Pulmonaria, lungwort

Time to celebrate another Very Good Garden Plant: pulmonaria, aka lungwort.

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Pulmonaria growing in my garden in Illinois

Named for the spotted leaves that, I suppose, resemble the alveoli in lung tissue, or perhaps because it was used as a folk remedy for chest ailments (don’t quote me on that, I’m just speculating!), lungwort is a tough plant that, so far as I can tell, will take just about any treatment you throw at it and look great in the bargain.

They’re small plants, topping out at maybe a foot tall and 18″ across. In a harsh winter they will hide underground; in a mild winter their foliage will persist. In early spring they throw out a few new leaves and a lot of flowering stalks topped with numerous tiny, bell-shaped flowers that change from pink to blue as they mature. There are varieties that range from very palest pink and blue to rich and electric.

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A pale pulmonaria in my garden in Illinois

After the flowers fade the stalks will droop. This is the time to cut them off–as well as any old foliage–before the plant puts out its new summer foliage. Then you just let it be, spotty in all its glory, with maybe a feed and a mulch to say ‘thank you’ until next year.

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The foliage of a pulmonaria start in early spring, in my garden in western Washington

They will tolerate a wide range of conditions. I grew them in my Zone 5 garden in Illinois and I grow them in my Zone 8 garden here in the Puget Sound area. I’ve grown them in full sun and mostly shade. Good soil and extremely poor root-ridden soil. So far as I can tell there are only two things that really bother them.

The first is to be too cold. Our last winter in Illinois there was a night that went down to -17F. That killed my pulmonaria (and several other things, too). The second is to get too dry. Then their leaves will lay flat and they’ll look pathetic, but a watering will bring them back to life.

The best thing about pulmonaria, though, is that it propagates from root cuttings. That means that if you’re on a tight budget, or if you’re just cheap like me, you really only need to buy (or be given) a single plant. After that you’re golden.

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Flowers on a pulmonaria start (transplanted the previous fall) in my garden in western Washington

You procure the plant in the spring and put it in a favorable place. Let it grow over the summer. In the fall, about a month before frost, dig it up and plant it somewhere else. Don’t fill in the hole left behind.

Next year, that hole will become a veritable cornucopia of pulmonaria starts, as each root fragment left behind sprouts into its own plant. Let them develop a healthy leaf or two, then plant them out where you want them. In a few weeks there will be more. In fact, it’ll be hard to ever fully get rid of them…but from my point of view, why would you want to?

I have a difficult border in my shade garden under a row of enormous black pines. I’m filling up the front of it with pulmonaria starts. In a year or two I’ll have a solid hedge of pink and blue flowers in the spring, and pretty spotted foliage all summer. Win.

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Siberian iris

Everyone loves Dutch iris, but I’d like to draw your attention to their smaller, humbler, but undeniably more useful cousins, the Siberian iris.

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Bagged Siberian iris roots for cheap. They start well this way

I’ve grown Iris siberica in both USDA zone 5 (central Illinois) and USDA zone 8 (Puget Sound area). They survived in both places, though their site in Illinois was hot, dry, and had poor soil. In that location, while their foliage came up, they didn’t bloom. Here on the shores of Puget Sound, in a bed of amended topsoil with clay beneath, they bloom like bonkers. This leads me to conclude that, while they’re indifferent to winter cold and summer heat, they do need some feeding to be happy.

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Two colors of blooms in early June

The primary virtue of everything in my sunny perennial borders is that it produces gorgeous flowers, which Siberian iris undoubtedly does. They’re available in shades of blue, purple, yellow and white. Siberian iris provides a secondary and almost larger benefit, though, in its persistent foliage. The leaves are green and strappy, somewhat above knee height, and persist through the summer until cold temperatures turn them golden. Eventually they collapse onto the ground and then should be cleaned up, but in the meantime, they provide a spectacular backdrop for other things and have a knack for filling in gaps.

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The grassy green foliage persists throughout the growing season, making a good backdrop for other plants. Second-year plant seen here on the far right

Every Siberian iris I have was grown from a bagged root. Above in this post were some I bought at my local major retailer. This was the first time I’ve seen Siberian iris roots there though, and I do pay attention, so if you don’t see them don’t be distressed. Turn to online sources. My bagged-root source of choice is Bulbs Direct, which has the virtue of being cheap and offering a large selection. Their drawbacks are that they have a confined sales season, some roots arrive dead and growing mold, and they have persistent problems with correctly labeling the varieties of their plants. That’s how I ended up with the two shades of purple shown above. For the price they’re asking I’m more than willing to swallow these failings, though, and I’ve always received prompt and friendly replies to inquiries.

