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Idle gardeners can learn a lot

Garden Muse
by: , Debra Lee Baldwin, author of a book on succulents, shares her insights in an upcoming symposium.

For the new year, it's always fun to sign up for a class or two. One great way to dive into a full day of horticultural immersion is to register for Down to Earth Gardening, a symposium presented by Horticulture magazine and the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon on Sunday, Jan. 27 (www.HardyPlantSociety.org).

Several colorful personalities will launch the garden season. Helen Dillon, whose Dublin garden has been a mecca for gardeners for 20 years, will speak about rethinking and redesigning smaller spaces. She's as entertaining as she is knowledgeable.

David Howard, head gardener to the Prince of Wales, will focus on organic gardening. Award-winning writer and photographer Debra Lee Baldwin will speak on designing with succulents, and horticulturist Richie Steffan will talk about growing plants with personality.

Any excuse for me to talk with Steffan is welcome - he's a kindred plant nerd, with irresistible enthusiasm and an insider's knowledge of cutting-edge plants.

When I get off the phone with him, my heart is beating faster and I have a new plant on my wish list. Without even seeing the felt fern (Pyrrosia) that he raves about, I want one right away.

'They're unusual,' he says. 'You would never even guess they're ferns. They're striking foliage plants. For a long time you had to know someone who had them, but now you can buy them by mail order.'

The felt fern craze originated in Japan, and the plants are just starting to trickle into the U.S. You can find them at Asiatica Nursery (www.asiaticanursery.com) and Plant Delights Nursery (www.plantdelights.com).

I first met Steffan a few years ago when he guided me through the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle (www.millergarden.org). On that visit I fell in love with 'Summer Chocolate' silk tree.

Now Steffan is the garden's coordinator of horticulture as well as president of the Hardy Fern Foundation. The garden introduced the Great Plant Picks program (www.greatplantpicks.org), helping gardeners select the finest plants.

What makes some plants better than others? Steffan follows Elisabeth Miller's original philosophy - observe the site's native habitat and grow plants that are compatible.

'One-half to two-thirds of the Miller garden is woodland, and we grow lots of Epimedium, rhododendron and hellebore,' Steffan says, naming three groups of excellent shade lovers.

There's a large concentration of native plants there, yet there's also room for exotics that adapt to the Northwest climate. To encourage unusual plants to thrive, it helps to create microclimates.

For example, Steffan is revitalizing the alpine beds to mimic their native habitats high in the mountains. He's improved the drainage by using a soil mixture of sand and gravel.

He also has worked rocks and old logs into the soil. Rocks cool the areas around the plants' roots. Occasionally stones are placed close together so that cracks between them become planting pockets for crevice-loving plants.

The logs not only cool the root zones, but the rotting wood holds water into the summer months. Smaller-species rhododendron and Gaultheria grow very well in this moisture-retentive, yet airy, rotten wood.

This same special microclimate is friendly to mountain heather (Cassiope), cyclamen, silver-leaf saxifrage, gentian, dwarf alpine fern and alpine hebe.

Debra Lee Baldwin, who will speak about savvy succulents, also emphasizes microclimates.

In the midst of the soggy winter, it's hard to remember that next summer and fall the soil will be dry as a desert and drought-tolerant plants like succulents will be our best friends. To grow them well, give them what they need.

'It's not so much hardiness but drainage that's important,' Baldwin says. 'Succulents store water and don't like too much.'

For some of the more tender ones, growing them in a sheltered microclimate in a gravel scree helps. A slope also is a good place, since water will run off quickly.

Baldwin recommends watching the weather forecast. Even though she gardens in San Diego County, she still checks for predictions of frost and covers vulnerable areas with bedsheets.

Quite a few showy agaves, popular architectural plants, can be grown in colder climates if the drainage is good.

'Agaves add contrast - the 'pow' of a fountain-shaped plant with broad, pointed leaves,' she says.

One of her favorites is Agave victoria reginae, named for Queen Victoria, with dark green artichoke-type leaves, edged in white and tipped in black, shiny spines. It's hardy to 10 degrees.

Photographs of dramatic agaves in Baldwin's beautiful book, 'Designing With Succulents,' are sure to lengthen your wish list.

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