Plants & Gardening
I have a passion for plants.
My favorite garden design book for mild weather gardens is, without a doubt, Garden Retreats: Creating An Outdoor Sanctuary. It’s not a giant compendium. It’s not a how-to design a garden book. And it’s not a plant encyclopedia. But it’s always been the one book I recommend to clients. In fact, it’s the one book I still turn to when I want to dream about a beautiful sanctuary.
Why does this little overlooked book beat out other books on gardening? Because of its simplicity. I’ve read a gazillion gardening books and most have a wealth of information, which is great, but at the same time that wealth can be overwhelming. They often say, “You can do this, or this, or this.” But if you’re a new gardener, you probably only need a few ideas to start.
How to Build a Backyard Sanctuary
Instead, author Barbara Ashmun will help you discover your own style. She takes readers on a tour of several gorgeous sanctuaries, many of which she’s helped design. And the photos by Allan Mandell help portray the sumptuousness. Meanwhile, you get a greatest hits list of the most interesting, easy-care plants for mild maritime climates. Though it’s written for the Pacific Northwest climate, the book applies not only to UK gardens but any milder weather climate, say zone 7 through 9, depending on annual rainfall.
What’s also special is Ashmun’s belief that flowers aren’t the star of a garden’s design but rather foliage, form, bark, fragrance, and privacy. She wisely guides readers into using all sizes of plants to create a beautiful space all year round. And that’s a valuable lesson for any new gardener in any climate zone. Don’t go for bright perennials that turn to mush in winter. Design with structure and year-round interest in mind. Luckily, this book shows you how.
Most homeowners at some point have faced the worrisome hassle of a messy overgrown yard. Maybe you were working a lot or on vacation or life just happened and now things are out of control. The dandelions are blooming, the grass is tall, and that old stack of leftover lumber is still around. What to do?
Well, I’m familiar with this feeling of angsty despair. Not only because I have a garden that occasionally transforms into a tangle of weeds and junk (see photo above) but because I help people whose yards have become that as well. Sometimes homeowners toss up their hands and hire professional help (like me). But if your budget doesn’t permit that, you can at least get a hold on the mess if you focus on three things.
Focus on the Most Traveled Spaces
When I meet with clients, they’re often overwhelmed by every part of their yard. They may have weeds along the front walkway, giant overgrown shrubs by the garage, a compacted lawn with bare spots, and so on. So the first question I ask is, “Where do you enter the house most often?” If the answer’s the front walkway, then we start there. If the answer is along this border that connects the driveway to the house, then we start there. In other words, we tackle the space they see the most in their daily lives.
You don’t have to clean up the junk by the garage if you don’t see it often. But those weeds by the front walkway you go past every morning and evening? You need to neutralize those as soon as possible. If you do, you’ll notice how you don’t feel instantly depressed when you come home from work every day. It’s a lot of bang for the buck.
Remove the Biggest Eyesore
The next thing to neutralize is whatever eyesore gives you the most worry. If, while washing dishes, you often glance out the window and see a dirty pile of lumber scraps, concrete pieces, and broken clay pots, you automatically feel crappy. And the reminder is constant because you’re probably at your sink, at least for a few minutes, every day. So take an hour, put on your gloves, get help if you can, and load up that stuff to take away. Sometimes you can even call a low-cost junk-hauling service if it won’t fit in your car. But removing that eye sore is the quickest way for your heart rate to lower and to feel much more at ease.
I also realize sometimes those eyesores are the result of an unfinished project. Maybe you wanted to build raised beds for a vegetable garden but you ran out of steam. Maybe you were going to install wall stones for terracing, or dig out a patio space and fill it in with gravel. But for whatever reason the project stopped and now you have to see it every day. If that’s the case, then stack it all nicely and get a brown or black, not blue, tarp and cover it as neatly as possible. Or move the materials to an area where you can’t see them every day. This will increase your happiness ten-fold.
Address the One Feature Used Most
This aligns with that unfinished project. If you haven’t finished a flagstone patio but your family likes to eat outside every warm day of the year, it’s worth your time, money, and peace of mind to finish that project. Same for a kids’ playset or a homemade fire pit. Even if the project’s big and difficult, it’s worth tackling. Afterward, each time you step into that space, you’ll feel great for not only following through but making your mental health a priority. A completed space is a healing space.
