Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Roses: Hot, Cool, and Vicious

French Lace rose: my queen of roses
Dear ___________,

To me, roses are so beautiful that they might as well be the embodiment of souls on stems. I've always hoped that souls glowed though, so when scientists get around to creating glowing roses, I'll be the first in line to try one. If they can engineer glowing cats, then roses shouldn't be that hard. If you think I'm joking, google it. Glowing effing cats.

Roses get a bad rap. They are the cliche gardening specimen of an entire generation of avant garde, pseudo nouveau types that say "roses are so early 80s." In a few respects, I agree with them. Rose beds are unremarkable without other plants to frame and support the ho-hum foliage and singular blooms. Growing roses solo is mos def 80s. A man in my neighborhood grows only roses (plus one lavender, let's make that clear), and since traditional roses tend to be tall and gangly like a junior high student after a summer growth spurt, you get an eyeful of dirt. It's like that horrible dream when you walk down the street without pants. Dirt blows. Do people walk by and say "Wow! Nice dirt, dude?" No. No one wants to look at that crud for the aesthetic value. I'm the kind of gardener that prefers ninja dirt: it's there, but you don't see it. Like underpants. You just don't go around showing that stuff to people.

Seriously. Photo credit: my nine-year-old from a moving vehicle. Drive by.
Roses look best when incorporated into the mixed garden like people, and there are so many types and ranges of mental health issues. You got your heirlooms (your grandmother, because she can't get rid of anything), your knock-outs (bar flies: cheap and easy for the cads out there), your floribundas and teas (RuPaul and all other drag queens- gorgeous), the shrub-type roses (most of the middle class: slightly overweight), the topiaries (the queen mother), and carpet roses (straight up altar boys). Walk down the street and pretend everyone is a rose. That jerk driving like a entitled twit on the interstate in his Lotus? Probably not a rose at all, but a weed. But even dandelions/cads get into the mixed border sometimes. Yank it out before it sends out seeds (probably with the bar fly).

Mixed border: yellow rose and white lavender, but closer together. No underpants showing. 

Heirloom climbing rose and Echinacea 'Green Jewel.' A little underpants flashed.

See the cherry on top?
Red climbing rose, Digiplexis, Carolina spice bush, red barberry, achemilla
Taking care of roses isn't as time consuming as you might think. Climbing roses are easy. Just find something for them to strangle like a fence or trellis, maybe the side of your house, the deck railing, your worst enemy, George W. Bush, etc. I've read several articles that tell you to train the canes of a climbing rose to grow horizontally for more blooms per branch. The top bud sends down a chemical signal to dissuade buds below it that says "Hey, guys. I got this." But if you train them to grow sideways.... cheeky.  However, I've rarely had this problem, but I've seen it. My climbing roses bloom quite nicely: I feed them like a mofo. Plant something right in front of your rose (that one lavender plant, maybe), or else you'll be flashing your underpants. I've done this. I planted a shrub in front of the bare canes of my red climbing rose, so now I have a strange double scoop ice cream cone thing happening.

Tamed heirloom climbing rose on trellis with iris hiding the base.
Untended hose for effect.
Almost all roses (but not your climbers) will do best if they are cut back to around twelve inches tall in February or early Spring. This will keep them from looking like those anorexic teenagers going through growth spurts. Seriously, you want those babies to look like a brick house, and poorly trained roses are one of my biggest pet peeves. I walk my neighborhood frowning and shaking my head whenever I encounter a poorly pruned rose bush. Are we going for Slenderman here? They're creepy and they try to abduct you as you walk by. It's like the most horrible part of the fairy tale where the trees come alive and snatch the lost and wandering children. If you walk onto your porch some morning to find a herd of children stuck in your rebellious rose monster, call me. I'll bring the pruners.

Black spot and Felis Catus, also with black spots.
So, the problems with roses. Some of the older cultivars are susceptible to disease and fungal infections. Black spot (Diplocarpon rosae) is the bane of my rosy existence. I have one rose that wrestles with that crap every year. It will defoliate the whole plant, and since it's a fancy topiary rose (queen mother), I will fight to the death to save it for my country. I tried Neem oil since it's organic and wholesome and crap, but it didn't do much for the health of the rose, and it made the yard smell like a head shop. I dug through my arsenal (a perilously leaning shed that leaks and sometimes doubles as a raccoon nest) and found some seriously bad ass fungicide. I sprayed that rose every week in a last ditch effort to save it with full spectrum Immunox. I spent $60 on the rose, and it's still dying. The spray was worthless. I'm going to try a systemic fungicide tomorrow, which you water into the ground around the rose's roots. This morning I discovered the fungus has spread to two of my climbing roses. I'll let you know which one wins, but on the down low, my money is on the systemic fungicide. If you see the remains of the rose (or my body) in the compost, you'll know the outcome. In general I don't like spraying stuff because my neighbor has MS, and I like him. If I didn't like him, I'd spray everything. I also have kids and they eat weird things like dandelions and, you got it, rose buds.

