Take a load off spent blooms

“Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me”

~ Robbie Robertson, “The Weight,” 1968

Now is the time that “gardening” feels suspiciously a lot like plain yard work. I spend my days dodging the sun’s intensity to water, weed and deadhead my plants (I’m behind with fertilizing).

Yet, I have been enjoying my perennial garden this year; for all the flowers’ hard work, they deserve my time and effort to help them “take a load off” their foliage. Many of my ornamental plants particularly benefit from removing their spent blooms. Not only does this reduce the plant’s top weight, it also signals the plant to produce a second round of flowers. I f the plant doesn’t rebloom, it will begin to focus more energy on rejuvenating its foliage and strengthening the root system.

Here are some flowers in my garden that benefit from deadheading: dianthus, coreopsis, Jupiter’s beard, lamb’s ear, daylilies, annual dahlia, balloon flower, marigolds, foxglove and salvia.

Although my poppies are spent, I remove the crispy foliage but keep the stalks and pods for the birds and garden interest. My winter-blooming hellebore are going into hibernation to escape the summer heat, so I’ll cut the stems back to just a few inches from ground level.

Stay cool, and don’t forget to take some time to ”take a load off” and just enjoy the garden!

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Are you growing any “Liberty Tea” in your garden?

“Tea made from a plant or shrub (Ceanothus americanus) grown in Pearsontown about 20 miles from Portland, Maine, was served to a circle of ladies and gentlemen in Newbury Port, who pronounced it nearly, if not quite, its equal in flavor to genuine Bohea [one of three Chinese black teas tossed overboard later in 1773]. So important a discovery claims attention, especially at this crisis. If we have the plant, nothing is wanted but the process of curing it into tea of our own manufacture,” The Boston Gazette, 1768 

After the Boston Tea Party occurred on Dec. 16, 1773, many colonial Americans boycotted black tea, but not everyone could afford the extra expense or time to grind up coffee beans. It was patriotic to serve Liberty Teas that were made from the leaves, and sometimes the roots, of native North American plants. One of the most common was New Jersey Tea, which was made from the leaves of Ceanothus americanus, an aromatic shrub that grows about 3 feet high and is found in the wild as far north as New York and as far west as Texas. However, it is hardy in Southern Oregon as well, and once established, is drought-tolerant. The white flowers that bloom in springtime attract bees and butterflies.

The Pacific Northwest has several native Ceanothus species; perhaps the most common is C. thyrsiflorus, commonly called blueblossom or California lilac. The true blue blossoms are beautiful in the late spring, and the small, glossy, rich green leaves are evergreen. C. gloriosus, or Point Reyes Ceanothus, grows wild along coastal California, where it grows on oceanside bluffs and mountain slopes.

Besides New Jersey Tea, colonial Americans drank tea made from many other native North American plants. Are you growing any of these: red sumac berries (Indian Lemonade Tea), raspberry, strawberry, mints, bergamot, lemon balm, verbena, red clover, chamomile, violets and goldenrod.

To make Liberty Tea, harvest the entire plant and hang upside down in a well-ventilated area out of direct sun, or snip leaves in the morning off a plant that will continue to grow, wash/pat, and dry the leaves in a single layer on trays or between paper towels. When the leaves are completely dry and crisp, store them whole in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several months. Crush the leaves when you are ready to use them. Steep about a teaspoon of dried leaves in a cup of boiling water for about five minutes.


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Blowin’ in the hot wind

“A hot wind was blowing around my head, the strands of my hair lifting and swirling in it, like ink spilled in water.” – Margaret Atwood, “The Blind Assassin,” 2000

I love the way Atwood’s use of figurative language sounds on my tongue when I read it aloud, and the images it conjures up in my mind. On the other hand, I loathe the images of what a hot wind can, and has, done to some of my garden plants.

In Sunday’s column (June 25, 2017), I wrote about the villainous hot summer winds in the microclimate of my back yard in old East Medford, OR. The southwest-facing garden beds receive a lot of late afternoon sun when temperatures are at their highest and air turbulence kicks up gusts of winds that can reach up to 30+ mph. The wind hastens evaporation of water from plant foliage, and plants become heat stressed when the roots can’t keep up with the moisture loss by absorbing water and nutrients from the soil.

