February 27, 2009

All I Want From My Yard Is . . .

A mantra of good design is to consider function before form. In landscape design, this means thinking about how you want to use your yard before starting to draw up a plan and picking the plants. Think 'Outdoor Rooms' not 'Plant Museum.'
I do a decent job of this with other people's yards, but I'm not so good in my own yard. I began accumulating lists of Must Have Plants years before buying a home. Thank goodness none of my friends presented me with a list of 200 Must Have Plants when asking for my help in planning their landscape - but that's what I've done to myself. Actually, I can probably reconcile the problem by listing 'Display Must Have Plants' as one of my landscape's chief functions.
I have several friends who have asked for my help with their landscapes, but first they need to think about how they want to use their yards. So to give them an example, I'm going to list some of the functions I want from my landscape. A few 'Before' photos of the yard are included so you know what I'm working with. It will be years - decades? - before the 'After' photos are ready. Randi, Marcia and Abby B. - this is for you!
1. Display my Must Have Plants. My landscape design needs to have room to grow english roses, delphiniums, hostas, heucheras, daylilies, hellebores, iris, anemones . . . my goodness, the list is long! That means I need plenty of bed space in both sun and shade. Those beds need good soil and an efficient irrigation system (the current lawn-focused sprinkler system won't be effective when I start planting bushes and taller perennials).
2. Provide a temporary place for me to observe plants until I gather enough specific information about color, bloom times and growth habits to organize them into the final plan. I'm calling this place the 'Plant Evaluation & Propagation Area' (PEPA) to distinguish it from the haphazard mish-mosh it currently resembles. Yeah, I know plenty about 'Stella d'Oro' daylilies, but what about 'Millie Schlumpf' and 'Lavender Stardust' daylilies? Will my 'Worth the Wait' siberian iris bloom at the same time as my 'LD Braithwaite' english rose? I want to know my plants well before assigning them a permanent spot.
3. Provide play opportunities for my kids. We have three of them, and outdoor play preserves my sanity in the summer. They'd like a play structure with swings, room to run around, and digging areas.
4. Include convenient, comfortable places for grilling, eating, sitting, reading, talking, and entertaining variously-sized groups of guests. Much of this will happen on the patio (which will be redone eventually), but a few carefully placed benches will also be needed.

5. Feature photogenic backdrops for portraits. Wouldn't it be great to have lovely family pictures taken right in our own backyard? That might require large shrubs, a bench, rocks, an archway, or other photo-friendly additions.
6. Offer cut flowers and foliage. I love making nosegays and other arrangements for my home and to give away. When considering a new plant, I usually ask myself if the leaves or flowers would be useful in arrangements. I don't have enough space for a dedicated cut-flower garden, though, so cut flowers will just have to come from the regular flower beds.
7. Screen unattractive views, provide privacy and create attractive views from both inside and outside the house. From various points in our backyard, we can see over 50 other houses. 50!! I don't want to see all those houses when I'm out in my backyard (or have all of them watching me), which is why we planted a small forest of 14 trees around the border of the backyard. Our lot is also graced with the neighborhood's bank of mailboxes, which I would like to surround with plantings that curtail my view of it from the house and front porch.
8. Minimize non-fun maintenance. I enjoy puttering around in the garden doing things like deadheading, pruning, transplanting and dividing. I don't enjoy pulling grass or weeds out of the flowerbeds, or taking care of the lawn (especially as I have an allergy attack after mowing - what a great excuse to pass off this job to dear hubby). This means I need to include sturdy barriers between lawn and beds. I'm trying to think of a good way to keep the neighbor's grass from coming under the fence when we turn the edges of our yard into beds, but haven't come up with a great one yet. Dig a trench and pour concrete? Buried boards? Any ideas?