Ladybug larva. Run.
Aphids. Lawdhavemercy. Aphids are psychotically obsessed with the new growth of roses. I know of no roses that are impervious to aphids. I used to spray organic and/or homemade pesticides every weekend on the buds of my roses (dish soap, castile soap, cayenne-peppered water, vinegar, you name it-- I had the whole pantry out there. By the way, soy sauce does nothing), but I got a stiff trigger finger from spraying so much and went with the systemic granules that you feed to the rose and water until you have to run inside use the bathroom. Systemic pesticide and fungicides are becoming my holy grail. It's practically a vaccine for roses. The pesticide lasts up to eight weeks, and I get a perverse joy out of watching the aphids take a bite, then wither and die like the garden vermin they are. Little bug corpses are so romantic on flowers. And with the pesticides, it's not as if I'm eating the roses (just the kids), and the bees are still alive and coming back to visit. I also employed ladybugs at some point. I've had both good and meh experiences with them. One year they stayed and had babies. Larval ladybugs are very creepy creatures, and I flipped out the first time I saw a horde of them marching onward towards dawn. Tiny. spiny alien invasion. However, four times out of five the ladybugs I bought flew away within forty-eight hours (and I've only bought five herds). Probably to breed and eat in someone else's garden. And no, they didn't fuel up on aphids before they flew the coop.

Rose 'Dr. Huey.' Hey, sexy. Photo credit: Nicole Juday
Roses gone wild. Some bitterly cold winters are either too cold for a rose, it's a pansy, or it's about to kick the bucket. Since many hybrid roses are grafted (much like peonies) onto a hardier root stock, aka the climbing rose 'Dr. Huey,' you will find that instead of the magnificent, flamboyant drag queen rose you planted a few years back, you have an illegal gin-distilling hillbilly in its place when Spring arrives. It's the root stock that has grown: the grafted rose has died. I had a rose that was fine for fifteen years before going wild. I've also had a peach floribunda rose that was still a toddler when it went on Winter break and sent a rangy redneck back in its place. While it's not a fixable problem, it can be disappointing to find a dirty-overalls-wearing, small-bloomed red rose in the place of the stunning drag queen you planted. Some people like that look. But out of twenty or thirty roses, only two plants have done this to me. Think of it as the perfect time to get a brand new rose. Go big or go home.

Many of the newer rose cultivars have been bred to resist the above problems. They still haven't been bred to glow, disappointingly. Knock-Out roses in particular are supposed to be impervious to the black plague and probably SARS, but I find them awfully plain without the whorls of petals. They look like evil souls. Maybe the jerk in the Lotus? So I don't grow them. But I wanted to at least mention them since they are the new hammer-wielding Thor of roses (I fancy Loki, FYI), and lots of get-out-of-jail-free types of gardeners are in love with them. No judging.

Blushing Knock-Out rose. Yeah, not so much. But you can by it from
Photo credit: Willoway Nurseries

Roses are always hungry. Plant food specifically for these souls is best since they have a preferred drink order. Martini: dry, shaken, two olives and a twist of lime. They also like different nutrients depending on the season and bloom time. But don't worry too much about that unless you're studying to become a member of the Seattle Rose Society (raise that pinky finger when you drink your tea). Just remember to look for the fertilizer that says "rose food" next time you're at the nursery. You could forgo the food and add compost like the backdoor of a hen house, but you can't make your own chellated nutrients- iron, phosphate, nitrogen- no matter how hard you try. I have added Epson salt to the mix on a whim, but I haven't noticed a big difference in foliage glossiness or greenness. I'll try again.

About that bad rap.... hopefully nothing above has told you not to grow roses. I've had roses that have been healthy, and as far as I know, my mother has never had to spray her roses, Aphids, sure, but never have I heard of fungal problems on her roses. And she's not nearly as neurotic about gardening as I am, so there's hope for the happy go lucky gardener out there. Maybe that's the key. Either way you decide to play it, post some photos of your souls. I promise my kids won't eat them.

Heirloom rose: grandma's pearls.

