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We love our lilac shrubs with their exemplary fragrance in May. But almost any lilac that has not been pruned for two years or more is likely to have several trunks, some older than others, and a brood of basal shoots ("suckers") around its base. And as it blooms on branch tips, we might find most flowers up high, out of optimal sniffing range. Pruning to meet these challenges can be a different approach than with many other flowering shrubs.

Common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) can grow anywhere between 8 and 20 feet tall and wide, depending on its cultivar. If it is given plenty of space, pruning may not be necessary outside of occasional deadheading and thinning. But if your lilac is planted in close quarters (now, who might have done that?) or if you otherwise wish to restrict its size, here are some methods to try.

Typically, lilac pruning aims to meet any combination of the five following goals:

1) Deadheading - removing spent blossoms and seedheads to visually clean it up and increase blooming potential for next year.

2) Removing or minimizing basal shoots (suckers).

3) Reducing the shrub's size to encourage lower blooms where we can more easily enjoy them.

4) Thinning the shrub to preserve its tree-like character.

5) Starting over - renovating it from the ground up.

Note that some dwarf and specialty lilacs do not exhibit the same size issues or suckering, but many of these same pruning principles apply. They also work on a host of other multi-trunk shrubs. For an overview of basic pruning principles, check out our earlier post, Pruning 101.

Here's an image of a moderately mature common lilac that can use a little maintenance. It has older trunks (showing the more mottled, gray bark), younger trunks (smoother, tan bark), spent blooms with seedheads, and a healthy crop of basal shoots. While it was not possible to prune this tree and take before/after photos in time for this post, we have illustrated the techniques we would use below.

A medium-sized lilac shrub in need of some pruning.

Diagram of our lilac shrub (not including leaves or flowers).

Option 1) Deadheading - removing spent blossoms and seedheads

Deadheading is a good starting point when you're still getting used to this whole pruning thing. It's helpful on younger plants to redirect their energy from producing seed to producing next year's flowers. It's not as necessary on older, established lilacs, not to mention a time-consuming job on a big shrub with lots of blooms. This is also true for rhododendrons.

Most lilacs form conical bloom clusters on branch ends. To deadhead, cut just below where the cluster begins and, just above where there is a significant side branch or leaf node. Or, if you are reducing the shrub's size as in Option 3 below, you can cut further back to a larger side branch.

The best time to deadhead is within a few weeks after blooming to give your lilac the most time to develop bloom buds for the next year.

Deadheading - remove spent blooms and seedheads.

Option 2) Removing or minimizing basal shoots

The basal shoots, or "suckers" can be annoying but are a natural tendency of lilacs to form colonies. If your shrub has been left unpruned for many years, it may have formed a dense little forest of thick shoots, a bit intimidating to take on. Also, basal shoots tend to grow more aggressively a year or two after a hard pruning. So the best way to stay ahead of them is to reduce their numbers each year rather than wait every few years and then face a big job.

You may choose to leave a few of the tallest new shoots to form new trunks, especially if you are reducing the shrub's size or renovating as discussed below.

Removing basal shoots is a simple, but sometimes physical job. Cut them at ground level, or as low as you can reach, with well-sharpened loppers or a small hand saw. 

 

Option 3) Reducing the shrub's size

Lowering the height and overall size of your lilac can help bring down flower clusters to reachable level and make your plant generally easier to maintain, but it might come with tradeoffs: 

     a) It might take a couple of years to reform bloom buds and bloom significantly.

     b) Significantly reducing the natural size of any tree or shrub can trigger aggressive new growth and create a situation where you need to maintain it more often. Try to not reduce its size too often, perhaps every five years or more.

To reduce it, cut the tallest trunks with a pruning saw at ground level, or low as you can reach. You might want to remove one trunk at a time, stepping back to observe the effect after each removal. This helps prevent the removal of more than you intended.

If you don't want to remove entire trunks, you can remove the tallest shoots off the main trunks. Besides reducing height, this helps thin the shrub, which is good maintenance as well. Also look to thin out problem branches, which might include dead, broken or aggressive vertical shoots growing up through the center of the shrub, which make it denser. You don't want to eliminate every last branch inside but reduce the density to allow more light and air to circulate.

Reducing size - cut taller, older trunks at the ground, and thin out some taller internal branches.

Option 4) Thinning the shrub 

Many lilac shrubs over time develop a somewhat twisted, multi-branched, tree-like character with textured bark. If height is not an issue, this character can be enhanced by thinning out younger, straighter, fast-growing shoots and leaving the older ones. Then do some typical shrub thinning, which we've described more fully in Pruning 101, or Spring Pruning Part 2.

Thinning & preserving character — remove younger competing trunks, and thin out some taller internal branches.

Option 5) Starting over - renovate your lilac

If your lilac has achieved Monsterhood, or all the blooms are now twelve feet up, you might just choose to start over. As with many fast-growing, multi-trunked shrubs, lilacs will survive being cut all the way to the ground, sending up new shoots the following growing season and approaching mature height within a couple of years. Forsythia, spiraea, mock orange (Philadelphus), and shrub dogwood can also survive this method, known as coppicing. The new crop of shoots can then be thinned out to allow a few stronger ones to develop into the new structure of the shrub.

In some regions, coppicing is regular practice every few years to control shrub growth. We don't recommend it on a regular basis, but it's an option for renovating your lilac. Keep in mind that, as with other size reduction techniques, it might not set flowers for a few years after being coppiced. It is best done in late winter, just before new growth starts to emerge.

