And Now For Something Completely Different

Ah, Sunflower, Weary of Snow…

Let’s Think About Plants That Thrive Hot, Dry Summers

I am so done with snow. I don’t even want to talk about it. Instead, I’ve been immersing myself in the magical world of sun loving plants that thrive on heat and drought. What a delightful idea that is right now, and how appropriate. After the scorching summers and brutal winters of recent years, so many beds and borders have gaping holes where long-time favorite plants lost their will to live. Instead of reflexively replacing them with more of the same, let’s investigate some tougher plants that might actually enjoy situations that were way too challenging for our dear departed.

While we’re doing our research, we can also busy ourselves with refreshing beds and border with a generous layer of compost mulch. I know, I’m always going on about compost, but seriously, there are very few things we can do for our soil with greater benefits than annually refurbishing soil humus. Homemade or trucked in, compost is quite truthfully garden gold. Mulching, whether with compost or aged manure or even straw and autumn leaves is a healing practice that can transform crappy soil in amazingly short order. Don’t think so? Spread a bale of straw over a funky area and let it stand until May. Even in that short time you’ll see more worm action and more open soil under the straw blanket. Leave it in place until September and you’ll notice even more healing. Spread straw—or leaves and grass clippings or manure and compost—every fall and your garden will be transformed. No joke.

Green Manure And Great Plants

Another thing that’s just as valuable is to make a regular practice of growing cover crops in our vegetable beds during the off season. Healing and replenishing the soil is definitely the key to pleasing plants of all kinds. Some growers even under-sow main crops with lower growing green manure crops like annual clovers to get the benefit even as they get a marketable crop. In ornamental beds, that’s not so practical, but annual mulching will help event difficult soils hold more water and host more of the soil biota that bring soils to life. Feed the soil and the soil will nurture your plants. Not only that, you’ll be doing less and less watering as plant roots get down deep in your steadily improving soil.

It used to sound like a joke when we’d explain that the maritime Northwest has a modified Mediterranean climate, meaning that most of our rainfall comes in the cooler months. Back in the day, I’d always quip; just like the Mediterranean without the sun! Hahaha. Yes, Northwestern summers have been relatively cool, yet the past decade saw the hottest years on record. If thirsty border beauties couldn’t cut it, Mediterranean plants managed quite well. Lovely, often aromatic subshrubs from rosemary, lavender, and sage to santolina, artemisia, and horehound (Ballota) thrive in hot, dry conditions. Lesser known but still widely available are handsome evergreens like Jerusalem sage (Phlomis italicum), aromatic Teucrium chamaedrys, and silvery-leaved Brachyglottis greyi (aka Senecio), all sturdy heat lovers.

Natives Plus For Sun

The new summer heat also pleases many native plants from Oregon and California as well as plants from parts of Central and South America, Australia, and New Zealand. The wise gardener will choose plants that are both drought and heat tolerant, such as the shrubby manzanitas (Arctostaphylos) and California lilacs (Ceanothus), both of which offer dozens of handsome, shapely garden-worthy selections. Beloved of bees and butterflies, Asian bluebeards (Caryopteris sp) are long blooming subshrubs and perennials with vivid blue flowers and green or golden foliage. Improved forms like Beyond Midnight and Sapphire Surf have lustrous foliage and generous bloom spikes, while Blue Balloon forms naturally rounded mounds that don’t need shearing to keep their shape.

When the heat is on, tougher beauties can take the place of fussy perennials. Yarrow is among our most adaptable native plants, a circumpolar perennial found throughout most temperate regions. Achillea millefolium has zillions of selected forms, with blossoms of apricot and salmon as well as plum and cream. The lovely New Vintage series ranges from white to rose to violet, fading attractively instead of turning brown. These sturdy perennials make excellent cut flowers and once established, thrive with very little care. Most tickseeds (Coreopsis) revel in full sun, notably the Sizzle & Spice series, including Zesty ZInger, with hot red-to-silver petals; tawny copper-orange Crazy Cayenne; and flame-licked golden Curry Up, all bee and butterfly favorites.

But Wait, There’s More

Let’s not forget the splendid Euphorbia clan, which is packed with sun loving toughies. Surely we can find room for E. characias Silver Swan, with slim, blue-grey foliage edged with silver, and the blazing beauty, E. polychroma Bonfire. The stunning E. x martini Ascot Rainbow, with its lovely rose-to chartreuse-to sage and cream coloration, is happy in shade or full sun. Sturdy woodland spurges, such as E. amygdaloides Red Velvet and Ruby Glow, do best with morning sun and afternoon shade. I love this family and use the best of them frequently, as there’s a Euphorbia for pretty much any spot you can name. Yes, you have to keep that sap off your skin but that’s what gloves are for, right?

