It’s that time of year again: Temperatures rise and fall through a string of fickle forecasts – balmy one minute, frigid the next; plans for long-awaited barbecues begrudgingly morph back into fireside chats; tulips and daffodils trumpet up through rain-soaked fields, lifting cupped faces for a kiss of sun, only to taste the slap of wind-driven hail as weather patterns collide on a tumultuous course toward change. But just when it seems that winter’s chill will surely win, stormy skies part briefly, making way for sun-streaked paths of afternoon blue – and deep in the heart of every coastal gardener, there is absolutely no more room for doubt: With all its usual drama, spring has finally arrived.
“It’s always that first sunny day that falls on a weekend that really gets everybody fired up,” says Deborah Fry, part-time clerk and full-time “happy gardener” at Dennis’ 7 Dees Landscaping and Garden Center in Seaside. “The rains just slightly lift,” she adds with an understanding smile, “and people can’t wait to get their hands dirty.” But negotiating the seasonal switch can be a little tricky in our neck of the woods; the ground warms just enough to coax up fresh stalks of sweetened green, and the pots and plots that have wintered over in our imaginations,now start itching for that same fruition. But the experienced hand knows: No matter how anxious we may be, it’s still a touch too early to be letting loose with those begonias.
Fortunately for us, a handful of notable, independent nurseries dot our coastline like so many native rhododendrons, and they’re staffed with welcoming, knowledgeable experts who stand at the ready under hand-painted signs and charming rustic greenhouses, waiting to guide us safely down the path that wends from intense potential all the way to bountiful blooms and a happy harvest.
May is really the month for planting out those favorite tender annuals and fresh new spots of color but, as Teresa Millner, co-owner of the family-run Planter Box in Long Beach, Wash. points out, there’s plenty to do in the garden right now. “While we wait on the weather, now’s the time to aerate the soil and freshen things up with plenty of compost and amendments. The entire coast runs acidic, so I really can’t stress the importance of adding enough lime. If you’re in doubt, a soil test is a great idea.” She also advises that it’s not too early to plant “plenty of heather” to feed our all-important pollinators, and adds that it’s wise to formulate a plan now to keep them in the garden all summer long, where fruits, vegetables and flowers will all benefit from their hard work. “Bees love blue, so lithodora, forget-me-nots, lobelia, ceanothus, borage and comfrey are all good choices.”
If you’re short on space, or simply not quite up to the plow, container gardening is the perfect solution, and at the aptly named Basket Case Greenhouse (Long Beach, Wash.) there’s enough “stuffing” for every bushel on the beach. With 12 years in the business, owners Fred and Nancy Aust are now famous for their hanging baskets, which flow with enough cascading flowers and variegated foliage to see you through all the months of summer and well into fall. This year, Nancy, who tends and trains “the babies” and new arrivals in their working greenhouses while Fred “plays up front with the people,” recommends Gulliver Blue Sensation bacopa, a profuse trailer, with copious gobs of showy periwinkle flowers and the newest Lemon Slice calibrachoa, a cheerful, pinwheel blossom of yellow and white, which doesn’t require dead-heading and “won’t wilt badly with the rain.” Sally Lobdell, local resident and container-garden enthusiast extraordinaire, says, “I buy all my plants here. Fred and Nancy are such wonderful people with great advice, and they always have that special something that I can’t find anywhere else.” Not surprisingly, for the proprietors of independent nurseries along our coast, such “special somethings” seem to be the order of the day.
Now entering the second season in their relocated storefront and garden grounds in Gearhart, itsy-bitsy Back Alley Gardens (in partnership with the Natural Nook flower shop) is the perfect example of how really good things come in surprisingly small packages. Though by far the most petite nursery of the bunch, don’t be misled: Premier local landscaper and co-owner Pam Fleming (with the help of Prissy “the propagator” Martin) really knows how to fill out a space – and not with just your average azaleas. Under her experienced care, rhododendrons show off furry butterscotch under-leaves, and ornamental Kent Beauty oregano, with its decorative crimson pods, spends time with Jerusalem sage and meadow rue. “We love to search out those hard-to-find favorites, and we carry things you can’t find everywhere,” she says wholeheartedly. “If it’s something that excites us, or that we know will do well in this region, we’re thrilled to bring it in, and we’ll drive the extra distance to pick up unique things from small growers.” Lucky for us, that’s just the sort of thing we’ve come to expect.
So whether you’re in search of a little inspiration, looking to plant-out an orchard, or just needing to deliver that colorful touch of curb appeal, this season, beat the grand rush of May and treat yourself now to a pleasant stroll through any one (better yet, all) of these local gems. The tempestuous start of spring might still be underway, but step inside a local nursery, and the whole world seems brimming with flora from top to bottom. More importantly, you’re sure to find them beautifully stocked with all the local knowledge, free advice, superb service and personal touches so consistently delivered by the friendly men and women who are the horticultural experts that keep them thriving – the truest perennials of every coastal garden.