Second Wind Annuals

Turquoise blue pollen on this Angel Wings Shirley Poppy

Even Better Late

Despite the flurry of our remodel and protracted move, my new garden is slowly coming together. Though the all-important front entry bed has yet to materialize, the three large watering troughs that march across the front of the house host a very satisfying mixture of edibles and ornamentals; tomatoes and peppers, oreganos and rosemaries, basil and lavender mingle with seedlings and starts of favorite grasses and perennials. Winding through this enticing mix are bands of my favorite annuals. Most were starts, now happily blooming just weeks from planting. Others have been sown randomly as I rediscovered packets of seed (which somehow got jammed in way too many places during our multi-staged moving process).

Thus, I now have showboat Queen Lime Red and upright Yoga Purple zinnias starting to bloom, closely trailed by many other kinds in the leggy adolescent stage; full blown creamy California poppies and tiny breadseed poppy seedlings; trailing nasturtiums in full bloom and infants just emerging; hip-high sunflowers and babies holding their split seeds on their heads like striped sunshades. Late sown Portulaca, nigella, and sweet alyssum are just beginning to sprout in low bowls and in the stony edges of the gravel parking pad. What will happen when summer heat finally hits? Established plants will be fine, and as long as I can keep the later emergers moderately moist, they’ll persist well into autumn. Indeed, unless we get hit with early frosts, some will still be blooming (if fitfully) well into winter to brighten holiday tussy-mussies.

Why Poppies Thrive Or Fail

I’ve been asked by numerous people when to sow poppy seeds, as they aren’t always willing to perform well from seed. Poppy seeds sprout best in cool weather, so late winter or spring sowing is usually more successful than late summer sowing. I’ve had good luck sowing poppies from late fall into early summer in cooler years. Many folks also have trouble when trying to save poppy seed, largely because they pick the pods too soon. The best way to get poppies going in gardens where they haven’t been happy is to pot up 4-inch starts and grow them on in the sunniest spot you can offer. When the flowers fade and the foliage turns silvery brown and crisp, watch the pods closely. At first, they look like little green balloons with ribbed flat tops. As they ripen, the pods turn brownish grey, the flat tops curl up, and little windows open to let the seeds tumble out.

As with all plants, poppy seeds are ripe when you can hear them rattle in the pods. However, I’ve found that you’ll get the best results when you let the seeds remain in the pod on the plant until the pod is quite dry. Spill a few at various stages of dryness and you’ll notice that greener pods yield lighter colored seeds, greenish or brown, while the driest pods hold darker brown or totally black seeds. Those will give you the best germination rate and produce the strongest youngsters. Since soil temperatures are linked to night temperatures, sow poppy seed while nights remain in the 50s and don’t cover them. After a few sizzling days, the Seattle area has stayed cool and cloudy, and soils are still on the chilly side just a few inches down. Indeed, poppy seed sown fresh from early bloomers two weeks ago have already sprouted, thanks to the persistent cloud cover. Papaver somniferum is wildly variable, especialy after a few generations; to get the colors and forms you want, buy starts and let them self sow.

The Cool Factor

Calendula is another annual that sprouts best in cool weather but thrives in hot summers. Sown in late fall, calendulas will be in full bloom by May and will carry on into autumn. Indeed, in mild years, they’ll overwinter and be blooming before you know it. They self sow prolifically and transplant easily when tiny (not so well as older plants). Save the curly little seeds and scatter where you want another crop and you will have a bright bank of blooms by early summer. Be aware, however, that luscious color forms like Pink Surprise, Lemon Pastel and Snow Princess need roguing to stay true. I plant a few gorgeous variations like frilly much-doubled Bronzed Beauty and Solar Flashback because they’re so fun in arrangements but double blossoms aren’t pollinator friendly (they’re are hard for bees and others to navigate).

Our native Clarkia prefers cool weather sowing as well, blooming cheerfully in early summer (that’s why its common name is farewell-to-spring). Sow this charming, easy going annual in late winter or early spring, scattering the seed where you want the plants. Don’t cover them; like many wildflowers, they need light to germinate. Most will flower in shades of rose-to-pink-to-lavender but some seed mixes will include a few that bloom in purple, red, coral and salmon as well.

