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I have killed so many plants.

Since moving to Oregon from Cincinnati five years ago, I have slain more than my share of innocents by not giving them what they needed to survive. Many more I have ripped out and thrown on the compost heap for failing to perform as I’d hoped.

You’d think I would have done better. I came here with 17 years of gardening experience. I’d worked at a wholesale nursery for 16 years. I’d been an ISA-certified arborist (though I’d let my membership lapse). And I was now gardening in the benign climate of Portland, where any noob can grow delphiniums and palms and monkey puzzle trees and hardy fuchsias.

Monkey puzzle!

My plant friends back in Cincinnati struggled to grow sad, puny camellias in their warmest microclimates and hated me while I gloated about my zone 8 plant palette. Little did they know I was quietly killing plants in this gardener’s wonderland. I thought that gardening here would be the same as in the Midwest, only with milder winters.

But there were many aspects of gardening here that I didn’t understand—aspects that I would have to grasp before I would be able to have a garden that would truly thrive: The complete and utter lack of rainfall in summer, which causes the ground to crack and makes the soil actually refuse to take up water when it is offered.  The East Winds that rip through the Columbia River Gorge, barreling towards Portland. The special needs of plants adapted to dry summers and their sensitivity to irrigation when soil temperatures are high. Gardening in the Pacific Northwest: The Complete Homeowner’s Guide would have helped me on all accounts had I had this book in my possession five years ago!

East Winds often rip through the scenic Columbia River Gorge, headed for Portland.

How did I come to co-author the book that was to be my own best advice? Well, when my husband and I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I decided to exit the nursery industry and try to make it as a freelance garden writer and photographer. It was a dream I’d had for a long time, and it was time to take the plunge. Lo and behold, I soon found rewarding work; my main client became Bower & Branch, an innovative online retailer of trees and perennials. I also introduced myself at Timber Press, which happens to be headquartered here in Portland, and I landed a gig helping out on the third edition of Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s bestselling book, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden. When Timber later asked me to work on Paul Bonine’s Gardening in the Pacific Northwest, I immediately said yes.

I discovered Paul’s garden entirely by accident one day. Walking Portland’s neighborhoods is like exploring a huge botanical garden, and I was checking out his neck of the woods in March of 2014, less than a year after I’d moved to the area. His garden stopped me in my tracks. By then I was used to the humbling feeling of encountering plants I didn’t recognize, but Paul’s front yard was filled with plants that were new to me. I took photos and later ID’ed some of his treasures as Grevillea australis, Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp. debeuzevillei, Daphne genkwa, and Drimys lanceolata.

Grevillea australis in Paul’s garden that March day four years ago.

Paul’s Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp. debeuzevillei four years ago. It has grown a lot since then!

Paul’s Daphne genkwa. Not a fragrant species, but very showy.

Drimys lanceolata, or mountain pepper.

Eventually, I got to know Paul through the nursery he co-owns with Greg Shepherd, Xera Plants. I soon realized something about him as a plantsman. Namely, he doesn’t grow uncommon plants just to be different, but to find plants that flourish in our conditions. He’s constantly seeking plants that are naturally attuned to life in the Pacific Northwest. In other words, he kills lots of plants too, but with a purpose. Only the best will pass his test.

I’ve found Paul to be one of the most brilliant plantspeople I have ever met. He is certainly one of the most knowledgeable in our region. A lifelong Oregonian, a longtime nurseryman, and a keen weather geek, he knows exactly how to succeed with an enormous array of plants in all subclimates of the Pacific Northwest. He knows how to handle our weather, our soils, and our pests, and he knows which plants work and which ones don’t cut the mustard.

I was brought on board by Timber Press to give the wealth of information in Paul’s manuscript better flow. It was an honor to work with him, and in doing so, I received a master class in gardening in the Pacific Northwest. I feel much more confident now in making smart choices that will suit my conditions as well as my personal aesthetic. I ripped out all of the turf in our front yard and am currently installing a brand-new, drought-tolerant garden, and I’m renovating the back garden—replacing my duds and water-hogs with beautiful, interesting, and more climate-adapted selections.

I also took nearly all of the photos for the book. Tracking down the plants in the extensive profile section was like going on a botanical treasure hunt, and it gave me a good excuse to see more of our region’s gorgeous public and private gardens. I am especially thankful to the many members of the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon who so graciously welcomed me into their gardens. Joining this fabulous non-profit club—2,500 members strong—is a must for any passionate Northwest gardener. It is a wonderfully welcoming and vibrant community.

I got some great shots at Thomas Vetter’s lush Portland garden.

I believe that Gardening in the Pacific Northwest: The Complete Homeowner’s Guide will give you the confidence and tools to succeed in your piece of Eden, too. Even if you’re an experienced gardener and have lived here your whole life, I think you’ll enjoy this book. You”ll find lots of great tips and the plant palette is exciting and quite sophisticated. I do hope you’ll add it to your library.

Enter now to win a signed copy! Let me know in the comments that you’d like to enter the contest, and I will draw one winner at random on Tuesday, April 10, at 9pm (Pacific Time, of course!).

You can buy Gardening in the Pacific Northwest: The Complete Homeowner’s Guide at most places where gardening books are sold, or online at Timber Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and Indiebound.

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Mid-August meltdown

It’s mid-August. Do you find yourself apologizing for your perennials right about now? Stems that can’t hold their flowers up? Foliage that’s become tattered and sad? Plants that have outgrown their space and are crowding their neighbors?

Third time’s the charm

All of these problems have clear solutions in the new third edition of Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s bestselling book, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: The Essential Guide to Planting and Pruning Techniques, from Timber Press.

Because I helped out on this book with some editorial work and photos, this will be an unabashedly biased review of it. And because I received an extra copy of the book from Timber in conjunction with that work, I’ll be giving one away at the end of this post!

Snippity snip

Pruning perennials.

Nobody gave the idea much ink (other than in reference to mums) until the first edition of The Well-Tended Perennial Garden in 1998. But Tracy was, and is, a perennial-pruning evangelist. She spelled out the many reasons why pruning shouldn’t be reserved for our woody plants.

In the new edition, she gives 15 functions (fifteen!) that pruning can serve in the perennial garden.

Proper pruning—Tracy shows you exactly how to do it—can prevent problems like those in the opening paragraph: floppy stems, ragged summer foliage, and plants that get a little too big.

For example, here’s a native lupine I grew from seed. It was glorious this spring. I wanted to collect seed, so I let it go to seed, and afterwards it looked horrible. Huge, messy, and horrible. I cut it back to the ground in early summer.

Today, despite no rain in almost two months and practically no love from me, it has a sweet, fresh mound of basal foliage.

This is an agastache I got from Xera Plants called ‘Mandarin Dream’. It usually gets too tall for its pot and looks out of proportion, but this year I pruned it back in the spring, so it wouldn’t get so tall. I also didn’t fertilize it, which is why it’s so pale, but you get the idea.

I have lots of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Pruning in this case can help to encourage rebloom. I sheared this patch as soon as the blooms faded, and now it has buds again.

Whereas this patch of butterfly weed I left alone, and now it’s covered in seedpods. No flower buds.

Everything you need to know

The new Well-Tended also discusses staking, dividing, watering, and fertilizing perennials. You’ll learn how to control and prevent pests and diseases without harsh chemicals. And Tracy shares her steps in creating beds and borders from start to finish. Good, meaty stuff.

There are many new beautiful photos in the plant encyclopedia, if I do say so myself.

Then there is the updated plant encyclopedia, with more than fifty new entries. Each item has detailed info about its maintenance—the kind of info that you don’t find elsewhere.

Boltonia asteroides ‘Snowbank’ is a lower-maintenance perennial that blooms in late summer and fall.

But wait, there’s more! Lists of perennials according to their maintenance needs: plants that need dividing only every ten years or more, clay busters, lower-maintenance perennials…

Win a copy now

That’s right! I have one free copy of the 2017 edition of The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust to give away to a lucky reader. Just let me know in the comments below that you’d like to enter, and I’ll choose a winner at random on Sunday, August 20, at 5:00 pm Pacific Time. Good luck!

