2019: A Great Year for Bamboos and Ferns

So, a pleasantly mild summer here in Clallam County, Washington has come to a harsh and dreary end.  Who remembers the hot summer we had in 2009 when it reached 103 in Seattle?  We actually reached 103 here in Sequim on the day before that, but “only” made it to 100 on the following day (7/29, I think), which was hotter for Puget Sound.

I point this out only to remind myself that it can get hot here; because this summer, it did not.  We only squeaked out a grand total of five days above 80 degrees, with the hottest day being 84 (which was on June 12th).  Remarkably, we did not make it to 80 even once during the month of July.  Like most of the Northwest, we also experienced warmer than normal nighttime temperatures throughout much of summer this year.

We also had considerably more rain this summer than we have have been accustomed to lately, with the last few summers having been drier than average.  In particular, we had a very surprising, major soaking rain on June 27th which really helped tide things over.  We don’t usually expect that, especially here in the rainshadow.  And of course, if you live around here I don’t have to tell you that this September has been very wet.  Since the second week of September, I haven’t had to water much of anything at all outside of the greenhouses, and the grass that had looked parched a month ago is turning green again already.  I irrigated our lawn all summer (I always do this as a fire protection measure), but in the last couple weeks it has been out of control with hardly a dry day to mow it!

In general, the mild weather makes our job easier.  I said something like that way back in 2011 when we had a cool summer (see – here it is!), and it’s still true.  It is easier to get into the greenhouses and work when it isn’t so hot.  And most of what we grow is sufficiently adapted to our climate that it gets enough heat for growth, even in a cool year.  The only exception is some of the desert succulents and (non-opuntoid) cacti, which in many cases put on more growth the more heat they get, to a point.

Visitors to the nursery this year will have noticed that the snow last February crushed our shade house.  This could have been prevented had I not deliberately pulled the shade cloth back on (the wind having blown it off) to protect the plants inside from frost.  I am not too upset about this loss, since I needed to devote all my attention while it was snowing to clearing snow from the larger aluminum frame structures.  Losing one of these would have been a much more significant disaster.

The shade house was the first nursery structure we built at our Sequim location.  With help from family, it was built in haste in December 2008 when forecasts advertised a big freeze (which, of course, turned out to be significant indeed).  It sheltered many valuable plants through our first Sequim winter.  It existed for one winter as a greenhouse before I managed to finish the first aluminum frame greenhouse in December 2009.  By that time it had already become the shade house.  You can look back into the blog archives and read all about it, if interested.  But now, we bid farewell to this structure.  I am not going to replace it with the same sort of structure in the same place.  I have other plans for this space, though it will be a while before I get to them.

In any case, the shade house was destroyed beyond repair, and a large collection of bamboos was trapped underneath it for a long time while the snow slowly melted.  We have since dismantled what was left of the shade house and will repurpose the wood, most of which is in remarkably good condition.  I was amazed how well the bamboos did.  Although a few individual plants died, not one species was lost from the collection completely.  As they were buried under snow for almost a month, with numerous nights in the 20s and two nights down to the mid-teens, I call that rather miraculous.  (However, a few particularly vulnerable bamboos had been moved into the greenhouse in advance.)  We have since moved them over to a part of the property with some tree canopy and they are looking great (plus a few in the greenhouses to sell).

Bamboos are not desert plants, but we keep them around because they have so many other desirable features.  Admittedly they are a bit of a holdover from before I started the nursery with a water-wise theme.  A few years back I decided they were important enough to me to continue growing them, which is still the case.  With the cloudy, mild weather and relatively high humidity we have had most of the summer, they have been very happy.  We are continuing to gradually increase them, especially the clumping (non-invasive) types, for eventual sale.

Another “holdover” from an earlier era would be the tree ferns.  I would very much like to grow more of these, but I seem to have a problem with giving germinating treefern spore the attention it needs.  Nevertheless I will continue in my efforts until we can make more species available.  A modest crop of Cyathea dealbata we obtained from a friend is looking particularly lush as they enjoy the rain we have had this month.  We also have a number of Dicksonia antarctica in the nursery which I am rather tempted to just put in the ground.  Tree ferns are not at all drought tolerant, and certainly don’t fit the water-wise theme.  But I had a minor obsession with them for a few years of high school and college.  I still think they are intriguing plants and a lot of fun to grow.

Fortunately, I haven’t become completely distracted from water-wise plants.  I have been potting up a ton of Agave and Yucca seedlings this summer, for future sale.  Also, last year we were privileged to take some cuttings from a cactus collection in eastern Washington.  As they have rooted and grown, they are generating a lot of interest and selling pretty well.  So now, of course, we needed to go back and get even more!  Some of you will have noticed a photo of these on Facebook.  Don’t get too excited just yet though; they need the chance to grow some roots before they can be sold.

As you will have noticed from the web site, we have closed up the nursery early for the season, even suspending mail-order operations for a time.  I’ll attempt to quit whining about how difficult this year has been and just leave it at that.  We are now focusing on a list of tasks we need to get through to make 2020 a great year!  It’s no use looking back and it’s time to look forward.

A particular challenge is to get the plastic back on greenhouse 1 while it is full of plants.  It seems I was too busy complaining about snow to mention on this blog that my plastic sheeting blew off this greenhouse during a freak windstorm last December, and was never properly repaired.  (Yeah it was a heck of a winter!)  I’m now realizing it’s much easier to get plastic on a new greenhouse with nothing in it, and plenty of room to work, than on a greenhouse crammed with plants.  But at least we now have a new sheet of plastic, and I’m certain we will get the job done before cold weather arrives.  Another task on the list for this fall is to get the impenetrable jungle cleared from the back of greenhouse 3.  Wish us luck with that one because we will need it.  We still need to repair some snow damage to the wood framing in the back of greenhouse 3 that we can’t even reach.

Finally, we will soon be listing some seeds for sale on the web site.  But not right this minute, since I’m going down my task list in the best possible order of priorities.  This has been some time in coming, and I regret the delay.  Our goal is to have a seed list of at least 50 – 60 species posted to the web site by November 1st.  The list will look quite a bit like my list from many years ago: a combination of Agave and Yucca species along with a limited selection of Eucalyptus and Australian plants.  These are all fresh seeds that I myself collected (90% of the time) and use at the nursery.  I sow them and then I end up with so many seedlings that I never get around to potting them up.  Ha ha.  Well, you’ll want to check back for that!

More later.  We wish you a great fall.  You know, like Humpty Dumpty.  No, the other kind of fall.

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Initially, we did make an effort to clear snow from the shade house.  It’s great when children get big enough to help!

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Crushed shade house with bamboo collection under there somewhere.

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Shade house tear-down.  Photo by Connie Barclay

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Yushania (Borinda) boliana, giant blue bamboo.  Can you believe these were all in that shade house buried under snow for weeks?  Some sources call this not hardy, but not one of them that we left in the shade house died (or even died to the ground).  You’re going to need one of these in the spring.

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Snow also put a lot of pressure on our aluminum frame houses.  Here, looking into greenhouse 4, you can see the snow line where there was no room left for it to collect between it and the next greenhouse (left side of photo).  Also this greenhouse has taken on a distinct lean to the right, because of the weight of snow on the left side.  There isn’t anything I can do to fix that, but it has gradually resumed its correct shape over time, and isn’t too bad now.  I think the occasional wind we get has actually helped push it back into shape.  There is also damage to the framing in two greenhouses, one of which we have repaired.

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New cactus cuttings, which will be ready to sell in 2020!  If you liked this photo on Facebook, please try to maintain your level of excitement until then.

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Summer 2019 Update and Nursery Open Days

So here it is, almost summer already, having our usual bit of cool June weather before it really kicks in. And what looked like it would be a great year for our nursery back in January has turned out to be, well, quite different from expectations. I’ll comment a little more on that at the end of this post, but the main thing to discuss for now is how we plan to proceed with summer sales. I’m getting a lot of emails asking are we open, and when? It would have helped to post that on the web site earlier, I know. But I’ll get there. And rest assured we will still be open this weekend (June 21-22) as originally planned. Also if you show up this weekend you’ll get to see some amazing Echinocereus cacti in bloom in our display bed!  (Sorry, none to sell right now.)

