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My mother and I headed to the Northwest Flower & Garden Show yesterday, and my brain is still a little bit on overload from all the great plants, design work, and people we saw.

One of the first things we did was head over to the Raintree Nursery booth, where I bought two espaliered apple trees (Liberty and Spartan), and four blueberry bushes (two Sunshine, two Misty). The folks at Raintree were very helpful and spent lots of time with us, even swapping out the tree in their display for me. We even managed to fit the 8 foot wide trees in to my 3 1/2 foot wide car without damaging them. (It’s a good thing the branches are young and supple enough to bend a bit.)

The chicken coop put together by the Seattle Urban Farm Co. and The ReStore

I loved the whimsical chicken coop at the Seattle Urban Farm Co./ReStore booth. The coop looked like an old outhouse, though I’m told that it was being used as a garden shed when it was picked up by the ReStore folks. While I liked the look of the coop and the recycled materials, it didn’t look particularly predator-proof. I doubt there are any foxes or raccoons living inside the Convention Center, though.

My mother was so impressed by the recycled steel lanterns in the Persian garden put together by Fancy Fronds and ALBE rustics that we hopped over the the Experienced Materials booth to buy a few. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who were impressed- Gina Nash had already sold out of the stock she had with her and was taking orders for custom lanterns, light sconces, and decorative panels. I’ve added one of her house number light sconces to the list of details I want to add to my fence when it’s done, and I’m thinking that one of her decorative panels would look great inset into a gate. Panels run about $35 a square foot, lamps were $85 at the show, normally $110. Please forgive my mediocre iPhone photos of the lanterns- they look much more impressive in person.

Experienced Materials recycled steel lanterns

On the garden trends front, it seemed like air plants (tillandsias) and orchids were for sale at every other booth. I got a free Tillandsia caput-medusae when I joined the Volunteer Park Conservatory, so I picked up a little glass globe for it at the Ravenna Gardens booth, and we’ll see if I can keep it alive. My green thumb for outdoor plants hasn’t always extended to houseplants. On a related front, terrariums are a huge garden trend, and I saw them with not only air plants, but also succulents, orchids, and more imaginative plants such as nerve plants (Fittonia verschaffeltii), ferns, corsican mint, and carniverous plants. Terrariums lend themselves to steampunk style, so I saw some cute, well-composed ones with little gears and clocks, as well as old-timey test-tube and candelabra concoctions. Gardeners have been decorating with old tractor gears and copper tubing for years, but I was seeing these objects used in more complicated steampunkesque sculptures and fountains this year. Some of these were really cool, and others were gaudy or overdone, with kitschy elements like ceramic roosters perched on top.

Terrariums, candelabras & test tubes, and all sorts of other goodies at the Ravenna Gardens container display. Take the time to check out all the different things going on here. There are more (better) pictures of the display over at the Ravenna Gardens Facebook page.

I’ve barely mentioned the show gardens, so I’ll be putting up another post on all the fun show garden plants and designs later in the week.

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For skiers, February may be the peak of winter, but maritime gardeners are moving on to spring. In Seattle, we have a wonderfully early last frost date, especially considering how far north we are. Seattle’s actual last frost date depends on the year, of course, but many books and websites publish dates based on averages over a couple of years. At least, that’s how I hope they get to their conclusions- some people may just guess. Last frost date is sometimes reported as the day when there is less than a 10% chance of temperatures below 28 degrees until fall. Or, sometimes it’s below 32 degrees. What day folks come up also depends on which years they’re taking their data from. Usually in science the more data you have the better, but with a changing climate and increasingly good measurement and record keeping methods, going back too far may skew the results. In any case, I like to think of Seattle’s last frost date as April 1st, because it’s a day I can remember, and it lines up pretty well with what the National Climatic Data Center reports, for both the 28 degree and 32 degree measures.

Click on the picture for a larger image

Seed packets often say things like “sow indoors 6-8 weeks before last frost date.” Guess what- that’s now! If keeping pots of dirt on your windowsills or tending them under grow lights for 6-8 weeks seems like a hassle, it is. I find it fun to watch the plants grow for about two weeks after they sprout, and then I get sick of watering them. This can be helped by a) having children and telling them that the plants are pets and they’ll suffer horribly if they aren’t watered, b) building a gardening robot (arduino prototyping board + tiny sprinkler heads), or c) buying seedlings from a nursery in 6-8 weeks. I’ll do a little bit of option c this year, and maybe even get around to making option b happen, but I’m still going to start lots of seeds indoors, just because it’s so much cheaper than buying seedlings.

