Beating the Pacific Northwest Mid-Winter Gardening Blues

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Camellias at the Bellevue Botanical Garden

I grew up on the east coast where we had snow on the ground for weeks at a time and I spent much of the winter outside sledding and making snowmen. Now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, I find myself staying indoors during our rainy winters. It’s easy to get into a slump and become a couch potato until spring, but after a while I get a little stir-crazy. Luckily, our mild climate up here in the Pacific Northwest keeps things growing year-round, giving gardeners plenty to do during the rainy, winter months. Here are some ways I like to beat the mid-winter gardening blues:

  • clean leaves out of my flower beds
  • trim dead flower stalks (leave some for birds)
  • sweep debris off my deck
  • clean moss and mildew off my outdoor furniture (I leave it outside year-round)
  • pick up branches in my yard
  • plan my vegetable garden
  • dig a new flower bed while the ground is soft (I dig a new one almost every year) and cover it with compost or bark
  • walk around my property to see what’s budding or blooming; I love looking for my spring bulbs coming up and buds forming on my camellias and magnolias
  • clean out my hanging baskets from last year and add new soil to prep them for planting in spring
  • go for walks on sunny days
  • visit a public garden that’s open year-round. Public gardens that are open year-round in Washington State include the Bloedel Reserve (on Bainbridge Island), the gardens at Point Defiance Park (in Tacoma), the Wright Conservatory (in Tacoma), the Bellevue Botanical Garden, the Seattle Arboretum, Kubota Garden (in South Seattle), the South Seattle College Arboretum (in West Seattle) , the Evergreen Arboretum and Gardens (in Everett), Meerkerk Gardens (on Whidbey Island), the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden (in Federal Way), the Yakima Area Arboretum, the Lawson Gardens (in Pullman), and Manito Park and Gardens (in Spokane)

My book, Walking Washington’s Gardens, is a great resource to help you plan visits to gardens in Washington State. The book includes color photos, driving directions, descriptions, and garden events for 30 stroll gardens throughout the state that are open to the public. An updated version was printed in 2016 and is available at several garden gift shops, the South Park Pharmacy in Port Orchard (on Mile Hill Rd.), on this website and on Amazon.com. For information on how to get a copy, click here.

Winter doesn’t have to feel as blah as it looks. Getting outside will make you feel better and help you get a head start on your garden beds so they will be ready to prosper come summer.

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My 10 Favorite End-of-Summer Gardening Tasks

Fall is what most people consider to be the end of the gardening season. I admit that even I look forward to fall and winter giving me a break from weeding and watering. There are, however, a lot of gardening opportunities in fall that, for the most part, aren’t possible other times of year. Here’s a list of gardening tasks I actually look forward to doing as summer comes to a close. 

1. Collect (harvest) seeds.

I harvest seeds from most of my flowers in August and September. In early August, I start looking for seed pods on the plants to familiarize myself with how and where the seeds are produced (it’s not always obvious), then I check the plants every few days to see if they’re dry enough to harvest. There are no hard-and-fast rules to harvesting seeds because every plant is different, so if you’re not sure, you can find pictures and steps for harvesting seeds of certain plants by doing a Google or Youtube search. I dry my seeds in small, ceramic jars on my kitchen counter for a few days, then store them in small jars with lids. I keep the jars of seeds in a small cabinet in my craft room where it’s dark and cool year-round. 

2. Divide and plant bulbs for spring blooming.

In the PNW, gardeners can usually leave bulbs in the ground year-round, but all bulbs need to be divided at some point for them to continue flowering the following year. You can also multiply plants by dividing and replanting their bulbs in fall. If you want to store bulbs over winter, be sure to store them in a mesh or brown paper bag and put them in a dark, dry, cool place.

3. Prune my fruit trees, conifers such as cedar trees, and woody shrubs.

This made it on my top 10 list because I don’t have very many trees that need pruning. It can be tedious and time-consuming if you don’t keep up with it each year, so to save yourself time and pain, set aside a few sunny days in September or October to tackle all of your pruning. Some people shred their pruned branches or dispose of them at a landscape supply company for a small fee. I have a spot in my yard that is somewhat obscured by trees where I just pile them up after I cut them down to about 3-foot pieces. As they dry, my husband pulls branches from the pile to use for firewood, and the leaves act as a mulch for the trees.