I’ll be very up front about the state of the nursery, which right now does not look much like I wanted it to. I can’t pretend it looks spectacular. But it doesn’t make sense to cancel anything, since there are still so many great plants out there! There isn’t everything I was hoping for by now, but there are still a LOT of cool plants. And there are a few new items. If anyone wants little plants of Eucalyptus neglecta or E. gunnii this is your chance! They are small but look perfect, and I’ve had the best success putting them out from little pots.

So the basic plan is, we are open this Friday and Saturday, then on top of that will be open every Saturday through August and perhaps beyond. We will also be open August 9th and Sept 20-21 which was advertised earlier. But I’m not going to call it an “open house,” nor will I be sending out the usual e-mails in advance either. It’s just, show up on any Saturday you want, and we will be here. We will be potting up, cleaning up, and selling as the occasion arises. We will probably not be providing signage for the plants this time around as we have done in the past; I think there just isn’t going to be time. However, a deep discount is provided for quality-compromised plants, which has been the case for some time.

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Speaking of TIME, I suppose that’s the big factor in what’s going on with the nursery. As in, there’s not enough of it to go around, and I’m having a lot of trouble keeping up. This could be attributed to poor planning on my part, but there are also factors beyond my control, such as the weather and me getting sick. I’ve been considering options to solve these problems, and doing some re-thinking on the direction of the nursery for the future. I may produce a longer blog post about that sometime. But at least, I think closing the nursery is not an option. When my greenhouses didn’t collapse in the snow, I took that as a sign that I had best continue. Also, gardeners’ interest in our plants and nursery concept continues to be very high. So I guess this means we’re not giving up!

But with that having been said, perhaps I’ll shoot for a little sympathy here. First, the weather hit us really hard in February. Did I EVER think I would see two feet of snow in Sequim? (Which was mostly in 24 hours.) Well, honestly, I should have, since it happened in 1996. As I was out there knocking snow off greenhouses all night, to the limit of physical exhaustion, I was thinking to myself, let’s suppose two feet of snow at once is a “20-year event.” Do I want to be out here doing this again when I’m 60? As an aside, it’s a good thing I started taking some steps last year to get in better overall physical health, or I certainly would have lost the greenhouses. As it was, I was pushed close to the limit of my physical endurance, and I’m certain the greenhouses were close to collapse. We ended up with 36” inches of snow for the month. Some of you folks back east are probably like “what’s the big deal?” But around here this almost never happens, and you sure as heck don’t see it coming.

Second, did I ever think snow could take so long to melt? The last patch of snow finally fizzled out on St. Patricks Day, which has to be some kind of record. But it’s a real problem when everything stays basically frozen for a month. I need that time to work on the nursery and clean up the plants for spring. I can’t get the weeds out of the plants when the plants are frozen and the potting soil is frozen. And this is one reason I am so far behind.

So in March, I managed to pull together enough plants for the Sequim Garden Show. And then of course I got the flu. It seems to take longer to recover every time I get it. That was just when we had that hot weather in March, and I didn’t feel well enough to adequately keep watered all my exciting cuttings from California the Southwest. Some will be fine but a lot of them died that week, sadly. I’m sure going from winter to summer in a matter of about a week was as much of a shock to the plants as to me.

April was more productive, and the Hortlandia sale may be considered a success given the circumstances. And I’m glad the weather was normal for the whole month.

Then I got the flu again in June and lost a bunch more work time. In fact I didn’t even feel good enough to produce this blog post yesterday or this morning, so here I am doing it in the evening. I think I’m on the mend and should be good enough for this weekend. But sheesh.

Do I have enough material yet for a Shakespearean tragedy? Now, I know there are solutions to any of the above problems. Much has to do simply with preparedness, given that it is impossible to know what the future holds. But it takes time to implement any of those solutions.

Finally, on a broader scale, I have come to a better understanding of reasons the nursery has been in a general state of “decline” (in terms of maintenance, not sales) since 2015. But the reasons for that are personal and complex; and I don’t want to go into detail here except to describe (again, in a future post) what I see as the best solutions going forward.

Before wrapping up this post, I wish to thank my current volunteers, Bob and Susan, for their help this year (and in the past). Sometimes it is easier to deal with someone else’s mess than your own, which seems like the only possible explanation for why they continue to return. I do greatly appreciate them.

Oh, one last announcement, I should mention that wholesale will not be offered in 2019. Last year was very successful, and we hope to do it again when we can. But this year the weather really screwed it all up, at a time when we needed to be potting all that stuff up, everything was frozen solid. Once again, more time, attention and planning could offset such challenges in the future. It’s all part of a learning experience!

So if you read this far, thanks for reading. I guess we’re not like those other businesses that make everything sound like lollipops and rainbows all the time. Apparently we’re all about honesty around here! Rest assured there is still a lot of cool stuff available, and we look forward to seeing you this summer at the nursery.  

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(Here’s a scene we’d like to forget.  What happens when there isn’t enough space between the greenhouses for snow to collect?  Well it stacks up to 7′ high, that’s what.  At that point all I can do is try to keep snow off the center of the greenhouses.  Glad I had snowshoes or I wouldn’t have been able to climb up there!)

Sequim Garden Show This Weekend, and Other Events!

Chelsea. Philadelphia. Northwest Flower and Garden Show. Sequim Garden Show! OK, maybe these other shows aren’t quite as exciting as the Sequim show. But the Sequim show, at only $5, costs a lot less to get into. It is held the third weekend of March every year, at the Boys and Girls Club in Sequim. And that means all the excitement starts this weekend.

So, really, what can you expect at the show? Well, it’s actually more of a friendly small-town garden show with nothing too flashy or extravagant. Despite a lot of Northwest nurseries going out of business, there are still a number of nursery vendors at this show. We will be there in our usual space with a fun collection of cool stuff. I have been cleaning plants all winter long (except for a couple weeks when I was sick), and we now have a whole lot more cool stuff that looks good, compared to most years in late winter. I’m gradually learning that cleaning plants all winter is a worthwhile effort, despite the amount of time it takes! We have already had a few special requests for the show, and you’re welcome to send more of those to mail@desertnorthwest.com

As for the rest of the sales we are doing this year, we don’t have all those pinned down yet, but I’ll name a few:
Hortlandia, in Portland, is April 14 – 15. For some reason we have been at this sale about every other year lately. Anyway, this year we will be there!
Rhododendron Species Foundation Sale, April 20 – 21 in Federal Way. We do this every year, but it sounds like they have a new location this year at a nearby church.
Heronswood: As we did last year, we’re skipping the spring events at Heronswood, but will be there on July 21.
Open House: The summer open house will be on August 10 – 11. We will also have “open house” events in June and September, but you’ll have to stay tuned to figure out what the dates were, because we are not sure yet. I’m leaning towards pushing the June open to a later date than usual.

As always, mail-order shipping and visits by appointment continue to be available. Until I get the web site updated, please e-mail us for a more current plant availability.

As far as more general news, I am glad to be over the flu. At first it seemed convenient that I was sick the week it was cold and all my potting soil was frozen (thus not wasting any additional time I might have been working), but then the weather moderated and it took me more than another week to get better. That was seriously the worst bug I have had in a long, long time. Although the late February cold was annoying (didn’t it seem like we were going to sail from a benign winter right into spring?), nothing really got damaged despite dropping to 21 degrees.  So it could have been worse.  Our snowfall total for the winter (assuming we’re done with that) was 14″, the highest since 2010-11.

And with that, I’m wrapping up this post in just a few short paragraphs. See you in Sequim, or perhaps somewhere else!

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Sequim Garden Show last year

10 Year Blogiversary!

Can you believe it was 10 years ago that I started this blog?  I’m not sure I can.  Here’s a link to the very first blog post.  You will see that it is very exciting (not).  I think I just wanted to have something on there so people would not go to just a blank page, and I didn’t feel a lot of pressure to produce meaningful content right off the bat.

I have a total of 110 blog posts.  That amounts to just shy of one per month, but there have been periods of more activity interspersed with some long breaks.  This year I am going to attempt to be a little more frequent and consistent with the posts, but not unrealistically so.  I’ll be happy if I manage to post twice per month, but maybe give myself a break if it’s a little less frequent during the very busy season.

So on this exciting occasion, let’s do some reflecting.  A lot has happened in ten years.  When I started this blog not a lot of people were on Facebook (including me).  This blog was my outlet for information and connecting with plant people.  Now that has all changed.  But Facebook isn’t quite what it used to be either.  I almost think separate social media platforms are needed for discussing plants and political banter.  I’m glad I didn’t totally give up on my blog.

