Archive for how to gardening tips

Safe Soil in the City

Portland landscape designer Carol Lindsay

Daizzie and I in my edibles garden

Safe soil in the city – smart and healthy practices for urban gardens

I love having a vegetable garden. It’s healthy, right? I love eating kale and I grow a lot of greens for smoothies year-round.  There are a few concerns about growing food in urban areas. Two concerns that apply to us all, city and suburban, are lead paint and lead exhaust from the past in our soils. Let’s be practical not scary about this.

Is my food safe to eat? What are the most important practices I can do and how can I keep it simple?  My garden is below Highway 30.  It’s an old heavily traveled highway so our soil has years of exposure to lead exhaust.

There’s no way I’d grow my food in the ground here.

My current garden practices

I’ve been assuming my food is safe to eat because:

Our community garden has raised beds with new clean soil from just three years ago.
I apply lots of compost at least three times a year.

Carol's winter kale

My garden supplies me with year round greens like kale.

I use an organic fertilizer. (OK it’s boxed Dr. Earth, not a truckload from Natures Needs because it’s very convenient and my garden is small.)  I don’t know what my NPK ratio is which makes me a bit of a lazy gardener but the food I like to grow does fine.  NPK being Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorous.  And yes I was trained as an advanced master gardener and yes that was a very long time ago………they teach you all about soil in the master gardener program.

I wash my produce, no nibbling right out of the garden bed. (OK once in a while a strawberry or tomato).

According to some experts I’m doing OK but I could do a lot better.

My improvements

  1. Soil areas next to old garages often have higher lead levels.

    Soil areas next to old garages often have higher lead levels.

    Reducing exposure to dust is the most effective thing you can do to reduce lead hazard in your landscape. It is typically in the first few inches of soil. This is the most important thing in the blog.  Mulch and compost applications cover your soil and protect it from dust with contaminants in it.    We want to keep the dust and soil off human skin and out of the mouth.  This is critical for babies and small children and good for the rest of us too.  Adding compost has many benefits for improving conditions for plants.  Adding compost at least twice a year can only benefit, there are no drawbacks.

  1. Here at my community garden, we could have put a barrier between our new soil and the existing ground soil. I can still do this once my winter Kale are done in March. I’ll have to get a tarp and dig out a lot of my soil so I’m going to install a metal grid and landscape fabric.  The grid is to keep the moles and gophers out of my raised bed. They may have brought some of the lead contaminated soil up into my new clean soil, and they caused a lot of havoc with the roots of my plants.  Some died or did not produce well because of the soil disturbance.
  1. I could improve the efficacy of washing my veggies by using a 1 percent vinegar solution instead of only using water. I’m thinking a large spray bottle under the sink could be used for my final wash. It’s got to be simple or I won’t do it.

Beyond these good soil management practices, I will need to do a Nutrient Analysis soil test to know what I need to add to my raised beds to improve the health and productivity of my vegetables and bind up any lead and keep it locked into my soil where it won’t cause problems for me.

Portland landscape designer in edibles garden

My garden is below Highway 30. It’s an old heavily traveled highway so our soil has years of exposure to lead exhaust.

Lead Soil Test

My client Katy had an older home in SE Portland.  I suggested a lead soil test.  She collected the soil and submitted samples for a lead test. She discovered the area where we wanted the kids play structure to go had high lead.  It was next to the neighbors’ garage.  Several inches of contaminated soil were removed.  She brought in new soil and playground chips and now has a safe play area for her toddlers.

What’s one new thing you could do this year to improve your landscape or edibles garden?  Get your soil tested.  I’m planning to collect soil from my vegetable garden and submit it to a lab for testing.  I’ll share that experience with you in another blog.

Bad News about Slug Bait and Winter Garden Care Tips

Slugs at NE Portland Landscape Design in a Day

Slugs on a Honeydew Melon Date

Winter is just around the corner here in Portland.   Here are 5 timely tips to help you care for your landscape right now.

Slugs Last chance to knock out slugs! Control your slug population now in late fall.  They lay thousands of eggs that will hatch in spring.  I’ve got bad news about using the so called pet safe slug baits. New science says it kills your earthworms and can sicken your pets and other animals.  Control your slugs with beer traps or even better an instant coffee spray.  Yup coffee! Fill a spray bottle with strong instant coffee or any coffee except de-caf.  Spray the leaves of plants they prefer and any slugs or snails you see.

