Seattle is in many ways a gardener’s paradise. Alaskans and Mainers might envy us our consistently mild conditions. Chicagoans’ minds might be blown to see a palm tree in a Seattle front yard — where does that palm think it is? Maui? But there are pitfalls and terrors awaiting the unprepared, so here is my take on a Seattle gardener’s survival guide.
To be clear, when I say “survive,” I’m talking about keeping the gardener pretty sane and most plants alive and thriving. Some plants will perish in any gardening venture: It’s an unfortunate fact that gardeners kill plants. Let’s try to do less of that.
So, if you’re in a hurry, the short answer of how to survive gardening anywhere is match your plants to your site and your lifestyle. The Seattle gardening landscape, however, has some unique wrinkles to it that can trip you if you’re not looking. Here are a few things to know.
In my yard, my east-facing fence border is dappled shade, with high trees overhead and with loamy cake-like soil that retains water over the winter. The plants there are the ones you think of as central casting Pacific Northwest shade lovers — Japanese maple, rhododendron, hosta, hydrangea and ferns. Creeping jenny (lysimachia nummularia ‘aurea’ ) and perennial geraniums weave a weed-suppressing, moisture-retaining carpet. My autumn ferns are almost 4 feet tall, and the hosta leaves are a foot and a half wide, but I can’t take credit for this. Other than some slug bait for the hosta, or watering to establish a new plant, I barely touch that bed. Having everything they need, the plants take care of themselves. That’s the magic of the saying “Right plant, right place.” That’s the dream.
But gardeners often have another dream — the seductive hubris of growing outside the lines. It’s so tempting to be in such a warm, California-adjacent hardiness zone — plants from New Zealand and South Africa can thrive here! You say, “why can’t I have that cool red-leafed banana?” (Because, that’s why. You can try a green one.) Or you say, “Hey, there’s an open spot! I bet you’ll find a way to grow there!” and plant it with one eye closed.
Like an animal rescuer feeding an orphaned bird with an eyedropper, as a gardener, you are promising to supply the plant’s unique soil, nutrients, temperatures and water needs.
If you adopt a plant that isn’t cold hardy in your USDA zone, it’s called “zone denial.” The novelty is thrilling, but it comes with work and risk. When you pick a place that doesn’t give the plant what it needs, it’s called murder. I have the deaths of so many dahlias on my hands, I’m surprised I can sleep at all.
Dahlias dislike cold and melt with too much moisture. I’m too lazy to dig my dahlia tubers after the fall frost to store in the garage, so I eventually learned the only place I can grow dahlias year-round is in my south-facing sandy front yard, which gets impeccable drainage.
Seattle is often called a “Mediterranean” climate, which is sometimes true in summer — but the rest of the year it’s more like England — and many plants besides dahlias resent it.
You find this out quickly (read: more melted plants) siting Mediterranean plants like rosemary and lavender, high-prairie plants like echinacea (coneflower) and anything tagged “drought-tolerant” in clay soil or shade.
The No. 1 differentiator to know about Seattle is our rainfall is concentrated from November through March. Summer is as dry as dust.
The second differentiator is our generally climatic blandness, sparing us ice storms and sweltering humid summers alike. Summer is a little too bland and brief for heat misers like roses, who are prone to black spot in cool springs, and sun-hungry edibles like peppers, eggplant and tomatoes.
It’s great, however, for growing multiple crops of lettuce and peas. It means heuchera (coralbells), can be year-round evergreen accents for us. It’s also why die-hards can play with zone denial, with help from gear like mulch, frost fabric, mini greenhouses and, of course, good luck in the frost roulette.
Frost roulette is betting that this won’t be the year your daphne or rosemary or abutilon vanishes due to weather — usually when atypically warm weather is bookended by cold, leaving vulnerable new growth exposed to frost.
A few tips learned the hard way:
Marginally hardy plants and plants that like good drainage need help getting through the winter monsoons. Since Seattle is zone 8a, plants hardy to zones 7-9 should be in well-drained soil, or a pot under an eave protected from winter rain. Mulching with pebbles may help deflect rain too.
For the first two years, new plants will need supplemental water throughout the summer — or any time it’s dry (spritzes don’t count). This could be daily in pots, hot locations or for thirsty plants like hydrangeas.
Spring and fall are the easiest times to establish most new plants because some rain is guaranteed — but spring is best for drought-lovers like echinacea, butterfly weed and succulents — planted in fall they may dissolve in the rains before they have a chance to put out roots.
Indoor and out, matching the plants to your lifestyle is equally important. After all, no garden is truly maintenance free, and if the gardener drops her end, all bets are off. Even in my shade bed, I battle encroaching creeping buttercup (Trollius species) each spring.
Like exercise, the best kind of garden is the one you’ll enjoy (maintaining). If you travel regularly, get xeric (drought-tolerant) plants and/or an irrigation system. Hate the lawn mower? Swap the lawn for paved areas or groundcovers. Like your weekends? Walk away from the wisteria, who’ll need hard pruning three times a year.
So to strike the balance where both you and your plants are happy, and none of you are working too hard, find plants that match your spot and your life.