The Japanese maples in my backyard suffer the most. Their native land is much more humid in summertime than the Rogue Valley, so I’ve learned to protect them during the hottest days when temperatures soar into the lower 100s (Medford had 11 of those days in 2016).

I provide extra water to my maples, and many of my other plants unless they are specifically referred to as “drought tolerant.” If I’ve planted something new this year, I’ll provide extra water even if it’s supposed to be a drought-tolerate plant. I try to water in the morning so the water has had time to drain to the roots by the time the hottest temperatures of the day, and the hot wind, blows in. I set up an umbrella near my exposed maple to shield it from the late afternoon sun (and it also shades my favorite garden seat!).

Tomatoes and squash don’t like extremely hot temperatures, either, so I cover them with row cover loose enough for air to circulate underneath. It’s not pretty, but it works!

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Sea kale: A veggie made in the shade

“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to its culture.” – Thomas Jefferson, ca. 1800

In Sunday’s column, I wrote about some vegetable plants that don’t mind a bit of shade, including: bush beans, beets, carrots, leafy greens, onions, peas, perennial herbs, potatoes and radishes. In addition, some vegetables taste better when the young shoots are covered to prevent exposure to the sun, which stops photosynthesis from occurring and results in paler produce with a more delicate flavor and texture. This shading process is called blanching; vegetables that are often blanched include celery, endive, leeks, white asparagus, lovage, rhubarb and sea  kale.

Thomas Jefferson grew sea kale (Crambe maritima), a perennial member of the cabbage family, at Monticello in the early 1800s. He used clay pots to cover the shoots, but mulch, rocks, boards and plastic pots can also be used. Jefferson ate the tender shoots steamed like asparagus; young blanched leaves can also be cooked and eaten like collards or spinach, and the young flower stalks can be prepared and eaten like broccoli. One species, Crambe orientalis, has a thick root, full of nutrition, that can be used as a substitute for horseradish.

Sea kale blooms in the summertime with a profusion of pretty white flowers. For this reason, it is sometimes grown as an ornamental plant in rock gardens, and the Royal Horticultural Society in England has recognized it as a garden plant of merit. Although its native climate is along northern European coastlines, sea kale is winter hardy down to USDA Hardiness Zone 5 (the Rogue Valley is in Zone 8a/b) and tolerates heat up to AHS Heat Zone 8 (the Rogue Valley is listed as  Zone 6). Sea kale is not difficult to grow as long as it is provided with a sandy loam that drains well but stays moist throughout the hot summer months.

The key to growing sea kale is patience. It’s a long-lived plant, producing for about 12 years, but it should be left alone in the garden for two seasons before harvesting during the third season. Sea kale can be started by seed, but germination is erratic and can take up to three years. It’s easier to start sea kale from root cuttings called thongs. I ordered my thongs online from Cultivariable. They are about 4 inches long and the thickness of a pencil. Before planting, soak the thongs for a few hours and then plant them vertically in the soil, 12-15 inches apart, with the thicker cut about 2 inches below the soil surface. Add some compost to the planting hole and  organic fertilizer, such as liquid seaweed, around the plant, water thoroughly… and wait.

Allow the plant to grow and establish itself for two years. The leaves will die back when the weather turns cold; prune away old foliage, cover the roots with mulch… and wait some more.

After the second growing season, you can either lift the roots in November for early forcing indoors, or you can cover the plant right in the garden and take cuttings for propagating in the spring. To take cuttings, select side shoots that are about as thick as a pencil and cut into 3-6 inch pieces. Making a straight cut on the top and a slanting cut on the bottom will help prevent accidentally planting the thong upside down in the soil.

Harvest blanched sea kale shoots and leaves in early spring when still young. Shoots should be cut at soil level when they are about 8-10 inches long; eat soon after cutting. Stop cutting in May, remove the pots to allow the plants to grow naturally, and enjoy the flowers when they bloom in the summer!

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Have a rosy summer!

