February Ice Storm Part I: The Descent

The winter of 2020-21 had, until last week, been yet another incredibly mild one, so far even warmer in my garden than the previous year. The lowest temperature I saw over the 19-20 winter was 24F/-4.5C, and it was looking like I might make it out of 20-21 with a low of 30F/-1C! Zone 10a!

Then the weather forecasts started getting ominous. As meteorologists started talking of an impending arctic blast event, various weather apps started showing insane lows of temperatures in the teens (F), which seemed absolutely apocalyptic even though a low of something like 15 or 18 isn’t abnormal for here. But it is indeed unusual for such lows to be happening this late in the season. My dreams of having January be a colder month than February were quickly melting.

Closer to the actual onset of the storm, this weather app finally showed what turned out to be fairly accurate predictions (temps in C):

Friday, February 12, after a dusting of ice pellets, the snow commenced. Looks relatively benign at this stage; 9:30am.

Backyard view out my window. Quercus hypoleucoides on left, Eucalyptus perriniana center, in blue. We’ll be seeing these again as the storm progresses.

By about 4pm we had about 2″ of mostly fluffy snow.

I have several young hardy Agaves in the ground in various locations. They’re small enough that 2” of snow can make them look really cute with just their spines sticking up.

Agave parryi var truncata
Agava montana
Agava ovatifolia ‘Huasteca Giant’

Agave ovatifolia ‘Frosty Blue,’ a gift from a dear friend in California, is right up under Grevillea ‘Ivanhoe,’ reportedly a zone 9b plant. Also pictured here is an Asparagus fern. This spot right outside my front door is very protected (or so I think…), and gets extra heat from the house where there seems to be a leak. You can put your hand there and feel warm air flowing out.

Agave ovatifolia ‘Frosty Blue’ earning its moniker, with Grevillea ‘Ivanhoe’

I clipped a temperature gauge onto the tender Grevillea just to see how much warmer it is here. At the time this picture was taken (10pm Friday), the outdoor ambient temperature was about 25F.

16 percent humidity doesn’t seem right, but I do believe the 32F reading.

Speaking of Grevilleas, G. miqueliana var moroka has been supplying hummingbird food for a few weeks now.

I can never have enough bird food flowers on winter blooming shrubs, so here’s my spectacular Arctostaphylos ‘Myrtle Wolf’ which is also right by the front door. If you’re a manzanita fan and you don’t have this cultivar yet, change that!

Arctostaphylos ‘Myrtle Wolf’

The last thing I did before retiring my iPhone camera for the night was take some pictures of my young trees in the backyard. By this point, the precipitation had turned to freezing rain and we were in for a real ice storm. 9:30pm and icicles are long:

8:30 PM and the roof icicles are getting long – about 10-12″ here.

The next few tree pics were from around 10pm. First up is Quercus hypoleucoides. This handsome fellow has experienced getting bent to the ground once before, so I was confident it would be fine no matter what.

Quercus hypoleucoides

Now let’s check on Eucalyptus perriniana, who has only been in the ground exactly a year. I had it staked initially, but had actually removed the tie to the stake just a handful of weeks ago. So you can see the metal fencepost stake here but the tree is not connected to it.

Eucalyptus perriniana, the spinning gum

I actually staked this olive in preparation for this storm, because I realized after checking on it a couple weeks ago that it was a bit rocky in the ground – not firmly rooted. It was initially leaning more to the left, so I placed the stake off to the right and gave it a loose, low tie. Two stakes probably would have been ideal, probably.

Olive ‘Leccino’

Finally the tree I am actually, at this point, concerned about. Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius, the Catalina Ironwood, is an evergreen with big ferny leaves that are going to catch and hold a tremendous amount of ice. It’s very strongly rooted, so I wasn’t worried about it falling over like with the olive; I was more concerned about it snapping branches.


And look closely at that picture. At this point, I actually had not even noticed it, but one branch was already snapped. It’s on the left about halfway up the tree. See it? I didn’t until just now, as I am posting this! The reason I didn’t notice is because 1) it was dark and 2) the portion of the branch that broke off didn’t make it to the ground! It was stuck hanging in the tree, glued to the lower foliage by the ever-increasing load of ice.

My phone has this really pretty amazing feature of automatic long-exposure for night photos. So what I was seeing with my own eyes was significantly darker than what you see in these 3-second exposure pics. I am frankly glad I missed the snapped branch that night, or I would have worried more.

In the next post I’ll show you what I woke up to find the next morning. And I think I’ll make a third post for all the obligatory artsy ice photos that are so irresistable when this sort of thing happens.

