Reduce your Water Bill with these PNW Survivors

As the seasons change it's time to reflect on what we can do better next time

As the seasons change it’s time to reflect on what we can do better next time

How was your water bill this summer? $200? $300? Over $500? Was it higher than usual and worse than expected? While the cause could be anything from a leaky toilet to an inefficient washing machine, chances are your landscape may have been the main culprit.

Whether you have an automatic irrigation system or hand water using a hose, every drop costs you money if you use a public water source. (For those of us with wells, the issues are somewhat different: I have to minimize summer watering to be sure our well doesn’t run dry and impact our neighbors as well as ourselves!)

After three months without any measurable rain here in Duvall, Washington, and temperatures consistently in the 80’s and 90’s with several days over 100′, my garden struggled. I could hand water some areas but many plants were left to their own devices  because they were beyond the reach of my hose and/or available time. My clay soil bakes as dry as a cracked riverbed in summer although a top dressing of Fertil Mulch in spring does help conserve moisture to some degree.

While the majority of the plants in my garden have been selected for drought tolerance (as well as deer resistance)  some have done better than others, especially as this is the second such extreme summer in a row. Some varieties of  barberries and spirea started to defoliate by mid-August for example, and all my pines were showing signs of stress by September. Exbury azaleas turned crispy and shed leaves last month and my poor katsura tree (which is most definitely NOT drought tolerant) has been dropping leaves since August. Others surprised me by their ‘can do’ attitude and those are the survivors that I’ll share with you here, focusing in this post on trees and shrubs. I’ll cover perennials and annuals next time.

The plants highlighted below received NO supplemental water between mid-June and mid-September. They are all planted in the ground (not containers) and were not fertilized in any way. Consider replacing some of your thirstier garden plants such as rhododendrons and hydrangeas to save water, energy and money next year!


Forever Goldie golden arborvitae

Forever Goldie golden arborvitae, shines year round in my garden

Forever Goldie golden arborvitae (Thuja plicata ‘Forever Goldie’), shines year round in my garden

I have two of these in the garden, one planted five years ago and the other two years ago. Both look as fabulous today as they did in May – no signs of leaf scorch or stress whatsoever and shining like a beacon in the garden. Highly recommended! Details and order here  or ask for it at your local nursery.

Japanese snowbell

Fragrant bell-shaped blooms dangle from the branches of Japanese snowbell in June

Fragrant bell-shaped blooms dangle from the branches of Japanese snowbell in June

It never even occurs to me to water my Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica), yet it had the best floral display ever this June and has shown no signs of premature leaf drop or stress since then. You need to include this beautiful small tree for the fragrant spring blooms alone!

Other trees worth mentioning

My well established Japanese maples, Hinoki cypress, river birch, Armstrong maples, weeping willow and Persian ironwoods all did well too. Presumably their root systems are deep enough to reach moisture.



Blooming their socks off, healthy leaves and generally looking fabulous, I have a few different varieties of hibiscus in two locations, both planted last summer. Those that received NO summer water look as good as those which got a weekly soaking – lesson learned!

Pictured here are Orchid Satin from Proven Winners and the variegated Summer Ruffle from First Editions. Click on the links for more details.


Beyond Blue is a compact variety of bluebeard from Proven Winners

Beyond Midnight is a compact variety of bluebeard from Proven Winners

I had a new variety to test for Proven Winners this year: Beyond Midnight. Since it was only planted this May I did water it just twice during the entire summer but have included it here because it looks so fabulous! An abundance of blooms, healthy leaves and lots of new growth – I’m impressed. Click on the link for details

Aphrodite sweetshrub

The wine-red flwoers of Aphrodite sweetshrub show up well against brighter foliage such as Golden Spirit smoke bush

The wine-red flowers of Aphrodite sweetshrub show up well against brighter foliage such as Golden Spirit smoke bush

One of those ‘test’ shrubs from Proven Winners that I tucked into a far border and promptly forgot about! Well beyond the reach of any water source and too far away to lug a watering can, this Aphrodite sweetshrub is a real survivor! It has had blooms non-stop from May until now, has grown several feet in width and height and shows no sign of having endured a tough summer. A winner on all accounts! Details here


With many varieties in multiple locations, some planted five years ago and others just this spring, I can tell you these may actually be the most drought tolerant of all my shrubs. Not a single plant looks stressed regardless of age or location.

