April 28, 2009

Spokane Snow vs. Seattle Rain

Recently another blogger friend confused my hometown of Spokane (the second largest city in Washington state) with Seattle (the largest city in Washington). I had to laugh because it happens a lot. When people think of Washington, they think of Seattle. I don't mind, because at least they know the name of one of our cities. Quick - name the largest city in Wyoming. What about South Dakota or Montana? Did I stump you? I don't know, either.
For the purposes of gardening, Spokane (pronounced spo-cann, not spo-cane) is very different from Seattle. For starters, the two cities are nearly 300 miles apart. So for this post I've compiled a list of mostly garden-related differences between the two.
1. Spokane's signature precipitation is snow, while Seattle's is rain. Spokane's inland climate falls into USDA zone 5b and is influenced by the mountains that surround us, while Seattle's coastal climate is an 8. Winters are a lot colder here in Spokane!
2. Spokane gets 17 inches of precipitation in an average year, while Seattle gets 37. Seattle's air is more humid as well, since it's closer to the ocean. That means Seattle gardeners have fewer sprinkler systems but more problems with fungal diseases (blackspot on roses, etc.).
3. Spokane is rather conservative politically, while Seattle is very liberal. This leads to occasional mutterings about how eastern Washington should secede from the West, though it doesn't influence gardening much. Seattle kids probably attend computer-programming workshops on weekends, while my kids beg to spend Saturday morning at the shooting gallery in Cabela's (what kind of hicks are we raising around here?).
4. Spokane gardeners stick with cold-hardy shrubs like lilacs - we're known as the Lilac City, after all, and have a Lilac Festival in May. Seattle gardeners have many more choices in their mild climate, including camellias.
5. And speaking of shrubs, acid-loving shrubs like rhododendrons generally look pale and half-dead in Spokane, while they threaten to engulf entire houses over in Seattle. Our soil isn't acidic enough to keep rhodies (or pieris or azaleas or camellias) happy. But the nurseries here all sell them anyway.
6. The largest industry in Spokane is healthcare (we're a regional medical center for Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon, Northern Idaho and Montana), while Seattle is known for computers (Microsoft) and aerospace (Boeing). And while Seattle's most famous entrepreneur is Bill Gates, a friend of ours here in Spokane has a great side business selling authentic camouflage-print neckties. Sorry, he holds the patent, so you can't get in on the goldmine.
7. The mountains around Spokane - and many of the neighborhoods within the city - are covered with Ponderosa pine trees, while Seattle's nearby mountains are forested with Hemlock and Douglas-fir, among others. Thankfully, huckleberry bushes can be found in both areas.
8. Many Spokanites drive 4-wheel drive SUV's, which they actually need to get up steep streets in the snow. Many Seattlites drive Volvos or hybrid vehicles. Their city shuts down when they get a few inches of snow. Our city can handle several feet of snow at a time, though we did slow down, and many trees lost branches, after receiving a record-breaking 6 feet of snow within 3 weeks last winter.
9. Spring in Spokane is sooo slow to arrive. Seattle doesn't have to wait as long for hellebore blooms, spring bulbs, roses, daylilies and everything else. I'm now attempting to suppress, with only partial success, climate envy.
10. By now readers from Spokane are thinking, "Do we really have to endure MORE comparisons to Seattle?" Readers in Seattle are thinking, "People in Spokane compare themselves to us? Where is Spokane again?"
. . . three hundred miles east, 20 degrees colder, 20 inches drier, and you're there!

April 21, 2009

I Know What Manure Is. Manure is Cow Poop!

Thus proudly proclaimed my 4-year old daughter to the WalMart guy as he loaded up our car with yet more composted steer manure. She’s adorable, he chuckled. Yeah, I said, only a little girl with sparkly brown eyes, curly hair and dimples could make cow poop sound cute.
The process of enhancing our garden soil with compost this spring has been quite a project. I first considered having a local landscape supply company deliver compost to our home. Their price for compost (composed partly of manure plus other things) was $41 per cubic yard if we hauled it ourselves (not feasible) and $46 per yard if they delivered it, with a minimum $150 order for delivery. The composted manure blend from WalMart was on sale for 97 cents per 1 cubic foot bag. One cubic yard is 27 cubic feet, so the WalMart stuff came out to about $26 per cubic yard - $20 less per yard than the bulk compost. In addition, the bagged manure could be purchased and spread in smaller amounts as time allowed, while the pile of bulk compost would clog our driveway and require us to get it spread immediately. So we went with the WalMart manure.

