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Sunday, October 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Garden Designer / Phil Wood

"Survival Guide" offers timely tips

In the Northwest, we are gardening in a unique climate. Everybody knows Seattle is rainy, so newcomers are astonished by our dry summers. A new local book, "The Pacific Northwest Gardener's Survival Guide" by Debra Prinzing (Fulcrum Publishing, $12.95), addresses our weather, soil and pest issues, giving newcomers and seasoned gardeners insight into the conditions we face.

Prinzing is a longtime gardener and garden writer whose freelance pieces on home design have appeared in The Seattle Times. She says, "The 'Garden Survival Guide' gives Northwest gardeners a reality check. We're coping with tandem challenges — too much water in the winter months and too little water in the summer months. Choosing the right plants that can endure wet winters and dry summers is a major secret to successful gardening in the Northwest. If we tend to our own little patch of earth, taking note of the wind, soil, water and drainage, then we can have the garden experience we want — without abusing the environment."

Prinzing breaks her book into three sections: geography; wild weather and changing climates; and invaders, including weeds and pests. In each of these, she gives tips to gardeners on how to work with what we have. It is a little like having a gardening fairy godmother who whispers in your ear, a godmother who has dirt under her fingernails and is wearing garden clogs instead of satin slippers.

Local experts' advice adds to the book. I particularly like the information gleaned from a visit to Joy Creek Nursery in Scappoose, Ore. Maurice Horn, co-owner, says, "Gravel has become my mantra." He suggests using it as a mulch and soil additive to increase drainage in heavy soils. Plants that don't like wet feet, such as lavender and penstemon, will thrive in these conditions.

Mary Robson, who writes The Seattle Times' Practical Gardener column, is interviewed here, too, and offers some practical wisdom. She makes a good point when she says, "We need to reprioritize our list of favorite plants, choosing those that will adapt to changing conditions throughout the year." I hear again and again from people who want a low-maintenance garden. That means choosing plants that are trouble-free and adaptable.

I like plant lists, and this book has plenty of them, including one for trouble-free plants. The rhododendrons listed — 'Cilpinense', with apple-blossom pink flowers fading to white; 'Dora Amateus' with white flowers; 'PJM' with lavender blooms; 'Rose Elf' with violet-pink flowers; and 'Sapphire' and 'Ocean Lake,' both with blue flowers — are not prone to powdery mildew and are resistant to root weevils, which notch the leaf margins.

Another interesting list comes form Tory Galloway, owner of Piriformis Nursery in Seattle. Many readers have asked what to plant over septic drain fields. At her summer garden in Indianola, Galloway has planted low-growing plants over hers. Among these are Campanula lactiflora 'Pritchards Variety,' Geranium pratense 'Victor Reiter' and one of my favorites, Rosa 'Mutabilis/Tipo Ideale,' with light yellow flowers fading to coppery pink and in bloom all summer.

This book has timely advice about getting the garden ready for the winter. Prinzing suggests, "Once perennials have died back, usually after Nov. 1, cut back spent blooms and all the raggedy foliage. You don't need to do a radical pruning job, that's better done in early spring.

"Weed the beds (yes, weeds can germinate during a warm spell in the autumn). Then apply mulch, which will feed the soil, provide a protective layer against winter's cold and help prevent weed growth. Mulch will also serve on hot summer days to keep moisture in the soil from evaporating into the air and also slows irrigation-water runoff."

Prinzing firmly believes that, "When gardeners accept the region's prevailing climate trends and geographic realities, they are already halfway toward being successful gardeners. They can get the look they want without disrupting drainage, cutting down trees or using excess water or toxic pesticides or herbicides. We need to work with our backyard conditions and adapt to them, rather than trying to force our gardens to do the impossible."

This is not a coffee-table book. No pictures, just words of carefully gathered advice that lays out the basics of working with our wonderful and challenging gardening climate.

Phil Wood has a degree in landscape architecture and designs and builds gardens. Call 206-464-8533 or e-mail thegardendesigner@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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