A plant collector’s garden

“Like a corner of the kingdom of heaven, the plant enthusiast’s garden is a place where gardeners bring out their treasury of things new and old – the rare, the ordinary, the unknown, and the well known.” ~ Roger Turner, “The Plant Collector’s Garden: From Chaos to Beauty,” 2005, p. 10 

In Sunday’s Mail Tribune column (Oct. 29, 2017), I wrote about what it’s like to be a plant collector. Now, I’d like to show you what it’s like to be a plant collector by sharing a video of “My Garden Story” 2017. Enjoy the show!

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Backdrop plants for rock border garden

“The best site for a rock garden is where it ought to. be.” ~ Henry Sherman Adams, “Making a Rock Garden,” 1912

In Sunday’s column (Oct. 22, 2017), I wrote about making a rock border garden around a pond in my backyard. Although by no means natural-looking as Adams insists is the only kind of rock garden worthy of the name, I can create a more naturalistic look to my lava border by planting small saxatile perennials in the crevices of the rocks. In addition, I can add taller perennials as backdrop plants that will also soften the area between the pond and patio. Backdrop plants can be grown in the ground or in containers as space permits. The following are good choices for backdrop plants that provide year-round color:

Spring bloomers: daffodils (Narcissus); columbines (Aquilegia hybrids); wallflowers (Cheiranthus cheiri; biennial, grown as annual), scented geraniums (Pelargonium species; tender perennial)

Summer and fall bloomers: daylilies (Hemerocallis hybrids); Brazilian Verbena (V. bonariensis); Zinnia (Z. angustifolia)

Other options for backdrop plants are grasses (blue fescue; blue rye grass) and dwarf evergreen plants, such as dwarf conifers.

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Rogue Valley’s fall pageantry

“Come,” said the leaves to the wind one day/”Come o’er the meadows and we will play./Put on your dresses scarlet and gold/For summer is gone and the days grow cold.” ~ George Cooper, “Come Little Leaves”

See if you can identify the following Oregon native and non-native trees from their fall foliage. Back click on the photo and “Save As” to reveal the name.

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Grow pansies from seed

“The beauteous pansies rise/In purple, gold, and blue/With tints of rainbow hue/Mocking the sunset skies.” ~ Thomas John Ouseley, “The Angel of the Flowers” (c. 1874)

In Sunday’s Mail Tribune column (Sept. 24, 2017), I wrote about growing pansies. Of course, it’s not difficult to find pansies to buy and plant out in the garden, but oftentimes pansies sold in nurseries are overgrown and rootbound in their containers. I enjoy growing my pansies from seed, although they require cold stratification and darkness to germinate.

I start pansy seeds indoors 8 to 10 weeks before I plan to plant them in the garden. First, I place the seeds I’m going to sow in the refrigerator for one week to cold stratify. Then, I fill clean seed trays with a seed starter mixture made of  coconut coir/peat moss and vermiculite/perlite. Pansy seeds only need to be covered with a fine  layer of growing medium sifted through a sieve. Then I cover the seed tray and place them somewhere where the temperature remains below 70 degrees F (this is my “sunroom” in the winter).

The most challenging part of growing pansies from seed is finding a cool place for the seeds to germinate, keeping the seeds moist by misting, and remembering to check the seeds everyday for signs of emerging growth.

Pansy seeds should germinate in 2-3 weeks. Once they do germinate , I uncover the seeds trays and move them to my greenhouse with my other sun-loving plants. There, I maintain bottom heat for my pansies between 55-65 degrees F. and continue to keep the soil slightly moist.  Once the seedlings grow their first set of “true leaves” (not the cotyledons), I transplant them into 4-inch pots where they will overwinter until early spring. ‘

I found a website that provides very interesting information about the history of pansies at: https://www.thompson-morgan.com/pansies-are-not-difficult-to-grow-from-seed.

Happy pansy growing!

