Washington State University Extension

Garden Tips

Archive for December 2011


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

In the past, many gardeners who fancied hydrangeas were stymied because these flowering shrubs were notoriously unreliable bloomers and not exceptionally winter hardy. Plus, weak stems supporting the large hydrangea flowers often flopped over under their weight.

These hydrangea problems are the type of challenge that motivates plant breeders. Taking up the gauntlet, plant breeders have worked to improve these flowering shrubs for today’s home landscapes. There is now a growing list of hardy hydrangea that bloom reliably and don’t have droopy flowers.

A number of these were developed by Spring Meadow Nursery and are being marketed by Proven Winners. One series are hardy hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata). The hardy hydrangea is not new to American gardens. The ‘Pee Gee’ cultivar has been around since 1867 and is well known for it’s hardiness and its very large flowers. Their biggest selling point was their dependable mid-summer bloom with flowers that develop from buds that were formed in early summer.

Spring Meadow’s newest hardy hydrangea is ‘Bobo’ a compact dwarf shrub (3

tall and 3-4

wide) that produces an abundance of white flowers with a tinge of pink. An early bloomer, ‘Bobo’ is a great addition to today’s home landscapes.

Spring Meadow’s other popular hardy hydrangeas include


, ‘Little Lime’, ‘Little Lamb’, ‘Quick Fire’, and ‘Pinky Winky’ As the name implies, the flowers of ‘Limelight’ flowers are a soft green that change to pink in the fall. Not a dwarf, it can reach a height of eight feet. ‘Limelight’ is adaptable to sun or shade and different soil types. ‘Little Lime’ is a dwarf form that only reaches a height of 3

to 5


‘Pinky Winky’ is a show stopper with its abundant two-toned pink flower heads that reach a size of 12″ to 16″ in length. Not a dwarf, the shrub reaches a height of 6

to 8

. ‘Little Lamb’ has smaller pink-tinged flowers and grows to a height of 4

to 6


Plant breeders didn’t just turn their attention to the hardy hydrangea. They’ve also put considerable effort into making Hydrangea macrophylla more garden friendly. Hydrangea macrophylla (better known as bigleaf, mophead, or lacecap hydrangea) has flowers that range from blue to purple to pink depending on the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. In acid soils, the aluminum in soil is more readily available and the flowers are blue. In alkaline soils, the aluminum is not available and the flowers are pink. The flower form of Hydrangea macrophylla varies from the blowsy mopheads to the lacy flat-topped lacecaps. I personally prefer the lacecaps, but the large mophead flowers can be astounding.

Bailey Nurseries has introduced the ‘Endless Summer’ collection of repeat blooming hydrangeas. One of the newest in the Endless Summer series is Twist-n-Shout with lacecap flowers that will be pink in our local alkaline soils. Not only is it a very reliable repeat bloomer, it’s leaves turn an attractive burgundy red in the fall. While it’s winter hardy in our area, it’s recommended that you plant it in partial shade. It grows 3

to 5

tall and wide.

Proven Winners also has a several lines of Hydrangea macrophylla. Let’s Dance Moonlight is one of their most popular because it’s a strong rebloomer, grows to 2

to 3

tall, and has rich pink (or blue) mophead flowers.

You may have already noticed the proliferation of hydrangea available at local nurseries. I suggest trying a few, especially the compact dwarf forms that can easily be added to your landscape or perennial border.
Published: 12/2/2011 10:02 AM


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

It’s probably because I’m a botanist at heart that at this time of year I’m fascinated by how certain plants became associated with Christmas.

Most of us know at least one version of how the tradition of Christmas trees started. Some think it started with Martin Luther in the 16th century. Luther supposedly cut down a Christmas tree and set it up inside his home to celebrate Christmas. Others think it reaches much further back into pagan times when the Romans celebrated the winter solstice with the feast of Saturnalia, decorating their homes with greens and lights.

The first evidence of erecting an evergreen tree and decorating it to celebrate Christmas can be traced back to 15th century Estonia and Latvia where trees were set up in the center of town and young men and women danced around the trees. The trees were set on fire after the last night of the Christmas celebrations.

