New Low Impact Garden in Sequim

Before I get to the subject at hand, allow me to interject a brief commercial announcement. This Saturday we will be at the Fronderosa Frolic in Gold Bar with lots of other exciting nurseries! As usual, your special requests are welcome. Please note the event is only ONE DAY this year. This might be the region’s geekiest plant sale. Maybe we will get some thunderstorms. That would be exciting. See you there! Woohoo! And such. OK, moving along now. . .

I recently learned of this new “low impact” garden that has been installed at Sequim’s Carrie Blake Park (here and here). So I thought I had better go check it out and see what I think, since “low impact” and “water wise” are pretty much what we are about (along with excellent plantsmanship) here at the Desert Northwest.

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I ought to preface this post by noting that I had no idea any of this was going on until I read about it in the Sequim Gazette online. Some of our local nurseries donated plants to this project, but we were not contacted. I suppose that means there are a lot of people here in the area who still don’t know about our nursery. Well, we are not in a prominently visible location, which you will know if you have been here.

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The garden area is divided into several different sections, which I didn’t figure out until the end since I started at the “wrong” end of the garden and missed the interpretive sign. The larger part of the area consists of “open prairie” and “woodland” plantings. There are also demonstration rain gardens, seashore gardens and a rock garden.

I am glad they have the rock garden. Rock gardening is kind of a big deal when it comes to combining low-maintenance with plantsmanship. It is tempting to think of rock gardening as a dying fad for eccentric old geezers, as I (dare I admit) once did. I have been slow to get into it because of the amount of time and skill it takes to place the rocks. But there is certainly a such thing as a garden that combines the best of rock gardening and low maintenance.

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This rock garden was small but had a decent selection of plants. It will be interesting to see how the Agaves (A. montana and A. ‘Blue Glow’) do. It is great that someone thought to try them, but I would have started with A. parryi, and I would have started with at least a 2-gallon plant or nothing at all, since smaller sizes just don’t always make it through their first winter. But hey – maybe we’ll get lucky with these; you never know. The manzanita at the corner of the garden (left side of pic above) was not labeled as to species, but looks like probably a form of A. densiflora which means it will get way too big for the space, and grow into the parking lot and halfway over the rock garden if it is not cut back or eventually removed. Oh well.

I thought the rain garden was well done given the limitations of the space. I only wonder if enough water will run into there to sustain the plants that are supposed to benefit from the runoff. Time will tell, I guess.

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It is hard to say how the rest of the garden will look until it fills out, so I guess I won’t say much yet. Most of these plants are very small, and one gets the feeling that availability of source material was a major limitation when doing this project. That doesn’t surprise me. Conventional nurseries in our region continue to be pretty out of touch when it comes to offering plants that really like to live in our climate without getting irrigated all summer.

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A Madrona. Well that’s good.

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One can hardly go wrong with beach strawberry. As long as you keep it out of the rock garden!

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Calocedrus is another good choice. This one looks a bit stressed out, but ought to make it.

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Lots of kinnikkinnik here. One has to be cautious with it in our climate, I think, because of the prevailing availability of inferior clones like ‘Massachusetts’ that can burn in hotter gardens and aren’t as tough as people expect. ‘Point Reyes’ is probably the best selection for Northwest dry gardens.

Conceptually, I like this garden: it is something I can get behind. The different areas are well thought out. The careful planning, consideration and work that went into it is very much evident. The billboards are loaded with good information and even talk about how dry it is in the Olympic rainshadow.

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Here, we have a hose bib. Leading to. . .

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. . .a sprinkler. Oh well. It would be better to hand-water the plants to get them to grow deep root systems, but it is probably too many plants for that to be realistic. You can do it with a sprinkler too as long as it only comes on once every week or two.

To me the weakest link is simply plant material. I can’t imagine the full spectrum of plants that was desired was incorporated here (if it was, I have a lot more educating to do about drought tolerant plants for our climate. HINT: very few of them are available at most nurseries). I don’t know what their plant budget was, and it sounds like many items were donated; but my approach would have been to specify what plants were needed beforehand and have someone contract-grow most of them (as my first budget priority), excepting a few things that are readily available. I imagine a low impact garden in the Northwest being full of Callistemons, Grevilleas, Leptospermums, Olearias, a vast array of species Penstemons, Artemisias, Garrya, Baccharis, Yuccas, ice plants, other hardy cacti and succulents, and many more kinds of Cistus, Ceanothus and manzanita; to start with.

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A Cistus. It’s doing splendidly – so why just two of them in the whole project?

I (cautiously) mention budget priorities in relation to plant selection because I think it is important to “wow” people before they are interested enough in a project like this to want to be informed about it through brochures, signage, etc. A lot of people aren’t going to be motivated to try something different if they aren’t immediately impressed. I guess I just don’t want anyone to get the idea that low impact gardens are boring or visually underwhelming. I don’t want anyone to feel like a compromise is involved when aiming to conserve water in your garden. There are thousands of drought tolerant plants out there that are suited to our climate, and a water-wise garden can look like a lot of different things.

If, on the other hand, the goal of this project was to get people to use plants that are already easy to find in the nursery trade, then we have a bigger problem: nurseries, largely, aren’t growing the right plants for our region. This sounds like a fine topic for another blog post. And I am now sounding like a broken record.

I hope this review has come off as well balanced and not too scathing. I get it that these plants are not easy to find: it can be a major challenge, but not impossible. I also get it that funding was limited.

So with all that in mind, I wish to let anyone who reads this know that I am happy to contribute plants to this project, or similar projects in the future, especially if they are close to home here in Sequim. That includes both donations (subject to current availability and within reasonable limits) and competitively priced contract growing for specialty items. I’m here. But you still have to find my web site and blog: I just don’t want to seem like a pushy sort of person, I guess.

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The Unrealized Allure of Northwest Native Plants

I feel like I mentioned this previously, but earlier this year I heard a well-known speaker (not Richard Hartlage or anybody) give a presentation in which he described the set of Northwest native plants that are useful in gardens/landscapes as “all eight of them.” It is clear that there is much more work to be done… no, that I have much more work to do, to educate people about the vast array of native plants that are, in fact, valuable garden subjects, and not boring. So to wrap up this series on native plants (for now anyways – at least until I write something else about them) I present this third and (if we’re lucky) final installment on the subject, to try to convince you that native plants are, in fact, exciting. Think of it like the third movie in a trilogy: as such, we can only hope that the second post ended disappointingly enough to make this one look good.

To start with, some of you might be wondering by now, what’s a dryland plant? Is that different from a native plant? Had I been giving myself a little more time to proofread and edit these posts for clarity, I would have been more careful to define terms first. Oh well, better late than never.

Furthermore, it may have sounded like I contradicted myself by stating (essentially) most native plants like shade, “and thus make poor choices for urban gardens” and then going on to allude to all these exciting native plants that are out there that people “should be growing.” Huh? – am I making sense at all? What are all these supposedly great plants that are out there; and if they’re so great, why don’t we know about them already? This post is to clear up some of these questions, and to hopefully get gardeners a little more excited about some of our lesser-known native species.

So, here is the deal with native plants, and dryland plants. It is easy to look at an undisturbed native forest and be overawed at the grandeur of giant trees. We think, wow, here nature is at its climax! – and rightly so. Where it is easy to go wrong is when we conclude that this “climax” supports the widest possible selection of native species. We often have a seemingly inherent tendency to associate lushness with diversity. Perhaps that is because we have all been taught that the amazon rainforest contains tens of thousands of species per acre, or something. Which may be true, but things are different in the tropics.

