Gardening without a Garden

Who says you need a yard to garden? When we moved to a condo I immediately decided to dive in head first into container gardening. Designing with greenery for all seasons was a priority. The container below uses Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald and Gold', an evergreen in our flora, for year-round foliage interest. 

Working spring bulbs into the bottom of your containers will give you the same spring thrills as in a "terrestrial" garden. 

Ah...Chionodoxa forbesii. I always wanted to try this naturalizing darling in my old garden. Now its gracing my container garden.  

I also wanted to use as few annuals as possible. I find the traditional container gardening practice of potting spring annuals, then tossing them for summer annuals, then tossing those for fall annuals incredibly wasteful. Evergreen and perennial foliage plants are mainstays in my containers, with fewer annuals tossed in for seasonal display.

Fritillaria's bobbing heads are a springtime must-have.

Fritillaria..nuff said.

This container features evergreen Autumn ferns (Dryopteris erythrosora) and variegated box honeysuckle for year-round foliage interest. Two contrasting Fritillaria provide seasonal interest. All of these were potted last fall, survived the winter and now grace my small outdoor space. Welcome spring!

Starting a Garden

Moving from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest has meant adapting to a more urban environment, and although urban density may be good for the environment, it does present a new challenge for an avid Iowa home gardener: no yard. No yard?! No problem.

Intending to rise to this challenge, I am now the proud owner of a small P-Patch. So what is a P-Patch, you may ask? A P-Patch is a small plot of land rented out to urban gardeners, part of the community garden system of the greater Seattle Metro area. The "P" in P-Patch is in commemoration of the Picardo family, who donated the first plot of land from their farm to be used as a community garden back in 1973. Today the 88 individual patches in the program total up to 32 acres of land distributed throughout the city.

This is a picture of my first visit to plot #203, it was a weedy, gritty mess.

My very own P-Patch dog tag, plot #203.

My very own P-Patch dog tag, plot #203.

The Sunset Walk Community Garden, where my P-Patch is located, has breathtaking views of Tiger Mountain in the distance. 

Most people use the P-patches to grow edibles, but I will be using mine to grow stock plants for my front porch container garden, as well as for fresh cut flowers. I also want to use it as an experimental patch to grow plants from this climate, and to learn how more familiar plants behave differently in the Seattle weather.

The first order of business was amending the patch's growing media. The original soil was very sandy, which meant it had good drainage but lacked in water retention. It was also lacking in organic material, which meant it likely would not contain the nutrient profile required by most of the plants I wanted to grow. 

Original P-Patch growing media. As you can see the soil is very sandy and loose, in contrast with the heavy clay soil I had in my Iowa garden. A good soil loam will have a balance between sand, clay, and silt. An easy way to test your soil's texture is to wet the soil, then try to make a ball with your fist. If it falls apart, you have sand. If it sticks together, you have clay.

Original P-Patch growing media. As you can see the soil is very sandy and loose, in contrast with the heavy clay soil I had in my Iowa garden. A good soil loam will have a balance between sand, clay, and silt. An easy way to test your soil's texture is to wet the soil, then try to make a ball with your fist. If it falls apart, you have sand. If it sticks together, you have clay.

Compost is truly the miracle cure for all soil texture and nutrient problems. It will help drain a clayey soil, retain moisture in a sandy soil, and provide organic matter that can be taken up by plants as fertilizer over time.

Compost is truly the miracle cure for all soil texture and nutrient problems. It will help drain a clayey soil, retain moisture in a sandy soil, and provide organic matter that can be taken up by plants as fertilizer over time.

One of the great things about using compost is that it addresses both soil texture and fertilizer  needs  in a single, non-chemical, organic, solution. It is best to make your own, or use local compost when available. My new local compost is Cedar Grove Compost, which has a regional collection program that collects compostable material from homes and local businesses. This means it will have a good mix of yard waste as well as kitchen waste, which will give me a good Carbon to Nitrogen (C:N) ratio to support healthy plant growth.

Next time you feel the need to fertilize your plants or amend your soil, put aside the miracle-gro and think compost first!