I grow lots of winter greens here in NW Portland so I’ve been out there spraying down the leaves of my beautiful Dinosaur Kale plants to protect them now.  Spraying coffee once a week in fall and early winter makes a big difference in the spring hatch of slugs.   Read more about why slug bait harms worms.

Coffee bag

Its the caffeine that kills slugs or snails. Instant coffee works well.

Mulch.  If you only do one thing to improve your soil and care for your plants, mulching is the biggie.  Schedule your winter mulch application for the last week of November to mid-December or hire someone to blow in your mulch.  Companies such as Bark Blowers will blow in mulch including the newer “living” mulch products that I prefer.  One company that provides mulch inoculated with beneficial bacteria is Natures Needs, a product called  Recology Compost.  McFarlane Bark, Mt Scott Fuel and Grimms Fuel supply basic mulch products.   Did you mulch just 2 inches deep?  Great!  Now go and unbury the crowns of your plants so they don’t die from rot during our wet winter. Burying plants with mulch might be a good practice in Vermont or Montana but not here.

Iron gate design with snow

Landscape Design in a Day client’s custom gate.

Protect your plants from winter temperatures

The best cold protection for plants in the winter isn’t something that naturally occurs to most people.  Over watering and over fertilizing done in summer can cause plants to not go dormant.  When cold weather comes, they are not prepared.  Read more: Protecting Plants from Winter Cold Starts in Summer 

Pruning knowledge  There are many plants that should not be cut back in the fall and winter.  There are many perennials and grasses that can be cut back to create a more attractive winter landscape. This is a case by case basis which drives new gardeners crazy. Consider consulting with your garden designer who can teach you what to do to your plants and when.  It feels good when you know what to do.

Protect your pottery  The best winter protection for your pottery is proper drainage and location.  Make sure water drains through the pots hole and doesn’t back up.  If water sits in the bottom and it freezes, good bye pot.  I have had Vietnamese high fired pottery outside and intact for over 15 years.  I always put drainage material in the bottom of the pot and a piece of flagstone under the pot or I use those little pottery feet.

If I have expensive pots where they will get east winter wind, the kind of wind that freezes rain to ice on the power line, I would move them into a protected area for winter right now. I hate to even think about that kind of weather but we get our share here in Portland Oregon, especially in January.   Its hard to pay attention to the weather report, and besides who wants to move heavy pots around when its icy cold out?  Not me.

Hot Time in my Summer Garden

Daizzie in the garden, it's almost a year since she arrived.

Daizzie in the garden, it’s almost a year since she arrived.

Wow, having a garden of any kind has been challenging in this unusually warm year.  For some plants it’s been touch and go as a result of the heat.  In my veggie garden I have learned a lot this year.  My tomatoes would not set fruit if the evening temperature was too high (in June and July) so what looked like a potential bumper crop of tomatoes quickly changed to dead flowers and no fruit set when the temps soared.  Now that it is cooler (as of two days ago) I see some new flowers on my tomato plants and am hoping for more fruit to set before the next heat wave comes.

South side container garden for tomatoes.

South side container garden for tomatoes.

 

I also learned to plant lettuce and dwarf petunia under my tomatoes that were in containers.  They blocked the sun by covering my soil, which cooled the soil and now the leaves of my tomato plants look so much better.  They were tip burned and turning yellow.  I also have tomato plants on the south side of my floating home and they get a lot of sun and heat.

Radicchio shades tomato root zone.

Radicchio shades tomato root zone.

We have a mole family in our community garden and we can’t set one of those nasty traps with the teeth since kids or sometimes pets could go in there.  Today I put chili powder down the holes but probably all that will happen is that they will move to a neighbors raised bed and then come back to mine when the chili smell is gone. I’m adding soil to fill their holes and I imagine an entire freeway of holes and passageways from one raised bed to another.  It’s only comical until one of my Kale wilts,  faints and dies because of no soil under the roots, then I tend to growl.

Daizzie is getting used to our new scarecrow.