In ten years I feel like I have almost started learning how to run a nursery.  (The nursery itself goes back to 2005.)   From a financial standpoint the nursery continues to do slightly better every year.  If I can meet some goals this year perhaps it will do a lot better.  One likes to be optimistic!  One of those goals is to transition to a complete online shopping cart.  What’s holding me back, you might wonder?  Well, it’s simply that there are many steps between assessing inventory on the ground to the finished product of a functional shopping cart.  I need to count quantities, write descriptions, find photos, and more.  Oh well, I will get there somehow.  I believe in working hard but I am also quite meticulous.  I have opted to keep putting it off rather than do a sloppy job of it.  Other processes such as shipping, potting up, inventory management and so forth continue to be more streamlined, a word which makes this fact sound impressive.

Looking ahead in the nursery department, I did not get terribly far afield this year to collect cuttings.  I did not go on any plant hunting trips or botanical exploration in natural areas, not even locally.  But the propagation area is full, mostly of cuttings from friends’ local gardens, so there will still be a lot of great stuff for sale next year.  Notably, we visited Mike Lee’s Arbor Heights Botanic Garden in West Seattle, which is really coming along nicely.  If we’re lucky perhaps I’ll manage to post photos of that in the near future. Many cuttings from Mike are already rooting.  We also returned to Hummingbird Hill Villa, about which I posted a year ago.  We went the Saturday after Thanksgiving and Arctostaphylos ‘Austin Griffiths’ was already blooming!  We thank the owners of these gardens for their generosity.  (The funny thing is, nearly six weeks later I still haven’t quite finished processing the Hummingbird Hill cuttings.  But they have been carefully stored and, remarkably, they still look fine.  I continue to go through them as the chance allows and hope to finish tomorrow.)

Besides all these cuttings, I’m also hoping to increase our selection of seed-grown plants like Eucalyptus and Acacia this year–plants we haven’t offered a lot of in a while, but we should.  And I’m also looking through some of the stuff we used to sell way back when the nursery started and asking, what can I propagate that we haven’t offered in a long time, that people would want to buy?

Also in the works, I am hoping to re-introduce seeds for sale.  But it is going to be a rather humble beginning, as many of my sources back when we had more seeds are no longer available.  Various plants/trees froze, and I haven’t done any collecting in the Southwest, or around Seattle.  So this may not be a huge deal.  But as the chance arises I’ll just continue to collect what I can.  So far I have managed to collect about 15 species from plants like Eucalpytus, Callistemon and Leptospermum in quantity enough to sell.  I’ll see what else I can come up with.  Stay tuned for more news about this hopefully by February!

Finally, I’ll mention that I’m hoping I feel like I can afford to cut back on regional plant sales a bit this year.  It’s tempting to try to fill every weekend with one event after the other, but I have to consider how much valuable nursery time I am missing, and how far behind I get in the spring (especially on potting up cuttings and seedlings) by not staying home as much as possible.  I’ll be making some decisions about that soon, and I’m certainly not giving them all up. I have already reserved my usual booth at the Sequim Garden Show, which is coming up the third weekend of March.

How about this cold weather?  I admit we view it as a bit of a hassle when it lasts this long. We have now had three separate “arctic blast” type events, which is an awful lot of them for one winter, and we still have a good deal more winter to go.  Between everything being frozen and me being sick for that brief period after Christmas when we were above freezing, there have been periods where work has kind of come to a standstill.  (That’s why the Hummingbird Hill cuttings aren’t done!)  But when I can, besides sticking cuttings, I continue to clean up the first three greenhouses when we’re above freezing.  I have also organized my bamboos, which needed doing, and cleaned out the shade house, and I have a big project going now with organizing pots. Winter stuff, we might say.

We did not get a lot of snow, which is good.  No more than an inch fell at any one time, though with everything being frozen, there is still some out there now.  “Snow is a good insulator,” the saying goes, but what they don’t tell you is that it’s hardly worth it when snow cover on the ground substantially drops the air temperature at night from what it otherwise would be.  So we say no thanks to snow if we can avoid it.  Our coldest temperature has been 20°F, which is annoying but it could have been much worse.

And, importantly for my personal sanity, the freezing weather is great for catching up on various projects indoors that have been neglected for too long.  Spreadsheets about plant hardiness, organizing files, cleaning e-mail inboxes, cataloging photos, and the like.  I have been about five years behind on listing all the plants pictured in the photos I have taken.  But now I am catching up!  I have to know where to find the photos of various plants on my hard drive if I am going to use them.  The only unfortunate thing is it is just on a spreadsheet–If there were any fancy photo organizing programs when I started this 11 years ago, I did not know about them.  Now I think that’s too big of a leap to make.

I suppose that’s all the news that’s fit to print, and then some!  I’m sure most of my readers are looking forward to winter being over as much as I am, so we can all get on with planting!  Here are a few random photos:

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Nursery on December 6th.

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Little plants all snug and warm in the greenhouse.  Isn’t that cute?

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An ice plant covered in ice.  It seemed appropriate. Isn’t it an ice plant?

Exciting Facebook groups YOU should join—and General Update

When you start getting emails of “are you still in business?” that must mean it’s been too long since a web update or at least a blog update. Of course this has been on my mind for a while now, but we’ll start with the blog since that is easier. Yes, we are still in business and we have in fact been quite busy.

Before getting to that though, let’s take a moment to talk about Facebook. You’re on Facebook, right? I mean, come on man, everyone is doing it. Actually, if you are one of those who has still opted out, I can’t blame you. I’m half expecting everything we put up on Facebook goes into some vast database that Big Brother will eventually use against us. But then the same goes for most everything we put on the internet, including my blog and web site, so I guess it’s a chance I’ve decided to take for now, unless someone can convince me to go back to snail-mail only for the nursery business. At least I haven’t bought one of those TVs that listens to your every word and transmits your information to some unknown data cloud.

In any case, there continues to be a steadily increasing amount of action on plant-based Facebook groups (as an aside, the group called Plant Idents is particularly fun). So now that you think I’m nuts, let me tell you about three exciting Facebook groups you should join:

The first is called Arctostaphylos Aficionados. I started this back in late summer or so for people with a serious interest in manzanita—growing it, photographing it, documenting it in the wild, whatever. We even got someone in the group who is doing molecular research on them, so that is exciting; as well as most of the living scientific authorities on the genus that I know of. Do you like manzanita? What are you waiting for? https://www.facebook.com/groups/1536485596588451/

The next is called Cold Hardy Australian Plants, which I started around New Years Eve or so. I am astounded at the positive response to this group which already has more people in it than the Arctostaphylos group; and lots of great discussion, information and photos have been shared. You can be part of the fun at https://www.facebook.com/groups/384205358407272/

Then we have Hardy Cacti for Temperate Gardens. Unlike my other groups this one has NOT really taken off. In fact I started it way back last March and we are still not quite at 100 members. But there is a back story here.

A certain Dan Carter, well over a year ago, started a Facebook group called Cold Hardy Cacti—nothing wrong with that. He then went on to define the subject of his group as being primarily cacti that will grow in USDA zones 6 or colder, where temperatures below 0°F are expected most winters. To the annoyance of some, contributors from zones 7 and 8 would be repeatedly informed their posts were of relatively less interest to the group. For example I even posted photos from an eastern Washington garden and was told my post was only marginally on topic. The problem is, with a title like “Cold Hardy Cacti,” it’s pretty much inevitable that you’re going to attract people who are interested in cold hardy cacti on up to zones 7 and 8; where, outside of desert areas, you very seldom see cacti cultivated due to the challenges of cold and wet. So, while I recognize someone is free to manage a Facebook group any way that he chooses to, in my mind it gets a little silly when you start a group with the title “Cold Hardy Cacti” and then tell such persons their contributions are not on topic. Now this is not meant as an attack on his group; in fact, I am still in his group. But this did motivate me to start Hardy Cacti for Temperate Gardens, which is meant as a “bigger tent” for people interested in discussing cold hardy cacti in any zone. (If Dan reads this and feels I am representing him unfairly, by all means please chime in—I have no personal beef here.) I won’t even say anything if you start talking about Agaves or Yuccas in my group; just don’t start talking about Encore Azaleas or something.