March onward towards dawn, my friends.


Sunday, May 3, 2015

Looking down the barrel of a container garden

Dear _______,

Angelica gigas
Container gardening is recreating the Game of Thrones with bonus design elements. You can be insane, kill everything, stage a coup, throw stuff out a Moon Door, stage elaborate and deadly weddings, raise dragons, be passive aggressive, cut off people's hands, etc. Add a little crazy, and you've got awesome. Hodor.

Talinum limon
First, buy plants you love. You are the khaleesi and you are building your very own micro-Westeros. I prefer a mix of perennials and annuals. Yes, I do plant annuals once in a while: usually ones that are so strange yet interesting that I cannot resist. They die at the end of the season (Rob, Catlin, Joffrey-- finally). Go for captivating plants like Talinum limon (left: bright chartreuse foliage and tiny red berries on stalks), or Angelica gigas (an architectural purple behemoth with equally purple stalks that make me giddy). We're are planting a red wedding. Try perennials. Trees. Shrubs. You are a vibrant, modern gardener that defies tradition. And those perennials will save you money every Spring because you won't need to buy the living to replace the dead (those poor Starks).

Traditional container gardens usually include a combination of plant heights, textures, and colors. This month's Fine Gardening magazine defines plant height by "thrillers, fillers, and spillers." Goldilocks would call them "too big, too small, and just right." Game of Thrones fans may think of them as Hodors (huge), Starks (just right), and Tyrions (little imps). Gardening can by dangerous and cunning.

Assuming you've reconnaissanced your local nursery, you should now be entertaining the idea of at least three plants of differing heights. Go for an odd number of specimens that will flower repeatedly through the season (unless you are relying on foliage for color). They look more artsy and less like country line dancing in odd numbers. Again, you are a vibrant modern gardener. This means you might have one Hodors, two or three Starks, and a several Tyrions.  When arranging, think of your elementary school class photos, where the tallest kids always stood in back, and the short kids got stuck in the front row with everything hanging out: unzipped flies and spaghetti stains. See below for general arrangement in large and small containers. The diagram is only a suggestion and assumes your container garden will be viewable from three sides. If not, plant Hodor in the middle and line dance around it with Starks and Tyrions. But if you do, don't tell me. I will have nothing to do with your line dance.

Now that we've addressed the height issue, let's do color schemes. I'm kind of stuck in a purple phase this year. Last year it was reds and oranges that I ended up launching out a moon door when I grew tired of them. I hear Van Gogh liked blue. George RR Martin seems to enjoy red. I choose from a small range of similar colors or complementary colors. Blues and yellows, or whites and pale blues, reds and oranges, etc. This Spring I paired mauves with smatterings of pale pinks and dark violet foliage. You can always substitute unusual foliage color for flowers. Foliage colors maintains consistent interest all season without pesky flowering times. Then you can focus on texture or height without thinking about flowers, or using flowers only as accents to your overall color scheme of interesting and lovely foliage.

Shady container garden: heuchera 'Sugar & spice,' primrose 'Pink ice,'  hellebore 'Silver dollar,' ghost ferns, Rhododendron canadense, and birch logs
Part shade: Nandina, creeping blue juniper, trailing fuchsia, and variegated ribbon grass

Texture is all about rolling with your homies: it takes a mix of people you enjoy to make it interesting. Foliage and flowers can be just like us: chubby, thin, crazy, tame, Tyrion the imp, Hodor the giant, statuesque, and sometimes strangely shaped and seemingly malformed. They can also be fuzzy, shiny, speckled, veined, conservative, liberal, or bumpy. Screw the independents. Think of the foliage contrast between a pine tree and a shamrock, or the differing floral textures of a dandelion and a lily. These variations create thoughtful interest when combined. I don't suggest planting a pot of dandelions and pine trees if you aren't in love with both, but I bet they'd grow if you're afraid of failure. Remember: if you don't like it, throw it out the Moon Door.

Full sun: bergenia, lemon cypress, variegated ivy, black mondo grass

Conifers (one of my recent obsessions) add an intriguing textural effect, and often they're perennial-- check the hardiness zone of all plants you purchase so you're not surprised when they croak or resurrect next year. And they are are evergreen (except Larches): bonus color and interest even in winter. The chartreuse Monterey cypress is a very popular conifer right now, but there are blue, variegated, gold, and red-tinged evergreen species. Nandina (above) is an evergreen in zones 6-10, with a few cultivars hardy to zone 5. Usually I see them in mass landscape plantings, so be rebellious and incorporate one in a container garden.

