For those who haven’t heard of him, Ciscoe Morris is a Seattle-based gardening expert and celebrated media personality. In addition to sharing his botanical knowledge on radio shows and podcasts, he also regularly appears on KING 5 news. He’s written gardening articles for the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, the Seattle Times, and a few years ago appeared in a segment on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” With spring at our doorstep, I asked him a few questions about gardening, life, and his new book, “Oh, La La! Homegrown Stories, Helpful Tips, and Garden Wisdom.” —Becky Mandelbaum
What vegetables should people plant in March?
March is the time to plant vegetables that thrive in cooler temperatures. Salad greens such as cilantro, chervil, Chinese cabbage, spinach, Swiss chard, chicory, endive, escarole, Asian mustards, and lettuce can be sown directly into the garden in March and April as long as soil temperatures are above 45 degrees.
If you don’t have a vegetable plot, grow your salad greens in a large planting container. These leafy greens prefer a sunny location in well-drained soil. They grow and taste best when air temperatures remain under 75 degrees. Before sowing, work in one cup of an organic fertilizer (equal parts nitrogen, potassium, and phosphate) for every 10-foot row, or into a whiskey-barrel-sized container. Keep the soil moderately moist at all times. Hand-pick individual leaves as needed on a daily basis and you’ll be enjoying delicious salads right out of the garden from spring to mid-summer.
March is also the ideal time to sow peas directly into your garden. Plant the seeds an inch deep and one inch apart in a sunny location. Thinning is not necessary. Before you plant, work in a cup of organic vegetable food per every five-foot row. Climbing varieties must be trellised, but bush peas require only a few two-foot stakes here and there to provide a little extra support. Keep the soil evenly moist but avoid wetting the foliage. Harvest while the peas are young and tender, and harvest often. Try to resist gobbling them all up before the rest of the family gets to enjoy a few with dinner.
What else should be direct seeded rather than started in a pot?
All of the early season salad greens and peas mentioned above do best sowed directly in the garden, as do beets and carrots. Pumpkin, squash, and cucumber can be tricky to transplant and generally thrive when direct-sown after all danger of frost is past and soil temperatures are in the 60s. Vegetables in the cabbage family such as broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and kale can be directly sowed in April, but you’re better off getting a head start by sowing the seed indoors in early March in order to transplant sizable starts into the garden in early-to-mid April. They are also readily available as starts in your local nursery.
Heat-loving vegetables such as tomato, pepper, or eggplant are best sown indoors in early March for transplanting into the garden in early-to-mid-May. The key to success is bottom heat, bright light, and cool air temperatures, (55 to 60 degrees). You can also buy starts in mid-May at your local nursery. Whether you grow the seed or buy the plant from the nursery, harden the plants by leaving them out for increasing periods of time every night for a week before transplanting into the garden. Growing the big tomato varieties in the Pacific Northwest can be a bit of a challenge. Stick to the smaller cherry tomatoes and find a hot, sunny location. That way you won’t find yourself searching for fried green tomato recipes at the end of the season. Tip: ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes win every blind taste test I enter.
What do you recommend for attracting pollinators?
In these days of declining bee populations, it’s important to plant flowers brimming with pollen to provide much needed nutrition for pollinating insects. At the same time, planting perennials and annuals that produce pollen-laden flowers in and around your vegetable garden will attract the bees needed for pollination. If the fruit on your squash rots when small, it’s a sure sign they aren’t getting pollinated. Squash, pumpkins, and cucumbers have male and female flowers, and if there aren’t enough bees to transfer the pollen from the male to the females, they won’t produce.
Flower colors that particularly attract bees (in order of preference) are blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow. Single flowers typically produce the most pollen and are therefore preferred by bees. Plant some Gaillardia, lavender, Echinacea, Cosmos, and Eryngium in your vegetable garden to bring in tons of pollinating insects.
Many people adopted dogs during the pandemic. What do you suggest for dog-proofing your garden?
Before you bring a puppy home, determine where little Fido will be allowed to romp and play, and which areas are off limits. Then construct an attractive fence to keep the pooch out of the vegetable patch and other gardens with delicate or special plants. The fence in my garden is constructed of generously spaced horizontal rails. It allows for an unimpeded view of the plants, while adding an elegant touch to the garden. Although the fence is just over two feet tall, it was easy to train my pups not to jump it.
Don’t fence your dogs out of every garden area. Instead give them a few planted areas where they can play hide and seek. Plants such as Caryopteris, lavender, Cistus, Rudbeckia, Nepeta, and ornamental grasses are ideal for pet-friendly plantings because they are flexible yet strong enough to bounce back after being trampled. Do, however, attain a list of plants known to be poisonous to pets from your vet and remove any from areas the pups are allowed to play. At the same time, remove plants with thorns.
Lastly, if Fido gets into a bit of mischief, just look into those loving brown eyes and you’ll forgive him for ripping out the super rare, irreplaceable Sinopanax formosanus you just spent $100 on. Hey, it’s only a plant.
What do you suggest for staying on top of weeds?
