Archive | October, 2013

Leaves- natures (almost) perfect mulch

31 Oct

Every year, as the trees start to drop their leaves, my neighbor rakes them up, or at least has his gardener do it for him. And every year, I have his gardener pile them up here so I can use them.

They are particularly useful this year since I have so many beds that are more or less starting from scratch. Leaves are great for putting over the top of compost and soils you think (or know, lol) are full of weed seeds. They are a great way to smother most seed growth, though if your careful not to go too deep, most perennials can grow through most leaves no problem. Evergreen stuff you may have to carefully pull the leaves through the mulch back into the sun, such as it is this time of year, but other than that leaves are pretty easy to deal with, and as they break down they are the perfect organic matter to add to soils.

At this point I can recognize different leaves for different purposes:

Oak and chestnut take longer to break down, and have more tannins in them, which act as a chemical weed suppressant as much as the physical leaves deter the weeds from coming up. Oak especially stays while and amazingly “fluffy” for often at least two years, so is a good choice for putting around trees and shrubs where you are building up the soil, but don’t want to bury the trunk too much all at once. Eventually they do create a beautiful composted mulch to soil, but it takes a while.

Chestnut on the other hand tends to collapse fairly quickly, and between the dense mat of sodden leaves and the allelopathic chemicals, is a great mulch for patches of stubborn perennial weeds like creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) and grasses. It simply smothers them and prevents seedling growth for a good year or two.

Big-leaf Maple are big and whole, work good in areas where you want to cover a lot of ground quickly. They tend to mat down by the end of winter, and smother seeds well but usually break down by the end of the next summer. They make a terrific mulch for newly created beds you make in the fall to plant in spring, and other existing shrubs where you basically just want to discourage weeds. If you grind them up into a finer leaf mulch, they work great for perennial borders where you can feather them in between perennial stems for eventual soil building and weed control in one. They also work great stuffed wet in have to make leaf mild for potting soil and such.

Alder is one of the best soil building leaves you can get, since it breaks down quickly and contains more nitrogen than most leaves. Dry, they almost fall apart just moving them around. They are some of the best for using in perennial beds and areas where you want to give a quick boost, and added to compost piles as the “brown” component usually make quick easy compost. Oak by contrast takes ten times as long, even in hot composting.

If your lucky enough to have locust or mimosa leaves available, these break down even faster, and are even better for soil building. Usually these break down so fast that most gardeners don’t even need to do much with them.

Camellia and most other evergreens have tough leaves that take a long time to break down. Like oak, they work well in areas where you can let them take their time to break down. Dried and shredded, they will break down faster, but still tend to smother more delicate perennials, so work best under shrubs where there aren’t as many perennials growing.

Fir, Hemlock and to some extent pine and cedar needles make a great very distinctive soil as they break down. If you like native woodland plants, there are things that grow beautifully in this “needle duff” that won’t grow anywhere else. If you don’t have the trees that produce this leaf litter, importing it can take time to build a suitable base, but can be lots of fun finding the plants that like it, and weeds typically don’t.

For the most part, leaves are one of the cleanest mulches you can put down. Few diseases are spread by leaves, though there are some. If you have black spot on your roses, rake those up and throw them in the trash. Same if you have anthracnose on you dogwoods and other susceptible plants, or rust on the backs of the leaves on anything. I’ve even read you shouldn’t burn these, as the pathogens may be able to ride the smoke and reinfect anything nearby susceptible.

You also want to be careful not to go too deep, or you can actually create a moisture barrier. Whole leaves should at least cover the ground, but no more than 4-6 inches depending on the size of the leaves. The bigger leaves can go a little deeper, as they usually compact more over the winter months. Shredded leaves usually can make a good mulch at an inch depth, two to three should be ok so long as they aren’t covering and evergreen perennials or shrubs, but more than that is pretty much overkill unless you want more soil building and don’t have much in the way of plants in the bed.

If nothing else, disease free leaves can be bagged up to make a really nice potting soil ingredient called leaf mold. After the first rains, just fill big bargains bags, tie them off and let them sit, preferably in a little sun to warm them up, but that’s not essential. Usually by spring, the leaves will have broken down into a soil like mulch, which can be used with sand, perlite, etc in place of or in addition to peat moss as the organic component in potting soil mixes. I prefer using leaf mood when I can, since the peat moss is mined from ancient peat bogs, whereas leaves are a free renewable resource. I just have to remember to do it in fall when I have the leaves.

You can also directly compost leaves of course, mixing them with weed tops, grass clippings etc. If you “hot compost” you know dry leaves are one of the best and easiest sources of brown material in the fall. Even if you just pile stuff, layer leaves with lawn clippings, green leaves of whatever kind (an old trick is to have something like comfrey planted near your compost bins, which can be harvested when needed to add leafy green matter to your compost). Get the right ratio of green to brown, and things will hear up quickly an create compost fast for use in the garden.