I’ve always loved cottage annuals like Moss Rose (Portulaca), which open silky little blossoms even when grown in cement cinder blocks in sifting sand at the beach. Coastal gardeners will also find Ice Plant (Delosperma sp.) rugged and enduring in sun-soaked spots. These once-humble beauties now come in dazzling forms like Fire Spinner, a knockout with copper-to-magenta petals, and Starburst, thickly fringed in hot pink. Outstanding among annuals, heat loving zinnias are the darlings of trendy florists these days, from gorgeous creatures like Zinnia Queeny Lime Orange (my absolute favorite of all time) to the adorable, frilly Zinnia Cupcake series, which make luscious and long lasting cut flowers. So don’t look back! Onward!


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The More It Snows, Tiddley Pom

Chicken Soup And Raspberry Syrup

As I was shoveling and sweeping snow from my back steps and trekking along the slippery, snowy path to the mail box this morning, I found myself humming a little ditty that turned out to be my childhood version of the snow song from Winnie The Pooh (the book, that is; not the Disney version). “And the more it snows, tiddley pom, the more it goes on snowing.”

It certainly has gone on snowing lately; in fact, this is the longest stretch of snowy weather I can recall since 2008-9, when we had over 23 inches. Of course that’s nothing compared to the astonishing winter of 1968-69, when Seattle got over 67 inches of snow. (Really.) After a week of being snowed in, I’m very willing NOT to pursue any more records of that kind. We’ve had about a foot since Friday and that’s plenty, thanks. But it keeps on falling…

Outdoor/Indoor Entertainment

All this snow wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the ice layer underneath, which makes roads and even paths treacherous underfoot. My daily walk has become a daily trudge alternating with exciting moments when my feet skid suddenly. Despite the snow, flocks of robins are flitting around the edges of the woods, poking in the dried grasses for seeds, I suppose, since there are no bugs right now. Our local chickadees are already singing their springtime phoebe song, and I’m hoping they know something I don’t. At night, coyotes wail and yip in the woods, and the snow keeps falling.

After so many days indoors, I’ve had more than enough sitting and knitting and reading. Longing for something to do that requires standing up, I decided to get cooking! I last visited a grocery store on Thursday, so as my fridge empties out, I’m exploring the unplumbed depths of my freezer and finding some archival material that is definitely historical but probably no longer edible. However, I did find some of last summer’s raspberries, as well as some chicken thighs and a quart of chicken broth of more recent vintage. (It’s always a good idea to label and date things we consign to the freezer. Too bad I don’t always remember that!) No, I did not make raspberry soup, but here’s what did happen:

Fabulous Raspberry Syrup

Since I’m running low on raspberry jam, I thought I’d make another batch to carry me into summer. However, I only had 6 cups of fruit, not quite enough for a full batch of jam. Luckily, I also found an aging (but not scarily so) bottle of unsweetened tart cherry juice. Why not combine these two delectable ingredients? I did so, then discovered that I was a bit short on pectin. Happily, the directions for cherry jelly didn’t call for as much. I merrily poured the whole quart of tart cherry juice in with the raspberries before re-reading both recipes and realizing that my carefree calculations were…wrong. The bad news is that most of the jam didn’t set, though some I boiled down a little longer finally did achieve a soft set that’s good enough for toast. The very good news is that I now have half a gallon of extraordinarily delicious syrup that could make cardboard taste good.

And that chicken broth? I pretty much emptied out the vegetable bin and made a wintery chicken soup that tastes bright and fresh, sweet with orange juice, tart with cranberries, crunchy with kale, and rich with good broth. Onward!

Winter Chicken Soup

2 tablespoons avocado or olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 medium leeks, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
4 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
i orange, juiced, rind grated
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken, chopped
1 quart chicken broth (homemade if you have it)
1 bunch kale, cut in thin ribbons
1 cup raw cranberries (frozen works fine)
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

In a soup pot, combine oil, onion, garlic, leeks and salt over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally until soft (5-6 minutes). Add celery, carrots, orange rind and juice, cover pan and cook until barely tender (3-4 minutes). Stir in chicken, cover and cook for 3-4 minutes, then add broth (and water to cover if need be). Bring to a simmer, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add kale and cranberries and simmer for 5 minutes. Add paprika and salt to taste. Serves at least one.

As I write, the snow is still falling and more is predicted. Yet on my sunniest windowsill, a pot of tiny daffodils blooms bravely against a backdrop of snowy trees. Surely spring is on its way?