So you've got height, color, texture, and sun requirements (sun, shade, part shade). Mix on high for three minutes. Bake all season until desired consistency. Fertilize regularly and water more frequently than your lawn. They get thirsty.

Keep watering,

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Nuthin' but a peony thang

Dear _________,

As a wee gardener, I was never interested in the short-lived plants. The I-give-up-because-it's-hard flowers. The ones that were so easy to grow that it was cheating at gardening. Petunias, pansies, marigolds, etc. The kind you could stick in the ground and forget. They're annuals and don't survive winter, though, so it's a waste of money for three or four months of flowers. Unless you have money to blow, in which case, I have a few charities for you to consider. I always wanted to go big, even as a young imp. No annuals. Only perennials (you know, the ones that come back after Winter). A plant I could grow old with. One of the first perennials I become obsessed with was the peony. All those ruffles of petals, the blossoms too large for the rain, and too heavy for the stalk. Much like myself, actually. It was love at first sight: a kindred recognition of similarity. "Oh, you're chubby and fluffy. I like you."

The Queen of my front garden. 2014, photo taken by yours truly with a phone.

If you live in hardiness zones 8-11, your peonies are probably starting to pop up. Mine are beginning to emerge with red foliage that makes me think of zombie fingers reaching up through the soil. And I actually go looking for them. Every year I am stricken by the possibility that I may have lost a peony, so every Spring I'm out there gently probing the soil where I last saw it in the Autumn, trying to hold hands with the zombie fingers that I discover still hiding a few millimeters below the dirt. I like to think it helps the peonies wake up. They smell fresh meat. I've even thought about putting some Lee Press-On nails on them just for the amusement of it. Maybe next Spring.

Emerging peony "eyes" with Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea' 
Amid the hundreds of peony cultivars, some are slower to grow up than others. I have a few peonies that are awake and ready for school. They've eaten breakfast, and they brushed their teeth thirty minutes ago. And then I have one which takes its sweet time. It loafs around, gets distracted by trading cards, and is always looking for its shoes until the first bell rings. It's the peony that is most spectacular, of course. The pretentious queen.

I'm almost positive that the queen is a conjoined twin. I purchased a 'Butter Bowl' peony several years ago, but every Spring she has two different sets of blooms. One half is the original Butter Bowl, but the other is something pink and fluffy. I suspect it's a 'Sarah Bernhardt.' Now, I know that many newer peonies are often grafted onto the roots of a more robust cultivar, so I theorize that one set of blooms is from the original root stock, and the graft is the showier and newer cultivar. This is not as uncommon as it sounds. Rose breeders use the same technique for newer cultivars that are often not as Hulked out as older and more reliable rose cultivars. Most are grafted onto the roots of a rather unimpressive rose, but you rarely see it unless the graft dies and the original takes over. It's usually long and gangly and a tad ghetto. But it can survive a Siberian winter. The blooms are small and likely red, and you begin to wonder if fairies took your lovely apricot blush rose that cost you $50, and stuck an unruly changeling in its place. I've had it happen to me twice. So, having two different peonies on one root system isn't that strange, but having both healthy and blooming is like watching a Bonnie Tyler and AC/DC duet.

'Butter bowl' peony, 2014

'Sarah Bernhardt' peony, 2014
I have four peonies in my garden. I'm especially smug about my tree peony, which is a genus of peony that is woody. Herbaceous peonies have a fleshier stalk; they're the ones that look like zombie fingers, so it's fitting. Tree peonies are just like they sound: barky and shrubby. They also have a reputation for being persnickety: they need a helicopter parent to tend to every wish. My tree peony took years of coddling before it finally decided to accommodate me and bloom. This is pretty classic. Most peonies, herbaceous or tree, require a couple of years to get ready for the main event. Sure, you can purchase one that is already a few years old and blooming at your local garden nursery, but you'll also pay quite a bit and the selection is limited to what's in stock. I wanted super fancy peonies that looked like they were wearing petticoats. I wanted can-can dancers. I ordered them online in the Autumn (you can also do this in the early Spring/late Winter months-- so do it now). They arrived as bare roots: not a single knicker. The hussies. They were dormant of course, and I planted them when I got around to it (about a week after they were thrown to this wolf). Now, this is where you have to be very exacting. When planting a peony have a ruler handy, because if the tallest eye of the peony (where new stems start) is further than two inches beneath the soil, it will never bloom (unlike zombies). Lots and lots of foliage, happy as a clam, turning into a shrub, etc., but you might as well plant a boxwood for the leaves, because if the peony is too deep, that's all you'll get. It's the same if you plant it too shallow (less than one inch beneath the soil). Don't let this intimidate you, though. I was able to get it right the first time, which is saying a lot, because I'm rather adventure-prone and usually end up doing things the hard way the first couple of times. If I can accomplish this, you certainly can as well. It's worth the effort because those blooms are spectacular petaled pom poms, and I was never impressed by cheerleaders. Flowers are the sex organs of the plant, and cheerleaders are essentially the same thing: the proverbial sex organs of a sports team. Perhaps if they had been waving around peonies, I would have been dazzled. I've even had an ultrasound tech compliment my ovaries by telling me they look like peonies in bloom. How 'about them apples? He was probably just testing my knowledge of flowers and the human reproductive system, though. But I got it, and I nodded in respect.