The Heat Factor

Other annuals like it hot; zinnias and portulaca sprout much faster as soil temperatures rise, and they prefer hot spots in tubs and troughs to the cold clay soil in my beds. Like many dry country plants, they delighted in my bermed beds with a base of sandy loam. AS a child, I was enchanted by the delicate blossoms of Moss Rose (Portulaca), which poured out of funky cement cinder blocks in sifting sand at the beach cottage we stayed at on Cape Cod. Rose and red, orange and copper, fuchsia and coral, the petals looked as delicate as gossamer but stood up to blasting sun all summer. As our summers get hotter, even Pacific Northwestern gardeners can grow Ice Plant (Delosperma sp.) readily. rugged and enduring in sun-soaked spots. These once-humble beauties now come in dazzling forms with fringed and doubled petals and brilliant colors that shade from hot to hotter. In the past, they’ve acted like annuals for me, but these days, I both Fire Spinner, a knockout with copper-to-magenta petals, and Starburst, thickly fringed in hot pink, have made it through our weird and wild winters.

Zinnias definitely prefer warmer conditions and established plants sail into steamy summers with aplomb. I adore zinnias, as do floral designers, who have elevated these former country bumpkins to horthead star status. I seriously swoon when my beloved Queens red and purple,strut their spectacular stuff. Queeny Lime Orange shades from her hot red central boss through chartreuse, coral and salmon to smoldering orange, while Queen Red Lime shifts from her deep burgundy boss through French grey tints of palest green into smoky coral reds. And then there’s Benary Lime, a statuesque beauty with hand-sized blossoms of coolest yet vibrant green. All the Benarys, which include stunning shades of wine and red and purple, make fabulous cut flowers and look majestic at the back of any border. Cutest of all are the adorable, frilly Zinnia Cupcake Mix; frosted in sparkling shades of rose and pink, orange and yellow, cream and red, they look like birthday treats for sophisticated six year olds (my inner child beams with pleasure). Many were planted from 4-inch pots this very week and are already fluffing out and beginning what promises to be a prolonged and bountiful display. Better late than not at all!



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Building Bodacious Flavor In Tomatoes

photo by Robin Cushman

Of Soil And Sea Salt

My new garden is charming if miniscule; the (very) narrow frontage is our parking area so squeezing in plants required some thought. However, where there’s a will, plant nerds will make a way. Now, a trio of 6x2x2-foot galvanized watering troughs line the front of our vintage mobile home, providing bed space for an astonishing number of plants. This limited space is amplified (of course) by more and more large pots. Indeed, the pots keep mysteriously increasing in number as I find just a few more things I can’t live without. Fortunately, those deep troughs are full of beautiful soil, so I can plant more tightly than I would otherwise. Thus, my gorgeous tomatoes share space with lavender and zinnias, while thyme and oregano snuggle up with Amsonia Blue Ice and fizzy green Santolina, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. This mashup of annuals, perennials, grasses and bulbs won’t stay together forever, of course; they’re merely having a sweet summer fling.

My next project involves rebuilding a side bed to provide some privacy screening and to make a home for more beloved plants. In the meantime, my edibles are thrilled with their position, getting light from the east and south with a bonus of reflected heat from the house and gravel parking area. As a result, I harvested several cucumbers yesterday and some of my tomatoes are already starting to get pink cheeks. Fittingly enough, my Blush Tiger is the first to show color; this husky plant is set on producing LOTS of elongated cherry tomatoes that are clearly going to ripen fast. Super Fantastic is also setting its plump fruit well; these are among the tastiest I’ve ever grown, with rich, true tomato flavor and a perfect sweet/tart balance.

Wait, Sea Water?

Since flavor is the whole point of growing your own tomatoes, here’s the deal: To get that fabulous, deep, rich flavor, we need to give our plants both great soil and a tiny sip of sea water. No joke! A single dose of salty seawater (1 cup of seawater per quart of tap water) can markedly improve tomato flavor. Several decades ago, commercial tomato growers in New Jersey farmers were horrified to find that their signature crop was losing its savor. Field trials and studies revealed that as fertilizer ingredients changed over time, measurable sodium in soils was reduced.

