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The Tortoise Theory of Plants

Remember the old story of the Tortoise and the Hare? The Hare was fast and over-confident, but the humble tortoise just kept plodding along. We all know who won the race . . . .
Lately, I have developed the ‘Tortoise’ theory of landscape plants. This is an amendment to the ‘Sleep, Creep, Leap’ idea about perennials in general. It has struck me that there are a handful plants that initially grow so slowly as to try one’s patience. But in the end, these are the very plants that turn out to be the real stars, the most satisfying, the most magnificent.
Curleaf Mountain Mahogany is a great example of this. I planted this one as a tiny seedling about 12 or 13 years ago and then waited expectantly. For two, three or even four years it barely inched up. Then suddenly one year–without warning–it started to grow . . . and grow . . . and grow. Now I consider it to be the queen of the nursery garden, a real gem and a delight in every season.
The opposite story is the notorious Silver Maple. Fast growing, these were planted widely as nearly instant shade trees about 60 years ago. I just had the third of four Silver Maples at my house removed. (Expensive! It involved a crane.) They all were reaching the end of their lifespan and threatening to crush my house. The really bad story about these weedy trees is that they are now colonizing the banks of the Boise River, especially downstream from Boise, crowding out our native Cottonwoods.
I guess the best things in life are often worth waiting for.

I took this photo yesterday of Myrtle Spurge, aka Donkey Tail Spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites), spreading aggressively in the Boise Foothills. This attractive attractive pest was once considered a great choice for xeric landscaping, but its drought-tolerance and ease of propagation has allowed it to jump into the wild. A native of Eurasia, it can easily overwhelm native competitors and is now listed as a noxious weed in Colorado, Oregon and some Utah counties. It is probably too late to prevent it from taking over large areas of our Foothills, but we should still avoid it in our landscapes. Always wear gloves when yanking it out–the stems contain a nasty, milky sap.

One of the most delightful signs of spring is the emergence of Aase’s Onion in open, sandy areas of the Boise Front. These charming natives are known to occur only in 6 counties of S. Idaho. Named in honor of Hannah Aase (1883-1980), a former botany professor at WSU in Pullman, this ephemeral beauty is also called the South Idaho Onion.

Most of us just encounter onions in the kitchen or in our soup. But it’s exciting to know that there are nearly 20 different onion species that are native to Idaho, and many, many more that are found elsewhere in North America. Another reason to keep your eyes on the ground when hiking!

Here is a truly inspiring landscape created by customers Pascale and Matt at their home on the bench. They describe their soil as alkaline clay. They write: “We’ve found some plants do fine in the clay- lavender, artemisia, most ornamental grasses, ice plants, echinacea, Jupiter’s beard and catmint. For the more drainage-sensitive plants we had soil brought in and built small berms. We used a sandy loam mixed with lava fines. It was really tough to keep up with the watering the first summer until we got the drip irrigation installed, now it’s a pretty low-maintenance yard.”
Low maintenance and stunning!

I have always adored the flowering pears in the middle of Harrison Blvd. That is, until I started thinking of them as Alien Ornamentals and understood what that implies. These showy spring beauties are cultivars of the Asian Callery Pear and–as members of an introduced species–they do not offer food for native insects. You may think, “Great! No pest problems!” The catch is that native insects feed native birds, especially while they are raising chicks. So as far as wildlife is concerned, these pears are a beautiful desert.

Entomologist Doug Tallamy has compared insect productivity on a flowering alien Pear vs. a White Oak in his Pennsylvania home and found hundreds more caterpillars on the Oak than the Pear. Who needs caterpillars? Baby chickadees! The takeaway is that if we want to support native insects and birds, we need to plant natives. To read more, check out

April 17

A hike on Sunday revealed a glorious spring bloom in the Foothills. Arrowleaf Balsamroot, Lupines, Evening Primroses, pink and white Phlox, Death Camas, Biscuitroot, Bitterbrush in its full-bloom glory and more. Despite the sea of invasive grasses, these troopers bloom on gamely, giving hikers a real show. I have found it difficult, if not impossible, to grow many of these local natives in the garden. So, I appreciate them in the wild, where they are happy. I hope you can too!

