, package them in a bit of peat moss, store them in a warehouse, ship them across the country and then keep them in warm retail stores for weeks (months?) on end. Yes, the prices are a bargain. But there is a definite risk of failure, so keep your receipt in case the plants die.
2. THINK LIKE A RABBIT. You may not be able to see the tuber inside the bag, but you can probably feel it. Peony and dahlia tubers should feel firm, like the type of carrot you'd want to eat. They shouldn't be dried out into hard sticks, or shriveled into soft lumps, or rotten into icky-squishy mush. This applies to iris rhizomes, lily bulbs, and hosta/daylily roots as well.
3. BEWARE OF MISLABELING. It's hard to tell a 'Guacamole' hosta from a 'Patriot' hosta when looking at just the roots. It's very easy to tell them apart when they're leafed out. Last year I bought 6 bareroot 'Minuteman' hostas. Only one of them ever came up - in July - and it wasn't 'Minuteman.' Thankfully I brought my crinkled and battered receipt back to Lowe's and received a refund.
4. GET THEM IN THE GROUND ASAP. The longer a plant is out of the ground, the greater the danger of it drying out and dying. Keep bareroots stored in a cool place until you can plant them, which hopefully will be soon after purchase. The bareroot daylilies and siberian irises that I've ordered online came with instructions to soak them in lukewarm water for an hour or two as soon as they were received. That technique might increase your success with big box bareroots as well.
5. IMPATIENCE NOW WILL REQUIRE PATIENCE LATER. It's tempting to buy bareroot now, before the potted plants are available. But the bareroot versions are often tiny and take a long time to get established and start growing. The potted versions are probably more expensive, but you'll get more plant for your money.

With these caveats in mind, buying bareroot can be very economical - if you're patient (and if you save your receipt!). The bulbs sold at Big Box stores are also a good value. Again, mislabeling is a danger. I wasn't pleased last spring when a dozen 'white' tulips bloomed orange and yellow. I dug them all up and returned them to Lowe's for a refund. But the 'Stargazer' lilies that I bought from WalMart were lovely last summer. I just purchased more of them today at Lowe's - five for $6 is a great price, especially since I didn't have to pay extra for shipping. The bulbs (a few of them are pictured below) weren't quite as large as the 'Casa Blanca' lily bulbs I ordered from Dutch Gardens last spring, but they should produce some flowers this year and even more in years to come.

You can see that the plant shoots were already poking up from the bulbs. Last year I accidentally broke the shoot off a bulb, and it didn't ever grow. I was especially careful with these, and managed to plant all fifteen bulbs this morning without any breakage. It was wonderful to work out in the garden again! Of course, my back is a little sore tonight - I'm out of shape for gardening - but the fleeting soreness will be well justified when the fragrant and showy 'Stargazer' blooms appear in July or August. I'll be sure to post a pictures.