Gardening where the sidewalk ends

Spooky Plants October 30, 2008

In honor of Halloween, I offer you a few of the spookier members of the plant kingdom:

Eyeball plant (Spilanthes oleracea)

Native to Brazil, this odd-looking South American medicinal plant (also known as ‘Toothache Plant’) can be grown as an annual or tender perennial elsewhere. Its flowers look like scary bloody red and yellow eyeballs, and ingesting the leaves can cause your tongue to go numb. All in all, the perfect Halloween plant!

Eyeball Plant photo courtesy of Univ. of Wisconsin

Eyeball Plant photo courtesy of Univ. of Wisconsin

Corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum)

I missed the stinky blooming of the University of Washington’s specimen, nicknamed “Waldo,” by about two days this year. Just the flower itself was impressive (and kinda disgusting), but people line up inside the greenhouse for a chance to inhale the distinctive stench that gives this Sumatra, Indonesia native its common name. Somehow, I’m not really that sad to have missed it.

"Waldo" photo courtesy of City of Seattle Parks Dept.

Strangler fig (Ficus aurea)

This native to the Florida Keys and the West Indies is a parasitic plant, beginning its growth when seeds lodge in the bark of its host. It then puts out air roots and lives off nutrients from the host and air. Eventually the roots reach the ground and develop there as well. Also known as the ‘Golden fig,’ if left to its own devices it will often kill off its host. What a bad guest!

Strangler Fig photo by rayb777, Flickr Creative Commons License

Strangler Fig photo by rayb777, Flickr Creative Commons License

Bloodwort (Rumex sanguineus)

Also known as ‘Bloody dock’ for its red-veined leaves, this plant is usually tap-rooted and hard to eradicate once planted. Semi-poisonous if ingested and causes skin irritation if touched. Scared yet?

Bloodwort photo courtesy of Bluestone Perennials

Bloodwort photo courtesy of Bluestone Perennials

Ghost plant (Monotropa uniflora)

Also known as ‘Indian Pipe,’ this member of the blueberry family lacks chlorophyll and therefore thrives in very dark forest conditions. I would love to come upon these growing in the wild sometime, maybe just not at night. For a fascinating look at how this plant gets its energy, click here.

Ghost Plant/Indian Pipe photo by nordique, via Creative Commons

Ghost Plant/Indian Pipe photo by nordique, via Creative Commons

Witch hazel

Scary name, great plant. Mine is all done with its foliage show for the year, but I still have the winter blossoms to look forward to. I’m not including a picture here because I plan to do a post about it later this week. 🙂

Wolf’s bane (Aconitum lyoctonum)

This relative of Monkshood is a perennial native to northern Europe (hm, wonder if it’s found in Transylvania?) bearing yellow or purple flowers in mid- to late summer. All parts of the plant are extremely toxic if ingested, and even the leaves can cause skin irritation if touched. This one is not going in my garden, for sure.

And lastly, I would just like to add, even though its name doesn’t sound at all scary, the howlingly horrible annual weed and #1 scourge of my garden…

Morning glory (bindweed)

I made the very bad mistake of reading Scott Smith’s horror novel, “The Ruins,” and the carnivorous vines in that book come to mind every time I see the twisting strands of this weed attempting to throttle my other plants to death. It really does seem to grow tangibly larger overnight. I just hope it never comes indoors to try and get me as I sleep! There is an actual parasitic “vampire” plant called dodder vine. This link has photos of it “sniffing out” its prey and going to strangle it. Ewwwww!

What are your favorite scary plants, in name, looks or habit?


Lavender Share

In my previous garden, lavender was hard to grow – we just didn’t have enough sun. Now we have the sunniest garden imaginable and inherited countless lavender plants. They line every path and set of stairs, to the point that their delightfulness is beginning to wear off a bit. Especially at this time of year, when I spend way too many hours snipping off their spent blooms to encourage good re-growth next season.

One thing lavender does is reseed itself, not quite with abandon, but enough so that new plants are always popping up somewhere. In my parking strip garden, reseeding is generally encouraged but when the lavender clumps get too big or are getting in the way of something else I’d like to put in, out they go. This time, I asked a neighbor if she’d like some of the discards and she happily agreed. I’d already given away divided crocosmia to another neighbor earlier in the week, so maybe I’ll get a few garden karma points for finding new homes for these guys instead of piling them in the yard waste.

This big clump was blocking the end of my stone path experiment, currently in progress:

Lavender clump

I dug it up and hacked it into a few pieces, transplanting some to better spots and potting up the rest to give away.