In reality, in the Pacific Northwest, as well as many other temperate regions of the world (one might make an exception for China, but I have never been there), a mature native forest supports only a relatively limited number of plant species. They represent a climax of successional maturity, but not of diversity. To find the greatest diversity of plants, you have to look elsewhere than our lowland forests. Plant diversity increases as you go up in altitude (exposed subalpine and alpine areas), and east (rainshadows and deserts), as well as south. Basically, the more trees you leave behind, the more room you have for a diverse range of sun-loving dryland species. That is why it is easily possible to “get out in nature” in western Washington and not see much of horticultural interest, until you venture away from the lowlands.

So, if we’re looking for interesting native plants to add to our gardens, we need to look up (alpine natives) and east (dryland natives). Now some of you might be thinking, “But I don’t want a rock garden!” (I can’t imagine why not, but we won’t go there for now.) Ok, so skip the alpines, and just go with dryland natives. There are still hundreds from which to choose (well, potentially, if nurseries start growing them).

Dryland native plants are those that occur in the open forests and deserts on the east slope of the Cascade range and beyond, and in a few localized drier places on the west side, especially within the Olympic Rainshadow. That means west of the Cascades, these plants are not common in the wild, nor are they as diverse as on the east side. The important thing characterizing all of them is their ability to tolerate sun, and our period of summer drought. (More broadly, dryland plants can those be from anywhere in the world that occur in similar dry open forests, deserts, or scrub: think of the Mediterranean region, for example. But that goes beyond the topic of this post.)

Now fortunately for us, urban gardens offer the perfect situation for many dryland plants (native or otherwise). Sometimes older neighborhoods are heavily treed; but many are not: there are large areas of the city with plenty of sun. It is in the city that rockeries to provide drainage, walls to reflect heat, and pavement abound. Also, water tends to be expensive: why plant stuff that is going to need a lot of water for its whole life? Dryland plants and urban gardens really are a match made in heaven, if not in a “hell strip.”

What kind of plants am I talking about? Well, when was the last time you saw a Ribes aureum or Artemisia tridentata in a Seattle garden? How about never? Because when you go to a nursery specializing in native plants, they mostly sell the usual limited palette of boring, lowland forest plants, and maybe a few of the easiest and most common alpines (Potentilla fruticosa, Artemisia ludoviciana). This, I suppose, is largely from a lack of awareness that so many other great native plants exist; and to the extent that nurseries are aware of them, they haven’t figured out how to grow them yet, and/or recognized the potential market for such plants.

So, what to do if you want to learn more about these plants? We Northwesterners seem to be somewhat lacking in resources for people interested in exploring and growing our native plants. There are some field guides available of varying quality, and there may be some books about our native alpines or other web sites devoted to this topic that I am not aware of. (Let me know, please!) The only really noteworthy reference I know of specifically dedicated to the cultivation of Northwest Native Plants is Arthur Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest. Now before continuing on to discuss a couple of books, I must firmly establish that these are, in fact, excellent and very valuable works, authored by true experts in their field. It’s going to sound like I’m complaining about their shortcomings with nothing positive to say. That is not the case at all: I simply wish to make a point that there is a lot about these plants that we don’t know. The dilemma is, how can a noted author or expert speak with authority on a topic when the knowledge isn’t available in the first place? How do we know whether or not Krascheninnikovia lanata thrives in a sunny Seattle garden until someone has tried it?

So in Kruckeberg’s book, numerous dryland natives are mentioned, but with a lot of talk of “this is really happier east of the Cascades” as if we don’t dare try to grow them on the west side. I cannot help but wonder how many of these have actually been attempted west of the Cascades in the kind of conditions they prefer (i.e. sun, and no summer water once established). The much shorter commentary on these compared to well-known forest natives leads me to suspect that some of these plants may have been attempted once without success and then given up on, or not tried at all. I don’t really know that for a fact, and I may well be entirely wrong; but I do note that some of the comments in this book do not agree with my personal experience. Penstemons, for example, are accused of being “spectacular” but also “short-lived.” “Short-lived” has not been the case for me: they lived for years and years, even when I grew them in rainy Olympia, on heavy clay soil. (Heck, they’re probably still there!) My conclusion: if you want Penstemons to live longer, just don’t water them so much!

And why can’t we extend this principle to most of our other dryland native plants as well? Let’s be sure to give plants a fair chance before we dismiss them. Once again, I don’t know how extensively some of the plants described by Kruckeberg were tried, so I acknowledge the possibility that I may be quite incorrect. Or maybe I’m just halfway incorrect: perhaps half of them will grow here under drier conditions, and half of them still won’t no matter what you try. (Like I said, I have a lot of work to do!) Maybe Kruckeberg’s perspective on dryland plants is reflective of a time when there were still a lot more undeveloped/wooded pockets in the greater Seattle area than there are today: perhaps the region in general felt a little more forested and less urban than it is today, when the book was first authored.

In what is probably my favorite native plant book right now, Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest by Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson, the authors note that they “put particular emphasis on central and eastern Washington and Oregon and on the Klamath-Siskyou region in southern Oregon and northern California because most other field guides have glossed over these areas.” Wonderful, hooray for them, I say. Now if only gardening references would do the same! Even they, however, admit the shortcomings of their book. It is quite comprehensive, but not quite complete. Some plants are not pictured, only described briefly under the headings for related species; others are skipped over entirely. And of course, since it is not a gardening book, it only describes what the plants look like and where they can be found, not how to cultivate them. (Of course that’s perfectly appropriate for a field guide.) They also exclude any plants that don’t fall under the category of “Wildflowers,” such as our native trees and ferns. And finally, the photography is outstanding and more than worth the price of the book even if it lacked descriptions; but when you only see a close-up flower photo of Purshia tridentata or Luina hypoleuca, you are likely to think “what an ugly little flower” without knowing how cool the plant is when you see a whole one. So that’s not a complaint against the book itself, just an inherent shortcoming of a book of its nature and scope: you can’t get a feel for what many of these plants will look like in their entirety, or how they could potentially be used in the garden, from a book of this type. This book is excellent, and a valuable reference: get it anyways!

So, as far as I can tell, there is not really any one reference that brings it all together, communicating the exciting world of Northwest native plants in its entirety to a broad audience. While Kruckeberg’s book is excellent, I am daring to question whether some of the statements presented are not worthy of challenge. (Also, the book might have achieved broader appeal with more color pictures, especially of more obscure and interesting species. Having color pictures alongside the plants always helps make a book more accessible too, but I know that also makes it more expensive – oh well.) Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest is superb, but it is a field guide, with its inherent limitations. Plants of Western Oregon, Washington and British Columbia by Eugene N. Kozloff contains an excellent collection of photos in the center section, but again most of these are close-up, and the text of the book is primarily botanical in nature with few tips for gardeners. (I won’t comment further on that one, because I haven’t looked at it very much, except for the photos.) And of course Hitchcock and Cronquist are great, but 98% of people, in other words most normal people, are not going to get excited about native plants from reading that!

Anyway, if you want to see more than eight species of garden-worthy native plants, you may need to get off the beaten path. Forget about looking in nurseries. Go explore for them in the wild. Go east! Go up! Follow the field guides and wildflower hike books, but don’t forget to look at everything – the ferns, trees, and plants that may have nondescript flowers but excellent foliage and form. And then recall that they’re perhaps not so difficult to grow as commonly believed. Maybe someday people will figure this out and we will see more of them in our nurseries and gardens.

Ceanothus integerrimus, a dryland naitve that is very showy and easy to grow.