Two nursery visits = a LOT of work!

Part One

It all started with… well, where did this really start? Last summer I realized I needed to move my Nothofagus antarctica ‘Chillan’ because it was getting pretty badly scorched in hot afternoon sun. When I planted it right in my front yard, I was hoping for it to provide some light shade to my front door which opens west. On hot summer days, leaving the house is like entering a blast furnace and I had hoped to mitigate that. Well, I didn’t choose the best tree. Not only did the tree suffer even with ample water, but it’s a slow grower and it would have taken more years than I will live here to actually shade anything.

It’s a really lovely tree, but as you can see, not exactly a shade tree anytime soon, and this spot gave it way too much sun for those delicate variegated leaves.

Nothofagus antarctica, June 2019

So the idea of moving it, of course, means I have to decide where to put it. As a side-effect of that set of decisions, I decided I had to dig out all my Macleaya cordata/microcarpa. I adore my “broccoli poppies” as we’ve come to call them, but I had the clump right next to the patio where it just got too huge. Initially, I thought I would put the Nothofagus there, but later I reconsidered that and the tree ended up in a big pot, into which its baby tree roots fit quite easily, so hopefully it’ll live, and I can audition it for various spots until something makes sense.

Part Two

With the Macleaya out, and having decided NOT to put the Nothofagus in its spot, I immediately realized I had a trio of plants looking for homes that would actually (I think) be pretty great right off the edge of the patio.

Caveat: for most of the photos in this post, I wasn’t planning on making a blog post so they’re really just recordkeeping. I went back out for some better ones after I started writing so this won’t be a terribly ugly post.

In the above terrible photo, we have Corokia virgata ‘Sunsplash’ which I’ve kept in a pot for the last three years because I really didn’t know where to plant it. It’s a bit brittle, doesn’t want hot afternoon sun (we tried that), and does best with water. The same is true of the Fuchsia ‘Delta’s Sarah’ and the monocots you see between them are Kniphofia thomsonii. I think it’ll be a pretty smashing combination, although it runs the risk of being too chaotic for me. We’ll see. At any rate, these will at least all get a pretty cushy home here with afternoon shade and consistent soil moisture.

Part Three

With all that done, naturally I ended up going to a couple of my favorite plant nurseries, Cistus and Xera, both times ostensibly just to meet up with friends but how could I not come home with plants?!

Most of em

At Cistus I ended up with two plants that have been on my list for some time: Leptospermum grandiflorum and Ribes speciosum. You may notice also the spinning gum, Eucalyptus perriniana, whose story relates back to Part One…

So I was at Xera. Just hanging out, talking to my friends, looking at plants, etc. They have a lot of really seductive baby Eucalyptus trees. I casually mentioned how I wish I could bring myself to cut down my Cornus florida in the front yard and replace it with a Eucalyptus. DANGER TOPIC.

Greg says, “Well, you *did* just remove your Nothofagus…” and, well, the rest is history. And for about three glorious hours I was envisioning the magnificence of this spectacular and mighty Eucalyptus perriniana gracing the very front of my front yard, shading my door lightly, making messes of multicolored leaves and shedding bark at any and all times of year… oh, how glorious that could be…

Then reality set in and I realized that I cannot bring myself to take that part of my housemate’s garden away from her. Not yet, anyway. I am not a dictator. If I planted this tree there, I would have to require her to stay away from it and the surrounding area and NOT irrigate and NOT fertilize and possibly even remove highly fertile soil and replace it with unamended native soil. I could do that, but the risk of damaging our relationship is not worth it. I can grow this tree, and love the daylights out of it, but not in that spot.

So! After crying about that for exactly 23 seconds I took the tree to the backyard and stupidly planted it in a perfectly straight line with my Clerodendrum and Quercus hypoleucoides.

Lookin like a damn orchard out here

I took a pic to show my friend George what I’d done, once I realized it the next morning. I could not stand it. In the pic I’m pointing to the Eucalyptus and you can see the other two trees and how it’s in an exact straight line with them, and that this line *also* aligns with the property line/fence. What you can’t tell from the photo is that the Eucalyptus is *also* almost exactly equidistant between those other two…. it looks much closer to the Clerodendrum but it’s actually only about 2′ off from dead center. None of this is remotely okay.

Another grievance you may be able to detect in the previous photo is that the Euc is planted into what was my very last rectangular, 2×6-edged former vegetable bed. I knew I could get that wood and hardware out of there around the plant, but once I realized I had to move the plant, well, now we have the next phase.