Seattle Streetscapes: Pontius Avenue North

Walking along the streets of downtown Seattle, you may run into awesome stormwater management projects such as this one. On the block between Harrison and Republican Street, the east side of Potinus Avenue features a roadside bioswale spanning the entire block. Who needs street parking?

This swale is deep; a good 24 inches below the road surface. I love the look of the grass on the right of this photo. The foliage is deep dark green with dark brown inflorescence. My suspicion is some kind of Sesleria (moor grass) species. Please tell me if you know it!

Clips on this aluminum rail act as deterrents to skateboarders and other nefarious vandals. I think the yellow grass might be Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ (Golden Variegated Sweet Flag).

In contrast, clip "reliefs" are used on these concrete curbs as deterrents. This gives the illusion that both pieces are of one kit of parts: one void, one mass. Nicely done.

In contrast, clip "reliefs" are used on these concrete curbs as deterrents. This gives the illusion that both pieces are of one kit of parts: one void, one mass. Nicely done.

The design is a simple wave, expressed alternately by the concrete curb and aluminum planting rail. Gaps between curb modules allow water to flow from a high point at the building down into the swale, where is can be cooled and filtered before entering the storm sewer. Information boards are posted on either end of the swale, outlining the water filtration process.  

I noticed very few weeds, if any, on this planting. Why is that?

We all know that there is little maintenance provided to public street plantings, so something else it at work here. One possibility: the planting density. Densely planted beds cast a shade canopy over the soil, inhibiting germination for most weed seeds. But that can't be the full story--these grasses cast more of a dappled shade over the ground. So what's the trick? A hint: check out the soil.

The second picture shows exposed soil next to some river rock. Check out the color. It does not look like a rich, fluffy, dark loam now, does it? Unproductive soils are a great way to control weeds. By specifying a soil mix with less organic matter, and planting species native to unproductive soils, you drastically reduce the number of weeds due to nutrient stress.  Species that perform well in bioswales must be tolerant of drought stress as well as occasional flooding, which conveniently matches the profile of some less productive soils, such as those derived from limestone (calcicoles).  Something to consider!

Seattle Streetscapes: Corner of Harrison Street and Boren Avenue

Downtown Seattle is a delight for those who have an eye for streetscape design. Around each corner, there lies a precedent project waiting to be studied. A short stroll through town hosts a myriad of street treatments ranging form those tailored for residential multi-story complexes, to an urban campus for large international online retailers. 

Corner of Boren Avenue and Harrison Street. Note the wide planting area occupies the same depth as the parking lane. Deep planting beds such as this can support healthier, more diverse street plantings.

Aromatic blooms of Cladrastis kentukea (Yellowwood) stopped me on my tracks as I was walking down Boren Avenue. What a gorgeous tree!

Walking around town, I am drawn to the architectural details of objects that most of us spare not a second glance: how the road meets the curb and sidewalk, how the rain water path is controlled and guided off the street, how plantings are made to thrive in an urban setting. For the next few weeks I will be featuring some of these odd corners of the city, hoping to gain some insight into local designs. We'll be taking a closer look at choice of plant material, construction details, amenity selection, and overall design.

Today we're looking at Cladrastis kentukea, commonly known as American Yellowwood tree. These relatively rare native trees line the end of Harrison Street as it meets Boren Avenue. Although hardy to Zone 4, it is not very common to see these used as a street trees in Iowa.

Good street trees should meet certain criteria, specifically when it comes to impeding visibility for vehicles and obstructing traffic. Large oval or rounded canopy trees can be problematic since they have to be "limbed up" or have their lower branches removed to a height above cars and pedestrians to avoid causing obstructions. This makes them less desirable than trees with narrow, more upright growth habits. Cladrastis kentukea, however, features a rounded crown 30 to 50 feet around at maturity. The specimen shown here is already about 20 feet around; at maturity it is likely to graze the adjacent building. Yet trees don't often reach their full potential in urban settings, so is this a good choice?