Renovating - remove all but a few basal shoots, or coppice (cut everything to the ground to regrow).

Where to make cuts on a trunk or branch

Prune to minimize bare stubs — cut to just above a branch node or bud lest you leave an unsightly stub that will die off. It's wise (and cleaner-looking) to cut to redirect growth to a significant side branch, and away from the center of the plant. We strongly recommend this for more delicate plants such as Japanese maples, but with sprouting shrubs such as lilacs, it's not as essential. They will sprout close to wherever you cut. The same goes for sawing thicker trunks — close to a side branch or at the ground will look better, but the shrub is likely to sprout from anywhere.

As with most shrubs, don't obsess with cutting every last branch that you "need" to, or making every cut perfect. I often describe pruning as "nudging" your plant toward a certain direction or behavior rather than strictly controlling it. A lilac can be a strong-willed child - better to redirect it gently and frequently, rather than try to control its future with one heavy-handed pruning session.

 

As with all garden advice, we're happy to answer any specific questions you might have. We can even show you a quick pruning demonstration at Swansons. Send us questions via comment below, post to our Facebook page or use hashtag #heyswansons on Twitter or Instagram.

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Fruit tree netting is something I had never used or considered using until this year. I had experimented with nylon apple maggot barriers before with moderate success, but their application is quite labor and time intensive. Now that I have tried tree netting I will never go back. The process of netting a tree can seem intimidating at first, but with proper planning and the right supplies, it is an excellent way of protecting fruit from pests such as apple maggots and coddling moths, as well as those pesky crows and squirrels.

 

Measuring and Preparation

The first step is to make sure that you will have enough netting for the tree (or part of the tree) that you want to cover. The netting available at Swansons is 17.5 feet wide and is sold by the foot. I started with an 18-foot length, giving me a roughly square piece of netting. However, by the time my tree was covered, I wished I had given myself a little more to work with. To determine the amount of netting to cover your tree, measure the height of the tree starting at the lowest branch and its width at the widest part. From there you can calculate how much netting you will need.

Before wrapping your tree it is a good idea to finish up any last minute work on the tree, such as pruning and fruit thinning if you wish to do so. I cut off all but one apple per cluster because I want fewer, larger apples.

 

Setting Up the Netting

I started by laying my sheet of netting out on the lawn near my tree so that it was easy to work with. 

Next, I tied a long stick to each of the corners on one end. With a little help, I was then able to raise the net up in the air with the sticks and drape it over the top of the tree. Getting the net into place required a bit of poking and prodding with one of the sticks.





Once the net was draped over the tree, I tied each of the four corners to the trunk with a bit of twine.



Then, I used heavy thread and a needle to seal up the four openings where the net came together. To ensure that no critters would be able to squeeze through I took the two net edges and placed them side by side, then I rolled them over one or two times and threaded the needle through in a pattern like the spine of a spiral notebook. At the end of the opening, I tied the thread off securely, and then repeated the same process for the other openings. I am lousy at sewing, but with this method, it was quite simple.





After the net was secured to the tree so that there was no gap between it and the trunk and all of the holes were closed, only one step remained: adjusting the net so that the branches inside were minimally bent and the net was not so tight that it was straining the tree. For this part, I got up on my step ladder and adjusted it by hand.

For larger trees, it can be easier to use separate sections of netting for each large branch or group of branches. This makes it easier to drape the net and can save material if the branches are spread far apart from each other.

If you have any questions about measuring or using netting, feel free to contact us in person or on social media using hashtag #heyswansons!

 

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Everyone likes a little privacy. We want to feel like at least some part of our garden is a private oasis, a place where we can go to relax and leave the cares of the world behind. That doesn't necessarily mean building a fortress of walls around your yard. In fact, there are many creative options for privacy screening.

Here are some things to consider as you begin. First, what are your screening needs?

  • Do you prefer a formal hedge or plantings that blend into the landscape?
  • Do you need to cover the entire length of your property line or will you screen only one area?
  • Do you want to block views from overhead, such as from a neighbor’s deck or windows?

When you have determined your basic screening needs, ask yourself a few more questions:

  • Do you want year-round or seasonal coverage?
  • How tall and wide would you like your plantings to grow?

Don't forget to consider multiple angles of coverage as well. View the site from different angles to be sure you are covered from all sides.

You may also want to think about a temporary solution while waiting for your plants to fill in, such as bamboo or brush fencing.

Formal Hedges

Yew hedge

These plants offer a dense, geometric screen for formal hedges. They will need regular shearing maintenance (at least twice a year) to retain their shape:

  • Cupressus x leylandii
    • An individual specimen can grow to 30’ high x 20’ wide
    • A hedge can be pruned to 8’-10’ high x 4’ wide
    • plant at least 6’ apart
  • Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’ (evergreen)
    • Individual or hedge, grows to 10'
    • Sun or shade
    • Can be shaped to any form
Informal Hedges

Lonicera nitida, Boxleaf Honeysuckle

Less formal but equally as dense, these plants need less shearing and maintenance and have a more natural shape:

  • Fargesiarufa (evergreen)
    •  A clumping bamboo that doesn’t spread!
    •  Grows to 10'
  • Nandina domestica
    • Individual or hedge
    • Great red/orange winter color
    • The look of bamboo but doesn’t spread
  • Lonicera nitida
    • Try the variety ‘Baggesson’s Gold’
    • Individual or hedge
    • Can be sheared to any width or depth
    • Versatile! Can handle sun, part shade, or shade
Narrow Spaces