So next time your raking leaves, consider carefully what to do with them. I know I can always use more!

Building a short rock wall

31 Oct

So finally getting around to moving a bunch of rocks around, and building a short retaining wall for the main bed in the back…


The boards toward the back mark where I am going with this. I’ll place the rocks in an arc in the inside edge, more or less, of where they are, meeting up with some steps up to the top of the berm kinda out of site in the photo here.

The three flue tiles will be for special things that need special soil and more drainage, maybe some dwarf alpines or something.

The rocks are a mix of stuff we have had and collected- basic landscaping basalts, glacial erratic field stone, plus things like opal from the George diatom mine, big chunks of petrified wood, agate and that kind of stuff. All together it makes for an interesting rock wall.

I plan on backfilling between these rocks and the dirt behind with a sandy, really well drained mix for some of the more xeric stuff I keep collecting. Hmm, wonder if the native balsamroots would work here…

Maybe I will add some more pics later once I get the sand and soil mix filled in behind these. I need to do that soon though, as I have plants that need to go in the ground here.


So the main bed in the back is finished and the initial plants are tucked in-



As I indicated above, I filled in with a mix of sand and composted bark, at a rough ratio of 2 parts sand to one or so of composted bark. This is for the stuff I keep getting that needs really good drainage, plus a few natives that also like that;

Viola adunca
Anaphalis margaritacea
Artemesia sucksdorfii
Sedum spathulifolium
Eriophyllum lanatum


Lepichinia hastata
Liatris spicata (‘Kobold’?)
Coreopsis auriculata nana
Stachys coccinea

Around the other side the rocks curve around in a sweeping big “S” shape, and the main part was planted this last spring. Here I have two salvias- S elegans, the pineapple sage


And Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’


And of course a couple of Fuchsia starts, which a couple are only just now starting to bloom well, with the cold weather just around the corner.


For now though, most of the bed is still relatively empty, waiting for next spring to get things going. These are mostly back filled with a mix of composting leaves and bark, etc. almost pure organic matter. So, over time these will have to be continually mulched heavily to keep them from slumping too much below the rocks etc.

I’m kinda gettin excited for planting next spring… Lots of cool possibilities, and if I can get the stuff inside to pull through the winter, I hopefully can propagate enough cool stuff to fill these beds.

Oh, and one thing I planted in the back sweep? A beautiful white form of the semi native Iris douglasiana. It was given to me years ago, but I lost my clump, while the neighbor had a pics struggling under a Jap maple infested with yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdonicum). So, I snitched em back, lol. Hopefully they will take off here again.

Salvia elegans (Pineapple Sage)

26 Oct


This spectacular fall and winter blooming salvia was bought on sale from the 1/2 off bin at one of the big box stores. Not bad for a once half dead little wilted cutting. Hummers love it too… Bit it does bloom late, and here in Seattle is kind of half hardy. It survives some winters. It not others. Luckily it’s easy to replace.

The cultivar ‘Tangerine’ I got this spring is not nearly so big, but does have the advantage of blooming far longer- it started in July and is s going strong. I like them both, but kind of prefer the earlier blooming one. If this big one crashes, I may or may not replace it. Probably will depend on if I see em in the sale bins at dirt cheap prices again, lol.

Plectranthus ‘Velvet Elvis’

26 Oct

This was bought as a color spot “annual” this spring, one of those premium foliage plants that makes everything else look good.


It started blooming about the same time I brought it in, which is a shame, since I was looking forward to seeing if the hummers would like it. As a tropical perennial, it shouldn’t be hard to overwinter. This is closely related to the old fashioned “Swedish Ivy” (which of course is neither Swedish, nor an ivy, lol), so I am not anticipating any great difficulty in overwintering the main plant.

I got it because I loved the leaves- richly felted dark green above, nicely pleated along the veins, and with an amazing deep purple reverse!


Now I have to admit, purple is my favorite color, but on this it is quite stunning, and I keep wondering what it would look like in a hanging basket with the sun shining through its dark leaves. Maybe next year I’ll plant some that way and see.

I have one cutting going already, and by spring I may well have several more. I may even try this bedded out in the rockery, to let it do what it wants with the salvias and such out there. Come to think of it, the dark leaves would set off the flowers of the tiny Fuchsia campos-portoi, and the Salvia ‘Cerro Potosi’ too. Looks good with the orange Cuphea ignea and Lantana camara I have them mixed with now, too, so lots of possibilities. Only flowers in fall, though… Too bad, as I would love to see these blooming all summer. Can’t have everything though, huh?