So I still wish to revive this group. It could be a valuable resource for those of us who are growing cacti in climates cold enough to be challenging but not frigid. With that remark I am pledging to become somewhat more involved there myself, and would love to have your contributions as well. Here’s the group again: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1468681576681957/

So what else is new? Well, some people have called this a “really boring” mild winter in the Northwest generally, but in our neck of the woods we had 3” of snow on November 29th followed by a drop to 18°F on the 30th. So we hit our “zonal low” if you will for the winter. A hard freeze before that and another just after Christmas were also annoying. (And what’s with all these early hard freezes lately? 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, now 2014. Perhaps I ought to just start expecting them.) So greenhouse 4 didn’t get built, but that isn’t really a surprise. But that is all right, since I’m knocking off a whole lot of other little projects that have been bugging me for years. For example an annoying pile of rocks and dirt (inherited from previous owners) on the east side of the nursery growing area that has been covered with groundcover cloth for years has finally been leveled flat. This week I am working on getting Dungeness River irrigation water over to the east side of the property, which is exciting. And I am finally getting more plants into the ground, but more on that in a future post.

I have been doing some cleaning and organizing in the greenhouses as well; in short, we are doing the usual stuff to get ready for spring. And fortunately I am more on top of annoying paperwork this year than before, which means I can be OUTSIDE doing the work! Of course there’s still the web site to update; but for now I’ll just say, if you’re wondering if something is available, just ask, and I’ll let you know.

The other exciting news is that last October I managed to get out and do a quick bit of plant hunting in southwest Oregon and California. Highlights were a couple nice forms of Heteromeles arbutifolia that have already rooted really well, one of which had huge clusters of berries (why didn’t I get seed? But hey, at least they rooted). I also revisited some very nice forms of Arctostpahylos x mewukka that I had collected in 2006 but later lost. These forms from the Mt. Shasta area are beautifully silver—not as screaming blue as some, but still pretty good—and ought to be super hardy to cold (-20°F?). Speaking of cold, I encountered Arctostaphylos viscida in the upper Scott Valley where temperatures in the neighborhood of -20°F are not unknown—temperatures that these manzanitas take in stride. Look for these and similar exciting items to make it to our web list later this year. Then we have the rare Ceanothus pinetorum which looks a lot like C. gloriosus, but it grows high in the mountains and it’s MUCH hardier. Sean Hogan (Cistus Nursery) tells me it’s a major challenge to grow but I’m hoping I’ll have better luck if I get them in the ground from a small size. I guess we’ll find out.

Although it has taken me a while, I still intend to post photos to the web site both from this trip, and from the 2012 trip to Oregon and Northern California that I did with Mike Lee (formerly of Colvos Creek Nursery) and Vor Hostelter. There was also a minor trip to the Mt. Hood area in 2012 that I never did post photos of, but hey, it’s not too late!

We got to see some splendid gardens last fall, including Hummingbird Hill Villa on Whidbey Island, which houses an impressive collection of water-wise plants including a lot of things like Arctostaphylos, Grevillea, Leptospermum and the other usual suspects. The late Bob Barca, who was also one of our customers, started this garden which continues to be well maintained by the surviving family. We also visited Mike Lee, who continues to maintain a collection of fun, unusual, garden worthy plants at Arbor Heights Botanic Garden, a private garden in West Seattle. Both of these were kind enough to allow us some cuttings for propagation of exciting plant material, some of which we have not offered in the past. We also visited Derek Clausen and his amazing conifer collection back in October, but the cuttings from him mostly don’t look all that great now due to the downright hot weather we had back then. Anyway, stay tuned and we’ll see how much of it grows!

Not only that, Mike Lee was in Arizona and generously supplied us with a collection of cuttings and seeds, including four forms of Arctostaphylos, two of Platanus wrightii, the Arizona form of Frangula (Rhamnus) californica and more. (I opened the box and thought, what is this, Cotoneaster? But it’s all good; that just what this form looks like.) The Arizona Arctostaphylos are exciting because these get quite a bit of summer water in their native habitat, which could potentially mean they are both more “garden tolerant” in areas receiving summer irrigation, and possibly even that they would grow in parts of the mid-Atlantic region or Southeast—but has anyone tried? I have no idea, but I know Sean (the same as above) has already propagated a few A. pungens forms from southern Utah, and it’s certainly a fun possibility.

So, that is where we are at for the time being. I think we are going to have a good year with all the new stuff in the pipeline. Also, the word on the street is that the nursery business in general is picking up from previous years. Our local non-specialty garden center says business is way up from last year already, and with the mild weather people certainly have planting on the brain. Thanks for reading and for your continued interest in our business!

This is called 3" of snow, which fell on 11/29/14.  I left one Leptospermum juniperinum outside in a pot through the freeze just to see how wimpy it was.  It died.

This is called 3″ of snow, which fell on 11/29/14. I left one Leptospermum juniperinum outside in a pot through the freeze just to see how wimpy it was. It died.

Plant hunting in California.  This is Heteromeles arbutifolia with impressively large fruit clusters.

Plant hunting in California. This is Heteromeles arbutifolia with impressively large fruit clusters.

Arctostaphylos viscida in the Scott Valley, where temperatures to -20°F may occur.

Arctostaphylos viscida in the Scott Valley, where temperatures to -20°F may occur.

The gardens at Hummingbird Hill, Whidbey Island.

The gardens at Hummingbird Hill, Whidbey Island.

At Arbor Heights Botanic Gardens, this Acacia pravissima was loaded with buds.

At Arbor Heights Botanic Gardens, this Acacia pravissima was loaded with buds.

Cuttings from Arizona in the nursery!

Cuttings from Arizona in the nursery!

Reactions to Newly Unveiled USDA Zone Map

The buzz of the horticultural world lately has been the release of the new USDA Plant-Hardiness Zone Map. So, since I am an avid amateur dabbler in all things weather and climate, I thought I might as well chime in. This actually happened a few weeks ago so I am a little late getting into the game, but hey, better late than never!

The USDA zone map was first developed a long, long time ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Based on a long-term average of the coldest temperature to occur each winter at a given location, it was intended to serve as a general guide to discern in which parts of the country certain plants could succeed based on their cold-hardiness. It has since taken on many different forms and grown into an industry-dominating monster with its own will far beyond that of its creators. Think I’m exaggerating? Read on.

Now the new map, it must be said, is far more accurate than any of the preceding maps (which include a couple of “botched” versions I will not discuss, to keep this from getting any longer). A major complaint about the 1990 map (the previous major USDA map produced) (warning: really big download) was that it was based on an anomalously cold period in history; thus, it made everyone look colder than they really are. It was also based on a very short time span of just 13 years. Why? Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? No serious, professional climatologist or meteorologist uses a period that short to determine averages or “normals” for any meteorological purpose. When you look at the “average” high or low for a given date on the TV newscast or online, it is based on a much longer period: 30 years is the standard for the National Weather Service. It’s hard to dispute that this use of a 13 year sample was a deliberate and foolish decision, although I’m not quite sure whose or why. In any case, once people realized winters weren’t going to continue to be as cold as they were from 1974 – 1986 (the period used), the need for a new map was urgent. So, faster than the speed of government, we have our new 2011 map, which happens to be based on data from 1975 – 2005 since we have to allow them a few years to figure out what to do with all those data (for more specific details on the history of the maps, see “Further Reading” below).

But – lest I sound too cynical here – the new map is accurate. How do I know? Well, it’s because I’m one of those nerdy people who has independently researched the matter in great detail over the years. When the new map came out, I was impressed: it broadly agrees with my calculations for USDA zones at dozens of locations in the Pacific Northwest. Many of these I provide for you below. I should mention that I am not the only one who thinks it is quite accurate: many established industry professionals and avid hobbyists alike – at least, those who are closely tracking the weather – would agree with me. While new map is generally accurate, it is not perfect. But it is as good as it’s going to get considering the amount of data that are available.

What do I mean by “accurate” but “not perfect?” Here’s one example of why not having enough data compromises accuracy. In the Puget Sound area of western Washington, nearly all of the weather stations with decent periods of record are in average to cold microclimates and mostly not that close to the moderating influence of salt water, despite that the majority of people with gardens tend to live in relatively close proximity to the water. Anecdotal evidence clearly tells us that a lot of sheltered microclimates close to the water are well within zone 9, which on the map just barely shows in just a couple tiny places (mostly over water). This assertion is also supported by a comparison of temperature data from personal weather stations, which have proliferated exponentially in just the last few years, with data from the official stations with longer periods of record. Rarely, we see this work the other way: in Port Townsend, the weather station is close to downtown and the water, and very mild; while Kelly and Sue at Far Reaches Farm, which is a couple miles inland, consider themselves to be about a full zone colder, supported (very importantly) with their observational data from the last few winters. With the weather station being in the mild spot, the colder microclimates just outside of Port Townsend don’t show up so well.