With the unseasonably warm weather this November, the bees–honey bees, bumblebees and others are still foraging. The standout in my garden is Boltonia asteroides, or ‘False Aster’. With an amazing long-lasting and ultra-late bloom, this plant is just the best at providing late season food for our insect friends. On top of that it is a visual knock-out, livening up the garden just before true winter arrives.

Glorious May! There is so much plant excitement right now–among other things, it’s chokecherry bloom time. The Japanese are justly proud of their flowering cherries, but here in the western U.S., we have our chokecherries! If you hike in the foothills, you will recognize the dangling flower clusters easily. A dead giveaway for chokecherry i.d., they help you distinguish this plant from its very common cousin, bitter cherry.
Later on, when the fruits are in season, try one to discover exactly why they deserve the name chokecherry! There are numerous recipes online for chokecherry juice, syrup and jam. I haven’t tried them, but apparently (and surprisingly) the results are tasty. Unsurprisingly, chokecherries are one of those super fruits like blueberries–high in antioxidants and all kinds of other healthy compounds. So, when you get the chance, try one.

A sure sign of spring–the yellow blossoms of Creeping Oregon Grape are a welcome source of pollen for hungry bees of all sorts. Oregon Grape (surprise!) is the state flower of Oregon, and the OSU Extension Service declares that no garden should be without one. The short, “Creeping” version in my front yard is an Idaho native–a lovely little evergreen shrub that grows in sun or shade. I definitely agree with OSU!

March 23, 2019

It is officially spring, and few plants announce that fact more enthusiastically than Mountain Alyssum. Just starting to bloom in the garden, this hardy European wildflower joins the crocuses, grape hyacinth and the early daffs in promising a coming riot of joyful color.

This photo, taken August 18 on top of Trinity Peak at 9,500, is of one of my most beloved native landscape plants, Cutleaf Daisy. The wonder is that it grows well down here in Boise and also thrives at more than 6,000 feet higher! We learn by trial and error which high elevation plants can descend to the valley and which can’t.

Golden Currant is blooming, this one in my back yard. Take a hike in the Foothills or along the Boise River and you will surely see some.

April 2

There is no sweeter place for a tiny xeric landscape than on a shed roof. This one was constructed by my friend David, a visionary gardener. When I climbed up a ladder to get a better look, I saw the expected sedums–but the big surprise was all the prickly pear cacti. Apparently they are shallow-rooted and completely suited to a green roof. Who knew?

Harvest time in the Hackberry!
Netleaf Hackberries are a striking presence in the rock outcroppings of our lower foothills, and they produce a crop of small, sweet berries each year. The trees hang onto much of that fruit through winter, then leaf out in the late spring. Although the berries are partially dried, the birds are now having a feast.
Yesterday as I walked over to the nursery, I saw robins, waxwings and others swarming this tree.
So why plant natives? Hackberries are a great example of how native species can support local wildlife.

As many of you know, insects are in crisis. The latest numbers from the Xerces Society are very troubling. Destruction of habitat–the result of industrial farming and general human sprawl–is probably the main cause for the catastrophic decline of many insect species. But those of us who own or control even a small bit of ground can help out by creating better habitat, especially by growing flowering plants. The above photo of bumblebees on Nodding Onion in the demonstration garden shows the potential.
A new booklet, “100 Treasure Valley Pollinator Plants” is hot off the press, full of information to help folks make planting decisions that will benefit all kinds of bugs. The booklets will be available at the nursery next spring. It was the brainchild of Judy Snow, who also created the Pollinator Garden at the Garden City Library–always worth a visit!

I love it when customers send me photos of their beautiful landscapes. This one really knocked my socks off! Jacob filled his smallish front yard with a huge variety of plants, and his approach has paid off–low water but full of vibrant color. Photo courtesy of Jacob Durtschi.

June 24, 2018

The more I work with plants, especially native plants, the more I realize that the real goal is not simply replacing lawn and consuming less water. The real goal is creating Habitat: Habitat for bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, myriad other insects–and birds. (Build it and they will come!) A landscape that is truly a Habitat buzzes with life. It changes with the seasons. It evolves from year to year, always revealing new surprises. It creates the opportunity for new insights into the natural world that is everywhere around us. It is not static. There are many rewards for the gardener who creates Habitat, one of the best being that the Landscape becomes Habitat for humans!

