Gardening in the Pacific Northwest


GardeningpacnwThe must-have book for west coast gardeners has always been the Sunset Western Garden Book, also known as the "green book" in these parts, but it’s got some competition now.  If I knew someone who was moving to Portland or Seattle or even Eureka, this is the book I’d buy for them. 

Because gardening out here really is different.  The fog, the chilly Pacific Ocean, and even the aesthetic approach demand something more than Sunset’s cheerful, sunny, California vibe. 

First, a word about aesthetics.  Some of you are probably going to the Garden Writers Association conference in Portland later this month; when you get there, you’ll see what I mean. If you head to Seattle, you’ll see even more of it. They’re really into Asian plants up there, and foliage is very, very important. You’ll see lots of crazy red plants, and lots of crazy gold plants. It’s a very Arts and Crafts look–natural, but stylized. Asian and a little Mediterranean, but native. This is Dan Hinkley country, remember.

And this book really lays it all out.  It’s organized by type of plant–a chapter on shrubs, another on bulbs, another on ornamental grasses–and in this age of "outdoor living spaces" and "exterior decorating," this is a welcome and sensible approach.  You’ll find all the basics about weeds and pests specific to this region, and some good philosophical information.  A chapter called "What’s Different About Gardening Here" really tells it like it is:  yes, your hollyhocks are going to get rust.  Yes, you’ll get mushrooms and moss in your lawn.  And yes, we garden all year long out here, so be ready to step up.

My only complaint–and this is a small one–lies with the book’s gardening calendar.  It’s full of great lists for new gardeners and transplants who might have no idea what to plant when, but the narrative for each month reads like a kind of gardening boot camp, filled with admonishments for all the work yet to be done.  In May, the "pressing task" is to get flower beds, containers, hanging baskets, and vegetable beds filled with plants.  In June, there are "plenty of other garden tasks" to get done, but we are reassured that they are not "overly demanding, strenuous, or disagreeable" compared to all that hectic pruning and digging we just polished off in the spring. And in September, we are to be grateful that the weather is so good, because the gardening tasks "are tripled in addressing past, present, and future."  Gardeners should not pause for too long to enjoy the garden’s beauty, the authors warn, because "this is September, and there’s not a moment to be wasted."

While these narratives make gardening sound like a series of demanding tasks, the rest of the book is inspiring, personable, and entirely useful. I particularly love the first-person accounts of how plants do in the authors’ garden, which give you the sense that you’re getting sound advice from an experienced gardener next door. I also like the fact that they didn’t try to cover every plant a person might grow, no matter how crazy that person is.  These are "recommended plants"–the mainstays of Pacific Northwest gardens. Stick with these, the authors suggest, and you’ll live happily ever after.

Oh, and the photos are wonderful.  Crisp, well-composed, large enough to be useful, and they show multiple perspectives of most plants, so you get more than just close-ups of the flower–you get a sense of how the whole shrub will look when it’s fully grown.

If I had read this book when I first moved to Eureka, it would have saved me a lot of heartache.  And if I ever found myself transplanted to Oregon or Washington or Vancouver, trying desperately to figure out how to garden like the cool kids, this is the first book I’d pick up. 

Does anybody need a copy?  Post your very best story about why you, or someone you know, desperately needs help gardening in the Pacific Northwest, and we’ll send you one.  Winner announced on Monday.


  1. While I can’t be called a transplant (I’ve lived in Seattle for 30 years) my husband and I have recently built a house on 5 acres near Granite Falls. We are committed to keeping as much of the natural vegetation as possible, but we have found ourselves with about 1,000 sq feet that we want to landscape. Although I gardened with vegetables for most of my adult life, I have never worked much with ornamentals and with a completely blank slate I’m at a loss. This book sounds perfect for us. I’d love to have it.

  2. I love reading about gardening in the PNW, when I lived there I was so jealous of the gorgeous gardens and all the fantastic foliage plants (vine maple, I love you). But I try not to think about it now (we’ve got lawn removal to worry about here, this is the desert)! I can’t wait to buy this book as soon as I convince the mister we really do want to move to Portland!

  3. Thanks for the hot tip. Whether I win the book or not, I’ll have to check it out. As a garden coach in the greater Seattle area, I run into all sorts of challenges including a dizzying array of microclimates that can differ from one end of a city block to another. I’m always looking for great resources from which to learn. And, I’m particularly thrilled when I find a book that I feel is worthy of recommending to my clients, who range from novice to master gardener. Sounds like this will become a well-thumbed addition to my IPM resources, Dirr, and the many notebooks I’ve built over the years. Again, thanks for the tip!

  4. This sounds like a great book for someone like me. I’ve been in Seattle for a few years, but have never had more than houseplants and a balcony garden in my appartments. Now, my boyfriend have a house with a big yard up in Shoreline and I’m attempting to garden. So far it is looking rough, the morning glories rule and a few sunflowers are blooming now, my yard has such a long long way to go.

  5. I desperately need help gardening in the Pac NW for the following reasons:
    1) I am 2 years new to gardening and need to feed this new obsession, this new love, this new creative outlet;
    2) I naively believe that my positive attitude and talking to my plants will help them survive our special climate;
    3) I am gradually eliminating our front lawn(first to go was the dreaded parking strip) and being so highly visible I would like to succeed from the get go;
    4) I have a hunger for knowledge and our library doesn’t carry this book(and I don’t have the $$$ because I spent it on 4 more clematis’ this week);
    5) I’m a sucker for good quality free stuff, ’nuff said.

  6. Thanks for the tip on the book. I recommended it to my library as i think they missed it, though it doesn’t look like it’s quite out yet according to Amazon.
    I’d love a copy to help me, a New England transplant, out with gardening my rather barren back & side yards into proper garden rooms with some borders for privacy, and some decent gardening in front of the old rail-less wide front porch. I’ve tried some shrub roses and lavender and catmint and I don’t think it’s quite cutting it for privacy. Somehow I thought they’d grow taller. Maybe the soil needs to be amended more?

    My old & previously neglected bungalow off in a little town in the country seems to provide excellent examples of what survives without care. And that would be 80-yr-old giant camellias (two), huge foundation lilacs (yay!), a somewhat younger holly (ugh), Himalayan blackberries (double ugh, they just keep sprouting!), a vast expanse of yucca-like plants, japanese knotweed (at least the bees adore that one), and gophers who provide an interesting mountainous texture to the expanse of brown grass & dirt in the back & side yards. Plus one crazy shrub rose that I am rooting on because it smells delicious. aack. I am daunted just thinking about what to try to plant as replacements and to create something attractive in the back yard.

  7. Whenever I chide my sister about the long season my sister, transplanted from the Northeast to the Willamette Valley, has, she reminds me that at least I don’t have to weed in February. Northwest gardening ain’t for sissies. (And my sister would love a copy of the book.)

  8. Oh my! Now that is a book I could use! I don’t know what it is, but it seems I fail miserably at my gardening. The tomatoes don’t ripen (I have gotten 7 grape tomatoes this year..out of 7 tomato plants) the cilantro dies or grows tall and spindly, my tarragon always looks like I never water it, every time I try to transplant something it dies…unless it’s a mint. Heck, this year even my mints are taunting me.

    Last year, NONE of my seeds would sprout. I’m NOT KIDDING. A horrid torrential rainstorm (in June I think it was) collapsed and ruined my greenhouse that I bought at Fred Meyers. Toast. Those plastic/vinyl greenhouses, yea…don’t buy those if you live in the Pacific Northwest, they won’t make it through a season.

    Most people can grow tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, carrots, zucchini, …uhm no, not I. Every year though…I try. 🙂

  9. Wow. I didn’t know such a book existed. I lived in Florida 3 years ago, hurricanes, hibiscus and all. Then I got married and moved to the Seattle area to be with my husband and I have been killing plants right and left trying to figure out what grows here ever since. I learned my gardening from people back in FL and have never really looked for books, but I still don’t know any gardening people here and this book sounds awesome.

  10. My fabulous sister needs this book. In Febuary she moved from California to Portland, Oregon. In June she got married. In October she gave birth to her first child and three days later, they moved into their first house! With four major life changes in less than a year, she has not yet had the time to find all the great PNW gardening books. Yet she is very excited to have her first house garden and every time her sweet baby decides to sleep she runs out to the yard to grab 20 minutes with the garden and herself. She would love this fabulous book.

  11. Well, is that why I hate it here in Perth, Western Australia so much? Because I miss some specific “PNW Garden Style”? It is an amusing idea and one I hadn’t thought much about. I was thinking it was just the water and the mountains I missed!!
    I cannot wait until next year when I am DRAGGING my Australian husband to Eugene where we plan to settle. He even fell in love with the Willamette Valley in his two visits and we would have moved long ago if we had been able.
    10 more months. I am already house hunting!!

  12. Nancy,

    Sorry to hear your greenhouse collapsed. I love mine and am pretty sure we have the same one. It did come with some serious deficiencies like the useless shelf clips; I used zip-ties instead an they worked great. Also, I secured the base by placing large cement blocks on the bottom poles. (Mine is ona cement patio, so the soil spike/ties wouldn’t work.) And, yes, after rains, I need to get the rain off the top, but one push, and its gone.

    The greenhouse was a miracle in this year’s example of the PacNW’s consistently inconsistent weather pattern. My basil never left the greenhouse, and I have loads and loads of it. It was perfect for starts, and I even have a dwarf pumpkin plugging away amid a few tomato plants and fall starts now.

    I hope you didn’t trash yours and give it another try. It isn’t perfect, but if you’re on a budget, it sure can help.

  13. I received a preview copy a week or so ago. I look forward to having a chance to sit down and read it. That won’t happen until after the Garden Writers Association conference next week. To any who are attending, I welcome you to Portland! We have great fun planned and we look forward to showing off our fabulous gardens and nurseries. And I can bet you’ve never experienced anything like Plant Nerd Night and the Chorus of the Goddess Flora, planned for Sunday night.

  14. I loved Becca’s and dirtchick’s comments.

    I don’t need this book because I garden in Maryland. My friend, Pam, though, gardens in Roseburg, OR. She is a newly-retired widow who just completed a master gardener program. She’s always been a gardener, but now she has the time. A small addition to her little house, which replaced much of her garden, has necessitated some heavy work, redesign and rethinking, all of which she’s trying to do herself. I’d love for her to win the book, but I think Becca and/or dirtchick might deserve it more. Good luck to whomever wins.

  15. I grew up in Texas. Fire ants, clay soil, sunburn, summer… gardening didn’t seem worth it. My mom tried, though, and I always thought she was crazy. Then I went to school in Iowa (where she grew up) and saw real soil and what a difference it made.

    I’ve spent the last year living in a 6th-floor apartment in Chicago. I missed the ground so much I begged a friend to let me come pull weeds just to be in the dirt again. Now I’ve moved to Seattle, and I inherited a small garden from the previous resident of this house. Problem is, I don’t know what to do with it! Right now I’m pulling out the grass and obvious weeds, but once it gets past that stage, I’m stuck. I’m really excited by all the potential the space has, but overwhelmed by my options. Having a book like this would help me make a reasonable plan instead of just throwing stuff in the ground randomly.

  16. I just moved back to the PNW this summer to a house with a great big lot, 9000 sf! I’m now in Tacoma after years up in Seattle and it’s a different garden climate down here. I’ve already built the veggie beds and hit the fall plant sales, but am having some angst about what trees to plant on the lot. I’m taking out all the front lawn and parking strip grass next weekend and would love to have some help with this new book!

  17. I am reading this in November, so I’m obviously not entering the contest. But I thought if any future readers were interested, I have a PNW (actually Coastal BC) garden that is a little unique. It is a floating garden, on huge cedar logs. I have four “raised beds” in which I grow kitchen vegetables. It has been great fun and a good way to augment our summer food supply. For interested readers you can come to my blog and click on “Gardening” in my topic list. There are lots of stories and pictures for you to see. — Margy

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