The lone mason bee I saw last week.

Last year I started raising orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria), which are cute little solitary bees that live in holes in masonry or wood, or in the case of my bees, in paper straws made specially for them. At least, in theory mine live in straws.

Keeping mason bees is a much simpler affair than keeping honey bees. Mostly it’s just providing nesting space (straws or reeds), mud (they use it as dividers between eggs), and pollen during their active period, which is in the spring. After they’ve laid all their eggs or their wings are too tattered to fly, which is around when most fruit trees stop flowering, the adults die, and you put the straws which are now full of  eggs and larva somewhere warm and protected from birds, beetles, and mice. Then in the fall, you pop the straws in a refrigerator until a few weeks before the fruit trees begin to bloom in the spring. In the fall, you’d generally also want to open up some of the straws and check for pests, which only takes a few minutes.

Since last year was my first year raising mason bees, I slightly screwed up this process, and when I put the straws inside in mid-summer, I put them in the basement, but I should have put them somewhere warmer. This Spring, I put some of the tubes out in March, and some in April. Until today, I though I may have killed them all, because I had only seen a single bee hanging out around the bee house, and I should have at least 60 cocoons. Usually in the spring, the males emerge first, and hang around the nesting holes until the females emerge, so they can mate with them. Then the females go out and gather pollen and mud, lay eggs on top of piles of pollen, and seal off the eggs with a wall of mud, and then repeat the process until they die a month or two later.

Because I thought I had killed off all my orchard mason bees, and it’s too late to order more this year, I decided to try summer mason bees, Osmia californica. Californica bees are very similar to orchard mason bees, except they emerge later in the year, they use chewed up leaves instead of mud to separate their eggs, and they prefer aster-type flowers. I got my little carton of 20 californica bee cocoons in the mail today from Crown Bees, and I was surprised when I opened it that it smelled distinctly like flowers.

Osmia californica, with my index fingertip for scale.

There was also one little bee that had emerged from his cocoon during shipping that was crawling around in the box, so I carefully slotted the carton into the mason bee house I made last year, and got to watch him crawl out to the roof of the house to sun himself. I started taking photos of him crawling around covered in the pollen that had rubbed off on him as he made his way through the other cocoons, and it didn’t take long to notice that there were some orchard mason bees also flying around near me. I couldn’t figure out why they seemed to be bouncing off the wall next to the bee house, instead of flying into it, so I stood back a few feet in case I was in the way. This is when I realized that they weren’t accidentally missing the bee house- they’re heading for old nail holes in the wall instead. It makes me wonder if the others are either just late to emerge, or are perhaps nesting in my wooden shingles. I’m not sure why they’re shunning my paper tubes, but I’m glad to know they’re not all dead.

This little orchard mason bee is hanging out in old nail holes instead of in the paper straws in the mason bee house. This one looks like like a male to me, so he’s just hanging out, but if I’m wrong and it’s a female, it may be depositing pollen and laying eggs in that hole.

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.

It’s seed starting time

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

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.

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:

Espaliered fruit trees

Cordon espaliered trees along a fence. (image via Fiskars)

Last week I wrote about the apricot tree I’m putting in to my garden this year, but I’m not going to stop my home-grown fruit attempts there. We’re building a fence this year (really- not like last year, when we just talked about building a fence), and I’ve managed to convince Brian that we should build a lattice fence, rather than the less complicated stockade-style fence. I’m pushing for the lattice fence not just because it will look good, but because it will let lots of light through for plants, including for espaliered apple trees.

Espaliered trees are trained so that the branches grow along a plane, rather than a sphere, cone, or vase. They can be trained along a fence, a wall, or wires that are connected to posts. In Seattle, you can see espaliered apple trees grown along wires in Magnuson Park, or out in Eastern Washington, there are plenty of orchards with espaliered trees. In fact, once you start looking for them, you’ll see them all over the place.

I’ll be growing espaliered trees mostly because they fit in small spaces that would be impractical for even a regular dwarf apple tree. I’m also excited for the challenge of pruning the trees, and because I think they’ll look really neat. My espaliered trees won’t get more than 5 feet tall, so they’ll be convenient for pruning, picking apples, and inspecting for diseases or pests. Many folks claim that espaliered trees are more productive. I haven’t found any good papers proving this, but I may just not know where to look.

