the seed project: where are they now?

zinnia ‘Envy’

Let’s start with a success story. The green zinnia named “Envy” is one you won’t find at the nursery. Odd that a green flower should capture my fancy when there is already so much green out there. Must have something to do with rarity, a concept familiar to all gardeners.

early zins

Regular zinnias are notoriously easy to grow. These: not so much. Early on (late April or so) my success rate was spotty. These three pots were each planted with five seeds from the same packet. One pot yielded three plants, one coughed up only one and the third…a big zero. I moved all three (and a few others) outside anyway. That laggart came alive and pumped out five plants that soon shot past their coddled brethren.

struggling zinnia in the shade

Placement is everything. Compare the vigorous growth in the first picture to this poor guy struggling in the shade.

baby Amaranth

The seeds for Amaranth were way tiny, so they were scattered as sparingly as possible…and guess what? Same story in the performance department.

planting size

I waited for the successful plants to reach this size before planting them out.

success in a pot

Pretty soon the ones I put in a pot were looking pretty good. My theory was that if they got wonderfully dangly the pot could be raised to show them off.

in-ground failure

The ones in the ground had not thrived…exactly the opposite results from what was expected. Maybe the claims made by potting soil companies are legitimate?

in-ground success

In case you’re thinking I’ve stumbled upon a truism…not so fast. Here is one from the second batch that is doing fine in the ground.

others not so much

If its neighbors had filled in as intended, this would be a nice looking bed filled with ‘Love-Lies-Bleeding’. As it is, one is doing well, the others, so so. But wait! That shade cloth is covering a little Rhody that R is babying along, and it just occurred to me that he must be fertilizing it as part of the program. So much for my “tough love” approach (but please don’t tell him…he’s already incorrigible).

seed tray & cukes

The commercial seed tray setups gave pretty good results. Those four little cucumber plants on the right were responsible for mountains of cucumbers and are producing still.

castor bean seed

I was greedy for Castor Beans, so bought two packets of seeds. The directions advise planting directly in the ground, but I was out to experiment. Some went in the ground and are still so small that I only discover them when weeding.


The rest went into the seed trays, which they quickly outgrew. Get a load of them roots.

comparison plants

They graduated to clay pots, here compared to a couple that were direct sown.

sidy by side castor beans

Proving again that each seed has a mind of its own, these two were raised under identical conditions and came from the same packet of seeds. The one in front is twice as big as the one in back, this time with no fertilizing intervention to account for the difference. This stuff must drive real scientists to the brink of insanity. Of course the one in R’s veggie bed is four times the size of my greatest success and already producing seeds for next year’s crop (sigh). How about you? Have you conducted any experiments this growing season?

dream time

Well, those of us who thought the gardening season had begun sure got smacked down, didn’t we? Instead of doing, we’re reduced to dreaming of our perfect gardens. A while back, The Oregonian ran an article comparing the typical flower border to one relying on foliage for its impact. Excuse the quality. This is a scan of a newsprint photo, so what can I say?
foliage border

This appeals to me for many reasons. I love the layering of the many shapes and textures. Many of the plants will bear flowers, but there are none in this photo and still it holds one’s interest. Having been through spring and fall cleanup of perennial-heavy gardens, not to mention the deadheading through the summer, the ease of this approach is no small part of its attraction. We already have a number of Italian cypresses in place to provide those exclamation marks, and the driveway curves much like the path in the picture.

our new border

Which is not to say that we haven’t a long way to go, but then that’s half the fun, don’t you think? This photo was taken early in the season last year, after a number of the shrubs planted in the fall had been wiped out by the harsh winter. Some new things went in and seem to be making it through this latest blast, but only time will tell. I will post another progress report in a couple of months, when we can see how everything has fared. But as long as we are dreaming, why not go for broke and take a look at another border:

cactus border

This one in Oaxaca’s ethnobotanical garden. Can you imagine strolling down this white sand path lined with towering cacti?
Then spending the rest of the day exploring the extensive collection of cacti, agave, tropical plants and succulents? Dream on!

succulent gardens

mother plants

If I see an unfamiliar succulent, I must have it. Each year, when their summer vacation outdoors comes to an end, they have overgrown their containers. That plant front and center is Ledebouria socialis. It has been divided so many times that wherever I go its offspring are in evidence. This year I rounded up all of the containers that I have been squirreling away and turned them into little succulent gardens.

Ledebouria socialis in box

It won’t take long for these little transplants to gain some presence. Don’t they look cute in this wooden wine box?


This metal box spent a lot of time in R’s studio, where it accumulated the patina of paint dribbles and drips, making it a fitting home for three Kalanchoe fedtschenkoi cuttings.

