Gardening where the sidewalk ends

Thorny Surprise March 1, 2010

Filed under: oddities,pruning — greenwalks @ 12:42 pm
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Conventional wisdom has it that we should prune back rose canes around the time daffodils bloom, right? Well, spring came early to Seattle this year and I am way behind the earth’s pushed-forward clock already. Finally got around to pruning back my sad neglected roses last week even though at least some daffodils have been doing their thing for a while now.

While I was hacking away, I found this one really weird cane that was covered in a huge profusion of deep-red thorns. The rest of the canes were nothing like this.

Freaky rose cane covered with thorns

Does anyone know what would cause the plant to produce something so odd? I almost left it, but it was 5′ tall and right in front of our living room windows, so I reluctantly chopped it down and put it in the yard waste with the rest of the clippings. Ah, the wacky and wonderful world of plants!


Weeping Tree January 26, 2010

Or maybe it is we that should be weeping, for this tree whose form is so, uh, unusual.

Strangely pruned birch tree

I am guessing that it is a weeping birch tree (Betula pendula youngii) that has had its branches clipped back uniformly to give it this bizarre shape. Kind of like a medieval monk’s tonsure, never the best look on humans.

Odd pruning jobs on parking strip plants are really standing out to me these days. People are really putting the “fashion don’t”s out there for us all to see!

In a recent post, there was a discussion in the comments field about topping vs. pollarding vs. just plain old hard pruning. I am no expert, but I believe the following photo shows the technique known as pollarding, which is frequently done to encourage new growth from particular trees and shrubs. As I have been wanting to try pollarding on my out-of-control red-twig dogwood, I was interested to see that these had already been pruned. Am I already late? Yikes, time to haul out the loppers and try to be brave, I guess!

Pollarded red-twig dogwoods in January

This BBC/UK page has a simple plant-by-plant pruning guide for shrubs that respond well to hard pruning, as well as a video of a guy with thick Scottish (?) accent taking his clippers to some dogwoods and willows to encourage new growth. I love how he says “it might seem crrrruel,” my sentiments exactly, which I guess is why I’m having such a hard time getting around to it!


Top That!?! January 9, 2010

Filed under: pruning,trees — greenwalks @ 9:04 pm
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No wait, please don’t! Topping is a popular but damaging method of controlling a tree’s height. Certified arborists and anyone with half an iota of aesthetic sense rail against this practice, and yet it persists. Why? Ignorance, most likely.

Sadly, these young-ish trees in my neighborhood, in no danger of growing into power lines or falling over onto anyone’s house, were recently topped (i.e. butchered), by “professional” gardeners no less. It makes me so sad and angry to see them when I pass by, to think of how nice they used to look and how ridiculous they seem now.

Tree pruning disaster

Trees for the parking strip need to be carefully chosen with the site’s limitations in mind. Of course, this is true of any site, and any tree. If you don’t want a tall tree, plant a dwarf variety! You can’t just hack off the top every few years and expect it to look, and be, fine.

Tree butchery


I will freely admit that I know next to nothing about correct pruning and always make a hash of anything I try to shape. For trees, I leave it to the pros, the real ones, certified arborists who really, truly know what they’re doing!

In other tree-pruning news, did you read this squib in the New Yorker about “citizen arborists”?


Should it Stay or Should it Go? May 24, 2009

Filed under: pruning,shrubs,structures — greenwalks @ 10:07 am
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We are attempting to wedge a 4′ X 4′ X 6′ high playhouse into our small backyard for my daughter to goof around in, and debating whether or not to completely take down or just limb up an uninspiring, very plain (probably?) shrubby dogwood or leave it to screen the neighbors during spring-summer-fall. During my deliberations, I was reminded of one of the Clash’s most famous ditties and changed it around a little…

Blog friends you gotta let me know
Should it stay or should it go?
If you say that it is mine
It’ll be here til the end of time
So you got to let know
Should it stay or should it go?