Pictured here are Variegata, Maroon Swoon (Bloomin’ Easy), Spilled Wine (Proven Winners), Magical Fantasy, Strobe (Bloomin’ Easy) and Midnight Wine (Proven Winners). Click on the links for details.

Smoke bushes

Like weigela, I have four unique varieties of smoke bushes (Cotinus sp.) in five different locations, ranging in maturity from two to five years in the ground. While a few lower leaves did drop, overall the shrubs look fabulous.

Pictured here are Golden Spirit, Grace, Royal Purple and Old Fashioned. Click on the links for details. Note: I coppice my mature shrubs to 2′ tall in sprung to keep them to a dense shrub form, sacrificing the smoke (flowers) in favor of larger leaves.

Pearl Glam beautyberry

Photo courtesy: Proven Winners

Pearl Glam beautyberry. Photo courtesy: Proven Winners

Another winner from Proven Winners on so many levels! While they have not put on a lot of growth this year, the two one-year-old shrubs have did bloom and berry well, and still look good without watering. Details here

Gro-Lo sumac

Gro-Lo forms a dense carpet of attratcive foliage

Gro-Lo sumac forms a dense carpet of attractive foliage

I may have watered this a couple of times during the summer, but only because I happened to pass by it with hose in hand on my way to thirstier plants in the same bed! I am confident that this is a keeper as far as low-water use goes. Gro-Lo sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Lo’) has outstanding fall color to look forward to also.

Other shrubs worth mentioning.

Other shrubs that did well without any water, and which are evergreen include Rheingold arborvitae, Goshiki Japanese holly, Oregon grape, abelia (mostly semi-evergreen varieties for me) and Rainbow leucothoe.


I hope these insights will help you plan for a lower maintenance and less costly summer in 2018!

Further inspiration and reading

My two books include many combinations featuring the plants mentioned here. Although neither publication focuses strictly on drought tolerance, they both indicate the watering needs of each plant.

Also explore the following titles, especially if you live in a different climate:

(Note that these affiliate links save YOU money – and earn me a few pennies too.)

Shades of September


Whats' new this month?

Whats’ new this month?

It’s an odd time of year. Neither summer nor fall. Cooler but not cold. Perhaps chianti rather than sauvignon blanc but not-quite-ready-for-a-full-Bordeaux type of weather

I typically head into the garden to see what is new – newly blooming or in leaf – not newly going into decline! So what is there to get excited about in September? October and November will be redolent with autumnal shades: does September offer anything other than a weary landscape?

As I uploaded my images I was surprised to see how many shades of red there were; not the fiery fall colors that the smoke bushes and maples promise for the future, but chill-tipped foliage and flowers in shades of rose and ruby that suggested it was time to find my fleece jacket. Berries were also in abundance, from the glossy red honeysuckle that cedar wax wings prefer to viburnum, barberries and Red Beauty holly.

Enjoy a September stroll with me

Flowers Galore!

Many perennials and shrubs put on a second flush of flowers in fall while others are an autumnal highlight.

Pink Micro Chip butterfly bush

This Pink Micro Chip butterfly bush  is STILL pushing out blooms even as it leans on a winter daphne – instant floral arrangement

Many of the white paniculata hydrangeas age to pink – a great opportunity to play with plant combinations

Sometimes it isnt the actual flowers that have a pink hie but rather the sepals as with this Abelia x grandiflora

Sometimes it isn’t the actual flowers that have a pink hue but rather the sepals as with this Abelia x grandiflora

Berries, seed heads and more

From oversized to teeny-tiny, there are berries and seedheads throughout the garden already.


Raspberry-like seed heads of the kousa dogwood tree –  Christmas in September??

Talking of the Holidays, this Red Beauty holly seems to be well ahead of the curve too!