Ilex Crenata, also called Japanese Holly and Sky Pencil

For extremely limited, narrow spaces, these tall, narrow shrubs work well:

  • Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’ (small evergreen)
  • Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Fastigiata’ (evergreen)
  • Cupressus ‘Wilma Goldcrest’
    • Bright gold foliage
    • 8’ x 3’ wide
    • Sun or part shade

Or consider structures like a trellis or arbor with smaller vines:

  • Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’ (deciduous)
  • Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin’ (semi-evergreen)
  • Akebia quinata (semi-evergreen)
  • Clematis armandii (evergreen)
  • Hedera canariensis ‘Sulphur Heart’ (evergreen)
    • Sun or shade
  • x Fatshedera lizei cvs. (evergreen)
    • White flowers
    • Can handle full shade
Other Options

Weeping Beech Tree

Weeping trees can also serve as a single architectural accent for screening:

  • Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’ (Weeping Beech)
  • Tsuga ‘Sargent’s Weeping’ (Weeping Hemlock)
  • Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’ (Weeping Alaska Cedar)

Also, consider large potted accents of the following, either singly or in rows:

  • Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Forester’
    • 6’ h x 2’ w
  • Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’
  • Fargesia rufa

Now that you have a few screening options, experiment to find the best solution for your space. Formal or not, remember that all screening plants will need some maintenance to retain their form and thrive!

We'd also love to hear about your favorite screening plants and answer your screening questions! Comment below, email us at garden@swansonsnursery.com or chat with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram - don't forget to use the hashtag #heyswansons.

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Most warm-season vegetables (heat-lovers like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, and beans) can be grown here in the Pacific Northwest..... If you can give them the right conditions. But with our cool, wet springs and short summers, sometimes it can seem like an uphill battle. Luckily, there are ways to ensure success for the PNW gardener, from season-extending tools to growing tips for happy plants and great harvests. 

How to Choose the Right Plants

Swansons' growers provide us with varieties of plants and seeds that generally grow well in our PNW conditions. When choosing varieties, here are some other tips to help you succeed.

  • Tomatoes - For reliably large harvests, cherry tomatoes are the way to go in the Pacific Northwest. Even during a colder or rainy summer, they will have time to ripen. If you desperately want large tomatoes, try an early variety (look for days to maturity signs and try to find varieties with less than 75 days).
  • Peppers - Look for smaller peppers and those that taste great green as well as fully ripened to orange or red. Hot peppers may not be as spicy if growing conditions aren't ideal.
  • Eggplant - try smaller Asian varieties, which will ripen more quickly. 
  • Curcubits - The plants of the Curcubit family include summer and winter squash, cucumbers, melons, and pumpkins. Summer squash and cucumbers usually do well in our area if they have enough light. Try smaller varieties of winter squash, mini pumpkins, and melons bred for a short season.
  • Beans - Beans grow quite well in the PNW. Choose pole or runner beans for harvest over a long season and provide them with a trellis for support. Bush beans generally ripen over a shorter period and do not need supports.

 

When to Plant

Warm-season vegetables are tender annuals in our climate and cannot handle cold, wet weather or frost. These vegetables are best planted outside when the weather begins to warm up in May and June

Season-extending tools can help you plant warm-season vegetables earlier and encourage them to grow in cooler weather. Harvest Guard® (also called row cover) is a lightweight fabric that can be draped over garden beds or even wrapped around tomato cages to help warm the air and soil. You can also try Season Starter™ plant protectors around small tomato, squash, eggplant or pepper plants. This is a ring of flexible plastic tubes that can be filled with water to form a sort of warming tee-pee around the plants, which can be removed once the weather warms up and the plants outgrow it. Remember to open any covering during the day when plants are in bloom, to allow for pollination!

 

Sun & Warmth

Most warm-season vegetables need full sun, meaning at least 6-8 hours of sun each day. More sun is even better! Try a west- or south-facing area of the garden or use pots that you can move around to follow the sun. Planting warm-season veggies against a west- or south-facing wall can also help radiate even more heat for them to enjoy.

Space

Warm-season veggies need a lot of space to thrive. If you've ever seen a pumpkin patch, you'll understand what I mean. Space is important for root and foliage growth but also for adequate air flow. Give your plants room to breathe! Read the individual plant tags to determine the recommended spacing for your specific vegetable varieties. If you lack garden space, try trellising plants such as beans, cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins vertically to save room. 

When growing warm-season vegetables in pots, always choose a bigger pot than you think you need (trust me). Large pots give your plants room to grow strong root systems and also need to be watered less often than smaller containers. As a rule of thumb, pots should be at least this deep for the following plants:

  • Tomatoes & summer squash - 12-14" 
  • Eggplant - 10-12" 
  • Cucumbers - 9-12"
  • Bush beans - 8-12"
  • Peppers - 8"
  • Melons, winter squash, and pole beans are not recommended for containers.

 

Water

All vegetables need consistent water to thrive. Create a schedule to help you water regularly but allow yourself the flexibility to adapt to changing weather conditions (hotter weather = water more often) and to your own observations. If you notice, for example, that the surface of the soil is still damp when you plan to water, you might wait a day or two before watering, making sure, however, that the plants do not dry out entirely or begin to wilt. 

A drip irrigation system or soaker hose is the best option for watering in my opinion, but if you decide to water by sprinkler or by hand be sure to water in the morning so the leaves have a chance to dry before evening. Morning watering is best no matter what type of watering system you use because it is cooler so there will be less evaporation.

Mulching can help conserve moisture. Try adding a 1-2" layer of compost around the plants, which has the added benefit of offering extra nutrients to the plants. I like E.B. Stone Organics Planting Compost for my vegetable garden.

 

Food

Speaking of nutrients, warm-season veggies have a short period of time in which to do a lot. They have to form strong root systems, lots of leaves, grow big and strong, produce flowers, then fruit, and then ripen the fruit all in our short PNW summers! The more essential nutrients they have the better.

The first step is adding compost to your garden soil before or when planting and mixing it well with the existing soil. This step isn't necessary for containers, but be sure to use a high-quality potting soil to fill your pots. 

Next, add some natural fertilizer at planting time, following the directions on the package; I really like Dr. Earth® and Espoma® tomato and vegetable fertilizers. Most warm-season veggies need to be fertilized at planting and then again 3-6 weeks later. The exception is beans, which don't need any additional fertilizer after planting. Potted vegetables often need even more frequent feeding because nutrients are washed away more quickly.

 

Planting Tips

When planting tomatoes, remove the bottom third of leaves and plant the stem deeply into the soil. The plant will put out roots from each node where the leaves were removed for a more vigorous, layered root system and stronger plant!

Members of the Curcubit family dislike being transplanted. You can avoid this by sowing seeds directly into the ground in May or June (using season-extending tools to help them germinate and grow). However, starting with small plants from the nursery offers a head start on the growing season. When transplanting, just try not to disturb the roots too much. If there are several plants in one pot, plant them all together without separating them and snip off all but the strongest looking plant. It might be hard to do but it's definitely worth it to have a happy, strong plant!

Beans are similar to Curcubits in that they don't like their roots disturbed. Luckily, they are easy to start from seed directly outdoors. The plants are also often sold in packs that contain 4-6 "cells". Plant each cell together unless they break apart naturally and snip off extra plants to thin according to the directions on the tag. Bush beans generally like to be 4-6" apart while pole and runner beans should be spaced 6-10" apart.

 

Harvesting Tips

Harvesting, like voting in Chicago, should be done early and often. It's surprising how quickly baby vegetables can grow and many taste better when smaller (especially green beans, squash, and cucumbers)! If you leave vegetables to over-ripen, the plant thinks it has done it its biological duty (producing seeds to procreate) and will slow down on production. Plus, no one wants a 4-foot zucchini.

If cold weather is on its way and your tomatoes and peppers haven't fully ripened, you can pick them and bring them in to ripen inside. Try placing them near an apple, which produces a gas that causes fruit and vegetables to ripen more quickly. Another, albeit more dramatic, tactic is to uproot the entire plant and hang it upside down inside a garage or basement to ripen. Some people swear by it. I find it creates a big mess. 

 

Pests

Pests are a common problem in the vegetable garden, but most often are not serious enough to ruin an entire crop. A combination of preventative measures and vigilance is the best strategy to tackle pests. 

To prevent certain pests from getting to the vegetables in the first place, try covering your crops with Harvest Guard® row cover. This lightweight fabric will let light, water, and air in but keep pests out. You can either drape it loosely over the bed to allow the plants to push it up as they grow or use small hoops to keep it above the tops of the plants, then pin the edges with rocks, boards, or garden staples so no pests can fly or crawl inside. Row cover has the added bonus of keeping the air and soil temperature warmer under the cover - great for warm-season veggies as they are starting out!

Slugs and snails can be an issue in the PNW and there are several options to keep them at bay. Row cover can help, but if the slugs find a way under the cover they will just be delightfully warm while they snack. I like to use two methods in combination. I crumble rinsed and dried eggshells and spread them on the soil around the plants. Snails and slugs do not like to cross over the shards because it cuts their soft flesh. Another very efficacious solution is to use a product called Sluggo®. These iron phosphate pellets are ingested by the slugs who then stop feeding and eventually die. Sluggo is labeled safe to use around people and pets.

 

Diseases

Two diseases to watch for are powdery mildew and late blight. The strongest defense against disease is strong, healthy plants, so let's start there. Plants that aren't getting adequate light, nutrients, and especially water, are weaker and more susceptible to disease. That said, there are some things that can help.

Powdery mildew is ubiquitous around the PNW and can almost never be completely eliminated. The good news is that if you can keep it contained it will not kill your plants before the cold does. Give your plants enough space so they have good air flow and remove severely affected leaves as you find them. Some people swear by spraying leaves with a mix of baking soda and water or even wetting them down with water once in a while in the morning to wash spores off. I can't personally comment on the effectiveness of these tactics, but feel free to experiment (and let me know the results)! 

Late blight is the more serious of the diseases and once a plant is affected, it needs to be removed and destroyed. Trellis and prune your tomatoes to encourage air flow, keep leaves dry, and try to keep water from splashing up from the soil onto plant leaves. Some people mulch with straw or plastic sheeting to help keep splashing of soil to a minimum.

 

Other Issues

Blossom-end rot occurs when the plant can't take up enough calcium from the soil. Water your plants regularly and if you notice blossom-end rot, add lime to your soil to help make existing calcium available. 

Sometimes a plant is thriving and in bloom but the flowers drop off without producing fruit. This can be for many reasons, but one may be a lack of pollination. Try growing pollinator-attracting flowers near or amongst your vegetable plants to bring the bees. You can also pollinate by hand by taking a small paintbrush and transferring pollen from one flower to another (on squash plants transfer from the male flower to the female flower, recognizable by the small, swollen embryonic fruit at the base of the flower stem).

 

Hopefully, you are now armed with the information you need to successfully grow a multitude of warm-season vegetables. If you still have questions or would like to discuss any veggies not mentioned in this blog post, feel free to comment!

You can also always reach out to Swansons through social media for advice. Just use hashtag #heyswansons!

Our veggie courtyard is still filled with lots of warm-season vegetables and they are 30% off through June 17th, 2018! 

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Containers allow you to place a little garden anywhere you like. However, when you're faced with a sea of pottery options, you want to be sure to choose the container that will aesthetically enhance your space as well as allow your plants to thrive. If you already know what you need, walking through Swansons' pottery courtyard can be magical. It's inspirational to see an abundance of options in front of you that you can envision in your own living spaces. It can also be a little overwhelming if you don't already know what you're looking for!

We love to help our customers design and grow their gardens. We're always happy to help you select your container in person, but here are a few things to think about if you want to get a jump start on choosing the right container for your garden! 

 Considerations

Considering where the container is going to be located will help you envision the proper size, shape, and style of pot that will best compliment your space. Swansons offers many materials, glazes/colors, and sizes to look at.

Below are a few variables to note. Consider how these elements play with the garden environment and the plants you want to grow. 

  • Container material
  • Container color
  • Container size
  • Container shape
  • Container style
  • Number of containers

There's a lot to look at when you consider the bigger picture. Consider how the container aesthetics will enhance the area around it. You will likely make different pottery choices for different locations. Will the container be a decorative addition to a patio, the grounding focal point in a garden, or accenting a front door? These environmental variables may change the material, color, or style that you choose for each scenario.

Consider whether you would like a "family" of containers, a single pot with multiple plants, or a mono-pot. A "family" arrangement has multiple pots of different sizes and shapes, but usually the same color and glaze. A single pot can hold multiple plants together or, in the case of a mono-pot, have one plant per pot, offering a more modern look or even a formal feel.

A note about drainage

All of Swansons’ outdoor pottery contains drainage holes. The healthiest root development and plant growth is encouraged by having proper drainage. The soil must be able to drain excess water so the roots can “breathe” in between their waterings. We recommend using only potting soil inside garden pots. Edna's Best Potting Soil and G&B Organics Potting Soil are two of our favorites. 

 Plant & Pot Combos

Millions of possibilities come to mind when you consider what you want to plant in your container. Some options might be better suited for your garden goals than others, but after thinking about what would work in your space, you've likely come across a few ideas to guide you. Are you looking for height, screening, borders, or something flashy?

Keep in mind that your container does need to have enough space for you plant's root system to be healthy. Appropriate container size varies depending on the type of plant and how many plants you want. You might want to think ahead and purchase a pot that allows for a year or two's worth of room for root growth. Ask any Swansons' customer service expert for help if you're unsure of proper sizing and we'll gladly offer our advice. 

Now, envision the options! Except for size, there are very few rights or wrongs when choosing the ideal container, so let's have fun thinking about the possibilities.

Quick Tip: For an easy, instantaneous summer container, plant (or place) an annual mixed flower hanging basket directly into a standing pot. We've included two examples below, labeled "mixed annual flowers".

Here's a selection with various plants and pots to get you started. We chose five different pots and imagined them with multiple plant choices.* We decided to go with mono-pots to keep things simple and streamlined. As you can see below, the same pot can look completely different depending on the plant you choose, and the choice of container can also change the look of a plant!


Clematis
Astilbe
Fountain Grass
Hosta  
Astilbe
Blueberry
Hosta
Fountain Grass
Mixed Annual Flowers
New Zealand Flax  
New Zealand Flax
Hosta
Lavender
Sky Pencil  
Sky Pencil
Mixed Annual Flowers
New Zealand Flax
Sage
Lavender
Hydrangea ..
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Drought tolerant* or low water use* are terms we use often in Northwest gardening. You see them on many of our plant signs and information sheets at Swansons. More so each year, as we recognize the importance of saving water in the face of our region's growing population and potential effects of climate change. Also, we see ever more examples of how beautiful a well-designed, drought-tolerant garden can be!

[*Note: "drought-tolerant" plants can generally handle longer, dryer conditions than plants labeled "low water use." But the boundary between them is pretty thin (see definitions below). To simplify, we will use the more common term "drought tolerant" to refer to both types here.]

There are a lot of misconceptions about drought-tolerant plants — what they are and how to properly plant and care for them. Drought tolerant does not mean zero watering.  If you are looking for "stick 'em in the ground & forget 'em," sorry, we can't help you much. Few plants will survive that strategy for long, unless they are tapping into a water source other than the gardener. Most of Swansons' signs actually say, "drought tolerant once established." We also use the more inclusive term waterwise and have a series of care sheets titled as such.


(images: Swansons)

Thus, the unembellished Truth:

Drought tolerant does NOT mean ZERO watering!!! This comes with two corollaries:

#1: Drought-tolerant plants need one to two (preferably two) growing seasons of proper establishment, including regular, effective watering, to make them truly tolerant of future drought periods. 

#2: Most drought-tolerant plants will need some supplemental watering during future extended drought periods, although generally less than other plants which prefer more water.

There are exceptions — plants which seem to thrive or survive for years without any help. They somehow find water on their own. But we should not expect nor count on those rare plant heroes.

Some popular drought-tolerant plants for the Puget Sound region include lavender, rosemary, juniper, sedum, rockrose, sedum, and yucca. Plants adapted to drier conditions have a variety of ways to conserve water, including fuzzy or glossy leaves (which reduce transpiration) or succulent tissue (which stores water). But our concern in establishing them is their root system — best drought tolerance for any plant is enabled when the roots grow deep so they can find water when the upper soil zone dries out.