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My crabapple tree isn’t one bit crabby

“Fetch me a dozen Crab-tree staves, and strong ones.” – William Shakespeare, “King Henry VIII,” Act V, scene 4 (1612)

M. "Snowdrift" Spring 2017

Crabapple wood is, indeed, a sturdy wood; it also makes an aromatic  barbecue wood and lends itself well to woodworking. In Sunday’s column (Sept. 17, 207), I wrote about my crabapple tree (Malus “Snowdrift”) and how much I enjoy it in the spring when the tree is blooming with masses of delicate-looking pink buds and white blossoms.

I’ve found that my crabapple tree is easy to keep healthy. Although crabapple trees need lots of moisture when they are young, they are not very thirsty trees once  established. I use drip irrigation and water my crabapple tree along with the other plants in my garden berms that require slightly moist soil (this takes an hour of water once or twice a week depending on the temperature). Sometimes I use the soaker nozzle on my hose and supplement the amount of water my crabapple tree gets while it’s working hard to produce all those beautiful blossoms in the spring. I also add compost to the soil around the tree every spring, and I prune away dead, damaged or crossed branches and any suckers that have sprouted after it has stopped blooming. In addition, I measure the new growth of the crabapple tree in late spring and if less than a foot of stem and foliage has sprouted, I add a slow-releasing, high-nitrogen fertilizer to support more new growth.

As you can see from the picture, the birds love my crabapple tree, too; they build a nest in it every year!

I don’t love the crabapples in the fall so much, though. I learned there are hormone sprays that can be applied when the tree is blooming to reduce fruit production. The insecticide Sevin was once used to reduce the amount of fruit produced by trees, but was found harmful to bees. It is now illegal to use Sevin as a fruit inhibitor.
I don’t like to mess with Mother Nature, so I’ll just continue using my crabapples for compost, and enjoying my crabapple tree’s splendor in the spring!

To find out the crabapple tree that is best for you, here is a useful crabapple tree chart online at www.jfschmidt.com/pdfs/, compiled by a wholesale tree grower in the Willamette Valley. The chart describes 40 crabapple trees, with color photographs, so gardeners can find the best tree for their property. The chart even provides information about each tree’s resistance to common orchard diseases such as scab, fire blight and powdery mildew.

Happy fall!

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Houseplants that clear the air

“Plant trees. They give us two of the most crucial elements for our survival: oxygen and books.” ~ Alan Whitney Brown, writer and SNL comedian

In Sunday’s Mail Tribune column (Sept. 10, 2017), I wrote about how our garden plants are affected by the smoke we’ve been having recently. We want our outdoor plants and trees to stay healthy; after all, they consume carbon dioxide from the air and produce the oxygen humans depend on for life. According to the NY Times, one acre of trees annually consumes the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to that produced by driving an average car for 26,000 miles. That same acre of trees also produces enough oxygen for 18 people to breathe for a year.

Similarly, our indoor plants absorb household chemicals from the air that come from carpet, glue, our oven, cleaning products and synthetic materials such as plastic and Chrysanthemumsrubber. In fact, NASA recommends having two or three houseplants every 100 feet in the home to help clear the air of harmful toxins. NASA conducted a study in 1989 that identified several common houseplants that are dynamos when it comes to purifying indoor air. These include: spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum), Dracenas (all species), golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) and chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum morifolium).

Take a quiz to find out which houseplants are right for you at healthline.com.

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Various ways of propagating lilies

Within the garden’s peaceful scene

Appeared two lovely foes,

Aspiring to the rank of Queen,

The Lily and the Rose.

Yours is, she said, the noblest hue,

And yours the statelier mien,

And till a third surpasses you

Let each be deemed a Queen.

~ William Cowper (1731-1800)

In Sunday’s column (Sept. 3, 2017), I wrote about Shakespeare’s use of the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) to symbolize beauty and purity in his plays. As bulb plants, “true” lilies can be propagated  in the fall by bulb division, scaling, or by gathering seeds.