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There are some choice gardens on the Association of Northwest Landscape Designers Garden Tour this Saturday, June 17, on Portland’s west side. How do I know? I got a sneak peek last week! Here’s what I saw, along with 15 great landscaping ideas.

Stick around til the end, and you can enter to win a ticket to the tour yourself.

#1 River rock as an edging.
In Terri’s Garden, designed by Amy Whitworth, I got an idea for what to do with my surplus of river rock—use it as an edging!

#2 Camellia Vestito Rosso.
I also made the acquaintance of Vestito Rosso camellia and its chocolate-brown new foliage. The flowers are near-red, with lots of overlapping petals in wonderful fractal patterns. Yum.

The Letson-Gardner Garden, designed by Lucy Hardiman and Susan LaTourette, was magical. Marcia Peck rests in a comfy chair. We’ll see her incredible garden in a little bit.

#3 Delphinium-Verbascum-Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ combo.


#4 Ismene festalis.

I believe this was growing in the ground. Do you grow this? Is it hardy in Portland? Do I need it? I think I need it.

#5 This bench.

The Myers Garden, designed by David West, was a nice collaboration between a landscaper and homeowner who had recently caught the gardening bug. I thought this curved bench was pretty cool. Any handy people out there? How difficult would this be to make?

#6 This rusty raised bed.

This is how you do a very small urban veggie bed.

#7 Bolax gummifera.
Happy, happy bolax. I’ve killed this before, but this immense patch made me realize it deserves another chance. If you go to this garden, feel the texture of this plant. It’s weird and plastic-y, so unplantlike.

#8 Repetition of plants.

The nice thing about the designer’s tour is that you get to see how the pros do it. One thing the pros do is repeat plants throughout a bed. It brings cohesiveness to a planting. This is Ann Nickerson’s home garden, Andora Gardens. Note how she repeats the variegated irises, ferns, and spireas and what a calming effect that has on the whole.

#9 Limb up ninebark.

When we saw this ninebark (Physocarpus), my friend Darcy Daniels said, “Why do we hardly ever limb up ninebark when the bark looks like that?” We should really limb up ninebark more often.

#10 DIY mosaics.

The garden of Marcia Peck is filled with mosaics she’s made herself. The process sounds surprisingly simple. She says to dig a hole in the ground and fill it with dry concrete. Then, place your stones, and finally, mist with water until the concrete is saturated.

#11 Arrange stones in containers.

Do you leave plants naked in their containers? Marcia arranges stones like paving in her pots, and it looks pretty sharp.

#12 Barberry as an underplanting.

Another way to add interest to a container planting. I thought this was really striking—an early-blooming Edgeworthia underplanted with barberry! Bonus idea: check out that sweet little stone wall to the left.

#13 Hebe ‘Quicksilver’ with Sedum spurium ‘Voodoo’.

Or one of the red Sedum spuriums. ‘Voodoo’ seems to hold its color better than most. Quicksilver can be a rather spacey grower, and Voodoo fills in the gaps. The Schmitt Garden, designed by Marcia Peck, gave us another delicious taste of Marcia’s sensibilities.

#14 Tidy vegetables.

Growing compact veggies in containers allows the homeowners to keep it neat. On the right, a tomato; near left, a dwarf raspberry. In the corner, a pot of peas.

#15 An arbor adds depth.

I thought this arbor was really great. Just a couple of small panels and some crossbeams overhead and voilà! So simple, but it adds so much depth.

I strongly recommend this tour if you’re in the Portland area on June 17. Tickets are $25, and the proceeds go towards scholarships for local community college horticulture and landscaping students. Find out more here.

Or, win a ticket! I’m giving away one ticket. Tell me in the comments that you’d like to enter. I’ll draw the lucky winner on Tuesday, June 13, at 8:00 pm PDT. Good luck!

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“Nothing you see here is by accident,” said our tour guide, Rolland O’Dell, when I went to the Portland Japanese Garden last month. Japanese gardens are very deliberate. Every element has purpose and meaning.