Leaving a Garden

A few days ago, I packed my bags to leave the Midwest and head to the Northwest coast, leaving behind my first garden. I imagine leaving behind your first garden is difficult no matter what the time of year, yet it seemed particularly heart-breaking to leave during early spring. After the long, cold, winter months, watching my mature garden slowly spring into life made this my favorite time of year.

As I shut the garden gate,  the flower buds are swelling beautifully, but I will be gone before I get to see the blooms one last time.  I take solace in the hope that  most of the plants will be at the peak of their bloom as the new owners move into the property, so that perhaps they might learn to love each specimen as much as I did.

Salvia nemerosa 'Machnight' first flower buds of the season emerge. This tiny bud will grow to be about a foot tall at full maturity.

Fun plants at the Spring Garden Festival

The Des Moines Botanical Garden will be hosting its Spring Garden Festival on May 7-10 of this year, and already the place is buzzing with activity in preparation for the event. This week I got a special sneak peek at some of the many cool new plants that will be available for sale during the festival.  Today I will be featuring two of these.


Paeonia tenuifolia, commonly known as fern leaf peony.  Native to Russia, this peony is hardy to Zone 4. It can be used for great leaf textural contrast in the garden. I have not seen it sold in local nurseries too often, so this will be a real find!

Paeonia tenuifolia, potted and ready to grow for the Spring festival.

Paeonia tenuifolia, potted and ready to grow for the Spring festival.

Paeonia tenuifolia

Paeonia tenuifolia


Next up, a new cultivar of chinese dowgwood called Cornus kousa var. chinensis 'Madi-II' Mandarin Jewel (TM). This ornamental tree is hardy to Zone 5. As if a run-of-the-mill Chinese dogwood with its large white bracts and stunning fall color was not enough to get your adrenaline going, this new introduction has edible orange fruit. Neat.

Cornus kousa var. chinensis 'Madi-II' 

Potted bare-root Chinese dogwoods for the Spring festival.

Potted bare-root Chinese dogwoods for the Spring festival.

Cornus kousa var. chinensis 'Madi-II' 

Therapy Garden Partnership

Iowa State University graduate student Alejandra Feliciano stands next to her team’s proposal for the On With Life therapy garden.

Iowa State University graduate student Alejandra Feliciano stands next to her team’s proposal for the On With Life therapy garden.

A zen garden, a putting green, an amphitheater and a butterfly garden are just a few of the new features that will soon be a part of the rehabilitation process at On With Life, thanks to a unique partnership with Iowa State University and a group of master gardeners and volunteers. The new outdoor therapeutic grounds and sensory gardens, part of the program’s capital campaign project Life Forward, will occupy nearly two acres of the program’s Ankeny campus. 

Continue reading at On With Life's Headway Magazine, Winter 2015 Issue, Page 11

Further donations are still needed to make the vision of the garden a reality. For more information on how to support this project, visit onwithlife.org/donate or call 515-289-9611.

In the News: The Zealous Thumb

ISU Daily: Students win $5000 each in Ag competition

Iowa State has announced two students have been awarded $5,000 cash each for winning the Agriculture Business Plan Competition.

Alejandra Feliciano, graduate assistant in horticulture, won for her project "The Zealous Thumb" and Peter Lamair, senior in agriculture studies, was awarded for his "HydroMax" project.

Read More from ISU Daily  |  Read more form ISU Dept. of Horticulture website.


Learning to clean seed: A visit to the ISU Seed Center

Going from collected to clean seed takes more effort than you would think. Namely, lots of big fancy of toys. Last Wednesday we visited the ISU Seed Science Center to learn about the art of seed conditioning. We were to condition (i.e. clean) some Cercis canadensis seeds to prepare them for seeding in a few months. Since Cercis canadensis is a legume tree, the seeds are produced inside seed pods, which must be removed.

Doing this job by hand would likely take the entire semester, so we enlisted the aid of large machines. Sadly, it seems like the conditioning lab has not received funds to update their stock since the industrial revolution. Here is a list of all the equipment we used to clean Cercis seeds.