Some seed packets may say “soil temperature for germination 55-75 degrees F”. Note that they say soil temperature, not air temperature. For example, as I’m writing this the AgWeatherNet reports a 54 degree air temperature in Seattle, and 45 degree soil temperatures, which means I’m taking a chance if I put my peas in the ground today, because my seed packet says they germinate between 50 and 77 degrees. Pea seeds are cheap, though, so I’ll probably plant a few now but save some seeds for later, in case the first batch don’t sprout.

If this whole seed starting business doesn’t sound fun to you, seedlings for edible plants are already showing up in nurseries, and there will be a flood of local plant sales starting in mid-march. One of the earliest sales for edibles is the Seattle Tilth March Edible Plant Sale, on March 17th.


[1] National Climatic Data Center

[2]  AgWeatherNet, The Washington Agricultural Weather Network Version 2.0

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The Northwest Flower & Garden Show started today, and runs through Sunday. It’s happening at the Washington State Convention Center, and costs $20 per adult. The big attractions are the show gardens, where you can get tons of ideas and inspiration. There are seminars on every garden topic under the sun, including chickens, succulents, fruit for small gardens, soil structure, japanese maples, difficult plants to prune, and garden irrigation.

Vendors from all around the Northwest come to the marketplace section, which is a good thing because some plants and tools that I’d normally have to drive hours to see or pay shipping to have delivered will be right there for me to peruse. I recommend going in with a budget. I have a list of blueberry bushes and apple trees I’m hoping to get from Raintree Nursery, who were together enough to post a list of the plant’s they’ll have at the show. I’ll also be buying dahlia bulbs and will try to restrain myself for all other purchases. I’ll let you know how I do.

If you want to hear a bit about the show from folks who have already been there this year, check out Cisco Morris’s column in the Seattle Times this week, or Val Easton’s blog post from this morning. Or, to get a better idea of the flavor of the garden show, check out the pictures from last year’s show over at The Personal Garden Coach or Blue Wheelbarrow’s semi-serious beginner’s guide to the show from last year.

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When we bought our house in June 2010, we said that building a fence to keep the dog in was one of the first things we were going to do. That first summer, it turned out that packing and unpacking, buying furniture, painting over the the pink and baby blue rooms, reinforcing the joists, attempting to climb Mount Rainier, and myriad other small projects took precedence. That was OK, we’d build a fence as soon as the weather got warm in 2011.

The weather in 2011 turned out to be pretty perfect for climbing. Brian and I climbed a ton, got to the top of some awesome peaks in the Cascades, and pulled some hard climbing moves at crags in the North Cascades. Brian also travelled for work a crazy amount in 2011, and when he was home, it seemed more important to do something fun instead of dig holes.

These all seemed like good reasons for why we weren’t building a fence, but eventually we had to admit that we hadn’t built the fence mostly because we didn’t know how to set fence posts in concrete and were worried that our fence was going to turn into a giant time suck because we’d constantly be working around mistakes like fence posts that weren’t square. This is where our hero, Dale, comes in.

Dale’s been telling us for a while that putting in fence posts is easy, but we were having trouble believing him. He gave us a fabulous Christmas present this year, though- some fence consulting time with him. He came over, dug some holes with us, told us exactly which brand of concrete mix to use, and helped us tie strings and hold up levels, and now we have a perfect row of fence posts along the side of our house.

Here’s Dale’s recipe for perfect fence posts:


  • posthole digger (believe me, you don’t want to do it with a shovel)
  • Quick-set concrete mix, such as the red bags of Quikrete (the ones that set in about 15 minutes, not the 24 hour ones). Plan for about 1.5 bags per post.
  • 4×4 pressure treated lumber, with enough extra length to bury 18″deep
  • water- a garden hose is good
  • pea gravel
  • string
  • tape measure
  • plumb bob
  • level
  • rebar or stakes
  • permanent marker
  • a call to your utilities two business days in advance
    Dale digs a post hole while Brian checks his e-mail. Note the string at about waist height.
  1. Once your utilities have been marked, dig 18″ holes where the corners will go (both endpoints of a straight line). We figured out where these would be by measuring 2 feet in from our driveway. Just make sure they meet your local setback rules. If you’re using pre-made panels, you’ll want to make sure they’re the right distance for an integer number of them, unless you have a plan for cutting a panel in half.
  2. Put 2-3″ of gravel in the bottom of the hole.
  3. Fill about a third of the hole with water.
  4. Put the post in the hole, and make it square with the direction of the fence. I did this by standing directly in front of it, with respect to our house, and telling the guys which way to twist it. This is probably the most imprecise step.
  5. Make the post plumb (use the level for this), and fill the hole halfway with the dry concrete mix. At this point you have a few minutes to wiggle the post around to make it perfect.
  6. Fill the rest of the hole with dry concrete mix and pour in water. Check again that it’s perfectly square and plumb. Ta Da! One post done.
  7. Do the same thing with the other end post.
  8. Let the ends set long enough that the posts don’t wiggle (a couple of hours), and tie a string the each end. You want the string nice and taut and as level as possible.
  9. Measure how far it is between the end posts. Make a note of whether you’re measuring from the outside or inside of the posts. If you aren’t using pre-made panels, this is the time to figure out exactly how wide each panel should be. We already had a model of a single panel, but we had to tweak the dimensions a bit at this step. If you’re putting a gate in, don’t forget that your gate might be a different width than the other panels. Don’t forget to include the width of the fence posts.
  10. Re-check your calculations from step 9. Have someone else do the same calculations, and compare numbers. Really, it’s worth it.
  11. Now that you know how wide each panel will be, measure from the end posts where each additional post will be, and mark it on the string with permanent marker. Make a note of whether you’re measuring to the middle or the right or the left of the post.
  12. Drop a plumb bob from the mark on the string and hammer in a stake or piece of rebar at that spot. Do this for all the marks. Stand back and check that everything looks right.
  13. Now you get to dig holes and place each additional post. It’s pretty much the same as the first two posts, but now you get a guide for what’s square (the string), and you’ll need to measure the distance from the last post, to check that you didn’t get a bit off while digging. This means that you’ll want to set the post in the hole before you put the gravel, water, and mix in, and make a quick measurement and check if the hole is too far forward or back from the string. It’s no fun to have to re-dig the hold after you’ve filled it with water.
  14. Stand back and admire your work before moving on to fabricating the panels.

    Brian and Dale are making sure the post is perfect- the right distance from the one before it, square against the string, and will use the level to check that it's not leaning.

That was kind of a lot of steps, wasn’t it? Actually, the work goes quite quickly, especially with more than one person. You should be able to put in 10 posts in an afternoon. Brian pointed out to me that it’s hard to really get a grasp on how straightforward the process is until you do it yourself.

Another note- people seem to thing that you can’t build fences in January or February because the ground is frozen or the holes will fill with water. That might be true in some places, but the ground in Seattle is rarely frozen, and if you live on a hill (like most people in Seattle), the holes probably won’t fill with water. If you’re not sure, go dig a hole and see what happens.

Coming soon will be another post on the fence panels, but here’s a sneak peak:

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Every December poinsettias appear, like an invasion of Christmas colors wrapped in plastic. But where do they come from? You never see poinsettia seeds in garden catalogs, or little poinsettia seedlings for sale in nurseries. Do they get dropped off from UFOs or manufactured by Santa’s elves? Nope- they’re just a pain in the butt to grow at home.

The tricky part of growing poinsettias is getting those colored leaves (bracts, really) to be large enough and to appear at the right time. Poinsettias are extremely sensitive to light and temperature, which makes them easy to manipulate in a well controlled environment, and difficult to work with at home. Because commercial growers can control when the plants are at their peak, they can target specific sale dates, such as Thanksgiving weekend. Growers are also very concerned with growing plants that are the perfect height, which is why poinsettias usually look like alien clones of each other, except for their color.

When I say poinsettias are picky about lighting, some people start to think about another ubiquitous houseplant in grocery store floral departments, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera). Christmas cacti need long nights in order to bloom. I leave my Christmas cactus in the kitchen, where it sees an indoor light whenever I cook dinner, but it still reliably blooms starting at Thanksgiving and peaks a bit before Christmas. Coaxing big, colored bracts out of a poinsettia under the same conditions would be nearly impossible. They need uninterrupted dark periods, and growers are careful not to ever flick the lights on in their poinsettia greenhouses at night, even for a minute. They’ve been carefully bred to be able to handle all-day fluorescent lights without losing their coloring, once they hit grocery stores and garden centers.

