5 Winter Questions

5 Winter Questions

It’s the coldest day of the season. Everything that had started to grow in the warmth of January is turning to mush. My hummingbird feeder nectar froze in one hour. DSCN2414 2

Clearly it’s time to start thinking about how you’ll spend your summer in the garden!

Of course all my faithful readers will have read the page called Client Site Analysis. It’s really designed to help the homeowner identify ALL the needs (constraints and opportunities) of the site. But if you’re planning to design/revise/amend your gardens yourself, it would be easier to take a more functional approach. What’s more, your “garden” actually consists of many mini-gardens. Even if you have just a small property with little ground space, odds are you at least have two gardens, a back and a front. For the DIY-er, it would be best (easiest, most practical, most affordable) to deal with one section at a time. If you don’t already have pictures of your property and gardens, why not go out today (before any REAL weather starts up again) and take pictures–many pictures, from all angles, including your views of the neighbours’ houses. Looking at them objectively will really help with the following 5 steps.  So let’s start with…

1. How Will You Use Your Garden?

Do you see yourself escaping the Madding Crowd with a good book and a drink in the seclusion of your secret garden? Or do you prefer welcoming guests every weekend to a backyard BBQ? Is play space for the kids the most important priority? These aren’t mutually exclusive, but would usually happen in different spaces. So in the interest of “dealing with one section at a time”, choose your preferred garden activity. That’s Step #1.

2. What Sun Exposure Do You Need?

If your preferred garden activity is growing vegetables and fruit, you will need the most sun exposure you can find, so that will determine where on your property that particular section is located. On the other hand, if play space is top priority, you will need to locate it where there will be at least a little shade. Or create a little shade. Here’s a little graphic that took me a ridiculous amount of time to create:Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 3.41.59 PM

3. Site Qualities?

Do you have a slope or is the site flat? Does the water drain well or are there areas with standing water for long spells in the spring or fall? Do you have grass, and is it dense or sparse? weedy or mossy? too much or too little? under trees or out in the open? What elements are unchangeable? (Like my neighbour’s massive Douglas-fir–but even that I could have an arborist cut off some of the overhanging limbs…)

4. What is your Gardening Commitment?

This question is partially dependent on the results of Step #1. How much actual gardening work do you see yourself expending? Do you love–or anticipate loving–being out in the “dirt” digging, weeding, lovingly caring for your plants? Or are you afraid of killing anything your touch and therefore need cast iron native, drought tolerant, carefree plants. Probably somewhere in the middle. Answer this step objectively; if you love roses and dream of surrounding your property with a hedge of the wildly vigorous Rosa rugosa ‘Hansa’, that will constitute a pretty significant “gardening commitment”.

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Rosa rugosa ‘Hansa’ overhung with Clematis armandii

5. Budget

Last and certainly not least, how much are you willing to spend on this project? One of the chief reasons to separate your property into different projects is to make it all more affordable. And of course, the more of the project you can do yourself, the easier on the wallet. As long as you produce a quality product, not a hack job. I certainly wouldn’t attempt building a deck, but I was able to build a small patio. The larger patio I hired professionals to build, but only because I knew I didn’t have the muscle to move that much sod/sand/gravel/flagstone. If you do, go for it. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThose 5 Questions will take you a long way toward planning and starting your own garden design. You can go back to the Client Site Analysis to fill out some more details, and I’m happy to answer questions here or on my Facebook page. As always, click on Follow to get regular updates here.

Fight Depression–Plant a Bulb

This is my first post of 2014, and it should be an inspiring, content-rich essay. But that will have to wait.

For now I’ll refer you to another blogger’s wise words:

I’m sure we’ve all heard some reference to gardening being healthy and restorative. Here’s a short post worth reading:

Serenity In the Garden

5 Great Containers–Part III

Another Japanese Maple

As promised, here’s another container for the balcony garden. Remember, this is a south facing garden on the 7th floor, with a duplicate balcony above it on the 8th floor, so it gets a little shelter from storms, but is therefore in a rain shadow. Don’t forget to water your outdoor container garden, even if it rains. 


The Plants

  • Acer dissectum ‘Inaba Shidare’
  • Cotoneaster procumbens ‘Strieb’s Findling’
  • Dianthus ‘Wicked Witch’
  • Sedum telephium ‘Xenox’
  • Erigeron glaucus ‘Sea Breeze’

I planned to use a grafted PeeGee Hydrangea (‘Limelight’) that I saw at the nursery, but they were all gone by the time I returned only a few days later. But saw this Japanese Maple, and couldn’t resist. I was pretty sure I’d seen ‘Inaba Shidare’ in the list of trees that tolerated full sun fairly well, so I nabbed it.

Japanese Maples are “understory” trees, so in their native environments they receive some shade from the taller trees around them. In our temperate climate, our not very cold winters, not very hot summers makes it a little easier for the JM to tolerate our sun. Besides, this balcony does get a little less than full south facing sun because of the over balcony.

