Sunday, December 31, 2017

Winners in the 2017 garden

I was ready to title this post "Winners and Losers" but then I thought, "Can any plant be a loser?" - well, maybe poison ivy? (And some good news for me - poison ivy is rare here, found mainly in the wilderness areas. No more yearly poison ivy shots and steroid packs!) Another reason I abandoned the losers idea is because there was just a small number of plants that fit into that category. I will give them a mention at the end of the post.

So, a trip down memory lane of the past year and a look at the garden plants that excelled. I am focusing on plants that I have grown for the first time. As a new gardener here in the Pacific Northwest, I am still learning. Overall, I would say that gardening in this area of the country is much easier. For me, the absence of humidity is wonderful. It means I can play all summer long in the garden without breaking into a sweat. There are challenges of course, the chief one being the absence of rain during the summer months. That means lots of watering. On the other hand, there are many plants here that thrive in the dry summer/wet winter conditions. 

Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)

The first time I ever heard of the Strawberry Tree was decades ago when I read a short story by that title by my favorite writer Ruth Rendell. It is reputed to be an idea coastal plant but does well inland here as well although it can be damaged in severe winters. Despite the foot of snow we got last January, ours was unscathed. It is still rather small, about 5 feet tall. It has been covered in small urn-shaped flowers for months now. A strawberry-like fruit appeared before the flowers. The evergreen leaves are attractive and the red-brown bark gets more attractive as it ages.

Cuphea 'Strybing Sunset'


One of my favorite perennials is this Cuphea which is loaded with orange tubular flowers. I overwintered it in the garage last winter and moved it to a sunnier spot this year. It was slow to bloom but once it started, the flowers remained up until frost. It is a hummingbird magnet which is just another reason to love it.



What a little workhorse this annual has been. I was told that they were nice in the Spring but not to expect much in the Summer as they fizzled out in the heat. This not only flourished non-stop through the entire season but it thrived in a hot, dry raised bed surrounded by stones.

Erysimum (Wallflower)

Wallflower 'Apricot Twist' (Erysimum)

This was the first time I ever grew Wallflowers. They were so pretty in the nursery that I brought some home. I planted "Apricot Twist" alongside "Bowle's Mauve" and they bloomed all summer. I have read that this is a short-lived perennial so I will be curious to see how it does next year.


All of the Asters in the garden have performed exceedingly well. I have went a bit overboard with them and have amassed a small collection already. One of my favorites is "Purple Dome".

Euphorbia myrsinites (Myrtle Spurge)

A great recommendion by a co-worker, it is thriving in the drought tolerant terraced area. It brings great texture to the garden.

California Fuchsia (Epilobium septentrionale 'Select Mattole')


Another great perennials for dry areas, this one loves the heat and sun. It has a low, mounding habit with silvery leaves and orange flowers. I am going to try this one in the hell strip area next year as well.

And for the not so stellar - 

I would include Aubrieta, a plant that I hoped would drape over the tall retaining walls along the driveway. This was pretty when it bloomed but it pretty much petered out during the summer. I am still looking for plants that will drape over the walls in this tough, hot, dry situation. Any suggestions?
Lophospermum grew okay in a small hanging basket but it was never covered with profuse blooms like I hoped. Perhaps this would do better in the ground and along the retaining wall? I am not sure but might give it another try next year.
Some plants that did not make it from last year include Sweet Pea Shrub (Polygala x daimaisiana), Gladiolus dalenii ‘Bolivian Peach’, several (all) varieties of Agastache and
several Hebes.

What did well in your garden this year?

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Monday, December 25, 2017

White Christmas

A cold and snowy Christmas Eve and Christmas day. I guess you know you are getting old when you like it but you don't want out in it.

We don't have to go anywhere so we are happy inside.

A Northern Flicker has been visiting the suet feeder for the past month or so. He is so beautiful!

And the hummingbird is a faithful resident. It seems so weird seeing them with snow on the ground. We have been bringing the feeder inside at night to keep it from freezing.

This year's Buche de Noel was made by Michael. My work schedule was pretty full last week so he pitched in and did the honors. This thing is heavenly. The frosting and cake has Kahlua in it. I posted the recipe a few years ago. Sadly, we lost the little Cardinal bird that we always decorated it with - we think it was lost in the move. And we have nothing with red berries in the garden. I will have to remedy that. Michael had some tiny little birds from his craft supplies and came up with nice decorations. Merry Christmas everyone!