Place where playhouse will go

(Unknown dogwood(?) is in middle between white lilac on left and red twig dogwood on right)

Not always leaves leaves leaves
It’s just okay instead of trees
One day is grey, next is green
So if you want us not to be seen
Well come on and let me know
Should it stay or should it go?

UGL (Unidentified green leaf) - dogwood?

(Leaves are pretty ho-hum, I don’t even remember flowers or fall color, but it’s tall at the moment and is the only thing blocking the neighbors on that side.)

This indecision’s bugging me
If you dont want it, set me free
Exactly what it’s supposed to be
Don’t you know which plants even fit me?
Come on and let me know
Should I cool it or should I blow?

Dogwood leaf string?

(A Master Gardener taught me a trick once to test if a leaf is a dogwood – gently pull it apart and see if there are any “strings” holding the separated parts together. This one seems to qualify.)

Should it stay or should it go now?
If it goes there will be trouble
And if it stays it will be double
So you gotta let me know
Should it stay or should it go?

Limbed up dogwood

(I started by limbing it up, to see if the playhouse would even fit underneath. The bad pruning cuts would be shielded by the house and the lilac and dogwood would provide a kind of canopy for the little inhabitants.)

Deadline is Wednesday, since the house is arriving the next day. Cast your vote here in the comments! Honesty counts.

For a classic Clash concert video from 1982, click here. Joe Strummer, RIP.


Cousin Itt’s Bad Hairdo May 16, 2009

Filed under: grasses,pruning — greenwalks @ 5:00 pm
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(Update: I just realized that I got the name wrong yesterday – it’s Cousin Itt, not Mr. It!)

In addition to New Zealand Flax, Pampas grass is another plant that has been looking terrible all over Seattle after our recent harsh winter. I inherited a clump from the previous owner here, and although I have given it a wide berth in the past few years (those blade edges never fail to leave huge stinging welts on my arms if I get too close!), this year it was just too shaming to leave in its ruined state.

Ugh, Pampas grass hates winter

Doesn’t it look like Cousin Itt from the Addams Family? Maybe after he forgot to use shampoo for a few weeks and get a haircut for a couple odd years?

Lorene of Planted at Home, my new gardening guru, said that in its natural habitat (Southern South America), the died-back plants’ natural rehabilitation is succumbing to fire and then growing again from the ground. Although I briefly considered how fun it would be to torch this sucker, the fact that it’s planted against our 100 yr. old garage in a densely populated urban area made that kind of a no-go. I’d like to just get rid of the plant entirely, but it’s a bit precarious to even get up close to it, situated as it is at the top of a very unstable rockery, so the only other choice was to prune it back and hope it recovers.

Out came the clippers and a big garbage can was full in no time at all. Of course I forgot to wear long sleeves so the stinging welts were a fun side effect.

Pampas grass haircut leavings

Up close, the few semi-healthy green leaves have a nice variegation, and the interior of the clump has this wacky pin-curls thing going on.

Pampas grass interior

There were a few downed flower stalks, feathery plumes which I considered giving to my daughter for her fairy houses but then saw how much they shed and went everywhere, and decided to toss them into the yard waste along with the rest of the debris. Shh, don’t tell her!

Downed Pampas grass plumes

The haircut revealed a large area of totally matted quack grass, my nemesis in many parts of the garden. Maybe I should revisit the burning idea after all, I’m not sure what else is going to take care of this area. I would never have planted this plant on my own, and now I’m worried that I’m stuck with it. It’s an invasive disaster in California, where it is choking out native plants and becoming a real problem. Click here if you want to read about how easily it spreads there and how difficult it is to eradicate. If you thought blowing a dandelion was bad, imagine one that grows to be 8 ft. tall and 4 ft. wide from every seed!?!

Before and After photos are pretty much my favorite thing about reading garden blogs and books. There is something just so satisfying about seeing a successful renovation of a problem space, plant, or entire garden. Sadly, this will not qualify. In fact, it might belong in a pruning Hall of Shame! I’m embarrassed to show this, it looks something like the horror haircut I gave my daughter in the fall just in time for school picture day (she had to wear a hat). I am only showing it so you can have a good laugh at my expense.

