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