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Friday, December 22, 2017

Moravian Wafers

I remember as a child, I was never enthused with Moravian Wafer cookies but after I would have one (I would not pass up anything related to dessert), I could not stop eating them. I only remember the round ones that came in small tins or cellophane. You don't have to worry about these wafers being perfectly shaped. I was concerned about getting them thin enough. Maida Heatter suggests using a ruler and cutting at every 1/8 inch mark. I just used a long, thin-blade knife and estimated the cuts. Some turned out too thick (although that certainly does not affect the taste of the cookies) but most of them were just right.

The wafers are supposed to be hard and crisp. My first batch were a little soft, even after cooling, so I baked the second batch a few minutes longer. That did make them firmer but they were still somewhat soft. Nevertheless, they are very good and excellent with a cup of coffee!

The dominant ingredient for these is the molasses. Have you noticed that molasses is difficult to find in stores? I did finally locate it in a large local grocery store but a lot of places simply do not carry it. I used Brer Rabbit Molasses.

This recipe comes from "Maida Heatter's Brand New Book of Great Cookies" (1995)

Moravian Wafers

2 cups sifted unbleached flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. finely ground white pepper
1/2 tsp. dry mustard powder
1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter (softened)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup mild molasses
1 egg yolk

Preheat oven to 350.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, pepper and mustard. Set aside.

Beat the butter until soft. Gradually beat in the sugar. Beat in the molasses and the egg yolk.

On low speed, add the flour mixture and beat until mixed. The dough will be very thick.

Cut a piece of plastic wrap about 18 inches long. Spread it on a work surface and spoon the dough down the middle in a strip about 12 inches long. Lift the two long pieces of the wrap, bring the sides together on top of the dough. Press the dough into a strip 12 inches long, 2 3/4 inches wide and 1 1/4 inch high with squared ends (you don't have to be that precise but just get close to those measurements).

I always keep a ruler in the kitchen for matters like this!

Place the wrapped dough on a cookie sheet or long plate and place it in the freezer. Let it freeze for at least 2 hours or you can leave it and bake the cookies later. I actually waited until the following day to make mine.

When ready to bake, remove the dough from the freezer, unwrap and place it on a large cutting board. Use a long knife with a thin blade and carefully cut into slices about 1/8 inch wide. 

Bake for 8-10 minutes, until the cookies are lightly colored. If you baking them all at once and using two cookie sheets, rotate them middle ways through baking.

Remove from the oven and let stand for a few minutes. Then transfer them to a wire rack with a spatula. Store in an airtight container. These cookies make wonderful Christmas gifts!

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A December stroll

Typical weather for winter has returned with colder temperatures and more rain. We have had our first freeze and it has dipped down into the 20s (one night 24!) several times. I took a walk around the garden to see how the plants were handling this. The answer - surprisingly well!

Some, of course, do not like it at all. I knew Salvia 'Amistad' was very tender. Whether it makes it until next year remains to be seen. It is, however, a plant that I would purchase again. The hummingbirds loved it.

Salvia 'Amistad' and Mugo Pine 'Aurea'

Another iffy one is New Zealand Flax. I have never grown this before but I have always admired the imposing spikes of it in California gardens. I hear it is marginal here. The 24 degree night did not seem to phase it. Of course the wet conditions here during the winter are sometimes the culprit.
Phormium 'Rainbow Queen' (New Zealand Flax)

Viburnum 'Spring Bouquet' seems to really like the cooler weather. Look at all those buds!
Viburnum 'Spring Bouquet'

Another shrub that seems to be beautiful in all the seasons is Pieris (Lily of the Valley Shrub)...

Pieris 'Mountain Fire'

Rose buds are everywhere. I have never seen such pink buds on 'Marie Pavie'. This is a white rose with pale pink shadings. Look at these buds though...

Polyantha Rose 'Marie Pavie'
China Rose 'Mutabalis'
I believe that I am going to move the Oriental Spruce 'Skylands' to the back garden as it obviously does not like full sun...

Picea orientalis 'Skylands'

A stray Holly seedling that I have no idea where it came from. The leaves are beautiful. I would love to find the name of the variety.

A few more winter beauties to wind up...

Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah'

Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Winter Is Here

Cones on Hinoki Cypress

Our first full year in the Pacific Northwest has definitely been one for weather records. One year ago today, we got a light snow and later in January we got almost a foot. Summer brought a lot of really hot days (I can't remember if there was a record number or not). Now, we are experiencing an unusual dry spell. This has happened about eight times in the past. The present stretch of dry days is expected to last a week or so. During the last week, we also got our first major frost.

Strawberry plants

The frost is pretty but it is so cold. Last night the temperature dipped into the upper 20s. I brought the last of the tender potted plants from the deck into the garage just last week.