One hundred and thirty-five bags of manure later (5 cubic yards), our family has finished the project. The kids enjoyed working side by side with Mom and Dad, and now our flower beds are covered with a several inches of compost, a thin layer of manure has been raked into the front yard grass (kind of an experiment), and our newly-rescued-from-sod veggie garden has been prepared for planting with plenty of organic material. The garden beds look as though they put on black tuxedos with their smooth layer of black compost. Applying a uniform layer of compost or other mulch really helps young landscapes like ours look clean and lovely, since the little plants leave so much of the ground around them exposed. The dark color of the compost causes the green leaves and colored flowers to pop out in contrast.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the WalMart manure blend didn’t smell very bad. In fact, some bags even had that sweet, earthy compost smell. Obviously the manure and other inputs had been well composted before bagging. It’s always a nice surprise when the least expensive product is a good quality one.
We ended up buying some of the manure from Lowe’s. The manure from WalMart was moist and we had to break up the clumps as we spread it. The manure from Lowe’s was dry and powdery, which made it easier to spread thinly into our grass. Unfortunately, the Lowe’s manure had not been composted long enough to get rid of the smell. It really stunk! And now our front yard smells like a dairy farm, though the smell should fade away soon.

The downside to this project is our trash can full of compost bags – 135 of them. The sturdy bags will now take up space in a landfill, something I didn’t think about when we started buying them. Obviously buying the bulk compost would have been a ‘Greener’ option, though buying 5 cubic yards in bulk would have been $100 more expensive than buying the same amount in bags from WalMart. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Green option was less expensive for once?

Other than my regrets about the landfill, I’m very pleased with our project. We also spread a large amount of bark/pine needle mulch (that our neighbors were throwing away – a story for another day) around the newly planted trees in the backyard. That will help them grow both roots and branches more quickly and provide extra protection during the hot days of summer. All of my young plants should grow happily this year thanks to the increased moisture, cooler temperatures and greater amounts of nutrients that will be enjoyed by their roots. The beneficial earthworms will happily feast on the manure and spread it through the soil. And my children – including the cute cow poop daughter – have learned all sorts of things about soil and growing and how good it feels to work together as a family.

April 7, 2009

A Sensible Approach to Plant Pollen Allergies

I don't want to be an allergy fanatic, and you probably don't want to be one, either. But the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology (hmm, I think they could use a shorter name, too) reports that more than 35 million Americans are affected by seasonal allergies, often known as hay fever, and that number is growing. Informed gardeners, landscape designers and others in the hort world have a great opportunity to reduce this problem through the advice we give to others and the plant choices we make for our own landscapes.
But information about allergy-causing plants can be difficult to find; I've certainly never seen a plant tag with allergy information on it. In lieu of carting around a reference book each time you visit a nursery, here are a few ideas to point you toward low-allergy plants.

Some trees - like this maple - produce huge amounts of pollen.

1. Focus on Trees. A large tree that merits a poor allergy rating (10 is the worst on the OPALS scale) will produce much more pollen than a perennial with the same rating. In addition, if you find that a perennial is aggravating your allergies, you can easily pull it out. You might not have the resources to do the same with a mature tree. Choosing to plant trees that cause little or no allergy will make the biggest impact on the pollen problem. If you spend only one hour studying plant allergies, spend it researching the trees you are considering for your landscape.

2. Be a Feminist. Turn your mind back to high school biology, when we learned that some plants have only female parts, some have male parts, and some have both. Plants with just female parts do not produce pollen to cause allergy, while their male counterparts produce large amounts. Male plants (especially trees) are popular choices because they do not produce messy fruits, but they often have horrible allergy ratings. Be cautious about planting 'fruitless' male trees or shrubs.

Showy flowers generally don't produce much pollen.

