In the Garden October 2017

By Rhiannon Allen

What a peculiar weather year this has been. Most of us lost some plants – casualties of the severe winter, summer drought, or some other factor. We might have experienced a poor harvest of vegetables or fruit. Now is a good time to reflect on our losses and challenges to see what changes need to be made for
next year.

Some plants were lost to a long freeze. One of my friend’s venerable rosemary bush didn’t make it through to summer. If my friend wishes to grow rosemary again, what should they do? This really depends on how much investment they want to throw into this endeavor.

The first option is to grow a compact variety in a container that can be brought inside to a sunny position for the winter. The second is to choose a more sheltered position for a new plant. My rosemary is planted against my house foundation and under the porch eave; this plant was unscathed by winter’s cruelty.

Another option is to research cultivars that might be hardy enough to survive our coldest winters. The National Arboretum website provides a list of the hardiest rosemary varieties. Unfortunately, some garden centers do not provide cultivar information. Fortunately, Monrovia (one of North America’s major plant nurseries) sells the very hardy rosemary, ‘Arp,’ meaning chances are that my friend’s favorite garden center will either stock the plant or order it for them.

Of course, my friend could always try using Point-Interface, Next Door, or the Point Roberts Garden Club to find a local rosemary bush that survived the winter and take a softwood cutting of it; they would need to nurse it to size for it to brave another winter like this past one.

In any case, my friend should spend some time this winter thinking about which solution they favor so that by next spring, they know exactly which option to pursue.

While I’ve focused on rosemary here, the same principles apply to planning for the replacement of any winter-killed plant: Do you want to replace it? If so, is there a hardier variety? Is bringing the plant indoors, into a greenhouse or mulching/blanketing it an option? Is there a better location for the replacement that will provide it with more winter protection?

Some losses or disappointments might need more imminent planning and action. This is the case with mulching, which should be done this month to protect plant roots and tubers against severe freezing and fluctuations in temperature. In October, after I’ve planted my garlic, I normally pop across the line to purchase a couple of bales of straw to mulch my vegetables, strawberries and
container plants.

I never got around to it last autumn, and my garlic crop suffered. This year, I will be sure to get my usual mulching straw spread out well in advance of our first hard frost. For an ornamental garden, bark mulch is a more attractive option that does not need to be removed or turned until spring or summer. It will protect plant roots and make it less likely that shallow-rooted ornamentals will be heaved out of the ground by repeated frosts. It also reduces repeated fits and starts of growth with fluctuating soil temperatures.

Other plants were lost to an historically dry July and August coinciding with record breaking heat. This was the case with a number of plants in the Garden Club’s Tyee beautification project. A number of shrubs succumbed, and the prolific California poppies put on a paltry display after their seeds failed to germinate and grow with the sudden onset of hot dry weather.

Clearly, the club might need to plan for more watering or take a close look at which plants (like coreopsis and perovskia) come through with flying colors.

This year’s planning is going to be challenging because meteorologists have been hesitant to make long-range forecasts. Will we see a return to our ‘normal’ weather patterns of mild rainy winters and short dry summers? Do we believe one model’s prediction of an La Niña winter of abundant snow? Is anything really ‘normal’ anyway?

As Peg Keenleyside has pointed out in her columns, we have entered a period of climate instability. These past 12 months might seem abnormal to us, but extremes of temperature, drought duration and fluctuations might well be the new normal. Even many of our native plants are facing survival risks, and they evolved over millennia to cope with our climate patterns. They don’t have the ability to plan for weather and climate surprises, but we do.

The Point Roberts Garden Club will begin its planning for Garden Tour 2018 by guessing when 2018 gardens will be at their showiest – not an easy task!

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