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.

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?


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.


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.


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

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.

Potting shed

Three and a half years ago my husband and I viewed this property with our real estate agent. He had been hesitant to show it to us; “it has a funny floor plan” he said. The former owners’ one-eyed border collie was eager to show us around, though. There was a light mizzle going on. The neighbors’ turkeys gobbled and one of their horses neighed. The place was somewhat shabby, but rambling and generous and it had outbuildings, man.

“I like it here,” I said.

One of the outbuildings is a small barn with a covered patio. The barn is divided into two halves, one with a dirt floor and one with a concrete floor. Clearly this is our garden shed, right, and clearly the half with a concrete floor is the potting shed, right? Right.


My in-laws are responsible for finally getting it organized, though. It had been half full of spare lumber, and while I’d spent this season with my potting table set up, the shelves weren’t so my pot collection sprawled all over the patio–as you see here.

But let’s ignore that and see how it looks now.

Good luck at the threshold

Nice and clean, with a nice set of enormous industrial shelves. Plenty of space to store all those pots once I have them cleaned and sorted. I hope.

My potting table is a plastic-topped folding table set up on bed risers. This puts it at a comfortable height to work while standing, and is, in theory, easy to clean. I obviously haven’t tested that theory yet tho.

The shelves certainly look nice now, while I only have them loaded with the uniform stuff.

One interesting aspect of this barn is that it apparently had power and water at one point. There’s still a hose point on the patio outside, but look: someone has shut off another water line right here.


And if you look up on both sides of this barn, you see light fixtures. The power currently isn’t on, but the septic install guys uncovered the power line while they were digging, so fingers crossed we can maybe get this place electrified again one day. It would be lovely to have grow lights for seed starting out there.


The shade garden

Last summer I got a wild hare to till up an area of ailing grass between our house and a row of enormous black pines and turn it into a shade garden.

Real gardeners will have already seen the flaw in this plan: the black pines. In the time since I have also discovered that the dirt back there is useless–I mean, even grass wouldn’t grow well. But by the time I knew this I already had a lot of lovely plants, so I’m going ahead full steam. I am going to make a shade garden happen.

This summer we wanted to install septic service to our workshop/guest cottage, a 1200 square foot building that is currently without water service. We had an engineer come out in April and he determined that a septic line would have to be trenched right through my nascent shade garden. Bollocks.

So I moved everything out of it, and that’s why I’m just now getting around to planting it up. The pipe has been installed, and inspected, and covered up, and the garden is well and truly mine again (and this time, the soil has been well turned up and aerated, at least.)

A tour of the area


The shade garden is approached by a few steps up from our driveway and gravel parking area. It is continuous with what I call the “terrace garden” or “driveway garden.” It’s planted up with a few things right now, but I plan to turn it into a grass garden next summer.


Here we are at the top of the steps. On the other side of the fence are the black pines. In the corner is the sole remaining laurel–the terrace garden used to be full of them, but they were overgrown and unhealthy, so we removed all but this one.


And here we are looking down the length of the shade garden from the same vantage point. This end of the garden is the “shady end.” A narrow bar of direct sunlight moves across it in the afternoon; other than that, it’s full shade.


And here is the length of the shade garden viewed from the other end, which I call the “sunny end.” This end receives several hours of direct sunlight. True shade plants suffer here.

And finally, here is a plot of the area:


I intend to put a circular patio in the middle of it, secondly because it will be nice to have a place for some chairs, but primarily because I need a safe place to drag the hose through for watering. The area is enormous–47′ feet long, if memory serves?–so this is necessary. For the time being the patio and paths will just be weed barrier tacked down by border edging, but in the future I will lay pavers.

So, now for the planting.

The Border

I’ve had most things heeled in in the border under the pines. It is dry there because the pines stop moisture from falling and their roots suck up what does fall. The soil is also ferociously ericacious–it consists of the pines’ fallen and composted needles, which makes it acidic and low-nutrition. There are precious few plants that will cope with it. Even natives like bunchberry and deer ferns struggle. The three plants that do fine in it, I’ve found, are


So that’s what I’m leaving in the border. I have about a gazillion hostas to work with; a few nice specimens (I like blues, greens, and whites; my favorites are Blue Ivory and Lakeside Paisley Print) but mostly sieboldiana and Patriot, which my local superstore sells as bagged roots in the spring. I will fill in the whole back of the border with these and front it with my few specimens of brunnera and as many pulmonaria as I can propagate.

Pulmonaria is a great plant, by the way. The foliage always looks good, the springtime flowers are striking, and it propagates by root cuttings, which means you get more of them by moving the ones you have once a year. The plant will quickly establish wherever you put it, and new plants will spring up in the hole you left behind.

At the very shady end of it I also have a Japanese aralia established and seemingly happy, so I will leave it, and two bleeding heart “Alba”s which have already died back for the season, so I don’t know where they are and can’t move them. C’est la vie.

The Sunny End

This end has something very close to full sun. Maybe not six hours a day, but several. I have three miniature box which I’ll plant along the edge and hope to eventually trim into box balls. I have a collection of heuchera which will go here, too, and scads of columbine “Barlow” mix. Other than that, I have to consider. This is not the inspired end of the garden, though the columbines will be lovely in spring.

Columbines are an excellent garden flower, by the way. If they’re happy–which it seems to me they are so long as they have good organic matter to get their roots into–their flowering spikes will be tall, almost at eye-level, so you can’t miss them. Once the flowers fade you trim the spikes off and you’re left with bushy greenery, about knee-high, that lasts all summer. They’re really useful for filling out planting schemes and easy to grow from seed. Highly recommended.

The Shady End

This is the inspired end. A lot of plants I have Special Feelings about go here. Among them:

-podophyllum Spotty Dotty, two specimens right now, maybe more later
-red lady ferns
-deer ferns
-several varieties of purple clover
-shamrocks in green, purple, and Iron Cross
-variegated wild ginger
-trilliums and jack-in-the-pulpits
-black snakeroot, which I’ve never been able to make happy before, fingers crossed
-rodgersia Bronze Peacock


I planted bulbs in the shade garden last autumn and they performed dismally. Because I’m amending the soil now I hope they’ll do better. If they don’t, I’ll give up on bulbs in this area. Among the ones I’m trying are:

-muscari in pastel colors
-snake’s-head fritillaries, which didn’t grow AT ALL last year
-leucojum or Giant Snowflake

Soil Amendment

This is the crucial thing. The soil that’s there is rocky and, now at the end of summer, dusty. As I plant I’m working in a 1 cubic foot bag of manure/compost blend for every trio of plants. In the spring I’ll add blood fish and bone meal, then a really heavy bark mulch. In the autumn I’ll put on more manure/compost. If I keep up this regimen, I hope to eventually have decent soil in this area.

The climate here in the Puget Sound region is somewhat difficult, by the way. The ground rarely freezes in winter and there’s no sustained extreme heat in the summer, but we’re very wet in the winter and very dry in the summer. We average 44″ of precipitation per year, about 90% of which happens in 50% of the year. In the summer we regularly go 90 days with less than a quarter inch of precipitation, often much less, sometimes none at all. This means that plants which want to drown and rot will do it in the winter, while plants that don’t want to dry out ever need constant tending in the summer.

We’ll see where it goes. We’ll see.