It’s a bit of work, but applying a layer of organic mulch on the soil surface in fall can do a great job suppressing weed growth. Applying mulch also helps reduce compaction and nutrient leaching caused by winter rain pounding bare earth. If you’re mulching around woody trees, shrubs, and perennials, the best choice is to use arborist’s wood chips. Woodchip mulch has been found to greatly increase the beneficial fungi that make soil nutrients more available to a wide variety of plants. As long as it isn’t dug in or mixed into the soil, woodchips do not cause nutrient deficiency; nor do they change soil ph. A layer of woodchips two to four inches thick gives very effective weed control, and when applied on a yearly basis, the mix of wood and leaves breaks down to form rich topsoil. Best of all, the chips are available free from tree service companies.
When it comes to mulching the vegetable garden, compost is a better choice. Compost used as mulch is loaded with micro-organisms and minerals that perennials and vegetables need for healthy growth. Compost doesn’t control weeds as effectively, but the weeds that grow in it are easy to pull. When compost gets mixed in with the existing soil, it adds nutrition while improving soil structure and drainage at the same time.
The bad news, though, is that you need to weed the garden before you apply either mulch. If all of the mulching and weeding sounds like too much work, keep in mind that the average person burns 576 calories per hour while weeding and mulching their garden. Think of the extra portion of Brussels sprouts casserole you’ll be able to eat guilt-free!
For those hoping to plant an ornamental garden that blooms all year long (and attracts hummingbirds), what should they plant and when?
For a colorful ornamental garden, a mixed border is the way to go. Start with a framework of trees and shrubs and fill in with a variety of herbaceous perennials, annuals, and spring blooming bulbs. As an added bonus, the wide variety of plants will attract birds and beneficial insects.
If you want to attract hummingbirds to your garden, there are many shrubs and perennials with colorful flowers to choose from. When it comes to a prolific bloomer that drives hummingbirds wild with desire, nothing surpasses Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’. Those little avian acrobats are so crazy about the red and white bicolor blossoms, they actually attack me when I try to cut off even a few of the gazillions of flowers to show at my garden talks. Another hummingbird favorite is hardy Fuchsia. Unlike the tender shade-loving Fuchsias that come in hanging baskets, hardy Fuchsias thrive outdoors year-round in a sunny location. Although slow to bloom, once they start, hardy fuchsias will be in flower through the summer into November. Other showy hummingbird favorites include Monarda (bee balm), Crocosmia, and Lobelia tupa, a perennial from Chile producing vigorous clumps of gray-green foliage topped by spires clustered with bright red, tubular blossoms that can tower to over eight feet tall. You’ll not only have the showiest garden in the neighborhood, there will also be so many hummingbirds zooming around, you’ll have to wear a hard hat to enter the garden.
There are many plants that bloom attractively during the cold season; plus keep the hummingbirds hanging around during the winter. Among the showiest are the winter blooming Camellia sasanquas featuring pink, white, or red, often fragrant flowers in early winter. Another favorite of mine is witch hazel (Hamamelis). In mid-winter, the bare branches are covered with exotic spidery flowers that can be as fragrant as they are beautiful. Mahonia media is another shrub with showy flowers. Depending on the variety, these statuesque Asian relatives of our Oregon grape can reach anywhere from 4 to 12 feet tall. Each upright branch is crowned by a candelabra of cheery yellow, long-lasting flowers. If you find yourself intoxicated by a lovely smelling shrub in February, I suspect it is Daphne odora. These attractive evergreen plants feature variegated foliage and deep pink flowers. Finally, the most exotic yet easy-to-grow flowering shrub in the winter garden has to be Grevillea victoriae. Covered in elegant grayish-green leaves and tons of brilliant orange-red flowers, the hummingbirds go gaga for this plant.
The last year has been stressful, to say the least. What role has gardening played in your life during the pandemic?
Gardening has always been therapeutic for me, and it’s especially so in the pandemic when it’s been hard to hang out with friends. Working with plants and being outdoors with the birds and the bees takes your troubles away. It’s just too darn much fun harvesting home-grown vegetables, redesigning sections of the mixed border, or figuring out where in the world to put that incredibly cool rare plant you bought on a whim at your local nursery, to worry about anything. The Ciscoe rule, by the way, is to always succumb to any really cool plant when you find it. You’ll end up moving 30 plants to fit it in, but it will look great once you find the perfect spot.
Finally, gardening is a great way to increase your social contacts. Every neighbor who walks by will stop to see what you’re up to, and before you know it, you’ll end up spending more time talking (from a safe distance) than tending to your garden.
You had a book come out in 2020: “Oh, La La! Homegrown Stories, Helpful Tips, and Garden Wisdom.” Can you tell us what’s inside and what it was like to write it?
I’ve always been a storyteller, so maybe that’s why this book was so fun to write. “Oh, La La” is a collection of short (hopefully funny) and informative stories about experiences I’ve had throughout my gardening career. The stories are about everything gardening and then some. It includes encounters I’ve had with wildlife and insects, challenges in gardening with dogs (and spouses), adventures while leading garden tours all over the world, and my sometimes successful, and sometimes not so successful, experiments during my 24 years as head gardener at Seattle University. I’m hoping the stories will entertain you and, at the same time, provide practical, helpful tips that you’ll be able to put to good use in your own garden. You’ll even learn why I say ‘Oh la la!’
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