While an excess of salt can kill plants, the right amount can boost flavor in tomatoes and other crops. Where soils contain adequate sodium, tomatoes develop far greater concentrations and variety of the sugars and acids that influence the classic tomato flavor profile. When growers amended less salty field soils with mined sea salt (in the form of an agricultural product called SEA90), soil levels of sodium, chloride, and many other minerals again showed the trace amounts that make the difference between bland and bodacious.

Sea Water For The Land Locked

If you want to try this at home and are not near a source of fresh sea water, check out this link. Here’s one researchers’ report:
“For growers interested in conducting a small trial to evaluate the effect of salt fertilizer on tomato taste here is a suggested protocol: Use 46 grams of to treat an area 4 square feet or land area needed to grow one tomato plant. Apply the treatment by mixing the SEA-90 product into the soil at time of planting. Flag the treated plant and perform your own personal taste test by comparing the treated fruits to other fruits of the same tomato variety from another part of the field. Leave some border space between plants when sampling fruits for comparing treated and untreated plants. An alternative approach is to use sea water from the Atlantic Ocean. {Or Pacific, of course} 1300 ml (or 0.35 gallons) of sea water contains about 46 grams of salt which is enough to treat one tomato plant. Apply this seawater as a soil drench around the base of the plant two weeks after transplanting. To prevent leaf burn, do not allow the seawater to touch the leaves.”

Real Food First

Of course, well fed plants will offer the very best produce. To enhance the natural flavors of all fruits and vegetables, mulch generously with compost and water sparingly, as needed. Sparingly? Yup. Excess water and high nitrogen fertilizer both dilute flavor, and tomatoes grown on the dry side will develop the boldest flavor. Early in the season, water weekly as needed, wetting down soil only, since wet leaves encourage foliage diseases. Toward summer’s end, let plants dry out a bit between waterings. By late September, let foliage wilt just a little between waterings to get the last fruits to ripen properly.

As for feeding, compost mulch is as important as fertilizer because it helps plants build natural sugars called brix. Brix levels indicate sugar content, and high brix counts improve complex flavor profiles in everything from tomatoes to turnips and peaches to peppers. Compost promotes strong, sturdy plants by encouraging root growth, and vigorous roots can harvest water and nutrients even from less than ideal soil. Compost also improves soil quality and texture, making it easier for roots to penetrate dense or overly airy soils. Since most compost is close to pH neutral, it helps to balance acidic or alkaline soils as well (many edibles prefer pH neutral soils).

Big Appetites Need Satisfaction

Tomatoes are what’s known as gross feeders, meaning they require a lot of food to succeed. Tomato plants in pots benefit from frequent feeding (as in every 10-14 days), as fertilizers get washed out by repeated waterings. Plants in the ground can spread their roots a lot further, so feeding once or twice a month is plenty. It’s best not to count on time release fertilizers, which don’t work when temperatures are below 70 degrees F. What’s more, they can burn tender plants by releasing too much too fast on hot days. To avoid multiple feedings, give each tomato plant a cup of corn gluten now, as a final feeding that will last 6-8 weeks. High in nitrogen, corn gluten also kills weed (or any) seeds by drying out emerging seedlings. For container plantings, use natural fertilizers that combine quick and slow-release foods (both Whitney Farms and Dr. Earth make excellent fertilizers of this kind).

For even fuller, brighter flavor, you can also feed tomatoes with kelp extract and a mild (5-5-5) organic fertilizer. If tomato stems break before the fruit has a chance to ripen fully, the problem may be linked to using inadequate water-soluble fertilizers, especially when tomatoes are grown in pots. Liquid seaweed extracts help strengthen weak stems by supporting steady plant growth even when cold nights follow warm days. Kelp combines micronutrients and trace elements with plant hormones and growth stimulants that promote root growth, improve stem and foliage density, and increase chlorophyll production. Kelp extracts also contain traces of sea salt, which may make an ocean visit unnecessary….