Pampas grass "After," or maybe just "During"

I’m consoling myself with the fact that I had to stop before I felt done, and that I will try to go back and make it look better. Any suggestions? A little more off the top and sides? Give up and just put up a screen to hide my terrible job? Maybe I need to face facts and start leaving my pruning jobs to professionals…

Do you have any plants that you feel like you’re stuck with but don’t know what to do about?


Clematis Rehab May 12, 2009

Filed under: my garden,vines — greenwalks @ 8:54 am
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They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no!
Yes I turned brown, but please don’t cut me down, said a-no, no, no!

Sad clematis

I ain’t got the time, and if my mommy thinks I’m fine
She tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no!

The lady said ‘why do you think you’re here?
I said I got no idea

I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my leaves
’cause I always turn ’em brown like these.

Eek - Clematis armandii foliage not looking good

I don’t ever wanna be pruned again
I just ooh I just need these rocks as a friend
Ain’t gonna spend ten weeks growing again,
have everyone think I’m on the mend

Rockpile on clematis "feet" to cool it off

It’s not just my pride
It’s just ’til my sap has dried,

They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no!
Yes I turned brown, but please don’t cut me down, said a-no, no, no!

Clematis armandii, post rehab

OK, that was pretty silly. For the real (Amy Winehouse) thing, click here. Uncharacteriscially subdued/un-drunk performance, on Letterman, her first on US TV. Her hair actually looks like she’d combed it in the past couple of days! She does get a bit confused by Dave actually wanting to say hello and ask about her backup dancers, so maybe she wasn’t all there after all.

(Clematis rehab recommended by garden pro Lorene Edwards Forkner, whose blog, Planted at Home you should definitely check out if you haven’t already! She said to cut it back to the wood, which I just couldn’t bear to quite do, so we’ll see if it works with my badly executed pruning. She also thinks the plant dies back due to stress from having “hot feet” and suggested the rockpile at its base, which I hope will do the trick next year so I’m not always averting my eyes when I see this poor plant. One more year, that’s all I’m giving it. Then if it’s still sad, it’s getting the boot for sure!)


Blossom Time March 30, 2009

Spring in Seattle means many things – rain of course, more cyclists on the city’s bike paths, a plethora of flower bulbs adding color to the landscape and, my favorite of all, blossom time for the city’s multitude of flowering trees.

It seems like the first to bloom are normally the ornamental plums, but due to the longer and colder than usual winter, this year everything’s getting going at the same time. Plums, cherries and apples all seem to be bursting into bloom at once, so maybe the usually-later ones are playing catch-up with the slowpokes.

I pass this particular tree many times a week, and had always marveled at its odd shape. It’s a small flowering cherry currently covered with ginormous blossoms. I don’t think it’s been well cared for in a while, since it has a lot of suckers (all flowering!) near the base. But even the strangest pruning can almost be redeemed by masses of fragrant blooms. I wish I could post these in Smell-O-Vision!

Flowering cherry

The Prius has become the car of Seattle (replacing the Volvo 240 – what can I say, I’m behind the times, I still have one of those but no hybrid yet), so I left it in the shot to epitomize this part of the world in spring – a parking strip flowering tree and a PC vehicle. What could be more Seattle? I guess I could have posed someone there with an REI fleece vest on, holding a latte. That might have been a bit too much, though.

Cherry tree & black Prius, how Seattle

What most signifies spring to you?


Hideous Hack Job November 16, 2008

The little family and I took a quick trip up to Bainbridge Island on Tuesday, since nobody had to go to school or work that day. We missed a bunch of ferries in the morning due to general chaos and inability to get out of the house, and needed to get back on the early side, so only ended up with a few hours to spend actually on the island.