Tree peony 'Shimadaijin,' 2014

Peonies are a small investment of your time and care (like ovaries). I've purchased bare-root peonies for a few dollars, and after a couple of years they start blooming and look like I paid $20. Five years later, I've hit the jackpot. Ten years? Hold on to your Lee Press-On nails, because you can have up to twenty or thirty blooms on a thriving plant. The first Spring they might put out tiny little buds that never bloom, then fall off. Don't fret. It often takes a year or two for a young or newly transplanted peony to bloom. Pick a sunny spot, plant at the proper depth with the proper hole size, and have patience. Peonies generally do not like fertilizer unless you want a profusion of foliage and no blooms. Sprinkling some bone meal in the hole during planting will suffice (again, zombies). Stake with a peony support or make your own to crutch the heavy blossoms (especially during rain), and don't scare the ants away. They help the peony buds open. Enjoy those pom poms.

Plant on, my friends.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The dirt on digging and how to dish your dirt

Dear _______,

Let's talk about dirt. If you want to preserve your reputation among gardeners, you never call it dirt in public. You call it soil. Dirt is when you find out your best friend is carrying Vladimir Putin's love child. Dirt is the stuff that needs to be saved from itself. Not much grows in dirt. It's barren unlike your best friend. Dandelions struggle to grow in dirt. Grass refuses. The cat uses it as a port-a-potty. When it's windy, the top layer blows away, and any minute you're sure you'll see a tiny tumbleweed roll past as well (also from Russia by the way-- it hitchhiked as seeds on immigrants' clothing). So, you need to stop pretending you're in the Wild West and find yourself some hoity toity culture, namely in the form of compost, chicken manure, humus (pronounced hyoo-mas or you-mus if you're British), peat moss, and/or possibly a bit of loam. Sounds complicated, I know. But like cake mix, all this stuff comes in bags which you can buy at a decent garden center. I don't recommend big box stores, because I've had trouble finding loam and humus there. Plus their compost is usually cheap, thus full of weed seeds. Probably tumbleweed, and you've already got that. If you're feeling like making it hard on yourself, you can use your own compost (make sure it's "finished" compost or you'll give your plants a chemical burn), humus, and loam. I bought myself a leaf mulcher to make my own humus, but all I really did was make a leaf litter tornado and I wasn't wearing safety goggles. Lots of labor and lots of time.

But who does that? I may be making margaritas for my garden, but I'm not squeezing all those limes or picking the agave. I get the ready-to-pour mix and buy the tequila. Bagged compost and/or 15% chicken manure potting mix (also bagged), with a bag of humus all thrown onto my cruddy dirt is essentially the mix I'm going for in this margarita. Rototill that stuff. Shovel it up. Mix it like a martini on the rocks and pretend you're James Bond. Be a human KitchenAid mixer. Usually I'm a bit lazy and I just mix one part really bad dirt with two parts compost, one or two colorful words, and a 16 oz bag of humus for a twelve-foot-by-eight-foot area. Coincidentally that is the size of the cat's port-a-potty wasteland under my deck. That should be enough for your plant buffet. Even if you're soil isn't dirt, it's still a good idea to get it drunk every couple of years, which means working in some compost and burying some dead bodies (go back and look at that definition of humus). Also, worms. Lots of worms. I order at least a thousand worms every Spring and sprinkle them in the gardens. They aerate the soil, fertilize with their worm poop (called worm castings), and break down leaf litter to make humus. Slave labor. Unfortunately, moles love to nom on earthworms.  My yard houses a ghetto of moles as a result, but the cat is eating well at night. Those tiny dead bodies add nicely to the humus if I don't hit them with the lawnmower first. It comes full circle.