But what if, from that relaxing patio, all you see are weeds and/or overgrown shrubs? Then you prioritize. Branches that knock you in the face need to be pruned. Weeds that are blooming currently or are about to need pulling. I don’t weed often during the rainy days of March in Seattle but when I do, I focus on shotweed like a laser. Because shotweed throws off hundreds of seeds per plant, I’m preventing an explosion of weeds in summer. Similarly, when dandelions bloom, I walk around and pluck off their flowers to keep the population down until I can dig them out later. Each dandelion plant can produce up to 2000 seeds so if you don’t have time to weed, at least pluck their pretty little heads off. Mowing sometimes works but not always as their stems are rubbery and can slip past a mower’s blades.
Final Bit of Advice
The last thing I recommend is not to despair. Plants grow because they’re happy, even annoying ones like prickly thistles or blackberry brambles. Nature happens whether we want it to or not. So try to change your perspective and let go of your impulse to control. If you have dandelions, well, at least the bees have a temporary food source. If your shrubs are overgrown, at least birds can build safe nests inside. Forgive yourself for wanting to make your yard prettier but not having the energy to finish it all. A messy overgrown yard is really just a thriving natural space. Enjoy it for what it is until you can tidy up and appreciate a more finished beautiful garden.
Hey all, just a quick note to let you know my latest article on when to toss a houseplant is now available to read. In January, I achieved a small dream I had of getting an assignment from The Washington Post on this topic. It’s one I’ve often struggled with as a longtime plant lover. Maybe you do too.
For those of you who don’t have access to the Post, in the article I suggest you ask yourself a series of questions. They include assessing the health of your plant and your own plant care knowledge. Also, you need to be honest about the level of maintenance required, the plant’s history, and how happy it makes you.
I won’t go into all the details here since they’re in the article. But if you’re wrestling internally with when to toss a houseplant, I suggest you deeply think about how committed you are to it. As I say in the article, I’ve revived plants from near-death and have also had to say goodbye to beloved specimens that broke my heart to put on the compost heap.
In the end, you really need to imagine how you’d feel not having it in your home. If you wouldn’t mind too much, it may be time to say goodbye. Otherwise, try nursing it back to health. You never know what might happen. In any case, I wish you houseplant luck.
I started gardening with a very sad gardening tool kit. I used a rusty shovel, rickety rake, and a cheap trowel. While they served me well enough, I wish someone would have told me to save my money and buy fewer, higher quality tools. Here’s why.
When you use a cheap tool, you waste time and put extra strain on your tendons. For instance, I used a hack saw to clumsily cut branches. Because of this, I later had to prune more to clean up the cuts. I also had a thin trowel whose blade cracked within a few months after purchase. If I’d had the right basic gardening tool kit, I could have gotten a lot more done with a lot less effort.
Here are my favorite tools to help you create a pretty garden.
This Japanese tool is the only handheld digging tool you’ll ever need. Stiff, strong, serrated. So versatile. It’s been in my tool holster for years. You can dig down and pop out that dandelion root easily. And because of that thick blade, you can lift out an old staple from wood or a landscaping pin from compact soil.
Also, you can cut roots with the serrated side, break up thick soil with its point, and divide root balls with the smooth side. You can also plant bulbs with that long blade. Some come with a ruler inlaid into the steel, which is useful as well. These are pricey but utterly worth it.
Built from tough steel and quality parts, the Swiss-made Felco pruners are virtually indestructible. They come in varying sizes to match your hands, which makes them comfortable. You can prune branches cleanly and easily. I also love them because you can scrub the blade with steel wool and sharpen it with a sharpening rock. You can also buy replacement blades if you accidentally knick it. The best feature of Felco pruners is you can quickly swing the lock closed with your thumb, leaving your other hand free to hold or keep steady a branch.
Buy bypass pruners for pruning trees or shrubs, anvil pruners for cutting back bamboo or dead fallen branches.
I recommend Corona or Fiskar heavy duty loppers. You can buy Felco’s as well but they get pricey quickly. You just want a reliable quality brand. You don’t want dinky loppers because when cutting, they can turn and slip. That means the blade scrapes bark off a branch and maybe even skin from your wrist, leaving both you and the plant with wounds.
I like loppers with extending handles. Trees grow tall and the less you stretch, the less you strain. By the way, always make sure to cut at a branch crotch and never leave a stub of branch. Otherwise, disease will get inside and move through tree’s vascular system.