4. Take cuttings and divide plants to propagate for the following year.

When you’re pruning trees, it’s a good time to go ahead and take “cuttings” from fruit trees, hydrangeas, azaleas, camellias, and other shrubs. I’m trying this method of propagation for the first time this year, planting the cuttings in small pots with a mixture of sand and vermiculite (no soil). Once they’ve rooted, I’ll transplant them into cold frames with potting soil where they’ll stay until I plant them in my yard next spring.

Propagating plants by “division” is a much easier process; just make sure you have a good amount of roots on the part you’re transplanting. I divide some plants by digging them up and gently pulling off a section at the roots, then replanting both sections. Some plants can be divided without having to dig up the entire plant–just cut off the new growth at the tuber to remove it from the parent plant, and place it directly in the ground where you want it to grow. I use this method with my ornamental grasses, ferns, and primroses.

A third way to propagate plants is called “layering,” a method that works well with some shrubs. You simply bury a section of a branch in the soil, keeping it attached to its parent plant. The buried section “should” grow roots, allowing you to remove it from the parent plant the following spring to start a new plant. I’m currently trying this method with lavender and have successfully done it with pink heather.

5. Buy discounted plants and seeds at garden centers and nurseries.

All garden centers and nurseries discount a lot of their plants in August to purge their inventory. If you buy annuals this way, try to get ones that you can harvest seeds from since the plant will likely only have a few weeks left to bloom after you get it home. This is also a good way to “experiment” with plants to add to your yard and where to plant them since you can get them at a fraction of their retail price. 

6. Buy other discounted items to add to my flower beds or elsewhere in my yard.

Fall is also the time when garden centers and nurseries have “sales” on many of their yard decor and other gardening items. I also get discounted garden decor at craft stores such as JoAnn Fabrics, Michaels, and Hobby Lobby in the fall.

7. Clean up my potting area.

I realize this doesn’t sound like much fun, but I use it as a time to reassess my potting area, which is a constant work in progress. I think about how well my storage systems worked, what items need to be stored better, and clean up the space by removing leaves and other debris. It’s also a good time to make a list of items I need for next year.

8.  Plant my cold frames.

My husband and I built cold frames this summer, so I’m looking forward to using them. They’ll provide a warm place to root plant cuttings and germinate seeds in cold months, giving the plants more time to grow before they are placed in the ground.

9. Go to fall plant sales at public gardens. 

Many public gardens and garden clubs hold plant sales in spring and fall where they sell plants growing in their gardens as well as plants from nurseries in the PNW region. I look forward to these every year. It’s a good way to get plants at a lower price than you would pay elsewhere and often the only place to purchase plants (rather than seeds) that are growing in the public gardens.

10. Make a gardening to-do list for spring.

I’m a list person, so making a gardening to-do list is a natural thing for me. I actually start with one in fall and modify it throughout the following year. If this isn’t one of your favorite things to do, then just keep the list short (or maybe even just put a few things on a sticky note on the frig) and only include the things you absolutely know you need to do, or want to do, come spring. If you have a lot of garden project ideas, consider having a to-do list and a separate list for “future projects.”

If you have other tasks you do in the garden at the end of summer, please share them in the comments section at the end of this post.

The West Sound Home and Garden and Pacific Horticulture websites are other great sources of information for gardening in the Pacific Northwest.

*I am a contributing blogger to the WSHG website. Click here to see my blog posts on that site.

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Taking Fido With You: Dogs in Public Gardens

If you’re a dog owner like me, you most likely have wondered if you can take your dog to public gardens. On the other hand, if you’ve been a dog owner in Washington State for any length of time, you probably already know dogs are allowed in numerous outdoor spaces in our state, but not everywhere. Many public gardens allow dogs as long as they are with responsible owners and kept on-leash. Please be mindful of the garden’s policies as well as other visitors who might not like dogs as much as you do, or who might have a dog who isn’t as friendly as your’s. Not all gardens provide doggy bags, so don’t forget to bring some with you so you can clean up after your pet.