Red Beauty holly with Tangelo barberry and Baby Blue boulevard cypress

Red Beauty holly with Tangelo barberry and Baby Blue boulevard cypress

Serotina honeysuckle, samaras on the Purple Ghost Japanese maple, tiny berries on a barberry

Left to right: Serotina honeysuckle, samaras on a Purple Ghost Japanese maple, tiny barberry berries


A solitary leaf on the Fireglow Japanese maple offers a prelude

A solitary leaf on the Fireglow Japanese maple offers a prelude

While shades of red, orange and gold are expected on many trees and shrubs as autumn approaches, it is the unexpected multi-colored additions to foliage that I feel is a bonus to the September garden

Lime Glow barberry adds various shades of pink to its cream and green marbled leaves

Lime Glow barberry adds various shades of pink to its cream and green marbled leaves

I was surprised to see Mountain Fire andromeda still showing off mahogany colored new growth


And then there are the tiny succulents on the green roof of this delightful bird feeder that are also turning color.


What’s happening in your garden this month?

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A Movable Feast

I have just returned from a week long trip to Florida which for this Seattle-ite was pure horticultural eye candy! (I was speaking on the HGTV designer stage at the Epcot International Garden and Flower Festival for three days) . Everywhere I looked there were houseplants – growing as hedges or clambering up trees! Even that old fashioned polka dot plant (Hypoestes)  that I struggle to keep alive on a windowsill was a groundcover to the point of being a nuisance in one garden I visited.

I’ll share some of my tropical plant flavors soon but I just had to show you these fun veggie gardening ideas that I spotted in a display at Epcot.


If you have a small garden or patio you know how frustrating it can be when the sun moves during the day and suddenly your micro-veggie patch or herb garden is in shade. Well here are a few fun solutions.

Wheelbarrow planter

The more I looked at this the more I loved it. Just think – you can move your veggies easily into the sun during the day or to a shadier spot of it gets too hot. Just make sure your wheelbarrow has drainage holes. Plastic wheelbarrows are fairly inexpensive or perhaps you have an old metal one that could add a rustic flair? Or maybe give it a coat of paint in a fun color?

The orange wheelbarrow above combines ornamental and edible plants including variegated tapioca, taro and carrots.


This yellow wheelbarrow is positively exploding with color! A big silver leaved cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)  takes pride of place in the center with a field of basil behind it (by my standards anyway) and colorful annuals in front. I love the way it is nestled within a meadow of yellow daisies although I admit that does make moving it rather tricky.

Sitting pretty



Have you got some old wooden chairs languishing in a dusty corner? Look what you can do with a little creativity and a coat of paint! The seats have been replaced with inexpensive plastic containers that are crammed full of edible and ornamental flowers. These will surely bring the pollinators into your garden but the idea could just as easily be adapted to create a handy herb garden by the kitchen door.

Packed into pallets


The concept of pallet gardens has been around for a while and is a fun way to re-use those packing crates which everything from potting soil to appliances get delivered on. I like tidy rows in my vegetable garden so the idea of using pallets for growing small quantities is very appealing. Strawberries, parsley and cabbages are just a few of the many options tested here.

Just hanging around


Why are some of the best ideas so obvious – and yet you just never thought of them? These galvanized buckets have been drilled and hung from fence rails – perfect for salad crops or perhaps strawberries. why hang them at head height – hang them where you can reach them!

A simple drip irrigation system keeps all these movable planters watered but a quick splash with a hose pipe would of course be easy.

Have you come up with a fun planter idea? Do share it!

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For the Poinsettia-Phobic

It’s not that I don’t like poinsettias – I do. They are festive, easy to care for (since they don’t need much attention), come in a variety of colors and are available in many sizes. But before you pick one up in a shiny gold wrapper I dare you to be different this year. Here are a few quick ideas you can put together for the perfect gift that won’t look out of place in February. Most offer seasonal color besides poinsettia but for the traditionalists I’ve even included a combination for you that includes one in a mixed design.


