During the COVID-19 sheltering-at-home period, have you noticed an increased interest in home gardening?
Oh, wow, yes! Our Garden Professors Facebook group has been swamped with questions from new gardeners, and I’m glad I’ve got that group there to help provide science-based advice.
Is this interest mostly in growing edibles or ornamental plants?
It’s both, though I bet that vegetable gardens have the upper hand. But lots of people have been tackling long-term projects that they didn’t have time to do before, like removing lawns and putting in landscapes.
For beginning gardeners, what would be good projects to start with this summer?
I would really recommend building a raised bed system for growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers. We put one in last year and it was fantastic. We put up a fence to keep out the four-legged critters and used our native soil to fill the beds. It takes some time to do this correctly but once it’s done, it requires little upkeep other than laying down a protective mulch over the winter to keep weeds out.
What mistakes should beginning gardeners try to avoid?
Don’t try to do it all the first year! Choose something you really want to focus on—a vegetable garden, a pollinator garden, or some other relatively small project. It is going to take time and patience to do this right. Don’t expect instant gratification. Plants are living organisms, not design elements—and they will require proper planting and care to thrive.
Now that nurseries are beginning to reopen, should people expect most of the usual plant inventory to be available?
From my personal experience, it varies! As I expected from our local nurseries, the inventory got pretty slim after the spring rush. However, I’ve found that some garden centers at hardware or big box stores still have excellent selections and the quality can be surprisingly good. And again, work with the nursery or garden center if you are looking for something they don’t have.
Which plants are good to order by mail? Do you recommend particular nurseries?
Only seeds and bare root plants are consistently reliable for ordering by mail. You can look online for other options, but be aware that mailing live plants is difficult on the plants and you may not like what you receive. It’s best to work with a local nursery to order plants.
How can people living in apartments grow edibles and ornamentals? Which plants grow well in pots on apartment balconies? What are successful indoor plants? What kinds of pots are best?
Tropical ornamentals are great choices for house plants, as are cacti and succulents; temperate perennials and woody plants are not good choices, as most of them do best with low winter temperatures. Whatever you choose, you’ll just need to make sure you have the right exposure for your desired choices. If you have a balcony that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day, you can grow some vegetables though yields can be low with reduced pot size. I think herb gardens are the easiest to create. You can also grow many smaller trees and shrubs. You will need to protect the pots from cold weather, not only so ceramic pots don’t crack but so that roots don’t freeze.
You really can use any type of pot you want, inside or out. You need to ensure that there are drain holes and protect surfaces, either with saucers or cachepots on top of some sort of impermeable material. I like to buy single-glazed floor tiles and then glue cork on the bottom.
Which are the best plants for edible landscaping?
First, you’ll want to know that you can safely eat plants in your landscape, and the best way to find out is to do a soil test to be sure you don’t have lead or some other heavy metal in your soil. Assuming you don’t have a problem, then choose perennials and woody plants you like to eat that are also ornamental. Consider perennial herbs, rhubarb (there are several cultivars with attractive leaves), berry bushes (we have lots of natives in this group), and dwarf cultivars of tree fruits that can be espaliered or otherwise formally trained. There are even ornamental groundcovers with edible fruit.
Which drought-resistant native plants do you recommend for home gardeners in the Pacific Northwest?
A lot of this is personal aesthetics, but you can tell which plants are going to be drought-tolerant by looking at their leaves. Plants with small, thick leaves, with a waxy covering that appears to be gray-green or gray-blue, use much less water than those with broad, thin leaves. But do understand that even drought-tolerant plants need to be watered through their first year of planting to get roots established.
For people who want to stroll (socially distanced) through a park or garden to see the mature sizes and shapes of plants they’re considering planting at home, can you recommend a few places in the Pacific Northwest?
Here are places I’ve visited where you can see many native (and nonnative) trees and shrubs in their full glory. Of course, state and national parks will also have many of our more ornamental natives, but the environmental conditions in large tracts of land may not reflect those in a small urban landscape. More managed gardens are probably the best bet. For more information, just look at their websites online.
- Bellevue Botanical Garden
- Bloedel Reserve
- Kruckeberg Botanical Gardens
- Washington Park Arboretum/UW Botanical Gardens
- Lakewold Gardens
- Point Defiance Park
- Rhododendron Species Garden
- Wright Park
- Manito Park
- Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden
Vancouver/Victoria BC areas:
- Butchart Gardens
- The Gardens at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific
- UBC Botanical Garden
- Van Dusen Botanical Gardens
For people who want to support their local bee and bird populations, what are good landscape plants that provide pollen and seeds?
There are so many choices! There are great pollinator plant lists at websites such as Xerces. Don’t worry about having to use native plants (but do avoid any known invasive species). Wildlife is highly adaptable to their habitat and they learn to use new food sources. For the most part, the types of plants you choose because of their flower color and fragrance will be good choices for pollinators. And birds will eat just about any type of fruit. If you want to provide seeds without getting weed problems, you can cook seeds in the oven at 300°F for thirty minutes. This prevents germination but does not affect the nutrient content.
Linda Chalker-Scott is associate professor of horticulture and extension specialist at Washington State University. She cohosts the Garden Professors blog, and her books include Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest, The Informed Gardener, The Informed Gardener Blooms Again, and How Plants Work.