9. Create an attractive setting for our home that fits into the neighborhood, aka curb appeal. The front yard design is mostly about just looking nice. The challenge with our home is to draw the eye away from our unfortunately prominent garage.
10. Offer a setting for a wedding reception. In a couple of decades, I'd love it if one or all of our kids decided to hold a garden reception in our backyard. This idea requires some traffic-flow planning.
11. Grow veggies and fruit. I'm not sure that I want to devote a large rectangle of ground to the veggie garden, so I'm thinking of ways to mix the produce in with the flowers. Not quite decided about that.
12. Allow flexibility for when I change my mind. That's a when, not an if. It's a blessing that our budget won't allow all the landscaping at once, since I'll have plenty of time to make changes, and more changes, as I think of new ideas.

The first three photos were taken when we bought our home in 2007, and this last one shows its current state as viewed from the master bedroom window.
So what do you want from your yard? Randi, Marci and Abby B. - make your lists. Everyone else, please leave a comment to help me add to my list. Surely I've forgotten something.

February 23, 2009

New and Improved Delphiniums

I am a big fan of 'new and improved' versions of old garden favorites. The new versions might be disease-resistant or hardier in cold winters or hot summers. The new plants might grow more vigorously or produce more flowers. Those flowers might be larger or have a wider range of colors, more ruffles or other showy additions.

So I'm happy to post today about the new and improved delphiniums that are offered by Dowdeswell's Delphiniums, a nursery in New Zealand. This nursery has a large breeding program to create sturdier, healthier, hardier delphiniums in a large range of colors. All photos in this post are from their website and are used with permission.

I found their website several years ago, and loved perusing pictures of their delphiniums even though we were then renting and I wasn't going to order any for a while. After we got settled into our Spokane home, I ordered seeds for 'Green Twist' (pictured above) and started them indoors in a sunny windowsill. And now for a confession - I totally botched the seed-starting process. I forgot to wet the soil before planting the tiny seeds, and any of you seed-growers will know that it's almost impossible to get fine seed-starting soil to absorb moisture without stirring it around. I learned that in a plant propagation course in college, so I should have known better! Anyway, I poured and poked and prodded and finally got the soil sort of moist. Despite my forgetful antics - and lack of a more professional seed starting setup with grow lights and such - I ended up with 15 delphiniums to put out in the garden last spring. I enjoyed the creamy-greenish-white blooms and look forward to following directions on Dowdeswell's website to grow more plants from cuttings.

I didn't order any delphinium seeds this year for lack of garden space, but I've got my eye on 'Pagan Purples' (pictured above) for the future. Dowdeswell offers delphiniums in purple, lavender, mauve, pink, royal blue, sky blue, white, cream and greenish-white. Their pink 'Sweethearts' delphinium (pictured below) recently won an award of merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Dowdeswell has christened their best delphiniums 'New Millennium Delphiniums', and I've seen them offered in many catalogs at prices from $10 to $15 per plant. You can order a packet of 50 seeds from their website for just US$10, plus about $4 postage. That's a great deal, even if you botch the process and only come out with 15 plants.

New Millennium delphiniums are bred to be more tolerant of hot, humid summers, but I still don't know if they'd be happy in Florida. Another potential drawback with delphs is that they often need staking, especially in windy areas or when growing taller varieties. But after looking at these gorgeous pictures, who wouldn't be willing to do some extra work to have these beauties in their garden? Detailed instructions on how to start seed and grow delphiniums are included with seed orders from Dowdeswell and can be found on their website.

In addition to offering heaps of information about delphiniums, the Dowdeswell website includes many more beautiful pictures, including some that can be downloaded to use as wallpaper for your computer. I've enjoyed one of their delph photos on my computer all winter.

Thanks to Dowdeswell for the use of their pictures. They might not be quite as divine as Niels' rose heaven photo, but they're close! Click on a picture to enlarge it. So have I convinced you to become a delph-lover? If you've grown delphiniums before, be sure to leave a comment to tell about it.