Posted in Care & Feeding, Planting & Transplanting, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Tomatoes | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Sneezing Through Super Pollen Events


Designing A Low Pollen Garden

Are you waking up with a scratchy throat and itchy eyes? Do you sneeze explosively in little bursts several times a day? Got a low-grade headache most of the time? Ears block up often? Though allergic responses are idiosyncratic, these are very common symptoms of over-exposure to pollen. In June, grasses are the usual culprits, though some trees and weeds are also cranking out the guy stuff. Massive pollen shed is linked with plant stress, with many contributing factors. Excess or unseasonal cold and/or heat, increasing drought and/or heavy rains and flooding, unusual amounts of ice and snow, all can induce plants that feel threatened to produce extra pollen in an effort to save themselves (or really their species) through their offspring.

Folks who aren’t sensitive to pollen may not notice these super pollen events until their cars, decks, outdoor furniture, and walkways are crusted with greeny-yellowy pollen. This can be almost as annoying ad an allergy to the tidy-minded, who might appreciate learning that the best way to get pollen off cars and other painted surfaces is to wet it down, then use a combination of dish soap and warm water with a soft cloth. Scrubbing and harsher detergents can damage the paint and won’t get the pollen off as well either.) Whether you’re sneezing or seething, it’s worth taking some time to learn which garden plants are least likely to dump pollen and to trigger those inconvenient sensitivities.

Finding Helpful Information

Though few gardening references include information about how much pollen a particular plant sheds, a book called Allergy-Free Gardening by Thomas Leo Ogren is a reliable resource. In it (and on his website) Ogren offers both plant lists and strategies for pollen avoidance. For starters, most heavy pollen shedders are male. Thus, we can seek out shrubs and perennials with big, showy, scentless or lightly scented blossoms. These tend to be female and/or pollinated by critters rather than wind. Pollen-rich, wind-pollinated flowers (candidates for allergy triggers) tend to be small and less vividly colorful, so eye-catching showboats are safer bets. So are bird-friendly plants, which are generally pollinated by nectar-seeking birds. If your allergies are acute, pick sterile hybrids of any kind, from ornamentals to annuals, since they don’t produce pollen at all.

There are plenty of good perennial candidates for the low-pollen garden, including the following:

Acanthus (bear’s breeches), Achillea (yarrow), Agastache (anise hyssop), Alchemilla (lady’s mantle), Anemone (windflower), Aquilegia (columbine), Astrantia (masterwort), Cynara (cardoon), Erysimum (wallflower), Eupatorium (jo pie weed), Gaura (wandflower), Geranium, Heuchera (coral bells), Hosta, Kniphophia (poker plant), Lavatera (tree mallow), Lythrum (loosestrife), Nepeta (catmint), Oenothera (evening primrose), Penstemon (beardtongue), Perovskia (Russian sage), Phlomis (Jerusalem sage), Phormium (New Zealand flax), Phygelius (cape fuchsia), Potentilla (cinquefoil), Rheum (rhubarb), Salvia (sage), Sedum (stonecrop), Sisyrinchium (blue-eyed grass), Verbena (vervain), Veronica (speedwell), Yucca (Spanish bayonet).

Adding Annuals And Edibles

Annuals are often bred for dazzle and many produce little or no pollen, including the new sunflowers that are bred from low-pollen species to avoid getting tablecloths dirty when table arrangements include sunflowers (!). Among the most reliable low-pollen annuals are: Calendula (pot marigold), Clarkia (winecup), Cosmos, Eschscholzia (California poppy), Godetia (satin flower), Nigella (love-in-a-mist), Lunaria (silver dollar plant), Meconopsis (Welsh poppy), Petunia, Tagetes (marigold), Verbena (vervain), Viola (pansy), and of course my favorite Zinnias.

As for edibles, most root vegetables are harvested before they flower, so their pollen is not an issue. Both crucifers (broccoli, cabbage, kale, etc.) and alliums (chives, garlic, leeks, onions, shallots) are seldom troublesome pollen producers, and while some herbs shed lots of pollen (notably chamomile and artemisias), many others do not. Many pollen-sensitive folks can enjoy growing basil, chives, dill, mint, thyme, lavender, fennel, parsley and rosemary without pollen issues. (While many people are sensitive to lavender, sensitivity to fragrant plants is not usually pollen related.)