I don’t generally buy poinsettias, mostly because I prefer plants that keep giving year after year, like amaryllis bulbs. I also find it more satisfying to watch a plant go through its whole growing cycle, like watching buds form on the Christmas cactus, or seeing the shoot on an amaryllis emerge and then keep growing taller and taller. If you have a poinsettia this year, remember that in Seattle you can toss the dirt and the plant into your city compost bins, and the plastic pot into your recycling bin.

Enjoy whatever holiday plants keep you happy, and have a merry Christmas!

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Last year I bought a little living Christmas tree instead of a cut tree, and it’s back in service for the 2011 holiday season. The tree only spent a few days in the house last year, and it successfully made it through the winter without any damage associated with coming out of dormancy from conditions inside.

Unfortunately, I didn’t treat it quite as well during the summer, and I let the soil dry out too often. It’s easy to forget that even though conifers in the ground don’t need much watering, potted trees need lots of water, since their branches prevent rain water from reaching the soil. The tree is mostly fine, but the pine needles on the lowest branches died, which might have happened even without the drought stress. I brushed off the dead needles and shook them out of the tree, and you can’t even tell there was a problem. I also left the tree near the house from January to June, and my tree started leaning away from the house and towards the sun, so now the top’s a bit crooked. I’m just going to pretend that being crooked gives the tree character, or possibly I’ll obsess over how to position it so that people don’t notice that it’s crooked.

It would be nice to enjoy the tree indoors for all of December, but the study I read last year tells us that living trees can’t handle indoor conditions for that long if they’re going to go back outside in January. I’ve compromised by putting the tree on my front porch for now to be part of our low-key Christmas light display. The lights on the tree easily disconnect from the rest of the light display, so we can haul the tree inside for one night during a holiday party, and then bring it in again for the week before Christmas. I might even hang a few of our sturdier ornaments on the tree while it’s on the porch. I haven’t been a fan of those glass balls since we got a dog with a wagging tail, anyway.

Is anyone else trying something exciting or different for your Christmas tree this year? If you’re getting a living Christmas tree and are trying to figure out how long to keep it inside, check out my post from last year, that summarizes what researchers have to say about it.

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Garden clipping wreath

I’m not usually one for do-it-yourself crafts, since I’ll choose being outside in the garden or, if it’s raining, inside with my seed catalogs any day over activities involving knitting needles. Today I made an exception, and made a wreath with cuttings from my cotoneaster bush (pronounced ko-to-ne-AS-ter or ko-TO-ne-as-ter). Maybe crafts aren’t so bad when your primary tools are a hand pruner and wire cutters.

The supplies I used were hand pruners, wire cutters, floral wire, a wire wreath frame, and a bucket of cotoneaster cuttings. I salvaged the wire wreath frame from a wreath I bought last year, but they also sell them on the internet, and presumably in crafts stores. The pocket knife in the picture was used to break down the cardboard boxes I used to protect the table- don’t even think about using a pocket knife to prune cuttings or cut wire.

I cut about 10 twigs to 6-12″ and wired them to the frame, overlapping the ends, and keeping the leaves pointed in the same direction. (By same direction, I mean clockwise. I don’t mean pointing them all up or to the right.)

After I had the wire frame covered with the cuttings, I tied a bow around the top and tucked a few more berry clusters in to fill the bare spots. I made a loop at the top with the floral wire, and now the wreath is hanging on my front porch. Not bad for a rainy Thanksgiving day project.

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When I woke up on Sunday my plants were sparkly from frost, which means it’s bulb planting time. Actually, I would have been happy to plant bulbs two weeks ago, but ordering bulbs online means that you plant according the mail order shipping schedules, and bulbs arrive in Seattle in early November.

For daffodils and crocuses, which look best planted in large numbers, my go-to company is Van Engelen. At Van Engelen, I got 100 Narcissus jonquilla simplex bulbs (cute fragrant daffodils) for about $24. For smaller quantities of more special bulbs, I’m a big fan of Old House Gardens, which specializes in antique and heirloom bulbs. I have nothing against newer varieties of bulbs, but the Old House Gardens catalog has such exuberant descriptions and excellent customer service that I can’t help but try a few of their offerings. Fair warning- if you’re a plant impulse buyer, looking at the Old House gardens catalog can be dangerous for your gardening budget.