Rose, thou flower of flowers, thou fragrant wonder,

Who shall describe thee in thy ruddy prime,

Thy perfect fullness in the summertime…?

~ Christina Rossetti, “The Rose,” 1904

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) is one of the most recognized female poets of the Romantic, Pre-Raphaelite period. She often incorporated aspects of the natural world into her

poetry, using fruits, flowers and gardens as symbols to depict life the way she experienced it as a religious English woman during the Victorian era. During her lifetime, Rossetti published five volumes of her collected poetry, as well as several fiction and non-fiction pieces for adults and children.

In her poetry, Rossetti often uses fruit to create an image of seduction, danger and quick decay. Flowers frequently convey the fragility of life. She also includes images of gardens to symbolize the human spirit, or else the Garden of Eden in the Bible as she contemplates her eternal home in Paradise.

Despite such docile images in her poetry, feminist literary critics in the 1980s and ’90s took notice of Rossetti’s focus on gender issues and on her life  as a female poet during the Victorian era when many women were reluctant to publish their work under their own name (although she used the pen name “Ellen Alleyne” for her first published work when she was 18). Rossetti has also served as an inspiration for women with breast cancer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1892 and underwent a mastectomy that was performed in her home. Rossetti continued to fight canceer until she died in 1894.

In “The Rose,” Rosetti praises the rose as the “flower of all flowers…to gladden earth and cheer all hearts below.” However, she also recognizes the important interrelationship between the rose as the adored and people as the adorers. Rosetti writes, “And yet in happier spheres they cannot need thee/So much as we do with our weight of woe/Perhaps they would not tend, perhaps not heed thee/And thou wouldst lonely and neglected grow…”

It’s true that the cultivated roses in my garden are dependent on the care I provide them in equal measure to the enjoyment they provide me. My rose bed is the most high-maintenance ornamental garden on my property. Besides planting them in a place where they have access to plenty of sunshine and making sure they have fertile, moist soil throughout the summer (see column on June 4, 2017), I also take time to deadhead faded flowers so my rose bushes will focus their energy on setting new buds for repeat blooming. A good rule of thumb for deadheading spent blooms is to make a slanted cut through the stem about 1/8-inch above the second five-leaflet set. This will allow enough new wood to form from the cut to provide sturdy support for a new flower.

However, there are exceptions to this deadheading rule. For example,  several of my roses bloom in clusters, so for those I snip spent flowers off where the short stem meets the central stem. The health of the leaves on the stem also determines where I’ll make my cuts. If I see black spot, rust, or other foliage damage, I’ll cut past the second five-leaflet to the next healthy set.

Another way I care for my roses during the summer is by watching for pests that are common to roses – aphids and black spot. I practice Integrated Pest Management in my gardening, which means that when dealing with insects and diseases that harm my plants, I first consider cultural, physical and biological controls, and use chemical controls as a last measure.

Pest problems usually occur when plants are in a stressed, weakened condition; therefore cultural controls are preventative measures that include 1) choosing disease-resistant rose varieties whenever possible, 2) planting roses in sites that provide the most favorable conditions possible in terms of sun and wind exposure and moist, nutrient-rich soil; 3) Keeping space within and around the rose bushes for air to circulate; and 4) Cleaning up debris from the ground and pruning away dead and diseased foliage. Because I can’t always provide ideal conditions, it’s important that I also set realistic expectations and see my rose garden as beautiful even when it’s not perfect.

Aphids are more of a problem on my roses in springtime when the sweet new foliage beckons these juice-sucking pests. Aphids emit a honeydew that draws ants and other insects; they also spread diseases. I use a magnifying glass to examine the stems and the undersides of leaves. If I see aphids, I’ll prune them out, spray them off with water, pick them off and crush them by hand (my favorite method!), or use a Shop-Vac. All of these are physical controls.

The next step in managing aphids and other pesky insects is using biological controls, which for aphids includes introducing beneficial insects such as ladybugs. (In my experience, this works for a short while and then the ladybugs fly away, so a new batch must be introduced for the next generation of aphids.) Although bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a natural bacterium that is poisonous to some insects (but not beneficial insects), aphids are not listed among the insect pests for which it is recommended.