As for those dratted grasses, some (like turf grasses) are indeed major offenders in the pollen-shedding category. This isn’t the only reason that I encourage people to reduce or eliminate lawns, but it’s certainly a factor for all of us who prefer not to be allergic to June. Turf grass sensitivities can usually be reduced by regular mowing, but weedy and ornamental grasses are another story. Here again, some are major pollen producers (Johnson grass, orchard grass, Timothy grass), while others are generally far less problematic. Happily quite a few ornamental grasses produce only modest amounts of pollen. Here’s a list of beautiful garden grasses that are less likely to trigger allergies:

Anemanthele lessoniana (pheasant tail grass), Arrhenatherum elatius (oatgrass), Bamboo, Briza (rattlesnake grass), Carex (sedge grass), Elymus (lime grass), Nassella tenuissima (Mexican feather grass), Panicum (panic grass).

Go For Girly Shrubs

Shrubs are of course a key element in garden design and as such, can definitely not be left out of the picture. As with mowing the lawn, clipping shrubs and shearing hedges before they bloom are good ways to eliminate allergic reactions to pollen. However, it’s far simpler to replace heavy pollen producers with less stressful plants. For instance, if you love willows (a notoriously heavy pollen producing clan), plant a corkscrew willow, or the weeping form called Weeping Sally, both of which are females. If you hope to avoid excessive pollen exposure from all your shrubs, consider planting some or all of these handsome shrubs:

Aronia (chokeberry), Berberis (barberry), Callicarpa (beautyberry),
Ceanothus (California lilac), Chaenomeles (quince), Cornus (twiggy dogwood), Escallonia, Fuchsia, Holodiscus (ocean spray), Kolkwitzia (beautybush), Lonicera (shrubby honeysuckle), Nandina (false bamboo), Oemleria (Indian plum), Philadelphus (mock orange),
Physocarpus (ninebark), Potentilla (cinquefoil), Rosa (rose), Rosemarinus (rosemary), Santolina (cotton lavender), Spirea,
Symphoricarpos (snowberry), Vaccinium (blueberry, huckleberry),
Viburnum (guelder rose).

Of course, allergy responses can be idiosyncratic; what triggers many may not bother any given individual, and our particular triggers can be both specific and uncommon. The best way to figure out what to avoid is to pay close attention to your body and to develop a good nose for triggers. Keep track while weeding to discover which weeds set you off and mulch areas where the worst offenders are usually found to discourage seed sprouting. And what about the bees? Consider planting a pollinator patch or several, tucked into out of the way areas, and/or allow pollen-rich plants that aren’t triggers for you to flourish as well. Onward!


Posted in Annual Color, Gardening With Children, Health & Wellbeing, Pollinators, Sustainable Gardening, Tomatoes, Weed Control | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Doing Less, Enjoying More

Simplifying Garden Care

Recently a friend was bemoaning the fact that weeding her driveway takes more time than she likes. Though I’m generally a fan of weeding, which allows us to really see and savor our gardens, I admit that weeding a gravel driveway can be an exercise in frustration. In fact, weeding is the number one reason most folks say they don’t like gardening. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to make gardening more gratifying. The first is to make fabulous soil, adding compost several times a year to pretty much everything but the driveway. In Seattle, Cedar Grove offers a terrific source of organic compost, as do many places these days. We can replenish our gardens with our neighbor’s recycled wastes, mulching generously to enrich the soil, smother out weeds, and conserve precious moisture. When our soil is healthy, our plants grow better and gardening is far more rewarding.

Another key to happiness is to consider where and how we spend our time in the garden or on the grounds. This informal analysis can guide us to reduce or eliminate the repetitive chores that make gardening feel like drudgery. Nearly always, garden chores can be reduced dramatically by making a few simple changes in our garden’s basic design. Remove and/or avoid adding plants that need frequent clipping. Consider replacing overgrown hedges with a fence. Use a flame weeder to keep weeds from gravel paths. Reduce summer watering by clustering thirsty plants and giving preference to plants that tolerate dry soils wells.

Lose The Lawn

For most folks, the fastest way to reduce both the weekly workload and high resource use is by getting rid of the lawn. No ground cover or perennial plant you can name needs to be watered, mowed, and fed as often or as much as a lawn. If you have young kids, un-manicured play lawns are great, and some pets need a place to poop, but such lawns can be quite small. What’s more, we can often shrink or edit them out entirely as the kids grow up and pets pass on.