"Belgian fence" espaliered trees. (image via CobraHead)

Many people grow espaliered trees by starting with “whips”, which are one or two year old trees that look pretty much like a flexible stick with roots. Apple trees don’t start bearing fruit until they’re a few years old, so I will probably go the impatient route and buy some older trees from Raintree Nursery that have already been trained with three cordons (tiers of horizontal branches). It will be a little more expensive (about $60 per tree), but way less work and harder for me to screw up. We’re lucky to have a somewhat local nursery that sells espaliered trees for an affordable price- many states can’t say the same thing. Raintree Nursery even has several different varieties of espaliered trees for sale, including one which has six apple varieties grafted onto a single tree.

Cordon espaliered olive tree. (image via Kate's Photo Diary/Flickr)

If you want to see lots more pictures of espaliered fruit trees, including some more unusual espaliered fruit trees such as figs and cherries, check out my Pinterest board. I also have photos of some great fences and formal kitchen gardens. If you’d like to interact a bit more with my Pinterest board, but aren’t on Pinterest yet, leave me a comment saying so, and I’ll send you an invite to Pinterest.

I have dreams of wandering outside and plucking apricots off a tree in my own backyard. Yup, in Seattle.

There are plenty of fruit trees in Seattle- mostly apples, cherries, and plums, along with the occasional pear or fig tree. I haven’t seen an apricot tree in Seattle before, but I’m told it can be done, so I’m going plant one. Apricot trees like dry springs, which of couse Seattle doesn’t have, so there’s certainly a risk that the tree won’t produce fruit, or will outright die. 4-6′ trees only cost about $25, though, and young trees don’t really take up much space, so I figure it’s worth the price for the fun of the experiment.

I’m not going to plant just any apricot tree- like most plants, there are varieties that have been bred to survive and thrive in a range of conditions. The main attributes I’m looking at are the size of the tree and the ability to handle some soggy seasons. If I lived on the East side of the state, I’d also be looking at cold tolerance, and whether the trees are likely to bloom before the last frost (not a good thing). I’ve seen conflicting advice on which varieties produce best in the maritime Northwest, but in the end I’m trusting the folks at Raintree Nursery, because they have plenty of experience dealing with us west-siders.

Puget Gold Apricot

The variety I’ve chosen is called Puget Gold, which is the result of efforts by local breeders. It’s reported to set fruit fine despite our non-ideal springs, has a mature height around 15′, and is self-fertile. Being self-fertile means that it doesn’t need another apricot tree of a different variety nearby, to provide pollen, as many fruit trees do. Having a tree pollinate itself or another of the same variety (they’re produced asexually, which means that every tree of the same variety is genetically identical), leads to inbreeding, so some fruit trees have mechanisms to prevent self-fertilization. I’m not concerned about inbreeding, though, because the pits from my apricots aren’t going to be planted. Self-fertile trees sometimes still produce more fruit with another variety nearby, but I’ll see how my experiment goes before investing more time and space into apricot trees.

Most backyard fruit trees are grafted onto rootstocks. The “tree” part is called the scion, and the root part is the rootstock. One of the most obvious influences of the rootstock is the size of the tree, and how quickly it grows. Rootstocks can have a dwarfing effect, and are often categorized as standard, semi-dwarf, or dwarf. (Standard is the biggest). Rootstocks vary in their tolerance to cold and wet soils, and their resistance to soil pests such as nematodes. My apricot tree will be on a Lovell rootstock, which can also be used for other fruits such as peaches, plums, or almonds.

My first steps to maximize my chances of a healthy tree are to buy from a reputable nursery and properly pick a site and prepare it for planting. I’m counting on the nursery to provide me with a disease-free tree that’s been properly pruned for the last few years. Although I curse the slope of our property when I’m planning a fence or patio (or want to drive somewhere in a snow storm), it does provide excellent drainage, which is good for tree roots. I’m going to remove some arborvitae, to give the site more sun, and also because my arborvitae look uglier every year. If I didn’t already have orchard mason bees to provide pollination services, now would be a good time to order some, but I started raising them last spring, so I’m all set on that front.

Has anyone grown apricots (or peaches) in the maritime Northwest? I’d love to hear both success and failure stories.

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.