Daizzie is getting used to our new scarecrow.

Dogs are no longer allowed in the garden, which is probably a good thing since Daizzie is afraid of our new scarecrow anyway.    Sharing the garden with my neighbors is so much fun and we all water for each other so vacations are not a problem.

I’ve tried some greens called Deer Tongue; ok bad name but tasty and found them to be very heat tolerant and my New Zealand Spinach is loving this heat and producing all the greens I can eat.  By the way, don’t cook them, they turn to slush; which is strange because this spinach has an oddly thick leaf.  They are meant to be eaten fresh.

My neighbor Betty and I (mostly Betty) will be starting seeds for our fall gardens – I’ll get my chard, collard greens and lettuces going to enjoy until frost.

Top 5 Stepable Path Plants For Portland Landscapes

North Portland Landscape Design parking strip

Becky Clark Design Thymus Praecox ‘Coccineus’ ablaze w flower in north Portland parking strip

Selecting Stepable Path Plants for Portland Landscapes

Maybe it’s not fair that most people don’t know the finer points of selecting stepable path plants.   The truth is planting between pavers successfully is a delicate situation and rarely ever results in what I would call low maintenance.   It’s a little like Goldilocks and The Three Bears, the plant has to be just right.  Remember?  The chair and the bed had to be the right size and the porridge had to be the right temperature.   If the plant you select is not right for the job,  your path or patio can have problems that will take a complete do over to solve.

Most people don’t want to trial and error plants. They want to know it will work before they put in their time and effort.  That is one advantage of hiring a Portland landscape designer.

Portland landscape designer walking on stepable plants

Step on these plants.  This keeps them growing low and dense.

Here’s how I think about selecting stepable path plants.

I want a plant that doesn’t grow higher than 1″  or 2″ tall maximum.  Many stepable plants tend to grow into a hump and must be walked on so people won’t  trip over the plant. Stepping on the plants frequently will cause them to grow dense and shorter.  My grandson Rain helped me plant my flagstone patio.  I  stepped away and his friend came running in and said “I keep telling him they’re stepables not stompables.”  I looked up to see my grandson stomping on the freshly planted ground covers.   Surprisingly, the plants survived just fine.

Portland Garden Design GroundcoverI want a plant that doesn’t spread too fast and grow over the flagstone.  If you plant a type of stepable that grows too vigorously you will need to be constantly cutting the plant off of the flagstone.  Untended it will completely cover your flagstone.

Most of these types of plants require good drainage in order to grow thickly and repel weeds.  If they don’t grow thickly weed seeds will germinate and thrive.  I’ve listed plants below for part sun and full sun.   I don’t have a stepable plant that thrives in shade so I’d suggest you avoid using plants in shady areas.  I’ve tried several that manage to stay alive but don’t meet my requirements for success even remotely.  Another tip:  Don’t plant in an area that was infested with weeds.  You will need to tackle the weeds first and try to wear out the seed bank before you plant your stepables.

Here is my favorites list:

Leptinella with star creeper

Here’s a close up of  ‘Platt’s Black’ Brass Buttons with Star Creeper.

Stepable Plants for Part Shade/Part Sun:

Leptinella squalida –  New Zealand Brass Buttons.   The variety I prefer is ‘Platt’s Black’.  The other variety of Brass Buttons I like, ‘LePrinella P. Verdigris’  is a a little fast for pavers but I have used it for paths.  I don’t grow either of these in full sun. They spread until they find an environment they don’t like.  In my patio they run into too much shade and the strong roots of sword fern and they stop there.

Stepable Plants Portland Modern LandscapeMentha requienii –  Corsican Mint  This is a crowd pleaser because it smells good when you step on the plant.  This plant needs some sun, and needs good drainage, too much shade and soil that is too wet in the winter will kill this plant.  Full sun is too much for this plant.

Stepable Plants for Sun:

Elfin Pink Thyme fills in a path in Portland OregonThymus Serpyllum ‘Elfin’ or ‘Elfin Pink’  – I love this plant and it is truly a flat mat if you step on it.  It does get weeds growing into the middle so it’s not maintenance free, but only garden magazines talk about maintenance free landscapes.  When it is successful you will have to cut it off of flagstones some but I find it quite manageable.