To make a start on the shrinking process, consider converting the sunniest areas to herb and vegetable plots. In some communities, battles over the right to grow edibles instead of lawns are being won by the foodies, so this is worth a try even where lawns are expected. Simple, clean lines and tidy beds go a long way towards earning approval even from the conventionally minded. Attractive trellises, arbors and pergolas provide year round structure and can host ornamental vines from grapes to roses. Plant plenty of bright annuals to bring in the bees and your edible beds will look good enough to eat.

Skirting The Issue

Where lawns include trees, give each lawn tree a wide skirt (to the dripline or beyond) of native or regionally adapted plants. This grass-free barrier helps our trees live longer, healthier lives, since weed whacker wounds are a leading cause of tree damage and death. It also protects the mowing person from getting poked in the eye by low hanging branches, which eliminates a great deal of regrettable language. Instead of planting fussy border beauties in these tree circles, use woodland plants that don’t mind the company of tree roots.

For year round good looks and seasonal interest, combine spring and summer bulbs (which prefer minimal summer water) with drought tolerant evergreen ground-covers that need only one annual trimming to keep them tidy. For instance, spring crocus and scilla, summer blooming Allium Schubertii, and autumn crocus can be carpeted with delicately textured Epimedium x perralchicum or sheets of Cardamine trifolia. To keep such an area looking great, tuck fading bulb foliage under the ground-cover and renew compost mulches in spring and fall. Over time, increase the size of these tree circles into low maintenance beds between wide paths.

Improve Paths

Excellent paths make a great difference to the looks and functionality of any garden design. The most common design mistake (which is sadly not confined to amateurs) is to make paths too small. Six to eight feet is a good width for a main path, while secondary paths can be four to five feet wide. This allows two people to walk side by side and permits passage of loaded barrows and carts (or strollers, walkers, and wheel chairs). Plants can spill comfortably onto the path surface, softening sharp lines and hard edges. Paths laid in big, simple curves evoke a feeling of ease and flow, encouraging leisurely travel. Straight lines and right angles create a more martial ambience and lose the sense of mystery lent by curves that disguise the full extent of the grounds. Tight angles are also more difficult to keep trimmed and edged, and annoying weeds seem to seek them out.

Instead of creating squared-off places where paths cross, make round-a-bouts with large pots tucked in the center. Let longer paths balloon out here and there to make sunny and shady seating areas. Make these large enough to hold at least a bench, or a table, some chairs, and a few large containers. Here too, big is better: Soft, simple lines and generosity of scale will make these areas easy to care for, comfortable to use, and visually attractive. When making service areas for compost, trash and tool storage, and so forth, pave them with crushed rock, never pea gravel, which is treacherous underfoot. Where soils are heavy, trench paths and fill them with clean, crushed gravel to allow excess water to drain away freely. I surface most paths with crushed quarter-minus basalt (our local rock), inserting pavers or flagstones to vary the look in different areas. Graveled areas can be kept weed free with flame weeders which are both entertaining and effective.

Replace Weeds With Winners

What shall we do with lawn remnants? Where such constructive alterations leave narrow strips of lawn between paths and beds, incorporate these grassy leftovers into beds (or paths). Now, take a look at your paths: Another very common design error is to create beds that are too small and out of proportion with the site and the house. Big, bold beds look best and are easiest to plant without resorting to pruning for size control (always a mistake). Following these simple steps will leave you with little, if any, lawn. In my gardens, everything that isn’t a path, a seating area, or a service area is part of a bed. Well filled beds are far easier to care for than lawn. If you have weeds, you don’t have enough plants.

As always, when making gardens of whatever size, my models are the meadows and woodlands where plants succeed each other in effortless waves throughout the year. Even now, when my beds are truly tiny, I’m filling them with a tightly knit matrix of annuals and border shrubs, perennials and bulbs. Are there any grasses? Yes indeed, handsome clumpers that provide texture and movement with every breeze. As a general rule, about about a third of the plants in each bed are evergreen, and half to a third are native. The others are chosen for drought tolerance, adaptability, and a long season of good looks. Once your garden is similarly transformed, you’ll be enchanted to have time to relax and admire the garden without a chore in sight. Onward!


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