Haworthia attenuata ‘Zebra’

Good thing I like the look of little plants all in a row, because many of my available containers were oblong box shapes. The divisions here are Haworthia attenuata ‘Zebra’.

collection of succulents

Here is a little sampling of the mini-succulent gardens in a toddler’s cowboy boot, a bag balm tin, a tea tin, a dolmas tin and a tuna tin. The last two also served a stint in the painting studio. I’m thinking these will make nice little hostess gifts. They definitely need to find new homes elsewhere, because we are being driven out of the dining room by overwintering plants.

keeping track

It took me a long time to come up with a system that works for me. For the longest time, I just planted willy nilly, with no concern for names of plants, their locations or performance. Then I joined HPSO and the focus shifted. My first attempt at following what was happening in the garden was to make notations on one of those big calendars with lots of room for each day. It soon became obvious that knowing the year-to-year shifts would be nice. By changing the color of the ink in the marker, the calendar could be stretched to cover about three years. That seemed like a lot at the time. Silly me. Hadn’t I noticed that once the gardening bug bit one soon began thinking in decades?

card & picture file

Those were the days before digital cameras, so I had already started a file for prints from the point and shoot, organized by year. In front of that, I placed alphabetized index cards where a card with pertinent info on each new plant purchased could find a home. It soon became apparent that some names were (for me) impossible to remember, so at the front of each lettered index card goes a list of common names with the Latin equivalent. All plant cards are filed under botanical names. When a plant turns up its toes, its card gets pulled and transferred to the dead plant section, with comments on what did it in. I also have extra lists of trees, grasses, succulents, ground covers and anything else that becomes an obvious category. If something was ordered from a catalog, the picture goes on the card. I also cannibalize catalogs for pictures of plants purchased elsewhere. Since the digital camera has taken over, the picture file has thinned out, but I still keep a yearly file and throw all my receipts, etc. in there.

hanging files

The problem of tracking changes from year to year remained unsolved, until the hanging files came along. The green files in front are filed by categories. Magazine articles or newspaper clippings on subjects of interest can go in there. Have you ever tried to go through old magazines to refind an article? Any luck? Me neither. The “plant” file has alphabetized sub-folders. The next bank of files, the yellow ones, are sorted by month. Wandering around the garden (an almost daily event) a clipboard intermittently comes along, to make note of when things bloom, conditions in the garden, etc. I include lists of plants purchased or moved and where they are located. Most of the time, everything that happens in the garden in the span of one month fits on a single sheet of notebook paper. I find it both satisfying and informative to pull out the pertinent file at the beginning of each month to compare notes from years past. This year I failed to follow this plan, depending on computer files from Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day and Foliage Follow-up to provide the data. I guess I am just a paper person. Wonderful as those two events are, they just do not give me the scope of information I seek. From now on I will go back to the methods outlined here and enjoy the new-fangled stuff for the visual feast that it is.

How about you? Do you have a system? A journal? What works for you?

dividing iris


When iris begin to form a solid mat, it is time to begin thinking about dividing. Some people wait until flowering starts to taper off, but by then the simple chore has become challenging (I speak from experience).

weedy iris

Weeds love to lodge themselves where it is almost impossible to remove them without damaging the meaty rhizomes of the iris. Dividing provides an opportunity to clear out the weeds in the process and start anew with a clean bed.

lifted rhizomes

Using a fork or shovel, lift the whole mass of tangled rhizomes and tease them apart.

iris discards

Some of them will be spent and shriveled. Close examination will reveal holes where borers have penetrated some of the healthier looking parts. All of these should be broken off and discarded.

ready to plant

Once the healthy sections with vigorous leaf growth have been separated and brushed free of dirt, the leaves should be trimmed to about 6″.

planting hole

Make a hole about 3″ deep and wide enough to spread the roots. Make a mound in the center of the hole upon which to place the rhizome.

finished planting

Fill in, covering all of the roots, but leaving the top of the rhizome showing. Water in well, and that’s it. The new transplants may skip a year of blooming, which is why I like to stagger my transplanting. I plan to keep closer tabs on their progress and label the various colors so that I can plan placement better. The fans of lance-shaped leaves make a dramatic contrast to other leaf shapes when used strategically, so I spread some of these around where I think they will make an impact, and still had plenty to share with neighbors. Come spring, I hope to get some shots to show you the fruits of my labor. Oh, and mid-August through September is the best time to tackle this job.

pruning the lavender walk


Above is how the lavender walk looked back when it was in full bloom. I think it was a photo in an architecture magazine that put this bee in my bonnet. It showed a sloping field of row upon row of lavender, each individual plant forming a perfect mound. Now, if one were to ask me about my own style of gardening, I would have to say blowsy and undisciplined, as much as I admire controlled minimalism. Oh, well, I guess that is how garden rooms got started: gardeners loathe to commit to one style of gardening figuring out a way to have it all. At the last YGP Show, a respected speaker warned that lavender would eventually turn woody and die, but back when I was contemplating this project, the advice I had seen, and have followed with success for 6 years, was to cut it back by about one third each year after blooming.