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Protecting Plants From Heavy Snow

Practice Your Pole Thwacking

Even after several (ok four) decades in the Northwest, there are things I can’t quite get used to. I grew up in New England, the land of real snow. I remember horse-drawn sidewalk plows (really) and huge street plows that left piles higher than my head, even as a teenager. Here in the maritime Northwest, where snowplows are rare and drivers seem challenged by rain (which really is mysterious), a few wet inches of slush is cause for general panic. Today, however, caution is more appropriate: ice-slick streets are covered with slippery snow and the ditches are full of cars. Trees are falling from the weight of wet snow, and lots of folks are without power. Temperatures here rarely dip into the twenties, but we’re looking at about a week of below-freezing night temperatures so driving will be sketchy until a thaw arrives.

Back in the day, my kids were ecstatic to have school cancelled. As young teens, they’d spend snowy mornings making huge snowballs and rolling them around the yard until they became immovable. I’d be out there too, releasing young trees from the weight of sodden snow, freeing bent boughs and straightening toppling trunks. I think the kids had more fun, though I once overheard the younger one admitting that he wished snow were warm instead of cold. His older sibling replied that we lived in the warm snow capital of the world–what did he think rain was? The younger retorted that you can’t make snowballs with warm snow, but the elder explained that water balloons were just warm snowballs…. Both kiddos agreed they would love to have a month of Montana or Vermont winter, but I’m glad we don’t.

Garden Havok

My friend Les Brake lives in Willow, Alaska, and deals with way more snow than I do. His winter garden is full of ice flowers and fluffy, chilly snow, as shown above. That’s not the kind of snow we get down here. Even a couple of inches of the soggy glop we call snow  is enough to wreak havoc in the garden. Not because it’s too cold–that’s seldom cause for concern. Our emerging bulbs won’t be harmed a bit by frost or snow. After all, most of them come from far colder places than this, places like the high steppes of Central Asia, the chilly mountains of Uzbekistan, and the Himalayas. Nothing the Northwest can offer in the way of cold is going to daunt tulips that thrive where humans can barely survive. It’s true that certain flower buds can be blackened by frosts, but in general, the earliest bloomers are hardy creatures. Daphnes and quinces, winter sweet (Chimonanthus) and sweet box (Sarcococca) that are budded up or even blooming now will go right ahead and bloom or keep blooming as soon as the warm chinook melts the snow. Snowdrops and hellebores are unabashed by snow, as are early mahonias and hot pink bergenias.

No, the worst thing about snow is the sheer weight of it. Wet snow (our usual lot) is the most dangerous of all. It looks so delicate and lovely, frosting the garden foliage with silvery lace and decking last summer’s plants with fresh, foamy flowers. Hydrangeas are smothered under billowy puffs of white. Taller shrubs are tipped with silver spears, their skeleton leaves newly felted with white. Rhododendrons are bowed down under ice cream scoops of faux/snow flowers. Trees and shrubs arch gracefully under their dainty covering.

Uh Oh

At least, at first they arch gracefully. Quite soon, though, the strain of carrying that dense, snowy blanket begins to tell. Angles alter, ever more acute, until those woody plants are obviously struggling, pinned down by a powerful opponent. Indeed, that is quite an apt analogy, because snow really does wrestle with shrubs and trees. Their limbs can even be dislocated or broken in the process, and it can happen quite quickly. That’s why it’s important to go around the garden shaking snow loose from mounding shrubs like daphnes and manzanitas and brooms and rhododendrons before they look like they are in trouble.

Flexible, cane-producing shrubs usually recover their poise when the snow melts, but once a woody shrub has splayed open at the heart, it seldom regains its original shape entirely. Even if no limbs are actually broken, larger branches often develop small cracks. These may not present any problems at first, but bark is a lot like skin; any break in that initial line of defense can become a gateway for infection and disease. What’s more, as the plant grows, those small stress fractures weaken the branches, which may break under their own weight during the next wind storm. Small and/or young trees also need the snow knocked off vulnerable branches, especially branches with included bark at the crotch or union where they emerge from the trunk. A stout bamboo pole is perfect for this, as it releases snow without damaging the branches. (Don’t, however, stand directly under the branch you are whomping or you’ll get snow all down your neck. To say the least.)

Give a Girl A Girdle?

Slim, upright evergreens like junipers and false cedars (Chamaecyparis) are especially prone to snow damage, for their relatively supple branches make such good shelves for snow. Sometimes they simply flop open in an untidy manner, but often whole sections will snap clean off. To prevent this, I’ve often wrapped columnar evergreens in jackets of plastic netting. The kind used to keep birds off fruit trees is usually too small-meshed; the stuff sold for trellising peas and beans, with 4″ gaps, works better. This slightly stretchy horticultural netting comes in various widths, usually 6, 8, or 12 feet.

Wrap it fairly snugly around your evergreen, tightly enough to keep the branches in places, but not so tight that it looks like a trussed christmas tree. Sew the netting in place with flexible horticulture wire or any supple, plastic coated wire. When spring arrives, let the captives free. However, I happen to know firsthand that if you forget and leave it on, the feathery stems will soon grow through their bonds, restoring the plant’s natural appearance so well that a forgetful and near-sighted gardener may never notice the netting is still there. In such situations, it continues to provide unobtrusive support for many years to come and nobody knows until it’s time to prune…


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Coaxing Early Blossoms

Springing Into Spring

Winter’s tantalizing weather likes to keep us guessing, switching from grey to golden and back again in dizzying flip-flops. If spring is definitely flirting with us, there are still weeks if not months of dim and chilly days to get through before her long awaited abundance of blossoms appears. Can’t wait? Though we can’t speed up the seasons (and really shouldn’t try), we can persuade some willing woody plants to offer a little preview of coming attractions. Fruit trees are already plumping up their buds, as are willows, forsythia, and camellias. With a little encouragement, corylopsis, viburnums, daphnes, and some magnolias will flower indoors long before they would in the garden. When spring remains cold and long drawn out, even the sight of fresh green (or purple or pink or copper) foliage is as welcome as rain after a drought.

Fortunately, creating an indoor bower of bloom is very simple. For starters, fill a deep bucket with tepid water, grab your pruners and head for the garden. Already, many a flowering shrub or tree is preparing to burst into blossom, as you can tell by the swelling of their buds. When you find likely candidates, cut long stems, at least 18 inches, or as much as 3-4 feet long for the most dramatic displays. Plunge them into the bucket immediately to keep the cut ends from starting to seal over, which makes it harder for the stems to take up water. If you have a larger tub available (long under-the-bed storage bins work well), arrange the cut stems in it and add water until stems are completely submerged. Let them soak overnight or even for a couple of days before preparing them to shine indoors.

Thirsty Work

Tall, narrow containers are ideal for keeping cut stems well hydrated indoors. Before making an arrangement, strip off any buds that would be below water level in the vase, since they’re prone to rot. Trim stem ends again to suit your containers, angling the fresh cuts to expose more inner bark, which helps stems absorb more water. If woody stems are hard, bang the cut ends gently with a hammer to mash them a bit, which also promotes water uptake. To avoid damaging fragile emerging flowers, arrange the stems while their buds are still closed. Florists’ frogs will help: these flat bottomed devices of metal or glass have wire mesh or tubular holes on their top surfaces that help flowers stand up straight. When leggy stems want to flop, a sturdy frog will keep them elegantly composed.

Whether for flowers or foliage, expanding buds need plenty of water, so check water levels daily and top them off as need be. Also, mist your arrangements with fresh tepid water once or twice a day to keep them from drying out as the buds open. If you have extra packets of florists’ cut flower food, add one to each vase. If not, add just a few drops of bleach to each vase, change the water often and re-cut stems a bit every time you change the water. Until the blossoms open, keep arrangements warm but not hot, preferably between 55 and 65 degrees F. If the vase water becomes discolored over time, change both the water and the vase and rinse the stems before putting them in a clean container. If stems feel slimy, rinse them thoroughly, gently brushing them with a soft nail brush. Next, re-cut them a little, removing perhaps half an inch of old stem each time you change the water.

Breaking Into Beauty

Buds usually begin to break open within a few days, though tighter ones may take a week or so. Once open, most of these early bloomers will last in beauty for a week or more, especially if you keep your house on the cooler side. To prolong the display, place cut arrangements out of direct sunlight and well away from forced air heaters. Placing the containers outside in a covered area at night will also help keep the flowers and foliage in good condition. When the flowers start to flag, cut a new batch of stems and start again. You’ll probably notice that the next batch of stems open sooner than the first ones, since spring has been quietly encouraging those outdoor buds to open, though more slowly than your indoor crop.

By February, you’re likely to find fattening buds on both ornamental and edible fruit trees, notably cherries and plums, as well as pears, apples and crab apples. Witch hazel, forsythia, and dogwoods are also good candidates for February forcing, as are quince, Deutzia, and hawthorn. Mid-month, corylopsis and fothergilla buds may already be starting to pop, along with star magnolia, redbud, and all sorts of pussywillows. Since all willows will happily root in water, add a few stems of curly willow to give arrangements pizzaz, and pot up the rooted cuttings when the blossom show is over. Those forsythia stems are also eager rooters, and they too can be potted up as gifts to your garden or to share with friends. Onward!

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