For more serious aphid infestations, I’ll use chemical controls such as  insecticidal soap, pyrethrin (made from a type of chyrsanthemum) or Neem oil, which is particularly effective in smothering insect eggs and soft-bodied insects such as aphids.

Black spot on my roses is also more of a problem during spring when the weather is warm and rainy. Some of my roses (Albas, for instance) are more susceptible to this fungal disease than others. I’ve seen a big improvement in the amount of black spot I see by planting disease-resistant varieties in the best garden location as possible, using drip irrigation instead of overhead spraying, and pruning out diseased leaves when I see them. Chemical controls for black spot include fungicides and fungicides/insecticides that can be sprayed on plants every one or two weeks during the growing season. I use chemicals as a last resort only when black spot is severe because fungicides tend to burn the foliage during our hot summers – use only in the evening or on cloudy days.

Christina Rossetti uses roses as symbols in various ways in her Victorian-era poetry. In “Under the Rose,” she writes daringly (for that time period) of illegitimacy  as:

The iniquity of the fathers upon the children.

Oh the rose of keenest thorn!
One hidden summer morn
Under the rose I was born.

I do not guess his name
Who wrought my Mother’s shame,
And gave me life forlorn,
But my Mother, Mother, Mother,
I know her from all other.
My Mother pale and mild,
Fair as ever was seen,
She was but scarce sixteen,
Little more than a child,
When I was born
To work her scorn.
With secret bitter throes,
In a passion of secret woes,
She bore me under the rose.

Oh the rose of keenest thorn!
One hidden summer morn
Under the rose I was born.

In Soeur Louise De La Misericorde, Rossetti explores female desire, vanity and aging through the historic narrative of 17th century French Duchess Louise de la  Vallière.According to one analyst of this poem, “her description of a rose withering slowly, to become a stem with sharp points only, signals the change from something beautiful into something that serves no purpose except for accidental pain”:

Longing and love, pangs of a perished pleasure,

Longing and love, a disenkindled fire,

And memory a bottomless gulf of mire,

And love a fount of tears outrunning measure;

Oh vanity of vanities, desire!

Now from my heart, love’s deathbed, trickles, trickles,

Drop by drop slowly, drop by drop of fire,

The dross of life, of love, of spent desire;

Alas, my rose of life gone all to prickles,–

Oh vanity of vanities, desire!

Finally, Rossetti mentions roses several times in her 1893 book of nursery rhymes, “Sing-Song.” She writes in one verse: Roses blushing red and white/For delight…” And in other rhyme, she writes:

Hope is like a harebell trembling from its birth,
Love is like a rose the joy of all the earth;
Faith is like a lily lifted high and white,
Love is like a lovely rose the world’s delight;
Harebells and sweet lilies show a thornless growth,
But the rose with all its thorns excels them both.

Yet, Rossetti is ambivalent about the rose’s thorns. In one verse, she writes the “lady of all beauty/Is a rose upon a thorn,” but in another, she is more critical: “A rose has thorns as well as honey, I’ll not have her for love or money.” 

If you prefer your roses without thorns, check out this list of heirloom roses that have few or no thorns. If your roses must be planted in a site with partial shade, here are some recommendations from the American Rose Society. (By the way, did you know that the rose is America’s national flower?) For a listing of roses that meet a wide variety of specifications (color, fragrance, repeat blooming, height, etc) and are grown locally, use the advanced search option on the Rogue Valley Roses website. And to find out about events and meetings of the Rogue Valley Rose Society, visit the organization’s Facebook page.

I hope you have a rosy summer!

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Sneak preview photos of Soroptimist garden tour

The 15th Annual Garden Tour, hosted by Soroptimist International of North Valley, will take place this year from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 20.  The major fundraiser for the Soroptimist chapter features five very different and inspiring gardens in the Rogue Valley. This year’s tour includes four gardens in Medford and one in Phoenix.

The cost of the tour is $15. Tickets can be purchased through May 19 at Central Point Florist, Southern Oregon Nursery and Penny and Lulu Studio Florist in Medford, and the Blue Door Garden Store in Jacksonville. Tickets can also be purchased between 9 a.m. and noon May 20 at Roxy Ann Winery in Medford. For more information about the Garden Tour, call 541-601-4580.