February 18, 2009

Worst Allergy Plants List

I'm interested in knowing which plants cause allergies because I experience allergies to pollen from grass and several trees. Did you know that repeated exposure to large amounts of allergenic pollen can cause you to develop an allergy to it, even if you don't have one now? Both those people who already have allergies and those who could develop allergies (that pretty much covers everyone!) might be interested in the following list.
I went through Thomas Ogren's "Allergy-Free Gardening" book and picked out some of the plants with a rating of 9 or 10 on the OPALS scale. These are the plants that cause the most allergies. The entire list is huge, so I'm just including plants that are common to temperate climates like mine, plus a few that I remember from my Californian neighborhood. If you live in a mild climate, you'll just have to buy the book to find the worst allergy offenders for your area - including many types of allergenic palms and grasses. Actually, I recommend this book for every gardener and designer.
The plants are listed alphabetically by latin name with common names in parenthesis. In many cases just the male forms are the offenders, as females don't produce pollen to cause allergies. Sorry I didn't do the italics thing but I just didn't have the patience for it on this long list.

Acacia (wattle, mimosa, whitethorn)
Acer negundo 'Aureo marginatum', 'Baron', 'Violaceum' (male box elder)
Acer rubrum 'Autumn Spire', 'Tiliford' (male red maples)
Acer saccharinum (male silver maple)
Agrostis (bent grass, redtop)
Ailanthus (stink tree, tree of heaven)
Alnus (alder)
Ambrosia (ragweed)
Anaphalis (pearly everlasting)
Artemesia (dusty miller, sagebrush, tarragon, wormwood)
Aruncus sylvester
Broussonetia papyrifera (male paper mulberry)
Callistemon (bottlebrush)
Carex (sedge)
Carya (hickory, pecan)
Chionanthus (male fringe tree)
Corema (broom, crowberry, poverty grass)
Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese cedar)
Cupressus (cypress)
Cynodon dactylon (Bermuda grass)
Elaeagnus angustafolia (Russian olive)
Elaeagnus pungens (evergreen silverberry)
Fescue glauca (blue fescue)
Fraxinus (male ash tree)
Gymnocladus dioica (Kentucky coffee tree)
Helenium autumnale (flowering sneezeweed)
Juglans (walnut, butternut)
Juniperus (male juniper, cedar, habbel)
Laurus nobilis (male bay, sweet bay, sweet laurel)
Lycopodium (club moss, ground cedar, princess pine)
Mangifera indica (mango)
Morus (male mulberry)
Olea europaea (olive)
Pennisetum setaceum (fountain grass)
Phalaris (canary reed grass)
Phleum (timothy grass)
Platanus (sycamore, plane tree, buttonball tree)
Poa (Kentucky bluegrass) *if mowed often it won't produce pollen
Podocarpus (male fern pine, yew pine)
Populus (male aspen, cottonwood, poplar)
Quercus (evergreen oak, ie coastal live oak)
Rhamnus (buckthorn, coffeeberry)
Rhus (sumac, poison ivy, poison oak)
Salix (male willow)
Schinus (male pepper tree)
Senecio (cineraria, natal ivy, german ivy, wax vine)
Thalictrum (meadow rue, buttercup)
Zelkova (Japanese zelkova)

After perusing the list, do you notice any plants that have given you allergy symptoms? Are there any that you might need to remove from your landscape? When we lived in California, I often walked past a long row of olive trees on my morning walks. By the end of the row, I usually had a headache, but didn't attribute the problem to the olive pollen until I reread Ogren's book and saw that olives are rated as a 10. I turn to his reference book as I'm considering new plants - especially trees - for my landscape. I'm willing to take medicine and put up with the sniffles in order to continue to enjoy time outdoors, but of course I'd like to reduce the problem by reducing pollen levels in my yard and community.

Professor Ogren has released another book, The Allergy-Fighting Garden: Stop Asthma and Allergies with Smart Landscaping, available here.

February 17, 2009

Daylily and Iris Specialty Nurseries

As promised, here is a review on several of the specialty nurseries from which I've ordered and been pleased. Today I'll focus on four nurseries, two of which sell daylilies and two that sell iris. The Garden Watchdog reviews on all four of these nurseries are completely positive - no negative comments at all! Click on the nursery name to get to their website.