Lomatium utriculatum, “Fine-leaf desert parsley” is a neat little dryland plant that even occurs west of the Cascades. I photographed it here in the Olympic Mountain foothills not far from our nursery.

Dryland Plant Management in the Nursery and Landscape

So, to follow up on a recent post, we hear that the proposed Seattle green code provisions have been shelved for now. Apparently they are going start over next year and consult various horticulture/landscaping industry representatives this time to draft a provision that makes sense. I have mixed feelings. Partly I almost think it would be (dare I say) funny to see the rule go forward more or less as originally proposed, just to see how nurseries and people would respond. Imagine Swanson’s selling 75% native plants… heh heh heh. Anyway, I read that there is going to be some big meeting about it on September 5th. I am really bummed that I did not get invitated, especially since all the ideas I sent them were so well-received by my readers (including many who didn’t comment on my blog). But I’m actually not that bummed, since we have a lot of things to do out here that are funner than sitting in meetings; and Seattle is far away, with lots of traffic, and politics, and people who sit in meetings. At least that is our perspective from the far away land of Sequim.

I wrote (more or less) against the rule, but (in part) not for the same reasons other people wrote against it. I really like this post about it by Mark Turner, a respected authority about native plants, who presents a very well-thought out and balanced view. On the other hand, I note that many of these letters make two major points which I believe are false: one, that native plants pose special problems when it comes to producing them in the nursery and/or growing them in your garden; two, that native plants offer such a limited selection as to be uninteresting or unexciting. I can see what people who make such comments are getting at, but ultimately I don’t buy either of these points as valuable refutations of the green code provisions as originally proposed. For me this whole issue really comes down to water use: that should be the central focus in crafting this provision. So in this post I shall attempt to demonstrate that nursery plants are not really that difficult to produce or cultivate. In a future post I may attempt to expand upon point number two.

In my letter to the Seattle City Council, I stated that “native and water-wise plants are, broadly speaking, not difficult to grow either in nurseries or gardens.” This is likely a somewhat controversial statement, since its runs contrary to what most other people writing letters to the Seattle City Council on this topic (at least, the ones I got to see) seem to think about growing our native plants. So while not everyone may agree with me, I still consider this to be a matter of education and adjusting to different practices from what nurseries and gardeners are usually accustomed to. For that reason I am happy to divulge some of our methods when it comes to successfully producing and maintaining these plants. Perhaps over the winter I will have time to revise and expand this into more of a formal article and put it on the Desert Northwest web site.

Dryland Plants in the Nursery

Some think that dryland and/or native plants are unamenable to nursery production and therefore will never become popular. Our starting assumption, then, is that there is nothing wrong with the plants, since they are obviously well adapted here, being native; so there must be something wrong with conventional nursery production. And, based on our experience, we find that the main thing that can go wrong with these plants is supplying too much water, especially in the summer. Most growers have their plants on a sprinkler system that is timed to water at regular intervals. Frequently the sprinklers are set to run for a couple hours every day (overnight, ideally) during the growing season. A few smaller growers hand-water everything and can use that method to regulate how much water plants get. It should come as no surprise that we do not believe one should indiscriminately water the crap out of everything in a climate that has a pronounced very dry season occurring reliably every summer.

So we don’t want to soak our plants to death with timed waterings, but we sure as heck don’t have time to hand-water it all either. So we have decided to say “no” to timers and “yes” to sprinklers. Using sprinklers, we water more or less often depending on what the plants need to maintain good growth, and on the weather. What this looks like is during a typical summer heat wave, the plants get water perhaps every 36 hours or so. During periods of cooler weather watering goes to a 60 – 72 hour schedule. We think it best to give the plants a very thorough soaking when watering, and then let the plants dry out somewhat between waterings. We just wait until they really need it before we turn the sprinkler on. (As an aside, some nursery people are afraid to thoroughly soak plants when watering, because they may get too wet and start to rot. We believe this is only a problem if your soil mix is too heavy, or if you are not letting the plants go dry enough between waterings.)

In conventional nursery production, the problem of keeping plants watered is frequently aggravated by over-fertilization. Potted nursery stock that is given the maximum amount of fertilizer it can handle without burning frequently develops an excess of top growth that is not able to be sustained by the amount of roots in the pot. Such plants also get very rootbound which is not ideal. Sometimes retail nurseries find themselves having to water such plants twice a day to keep them from drying, which is always a hassle. Additionally, once these plants are set in the ground it takes a couple years for them to develop a large enough root system to sustain the top growth. Although such plants will frequently come out just fine in the end with proper care, we don’t think this is the ideal way to grow plants.

Our method is to give plants basically as little fertilizer as we can get away with without compromising quality. Also, we use only organic fertilizers. Sometimes our plants may not look quite as full as conventionally grown stock (but then again, sometimes they do!) but we know that it is important to have a plant with a strong and healthy root system so the plant will experience little or no setback when transplanted to the ground. However – and here it might sound like I’m totally contradicting myself – “as little fertilizer as we can get away with” is often more than might be expected for certain plants. For example, we find that Ceanothus and Arctostaphylos are pretty heavy feeders in general, and sometimes surprisingly so, despite their preference for harsh sites in the wild. Really clever soils people could probably explain this, but all I can say is “go figure.” (Well, now that I think about it, there might be some connection with their adaptability to fire ecology.)

Some people – and we went through this phase for a while there – think dryland plants need extra gritty soil for the super good drainage they need to survive in containers. This, we think, is sometimes a little bit true, but mostly not really. As long as you are not watering too frequently – and that’s the important part – most dryland plants will grow just fine in an ordinary, reasonably well-drained commercial potting mix. This is even true of seriously deserty plants like sagebrush. A bark-based mix with some pumice is ideal, and a little compost won’t hurt anything either. It’s true that certain plants require extra grit, but these tend to be in the minority (unless you are specializing in alpines, in which case you probably already know what you are doing and don’t need to read this). Beyond “alpine” it is difficult to generalize about which plants these are: usually just a few species per large genus. Cacti and succulents are a mixed bag; many of these do require gritty soil, but a surprising number of hardier types really don’t care what you put them in and may even respond to a richer mix by putting on vigorous growth; bearing in mind the aforementioned caveats about watering.

Finally, since we have dry summers, a lot of our native plants are adapted to stop growing in the summer. We find that they are better not messed with in summer. Potting up, planting out, anything that involves messing with roots should be done in spring if possible; the second choice would be fall. Of course they’re not doing much in winter either, and wet/rot can be an issue when transplanting at that time, though many species don’t mind.

Dryland Plants in the Garden/Landscape

Water-wise plants, including our dryland natives, may fail in the landscape for numerous reasons, but I think the most frequent are too much water, not enough water, and inadequate soil preparation. There are definitely some misconceptions that need to be addressed in this area. For one thing, dryland plants are (for the most part… most succulents excepted) not so tough that you can just plunk them out in a harsh, awful site with terrible soil and not water them at all. Why not, you ask? They’re native. Well, when something seeds itself in the wild, the first thing it does is send a taproot straight down into the subsoil as fast as possible so it won’t dry up in its first summer. The same species planted out of a container doesn’t have this advantage (especially if the soil has been compacted or scraped off), so it will need a little help to get established.


Time sequence of container-grown plant vs. self-seeded plant.

In actuality, native plants, generally, will appreciate much of the same treatment that is usually provided for “normal”/”conventional” (whatever) plants: they respond as well as any plant to soil amendment and mulch. The main thing one must do differently is watering.