It’s believed that the modern Christmas tree tradition began in western Germany as part of the church’s ‘Paradise Tree’ tradition. Church plays at Christmas time involved a Paradise Tree which was represented by evergreen branches decorated with apples, symbolizing the infamous apple tree in the Garden of Eden. The feast of Adam and Eve was on December 24 and the tradition of a Paradise Tree transformed into the practice of setting up decorated Christmas trees inside homes. Keeping with the tradition’s origin, some families still practice not setting up or decorating their tree until Christmas eve.

Poinsettias have become a Christmas decorating tradition in the U.S. The poinsettia’s use as part of Christmas celebrations dates back to when the Spanish invaded Mexico and conquered the Aztecs. Seventeenth century Franciscan priests in Mexico utilized these brightly colored red-bracted native Mexican plants as part of their nativity processions.

Although Joel Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico, introduced the poinsettia (later named after him) to the U.S. in 1825, it wasn’t until 1923 that Paul Ecke of California developed the first suitable potted poinsettias for Christmas use. By the 1960s, the poinsettia became a popular holiday plant due to the Ecke family’s shrewd marketing practices, improvements in the potted pointsettia through breeding efforts, and mass production as a potted greenhouse crop.

Today, the Paul Ecke Ranch is one of the world’s largest poinsettia producers in the world and continues to improve the poinsettia through breeding. Unlike the poinsettias of 1923 or even those of the 1960s, the ones brought home this holiday season will keep their colorful flower bracts until almost springtime. Red was once the only color of poinsettia available to consumers, but now there are white, pink, plum, burgundy, speckled, marbled, peach, and even orange ones.

Today, the English Christmas season tradition of ‘wassailing’ involves caroling, drinking, eating and visiting friends and family. However, it was originally a way to honor apple trees in mid-winter to insure a good harvest the next season. Caroling wassailers visited all the apple orchards in their area. In each orchard a tree was chosen for the honor of an incantation, an application of cider to the roots, and dancing around the tree. Imagine how much wassailing would be involved in Washington if it was a tradition today!
Published: 12/16/2011 9:42 AM


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Usually at this time of year I share some great gift ideas for the gardeners on your holiday list. Repetition is boring, so this year I’d like to talk about some unusual gift ideas for gardeners.

When looking for new ideas, the first to catch my eye was the Wearable Gardening Stool. This stool gets strapped to your bottom side with a harness and you ‘carry’ it with you wherever you go in the garden. An adjustable harness made of soft nylon is attached to a sturdy 11.5 inch wide plastic seat. Beneath the seat is a peg or pedestal leg that’s height is adjustable from 13 to 18 inches. For cushioning, there is a coil spring at the bottom of the leg with an anti-slip base. As the gardener moves from place to place, the attached gardening stool goes along too.

The stool was originally intended for use by farmers when milking cows. When the University of Wisconsin’s Healthy Farmers, Healthy Projects began looking for efficient farming tools they came across the stool and wondered if it could help small scale vegetable farmers increase their efficiency. They found that the weird strap-on stool helped lessen the stress on farmers’ backs and knees by letting them sit instead of bending over or kneeling to plant, weed, or pick. The wearable gardening stool can be purchased on-line for about $65 from Clean Air Gardening ( who feature ‘environmentally friendly lawn and garden supplies.’

On the same site you can find special ‘High Tech Plant Examining Glasses’, sunglasses with purple lenses and bright yellow frames. The purple lenses supposedly help you see stressed green plants because they block out the green color reflected from the chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants. Unhealthy plants that are stressed by drought, nutrient deficiencies, or drought will be an off color green or even yellowish. Since the glasses block out green, the wearer will see black or gray instead of green. Sick or stressed plants will show up as different colors, such as red, coral or pink, allowing wearers to discern the problem earlier than they would without the glasses.

According to Clean Air Gardening the $70 glasses use technology developed by NASA scientists. I must say I don’t know if these glasses work or not, but I do know that some individuals that are color blind and can’t perceive the color green, are able to see plant stress more easily than others.

You’ve no doubt heard of a plastic eating utensil called a spork that’s part spoon and part fork. Well, English gardener Rob Todd came up with the idea of creating a new garden tool that is part garden spade and part garden fork called a ‘Spork.’ According to the official Spork website the Spork ‘cuts in like a fork and digs a spit like a spade. It chops roots, slices turf, and breaks up heavy ground.’ The head of the Spork has a sharp jagged edge for cutting and is made of hand-forged carbon steel. De Wit who manufactures the Spork is known for making quality garden tools. You can order the Spork for $70 on-line from

One thing I know for sure is that a gardener wearing a pair of High Tech Plant Examining Glasses along with the Wearable Gardening Stool and digging with a Spork will be the talk of the neighborhood.
Published: 12/9/2011 9:35 AM


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

In the past, I’ve harped on tree planting, root problems, and care, but I neglected to give adequate attention to shade tree selection and location. When you consider planting a tree, the first question you should ask is what functions do you want it to serve in your landscape? Shade? Beauty? Block a view? Frame a view of the house?