Monochromatic and Elegant

Silver and white featuring a cyclamen

Silver and white featuring a cyclamen

You can never go wrong with white. The cyclamen was the inspiration for this design, as much for its attractive marbled foliage as the pristine flowers. I decided to create an indoor arrangement in an embossed metal container. the bronze color and non-seasonal design makes this a great year-round choice. The striking deep green and white African mask (Alocasia ‘Polly’) added height and drama while the maidenhair fern brought a delicate touch.

Look for interesting foliage plants such as the fuzzy grey XX

Look for interesting foliage plants such as the fuzzy grey panda plant



Still hunting for interesting foliage I selected the fuzzy grey succulent called a panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa) to tuck at the edge as well as a green and white ivy to trail over the sides. Green moss covers any bare soil and a few glittery stems and silver ribbon adds a touch of bling.

Note; Like that African mask? Then you’ll love the combination on pages 108-109 ‘Tribal Dance’ in my book FINE FOLIAGE.



A non-traditional choice.

Magenta brings a new look

Magenta brings a new look

Do you like color but don’t want red? Be different! Here is an example of a design using the same plants as above but switching to a magenta cyclamen. I also planted this in an oval container rather than a round one. I placed the tallest plant  – the African mask – to one side and stair-stepped the plants down in an asymmetrical design. Fun!

A new twist on a favorite

It's ll about the leaves! This red poinsettia has pretty variegated foliage

It’s all about the leaves! This red poinsettia has pretty variegated foliage

This poinsettia takes up a lot of space even though it is only in a 4″ pot. That means a lot of green leaves – unless you find one with pretty variegated foliage like this. It immediately elevates it above the ‘normal’ poinsettias and adds an extra splash of color to the design. A lime green Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’) adds height and a citrus fragrance. Button fern and ivy trail over the edge while green moss disguises the pot edge. I selected a ribbon to match the cypress in this design and since the container was covered in a thin veneer of birch bark I gathered lichen encrusted twigs from the garden to tie in with a more natural theme.


Creative spirits let loose!

All the designs above were created during my Holiday Container Workshops last weekend. Each lady (men were welcome but only ladies registered!) created a unique design using the color scheme, seasonal plant and container of their choice. Adding baubles and polka dot bows or curly willow and fir cones they could completely change the look to suit their personal tastes.

A fun event for friends to enjoy time together

A fun event for friends to enjoy time together

Tips for indoor containers

1. Add a waterproof liner to your container if it does not have one already;  heavy duty plastic will do

2. Add  1/2″ of charcoal to the bottom of the container before you add soil. This helps absorb excess water and reduces odors

3. Keep your seasonal plant (poinsettia, cyclamen, Christmas cactus) in its own pot and ‘plant it’ into the soil. It can then easily be replaced with something different in the new year

4. Watering; use an indoor watering can with a long spout and water each plant lightly from the top except the seasonal flowering plant. Lift this out, still in the nursery pot and set it on a saucer of water for 10-15′. (They are less likely to rot if you water these from the base)


A gorgeous display of seasonal outdoor containers at Sky Nursery, Shoreline, WA

A gorgeous display of seasonal outdoor containers at Sky Nursery, Shoreline, WA

Maybe you’d rather give an outdoor container than something for the home? I saw these lovely designs at Sky Nursery recently and I was tempted to buy one for myself! They are the perfect size to give as a gift and would look so pretty on a covered porch to greet visitors. They would also be quick and easy to plant up yourself.

Notice that those cyclamen that we used in the indoor combinations will also do just well on a covered porch when the temperatures remain above freezing. (The silver licorice plant also needs to be kept above freezing). Here are the basic ingredients used;

Oval metal container


Qt. Dwarf, dark green conifer

4″ evergreen winter hardy fern

4″ green and white variegated evergreen grass (Carex sp.)