Red European Night Crawlers from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm

Okay, you've got your shaken-not-stirred soil and possibly some worms. Now the fun part: digging. I didn't know how to dig a decent hole until a few years ago. Dig it and plant it, right? No. Nope. Not even close. Here's how you do it:

1. You've got your new plant in its flimsy plastic 8" pot. Dig a hole as big as that pot. Now dig it at least a few inches wider. The bigger the plant, the larger the percentage of width you'll want to dig. So if you have a large pot, triple the width. We're raising these plants to reach their full potential, not stunting them. More room generally means more unrestricted root growth. That's what we're going for: giants, not dwarfs.

Heuchera 'Sugar plum': note hole size.

2. Now you sprinkle the hole with a general purpose, slow release fertilizer. I like Osmocote for flowers and vegetables. You want your new plant to stretch out and grow like Kim Kardashian's backside, and if you feed it a quick release fertilizer like Miracle-Gro, it doesn't need to spread out its roots. It just opens its mouth and gulps it down. You do all the work for it, it turns into an addict (literally), and you'll end up naming it Seymour. Then you have to keep feeding it crack if you want it to survive. However, if you're growing a plant that will not survive the winter, feel free to feed it crack. It'll be dead in a couple of months anyway. If your plant is a perennial, a slow release fertilizer lasts a few months: just enough time to get your plant used to its new home and strong enough to survive Winter. So, sprinkle about a tablespoon into the hole and...

3. Fill that hole 3/4 of the way with water. You read me right. No one likes a dry hole (I bet you'll remember that from now on). That's the part I didn't know about until I was in my early thirties. Water in the hole reduces transplant shock. If your soil is already soaked and muddy, you shouldn't be planting in those conditions. Wait until the soil is moist at the most. You don't want to drown the plant. It's possible: I've done it.

4. Water your new plant while it's still in the pot if its soil is dry. Wait a few minutes, then pull the plant out of the plastic pot. Sometimes you have to squeeze the sides together and yank off roots that have grown out of the drainage holes. Watering first should help, though. When the plant is out, check the roots. Are they tangled in a large mass at the bottom? If so, tear an upside down "V" into the base of the mass. See photo below. This is for your plant's benefit, I pinky swear. It will force the roots to regrow and spread out into the luxury you're providing. If the plant is not root bound and its roots are puritanically unexposed, then there is no need to tear it a new hole. If it's a small plant with little root growth, cradle it before all that soil falls away. Or wait until it's bigger before you transplant it.

This plant didn't need to be torn a "V," but I wanted to show you how.

5. Set your newly naked plant in the watery hole you've created and refill with soil: pull all that mounded soil back into the hole around the plant, right over the water. Pack gently, but not firmly. We're not making concrete. Think of the inside of a bread loaf. If after a few days there appears to be some sinkage, you can lay more soil around the crown of your plant to even it out.

Yes, I did switch Heuchera plants at the last minute. This one is called "Venus." 

6. Water regularly until the plant is well established. This is usually for a week or two in hot weather. Depending on your growing season and when the plant flowers, fertilize it with slow release fertilizer in the spring and summer months (about every ten to twelve weeks). Don't feed it in Autumn, though. Not many plants like to go to bed on a full stomach. There are some plants that want fertilizer at different times, but those are special, not as common, and we'll talk about that later.

Stay dirty,

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Magnolia said knock you out

Dear _______,

Magnolias seem to be one of those trees (or shrubs) that you either love or you fear. I have both kinds of relationships with them. When they're in bloom, they are magnificent: like a muted monster-truck-show kind of magnificent. Some species' blooms are akin to tea cups or cupcakes on trees. Every time I look at one, I'm thrown down a rabbit hole, straight into Alabama and expecting to meet the Mad Hatter with sprinkles. When magnolias are not in bloom, I find their foliage a bit vulgar. Most cultivars have thick and often glossy leaves like the plastic packaging of my birth control. Not to mention they always remind me of Julia Roberts and her awful 80s hair in Steel Magnolias. Since the buds of a magnolia are slightly furry, I'm irrationally afraid that the bud fur will grow out to be an unruly mass of dry red hair in desperate need of taming, and I don't have enough blood sugar to rub hair conditioner on magnolia buds. But I'm still growing one in my garden just because I can.