Here is a sneak preview of one of the gardens on the tour – Paula Saunders’ garden in Medford.

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Lilac’s contradictions

“[T]he lilacs nodded over the high wall as if they said, “We could tell fine secrets if we chose…” – Louisa May Alcott, “Under the Lilacs,” 1878

A decade after publishing her best-known novel, “Little Women” (1868), Louisa May Alcott wrote “Under the Lilacs,” a story about childhood friendships shaped and cemented as the children play school and host imaginative parties under the lilac trees. Alcott was deliberate in using lilacs in her book since “youthful innocence” was a familiar meaning associated with lilacs during the Victorian period. Alcott scatters this symbolism throughout the novel;  in one passage describing a sleeping boy, she writes, “The wind had sung a lullaby among the rustling lilacs, the moon’s mild face looked through the leafy arch to kiss the heavy eyelids…”

In fact, there are many stories that mention lilacs and many folk stories about lilacs, themselves. Altogether, these stories have resulted in diverse, and sometimes contradictory, traditions and associations of meaning attributed to lilacs. 

The genus name for lilacs, Syringa, originated from an ancient Sanskrit word, syrinx, meaning ‘hollow’ or ‘tube’ for the squarish pithy stems that can be easily hollowed out. ‘Lilac’ is derived from the Persian word, nylac, referring to the bluish-purple color of the panicles.

One of many legends about the lilac is that of Pan, the Greek god of forests and fields. Pan lusted after a wood nymph whose only recourse to escape his unwanted ardor was to turn into a lilac bush. Pan had to console himself with gathering the stems and binding them together to make a panpipe, or syrinx, in hopes of wooing the nymph back through his lovelorn melodies. ‘Love’ and ‘beauty’ are two meanings associated with lilacs stemming from this myth.

“First love’” and “youthful innocence’” are other meanings associated with lilacs because of its spring-time bloom period. Charles Dickens utilized lilacs’ association with first love in “David Copperfield” (1850) when Copperfield meets Dora: “But oh! when I DID find the house, and DID dismount at the garden-gate, and drag those stony-hearted boots across the lawn to Dora sitting on a garden-seat under a lilac tree, what a spectacle she was, upon that beautiful morning, among the butterflies, in a white chip bonnet and a dress of celestial blue!”

An old Persian love song also features the love-ly lilac:

“Ah, let me weave a chaplet for your hair/Of pale and rosy lilacs, lady fair/Woe to the lover who would choose a rose/that in its heart a stinging bee may close./Or yet a lily, or a spray of vine/Or any bloom that wreathes a cup of wine./The flower I gather, love, for your sweet sake/Breathes love that neither time nor ill can shake.”

On the other hand, supposedly an old Persian custom is to offer a lover a spray of purple lilacs as a way of saying, “I’m sorry, but it’s over between us.” Apparently, the sweet-smelling flowers are meant to distract the spurned individual until the “spurner” can make a hasty retreat!

The English began cultivating lilacs around the time of Henry VIII, and the lilac is still an important part of May Day celebrations there. However, according to one legend, an English nobleman seduced a gullible, young maiden and then abandoned her to die of a broken heart. A wreath of purple lilacs was placed on the hapless girl’s grave, but the flowers turned white as a sign of her purity.  Not only did this story add to the flower’s 19th century associations with “youthful innocence,” it also sparked the superstition that it’s unlucky to bring white lilacs indoors for fear the young maids in the house will never marry.

White lilacs are also often associated with death, as many other white flowers are. Walt Whitman mentions lilacs in a poem in which he mourns the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln:

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed/And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night/I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring” (1865). 

Conversely, lilacs are known for their longevity. A member of the olive family, they can live 100 years or more. Because they thrive in diverse climates, American pioneers traveling to the West to start a new life brought lilac bushes with them and planted them by their doorsteps. Many settlers did not stay; yet, years after their homesteads were abandoned, the lilacs still bloomed in the springtime for only the wind and the prairie dogs to enjoy.

Perhaps it’s the lilac’s association with steadfastness that led poet Robert Burns to write:

“Oh, were my love yon lilac fair/With purple blossoms to the spring/And I a bird to shelter there/When wearied on my little wing” (1793).

I appreciate that the lilac sends so many disparate messages:  ‘love’ and ‘forsaken,’ ‘youthfulness’ and ‘death,’ ‘innocence’ and ‘cursed.’ After all, a plant that lives as long as the lilac is sure to be complicated, and can’t we say the same of ourselves?

There are several types of lilacs that grow anywhere from 4-5 feet for dwarf varieties up to 30 feet tall for lilac trees. The most widely known is the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, of which there are 28 species and countless hybrids, including the “French” lilacs. In addition, the lilac families includes the: Persian lilac (S. persica); Chinese lilac (S. chinensis); Himalayan lilac (S. villosa); dwarf Korean lilac , also called Meyer lilac (S. palebinina); and tree lilacs (S. amurensis).

Lilacs grow well in my neighborhood in old East Medford, Oregon because they don’t mind heavy clay soil. They also do well in alkaline soil. They need moderate levels of water and do best with plenty of sunshine. They attract bees and butterflies, but watch out for aphids, leaf miners, spider mites, leaf spot, and powdery mildew.

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‘Phun’ with Photinias (and how to rejuvenate and propagate)

Nature rarer uses yellow

Than another hue;

Saves she all of that for sunsets, -

Prodigal of blue,

Spending scarlet like a woman,

Yellow she affords

Only scantly and selectly,

Like a lover’s words.

~ Emily Dickinson, “Poems of Emily Dickinson,”1890

I always think of this Emily Dickson poem during this time of year in Southern Oregon. Nature blesses our area with climes in which lots of yellow-blooming flowers and shrubs burst upon the scene in early spring – first the daffodils and forsythia, then tulips, Oregon grape and Euphorbia, not to mention all of the shiny yellow fields of wild mustard.

Nature (and hybridization) also prodigiously provides for “blue “flowers here – grape hyacinth, violets, iris, lobelia, vinca, phlox…

Nature’s most “spendy” (flamboyant) scarlet plants in early spring in the Rogue Valley are the plum tree leaves, emerging after the pink blossoms have faded, and the leaves of the Japanese red maples, and the red-tipped new foliage on all of the Photinia hedges. Photinia (Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Tip’) is one of the most popular hedging shrubs in my neighborhood in East Medford, OR.

In Sunday’s column (April 15, 2017), I wrote about caring for Photinia shrubs, including watering, fertilizing, pruning and treating for pests. Here, I want to focus on how to rejuvenate a Photinia shrub and how to propagate Photinia cuttings. Plus, I’ve found several ideas for having a bit of “phun” with photinias. Read on!

Rejuvenating Photinia

Although Photinia shrubs will eventually grow back after a hard cutting (to about six inches from ground level), the best way to rejuvenate tired or scraggly plants is to cut back in stages. During the spring of the first year, remove all dead and inner crossed branches, and then cut back to six inches about one-third of the oldest, weakest stems. Prune the plant in the same way during the second and third years until most of the stems have been cut back by the fourth spring. Be sure to remove any diseased foliage and dispose of the leaves and stems to prevent the disease from spreading.

Propagating Photinia

The best time to take cuttings from Photinia shrubs is late summer when the stems are mature enough to snap off when bent. Soft-stemmed cuttings tend to rot and otherwise have difficulty rooting. In the morning, use a sharp knife to cut a  healthy 6-inch-long stem from a shrub. Make a slightly angled cut just beneath a leaf node. Dip the end of the stem cutting into a rooting compound, and then place into a 4-6-inch pot filled three-quarters full with a previously prepared and moistened growing medium, such as equal parts sand, coconut coir or peat moss, and perlite. Pack the medium around the plant so it stands up. Cover the pot and keep in a sunny location until spring. I keep rooting cuttings on heat mats set at 65-degrees F. in my greenhouse; other gardeners keep them in an unheated cold frame or sunny room indoors). It’s important to mist the cuttings a few times a week and keep the potting medium just slightly moist. Transplant rooted cuttings the following spring after first testing whether the plant has rooted by checking the bottom of the pot or lightly tugging on the plant to check for resistance.

Novel ideas for using Photinia

Most Photinia shrubs are used to create hedges, and the most popular is a red-tipped Photinia hybrid (P. x fraseriRed Tip). Here is a list of other lesser-used cultivars of this popular plant:

A closely related shrub that is native to our area is the toyon or coastal sage (Heteromeles arbutifolia) shrub. It’s also called California holly or Christmas berry for its large, red berries the plant produces. Toyon is evergreen, like Photinia, and is even more drought tolerant; however, it has a more rangy growth habit and is better used as a specimen plant in a native garden.

Here are some “phun’ ways to use Photinia in your landscape:

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Time to rethink the hospitality of our lawns

“Anyone new to the experience of owning a lawn, as I am, soon figures out that there is more at stake here than a patch of grass. A lawn immediately establishes a certain relationship with one’s neighbors and, by extension, the larger American landscape. Mowing the lawn, I realized the first time I gazed into my neighbor’s yard and imagined him gazing back into mine, is a civic responsibility.” ~ Michael Pollan, “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns” (1989)

Thirty years ago, Michael Pollan was considering whether or not to buy into the belief that living the American dream in suburbia meant having a tidy lawn. By the end of the article, he had talked himself out of it, as have many other American suburbanites since the turn of the 21st century, including me. In Sunday’s Literary Gardener article (April 9, 2017), I provided a

The last remaining section of my front lawn

brief history of America’s love affair with lawns, and I outlined the disadvantages of maintaining a lawn in a world where civic responsibility has more to do with conserving water resources and cutting down on pollution than keeping one’s lawn greener and more manicured than the neighbors’.

There are three basic ways of getting rid of the grass in a front lawn – digging, solarizing, and smothering and composting. See

Bye-bye lawn!

Sunday’s article for information about digging, which is the fastest way to get rid of a lawn. This is the method I used because I want to plant new groundcover this spring and needed to amend my clay soil with 4-6 inches of compost and loamy topsoil. Although some gardeners use thesod as compost, I didn’t want grass seed to germinate in the soil so I didn’t keep the sod.

Solarizing the soil is another way to kill the grass, but this process takes 6-8 weeks for best results, and it needs to be done during July and August, the hottest months of the year. Solarization uses heat from the sun to kill grass, weed seeds and soil pathogens. The bad news is that solarization may also kill beneficial organisms, so it’s important to add them back into the soil with compost that contains lots of organic matter. If you choose to go the solarization route, wait until after the 4th of July, then mow the grass and water it thoroughly. Cover the grassy area with thick, 1.5-2 mil. clear plastic, making sure the sheeting comes in contact with the soil, and then secure the edges with soil or rocks. At the end of August, remove the plastic. You’ll still need to remove the dead grass, but it should be easier to dig out or till under if you plan to use the sod as compost.

Vinca minor groundcover I've trialed for a couple of years in my yard. I know it will grow well!

The third way to go lawn-less is by smothering and composting right over the grass, a method called sheet composting or lasagna composting. The best time for lasagna composting is the fall, to allow layers of carbon and nitrogen materials to decompose n during the winter. The new garden bed will be ready for planting in spring. The OSU Extension Service recommends the following procedure:

Use 4-6 layers of wet newspaper or cardboard for the first carbon layer over the grass, followed by a one-inch layer of a nitrogen source such as manure. Cover the nitrogen layer with an inch of shredded leaves, straw, bark or other carbon material, and then add another inch of nitrogen from kitchen scraps or green plant material left from summer produce. Continue adding layers of carbon and nitrogen until the total height of your “lasagna” is between 18 inches and three feet. End with a carbon layer to provide protection from flies and other pests. If the pile becomes too wet during winter, cover loosely with a sheet of black plastic and anchor with rocks or stakes. The bed will be ready for planting when the layers have decomposed so the materials are no longer recognizable. What’s left should smell like fresh earth.