But let’s back up for just a moment and address soil amendment. This does not have to be complicated. Some swear by double digging, but we are of the opinion that this is generally unnecessary. Usually a healthy top-dressing of compost, left on the surface to decompose over time, does the trick. If you want to use less compost, even a little circle of it around each plant, several inches deep, goes a long way towards successful plant establishment. The only time we might not think soil amendment so important for dryland plants is if you actually have existing native topsoil at your planting site. Unless your house is really old, this is probably not you. Usually the native topsoil is scraped off and/or compacted beyond usefulness during new construction.

So, having amended the soil and mulched – and mulch an be a lot of things, including wood chips and rock; but not beauty bark, which is evil because it does not promote healthy soil – the big question is how to water. It probably goes without saying that dryland plants will not grow in a swamp, so we will assume average to well-drained soil here, though a surprising number of these plants will be fine on heavy clay as long as it dries out for a couple months in summer. The best way to water is with the watering basin method. You want to finish your planting hole with a nice, big, deep watering basin so that when you go to water you can fill the hole up all the way, and the water will work its way straight down into the soil. This will encourage deep rooting, as opposed to the shallow rooting that often takes place under conventional irrigation that only sprinkles the soil surface. How often you will want to do this depends on your soil, and how established your plants are; but generally you will want to do this as infrequently as you can get away with before your plants start to wilt, which may be anywhere from about once per week to once per month during the dry season. So we see it is not really a major time-consumer, because you are not out there all the time watering things by hand daily: you just have to pay attention. You’d better believe those new little plants are sending roots straight down as quickly as they can during this process.


Plant root development under various watering techniques, redrawn from The Dry Gardening Handbook by Olivier Filippi.

Conventional methods, by contrast, suppose that once you have installed your irrigation system and set the timer, you can pretty much forget about things. This mentality leads to the failure of native plantings that end up getting too wet. It is motivated by the short-term convenience of not having to pay attention to the planting and hand-water until the plants become established. If we consider how much it costs to install and maintain an irrigation system (they always break, of course), and the cost of all the water that is used, perhaps we can say it is time to re-educate people about more practical ways to create sustainable plantings and gardens. A little more care in the first year or two after planting goes a long way towards sustainability of a water-wise landscape.

And that is where I shall leave it for now. I hope that has been helpful, or at least interesting.

On a completely different note: you still have one more day to come and visit us at our September Open House! Don’t worry, we haven’t sold out of awesome plants yet. Come and see us if you can!

Seattle Green Code Provisions: Over the Top?

This may be difficult to believe, but it appears the City of Seattle is in the process of drafting some provisions that may be controversial. This time since it relates to horticulture, and particularly, to my area of emphasis (water-wise plants) I have decided to get involved. Unfortunately I don’t have time to write a really detailed post on this, and anyway, it all happened pretty suddenly. So I will totally flake out here and refer you to GardenHelp.org for the full story in their words. Actually, they sum it up better than I probably could anyway.

I have decided to write a letter in response to this provision. You may wish to do so as well if you read this on time and don’t mind staying up late: the deadline is tomorrow! (If enough people ask for an extension, though, who knows? Perhaps they’ll offer another comment period.) So here is a copy of the letter I am sending for all to see. It would have been nice to have a few days to leave this posted here and bounce ideas off my readers, before officially submitting it. In any case I would welcome your comments.

Before getting on to the letter I guess I should say one more thing. All this talk of rules and regulations is rather obnoxious. Some might ask, why do we really need anyone telling us what we can or can’t plant? Isn’t this just another government infringement on individual property rights? (The examples of cities prohibiting front yard vegetable gardens come to mind.) Actually (trying not to get too political, heh) I usually tend to be rather sympathetic to such sentiments; as long as people are being fair about the distribution of finite resources and not infringing on the rights of others. In writing this letter I am assuming, based on my reading of historical trends, that the implementation of this provision in some form or other is pretty much unstoppable sooner or later, so we might as well make the best of it. Put another way, if we’re going to be stuck with more rules, let’s at least have rules that make sense. This is how I justify the inclusion in my letter of ideas for how to draft this rule.

All right, so here it is:

August 26, 2012

Attn: Kathleen Petrie, Green Code Provision Taskforce & Seattle City Council
700 5th Ave, Suite 2000
Seattle, WA 98124

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to provide my professional opinions regarding Section 4. Invasive species and native vegetation portion of the Green Code Provisions for Healthy Landscapes under proposal.

I am the owner of a nursery that specializes in water-wise plants including many native species. Since I agree that gardens use far too much water, and are often planted using plant choices inappropriate to our summer-dry climate, I applaud the spirit of the rule. However, I would like to address some problems that would arise if the rule were drafted exactly as proposed, and suggest a number of changes. Because I like to be helpful rather than merely criticizing things I don’t happen to like, this letter will be heavy on ideas, of which I hope that some may be found useful in crafting the final draft of this provision.

As a basis for my suggestions, I must begin with a brief assessment of the adaptability of native plants to urban environments. Many people assume that because a plant is native it can automatically tolerate difficult or harsh conditions without special care. In actuality a large proportion of our native plants are best adapted to grow in the forest’s shade or riparian or wetland environments, and thus make poor choices for urban gardens where sun and reflected heat are common, especially in new plantings. Even those that are adapted to grow in the sun cannot always be considered sufficiently tough, since they will take several years to establish, and may languish if planted without proper soil amendments and irrigation for the few years it takes to get established. For these reasons, despite the benefits of native plants, I do not believe using native plants in the large numbers suggested by “75% of all new plantings” in the proposal is a very practical approach to the objective of water conservation. Furthermore, it may result in significant outcry from a gardening public who feels their planting options are suddenly far too restricted, as well as from the nursery industry which depends on the sales of a wide variety of garden plants to thrive.

Therefore, I would like to propose some possible alternatives to be considered for modifying the provision, which are as follows:

1. The definition of “native plants” is expanded to include plants from the dryland regions east of the Cascades, and Oregon and California.
2. The term “native plants” is replaced with “plants native to summer-dry climates” (from a list of world regions with such a climate).
3. Restrictions could be placed on what can be irrigated, and for how long after planting, regardless of plant origin. This would be my professional recommendation as the most sensible approach in drafting the provision.

I spell out these options in greater detail below.

In option #1, the definition of “native” plants is broadened somewhat beyond western Washington. Inclusion of plants from the dryland regions east of the Cascades, as well as plants from Oregon and California, would give gardeners far more planting choices for their landscapes than those only “native to western Washington.” A large proportion of plants native to the aforementioned regions are very much appropriate for urban settings, perhaps more so than many of our own native plants in many instances.

In option #2, the provision would be changed from reading “native” plants to read “plants native to to summer-dry climates”, which would include the entire western region of the United States, the Mediterranean, central Chile, and a few other parts of the world. This gives gardeners yet more options while maintaining the objective of reducing water consumption.

Before getting on to option #3, here I must include my thoughts regarding native vs. invasive plants, emphasizing that a very great majority of introduced plants are not invasive. Given that the plant species and cultivars that have been grown in the Northwest throughout history range in the tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands, yet only a handful of these have posed a serious invasive threat (I base this on the list provided on the website of the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board); I conclude that a very small percentage, such as perhaps 0.1% or less, of all cultivated plants possess the potential to be invasive in the Pacific Northwest. While I can see supporting the removal of existing populations of invasive plants in some way or other, I do not consider “invasive potential” as a sensible restriction on plant choices, or support for the exclusion of non-native plants generally.

