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.

Top 5 Plants

I’m supposed to be posting about 5 Great Container Gardens, but I just found this website: Mike’s Garden Top 5 Plants. It’s an absolute Treasure Trove of information and advice about choosing plants for garden or container. Oh, and BC specific!

Have a look–you won’t be disappointed!

First Rose Bloom of the Season

First bloom on Julia Child

First bloom on Julia Child

Any first blooms of the season are exciting, And somehow, roses are up there with the best of them. I have quite a few roses, some I love more than others, but Julia Child, now entering only its 4th year in my garden, is the best of the best. Her growth habit is restrained and shapely–it doesn’t straggle all over the place, it doesn’t just grow straight up, and the size is very manageable.

Julia Child, about 4.5 feet tall May 17, 4 years old.

Julia Child, about 4.5 feet tall on May 17, 4 years old.

She doesn’t suffer from diseases–black spot is the bane of rose growers here in coastal BC–and she blooms reliably until frost. That’s about 5 months of flowering!

Her only downside is that she has no fragrance. I used to think a rose without fragrance was a waste of space, but I’m a little less dogmatic now. I have several roses without fragrance, which actually makes it easier to make a bouquet–mix a fragrant rose and a non-fragrant rose so there’s no competition.

Some thoughts on Roses

So I thought I’d write a little essay on roses. It’s a terrible myth that roses are hard to keep–too much tending, feeding, spraying, pruning (scary!), protecting. Well, all of that is true, and untrue. There’s almost no reason (one–I’ll get to it) you can’t successfully grow roses.

I’ve owned a lot of roses over the years. I’m not exactly Brad Jalbert of Select Roses fame, (although I’ve bought from him), but I’ve been trying to make roses make roses for me for about 20 years. My favourite rose (name lost to the sands of time) was almost blue, unbelievably fragrant, perfect in shape–hybrid tea, classic “dozen red roses” shape–and was such a black spot magnet that all summer it was pretty much just sticks having dropped all its leaves, and would only develop one or two blooms per year because it couldn’t keep leaves long enough to photosynthesize (make sugar). Another, Heritage by David Austin, another fragrance-rich rose, beautifully old-fashioned in shape, considered to be black spot resistant in our area, was anything but. I gave up because I couldn’t keep it looking good. Which leads me to thought #1:

Choose “very disease resistant” roses.

Roses that you might buy at Home Depot or Canadian Tire in little boxes are unlikely to be the best to invest time and money into. They buy them in  bulk of course, and will get the same product for all their stores across the country, regardless whether they are appropriate for the location or not. When you can buy a $5 rose at HD, why pay $25 somewhere else? The answer is “disease resistance”.

Black spot this early in the season bodes ill for the rest of the year. This rose is not long for my garden...

Black spot this early in the season bodes ill for the rest of the year. This rose is not long for my garden…

Now one little problem with choosing disease resistant roses is knowing WHERE they’re disease resistant. Disease resistant in Toronto where the cold kills overwintering diseases and the sun comes out reliably in the spring is not going to be the same as disease resistant here. There’s a rose breeder from Hamburg, Germany (which has very similar weather to ours) whose mandate is to develop roses that need no fungicide to stay disease-free,  so you can be sure that if you get a KORDES rose, you’ve got a VERY disease resistant rose in coastal BC. (On the Select Roses website there is a page of Top Performers that starts with Julia Child and includes several Kordes roses!)

Here’s another site that will give you a list of suitable David Austin roses for the Pacific Northwest. And since it also has Heritage in the list, just goes to show you can’t expect exactly the same results when there are so many variables to contend with.

Which conveniently segues to thought #2:

Give your rose LOTS of sun.

The best thing you can do for your rose is place it in a place where it will get AT LEAST 6 hours of uninterrupted sun. And sunlight before breakfast and after supper don’t count! So 8 am to 2 pm, or noon to 6 pm, or any 6+ hours in the middle are all good. The right amount of sun will inhibit disease, promote good growth, which together inhibit pests. More sun means more blooms, which means happier grower–you. So before you buy your roses, spend a sunny day identifying where on your property the sun is fully shining (not shining through the leaves of a tree) for 6 hours. If there isn’t such a spot, I’m terribly sorry, roses are not for you. Yes, there are some that say they will tolerate part shade, and I have several of them. They don’t bloom. Rugosa roses have a lot of advantages: disease resistant, fragrance, repeat blooming, and allegedly shade tolerance. But if they don’t get enough sun, they don’t bloom, so I guess you can see the dilemma. Don’t bother, get some other attractive flowering fragrant shrub instead.