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Golden Siberian iris foliage playing backdrop to spent sedum heads in early November

Once established in a happy place Siberian iris is almost care-free. As I said the foliage will need to be cut short after it has collapsed in late fall or early winter; some other perennials stay upright and have winter interest but these just turn into a soggy mess. Do manure them in the fall and mulch them in the spring, just like you would anything else (riiiiight?). Other than that, once they’re in place, don’t mess with them. They dislike being moved and will probably sulk the next year. They’re far less prone to disease than Dutch iris and far less picky about their spot than some of the water-loving irises, though, and they are the only iris Piet Oudolf recommends for naturalistic planting.

Enjoy!

Snow in the desert

We visited my parents in Albuquerque over Christmas. Us coming from the Pacific Northwest, and all of us lately of the Midwest, we sort of expect Albuquerque to be a sunny, precipitation-free haven.

It didn’t work that way this year. Pretty pictures, tho, and maybe the only snow we’ll see this year, since there isn’t a single freezing temperature in our ten-day forecast.

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Happy New Year

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Happy New Year from January 1, that misty, numinous stretch between Yule and Imbolc, when the merrymaking is over and it’s time to rest, and contemplate, and plan.

I am getting my garden seed orders together. Earlier than usual, but then, the catalogues started arriving in December, so I took it as a sign. As you know from earlier entries I’ve had things pretty well planned since August anyway.

Here’s wishing good health to you, good fortune, continuing throughout the year, and that 2019 may be better than its predecessor. Cheers!

Bringing in the dahlias

Last night the temperature dipped to the mid-30s, so I’m glad I had the dahlias safely tucked away for the winter.

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Dahlias are a delightful flower that is ubiquitous around here (USDA grow zone 7-8ish) but unheard-of back in Indiana and Illinois, where I learned how to garden (USDA grow zone 5.) This is both because frozen ground in the winter will kill them and because they won’t bloom and thrive in intense summer heat. Here in the PNW, though, the major danger to them is rotting in the wet winter soil.

Last year I joined a local dahlia society to learn how to grow and care for them. A lot of those people overwinter their tubers and generally have good results by doing so; you need to make sure they’re in a well-draining place, either in amended soil or a raised bed, and you’re mostly good to go. The occasional cold winter or long, cold, wet spring (hello 2017…) will kill some, but for the work saved, to the people who grow hundreds, it’s worth the risk.

I only have a few and I have tender feelings about some of my varieties, though, so this year I dug mine.

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The first step to putting them away in the winter is to cut back the foliage to 4-6″ of stem. Yes, it’s sad, I know. You can wait until frost has destroyed the foliage if you want to. Compost the foliage and think of how much good it’ll do the plants next year.

At this point, decide whether you’ll want to divide your clumps of tubers or not. Like potatoes, a dahlia tuber will create many new dahlia tubers during the growing season. Each tuber is capable of producing a new plant, though leaving clumps alone for a few years will create a big mass that grows a bushlike plant rather than a single, tall one. It’s up to you.

If you’re going to divide, you should leave the tuber in the ground for a week or so after cutting the foliage, to let the tubers grow “eyes.” The eyes will turn into flowering stalks in the spring, and without at least one still attached, a tuber won’t grow. So if you’re dividing you need to be able to see them, and to see them the dahlias need another week in the ground to grow them.

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If you aren’t dividing, the way I’m not, then you can instantly dig your tubers up. Use a fork and start 10-12″ away from the stalk to avoid spearing tubers. Gently prise the soil up, then pull the mass of tubers free (they look so much like the mandrake roots from Harry Potter, it makes me laugh) and spray them clean with the hose. Now lay them out somewhere peaceful and not too sunny to dry. They can dry for up to a week.

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A freshly-dug mass of tubers. Do you have your earmuffs on?

Once they’re a little dry, you need to move them into conditions that provide three things:

1. Darkness
2. Enough warmth that they won’t freeze
3. Something to prevent them from drying out completely

Monty Don of Gardener’s World packs his around with spent compost and stores them in a shed. In my dahlia society we put them in trash bags full of cedar shavings (the kind used in kennels), then into styrofoam coolers, which people stored in basements, crawlspaces, garages, and sheds.