When gardeners talk about bulbs, we’re often grouping together a bunch of different plant structures including true bulbs, corms, tubers, and rhizomes. From a planting perspective, I find it less useful to focus on what “type” of bulb I’m putting in the ground than other factors such as how deep to plant and how long a bulb can be out of the ground. For example, both daffodil and crocus bulbs can sit on a store display for a month or two without damage, as long as they’re not exposed to heat, freezing temperatures, or sunlight. Lily bulbs, however, dry out quickly, and I don’t trust lily bulbs that have been in bags in the basement of Fred Meyer for who-knows-how-long.

I prefer to plant my bulbs using a small trowel or hori-hori, rather than a tool specifically for bulb planting, mostly because I try to avoid buying single-purpose tools, unless you can’t do the job without them. I like the trowel or hori-hori because you can plant the bulb without disturbing the soil too much, which prevents dirt with weed seeds from spraying everywhere. To plant the bulbs, I stick the blade into the soil, lever it forward, drop the bulb in, and slide the blade out. For bulbs that need to be planted deeper than the hori-hori blade, such as most lily bulbs, I have to pull out a bigger shovel. The bigger shovel always sprays some soil, so I put about a half inch of mulch down to stop any exposed weed seeds from sprouting. I only use thicker mulch if I’m using it to protect the bulbs from frost, and plan to gently remove some of the mulch in the spring, so that the shoots don’t have trouble punching through thick, heavy mulch.

Some gardeners like to put fertilizer in the planting hole, and some like to fertilize in the spring, and other gardeners will fertilize any chance they get. I’ll admit that I don’t fertilize my bulbs at all, at least not with stuff that comes out of a box. My garden isn’t a farm, and doesn’t need to be fertilized like one. The previous owners of my house didn’t just leave me with lots of weeds, they also left me with decent soil (minus all the weed seeds). I top-dress most of my planting areas with a thin layer of lightweight mulch, like Gardner & Bloom Soil-building compost, just to keep the weed seeds from sprouting, which has the side benefit of providing my soil with plenty of nutrients.

Here are the bulbs that are new to my garden this year from Old House Gardens:

And from Van Engelen:

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La Nina in the garden

Long-term weather forecasting is difficult to do and carries lots of uncertainties, but according to Cliff Mass, some of the more reliable models are pointing to a La Nina year in 2012 (i.e., starting Jan. 1, 2012). The models that aren’t predicting La Nina are predicting a neutral year, which means it’s quite unlikely that we’ll have a El Nino year. The main effects Seattleites see during La Nina years are colder and wetter winters than average. 2011 was also a La Nina year, for reference. On the flip side, El Nino years bring the Northwest warmer and drier winters than average.

El Nino and La Nina weather patterns have  lots of interesting consequences, including affecting the summer water supply, the probability and severity of wildfires, and whether city officials get fired over snow still on the streets during the morning commute. This is a garden blog, though, so what do gardeners need to know about La Nina?

September is the big month for fall perennial sales in Seattle, but colder winter temperatures mean that you should be careful about what you plant this fall. USDA zones are based on the average annual minimum temperature between 1974 and 1986. There were roughly the same number of El Nino and La Nina years during that period, so it’s not an unreasonable sample period. Seattle is in USDA hardiness zone 7b, which means that our average minimum temperature is 5-10 F. Higher zones mean warmer minimum temperatures (California, Florida), and lower zones mean colder temperatures (Minnesota, North Dakota).

Many Seattle gardeners sneak a few plants that are listed as hardy to zone 8 into their gardens, and get away with it for awhile. The fall before a La Nina year is a bad time to buy plants that are pushing our hardiness range. Last fall I made the rookie error of not checking the hardiness zone of some ferns before I bought them. They died back during the winter and didn’t return in the spring. Hebes are another example of a plant that many Seattleites try to grow, despite the fact that they’re listed as being hardy to zone 8. For many people the Hebes did fine for a few years, and then last winter they either died outright, or half the plant died back, which ruins the nice mounded form that makes hebes attractive in the first place.

Northwest gardeners also like to push the hardiness range of bulbs. Many of us roll the dice and leave canna and dahlia bulbs in the ground over the winter because some years they survive. I consider lifting the bulbs and storing them in my basement during the winter risky in a different way. If they’re not stored properly, in the spring they’ll be moldy, mushy masses fit only for the trash or compost pile. If you do choose to overwinter your tender bulbs in the ground, make sure they’re planted deeply or else are well-mulched, which will provide a bit of insulation. If you leave tender bulbs in pots outside over the winter, they’re pretty much doomed.

As I mentioned in my fall chores post, plants in pots are more susceptible to cold, so put plants in the ground or bring the pots inside. If neither of those options is practical, pay close attention to where the sun is during the winter in your garden- it’s not necessarily the same place as in the summer. The changing sun position means that fences or houses may cast shadows in different places, and also spots under deciduous trees are sunny during the winter. Leaving pots in the shade can mean that the soil will stay frozen all day, which deprives plants of water. Letting pots warm up in the sun will give the soil a chance to unfreeze. That same freeze-thaw cycle can cause pots to crack, though.

Don't let your sedums drown- pull them under the eaves or put them on the porch (but only if you'll remember to water them now and then).

Don’t forget about the additional precipitation coming our way. It affects more than the ski season- additional precipitation can lead to more erosion. I know much more about plants than I do about erosion, so I won’t pretend to give any expert advice here- I’ll just tell you about what’s going on in my garden.

In the front of my house, I have a retaining wall that’s not as tall as the garden it’s holding up. This means that my garden slopes sharply downwards for the last few feet before the retaining wall. When we moved in to the house, this wall was covered in English ivy, which hid the fact that my garden had been losing dirt for awhile, while my parking strip (no sidewalks in our neighborhood) and the storm drain had been gaining dirt. We removed the ivy, which saved some trees and shrubs from being smothered, but it didn’t fix our erosion problem. In the long term, we will need to replace the retaining wall, but that wasn’t in the time or money budget for this year. There are a few trees and shrubs on that slope that I’m planning on replacing with better looking or less disease-prone species, but evergreen trees and shrubs can slow erosion, so I’m going to wait until next spring to swap the big shrubs for their younger and smaller replacements. My long term plan also includes cramming that area of the garden with evergreen ferns and other perennials, but since that’s also not in the time or money budget for this fall, I’m going to mulch the area with wood chips or bark mulch.

The other important aspect of long-term weather forecasting is that it reminds us that this beautiful weather won’t last forever- stop browsing your blog reader, and go outside!

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Easy edibles for beginners

These days many of my friends are either buying their first home or settling into rental houses for longer than a nine-month lease, and I get lots of questions about which edibles I’d recommend for gardeners who are just starting out.

Some excellent edibles for beginners:

  • Snow peas and snap peas. In Seattle, you can plant peas in March, which means they do most of their growing while it’s still rainy out. This means that you don’t have to start watering them until June or July, and the vines will get pulled down in late July or early August. Snow peas and snap peas are delicious raw, so you don’t even need to know how to cook to enjoy these. Pea vines can get quite tall (7 feet), so stapling or nailing string or netting to a frame or a wall is necessary. Pea vines are OK with bit of shade, as long as they get direct sun at least a few hours a day.
  • Green beans. There are reasons that second graders grow beans rather than some other plant- they sprout easily, and grow quickly. Bush beans don’t need a trellis, but pole beans need something to grow up. Beans climb by twining around some sort of structure, but aren’t too picky about the structure, as long as it isn’t too wide. String or netting is fine, tall skinny branches, or slender bamboo poles all work. Beans grow during the warmer months in Seattle, so they do need watering about twice a week.
  • Lettuce (in Spring). Lettuce is easy to sprout from seed during the right time of year, which is around March-May in Seattle. I grow lettuce year-round, but getting lettuce to sprout during the summer or winter takes a bit of work. Lettuce can handle dappled shade, which is a big plus since city gardens are often bordered by tall trees. Lettuce can be grown for baby greens, where you clip out about a third of the leaves each week, and the plants keep producing new baby lettuce leaves. It can also be grown into full-sized heads, which requires a bit more patience. If lettuce gets a lot of sunlight near the summer solstice, or if it is drought stressed, it will bolt, which means that it grows tall and produces flowers, and then the plant dies. Some varieties are more resistant to bolting than others, so look for that attribute when choosing seeds.
  • Tomatoes (from seedlings). Many people say that tomatoes are bad plants for beginners, but I disagree. Tomato plants need water about once a week, and require a bit of patience during the early summer months, but the satisfaction of harvesting a big bowl of tomatoes is worth it. Seattle has a short enough season that beginners should definitely buy seedlings from nurseries instead of growing tomatoes from seed. There’s no need to buy giant plants in gallon pots, though- a 6 inch tall plant in a 3-inch pot is just fine, if you’re buying it in May. Tomatoes do need full sun, which means that they shouldn’t be put right next to a fence or a wall that will shade them. Cherry tomatoes grow well in Seattle, and there are many shorter-season varieties of larger tomatoes bred for similar climates to ours, such as ‘Oregon Spring’. Good local nurseries and plant sales will carry mostly varieties that grow well in our climate. Most gardeners stake indeterminate (vine) varieties to save space, but if you have more sunny garden space than you do time, you can just let the plants grow along the ground.
  • Potatoes. Potatoes seem to thrive with a bit of neglect- they don’t like to be watered too often, they can handle mediocre soil, as long as it isn’t rocky, and I can tell you from experience that the plant part can be repeatedly squished by a stray frisbee and still bounce back. They’re also really fun to dig up.