Once you know what your main purpose is for planting a tree, you can then determine the type of tree to select. Shade and beauty are the two main reasons that most homeowners plant a tree.
With our extremely hot and sunny summer conditions, shade is a very sensible reason for planting a tree. A well placed shade tree can block 70 to 90 per cent of the sun’s radiation on a sunny summer day and reduce air conditioning demands by 10 to 30 per cent.

What does ‘well-placed’ mean? Large shade (40 feet tall or more) trees will cast a shadow equal to their height in late afternoon in the middle of summer. Large shade trees should be planted 20 feet or more away from the house. Smaller trees can be placed closer. Place trees so they will shade south and west facing windows and walls. If you’re unsure of where to place your trees, draw a diagram of your house and yard, indicating the direction that each side of your home faces. (My diagram is stuck on my refrigerator to remind me.)

The lots of many newer homes can’t easily accommodate large shade trees like Norway maple, sycamore, or oaks, but the benefits of shade can also be achieved with medium and small sized trees simply by placing them closer to the house and by grouping small trees together. Plant medium sized trees (25 to 40 feet tall) 15 feet from the house and 35 feet apart and small trees (25 feet tall or less) 6 feet from the house and 20 feet apart.

The shape of trees is also a factor in providing quality shade. Columnar trees (upright and narrow) don’t provide as much shade for as long as those with rounded or spreading shapes. Before selecting a tree, find out what it’s shape will become as it matures.

Situating trees where they’ll shade air conditioning units and pavement around the house (patios, driveways, and sidewalks) provides additional benefits in saving energy and keeping your home cooler.

Paving reflects 40 per cent of the sun’s energy and stores 50 per cent of it, keeping the area around the home warmer than if there was grass growing in the same areas. The more pavement, the more you need to cool your home. Shading pavement can help reduce these costs. Shading air conditioners can help reduce air conditioning costs.

When you decide where to plant your trees so you can benefit the most from their shade, consult the ‘Recommended Trees for the Tri-Cities’ which can be found at our WSU Extension Benton Franklin webpage at This list was developed by local experts including arborists, urban foresters, nurserymen, and horticulturists. Only trees that have the potential of thriving in our area are listed and divided into size categories.
Published: 11/25/2011 9:24 AM


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Heirloom veggies and flowers are a ‘growing’ trend in gardening. Last week I talked about why more gardeners are opting to grow heirloom vegetables, but there’s still more information about these botanic hand-me-downs that gardeners might want to know.

We hear a lot about heirloom tomatoes, but are there heirloom versions of other types of vegetables? The answer is yes. You can find heirloom varieties of beans, corn, cucumbers, lettuce, melons, pumpkins, potatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, squash, and water melons. While the number of these heirloom varieties is not as impressive as that of heirloom tomatoes, the list keeps growing as plant finders discover new gems from around the world.

Can I save my own seed? You can save your own seed, but it’s easier and more successful with certain types of vegetables. Some crops, like tomatoes, are self-pollinating (using their own pollen to fertilize their flowers) and typically don’t cross pollinate between varieties. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, lettuce, peas, and beans are all self-pollinating. Because insects can occasionally transfer pollen from one variety to another (cross-pollinate) you can be reasonably assured that your ‘heirlooms’ will be preserved by planting different varieties of these self-pollinators at least ten feet apart.

It’s harder, but not impossible, to maintain heirloom varieties of crops that rely on insects or wind for pollination. Different varieties of these crops need to be isolated by greater distances, such as several hundred yards, to prevent cross-pollination from occurring. With the smaller size of today’s yards and gardens, this becomes more of a problem. For most of us, it’s easier to just grow one most desirable variety of these crops. However, if a nearby neighbor is also growing a garden, there’s a risk of contaminating cross-pollination from their plants.

Crops that rely on wind or insects for pollination include beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, corn, cucumbers, melons, onions, pumpkins, radishes, spinach, squash, turnips, and watermelons.

Where can you buy seeds of heirloom veggies? Even the mainstream seed companies offer seed of a number of heirloom varieties and I’ve even seed some heirloom seeds for sale on local garden store racks. However, there are a few companies that specialize in selling heirloom seed. One of these is Seed Savers Exchange which ‘is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. Since 1975, members have been passing on our garden heritage by collecting and distributing thousands of samples of rare garden seeds to other gardeners.’ They offer a wide variety of heirloom vegetable crops and varieties, as well as heirloom annual flowers, sunflowers, and prairie seed. Located in Iowa, you can find them at or (563) 382-5990.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds indicate that they are ‘America’s Top Source for Pure Heirloom Seeds.’ The company was started in 1998 by Jere Gettle when he was only 17. The company now offers 1,400 varieties of vegetable, flowers, and herbs. Located in Missouri, you can reach them at or 417-924-8917. They also publish a very nice quarterly publication called the ‘Heirloom Gardener’ which covers more than vegetable gardening. The last issue featured squash , cover crops, historic grains, cheese making, growing garlic, antique apples, and yummy fall recipes.

Seeds of Change was ‘founded in 1989 by passionate gardeners with a vision to make organically grown seeds available to gardeners and farmers, while preserving countless heirloom seed varieties in danger of being lost to the “advances” of modern industrial agriculture.’ Based out of California, they can be reached at or 1-888-762-7333.
Published: 11/18/2011 9:15 AM


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Growing heirloom vegetables has been a ‘growing’ gardening trend over the last ten years. It seems to be part of the larger ‘green’ wave, a desire for natural foods, as well as environmentally safe cleaning products, building materials, and more. The number of companies offering heirloom vegetable seeds and plants increases every year, but are heirlooms really better than modern hybrids? Before answering that question we should agree on what constitutes an ‘heirloom’ vegetable.

The term ‘heirloom vegetable’ means different things to different people. To some, heirlooms are simply varieties that have been grown for a number of years. Others consider heirlooms to have been handed down from generation to generation within the same family. Still others specify a minimum time-frame of 50 to a 100 years for this generational bequeathal process. One thing that can be agreed upon is that heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties that tend to breed true to type. The number of years an ‘heirloom’ variety has been in existence and it’s family origins are still up for discussion.

What is the value of modern hybrids? The fresh vegetables that most of us eat, especially during the winter, are grown in commercial fields and then shipped to grocery stores or processors. At the grocery store we expect good quality produce. Plant breeders have developed varieties with fruit that ship well and are generally the same size, shape, and color when harvested. They’ve also bred varieties that color up early so they can be picked before they are fully ripe and shipped more easily without developing bruises or blemishes.

Processors need a reliable crop that meets specific requirements of uniform shapes and sizes for their specific needs, as well as varieties the are easy to harvest and ship. For processors, plant breeders have developed disease resistant varieties that all ripen about the same time, have tougher skins and uniform fruit.

For example, Columbian, Roza, Rowpac, and Saladmaster are four curly top virus resistant tomato varieties developed at the WSU Research Station in Prosser by Dr. Mark Martin, USDA, in the 1960s. Developed for the processing industry, they aren’t the best tasting garden tomato you can find, but for gardeners in western US regions where curly top is a serious problem they’re the only ones that will reliably produce tomatoes.

What is the value of heirloom varieties? For many the value of heirlooms is all about flavor and taste. One of the first heirloom veggies to make it big time was the Brandywine tomato. It became well known because it won top honors in numerous tomato tasting competitions. Modern varieties have been bred for an assortment of reasons, with flavor often not being the primary goal. When a family passed Aunt Ruby’s German Green (my favorite heirloom tomato) down from generation to generation, extraordinary flavor was no doubt their principal reason. Other reasons some gardeners prefer heirlooms is that they desire to preserve genetic diversity.

Which is better? While the flavor of heirlooms generally far surpasses that of the hybrids, most of us still like a dependable crop of fresh tomatoes, squash, or other veggies. Heirlooms that grew well in one region will not necessarily grow well in gardens across the country. Gardeners often find heirlooms less productive and reliable than modern varieties due to disease and climatic factors. My recommendation is to grow some of both, since you can’t beat the flavor of heirlooms or the reliability of modern varieties.
Published: 11/11/2011 9:06 AM



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