No more roses for a while

Pennisetum alopecuriodes 'Hameln'


Pinus mugo 'Aurea' (Mugo Pine)

Not sure if it will help or not, but I covered the lettuce and cabbage although I forgot to cover this patch.


I am taking advantage of the dry weather and continuing work on the terraced area. My goal is to get this section completed over the winter months. That is, if the weather and my budget will cooperate. I have been so discouraged by the price of rocks. The small section you see below was a full load and you can see they don't go far...



And the Christmas decorations are up...


mailbox-christmas Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Apricot Tart

These rainy, cold, blustery days call for some baking!

Apricot Tart

The filling, divine enough to eat as a breakfast treat, can be made days ahead and refrigerated. I made this three days before baking the tart and stored it in the refrigerator.


12 ounces dried apricots
2 cups water
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
Optional: 1 TBS. rum, cognac or kirsch (I used kirsch)
Optional: 2 TBS thinly sliced toasted almonds (I did not use

Soak the apricots overnight in the water.
Place the soaked apricots and water in a heavy saucepan. Add the sugar and mix.
Over high heat, stir the mixture until it comes to a boil.
Reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Uncover, raise the heat to high again. Stir constantly until the mixture begins to thicken and the apricots fall apart. This will take a while (almost 20 minutes for me). You can also slice the apricots as you do it with your spoon.
Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla and almond extracts and the optional liquor and almonds.


*2 cups all-purpose flour
* 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
* 1 tablespoon sugar
* 12 tablespoons (1.5 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced
* 1/2 cup ice water

Place the flour, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse for a few seconds to combine. Add the butter and pulse 10 to 12 times, until the butter is in small bits the size of peas. With the motor running, pour the ice water down the feed tube and pulse just until the dough starts to come together. Dump onto a floured board and knead quickly into a ball. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. When ready to use, roll out on a floured board. Line a pie pan (or tart pan) with half the dough and set aside the remainder to use as a top crust.

Glaze (applied to top of tart before baking)

Beat together:
1 egg yolk
1 tsp water

Apricot Glaze (applied after baking and tart has cooled)

1/4 cup apricot preserves
2 tsp water

Bring the mixture to a boil and brush over the top of the tart.


Preheat the oven to 375 and butter a 9 1/2 x 3/4 inch flan ring. Place the flan ring on an ungreased cookie sheet. Adjust your oven racks with the bottom rack one third from the bottom and the second rack in the center of the oven.

Spoon the apricot mixture into the pastry shell. Cover with the other half of the pastry. Pinch the two crusts together around the perimeter with your fingers. Cut off the dough that rises over the top of the pan. Cut some slits along the top of the crust. Apply the glaze with a pastry brush. 

The additional dough can be used for decorative strips or other embellishments (I have a little dough cutter that cuts in the shape of leaves - really cute!)

Bake on the bottom rack for 30 minutes at 375. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 and move the tart to the center rack. Bake an additional 20-30 minutes until the top is browned slightly.

After baking, carefully remove the tart from the flan ring and allow to cool.

Brush with apricot glaze. Serve with vanilla ice cream!

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Fiery Fall Colors

Dogwood (Cornus kousa) 'Celestial Shadow'
The autumn colors here are still magnificent. We have yet to have a freeze and I love how the temperatures stay on an even scale, just dipping ever so slowly. The overnight temperatures are averaging around 40 with the daytime highs around 50. The gray wet weather pattern that dominates the winter season has begun.

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) (seedling)
The two Japanese Maples that flank our back deck have been very slow in turning color but all of a sudden they are spectacular. These were unnamed varieties and I chose them mainly because they were large specimens at a decent price. They have put on quite a bit of growth this year.

Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood'
An existing Japanese Maple in the front yard is "Bloodgood". It too has grown well but there is significent bark damage and I am reluctantly considering replacing it. I would like a taller tree for that spot. It pains me to dig this one up though.

Acer palmatum ‘Murasaki Kiyohime’
A dwarf Japanese Maple, also already in existence, is planted next to the front door stoop. It is 'Murasaki Kiyohime' and it has been slow to change color.

Acer palmatum 'Shaina'
 'Shaina' was just added earlier this summer. That is Japanese Blood Grass planted at the base.

Some more trees and shrubs showing off their fall finery -

Dwarf Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Kelseyi')
Barberry (Berberis thunbergii 'Orange Rocket')

Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica)
Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)

And lastly, although not really fitting the "colorful" category, is nevertheless an amazing plant at the moment - the Strawberry Tree (Arbutus). This is a new plant for me and I am loving it.
Strawberry Tree (Arbutus)

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy