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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!

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.

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.

Bulbs

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:

Last week I wrote about easy edibles for beginners, but the post didn’t include much about the importance of the right variety of a plant. Not all tomato or lettuce seeds are equal, and growing varieties that fit our climate, taste good, and look good is key to having fun in the garden. Here’s the scoop on some of the varieties I grew this year:

Winners:

Sun Gold tomatoes. Seattle gardeners love these orange, early ripening cherry tomatoes, which is especially evident in the P-patch, where every other plot has a Sun Gold plant.

Yellow Perfection tomatoes. Tangy, juicy, firm, prodigious, and pretty. These delicious lemon-yellow 1 1/2 inch tomatoes ripened about two weeks after the Sun Golds.

Thai Dragon peppers. I have maybe a dozen of these tiny hot peppers on one plant. They’re still green, but I have hope that they’ll ripen up to red in the next month. Even if they don’t, the great thing about peppers is that they can be harvested green.

Bibb lettuce. This lettuce makes it to the winners list because it germinated well even in warm weather and because it has a nice taste that’s not too bitter. My plants bolted before I got full size heads, but almost all the lettuce heads I saw at the p-patch were bolting at the same time, so I won’t hold it against this variety. Bibb also didn’t wilt in hot weather, possibly because I watered the plants at least twice a week and they got only morning and mid-day sun, with shade in the afternoon.

“Volunteer” pumpkins. In my pumpkin patch, I don’t weed out seedlings that come from pumpkin seeds in the compost. The named varieties I planted (this year and every year) are mostly disappointments, but several of the volunteer plants have pumpkins that are almost ripe. Pumpkin and squash plants easily cross-pollinate with other varieties, which means that there’s a reasonable chance that these pumpkins won’t make great pies or soups. That’s OK- I’ll use them as decorations or Jack O’ Lanterns. The success of the volunteers helps me believe that the pumpkin patch wasn’t a total waste of space, time, and water.

Losers:

Cinderella pumpkin loses the prize

Beaverlodge tomato. Mushy. Need I say more?

Early butternut squash. These vines were the first to succumb to powdery mildew, and don’t even have any green squash on them. This was strike three for the early butternut variety- the only ripe squash I’ve ever gotten from it was about the size of those apples in school lunches.

Cinderella pumpkin. These vines grew big and luscious, but the female fruits all withered and fell off before ripening, except for one that spontaneously split down the middle. I can’t blame poor pollination, either, because the flowers were covered with bees and I hand pollinated a few of the female flowers. This year is strike two for the cinderella pumpkin.

Sweet Meat Heirloom squash. I have four plants and only one golf ball size squash. If I’m lucky I’ll get one little green decorative squash by harvest time, while I was hoping for four to eight big, meaty squashes for eating. I should have planted tomatoes, peppers, or pretty flowers in that row instead.

Lettuce mixes. Each year I somehow get suckered into buying a packet of lettuce mix, and every time I’m disappointed at what grows. Someday I’ll learn my lesson. Lettuce mixes generally include both bitter and sweet greens, which is too bad because I don’t like the bitter ones. “Lettuce” mixes often include kale or chard that’s meant to be harvested young to use in salads, but in my opinion both kale and chard are too bitter for salads, and are much more suitable as braising greens.

Middle of the road:

Legend tomato. Legend has a bountiful yield for a slicer grown in Seattle, but the texture is just OK and the flavor is milder than I like. I’d rather grow something with half the yield but twice the flavor.

Gypsy pepper and Little Bells pepper. Every year I get about two ripe 2 inch peppers from each of these plants. This is a little pathetic, but it’s better than the zero or one ripe peppers that I usually get off other sweet pepper plants. I’ve accepted that the maritime Northwest isn’t a great place to grow sweet peppers, but at least the plants don’t take up much room and can handle a fair bit of neglect.

Joe’s Best pie pumpkin. I have three of these plants, and have one almost ripe pumpkin. Like the peppers, this yield is pathetic, but even one ripe pumpkin is a success compared to the other named varieties of winter squash and pumpkin I tried.

Blue Lake pole bean. These tender green beans were easy to germinate and are good producers with no disease or pest problems. They’re on the maybe list because they’re so sweet they’re almost fruity tasting, which isn’t the flavor I’m looking for in a green bean.

What varieties were the winners and losers in your garden this year?

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!

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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