Stachys Densiflora ‘Alba’ – Alba Lambs Ear   First of all this plant looks nothing like silver furry lambs ear.  The tiny leaves are fully evergreen, dark green and leathery.  I love this plant because it doesn’t let weed seeds in.  Plant it on the edges of your path unless you plan to step on it every day, otherwise it will mound up.  It takes full sun easily and the flowering period is fantastic!

My Favorite Stepable Plant

Azorella Trifurcata ‘Nana’ – Cushion Bolax   I have this plant at my vacation house in full morning sun and it will take full day sun as well.  It occasionally has a dandelion sprout in the middle, but rarely any other kind of weed and I find it to be very low maintenance.   It will creep over your pavers more than the Elfin Pink Thyme so you will have to trim once every year or two.  It’s my favorite filler plant for pavers, paths and as a foreground plant in a planting bed.

My dog Barley looking at freshly planted Cushion Bolax ground cover.

My dog Barley looking at freshly planted Cushion Bolax.

I love the texture.  It goes through a change where the little needles feel like a plastic carpet (which sounds bad but is fun) and then it softens into a pettable surface.  The yellow flowers are tiny and cute.

 

Hydrangea Pruning Made Simple

Spring Hydrangea Pruning

A lot of my clients have asked me to help them with pruning their hydrangeas.

Hydrangea serrata 'Preziosa'

This blog addresses mophead hydrangea pruning.  Hydrangea pruning is simple and easy once you know the rules.  There is a link to a pruning video at the end of this blog produced by Cass Turnball of Plant Amnesty to help you feel more confident.  There are 5 kinds of hydrangeas.  This blog only addresses mophead hydrangea pruning.

 

Hydrangea serrata 'Preziosa'

Why prune hydrangea at all?

Why prune hydrangea plants at all?  Like most plants, pruned hydrangea shrubs will have a better shape so they look good regardless of the flowering aspect.  Many of us buy a hydrangea and think it will be 4’ x 4’.  Over time, many varieties will grow to 7’ tall.  It is very important to plant the right plant in the right place so you don’t have to be frustrated.  There are some varieties that are going to mature at and be easily kept in the 4’ to 5’ range.  We prune to achieve that height as well as a good shape.  If you have a variety that wants to be 7 or even 8 feet tall every year even with proper pruning, the best answer is to remove the plant and buy a variety whose size works for your garden.  Old Arts and Crafts homes with 6’ high foundations are perfect for the hydrangeas that are most cheerful at 7’.  They don’t work as well for homes with a 12” foundation or a small yard.Another reason we prune is to remove stems that no longer flower.

rabbit ears 2

Nicely pruned and open plant

We prune hydrangeas in early to mid March in the Pacific NW.  We start pruning our plants when they are about 3 years old or when you see the oldest stems are developing bark.  Remove the oldest woody canes.  On a young plant this might mean removing only 1 or 2 stems.  We remove dead stems and canes and we deadhead flowers back to the first lateral buds.  I think of these buds as rabbit ears.  I love this task.  I think it’s because I’m close to the ground and my soil smells good.  I typically see 2 colors of buds at this time.  The burgundy buds are just a bump on the stems.  The tiny green buds (the rabbit ears) are such a vivid green.  It says spring to me (and no it doesn’t rain every minute even in March).  These are days when a wool sweater and a down vest are perfect for comfort.

hydrangea 1 heads banner

Joy Creek Nursery Hydrangea Garden

There is more to the story about hydrangea pruning. Occasionally there are individual plants that didn’t read the rule book.  My garden coach client Mary followed the proper pruning techniques and she lost all her flowers for the year!!  AAACK!!  Her plants are 30 plus years old.  Since that debacle Mary only deadheads her plants, again just down to the first buds and she removes old woody stems.  Her plants always flower beautifully and are the focal point of her summer garden.  I’ve never had this happen to me but I’ve heard about it often enough from other professionals to know that some plants are probably genetically different than others.  If you don’t prune at all, your plants will get big and ungainly looking.  A build up of deadwood may diminish their flowering capacity.

For a detailed lesson on pruning mop head hydrangeas, see this video.