But all this is small beans: the map is still pretty darn accurate, and as accurate as we can ever expect it to get. Enough said, right? Oh, just wait…

Now I’m seeing a variety of responses to the new map, but I will just offer my thoughts on a couple of the most common ones I see. Some, upon seeing the new map, put it forth as evidence that our climate is getting warmer, since many of us have moved up a half zone or so from the 1990 map. Frequently, these people are not aware that the 1990 map was based on an anomalously cold period in history, as I have described above. In fact if you go back even farther and look at the really old 1960 zone map, it’s pretty darn close overall to the 2011 map (except for being colder in parts of the Intermountain West):

(Incidentally, I know that out there somewhere is a detailed, colored, 1960 zone map; with a and b zones. There used to be a poster of it on the wall in the WSU halls of the horticulture department. I wish I had taken a photo of it because I have never found it online. Has anyone seen this? Let me know!)

Now I’m not a “global warming denier,” but I get a little irritated when the people with the most passion about this subject tend to lack the science to back it up. Sure, our climate’s getting warmer, but it has little to do with this map. I also find the number of news releases citing the new map as direct evidence of global warming to be pretty ridiculous.

Then – and I’ll spend much more time on this one – we have people who are convinced beyond any doubt that the map is not accurate, as if this were some kind of vast conspiracy. I have carefully avoided getting into big arguments about this on several occasions since I think these sorts of debates are not usually helpful without the chance to present my case in its entirety (and hear theirs out in detail if they have one). For example, one of these was (or, should I say, might have been) with a lady from Boise – a very experienced gardener and plantsperson – who seemed to be not taking the map seriously when it put Boise in zone 7a. The thing is, statistics don’t lie: if you take the average of every winter’s coldest temperature, and it comes out between 0 – 5°F, you’re in zone 7a and that’s that. Did I go wrong somewhere?

Well then once that point has been made, the response tends to be (and here I’m speaking generally, not of the aforementioned person – which I’d better say just in case she reads this!), “Then the USDA zones need to be adjusted/are not really that useful/whatever.” OK, so why not just say that in the first place? Don’t go saying “There’s no way we’re in such and such zone” without statistics to back it up – pretty please. It’s not like we can deny how the weather is. When was the last time you heard someone say “It’s 45 degrees out! It has to be!” when the thermometer shows it’s 55 degrees? With USDA zones, the only difference is it’s not happening in the here and now, so you have to actually go back and look at the historical data.

I can only conclude that the reason a lot of people don’t trust the map is that it does not fit their perception of reality, or of some notion (of vague origins, but very strong nonetheless) of “What My Zone Should Be” (and sometimes other people’s zones too!). Now I know that much of this discrepancy is based on actual plant performance, which is important to discuss since, supposedly, the main function of the map is as some sort of predictor of plant performance. So how did this discrepancy arise? Let’s consider an example: Some (not me!) might suggest that, say, Arbutus unedo will grow in Boise because it’s rated hardy to USDA zone 7. What I want to know is, why, when a discrepancy arises, do so many gardeners immediately distrust the map? Could it be that perhaps Arbutus unedo should not be rated to zone 7?

And I actually think this is the major problem with our understanding of USDA zones: PLANTS ARE NOT ACCURATELY RATED FOR THE RIGHT USDA ZONE. And now that we have a good, trustworthy map, it is the only problem (considering the limitations of the system in general, as I will discuss below). Prior to the 1990 map, it seemed that plants were often rated a bit too optimistically, but things still jived well enough that no one made a big deal over it. Now that we have the new map, the discrepancy is even greater!

So who’s behind all this? Gardeners get plant-hardiness ratings from many sources: books, plant and seed catalogs, growers’ tags, and the internet, to name a few. Ultimately the problem is that, somewhere in the pipeline, someone draws assumptions about plants and climate zones without sensible supporting data. Based on my observations, I would say growers’ tags are especially problematic: many companies/tags/etc. will rate a plant’s hardiness according to its ability to tolerate an average winter in the zone number it is assigned, seeming to forget that weather deviates significantly from average from one year to the next. For example, I often see Cordyline australis rated as “zone 8.” What is up with that? It is certainly no hardier than 15°F. Even at the top end of zone 8, you’re likely to drop below 15°F at least once or twice in 10 years – enough to freeze your plant to the ground — and at the bottom end, forget about it; you’ll be lucky if you ever get it through two winters in a row.

And this isn’t just a problem with a few certain plants. If you start looking carefully at books, and plant tags, and comparing these ratings with actual results with the plants (in their respective zones as they truly are); you will notice that most of the time plants are rated with the same degree (pun intended!) of inaccuracy; and, I think it’s fair to say, based on the same faulty assumptions.

Now we begin to understand the “problem” with Boise. (And anywhere else, too, but I’m using Boise, not because I like to pick on them, but because it is a nice extreme example of how deviation from average messes with zone ratings and the assumptions surrounding them.) So it’s zone 7a: but during the time period used in the data sample, the coldest temperature recorded was -25°F! Now how many plants rated to zone 7a can live through that? A couple other winters were close to that as well: the climate of Boise exhibits extreme deviation from their average coldest temperature every winter. Boise has also had a lot of mild winters (especially recently) with no temperatures anywhere near 0°F; and — wouldn’t you know it — these have to be averaged in as well to compute their USDA zone!

So it’s easy to see what motivates a perception that the map must be lying to us – or even a desire to “keep” Boise in zone 6 (or even 5?) if such a thing were possible. Nurseries want gardeners to succeed with their plants. When customers ask nursery staff in Boise why they can’t recommend plants that are rated to zone 7, they need to have a succinct answer that doesn’t call their grower’s tags (and hence, the integrity of their product) and reference books (potentially associated with the integrity of their expertise) into question. Maybe it’s just me but I would call this a mighty big problem.

And if we look just a little further at “who’s behind all this,” one more interesting factoid comes to light. When the USDA published the 1990 zone map, they also published statements about each zone with a list of plants that can be “expected” to be found within that zone. For example, within zone 9, one usually “expects” to find Phoenix canariensis and Grevillea robusta, among others.

I believe this to have been huge tactical error: not that it’s terribly wrong in general, but because it sets forth a backwards way of thinking about zones. Many gardeners, including the very experienced and professional, have become so firmly convinced that certain plants are “zone X plants” that they think (usually subconsciously, and without admitting it) that plants can tell us better than historical weather data what zone we are in. Sure, plants can tell us a lot: it’s where I get some of my anecdotal evidence for zones locally in a region I am very familiar with. But to draw conclusions about zones based on plant performance observations always requires support from hard weather data first and foremost. Frequently, our firmly entrenched “zone X plant” categories often tend to be based on incorrect information, as described above. What we need is for zone ratings for plants to be based on actual evidence based upon the zones, not the plants. For anyone to draw conclusions about their zone based on whether a “zone X plant” will thrive in their area, is to look at this all backwards.

What we also need is to get back to the original intent of the map, which is as a general guide. I hear a lot of gardeners who claim this mentality, yet still look with extreme suspicion upon that Grevillea which is in fact hardy to zone 8b, when considering it for use in zone 8b; or who refuse to let go of their “zone identity” because of their plant-zone-based perceptions, regardless of what maps and statistics tell them. In both cases we see how firmly conclusions about the USDA zones in which we garden are rooted in the assumed accuracy of zone ratings assigned to plants, which are assigned by people who usually remain (for most purposes) completely anonymous to the end user, and are called into question all too infrequently.