This ‘Inaba Shidare’ is beautifully shaped, so we’d like to be able to see this feature even as the tree grows and fills out. This means judicious pruning of new branches, and keeping the under plantings short. Hence the following:

Cotoneaster procumbens ‘Strieb’s Findling’

This is actually a ground-covering woody shrub, the lowest growing of the cotoneasters. It’ll have flowers in the summer and berries in the fall/winter, and never grow high, but will begin to tumble over the edge of the pot. The colouring will complement the red/green of ‘Inabe Shidare’.

Dianthus ‘Wicked Witch’; Erigeron ‘Sea Breeze’; Sedum  ‘Xenon’

All of these will bloom pink, the first a deep almost red pink, the second a lavender pink, the last a rich pink with burgundy foliage. Short ones toward the front, tall one at the back.


Also called “Hens and Chicks” (but since there’s only individual rosettes here, no mums-with-babes, I’ll call it a Houseleek), it’s real name is Sempervivum. (You can just see a few reddish spikes at the front of the container.) This is a fun red colour, and the pot I bought had a large extended family of rosettes, so I split them up and divided them among several containers. They multiply like crazy, but like most perennials, they “sleep the first year, creep the second year, leap the third year”.

The Containers

I haven’t commented yet on the containers themselves. There was nothing about the balcony itself that I could coordinate with, so I just asked the client to find something that he liked, and then we looked for appropriate sizes that would match or compliment one another. Containers aren’t cheap, so when you can find them on sale, it may be worth compromising on exactly what you had in mind for the sake of the significant cost savings. In this case we had a pretty small budget, and yet were able to get the sizes we needed (three 24″ diameter pots and three 18″ diameter pots) and still splurge on the plants themselves.

Sometimes you’ll do the exact opposite–the aesthetic of the containers will be more important than what goes in them. This was not that.

That’s it for the trees. Next up will be the grafted shrub–what  cool idea!



Let me know what you think of my creations, and add suggestions. I’m not a big fan of annuals, so you’ll seldom see them in my container gardens, unless they’re annuals that think they’re perennials. But I’m open to any ideas.

Questions? Concerns? Leave your comments, and click on the follow button to get instant updates. (Especially with two more “5 Great Container” instalments yet to come!) And of course, like me on Facebook.

6 Tips for Container Gardens

My garden is my test ground. Most of what I know I learned by screwing up at least once.

So here’s some tips I’ve learned through trial and error.

1. PLAN!

Typically I’ve combined plants that I have rather than plants that I’ve designed to go together.Image

I was given the little Buxus (boxwood), so I stuck it in the green planter, then some time later I acquired the hellebore, (Lenten rose) and added it to the pot. Do they go together? No. Could I make them go together by adding more stuff. Probably not. The only way (IMO) they will look good together is to let the boxwood grow bigger (pruning it a bit in the spring and fall so that it will bush out and up) and wait for the hellebore to multiply. And since I’m not in any hurry, and after all, my garden is my test ground anyway, I’ll do just that. In fact, it was my PLAN! (not…)

2. Where do you expect your container to live? Full sun or full shade or a combination? We usually think we’ll need lots of sun to get the colourful container garden we want, but in fact there are LOTS of colourful shade loving plants. My favourite would be coleus, with it’s stunningly coloured foliage and completely insignificant flowers. Image

If you don’t have full sun, how many hours of sun do you get? Or if no direct sun, how deep is your shade? Only morning sun, or shade from trees that are high overhead, might be called light shade, or dappled or bright shade. But shade that is on the north side of a tall building with another building close by would be dense shade.

3. Is it going into a small space or a big space? Small spaces don’t necessarily need small containers, in fact sometimes just the opposite. A small balcony can be visually enlarged by filling one end with a large extravagant container garden.

4. How big an object do you want? Do you want one big pot or a bunch of coordinating small pots? The larger the container, the better it tolerates hot dry days, and the more nutrition it holds. But more smaller pots may give you more “terracing” effect—ie, lots of levels. ImageThis is a small pot that just barely fits on a front step: a bunch of different sedums, some creeping thyme for summer flowers, and mini-daffodils that are just beginning to bud out.

5. Special considerations for hanging baskets:

  • Bigger is better. Have you noticed the size of Victoria’s hanging baskets, or New West’s? They’re enormous. And therefore are able to hold onto more water. The most important thing about hanging baskets is water, because they’re completely open to evaporation. Many garden centres recommend moisture crystals, but my favourite  expert on everything horticultural, Linda Chalker-Scott from Washington State U says they’re pointless (or worse).


  • This on the other hand is a small hanging basket: of course, it’s my own. Remember, test ground…Image
  • Buy potting mixture for hanging baskets. In fact, always buy potting mixture for containers rather than something that’s called topsoil, or compost, or anything that is “soil based”. Real soil is way too heavy for containers of any kind, and containers don’t have the advantages of the ground (full of microbes and worms to do all the real work of growing plants).

6. One of my favourite links for growing things in our location: Great Plant Picks for maritime northwest garden.

Do you need help figuring out your container garden(s)? Just ask. You won’t be my test garden. Or leave a comment.