Pacific Northwest: Spring Duty

Vancouver, British Columbia, USDA Zone 8

Early spring is a busy time in my garden—there is so much to do for the coming season. But no matter how much needs to be done, I spend a few extra minutes taking care of some of my newest favorite plants.

With all threats of frost behind us, it’s time to move my many trays of echeverias and other tender succulents outdoors to harden off. I place my whole collection on low wooden benches in a sunny area. Our cool, rainy weather is the absolute opposite of what they really like, but I find they can take it. A liberal sprinkling of 14-14-14 slow-release fertilizer on the soil surface reinvigorates them after our mostly sunless winter. By May, they are robust rosettes, ready to be combined in creative ways.

It’s also time to attack my daylilies with butcherlike zeal. Lifting entire clumps of what, just last year, were $150-per-fan new hybrids allows me to recapture my investment. Daylilies love being divided, and even tiny bits of root bloom the first year. After dividing and replanting, I amend their soil with a three-inch layer of compost.

Somehow, I have amassed a wide variety of Ranunculus ficaria cultivars, and right now they are popping up like mushrooms. I never planted the charming variety ‘Brambling’, with its burgundy-and-brown-striped leaves and coppery, dandelionlike flowers, among the stumps of a still-dormant Romneya coulteri colony, but it emerges there nonetheless. Some of my other favorite cultivars are ‘Double Mud’, which has gray-stained cream double flowers, and ‘Brazen Hussy’ (left), a mass of very dark purple-brown foliage and brilliant gold single flowers. Because of the cool spring weather, all of these can be lifted in full bloom and replanted without wilting. Their show is over by April; by late May, all traces of them have disappeared. Dig around and you’ll find white clumps of peanutlike tubers, which will become new plants if you break them up. This could be a mistake, though, as they can become weedy.

I grew tuberous begonias as a child, and now marvel again at their beauty. I place three tubers in a Whichford terra-cotta bulb pan (a low, wide clay pot with good drainage holes) and use a peat-based potting mix. A bright window or warm greenhouse kicks them into growth. I feed them once in April with a slow-release 14-14-14 fertilizer, and then monthly with dissolved 15-30-15 fertilizer. By May I place my pots outdoors. I can’t tell you how many blooms I get by July—the leaves are not even visible!

By starting dahlias in pots in my greenhouse, too, I get much earlier flowers than I would by planting them out as dormant tubers. In a bright, barely heated greenhouse, they are bushy 12-inch plants by May. Then I set them out as fill-ins among my perennials and small shrubs. One of my current favorites is ‘Crazy Legs’, an orange-peach mixture with recurved petals. I got it from Swan Island Dahlias, whose Web site is as dangerous as a trip to the casino. My other favorite is ‘Destini Dawn’, from Heronswood Nursery. This variety has very large single flowers in a warm squash color with apricot shadings. Its dark foliage and tall, airy habit looked great last year blooming with autumn grasses. I think this time I will mingle it with the red-leaved Ricinus communis, whose spiky seedpods are bright crimson and oh-so-sculptural. 


The largest dahlia grower in the country, Swan Island Dahlias is nevertheless a mom-and-pop affair. Nick and Margaret Gitt bought the nursery 40 years ago; since then the business has stayed in the family, with each generation contributing fresh insight to the dahlia trade. Swan Island plants over 30,000 seedlings every year. They sell by mail order, and shipping starts in March.


  • Sow seeds of Nicotiana langsdorfii and N. sylvestris now. Use a sterile soilless potting mix and grow in very bright light. It takes eight weeks to produce plants big enough to plant outside.

  • Unwrap “zonal denial” plants, such as the hardy banana (Musa basjoo), from their winter protection.

  • It’s never too early to set out peony stakes. The herbaceous types benefit from a collar of support placed before they are a foot tall.

  • Study your flowering trees’ branch patterns and edit now. It is much easier to see a tree when it is bare. All cuts should enhance a tree’s shape and health, or let more light through to underplantings.

  • Squish slugs mercilessly. One tiny bite in an emerging hosta shoot will become a huge hole in summer’s fully expanded leaf.


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