So, what to do? I almost think a rigorous national campaign to re-assign zone ratings to garden plants is in order, but if the USDA takes charge of this, our climate may have completely changed again in the time it takes them to produce any results. But in any case, the line of thinking would go like this: Will Arbutus unedo grow in Boise? No. Therefore, it’s not a zone 7 plant. Will Cordyline australis grow in zone 8 in western Washington? No – therefore, it’s not a zone 8 plant. Will Grevillea robusta grow in zone 9 in downtown Port Townsend? No, so it’s not a zone 9 plant. It’s just a plant. It’s not a set of historical climate data used to determine a USDA zone. Now (perhaps slightly tangentially) this way of looking at plants will also result in some additional discrepancies highlighting the need to think of the map as no more than a general guide. For example, Carpobrotus edulis grows happily in zone 8a in New Mexico, but can’t handle zone 8b in Washington. This is because of other climate factors such as summer heat, and light and precipitation patterns throughout the year. Climate is ultimately regional, and plant performance is ultimately based on empirical evidence: hence the limitations of the USDA map are significant. To their credit, the USDA is pretty clear about this stuff on their new web site.

And in case reading this hasn’t made you completely confused yet, I’ll just add this: In my conversations with customers, I notice that gardeners in western Washington often experience hardiness let-downs based on cultural conditions. For example, if you plant that Grevillea in rich, heavily amended soil and water it all the time, so that it keeps growing into the fall and fails to harden off; it should hardly be surprising that it takes a hit when that “Arctic blast” comes along. When we pamper our plants more than they get pampered in nature, hardiness often suffers. Of course there is a time and a place for soil amendment and watering – for example, I would pretty much always recommend amending severely degraded or compacted soils – but balance is needed. Back to the point, though; this is just one more factor among many that often skews our perceptions of plant hardiness.

So where does all this leave us at the Desert Northwest? Well, I haven’t been rating hardiness for the plants we sell according to the USDA zone system – not yet anyway. Basically it’s because I don’t want to mislead anyone, since it’s hard to predict how readers of our plant descriptions will understand a zone rating. I prefer to assign actual temperatures at which a certain plant will be damaged, killed, etc. with some wiggle room for other factors as described above (duration of the freeze, etc.). These are generally based on actual experience growing them here in western Washington, or our best educated guess. Also, not infrequently, we make the comment in our plant descriptions that such-and-such is likely to be hardier in a climate with hot summers. We figure a lot of plants (though not all) that just make it in the Pacific Northwest can probably handle temperatures a full zone colder in the Southeast, or nearly; and we make note of it. Finally, we wish to emphasize that plants don’t look at maps or weather data, and sometimes the only way to determine whether something is hardy enough for your garden is to try it and find out, and sometimes more than once. We do plenty of that around here!

Do I sound mad? I’m not really. At least, not in a bad way. But I’m definitely crazy. And to prove it, just for fun, here are some USDA zones for a number of randomly selected Northwest locations, which I calculated based on official historical climate data. The middle column is the average of the coldest temperature every winter between 1969 – 99. The source for nearly all this data was accessed via this page on the ESRL web site. Through this page you can do your own independent research if you like, and I think you will be surprised with the accuracy of the map! (Note: for the most part, my results agree with the map pretty well, or are a little lower than what the map suggests. This discrepancy is because the data below are based on 1969 – 99, not 1975 – 2005 as in the map. The period of 2000 – 2005 had mostly very mild winters in the Pacific Northwest. Thus, Boise, for example, shows as 6b here rather than 7a, since the milder winters in the early 2000’s are excluded.)

WASHINGTON
Aberdeen | 19.97 | zone 8b
Anacortes | 17.3 | zone 8b
Battle Ground | 12.93 | zone 8a
Blaine 1NNE | 11.37 | zone 8a
Buckley 1NE | 13.8 | zone 8a
Centralia | 13.03 | zone 8a
Chelan | 4.47 | zone 7a
Clearwater | 16.2 | zone 8b
Coupeville 1S | 15.2 | zone 8b
Dallesport Airport | 7.93 | zone 7b
Darrington | 7.53 | zone 7b
Ellensburg | -6.83 | zone 6a
Elma | 13.6 | zone 8a
Elwha Ranger Stn | 17.3 | zone 8b
Everett | 15.37 | zone 8a
Forks 1E | 17.03 | zone 8b
Goldendale | 1.23 | zone 7a
Kennewick | 3.97 | zone 7a
Longview | 16.33 | zone 8b
Olympia Airport | 8.57 | zone 7b
Omak 4N | -6.2 | zone 6a
Othello | -2.23 | zone 6b
Port Angeles | 18.97 | zone 8b
Port Townsend | 20.9 | zone 9a
Pullman 2NW | -5.6 | zone 6a
Quincy 3S | -5.17 | zone 6a
Richland | 4.03 | zone 7a
Sea-Tac Airport | 18.57 | zone 8b
Spokane Airport | -7 | zone 6a
Stampede Pass | 1.53 | zone 7a
Stehekin 4NW | 3.9 | zone 7a
Wenatchee | 4.37 | zone 7a
Yakima Airport | -3.27 | zone 6b

OREGON
Ashland 1NW | 14.0 | zone 8a
Bandon 2NNE | 22.7 | zone 9a
Bonneville Dam | 17.17 | zone 8b
Brookings 2SE | 29.4 | zone 9b
Elkton 3SW | 19.3 | zone 8b
Eugene | 15.33 | zone 8b
Gold Beach | 27.3 | zone 9b
Grants Pass | 16.2 | zone 8b
Hood River Exp Stn | 6.43 | zone 7b
Klamath Falls 2SSW | 0.23 | zone 7a
McMinnville | 15.63 | zone 8b
Medford Airport | 14.8 | zone 8a
Newport | 21.2 | zone 9a
North Bend | 24.87 | zone 9a
Oakridge | 14.77 | zone 8a
Ontario | -4.93 | zone 6b
Portland Airport | 17.93 | zone 8b
Salem Airport | 13.43 | zone 8a
The Dalles | 9.73 | zone 7b
Tillamook | 17.37 | zone 8b

IDAHO
Boise | -2.7 | zone 6b
Lewiston Airport | 3.07 | zone 7a
Moscow | -8.13 | zone 6a
Riggins | 6.6 | zone 7b

Further reading about USDA Plant Hardiness Zones and the Map:
Plant Hardiness Zone Maps: The Rest of the Story by Tony Avent
Plant Delights’ January Newsletter, discussing the new map and what went into it by Tony Avent
Climate Zones Gone Wild! A basic introduction, by me, 2008.

2011 Weather Year in Review

Well I’m really in trouble now. I have about 90 things I want to post about and I haven’t touched the blog in a month. First there was the snow. That was quite a distraction. We got out and had fun in it when I wasn’t knocking snow off greenhouses or anxiously watching how cold it was getting in Whatcom County. Fortunately those 6° temperatures failed to cross the water this time and it didn’t get any colder than 24°F here in Sequim. Now it’s sunny and mild, and all of a sudden there is this sense of panic that winter is almost over and I didn’t finish enough of my projects! I also kind of stopped paying attention to some of the garden blogs I follow: how dare I. But as things seem to be getting back to normal it is time I got with the program here. Especially with so much I want to talk about.

So to start with: having read an excellent “year in review” post over at the Desert Edge, I thought I would steal the idea and try to do something like that here. Of course it will probably come out very different since I tend to just keep on writing and not stop for a long time, and I don’t really have a whole lot of photos to go with this. But in any case I like the idea a lot even if I am four weeks late by now. It will be great if I can make this an annual January tradition but at this point I’ll just shoot for one occurrence. It will be good to have some sort of written record to look back upon of what happened this year.

Starting with temperature, 2011 was cold. Observations suggest that we re-entered the cool phase of Pacific Decadal Oscillation around the year 2007. Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO for short) is the name assigned to long-term (20 – 30 year) fluctuations in sea surface temperatures in the northeast Pacific Ocean, which is directly upstream from our weather. You may recall that 2006 had a beautiful warm summer followed by a wild winter with multiple cold events and more rain and wind than usual. Now we seem to be stuck in a pattern of just colder than usual.

So how did the year stack up? Well, it should come as little surprise to anyone who was paying attention that the year was cooler than normal. The year began with one of the strongest La Nina events in history and ended with La Nina still in place, albeit weaker.* It is well known that La Nina, the “cool phase” of sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, effects our weather to (on average) make it cooler and wetter, especially in late winter and spring. Sea-Tac airport, often used by climatologists to represent the whole region (I’m not sure why, but I guess I’ll go with it), registered an average high temperature of 58.04 degrees** for 2011. The average annual high temperature is 59.32.** While that may not seem like a huge difference, one must consider that a whole year is a long period of time to maintain a trend in something like weather which is constantly changing.