I also removed some of these “babies” before they get too much bigger and start overshadowing the shorter groundcovers:

Baby lavender

Of course I have a million black plastic nursery pots lying around, since I can never bring myself to toss them in the landfill and haven’t got around to finding a nursery that recycles/reuses them (yet another thing on the winter to-do list). Happily, they came in handy for potting up the give-away lavender:

Lavender all potted up to share

As soon as I’m off the computer, I’m running these across the street. This neighbor has been so generous to us in many ways, plus she is a professional pastry chef so I have a fantasy that she will actually use the lavender in a recipe someday. I’m just happy that I can give something back to her after all she’s done for our family, even if it’s just a few little orphaned plants.

(If you are visiting Washington State in the summer and have a chance to visit the Purple Haze Lavender Farm in Sequim, it’s supposed to be quite a place. Sequim is located in the “rain shadow” of the Olympic Mountains, so its climate is dryer and warmer than most of the rest of our area, hence the happiness of the lavender plants.)


The Joys of Looking Down October 29, 2008

Sometimes I get a crick in my neck from looking down all the time as I walk. I’m not going to get into some metaphor for this as my mode of living, although I do tend toward the pessimistic at times. Really, I’m just looking at the plants! Sometimes, I’m rewarded with a special little tableau put out there by Mother Nature and I wonder if anyone else saw it before it was disrupted by wind, rain, critter or rake.

This was one from a parking strip garden near my house:

Water on leaf

No, I didn’t arrange any of that. Just saw it and snapped the pic. The stones, the evergreen needles, the tiny green groundcover leaves, and the dew on the fallen tree leaves looked like a still life painting to me.

When you walk, where do you look? Up at the clouds or down at the plants?


New Gloves October 28, 2008

Filed under: my garden — greenwalks @ 11:25 am
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Sometimes it’s the small things in life that can make me happier. At the hardware store the other day, I picked up a new pair of Atlas gloves to help me get my bulbs in the ground (not sure why I need extra motivation there, but every year I put it off way too long). I usually use their blue and white fairly heavy grade gloves, but have to take them off for doing any fine work like seed planting or even seedling handling. These ones, the “Nitrile Touch” model, come in an array of fab colors and are super thin and supple. I chose a kind of pale sage green, but later wondered if I should have picked something brighter (orange? pink??) and less easily lost if put down in the garden.

New gloves

That was my sole “tool” purchase for the gardening year, pretty cheap. Does that mean I get to spend more on plants?

Do you have a favorite pair of gardening gloves that you must use every time, or do you just put on whatever has the least crusty caked mud?


Divide and Conquer October 27, 2008

I finally decided that today was the day to dig up my overgrown orange crocosmia and see if I could figure out how to divide it. I inherited it from a previous gardener but hadn’t touched it in the 3+ years we’ve been here, so it was pretty much now or never since it had basically stopped blooming.

Crocosmia clump

Northwest gardening expert Ciscoe Morris recommends digging up the entire clump, hacking off sections from the side, and discarding the middle (why? not mentioned in his article). So, that’s what I did. I had to remove a lot of quack grass roots, I hope I got it all (ha ha, I don’t think that’s ever possible, is it?) – this is the “before” pic, the white roots are the evil weed grass.

Crocosmia clump full of quack grass

I ended up with about 8 small clumps, most of which will go down in the parking strip (where I toss all my free/self-seeding/divided plants).

Crocosmia mini clumps after division

While I was at it, I decided to make a little pathway for the mail carrier, who uses that space as a cut-through to avoid having to go up and down a million stairs to the street on our (hilly) side of the block. I’ve never made a path before, so I don’t know why it struck me that I had to. I used some old bamboo pieces left over from a decommissioned water feature to outline it,

Bamboo strips outline path

and then filled it in with cedar debris from the massive tree that adjoins the path.

Cedar debris added

I didn’t level it very well and the cedar berries are a little unstable. Hm, I hope he doesn’t fall and sue me! I’ll have to work on it a bit more to make it better.

I put back one clump of crocosmia in the original spot and will hope for the best next summer. Then I remembered the two sad little native huckleberry plants I’d bought at a long-ago plant sale – they’d been languishing in a flat along with a still-unplanted hydrangea and a yellow cotinus I’m still deciding if I have decent spots for. I know huckleberries need rich forest-type soil and a lot of moisture to be happy, but that’s never going to happen here. So, in they went and I added a lot of compost and mulched (when do I ever mulch?! That bag was probably three years old and had some weird whitish cast to the soil, which I hope was not plant-killing mold of some sort!). The bed needs more residents but I’m done for the day.

Done for now

Now I just have to put in the rest of the crocosmia or give a few clumps away to neighbors. Then again, they probably don’t need the quack grass! What do you do when you divide plants – replant elsewhere in your garden, give away, or toss the rejects? Or a bit of all three?


Day of Rest October 26, 2008

In (lazy) celebration of my 100th post yesterday, I am taking the day off for the first time since starting this blog back in early August. There is much to do around the house and we are heading over to my folks’ for another round of cider pressing this afternoon, so thinking up topic, fiddling with photos, and writing an even moderately interesting post is just not in the cards today.

Instead, I will wish you all a happy day either in the garden or doing something else that you enjoy (or at least the satisfaction of getting necessary tasks done, which can at least be enjoyable in retrospect once those things are crossed off the to-do list!), and offer you this photo of my last fennel flower of the summer. The green vase was an apartment-warming gift, many years ago, from a dear friend who is no longer alive. She had a fabulous garden and was one of the folks who got me started thinking how nice it would be to someday have one of my own.

Fennel flower in green vase


Knock-out Parking Strip Garden October 25, 2008

Early to pick up my daughter at school the other day and happening to have my camera along, I decided to amble around the nearby streets to see if I could find any parking strip gardens to photograph. It’s become sort of an obsession for me, and I get the same satisfaction when I spot one coming into view as I imagine a predator might when sighting its dinner.

I could tell this one was going to be a little out of the ordinary, especially for the neighborhood. This photo shows where the previous property ends (spindly tree and plain grass at right) and the amazing one begins (fully planted parking strip and banana trees next to the house, in Seattle!?!).

Garden is focus, not house

It was a bright day so these photos will not do the garden justice. It is a riot of colors, textures, and shapes, all harmonious and contrasting at once. It’s one of the most impressive parking strip gardens I’ve come across since I started looking for them, and I’ve seen a lot. It was either designed by a pro, or the person living there is a master landscaper. I might have to sneak a note onto their porch and ask if I can come back for more photos and an interview. I want to go back anyway, since my camera ran out of memory card space before I even got around the bend to look at the other stretch of plantings (it’s a corner lot, so twice the space for parking strip glory).

Walking down the sidewalk, it was like taking in a botanical garden on both sides:

Sidewalk "botanical garden"

I’m not good enough at plant ID to get even half of these, feel free to call out any you know and especially admire (or despise) for their looks or habit. What I found literally breath-taking was the amazing combinations and the sheer variety. Let’s see, just the ones that I know off-hand in this one small section: lavender, purple coral bells, senecio, penstemon, red-twig dogwood, bergenia, and at least a few others. None of those so amazing on their own, but the grouping seemed unique, and so densely planted.

Fabulous foliage

An apple tree provides scale (note the pest-protection footies!) but is under-planted with perennials such as lungwort, sedum and euphorbia.

Apple tree underplanted with perennials

I think I literally let out a gasp when I saw the grouping of variously colored pitcher plants:

PItcher plants

I grew this orgage-y coralbells variety in my previous garden but it was in the shade and always looked floppy. This one was really healthy-looking, and placed so that the striking color and wavy texture would stand out:

Orange coralbells

Zany green and yellow striped canna foliage contrasts well with bright red dahlias, pale cream-yellow phygelius, and what looks like a bamboo in the far background.

Dahlias and cannas

Garden art-haters (and I found out there are definitely some after my previous post!) will be happy to see that there is not a single non-plant item in this landscape. Well, with one exception:

Hiding hydrant

I have many more photos of this garden and may put up another post later to show the continued marvels of plant pairing creativity the designer has come up with. If even a square yard of my parking strip looked this good, I’d be a proud gardener. That they’ve got 60′ X 5′ and it all looks perfect… I’ll try to focus on being inspired rather than jealous!

Crazy good

(Bonus thanks to anyone who can ID the yellow-leafed plant with blue-purple flowers in the last photo – it’s crazy bold!)


Tree Watering Bags October 24, 2008

The City of Seattle is using some bond initiative money to improve its urban forest – the plan is to plant over 8,000 street trees in the next decade.

One challenge is how to water well while the new trees are being established. In a time of budget crunches, the City just does not have the staff to allow for individual watering of each tree as often as needed to help it thrive.

Starting a year or so ago, I noticed these funny green plasticized cloth bags showing up at the base of each tree newly planted by the City:

Tree watering bag

Each bag, which according to the City’s site holds 20 gallons, is filled several times per week while the tree is establishing its roots. The water seeps into the soil directly where the tree needs it most, slowly draining out over the course of 6-10 hours.

Here’s what it looks like in relation to the full tree, this one a lovely red-bark Japanese maple with its golden fall plumage on nearly-full display:

Japanese maple with tree watering bag

Speaking from personal experience, a new tree in the parking strip is easy to forget about. I put in a very small Japanese snowbell that is not doing well, and I’m sure it’s due to lack of water during the dry season. I know these bags are kind of unsightly but maybe they are a good idea for those out-of-the-way plantings in super dry weather. That said, I have seen a row of trees in a parking strip near my house where some trees seem to be thriving and others are near death. All had the green bags on so presumably they were watered equally. What made the difference? No idea.

Has anyone used these successfully in a home garden? I found one online called the Treegator but it’s not cheap, $25 plus shipping for one bag. That’s a lot more than my Japanese snowbell cost!

For more information from the City of Seattle on watering in newly planted trees, click here.


Pumpkin Patch Visit October 23, 2008

Last weekend, we made our annual foray to the closest pumpkin patch to Seattle, Redmond’s South 47 Farm. As the last remaining farm in the Sammamish Valley and a not-so-distant neighbor of Microsoft, this organic farm is struggling valiantly to survive in the midst of ex-urban sprawl. Its farm education programs for kids are helping to bring up a new generation of people who will know where their food actually comes from, and they do a great job of providing three-season fun (they close for the winter after pumpkin season is done). We visited for berry picking this summer and had a wonderful time.

More pumpkins than you can shake a stick at! Actually, I think some of these are probably imported from other farms, they’d never keep up with the demand otherwise.

Pumpkins galore

We didn’t have time to try the corn maze, which can take up to an hour to walk. Maybe next year. For small children, the pole bean maze is a little more reasonable anyway.

About to begin the pole bean maze

As a working organic farm, South 47 tries to conserve resources whenever possible. Their tractor is an antique, probably kept running with duct tape and baling wire. Here it is, taking a cartload of hayriders around for a tour.

Tractor-pulled hayride

The world-famous Herbfarm Restaurant leases land on the farm to grow herbs and veggies for their diners. The Herbfarm is kind of like the Chez Panisse of the Northwest, and is one of those places I hope to go someday after I win the lottery (despite never buying a ticket).

We somehow managed to resist the allure of these baby pumpkins, mostly because our family grows some to share every year and we get in trouble if we buy any!

Baby pumpkins

This patch of ground was empty at the moment, save for furrows and a few recent footprints… I liked the cosmos and other flowers growing casually at its border.

Running through the fields

Our daughter’s favorite stuffed creature for years has been Pumpkinman (her name), a small el cheapo toy from the drugstore that we bought years ago. He came with us to visit his pumpkin kin and got to ride in the wheelbarrow to the cashiers’.

Pumpkinman and kin

No we didn’t buy that many pumpkins! A kind family allowed us to share the pumpkin transport since we had struck out on finding one and had forgotten our trusty red wagon.

Tall stem green pumpkin

Another year, another Halloween, another seemingly successful harvest for South 47 Farm.


Parking Strip Garden Art October 22, 2008

In my walks around Seattle, I haven’t seen too much in the way of garden art out on the street. It’s understandable, since the risk of theft or damage is greater out there. Nobody wants to lose their favorite gnome or cast iron bird figurine! But every once in a while, gardeners decide to go for it and put something a little offbeat into their street plots.

One good rule of thumb seems to be not to spend too much on anything or have something too sentimentally valuable.

I liked this pairing of two pieces of thrift-store pottery, half buried in the soil.

Buried treasures

A Calder-esque spinning rainbow flower orbits while dangling from a low tree branch:

Calder-esque tree rainbow spinner

A trio of sculptures reminded me of the insanely marching brooms in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of “Fantasia:”

More wacky sculpture

From the same garden as the previous sculptures, an old engine part on a pedestal, balanced together with an ovoid stone:

Wacky sculpture

Another trio, this time a stack of turtles, on an old overturned stock pot (hm, I’m thinking a trip to the thrift store might be in the near future for me, to look for cheap finds for the garden).

Turtlepile sculpture

Same garden, another traditional garden ornament but made more whimsical with the addition of broken shards of painted pottery, to make it look more like a sun.

Pottery "sun"

No art? No problem. Nicely placed shells or stones can suffice. Here in Seattle, we have a lot of saltwater beaches that are great for shell collecting as long as you don’t expect to find anything too fancy.

Shell accent

What are your favorite ways to add art to the garden? Are you up for putting any of it out on the street? Or do you consider ornaments just a waste of space where more plants could go?