Step 1: The Aerator uses wind and gravity to separate pods from twigs and other larger debris. The heavier pods fall into a separate slot than the lighter twigs.

Step 1: The Aerator uses wind and gravity to separate pods from twigs and other larger debris. The heavier pods fall into a separate slot than the lighter twigs.

Step 2: A Brushing machine collects (mostly) seed on a wire mesh cylinder after threshing seeds form their pods.

Step 2: A Brushing machine collects (mostly) seed on a wire mesh cylinder after threshing seeds form their pods.

Step 3: A Rotary flat screen helps remove most of the trash produced by the Brushing Machine on a vibrating screen.

Step 3:Rotary flat screen helps remove most of the trash produced by the Brushing Machine on a vibrating screen.

Step 4: A second trip down the Aerator removes additional debris from the sifted material.

Step 4: A second trip down the Aerator removes additional debris from the sifted material.

Step 5: An Air-Screen Cleaner further removes light contaminants. It looked like a popcorn machine with all the Cercis seeds flying inside a glass chamber.

Step 5: An Air-Screen Cleaner further removes light contaminants. It looked like a popcorn machine with all the Cercis seeds flying inside a glass chamber.

Step 6: A Color sorter removes dark or discolored seeds which might be diseased or otherwise damaged. This was my favorite one.

Step 6: A Color sorter removes dark or discolored seeds which might be diseased or otherwise damaged. This was my favorite one.

At the end of it all, the professor commented Cercis is one of the easier seed to clean. I can't imagine how much more equipment is required to clean Vernonia seeds next week!

Beating the Winter Blues at Reiman Gardens

After the frigid temperatures we had during the last few weeks, highs in the 30s and 40s remind us of Spring. I had to pay a quick visit to Reiman Gardens this afternoon for an assignment. To my surprise, they were finishing up an installation at the conservatory. The fresh blooms abounded, and I was gladly transported into a Spring moment.

Ah, daffodils. These particular blooms were profuse, but small (about 2" in diameter). Planted adjacent to Latania loddigesii makes an impression, in my mind it plays the trick of juxtaposing a temperate climate icon with a tropical one. Yet these Narcissus cultivars are only hardy in zones 8-11. There were button ferns from New Zeland, bromeliads of multiple genera, arborvitae, spruce, and palms--all under one roof.

If you have a chance during this long weekend, I invite you to check it out.

Drift of Narcissus at conservatory entrance.  Planted adjacent to Latania loddigesii.

Narcissus papyraceus 'Zivaat Reiman Gardens conservatory.

Back outside, a beautiful warm sunny day in January.

A Flamboyant start to 2015

My first horticultural project for 2015 is to grow a Flamboyant tree from seed. Delonix regia goes by many names—Royal Poinciana or Flamboyant tree in Florida, Gulmohar in Pakistan, or Flamboyán in my native Puerto Rico. Although it hails originally from Madacascar, it has long since been grown through most tropical regions around the world. It is found in the Caribbean islands, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Australia, China, Israel, among many others.

Puerto Ricans, myself included, hold this beautiful ornamental tree close to heart. It blooms in a profuse display of bright red flowers for up to 10 weeks in the summer season. Like many tropical trees, it grows at an incredibly fast rate. It can grow up to 5 feet per year under optimal conditions to a mature height of up to 50 feet. These trees can also be grown as bonsai in zones where they are not hardy.  

Delonix regia on the Doddabellapur route in Doddaballapu, India.

Delonix regia featured in a traditional Puerto Rican scene.

We collected Delonix regia seeds on a recent trip to south Florida. When I brought them home to Iowa, I was eager to get them started. Delonix regia seeds have a very tough outer seed coat which must be scarified in order to germinate. After scarification, the seeds are soaked in water to initiate the imbibition process, in which the seed swells as it absorbs water.

From left to right, the first three seeds were scarified using sand paper. 

The last two seeds were scarified using a nail clipper.  The embryo is visible in the center.

To my surprise, after only a couple of hours of soaking, the seeds began to be enveloped in what appeared to be a frilled mucilage. The seeds scarified with the nail clipper appeared to have more advanced mucilage development than those scarified with the sand paper.  They also appeared more swollen. I am amazed at how quickly these seeds have responded to treatment. 