As a lily bulb matures, it will eventually divide into two parts, called offsets. When you see two plant stems growing close together, that probably means the bulb has split. In the fall, once the leaves have died back, dig up the bulbs and separate the offsets with a clean, sharp knife or pry them apart gently by hand. Replant the offsets immediately in rich, moist soil and allow to overwinter. It may take a few years for the plants to bloom.

Madonna lilies have “scales,” which can be removed and propagated. In the fall, once the foliage has died back, dig up the bulbs, remove the outermost ring of scales from the bulb and discard. Gently remove the rest of the bulbs down to the central “pit.” Dry the scales and pit overnight without washing or cleaning them, and then replant the pit the next day in rich, moist soil. Place the scales between slightly moistened vermiculite or peat moss and place in a plastic bag, making sure that the scales don’t come in contact with the plastic. The bag should not be sealed but loosely folded over, and moisture should not be allowed to collect inside the bag. Place the bag in a dry, dark location that is about 70 degrees F for 8-10 weeks. When the scales have grown into bulblets a little larger than the size of a pea, place the bag in the refrigerator for another 8-10 weeks to chill, and then plant the bulblets out in the spring. Like offsets, it will take a few years before the young plants grown from scales will bloom.

Lilies can also be grown from seed although, unlike “cloning” the plant from offsets or scales, lilies grown from seeds may not look like the parent plant (“true to type”). To gather lily seeds, wait until the flower has dropped its petals naturally and the remaining long, thin, seed capsule has turned brown and soft. Then remove the seed capsule from the stem, place in a paper bag and store in a dry, dark location that is about 70 degree F. for 8-10 weeks. The seeds will then be ready to remove from the pods. Immediately sow the seeds in pots, using rich, moist soil. Like other forms of propagation, young plants will bloom in a few years.

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Ripen pears off the tree

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. ~ William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell,” 1790-1793 

Despite the seemingly odd choice of title for the poem (in a book called “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”), English Romance poet and artist William Blake devotes most of his literary attention in the poem to offering advice for how to live life to the fullest, remaining always respectful of Nature and willing to take responsibility for one’s own actions. In the first line of the poem, quoted above, Blake recommends taking action at the right time, and this is certainly sound advice  for gardeners when it comes to harvesting fruits and vegetables.

In Sunday’s column (August 27, 2017), I shared information about harvesting bounty from the garden. Soon I will also be harvesting pears from my dwarf Ayers pear tree -

Ayers pears ready to harvest

the best crop produced so far since I planted the pear tree in my front yard four years ago. Last year, my pear crop was reduced by an infestation of black spot, a fungal disease that is common to home orchard trees in the Rogue Valley. I applied liquid kelp to the root zone of the pear tree when the black spot first appeared,, and it definitely helped. This year, I did not have the same problem, thank goodness!

Unlike apples, most varieties of pears, including my Ayers pears, do not ripen well on the tree. In fact, according to the OSU Extension Service, pears allowed to tree-ripen will ripen from the inside out, so the center becomes mushy by the time the outer flesh is ready to eat.  When the pears have reached their mature size, they will still be hard, but they should be picked to finish ripening off the tree. Mature, ready-to-ripen pears will usually detach easily from the tree when the fruit is tilted to a horizontal position from its usual vertical hanging position (however, Bosc pears are always more difficult to separate from the spur, says experts at the OSU Extension Service).

Once the pears have been picked, they need to go through a chilling process; otherwise, they will decompose without ever ripening. “Chilling” actually means storing them in a cool, dry place with temperatures between 65-75 degrees F.  Allow Bartlett pears to cool down for 4 to 5 days; Bosc and Comice should be cooled 5 to 7 days; and Anjou, 7 to 10 days. Store-bought pears have already completed their post-harvest chilling process.

To jump start the ripening process, place newly harvested pears in a paper bag and place a ripe banana on top, which will give off ethylene gas, a ripening hormone. The pears soak up the gas and soon start producing their own ethylene gas to finish the ripening process.