4″ silver Dusty Miller (Senecio cineraria)

4″‘ wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) which has the red berries

4″red cyclamen to repeat the color of the berries’

2 x 4″  white pansies

Qt White Jacob hellebore

Accents;  silver stems  add sparkle and highlight the white flowers while a soft gold bow  subtly repeats the yellow eye of the pansies

Birch and grapevine container


Qt. Dwarf conifer

4″ silver icicles licorice plant (Helichrysum)

4″ green and white Emerald Gaiety wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunii ‘Emerald Gaiety’)

white cyclamen

white pansy

Accents;  a few flocked twigs and a gauzy burgundy bow – festive yet it doesn’t scream Christmas!

So what are you waiting for? A quick trip to the nursery and a fun hour planting in the warmth of the kitchen and  you’ll have a beautiful gift for yourself or a friend.

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Fall Containers Boot Camp

IMG_7558 Are you ready to refresh your containers for fall? When your coleus turns to mush you know it’s time!

Yet many of us have a complete brain freeze at the start of a new season and can’t remember what fun things we have used in the past to create the ‘wow’ factor. I call it seasonal denial – we are still in a geranium mentality. So consider this your Fall Container Boot Camp.  Enjoy these three colorful designs to remind you just how exciting cool season pots can be.

1. Swiss Family Chard (see photo above)

A fun medley focused around the edible Bright Lights Swiss chard. Yes you can use edibles in your ornamental containers! The chard keeps company with two conifers (Blue Star juniper at the front and the mounding Rheingold arborvitae on the right). A dwarf New Zealand flax (Tom Thumb) adds a strappy texture in the middle and the gorgeous big rosy leaves are from Fire Alarm Heuchera. The bright pink berries are Olivia St. John’s wort (Hypericum sp.) and add the finishing touch.


All day sun or half day sun. (There isn’t much difference in Seattle between sun and shade during fall and winter! As long as the container isn’t in a lot of shade it will be fine).

How long will it last?

The chard will get eaten and St. John’s wort will lose its leaves. No problem! Take them both out and add curly willow twigs for height and tuck dwarf spring bulbs where the berries were e.g.  Tete a Tete daffodils or purple crocus. The bare soil could be disguised with some pine cones, beach glass or holiday accents.

2. Fall Fiesta


Celebrate fall with this colorful combo featuring evergreens, perennials and annuals. This was designed for a fall party so I was less concerned about individual plants going through winter.

Height was provided by the tall purple millet (an annual) – don’t you just love those fuzzy heads?! The variegated spurge, Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ set the color palette of lemon, lime and rosy-orange. This is an evergreen perennial so can be left in the container. The vibrant orange Sombrero coneflowers have great party attitude and although these will die down in winter they can be used in the garden next year. A rust colored chrysanthemum and two Limelight licorice plants (annuals) round out the scheme.

Incidentally this design is featured on the cover of the current issue of Gardens West magazine, Prairie Edition!


Full sun

How long will it last?

Just until a hard freeze so enjoy the fiesta while you can.

3. Four Seasons Concerto

IMG_0541 Who doesn’t love Japanese maples? Did you know that there are many which are suitable for containers? This beauty is Acer palmatum Beni-ubi-gohon, which means ‘five long red fingers’. Summer color is a rich wine red, fading to bronze and then lighting up the garden with shades of crimson in fall. It tolerates sun well (this location is tricky because the front of the container gets sun while the back is shaded) and grows to 4-6′ tall and 3-4′ wide. In fact I would love two more for other clients!

Such delicate foliage needs to be kept free from competition so the other plants are lower; evergreen Japanese sweet flag (grass), Blackcurrant Heuchera and a dwarf spurge called Tiny Tim circle the trunk while the woody, evergreen groundcover bearberry cotoneaster trails to the ground. Its winter berries work nicely with the scheme.


This pot gets full sun at the front and shade at the back so plants have to be adaptable!

How long will it last?

Year round! Everything here can stay. However the homeowner and I both love to switch a few things out for a splash of summer color but that is just our preference.

Fall Round Up

So what have we included in just these three designs? Conifers, deciduous trees, shrubs, groundcovers, vegetables, evergreen perennials, herbaceous perennials, grasses and annuals! So what exactly are you doing dithering between an orange pansy and a pink one? There’s a whole WORLD of plants out there to explore. Go and celebrate fall!

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