Initial appearance of soaked seeds.

Seeds after about 2 hours of soaking in water.

Frilled endospermic mucilage detail.

I have since planted the seeds in trays, about 1/2" beneath the soil surface. The seeds that displayed rapid mucilage development were planted first. the remaining seeds were planted 10 hours later. Germination is estimated to occur within three days.

I will keep you posted!

Make my garden sing

How can we appreciate what we cannot hear? There was an interesting study done by a music psychologist indicating that people find repetition more pleasing than lack of repetition. 

In her study, the psychologist used the music of Luciano Berio, an instrumental composer famed for creating dramatic compositions by avoiding repetition, to test her theory. Berio's compositions were akin to a continuous stream of melody, each segment different from the last. So she copied segments and repeatedly pasted them over the length of a song and found her version was much more popular than the original piece.

Music with little repetition.

Music with repetition.

I believe this is simply because the human brain finds non-repeating melody too chaotic. Even though you may be listening to the music, you cannot hear it. Those combinations of notes, chords, and rhythms in multiple contrasting, harmonious, or jarring juxtapositions can only be processed when repeated multiple times, allowing our brains to examine each detail.

How can we appreciate what we cannot see? Like symphonies, gardens can become very complex and intricate compositions. Juxtapositions of colors, textures, shapes, and habits can combine together in a dizzying variety of effects.

Repetitive patterns help break down seemingly chaotic scenes into tiny, digestible chunks for our brains to interpret, allowing us to not just look, but truly see a garden.

Planted drifts mimic natural meadow drifts, giving a repetitive, pleasing appearance.

Mature natural meadow drifts. Structured repetition forms from plant colony pockets as they dot the landscape.

Random repetition gives this young prairie a weedy look. With time, it will evolve into colony drifts like the picture to the left.

Not only is repetition helpful, it can very well be necessary for certain designs to be widely accepted. A chaotic garden design can generate a feeling of uncomfortable uneasiness. I suspect wildflower mixes and randomized plantings have suffered from such rejection many times in the past due to this simple fact. "I don't see it, ergo, I don't like it".

A little repetition goes a long way. Perhaps its not exactly the same texture or color, but subtle similarities can pull a design together and make it magic. So give me rhythm, give me rhyme, and make my garden sing!

Goodbye, Spring Semester

One down, three more to go. I've completed my first semester of grad school. It is remarkable the amount of information one can learn in four months. Soil chemistry and structure, woody plant cultivars, design theory and composition. I have met so many talented students, I am taken away. 

My classmates after a design scavenger hunt we had on campus grounds. Photo taken April 2014 at the Horticulture Hall entrance lobby with its beautiful wall murals. From left to right, Caitlin, Cris, Jake, Laura, Chris, Ryan, Claire, Katrina, Andrew and Mike.

Most of them are undergraduate juniors and seniors and will be graduating ahead of me. I already know I will miss them all. I shared both my design theory course and landscape studio with this crazy bunch; their energy and enthusiasm is contagious.

One of the best days of the semester was during my woody cultivar course. You know you're in for a good time when you are greeted with this scene as you walk into the classroom. 

An assortment of branches, freshly cut from campus trees by our professor the night before, complete with number tags, ready for identification on his desk.

An assortment of branches, freshly cut from campus trees by our professor the night before, complete with number tags, ready for identification on his desk.

Can you guess which tree these belong to?

Can you guess which tree these belong to?

These are the moments that made my semester memorable. So, goodbye Spring 2014, and thank you.

The invasion

At the beginning of each Spring, I tend to meticulously inspect my beds for any signs of life. Three weeks ago upon one such inspection, I noticed something odd. A hive-like structure had developed within a portion of exposed mulch...

This mysterous structure had emerged within a bare exposed portion of mulch that had been under deep snow cover for most of the winter.

This mysterous structure had emerged within a bare exposed portion of mulch that had been under deep snow cover for most of the winter.