Oakes Daylilies
I found this nursery on the Garden Watchdog Top 30 list and was impressed with their huge selection of daylilies. Perhaps such a large selection might be overwhelming to some, but I was happy to search through dozens of pink daylilies to find just the perfect one(s) for my garden. I ended up placing an order for six daylilies - all in shades of pink! Of course they carry plenty of other colors, too. Oakes Daylilies prices vary greatly depending on the cultivar. Several of the ones I ordered were less than $10, but 'Smoky Mountain Autumn' didn't make it from wish list to order since I couldn't stomach spending $40 for it. Sigh - it's really a beautiful daylily. Anyway, Oakes ships large clumps of daylilies and includes a bonus daylily equal to about 20% of your order total. You can cut apart the clumps to make several smaller plants or leave them together to get a nicely sized plant. If your budget isn't too tight and you prefer to order larger plants, this is a great nursery for you. Order a free catalog here.

Bloomin Designs
If your daylily budget is tight or you prefer to start with smaller, less expensive plants, you might appreciate Bloomin Designs Nursery. I've ordered daylilies from them several times and been pleased with the service I received. The bareroot plants I have received from this nursery were smaller than the ones from Oakes. However, 'Siloam Double Classic' sells for $30 at Oakes and just $8 at Bloomin Designs. There are a few crazy-expensive daylilies listed on the BD nursery site ($80/plant), but these are rare or new cultivars. Overall their prices seem lower than other sources. This nursery also sells hostas, groundcovers, roses and some perennials. I include them here because their daylily selection is very large. Click here to print a catalog, as they don't mail catalogs.

Schreiner's Iris
This nursery specializes in tall bearded iris, but also carries numerous other types of iris. Last year I placed an order for a bunch of bearded iris - mostly blue - and was pleased when the rhizomes that arrived were fat and healthy (isn't it nice when 'fat' is a positive attribute?). Like all of the nurseries in this post, Schreiner's has a huge selection of their specialty plant. I spent hours trying to figure out which blue irises I wanted for my garden - it was great fun. The key to getting good prices from Schreiner's is to order one of their collections or place an order above $80. In either case your order will be discounted 50% from normal individual prices, and orders above $80 also qualify for bonus irises. Click here to order a free catalog.

Joe Pye Weed's Garden
This nursery specializes in siberian iris and includes many newer introductions by the owners themselves (Schafer and Sacks). I oohed and aahed over their website photos for a couple of years before we bought our house and I could order some for my garden. If 'Caesar's Brother' is the only siberian iris you've seen, you'll be pleasantly surprised with the range of siberian iris colors available from JPW's Garden: purple, blue, white, yellow, peach, pink, maroon and various combinations of those colors. The incredibly saturated blues are my favorite. Check out this photo of 'Mister Peacock.' I love the way spiky upright siberian iris clumps punctuate perennial beds. JPW prices range from $35 for this year's introductions to $6 for older cultivars, and they guarantee at least a 3 fan division will be shipped. They also include a bonus iris. When my order arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to find my bonus was 'June to Remember,' which I loved but hadn't ordered because it was then priced at $30 (currently $15, though). That kind of generosity cements my loyalty. Click here to print a catalog, or follow the instructions on the home page to order a $2 print copy.

I hope you'll enjoy looking into these excellent nurseries. If you have ordered from any of them, please leave a comment and tell about your experience.

February 10, 2009

Cheap Gardening and Valentine's Day

With the American economy in shambles, most of us are pruning back our gardening budgets. I thought I'd share some tips learned while gardening sans budget for eight years. My husband was a student of one type or another during this entire time, and our main budget mantra was, "If it's not essential, don't buy it." Unfortunately, most gardening purchases fall into the non-essential category, though occasional purchases were rationalized with the thought that buying a few plants was cheaper than treatment for depression.