Unlike unruly-80s-haired Julia Roberts before plastic surgery, magnolias are generally found in the deep south and on the east coast, although many Japanese cultivars will grow in the cooler weather of the northwest. Like the pop-collared preppy that stands out in a crowd of loitering hipsters, the species grown in the northwest stands out when it blooms in early Spring while more common trees are still hung over from the previous Autumn's last hoorah. Most of the smaller, star magnolias (Magnolia stellata) around Seattle started heralding Spring a couple of weeks ago and the blooms are already fading. No matter that it's still technically Winter and climate change is all up in our planet's grill. They bloom quickly, too. One day there's large, fuzzy, gray-green buds, and the next day the pink (or yellow or white) starts peeking out. Within two days, you'll have a riot on your hands, and a week later it's over and there's petal litter everywhere like your obnoxious and childless neighbors just threw the most elaborate New Year's Eve party ever. And if you don't clean that crud up, you'll be fined by hoards of slugs. But, hey, it was one heck of a party.

Party like it's your birthday: Magnolia stellata
Since there are so many cultivars, you can choose from the obscene D-cup blooms to dainty double-As to suit your personality or your yard. I currently have a cultivar that is probably a C-cup. The blooms are mid-sized since it's a young tree at five years old. It also only has about ten blossoms which refuse to bloom simultaneously, so it's quite anticlimactic and overshadowed by my neighbor's adult magnolia. When it's ten years old and enters the fifth grade, I have high expectations of more cooperation. My neighbor has a twenty-year-old star magnolia (the dainty, double-A kind) which blooms profusely and looks more like a Disney princess movie than a bra burning party.

Magnolia stellata at Sky Nursery in Shoreline, WA 

Goblet-sized blooms on Magnolia 'black tulip' at Sky Nursery in Shoreline, WA

My neighbor's Magnolia  × loebneri 'Leonard Messel' 
My young C-cup Magnolia 

In the deep south, my cousin, Andrew, tells that me that most magnolias are of the grandiflora cultivar with white, fragrant blooms as big as a baseball mitt. Most people associate these cultivars with the gold standard of the species. I've found most of the magnolias around Seattle are pink, have no scent at all, and are rarely as big at the grandiflora. In fact, I've never seen a grandiflora in my area. I checked, too: I was out and about with a telephoto lens snapping photos of random people's magnolias from my car. I was mistaken for a private investigator, a stalker, and the police only talked to me once, but I still couldn't find a grandiflora. I'm fine with this because there are hundreds of cultivars out there (seriously, check out that rare variegated magnolia in the link called 'Fran Smith'). One or two cultivars are even hardy to zone 4. Growing a magnolia in southern Montana is now possible and either absurd or superb depending on how traditional you are. Montana isn't exactly known for its magnolias.

Magnolias enjoy rich soil and will perform poorly without it. That means digging in compost, fresh and coarse sawdust, chicken manure, or planting it over the remains of a dead cedar that you cut down in 2012 and discovered housed a family of angry raccoons. But the decomposing cedar roots will feed my magnolia for years and the raccoons took up residence in a neighbor's tree. The neighbor is a republican, so I don't feel too badly about it. Also, don't over water your magnolia or it will turn into a gremlin, stick itself in a blender, and die a horrible death. But unlike the pre-gremlin Mogwai, magnolias enjoy full sun, so site it in a sunny spot that will get at least six to eights hours of sunlight a day.

If I haven't convinced you to buy a magnolia, don't worry about it. But if I have, I recommend researching a bit more about your new or pending acquisition. I enjoyed this article by Margaret Roach, who hosts a radio show about gardening. So go forth, and plant responsibly.

Peace out,

Saturday, March 7, 2015

To The Junipers. To The Walls.

Dear ______,

Gardening is like a 401k. You invest and invest until you think you're done, then invest some more anyway. Also, if you're an avid gardener you probably no longer have a 401k. It's not a cheap hobby or profession (if you're lucky enough to work in the field). If you're a hobbyist, well.... good luck with retirement.  You might as well just build it into your monthly allowance, otherwise from Spring to Fall you will be broke. Even plants have allowances. Some have a bigger allowance than others, but some are as broke as the avid gardener hobbyist.