Some of the gardens that currently allow dogs on leash include:

  • The Carl S. English, Jr. Botanical Garden (at the locks in Ballard, northwest Seattle)
  • The Kubota Garden (Rainier Beach neighborhood near Tukwila, south Seattle)
  • Point Defiance Park (Tacoma)
  • Manito Park (Spokane)
  • The Yakima Area Arboretum (Yakima)
  • The Washington Park Arboretum (Seattle)
  • The Evergreen Arboretum and Gardens (Everett)
  • Meerkerk Gardens (Whidbey Island in Puget Sound)
  • The Lake Wilderness Arboretum (Maple Valley)
  • The South Seattle College Arboretum (West Seattle)
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My Favorite Public Gardens for Fall Color

Many people have asked me what gardens have the most fall color. Certainly oranges, reds, burgundy, and gold are the colors of changing leaves, but fall color also can be seen in tree bark, shrub branches, and ornamental grasses. This is a list of gardens in Washington State that I believe have the most interesting color in fall and early winter (September-December).
(photos by Angie Narus, copyright 2014)
The Washington Park Arboretum (Seattle) – open year-round, guided tours offered on weekends
The Seattle Japanese Garden (at the Washington Park Arboretum) – open March through  November
The South Seattle College Arboretum (West Seattle) – open year-round
The Bellevue Botanical Garden (Bellevue) – open year-round
Lakewold Gardens (Lakewood) – open year-round
The Kubota Garden (Tukwila/South Seattle) – open year-round
Dunn Gardens (Shoreline) – open April to early October by guided tours
Kruckeberg Botanic Garden (Shoreline) – open year-round
The Bloedel Reserve (Bainbridge Island) – open year-round
The Lake Wilderness Arboretum (Maple Valley) – open year-round
The Yakima Area Arboretum (Yakima) – open year-round
The Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden (Federal Way) – open year-round
The West Sound Home and Garden and Pacific Horticulture websites are other great sources of information for gardening in the Pacific Northwest.
*I am a contributing blogger to the WSHG website. Click here to see my blog posts on that site.
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Spring in the garden: What you can see blooming in Washington’s public gardens in spring

Blue Columbine at Chase Garden in May. Photo by Angie Narus.

Early spring is one of the most colorful times of year in coastal Washington State and along Puget Sound as flowering trees and spring flowers start to bloom. Many of the gardens also hold spring plant sales and Mother’s Day events. These plant sales are the place to get plants that are hard-to-find plants and ones that make up the garden landscape.

As early as February, the symphony of flowers starting to bloom include:

  • crocuses (late February)
  • white magnolia blossoms (early March)
  • pink cherry blossoms (early March)
  • daffodils and tulips (mid March)
  • red camellias (early to mid March)
  • hellebores (early March)
  • primroses (late March or early April)
  • petunias and pansies (late February or early March)
  • violets
  • flowering ground covers

Early-blooming rhododendrons are also reaching their peak in spring, and buds start to come out on mid-blooming rhodys, azaleas, and many other flowering shrubs.

By the end of April, blue hydrangeas, white flowering dogwoods, lilacs, irises, roses, trilliums, mid-blooming rhododendrons, and clematis will be added to the mix.

The majority of gardens in my book, Walking Washington’s Gardens, are open year-round, and other open annually in April or May.

Lilac Beauty from the Hulda Klager Lilac Garden. Photo by Angie Narus, 2013.

Photos by Angie Narus

A tulip flower at the Washington Park Arboretum. Photo by Angie Narus.                                 Irises at Albers Vista Gardens in April and May. Photo by Angie Narus.

                                   

Harvesting Seeds from Your Own Plants: Tips from a Beginning Gardener

Low-growing plants at the Carl S. English, Jr. Botanical Garden in Seattle. Most of the plants in this garden were started from seeds collected by Carl English. Photo by Angie Narus.

Low-growing plants at the Carl S. English, Jr. Botanical Garden in Seattle. Most of the plants in this garden were started from seeds collected by Carl English. Photo by Angie Narus.

Up until about two years ago, the idea of harvesting seeds from my own plants had never crossed my mind. I thought only horticulturists and experienced gardeners did that. But two years ago when I visited some public gardens in the Seattle area, I learned that many of the plants in those gardens were started from seeds that were collected or traded. The notion of being able to get “free” plants and preserve plants just by collecting seeds intrigued me, so I decided to learn as much as I could about harvesting my own.