Part Four

Welp, ok, so like before with the Nothofagus, once I decided to move the Euc I realized that the only place to put it was already occupied by somebody else. In this case, a really beautiful specimen of Sphaeralcea ‘Newleaze Coral’ – a selection of a west coast native subshrub that has performed absolutely famously in my garden since acquiring 3 little starts last spring. So, let the work begin.

The first task was to remove all the 2×6 cedar boards and the hardware holding them together. I didn’t document that but let me tell you I will never build a raised bed again. This last one (of the original 9) was the most overbuilt of all. I know what we were thinking (keep moles out) but it was erroneous. After removing the boards and hardware I had to dig down so I could cut out as much of the hardware cloth that spans the entire underside of the bed a foot or so down as possible. The ducks, of course, helped.

Finally! There are no longer any horrible right angles in my garden. What a relief!

Now I’ve moved the Euc. It was in its original spot, just past where Papi is standing, for only one day. Directly behind/above Papi in this pic, you can see the Sphaeralcea that I removed from where the Euc is now. And those are the damn boards that I will never have in my garden again.

Look how insanely cute this tree is right now. Like, what planet are YOU from??

Baby Eucaplytus perriniana, spinning gum

With that whole bed clear now, I wondered what to plant in it.

Part Five

Remember how I mentioned I picked up a Leptospermum grandiflorum at Cistus? No? It’s okay, this is way too long a post to remember that sort of thing. Anyway I put it somewhere stupid, and then some thinking set in.

Leptospermum grandiflorum

I realized I had two Callistemons along my north fence that really don’t work that well there. They want more water, less mole activity, and also I want them more “up-front” rather than relegated to the hedge. So I removed them, and put the L. grandiflorum where they were.

I love this Lepto so much I had to take a few closeups. Couldn’t decide between them so you get both. See how much more blue its leaves are compared to the L. lanigerum behind it in the above pic?

In this next pic, you can see it contrasted against the deep green of Leptospermum namadgiensis. I love all Leptos but this one is really winning my heart right now.

Leptospermum grandiflorum. Grow, baby, grow…

Ok so! Now we have two Callistemons I just dug up, and I’ve got one more that I’ve held in a pot for the last year because I planted it in a location it did not like. I put them all together where I’d originally sited the Eucalyptus.

Bottlebrushes! And a Hebe.

And I am starting to really like my garden again. Groups of sclerophlls with native forbs in between. I think that’s what I want.

Speaking of… I think this is

Part Six

Into another bed that used to house peppers or watermelons, I put Quercus vaccinifolia, a little Penstemon, a beautiful blue-leaved Callistemon, and an Olearia. I have to protect smaller plants with cages, so it does not look good.

But hopefully they will thrive and eventually look better.


Part Seven

After planting/moving/screwing around with all these lovely sclerophylls, I then sowed some seeds in all the disturbed/open ground.

  • Castilleja miniata – paintbrush (say it with me: cas-tee-YAY-ha)
  • Eschscholzia caespitosa – tufted poppy
  • Eschscholzia californica ‘Mikado’ – a red California poppy
  • Clarkia bottae – bunchbowl godetia, big success last year!
  • Clarkia concinna – redi ribbons clarkia – moderate success last year; I sowed too late so maybe better this year
  • Platystemon californicum – cream cups
  • Beach Lupine – I suspect this is Lupinus albifrons? seed collected by my wonderful girlfriend from her own garden.

I am so, so excited. I am beginning to love my garden in a way that I never have before. It is a highly motivating feeling, and I bet you can guess that all of this is not all I did. I’ll follow up with more posts. But this is enough for now.

I’ll close with something that came as a lovely surprise today – not the first egg of the season, but the first from my favorite chicken Mochuela:

It’s green, and weird-shaped, and beautiful.

The ducks have been laying on and off for months, and Misha laid a single egg a month ago, but I feel like this might be the real harbinger of spring that I’ve been awaiting.

Thanks for reading this whole post. If you got this far, kudos to you and you better go friend me on some social media channel or other. <3

How To Cure Olives

I adore olives. So much so that I’ve planted three trees – Arbequina, Leccino, and a new cultivar called Universal out of the breeding program in Yalta, acquired via One Green World.

Side note: you know how OSU does research programs on various genera to test things like cold hardiness and drought tolerance? Well, they’re about to embark on some trials of olives which I hope will be enlightening and will help to further the industry here. Check out this interesting article in Olive Oil Times from May of 2019. And here’s a link to the Olea Project!

