Creating Beautiful
Whidbey Island Landscapes


that celebrate the unique history, ecology and character of our island home.

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Who has the last word?

The theme of this year’s Hardy Plant Study Weekend was “Married To Your Garden: How to Save the Relationship”, this year hosted by the Northwest Perennial Alliance in Bellevue.  Four days jam-packed with plant and book sales, area garden tours, meeting up with old friends and colleagues and an incredible horticultural display.  Morning and evening speakers took primarily humorous positions on the topic – gardening as a couple; “flings” with newer cool plants,  garden burnout.   We got to hear Frank Ronan twice and  sounded much like the column he writes for Gardens Illustrated, self-depracating sprinkled with a few well-earned jabs to this primarily northwest gardening community – such as the ghastly use of plant labels in the garden.  He also took issue with our overuse of mulch because then you don’t get self-sowers – those plants that sprinkle themselves around, often into the perfect places.  Several of his quotes resonated with me, such as “A garden is at its best when nature asserts itself and makes it better.”

Of course, every garden on the tour faced with 450 visitors was primped to be at it’s best.  But nature still had her own way a bit.

Grotto in a Bellevue garden.

Grotto in a Bellevue garden.

Georgetown garden.

Georgetown garden.

Georgetown garden.

Georgetown garden.

Spilling into the alley, Georgetown garden.

Spilling into the alley, Georgetown garden.

Spilling into the alley, Georgetown garden.

Spilling into the alley, Georgetown garden.

North Seattle entry posts.

North Seattle entry posts.

Ruin in Bellevue.

Ruin in Bellevue.

Normandy Park garden.

Normandy Park garden.

 

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Yes! Try this at home.

Tomorrow I am speaking to the Oak Harbor Garden Club.  The topic is, “Techniques, Tips and Tricks of a Garden Designer,” and will describe the process I use to design a new garden or renovate an older garden.  The intent is to give gardeners some of my tools – some of which they might like to use themselves, some they might want to hire out.

In the process of sprucing up my slide show, I got some recent photos of a garden I worked on several years ago.  It’s so exciting and satisfying to see that the owners took the plans, installed the garden themselves and are making the garden their own.  What a great job they’ve done!  And the best part – actually outdoors spending time with friends and family in the garden.  That’s what it’s all about.

before, path of destruction

before, path of destruction

after, the party route

after, the party route

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Don’t try this at home

Now can I have my sheep toy?

Now can I have my sheep toy?

Some of you may have read my post from October of 2012, Next Year’s Garden.  My confident manifesto that I could have a dog AND a garden.  If you do a little sleuthing, you’ll notice that I only posted once in 2013.  That is because I could barely have a dog and a LIFE.  Poppy is what lay people call “a handful” and professionals call “a persistent gambler.”

My intent had been, on the demise of our beloved golden retriever to hire friend C., is a dog trainer, who knows me and about such things to come and consult with me, look at our home and property and recommend a dog breed.  She was more than happy to do this, she said.  Then I started reading.  And looking at the seductive internet.  And voila, I decided an English Shepherd was the perfect dog for me.  For all good reasons, I thought – a bit smaller, smart, fun-loving, good with children, likes to stick with you.  And doggone it – she looked just like the dogs my grandparents had.  I hope my cousins are reading.    What I pushed to the back of my mind were the things herding dogs love to do – run, chase and boss things. My grandparents dogs herded cars down the driveway, biting the tires all the way.  How could I have forgotten?  My friend, the professional would have known this and cautioned me about it or at least prepared me.  2013 would have been a much easier  year if I had stuck with my idea to consult with her.

Well – hindsight, right?  I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to train this dog using do it yourself methods and so talked to everyone I could this year about Poppy.    I also read everything I could get my hands on.  Much of the advice was helpful and seemed up to date to me – at least much different than when we trained our golden retriever.  But Poppy is wicked smart, complicated and  determined and  things were not going well.   My dog trainer friend C. referred me to  an awesome  animal behaviorist and in one session  I see Poppy in a  new way.   A whole new world of dog training that I never knew existed has opened up to me.   People who love and live their subject matter tend to know the latest and best stuff.

Of course, some professionals know more of the  latest  and best stuff.  Gardening seems like a do it yourself project.  Most of it probably is.  But sometimes you need an expert.  How do you go about finding one?    Ask a neighbor with a beautiful garden.  Ask the owner of a business with a beautifully kept landscape.   Ask the local nursery.   Look at the professional’s website – do they have a philosophy that you are comfortable with?  Ask for references – ask to see their gardens in person.  Certainly ask about price.  But in my experience, cheaper is usually not better even when it comes to garden maintenance help.  Do you really want your expensive perennials pulled up as weeds? What training and background does the professional have and what continuing education does he or she take part in? What professional organizations does this person belong to and does he or she have certifications?  Does the professional return your call quickly?  As you interview this person, take special note of not only the  advice, but how well he or she takes the time to find out about you, your garden  and your specific needs.

We had a good day, Poppy and me.  I’ll keep you posted.  Or Poppy will – she’s taking note of how to use the computer.

 

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I hug my boots

I finally replaced my gardening boots last weekend. This may be my third or fourth pair of the same boot I’ve worn since 1999.  The sales person always brings me others to try, but I have developed a pretty specific list of requirements.  I’ve seen people garden in sneakers, rubber boots and garden clogs – all of which I have tried, abandoned and wondered “Are you crazy?”  I like my boots to be:

1. waterproof or nearly so

2. but relatively breathable and cool, good for warmer weather and in the winter I can just add socks

3. to have a sturdy sole -for shoveling and absorbing rocky ground

4. be flexible enough to be comfortable when I’m kneeling or crouching, but provide good ankle support for working on uneven or stone strewn ground

5. provide good traction (water + soil = slippery)

I always think of my good friend and fellow designer, Barb when I lace up my boots.  Barb always manages to look so stylish no matter what she is doing and she can wear boots to the darndest places.   We spent one afternoon of our Landscape Studies class at Edmonds Community College assigned to to dig up a very old Japanese maple for removal to another part of the campus to make way for the construction of a new building.  Three hours later, sweaty, muddy and exhausted, we sat in the trench we had dug all around the not-even-budging maple.  She said, “We have the same boots.  How do you like yours?”  I said, “I love them.  I can wear them all day and I don’t even notice my feet.”  She said, “I can hardly wait to get out of my slippers and put these on.”  This might have gone on for another three hours, but our instructor arrived and said, “You don’t have that thing out yet?” and with three kicks of the shovel finished the job.

 

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Plant Shopping

Who has the best job in world?  Me, that’s who!  I spent Wednesday plant shopping for a client who had done most of her own shopping for her new garden, but still had a list of plants that she couldn’t find anywhere.  This was the first time I shopped for someone who wasn’t one of my own design clients, so though I had a list, I was curious to see how things went.

Earlier this week, I spent a few hours in my office perusing nursery inventories and making a few phone calls.  It feels a  like a treasure hunt to find the nursery with the most of what I need at the best price. I primarily deal with wholesale nurseries and growers, but also a few retail ones and rarely I have to mail order.  I usually check out the on-island nurseries in person and it feels especially good when I can purchase from them.   I also did some research on  possible substitutions and checked this with the client’s designer,  a good friend of mine.

I packed up the night before, since plant shopping is usually an all day / mostly off island affair – even for a small order.  Tarp ( I was using the CRV this time.  If I use the truck, I pack a shade cloth which I drape over the plants to protect against dessication.),  raincoat, hat, rainpants, at least two pair of gloves, BOOTS, and of course the list which has been color-coded and turned into the most efficient route.

Acres and Acres!

A few of the nurseries had pulled and held plants for me, which saves me a ton of time.  Silly me, there’s a bit of disappointment about this because I love wandering in nurseries.  I like to see all those plants, all those possibilities – some old friends and some new.  I also like nursery people – the nicest, most interesting, hardest working people you will ever meet.    At other nurseries, I need to do my own searching and this is where the outdoor gear becomes essential.  Fields are muddy and slippery, rows of plants are tight and wet and walking through them can drench you from the waist down.  I used to be able to carry three gallon pots in each hand.   These days, I’m down to two in each hand, with an extra hugged in the crook of my arm – hence the raincoat.  A hat is better than a hood for me – I can keep an ear out for delivery and crew trucks.  Two years of plant ID in school serve me well in the wholesale nurseries as plants are not labeled as they are in a retail nursery.

A big retail nursery near Snohomish assured me they  would put aside the hardest plant to find –  Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Album’  (see http://www.greatplantpicks.org/display?id=9104&searchterm=bulb&searchtype=committee).   What they actually had was Geranium × cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’ and while lovely, not as vigorous or drought-tolerant.  A quick call and trip to a small wholesale nursery I hadn’t frequented in a while netted me the last prize.

Once home, I made sure the plants were ready to be delivered and planted the next morning.  I watered the hellebores and plucked old and spotted leaves from the geraniums.  A new garden, no matter how well planned and planted, often looks like a sea of mulch with dots of  lonely little plant islands.  I get a thrill seeing the new plants all bunched together in the truck, showing off the associations of color and texture that will mature into a beautiful garden.  Seeing the client’s progress in her garden the next morning and her enthusiasm over the new plants inspired me to go home and finish up some planting of my own!

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Change

Standing at the register, Bayview Farm and Garden Nursery:

J: Now remind me of  your company name?

Me: Proscenium Garden Design.

J: That’s right.    I’m sorry, can you remind me again about how to spell it?

Me: I’m sorry.  P,R, O

J: (scrolling through names on her computer screen) Oh, here it is.  Pro-see-ne-um.

This scene played itself over and over again, though I’ve shopped and known J. and all the great people at Bayview for years and even worked there for a time.  And you can be sure the scene was even longer and laborious at other nurseries, etc. . . The word proscenium describes the arch that holds a curtain in front of the stage.  In ancient times, it referred to the floor of the stage itself.  In 2002, it seemed like a great name for my new business since I’d spent a considerable amount of my life onstage and backstage and it was a good metaphor for the garden – a stage for outdoor events and memories.  But obviously, the name didn’t work if I had to repeat it’s pronunciation and spelling with every business transaction.

I also started noticing that here on the island we are more likely to refer to a business  by the name of the owner or other employees or the location of the business, as in, “I got this fabulous new geranium from Mary ( Fisher of Cultus Bay Nursery)” or “Amy (at the Colorbox Salon) and I decided I needed a new hair color for the summer.”  And if you’re from Central or  South Whidbey, you know exactly who I’m talking about without the use of the info in parentheses.  It’s a small town characteristic  that I love.

It’s spring and a good time to evaluate what didn’t work in my garden over the winter – the “hardy” evergreen shrubs whose last three leaves threaten to blow away in the wind like a six year old’s loose tooth,  or the groundcovers that protected a healthy crop of weeds.  I suppose it’s not nice to name names, but Cistus purpureus and Ceanothus ‘Pt. Reyes’ are plants that seemed good  in theory, but couldn’t deliver in the reality of my garden.

So I’m retiring Proscenium Garden Design and officially beginning the use of my new business name Deborah Smith, Landscape Design along with the launch of my new website, designed by my awesome son-in-law, Tim.  (More about my experience as a design client later!)  I hope you’ll enjoy poking around the site and come back often to read my thoughts about what it’s really like to be a gardener and garden designer on Whidbey Island.

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