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
Have you ever seen a special plant that intrigued you? Maybe you didn’t have time to find out what it was but you kept seeing it because you jogged by it every day or such. Every time you saw it you felt happy but also a bit sad or angst-ridden at the open loop of not knowing what it was. Well, it’s worth finding out. Studies show learning, especially about plants, can be beneficial to your mental health.
An Intriguing Tree I Kept Seeing
When I was new to Seattle, way back in the grunge music era, I often noticed this one pretty tree. It grew on a parking strip a few houses down from where I lived. The leaves grew in spade-shapes and the flowers bloomed like white stars. I’d see it whenever I walked my dogs and it took my breath away.
One day in early September I realized the tree had grown these exotic berries. They looked like prickly red balls. They were so cool. I’d never seen anything like them. I watched over a few weeks as they grew larger and then either fell away or were plucked off by the birds. They loved this mystery tree as much as I did!
I went to my Sunset gardening encyclopedia and paged through the Northwest plants. I skimmed the lovely glossy pictures but didn’t find my mystery tree. On Saturday afternoons, I’d sit on the front porch with a cup of tea and peruse that book. Reading the little entries relaxed my body. I felt at peace and like the problems of the week didn’t matter as much. I loved hunting for my special plant.
A Special Plant Mystery Solved
Months later, I was driving past the tree when I noticed the owner of the house outside weeding. I parked and got out and said hi. She was older, a forty-something woman with long black hair. We struck up a conversation about the weather and I asked her what kind of tree I’d been admiring.
“Kousa dogwood,” she said.
We went inside and she scribbled the name on a piece of paper. We chatted about plants for a while, the start of a long neighborly friendship. When I went home, I looked up the dogwood in my book. There it was. A tree, hardy to zone 5, maturing at twenty-five feet, common to part-shade areas of the Northwest.
I felt an amazing sense of satisfaction. I’d solved my little mystery. And smiled at knowing a nice neighbor who knew so much about gardening. Afterward, whenever I passed by the tree, I enjoyed it even more: its little buds forming, the pinky fruits plumping up, the reddish fall color I knew would happen in a few months. That knowledge gave me a tiny bit of joy.
My Own Pretty Northwest Tree
Years later, I had the honor of growing a Kousa dogwood in my own yard. Now, every year when it blooms, I’m surprised and delighted. I’m in awe of the masses of silky white flowers (bracts really) that cover the crown. It boosts my mood, even on cloudy days, as it glows at the back of the yard. I love to see it from my kitchen window. And I love that it was my first special plant.
It’s no wonder that learning about this plant made me happier. A 2021 study found that the act of learning made people actually happier than the reward at the end. Other studies show focusing our minds on something pleasant and neutral like plants relaxes us and restores our attention.
Is there a special plant that intrigues you? Why not see if you can sleuth it out? The iNaturalist app allows you to take a picture and find a name instantly. But maybe it’s more fun to look it up in a physical book or ask friends or family. Take a little journey of stimulating your brain, enjoying the soothing photos of plants, and interacting with people. If you do, let me know how it goes!
For more about this Sleuthing a Special Plant activity, see Chapter 4 of Leaf Your Troubles Behind.
Do you have a shady spot in your garden? An old established tree might take up an entire corner of your yard or a neighbor’s tall house might create a big cool shadow. You might feel discouraged and unsure what to do. Well, don’t worry because you can still grow a lot of colorful plants. If you mix in some fresh compost in the area and occasionally water, you can make several perennials for shade very happy. Here are six of my favorites.
Georgia Peach Coral Bells
Heucheras are wonderful because they don’t just bloom with color but sport colored foliage all season long. And is the orangey-red color on Georgia Peach stunning or what? This evergreen perennial grows to about 12″ tall and puts out tall spikes of teeny flowers that hummingbirds love. To keep it happy, give it a few applications of fish fertilizer in spring and summer. I grow it beside ‘Merlin’ Hellebore (see below) whose dusky rose-colored blooms recall Georgia Peach’s rosy foliage. Hardy to zone 4.
Hadspen Cream Brunnera
With its light blue flowers in April and spade-shaped leaves, Hadspen Cream Brunnera brightens dim areas nicely. It practically glows! I also like Hadspen Cream because the variegation is yellower than other cultivars and therefore, softer in beauty. I’ve also found it’s easier to design with in terms of perennial pairings. It grows to about a foot tall and flowers in delicate blue forget-me-not-like blooms. This photo shows it emerging, not fully grown yet. Herbaceous. Hardy to zone 3.
Fragrant Blue Hosta
I love hostas. They come in so many colors and sizes. And they’re tough. Yes, slugs might chew little holes in their leaves but a bit of Sluggo or beer will solve that problem. I have many favorites but one I think should be used more is Fragrant Blue. The large-ish leaves beam in the shade with a creamy, greenish-blue color, creating bold impact. The white flowers are fragrant. Grows to about ten inches tall. Herbaceous. Hardy to zone 3.
Blue Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) cheers up a garden in early spring with delicate, two-toned flowers: pink and smokey blue. The white speckles on the foliage add even more interest, and once this plant takes off, you’ll have lots of babies to either cover your bare ground or pass on to friends. The foliage looks a little tired by late summer but you can cut down the leaves and they’ll grow back in a tight happy mat. Herbaceous. Hardy to zone 3.
Lime Rickey Coral Bells
Heuchera ‘Lime Rickey’ is worth growing just for that chartreuse foliage. It glows as if someone turned on a neon sign! This Coral Bells cultivar creates pretty scalloped leaves and delicate white flowers. Plant it beside a dark hellebore for a brilliant contrast. Works great in containers. It’s mostly evergreen but may be die back in some areas. Hardy to zone 4.
Merlin Lenten Rose
If you need a reliably handsome hellebore, consider Helleborus x ballardiae ‘Merlin.’ It grows unusual blue-green foliage with white veins for an almost variegated look. It also blooms for weeks with dusky rose-colored flowers that echo the Georgia Peach’s foliage nicely. Hellebores are classified as evergreen but their leaves often look brown and anemic after winter. You can remedy that by cutting them all off at the base in early spring. Fresh new growth will appear soon afterward. Grows to about ten inches tall, hardy to zone 4.