3. Double Your Delight. Here's some good news for flower-lovers: plants that produce small amounts of sticky pollen must attract insect or bird pollinators with their brightly colored, showy flowers. That means the plants with the most beautiful flowers often cause little allergy. When some of the pollen-producing anthers have morphed into extra petals, producing a 'double' flower, the flower produces even less pollen.

4. Be Spooked by Ghostly Flowers. The flowers of wind-pollinated plants are usually small and pale green or white (hence the ghost reference). They're often so inconspicuous that you may not even realize the plant has flowers. These plants produce large amounts of lightweight, dry pollen that is carried long distances by the wind until it alights on a moist surface like a plant stigma or a human's nasal membranes.

Trumpet-shaped flowers like Vinca are good low-allergy choices.

5. Turn to Trumpets. Flowers that are shaped like trumpets generally hold their pollen inside where it won't make you sneeze. Choosing plants with trumpet-shaped flowers will be good for your nose, and bees and hummingbirds will applaud your choice as well.

Sorting out low-allergy plants from high-allergy plants is not a simple task, but hopefully these five suggestions will be a helpful way for you to make plant selections that have a positive impact on the pollen allergy problem.

April 2, 2009

Spring in Spokane

Mother Nature decided to celebrate April Fool's Day in Spokane. She let us think spring had arrived on the first day of April, then hit us with a snowstorm that night. This morning we awoke to 3 or 4 inches of snow. My purple crocuses that were so adorable yesterday are feeling a bit smothered today.

Actually, it didn't really feel like spring yesterday with the temperatures in the upper 30's F. But I bundled up and got a bit of gardening done anyway (and felt pretty healthy the whole time, hooray!). I should have known something was coming when several of the Seattle bloggers mentioned snow early this week. Over here in eastern Washington, the weather systems reach us a few days after hitting Seattle and rest of the western side of the state.

Yesterday I enjoyed beautiful pictures of dogwoods in North Carolina on Freda Cameron's blog. My dogwood looks pretty today, too.

Yesterday I pulled the rest of the mulch away from my rosebushes. The buds are swelling but the leaves haven't broken out yet. Last week three roses arrived from Regan Nursery, and I planted a couple of impulse-buy roses from Costco the week before. Hopefully the snow will melt quickly so I can plant the ones from David Austin that are scheduled to arrive tomorrow. I'm not worried about the snow damaging them as all of the roses I plant are fairly hardy, and they're not too vulnerable as long as they haven't leafed out.

While transplanting a few things to make room for the new roses, I enjoyed the new foliage of my delphiniums. The white-flowering ones have lovely green leaves, and the new leaves of the purple ones are maroon.

While puttering around outside, I tried to ignore the primroses in my front porch pot that I keep forgetting to water. The porch is open on the south and west sides, so it traps the low winter sun and really heats up on sunny afternoons. I forget to go out there to water the pot during cold weather, so my primroses got fried.

Like Catherine, I picked up an unlabeled hellebore from Home Depot this week. Mine wasn't on the clearance rack, but $10 for a 1-gallon hellebore is still a good price. The ones I ordered from Heronswood were twice as expensive and will probably be half the size. But they're both going to be PINK and that makes up for a lot. I'll post more on them when they arrive in a couple of weeks.

Ignoring the fact that it was definitely too cold to lounge around outside, I unstacked our plastic Adirondack-knockoff chairs (someday we'll get nicer ones!) and arranged them around the patio. We'll get to use them eventually.

This morning I was going to have the children clean their rooms so I could vacuum, but instead I'm sitting at the computer while they romp outside. The snow is wet and perfect for snowmen.

Waiting for spring in Spokane is tiresome, but I do have some consolation. Last night I stocked up on clearance rack sweaters and long-sleeved shirts at the Eddie Bauer Outlet during their Spring Sale. At least I'll have plenty of opportunities to wear them before the weather gets too warm!

A note from Tuesday, April 7, 2009: Less than a week after the kids built their snowmen, we had two sunny days of 70+ degree F weather. In our sheltered backyard, the temperature climbed well above that, so the kiddos pulled out their swimsuits and a sprinkler and had a great time getting wet. No more complaints about Spokane's spring from me (for a while)!