1. Work with what you have. Our rented duplex in Des Moines, Iowa included a few shabby hostas and daylilies. So I watered, fertilized (yes, I splurged and bought fertilizer), divided and transplanted them until we had a small but attractive foundation garden. Our landlord loved me for it, and I felt good about improving that little spot of earth. I did the same thing with agapanthus (see my previous post), liriope and calla lilies around our California duplex.
2. Make friend with gardeners and accept cast-offs. In Santa Clara, California, I found a few gardener friends and happily accepted divisions from overcrowded perennials and plants that would otherwise have been 'shovel-pruned' (dug up and thrown out). I often helped with garden work to thank them.
3. Knock on doors. An acquaintance in Renton, Washington added many plants to her garden after seeing them in strangers' yards, knocking at their doors and politely asking if she could take a cutting or small division. This technique probably works best for petite, kindly-faced women. Men might provoke a call to the cops if they tried it!
4. Ask for nursery gift certificates for Christmas. My sweet in-laws often have a hard time thinking of presents for me, so they were delighted when I mentioned that I love gift certificates from David Austin Roses and Home Depot. It's fun to show my mother-in-law all the plants that she has purchased for me via gift certificate. Well, I think it's fun. She's not a gardener, so she just smiles and nods and looks relieved that she didn't have to pick out a sweater for me.
5. Find a farmer and ask for manure. A gardening friend in Moses Lake, Washington improved her garden beds by digging, hauling and spreading several truckloads of manure from a local dairy farmer. She had teenage sons at the time, so I assume they helped in the stinky process. I also assume that her neighbors weren't very happy about the smell, but they're probably over it by now. And her gardens are beautiful.
6. Take a chance on clearance plants but save your receipt. Many of the big-box stores have 1 year guarantees on their plants. This means you can buy a deeply discounted, half-dead clearance plant and get your money back if it doesn't respond to your TLC.
7. Be patient. The cardinal rule of buying plants is that impatience is expensive! The younger and smaller the plant you buy, the less expensive it will be. Obviously seeds are the best example of this. Plant small and save money.

Using tecniques like these, I managed to keep gardening throughout our poor student years. Maybe one or two will help you trim your budget when needed.
Now I'll veer off-topic when I note that this Valentine's Day marks 10 years since my husband asked me to marry him. It wasn't a planned event; the question just popped out in the middle of a conversation about our goals in life and such . . . "I just have to know, will you marry me?" I replied affirmatively, and the conversation continued. Nightly conversations about anything and everything are still a favorite part of our relationship.
Is it possible to have a truly happy marriage nowadays? I have found that it is, despite the afore-mentioned tiny budget. Perhaps our marriage is stronger because we've built it on a foundation that hasn't included expensive dinner dates, fancy gifts and exotic vacations (though I won't mind if we include a few of those someday!). Like gardens, relationships require steady nurturing to produce good results.
Actually, I believe the simple key to our marriage's success is that we both try to live the teachings of Jesus Christ. As we do, we become less selfish, more compassionate, and we can find joy together even in hard times. While this isn't a topic that I will post about often on this blog, it's a big part of my life. I adore gardening, but faith and family are my greatest joys.