When I say allowance, I mean how much you can borrow (exempli gratia, pruning) from your plants and trees until they cut you off and rewrite the will. In general, most plants have a hearty generosity, but there are always those few finicky, yet coveted plants that will charge you interest, or just commit suicide after lending too much; usually from pruning, or in some cases being crushed, cold weather, or plain old depression. Then there are those that just die inside. Junipers are especially notorious for this schtick. Every homeowner or renter has probably inherited a juniper of one cultivar or another. They are usually the bane of our existence as they are itchy, unruly, kill everything under them, and often smell like cat urine. They were also very popular in days long past because many people of faith (and the occasional occultist) believed that planting junipers near their homes would ward off evil spirits and demons. If your demon loathed the smell of cat pee, then you were in luck. 
In general, junipers have a decent pruning allowance. You can prune and prune, and you probably won't kill it unless you cut off all the greenery (which I've done out of spite in the past). However, it's very easy to enter the dead zone of a juniper. You try to shape the shrub, keep it from possessing the sidewalk, or maybe you just want it to stop talking back. So you take your shears or pruners to it, get carried away, and end up discovering that it's dead inside and it was all just a facade. Keeping those demons away really took a toll. Unfortunately, when you cut into that dead zone, it doesn't come back. We all know nothing comes back from the dead (unless, again, you are a person of faith). You will find brown needles, barren branches, many spider webs, and lots of debris. You've destroyed the aesthetics of your shrub because all it wanted was a feathered haircut from the 80s. If you've gone completely ghetto on your juniper shrub, you'll have to put it out of its misery. Since junipers have shallow roots, just attach a rope or chain to the trunk or base of the shrub and the other end to the bumper of your motorized vehicle and accelerate (not into the neighbor's yard, please. I've seen this happen, but it was worth it since the juniper was hella ugly). If you'd prefer not to do this, you can leave your new modern art "yard sculpture" vulnerable to a tree mushroom coup.

A poorly pruned juniper that has been sheared into its dead zone. Kid for scale.
A neighbor's modern art "yard sculpture" with ongoing oyster mushroom massacre.

In order to prune your juniper shrubs successfully, you have to lift up its skirts -- but only if it's a floppy variety. Most of them are. At this point, you should probably be on a first name basis with your shrub. Prune back the undergrowth as far as you'd like (wear leather gloves), but let the top branches fall back over this dead zone you've created. It will keep the shrub from wreaking havoc on the sidewalk, prevent your homeowner's insurance from taking a hit when someone breaks their neck on said juniper-possessed sidewalk, and will scare the beejeebies out several generations of spiders.  If you have an especially stiff juniper shrub that will always have a bad hair day like the little kid that has cut his own hair, try the snatch and snip method, which is essentially cutting a branch back, but leaving some green growth at the tip for recovery. Landscape Advisors has a visual aide of this method. If either method fails, you're out of luck and probably should try to move the shrub to the darkest corner of your yard or just kill it and plant a more upright and conforming shrub. Or sneak into a newly planted median along a fairly quiet road and try some ninja transplanting (I admit to nothing). If you happen to find a conforming shrub that grows bacon, please let me know.

After all that up-in-your-grill bad-mouthing, I'd like to point out that there are some gorgeous junipers out there in many colors, textures, and structures.  One of my favorites is Juniperus x media 'Daub's Frosted' (below). New growth is yellow in the Spring. It's the brightly-dressed hooker of the juniper world. The overall color of the shrub isn't the boring, old lady blue that most people think of when one mentions junipers. It's a lovely sunny green all year. It also prefers to slink along the ground instead of imitating a mosh pit. It looks stunning against the bare red or yellow twigs of a dogwood shrub in winter as well. Particularly brilliantly colored dogwoods include Cornus sericea 'Cardinal:' the common red twig dogwood, and the Cornus sanguinea 'Winter Flame,' which has bright yellow branches that intensify to red at the tips.

Daub's Frosted Juniper: new growth color is yellow.

Daub's Frosted juniper with cut curly willow branches and hybrid heuchera 'Blackberry Ice.' Note emerging dead zone in center of juniper.

Junipers can add a gentle mounding shape to hard structural corners and provide good foundations for color schemes or a visual anchor for a garden bed. Perhaps our ancestors were on to something aesthetic when they planted these shrubs near stairs and doorways. Junipers also provide a unique texture and four seasons of color depending on what shade of green you choose. I like to contrast textures and colors in perennial containers for year round interest (below). Note how I've used the grass to conceal the juniper's dead zone. In the summer months, I usually add a trailing and flowering sedum for an extra punch of color (and because many people like me  just can't get over flowers when they think of gardening).

Blue Creeper juniper, variegated grass, and Nandina 'Heavenly Bamboo'

Like searching for a good mate, you just have to keep looking until you find the one for you. Don't let it dip into your 401k, never kiss on the first date, and don't spend all of its allowance. And sometimes junipers just aren't for everyone. Never feel bad about dumping it. You don't want to end up in a committed relationship with a juniper you don't love. Unless you're the black widow type.