Bainbridge is a 35 minute ferry trip (once you’re actually on the ferry – you can spend at least that long, as we did, waiting in line to board, but that can be kind of relaxing if you don’t get too steamed for having arrived just as the previous boat was pulling away from the dock) from Seattle, and many of its inhabitants make the daily round-trip from the island to work in the city. It still contains many wooded areas and one of the area’s most famous botanical gardens, the Bloedel Reserve. I had a feeling we wouldn’t have time to visit BLoedel this trip, and it requires a reservation in any case, so it will have to wait for another time.

Instead we spent most of our time at the island’s tiny but fun Kids’ Discovery Museum,¬†which had an exhibit based on the “Arthur” children’s book series, plus a table full of craft supplies for making hand-tracing turkey pictures. What five year old could resist that?

There aren’t a whole lot of parking strips on Bainbridge, but I was kind of excited to see one as we were leaving the museum.

Pruning hack job IV

Then I got a little closer, and saw what has got to be the absolute worst pruning hack job I have ever witnessed.

Pruning hack job III

Ouch. But wait, there’s more! Take that, red twig dogwood:

Pruning hack job I

And that, royal purple smoke bush!

Pruning hack job II

It was truly painful to see. Not sure if the diner these were in front of requested the horrible pruning work in order to be more visible, you’d think their neon-blue paint job would do the trick. In any case, there should be a law against such plant-deforming atrocities! I wonder if any of them will even survive? I’m not the most expert pruner, but I’ve never done anything that ugly. Oh, the horror, the horror!

On an unrelated note, the Blackbird Bakery is a must-visit stop if you ever end up on Bainbridge. It’s right on the main street, Winslow Way, makes fabulous soups and incredible baked goods, and if you get a seat in the window you can learn a lot about island life. My daughter insisted on getting an elaborately decorated cookie which looked a lot like a certain garden nemesis of mine…

Squirrel cookie

Yes dear, of course it’s fine to bite the head off first!


Dr. Seuss Trees September 18, 2008

The City of Seattle has a program where neighbors can band together and request a set of free trees for planting in the parking strip, from a list provided by the city. It’s a great way to green up the block and increase the density of the urban forest.

A street several blocks from my house had obviously done this, but perhaps they either didn’t get the city’s help with pruning the trees or they did it themselves with poor results, because they ended up looking like this:

Crazy tree

The trees are so tall and spindly, with the branches so oddly spaced and shaped, that they provide no shade and are just, well, kind of weird-looking. Seattle is home to a great organization, Plant Amnesty, which tries to raise community awareness about proper pruning, recommends certifited arborists, and otherwise educates tree stewards about proper care methods for keeping trees healthy and well-shaped. A quick visit to their site is worth it if only to see their “Bad Pruning Gallery,” truly a chamber of horrors.

I can see why this one was on the city’s list – its twirlybird seeds are really something, turning pinkish now.


Going from the city’s list of approved small trees to a few online searches, I’m going to guess that this is acer grinnata, or Amur maple. If that’s the case, it should have some pretty amazing red foliage later in the fall. It’s too bad the trees weren’t treated better when they were young – their natural shape is more shrub-like, but with proper early pruning they can grow upright without looking quite so much like they belong in an illustration from “Green Eggs and Ham.”


Buddleia Arch September 16, 2008

I had the pleasure of walking under this lovely buddleia (butterfly bush) arch the other day.

Buddleia arch

It doesn’t completely hide the ugly power pole it grows next to, but it does a lot to improve that part of the street, where there isn’t much in the way of trees or anything too interesting growing in the parking strip. I didn’t see any actual butterflies visiting it at the moment, but I’m sure they love it.

Buddleia is considered invasive in some regions, including, alas, mine (Seattle), but we have one in the backyard anyway. I’ve only seen one seedling jump clear, so I hope it’s not too much of a menace. The simple sweetness of its fragrance alone is enough for me to risk being an eco-crumb, not to mention how happy it makes the bees and hummingbirds as well as the butterflies.

For more information about cultivating and pruning this very forgiving shrub, click here. This map shows states where the plant has escaped from gardens and is causing trouble.