September 24. 2018

These lovely Asters have been blooming away in my backyard for several weeks now. As the growing year winds down, there is nothing more satisfying–for us and especially for the bees–as fall-blooming Asters. One member of this tribe, Boltonia or “False Aster”, has on occasion bloomed clear into December! Are things looking a bit dull in your yard right now? Think Asters!

Each year as the leaves come down we can regard them as a nuisance or as a great  gift of organic matter that benefit our landscapes. The Xerces Society’s new campaign Leave the Leaves articulates the benefits of leaves for our insect friends—check it out: .
Or, if this is the year you have decided to kill some of your lawn, collect your neighbor’s unwanted leaves, put down a base layer  of overlapping cardboard or heavy paper and pile the leaves on top. Plant into the mulch next spring.

November 6, 2018

This was the scene yesterday over at the vegetable beds near the nursery: last year’s lettuce popping up again in March! This has been going on for several years now: Pam & Roger, the gardeners, allow some of their lettuce to go to seed, and–voila!–we have all kinds of baby lettuce the following spring. If thinned, many of these will produce beautiful big heads.
At this point, you make be contemplating a Victory Garden. Good idea! If you don’t happen to have lettuce volunteers, it’s not too late to seed–and lettuce comes on fast in the spring.

May Flowers! It takes my breath away when May arrives and flowers just jump up out of the green. This year the woody Penstemons–like this one (Dwarf Shrubby)–are in exceptionally fine form. What makes for a good Penstemon year? What unique combination of winter cold, spring warmth, snow cover, rain, sun? It’s a mystery to me, but a delight to witness.

May 18, 2018

Greetings from New Mexico! I am here visiting my daughter and brand new granddaughter. Meanwhile, a couple hikes and some exciting plants. This one, Narrowleaf Yucca (Yucca angustissima) was seen growing in abundance at Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. As you can see from the photo, this (like all our true Western yuccas) is far different from the one you see all over Boise. So much more erect and structurally pleasing. Some of you may recall a previous rant about those wretched (Eastern) Yuccas . . . .

I stopped by to see my friend Nell the other day and was wowed by her stunning front yard. A vibrant celebration of native plants, it features Orange Globemallow, Woolly Sunflower (aka ‘Oregon Sunshine’) and several different Penstemons. These are set off by Bitterbrush (on the left, just finishing bloom) and Curleaf Mountain Mahogany. Originally designed and installed by Casey O’Leary in 2013 and cared for by Nell ever since, it is a real inspiration!


The Paintbrush is blooming on Mores Mountain! It’s just one of the most striking sights awaiting hikers. But as much as people would love to have Paintbrush in their home gardens, I have not yet figured out how to grow these beauties in a pot–or even in the ground. Fun facts: 1) the red you see are bracts (modified leaves), which hide the tiny flowers 2) most Paintbrushes are semi-parasitic, deriving some of their nutrients and water from the roots of a host plant, a strategy that allows them to inhabit drier spots.There are about 250 species of Paintbrush in N. America and over 20 in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Moyer.

June 15, 2018

People often ask for plants that attract hummingbirds. Because of their tubular flowers, Penstemons are a great choice. I’ve been watching hummers return to this planting of Rocky Mountain Penstemons in my backyard every morning and evening for a couple weeks now. Before that, the birds were busy visiting my nearby Snowberries. Red flowers are especially good at attracting hummingbirds, but Penstemons of any color work! They are also an excellent food source for different types of bees and an occasional butterfly.

     Fall is coming and it feels like the beginning—not the end–of our nursery season. Since most of our plants are perennials, they grow slowly. When started from seed in the spring, most of them are just ready for sale about now, which means that this time of year we have the most to offer. The tables are full!
     But, more importantly for you the gardener—fall is the premium time to plant perennials. Small starts go into the ground as the weather is cooling and so avoid the heat stress of summer. They have many months to keep working on their big root systems—one secret to drought tolerance—before being put to the test next year. Fall planted perennials are set to take off the next spring and they are often astounding in how much they grow in their first year.

If you have a moment, stop by the Garden City Library and check out the beautiful Pollinator Garden right next to the library. It was lovely last May when we celebrated its grand opening. And it is still beautiful now, at the tail end of summer. Creator Judy Snow has done a marvelous job of attracting all kinds of bees, bugs and hummingbirds by providing the food they need over a long growing season. It is an inspiration!
Draggin’ Wing will open for fall planting September 5 and be open for the whole month Wednesday-Saturday 10-5. Fall is the best!