A quality pointed shovel. The brand doesn’t matter as much if you make sure to buy a heavier duty shovel. The Bully brand one has a nice big “shelf” on which to set your foot and push in to the soil. I’d make sure to get a composite or fiberglass handle and not wood (unless it’s thick). Wood can crack, especially if you leave it outside in rainy or wintry weather.
Also, you want at least a 48″ handle for better gripping and balance. I’ve never understood why people use short-handled shovels. They’re hard to maneuver and often slip. Plus, the crouching hurts your back.
A Metal Rake
A rake with metal tines! I can’t tell you how many plastic rakes I’ve seen, which immediately get clogged with leaves. Also, when it’s super cold, they crack from freezing. Rakes with metal tines have better action. They spring and snap back into place. They also capture the detritus better.
Brand here doesn’t matter as much as the metal tines. I like tines that are flat at the end, which more effectively scrape the ground.
Lastly, an all-purpose tarp. A 6-, 8-, or 10-foot rectangular shaped one is a must in your gardening tool kit. It’s a lot easier to rake leaves or toss weeds on a tarp, rather than wrestle with the narrow opening of a paper lawn bag. And when you collect material on a tarp, you bend down fewer times to empty it in a bin. Less repetitive motions equal less ache and fatigue. Plus, if you have a raised deck or patio, you can lay out the tarp on the ground and just rake off the steps or patio onto it.
If you want to splurge, buy a leather holster or scabbard for the hori hori and pruners. The holster helps you avoid losing your tools in the grass or cut material. A leather one in particular stretches to hold both tools. I love this set up. I’m never searching the ground for my tools because they’re always on my person. The kind I use clips onto your front pocket.
Also, you’ll use a decent-sized (at least 14″) pruning saw for years. I like Felco’s as the blades are stiff, durable, and cut thicker branches well. Plus, wooden handled saws are too large for my hands. Another nice feature is the Felco blades are replaceable. Foldable saws are handy as they fit into a back pocket but you’ll spend more time sawing with a foldable model.
Oh, and did I mention gloves? Perhaps that’s obvious. Nitriles give the best grip.
If your budget’s limited, I recommend splurging on the hori hori and Felco pruners. You’ll use them for decades. Happy shopping and happy planting!
My husband had always wanted a path on the side of our house. The side yard was dappled shade, growing a thin layer of grass in summer that faded to mud in winter. But instead of calling an expensive contractor, I decided to take on the task of installing a path myself.
I thought a lot about the choice of materials. While concrete was appealing because of its permanence, I was reluctant to pave more earth and create more runoff. Flagstone — while beautiful — was too expensive and time intensive. Leveling and cutting the shards of varying thickness would be difficult for me. Bricks or pavers were appealing, but I had a 3′ by 40′ walkway to cover and I would need more hauling help. I liked the woodland look of bark but it was dark in winter. Also, bark would retain moisture and absorb light. I wanted something natural looking that was bright, smooth, had good drainage, and was easy to work with. So I decided on a gravel path.
When people think of gravel, they think of the gray rocks used to create driveways or pea gravel in Japanese gardens. However, building a gravel path doesn’t have to be a depressing or slippery experience. I’ve found that a gravel path can be a simple, inexpensive, and beautiful way to showcase plants while moving a person from point A to point B. You just need to remember one thing: go fine.
Designing the Path
When designing a garden path, consider the width and shape of the path, the edging to hold in the gravel, and the gravel itself. Narrow paths are functional but feel so enclosed that one psychologically wants to move quickly along it. Wider paths feel more spacious and therefore invite you to stroll leisurely. In city side yards, it’s difficult to find the space, but I’ve found in my own yard and in clients’ yards, a 2 1/2″ wide path feels comfortable enough to linger.
While a straight path is a functional choice, it doesn’t offer any natural beauty or mystery. Even the slightest curve in a path helps soften the view and feel more peaceful. Curves sort of mimic the relaxation one feels when looking at the ebb and flow of the ocean. So if you can recreate that rhythm in a path, you’re already one step closer to a restful retreat. The best way to create those curves is to lay out garden hoses where you want the edges. Then trace their contours in the dirt with a stick or lime dust.
It’s important to excavate the soil 2″ to 3″ down and create a pocket in which the gravel can sit. Still, dirt can shift into the path and rock can shift into the soil. Therefore, one needs edging to hold in the material — unless the natural look of gravel beside soil is preferred. Edging can be as cheap as the black plastic you find at hardware stores or blocks of granite found at the rockery. When working with gravel, it’s best to line the path with something sturdy like bricks, stones, pavers turned on edge, or pre-made concrete borders.
What Size of Gravel?
There are several sizes of gravel and choosing the right one is critical to the beauty and functionality of the path. First, many people are unaware of the difference between crushed rock and round gravel. Gravel can be either rocks that are mined (or tumbled) with rounded edges, or mechanically crushed to make sharp angular edges. The former will always slip under car wheels or feet because its edges will slip off one another. Crushed rock however locks together for a more compact surface. If the size is too large though, it’ll still be quite movable.
Oftentimes people will order gravel in bulk from their local nursery or soils dealer. The rocks are usually basalt, and anywhere from 3/4″ to 1 1/2″ in size. Later, after tires have rolled over the area or feet have crossed it thousands of times, the gravel separates, bare dirt appears, and weeds sprout. So when building a surface that needs to be hard, compact and weed-less, not only use crushed rock, but one that’s ground to about 1/4″ or less.
My favorite choice is “3/8ths minus crushed granite.” Red lava rock, terra cotta, river rock, black pebble, and marble chips are also often available. This stone, native to the Northwest, is crushed to 3/8ths of an inch and finer. The finer rock, or the “minus,” is a mix of particles down to the size of dust. And it’s this mix that creates the solid, smooth surface. As the gravel settles, the smaller particles act like a glue, filling in the tiny pockets of air that the edges of the larger pieces create. The result is a surface almost as hard as concrete, but as permeable as soil.
Once you’ve decided on a path shape and materials, the process is fairly straightforward. First, buy the gravel in bulk from a rockery, which is usually inexpensive. Prices range, depending on the rock. The rockery masons know a lot about rock as opposed to nursery help or soil dealers. If you own a truck, you can get a load of gravel yourself but rockeries will also deliver for a fee.
Installing the Path
To build the path, lay out the weedblock in the excavated pocket to discourage whatever roots or seeds may be hiding in the soil, making sure to overlap the pieces. Then set the edging atop the weedblock wherever possible just to ensure there are no weeds popping up through the cracks between the bricks.
Because I use crushed granite with dust, I don’t use a base of sand. Many masons however would suggest a base of 2″ of sand. I’ve never had a drainage problem in the paths I’ve installed. So after the weedblock is down, I go straight to shoveling the gravel into a sturdy wheelbarrow and dumping it on the path, starting from the furthest point out and moving inward. One note about dumping gravel: either use landscape pins to secure the fabric to the ground or scatter small amounts of gravel on the area on which you’re about to unload. Then the weedblock won’t fold and twist under the weight of the rock.
After every couple of wheelbarrow loads, rake out the gravel and level it. Often it makes sense to create a hump in the middle, like a city street, as foot traffic in the center could otherwise create a depression. Ideally you want the path to be 2″ to 3″ thick. After the spreading is finished, spray the path with a hose to work the finer pieces downward and compact the material. As the dust washes down, the larger speckled gravel appears. The white rock combined with black specks creates the illusion of a silvery blue color from a distance. In a shady area, it reflects light considerably and at twilight, it utterly glows in the dark.
What Plants Are Best?
When the path is in, the fun of planting begins. Along that part shade yard path I installed, I planted blue grasses and hostas whose steely tones call out the blue tones of the granite. The icy blue flowers of Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Variegata’ blend harmoniously with the light color. The dark glossiness of Helleborus orientalis and Viburnum tinus pop against it. I love both the gorgeous highlights and contrasts, but most of all I love how something so simple and effective can be so beautiful. My husband likes it because it’s a kind of permeable concrete. Whatever the reason, it works for us.
- Easy to work with and grade on shallow slopes
- Packs down well for a hard, smooth surface
- Few weeds because of tight compaction
- Great for areas with tree roots
- Lovely crunching sound but still has good footing
- Solid enough to roll a wheelbarrow or bike over
- Great for parking strips and as a patio
- Good alternative to lawn
- Pieces can get stuck in shoe treads
- Not for walking on in bare feet
- Needs periodic weeding
Formula for Estimating How Much Gravel
Total area (in square feet) divided by 324
then multiplied by depth (in inches) =
total number of cubic yards needed