Mine are spending the winter in the potting shed.

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There is a possibility of fungal activity rotting your tubers over the winter. There are two things you can do to minimize this risk:

1. Trim off all excess material, like the tiny trailing roots and any damaged tubers. The damaged ones you see above simply split when they were pulled because it had rained recently and they were so full of moisture. It’s okay; there are other, whole tubers on the bunch; but you don’t want the damaged ones to stay because they can only rot. Cut them off.

2. Add a fungicide to the cedar shavings. I put a couple tablespoons of powdered sulfur fungicide in each of my bags and shook it around before I put the tubers in.

Having taken these precautions, you’ve done just about all that can be done to prevent fungal rot. If you really love your dahlias, check them once or twice over the winter, and if you see powdery black mildew cut off the affected parts and store in fresh substrate. When fungus does take hold it tends to affect all the tubers in the same bag, so consider spreading your tubers out into multiple bags, just to hedge your bets.

And that’s it. Tubers are tucked away for the winter. Congratulations!

Darning

Into every sock knitter’s life comes the moment of reckoning.

You’ve knitted your socks.
You’ve worn your socks.
You’ve loved your socks.
You’ve walked holes in your socks.
Now you ought to darn your socks.

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Darning isn’t as romantic as knitting a new sock wholecloth, but it’s far more practical. A sock takes about…eh…well, several hours to knit, anyway. It takes less than an hour to do even an extensive darning job. The places socks wear out mostly don’t show when you have your shoes on, and anyway, you should wear your darned patches with pride. Do them in contrasting yarn. Own the capitalist shills who think you should toss your socks when they have holes. You’re PRACTICAL.

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There are a lot of darning tutorials online, so I’ll let you choose the one that works best for you. MAKE DO AND MEND 4-EVAH.

Cold-weather season

It’s upon us: cold weather. The overnight temperature will dip into the 30s sometime next week, and for the past several days we’ve had severe fog in the mornings. Back in the Midwest it would have caused a two-hour school delay; here in the PNW there would never be a schoolday that started on time if they did that. Fog is an accepted hazard.

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I call it “cold weather season” because it is colder, though positively mild by Midwestern standards. It’s a damp cold, though. This area is a major timber area, and the PNW forest grows with such vigor that anyone who owns land ends up with lots of brush to burn, so nearly everyone has either a straight-up wood stove or a pellet stove, to drive off the foggy damp.

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Calcifer

Dew is persistently on the grass, too, so waterproof footwear is absolutely necessary. What’s less necessary than I anticipated are raincoats. Sure if you’re hiking in the rainforest you’ll want one, or combing a beach for agates, or digging clams or picking up oysters. But for everyday errands you just put up with the rain. You get wet, then you dry off. You stop noticing it.

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I opened the first of this year’s jars of home-canned plums to put on oatmeal for breakfast. This is one of my favorite parts of winter: plums in oatmeal (with milk). These plums are unfortunately pretty tart. Next year I’ll know better, wait until July or even August to buy my plums, so they’re melting-sweet. I canned these with the pits, on the advice of Alice Waters’ wonderful book My Pantry.

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Winter means changes in the animals, too. This is the time of year that salmon are running in the streams. Out in the wilder places, bears are fattening up for the winter on them. In the less-wild places they got fat over the summer by raiding camp sites. A cougar–apparently not very hungry–was spotted hanging out near a local elementary school, and had to be trapped and relocated.

But for us on our little plot of land, the coyotes and raccoons are persistent, and the birds fluctuate. Around this time of year woodpeckers attack our buildings’ cedar siding, blackbirds migrate through, the juncos become sociable, and the cat gets really interested in what’s going on outdoors.

This morning while I was dressing a mourning dove landed on the windowsill and tapped on the glass. It was looking right in at me. When I moved closer it flew away. Clearly a wizard summoning me on an adventure? I don’t know. I’m a hobbit at heart and I’m staying home.

Recipe: Serious chicken noodle stew

I’ve never had a homemade chicken broth that did anything special for me, so in our house we use Knorr chicken powder. I’m saying this to give you a chance to stop reading.

Okay. As you might have surmised, chicken noodle soup isn’t my very favorite soup in the world, but sometimes a chilly autumn evening just calls for it. That’s when I make something like this: as much stew as soup, rich, flavorsome, not watery thankyouverymuch.

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Put 8 cups water in your soup pot. Put 3 frozen chicken breasts in it and turn the heat on high while you go about your other business. When it starts to boil, turn it down to medium.

While that’s happening, medium-dice one large or two smallish yellow onions, two carrots, and half a celery heart. Put it in a large skillet with 1T butter and 1T vegetable oil, and sautee. Add 2 cloves minced garlic toward the end, when the vegetables are nice and brown. Turn off the heat on the skillet.

Your chicken breasts will be mostly-cooked by now. They don’t need to be completely cooked. Take them out of the soup pot, use two forks to shred them into bite-size pieces, and return them to the pot. Add half a bag of Kluski egg noodles and 3T Knorr chicken powder. Bring back to boil. Cook for about ten minutes, until the noodles are nearly ready.

Stir 3T flour into the vegetables, so they’re coated. Add them to the soup pot. Stir and boil until broth thickens, a couple of minutes. Add a handful of chopped fresh parsley and enjoy.

Shade garden, grass garden

That’s it. The shade garden is in. There are still empty spots, but that’s because I’m trying some things from seed next year (lots of Japanese anemones, for example). Here’s a picture of it all planted up. Isn’t it…um…something?

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Yeah, no. It looks like something the cat dragged in. Here is the game plan, though:

1. Everything is now tucked in place for our “winter,” which I put in quotes because I’m from the Midwest. “Winter” here actually means a little light frost overnight, days in the mid-40s, and tons of rain. Winter is a season of growth here, for roots at least. It’s the dry summer that is the dormant season. So, all these plants, lots of which I’ve already had for a winter or two, will spend the next six months getting soaked, growing their roots, and eating up all the manure/compost blend I’ve just fed them.

2. Spring will come and they will jump back to life with bigger, fresher foliage than you see here.

3. I will then mulch the bejeezus out of both the middle and the border, and let me tell you, there aren’t many sins that mulch doesn’t fix. It looks sharp, it suppresses weeds, and it keeps roots moist so plants are happier during the bone-dry summer.

Okay. So that’s done for now. Next up: the grass garden.

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And you thought the shade garden looked hopeless.

This terraced area was filled with overgrown laurels and hypericum when we bought the place. The laurels were diseased and had to go; the hypericum bloomed with an incredibly thick flush of YELLOW flowers so I killed it with extreme prejudice. Now I have to fill in with something else.

The plan is to fill it with mostly-perennials, and to go heavy on ornamental grasses. Grass gardens, formerly firmly associated with the ’70s in my mind, are back in fashion, and I have to admit that there are lots of lovely ornamental grasses available.

The strategy is to peg down a sinuous path through the area, then proceed with manuring and planting as in the shade garden. Just now I don’t have that many plants to put in–just a few specimen grasses and some eupatorium I bought on fall clearance. Overall, my strategy for the grass garden is to leave more space rather than less between things. When I planted the sunny perennial borders I didn’t want to see the ground when they were grown tall, and while it was a nice idea, there are mechanical problems. How do you weed when you can’t see the ground? How do you mulch? And what happens when plants get a lot bigger than you expected?

It’s a problem. So, more space rather than less in this area.

The plants I already own for this area are:

Pennisetum Karly Rose x5
Eupatorium rugosm x3
Salvia spathacea x1
Lysimachia atropurpurea x1
Melinus nerringlumis x1
Schizachyrium Blue Paradise x1
Muhlenbergia Pink Cloud x1
Pennisetum foxtrot x1
Miscanthus graziella x1

If you’d like to tell me that any of these won’t work in the space, feel free, though if you’re right I’ll find it out anyway.

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Beyond these actual living plants that need to be tucked in ASAP, I have seeds for the following:

Verbena bonariensis
Ammi Dara
Briza subaristata
Carex testacea
Eragrostis elliottii Wind Dancer
Melica altissima atropurpurea
Stipa calamagrostis
Stipa tenuifolia
Thalictrum delavayi
Eupatorium canabinum
Cow parsley Raven’s Wing
Angelica sylvestris Ebony
Dierama

And, as you see in the photograph, I really want some sanguisorba (which just isn’t carried in the Lower 48, though it’s popular in Alaska), chocolate cosmos (Plant World Seeds claims to have seeds of a fertile strain…?), Prairie Smoke geum (seeds are gettable, plants might not be), and verbascum Southern Charm which I managed from seed this year, so why not again.

Phew. Wish me luck.