September 2, 2018

If you have a moment to take a quick drive up Bogus Basin Road, you will see Rabbitbrush right now in all its glory. Rabbitbrush bides its time, growing on its silver-gray leaves throughout the spring and summer–a typical denizen of our high desert environment. Then, wham! Fall arrives and Rabbitbrush bursts into exuberant bloom, like one last blast of summer sun before the dark of winter. These clumps of tiny yellow flowers will soon turn white with seed, and there will be a beauty there too. I love Rabbitbrush in the wild, and I love it as an elegant landscape plant in the xeric garden.

Rosemary is one of my favorite water-thrifty landscape plants. It is beautiful, especially in winter, and feeds honeybees in summer. The hitch is that Rosemary, even the most cold-hardy varieties (e.g. ‘Arp’) are only marginally hardy here in Boise. The solution: find (if you can) the right micro-climate like this one–a warm, sunny, south-facing brick wall. The brick is not absolutely necessary, but it helps.
P.S. Note the purple carpet in front. That is Woolly Thyme in winter, a nice contrast.


There isn’t a whole lot left of this native Snowberry bush in winter–except for those dramatic cascades of white berries! The berries themselves, though not poisonous are apparently not very palatable to birds and other wildlife. So they hang there lovely profusion throughout the winter. A well-named plant indeed.

January 10, 2018

Years ago, when the kids were small, we started replacing the traditional Christmas tree with a sagebrush. Going out into the desert to cut one was a family adventure and the result was always somehow miraculous. The trees looked windswept and architectural, beautiful in the way that asymmetrical Japanese-style flower arranging is beautiful.
These days when I am out hiking I am often struck by the unpredictable and graceful forms of many sagebrush. While sagebrush is not a good fit for many landscape projects, I think it is too often overlooked as design feature, especially in native and xeric projects. Next time you look at sagebrush in the wild, see if you find the structural beauty in its gnarly, off-kilter form.

Years ago, when the kids were small, we started replacing the traditional Christmas tree with a sagebrush. Going out into the desert to cut one was a family adventure and the result was always somehow miraculous. The trees looked windswept and architectural, beautiful in the way that asymmetrical Japanese-style flower arranging is beautiful.
These days when I am out hiking I am often struck by the unpredictable and graceful forms of many sagebrush. While sagebrush is not a good fit for many landscape projects, I think it is too often overlooked as design feature, especially in native and xeric projects. Next time you look at sagebrush in the wild, see if you find the structural beauty in its gnarly, off-kilter form.

Defying the the cold, slushy, Friday the 13th weather, this group of hardy volunteers met along the Boise River yesterday to continue the work of removing stands of invasive False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa) and planting saplings of native Cottonwood. False Indigo is a vigorous shrub that has moved in from its native range in the central U.S. to colonize the banks of the Boise River, crowding out willows, cottonwoods and other native species. The project was sponsored by BREN, Boise River Enhancement Network, a mostly volunteer organization dedicated to improving the ecological health of the Boise River. Removing invasive species such as False Indigo, Canada Thistle and Russian Olive is a big part of that effort.
Check out the BREN website for information on river health, restoration efforts, birds of the Boise River and more!

Above is a view of Rush Skeleton Weed growing out of cracks in the asphalt just up the street from my house. At least that is what it looked like before I cut the stalks and painted the basal leaves with a very toxic herbicide.  Departing from organic practices and employing chemicals has been a painful transition for me. Yet, in the case of Skeleton Weed, I can see no alternative. According to the Idaho Weed Awareness Campaign, it has infested a million acres in the state. You see it everywhere in the lower Foothills.

There are others too. Whitetop has just arrived in my neighborhood and I worry about it spreading. Field Bindweed (Morning Glory) is tough–just keep picking the leaves until it gives up (not easy). Cheatgrass spreads like wildfire (and loves wildfire!)–just pull it all and throw in the trash.

Sigh. May is a wonderful month in many ways, but it is also the Month of Weeds. For more information and to request a booklet on Idaho’s Noxious Weeds, go to