Pears are ready to eat when the flesh just below the point where the stem joins the fruit yields evenly to gentle pressure from your thumb when the pear is held in the palm of your hand.

William Blake reminds us that sometimes a bit of delayed gratification is in order, and certainly the sweetness of a perfectly ripe pear is well worth the wait!


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Lessons (re)learned about growing healthy table grapes on my arbor

“You cannot make sweet wine out of sour grapes.”  ~ Thomas Fuller, English historian author and poet (1608-1661)

Neither can you produce a healthy crop of table grapes when the grapevine is infested with fungal disease such as powdery mildew or gray mold (bunch rot) (see my column on August 20, 2017). Here are a few pictures of my arbor grapevine with telltale signs of powdery mildew on leaves, canes and developing fruit. I’ve seen blue jays feeding on the grapes; birds and insects spread the disease from one grape cluster to another.

Pruning back the diseased canes and thinning out new growth  next season will help prevent the disease from reoccurring by increasing air circulation, reducing humidity buildup within the canopy and exposing the grape clusters to more sunlight. Here is a useful publication about growing table grapes on a trellis or arbor from the OSU Extension Service.

If the problem persists, I’ll try applications of fungicide sprays during critical periods of growth. If that doesn’t work, I’ll replace my grapevine with table grapes that have looser clusters – these tend to be more resistant to powdery mildew and gray mold.

Another lesson learned about gardening in Southern Oregon!

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Taming the garden snake: How to coil a hose

“This tool, this thing of beauty, this garden hose holds so much promise.”Tom Harvey, “Don’t Fight with the Garden Hose and Other Lessons I’ve Learned, 2013

In Sunday’s column (July 31, 2017), I wrote about the gardener’s love/hate relationship with the watering hose. We certainly can’t live without them, but we’re plagued daily with tangled, kinky hoses that somehow reach up from the ground and trip us up as we innocently go about our watering tasks. Is there no end to this misery?


First, look for garden hoses that are made from “no memory” materials so the hose is not expecting to be coiled the same way every time. I learned this problem is even more challenging when there are two gardeners in the family and one is right-handed and one is left-handed. This is the case for Jerry and me – he’s a righty and I’m a lefty!

Second, be sure to detach the garden hose from the spigot before coiling it. I’ve found this simple step is important!

Third, stretch out the garden hose flat on the ground before coiling.

Now, there are a few different fourth steps that can be taken. Some gardeners say to begin coiling the hose clockwise while twisting the hose away from you at the same time.

Other gardeners say to use a technique where you coil the hose one way for the first loop and then alternate it for the next loop by coiling it the opposite way.

Other gardeners say to start coiling from the end of the hose rather than the front.

Still other gardeners say to roll a study (rubber) hose into coils rather than wrap them. After laying the hose flat, make your first loop with the nozzle end, fasten the loop securely with a short bungee cord and roll up the hose as you walk it to the storage location.

Try using a combination of these techniques to see which one works best for you. Or invest in a hose reel that allows you to wind up your hose using a lever. Best Consumer Reviews provides a review of the best hose reels on the market. Garden Products Review also offers recommendations for hose reels and garden hoses.

In his book, Tom Harvey observes that there are two options gardeners can take when the hose, inevitably, kinks. We can either practice the Wild West Lasso Whip, which often results in injury to ourselves or innocent bystanders. Or, as Harvey recommends, we can remain calm and meditate our way to empathy and even friendship with our garden hose. He writes, ”Find your inner peace and calmly unkink the hose, for Human Logic dictates that the hose is an inanimate object! It doesn’t have a brain. It’s not trying to piss you off! Be the bigger of the two and you’ll be better off.”

Happy hosing, literary gardeners!

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  • About the Authors

    Rhonda Nowak

    Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, writer and teacher. With more than 25 years of gardening experience and a Ph.D. in literature and language arts education, she combines a love for plants, poetry, and prose in her Literary Gardener blog. ... Full Profile
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