TYPICALLY, FOR FIVE DAYS in deep midwinter, housebound Pacific Northwest gardeners enter into a collective spring where no one is a stranger. This year, though, we’re facing February without our beloved Northwest Flower & Garden Festival; it’s a winter without dazzling display gardens and fragrant blossoms — no marketplace!
Also, alas, no “Garden Jeopardy.” (What is: “Exactly what you’re picturing”? — that fun and funny festival staple wherein local plant experts try to answer garden questions in the usual “Jeopardy” format.) So, I decided to reach out to my fellow “Garden Jeopardy” team members, a learned-if-dorky crew, for some gardening wit and wisdom to tide us over.
Ciscoe Morris is our region’s favorite gardener; Mary Flewelling Morris is his partner in life, travel and all things gardening. “Garden Jeopardy” is the brainchild of this dynamic duo. She comes up with 12 categories and more than 60 brilliant questions. (I only wish I had better answers!) He serves as emcee and herds us horticultural cats.
When they’re not throwing down the botanical gauntlet, you’ll find the Morris gardeners tending their remarkable home landscape. A plant collector who loves searching out rare plants, Ciscoe claims “little to no” marital resistance to him paying exorbitant prices for exotic plants from mail-order nurseries. His secret? Have the plant delivered to a friend’s house. “Just make sure the bill doesn’t accidentally show up at home,” he says. “Marriage counseling is getting so expensive!” As for Mary’s approach to tandem gardening, she replies, “Check back in a few years. I haven’t figured it out yet.”
Marianne Binetti is a beloved garden columnist with a colorful personality (binettigarden.com). As host of “Container Wars,” a daily festival crowd favorite, Binetti brings design wizards together to face off in a “friendly” competition while demonstrating tips and tricks for creating beautiful container plantings.
Binetti loves how containers add color to the landscape and show off special plants. A pair of deep blue pots on her front porch looks good even when “stuffed with evergreen pruning crumbs and bare branches in the winter,” she claims. And nobody even noticed ‘June’, one of Binetti’s favorite hostas, with yellow and green striped foliage, until she potted it up and placed the container on a pedestal. “Presto!” she enthuses. “Even family members that ignore my garden commented on my lovely hosta.”
When it comes to planting containers in rainy Western Washington, Binetti relies on fast-draining potting soil that’s light on bark and compost. “Potting soil that holds too much moisture can rot the roots of container plants,” she says. Osmocote “pot shots,” premeasured doses of slow-release fertilizer that last for six months, make fertilizing “practically foolproof for beginning gardeners or for people like me that travel a lot.”
Sue Goetz is a designer (thecreativegardener.com) whose heart is in the herb garden; she has three books on the topic, including her latest from Cool Springs Press, “Complete Container Herb Gardening.” A popular presenter on the DIY stage, Goetz recommends hardy herbs that are easy-to-grow and generous — even for herb-garden newbies. “For culinary purposes, start with chives and parsley,” she advises. “Calendula and lavender are good for natural healing and skin care.”
When asked to name her favorite multipurpose herb, Goetz praises deer-resistant, pollinator-attracting lavender for its beauty and usefulness, with edible flowers, relaxing aromatherapy benefits and healing properties for skin care.
When it comes to harvesting, Goetz says, “Focus on what part of the plant you want to use.” Leafy herbs, like mint, basil and sage, are most flavorful just before the plant begins to flower — Goetz removes flowers to prolong harvesting. Pick woody herbs, like sage and rosemary, from young green stems. Flowers, like calendula, lavender and roses, are best harvested just before the petals open.
Karen Chapman (lejardinetdesigns.com), another crowd favorite on the NWF&G lecture stage, is an accomplished garden designer who specializes in solving garden challenges. Her latest book from Timber Press, “Deer-Resistant Design,” offers a peaceable-kingdom approach to gardening with wildlife.
I asked Chapman whether it’s even possible to garden with deer. “Well, they’re not very good at holding a trowel, but [they] could possibly be trained for easy pruning work,” she quips. Seriously, though. Chapman urges gardeners to adjust their expectations; no plant is deer-proof. Your best bet at outwitting the creatures is to observe how they move through the garden and avoid planting “deer caviar” in those areas. Chapman’s top three go-to deer-resistant plants for PNW gardens include perennials Arkansas blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii) and herbaceous peonies (Paeonia), along with Blue Star juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’), a low-growing conifer. Install a tall, dense hedge of thorny shrubs to protect more delectable plantings and reroute deer traffic.
If an imposing hedge isn’t part of your vision for the garden, Chapman recommends a “boing-boing” fence, like the one she erected around her vegetable garden, consisting of two 5-foot-tall transparent fences constructed from hogwire panels, spaced 5 feet apart. “Deer don’t like to jump when they can’t see to land safely,” she says. While deer could easily bound (boing) over a single fence, “They can’t ‘boing-boing’ over my double fence.”
Greg Butler is a designer, educator and one very entertaining gardener. As owner of Design of the Times, Butler offers clients beautiful, wildlife-friendly gardens that don’t rely on “synthetic tomfoolery” for their success. Last year, folks flocked to Butler’s lecture “Bling on the Wing,” on gardening for hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds like flowers; everyone knows that. However, according to Butler, up to 50% of a hummingbird’s diet consists of insects. “Don’t use insecticides,” he admonishes. “Ever.” Butler suggests planting a wide variety of plants to attract a wide variety of insects. “The hummers will love you. Your nurseryman will love you. Sometimes your spouse will even love you,” he says. “But mostly, they’ll just tell you to stop spending all your money on plants.”
Did you know hummingbirds use spider webs to bind their nests together? “Be kind to arachnids,” Butler advises. “And be careful when you prune; hummingbird nests are tiny and well-camouflaged.” Whether designing for hummers or humans, Butler includes Camellia sasanqua, Grevillea victoriae, Mahonia, and other winter-flowering trees and shrubs that offer nectar until spring blooms arrive.
Jim Fox is a plant geek of the highest botanical order. As a longtime nursery professional with Wells Medina Nursery, Fox is a font of knowledge, which he freely shares with customers. Having friendly, knowledgeable nursery staff you can turn to for answers and straight talk is priceless.
Leave it to a nurseryman to see plants that most of us overlook, like winter-flowering bulbs.
“Number one is Galanthus,” Fox offers. While most snowdrops bloom in February and March, by choosing the right varieties, you can have them in bloom “from Thanksgiving to Tax Day.” Fox admits you’ll have to do some searching, but he offers the following tips for tracking plants down: Most nurseries stock flats of the giant snowdrop (G. elwesii) in February, when they’re in bloom. If you find plants with spent blooms, those are more likely to be bulbs that bloom beginning in late fall. Plants with flower stems tight to the bulb will flower in early to mid-March. Check the label and do your homework, and you, too, can have snowdrops all winter.
On perhaps a more practical note, I ask Fox for advice on how we all can be more successful with our nursery purchases. “Don’t bury a plant too deep or plant it in a place it can’t grow well, even if you want it to grow there,” he says. This guy knows his audience.
Irrigation is key to getting perennials and woody plants established. “Water well and deeply for the first three years,” he advises. Fox recommends using a soaker hose or slow emitters to thoroughly dampen soil at least a foot deep every week or two, depending on the weather. “Tree bags are perfect for newly planted trees,” he says. “They’ve revolutionized street tree planting.”
So there you have it. Play nicely, plant generously and pay attention.