 "Just what exactly is this thing?" I asked myself. "Could it be some kind of insect's nest?" Immediately I regretted not knowing more about common Iowa insects and their wintry dwellings. I reached out to touch them, the circular rims were flexible, and somewhat slimy. I noticed what appeared to be black 'eggs' inside each tube--oh dear--there were hundreds of eggs. A chill ran down my spine, "I need to nip this invasion in the bud. Wouldn't want some colony of bizarre underground bugs overrunning my garden this Spring." I ran back in the house and immediately went to task, searching for 'underground insect hives', or 'attack of the evil mulch snatchers'. Nothing.

Then an idea struck. What about a fungus? Just a few clicks of my mouse and, bingo! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Cyathus olla, the Bird's Nest Fungus!

Notice the round peridioles scattered about on the mulch surface (LEFT). Eventually these will split to release their spores.

Notice the round peridioles scattered about on the mulch surface (LEFT). Eventually these will split to release their spores.

The Latin words 'Cyathus' (chalice) and 'Olla' (cooking pot) were used to name this fungus for its peculiar shape. Bird' Nest Fungus has a fruit body, or peridium, resembling a chalice or nest, whichever you prefer, which is filled with smooth circular black 'eggs' called peridioles.

The 'nest', or splash cup, enhances the force with which rain drops strike, making the spore-filled peridioles explode out as far as 30 inches into the mulch even under the slightest rain. It can also reproduce sexually via meiosis.

If you find this critter in your mulch, worry not!  Bird's Nest Fungus is non-pathogenic. In fact, it can only feed on diseased wood, so it is doing you the service of breaking down the mulch into nutrients that can be absorbed by plants.

Looks like I'm in for free fertilizer for a few years! Phew...

Grossstauden

Eutrochium purpureum (Sweet Joe Pye Weed). A prairie native grossstauden. Photo credits to Craig Cramer.

Eutrochium purpureum (Sweet Joe Pye Weed). A prairie native grossstauden. Photo credits to Craig Cramer.

I stumbled upon this interesting blog post by Noel Kingsbury on Grossstauden, which is the German word for 'tall perennials'.

Why don't we see tall perennials (5 feet tall and higher) used more often in the landscape? It would seem this is a severely underutilized plant material palette. True, they suffer from the bad reputation of flopping over--but do they all flop? And why do they flop?

Of the three types of Grossstauden--tall herb flora, prairie plants, and forbs, mostly tall herb flora are to blame for flopping. 

As for these capricious floppers, Kingsbury suggests several factors could be at play:

1. Some Grossstauden can get fat. Apparently many of these plants hail form tightly overcrowded communities, and are accustomed to only consuming enough nutrients to survive. When planted on a nurturing, non-competitive garden bed, they over-eat and flop over. Sounds like me on Sundays!

2. Some Grossstauden use crutches. In some cases large colonies of tall perennials effectively lean on one another, providing additional lateral support. These plants haven't had an evolutionary needed to accumulate lignin deposits. In landscaping conditions, they tend to be planted as single specimens or in small numbers. All it takes is a strong breeze and flop! (Also like me on windy days).

Yet some Grossstauden, such as Joe-Pye Weed, don't require supports at all. As they mature, they develop a unique root system that provides lateral support and keeps them upright. 

The eupatorium and vernonia involve hacking your way through a massive radial root system - which takes a few years to build up, and is clearly a solution to how to stop 3m high plants from falling over. It is quite unlike anything you will find in any other perennial. Impressive engineering.
— Noel Kingsbury

The use of these plants as part of the garden structure is something that intrigues me. Can you imagine tall hedges made of herb flora? It would not be unlike the use of tall grasses to replace woodies for structural interest. And nothing could be more appropriate in an Iowa prairie garden.

Perhaps once we gain a better understanding of how these plant communities grow in their natural environment, we may better implement them in our designs.

Tomato Seeding for GSHS

The Graduate Society of Horticulture Students (GSHS) is having a vegetable sale at the end of the Spring semester. Yesterday I helped seed some yummy heirloom tomatoes!