While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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Plant Shaming IV; You Planted That!?!?

“Somewhat difficult to eradicate once established. . .”  “Any roots left in the ground will form new plants.”  “Don’t come crying to me!”

Acanthus mollis, Bear’s Breeches, is one of the most interesting and architectural plants readily available to gardeners today.  For those of us who don’t or can’t go out into the wilds of other countries to harvest seeds of exotic plants, or who don’t have a budget that allows us to spend hundreds of dollars on just one or two rare, cool plants, and for those of us who are really tired of hostas, this plant fills a big need (and space).  Its large, lobed, very shiny (and sometimes spiky) leaves form a widely substantial, symmetrical clump that remains upright and attractive throughout the gardening year.  It will ride through drought with very little wilt, and is easy to cut back if it shades out another plant.  In bloom, it is almost as exotic as most orchids, and just as beautiful.  And plants three or more years old will bloom in deep shade.  Slugs and snails don’t eat enough of it to be noticeable, cats won’t nest in it, and beagles can’t dig it up.  What more could you want from a plant?

And if you want mine, you can have it.

About seven years ago, I planted one – just one – small Bear’s Breeches.  The plant was a healthy one-gallon cub calling out to naive gardeners walking past its table.  Considering myself to be experienced and knowledgeable in the Ways of the Plant World, I was sure that if I planted it in deep shade, and in competition with roots of a venerable heritage apple tree with a wide canopy, I would be safe.  After all, the more nutrients, sun, and water this plant receives, the more it can spread.  So, I chose a spot under the apple tree to plant the little Bear that would allow it to be seen from the kitchen nook window.  It performed as planned and remained well-behaved for its first few years.  However, it decided to become a parent in late spring of its fourth year.  As I had become extraordinarily busy that year with a new job and a heavy workload in the public garden I maintain, my home garden was neglected until mid-fall.  And when I finally had time to tend the home plot, I was astounded to see two very healthy, happy Acanthus youngsters growing close to the blooming parent.   The parent plant looked so proud I half expected to see ‘new-baby’ balloons and little cigars distributed throughout the garden.

Anyway, if you are familiar with the extensive root system of an apple tree that is almost 100 years old, you will know that digging out an unwelcome plant with clumpy roots is not easy.  It took an entire afternoon to carefully dig out and cut back the extensively dispersed roots of the parent, and the tenacious roots of its offspring, without harming the apple tree.  I was genuinely surprised to see how readily this plant had spread throughout its partially restricted area.  So much for my initial plan.

I was successful in removing the babies, and have been able to keep the parent plant under control, since that time.  It has not produced more seedlings since then (yet!) and each summer produces two to three flower stalks.  I still appreciate this plant, especially when in bloom, but I don’t trust it.  If you decide to introduce Bear’s breeches into your garden, remember to be vigilant.  Remove those little cubs as soon as they appear.

And remember – never trust a bear.


ᵅ Missouri Botanical Garden

ᵇ Fine Gardening Magazine

ᶜ A good friend.



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The Evolution of a Garden, Part II; apologies to Charles Darwin

“. . .  from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”  Charles Darwin

I’ve gardened for many years.  I’ve made countless mistakes and had a few successes, encountered occurrences that I can’t explain and a few I figured out, and have witnessed a couple of genuine surprises.  But the one aspect of the plant world that intrigues and impresses me more than all others is the seemingly endless forms and shapes that plants have evolved over time.  Cactus and other succulents; mosses and ferns; grasses and reeds; the flowers of orchids; ball, vase, or pear-shaped plants; and the wide variety in color, shape, and size of trees. I see many gorgeous new plants at nurseries in colors, shapes, and/or sizes foreign to that particular species but I am always keenly aware that no hybrid can match what nature produces.  The determined, contorted shape of a bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) struggling to survive on a rocky, wind-beaten mountain side is a sight that words are inadequate to describe.  No hybrid compares to the broad expanse of an ancient southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) spreading its limbs to the world.   And I have never seen flowers more exceptionally compelling than those of the Tacca genus.  One look at Tacca chantrieri, Black Bat Flower, is all you need to remember the flower for the rest of your life.

These examples came to mind while I was working around one of my beloved conifers, Thujopsis dolabrata, Elk Horn or Hiba Cedar (not a true cedar).  (Due to lack of space, I grow the dwarf form of the tree.)  The unusual shape that this trees’ foliage has developed over time intrigued me from my first viewing, and continues to be a source of interest to me. This little tree adds exceptional beauty and interesting form to my garden more than any other plant I grow (pictured below).

Its two most attractive features are its broad, flattened branches and the bright, white underside of its foliage.  What in the trees’ environment caused this flattened foliage?  Did a very specific animal group utilize it and help create the development of its peculiar form?  Did a disruption in the availability of water occur in its native environment at some point – cool, moist forests of Japan – that prompted a mutation of flatter, wider foliage and more conspicuous stomata than neighboring conifers?  Did this change allow the tree to absorb more moisture from the surrounding air during times of drought?  Or did this mutation allow it to transpire excess moisture during times of soil saturation?  Possibly a response to extremes in temperature, or a response to excessive shade at some point?  Because the tree is not drought tolerant, a likely explanation is a response to water need, but the question still remains.

This tree is unique also in that it is the only species in its genus, not a common occurrence in the plant kingdom.

What origins do these shapes, colors, and sizes have?  We are taught that a mutation in the DNA of a plant brought about a change in that plant that enabled it to survive and reproduce a bit better than previous members of its species, therefore enabling it to out-compete its neighbors in acquiring nutrients and in reproduction.   In Part I of this series (post from November 2014), I make the statement; “The mysterious process of evolution, the driving force behind life, must itself be driven by something we have not yet discovered.”  That plants respond to the surrounding environment is a fact; but why they respond in a specific manner (as opposed to some other response) and at what level this response affects their survival and ability to reproduce is a mystery.

I agree with Mr. Darwin; the endless forms that occur in nature among plants and animals are beautiful and wonderful.  And a far greater gift than we often recognize.


Pictures by Plumb Pixel Photography, Terri Johnson, Owner



Holy schist! That’s a gneiss rock garden!

Incorporating rock and stone in your garden is a creative, distinctive, and enjoyable way to bring unique features to your landscape.  Almost every garden I’ve visited, public or private, has incorporated some type of rock display in its beds.  Dry stream beds, mountain or hillscapes, stone used to enhance a particular bloom or foliage color, alpine gardens, as linear structure of a garden bed, or as path material – rocks are essential in a garden.  Adding rocks and/or stone work to your landscape can be as easy (and free) as using those you dig up in the course of creating your garden, or as laborious and expensive as purchasing large boulders, paving stones, or decorative rocks and having them installed.  Here in the PNW, we are ‘blessed’ with rocky soil; the debris left behind during glacial retreat of the last ice age, and from extensive volcanic activity over eons.  We have a wide variety of rock material to work with – granite, rhyolite, diorite, gabbro, basalt, obsidian, pumice, conglomerate – along with a wide variety of very beautiful minerals.  With such a wealth of material to choose from, any gardener can find some type of rock or mineral with which to enhance their landscape.

In my garden, I installed 2 dry streambeds ‘flowing’ from east to west, and these features have generated much interest over many years.  I recently completed a small alpine bed using granite, basalt, and gneiss collected during hikes throughout Washington and in northwest Oregon.  As far as souvenirs go, rocks legally collected from many different areas can’t be topped (although they become heavy in the backpack towards the end of a hike).  No one can fault you for taking home one or two beautiful specimens.

Many cultures have an extensive history of using stone for landscaping, decorative, or building purposes.  To me, the most interesting feature of any Japanese garden is the placement of rocks and large stones. Evocative of mountainscapes, the structure of waterfalls, or of other water features, these pieces bring a sense of history and religious significance to each garden.  Placement is often very precise and dependent upon the religion the garden symbolizes; Zen, Shinto, and Pure Land Buddhism each have very specific requirements for the use of stone in their gardens.

In the United Kingdom, the use of stone for defining land boundaries has a long history.  Many of these small walls and markers enhance the landscape and give a strong sense of history and of the continuity of life.

When I was a young girl, my dad allowed me to make a garden in a small, unused space in our back yard.  The first thing I did was to outline the area with rocks I found throughout the neighborhood, and in our own yard.  I liked the look of the space so much that soon I had filled it almost completely with rocks of countless shapes, sizes, colors, and textures.  I don’t recall ever asking for plants to add to the garden.  One of the most treasured memories of my youth is of the hours I spent in my little garden, shining and cleaning rocks.  Strange kid; but the variety of colors and sheen of minerals fascinated me even then.

There is nothing more substantial or timeless in a landscape than stone.  The contrast between the transitory beauty of plant material and the immutable permanence of stone is something we instinctively understand and appreciate.  We comprehend the enduring quality and sense of place that stone affords.   Visitors to public gardens often remember stone work and rock displays long after the impact of the plants has faded.  They remark how the garden would be much less complete and interesting without those features.

My sediments exactly.

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Conifers in Containers – A Good Fit

Photography by Plumb Pixel Photography, Terri Johnson, Owner


Container gardening is many things: an outlet for creativity, a way to successfully grow plants not adapted to your area, a season-extender, enjoyable, and potentially expensive (but isn’t all gardening?).  Over the years I’ve grown a wide variety of plants in containers with varying degrees of success, but in recent years I’ve settled on two primary plant groups for my container gardening – succulents, and dwarf conifers.

At this time, I have two conifers in containers and have had tremendous success with both.  The first, Chamaecyparis thyoides, ‘Red Star’, has been in the same container for 5 years, with root-pruning done at year 3.  This gorgeous little tree loves water which is why I keep it in a container. (My garden soil is too sandy and I don’t water enough to keep it in the landscape.)  This trees’ most significant aspect is the beautiful purple/red cast in winter, intensified by sustained cold weather.  At this writing the little columnar-shaped tree is almost 3 feet in height and about 35 inches around at its widest, tapering to a gentle, narrow point.  As it will remain in the container with root-pruning every 3 years, its size will remain small and compact.  It grows successfully in full sun – just remember to keep it well watered.

Cham thyoides, 'Red Star' 0005Cham thyoides, 'Red Star' 0018

The second conifer I grow in a container is Chamaecyparis obtusa, ‘Mariesii’.  This is a beautifully variegated, true dwarf conifer prefers to be grown in partial shade, protected from afternoon or reflected sun.  Bright yellow/white tips are interspersed throughout the foliage.  Its shape is not especially symmetrical or uniform, but information states that this plant will become more symmetrical as it grows.  I have grown it for 2 1/2 years at this writing and have found no problems with it, and it appears to be more drought tolerant (as long as it receives afternoon shade) than most trees in its genus.

If you are looking for a focal point for a shady part of your garden, I recommend this lovely, lacy little tree!

Cham obtusa 'Mariesii' 0008Cham obtusa 'Mariesii' 0021



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Good Things come in Small Packages, page 1

Photographs by Plumb Pixel Photography, Terri Johnson, Owner


Conifers are an invaluable asset to any garden, but few people have room for one full-size tree, and most new homes are being built with land that doesn’t allow room for even one tree.  However, there is a solution to the problem of space (and the lack of) in a garden – dwarf conifers.  Many genera of conifers offer small-size cultivars.  Some of these selections are listed in this and following pages.

The genus Pinus offers a good variety of small conifers though not as extensive as Chamaecyparis (see next page).  The pictures below are Pinus wallichiana Nana, Dwarf Himalayan Pine, and Pinus mugo, ‘Carsten’s Wintergold’.  I find few trees, small or large, as beautiful and graceful in appearance as the Himalayan Pine.  If I had room for only one full-size tree, it would be the Himalayan Pine.

 Pinus_wallichiana_Nana_Dwarf_Himalayan_Pine0085_original Pinus_mugo_Carsten_s_Wintergold_0185_original Pinus_Mugo_Carsten_s_Wintergold_0194_original

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Good Things come in Small Packages, page 2

Photographs by Plumb Pixel Photography, Terri Johnson, Owner


 The genus Chamaecyparis is a good group to start with if you want to add small and/or true dwarf conifers to your garden.  The following trees show a small example of the wide variety of trees in this genus.

Chamaecyparis obtusa, Nana Gracilis Aurea; C. obtusa, ‘Baldwin Variegata’; C. pisifera, ‘Curly Top’.

 Cham_obtusa_Nana_Gracilis_Aurea_0332_original Cham_obtusa_Baldwin_Variegata_0196_original C_pisifera_Curly_Top_0158_original

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Good Things come in Small Packages, page 3

Photographs by Plumb Pixel Photography, Terri Johnson, Owner


I’ve grown dwarf conifers for many years.  After reading about Adrian Bloom’s large garden in Norfolk, England, and having always had a deep love of conifers, I decided to add as many small conifers to my garden as I could successfully fit.

On a memorably enjoyable and enlightening shopping trip specifically for small conifers, I found the tree that was to guide the look of my garden for years to come – Picea pungens, ‘Baby Blue Eyes’.  This small, symmetrical spruce is notable for its beautiful, true-blue foliage and dense, tidy appearance.  It tops out at 20 feet but with very slow growth, and is an excellent selection for neighborhood gardens.  As with all blue spruce, its beauty is most evident when covered with a light dusting of snow or frost.

As you see here, it’s a beauty.