I’ve since collected seeds from numerous flowers in my yard. I found the information I needed by doing simple, online searches on how to get seeds from specific plants, such as marigolds, asters, and lobelia. Here’s what I learned:

  • It helps to know the name of the plant you want to get seeds from so you can look up instructions on harvesting seeds from it. Just because a flower is growing in your yard doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to replant its seeds. Try to find out if the plant is invasive in your area, if it’s a noxious weed, or if it will multiply beyond what you can control. If you can’t find the name of the plant, think twice before you decide to add it to your permanent plant collection.
  • You can usually find plant names in plant reference books at the public library, online, or by asking a friend or someone else who knows plants. Your local Master Gardener program might also be able to help you.
  • Once you have the plant’s name, you can look up how to harvest the plant’s seeds. Whether the instructions are in the form of a video or article, they should 1) tell where to find the seeds on the plant, 2) describe the process of harvesting the seeds, 3) show a picture of what the seeds look like, and 4) explain how to store the seeds properly. Some seeds need a “cold stratification” period, and some don’t. Some will grow true-to-type, and others won’t. Little facts like that can mean the difference between success and failure in propagating your own plants.
  • Pick a place to you can lay the seeds out to dry for a couple of days–a place where they won’t be knocked on the floor or blown off the counter (I’m speaking from experience, here). I don’t recommend drying them on a papertowel because some seeds will actually stick to the papertowel as they dry. I dry mine in small white, ceramic saucers. The seeds show up easily against the white ceramic, they don’t stick, and I can just pour them from the saucers into envelopes for storage. I can also easily see any bugs that might be in with the seeds, since they stand out against the white color really well. You can get a lot of other ideas for different ways to dry seeds online.DSC04749
  • When the seeds are thoroughly dry, decide how to store them. I let mine dry for a few days. I’ve found that the simplest, most sure-fire storage method is to use small envelopes, the kind you can buy in a box of about 100 at an office supply store. Brown lunch bags work well, too, especially for larger seeds and bulbs, but they take up more room. Write the name of the plant and month/year you collected them on the envelope, seal it with a piece of tape, and stand the envelopes upright in a file box or basket.
  • Flowers grow pretty well from seed, but it can be disappointing when your seeds don’t come up after you plant them. Use it as a learning experience and do a little research to find out what went wrong. The seeds might not have been completely dry when you stored them, you might not have put them in the right spot or in the right soil, you might not have given them the right amount of water, you might have planted them at the wrong time of year or at the wrong depth in the soil, or maybe they needed a cold stratification period (i.e. time in the refrigerator).
  • Know that all plants can’t be propagated easily from seeds. Some have bulbs or tubers and some start best from cuttings.
  • If you have plants that are self-seeding, you can spread them more quickly by collecting the seeds before they drop to the ground, and sprinkle them where you want them. I’ve been able to spread ground cover over a larger area this way.
  • If you can, leave some seed pods on the plants for birds to feed on through winter.

Seed harvesting is a fun hobby and can very rewarding, and it helps nature in more ways than one. It can be an inexpensive, quick way to multiply your plants, which makes pollinators such as bees and butterflies happy. If you have plants that produce a lot of seeds, consider giving some away or trading them with other plant lovers. Next spring, I’ll be starting my own “heritage flower garden” with seeds given to me by friends and family members, beginning with seeds from a purple flower growing in my parents’ yard—a flower whose name I haven’t figured out yet.

Some good articles from other gardeners who are experienced at seed-collecting:

Collecting and Storing Seeds. http://www.finegardening.com/collecting-and-storing-seeds

Saving Flower Seeds. http://www.dianeseeds.com/saving/flower.html

Video on How to Collect and Save Seeds from Flowers. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCs4QrRMt18

Seed Saving Tips from BHG. http://www.bhg.com/gardening/yard/garden-care/garden-seed-tips/

Weekend Gardener article. http://www.weekendgardener.net/plant-propagation/annualseeds-090809.htm

11 Easy to Save Flower Seeds (article and video). http://www.treehugger.com/lawn-garden/11-easy-save-flower-seeds.html

Seed Savers Exchange Program. http://www.seedsavers.org/onlinestore/memberships/