Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Please consider this a Public Service Announcement.
(Cue sappy TV PSA keyboard music)

It could happen to you; it could happen to someone in your family - maybe it already has.
Every year, thousands of people are betrayed. They put on a grim smile for the sake of their loved ones; they try to look happy, but the betrayal leaves them empty inside...
They bought the wrong grass.
Walking through their neighborhood one evening, they saw a beautiful clump of Miscanthus sinensis rustling gently in the breeze. Not knowing what it was called, they visited their local garden center and requested the "tall, pretty grass with feathery flower heads", trusting an employee to fill in the blanks, pat them on the back and send them on their way with the perfect plant. Instead, they got...

Pampas Grass.

For these people, it is already too late; there is no known cure for Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana). Symptoms of this grass include an increasingly ratty, congested crown, unwanted reseeding, enormous size that will dwarf any neighboring plants, and hellaciously sharp leaf margins that will draw blood from casual passers-by (Miscanthus is no kitten itelf, but it will seem like a cuddly ball of fur next to the scrap-metal jaws of Cortaderia).
If someone you know has Pampas Grass, the best thing you can be is a supportive, understanding friend. Tell them their grass looks nice, even if it doesn't; comment on its lovely plumes. Do not mention or expose them to Miscanthus, as this will result in severe scowling and fits of colorful language; do not, under any circumstances, approach their Pampas Grass itself without full-body protection.
The only way to prevent Pampas Grass is through education. Know your grasses, by name if possible. If you reach to touch a grass at a nursery and an employee lunges to stop you for fear of a wrongful injury lawsuit, do not purchase the grass. If a nursery tries to sell you a plant you suspect to be Pampas Grass without thourough disclaimer, report them to your better business bureau immediately.

It's your garden, take charge of it. Too many people have been betrayed. Too many people suffer needlessly. Together, we can put an end to unwanted Pampas Grass.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Disenchantment

Zone 8 is not all it was cracked up to be.
At first, after moving to Seattle from zone 6, it seemed an impossible Promised Land. Here a Phormium stretching to the rooftop; there a gaggle of Hebe without a care in the world; Loropetalum? What prodigal son of the Hamamelidaceae was this? I thought I'd arrived in a city of fools... surely these horticultural aberrations would perish at the first sign of Winter and the comically misinformed gardeners responsible would slink back to the nursery, tails between legs, to buy boxwood and Euonymous like any self-respecting resident of the northern latitudes.
Then, after my first Winter here, I began to believe. Despite a long, cold season, the giant Phormium were still standing; 7 ft tall Nandina not only survived, but actually kept their leaves! Waterfront, outdoor-pizza-oven clients kept their picture-perfect gardens picture-perfect. Oh, what a wonderland. I ran through the hills (streets) and meadows (alleys) spreading the word:
Plant anything you want! This is an enchanted place! Rules of hardiness do not apply here! Sure, put in some tree ferns, why not!? This is free love, for gardeners!

Now, a year and one voracious Winter later, nary a Phormium stands in the city; Nandina leaves clog the gutters; Hebe skeletons jut from yards like the bones of some terrible plague.
This is the disenchantment.
Seattle got cocky and wanted the modern Mediterranean/California garden it saw in all the magazines. Our experimentation with marginally-hardy plants became a fetish without which we could not derive pleasure from our gardens. I understand the desire to constantly push the envelope of hardiness in order to expand our plant palette, but we should not strive to be something we are not. This is not a Tuscan villa; we are not sipping Cabernet on a veranda in Napa Valley. This is Western Washington, and it's time to relish our unique place in the world. Our climate fosters beautiful gardens, but only if we allow the right plants and maintain a healthy skepticism of those which seem too good to be true.
Zone 8 would do well to take a lesson from zone 6: don't get attached.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go run through the hills and meadows spreading some apologies.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Safe Date

Snow again this morning; Mother Nature's April Fools I suppose.
I'm puzzling over the whole "Average Last Frost Date" and "Frost Safe Date" thing. With many times more snow events this Winter than in any I can recall, I feel my weary body numbly slogging towards April 15 (the supposed Safe Date for Seattle) as though it might actually offer some physical sanctuary. I mean theoretically it's all over by then. No more scraping the windshield with a credit card while cursing my baffling inability to purchase a legitimate ice-scraper; no more storm systems piled up on the coast colliding with cold Canadian air masses like drunk party guests vying for the bathroom; no more staring blankly at the frozen tundra of a client's garden wondering if I should pursue my lifelong dream of doing anything but this. After the 15th, Winter just throws in the towel and starts getting fat for the off-season, because that's the Safe Date, right?
Well, however much faith you place in your given frost safe date, I'm willing to bet that someone somewhere cranked through some serious high-school level statistics in order to toss out that date with any measure of certainty. Accordingly then, someone somewhere must have applied similar statistical analyses to arrive at the average last frost date (unless these people, wherever they are, got drunk and are just throwing darts at a calendar even as we speak). Now, if I understand averages correctly (and thanks to 16 years in public education, I think I do) this average last frost date should fall somewhere in the middle of the range of possible last frost dates. So for every year like this year (and last year, come to think of it) where we have snow in April, there should be another year where Winter ducks out early to go fishing, say sometime in early March. For an impatient gardener or farmer this means that every year a wager must be placed, the stakes of which are whatever frost-tender plants or seedlings you throw into the fray of high-school statistics, weather patterns and drunken darts. Last year, I placed my bets on late March and consequently lost my whole first batch of vegetable starts. This year, so far, I've had more patience and kept my starts inside; as a result, I have pole beans growing up and through my window blinds. If this pays off because of an exceptionally late frost, then next year I'm doubling down and shoving everything outside in mid February. That's how the Average Last Frost Date works, right?