Friday Garden News: May 17

Keeping a garden journal is important if you want to do well by your garden and if you have literally anything else in your life to keep track of. I have been journaling by hand this year, and so far I’ve kept it up, but to be honest I find it cumbersome to write by hand and I end up eliding information. So let’s try writing a Friday blog post every week, detailing what has happened in the garden, for future reference.

Let’s see. Last Friday was May 10. What has happened since then.

A freak heat wave of 80+ temperatures broke. High temps are back around 60-ish and last night we had a good, solid rain shower. NWS says we got half an inch, but a bucket left out overnight had a solid two inches in it. Everything is soaked and happy, except the cerastium.


I am finally picking lettuce. Red Sails leaf lettuce, three romaine mix, and radicchio Bel Fiore make an attractive and tasty salad mix. I ended up with bark chips in this batch no matter how many times I rinsed. Be more careful picking in future.
The Rattlesnake beans are germinating, which means I’m nervous about the places they haven’t germinated yet. Potatoes are coming up everywhere: where I planted them this year, where I planted them last year, and in the raised beds filled with compost. There will be lots of potatoes to dig this summer. Three of the shallot plants bolted, probably due to that freak late frost that also burned the potato leaves. Apparently shallots bolting means the bulbs won’t develop further, so I dug them and used them to make risotto. Tasty.
Other things are growing on happily: tomatoes, artichokes, kale, fava beans, basil, dill, cilantro, and leeks. Parsley and pepper seedlings are coming along nicely. Now where the hell do I put them?
Time to sow zucchini and pumpkins soon, though the weather forecast isn’t particularly warm.


Cut flowers
I am now cutting sweet peas. I planted them last fall so the plants grew on all winter and are enormous. They did not climb their supports, but they’re so huge and tangled that they sort of prop each other up. All other cutting flowers that have been put into beds are growing nicely. Seeded bachelor’s buttons Classic Romantic Mix where the lettuce was.


Sunny borders
The hardy geraniums are blooming in the sunny borders, and columbines, and saxifrages (still). Tulips, daffodils, and Italian anemones are over. Salvias and peonies are budding, and the Festiva Maxima peonies I started two years ago are startlingly huge. They might be best in the mid-back. I moved the LHB’s globe thistles to the right-and-proper back, which made me feel better about everything. Dahlias are popping up. Divided and moved three non-blooming bearded iris from the terrace into the sunny borders. Cor, I really need to get started on the RHB. The weeds are taking over. Also the rose is huge.


Lots of symbolic effort there this week. Moved two peonies from the round corral into there. Planted eragrostis Wind Dancer, Verbena bonariensis, and tons of ammi along the end of the path. Planted a swath of globe thistles and another of verbascum Southern Charm. Planted the three Humpback Whale hostas in a pod under the laurel. The regular foxgloves are sprouting up ready to bud. The strawberry foxgloves are sulking.


Shade garden
Added three maidenhead ferns and three strawberry begonias. Dug up some handfuls of bigroot geranium to spread around. Deadheaded Narcissus thalia, pulmonaria, and brunnera. Mulched some more but not finished.
Things there are *so happy*. It gives me joy. I want another trio of lady ferns. The black snakeroot is finally happy, hooray, and sending up all kinds of new fronds.


The fig twig is dead. The Italian plum is finally leafing out. I hope this rainfall did it good. Found a source for Cox’s Orange Pippin trees: Stark Bros. Best pollinator is Cortland, so will get one of those too. In the fall.


Pastures and hedgerows
Hawthorn is in bloom, hooray. Also buttercups and the teeny purple-and-yellow frondy things. Hummingbirds have nested, and give me hell.


Pulmonaria, lungwort

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


Happy New Year


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.