Ok now back to the business at hand. Portland is a reasonably decent climate for olives; there will be variation from year to year but for the last three years, I have managed to successfully cure olives harvested here in the Rose City.

Thanks to this guide from Nichols Garden Nursery, I have a method which I will detail for you in this post.

Step 1: Harvest

In the Northwest anyway, olives are ready for harvest around November. They can, and sometimes do, stay on the trees for longer, but you’ll be battling bird predation (starlings, mostly) as well as the elements, and you want to get them nice and fresh.

Last year I went down to Arizona and visited Queen Creek Olive Mill, where I took the “Olive 101” educational tour and learned quite a lot about how olives are harvested and what difference it makes if they are green vs purple vs black. Basically, it comes down to flavor in oil production, but for our purposes, with salt brining, you can mix them all together regardless of what color they are at harvest and they will all be lovely.

So, pick your olives before the starlings get them and before they fall off the tree.

Just harvested, November 28, 2018. Frantoio variety.
Just harvested, November 29, 2019, unknown variety. Note much more green! This doesn’t matter for salt brining.

Step 2: Water Bath ~ 10 days

Ultimately with salt brining, you’re immersing olives in salted water. But before we do that, we need to soak them in plain water for several days to soften them and reduce their inherent bitterness.

Wash your harvested olives well, and then put them in plain tap water in a suitable container. You will need to change this water (and rinse them) daily for a few to several days. Nichols Garden Nursery’s document linked above says that this should be a 10-day process; I can tell you from my own experience that sometimes, you need fewer days.

What you’re after is for the olives to achieve a softness and a slight darkening in color over the course of their water bath. You’re leaching bitterness, basically. Some factors might contribute to a lessening of the number of days: if the olives are wrinkled from summer/fall drought when you harvest them, they’ll need about half the number of days (so, like 5 instead of 10). If they are harvested later in the season, I’d say that the weather and elements will help with the process of leaching, so if you harvest in late December, figure on a few days less. If you harvest in January, or even February, or later still, cut back the number of days by 2-3 days per month. If you harvest really late, like, April or May, you may not need to leach at all! You gotta play this part by ear a little bit. Or rather, by feel. You’re looking for a softening of the fruit and a color change from bright green to a dull “olive” green.

Here’s what they should look like after soaking in water for 24 hours:

Olives get this foamy stuff on the top of the water after soaking for a day.

So what I do when I rinse them each day is I clean out the sink and set up a big colander:

Then pour them into the colander:

Then rinse with water, and pour them back into the container I’m using to soak them, and refill with fresh tap water.

Step 3: Soak in Salt Water – 4 weeks

When the olives have soaked in the plain water enough, it’s time to transition to salt water. Look at the color difference between these, and the pics above – see how these are much more dull and the above pics the green ones are still really vibrant? Dull = ready for salt. You’ll feel this too – they get a little more soft.

The salt water solution is 1 cup salt (I use either kosher salt or canning/pickling salt; shoot for non-iodized salt) to 1 gallon water. Cold water should absorb that much salt easily.

Then when you put the olives into the salt water, some will float. Don’t worry.

Here’s a comparison shot of what this new batch looks like, having just put them into salt water, vs last year’s cured olives that I still have a few of (in the bowl in front)

Right about the same color! This is how you know it’s time to get them into the brine.

Ok now you’re going to change this salt water once weekly for 4 weeks. Does that mean three changes? Or 4 changes? Again, I want you to feel this out. I would say it’s 3 changes but you can do 4 if you want. It won’t hurt them, and it probably won’t make them overly salty.

What I do at this point is put a date on them, so I know when to change the salt water and when I should consider them done.

The ones in the steel stockpot are still in plain water, but the ones in the plastic container have transitioned to salt already.

Step 4: Transfer to 1/2 strength brine and store

At the end of the 4 weeks of full-strength salt water, now you will put them into a half-strength saltwater solution. 1/2 cup salt to 1 gallon water. In this solution, you can store them on the shelf, or in the fridge if you prefer, I find it makes no difference.

The flavor will improve over time and in a few months, you may notice a mild but delightful smoky flavor from your brined olives. I have noticed this particularly with Arbequina but it has also happened over a longer period of time with Frantoio, which generally seems to have larger fruit. So it might be a variety thing, but I think it’s more likely that the larger fruit size makes it take longer for that delectable smoky flavor to develop.

Ok, that’s all for now! Ask me questions if you have em, in the comments.