Last year, for the first time, I left this chore until spring. It did not seem to make a difference at blooming, but the plants did seem a little bit woodier at this pruning. The last two days were ideal to the task: sunlight played with the clouds, a light breeze was blowing and this chore could easily pass for aromatherapy. It did take the better part of two days to accomplish, with only sixteen plants involved. That field in France that got me started must have a better method, or a slew of workers. Anyway, I usually start from the bottom, cutting out dead wood (but be careful, not all wood is as dead as it looks), sculpting as I go to form each plant into a rounded tuffet, with the top getting that third removed. The new growth coming along will be a sagey gray-green, while the old stuff will be regular old medium green. Along with the flowering stalks, I take off the first two or three little tufts of new. This is a sitting down job. The perspective is better that way, and my back says “thank you”.


The bed is 30″ wide and the plants are planted 30″ apart on center. In the above view, we are looking towards the SE. From this angle they look like shocked Marine recruits.


But from the other side the view is just as I envisioned it. Guess the moral to that story is to site such a feature accordingly (not what I did). The brown lawn is a Portland signature. Around here, being green means seeing brown for a good part of the summer.


I fully intended the plants to be all of a kind. Purely by accident, three oddballs snuck in. Luckily, they wound up at the end of the line. As you can see, the plant in the foreground is better suited to my purposes. It is Lavenda ‘Melissa’. The others, due to their undercover stealth, are anybody’s guess. I will be on the lookout for two more Melissa’s to replace them. Why only two? Because the gap for people and wheelbarrows to pass through has become overgrown.


Speaking of overgrown, here’s a lavender more characteristic of the approach in this garden. It is still throwing up fresh wands, and the bees love it. It is a different variety, with longer wands, planted before I paid much attention to nomenclature. Hard for me to say which style I prefer. What do you think?

the many faces of photinia


This large stand of Photinia has been allowed to realize its full potential with no intervention by mad pruners.


The emerging blossoms will soon turn the whole configuration into an earthbound cloud.


Since planting ours, this plant has entered my consciousness and I am seeing it everywhere. It obviously finds our climate friendly, growing with weedlike vigor no matter how it is tortured.


In fact, shearing to maintain a desired shape causes it to fill in with new leaf growth.


In public plantings, where constant vigilance and power trimmers are the rule, you couldn’t ask for a better plant to add some vivid color to the composition.


Gotta be careful, though. These folks were leaning toward the natural approach, but failed to take into consideration the eventual size of the shrub: Hence the carved half-tunnel to accommodate pedestrian traffic.


Which brings us to our babies planted along the roadside fence line. They will be allowed to grow as they see fit. I hope they reward our leniency with doing it fast.

Speed may not be too much to ask, judging from these few we planted along the side fence line a few years earlier. So while I will never give up the quest for the rare and exotic, the humble Photinia has won a place in my heart. How about you? Is there a plant so common that it tempts you to scoff, but so useful that you relent?

lemonade from lemons…so to speak

Learning to live with, and even appreciate, the thuggish plants in the garden is sometimes merely a matter of shifting focus. Let me illustrate by telling you a little story about an unassuming, shy plant that surreptitiously overran the garden and then seduced the gardener.

Moving into a different house, most will agree, can be a daunting task. More so, if the house is a remodeling project in a borderline area (it would be a stretch to call it a “neighborhood”, surrounded as it was by warehouses and freeways). In my first act of gardening, I brought home a shovelful of common violets (Viola odorata) from my mom’s and slipped them into an unobtrusive spot by the front porch. Truth be known, all spots were pretty unobtrusive at the time, but that’s another story. My intent was fuzzy, just some knee-jerk reaction to a nesting instinct. My ignorance was vast. I had never heard of such a thing as an invasive plant. Over time, more and more of the rubble-strewn lot gave way to cultivation. At weeding time, I would find errant violets popping up in each and every bed, duly yanking them out and casting them aside with some annoyance. The violets had other ideas. In late February, I ventured into the waterlogged garden to admire the daffodils at close range. Confronted by a carpet of fragrant purple, punctuated here and there by the nodding yellow and white blossoms of the daffys, it became clear that the violets had it right after all.