Rugosa rose 'Agnes' didn't bloom at all in 4-5 hours of sun, so has been in a pot for two years waiting for a better spot. Apparently delightfully  fragrant, altho' I wouldn't know from experience. Maybe this year I'll find out...

Rugosa rose ‘Agnes’, described as shade-tolerant,  didn’t bloom at all in 4-5 hours/day of sun, so has been languishing in a pot for two years waiting for a better spot. Apparently delightfully fragrant, altho’ I wouldn’t know from experience. Maybe this year I’ll find out…

Feed the Soil, the Soil Feeds the Plant

And now, for feeding the hungry little buggers! I’ve many times heard that roses are hungry, and maybe if what you’re after is show-quality blooms on an extravagant scale, then yes, maybe roses can get hungry. But I don’t think you’re going to be taking your roses to a flower show, or you wouldn’t be reading this somewhat simplistic blog. You want roses that will perform without requiring daily attention. So, Feed the Soil, the Soil Feeds the Plant. Most plants will be satisfied with a meal that can be delivered by a smorgasbord of microbes and earthworms. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor there… “with a smorgasbord delivered by an army of microbes and earthworms.” How’s that? And go back to my post on  Soil Characteristics to learn more about soil health.) Now that’s not necessarily true of all PLANTS, but MOST plants. And most roses will be satisfied with heathy nutritious soil, not needing a lot of extra desserts. Top-dressing (that’s adding on top of the soil under the canopy of the plant, staying 1-2″ away from the stem) with 1-2″ deep compost 1-2 times yearly (spring/fall) will make your soil/microbes/earthworms very happy indeed, and they will feed your roses. Very easy, and pretty easy to remember as well.

Water Them Well the First Year.

You’ll read that a lot on plant labels and information sites. Roses are actually quite drought tolerant–you won’t kill your rose by forgetting to water it through a few weeks of our dry summers–except for the first year. Everything needs a good start, and one key way of giving it is to make sure your rose doesn’t dehydrate that first summer. Needless to say, once the fall rains start, you don’t have to worry about water any more. (Just make sure when you’re planting that you have good drainage, or you will be worrying about those fall/winter rains.)

So there you go, Sun, Compost, Water. Very Disease Resistant. All you REALLY need to know about having roses in your garden. There’re lots of other things you may WANT to know about growing roses in your garden, and likely I’ll be posting about some of those in the future. So stay tuned. Click Follow. Like my FB page. Comment. Ask questions.

Princess Alexandra. Resists dying!

Princess Alexandra. Resists dying!

Octavia Hill. Fabulous diminutive shrub with glossy leaves, no fragrance. I love it for the name as well--google Octavia Hill.

Octavia Hill. Fabulous diminutive shrub with glossy leaves, no fragrance. I love it for the name as well–google Octavia Hill.

Looks impressive, but this is the Ingrid Bergman that has such bad black spot already., But you can see why I bought her.

Looks impressive, but this is the Ingrid Bergman that has such bad black spot already. But you can see why I bought her.

Rosemary Harkness--so many lovely ladies. I tried to dispose of her last year--black spot--but she resisted my efforts and is growing again.

Rosemary Harkness–so many lovely ladies. I tried to dispose of her last year–black spot–but she resisted my efforts and is growing again.

These Are a Few of My Favourite … Herbs

Everyone seems to want to grow herbs. When I look at custom garden designs, many of them have a dedicated “herb garden”, often in a knot garden kind of look. Here’s a link to a detailed How To for an Herb Knot Garden, thanks to DIY Network . Personally, I prefer to have my herbs scattered among all the other plants of the garden. For a few reasons:

Flowering Herbs

All your herbs will flower at one time or another, and it’s nice to have them contributing to the overall look of your flower or vegetable beds. Chives for example put on a lovely show of purple balls, so why isolate them when they’d look lovely with anything red or yellow or white–or almost any colour.


Chive flowers and friendly bee.

The picture leads me to another reason to plant your herbs in mixed-use beds:

Attracting Beneficials

There’s no way to avoid the presence of precious-plant-eating garden denizens, but there are LOTS of ways to minimize them, and most important of those ways is to attract to your garden the good insects that feed on the bad insects. You do that by planting the plants the good guys like, inviting them to your house. Then they see that you’ve also laid the table with their other favourite foods–like aphid larvae–yum, yum!