A few edibles that are more of a challenge, which I don’t recommend to new gardeners:

  • Squash and pumpkins. Squash and pumpkins need lots of heat and direct sunlight, which isn’t usually in abundance in Seattle city gardens. They need warm soil to germinate, which means that they get started a bit later than is ideal here, which increases the risk of having green squash come October. They also take up a lot of space, for an uncertain yield. If I put my green beans someplace too shady, it will be obvious within a few weeks of sowing them, and I’ll just pull them out and replace them with some lettuce. If my squash don’t get enough light, I might not realize it (or admit it) for months, or my plants might get decimated by powdery mildew in August. Despite these issues, I grow squash and pumpkins anyway, but it can be a frustrating crop for the newbie.
  • Carrots. Carrots need loose soil that’s not too acidic or too high in nitrogen. Neither Northwest native soils, typical building site top soils, or compost bought in bags at the hardware store meet these requirements. Carrots also have a widespread pest, the carrot fly, which means that seedlings should be covered with insect netting or floating row covers. Carrots germinate inconsistently, but supposedly don’t transplant well. Carrots are best to save until you have some practice with soil building and deterring pests.
  • Broccoli and cauliflower. This is another plant that should be covered to avoid insect damage, this time from cabbage worms and cabbage moths (broccoli and cauliflower are closely related to cabbage). I’ll be writing more about these beasties soon.

As a side note, for ornamentals, I’d recommend fall-planted bulbs as some of the easiest flowers to grow. Pop some daffodil or tulip bulbs into the ground in October, and in the spring you’ll get flowers. It can be tempting to buy 4 different types of tulips, but bulbs really look best if you buy a bunch of the same ones and plant them near each other. Bulbs can get expensive, so if you’re on a budget, put clumps of daffodils or tulips near the front steps or front gate, or near where you park, so you’ll see them every day while they’re blooming.

If bulbs are a little spendy for your budget, nasturtiums are an easy flower to grow from seed. The flowers and leaves are edible, and they add a nice peppery zing to salads. Nasturtiums germinate easily once the soil’s warmed up a bit, and flourish in poor soils. They need to be watered regularly for the first few weeks after germinating, and then need water at least once every other week. They self sow, so you’ll get volunteer nasturtiums the next year, but they don’t self seed so prolifically that they’re weedy.

I also see a lot of beginner city gardeners tempted by inexpensive wildflower seed mixes, but I really don’t recommend these. Wildflower gardens look messy and weedy in the city, unless you have significant skill in designing and managing them. Flower mixes also make weeding difficult- if you plant a whole swath of poppy seeds, it will become obvious quickly what’s a poppy plant, and what’s not. If it’s not a poppy plant, you can call it a weed. If you sow 20 different flower seeds into one bed, good luck guessing what’s a weed until it’s already taking over the garden. Some wildflowers also spread so rapidly that you’ll decide that they are weeds.

Are there other plants you’d recommend for beginners, or are you wondering about the difficulty of growing certain plants? Let me know!

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