Then I remembered a failed baking project from some years back. It was a birthday cake. It fell. There was no time to bake another, but this sorry-looking brown lump with the crater in the middle simply would not do. Filling the crater with lemon curd helped some, but embellishment of some kind was definitely in order. Off I went to the gourmet deli for some candied violets. Yikes! Semi-precious gems fall roughly into the same price range! I would have to make do with a few primroses dusted with sugar and some sprigs of ivy. The cake was lovely in the end.


The yen for candied violets resurfaced with vigor when I saw before me the raw materials in ridiculous abundance. After some trial and error, here is the process I devised. Pick about 2 cups of violets with stems attached. Fill a large bowl with cold water. Dump in the violets and swish them around to eliminate mud and/or critters, then pat them dry with paper towels. Whisk two egg whites in a bowl until barely frothy. Mound granulated sugar in a pie pan. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment or wax paper. Have handy a teaspoon, a pair of scissors and a damp sponge. Hold a violet by its stem, swish it around in the egg white, tap it against the side of the bowl to remove excess, then lay it in the sugar and use the spoon to fill all of the little crevices. Shake off extra sugar, lay the sugarcoated violet onto the parchment and use the scissors to cut off the stem. The sugar will puddle a little, so the best effect will be achieved if you place the flower face up. The damp sponge comes in handy to wipe sticky fingers and scissors from time to time. My two cups of violets filled a large baking sheet with no two violets touching. Drying time, I found, is critical. In a few hours they are dry enough to use for decorating, but for storage, a few days is more like it. My first batch seemed perfectly dry the next day, so I put them in little jars on a shelf, where I could admire them. Oops! They congealed into a solid ball. It was possible to pry them apart, but not without causing considerable damage (broken bits make a lovely flavoring for homemade ice cream, scones or biscotti). I used superfine sugar for the second batch. The color comes through a little better and they are more delicate, but drying time is even longer.

In the end, what is there to show for the considerable effort? The deep purple of the flower is filtered through the sugary, translucent crust to become a pale, shimmering lilac with just a glimpse of the orange eye showing through. The taste is hauntingly unexpected and elusive: as if your senses got all mixed up and you are suddenly tasting with your olfactory glands.

This is no quickie project. My love discovered me amidst the violets and proclaimed me certifiably insane. Unable to argue with such an astute assessment of my mental state, I simply turned the music up a notch and continued dipping and snipping and dreaming of extraordinary concoctions to come.

orchard time


This is what all of the trees in the orchard looked like a few weeks ago.


While I tend to throw myself at the garden in fits and starts, Richard is pretty good at pacing himself. A couple of hours a day, and pretty soon…


their haircuts complete, the trees are ready for prime time.


With a bonus of plenty of twigs to bring inside and force into bloom. These are pear blossoms that have been in a sunny spot in a vase with water for two weeks.


As you can see in this closeup, some blossoms have fully opened, while others are still coming on. I am partial to the little ball shapes before they unfold.


The cherry trees were a bigger project, requiring some engineering and using ropes as pullies to keep big, heavy limbs from falling on cats or humans. This stash of limbs and branches leads to fantasies of rustic structures.


Here’s a bucket of cherry branches sitting in water, waiting for the sunlight to work its magic and coax them into bloom. If you lived nearby, a big bouquet of these would be yours for the asking.

Our first year here, we were intimidated by the orchard and hired a neighbor/arborist to do the work for us. We paid attention while he lopped and lectured. Like so many things horticultural, timing is everything. Get that right (in general, because even there quite a bit of leeway exists) and the rest is just a matter of putting in the time. With days like we have been having lately, it is pure pleasure to be out there ‘playing’ in the sunshine.

pot on

I love the cunning little potting sheds featured in magazines. They usually feature shelves stacked high with clay pots, furniture painted in vibrant colors, maybe even a few color-coordinated pillows scattered about. All in all, a totally inviting shabby-chic aesthetic. My potting area, by contrast, has consisted of upended buckets supporting old boards, piles of plastic nursery pots in all shapes and sizes and bags of compost, etc. folded over with a brick on top to keep the rain out.


No cunning shed for me, but at least it is protected from the heaviest downpours and hidden from sight by these low-hanging cedar boughs.


And progress is being made. Richard made me a table to go under there, and I invested in a few lidded plastic containers to hold potting soil, pot shards and such. I’m with Megan, over at nestmaker, who dreams of a little outdoor hangout where dinners and poker games can take place. I’m a long ways from that ideal, but just upping the convenience factor and getting rid of some of the more unsightly elements has made this quite a pleasant place to spend time puttering and potting.