Ask the garden expert

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This came to me earlier in May:

Why do people say we need rain? Last summer we went for two months without any rain, it seemed everything looked OK, so why can't we now? I think it's nice having dry days for the kids to play and not get muddy.

I think the reason is that, in the Pacific Northwest spring, we need the moisture as an aid to all of the plants as they renew themselves. They are making their spring thrust that creates the lush, lovely landscape we are lucky enough to live in.

You're right about the fact that we usually experience a dry spell here in the Pacific Northwest most summers, but that is later, when most of the native plants have reached their maturity for the year and are not hurt too seriously, other than being thirsty. They have either done or are about to do their seeding production for the growing season, so the dryness is not as devastating as it would have been in the springtime.

So I guess we will have to continue to live with the muddy springs and dry periods in summer.

This will be a little different as I am asking the question and master gardener Mary Wright is giving me the answer. She attended a master gardener tour last month that I missed. This tour was to Rain Tree nursery in Morton. There was an interesting demonstration by a employee on planting a strawberry barrel. I have attempted to do this in the past, I didn't think it would be hard, but mine wasn't successful, and I hoped to learn through Mary the "trick" to success.

Mary's explanation:

• Use a good potting soil, also certified plant stock.

• Mix in a small amount to fertilizer (low-release pellets).

• Locate the crown (growing point); do not plant over the crown.

• Remove soil from plant roots, cut to about 11/2 inches.

• Place roots in opening, add soil around root area,below crown.

• Continue filling jar with plants and soil.

• Don't pack soil down; however do lift planter, set down firmly on work table. That and watering will settle the soil in enough, she tells us.

• Water in the root area, so that soil and roots have good contact.

I forgot to ask Mary, but think I'll not get a crop until next spring.

I'm looking for plant that I can have blooms this year, and that comes back each year. I've been told that most will not bloom the first year, but do the next year, then die. If I go to all that work, I want to have some blooms. Can you tell me which seeds or plants to look for?

Perhaps you should start with annuals, because you'll have a lot of color now; then add some perennials, blooming shrubs, even small trees.

However the life cycle you describe sounds to me like biannuals; they are a two-year plant. Just greenery the first year, second year bloom, set seed, then dies, at the end of the garden season. But if everything goes right for it, seeds are already developing new plants that keep it renewing itself.

It's also true that many perennials will go through that vegetative period before they set a bloom. But the advantage here is that they come back each year after that. I can name a few perennials that may reseed: Columbine, some Campanulas, Sweet William, echinacea, Lychnis. Most perennial plants increase in size, either by seed or rhizome root. They might outgrow their designated spot, and will need thinning out in time. I'm thinking of hosta, Shasta daisy, day lily, many ground covers, ornamental grasses, Lamian, Ajuga, creeping jenny. Many herbs even become a "weed" in this manner.(Watch out for mint family.)

There are of course annuals that renew themselves by seed as well. You ask for seeds so here are a few: Batchelor's button, Clarkia, many of the sunflower family, Shirley Poppies, Cosmos, Phlox drummondii, lavatera trimestris, sweet alyssum, Calendula.

Remember everything you see in print is someone's opinion, so here's mine:

Every household that wants to garden, be it flowers, shrubs, trees, bulbs or vegetables, needs a "Sunset Western Garden Book." The other thing they need is the contact info for the master gardener office posted by the phone. Call 360-397-6060, ext. 5711, leave your question on the machine, and the next master gardener in the office will get back to you.

You might prefer to frame your question online. Send questions to mganswerclinic@clark.wa.gov.


Celeste Lindsay is a WSU-certified master gardener. Send questions to mslindsay8@gmail.com.