Of course, if we ever experience a prolonged, severe drought, everything would need watering at some point. Our goal here is to prepare them for more routine dry spells.

Even the drought-tolerant plants on New York City's High Line need periodic watering. (image: Wikimedia Commons)

Some definitions

"Drought tolerant" — will survive extended periods without additional water after being established with regular water and fertilizer for two growing seasons. The plant may, however, look marginal and neglected without some supplemental watering during dry periods in later years.

"Low water use" — the plant will need periodic watering after being established, but can be minimized with the careful management of watering habits.

"Growing season" — spring-summer-fall. "Two growing seasons" essentially means two calendar years not counting winters.

"Establishing a plant" — planting and caring for a plant (especially the roots) to ensure that it can thrive with minimal intervention in the future.

HOW to establish your plants

How do you "properly establish" a plant (drought tolerant or not), and get those roots deep, for two growing seasons? Many of our resources listed below explain watering techniques more fully, but let's summarize their important points here:

• Prior to planting, prepare the soil to make it easier for the roots to grow. Dig the hole 2 to 4 times the diameter of the rootball and 1 to 1.5 times as deep. Add up to 25% compost to the backfill mix, especially if the native soil is compacted or hard to dig. This increases both water-holding capacity and air spaces allowing the roots to "breathe."

• For each and every plant in the ground, water the soil where the roots actually are right now. This means water the small root ball when the plant is new, or the diameter (at least) of the plant's branches (the "dripline") on an older plant. This goes for either watering by hand or irrigation system, which may need careful adjustment to get the water to the right spots.

• Water to saturate the entire the root zone (width & depth). Make sure the water penetrates through the upper layers of crusty or powdery soil. Initially, it can be like trying to wet a dry sponge. It may take some patience and ingenuity to get the water to soak in rather than run off the top.

• Let it dry out a bit before watering it again. How long? It's hard to specify, as there are many factors; it might be a couple of days to a couple of weeks. Maybe every day during hot, dry weather. Best thing is to check the soil moisture every few days at first. Roots need a rhythm of water and oxygen. Too dry is not good — constantly wet isn't much better. Too frequent, shallow watering makes shallow roots, which may suffer during the next drought.

• Mulch the soil surface with compost or other organic material. This reduces soil water loss, helps surface water infiltrate better and bolsters soil health and fertility.

After a couple of growing seasons, you can gradually wean your plants off the watering routine, but check them occasionally for individual water needs, supplemental mulching, or other needs. By the way, this is a good routine for establishing almost any kind of plant.  

Proper watering to help establish new plants. See a pattern here? (image: Swansons)

Is it still worth it to plant drought tolerant plants if they need as much pampering as other plants for the first two years? Absolutely! They still require less water and general maintenance than moisture-loving plants. We don't suggest purging your garden of moisture lovers. We merely ask you to consider the areas where drought tolerant plants can save you a lot of future watering and work. Then take the extra steps to ensure that your plants get off to a healthy start.

Resources

Our website has a virtual flood of online and printed resources for choosing, planting and caring for drought-tolerant plants:

Watering 101

Best Watering Practices for Your Northwest Garden

Protecting Your Plants This Summer

Our Northwest Gardening Tips page has a whole section of care sheets on Waterwise Gardening.

 

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On a late-summer day of 2015, a windstorm roared through Swansons. Near the southeastern portion of the property, a fence draped with mature Vitis (Grapes) and Rosa (Roses) came crashing down and was then removed. Over time, Swansons thought about plans for the almost 100ft long empty space and by 2017 it was finally time to begin.

It was decided that a pollinator garden was to be built, a mixed garden of herbaceous, woody, and evergreen plants. We acknowledged that plant selection should not be based solely on aesthetic but mostly -if not fully- the environmental and ecosystem services they provide. Creating sustainable landscapes is a crucial part of helping to protect our natural resources and plant and animal biodiversity. The word “pollinators” has been abuzz lately, and we wondered, how much do we really know about them?

"When I see hues of blue-green metallic around my ‘Moonbeam’ Coreopsis, I know it's them: the sweat bees are unmistakable. Whenever I see oddball bugs, I try to identify them, to find out what they are doing in the garden." 
- Bram Olson (horticulturist, Swansons' tree & shrub department)

For some of us rookies, it should be noted that pollinators are not limited to bees, they include moths, wasps, butterflies, many insects, and even bats to name a few. Pollinators move pollen from one part of the flower - the stamen - to another - the stigma - contributing to the pollination process. Within the plant ovary, fertilization occurs and plant lifecycle continues.  As the plant grows it also flowers and produces fruit. The fruit contains the seeds that hold the genetic information of their species. It is important to remember that protecting plant biodiversity is necessary to retain useful medicinal plants or food crops.

"It was great to change my perspective on bats from the spooky, eerie feeling to understanding their role in the ecosystem." 
- Lo Holohan (vegetable buyer at Swansons)

As Seattle becomes more developed –it is very important to integrate green space and plant cover into the landscape. The benefits of urban trees and plants are plenty: they expand into providing nectar sources, shade, habitat, and wind barriers to these pollinators and other biota. If we could provide even a small area of land to them here at Swansons, we could make a positive impact in our community and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

For proper plant selection, we considered that these plants should have different bloom times. Varying bloom times provide nectar availability throughout the seasons. They should be a mix of species and, for our site, also have a tolerance for a microclimate that is exposed to full day sun, car traffic and radiating heat from the pavement. Before we chose plants, we also needed to know – what pollinators live in our area?