Of course, no matter what kind of plants one chooses to plant, it is still possible to use water irresponsibly. Under guidelines requiring a certain quota of native or water-wise plants, it is easy to foresee a frequent scenario play out in which all the right water-wise plants are installed, then irrigated excessively for the indefinite future under oversight that does not know any better how to maintain such a planting. For this reason I present option #3, a water-use based rule; based on the principle that a truly effective provision focuses not on the selection of plants themselves, but on the purposes for which plants are irrigated, and for which irrigation systems may be installed. By extension, I would put forth that watering native or water-wise plants for the first two years to get them established, then withholding water thereafter; is an idea worthy of support: watering any planting indefinitely, whether the plants be native, drought tolerant, or not; is not beneficial to the end goal of creating landscapes and gardens that reduce water use.

Here I would like to note an important exemption: Plants that produce food or meet some other significant utilitarian goal (bamboo for poles, for example) should be exempted from any rule regarding both plant selection and water use. The reasons for this should be obvious, but homeowners need to have the right to produce their own food without undue restraint. Let’s go after big water users like unused expanses of lawn and large-scale ornamental landscapes full of water-loving plants, not homeowners striving towards independence from big ag and reducing their carbon footprint.

Therefore (clarifying, I hope, my option #3 here), a sensible provision is one establishing that all new plantings (excepting food crops, as noted above) may be irrigated only for the first two years (perhaps three), and allowed no irrigation beyond natural rainfall thereafter. It doesn’t so much matter what plants are used: after two (three) years, they have to be tough enough to survive on their own, or not. This permits the broadest possible range of water-wise plants for use in gardens and conserves water by pulling for landscapes and gardens that can sustain themselves (as far as water is concerned, at least) in the long-term; and protects the rights of homeowners to grow food. It also leaves room for people to grow certain slightly thirstier plants they may feel they can’t live without, by means that have no impact on municipal water consumption, such as the incorporation of rainwater catchment systems and rain-gardens into the landscape.

Now for some further thoughts about how this provision may relate to the nursery industry. I strongly believe that native and water-wise plants are, broadly speaking, not difficult to grow either in nurseries or gardens. I feel qualified in saying this since, at our nursery, we propagate and produce all of our own stock. It’s true that certain species pose challenges, but perhaps not disproportionately so when compared with conventional or water-loving plants: in many cases, growers and gardeners simply need to be re-educated away from conventional higher-water-use practices to succeed.

I have independent data demonstrating that at least three quarters of plants offered by Northwest nurseries are native to parts of the world having climates where reliable, significant summer rains occur. An astounding number of these (48% of all nursery plants in my study) are native to eastern Asia, including our beloved Rhododendron hybrids, Japanese maples, flowering cherries, and a huge range of other ornamental shrubs, trees and perennials.

I believe the scarcity of water-wise and native plants in nurseries is based partially on supply and demand, yet also (much more so than people usually think) on what growers choose to produce and market. I therefore think it would be helpful to add an incentive for nurseries, landscape contractors, and related businesses to market/sell/use water-wise plants (meaning, those native to summer-dry regions of the world, or whatever criteria from the options above are chosen). For example, if Bob’s Nursery in Montlake can be determined to sell water-wise plants as 75% or more (or whatever number is chosen: this is admittedly arbitrary) of their total stock, they would be eligible for some kind of bonus or tax exemption, or a greatly reduced municipal water rate, or some such incentive. This would both raise awareness of the issue in general throughout the nursery industry, hopefully providing growers to move more towards the production of water-wise plants; and push the nursery business to diversify their range of water-wise and native plant offerings at the expense of thirstier choices; which, I believe, may be a tall order but certainly not an impossible goal to achieve.

I predict that there will be major obstacles to the success of this provision without the support of the nursery industry, since they are the ones who supply our landscape plants through a variety of channels. This ties in with another good reason to change the criteria for plant choices to something beyond just natives: if gardeners are given a wider range of drought tolerant options, there may be fewer objections among the general public at not being able to get their favorite Rhododendron or Japanese maple at a local nursery whose selection of such plants is vastly reduced from what it was. I believe it is important that this provision be crafted in such a way as to deliberately compel nurseries to provide more options for water-wise plantings, rather than just drafting it with only the landscape/garden in mind leaving the business end of this to fate.

One more idea that may be useful would be for the city to initiate and maintain a “trial garden” to determine which plants meet our region’s criteria for true drought tolerance. This, I think, would have to be quite extensive to be worthwhile; but the educational value of such a garden could be very much worth the trouble and expense. The OSU trial gardens at the North Willamette Experiment Station might serve as a model for such a trial garden, though their plant selection has been more limited and focused on specific plant groups than what is needed here.

Finally, on the subject of preserving existing native plants, I would prefer to include for protection only certain vulnerable or particularly enigmatic species (for example, garry oak). There seems little sensible purpose in preserving something like the ubiquitous Douglas-fir or a field of horsetail.

While I could ask the expected questions about how the terms of the provision will be defined and who will enforce them, I will leave such questions for others to ask as I am not a Seattle resident.

Lastly I would like to request that the comment period be extended. There are far more people who need to know about this provision and have the opportunity to comment.

Thank you for your consideration of this letter. It is my hope that some of the ideas I have presented may be helpful. As described, I believe some significant changes need to be made for this provision to be sensible, realistically enforceable, and able to achieve its desired ends. Please feel free to contact me if you have an interest in discussing this further or any other questions.

Ian Barclay
The Desert Northwest
PO Box 3475
Sequim, WA 98382
mail@desertnorthwest.com
http://www.desertnorthwest.com

How to prune your Leyland Cypress

This episode of “What Were They Thinking?” is brought to you by Independent Bible Church of Port Angeles, Washington.

On the east side of the facility is a row of formerly healthy Leyland cypresses (Cupressus x leylandii), which have now been handily butchered by, I suppose, a tree service.

Now this doesn’t bother me a whole lot, as far as feeling sorry for the trees. Leyland cypress is probably the most over-planted conifer in the Pacific Northwest. They are way too darn many of them and they are usually planted in spaces that are far too small.

The problem is that somewhere along the way, someone—actually, a lot of people, apparently—started recommending it as a “hedge plant.” But the thing they forget to tell you is that it grows 90′ tall, so to use it as a hedge, you have to prune the whole thing annually – which is a whole lot of work and cannot easily be done for most people without special equipment, once the plants pass 12 – 15′ tall or so. Hey, coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) makes a great hedge, too, if you prune it often enough! This is the same sort of tree, folks.

The other reason I am not really bothered is that I don’t consider Leyland Cypress to be that attractive in the first place. Now actually, I admit, it does not look half bad if one compares it to a lot of other conifers. But to me it is ornamentally inferior to both of its parents, Cupressus nootkatensis (Alaska Cedar) and C. macrocarpa (Monterey Cypress). (C. nootkatensis has also been called Chamaecyparis nootkatensis and a couple other things – Xanthocyparis nootkatensis may be the best choice for those wanting to really stay current – but anyway. . .) Now I know that Leylands have been promoted as more widely adapted than both parents. This may be true, but as all these trees are perfectly happy in Port Angeles, that is not a consideration in this instance. There are some fabulous examples of the at once strikingly rugged and beautiful Monterey Cypress around town. I’m not sure why anyone who could grow it would rather have a Leyland!

Mostly, though, I think that this pruning just simply does not make sense. Some of the trees have had 90% of their foliage removed and will not recover. My opinion is that for what they did to these trees, they might as well have just cut them all down, and saved themselves some money on all that fancy pruning. I guess it would not be the first time in the history of the universe that an uninformed decision was made regarding tree pruning.