Taking a guided tour when you go to the Portland Japanese Garden—or any Japanese garden—is the way to go if you don’t already understand this style of gardening. By jumping in on a tour, I got a much richer experience than I would have on my own. Here’s some of the symbolism that would have been otherwise hidden to me.

Circle and Gourd

The moss-covered circle and gourd shapes aren’t random. The circle symbolizes enlightenment, the gourd happiness. The gravel, by the way, is special stone shipped in from near Kyoto. It sparkles in the sunlight like gemstones.

Pine Trees

Pine trees symbolize perseverance in Japanese gardens. They are often “cloud-pruned,” a painstaking task that gives them a layered look and keeps them small and tidy. Here a worker tends to one. Rolland said that each pine in the garden requires 13 man-hours of pruning per year.

Tortoise Stone

In a Japanese water garden, you are bound to see a few large stones sticking out the water. Nothing is by accident! A low, flat stone represents the tortoise, a symbol of longevity. According to Japanese folklore, the tortoise lives 10,000 years.

Crane Stone

An upright stone in the water represents the crane, also a symbol of longevity. The crane is believed to live a mere 1,000 years.


The Moon Bridge has no paint, no varnish. It is allowed to weather and age naturally. Rolland explained that this exemplifies the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi: beauty in aging and imperfection.

Lotus Bud

The post finial on the Moon Bridge is a lotus bud, which is a Buddhist symbol of purity. This one is quite stylized, so I never would have recognized it as a flower bud, but after having it pointed out, I began to see lotus buds everywhere.

Zigzag Bridge

The Zigzag Bridge has multiple reasons behind its shape. First, it forces you to slow down and appreciate the details. You’ll note this bridge is unfinished, too. Wabi-sabi. Second, it makes you appreciate the garden from different angles. And most importantly, evil spirits only travel in a straight line, so after you cross the Zigzag Bridge, you’re safe.

Jizo Statue

In Japanese Buddhism, Jizo is the protector of travelers, and these Jizo statues are found alongside the roads in Japan. I wouldn’t have even noticed this small statue nestled in the moss along a shady path if it hadn’t been pointed out to me, much less have known what it meant.

Hokkaido Map and Asymmetrical Balance

Portland is a sister city to Sapporo, Japan, which is on the island of Hokkaido. Here a map of Hokkaido is represented in stones on the ground.

In the background, an important concept in Japanese gardening is demonstrated: asymmetrical balance. The plants on either side of the pagoda aren’t the same, though they possess roughly the same visual weight. Japanese gardens are very formal, but they don’t have straight lines and matchy-matchy planting schemes like formal European gardens.

Hide and Reveal

At this point, Rolland also pointed out the expert use of the technique he called “hide and reveal.” We could hear a waterfall, but not see it, and we could just get glimpses of other parts of the garden.

The Portland Japanese Garden was designed in the 1960s by Professor Takuma Tono. It is believed by many to be one of the most authentic Japanese gardens not on Japanese soil.

Tea House

When we got to the tea house, our tour guide explained a little about the significance of the tea ceremony. He said that the rules for the tea ceremony were codified in the 15th century, and a proper ceremony could last 4 1/2 to 5 hours. At the time, Japan was a dangerous and lawless place, and people liked going to the tea house for a bit of escapism.


Before entering the tea house, you would purify yourself by washing your hands and rinsing your mouth at the tsukubai. You will also see these at temples.

Natural Garden

The Natural Garden at the Portland Japanese Garden represents birth, life, and death. Rolland said the gardeners find pruning the most difficult in this section. Apparently, making something look as if it hasn’t been pruned at all isn’t as easy as you think.

Especially if you really, really want to prune everything like this!

With very few exceptions (cherries, plums, chysanthemums) flowers are considered a distraction in Japanese gardens. I went during prime azalea season, but you’d hardly know it. Almost all of the blooms were sheared off. Sculpted forms are what is considered beautiful.

Sand and Stone Garden

Rolland said this had become his favorite garden. Though bleak-looking, it contains all of the key elements of a classic Japanese garden: stone, water (simulated), and plants (lichens and moss on the stones).

What Japanese garden symbolism have I missed?

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