According to Michael Pollan, humans may have a preference for open, grassy landscapes encoded in our DNA from millions of years spent evolving on African savannas. He suggests the “Savanna Syndrome” explains why people have been hell-bent for centuries on remaking the wooded landscapes of Europe and North America to look like the grassy plains of East Africa. “[T]he urge to dominate nature is a deeply human one, and lawn mowing answers to it,” Pollan says. For many folks, “the lawn mower as civilization’s knife” and our lawn is “a hospitable plane  carved out of the wilderness.”

It’s time to rethink just how “hospitable” our lawns really are.

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Blooming heather: An important late winter/early spring plant for pollinators

The hall was cleared; the stranger’s bed

Was there of mountain heather spread,

Where oft a hundred guest had lain,

And dreamed their forest sports again.

But vainly did the heath flower shed

Its moorland fragrance round his head.

~ Sir Walter Scott, “The Lady of the Lake,” 1810

My flowering purple heather (Erica carnea) is an important late winter/early spring flower for pollinators in my garden. I counted five bees, including a fuzzy bumble bee, on some of

Erica carnea

my heather the other day. Although I often like to provide a boost of high-phosphorous fertilizer to my ornamentals when they’re in the early stages of blooming, heather does better in nutrient-poor soil, so I just let them “do their thing” with the bees!

Heather has a surprisingly rich history. Although popular today as a low-growing ornamental that attracts bees in early spring and butterflies in the summertime, gardeners before the Victorian age did not grow heather (also called heath) because it was associated with rural poverty. Indeed, heather is native to the European moorlands; its name is derived from the Old English word, haeth, meaning an untilled tract of land, and it is the root of the word ‘heathen,’ meaning someone living away from the church in the ‘wilderness.’ Heather grows so rampantly in the Scottish moors that it was used to make roof thatching, bed mattresses, and brooms. Sir Walter Scott was referring to the traditional use of heather as bedstraw in “Lady of the Lake.” Such practical uses for heather led to use of the Latin word, kalluno, meaning “to clean,” when separating Calluna vulgaris (common heather or ling) from the Erica genus heaths. The word, Erica, comes from the Greek ‘ereike,’ which means “to break or crush,” reflecting the belief that drinking heather tea would break up bladder stones.

Whether for medicinal purposes or not, heather tea tastes good! Here’s an easy “recipe” for heather tea.

In fact, heather has been used as a remedy for a variety of kidney and urinary tract disorders. A cheerier imbibed use for the plant, however, is for heather beer, crafted many hundreds of years ago before the use of hops by the peoples of coastal Northern Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Isles, and produced now as a trendy artisan ale in a few English and Scottish breweries. A Scottish legend tells the story of a father and son, last remaining members of the Pict tribes who were conquered by the Scottish kingdom around 843 A.D. The king offers the father and son amnesty if they will reveal the secret of brewing their heather ale, but the father chooses to give up his son’s life and his own, rather than reveal the recipe to outsiders.

Robert Louis Stevenson tells this story in a poem called Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend (1890). The first stanza makes it clear how beloved heather ale was to the dwarf-like Picts:

            From the bonny bells of heather

They brewed a drink long-syne,

Was sweeter far than honey,

Was stronger far than wine.

They brewed it and they drank it,

And lay in a blessed swound

For days and days together

In their dwellings underground.

In the last stanza, after the father watches his son thrown off a cliff into the sea, he turns to the Scottish king and cries out:

            “True was the word I told you:

            Only my son I feared;

            For I doubt the sapling courage

            That goes without the beard.

            But now in vain is the torture,

            Fire shall never avail:

            Here dies in my bosom

            The secret of heather ale.”

A recipe for Highland Heather Ale.

Erica carnea "Ice Princess"

Heather was gaining horticultural value at the same time Stevenson wrote Heather Ale, not because of beer, but due to increased interest in gardening with alpine plants. For the Victorians, heather symbolized solitude because it thrives in rocky, wind-swept highlands. According to Scottish folklore, heather is stained by the blood of war, and white heather grows only where no blood has been spilled; thus, white heather symbolizes good luck and protection. In the 1880s, Queen Victoria popularized the long-held Scottish tradition of brides carrying a sprig of white heather for luck.

Planting and caring for heather

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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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