If Leyland cypress grows too large for this spot (as someone apparently felt), this is simply a case of the wrong plant being chosen for the site. Perhaps something like Portugese laurel (Prunus lusitanica) would have worked out better. It would only grow to 40′ in the time it takes Leyland Cypress to grow 90′, and if it gets too broad (as would be likely, if it is not pruned regularly) it could be cut back hard and still regrow.

Finally, this gives me the opportunity to say something that has bothered me for a long time about church landscaping. As far as I have ever seen, it is always really old-school, and really boring. Lots of beauty bark, or shall we call it ugly-bark. Lots of Rhododendrons, Pieris, and yawner plants that look like nondescript green blobs 11 months out of the year and require tons of summer water. Lots of green grass and little blob-shaped purple-leaf trees. Irrigation is a must: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dry garden at a church. One gets the impression that whoever is in charge is severely lacking in imagination, and if the appropriate talent and creativity is available, it is not being tapped into. If churches are so keen on appealing to people maybe they should step outside of their little prefabricated suburbanite bubble and do something interesting. As far as I have seen, even urban churches that think they are hip are guilty of this lack of creativity and have the most boring plants/landscaping on the block. And don’t tell me it’s a money issue – they seem to have a lot to spend on irrigating and maintaining grass, and (dare I say) pruning trees. If anyone knows of a church that actually has interesting plants or landscaping, I’d love to hear about it.

Oh, and if you have planted a leyland cypress hedge, you’d better start pruning it now, or else save yourself the hours of agony and cut it down. You have been warned!

Has the word “nursery” lost its meaning?

It’s time once again for more of a rant-style post. And this is going to be a long one, as in loooooong with lots of extra o’s. But it’s more than just a rant: it’s also a splendid collection of astute observations, ending with a challenge. And I had better mention that I’m not doing this just because I think it’s fun or like to be negative. It’s more that I think I am asking some very important questions that people ought to stop and think about.

A few posts back, concerning trends in nursery business models and marketing, I posed the question, “is the past the key to the future?” I noted very briefly a number of subjects surrounding this question where the game has changed considerably in the past 50 years; and, not surprisingly, there is much more to be said about how nurseries have responded to these changes, or in some cases failed to respond to them. Most importantly, as we look to the future, one has to assess “what we should do” as a business to succeed and remain relevant and competitive into the future. So having said that, I had better preface this post with an important point. I recognize that everyone has to find their own path to success (or at least try!). So it sounds like I’m trying to tell everyone how to do things, but I realize it would be pretentious of me to assume such a position; especially with my business only in its very early stages, with little going for it that may appear decisively “successful” from the outside. The disclaimer, then, is that these ideas are just that, ideas; and they are my ideas, which means I allow plenty of room for disagreement. Fire away! So, here we go.

Back in high school, when I first began taking an interest in plants, one of my favorite nurseries was a place called Olympia Greenhouses. (I would be thrilled, by the way, to hear that any of my readers remembers this place in its original form!) Olympia Greenhouses was among the last of a dying breed of nursery: the kind that propagated and produced plants on site, and sold them directly to the local community. When I walked into this place, it would be in varying degrees of disarray, with way too many of certain plants than could possibly sell, hundreds of giant houseplants, and a nursery yard going so far back you could get lost in it, with no possible hope of keeping it all tidy and under control. But that was all just part of the fun. You could go in there once a week and find something new—tucked away in a corner, or brought out of production—with each visit. And by something new, I really mean something old. Not the latest and greatest plants, but the one’s we’ve increasingly forgotten, in some cases for the better but often to our own loss.

In about 1996 (I think) this nursery was bought out by an owner (or group?) who was apparently totally incompetent and quickly ran the business into the ground. It soon closed, the greenhouses collapsed and became overgrown with blackberries and eventually alder trees, in which condition it has remained the last time I checked. Oh well.

Today I can count on one hand the number of these old-fashioned production retail nurseries in western Washington that have survived more or less in their original form (that I am aware of!). By far the best known is Flower World in Maltby. Another example (and I haven’t been there in years, so I hope they’re still around) is The Brothers Greenhouses, which is found along Highway 3 between Belfair and Gorst. I stepped in there and almost thought I was back in Olympia Greenhouses—although the selection wasn’t as interesting, the place had the same sort of feel. (They said they also did some wholesale, but it was really tough to tell who their market was—certainly not any of the local retail nurseries I have ever visited in the area.)

To be clear on what kind of nursery I’m not talking about: I can also think of a few nurseries who claim “we grow our own plants;” yet, while they may produce a proportion of their own stock, it’s obvious that they have also brought in plenty of plants from wholesalers such as Monrovia (as if they could hide those green pots!), and lots of bare-root trees and shrubs that they didn’t produce themselves. So they don’t count. Also, I’m excluding from this categorization nurseries that produce many of their own plants and offer some retail sales, yet have another major outlet (usually mail-order) for their plants. These are usually specialty nurseries and include Desert Northwest and a number of other nurseries that continue to do business this way (Raintree, Coenosium, Colvos Creek, Fancy Fronds, etc.)

The nursery industry has changed dramatically over the decades. It now appears that the majority of retail garden centers and nurseries now buy most or all of their stock from wholesale nurseries. For those that do continue producing some of their own stock, this seems to account for a continually decreasing proportion of their sales, with a trend towards producing only a limited variety of annuals with no other plant types represented. While the industry keeps trending in this direction, it’s rare that I see anyone stop to critically analyze the possible benefits and drawbacks that may result from these changes. (One could say that critical analysis in general tends to be severely lacking from the horticulture industry, and this is but one example – oops, did I just say that?)

In fact, I’m to the point of wondering why businesses that don’t produce plants should appropriately be called nurseries. My dictionary defines a nursery as “a place where plants are grown for sale, transplanting, or experimentation.” The use of the word “grown” in this context would appear to suggest that plants at a nursery are meant to increase in size while there. This idea stands in opposition to the usual intent of retailers, which is to buy retail-ready plants from vendors and liquidate them as quickly as possible, and in pretty much the same form. So I guess I have this novel idea that nurseries, to be worthy of the word, should not just sell plants, but they should grow plants. Businesses that have completely abandoned production might be more appropriately called “plant stores.” I realize that’s possibly a subjective point, depending on how much one wishes to stress dictionary definitions; but still, it bears contemplation.

When retail nurseries produced their own plants, that meant the people selling the plants actually had plenty of hands-on experience with the plants. They knew exactly what everything they sold needed to succeed in cultivation, because they had, in fact, grown it themselves. Now garden centers often pride themselves in having knowledgeable employees, yet it’s my observation that this knowledge is based more often on books, the internet, plant tags, and (everyone’s favorite) heresay than on personal experience. These sources of information are potentially less reliable, or sometimes inapplicable to our region, than good old personal observation of plants over time. Unfortunately, most people who work in retail nurseries don’t have sufficient funds or garden space to buy one of each plant offered and try it, nor do they have a chance to watch the plants over a period of time on the sales floor in the same way that they might at a production nursery. The result is that while the breadth of knowledge may be impressive, the quality of knowledge isn’t always adequate. Have you ever wondered why so much plant information circulating today is still just plain wrong, after we should have had decades to figure things out? Perhaps this is partly a result of this shift away from production by retail nurseries and corresponding tendency for many of their employees to lack the hands-on plant experience they need to discern such things. It’s something else to think about the next time you visit a nur – I mean, plant store.