After some research, we found that Washington state is home to Papilio rutulus (Western Tiger Swallowtail), Lycaena helloides (Purplish Copper), Nymphalis antiopa (Mourning Cloak) and many other moths and butterflies. Two hummingbird species in Washington state include Calypte anna (Anna’s) and Selasphorus rufus (Rufous).

These species collectively seemed to prefer members of the plant family Asteraceae (otherwise known as the composite flowers). Some Asterceae genera included in the garden are Aster, Achillea (Yarrow), Echinacea (Coneflower), Eupatorium (Joe-Pye Weed) and Helenium (Sneezeweed). Asteraceae is a huge plant family with around 1500 genera and about 30,000 species.

Other botanical families planted in the garden include Ericaceae (Heather family), Lamiaceae (Mint family), Crassulaceae (Stonecrop family) and more. To attract bees, we choose Ceanothus (California Wild Lilac), Agastache (Hyssop), Hebe, and Thymus (Thyme) species.




A Buddejia (Butterfly Bush) cultivar (not the invasive!), Clethera (Summersweet), Kniphofia (Red Hot Poker) and Mahonia (Oregon Grape) were chosen for the hummingbirds.




Suddenly there we were, elbows deep in the soil. After two days, we were on our way to completing the foundational plantings of the garden. Although this was a fantastic start, we still have more work to do. We will be retrieving a couple of nurse logs or snags, integrating annual flowers, and selecting a bird bath and bird houses to complete the garden.




Come visit and take a look at our progress. As always, Swansons aims to support our community of gardeners. Let us know about projects you are working on in your own gardens or new ones you want to see in the neighborhood. As Bram reminds us, “If you build it, they will come.”



Resources

 Arboretum Foundation: Getting to know our Northwest Native Bees.

Journal of Arboriculture: Effects of urban tree management and species selection on atmospheric carbon dioxide

*Link R., Landscaping for Wildlife, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, University of Washington Press, Seattle, Washington, 1999.

Pollinator Partnership: A Technical Manual for Maintaining Roadsides for Pollinators: Establishment, Restoration, Management and Maintenance

Washington Butterfly Association: Common Butterflies of the Puget Sound Region and Their Food Plants

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: Butterflies and How to Attract Them and Hummingbirds and how to attract them

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Each year, the eternal question arises: What should I grow??

For many of us, the choice or tomatoes can be daunting. There are so many colors and types, not to mention heirlooms versus hybrids. Add to this the conundrum of choosing which peppers to grow: Do we want hot peppers? Sweet? Red? Green? It all becomes overwhelming pretty quickly.

That's where we come in. Whether you plan to plant enough for an army or just one or two plants this year, the answer to the question "what should I plant?" usually involves consideration of a mix of variables: location, space, sunlight, timing, and the ever-important taste preferences.

We've boiled down the tomato and pepper decision process into these two helpful infographics. And if you think you've made up your mind but come in and see even more great options or can't find exactly what you're looking for, relax. We'll help you narrow it down in person. That's what we're here for!

 

Once you've decided, let us know! Comment on this post or share your new plants on social media using the hashtag #heyswansons. 

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It seems like everyone at Swansons has a list of favorite tomato varieties, updated each year with new finds. These are the tomatoes that can handle a cold summer and still produce tons of fruit, the tomatoes that are so sweet our kids eat them like candy or so unique they elicit gasps of awe from our impressed neighbors. They are by no means the only tomatoes we recommend, just a few of our favorites. Read on for our 8 favorite tomatoes for 2018.

Remember - tomato availability changes quickly, so some varieties listed may not be available. Don't worry, we can always offer substitution suggestions - there are so many great varieties to try!

Cherry Tomatoes

Sungold Tomato

'Sungold'  

Indeterminate.* 65 days.

You can't go wrong with this sweet and juicy cherry tomato. The prolific plants pump out enormous quantities of bright orange tomatoes with a deliciously sweet and fruity flavor consistently throughout the season. 

'Sweet 100/Supersweet 100'

Indeterminate. 60-70 days.

This cherry tomato has a super sweet flavor (hence the name!) and thin skin for maximum enjoyment. The plant grows vigorously and produces abundant harvests of bright red tomatoes over a long season.

 

Slicing Tomatoes

Moskovich Tomato

'Carmello'

Indeterminate. 65-70 days.red robin cherry tomato

One of the most popular tomatoes in France, Carmello has an intense, sweet flavor and is both crack and disease resistant! Tomatoes are 8-12 ounces and great for fresh eating in salads and sandwiches.

'Moskovich'

Indeterminate. 60-65 days.

One of our all-time favorites. Moskovich is a Russian heirloom tomato that does well in cool conditions (hello, PNW June). It produces deep red tomatoes that are 4-6 ounces in size, have a rich flavor and slice well.

 Small-Space & Container Tomatoes

Patio Choice Yellow Cherry Tomato

'Mega Bite'

Determinate.* 60 days.

This sturdy plant reaches only 18-24 inches tall but grows an abundance of red slicing tomatoes that weigh 3-5 ounces. The tomatoes are juicy and firm. Great for salads, sandwiches or pasta.

'Patio Choice Yellow Cherry'

Determinate. 60-65 days.

An All America Selections (AAS) winner for 2017, Patio Choice was developed especially for small-space urban gardeners. Plants grow to about 18 inches tall and can set over 100 tomatoes that have a mildly sweet flavor with a touch of acidity. 