To put this into perspective, the last time we had a year colder than this was 1985 with 57.53. That year was very different from 2011, however, featuring a hot July and a very cold November and December. By contrast, 2011 was relatively lacking in temperature extremes: summer was cool; winter was cool. It is also worth noting that a close contender for coldest year in recent times was 2008 (58.48 degrees**), also within the transition to the cool phase of PDO. Interestingly, all years from 1986 – 1998, the chronological center of the previous warm phase of PDO, registered at or above our mean annual high temperature**. So if it feels like the weather has been getting cooler than it used to be; well, there are actually statistics to back that up.

So was this year a record? Not even close. But to find all the really cool years one has to go back to the 1950’s and 60’s. This was the chronological center of the previous cool phase of PDO, and most of our record cold years in modern times come from this period. Taking the prize is 1955 with an average high of 55.26 degrees for the year at Sea-Tac.* Can we expect cool weather like this to continue into the future? Quite possibly: it appears that PDO has a very direct effect on our temperatures.

Now having said all that, it may also be worth noting that Sea-Tac might not be the ideal location for comparing a given year with the past, since the third runway has quite likely made Sea-Tac Airport appear warmer than it ought to be: see Cliff Mass’ post about this. Thus, if I had time and really wanted to go in depth, it would be worth taking a look at more weather stations. But right now I don’t: perhaps someday I shall and I can put something about it on the Articles page.

Taking it month by month, we can note that the only months warmer than average at Sea-Tac were January and September, and January not by much.* (August may be reckoned as slightly warmer than average if a 60-year period of record is taken for the average,** but climatologists usually use 30 years.) All other months were cooler than average, and basically only the last half of August and first half of September really felt like summer. The real shocker was April and May. With an average high of just 52.23 degrees, April was in fact the coldest on record, just beating out April 1955.** Coming in with an average high of just 59.74, May was more than 4 degrees below normal, the second coldest since 1962 (curiously, May 1999 was colder),** and the fourth coldest on record. Compare this with average May highs of 70 or better in 1995 and 1992,** and it may be no wonder we’re feeling lousy around here in the spring of late. No, those warm spring days somewhere back in the recesses of your memory weren’t just imagined!

I shall say less about precipitation since nothing really surprising happened. April and May were in the top few wettest on record, but neither was a record. The cool and wet spring got us somewhat ahead of normal for much of the year, but our usual summer dry period arrived right on schedule despite temperatures remaining below average. The oddest thing to happen was three and a half weeks of essentially dry weather in December: following that, we ended the year about an inch below normal; which, I think we can say, is abnormally close to normal.

Perhaps the most noteworthy event of the year was the snow and cold that showed up around the end of February. Here in Sequim the temperature dropped to 16°F and we had 7” of snow. That really wasn’t a big deal since it had already been to 11°F back in November, which was far more destructive to plants. So by February there was nothing left that could be vulnerable. Some people see plant damage following a late freeze and blame “that last hard freeze” even though “it survived the first one.” I grant that sometimes happens, but I think more often the damage is done in the early freeze and just takes a few months and a spell of milder weather to show up.

So how did the plants respond to all that? Well it should come as no surprise that anything that loves heat didn’t have a great year. A large crape myrtle in Port Angeles produced buds but they froze dead in late fall before they had a chance to open. At our house an (inherited) established Magnolia grandiflora that has reliably bloomed every year until now, did not bloom. By the time the heat finally showed up in August, there simply wasn’t enough time left.

For the nursery here it was no big deal. If anything a long cool spring gives me more time to pot up plants before they get all overgrown in the warm weather. I find that even if a hot year produces more growth, it really becomes a struggle to stay on top of it: all of a sudden it’s August and I have a zillion little rootbound plants that need potting up. So that didn’t happen so much this year. The only annoying thing was that I put off putting shade cloth on the greenhouse until August, then never did it. The weather was one factor, but I also wanted to have a chance to tighten the greenhouse plastic, which I never could get around to. Finally in August the sun came out and a lot of shade loving plants turned yellow. So, I won’t make that mistake again: always put the shade cloth on, now matter how bad the weather is. Sunny Sequim is still sunny and better late than never.

To make a long story short it seems that plants that are really well adapted here, whether native or not, took this cool summer in stride. I have never been that much into pushing the limits with heat-demanding plants, and a lot of xeric and deserty-looking plants can easily go a couple years without a hot summer: they simply slow down a little bit and/or bloom later. So despite the cool year, and people’s perceptions, the game has not really changed for us.

So… how did your plants and garden respond to the cool weather in 2011? Or, not so cool, if you’re posting from outside the Pacific Northwest. Do tell!

Nursery under snow, February 25, 2011.

Planting stuff in September – a great time to plant!

Magnolia grandiflora flower: it did not bloom this year.

* Source: National Weather Service, Seattle Office.
** Source: Western Regional Climate Center

Garden Show, and Winter’s Parting Shot?

Time for another long one. Finally, I’m more or less recovered from the Northwest Flower and Garden Show and my first ever participation in it as a vendor, so it’s time for a few responses to the whole experience.

I’ll start by saying I liked the WSNLA Treasure Island greenhouse. It was appealing and caught the attention of showgoers from a distance. The potting benches looked great and somehow added a little more class to the vendors’ plants.

Here’s our wee little booth. We packed 212 plants into it and made more money than the show cost us, and it was great as far as promotional value, so in that regard it was a success. Thanks to everyone who stopped by and bought something from us even when I couldn’t be there!

Treasure Island could have been better promoted and publicized: a web search a few days before the show turned up only a Facebook photo album of it under construction (on the WNSLA Facebook site) with little additional information about it. Also, names of nurseries participating in Treasure Island should be provided somehow to folks at the information booth—I had a few complaints about how hard it was to find my table. Oh well, I’ll send this feedback to WSNLA and better luck next year.

A number of plants from us were also featured in the WSNLA display garden called Cook’s Endeavor Returns with Treasure. Although I’m no expert designer I thought the designers did a great job showcasing our plants, and with the garden in general. I like the treasure chest, and I got to take the Leucospermum boquet home after the show – I might be able to root them from cuttings although they’re not so fresh looking now!

Here’s our Banksia repens right in the front of the display. We might have this for sale towards the end of the year but no guarantees yet.

The garden even got a gold medal – apparently I’m not the only one who thought it looked great. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a full shot of the garden with so many people in front of it.

Now, what did I think about the show in general? Well again, I couldn’t get around to see everything, or take very many pictures. But I will provide a couple quick thoughts. And I should mention that I hadn’t been to the show in three years prior to this year, so my comparisons are not based on last year so much as years going much farther back.

The element of fantasy in the display gardens remains as strong as ever. I say this because many of them used plants that just won’t grow here – particularly treeferns which were seen in abundance, but many other things as well. The question is whether this element of fantasy truly reflects current trends – i.e. what gardeners are excited about – or if this is old news and people have become much more practical over the last few years. Do people look at these gardens and think “Awesome, I wish my garden looked like that” or “Fine for them, but not practical enough for me?” I don’t have the answer, but it’s a big question.

I also get the impression that, ever so gradually, plant vendors and other horticultural causes represented at the show seem to be getting fewer, while vendors of garden products and in some cases only distantly related products continue to take over the show. Personally I’d like to see a reversal of this trend, but I can appreciate that must be a major challenge for show managers especially at a time that the nursery industry is struggling. Renting the Convention Center can’t be cheap. Should they consider raising the prices for booths for non-horticultural vendors and giving nurseries a price break? Or would that cause an uproar? Tough call.

I also attended a lecture on ‘Fun in the Sun’ – Outstanding Plants for Sun and Drought Tolerance (or something like that, LOL) with Richie Steffen. The talk was great, for what it was. Only two problems: One, it was poorly attended – I mean, everyone should have been interested in this topic. Where were they all? What’s wrong with everybody? Two, “for what it was” set some major limitations on what could be discussed. The Great Plant Picks Program, which sponsored this talk, only includes plants that are readily available from nurseries so that people can actually find the plants that are promoted. Not a bad idea, except that nurseries are selling all the wrong plants when it comes to sun and drought tolerance for the Northwest. If I were to give a talk on this subject unaffiliated with the Great Plant Picks Program, it would out of necessity be about a completely different set of plants, most of which are unavailable or only available from specialty nurseries. Mr. Steffen probably recognizes this so I won’t be too hard on him. I just think, why not motivate gardeners to go a little farther out of the way to find the best plants, in general?