Also contributing to the misinformation problem is the tendency of wholesalers releasing new plants to make definitive statements about their needs or features based on trials over an inadequately short time period or narrow range of climates. How can they really know how big something will get in 10 years? In 20? If it grows 10′ tall at the test garden in California, who’s to say how big it will get in Seattle in the same span of time? 3 feet? 15 feet? Or will it freeze dead the first winter? Now I know that sometimes growers and breeders do a better job than that testing new plants – but it’s still not always good enough to be sufficiently accurate. I have observed that, generally, retail nurseries accept whatever the wholesalers tell them and pass this information on to the customers without bothering about its accuracy. Is that really the best thing for the overall health of the retail business?

In fact, another more subtle phenomenon that has shadowed the shift of retail nurseries away from production is that, increasingly, plant breeders and wholesale nurseries are controlling the market. For a while I had doubts about whether this is true, since common theory dictates that the market is based on the demands of consumers. But if nothing else, I’m certainly convinced that the average nursery retailer has completely lost control, and this does not benefit the gardening public. The retailers should be the experts, and should be leading the way, and deciding what they sell based on what they actually want to sell. They should be able to discern that new plants promoted by plant breeders are not always superior to the old plants, and inform the customers. Instead, they (not without exception, but all too often) just play along with whatever the wholesale reps tell them, compromising their long term potential as a trusted source of garden expertise for their short term profit margin. Related to this, people are forgetting “old” plants that used to be more common and deserve much wider use. For example, Photinia serrulata is a useful, attractive, small evergreen tree that performs perfectly in Seattle, where it lingers in certain older gardens. But I can’t recall ever having seen one at a nursery. If the wholesalers don’t grow it, no one else does either, so people forget it exists. Or they’ll bring a piece of it into the garden center hoping to find someone who can tell them what it is, and none of the employees younger than 65 will be able to identify it, and if anyone wants to buy one, well they’re just plain out of luck because no one is growing it anymore.

SO… what’s the big deal? Maybe you’ve accepted all those trends as just the way things are. This is how it is in all the other nurseries, so why break the mold? But, all these other reasons (and nostalgia) aside, I can add a few very practical reasons why retail nurseries should seriously consider a deliberate return to production, and why I believe the future may, and should, see a reversal of the trend away from it.

Let’s consider for a moment what a retail nursery is paying for when it purchases a plant from a wholesale nursery. One must pay for the soil, fertilizer, and labor that went into its production, for facilities and maintenance, taxes, and (sometimes) for patent rights and water. One must also usually pay to heat greenhouses. You’re also paying for your friendly wholesale nursery representative. And I’m sure we could think of lots more expenses; that was just a quick list “off the top of my head.”

Then — the big one — one must pay for delivery. Even in those rare cases where there’s no visible “delivery fee,” we all know (unless we forget to stop and think about it – I hope not!) that you’re still paying for delivery, since the wholesaler has to absorb those costs somehow. I think we can safely predict that delivery of plants on trucks is not something that will get less expensive in the future. Obviously, producing plants on site eliminates these costs entirely—producing them off site a few miles away, under control of the retailer, reduces them substantially; and still has the side benefit of allowing for better control of one’s inventory vs. being at the mercy of wholesale suppliers.

And then – the even bigger one – wholesale nurseries have to absorb all those costs making only half as much money or less per plant as the retailer. Suppose a wholesaler puts $4.50 (all of the above costs together) into a 1 gallon plant and sells it for $5.00, keeping the remaining $0.50 as profit. In theory, the production retailer (assuming a professionally trained production staff and adequate facilities) should be able to put the same $4.50 into that plant and sell it for… $12? $15? I grant that keeping a sales staff and appealing customer experience adds a bit of additional overhead to the $4.50, but even so, it’s not unrealistic to possibly keep $5 – 6 or more as profit for the same plant!

(By the way – that math in the last paragraph is what we in the specialty nursery business call a trade secret. So, shhhh! Don’t tell anyone! Actually, anyone who has managed to read this far is welcome to it.)

And THENNN, we’re all observing a cultural trend whereby products shipped over long distances are increasingly less “cool” among those who decide what is hip and fashionable, than things produced locally. People want to “shop local” – why not be the first in town to offer locally produced plants?

ANNNND – yeah one more – as long as we’re taking about what people want (imagine that) – and tying into this problem of plant breeders and wholesalers controlling the industry – shouldn’t we be wondering how much longer customers are going to tolerate poorly adapted or just plain lousy patented plants that fail to perform as expected? I’m not saying all patented plants are necessarily lousy, but a surprising number of them are genetically weak or just aren’t bred for the Northwest’s climate. Meanwhile, wholesale nurseries push them into our marketplace at the expense of more appropriate selections. Will there be a backlash? Will gardeners someday start specifically avoiding the latest patented cultivars because they are skeptical of them in general? Who knows? – someday it could happen.

As far as I can tell, the main reason retail “nurseries” and garden centers are not interested in producing their own plants is they have established what they consider to be a successful model of business and would prefer not to change it much. But the time may come when this change may be necessary, and these businesses should be ready. We would all agree that there’s no point in sticking to your guns to the point where you start losing money and losing business to your competition. I’ve heard plenty of other reasons not to explore production, from the cost of heating greenhouses (which you essentially pay twice as much for when purchasing wholesale plants, as spelled out above), to the challenge of finding and training new staff. None of these excuses really holds water. To me, the best — perhaps the only — excuse for retail plant stores not to expand into production is the lack of available space. And even this may not be a workable reason forever, as many nurseries have found that substantially downsizing in coverage is what it has taken to get through our current difficult economy. Hmm, now what to do with all that “extra” space?

I’m not advocating a return to the past just because I happen to like it better. I think it’s partially true that what was unworkable about Olympia Greenhouses was partially its failure to adapt to a changing market at the time (although I also heard rumors of the new owner being a plain lousy and irresponsible boss making numerous missteps with management and staff). We can expect change to continue, and should always be ready to adapt to it.

But here’s one thing I think would actually be helpful to the nursery business: I would like to suggest a return to a gardening culture in which nursery people who sell garden plants are the same people actively involved in breeding, propagating, selecting and producing the best ones, rather than this ridiculous breeder to grower to broker to retailer chain we have now. I believe more than a few positive changes would result from this, all the way from quality of plant material and advice, to employee satisfaction; vastly benefiting horticulture and gardening culture at large. And that is just one reason why we at the Desert Northwest remain firmly committed to propagating and producing all of our own plants here on site. Anyway, this is getting so long, I’ll try to describe exactly what that would look like in greater detail in a future blog post.

In the meantime, just to be obnoxious (wasn’t that one of your New Year’s resolutions too?), I may as well go on labeling non-production “nurseries” as plant stores. If we don’t draw the line somewhere, the word nursery as it pertains to horticulture loses its meaning.

Peninsula Gardens, Gig Harbor, Washington in 2007. A classic example of the “plant store” business model (in their later years at least), they are now out of business.

Derby Canyon Natives, Peshastin, Washington. Although many of their plants go towards restoration projects, and the like; at least they are a grower that sells directly to the public. (I had such a hard time finding a photo of just the sort of nursery I am talking about that this was the closest thing I could think of!)