February 3, 2009

New Hardy Agapanthus for Zone 5

So what if agapanthus graces the landscaping of every strip mall and gas station in California? Long-term gardeners in that region might be sick of this plant's sturdy, strappy foliage and the periwinkle flower balls that burst from long stems. But in my cold-winter corner of the world, this tender perennial had to be treated as a houseplant or an annual . . . until now. Last month I was delighted to open my copy of High Country Garden's Spring 2009 catalog and find 'Cold Hardy White' agapanthus (pictured above), rated for zone 5 winters, though it is deciduous and young plants must be heavily mulched. Finally! I've wondered many times if hybridizers would someday create an agapanthus hardy enough for my garden. At the HCG website I also found 'Kingston Blue Strain' (pictured below), another hardy agapanthus. Of course I promptly placed an order and can't wait to see how these two do in my garden. I fell in love with agapanthus during the three years we lived in Santa Clara, California. Soon after we moved into a rented duplex, a couple of agapanthus seedlings sprang up in the backyard. No other agapanthus were nearby, so I guess these were a gift from the birds. At the time our budget was very tight - and of course I wasn't going to buy much for a rental garden anyway - so these small volunteers were a very pleasant surprise. Thanks to Santa Clara's loooong growing seasons, plus plenty of compost, fertilizer and water, the little seedlings grew quickly. By the time we left, they had been transplanted and one clump divided to make three large plants in the front garden. Agapanthus are iron-tough plants. They'll grow in full sun or full shade (though they don't flower as much in full shade). After getting established, agapanthus are fairly drought tolerant. They don't seem to be troubled by pests or diseases. No wonder they're so commonly planted in mild climates! I'll be sure to post on the progress of my new agapanthus later in the summer. By the way, this post was not solicited by High Country Gardens. I'm just excited about these new introductions. In fact, I solicited HCG for the use of the pictures in this post, and they kindly agreed. More information about these plants can be found on these HCG web pages: Agapanthus 'Cold Hardy White' Agapanthus 'Kingston Blue Strain' And did you notice this post exceeds my once per week goal (set in my previous post)? I'm patting myself on the back. 
Update April 2011 - Unfortunately, neither of my hardy agapanthus made it through the first winter. I covered them with bark mulch before the winter, but maybe that wasn't the best way to protect them. Anyway, my zone 5 is a harsh one with very long winters and lots of early and late frosts. These plants might work in other zone 5's or in microclimates. But if you're unsure about how they'll do in your climate, just order one or two to begin with and wait to see if they make it through the winter for you.
Update February 2021 - Other hardy agapanthus cultivars are now available.  I planted 'Blue Yonder' two years ago and it came through the winter, though it hasn't grown large enough to bloom yet.  It doesn't seem very vigorous in my garden.  Last spring I planted 'Galaxy Blue' and 'Galaxy White' and look forward to seeing if they come through this winter.  Both increased in size and bloomed for me in their first summer, so they seem vigorous as advertised.  I should also note that my area is now considered Zone 6, as we rarely drop below zero in winter.

February 2, 2009

Happy Anniversary, Little Blog!

This month marks the one year anniversary for my blog. Insanely enough, I started blogging right around the time my third baby was born. That might be the reason why the blog languished for a few months last summer. I was buried under diapers and was so sleep-deprived that I could barely speak coherently, much less write a sentence that others would want to read. It was all I could do to keep up with my gardening, and blogging was pushed to the back burner. But now that I'm getting more sleep, this blog has become a great creative outlet and a gateway to gardening friends galore at the garden blogging community of Blotanical.com.
My original intention was to post information that would be useful to readers. I'm still trying to do that, but I've realized that my favorite gardening blogs include a healthy amount of the blogger's personality. Catmint is teaching me patience in the garden - she has plenty of it, as her current garden was started when I was just one year old. I love it that Joy obsesses about fudge as well as gardening. Frances is like the wise, kindly faire (LOL) godmother of the garden-blogging world. If I had a nervous breakdown, Jan would be the first one to my door with a meal (or at least an encouraging post in my comment section!). I could go on and on about the delightful gardeners I'm meeting via blogging. There are so many more I'd like to include, but inevitably I'd forget someone and so I'm stopping here.
With all of this in mind, I'm expanding my definition of what constitutes an acceptable post here at VW Garden. While garden information and inspiration will still be the goal, a bit more of my life will end up in the posts as well.
Here's my current dilemma: balancing my enjoyment of blog posting, reading & commenting with the other responsibilities in my life. Blotanical will take up as much time as I can give it. I'm blessed to be able to be home with my children, but the three of them are at a fairly labor-intensive phase. And dear hubby deserves plenty of attention, too. I'm trying to become a better photographer, and then of course my actual garden requires work! I think a goal of posting once a week is a sustainable one for me right now. I'd like to still be posting when I'm a wise grandma gardener (gardening is one thing where old age is an asset - young gardens just aren't as nice), but that won't happen if I burn out now.
Here's to sustainable garden blogging and the avoidance of burnout! If you'd like to leave a comment with a bit of your wisdom for striking the right balance in your life, it will be appreciated.