I was bummed that I missed Panayoti Kelaidis’ Wednesday talk ‘Rocky Mountain High’. If anyone went, please please please send me your notes!

It wouldn’t have been possible for me to attend the show Wednesday though, because while all that was going on in Seattle, I had to deal with this:

It snowed a little Wednesday morning… then started snowing HARD Wednesday afternoon, and snowed almost all day (though lightly, most of the time) Thursday.

Not that I was technically snowed in, but it would have been a mistake to leave while it was snowing, in case it started snowing really hard and no one would be there to knock the snow off the greenhouses – without some interior support (which mine lack), they can collapse under the weight of 6+ inches of snow.

Here is my specialized greenhouse snow knocker offer. I built it on the morning of November 22 just when the big November snow was starting up.

All the plants are cozily tucked inside the greenhouse, waiting for spring. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Finally on Friday, Feb 25, the sun comes out – a beautiful, but cold day! It dropped to 16°F, which is about as cold as it ever gets this late in the winter.

As I type today (March 2) the snow has almost finished melting. Now that we’re done with this cold weather I hope to start planting in a major way over the coming weeks!

Greenhouse #2, winter’s wrath, and other news

So it’s time I provided an update, in case you’re wondering why I haven’t posted anything in months, or if we’re still in business, or what. Basically it’s a challenge when one has such a wide range of responsibilities running a small business to stay on top of every end of things all the time, but that’s ok – I’ve kind of accepted that’s just the way it works. Related to that, some of you may be wondering if I’m ever going to send out an e-mail newsletter. You may have signed up months or even years ago and never received anything. Well it’s coming someday… really…!

The last couple months we have been super busy building greenhouse #2. Although we got a nice early start on this one (unlike greenhouse #1) I did not work quite as consistently on it (i.e. I allowed myself to be distracted by other work and responsibilities at times), resulting in a minor disaster at the end of November when winter decided to arrive before Thanksgiving. Actually, we just finished up the greenhouse on November 29, which is still ahead of when we finished greenhouse #1 last year.

Some historical perspective on our November freeze might be helpful to appreciate why we weren’t more concerned, or had trouble believing it could really happen. (In fact, I can still hardly believe it happened!) Really serious November freezes are quite rare in the Pacific Northwest; however, they are especially damaging to plants, because they may not have ‘shut down’ growth/metabolizing for the season to achieve sufficient dormancy for full hardiness. We had a November freeze in 2006, but it was nearly the end of the month so practically December anyways, and a few degrees less cold than this one (though with plenty of snow!). In 1985 we had a November freeze of about the same severity and timing as this one (2010), but the cold weather persisted longer into December. (In fact one of my childhood memories is sledding down NE 135th St. on Thanksgiving when we lived in Seattle.) In 1955 we had one that was both earlier (Nov 12-17) and colder – I really can’t imagine what that must have been like as far as plant damage! But that’s really about it. And with these things being 25 and 30 years apart, does anyone really feel they need to worry that’s it’s going to happen again this year? I consider these things to be freak occurrences.

So while we could have been more prepared, we still did reasonably well considering the circumstances. The greenhouse was well underway by the time rumors of Arctic air started creeping into the long range forecasts. However working mostly solo it still took me until the evening of November 20 – and by then we were a bit below freezing – to get the plastic on the greenhouse (which I consider to be a major milestone of constructing a greenhouse, since it doesn’t really work without it!). But I didn’t get it fully secured. And then the following day came something that caught me totally off guard – a remarkable dump of snow that was completely missed by forecasters. I had hoped to use Nov 21st to finish securing the plastic and move plants in, but instead much of the day was spent just trying to knock snow off the greenhouses as fast as it was accumulating, to prevent them from collapsing. On top of that the wind came up threatening to blow the plastic off. Then it dropped to 17 degrees that night and 12 the following night making it our worst November blast in 25 years.

So with not managing to get all the plants moved in as quickly as I would have liked, I have a number of injured and dead plants. But it’s not a major disaster and could have been much worse…. and anyways, most of the really special plants were safely in the first greenhouse which never froze.

Then last Sunday and Monday Nov 28-29 the snow was melted enough that I could shovel the rest out of the way, and with some help from family I re-tightened and properly secured the plastic.

The greenhouses are heated with 70K BTU portable forced air heaters that run on (preferably) kerosene or (less expensive) diesel fuel with an electric igniter. I have had pretty good luck with them so far although one of my old ones has been unreliable and I had to replace it for this event.

One question you might be wondering is – if we’re growing stuff suitable for the Northwest’s climate, why does it all have to go in a greenhouse to avoid freezing in the winter? Well let’s remember for one, this was a freak event. But the main reason is that plants are much more vulnerable to freeze damage sitting in little pots that can freeze solid on top of the ground, than they are once in the ground and established. Numerous studies have shown that the roots of many plants (especially woody plants) are much less frost hardy than the top growth. In short a lot of this stuff would be fine through our winters in the ground or would still be worth planting even if some damage were to occur in that rare freak event. Also we’re obviously not in one of the region’s mildest microclimates; many of our customers can succeed with a lot more marginally hardy items than we can.

Stay tuned for more exciting news which will hopefully include something about a new and updated plant catalog with some previously unannounced items!


Greenhouse progress well underway, October 11.


A day after the big snow Nov 23. I was pretty much too busy to take pictures on the 22nd.


Moving plants into the new greenhouse! Actually, I still had some extra space even when I was finished, remarkably.


As you can see the plastic is still not firmly attached; in fact, the snow was the main thing holding it down at the corners for a while.


View of greenhouses with only a few plants left outside at this point.


Evening shot of greenhouses. At this point the temperature is dropping off to the mid teens.


Nursery cart tracks from the shade house. I brought in all the plants from the shade house.

Winter weather variability in the Olympic Rainshadow

For all you weather/climate people – and there tends to be quite a lot of overlap between climate geekism and plant geekism – I thought I’d offer some observations about life in the Olympic Rainshadow.  This afternoon as I was driving past some fields around Sequim I noted that some farmers are irrigating their crops already.  Yowsers – it’s only March 1st!  I’ve cut my grass once and it needs it again already.  It couldn’t feel any more different from last year at this time, when everything was still buried under the foot of snow that fell on Feb 26, 2009 and still hadn’t finished melting.  And last year it dropped to 21 degrees on March 10 – a temperature that now seems a world away!  And it had better be only a distant memory: last year at this time nothing was budded out that could have been damaged from 21 degrees on March 10.  This year everything is growing already, and 21 degrees on March 10 would destroy all kinds of stuff, especially tree fruit crops.

The thing I’m coming to realize is that the climate of the Olympic Rainshadow exaggerates, rather than smooths, the features and effects of broader regional and worldwide weather patterns.  It’s misleading to say it’s generally drier in Sequim all the time than Seattle.  When it’s warm and dry in Seattle, it’s much drier here.  In this year’s El Nino pattern the warming and drying effect typical of the region is further enhanced because all the storms tend to come at us from the south or south-southwest, and are not usually very strong, and because of their trajectory have no moisture whatsoever left for us directly to the north-northeast of the mountains.  Additionally, winds during such storms tend to blow from the southeast, resulting in further warming and drying due to compression as they blow off the leeward side of the mountains.

On the other hand, La Nina – and any period of time when we’re in a “La Nina-ish” pattern, such as last October and November – can be seriously wet around here.  This is because with the more westerly and even northwesterly origin of weather systems, the Olympic Mountains offer little protection for Sequim.  The rainshadow is less pronounced and tends to favor Everett or even Seattle, if they’re lucky.  Meanwhile in Sequim it can seriously pour, resulting in 2-3 times are usual rainfall for a given period, and bringing us up to the amount of rainfall you might experience in… you guessed it… a normal Seattle winter.

So the rainshadow doesn’t work like magic.  But hopefully El Nino years like this one will give plants that prefer warmer, drier winters the boost they need to survive the wetter ones.  And I know it’s been a record warm Jan-Feb everywhere throughout the region this year, but it’s certainly much drier here in Sequim right now than it is in Seattle.  We’ve had less than an inch of rain since the new year, and I’ll probably be watering outdoor potted nursery stock starting later this week.  I’m not complaining as it’s a nice change, but I seriously hope we get a good rain or two sometime later this spring.

The Desert Northwest, February 26, 2009.  The plants are under there somewhere!

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