Garden Show Dreaming

So, the 2012 Northwest Flower and Garden Show came and went last weekend. At first I was going to pass on commenting, since there are plenty of other voices out there chattering away about this year’s show, mostly expressing disappointment: some nicely, and some less so! And we would all agree it gets a bit obnoxious to read criticism after criticism all the time. Another thing I’m noticing is that many other people (my “plant friends”) have the ability to make scathing criticisms sound nice and diplomatic, much more so than do I; reducing the chance that anything I present as criticism could be seen as anything other than obnoxious, even if meant to be constructive. So that would be one reason to stick by the idea of “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”

Then I had the idea that I might write something nice about what I liked about the show, giving criticism a pass; since there were, in fact, a few things that I liked and even found inspiring. A lot of people didn’t think the gardens were much to look at this year (if they could see them – a frequent comment was that lighting was inadequate), but I noted some very interesting water features that were pretty cool. The childrens play area continued to be good; at least my kid liked it. The section reserved for various plant societies, gardens and arboreta was good, even if a couple societies I would have liked to see represented were missing – the Cascade Cactus and Succulent Society, for one. And that is not necessarily the fault of anyone running the show, I suppose.

I also liked (conceptually, at least) the little cards that were distributed at the ticket booth to incentivize showgoers to participate in a survey to provide feedback about the show. While one could be a bit annoyed by the tactic of baiting people with offers for coupons from various booths (which were so scattered that it would take considerable effort to visit each one deliberately) to get them to participate in the survey, at least they deserve credit for doing something to try to feel out what people want out of the show to guide its future. But, to make it sound like the whole show was just fabulous in every respect would be kind of phony – and I think few readers who attended the show would find my commentary to be believable.

So here’s my idea to try to remain focused on being constructive and providing solutions. I’m going to spend just a little time fantasizing, shall we say, about what I would like the show to be. I’ll present my thoughts in the form of advice or suggestions for improvement that might be implemented by show operators, while acknowledging at certain points how I compare these ideas with the current situation (in which case, sounding critical cannot be avoided). Hopefully I’ll avoid the usual “The ____ was too ____. Wah wah wah.” style of complaining. However, I should emphasize from the outset that this is not necessarily intended to represent what everyone wants: it is just what I would like to see. I don’t pretend everyone else gets the same things out of the show that I do – nor should they, as we all appreciate different aspects of gardening, and for different reasons. So this is an entirely fantastical post, in which I invite the reader to share in all, some, or none of my sentiments. But here are some ideas that, if put into action, would make the Garden Show really, really awesome according to the standards of Ian.

I’ll start with the plant market, since it has so much potential. The plant market should be much larger, and should be the place in the Northwest – heck, this side of the Mississippi – to find the rarest and most exciting plants in the trade. Gardeners should be looking forward to their one chance every year to get hold of all the coolest, newest, and most obscure goodies for their gardens. (Heck, this idea by itself might even sell more tickets, if successful!) To that end, the show administrators should actively pursue the best, most prestigious, and most unique nurseries for the plant market. The nurseries should be tempted with an offer they can’t refuse! As it is, they seem to be leaving things largely to fate; and, between the economic downturn and society’s changing interests, fate has not treated the nursery business well the last few years. The plant market used to be pretty good; but still, I think, short of its potential 10 to 15 years ago. Every year a couple more nurseries drop out; and now, well, I’m sorry to say the plant market is a shadow of its former self both in terms of size and diversity of offerings. I appreciate, though, that the plant market is still in a prominent location in the show, rather than tucked away in a corner.

Next, I would be excited to see the show to do more to distinguish itself from “home shows.” This is actually related to the previous idea, since much of the space that ought to/used to be the plant market is now occupied by vendors of replacement windows and gutter systems. Dear show owners: people can find this stuff anywhere. There are home improvement shows all the time. The Northwest Flower and Garden Show is the second biggest in the country: how about differentiating to demonstrate that it is also the best? I would propose as a solution some sort of sliding scale where the most desirable nursery vendors pay less for a booth space and home improvement type vendors pay more and get last priority. Also related to this, artist and all other product vendors should be directly related to gardening. Vendors of scarves and jewelery, again, can be found at a variety of shows; and represent an opportunity for the show to differentiate by pursuing vendors with more clearly garden-related products to replace them.

Now, to the gardens. I feel that half the problem with the gardens are the themes chosen each year that the designers have to work with. This year’s theme was “A Floral Symphony.” Last year’s theme had something to do with stories or books, I can’t rightly remember. So here’s my idea. It’s true that most anything in life – music, books, attire, what-have-you – can be related to gardening. I would like to propose that these pre-selected themes be based on topics that are inseparable from gardening. I think this requirement would keep things a little more down to earth and less fantastical. Because what I’m seeing is that the gardens don’t always look realistic to people; and it is not always simply because of practical concerns (expense, maintenance): I think sometimes a “weird factor,” if you will, appears when a theme is chosen that results in certain elements being included in the gardens that overshadow the strong points. Gardens need to look like something someone would actually do. And in many places, they do: the question is, how to make it better? Hence my suggestion that gardens ought to reflect a garden-based theme. I don’t really have any specific examples in mind. It’s just a starting point to help the gardens hopefully inspire a broader range of showgoers.

Here’s another idea. I would like to suggest the addition of a large area where specimens of individual plants can be showcased and judged: sort of like they do at the county fair, only with much higher standards for coolness and acclaim. (Perhaps a few more of those gutter system vendors could be eliminated to make space for this – ha ha.) We have a place for showcasing container displays; which is great. We have a place for showcasing artwork. Why not a place for showcasing plants? These plants could be judged and the best given awards just as the other categories present at the show. This could also be a way to generate interest in particular new or rare items of great horticultural merit that deserve broader attention. I think a display of, say, 100 – 150 individually presented cool plants, that were truly unique and interesting; would be a lot of fun to look at, even if not all of them happened to pique my interest personally. Hopefully most of these plants would be produced by smaller and edgier growers and not just the big guys, so some method of regulating that to make it fair for everyone would have to be developed.

Finally, I would like to say that I have no serious complaints about the speakers line-up. I would just like to offer one minor suggestion, which would be that at least one seminar per day should be about exploring for plants in the wild. This is because I think people benefit from seeing the connection between gardening and nature in a way that goes beyond “landscaping for wildlife” and such: gardeners can never have too much awareness of the wild origins and habitat preferences of their garden plants, or the story behind their introduction and cultivated history. These talks usually draw pretty good crowds anyhow, at least the few that I have attended.

So, you folks organizing the show do all that, and then I’ll be really excited to come every year! I’ll even be a vendor with my own booth! Really! And I’ll talk it up to everyone. So, really now, what’s not to like about my ideas? Does anyone have more inspiring ideas to offer? What would get you excited to see the Northwest Flower and Garden Show? Not that anyone important is actually going to read this, but hey, let’s put it out there just for fun.

Once nice water feature.

Another nice water feature. The funny thing is I didn’t really notice that bird until I went back and looked at my pictures. What does that say about me, I’m not sure?

This cool rotating metal thingammy (not sure what to call it really) was probably the most oohed and aahed at thing in the gardens. I liked it too. The water feature behind it was also pretty cool. On the other hand, I’m not exactly inspired to go out and buy a rusty guitar sculpture for my garden.

The WSNLA Treasure Island booth looked good once again although we did not participate in it this year.

They did offer a few of our plants though, which appear to have mostly sold, so that was nice.

This Hardy Plant Society of Washington display of purple and black leaved plants was way cool. Just one problem, almost nothing in the display is hardy. As much as I loved this display I thought that fact was a bit ironic.

The North American Rock Garden Society display looked great and I enjoyed chatting with the fellow who staffed the booth. I will probably join this society soon; it’s very reasonably priced.

I leave you with this lovely poster from the Plant Amnesty booth: proof that not everything has to be inspiring to be worth seeing!

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