Watering the Orchids

26 Oct

So a few years back, Beth started getting or hide from her kids at school, for a while it was the favorite thing to give as a teacher’s gift. We got one or two ourselves, when we figured out that for whatever reason they like our house and have an extraordinarily long bloom time. Now most months there are one or two Phaelenopsis or hide in bloom around here.

On one of them, the care suggestion was to water once a week with an ice cube. Now of course, I’m not that much on a schedule and prefer to check and see if they need water first, and I usually give them more than one at a time… But I think this is a genius idea for watering something like an orchid or cactus that generally likes to dry out between waterings, and worse, grows in a medium that is not always easy to re-hydrate.


With ice, since it slowly melts, the water is gradually added and given time to penetrate into the bark chips or moss that these are all planted into. Works great! I’ve even been thinking of making some fertilizer ice in individual trays for them, since I really haven’t been doing much ferts for them so far. The oldest one is starting to look a little piqued… Probably needs repotting, but I also wonder if a shot of fertilizer would help.


Propagation for Overwintering Insurance

26 Oct

So this year I decided to do what I said I wouldn’t do a few years ago… Bring a bunch if tender stuff in to try and overwinter it again. I don’t know what it is, but people always seem to want what is difficult to keep, rather than the perfectly serviceable, even beautiful stuff that is hardy itself. Soooo, here I go trying to keep various Cupheas, more tropical type Salvias and Fuchsias, and some other random stuff inside this year. It’s kind of silly in some ways… Most of this stuff is fairly easy to replace in 4″ pots for around 3-4 dollars each, but instead I’m gonna play the watering roulette to see if I can pull things through till spring.

One up side to all this is that if I can keep things alive till February or even March, I can propagate the hell out of the ones I really like, to spread even more cheer for next summer’s garden. This is kind of why I want to do this, to have a whole bed of Cuphea ignea a d boxes full of Fuchsia triphylla ‘Mary’. For the rest, I’m just being curious, lol.

But of course, while I was bringing things in, I couldn’t help but start some things as “insurance” of some of the stuff I am leaving outside I don’t want to loose either- a couple of supposedly hardy salvias, some of the more water sensitive Cupheas, a pelargonium or two, that kind of thing. This is like saying, ok… I have the big one that should survive, but if I grow on a couple of cuttings, maybe I can have better odds of getting at least one to survive. And if they all do, cool… More to plant out in spring!

Where exactly I gonna put all these pots until that happens is the big question… The big windows in the living room are already two deep with pots, lol, and I didn’t even get everything in yet *sigh*.

Ok, so this post is mostly about my propagation systems. So… Years ago I got this rather nice propagation box from the good folks online at the Garderner’s Supply Company. I think back the. It was strictly mail order, we’re talking 20 some odd years ago, lol, long before Internet commerce was a thing. The unit is a little best up now, the styrofoam base is a little broken down around the edges, but it still works great, and seems the folks at Gardener’s Supply haven’t done anything much to change it. I kind of wish the base was a little more durable, but it is nice it’s so light, so that when you pick it up when it’s full, it still is pretty light. So this basically is a basin well, with a little stand thing that fits in it, and a grid like thing that sits on top of that, which when filled with an appropriate soil mix grows out the cuttings or seed. The ingenious thing with these is the sheet that wicks water up from the well to underneath the growing cells, and keeps things reasonably hydrated if you just remember to fill the well back up every few days. If the well dries, the wicking sheet dries, and then all bets are off. I long ago lost the cover to mine, but it was shorter than I liked anyway. I now simply place the whole thing in a steroids type bin, inverted so its sitting on the lid. Works great, and gives me more room for the cuttings to grow, and not incidentally, better control over air flow, and an additional tray for water, for more humidity control as well.


Here you can see the unit inside it’s bin. I got these bins from Costco, a set of three was around 10-15 bucks I think. Well worth the cost for this, and we use ’em for all kind of other things too. They work great. To begin with, when I first put the cuttings in, I keep it basically closed, and will even leave a little water in the lid to up the humidity in the enclosed bin, to aid the initial surge to produce roots. Here, I have placed it in a sunny south facing window. On a sunny day, these heat up. In Seattle, there isn’t too much problem with this, but in warmer climates you might want to keep watch they don’t get cooked in there, lol, but it’s generally cool enough here that’s not a problem I have had.

Now, that little unit quickly filled up, and I had more I wanted to make cuttings of. Last year I made my own self watering units from plastic bottles. This worked ok for some things, not so great with others. They are easy to make out of something that generally gets used once or maybe a couple of times, then thrown out… And we did some work on the house this summer, where some guys ended up using a bunch of bottled water and I saved the bottles from them, so I had a bunch of them waiting to be used… So, I decided to try making a tray like the one above, but from these bottles and an old wash basin we had. I did them the same as the others I did before-

1) poke a hole in the lid with a sharp pin, then pry it open with a small Phillips head screw driver. I poke from the top down first, then a second time from the inside out, so the excess plastic is poked to the outside, and the inside of the lid is more or less smooth.