A lot of flowers attract beneficial insects, but it seems the flowers of herbs are particularly adept at that. Diane’s Flower Seeds has a list of flowering plants that attract bees, butterflies, lacewings (the list of beneficial insects is pretty long…), and the vast majority are herbs.


You can see in the chives picture the flowers are attracting bees which are key to pollination. So plant bee-loving herbs near tomatoes or cucumbers or squash. Thyme,  oregano, dill, parsley, cilantro, all are herbs that will attract the bees.

Sun or Shade

Some herbs will grow in almost any amount of sun or shade. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a member of the mint family, which means it’s a THUG. It’ll grow anywhere, take over any space, and outcompete anything that was there before it. But the smell is divine, and makes some kind of therapeutic tea (you can tell I’m a real fan of herbal teas…), so if you want to grow it, just make sure it’s in a container–containing it from spreading.


Lemon Balm–I’ve been pulling this out of the garden for three years, thanks to the tenant’s love of herbal teas.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) on the other hand wants FULL sun, and lots of heat. So don’t plant it until our coastal BC nights are over 10 C. That’ll be June at the earliest.

Unfortunately for the person with a mainly shady garden, almost all herbs (excepting the afore-mentioned mint family) want at least half-day sun. But if you don’t have outdoor sunny space, maybe you have indoor sunny space–a window sill? Basil will still grow happily indoors as long as that window is south facing with the sun streaming in almost all day.

So here are my list of favourites: first the part-shade-tolerant:

Parsley: EASY to grow, perennial, fabulous rich green colour, hard to kill.


I’ve accidentally dug up the parsley many times thinking it was buttercup, and it always comes back. But unlike the dreaded mint family, it’s quite civilized in its spread.

Oregano: even tho’ it’s a Mediterranean herb, indicating full sun and lots of heat, it really will grow in quite a variety of spots, and perennial in our zone. Mine is in the sun until the vegetables grow up in front of it, then it gets lots of shade. It’s still happy as a clam.


Growing at the foot of the grapevine in this picture, under roses in another spot.

Cilantro: (Coriander sativum) What a brilliant herb. It tolerates cold, so it can be planted as seed really early in the spring. I sowed seed last fall, and it’s coming up now. Once the weather gets warm, it’ll begin to flower, and that’s the end of the cilantro, but not the end of coriander–the seed of the same plant. Wait for the seed heads to get white, and you can collect the seed for cooking or for replanting. But you don’t have to wait for next year to get more, you can keep sowing seed all later summer and fall. Once the nights get coolish again,  your cilantro will happily keep putting out leaves. And a little shade from perennials that grow up around it will help keep it cool as the weather warms up–giving you maybe a few more weeks of harvest. The more you take, the more you get.


Cilantro in amongst the garlic–that is, I think it’s garlic…

Favourites that really want a lot of sun:

Basil: I just can’t be without it. And when there’s lots and I want to harvest more than I need now (to stimulate more growth–take more and you’ll get more!), I just put the fresh leaves/stems in a baggy and freeze the whole shebang. Or of course you can make your batch of pesto and freeze it in small portions. Basil won’t survive our winters–in fact it’ll barely survive our Falls. Before the nights get cold you can dig it up and put in a pot in that sunny window. Should be able to get a few more harvests from it.

Dill: Wants lot of sun, but it’s another plant that tolerates cool temperatures, and will start to flower as it gets hot, and stop making leaves. So don’t sow all your seed to begin with; sow about 1/4 of the seeds now, then once those flower, start another batch, and every few weeks after that.

Rosemary: Another herb it’s hard to be without. Rosemary wants full sun, and altho’ it is perennial in our zone, it’s best to offer it some winter protection in case we get a colder than usual winter. I bought two rosemary plants late in the season last year, and potted them in 1 gallon pots so they could live on the protected porch through the winter. When the soil gets warm I’ll plant them out in the garden.


You can see it’s been a little cold-damaged on leaf tips, but it’s happily putting out new growth.

This post is already way too long, so stay tuned for the next one when I’ll tell you how you can grow most or all of these in containers.

Feel free to ask me questions, after all, that’s the point of this blog. And share in your chosen forum. 🙂

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.