 

Unusual Tomatoes

Green Zebra Tomato

'Green Zebra'

Indeterminate. 72-78 days.

Glowing with green and gold streaks, this tomato a favorite of chefs and home cooks alike due to its sweet and tangy flavor. The prolific plant produces high yields of tomatoes that are 3-4 ounces in size.

'Paul Robeson'

Indeterminate. 70-80 days.

This is a cult favorite of tomato aficionados. The 6-10 ounce tomatoes are dark in color and have a sweet and spicy flavor with a hint of tanginess. A great slicing tomato for sandwiches and salads.

 

Want to see more? Browse our 2018 tomato list! Need help planting your tomato? Here's a step-by-step guide.

Note: not all varieties will be available throughout the season. Ask us and we can suggest great substitutions if the variety you are looking for isn't available!

 

* TOMATO TERMS

Indeterminate: These varieties keep growing vines and producing fruit all season long until frost kills them. They are generally larger and need to be staked or put in cages but can be grown in containers or in the ground.

Determinate: These varieties grow to a compact height and then produce fruits which ripen at nearly the same time, and are great choices for canning or freezing. Plants are typically smaller and bushier, and often do not require staking.

 

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Tomato season is upon us and after choosing the right tomatoes to grow, they need to be planted!

For this project, we chose a Brandywine heirloom tomato to plant into a container, but the steps also work for planting tomatoes into a garden bed.

 

Step 1: Choose the right container so your tomato can grow & thrive

Tomatoes need space, the more the better. Choose a container that is at least 12" deep, but even larger will help you produce healthier plants and more tomatoes. The pot above is about 14" deep.

Myth: Cherry tomato plants need less space than plants with larger tomatoes

The type of tomato the plant produces (cherry, plum, heirloom, etc.) does not affect how much space it needs. Sungold, one of our favorite cherry tomatoes, is a monster that grows rapidly. If you only have room for a smaller pot, choose a variety of tomato bred specifically to remain small, such as a "patio" or "basket" variety. See our favorite tomatoes to grow in containers.

 

Step 2: Trim off the lower leaves of your tomato

The deeper you plant a tomato, the stronger the root system will develop. We recommend snipping off the branches of the lower third of the tomato, always leaving at least 3-4 top branches intact.

Myth: Tomatoes never need to be pruned

Pruning your tomato increases air circulation, which can help keep disease away. Throughout the season, trim any shoots that sprout on the diagonal from between the main stem and a branch (see photo above, right). This will help the plant put its energy into producing fewer, but stronger branches for fruit production.

You can also prune off any blossoms that remain in late summer when you know there isn't time for them to become ripe tomatoes before the end of the season. This can be hard to do (remove potential tomatoes??) but it will help the tomatoes that already exist grow and ripen.

 

Step 3: Prep your container

Fill your pot partway with potting soil so that when the tomato is placed in the pot, the lowest branch is about 1" above the rim. Next, mix in some high-quality organic fertilizer into the soil. Always read the package directions to see how much fertilizer to use. We used E.B. Stone Organics "Edna's Best" Potting Soil and Dr. Earth "Home Grown" Tomato Vegetable and Herb Fertilizer for this project.  

Myth: I can fill my pots with soil from the garden or with compost

Never use garden soil to fill a container. Potting soil is specially formulated to enhance root development and provide excellent drainage without becoming compacted. Compost is also not well-suited for container gardening because it is too rich and can burn plant roots. Learn more about soils and amendments here.

 

Step 4: Prepare your tomato for planting



Lightly squeeze the pot to loosen the plant and then carefully remove it from the pot. As you can see in the bottom left photo, the roots of this tomato plant have begun to circle around the bottom of the pot. Gently massage the roots to detangle them and remove any lower portions that are coiled and thick.

 

Step 5: Plant & water your tomato



Carefully place your tomato in the pot, holding onto the root ball and stem rather than just the stem. Hold the stem straight as you add soil. When you have filled the pot, gently pat down the soil.

After planting, be sure to water your tomato well. Throughout the life of the tomato, water thoroughly (until water begins to run out of the bottom of the pot), waiting until the top 1"-2" have dried out before watering again.

Tomato plants like a consistent, regular watering schedule, which can also help keep tomatoes from splitting while ripening. When watering, try to avoid getting water on the leaves!

 

Step 6: Support and protect your tomato

While tomatoes are more cold-hardy than squash and peppers, their health can be severely damaged by the cold nights (and sometimes days!) of a Pacific Northwest spring. With protection, you can plant your tomatoes earlier in the spring, giving them the extra time they need to mature and produce fruit in our short Northwest summers. 

We recommend protecting your tomato with a Season Starter, a blue plastic "tent" of sorts. Fill the tubes of the Season Starter with water, which warms during the day and insulates the plant at night. Once the weather warms and nights stay in the mid-50's, gently roll down the starter, releasing the water. It can stay rolled up at the base of the tomato plant all season.

Myth: Tomatoes don't need any support

A tomato plant needs support as it grows and especially when its branches are carrying loads of heavy tomatoes! A sturdy cage will protect the branches and keep them from breaking. It's best to put the cage over the tomato plant when it is young. Otherwise, you risk damaging the leaves and branches. Slide the cage into the soil and inside the Season Starter. 

Voilà! You now have happy tomatoes ready to provide you with a bumper crop of delicious home-grown tomatoes! 

Not sure which tomatoes to grow? Check out the tomato varieties we are carrying in 2018.
Need some personalized advice? Post your questions on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook with hashtag #heyswansons!
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