2) cut a length of cotton twine or yarn about 8 inches or so, double it over and tie a knot about and inch from the cut ends. Poke the loop through the hole from the inside out, leaving the two ends on the inside. This will act as the wick for the pot. Put the lid back on the pot, make sure you don’t catch the string in the threads.

3) with a sharp knife, I use a serrated bread knife, cut the bottom off the bottle. Last year I wanted free standing ones, so I cut half way down, so the base of the bottle could act as a well for water. This year I wanted a deeper pot, and am using the wash basin for a reservoir, so I cut them about an in h from the bottom, maybe a little less. These bases I discarded, and now have taller “pots” to work with.

Here is the finished project, full now, and most of them starting to grow after a week or two. I took the lid off for this pic of course-


And lifting one of the bottles up so you can see how they work-


With an in h or two of water in the wash basin, the pots can wick what they need up into the pot. So far so good… But what I am going to do when these get big enough to come out of these pots I’m not sure. I’m kind of hoping they can stay in this basin all winter, but they may get wayyyy too crowded. We will have to see.

Some things definitely do better than other propagated this way. If its a plant that likes it dry, this probably won’t work well. If however, it likes constant moisture, this should be a great way to propagate it. Assuming of course you watch the water level and never let them dry out.

And about that… Gradually over time the plants will tend to slowly dry out the soil in the pot, so you may need to water the pots every once in a while. Usually though, you just pour the water into the basin and let the wick draw what the plant needs up into the soil. Of course, fertilizer can be added to the water if your plants need a boost, but remember that in a multi pot system like this, everything will get it, lol.

So, what all do I have in the propagation pipeline at the moment?

Salvia patens ‘Cobalt’
Abutilon megapotamicum
Pelargonium ‘Tango Velvet Red’
Coleus ‘Kiwi Fern’
Senecio confusa
Lantana camara ‘Lamdmark Peach Sunrise’
Osteospermum cultivars
Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’
Fuchsia ‘Billy Green’
Fuchsia ‘Mary’
Stronilanthes dyerianus
Cuphea ignea
Cuphea llavea ‘Flamenco Samba’
Cuphea llavea ‘Tiny Mice’
Cuphea cyanea ‘Caribbean Sunset’
Bacopa monieri
Plectranthus ‘Velvet Elvis’

There may be a few more in there soon- another salvia I forgot to take a cutting of, some other fuchsias we had in baskets, that kind of thing. I just hope I get half this stuff through till next summer!

Everything’s Inside Now…

15 Oct

So all the “temperennials” (half hardy or tropical perennials that won’t survive outside over winter, but might have a chance inside), are now inside in the living room. Makes it a bit of a jungle in their, but there is a bunch of stuff I don’t particularly want to loose, and next year there may not be a budget to replace most of this stuff either.


This Plectranthus was JUST setting its first flowers when I brought it in last week, now it’s looking rather spectacular with the soft orange Lantana camara ‘Lamdmark Peach Sunrise’. This is a pretty lantana for sure, but I won’t cry overmuch if it doesn’t make it. No pollinators to speak of visited it much this summer, not even bees. I may see if I can get seed of the wildlings from someone in the Deep South…


That Cuphea ignea is one of the main things I want to keep alive, and I know from past experiences, if it dries out once its toast. I’ll probably be propagating it continuously over the winter if I can, to give me as many chances with it as possible, plus I’m thinking if I have enough starts to mass plant it under the apple tree next year. The hummers love it, and it would be beautiful there.


This Persian Shield- Stronilanthes dryerianus, is pretty spectacular foliage wise, but I never noticed how nice the flowers were too. Unfortunately, like the Plectranthus, it mostly seems to flower in late summer and fall, about the time I need to bring it in. Hopefully it’s as easy as most mints to propagate, and doesn’t mind being in the house for the winter.


This Cuphea cyanea ‘Carribean Sunset’ was a late summer bit with the hummers, and the Abutilon also got some attention, so I decided to bring them in even though in July I was thinking I’d let them go. The Abutilon is supposed to be hardy here, though I’ve never gotten them to pull through. I have cuttings of each of these as insurance, but I’d ideally like to see especially the Abutilon get bigger and see if that makes a difference in hummer usage here.

And finally, a pic of the big Jade tree, just for grins 😉


And of course, the fog burned off just as I went to take the photo… Still, it has a nice silhouette!